1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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think they may marry come All Saints."

Linto knew that her people and his were all
saying this, and that, though he was so young,
his elder brothers, who intended to go to La
Plata, were willing to waive their rights in his
favour in consideration of a little money for
their voyage and outfit. But, herself, she began
to doubt. That money in her bosom seemed
to talk to her of all manner of finer things. She
hated the heat, she hated the cold, she hated
washing linen, weeding, slug-seeking, beating
linen in the water, drying it on the bushes,
gathering peas, cutting broom, stacking heather
— any and every one of the daily tasks which
were her lot, with the sun embrowning her face
and the work making hard and horny her
hands. The only thing she liked to do was to
sit still and weave hempen sheeting upstairs in
her attic, for then she could let the frame lie
idle on her lap whilst she dreamed of all the
fine life there must be in the world if only she
could get at it. The worm of discontent was
in her, as the evil of the phylloxera works in
the healthy vine, making it unsound.

After a few days of this satisfaction and

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TONIA

exultation she grew less elated, more uneasy.
After all, the shawl was no pleasure to her, shut
away down in the town, and the money was of
no use to her since she did not dare to spend it.

" What is the matter with you, Tonia ? " her
sister asked her kindly more than once.

But Tonia shook her off impatiently.

" Can't you let me alone .-' You are like a
swarm of bees buzzing in one's ears ! "

Even Nonno did not seem to her any longer
infallible. She called him in her thoughts an
old dotard. He, when he had come to the end
of the tobacco, pinched her ear,

" You should take the shawl out and sell it,"
he said to her. " What will you give me for
holding my tongue ? Nonno's mum, my pretty.
Fill his pipe for him. Fill it as often as 'tis
empty, if you want Nonno to be mum."

Tonia began to understand that the old hero
might talk to her hurt if she did not humour
him. He was fond of her, certainly, as far as
his sluggish feelings still moved at all ; but he
was fonder of good tobacco ; he had smoked
the best in the days of old, when his brigantine
had sailed on that shining stretch of sea to the
south-west, and he knew very well that what

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TONIA

the family supplied him with was chopped straw
and dried dung. She could not tell how to get
any money ; when she went in to market her
father set a price on each leaf and root she
carried, and she had to give him on her return
their value, and show what she had not sold of
them. There was no possibility of stealing a
centime unless she sold at a higher price than
the one he had set, which was not often pos-
sible ; even when she did so one of her brothers
was always at her side and knew how much she
got.

So she had to take more of the Presto money
to get the stuff for his pipe, and more and more
till there was little left.

The desire to get back the shawl grew intense
on her, but she was afraid to be seen going back
to the Presto, and, besides, she must have the
full seven francs, and something as well for
interest, before they would allow her to redeem
it, and where was she to keep it if she got it
back ? She would have to show it boldly, and
make up some tale of a friendly giver. But her
family were suspicious of her tales. They had
heard a good many of them. And Linto —
Linto, who was easily jealous — would be sure to

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TONIA

ask many tiresome questions if his curiosity was
once aroused.

" Fill my pipe, Antoinetta ! " said her grand-
father, shaking the pipe at her ; and she knew
that what he meant was: "Get me good stuff
to smoke, or I'll tell ! "

She grew to hate the sight of him, shambling
along under the vines, or sitting on the cow-
house wall with his little, sharp, black eyes,
like gimlets, seeming to bore into her very
brain.

" Get me some good tobacco for Nonno," she
said to her betrothed;

Linto demurred ; good tobacco was very
dear. But, at last, wishing to please her, he
bought half an ounce of the best he could get ;
but wishing also to stand well with the old
man, presented it himself to the hoary, aged
figure, seated doubled together in the sun.

"He knows now that you bought it!" cried
Tonia, almost in tears.

" Why shouldn't he know ? " asked Linto.
" Perhaps it'll make him like me. Wasn't that
why you wished me to get it ? "

"Yes, yes!" she said impatiently; "but I
wanted to give him some, too ! "

21^



TONIA

"Poor Tonia!" said Linto, ruefully. "I'll
try and buy some next week. I didn't think.
I haven't got a soldo left now."

" What a gaby he was ! " thought Tonia, who
had no patience with people who did not under-
stand at a gallop, taking hints as a night-jar
takes gnats on the wing.

