That was the ode which he sang in the dialect of the province, and the stream washed his feet as he sang; and with his breath on his long reed flute—the same flute as youths have made and used ever since the days that Apollo reigned on Saracte—he copied the singing of the river, which piped as it ran, like birds at dawn.
But this was only at such times as daybreak or early night when he was alone.
There were but a few people within the ruined walls of Ruscino; most of the houses were tenantless and tottering to their fall. A few old bent men and weather-beaten women and naked children climbed its steep lanes and slept under its red-brown roofs, bawled to each other from its deep arched doorways to tell of death or birth, and gathered dandelion leaves upon its ramparts to cure their shrunken and swollen bladders. He knew them every one, he was familiar with and kind to them; but he was aloof from them by temperament and thought, and he showed them his soul no more than the night birds in the towers showed their tawny breasts and eyes of topaz to the hungry and ragged fowls which scratched amongst the dust and refuse on the stones in the glare of day.
“Il Bel Adone!” sighed matrons and the maidens of the scattered farms and the old gloomy castellated granges which here and there, leagues distant from one another, broke the green and silent monotony of the vast historic country whose great woods sloped from hill to plain. But to these, too, he was indifferent, though they had the stern and solid beauty of the Latium women on their broad low brows, their stately busts, their ox-like eyes, their shapely feet and limbs; and often, joined to that, the red-gold hair and the fair skin of the Adriatic type. As they bound the sheaves, and bore the water-jars, and went in groups through the seeding grass to chapel, or fountain, or shrine, they had the free, frank grace of an earlier time; just such as these had carried the votive doves to the altars of Venus and chanted by the waters of the Edera the worship of Isis and her son. But to Adone they had no charm. What did he desire or dream of? Himself he could not have said. Perhaps they were too warm; it was certain that they left him cold.
Sometimes he learned over the river and looked longingly into its depths.
“Show me the woman I shall love,” he said to the water, but it hastened on, glad, tumultuous, unheeding; and he only saw the reflection of the white jonquils or of the golden sword rush on its banks.
Fruits ripen quickly in these provinces, and children become women in a summer hour; but with Nerina, through want and suffering and hunger, physical growth had been slow, and she remained long a child in many things and many ways. Only in her skill and strength for work was she older than her actual age.