The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga

xi.

ONE day ‘Ntoni Malavoglia, lounging about as usual, had seen two young men who had embarked some years before at Riposto in search of fortune, and had returned from Trieste, or from Alexandria, in short, from afar off, and were spending and swaggering at the tavern grander than Cousin Naso the butcher, or than Padron Cipolla. They sat astride of the benches joking with the girls and pulling innumerable silk handkerchiefs out of their pockets, turning the place upsidedown.

‘Ntoni, when he came home at night, found no-body there but the women, who were changing the brine on the anchovies and chatting with the neigh-bors, sitting in a circle on the stones, and passing away the time by telling stones and guessing rid-dles, which amused greatly the children, who stood around rubbing their sleepy eyes. Padron ‘Ntoni listened too, and watched the strainer with the fresh brine, nodding his head in approval when the stories pleased him, or when the boys were clever at guessing the riddles.

“The best story of all,” said ‘Ntoni, “is that of those two fellows who arrived here today with silk kerchiefs that one can hardly believe one’s eyes to look at, and such a lot of money that they hardly look at it when they take it out of their pockets. They’ve seen half the world, they say. Trezza and Aci Castello put together are not to be compared to what they’ve seen. I’ve seen the world too, and how people in those parts don’t sit still salting an-chovies, but go round amusing themselves all day long, and the women, with silk dresses and more rings and necklaces than the Madonna of Ognino, go about the streets vying with each other for the love of the handsome sailors.”

“The worst of all things,” said Mena, “ is to leave one’s own home, where even the stones are one’s friends, and when one’s heart must break to leave them behind one on the road. < Blest is the bird that builds his nest at home!’ ”

“Brava, Sant’Agata!” said her grandfather; “that is what I call talking sense.”

“Yes,” growled ‘Ntoni, “ and when we have sweated and steamed to build our nest we haven’t any-thing left to eat; and when we have managed to get back the house by the medlar we shall just have to go on wearing out our lives from Monday to Saturday, and never do anything else.”

“And don’t you mean to work any more? What do you mean to do turn lawyer?”

“I don’t mean to turn lawyer,” said ‘Ntoni, and went off to bed in high dudgeon.

But from that time forth he thought of nothing but the easy, wandering life other fellows led; and in the evening, not to hear all that idle chatter, he stood by the door with his shoulders against the wall, watching the people pass, and meditating on his hard fate; at least one was resting against the fatigues of tomorrow, when must begin again over and over the same thing, like Cousin Mosca’s ass, that when they brought the collar reached out his neck to have it put on. “ We’re all asses!” he mut-tered; “ that’s what we are asses! beasts of bur-den.” And it was plainly enough to be seen that he was tired of that hard life, and longed to leave it, and go out into the world to make his fortune, like those others; so that his mother, poor woman, was always stroking him on the shoulder, and speaking to him in tones that were each like a caress, looking at him with eyes full of tears, as if she would read his very soul. But he told her there was no cause to grieve, that it was better he should go, for himself and for the rest of them, and when he came back they would all be happy together.

The poor mother never closed her eyes that night, and steeped her pillow with tears. At last the grandfather himself perceived it, and called his grandson outside the door, under the shrine, to ask him what ailed him.

“What is it, my boy?” he said. “Tell your grandpapa; do, that’s a good boy.”

‘Ntoni shrugged his shoulders; but the old man went on nodding his head, and seeking for words to make himself understood properly.

“Yes, yes! youVe got some notion in your head, boy! some new notion or other. ‘Who goes with lame men limps himself before long.’ ”

“I’m a poor miserable devil, that’s what it is.”

“Well, is that all? You knew that before. And what am I, and what was your father? ‘ He is the richest who has the fewest wants. Better content than complaint.’ ”

“Fine consolation, that is!”

This time the old man found words, for they were in his heart, and so came straight to his lips.

“At least, don’t say it to your mother.”

“My mother! She would have done better not to have brought me into the world, my mother!”

“Yes,” assented Padron ‘Ntoni, “it would have been better she had not borne you, if you are to begin to talk in this way.”

