1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

. (page 6 of 12)
Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 6 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


their market baskets well filled upon their arms
stopped on their way home ; waggoners, carters,
yokels, and idlers joined the throng, and even
the market-women under their awnings turned
their heads towards Mr. Punch's temple,
and momentarily forgot their customers and
remembered their childhood.

Suddenly a big man strode through the crowd
and up to the little theatre.

"Stop that 'ere performance," he said, in
a loud, authoritative voice. " Dawg aren't
muzzled."

Ruffo lifted his eyes and ceased to blow on
the Pandean pipe and jingle the triangle.

He recognized the man who had collared
and threatened him in the lane ten days
before.

"Stop that 'ere performance," repeated the
man ; " muzzle the dawg ! "

Muzzle Toby ! The throng laughed jeeringly,
but murmured. Punch was popular, the police-
man was not.

" Muzzle the dawg," said the Jack-in-office ;
" matter o' public safety. Wheer's the
owner ? "

117



RUFFO AND RUFF

Ruffb threw the triangle down on the stones
and darted between the curtains.

" Oh, ma'am ! oh, ma'am ! They're after Ruff !
Give him to me and let me run ! "

"What?" bawled Mrs. Todd, who did not
understand.

It was the moment of dog Toby's ever-effective
appearance, and she clutched him fiercely round
the throat. Ruffo clasped him round the body ;
Ruff struggled to get out of the woman's hands
and escape to his friend. The red rough face of
the constable showed itself at the aperture over
the limp forms of Punch and of Judy lying
prone upon their wooden platform.

" Stop this 'ere performance," repeated the
constable, "leastways, till yer dawg be muz-
zled."

" Muzzled ? What rot be ye a-talkin' ? " said
Mrs. Todd, her head and shoulders with Ruff
clutched under her arm appearing above the
bodies of Punch and Judy.

" Rot ? I'll see yer rotted ! " said the guardian
of the public weal. " Law kem down 'ere last
night. My lords' horders. Board o' Agricultur'.
Every dawg en the County to be muzzled for a
year : wire muzzle. What's yer name ? Wheer's

iiS



RUFFO AND RUFF

yer 'abitation ? What's yer callin' ? Whcer's
yer receipt for dog-tax ? "

" He ain't a dog ; he's a Toby ! " screamed
Mrs. Todd. " He can't act if he's muzzled.
Irvin' hisself couldn't act in a muzzle, ye know
that, man. Git away and let the show go
on "

" I'll run yer in at onst, with yer cur and yer
little shaver, if ye don't kip a civil tongue in
yer head," yelled the man in authority.

The crowd behind him, though still laughing,
began to mutter rebelliously.

" Dog can't act if ye strap his mouth up," said
a sturdy blacksmith ; " and there ought to be
some notice aforehand to the public."

" Don't yer cheek me, or it'll be the wuss for
ye," said the constable, turning round ominously.
"The law's the law, and shell be respecket as
long as I'm in the force. Ye all o' ye know Job
Perrett. Woman, what's yer callin' ? Where's
yer receipt for dog-tax ? "

" Woman .^ Mef Hoity-toity!" screamed Jane
Todd in great wrath, but inwardly quaking and
quailing, and throttling poor Ruff under her
bony arm. "And Lord ! sakes, Mr. Perrett ! ye
knows us well enow. We've a-bin this round

119



RUFFO AND RUFF

full twenty year, if one, my man and me ; and

as for this pore little Toby Hold yer row,

child, can't ye? Yc'll only make matters
worse."

These last words she whispered savagely to
Ruffo, who clung to her skirts and to Ruff.

" Let 'em go on ! Let 'em go on ! " shouted
several people in the crowd.

'• 'Tain't fair to stop 'em in the middle," said
the sturdy smith.

Another constable came up.

"Ye can summon 'em, Job. Summon 'em.
That'll do."

"Ay, that'll do," said the crowd.

" There's lots o' dogs loose. Take 'em first,"
chimed Mrs. Todd. "This pore little Toby
can't hurt nobody."

" We'll take 'em up, all on 'em, don't ye fear,"
said Job Perrett, grimly. " But this 'ere Toby-
dog's a wicious cur, and dangerous to the public
safety. He's a'out a muzzle in a public place.
The law's the law, aren't it the law, Garge ? "

George, who was his fellow-constable, assented
somewhat unwillingly.

