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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 300


THE misery at this time grew yet greater at the mill‐house; greater for this family, which had for so many centuries been the possessors of a homely abundance, than for those who by long usage were accustomed to hardship and penury. All Pastorini’s savings had gone when Carmelo was in prison, and the mill brought in not a farthing. People who a few years before would have given him ten years’ credit now did not like to trust him for a month. Popular favour is a fickle thing, and comes and goes alike without page: 301 reason. He took the good grey horse to a distant market and sold it, being reluctant to keep it to want; the old mule he knew would soon have to follow; without grist to grind the mill only cost what it could not pay; the usciere began to call with summonses for trifling debts, for when one tradesman turns crusty, all turn so.

The little butcher Sandro had become bankrupt, and had disappeared from Santa Rosalia; the big one, he who was in good odour with the municipality, would give nothing without money down on the nail. The old man was shrunken out of all likeness to himself; the baby alone throve in the midst of the desolation, and there was likelihood of another coming; more hungry mouths and no food for any of them was the future that faced Carmelo and his father. The summons for having encumbered the page: 302 road with the sacks of torbo had been served on Carmelo, and as he had not appeared to answer it, and could not employ any man of law to dispute it, it was passed as a matter of course on to Pomodoro, where the Pretore, merely seeing that Carmelo Pastorini was in question, decided without further examination that his late prisoner had been at fault, and so the matter with fines, penalties for contempt of court in not appearing, &c., ran up to a matter of thirty‐eight francs. As for looking for thirty‐eight francs in the millhouse till, you might as well have looked for emeralds and rubies. After due course a gravamento was instituted for the payment, as it had been done with poor old Pippo; and Carmelo, possessing nothing of his own in the world except a gun, his clothing, and the little coral earrings he had given his wife in the bridal week, these were seized and taken page: 303 off by the usciere. Carmelo laughed aloud when he saw the distraint warrant.

‘He set down three sacks on a hillside road to lighten the mule for a minute!’ said his father piteously. But he himself said nothing. He only laughed till those were frightened who heard him. His father, without letting him know it, persuaded the usciere to take some of his own clothing instead of his son’s. If he had still had the mule he would have sold that, but three months had gone by since the offence had been committed, and the mule had now gone to other masters, and the price of him and the baroccino had brought food for the many mouths round the mill‐house table.

Viola, who could do nothing, grew so wretched that she reproached herself bitterly for having married Carmelo; alone, she thought, he might have done better; he page: 304 could have gone away, he would have had only himself to keep. It began to seem to her that she had done nothing but harm to all she loved.

When on this day of Annunziata’s removal to Montesacro they heard only that she had been once more arrested, Viola felt her timid and patient soul grow desperate.

‘Oh, Carmelo,’ she sobbed, ‘and it was they who killed Raggi, though I never told you!’

‘Dear,’ said the young man with a bitter smile, ‘I guessed that long ago. These are the wretches that have hour lives in their keeping; dog‐butchers, thieves, extortioners! The people are like the steer who goes peaceably to be murdered when he could toss and gore.’

‘But would it be any better if the people rose?’

page: 305

‘Who can tell?’ said Carmelo gloomily. ‘ I have heard say that twenty years ago, when they first drove out the stranieri, it was our people, the soldiers of the people, the leaders of the people, who were the first to plunder and pillage all the people’s treasuries. And how can we do anything; we who have no union, no chief, who cannot read, who can only struggle blindly just as the birds do in the nets? That is the misery of it. Our people are timorous. They scurry like mice before a uniform; they crouch and crawl before a drawn sword. Yet anything were better than this. It would be an easier death to be shot down by artillery than to be bled to death slowly like this, a drop every day.’

‘But what will be the end?’

‘Who shall tell? This I do believe, that when they deal with us as with criminals for page: 306 every little action of our days they will make us devils. If the army were with us, then, indeed—I have heard tell that the soldiers are muttering and growing restive; but alas! there will be always men found who will point the cannon on the poor.’

Viola listened, and understood enough to be alarmed and very disquieted for the safety of her beloved.

This day, made bold by the pains of what she loved, as does will be and mother‐birds, she took heart of grace and resolved to essay a last chance for help and hope. It was a very faint one, and if she had not been a simple, ignorant, and most trustful creature, would never have dawned on to delude her for a moment.

As it was, she tied a handkerchief over her shapely head, took her little apple‐blossom of a boy in her arms as a shield and page: 307 prayer in one, and went straight, unknown to any of her family, towards the communal palace, and there asked with beating heart if she could see Messer Nellemane.

Now Messer Nellemane was growing very indifferent to Santa Rosalia; he knew very well that he would soon leave it for some higher official grindstone under which to squeeze the body‐politic; and he was beginning almost to be high and might with his own master, the Most Worshipful the Cavaliere Durellazzo. Therefore he very seldom deigned to see any petitioner of the populace, and such were always dealt with now by the chancellor, the conciliator, or Bindo. Nevertheless, when he heard that the wife of Carmelo, the granddaughter of Pippo, wished to see him, he bade her be shown to him; Messer Nellemane not being one of those who believed in the virtue page: 308 of women , had a sudden evil notion come up in his mind of what her errand might be. But she would come in vain, he said to himself; such philandering was not to be indulged in; ambition was his sole Venus; he knew the mischief that one weakness may work in a public career; he meant to go through life with a blameless, a snow‐white morality. There is nothing more useful.

