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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Waters Of Edera - Chapter XV
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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter XV Post by :tcrooks Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1309

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The Waters Of Edera - Chapter XV

To neglect no possible chance, he resolved to see the Prefect, if the Prefect consented to see him. This great official dwelt in a seaport city, whence he ruled the province, for such a period at least as his star should be in the ascendant, that is, whilt his political group should be in power. It was scarcely likely that a government official would be accessible to any arguments which a poor country priest could bring forward against a government project. Still, he resolved to make the effort, for at the Prefect's name apprehension, keen and quaking, had leapt into Count Corradini's faded eyes.

From San Beda to the seaport city there stretched some forty miles of distance; the first part a descent down the spurs of the Apennines, the latter half through level sandy country, with pine woods here and there. The first half he covered on foot, the second by the parliamentary train, which drew its long black line snake-like and slow, through the dunes and the stagnant waters. He had but a few francs in his waistband, and could ill afford to expend those.

When he reached his destination it was evening; too late for him to present himself at the Prefecture with any chance of admittance. The Prior at San Beda had given him a letter to the vicar of the church of Sant Anselmo in the city, and by this gentleman he was received and willingly lodged for the night.

"A government project -- a project approved by ministers and deputies?" said his host on hearing what was the errand on which he came there. "As well, my brother, might you assail the Gran Sasse d'Italia! There must be money in it, much money, for our Conscript Fathers."

"I suppose so," said Don Silverio, "but I cannot see where it is to come from."

"From the pockets of the taxpayers, my friend!" replied the incumbent of Sant Anselmo, with a smile as of a man who knows the world he lives in. "The country is honeycombed by enterprises undertaken solely to this end -- to pass the money which rusts in the pockets of fools into those of wise men who know how to make it run about and multiply. In what other scope are all our betterments, our hygiene, our useless railway lines, our monstrous new streets, all our modernisation, put in the cauldron and kept boiling like a witch's supper?"

"I know, I know," said Don Silverio wearily. "The whole land is overrun by _affaristi_, like red ants."

"Do not slander the ants!" replied his host; "I would not offend the name of any honest, hard-working little insect by giving it to the men through whom this country is eaten up by selfish avarice and unscrupulous speculation! But tell me, what do you hope for from our revered Prefect?"

"I hope nothing, but I wish to leave no stone unturned. Tell me of him."

"Of his Excellency, Giovacchino Gallo, senator, Grand Cross, and whatnot? There is much to tell, though there is nothing which could not be also told of many another gentleman in high place. It is the usual story: the supple spine, the sharp eye, the greased foot. He was a young lawyer, useful to deputies. He married a lovely woman whom a prince had admired beyond him. He asked no questions; her dower was large. To do him justice, he has always behaved very well to her. He entered Parliament early, and there was useful also, to existing institutions. He was instrumental in carrying many railway and canal bills through the chamber. He has been always successful in his undertakings, and he knows that nothing succeeds like success. I am told that he and his wife are _persone gratissime at the Quirinale, and that her jewels are extremely fine. When he was named Senator two years ago the Press, especially the Press of the Right, saluted his nomination as strengthening the Senate by the accession to it of a person of impeccable virtue, of enlightened intellect, and of a character cast in antique moulds of noble simplicity and Spartan courage. You think, my brother, that this favourite of fortune is likely to favour your plea for your parishioners?"

"Dear and revered brother," replied Don Silverio, "I came hither with no such illusions. If I had done, your biography of this functionary would have dispelled them."

Nevertheless, although without hope, at two o'clock of that day he went to the audience which was granted him at the intervention of the bishop of the city, obtained by means of the vicar of Sant Anselmo.

The Prefecture was situated in a palace of sixteenth century architecture, a noble and stately place of immense size, greatly injured by telegraph and telephone wires stretching all round it, the post-office and the tax offices being situated on the ground floor, and the great central court daubed over with fresh paint and whitewash. Some little soldiers in dingy uniforms, ill-cut and ill-fitting, stood about gates and doors. On the first floor were the apartments occupied by his Excellency. Don Silverio was kept waiting for some time in a vestibule of fine proportions painted by Diotisalvi, with a colossal marble group in its centre of the death of Caesar.

He looked at it wistfully.

"Ah, Guilio!" he murmured, "what use were your conquests, what use was your genius, the greatest perchance the world has ever seen? What use? You were struck in the throat like a felled ox, and the land you ruled lies bleeding at every pore!"

