CHAPTER XXX

Thinking at this moment of the past, and of those few years in La Padula, I find it difficult to recollect at what precise moment a vague fear that all was not well with Italy and her future took on a definite shape in our minds. Steeped as we both were in our work, absorbed in our art, we had never allowed our minds to dwell on matters outside that inner world of happiness and romance which for us was a paradise on this earth. And turning over the leaves of old diaries I do not find in them, during those first years in Padula, any reference to those vague fears which gradually became more insistent: which slowly but surely refused to be suppressed. Gradually at first. Slowly but surely.

Neither of us had ever been ardent admirers of Benito Mussolini, as were so many of our English friends; we never joined in the chorus so often raised in London social circles at that time, especially during the period of the Great Unrest as it was called, which culminated in the General Strike of 1926. "Oh! if we only had a Mussolini in England!" Mussolini, we were told (and at first could not help but admit), had brought order out of chaos in post-war Italy; he had built up a strong, well-disciplined nation out of unrestrained bands of terrorists and bandits. There was work for everybody now; the standards of life had been substantially raised; organizations like Dopo Lavore looked to the comfort and relaxation of workers. All this was explained to us and enlarged upon by Italian friends in every walk of life, and if down in our village and among our outdoor staff we sometimes heard queer mutterings, quickly suppressed, we did not pay much attention to these, well-knowing that in this new Italy free expression of opinion was severely punished. One could not help knowing that much. The March on Rome with the suppression of political violence, and the ridiculous but effective forcible administration of overdoses of castor oil was still fresh in the people's minds.

Our own grumblings were not of great importance . . . at first. We kept them to ourselves, anyway. We had officially received the promise that in accordance with Mussolini's own decree any house built from the ground and completed before 1927 would be free of taxation for twenty-five years. Houses were badly needed, and we had built one and with the garden contributed in no small measure to the beauty of the landscape. In 1926, however, tax-papers demanding payment began to pour in. We protested against this breach of faith, basing our protest on Mussolini's decree and were told that the decree only applied to house-tax but that there was tax on the land, there was the focatico or family tax--whatever that may mean--there were taxes on olive trees, tax on the containing wall between our property and the mainroad, all of which we had to pay. There was nothing for it but to pay and look pleasant; so that was that.

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The 'Duce' had also in the meanwhile enacted certain laws for the protection of workers which hit some of our English friends who had settled down in Italy very hard: they hit us also in a lesser degree. No employer of labour (including domestic servants) was allowed to dismiss an employee without certain compensations--besides the usual month's notice which included one month's wages for every year of service--to this, in the case of outdoor servants, there was compensation for house, light, and fuel. It all seemed perfectly fair on the face of it; nothing to grumble at; I only mention it because of the curious fatality that overtook some English friends of ours domiciled in Italy who happened to inherit from a relative some real estate in the neighbourhood of Florence and a small legacy. The deceased had employed an overseer on her property for the past thirty years at a salary of 1,000 lire per month. His services after her death would no longer be required; but in her will she left this man the sum of 30,000 lire--about £2,000 at the then rate of exchange. I forget what was the value of the whole estate bequeathed to our friends, something quite small I know--but not only was the 30,000 lire deducted first and foremost from the residue--which was right and proper--but as the testatrix had not stated explicitly that that amount was in compensation for the man's dismissal, our friends were made to pay him the legal compensation over and above the 30,000 lire bequeathed to him, namely one month's wages for every year of service; this, with the bonus for house rent, light, and fuel, came to another 45,000 lire. So there was very little, if anything, left of our friend's inheritance; the overseer had got the bulk of it. This was just a typical case.

The law, as I say, did not hit us very hard. Our household was small and we had not been employers of labour in the country very long; but the power it gave to one's paid servants to do whatever they jolly well pleased is pretty obvious. If your servant was dissatisfied with his place, or simply desired a change, all he had to do was to make himself unpleasant. He was not going to hand in his notice to quit. Not he; for if he did there would be no compensation for him in the way of one month's wages for every year, together with bonus for house rent, fuel, lighting and I know not what. All he need do was to shirk work, to be as lazy, as dishonest even as he jolly well liked, until in sheer exasperation you sent him packing and paid whatever extortionate demands he chose to make upon you. If you were fool enough to go to law about the matter . . . well! the law was always on the side of the impiegato as against the principal, the employee as against the employer. But there! We were so happy in so many ways, so what did all these pin-pricks matter? And we had such kind and helpful friends in the British Vice-Consul, Mr. G. Stafford, and his family. Many a happy day did we spend with them either at Padula or in their charming apartment in the Vaile Mazzini in Spezia, and Mr. Stafford and his son were always ready to stand between us and the exactions of a tyrannical and Anglo-phobe podesta. The whole family spoke Italian like natives; the three sons had been educated in Italy, and to one of them who had a literary turn of mind I gave license to translate some of my books into Italian.

