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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
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THE next day was the last day of April, and in the remote villages above which the Apennines brood, as in those upon the mountains themselves, there still prevails the old gracious fashion of the Calen di Maggio : the ‘bringing in the May,’ as England called it when it was merry England, and not money‐grubbing and machine‐ground England, with its hedgerow timber felled, and its songbirds starved and mute.

In the cities and in the little towns the old custom has quite passed away, and even in many villages the wedding‐night of April page: 69 nd May goes by without remembrance or celebration. But in the simpler and more remote country places ‘Ben venga Maggio’ is still said as Guido Calvacanti said it, and the time is one of harmless feasting and of tender song. In Santa Rosalia it still lingered thus, and on the memorable night the lads of the borgo went along the Rosa banks and out amongst the fields from house to house, bearing the May, and called themselves the Maggiaioli; singing the ancient song: Or è di Maggio e fiorito è il limone, Noi salutiamo di casa il padrone, Or è di Maggio e gli è fiorito i rami, Salutiam le ragazze co’suoi dami. Or è di Maggio che fiorito è di fiori, Salutiam le ragazze co’suoi amori. *

Lo! Now the lemons are all in flower in May, Come too are we; we give the house and host good‐day. Now is the month of May, with blossoms on the boughs; We salute the maidens, salute their lovers’ vows. Here is all the Maying, bud, and fruit, and flower, We salute the maidens, their love and all its power!

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This year Carmelo carried the May, a green sapling hung with flowers and lemons, and his next brother, Cesarellino (little Cæsar), bore the traditional basket of nosegays to throw to the maidens. Other youngsters were with them, with red and yellow tulips in their hats, and gay‐coloured shirts, and mandolines slung on their shoulders, and they went from door to door with their salutation and song, and in turn received wine and cakes garnished with red ribbons, and now and then money, which, making the sign of the cross, they put aside to be spent in prayers for the poor souls in purgatory.

Messer Nellemane, as he sat in the window of his room in the communal palace, saw the group of youths as they came along by the water, and he recognised the face of Carmelo, as the young man bore aloft the page: 71 lemon‐hung tree and shouted with a fresh and mellow voice the Or è di Maggio che fiorito è di fiori and stopped before the little Casa della Madonna, where they tossed their flowers through the open window, and Viola, smiling, brought them out the sweet cakes. The brow of the spectator of this innocent pastime grew dark.

‘What pagan folly!’ he muttered as he saw. ‘What childishness and benightedness in this age of reason!’

Surely it need not be allowed?

It could be put down under the head of disturbance, or unauthorised festival, or public meeting without permission of the council.

The law has smitten almost all these innocent revellers to the dust; carnival is scarce more than a name; on Ognissanti indecent crowds push laughing and jostling page: 72 over the dead; the Feast of St. John is suppressed, and replaced by the Feast of the Statute, and almost every procession of the Church is smothered by a dirty, jesting, brawling mob, impatient for fireworks and drink.

Messer Nellemane impatiently consulted his law‐books and his own code, and found at least fifty‐five different rules and regulations, any one of which would serve, and suffice to break down the leafy crown of the offending Maio.

Until ten o’clock of the night the peace of his evening was disturbed by the chanting of the old serenade, no near, now far, the vibration of the guitar, the sounds of laughter, the unpleasant knowledge that people were enjoying themselves without having applied for and paid for legal permission.

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‘Next year!’ he muttered vengefully, as the singing died away and the village grew dark with night and slumber. Carmelo went to his bed drowsy and happy, with the Maio tree set up outside the mill‐door in the starlight.

On the morrow was the weekly council of the Seven presided over by the One; and as Messer Nellemane was the mainspring and central lever, the brains and the heart and the nerves of this council‐chamber, he was too much engrossed to give a thought to the little house with the china Madonna.

He had to exercise great tact at these meetings, for he was only a secretary, and was only supposed to take notes and read reports. But with an air of extreme deference and unimpeachable modesty he knew how to make his views adopted, and how in the presence of the Syndic to prompt him, and in his absence page: 74 to replace him. Ostensibly the famous rules for the Polizia Igiena e Edilità of Santa Rosalia were a product of the minds of the Thirty, filtered through the Seven, and delivered as pure essence by the One, to the Prefect of the province, and ratified by him and by the Minister of the Interior. But actually these laws had all flowed from that fount of wisdom, the mind of Messer Nellemane. He had spent laborious days and wakeful nights in the gestation and production of them; they had cost him months of anxious thought; for when your problem is how to wring pence out of penniless pockets it requires meditation and deliberation; and Messer Nellemane being anxious not to leave a loophole unwatched by the law, passed as many vexed and studious hours as a mathematician or a physiologist. When accomplished, he had to see his work accredited as page: 75 that of his masters: but this he bore patiently, knowing that most of the fruits of it would be his.

This day the council was long.

The Guinta consisted of two nobles, of two small gentry, of one lawyer, one doctor, and one usurer, the latter a rich person who had purchased a house on the Pomodoro road outside Santa Rosalia, one by name Simone Zauli. This day the usurer, who in power outweighed all his six colleagues, as he had the notes‐of‐hand or the mortgages of each of them in his pocket, was absent. In his stead the nobles were angry about the state of the roads and had come in person to the meeting, a thing they did not do once in a twelvemonth. Their horses were hurt and their bodies were shaken by the state of the roads, and they appeared at the council irascible. It cost Messer Nelle‐ page: 76 mane a whole morning of invention and adulation to appease them and bring them back to their old belief that his friend Pierino Zaffi was the first engineer in the world.

Having succeeded at last in doing this by great ingenuity and infinite lying, the meeting broke up: the Cavaliere Durellazzo said ‘Va bene, va benissimo,’ which he always did, as if he were a cockatoo; and Messer Gaspardo Nellemane had far too many minutes to make, and entries to write, and letters to dispatch, to have any thought of Viola or Carmelo.

But the next morning he was free, and excused himself even from his habitual noon‐day attendance at the Palazzo Communale by alleging an errand to the city; under pretext of which he had himself shaved, oiled, and curled by the barber, and then, dressed page: 77 in his best, wended his way to Pippo’s house, having seen old Pippo wending his to the priest’s with the rush chair.

The door stood open and he entered with a polite ‘Scusi, signorina mia.’