In a quarter of an hour he was ushered through other large rooms into one of great architectural beauty, where the Prefect was standing by a writing-table.

Giovacchino Gallo was a short, stout person with a large stomach, a bald head, bright restless eyes, and a high, narrow forehead; his face was florid, like the face of one to whom the pleasures of the table are not alien. His address was courteous but distant, stiff, and a little pompous; he evidently believed in himself as a great person and only unbent to other greater persons, when he unbent so vastly that he crawled.

"What can I do for your Reverence?" he asked, as he seated himself behind the writing-table and pointed to a chair.

The words were polite but the tone was curt; it was officialism crystallised.

Don Silverio explained the purpose of his visit, and urged the prayers of his people.

"I am but the vicar of Ruscino," he said in explanation, "but in this matter I plead for all the natives of the Valdedera. Your Excellency is Governor of this province, in which the Edera takes its rise and has its course. My people, and all those others who are not under my ministry, but whose desires and supplications I represent, venture to look to you for support in their greatest distress, and intercession for them against this calamity."

The face of the Prefect grew colder and sterner, his eyes got an angry sparkle, his plump, rosy hands closed on a malachite paper-knife; he wished the knife were of steel, and the people of the Valdedera had but one head.

"Are you aware, sir," he said impatiently, "that the matter of which you speak has had the ratification of Parliament?"

"But it has not had the ratification of the persons whom it most concerns."

"Do you supposed, then, when a great public work is to be accomplished the promoters are to go hat in hand for permission to every peasant resident on the area?"

"A great public work seems to me a large expression: too large for this case. The railway is not needed. The acetylene works are a private speculation. I venture to recall to your Excellency that these people, whom you would ignore, own the land, or, where they do not own it, have many interests both in the land and the water." "Pardon me, your Excellency, but that is a phrase: it is not a fact. You could not, if you gave them millions, compensate them for the seizure of their river and their lands. These belong to them and to their descendants by natural right. They cannot be deprived of these by Act of Parliament without gross injury and injustice." "There must be suffering for the individual in all benefit of the general!"

"And doubtless, sir, when one is not the individual the suffering appears immaterial!"

"What an insolent priest!" thought Giovacchino Gallo, and struck the paper-knife with anger on the table.

"Take my own parishioners alone," pursued Don Silverio. "Their small earnings depend entirely upon the Edera water; it gives them their food, their bed, their occupation; it gives them health and strength; it irrigates their little holdings, _extra murus_, on which they and their families depend for grain and maize and rice. If you change their river-bed into dry land they will starve. Are not your own countrymen dearer to you than the members of a foreign syndicate?"

"There will be work for them at the acetylene factory."

"Are they not free men? Are they to be driven like slaves to a work which would be hateful to them? These people are country born and country bred. They labour in the open air, and have done so for generations. Pardon me, your Excellency, but every year the King's Government forces into exile thousands, tens of thousands, of our hard working peasants with their families. The taxation of the land and of all its products lays waste thousands of square miles in this country. The country is being depleted and depopulated, and the best of its manhood is being sent out of it by droves to Brazil, to La Plata, to the Argentines, to anywhere and everywhere, where labour is cheap and climate homicidal. The poor are packed on emigrant ships and sent with less care than crated of fruit receive. They consent to go because they are famished here. Is it well for a country to lose its labouring classes, its frugal, willing, and hard-working manhood? to pack them off across the oceans by contract with other states? The Government has made a contract with a Pacific island for five thousand Italians? Are they free men or are they slaves? Can your Excellency call my people free who are allowed no voice against the seizure of their own river, and to whom you offer an unwholesome and indoor labour as compensation for the ruin of their lives? Now, they are poor indeed, but they are contented; they keep body and soul together, they live on their natal soil, they live as their fathers lived. Is it just, is it right, is it wise to turn these people into disaffection and despair by an act of tyranny and spoilation through which the only gainers will be foreign speculators abroad and at home the gamblers of the Bourses? Sir, I do not believe that the world holds people more patient, more long-suffering, more pacific under dire provocation, or more willing to subsist on the poorest and hardest conditions than Italians are; is it right or just or wise to take advantage of that national resignation to take from half a province the natural aid and the natural beauty with which God Himself has dowered it in the gift of the mountainborn stream? You are powerful, sir, you have the ear of the Government; you will not try to stop this infamous theft of the Edera water whilst there is still time?"

