The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga

ii.

IN the whole place nothing was talked of but the affair of the lupins, and as La Longa returned with Lia from the beach the gossips came to their doors to see her pass.

“Oh, a regular golden business”! shouted Goose-foot, as he hitched along with his crooked leg behind Padron ‘Ntoni, who went and sat down on the church — steps with Padron Fortunato Cipolla and Locca Menico’s brother, who were taking the air there in the cool of the evening. “ Uncla Cru-cifix screamed as if you had been pulling out his quill-feathers; but you needn’t mind that he has plenty of quills, the old boy. Oh, we had a time of it! you can say as much for your part, too, can’t you, Padron ‘Ntoni? But for Padron ‘Ntoni, you know, I’d throw myself off the cliffs any day. So I would, before God! And Uncle Crucifix listens to me because he knows what a big ladle means a big ladle, you know, that stirs a big pot, where there’s more than two hundred scudi a year a-boiling! Why, old Dumb-bell wouldn’t know how to blow his nose if I wasn’t by to show him!”

La Locca’s son, hearing them talk of Uncle Cru-cifix, who was really his uncle, because he was La Locca’s brother, felt his heart swelling with family affection.

“We are relations,” he repeated. “When I go there to work by the day he gives me only half-wages and no wine, because we are relations.”

Old Goosefoot sneered:

“He does it for your good, so that you shouldn’t take to drinking, and that he may have more money to leave you when he dies/’

Then old Goosefoot went on amusing himself by speaking ill now of one now of another, as it hap-pened; but so good-humoredly, without malice, that no one could catch him in anything actionable.

He said to La Locca’s son:

“Your uncle wants to nobble your Cousin Vespa [wasp] out of her garden trying to get her to let him have it for half what it’s worth making her believe he’ll marry her. But if La Vespa succeeds in drawing him on, you may go whistle for your inheritance, and you’ll lose the wages he hasn’t given you and the wine you didn’t drink.”

Then they began to dispute for Padron ‘Ntoni insisted upon it that, “ after all, Uncle Dumb-bell was a Christian, and hadn’t quite thrown his brains into the gutter, to go and marry his brother’s daughter.”

“What has Christian to do with it, or Turk either?” growled Goosefoot. “ He’s mad, you mean! He’s as rich as a pig; what does he want of that little garden of Vespa’s, as big as a nose-rag? And she has nothing but that.”

“I ought to know how big it is; it lies along my vineyard,” said Padron Cipolla, puffing himself like a turkey.

“You call that a vineyard? Four prickly-pears!” sneered Goosefoot.

“Between the prickly-pears the vines grow; and if Saint Francis will send us a good shower of rain, you’ll see if I don’t have some good wine! To-day the sun went to bed loaded with rain, or with wind.”

“When the sun goes to bed heavy one must look for a west wind,” said Padron ‘Ntoni.

Goosefoot couldn’t bear Cipolla’s sententious way of talking, “ thinking, because he was rich, he must know everything, and could make the poor people swallow whatever nonsense he chose to talk. One wants rain, and one wants wind,” he wound up. “Padron Cipolla wants rain for his vines, and Pa-dron ‘Ntoni wants a wind to push the poop of the Provvidenza. You know the proverb, ‘Curly is the sea, a fresh wind there’ll be!’ To-night the stars are shining, at midnight the wind will change. Don’t you hear the ground-swell?”

On the road there was heard the sound of heavy carts, slowly passing.

“Night or day, somebody’s always going about the world,” said Cipolla a little later on.

Now that they could no longer see the sea or the fields, it seemed as if there were only Trezza in the world, and everybody wondered where the carts could be going at that hour.

“Before midnight the Provvidenza will have rounded the Cape of the Mills, and the wind won’t trouble her any longer.”

Padron ‘Ntoni thought of nothing but the Prov-videnza, and when they were not talking of her he said nothing, and sat like a post among the talkers.

“You ought to go across the street to the drug-gist’s, where they are talking politics. You’d make a fine figure among them. Listen how they shout!”

“That’s Don Giammaria,” said La Locca’s son, “disputing with Don Franco.”

