1839-1908 Ouida.

La Strega and other stories online

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you to the town before me on my saddle. No-
body shall hurt you. You will have a nice ride,
and be home by sunset."

She might have told them that she did not
know where her father was, but they would not
have believed her, and it was best and simplest
to say nothing at all. That was the only idea
which stood out clear in the confusion and the
terror of her mind ; she must not say a word.
Whatever she might say they would turn in some
way against him.

The three armed men and the three fretting
horses were towering above her ; they looked
colossal in the blazing light ; the rosy and purple
haze of the heather looked like a sea of flame.
Where was her father ? At any moment he
might be seen and taken. The thought of his
peril numbed her to her own,



"Swing her up on your saddle if you do not
like me to make her run tied to mine," said the
man who had found her to the one who had
thought it would be cruel to tie her to the stirrup-
leather. The guard thus addressed bent down
and swung her by her right arm and the belt of
her frock up on to the saddle in front of him,

" Hold on by the horse's mane if you do not
wish to roll off," he said to her, and the three
riders began their slow trot across the moor in
the direction of what was once a large dairy-farm
in the last century, and is still called the Cascinale,
though it is now changed into the barracks of a
battalion of infantry, the only pile of buildings
which breaks the solitude of the Gradanasca.

It is difficult work, riding through the heather,
which in many places is as high as a horse's
girth, and to move quickly is impossible ; if they
had gone fast she would have fallen, giddy as she
was from fear, from fasting, from grief, and from
the unusual motion.

Jeering and joking at their comrade for his
load, the other men pushed their way through
the tangle, and he who was burdened by her
followed, keeping hold with his right hand on
the child's skirts, lest she should at all risks



slide to the ground and run away. The sound
of the horses' hoofs muffled on the turf alternated
with the other sound of the bending and break-
ing of the plants, the whirr of wings as birds flew
up affrighted, the jingle of the chains, the bits,
the scabbards.

For a while she lost consciousness ; the sun
beat on the back of her neck, a deadly terror, a
sickly heat, a burning thirst consumed her, and
ended in insensibility.

The horses paced on and on, now trotting
where they could, now pushing their flanks
through the heather. It was two hours from the
time they had discovered her when they at last
drew rein before the outhouses and outposts of
what had been the old dairy-farm. The men
were hot, jaded, hungry, ill-disposed. The one
who carried her on his saddle swung her roughly
to the ground, shaking consciousness into her by
the shock of her body on the stones. The others
dashed some water on her face from a tank in
the courtyard. The one who had been the first
to find her stooped and tied her wrists behind
her back, then gave her a kick.

" Get up, you spawn of rebellion," said he.

There were many soldiers in the yard ; they

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looked on with indifference. He left her lying
on the stones, and went indoors to make his
report of the day's work.

She was but half-conscious still ; her limbs
were sore and aching from the long jolting ride ;
she lay on her side, her hands tied behind her ;
the soldiers came and stared, and made their
jokes ; she was wet from the water thrown over
her ; mosquitoes swarmed on her face ; her linen
frock was stained with all the colours of the
moors, and heavy with gathered sand.

They left her lying there on the pavement of
the court like a bundle of hay or a faggot of
brambles ; there was no fear that she could set
herself free.

After a time her captor came, and took hold
of her, and pulled her up on to her feet. Then he
drove her before him to the interior of the build-
ing, to a small bare room, into the presence of
his superiors. She reeled and tottered, and with
difficulty kept herself from falling. Every limb
seemed broken and every nerve seemed bleeding.
" She is a little child," said the commandant
of the Carabineers in surprise ; and he asked her
f^ently, "You are the daughter of Lelio Dola-




Palma was silent.

" Why do you not reply ? "

She was mute.

" Why were you on the Brughiera ? "

She gave no ansu ^r.

" You know where your father is ? "

She said nothing.

"We will compel you to speak," said the
officer, losing his temper, though he still felt
surprise and compassion. She was so small, so
bruised and broken, so miserable-looking, like
any little leveret bathed in its mother's blood.
He saw that she could scarcely stand, and bade
her sit down. She dropped upon the stone
bench near her. She looked no more than a
heap of wet, sand-stained leaves.

