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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 209


PASTORINI grew very anxious; his many boys and girls had always been as much as he could find food and clothes for in the best of times, and now they were very heavy on him. Dina indeed was to marry in a year or so, but her betrothed was poor. The other girls were all young and, though handy and helpful, could not bring in anything; and though, when plenty of grist came to the mill, he could make ends meet, now that Rossi’s iron servant took two‐thirds of the grain away he grew very harassed, and afraid, especially as page: 210 he foresaw, as I have said, that with the summer the water would be shallower than ever now that the trees were gone; and in effect it had become so as early as June, a thing never known before, and the big black wheels stood high and dry with the weeds on them dying in the sun, whilst farther below on the Rosa the black devil, as the people called it, vomited smoke and worked all day and night.

It was a hideous blot on the landscape; it spread dirt and dust and poisonous vapours all around it; and the little children near it grew pallid and sickly little things instead of the Correggio‐like loves, all rosy and brown, that they had been. But Messer Nellemane, sitting before the Nuova Italia (though, if had confessed the truth, he was choked by the smoke as well as lesser people) said to everyone:

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‘What a pleasure it is to see that pillar of progress arisen in our midst;’ and all Santa Rosalia understood, by his look and his smile, that whosoever would wish to please the municipality must carry his grain to Remigio Rossi.

The place had been, of yore, sweet with the scent of the flowers on the river‐bank according to each season, of the meadow‐thyme and the fragrant yellow tulip, of the vine‐blossom and the sturdy rosemary, of the acacias and the catalpas, of the magnolias and the Chinese olives; now there was only a stench of oil and hot iron, and the smoke of burning lignite; but the present generation has been taught to think this is a change for the better, and Messer Nellemane was essentially a man of modern mind.

An engine smelt sweeter to him than a lilac‐bush; and he thought hurry, strife, page: 212 noise, and money‐making much finer things than ‘fair quiet, and sweet rest.’

Dear Old Leisure, with his smile of peace and hands of blessing, was but an old‐fashioned obstructionist to him.

The last day of the past month of March had been the day on which the first half‐yearly payment of the interest of his mortgage was due from Pippo; an interest of fifty per cent., which, on a loan of three hundred francs with all the costs thereof—as he phrased it, a hundred scudi—was a hundred and fifty every twelve months.

Pippo had by no means understood what mortgages were; the law of hypothec was Greek to him; when the day came round, of course he had not the money, and truly had never in any way realized the arrangement to which he had put his cross before witnesses. The time went by without any great dis‐ page: 213 quietude, except that uneasy sense of debt and burden which was so new and horrible to him. His head had got muddled, and as he could not read he could not clear himself by any study of papers.

When the Usciere had seized his things he had said to himself: ‘I shall have to tell the advocate down in Pomodoro, for I never will be able to pay him aught yearly.’

But his head never seemed right now; he forgot things, and could not recollect words very often when he wanted them, and so the matter kept slipping his mind, and when he remembered it he thought to himself: ‘Well, he will get the house at my death, so he will be no loser.’

That was his unlearned view of hypothec.

The lawyer neither sent nor wrote to him, page: 214 so naturally he was confirmed in his delusion. It was now August, and in his empty home he was making a good fight against fortune. His work brought him in, on an average, not eighty centimes a day, but that was enough for his few and frugal wants.

‘If my health only will serve,’ he said to himself, weaving the osiers that he had now to buy, ‘I should like to see Viola’s boy on my knees.’

That fancy kept up his spirit, though his head would always buzz. The child would be best unborn, he knew, but still he wished to live to see it.

Now to Messer Nellemane there were a perverseness and almost an insolence in this old man, so very small, poor, and helpless, presuming to live on, and lift his head up again after such a series of deserved chastisements as he had received.

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To see Pippo sitting at work in the doorway was irritating to him, and not atoned for by the fact that Pippo was surrounded as he sat by all the foul fumes and vapours of the steam mill across the river. And there was the running water, too, always bubbling across the roadway, and the months slipping away one after another, with the old man still at liberty to sit in the air and mock the municipal majesty by disobedience.

