The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


ONCE the Malavoglia were as numerous as the stones on the old road to Trezza; there were some even at Ognino and at Aci Castello, and good and brave seafaring folk, quite the opposite of what they might appear to be from their nickname of the Ill-wills, as is but right. In fact, in the parish books they were called Toscani; but that meant nothing, because, since the world was a world, at Ognino, at Trezza, and at Aci Castello they had been known as Malavoglia, from father to son, who had always had boats on the water and tiles in the sun. Now at Trezza there remained only Padron ‘Ntoni and his family, who owned the Prov-videnza, which was anchored in the sand below the washing-tank by the side of Uncle Cola’s Concetta and Padron Fortunato Cipolla’s bark. The tem-pests, which had scattered all the other Malavoglia to the four winds, had passed over the house by the medlar — tree and the boat anchored under the tank without doing any great damage; and Padron ‘Ntoni, to explain the miracle, used to say, showing his closed fist, a fist which looked as if it were made of walnut wood, “ To pull a good oar the five fingers must help one another.” He also said, “ Men are like the fingers of the hand the thumb must be the thumb, and the little finger the little finger.”

And Padron ‘Ntoni’s little family was really disposed like the fingers of a hand. First, he came the thumb who ordered the fasts and the feasts in the house; then Bastian, his son, called Bastianazzo because he was as big and as grand as the Saint Christopher which was painted over the arch of the fish-market in town; and big and grand as he was, he went right about at the word of command, and wouldn’t have blown his nose unless his father had told him to do it. So he took to wife La Longa when his father said to him “ Take her!” Then came La Longa, a little woman who attended to her weaving, her salting of anchovies, and her babies, as a good house-keeper should do; last, the grand-children in the order of their age ‘Ntoni, the eldest, a big fellow of twenty, who was always getting cuffs from his grandfather, and then kicks a little farther down if the cuffs had been heavy enough to disturb his equilibrium; Luca, “ who had more sense than the big one,” the grandfather said; Mena (Filo-mena), surnamed Sant’Agata, because she was always at the loom, and the proverb goes, “ Woman at the loom, hen in the coop, and mullet in January;” Alessio, our urchin, that was his grandfather all over; and Lia (Rosalia), as yet neither fish nor flesh. On Sunday, when they went into church one after another, they looked like a procession.

Padron ‘Ntoni was in the habit of using certain proverbs and sayings of old times, for, said he, the sayings of the ancients never lie: “ Without a pilot the boat won’t go;” “ To be pope one must begin by being sacristan,” or, “ Stick to the trade you know, somehow you’ll manage to go;” “ Be content to be what your father was, then you’ll be neither a knave nor an ass,” and other wise saws. There-fore the house by the medlar was prosperous, and Padron ‘Ntoni passed for one of the weighty men of the village, to that extent that they would have made him a communal councillor. Only Don Sil-vestro, the town-clerk, who was very knowing, insisted that he was a rotten codino, a reactionary who went in for the Bourbons, and conspired for the return of Franceschello, that he might tyrannize over the village as he tyrannized over his own house. Padron ‘Ntoni, instead, did not even know France-schello by sight, and used to say, “ He who has the management of a house cannot sleep when he likes, for he who commands must give account.” In De-cember, 1863, ‘Ntoni, the eldest grandson, was called up for the naval conscription. Padron ‘Ntoni had recourse to the big-wigs of the village, who are those who can help us if they like. But Don Giam-maria, the vicar, replied that he deserved it, and that it was the fruit of that satanic revolution which they had made, hanging that tricolored handker-chief to the campanile. Don Franco, the druggist, on the other hand, laughed under his beard, and said it was quite time there should be a revolution, and that then they would send all those fellows of the draft and the taxes flying, and there would be no more soldiers, but everybody would go out and fight for their country if there was need of it. Then Padron ‘Ntoni begged and prayed him, for the love of God, to make the revolution quickly, before his grandson ‘Ntoni went for a soldier, as if Don Franco had it in his pocket, so that at last the druggist flew into a rage. Then Don Silvestro, the town-clerk, dislocated his jaws with laughter at the talk, and finally he said that by means of certain little packets, slipped into certain pockets that he knew of, they might manage to get his nephew found defective in some way, and sent back for a year. Unfortunately, the doctor, when he saw the tall youth, told him that his only defect was to be planted like a column on those big ugly feet, that looked like the leaves of a prick-ly-pear, but such feet as that would be of more use on the deck of an iron-clad in certain rough times that were coming than pretty small ones in tight boots; and so he took ‘Ntoni, without saying “ by your leave.” La Longa, when the conscripts went up to their quarters, trotted breathless by the side of her long-legged son, reminding him that he must always remember to keep round his neck the piece of the Madonna’s dress that she had given him, and to send home news whenever any one came that way that he knew, and she would give him money to buy paper.

