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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 220


THE long bright day and the short luminous night passed, and melted into dawn once more, and Carmelo saw the sunrise of his marriage morn glow on him from the iron bars of a prison cell. At eight of the morning the carabiniers put him in a little vehicle, and took him away to Pomodoro‐Carciofi; making him sit between them, and looking very droll themselves in the little swinging springless cart, with their sabres sticking out on each side, and their cocked hats as stiff as Napoleon’s upon the Vendôme column.

page: 221

Pomodoro‐Carciofi was a twin township, as Buda‐Pest is a twin city; it was very small, very dusty, very ugly; there were a good many dyers in it, and the smell of the dye was in its atmosphere; it had a noble campanile and some fine frescoes of Luini’s, but nobody ever came to look at them; it had also had an altar‐piece of the Memmi’s, but one fine day somebody had sold that, and it being everybody’s, and so nobody’s, business to punish the thief, it went unpunished, and a large oleograph was stuck up by the municipality in place of the Memmi, and the townsfolk liked it better because it had more colour in it.

The court of law was in a dull, grim, stone house that looked upon a blind wall at the back of the church that rejoiced in the oleograph; and ugly square room, which had been newly whitewashed, was the page: 222 audience and judgment chamber; and here all criminal cases of the rural commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda were tried and decided by the young attorney who administered the law to some ten thousand persons in all matters, from a fifty‐franc debt to murder, arson, and theft, and who had for his salary about as much as one gives one’s groom, and not half what one gives one’s coachman.

The country is divided into districts; each district has its own Pretore, who unites in his one ill‐paid person the onerous duties of county‐court, civil, and criminal judge. In England the first of these offices is deemed worth as many hundreds a year as it gets pounds here. That, notwithstanding such treatment, the Preture‐ship is sometimes filled by very excellent and upright men, is a credit to the legal fraternity of Italy; it is no thanks to the administration. A man page: 223 has the peace, the purse, the virtue, the liberty, almost the life, of a whole community in his hands, and he is paid less than a groom or gardener!—as a jewel in a toad’s head is a just man in this office.

The country Pretore can be harassed by the King’s Proctor, and his verdicts can be protested against in the city courts, but for the main part, and certainly over all the poor classes of his districts, he is unresisted and his decrees are inviolable. Aristides in so onerous a position could scarcely mete out perfect justice. I have known, as I say, admirable and excellent persons in this post, and I respect them deeply; but they are rare exceptions, naturally, and in the lonely country places the Pretore exercises a power that is practically irresistible, and that would be a perilous temptation to a Solon.

A crowd had got about the law court this page: 224 day, for the rumour had run like wildfire that the miller’s son at Santa Rosalia had murdered the rural guard. His father and brothers, and Gigi Canterelli had come over to see if they could aid, or speak for, him, and they had brought poor old half‐frantic Pippo with them; beside these there were the apothecary and Bindo’s friends, and also the Public Minister, as the little lawyer is called who prosecutes for the Municipality, and there were also the Chancellors and the Conciliators of both borough and village.

Messer Nellemane stayed at home; he was never seen in person to appear against any member of the commune, in great cases or small. He always said this with a deprecating smile, that it did not become one who served them in the capacity he filled, to sway the balance of justice either way.

Nevertheless, he was very good friends page: 225 with the Pretore of Pomodoro and Carciofi; a young advocate, fussy and bustling, and of as shrewd a nose for promotion as ever a dog of the south for truffles; a young advocate who hated Pomodoro and all belonging to it, and its musty court, and its simple population, and the scanty forty pounds a year it gave him, but who, nevertheless took them all as stepping stones. In the future he, too, meant to be a statesman.

This day the young man, who was a little, sallow, sharp‐eyed creature, by no means imposing, even though he donned a black robe and black cap, just as those that Portia wore, took a violent aversion at first sight to Carmelo as the accused, between the carabiniers, was marched in front of the Pretore’s desk.

