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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 317


THIS night that Annunziata died, Carmelo and his father were sitting up by the light of a three‐branched lamp, and poring over their accounts. They kept these ill; they could make clear figures, but the miller wrote ill, and the young man, who had always been lazy in these matters, could not write at all.

Still, even their scanty education enabled them to perceive very clearly that the miller was deeply in debt, and that, unless things mended, they would share the fate of Pippo. And there was no chance that they would page: 318 mend; the steam mill would every month take more and more. Santa Rosalia did as bigger societies have done a million times, and followed self‐interest and the breeze of the hour.

The father and son felt this bitterly; both had fancied it would have been otherwise, for they were simple enough to expect that, as the whole village hated the oppressor rusticorum, the whole village would have courage to show their hatred; neither of them had great knowledge of human nature, and both had simple and trustful characters.

‘Who could have thought all our folks would be so mean?’ muttered Pastorini.

‘They are taught to be mean,’ said his son. ‘They are ruled by a spy and a sergeant of police. What would you? All the fault is with the government.’

Pastorini sighed; he was thinking of all page: 319 his dead brother had fought for; he did not understand politics, but it seemed hard.

Carmelo had his elbows on the table, and his face was resting on his hands. The yellow light of bad oil, the dregs of the oil jar, flickered on his hair and on the papers before him. It was midnight; Viola was upstairs; the moon shone in through the kitchen lattice.

‘Father,’ he said abruptly, ‘it is no use my staying here; I cannot help you; I only do you harm. Alone, when Dina is married, there will be enough perhaps for you, and Cesarellino and the girls; and the others, when they are grown up, will do for themselves after they have gone through the hell which they call soldiering. Father—never did I think to do it, but I see now that I must. I will go away, and try and work elsewhere, and my girl will go with me, and perhaps the old page: 320 man, for he will lose his mind where he is—’

‘Go away? You? The eldest son?’

Demetrio Pastorini grew ashen white, and his breath came shortly; never in all the course of the centuries had the eldest son gone from the mill.

‘It will be best so,’ said Carmelo, sadly; ‘there is not enough for us all. There is ruin here, he added, striking his fist on the book. ‘Unburdened, may be you may pull through it. As for me, I am strong, I can do anything in the way of work.’

‘A bracciante! groaned his father.

‘A bracciante, if need be,’ said Carmelo. ‘I will go into the Maremma next month. There is plenty of work there, they say. I do not know rightly where it lies, but one can ask. I have no money to go over seas, or else I would. But anyhow, I have a page: 321 strong arm. I will not let Viola starve, nor her children when they come, nor the old man if he will trust himself with us. You will let me go, father? You will not say nay?’

Carmelo, if his father had forbidden him, would never have stirred; he was as obedient as though he were still a child; in those old homely families, the old homely virtues linger.

Demetrio Pastorini was silent: his mouth was quivering with an emotion he repressed:

‘Do what your conscience tells you,’ he said huskily. ‘I would not check you, not I; I have nought for you at home but bread, broken with bitterness. And yet—O Lord—the pity of it!’

Then the old man laid his grey head down on the table and wept.

He would not say that it would not be page: 322 best for his son to breathe another air than Bindo Terri; but it cut him to the quick. For so many years he and his had dwelt here, father and son, one after another, the old broad house‐roof sheltering all. That his eldest born should be driven out like an Ishmael, and be forced to wander and work on other land than the place that had given him birth, seemed so terrible to him that, for the moment, he thought that he would sooner see Carmelo dead upon his bed. Yet he would not say him nay.

‘Go if you will,’ he said to him. ‘When the trees went, I knew the luck of the house went with them. As for me, I shall soon be no more.’

‘Nay, nay,’ said Carmelo gently. ‘It is I who bring ill‐luck to the house. Our honest hearth should not have a gaol bird by it. Cesarellino will be better master page: 323 here after you than I, father. Though I lived for fifty years, they would never take the iron out of my heart, nor the blot from off my name.’

His hands clenched as he spoke; and in his soul he cursed those who had cursed him.