" If you remain thus obdurate you will
force me to punish you," he said to her ; and
he tried with every question, argument, threat,
and persuasion to make her speak, but in

" She will die or go mad," he thought, " but
she will not speak."

Her first captor, standing erect beside her,
smiled in triumph. He had told his captain
that the little wretch would not speak.



"Take her away," said his superior at last,
out of patience. " Put her in a cell. Let a
woman search her ; she may carry some missive,
some plan of conspiracy. Then untie her and
leave her alone. Hunger and darkness will un-
lock her lips."

His orders were carried out to the letter. A
woman stripped her, finding nothing on her ;
her clothes were bundled on again hurriedly ;
her arms were untied, but she was left to sit or
lie on the damp brick pavement as best she
could. Then the door was shut and barred on
the outside. Within was an impenetrable dark-
ness. She was not afraid of the dark. She was
used to sleep without a light. But darkness
in this dread stone place was not a soft and
friendly thing, like the dark in her own dear
little room at home, where the stoup of holy
water hung close to her bed and her parents
slept in the next chamber.

Shriek after shriek rose to her lips, but she
repressed them by putting her fingers in her
mouth and holding her tongue to keep it mute.
From her cries they would have learnt nothing,
but she felt that they would dishonour her father
and encourage his enemies.



The hours passed on ; no sound reached her,
for the cell was in an isolated part of the build-
ing, adjoining the cattle-stables ; no one remem-
bered her. She was worse than nothing in the
eyes of her captors — less in their sight than a
newt or a locust. The child of a rebel, of an
Anarchist, what matter if she lost her reason or
died of terror in that underground room ? Such
seed of the devil was best spilt, and stamped on,
and destroyed. The commandant, who had
been more interested in her resistance, was play-
ing cards and had forgotten her. The child of a
revolutionist, what mattered if such trash as that
died of fright, were stung by scorpions, or were
eaten by rats ,? She had deserved any fate by
her contumelious obstinacy.

She lay on the stones, her arms outstretched
and her head resting on them. She tried not to
think of all the horrible, unknown things which
might have been creeping and crawling near her ;
after all, her father would have said they were
" the little children of Nature " as much as she
was so. But it is difficult for the mind of a man
to resist the impression of terror made by total
darkness and by captivity in an unfamiliar place.
For a little girl it was impossible. She felt that



her brain was going, that she would soon be dead
or worse than dead.

A key groaned in the rusty lock, a flood of
light flashed over her. It was the woman, who
returned to tempt her.

" Only tell what you know," she said again,
"and you shall have such a feast — water and
wine too, as much as you like ; and with the
morning be back at your mother's house. Why
be such a little wicked fool ? You are bound to
obey authority. We all are."

The woman sent to her had been ordered to
spare no effort to terrify or to persuade her, but
she had succeeded in neither. The child re-
mained dumb. She was in pain all over her
body, bruised and sore and stiff; her mind was
dulled, her throat was parched : but she did not
forget that she had one supreme duty to fulfil —
the duty of silence.

" You are very little to be so mulish," said the
woman. "You should be soundly flogged."

Pal ma scarcely heard the words. Her ears
were full of booming sounds like the buzzing of
the bees in the heather multiplied a thousand-

The woman, irate, snatched up the lamp and



went out with it, locking the door again on the
outside. Once more the impenetrable darkness

Hunger and thirst tormented her ; never
before in her life had she ever wanted for any-
thing or had an appetite unsatisfied ; she was
now sick for want of food, fevered by want of
water, racked by pain of every kind.

The woman entered more than once, bringing
bread, soup, and fruit, and a flask of water. She
put them before Palma, but out of her reach.

" You shall have all these if you will only

Palma shut her eyes not to see them, and
made a motion of refusal with her head.

The woman left her for an hour, and then
returned, with the tray in her hand.

" You will speak now, eh ? "

Palma shook her head.

The wolf of hunger and the shark of thirst
were together tearing at her entrails ; but she
would not yield.

" It is impious to defy authority," said the

woman, who was a brigadier's wife. " Your

father is a bad man, setting class against class,

and defying the law."



