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X THE SIROCCO
After that two years passed quietly. The only thing that happened at Diamante and in all Sicily was that the people grew ever poorer and poorer.

Then there came an autumn, and it was about the time when the wine was to be harvested.

At that time songs generally rise full-fledged to the lips; at that time new and beautiful melodies stream from the mandolins.

Then crowds of young people go out to the vineyards, and there is work and laughter all day, dance and laughter all night, and no one knows what sleep is.

Then the bright ocean of air over the mountain is more beautiful than at any other time. Then the air is full of wit; sparkling glances flash through it; it gets warmth not only from the sun, but also from the glowing faces of the young women of Etna.

But that autumn all the vineyards were devastated by the phylloxera. No grape-pickers pushed their way between the vines; no long lines of women carrying heaped-up baskets on their heads wound up to the presses, and at night there was no dancing on the flat roofs.

That autumn no clear, light October air lay over the Etna region. As if it had been in league with[129] the famine, the heavy, weakening wind from the Sahara came over from Africa, and brought with it dust and exhalations that darkened the sky.

Never, as long as that autumn lasted, was there a fresh mountain breeze. The baleful Sirocco blew incessantly.

Sometimes it came dry and heavy with sand, and so hot that they had to shut doors and windows, and keep in their rooms, not to faint away.

But oftener it came warm and damp and enervating. And the people felt no rest; trouble left them neither by day nor by night, and cares piled upon them like snow-drifts on the high mountains.

And the restlessness reached Donna Micaela as she sat and watched with her old husband, Don Ferrante.

During that autumn she never heard any one laugh, nor heard a song. People crept by one another, so full of anger and despair that they were almost choked. And she said to herself that they were certainly dreaming of an insurrection. She saw that they had to revolt. It would help no one, but they had no other resource.

In the beginning of the autumn, sitting on her balcony, she heard the people talk in the street. They always talked of the famine: We have blight in wheat and wine; there is a crisis in sulphur and oranges; all Sicily’s yellow gold has failed. How shall we live?

And Donna Micaela understood that it was terrible. Wheat, wine, oranges, and sulphur, all their yellow gold!

She began to understand, too, that the misery was greater than men could bear long, and she[130] grieved that life should be made so hard. She asked why the people should be forced to bear such enormous taxes. Why should the salt tax exist, so that a poor woman could not go down to the shore and get a pail of salt water, but must buy costly salt in the government shops? Why should there be a tax on palm-trees? The peasants, with anger in their hearts, were felling the old trees that had waved so long over the noble isle. And why should a tax be put on windows? What did they want? Was it that the poor should take away their windows, move out of their rooms, and live in cellars?

In the sulphur-mines there were strikes and turbulence, and the government was sending troops to force the people back to work. Donna Micaela wondered if the government did not know that there was no machinery in those mines. Perhaps it had never heard that children dragged the ore up from the deep shafts. It did not know that these children were slaves; it could not imagine that parents had sold them to overseers. Or if the government did know it, why did it wish to help the mine-owners?

At one time she heard of a terrible number of crimes. And she began again with her questions. Why did they let the people become so criminal? And why did they let them be so poor and so ragged? Why must they all be so ragged? She knew that any one living in Palermo or Catania did not need to ask. But he who lived in Diamante could not help fearing and asking. Why did they let the people be so poor that they died of hunger?

As yet the summer was hardly over; it was no later in the autumn than the end of October, and already Donna Micaela began to see the day when[131] the insurrection would break out. She saw the starved people come rushing along the street. They would plunder the shops and they would plunder the few rich men there were in the town. Outside the summer palace the wild horde would stop, and they would climb up to the balcony and the glass doors. “Bring out the jewels of the old Alagonas; bring out Don Ferrante’s millions!” That was their dream,—the summer palace! They believed that it was as full of gold as a fairy palace.

But when they found nothing, they would put a dagger to her throat, to make her give up the treasures that she had never possessed, and she would be killed by the bloodthirsty crowds.

Why could not the great land-owners stop at home? Why must they irritate the poor by living in grand style in Rome and Paris? The people would not be so bitter against them if they stayed at home; they would not swear such a solemn and sacred oath to kill all the rich when the time should come.

