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minerali offer some excuse for what might otherwise be reckoned an illiberal prejudice. They are addicted to drinking, quarrelsome, overbearing—at one moment rich, and at another starving; and in short they are subject to all the calamities, both moral and physical, which beset men who can have no dependence on the product of their labour; ranking in this respect with gamesters, authors,and other vagabonds.
They are, notwithstanding, a fine race of men—brave, hardy, and often handsome. They spend freely what they win lightly; and if one day they sleep off their hunger, lying like wild animals basking in the sun, the next, if fortune has been propitious, they swagger about, gallant and gay, the lords of the valley. Like the sons of God, the minerali sometimes make love to the daughters of men; and, although they seldom possess the hand, they occasionally touch the heart, of the gentle maidens of Anzasca. If their wooing is unsuccessful, there are comrades still wilder that their own, whose arms are always open to receive the desperate and the brave. They change the scene, and betake themselves to the highways when nights are dark and travellers unwary; or they enlist under the banners of those regular banditti, who rob in thousands, and whose booty is a province or a kingdom.
Francesco Martelli was the handsomest gold-seeker in the valley. He was wild, it is true, but that was the badge of his tribe; and he made up for this by so many good qualities, that the farmers themselves—at least such of them as had not marriageable daughters— delighted in his company. Francesco could sing ballads so sweetly and mournfully, that the old dames leant back in the chimney-corner to weep while he sung. He had that deep and melancholy voice which, when once heard, lingers in the ear, and when heard again, however unexpectedly, seems-like a longing realized.
There was only one young lass in the valley who had never heard the songs of Francesco. All the others, seen or unseen, on some pretext or other, had gratified their curiosity. The exception was Lelia, the daughter of one of the richest farmers in Anzasca. Lelia was very young, being scarcely sixteen; but in her quality of an only daughter, with a dowry in expectancy equal to more than one thousand Austrian liras,* she attracted considerable observation. Her face, on minute inspection, was beautiful to absolute perfection: but her figure, although symmetrical, was so petite, and her manner so shy and girlish, that she was thought of more as a child than a young woman. The "heiress of old Niccoli" was the designation made use of, when parents would endeavour to awaken the ambition of
* The Austrian lira is equal to about eight-pence half penny English.
their sons, as they looked forward to what might be some years hence: but Lelia, in her own person, was a nonentity.
Her mother had died in giving her birth; and for many a year the life of the child had been preserved, or rather her death prevented, by what seemed a miracle. Even after the disease, whatever it might have been, had yielded to the sleepless care of her father, she remained in that state which is described in the expression " not unwell" rather than in perfect health; although the most troublesome memento that remained of her illness was nothing more than a nervous timidity, which in a more civilized part of the country might have passed for delicacy of feeling.
Besides being in some degree shut out from the society of her equals by this peculiarity of her situation, she was prevented from enjoying it by another. While her body languished, the cultivation of her mind had advanced. Music, to which she was passionately attached, paved the way for poetry; and poetry, in spite of the doctrines of a certain school you have in England, unfitted her for association with the ignorant and unrefined. That Lelia, therefore, had never sought to hear the ballads of Francesco was occasioned, it may readily be believed, by nothing more than an instinctive terror, mingled with the dislike with which the name of one of the ruffian minerali inspired her; and, in truth, she listened to the tales that from time to time reached her ear, of the young gold-seeker, with somewhat of the vague and distant interest with which we attend to descriptions of a beautiful but wild and cruel animal of another hemisphere.
There came one at last, however, to whom poor Lelia listened. She was sitting alone, according to her usual custom, at the bottom of her father's garden, singing, while she plied her knitting-needle, in the soft, low tone peculiar to her voice, and beyond which it had no compass. The only fence of the garden at this place was a belt of shrubs, which enriched the border of the deep ravine it overlooked. At the bottom of this ravine flowed the river, rapid and yet sullen: and beyond, scarcely distant two hundred yards, a range of precipitous cliffs shut in the horizon. The wild and desolate aspect of the scene was overshadowed and controlled, as it were, by the stern grandeur of these ramparts of nature; and the whole contributed to form such a picture as artists travel a thousand miles to contemplate. Lelia, however, had looked upon it from childhood. It had never been forced upon her imagination by contrast, for she had never travelled five miles from her father's house, and she continued to knit, and sing, and dream, without even raising her eyes.
Her voice was rarely loud enough to be caught by the echoes of the opposite rocks; although sometimes it did happen that, carried away by enthusiasm, she produced a tone which was repeated by the fairy minstrels of the glen. On the present occasion she listened with surprise to a similar effect, for her voice had died almost in a whisper. She sang another stanza in a louder key. The challenge was accepted; and a rich, sweet voice took up the strain of her favourite ballad where she had dropped it. Lelia's first impulse was to fly; her second, to sit still and watch for a renewal of the music; and her third, which she obeyed, to steal on tiptoe to the edge of the ravine, and look down into the abyss, from whence the voice seemed to proceed. The echo, she discovered, was a young man, engaged in navigating a raft down the river—such as is used by the peasantry of the Alps to float themselves and their wares to market, and which at this moment was stranded on the shore, at the foot of the garden. He leant upon an oar, as if in the act of pushing off his clumsy boat; but his face was upturned, like one watching for the appearranceofastar; andLelia felta sudden conviction, she knew not why, that he had seen her through the trees while she sat singing, and had adopted this method of attracting her attention without alarming her. If such had been his purpose, he seemed to have no ulterior view; for, after gazing for an instant, he withdrew his eyes in confusion, and, pushing off the raft, dropped rapidly down the river, and was soon out of sight.
