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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 276

CHAPTER XXXIV.

ANNUNZIATA, since she had come out of prison, had never been quite the same. What she had thought the dire disgrace of it had gone deep into her honest old soul, and had ploughed it up as vitriol ploughs the flesh.

‘If my poor dead man knew!’ she would say, with a burst of sobbing. It seemed to her as if she were branded with an ineffaceable infamy. But never would she allow she had been a beggar.

‘Not I,’ she said, ‘I only take what they give me. I never beg.’

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All the winter she was very quiet; quiet perforce, because her old enemy of the ‘rheumatics’ seized her and pinned her down on her low pallet‐bed. Carmelo and Viola and the Pastorini children did their best for her, and the old women in her room were always sisterly and kind, though racked themselves with nearly every ill that flesh is heir to; and in her exceeding joy at being at home in that cold tumbledown corner of a room again she was quite content, and bore her pain and nibbled her bit of bread cheerfully, Dom Lelio being as usual good to her, and going with a patched cassock and a rusty hat that he might spare from his meagre means for all those who had nothing.

No doubt it seems a very stupid and incredible thing, but old ’Nunziatina was happy so long as she could see those four walls and the square casement, that was filled with the page: 278 poplar boughs, and hear the other old women chatter, and chatter too, and see the scrap of charcoal in the copper‐pan warming the pipkin of bread‐soup. Yet it is a fact, and it is a fact also that life, which goes out of youthful queens, and bright children, and cherished heirs, who have all done to save them that wealth and science and love can dream of, often keeps itself alight in these old, worn, and half‐starved frames.

‘You must never go about, dear, again to the villas and the farms,’ said Viola, weeping, to her. ‘They will be on you again if you do. You know they think it begging.’

‘I never ask for aught,’ said Annunziata sturdily; ‘I take what they give me.’

And for her life she could not see that she did anything amiss.

All the winter she had kept perforce quiet from her rheumatism, and Viola begged and page: 279 prayed her so that even when the tulips were all yellow in the fields and all the force of old instinct and old habit moving her, she still kept within doors, or only just went and sat under the deep shade of the old ilex that had the shrine set in its trunk.

She cared not at all for the municipal laws, this old rebel, but she cared to please the girl, as she still called her, ‘who was getting so near her time that one can’t cross her,’ she said to her four old friends in the little room.

And indeed with the March tulips Viola’s little son came into the light of the bright spring days, and promised to resemble his father in his big blue eyes and fair complexion, and was a happy little child that seldom cried.

This child was a source of great occupation and absorbing interest to its old great‐ page: 280 grand‐aunt, and ’Nunziatina spent most of her time at the mill‐house with the little closely‐swaddled bundle on her knees.

But also, indirectly, it was a reason for her to be more restless, and to wander a‐field again; for she said to herself that now there was a baby, and no doubt dozens to follow, and so much trouble and straits at the mill‐house on the Rosa, she could not and would not rob them of so much as a bit of bread, when all the people on the hillsides and down in the valley farms would be willing to give to her out of their plenty.

Carmelo and Viola endeavoured to make her understand that this taking of free gifts was her offence in the eyes of the law, but they could not succeed. She could not understand that she did anything wrong, and the habits of forty years could not easily be shaken off her daily life.

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‘I only take what they give me,’ she said persistently.

By vigilance and persuasion they kept her in a few weeks, but their lives were too full of work for them to have leisure for perpetual watching. ‘I never did do a bit of harm,’ she said to herself, and she could not stay indoors this bright weather of the opening summer, and though she left her basket at home, as they told her to do, she began to wander about as of old. She was much weaker than of yore, and, like Pippo, her head buzzed.

‘It’s always like the bees in the acacia trees,’ he and she agreed, sorrowfully. She did not readily comprehend what was said to her, and she confused names and dates. ‘I want to be in the air,’ she said to the old women, her companions in her little square room. ‘I have always been in the air all my days.’

