1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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promised the church, and gone out into the
night air, which was blowing hot and sullen



under a sirocco wind. " What shall I render
you ? How shall I labour for you ? Nothing
in all my life long that I can do will I refuse."

She meant every word she said ; her cheeks
were once more like Pentecost roses, her great
eyes shone with rapture and pride ; he was hers
once more ; she would get him and keep him
from pale Mercede and from every other female
thing born of woman ; he was responseless
as a cold bar of black iron, it was true, but
within her was the flame which would make
the iron, however stubborn, grow red-hot and

*' He'll ill-treat you," muttered Pia, wishing
her work undone.

Fedalma laughed with vain, rapturous incre-

" Nay, nay, not he," she said proudly. " My
arm is strong and my heart is hot ; I shall hold
him so close he shall never see that another
woman is living. I may die on the stony road
in childbirth, like one of his ewes, and maybe I
shall ; but I'll never cease to bless you, mother,
for what you've done for me."

" Well, well," said Pi^, touched more than she
chose to show ; " you're a crazy wench, my poor



girl, but you've a grateful soul. That's more
than be said of most."

The thing was done.

The false wooer was dragged back and tied
to his destiny with charmed ropes which he did
not dare to break. Fedalma drank the waters
of Paradise.

She had nothing of her own with which to
show her gratitude. She stole a pair of duck-
lings at sore risk, and brought them to the
Strega, and she walked ten miles to a chapel
famous for its miracles, and prayed to the
Madonna to pardon her if she had done wrong
in stealing the birds, and still more wrong in
using black arts.

" Do not be angry with me or with the old
one," she said passionately to the Holy Mary
in whom she believed. "If the saints would
only hear a little quicker we should not turn to
the devil."

And then she prayed to have mercy shown to
Pia, and prayed that the aged soul might be
cleansed and accepted before death ; " for if she
have helped us with unholy ways, yet she has
done a holy thing," she said as she lay prostrate
before the shrine, not knowing very clearly what



she meant, but striving with all the might of her
gratitude to have the witch who had aided her
assoiled and pardoned ; for happiness did not
make her, as it makes many wiser than she,
selfish in her joy. The priests would have told
her that she committed an inexcusable sin in
praying for the soul of a sorceress, for the soul
of a daughter and wife of the fiend ; that even
to breathe such a name in a consecrated place
was heresy, blasphemy, damnation eternal.

But she did pray, though she prayed in trem-
bling ; for had she not still the enchanted bean
in her bosom ?

" She has done so much for me, something I
must risk for her," she thought, as she kissed the
waxen foot of the Madonna ; it was the same
thought as when she had stolen the ducks. The
very ignorant know not what they feel nor why
they act ; they are incapable alike of analysis
or synthesis ; but sometimes their spontaneous
and almost unconscious acts are beautiful.

With her heart beating high in her breast, she
went down from the mountain sanctuary to
which she had climbed as the day drew near
its close. She had to walk ten miles and more
back to her father's cabin in the woods, but the

49 E


descent was easy. The autumnal weather was
radiant, and the whole hillside and the woods
below were bathed in golden light. She was so
happy, so fearless, she could have kissed the
bewitched bean in her bosom !

She sang aloud in her gladness of spirit one
of the amorous invocations of the province.
Her clear loud notes rang through the solitude ;
a whitethroat in a pine-tree answered her as she

She was so happy ! Her idol might be sullen
for awhile, resentful, reluctant ; but he would be
hers. Surely she would know, as she had said
to Pia, how to heat and to bend the iron. He
had loved her so ardently only a few months
before, it would be strange indeed if she could
not fan that flame into fury once more.

" He will be mine — mine— mine ! " she sang,
as if it were the burden of a ballad, as she went,
erect and glorious in the pride of her strength
and her triumph, over the fallen fir-needles which
strewed the path.

When she entered into the lower woods, the
woods of chestnut and beech, it was evening ;
the little brown owls were flying through the
trees. Up above, where the sanctuary stood,



the mountains had still the light of the sun, but
here on the lower hills it was already almost
dark. In the gloom before her father's hut there
was a little group of men. She approached
them, unsuspecting, scarcely noting them, full
of her own emotions, singing still.

