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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
page: 16


ALL the winter would roll away ere he would behold the eyes of his betrothed; he who should have wedded her in the mid‐summer months, when the crickets were chaunting in the trees, and the magnolias and the rose‐laurels were all ablaze with bloom. During the four months since his arrest he had striven to keep his reason and his patience, saying always to himself that he would be set free at once when his cause should be clearly heard. Hope had sustained him all that while, but now he had no hope.

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The sentence had been passed; the doors had closed, the bolts been fastened on him.

He was in prison for seven months.

Ah! judges and gentlemen of the council, who put youths in your prison cells for bathing in a river in the heat, for rescuing a dog from the slaughterer, from begging for a coin when their old mothers or their young babes starve and perish, how much I should like you to taste that prison yourselves! The Bastille was the royal dungeon of the noblesse, and scarcely deserved the rage of the people; but these petty bastilles all over the land, where by petty laws the honest, the poor, the helpless, the courageous, for every trifling act of life are thrown to break their hearts as they may, and from which they can only issue with blackened names and ruined characters—when will page: 18 these accursed places, that mingle the righteous with the unrighteous, the godly and the innocent with the thief and the assassin, surrender to the summons of the nation, and be dismantled and destroyed?

Never so long as Messer Nellemane and his kind shall reign; and make of every brave impulse of pity, of every despairing cry of want, a crime.

Carmelo, lying on the hard narrow bed of the prison cell, recovered from his swoon, stared with dull aching eyes up at the ceiling; the prison had been an old palace once, and on the ceiling, which was a section of what had been once a grand and vaulted roofing of a banqueting hall, there was still in unfaded frescoes a little group of angels bearing palms and flying up against the stars.

Those angels seemed an innocent mockery to Carmelo; the innocent lad to whom the saints page: 19 and the sons of God had been no whit less real than the poplars on the river shore, hated them now, and thought them cruel deceptions, beautiful fair lies.

‘If they were really up there beyond the sun, they would not let these things be,’ he said between his teeth, lying on his back, and knowing that for seven long months he would be a prisoner, treated like a felon, because a vile wrong had been done to him, and he had justly chastised it.

Carmelo had always been in the open air, up whilst the skies were still dark, on the road with the mule, at work under the trees, fishing in the Rosa water, dashing the ruddy grain down into the black mouth of the shaft; on feast days and holy days strolling through the lanes and fields with a flower behind his ear, or thrumming his mandoline in the moonlight under the porch; page: 20 a free life and a happy one, doing no harm and thinking none, enjoying vaguely but intensely, as the bull enjoys the pastures when the springtide grass is sweet in the dew of dawn; a natural life and a wholesome life, with free movement of the limbs and unpolluted air in the lungs, dumb in outward expression, but keen to inward pleasure from scent, and sight, and sound.

To him every moment in this close den, without a breath of air, with scarce a gleam of sunlight, was despair. A day in a prison to a free‐born son of the soil, used to work with the broad bright sky alone above his head, is more agony than a year of it is to a cramped city‐worker used only to the twilight of a machine‐room or a workshop, only to an air full of smuts and smoke, and the stench of acids, and the dust of filed steel or sifted coal. The suffering of the page: 21 two cannot be compared, and one among many of the injustices the law, all over the world, commits is that it never takes into consideration what a man’s past has been. There are those to whom a prison is a hell; there are those to whom it is something better than the life they led.

Carmelo lay on his rough sacking, and stared at the painted angels that the last glow of the sunset had illumined, and he thought that on the morrow he would be a madman and know nothing. That was his fear. His brain boiled and burned in his skull, and his heart seemed to pant and leap like a wounded hare springing before the hounds.

When the gaoler looked in at morning, the lad was in high fever: they called the parish doctor of Pomodoro, he pronounced it to be congestion of the brain. They took page: 22 him in a litter to the infirmary, a dark, foul smelling, ill‐kept place, where the doctor tried experiments on the patients as he pleased, and cut up dogs and cats alive in a back room, and flattered himself that this was science.

When will the truth be written of hospitals anywhere? If ever it were written, the faculty would swear it all a lie.

No one hardly ever recovered in this infirmary, certainly none were ever the better for it. All Carmelo’s auburn locks were shaved off, and many ounces of blood were taken from him, and little else was done; he was a prisoner, and really it did not matter. His father, who was not allowed to see him, drew his last franc out of the Cassa di Risparmio¹ to bespeak the doctor’s care for him and the doctor took the fees; secretly, as


page: 23 he was forbidden by the rules to touch a centime.

‘The dear lad, he has ruined me!’ thought the old man, who was feeble and broken in health since the fit before the Pretura, and who had spent nearly his all over the long account of the notary; ‘dear lad, he has ruined me! Yet he is as innocent as a babe unborn!’

The miller was not a weak man, nor given to such weaknesses, but the hot tears rose in his eyes and fell down his furrowed cheeks as he left the hospital bed. He was not allowed to stay there, nor to send any sister or brother of Carmelo’s to him, and he felt as though his tough heart would break, as he got up behind his good grey horse and jolted over the ruts of the road in the twilight of the November afternoon.

Why had all this ever come upon him? page: 24 Who put these thieves and tyrants there on those stools of office?

The Government had done, he supposed. To him, the Government meant the King. He cursed the King. How could he tell that the King had no more to do with these things than with the melons and pumpkins that had ripened with the summer sun under his garden wall?

It is the White Cross of Savoy which the ink splashes of Messer Nellemane’s documents stain in the people’s eyes.

How can you expect them to comprehend the contradictions of constitutionalism?

The King caused it all, and set Messer Nellemane on that office throne; so thought Demetrio Pastorini, and so think tens of thousands; but the thought failed to console the old miller as he went along the dusky road that he knew so well; indeed it made page: 25 his pain the more bitter to him, because he had lost a dearly beloved and only brother in days when they were young, in those wars against the ‘stranieri’ which they were told had given them freedom.

So weary were his thoughts and so preoccupied, and so dim were his eyes with tears, that if the good grey horse had not been acquainted with the way for fifteen years, he might have missed it for aught that his master did to guide him.

Hè—o! Ouf!’ cried the old man to the horse in surprise, as his own mill‐house loomed through the grey shadows, and the horse checked his trot without the command.

In the mist of the autumn night that was closing in, he could see the figure of his eldest daughter as she ran out to him; she was sobbing, and the sound of her sobs was borne to him through the cold, quiet, misty air.

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‘Oh father,’ she stammered, ‘Oh father!’ and then she came to the side of the cart, and lifted herself up on the side of the wheel and caught his hand: ‘Oh father’ she cried again.

The old man trembled.

‘What is it new of sorrow?’ he said: he spoke almost roughly from very fear.

The girl standing up on the shaft caught his hand:

‘Oh father, do not mind too much—the trees !’

‘The trees!’

He said no more; he got down off the cart and threw the reins of rope to the youngest boy.

‘Lead the horse to the stable,’ he said unsteadily. ‘The trees? what of the trees?’

He strode off in the darkness towards the river, and the girl followed him.

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‘Oh father!’ she said again with a great sob.

There was very little light but the gleam of the moon as the clouds swept by; it was enough to show him what had been done in his absence.

Three of the poplars had been felled.

‘Oh father!’ said the girl catching at his hands once more. ‘We did all we could to stop them, but they would not wait . There were six of them with hatchets, and an overseer. They said they had the right by law. Oh father!—’