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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 140


THAT very night, as ill luck would have it, Messer Nellemane went sauntering down the green banks of the Rosa, for the pleasure of surveying a grim piece of work he had done the year before. An old convent, once of an Olivetine Congregation, crowned a hill that rose up from the Rosa; it had been a beautiful hill, clothed for centuries with forest greenery, in which many a tall cypress, hundreds of years old, and of great height and girth, towered majestic, whilst the bronze‐hued ilex oak, and the silver poplar, and the page: 141 chestnut, and the acacia, all grew in amity together, sheltering in spring time millions of primroses, and of many another wee wood‐flower.

Santa Rosalia is in a lovely pastoral country; the country that seems to thrill with Theocritus’ singing, as it throbs with the little tambourine of the cicala; a country running over with beautiful greenery, and with climbing creepers hanging everywhere, from the vine on the maples to the china‐rose hedges, and with the deep blue shadows and the sun‐flushed whiteness of the distant mountains lending to it in the golden distance that solemnity and etherial charm which, without mountains somewhere within sight, no country ever has. But since the advent of freedom it is scarred and wounded; great scar patches stretch here and there where woods have been felled page: 142 by the avarice illumined in the souls of landowners; hundreds and thousands of bare poles stand stark and stiff against the river light, which have been glorious pyramids of leaf, shedding welcome shadows on the river path; and many a bold round hill like the ballons of the Vosges, once rich of grass as they, now shorn of forest and even of undergrowth, lift a bare, stony front to the lovely sunlight, and never more will root of tree, or seed of flower, or of fern, find bed there.

Such is Progress.

This convent of Francesca Romana had been ‘appropriated’ in the sacred name of liberty, and the nuns had been all sent here and there, back to their families if they had any, and out to weary loneliness if they had not, and the dowers they had given the Church had gone to the coffers of the page: 143 Government, and enriched contractors, and engineers, and ministers.

The old home of these Olivetine Sisters itself was despoiled, much as it would have been by an invading army that was allowed loot. Its crucifixes, its ivories, its carvings were sold by the State to curiosity dealers, and its frescoes, by Sodoma and the Carracci, were cut off the walls and disposed of to a foreign nation.

All this had been done before Messer Nellemane’s time, although done by men so closely like to Messer Nellemane that they might have been his elder brothers.

The deserted building, when he had come into the village, had stood on the hill like a wrecked city; majestic still, since its old walls, all faced with marbles and porphyry, would have yielded to nought save cannon; and it tall bell‐tower, exquisite in its page: 144 slenderness and symmetry, and its ivory‐like whiteness, had still pointed heavenward from his green throne, though its bells had been torn down and melted to help make a bronze statue of one of Messer Nellemane’s elder brothers away in the city, where it was called the Monument of a Soldier of Liberty, and had Fame and Peace seated together at its base.

The building was an empty shell, and while the Government were always meaning to turn it into an institute, a barrack, a powder magazine, or a laboratory, the years had slipped away, and damp and drought alternately were changing it into a ruin. But the forest beauty about it was still untouched when Santa Rosalia first beheld Messer Nellemane; and when he had been a little time upon that office stool of which he intended to make a starting point page: 145 to a future ministry of State, he cast his eyes upon this shattered temple of superstition. To his amazement the timber on the hillside had been all left standing.

All those instincts which always made him feel it was his destiny some day to become a minister of finance, or of the interior, rose up in his breast.

What waste of the public purse! And what a commission awaiting for somebody! Messer Nellemane, of all things this world held, loved best a job. The official mind always loves a job. Moreover, he detested trees, as he detested dogs. As dogs were only endurable when chained up, so, to him, trees were only tolerable when sawn into lengths and neatly planed.

The official mind, with which he had been created, viewed with abhorrence the unministerial and improvident existence page: 146 permitted to that once sacred wood, whilst the convent it surrounded had been dealt with as free thought can always deal with such monuments of superstition.

Messer Nellemane made a humble suggestion on the matter to Cavaliere Durellazzo; the Syndic made a communication to the Giunta; the Prefect of the province was seen and whispered with; the Prefect went down to Rome and whispered with the Minister of Public Works, who was his friend. It was suddenly discovered that there was a great need of oak wood in the dockyards, though they were building ships of nothing but iron; soon it was decreed that the trees which had sheltered and graced the bigotry of the past should fall to help fill the treasuries of the present.

The Ministry entrusted the direction of the sale to the Prefect; the Prefect en‐ page: 147 trusted it to the Syndic of Vezzaja and Ghiralda, the prefectorial commission being, a thing understood; of course, no one speaks of such matters. The Syndic entrusted it in turn to his secretary, the syndical commission being, of course, equally understood; and the Giunta also being understood, without words, to have each of them an interest in the ultimate proceeds.

But it may be taken for granted that, when the various commissions, first of the big Ministers down in Rome, and then of the big Prefect down in the adjacent city, and then of all the lesser personages concerned, not omitting Messer Nellemane himself, who took all the trouble of it under the rose, were all shaved off the sum total brought by the sale of that wood to the State, the nation never bought timber dearer for its dockyards.

page: 148

However, everybody was very pleased except a few artists who tried to make a noise about it, as those troublesome beings always do, and the people of the commune in general, who were not consulted and did not count.