Palma's eyes blazed with wrath as they
looked upward ; but she did not answer in

" Come," said her temptress, " thirsty you
must be." She poured out from a flask she
carried some bright cold water into a glass.

All the child's frame thrilled and writhed in
longing for the draught ; but she covered her
eyes with her hands not to see it.

" You little beast ! " cried the woman, savagely.
" You should be thrown down the well and
drink your fill there once and for ever. I shall
go and say so to the commandant. The well
in the court has no bottom. It goes to the
centre of the earth, they say."

A shudder ran through the child from head
to foot, but she did not speak.

" Come," said the brigadier's wife in wheedling
tones, "'tis so little to do. Just say where your
father is, and you shall come and eat of the best,
and sleep in my daughter's bed, and at morning
away to your mother, who will say you have
done well. For, poor soul ! she must lose her
husband ; she need keep her child."

The argument was subtle and penetrating ; but
Palma was proof against its sophism. She made



no answer. " Poor, poor mother ! " she thought ;
but she did not open her lips.

The woman tried all persuasions she could
think of; then, furious at her failure, for success
would have brought credit and reward, she
dashed the flask of water down on Palma's
body, and with zest saw it shiver into atoms
and the good spring water flow away useless
over the child's clothes and the stones of the

Palma did not speak,

" Stay where you are, you dumb toad ! " the
brigadier's wife cried with violence. " At dawn
the scorpions will come out of their holes and
find you."

Then she went out, slamming the door behind
her, the key again grating in the rusty lock. The
child, sick with terror, turned on her side and
lapped the spilt water on the ground ; it was
but little she could get thus and rather tortured
than assuaged her burning thirst ; the pieces of
broken glass, too, cut her lips. She dragged
herself up painfully upon her knees, and then up
on to her feet ; there was a little blessed gleam
of light ; it was a moon-ray shining through the
narrow slit of the unglazed window. From the



open air there came to her the sweet wild smell
of the blossoming briig. The familiar light
and the friendly scent restored her fainting
senses, steadied her dizzy brain ; she thought,
with a gleam of hope, could she get out by that
loophole ?

It was no more than a loophole, very narrow
and at least two meters above her head.

From her captors she knew she could expect
no pity ; such prisoners as she are protected
neither by youth nor old age.

All that the police does is well done, and
deaths in the cells are never inquired into ; a
complaisant surgeon is always ready to write
the cause down under the name of some natural
disease or stroke of fate.

Palma had heard much of these things from
listening to the conversation of the young men
who came to her father's house. Young as she
was, she knew she would have no mercy from
her jailers, illegal though her detention might be.
The window looked very narrow, but then she
was very slight of form, and her linen frock, wet
through, clung close to her.

There was nothing in the cell by which she
could scale the wall ; it was entirely bare ; but



in the wall itself there were projections and
irregularities, made by stones jutting out beyond
others, and in one place an iron stanchion. She
had been taught agility in climbing by her father,
but she was now so feeble from exhaustion and
fatigue and hunger, so feverish from fear and
misery and ill-treatment, that she had scarcely
the power to drag herself up to the wall. She
could not tell, either, what there might be upon
the other side ; by the smell of the heather, she
thought it opened on the moors, but she could
not be certain.

She knew, however, that where she was she
had no mercy to hope for, that the scorpions
would feel pity sooner than her jailers, and that
knowledge spurred her to superhuman effort.
She grasped the first projecting stone with her
toes, and set her nails to clutch another higher
up ; she lifted herself high enough to grasp the
iron stanchion, and, clinging to that, pulled her-
self still higher and higher upward, with the
movement of a woodpecker climbing a tree.

The smell of the heaths came into her nostrils,
the moon-ray fell across her face ; they gave her
courage. She managed, slipping and bruising
her feet and hands, to reach the window and



look out ; all she saw was the wide expanse of
the Brughiera lying peacefully in the light of the
moon. But the opening was so narrow that she
feared she could never force herself through it ;
and if she fell head downward ? Well, even that,
she thought, were better than to stay here to be
starved, or beaten to death, or perish of thirst.
At least, thus she would die quickly and dis-
appoint her father's pursuers.

