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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 123


IT was the day for Carmelo to come out of prison; it was a lovely May morning, as May is lovely in this land alone.

Plentiful rains had fallen in the night; the tall, green‐waving wheat, the mulberry and walnut trees, the willows along the river, the moss‐grown grass between the poplars, all were green and sparkling with moisture; here and there an acacia rose up in blossom like the white column of a fountain, here and there glowed a Judas (circis siliquastrum), with the roseate blush of its abundant page: 124 flowers; over all was blowing a sweet sea wind from the west.

Demetrio Pastorini said to the maiden:

‘Alas! that he should come home to see what he will see!—’

‘He will see us all well,’ said Viola, with a true woman’s belief that this must compensate for all.

‘The lad is sorely changed,’ said the father with a sigh; ‘remember that, Viola. When wrong is done to a man it changes the honey of the human heart to gall. He is no more the bright, soft, innocent youth that you and we have loved. He will need much wisdom from you, and much consolation.’

‘I will try my best,’ said the girl, ‘I will try to win him back to his old self, and teach him to forget.’

‘That is not easy,’ said Pastorini; ‘when page: 125 the mildew is on the grain, who shall make it fair wheat again? And he comes to two sore troubled households. But he is young and you are good.’

‘I love him dearly,’ said Viola, with tears in her large eyes.

‘That I know,’ said his father.

Then he kissed her, and got ready the grey mare, and Dina walked back with her to her own little house while the men went on their way.

‘That young Pastorini will be out of prison to‐day,’ Messer Nellemane was saying at that moment to the brigadier; ‘you will keep him under your eye, for I think he is a dangerous character.’

‘Of course,’ said the gendarme.

Once in prison, you are for ever down in the books of the police, and subject to examination and interrogation at any word or page: 126 act that seems to them to be suspicious. You never wholly escape. You are as a bird let loose, and flying with a recall‐thread tied to its foot. Human justice is a sadly deficient thing.

Pippo and the Pastorini, father and sons, went to Pomodoro to meet him; Viola stayed in her house; there is enough of the old sentiment amongst the people, still, to make them think women should not parade their persons, or their affections, or meddle with public things.

When they greeted Carmelo, and the formalities were fulfilled that set him free, he grasped his father’s hand and Pippo’s, but said never a word. He walked out into the open air, into the broad sunlight, with an uncertain step as if he were purblind; his face had a stupid look, and his mouth, that had been so fresh and smiling, was pale and page: 127 sullenly compressed. All his youth seemed to have gone out of him; he was wasted and thin, and his clothes hung on him loosely, twice too large. Only twelve months before he had borne the Maggio so merrily with carol and chant!

‘You have had a long time of it,’ said the Usciere jocosely to him. ‘You will take good care how you touch a guard again, birricchino mio.’

Carmelo looked on the ground; there was a fierce fire in his eyes; he kept a sullen silence.

‘My son has been cruelly wronged,’ said the elder Pastorini with tears in his voice. ‘If there were any justice in the land, not an hour would he have spent in your accursed place.’

‘The law never wrongs anyone,’ said the Usciere, who lived by the law.

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‘The real good honest law perhaps does not,’ said Pastorini, ‘but these rogues who make laws out of their heads that they may fill their pockets—’

‘Hush! or they will lock you up,’ whispered Pippo, who ever since he had mortgaged his house had been timid and yet sullen. ‘Let us be going; there is Viola at home.’

At the maiden’s name a momentary light passed over Carmelo’s face and into his heavy eyes; but it soon faded and left again unillumined the sullen gloom that months of imprisonment had brought there.

‘Let us go,’ he said, and glanced back over his shoulder with a shudder at the prison.

They had brought the mill‐horse and cart to meet him, and he felt a sob rise in his throat as he saw the familiar old grey page: 129 beast, and heard the whinny of pleasure with which the poor thing recognised him.

Their hearts were rather heavy than joyful as they drove behind the grey along the dusty road, with the vineyards on either side of them, and the long low azure forms of the mountains beyond those.

The father felt a bitter pang that one of his sons should go back thus to his birthplace; his name had always been stainless, and though he knew that Carmelo had done no wrong, still in all prisons there is a taint of shame that clings.