"Tonia is always out of temper with me,"
said the young man, sadly, to Camilla, who
answered with a smile :

" People in love are always tetchy, Linto."
" Humph ! " said the young man. He doubted
Tonia's love for him; he had a glimmering
perception that if there were any suitor better
oft in the neighbourhood, Tonia would soon
send him about his business, though she was
enamoured of him in a capricious way.

" My mother is right, perhaps. Camilla is the
flax-flower and Tonia the poppy," he thought ;
he had heard this said very often at his home,
where the elder girl was the greater favourite,
but he had never attended to the comparison.

In the dusk of the evening Nonno said slyly
to her :

" Linto brought me some rare good stuff.
I've a mind to tell him, little one, what you've

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TONIA

got stitched in your stays. Fie, you mean
vixen ! grudging a poor old man his pipe."

"You smoke all day," said Tonia, out of
patience, but turning hot and cold.

"Chopped straw," grumbled Nonno. He
meant to get enough good tobacco to last him
into the winter out of her before he had done ;
and he did get it, until the francs of the Presto
were all spent.

Tonia wished she had never seen the shawl ;
her rosy face grew grey with fear, for she knew
her grandfather, if feeble on his legs and con-
fused in his memories, held on to an idea as the
cat clung to a branch where a nest was. When
the tobacco should be forthcoming no longer,
he would revenge himself on her, she was sure.

Her father was sacristan of the parish church,
and it is part of the sacristan's duties to keep
the church accounts, buy candles, wafers, bread,
brooms, anything which is wanted, and account
for such expenses to the Vicar and the parish.
A peasant is usually sacristan of his church for
a year, and this year the office had fallen to
him. He kept a little of the church money in
a bag, in a locked box, in the wide shaft of an
unused chimney in the back of the house. It

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TONIA

was put there for safety from beggars and
tramps, but its hiding-place was no secret to
the family, and its key was always hidden in
the salt-pan.

Tonia watched for an occasion when every
one of them was working in the more remote
fields, and she was left to guard the house and
weave at her sheeting. She got the key of the
box out of the kitchen cupboard, got the box
itself out of the chimney, opened it, and helped
herself to four francs from the bag, then to six
more ; then it seemed a pity to leave any ; she
took two more, and only another two remained.
She took those also, and hurried back the box
and the key to their respective places. With
the money in her bosom she went upstairs to
her frame, and was weaving diligently, sitting
by the window, when her people came in from
the fields hot and hungry. The next day she
bought her grandfather's tobacco : the best she
could get in the village.

" Good girl, good girl," said the old man.
" I'm mum, Tonia."

Fortunately for her there was no need at that
moment for her father to go to the church-bag ;
every purchase had been made that was necessary

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TONIA

for ecclesiastical purposes, and it was never
opened except when there was some need. But
Corpus Domini was not far off; it fell that
summer on the twentieth of June. For that
feast the bag would be opened certainly. She
felt sick when she thought of it ; but it was
only the seventh of June now. She said to her-
self that she would put the amount back some-
how or other before that time came. Some
vague scruple withheld her from asking the aid
of the saints in this difficulty, but she told her
beads and said a paternoster. " That never can
do harm," she thought. So completely did her
own affairs engross her that she did all other
things ill : mixed threads in her weaving, forgot
to feed the pigs, spilt the milk in carrying it,
and received many a sound scolding from her
people. But she returned these with scorn and
indifference : they seemed to her a pack of
fools, worrying their lives out over a broken
flask or an empty swill-tub.

She had money enough left when the tobacco
had been bought to get the shawl out of the
Presto: how to do it without being seen was
the problem which engrossed her, for her
mother, who fancied her manner odd, had gone

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TONIA

in herself with the salad and cabbages for the
last ten days.

Even buying the tobacco in the village had
been attended with danger, for if her family
heard of it she knew that they would certainly
question her as to how she had got the money.
She could not say that she had received it from
Nonno, because the old man never had a far-
thing : their filial admiration for him never went
so far as to give him a halfpenny. The aged
are looked on in peasant families as so much
lumber that would be better cut down and put
on the fire, like old tree-stumps, if there were
not a law against it. Nonno's splendid past, in
his smuggling days, secured him respect, but
respect did not go so far as filling his waistcoat
pocket with good pence.

