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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 332

CHAPTER XV.

PIPPO was not told of that summons by either his friend or his daughter; but poor little Raggi was always tied to the house door, and could no more dance with the children.

The days were very sad ones to Raggi and her mistress. The girl did all she could to console the little dog; nursed it, caressed it, and robbed herself of soup to make its meals, but nothing could atone to Raggi for that cruel enforced inaction; and when at night, the doors being closed, it was let loose it had lost the wish to play, being too page: 333 sad of heart. The children, too, pined for Raggi, and cried at not having the pretty little dancer with them in their sports: but even they were no more allowed to play about the piazza or on the roads, and their young lives were not much brighter than was Raggi’s.

Their fathers were poor, and dared not risk incurring the heavy fines which punished all infringement of Messer Nellemane’s rules and regulations, and they kept their little sons and daughters in, with harsh threats and harsh measures. For the men themselves grew sullen and irritable. Their hearts were with Carmelo, and their impotent sense of never‐ending, ever‐increasing wrong wore them down with a leaden weight.

There was another reason, too, for heavy hearts in the village. A new enterprise had page: 334 brought with it its usual complement of old ways and old interests ruined. It was no less a thing than a projected tramway from the City, sixteen miles away to the north, and Pomodoro, seven miles away to the south; and this tramway was to pass through Santa Rosalia. Nay, Santa Rosalia was even to pay five thousand francs a year for being thus honoured.

The scheme was due to foreign speculators: foreign speculators are, to free Italy of to‐day, what the devouring hordes of the Huns were to the Italy of a thousand and more years ago. The nation is like a young man come into a goodly heritage, with a swarm of money‐lenders on him, devouring him at ninety‐two per cent. Some of the latter are indigenous to the soil: the majority are English, Belgian, and American. Unfortunately they are made welcome.

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Tory governments have always been twitted with having a job: Italian municipalities, in this respect, are thoroughly Tory.

This tramway was a job gigantic.

The City never needed to go to Pomodoro, and Pomodoro scarcely ever went to the City. But what did it matter? Nothing at all, certainly, to the gentlemen who projected it.

You can take Italians with a trap as you can take birds; for your call‐bird put the boast that a thing is American or English, and they will tumble into your trap by thousands. It is a sentiment that one feels ashamed to see in the land of Dante and of Michaelangelo: but it is there.

They are smitten with a very disease of imitation.

A country tramway, whether viewed from the point of its cruelty when drawn page: 336 by horses, or its hideousness when drawn by steam, not to speak of its peril to children, and its disfigurements of nature, may be said to be the vilest abomination hitherto conceived by that procreator of monsters which is called Progress. But the municipal mind is enamoured with them, and likes to see them unrolling their unsightly irons over the birthplace of Virgil, the tomb of Ferruccio, the battle‐fields of Scipio and of Hannibal.

There had been much opposition to this one, in the meeting of the Thirty who formed what was called the Provincial Council; but the dissidents had been overruled in the matter: some had houses which the company would buy to demolish; others had angles of hedges that would also be bought at high prices; some sold the fuel that would be burned in the engine. Some‐ page: 337 how or other, with such delicate persuasions, everybody was reduced to reason, and the tramway had been decided on; Messer Nellemane being foremost in praise of its project, and his friend the engineer being appointed on its staff. Indeed, it was entirely due to the energy and exertions of Messer Nellemane, working in the name of the Cavaliere Durellazzo, that the abandonment of the tramway was averted.

‘The people are never awake to their own benefit,’ he said, as he overheard the lamentations of the owners of the diligences and little carts that had hitherto sufficed to carry on the intercourse of Santa Rosalia with the greater world.

He had been fully awake to his, however; and in the arrangement for the payment of the five thousand francs a year by Santa Rosalia had not forgotten his own page: 338 services, or allowed the Tramway Company to forget his.

Every member of the Provincial Council, too, got, or expected to get, something; and so every one of them decided that tramways were a blessing of providence; and if the speculators were making a bad speculation that was their look out; and if the diligence owners and the carters were ruined—why—that was theirs.

The municipalities were all of them pleased, and if the populace raged and groaned, who cared? The municipalities attend no more than a schoolmaster attends to a child’s tears over Euclid and syntax. Euclid and syntax are for the child’s ultimate good; so are taxes for the public’s benefit.

