El Ombú, by W. H. Hudson

Tecla and the Little Men

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 Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55