1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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thirstily from a can of water and went up the



rickety wooden stair to his bed. His mother
cast the gown from her head and ran after him.

"Come and tell me all, my boy! Mother
forgives ; and the child is but a saucy ignorant

But Paolino would not answer or open to her.

"Tis drink, mother!" said Nesta, with her
red lips curled in all the scorn of superior
wisdom. " 'Tis drink. You'll see in the morn-

But in the morning all the school children
told Ernesta that they had heard their parents
say overnight that her brother was one of some
score of road-menders who had been dismissed
through no fault of their own by the Commune.

In the morning also, when the girl was off to
school, Paolino told his mother all which had
taken place. The night's rest of sleep due to
intense fatigue had calmed and sobered him.

" I must get some other work," he said, and
went up to the tall white tower on the crest of
the hill and spoke with the vicar.

" But I shall never be any good now that I'm
sent off the roads," he said, with the great tears
in his eyes.

The roads were to him like his ship to a



sailor, his flag to a soldier. He could not be-
lieve that he was never again to keep them clean
and watch the people go to and fro on them,
and eat his noon-tide lump of bread under their
flowering hedges, amongst their dock leaves and
cuckoo-pint. Why had he been dismissed and
others retained ?

The vicar explained to him that it was a
mere question of economy, and that the matter
was regulated by seniority; but his little lupetto
dog would have understood him better than his

The good man also tried to influence the few
influential people whom he knew, and himself
petitioned the Municipality in favour of the
young man ; but he merely received the usual
polite negative formalities in return, and nothing
was altered. Paolino had been dismissed ; for
the authorities he was dead and buried.

He tried with all his might to get other work,
but it was difficult to do so. A dismissal, even
caused by no fault, but entirely based on the
beautiful exactitude and unrelenting necessity
of political economy, always is a black mark
against a person's name, however zealously he
or she may do their best to efface it.



PaoHno could not understand why Felice
Bandone, an old schoolfellow, remained on the
roads and he was turned off them. That was
the only view of the question that he could be
made to see. The injustice of it burdened him,
hurt him, ate into him like a corrosive acid.

He did whatever work came to hand ; field-
work, errands, driving a cart, carrying corn to
the mill, hedging and ditching, or whatever it
might be, but he did it with no pleasure in the
labour. He took home his day's pay faithfully,
but he had no joy in doing so ; he did not forget
Nesta's words on the evening of his return. He
had always been a light-hearted, mirthful, con-
tented lad, now he was dull, slow, ill at ease.
He had been in a prison van, in a prison cell,
and it seemed to him as if the taint of them was
always on him, on his lips, on his hands, on his
soul ; and that others saw it.

" It is not the prison which taints us, it is the
crime for which we go there," said the priest ;
"you were really innocent of any offence, there-
fore you come out unsoiled, clean as a white

But it was of no use to philosophize ; no
reasoning could reach the mind of Paolino ; it



was too simple, too unlearned, too obstinate.
Wrong had been done him ; that was all he

" Troubles," as some one has said, " are gre-
garious ; they never come alone." To add to
his, Rosina fell ill. It was no definite malady,
it was the giving way of the system under long
toil and too poor nourishment. In the medical
vocabulary this is called " marasma " ; the poor
call it a " breaking up." To Rosina, for her son
to be sent off the roads was as great a blow as it
was to him. It had been the patent of nobility
of the Sizzo to be Communal road-menders one
after another — father and son for generation
after generation. They had always thought it a
fine thing to serve the Commune ; they had
always taken a special pride in their work, which
was a public work, and in the highways, with
their hedges, and shrines, and leafy corners, and
grey walls, on which they worked from dawn to
dusk. When her son lost his place on the road
it was like the seeds of some mortal disease sown
in her. She grew weaker and weaker, though
she managed to keep the little house in order,
and put the soup over the fire, and sew and spin
a little. She grew more unwell every day ; and



Paolino, so slow of comprehension in some
things, was quick to sec these signs of debility
and decay. He did his utmost for her and for
his thankless little sister ; but that all was very
small, for the gains of a man at odd jobs, which
was all he could get now, are never cither con-
siderable or certain. As cantoiiiere the weekly
pay was sure and good, and the sense of being
a public servant was a cause of pride and of
respect from others. Every one is civil to a
cantonicre, with his municipal badge — even
though he be clearing up mud or rooting up