Nevertheless, he let her enter.

When he saw the baby in her arms he frowned, and his face flushed angrily; when Helen comes to woo, she does not thus cumber herself.

‘Signora mia!’ he hastened to say, however, with benevolent courtesy, ‘it is long since we met. I have been so much occupied. Un bel bimbo davvero! What is his age?’

Viola, trembling very much, and with page: 309 her great dark eyes wide open and strained, took no heed of his words.

‘I am come to beg you to be merciful to us,’ she said in a low gasping tone. ‘Sir, dear sir, we are in great wretchedness. My father‐in‐law is ruined. My husband thinks of going to Maremma to work as a day‐labourer. My poor old aunt is taken again, and my grandfather—oh, my grandfather—’

There her sobs choked her.

Messer Nellemane’s black eyes shone with a pleasure he could not conceal, though all his features were composed into a regretful and sympathetic gravity.

‘I am very pained at all this,’ he said blandly. ‘I had heard something of it—’

‘Oh stop, stop it! you can!’ murmured Viola, her whole form trembling, and clasping the baby to her convulsively.

‘I!’ cried Messer Nellemane in amaze‐ page: 310 ment. ‘I! cara mia signora! What have I, what can I possibly have to do with the misfortunes of your relatives? Alas! would I could say they were altogether undeserved misfortunes, but when the law is obstinately set at defiance—’

‘Oh, it is you!’ cried Viola, forgetful of all wisdom, and borne away on the tide of her own strong feeling. ‘You rule all; at a word from you all is done or undone. ’Nunziatina would be left in peace, and my husband could stay in his own place, if only you would cease to persecute us.’

Messer Nellemane drew himself up, the most rigid monument of offended dignity and unutterable surprise.

‘Persecute?’ he repeated; ‘persecute? I? Signora mia! you cannot know what you are saying! What am I here? nothing. The mere instrument of the will of the page: 311 council and the syndic; the merest pen in the hand of an unblemished and most benevolent magistracy! You must see, if you reflect a moment, that the troubles of your relatives all rise from their own neglect of repeated warnings that, if they pursued certain modes of conduct, the law—the law which is absolutely impartial and impersonal—must take its course.’

‘No!’ said Viola, stung out of all prudence and holding her little child close to her breast as she spoke. ‘No, no! these are all words. When I was a maiden you had wicked and cruel thoughts of me, and you have revenged yourself on me and mine. If I had taken your gifts, and hearkened to your dishonest wooing, you would have spared my grandfather and the Pastorini and the old woman, who has no sin in all the world except to belong to me!’

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Offended majesty and insulted virtue reigned together on every line of Messer Nellemane’s countenance.

‘You are mad, woman!’ he said very sternly. ‘How dare you use such indecorous language to me? I never saw you but twice, and then I regarded you as the betrothed of the youth Carmelo. Foolish fancies are not my foible. My time, like my heart, is in the service of the nation!’

Viola was vibrating and throbbing with passion. She scarcely heard him.

‘It is because the dear old creature brought your presents back to you that you hate her, that you hate them all!’ she cried with tremulous indignation and emotion. ‘It is because I feel they suffer through me that I know not how to bear to see them suffer. Carmelo and I can do well enough; we are young and strong, and we have love and page: 313 health to bear us up; but old people—the old people—and it is all because you hate them. It is all through me!’

‘This is insanity!’ said Messer Nellemane, lifting his hands. ‘It is worse: it is defamation! You are using the language of libel. All, I repeat, all that has befallen your family is the simple and inevitable result of their inattention and disobedience to the laws of the land. Their contumacy has met with its natural, and I must say, however private compassion may plead for them, its just chastisement.’

‘Oh, hypocrite!’ cried Viola, with her pale cheeks flaming as the sun flames in the west on an autumn night. ‘I did ill to come to you. You have a face of brass, a heart of stone!’

‘You are excited,’ said Messer Nellemane, coldly. ‘I am sorry that you ever miscon‐ page: 314 strued my charity to a poor man’s granddaughter. I should have hoped that innocent country maidens had had purer thoughts. I fancied that it was only women of light life who put evil constructions on simple courtesies! Your child is crying. Will you excuse me if I request you to leave me now?’

The child had burst out sobbing loudly. Viola pressed it to her bosom and turned and left the room.

Messer Nellemane had been to the last victorious; he had made her feel an unwomanly, unwise, ill‐spoken creature, who had fancied an unholy passion as existing in a mere commonplace and benevolent compliment!

Her cheeks burned; her hot tears fell.

O bimbo mio! she wailed to the wailing page: 315 child. ‘Is it indeed only the law? Will the law follow us out in to the sickly Maremma and seize our last crust there? O bimbo mio! if you were not so dear, so sweet, so fair, almost for your sake I could wish you had never been born!’

‘What a fortunate thing I resisted my momentary infatuation for her,’ thought Messer Nellemane, left alone with the prospectus and estimates of the Catacomb Metropolitan. ‘Really she has grown quite plain, and how very painfully thin! If factories were established, there would not be this class of useless, hungry and most unhappy women.’

And he stretched out his hand and unearthed from the mass of the Catacomb circulars a plan for the Giunta to turn the old Convent of S. Francesca Romana into a page: 316 manufactory: it would be hideous, it would pollute the river, and it would bring to the municipality a clear forty per cent. per annum. What could be more public‐spirited?