What was to be done?

Messer Nellemane was for ever turning over the problem in his mind, and even stooped to the humility of asking the advice of the deputy of Pomodoro, who was in the neighbourhood, being on the point of marriage with the Zauli heiress.

‘I should have the work executed if really necessary for the public good,’ said Signore Luca Finti gravely, ‘and then I should debit page: 216 the offending proprietor with the cost of the works. That is the usual course taken in Rome.’

Messer Nellemane thanked his distinguished adviser cordially, and proceeded to get out several blank forms, signed by the Cavaliere Durellazzo, which it was needful to fill in before acting.

The whole of Santa Rosalia was in a mess with public works; those for the steam mill had left heaps of black rubbish about, those for the tramway had left many mounds of as yet unlaid iron rails; the old bridge, which was as firm as a rock, and quite wide enough for the bullocks and mules that alone passed over it was being pulled about and widened by the Giunta; altogether the pretty little green village had that dusty unkempt, stony, desolate look which so many ‘improved’ places have in Rome and Venice, page: 217 and which is an aspect always as sweet to the municipalic mind, as the wasted province is to a conqueror.

The conqueror sees his victories in the smoking fields; the Municipality sees its commissions and concessions in the rubbish heaps.

So one day Pippo had several workpeople whom he knew, masons and plumbers and the like, come about his premises; and they made as though they would pass through the house into the kitchen garden behind where Raggi was buried under the willows. But Pippo slammed the door in their faces.

‘No, no,’ said he, ‘they have taken all I had out of it, but the four walls are mine still. Into it not a man comes without my leave and license.’

The men beat on the door, and told him through the door that they came to work for the municipality.

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‘You don’t come to work for me; and into my house you come not,’ said Pippo. ‘A hundred scudi your municipality has robbed me of, and I do not open my door to the thieves of a thief. Get you gone.’

Most of the workmen were old neighbours of his, and were for going away in silence, but amongst them were two masons from another part of the world, employed and brought there by Pierino Zaffi.

These called to him to let them in, in the name of the law, and, as he made them no reply, they went and asked Messer Nellemane permission to open the door by force.

To them Messer Nellemane replied: ‘I do not love force; it is the weapon of the barbarian. I think we will wait a few days. Mazzetti may hear reason.’

So he postponed the execution of the page: 219 work, and counted up the days that had elapsed since Pippo had been ordered to begin the work; and the many times he had been summoned to appear and answer for his transgressions; all those various summonses which the old rebel had put in the fire.

Then he took the diligence over to Pomodoro, and had a little talk with the advocate Niccolo Poccianti, who lived by the Pretura.

‘I am afraid for your grandfather, carina,’ said the cooper to Viola. ‘Always alone like that, and the house so miserable, and over the wall I hear him always muttering, muttering, muttering those accursed figures over and over again; I am afraid for him, my lass.’

‘And I too,’ said Viola, with a sob in her throat. ‘But what can we do? Carmelo page: 220 and I would go and stay with him, but he will not have us; he thinks we are happier here.’

‘I am afraid for him,’ said Cecco. ‘He is made of stouter stuff than Nanni was, but the best pipkin breaks with much knocking and much fire.’

‘What can I do?’ said Viola, in despair.

She would have gone through flame and water to help her grandfather, and would have borne any trouble to save it for him, but she could not tell what to do.

Sickness, sorrow, trial burdens of poverty and pain, these the poor can understand well enough; they are familiar companions that have rocked their cradles and will go with them to their graves; but these oppressions, these exactions, these harassing debts that they are sold up for, yet which they know they never owed and never ought to pay, page: 221 these bewilder them, break their nerve, and dull their brain.

Viola would have gone and besought the mercy of the Syndic, but she knew that she would only see his secretary.

