1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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said Pia, " and the Powers of Darkness will
strengthen the hands of Mercede's brothers."

" I will try, mother ; I will try," muttered
Avellino. The brothers of Mercede were a very

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LA STREGA

real and fleshly peril, but the ghostly terrors of
the Unseen were more horrible to him, for of
what use against the latter would be his stout
sinews and his slim knife?

Pia took up her creel with the sheep's drop-
pings.

" When shall I see you again, mother ? " he
said timidly. "If you would like another little
snack of cheese "

" I will be at the ford where you water your
sheep the day after to-morrow, at sunset," said
Pia ; and the cheese went into her pocket with
the bronze pieces. He would bring the silver
crown, she was sure of that. Pia was pleased
with her machinations as she went home over
the heather-clad slopes. She thought she held
her fish at the end of her line. She meant to
play on his fears and his foibles until she should
detach him from his new passion and drag him
back to his earlier fealty. She meant to make
him atone to Fedalma, whom she had not
named because she took more devious and
secretive paths to reach her goal, and did not
show what was in her brain, lying close-hid
there like a hare in the heather. Meantime
there v/as no reason why she should not wring

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LA STREGA

what she could out of this heartless handsome

lad.

The next night Fedalma appeared. She was
trembling, and her gown was rent in several
places, and her arms were scratched and bruised
and bleeding.

"Twas a thorn brake I fell into," she said
hurriedly. But that was not the truth. She had
been to a hen-roost miles off and had stolen a
plump pullet from its perch and wrung its neck.
But in getting back over the fence she had been
attacked by a watch-dog belonging to the place,
and had hurt herself on the rough wood of the
fence as well. But of this she said nothing, and
Pia asked no questions, but took the fowl, with
the white pieces and the roots, as the saints in
the churches take votive offerings, in silence.

" You have nothing to tell me ? " said the girl
in breathless anxiety.

" It works, it works," said the Strega vaguely.

" You have seen him ? "

"No. Why should I see him, you foolish
thing .'' 'Tis not with mortal ways that the
Unseen Powers move and conquer."

Fedalma shuddered.

" The stars are in your favour," continued

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LA STREGA

Pia. " I looked in the well at dead of night
twenty-four hours ago. Your star shone clear ;
his and hers were obscured."

" But were they togetJier f " screamed the girl.
In her ignorant, rustic soul something of the
imperious passion of Francesca da Rimini stirred.
Together even in torture. What joy !

"They were apart," said the old woman.

A wave of ecstasy swept over Fedalma's
stormy heart, and her face burned and lightened
with rapture. She dropped down on the mud
floor of the hut and kissed the Strega's feet,
bound in rags and cased in dust.

"What shall I render you?" she cried, with
sobs of delight.

Pia was touched, and bade her get up.

" The lad cannot be worth all that," she said,
not unkindly. "You are giving a vat of good
wine for a pail of muddy water. Think twice.
This youth has tired of you. Have pride "

Fedalma shook her head. Reason said no-
thing to her. No argument could touch her.
She was blind and deaf to everything except
her passion.

" I shall be proud when he wears my
clematis-flower behind his ear once more ! " she

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cried. " I shall be proud when on his lute he
sings again to his sheep in my name ! I shall
be proud when once again he says, ' Dove of my
soul, life of my life ! ' to me — to me, and Mercede
sits alone, counting the days that are dead ! I
shall be proud then — then only. Oh, mother !
you are old, so old ; but are you so old indeed
that you have wholly forgotten your youth .? "

" You are mad, poor wench," said Pia ; but
though her words were harsh, her voice was not
so. Ah, yes ! The divine delirium ! She re-
membered it. Its fires burned on the horizon of
her memory across the black, dim waste of fifty
years and more. And this girl was like Isola,
Isola who had died from a stab between the
shoulder-blades given her by her lover, a soldier
from the Basilicata, one feast-day, when he was
hot with wine.

"Men are all alike," she muttered. "They
are not worth a thought. If only we knew that
whilst it was time ! Get up, child ; get up. I
tell you that the stars favour you. He will be
yours again, but it will take time. It will take
time, and "

Fedalma did not rise ; she crouched upon
the floor; her eyes shone and flashed in the

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dark ; the wick in the oil had flickered and gone
out slowly.

