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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter VI
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter VI Post by :haden Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :3517

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter VI

On the morning of the fourth day which followed on the priest's visit to San Beda, about ten in the forenoon, Adone, with his two oxen, Orlando and Rinaldo, were near the river on that part of his land which was still natural moorland, and on which heather, and ling, and broom, and wild roses, and bracken grew together. He had come to cut a waggon load of furze, and had been at work there since eight o'clock, when he had come out of the great porch of the church after attending mass, for it was the twentieth of June, the name-day of Don Silverio.

Scarcely had that day dawned when Adone had risen and had gone across the river to the presbytery, bearing with him a dozen eggs, two flasks of his best wine, and a bunch of late-flowering roses. They were his annual offerings on this day; he felt some trepidation as he climbed the steep, stony, uneven street lest they should be rejected, for he was conscious that three evenings before he had offended Don Silverio, and had left the presbytery too abruptly. But his fears were allayed as soon as he entered the house; the vicar was already up and dressed, and was about to go to the church. At the young man's first contrite words Don Silverio stopped him with a kind smile.

"I was impatient and to blame," he said as he took the roses. "You heap coals of fire on my head, my son, with your welcome gifts."

Then together they had gone to the quaint old church of which the one great bell was tolling.

Mass over, Adone had gone home, broken his fast, taken off his velvet jacket, his long scarlet waistcoat, and his silver-studded belt, and put the oxen to the pole of the waggon.

"Shall I come?" cried Nerina.

"No," he answered. "Go and finish cutting the oats in the triangular field."

Always obedient, she went, her sickle swinging to her girdle. She was sorry, but she never murmured.

Adone had been at work amongst the furze two hours when old Pierino, who always accompanied the oxen, got up, growled, and then barked.

"What is it, old friend?" asked Adone, and left off his work and listened. He heard voices by the waterside, and steps on the loose shingle of its shrunken summer bed. He went out of the wild growth round him and looked. There were four men standing and talking by the water. They were doubtless the same persons as Nerina had seen, for they were evidently men from a city and strangers. Disquietude and offence took alarm in him at once.

He conquered that shyness which was natural to him, and which was due to the sensitiveness of his temperament and the solitude in which he had been reared.

"Excuse me, sirs," he said, as he advanced to them with his head uncovered; "what is it you want with my river?"

"Your river!" repeated the head of the group, and he smiled. "How is it more yours than your fellows?"

Adone advanced nearer.

"The whole course of the water belonged to my ancestors," he answered, "and this portion at least is mine now; you stand on my ground; I ask you what is your errand?"

He spoke with courtesy, but in a tone of authority which seemed to the intruders imperious and irritating. But they controlled their annoyance; they did not wish to offend this haughty young peasant.

"To be owner of the water it is necessary to own both banks of it," the stranger replied politely, but with some impatience. "The opposite bank is communal property. Do not fear, however, whatever your rights may be they will be carefully examined and considered."

"By whom? They concern only myself."

"None of our rights concern only ourselves. What are those which you claim in special on the Edera water?"

Adone was silent for a few moments; he was astonished and embarrassed; he had never reflected on the legal side of his claim to the river; he had grown up in love and union with it; such affections, born with us at birth, are not analysed until they are assailed.

"You are strangers," he replied. "But what right do you question me? I was born here. What is your errand?"

"You must be Adone Alba?" said the person, as if spokesman for the others.

"I am."

"And you own the land known as the Terra Vergine?"

"I do."

"You will hear from us in due time, then. Meantime"

"Meantime you trespass on my ground. Leave it, sirs."

The four strangers drew a few paces, and conferred together in a low tone, consulting a sheaf of papers. Their council over, he who appeared the most conspicuous in authority turned again to the young man, who was watching them with a vague apprehension which he could not explain to himself.

"There is no question of trespass; the river-side is free to all," said the stranger, with some contempt. "Courtesy would become you better, Sir Adone."

Adone coloured. He knew that courtesy was at all times wise, and useful, and an obligation amongst men; but his anger was stronger than his prudence and his vague alarm was yet stronger still.

"Say your errand with the water," he replied imperiously. "Then I can judge of it. No one, sirs, comes hither against my will."