For a minute ‘Ntoni didn’t know what to say, then he began: “ Well, I mean it for your good, too for you, for my mother, for us all. I want to make her rich, my mother! that’s what I want. Now we’re tormenting ourselves for the house, and for Mena’s dowry; then Lia will grow up, and she’ll want a dowry too, and then a bad year will throw us all back into misery. I don’t want to lead this life any longer. I want to change my condition and to change yours. I want that we should be rich mamma, Mena, you, Alessio, all of us.”

Padron ‘Ntoni opened his eyes very wide and listened, pondering, to this discourse, which he found very hard to understand. “ Rich!” he said, “rich! And what shall we do when we are rich?”

‘Ntoni scratched his head, and began to wonder himself what he should do in such a case. “We should do what other people do,” he said “ go and live in town, and do nothing, and eat meat.”

“In town! go and live in town by yourself. I choose to die where I was born;” and thinking of the house where he was born, which was no longer his, he let his head drop on his breast. “ You are but a boy; you don’t know what it is,” he said; “ you don’t know, you don’t know! When you can no longer sleep in your own bed, or see the light come in through your own window, you’ll see what it is. I am old, and I know!” The poor old man coughed as if he would suffocate, with bent shoulders, shaking his head sadly. “ ‘ His own nest every bird likes best.’ Look at those swallows; do you see them? They have always made their nest there, and they still return to make it there, and never go away.”

“But I am not a swallow,” said ‘Ntoni. “ I am neither a bird nor a beast. I don’t want to live like a dog on a chain, or like Cousin Alfio’s ass, or like a mule in a mill, that goes round and round, turning the same wheel forever. I don’t want to die of hunger in a corner, or to be eaten up by sharks.”

“Thank God, rather, that you were born here, and pray that you may not come to die far from the stones that you know. ‘Who changes the old for the new changes for the worse all through.’ You are afraid of work, are afraid of poverty; I, who have neither your youth nor your strength, fear them not. ‘ The good pilot is known in the storm.’ You are afraid of having to work for your bread, that is what ails you! When my father, rest his soul, left me the Prowidenza and five mouths to feed, I was younger than you are now, and I was not afraid; and I have done my duty without grumbling; and I do it still, and I pray God to help me to do it as long as I live, as your father did, and your brother Luca, blessed be their souls! who feared not to go and die where duty led them. Your mother, too, has done hers, poor little wom-an, hidden inside four walls; and you know not the tears she has shed, nor how many she sheds now, because you want to go and leave her; nor how in the morning your sister finds her sheets wet with tears. And nevertheless she is silent, and does not talk of you nor of the hard things you say to her; and she works, and puts together her provision, poor busy little ant that she is; and she has never done anything else all her life long before she had so many tears to shed, and when she suckled you at her breast, and before you could go alone, or the temptation had come over you to go wandering like a gypsy about the world.”

The end of it was that ‘Ntoni began to cry like a child, for at bottom the boy had a good heart; but the next day it began all over again. In the morning he took the tackle unwillingly on his shoul-der, and went off to sea growling, “ Just like Cousin Alfio’s ass: at daybreak I have to stretch out my neck to see if they are coming to load me.” After they had thrown the net he left Alessio to move the oars slowly, so as to keep the boat in its place; and folding his arms, looked out into the distance to where the sea ended, towards those great cities where people did nothing but walk about and amuse themselves; or thought of the two sailors who had come back thence, and had now for some time been gone away from the place; but it seemed to him that they had nothing to do but to wander about the world from one town to another, spending the money they had in their pockets. In the evening, when all the tackle was put away, they let him wander about as he liked, like a houseless dog, without a soldo to bless himself with, sooner than see him sit there as sulky as a bear.

“What ails you, ‘Ntoni?” said La Longa, looking timidly into his face, with her eyes shining with tears, for she knew well enough, poor woman, what it was that ailed him. “ Tell me, tell your moth-er.” He did not answer, or answered that nothing ailed him. But at last he did tell her that his grandfather and the rest of them wanted to work him to death, and he could bear it no longer. He wanted to go away and seek his fortune like other people.

His mother listened, with her eyes full of tears, and could not speak in reply to him, as he went on weeping and stamping and tearing his hair.

The poor creature longed to answer him, and to throw her arms round his neck, and beg him not to go away from her, but her lips trembled so that she could not utter a word.

