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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 240


The months went on and brought the winter round and the spring . , Things went ill at Santa Rosalia. The place was littered with dirt and lumber from the public works so nobly begun in it; the people did not dare say their souls were their own, with the guards striding up and down the roads and lanes, or watching from the winehouse windows; the tramway company had made up its quarrels with the Municipalities; monies had passed quietly from hand to hand; a few schemers had got the richer, and the rails had finally been laid two thirds of the way, and soon would be page: 241 completed; the diligence man said he would cut his throat come Pasqua, and no one was content except Messer Gaspardo Nellemane who found all the new laws and new inventions working well, from the steam‐mill that poured its black vapours down the once bright Rosa water, to the mendicancy clauses which had cleared the land of some scores of useless old people.

Messer Nellemane, sitting behind his desk, felt that he had in him the soul of a statesman. In his mind’s eye as in a magic mirror, he beheld himself already at Montecitorio, already with his portfolio, demanding a hundred millions for military manœuvres, and increasing the grist tax by an added third.

He was only a clerk, it is true; but what of that? He had studied to perfection the modern science of success, and he knew page: 242 that he had in himself all the modern requirements for eminence. Already the prefect and the sub‐prefect had murmured to him, ‘You are wasted here, you shall not be forgotten;’ and already Luca Finti had promised him, ‘When we are in office you will be remembered.’

Here in the little room of the communal palace, with his maps around him and his piles of papers before him, Messer Nellemane, though his imagination was slow, was almost deluded into imagining himself a minister already; and his fancy leapt at a bound the stairs he had still to climb.

Besides, Messer Luca Finti, with his father‐in‐law, were bringing into notice a scheme for turning the catacombs of Rome into an underground railway; he had got a syndicate of Jew, American and Scotch bankers to consider the matter, and he could page: 243 trust to his own party’s power of worrying the Government into a concession. The sale of concessions is as flourishing nowadays in Italy as ever was of yore the sale of indulgences, and Messer Nellemane, in a strictly private manner, had been associated in this great project which promised well, as it was thoroughly adapted to the temper of the hour.

There was a fine flavour of desecration and utilitarianism about it which would be quite certain to take with the Press and the Bourse. All the Liberi Pensieri would be delighted at the use made of the early Christians. To an age which has decided that martyrdom was a kind of hysteria, and faith a sort of meningitis, there would be something peculiarly fascinating in making of SS. Gianetta and Basilla a booking office, and of St. Hippolytus a junc‐ page: 244 tion. To drive an air shaft and a corkscrew stait straight through the soil that Scipio and Gracchus trod, down into the twilight, where the ashes of S. Agnes and S. Felicita rest, would be an enterprise full of peculiar sweetness and suitability to a generation that submits to the March Decrees, Irish murders, Cook’s parties, the pickelhaube, and wooden nutmegs, and Paul Bert.

Europe, as it is at present constituted, would be seduced in a second at a prospect that would turn the Quattro Santi into a chief station, and make of the Callimachus—last resting place of so many martyrs and early popes—a depôt for the goods‐trains.

Messer Luca Finti knew the motto of his generation was a paraphrase of Voltaire: ‘Souillez, souillez, souillez! Toujours quelqu’un gagnera!’

And when M. Jules Ferry is a Minister, page: 245 and M. Herold lives in the Louvre, why should not Messer Nellemane be a statesman and Messer Luca Finti date his letters from the Consulta or the Palazzo Braschi?

The deputy had that first and most useful of talents: he knew how to hit the tastes of his own times, and he foresaw that the Catacomb Metropolitan would be a name to seduce the world and sell a million actions. He had paid Messer Nellemane the great compliment of divulging this grand scheme to him and even employing his command of florid language in the composition of a prospectus. Messer Nellemane had proved himself equal to the task, and was assured he should be entitled to preference shares. He felt that he was already passed many milestones on the high road to public greatness, and when he slept at night dreamed of portfolios and grand cordons.

page: 246

As for his passion, he had conquered it with that strength of will which was his characteristic. Messer Nellemane was nothing if not moral; when Viola Mazzetti had wedded another, he had said to himself virtuously that it would never do to compromise his career; besides, after all, she was very thin, and her mouth rather large, and she had been only a common, hard‐working girl: so he dismissed her memory and saw her reality pass by him without emotion. But passion departing left hate behind it; the not uncommon ashes of unholy fires.

His love was a short‐lived thing, but his hate smouldered on, unquenchable.

The little square house with the blue and white Madonna was a blot in the landscape to him. True, he had accomplished much against it; the mill smoke drowned it night and day in black vapours and foul smells; page: 247 the tramway cars would plunge right across its very doorway, and to lay their rails down, the trees of the bank that had shaded it were felled; inside it all was bare and desolate.

