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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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IF you have only killed your father or mother, or sister or neighbour, that is a trifle, which may well stand over for a year or more; and unless you were caught redhanded in the act, you may go scot free meanwhile. This sort of murder is a merely personal affair, and scarcely concerns anybody. But if you have put your hand upon the sacred person of a guard, ay, though he have been, as often page: 2 happens, a whilom thief or an ex‐forger, then indeed you have committed something very like high treason, and you must be tried and sentenced as speedily as may be, to pacify the outraged majesty of Law.

Italy is like M. Gambetta; with the cap of liberty on their heads they both set up a policeman and say ‘worship him.’

It seems hardly worth while to have upset all the old religions and all the old dynasties only to arrive at this.

The crime of Carmelo having been therefore so heinous, the usual snail’s pace of the law was hastened, and by what was almost a miracle of rapidity, he having done this crime in sultry June, was actually brought up to trial at the beginning of October, having spent only four months in prison on suspicion, which is, as things go, really nothing at all.

The Pretore of Pomodoro put on his page: 3 black cap and robes, and mounted his curule chair, with his mind already made up as to Carmelo, before this state prisoner had ever entered the court‐house.

Like the wolves in the ‘Animaux Parlants,’ lawyers, guards, secretaries, chancellors and syndics make a compact party, sworn never to quarrel, and to grip all that comes in their way. The Pretore, Gino Novi, had never seen either accuser or accused in his life before, but before he had heard two words of the case he had made his mind up against Carmelo; all these officials are little Gambettas, and the Law is their fetish. Offend it, and you are vile as a Jesuit; there is no point in your favour possible.

It was with much impatience that this brisk and smart young man, who had the administration of justice in his power over something like seven thousand people, went page: 4 through all the forms of trial, as though there were any sort of doubt of the prisoner’s criminality.

It was absurd, thought Gino Novi, not to be able to condemn the wretch off‐hand; but the law gave him a trial, and he, as I say, like M. Gambetta, revered the Law; indeed, there is hardly anything to which you may not stretch it, and hardly any end it will not answer; when you hold it as a schoolmaster holds the taws you get quite fond of it. It is so unpleasant to others, and so elastic and omnipotent. Carmelo’s advocate was fainthearted; he was equally sure of his fees whether his client were sentenced or set free; and he was afraid that by taking up this case he made himself obnoxious to the Pretore, and to the governing powers generally. It is far more compromising to defend a free citizen who has page: 5 been wronged by a guard, than it is to defend a brigand who has only murdered travellers and violated women.

His advocate was fainthearted, and his witnesses were not over‐wise; they were his own relatives, who got passionate and indignant, and were reproved, and neighbours, such as Gigi Canterelli and Cecco, who were too eager in his defence to be believed. Gigi Canterelli made indeed a bad impression on the court by swearing heartily that Bindo Terri was a ‘briccone’ and a ’scelerato,’ but that he was set on by blackguards in black cloth higher than himself, and that everybody knew, for the whole commune was a prey to this set of oppressors and extortioners; for which violent enunciation of the truth the impetuous old grocer was ordered out of court, with a bad mark scored against his name, to be of use the next, time that he page: 6 should have a case at law there, against carriers who had stolen his bags of rice, or against octroi‐duties falsely levelled on his cheeses. Never again would Gigi gain any cause that would be heard at the Pretura of Pomodoro.

It is not true that no Italian ever tells the truth, as commentators on the country say, but it is sadly true that when one does he suffers for it.

The trial went on all through the golden October day, wasting the time of many men who should have been at work in the vineyards; and throughout it Carmelo stood between the carabiniers, faint and sick from past confinement and present fatigue, and his old father and his brothers and Pippo listened trembling and indignant, with the sweat rolling off their brows.

When questioned, the prisoner said only, page: 7 ‘I would do the same to‐morrow; he poisoned my dog.’

But of this there was, alas for Carmelo! no proof, and if there had been, what would it have served? It was the law of the commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda that the guardian of the public morals should be the poisoner of dogs.

‘I would do the same to‐morrow!’ said Carmelo with eyes that flashed fire from out of the weary pallor of his face.

Gino Novi looked at him from under his black cinque‐cento cap of office, and scowled and shuddered.

‘This is the stuff that makes regicides!’ he thought.

It is certainly the stuff that made Tell; but the Pretore did not think of it in that sense.

Carmelo’s attorney had summoned two or page: 8 three men whose dogs had been poisoned, and who had traced their death to Bindo; and had also summoned Squillace, the apothecary who had supplied the poison; but when the people came up to the tribunal they were frightened, and hemm’d and haw’d and prevaricated, and scratched their heads and blew their noses, and ended in sheer fright by being sure of nothing, while Signore Squillace perjured himself as handsomely as if he had been a deputy arraigned for bribery, instead of a poor devil paid thirty pounds a year to doctor all the commune.

