IT happened ninety years ago.
Hard by the spot where I was born
The tragedy of little Tecla:
Scarce half-a-dozen hoary men
Now the maiden’s name remember.
The world has changed, these ancients say,
From what it was; — the plume-like grass
That waved so high, the ostrich blue,
The wild horse and the antlered deer
Are now no more.
Here where the plain
Looks on the level marsh and out
Upon the waters of the Plata
An old estancia house once stood:
And I have played upon its site
In boyhood long ago, and traced
‘Mong flowering weeds its old foundations.
’Twas here lived Lara and his wife
With their grown-up sons and daughters;
Happy and rich in pasture lands
And in their numerous herds and flocks.
Before the house a level plain
Bestrewn with shells spread shining white;
And often when the moon was up
Here came a troop of Little Men,
No taller than a boy of twelve,
Robust of limb and long of hair,
And wearing cloaks and broad sombreros.
From windows and from open doors
Distinctly could all see and hear them,
Sitting upon the ground in groups,
In shrill excited voices talking;
Or running to and fro; or ranged
Like cricketers about a field,
Playing their games the whole night long.
But if one ventured from the house
To walk upon their chosen field,
Straightway would they quit their game
To chase him back with hooting shrill,
Hurling showers of stones and pebbles
That rattled on the doors and roof
Like hail, and frightened those within.
Of all in Lara’s house but one,
Light-hearted Tecla, feared them not.
The youngest of the daughters she,
A little maiden of fifteen,
Winsome in her wayward moods;
Her blithesoineness and beauty made
Perpetual sunshine in the house.
O merrily would Tecla laugh
When pebbles rattled on the door
To see her bearded brothers start,
And mother and sisters wax so pale,
And oft in pure capriciousness
Alone she’d venture forth to sit
A stone’s throw from the gate, just on
The margin of that moonlit field;
There in the twilight would she linger
And bravely watch them by the hour,
Standing or running to and fro,
Hailing each other at their sport.
But once, one evening, trembling, pale,
Flying like a fawn pursued
By leaping hounds, flew Tecla home;
In at the open door she rushed
And clasped her mother close, and then
Crept silently away, and in
A corner sobbed herself to rest:
She would not tell what frightened her,
But from that evening nevermore
Would Tecla venture out alone,
When sunset left the world in shadow.
A month went by; then it was seen
A change had fallen on her spirits;
She was no more the merry one —
The bird that warbled all day long:
Infrequent fell her silvery laugh;
And silent, pale, with faltering steps,
And downcast eyes, she paced the floors,
Who yesterday from room to room
Danced fairylike her blithesome measures.
“O say what ails you, daughter mine?
Imposthumes hidden, spasms, rheums,
Catarrhs and wasting calentures,
Have yielded to the juices I
Express from herbs medicinal;
Yet this most subtle malady
Still mocks your mother’s love and skill.”
“I have no sickness, mother, ’tis
But weakness; for I cannot eat,
Since on one day, long weeks ago,
Each morsel all at once appeared,
Even as I raised it, red with dust,
And thus till now it is with me;
And water limpid from the well,
And milk, grow turbid with red dust
When lifted to my thirsting lips,
Until I loathe all aliment.”
“’Tis but a sickly fancy, child,
Born of a weak distempered stomach
That can no longer bear strong food.
But you shall have things delicate
And easy to digest; the stream
Shall give its little silvery fish
To tempt; the marsh its painted eggs
Of snipe and dotterel; sweet curds
Made fragrant with the purple juice
Of thistle bloom I’ll make for you
Each day, until the yellow root
Of the wild red vinegar-flower,
With powders made from gizzards dried
Of iron-eating ostriches
Bring back a healthy appetite.
And make your nostrils love again
The steam of roasted armadillo.”
Vain was her skill: no virtue dwelt
The wasting maiden to restore
In powders or in root. And soon
The failing footsteps ceased their rounds,
And through the long, long summer days
Her white cheek rested on her pillow.
And often when the moonlight shone
Upon her bed, she, lying still,
Would listen to the plover’s cry,
And tinkling of the bell-mare’s bell,
Come faintly from the dreamy distance;
Then in her wistful eyes would shine
A light that made her mother weep.
Within the wide old kitchen once
The Laras from their evening meal
Were startled by a piercing cry
From Tecla’s room; and rushing in
They found her sobbing on the floor,
Trembling, as white as any ghost.
They lifted her — O easy ’twas
To lift her now, for she was light
As pining egret in their arms,
And laid her on her bed. And when
Her terror left her, and the balm
They gave had soothed her throbbing heart,
Clasped in her mother’s arms she told
The story of her malady.
“Do you remember, mother mine,
How once with terror palpitating
Into the house I ran? That eve
Long had I sat beyond the gate
Listening to the shrill-voiced talking
And laughter of the Little People,
And half I wished — oh, was it wrong?
Yet feared to join them in their games.
When suddenly on my neck I felt
A clasping arm, and in my ear
A voice that whispered —‘Tecla sweet,
A valiant little maid art thou!’
O mother, ’twas a Little Man,
And through the grass and herbage tall,
Soft stealing like a cat, he came,
And leaped upon the stone, and sat
By me! I rose and ran away;
Then fast he followed, crying out,
‘Run; tell your mother you have found
A lover who will come full soon
For thee; run, run, thy sisters tell
Thou hast a lover rich in gold
And gems to make them pine with envy!’
