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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 161


WITH the return of mild weather Annunziata had lost her rheumatic pains, and had been able to get off her bed and put on her huge leather boots, that had once belonged to a cattle dealer, and begin to go about again, up and down the near hills, and to and fro the roads.

The poor soul had always been certain in her own mind that her basket of eggs had been at the bottom of Carmelo’s troubles, and she never could forgive herself for having complained about them, especially as when the case was brought on at Pomo‐ page: 162 doro, where it had been sent by Messer Nellemane, she had been forced to attend as an accuser, and had cried so much that the Pretore had abused her, and had felt a great deal more remorse than Pompéo of Sestriano did when they ordered him six weeks’ imprisonment.

‘And know another time, you, that it is a breach of the law to conceal a theft, and that such concealment on the part of the person robbed makes such person liable to heavy penalties,’ had thundered the young judge at Annunziata, who had cried again as if her heart would break, but, being an obstinate old woman, would insist on answering that she could not for the life of her see why anybody should mind her being robbed if she did not.

‘That shows how lamentably, how culpably, ignorant you are of the first rudiments page: 163 of morality and public duty,’ said the Pretore, who was as like Messer Nellemane in his ideas and his expressions of them, as a green bunch of grapes is like a ripened one. He was exactly like him, without his mellowed suavity, and exquisite patience with foolish people, which were gifts of time and nature that Messer Nellemane had carefully cultivated with a view to the future, when he should be a Minister, and hold the heart of the State in his hands.

Annunziata had still gone on crying, having seen the smith of Sestriano led off by carabiniers.

‘And he will murder me when he comes out,’ she had cried, ‘and small blame will it be to him, the poor thing, for he was drunk as drunk could be, or never would he have touched the eggs!’

‘If he murder you, he will go to the page: 164 galleys,’ had said the guards as they took her away.

‘And what good will that be to me when I am dead?’ had said ’Nunziatina. ‘And he is a good man enough when the drink is not in him; that I have always told you.’

On the whole, the ungovernable resolution to have her own way, and the answers that she had thus made to those in authority over her, had produced an impression against her in the minds of all the officials, who had agreed that she was an insolent and cantankerous old woman.

‘If there were but a Vagrant Act, I would consign her to the lock‐up at once,’ had said the Pretore to Messer Nellemane, who said in his turn:

‘I think the Cavaliere Durellazzo will bring something of the kind; we are over‐run with beggars; but, of course, unless this page: 165 larger commune do the same, it will scarcely be effective.’

‘I will speak to our Syndic,’ had answered the Pretore.

The Syndic of Pomodoro was the elder brother of that excellent Count Saverio who was the president of the charitable Confraternità di San Francesco di Asissi.

‘Are there many mendicants about?’ the Syndic had asked his brother, after having been spoken to by the Pretore.

Count Saverio had thrown up his hands, implying that they were many as the sands of the sea.

‘They are a great anxiety to us,’ he had added, ‘for they are always applying to us, and you know our rules do not permit us to relieve beggars. If there were any law by which one could deal with them—’

‘There ought to be one,’ had said the page: 166 Syndic of Pomodoro. ‘ I will speak to Durellazzo.’

So in the council chamber of the Giunta in the Palazzo Communale, Messer Nellemane had known very well that it was the marriage day of Viola, but was at the same time enjoying such a victory of reason over prejudice that he had no time to indulge in any of the sentiments of a passion disappointed and outrivalled.

By his representations to the Cav. Durellazzo, and the Cav. Durellazzo’s representations to the Giunta, he had succeeded in having adopted for Vezzaja and Ghiralda, as he and the Pretore had desired, the laws of the cities against vagrancy and mendicancy.

There had been a strong prejudice against this course in the Giunta; for Italians, until their humanity is effaced by Impiega‐ page: 167 tism, do not incline to severity; climate and custom alike making them lenient.

But Cav. Durellazzo read a report prepared by his secretary, and endorsed by himself, that presented quite appalling evidence of the persons who lived by beggary or alms of some sort. The order of which Messer Nellemane is the type, is never greater or happier than when preparing a report of this kind, which, dealing with the exact science of statistics, deals a death‐blow to those unproductive and erratic classes which every bureaucracy abhors.

The report concluded with a short moral essay on the beauties of providence and industry, and the patriotism and public spirit that were required in all members of the public to enable them to extinguish their individual sentiments and private pity, and look on the question from the higher standing‐ page: 168 point of general interest and the good of all humanity.

It was a very warm day in March; the council chamber was small, and, as children say, stuffy; the Giunta was half asleep, and all that was awake of it was longing for a flask of wine; the voice of the Cavaliere Durellazzo was sonorous, but provocative of somnolence; the Giunta assented to the new law with the pliancy of men whose bodies are moist, and whose throats are dry; it was embodied in an appendix of thirty‐five new regulations and sent to the Prefect to be approved.