Now the iron rails were, of course, to run in as straight a line as possible; and page: 339 that they might do so the little boschetto of the mill was amongst the things that had to be destroyed.

The engineers of the City end decided that it was not necessary, a little curve could spare the wood; but Pierino Zaffi argued quite the contrary; and, as he was a clever fellow who knew how to put a case, and how to carry it through, he got his way: the boschetto of the mill was expropriated, just for all the world as the gardens of the Farnesina were, if we may compare the death of a mouse with the fall of a lion.

Pastorini, poor foolish man, who had been wont to fancy that what was yours was your own, and that neither King nor Pontiff could make away with another man’s property, was stunned as by the fall of a mountain on his head when they notified to him, in the municipal peremptory fashion, page: 340 that his wood was wanted, and would be taken, and levelled to the ground.

When Messer Nellemane, with Messer Pierino Zaffi, with other legislators and engineers, brought the great engineer of the City down into the boschetto, without so much as a by your leave, or for your leave, as Pastorini said afterwards, and began measuring with tapes and rods, the miller stood at his house door with his mouth wide open and his eyes staring vacantly: then, all of a sudden, he strode across his own land, and seized the first man he came upon by the collar.

‘It is my land. It is my land,’ he said in a low thick voice. ‘No man comes here but by my leave; no, not the King himself, nor the Holy Father.’

‘Holy Father!’ Messer Nellemane shrugged his shoulders as he heard. What‐ page: 341 ever such a person might have been in the old dark ages, he, too, had had to bow to a municipality now.

‘Does the owner object?’ said the chief surveyor.

‘Of course he objects,’ said Messer Nellemane. ‘These people always do, to raise the price; there is no cunning so furbo as country cunning.’

‘That is true,’ said the engineer from the City.

‘Will you go?’ said Demetrio Pastorini fiercely, shaking Pierino Zaffi, who was the man he by chance had seized. ‘Will you go? The land is mine, as the church is the Lord’s, and his palace the King’s. You cannot touch it. You shall not tread on it. Do you hear what I bid you? Depart.’

‘Let us humour him, sir,’ whispered Messer Nellemane to Cavalier Durellazzo, page: 342 and their business being already done, they went; Pierino Zaffi white and shaking, for the miller’s grasp had not been light, and the aspect of the old man had been terrible.

‘I am rid of them,’ muttered Pastorini to his eldest daughter, as he strode in from the wood; but his breath oppressed him as he said it, and his brow was crimson, and his tongue seemed to him to cleave his mouth.

The next week it was certified to him by a public document that his wood would be felled in the ensuing November pro bono publico, and that he would receive a certain sum in proportion, valuing the poplars at ten francs each, which was the current price for light timber.

Pastorini, through his dull spectacles, plodded painfully through the decree; then, with his white strong teeth grinding one on page: 343 another, he tore the sheet in two and put it on the charcoal fire, then burning brightly under the pot of soup.

‘We are not to be bought and sold like steers,’ he muttered as the paper blazed, ‘nillywilly—just at a clerk’s will—as though we were dumb stones.’

But there he mistook.

With the excuse of a ‘general interest ’ and a municipal licence, spoliation may be done in the people’s name, while the people groan, and starve, and sorrow, and die: unconsenting, but impotent as the ox that is dragged to the slaughter.

Demetrio Pastorini had driven the men off his land, and had burned the paper; he was simple enough, like Pippo, to think he had conquered, that his rights would be respected.

When the diligence drivers and the small page: 344 carriers gathered about the mill‐house in evening time, muttered savage oaths against the coming iron day, and condoled with him for the loss of his wood, he smoked his pipe stolidly and only said: ‘No, no! they’ll not touch my trees. Mine is mine, come King or Pope against me.’

‘But they will fell your wood, they have marked it out; the will be down on you, and cut it, come Ognissanti,’ said the neighbours, trying to persuade and to prepare him.

But he only shook his head, and replied to them.

‘They’ll not touch my trees.’

If this seems to you, gentlemen, exceedingly stupid, you must try and realise what people are like, in a country place, in the green heart of Italy. They are full of intelligence of their own kind, but they do not page: 345 understand the new ways of freedom; and they are primitive enough to fancy that a man can do as he will with his own.