He panted to be gone: it wrung his very heartstrings to leave his own land, to think that he should live no more by the water that had sung to him since, in his babyhood, he had pattered in its shallows with rosy tripping feet; yet he thirsted to be gone.

He feared at every moment that rage would master him, and some utterance, or act, of it again fling him to his foes. The glance and the gibe of the guards, the estrangement of old comrades, the sight of the waste ground by his father’s house, the shrug with which the youngsters went away page: 324 and left him on the first Sunday afternoon when he had gone to take up his old place on the palloneground, the sufferings of old Pippo and of ’Nunziatina; all these things were to him as is the fly in the galled side of the horse. He was afraid of what his pain and rage might make him do.

He was very young, and he panted for a fresh field, a free life, a place were he could work and play without a neighbour’s pointed finger and an enemy’s jeer.

He was very ignorant, and knew nothing even of other communes than his own; but he said to himself that anything was better than bringing ruin on his father; and he felt that he had strength in him to cut a new road out for himself, and get bread for his wife and the old man. He thought that somewhere there must always be bread enough for a willing labourer.

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So little did he know, so little did even his own poverty make him realise, the poverty that gnaws tens of thousands of empty bodies in this land, eaten bare by the locusts of the State.

That night Carmelo sat up long by the little window that looked over the river, talking to his wife of this new hope of his. Viola had never heard of Ruth; but Ruth’s heart throbs in every loving woman, and she said in her own way, ‘Where thou goest I will go.’

‘But grandfather?’ she said, almost as soon as the idea of flight to other land had ceased to scare her, for another province to her was stranger than it would be to us to go to lands behind the sun, could we get there.

‘We will take him with us,’ said Carmelo stoutly. ‘Nay, sweetheart, never would I ask of you to leave him. They are driving page: 326 him mad here amongst them. We will persuade him to trust us.’

‘I think he never will come away,’ said Viola with a sigh. ‘His very life does seem as if it were wedded to those stones, as the roots of an aloe are fixed to the rock—’

‘Dear love,’ said Carmelo bitterly, yet tenderly. ‘They will soon tear him off those stones I fear. The beasts will never leave him in peace, and besides the house is mortgaged.’

‘Then, perhaps, he would come,’ said Viola, ‘only he is old; you cannot get new ideas into him any more than you can get new resin into a dry pine. And there is ’Nunziatina too.’

‘Father would let her live here,’ answered Carmelo; ‘I know he would; he is so good; and she would have our bed and our share at table.’

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Viola kissed him with tender passion.

‘As long as father lives he would always find a crust to keep an old woman out of prison,’ said Carmelo. ‘And to‐morrow, Viola, I will go over and tell her so; and perhaps they will let her come out if I promise she shall never go again on the highway. I have no money.’

She kissed him again; and as they leaned there one against another, looking at the white moonlight on the Rosa water and the bats that were flying in and out of the ivy upon the wall, they were almost happy.

‘If,’ murmured the young man, ‘if we can only go where we can get bread enough to eat, Viola, and where your children will never hear that I was once in prison. Not but that I would do the same over again; just the same; yes. Poor Toppa!’

There is a great fair in August in Santa page: 328 Rosalia; a cattle fair, a horse fair, and a merry‐making all in one, that is always opened by a service and procession of the church.

It comes once in three years, and so does not lose its attraction from too constant repetition. It lasts two days, and all the country folk for twenty miles round come to see it.

There used to be at this gathering only good chaffing and good fellowship, followed by blameless mirth; now there is often a good deal of quarreling, in which the knife is arbiter, and a good deal of drunkenness, for people’s tempers are on edge in these days, and the wines and other drinks at the caffès are not wholesome and unadulterated, as they were before shopkeepers had to pay such taxes that they must recuperate themselves by cheating.

The preparations had been already made page: 329 for this fair, and the booths and the flags enlivened the dusty piazza, and there were already groups of bullocks, white, dun, and grey, shaggy ponies and lean asses, bearded rough shepherds, and goats as bearded and rough, and lean sheep that fed on what they could crop by the road‐sides; and little, indeed, is that, in these days, when the communal regulations forbid the poor creatures ever to pause in the highway.

