1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

. (page 10 of 12)
Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 10 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of black bread.

Then she went on with her work, which was
that of cutting grass for the cattle. She hated
work. She was seventeen years old, not very

213



TONIA .-

pretty, but well made and well featured. She
had an aquiline profile, a rosy mouth with snow-
white teeth, and a fair skin, made to glow like a
ripe apricot by the sun. She had abundant
auburn hair, which was now hidden away under
a large cotton handkerchief of orange colour,
which came over her face and covered her
shoulders and bosom ; she wore a blue cotton
frock, very short, and on her bare feet were
wooden shoes. She cut and slashed recklessly
at the long grass, forgetting to be afraid of the
snakes in it, so much occupied was she by the
thought of the shawl. She cut thorns and nettles
and hemlock indifferently with the grasses, and
crammed them all into the basket beside her.
Then, when it was full, she swung it on her back
by its bit of cord and went down the grass path
towards the house where she lived, of which only
the red-brown, lichen-covered tiles were visible
amongst the foliage of fruit and walnut trees.
Tonia, which was the abbreviation of Antoinetta,
was a young woman who could keep her own
counsel. The shawl remained in her pocket, and
the secret of its discovery on her mind, unknown
and untold, whilst she joined her people in the
noonday meal.

214



TONIA

There were present her father, Dario FoUani
by name, and her three brothers, black and wet
with sun and toil and perspiration ; her mother,
a woman who at forty looked sixty, with sagging
breast, wrinkled face, and rough grey hair ; her
elder and younger sisters, Camilla and Pia, and
the youngest of all the family, a ruddy, curly,
five-year-old male called Tito. There was one
member of the family absent ; her father's father.
" Where is Nonno ? " asked Tonia.
" He is gone to the mill ; he will be back to-
morrow ; he got a lift in the carrier's cart," her
mother answered her.

Tonia ate her bean-soup in silence. Nonno
was the only person she respected in the
world, and the only one with whom she took
counsel.

There was some desultory talk amongst the
men, but not much ; the jaws moved chiefly to
eat, and then closed on wooden pipes ; the mother
with a groan took up her dibble and went to sow
melon-plants ; the children ran off to school, or
what they called school, which was to play in
the dust of the highway with their fellows, stone
the birds, and if they were in luck, steal cress or
lettuce or unripe gooseberries. Tonia carried

215



TONIA

her basket of grass into the cow-house, where the
week-old calves, only allowed to approach their
mothers for two half-hours in each twenty-four
hours, were moaning piteously, and being ans-
wered by the lamentations of the cows. Tonia
gave them no heed ; she put her load into a
corner, and then, being sure of no witnesses, drew
the yellow shawl out of her pocket and gazed on
it by the dim light of the stable.

It must have belonged to some lady. There
were ladies up at the big villas scattered among
the pine woods and distant hills, and now and
then, very rarely, such people passed through the
fields walking for health or going out sketching.
It was a lady's pretty trifle, to put round her
throat when the wind rose or the clouds darkened.
Tonia knew quite well that she ought to take it
down to the police-station in the little town six
miles away, where her father went with his pigs
and his fowls and his cabbages ; but she had no
intention of doing anything so simple. She
meant to keep it. She was very fond of dress ;
she ate her heart out with envy of them when
she saw the richer peasantry, at church, with
their leather shoes, their silver pins, their sleeves
cut like huge gourds. She had never worn

216



TONIA

anything but the clogs cut out of a bit of deal,
and the gowns stitched by her mother and sister,
plain things made like the Holy Virgin's in old
paintings, with the skirts stitched on to the
waistband. There was a broken looking-glass
nailed up on one of the walls of the cow-house.
She had put it there for her own pleasure, and
she tied the golden shawl on over her curls and
looked at herself, and then draped it round her
shoulders and made believe to be a duchess
going to the theatre, and then again wound it
about her over her hair, and thought how well
her skin glowed, ruddy and blooming as it was,
against the bright floss silk.

Suddenly a brown arm went round her throat
and drew her head back, while warm lips kissed
her own.

*' Linto !" she cried, half angry, half delighted,
as she pushed the arm off her throat. Linto
was a sturdy, dark-eyed, handsome youth, who
was paying his court to her. She hurried the
shawl away into her pocket, but not before he
had seen it.

" Where did you get that smart thing ? " he
asked ; he was quick of eye and temper.