Viola was washing lettuces and herbs.

Of course she was a poor, unlettered, and almost ragged girl, but she had beautiful arms which were shown by her rolled‐up sleeves; she had a beautiful bust which her kerchief, loosely pinned, adorned; she had a lovely face with a great cloud of raven hair; and even thus, seen at a tub with her lettuces, a painter would have fallen at her feet, and perhaps some great princes would too.

She coloured all over her face beholding Messer Gaspardo Nellemane, dressed like a marquis, curled, perfumed, and gloved.

Scusi tanto, signorina mia,’ he said page: 78 again, and wished her a good‐day with many fine phrases. Viola laid down her lettuces, and pushed him a chair and stood before him, very shy, timid, and afraid.

‘I called to speak to your father,’ said Messer Nellemane, rejecting the chair with many flourishes. ‘I wished to explain to him that this cutting of osiers in the river—’

‘Ah!’ said Viola, with a gasp; and she grew very pale, and her great eyes were like a frightened doe’s. Her visitor hastened gallantly to explain farther; and added:

‘Is in direct violation of our civic laws. But I came to say the Messer Filippo being so old a resident, and, having heard that his forefathers, as he said, always enjoyed that privilege, I think a point may be stretched in his favour and exception. I myself will see the Syndic on the matter, page: 79 and—well, ahem! I will see that he is not troubled about this thing; indeed I will give him a permission myself if he will call for it, free of charge, any day at noon in the municipality.’

Viola murmured something quite unintelligible: but her eyes thanked the gracious tyrant who promised to spare her humble home, and he thought himself repaid. She was mute, indeed, and shy, even to stupidity; but Messer Nellemane was not ill‐pleased at that; he deemed it a tribute of simplicity to his own greatness and attractions; and his bold, bright, black eyes, round like a bird’s fastened on her with such ardour that the maiden felt bewildered, and wished vaguely that her grandfather were at home.

Messer Nellemane, however, was in no haste to be gone; leaning on the back of the chair that he refused otherwise to page: 80 occupy, he wove grandiloquent phrases and sugared flatteries into a medley such as had never astounded the ear of this simple maiden, and confused her sadly.

Carmelo never talked like that; and Viola saw with surprise, and a vague apprehension, that her guest had shut the door behind him on his entrance.

Messer Nellemane, nevertheless, did not quite declare his passion, but he paid her compliments that made her cheeks glow like a damask rose, and set her brain spinning; his hand touched hers, and pressed it and he murmured, with his moustache brushing her wrist:

‘Fear nothing for your grandfather, carina. With such a face as yours you would get him grace for far heavier transgressions than robbing the river of its reeds.’

At that moment a dog dashed in chasing page: 81 the pig; the pig frightened the hen; the hen flew into the flour‐bin; and Messer Nellemane’s eloquence and courtship came to an undignified end, as Viola, grateful for the interruption, hurried to the harried sow, and drove it to its quarters in an inner closet. Messer Nellemane looked on with a troubled brow. A pig in a dwelling‐house! It was Contravention of Art. 3 of Rule CCCL. of the Regulations!

The author of the rules for the Polizia Igiena, e Edilità of the commune could not fail to feel every fibre of his being morally offended and set up on edge like a porcupine’s quills, and yet—he was in love. He bent hurriedly before Viola and the pig, and left the house in the confusion of public duty met and routed by personal inclination.

‘If it were not for her—good heavens! page: 82 they transgress every law!’ he thought, as he put on his hat and walked to where the diligence waited, and, entering the shaky vehicle, rolled through the sea of olive foliage along the narrow roads towards the city which lay afar off in the sunshine, against the opal and pearl of the morning skies; its domes and towers gleaming in the golden mist like a New Jerusalem.

When Pippo returned, his granddaughter told him of the visit. With the suspiciousness that is so oddly rafted into these easily pleased and docile natures, Pippo stared and swore a little and scratched is head, and said, ‘What can he be a’wanting?’

Viola turned away because she felt her cheeks were hot; be a maiden ever so innocent, she feels the approach of a coarse passion, and trembles at it though unconsciously.

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‘Leave to cut the reeds? Give me leave?’ cried the old man with great contempt. ‘Lord! they’ll talk of leave to let the grass grow, leave to let one’s lungs breathe—leave to see, and speak, and cough, and laugh next! Lord! The whole world’s crazed.’

Viola set his soup before him; hot water with bread in it, some garlic, and a little parsley.

‘Will they let us drink our soup, I wonder?’ grumbled the old man. ‘Shall we have to pay a tax for that next? Don’t you let that prying jack‐in‐office come spying here again. The saints above us! In my young days he’d have been knifed before he could have turned the place into a nest of wasps and snakes like this. Leave to cut the osiers! You’ll have to ask leave to wear your own hair next!’

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And he scalded himself with his broth in his haste and his wrath.

Viola went away inside their little back kitchen and cried a little, with a vague dread and pain upon her. She could not forget the bold admiration of Messer Gaspardo’s black eyes, and she was afraid.

She did not say anything of her fears to her grandfather, nor to the young man Carmelo; she was of a reticent, prudent, serene nature, and she thought it could do no good to tell anyone, but might produce danger and dissension.

Meanwhile her old grandfather, having scalded himself with his soup, cooled himself with a draught of watered wine, acid as vinegar, and, after giving himself his wonted midday sleep, went outside, taking some rushes to plait, and sat on the threshold with his chair on the pavement, disregardless of page: 85 the municipal rules and the fate of law‐breaking Nanni.

It was a lovely afternoon, and waned into a lovely evening in the village; the swallows were coming home, the shadows were lengthening, the sweet smell of the rosemary and the vine flowers was fresh on the wind. The people had ceased working, and stood and leaned against their doors, or out of their windows, and gossiped; all was as peaceful as a pastoral: only along the sunny dust a dark shadow went, and the people looked askance at it, and it took all mirth out of the jests, drove all tranquility from the hearts; it was the shadow of the oppressor rusticorum; it was the figure of Bindo the guard, walking to and fro with a carabinier and looking for contraventions.

