1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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gorse-covered common, down some lonely lane,
through some cowslip meadows, or over some
tracks of heather. Often stones were thrown
at them, sometimes they were kicked through
a hedge, often they were told that these fields
and commons " weren't for the likes of them ; "
but at other times some good-natured woman
gave them a drink of milk, some cottage girl a
bit of bread, or an old labourer, resting his
rheumatism in the sun, shared with them his
rusty bacon and crusty loaf

" Why, yee and yer cur ain't nought but skin
and bone," said an old gaffer once. " Play
actin' is ye ? Ay, that's a bad trade."



"Would they take us on one of the farms,
do you think, sir? " asked Ruffo in his plaintive
broken English.

" Navv, they oodn't, child," said the old man,
pleased to be called " sir." " Ye'd not be a scrap
o' use, and farmers doan't cotton to furriners."

" Are we furriners ? " asked Ruffo, vaguely
understanding the disqualification.

"Ees, yeebe — leastways, dawg I dawn't know;
but there's no doubt ye've some tarnation lingo
o' yer own, my lad ; ye speak so mighty

" Do I, sir ? " asked Ruffo, sorrowfully ; he
could not see in what his speech differed from
that of the natives. "Ruff is English," he
added, in the hope that his companion would
find more favour than himself.

But the labourer shook his head.

" Dawgs they hev a bad time o't nowadays.
He's a play-actin' dawg is yourn ; he aren't a
ratter ; nobody 'd take him nowhere."

"What is a ratter. Ruff?" asked Ruffo, as
they went away under the shade of hawthorn
trees. Ruff did not know. Before this miserable
time of " play-actin'," he had been always with
his dear young mistress, driving behind her



ponies, trotting in her shadow, leaping to catch
her tennis-ball, running to pick up her glove,
sleeping on her pretty white bed.

His soft dark eyes, so like Rufifo's own, looked
up woefully ; they said as plainly as words
could have done, " Oh, if I could tell you about
her ! Oh, why did she die, and leave me ? "

He trotted on slowly and sadly by Ruffo's
side, thinking wistfully and wearily, as dogs do
think so often, of a life which they have loved
and lost. He wondered, as Ruffo wondered,
where had it all been ? When had it all been ?
What had he done that he should be so cruelly
punished ? Where was his dear Lady Helen ?
He remembered lying on her bed during her
illness, and being frightened because at the last
she was so cold and silent ; and being carried
away by force from her side, and locked up in
a distant room by the housekeeper; and after
that he had never seen her again, and he had
been sent away from the home where he had
been so happy with her, though he did not
think he had done anything wrong to deserve
such punishment ; he had heard them say she
was dead. What did " dead " mean ?

Ruff's little mind worried over all these

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questions, and memories, and sorrows, as he went
down the green cart-track under the hawthorns,
even as Ruffo's mind wandered back to the
shining silver sands, and the blue water, and
the green boughs with their fruit of gold, and
the smiling face of the young mother, rosy
and warm with the sun. Neither of them could
clearly understand what they had lost, or why
they had lost it, but their hearts ached none
the less for that.

Then, after an hour or two of freedom and
peace, they returned to their bondage ; to the
whip, and the drudgery, and the toil of the per-
formances in the lanes and streets of the small
boroughs, where the show was most welcome.

But these brief hours of peace and liberty
kept them alive ; kept them from sinking under
the privations and punishments which were their
daily lot, for though they both tried to do
their best, Todd and his wife were never con-
tented, and were almost always more or less in

Whenever the receipts were meagre, both
Ruffo and Ruff were beaten, though it was no
fault of theirs if the audience was a scanty one
or the neighbourhood very poor.



More than once Todd had been fined for
cruelty to them ; but that did no good either
to the boy or the dog. He paid the money,
but they paid in added pain.

" Pray, sir, don't summon him," said Ruffo
one day to a benevolent person, indignant to see
the wheals and cuts on the child's skin. "He
only gives it us worse the more he has to pay."

"But he should have a month in gaol 1" said
the philanthropist,

"And when he came out, sir, he'd kill us
both, sir."

" But I would put you in an industrial school,
where he could not get at you."

" And Ruff, please ? "

" Oh, the dog ! The dog would be taken by
the police."

" Then I'll stay with Todd," said Ruffo, and,
to the gentleman's indignant surprise, he took
to his heels as fast as he could run, followed
closely by Ruff, and darted into a dark alley
and was lost to sight.