This day should have been the youth’s page: 226 nuptial day, and his heart was aching, and his blood burning, and his face was very pale; nevertheless he walked erect, and with a firm step trod the steps of the Pretura between the carabiniers with their clanking swords.

Carmelo was the true peasant of his country; with shapely limbs and throat, like a young gladiator’s, and a handsome face, with the features regular, and the blue eyes large, and the skin delicate, though of a healthy, sun‐tanned hue.

This bold and picturesque‐looking lad, who faced him with hardihood and even haughtiness, displeased the young judge, who was himself a city‐bred, saturnine, and dissipated weakling. He felt at once assured that this miller’s son was a dangerous and violent character, and he listened with willing ear to all the invectives against the page: 227 accused made by the lawyer, who prosecuted on the behalf of the municipality.

The Pastorini had never known that they ought to bring a lawyer, and old Pippo, in an agony, pulled Gigi Canterelli’s coat, and whispered:

‘There’s a notary against him—there’s a man of law against him. O Lord! O Lord! he’s no more chance than a lamb when it’s hung up by the heels, head downward!’

‘Eh!’ muttered Gigi with a sigh, ‘in our old times one young fellow fought it out with another, when there was any bone to pick, and no one meddled; it was the best man won; now, Lord save us! if but two cats set up their backs and spit, there’s law about it.’

‘Order there! Silence!’ cried the usher; and the case for the prosecution went on glibly till, listening to it, the brains page: 228 of the Pastorini, father and son, reeled and almost gave way.

Carmelo began to say to himself in amaze, ‘Am I indeed this villain double‐dyed?’

For the advocate of the commune, instructed sub rosâ by Messer Nellemane, was a very eloquent‐tongued man indeed, who, having little to do, and very small means indeed, had always his oratory ready bottled and almost bursting, like ginger‐beer upon a summer’s day.

When he had done his plea for the prosecution, and had resumed his seat, there was no one to answer or refute him.

Carmelo and his friends knew too late the terrible blunder they had committed in their ignorance of having no other man of law there to reply him.

The examination of the accused began.

page: 229

Carmelo, answering as to his age and name, and parentage, added then in a firm voice,

‘Bindo Terri poisoned my dog; I beat him; yes, if I had killed him I should have done no wrong; he is a beast; he is a devil; he tortures brutes and men—’

‘Silence!’ said the Judge. ‘You can vilify no one. You are only to answer my questions, one by one, as I put them to you.’

‘But he is right! He is right!’ shrieked old Pippo, pressing forward to the bar, behind which he and the rest of the public were hemmed it. ‘He is right! He is right! By the word of Christ our Saviour! Bindo Terri wanted to stop my brook running; wanted to make me pay for the good God’s own clear spring water—’

‘Take that fool out of court,’ said the page: 230 Pretore, and old man was carried out struggling and screaming for justice.

Then the cross‐examination of Carmelo began again in such an endless intricacy of questions that the boy’s head whirled. Wiser and more worldly‐trained intelligences than his have been confused, and blurred, and bewildered out of their own sense of memory and certitude of fact by the brow‐beating of such an interrogation.

Did he see Bindo Terri poison his dog? No: he did not see it; but the guard poisoned all the dogs he could get at; that anyone knew; the guard poisoned Toppa, certainly, certainly. So he kept on saying, again and again, almost stupidly; and the tears welled into his eyes, and began to fall down his cheeks, thinking of the dead dog, and of the maiden sitting weeping at home on the page: 231 day that should have been her marriage morn.

The Pretore and, after him, the lawyer for the prosecution tormented him over and over again to much the same purport. All Carmelo could say was, ‘he poisoned the dog; he poisoned the dog.’

That was all he could say.

He had no proofs.

His father begged to speak for him, but was told it was not permitted. Gigi Canterelli, with the moisture in his eyes, begged, too, to testify to his excellent nature and great amiability; and the Vicar of Santa Rosalia entreated to be heard as to the youth’s good and kindly character, his docility and his honesty, as one who had known him from his infancy upward.