Now he was nothing ; a poor fellow, asking to
be hired by those nearly as poor as himself.
And he had lost all his pleasant acquaintances.
He no longer saw the ladies and their dogs, the
gentry and their horses, the drivers and shepherds
and men in their little carts going to and fro
the town. They might have been all dead for
what he saw of them, working as he did in remote
fields, or barns, or workshops, or mill-houses,
and seeing nothing of who went by between the
familiar hedgerows.

He got home late in the evening, and ate
his frugal meal silently, and went to his bed of



sacking under the roof, seeing very well that
his sister had never forgiven him or altered her
opinion as to the cause of their woes.

She was only fourteen, but she was shrewd,
sharp, and selfish. He had tended to make her
so by his indulgence, and the poisoned thorn
which rankled in her soul was the knowledge
that while a cantoniere s sister might have
married fairly well, the sister of a day labourer
seeking odd jobs might pine in vain for a suitor.

" Don't you see, Nesta, how ill mother looks ? "
he said to her one day.

"Who made her so? " said the girl, rudely.

" It is not my fault," said the poor lad, humbly.

" Not yours } " said Nesta, shrugging her
shoulders. " You make the vicar believe so ; but
I'm not such a fool as he. They don't put
people in prison for nothing."

" I will turn you out of the house if you dare
say such things to me ! " cried Paolino, white
with rage and pain.

" They will put you in prison again if you do,"
said Nesta. " If I never marry, it will be your

'* Marry ! You are a chit of a child."

** Nanna's Lena marries come Pentecost, and



she is only a year older than I am," replied
Nesta, with her face on fire with her wrongs.
"And where shall I get a dower? Will you
give me anything to buy my necklace with, or
even to buy my clothes ? "

She returned so perpetually to this theme, and
rung the changes on it so persistently, that she
ended in making her brother feel really guilty
towards her ; and she was so tall of her age, so
precocious, and conceited, that she did really
appear like a marriageable maiden to him.

" I have spoilt her chances," he said sadly,
to his mother. " But, indeed, it was no fault of
mine. Do — do — believe that, mother."

" I never doubted it for a moment, my dear,"
said Rosina, and she thought sincerely that she
never had.

" Why should Felice be kept on and I sent
off?" said Paolino, brooding on the greatest
wrong of all.

His mother shook her head and groaned.

" Why, my dear lad, Felice's brother's brother-
in-law, by a first marriage, is gardener to the
syndic's daughter's husband's cousin. He could
get a word spoken for him in high quarters;
everything goes by favour and by having the



right word said at the right minute to the right
person. We haven't anybody to speak for us,
except the vicar up yonder, and the clergy's
word does more harm than good nowadays."

For Rosina, though illiterate and simple, was
intelligent, and knew a little of how the world
wagged beyond those hawthorn and hazel hedges
which bounded the only sphere she had ever

" Nothing would matter," she said, with a heavy
sigh, " if I were only as strong as I used to be.
I am like a log on you now."

" No, mother ; no, no," said Paolino, with a
sob in his throat. His heart was full ; he wanted
to say so much, but he did not know how to put
his feelings into words. His mother could speak
well, but he had never been able to do so. He
had only been able to keep his roads in good
order, and that they would not let him do any

Rosina at last grew so weak that they called
in the parish doctor, who said little but ordered
medicines and good food, strong broth and wines.

He might as well have ordered the stars down
from the skies.

Paolino sold his father's silver watch to get



the medicine, but that was not of much use with-
out nourishment, and they could not buy it.
And if they could have bought it they would
not have known how to cook it.

" You will be well again, mother, when the
warm weather comes," said Paolino.

" Let us hope so, dear," said Rosina. But in
her own mind she thought, " When the heat does
come it will finish me."

And she lay awake tormented by anxiety for
her children. Paolino had lost his sheet-anchor,
and would drift nobody could say how or where,
and Nesta was a young creature who without
control would in all likelihood go very far wrong.