Donna Micaela wished that she could have escaped to one of the big towns. But both her father and Don Ferrante fell ill that autumn, and for their sakes she was forced to remain where she was. And she knew that she would be killed as an atonement for the sins of the rich against the poor.

For many years misfortunes had been gathering over Sicily, and now they could no longer be held back. Etna itself began to menace an eruption. At night sulphurous smoke floated red as fire, and rumblings were heard as far away as Diamante. The end of everything was coming. Everything was to be destroyed at once.

Did not the government know of the discontent?[132] Ah, the government had at last heard of it, and it had appointed a committee. It was a great comfort to see the members of the committee come driving one fine day along the Corso in Diamante. If only the people had understood that they wished them well! If the women had not stood in their doorways and spat at the fine gentlemen from the mainland; if the children had not run beside the carriages and cried: “Thief, thief!”

Everything they did only stirred up the revolt, and there was no one who could control the people and quiet them. They trusted no officials. They despised those least who only took bribes. But people said that many belonged to the society of Mafia; they said that their one thought was to extort money and acquire power.

As time went on, several signs showed that something terrible was impending. In the papers they wrote that crowds of working-men were gathering in the larger towns and wandering about the streets. People read also in the papers how the socialist leaders were going through the country, and making seditious speeches. All at once it became clear to Donna Micaela whence all the trouble came. The socialists were inciting the revolt. It was their firebrand speeches that set the blood of the people boiling. How could they let them do it? Who was king in Sicily? Was his name Don Felice, or Umberto?

Donna Micaela felt a horror which she could not shake off. It was as if they had conspired especially against her. And the more she heard of the socialists, the more she feared them.

Giannita tried to calm her. “We have not a[133] single socialist in Diamante,” she said. “In Diamante no one is thinking of revolt.” Donna Micaela asked her if she did not know what it meant when the old distaff spinners sat in their dark corners, and told of the great brigands and of the famous Palermo fisherman, Giuseppe Alesi, whom they called the Masaniello of Sicily.

If the socialists could once get the revolt started, Diamante would also join in. All Diamante knew already that something dreadful was impending. They had seen the ghost of the big, black monk on the balcony of the Palazzo Geraci; they heard the owls scream through the night, and some declared that the cocks crowed at sunset, and were silent at daybreak.

One day in November Diamante was suddenly filled with terrible people. They were men with the faces of wild beasts, with bushy beards, and with big hands set on enormously long arms. Several of them wore wide, fluttering linen garments, and the people thought that they recognized in them famous bandits and newly freed galley-slaves.

Giannita related that all these wild people lived in the mountain wastes inland and had crossed Simeto and come to Diamante, because a rumor had gone about that revolt had already broken out. But when they had found everything quiet, and the barracks full of soldiers, they had gone away.

Donna Micaela thought incessantly of those people, and expected them to be her murderers. She saw before her their fluttering linen garments and their brute faces. She knew that they were lurking in their mountain holes, and waiting for the day when they should hear shots and the noise of an[134] outbreak in Diamante. Then they would fall upon the town with fire and murder, and march at the head of all the starving people as the generals and leaders in the plundering.

All that autumn Donna Micaela had to nurse both her father and Don Ferrante; for they lay sick month after month. People had told her, however, that their lives were in no danger.

She was very glad to be able to keep Don Ferrante alive, for it was her only hope that at the last the people would spare him, who was of such an old and venerated race.

As she sat by their sick-beds, her thoughts went often in longing to Gaetano, and many were the times when she wished that he were at home. She would not feel such terror and fear of death if he stood once more in his workshop. Then she would have felt nothing but security and peace.

Even now, when he was so far away, it was to him her thoughts turned when fear was driving her mad. Not a single letter had come from him since he had gone away, so that sometimes she believed that he had forgotten her entirely. At other times she was quite sure that he loved her, for she felt herself compelled to think of him, and knew that he was near her in thought, and was calling to her.

That autumn she at last received a letter from Gaetano. Alas, such a letter! Donna Micaela’s first thought was to burn it.

She had gone up to the roof-garden in order to be alone when she read the letter. She had once heard Gaetano’s declaration of love there. That had not moved her. It had neither warmed her nor frightened her.

