“If I had only known when father was alive,” she thought; but even if she had known all she knew now, what could she have done? There had been nothing to use, nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and the rain and the snow and the wind had come in on them where they had lain huddled together on their bed of rotten leaves. Now and then she said something of that rude childhood of hers to Adone; she was afraid of the women, but not of him; she trotted after him as the little white curly dog Signorino trotted after Don Silverio.
“Do not think of those dark days, little one,” he said to her. “They are gone by. Think of your parents and pray for their souls; but let the rest go; you have all your life to live.”
“My mother was young when she died,” said the child. “If she had had food she would not have died. She said so. She kept on gnawing a bit of rag which was soaked in water; you cheat hunger that way, you know, but it does not fill you.”
“Pour soul! Poor soul!” said Adone, and he thought of the great markets he had seen in the north, the droves of oxen, the piles of fruits, the long lines of wine carts, the heaps of slaughtered game, the countless shops with their electric light, the trains running one after another all the nights and every night to feed the rich; and he thought, as he had thought when a boy, that the devil had troppo braccio, if any devil indeed there were beside man himself.
Should there be anywhere on the face of the earth, young women, good women, mothers of babes who died of sheer hunger like this mother of Nerina’s up yonder in the snows of the Abruzzo? He thought not; his heart revolted at the vision of her, a living skeleton on her heap of leaves.
“Father brought all he had,” continued the child, “but he could not come back until after harvest, and when he came back she had been in the ground two months and more. They put him in the same ditch when his turn came; but she was no longer there, for they take up the bones every three years and burn them. They say they must, else the ditch would get too full.”
Adone shuddered. He knew that tens of thousands died so, and had died so ever since the days of Phenicians and Gauls and Goths. But it revolted him. The few gorged, the many famished—strange disproportion! unkind and unfair balance!
But what remedy was there?
Adone had read some socialistic and communistic literature; but it had not satisfied him; it had seemed to him vain, verbose, alluring, but unreal, no better adapted to cure any real hunger than the soaked rag of Nerina’s mother.
The Valdedera is situated on the south of the Marches, on the confines of what is now the territorial division of the Abruzzo-Molese, and so lies between the Apennines and the Adriatic, fanned by cool winds in summer from the eternal snow of the mountain peaks, and invigorated in all seasons by breezes from the Adrian Sea.