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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter XIX
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter XIX Post by :kenonline Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1944

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter XIX

The people of Ruscino went early to their beds; the light of the oil-wicks of the Presbytery was always the only light in the village half an hour after dark. Nerina went uncomplainingly to hers in the dark stone house within the walls where she had been told that it was her lot to dwell. She did not break her fast; she drank great draughts of water; then, with no word except a brief good-night, she went to the sacking filled with leaves which the old woman Alaida pointed out for her occupancy.

"She is soon reconciled," thought the old crone. "They have trained her well."

Relieved of all anxiety, she herself lay down in the dark and slept. The girl seemed a good, quiet, tame little thing, and said her paternosters as she should do. But Nerina did not sleep. She was stifled in this little close room with its one shuttered window. She who was used to sleeping with the fresh fragrant air of the dark fields blowing over her in her loft, felt the sour, stagnant atmosphere take her like a hand by the throat.

As soon as she heard by the heavy breathing of the aged woman that she was sunk in the congested slumber of old age, the child got up noiselessly -- she had not undressed -- and stole out of the chamber, taking the door key from the nail on which Alaida had hung it. A short stone stair led down to the entrance. No one else was sleeping in the house; all was dark, and she had not even a match or a tinder-box; but she felt her way to the outer door, unlocked it, as she had been used to unlock the door at the Terra Vergine, and in another moment ran down the steep and stone street. She laughed as the wind from the river blew against her lips, and brought her the fragrance of Adone's fields.

"I shall be in time!" she thought, as she ran down a short cut which led, in a breakneck descent, over the slope of what had once been the glacis of the fortress, beneath the Rocca to the bridge.

The usual spot for the assembly of the malcontents was a grassy hollow surrounded on all sides with woods, and called the tomb of Asdrubal, from a mound of masonry which bore that name, although it was utterly improbable that Asdrubal, who had been slain a hundred miles to the northeast on the Marecchia water, should have been buried in the Valdedera at all. But the place and the name were well known in the district to hundreds of peasants, who knew no more who or what Asdrubal had been than they knew the names of the stars which form the constellation of Perseus.

Adone had summoned his friends to be there by nightfall, and he was passing from the confines of his own lands on to those of the open moors when the child saw him. He was dressed in his working clothes, but he was fully armed: his gun on his shoulder, his great pistols in his sash, his dagger in his stocking. They were ancient arms; but they had served in matters of life and death, and would so serve again. On the three-edged blade of the sixteenth-century poignard was a blood-stain more than a century old which nothing would efface.

"Nerina!" he cried as the girl stopped him, and was more distressed than pleased to see her there; he had not thought of her.

In the moonlight, under the silvery olive foliage her little sunburnt face and figure took a softer and more feminine grace. But Adone had not sight for it. For him she was but a sturdy little pony, who would trot till she dropped.

He was cruel as those who are possessed by one intense and absorbing purpose always are: he was cruel to Nerina as Garibaldi, in the days of Ravenna, was cruel to Anita.

But through that intense egotism which sees in all the world only its own cause, its own end, its own misery, there touched him for one instant an unselfish pity for the child of whom he had made so mercilessly his servant and his slave.

"Poor little girl! I have been hard to you, I have been cruel and unfair," he said, as a vague sense of her infinite devotion to his cause moved him as a man may be moved by a dog's fidelity.

"You have been good to me," said Nerina; and from the bottom of her heart she thought so. "I came to see if you wanted me," she added humbly.

"No, no. They think ill of you for going my errands. Poor child, I have done you harm enough. I will not do you more."

"You have done me only good."

"What! When my mother has turned you out of the house!"

"It is her right."

"Let it be so for a moment. You shall come back. You are with old Alaida?"

"Yes."

"How can you be out to-night?"

"She sleeps heavily, and the lock is not hard."

"You are a brave child."

"Is there nothing to do to-night?"

"No, dear."

"Where do you go?"

"To meet the men at the tomb of Asdrubal."

"Who summoned them?"

"I myself. You must be sad and sorry, child, and it is my fault."

She checked a sob in her throat. "I am not far away, and old Alaida is kind. Let me go on some errand to-night?"

"No, my dear, I cannot."

He recalled the words of the message which he had received from Don Silverio that day. He knew the justice of this message, he knew that it only forbade what all humanity, hospitality, manhood, and compassion forbade to him. One terrible passion had warped his nature, closed his heart, and invaded his reason to the exclusion of all other thoughts or instincts; but he was not yet so lost to shame as, now that he knew what he had done, to send out a female creature into peril to do his bidding.

