What Happens to an Ungrateful City?

December 23, 2013

Based on an article by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Painting by Bernardo Bellotto

Painting by Bernardo Bellotto

Yes! I can still remember that tiny, but charming village and its square with the enchanting Church. I can even remember how the light of the morning sun used to set the stained glass windows on fire! And its steeple with the big clock…and the bells! You should have heard them! And right in front of the Church there was a beautiful fountain that was always murmuring its pleasant melody to the delight of the passersby. It was so picturesque, especially on those hot summer afternoons when we were refreshed just to see the birds frolicking in its dancing sprays.

Longwood Gardens fountain

And then there were the houses…they may have been modest, but they were comfortable.  There, one could live those precious moments of leisure in which the yearnings for a smiling past, the charms and the hopes of a harsh but luminous present. And the so often treacherous fantasies would make a pleasant merry-go-round to relax the soul, put a peace in that cheerful and blind deceit that fortune does not permit to long endure.

The school teacher and the class on a walk, painting by Albert Anker, 1872.

Not far away, down one of the winding, cobblestone streets, there was the village school. I can still hear the singing of clear, innocent voices. And the picture of the tall, stately school teacher is yet fresh in my mind. She was all tenderness and patience, and there wasn’t a child who wouldn’t yield to her gentle coaxing.

Wolf

But the hamlet was not all happiness and peace! No! It was surrounded by danger, tragedy and death. At no great distance, just a little beyond the verdant, rolling pastures, there loomed a dark and forbidden forest, whose deep shadows were the hiding places of wild boars, and fierce, ravenous wolves. These beasts would often boldly leave their lairs to ravage the helpless flocks and herds in nearby fields.

Painting by Fritz Wagner

Painting by Fritz Wagner

I remember that once, in the village tavern, small, but brimming with life, a matter came up that spread from table to table like wildfire and lifted everyone’s hearts. Who should be chosen, as the most important person in the village?

—“Well…it’s the shepherdess for me. What enchanting child! When she leads her flock out to graze, she reminds me of a fairytale princess.”

The Shepherdess by Emerich Benkert.

The Shepherdess by Emerich Benkert.

—“And don’t forget her worthy flock and how much we enjoy the abundance it provides us.”

— “No, no, no! The school teacher. The school teacher! She is the very symbol of culture. She is the shepherdess of children; much more important than sheep!”

—“Why, that’s true! Yes, the school teacher. She brings such elevation to the village.”

Painting by Josef Wagner-Höhenberg

Painting by Josef Wagner-Höhenberg

—“Well. Culture is necessary, of course, but no one dies of ignorance. My vote is still for the shepherdess. Her labor represents concrete progress.”

—“But the teacher clears the way for future generations. Our children are the leaders of tomorrow!”

—“Yes, but no one can deny that the presence of the little shepherdess, and her simple grace and delicacy brings so much harmony to our lives. Is this not highly meritorious?”

—“True it is! The shepherdess is unquestionably more important.”

—“Yet you cannot deny that in one sense teaching is the basis of progress!”

Painting by Kim Benson

Painting by Kim Benson

While the discussion grew in intensity and volume, in a quiet, hidden corner of the room, an old seadog drew heavily on his pipe and had wrapped himself in its dense, aromatic smoke. But this did not prevent him from paying keen attention to the debate.  The old sailor’s face was marked by long years of sun, storms, and the brisk salt air, and in spite of his age, the wonder of the sea was bright in his eyes.  There, in the candid pupils of a retired villager, was the far-seeing gaze of a seasoned captain. As he sat there, listening intently, he was flanked by four old companions, a dagger, two pistols, and a rosary. At one point he emerged from his fragrant mist and interrupted the discussion.

—“Just one minute there my lads.”

There was an abrupt silence. All eyes turned and were fixed on the figure that had suddenly appeared in their midst.

Painting by Josef Theurich

Painting by Josef Theurich

—“And does heroism have no value? The sea was my home for nigh on fifty years and you all know it. There in my berth, I often thought about life at sea, and I prayed. When the sea was calm, I even studied. And sometimes I thought of the old hearth, thousands of leagues away. But most of the time we fought, and fought, so our shepherds could tend their flocks in safety. We fought so that our school teachers would be free to teach our children the truth. We fought so that in our Churches people could pray for the Glory of God, and that God would give peace to men of good will. We fought so that wives could keep their homes in readiness for their weary husbands. In short, we fought to keep this good order from being swept away by the enemy. Our souls became tough as steel, and our courage was greater than the ruthlessness of the wolf. We advanced with light hearts, without fear of death, because our ideal was everything to us. It was the uplifting joy of heroism. A sacred grandeur! The crystal and beauty of battle! I’ll tell you all what I think. The most important person in the village is…the hunter of wild beasts!”

The hunter on horseback spearing a wolf

The hunter on horseback spearing a wolf

—“The hunter?”

—“The hunter?!”

At this, the tavern was thrown into commotion and many listeners were more than a little uneasy. But there were others who recalled that it wasn’t long since the parish priest repeated these words of Our Lord in a sermon: “Greater love hath no man than he who layeth down his life for his neighbor.”