To the rich it may seem nothing: this going of the guard to and fro, this system page: 86 of inquisition and condemnation that comes up with the sun and never ceases with the fall of the merciful night. To the rich it is nothing; it scarcely ever touches them: they live behind their own gates, and if ever they are fined send their lawyers to pay the fine. But to the poor—with their threshold, their cradle, and their club, with their dogs and their babies tumbling together on the pavement, with their hard‐gathered gains hidden under a brick or in a stocking, with all their innocent bewildered ignorance of the powers of the law, with all their timid patient helplessness under oppression, with all their unquestioning submission to great wrong in fear lest resistance should bring them wrongs still greater—to the poor this figure of the poice‐spy for ever in their midst, observing their coming and going, seizing on every industry and pittance, page: 87 watching the lighting of their candles, the gambols of their children, the usage of their tools, the frolics of their dogs, the trailing of their house‐creepers, all to one single end and object—‘Contravention’—to the poor I say this figure of the tyrant of the tribunal darkens the light of the sun in this our Italy, hushes the laughter of the home and fills the leisure moment of the toilsome day with a weariness and carking care never to be thrown aside. The rich make these petty laws, and the parasites of the public offices carry them out; they are as thorns in flesh already bruised; they are as the gadflies’ bite in wounds already open. In vain do the poor suffer these things: no one cares.

When the Socialist burns or the Nihilist slays, then wise men wonder!

Blind and mad, no doubt, are the Socialists and the Nihilists, but as blind and page: 88 as mad are the rulers of the people who treat the honest citizen like the criminal, and of the innocent acts and careless sports of his children and his beasts make whips to scourge him by his own hearthstone.

The law should be a majesty, solemn, awful, unerring; just, as man hopes that God is just; and from its throne it should stretch out a mighty hand to seize and grasp the guilty, and the guilty only. But when the law is only a petty, meddlesome, cruel, greedy spy, mingling in every household act and peering in at every window pane, then, the poor who are guiltless would be justified if they spat in his face, and called it by its right name, a foul extortion.

Bindo lounged about in the village streets (taking care to have a carabinier and the carabinier’s musket at his elbow) and looked out for all whom he might devour; were page: 89 there a ladder leaning against a wall, a child at play on this bare piazza, a log of wood outside a door, a dog disputing with another dog, any trifle of the hundred and one trifles entered as cardinal sins on the books of Santa Rosalia—then was Bindo happy, and happy also Messer Gaspardo Nellemane.

Bindo used a wise discretion, it is true; and so did Messer Nellemane, as in the matter of the big and little butchers. Filth stank unrebuked before the pizzicheria door, because some good cheese and some toothsome pasta found its way thence to certain cupboards as a mere compliment of Easter; the apothecary’s Spitz snarled on unchidden up and down the street, for that worthy knew well the panacea that lies in gilded pills; and the baker had his fuel in a heap before his door, and sold short weight, and adulterated his flour with ground page: 90 peas and acorns, because the baker had been wise enough at Christmas to offer to Messer Nellemane some fine contraband tobacco and brandy (a present, he said, from France), and to Bindo had said, ‘If you like a fila of white bread every morning you know you are always welcome; we are such old friends, I could not take your money,’

Of course, the pizzicheria man, and the apothecary, and the baker, all thought the commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda admirably managed, or at least were bound to say so. They were the discreet, judicious, docile, reasonable people of the place. ‘Why was not everybody the same?’ thought Messer Nellemane and his colleagues and his myrmidons.

Now many of these people of Santa Rosalia were of ancient lineage and place; page: 91 there were many families very poor, but who lived where their forefathers had done in centuries passed away. Pippo was one of these. In that house his forbears had dwelt for many generations, and there was a rivulet of water that passed through his wash‐house and out at his door in which he himself had seen his great‐grandfather soak the canes and osiers before him; his great‐grandfather who had been an old man when Murat’s horsemen had been stabbed in the church of San Guiseppe.

This spring rose somewhere in the earth of his strip of herb and fruit garden, and had been allowed to run through the house and out of it and across the road to the river. Everybody always thought that it was the saint’s blessing which had made the spring run there, just where there was a basket‐maker and rush plaiter always want‐ page: 92 ing to soak his willows and reeds. It never occurred to anybody that the little old house had been built over it for that use purposely.

This bright evening Bindo Terri, sauntering about with poisoned cates in his pocket for the dogs, and sharp eyes roaming everywhere in search of misdemeanors, caught sight of the water running merrily across the road, a narrow shallow brooklet, pleasant to see and carrying cleanliness with its presence. Water running out of a house and across a public roadway! Bindo was not sure whether it was a crime against the code, but he was quite sure that, if not, it ought to be. He opened his book of the Regulamenti Municipali which he always carried with him carefully; and though he was not a good scholar he could spell through its clauses. He studied it now, travelling with his finger under each word as the peasant‐ page: 93 manner is in all countries. He found, as he expected, printed in Rule CCLVIII. of his beloved code, that it was forbidden to throw or let run any water on any public way. Bindo certainly had never read Shakespeare and never heard of him, but he said to himself, ‘Twill serve.’

Pippo was sitting weaving in the doorway.

‘Stop that water,’ said zealous Bindo.

‘Eh?’ said the old man, in amaze.

‘You must stop that water; water must not run across a highway,’ said Bindo with stern authority. Pippo stared the more.

‘God set it runnning there, and I doubt He won’t stop it for you, jackanapes,’ said the old fellow to the young one.

‘You must cover it in, or drain it,’ said Bindo, getting into a high official rage. ‘It is against the law to have water in the public page: 94 road. One has to step into it or step across it. You must cover it or drain it, or I shall report you.’

‘Youngster,’ said peaceable Pippo, very patiently, ‘that water has been running as many years as the world is old; my father’s fathers let it run and thanked heaven for it, and so do I. Go your ways, Bindo Terri, and don’t you come teaching a man sixty‐six years old.’

For a guard to be called youngster! The insult made Bindo livid, and, had he dared, he would have crammed one of his poisoned polpetti down the throat of the offender.

He muttered some unintelligible words, at which old Pippo irreverently whistled, and he went on up the little street, if street it could be called, since it had no pavement, but only a path of cobble stones, and on one side of it was the gray‐green Rosa.

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‘Dear Lady and all the saints!’ cried Pippo to his neighbour: ‘that young popinjay is saying now that water mustn’t run as God set it running! I suppose our heads mayn’t wag on our shoulders next!’