The place was full of movement, sound, and laughter, and the noise was increased by the lowing of the cattle, and the braying of the asses, across which sounded now the chimes of San Giuseppe, and now the bells of San Romualdo.

In other years there had also pealed from across the river the beautiful, solemn, deep tones of the convent bells, but they were gone far away; they had been melted down page: 330 into cannon which rusted on bastions that no one ever dreamed of attacking.

Carmelo, going towards the house of the Madonna to see how Pippo fared, had a heart less heavy than it had been since his return.

He had talked with the cattle drivers and the shepherds, and all had told him something of different places; he had also met with a horse dealer, bringing in a string of young horses from the Maremma, and he had asked the road from this man, and had been assured that a strong young fellow was always welcome in the woods there all winter. It was very far away, and very vague, but still it comforted him.

Here were men who came from the place he had thought of, and told him he might find bread there; what they related of the wide, marshy plains, of the great blue sea, of the dark forests of pine and chestnut, page: 331 sounded to him wide, and fresh, and alluring. Surely, he thought, there would be no petty laws there to sting at you all day long, like a mosquito swarm in a swamp.

He was so young that any touch of hope was enough to lift him from earth like wings; he thought he would make haste to tell the old man; it would be hard, he knew, to get Pippo away from his little square house, but still he would try. He would urge it for Viola’s sake. She never would bear the thought of leaving her grandfather to die alone.

He brushed his way through the crowd on the piazza, his thoughts intent on this, and not noticing that the people were all looking, not so much at the cattle or the booths, as at the iron rails that had recently been laid down along the river‐side.

‘Take care!’ said some one roughly, and page: 332 pushed him off the line just as a great, black smoking traction engine roared along with some cars attached to it. It was the first journey of the tramway.

‘The accursed thing!’ cried Carmelo, while the people around him stood sullen and sorrowful, and a few partisans of the novelty tried in vain to shout and wave their hats, and excite enthusiasm.

In the cars were seated in triumph the Cavaliere Durellazzo, Signore Luca Finti, Signore Zauli, the Giunta, and others who had profited by this form of progress; Messer Nellemane sat in a corner of the first car, a smile upon his face, and a crimson rose in his buttonhole.

The ugly thing rolled out of sight amidst the dead silence of the people.

‘I’m ruined,’ said the diligence man, very quietly. ‘I’ll as well go and smoke page: 333 myself out of the way as Nanni did. Nobody will miss me now.’

‘Why do you let those things be settled and done behind your backs?’ said Carmelo, with suppressed fury, as his eyes flashed. ‘You are like the poor sheep yonder; you go to the slaughter‐house as much as you go to your bed. Who rules here? A few knaves who have the wit to get on your backs, and ride you as we ride an ass.’

‘And that is true,’ said the people, ruefully; ‘but what’s to be done? They talk a deal down in the city—’

‘Talk! Any fool can talk,’ said Carmelo passionately. ‘Talk is reeled out here by every rogue and every dunce, as thread reels off the women’s wheel. It is action that we want. Every householder, every honest man, should dare to use his vote in matters of his borgo; things should not be page: 334 done by a few picked knaves behind the backs of all the people. Can’t you understand that much?’

‘Yes, yes! Bravo! bravo!’ the people nearest to him said, and the cattle drivers shouted to him to go on, and Carmelo, warmed and touched by the applause, and having all these months longed to pour out what he had heard in prison, threw his head and raised his voice.’