To Ruffo's relief, Todd left that little town
the same afternoon, having taken fright at
questions that had been asked of him there
concerning his right to the child.



" I bought him. Didn't I buy him, the little
dirty wretch ? " he said to his wife. " Gave
three good yellow-boys for him, and that's
two more than he's wuth — lazy forrin scum
as he be."

Mrs. Todd demurred. To her Ruffo was very
useful ; she made him cook and sweep, and
fetch and carry, and buy drink for her unknown
to her husband, and even wash her clothes in
running water ; and he was such a httle fool
she could make him do anything if she gave
the dog a good meal.

" He'd rayther the dawg ate than eat hisself,"
she said to her friends. " He must be a dratted,
half-witted little simpleton. Never seed a lad
in all my days as 'ud rayther a dawg ate than
eat hisself."

But however foolish he might be, he was
well worth the three pounds he had cost to
his owners.

If he could only get back to the sun and
the sea and the oranges, and take Ruff there !
Alas ! he did not know it, but he had little
brothers and cousins yonder, where the oranges
grew, as ill off as himself and, perhaps, worse
off; little fair-haired slaves of the sulphur, little



Carusi, half-naked, half-blind, toiling up and
down all day long with the blistering mineral
on their backs, sold into bondage as he had
been, and seeing no hope or likelihood of deliver-
ance from one year's end to the other. Poor
little Carusi ! They only saw the sun through
their smarting, reddened eyes ; the lizards
played on the grass, but they toiled from dawn
to dark ; the oranges grew ripe in the warm
sea wind, but no drop of the juice of the fruit
moistened their parched cracked lips ; poor
slaves of the great grinding wheel of Com-
merce, born where all Nature is glad, except
themselves, and the weary, footsore mules
who toil with them.

But Ruffo knew nothing of their fate ; he
only knew his own troubles and Ruff's, as they
trudged along the dust and the slush of English
roads, in company with Punch and Judy.
Ruffo pushed a hand-cart on which the show,
taken to pieces, was packed ; and when Todd
was not with them, or was in a good humour,
he made Ruff a bed on the cart to save
his tired feet, for Ruff got soon foot-sore,
having all his previous life been used to
running on garden lawns and in grassy lanes,



and to being driven about lying on carriage

The hand-cart was heavy, and the roads were
usually bad from either drought or rain, and
the child's strength was exceedingly small.
One day he and the cart reached a little town
on the western border of Hampshire, seven
miles from the sea ; it was ancient and cheerful
and quiet, with its streets touching fields and
woods, and its scanty population neighbourly
and kind. Todd had relations there, and
stayed longer than it was his usual habit to
remain in one place, and Rufifo and Ruff had
time to grow popular there. Their owners
were jealous, and apprehensive of interference ;
but even they saw that it was in their interests
to let the boy and the dog become friends with
those inclined to befriend them. Mrs. Todd
contented herself with emptying Ruffo's pockets
whenever she could, and giving Ruff nothing
at all to eat, alleging that he got so much from
other folks that he grew fat and lazy.

" I'll teach you to go a-whining to folks as
if ye weren't fed," said Mrs. Todd, so that the
more fortunate he was in getting something to
eat from the public pity the more unfortunate



was he in incurring her wrath and feeh'ng it
likewise on his poor little bones.

The Todds had a good many old friends in
and around this place, and Rufifo and Ruff
obtained more leisure than usual because the
performances were less frequent than in larger
and less hospitable neighbourhoods. Punch and
Judy remained undisturbed in their box, and
the boy and the dog could escape into the
pleasant country round about the little borough.
One morning early they had got out thus into
the country whilst their owners were sleeping
the heavy sleep of the drunkard. The air
was sweet and fresh, for it was midsummer ;
birds sang ; cattle standing in shallow reaches
of reedy water looked so contented and peace-
ful that Ruffo wished he were one of them.
It was an old-fashioned bit of rural England,
with thatched houses hidden in orchards, and
a tall spire rising amidst tall elms, and sandy
roads, narrow and grass-grown running up and
down under overhanging hawthorns and high
banks fragrant with flowers. Ruffo felt the
peace of it all sink into his little tired soul.

Ruff rambled a little here and there, eating
a blade or two of dog grass, paddling his often



cracked and sore little feet in the rivulets of
water, remembering just such lanes as this,
or just such mornings as this, when he had
been Lady Helen's pet, with his silver bell
on his blue ribbon. When had that been ?
Why could he never find that place? Why,
in all his wanderings, could he never see it
again ? W^hat makes dogs sufifer so much and
so long is the great constancy of their affections
and tenacity of their memories, coupled to
that cruel bondage, and the impossibility of
following their instincts, in which nine out of
ten of them spend their unpitied lives.