They broke away from each other at sight of
her, and stood apart like persons afraid. Her
father, Febo Nero, alone ran towards her,
gesticulating wildly without a word. Her heart
stood still with a prescience of ill.
" What is it ? " she asked.
Febo clutched her arm.

" Did you lie when you said you were to wed
with your danio ? Come, say ! "

" I am to wed with him," she answered. " Who
dares say not ? "

Febo broke into a rude, harsh laugh : he was
an unkind man.

"You double fool ! " he said savagely. " Was
it not enough to let him fool you once ? He's
gone, and Mercede of Cecco too ; and the sheep
left unguarded and unfed, and his master here
crazy with rage. And he's gone to the sea-coast,
they say, and he'll sail for Brazil straight away.
Mercede took her dower out of the pitcher under



the walnut-tree ; she knew where 'twas kept, and
'tis gone with her. Ay, you fool — you double
and triple fool ! I've a mind to stone you till
you're dead, as one stones a toad."

She swept him aside with a gesture superb
in its authority, and went to where the employer
of Avellino stood, an old, shrewd, weather-beaten

" Is it true ? " she said in her throat.
" Ay, for certain 'tis true," he answered ; " and
my flock left alone, unwatered, unfed, unwatched
— a miracle they're not stolen. Lord, lass, how
you look ! You're better without the scoundrel.
Let him go to the Americas, and be damned ! "

But she did not pause to hear his rough con-
solation ; she put her head down, as a cow,
enraged and bereaved, lowers hers to attack,
and tore along the path of the wood in the
gloaming, and soon was lost to sight.

The men looked at one another, unkindly
diverted, yet vaguely afraid. Febo cursed her
with savage heartiness. Swift as the wind,
lightning-footed as Nemesis, she rushed through
the familiar glades, breaking bracken and bramble
in her headlong flight. She never paused, but
flew over the rough stones, the long grass, the



rivulets, the wild sage and thyme, until she
reached the place where the Strega dwelt. It
was now quite dark.

She flung herself against the door. Its wooden
bar was fastened within, but the wood was old
and yielded to her violent impetus. She entered.
Pia was on her knees beside the cold hearth
counting the money which she kept in a hole
under the stones. As she rose, startled at the
crash of the door forced open, Fedalma threw
herself upon her, clutched the old, wrinkled
throat, and crushed it between her hands.

" You deceived me, you spawn of hell ! " she
screamed, as the old woman writhed in her grasp.

In vain did the Strega struggle to get herself
free ; the fingers of Fedalma were more cruel
than a tiger's fangs.

" You deceived me ! " she hissed again and



"No— no — no!" said the old woman, as, in
one supreme effort, she wrenched herself free for
a moment from that strangling grasp.

" You deceived me ! " cried the girl. Her
face was black with passion, her lips were drawn
back from her clenched teeth : she was mad
with agony and rage. She held the throat of



the Strega with her left hand alone, and with
her right hand plucked from her bosom the
black bean.

" Eat your devil and die ! " she cried, with a
hideous laugh, as she forced the jaws of Pia
open, and thrust the bean into her tonsils, down,
down, deep down, till it choked the gullet ; and,
with her left hand, she meanwhile squeezed harder
and harder the muscles of the quivering throat.

In another moment the witch could no longer
struggle, and in a few seconds more her face
grew livid, then purple, then livid again ; she
ceased to gasp ; she ceased to breathe ; her feet
kicked the air convulsively for an instant ; then
she was dead.

With all her might Fedalma raised the body
high above her head, shook it as though it were
an empty sack, and dashed it on the stones. It
fell heavily and never moved. She had her




" How it grows ! " said the young man, looking
with pride and affection up at a tree he had
planted. It was a plum-tree, of the kind which
gives the golden luscious plums which in Eng-
land are called Magnum Bonum, in France and
in Italy, Reine Claude and Claudia. He had
planted it against a south-east wall, and it had
thriven well, liking its position and rewarding
the care he took of it. He knew little of fruit
or plants, but an old gardener had told him
what to do with this tree, and it had flourished
with him.