So the long, dull, sad, terrible day wore away, with the sun beating at the thick panes of the casements, and the dirty, garlic‐scented crowd of Pomodoro pressed together behind the bar, thick as bees in swarming‐time. The advocate’s heart was not in his work; it put him in bad odour, and every now and then page: 9 the eye of the Pretore menaced him, and then he lost the thread of his subject, and began to think that a few months in prison would not hurt a young fellow, and to remember that he himself was a very poor man with a jolie ribambelle of hungry children.

He examined his witnesses badly, he helped to hush‐hush Gigi Canterelli, he pleaded loosely, spoke at random, showed he thought ill of his client, and had not courage to bring into evidence any one of the many rascalities of Bindo Terri’s past, or the many villanies of his present.

It was one of those trials common enough in Italy, where the verdict is a foregone conclusion. No one except the Pastorini boys and old Pippo was astonished when Gino Novi, with his sharp black eyes glittering like lancets, sentenced Carmelo to seven months’ imprisonment for his assault page: 10 upon an officer of the law. He would have been better pleased to give seven years, but he was a wise young man, who never let his passions get the mastery of him, and kept himself close within precedents and statutes.

Seven months!

All the bitter winter, and part of the lovely spring, were to pass over the young head of Carmelo in the narrow den of the prison.

When he heard, he opened his great blue eyes, with a frantic terror in them, his lips grew blue, he shivered all over and dropped down in a dead faint. He had eaten nothing all day, and he had been standing many hours.

The elder Pastorini, a strong man, shook like a woman; his veins swelled on his forehead; his eyes grew dull; the men around him forced him out into the open page: 11 air; they thought he would fall in apoplexy.

When he was in the air he staggered, and gave a great gasp for breath.

‘This is for what we toil!’ he shouted, ‘this is for what we give our last coin to the tax‐gatherer, and our last child to the barracks, and our last breath to the hospital! God above us! We are meeker, duller, stupider fools than any sheep that crouches to the shearing! Men, you have known me all my life. I have been peaceable, neighbourly, respectful to law and State, heedful to pay debt and impost; you have known me all my life. I have reared my sons in honesty and simple worth. I have done no harm, I never wronged man, woman, child, or beast. Have I deserved this that they do to me? Men, as God lives, this night would I bear steel and torch through the kingdom page: 12 to kill these wretches that ruin us, these worms that crawl to their masters, but sting the poor as the viper stings. As God lives, I pray—I pray—for revolution, for red blood, for bitter battle, for human justice; I pray.—’

Then his voice choked, and he lifted his arms in the air, and the men caught him to save his fall.

Meanwhile, in the court old Pippo had risen on trembling limbs, and with his hat doffed, and his white hair shining in the sunshine, called aloud to the judge, ‘Dear sir, most illustrious, you cannot mean it; you cannot have the heart to mean it. The lad is good as gold. You cannot brand him felon and bracket him with thieves? Dear sir—honoured judge—do hear me. He is to marry my daughter. His marriage lines are all drawn out, and the girl sits at home page: 13 weeping, and the bridal gown lies in a drawer, and the orange flowers are all yellow and shrivelled, and they lie on it to keep it from moth. Good sir! Most high and honourable sir, do hear me! The dear lad already has suffered four mortal months in the town gaol. It is enough. It is too much! He did no harm. If you only but knew the rogue, the thief, the impostor, the villain, that they make a guard—’

‘Take that old madman out of court,’ hissed the Pretore; and Pippo was hustled and pulled down by the officials from where he stood, and thrown, as if he were a stone, through the doors.

‘Defamation of an officer of the law,’ muttered Gino Novi, as he closed his great case of papers and hurried from his throne, as twilight dimmed the court, to go and eat a supper of robins and tripe, fried ham page: 14 and lentils, in his own room behind the chamber of justice, where he had invited Messer Gaspardo Nellemane and Messer Luca Finti to pass a jovial hour with him, and lost a friendly coin or two over draughts and dice.

‘Very insubordinate and revolutionary people in this commune, I fear; no veneration for authority,’ said he; and his two guests, who quite forgot that but for revolution they would at this hour have been respectively selling their father’s battered iron and rotting fish, shook their heads and said there was a bad spirit abroad—the people certainly had no respect for authority.

For these good gentlemen were like all their class, the very oddest mixture of Prussian despotism and Parisian radicalism. They hated all those who were above them, and despised all those who were below them; page: 15 there was only one stratum strata of humanity that they thought worth consideration or preservation, i.e. their own.

When Italy shall purge herself of these, the opportunists of public benches and public desks—the licensed and registered brigands of the public purse—then, and then only may she. lift off the burden of her taxes, and breathe freely, and have title to be a voice in Europe. Will this day ever come? By the educated will of the people, perhaps. Perhaps—never.

Nepotism and Impiegatism are as thorns in her flesh; fixed there in festered wounds, and maybe, past all surgery. They are as thorns that pierce, as leeches that suck; when the flesh is bloodless, then it rots and the body falls.

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