The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga

v.

MENA did not know that there was an idea of marrying her to Padron Cipolla’s Brasi “ to make the mother forget her grief,” and the first person to tell it her was Alfio Mosca, who, a few days later, came to the garden gate, on his way back from Aci Castello, with his donkey-cart. Mena replied, “ It isn’t true, it isn’t true!” but she was confused, and as he went on telling her all about how he had heard it from La Vespa in the house of Uncle Cru-cifix, all of a sudden she turned red all over. Cous-in Alfio, too, lost countenance seeing the girl like that, with her black kerchief over her head. He began to play with the buttons of his coat, stood first on one leg, then on the other, and would have given anything to get away. “Listen; it isn’t my fault; I heard it in old Dumb-bell’s court while I was chopping up the locust-tree that was blown down in the storm at the Santa Clara, you remem-ber. Now, Uncle Crucifix gets me to do chores for him, because he won’t hear of La Locca’s son ever since his brother played him that trick with the cargo of lupins.” Mena had the string of the gate in her hand, but couldn’t make up her mind to open it. “And then if it isn’t true, why do you blush?” She didn’t know, that was the truth, and she turned the latch-string round and round. That person she knew only by sight, and hardly that. Alfio went on telling her the whole litany of Brasi Cipolla’s riches; after Uncle Naso, the butcher, he was the best match in the place, and all the girls were ready to eat him up with their eyes. Mena listened with all hers, and all of a sudden she made him a low courtesy, and went off up the garden path to the house.

Alfio, in a fury, went off and scolded La Vespa for telling him such a lot of stupid lies, getting him into hot water with everybody.

“Uncle Crucifix told me,” replied La Vespa; “I don’t tell lies!”

“Lies! lies!” growled old Crucifix. “ I ain’t going to damn my soul for that lot! I heard it with these ears. I heard also that the Provvidenza is in Maruzza’s dowry, and that there’s a mortgage of two francs a year on the house.”

“You wait and you’ll see if I tell lies or not,” continued La Vespa, leaning back against the bu-reau, with her hands on her hips, and looking at him all the time with the wickedest eyes. “ You men are all alike; one can’t trust any of you.”

Meanwhile Uncle Crucifix didn’t hear, and instead of eating, went on talking about the Mala-voglia, who were talking of marriages in the family; but of the two hundred francs for the lupins no-body heard a word.

“Eh!” cried La Vespa, losing patience, “if one listened to you nobody would get married at all.”

“I don’t care who gets married or who doesn’t, I want my own; I don’t care for anything else.”

“If you don’t care about it, who should? I say everybody isrj’t like you, always putting things off.”

“And are you in a hurry, pray?”

“Of course I am. You have plenty of time to wait, you’re so young; but everybody can’t wait till the cows come home, to get married.”

“It’s a bad year,” said Uncle Dumb-bell. “ No one has time to think of such things as those.”

La Vespa at this planted her hands on her hips, and went off like a railway-whistle, as if her own wasp’s sting had been on her tongue.

“Now, listen to what I’m going to say. After all, my living is mine, and I don’t need to go about begging for a husband. What do you mean by it? If you hadn’t come filling my head with your flat-tery and nonsense, I might have had half a thou-sand husbands Vanni Pizzuti, and Alfio Mos-ca, and my Cousin Cola, that was always hanging on to my skirts before he went for a soldier, and wouldn’t even let me tie up my stockings all of them burning with impatience, too. They wouldn’t have gone on leading me by the nose this way, and keeping me slinging round from Easter until Christ-mas, as you’ve done.”

This time Uncle Crucifix put his hand behind his ear to hear the better, and began to smooth her down with good words: “ Yes, I know you are a sensible girl; for that I am fond of you, and am not like those fellows that were after you to nobble your land, and then to eat it up at Santuzza’s tav-ern.”

“It isn’t true! you don’t love me. If you did you wouldn’t act this way; you would see what I am really thinking of all the time yes, you would.”

She turned her back on him, and still went on poking at him, as if unconsciously, with her elbow. “I know you don’t care for me,” she said.

The uncle was offended by this unkind suspi-cion. “” You say these things to draw me into sin.” He began to complain. He not care for his own flesh and blood! for she was his own flesh and blood after all, as the vineyard was, and it would have been his if his brother hadn’t taken it into his head to marry, and bring the Wasp into the world; and for that he had always kept her as the apple of his eye, and thought only of her good. “ Listen!” he said. “ I thought of making over to you the debt of the Malavoglia, in exchange for the vine-yard, which is worth forty scudi, and with the expenses and the interest may even reach fifty scudi, and you may get hold even of the house by the medlar, which is worth more than the vineyard.”

“Keep the house by the medlar for yourself,” said she. “ I’ll keep my vineyard. I know very well what to do with it.” Then Uncle Crucifix also flew into a rage, and said that she meant to let it be gobbled up by that beggar Alfio Mosca, who made fish’s-eyes at her for love of the vineyard, and that he wouldn’t have him about the house any more, and would have her to know that he had blood in his veins, too. “ I declare if he isn’t jealous!” cried the Wasp.