‘I have thought much about these things,’ he said simply. ‘Prison is a rude teacher, but one that tells no lies. There was a dying man there, who told me that we are all slaves. And what are we else? We sweat and labour from day‐dawn to night, only that they may wring out of us the last penny that we have. Our mothers weep, and our fields lie half‐tilled, whilst our youngsters are borne off to swell the army page: 335 and starve under their knapsacks. Our shipping lies idle in our ports, they tell me, weighted with taxes, till their owners dare not go afloat, and their timbers rot in the harbours. Inland, our little tradesmen are beggared like the merchantmen, and put their shutters up, and go and starve somewhere unseen. Here, in the country places, no man can say his soul is his own; if his dog stir a foot, or his child spin a top, the brutes are down on him; he must pay or be sold up. The King, say you? Nay, he knows nought; he is set round with liars and deceivers like a hedge of aloes and cactus that lets nobody in; the Queen, in mercy, they say many a time pays the fines to redeem the workmen’s tools, for these devils seize the spade, the pickaxe, the hammer that the man works with, if there be nothing better. If a man make ten centimes a day page: 336 he pays the tassa di famiglia! you all know that. We are free, are we? And in the cities the barracks are full of bersagliere to shoot us down if we say a word, and in the country there are blackguards with little swords to spy on every act of our days! Our lives are no more our own. We must pay, pay, pay, till the sweat of our bodies is blood. They grind down our hearts and our lungs, and make them into money to squander. In the accursed factories they have built, the women work for forty centimes a day, and the children for half of that. They tell us we are prosperous and happy, and they tell the world so, at their banquets, and all over the land the people are sold up, and turned adrift and left on the highway, groaning and dying—dying in silence, because they are foolish as sheep, or holy as saints!’

The tears rolled down his face, the dew page: 337 stood on his forehead; he was but echoing what he had heard in his sick bed in his prison, but he felt every word he uttered with all his heart, and with all his soul.

The people listened to him, entranced; the guard, Bindo Terri, on the outskirts of the crowd, heard too.

‘They are true things that you say, lad,’ muttered the diligence driver at last. ‘But what can we do, my dear? If we say a word, if we fire a shot, there are the soldiers, as you say, and the prisons.’

‘Then let us say we are slaves, and bow our heads,’ said Carmelo, bitterly, as he pointed to the flag that floated from the caffè of Nuova Italia, ‘and let us say that flag is the flag, not of freedom, but of famine, of oppression, and of fear. We starve, and a million leeches are sucking our mother Italy dry. We starve, and a million idlers sit page: 338 in the public offices and fatten, and do nothing all their lives, and then are pensioned. We are cowards all.’

‘Go away, my dear, they are looking at you,’ said Gigi Canterelli in his ear. ‘And if we all rose, what could we do, my dear? We have no weapons except a few old guns to shoot thrushes, and they would bring cannon against us like lightning.’

‘What use would their cannon be if they could not get our conscripts?’ said Carmelo; his breast was heaving, his eyes were shining.

Bindo Terri advanced to him.

‘Instead of talking sedition before witnesses,’ he said, very sharply, ‘you had better keep your wife’s folk out of want. ’Nunziatina died the night before last in Montesacro.’

Then he slipped behind the shelter of a carabinier.

‘What?’ said Carmelo, with a scared page: 339 glance on those around him. ‘That brute is saying this only to hurt me. Tell me—tell me quick, some of you. She is not dead? She cannot be dead!’

Gigi Canterelli, who was nearest to him, put his hand soothingly on his shoulder.

‘Dear lad,’ he said, with hesitation, ‘I did hear something who came from the city, but surely they would have sent you word?’

‘No, no,’ said Carmelo, stupidly. ‘No one has said anything to us. Who took her to the city? We knew nought of it. If she be dead—oh, if she be dead! What shall I say to Viola?’

Bindo Terri, safe behind the shelter of the armed carabinier, answered him.

‘We had the official notice of it this morning from Montesacro. You will get it by post this afternoon. She is dead, that you page: 340 may take my word for; and you had better have worked, and kept her in bread and soup, than come chattering republican balderdash that will clap you in carcere again.’

The young man sprang forward to seize the ribald throat that mocked him, but Gigi Canterelli and the others held him quiet.

‘Dear lad,’ cried Canterelli, ‘remember your young wife. Get not into trouble again through this fellow. You will only rejoice his wicked soul if you do.’

‘The old woman dead,’ muttered Carmelo. ‘Dead so, without one of us!’

His voice failed him; he drew his hat over his eyes and turned away.

