Nerina slept on in peace and without dreams. Now and then another rose let fall some petals on her, or a bee buzzed above her, but her repose remained undisturbed.
The good food filled her, even in her sleep, with deep contentment, and the brain, well nourished by the blood, was still.
Clelia Alba felt her heart soften despite herself for this lonely creature; though she was always suspicious of her, for she had never known any good thing come down from the high mountains, but only theft and arson and murder, and men banded together to solace their poverty with crime. In her youth the great brigands of the Upper Abruzzo had been names of terror in Ruscino, and in the hamlets lying along the course of the Edera, and many a time a letter written in blood had been fastened with a dagger to the door of church or cottage, intimating the will of the unseen chief to the subjugated population. Of late years less had been heard and seen of such men; but they or their like were still heard and felt sometimes, up above in lonely forests, or down where the moorland and macchia met, and the water of Edera ran deep and lonely. In her girlhood, a father, a son, and a grandson had been all killed on a lonely part of the higher valley because they had dared to occupy a farm and a water-mill after one of these hillmen had laid down the law that no one was to live on the land or to set the waterwheel moving.
That had been a good way off, indeed, and for many a year the Edera had not seen the masked men, with their belts, crammed with arms and gold, round their loins; but still, one never knew, she thought; unbidden guests were oftener devils than angels.
And it seemed to her that the child could not really be asleep all this time in a strange place and the open air. At last she got up, went again to the bench and drew her handkerchief aside, and looked down on the sleeper; on the thin, narrow chest, the small, bony hands, the tiny virginal nipples like wood strawberries.
She saw that the slumber was real, the girl very young and more than half-starved. “Let her forget while she can,” she thought, and covered her face again. “It is still early in the day.”
The bees hummed on; a low wind swept over a full-blown rose and shook its loose leaves to the ground. The shadow from the ruined tower began to touch the field which lay nearest the river, a sign that it was two hours after noon.
The large square fresh-water fishing-net had sunk under the surface, the canes which framed it were out of sight; only the great central pole, which sustained the whole, and was planted in the ground of the river-bank, remained visible as it bent and swayed but did not yield or break. Such nets as this had been washed by the clear green waters of the pools and torrents of the Edera ever since the days of Etruscan gods and Latin augurs; religions had changed, but the river, and the ways of the men of the river, had not altered.