1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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La Strega i

An Anarchist 55


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La Strega, the Witch : she had been called
so these many years, this old and feeble woman
who was gathering simples in a meadow by the
side of a stream. She had names, her baptismal
name, her family name, and the name of her
dead husband ; dead so long ago in the days
of the Fifty-Eight. But no one ever called
her any of these. She was only La Strega.
Even her church-name of Pia was never heard.
People dreaded her, shunned her, despised her ;
but they sought her always after dark, when
they might not be seen by others. They had
faith in her magical and sinister powers. She
had charms for disease, for accidents, for warts,
for tumours, for snake-bites, for many other
things ; but what she was most famous for in
the neighbourhood were her imprecations and
her love-charms.

When she cursed any one under a full moon

3 B 2


it made the blood of the boldest run cold to
hear her, and when she gave a lover a bean, or
a berry, which she had charmed, he was sure
to find favour in the sight of one who had been
adamant to his prayers.

So all the hillside folks believed, and she was
horrible to them ; but she was honoured by
them, as such supernatural powers are always
loathed, yet revered, in lonely places where
superstition is rooted in the soil like the

Within a stone's-throw of her a girl was lying
by the edge of the stream, face downwards,
among the blue bugle and ragged-robin, an
empty water-barrel and a copper scoop beside


She was lying face downward, resting on her
elbows, her hands twisted in her rich auburn
hair. " To get him back ! To get him back,
I would give my soul to hell ! " she muttered,
as she twisted like a snake which has been
struck a brutal blow across the spine.

She was the laughing-stock of the country-side,
a few scattered farms lying hidden among
woods on a hillside in the Garfagnana. She was
the beauty of the district ; she was proud, wilful,



dominant, amorous, and she had been forsaken
for another woman.

rublicly forsaken ! All the world, her little
world of half a hundred souls who came together
from their scattered homesteads at the small
church on holy-days and feast-days, knew it, for
every one had known that Avellino Conti was
her damo in the fullest, sweetest meaning of that

She did not see the old woman gathering
simples near ; but the old woman saw her, and
heard her also. Her despair was so visible, her
anguish so absorbed her, that Pia, who never
spoke to a human creature by daylight, ventured
to draw near.

"What is the matter, my handsome wench? "
she ventured to ask.

The girl looked up, her face convulsed with
grief and passion. She recognized the Strega.
A shudder of disgust and fear ran through her ;
it was as if the Evil One she had invoked had
lost not a moment in replying to her. But her
desperation was stronger in her than her terror.

•' Give him back to me, and take my soul ! "
she muttered.

She clutched her hair savagely with both



hands ; she bit furiously at the stems of the
grasses with her white, even teeth ; her eyes
were dry and blazed with lurid pain. No one
was willing to be seen speaking with the evil
woman by daylight. Whoever sought her
counsels went to her, but after nightfall. But
Fedalma was in that delirium of distress and
passion which makes the mind it ravages dull
and insensible of all except itself She stared
through blinding tears at the Strega.

" Give me back my love, and take my soul ! "
she repeated.

" Come to my house to-night, and we will
see," said Pia. "Tell no one aught. Bring
four white pieces with you. Come an hour
after moonrise."

The girl was the daughter of a charcoal-
burner, known in the country as Febo Nero
(Black Phoebus) ; she had lived all her life in the
chestnut woods, under the great trees, amongst
the grass and the ling and the broom, seeing
only the sheep and the goats and their keepers
who came up to the hills of the Garfagnana in
summer. Avellino came with them, a fair, lithe,
bold youth, with a garment of goat-skins, and
a long wand in his hand, and bare feet, and a



wallet, and an accordion slung at his back, and
a bit of meadow-sweet behind his ear. Their
love-tale had been told there, under the big
trees in the hot balmy weather, with the bees
buzzing in the stillness and the flocks asleep.
Neither of them heeded the green, calm, silent
nature round them, or the blue sky of day, or
the stars throbbing in the dark. All the book
of nature, like all other books, was naught to
them ; they only read each other's eyes, they
only knew the instincts and appetites of their
young and ardent lives, and followed them as
the flocks followed theirs. But they were happy
though unreasoning, and but semi-conscious of
happiness, also, as the flocks were. All that
summer was so good — ah, heavens ! so good !
She tore up the strong dog's-foot grasses in
handfuls as she thought of it.