[135]

But this letter was different. He prayed that she would come to him, be his, give him her life. When she read it she was frightened at herself. She felt how she longed to cry out into the air, “I am coming, I am coming,” and set out. It drew her, carried her away.

“Let us be happy!” he wrote. “We are losing time; the years are passing. Let us be happy!”

He described to her how they would live. He told her of other women who had obeyed love and been happy. He wrote as temptingly as convincingly.

But it was not the contents; it was the love that glowed and burned in the letter which overcame her. It rose from the paper like an intoxicating incense, and she felt it penetrate her. It was burning, longing, speaking, in every word.

Now she was no longer a saint to him, as she had been before. It came so unexpectedly, after two years’ silence, that she was stunned. And she was troubled because it delighted her.

She had never thought that love was like this. Should she really like it? She found with dismay that she did like it.

And so she punished both herself and him by writing a severe reply. It was moral, moral; it was nothing but moral! She was proud when she had written it. She did not deny that she loved him, but perhaps Gaetano would not be able to find the words of love, they were so buried in admonitions. He could not have found them, for he wrote no more letters.

But now Donna Micaela could no longer think of Gaetano as a shelter and a support. Now he was more dangerous than the men from the mountains.

[136]

Every day graver news came to Diamante. Everybody began to get out their weapons. And although it was forbidden, they were carried secretly by every one.

All travellers left the island, and in their place one regiment after another was sent over from Italy.

The socialists talked and talked. They were possessed by evil spirits; they could not rest until they had brought on the disaster!

At last the ringleaders had decided on the day on which the storm was to break loose. All Sicily, all Italy, was to rise. It was no longer menace; it was reality.

More and more troops came from the mainland. Most of them were Neapolitans, who live in constant feud with the Sicilians. And now the news came that the island had been declared in a state of siege. There were to be no more courts of justice; only court-martials. And the people said that the soldiers would be free to plunder and murder as they pleased.

No one knew what was to happen. Terror seemed to make every one mad. The peasants raised ramparts in the hills. In Diamante men stood in great groups on the market-place, stood there day after day, without going to their work. There was something terrible in those groups of men dressed in dark cloaks and slouch hats. They were all probably dreaming of the hour when they should plunder the summer palace.

The nearer the day approached when the insurrection was to break out, the sicker Don Ferrante became; and Donna Micaela began to fear that he would die.

[137]

It seemed to her a sign that she was predestined to destruction, that she was also losing Don Ferrante. Who would have any regard for her when he was no longer alive?

She watched over him. She and all the women of the quarter sat in silent prayer about his bed.

One morning, towards six o’clock, Don Ferrante died. And Donna Micaela mourned him, because he had been her only protector, and the only one who could have saved her from destruction; and she wished to honor the dead, as is still the custom in Diamante.

She had them drape the room where the body was lying with black, and close all the shutters, so that the glad sunlight should not enter. She had all the fires put out on the hearths, and sent for a blind singer to come to the palace every day and sing dirges.

She let Giannita care for Cavaliere Palmeri, so that she herself might sit quiet in the death-room, among the other women.

It was evening on the day of death before all preparations were completed, and they were waiting only for the White Brotherhood to come and take away the corpse. In the death-chamber there was the silence of the grave. All the women of the quarter sat there motionless with dismal faces.

Donna Micaela sat pale with her great fear, and stared involuntarily at the pall that was spread over the body. It was a pall which belonged to the family; their coat of arms was heavily and gorgeously embroidered on the centre, and it had silver fringes and thick tassels. The pall had never been spread over any one but an Alagona. It seemed to lie there[138] so that Donna Micaela should not for a moment forget that her last support had fallen, and that she was now alone, and without protection from the infuriated people.

Some one came in and announced that old Assunta had come. Old Assunta; what did old Assunta want? Yes, it was she who came to sing the praises of the dead.

Donna Micaela let Assunta come into the room. She appeared just as she looked every day, when she sat and begged on the Cathedral steps; the same patched dress, the same faded headcloth, and the same crutch.

Little and bent, she limped forward to the coffin. She had a shrivelled face, a sunken mouth, and dull eyes. Donna Micaela said to herself that it was incarnate helplessness and feebleness who had come into the room.

