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A Village Commune, Vol. II. Ouida, 1839–1908.
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page: 36

CHAPTER XX.

IN Santa Rosalia the winter was hard and, for this country, long. Snow came; not the snow of cold countries, with all the glories of an ice‐clad, frost‐hung world; not snow pure, serene, beautiful, with holly‐berries red against it, and fir‐trees dark, not the snow of lands where snow means Noël, Santa Claus, or Father Christmas; but snow that fell in the night and melted in the day, and left a muddy, slushy, watery, slippery slough of despond in its place: snow that killed the olive, broke the arbutus boughs, withered into death the passion‐ page: 37 flower, and changed to putrefaction the aloe and the cactus; snow that blurred out all the sunny pastoral loveliness, and made the landscape grey and sear.

In this sort of winter‐time the poor are the first to pine and perish everywhere, but soonest of all in this land of sunshine and south wind.

The impetuous Rosa was as over full of water as it had been low and shallow in the midsummer; it ran out over its banks and flooded the fields, where Science brought in with Liberty had felled the trees and hedges that had been used to serve as dykes.

There was no work in the flooded or in the frozen fields; the contadini wanted no labourers; there was nothing to be done anywhere; there was a score of empty hands ready if ever such a little job needed the doing.

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The houses, all built for warm weather, with their open loggie and their ill‐fitting windows, were swept through by the north wind as though they had been canvas tents. There was scant fuel; the old times were gone when they could glean it on all the hillsides, for the best reason, that nearly all the woods were felled. Wine was so dear no poor man could drink it, and bread was frightfully dear, too. The people cowered over their little brown pots of lighted brace, and did not complain. When anyone gave them a coin they were passionately grateful.

Most winters they suffered like this; but this winter the suffering was greater than usual. A few said something about getting work in the Maremma, where all the work is done in winter; but they might as well have spoken of getting work in the page: 39 moon; they could as well get to the one as the other. They had no idea how to travel there, and nothing to travel with; besides, nine‐tenths of them were women and children, for whom the Maremma had no need and no room.

Of course these people were very thankless and unreasonable. There was a railway twelve miles off, there was going to be gas in Pomodoro, and there was Messer Nellemane in their midst, all three monuments of progress.

But these silly people persisted in feeling that they would prefer cheap wine, cheap bread, and stomachs full of both, even to a railway, gas, or Messer Nellemane.

The winter is never very long in Italy, yet this seemed very long indeed. The mill wheels, after having been immovable from drought, were now useless from ice, and the page: 40 miller, from a plump, jovial, strong man, had become thin, haggard, and silent, feeling the weight of bitter sorrow and the aching of money‐cares.

In Pippo’s little house the blue Madonna heard no laughter and saw no fire‐gleam.

The old man had grown taciturn and irritable. Misfortune is no sweetener of temper or of bread. He would sit long together, crouched in a corner immovable, and his lips were at such times always moving inaudibly; he was counting up the sums of which they had robbed him; counting them again and again; a hundred times a day, a hundred times a night.

They had but little to live on: no one bought straw plaiting in winter, and, as he could not cut the osiers in the river, the rush‐working of Pippo bought but small profit.

When they could have a dish of oil and page: 41 beans they were very thankful; when they could not they boiled a little bread in water with a bit of garlic, and tried to believe it was soup.

Now and then they had a drop of bad coffee without milk: that was all: as wine they had mezzo‐vino, that is, the last juices of the already‐squeezed grape‐skins diluted with water, a drink to which vinegar were sweetness.

The Italian poor know as little of the bacon, and potatoes, and tea of the English labourer, as they do of the champagne and mutton of the English mechanic.

In summer time they can do well enough: there is the gracious sun shining on them, and there is always work to be had; but in winter there is terrible suffering, the more terrible, I think, because so quiet: the people die, that is all.

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‘Patience,’ they say, to the last; but their patience brings them nothing.

In Santa Rosalia there was great want, and there was nobody to succour it: the nobles of the province were away in the City keeping carnival, and no fattore ever cares for the poor: he gets labour cheap if he requires it, that is his view of the universal misery.

Vezzaja and Ghiralda possessed a charitable society; it was named after that purest of all saints, the Confraternità di San Francisco di Asissi, and it dated back to the thirteenth century.