Then, with All Saints' Day, Avellino, with
the sheep and the goats, had gone av/ay from
the woods down to the plains, as shepherds
always do when the first bite of winter nips the
still green leaves. And he had not said to her,
" Come with me " ; he had only said, " Fiorianno
le rose ! " and laughed, meaning that their loves
would flower again like the wild roses in the


thickets. The charcoal-burner said to his girl,
*' Summer love means no marriage ; " but he did
not distress himself. The wench was a strong,
fine, helpful girl ; he was better pleased that
she should stay in his hut and help carry the
logs to the burning. The winter was like the
ice-hell of Dante to Fedalma, but she had been
sustained by the hope and the promise of spring.
" A Pasqu^ fiorianno le rose," she said to her-
self, and held her fast-beating, passionate heart
in such patience as she could, working hard at
the charcoal, because thus she tired herself and
got a dull, heavy sleep, in which her throbbing
pulses were for a while still.

With Easter the chestnuts and the early roses
also did blossom, and the flocks came up the
steep, winding paths into the higher woods,
and Avellino came with them. But in passing
he saw the white-faced girl Mercede, who sat
spinning at the lattice of the old farmhouse
by the weir, and had seen how white her throat
was where the coral circled it. For this, there-
fore, Fedalma writhed like a bruised snake
where she lay on the earth, and bit the tough
stems of the dog-grass.

The old woman said nothing more, but went



on plucking herbs when she found any which
were edible, and the girl shook herself with a
dreary yet passionate gesture, and began to
fill her water-barrel at the stream under the
flags. When it was full she raised it on to
her head and strode through the grass with
bare, wet feet, heedless of asp or adder.

Once Pia smiled to herself as she bent ov'cr
the herbs she was uprooting. Those silly
wenches, breaking their hearts over mannerless
rogues who are not worth the yellow bread
they break, and who care more for a penn'orth
of drink than for all the girls in creation ! She
knew that AveUino was a ruddy, well-built,
blue-eyed lad, strong as a young steer, and
as rough. There was no marriage-ring in his
pocket ; in his veins there was nothing but
riot and licence. What could that young fool
hope for ? When the sheep have cropped the
sweetness off a patch of pasture they move on
elsewhere, do they not? It is nature, thought
Pia, who had once, long before, dwelt in towns
and seen other suns than this which rose so
late and set so early beyond these hills. She
was content ; she had caught a simpleton.

She had no magic except her cunning and



her superior intelligence, but these sufficed to
bring such credulous fools to supply her larder,
and of all fools she liked best the amorous

" I might have said five white pieces," she
thought regretfully ; " the girl would have
procured them somehow or other."

Five pieces make a lira.

With moonrise that white night Fedalma
kept her tryst. The moon was in its third
quarter and rose late, and she left the house
stealthily by one of its unglazed windows, for
fear her father should awake and ask what she
was about, stirring at that hour ; and ran with
beating heart and nervous terror across the
two miles of wild country which separated her
hut from that of the witch.

" Here are the white pieces," she said, when
the old woman opened to her.

Pia took them with a ravenous movement
in her wrinkled, bony hand.

"What shall I do? What shall I do?"
asked the girl, with feverish impatience.

They stood face to face on the floor of beaten
mud ; the elder small and frail and bent, the
younger tall and straight and full of colour,



health, and force ; but the strong was the
suppliant and the weak was the disposer of

A tallow wick burned in a little flat tin pan
of oil and shed a fitful light on the dark brows,
the tempestuous eyes, the parted, panting lips
of the girl as she muttered, " What shall I do ?
What shall I do?"

She was ready to do anything, to give herself
away to any unnameable horror, as she had
given her white pieces into that hungry hand.
She was horribly afraid ; a nameless terror
clutched at' her heart and made it stand still ;
she believed that the place she stood in, the
air she breathed here, the fingers which clutched
her coins, were all bewitched, bedevilled, un-
speakable in their powers of evil. But passion
was stronger in her than fear.