The grandfather, being a man, said nothing; but felt a lump in his throat, too, and would not look his daughter-inlaw in the face, so that it seemed as if he were angry with her. So they returned to Aci Trezza, silent, with bowed heads. Bastianazzo,who had unloaded the Provvidenza in a great hurry, went to meet them at the top of the street, and when he saw them coming, sadly, with their shoes in their hands, had no heart to speak, but turned round and went back with them to the house. La Longa rushed away to the kitchen, longing to find herself alone with the familiar saucepans; and Padron ‘Ntoni said to his son, “Go and say something to that poor child; she can bear it no longer.” The day after they all went back to the station of Aci Castello to see the train pass with the conscripts who were going to Messina, and waited behind the bars hus-tled by the crowd for more than an hour. Finally the train arrived, and they saw their boys, all swarming with their heads out of the little windows like oxen going to a fair. The singing, the laughter, and the noise made it seem like the Festa of Tre-castagni, and in the flurry and the fuss they forgot their aching hearts for a while.

“Adieu, ‘Ntoni! Adieu, mamma! Addio. Re-member! remember!” Near by, on the margin of the ditch, pretending to be cutting grass for the calf, was Cousin Tudda’s Sara; but Cousin Venera, the Zuppidda (hobbler), went on whispering that she had come there to see Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni, with whom she used to talk over the wall of the garden. She had seen them herself, with those very eyes, which the worms would one day devour. Certain it is that ‘Ntoni waved his hand to Sara, and that she stood still, with the sickle in her hand, gazing at the train as long as it was there. To La Longa it seemed that that wave of the hand had been stolen from her, and when she met Cousin Tudda’s Sara on the piazza (public square), or at the tank where they washed, she turned her back on her for a long time after. Then the train moved off, hissing and screaming so as to drown the adieus and the songs. And then the curious crowd dispersed, leaving only a few poor women and some poor devils that still stood clinging to the bars without knowing why. Then, one by one, they also moved away, and Padron ‘Ntoni, guessing that his daughter-inlaw must have a bitter taste in her mouth, spent two centimes for a glass of water, with lemon-juice in it, for her. Cousin Venera, the Zuppidda, to comfort her gossip La Longa, said to her, “ Now, you may set your heart at rest, for, for five years you may look upon your son as dead, and think no more about him.”

But they did think of him all the time at the house by the medlar now it would be a plate too many which La Longa found in her hand when she was getting supper ready; now some knot or other that nobody could tie like ‘Ntoni in the rigging and when some rope had to be pulled taut, or turn some screw, the grandfather groaning, “ O-hi! O-o-o-o-hi!” ejaculated: “ Here we want ‘Ntoni!” or “Do you think I have a wrist like that boy’s?” The mother, passing the shuttle through the loom that went one, two, three! thought of the bourn, bourn of the engine that had dragged away her son, which had sounded ever since in her heart, one! two! three!

