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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 170


SOON after Corpus Domini the Rosa water became too low to turn the great wheel of the Pastorini’s mill. This often happened in Santa Rosalia now that the woods of the convent and of other hills in the stream had been felled, and that farther up in the province, at the making of the new railway, whole forests of sweet chestnut and of pines had been destroyed; needlessly in most instances, only that so fine an occasion for the making of loot could not of course be missed by the army of contractors, landowners, and officials of public works.

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‘I never knew the like when I was young; there were always four feet of water even in the Leone month, ‘ * said Demetrio Pastorini, scratching his head wofully as he gazed down on the sun‐dried wheels and the shallows that showed all the pebbles and the sand, the water weeds and the little fishes.

‘Lord a‐mercy!’ said Pippo, ‘when we were young, things were let alone as God made them; now they’re always messing and muddling, and thinking as how they could have built the world a deal better.’

‘I suppose it’s that,’ said the miller sorrowfully. ‘Never when I was young was Rosa dry. As fast as wheat was cut in midsummer, ’twas ground by us.’

‘It’s along of the meddling and muddling,’ said Pippo. ‘Why Lord! they do

The month of August is always called in Italy the month of the Lion.

page: 172 say that beyond Pomodoro on Tagliafico’s ground they are threshing wheat with a kettle on wheels!’

Old Pastorini sighed: he was a better educated man than old Pippo, and he knew that into the quiet, sweet, pastoral lands there were coming the ‘buzzing and muzzing’ of those unsightly machines which are the best friends of socialism, being the gain of the proprietor, and the curse of the peasantry, everywhere throughout Europe.

He had never heard of Virgil and of Theocritus, but it hurt him to have these sylvan pictures spoiled; these pictures which are the same as those they saw and sang; the threshing barns with the piles of golden grain, and the flails flying to merry voices; the young horses trampling the wheat loose from its husk with bounding limbs and tossing manes; the great arched doorways, with page: 173 the maidens sitting in a circle breaking the maize cone from its withered leaves, and telling old world’s stories, and singing sweet fiorellini all the while; the hanging fields broken up in hill and vale with the dun‐coloured oxen pushing their patient way through labyrinths of vine boughs and clouds of silvery olive leaf; the bright laborious day, with the sun‐rays turning the sickle to a semi‐circlet of silver, as the mice ran, and the crickets shouted, and the larks soared on high; the merry supper when the day was done, with the thrill and thrum of the mandolini, and the glisten of the unhoused fireflies, whose sanctuary had been broken when the bearded barley and the amber corn fell prone; all these things rose to his memory; they had made his youth and manhood glad and full of colour; they were here still for his sons a little while, but when his sons page: 174 should be all men grown, then those things would have ceased to be, and even their very memory would have perished, most likely, while the smoke of the accursed engines would have sullied the pure blue sky, and the stench of their foul vapours would have poisoned the golden air.

He roused himself, and said wearily to Pippo, ‘There is a tale I have heard somewhere of a man who sold his birthright for gold, and when the gold was in his hands, then it changed to withered leaves and brown moss; I was thinking, eh? That the world is much like that man.’

‘Truly,’ said Pippo, who did not very well understand. ‘But what has the world to do with us? We have done well enough without it.’

The miller shook his head, and turned from the shallow waters.

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‘It is all “world” now: that is the worst of it. There is no country, or soon there will be none. Even Rosa water is running away, you see!’

Pippo went home to his daughter, and said : ‘The end of all things is a’coming: Rosa is drying up; I do not see how you can marry if the mill stops. To be sure you could always live in this house, and Carmelo could always be a bracciante.’

Viola’s eyes filled: she did not mind how poor Carmelo and she might be, but she thought it would be such a terrible shame to him to be a bracciante—a day labourer—everybody looks down on these, and nobody is one that can, by any means, avoid it.

Viola never contradicted her father; but she slipped away, and went inside San Giuseppe, which stood in the piazza, and page: 176 prayed to that Bohemian S. John who is the patron of all running water, to set the Rosa flowing again, and the tears ran down her cheeks as she prayed.

Messer Nellemane met her straight, face to face, as she came out of the church and he out of the caffè: he took off his hat with the sweetest smile.

