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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 77


AFTER her fruitless journey to Pomodoro, Annunziata could not get about at all, on account of snow that fell, and of a thaw that left the roads mere torrents of slush.

She had but little blood in her veins, and but little bread in her cupboard; she and the three other old souls huddled themselves together over a single scaldino of charcoal that they clubbed their pence to get, and spent most of their time in bed, in hope of so keeping their slow circulation frown absolute stagnation. They were four miserable little page: 78 pallet‐beds, one in each corner, and the spiders and beetles and mice ran over them, and the old women were too feeble to chase them away.

Dom Lelio did all he could and Viola went daily, and denied herself that she might keep her great‐aunt from starving, but when all was done that could be by these two, Annunziata had but little of all that old age needs. Dom Lelio had but a franc a‐day, and in Pippo’s house want was a ghost that had no rest and gave none.

‘They cannot call her a beggar now,’ said Viola bitterly, as she stood beside the hard bed in which the old woman was stretched, with her legs useless from rheumatism.

The heart of the girl was sick with hope deferred, and that vague fear of something yet worse to come which a long succession page: 79 of undeserved misfortunes will leave on the brightest nature .

It was now the end of February and the weather, as it often does here, grew colder by far than it had been when the days were short. The village was a sorry scene, the ill‐made roads were little better than bogs, and the angry river went swirling and rushing, yellow and muddy with all the clay that it washed down from its treeless banks.

‘One would say the Rosa were mad to think the boschetto is gone,’ thought the eldest girl Dina Pastorini, as the north wind, without that screen of trees, beat with all its might against the millhouse.

Her father had changed as greatly as Pippo.

He was never irritable, because he was a sweet‐tempered and just man, who could not bear to farther afflict his children.

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But all the honest mirth and cheery content were gone out of him; he who had been so loquacious and mirthful now never smiled and seldom spoke; his brow was always dark and his eyes were always dull. Missing that glad and pleasant shade, so green through three of the seasons, that had been before his eyes ever since he had opened them at birth, seemed to him to have made him half‐blind.

Besides, he was always saying in his thoughts: ‘How shall we tell Carmelo? how will he bear it when he sees?’ Carmelo, who beyond them all had loved the bright boschetto, and had passed so many a holiday hour sitting on the mossy edge of it with his square net floating on the stream below, and white Toppa sleeping by his side or hunting lizards in the flower‐filled grass.

The father dared not think of it. He page: 81 had suffered greatly himself, but he feared that his son would suffer yet more.

As for such solace as might have come to a man struggling with many burdens from the help of money, none was given to him. The municipality had offered a certain sum of money indeed for the riverside wood, but they had not paid it. In Rome they were five years paying for the Farnesina gardens, destroying them, as it were, on credit; in Santa Rosalia they would probably be twice as long paying the miller.

If he wanted to make them pay he would have to go to law with them, and that no one of the class that the Pastorini belonged to would ever dare to do, knowing the remedy to be worse than the disease. The Giunta was supposed to deal with these matters, but in reality it only met to give adhesion to what Cavaliere Durellazzo said, page: 82 and what he said was what he had been prompted to say by his right hand and chief counsellor, Messer Nellemane.

Now, as everyone will understand without saying, they could scarcely be expected to find money for Demetrio Pastorini, since they were obliged to pay beforehand all those gentlemen who had opposed the tramway.

So the miller’s empty pockets were not the heavier by a coin at the present for the expropriation of his wood, and he suffered in a time of peace and, as the foreign newspapers had it, of prosperity, precisely what he would have suffered had an invading army encamped in Vezzaja and Ghiralda and burned it right and left on leaving it.

‘Ah, my girl,’ he said once to Viola, of whom he had grown fond in their mutual trials, ‘I almost would sooner our dear lad stayed on in prison than that he should come come to see what he will see.’

page: 83

Viola sighed heavily, and did not say that she felt otherwise, only in her young heart there was that hope which is in youth like the golden gorse, always in bloom, even in bad weather and on barren soil.

She thought always: ‘When Carmelo comes home things will change; all will be well.’

It was now the close of February; she was counting the weeks, the days, the hours till Carmelo’s release.

She could not read much, but she had one of those little calendars which are the oracles of the poor, and she could make out their signs and the days of the months, and in this she had marked each cruel week as it crawled by and left her lover shut in prison walls.

There were only two months more now to divide them, and though Carmelo truly page: 84 would return to trouble and pain, she could not, like his father, wish him absent.

Yet so many sorrows fell upon them, that the bit of charcoal with which she marked evil days in her calendar had made almost every page a smudge of black.

Early in the year her grandfather had received a long and formal printed paper, calling on him to remove the nuisance of the water before his door. Pippo had crammed the thing on to the top of the live cinders in the brascie bowl, and there had let it smoulder into ashes.

A few days later Pierino Zaffi had been seen about the place, examining the little spring and measuring it, and in the name of the commune had entered the house and traced the offending water to its source amongst the frozen orto ground. He had said nothing and had gone.

page: 85

In a week’s time there had come another document, and that Viola took to Cecco to read, her grandfather being absent at the time.

This one ordered Filippo Mazzetti forthwith to execute works that would direct his spring underground; to cover it was forbidden, because no means by which it could be covered would fail to obstruct the public path.

He was ordered to commence this work within thirty days; if delayed, the offender would be fined for every day’s delay.

The spectacles rose on Cecco’s nose, and the hair upon his head as he read, and his face grew aghast with horror.

‘After all that money that I paid for Pippo,’ he gasped; ‘after that bit of paper which set him free of all!’

He who was disposed to revere and obey the law was paralysed with terror.

page: 86

Was this its justice ? this the way it kept its troth with men?

Cecco gave up faith in humanity, and almost abandoned faith in heaven.

Viola was crying bitterly.

‘What does it mean?’ gasped Cecco wildly. ‘What does it mean? Can your grandfather pay masons and plumbers for six months like a duke?’

‘It means ruin!’ sobbed the girl. ‘He has nothing in the world; how can he put the water under the earth? And Carmelo coming home in a month!’

Of this new calamity they were compelled to tell Pippo. He heard quite quietly, but there was a savage wild light in his eye.

He stretched his hand out and took the paper and folded it up once, twice, thrice; then the held it in the palm of his hand and spat on it; then he lighted a lucifer match and set fire to it.

page: 87

It blazed a moment, then curled up, and became a little heap of black ash on the stones of the floor.

He stayed Viola and Cecco with a gesture as they would have spoken.

‘Never a word,’ he said, ‘never a word. If they send me a hundred such, so will I treat them all. They cannot get blood out of a post. Let them do their worst—’

‘But’—his friend began.

‘Not a word,’ said Pippo, and he spat on the ashes.

Then he went on with his work.

Half an hour later he looked up from his weaving, and his eyes were shining savagely from under his white hair.

‘Girl,’ he said to his granddaughter, ‘I call to mind a night before you were born. There came news of a great battle; they called it San Martino.¹ They told us to light

Solferino is so called by the Italians.

page: 88 up; so did we all. In your little window I set the oil flaming. They said we were free—God have mercy on us for being fools!’

Then he went on plaiting his osiers.

The girl wept.