" A lady in the town gave it me," answered

217



TONIA

Tonia. "But don't speak of it. You know
Camilla is always so jealous."

" Humph ! " said Linto. He did not believe
her, and he thought Camilla was, on the con-
trary, always good-natured and unselfish. But
he was enamoured with Tonia, and her mouth
was as fresh as a rose, and they were alone in
the dusky cow-house. He had pleasanter things
to think of than a fib, more or less. They were
but a few moments uninterrupted, for her father
came in noisily, shouldering a great mound of
grass : unmarried women are looked sharply
after in the provinces in Italy.

" Get you gone, Linto," said her father ; " 'tis
no time for philandering, with all the grass to cut
and carry up hill and down hill, and rain threaten-
ing. Get to work, Tonia, you lazy wench ! "

Tonia's face grew sullen and dark, like the
threatening cloud without, but she did not dare
to disobey. Her father drove her on before him
out of the stable and up the hillside, where the
winds were tossing the wreathed vines to and
fro. Linto lounged off to his own parents'
farm, which was on the other side of a runlet of
water and a screen of willows ; a farm where he
was one amongst twelve.

218



TONIA

His girl had lied to him, but he did not think
twice of that ; who ever minds a lie in his
country ? Lies are like daily bread. Only he
did think to himself: "If any man gave her
that yellow thing he should taste my knife when
I found him 1 "

The land lay on one of the spurs of what are
called the Carrara mountains ; it was situated
somewhat low, and the day dawned late upon
it, but it was high enough to see the sea gleam-
ing on the south-west, and in the north and
east the mists of marshes and the silvery streaks
of rivers, whose names, so dear to poets, are the
Arno and the Serchio.

The views beneath and around them were
divine, above all at sunset, but neither Linto
nor Tonia had any eyes for them.

Linto went to ladle out liquid dung over the
roots of young cauliflowers, and Tonia went to
take in hay till the sweat ran like water off her
face and soaked through her hempen shift. He
thought a good deal of her as the stench
steamed up into his nostrils unperceived, and of
how he should be able to get his people's con-
sent to marry, seventh son as he was, and so
many mouths as there already were in his

219



TONIA

parents' household to feed ; but she thought
only of the shawl which was all the while in her
pocket, as she raked and stacked and carried
the great pile of grass on her head to the place
where the poor wistful cow mothers stood in
the shafts of the waggon, muzzled and yoked,
tortured by their milk, and whining for their
children. No one in this part of the country
has either oxen or horses ; the cows do all the
labour, and go to the butcher afterwards : for
man, we are assured, had the earth made for
him.

All the afternoon she was puzzling in her
head what to do with the shawl. She dared not
keep it long in her pocket, for her mother often
turned out the girls' pockets to see that she and
her sisters had nothing there which was wrong ;
no stolen fruit, no hidden pence, no bit of finery
ill-got, no trinket from an unacknowledged
suitor. If her mother found the shawl, down
to the police in the town would it go on the
morrow ; not so much from honesty as from
apprehension ; that Tonia knew full well. The
only person whose counsel she could have asked
was away, so she put her treasure in an empty
tub, covered it with straw, and trusted to fortune

220



TONIA

with an anxious heart; for what we call trust
in fate is generally fear of it.

Linto came across the fields again to smoke
with her brothers at supper-time ; she felt afraid
that he might say something as to what he had
seen. She took no pleasure in his company,
and she answered his jokes roughly. When she
got upstairs, she could not sleep, though she
was tired ; she could think of nothing but the
shawl in the tub by the well. Rats might
gnaw it, cats might claw it, hens might lay in it,
rain might fall on it : what a fool she had been
not to put it under some shelter ! She got up
and tried to go down the ladder which served
for a stair, that she might get out and go and
look at it ; but her mother heard a noise
through the wall, and called sharply to know
who was moving. Tonia slunk swiftly back to
her pallet, and dared not stir again until in the
dawn, with the Ave Maria chimes coming over
the hills, every one awoke and rose.

Under pretence of seeking for eggs, she, un-
noticed, got her treasure out of the tub and put
it again in her pocket. It was not hurt in any
way, only some bits of straw had caught in it.
"Nonno will know what to do with it," she

221



TONIA

said to herself, as she carried some eggs she had
really found to her mother with an elaborate
ostentation of honesty.