"Summon 'em. That'll do," he said again,
for the crowd was getting more and more out

120



RUFFO AND RUFF

of temper, ill-pleased with the muzzling order in
all its aspects, and irritated at having the show
stopped. At this moment Ruff succeeded in
his frantic struggles to free himself from the
suffocating grasp of Jane Todd, and even from
the beloved hands of Ruffo. He had recognized
Ruffo's enemy of the hawthorn lane, and leaped
on to the little platform where the fallen forms
of Punch and Judy were lying, and flew at the
constable, his whole little person quivering with
rage, his eyes blazing, and his small white teeth
gleaming. Job Perrett sprang backwards in a
paroxysm of terror, and the crowd, delighted,
cheered the dog. Ruff, for the moment vic-
torious, stood upon the ledge barking and
growling furiously, his frill trembling in his
spasms of rage, his cap and feather fallen on the
ground, his tail vibrating in fury beyond the
lappets of the coat. He paid no heed to Ruffo's
prayers and trembling appeals ; he had driven
back a foe ; he was pleased and glad once more
after so many miserable years.

"Ye're a good pluckt one, ye are!" shouted
the smith ; and the crowd cheered the little dog
again, and pelted the policemen with derisive



*-t>
names.

121



RUFFO AND RUFF

Ruff was very small, but in these moments he
looked almost as large as a lion, where he stood
above the prostrate puppets, with his head held
up in fearless wrath, challenging his foe to come
near him again if he dared.

" Summon 'em, summon 'em," muttered his
comrade George to Job Perrett. "That'll do.
Summon 'em."

" Summon 'em?" shrieked Perrett. " Summon
them — when they bring a mad dog in public?
Look at 'im ! 'E's ravin' mad ! I've a duty to
perform, and PU do it ! "

Little Ruff stood on the ledge above the form
of Punch, showing his pretty pearl-like teeth and
drawing his breath fast and furiously ; all his
gallant Scottish blood was on fire ; for once he
was wholly deaf to the voice of his friend. All
the bondage of five cruel years was forgotten ;
he was once more Lady Helen's darling, defying
all the bullies and all the cowards of the
world.

" P've a duty to do, and Pll do it," cried Job
Perrett. " Yah, yer little brute !— take that ! "

And with all the force of a very strong man
strung to the highest pitch by personal terror,
he swung his truncheon above his head and

122



RUFFO AND RUFF

brought it down with murderous weight on the
little silvery head of Ruff.

Ruff dropped like a stone ; his skull was
fractured.

A sullen roar of censure rose up from the
indignant crowd.

"Which be the brute now?" cried the black-
smith.

"The poor dear little dog, he hadn't done
naught ! " cried an apple-woman.

The storm of hisses grew loud ; the constables
left the show and faced the angry throng,
nervously conscious that they had public opinion
against them.

"Ye bully blackguards!" screamed Jane
Todd. " Todd will be fit to kill me when he
hears o't. Ye'vc spoilt my gains for the Lord
knows how long. 'Tis Black Saturday with
a vengeance. Afore we'll be able to train
another Toby "

She leaned out over the aperture, yelling and
sobbing, thinking only of her lost receipts and
of the difficulty of training a Toby.

In the noise, the confusion, the bawling, the
sympathy of the crowd, the turbulence of her
own outcries and lamentation, she never looked

123



RUFFO AND RUFF

down at the little murdered dog, or saw that
Ruflb, who had caught him as he fell, had
rushed out of the show with the warm quiver-
ing body of his little friend clasped tightly to
his chest.

Ruffb thought that he was only stunned. He
ran with the fleetness of a hunted hare through
two or three of the narrow old streets which
twisted round about the market place, and never
paused until he reached a farrier's shop in
a dusky lane. The farrier had a few days before
praised Ruff as a "rare thoro'bred un," and had
said it was a cruel shame to see such a dosf
come down to a Punch's show. Ruffo rushed
breathless into the shop, and found the good
man there.

"Oh, sir, look at him, please!" he cried.
" The wicked man has struck him — struck him
on his head. Pray— pray do look at him ; do
save him ! "

The farrier, startled, put on his spectacles,
and bent down to look at the little dog in the
boy's arms.

"Ay, ay! What a pity!" he said sadly.
" My poor lad, he isn't hurt ; he's dead ! "

"Dead!"

124



RUFFO AND RUFF

"Dead, sure enough. Look at that," said
the farrier, gently touching the blood-stained,
fractured little skull. "Who did it? 'Twas
a brutal deed."

"Dead ! " repeated Rufifo, stupidly.
He had not understood ; he had known that
Ruff was cruelly injured, but because the body
was still warm and the eyes still open, he had
not thought that it was death. He stood still,
holding Ruff to him, the dark blood staining
his shirt.

