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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter X
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter X Post by :Happyman10 Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1981

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter X

"I SHALL not write," Don Silverio had said to Adone. "As soon as I know anything for certain I shall return. Of that you may be sure."

For he knew that letters took a week or more to find their slow way to Ruscino, and he hoped to return in less than that time; having no experience of "what hell it is in waiting to abide," and of the endless doublings and goings to earth of that fox-like thing, a modern speculation; he innocently believed that he would only have to ask a question to have it answered.

Day after day Adone mounted to the bell-tower roof, and gazed over the country in vain. Day after day the little dog escaped from the custody of Nerina, trotted over the bridge, pattered up the street, and ran whining into his master's study. Every night the people of Ruscino hung up a lantern on a loophole of the belfry, and another on the parapet of the bridge, that their pastor might not miss his way if he were coming on foot beside the river; and every night Adone himself watched on the river bank or by the town wall, sleepless, longing for, yet dreading that which he should hear. But more than a week passed, and the priest did not return. The anxiety of Adone consumed him like fire. He strove to dull his anxiety by incessant work, but it was too acute to be soothed by physical fatigue. He counted the days and the hours, and he could not sleep. The women watched him in fear and silence; they dared ask nothing, lest they should wound him. Only Nerina whispered to him once or twice in the fields, "Where is he gone? When will he come back?"

"God knows!" he answered. Every evening that he saw the sun set beyond the purple line of the mountains which were heaped in their masses of marble and snow between him and the Patrimonium Petrus, he felt as if he could never bear another night. He could hear the clear, fresh sound of the running river, and it seemed to him like the voice of some friend crying aloud to him in peril. Whilst these summer days and nights sped away what was being done to save it? He felt like a coward; like one who stands by and sees a comrade murdered. In his solitude and apprehension he began to lose all self-control; he imagined impossible things; he began to see in his waking dreams, as in a nightmare, the dead body of Don Silverio lying with a knife in its breast in some cut-throat alley of Rome. For two weeks passed, and there was no sign of his return, and no message from him.

The poor people of Ruscino also were troubled. Their vicar had never left them before. They did not love him; he was too unlike them; but they honoured him, they believed in him; he was always there in their sickness and sorrow; they leaned on his greater strength in all their penury and need; and he was poor like them, and stripped himself still barer for their sakes.

Through the young friar who had replaced him they had heard something of the calamity which threatened to befall them through the Edera. It was all dark to them; they could understand nothing. Why others should want their river and why they should lose it, or in what manner a stream could be turned from its natural course -- all these things were to them incomprehensible. In the beginning of the world it had been set running there. Who would be impious enough to meddle with it?

Whoever tried to do so would be smitten with the vengeance of Heaven. Of that they were sure. Nevertheless, to hear the mention of such a thing tormented them; and when they opened their doors at dawn they looked out in terror lest the water should have been taken away in the night.

Their stupidity irritated Adone so greatly that he ceased altogether to speak to them of the impending calamity. "They are stocks and stones. They have not the sense of sheep nor the courage of goats," he said, with the old scorn which his forefathers had felt for their rustic vassals stirring in him.

"I believe that they would dig sand and carry wood for the engineers and the craftsmen who would build the dykes!" he said to his mother.

Clelia Alba sighed. "My son, hunger is a hard master; it makes the soul faint, the heart hard, the belly ravenous. We have never known it. We cannot judge those who know nothing else."

"Even hunger need not make one vile," he answered.

But he did not disclose all his thoughts to his mother.

He was so intolerant of these poor people of Ruscino because he foresaw the hopelessness of forging their weak tempers into the metal necessary for resistance. As well might he hope to change a sword-rush of the river into a steel sabre for combat. Masaniello, Rienzi, Garibaldi, had roused the peasantry and led them against their foes; but the people they dealt with must, he thought, have been made of different stuff than these timorous villagers, who could not even be make to comprehend the magnitude of the wrong which was plotted against them.