She might have coaxed her mother into
giving permission, or she might have gone with-
out permission, for they were used to her disobe-
dience ; but she did not care to go again into
that place, with its watching gendarmes and its
suspicious-looking assayers and clerks at the
wickets. She had got off safely once, but she
knew that it was a mere chance. Another time
she might be questioned.

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TONIA

Being at her wits' end, and having long ex-
perience of Camilla's trustworthiness and affec-
tion, she confided a part of the truth to her
sister ; a small part, and that garbled, but
enough to enlist assistance and win sympathy.

She told her that she had been given the
shawl by the foreign lady up at the ducal
villa, and had pawned it by her grandfather's
counsels, being afraid that her parents would
take it from her as too fine a thing to be worn ;
that she had always kept the money received
for it, and wished now to take it out, as she
could sell it and buy her gown for her wedding
with the proceeds. Would Camilla go and get
it for her? Her parents would never suspect
Camilla of anything wrong.

Camilla was a simple girl, of no great wit ;
but even she thought the narrative a lame one,
and concluded that there was something that
was not told to her.

" Did the lady really give it you ? " she asked
doubtfully.

" Certainly she gave it me," said Tonia, very
proudly. " I have done her many favours :
showing her the way in the woods, finding her
ferns, and the like."

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TONIA

" I did not know you had ever seen her," said
Camilla, much surprised.

" Do you suppose you know all I see and all
I do ? " said Tonia, with much arrogance. " The
lady would take me away if I would go," she
added ; for, in invention, as in eating, appetite
grows on what it feeds on, and has no limits
once having left the realms of fact.

" But you would never go away from Linto
and from us?" cried Camilla, in great dismay.

Tonia gave a toss of her head, and a fine ges-
ture of immeasurable disdain.

" Who knows what grand fate I might not get
in the world ? I am handsome, you know, and
I am clever."

" Yes, dear," said Camilla, in meek acquies-
cence, but disturbed. " But don't you love
Linto .'' " she added.

Tonia shrugged her shoulders.

"That is all foolish talk," she said roughly.
" Will you go to the Presto, or won't you ? "

"I will go, if you wish it so much," said
Camilla, reluctantly. " But I don't see "

" Never mind that. Nobody wants you to
understand," said Tonia. " Mother'U let you
go into the town, and she won't let mc go

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TON I A

anywhere. That's why I tell you to do this
thing."

•'You arc sure this shawl is really your
own ? "

" Really ? really ? " replied Tonia, with mimicry
of her tones. " Yes, it is ; and the lady offered
me a bracelet, too, but I wouldn't take it, for one
likes to show these great folks that one can have
a spirit as well as they can."

Camilla looked at her with tenfold increased
admiration ; to talk with princesses and to refuse
bracelets seemed to her to place her young sister
on a pinnacle absolutely unattainable by any one
else. It created such a confusion in her simple
brain that she forgot to observe the discrepancies
in the narrative.

Camilla was, as usual, subdued and credulous ;
she admired her sister so greatly that it seemed
quite natural, after all, that Tonia should be
acquainted with fine folks. She did not like the
errand to the Presto at all, for she was shy and
easily frightened, and the secrecy enforced upon
her was disagreeable to her. Nevertheless, she
took the ticket and the money, and consented
to do the unpleasant errand.

One thing Tonia did not tell her, for fear of

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TONIA

exciting her alarm : she did not tell her that she
had given a false name and address.

Two days later Camilla went into the town
with the salads and some early cherries, accom-
panied by her youngest brother. As she went
out of the courtyard she looked at Tonia and
nodded, touching her breast. She meant to say
that she would do the errand faithfully ; and
Tonia understood, where she stood stacking
dung, but did not need the assurance. She knew
that Camilla was such a simpleton that she
would never think of cheating. How she hated
the work ! She drove her fork into it passion-
ately. What was the use of marrying Linto,
when this was the kind of labour which would
await her — always in the sun and the rain,
always bending her back and straining her
muscles, always spoiling her nails and burning
her skin ! What a life these women all round
her led, working like men even when they were
with child, toiling worse than even the men did,
toiling like so many cows, with children at their
breasts year after year for a dozen years ! What
a life !

At that moment a loud shriek broke on her
ear ; out of the house her father came with

247



TONIA

outstretched arms, and screaming like a stabbed
hog. Tonia lost all her colour ; she compre-
hended what had happened ; he had the empty
church-bag in his hand, and was shaking it in
the air like a madman.