She took a pilgrimage barefoot to a famous Madonna ten miles away on the hills, and there knelt and prayed humbly, and set up a candle in the shrine, all glittering with ex‐votos, and the gems and metals of similar devotees, and she asked nothing for herself; she only asked for the old man.

‘For Carmelo and I are young,’ she said to herself, ‘and we love each other, and we are together: that is so much; we ought not to want any more.’

Whilst she was still on her knees in the chapel on the side of the mountain, with the plain below like a sea, so grey was it with page: 222 olive woods, the inspiration came into her to go and find the Prefect of the province at his own palace in the city.

It was to her as strange, as daring, and as distant, a travel as it would be to us to go through the terrible cañons of the Colorado, or scale the height of Chimborazo’s summit. She had never been even so far as Pomodoro, and the mere thought of the great glittering city whose domes she could just see on the farthest edge of the plains, was one quite awful and terrible to her.

Nevertheless, when she came down in the twilight from the holy place, and met her husband at the foot of the hill, her mind was made up, and she said to him: ‘Our Lady has told me to go to the city and see the Prefect, and that there I shall find help for Nonno.

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Carmelo would not say her nay, but he smiled a little bitterly.

‘You may walk barefoot, my love, from here to Rome; nothing will avail, until the people write their rights in blood upon the soil that should belong to them.’

Viola shuddered.

‘Hush! That would be doing evil that good might come.’

‘It is what we must do,’ he answered gloomily; and they spoke but little more, as they trod the long tedious ways between the stone walls and the cropped trees.

A day or two later she had her way, and her father‐in‐law drove her to the city. Carmelo stayed within the mill.

She had put on her grey gown that she was married in, and had an amber‐coloured handkerchief tied over her raven locks. She looked very pale, but she was a beau‐ page: 224 tiful woman in all the charm of youth, though careworn, and too grave for her few years.

They started very early—at dawn, indeed—for the sake of Bigio, and the way seemed very long; Viola’s heart beat hurriedly, and with fear and hope alternately, as she saw the great marble dome of the basilica of Santa Maria, famous in history and in art, rise with its golden cross higher and higher, as Mont Blanc looms white across the foliage of the Val d’Aosta.

‘And I will say a word for myself, too, if we get audience,’ said the miller, as they drove under the massive brown gateway through the crowd of chattering people, and the market‐carts waiting for the weighing and taxing of their goods.

Before the city can eat anything, drink any wine, burn any fuel, the country‐folk page: 225 who bring in what it wants are treated as contraband traders, and made to wait through vexatious hours of heat, or rain, or snow, as it may be, till they are taxed and fined. In this year of grace 1880, the machinery of the State is still so clumsy that it can devise no wiser means to maintain itself than to employ the antiquated dragon of the Octroi, which often obliges the people, and their horses, and mules, and cattle, and fowls, to wait all the long wet night in the highroad, so as to be ready against the opening of the gates. They have pulled down all the fine old towers and walls; but they keep up the barriers of the Gabella.

Viola was awed by the noise, the width, the height, the crowds around her, but she was scarcely sensible of any of the grandeur of the frowning palaces, the foaming foun‐ page: 226 tains, the spacious bridges, the marble statues; all her soul and mind were absorbed in her errand. A great purpose gives a sense of invisibility.

Pastorini stabled the grey horse near the market place, and then they sought the Prefecture. There it was in the centre of a square, a grand, solemn mighty place, that in olden times had been the abode of mighty men; half fortress, half palace, built in the thirteenth century and faced with variegated marbles, and with one once gorgeous frescoes on its frieze.

The miller and Viola entered the vast courtyard where water was rushing from the open jaws of stone lions: the Italian peasant has nothing in him of the vulgarity of trepidation before greatness and its emblems; the instincts of liberty and art are in him, all stifled though they be, and page: 227 he stands graceful and unabashed before a monarch.

They asked to see the Prefect: they were told his Excellency was out; what did they want? They were sent here, sent there, a servant saw them, a clerk saw them; they were indolently told to wait.

They sat down in the court; a janissary, splendidly clothed, and with a gilt stick, told them they could not sit there.