"Tell them," he said to old Trizio: "tell them their wells will run dry; their fish will rot on the dry bed of what was once the river; their canes, their reeds and rushes, their osiers, will all fail them; when they shall go out into their fields nothing which they sow or plant will grow, because the land will be cracked and parched; there will be no longer the runlets and rivulets to water the soil; birds will die of thirst, and thousands of little river creatures will be putrid carcasses in the sun; for the Edera, which is life and joy and health to this part of the country, will be carried far away, imprisoned in brick walls, drawn under ground, forced to labour like a slave, put to vile uses, soiled and degraded. Cannot you tell them this, and make them see?"

The old man shook his white head. "They would never believe. It is too hard for them. Where the river runs, there it will always be. So they think."

"They are dolts, they are mules, they are swine!" said Adone. "Nay, may the poor beasts forgive me! The beasts cannot help themselves, but men can if they choose."

"Humph!" said Trizio doubtfully. "My lad, you have not seen men shot down by the hundred. I have -- long ago, long ago."

"There is no chance of their being shot," he said with contempt, almost with regret. "All that is wanted of them are common sense, union, protestation, comprehension of their rights."

"Aye, you all begin with that," said the old Garabaldino. "But, my lad, you do not end there, for it is just those things which are your right which those above you will never hear of; and then up come the cannon thundering, and when the smoke clears away there are your dead -- and that is all you get."

The voice of the old soldier was thin and cracked and feeble, but it had a sound in it which chilled the hot blood of his hearer.

Yet surely this was no revolutionary question, no socialistic theory, no new alarming demand; it was only a claim old as the hills, only a resolve to keep what the formation of the earth had given to this province.

As well blame a father for claiming his own child as blame him and his neighbours for claiming their own river!

They were tranquil and docile people, poor and patient, paying what they were told to pay, letting the fiscal wolf gnaw and glut as it chose unopposed, not loving their rulers indeed, but never moving or speaking against them, accepting the snarl, the worry, the theft, the greed, the malice of the State without questioning.

Were they to stand by and see their river ruined, and do nothing, as the helpless fishermen of Fuscino have accepted the ruin of their lake?

To all young men of courage and sensibility and enthusiasm the vindication of a clear right seems an act so simple that it is only through long and painful experience that they realize that there is nothing under the sun which is so hard to compass, or which is met by such strong antagonism. To Adone, whose nature was unspoilt by modern influences, and whose world was comprised in the fields and moors around Ruscino, it seemed incredible that such a title as that of his native soil to the water of Edera could be made clear to those in power without instant ratification of it.

"Whether you do aught or naught it comes to the same thing," said the old Garibaldino, who was wiser. "We did much; we spent our blood like water, and what good has it been? For one devil we drove out before our muskets, a thousand worse devils have entered since."

"It is different," said Adone, impatient. "All we have to do is to keep out the stranger. You had to drive him out. No politics or doctrines come into our cause; all we mean, all we want, is to be left alone, to remain as we are. That is all. It is simple and just."

"Aye, it is simple; aye, it is just," said the old man; but he sucked his pipe-stem grimly: he had never seen these arguments prosper; and in his own youth he had cherished such mistakes himself, to his own hindrance.

Had he not sung in those glorious days of hope and faith,

"Fratelli d'Italia!
L'Italia s'e desta!"

In the night which followed on the fourteenth day of the Vicar's absence, Adone, unable either to rest or to labour, went into his cattle-stalls and fed and watered all the animals, then he crossed the river and went along its north bank by the same path which he had followed with Don Silverio two weeks earlier. He had passed to and fro that path often since his friend's departure, for by it the priest must return; there was no other way to and from the west.

Rain had fallen in the night, and the river was buoyant, and the grass sparkled, the mountains were of sapphire blue, and above the shallows clouds of flies and gnats were fluttering, waterlilies were blossoming where the water was still, and in the marshes buffaloes pushed their dark forms amongst the nymphoea and the nuphar.

He had no longer any eyes to see these things; he only strained his sight to catch the first glimpse of a tired traveler. The landscape here was level for many miles of moor and pasture and a human form approaching could be seen from a great distance. It was such a dawn as he had used to love beyond all other blessings of nature; but now the buffaloes in the pools and swamps were not more blind to its charm than he.