“Of course I’m jealous,” said the old man, “jealous as a wild beast;” and he swore he’d pay five francs to whoever would break Alfio Mosca’s head for him, but would not do it himself, for he was a God-fearing Christian; and in these days honest men were cheated, for good faith dwells in the house of the fool, where one may buy a rope to hang one’s self; the proof of it was that one might pass and repass the house of the Malavoglia till all was blue, until people had begun to make fun of him, and to say that he made pilgrimages to the house by the medlar, as they did who made vows to the Madonna at Ognino. The Malavoglia paid him with bows, and nothing else; and the boys, if they saw him enter the street, ran off as if they had seen a bugbear; but until now he hadn’t heard a word of that money for the lupins and All Souls was hard at hand and here was Padron ‘Ntoni talking of his granddaughter’s marriage!

He went off and growled at Goosefoot, who had got him into this scrape, he said to others; but the others said he went to cast sheep’s — eyes at the house by the medlar-tree; and La Locca who was always wandering about there, because she had been told that her son had gone away in the Malavoglia’s boat, and she thought he would come back that way, and she should find him there never saw her brother Crucifix without beginning to screech like a bird of ill omen, making him more furious than ever. “ This one will drive me into a mortal sin,” cried Dumb-bell.

“All Souls is not yet come/’ answered Goosefoot, gesticulating, as usual; “have a little patience! Do you want to suck Padron ‘Ntoni’s blood? You know very well that you’ve really lost nothing, for the lupins were good for nothing you know that.”

He knew nothing; he only knew that his blood was in God’s hands, and that the Malavoglia boys dared not play on the landing when he passed before Goosefoot’s door. And if he met Alfio Mosca, with his donkey-cart, who took off his cap, with his sunburnt face, he felt his blood boiling with jeal-ousy about the vineyard. “ He wants to entrap my niece for the sake of the vineyard,” he grumbled to Goosefoot. “A lazy hound, who does nothing but strut round with that donkey — cart, and has nothing else in the world. A starving beggar! A rascal who makes that ugly witch of a niece of mine believe that he’s in love with her pig’s face, for love of her property ”

Meantime Alfio Mosca was not thinking of Ves-pa at all, and if he had any one in his eye it was rather Padron ‘Ntoni’s Mena, whom he saw every day in the garden or on the landing, or when she went to look after the hens in the chicken-coop; and if he heard the pair of fowls he had given her cackling in the court-yard, he felt something stir inside of him, and felt as if he himself were there in the court of the house by the medlar; and if he had been something better than a poor carter he would have asked for Sant’Agata’s hand in marriage, and carried her off in the donkey-cart. When he thought of all these things he felt as if he had a thousand things to say to her; and yet when she was by his tongue was tied, and he could only talk of the weather, or the last load of wine he had carried for the Santuzza, and of the donkey, who could draw four quintals’ weight better than a mule, poor beast!

Mena stroked the poor beast with her hand, and Alfio smiled as if it had been himself whom she had caressed. “Ah, if my donkey were yours, Cous-in Mena!” And Mena shook her head sadly, and wished that the Malavoglia had been carriers, for then her poor father would not have died.

“The sea is salt,” she said, “ and the sailor dies in the sea.”

Alfio, who was in a hurry to carry the wine to Santuzza, couldn’t make up his mind to go, but stayed, chatting about the fine thing it was to keep tavern, and how that trade never fell off, and if the wine was dear one had only to pour more water into the barrels. Uncle Santoro had grown rich in that way, and now he only begged for amusement.

“And you do very well carrying the wine, do you not?” asked Mena.

“Yes, in summer, when I can travel by night and by day both; that way I manage pretty well. This poor beast earns his living. When I shall have saved a little money I’ll buy a mule, and then I can become a real carrier like Master Mariano Cinghialenta.”

The girl was listening intently to all that Alfio was saying, and meanwhile the gray olive shook, with a sound like rain, and strewed the path with little dry curly leaves.

“Here is the winter coming, and all this we talk of is for the summer,” said Goodman Alfio. Mena followed with her eyes the shadows of the clouds that floated over the fields, as if the gray olive had melted and blown away; so the thoughts flew through her head, and she said:

“Do you know, Cousin Alfio, there is nothing in that story about Padron Fortunato Cipolla, because first we must pay the debt for the lupins.”

“I’m glad of it,” said Mosca; “so you won’t go away from the neighborhood.”

“When ‘Ntoni comes back from being a soldier, grandfather and all of us will help each other to pay the debt. Mamma has taken some linen to weave for her ladyship.”

“The druggist’s is a good trade, too!” said Alfio Mosca.

At this moment appeared Cousin Venera Zup-pidda, with her distaff in her hand. “ O Heaven! somebody’s coming,” cried Mena, and ran off into the house.

Alfio whipped the donkey, and wanted to get away as well, but

“Oh, Goodman Alfio, what a hurry you’re in!” cried La Zuppidda, “ I wanted to ask you if the wine you’re taking to Santuzza is the same she had last time.”

“I don’t know; they give me the wine in bar-rel.”