"You will hear from us in due time," answered the intruder. "And believe me, young man, you may lose much, you cannot gain anything, by rudeness and opposition."

"Opposition to what?"

The stranger turned his back upon him, rolled up his papers, spoke again with his companions, and lifted from a large stone on which he had placed it a case of surveyor's instruments. Adone went close up to him. "Opposition to what? What is it you are doing here?"

"We are not your servants," said the gentleman with impatience. "Do not attempt any brawling I advise you; it will tell against you and cannot serve you in any way."

"The soil and the water are mine, and you meddle with them," said Adone. "If you were honest men you would not be ashamed of what you do, and would declare your errand. Brawling is not in my habit; but I will drive my oxen over you. The land and the waters are mine."

The chief of the group gave a disdainful, incredulous gesture, but the others pulled him by the sleeve and argued with him in low tones and a strange tongue, which Adone thought was German. The leader of the group was a small man with a keen and mobile face and piercing eyes; he did not yield easily to the persuasions of his companions; he was disposed to be combative; he was offended by what seemed to him the insults of a mere peasant.

Adone went back to his oxen, standing dozing with drooped heads; he gathered up the reins of rope and mounted the waggon, raising the heads of the sleepy beasts. He held his goad in his hand; the golden gorze was piled behind him; he was in full sunlight, his hair was lifted by the breeze from his forehead; his face was flushed and set and stern. They saw that he would keep his word and drive down on to them, and make his oxen knock them down and the wheels grind their bodies into pulp. They had no arms of any kind, they felt they had no choice but to submit: and did so, with sore reluctance.

"He looks like a young god," said one of them with an angry laugh. "Mortals cannot fight against the gods."

With discomfiture they retreated before him and went along the grassy path northward, as Nerina had seen them do on the day of their first arrival.

So far Adone had conquered.

But no joy or pride of a victor was with him. He stood and watched them pass away with a heavy sense of impending ill upon him; the river was flowing joyously, unconscious of its doom, but on him, though he knew nothing, and conceived nothing, of the form which the approaching evil would take, a great weight of anxiety descended.

He got down from the waggon when he had seen them disappear, and continued his uninterrupted work amongst the furze; and he remained on the same spot long after the waggon was filled, lest in his absence the intruders should return. Only when the sun set did he turn the heads of the oxen homeward.

He said nothing to the women, but when he had stalled and fed his cattle he changed his leathern breeches and put a clean shirt on his back, and went down the twilit fields and across the water to Ruscino; he told his mother that he would sup with Don Silverio.

When Adone entered the book-room his friend was seated at a deal table laden with volumes and manuscripts, but he was neither writing nor reading, nor had he lighted his lamp. The moonlight shone through the vine climbing up and covering the narrow window. He looked up and saw by Adone's countenance that something was wrong.

"What are they coming for, sir, to the river?" said the young man as he uncovered his head on the threshold of the chamber. Don Silverio hesitated to reply; in the moonlight his features looked like a mask of a dead man, it was so white and its lines so deep.

"Why do they come to the river, these strangers?" repeated Adone. "They would not say. They were on my land. I threatened to drive my cattle over them. Then they went. But can you guess, sir, why they come?"

Don Silverio still hesitated. Adone repeated his question with more insistence; he came up to the table and leaned his hands upon it, and looked down on the face of his friend.

"Why do they come?" he repeated a fourth time. "They must have some reason. Surely you know?"

"Listen, Adone, and control yourself," said Don Silverio. "I saw something in a journal a few days ago which made me go to San Beda. But there they knew nothing at all of what the newspaper had stated. What I said startled and alarmed them. I begged the Prior to acquaint me if he heard of any scheme affecting us. To-day, only, he has sent a young monk over with a letter to me, for it was only yesterday that he heard that there is a project in Rome to turn the river out of its course, and use it for hydraulic power; to what purpose he does not know. The townsfolk of San Beda are in entire sympathy with this district and against the scheme, which will only benefit a foreign syndicate. That is all I know, for it is all he knows; he took his information direct from the syndic, Count Corradini. My boy, my dear boy, control yourself!"

Adone had dropped down on a chair, and leaning his elbow on the table hid his face upon his hands. A tremor shook his frame from head to foot.