Don Silverio spoke with that eloquence and with that melody of voice which few could bear unmoved; and even the dull ear and the hard heart of the official who heard him were for one brief moment moved as by the pathos of a song sung by some great tenor.

But that moment was very brief. Over the face of Giovacchino Gallo a look passed at once brutal and suspicious. "Curse this priest!" he thought; "he will give us trouble."

He rose, stiff, cold, pompous, with a frigid smile on his red, full, _bon viveur's lips.

"If you imagine that I should venture to attack, or even presume to criticise, a matter which the Most Honourable the Minister of Agriculture has in his wisdom approved and ratified, you must have a strange conception of my fitness for my functions. As regards yourself, Reverend Sir, I regret that you appear to forget that the chief duty of your sacred office is to inculcate to your flock unquestioning submission to Governmental decrees."

"Is that your Excellency's last word?"

"It is my first, and my last, word."

Don Silverio bowed low.

"You may regret it, sir," he said simply, and left the writing-table and crossed the room. But as he approached the door the Prefect, still standing, said, "Wait!"

Gallo opened two or three drawers in his table, searched for some papers, looked over them, leaving the priest always standing between him and the door. Don Silverio was erect; his tall frail form had a great majesty in it; his pallid features were stern.

"Return a moment," said Gallo.

"I can hear your Excellency where I am," replied Don Silverio, and did not stir.

"I have here reports from certain of my agents," said Gallo, fingering his various papers, "that there is and has been for some time a subversive movement amongst the sparse population of the Valdedera."

Don Silverio did not speak or stir.

"It is an agrarian agitation," continued Gallo, "limited to its area, with little probability of spreading, but it exists; there are meetings by night, both open-air and secret meetings; the latter take place now in one farmhouse, now in another. The leader of this noxious and unlawful movement is one Adone Alba. He is of your parish."

He lifted his eyelids and flashed a quick, searching glance at the priest.

"He is of my parish," repeated Don Silverio, with no visible emotion.

"You know of this agitation?"

"If I did, sir, I should not say so. But I am not in the confidence of Adone Alba."

"Of course I do not ask you to reveal the secrets of the confessional, but --"

"Neither in the confessional nor out of it have I heard anything whatever from him concerning any such matter as that of which you speak."

"He is a young man?"

"Yes."

"And the owner of the land known as the Terra Vergine?"

"Yes."

"And his land is comprised in that which will be taken by the projected works?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure that he has not sent you here?"

"My parishoners are not in the habit of 'sending' me anywhere. You reverse our respective positions."

"Humility is not one of your ecclesiastical virtues, Most Reverend."

"It may be so."

Gallo thrust his papers back into their drawer and locked it with a sharp click.

"You saw the Syndic of San Beda?"

"I did."

"Much what you say. Official language is always limited and learned by rote."

Gallo would willingly have thrown his bronze inkstand at the insolent ecclesiastic; his temper was naturally choleric, though years of sycophancy and State service had taught him to control it.

"Well, Reverend Sir!" he said, with ill-concealed irritation, "this conversation is, I see, useless. You protect and screen your people. Perhaps I cannot blame you for that, but you will allow me to remind you that it is my duty to see that the order and peace of this district are not in any manner disturbed; and that any parish priest if he fomented dissatisfaction or countenanced agitation in his district, would be much more severely dealt with by me than any civilian would be in the same circumstances. We tolerate and respect the Church so long as she remains strictly within her own sphere, but so long only."

"We are all perfectly well aware of the conditions attached to the _placet and the _exequatur at all times, and we are all conscious that even the limited privileges of civilians are denied to us!" replied Don Silverio. "I have the honour to wish your Excellency good morning."

He closed the door behind him.

"Damnation!" said Giovacchino Gallo; "that is a strong man! Is Mother Church blind that she lets such an one rust and rot in the miserable parish of Ruscino?"

When Don Silverio rejoined the Vicar of Sant Anselmo the latter asked him anxiously how his errand had sped.

"It was a waste of breath and words," he answered. "I might have known that it would be so with any Government official."

"But you might have put a spoke in Count Corradini's wheel. If you had told Gallo that the other is trafficking --"

"Why should I betray a man who received me in all good faith? And what good would it have accomplished if I had done so?"

And more weary than ever in mind and body he returned to Ruscino.

As he had left the Prefect's presence that eminent person had rung for his secretary.

"Brandone, send me Sarelli."

