Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
previous
next
page: 260

CHAPTER XI.

ALL this while that Pomodoro was in a political fever and ferment, Carmelo languished in his prison cell. Everyone had quite forgotten him except his father and his brothers and his betrothed. Old Pastorini had to pay heavily for him to have a separate cell and a little better food; at least it seemed a heavy expense for the miller, who was by no means rich, and had a large family dependent on him, and had had his gains much lessened of late years by a great steam mill that worked at Pomodoro, and took page: 261 away much of the grain of the neighbouthood. Old Pastorini had gone to an attorney in the town and put his son’s cause in his hands, seeing how badly for want of a lawyer things had fared with Carmelo; but the lawyer had said, ‘After the elections: after the elections,’ and no more could be got out of him, though he accepted his preliminary fees.

‘After the elections,’ said the miller with a tremulous sigh to his son, in the few times he was allowed to visit the prison.

Carmelo shook his head.

He had known men innocent of any crime kept in prison for months and months, without being allowed a trial; it is probably by way of compensation that assassins and thieves are allowed very often to go scot free for months and months without being had up to justice.

page: 262

Carmelo had changed greatly; the lithe, active, bright‐eyed, sunburned youth, always at work in the air, up when the dusk of dawn veiled the earth, accustomed to spend his blithe strength in healthy labour, was shut up here as a young lion is shut up in a cage, and grew pallid, shrunken, hollow‐eyed; a sullen dull anger slumbered in his eyes, and a listless despondency had replaced this calm yet buoyant spirits.

But there was no one to take any heed of that. Even the lawyer retained for him, who visited him once and asked him some rapid questions, said impatiently: ‘There are a hundred causes to be heard before yours. I doubt if you will get sentence before All Saints’ Day.’

For though the attorney had taken up his cause, being tempted by the sight of the elder Pastorinis’ well‐thumbed national notes, page: 263 he did not much care for it; he felt that it was not very nice work, to defend a lad unpopular without.the municipal powers, and who was guilty of having assaulted a guard. These cases get a lawyer in bad odour.

In the room in the Carcere where he was spending his wretched hours, of no use or profit to himself or to mankind, Carmelo, through the open window, barred close high up in the wall, could hear the roar of the assembled people inside the Pretura, as they were applauding this speech which was Greek to them. The Pretura was opposite to him, and not many metres divided the one building of Law from the other.

He had heard from his gaoler what was going on; why the town was in such tumult night and day; and he knew that one of page: 264 the Liberals was standing against the old, white‐haired, regal‐looking Marquis.

‘Perhaps if he be elected he would do something for us,’ thought Carmelo wistfully. ‘Perhaps he would take away all those clerks and guards, and say the poor dogs might use the legs God gave them?’

And Carmelo’s heavy heart rose a little, and he felt a little hopeful and glad when his gaoler told him, at twilight, that Luca Finti was elected Deputy for Pomodoro by so large a majority that no ballot was needed.*

When the twilight deepened into night bands played, rockets went off, fireworks threw their many‐coloured reflections into the prison cell, where Carelo sat on his wooden bench.


Unless one of the candidates has two‐thirds of the votes, there is a ballot after the polling.

page: 265

Pomodoro drank too much, and fought a little, and rejoiced greatly, having a vague serious idea that it had done something very fine indeed in electing the advocate from Naples.

‘Shall we be any the better?’ said Carmelo doubtfully to his gaoler, a chatty, good‐humoured man, who was sorry for him.

The gaoler shrugged his shoulders.

‘He is going to give us gas and a tromböi.’ *

‘Gas! We had never vine disease, nor rose disease, till there was gas in the city,’ said Carmelo, and here he did not exaggerate; for in Italy neither were known until gas works were introduced.

The gaoler shrugged his shoulders again.

‘Our people want it. He says he will get it.’

Tramway.

page: 266

‘And besides? —’

‘Well, nothing much besides, except that we are to be a bigger nation than England or any in Europe.’

‘What is England?’ said Carmelo.

‘It is a place where the poor souls have no wine of their own, I think,’ said the gaoler. ‘And they make cannons and cheese. You see their people over here now and then. They carry red bibles, and they go about with their mouths open and catch flies, * and they run into all the little old dusty places; you must have seen them.’