“That last was vinegar only fit for salad reg-ular poison it was; that’s the way Santuzza gets rich; and to cheat the better, she wears the big medal of the Daughters of Mary on the front of her dress. Nowadays whoever wants to get on must take to that trade; else they go backward, like crabs, as the Malavoglia have. Now they have fished up the Provvidenza, you know?”

“No; I was away, but Cousin Mena knew nothing of it.”

“They have just brought the news, and Padron ‘Ntoni has gone off to the Rotolo to see her towed in; he went as if he had got a new pair of legs, the old fellow. Now, with the Provvidenza, the Mala-voglia can get back where they were before, and Men a will again be a good match.”

Alfio did not answer, for the Zuppidda was looking at him fixedly, with her little yellow eyes, and he said he was in a hurry to take the wine to San-tuzza.

“He won’t tell me anything,” muttered the Zup-pidda, “as if I hadn’t seen them with my eyes. They want to hide the sun with a net.”

The Provvidenza had been towed to shore, all smashed, just as she had been found beyond the Cape of the Mills, with her nose among the rocks and her keel in the air. In one moment the whole village was at the shore, men and women together, and Padron ‘Ntoni, mixed up with the crowd, looked on like the rest. Some gave kicks to the poor Provvidenza to hear how she was cracked, as if she no longer belonged to anybody, and the poor old man felt those kicks in his own stomach. “A fine Providence you have!” said Don Franco to him, for he, too, had come in his shirt — sleeves and his great ugly hat, with his pipe in his mouth to look on.

“She’s only fit to burn,” concluded Padron For-tunato Cipolla; and Goodman Mangiacarubbe, who understood those matters, said that the boat must have gone down all of a sudden, without leaving time for those on board to cry “ Lord Jesus, help us!” for the sea had swept away sails, masts, oars, everything, and hadn’t left a single bolt in its place.

“This was papa’s place, where there’s the new row-lock,” said Luca, who had climbed over the side, “and here were the lupins, underneath.”

But of the lupins there was not one left; the sea had swept everything clean away. For this rea-son Maruzza would not leave the house, and never wanted to see the Provvidenza again in her life.

“The hull will hold; something can be made of it yet,” pronounced Master Zuppiddu, the calker, kicking the Provvidenza^ too, with his great ugly feet; “with three or four patches she can go to sea again; never be fit for bad weather a big wave would send her all to pieces but for ‘long-shore fishing, and for fine weather, she’ll do very well.” Padron Cipolla, Goodman Mangiacarubbe, and Cousin Cola stood by, listening in silence.

“Yes,” said Padron Fortunato, at last. “It’s better than setting fire to her.”

“I’m glad of it,” said Uncle Crucifix, who also stood looking on, with his hands behind his back. “We are Christians, and should rejoice in each other’s good — fortune. What says the proverb? ‘Wish well to thy neighbor and thou wilt gain something for thyself.’ ”

The boys had installed themselves inside the Provvidenza, as well as the other lads who insisted on climbing up into her, too. “ When we have mended the Provvidenza properly,” said Alessio, “she will be like Uncle Cola’s Concetta;” and they gave themselves no end of trouble pushing and hauling at her, to get her down to the beach, before the door of Master Zuppiddu, the calker, where there were the big stones to keep the boats in place, and the great kettles for the tar, and heaps of beams, and ribs and knees leaning against the wall. Alessio was always at loggerheads with the other boys, who wanted to climb up into the boat, and to help to fan the fire under the kettle of pitch, and when they pushed him he would say, in a threatening whine:

“Wait till my brother ‘Ntoni comes back!”

Jo fact ‘Ntoni had sent in his papers and ob-tained his leave although Don Silvestro, the town-clerk, had assured him that if he would stay on six months longer as a soldier he would liberate his brother Luca from the conscription. But ‘Ntoni wouldn’t stay even six days longer, now that his father was dead; Luca would have done just as he did if that misfortune had come upon him while he was away from home, and wouldn’t have done another stroke of work if it hadn’t been for those dogs of superiors.

“For my part,” said Luca, “I am quite willing to go for a soldier, instead of ‘Ntoni. Now, when he comes back, the Provvidenza can put to sea again, and there’ll be no need of anybody.”

“That fellow,” cried Padron ‘Ntoni, with great pride, “ is just like his father Bastianazzo, who had a heart as big as the sea, and as kind as the mercy of God.”

One evening Padron ‘Ntoni came home panting with excitement, exclaiming, “ Here’s the letter; Goodman Cirino, the sacristan, gave it to me as I came from taking the nets to Pappafave.”

La Longa turned quite pale for joy; and they all ran into the kitchen to see the letter.

‘Ntoni arrived, with his cap over one ear, and a shirt covered with stars; and his mother couldn’t get enough of him, as the whole family and all his friends followed him home from the station; in a moment the house was full of people, just as it had been at the funeral of poor Bastianazzo, whom no-body thought of now.

Some things nobody remembers but old people, so much so that La Locca was always sitting before the Malavoglia house, against the wall, waiting for her Menico, and turning her head this way and that at every step that she heard passing up or down the alley.

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