‘When is the giorno felice?’ he asked.

She murmured some unintelligible words, coloured hotly, and ran towards her own door, her little yellow dog Raggi, who had been in the church with her, scampering in front.

‘A dog loose!’ said Messer Nellemane to his myrmidon Bindo, who was near. Bindo muttered sheepishly that it was ‘such a little one.’

‘Little or large; what is the use of rules if they be not enforced?’ said the page: 177 uperior, very sternly. ‘A little dog may bite or go mad just as easily as a large one.’

‘And that is true, signore,’ said Bindo. ‘And besides they never pay any tax for this one.’

Messer Nellemane made a note of the fact, and the next day took the tax‐gatherer to account for leniency and inattention.

When in the evening the great man sat on his usual green iron chair in front of the Nuova Italia with his comrades and colleagues, fat Maso and thin Tonino, he saw the young Pastorini, Carmelo, with his two brothers, stop the mill‐house mule before Pippo’s house, and Viola come out to talk to them on the doorstep.

There is the miller’s cart,’ said Messer Nellemane to his colleagues. ‘By the way, page: 178 I hear, the mill has not worked for a month. The Rosa up there is so dry.’

‘It never used to be dry. It used to be a very deep stream,’ said the Chancellor. ‘I cannot tell the reason of it, unless it be that drying up the Lago di Giglio has scorched this up too.’

Messer Nellemane gave him a glance of scorn: the Lily lake had been a beautiful piece of water which had been drained, as a speculation, by a rich man, and the draining had been called progress and patriotism, though it had destroyed great beauty of scenery, and been the ruin of some three hundred families of freshwater fishermen. All the syndics and their councils had admired the work exceedingly.

‘It is very injurious for the interests of the province,’ continued Messer Gaspardo, ‘to be dependent thus on the caprices of a page: 179 river. It would be a great thing if a steam‐mill could be established.’

Ouf!’ said little Tonino, opening wide his eyes. ‘And what would become of the Pastorini?’

‘The interests of the few must always be subordinate to those of the many,’ answered Messer Nellemane, with his usual excellence of phrase and opinion. ‘It is quite absurd in these practical times for a whole commune to be dependent for its bread on the accident of a river being full of water. We must see what can be done in the matter. Of course,’ he added, ‘it would at the moment be very hard upon the miller and his family; but someone must always suffer for any great work, and the cause of progress is sacred,’

‘Just so,’ said Maso and Tonino in concert, being always convinced, if not en‐ page: 180 lightened, by the magnificent words of Messer Nellemane.

‘There was some talk of such a mill before the Cavaliere went to the baths,’ said their instructor, though he had never until that moment ever thought of such a thing. ‘And, certainly, if the river continue to run dry like this, something must be done. The miller is not very well off as it is, I believe; and this is an improvident marriage that he is making for his son.’

‘They won’t have many beans in their pot,’ giggled Maso, who was a vulgar man.

‘Alas! no,’ said Messer Nellemane, who was never vulgar, with an air of regret. ‘It is these hasty and impecunious marriages that bring about the beggary of the nation. They ought to be forbidden by the law. The State forbids suicide; why not also forbid an ill‐judged marriage?’

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‘What would the women say?’ chuckled the vulgar Maso.

‘They have no voice in politics,’ said Messer Nellemane, coldly: he was a very literal man, and never saw a joke in anything. The land of Pasquin and of Polichinello has ceased to laugh.

‘What a minister he would make!’ said Maso admiringly to Tonino, when their great man had left them to go and read the ‘Diritto,’ which had come to him by the evening’s post: the little girl of Nando running over with it obsequiously.

‘Ah, he would indeed!’ assented Tonino; but there was no great warmth in the assent: Messer Nellemane always beat him at dominoes, and hurt him both in pride and pocket.

That night, as it chanced, old Annunziata was coming home alone along a path across page: 182 the fields from one of the farmhouses in the hills. The massaja there had been very good to her, and had given her some eggs; not to eat, for Annunziata would have thought that wild extravagance indeed, except at Pasqua, but to sell for her own profit.