"You will be true to me, mother?" she
muttered. " You will be true, for pity's sake ? "

" I will do all I can," said Pia, and she was
sincere. " I have others beside you to think of.
There is Black Maria, who is afraid of her de-
livery ; and there is Giano's Leonilda, whose lame
child must be charmed straighter ; and there is
the sick cow of Annibale to be cured ; but I will
do more for you than for any. Does the amulet
I gave you turn of itself sometimes ? "

" I don't know," answered the girl in a
frightened voice. " Yes, I think so. Is that a
good sign ? "

" Surely. As it turns, so will your lad turn to
you in his dreams, and from dreaming to doing
'tis but a step. Go away now, child, and come
back in three days. Bring what you can. I will
pray the Powers to be content."

" I have nothing. Father has nothing. I had
to steal the pullet "

" Well, well ; bring what you can."

That was as much generosity in the ways of
her life as the avarice of her habits could reach.
She let the girl go without exacting from her

29



LA STREGA

any especial fee, the girl who had Isola's eyes
and Isola's cheeks like apricots.

She pulled Fedalma up off the floor and
shoved her to the door ; she herself was so little
and so fleshless and so aged, but she had a
strength of steel in her wrists. She had heard
a tap at the wooden shutter of the aperture which
served as a window. She expected Annibale to
come to her about his cow, and she never chose
that two of her clients should meet. She had
the charm for the cow ready : a little bit of wood
with some signs burned on it, with a red-hot
skewer, and some powdered mandrake root tied
to it, wrapped in a small bag. Annibale was to
pay well for this.

" I will make him go to church with her," she
thought when she was alone, and the man Anni-
bale had gone away carrying his charm with
reverence and fear, and warned to tie it round
the cow's neck when the moon first showed her-
self, and as he did so to say, " Guai, guai, guai,
a chi me fa patai ! " a rough rhyme which he
went saying to himself, for fear he should
forget it, all the four miles over the hills which
parted his homestead from the Strega's hut;
it was to be tied on with hemp ; tied on with

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LA STREGA

anything else but hemp the spell would be
broken.

" I will make him go to church with her,"
thought Pia again, as she looked at the pullet.
It was a fat, fine bird ; its poor head hung down
by its broken neck ; it was scarcely cold. She
did not dream of eating it ; she had never eaten
such a thing in her life. She could get a couple
of lire or a lira and a half for it from the wife of
a forest-guard who was marrying a daughter that
week and would be making feast. Something
more perhaps even that woman would give, for
she had come to the Strega not long before to
get a charm, and was afraid her husband should
know it, since he held that all doings with the
devil or the devil's agents should take whoever
played with such hell-fire straight down into the
fire itself. She would make the shepherd lad
atone to Fedalma ; the girl was worth a score
such as he. Fedalma would be wretched, per-
haps ; she would have a hard life and a faithless
spouse ; she would bear children unpitied, more
untended than the ewes ; she would tramp along
the roads autumn and spring, to and fro, from
hill to plain and plain to hill, with the flocks;
she would have to pasture them and water them

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LA STREGA

and fold them, for Avellino would surely put all
his toil on her shoulders. She would be miser-
able ; but, then, she would have had her own
way and wish, and won her own man, and what
can a woman hope for more ?

So she was true to her word for Fedalma's
sake, and went at sunset two days later to the
ford. The ford was where a mountain-stream
coming down through the woods became in
summer-time, at a level place, quiet enough and
shallow enough for sheep to drink there without
danger from the impetuosity of the water. In
autumn and winter and early spring it was in
flood and drowned man or beast at its plea-
sure ; but now, when midsummer v/as past, it
was shallow, and the flock drank fearlessly.

Pia followed the course of the stream through
the myrtles and oleanders which fringed it, and
saw the place where, broad and shallow and
interspersed with dry patches of sand and stone,
the stream was quiet. The flock was there,
slaking its thirst, and the shepherd was sitting,
swinging his legs, above his sheep on a fallen
tree. The light was warm on the water and
the hills were deep in colour as the old woman
took the crown from Avellino, whose fingers



LA STREGA

released it unwillingly and whose eyes gleamed
with suspicion and curiosity and a dim, angry
sense that he was being duped. He, like
Fedalma, had stolen the offering to the Unseen
Powers ; he had stolen it out of his employer's
canvas bag, of which he knew the hiding-place ;
a fine, broad, sparkling silver scudo, which had
been for years secreted with other pieces of the
good old Ducal times. And having run the
risk and done the sin for her, he had taken one
for himself also.