" Oh, let me live ! Let me live ! " prayed the
poor mother.

But those prayers were not heard. There are
so many similar.

And one night in the hot, windless, summer
which she had dreaded, she died, so quietly that
the girl Nesta, sleeping on the same mattress,
was not awakened from her sound child-like
slumber, and, waking at sunrise, found herself
beside a corpse. Her shrieks brought Paolino
indoors, reaching his ears as he mounted the hill
path behind the house to go to a day's work in



the pine woods. He had found no v/ork for
four days.

His grief was less violent than Nesta's, but it
was intense. It froze him into sullenness and
silence, as his dismissal from the Commune had
done. She was dead, and it was his fault.

The priest came, and the doctor to certify the
death ; he sat stolidly by the bed and did not
speak to them.

At last, frightened by his look and his silence,
the vicar touched his arm.

" Shall the parish bury her, dear boy ? " he
asked gently. " You know, to-morrow, at latest."

Paolino sprang to his feet.

" No," he said, with a furious oath. " No.
She always said, ' When I die, bury me decently.
Don't let the parish touch me. I have been a
decent woman.' No, the parish shall not touch

" Have you the means ? " said the priest.
" Something I can contribute, but little ; you
know I am very poor."

Paolino looked wildly around the room.
There were only a few pence in the house.

" I will find the means," he said hoarsely.

" It will waste the money, Paolino," said



Nesta, between her sobs. " The parish would
do what was right."

He cast a glance at her of scorn and loathing ;
then, with one long look at the figure on the
bed, he left the chamber.

" I hope he will do nothing rash," said the
priest, uneasily.

" He will go and get drunk," said Nesta,
lighting a little oil wick under a print of the

" Hush ! " said the priest, severely, pointing to
the bed.

Paolino went up first to the loft where he
slept, took his Sunday clothes, and rolled them
up in a bundle. Then he went downstairs, set
the ladder against the wall where his plum tree
grew, and began to gather the plums. These
were the largest number which the tree had yet
borne. He had kept them carefully from rot and
caterpillar and his sister's eager fingers. He had
always said to himself, " They shall be for
mother. They shall get her good food as far
as they can."

He had intended to gather them on the
following Sunday and take them and sell them
in the town, and bring her back meat and wine.

8i G


And now he meant to sell them to help to bury
her. To keep her from the pauper funeral she
had dreaded.

They would not bringvery much, but perhaps,
he thought, with what his clothes would fetch, it
would suffice.

When gathered they filled a goodly basket —
beautiful, golden, cleanly fruit, free from bruise
or blemish.

The women who came to lay out the dead
saw him on the ladder, and cried out —

" What ! At work, and your mother scarce
cold on her bed ? Fie ! For shame of you,
Paolino ! "

But he heeded them not, and gathered every
plum off the tree.

Then he took up the basket and the bundle
and walked towards the town gate, from which
he was distant about two miles.

He walked quickly over the dust of the hot
summer day. It was early still, and he passed
people he knew going towards the town, but he
took no notice of them. At the gate there
was a great press and a great struggle, the
string of carts, live cattle and poultry, loads
of wood and straw, numbers of country people



with eggs and butter, vegetables, homespun

Here he was made to wait a long time. When
his plums were at last weighed and the duty on
them paid, the sun was much higher in the

At last he was allowed to pass and go down
the long ancient street leading to the centre of
the town, where the greatest traffic was found.
The thought struck him that if he could sell
them, not in the market, but to passers-by or at
the doors of houses, he would make more money
by them, for market prices are always low. His
plums were fine, and would take the eye and the
fancy of ladies and children. So as he drew
near the end of the street he began to ciy,
" Plums ! Fine plums ! Who will buy plums
to-day ? "

He was a good-looking lad, like the young
men of Signorelli at Orvieto, and his eyes were
so brimful of sadness, of a grief which could not
weep and would not speak, that women, as they
passed, turned and looked at him, and two of
them bought a vine leaf laden with plums from
his basket. Seeing that, others came out of
their shop doors and bought also, so that before



he had got quite to the end of the street his
basket was nearly empty, and the buyers had
not beaten down the price, but had nearly all
paid liberally.

