1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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more destroying than the mailed hand of
Frederic Barbarossa. But there are still to be
found in it ancient nooks of peace, and nobly
designed houses, like the house of the Dolabella,
and beyond it there still stretches, in all its wild
and natural freedom, the solitude of vast, un-
broken moorlands, covered with what is called,
in the dialect of the district, el b rug : the heather.
The fumes of gaseous vapours and the clouds of
factory smoke may hang over the town, and
bawling vendors and fussing clerks may throng
the great colonnaded court of its Broletto, but



neither stench nor uproar reaches the vast
silences of the Brughicra, where the odour of
musk and thyme and the hum of bees and the
whirr of wings alone are smelt and heard.

Before her father's arrest, the very happiest
hours of her always happy life had been passed
on the Brughiera, especially on that great portion
of it which lies between seven villages and is
known by the name of Gradanasca, or Malpensa,
for it is these moors which lie nearest of all to
the gates of Gallarate.

Her father went there to read the works of the
leaders of his school of thought, and to write
his memoranda for those improvised lectures
with which he stirred the souls and roused the
spirits of the operatives of the town — weavers,
spinners, glass-workers, button-makers, copper-
smiths — who were moved by him as by no other
because he, born a citizen of Gallarate, addressed
them in that strange and resonant dialect which
is unintelligible to all outside the limits of what
was once the great Castrum Seprium.

Dolabella was a man of fine culture and
academic training ; but the local dialect was
dear to him as to Gallaratese of all classes, with
its sonorous vocables, its resonant consonants,



and its picturesque images. One of the greatest
crimes imputed to him was that he used the
vernacular in his addresses to the populace, and
opposed the use of anything else in the public
schools ; and therefore he was idolized by the
people and understood even by the rude husband-
men of the plain, who flock into the town with
their raw silk, their hay, and their grapes, and
to whom no single word of Italian, or even of
Milanese, is comprehensible.

" It was these dialects which were spoken at
Legnano, the Marathon of Lombardy," Dolabella
replied to his accusers. " V altera parola che il
Canth dira."

But this reply was regarded by the military
tribunal as a revolutionary insolence, and cost
him dear.

Palma, although she could read and write
Italian, never spoke anything except the dialect,
and therefore the heath she loved so well, with
its white bells and its honey odour, was to her
as to the people, el brug. She always wore a little
sprig of it in her belt or in her bosom ; while
she was shut up in the town it spoke to her of
the wide sea of blossom, of the fresh pungent
smell, of the clear azure sky, of the hawk and



kite sailing aloft, of the plover and the lark
nesting in its shelter, of the hare nibbling at
its shoots.

Her mother had never at any time gone to
the moors ; she was one of the many women to
whom all outside the streets seems barbarous
and desolate. Now that Palma was alone she
would not let the child go to them.

" Without your father you would be lost in
those dreadful wild places," she said obstinately.

Palma replied —

" In the blackest night I should find my way."

" Who would show it you ? "

" Who shows theirs to the shrew-mouse and
the mole ? "

She pined for the Brughiera. She was so
used to its solitudes, its liberties, its vast hori-
zons, its sweet, savage odours ; her father had
seemed to her king of its wilderness. Her
mother took her every morning and evening
to pray, for their prisoner, in the little Church of
San Pietro ; but it seemed to her that she could
pray for him so much better and so much more
hopefully if she could only get out to the open
heaths. It was now the time when the heath
was in blossom, all its little bells full of honey,

145 L


Once she asked her old godfather to take
her to the Gradanasca. But he said, "Your
mother says no, dear. We must not add to her
sorrows." So she was cooped up in the town,
and the long, empty, mournful days slipped away
and they had no news, and the police stalked
in and out of the house whenever they chose,
and seized the letters which came by post and
peered into the cupboards and coffers.

" Then they wonder that mild men grow into
murderous anarchists," whispered the old volun-
teer. " It was not for this that we fought with
the Milanese in the Cinque Giornate, and that
Garibaldi harangued us, the fifth regiment of his
levies, from the balcony yonder in the Via

The child knew by heart all the history of
those times ; her grandfather and two of his sons
had been killed in the 'Sixty-six, and no one
knew the place where their graves were made.

