The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


‘NTONI went out to sea every blessed day, and had to row, tiring his back dreadfully. But when the sea was high, and fit to swallow them all at one gulp them, the Provvidenza, and everything else that boy had a heart as brave as the sea itself “Malavoglia blood!” said his grandfather; and it was fine to see him at work in a storm, with the wind whistling through his hair, while the bark sprang over the big waves like a porpoise in the spring.

The Provvidenza often ventured out into blue water, old and patched though she was, after that little handful of fish which was hard to find, now that the sea was swept from side to side as if with brooms. Even on those dark days when the clouds hung low over Agnone, and the horizon to the east was full of black shadows, the sail of the Provvi-denza might be seen like a white handkerchief against the leaden-colored sea, and everybody said that Padron ‘Ntoni’s people went out to look for trouble, like the old woman with a lamp.

Padron ‘Ntoni replied that he went out to look for bread; and when the corks disappeared one by one in the wide sea, gleaming green as grass, and the houses of Trezza looked like a little white spot, so far off were they, and there was nothing all around them but water, he began to talk to his grandsons in sheer pleasure. La Longa and the others would come down to the beach to meet them on the shore as soon as they saw the sail rounding the Fariglione; and when they too had been to look at the fish flashing through the nets, and looking as if the bottom of the boat were full of molten silver; and Padron ‘Ntoni replied before any one had asked, u Yes, a quintal or a quintal twenty-five” (generally right, even to an ounce); and then they’d sit talking about it all the evening, while the women pounded salt in the wooden mortars; and when they counted the little barrels ona by one, and Uncle Crucifix came in to see how they had got on, to make his offer, so, with his eyes shut; and Goosefoot came too, screaming and scolding about the right price, and the just price, and so on; then they didn’t mind his screaming, because, after all, it was a pity to quarrel with old friends; and then La Longa would go on counting out sou by sou the money which Goosefoot had brought in his handkerchief, saying, “ These are for the house; these are for the every-day expenses,” and so on. Mena would help, too, to pound the salt and to count the barrels, and she should get back her blue jacket and her coral necklace, that had been pawned to Uncle Crucifix; and the women could go back to their own church again, for if any young man happened to look after Mena, her dowry was getting ready.

“For my part,” said ‘Ntoni, rowing slowly, slowly round and round, so that the current should not drive him out of the circle of the net, while the old man pondered silently over all these things “ for my part, all I wish is that hussy Barbara may be left to gnaw her elbows when we have got back our own again, and may live to repent shutting the door in my face.”

“In the storm one knows the good pilot,” said the old man. “ When we are once more what we have always been, every one will bear a smooth face for us, and will open their doors to us once more.”

“There were two who did not shut their doors,” said Alessio, “ Nunziata and our cousin Anna.”

“’ In prison, in poverty, and in sickness one finds one’s friends’; for that may the Lord help them, too, and all the mouths they have to feed!”

“When Nunziata goes out on the downs to gather wood, or when the rolls of linen are too heavy for her, I go and help her too, poor little thing,” said Alessio.

“Come and help now to pull in this side, for this time Saint Francis has really sent us the gift of God!” and the boy pulled and puffed, with his feet braced against the side of the boat, so that one would have thought he was doing it all himself. Meanwhile ‘Ntoni lay stretched on the deck singing to himself, with his hands under his head, watching the white gulls flying against the blue sky, which had no end, it rose so pure and so high, and the Provvidenza rushed on the green waves rolling in from farther than the eye could see.

“What is the reason,” said Alessio, “ that the sea is sometimes blue and sometimes green and then white, then again black as the sand of the beach, and is never,all one color, as water should be?”

“It is the will of God,” replied the grandfather, “so the mariner can tell when he may safely put out to sea, and when it is best to stay on shore.”

“Those gulls have a fine time of it, flying in the air; they need not fear the waves when the wind is high.” ’

“But they have nothing to eat, either, poor beasts.”

“So every one has need of good weather, like Nunziata, who can’t go to the fountain when it rains,” concluded Alessio.

“Neither good nor bad weather lasts forever,” observed the old man.

But when bad weather came, and the mistral blew, and the corks went dancing on the water all day long as if the devil were playing the violin for them, or if the sea was white as milk, or bubbling up as if it were boiling, and the rain came pouring down upon them until evening, so that no wraps were proof against it, and the sea went frying all about them like oil in the pan, then it was another pair of shoes and ‘Ntoni was in no humor for singing, with his hood down to his nose, bailing out the Provvidenza, that filled faster than he could clear out the water, and the grandpapa went on repeating, “White sea, sirocco there’ll be!” or “Curly sea, fresh wind!” as if he had come there only to learn proverbs; and with these blessed proverbs, too, he’d stand in the evening at the window looking out for the weather, with his nose in the air, and say, “ When the moon is red it means wind; when it is clear, fine weather; when it is pale it means rain.”

“If you know it is going to rain,” said ‘Ntoni, one day, “ why do we go out, while we might stay in bed an hour or two longer?”

“i Water from the sky, sardines in the net,’ “ an-swered the old man.

Later on ‘Ntoni began to curse and swear, with the water half up to his knees.

“This evening,” said his grandfather, “ Maruzza will have a good fire ready for us, and we shall soon be quite dry.”

