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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter VII
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter VII Post by :autumn Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1347

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter VII

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 of Crete; and that for a poor and friendless community to oppose a strong and wealthy band of speculators is indeed for the wooden lance to shiver to atoms on the brazen shield.

He left his writing table and extinguished his lamp. Bidding the little dog lie still upon his chair, he went through the house to a door which opened from it into the bell tower of his church and which allowed him to go from the house to the church without passing out into the street. He climbed the belfry stairs once more, lighting himself at intervals by striking a wooden match; for through the narrow loopholes in the walls the moonbeams did not penetrate. He knew the way so well that he could have gone up and down those rotting stairs even in total darkness, and he safely reached the platform of the bell tower, though one halting step might have sent him in that darkness head foremost to his death.

He stood there, and gazed downwards on the moonlit landscape far below, over the roofs and the walls of the village towards the open fields and the river, with beyond that the wooded country and the cultured land known as the Terra Vergine, and beyond those again the moors, the marshes, and the mountains. The moonlight shone with intense clearness on the waters of the Edera and on the stone causeway of the old one-arched bridge. On the bridge there was a figure moving slowly; he knew it to be that of Adone. Adone was going home.

He was relieved from the pressure of one immediate anxiety, but his apprehensions for the future were great, both for the young man and for the people of Ruscino and its surrounding country. To take away their river was to deprive them of the little which they had to make life tolerable and to supply the means of existence. Its winter overflow nourished the fields which they owned around it, and the only cornmill of the district worked by a huge wheel in its water. If the river were turned out of its course above Ruscino the whole of this part of the vale would be made desolate.

Life was already hard for the human creatures in these fair scenes on which he looked; without the river their lot would be intolerable.

"Forbid it, O Lord! Forbid this monstrous wrong," he said, as he stood with bared head under the starry skies.

When the people of a remote place are smitten by a public power the blow falls on them as unintelligible in its meaning, as invisible in its agency, as a thunderbolt is to the cattle whom it slays in their stalls. Even Don Silverio, with his classic culture and his archæological learning, had little comprehension of the means and methods by which these enterprises were combined and carried out; the world of commerce and speculation is as aloof from the scholar and the recluse as the rings of Saturn or the sun of Aldebaran. Its mechanism, its intentions, its combinations, its manners of action, its ways of expenditure, its intrigues with banks and governments: all these, to men who dwell in rural solitudes, aloof from the babble of crowds, are utterly unknown; the very language of the Bourses has no more meaning to them than the jar of wheels or roar of steam.

He stood and looked with a sinking heart on the quiet, moonlit country, and the winding course of the water where it flowed, now silvery in the light, now black in the gloom, passing rapidly through the heather and the sallows under the gigantic masses of the Etruscan walls. It seemed to him to the full as terrible as to Adone; but it did not seem to him so utterly impossible, because he knew more of the ways of men and of their unhesitating and immeasurable cruelty whenever their greed was excited. If the fury of speculation saw desirable prey in the rape of the Edera then the Edera was doomed, like the daughter of Ædipus or the daughter of Jephtha.

Adone had gone across the bridge, but he had remained by the waterside.

"Pray and sleep!" Don Silverio had said in his last words. But to Adone it seemed that neither prayer nor sleep would ever come to him again so long as this impending evil hung over him and the water of Edera.

He spent the first part of that summer night wandering aimlessly up and down his own bank, blind to the beauty of the moonlight, deaf to the songs of the nightingales, his mind filled with one thought. An hour after midnight he went home and let himself into the silent house by a small door which opened at the back, and which he used on such rare occasions as he stayed out late. He struck a match and went up to his room, and threw himself, dressed, upon his bed. His mother was listening for his return, but she did not call to him. She knew he was a man now, and must be left to his own will.

"What ails Adone that he is not home?" had asked old Gianna. Clelia Alba had been herself perturbed by his absence at that hour, but she had answered:--

"What he likes to tell, he tells. Prying questions make false tongues. I have never questioned him since he was breeched."

"There are not many women like you," had said Gianna, partly in admiration, half in impatience.

"Adone is a boy for you and me," had replied his mother. "But for himself and for all others he is a man. We must remember it."

Gianna had muttered mumbled, rebellious words; he did not seem other than a child to her; she had been one of those present at this birth on the shining sands of the Edera.