In the still, cool hours of early morning her
grandfather arrived, brought by the miller's
men on a pile of sacks behind two buffaloes,
but she could not get a word alone with him
all the forenoon ; it was not till after the noon-
day meal that she found him alone with his
pipe in a shady corner where some myrtle-
bushes grew behind the cow-house. He was a
very old man, and for twenty years of his early
life had been a smuggler by choice on that
distant blue sea which sparkled under the sun
in the south-west. He was very proud of that
time and of the men he had killed in it ; had
" made cold " in his own figurative language.
He was bent in two, and black as a bit of
charcoal, but his eyes were sharp and his
senses were clear. To Tonia, to all his children
and grandchildren, indeed, he was an oracle.
He scoffed at them all as poor, white-livered
namby-pamby poltroons, who had never done
more than pick a quarrel in a wine-shop.

The old man had seen a great deal of various
goods in his contraband days, and when she

222



TONIA

showed him the shawl he knew its origin and
value.

"Sell it, my dear; sell it," he said to her.
" 'Tis a pretty trifle, and comes from the Indies."

" But I want to keep it, Nonno ! I want to
go to church in it next Sunday ; and I daren't,"
said Tonia, with tears trembling in her voice.
" I thought I would say you gave it me ? "

" They'd know better than to believe that,"
replied the old man. *' They know I've only got
my tobacco money, and that I shouldn't spend
any of it on you ; they'd cut me short of it if
they thought I did. Sell it ! sell it ! sell it ! "

" No ! " sobbed Tonia.

The old man chuckled.

" You've got my blood in you. You like what
comes left-handed. Where did you find it,
Tonia?"

" On our vines ; 'tis mine ! "

"'Tis the foreign Princess's up yonder, I am
thinking ; she walks past here now and then."

Tonia winced and twisted her apron ; she had
had the same thought.

" Take it to her ; you'll get something," sug-
gested her grandsire. 33ut she sobbed hysteri-
cally.

223



TONIA

" No, no, no ! "

She clung to her treasure-trove passionately.
Possession was law ; she had looked so well in
it, with its shining gold about her dark hair and
peach-like face. The old man had but little
warmth left in his dry veins, but the little he had
was for her. He turned the matter over in his
mind.

" Take it to the Presto," he said at last. " It
will be safe there, you'll get a little money on it ;
and you'll take it out when you like, when time
has passed and there's no danger. You go in
with the salad to-morrow. Get away by your-
self and go to the Presto."

The Presto is the State pawning-place, a
branch of which respectable institution is to be
found in every town.

*' Give a name not your own," he added, " and
stitch the ticket they'll give you inside your
shift."

Tonia stood irresolute, listening nervously to
any sound, twisting her apron round and round,
wondering how she should find the Presto in the
town, of which she knew little except the vege-
table-market, which was outside the gates in the
ruins of a Latin amphitheatre.

224



TONIA

" Pawn it," said tlie old man, stuffing more
tobacco in his pipe ; " you can't hide it here,
and you'll get five francs at the Presto, and still
keep the thing."

" Five francs ! " said Tonia, with a deep breath ;
she had never had as much as a whole franc of
her own in her life,

" Ten, perhaps. There's a lot of gold in it,"
said her adviser. His sight was dim ; but he
still knew a good thing and a pretty thing when
he saw them.

"There isn't any danger .-' " asked Tonia.

" None in life," said Nonno. " The Presto
doesn't ask any questions ; no more than the fine
folks used to ask where the French silks and the
French brandies I took them came from ; not
they, not they, my dear. But mind your father
don't see the thing," he added. " He is a poor,
white-livered soul, is your father, and his
stomach turns mighty soon ; men who can
read are always like that."

Tonia was comforted, but nervous. She knew
that it would be better to give the shawl to her
parents, and let them do what they saw fit ; but
she could not bring herself to surrender it. What
use to have found the shawl unless she gained

225 Q



TONIA

some pleasure and profit out of it? To get
money on it, and yet to have it always for her
own, seemed the acme of utility to her. It was
only Nonno who ever thought of such clever
things. He might be palsied and purblind and
have one foot in the grave, and wander in his
talk sometimes, but he was cleverer than all of
them, old as he was. Reverence for age is not
a common virtue in Italy, but Nonno compelled
it from his descendants ; he was so crafty and so
cruel, and all the hillside knew that in his young
days he had strangled a coastguard or knifed a
spy as easily as you squash a frog, or crush a
snail, and yet had managed so well that he had
never spent an hour in jail. His comrades had
gone in his place, as he often remembered with
a cheerful chuckle.