The sun rose behind him out of the unseen Adrian waves, and a rosy light spread itself over the earth; and at that moment he saw afar off a dark form moving slowly. With a loud cry he sprang forward and ran with the fleetness of a colt the hundred yards which were between him and that familiar figure.

"My son! my dear son!" cried Don Silverio, as Adone reached him and fell on his knees on the scorched turf.

"At last!" he murmured, choked with joy and fear. "Oh, where have you been? We are half dead, your people and I. What tidings do you bring? What comfort?"

"Rise up, and remember that you are a man," said Don Silverio; and the youth, gazing upwards keenly into his face, suddenly lost all hope, seeing no ray of hope on that weary countenance.

"You cannot save us?" he cried, with a scream like a wounded hare's.

"I cannot, my dear son," answered Don Silverio.

Adone dropped backward as if a bullet had struck him; his head smote the dry ground; he had lost consciousness, his face was livid.

Don Silverio raised him and dragged him into the shade of a bay-tree and dashed water on him from the river. In a few minutes he was roused and again conscious, but on his features there was a dazed, stunned look.

"You cannot save us?" he repeated.

"Neither you nor I have millions," said Don Silverio with bitterness. "It is with no other weapon that men can fight successfully now."

Adone had risen to his feet; he was pale as a corpse, only the blood was set in his forehead.

"Is it true, then?" he muttered. "Do they mean to come here?"

"Yes."

"Who are they? Jews?"

"Jews and Gentiles. There is no difference between those races now; they have a common Credo -- greed; they adore one Jehovah -- gold. My boy, I am very tired, and you are ill. Let us get home as quickly as we can."

"I am not ill. It was nothing. It is passed. Tell me the worst."

"The worst, in a work, is that a foreign company, already established for several years in this country, has obtained a faculty to turn this water out if its course and use it as the motive power of an electric railway and of an acetylene manufactory, and of other enterprises."

"And this cannot be undone?"

"I fear not; they are rich and powerful. What are we? Let me get home. There you shall hear all, and judge."

Adone asked and said no more. He turned and went backward. His steps were slow and unsteady, his head was hung down. The dry, hot air was like fire around them; the sun, though still low, darted fierce rays upon them, like spears thrown with a sure aim. He had not known how much and how strongly he had hoped until now that he heard that there was no hope left.

Don Silverio, though he did not speak of himself, was faint with fatigue; the return journey had tried him more cruelly than the first, since on his way to Rome he had been sustained by the hope to find the project abandoned, or at the least uncertain. He had spent all his scanty earnings, so hardly and tediously collected through a score of years, and he had brought back to his poor people, and to the youth he loved, nothing except the confirmation of their worst fears. It was with difficulty that he could drag his aching feet over the burn grass back to his parish.

When they reached the bridge they were on the village side of the stream. Adone, with an effort, raised himself from the trance into which he had fallen.

"Forgive me, sir; you are overtired, you must rest. I will come to you later."

"No, no," said Don Silverio quickly, for he thought the youth in no state to be alone. "I will wash and take a cup of coffee, then I will tell you all. Wait in my book-room."

They went together to his house. There was no one in the street or on the walls except some children gathering dandelion leaves in the ditch. They reached the priest's house unobserved; only the little dog, who was making his diurnal search there, rushed out of the entrance in a frenzy of rapture.

"Poor little man! Dear Signorino!" murmured Don Silverio, and he took the little creature in his arms. Then he opened the door of his study. "Wait there," he said to Adone. "I will soon come downstairs. I will only wash off the dust of this journey."

Adone obeyed.

The room was dusky, cool, silent; he sat down in it and waited; he could hear the loud, uneven beating of his own heart in the stillness.

As he felt now, so, he thought, must feel men who have heard their own death-sentence, and are thrust alone into a cell.

If Don Silverio could do nothing, to whom could he turn?

Could he induce the people to rise? It would be their ruin as well as his, this rape of the river. Would they bear it as they bore taxation, neglect, conscription, hunger?