In a few moments Sarelli had appeared; he was the usher of the Prefecture by appointment; by taste and in addition he was its chief spy. He was a native of the city, and a person of considerable acumen and excellent memory; he never needed to make memoranda -- there is nothing so dangerous to an official as written notes. "Sarelli, what are the reports concerning the vicar of Ruscino?"

Sarelli stood respectfully at attention; he had been a non-commissioned officer of artillery; and answered in rapid but clear tones --

"Great ability -- great eloquence -- disliked by superiors; formerly great preacher in Rome; supposed to be at Ruscino as castigation; learned -- benevolent -- correct."

"Humph!" said Gallo, disappointed. "Not likely then to cause trouble or disorder? -- to necessitate painful measures?"

Sarelli rapidly took his cue.

"Hitherto, your Excellency, uniformly correct; except in one instance --"

"That instance?"

"Your Excellency will have heard of Ulisse Ferrero, a great robber of the lower Abruzzo Citeriore Primo?"

"I have: continue."

"Ulisse Ferrero was outlawed; his band had been killed or captured, every one; he had lost his right arm; he hid for many years in the lower woods of Abruzzo; he came down at night to the farmhouses, the people gave him food and drink, and aided him --"

"Their criminal habit always: continue."

"Sometimes in one district, sometimes in another, he was often in the _macchia of the Valdedera. The people of the district, and especially of Ruscino, protected him. They thought him a saint, because once when at the head of his band, which was then very strong, he had come into Ruscino and done them no harm, but only eaten and drunk, and left a handful of silver pieces to pay for what he and his men had taken. So they protected him now, and oftentimes for more than a year he came out of the _macchia_, and the villagers gave him all they could, and he went up and down Ruscino as if he were a king; and this lasted for several seasons, and, as we learned afterwards, Don Silverio Frascara had cognisance of this fact, but did nothing. When Ulisse Ferrero was at last captured (it is nine years ago come November, and it was not in Ruscino but in the woods above), and brought to trial, many witnesses were summoned, and amongst them this Don Silverio; and the judge said to him, 'You had knowledge that this man came oftentimes into you parish?' and Don Silverio answered, 'I had.' 'You knew that he was an outlaw, in rupture with justice?' 'I did,' he answered. Then the judge struck his fist with anger on his desk. 'And you a priest, a guardian of order, did not denounce him to the authorities?' Then Don Silverio, your Excellency, quite quietly, but with a smile (I was there close to him), had the audacity to answer the judge. 'I am a priest,' he said 'and I study my breviary, but do not find in it any command which authorises me to betray my fellow creatures.' That made a terrible stir in the tribunal, you Excellency. They talked of committing him to gaol for contempt of court and for collusion with the outlaw. But it took place at San Beda, where they are all _papalini_, as your Excellency knows, and nothing was done, sir."

"That reply is verily like this priest!" thought Giovacchino Gallo. "A man of ability, of intellect, of incorruptible temper, but a man as like as not to encourage and excuse sedition."

Aloud he said, "You may go, Sarelli. Good morning."

"May I be allowed a word, sir?"

"Speak."

"May it not well be, sir, that Don Silverio's organisation or suggestion is underneath this insurrectionary movement of the young men in the Valdedera?"

"It is possible; yes. See to it."

"Your servant, sir."

Sarelli withdrew, elated. He loved tracking, like a bloodhound, for the sheer pleasure of the "cold foot chase." The official views both layman and priest with contempt and aversion; both are equally his prey, both equally his profit: he lives by them and on them, as the galleruca does on the elm-tree, whose foliage it devours, but he despises them because they are not officials, as the galleruca doubtless, if it can think, despises the elm.

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Of course his absence could not be hidden from any in his parish. The mere presence of the rector of an adjacent parish, who had taken his duties, sufficed to reveal it. For so many years he had never stirred out of Ruscino in winter cold or summer heat, that none of his people could satisfactorily account to themselves for his now frequent journeys. The more sagacious supposed that he was trying to get the project for the river undone; but they did not all have so much faith in him. Many had always been vaguely suspicious of him; he was
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One morning in early April Adone received a printed invitation to attend in five days' time at the Municipality of San Beda to hear of something which concerned him. It was brought by the little old postman who went the rounds of the district once a week on his donkey; the five days had already expired before the summons was delivered. Adone's ruddy cheeks grew pale as he glanced over it; he thrust it into the soil and drove his spade through it. The old man waiting, in hopes to get a draught of wine, looked at him in dismay."Is that
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