The young man never spoke; his brother had the reins; he sat behind with old Pippo, his face turned backward, so that he saw the red roofs and dusky towers of Pomodoro grow less and less, until the rise of the road hid them.

‘Accursed place! accursed place!’ he page: 130 muttered once; then his head dropped on his breast, and lips never unclosed till the cart had jolted over a bridge that crossed the winding Rosa and entered his village. Then he put his hand on his brother’s arm, and motioned him to check the horse.

‘Let me get down; let me see her alone.’

They let him get down.

He stood an instant, and looked at the white, square, bald building that was the Palazzo Communale. He looked and lifted his hand in the air.

‘I would do the same again were the time to come again!’ he said solemnly. ‘My poor dead dog! do they think the prison has made me forget you—or forgive them?’

His face was very pale and very stern; his eyes had a great darkness and yet a great page: 131 fire in them, as the skies have when behind the purple rain‐clouds flash the lightnings.

The men in the cart were afraid.

‘He is not in his right mind,’ said Pippo in a frightened voice to his father.

Pastorini shook his head.

‘Let him go to his girl. She will be his best cure. We should but do him harm. You will bring them both up to us a little later, when he is calm. He is sorely changed, my lad, my poor lad!’

It was early morning; no one saw Carmelo return. He went across the threshold of the house of the Madonna, and fell at the feet of Viola, who watched and prayed for him.

His father followed him wistfully with his eyes, shading his own with his hand.

‘What will he say of the trees?’ he cried in a sort of despair. ‘I have not broken it page: 132 to him. What will he say? what will he say!’

Pippo answered nothing: he thought the trees but a trivial woe beside his own dead weight of ruin; but he would not say so; he had a kind heart, which was awake, though his head was failing.

The miller drove on slowly through the village; and Pippo slipped down and glided away by himself, and sat down by the river‐side under the willows by the reeds.

It was early, and no one scarcely had seen the miller’s cart come through the village, and those who had seen, had kept behind their door‐posts and their casements, saying to themselves, ‘Will it be prudent to be friends with the lad?’

For whosoever would be friends with the liberated criminal, the whole borgo knew well, would be marked and cashiered in the page: 133 black books of the oppressor rusticorum. Their hearts were altogether with Carmelo; he had done thoroughly right, so they all thought, but who would dare to say so, or dare to act as if he thought so?

In these modern times of cowardice, when great Ministers dare not say the thing they think, and high magistrates stoop to execute decrees that they abhor, it is scarcely to be hoped for that moral courage will be a plant of very sturdy growth in the souls of carpenters and coopers, and bakers and plumbers and day‐labourers, who toil for scarce a shilling a day. A bad name with the guards, a series of fines and taxes, the loss of municipal work or gentlemen’s patronage—these soon ruin a poor tradesman or workman.

So we will not be too harsh against the little folk of Santa Rosalia that they hung back somewhat, and were not quick to look page: 134 out of their doors as usual when the miller’s well‐known grey horse trotted slowly through the street.

Only Gigi Canterelli ran out of his shop and waved his hat, and shouted, ‘Bravo! benone!’ and fearful Cecco, who was standing at the entrance of his workshop, having no work to do, seeing Pippo sitting disconsolate amidst the rushes, ran to him and cried, ‘Dear friend! Is he home? Oh the joy of it! Never mind the gaol now; never mind it a bit; everybody knows the rights of the tale!’

And when Pippo, who did not think it right to leave the youth and the maiden together more than ten minutes, got up to go into his house, Cecco would go with him, and shook the hands of Carmelo, and kissed him on both cheeks, and said, ‘Now you are home all will go well,’ and then kissed Viola page: 135 and went on his knees before the crucifix and blessed Christ, and got up again, and laughed and cried, and sang and danced, and behaved altogether so foolishly for a staid old cooper of sixty years, that Pippo could not help laughing too, and the young man and maiden were glad of this cover to their own too great emotion.

‘Let us go,’ said Pippo, ‘your father will be wondering—’

Carmelo, with Viola’s hand in his, looked more as he had used to look; his eyes had a soft and tearful light, and his lips had something of their old smile on them. He spoke but little: even for her he had few words.

But when Pippo said to him that it was time they should be going to the mill, and thereon the three went out from the house into the piazza, the harder, darker look came once more upon his face, and his eyes page: 136 grew fierce as he strode through the dust with his head erect as if in challenge.