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So she took her stick and trotted hither and thither, and naturally her feet, of their own accord, wandered into the old familiar paths, and up to the old houses. All her old friends at the farmhouses were delighted to see her, and gave her bit and drop as she wanted it. She would not take anything home.

‘No, they tell me not; the dear lad who took me out tells me not,’ she said always, and all she would do was eat a plate of soup, and drink a little mezzo‐vino when it was offered her. Her brown wrinkled face, all crinkled up like a walnut shell, had lost ost its mirth; her mouth often trembled, and she had grown very deaf; but she was as sensible as ever to kindness, and brightened up under it.

She was a picturesque little figure still in her round black hat, and her clothes that page: 283 were made of all colours, and of odds and ends that had been given her.

One day, when Viola’s boy was some three months old, and the weather was growing sultry, she had been up in the hills to a massaja, ¹ who was very fond of her, and she had done some work up there with the poultry by way of payment for sitting and eating at the long table where all the contadini dined off maccaroni and salad and broth, and on her way home was so tired that she sat down to rest above the village, on a felled pine by the edge of the hill‐road.

There was a pony carriage coming slowly up it, and in it, with a servant, was the pretty foreign child with blue eyes, who lived at Varammista. When the English


¹ The massaja is the woman (usually the wife of the fattore or bailiff) who is set over all the womankind on estate and directs their labours.

page: 284 child saw her, out she sprang, and came lovingly up to the old woman, her golden hair hanging about her shoulders.

‘Oh, ’Nunziatina!’ she cried to her, ‘We have been away all the year, and we are just come back, and we have heard you have been in prison. It is not true? It cannot be true?’

‘Yes, carina; it is true,’ said Annunziata. ‘They took me the very day I was coming to bid you good‐bye, and I had got a rose for you—such a beautiful rose. Yes, dear, I have been in prison, and perhaps your mamma would not wish you to speak with me.’

‘Oh, mamma would!’ said the English child, with a quick breath of indignation. ‘You never did anything wrong? I am sure you never did.’

‘No, carina, not I. I took what they page: 285 gave me, and they said that is begging. I never have understood it.’

‘Oh, what a wicked thing!’ sighed the child, with her fair cheeks hot. ‘I will tell mamma. Do you come up to Varammista and see her, and, dear ’Nunziatina, I must not stop, because it grows dark so soon, but take this and come up and see us.’

‘Is it your own to give me, dear?’ said Annunziata, holding the two‐franc note with hesitation.

‘Really my own,’ said the child. ‘You know I have so much money; and buy something nice with it, will you?’

‘The saints bless you, carina,’ said Annunziata, ‘and I’ll tell what I will buy with it. I will buy a little shirt or two for Viola’s child, that was given to her when the daffodils blew.’

‘Oh, do!’ said the child, ‘and you will page: 286 come and see us soon, Annunziata; to‐morrow, won’t you? I will tell mamma all about you and she will be so sorry, so sorry.’

Then the glad little girl went away up over the hill, with her little rough pony, and the old woman went down it quite light of heart.

‘I will buy something for Viola’s child,’ she thought, and slipped the money in her apron pocket.

That night, when Carmelo drove through the village with some flour, Gigi Canterelli ran out of his shop and stopped him.

‘Do you know they have taken ’Nunziatina again?’ he said to him. ‘They say she was begging; they say they saw her take money on the hill yonder, just coming into the town; she is gone to Pomodoro.’

Carmelo turned crimson, then pale.

‘But I paid forty francs for her!’ he cried; ’I sold my watch.’

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‘What has that to do with it?’ said the grocer. ‘They have got her again. They will want eighty francs this time.’

‘How shall I tell Viola?’ said Carmelo, and he trembled like a girl. ‘Oh my God! Oh, my God, Gigi!—when shall we get justice or pity?’

‘My lad, we have big ships, and sham battles, and a hundred men in every office door to kick us out when we ask a civil question,’ said Gigi Canterelli. ‘That is as much as we shall get for twenty years to come, I am thinking. Your mule is tired; I will harness my own beast, and go over and see where ’Nunziatina is. Go you home, and tell your wife to keep up her heart.’

