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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 238


IN the month that Toppa was murdered and his young master imprisoned for avenging him there was an appeal to the country; that is to say, a vast number of attorneys, an equal number of adventurers, several Jews and a few gentlemen asked the natives of Italy to send them up to Montecitorio.

The Ministry had been defeated on the burning question of a poll‐tax on cows, their husbands, and their children. The Ministry was convinced that all the bovine race should be taxed per head at the place they lived in, page: 239 as well as taxed at the gates when driven through them for sale, and taxed at the market when changed into meat; all bulls, cows, and calves were to pay a poll‐tax of twenty francs a head annually, and as this was considered to hurt the agricultural interest which a progressive Ministry naturally considered of no account at all, it had been asserted that the tax would be accepted and become law.

There was, however, in the Chambers an ex‐notary who cared not all for bulls, cows, and calves, and as little for the agricultural interest, but cared very much for himself. He had been Home Minister once for six weeks; he had ceased to be it on account of a ridiculous fuss that was made in the papers about his buying a piano with the public money for a lady whose character wa light as a syllabub; naturally he always page: 240 burned to become it once more, and have his own way with pianos and all other articles, including the nation. So he had turned against his old friends, who had not supported him loyally in the matter of the piano, and had set up for himself in business, as it were, and had a separate set of principles and a separate little party, which was to the Chamber in general as is the gadfly to the horse.

With the separate little party he vigorously attacked the cow‐tax; bulls, he said, might be called on to support their share in the maintenance of the national expenses, but cows, never! He drew such a touching picture of the cruelty in taxing the milk‐giving mothers of the herd, to whom so many human infants, bereft of their natural food, owed life itself, &c., that the ladies in the gallery all wept, and the few gentlemen page: 241 in the Chamber who owned land took heart of grace, and these being further strengthened by the very large minority who hated the Ministry for the best and fiercest of all reasons, that they wanted to be in its place, the bill was thrown out amidst hooting and groaning and screaming, and the Ministry desired, or at least offered, to resign.

But the King, who was tired of death of all parties, and of their squabbling, told the House to go to the country, and dissolved Parliament. Thereupon all the attorneys, adventurers, and Jews became hopeful and riotous, and the few gentlemen very anxious, being sadly conscious that every year they grew less and less influential against the noise and the intrigues of the others.

Now Pomodoro had the right to send a deputy for the district in which the page: 242 commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda was situated, and Pomodoro had two candidates, one the Marchese Roldano, and the other one Luca Finti, a lawyer. Roldano was a stately, gracious, and very kindly gentleman, who had led a life as simple as it was dignified; he had represented Pomodoro many years. Luca Finti was a very clever Neapolitan rogue, who had been in Parliament for other places, could talk a forest‐tree into sawdust, as the people said, and was the Liberal, though not the Ministerial, candidate.

The Cavaliere Durellazzo, not a very wise man, had been set by his Prefect in the city, a not easy task. The existing Prefect was of course a Ministerialist; Prefects always are, and in consequence are changed as quickly as signals on a railway. With regard to the elections in the commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda, the Prefect was in sore trouble. page: 243 The commune, like the province, was reactionary, and had always returned the Marchese Roldano, whose brother was a cardinal and whose father had been a Grand Duke’s prime minister. Opposed to the Marchese was this Lucia Finti, one of the Dissidenti who had slipped into the contest before the Ministerialists had put forward their own candidate. If Vezzaja and Ghiralda, and the other two communes which with it made up the Collegio of Pomodoro, divided up the little liberal feeling there was by setting up a man all their own, the divided liberal votes would of a certainty let in the reactionary Roldano.

Luca Finti had got a start, and had trumps in his hand, through the good‐will of the strozzino Zauli, in whose strong boxes mortgages and other engagements of nine‐tenths of the country gentlemen of the pro‐ page: 244 vince were locked up in safety. The Prefect thought he saw nothing for it but to wink at the Finti election and undermine the Finti principles. To get at the Marchese in any such a manner was hopeless. So the Prefect coquetted with the Dissidente, and the Dissidente coquetted with him; Messer Luca Finti being an adept at this kind of political flirtation.

As for his principles, indeed, they were of small compass, and could be put in a handbag and left behind, if need be, by accident. He knew very well that he who would travel quickly and scale heights rapidly must carry but little of such baggage.

Although at this moment in the full flower and fury of dissent, he was a very clever man, and had made the Ministry feel that he would no longer rebel and fume if it were worth his while not to do so, and had also made the page: 245 conservative side believe that with a little persuasion and profit he would not be averse to join his guerilla forces to their veteran phalanx, and march with them against his old comrades.

So the task set before the Cavaliere Durellazzo, as before the other syndics concerned in this election, was to get Messer Luca Finti elected without in any way compromising the Ministry, and in such a manner that at the end of it the Prefect would be able to issue a manifesto describing his own perfect impartiality, and his willingness for every one to act up to conscientious convictions, however opposed to his own those convictions might be.