" Tut, tut, young one ; not so fast ! " said Pi^,
with the ghost of a smile on her face. " What
you would have me do will take time "

" Time 1 "

Time ! She had thought that some familiar,
some imp, or some angel, would dart down that
moonbeam which fell across the floor, and take
his orders and herself straightway to where the



faithless lover slept on his bed of leaves amidst
his flock. Time ! Was not love a lightning,
like that white fire in storm which came none
knew whence, and lit up all the woods, and
blinded some, and perhaps slew some, and left
others alone — none knew why, except that it
was the wish and the whim of that messenger
of heaven ?

"Time? Why time?" she repeated. "He
only lived by my breath such a little while
ago ! "

" You young fool ! " thought wise Pia ; but,
aloud, she said, in a whisper, " Child, he has
been bewitched. That is easy to see. You are
fine and fair as a peach-bough in blossom, but
to him now you seem as a mere rank thistle-
head, for the lad is bewitched."

" By Mercede ? "

" By no other."

" If I killed her ? "

" That would be of no use. The spell v/ould
remain. These ills lie deeper than young things
like you can dream. Tell me all — of you, of
him, of her. Nay, have no fear. What is un-
seen about us shall not hurt you. They are
under my yoke."



Fedalma shuddered ; her eyes glanced, like a
nervous, hunted animal's, here and there around
her, from the cobweb-hung walls to the smoke-
begrimed roof of the hut, from the barred wooden
door to the hole in the roof through which the
moonlight shone down and glistened on the
white hair of the Strega as it strayed from under
her coif. What demons might not be listening?
What surety had she that the old one could keep
them harmless and invisible? There was a
faggot of knotted and crooked sticks in one
corner ; to her excited fancy they were imps
who grinned at her and waited

"Speak, or get you gone," said Pia, with
authority ; for she knew nothing, not even the
name of the faithless lover, and she needed to
know to act with any skill.

" This, then — oh, this ! " said Fedalma in des-
peration. " Listen ! My heart is within me as
a charred coal, though my breast is all flame
and a thousand snakes tear at my flesh. He
lived but through me. We were as two cherries
on one stalk. Brook-water was as wine when
we drank it from each other's lips. The sheep
alone knew. They were kind. Not one of them
bleated when we met in their fold in the dark,



soft nights. A few months ago it was still the
same with us. Oh, the blessed hours, the hot
smell of the flock, the scent of the mint and the
thyme — I shall have them in my nostrils for ever,
when I am wretched and old like you ! And
now, and now it is no more — it is like the cut
grass ; all is over ; he has no eyes but for her ;
it is for her that the door of the fold opens."

She screamed aloud, again and again, with
her torture, as though she were a lamb of the
fold brought to slaughter. Then she broke
down into a tempest of sobs.

" Be quiet, and tell me more," said the Strega,
It was many moments before Fedalma even
heard her ; many more before she was calm
enough to answer. When she could be brought
to speak with any degree of composure, the old
woman extracted from her all her brief history,
with the skill of a superior intelligence turning
a poorer one inside-out for its pleasure. She
learned, too, which was what most mattered to
her, that the girl was very poor, and could not
anyhow be made to yield much profit. Still,
one never knows ; love-sick mortals are like
those cripples who will rob, or steal, or do any-
thing under the sun to get money enough to



hang up a garland or place a candle before
their patron saint, who can make, if he will, the
lame walk and the blind see. Passion ? What
was it but the most violent of all fevers ? Pi^
had not forgotten. She, too, long, long before,
had known what it was to have the heart turn
to a cold cinder in a breast still full of flame.
She heard in silence, her small, keen eyes under
their wrinkled lids gleaming shrewdly in the
fitful light from the saucer of oil.

"You have it badly, the eternal evil," she
muttered, with a touch of pity. " Well, well j
what I can do I will."

" What can you do ? "

" 'Tis not for the like of you to know. Those
who serve me treat ill the rash and the curious,
as serves such irreverent fools aright. Wear
this between your breasts. Turn it every night
once, twice, thrice, and say, * Powers, help me !
Powers, ^help me I Powers, help me ! ' as you
turn it. Come again in a week and bring four
pieces, some onions, and a pullet whose neck
has been wrung, not cut."

She took out of a packet worn under her
skirt a black bean, and muttered over it, and
spat on it, and gave it to Fedalma, whose young,



strong hand shook like a leaf in a wind as she
took it.