This is a mere form, like sending a death warrant to a sovereign.

The Prefect approved of course, naturally; first of all, it was not his interest to quarrel with the commune; secondly, he assented to these new rules without even page: 169 thinking what the long documents forwarded to him meant. He was in a hurry to get to the city races, and he also was warm.

The prefect’s secretary sent them to the Home Minister, but he was in all the fiery heat of conflict on Montecitorio, and had much to do to keep his own place, and had no time to give to the affairs of a remote municipality hidden away under corn and vines. He assented too: it is always the strongest possible point with ministers and prefects that the country communes are autonomous. When somebody remarked to him that they were ill governed, he said it was their own fault: if they chose to elect asses, they must; it was no business of anybody’s. So the law against vagrants was incorporated into the code of Vezzaja and Ghiralda, and was pasted up upon the walls in large letters, which, as nine‐tenths of the popula‐ page: 170 tion could not read, was not to any great purpose.

There, alas! were a great many old folks too old to do anything, who lived with their families, and who, to avoid being a burden to them, went about to all the villas and got pence here, bread there, a cup of mezzo‐vino, or an old bundle of scraps, as it might chance. If you had called these people beggars, they would have been amazed. They were all well known, never asked for what was not offered to them, and had been hard‐working man and women until their sight or their limbs had failed them.

These old folks the new rules stunned and slew like a pole‐axe.

They did no harm; not a mite of harm; and as the State provided no poor‐house for them, they could not see that there was any such very great guilt in taking from their page: 171 richer neighbours a little aid that the richer were never harmed by, and gave willingly.

But, in these days, Christian Europe decides that not only the poor man lying by the wayside, but also the Samaritan who helps him, are sinners against political economy, and its law forbids what its religion orders: people must settle the contradiction as they deem best; they generally are content to settle it by buttoning up their pockets and passing by on the other side. This was the consequence of the new rules for the suppression of mendicancy in Vezzaja and Ghiralda.

Now the suppression of mendicancy is a very good thing; but, as you never can suppress poverty, it would be better to provide a substitute for him before you shelve the Samaritan.

I know a very good man last winter page: 172 who gave away soup‐tickets to all who asked him; and he could not understand how anybody wanted anything more. Now a bowl of soup is a very good thing; but I never knew anybody who could live on it, and I have known a good many who felt ashamed to present the ticket and take the soup there in public. Why are you expected to have no sensitive nerves and no pride because you are starving? I cannot see why you should be myself; but it is a fact that such things are not permitted to you.

Messer Nellemane went a step farther than my good man: he thought people should not have soup at all unless they bought it.

His rules were framed on this principle, which he considered to be a sound and healthy one; and as they were also adopted for the larger commune of Pomodoro‐Carciofi, he thought they would sweep the land as page: 173 clean as a steam reaper‐and‐binder sweeps a corn field, leaving gleaners empty‐handed.

As none of the old men and women involved, understood anything at all of these fresh laws, printed up in big type on the walls of the Communal Palace, they were swept into the net as easily as quails are at Naples.

If a regiment of the blind, the infirm, and the very aged would have been any use to the Minister of War, he could have had a large one from these nettings of Messer Nellemane.

But, alas! they were of now use for anything; and, being nigh their end, so took it to heart when they were locked up that most of them died incontinently; and thought nobody really would believe it, for it sounds too absurd, many a humble little home under the pines of the hill‐side, or page: 174 down amongst the maize and vines of the level ground was the sadder, because an old granddam or grandsire sat no more on the wooden settle cheerily telling the tale of his day’s wanderings.

These laws came into effect on the first day of June, just twenty days after Carmelo and Viola were married, and one fine afternoon, as Annunziata was trotting about with her stick, feeling happy because her rheumatism was gone for the moment, and because her girl was happily wedded, she was touched on the shoulder by Bindo Terri, the municipal guard, and arrested.

In vain she wept, and prayed, and sobbed, and moaned that she had always been an honest woman. She was a mendicant under the Act; she had no private means of subsistence, nor did she work for her living; she was clearly a mendicant.

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She was taken off to the guard‐house with her basket, full of scraps and pence and odds and ends, as proof of her guilt, found upon her, and without any more words or any hearing at all, was carried away to Pomodoro and there consigned to prison.

‘It is the new law,’ said Bindo, and that was all he would say to her: he was very stern and very arrogant, and very much puffed up with this addition to the joys and powers of his office.

‘Do not tell Carmelo; for the love of God , do not tell, or he will come burning the town down to get me out!’ cried the simple soul to Bindo.

And so distraught and wretched was this poor old trot at the thought of the disgrace and sorrow she should bring on those she loved, that she fretted herself in half an hour into such a state of body and mind, that the page: 176 gaoler forthwith pronounced her in his own mind to be mad, and sent her to the same hospital where young Carmelo had languished through the winter nights and spring‐tide days.