He had a whole handful of copper money, and
one young girl, a milliner, passing by with a
band-box, had taken some plums and slipped a
franc in his hand, because his sad wistful eyes
were like those of a man she loved, who was in

With not more than a pound of fruit left in
his basket, he went on to the bridge, raising his
harmless cry to attract the attention of passing
citizens. If he got a good price for his clothes,
he thought he would be able to pay for the coffin
at once, and they would wait, with the priest's
aid, for the fees and the ground.

With his eyes he saw the people moving
around him, and the sun shining on the pave-
ment, and the water gliding under the bridge ;
but with his brain he only saw the pale dead
face of his mother, and with his ear he only
heard her voice.

Mechanically, he continued to cry aloud,
" Plums ! Fine plums ! Who will buy ? "

Hearing that cry, two Communal Guards,



coming over the bridge, turned and looked at
him and spoke to one another. A little child
had just stopped her father before the plum
basket, which Paolino had lowered on to the
stones that she might be able to see into it, when
the guards stopped in front of him.

" You have licence to sell in the streets ? "
said one of them. Paolino looked up, not com-
prehending the question, and his face grew dark
and hard as he saw by their garb who they
were. They repeated the question angrily.

" The fruit is my own. I grew it," he
answered, and bent down to sort for the child a
dozen plums. With a stroke of his sword one
of the guards turned the basket over and sent
the remaining fruit rolling in the dust.

" You are selling in the streets without licence.
You must come with us," they said to him ; and
without more preface put their hands on his
collar, one on each side of him.

The little child screamed, the passers-by
stopped, the traffic was suspended.

" What has the lad done } " asked a foreigner.

" That is no business of yours," said the

A brigadier, hastening up, explained.



" He is disturbing the public and hawking fruit
without a licence, therefore he must come before
the Commissary. We have his name down ; he
is dangerous ; he was in trouble, and disorderly,
a few months ago."

Paolino stood between his captors, breathing
hard, like a young bull tied to a stake,

" Let me go ; let me go," he muttered. " It is
for her burial. She died in the night. Let me

go ! "

There was a murmur of sympathy from the
people who had gathered round.

" Let him go," said several voices. " Some
one is dead. Let him go."

"Yes, she is dead!" he cried, turning to his
unknown friends. *' They took me up before for
no fault, and it killed her. I did no harm then ;
I do not do any now. Tell them to let me go, or
she will be buried like a pauper, and it was the
one thing she feared — the one thing she prayed
against. Tell them to let me go ! "

A tiger may let go, a crocodile or a python may
let go their prey, but not a Communal guard.
His captors heard the ominous murmur of pro-
test in the momentarily increasing throng. Two
drew their revolvers and pointed them at his



head ; the third, with a rapid, unforeseen move-
ment, tied his hands behind him.

" He is an anarchist," said the crowd, and fell
back a little, their sympathies chilled, their
personal terrors awakened.

" Let me go ; let me go ! " screamed Paolino.
" I am doing no wrong. The fruit is my own.
I planted the tree. Help me ! Help me !
Good people, help me ! She died last night !
I must go and bury her. My mother ! My
mother ! Oh, Lord ! "

But the fickle support of the populace had
already abandoned him and left him to his fate.

The guards gagged him and drove him
between them over the bridge. The last plums,
which had rolled against the footway, were
picked up and eaten by ragged boys.

When he was taken before the Commissary
that official recognized him.

" Again, so soon ! " he said severely. " You
must be a confirmed law-breaker."

When he did not return to his home, his little
sister said —

" There ! did I not tell you ? He is lying
drunk in some ditch."

The poor dead woman was buried by the parish.



The money for the plums found on him had been
confiscated by the authorities. When Paolino's
trial came on he appeared imbecile. He was
sentenced to three days' imprisonment for having
hawked fruit in the streets without a licence ;
but he was condemned to seven months' im-
prisonment for disorderly conduct, and resistance
to the police, though he had made none.

This is how anarchists are begotten and
multiplied by law.




