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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter VIII
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter VIII Post by :cyberpaul Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :2347

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter VIII

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 river the land would perish. It lives by the river."

"The river is our own as far as we touch it," she said aloud to her son; "but it was the earth's before it was ours. To sever water from the land it lives in were worse than to snatch a child from its mother's womb."

Adone did not tell her that water was no more sacred than land to the modern contractor. She would learn that all to soon if the conspiracy against the Edera succeeded. But he tried to learn from her what legal rights they possessed to the stream: what had his father thought? He knew well that his old hereditary claim to the Lordship of Ruscino, however capable of proof, would be set aside as fantastic and untenable; but their claim to the water through the holding of Terra Vergine could surely not be set aside.

"Your father never said aught about the water that I can remember," she answered. "I think he would no more have thought it needful to say it was his than to say that you were his son. It is certain we are writ down in the district as owners of the ground; we pay taxes for it; and the title of the water must be as one with that."

"So say I; at least over what runs through our fields we, alone, have any title, and for that title I will fight to the death," said Adone. "River rights go with the land through which the river passes."

"But, my son," she said with true wisdom, "your father would never have allowed any danger to the water to make him faithless to the land. If you let this threat, this dread, turn you away from your work; if you let your fears make you neglect your field and your olives, and your cattle and your vines, you will do more harm to yourself than the worst enemy can do you. To leave a farm to itself is to call down the vengeance of heaven. A week's abandonment undoes the work of years. I and Gianna and the child do what we can, but we are women, and Nerina is young."

"No doubt you speak wisely, mother," replied Adone humbly. "But of what use is it to dress and manure a vine, if the accursed phylloxera be in its sap and at its root? What use is it to till these lands if they be doomed to perish from thirst?"

"Do your best," said his mother, "then the fault will not lie with you, whatever happen."

The counsel was sound; but to Adone all savour and hope were gone out of his labour. When he saw the green gliding water shine through the olive branches, and beyond the foliage of the walnut-trees, his arms fell nerveless to his side, his throat swelled with sobs, which he checked as they rose, but which were only the more bitter for that--all the joy and the peace of his day's work were gone.

It was but a small space of it to one whose ancestors had reigned over the stream from its rise in the oak woods to its fall into the sea; but he thought that no one could dispute or diminish or disregard his exclusive possession of the Edera water where it ran through his fields. They could not touch that, even if they seized it lower down, where it ran through other communes. Were they to take it above his land, above the bridge of Ruscino, its bed here would be dried up, and his homestead and the village both be ruined. The clear, intangible right which he meant to defend at any cost, in any manner, was his right to have the river run untouched through his fields. The documents which proved the rights of the great extinct Seigneury might be useless, but the limited, shrunken right of the peasant ownership was as unassailable as his mother's right to the three strings of pearls; or so he believed.

The rights of the Lords of Ruscino might be but shadows of far-off things, things of tradition, of history, of romance, but the rights of the peasant proprietors of the Terra Vergine must, he thought, be respected if there were any justice upon earth, for they were plainly writ down in the municipal registers of San Beda. To rouse others to defend their equal rights in the same way, from the source of the Edera to its union with the Adriatic, seemed to him the first effort to be made. He was innocent enough to believe that it would suffice to prove that its loss would be their ruin to obtain redress at once.

Whilst Don Silverio was still hesitating as to what seemed to him this momentous and painful journey to Rome his mind was made up by a second letter received from the Superior of the Certosa at San Beda, the friend to whom he had confided the task of inquiring as to the project for the Edera.

This letter was long, and in Latin. They were two classics, who liked thus to refresh themselves and each other with epistles such as St. Augustine or Tertullian might have penned. The letter was of elegant scholarship, but its contents were unwelcome. It said that the Most Honourable the Syndic of San Beda had enjoyed a conference with the Prefect of the province, and it had therein transpired that the project for the works upon the river Edera had been long well known to the Prefect, and that such project was approved by the existing Government, and therefore by all the Government officials, as was but natural. It was not admitted that the Commune of San Beda had any local interest or local right sufficiently strong to oppose the project, as such a claim would amount to a monopoly, and no monopoly could exist in a district through which a running river partially passed, and barely one-fifth of the course of this stream lay through that district known as the valley of the Edera. The entire Circondario, except the valley, was believed to be in favour of the project, which the Prefect informed the Syndic could not be otherwise than most favourable to the general interests of the country at large.

"Therefore, most honoured and revered friend," wrote the Superior of the Cistercians, "his most esteemed worship does not see his way to himself suggest opposition to this course in our Town Council, or in our Provincial Council, and the Most Worshipful the Assessors do not either see theirs; it being, as you know, an equivocal and onerous thing for either council to express or suggest in their assembly views antagonistic to those of the Prefecture, so that I fear, most honoured and reverend friend, it will not be in my power farther to press this matter, and I fear also that your parish of Ruscino, being isolated and sparsely populated, and its chief area uncultivated, will be possessed of but one small voice in this matter, the interests of the greater number being always in such a case preferred."

Don Silverio read the letter twice, its stately and correct Latinity not serving to disguise the mean and harsh fact of its truly modern logic. "Because we are few and poor and weak we have no rights!" he said bitterly. "Because the water comes from others, and goes to others, it is not ours whilst in our land!"

He did not blame his friend at San Beda.

Ecclesiastics existed only on sufferance, and any day the Certosa might be closed if its inmates offended the ruling powers. But the letter, nevertheless, lay like a stone on his heart. All the harshness, the narrowness, the disregard of the interests of the weak, the rude, rough, tyrannical pressing onward of the strong to their own selfish aims, all the characteristics of the modern world seemed to find voice in it and jeer at him.