She put her head through the aperture, then
she drew her shoulders together, making them
as narrow as she could ; then she forced herself
through the opening, bruising and tearing the
skin of her arms. She could by no possibility
turn so as to descend feet foremost ; she could
only push herself through, and go down head
foremost to whatever might wait for her below.
And this she did. When her knees were on a
level with the coping of the window, she thrust
herself through the aperture ; her own weight
overbalanced her, and she fell, thus, as a man
falls who tries to fly. By good fortune there
was a pile of dried heather underneath the wall ;
it was elastic and yielded under her. She was
stunned for a few moments, but was not other-
wise hurt except for scratches and bruises on her

177 N


bare limbs. She was able to look about her, and
realized that there was no barrier between her
and the open country.

The high walls of the barracks loomed behind
and above her, but facing her there was the open
moorland. She heard some dogs bark on the
other side of the building ; hurt and half sense-
less as she was, she gathered herself up and
stumbled across the stretch of turf which parted
her from the open moor. She drew in new
strength from the knowledge of her freedom and
the smell of the dear wild brng ; she ran on and
on, like a poor little broken-kneed pony, falling
often, but getting up again and going onward,
bruising and dashing herself against the
heather, but having no sense except of recovered

The stars grew larger, the moon grew higher ;
perhaps hours had passed, she did not know.
Suddenly her limbs gave way under her, and
she dropped, powerless to do more, struck down
by utter exhaustion, like a bird felled by a stone.
But she fell among the heather, and it closed
over her and hid her from sight, so that when
the armed men rode out over the moorland in
pursuit of their lost prey they passed within a



few yards and never saw her, but saw only the
moonlit blossoms of the flowering heaths.

The heather sheltered her as if it returned the
affection which she had conceived for it, and the
timid creatures of the night which hid among it
stirred around her and did her no harm. The
toad drank the night dews, the little brown owl
hunted the moth, the water-beetle boomed
through the dark. The child remained motion-
less and senseless, in a stupor which resembled

When the first faint grey of the dawn came
on the eastern edge of the moors, an old man
with a mule, the animal carrying large panniers,
came across the heather by a narrow track which
he knew. It was the old peasant of Cardano,
Idaliccio. He had repented him of his cowardice
and desertion, and when on his way to the Olmo
water had turned back and taken his mule out
of its stall, and gone on to the Brughiera at
evening, and at nightfall had made his way to
the place where Lelio Dolabella was in hiding,
which was not the rocca, and warned him not to
enter Gallarate, but to get across the Lombard
plains, and escape with all speed across the
Spliigen into Switzerland. Now, after speeding



his master on his northward way, he was
returning to his own homestead at Cardano, his
mule's panniers filled with white sand as reason
for his presence on the moorland, were any

He had heard nothing of Palma's wandering,
but, as they passed the place where she lay, his
mule dropped its head towards the ground and
stopped and whinnied ; it knew her well, for she
had often given it bits of bread and carrots when
she had come to the peasant's dwelling on the
edge of the moor, or when the old man had
broueht his beast into the town. Idaliccio, who
was well aware that his mule was wiser than he,
looked to see what was under the heather, and
recognized the child.

He guessed at once why she had come there.
She looked to him as if she were dead, but he
put his old horny hand to her lips and felt her
breath warm upon it, though the pulse of her
heart was too faint to be heard.

He stood still a few moments in doubt, then
shovelled the sand out of his panniers, cut some
heather with a billhook which always hung at
his waistband, laid the plants across the mule's
back from pannier to pannier, and raising the



child in his arms, placed her gently on them as
on her bed. Then, with a piece of rope which
was in one of the panniers, he bound her safely
to the mule's back amid the heaths.

" She was always so fond of the bnig," he
thought. " Poor little soul ! she came after her
father and got lost, no doubt ; and it was all
my fault because I said I should go to the Olmo

Then he turned his back on his village, and
took his way slowly across the moor, knowing
nothing of the search which the mounted guards
had made for her. Going as he did, perforce, at
a foot-pace, walking beside her lest she should
slip downward, it was noon before he reached
the gates of Gallarate ; he had covered her with
heather to keep off the sun-rays and the flies.