Originally it had been a very noble society, and had owned broad lands, of which many estates still remained to it. It had been self‐denying, generous, religious, in the highest sense of that word, and gentle and simple had been proud to be page: 43 its ministers; but of this character there did not now remain to it so much as there did remain of its revenues. The rich were very willing to be on its staff; but the poor were not very willing to apply to it; it had a way of considering a case for three months, and then ordering as relief a few pounds of bread, which, when a whole family was waiting, and starving, and dying, was a little too dilatory to be very efficient.

But the fraternity of St. Francis still had its old palace in Pomodoro; still had its historical archives and its pious repute; still had nobles and gentlemen on its committee; and if it only gave a little bread now and then—well—pauperism, they say, should not be encouraged; and if its funds were never very clearly accounted for, we know these mediæval institutions cannot be worked in the mediæval way nowadays: St. Francis page: 44 saluted Lady Poverty; but we keep her well outside the door while we ask for her certificate.

Now old ’Nunziatina had an attack of bronchitis at this time, and though she recovered, which was little short of a miracle, she was by no means so strong again as she had been; and her draughty room under the tiles, scorching in summer, and frozen in winter, shared with three other old women, and without any stove, or any glass in the window, was not an abode to favour convalescence. The vicario of Santa Maria seeing this, bethought him of the Fraternity of St. Francis, and gave her a letter to its committee, urging her age, and honesty, and recent sickness, as fit reasons why she should benefit by this noble charity.

There was a quantity of money locked up in the revenues of this Fraternity, and it page: 45 had been intended for the poor; but then the present age, the age of Messer Nellemane, knows better than to spend it on the poor.

Those old times were so different to ours: different methods of administration become a necessity in modern days. The Fraternity made a great flourish, and printed long reports, and still charmed the province into subscriptions and donations; but if St. Francis could have been present when the accounts were made up, his benignant eyes would have blazed with the fury of his offended God.

Annunziata blessed Dom Lelio, and took the letter and the sixty centimes he gave her for the diligence, and betook herself, and her staff, and her broad hat, and her short petticoat into the rickety vehicle with much joy and hopefulness of spirit. If she could page: 46 get a certain little pension, if it were only a franc a week, she felt that she could praise heaven with a full heart. Her trotting round to all the outlying farm houses and villages with her basket was getting very toilsome to her.

Now, the President of the Fraternity was a certain most noble Count Saverio, who had a high repute as a philanthropist, and whose villa was close by to Pomodoro.

The Count gave his services, which were highly appreciated, nominally for nothing, saying, with much eloquence, that all his life was dedicated to service of God and the poor; and if he did do a good deal at the Bourse, and buy a great many terni at Lotto, that was his own affair, and in no way concerned St. Francis. Besides he did it through agents; and his own name never was heard except in connection with philanthropy.

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This very noble and pious gentleman received old ’Nunziatina, who made him a nice curtesy, and wished him every blessing in her cheery cordial way, which was as pleasant to hear as a bird’s chirping; he was sitting surrounded with ledgers and folios, in the muniment room of the castellated house of this ancient brotherhood; and he spoke so prettily and amiably to her that she felt quite sure of ten francs a month.

He was a long time looking over her papers and reading the priest’s recommendation; and then he smiled, and fussed about, and rang for his clerk, and whispered with him, and scribbled something and slipped it in a drawer, and then, finally looking across his writing‐table at Annunziata, said very pleasantly:

‘Money‐charities we never give; but come again on this day month, and we will page: 48 see if any exception can be made in your favour. I will put your case before the board: my compliments and reverence to the good Dom Lelio.’

The old woman made him another deep curtesy, and went away with a cruel disappointment nipping her old heart.

She did not protest. Italians rarely do.

That day the Count Saverio met Messer Nellemane in the streets of Pomodoro.

‘Oh! by the way,’ said the Count, ‘one of the people of your village was sent to me to‐day by the vicario. Perhaps you can tell me something of her, for Dom Lelio’s heart is apt to run away with his head. He wants us to grant her permanent weekly relief; an old woman, an odd‐looking old trot, by the name Taormina Annunziata, a widow.’

Messer Nellemane looked shocked.

‘Dom Lelio is very unwise,’ he said page: 49 gravely. ‘The person you speak of is one of the worst people in the borgo. A professional beggar. A confirmed beggar. She is very well off, they tell me; but she has that passion and preference for mendicancy which is like a disease.’

