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La Strega and other stories online

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threw down the platter she was holding, and
dashed out into the open air and into the green
fields, leaving him still vainly striving to utter
oaths and striking violently with his stick at the
place where she had stood. She fled upward

256



TON I A

through the wheat and the vines to the wood
which edged them, far above where the water-
courses ran and the broom was flowering, and the
cuckoo calling from the distant oaks. She flung
herself down, face forward, on the earth, and
wished that its brown soil would open and
swallow her.

How long she remained there she did not
know : it might be minutes, hours, or days for
any count that she kept of time ; but all at
once the wood seemed filled with a clamour of
voices calling on her name. She knew the
voices : they were those of her brothers and of
Linto. She stumbled to her feet and changed
her path like a hunted animal, and scrambled
higher and higher, where the stone-pines grew,
and hid herself in a hole in the ground, where
the thickly growing vegetation formed a screen
for her. She scarcely knew why she ran away,
for flight could only postpone the hour of
discovery, it could not avert it ; but she had
ceased to reason. She acted on mere non-
reflecting instinct, the impulse to run away
and hide. But the voices pursued her, and she
could distinguish what they said. They were
shouting to her to come down, for Nonno was

257 S



TONIA

struck dead. Trembling from head to foot, she
came out from the tangled undergrowth and
showed herself.

" What arc you up here for when there is such
trouble in the house?" said her elder brother
Domenico in angry surprise. " Nonno is dead ;
we found him dead just now. Why on earth
did you leave him alone ? "

She was about to say that she was going to cut
wood, but she remembered that she had no bill-
hook, and that she must look alarmed and odd.
" I saw him die," she said, with shaking voice.
"It frightened me so, I dared not stay."

"And you called nobody?" said her elder
brother, incredulously.

" I did not think," she stam mered, " I was so
frightened."

" Frightened ? You ? " cried her brother.
" Well, come down. The neighbours are there ;
they will want something to eat."

As they went down the hill, the young men
pushing and pulling her along with them, she
began to recover her spirits ; if Nonno were dead,
the chief witness against her was silenced for
ever; she felt sure that Camilla would find some
way to shield her, let her suffer what she might.

258



TONIA

When they reached the house, some women
from the neighbouring farms had pulled up the
old man from the hearth and had got him on
to a big settle, where he was struggling between
them, breathing stertorously and looking like
death, but still not dead, as she had hoped.
How foolish she had been to leave him there !
A little force at the right moment, a tap of his
own oak staff on the right place, and he would
have been safe and sound, out of the way for all
time. Now the neighbours had got him, and
were burning feathers, holding lighted paper
under his nostrils, and putting to his clenched
teeth a decoction of herbs and spiders which
was considered of sufficient virtue to call the
dead from their graves.

Tonia shrank from the sight of the doubled-up,
motionless figure.

" He was always so good to me ! " she whim-
pered.

She was still horribly afraid ; but fear looked
very like grief, and passed muster for it with the
neighbours.

It was now very late in the day ; the sun was
setting, and its light streamed through the open
door of the dwelling-house ; outside the cows

259



TONIA

were lowing, the pigs grunting ; their fodder and
food had been forgotten ; the nightingales sang
in the myrtle hedge. Over the threshold with
heavy step returned her parents, alone ; they
looked crushed to the ground with shame and
sorrow. When they saw the old man they were
mute and callous. What did that matter ?
They hoped he would die. There would be one
mouth less to feed.

"Where's Camilla?" called the wom.en and
the boys. Tonia alone was silent : as silent as
the paralyzed old man.

" They've got her," said Dario, hoarsely.
" They won't let her out."

His wife had covered her head with her apron
and was weeping as she had wept all the way
from the town.

Linto had followed them into the room, and,
without saying a word, had come and stood
behind Tonia's shoulder. His face was dark
and moody. At this juncture he leaned down
behind her and muttered in her ear :

" Confess ! Confess, then. Do you hear ? "

She heard, but she did not obey. A shiver
went over her, and the tan of her face grew
greyer, that was all.

260



TOMA

Her father, with his hat dashed on the floor
and his arms folded, was still filling the kitchen
with his lamentations.

" So good a girl ! So modest, so docile, so
quiet! A thief ? Camilla— my i\Iilla ? I won't
even believe it. Things look black. Oh, they
look black 1 I don't deny it. And the money
went out of the church-bag, too ; but that M ilia
took it I can't believe. I'd as soon believe that
the Virgin got down off the wall there and did it
— may the Holy One forgive me my blasphemy! "

" Confess, you jade ! " said Linto in Tenia's
car. In the uproar of the women's shouts and
sobs, and the noisy weeping of the children, none
heard him. The old man was struggling
violently between the arms of those who held
him. lie wanted to say something and could
not ; his toothless jaws were shut tight like the
teeth of a trap, his eyes started out of their
sockets ; he was alive, but he was impotent.
Tonia's eyes watched him with fascinated gaze.
If he continued paralyzed she would be safe.

Linto moved away from her and swore a
fierce oath.

" What has Milla done ? " asked the neigh-
bours and the youths in shrill chorus.

261



TONIA

The father, staring stupidly at the old man on
the settle, answered :

" She won't speak, they say. She went to the
Presto with a ticket to take out a shawl she'd
put in, so they say ; and it seems that the shawl
was stolen, and the police were looking for it,
and at the Presto it had been ordered to stop it.
I don't know — she'd given a false name with it
— so the police took her ; and they've got her,
and we couldn't see her ; but they said there
was no manner of doubt of her being in fault,
because she has nothing to say for herself and
won't speak."

Then he lapsed into silence, and his head
sank on his breast.

" Perhaps she took the money out of the
church-bag, father. But I don't think she
would," whimpered Tonia, through floods of
tears. " There must be some mistake — some
dreadful mistake."

" Yes, there is a mistake," said the voice of
Linto ; " and you will set the mistake right,
Tonia, or I will wring your neck like a fowl's. I
saw that shawl on your head in the stables ; you
hid it. I'll swear you pawned it the day you
said you'd been to Mass in the Duomo. As to

262



TONIA

the church-bag, I don't know ; but as to the
shawl, I do. I'll take you down to the town to-
morrow and make you confess. You cheat, you
thief, you jade, sending your sister to suffer
instead of you ! "

The struggling, doubled-up form on the settle
wrested itself out of the women's hold ; a thin,
strangled voice came from under the battered
hat ; Nonno gasped for breath.

" I am not dead — not dead — not yet," he
said, with a faint rattle as of laughter. " I'll
bear witness — against you — Tonia — he ! he !
he ! — bought my tobacco and grudged it —
yah ! "

Linto, with his strong hands on Tonia's
shoulders, pushed her towards her father.

" Lock her up, Dario," he said sternly. " Lock
her up somewhere safe, and to-morrow we'll take
her down to the town, and have Camilla out.
Love you, you jade .-* Marry you ? Faugh !
not if there wasn't another girl in all the whole
wide world."

The old man on the settle struggled to get
free from the restraining hands of the women
who were ministering to him.

" Shouldn't eat when we can't earn, Tonia,

263



TONIA

eh? Well, you'll go and eat jail bread, my
dear — because you've earned it — he ! he ! —
and you'll tell me how you like it, my pretty,
eh?"

Tonia was dumb.



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