The druggist was holding a conversation at the door of his shop with the vicar and two or three others. As he was a cultured person he got the newspaper, and read it, too, and let others read it; and he had the History of the French Revolution, which he kept under the glass mortar, because he quarrelled about it every day with Don Giam-maria, the vicar, to pass the time, and they got positively bilious over it, but they couldn’t have lived a day without seeing each other. On Satur-days, when the paper came, Don Franco went so far as to burn a candle for half an hour, or even for a whole hour, at the risk of a scolding from his wife, so as to explain his ideas properly, and not go to bed like a brute, as Uncle Cipolla and old Mala-voglia did. In the summer, besides, there was no need of a candle, for they could stand under the lamp at the door, when Mastro Cirino lighted it, and sometimes Don Michele, the brigadier of the customs guard, joined them; and Don Silvestro, the town-clerk, too, coming back from his vineyard^ stopped for a moment. Then Don Franco would say, rubbing his hands, that they were quite a parliament, and go off behind his counter, passing his fingers through his long beard like a comb, with a shrewd little grin, as if he were going to eat some-body for his breakfast; and would let slip broken phrases under his breath full of hidden meaning; so that it was plain enough that he knew more than all the world put together. And Don Giammaria couldn’t bear the sight of him, and grew yellow with fury and spit Latin at him. Don Silvestro, for his part, was greatly amused to see how he poisoned his blood “trying to straighten out a dog’s legs,” he said, “ without a chance of making a centime by it; he, at least, didn’t lose his temper, as they did.” And for that reason they said in the place that he had the best farms in Trezza “ that he had come to a barefooted ragamuffin,” added old Goosefoot. He would set the disputants at each other as if they had been dogs, and laughed fit to split his sides with shrill cries of ah! ah! ah! like a cackling hen.

Goosefoot went off again with the old story that if Don Silvestro had been willing to stay where he belonged, it would be a spade he’d be wielding now and not a pen.

“Would you give him your granddaughter Mena?” said Cipolla at last, turning to Padron ‘Ntoni.

“Each to his own business leave the wolf to look after the sheep.”

Padron Cipolla kept on nodding his head all the more that there had been some talk between him and Padron ‘Ntoni of marrying Mena to his son Brasi; if the lupin business went on well the dowry would be paid down in cash, and the affair settled immediately.

“The girl as she has been trained, and the tow as it has been spun,” said Padron Malavoglia at last; and Padron Cipolla agreed “ that everybody in the place knew that La Longa had brought up her girl beautifully, that anybody who passed through the alley behind the house by the medlar at the hour at which they were talking could hear the sound of Sant’Agata’s loom. Cousin Maruzza didn’t waste her oil after dark, that she didn’t,” he said.

La Longa, just as she came back from the beach, sat down at the window to prepare the thread for the loom.

“Cousin Mena is not seen but heard, and she stays at the loom day and night, like Sant’Agata,” said the neighbors.

“That’s the way to bring up girls,” replied Ma-ruzza, “ instead of letting them stay gaping out the window. ‘ Don’t go after the girl at the window,’ says the proverb.”

“Some of them, though, staring out of window, manage to catch the foolish fish that pass,” said her cousin Anna from the opposite door.

Cousin Anna (really her cousin this time, not only called so by way of good-fellowship) had rea-son and to spare for this speech; for that great hulking fellow, her son Rocco, had tacked himself on to the Mangiacarubbe’s petticoat-tail, and she was always leaning out of the window, toasting her face in the sun.

Gossip Grazia Goosefoot, hearing that there was a conversation going on, came to her door with her apron full of the beans she was shelling, and railed about the mice, who had made her “sack like a sieve, eating holes all over it, as if they had had wits like Christians;” so the talk became general because those accursed little brutes had done Maruzza all sorts of harm, too. Cousin Anna had her house full of them, too, since she had lost her cat, a beast worth its weight in gold, who had died of a kick from Uncle Tino.

“The gray cats are the best to catch mice; they’d go after them into a needle’s eye.”