It was precisely for such cases as hers that the Confraternità di S. Francesco had been instituted, but, as the modern moralities of that society forbade them to encourage beggars, the Count Saverio, though he heard of her case, could not on principle bestir himself on her behalf.

He was, indeed, at the moment he heard of it, occupied with his stock‐broker, who interested him much more, and he said quickly to the clerk who told him of it:

‘A vagrant; a confirmed mendicant. Now we could not interfere; it would be an injurious example. We are bound to take broad views: to consider the public.’

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Meantime, Bindo hied quickly homeward and said to his young brother, who resembled him as one pea resembles another:

‘I took up the old ’Nunziatina this morning. Let some lad go say so at the mill house; best not go yourself.’

The lad winked and ran off; half an hour later, as the family at the mill were sitting down to their frugal noonday meal, Viola and Carmelo at the places that would be theirs all their lives, a grinning youngster looked in at the house door and cried to them:

‘Your old woman is in prison—the new law’s out today!—they have taken her to the town—’

Then he ran away swiftly to escape from the chastisement he merited.

They all rose to their feet; Viola was trembling very much:

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‘It cannot be true. It cannot be true. They never would touch ’Nunziatina. All the world knows her!’

‘I will go and see,’ said Carmelo, and his face was very dark.

‘No!’ said Demetrio Pastorini. ‘Get not yourself into more trouble. Most like it is but an idle word. Stay you with your wife; and Dante, do you harness me Bigio.’

‘Nay, Father, that cannot be,’ said Carmelo. ‘It is Viola’s aunt that is in peril and misery. Come with me if you will, but let me go.’

‘Be it so,’ said Pastorini. ‘But remember, for the love of the saints, no violence. You are not alone in life now.’

Carmelo looked out of the door at the bank of mud, where once had been his bright boschetto.

‘We are slaves,’ he said bitterly. ‘Slaves can but submit.’

page: 179

‘What did my brother die for in the wars?’ said his father.

Viola entreated to go with them, and, being not a month after her marriage, neither man could find heart to refuse her.

The way to Pomodoro, as the way to all things southward, lay along that river road which was to be disfigured by the tramway at such time as speculators and municipalities should have finished their squabbles. There was a short cut that passed by her grandfather’s cottage, too narrow for waggons and carriages, but broad enough for a little baroccio like the miller’s.

They passed that way to save time, and say a word to Pippo.

But as they drew nigh the cottage, close enough to discern the blue Madonna, Viola, whose eyes were quickest to see their beloved little, humble home, cried out:

page: 180

Nonno is moving away!—moving away and never telling us!’

Carmelo checked the horse and sprang to the ground: his cheeks grew very white; his teeth clenched; he had caught sight of other figures than Pippo’s amidst the chairs and tables, the mattresses and saucepans, the bowls and jugs that were put out in a heap beyond the door.

The figures he had seen were the Usciere and his assistants, two straggling do‐nothings of the place, who lent themselves to this despised office for sake of the two francs a day they got by it, and the pleasure of seeing the pain of better people than themselves, which is a joy to scoundrels, always.

‘Your grandsire is only cleaning, Viola,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Only cleaning his things. I think I will go and help him if you will go on with father to Pomodoro.’

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But Viola also had seen what he had seen.

‘They are selling his things!’ she said, with a piercing scream, and ere either man could stay her she had sprung off the cart on to the shaft, and from the shaft on to the ground, and had run onward across the path into the house.

The elder Pastorini threw the reins on his grey steed’s back, and got down likewise. Carmelo was already on the grass.

‘Oh nonno, nonno, what is it?’ cried Viola, as she ran into the entrance room, and saw her grandfather sitting there in his basket chair by the cold hearth, just as he had done through all the long, lonely evening of her nuptial day.

Pippo lifted her head; his face was set and stern, but calm.

‘They are selling the old things,’ he said. page: 182 ‘I thought they could not get blood out of a post, but it seems they can.’

Then he put his pipe in his mouth again.

Viola threw herself on her knees by the old man, and hid her face on his arm.

‘Oh, nonno, nonno!’ she moaned, ‘Why did you not let me stay with you? I would never have left you if I had known.’

‘No,’ said the old man, with his mouth quivering a little on the pipe stem that it clenched. ‘I knew well you wouldn’t, my lass. You were aye thoughtful of me. But you could have done not a mite of good, and you would only have lost your own joy.’

On the threshold Carmelo had seized by the shoulders one of the men who was carrying out the bed that had been Viola’s, and was shouting in his ear:

‘Thief, and the servant of thieves, let go! page: 183 Carry off one of these things from this house and I will brain you all—’

Then old Pippo rose, and struck on the floor with his stick.