He could not sleep. He could only listen to the distant murmur of the river. With dawn the women awoke. Nerina came running down the steep stone stair and went to let out and feed her charges, the fowls. Gianna went to the well in the court with her bronze pitcher and pail. Clelia Alba cut great slices of bread at the kitchen table; and hooked the cauldron of maize flour to the chain above the fire on the kitchen hearth. He could not wait for their greetings, their questions, the notice which his changed mien would surely attract. For the first time in all his twenty-four years of life he went out of the house without a word to his mother, and took his way to the river again; for the first time he was neglectful of his cattle and forgetful of the land.

Nerina came in from the fowl-house with alarm on her face.

"Madama Clelia!" she said timidly, "Adone has gone away without feeding and watering the oxen. May I do it?"

"Can you manage them, little one?"

"Oh, yes; they love me."

"Go then; but take care."

"She is a good child!" said Gianna. "The beasts won't hurt her. They know their friends."

Clelia Alba, to whom her own and her son's dignity was dear, said nothing of her own displeasure and surprise at Adone's absence. But she was only the more distressed by it. Never, since he had been old enough to work at all, had he been missing in the hours of labour.

"I only pray," she thought, "that no woman may have hold of him."

Adone hardly knew what he did; he was like a man who has had a blow on the temple; his sight was troubled; his blood seemed to burn in his brain. He wandered from habit through the field and down to the river, to the spot where from his infancy he had been used to bathe. He took off his clothes and waded into the water, which was cold as snow after the night. The shock of the cold, and the sense of the running current laving his limbs, restored him in a measure to himself. He swam down the stream in the shadow of the early morning. The air was full of the scent of dog-roses and flowering thyme; he turned on his back and floated; between him and the sky a hawk passed; the bell of the church was tolling for the diurnal mass. He ran along in the sun, as it grew warm, to dry his skin by movement, as his wont was. He was still stupefied by the fear which had fallen upon him; but the water had cooled and braced him.

He had forgotten his mother, the cattle, the labours awaiting him; his whole mind was absorbed in this new horror sprung up in his path, none knew from where, or by whom begotten. The happy, unconscious stream ran singing at his feet as the nightingale sang in the acacia thickets, its brown mountain water growing green and limpid as it passed over submerged grass and silver sand.

How could any thieves conspire to take it from the country in which it was born? How could any dare to catch it, and imprison it, and put it to vile uses? It was a living thing, a free thing, a precious thing, more precious than jewel or gold. Both jewels and gold the law protected. Could it not protect the Edera?

"Something must be done," he said to himself. "But what?"

He had not the faintest knowledge of what could or should be done; he regretted that he had not written his mark with the horns and the hoofs of his oxen on the foreign invaders; they might never again fall into his power.

He had never felt before such ferocious or cruel instincts as arose in him now. Don Silverio seemed to him tame and lukewarm before this monstrous conspiracy of strangers. He knew that a priest must not give way to anger; yet it seemed to him that even a priest should be roused to fury here; there was a wrath which was holy.

When he was clothed he stood and looked down again at the gliding stream.

A feeble, cracked voice called to him from the opposite bank.

"Adone, my lad, what is this tale?"

The speaker was an old man of eighty odd years, a native of Ruscino, one Patrizio Cambi, who was not yet too feeble to cut the rushes and osiers, and maintained a widowed daughter and her young children by that means.

"What tale?" said Adone, unwilling to be roused from his own dark thoughts. "What tale, Trizio?"

"That they are going to meddle with the river," answered the old man. "They can't do it, can they?"

"What have you heard?"

"That they are going to meddle with the river."

"In what way?"

"The Lord knows, or the devil. There was a waggon with four horses came as near as it could get to us in the woods yonder by Ruffo's, and the driver told Ruffo that the gentry he drove had come by road from that town by the sea-- I forget its name-- in order to see the river, this river, our river; and that he had brought another posse of gentry two weeks or more on the same errand, and that they were a-measuring and a-plumbing it, and that they were going to get possession of its somehow or other, but Ruffo could not hear anything more than that; and I supposed that you knew, because this part of it is yours if it be any man's; this part of it that runs through the Terra Vergine."

"Yes, it is mine," answered Adone very slowly. "It is mine here, and it was once ours from source to sea."

"Aye, it is ours!" said old Trizio Cambi mistaking him. He was a man once tall, but now bent nearly double; he had a harsh, wrinkled face, brown as a hazel nut, and he was nearly a skeleton; but he had eyes which were still fine and still had some fire in them. In his youth he had been a Garibaldino.

"It is ours," repeated Trizio. "At least if anything belongs to poor folks. What say you, Adone?"