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It was during the autumn of 1930 that we first became unpleasantly aware of a certain change in the atmosphere of our small establishment. We had passed a delightful summer in different parts of Europe; we had spent a little time in Rome, then in Cadenabia, and with friends in Sardinia. We had motored through Germany and witnessed the Passion Play in Oberammergau (which, by the way, had been curiously disappointing), having left our Padula household perfectly happy and contented as we thought. But when we came back there was a change . . . an indefinable change . . . outdoor men were grumbling and muttering louder than was usual. The gardener complained that his underlings wouldn't do any work; the underlings that they were being overworked and so on. Our Italian chauffeur was called up for a month's supplementary military service; we engaged another, highly recommended by the podesta and well-known to the local authorities. He was an excellent chauffeur, splendid mechanic, but . . . It was only when he had been duly installed in his cottage with wife and family that he made us understand that he belonged to the Fascist militia, and that there were certain obligations to which he would have to submit when called upon for service by his superiors. He wore a black shirt and various ribbons and decorations in proof that he stood high in the Fascist organization.

Well! that again seemed a small matter. We didn't like the idea of having a 'black shirt' in our service very much but there it was. . . . But somehow there was a change. After this advent in La Padula it spread from the outdoor to our indoor staff; and all through that autumn the change became more definite, not exactly alarming, but certainly disturbing to our placid peace-loving minds. It was in the attitude of the female servants that the change was most apparent. They had been so happy together before, apparently so devoted to us and to their work. The atmosphere of La Padula had been entirely cheerful and so very friendly: they were dear, merry, unsophisticated creatures all of them; always laughing, ready to do anything to please us or each other. And now everything was different; an atmosphere of suspicion and of fear had found its ugly way into the house. One could not help noticing it, especially when the chauffeur was about. They followed his movements with anxious eyes. They whispered in corners and suddenly dispersed at sound of his footsteps. There was no getting away from it, they were frightened of him. My English maid was of course out of all this, but she, too, was aware of the change. "You see," she said to me, "Ayella's brother was killed by the Fascists . . . that awful castor oil killed him . . . he was delicate. There is a black mark against her, she thinks, and she is afraid."

I, of course, got to hate that atmosphere of terror, those whisperings, those furtive glances over the shoulders. And no one dared to say anything. It all got on my nerves and my dear husband had much ado to keep me calm and my mind free for my work. This was the time when an unsuccessful attempt was made in Genoa on Mussolini's life. A pistol shot out of a crowd assembled to listen to one of his harangues, just grazed his nose and took a chip off it. The perpetrator was not caught, but it was generally affirmed that it was a woman. Some said an English woman. Certain it is that during the night the body of a woman was discovered on the permanent way in one of the tunnels between Genoa and Spezia. It was said that this woman was English, but no attempt was ever made to identify her.

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There was no longer any doubt that the Fascist régime as carried on in Italy was not one that could appeal to peace-loving liberal-minded English residents. It had become a reign or terror, comparable only to the Terror in the days of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution. It was the same system of espionage, of denunciations often based on nothing but private spite or revenge. Wholesale arrests of men and women one had known as quiet citizens who had always kept apart from political discussions or any kind of political organizations were followed by deportation to the Lipari Islands where all trace of them, as far as their families were concerned, effectually disappeared. A reign of terror indeed! No! oh no! we could not stand it for long. We, as foreigners, were not in danger of course. Not at the moment; and it was not for ourselves or perhaps for my English maid that we were afraid, but it soon became evident that in a way every Italian subject was in danger, and we had a dear devoted Italian chef who had been with us for over twelve years and had been several times in England with us; he did not wear a black shirt, was not member of any Fascist organization, nor did he ever enter into any political discussion with the tradespeople in Lerici; but he was in danger and he knew it. And we knew it, too; and the danger was aggravated--one could not help knowing it--time after time whenever a meeting between the two dictators Mussolini and Hitler met at Berchtesgaden, Mussolini was taking his cue--his orders, I should say--from Hitler. With the exception of ruthless persecution of the Jews (there were never many Jews in Italy) the dictatorship in Italy was exactly the same as that in Germany.

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Nevertheless, in England the Fascist Régime had still a number of admirers who would gladly have exchanged good old Baldwin for a Mussolini. I remember one summer when we were in London, seeing a procession a mile long wending its way through the streets and into Hyde Park. They were the English Fascists, with banners flying and the name of Oswald Mosley was loudly cheered.

But for us the time had come to realize definitely that our beloved Padula had been the great mistake of our life. We had had some lovely times there. The autumns when avenues of blue hydrangea and crimson oleander were in full bloom, the springs when copses of olive trees were carpeted with violets and Roman hyacinths, and at evening when the glow of fireflies scintillated against the velvety darkness of shrubberies were indescribably beautiful. Nature was indeed exquisite. Only man was vile. The ambition and self-love of one man had transformed a gentle unsophisticated nation into a churlish, spiteful lot of sneaks--that's what they were--afraid to open their mouths, afraid of their own shadows.

Never had I dreamed that the day would come when we would be thankful--both of us--to get rid of what was going to be such a peaceful little refuge from the social duties of Monte Carlo, the inevitable interruptions from work. Yet, so it was. In '33 we were lucky enough to get a good offer for La Padula. We took it gladly. Tearfully we took leave of that lovely corner of God's earth: of Lerici and its tranquil little bay; of the fleet of fishing boats with their golden sails; of the old romantic castle and the distant Carrara heights gleaming white against the translucent azure of the sky. Farewell to Italy--which we were destined never to see again--and a sad farewell to our dear, kind friends, Vice-Consul Stafford and his charming family, who had helped to make our sojourn in Italy a thing of unfading happy memories.

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2001