‘If you loved her so much, why did you not keep her off begging on the highway?’ called Bindo Terri after him, but he did not hear.

‘For shame, Bindo!’ said Canterelli, page: 341 sternly, and the crowd listening around echoed the reproofs.

The guard stuck his feathered hat on one side of his head, and thrust his short sword under one arm.

‘If you jeer at me you are summoned,’ he said, with the pertness that he thought was dignity. ‘I represent the Law.’

‘Lord, Lord!’ muttered Gigi Canterelli, ‘and the times that I have spanked you for stealing my string and my sugar.’

Bindo, in his majesty, had his head too high to hear.

Meanwhile the tramway cars were rolling through the summer‐scorched fields towards Pomodoro, and there were met by the Count Saverio, and the Syndic his brother, and the officials and gentry of that place; all, in fact, who had got a nice little pat of butter to sweeten their daily bread out of the con‐ page: 342 cessions and the commissions of this iron apostle of progress.

Carmelo went across the piazza blindly; he was stunned and broken down by the tidings of the death at Montesacro.

She had been only a poor old woman, indeed, but Viola had loved her, and Carmelo himself had grown fond of the cheery, sturdy, little soul, blithe in privation as a robin in the snow.

The poor lad went on rather by instinct than by sight across the square to the house of Pippo.

‘He will come with us now,’ he thought; ‘surely he will come with us, or he will die as she has done.’

When he reached the house his heart stopped with a spasm of fear; the door was shut: a thing never seen except at night, and the wooden outside shutters were closed and fastened too.

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What could have happened to Pippo?

‘He is ill!’ thought Carmelo, but then he remembered that, were he ill within, he could not have fastened to those shutters, and never since he had been a child had he seen those windows thus closed.

He shook the door, and tried to force himself against it; failing in that, he looked round at a few loiterers who were near; the crowd was all on the other side of the piazza.

‘What has happened to Pippo, do you know?’ he asked of them.

‘Not I,’ said the man he spoke to, but he grinned as he answered.

Carmelo went round, vaulted over the wall enclosing the little back garden, and saw the house was shut in the same way.

‘Good God, what can have happened?’ said Carmelo in his bewilderment and terror. page: 344 Had the old man been murdered? But who should murder one who had nothing?

Remigio Rossi from the mill‐house across the river saw him thus standing, rigid and gasping, staring at the house. He shouted to the youth:

‘The house has been seized for debt. They turned your grandfather out of it last night. He went away. I thought he went to you. Did nobody send you word? But, to be sure, it was nobody’s business. Come in, my poor fellow, and take a drink of wine.’

Carmelo hurled a bitter curse at him.

‘Where is he gone?’ he shouted.

‘Nay, that I know not,’ said the owner of the steam‐mill. ‘We though he came to you. Lord, boy, I mean none of you ill‐will because I put up this black servant of mine and fill my pockets—’

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But Carmelo had no ears for him. He had left the garden as he had entered it, and was gone across the fields. He had seen in the damp ground a print of a foot without shoes: he thought it was Pippo’s.

‘I never can meet my girl’s eyes again if both are dead,’ he thought. ‘Surely he has killed himself like Nanni.’

He heard a step in pursuit of him and the friendly hand of Gigi Canterelli touched him.

‘Carmelo, Carmelo!’ he cried to him, ‘I have just this minute heard that your grandfather was turned out last night. They did it so quietly, none of us knew. It seems that lawyer in Pomodoro had a right to the place because the interest on the mortgage was not paid, and there were sums Pippo owed to the municipality, fines and what not, God knows, about the water, and so the usciere came and page: 346 took the thing, and locked it all up, all in the name of the law, and it has been sold at auction: so they say. That is what Angelo, the beast, has just old me. He saw you coming here. How it was we none of us saw or heard I cannot think, but the lawyers and the other folks kept still tongues in their heads, and the door of the house is turned to the river, and Pippo can never have made a sound—’

‘He is gone away to kill himself,’ said Carmelo under his breath.

He paid no heed to what was told him of the seizure of the house; all he thought of was that Pippo was lying dead in the Rosa water, or hanging dead from some bough in the fields.