‘Have you anything to show that the water may run?’ said the neighbour nervously. He was the cooper Cecco (Francesco Zagazzi), a timid meagre man, who had just had to pay a fine because his dog had sat outside the door instead of inside it, the dog being a terrier so small as scarcely to be discerned without a magnifying glass.

‘Lord’s sake, Ceccino,’ said Pippo, fairly in a rage. ‘The water’s run three hundred years if one. Do you think the Almighty asked Bindo Terri’s leave before he set the world a‐going?’

The neighbour spat with anxious face into the dust. ‘Almighty made dogs with four legs page: 96 and didn’t glue them down on their behinds,’ he said wistfully. ‘But according to Bindo Terri—’

‘Bindo Terri have an apoplexy smite him!’ shouted Pippo, which is the Italian way of saying ‘you be d___d;’ and he bundled together all his osiers and withes and went in and screamed to Viola; ‘Child, do you hear this? They’re calling on me to stop the water! The Almighty’s own stream, set a‐bubbling in the beginning of the world, is to be stopped! That’s a sight worse than telling me not to cut osiers!”

Viola grew pale.

‘Bindo must have been joking, grandfather.’

‘Lord knows!’ said Pippo with a gasp. ‘The world’s topsy‐turvy and the scum’s all atop, when Bindo Terri can go about cheeking and trouncing a man of my years.’

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‘You must speak him fair, grandfather,’ said the girl, uneasily.

‘Nay, nay, that I’ll never do,’ said the little old man. ‘I’ll break his head. Stop that stream of water? Stop the sun a‐shining, stop the wind a‐blowing, stop the moon a‐rolling! Why they’re daft.’

‘No, they aren’t daft,’ said the neighbour who had been fined for his terrier, and he shook the ashes out of his pipe very sadly. ‘They’re not daft; they’re very sharp; they are too sharp for us, and that’s the fact. Haven’t you any bit of paper that’d show you might have the water?’

‘Bit of paper? Bit of paper?’ said Pippo, with a sort of ferocity. ‘It ran for my father, and it ran for my grandfather, and it ran for my great‐grandfather, and that’s enough for me. Bit of paper? Who talks about a bit of paper? The brook is mine.’

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‘Perhaps they will forget all about it,’ said Viola, with an effort at consolation.

‘Bit of paper?’ echoed Pippo, unheeding. ‘Do you want a bit of paper to let the church stand in the square? Do you want a bit of paper to let the stars go on their courses? Bit of paper? The water runs through the house and out again and it’s a free thing, a free thing.’

The neighbour shook his head.

‘If you haven’t got a bit of paper—’

All the world to him was made up of bits of paper, he had been so often summoned and fined; happy people had bits of paper that released them from everything; unhappy people had bits of paper that condemned them for everything; to this much harassed man the world was chaos, and only this one idea was to be grasped out of its confusion. Pippo told him fiercely page: 99 that his mother had been a female ass, and his father a galley‐slave; but the neighbour bore the insult meekly, and went into his own door saying, ‘that they never would let him alone about that water unless indeed he had a bit of paper—’

The populace, as I have said, can very well understand the law that punishes it when it thieves, when it slays, when it forges, when it fires; it can understand its chastisement well enough, and does not question the justice of it. But the law that punishes it for sitting in the sun, for running with a dog, for letting its child whip a top, for stopping its tired horse to rest in the shade of a wall, for letting its starved goat crop a bit of wayside grass that is nobody’s and so is everybody’s property, this it does not understand; at this it grows stupid and sullen as poor puppies do when cruel keepers beat them, page: 100 and thus the guards get their fines, and the galleys their captives, and the graveyards their nameless tombs.

Bindo Terri went on into the piazza, and as the carabinier, who was no friend to him, told him somewhat roughly that he himself must loiter no more but go and look round the outlying country for the thieves that everywhere are ready to rob hen‐roosts and granaries, the rural guard was disinclined to adventure his person alone amongst the populace, and went into the smaller Caffè of Nuova Italia, and called for wine and tobacco, and sat down and played cards with some kindred spirits.

‘Diamine!’ said Gigi Canterelli (he was the grocer, and dealt beside in drugs and paints, and also had a sort of trattoria in his back‐parlour), standing on the sill of the shop and speaking in a low page: 101 tone as the figure of Bindo, deserted by the carabinier, was seen disappearing through the Caffè doors. ‘Diamine! many’s the time I’ve kicked and cuffed that rascal when he was but a monellino, for stealing plums and treacle, and knives and string. The saints bless us! And now he takes a turn at us all and does not gorget old grudges! The other week or two past, ay, what did he do, think you?’ added Gigi, turning to a young soldier just come off his term of service, who had been buying some gunpowder of him. ‘The law bids me stick a light outside my door of a night (the Lord know why—for there aren’t a child twenty miles round that couldn’t find me blindfold), but, however, there’s the law, and I am not saying anything against it; I suppose the wiseacres made it for some good reason or another, and every night of my life I’ve lit that lamp since the page: 102 order about it came in when we were all made free. But that night, it maybe a month ago, there was such a lot of folk in my shop, and they were all talking about the murder of the goldsmith in the city, and what with one thing and another, having nigh a score to serve at once (and one said the man had been murdered with a knife, and the other said he was shot, and another would have it he was strangled, and another said no, he had been brained with a hammer), I clean forgot the lamp—first time in fifteen years! I know the time because that order about lamps came in just the year after we got our liberty. Well, I forgot to light the lamp. Next morning comes that upstart, Bindo Terri, to me: says he, “What is your name?” “I should think you know it,” I say; and I think to myself your breeches have felt my switch times enough when you were a page: 103 pickle. “Don’t answer me,” says the upstart as bold as brass. “What is your name?” “Luigi Canterelli,” I say to him, feeling like a fool seventy years old, I, and having smacked that rogue often for robbing me! “Luigi Canterelli,” says he, as though he were the Pretore in his black cap; and writes it down! Sure as fate, upon the morrow a summons comes to me—“contravention”— and bidding me go up before the Conciliatore, and the hue and cry out after me if I do not, and the pains of the Upper Court threatened! Then when I go, there is the blackguard himself witness that my shop was black when the moon came up, and twenty‐seven francs in all are run up against me: and if I had said a word of the treacle and the string and the pocket‐knife of the old time, the jackanapes would have been down on me for disrespect to an officer of the law. Oh! Lord save us!’