Ruffo was thinking how glad he would be
if they both could get taken on one of these
farms which looked so pleasant to him, and
of whose bereaved cow-mothers in their stalls,
and poor calf-children sent to slaughter, and
hardly-worked carthorses, and starved sheep,
dogs, and chickens choked with crammed
gullets, and poisoned blackbirds and mavises
in the orchards he knew nothing : the green
fields looked so fresh and cool and quiet, the
sheep so white and fat, the great stacks of
corn so promising of plenty.

In the midst of his reverie a thing of steel,



half-beast, half-bird, all made of metal, whizzed
down the grassy lane and knocked him over,
grazed him, maimed him, and vanished, a shrill,
unkind laugh whistling through the air.

Ruff, roused from his reverie, dashed after
the offender with an angry volley of barks ;
but the bicycle was already out of sight in
the green haze of the leafy distance.

Ruff ran back to his fallen friend and covered
him with kisses, whining eloquently.

" It doesn't hurt much," said Ruffo to console
him, though showers of sparks seemed to fill
the air, and a buzzing like a swarm of bees
was in his ears ; he felt himself anxiously all
over. If anything in him were broken, what
would his master say to him ? They would
drive him away, or send him to a hospital, he
thought, and then what would happen ? He
would never see Ruff: Ruff would be taken
away with the show to who could tell what
villages or towns and unknown places.

"I think I'm quite whole, Ruff; he didn't
break me," he said, after stretching and pinch-
ing each of his limbs, as he had seen men do
when they had a fall or an accident ; he ached
all over, but he had no bones fractured or



sprained. " How glad I am it wasn't you,
Ruff! — it would have killed you, the wicked
byke ! " he murmured to the dog, who whined
again, but now, with pleasure, leaping up into
his arms.

A large shadow loomed across the sunlit turf
of the lane.

"What be you a-doin' here? Tramps, I
reckon," said a big, burly man who came
through a break in the hedge ; he was one
of the policemen of the town, but he had his
house and his family under the hawthorn trees
in this lane.

Ruffo knew what " tramp " meant ; he hurried
to pull off his little shabby hat, and answer.

"Oh no, sir, we are not tramps," he said,
in very frightened tones. " Ruff is dog Toby,
and I'm the pipes."

" What rot's that ? " bawled the man.

" Please, sir, it's truth," said Ruffo, piteously.
" If you ask for Mr. Todd at the "

"Ye're Todd's brat, are you?" said the giant,
standing over them in grim contempt. " Todd's
a blaggard, and ye' re a little rip ; been stealin'
eggs, I'll be bound. Let me catch ye at it ! "

Ruffo's small brown thin face grew red. At

1 06


times, when there was a safe occasion Todd
made him get Inside fowl-houses and bring
him out eggs, or even a pkimp pullet. He
did not like doing It — he never did it on his
own account — but it was always with Todd a
question of prompt obedience or the stick ;
and Todd, who was shrewd, had come to
perceive that It hurt Rufifo more to see Ruff
beaten than It did to be beaten himself.

" Let me catch ye at it!" said the big man,
savagely ; and to confirm his threat he took
Ruffo's ragged jacket In his hand, lifted him up
by It, and shook him.

Ruffo screamed, for he already felt sore and
aching all over from his fall. Ruff flew at the
constable's legs.

" Down, Ruff— oh dear, Ruff, don't ! — pray,
pray, pray don't ! " he cried in terror ; for it was
not the first time that Ruff had taken his part
and suffered cruelly for it.

" Get out, you vermin ! " said the man, and
gave a kick which would have brained or
crippled the little dog if he had not dodged It
and got between Ruffo's ankles, growling and
waiting for attack.

Rufifo fell on his knees.



" Kill me, sir ! I don't mind. Do kill me, if
you like ; but pray, pray don't hurt Ruff. He
doesn't mean to be rude. He only wants to
take care of me."

" Ye're a pretty pair ! " said the man ; but he
took his hand off Ruffo's jacket. " Todd '11
hear my mind about ye."

Ruffo shivered ; but he was silent, pressing
his knees convulsively upon Ruff's sides to keep
him quiet.