"Much belongs to the poor, but others take it from them," said Adone. "You have seen a hawk take a sparrow, Trizio. The poor count no more than the sparrows."

"But the water is the gift of God," said the old man.

Adone did not answer.

"What can we do?" said Trizio, wiping the dew off his sickle. "Who knows aught of us? Who cares? If the rich folks want the river they will take it, curse them!"

Adone did not answer. He knew that it was so, all over the earth.

"We shall know no more than birds tangled in a net," said Trizio. "They will come and work their will."

Adone rose up out of the grass. "I will go and see Ruffo," he said. He was glad to do something.

"Ruffo knows no more than that," said Trizio angrily. "The driver of the horses knew no more."

Adone paid him no need, but began to push his way through the thick network of the interlaced heather. He thought that perhaps Ruffo, a man who made wooden shoes, and hoops for casks, and shaped chestnut poles for vines, might tell him more than had been told to old Trizio; might at least be able to suggest from what quarter and in what shape this calamity was rising, to burst over their valley as a hailstorm broods above, then breaks, on helpless fields and defenceless gardens, beating down without warning the birds and the blossoms of spring.

When he had been in Lombardy he had seen once a great steam-engine at work, stripping a moorland of its natural growth and turning it into ploughed land. He remembered how the huge machine with its stench of oil and fire had forced its way through the furze and ferns and wild roses and myrtle, and torn them up, and flung them on one side, and scattered and trampled all the insect life, and all the bird life, and all the hares, and field mice, and stoats, and hedgehogs, who made their home there. "A fine sight," a man had said to him; and he had answered, "A cursed wickedness." Was this what they would do to the vale of Edera? If they took the river they could not spare the land. He felt scared, bruised, terrified, like one of these poor moorland hares. He remembered a poor stoat which, startled out of its sleep, had turned and bitten one of the iron wheels of the machine, and the wheel had gone over it and crushed it into a mass of blood and fur. He was as furious and as helpless as the stoat had been.

But when he had walked the four miles which separated the Terra Vergine from the chestnut woods where the maker of wooden shoes lived, he heard nothing else from Ruffo than this: that gentlemen had come from Teramo to study the Edera water; they were going to turn it aside and use it; more than that the man who had driven them had not heard and could not explain.

"There were four horses, and he had nothing to give them but water and grass," said the cooper. "The gentry brought wine and food for themselves. They came the day before yesterday and slept here. They went away this morning. They paid me well, oh, very well. I did what I could for them. It is five-and-thirty miles if one off Teramo, aye, nearer forty. They followed the old posting road; but you know where it enters the woods it is all overgrown, and gone to rack and ruin, from want of use. In my grandfather's time it was a fine, well-kept highway, with posthouses every ten miles, though a rare place for robbery; but nowadays nobody wants it at all, for nobody comes or goes. It will soon be blocked, so the driver says; it will soon be quite choked up what with brambles, and rocks, and fallen trees, and what not. He was black with rage, for he was obliged to go back as he had come, and he said he had been cheated into the job."

Adone listened wearily to the garrulous Ruffo, who emphasised each phrase with a blow of his little hammer on a shoe. He had wasted all his morning hours, and learned nothing. He felt like a man who is lost in a strange and deserted country at night; he could find no clue, could see no light. Perhaps if he went to the seaport town, which was the Prefecture, he might hear something?

But he had never left the valley of the Edera except for that brief time which he had passed under arms in the north. He felt that he had no means, no acquaintance, no knowledge, whereby he could penetrate the mystery of this scheme. He did not even know the status of the promoters, or the scope of their speculation. The Prefecture was placed in a port on the Adriatic which had considerable trade to the Dalmatian and Greek coasts, but he scarcely knew its name. If he went there what could he do or learn? Would the stones speak, or the waves tell that which he thirsted to know? What use was the martial blood in his veins? He could not strike an invisible foe.

"Don't go to meet trouble half way," said the man Ruffo, meaning well. "I may have mistaken the driver. They cannot take hold of a river, how should they? Water slips through your fingers. Where it was set running in the beginning of the world, there it will go on running till the crack of doom. Let them look; let them prate; they can't take it."

But Adone's reason would not allow him to be so consoled.

He understood a little of what hydraulic science can compass; he knew what canalisation meant, and its assistance to traffic and trade; he had seen the waterworks on the Po, on the Adige, on the Mincio; he had heard how the Velino had been enslaved for the steel foundry of Terni, how the Nerino fed the ironworks of Narni; he had seen the Adda captive at Lodi, and the lakes held in bond at Mantua; he had read of the water drawn from Monte Amiata; and not very many miles off him, in the Abruzzo, was that hapless Fuscino, which had been emptied and dried up by rich meddlers of Rome.