‘I could kill them all!’ he muttered, and his hand clenched hard on the hand of Viola.

As they went across the threshold, Carmelo looked over his shoulder:

‘Where is little Raggi? She always jumped about me so.’

And he began to call and whistle for her as of yore.

Viola burst out crying and caught hold of his arm.

‘Oh Carmelo! oh, dear one, don’t do that! Raggi is dead.’

‘Dead! what did she die of? Poor merry little Raggi!’

‘She died of—of—old age,’ said Viola between her sobs; ‘don’t talk of her, please don’t.’

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Of old age?’ said Carmelo doubtingly; ‘She was not a pup, to be sure, but she was so full of pranks and play. Poor little Raggi! Are you sure it was not poison?’

His face grew overcast again, and the gloom of it did not lighten as he moved into the street and saw the neighbours hurry inside their doorways.

‘One would say I brought the plague,’ he said savagely.

‘Come on, never mind them. They are afraid the guards are looking, that is all. It will all be again just as it used to be when you shall have been home a week,’ said the cooper hurriedly, and they passed across the square.

It was now the hour when all Santa Rosalia was up and doing; when every door was open, and every window unshuttered, when the children were trotting to school, page: 138 and the mothers gossiping as they made their small purchases for dinner at noon. But now the women hustled away into holes and corners, and the men became suddenly very busy with casks or barrels, with brushes or pails, with meat or flour, with a mule in a cart, or an ox at a butcher’s door, with anything and everything so that no one saw Carmelo.

He raised his head higher, and his eyes grew sterner and fiercer: he knew very well why these lazy laughter‐loving people were all so suddenly busy and engrossed.

There was only Gigi Canterelli who ran once more out of his shop door and welcomed him with both hands.

‘The beasts of the Municipality will never sup or dine in my back room any more,’ thought he, ‘but what matter—they page: 139 must ruin me if they wish; I cannot let the good lad go by without a greeting.’

But his was the only greeting that welcomed Carmelo in all the length of the village street, though women and men both looked wistfully after him and said one to another: ‘Poor lad, he was in the right; will it do to be friends with him, think you? God knows he is good as gold.’

He understood what they were thinking, and so did his companions.

‘Oh, the shame of them! the cruelty of them!’ thought Viola, trying not to let her tears fall. ‘Instead of giving him welcome and sympathy!’

‘Men and women are just like sheep,’ thought her father. ‘A crack of the whip and they scatter: they never stay by one that falls on the road.’

‘It is not to be expected that they will page: 140 get into trouble for the lad,’ thought Cecco; ‘and yet one would have fancied they would just have given him good day.’

Now on the steps of the Palazzo Communale there was lounging Bindo, in his guard’s uniform, with his short sword swinging at his side, and his big memorandum book bulging out of his pocket; his hat was cocked on one side, and his moustaches were curled up to his eyes, and he looked very much as if he had stepped off the stage from taking part in an opera bouffe.

He saw the four persons coming past the building on their way from Pippo’s house to the mill on the Rosa. He said to a carabinier who was also at the doorway, ‘Come along with me, there is that blackguard out of prison.’

He swaggered down the steps and stood in the middle of the road so that they were obliged to pass him.

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The face of Carmelo grew crimson and then livid as he saw the poisoner of Toppa.

‘Here is this gaol bird,’ called Bindo Terri out loud to the carabinier, as they went by. ‘He will think twice before he assaults us again; but I will be bound he will end in the galleys. Keep your eye on him, brigadier, for he is dangerous.’

But for the pressure on his hand of Viola’s entreating gesture, and the low supplication of old Pippo’s quavering voice, the municipal guard would once more have measured his length on the dust under the weight of Carmelo’s avenging arm.

For their sakes he mastered the passion that convulsed him. They passed on in silence, submissive to insult and to injury, as the people have always to be before the petty tyrannies that are called Law.

‘Heed him not, my beloved,’ said the page: 142 maiden near him. ‘Be calm and strong. That will be your best vengeance.’

They were words of wisdom, but life cannot always be guided by wisdom.

Old Annunziata met him now also. She had begun to hobble about again with the warm weather; she cried as she welcomed him: ‘Oh my dear lad,’ she said, ‘I shall always think it was myself with that basket of eggs that was the beginning of all your troubles.’