"Ye'll be in gaol afore new moon, and yer
little beast '11 get his dose of arsenic," said the
man. " Hi, be off with ye both, or I won't
answer to keep my hands off of ye."

Ruffo stumbled stupidly on to his feet, caught
Ruff in his arms, and took to flight as fast as
his aching limbs would let him go over the
grassy wheel-tracks of the steep country lane.

He clasped Ruff to his chest closer and closer
as he stumbled on his way, hugging him so
tightly that the little dog was half stifled. But
they were both safe for the present hour.

The big burly man looked after them with
unfriendly eyes.

" Long's muzzHn' regulation '11 soon be coming
round to us," he said to himself, *' and then



we'll pay 'em out — the dirty little furrin brat
and his durned cur : there ought to be one law
all over the country for vagabones and dawgs."

Rufifo and Ruff reached the pothouse where
Todd and his wife, and Punch and his wife,
were housed on the outskirts of the little rural
town, and got back to the loft in which they
slept before the absence of either had been
noticed by their owners. In an hour's time they
went out with the show and with Mrs. Todd
alone, for her husband was still sleeping off his
drink ; Ruff imprisoned in his usual costume,
and Ruffo staggering under the weight of the

It was a fine evening, with a south wind after
rain ; many people were out in their cottage
gardens or strolling along the roads and streets.
It was known that it was one of their last
appearances in that town, and they had con-
siderable success. Ruffo's back and limbs
ached terribly ; but he tried not to think about
them, and played on the pipes with as much
spirit as though he had been a little fairy
making music in the glades of Arcady. Ever
and again he looked up at Ruff above him on
the platform of the show, and smiled at him ;



and Ruff looked down and wagged his tail
where it peeped out from under the little red
coat in which he was dressed, so sadly to his
own discomfort.

When the performance was ended Ruff
walked about amongst the people holding a
little tray strapped to his right paw. It was
the part of all his compulsory duties which he
hated the most. To stand, or walk erect, is
always very painful to any dog, and strains
their muscles cruelly, and Ruff was wounded in
his pride as well ; he could not endure to beg,
he who had been Lady Helen's darling, and
had the blue blood of Scotland in his veins.
Ruffo also could never bear to see him in that
cap and coat, begging, to the laughing, jeering,
unkind idlers, and as soon as he dared he
slipped in through the throng, and unstrapped
the tray from the little dog's paw, and went
round himself, to spare his friend, and the tray
was soon heavy with pence, and there were even
a few sixpences and threepenny-bits amongst
them that evening.

Ruffo's face always touched the well-springs
of pity in the hearts of some of the mothers ; it
was such a wan and weary little face, with its



great starry eyes, and the thick auburn curls,
dusty and tangled, above the low brow.

** He looks homesick, he dew," said one of the
matrons. " Yer come from over seas, don't ye,
little man ? "

"Yes, ma'am," said Ruffo, humbly : he knew
that he had been brought over a wild waste of
waters, and that they called those waters a sea.

The good soul went into a baker's shop and
bought some stale rolls and a square of ginger-
bread, and shoved them into Rufifo's pocket.

'' Eat 'em when ye get home, child ; ye look
more'n half-starved."

Rufifo's eyes glistened ; for once he hoped he
and Ruff would have enough to eat when they
went to bed.

But Mrs. Todd was looking at him from
where she stood in the distance, guarding the
theatre and the puppets. He was never allowed
to keep anything that the public gave him. He
might learn to get habits of independence. She
wrenched the bread and cake away from him as
soon as she could do so unseen, and then boxed
his ears because he burst out crying, and cuffed
Ruff because in sympathy he howled.

" Gived yer, was it ? Yer own, was it .-' I'll



teach yer to think as the likes o' you can have
proputty ! " she said viciously, and drummed on
his head with the wooden money-tray.

And Ruff and he were sent supperless to their
bed in the straw.

" That good woman said ' home,' Ruff — what
is 'home'?" ^said Rufifo, hugging his fellow-
victim in the dark. "We haven't any home,
Ruff, you and I haven't any."

Ruff would have said, if he could have
spoken : " We have made a home in each
other's heart."

They sobbed themselves to sleep ; the painful,
restless, fitful sleep of those whose stomachs are
empty ; and Ruffo dreamed of the bright blue
sea and the shining sand, and the feathery
tamarisks, and Ruff dreamed of his lost little
lady as he had seen her last — so white, so still,
with her golden hair lying on the pillows, and
her motionless hands crossed on her chest, the
small soft hands which had never touched him
save to caress.