Under the Liberal governments of this latter half of the century this is an impression which is rapidly being improved away all over Europe: but it still lingers in old countries and old people as lichens cling about oaks marked for felling.

‘They’ll not touch my trees,’ said the miller, positively, and he passed whole hours at his mill‐door, looking up at their columns of autumnal foilage, and listening to the rustling of the leaves as he had never done in any time of his life.

He had always been fond of his boschetto and proud of it, and grateful to it; being wise enough to know how it helped to keep the stream deep, and save it from absorption of the sun’s rays, save the sun from drinking page: 346 it up as he was wont to phrase it: and he had deemed this wood of such use and import that he had never followed the common foolish custom of lopping the branches to sell for fireing; a custom which is penny wise and pound foolish.

He had always loved his wood, but now it was with an almost savage sense of possession, an almost painful tenderness of affection, that he looked up at the quivering leafy pillars, full in spring of song of birds, and in summer of the laughter of crickets.

‘It would be like stealing my daughter,’ he said, with his face dark and sullen, as he leaned over the half‐door of his house and watched the green river gleam through the still green boughs.

‘But they’ll not touch them. No they’ll not touch them, that I promise you,’ he would say again and again to his children. page: 347 Sore as his heart was for Carmelo, he almost chafed more at the thought of the wood felled by strangers.

No one did or said anything else about it to him. The due summons had been served upon him, and of course no more was needed. But he himself made sure that the thing was abandoned and forgotten.

‘Did I not tell you that they could not do it?’ he said to his daughters and sons. ‘Nay, nay, the State is not a robber.’

Messer Nellemane going by with his cigar in his mouth for an evening’s stroll, used to see him thus gazing up at his poplars, and on such occasions would smile.

‘The hot‐headed old madman,’ he thought. ‘Well, there are straight waistcoats for all such.’

Messer Nellemane had a mind at ease. He saw that the face of the maiden who had page: 348 rejected his honours had grown wasted and pale; he knew that the little Casa del Madonna was mortgaged, which is as good as gone; the lad Carmelo was in prison, and the wood was doomed. What could be better? Borgia had poison and the Tiber for those who thwarted him; the methods of Messer Nellemane were more refined, but I am not sure that they were kinder.

As he stepped along one evening he had to step across the little brook that escaped from Pippo’s house and ran across the roadway into the weir. It was now October, and rain had swollen the little stream, and it moistened the boots of this great man, who was a clerk at fifty pounds a year, and yet practically ruled over three thousand people.

He stamped his feet angrily, shaking off the moisture, and seeing old Pippo, who was sitting at his threshold to keep the page: 349 poor little fettered dog company, and who was staring aimlessly at the river, and doing nothing, as he could not afford to buy osiers to make things that perhaps no one would take, he paused in his walk, and with wet boots approached the basketmaker.

Showing his boot, as you show a dead rabbit to a poacher, as pièce de conviction of his crime, Messer Nellemane said sternly:

‘Signor Mazzetti, for some months past you have been admonished and fined for allowing this water to run across the road and annoy the public. How much longer do you intend to defer compliance?’

Pippo got up, and took off his hat, from that respect for authority which is strong in the Italian; a good sentiment whose endurance is daily and hourly being strained and whittled away by the oppressor rusticorum.

He did not reply at all.

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‘How long do you intend to defer compliance with the municipal injunction?’ said the great man.

‘Eh?’ said Pippo; he looked sullen and sad, and his head never seemed to him now to be right: ‘there’s a swarm of bees always buzzing in it,’ he said often to his daughter.

‘How long will you let this water obstruct the public way?’ demanded Messer Nellemane, driven in his desperation to use simple language.

Pippo shrugged his shoulders hopelessly.

‘How long?’ repeated Messer Nellemane with imperious impatience.

‘I have nought to do with it,’ said Pippo at last, doggedly. ‘Dominiddio set it running; He can stop it if He wish.’

‘You are impious!’ said Messer Nellemane.

‘No,’ said Pippo, ‘no, not I.’