Painting by Peter von Cornelius

Painting by Peter von Cornelius

Yes, the hunter. He was in his mid twenties, strong, and full of vigor. A man well suited to his task. He went about his work joyfully and resolutely, with a bold and solid step. He could often be seen, early in the morning, returning from the hunt and it wasn’t rare to see him bearing a fresh carcass on his broad shoulders. He was jovial and courteous, and since he had taken on this responsibility, no wolf had dared to venture near the hamlet or raid its flocks; and no wild pig had wrought its usual devastation on surrounding crops.

the hunter

The hunter was the object of a variety of comments as he walked through the town. Some found him pleasant and appreciated his unpretentiousness, his youthful demeanor, full of courage, and his frank, masculine countenance. But others were uncomfortable in his presence, especially when he told of his perilous adventures. To some people, the blare of his horn was cold, and the wounds and death of the savage beasts made them blind to the goodness of his soul. And to them, he was merely the awful image of a fighter, violent, and warlike. But to others, he was the personification of masculinity, dedication, and uprightness.

Subscription5

—“Our hunter is truly the one responsible for our safety, with his youthful courage and virile manners,” the old sailor said.

Painting by David Pelbam

Painting by David Pelbam

Up to this point, the debate had been warm, but orderly. Now, it became positively heated!

—“I can’t agree. Youthful courage you say? Have you seen him carry his victims through our village and cover our walks with their blood? I call that cruelty!”

—“Besides, he has a hard heart. He spends all his time hunting and killing. How can he know what it means to be kind and good?”

—“His mere presence disturbs the tranquility of our village! His very person reminds us of battle, persecution, danger, alarm. We can’t live in fear for the rest our lives!”

Photo of Timber wolves fighting by Martin Cathrae.

Photo of Timber wolves fighting by Martin Cathrae.

—“Gentlemen, gentlemen. I beg your indulgence. It appears that we have a number of divided opinions here and that we need a sensible and impartial judgment. Will you listen to what I have to say?”

This new personage was a portly creature, short and round faced, peering through two tiny, bespectacled eyes that continually darted around the room. He had already reached the respectable age of 60, having just retired from a successful business that allowed him not a small degree of comfort. He had always had dealings with people in neighboring towns and it was imperative that all matters of import go through his hands. He was obviously the hamlet’s worthy burgomeister. By this time the debate had divided the tavern into those for the hunter, and those against, and at the remark of the burgomeister, the tavern again quieted down. Little by little, everyone began to fall under the spell of his persuasive, insinuating voice.

The burgomaster, Painting by Hermann Kern

The burgomaster, Painting by Hermann Kern

 —“There is no question that the delicacy and naïveté of the sweet little shepherdess fills us all with affection and tenderness. She has a beautiful role, one which is full of wealth for our village. On the other hand, our school teacher enlightens our community with her knowledge and culture. And she helps us to progress by expelling ignorance from our midst. Indeed, it is very difficult to choose between these two benefactors of our hamlet.

The young shepherdess, painted by   Christian Friedrich Mali

The young shepherdess, painted by Christian Friedrich Mali

But as for the suggestion of our good captain, for whom I have the upmost respect, he being a truly great man, I think we must come to the realization that the time for fighting is long gone.The world is changing and one day we’ll see all peoples, all races, and all religions unite. Progressive men like us can only look with horror at any kind of bloodshed. That someone must earn his living by killing wild beasts! Well…it’s a sad necessity. But to place fighting and heroism on the same level as science, culture, or even economic production, is anachronistic and backward. I propose that we leave our hunter aside. But let us not forget to give a round of applause for someone whose past deeds make him worthy of our esteem. Cheers for the old sailor, our good captain!”

The tavern boomed with applause.

Painted by   Peder Severin Krøyer

Painted by Peder Severin Krøyer

—“Now gentlemen, the evening is getting on and I think it is best for us to rest up for the labors awaiting us tomorrow. Cheers for the shepherdess!”

Glasses clinking together, the tavern’s people shouted, “The shepherdess!”

—“Cheers for the school teacher!”

Glasses clinking together, the tavern’s people shouted, “The school teacher!”

Wild Boars in the Snow painted by Rosa Bonheur

Wild Boars in the Snow painted by Rosa Bonheur

And so, the discussion ended. The retired burgher had enunciated his opinion to the joy of many present, but to the dismay of a few. The tavern became silent and turned from gaiety to deep apprehension.

wolf snatching a child

 The next morning, no one remembered seeing the hunter on his usual rounds. They didn’t see him the next day either; or the next; or the next. After a while, someone said that he had found out what happened in the tavern, mounted his horse with his few belongings, among them the musket he had used to protect the town from the wild beasts, and journeyed to other lands where his ideal would be understood and respected. It wasn’t long before the episode was lost in the villagers’ memories.

The destruction left by wild boars.

The destruction left by wild pigs.

A year later, everyone noticed the increase of wild beasts, and the year following, even more. The third year saw devastation of the harvest by wild pigs. By now there were orphans in the village because ravenous wolves had attacked some poor, outlying homes. Soon after, the situation became so bad that even the comfortable, retired burgher, responsible for the hunter’s departure, packed his bags and left the hamlet.

—“Life is impossible here! This town isn’t safe anymore! The people are always so sad.”

painting by François Grenier de Saint-Martin

painting by François Grenier de Saint-Martin

  The hamlet began to fade away. It had rejected heroism and now it was paying the price! Its people refused to understand that in this valley of tears, peace must be upheld by heroism. Now, it was suffering the consequences!

Ruins of a village

 What should this tale be called? What should the title of this story be? “Peace, Culture and Heroism”? Or, “Ingratitude and Punishment”? Perhaps, “The Crime of An Old Demagogue” would be better? I really don’t know what to call it. I’ll leave it to each one who hears this story, to make his own reflections, and give it the title he thinks best.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 345

 

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