‘And why do we want to have anything to do with them?’

‘They will come in ships and fire at us if we are not bigger and stronger than they,’ said the gaoler. ‘We must build iron


The bocca aperta of the English physiognomy is always a great diversion to all Italians.

page: 267 houses, that float, and go on the sea, and meet them.’

‘What is the sea?’ said Carmelo; for how should he know, he who never had been out of the confines of Santa Rosalia.

But the gaoler was not very sure himself, and so said sharply he ‘had no time for talk,’ and withdrew the pewter plate that had carried in his prisoner’s supper, and fastened the bolts and bars roughly, and then went out to see the fireworks, and talk about England with people who did not ask inconvenient questions.

He found everybody excited and enraptured about the gas that was to come to them through the mediation of the new Deputy. They did not know in the least why they wanted it; they had none of them anything to do after dusk; they had their own pure olive oil to burn, that hurt no page: 268 eyesight, and gave a sweet pale light that suited the summer nights. But they thought that gas and a tromböi were signs of progress and prosperity. There are many wiser people who make the self‐same error.

The railway hissed and roared twenty miles off them, where the city was; they knew that would never come nearer to them; but they saw no reason why they should not rejoice in a tall brick chimney, staring black and foul, and straight and frightful, up against their bright blue skies, and a hideous engine tearing up, and tearing along, their winding country lanes. Other towns, no bigger than theirs, had these blessings; and Signore Luca Finti had promised the same to them.

Meanwhile Messer Luca Finti was sitting supping with the Syndic of Pomodoro and the Giunta, and as the Syndic of Santa page: 269 Rosalia was indisposed, his excellent locum tenens and secretary was invited in his stead, at the new Deputy’s request, and tasted the sweets of a just reward.

In the piazza of Santa Rosalia the news was received in another spirit.

Messer Nellemane had worked for Messer Luca Finti, and that one fact was quite enough for the community that enjoyed the many blessings of his reign.

A morning or two after the elections, Viola was sitting at her door with Raggi by her side.

Raggi (an abbreviation of sunbeam), so named because she was of a light yellow colour, was a little dog that the girl had found seven years before, stray and miserable in a vine path, with a little tattered red coat adhering to her body, which showed that she must have been a runaway dancing dog.

Raggi was never claimed by any master, page: 270 and had long made the joy of Viola’s life; the tricks and saltatory talent that Raggi, when rested and recovered, voluntarily displayed, proved that her career must have been professional, while her large liquid eyes had a sadness which betokened that she had had her share in those vicissitudes and maltreatments which no artistic career is ever without. Raggi had quickly become the idol of all the children of Santa Rosalia, and was a very happy little dog, though she always remained timid. She was not old, but she would still waltz if any guitar or accordion were sounding, and would walk erect, and beg, and beat an imaginary drum in the prettiest way possible. This morning she was sleeping on her mistress’s skirts; and that was what she now liked to do best of all.

As she slept there and Viola plaited, not lifting her eyes from the tress of straw, there page: 271 passed by the door Angelo Saghari; the old man who had been rural guard of the place ever since Viola could remember; who had never molested anybody, and had always seemed as harmless as the old grey cat that dozed amongst the twine and sugar of Gigi’s general shop. But old Angelo had been threatened with dismissal for supineness, and had been fired to emulation of Bindo’s deeds by the fact that half the fines went into the pocket of the guard who was sharp enough to smell out a contravention; from a quiet, good‐natured, neighbourly soul he had become as suspicious, spiteful, and cunning an old spy as could be manufactured by the infusion of the spirit of the communal code. The blood of his aged veins was turning sour because Bindo and his colleague were always getting the fines instead of himself, and so angry was he now that woe betided any page: 272 luckless child who spun a top, or any hapless dog that wagged a tail, within a rood of Angelo.

As he went grumpy and glum, because of these things, his sword hanging at his side, with which he could hack a dog handily, though he never dared draw it on a thief, his eyes spied out little yellow‐haired Raggi asleep on her mistress’s gown.

The dog was certainly not chained; the dog had not even a collar; the grey hairs of Angelo stood erect with horror.