‘Dear, dear!’ said the President. ‘That is terrible. We must never encourage mendicancy. Dom Lelio should not put the society in such a position.’

‘What would you, Signore Conte?—He is a priest!’ said Messer Gaspardo with that scoff which is always on the lips of the Liberal; but seldom finds an echo in the hearts of the people.

The President smiled a little deprecatory smile, for of course he was a Liberal too, but as he was head of a semi‐religious corporation he could not quite laugh at the priesthood.

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The month passed over Annunziata’s grey head painfully; it was very cold, and she could make but little way about to those outlying farms where they had given her the most food. But her niece spared her all she could, and she said to herself every day, ‘The gentlemen promised he would think it over; he will be sure to do something for me when I go;’ and being of a very sanguine temperament, she managed to live on hope.

Her most dazzling idea was that they might allow her half a franc a day, but that she felt was too brilliant to be realised; if she got ten francs a month she felt she could ask nothing better of the saints in heaven or the gentlemen on earth.

It was with a glad spirit that she set out to Pomodoro on a chilly morning on the day appointed; she had smartened herself up as page: 51 well as she knew how; she liked to look respectable. She had her black hat tied under her chin, with a yellow handkerchief and a blue woollen skirt that a fattoressa up in the hills had given her at Ceppo, and a little rough red jacket that belonged to Viola.

She was very smart, indeed, for Annunziata was far above the idea of a professed beggar, that rags and dirt were more likely to provoke charity than cleanliness and order. She was no beggar at all; she never stretched her hand out for a farthing; she was old and people were kind to her; that was all.

With a smile of happy expectancy she stood once more before the Signore Conte Saverio in the muniment room.

But the President had no smile in return for her. He looked up with a stern glance page: 52 from his books and papers, and he frowned as he saw who was the petitioner.

‘You were so good as to tell me to come this day, sir,’ said the little old woman, as he remained silent. ‘You were so very kind as to say you would give me something, and all the month I have been living on your word, sir, for the winter is hard.’

Count Saverio, who had such a milk‐and‐honey‐reputation to lose that an act of severity was disagreeable to him, coughed and cleared his throat, and then said with the air of a father reproving a child: ‘Cara mia, it pains me very greatly to have pained you, but I can say only that the good Dom Lelio has been very much to blame. This honourable and charitable fraternity is established on the scope and to the end of relief—the judicious relief—of the deserving poor, of the honest poor, of the page: 53 laborious poor. It was never intended to support a beggar.’

‘No sir?’ said Annunziata, puzzled and not following his drift, for she never thought of herself as a beggar.

‘It was never intended to encourage mendicancy,’ pursued the President, gathering a heavier frown as he warmed with his theme. ‘Mendicancy is a curse of the country. It is the heaviest sin to foster it. All our efforts are directed to its suppression. The first qualification to be fit to claim the aid of our society is never to have begged. Now you—you are an habitual mendicant; you habitually subsist on public alms. No doubt some frightful improvidence in your youth has brought you to this pass in your old age? With that we have nothing to do; all that concerns us is to obey the laws of the Fraternity. You are not eligible for page: 54 election; you are not even eligible for momentary relief from our funds. You are a beggar.’

Annunziata stared hard at him, her little bright bird‐like eyes wide open with amazement.

‘A beggar, sir? I?’ she stammered. ‘No, that I never was. People are good to me and I bless them. As for spending when I was young, sir, that I never did, for I was left a widow when I was forty‐two, sir—my man fell off a house‐top, and I had to bring up four children, and I did bring them up well, sir, all beautiful grown men and maidens, though every one of them are in Paradise now—and I always was very poor, sir, though it is true that when I was young the land was happy and the people too, not starved, and pinched, and squeezed like lemons in a presser as they are now‐a‐days. page: 55 But spend I never could, sir, because I never had but just enough to keep life in my children and me, and now that I am old, sir, seventy‐six come the blessed day of St. Peter, the people that have known me all my life are good to me, and may the saints remember them for it, for what can a woman of my age earn, though I do say I can see to plait still?’

‘Enough!’ said the Count sternly. ‘You may gloss it over as you please, you are a beggar; you have no other means of subsistence than by the charity of others.’

‘No, sir; and that is why I come here,’ said Annunziata, who was not without a spirit.