Yet the sight of the little old man sitting on the threshold weaving his rush‐work was to the eyes of Messer Nellemane as the vineyard of Naboth to the great king. Old Pippo was not crushed into the earth, his sturdy little spirit was not stamped into the dust; he was very miserable indeed, and his brain was dull and his hand infirm; but still he lived on, and seemed to the irritated pride of the ruler of Vezzaja and Ghiralda to have an insolent jeering pertinacity of existence.

As Messer Nellemane sat this day before his desk, he perused some long law papers with satisfaction; ‘a quarter of a year more,’ he thought, ‘and that stubborn old fool will know what mockery of the State costs people .

page: 248

For through all these months he had had not been idle. He had been on the contrary constantly employed in the affairs of Pippo; constantly engaged in the courts of Pomodoro in the old rebel’s affairs; the impudent brook still ran across the road, and the impudent old man still existed: but in three months Messer Nellemane promised himself that the law should have to be respected.

Law is a slow and complicated luxury to indulge in everywhere; in Italy it is especially so, but Messer Nellemane loved it, and in this great love knew how to caress it and cajole it, so that it became for him a pliant and almost quick‐footed thing. He had not been clerk in a notary’s office without learning how to get on the right side of the Law, and it was this knowledge especially which made him so efficient a public servant.

Now again and again had legal summons page: 249 of all kinds been brought to Pippo, but he was all alone now; there was nobody to see what he did, and he lit a match and burned all these papers and chuckled as he did so. ‘They can’t get bark off a peeled pine,’ he said to himself. ‘They may call, and call, and call; they won’t get nought any more out of me.’

And the simple old soul thought that if he did not answer, they would get tired of calling, and he never knew the nature of these many documents.

‘It is all along of the water,’ he said to himself, and thought so; but what could he do to the water? ‘And I would not do anything if I could,’ he said obstinately, as he sat all alone.

One day Cecco the cooper said to him: ‘You have never paid your interest on your mortgage have you, Pippo?’ and the old page: 250 man answered him: ‘Not I; he will have the house after me; where is the harm? I have not got any money to pay with, he knows that; if I get a bit and drop, and a snip of tobacco in my pipe, it is all as I ever can do: lawyer knows that.’

Cecco scratched his head thoughtfully; he was afraid. He did not understand these things, but he knew that Pippo’s name was often spoken at Pomodoro, and he was afraid, Pippo gave him no heed; he understood even less than his friend, and it was of no use at his age to learn he said angrily.

‘My house is my house,’ he said doggedly. ‘They will get it when I am dead. They can’t get it before.’

So he believed.

Hypothec was as Greek to him, and of all that these law‐papers said which rained in on him and which he burned, he had page: 251 no idea. He could go about, and he could make his wickerwork, and he could do his little bit of cooking and mending, but he grew rather childish, and no one could make him understand things.

He left off going to mass.

When the priest sadly reproved him, he said always: ‘I don’t see as any one of them cares about me.’

By them he meant the Trinity in which he had been taught to believe, and all their holy army of angels, of martyrs, and of saints.

‘For sure nobody ever would disturb you, and you nigh seventy,’ said Cecco the cooper a little uneasily, for he had heard rumours that had troubled him.

‘Disturb me? what mean you, you ass?’ said Pippo hotly. ‘The house is mine, it is all mine. I pay no man rent. I thought it would go, when I die, to my girl, but I page: 252 suppose now it will go to the lawyer. He will want something for his money.’

‘But if they should take the house?’ said the cooper, very timidly.

‘Take it?’ said Pippo fiercely. ‘Take it? you long‐shanked fool. How can they take it? It’s mine, and I carry the key on me always when I go out. Take it! one would think ’twas a basket of eggs.’

The cooper said no more, being a shy soul, and not at best clear as to what he had heard, or what were the measures and powers of law. Pippo was huffed, and would not speak of the matter any more. He went and dug in his garden where the almonds were once more in bloom over Raggi’s grave.

His head felt queer whenever he stooped, and his ears had always a sound in them like bees swarming, as he said himself; but page: 253 he would never complain, and he managed to keep his bit of ground tilled, and in order. ‘’Tis mine till I die anyhow,’ he said fiercely, as he struck in his spade.

Meanwhile, at the house of Pastorini things were nearly as bad as with him. With the unequal rivalry of the steam mill no water‐mill could compete, and all that the year had brought to Carmelo’s people were debts, and the promise of a new inmate in the shape of a small swaddled child.

‘Your children will come on sad times,’ said Demetrio Pastorini to his son; ‘God knows whether they will find a crust or a drop of goat’s milk.’

A great despondency had fallen on the mild and mirthful man; he grew helpless and weary, only not apathetic, because of his strong affections for those about him. The accursed iron rails had been laid down page: 254 on the ground where his trees had been, but no money had been paid to him.