Her great sorrowful eyes looked at the men
of the Questura when they came about the house
with such hatred and disdain that they menaced
her with oath and gesture.

" 'Twere best that this little mastiff bitch-pup
should be strung up by the neck," said the



brigadier ; but had they not as yet received
permission to slaughter children, though, as
the brigadier observed, if you killed a swarm
of vipers, why not also the progeny of Socialists
and anti-Monarchists ? The public weal should
go, he said, before all.

One day they learned through the public press
that Dolabella had escaped from the prison at
Milan, in which he had been vainly awaiting his
trial for many months, having been constantly
called up for examination and remanded. It
seemed to Palma as if the very Angel of the
Annunciation had brought the tidings, coming
into the house on a ray of heavenly light, as he
was portrayed in the old pictures.

She was mute, but her face was so transfigured
that the men of the Questura, who redoubled
their vigilance around and about the house, said
to one another —

" The little beast knows where he is."

But neither she nor her mother knew, and
only at dead of night in their chamber did they
dare to whisper to each other.

" We shall hear from him ; maybe we shall
see him ; he will dare anything to come to see
us if he be living."



And Palma thought, " If he have really got
free he has come to the Brughiera." Did not
he and she know what an impenetrable shelter
the heath afforded ? Had they not explored
old subterranean chambers, vaults of dismantled
fortresses, caves of vanished peoples, lairs of
animals, in the tufa and the sandy soil ? Over
that vast and unbroken level could not any one
lying unseen under the heath, see the approach of
a foe leagues away ? Oh yes ! if he were living,
if he were really at liberty, it was to his own
beloved Brughiera that he would surely come.

She knew one place of all others which she
and he had explored together ; a lower chamber
or dungeon of some long-vanished I'occa (castle)
completely hidden by the heather growth, and
tapestried by the moneywort and the ivy-leaved
toad-flax. They had cleared it a little, and put
seats of moss in it, and there had passed many
of the hot hours of midsummer days, while the
sun tried in vain to penetrate its cool green
twilight. That was where he would come if he
had indeed escaped. The improbability that he
would be able to come so far without recapture
did not occur to her. She was accustomed to
think that he could work miracles.



The persuasion that he was on the Brughiera
grew so strong on her that she felt as intense an
instinct to escape there as any poor wild bird
taken among the heath and caged in Gallarate.
When her mother one night, frightened, joyful,
tremulous, awoke her from sleep, told her that
he was indeed as near them as the Gradanasca,
and would come disguised if he could to bid
them farewell before he crossed the Alps, Palma
was not surprised ; she had been so sure of it,

" Palma, listen, my love," said her mother,
breathlessly, " Idaliccio has been here ; he has
brought me word that your father is on the

The child's whole face became radiant with
light ; but she was not surprised ; she had felt
so certain that he would come there, sooner or

Idaliccio was a peasant who occupied a farm
belonging to them at Cardena, one of the seven
hamlets which fringe the great moors. He was
a rough old fellow, but of kind heart, and much
attached to Dolabella, though he had always
predicted that his master's eloquence would land
him in jail.

" But we must not let him come here, child,"



said her mother. " Do not you understand ?
They are ahvays watching the house. He
will be taken like a bird in a net. Oh, my
love ! "

She threw her arms forward on the table,
and, leaning her forehead on them, wept pas-

The light died out of Palma's face. No, he
must not come home. It was his home no
longer ; it was a sad, prison-like place, where
men of the police came in and out at their
pleasure, and whence joy had flown with

" Some one must tell him not to venture here,"
she said. " Will Idaliccio ? "

"No," answered Silvia, her voice choked by
weeping. " The old coward says he brought
the message for sake of your father and of us ;
but he is so scared with fear at what he has
done, that he has gone away to his brother,
the fisherman on the Olmo. Your father nearly
killed him with terror, starting up before him in
the gloaming."

" And my father said ? "

" Only this : ' Go tell my wife and child I
am in hiding here ; I will come into Gallarate



to-morrow night at all costs to see them, for
I must put the Alps between me and them.' "

" Put the Alps between us ? "

"Ay, it is his only chance of life, dear.
Staying here, he will be caught sooner or later,
and cast back in prison."