" Tonia ! Tonia ! " he shouted. " They have
stolen the church money. Perdition seize them !
Flames everlasting burn them ! "

His wife came out behind him, rending the
air with her shrieks. Tonia, with admirable
presence of mind, sprang down from the dung-
heap, and joined in the outcry with well-acted
amaze and horror.

" Twenty years has the box been there and
never a finger touched it ! " cried her father.
"Sacrilege! 'tis sacrilege ! The thief will burn
for all eternity."

Tonia, despite her courage, shook in every
limb as she heard ; but she continued to scream
at the top of her voice, and her parents suspected
her of nothing but sympathy and alarm.

" When did you open it last, father ? " she
asked, with chattering teeth.

" Oh, 'tis ten days or more ago," he answered,
wildly tearing his hair. " There's been nothing
to go to it for ; but now Corpus Domini's right

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TONIA

ahead of us. I said to myself, ' I'll count the
money.' 'Twas locked ; locked all safe and
sound, and the key in the salt-pan ; and I open
it, and every stiver's gone. You would give a
drink to that pedlar last Monday," he said
fiercely, turning to his wife. " Like enough
'twas he."

She defended herself as fiercely.

" A decent man who has sold tins along the
road twenty years! Not he, not he. There
was a tramp last Wednesday week I found
sitting on the bench "

"Oh yes, to be sure 'twas the tramp," said
Tonia, eagerly. "An ill-looking man, with a
squint, and he asked for broken crusts."

" What's the matter ? " asked Nonno, getting
off his seat on the wall, and coming towards them
feebly, bent in two over his stick.

" Father's found the church-bag empty," said
Tonia.

For one instant the little, sharp eyes of the
old man met the girl's large, startled, dilated
eyes, and said to her as plainly as if he had
spoken, " So that is where my tobacco came
from ! " But he did not say a word to com-
promise her, and neither of her parents suspected

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TONIA

her for a moment. Only her father, grown a
little calmer, said, rubbing his forehead ruefully :

" How the deuce could anybody from out-of-
doors know that the key of the box was kept
in the salt-pan ? "

The shouting and screaming had brought
in the boys from the fields and half a dozen
people who were on the high-road going up
into the woods to cut heather and underwood :
the clamour was loud, the chatter endless, and
the man was almost consoled for the loss of the
money by being the hero of such a misfortune.
Tonia was weeping with great effect ; her
fright, being genuine, made her tears flow abun-
dantly. So great was the excitement, so absorb-
ing the theme, that they none of them noticed
that Camilla had not returned, nor the boy who
had accompanied her either. Only when they
were about to eat a mouthful at ten o'clock, as
their habit was, did they perceive her absence.

" She has been detained at the Presto," thought
Tonia, with a quaking spirit.

As they were eating their bread and salt fish,
her father never ceasing to swear against the
thieves, the youngest of the boys, who had gone
with her, came back.

250



TONIA

" I can't find Milla," he said breathlessly, and
afraid of being scolded. " I've been all over the
town ; I got so hungry I thought I'd better come
home."

" What did you leave her for ? " shouted his
mother, cuffing his ear,

" She left me ! " said the child, sobbing ; " she
went shopping."

" Did you give her any errands to do ? " asked
her mother of Tonia.

" No, mother," said Tonia, innocently. " She
must have gone to buy for the neighbours."

It was unlike Camilla; she v/as punctuality
itself, and she always did exactly what she was
told, neither more nor less. But they finished
their meal, and, to punish the boy, gave him
bread without a morsel of fish.

They were just done, and were going out to
their respective labours, when her father, struck
by a sudden thought, said, smiting his thigh :

" Damned if I haven't forgot to tell the police !
They won't find the thief; but there is a fine if
you don't tell them when there's been any rob-
bery."

" Ah, to be sure there is," said Tonia, eagerly.
Her face was hidden as she tied on her big

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TONIA

orange kerchief and pulled it over her eyes.
" You had better go, father."

"Who asked your leave?" said her father,
crossly. He was a good-natured man, but he was
sorely put out by the loss of the church money,
which, of course, he would have to make up out
of his own savings, and his savings were fewer
than his debts.

" You can describe the tramp to them, father,
can't you ? " continued Tonia, with officious zeal.
"I can. A short, lean, ill-looking fellow, with
red hair, and a blue shirt and corduroy breeches
all torn. I marked him well."