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Gigi spat solemnly into the dust and filled his pipe which had gone out in his oratory.

‘We’re all fools,’ the young ex‐conscript said gloomily. ‘What have I had? Black bread, and ne’er enough of that, and set freezing in a cotton jacket up in Milan, in March, because the fellows down in Sicily had put on cotton jackets and so must we; though Sicily’s as hot as hell, they say, and Milan’s just an ice‐house; and I all the while was sore needed at home here, and father has had to pay a labourer all three summers because I was taken away!—ugh!’

A friend nudged his elbow; Messer Nellemane in high silk hat and city‐cut coat was sauntering by; Messer Nellemane looked the young soldier in the eyes.

‘You are no patriot, my lad,’ he said severely. ‘I fear you have been but an page: 105 indifferent soldier. You were a clod; the government made you a man. Be grateful!’

The young man coloured; he was wounded and ashamed; he was a peasant who had been taken by the conscription just as a young bullock is picked out for the shambles, and he had never understood why very well; his heart had been always with his fields, his homestead, his vines, his sweet‐heart; he had hated the barrack life, the dusty aimless marches, the drilling and the bullying, the weight of the knapsack and the roar of the guns; he had been a youth ere the government had made him a machine: he had not actively or outwardly rebelled, but he had hated it all, and he had come back to his native place, a harder, a crueller, and a moodier lad than he had left it; and when he thrummed his old mandoline by the farmhouse door, it page: 106 had no longer any music for him; it seemed to him as if the beating of the drums had got into his ears and deafened him—and Messer Nellemane told him to be grateful. He looked down, shuffled his feet, doffed his hat, and was silent.

Messer Nellemane spoke with the serenity of one who never had served. Fortune, which took pleasure in favouring him, had made his mother a widow, when the time had come for him to enter his name, and he had been an only son, and so exempt from all military service.

‘Never you mind; you’re better than he is any day, the cursed Jew quill‐driver,’ muttered old Gigi to the young soldier; but the lad scowled and lounged away down the river‐side moodily.

If the enemy had come into his country he would have held his own hamlet against page: 107 them to the last gasp; but to be drafted off to Milan, to wear a fool’s jacket and eat black bread while the fields were half tilled, and the old people sore driven, and the girl of his heart got married to some other man—no, he was not a patriot if, to be one, he must have been a contented conscript.

Yet he had ducked a Frenchman in the Mincio for calling Italians cowards. Messer Nellemane might not have done so much; unless, indeed, a Minister had been looking on, and the valour would have been likely to bring him promotion.

The next morning Bindo Terri, amongst other contraventions, presented on his list the case of old Fillippo and the running water. Messer Gaspardo drew his pen through it.

‘Wait awhile,’ he said to his zealous servitor. ‘Of course no water must run across the road. You are quite right; it is page: 108 a nuisance, and expressly forbidden; but you have spoken to Mazzetti, and we will give him time. He is an old inhabitant, and should be dealt with gently. We must warn, counsel, recommend, at first; and use our power afterwards if the person be refractory and obstinate. We must not be too harsh.’

Bindo Terri stared, disappointed and almost inclined to be rude to his chief patron. He could insist on his list of offenders being dealt with according to the regulations if he had chose. But in his heart he was sorely afraid of Messer Gaspardo, who was so good to him; so he grumbled a little under his breath, and consoled himself with going out of the municipality and buying some bullock’s liver to cook at home with phosphorus to make up into balls to fling about over the country roads to destroy all dogs that might be trotting innocently on their way to page: 109 their homes, or their fellow‐dogs, or sitting at their master’s gates to guard his fields and vineyards. He had no right to throw it in the daytime, even the regulations did not allow that; but there was nothing to prevent him doing so; and if, as now and then happened, a sheep passing amidst a flock touched the foul thing in the dust, and was taken with what its shepherd thought a fit, the amusement to Bindo was complete, when he watched from behind a hedge the beast’s agony and the shepherd’s dismay.

Messer Nellemane, although he drew rein to his myrmidon’s zeal, in heart approved of it, of course. A spring of water bubbling across a public pathway was to him a thing of horror: was what a stole and rochet are to a stern Protestant, or a shot fox is to an Englishman; and there indisputably the little spring was, whimpering out from Pippo’s garden page: 110 door, and making a little silver thread in the dust. It was just one of those lawless, easy‐going, illegitimate things, births of ancient customs and indolent privileges, which it was the scope of all the Regulations to reach, sweep away, and utterly destroy. In truth, the water outside Pippo’s gate made so slight a show as it ran to the river, that in passing over it, it had never struck the eyes of Messer Nellemane; he had seen it, but he had thought it the leak of a pipe or the accident of the hour. Now, however, it assumed to him all the awful blackness, all the unspeakable insolence, of a contravention. The Inquisitors are dead, but their souls live again in the Impiegati. *

For the present, however, he stifled his feelings, and only kept the water in memory, to use if need be; just for all the world as

Clerks of the civil service or of any public works.

page: 111 Torquemada would have kept the torture; and he continued his courtship, stealthily, so that Santa Rosalia might know nothing of it, but boldly, so far as he dispensed with all hesitating preliminaries and plunged in media res, with all the disregard of delicacy that became a great man condescending to notice a poor maiden. He did not, however, to his surprise, make much way in the maiden’s good graces. He could never manage to see her alone; old Pippo was almost sure to be there, till Messer Nellemane longed to throttle him with his own reeds; or, if he were absent, there was the next‐door neighbour, the cooper’s wife with her tribe of children, or some of the Pastorini girls, or Viola’s great‐aunt by the mother’s side, a little withered rosy‐cheeked old apple of a woman, who called him Excellenza and opened her little black eyes wide at seeing page: 112 such a grand personage come to the cottage.

Nobody was ever alone in Santa Rosalia; all doors were open, and all work was done to a chorus of chattering voices. Gossip is the very staff of life to all Italian communities, and the scanty bread and the watered wine are made up for by the delight of endless talk. The talk is of Lippo’s cow that has calved, of Tina’s baby that has cut its teeth, of Dina’s girl that is to marry at Pasqua; of the vicar’s new surplice, of the fattoressa’s new gown, of the chances of oil being cheap and of flour being dear, of all sorts of little odds and ends of local tittle‐tattle that are to them as the scandals of the Jockey Club, the combinations of Worth, the actions of the Porte, or the speeches of Prince Bismarck, are to us.