•' I see." Palma's face grew very grave with
the premature age of a great suffering.

The water dripped in the garden, the clock
ticked, the sounds which are heard in all old
houses in the stillness of night seemed to creep
on the silence like living things. Palma sat up
in her bed with her eyes wide open, full of

" Let me go," she said at last.

•' You— to the Brughiera ? "

The poor young mother wept convulsively
again, and cried to the Madonna to help her,
for her burden was greater than she could

" Hush, mother ; people in the street may
hear you," said the child. "Yes, I will go.
I know the Gradanasca as you know your chair
at church. He is hid in our old dungeon there
. — that we may be sure."

At last she wrung a reluctant, agonized



consent from her mother ; but Silvia Dolabella
thought her cold and strange, and said to
her —

" You are like a little statue of bronze ; you
bruise my breast."

All that night neither the child nor she could
sleep ; they thought he might arrive, that they
might hear some tap at the shutter, some step
on the flags ; they only heard the sound of the
water dripping from the pipe in the garden wall,
the chirp of crickets in the artichokes, the
tolling of the hours from city clocks,

Palma's eyes were wide open and sleepless ;
she saw her mother's red tear-laden lids with
impatience. She was very pale, but her face
was resolute.

At four of the clock she was ready to go
upon her quest. She wore a homespun smock-
shaped linen frock ; she had but to put on an
apron of many colours and a large yellow
kerchief over her head to look like a peasant's
child ; she put on wooden shoes, and took with
her a flask of wine and a roll of bread. She
withdrew herself a little impatiently from her
mother's embraces, and with her cheeks wet
from her mother's tears, not her own, she went



out of the garden doorway, which opened on
a paven lane.

She was as happy as a prisoned dove let
loose, as bold as had been those three doves
which had alighted and sat on the Italian
Carroccio throughout the carnage of Legnano,
striking terror with their white wings into the
soul of Barbarossa's self She was going to
find her father, and she was going to see the
heather in blossom.

It was now the dark which precedes the

There was no one in the lane, or in the
piazza beyond it. Unquestioned and uninter-
rupted, she got outside the nearest barrier of
the town and took the road she knew so well,
which lead to the Gradanasca. She met a cart
or a waggon now and then, oxen-drawn, loaded
with fruit or hay or cans of milk, or the brooms
made on the moors of the Brughiera. But no
one noticed her — a little girl with a yellow
kerchief over her head and shoulders. The
dawn had come when she had passed out into
the open country. The sunrise lighted the
range of the Lombard Alps when she saw the
first plant of heather. She knelt down by it,



and crossed herself, and said a pater. Then she
kissed it, the beloved bnig which she had not
seen so long.

Soon, as far as her eyes could reach, she
saw nothing but the hriig, a vast expanse of
rose and green and white and purpling crimson
under the changes of light and shadow ; wide
as the sea and as mutable in colour, bounded
only by the distant snow-lines of the lower
Apennines. Its pungent, sweet odour came to
her on the breeze ; the familiar buzz of in-
numerable bees filled the silence ; high above
sailed great white clouds, a hawk hung poised
against the blue.

The child's heart heaved : the tears which had
not fallen for her mother's woe ran down her
cheeks in this intense rapture. She stood waist-
high in the branching heather, and kissed it again
and again. Then she gathered her courage up
in her hands, as they say here, and sought for
the little track which led to the vault of the 7'occa.
She went cautiously, hiding herself under the
thickly growing plants, as the hare did, and the
quail, the partridge and the polecat, the fern-owl
and the windovcr, and all other hunted and
harassed creatures.