RUFFO was only twelve years of age, but he
remembered so many, many things, which had
no likeness to anything in his present existence,
that he thought he must be very old indeed.
He never spoke of these unforgotten things to
any one except Rufif, when they were together
at night in the straw of some stable or the
lumber of some loft. Ruff was always deeply
interested, having a past of his own of which he
could not speak, but which was always making
a faithful and tender heart ache wistfully.

What Rufifo remembered were blue seas, sweet-
smelling hills, big golden fruits, a hut among the
tamarisks, a woman who set him astride on her
neck and shoulders and ran with him into the
salt and sparkling foam, laughing and singing,
and lifting her face to his kisses. Who was she .-'
What were they ? When had it all been ?

Sometimes on dirty stalls, in the ugly English
streets with gas-jets glaring over them, he saw



the round yellow fruits which he had played
with amongst the flowers — poor oranges in exile,
so wrinkled, so dusty, so closely crammed in
crates or baskets, with the gas instead of the
sun shining on them. When he saw them he
always remembered more of the country of his
birth, and cried himself to sleep, with Ruff's
paws clasped round his neck.

He had been born in a village near Reggio,
in Calabria, and his name was Ruffo Anillino.
So much was on the municipal paper given
with him, which changed hands as he changed

He had been very little when his father had
been drowned in a hurricane, and his mother had
a year later died of cholera, and those relatives
who remained sold him to a foreign trader who
dealt in children, and who took him away in a ship.

That he did not recollect clearly, for he had
been sold many times since then, and had been
miserable always, and beaten and hungry, and
dragged through various countries and into
many cities and towns, so that his mind was
a dull, confused grey mass, in which only his
earliest memories were clear and sweet.

He was very small for his age, for he had



never had enough to eat ; very pale and thin, with
big dark eyes, which had the same patient, tired
sadness in them as had Ruff's, the Toby-dog.

They both belonged to a Punch and Judy
show — a poor show — which was ahvays moving
from place to place, and was never invited to
exhibit in houses at children's parties, but found
its public at country fairs and in common streets,
by wharf-sides and on village greens.

It was, perhaps, not worse for him than if he
had been sold to the sulphur mines, as so many
thousands of children are sold in Sicily ; but he
was sold, as utterly as they are, and was as help-
less as any poor pony in the coal-pits, or any
hapless ass turning a merry-go-round at a school
feast, or beaten by excursionists in Epping
Forest, or on Hampstead Heath. He did not
even dream of trying to end his servitude ; he
had not the faintest notion of where to go or
what to seek ; he knew nothing of any kind :
his only art was to make Punch play when his
owners were too drunk to do so, or, when they
took the show themselves, to grind the barrel-
organ and blow on the Pandean pipes.

But with these people his unhappy little lot
was less wretched than it had been before.



When they drank they beat hhn, but when
they were sober they were not unkind. He
liked the wandering life better than the organ-
grinding in London and other big towns ; and
then there was Rufif, his comrade, his consoler,
his fellow-sufferer, and fellow-slave.

Ruff was a little silver-grey Skye terrier. He
had been a happy and handsome little dog once,
who had slept on ladies' laps and on carriage
cushions, played on green lawns and eaten sugar,
worn silver bells and known pet names ; but the
young girl who had loved him had died in her
eighteenth year. Her parents, with true human
selfishness, gave him away, because the sight of
him increased their pain. Naturally, he escaped
from the big strange London house to which he
was taken, and tried to find his old home and
was lost in the maze of the stony streets of
Belgravia and clawed up by the Punch man,
whose Toby had died three days before. He
was shaved and faked that he might not be
known, kept on a chain, thrashed, and dressed,
and forced to play. His heart and his spirit
were broken, but he did not die. Dogs, like
men, often call on death in vain.

One day a little pale, dark-eyed, shivering lad



was brought by his owners to share his misery, and
from that day Ruffo and Ruff consoled each other.

When they were beaten they crept away and
kissed each other, and the pain seemed less.
When their stomachs were empty and their
bodies cold, they clung to each other in the
straw, and sobbed themselves to sleep. When
there was any sun, and there had been any
food, and in the rests between the exhibitions
the puppets lay in their box, and the man and
his wife were at the alehouse, Ruffo and Ruff
strayed away by themselves unnoticed on some

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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 4 of 12)