“One shouldn’t open the door to the cat by night, for an old woman at Aci Sant’Antonio got killed that way by thieves who stole her cat three days before, and then brought her back half starved to mew at the door, and the poor woman couldn’t bear to hear the creature out in the street at that hour, and opened the door, and so the wretches got in. Nowadays the rascals invent all sorts of tricks to gain their ends; and at Trezza one saw faces now that nobody had ever seen on the coast; coming, pretending to be fishing, and catching up the clothes that were out to dry if they could manage it. They had stolen a new sheet from poor Nunziata that way. Poor girl! robbing her, who worked so hard to feed those little brothers that her father left on her hands when he went off seeking his fortune in Alexandria, in Egypt. Nunziata was like what Cousin Anna herself had been when her husband died and left her with that houseful of little chil-dren, and Rocco, the biggest of them, no higher than her knee. Then, after all the trouble of rearing him, great lazy fellow, she must stand by and see the Mangiacarubbe carry — him off.”

Into the midst of this gossiping came Venera la Zuppidda, wife to Bastiano, the calker; she lived at the foot of the lane, and always appeared unexpectedly, like the devil at the litany, who came from nobody knew where, to say his say like the rest.

“For that matter,” she muttered,” your son Rocco never helped you a bit; if he got hold of a soldo he spent it at the tavern.”

La Zuppidda knew everything that went on in the place, and for this reason they said she went about all day barefoot, with that distaff that she was always holding over her head to keep the thread off the graveL Playing the spy, she was; the spinning was only a pretext. “ She always told gospel truth that was a habit of hers and people who didn’t like to have the truth told about them accused her of being a wicked slanderer one of those whose tongues dropped gall. ‘ Bitter mouth spits gall,’ says the proverb, and a bitter mouth she had for that Bar-bara of hers, that she had never been able to marry, so naughty and rude she was, and with all that, she would like to give her Victor Emmanuel’s son for a husband.

“A nice one she is, the Mangiacarubbe,” she went on; “ a brazen — faced hussy, that has called the whole village, one after another, under her window (’ Choose no woman at the window,’ says the prov-erb); and Vanni Pizzuti gave her the figs he stole from Mastro Philip, the ortolano, and they ate them together in the vineyard under the almond-tree. I saw them myself. And Peppi (Joe) Naso, the butch-er, after he began to be jealous of Mariano Cinghia-lenta, the carter, used to throw all the horns of the beasts he killed behind her door, so that they said he combed his head under the Mangiacarubbe’s window.”

That good-natured Cousin Anna, instead, took it easily. “ Don’t you know Don Giammaria says it is a mortal sin to speak evil of one’s neighbors?”

“Don Giammaria had better preach to his own sister Donna Rosolina,” replied La Zuppidda, “ and not let her go playing off the airs of a young girl at Don Silvestro when he goes past the house, and with Don Michele, the brigadier; she’s dying to get married, with all that fat, too, and at her age! She ought to be ashamed of herself.”

“The Lord’s will be done!” said Cousin Anna, in conclusion. “When my husband died, Rocco wasn’t taller than this spindle, and his sisters were all younger than he. Perhaps I’ve lost my soul for them. Grief hardens the heart, they say, and hard work the hands, but the harder they are the better one can work with them. My daughters will do as I have done, and while there are stones in the washing — tank we shall have enough to live on. Look at Nunziata she’s as wise as an old grand-dame; and she works for those babies as if she had borne them herself.”

“And where is Nunziata that she doesn’t come back?” asked La Longa of a group of ragged little fellows who sat whining on the steps of the tumble-down little house on the opposite side of the way. When they heard their sister’s name they began to howl in chorus.

“I saw her go down to the beach after broom to burn,” said Cousin Anna, “ and your son Alessio was with her too.”

The children stopped howling to listen, then be“gan to cry again, all at once; and the biggest one, perched like a little chicken on the top step, said, gravely, after a while, “ I don’t know where she is.”

The neighbors all came out, like snails in a show-er, and all along the little street was heard a perpetual chatter from one door to another. Even Alfio Mosca, who had the donkey-cart, had opened his window, and a great smell of broom-smoke came out of it. Men a had left the loom and come out on the door-step.

“Oh, Sant’Agata!” they all cried, and made a great fuss over her.

“Aren’t you thinking of marrying your Mena?” asked La Zuppidda, in a low tone, of Maruzza. “She’s already eighteen, come Easter-tide. I know her age; she was born in the year of the earth-quake, like my Barbara. Whoever wants my Bar-bara must first please me.”