He had known Raggi seven years, and had stood and laughed a hundred times to see her waltz, and beat the drum, to divert the children in the piazza. But now he only beheld in Raggi an object for contravention. As to Napolean all men were food for powder, so, to those imbued with the communal code, all living things are food for fines. Can a page: 273 fine be screwed out of them? that is the only question.

He went up to Viola, therefore, and said roughly: ‘Your dog is loose!’

Viola looked up and laughed, despite the sadness of her heart.

‘Raggi? Why it is Raggi! Are they going to tell me to tie Raggi? That would be too cruel; why Raggi is the darling of everybody. What would the children do without her? Though, to be sure, she is a little rheumatic and stiff now, poverina—’

Angelo was frowning heavily, and writing with a pencil in his book.

‘I have a right to seize the dog, and I have a mind to do it for your impudent answers,’ he said harshly. ‘The dog is loose. It is an offense against the laws of the commune, as you are very well aware. Your father will be summoned —’

page: 274

‘But, Angelo!’ cried Viola in stupefaction, not believing her own ears. ‘Raggi is just as she has been for seven years and more. What has she done? What can you mean? You have patted and petted her yourself all these years, and laughed so to see her dance—you are joking!—’

‘You will find it no joke,’ said Angelo harshly, feeling a little ashamed of himself. ‘Your dog can be no exception to the rest. Your father will have to pay, and if I see the beast loose again, I shall take it to the guard house, and it will be killed unless you pay twenty francs. You are warned.’

Then Angelo shuffled off, feeling that Bindo himself could not have said or done better. Viola took the little yellow dog up in her arms and kissed it convulsively and sobbed over it.

‘Oh, Raggi! What has come to the page: 275 world that we are all treated like galley slaves, and you poor pretty things like wild beasts!’ she murmured over the dog; and it seemed to this gentle and pious girl that she could spring at the cruel hearts of all these men, and stab them to death for the sheer sweet sake of justice.

For it is the noblest natures that tyranny drives to frenzy.

Dominiddio!’ cried Pippo when he came home. ‘I’d throttle Angelo sooner than I’d throttle an adder. Oh, the vile old creature, when he has known me all my life, and saw you baptised with the holy water! Lord, Lord! how are we to live? Was not life hard enough to the likes of us at all times? Is Raggi a wolf or a bear? Can a dog live tied down with a string as you tie a call‐bird to a trap? They are mad! They are all gone clean mad, and it is we who page: 276 have to bear all the brunt of it. The gentlemen can’t know of it. The gentlemen can’t know.!’

The gentlemen did know of it, however, well enough, and when they sat at their weekly meeting, listened to the reports read by Messer Nellemane, and applauded the zeal of the rural guards. None of the gentlemen lived in Santa Rosalia itself, and when they drove through it they like to have no wooden disc rolling from a child’s hand across their road, no dog barking at their gigs’ wheels; and cared very little by what means their laws were enforced, or what poor household was sold up under their rules. For thorough, absolute, selfish indifference to the wrongs and the sorrows of the people, there is nothing comparable to the apathy of an Italian of the new régime. It is an apathy so obtuse, so self‐complacent, page: 277 and so pachydermatous, that one longs sometimes to see it blasted and shaken into ruins by the roar and leap of an avenging people.

Angelo kept his word, and Pippo was summoned for having Raggi loose, or, according to the amenities of the printed papers, was invited to make amends for a transgression.

Poor old Pippo, being advised by his timid neighbour, Cecco the cooper, to do anything for peace and quietness, went and submitted by being fined two francs, and had to go without wine for a week.

‘Two francs because Raggi slept on your gown!’ he said to his daughter twenty times a day; it seemed to him an oppression so monstrous that the world had never seen one like it.

Viola, trembling for the safety of Raggi, put an old bit of ribbon about the neck of the dog, and tied a long string to it; but page: 278 no municipality being wholly able to change the nature of animals, and it being quite impossible to perpetually pin a dog to your side, Raggi walked about the piazza, and went to her playmates the children with the string trailing behind her, and more summonses rained in on Pippo.