.“Listen,” she said at last; “you may go, if you will do it, but you won’t find me here when you come back, for I am old now and weak, and I can-not bear this new sorrow.”

‘Ntoni tried to comfort her, saying he would soon come back with plenty of money, and that they would all be happy together. Maruzza shook her head sadly, saying that no, no, he would not find her when he came back.

“I feel that I am growing old,” she said. “ I am growing old. Look at me. I have no strength now to weep as I did when your father died, and your brother. If I go to the washing I come back so tired that I can hardly move; it was never so before. No, my son, I am not what I was. Once, when I had your father and your brother, I was young and strong. The heart gets tired too, you see; it wears away little by little, like old linen that has been too often washed. I have no courage now; everything frightens me. I feel as one does when the waves come over his head when he is out at sea. Go away if you will, but wait until I am at rest.”

She was weeping, but she did not know it; she seemed to have before her eyes once more her hus-band and her son Luca as she had seen them when they left her to return no more.

“So you will go, and I shall see you no more,” she said to him. “The house grows more empty every day; and when that poor old man, your grand-father, is gone, too, in whose hands shall I leave those orphan children? Ah, Mother of Sorrows!”

She clung to him, with her head against his breast, as if her boy were going to leave her then and there, and stroked his shoulder and his cheeks with her trembling hands. Then ‘Ntoni could resist her no longer, and began to kiss her and to whisper gently in her ear:

“No, no! I won’t go if you say I must not. Look at me! Don’t talk so, don’t. Well, I’ll go on working like Cousin Mosca’s ass, that will be thrown into a ditch to die when he’s too old to work any more. Are you contented now? Don’t cry, don’t cry any more. Look at my grandfather how he has struggled all his life, and is struggling still to get out of the mud, and he will go on so. It is our fate.” u And do you think that everybody hasn’t troubles of their own? ‘ Every hole has its nail; new or old, they never fail.’ Look at Padron Cipolla how he has to run here and to watch there, not to have his son Brasi throwing all the money he has saved and scraped into Vespa’s lap! And Master Filippo, rich as he is, trembling for his vineyard every time it rains. And Uncle Crucifix, starving himself to put soldo upon soldo, and always at law with this one or with that. And do you think those two foreign sailors that you saw here, and that put all this in your head with their talk of strange coun-tries, do you think they haven’t their own troubles too? Who knows if they found their mothers alive when they got home to their own houses? And as for us, when we have bought back the house by the medlar, and have our grain in the hutch and our beans for the winter, and when Mena is married, what more shall we want? When I am under the sod, and that poor old man is dead too, and Alessio is old enough to earn his bread, go wherever you like. But then you won’t want to go, I can tell you; for then you will begin to know what we feel when we see you so obstinate and so determined to leave us all, even when we do not speak, but go on in our usual way. Then you will not find it in your heart to leave the place where you were born, where the very stones know you well, where your own dead will lie together under the marble in the church, which is worn smooth by the knees of those who have prayed so long before Our Mother of Sor-rows.”

‘Ntoni, from that day forth, said no more of going away, or of growing rich; and his mother watched him tenderly, as a bird watches her young, when she saw him looking sad or sitting silently on the door-step, with his elbows on his knees. And the poor woman was truly a sad sight to see, so pale was she, so thin and worn; and when her work was over she too sat down, with folded hands, and her back bent as badly as her father-inlaw’s. But she knew not that she herself was going for a journey that journey which leads to the long rest below the smooth marble in the church and that she must leave behind her all those she loved so well, who had so grown into her heart that they had worn it all away, piece by piece, now one and now another.

