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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter XIII
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter XIII Post by :CMartin371 Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1911

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter XIII

The autumn and winter passed without more being heard in the Valdedera of the new invasion. The peasantry generally believed that such silence was favourable to their wishes; but Don Silverio knew that it was otherwise. The promoters of the work did not concern themselves with the local population, they dealt with greater folks; with those who administered the various communes, and who controlled the valuation of the land through which the course of the Edera ran; chiefly those well-born persons who constituted the provincial council. A great deal of money would change hands, but it was intended, by all through whose fingers those heavy sums would pass, that as little of the money as possible should find its way to the owners of the soil. A public work is like a fat hog; between the slaughterers, the salesmen, the middlemen, and the consumers, little falls to the original holder of the hog. The peasants of the Valdedera were astonished that no one came to treat with them; but they did not understand that they dwelt under a paternal government, and the first care of a paternal government is to do everything for its children which is likely to promise any profit to itself.

The men of business whom Don Silverio had seen in Rome did not trouble themselves with the rustic proprietors of either water or land; they treated with the great officials of the department, with the deputies, the prefects, and sub-prefects, the syndics and assessors; so a perfect silence on the question reigned from the rise of the river to its mouth, and many of the men said over their wood-fires that they had been scared for nothing. The younger men, however, and those who were under Adone's influence, were more wary; they guessed that the matter was being matured without them; that when the hog should be eaten, the smallest and rustiest flitch would then be divided amongst them. Agents, such agents as were ministerial instruments of these magnates in election time, went amongst the scattered people and spoke to them of the great public utility of the contemplated works, and made them dispirited and doubtful of the value of their holdings, and uncertain of the legality of their tenures. But these agents were cautious and chary of promises, for they knew that in this district the temper of men was proud and hot and revengeful; and they knew also that when these rural owners should be brought into the courts to receive their price they would be dealt with just as the great men chose. One by one, so that each should be unsupported by his neighbours, the men of the valley were summoned, now to this town, now to the other, and were deftly argued with, and told that what was projected would be their salvation, and assured that the delegates who would be sent in their name by their provincial council to the capital would defend all their dearest interests.

The rich man, the man of business, the man of cities, may receive in such transactions compensation, which is greatly to their advantage, because traffic is their trade, because to buy and sell, and turn and return, and roll the ball of gold so that it grows bigger every hour, is their custom and interest. But the poor man, the rustic, the man with the one ewe lamb, loses always, whether he assents to the sale or has it forced upon him. These people of the valley might have a little ready money given them on valuation, but it would be money clipped and cropped by the avarice of intermediates until little of it would remain, and they would be driven out to begin life anew; away from their old rooftree and the fruits of long years of labour.

From far and near men came to Ruscino to take counsel of its vicar; his wisdom being esteemed and his intelligence known in the valley beyond the confines of his parish: and what advice could he give them? He could but tell them that it was useless to kick against the pricks. He knew so well the cold, curt, inflexible official answer; the empty, vapouring regrets, false, simpering, pharisaical; the parrot-phrases of public interests, public considerations, public welfare; the smile, the sneer, the self-complacent shrug of those who know that only the people whom they profess to serve will suffer. To him, as to them, it seemed a monstrous thing to take away the water from its natural channel and force the men who lived on it and by it to alter all their ways of life and see their birthplace changed into a desert in order that aliens might make money. But he could not counsel them to resist; no resistance was possible. It was like any other tyranny of the State: like the fiscal brutality which sold up a poor man's hayrick or clothing because he could not pay the poll-tax. If the poor man resisted, if he fired his old fowling-piece, or used his knife on the minions of the State, what use was such resistance? He went to rot in prison.

His calling, his conscience, his good sense, his obedience to law, all alike compelled him to urge on them patience, submission, and inaction before the provocation of a great wrong. He dared not even let them see one tithe of the sympathy he felt, lest if he did so they should draw from it an incentive to illegal action.

