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HOME > Classical Novels > The Miracles of Antichrist > II PANEM ET CIRCENSES
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In Diamante travellers are often shown two palaces that are falling into ruins without ever having been completed. They have big window-openings without frames, high walls without a roof, and wide doors closed with boards and straw. The two palaces stand opposite each other on the street, both equally unfinished and equally in ruins. There are no scaffoldings about them, and no one can enter them. They seem to be only built for the doves.

Listen to what is told of them.

What is a woman, O signore? Her foot is so little that she goes through the world without leaving a trace behind her. For man she is like his shadow. She has followed him through his whole life without his having noticed her.

Not much can be expected of a woman. She has to sit all day shut in like a prisoner. She cannot even learn to spell a love-letter correctly. She cannot do anything of permanence. When she is dead there is nothing to write on her tombstone. All women are of the same height.

But once a woman came to Diamante who was as much above all other women as the century-old palm is above the grass. She possessed lire by thousands, and could give them away or keep them, as she pleased. She turned aside for no one. She[194] was not afraid of being hated. She was the greatest marvel that had ever been seen.

Of course she was not a Sicilian. She was an Englishwoman. And the first thing she did when she came was to take the whole first floor of the hotel for herself alone. What was that for her? All Diamante would not have been enough for her.

No, all Diamante was not enough for her. But as soon as she had come she began to govern the town like a queen. The syndic had to obey her. Was it not she who made him put stone benches in the square? Was it not at her command that the streets were swept every day?

When she woke in the morning all the young men of Diamante stood waiting outside her door, to be allowed to accompany her on some excursion. They had left shoemaker’s awl and stone-cutter’s chisel to act as guides to her. Each had sold his mother’s silk dress to buy a side-saddle for his donkey, so that she might ride on it to the castle or to Tre Castagni. They had divested themselves of house and home in order to buy a horse and carriage to drive her to Randazzo and Nicolosi.

We were all her slaves. The children began to beg in English, and the old blind women at the hotel door, Donna Pepa and Donna Tura, draped themselves in dazzlingly white veils to please her.

Everything moved round her; industries and trades grew up about her. Those who could do nothing else dug in the earth for coins and pottery to offer her. Photographers moved to the town and began to work for her. Coral merchants and hawkers of tortoise-shell grew out of the earth about her. The priests of Santa Agnese dug up the old Dionysius[195] theatre, that lay hidden behind their church, for her sake; and every one who owned a ruined villa unearthed in the darkness of the cellar remains of mosaic floors and invited her by big posters to come and see.

There had been foreigners before in Diamante, but they had come and gone, and no one had enjoyed such power. There was soon not a man in the town who did not put all his trust in the English signorina. She even succeeded in putting a little life into Ugo Favara. You know Ugo Favara, the advocate, who was to have been a great man, but had reverses and came home quite broken. She employed him to take care of her affairs. She needed him, and she took him.

There has never been a woman in Diamante who has done so much business as she. She spread out like green-weed in the spring. One day no one knows that there is any, and the next it is a great clump. Soon it was impossible to go anywhere in Diamante without coming on her traces. She bought country houses and town houses; she bought almond-groves and lava-streams. The best places on Etna to see the view were hers as well as the thirsting earth on the plain. And in town she began to build two big palaces. She was to live in them and rule her kingdom.

We shall never see a woman like her again. She was not content with all that. She wished also to fight the fight with poverty, O signore, with Sicilian poverty! How much she gave out each day, and how much she gave away on feast-days! Wagons, drawn by two pairs of oxen, went down to Catania and came back piled up with all sorts of clothing.[196] She was determined that they should have whole clothes in the town where she reigned.

But listen to what happened to her; how the struggle with poverty ended and what became of the kingdom and the palace.

She gave a banquet for the poor people of Diamante, and after the banquet an entertainment in the Grecian theatre. It was what an old emperor might have done. But who has ever before heard of a woman doing such a thing?

She invited all the poor people. There were the two blind women from the hotel-door, and old Assunta from the Cathedral steps. There was the man from the post-house, who had his chin bound up in a red cloth on account of cancer of the face; and there was the idiot who opens the iron doors of the Grecian theatre. All the donkey-boys were there, and the handless brothers, who exploded a bomb in their childhood and lost their fingers; and the man with the wooden leg, and the old chair-maker who had grown too old to work, both were there.

It was strange to see them creep out of their holes, all the poor in Diamante. The old women who sit and spin with distaffs in the dark alleys were there, and the organ-grinder, who has an instrument as big as a church-organ, a wandering young mandolinist from Naples with a body full of all possible deviltries. All those with diseased eyes and all the decrepit; those without a roof over their heads; those who used to collect sorrel by the roadside for dinner; the stone-cutter, who earned one lira a day and had six children to provide for,—they had all been invited and were present at the feast.

It was poverty marshalling its troops for the English[197] signorina. Who has such an army as poverty? But for once the English signorina could conquer it.

She had something to fight with too and to conquer with. She filled the whole square with loaded tables. She had wine-skins arranged along the stone bench that lines the wall of the Cathedral. She had turned the deserted convent into a larder and kitchen. She had all the foreign colony in Diamante dressed in white aprons, to serve the courses. She had all of Diamante who are used to eating their fill, wandering to and fro as spectators.

Ah, spectators, what did she not have for spectators? She had great Etna and the dazzling sun. She had the red peaks of the inland mountains and the old temple of Vulcan, that was now consecrated to San Pasquale. And none of them had ever seen a satisfied Diamante. None of them had ever before happened to think how much more beautiful they themselves would be if the people could look at them without hunger hissing in their ears and trampling on their heels.

But mark one thing! Although that signorina was so wonderful and so great, she was not beautiful. And in spite of all her power, she was neither charming nor attractive. She did not rule with jests, and she did not reward with smiles. She had a heavy, clumsy body, and a heavy, clumsy disposition.

The day she gave food to the poor she became a different person. A chivalrous people live in our noble island. Among all those poor people there was not one who let her feel that she was exercising charity. They worshipped her, but they worshipped her as a woman. They sat down at the table as[198] with an equal. They behaved to her as guests to their hostess. “To-day I do you the honor to come to you; to-morrow you do me the honor to come to me. So and not otherwise.” She stood on the high steps of the town-hall and looked down at all the tables. And when the old chair-maker, who sat at the head of the table, had got his glass filled, he rose, bowed to her and said: “I drink to your prosperity, signorina.”

So did they all. They laid their hands on their hearts and bowed to her. It would have perhaps been good for her if she had met with such chivalry earlier in life. Why had the men in her native land let her forget that women exist to be worshipped?

Here they all looked as if they were burning with a quiet adoration. Thus are women treated in our noble island. What did they not give in return fo............
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