Pastorini knew that the Prefect had in his day been a soldier of liberty, that he was very liberal, even ‘red’ in his opinions; that he had all the medals and ribbons of the wars of independence on his breast; that he was a trusted friend and ally of that advanced Ministry which the party of Messer Luca Finti was always trying to dislodge: Pastorini had heard this, and he hoped much page: 228 from this soldier in power. His own brother had died at San Martino; the miller was simple enough to think this must be a link to all the Liberali.

They went outside and sat on the stone ledge that ran round the pediment of the palace. They sat there one hour, two hours, three hours; then they grew faint; they went into a little by‐street, and took a bit of bread, and a little wine; then they turned back to the Prefecture and sat there again. Troops went by, cartloads of flowers, carriages with fine liveries, a band passed playing, the great sonorous bells of the cathedral boomed over the city, the hours drifted on; still they waited.

So many hours had at last gone by that their patience, even the illimitable inextinguishable Italian patience, had begun to get ruffled. Pastorini had got up and gone so page: 229 often to the gorgeous guardian of the doors to know if the Prefect had come home, that the functionary at last got angry and —in irâ veritas.

‘His Excellency has never been out at all, simpleton,’ said he. ‘But you do not suppose he or the secretaries are here for the like of you? Mercy alive! If once they began to see the public, they would have the whole province here screaming. He has never been out, I tell you. He has got his guests with him. He will now be coming out soon, because it is the time to drive in the park.’

Pastorini went back to Viola.

‘He is coming out soon,’ he said: ‘they told us a falsehood; we will wait and watch the staircase. We cannot miss him.’

By this time all the long golden drowsy day was drawing near its close. Viola felt page: 230 feverish and stupid; her head spun with the coming and going of the crowds, the noise of the carriages and carts, and the unwonted closeness of the city air. Her peachlike complexion grew yellow with the heat and fatigue, and her great eyes had a strained reddened look.

Presently there came into the courtyard a handsome equipage, with liveried servants and fine horses; it waited at the foot of the stairs. ‘Now is our time,’ said the miller; and he and his daughter‐in‐law stood up by the entrance.

In a little while there came down a lady very superbly dressed in surah of old gold colour and laces of price, and behind her a good‐looking, smiling man, with long moustaches and a glimpse of ribbon at his buttonhole.

Breaking past the janitor of the gates page: 231 the girl rushed to the foot of the stairs; her father‐in‐law behind her.

‘Oh, let me beseech of his Excellency to hear me,’ cried Viola, stretching out her arms with a piteous gesture; and his Excellency paused a moment on the lowest step.

‘What is it, Cuccioli?’ he said, glancing interrogatively over his shoulder to a slim young gentleman behind him, who was indeed his private secretary.

Cuccioli murmured that he did not know; he would inquire; and he looked unutterable furies at the porter.

Meanwhile Viola was sobbing so that she could not speak; and Pastorini, with his head uncovered, said beseechingly:

‘Your Excellency, my brother died at San Marino! We are come—’

‘Oh, a pension, a claim?’ said the page: 232 Prefect, lighting a long cigar. ‘Based on military service? My good friends, you must apply to the Minister of War. We have nothing to do with such things—’

‘But I thought,’ stammered the miller, ‘I thought that as his Excellency fought himself—’

Now, unhappily, there were few periods of which it pleased the Prefect to be reminded so little as this period, far behind him, when he had been a soldier of fortune. He frowned a little impatiently, and moved to get into his carriage; but Viola stood in his way.