Carmelo thanked him, and drove to the mill‐house with a bitter spirit, and a broken one; the old grocer did as he had promised, and went to Pomodoro.

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There he found that the old woman had been taken by Bindo Terri, for the offence of begging for money on the road; she was in prison, and no one would tell him more, or let him see her. He returned to the mill‐house and made the best of the sad facts that he could.

‘To‐morrow we will have her out,’ he said cheerfully to Viola. ‘Never you fear, my beauty. We will have her out. The foreign folk at Varammista will stand her friends, and we will all club together, somehow or other if pay she must.’

Now as officials, all the land over, are convinced that the public never should be told the truth on any occasion—the public, in fact, having no business ever to inquire for it—they had not told the truth to Gigi Canterelli in the town.

Annunziata had been taken there by page: 289 Bindo Terri, and told by him very sharply that nobody was ever let out after a second offence; she, for her part, was dumb with horror and amaze, and only found her voice when they took her two francs away from her as pièce de conviction, at which she screamed loudly.

‘The little lady of Varammista gave it!’ she shrieked, ‘and I am going to save it for Viola’s child!’

But no one attended to this; she was bundled away into the prison, and her case was to be heard in the morning. However, the Count Saverio chanced to see her, and took the matter into his own hands. He had always regretted that he had been cold to her; he was a man who set great store on his charitable reputation, and he knew very well that he had seemed very indifferent page: 290 when they had worried him about her, just as he was in council with his stockbroker.

Now the Count Saverio was a man who was nothing if he were not charitable. He had made himself conspicuous solely by charity; it had been a career to him, and a successful one; these professors of that divine virtue which covers a multitude of sin are common to every country. They may be said to flourish especially here, because there are so many fraternities and endowments in which they can plant themselves as snugly as a scolytus in an elm tree. So he saw an admirable investment in this old woman whom he had refused to assist, and he exerted himself so greatly, to the admiration of everybody, that he obtained her removal from the prison of Pomodoro to the Montesacro of the city.

The Montesacro was also one of those in‐ page: 291 stitutions which had come down from obscure ages, and had been illumined by the light of modern common sense. It had originally been a purely charitable asylum for aged folk, with large funds bequeathed by a pious prince, who was also an abbot. But the State had taken a good slice out of it at that illustrious period of the Birth of Liberty, when Garibaldi and others were driving Scialoja to madness by drawing cheques on the public funds every day, and this modernised Montesacro nowadays made perpetual appeals for assistance, private and public.

Most people said it was managed magnificently.

Count Saverio said so, for his cousin was at the head of it; a few grumblers averred that the frescoes had been cut off the walls of the vestibule and corridors, the oak seats of its chapel gone, nobody knew where, and page: 292 its altar‐piece by Sodoma vanished from its place. A famous gold Reliquary, also, the work of Benvenuto Cellini, had disappeared: it was supposed to have been destroyed by rats.

But no one can help what rats may do, and these grumblers were not attended to, and Montesacro was always pointed out to strangers as one of the features and glories of the glorious and lovely city. It was divided into two parts; it had youth which did a great deal of work that was sold for their support, and the profit of its direction; and it had age which served as a reason for all kinds of donations, subscriptions, bazaars, lotteries and theatricals on their behalf. Count Saverio, whose cousin was director‐in‐chief of this beneficent asylum, had old ’Nunziatina carried there in the ambulance of his own fraternity, a coffin‐like cart drawn page: 293 by a weak old horse; and she was deposited on one of the narrow little beds of the dormitory, and expected to be grateful.

She was a stubborn old soul, and she was not so.

‘What have I done, what have I done?’ she screamed at every minute. ‘Let me get back to my home. Let me get back to my home.’

For his silly old woman would persist in calling her corner in a room, with her bit of sacking for a bed, her home—casa mia.