Viola had never been alone in all her life; her grandfather thought no woman ever page: 113 should be; but her new admirer fancied that all these people round her were precautions taken against himself, and waxed very angry accordingly.

He did not want all the neighbourhood to talk of his courtship of this poor old man’s granddaughter, and he knew very well that if you only fling an acorn in the dust one day people, the next, will swear to a grove of oaks against you.

The Italian tongue chatters like a magpie’s; if they did not let the steam off thus they would be less easily ruled than they are; but no great talker ever did any great thing, yet, in this world.

Messer Gaspardo Nellemane was by no means an immoral man; he was rather cold of temperament, and being a wise person he saw how often a little naughty story when it gets afloat about a public career is to it as page: 114 fatal as the rift in the lute. He had a wholesome horror of ever being compromised by foolish frivolities; he was an ambitious man, and these wayside dallyings had but little temptation for him. Nevertheless, Messer Nellemane was not a saint, and the beauty of Viola, granddaughter of Pippo, was seductive to him.

Marry her? No; he did not mean to marry; not until he should get some better post than this of Santa Rosalia, and be able to discover some heiress of a wax candle‐maker, or a strozzino, or an oil merchant, whose money would help to make him a deputy, since he fully intended some day to jump from the office‐stool of the municipality to the benches of Montecitorio. No; he had no thought of marrying Viola, but she was very handsome, very beautiful, and there was docile Bindo Terri ready to take any‐ page: 115 thing off his hands, from a frayed coat to a tarnished love. Bindo Terri would marry her—for a consideration.

Messer Gaspardo, though only a clerk, had all the ideas of a gentleman.

As it chanced Corpus Domini fell late in May that year, and of course there were to be processions all over the country, and every girl, however penniless she might be, would find a white or a blue frock, and perhaps a bit of tulle for a veil, and would walk with the Host as it was borne under an umbrella between the mulberry trees that lined the dusty roads and through the gardens of the neighbouring villas.

Viola was very poor, and her clothes, though clean, were always sorely patched and frayed; so Messer Gaspardo thought it good policy to go down into the city himself and choose a most delicate print of the Madonna’s page: 116 own azure, and a wreath of white roses and some shoes, shoes with bright silvered‐looking buckles, just such as the ladies wore; and making all these up into a parcel when he got home, he left them himself on the table of old Pippo’s cottage when Pippo and his daughter were absent.

On the roll of print he had pinned a card,— ‘Con ossequie teneri all più bella del mondo: dal suo devoto.—G.N.’

He knew the right road to the female heart. Viola chanced to see the parcel when alone; her grandfather being outside smoking pipe with a neighbour. She coloured very much, and then grew very pale. She could just spell out the words on the card. She hastened up the steep stone staircase to her own little miserable room and hid the packet under the sheet on her bed. She had only just caught a glimpse of page: 117 the blue print, and the white wreath, and the buckles; and they had made her tremble as though she had seen the face of a ghost.

She was keen in all her simplicity as her people almost always are, and she had that doubt which always underlies their sanguine temper. If Carmelo saw these things he would be capable of flinging them at their giver’s head and saying perilous words in the very palace of the municipality itself.

Even her old grandfather—

Her heart sank like a stone in the deep sea as she thought of the forbidden rushes and the running water at the threshold.

‘If I spoke him fair?’ she said to herself with her country‐folk’s belief in fair words as a panacea for all evils and ills, and a talisman against all peril and enmity.

‘May I go and see the aunt ’Nunziatina this evening?’ she asked of Pippo. Her page: 118 great aunt lived at the other end of Santa Rosalia ; the same little apple‐cheeked old woman who had stared at Messer Nellemane; she was poor, nay, she was penniless; she shared a room with three others and lived frankly on alms; very honest begging it was; she went round from house to house with a big basket, and got bread and broken meats, and a little money, and now and then a flask of wine, and then she sung her Jubilate. Everybody knew and liked her in this place where she lived all her life, and knew very well that she had not a soldo in the world; her husband had been a day‐labourer, and when he had chopped his hand off, in cutting a hedge of oakscrub and myrtle, and had died of mortification, the old Annunziata had been left destitute.

The Government which forbids begging, page: 119 and lands those who do beg in prisons, has as yet provided no poor‐law; so eighty‐year old ’Nunziatina had no choice but to trot round with her basket, or to die silently of hunger. Many do the latter—and nobody cares.

Want seems sadder in this light and lovely land, where life requires so little to make it happy and to fill its needs, than it does in the dark grim North, where fog hides the suffering multitudes and cold is the tyrant of all. Here, give but a little bread, a little oil and wine, and life can sparkle on cheerily as the firefly burns in the cornfields; but alas! even that little, thousands and tens of thousands have not, and so perish.

Messer Nellemane, and his kind, know the reason why.

‘May I go and see ’Nunziatina?’ said Viola, and her grandfather nodded ascent; page: 120 she went and got the parcel from under her bed and went out with it.

‘What have you got there?’ said Pippo.

‘The cloth I have spun; auntie can sell it better than I,’ said Viola, thinking nought of a little fib for peace’ sake, though she coloured as she spoke, for she was of a straightforward and truthful nature.

The old man ambled by her side on his little lean shrivelled shanks, for he never let the girl go through the village alone.

Arrived at the dwelling of Annunziata he let his granddaughter go upstairs, while he stayed below, chatting with the carpenter who owned the cottage, and dwelt in the ground‐floor of it, and let the rest to lodgers.

The cottage stood on a bit of waste land by a bend in the river; some poplars made a pleasant murmur near; some geese and goats strayed about on the worn grass.

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‘The Giunta cuts the trees down come Ognissanti,’ said the carpenter with a groan.

‘By Bacchus!’ cried Pippo, who never tasted any wine better than vinegar.

‘They’ll cut our toe‐nails off next,’ sighed the carpenter.

‘They would if they could get a centime a toe!’ assented Pippo, and told his grievances as to the rushes and the stream.

Meanwhile, Violas upstairs told her story to her grand‐aunt; a little old square figure with a straw hat on, and a very short skirt, and old leather boots like a ploughman’s, and a cheerful sunburnt ugly pleasant face.