"Tell me, then, tell me," pleaded Nerina, "when will anything be done?"

"Whenever the foreign labourers come to work on the water we shall drive them away."

"But if they will not go?"

"Child, the river is deep; we know its ways and its soundings; they do not."

Her great bright eyes flashed fire: an unholy joy laughed in them.

"We will baptize them over again!" she said; and all her face laughed and sparkled in the moonlight. There was fierce mountain blood in her veins; it grew hot at the thought of slaughter like the juice of grapes warmed in an August noon.

He laughed slow, savagely. "Their blood will be on their own heads!"

He meant to drive them out, swamp them in the stream, choke them in the sand, hunt them in the heather; make every man of them rue the day that ever they came thither to meddle with the Edera water.

"Curse them! Their blood will be on their own heads!" he said between his teeth. He was thinking of the strange men who it was said would be at work on the land and the water before the moon, young now, should be in her last quarter; men hired by the hundreds, day-labourers of the Romagna and the Puglie, leased by contract, marshalled under overseers, different in nothing from slaves who groan under the white man's lash in Africa.

"Let me come with you to-night," she pleaded again. "I will hide in the bushes. The men shall not see me."

"No, no," he said sternly. "Get you back to your rest at Ruscino. I did wrong, I did basely to use your ignorance and abuse your obedience. Get you gone, and listen to your priest, not to me."

The child, ever obedient, vanished through the olive boughs. Adone went onward northward to his tryst: his soul was dark as night; it enraged him to have been forced by his conscience and his honour to obey the command of Don Silverio.

But she did not go over the bridge to Ruscino. She waited a little while then followed on his track. Gianna was right. She was a wild bird. She had been caught and tamed for a time, but she was always wild. The life which they had given her had been precious and sweet to her, and she had learned willingly all its ways; but at the bottom of her heart the love of liberty, the live of movement, the love of air and sky and freedom were stronger than all else. She was of an adventurous temper also, and brave like all Abruzzese, and she longed to see one of those moonlit midnight meetings of armed men to which she had escaped from Alaida's keeping, she could not have forced herself to go back out of this clear, cool, radiant night into the little, close, dark sleeping-chamber. No, not if Don Silverio himself had stood in her path with the cross raised. She was like a year-old lioness who smells blood.

She knew the way to the tomb of Asdrubal, even in the darkness, as well as he did. It was situated in a grassy hollow surrounded by dense trees, some five miles or more from the Terra Vergine, on the north bank of the river. The solitude was absolute, and the place large enough to permit the assemblage of several scores of men.

Adone went on, unconscious that he was followed; he went at a swinging trot, easy and swift; the sinews of his lithe limbs were strong as steel, and his rage, all aflame, lent lightning to his feet.

She allowed him to precede her by half a mile or more, for if he had seen her his anger would have been great, and she feared it. She went skipping and bounding along, where the path was clear, in all the joy of liberty and rapture of the fresh night air. The hours spent in Alaida's close house in the village had been as terrible to her as his hours in a birdcatcher's hamper are to a wild bird. Up at Ansalda she had always been out of doors, and at the Terra Vergine she had gone under a roof only to eat and sleep.

The moon, which was in the beginning of its first quarter, had passed behind some heavy clouds; there was little light, for there were as yet few stars visible, but that was not matter to her. She knew her way as well as any mountain hare.

The pungent odour of the heaths through which she went seemed to her like a draught of wine, the strong sea breeze which was blowing bore her up like wings. She forgot that she was once more a homeless waif, as she had been that day when she had sat under the dock leaves by the Edera water. He had told her she should go back; she believed him: that was enough. Madonna Clelia would forgive, she felt sure, for what harm had she done? All would be well; she would feed the oxen again, and go again to the spring for water, and all would be as it had been before -- her thoughts, her desires, went no farther than that. So, with a light heart she followed him gaily, running where there was open ground, pushing hard where the heather grew, going always in the same path as Adone had done.

All of a sudden she stopped short, in alarm.

The night was still; the spring of the river was loud upon it, owls hooted and chuckled, now and then a fox in the thickets barked. There are many sounds in the open country at night; sounds of whirring pinions, of stealthy feet, of shrill, lone cries, of breaking twigs, of breaking ferns, of little rivulets unheard by day, of timid creatures taking courage in the dark. But to these sounds she was used; she could give a name to every one of them. She heard now what was unfamiliar to her in these solitudes; she heard the footsteps of men; and it seemed to her, all around her, as though in a moment of time, the heath and bracken and furze grew alive to their tryst with Adone? She did not think so, for she had never known the few men in the village summon courage to join the armed meetings of the men of the valley. She stopped and listened, as a pole-cat which was near her did; the sounds were those of human beings, breathing, creeping, moving under the heather.