She was in a long corridor, with those white‐washed walls, off which the frescoes had been cut; there were some seventy iron beds all in a row; there were some lofty casements carefully blinded, with grey shutters, through which little chinks of light blinked, as a cat’s eyes blink in the darkness; as long as she would live, she would be set in page: 294 one of these big rooms, have broth and bread found her, and be allowed to go outside once a fortnight for three hours.

Instead of being gratified and grateful, perverse old ’Nunziatina screamed till she was black in the face.

Casa mia! Casa mia! Take me there. I am not a criminal. I won’t be put in prison! I want the air, I want the sun. Take me to casa mia!’

If Messer Nellemane had been there, she would have had once more occasion to moralise upon the ingratitude of the poor.

A female likeness of him, who was there, gently gagged Annunziata without more ado, observing that discipline in an institute must be preserved at any sacrifice of the individual, and as the aged rebel tore at the gag with her hands, they tied those down to the bed rails.

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Then the unwilling old woman was told that she ought to be piously thankful; tens of thousands of old woman died, and there was no account made of them; she was exceptionally fortunate and blessed in having been selected to enjoy the refuge of Montesacro.

In the night she was delirious.

In the morning she was stupid.

But as no one thought her ill, and everybody knew she was stubborn, they paid her no attention, till an attendant shook her, made her get out of bed, and tumbled her into a bath. Annunziata, who had the common horror of her nation as to water, shivered, and was very sick, but as she had ceased to scream, they thought she was getting reconciled, and put her on the clothes of the institute, and placed her in the common room of the the old women.

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There she sat quite still, and dumb, shivering all over.

The old folks around her were busy working, some plaiting, some sewing, some knitting, some picking linen to make lint, some only staring vacantly and mumbling—who shall say what wishes, what regrets, what memories?

Annunziata stared with her eyes at the dull wall, the high barred windows, the great, unfamiliar, hateful chamber, but all she really saw was her own little den with the poplars waving green against the little window, the sunny roads where her feet had carried her so many years, the green hillside where she so long had wandered, the broad blue radiant light, the rose of day‐break on the plains.

You cannot cage a field‐bird when it is old; it dies for want of flight, of air, of page: 297 change, of freedom. No use will be their stored grain of your cage; better for the bird a berry here and there, and peace of gentle death at last amidst the golden gorse or blush of hawthorn buds.

When night came, and they made her go to bed amidst all those other beds again, Annunziata was very cold; cold as marble. No one had been unkind, for she had been quite mute and passive all though this long dreary colourless summer day behind the grey blinds within the four walls.

Casa mia, casa mia,’ she murmured feebly, when they laid her down on the hard pallet: it was a stifling midsummer night, but she was till quite cold.

She was so cold that the woman in attendance called for help: there was no doctor near at hand, and the director was away at a dinner party for the Prefect.

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They tried to put some warm drink down her throat but she spat it out; her lips began to grow blue, and her eyes fixed.

‘Let me get out, let me get home,’ she muttered, with a tremulous voice. ‘There is no air here; I can’t breathe—’

The women were not frightened, for they were used to death‐beds in Montesacro; yet, awed to some show of gentleness, they lifted her up and opened a casement to let in the coolness of the night.

But Annunziata knew nought of that. She gasped for breath still, and the little life there was in her was chilling into stone. All at once she opened her eyes wide and forced herself free of their hold:

‘Lord! let me see the sun again; let me see the hills!’ she cried aloud, stretching out her arms; and in that last prayer she died.

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Will she see the sun again, free from all cloud, a sun that never sets? Will something greater than ourselves, and more pitiful than the State, let that poor, dumb, tired little soul of hers arise and rejoice in the green hills of an everlasting world?

If this be the last of her, this death on a strange bed, in a prison that hypocrisy calls a refuge, then let us weep for her indeed; ignorant, valiant, true, busy and most harmless creature, almost dumb as the dogs, quite as cheerful as the birds, having borne heat, and cold, and hunger and pain without complaint so long as she was free.

‘Be good to me, O God, for my boat is so small and the deep sea is so wide,’ is the prayer of the Bréton fisher. Alas, how many boats go down, and where is the pity of God?

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