He knew also enough of the past to know how water had been forced to serve the will and the wants of the Roman Consulate and the Roman empire, of how the marble aqueducts had cast the shadow of their arches over the land, and how the provinces had been tunnelled and bridged and canalised and irrigated, during two thousand years, by those whose bones were dust under the Latin soil. He could not wholly cheat himself, as these unlettered men could do; he knew that if the commerce which has succeeded the Caesars as ruler of the world coveted the waters of Edera, the river was lost to the home of its birth and to him.

"How shall I tell my mother?" he asked himself as he walked back through the fragrant and solitary country. He felt ashamed at his own helplessness and ignorance. If courage could have availed anything he would not have been wanting; but all that was needed here was a worldly and technical knowledge, of which he possessed no more than did the trout in the stream.

As he neared his home, pushing his way laboriously through the interlaced bracken and heaths which had never been cut for a score of years, he saw approaching him the tall, slender form of Don Silverio, moving slowly, for the heather was breast high, his little dog barking at a startled wood-pigeon.

"They are anxious about you at your house," Don Silverio said with some sternness. "Is it well to cause your mother this disquietude?"

"No, it is not well," replied Adone. "But how can I see her and not tell her, and how can I tell her this thing?"

"Women to bear trouble are braver than men," said the priest. "They have more patience in pain than we. I have said something to her; but we need not yet despair. We know nothing of any certainty. Sometimes such schemes are abandoned at the last moment because too costly or too unremunerative. Sometimes they drag on for half a lifetime; and at the end nothing comes of them."

"You have told my mother?"

"I told her what troubles you, and made you leave your work undone. The little girl was feeding the cattle."

Adone coloured. He was conscious of the implied rebuke.

"Sir," he said in a low tone, "if this accursed thing comes to pass what will become of us? What I said in my haste last night I say in cold reason to-day."

"Then you are wrong, and you will turn a calamity into a curse. Men often do so."

"It is more than a calamity."

"Perhaps. Would not some other grief be yet worse? If you were stricken with blindness?"

"No; I should still hear the river running."

Don Silverio looked at him. He saw by the set, sleepless, reckless look on his face that the young man was in no mood to be reached by any argument, or to be susceptible to either rebuke or consolation. The time might come when he would be so; but that time was far off he feared. The evenness, the simplicity, the loneliness of Adone's existence, made it open to impressions, and absorbed by them, as busy and changeful lives never are; it was like the heather plants around them, it would not bear transplanting; its birthplace would be its tomb.

"Let us go back to your mother," he said. "Why should you shun her? What you feel she feels also. Why leave her alone?"

"I will go home," said Adone.

"Yes, come home. You must see that there is nothing to be done or to be learned as yet. When they know anything fresh at San Beda they will let me know. The Prior is a man of good faith."

Adone turned on him almost savagely; his eyes were full of sullen anger.

"And I am to bear my days like this? Knowing nothing, hearing nothing, doing nothing to protect the water that is as dear to me as a brother, and the land which is my own? What will the land be without the river? You forget, sir, you forget!"

"No, I do not forget," said Don Silverio without offence. "But I ask you to hear reason. What can you possibly do? Think you no man has been wronged before you? Think you that you alone here will suffer? The village will be ruined. Do you feel for yourself alone?"

Adone seemed scarcely to hear. He was like a man in a fever who sees one set of images and cannot see anything else.

"Sir," he said suddenly, "why will you not go to Rome?"

"To Rome?" echoed the priest in amazement.

"There alone can the truth of this thing be learned," said Adone. "It is to Rome that the promoters of this scheme must carry it; there to be permitted or forbidden as the Government chooses. All these things are brought about by bribes, by intrigues, by union. Without authority from high office they cannot be done. We here do not even know who are buying or selling us--"

"No, we do not," said Don Silverio; and he thought, "When the cart-horse is bought by the knacker what matter to him the name of his purchaser or his price?"

"Sir," said Adone, with passionate entreaty. "Do go to Rome. There alone can the truth be learnt. You, a learned man, can find means to meet learned people. I would go, I would have gone yesternight, but, when I should get there, I know no more than a stray dog where to go or from whom to inquire. They would see I am a country fellow. They would shut the doors in my face. But you carry respect with you. No one would dare to flout you. You could find ways and means to know who moves this scheme, how far it is advanced, what chance there is of our defeating it. Go, I beseech you, go!"