Lelia's life was as calm as a sleeping lake, which a cloud will blacken, and the wing of an insect disturb. Even this little incident was matter for thought, and entered into the soft reveries of sixteen. She felt her cheeks tingle as she wondered how long the young man had gazed at her through the trees, and why he had floated away without speaking, when he had succeeded in attracting her attention. There was delicacy in his little contrivance, to save her the surprise, perhaps the terror, of seeing a stranger in such a situation; there was modesty in the confusion with which he turned away his head; and, what perhaps was as valuable as either even to the gentle Lelia, there was admiration, deep and devout, in those brilliant eyes that had quailed beneath hers. The youth was as beautiful as a dream; and his voice!—it was so clear, and yet so soft—so powerful, yet so melodious! It haunted her ear like a prediction.
It was a week before she again saw tliis Apollo of her girlish imagination. It seemed as if in the interval they had had time to get acquainted! They exchanged salutations—the next time they spoke—and the next time they conversed. There was nothing mysterious in their communications. He was probably a farmer's son of the upper valley, who had been attracted, like others, by the fame of the heiress of old Niccoli. He, indeed, knew nothing of books, and he loved poetry more for the sake of music than its own: but what of that?—the writings of God were around and within them; and these, if they did not understand, they at least felt. He was bold and vigorous of mind; and this is beauty to the fair and timid. He skimmed along the edge of the precipice, and sprung from rock to rock in the torrent, as fearless as the chamois. He was beautiful, and brave, and proud; and this glorious creature, with radiant eyes and glowing cheeks, laid himself down at her feet, to gaze upon her face, as poets worship the moon!
The world, before so monotonous, so blank, so drear, was now a heaven to poor Lelia. One thing only perplexed her: they were sufficiently long—according to the calculations of sixteen—and sufficiently well acquainted; their sentiments had been avowed without disguise; their faith plighted beyond recall: and as yet her lover had never mentioned his name'. Lelia, reflecting on thiscircumstance, condemned, for the moment, her precipitation; but there was now no help for it, and she could only resolve to extort the secret—if secret it was—at the next meeting.
"My name!'' said the lover, in reply to her frank and sudden question; "you will know it soon enough." "But I will not be said nay. You must tell me now—or at all events to-morrow night"
"Why to-morrow night?" "Because a young rich suitor, on whom my father's heart is set, is then to propose, in proper form, for this poor hand; and, let the confession cost what it may, I will not overthrow the dearest plans of my only parent without giving a reason which will satisfy even him. Oh, you do not know him! Wealth weighs as nothing in the scale against his daughter's happiness. You may be poor for aught I know; but you are good, and honourable, and, therefore, in his eyes, no unfitting match for Lelia." It was almost dark; but Lelia thought she perceived a smile on her lover's face while she spoke, and a gay suspicion flashed through her mind, which made her heart beat and hercheeks tingle. He did not answer for many minutes; a struggle of some kind seemed to agitate him; but at length, in a suppressed voice, he said —"To-morrow night, then." "Here?" "No, in your father's house; in the presence of—my rival."
The morrow night arrived; and, with a ceremonious formality practised on such occasions in the valley, the lover of whom Lelia had spoken was presented to his mistress, to ask permission to pay his addresses; or, in other words,—for there is but short shrift for an Anzascan maid—to demand her hand in marriage. This was indeed a match on which old Niccoli had set his heart; for the offer was by far the best that could have been found from the Val d'Ossola to Monte Rosa. The youth was rich, well-looking, and prudent even to coldness:—what more could a father desire?
Lelia had put off the minute of appearing in the porch, where the elders of both families had assembled, as long as possible. While mechanically arranging her dress, she continued to gaze out of the lattice, which commanded a view of the road and of the parties below, in expectation that increased to agony. Bitter were her reflections during that interval! She was almost tempted to believe that what had passed was nothing more than a dream—a figment of her imagination, disordered by poetry and solitude, and perhaps in some measure warped by disease. Had she been made the sport of an idle moment ?—and was the smile she had observed on her lover's face only the herald of the laugh which perhaps at this moment testified his enjoyment of her perplexity and disappointment! His conduct presented itself in the double light of folly and ingratitude; and at length, in obedience to the repeated summons of her father, she descended to the porch with a trembling step and a fevered cheek. The sight of the company that awaited her awed and depressed her. She shrunk from them with more than morbid timidity; while their stony eyes, fixed upon her in all the rigidity of form and transmitted custom, seemed to freeze her very heart- There was one there, however, whose ideas of " propriety," strict as they were, could never prevent his eyes from glistening, and his arms from extending, at the approach of Lelia. Herfather, after holding her for a moment at arm's length, as with a doating look his eyes wandered over the bravery of her new white dress, drew her close to his bosom, and blessed her. "Mychild," said he, smiling gaily througha gathering tear, "it is hard for an old man to think of parting with all he loves in the world: but the laws of nature must be respected. Young men will love, and young lasses will like, to the end of time; and new families will spring up out of their union. It is the way, girl—it is the fate of maids, and there's an end. For sixteen years have I watched over you, even like a miser watching his gold; and now, treasure of my life, I give you away! All I ask, on your part, is obedience—aye, and cheerful obedience—after the manner of our ancestors, and according to the laws of God. After this is over, let the old man stand aside, or pass away, when it pleases heaven; he has left his child happy, and his child's children will bless his memory. He has drunk of the cup of life—sweet and bitter—bitter and sweet—even to the bottom; but with honey, Lelia,—thanks to his blessed darling!—with honey in the dregs!"
Lelia fell on her father's neck, and sobbed aloud. So long and bitter was her sobbing that the formality of the party was broken, and the circle narrowed anxiously around her. When at last she raised her head, it was seen that her cheeks were dry, and her face as white as the marble of Cordaglia.