‘Not you,’ said Carmelo, kindly. ‘Eggs or no eggs, these beasts would have done for me somehow.’

‘But they brought it against you—’

‘Yes, with lies tacked to it as you tack paper to a kite’s tail to carry it higher,’ said Cecco the cooper.

Then they all went on again together.

They were all silent.

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They were all thinking, What will he say when he sees the trees are down?

Carmelo, full of bitter thoughts and tender memories, did, indeed strain his eyes eagerly along the road for the first sight of his father’s house.

‘There it is!’ he cried eagerly as a turn in the river‐road brought the white building with its red‐tiled roof into view; then he stopped and drew a deep breath.

‘But there are no trees!’ he cried. Everyone was silent.

‘Has father cut them down?’ he cried, staring all the while straight before him.

Then Viola took courage and answered him.

‘They were taken by the municipality, dear; it seems there is some public thing to be done; they want the ground—’

She was dumb, as one of the terrible page: 144 oaths of Italy that burn and harrow like vitriol, rolled out of Carmelo’s lips and made the listeners shudder.

He uttered nothing more, but walked on towards the mill‐house where his father and his brothers and sisters were waiting for him at the little low gate.

They hung about him, and they kissed him, and wept over him, but he made them no caress in answer; he did not respond to them by any word or sign; even his youngest sister, little Isola, clinging about his knees, got no kiss from him; he looked only at his father, and from his father to the heaps of rubbish where the wood had been.

‘You let that be done?’

‘Son of mine,’ said the miller, humbly and wearily, ‘could you fight against the pricks? I could not.’

Carmelo dropped on the wooden bench page: 145 by the door above the stones where Toppa was buried, and buried his face in his hands. It was a sad home‐coming.

The day was beautiful; the fields were in all their first summer greenness; the waters were green, too, with the reflection of them; the air was full of the scent of new‐mown hay and of the vine‐blossoms. His sister had made ready a plenteous meal; blackbirds and chaffinches sang in the hedge of arbutus and bay; the old place looked bright and kindly, but nothing changed the cloud on Carmelo’s face, nothing made him smile.

He had been wronged, and a great wrong is to the nature as a cancer is to the body; there is no health.

Carmelo leaned his head on his arm and noticed none of them. It seemed to him that twenty years had rolled over him since page: 146 the morning when, thinking no evil and fearing none, he had gone out on the grass to call the dog for his bread. It seemed to him that his very soul had been changed, and that in the stead of his heart there had been put into him a burning stone.

He loved Viola; the old happy, innocent, simple affection was still very sweet to him, but even that was dulled and dwarfed by his own immense anguish and wrath. A just chastisement may benefit a man, though it seldom does, but an unjust one changes all his blood to gall.

All pleasure in his future was gone out of him; all joy was dead. Some animal passions had awakened in him during his long isolation, but all peaceful serene happiness had perished. He did not reason on this, because he was but a simple unlearned youth, page: 147 but he felt it, and he hated the world of men and doubted God.

The cooper Cecco, and the elder Pastorini, and the youngest of the sons tried to make a little mirth and gossipry; but in vain old wine was poured out, in vain the men strove to laugh and chatter; a great heaviness of sorrow and of dread was over all. Viola’s face was as white as the narcissus poeticus hanging their fragrant bells in the strip mill garden, and Carmelo scarcely tasted bit or drop. In the midst of the meal his youngest sister Isola, only seven years old, burst out crying.

‘Carmelino has not kissed me once!’ she said, amidst her sobs.

Carmelo looked up and his mouth and eyelids quivered. He rose, caught the child in his arms, and hurried out by the open door, and there, on the old oak seat above page: 148 the stone that covered the body of the dog, he bent his face over the golden head of his little sister and wept bitterly.

Within doors Demetrio Pastorini struck the wooden table heavily with his clenched fist.

He had all his life been a most peaceful man, and a more harmless, jovial, kindly, easy in temper, and patient from sense of duty and love of quiet; but now all his blood stirred darkly within him.

‘We are mules and bats, blind and dumb, and knowing not when we are smitten,’ he said, with a deep rage in his thickened voice. ‘We are more foolish than the beasts that perish, since we live and submit to our tormentors.’

They were all silent.

It was a sad home‐coming.