But this latter witness harmed him rather than benefitted him in the eyes of page: 232 the Pretore, who a libero pensiero; and, being thus liberal in principle, would have garotted all priests, melted down all church bells, and smashed the crucifix in every household.

He said, snappishly, that the preliminary examination was not a time for the testimony of an amicus curiæ to be admitted in evidence; such could be heard at the trial itself; and then, after very busily looking over his notes, and conferring with his Chancellor, and muttering, and scribbling, and frowning, and believing that he looked like Jules Favre, whom he had seen in a fortnightly visit to Paris, the young Pretore summed up in a voice shrill and stern, and said that he had never heard of a more unprovoked, brutal, and infamous assault, that there had evidently not been the very slightest excuse or provocation for it, and page: 233 that as the evidence of the most excellent the apothecary went conclusively to prove that the life of Bindo Terri had been imperilled, and that the said Bindo Terri still lay prostrate in a state that might at any moment bring about a fatal end, and in which it was quite impossible to be able to examine him personally, he deemed it inconsistent with the interests of justice and the safety of the public to leave the accused at liberty, guilty, by his own confession, as he was; therefore he would order Pastorini Carmelo to be kept in durance and surveillance until such time as his trial could be fully heard, and sentence given upon him.

There was a murmur of dissent amongst the crowd.

His father shook like a leaf. His brothers muttered curses deep and fierce.

Carmelo stood like one scared; his eyes page: 234 wide open, his face flashing crimson, his nostrils breathing hard, as though he were out of breath from running.

‘In prison, I!’ he cried in a loud voice. ‘And why is he let go free, the thief, the spy, the poisoner?’

‘Remove him,’ said the Pretore sharply, with a frown; and the guards, taking him by each arm, forced him away.

When a little later, when other causes had been heard, the Vicar, a fine‐looking and white‐haired old man, ventured on a private remonstrance with the young judge, the young man took him sharply up.

‘Impossible!’ he answered. ‘It was a clear assault, a ruffianly assault; and made upon a functionary of the law. The law must be respected. It must make examples.’

So the friends of Carmelo could only drive wearily back in the rickety diligence page: 235 from Pomodoro to Santa Rosalia with aching hearts and weary bodies; and old Pippo, staggering in, white with lime dust of the road, and hoarse with weeping, could only cry like a child, and sob out in broken whispers the story of this cruel day.

Carmelo himself was detained in the prison of the town, and Viola could only lay aside her bridal gown with the orange petals to keep it sweet, and heads of lavender and dried rose leaves, withered like her hopes and joys.

Bindo Terri was so elated that it was all the apothecary could do to keep him from jumping out of bed and skipping down the stairs into the street.

‘But you are in danger of your life,’ screamed the Æsculapius, throwing his arms about the victim; and Bindo grinned from ear to ear, showing teeth as white as lilies.

page: 236

‘Let’s crack a flask over the good news,’ said he, and Æsculapius drank with him.

Meanwhile his master, in the caffè of Nuova Italia, was smoking serenely, and wore a serious and sorrowful cast of countenance.

‘A very sad thing to befall an honest family,’ said Messer Nellemane. ‘But the Law must be respected, and all violence must be repressed.’

The brigadier to whom he spoke assented with his lips, not with his heart; he had been a brave soldier in his day, and did not love his work of torturing the poor, in accordance with the rules of Polizia Igiena e Edilità.

‘He was a good youth, this Carmelo,’ he said hesitatingly; ‘never have I seen him in brawl or trouble of any kind, nor ever the worse for drink, nor ever in bad houses; his momentary passion overcame him.’

page: 237

‘The Law does not recognize passion,’ said Messer Nellemane coldly, and the brigadier dared say no more lest he should be reported to his commanding officer, away in the city, as lax in his discipline and an aider and abettor of offenders.

Thus does a single strong will govern others.