‘Beggars are ineligible,’ said the President impatiently as well as severely this time. ‘You are a beggar. Dom Lelio committed an offence against the law in recom‐ page: 56 mending you for the charity of this community. We have nothing to do with you. Our rules would forbid us if we were inclined. You had no business whatever to come here; I am occupied. I must request you to withdraw.’

‘I beg your pardon, sir; pray do not hurt Dom Lelio for me. He meant what he did in all goodness,’ said Annunziata with a quivering lip; and then she dropped her little curtesy and went out, and going across the street, at the cold dark shelter of the opposite church sank on her knees on the pavement before the nearest altar and sobbed bitterly.

We who eat and drink as we wish every day, and on the score of our appetites suffer nought save perhaps something from the Nemesis of dyspepsia, we can ill realise what the disappointment is of a denial that refuses page: 57 daily bread, and leaves an old and painful life alone to the menace of a death by hunger; we cannot understand, try how we will, what they mean—the empty cupboard, the cold hearth, the bed of sacking, the gnawing pangs, the famine faintness, the slow, long, cruel hours that creep on from dawn to dark, from dark to dawn again, and bring no friend, no food, no hope, no rescue.

These all faced Annunziata in her future: that poor little sorrowful future that stood between her and her grave; so short in years as it must be, so long in misery as it would be.

Rheumatism racked her bones, and she knew that soon she would be bedridden, and then—well—the people gave to her when they saw her cheery face and her empty basket, but when she lay in her bed, and they saw her no more, they would forget.

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They would none of them come to her, any more than they would go to her tomb, when it should be made, a mere nameless hole under the rank grass of the common burying‐ground.

The world does not take into account people who have nothing. They should be provident enough in their youth, and save money even if they have not enough to hold body and soul together, and never enough to satisfy hunger!

They should save money.

Stentorello is the type of Italian on the stage, and the people in truth are perhaps too miserly and fond of gain; but is there much wonder at that in this country? There is no poor rate, and no workhouse, and nothing for the honest poor except a metre or so of ground in the cemeteries.

That is not a prospect to strengthen bare page: 59 arms in the battle of life, or moisten parched lips dry with toil. The dead wasp is thought of by its kind, but the dead poor have no such remembrance from theirs.

Viola was watching for her as the diligence rolled heavily into the piazza at Santa Rosalia. The girl sprang to her and looked in her face, and her own face fell at what she read there.

‘They have refused you!’ she cried.

‘Yes, dear,’ said Annunziata with a quiver in her voice. ‘They think I am a beggar, and that I never am and never was, as you know, for I never ask aught; never, never! they give me what they like to give me, and I am thankful.’

‘When you have nothing, how can you help that?’ said the girl, with a sob of indignation.

Annunziata bore up somehow or other page: 60 against her lot and endured her hard pallet, her damp chamber, her dry atom of bread, because she still believed, against all witness to the contrary, that her God cared for her; that somehow or other when her soul should leave her little shrivelled, brown body, she would see the light of a gladder day than ever shone on earth.

She was an old woman, and had been bred up in the old faiths; faiths that were not clear indeed to her, nor ever reasoned on, but yet gave her consolation, and a great, if a vague, hope. Now that we tell the poor there is no such hope, that when they have worked and starved long enough, then they will perish altogether, like bits of candle that have burnt themselves out, that they are mere machines made of carbon and hydrogen, which, when they have had due friction, will then crumble back into the page: 61 dust; now that we tell them all this, and call this the spread of education, will they be as patient?

Will not they, too, since this short life is all, insist at any price of blood that it shall be made sweet and made strong for them?

Will not they seize by violence on violent drugs, and drink themselves drunk on the alcohol of communism?

Why should they not? Since there is nothing beyond this life, why should they toil that you and I may be at ease?

Take hope from the heart of man, and you make him a beast of prey.

The philosopher stands at his desk in the lecture hall, and demonstrates away the soul of man, and with exact thought measures out his atoms and resolves him back to gas and air. But the revolutionary, below in the crowd, hears, and only translates what he page: 62 hears thus to his brethren: ‘Let us drink while we may; property is robbery; this life is all; let us kill and eat; there is no God.’

The philosopher may cry to the winds, ‘Love virtue for its own sake.’

The communist is more logical than he.

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