Chapter 27

The Witch of the Forest.

When Bindo had been released by the command of Castiglione from the hands of the Lucchese soldiers, he fled across the country; and, possessed with horror and despair at the issue of all his predictions, hastened to the only human being to whom he ever spoke his real sentiments, or in whom he placed any confidence.

To the north of Lucca, where the mountains rise highest, and the country is most wild, there was, at the period those people lived concerning whom I write, an immense ilex wood, which covered the Apennines, and was lost to sight in the grey distance, and among the folds and declivities of the hills. In this forest there lived a witch; she inhabited a cottage built partly of the trunks of trees, partly of stones, and partly was inclosed by the side of the mountain against which it leaned. This hut was very old; that part of it which was built of stone was covered with moss, lichens and wall-flowers, whose beauty and scent appeared alien to the gloom around; but, amidst desolation and horror, Nature loves to place the lovely and excellent, that man, viewing the scene, may not forget that she, the Mother, dwells every where. The trees were covered with ivy, many of them hollow and decaying, while around them the new sprouts arose, and refreshed the eye with an appearance of youth. On a stone near the cabin door sat the witch; she was very old; none knew how old: men, verging on decrepitude, remembered their childish fears of her; and they all agreed that formerly she appeared more aged and decrepid than now. She was bent nearly double; there was no flesh on her bones; and the brown and wrinkled skin hung loosely about her cheeks and arms. She was short, thin and small; her hair was perfectly white, and her red eyes, the only part about her that appeared to have life, glared within their sunken sockets; her voice was cracked and shrill.

‘Well, son,’ said she, when she saw Bindo arrive, ‘What news? Are thine, or my predictions most true?’

Bindo threw himself on the ground, and tore his hair with rage, but he answered not a word.

‘You would not believe my words,’ continued she, with a malicious laugh; ‘but the stars are not truer to their course, than I to fate; tomorrow not one stone will lie upon another of the castle of Valperga.’

‘This must not be,’ cried Bindo, starting up furiously; ‘it shall not be! Are you not a witch? and if you have sold your soul to the devil, will he not obey your will?’

‘I sold my soul to the devil!’ she replied in a tone, which bordered on a scream; ‘I tell thee, thou wert happy, if thy soul were as certain to be saved as mine. I rule the spirits, and do not serve them; what can angels do more? But one thing I cannot do; I cannot impede the star of Castruccio: that must rise.’

‘Aye,—you are all alike;—you can lame cattle, strangle fowls, and milk cows; but, when power is wanted, you are as weak as this straw. Come, if you are a witch, act as one.’

‘What would you that I should do? I can cover the sky with clouds; I can conjure rain and thunder from the blue empyrean;the Serchio will obey me; the winds from the north and the south know my call; the mines of the earth are subject to me; I can call the dead from their graves, and command the spirits of air to obey me. The fortunes of men are known to me; but man himself is not to be ruled, unless he consent to obey. Castruccio is set above men; his star is highest in the sky, and the aspect of the vast heaven favours him; I can do nothing with him.’

‘Then farewel; and may the curses of hell cling to you, and blight you! I want no conjuror’s tricks,—but man shall do for me what the devil cannot.’

‘Stay, son,’ cried the witch; ‘now you say right; now you are reasonable. Though the star of Castruccio be high, it will fall at last, burst and fall like a dead stick upon the ground. Be it for us to hasten this moment; man may help you, and be that your task; watch all that happens, and tell me all; let no act or word escape your notice; and something will happen which I may wind to my purpose. We have both vowed to pursue the prince of Lucca to the death. There are no means now; but some will arise, and we

  By PanEris using Melati.

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