"My son, you amaze me," said Don Silverio. "I? In Rome? I have not stirred out of this district for eighteen years. I am nothing. I have no voice. I have no weight. I am a poor rural vicar buried here for punishment."

He stopped abruptly, for no complaint of the injustice from which he suffered had ever in those eighteen years escaped him.

"Go, go," said Adone. "You carry respect with you. You are learned and will know how to find those in power and how to speak to them. Go, go! Have pity on all of us, your poor, helpless, menaced people."

Don Silverio was silent.

Was it now his duty to go into the haunts of men, as it had been his duty to remain shut up in the walls of Ruscino? The idea appalled him.

Accomplished and self-possessed though he was, his fine mind and his fine manners had not served wholly to protect him from that rust and nervousness which come from the disuse of society and the absence of intercourse with equals.

It seemed to him impossible that he could again enter cities, recall usages, seek out acquaintances, move in the stir of streets, and wait in antechambers.

That was the life of the world; he had done with it, forsworn it utterly, both by order of his superiors and by willing self-sacrifice. Yet he knew that Adone was right. It was only from men of the world and amongst them, it was only in the great cities, that it was possible to follow up the clue of such speculations as now threatened the vale of Edera.

The young man he knew could not do what was needed, and certainly would get no hearing--a peasant of the Abruzzo border, who looked like a figure of Giorgione's, and would probably be arrested as an anarchist if he were to endeavour to enter any great house or public office. But to go to Rome himself! To revisit the desecrated city! This seemed to him a pilgrimage impossible except for the holiest purpose. He felt as if the very stones of Trastevere would rise up and laugh at him, a country priest with the moss and the mould of a score of years passed in rural obscurity upon him. Moreover, to revisit Rome would be to tear open wounds long healed. There his studious youth had been passed, and there his ambitious dreams had been dreamed.

"I cannot go to Rome," he said abruptly. "Do not ask me, I cannot go to Rome."

"Then I will go," said Adone; "and if in no other way, I will force myself into the king's palace and make him hear."

"And his guards will seize you, and his judges will chain you up in a solitary cell for life! Do not say such mad things. What could the king reply, even if he listened, which he would not do? He would say that these things were for ministers and prefects and surveyors and engineers to judge of, not for him or you. Be reasonable, Adone; do not speak or act like a fool. This is the first grief you have known in your life, and you are distraught by it. That is natural enough, my poor boy. But you exaggerate the danger. It must be far off as yet. It is a mere project."

"And I am to remain here, tilling the land in silence and inaction until, one day without notice, I shall see a crowd of labourers at work upon the river, and shall see appraisers measuring my fields! You know that is how things are done. You know the poor are always left in the dark until all is ripe for their robbery. Look you, sir, if you go to Rome I will wait in such patience as I can for whatever you may learn. But if you do not go, I go, and if I can do no better I will take the king by the throat."

"I have a mind to take you by the throat myself," said Don Silverio, with an irritation which he found it hard to control. "Well, I will think over what you wish, and if I find it possible, if I think it justified, if I can afford the means, if I can obtain the permission, for such a journey, I will go to Rome; for your sake, for your mother's sake. I will let you know my decision later. Let us walk homeward. The sun is low. At your house the three women must be anxious."

Adone accompanied him in silence through the heather, of which the blossoming expanse was reddening in the light of the late afternoon until the land looked a ruby ocean. They did not speak again until they reached the confines of the Terra Vergine.

Then Don Silverio took the path which went through the pasture to the bridge, and Adone turned towards his own dwelling.

"Spare your mother. Speak gently," said the elder man; the younger man made a sign of assent and of obedience.

"He will go to Rome," said Adone to himself, and almost he regretted that he had urged the journey, for in his own veins the fever of unrest and the sting of fierce passions were throbbing, and he panted and pined for action. He was the heir of the lords of the river.

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Like the cooper Ruffo, Clelia Alba had received the tidings with incredulity, though aghast at the mere suggestion."It is impossible," she said. She had seen the water there ever since she had been a babe in swaddling clothes."It is not possible," she said, "that any man could be profane enough to alter the bed which heaven had given it."But she was sorely grieved to see the effect such a fear had upon Adone."I was afraid it was a woman," she thought; "but this thing, could it be true, would be worse than any harlot or adulteress. If they took away the
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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
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