" Don't look like that, child," said the old
man, earnestly. " The poor little dog's dead,
sure enough ; but 'twas no fault o' yours, I'm
certain. Who did it ? "

Ruffo did not answer, or even seem to hear ;
his gaze was strained and fixed, his small brown
face ashen grey.

" Leave the body with me," said the old man,
meaning to be kind. " I've a bit o' garden at
the back, I'll bury him decent, under the
elder tree. You can come and dig the hole, if
you like."

Rufifo still did not seem to hear ; he kept the

head of Ruff pressed to him.

" The blood's a-spoiling your clothes," said

125



RUFFO AND RUFF

the farrier. " What's the matter, child ? Don't
look like that. They'll give ye another do^.
Come out into my bit o' garden."

He stretched his hand out to take the body
of Rufif, meaning well ; but Ruffo shrank from
him in a spasm of terror.

" Do not touch him, or I will kill you ! " he
hissed through his white pointed teeth, as
white and as pointed as were poor little Ruff's ;
his eyes were strained open to an abnormal size ;
his whole frame was convulsed. He rushed from
the shop and was out of sight down the lane
before the farrier had time to get to the door-
way and call after him to come back, saying no
harm had been meant.

Once across the threshold, Ruffo ran on and
on, blindly and aimlessly, along the crooked
lane, which was silent and empty, for its
inhabitants were at the market square.

Nobody stopped him, or even gave a thought
to him — a little, ill-clad, hungry-looking being —
with his tangled curls blowing in the north-west
wind. He held the body of Ruff close to his
chest, and the poor little blood-stained head
rested upon his right shoulder.

He ran on at first at a furious speed, then at

126



RUFFO AND RUFF

a more halting trot, then at a laboured, breath-
less pace ; but he covered much ground, and had
soon passed the limits of the small town and
gained the outlying country.

He was dimly conscious that all was calm
and cool around him ; that there were no more
walls or houses ; that there were groves and
hedges and tall trees in their stead, great wide
green fields, and a slow, winding river.

But he continued to run onward, though his
feet were sore and all his bones were aching.

Of physical pain he had no consciousness.
All he was sensible of was that Ruff was dead —
that he was all alone.

He ran on because he had only one instinct
left : to get away from the brutal town, from
the men and women, from the people who had
killed Ruff, and who would take Ruff out of his
arms and thrust him out of sight under the
earth.

Some haymakers looked at him.

" What's that queer-looking little chap
about? " said one.

Another answered :

" He've got a cur he's a-goin' to drown," for
from the distance of the meadow in which they

127



RUFFO AND RUFF

were mowing, they could not see that the dog
was dead.

" He looks rare queer," said the first man ; but
they did not think any more about him.

He had no clear thought, no definite object.
All he knew was that Ruff was dead, and that
they wanted to take the body of his friend away
from him. He ran on as a hunted creature does,
on the mere mad instinct to escape. He had no
idea where to go, or what he meant to do ; he
only wanted to escape from every one and hide
himself with Ruff.

His little dirty shabby figure toiled on along
the roads, passing from sunshine to shade, and
out of shade into sunshine, unmolested, until
roads ceased, all cultivated land was far behind
him,'and wide moors covered with gorse stretched
to the north, to the west, to the east. On the
south was a plain, but a liquid plain : blue,
silver, radiant, rippling, moving, heaving. It
was only the estuary by Christchurch, but
the tide was high, and the noon was bright,
and the water, usually so dull and sad, sparkled
in the unwonted light, and tumbled and played
joyously, blown by the south-west wind.

Ruffo, standing amongst ^the sand of the

128



RUFFO AND RUFF

mainland, saw the stir of waves for the first
time since he Had been brought to these English
shores. He thought it was the blue sea of his
memories, the southern sea of his lost home.

" Eccomi ! Eccomi ! " he cried, in the tongue
of his childhood. He was here. Did the sea
not know him ?

The sea was safety, refuge, peace ; the sea
would take him home !

With the body of Ruft" clasped to his breast,
and the small blood-stained head lying on his
shoulder, he ran down the slope of the downs to
the beach below, and across the beach to the
fringe of foam. The glad water leaped up and
frolicked about his weary limbs, and kissed his
bruised feet, and washed white the stunned brain
of little Ruff.

" Eccomi ! Eccomi ! " he cried again, and
with the dog's body locked in his arms he ran
farther, and farther, and farther into the fresh
cool waves.

The sea was merciful, and took them both.

In their death they were not divided.