Who cared what dreams they had, or what
hunger they felt, a little Italian beggar boy, and
a dog Toby ?

Ruffo was sorry when, a few days later, he



heard Todd say that they should move on the
day after the morrow. Todd seldom stayed
long in any place ; he was nowhere popular
with authority, and small thefts from poultry
yards and fruit gardens and rabbit hutches were
always more frequent in any neighbourhood he
honoured with his presence.

" 'Tis fine bright weather, and we'll best move
on across the Dossetshire border," Ruftb heard
him say to his wife, who demurred that they
were doing very well where they were.

" Ay, ay, well enough ; but 'tis allcrs best to
keep moving," said Todd,

Movement was agreeable to Todd ; he went
third class by rail himself everywhere, and left his
" old woman " to toil on foot as she might,
driving on Ruffo before her ; sometimes getting
a lift on a carrier's cart, but not often, being
afraid to let her little slaves out of her sight.

" He may go and hide somewheres with that
dawg," she said to herself. " Child'en is that

But for four days more they were to remain
in this friendly little town, with its grass-grown
hilly streets and its square church tower where
the owls built, and its sweet scents of hay, and

113 I


of strawberries blown in from the surrounding

The little town had a market, and a market
day, when there were many country people, and
much open-air traffic, and loud bleating of
frightened sheep, and lowing of calves, and cack-
ling of hens, and crowing of barndoor monarchs,
and heaps of fresh vegetables and sheaves of
herbs and big bunches of homely roses, wall-
flowers, and clove pinks.

Above the market stalls with their leathern
awnings and wooden trestles there was a blue
sky, and it made that vague but unforgotten past
stir in Ruffo's mind as he stared up at it. It
was so seldom he saw a blue sky now ; and then,
by that train of connecting thoughts to which
learned people give a long name, there came
back to him the memories of the seashore, and
the orange boughs, and the laughing face of his
mother, and he ceased to see anything that was
actually around him.

" Was there iver yer like ? Drat ye fur dream-
in' and gapin' ! Wake up, and custoom the
dawg ! " screamed Jane Todd in his ear.

Rufifo started and opened frightened eyes
upon the scene before him ; the low homely



houses, the ranges of stalls and skips and bar-
rows, the country folks jostling one another ; the
solemn grey church closing one end of the square.
He took up Ruff tenderly and put on his little
red coat, his frill, and his cap and feather, then
kissed the little dog upon his nose to lessen the
humiliation. No amount of usage ever made
his travesty less hateful to poor Ruff, and his
eyes as dark and almost as large as Ruffo's own,
and equally full of wondering dumb sorrow,
gazed v/oefully out from the shade of the plumed
cap which was tied under his chin, and which,
he felt, made him look so ridiculous.

Some street boys were looking on and
laughing and pointing at him. Ruffo made
haste to disappear with him behind the drapery

of the show.

" There is nothing to mock at us for, darling

Ruffie ! " he murmured to his fellow-sufferer.

" Oh, if I could only run in on them with a

knife ! "

For Ruffo had slumbering in him, though

chilled and slackened by privation and fear, the

hot blood of southern mariners who had been

wont for generations to pay affronts with steel.

When the English children grinned and pointed



at his beloved four-footed friend he felt all his
hot blood boil in his little jaded, tired body. He
was a gentle little soul, with almost all spirit
beaten out of him, but he came of a fiery and
dauntless race, and he would not have been a
Calabrian if he had not felt a jeer still more
unendurable than a blow.

" Laugh ! Laugh ! Laugh ! " he said, with
his small white teeth clenched ; " laugh, you
boors, you asses ! You are not worth one hair
of Ruff's head ! "

" What bosh be yer a-mutterin' ? " said Mrs.
Todd. " Why, them boys could smash yer in a
jiffey, as if yer was a dumbledore. Yer mind
and keep a civil tongue in yer 'ead. 'Tis well
for ye as yer speaks so queer like as yer bain't
easy onderstood. 'Ere, give me the dawg and
get yer out with the music."

Ruffo obeyed, for her heavy hands pushed
him outside the curtain, and the pipes and the
triangle duly announced the approaching per-
formance of Mr. Punch, whilst Mrs, Todd within
grasped Ruff and the puppets to begin the
familiar, but ever-attractive tragedy. At the
sound of the " music " the street boys, already
in front of the show, were joined by others ;



children ran from all quarters, servants who had

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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 5 of 12)