He had been twelve years old when he had
set it in the earth, and he was now twenty. His
daily occupation was to mend the roads of his
commune, but he worked in his little bit of
garden after sunset, and before the day's duties

His name was Paolino Sizzo ; he maintained
his mother and sister ; his father was dead. His



little grey house, with its red-brown roof, stood
amongst the fields and hills of a rural commune
called Marignolle, which lies to the right of the
Certosa of Val d'Ema. He was spared military
service because he was the only son of his
mother. The lives of all of them were hard,
but they did not think so, for they knew no
other. When they had oil enough to eat with
their beans and a big round loaf in the cup-
board, they were content. The mother spun
and made their clothes.

The little daughter Ernesta went to and fro
to the village school, and did not do much else
than play and laugh, and eat as much bread as
she could get ; but she was a merry girl, and
made sunshine in the house, and she showed all
her pretty teeth, as white as a young dog's, in
glee, when there was anything extra to eat on

"You spoil the child," grumbled the mother,
when Paolino brought a little gift of sweetstufF
or fruit for his sister ; but while she said it she
was pleased and grateful that her son was so
good to his sister instead of spending his spare
pence in gambling or on drink.

She herself was a bent, worn woman ; grey-



haired before her time, for she was not yet forty ;
but she went out to work most days ; hard work
— washing, cutting corn, turning hay, gathering
tomatoes, shelling beans in the hot sun ; and
this kind of labour ages soon when it is not
sustained by good food.

When they were all out, the door of the little
house was locked, and it was left to itself.
There was nothing to steal except a few copper
vessels. Only when the plums were ripening
Paolino said to his mother, " Stay and see that
nobody takes them, mother ; " and then the
widow would rest, sitting on a wooden bench
by the door and spinning, for both he and she
knew that, if they were not watched, the nimble
hands of Ernesta would play havoc with the
fruit ; not speaking of the village children who
would pass by, and the big rats who would run
down from the roof.

The work of Paolino was one which took him
out in all weathers, and his tools were heavy
and large ; and the constant rooting up of the
roadside grass was a tiresome labour, ever renew-
ing itself, never really done. But he liked his
work, He could rest, when the hour of rest
came, under the hedges of hazel and dog-rose,



and he knew everybody who passed by, whether
gentle-folks or poor folks, and at the cottages
he would have a chat and a draught of watered
wine, and at the villa gates he would sometimes
get a franc if it were Easter time or Christmas.
Of course, he was only an underling at his age,
but he hoped to be the head man on those roads
in due time, as his father had been. He had
no other or higher aim in life. He was quite

After all it was a life of some interest to any
one like Paolino, who took interest in all that
passed around him. His sphere indeed was
limited by the mile-stones, and measured not
quite three kilometres ; but he knew every living
creature, human, equine, feline, or canine, that
passed over his roads, and knew all about them.

When he went home to his supper he had all
sorts of news ; the marquis had bought a beau-
tiful young horse, bay with black points ; the
priest's little dog had been washed and clipped ;
the miller had had his pocket picked in the
town ; a tramp had been found getting over
the gates of one villa, the children at another
were ill with fever ; the crockery cart, as it
made its rounds, had lost a wheel and several



bits of earthenware had tumbled into the ditch
and been broken ; the knife-grinder had said
that there had been a great fire at a factory in
the city ; the baker's little donkey had fallen
and cut its knees ; the foreign lady who owned
the large greyhounds had passed him and
spoken kindly to him ; the steward had gone
by on his cob and had nodded and called out,
''La Madre? Coin' V sta?" And all these
pieces of local intelligence interested his mother
and Ernesta, as the telegrams in the morning
papers interest ourselves. Every day there was,
of course, some one or something different to
the previous day, if it were only that the vicar
had on new buckled shoes, or that the little
ducklings of a neighbour were thriving finely, or
that the Franciscan friar had a cou^h.

Whenever she heard that the priest or the
miller, or the steward or the friar, had inquired
for her, his mother was a proud and happy
woman. Paolino did not tell her that they
seldom stopped to hear the answer. " Of
course," he thought, "it is only just done out
of politeness ; they don't really care."