‘Oh dear, my lord,’ she pleaded; ‘if you would but hear me: my grandfather is such a good honest soul, and all he has is sold up, and he never owed anyone a penny, and he is going mad; and if the money could be got back—’

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‘Cara mia!’ said his Excellency caressingly, because she was a woman, and handsome. ‘Believe me, these matters are not in my department. If I listened to petitioners I should be deluged with them. What is it you want? If it be a pension—’

‘It is not a pension,’ said Pastorini. ‘It is the cruelty of the municipality, your Excellency. They have ruined me; taken my ground; never paid me; and this poor old soul of whom the girl rightly speaks has been treated—’

‘Oh, I cannot hear anything of that sort,’ said the Prefect very decidedly. ‘The communes are autonomous. Whilst they are within the law no Prefect has any right to interfere in any way. Your commune, wherever it is, is self‐governed: if you do not think it ruled well, change your Giunta; change your Syndic.’

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Which was as though he had said to one who complained of bad weather: ‘Change the sun; move about the moon.’

‘But your Excellency—’ began Viola and the miller in one breath.

‘Make them understand this, my dear Cuccioli,’ said the Prefect with a wave of his hand towards the slim youth: then he smiled affably on the upraised face of Viola, and hurried to rejoin his wife in her carriage: the tall high‐stepping horses pranced rapidly from the court to the street, and he was gone.

His Excellency had a rough time of it in those early wars, and he wanted to enjoy himself now. Why else were rewards given to men for public service?

The slim youth turned to Pastorini with the true official expression.

‘It is quite beyond our department. page: 235 No one can interfere with municipal administration. It is quite impossible. You have your Syndic. You must rely on him. Pray be so good as to remember in future that the Prefect never can have anything to do with any personal grievance.’

‘Who has then?’ said the miller desperately.

‘Well, no one exactly: you see the government of every commune depends on itself. Nothing can be more satisfactory. Each commune has the rule it desires. Good day,’ said the youngster; and he too slipt down the steps, and went his way to saunter in the park, and turn his eyeglass on the ladies.

‘We must go home, Viola,’ said the miller with a groan: he would not reproach her; but in himself he thought if the Virgin could not help them better than this she page: 236 might as well reveal nothing. The cost of the horse’s stabling and of their own noonday meal was all that this pilgrimage in search of justice had brought to them.

Carmelo said nothing when he heard. He had guessed very well how it would be.

Viola stole down to her grandfather’s in the moonlight, weary and worn out though she was, and made a little supper in a little earthen pot; her tears falling all the while.

‘It is a hundred scudi they have taken from me in all,’ said Pippo to her for the five hundredth time, following the old mode of coinage that he had been used to as a lad, and which indeed country people most naturally use still.

‘I know—I know!’ sobbed Viola.

‘A hundred scudi; it would buy a cow,’ muttered the old man, with his hands set on page: 237 his knees, and his eyes fixed on the boiling pot. ‘I am sorry to hear you are with child, my dear; there’ll be no bit or sup for it when it grows up; and it will have to sweat, and toil, and hunger, and then at the end they’ll sell the bed from under it. That is what they’ll do.’

Viola could not see the burning charcoal nor the little brown pot, for the thick mist of her tears.

It was true: what use or joy was there in the children coming to the birth to know only pain, and privation, and hard injustice of God and man?

In this lovely land that brims over with flowers like a cup over‐filled, where the sun is as a magician for ever changing with a wand of gold all common things to paradise; where every wind shakes out the fragrance of a world of fruit and flower commingled; page: 238 where, for so little, the lute sounds and the song arises; here, misery looks more sad than it does in sadder climes, where it is like a home‐born thing, and not an alien tyrant as it seems here.

Then, whilst so lovely is the land, most unlovely does this tyrant make the homes of the poor; the alternate dust and mud of the roads, the greed‐clipped trees, the human filth strewn over the fields as compost and putrefying in the sun, the dark, grimy foul‐smelling houses, the starved and beaten animals panting in the heat or shivering in the cold; these all come in the train of this alien misery, and are more horrible and comfortless here than anywhere else on all the earth. More so because, as you look on it all, you know that it is the greed of the State, and the greed of the landlord and his steward, which, working side by side, and page: 239 striving to outwit each other, do it all. Get away from the grasp of these, and it is the Italy of our Raffaelle still, and smiles as his child‐Christs smile, with a light on its face that is of heaven.