The grandpapa, too, had certain singular methods of consolation. “What will you have? A little soldiering will do that boy good; he always liked better to carry his two arms out a-walking of a Sun-day than to work with them for his bread.” Or, “When he has learned how salt the bread is that one eats elsewhere he won’t growl any longer about the minestra1 at home.”

1 Macaroni of inferior quality.

Finally, there arrived the first letter from ‘Ntoni, which convulsed the village. He said that the wom-en oft there swept the streets with their silk petti-coats, and that on the mole there was Punch’s the-atre, and that they sold those little round cheeses, that rich people eat, for two centimes, and that one could not get along without soldi; that did well enough at Trezza, where, unless one went to San-tuzza’s, at the tavern, one didn’t know how to spend one’s money.

“Set him up with his cheeses, the glutton,” said his grandfather. “ He can’t help it, though; he always was like that. If I hadn’t held him at the font in these arms, I should have said Don Giam-inaria had put sugar in his mouth instead of salt.”

The Mangiacarubbe when she was at the tank, and Cousin Tudda’s Sara was by, went on saying:

“Certainly. Those ladies with the silk dresses waited on purpose for Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni to steal him away. They haven’t got any pumpkin-heads down there!”

The others held their sides with laughing, and henceforth the envious girls called ‘Ntoni “pump-kin-head.”

‘Ntoni had sent his portrait, too; all the girls at the tank had seen it, as Sara showed it to one after another, passing it under her apron, and the Man-giacarubbe shivered with jealousy. He looked like Saint Michael the Archangel with those feet planted on a fine carpet, and a curtain behind his head, like that of the Madonna at Ognino; and he was so handsome, so clean, and smooth and neat, that the mother that bore him wouldn’t have known him; and poor La Longa was never tired of gazing at the curtain and the carpet and that pillar, against which her son stood up stiff as a post, scratching with his hand the back of a beautiful arm-chair; and she thanked God and the saints who had placed her boy in the midst of such splendors. She kept the portrait on the bureau, under the glass globe which covered the figure of the Good Shepherd; so that she said her prayers to it, the Zuppidda said, and thought she had a great treasure on the bureau; and, after all, Sister Mariangela, the Santuzza, had just such another (anybody that cared to might see it) that Cousin Mariano Cinghialenta had given her, and she kept it nailed upon the tavern counter, among the bottles.

But after a while ‘Ntoni got hold of. a comrade who could write, and then he let himself go in abuse of the hard life on board ship, the discipline, the superiors, the thin rice soup, and the tight shoes. “A letter that wasn’t worth the twenty centimes for the postage,” said Padron ‘Ntoni. La Longa scolded about the writing, that looked like a lot of fish-hooks, and said nothing worth hearing.

Bastianazzo shook his head, saying no; it wasn’t good at all, and that if it had been he, he would have always put nice things to please people down there on the paper pointing at it with a finger as big as the pin of a rowlock if it were only out of compassion for La Longa, who, since her boy was gone, went about like a cat that had lost her kitten. Padron ‘Ntoni went in secret, first, to Don Giam-maria, and then to Don Franco, the druggist, and got the letter read to him by both of them; and as they were of opposite ways of thinking, he was persuaded that it was really written there as they said; and then he went on saying to Bastianazzo and to his wife:

“Didn’t I tell you that boy ought to have been born rich, like Padron Cipolla’s son, that he might have nothing to do but lie in the sun and scratch himself?”

Meanwhile the year was a bad one, and the fish had to be given for the souls of the dead, now that Christians had taken to eating meat on Friday like so many Turks. Besides, the men who remained at home were not enough to manage the boat, and sometimes they had to take La Locca’s Menico, by the day, to help. The King did this way, you see he took the boys just as they got big enough to earn their living; while they were little, and had to be fed, he left them at home. And there was Mena, too; the girl was seventeen, and the youths began to stop and stare at her as she went into church. So it was necessary to work with hands and feet too to drive that boat, at the house by the medlar-tree.