It was not half an hour, although it seemed to him half a day, which passed before Don Silverio came down the stone stair, his little dog running and leaping about him. He seated himself before Adone, by the shuttered window, through which, by chinks and holes in the wood, there came rays of light and tendrils of vine.

Then detail by detail, with lucidity and brevity, he narrated all he had heard and done in Rome, and which it was exceeding hard to bring home to the comprehension of a mind wholly ignorant of such things.

"When I reached Rome," he explained, "I was for some days in despair. The deputy of San Beda was not at the Chamber. He was in Sicily. Another deputy, a friend of the Prior at San Beda, to whom I had a letter, was very ill with typhoid fever. I knew not where to turn. I could not knock at the doors of strangers without credentials. Then I remembered that one with whom I had been friends, great friends, when we were both seminarists, had become a great man at the Vaticano. It was scarcely possible that he, in his great elevation, would recollect one unseen for a quarter of a century. But I took courage and sent in my name. Imagine my surprise and emotion when I was admitted at once to his presence, and was received by him with the uttermost kindness. He assisted me in every way. He could not of course move ostensibly in a matter of the government, himself, but he gave me letters to those who could obtain me the information and the interviews which I desired. He was goodness itself, and through him I was even received by his Holiness. But from all those political and financial people whom I saw I learned but the same thing. The matter is far advanced, is beyond any alteration. The company is formed. The concurrence of parliament is not to be, but has long been, given. The ministry favours the project. They all repeated to me the same formula: public works are to the public interest. They babbled commonplaces. They spoke of great advantages to the province. I pleaded as forcibly as I could in the interests of this valley, and I opposed fact to formula. But my facts were not those which they wanted; and they told me, politely but unmistakably, that a churchman should not seek to interfere with civil matters. The promoters are masters of the position. They are all of accord: the foreign bankers, the Italian bankers; the foreign engineers, the Italian engineers; the Technical office, the President of Council, the dicastero of Hygiene, of Agriculture, of Public Works, all of them. Our poor little valley seems to them a desirable prey; they have seized it, they will keep it. They were all courteous enough. They are polite, and even unwilling to cause what they call unnecessary friction. But they will not give an inch. Their talons are in our flesh as an eagle's in a lamb's. One thinks fondly that what a man possesses is his own, be it land, house, stream--what not! But we mistake. There is a thing stronger, higher, more powerful than any poor title of property acquired by heritage, by purchase, or by labour. It is what they call expropriation. You think the Edera cannot be touched: it can be expropriated. You think the Terra Vergine cannot be touched: it can be expropriated. Against expropriation no rights can stand. It is the concentration and crystallisation of Theft legitamised by Government; that is by Force. A vagrant may not take a sheaf of your wheat, a fowl from your hen-house: if he do so, the law protects you and punishes him. A syndicate of rich men, of powerful men, may take the whole of your land, and the State will compel you to accept any arbitrary price which it may choose to put upon your loss. According as you are rich or poor yourself, so great or so small will be the amount awarded to you. All the sub-prefects, all the syndics, all the officials in this province, will be richly rewarded; the people defrauded of the soil and the river will get what may be given them by an enforced valuation. I have conversed with all kinds and conditions of men; and I have heard only one statement in the mouths of all: the matter is beyond all alteration. There is money in it; the men whose trade is money will not let it go. My son, my dearest son, be calm, be prudent. Violence can only injure yourself, and it can save nothing."

He had for the moment spoken as he had been speaking for the last two weeks to men of education and of the world.

He was recalled to the fact that his present auditor did not reason, did not comprehend, only felt, and was drunk with his own force of feeling. The look on Adone's face appalled him.

The youth seemed almost to have no intelligence left, almost as if all which had been said to him had reached neither his ear nor his brain.

Don Silverio had been in the world of men, and unconsciously he had adopted their phraseology and their manner. To Adone, who had expected some miracle, some rescue almost archangelic, some promise of immediate and divine interposition, these calm and rational statements conveyed scarcely any sense, so terrible was the destruction of his hopes. All the trust and candour and sweetness of his nature turned to gall.

He listened, a sullen, savage darkness stealing over his countenance.