The particulars of the sale were amongst those official things which never issue out of pigeon‐holes, and concerning which blue books, yellow books, all books parliamentary, are silent in all countries.

The trees fell; the giants of the centuries crashed down under the axes or under fire; the hares, the birds, the myriads of innocent pretty, forest life that had lived under them so long, fled away or were ruthlessly destroyed; cartloads of timber went to burn in the furnaces of public works or rot away in the ship‐yards; and Messer Nellemane, through his trusty cousin, some page: 149 foreign scrip; indeed everybody concerned in the sale bought something.

The convent stood bare and drear upon its desolated hillside, and above the river, rose a great slope, naked, scarred, frightful, with charred holes yawning where the primrose tufts and the blue irises had blossomed in that same springtide.

Messer Nellemane looked up at it now, and felt it had been a work worthy of him, and one fully in the spirit of the age.

It was really quite equal to the pulling down of Tell’s chapel and of Milton’s house; to the destruction of the walls of Augsburg and the towers of Nurnberg; to the levelling of the Spanish Houses of Brussels and of the gates and the bastions of Gall, of the Grand Chatelêt of Paris and of the Tabard Inn of old London; he felt that it might take its place proudly amidst all the greatest destruc‐ page: 150 tion wrought by Progress and Economy in this noblest and most æsthetic century, by means of its chiefs and excecutants, the Municipalities.

In the old time architects and artists had wrought here diligently, reverentially, lovingly, in the name of God and of the arts; but Messer Nellemane, though he had never heard of Sainte Beuve, would have quite agreed with him, that, ‘Dieu, ce n’est pas français,’ and for his own part would have been as ready to affirm that Art was no longer in the Italian dictionary.

In the old time European municipalities thought that they existed for the ends of patriotism and the glory of their cities; they built for the honour of God and the love of their country. But nowadays all that is changed; a municipality is only a page: 151 selection of persons intent on their own interests; the motto of each is ‘my policy’s myself;’ whether old walls are pulled down or new ones put up, gold comes off the mortar for the town‐councilmen, the contractors, and the commissioners, and they can never understand why everyone is not as satisfied as they are. Whether the question be one of demolition or construction, all they look for is what it will bring.

Whether trees fall in Kensington Gardens or the Cascine, whether old churches are pulled down in Rome or in Paris, whether new street make hideous Venice or Vienna, whether gardens are chopped to pieces on the Pincio or in the Bois, there is always somebody who pockets something sub rosâ, and instead of Jacques Cœur or the Fugger, or William of Wykham, or Alan Walsingham, we have officers of Public Works as avaricious page: 152 as Harpagan, as dull as Prudhomme, and more ruthless than Attila.

They are always amazed that you are not contented.

If you want a handsome structure, can you not make a large glass frame for a market or an exhibition, or raise a fine sugar‐white gimcrack in plaster and stucco, that you can call a war office, a church, a college, or a palace at your pleasure?

The bureaucratic and the municipalic mind cannot comprehend any higher joy than destroying, reconstructing, and pocketing the proceeds of both operations.

Our friend Messer Nellemane had been born with the bureaucratic and municipalic organs both largely developed in his brain, and within his narrow confines he contrived to compass vast things, and his heart was always comforted as he looked up at the page: 153 bald gneiss and sand where the convent oaks once had stood; but, as woe would have it, taking this night his favourite stroll past ruined Santa Francesca, he saw two shadows in the evening light, and all his comfort fled. The shadows were far below him, and were entwined one with another, like two young acacias that have grown up and leaned together; they were moving slowly over the long grass under the lines of the silver poplars by the watermill.

His heart gave a leap of rage, and his ruddy face grew livid.

He recognized in the happy murmuring lovers under the trees, Viola and young Carmelo. His passion was stung to the quick, and his pride and his vanity were wounded yet more deeply. ‘She rejects me!’ he thought, and no emperor flouted by a peasant maid, and seeing a rustic lout pre‐ page: 154 ferred, could have felt himself more grossly and with greater ingratitude insulted.

True, the old shop of rusty iron was not so much above the mill as an origin; but then Messer Nellemane was now a servant of the State, nay, rather, an integral piece of the State itself, as a cog‐wheel is a piece of the great machine it helps to work; and he thought himself a very great personage.

He walked now above the river on the bare ridge beneath Santa Francesca, and saw the lovers strolling below, through the poplar wood, with the big white dog of the mill, Toppa, strolling as well in front of them, and all his soul burned within him with rage and jealous chagrin.

He could see the brown wheel churning in the water; he could see the flour sacks leaning against the fence under the hedge of elders; he could see the jay in its cage page: 155 amongst a passion flower that covered all the house wall; he could see the snowy head of the old miller himself, leaning out of a little square window, and calling orders to the boy who was waiting with the mule‐cart at the gate; and he could see the lovers loitering in the sunset warmth by the river; lovers, who thought to live all their days out there peacefully under that same roof, and leave their children to come there after them, and get their bread by the same old wooden wheels churning the same green waters where the green leaves grew.

He stood on the heights above, and looked down on the tranquil little scene;—with a curse.