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The Village Commune (Vol. 1). Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 46


MEANWHILE, Messer Gaspardo went homeward to his rooms in the Municipio and sent for Bindo. Bindo Terri was one of the rural guards that had been put on the roll of the civic power of Vezzaja and Ghiralda to see to the due enforcement and carrying out of the three hundred and ninety‐six new rules, with their various articles of which the Giunta was the putative, but Messer Nellemane was the actual, father. Bindo was a great scamp who was now seduously bent on proving the wisdom of the adage, set page: 47 a thief to catch a thief; he had been a blackguard all his youth; but as he loafed about in Santa Rosalia, snaring birds and running errands, Messer Nellemane, with the shrewd eye that was so useful to him, had discerned in this loafer the making of an officer of the State; and so strongly recommended Bindo to his master, Durellazzo, that the Syndic had said, ‘Va bene, va benissimo,’ when it was proposed to clothe vagabond Bindo in hodden grey, with a belt and a short sword, and a feather in his hat, and make a rural guard of him in the interests of the commune; the zeal of Bindo being stimulated to boiling point by the fact that he was promised half of every fine that he could impose upon the violators of the new code of Vezzaja and Ghiralda.

This zealous functionary Messer Gaspardo now called to him and said:

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‘What character does the eldest son of the miller Pastorini bear?’

Bindo, who more than once in years before his promotion had had a drubbing from the Pastorini for stealing corn, replied promptly:

‘He is a savage character, disrespectful to authority, and masterful.’

‘A dangerous character? I thought as much. Has he ever been in trouble?’

Bindo shook his head sorrowfully; the Pastorini, father and sons, were quiet, God‐fearing, sturdy, honest fellows; just the people to vex and disappoint beyond measure a guardian of morals and of manners, who was to have half the fines he could manage to impose.

‘That mill of theirs—does it profit them?’

Alto, signore! There is nobody else page: 49 to grind anything for five miles down the river.’

‘And it belongs to them?’

‘It has belonged to the Pastorini hundreds of years.

‘With that boschetto beside it?’

‘Exactly, illustrissimo.’

‘You may go, my dear Bindo,’ said his superior, who liked to be called illustrissimo. ‘But keep your eye upon Carmelo Pastorini, for he seems to me a sullen unsympathetic rebellious young man, and in these days of socialism one never knows.’

Bindo pulled his curly forelock respectfully and withdrew, leaving behind him a list of the day’s contraventions of Messer Nellemane’s code, which comprised and forebade nearly every action that a man, or a child, or a dog, or a horse, or an ass, or a goat, or a cow or a duck, or a hen, could be page: 50 likely to perform upon a public highway; and since it treated as high treason nearly every primitive pleasure and habit and custom that this rustic world had ever been wont to indulge in, it was not very difficult for a vigilant officer like Bindo, always walking about with his eyes and ears wide open, to furnish his employer with a list of transgressions as long as the list of Don Giovanni’s amours.

Bindo Terri preferred the ways of virtue to the ways of vagabondage; instead of being put in prison he put in other people, which combined the charm of variety with the fascination of power. It was a more lucrative path too; if people did not wish their lives molested, their habits interfered with, and their dogs poisoned, they slipped some francs at intervals into Bindo’s hand; and those butchers, bakers, and cattle‐ page: 51 dealers, and corn‐factors who wanted to cheat the State of its revenues, and not pay fines on their sales, became a very considerable source of income to him, for he knew admirably when, and (for a consideration} how, to shut his far‐reaching eye with a wink.

When you have not quite 20 l pound , a year as your official income, it is understood that you must supply the vacuum left somehow. When the commune paid Bindo five hundred francs a year for his invaluable services, and gave him half the fines, the Guinta said virtually to him, ‘Rob, oppress, be bribed, get your bread out of the public;’ and he did get, not only his bread, but his wine, and his cigars and his sweethearts.

Very naturally he took into his especial hatred all honest folks, and folks careful to pay the taxes and obey the laws; they were quite unprofitable to him.

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As Messer Gaspardo Nellemane did not make his code to render people virtuous or comfortable by its regulations, but to fill the municipal money‐box by its infractions, so his myrmidon, the wily Bindo, did not walk about with his eyes open in hopes of seeing the law observed, but in hopes of seeing it broken. The big butcher on the piazza carried his dead bullocks away to the distant city without paying a farthing duty upon them, because he was wise enough to have a complete understanding with Bindo; whereas the little butcher by the turn of the river never would have any such understanding, persisting in saying stupidly that Bindo, in his unregenerate and unofficial days, had stolen tripe and pork chops off his stall a hundred times; whereby naturally his fines and his payments for every head of cattle, swine, or kids, fell heavily upon him.

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What will you? Corruption is the natural law of all official life, all the world over, and why should Bindo be a solitary exception to the universal rule?

‘Via!’ said Bindo, with his tongue in his cheek and his feathered hat on one side, whenever anybody hinted to him that his hands were not so clean as was desirable in a guardian of the public morality and decorum.