The part which he was obliged to take in thus persuading the people to be tranquil under injustice estranged him farther and farther from Adone Alba, who found it a cowardice and a treachery, although he dared not say so in words. Had he retained the coolness of reason the youth would have known and acknowledged that in the position of Don Silverio no other course would have been possible or decent. But reason had long left him, and inaction and impulse alone remained. He would not allow that a wrong might be condemned, and yet endured. To him all endurance had in it the meanness of condonation.

He ceased to have any faith in his friend and teacher; and gradually grew more and more alienated from him; their intimate affection, their frequent intercourse, their long walks and evening meeting were over; and even as his spiritual director the vicar had no longer power over him. Most of his actions and intentions were concealed; except in the younger men of the district, who saw as he saw, he had now no confidence in any one. The impending loss of the land and the water turned all the sweetness of his nature to gall. He thought that never in the history of the world had any wrong so black been done. He, himself, flung broadcast the fires of burning incitation without heeding or caring whither the flames might reach. Riots had been successful before this: why not now? He was young enough and innocent enough to believe in the divine right of a just cause. If that were denied, what remained to the weak?

If he could, he would have set the valley in flames from one end to the other rather than have allowed the foreigners to seize it. Had not his forefather perished in fire on yonder hill rather than cede to the Borgia?

Evening after evening he looked at the sun setting behind the Rocca and felt the black rage in him gnaw at his heart like a vulture.

They would offer him money for this dear earth, for this fair, beloved stream! -- the mere thought choked him as a man who loved his wife would be choked at the though of her dishonoured sale.

Some were half persuaded that it would be a fine thing to get some crisp banknotes in exchange for waste ground which yielded little, or a cabin which was falling to pieces, or a strip of woodland which gave them fuel, but not much more. But the majority were angry, irreconcilable, furious to lose the water, full of their wrongs. These were glad to find Adone Alba a spokesman and a leader: they were tow which caught fire at his torch. They comprehended little, but they knew that they were wronged; and they agreed with him that the labourers who should come from over the border to meddle with them should be made to rue it bitterly.

The Italian goes over seas, indeed; huddled under the hatches of emigrant ships; miserable, starved, confined; unable to move, scarce able to breathe, like the unhappy beasts carried with him. But he never goes willingly; he never wrenches himself from the soil without torn nerves and aching heart; if he live and make a little money in exile he comes back to the shadow of the village church, to the sound of the village bell which he knew in his boyhood, to walk in the lanes where he threw his wooden quoit as a lad, and to play dominoes under the green bough of the winehouse where as a child he used to watch his elders and envy them.

Most of these people dwelling on the Edera water had not been five miles away from the river in all their lives. The moorland birds and beasts went farther afield than they. They had no interest in what was beyond their own freehold; they did not even know or care whither the water went, or whence it came. Where it was, they owned it. That was enough for them.

"Sir, what is it Adone does?" said Clelia Alba, one dusky and stormy eve after vespers. "At nightfall out he goes; and never a word to me, only 'Your blessing, mother,' he says, as if he might lose his life where he goes. I thought at first it was some love matter, for he is young; but it cannot be that, for he is too serious, and he goes fully armed, with his father's pistols in his belt and his own long dagger in his stocking. True, they go so to a love tryst, if it be a dangerous one; if the woman be wedded; only I think it is not that, for men in love are different. I think that he broods over some act."

"Neither you nor I can do aught. He is of age to judge for himself," said Don Silverio; "but, like you, I do not think a woman is the cause of his absence."

"Can you not speak to him, sir?"

"I have spoken. It is useless. He is moved by a motive stronger than any argument we can use. In a word, good Clelia, this coming seizure of the water is suffering so great to him that he loses his reason. He is trying to make the men of the commune see as he sees. He wants to rouse them, to arm them. He might as well set the calves in your stalls to butt the mountain granite."