" I have no money," she said woefully. " The
onions I can get, and the pullet I will try and
get ; but the money "

" Without the money do not come back,"
said the elder woman, sharply. " If you come
back without it, there is one who will leave
the mark of his talons upon you ; ay, and upon
your face, too — your handsome face that is like
a Pentecost rose."

The girl shuddered, and cowered like a beaten

" I will do what I can, mother," she said
humbly. " Is there hope ? Will there be

"Ay, like enough, if you don't anger the
ones unseen. Get you gone. Your father may
miss you, and will be down in another hour."

Fedalma undid the barred door, trembling,
and, once beyond its threshold, fled like a
hunted hare over the turf, bearing in her breast,
between her skin and her stays, the magical
black bean, which seemed to her to lacerate
her flesh with a thousand thorns. A thing of
sorcery, a gift of the Strega — a devil, for aught



she knew, shut up in that shape ! What would
her poor dead mother have said, who had been
such a pious soul ? What would the Madonna
do to her for taking part with the wicked
thus ?

But she kept the bean in her bosom never-
theless, and went on through the woods as fast
as the darkness and roughness of their paths
permitted to her. She had committed more
than a sin ; but she was ready to do worse still,
only to get him back, the thankless, worthless,
fickle, cruel knave !

The old woman Pia, left alone in her hut,
barred her door again, put the white pieces in
a bag which she kept under a stone on the
hearth, ate a sorry meal of endive and hard
crusts which bruised and pricked her toothless
gums, blew out the little light, and stretched
herself on her bed of dried leaves and heather.

" Poor wench ! " she thought ; " she has a look
of my Isola."

It was many years since her daughter Isola
had been upon the earth, many, many years,
but she lived in memory to Pia ; in that
shrivelled, hard old heart, closed to all except
the love of gain and the cunning of her trade,

17 c


there was one small place still open to a tenderer
thought. For sake of the girl's likeness to the
long-buried Isola, she said to herself that she
would try and help this poor forsaken fool.
She would rob her, because that was habit and
wisdom, but she would help her if possible —
not with her black arts, of which the Strega
knew better than any one else the worthlessness,
but with such skill as age and experience can

" But save me, saints in glory ! " she thought,
when she lay on the heather and stared up at
the stars throbbing beyond the square hole in
the roof. " 'Twere easier to pull down those
twinklers from the sky than to turn back a
man's fancy when it has had its course and fled
away. A passion spent is dead as a rotting

There are many things you can mould in
this world, but not a man's amorous fancy. She
knew Avellino by look and repute : a fine fellow
to the sight, but nothing more ; ruddy, and
with bold, bright, insolent eyes, which challenged
women to resist him if they dare : a youth who
spoiled a girl's life as indifferently as he wrung
a bird's neck or threw down on the wayside a



Iamb too young to walk, too puny to be worth
the trouble of carrying.

One day in the same week the flock of Avel-
lino was resting at noon, when the Strega came
near, timidly, lamely, with an old hoe in her
hand and an old creel on her back.

"May I pick up a little dung?" she said

Avellino was ill-pleased, but he was afraid to
refuse her — she was the Strega. She began to
rake up the damp, black droppings of the sheep.
He did not prevent her. She could call down
blindness on him or murrain on the sheep, he
thought. It was never well to cross such people.
She raked up a few of the black balls, then
stopped to breathe.

"'Tis ill to be old, young man," she said.
" You'll know that one day, if you live, comely
and strong as you be now,"

Avellino laughed.

" 'Tis far off me," he said carelessly ; then
wondered in affright, could she, maybe, smite
him into old age with a curse ? " Take a snack
of cheese, mother," he said, with a tremor in his
voice, as he cut off a slice of the ricotto, made
from the curds of the milk of his ewes. She



took it with humble thanks, and sat down on
the roots of a tree and pulled a crust from her

" 'Tis a heart as good as your handsome face
that you have, my lad," she said, with fervent

Avellino watched her witli apprehension.
She looked very old and poor and feeble ; but
people said she had such strength for evil that,
the paler and frailer and more crooked she grew,
the stronger and the wickeder grew her powers
for mischief. He was horribly frightened, and
the colour left his cheeks ; but he was fascinated ;
if he pleased her, propitiated her, might she not
have good in her gifts as well, or, at least, only
evil for others ? Her renown was great on this
hillside, though the hatred and terror of her were
still greater. He gazed at her agape. Such a
little, thin, pale, withered creature — was it pos-
sible that she had troops of devils and imps
under her orders? He would have driven his
flocks away, but he had three ewes in labour
and no one with him.

