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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 156


TWO or three days later was Corpus Domini; it fell on the last day of May.

Viola would not have been a daughter of Eve, had she not thought longingly, on the eventide before this great feast, of Messer Nellemane’s blue gown and white wreath. What would not the other girls have said if they could but have seen her in that beautiful dress, and with the buckles shining on her feet!

She never wished that she had kept them, but she often did wish that they could page: 157 have been the gift of the grandfather, or of Carmelo.

The procession was the great day of the year in Santa Rosalia, as in every other village and little borgo round. Messer Nellemane, who was a libero persiero, yearned to have it suppressed; he thought it degrading and idiotic. Like a true Liberal thinker he was of opinion that as there should be no distinctions for the rich, so there should be no diversions for the poor. He would have forbidden banners, music, colours, lights, public services, and gatherings of all sorts, except for Liberal purposes, under threat of heavy pains and penalties, but he had no power; the Government has not quite made up its mind as yet to do away with any time‐honoured custom, and he, without the Government, was helpless, for this was an imperial matter.

page: 158

So all day long, every Féte Dieu, the tolling and chiming of bells, the aspect of villagers clad in their festal array, the sounds of chanting, the scent of incense, the sight of banners, pursued him, and made him irritable and unhappy; so unhappy that even the number of contraventions, generally to be gleaned on a day when people were too merry and too engrossed to chain up their dogs and shut up their children, could not altogether console him. Besides, even Bindo was so carried away by the influence of long habit that he was himself not so watchful as usual on this day, when the girls were all looking their best in their white or blue gowns, and most houses had open doors and a full table, and at nightfall there was dancing and illuminations in the piazza.

This summer the procession was especially page: 159 hateful and foolish in Messer Gaspardo’s sight; was more than ever loathsome to him, since Viola Mazzetti did not wear his gown, and his garland, and his shoe‐buckles, but came out in her humble grey skirt and bodice, that were to her loveliness like the dark leaves to the mangolia flower, and had never as much even as a silver pin set in her hair.

Old Pastorini, too, was the capo of the feast, and managed everything, and in the village band Carmelo beat the drum; beat it indeed with more zeal than discretion, so that it could always be heard high above every other instrument at every moment, but was very much praised, and looked very handsome and bright as he did so.

Messer Nellemane found all this too much for him, so he rose early on this day, and page: 160 went on business to the great city, twelve miles away under the mountains, and let Santa Rosalia have its fooling since he had no power to stop it.

And Santa Rosalia had it; very peacefully and piously at first, and then very good‐naturedly and gaily, mingling the sacred and the profane in an innocent jumble, singing the O Salutaris one moment devoutly as they followed the Host, and the next, humming waltz music merrily as they jumped round in the dance.

Italian merrymaking is no longer pretty; the sense of colour and of harmony is gone out of our people, whose forefathers were models of Leonardo and Raffaelle, and whose own limbs, too, have still so often the mould of the Faun and the Discobolus. Their merrymaking has nothing of the grace and brightness of French fairs, nor even of the page: 161 picturesqueness and colour of the German feast and frolics; even in Carnival, though there are gaiety and grotesqueness, there are little grace and little good colouring. Yet the people enjoy themselves; enjoy themselves for the most part very harmlessly, and very merrily, when they forget their tax‐papers, their empty stomachs, and their bankrupt shops.

The village enjoyed itself this day of the Feast of God, though its piazza was very dusty, and its band very out of tune, and its food and its drink as thoroughly bad as they could be. But it was Corpus Domini, and everyone was happy; and when the long procession had said its last prayer the trescone began in the square, and every house was hung with crescents of light.

Messer Nellemane, being compelled to return by the last diligence that ran to Santa Rosalia from the town to which he had gone page: 162 to escape from the ceremonies and festivities, found himself at ten of the night in a still crowded piazza as he descended from his rickety conveyance. The Municipality was black as crepe; that he could ordain; but every other house round the place was twinkling with the flame of lighted oil in little iron sconces; the very same sconces that had been used in the Cinque Cento to celebrate feasts and frays and saints’ days.

The lights were blazing brightly; the music was sounding jocundly, the youths and the maidens were going round and round, laughing and chattering as they jumped. The drum stood on a pavement with the honest dog of the mill guarding it, and Carmelo was dancing with Viola, while old Pippo and the miller, sitting on two rush chairs beside the dog and drum, looked on smiling and beating the time.

page: 163

A shining sky was over them all; the river glistened in the strong moonlight; the air was heavy with the scent of the lilies and the stocks, the carnations and the roses in the gardens around. Saint Rosalia was in festa, and the two old men, warmed by a little more wine than usual, were saying one to another.