" What will you do for it, mother ? " he
muttered.

"You want a spell laid on your Mercede's
brothers ? "

"Ay, any you like that will make them blind
or keep them harmless ! "

Pii nodded.

" They shall be limp as linen in the water,''
she said mysteriously. " They shall be sightless
as the pups born yesterday, as the worm that
tunnels the earth. Never fear, lad ; they shall
kiss you on both cheeks if you wish."

" No, no,'* said the youth, uneasily. " If they
let me alone 'twill be enough. Shut their eyes ;
that is best."

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LA STREGA

He was afraid of those three men.
" Of Mercede you are sure ? "
" Whew ! " said Avellino, tossing his head
back saucily and snapping his fingers in the air.
"What is it you see in her so fine? That
wench of Febo's that you've broken the heart
of is twice as good to look at as such a little
flimsy thing."

Avellino's smile broadened. He had few
words at command, but his face was very
eloquent. He snapped his fingers in the air
again.

" She's the stone of an eaten peach," he said,
with much contempt.

" You beast ! " thought Pia ; and if she had
really possessed the powers she assumed, she
would have had him flung into the deep pool
which the stream made amongst the rocks below
— a pool deep as a grave even in summer heats.
'• Say, rather, she's the young peach-tree
itself. She'd bear fine fruit if the sun reached
her."

Avellino scowled and lit his pipe.
" I didn't give you the crown to talk of that
fool."

•' Take your crown," said Pia, " and deal with

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LA STREGA

Mercede's brothers on a dark night, unhelpcd,
as best you may."

She threw the crown down between them.
It cut her to the heart to risk its loss ; but she
knew the craven temper of the lad — there was
not much fear of losing it.

He was instantly alarmed, remembered that
she was not the feeble crone she looked, sat
sheepish on the tree-stump for a moment, doubt-
ing, fearing, hesitating, longing to pick up the
silver piece, fearing his foes and the devil. Then
he said entreatingly —

•* I did but jest. Nay, I know 'tis bad to
joke with wise women like you. Take the
crown and keep it, good mother. I meant no
affront. Take it, take it ; and keep them off
me, the men and the devils both."

He picked up the scudo and tendered it to
her timidly.

She took it with an air of condescension and
reluctance.

" 'Tis not me you offend," she said sternly.
'"Tis all those around you in the air, who can
cleave your tongue in twain, make your eyes
balls of blood, palsy your limbs, and cause
your teeth to fall out, if they choose."

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His ruddy skin grew white. He believed her.
He fancied his sight was failing him ; he felt his
teeth with his hand.

"Respect that of which you cannot judge,"
said Pia, sternly. "Be humble as you are daft."

He hung his head, abashed, like a chidden
child. This little, grey, shrivelled woman was
invested with all the majesty of the unutterable
and inconceivable terrors which were associated
with her.

What a small thing was a bit of the root of
the meadow-coltsfoot, and yet it could kill a
sheep in three minutes ; he knew it, for he had
seen it do so. This dreadful little old creature
was, amongst men and women, what the colts-
foot was amongst other grasses. He was helpless
before her as the sheep under the poison. If
she left him his life and took his good looks,
what would life be to him } — he who was as vain
of his curly locks and his ruddy cheeks and his
lusty limbs as was of hers any village beauty
who stuck gold pins in her hair and carnations
in her bodice as he passed under her window
or by her threshold as he went through hamlet
and township in April and November. Often
and often when he was watering the flock did

36 .



LA STREGA

he lean down and look, like Narcissus, at his
own image in the water between the flags. His
beauty was the May-fly with v/hich he won
his fish.

" Don't disfigure me, don't deform me ! " he
muttered in terror. " I will get you more of
those pieces if you will only make them leave
mc alone ! "

" It is not alone silver pieces that they will
have."

" What, then ? "

His voice and his face were scared. If she
wanted gold, he could not get it. There was
no gold in the canvas bag, nor anywhere in
the province that he knew. He had heard of
gold, but he had never seen it.

"They will have obedience," said Pia.
Obedience !