Now Bindo had always hated the whole family of the Pastorini; in their little mill on the water with its great black wheels churning below, and its tall green poplars rising above, they had always dwelt harmlessly, honestly, and in peace with heaven and their neighbours. They paid their imposts regularly; cheated no one; bided at home, and were well liked by all; the sons working hard and rarely being seen inside a page: 54 wineshop; a family to be peculiarly abhorrent to an officer of the State who received half the fines imposed on noisy or disobedient people.

Therefore the heart of Bindo Terri bounded within him when he heard these few pregnant words from his chief. He was a capable and ingenious youth, and of considerable powers of invention; in his mind’s eye in an instant he saw Carmelo—Carmelo, clean of limb and clean of conscience, honest, frank, quiet, sober, everything in a word, that was detestable,—brought before the tribunal and going from the tribunal to prison.

‘Why not?’ said Bindo; and his soul was joyful.

Meanwhile Messer Gaspardo sat down to the calm enjoyment of his list, lighting a long cigar.

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It was a list that delighted his soul and fortified it; there were contraventions for keeping trees too low of branch, for letting children play upon the sacred steps of the communal palace, for letting dogs run loose, for letting plants stand upon window‐sills, for emptying pails of water into the gutter, for having a chair and a chat on the pavement, for anything and everything that the enlightened regulations of Vezzaja and Ghiralda had forbidden.

‘How perverse are the public!’ though Messer Nellemane, as he ran his eye over the papers. He wanted a model public; a public that doffed its hat to him, chained its dogs, never laughed or quarrelled, drilled its children like small police sergeants, and respected his code as if it had come from heaven. Yet he would have had but little enjoyment out of even this model public, page: 56 could it have been created for him, for he would have had nobody to punish, and no fines to put in that municipal money‐box which it was his profession to fill and his perquisite to empty. Like all other great men he was happiest in stormy waters, so he folded up the list with marvel at the people’s perversity, and betook himself to the caffè of Nuova Italia, where he supped cheaply off a salad and some liver, and played dominoes afterwards with the Conciliatore Maso, who always made a point of losing the game to him. Anyone who wished to be in Messer Gaspardo’s good graces lost the game to him.

Santa Rosalia lies along the Rosa river, and its little humble houses open out in the centre on to a clear space, where the beautiful old church with its tapering campanile faces the hideous new communal palace; a page: 57 broad space of dust and desolation stretching between the two and being called by courtesy the piazza. Pippo and the other old men, and even younger ones, by remembrance of their childhood, could call to mind the time when the piazza had been shaded by broad plane trees and limes, and in the centre of it had stood a very old and large stone fountain, the delight of the people and the dogs, the horses and cattle that drank and their babies that played at it.

But an earlier Giunta, the first‐born of Freedom, had cut down the trees and sold them; and Messer Nellemane coming, and finding the fountain a nuisance because everyone gathered about it, and he did not think with Mr. Ruskin that the sight of women, loitering with their bronze pitchers round a fountain, at daybreak or twilight, in Italy, is one of the most poetic sights on earth, had page: 58 it taken to pieces and carried away, and the water sent back to the river. The people groaned, mourned and protested all they dared, but the Giunta willed it, and the Syndic said, ‘Va bene, va benissimo.’

So the fountain became a thing of the past, and the labour for its destruction was entered for a considerable sum in the communal expenses under the heading of ‘Works for the salubrity and decoration of Santa Rosalia.’ An ugly waste ground, filled with rubble and rubbish, was all the people got in its place; and as for the old stones, some did say they were re‐erected in a rich Russian’s villa fifty miles away, Messer Gaspardo knowing the reason why. A gardener of the neighbourhood swore to his neighbours that he had seen them there, and that he had heard they were the carved work of some great ancient sculptor; but Messer Nellemane said they page: 59 had all been broken up to mend the roads, and had been of no value for aught else whatever, so the subject had dropped, as most inquiries into public wrongs or expenditures of public money do drop, and though Santa Rosalia mourned for its lost fountain it mourned altogether in vain, and the Giunta unanimously considered that the piazza looked very much better bare; both trees and fountains beget humidity, they thought, and why should they not do in Rosalia just what was doing in Rome? As little dogs always imitate the big ones, so villages love to copy great cities.

No one ever dared to name the stones to Messer Nellemane, who had given his word that they were broken up and under his feet and the cart‐wheels, and nobody ever knew that he bought five thousand francs’ worth of foreign scrip soon after they disappeared page: 60 because these little purchases were made for him by a cousin who was a money changer in the town of Allesandria: a shrewd ‘Ebreo,’ with greasy clothes and sallow skin, who will in all probability end as a baron and a banker. This evening, however, when he had eaten his supper Messer Nellemane did not think of scrip or anything mundane; he thought of Viola Mazzetti.