‘Dear our Lady! But it is beautiful stuff for a gown!’ cried the old woman, fingering the blue print as reverentially as if the had been the holy wafer. ‘Eh, eh! I opened my eyes at him the other day! I thought, page: 122 thought I, “Yon master comes not for naught!”’

‘But I cannot keep it,’ said Viola, with a flush on her cheeks and a little tone of inquiry in the words.

The old woman said at once: ‘No, my joy; you would do ill to keep it,’

They had been all of them very upright and unstained folks in both these families from which Viola Mazzetti sprang, and their women had always been honest and chaste.

‘Maybe though, he means it in all honour?’ said ’Nunziatina doubtingly, and thinking to herself: ‘She is so handsome, the child; why not?—and after all, though a great man here, he was a tinker’s son, they say; and when all is told he is but a clerk.’

Viola shook her head, and her cheeks grew red. The maidens of the poor soon learn what evil means.

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‘No, no; he is a bad man,’ she said with a slight shudder. ‘And besides, if he did mean well, I must keep faith with Carmelo.’

‘The lad has spoken out, then?’

‘Yes; we shall marry when the fathers say we can.’

‘That is another thing,’ said the old woman. ‘Now what is it you want me to do, my dear; for there is something, I can see?’

‘I thought this,’ said Viola. ‘I thought, I cannot go to Messer Gaspardo; that would never do; I never scarce stir by myself, and grandfather would be furious; and besides, I want him to know nothing, and Carmelo nothing either; so I thought, if you would take the parcel back to Messer Gaspardo, and thank him, and speak him fair, and tell him I am betrothed, I thought that might be the page: 124 best way? You can see him any day they say, at the communal palace; and we must try not to offend him, because he can hurt people so much, and he is already angry at things grandfather has done.’

The old woman chuckled a little, for she was a merry soul, though she was eighty‐four and had not a penny on earth, and when she should die would be buried in a deal box by the parish.

‘A pretty figure am I for a palace!’ she said with a laugh as bright as a robin’s song. ‘But let us talk it over, my dearly beloved, and may the dear saints counsel us!’

They did talk it over, turning the matter inside out, and in every possible light, Italians like to do on all occasions; the girl was harassed and oppressed by this love‐gift; the old woman was rather flattered and amused.

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‘Pray speak him fair,’ Viola begged of her amabassadress as old Pippo called her to go down. ‘Pray be humble and pretty of language to him, because he can do father so much harm!’

‘Pooh, he can’t eat us,’ said the old woman, who had a spirit of her own. ‘And he won’t be the first man, my dear, that has found himself forestalled by a better than himself with a handsome maiden!’

Viola could neither smile nor blush.

‘He can do everybody so much harm!’ she said anxiously with a sigh. The dread of Gaspardo Nellemane was like a hand of lead upon her, ‘Do speak him fair, dear, pray do!’

‘Never fear,’ said the old fool merrily. ‘He can’t do me any mischief, my child. Who has nothing loses nothing. Does not the proverb say so? Why should you be page: 126 angry with the young man? He means no harm, I will warrant.’

‘Viola! come down I say! Your tongue will reach to the town and go twice round the cathedral!’ roared Pippo impatiently from below; and the girl went down the cottage stairs heavy of heart, and wondering how her grand‐aunt’s errand would speed. She could not shake off the memory of Messer Gaspardo’s bold black eyes.

But at the cottage‐door they met Carmelo driving a cart of his father’s home, empty, having taken sacks of flour to a neighbouring hamlet; and she and her grandfather to up into the cart behind the good old grey horse Bigio with its jingling bells, and so sped cheerfully past the poplars and along the river; and in the gaze of their lover’s honest beaming eyes she was half though not wholly cured of her fears, and page: 127 repaid a hundredfold on the loss of the dress and the rose‐wreath and the shoes with the shining buckles.

In the forenoon ’Nunziatina took the parcel in her alms‐basket and trotted with her stick to help her through Santa Rosalia to the municipal building, and then boldly asked for Messer Nellemane. She was a bright‐hearted, high‐couraged, old woman, and had that sturdy independence which still extant among the old people who are too old to be able to learn to cringe before the national curse of municipal law.

She cared nought for all the greatness of Messer Gaspardo, and fought valiantly with Tonino and Maso and Bindo, all of whom tried to shut their doors on her, and at last, in sheer despite of them, she stumped up the stone stairs in her hobnailed boots that were three times too large for page: 128 her, and at ten of the clock precisely stood in the august presence.

Messer Gaspardo welcomed her quite charmingly; he knew she was the grand‐aunt of Viola Mazzetti. He was seated in state, ready to receive anybody, as was his wont from ten to twelve, with a long writing‐table before him, covered with papers, and the green blinds shut against the sun, and maps of the district and books of the Penal Code and the Civil Code around him; and really he might almost have been taken for the Prefect of the Province, so grave and majestic an embodiment of the Law did he look.

‘I am glad to find your excellency all alone,’ said the bright little old woman, laying down the big parcel on the writing‐table, for she thought to herself, ‘I am told to speak him fair, and nothing will please page: 129 him like a grand title, that makes me look like an ass to use it.’

‘All the country is always talking of all it owes to your illustrious self’ (and that is true, she thought, because every living soul is always cursing and abusing him from morning till night), ‘and never should I have ventured, a poor old beggar as I am, to intrude upon you, only that I have to speak to you about my sister’s granddaughter—

‘Speak on,’ said the secretary, but his eye grew annoyed and startled; this was by no means what he wished; to have his admiration of Viola made a subject of discussion in her family was the last thing that consorted with his desires or designs. ‘The girl has been boasting already,’ he thought angrily, and gave a malediction to the vanity of woman.

‘You admire Viola, they tell me, and so page: 130 indeed it seems, since you send such fine presents, signore mio,’ continued the crafty ’Nunziatina, and waited for him to reply.

Messer Gaspardo gnawed his moustachios irritably.

‘Everyone admires a beautiful girl,’ he said at last, with an uneasy laugh. ‘You must not conclude too much from that—’

‘No, no, sir, not I, ‘ said the old woman very cheerfully, but her little sunken still bright brown eyes plunged their regard into his and read him, down to the secrets of his innermost soul. ‘Gentlemen like you have a kindly way of paying compliments that mean nothing; oh, nothing at all; and my Viola is a girl of a great deal too much sense to have put meaning into anything you said or did. Only as she is very grateful to you for such courtesy, and could not come very well to say so, she bade me speak for page: 131 her; and do you be very sure, sir, that none the less thankful is she, though her feeling as to what is right makes her send your pretty things back by me, sir.’