At this moment was heard a sound of boughs scraping on the road, and up came Luca and Nun-ziata, who couldn’t be seen under the big bundle of broom-bushes, they were so little.

“Oh, Nunziata,” called out the neighbors, “ were not you afraid at this hour, so far from home?”

“I was with them,” said Alessio.

“I was late washing with Cousin Anna, and then I had nothing to light the fire with.”

The little girl lighted the lamp, and began to get ready for supper, the children trotting up and down the little kitchen after her, so that she looked like a hen with her chickens; Alessio had thrown down his fagot, and stood gazing out of the door, gravely, with his hands in his pockets.

“Oh, Nunziata,” called out Mena, from the door-step, “ when you’ve lighted the fire come over here for a little.”

Nunziata left Alessio to look after her fire, and ran across to perch herself on the landing beside Sant’Agata, to enjoy a little rest, hand in hand with her friend.

“Friend Alfio Mosca is cooking his broad beans now,” observed Nunziata, after a little.

“He is like you, poor fellow! You have neither of you any one to get the minestra ready by the time you come home tired in the evening.”

“Yes, it is true that; and he knows how to sew, and to wash and mend his clothes.” (Nunziata knew everything that Alfio did, and knew every inch of her neighbor’s house as if it had been the palm of her hand.) “ Now,” she said, “he has gone to get wood, now he is cleaning his donkey,” and she watched his light as it moved about the house.

Sant’Agata laughed, and Nunziata said that to be precisely like a woman Alfio only wanted a pet-ticoat.

“So,” concluded Mena, “ when he marries, his wife will go round with the donkey-cart, and he’ll stay at home and look after the children.”

The mothers, grouped about the street, talked about Alfio Mosca too, and how La Vespa swore that she wouldn’t have him for a husband so said La Zuppidda “ because the Wasp had her own nice little property, and wanted to marry somebody who owned something better than a donkey-cart. She has been casting sheep’s eyes at her uncle Dumb-bell, the little rogue!”

The girls for their parts defended Alfio against that ugly Wasp; and Nunziata felt her heart swell with contempt at the way they scorned Alfio, only because he was poor and alone in the world, and all of a sudden she said to Mena:

“If I was grown up I’d marry him, so I would, if they’d let me.”

Mena was going to say something herself, but she changed the subject suddenly.

“Are you going to town for the All Souls’ festa?”

“No. I can’t leave the house all alone/’

“We are to go if the business of the lupins goes well; grandpapa says so.”

Then she thought a minute and added:

“Cousin Alfio, he’s going too, to sell his nuts at the fair.”

And the girls sat silent, thinking of the Feast of All Souls, and how Alfio was going there to sell his nuts.

“Old Uncle Crucifix, how quietly he puts Vespa in his pocket,” began Cousin Anna, all over again.

“That’s what she wants,” cried La Zuppidda, in her abrupt way, “ to be pocketed. La Vespa wants just that, and nothing else. She’s always in his house on one pretext or another, slipping in like a cat, with something good for him to eat or drink, and the old man never refuses what costs him nothing. She fattens him up like a pig for Christmas. I tell you she asks nothing better than to get into his pocket.”

Every one had something to say about Uncle Crucifix, who was always whining, when, instead, he had money by the shovelful for La Zuppidda, one day when the old man was ill, had seen a chest under his bed as big as that J

La Longa felt the weight of the forty scudi of debt for the lupins, and changed the subject; because “one hears also in the dark,” and they could hear the voice of Uncle Crucifix talking with Don Giammaria, who was crossing the piazza close by, while La Zuppidda broke off her abuse of him to wish him good-evening.

Don Silvestro laughed his hen’s cackle, and this fashion of laughing enraged the apothecary, who had never had any patience for that matter; he left that to such asses as wouldn’t get up another revo-lution.