The old woman raised her voice and began to speak in the wife’s name.

“My lord is dead, and I am alone! He who raised me to his side is dead! Is it not terrible that my home has lost its master?—Why are the shutters of your windows closed? say the passers-by.—I answer, I cannot bear to see the light, because my sorrow is so great; my grief is three-fold.—What, are so many of your race carried away by the White Brethren?—No, none of my race is dead, but I have lost my husband, my husband, my husband!”

Old Assunta needed to say no more. Donna Micaela burst into lamentations. The whole room was filled with the sound of weeping from the sympathetic women; for there is no grief like losing a husband. Those who were widows thought of what[139] they had lost, and those who were not as yet widows thought of the time when they would not be able to go on the street, because no husband would be with them; when they would be left to loneliness, poverty, oblivion; when they would be nothing, mean nothing; when they would be the world’s outcast children because they no longer had a husband; because nothing any longer gave them the right to live.

It was late in December, the days between Christmas and the New Year.

There was still the same danger of insurrection, and people still heard terrifying rumors. It was said that Falco Falcone had gathered together a band of brigands in the quarries, and that he was only waiting for the appointed day to break into Diamante and plunder it.

It was also whispered that the people in several of the small mountain towns had risen, torn down the custom’s offices at the town-gates, and driven away the officials.

People said too that troops were passing from town to town, arresting all suspicious people, and shooting them down by hundreds.

Every one said that they must fight. They could not let themselves be murdered by those Italians without trying to make some resistance.

During all this, Donna Micaela sat tied to her father’s sick-bed, just as she had sat before by Don Ferrante’s. She could not escape from Diamante, and terror so grew within her that she was nothing but one trembling fear.

The last and worst of all the messages of terror that reached her had been about Gaetano.

[140]

For when Don Ferrante had been dead a week Gaetano had come home. And that had not caused her dismay; it had only made her glad. She had rejoiced in at last having some one near her who could protect her.

At the same time she decided that she could not receive Gaetano if he came to see her. She felt that she still belonged to the dead. She would rather not see Gaetano until after a year.

But when Gaetano had been at home a week without coming to the summer palace, she asked Giannita about him. “Where is Gaetano? Has he perhaps gone away again, since no one speaks of him?”

“Alas, Micaela,” answered Giannita, “the less people speak of Gaetano, the better for him.”

She told Donna Micaela, as if she was telling of a great shame, that Gaetano had become a socialist.

“He has been quite transformed over there, in England,” she said. “He no longer worships either God or the saints. He does not kiss the priest’s hand when he meets him. He says to every one that they shall pay no more duties at the town-gates. He encourages the peasants not to pay their rent. He carries weapons. He has come home to start a rebellion, to help the bandits.”

She needed to say no more to chill Donna Micaela with a greater terror than she had ever felt before.

It was this that the sultry days of the autumn had portended. It would be he who would shake the bolt from the clouds. Why had she not understood it long ago?

It was a punishment and a revenge. It would be he who would bring the misfortune!

During those last days she had been calmer. She[141] had heard that all the socialists on the island had been put in prison, and all the little insurrection fires lighted in the mountain towns had been quickly choked. It looked almost as if the rebellion would come to nothing!

But now the last Alagona was come, and him the people would follow. Life would enter into those black groups on the market-place. The men in the linen garments would climb up out of the quarries.

The next evening Gaetano spoke in the market-place. He had sat by the fountain, and had seen how the people came to get water. For two years he had foregone the pleasure of seeing the slender girls lift the heavy water-jars to their heads and walk away with firm, slow step.

But it was not only the young girls who came to the fountain; there were people of all ages. And when he saw how poor and unhappy most of them were, he began to talk to them of the future.

He promised them better times soon. He said to old Assunta that she hereafter should get her daily bread without needing to ask alms of any one. And when she said that she did not understand how that could be, he asked her almost with anger if she did not know that now the time had come when no old people and no children should be without care and shelter.

He pointed to the old chair-maker, who was as poor as Assunta, and moreover very sick, and he asked if she believed that the people would endure much longer having no support for the poor, and no hospitals. Could she not understand that it was impossible for such things to continue? Could they[142] not all understand that hereafter the old and the sick should be cared for?

He also saw some ch............
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