Therewith ’Nunziatina took out of her basket all the gifts that had represented with Messer Nellemane the pearls of Faust, and laid them very respectfully down on his table.

Messer Nellemane grew of a sickly colour. He was pallid with rage. He half rose from his seat.

‘What, woman!’ he stammered; ‘what? Are you mad? Do you dare to insult me?’

‘No, no, sir; never a thought of it,’ said wily Annunziata; ‘no more of it than you had in buying those pretty things for the child to wear on Corpus Domini; a kindly thought, just like a gentleman—’

‘Why then—why —’ still stammered page: 132 Messer Gaspardo, still aghast with wrath and wonder.

‘Why, sir?’—the little old woman drew herself up quite straight, with both her hands on her elm‐stick—‘Why, sir, because it is not meet for maidens, and motherless maidens, to take gifts from those too much above them to mean honest marriage, or have nay thought except a foolish sport that may divert the man but does destroy the woman. City girls, I know, are ready for that sort of play, but our girls are not. That is all I wanted just to say, and thank you kindly, Signore Gaspardo; for I am quite sure you had no thought of harming Viola. And now let me take away the inconvenience of myself, and bid you a very good day.’

With that Italian phrase of peasant farewell which here was no figure of speech, for she was indeed the greatest discomfort to page: 133 him that had ever fallen across his prosperous career, the little old woman in her straw hat and her short petticoats bowed to him, with that grace which oftentimes even the humblest and the very aged keep in the land where Art once ruled supreme, and trotted out of his room and down the stone stairs with a little tranquil chuckle.

She had said nothing of Viola’s betrothal; the Italian courtesy and caution alike lay down as a fixed rule for rich and poor, that you should never say a disagreeable thing under any pretext or pressure.

‘He will learn it soon enough, ‘ she thought, ‘and he is a bad man, and a dangerous; the devil dwells under his eyelids.’

To her granddaughter, however, she only said cheerfully, ‘I put it to him politely, my dear, and thanked him; and I hope you will hear no more of his nonsense.’

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For she reasoned with herself of what use was it to tell the child her own fears? She thought it would be of more use to buy a real wax candle instead of a bit of kid, the first time anybody should give her some coppers, and burn it before the Madonna up in the old oak‐tree of the church of San Romualdo upon the slopes behind her dwelling‐place; a shrine which had been set in the trunk of that old tree no one well knew how many hundreds of years before, and at which were wrought still many marvellous cures, and many infinite kindnesses of the Holy Virgin to true believers. The candle that very week she did buy with the first money she got on her rounds, and it twinkled its life out in the hot May day until at night the little white moths burned themselves up in it by scores, and it dwindled into darkness as the stars page: 135 began to gleam and the nightingales to sing.

But whilst her holy candle burned under the holy ilex trees, the fires of an unholy rage burned in the breast of Messer Nellemane. He felt he had been checkmated, and checkmated by a little old trot in a ragged petticoat who, he felt, had been jeering at him with her illustrissimo. His own grandmother, indeed, still living in the township of his birth, was not one whit less ragged or impecunious than was ’Nunziatina. But he always strove to forget his grandmother as he strove to forget his father’s old iron and rusty brass, for it was not meet for a man on the highway to a political party and a ministerial greatness to cumber himself with these remembrances. He sent his mother, indeed, now and then a banknote in a registered letter, but it was always page: 136 on the understanding that she never of her own accord recalled her existence to him.

A retentive memory is of great use to a man, no doubt; but the talent of the oblivion is on the whole more useful.

The fire of his rage consumed him, and he was the more angry because at the moment he knew not how to smite those who mocked at him.

An hour or two later, however, he carelessly said to Bindo Terri:

‘That old woman who came to bring me a petition to‐day—she is a professional mendicant?’

Bindo watched his chief’s face anxiously to get his cue, but could read nothing.

‘La ’Nunziatina?’ he said, hesitatingly. ‘No, Signore, I would not call her that; everybody knows her; she has been always page: 137 like this; she goes from house to house, and out to all the villas in turn—’

An angry glisten of Messer Gaspardo’s eyes told his faithful servitor that he had gone on the wrong tack: he hastened to make amends.

‘A beggar, of course, she is,’ he added. ‘I think she has been one twenty years. I remember her as long as I remember anything, and she always lived by charity. A lady did get her awhile ago permission to get taken in at Montesacro; but the old cranky, crazy creature said she could not live shut up: if she could not walk her dozen miles a day she would die—so she said. Yes: to be sure, illustrissimo, she is a beggar.’

‘A vagrant!’

Messer Nellemane shrugged his shoulders and sighed over the degeneracy of a public page: 138 which would still continue to find patrons to support and pamper mendicancy. He fell into deep meditation. In the 395 Regulations framed for the Polizia, Igiena, and Edilitià of the commune there was one terrible void: there was nothing at all said about beggars.

‘They can find means to maintain all these creatures, and yet they declare they cannot support the imperial and local taxes!’ he said aloud to his subordinate; by his ‘they’ meaning the landowners of the district, men of long descent, patrician appearance, and courtly manner, whose rank was the bitter envy of Messer Nellemane, whist their poverty was the object of his equally bitter scorn.

Bindo Terri sighed too, and put up his hands to express his own equal regret and horror. Himself, he knew very well that page: 139 most of the people who gave alms to Annunziata were people of the poorest sort; peasants or homely folk, such as masons, carpenters, smiths, and the like; but he saw that it would not suit his chief’s mood then to say so.

‘There is nothing about beggars in it?’ he said questioningly, turning over the leaves of his beloved and revered Regulations.

‘Not as yet,’ said Messer Nellemane. ‘The good Cavaliere Durellazzo is, perhaps, too lenient to the vagrant classes.’

The good Cavaliere Durellazzo was just then sitting in a straw chair, with a wide straw hat on, smoking a cigar made, for the most part, of straw, on the sands of a summer resort on the Mediterranean, and no more troubled himself about his commune when away, than he did when at home in it.