129 K



EL BRUG



EL BRUG

"You must not speak if you are spoken to,
Palma," said her mother. " If they ask you
questions you must say nothing in reply ;
nothing, do you hear? Nothing. You must
not say what is untrue, but neither must you
tell the truth. Be silent, only silent, whatever
they may say or do. Do you understand me,
my beloved ? "

" Of course I understand," said Palma.

She was a child of ten years old, strong and
tall for her age ; lithe, agile, and flexible as a
stem of the bamboos in their old garden. She
was fair, with the warm, bright fairness of a
Veronese angel ; her skin was like the snows of
the Lombard Alps when the sunrise makes them
flush ; her eyes were dark, wide-open, fearless,
under level brows.

She answered her young mother briefly.

" I understand."

Her mother, Silvia Dolabella, looked at her

133



EL BRUG

wistfully. It was a frail bark to which to trust
so much sacred treasure.

"Your father's life is in your hands," she
murmured.

Palma nodded. There was a gleam of im-
patience in her eyes as of one who thought,
"What need is there to say the same thing
twice ? " She was a child of few words.

" Darling, do not be so cold," murmured Silvia
Dolabella. "You are so very young. To lay
such a load upon you ; it breaks my heart."

Palma pushed her hair up off her brow.

"I am little," she said; "but I am strong.
You should not doubt me, mother. He never
does."

She meant her father.

" I do not doubt you, love," said her mother.
" But you are a little angiolino in bronze ; you
are hard, Palma. When I clasp you to my
breast you are hard and cold, not as other
children are. And you are not with me as you
are with him ; you love him most, Palma."

The poor woman wept.

The child coloured. She did not deny the
charge.

"It is different," she said, after a pause,

134



EL BRUG

" But I love you, mother, too. Only you want
it said, and it teases me to say it. Things
like that do not want talking of; they lie
down, down, down, deep down — down ever so
far."

" You are a strange creature ; you are out
of my reach," said her mother, with a sigh.
"You have heard of too many grave things
and heard too much strange talk for your years.
You should be as the kids that frolic and lambs
that frisk."

"And they are hung up on nails and bled to
death," said Palma.

She had seen them hung up so, in dusky,
cavernous places in the old streets of her native
town, and the piteous bleating rang in her ears
at night, and the scent of blood on the air was
smelt by her in her dreams, and she had always
refused to eat of Easter lamb or of Pentecost
kid. Her mother had only laughed good-
naturedly ; but her father had said, in his pleasant
serious tones :

" Little one, you do well."

That had been in the old happy days at
Gallarate, days which seemed so very long ago
to Palma, and to her mother also: the days

135



EL BRUG

before Lelio Dolabella's arrest, when they had
all been living together in the old thirteenth-
century house built in what was in ancient times
called the Piazza of Pasquee. Dolabella was a
young man : he had married early a pretty and
not very wise young girl ; he was an advocate
by calling, but all his heart and soul and mind
were centred in the burdens of the people and
the doctrines of the future. He was extremely
beloved in Gallarate, and his slender form, his
handsome face, his far-reaching, silvery voice,
were well known all over the Lombard province.
In an evil day for him the attention of those in
authority was drawn to his public addresses. It
was at the time when Francesco Crispi was
imitating, in his brutal burlesque, the proscrip-
tions of Sylla ; martial law was everywhere
established, the prisons were full of young men
Vvho had no crime save to denounce conscription
and desire liberty, and Dolabella was arrested
with other of his fellow-citizens under the usual
accusation of inciting to class-hatred and revolt
against authority. For this his wife said to his
child :

" You must never speak ; neither the truth nor



a lie."



1^6



EL BRUG

*' They may cut me in pieces, they will not
make me say a word," thought the child, as
others as valorous had vowed it before her on
the old Italiote soil.

They had been so happy together in the old
home, which was now ruined, like a bird's-nest
shaken down in a storm. The house was still
over their heads indeed — the dear old, dark,
kind house, with gleams of gold on its cornices,
and faded frescoed shapes upon its chamber
walls, with its great arched nail-studded door,
and its winding stone stair, and its nook of
garden-ground between machicolated walls,
green and damp with overgrowth of bay and
laurel.

But he who had been its sunlight and its
keystone, its keeper and master, was there no
more, would never be there again. His step
would fall no more on the old stones of the
silent street ; his smile would brighten no more
the gloom of the vaulted stair. Never again
would she sit in the recess of the grated window
watching through the bars for his coming. Even
though he escaped, even though he lived, there
he would never come again. She knew that,
and it was a knowledge too heavy for her years.

^17



t>



EL BRUG

She was only a young child, and she knew the
" viaggior dolore " of Dante.