There was not a soul in sight ; it was not the
season for cutting and carting the heather, or
for shooting ; the sole living thing she was the
least likely to see would be some old man or
woman looking for mushrooms. As far as the
sight could range there was nothing but heather :
acres on acres of heather, lying in the glow of
earliest summer. She had never been there un-
accompanied before ; her father had always been
with her, and to him the Brughiera had been
familiar from earliest boyhood. Palma had
nothing now to guide her but memory, and the
moors were almost as level and as trackless as a
desert of Africa. Childlike, she had never
realized until she reached them the great
difficulty of her task. She had never even
noticed whether the ruin of the rocca was to
north, south, east, or west. She had always run
in her father's footsteps, taking no heed herself.
But in the far distance she saw an old grey
round tower ; she remembered that he had told
her that tower had once been a pigeon-cote, a
colambarium, and was still the nesting-place of
wild birds. She remembered also that this
tower had been upon their left when they had
approached the site of the r^^^^, but always very,



very far away, looking black among the rosy
and purpled stretches of the moors. So she
went to the right, and in the contrary direction
from the pigeon-cote. She conquered her
weakness, and pressed on through the shrubs
which reluctantly yielded her a passage. But a
sense of the immense difficulty of her task came
over her.

If she had only a dog to aid her ! But their
dog, a spaniel, who had been four years older
than herself, had died in the very month of her
father's arrest. If he had only been with her
— poor, clever, good Morino — he would have
remembered better than she could. For the
vastness, the silence, the splendour of colour,
the immense tracks of flowering land stretching
away on every side, began to fill her with a
sense of awe, and to bewilder her.

The rocca had been on the right of the dove-
cote, and almost in a straight line with it, but
far away ; that was all she knew, all she had for

She walked on and on till the sinews of her
legs ached and her step became less sure. The
shrubs were in many places stiff and stubborn ;
her hands were torn in parting them to make



a passage. The vertical sun beat through the
kerchief on to her thick, curiing hair and began
to make her head ache. Sitting up in her Httle
white bed, it had seemed so easy to find her
father on the Brughiera ; but the reaHty of the
search was hard. The reality which she did not
even yet herself realize was that she was lost
upon these moors. She rested a little while
upon the ground, and broke off a corner of the
loaf and ate it. The wine she did not touch ;
it was for him. There was a runlet of water
near her, almost dry but clear. She drank from
it, making a cup of her hands. The bees were
buzzing all around her, above the blossoms of
the bnig. It was a pleasant, mirthful, cheerful
sound, and banished her fears. The air was
absolutely still except for those humming
sounds. The sky and the plain looked im-
mense. The towers and roofs of the town had
long before sunk below the horizon. To the
north there was always the snow-line of the Alps.
She recalled a story her mother had told her,
to cure her passion for the moors, a true and
tragic tale of a child of six, a little boy, who had
been lost on Gradanasca, and who had been
found dead after three days' useless search, and



whose footmarks had shown that he had
wandered round and round Hke an ass in a mill
till he had fallen down and perished.

But she was sustained by the courage of a
great devotion, and she said to herself, " He has
no one else to save him, only his little girl."
And she threw back her head-covering, for the
sun began to mount in the heavens, and scanned
the wide expanse of blossoming heather, whose
colours melted in the distance into the softest
hues of opal and of amethyst.

A leveret scampered past her feet, a kestrel
sailed across the blue, a black-cap sang ; his
voice near, himself unseen ; she felt a sob rise
in her throat, and her eyes grew dim. Where
v.'as he ?

Under the ground at her feet ? Beneath the
purple cloud of the blossoms .'' Far away or
near? Where was the buried rocca? Would
no mole tell her who knew the underground
way ? No falcon who flew above so high and
must know everything ?

She saw an owl asleep, leaning as is the habit
of his family, against the stem of a heather
plant grey as himself. She stretched out her
hand to stroke him.



"Where is the road, dear owl? You must
know — you who can see when all is dark ! "

But the owl, annoyed and bewildered by
being awakened in broad day, said nothing,
and hobbled out of sight drowsily, and went
to continue his slumbers under other plants
of heather. There was nothinof to tell where
the place which she sought for was. She
had now left the colambarunn out of sight on
the eastern moors, and she walked on aimlessly,
stumbling often over the thick, entangled roots
of the heaths ; once she stumbled over a dust-
adder which looked like a root ; it hissed, but
did no more. The sense stole on her that she
might walk thus for hours, days, weeks, and be
no nearer to her goal.

And, unless she found him, he might go down
into Gallarate that very night, and fall into the
hands of the police.

Cold dews of anguish stood on her fair, warm
face ; she could have screamed aloud, but she
set her teeth and kept in her cries ; child as she
was, she knew that if she lost her self-control
she would lose her senses.