The Cavaliere Durellazzo ostensibly accepted this onerous enterprise, but it was his secretary who mapped out all the secret campaign.

page: 246

Moltke, with the ordnance map of France before him, never had graver meditations or finer combinations than had Messer Gaspardo Nellemane now. A little persuasion here, a little pressure there, a hinted threat, a well‐timed bribe, a final compression of that punishment‐collar which the municipalities put on the throat of the people, and all this to be done under the rose, behind the mask of a strict non‐intervention—he never had been happier or of more importance.

As he was a servant of the State, he ought to have had no vote and nothing whatever to do with the elections; but, as Italy does not at present see the force of this great truth, all her prefects and syndics meddle and make in all elections, and all her clerks, guards, and servants of all kinds can vote, and the result is the Montecitorio we all behold and admire.

page: 247

Messer Nellemane had at once discerned the fitness of Signor Luca Finti, and Signor Luca Finti had at one discerned the talents of Messer Nellemane. To be sure, Messer Nellemane was only the petty clerk of a petty commune, but then Luca Finti had once been only a clerk too, and some said had been things much worse, like Sir Pandarus in ‘Troilus and Cressida.’

So there was a fellow‐feeling between them, and even had there not been, Messer Nellemane would have supported the candidate that he was ordered to support in his own efficient, adroit, and quiet way, which burrowed unseen like a mole in the ground.

Now Vezzaja and Ghiralda was an agricultural country like nearly all the rest of Italy, and it was very unwilling that anyone should represent it who should put that page: 248 abhorred tax upon the cows, therefore the present election required all the tact and resources that a vigorous and active intelligence could command, and strained the powers of the Government well‐wishers to the uttermost.

The Marchese Roldano, moreover, was much respected in the province, and lived like a patriarch in his great old castellated villa, amidst his olive orchards and his chestnut woods, and was not easy to defeat.

So Messer Nellemane secretly toiled by day and night for he return of Signor Finti, and was so busy that he scarcely remembered Viola, except when he passed the door and saw her sitting spinning or plaiting within, very pale, very wasted, very weary‐looking; and at such times his black eyes would gleam as if gas were lighted behind them, and he would feel a thrill of rage, a glow of triumph: page: 249 but at other times he was too occupied to think of her.

He even thought with a shudder that he might have compromised his public career for a woman! for a poor girl going barefoot in the shallows of the Rosa water!

In the lives of great men love can claim but a second place.

Messer Gaspardo and Messer Luca had many a colloquy together, and found their views of a surprising harmony. When all your politics and policies are summed up in the one intention to do well for yourself, great simplicity is given to your theories, if not to your practice.

Messer Luca Finti was hand‐and‐glove with the ex‐minister who had got into trouble about the piano, and promised if only he should be returned for Pomodoro to do great things for Messer Nellemane, who, for page: 250 his part, being shrewd enough to know that a man’s civility only lasts as long as his need of you, took care to know a great deal about the Finti method of canvassing, which would not have looked well in the light of public opinion; while he also conceived and mainly carried out the grand design by which all the brigade of carabiniers throughout the province was moved about from town to town rapidly and bewilderingly, so that they scored their votes for full six candidates in six different collegie, with great success for the Ministerial party and the cow‐tax, and placed the Prefect and all his grandeur for ever in the debt of the humble secretary of the village commune.

Not that the cow‐tax, though thundered against by the conservative party, was spoken of either, by any of the ministerials canvassing in the province; they knew page: 251 better; they made florid and beautiful speeches full of sesquipedalian phrases, in which they spoke about the place of Italy among the great Powers, the dangers of jealousy and invasion from other nations, the magnificence of the future, the blessings of education, the delights of liberty, the wickedness of the Opposition, the sovereign rights of the people; and said it all so magnificently and so bewilderingly that the people never remembered till it was too late that they had said nothing about opposing the cow‐tax or indeed any taxes at all, but listened, and gaped, and shouted, and clapped; and being told that they could sit at a European congress to decide on the fate of Epirus, were for the moment oblivious that they had bad bread, dear wine, scant meat, an army of conscripts, and a bureaucracy that devoured them as maggots a cheese. What is political page: 252 eloquence for, if not to make the people forget all such things as these?