"And our rights? Theirs? -- mine?" he said as Don Silverio paused.

"For all rights taken away they will give legal compensation."

"You dare repeat that, sir?"

Don Silverio controlled his indignation with difficulty.

"I dare do whatever I deem right to do. You should know that by this time."

"You think this right?"

"I think it right to repeat exactly what has been said to me. I do not of necessity approve because I repeat."

"You know no compensation is possible!"

"Morally, none. I speak of but what the law allows."

"The law of pirates, of cut-throats!"

"The law of the State, alas!"

Adone laughed. His hearer had heard such laughter as that in madhouses.

"The State kills a soldier, and gives his family a hundred francs! That is the compensation of the State. If they emptied their treasuries, could they give the soldier back his life? If they emptied their treasuries, could they give us back what they will take from us?"

"My dear son, do not doubt my sympathy. All my heart is with you. But what can be done? Can a poor village, a poor commune, struggle with any chance of success against a rich company and a government? Can a stalk of wheat resist the sickle? Can an ear of wheat resist the threshing-flail? I have told you the story of Don Quixote della Mancha. Would you fight the empty air like him?"

Adone did not reply.

His beautiful face grew moody, dark, fierce; in his eyes flamed passions which had no voice upon his lips; his white teeth ground against one another.

"Believe me, Adone," said his friend, "we are in evil days, when men babble of liberty, and are so intent on the mere empty sound of their lips that they perceive not the fetters on their wrists and feet. There was never any time when there was so little freedom and so little justice as in ours. Two gigantic dominions now rule the human race; they are the armies and the moneymakers. Science serves them turn by turn, and receives from each its wage. The historian Mommsen has written that we are probably inferior both in intelligence and in humanity, in prosperity and in civilisation, at the close of this century to what the human race was under Severus Antonius; and it is true."

Adone did not seem to hear. What were these abstract reasonings to him? All he cared for were his river and his fields.

"I sought for an old friend of mine in Rome," said Don Silverio, endeavouring to gain his attention and divert his thought, "one Pamfilio Scoria. He was a learned scholar; he had possessed a small competence and a house of his own, small too, but of admirable architecture, a Quattrocentisto house. I could not find this house in Rome. After long search I learned that it had been pulled down to make a new street. Pamfilio Scoria had in vain tried to preserve his rights. The city had turned him out and taken his property, paying what it chose. His grief was so great to see it destroyed, and to be turned adrift with his books and manuscripts, that he fell ill and died not long afterwards. On the site of the house there is a drinking-place kept by Germans; a street railway runs before it. This kind of theft, of pillage, takes place every week. It is masked as public utility. We are not alone sufferers from such a crime."

Adone was still silent.

His thoughts were not such as he could utter aloud in the priest's presence; and he heard nothing that was said; he heard only little Nerina's voice saying: "Could we not kill these men?" That flutelike whisper seemed to him to sigh with the very voice of the river itself.

Don Silverio rose, his patience, great as it was, exhausted.

"My son, as you do not give ear to me it is useless for me to speak. I must go to my office. The friar from San Beda desires to return this evening. I have done all I can. I have told you the facts as they stand. Take courage, Be peaceable for your mother's sake and restrain yourself for your own. It is a frightful calamity which hangs over us all. But it is our duty to meet it like men."

"Like men!" muttered Adone as he rose to his feet; had not the child from the Abruzzo rocks a better sense of men's duty than this priest so calm and wise?

"Men resist," he said very low.

"Men resist," repeated Don Silverio. "They resist when their resistance serves any purpose, but when it can only serve to crush them uselessly under a mass of iron they are not men if they resist, but madmen."

"Farewell, sir," said Adone.

And with an obeisance he went out of the chamber.

"Poor boy! Poor, passionate, dear youth!" thought Don Silverio as the door closed. "He thinks me cold and without emotion; how little he knows! He cannot suffer as I suffer for him and for my poor wretched people. What will they do when they shall know? They will mourn like starved sheep bleating in a field of stones, and I, their shepherd, shall not have a blade of grass wherewith to comfort them!"

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