‘Carmelo, son of Demetrio,’ he cried in a stern loud voice. ‘You are wedded mate to my girl, but you are no master of mine, and in my house have no voice. What I bid you to do, do; but nought else. Come quiet to my side, and let them work their will.’

Obedience and respect to elders are fine old primitive virtues that are strong, like the olive and the chestnut on their hills, in the heart of the Italian. Carmelo heard, and hesitated a moment, then took his hand off the man’s shoulders, and looked wistfully at Pippo.

‘You will not resist?’ he muttered.

‘Where is the good of resisting? When page: 184 you cannot make resistance good, it is but a silliness and a paltriness. They are stronger than we. They take the goods. Let them, and go your ways. Make not your wife mourn for you in the Murata; that would be harder to bear than loss of cup and platter, bed and board.’

Carmelo stood still, like a chidden child.

Outside the elder Pastorini was speaking with the Usciere, begging for delay, and praying of him to put back the goods into the house.

‘If you pay me this sum down now, I will, though it is late,’ said the Usciere.

Demetrio Pastorini felt a mist in his eyes, and a ball in his throat.

The figures that he saw were a total of nigh two hundred francs, nigh 8 l pound . if you put it in English sovereigns, and Demetrio had no money at home, nay, was in debt to more page: 185 than one, now that the steam mill took from him the wheat of more than half the peasantry; for folks will run to what is new, and what is popular, and what brings them credit.

He stood irresolute, meditating whether he could raise money by any means, and the men went on with their work, hauling out into the open air the poor sticks that made the furniture of Pippo. Rich and rare things look sorry when thus treated and thrown together in the sun and dust; these poor little things of Pippo’s looked little more than fit for firewood or the dust‐heap.

‘They give us all this trouble,’ said the Usciere, like an ill‐used man. ‘They give us all this trouble with their obstinacy, and we take all they have, and then when it is all put together it is not worth a kick from a dog.’

He gave a shove as he spoke to the page: 186 mound of things, and a copper vessel or two rolled down in a clatter.

They were all silent; the assistants were making a great noise bringing down the steep stone stair an old chest of drawers, older than Pippo himself. It was the chest in which Viola had kept her mother’s wedding gown until the day of her own marriage, with the orange leaves and the lavender to drive away the moths.

Viola, on her knees by the old man’s side, was rocking herself violently to and fro, weeping.

‘And Annunziata, Annunziata!’ she murmured in her sobs.

Carmelo stood aloof; his arms folded, his face very dark.

‘What of her?’ asked Pippo.

‘They have taken her up; she is in prison; they call her a beggar.’

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Pippo gave a short hard laugh, as his teeth still held the pipe stem.

‘Why don’t they get out the guns, and set us all in a row and fire us down? ’twould be quicker done, and easier.’

‘It is the new law,’ said the voice of the Usciere, who was lending a hand to get out the walnut drawers.

‘Law, law, law!’ muttered Pippo, with his eyes savage like a wild cat’s, under his white eyebrows. ‘There’s law for this and that and t’other, till all the land is sick; but there’s no law against the poor starving to death: there’s no law against their dying naked on the naked floor. Will you tax the mother’s breasts next, or the babe’s swaddling clothes? You’re ripe to do it. But the mothers should cheat you, and dash out the brains of their sucklings on the house wall, ere they be old enough to sweat and page: 188 pine and drag the cannon for the State that curses them.

‘Then the old man dashed his pipe upon the ground and rose.

‘Get you all gone to Annunziata,’ he said, as he forced Viola roughly from the ground. ‘Get you gone to her, and leave me alone with the thieves. I have the roof above me yet, and I am not a maiden to mourn for a lost looking‐glass. I can lie on the floor well enow, and a bit of dry bread needs no platter. Get you gone.’

They had no choice but to obey him. Carmelo’s downcast lowering eyes, and compressed and pallid lips told his father with how violent an effort did he keep down his arm and his words; his father knew, too, that this effort was strung, nearly to breaking point, and he was thankful that Pippo’s will set him free to carry away the page: 189 lad ere he should do to these enemies what no man could absolve or efface.

They got up into the cart again, and drove on by the edge of the river; Viola was still weeping convulsively.

‘Grandfather, who has led such an honest, hard‐working life, and never owed one penny!’ she said amidst her tears. ‘And what is it all for? It is not a debt. It is no debt, and who has any right to make these claims?—’

Carmelo’s hand grasped hers.

He could not speak.

All the words of the dead German were echoing in his ears, and he was saying to himself, as Pippo had done,

‘How long, O Lord? O Lord?’

Viola thought to herself with shrinking and sorrow:

‘If I had let Messer Gaspardo make a page: 190 bad woman of me, all these my dear ones would not have suffered thus.’

And no doubt Messer Nellemane was the cause of all their woes.

But what shall we say of the State and the Law that make Messer Nellemane possible?