At Catania there was the cholera, and everybody that could manage it ran away into the country here and there among the villages and towns in the neighborhood. And at Ognino, and at Trezza, too, these strangers, who spent so much money, were a real providence. But the merchants pulled a long face, and said that it was almost impossible to sell even a dozen barrels of anchovies, and that all the money had disappeared on account of the cholera. “And don’t people eat anchovies any more?” asked Goosefoot. But to Padron ‘Ntoni, who had them to sell, they said that now there was the cholera, peo-ple were afraid to eat anchovies, and all that kind of stuff, but must’eat macaroni and meat; and so it was best to let things go at the best price one could get. That hadn’t been counted in the Mala-voglia’s reckoning. Hence, not to go backward, crab fashion, needs must that La Longa should go about from house to house among the foreigners, selling eggs and fresh bread, and so on, while the men were out at sea, and so put together a little money. But it was needful to be very careful, and not take even so much as a pinch of snuff from a person one did not know. Walking on the road, one must go exactly in the middle as far away as possible from the walls, where one ran the risk of coming across all sorts of horrors; and one must never sit down on the stones or on the wall. La Longa, once, coming back from Aci Castello, with her basket on her arm, felt so tired that her legs were like lead under her, and she could hardly move, so she yielded to temptation, and rested a few minutes on the smooth stones under the shade of the fig — tree, just by the shrine at the entrance of the town; and she remembered afterwards, though she did not notice it at the time, that a person unknown to her a poor man, who seemed also very weary and ill had been sitting there a moment before she came up. In short, she fell ill, took the cholera, and returned home pale and tottering, as yellow as a gilded heart among the votive offerings, and with deep black lines under her eyes; so that when Me-na, who was alone at home, saw her, she began to cry, and Lia ran off to gather rosemary and marsh-mallow leaves. Mena trembled like a leaf while she was making up the bed, and the sick woman, sitting on a chair, with pallid face and sunken eyes, kept on saying, “ It is nothing, don’t be frightened; as soon as I have got into bed it will pass off,” and tried to help them herself; but every minute she grew faint, and had to sit down again. “ Holy Virgin!” stammered Mena. “ Holy Virgin, and the men out at sea! Holy Virgin, help us!” and Lia cried with all her might.

When Padron ‘Ntoni came back with his grand-sons, and they saw the door half shut, and the light inside the shutters, they tore their hair. Maruzza was already in bed, and her eyes, seen in that way in the dusk, looked hollow and dim, as if death had already dimmed their light; and her lips were black as charcoal. At that time neither doctor nor apoth-ecary went out after sunset, and even the neighbors barred their doors, and stuck pictures of saints over all the cracks, for fear of the cholera. So Cousin Maruzza had no help except from her own poor people, who rushed about the house as if they had been crazy, watching her fading away before their eyes, in her bed, and beat their heads against the wall in their despair. Then La Longa, seeing that all hope was gone, begged them to lay upon her breast the lock of cotton dipped in holy oil which she had bought at Easter, and said that they must keep the light burning, as they had done when Pa-dron ‘Ntoni had been so ill that they thought him dying, and wanted them all to stay beside her bed, that she might look at them until the last moment with those wide eyes that no longer seemed to see. Lia cried in a heart-breaking way, and the others, white as the wall, looked in each other’s faces, as if asking for help, where no help was; and held their hands tight over their breasts, that they might not break out into loud wailing before the dying woman, who, none the less, knew all that they felt, though by this time she saw them no longer, and even at the last felt the pain of leaving them behind. She called them one by one by name, in a weak and broken voice, and tried to lift her hand to bless them, knowing that she was leaving them a treas-ure beyond price.

“‘Ntoni,” she repeated, “ ‘Ntoni, to you, who are the eldest, I leave these orphans!” And hearing her speak thus while she was still alive, they could not help bursting out into cries and sobs.

So they passed the night beside the bed, where Maruzza now lay without moving, until the candle burned down in the socket and went out. And the dawn came in through the window, pale like the corpse, which lay with features sharpened like a knife, and black, parched lips. But Men a never wearied of kissing those cold lips, and speaking as if the dead could hear. ‘Ntoni beat his breast and cried, “ O mother! O mother! and you have gone before me, and I wanted to leave you!” And Ales-sio never will forget that last look of his mother, with her white hair and pinched features; no, not even when his hair has grown as white as hers.

At dusk they came to take La Longa in a hurry, and no one thought of making any visits; for every one feared for their life. And even Don Giamma-ria came no farther than the threshold, whence he dispensed the holy water, holding his tunic about bis knees tight, lest it should touch anything in the house “ Like a selfish monk as he was,” said the apothecary. He, on the contrary, had they brought him a prescription from the doctor, would have given it them, would even have opened the shop at night for the purpose, for he was not afraid of the cholera; and said, besides, that it was all stuff and nonsense to say that the cholera could be thrown about the streets or behind the doors.