Nonno, listening where he was smoking,
chuckled silently : she was a chip of the old
block, a brave girl, with a glib tongue : he was
proud of her.

" How should the tramp have known of the
salt-pan ? " said her father, dissatisfied and per-
plexed.

" The police will make him tell," said his wife.
" Go and clean yourself, Dario, and go and talk
to them."

At that moment there was a clatter of horses'
hoofs on the dry road at the back of the house,
and a jingling of chains and sabres rang upon the

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TONIA

air as two gendarmes rode through the opening
from the road into the courtyard before the
house. Dario ran out to them, alarmed and
annoyed.

" I was just coming to tell you of it, sirs,"
he said breathlessly, afraid that they would
denounce him for having delayed the declaration
of the theft, and making sure that, in some un-
known way, they had heard of it. The old man
and Tonia shrank back into the shadow of the
yawning hearth : he had had many a hard tussle
with officers of the law in his day, and hated the
sight of any ; and she, when she saw these dread
shapes, felt her heart thump against her stays
until it seemed to burst them.

One of the riders, the brigadier, looked sur-
prised.

" Why are you here } " he said. " You should
go to the town."

" I know I ought, sir," said Dario, piteously ;
" but I only waited to eat a bit."

" You are an odd father," said the brigadier.

'• Eh, sir ? " Dario thought he could not hear
aright. He began a long, confused narrative of
the loss of the church money, to which the cara-
bineers listened as impatiently, as their horses

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TONIA

shook their heads under the torment of the flies
and horse-flies.

" If you have lost anything, denounce it at the
office," said the brigadier, cutting short the story.
" There is more trouble for you than that.
You do not seem to know. Your elder daughter
has been arrested down in the town. I came
as a friend to tell you. Go down at once, or she
will pass the night in prison. This is quite
irregular on my part, but I have known you
many years."

Dario stared, with his eyes starting out of their
sockets.

" Camilla, my Camilla arrested ? " he gasped.
" Oh, there must be some frightful mistake, sir !
What do they think she can have done ? "

*' Go and see. They will tell you at the
Questura. If you have been robbed here as well,
denounce the theft. She may be guilty of that
too."

They turned their horses' heads and rode out
of the courtyard, having their beat to follow
along the lonely road which wound up through
the woods. Dario clung to the brigadier's stirrup,
and his wife clutched the horse's tail, screaming ;
but they could get nothing more from him than

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TONIA

the bidding to go down to the town and see for
themselves. The brigadier was sorry for the
news he had brought, for he liked Camilla,
but he was afraid of being mixed up with the
affair, and embroiled with the authorities. The
mother and father hurried away without chang-
ing their working-clothes, beside themselves
with anxiety, and drowned in tears, which
washed deep channels in the dirt of their faces.
They had given no thought to Tonia and the
old man, who were left alone facing each other.

Nonno grinned.

"You sent Milla to bear the brunt of it, eh,
my wench ? You're a rare one, Tonia ! And
you've got your father's money, too, or I'm a
dead man. Lord, child, don't squirm with me ;
I know what you've been after ; and I've been
mum, haven't I? — mum as the very stones?"

But Tonia turned from him in disgust ; she
was sobbing with terror and the certainty of ex-
posure, for, of course, if Camilla had been taken
up by the police, it must be about the shawl,
she reasoned ; and if Camilla were questioned,
she would be obliged to speak ; that was equally

sure.

" Why did you tell me to go to the odious

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TONIA

place?" she sobbed. "You are a wicked old
man. Everybody is wicked who lives when
they ought to be dead, and eats when they
can't earn ! "

No sooner were the words out of her mouth
than she would have given ten years of her life
to recall them ; for she dreaded her grandfather
beyond all other persons, good or evil, and she
realized that she had undone at a blow all the
work of establishing herself in his favour which
she had toiled at with so much ardour ever since
she had been a baby. The old man said nothing,
but his face, as he leaned forward hstening, with
his hands on his knees, was that of a demon ;
his little eyes glittered through their rheum, his
toothless jaws gibbered and chattered noiselessly,
his lips foamed. Then he staggered on to his
feet, tottered towards her to strike her, and, his
weak knees giving way, dropped heavily on the
bricks of the hearth, struggling and choking.

Tonia was so terrified at his aspect that she


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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 11 of 12)