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‘Such trifling is merely insolence,’ cried the other very angrily, and losing something of his dignity, and of his suavity all. ‘Yours is a contravention of the most odious kind. You have been warned, mildly chastised, reasoned with in every way; you are obdurate, obstinate, and blasphemous. Do you, or do you not, intend to make the necessary works to remove this nuisance and obstruction?’

Pippo looked at him with sunken, sullen desperate eyes.

‘I can do nought,’ he said doggedly, and he covered his head as he spoke. ‘With one thing and another of your accursed laws you have taken from me all I have. The roof over my head is wholly mine no more. You can torture me as you may; you can’t get blood out of a post.

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Then he sat down, and put his pipe in his mouth, and he let loose little Raggi.

‘You have made slaves of men and beasts,’ he said, ‘but you have done your worst to me already; you can’t get blood out of a post.’

And he took the little dog on his knee and caressed it.

The water rippled and bustled brightly in the sunset light, and toppled over into the river below, as though no presence of a great man were there to trouble it. Messer Nellemane struck his cane into it as though it were an obstinate child that he chastised; he was pale with passion.

‘The laws will force you to respect them, ‘ he said furiously. ‘That you will find, and to your cost.’

‘You can’t get blood out of a post,’ said page: 353 Pippo. ‘I have bartered my house to pay you, and I’ll do no more. Get you gone.’

As he spoke he threw a pebble down the road, and bade the little dog run after it; Raggi ran, nothing loath, and brought it joyfully.

‘The dog will ne’er be tied again for you,’ said Pippo. ‘We pay, and you hurt us just the same. For me, I can pay no more; and were it so that I could, I would not.’

Messer Nellemane said nothing; he opened his note‐book and wrote in it, and went away in silence.

Raggi played with the pebbles, and the cooper’s children ran out and played too, and shouted and spun tops on the river‐side; and Pippo clapped his hands and encouraged them. An old man, a little dog, and five small boys and girls made up this scene of anarchy and revolt, and broke the com‐ page: 354 munal laws in a way that was terrible to behold.

‘Laugh, children, laugh while you may,’ cried Pippo; ‘soon you will starve, and then the Law will laugh at you.’

The children did laugh, and romped on; not understanding.

Excellencies and Ministers—you think Messer Nellemane does not matter; that he is only a clerk and his place is only a village; you think that these people are all poor clods, and know not their right hand from their left; in your high place, whether you were born there, or whether you climbed there, it is so far below you, that poor, little, dusty village, with its stone walls and its narrow rooms, where the people die like flies, and no one cares, and Sheriff’s officers, on the Pale Horse, make their rounds together night and day, and no one page: 355 hears the death cries, for the voices are too feeble and the roofs are too low; you think it does not matter, and you turn away your eyes, and you manufacture your pretty phrases, and you take your armchair at the Congress table of the Nations, for all that does matter to your thinking is only la haute politique. But you mistake; ah yes, you mistake.

Louis Quatorze made just such a mistake; and the scaffold was built for the children of his blood.

But the Roi Soleil had many an excuse. He was born in the purple; he was reared in oblivion of the people; he honestly believed that God had made him of ivory and them of clay; but you—is it so long since you left your cabin in Sicily, your desk in Piedmont?—are you not sons of the wars of independence?—were you not lulled in your page: 356 cradle by the shouts of ‘Morir per Libertà!’ Would you not be nought, unless the people made you all? unless, with their blood and sweat, they had cemented the mortars of your houses, and with their bodies made the steps by which you have mounted thrones?

Yet once in office you forget!

Once in office, Lethe never gave more utter oblivion than this oblivion of yours. Your portfolios won, what else matters?

Let these people toil, and groan, and die; let the tax‐gatherers seize the last rag off their naked and starving bones, wring from them every poor bronze coin that they have gained by the labour of their limbs, and claim impost off the crust of black bread that their hungry babies gnaw; what matter? it is only the people—you, too, were of the people once, but you have forgotten that.

You are in office; you speak with elo‐ page: 357 quence in the Chamber, and you have your place in the councils of Europe.

Vive la Haute Politique!

We must be a great Power—ay, though in every house lies a corpse, in every river rots another, in every poor man’s mouth is a curse, and over all the land there spreads the plague of want, the putrefaction of despair.

Vive la Haute Politique!

What! though you see behind her a spectre, a scaffold, and a tomb?

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