The vicar did care, perhaps ; he who lived on
the crest of the hill at the church with the tall



white tower. He was a good man, fond of long
walks, in which he was always followed by his
little white fox-dog ; and he knew the mother,
Rosina, well, for she was always in her place
at mass and vespers, and the only sins she had
to confess, after much searching of her heart,
were that she had envied her neighbour's good
luck with her chickens, or had been gluttonous
in eating too much ricotto, a rude sort of imita-
tion of cream cheese made with sour milk, and
highly in favour with country people.

This was in the summer ; and in the winter
there were the tales to tell of flood in the city,
or perhaps even snow ; of how the pedlar had
been blown down coming from the hills ; of the
water-mill wheels being frozen ; or of how the
priest's little dog had grown his thick furry coat
again in readiness for the cold.

Paolino himself, having a feeling for these
things, noted also when the violets came and
the primroses showed first ; when the hawthorn
in the hedges blossomed : when the nightingale
first sang ; but these matters did not interest
his women, and so he very rarely indeed spoke
of them. But without saying anything to any
one, he noticed the earliest swallow, the passing



of the sea-birds down the green river water, the
flowering of the bryony, the dogrose, and the
foxglove in the hedges which fringed his roads ;
and he would in all probability have gone on
doing this for many years of the twentieth
century had not the Municipal Office of Florence
come to a new and, for him, disastrous decision.
It decided that it had too many rural road-
menders in its employment, and decided to
dismiss one-fifth of the men in its pay.

It was one day in mid-winter that this resolve
of his superiors was made known to Paolino. He
had gone into the city, as usual on a Saturday,
for his weekly wage, and, when he had received
it, was told in the curtest manner possible that
his services would be required no longer.

He could not understand. He could not be-
lieve. Indeed, he was so stupid and tiresome
in his manner, and his incredulity, that the
official who made the communication grew
impatient, and shouted to him that there were
gendarmes both inside and out of the Communal
Palace for refractory persons.

" But what have I done .'' Tell me where my
fault is? " asked the poor lad, holding his week's
wage in his outstretched palm.



" You have done nothing," said the official,
contemptuously. "You have no fault that I
know of, but you are struck off the rolls ; you
are not wanted any longer."

The cruel fact was some minutes before it
could insert itself into the boy's brain, in which
a thousand hammers seemed beating, and a
thousand bells ringing.

" But we shall starve ! " he cried, as soon as
he did comprehend. " Mother and Nesta have
nobody to look to, only me ! "

" With that we have nothing to do," said the
official, and added, " there is always work to be
found by those who are really willing to do it."

" But give me a reason ! Give me a reason ! "
screamed Paolino, his blood getting hot, and
sparks dancing before his eyes.

" The reason is clear," said the official, loftily.
" The Municipality does not want you. You
are dismissed."

Then as Paolino in his youthful ignorance
and desperation most unwisely lifted up his
voice and poured forth shrill curses on the
Syndic and the Council, as a lost dog throws
up its head and howls to the empty air, the
clerks, whom power made potentates, lost all



patience with him, summoned the guards, and
bade them take the fellow out into the square.
He was creating a disturbance. He was led
roughly into the courtyard and into the sun-

" Go home, you fool," said one of the guards,
" and thank your lucky stars you are not locked
up. If there's anything against you another
time it will go hard with you."

"But they will starve! They will starve!"
screamed the boy, getting a crowd around
him, who were ready to take sides with him,
though they had no idea what his wrongs
might be.

" What is the matter ? " cried the citizens.
"The matter!" shouted Paolino. "They
send me away when I have no fault, and my
father on those roads till his death before me,

and "

His words were cut short by the guards lift-
ing him off his feet and pitching him head fore-
most past an iron door which another guard
held open at that moment, as a sinister-looking
vehicle lumbered out of the Communal court-
yard. The door was banged upon him ; he was
in a prison van, in company with seven other

6s F


young men who were being moved from the
Tribunal to the Murate.

" A lesson does no harm to these youngsters
in these revolutionary times," thought the Com-
missary of Police, to whom he was brought
after some hours' detention ; he considered the
guards had been too zealous, but he did not say
so. He merely cautioned the prisoner to be
careful to abstain in future from causing any
disturbance in the public streets, and then set
him free.