They knew very well that he could not go to law to command it, and that if he did there would be long delays granted to them, for they called themselves ‘public utility,’ and so claimed public respect.

Like the Duca di Ripalda before him, he saw his trees carried away to fill the furnaces of factories or rot in ship‐yards, and never received a penny for them from the law.

All destruction is condoned under the parrot phrase of ‘public utility.’

To the municipal mind of Italy all that is new and artificial is good; all that is old or natural is worthless. They say of Rome like M. Cardinal: ‘C’est une ville à faire disparaître de la surface du globe. Je n’ai jamais vu Chicago, mais je préfère Chicago.’

The great wheel of the Pastorini mill page: 255 was motionless on nine days out of ten, for there was no work; novelty and expediency alike took the neighbours to the iron wonder of Remigio Rossi.

Cesarellino, the next son to Carmelo, came home from his conscript’s service much the worse for it, as country lads usually are; they go away innocent, homely, laborious, dutiful youths, and they return from the camp and the barracks too often vicious, lazy, discontented, contaminated by vice, and utterly unwilling to work.

‘As well send a lad to the galleys as to the army,’ say the country people, and they are right.

You cannot take a man away from his duties for three of the most impressionable and important years of his life, or even for the lesser term of eighteen months, and expect him to return to those duties the same page: 256 docile and industrious creature that he was. He will have brought with him many a low sin, many a foul oath, many a vile memory; he will be unhinged, moody, good a little; that conscription does not make a blackguard of every lad that falls under its curse is due to the good and kindly temper of the nation, not to the system, which is a very factory of devils.

Cesarellino, coming home to the mill, with bad words in his mouth, coarse talk on his tongue, and a nature for ever stunted, soured, and vitiated, added to the gloom of the household; the youngster had seen Milan and Turin, and was disposed to be insolent and contemptuous of the stay‐at‐homes. Now that Cesarellino was home, the third son, Dante, had to go; he was a gentle, timid lad, and suffered greatly.

‘What a pack of slaves we are!’ said page: 257 the father bitterly. ‘Has a man not a right to refuse the flesh and bone he begot to the makers of war?’

‘There is no war going on, father,’ said the returned conscript with scorn for his father’s ignorance.

‘Then where is the excuse to take our boy from us?’ said the old man. ‘Nay, nay, we are a pack of slaves! no better that I see for driving away the stranieri.’

But kicking against the pricks was of no avail. The drawing of the year had given Dante a bad number; there was no money to buy a substitute, if even they had dreamed of such a thing, and the poor little fellow went off weeping like a girl.

‘If it were not for Viola,’ said his eldest brother, ‘if it were not for Viola, I would wish I were of the age to go in his place. I would do it.’

page: 258

‘But Viola you have, as you wished to have her,’ said his father, ‘and many children, I daresay, you soon will have too; you must do your duty at home, my son. Would to heaven it had not been made so bitter to you. You have to eat fennel with sour bread, but you must bring a man’s courage to it.’

‘I lack not courage, father,’ said Carmelo simply. Then with an effort he added:

‘What cuts me to the quick, is to see the old man so poor and ill dealt with; and you so tried, and the mill wheels motionless, and that rascal Bindo strutting to and fro as a cock on the green:—father, sometimes I fear me I shall never hold my hand off him.’

‘Yes you will,’ said his father tenderly; ‘yes you will for your wife’s sake and mine. But you brood on these things too much, my lad. Thinking makes no bread.’

page: 259

‘Thinking may make free men,’ muttered Carmelo; he dared not tell the miller all he dwelt on; all the schemes, and hopes, and views with which the German mechanic on his sickbed had filled his mind. Carmelo knew that down in the city there were many of the same way of thinking as himself, and not long before he had received a secret bidding to join an association there that was a branch of the Figli di Lavoro: that international league to which no one pays any heed because it has so harmless a title.

All the nature of Carmelo, all the temper he had been born with, bound him to his native soil; to a simple and pastoral life, to innocent affections and pastimes, to the old roof‐tree, and to the familiar ways and habits that had been his forefathers, well as his.

The Italian is homely and strongly con‐ page: 260 servative, as I have said often before, and Carmelo, let alone, would have asked nothing better than to live and die as his grandfather had done before him, by the Rosa water. But it is the policy of Messer Nellemane to let no one alone anywhere; and the result is that the peaceful become restless, and the patient become restive, and in the stead of content there is rebellion, or at the best a profound if impotent disaffection.

What would Mazzini say if he were living?

I believe he would curse the oppressor rusticorum as he never cursed the Austrian or the Frenchman, the soldier or the priest.

We put up statues to him, but we forget this.