Messer Luca Finti, who had that many‐sidedness of mind that he could have found equally brilliant arguments either for or against any measure that he might have deemed it expedient to support, cared far more to injure the aristocratic party than to damage the Government; the Government, indeed, having been his own party till his leader had been annoyed about the piano. His single object was to get returned; once returned, he, with the other Dissidenti, would trust to their natural talents to worry themselves into office, either by re‐union with their whilom friends, or coalition with their eternal foes. Therefore, he had quickly taken the Prefectorial hint not to commit himself on the cow‐tax in either way; a discreet neutrality was all that was asked of page: 253 him, and that was difficult enough in face of the rampant rage of the country proprietors. But Luca Finti, who had once been a little, naked, idle rogue by his native shores of Amalfi, could trust to his mother wit to dazzle out of all remembrance of the main question of the elections, the elective body of the Collegio of Pomodoro. He told them, instead, that it had been only the tact and wisdom of the Dissidenti that had saved them from being involved in the impending war between Russia and China.

Russia and China, he said, were to be left to fight it out, but when the fight was over, Italy would allow no treaty to be made that would compromise her rights, and would lay a claim to a portion of Mongolia, as a precaution against the influence of France in Cochin‐China.

Here, again, he was loudly applauded. page: 254 Not a notion had they of where, or what, Mongolia was, but it was something to be got for nothing, and which the French folks would dislike: that was enough. Not to fire a shot, not to draw a sword, but to get an acquisition of territory, and give the victors of Solferino a slap in the face; this seemed to his audience very clever indeed. Only one demurring voice was heard, which screamed, ‘Will the Mongolians take the grapes out of the country? The French merchants came buying them up last year, and it’s a shame.’ But this speaker who was a vinaio, was hushed down as a rusty and dull conservative.

To sell your grapes to foreigners, and have none at all at home is a spirited commerce, and fine free trade; that the poor souls around are all poisoned with cheap chemicals in the absence of wine, page: 255 is only an evidence of all that science can do.

Messer Luca Finti said nothing about the grapes, but he would up with a great deal about Gambetta; one of the dyers nudged another and said, ‘That’s the King’s brother, isn’t it?’ and the other replied, ‘No, No; ’tis the German that took Paris;’ and much edified, the assembled voters listened to the sonorous declarations of the new candidate.

When the Marchese Roldano said to them in their own homely phrase:

‘Dear friends; bread is dearer in Italy by fifteen centimes a chilo than it is in Paris. I think that fact is more consequence to you than M. Gambetta:’

Then the hungry stomachs applauded indeed, but the hungry stomachs were not the voters; and the dyers, and shopkeepers, and small proprietors who had the votes page: 256 were of opinion that, though, no doubt bread was very dear, yet to talk about it did not make pretty speechifying, and said to one another, that if Italy got that bit of Mongolia then, no doubt, bread would come down like winking.

Oratorical dust is easily thrown in the eyes of all multitudes, but never so easily as here.

The Marchese called a few of them together in his own room and showed them a map.

‘He is laughing at you,’ he said to them. ‘Look where the Mongolian Empire is, and Russia and China.’

But the map did not convince them. ‘If we get it for nothing, without fighting, Mongolia will be a good thing,’ they said stubbornly, and the idea grew in Pomodoro that the Marchese was a poor spirit, and unworthy to represent them.

page: 257

As they were used to be led by the priests, so they were now led by the placemen.

The advantage of the exchange was questionable.

Signore Luca Finti made his oration successfully in the Pretura of Pomodoro, speaking in the same chamber where Carmelo had been brought to judgement, since it was the largest in that town; and the good folks who heard him, understanding about one half that he said, and dazzled by the other half, imbibed only the conviction that they were the glory and wonder of Europe, and said one to another that to be sure the Marchese Roldano had never told them all these fine things.

Then the agents of Signore Finti, sitting there as mere auditors, muttered to their neighbours that it was the interest of the nobility everywhere and at all seasons to keep the people ignorant; and this idea page: 258 worked its way into the shaven heads of the Pomodorians and stirred their vanity as yeast stirs the flour, and made them say one to another in the streets in the evening, as they lounged and smoked and chattered, that it was a very fine thing to be a great nation, and to have ships bigger than any that could be boasted of even by that great buccatone * and buscatore, England.

The Pomodorian mind was not wide, nor was it brilliant; it understood wine, oil, and dyes, but there it closed; it thought England was somewhere down Rome way, as it thought Austria was somewhere over the hills; it still believed in the priest’s blessing on the fields, in the poisonous nature of frogs, in the weather prophecies of its calendario, in hydrophobia being as common as catarrh, and in other things of a like en‐

* Hypocrite.

† Brawler, bully.

page: 259 lightenment; it did not in the least know what a congress meant, nor where the Epirus was, and it had a vague notion of Europe as of a disorderly place beyond seas where you sent pictures and wine when you had more than you wanted of either.

Yet so strong is the power of vanity, and so strong is the power of oratory, that Pomodoro voted by a big majority for Messer Luca Finti, because he had told them he would make them a Power, though he had never said he would cheapen bread, extinguish conscription, or lighten any of the burdens with which the land is laden, as a pack‐mule is ‘chinked’ on the march.

Great is the might of words—above all, is it great in Italy.