Paolino's head was hung down, his face was
red and sullen, the tears coursed down his

" We shall starve. We shall starve," he re-
peated. " Why am I sent away ? I am not in

" Oh, into that I cannot enter," said the Com-
missary. The Municipality paid you weekly ? "

" Yes, and father before me."

" Then it is fully within its rights to dismiss
you without notice. If you complain you will
be more stringently punished."

They pushed him out of the Commissary's
presence, hustled and jostled till he was as
bewildered as a sheep being driven to the



shambles. He found himself again in the open
air and at liberty to go home.

" Oh, Lord, how shall I tell them ? " he said
with a groan ; and then for the first time he per-
ceived that he had lost the week's wages. As
they had cuffed and banged him about, to get
him, despite his struggles, into the van, the
flimsy paper money had slipped out of his hand
and gone — who knows where ?

Paolino dropped on a stone under an old
church, hid his face in his hands, and sobbed
bitterly. When he had come down into the city
it had been ten o'clock ; it was now four in the
afternoon ; he had eaten nothing, but he felt
no hunger. He was bruised and aching in
many parts of his body from the rough usage
he had received.

He got up with pain, and took his way across
the town towards his home.

It chanced to be a Corso day in Carnival,
and he met the gay holiday-making stream of
human beings, and the grand carriage horses
with their flowers and streamers to their ears.
A bouquet struck him on the cheek as he went.

He bore the pleasure-seeking crowds no ill-
will, for he had no ill-will in him, but the



contrast of their festival and his sorrow hurt him.
He walked as quickly as his bruised limbs
would take him to get out of the gates and into
the green country roads where he was never to
work any more.

" I must have done something and they won't
tell me what," he thought, racking his brain to
think what his offence could possibly have been.

It was quite dark when he reached the little
house in the hilly lane where his home was.
His mother was standing at the door with a
lighted oil wick in an old brass lamp in her

" Oh, the dear Mother of us all be praised ! "
she cried, in joyous agitation. " Dear lad, I did
think as how you had been run over by the
carnival folks, or something worse. Where have
you been all the livelong day .-' "

Paolino did not answer her, but walked slowly
past her into the cottage and threw himself
heavily on a rush-bottomed chair.

" I've lost it," he said stupidly, showing her
his empty hands.

•' Lost your wages ? Oh, Lord, save us ! "

" Lost your wages, you ass ? " echoed the girl



" I've been in prison," said Paolino, heavily,
as if he had not heard them. " We shall starve.
They don't want me on the roads any more.
They've done with me."

There was nothing heard for a few moments,
but the shrill outcries of the woman and girl.

" Oh, my poor boy, my poor boy ! " sobbed
the mother.

" He's been in prison ; he's done something ;
they wouldn't have sent him away otherwise ! "
said the little sister.

Paolino did not hear what either of them said.

" Father worked on these roads forty years,"
he muttered, " and I've been on them ever since
I was breeched ; and I'm not to go on them any
more, and they won't say what I've done, and
they put me in prison for asking."

" But the week's wage — the week's wage ! "
cried the mother. " Did you say you lost it ? "

He nodded assent.

" He's drunk it away ! " said the little sister.
"Look at him. He's dead drunk. Can't you
see, mother ? He's drunk it all away."

" Oh, Nesta, for shame ! " said the mother ;
but the thought was her own. These disordered
clothes, these unwilling words, this improbable



tale, this heavy, sullen, reddened face, were they
not all due to drink ? Rosina Sizzo would
sooner have believed the church tower was
walking across the hills than believe that her
son could be dismissed from his labour on the
roads which had been his father's before him.

Yes, it was drink. Her little daughter had
said out the thought which she had herself no
courage to put into words ; she was so ashamed.
She threw her gown over her head and leaned
against the wall of the room, sobbing aloud.
Nesta went up to her brother and shook him
with both hands.

*' Aren't you ashamed, you bibber ? If you'd
come to take me to the Corso as you promised,
you wouldn't have got in this state, and lost
your money through swilling wine in the town."

Paolino slowly raised his head and looked at

" Is that what you think, little girl > You're
wrong. I've been good to you from your cradle,
Nesta. You might have said something kinder.
The trouble there is on me is more for you and
the mother than it is for myself."

Then he rose, and pushing her aside, drank

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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 3 of 12)