The priests talked of obedience, but who gave
it them ? Were the unclean spirits stronger
than the saints ? Yes, no doubt ; the coltsfoot
was stronger than the meadow grasses, stronger,
a vast deal stronger, than the dews which came
down from heaven. Then he remembered hor-
rible stories told, as lads and lasses sat stripping
the maize and shelling the walnuts round the

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LA STREGA

brazier on farmhouse hearths, of gruesome
errands ordered by the evil ones, of midnight
rides behind witches, of commands to cut out
living hearts from cradled children or tear fangs
from venomous wood-snakes. What use was
it having stolen the crown if he got no more in
return than this, and became the slave of the
Strega ? He struggled to say this, to free him-
self, to laugh at the old crone, and tell her to
go to her master, the devil ; but the words died
in his throat, his tongue clave to the roof of
his mouth. Fear paralyzed him.

" I can spend no more time with you," said
Pia, sternly. " Look to yourself, and don't blame
me when you He gasping in a thicket with
the blood gurgling out of you where Mercede's
brothers shall have let daylight into your belly."

Then she turned her back on him and went,
as it seemed to him, with incredible swiftness
through the bushes that grew by the line of the
water.

"Stop, mother, stop!" he said with a gasp,
squeezing his throat with his hand to push his
voice out of it.

But Pia would not stop. She knew how to
deal with male creatures.

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LA STREGA

Of course, he could have overtaken her with a
stride or two ; of course, he could have clutched
and killed her, if he had wished, in a moment —
that is, he could have done so if she had been
an ordinary woman, and if the virus of terror
had not been corroding his veins. As it was, he
stood motionless, as if rooted to the soil. She
knew that he would come and implore her aid
that night or the next. She did not even look
back, but hurried on, her black shawl over her
head, the gnats stinging her naked feet. She
was sure that she held the rogue fast. She
would drive him through his terrors to marry
Fedalma. The broken vase should be mended ;
if in the future it would only hold thistle-seeds
and thorns, she could not help that. Who
breaks pays. It is a fair saying, but seldom
a true one. She meant to make it true in this
instance.

She took his crown as she took the girl's
pullet, but she was loyal in her double-faced,
secretive way to them both. When Fedalma
came on the next evening to her, she said
mysteriously —

" All goes well. The Unseen favour you."

The girl quivered with rapture.

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LA STREGA

"They will make Mercede unlovely and un-
desirable in his sight. More I do not know
yet," said Pia. " That is much, eh ? "

"Ay, indeed!"

Fedalma laughed and sobbed in the hysteria
of a passionate hope.

"The bean turned of itself three times last
night," she murmured under her breath.

" Surely," said Pia, with the calmness of one
to whom such miracles in nature are familiar.

" I am so frightened when it moves," said the
girl, still laughing and weeping ; " I can hardly
hold myself from plucking it off me. I feel
such terror of it ; it pricks sometimes, and one
knows 'tis alive — more than alive."

"Surely," said Pia, nodding her head with
significance. "Mind you don't ever anger
it. 'Twould burn your reed roof over your
head."

Fedalma shuddered. It requires some courage
to keep what you firmly believe to be the devil
between your skin and your shift.

"But they do meet still?" she said, with
jealousy and misgiving. " I am sure 'twas they
I saw down by the cane-brake by Silvio's mill.
I was far off, but I am sure."

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LA STREGA

" You mistake," said Pia. " The spirits who
are against you make you see those false visions.
Beh'eve naught that you see or hear ; only
believe what I tell you."

Fedalma was only too willing to doubt the
evidence of her own senses in such a matter.
She went humbly and happily away, borne up
by the wings of faith and of hope, leaving four
more white pieces and some fresh onions with
the Strega ; how she had got them Pia did
not ask.

She was on her bed for the night, for she was
tired and footsore from the long walk to the
ford, when she heard a scratch at the door.

•' Who's there ? " she asked.

" Avellino," said the young shepherd's voice.

Pia got up ; she never undressed from one
year's end to the other. She only undid her
black shawl and hung it on a nail for the night.
After satisfying herself that it was really Avel-
lino, she let him enter, and eagerly eyed what
he had brought. He had brought a lamb. It
had died of disease and cost him nothing. He
had cut its throat and skinned it.

Pia smelt it and guessed its end.

"'Tis carrion," she said, with a shrewd smile.

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LA STREGA

" Thank you for naught. I have a mind to
send your flock the foot-rot."

"She is a witch indeed!" thought her
visitor. Who else could have known the
creature's end when he had cut its throat and
skinned it }

He swore that it had been sucking its dam
when he had killed it.

"You are a fool to lie to me," said Pia.
Nevertheless she took the poor little carcase
and hung it up beside her black shawl.