"I knew it was some deviltry," he muttered. "Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! would that I had made the oxen trample them into thousand pieces! They ought never to have left my field alive!"

"Hush, hush!" said the priest sternly. "I cannot have such language in my house. Compose yourself."

Adone raised his head; his eyes were alight as with fire; his face was darkly red.

"What, sir! You tell me the river is to be taken away from us, and you ask me to be calm! It is not in human nature to bear such a wrong in peace. Take away the Edera! Take away the water! They had better cut our throats. What! a poor wretch who steals a few grapes off a vine, a few eggs from a hen roost, is called a thief and hounded to the galleys, and such robbery as this is to be borne in silence because the thieves wear broadcloth! It cannot be. It cannot be; I swear it shall never be whilst I have life. The river is mine. We reigned here three hundred years and more; you have told me so. It is written on the parchments. I will hold my own."

Don Silverio was silent; he was silent from remorse. He had told Adone what, without him, Adone would have lived and died never knowing or dreaming. He had thought only to stimulate the youth to gentle conduct, honourable pride, perhaps to some higher use of his abilities: no more than this.

He had never seen the young man thus violent and vehement; he had always found him tranquil to excess, difficult to rouse, slow to anger, indeed almost incapable of it; partaking of the nature of the calm and docile cattle with whom so much of his time was passed. But under the spur of an intolerable menace the warrior's blood which slumbered in Adone leapt to action; all at once the fierce temper of the lords of Ruscino displayed its fire and its metal; it was not the peasant of the Terra Vergine who was before him now, but the heir of the seigneury of the Rocca.

"It is not only what I told him of his race," he thought. "If he had known nothing, none the less would the blood in his veins have stirred and the past have moved him."

Aloud he said:

"My son, I feel for you from the depths of my soul. I feel with you also. For if these foreigners take the river-water from us what will become of my poor, desolate people, only too wretched already as they are? You would not be alone in your desperation, Adone. But do not let us take alarm too quickly. This measure is in gestation; but it may never come to birth. Many such projects are discussed which from one cause or another are not carried out; this one must pass through many preliminary phases before it becomes fact. There must be surely many vested rights which cannot with impunity be invaded. Take courage. Have patience."

He paused, for he saw that for the first time since they had known each other, Adone was not listening to him.

Adone was staring up at the moon which hung, golden and full, in the dark blue sky, seeming framed in the leaves and coils of the vine.

"The river is mine," he muttered. "The river and I are as brothers. They shall kill me before they touch the water."

"He will go mad or commit some great crime," thought his friend, looking at him. "We must move every lever and strain every nerve, to frustrate this scheme, to prevent this spoliation. But if the thieves see money in it who shall stay their hands?"

He rose and laid his hands on Adone's shoulders.

"To-night you are in no fitting state for calm consideration of this possible calamity. Go home, my son. Go to your room. Say nothing to your mother. Pray and sleep. In the forenoon come to me and we will speak of the measures which it may be possible to take to have this matter examined and opposed. We are very poor; but still we are not altogether helpless. Only, there must be no violence. You wrong yourself and you weaken a good cause by such wild threats. Good-night, my son. Go home."

The long habit of obedience to his superior, and the instinctive docility of his temper compelled Adone to submit; he drew a long, deep breath and the blood faded from his face.

Without a word he turned from the table and wept out of the presbytery into the night and the white glory of the moonshine.

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Don Silverio drew to him his unfinished letter to the Prior; the young monk who would take it back in the morning to San Beda was already asleep in a little chamber above. But he could not write, he was too perturbed and too anxious. Although he had spoken so calmly he was full of carking care; both for the threatened evil in itself, and for its effects upon his parishioners; and especially upon Adone. He knew that in this age it is more difficult to check the devouring monster of commercial covetousness than it ever was to stay the Bull
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Fruits ripen quickly in these provinces, and children become women in a summer hour; but with Nerina, through want and suffering and hunger, physical growth had been slow, and she remained long a child in many things and many ways. Only in her skill and strength for work was she older than her actual age.She could hoe and reap and sow: she could row and steer the boat amongst the shallows as well as any man; she could milk the cow, and put the steers in the waggon; she could card hemp and flax, and weave and spin either; she could
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