He liked her better than Camilla. Camilla
was afraid of him, and showed it ; she shrank
from his tales of his smuggling life ; and when
he said, with a chuckle, " Li freddai " (" I made
them cold," meaning, " I slew them "), she turned
pale and went away. Tonia, on the contrary,
joined in his mirth, and would listen for the
twentieth time with unflagging interest to his
story of how he had dashed out the brains of

226



TONIA

the young coastguard on the lugger-deck with
the butt of his gun, or of how he had cut
the throat of a spy with his knife one hot
summer night on the beach by the light of the
stars. " Ah ! those had been good times," he
said ; " men were men then " ; and Tonia always
listened greedily, and wished that she had
lived then, and seen the blood run amongst the
shingle.

There was a good deal of stabbing still ; no
cattle fair or horse fair passed off without its
quarrel. Roughly cut in deal, and painted with
pitch, there were new black crosses raised on the
turf of the high-road most years, marking the
place where murder had been done ; and only
a month before this a gentleman of the neighbour-
hood who was disliked had been shot dead as he
had driven past a pine-wood, and public sym-
pathy had screened and sheltered his assassin.
But all these things seemed trivial to her. She
did not see them ; she only heard of them. In
Nonno's days, if she could believe him, men could
scarcely smoke their pipes in peace if the moon
had moved into the light of morning without
seeing some enemy or some rival lying face up-
ward on the sea-sand or the hill-thyme.

227



TONIA

That night Tonia left the shawl once more to
the shelter of the tub, and tossed restlessly on
her mattress through the early dark hours. Her
salads were all cut and packed ready for the
market, and she had nothing to do except to get
up at four o'clock and go down with her elder
brother to the town. She had placed her baskets
of lettuce and endive close to the tub, and it was
no hard matter to take the shawl out unperceived
in the grey, dusky dawn, when there was no one
near but the cat, and slip it once more in her
pocket.

" Buy me some sewing-thread from the shop,
Tonia," cried her sister Camilla, opening a case-
ment in the dark. Her voice made Tonia start
and turn cold, but the errand was welcome, for
it would give her an excuse to go into the streets.
A little later she was on the road with her
brother Domenico, her great tray-likc basket
balanced on her head, her feet stepping firmly
in their wooden zoccoli ; the boy had his skip
upon his back filled with cabbages and marrows.
It was dark, and the stars were dim, for it was
cloudy weather.

Out of the darkness and the rows of the vines
sprang Linto with a shout.

228



TONIA

" I'm coming too, sai ! " he cried, as he jumped
the ditch.

There was no light by which to see her face,
or he would have seen its disconcerted gloom.
How would she be able to get rid of him in the
town ? He was so merry himself that he did
not notice the want of any greeting from her.
He had to carry a broken rotatory-pump to be
mended, and had ingeniously delayed the errand
to coincide with hers.

Their wooden shoes covered the miles rapidly,
while with every furlong the gleam of dawn
brightened and broadened until, before they
reached the gate, the day had come. They had
the usual tedious, weary, useless waiting in the
road to undergo in common with others, the
same insolence and injustice to endure from
the weighers and tax-takers, the same hunger
and thirst and fatigue and useless inaction, and
the morning was warm before they were free to
pass through the turnstiles and go into the
centre of the little city.

Tonia would not trust her sales to either her
brother or her betrothed : in matters of interest
it is best not to trust your nearest and dearest.
She had a knack of selling well, of putting the

229



TON I A

best side up, and getting a centime more than
her neighbours for what was worth a centime
less. Linto, having disposed of his pump, came
back and watched her with admiration as her
basket was quickly emptied.

" Come and take a pennyworth with me," he
said in her ear ; " I'll pay for it. Come ; we'll
have a look at the shops before we go home."

She did not refuse the offered pennyworth of
wine ; and, after drinking it, she consented to
make the round of the shops — small, homely
places, which seemed marvels of magnificence
to her — but all the while she was pondering how
to get rid of Linto ; her brother was still in the
market with a half-load of cabbages unsold.
Linto, never dreaming that he was other than
desired and desirable, stuck close to her, his hat
on the back of his head, his brown face flushed
by the wine. At last, in front of the cathedral,
fortune favoured her : there was a crowd round
a Cheap- Jack. Linto pushed into the thick of
it, very eager to get something for nothing.
She gave him the slip, and, carried by the press
of country people, hurried round to the back of
the Duomo. There, true enough, was the long
building with a grey arcade, of which Nonno

230



TONIA

had spoken. She was not shy. She asked a
woman if that were the pawning-place.