“No, you never had any,” shouted Don Giam-maria to him; “you have no place to put it.” And Don Franco, who was a little man, went into a fury, and called ugly names after the priest which could be heard all across the piazza in the dark. Old Dumb-bell, hard as a stone, shrugged his shoulders, and took care to repeat “ that all that was nothing to him; he attended to his own affairs.” “As if the affairs of the Company of the Happy Death were not your affairs,” said Don Giammaria, “ and no-body paying a soldo any more. When it is a question of putting their hands in their pockets these people are a lot of Protestants, worse than that heathen apothecary, and let the box of the confra-ternity become a nest for mice. It was positively beastly!”

Don Franco, from his shop, sneered at them all at the top of his voice, trying to imitate Don Sil-vestro’s cackling laugh, which was enough to mad-den anybody. But everybody knew that the drug-gist was a freemason, and Don Giammaria called out to him from the piazza.:

“You’d find the money fast enough if it was for schools or for illuminations!”

The apothecary didn’t answer, for his wife just then appeared at the window; and Uncle Crucifix, when he was far enough off not to be heard by Don Silvestro, the clerk, who gobbled up the salary for the master of the elementary school:

“It is nothing to me,” he repeated, “but in my time there weren’t so many lamps nor so many schools, and we were a deal better off.”

“You never were at school, and you can manage your affairs well enough.”

“And I know my catechism, too,” said Uncle Crucifix, not to be behindhand in politeness.

In the heat of dispute Don Giammaria lost the pavement, which he could cross with his eyes shut, and was on the point of breaking his neck, and of letting slip, God forgive us! a very naughty word.

“At least if they’d light their lamps!”

“In these days one must look after one’s steps,” concluded Uncle Crucifix.

Don Giammaria pulled him by the sleeve of his coat to tell him about this one and that one in the middle of the piazza, in the dark of the lamp-lighter who stole the oil, and Don Silvestro, who winked at it, and of the Sindic Giufa, who let himself be led by the nose. Dumb-bell nodded his head in assent, mechanically, though they couldn’t see each other; and Don Giammaria, as he passed the whole village in review, said: “ This one is a thief; that one is a rascal; the other is a Jacobin so you hear Goosefoot, there, talking with Padron Malavoglia and Padron Cipolla another heretic, that one! A demagogue he is, with that crooked leg of his!”; and when he went limping across the piazza he moved out of his way and watched him distrustfully, trying to find out what he was after, hitching about that way. “He has the cloven foot like the devil,” he muttered.

Uncle Crucifix shrugged his shoulders again, and repeated “that he was an honest man, that he didn’t mix himself up with it.” “Padron Cipolla was another old fool, a regular balloon, that fellow!, to let himself be blindfolded by old Goosefoot; and Padron ‘Ntoni, too he’ll get a fall before long; one may expect anything in these days.”

“Honest men keep to their own business,” repeated Uncle Crucifix.

Instead, Uncle Tino, sitting up like a president on the church steps, went on uttering wise sen-tences:

“Listen to me. Before the Revolution everything was different; Now the fish are all adulterated; I tell you I know it.”

“No, the anchovies feel the north-east wind twenty-four hours before it comes,” resumed Pa-dron ‘Ntoni, “ it has always been so; the anchovy is a cleverer fish than the tunny. Now, beyond the

Capo del Mulini, they sweep the sea with nets, fine ones, all at once.”

“I’ll tell you what it is,” began old Fortunato. “It is those beastly steamers beating the water with their confounded wheels. What will you have? Of course the fish are frightened and don’t come any more; that’s what it is.”

The son of La Locca sat listening, with his mouth open, scratching his head.

“Bravo!” he said. “That way they wouldn’t find any fish at Messina nor at Syracuse, and instead they came from there by the railway by quin-tals at a time.”

“For that matter, get out of it the best way you can,” cried Cipolla, angrily. “ I wash my hands of it. I don’t care a fig about it. I have my farm and my vineyards to live upon, without your fish.”

Padron ‘Ntoni, with his nose in the air, observed, “If the north-east wind doesn’t get up before mid-night, the Provvidenza will have time to get round the Cape.”

From the campanile overhead came the slow strokes of the deep bell. “ One hour after sunset!” observed Padron Cipolla.

Padron ‘Ntoni made the holy sign, and replied, “Peace to the living and rest to the dead.”

“Don Giammaria has fried vermicelli for sup-per,” observed Goosefoot, sniffing towards the parsonage windows.