" He has done no harm," she said to an old
man, his friend and her godfather.

" He has loved men," said the old Garibaldian,
bitterly. " There is no beast so ingrate to those
who serve it, so base to betray, so quick to forget
as the human beast."

" I know," said Palma, and it seemed to her
as if she had lived hundreds of years, and was as
old as the little church of San Pietro, hard by,
which they said had been there before the advent
of Christ.

She had been sitting with her father under
the old cypress in the garden one sunny fore-
noon, when the guards had entered without
warning or explanation, and had laid their
hands on him, and had put their irons on his
wrists, holding their revolvers to his temples.

'•What is my crime?" he had said, with
serenity ; they had not replied, except with
oaths, and two of them had pushed him out
through the garden postern door, forcing the
child aside, while others had rifled the house,
and ransacked his desks and coffers, and seques-
trated his papers.

1^,8



EL BRUG

" Be quiet, love ; I shall be back In an hour ;
it is a mistake," he had said ; and then the
garden-door had been shut on him, and she had
been left alone, while the armed men had broken
open locks, and emptied cabinets, and piled
letters and documents together and sealed them.

But he had not come back ; not in an hour,
or in a day, or in a week, or in a month. He
had been taken away to another town, in
another province, to be judged by martial law,
and they heard naught from him, only of him
from rumour, and friends, and the Liberal press.
Her mother had a little money, not much ; most
of it had been sequestrated ; they lived on this ;
the old grey house was their own. Her mother
sold her beautiful pearls and the old silver plate
and other things of value to send to pay for his
defence by lawyers. But no defence by counsel
was allowed to such prisoners as he, except such
as might be made by some military man selected
for that purpose by the court.

Neither Palma nor her mother had understood
much ; they were like a doc and a fawn who see
the stag, their sole protector, pulled down by
hounds afar off, and strain their eyes and ears, and
scream piteously, and are unheeded and unpitied.

139



EL BRUG

Their neighbours and friends did not, indeed,
forsake them, but were timid in showing
sympathy, for fear of being drawn into any
trouble themselves. A great terror was on the
country at that time, in the ninety-fourth year of
this dying nineteenth century. All the Gallara-
tese knew that Lelio Dolabella was as innocent
as a white wind-flower of any ill-doing ; but he
was accused of treason, of conspiracy, of agita-
tion, of setting class against class, of preaching
subversive doctrine. They were afraid to show
him and his any sympathy, lest they should
draw down upon themselves suspicion and
domiciliary visits and arbitrary arrest. Bad
government is like a virus in the blood of the
people ; it poisons the very marrow of their spine
and makes the manliest a craven. When you
cannot sit at a public table without a spy elbow-
ing you, or walk a step without hearing the click
of spurs and sabres behind you, or discuss the
news in your daily journal in the street without
the risk of a hand gripping your shoulder, you
lose nerve, you cease to be yourself; to use the
expression of Georges Darian, you are not a
coward, but you are a craven.

When her mother said in Palma's hearing

140



EL BRUG

that the sorrow and misery would not have
come on them if only he would have minded his
own welfare and occupied himself with his own
affairs, and let the State bide in its own wicked-
ness and the people look to their own grievances,
Palma's eyes seemed to burn up her very soul ;
those eyes said without words: "You are his
wife, I am his child ; we belong to him ; cannot
Ave, at least, be worthy of him ? "

Poor Silvia sighed and was mute. She did
not dare to say, but she thought : What good
had he done with his eloquence and his altruism ?
Had not other young men gone into exile or
prison through his influence ? Were not other
women made desolate like her ? And what had
his efforts changed? Were not his proselytes
scattered like sheep, those strayed who were not
slaughtered ? What had he been able to alter ?
What had he gained in return for their desolated
hearths, their severed lives, their broken hearts ?
She loved him dearly, but she felt bitterly
against him for the wreck he had made of their
happiness.

She was a young woman, rather helpless, a
little pleasure-loving in a harmless, feminine
way ; her husband had been torn from her, her

141



EL BRUG

home had been ruined, her money had been
confiscated ; she saw herself, for no fault, shunned
by her old acquaintances ; she was frightened,
cowed, miserable ; it was not wonderful if she
wished that her lot had been cast with those
who heeded neither politics nor "people, if it
seemed to her that charity should lie first at
home. But when she had said this thing she
was afraid of the look which came on her child's
face. Never had she seen on it so much scorn.

The little city of Gallarate is despoiled of
most of that beauty which it possessed in the
time of Visconti and Caracciolo, and the curse
of modernity has fallen upon it, heavier and


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 6 of 12)