“A sign that he spreads the cholera himself,” whispered the priest. For that reason the people of the place wanted to kill the apothecary; but he laughed at them, with the cackling laugh he had learned of Don Silvestro, saying, “Kill me! I’m a republican! If it were one of those fellows in the Government, now, I might find some use in doing it, but what good would it do me to spread the chol-era?” But the Malavoglia were left alone with the bed whence the mother had been carried away.

For some time they did not open the door after La Longa had been taken away. It was a blessing that they had plenty to eat in the house beans and oil and charcoal too, for Padron ‘Ntoni, like the ants, had made his provision in time of plenty; else they might have died of hunger, for no one came to see whether they were alive or dead. Then, little by little, they began to put their black neckerchiefs on and to go out into the street, like snails after a storm, still pale and dazed-looking. The gossips, remaining aloof, called out to them to ask how it had happened; for Cousin Maruzza had been one of the first to go. And when Don Michele, or some other personage who took the King’s pay, and wore a gold-bordered cap, came their way, they looked at him with scared eyes, and ran into the house. There was great misery, and no one was seen in the street, not even a hen; and Don Cirino was never seen anywhere, and had left off ringing at noon and at the Ave Maria, for he too ate the bread of the commune, and had five francs a month as parish beadle, and feared for his life,” for was not he a Government official? And now Don Michele was lord of the whole place, for Pizzuti and Don Silvestro and the rest hid in their burrows like rabbits, and only he walked up and down before the Zuppidda’s closed door. It was a pity that no-body saw him except the Malavoglia, who had no longer anything to lose, and so sat watching who-ever passed by, sitting on the door-step, with their elbows on their knees. Don Michele, not to take his walk for nothing, looked at Sant’Agata, now that all the other doors were shut; and did it all the more to show that great hulking ‘Ntoni that he wasn’t afraid of anybody, not he. And besides, Mena, pale as she was, looked a real Sant’Agata; and the little sister, with her black neckerchief, was growing up a very pretty girl.

It seemed to poor Mena that twenty years had fallen .suddenly on her shoulders. She watched Lia now, as La Longa had watched her, and kept her always close at her side, and had all the cares of the house on her mind. She had grown into a habit of remaining alone in the house with her sis-ter while the men were at sea, looking from time to time at that empty bed. When she had nothing to do she sat, with her hands in her lap, looking at the empty bed, and then she felt, indeed, that her mother had left her; and when she heard them say in the street such an one is dead, or such another, she thought so they heard “La Longa is dead” La Longa, who had left her alone with that poor little orphan, with her black neckerchief.

Nunziata or their Cousin Anna came now and then, stepping softly, and with sad looks, and saying nothing, would sit down with her on the door-step, with hands under their aprons. The men coming back from the fishing stepped quickly along, looking carefully from side to side, with the nets on their shoulders. And no one stopped anywhere, not even the carts at the tavern.

Who could tell where Cousin Alfio’s cart was now? or if at this moment he might not lie dying of cholera behind a hedge, that poor fellow, who had no one belonging to him. Sometimes Goose-foot passed, looking half starved, glanced about him, as if he were afraid of his shadow; or Un-cle Crucifix, whose riches were scattered here and there, and who went to see if his debtors were like-ly to die and to cheat him out of his money. The sacrament went by, too, quickly, in the hands of Don Giammaria, with his tunic fastened up, and a barefooted boy ringing the bell before him, for Don Cirino was nowhere to be seen. That bell, in the deserted streets, where no one passed, not a dog, and even Don Franco kept his door half shut, was heart-rending. The only person to be seen, day or night, was La Locca, with her tangled white hair, who went to sit before the house by the medlar-tree, or watched for the boats on the shore. Even the cholera would have none of her, poor old thing. The strangers had flown as birds do at the ap-proach of winter, and no one came to buy the fish. So that every one said, “After the cholera comes the famine.” Padron ‘Ntoni had once more to dip into the money put away for the house, and day by day it melted before his eyes. But he thought of nothing, save that Maruzza had died away from her own house; he could not get that out of his head. ‘Ntoni, too, shook his head every time it was necessary to use up the money. Finally, when the cholera was at an end, and there only remained about half of the money put together with such pains and trouble, he began to complain that such a life as that he could not bear eternally saving and sparing, and then having to spend for bare life; that it was better to risk something, once for all, to get out of this eternal worry, and that there, at least, where his mother had died in the midst of that hideous misery, he would stay no longer.