‘They might as well wed at once? They will never be richer, and there is no time like youth.’

Messer Nellemane did not hear the words of the old men, but he saw the young dancers.

He went on sullenly, with his hat drawn down over his brows, pushing his way through the crowd without any of the somewhat pompous politeness of demeanour which marked him usually.

He slammed his door, and went to his page: 164 bed, and shut his shutters to shut out the shining heavens, the fragrant air, the glittering little lights; but the laughter, and the music, and the joyous blithe‐hearted murmur that rose up from the dancers below the shutters, he could not exclude; and he cursed them.

For the first time his liberi pensieri were distasteful to him and unsatisfactory; for atheism makes a curse a mere rattle of dry peas in a fool’s bladder as it makes a blessing a mere flutter of breath. Messer Nellemane for the first time felt that the old religion had its advantages over agnosticism; it gave you a hell for your rivals and your enemies!

In the next week there came a little party up to the Municipality of Santa Rosalia. They were Pippo and his granddaughter and the two Pastorini, father and son. They were page: 165 in festal attire; Pippo wore new dark blue hempen clothes, and had his jacket on one shoulder, and his shirt well ruffled up above his trouser‐band; the miller was in his Sunday suit, all grey; Carmelo had a pink shirt and a blue necktie and a jay’s‐wing in the band of his wide‐awake; and Viola had a gown of pale dove‐coloured stuff that she had bought in the town of Pomodoro for her wedding, and had her dead mother’s string of seed‐pearls about her throat; her pale cheek was as red as a rose, and but for her grandfather’s stout hold on her arm she would never have found feet to bear her up the flight of steps.

Bindo Terri, lounging in the entrance, saw the little group, and thrust his tongue into his cheek and spat on the stone. Pastorini the elder, who was the stoutest‐hearted of the quartette, asked for the most worshipful the Syndic.

page: 166

Bindo whistled.

The Chancellor, who was inside the door, and who was busy eating little black figs and whittling a stick, said the Most Worshipful was at the Bagni for his health, but there was in his stead and equal to himself for all intents and purposes of business the Most Estimable his secretary, Messer Gaspardo Nellemane.

Viola changed from her soft warmth of colour to a great pallor.

The miller said stoutly: ‘Then his Most Estimable the secretary let us see. It is a matter that brooks no delay, eh, son of mine?’

Thereat Demetrio Pastorini laughed, and chuckled, and winked, being a merry man, and the Chancellor bade them go on up the stairs, and on the landing place, at a door to the right, they might enter, he said; then he page: 167 returned to eating his figs and throwing the skins on the floor of this august place where children were forbidden to play.

They went on up the staircase, and at the door the elder Pastorini rapped with his staff.

‘Enter!’ said the voice of the high functionary of state within, and they entered and stood in the presence of Messer Nellemane.

A single gleam, like the glitter of a steel mirror in moonlight, lit up cruelly and fiercely the eyes of the rejected lover of Viola; he guessed their errand.

A moment more, and the evil light ceased to shine in his regard; he smiled a pleasant and condescending smile of patronage.

‘Ser Fillippo, good‐day—Signora mine, you look as fair as the morning. Signore Pastorini, what can I do for you? But I page: 168 divine your errand—nay, before as an official I execute your business, let me as a friend wish you all happiness.’

The men were subdued, fascinated, deceived; they thought what a good comrade this tyrant of the community could be; the maiden alone was not blinded; she had seen the first, fell, fierce gleam of her village Faust’s eyes, and it had stabbed her like a knife. The smile that had replaced it was no lovelier to her than would have been the hissing jaws of a swamp‐snake.

Her heart was heavy, but she curtseyed and thanked him.

Messer Nellemane said some more polite words and well‐turned assurances of friendship, and old Pippo thought, ‘He’ll never go against me for the rushes and the water now—after all this.’

Then the Syndic’s secretary proceeded page: 169 with the Syndic’s work of registration and wore an unruffled brow.

The intended marriage of Pastorini Carmelo, aged twenty‐two, and Mazzetti Viola, aged seventeen, was formally announced in print, and stuck up, for all the commune to see, behind a dirty glass in a dirtier frame with those admirably delicate and spiritual formularies which modern governments deem necessary for the hedging in of the divinity of love.

Then Viola took off her pearl‐coloured gown and went to make some bread, and Carmelo tucked up his sleeves and went forth to work amongst the sacks till nightfall, and both knew that when the round moon should want and grow a slender horn once more in the summer skies, the day of days would dawn for them.