It was not for the first time in his life that he had pressed against the iron gates of interest and formula and oppression, and only bruised his breast and torn his hands.

He had a little sum of money put by in case of illness and for his burial; that was the only fund on which he could draw to take him to Rome and keep him when there, and it was so small that it would be soon exhausted. He passed the best part of the night doubting which way his duty pointed. He fasted, prayed, and communed with his soul, and at length it seemed to him as if a voice from without said to him, "Take up your staff, and go." For the journey appalled him, and where his inclination pointed he had taught himself to see error. He shrank inexpressibly from going into the noise and glare and crowd of men; he clung to his solitude as a timid animal to its lair; and therefore he felt persuaded that he ought to leave Ruscino on his errand, because it was so acutely painful to him.

Whilst he should be gone Adone at least would do nothing rash; would of course await the issue of his investigations. Time brings council, and time, he hoped, would in this instance befriend him. He had already obtained the necessary permission to leave his parish; he then asked for a young friend from San Beda to take his place in the village; left his little dog to the care of Nerina; took his small hoard in a leathern bag strapped to his loins, and went on his way at daybreak along the southwest portion of the valley, to cover on foot the long distance which lay between him and the nearest place at which a public vehicle went twice a week to a railway station; whence he could take the train to Terni and so to Rome.

Adone accompanied him the first half of the way, but they said little to one another; their hearts were full. Adone could not forget the rebuke given to him, and Don Silverio was too wise a man to lean heavily on a sore and aching wound, or repeat counsels already given and rejected.

At the third milestone he stopped and begged, in a tone which was a command, the young man to return home.

"Do not leave your land for me," he said. "Every hour is of gold at this season. Go back, my son! I pray that I may bring you peace."

"Give me your blessing," said Adone meekly, and he knelt down in the dust of the roadside. His friend gave it; then their hands met in silent farewell.

The sun had risen, and the cold clear air was yielding to its rays. The young man reluctantly turned back, and left the priest to go onward alone, a tall, dark figure in the morning light; the river running between acacia thickets and rushes on his right. Before long he was forced to leave the course of the stream, and ascend a rugged and precipitous road which mounted southward and westward through oak woods into the mountains between the Leonessa and Gran Sasso, until it reached a shrunken, desolate village, with fine Etruscan and Roman remains left to perish, and a miserable hostelry, with the miserable diligences starting from it on alternate days, the only remains of its former posting activity. There he arrived late in the evening, and broke his fast on a basin of bean soup, then rested on a bench, for he could not bring himself to enter the filthy bed which was alone to be obtained, and spent the following morning examining the ancient ruins, for the conveyance did not start until four o'clock in the afternoon. When that hour came he made one of the travellers, all country folks, who were packed close as pigeons in a crate in the ramshackle, noisy, broken-down vehicle, which lumbered on its way behind its lean and suffering horses, through woods and hills and along mountain passes of a grandeur and a beauty on which the eyes of educated travellers rarely looked.

The journey by this conveyance occupied seven hours, and he was obliged to wait five more at that village station which was the nearest point at which he could meet the train which went from Terni to Rome. Only parliamentary trains stop at such obscure places; and this one seemed to him slower even than the diligence had been. It was crammed with country lads going to the conscription levy in the capital: some of them drunk, some of them noisy and quarrelsome, some in tears, some silent and sullen, all of them sad company. The dusty, stinking, sun-scorched waggons, open one to another, with the stench of hot unwashed flesh, and the clouds of dust driven through the unglazed windows, seemed to Don Silverio a hell of man's own making, and in remembrance his empty quiet room, with its vine-hung window, at Ruscino, seemed by comparison a lost heaven.

To think that there were thousands of men who travelled thus, every day of every year, in every country, many of them from no obligation whatever, but from choice!

"What lunatics, what raving idiots we should look to Plato or to Socrates, could they see us!" he thought. Was what is called progress anything else except increased insanity in human life?

He leaned back in his corner, and bore the dust in his eyes and his throat as best he might, and spoke a few kind words to the boys nearest to him, and felt as if every bone in his body was broken as the wooden and iron cage shook him from side to side. The train stopped finally in that area of bricks and mortar and vulgarity and confusion where once stood the Baths of Diocletian. It was late in the night when he heard the name of Rome.

No scholar can hear that name without emotion. On him it smote with a keen personal pain, awakening innumerable memories, calling from their graves innumerable dreams.

He had left it a youth, filled with all the aspirations, the fire, the courage, the faith, of a lofty and spiritual temper. He returned to it a man aged before his time, worn, weary, crushed, spiritless, with no future except death.

He descended from the waggon with the crowd of jaded conscripts and mingled with that common and cosmopolitan crowd which now defiles the city of the Caesars. The fatigue of his body, and the cramped pain of his aching spine, added to the moral and the mental suffering which was upon him as he moved a stranger and alone along the new, unfamiliar streets where, alone here and there, some giant ruin, some stately arch, some marble form of god or prophet, recalled to him the Urbs that he had known.

But he remembered the mission on which he came; and he rebuked his self-indulgence in mourning for his own broken fate.

"I am a faithless servant and a feeble friend," he thought in self-reproach. "Let me not weaken my poor remnant of strength in egotism and repining. I come hither for Adone and the Edera. Let me think of my errand only; not of myself, nor even of this desecrated city."

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