Padron ‘Ntoni, therefore, to drive the bark, had arranged with Uncle Crucifix Dumb-bell an affair concerning certain lupins2 to be bought on credit and sold again at Riposto, where Cousin Cinghia-lenta, the carrier, said there was a boat loading for Trieste. In fact, the lupins were beginning to rot; but they were all that were to be had at Trezza, and that old rascal Dumb-bell knew that the Prov-videnza was eating her head off and doing nothing, so he pretended to be very stupid, indeed. “ Eh! too much is it? Let it alone, then! But I can’t take a centime less! I can’t, on my conscience! I must answer for my soul to God! I can’t “- and shook his head till it looked in real earnest like a bell without a clapper. This conversation took place at the door of the church at Ognino, on the first Sunday in September, which was the feast of Our Lady. There was a great concourse of people from all the neighborhood, and there was present also Cousin Agostino Goosefoot, who, by talking and joking, managed to get them to agree upon two scudi and ten the bag, to be paid by the month. It was always so with Uncle Crucifix, he said, because he had that cursed weakness of not being able to say no. “As if you couldn’t say no when you like,” sneered Goosefoot. “ You’re like the And he told him what he was like.

2 Coarse flat beans.

When La Longa heard of the business of the lu-pins, she opened her eyes very wide indeed, as they sat with their elbows on the table-cloth after sup-per, and it seemed as if she felt, the weight of that sum of forty scudi on her stomach. But she said nothing, because women have nothing to do with such things; and Padron ‘Ntoni explained to her how, if the affair was successful, there would be bread for the winter and ear-rings for Mena, and Bastiano could go and come in a week from Ri-posto with La Locca’s Menico. Bastiano, mean-time, snuffed the candle and said nothing. So the affair of the lupins was arranged, and the voyage of the Provvidenza, which was the oldest boat in the village, but was supposed to be very lucky. Ma-ruzza had a heavy heart, but did not speak; he went about indefatigably, preparing everything, put-ting the boat in order, and filling the cupboard with provisions for the journey fresh bread, the jar with oil, the onions and putting the fur-lined coat under the deck.

The men had been very busy all day with that usurer Uncle Crucifix, who had sold a pig in a poke, and the lupins were spoiling. Dumb-bell swore that he knew nothing about it, in God’s truth! “Bargaining is no cheating;” was he likely to throw his soul to the pigs? And Goosefoot scolded and blasphemed like one possessed to bring them to agreement, swearing that such a thing had never happened to him before; and he thrust his hands among the lupins, and held them up before God and the Madonna, calling them to witness. At last red, panting, desperate he made a wild proposition, and flung it in the face of Uncle Crucifix (who pretended to be quite stupefied), and of the Mala-voglia, with the sacks in their hands. “ There! pay it at Christmas, instead of paying so much a month, and you will gain two soldi the sack! Now make an end of it. Holy Devil!” and he began to measure them. “ In God’s name, one!”

The Provvidenza went off on Saturday, towards evening, when the Ave Maria should have been ringing; only the bell was silent because Master Cirino, the sacristan, had gone to carry a pair of new boots to Don Silvestro, the town-clerk; at that hour the girls crowded like a flight of sparrows about the fountain, and the evening-star was shining brightly already just over the mast of the Provvidenza, like a lamp. Maruzza, with her baby in her arms, stood on the shore, without speaking, while her husband loosed the sail, and the Provvidenza danced on the broken waves by the Fariglione 3 like a cluck. “Clear south wind and dark north, go fearlessly forth,” said Padron ‘Ntoni, from the landing, looking towards the mountains, dark with clouds.

La Locca’s Menico, who was in the Provvidenza with Bastianazzo, called out something which was lost in the sound of the sea. “ He said you may give the money to his mother, for his brother is out of work;” called Bastianazzo, and that was the last word that was heard.

3 Rocks rising straight out of the sea, separate from the shore.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01