Not summonses alone, moreover, for there came with them a taxpaper which claimed on account of Raggi, seven years’ tax at six francs the year, and all the spese attending delay added thereto; in all, some seventy odd francs. With this came documents for various contraventions concerning the cutting of the reeds and the running of the brook, condemning Filippo Mazzetti in contumacy for not having attended to the various calls for these great and punishable offences; and the sum total of this was so terrible that the old man, when it was read to him page: 279 by his daughter, dropped down, white as a sheet, and stared with gasping breath and suffocating heart, till the terrified maiden screamed that he was in a fit, and all the neighbours ran in to help.

Pippo was not in a fit: but when one after another these papers rained in upon him with their inexorable demands, the buoyant, brave, ignorant, harmless life of him seemed to collapse under a great terror, as a bird sinks down that is stoned.

He had never complained of his lot, though it had never been a good one; he had never thought it hard to have to labour for his bread all the year round; he had accepted his destiny cheerfully, never quarrelling with God or man about it; but now the docility of his soul turned and writhed, and he called out against his fate, and he rose at every dawn with a great fear, page: 280 like ice, at his heart. For what does ruin mean to the poor man? It means death; a slow, long death of hard‐drawn hunger.

Gentlemen who so lightly make your rules, and pass your fines, do ever you remember that? I think not; I hope not; for your oblivion is your sole excuse, though such oblivion is accursed, and if ever there be justice or judgment, it scarce will hold you guiltless.

Ten days were given wherein to pay these charges: six of these days Pippo spent wandering wearily to and fro, up and down, telling his woes now to this neighbour, now to that, staring on the documents which he could not read, and wondering what on earth he could do. He could see no right at all which could force him to pay these penalties. He had done nothing that he had not been accustomed to do all the page: 281 years of his life; how could he understand that all these charges had become due, just because a few men gathered together and said they were so? Dogs had been free, the rushes had been free, the water had been free, ever since Pippo could remember; why should they be taxed, and forbidden, and made sins of, just because those communal clerks and guards liked to have it so?

The justice of moral laws even the galley‐slave will admit; but the justice of municipal laws no poor man recognises, as indeed there is no reason why he should, since none of theses laws serve him.

There was no sense in it at all; it was only done to put money in the purses of rogues: Pippo, though a simple docile soul, rebelled.

Life had never been anything wonderful to him; he had always worked hard and eaten little; he had never seen anything page: 282 beyond the vine‐paths about Santa Rosalia and the dusty stones of Pomodoro: wiser people might have wondered that he ever cared to take the trouble to get up of a morning and pull his breeches on, so very little did each day offer to him. But Pippo never wondered; he enjoyed his life very much when he was let alone; he had been very fond of his womenkind; he had once been a bright young fellow with lute and song, and light limbs to dance with, and he had not forgotten all that time; when he could lie in the shade at noontide, and get a little beaker of wine, and chat about nothing cheerily, and smoke his pipe, and hear his village news, Pippo was perfectly happy, and did not want to end his life as Nanni had ended his, with a pinch of charcoal, in a shuttered room, on a bare floor.

It was not much of a life, to be sure; page: 283 and as wearing away now like a waning light on St. John’s Eve; but it was a fresh, simple, pleasant, little life, spent on the edge of the bright Rosa water, and amongst the waving beds of reeds; it seemed to Pippo that he would hear the sough of the rushes and see the glint of the river‐reaches even when he should be put away in a deal box against the church wall, or, as the priests said, should be in heaven.

When Dom Lelio would preach about heaven, Pippo sitting at mass on his wooden chair, would nod and shut his eyes, and dream of paradise, and would never be able to get any other idea of it than that shining water, those waving reeds, and the blue clear sky beyond them.

And he had always said to himself, ‘Come what may, God will leave me the river;’ and it had always been a great page: 284 happiness to him tho think that this little cot, overlooking the river that he loved, would be dwelt in by him till the saints should bear him across another and a darker stream.

But now,—if he must borrow on it—Pippo felt that nevermore would it really be his own again.

‘You borrow twopence on a thing you have, and from that minute those two pennies will eat and eat and eat you till they swell like turkey poults at Ceppo, only it’s you who burst for it, not they,’ had Pippo’s wife always said to him; and the truth of the saying remained in his mind.

Yet what was he to do?