‘Nay,’ said Gigi Canterelli in a hushed and solemn way, ‘I think he will not take his life. He is a God‐fearing man, is Pippo, page: 347 and he thinks that in the matter of our living or dying it is the good God that fans our breath or stills it.’

Carmelo did not hear; he was looking to right and left of him wildly, as though he saw the corpse of the old man swinging in the air.

‘If he be not dead,’ he said, with a burst of weeping like a woman, ‘he has gone to try and hide, so that we should not know. Look, here is a footmark; it goes along the fields; he would not stay by the river, I think, to see that iron beast roar along it; he would get away into the fields, away from the accursed smoke.’

He strode away as he spoke, and his old friend followed him.

‘His brain was not right,’ said Carmelo with a sob. ‘It has never been right since he signed away his house to pay the thieves page: 348 yonder. And I, who came to ask him to go with me to a new life—’

‘O Lord, have mercy on us,’ groaned the other. ‘Nobody ever killed themselves when I was young; but nowadays the rivers are choked full, and the charcoal is used for naught but death.’

‘Let us look,’ said Carmelo in a low tone. He felt as if he were choking.

He broke off with a loud cry.

Under one of the maples of the vinefields that stretched all around he saw the old man sitting. The tree was heavy with green grapes, and the leaves were golden with sunbeams. Pippo was bare‐headed, and his head was sunk on his breast.

Carmelo ran to him and threw himself beside him.

‘Grandfather, don’t you know me? page: 349 Speak to me! look at me! Don’t you see me, me, Carmelo? don’t you hear?’

The old man’s clothes and long white hair were wet with dew; he had been out all night. He lifted his head, but his face was quite vacant. He chuckled a little; and he kept a great old rusty key in his hand. Carmelo saw it, and understood, and his heart stood still.

‘They won’t get in,’ said Pippo in a whisper, clutching the key. ‘They won’t get in; I’ve got the key. It is my house, and I am master. There were many of them, so I took the key and hid. It is my house; it is my house.’

That was all he said; he hugged the key against his breast and chuckled.

‘It is my house; they’ll find I’m master. They’ve taken a hundred scudi from me, and all the things, and the bed that the girl was page: 350 born on, and the bit of glass she saw her pretty face in; and the little dog is dead, and the reeds in the river are wanted for the king; but they won’t get in the house; I’ve got the key.’

His hands clenched the thing closer and closer; he laughed a little feeble laugh of foolish triumph.

His mind was quite gone.

When the law had seized his house it had given the death‐blow to his poor old brain, that for so long had been ‘buzzing and muddling,’ and seeing nothing anywhere in the air or in the water, in the sky or on the land, but those figures that had puzzled him so.

‘I’ve got the key, they can’t get in; it’s my house, it’s my house; and when I’m dead you’ll bury me under the almond‐trees where the little dog is, and you’ll make the page: 351 house into a chapel,’ he muttered, clasping the key to his bosom, and looking with blank and foolish eyes into the sunshine that played with the vines .

At that moment, at the banquet in the Pretura of Pomodoro, the Cavaliere Durellazzo was reading out with much applause an oration compiled for him by Messer Gaspardo Nellemane.

In this eloquent speech he spoke of the prosperity of the country, of the excellence of the laws, of the admirable economy that was observed in every public department, of the necessity for Italia to be heard and respected in the councils of Europe, and of the large army that must be one of her chief glories as a great Power.

The discourse was received with great enthusiasm, and was duly reported in the page: 352 local press, and praised in the organs alike of the Opposition, the Dissidenti, and the Ministry.

‘I recognise your hand,’ whispered Signor Luca Finti to Messer Nellemane. ‘You must become a deputy at the next election; and I make no doubt that you and I some day shall sit as Ministers round the same council table.’

Messer Nellemane smiled modestly as he slipped away to send a telegram in the name of the two Syndics to the King, announcing the completion of the great work opened that day.

He saw no reason why the prediction should not be fulfilled; nor, I confess, do I see any. He has every qualification for he honour.