"Maybe, sir," said Clelia Alba, unwillingly; but her eye gleamed, and her stern, proud face grew harder. "But he has the right to do it if he can. If they touch the water they are thieves, worse than those who came down from the hills in the years of my girlhood."

"You would encourage him in insurrection, then?"

"Nay, I would not do that; but neither would I blame him. Every man has a right to defend his own. Neither his father nor mine, sir, were cowards."

"This is no question of cowardice. It is a question of common sense. A few country lads cannot oppose a government. With what weapons can they do so? Courage I honour; without it all active virtues are supine; but it is not courage to attempt the impossible, to lead the ignorant to death -- or worse."

"Of that my son must judge, sir," said Adone's mother, inflexible to argument. "I shall not set myself against him. He is master now. If he bid me fire the place I shall do it. For four-and-twenty years he obeyed me like a little child; never a murmur, never a frown. Now he is his own master, and master of the land. I shall do as he tells me. It is his turn now, and he is no fool, sir, Adone."

"He is no fool; no. But he is beside himself. He is incapable of judgment. His blood is on fire and fires his brain."

"I think not, sir. He is quiet. He speaks little"

"Because he meditates what will not bear speech. Were he violent I should be less alarmed. He shuns me -- me -- his oldest friend."

"Because no doubt, sir, he feels you are against him."

"Against him! How can I, being what I am, be otherwise? Could you expect me to foment insurrection, and what less than that can opposition such as he intends become?"

"You speak as you feel bound to speak, sir, no doubt."

"But think of the end? Must not every action be weighed and considered and judgment passed on it by what will be its issue? No rising of our poor people can effect anything except their own destruction. It is only a demagogue who would urge them on to it. Adone is not a demagogue. He is a generous youth frantic from sorrow, but helpless. Can you not see that?"

"I do not see that he is helpless," said his mother with obstinacy. "The thing that are about to do us is unjust. I would load a gun myself against them, and if money be what is wanted I would give Adone my pearls. He asks me for nothing, but when he does I will strip myself to my shift to aid him."

"It is a terrible madness!" cried Don Silverio. "What can your fowling-piece or your necklace do against all the force these speculators and contractors will employ? It is a great, a heinous wrong which will be done to you; that no one can feel more strongly than I. But there are wrongs to which we must submit when we are weak; and, my good Clelia, against this we poor folks in the Vale of Edera are as weak as the teal in the marshes against the swivel guns of the sportsmen's punts."

But he argued in vain; logic and persuasion are alike useless when opposed to the rock of ignorance and obstinacy. She held him in deep reverence; she brought her conscience to his judgment; she thought him beyond ordinary humanity: but when he endeavoured to persuade her that her son was wrong he failed.

"Sir, you know that this crime against the river will ruin us," she said doggedly. "Why then should you try to tie our hands? I do not know what Adone does; his mind is hid from me, but if, as you say, he wants a rising of our people, it is natural and just."

When the mind of the peasant -- man or woman -- be made up in its stubbornness, all learning, wisdom, experience, even fact, speak in vain; it opposes to all proofs the passive resistance of a dogged incredulity: to reason with it is as useless as to quarry stone with a razor.

Many and many a time had he given up in exhaustion and nausea his endeavours to convince the rural mind of some simple fact, some clear cause, some elementary principle. He knew that Clelia Alba would never believe in the exile which would be her certain fate until the armed and liveried creatures of the State should drive her from her home by order of the State. He had seen in Rome that there was no possible chance of opposing this enterprise against the Edera water. It had been decided on by men of money who had the ear of ministers, the precedence in ante-chambers, the means of success in political departments and in commercial centres. A few scattered provincial owners of land and labourers on land might as well try to oppose these men as the meek steinbok in the mountain solitudes to escape the expanding bullet of a prince's rifle. Yet he also saw how impossible it was to expect a young man like Adone, with his lineage, his temperament, his courage, and his mingling of ignorance and knowledge, to accept the inevitable without combat. As well might he be bidden to accept dishonour.