No doubt to you gentlemen, it is very absurd to want these few francs; you and I give as much for a plant, for a plate, for a chair, for a teacup; to face ruin because you page: 285 cannot find it seems ridiculous, and yet it was ruin to Pippo.

If he did not pay, the Law would seize his rickety tables, and his earthen pumpkins, and his copper pots, and would sell them, and sell his house over his head, and his bed from under him. He had done no harm whatever, and he owed not a farthing; yet he would be treated as if he were the blackest thief, the most shameless debtor, and all the few rags and sticks that he owned in the world would go under the hammer.

Pippo sat on this threshold and leaned his grey head on his hands, and could not understand it. ‘If I had done anything,’ he said again and again; and, stupid old fellow that he was, could not see the crime.

‘They’ll fine the butterflies next, I suppose, for flying,’ he thought wearily, as page: 286 those golden, and azure, and tortoise‐shell, and white flowers of the air spread their wings against him, or floated through the light above the rushes.

‘Could Carmelo’s father help us?’ asked Viola wistfully; but Pippo shook his finger in denial. He knew that the elder Pastorini had debts of his own from bad trade and the law costs attending his son’s trial. For some years the mill had brought in but slender returns, and the Pastorini were generous folks, and never grudged a neighbour a place at their board. This open‐handed way of living was well enough in the old times; but nowadays taxation sits like a ghost at every homely table.

No; old Pippo would not borrow of friend, nor of one whose son would wed his granddaughter. So he sat all alone on the settle in his little stone porch, and totted it page: 287 all up after his own manner with a bit of chalk. He could not read or write, but he knew the look of figures, and he could sum up correctly. Many men, here, know arithmetic very well who do not know the alphabet. They learn it in self‐defence against cheating.

He had all these hateful papers in his hand; papers wordy, and covered all over with writing, which was as Greek to him, but he could understand one thing in them—the sum he was condemned to pay. There was twenty‐three, and then there was twenty‐five, and then there was thirty‐two, and then there was forty, and besides these were five different sums of ten francs each; these last five were for the reed‐cutting; and then there was the seventy for Raggi. He told them all up once more, as he had told them all up twenty times before, and he made them in all two hundred and forty‐three page: 288 francs, and the total made his head reel, his eyes swim, his stomach sicken; he could no more get that sum than he could get a gold chariot and six white horses.

‘What will happen if I don’t pay?’ he asked of Cecco for the fiftieth time; and Cecco answered , ‘They will sell you up; sell you up as they did Nanni;’ and Pippo groaned.

Gentlemen, what would you feel if every week, or month, some power of the State could call on you for a thousand pounds, and if you failed to pay it could seize on your estates? Gentlemen, you do not remember it, but the five francs, or the five shillings to the poor is as that thousand pounds would be to you; nay, more, for the seizure of the large sum would be to you at worst a lost superfluity, some luxury, some purchase, some pleasure the less, but to the page: 289 poor the loss of the little sum may be the loss of bread in health, of medicine in sickness, of the meat that is strength, of the clothing that is decency; the loss of the little sum may be the loss of the one frail plank that stands between poverty and death.

Think of this now and then, gentlemen who make the laws at ease, all the world over, and break the hearts and destroy the homes of the poor with the fines that the English magistracy, the French mayoralities, and the Italian municipalities alike so dearly love to wring from the poor man, standing ignorant, helpless, and utterly unconscious of wrong‐doing before these mockers of the majesty of Law!

What with pondering over the summonses about Raggi, and the summonses about the reeds in the river, and the summonses about the brook‐water, old Pippo was fairly crazed. page: 290 He went about the village, shouting like a dazed creature, ‘My fathers cut the reeds before me hundreds of years; and hundreds of years the water has run, and God sent it; and the little yellow dog, why, she is known to every man jack of them, and all the babies play with her. What have I got to pay for? what have I got to pay for?’—

And his neighbour always said to him,

‘You must always pay if you haven’t got a piece of paper. We’ll soon have to pay for drawing our breath, or lighting our pipes. I always told you, you should have got a bit of paper.’