" What do you come here for ? " she said
sternly. " I have done with you. You were
down by Silvio's mill last eve with your new
wench. Do you think nobody has eyes ? "

"We were in the canes where they're so
thick and tall," stammered the youth, sorely
disquieted.

"They may be thick and tall. They are
not so thick and not so tall that steel and shot
would not pierce them."

Avellino trembled like a leaf.

•* How d' you know, mother ? "

" There is naught I do not know," said Pia,
darkly. " What is proof against shot and steel
cannot hold against me — or against those I

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LA STREGA

serve," she added in a tone which chilled his
blood to ice.

He left her presence more certain than ever
that she could dispose of him here and hereafter
as she chose. He had been for an instant sorely
moved to strangle her and put her body under
her own hearthstone, but he had not courage.
That small wizen face of hers, looking smaller
than ever and more than ever wizen with the
wisps of her white hair uncovered, was so
plainly the face of one not human and not
mortal. She had told him he must obey or
perish of murrain with his whole flock. And
obey in what ? In nothing less than in marriage
with the girl he had forsaken. All the good
cheese, and the silver crown, and the dead lamb,
thrown away only to hear such an order from
the foul fiends as this ! He groaned aloud as
he went through the heather. He knew that
sooner or later he would have to do what the
Powers of Evil told him.

The magic which Pia did exercise was the
potency of suggestion ; she knew nothing of
the meaning of her gift, but she had an almost
illimitable power over these uninstructed minds,
so dim, so timorous, so credulous. She steered

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LA STREGA

them as the fisherman of the lagoon steers his
rowing-boat, netting what he will. Her life
had been for more years than she could count
lonely and miserable ; but two things in it were
dear to her : the pot full of bronze and white
money, of which nobody divined the existence,
and her arbitrary exercise of her power over
others. He was a fool ; and Pia, who was a
clever if unlettered woman, had no pity for
fools. He was a selfish brute, too ; and she
had suffered from just such a fair-faced rascal
in her own early years — years which across the
gulf of half a century could still stretch out
their sting and touch her with sharp pains.

Three weeks passed, and turn by turn she
saw her young people, and terrified the one and
consoled the other, and moulded and shaped
their thoughts to her liking, and got, now from
the one, now from the other, such offerings as
by sacrifice or theft they could bring to her :
poor presents, indeed, but to her precious. The
girl grew more impatient as she grew more
sanguine ; the youth became more docile as
he became more cowed.

The fruit was growing ripe for the plucking,
she thought ; she must not, she knew, dawdle

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LA STREGA

on too long ; their passions were lighted tow ;
they must be fanned or put out without waver-
ing, or the flames might run amuck through
fresh fields over which she would have no
control.

So one night when the girl came to her hut
she said to her :

" Child, you v/ish for a bed of thorns because
you think it a bed of roses. Well, you shall
have it and lie on it. Your fellow will marry
you. When once he is wed then you will keep
him, if you are not a fool ; but I fear you are a
fool."

Fedalma smiled, the defiant, radiant sunrise-
smile of assured happiness.

" Oh, mother ! dear mother ! " she cried in
ecstasy, "what can I give you for all you give
me ? I was a fool ; yes. I Vv'as afraid of the
bean in my breast."

For Pia had brought Avellino to this point ;
by threats, by coaxings, by insinuation, by the
dominant force of superior intelligence, she had
kneaded his foolish and fearsome brains until
she had made them ductile to take the shape
she wished. He had consented to all she sug-
gested ; he went meek, if sullen, on the road

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along which she drove him. He submitted to
what she ordered, and the priest was spoken
with ; the one who was nearest, who said Mass
once a month at a little grey church amongst
the pine woods. The religious marriage is still
often the only one that peasants in remote
places think needful : the law counts for little
with them. The matter was kept hushed and
quiet. Pi^ wished it to be so ; she was afraid if
the light of day was let in on her work it might
be undone ; she worked best in the dark, as the
bats do. She wanted no one to know her share
in the lovers' reconciliation. Mercede might
move ; her brothers might also ; silence and
secrecy were safest.

And one night, in her little hut, she brought
about their meeting, and pushed the reluctant
faithless swain into the arms of the woman who
loved him with such unmerited persistence and
passion.

" What can I render you, oh, you wondrous
one ? " cried Fedalma to her, when the young
shepherd, sorely discomfited and scarcely con-
cealing his discomfiture, had kissed her and


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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 2 of 12)