On this path, dark with twilight and the thick canopy of overhanging pines, the old woman was accosted by a drunken fellow—a smith from the forge above at Sestriano—who shook her, jeered at her, and carried away her basket of eggs. The poor old soul went bruised and weeping down towards Santa Rosalia; she mad made a good fight for it with her oaken stick, but she had got blows in return, and had lost her eggs.

She met Carmelo Pastorini as she neared the village, and told him what that drunken page: 183 lout, Pompéo of Sestriano, had done to her. Carmelo listened with all his bright face lit up in a radiance of wrath, and before she could stop him had dashed up the hill path, had overtaken the staggering scoundrel, and had rescued the basket, though the eggs were all smashed in the dispute for them.

But Carmelo thought that he would not tell her that: he had a little money of his own, allowed him by his father—very little—for tobacco and his clothes: he had a franc left, and he strode farther up the hill, and bought a dozen eggs at the first farmhouse that would sell them. ‘It will be only to go without a pipe for a week or two,’ he thought; for he spent one centime a day on his tobacco.

Annunziata was home again in her chamber with the other old women by the time Carmelo reached Santa Rosalia, and page: 184 she had to get out of bed and speak to him, as he threw a stone at her shutter.

‘I have got back your eggs, ’Nunziatina,’ he shouted to her. ‘Let me down a bit of string, and you can draw up the basket.’

The old woman, laughing and crying with joy, did as he bade her, and the eggs were drawn slowly upward against the white wall in the silvery moonlight.

‘Thou art a dear good lad,’ she cried, ‘and Viola is a lucky maiden.’

Carmelo laughed, and called back.

‘Do not tell on the poor devil, mother. He was drunk—’

‘Not I,’ said Annunziata. ‘I wouldn’t put a poor toad in the lock‐up for a bag of gold if he took it of me—not I.’

‘Good night,’ said Carmelo, and went away, humming to himself, page: 185 Nel mezzo del mio petto è una ghirlanda, E ne l’ho scritto il nome di Viola, Quattr’angioli del ciel suonan la banda. *

But as not a mouse squeaks in its own hole without all the country‐side chattering about it, this encounter with Pompéo of Sestriano got wind, and all the village was talking of it next day. The story ran here and there like a jack‐o’‐lanthorn in a swamp, and, of course, grew in the telling.

In consequence the carabiniers, at Messer Nellemane’s instigation, visited Pompéo at his forge in Sestriano, and visited Carmelo at his father’s mill, and great fuss and noise were made about it, and the two men and the old woman were summoned to the Municipality.

Around my breast there is a garland, And on it’s writ the name of Viola, And four angels of God make melody!

Every lover of course substitutes the name of his beloved.

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The old woman, trembling like a leaf for her very life, for she had never been called up by the police in all her years, made light of it, and said she ‘was sure that ‘Péo had but done it as a joke.’

‘The law does not recognise jokes,’ the law said to her by the august voice of Messer Nellemane, who was examining her.

Pompéo himself declared that he had no remembrance of anything at all; and most likely spoke genuinely, for he had been very much the worse for wine; and when he had awakened on the hillside at morning had not been able, in the least, to recollect how he had come there.

When Carmelo was examined he laughed outright.

‘Péo was drunk,’ he said, ‘and I knocked him down to get Viola’s aunt’s basket away from him, but he heeled over as if he were page: 187 made of straw and fell on the grass under the vines, and there I left him. I broke none of his bones, you see, and I hoped nobody would know anything.’

‘The Law knows everything,’ said Messer Nellemane, with a frown, ‘and for concealing a theft there is a very heavy penalty, and the interests of public justice require—’

Annunziata, beholding the blanched, scared, stupid face of the sottish smith, felt all her courage and her charity burn in her.

‘Holy Mother! sir, most illustrious, I mean,’ she cried in desperation, ‘there wasn’t a bit of harm of any sort done, and I am certain the poor fool took them from me not knowing; and he wouldn’t hurt a hair of my head if he were sober; and the eggs were all safe and sound, and nobody could go against anyone when the eggs were all got back; and as for me, not a soul would I put in page: 188 prison if they cut the gown from off my waist; not I.’

‘Woman!’ thundered Messer Nellemane, losing his benignity before these atrocious principles, ‘do you dare to insult the majesty of the Law? Abstract justice is alone fit to govern any human action. You have a duty to society —’

Me, sir!’ cried Annunziata, and muttered to herself, ‘Well‐a‐day! one does live to come to something.’