Suddenly she felt some presence close to her in the dark; she held her breath; she shrank noiselessly between the plumes of heath. If they were men of the country they would not hurt her, but if not -- she was not sure.

Near her was an open space where the wild growth had been recently cut. The men debouched on to it from the undergrowth, there was a faint light from the stars on that strip of rough grass; by it she saw that they were soldiers, five in number.

A great terror cowed her, like a hand of ice at her heart, a terror not for herself, but for those away there, in the green hollow by the three stone-pines.

They were soldiers; yes, they were soldiers; the sounds she had heard had been the crushing of the plants under their feet, the click of their muskets as they moved; they were soldiers! Where had they come from? There were no soldiers at Ruscino.

The only time when she had ever seen soldiers had been when the troopers had captured Baruffo. These were not troopers; they were small men, on foot, linen-clad, moving stealthily, and as if in fear; only the tubes of their muskets glistened in the light of the great planets.

She crouched down lower and lower, trying to enter the ground and hide; she hoped they would go onward, and then she could run -- faster than they -- and reach the hollow, and warn Adone and his fellows. She had no doubt that they came to surprise the meeting; but she hoped from their pauses and hesitating steps that they were uncertain what way to take.

"If you come to me to lead you -- aye! I will lead you! -- you will not forget where I lead!" she said to herself, as she hid under the heather; and her courage rose, for she saw a deed to be done. For they were now very near to the place of meeting, and could have taken the rebels like mice in a trap, if they had only known where they were; but she, watching them stand still, and stare, and look up to the stars, and then north, south, east, and west, saw that they did not know, and that it might be possible to lead them away from the spot by artifice, as the quail leads the sportsman away from the place where her nest is hidden.

As the thought took shape in her brain a sixth man, a sergeant who commanded them, touched her with his foot, stooped, clutched her, and pulled her upward. She did not try to escape.

"What beast of night have we here?" he cried. "Spawn of devils, who are you?"

Nerina writhed under the grip of his iron fingers, but she still did not try to escape. He cursed her, swore at her, shook her, crushed her arm black and blue. She was sick with pain, but she was mute.

"Who are you?" he shouted.

"I come down from the mountains to work here in summer."

"Can any of you speak her dialect?" cried the sergeant to his privates: the sergeant was a man of Milan.

One man answered, "I come from Paganica; it is much the same tongue there as in these parts."

"Ask her the way, then."

The soldier obeyed.

"What is the way to the Three Pines? -- to the tomb of Asdrubal?"

"The way is long," said Nerina.

"Do you know it?"

"I know it."

"Have you heard tell of it?"

"Yes."

"That men meet at night there?"

"Yes."

"Meet this night there?"

"Yes."

"You know where the tomb of Asdrubal is?"

"Have I not told you?"

The soldier repeated her answer translated to his sergeant; the latter kept his grasp on her.

"Ask her if she will take us there."

The soldier asked her and translated her answer.

"If we give her two gold pieces she will take us there."

"Spawn of hell! I will give her nothing. But if she do not lead us aright I will give her a bullet for her breakfast."

The soldier translated to Nerina: "He will give you two gold pieces if you guide us aright; and you need have no fear; we are honest men and the king's servants."

"I will guide the king's servants."

"You are sure of the way?"

"Is the homing pigeon sure of his?"

"Let us be off," said the sergeant. "A bullet for her if she fail."

He had little pleasure in trusting to this girl of the Abruzzo hills, but he and his men were lost upon these moors, and might grope all night, and miss the meeting, and fail to join his comrades and surprise those who gathered at it. He reckoned upon fear as a sure agent to keep her true, as it kept his conscripts under arms.

"Bid him take his hand off me," said Nerina, "or I do not move."

The private translated to his superior. "She prays of your mercy to leave her free, or she cannot pass through the heather."

The sergeant let her go unwillingly, but pushed her in front of him, and levelled his revolver at her.

"Tell her, if she try to get away, I fire."

"Tell him I know that," said Nerina.

She was not afraid, for a fierce, unholy joy was in her veins; she could have sung, she could have laughed, she could have danced; she held them in her power; they had come to ensnare Adone, and she had got them in her power as if they were so many moles!