The remorse in his soul was keen, inasmuch as without him Adone would never have known of his descent from the lords of Ruscino, and never, probably, have acquired that "little learning" which a poet of the north has said is a dangerous thing.

"Better," thought Don Silverio, with tormenting self-reproach, "better have left him to his plough, to his scythe, to his reaping-hook; better have left him in ignorance of the meaning of art and of study; better have left him a mere peasant to beget peasants like himself. Then he would have suffered less, and might possibly have taken peaceably such compensation as the law would have allowed him for the loss to his land, and have gone away to the West, as so many go, leaving the soil they were born on to pass out of culture."

Would Adone ever have done that? No; he would not; he was wedded to the soil like the heaths that grew out of it. He might be violently dragged away, but he would never live elsewhere; his heart had struck its roots too deeply into the earth which nurtured him.

"Why did you tell him of all the great men that lived?" Clelia Alba had often said to him. "Why did you fill his soul with that hunger which no bread that is baked can content? We, who work to live, have no time to do aught except work, and sleep awhile to get strength for more work; and so on, always the same, until age ties knots in our sinews, and makes our blood thin and slow. What use is it to open gates to him which he must never pass, to make his mind a tangled skein that can never be undone? When you work hard you want to rest in your resting hours, not to dream. Dreaming is no rest. He is always dreaming, and now he dreams of blood and fire."

Don Silverio's heart was with them, and by all the obligations of his calling was forced to be against them. He was of a militant temper; he would gladly have led them into action as did the martial priests of old; but his sense, his duty, his conscience, all forbade him to even show them such encouragement as would lie in sympathy. Had he been rich he would have taken their cause into the tribunals and contested this measure inch by inch, however hopelessly. But who would plead for a poor parish, for a penniless priest? What payment could he offer, he who could scarcely find the coins to fill his salt-box or to mend his surplice?

A great anxiety consumed him. He saw no way out of this calamity. The people were wronged, grossly wronged, but how could they right that wrong? Bloodshed would not alter it, or even cure it. What was theirs, and the earth's, was to be taken from them; and how were they to be persuaded that to defend their own would be a crime.

"There is nothing, then, but for the people to lie down and let the artillery roll over them!" said Adone once, with bitter emphasis.

"And the drivers and the gunners are their own brothers, sons, nephews, who will not check their gallop an instant for that fact; for the worst thing about force is that it makes its human instruments mere machines like the guns which they manoeuver," thought Don Silverio, as he answered aloud: "No; I fear there will be nothing else for them to do under any tyranny, until all the nations of the earth shall cease to send their children to be made the janissaries of the State. No alteration of existing dominions will be possible so long as the Armies exist."

Adone was silent; convinced against his will, and therefore convinced without effect or adhesion.

He dared not tell his friend of the passionate propaganda which he had begun up and down the course of the Edera, striving to make these stocks and stones stir, striving to make the blind see, the deaf hear, the infirm rise and leap.

"Let us go and make music," said the priest at last. "That will not harm any one, and will do our own souls good. It is long since I heard your voice."

"It will be longer," thought Adone, as he answered: "Excuse me, sir; I cannot think of any other thing than this great evil which hangs over us. There is not one of our country people who does not curse the scheme. They are frightened and stupid, but they are angry and miserable. Those who are their spokesmen, or who ought to be, do not say what they wish, do not care what they wish, do not ask what they wish. They are the sons of the soil, but they count for nothing. If they met to try and do anything for themselves, guards -- soldiery -- would come from a distance, they say, and break up the meetings, and carry those who should speak away to some prison. The Government approves the theft of the water: that is to be enough."

"Yet public meeting has been a right of the people on the Latin soil ever since the Cæsars."

"What matter right, what matter wrong? No one heeds either."

"We must help ourselves."

He spoke sullenly and under his breath. He did not dare to say more clearly what was in his thoughts.