‘Which must be above all personal considerations. Let us examine for a moment to what your astounding, your inexcusable, laxity of principle would lead. You would actually establish the frightfully immoral fact that, if stolen goods were returned intact, the theft would be condoned, effaced, become as though it had not been! You ignore entirely the moral heinousness of the crime. You page: 189 take the low and debasing view that the only thing of importance in a theft is the pecuniary loss it may inflict! Whether your goods were returned to you safe, or were destroyed, is altogether beyond the question. What moral teachers have you had, woman?’

Annunziata dimly comprehended that her morality was impugned, and her little black eyes blazed with righteous rage.

‘I have been a decent person all my days, sir,’ she said with a resentful fierceness in her voice. ‘I was a good wife while my poor man lived, and since he died, thirty year or more ago, never have I done a thing he’d be ashamed to see.’

Messer Nellemane paid no attention to her whatever, but continued his dissertation, to which Carmelo listened with a merry grin upon his face, Pompéo stupidly with open mouth, and the Chancellor, the Conciliator, page: 190 and Bindo Terri, with his colleagues, in attitudes expressive of righteous awe and overpowering admiration. Finally, Messer Nellemane, unwillingly felt that no judge would sentence with any severity for an offence non‐proven, and prosecuted against the aggrieved person’s will; yet, reluctant to let them escape altogether, he decided that after this unofficial examination that the Sestriano smith should be summoned to appear at Pomodoro, to be there judged for drunkenness and attempted theft, and that the miller’s son should pay a fine of twenty francs for having taken the law into his own hands in lieu of summoning the police, an offence against the Code.

Carmelo made a wry face. Every farthing could be ill afforded by his father.

‘Those are the dearest eggs that were ever laid, mother!’ he whispered to Annunziata.

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The old woman wrung her hands.

‘And that poor soul to go to prison for me! Oh dear, oh dear! And the gentleman won’t hear a word that I say!’

So that bright summer day was clouded over for them all.

‘You will have to be witnesses at the trial of Pompéo,’ said the guard Bindo, with keen relish, to them, as the old woman and Carmelo went down the municipal steps.

‘Nay, I’ll never say a word against him, poor creature. When the wine’s in the wit’s out,’ said Annunziata.

‘I’ll say again what I said in there,’ added Carmelo, ‘and that’s just the truth; he went over at a touch like an owl in noonday. And as for you Bindo, if you had against you all the witnesses that see you in the caffès, would you wear that fine popinjay’s hat and jacket long, I wonder?’

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Bindo growled and muttered something about his wish that Carmelo and all his people should be burnt.

Sia brucciato!!’ remains a favourite imprecation in the language, having been transmitted no doubt from the day when heretics and Hebrews and all such sinners were sent to the stake.

Carmelo went onward, disregarding the storm he had raised, and singing at the top of his voice the stornello: Io benedico lo fiore d’amore, Rubato avete le perle al mare, Agli alberi le fronde, a me il core. *

What did Bindo’s wrath or the punishment of hanging over the drunken head of Pompé of Sestriano matter to him? He was

I bless the flower of Love, It has stolen the pearls from the sea, It has stolen the leaves from the trees, It has stolen the heart from me!

page: 193 not more selfish than another, but he would not have been a youth and a lover if he had had room for any other thought long together than that of his approaching nuptials.

The papers of the marriage had been long enough behind the wire cage and the dusty glass of the communal palace, and the time had rolled on until now on the first day of July he would be wedded to Viola, and only forty‐eight hours separated him from that morn. He ran along the village laughing and singing, with a fresh rose stuck behind his ear and a fresh ribbon round his hat, and reached the house with the white and blue Madonna, and went in and sat in the window‐sill, looking down on the girl’s hands as they plaited, whilst Pippo worked and smoked his pipe on the threshold.

‘You were so good to ’Nunziatina,’ said page: 194 Viola, raising eyes to his that were wet with tears of pleasure.

‘Che!’ laughed Carmelo, swinging his shapely bare feet against the wall of the window. ‘Won’t she belong as much to me as to you? She shall never want a basket of eggs while I live.’