"'Tis my grandchild as I am taking in to
hospital ; she had a bad fall on Gradanasca, and
is stupid from it ; she has hurt her head," he said
to the men at the toll-house, and moved the
bundles of heath that they might see the human
burden he carried.

They looked, and let him pass, after thrusting
their hands into the panniers to make sure that
they were empty.



And so he took her in safety home to the old
grey, kindly house in the Piazza of Pasquee.

When she regained consciousness, which was
not until many days later, she was lying in her
own little bed under the bleached palm.

" I never spoke ! " she cried aloud. " Tell him
I never spoke ! "

Silvia Dolabella kissed her small bruised feet.




They had a small shop, a very small one, in a
narrow passage which debouched from the Rue
des Francs-Eourgeois, and passed behind the
tower of the Hotel Barbette. It is a sorry time
for le petit commerce in Paris, as in all other
cities ; the great establishments destroy the
humble little traders. It is difficult to live on
le petit commerce in any town, still more difficult
to do so in great capitals. But they managed
to pay their way ; they had their customers,
faithful if few ; they spent little on themselves,
and they were able to put something by for
a rainy day. They had been in this same shop
ever since their marriage, forty years before —
a bit of old Lutetia, possibly unaltered from the
day when Louis d'Orleans rode out to his death
from the Barbette.

It was a shop and a dwelling-house in one,
with a high roof and deep eaves and mullioned
windows. When the door opened there were



two steps which led down into the shop ; and
above the door was one of the old painted and
gilded signs, the Pot aux Roses, which creaked
when the wind was high, and pleased the
sparrows as a perch. At the Pot aux Roses
they sold wooden toys and tapes, and threads
and linens, and the like. Nanon usually looked
to the one and Chariot to the other. They
were Nanon and Chariot to the whole neigh-
bourhood. No one except the tax-collectors
and the postmen ever called them Monsieur and
Madame Dulac. They were merry little people,
short of stature, vivacious, bright-eyed, quite
contented with their lot, very fond of each
other, and although thrifty, very charitable.
They had both been born in this Quarter of
the Temple, and seldom went out of their
faubourg except on summer Sundays to one
of the woods or villages near.

They had seen many changes since they had
first come there on their wedding-day, when the
Pot aux Roses had been fresh painted and
gilded, and the Prince President had been at
the Elys^e. But the storms had passed and
burst over Paris without touching them ; they
hid themselves like two birds during rain, and

1 86


when each tempest was past, came out to chirp
and twitter again. They had the old gay elastic
temper of France, which is vanishing from the
race under the influence of German beer, and
militarism, and machines, and absinthe, and
science. They had had their sorrows, sharp
and sad ; they had lost two children in early
infancy, and a nephew whom they had loved
dearly had been shot in the Siege of Paris ;
but all that was now far away, and they were
happy in a simple, pleasant, kindly way, which
showed itself in doing all they could for those
less fortunate.

" For fortunate we are ; fmit le dire, hein f "
said Chariot, very frequently ; and, though he
knew it not, they were most fortunate of all
in their contented dispositions and their mutual
affection. There are many such cheerful bour-
geois interiors in Paris, but not one was more
cheerful than theirs. They had good health,
good appetites, good tempers, good neighbours ;
and if many would have thought it a hard life
to serve in a little dark shop all day, and spend
the evenings counting up sous and centimes,
they did not think so. They were used to
it, and they gained enough by it to keep



themselves and to afford one luxury, Toto —
Toto, who ate as much as two dragoons, and
for whom they were obliged to pay the tax regu-
larly to have civic permission for him to live.

One cold, wet, windy autumn night, boys had
been stoning Toto in the Rue Vieille du Temple.
Toto, being then a shapeless mass of wool, got
out by himself — no one knew how — from some
stable-yard or travelling circus. Chariot, who
had been to the greengrocer's and poulterer's
to buy his Sunday dinner, was going home in
that windy night. He drove the boys off, and,
after some hesitation, invited the frightened,
friendless bundle of wool to waddle after him

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Online Library1839-1908 OuidaLa Strega and other stories → online text (page 8 of 12)