And he has caused this weakness, mother;
And often when I lie awake
He comes to peer in at the window,
And smiles and whispers pretty things.
This night he came, and at my side,
Wearing a cloak all beautiful
With scarlet bright embroidery,
He sat and boldly played the lover.”
“And what said he? The wicked imp!”
“He asked me if that yellow root
That’s bitter to the taste, and all
My wise old mother’s medicines
Had made me hungry. Then he held
A golden berry to my mouth —
The fruitlet of the Cainainbù:
O beautiful it looked, and had
No red or grimy dust upon it!
And when I ate and found it sweet,
And asked with hungry tears for more,
He whispered pleasant promises
Of honied fruits: and then he spoke —
O mother mine, what did he mean! —
Of wanderings over all the earth,
Lit by the moon, above the dim
Vast forests; over tumbling waves,
And hills that soar beyond the clouds.
Then eagerly I started up
For joy to fly away with him
Bird-like above the world, to seek
Green realms; and in his arms he clasped
And raised me from my bed. But soon
As from a dream I screaming woke,
And strove so strongly to be free
He dropped me on the floor and fled.”
“O daughter dear, how narrowly
Hast ‘scaped! But not to you again
Shall come such moments perilous;
For know, O Tecla, and rejoice
That from this moment dates your cure,
Since like a wise physician I
Up to its hidden source have traced
The evil that afflicted you.
In former days the Little Men
Oft played their wicked pranks, but years
Have passed since any proof they gave
Of their maleficence, since sharp
And bitter lessons given them
By Holy Church had taught these imps
To know their place; and now I too
Shall draw against them sacred weapons.”
Next morning to the Monastery
Hard by, where dwelt a brotherhood
Of Friars Dominican, was sent
A messenger, the holy men
To summon to the house of Lara —
To arm with ghostly arms and free
Fair Tecla from these persecutions.
At noon, wrapped in a dusty cloud,
Six mounted Friars came riding in
Their steeds at furious gallop. They,
Rough men, spent no ignoble lives
In barren offices; but broke
The steeds they rode, and pastured herds
Of half-wild cattle, wide around
The ostrich and the puma hunted.
Thus boldly came they — Tecla’s knights,
Armed with a flask of holy water,
Nor wanting at their leathern girdles
Long knives and pistols with brass barrels.
Forthwith the blest campaign began;
And through the house and round the house
They walked; on windows, walls, and doors
Sprinkling the potent drops that keep
All evil things from entering;
And curses in a learned tongue
They hurled against the Little Men.
O gladly beat the heart within
The breast of every Lara there
For Tecla timely saved! She too
The sweet infection caught, and blest
With hope and health reviving laughed
The silvery laugh too long unheard.
And there was nothing more to do
Now but to finish day so good
With feast and merriment. Then lambs
And sucking pigs were straightway slain
To heap the board hospitable;
While screaming over fields and ditches
Turkeys and ducks were chased to make
A rich repast. Then freely round
Travelled the mighty jugs of wine,
Till supper done the Friar Blas
Snatched the guitar: “Away,” he cried,
“With chairs and tables! Let us show
The daughters of the house of Lara
That our most holy monastery
Can give them partners for the dance!”
Loudly the contra-dance he played,
And sang, while standing in two rows
The ready dancers ranged themselves;
Till on her pillow Tecla smiled
To hear the strings twang merrily:
“O hasten, mother mine,” she cried,
“To join the dance, and open wide
The doors so that the sounds may reach me.”
And while they danced the Friar Bias
Improvised merry boastful words,
And couplets full of laughing jibes:—
“Dost know how to sing, Little Man?
Come sing with a Dominican.
“O when I remember our fight
I must laugh for my victory tonight.
“There conquered you bleed and repine;
Here sing I and drink the red wine.
“I’ll preach you a sermon in song —
My sermons are merry not long.
“No more to sweet Tecla aspire,
For know that your rival’s a Friar.
“Not wise was your wooing, but cruel,
For who can have fire without fuel?
“Did’st lose her by making her thin?
By fattening perchance I shall win.
“For when the pale maiden gets well
I’ll carry her off to my cell;
“For the labourer he looks for his hire,
And hot is the heart of the Friar.”
A burst of laughter and applause
Followed the strain. Out rung a peal
Of eldritch laughter echoing theirs!
Sitting and standing, dancers clasped
In joyous attitudes, transfixed,
All silent, motionless, amazed,
They listened as it louder grew —
That laughter demoniacal —
Till jugs and glasses jingled loud
Upon the table, as when hoarse
Deep thunder rumbles near, and doors
And windows shudder in their frames,
And all the solid house is shaken
To its foundations. Slowly it died;
But even as it died they heard
A wailing cry:— far off it seemed,
Still ever growing more remote,
Until they thought ’twas but the sound
The stringed guitar, dropped on the floor,
Gave forth, upon their straining ears
Slow dying in long reverberations.
Up sprang the mother suddenly
Giving a mighty cry, and flew
To Tecla’s chamber. After her
The others trooped, and found her there
Weeping beside the empty cot,
Wringing her hands and wailing loud
Calling on Tecla gone for ever.
In at the open window blew
The fresh night wind; and forth they peered
With straining eyes and faces white,
Their hearts with strange surmisings filled.
Only the moon they saw, ghost-like
In heaven walking: ‘neath its light
Immeasurable spread the marsh,
And far off shone the sea-like river;
Only the swelling waves they heard,
Low murmuring to their listening ears
Through the deep silence of the night.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09