Her grandfather’s little stone house, called the Casa della Madonna on account of a blue and white china shrine set above its entrance, built in the thirteenth century, and strong and sturdy, though low and small, stood at the corner of the piazza sideways to the river, and with the unpaved road that served the borgo as a street alone separating it from the water. The door and the kitchen window turned to the piazza; and when Messer Nellemane sat on the opposite page: 61 side of the square, he could see the house very well.

Messer Nellemane, all the while he smoked, and read the gazette, and played at dominoes, kept his eyes upon the cottage, and he could see the Rosa river also very clearly, and down it for a long way, and he saw young Carmelo come leaping along the opposite bank under the poplars and service trees, and wade lightly across the shallow, and leap ashore and run in without knocking through Pippo’s door.

And Messer Nellemane, who could not see through stone walls despite his omniscience, followed him in thought angrily, since the beauty of the maiden had allured his own fancy and desire.

While he pursued these discontented reflections and played dominoes alternately with his beloved friends, Maso and Tonino, page: 62 and the clear autumn evening began to grow grey and tinged with sadness, Carmelo Pastorini whispered to Viola while old Pippo first smoked and then snored. Carmelo was a handsome fair lithe young fellow, wonderfully like the Faun of the capital, and just as admirably made; here and there amongst the populace one may see the old classic faces and figures almost unaltered, and men who have never stooped over desks and have always in childhood gone barefoot have much of the old perfect symmetry and ease of attitude, and stand well and nobly.

‘How ill you march!’ said one of his officers once to a Tuscan in his conscript days, and the Tuscan answered the officer, who was kind to him, ‘Signor Capitano, how can anyone walk well with a great strap across the breast and leather on the feet? If I might take off my boots and carry my page: 63 knapsack on my head, then I would walk against any man:’ and the first act of that youth’s liberty when he had been set free was to kick his boots off into space.

Barefoot now, and decked in blue homemade linen, for the weather was warm, Carmelo leaned against the little window of the room and murmured to Viola, who was bending her beautiful dark face over her straw plaiting, but smiling a little, though seriously.

They were sweethearts in an innocent calm fashion; they had neither of them anything in the world, but that did not trouble them; Carmelo could always work at his father’s mill, and Viola had no fear of poverty. The spouse of St. Francis had always been her guest, and was no terror for her.

Men and maidens marry improvidently page: 64 enough in this country, but most of them are happy in their marriages, and the children tumble up, round and blithe as little rabbits, and all goes well; or does go well, till the shadow of the Law falls like the shadow of death across the sunny thresholds.

These two were not to marry yet awhile, nay, they had scarcely spoken of it; the courtship was timid and reverent on Carmelo’s part, rather than impassioned, for Viola had a saint’s look about her, and saintly thoughts and ways, and old Pippo was a man not to be gainsayed in his own household, and he had said, ‘adagiò, adagiò,’ meaning that they were young and there was no great hurry. Demetrio Pastorini, the father, said the same, and so their lives went gently on in a sweet pastoral that was happier, and less troubled, than even triumphant passion.

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This evening, however, in the twilight Carmelo waxed bolder.

‘Why should we not marry as the others do!’ he whispered, and Viola smiled ever so little, and old Pippo spoilt it all by waking up suddenly, and shouting: ‘Not cut the osiers in the Rosa? Everybody’s always cut them, for twice then thousand years. Who’s that new meddlesome fool with his rules and his rates and his rubbish?’

‘Hush,grandfather!’ said Viola, timidly, for she remembered the death of old Nanni, and from their window she could see across the river on to the piazza, and the desolate place where the fountain had been, and also could see Messer Gaspardo Nellemane playing dominoes on his green iron chair before the caffè with thin Tonino losing to him, and fat Maso looking on at the game. Messer Nellemane across the river page: 66 also could see her; and when Carmelo had been sent away at eight o’clock, and they had eaten their bit of supper, and she had lighted a lamp for her grandfather to have a glimmer by which to finish a reed‐bottomed chair wanted by the priest on the morrow, he could see still the better the bent brown head of the girl, and studied it critically, as a virtuoso might have studied a canvas of candlelight effect of Ostade or Van Steen. It was almost as beguiling and delightful to him as the guard Bindo’s list of misdeeds and misadventures.

Viola was beyond dispute the loveliest girl in the place. Those onyx‐coloured eyes, those dreamy lids, those curved red lips, those elastic and symmetrical limbs, would have made her a beauty anywhere at a court or in a studio, and had enough of physical exuberance, combined with maiden‐ page: 67 like simplicity, to touch the inmost heart of a man who would, with all his will, have been a voluptuary had it not cost so much, and had he not loved his place still better than his passions. Still there was no harm in looking at her, he thought; and look he did, until her grandfather’s piece of plaiting being done she put her light out, closed the shutter, and left only a little dark stone house facing the great man of the commune.

Then Messer Nellemane flung the end of his cigar away with a lordly air, pushed back his iron chair, and strolled homeward.

‘One could marry her to Bindo,’ thought this very prudent person, as he walked away through the white moonlight past the glancing Rosa water.