" Yes, yes," said the woman. " Have you
anything to pledge ? I can take it in for you if
you like."

Tonia shook her head and walked herself
through the great gloomy arch of this temple
of Plutus under a paternal Government. She
joined a string of anxious and sad-looking
people, some ill, some fairly well, clad, but all
with pain and want written on their features.
She did not think of them ; she held her trea-
sure under her apron with both hands. The
two gendarmes, one at each end of the passage,
intimidated her. She did not know how time
went, but it seemed to her more than an hour
before her turn came at the wicket ; her heart
turned sick as she surrendered the precious
shawl to inspection. She thought one of the
gendarmes looked oddly at her ; her name was
asked, she stammered a false one ; the shawl
did not return ; they pushed across to her seven
francs, and a printed card, written on, and she
was hastily bundled away and out at an oppo-
site door to the one by which she had entered.
The doors of the Presto were opposite the

231



TONIA

northern doors of the Duomo. With a bright
inspiration she darted across the hundred yards
of stone pavement which divided the two build-
ings, and entered the cathedral, traversed the
nave from north to south, and went out into the
square again. She had the money she had
taken for her salads, which was all in pence and
half-pence, jingling in a knotted handkerchief ;
but the sum for the shawl, minus a franc, and
the pawn-ticket, were safe behind the busk of
her stiff stays ; leaving out what was necessary
to pay for the tobacco, she had stopped in a
side chapel of the Duomo to fasten it there in
safety. How wise Nonno had been ! How
shrewdly he had thought of everything ! As she
let fall the massive leather curtain behind her,
and went out, dazzled by the sunshine, Linto
caught hold of her with a shout.

" Good heavens, Tonia, where have you been
all this time?"

" I have been at Mass," said Tonia, in a tone
of severity. " You were so intent on that cheat
with his shams, that you never saw me leave
you."

" What could you want with Mass ? It's not
a holy day."

232



TONIA

" Every day is holy, if we make it so. Come,
let us get home."

Linto felt abashed, but he was not ill-pleased ;
pious wives are as wholesome to their husbands
as sulphur is to the vines.

They found Domenico, who was rueful be-
cause he had only got rid of his cabbages at
next to nothing, and they all went home on
their strong young legs, Tonia stopping at a
shop near the gate to buy the sewing-thread and
the ounce of tobacco, paying for the latter with
part of the Presto money, for she had no other.

"She is a good girl," thought Linto, and
when Domenico was walking a little in front of
them, he put his arm round her shoulders, and
kissed her heartily.

When she got home she gave the old man
his tobacco, but she did not think it necessary to
tell him how much she had received on the shawl.

" They only gave me three francs," she said,
when they met in secrecy behind the cow-house ;
"but I spent one and six soldi for your tobacco."

" Let me see the ticket," said the old man,
suspiciously ; but he was very dim of sight, and
could not make out the numerals ; he was
obliged to take her word. Besides, he was for

233



TONIA

the moment easy to content, being pleased with
himself for his perspicacity in sending her to
the Presto.

For a few days Tonia was as well pleased as
he. She had six franc-notes stitched in her
shift, and the pretty thing was safe down in the
town. She was very proud of herself, was rude
to her mother, pert to her sister, unkind to the
children, and imperious with Linto, assuming
the airs natural to a person who has risen in
the world. She admired her own astuteness,
and considered herself an owner of property.
She walked with her head so high that her
brothers asked if the house-door should be
heightened for her ; but for such silly jokes she
had no reply. The cat suffered at her hands,
and the chickens and the pigs, for she had seen
herself with that silken shawl about her curls
and had seen that she was too good for farm-
work. Linto began to doubt her piety, or felt
that at heart it was not sweet towards others ;
but he was in love, and every evening, when the
nightingales were singing in the myrtle-bushes
and walnut-trees, he came across the fields to
sit with her on the bench or walk with her
where the moonlight shone.

234



TONIA

" A good lad, Linto," said her father ; " I


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 10 of 12)