"By brute force?" said Don Silverio. "That were madness. What would be the number of the able-bodied men of all three communes? Let us say two thousand; that is over the mark. What weapons would they have? Old muskets, old fowling-pieces, and not many of those; their scythes, their axes, their sticks. A single battalion would cut them down as you mow grass. You have not seen rioters dispersed by trained troops. I have. I have seen even twenty carabineers gallop down a street full of armed citizens, the carabineers shooting right and left without selection; and the street, before they had ridden two hundred yards, was empty except for a few fallen bodies which the horses trampled. You can never hope to succeed in these days with a mere _jacquerie_. You might as well set your wheatsheaves up to oppose a field battery."

"Garibaldi," muttered Adone, "he had naught but raw levies!"

"Garabaldi was an instinctive military genius, like Aguto, like Ferruccio, like Gian delle Bande Neri, like all the great Condottieri. But he would probably have rotted in the Spielberg, or been shot in some fortress of the Quadrilateral, if he had not been supported by that proclamation of Genoa and campaign of Lombardy, which were Louis Napoleon's supreme errors in French policy."

Adone was silent, stung by that sense of discomfiture and mortification which comes upon those who feel their own inability to carry on an argument. To him Garibaldi was superhuman, fabulous, far away in the mists of an heroic past, as Ulysses to Greek youths.

"You, sir, may preach patience," he said sullenly. "It is no doubt your duty to preach it. But I cannot be patient. My heart would choke in my throat."

Don Silverio looked him straight in the face.

"What is it you intend to do?"

"I tell you that you can do nothing, my son."

"How know you that, reverend? You are a priest, not a man."

A faint red colour came over Don Silverio's colourless face.

"One may be both," he said simply. "You are distraught, my son, by a great calamity. Try and see yourself as other see you, and do not lead the poor and ignorant into peril. Will the Edera waters be freer because your neighbours and you are at the galleys? The men of gold, who have the men of steel behind them, will be always stronger than you."

"God is over us all," said Adone.

Don Silverio was silent. He could not refute that expression of faith, but in his soul he could not share it; and Adone had said it, less in faith than in obstinacy. He meant to rouse the country if he could, let come what might of the rising.

Who could tell the issue? A spark from a poor man's hearth had set a city in flames before now.

"How can you think me indifferent?" said Don Silverio. "Had I no feeling for you should I not feel for myself? Almost certainly my life will be doomed to end here. Think you that I shall see with callousness the ruin of this fair landscape, which has been my chief consolation through so many dreary years? You, who deem yourself so wholly without hope, may find solace if you choose to take it. You are young, you are free, all the tenderest ties of life can be yours if you choose; if this home be destroyed you may make another where you will. But I am bound here. I must obey; I must submit. I cannot move; I cannot alter or renew my fate; and to me the destruction of the beauty of the Edera valley will be the loss of the only pleasure of my existence. Try and see with my eyes, Adone; it may help you to bear your burden."

But he might as well have spoken to the water itself, or to the boulders of its rocks, or to the winds which swept its surface.

"It is not yours," said Adone, almost brutally. "You were not born here. You cannot know! Live elsewhere? My mother and I? Sooner a thousand times would we drown in Edera!"

The water was golden under the reflections of the sun as he spoke; the great net was swaying in it, clear of the sword rush and iris; a kingfisher like a jewel was threading its shallows; there was the fresh smell of the heather and the wild tulips on the air.

"You do not know what it is to love a thing! -- how should you? -- you, a priest!" said Adone.

Don Silverio did not reply. He went on down the course of the stream.

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All that day the people of Ruscino crowded round the Presbytery."What of the Edera water, sir?" they asked him a hundred times in the shrill cries of the women, in the rude bellow of the men, in the high-pitched, dissonant clamour of angry speakers. And all the day his patience and kindness were abused, and his nerves racked and strained, in the effort to persuade them that the river which ran beneath their walls was no more theirs than the stars which shone above it.It was hopeless to bring home to their intelligence either the invalidity of their claim, or the
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