Don Giammaria, passing by on his way home, saluted Goosefoot as well as the others, for in such times as these one must be friends with those ras-cals, and Uncle Tino, whose mouth was always wa-tering, called after him:

“Eh, fried vermicelli to-night, Don Giammaria!”

“Do you hear him? Even sniffing at what I have to eat!” muttered Don Giammaria between his teeth; “they spy after the servants of God to count even their mouthfuls everybody hates the church!” And coming face to face with Don Michele, the brigadier of the coast-guard, who was going his rounds, with his pistols in his belt and his trousers thrust into his boots, in search of smugglers, “ They don’t grudge their suppers to those fellows.”

“Those fellows, I like them,” cried Uncle Cruci-fix. “ I like those fellows who look after honest men’s property!”

“If they’d only make it worth his while he’d be a heretic too,” growled Don Giammaria, knocking at the door of his house. “All a lot of thieves,” he went on muttering, with the knocker in his hand, following with suspicious eye the form of the briga-dier, who disappeared in the darkness towards the tavern, and wondering “ what he was doing at the tavern, protecting honest men’s goods?”

All the same, Daddy Tino knew why Don Michele went in the direction of the tavern to protect the interests of honest people, for he had spent whole nights watching for him behind the big elm to find out; and he used to say:

“He goes to talk on the sly with Uncle Santoro, Santuzza’s father. Those fellows that the King feeds must all be spies, and know all about every-body’s business in Trezza and everywhere else; and old Uncle Santoro, blind as he is, blinking like a bat in the sunshine, at the tavern door, knows every-thing that goes on in the place, and could call us by name one after another only by the footsteps.”

Maruzza, hearing the bell strike, went into the house quickly to spread the cloth on the table; the gossips, little by little, had disappeared, and as the village went to sleep the sea became audible once more at the foot of the little street, and every now and then it gave a great sigh like a sleepless man turning on his bed. Only down by the tavern, where the red light shone, the noise continued; and Rocco Spatu, who made festa every day in the week, was heard shouting.

“Cousin Rocco is in good spirits to-night,” said Alfio Mosca from his window, which looked quite dark and deserted.

“Oh, there you are, Cousin Alfio!” replied Mena, who had remained on the landing waiting for her grandfather.

“Yes, here I am, Coz Mena; I’m here eating my minestra, because when I see you all at table, with your light, I don’t lose my appetite for loneliness.”

“Are you not in good spirits?”

“Ah, one wants so many things to put one in good spirits!”

Mena did not answer, and after a little Cousin Alfio added:

“To-morrow I’m going to town for a load of salt.”

“Are you going for All Souls?” asked Mena.

“Heaven knows! this year my poor little nuts are all bad.”

“Cousin Alfio goes to the city to look for a wife,” said Nunziata, from the door opposite.

“Is that true?” asked Mena.

“Eh, Cousin Mena, if I had to look for one I could find girls to my mind without leaving home.”

“Look at those stars,” said Mena, after a silence. “They say they are the souls loosed from Purgatory going into Paradise.”

“Listen,” said Alfio, after having also taken a look at the stars, “you, who are Sant’Agata, if you dream of a good number in the lottery, tell it to me, and I’ll pawn my shirt to put in for it, and then, you know, I can begin to think about taking a wife.”

“Good-night!” said Mena.

The stars twinkled faster than ever, the “ three kings “ shone out over the Fariglione, with their arms out obliquely like Saint Andrew.

The sea moved at the foot of the street, softly, softly, and at long intervals was heard the rumbling of some cart passing in the dark, grinding on the stones, and going out into the wide world so wide, so wide, that if one could walk forever one couldn’t get to the end of it; and there were people going up and down in this wide world that knew nothing of Cousin Alfio, nor of the Provvidenza out at sea, nor of the Festa of All Souls.

So thought Mena, waiting on the landing for grandpapa.

Grandpapa himself came out once or twice on the landing, before closing the door, looking at the stars, which twinkled more than they need have done, and then muttered, “Ugly Sea!” Rocco Spatu howled a tipsy song under the red light at the tavern. “A careless heart can always sing,” concluded Padron ‘Ntoni.

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