She could tell by the position of the sun that
it was now afternoon. She had been wandering



thus many hours ; her poor mother at home,
weeping and praying, counting the moments on
the clock !

" Oh, I have not been good to her ! I have
not been good ! I have thought only of him ! "
she said to her own heart in repentance ; and
she thought of her little bed, of the blessed palm
hung above it, of the old green garden between
the stone walls, of the grey cat, of the evening
meal, of the big cento-foglio roses in the old
blue Savona vase — of all the familiar things
which she might never see again.

" But if I can only save him ! " she thought ;
if she could only save him, they might carry her
home dead.

The thought that he might go home that very
night if no one warned him was to her like
a knife being turned in an open wound. She
had been so foolish to be sure that she should
know her way on the Gradanasca ! Yet, again,
who was there to come if she had not } Idaliccio
could have done, of course ; but Idaliccio, in
terror and selfishness, had gone to the Olmo
river, forsaking his master in trial.

It was now three o'clock on the midsummer
afternoon. She could not tell the hour precisely,



but she guessed it ; she had been ten hours
away from home. The sense of solitude and
helplessness began to weigh on her like a leaden
hand, pressing her down into the earth. She
was very tired ; she dropped down like a lame
lamb, and fell asleep amongst the heather, too
fatigued to have either fear or reflection, or even
anxiety, conscious in her. She slept soundly,
dreamlessly, on the warm sand, the close-woven
stems of the plants shielding her from the sun.
She had put off her heavy, hard shoes, and her
little stuff jacket ; the dull white of her home-
spun frock made a point as of light amongst
the shadows of the blossomed hnig. It caught
the keen eyes of a mounted guard riding afar
off, pushing his horse with difficulty through the
heather growth. He with two others had come
out from the barracks at the Cascinale on the
search for Lelio Dolabella.

He rode up to where the child was lying
asleep, her cheek upon the sand, her small
feet in the sun. He saw the flask of wine.
He thought, " She has been sent to carry
food, and a message." He got off his horse
and stood beside her ; he was a man of
Gallarate ; he recognized the fugitive's little

i6i M


daughter. He stooped and grasped her

" Get up, bimba mia!'

Violently awakened from her deep, dreamless,
merciful sleep, Palma had for the moment no
sense of where she was or of who spoke to her.
The sun dazzled her eyes ; the buzzing of the
bees was in her ears. The guard pulled her up
on her feet with little courtesy.

"You are that outlaw's child," he said, and
shook her roughly. " You are going to

Then she understood. She remembered at
the same time as consciousness returned to her
that she must say nothing.

"Speak!" said the man, getting angry; and
he struck the pommel of his sword with his
clenched fist. She did not speak.

The guard put his hands trumpetwise to his
mouth and shouted to his comrades, who were
some distance off, their horses' heads and their
own accoutrements showing above the heather.
They came at as quick a pace as they could
through the network of shrubs.

" Look here," he said to them ; " this is the
daughter of Dolabella. Of course, she knows



where he is hid. But the little mumchance will
not speak."

He shook her again.

" Where is your father, little one } " said one
of the new-comers. " Only say that and we will
let you go. We know he is on the Brughiera.
'Tis no use your being obstinate."

She might have been of wood or stone for
any sign she gave of hearing them.

" I have a mind to blow your brains out, you
little wretch ! " said the first-comer ; and he
picked up the flask, smelt it, tasted it, then took
a long draught and passed the rest to his

The horses were pawing, snorting, shivering
under the torment of the flies ; the sun was at
its hottest ; the men had been out some hours
and were ill-disposed to waste their time there
on a little rebel who was dumb as a Gesu carved
in stone.

" Come with us to those who will make you
confess," said the first-comer, as he took a stout
bit of cord out of his breeches-pocket and bound
her right wrist to his stirrup.

But the milder man interposed : he had
children of his own.



" If you drag her through the heather you will
kill her," he said ; " she is but a small female

" She is big enough to speak," said her captor,
with an oath.

But Palma did not speak.

" Look here," said the other one to her, " show
us where your father is, my dear, and I will take

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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 7 of 12)