“Don’t you remember that your mother recom-mended Mena to you?” said Padron ‘Ntoni.

“What good can I do to Mena by staying here? tell me that.”

Mena looked at him timidly, but with eyes like her mother’s, where one could read her heart, but she dared not speak. Only once, clinging to the jamb of the door, she found courage to say: “I don’t ask for help, if only you’ll stay with us. Now that I haven’t my mother, I feel like a fish out of water; I don’t care about anything. But I can’t bear the idea of that orphan, Lia, who will be left without anybody if you go away; like Nunziata when her father left hen”

“No,” said ‘Ntoni, “ no, I can do nothing for you if I stay here; the proverb says ‘Help yourself and you’ll be helped.’ When I have made some-thing worth while I’ll come back, and we’ll all be happy together.”

Lia and Alessio opened their large round eyes, and seemed quite dazzled by this prospect, but the old man let his head fall on his breast. “ Now you have neither father nor mother, and can do as it seems best to you,” he said at last. “ While I live I will care for these children, and when I die the Lord must do the rest.”

Mena, seeing that ‘Ntoni would go, whether or not, put his clothes in order, as his mother would have done, and thought how “over there,” in strange lands, her brother would be like Alfio Mosca, with no one to look after him. And while she sewed at his shirts, and pieced his coats, her head ran upon days gone by, and she thought of all that had passed away with them with a swelling heart.

“I cannot pass the house by the medlar now,” she said, as she sat by her grandfather; “I feel such a lump in my throat that I am almost choking, thinking of all that has happened since we left it.”

And while she was preparing for her brother’s departure she wept as if she were to see him no more. At last, when everything was ready, the grandpapa calkd his boy to give him a last solemn sermon, and much good advice as to what he was to do when he was alone and dependent only on his own discretion, without his family about him to consult or to condole with him if things went wrong; and gave him some money too, in case of need, and his own pouch lined with leather, since now he was old he should not need it any more.

The children, seeing their brother preparing for departure, followed him silently about the house, hardly daring to speak to him, feeling as if he had already become a stranger.

“Just so my father went away,” said Nunziata, who had come to say good-bye to ‘Ntoni, and stood with the others at the door. After that no one spoke.

The neighbors came one by one to take leave of Cousin ‘Ntoni, and then stood waiting in the street to see him start. He lingered, with his bundle on his shoulder and his shoes in his hand, as if at the last moment his heart had failed him. He looked about him as if to fix everything in his memory, and his face was as deeply moved as any there. His grandfather took his stick to accompany him to the city, and Mena went off into a corner, where she cried silently.

“Come, come, now/’ said ‘Ntoni. “ I’m not going away forever. We’ll say I’m going for a soldier again.” Then, after kissing Mena and Lia, and taking leave of the gossips, he started to go, and Mena ran after him with open arms, weeping aloud, and crying out, “What will mamma say? What will mamma say?” as if her mother were alive and could know what was taking place. But she only said the thing which dwelt most strongly in her memory when ‘Ntoni had spoken of going away before; and she had seen her mother weep, and used to find her pillow in the morning wet with tears.

“Adieu, ‘Ntoni!” Alessio called after him, taking courage now he was gone, and Lia began to scream.

“Just so my father went,” said Nunziata, who had stayed behind the others at the door.

‘Ntoni turned at the corner of the black street. with his eyes full of tears, and waved his hand to them in token of farewell. Mena then closed the door and went to sit down in a corner with Lia, who continued to sob and cry aloud. “ Now an-other one is gone away from the house,” she repeated. “If we had been in the house by the medlar it would seem as empty as a church.”

Mena, seeing her dear ones go away, one after the other, felt, indeed, like a fish out of water. And Nunziata, lingering there beside her, with the little one in her arms, still went on saying, “Just so my father went away, just so I”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24