They tied her hands behind her; she let them do it; she did not want her hands. Then she began to push her way doggedly, with her head down, to the south. The tomb of Asdrubal was due north; she could see the pole star, and turned her back to it and went due south.

Three miles or more southward there was a large _pollino_, or swamp as L'Erba Molle, the wet grass; the grass was luxuriant, the flora was varied and beautiful; in appearance it was a field, in reality it was a morass; to all people of the Valdedera it was dreaded and avoided, as quicksand are by the seashore.

She went on as fast as the narrow path, winding in and out between the undergrowth, permitted her to go; the armed soldiers, heavy laden with their knapsacks and their boots, following her clumsily, and with effort, uttering curses on their ill-luck and their sleepless night.

The stars were now larger and brighter; the darkness was lightened, the river was running away from its southern birthplace in the hills which lie like couched lions about the feet of the Gran Sasso. She could hear its distant murmur. "They come to capture you," she said to it, "and I will kill them. They shall choke and go down, down, down -- "

Her heart leapt within her; and she went with the loaded revolver pointed at her from behind as though she went to her bridal-bed.

"Where are you taking us, vile little bitch?" the sergeant cried, and the soldier from Paganica translated: "Pretty little brown one, whither do you go?"

"I take you straight," said Nerina, "only you go to clumsily, for men in these parts should not wear leather upon their feet."

The soldiers sighed assent, and would willingly have gone barefoot, and the sergeant swore in tones of thunder because he could not understand what she said.

Before long they came in sight of the Erba Molle; it looked like a fair, peaceful pasture, with thousands of sword rushes golden upon its surface. The light of the stars, which was now brilliant, shone upon its verdure; there were great flocks of water-birds at roost around it, and they rose with shrill cries and great noise of wings, with a roar as though a tide were rising.

Across it stretched a line of wooden piles which served as a rude causeway to those who had the courage and the steadiness to leap from one to another of them. It was not three times in a season that any one dared to do so. Adone did so sometimes; and he had taught Nerina how to make the passage.

"Pass you after me, and set your feet where I set mine," said Nerina to the little soldier of the Abruzzo, and she put down her foot on the first pile, sunk almost invisible under the bright green slime, where thousands of frogs were croaking.

The soldier of the Abruzzo said to his superior, "She says we must set our feet where she sets hers. We are quite near now to the tomb of the barbarian."

Nerina, with the light leap of a kid, bounded from pile to pile. They thought she went on solid ground; on meadow grass. The sergeant and his men crowded on to what they thought was pasture. In the uncertain shadows and scarce dawning light, they did not see the row of submerged timber. They sank like stones in the thick ooze; they were sucked under to their knees, to their waists, to their shoulders, to their mouths; the yielding grasses, the clutching slime, the tangled weed, the bottomless mud, took hold of them; the water-birds shrieked and beat their wings; the hideous clamour of dying men answered them.

Nerina had reached the other side of the morass in safety, and her mocking laughter rang upon their ears.

"I have led you well!" she cried to them. "I have led you well, oh servants of the king! -- oh swine! -- oh slaves! -- oh spies!-- oh hunters and butchers of men!"

And she danced on the edge of the field of death, and the light of the great planets shone upon her face.

Had she run onward at once the wood beyond she would have been saved. That instant of triumph and mockery lost her.

The sergeant had put his revolver in his teeth; he knew now that he was a dead man; the slime was up to his chin, under his feet the grass and the mud quaked, yielded, yawned like a grave.

He drew his right arm out of the ooze, seized his revolver, and aimed at the dancing, mocking, triumphant figure beyond the border of golden sword rushes. With a supreme effort he fired; then he sank under the mud and weed.

The child dropped dead on the edge of the morass.

One by one each soldier sank. Not one escaped.

The water-birds came back from their upward flight and settled again on the swamp.

Underneath it all was still, save for the loud croaking of the frogs.

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To this apple-tree field there was a high hedge of luxuriant elder and ash, myrtle and field-roses. Behind this hedge old Gianna was waiting for him; the tears were running down her face. She took the skirt of his coat between her hands. "Wait, your reverence, wait! The child is in the cattle stable."Don Silverio looked down on her a few moments without comprehension. Then he remembered."Is she there indeed? Poor little soul! She must not go to the house.""She does not dream of it, sir. Only she cannot understand why Madonna Clelia's anger is so terrible. What can I do
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