‘But I can’t pay,’ said Pippo, shoving his hat on the back of his head, and hitching up the band of his linen trousers with a little puckered, woebegone face, and his tears only not falling because they were dried by his rage.

page: 291

‘If I earn a dozen soldi a day, it’s the best as I ever do; and, to be sure, the girl plaits, but plaiting isn’t what it was since all those machine‐made hats came in, and it’s barely enough for her dress that she makes at it; and there’s nought besides, nought; and its almost as dear to make your bread as buy it now the grist‐tax is on; and wine, Lord! wine that I remember twenty years ago you might have almost for the asking of it, there is now up to a franc, and not seldom a high as one‐thirty —who’s to pay, who’s to pay, with victuals and drink what they are?’

‘If you haven’t got a bit of paper you must pay,’ said the neighbour, into whose head long years of municipal despotism had hammered this one fact. ‘The house is your own, aren’t it? You’ve always said so. Well, you’ll have to get something on that.’

page: 292

‘Jesus, help me!’ groaned Pippo, to whom the Galilean was not dead.

The house was certainly his; he was not very clear how; but his forefathers had dwelt in it, and he had been born in it; and in an old iron chest with rusty locks there were some old ‘bits of paper’ that he had been always told established his right to it. But to raise money on it! Pippo did not know much, but he had always heard that attorneys and strozzini * were the legitimate children of the devil. True, everybody was everywhere raising money in these days; he heard say that all the big lands were writ down in the Mortgage Archives in the city, and half the little estates too; but to Pippo’s old‐fashioned ideas it seemed quite as shameful to get money on your bit of ground as to carry your pots and pans up to the Mone di Pietà.

Usurers.

page: 293

He came of that stock of homely, honest, independent peasantry that is still existent in Italy, as in France and England, but which all the new‐fangled laws and schools are doing their best to destroy in each of these countries. To borrow, Pippo thought, was quite a thievish thing, and as bad and as mean as to send your girl to her nuptials without her share of house linen and her decent string of pearls.

Then he had not an idea what his little house was worth: whether twenty pence or twenty million pence. It was a little stone‐built place, sound and solid because raised in the old days when work was soundly and solidly done, but it had never a stroke for repair given to it, and it was very small, and had only a narrow kitchen garden behind it, with one aged fig‐tree past bearing, a few fruit espaliers, and some vegetables. Pippo page: 294 did not think anyone would give much for it, and the thought of raising a penny on it cut him to the quick. ‘For the strozzini and the lawyers,’ said he in his perplexity, ’if they do but smell at a peach, it is down their throats, stone and all, and never chokes them.’

He had not any dealings with such folks himself, but so he had heard, and so he had seen in this intercourse with his neighbours. Had not Simone Zauli, the money‐lender, who dwelt at the new white house with the gilded weathercock and the cast‐iron gates, on the Pomodoro road, made all his riches thus out of his fellow‐creatures, beginning as a ragged boy by stealing dogs and selling them alive, or their skins when dead, and then lending other boys trifling sums to lose at lotto or at marra, and so progressing upward in man’s and fortune’s favours?

Nevertheless little old Pippo said to him‐ page: 295 self: ‘Nanni gave in without a struggle, but I will go and ask them to do right by me. Human hearts are good in the main, and what for should those gentlemen want to hurt a poor soul like myself?’

He thought these things were done because the gentlemen did not know of them; so he resolved to tell the gentlemen; and he brushed himself and put on his Sunday clothes, and betook himself on a round of visits. First, of course, he went to the Syndic’s villa, but there he was told that the Count Durellazzo was still away at the Bagni; if it were anything of business, Messer Nellemane down in the village would attend to it.

‘Nay! nay! as well send me to Lucifero himself,’ muttered Pippo, and turned back to descend the long four miles of stony, shadeless hills that he had painfully climbed.

page: 296

Bindo Terri, who was up there, flirting and drinking with the Syndic’s pretty massaja, heard the muttered words and duly reported them.

Bindo had got about his duties once more, and though he had made himself some bruises very cleverly with iodine and indigo, he could not affect to be ailing any longer, and had indeed got sick of lying in bed, despite the fry and Vin Santo, and so had come up cheerfully to the Syndic’s farm to guarantee as ‘healthy meat’ a bullock just dead of pleuro‐pneumonia.

previous
next