"You make many a young heart ache for
you, you rogue," said Pia, munching the edge
of the cheese.



Avellino smiled : the smile of the conquering
booby, his vanity, for a moment, being superior
to his fear.

" They're mostly fools," he said, with un-
gallant scorn, as he kicked a wether in the

" That is a hard word, boy."

"Tis a true word. Say, all fools, and 'twill
be truer."

He grinned, pleased with his own wit and
his own courage in exchanging speech with the

" Poor fools, indeed," thought Pia, " to let the
fresh dews of their dawn be drunk up by the
fierce sun of his coarse wooing I "

But, aloud, she flattered him deftly and turned
him inside-out, as was her habit. There was
little to find or to note, only a handsome lout's
triumphal conceit and unkind contempt for
what he had won and done with, and the
obstinate bent of a new fancy growing on the
ashes of those burned-out and cold. Mercedc,
she learned, was as yet obdurate, had not yet
come to the sheep-fold at nightfall, as that im-
passioned simpleton, Fedalma, had done to her
cost. Mercede was w^ise, coy, willing and no



willing, aiming at the nuptial ring and the priestly
blessing, things which for the errant shepherd
had no savour.

" If I wed her, you know, I shall leave her,"
he said candidly ; " leave her when the chestnut-
leaves fall, as sure as Noyember will come round.
There are others down in the vales, on the plains,
in the towns."

And he grinned again and bit a spike of
grass, proud of his victories as a conquering
male pigeon when it struts to and fro with ruff
erect and breast swollen with triumph.

" Mercede has brothers," said Pia, significantly.
" They'd follow you. Men are beaten or stabbed
on the plains as easily as on the hills."

"A fig for their sticks and stilettos!" said
Avellino, stoutly. " I'm a match for all three."
"In strength, ay, ay," said Pi4. "But no
one's a match for a shot fired from behind a tree
on a dark night. Mercede is like to cost you
dear, my crowing cockerel,"

Avellino was ill-pleased ; he was used to

courtships short and fierce and sweet and soon

over ; the woman paid for the pleasure of it ;

that was how things should be, in his opinion.

"You could lay a spell on them, mother?"



he said, after a time, in a tentative, frightened

" I can da many things," replied the Strega,

" You could make their knives bend like steel
and their sticks like touchwood," said Avellino,
recalling histories he had heard of her incanta-
tions. " 'Twould be a good deed, for what call
have they to come between their sister and
me } "

Pia nodded gravely.

" They will come between." After a pause,
she added, " They are three to one."

" The foul fiend take them ! " said Avellino,
and then was aghast at what he had said, for
might she not resent and revenge the mention
of her master ?

" He will take you, more like," said Pia, with
sombre emphasis.

Avellino felt his veins grow as cold as though
he were swimming in a winter flood to save his
drowning flock.

" Speak him fair for me, speak him fair,
mother," he said, with terror; "you see him
every sixth night, they say." His teeth chattered
as he spoke ; he put his hand in the pocket of



his goat-skin breeches ; he had a few coppers
there only ; he held them out shyly.

Pia clutched them ; habit was strong in her,
and her ways could not change.

" 'Tis nothing," she said, as she counted them.
" Get a crown."

" A crown ! " he repeated, with a gasp.

" Ay, a crown."

" I will make you pay through your nose,
you cur!" she thought. "And I will drive you
to the church-altar, but not with Mercede."

Avellino was dumb with conflicting emotions,
his dread of the devil and his sense of his own
impotency struggling with his poverty. He
was very poor ; he had scarcely anything he
could call his own except an old lute and his
pipe. The flock was not his, and the wage he
had as shepherd was very small.

" A crown ! a crown ! " he muttered — the
broad silver pieces of an earlier and more solid
time still circulate in remote places.

" No less. Do as you like, my pretty lad,"

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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 1 of 12)