And at dusk when the Provvidenza, with her hull full of the gifts of God, turned towards home, with her sail puffing out like Donna Rosolina’s best pet-ticoat, and the lights of the village came twinkling one by one from behind the dark rocks as if they were beckoning to each other, Padron ‘Ntoni showed his boys the bright fire which burned in La Longa’s kitchen at the bottom of the tiny court in the nar-row black street; for the wall was low, and from the sea the whole house was visible, with the tiles built into a shed for the hens, and the oven on the other side of the door.

“Don’t you see what a blaze La Longa has got up for us?” said he, in high spirits; and La Longa was waiting for them, with the baskets ready. When they were brought back empty there wasn’t much talking; but instead, if there were not enough, and Alessio had to run up to the house for more, the grandfather would put his hands to his mouth and shout, “Mena! Oh, Mena!” And Mena knew well what it meant, and they all came down in procession she, Lia, and Nunziata, too, with all her chicks behind her; then there was great joy, and nobody minded cold or rain, and before the blazing fire they sat talking of the gifts of God which Saint Francis had sent them, and of what they would do with the money.

But in this desperate game men’s lives are risked for a few pounds of fish; and once the Malavoglia were within a hair’s-breadth of losing theirs all at once, as Bastianazzo had, for the sake of gain, when they were off Agnone as the day drew to a close, and the sky was so dark that they could not even see Etna, and the winds blew and swept up the waves so close about the boat that it seemed as if they had voices and could speak.

“Ugly weather,” said Padron ‘Ntoni. “ The wind turns like a silly wench’s head, and the face of the sea looks like Goosefoot’s when he is hatching some hateful trick,”

The sea was as black as the beach, though the sun had not yet gone down, and every now and then it hissed and seethed like a pot.

“Now the gulls have all gone to sleep,” said Alessio.

“By this time they ought to have lighted the bea-con at Catania,” said ‘Ntoni; “but I can’t see it.”

“Keep the rudder always north-east,” ordered the grandfather; “in half an hour it will be darker than an oven.”

“On such evenings as this it is better to be at Santuzza’s tavern.”

“Or asleep in your bed, eh?” said the old man; “then, you should be a clerk, like Don Silvestro.”

The poor old fellow had been groaning all day with pain. “The weather is going to change,” he said; “ I feel it in my bones.”

All of a sudden it grew so black that one couldn’t even see to swear. Only the waves, as they rolled past the Provvidenza, shone like grinning teeth ready to devour her; and no one dared spe.ak a word in presence of the sea, that moaned over all its waste of waters.

“I’ve an idea,” said ‘Ntoni, suddenly, “that we had better give the fish we’ve caught today to the devil.”

“Silence!” said his grandfather; and the stern voice out of that darkness made him shrink togeth-er like a leaf on the bench where he sat.

They heard the wind whistle in the sails of the Provvidenza, and the ropes ring like the strings of a guitar. Suddenly the wind began to scream like the steam-engine when the train comes out from the tunnel in the mountain above Trezza, and there came a great wave from nobody knew where, and the Provvidenza rattled like a sack of nuts, and sprang up into the air and then rolled over.

“Down with the sail down!” cried Padron ‘Ntoni. “ Cut away, cut away!”

‘NtonijWith the knife in his mouth, scrambled like a cat out on the yard, and standing on the very end to balance himself, hung over the howling waves that leaped up to swallow him.

“Hold on, hold on!” cried the old man to him, through all the thunder of the waves that strove to tear him down, and tossed about the Provvidenza and all that was inside her, and flung the boat on her side, so that the water was up to their knees. “Cut away, cut away!” called out the grandfather again.

“Sacrament!” exclaimed ‘Ntoni; “and what shall we do without the sail, then?”

“Stop swearing; we are in the hands of God now.”

Alessio, who was grasping the rudder with all his force, heard what his grandfather said, and began to scream, “ Mamma, mamma, mamma!”

“Hush!” cried his brother, as well as he could for the knife in his teeth. “ Hush, or I’ll give you a kick.”

“Make the holy sign, and be quiet,” echoed the grandfather, so that the boy dared not make an-other sound.

Suddenly the sail fell all at once in a heap, and ‘Ntoni drew it in, furling it light, quick as a flash.

“You know your trade well, as your father did before you,” said his grandfather. “ You, too, are a Malavoglia.”

The boat righted and gave one leap, then began to leap about again among the waves.

“This way the rudder, this way; now it wants a strong arm,” said Padron ‘Ntoni; and though the boy, too, clung to it like a cat, the boat still sprang about, and there came great waves sweeping over it that drove them against the helm, with force enough nearly to knock the breath out of them both.

“The oars!” cried ‘Ntoni; “pull hard, Alessio; you’re strong enough when it comes to eating; just now the oars are worth more than the helm.”

The boat creaked and groaned with the strain of the oars pulled by those strong young arms; the boy, standing with his feet braced against the deck, put all his soul into his oar as well as his brother.

“Hold hard!” cried the old man, who could hardly be heard at the other side of the boat, over the roaring of the wind and the waves. “ Hold on, Alessio!”

“Yes, grandfather, I do,” replied the boy,

“Are you afraid?” asked ‘Ntoni.

“No, he’s not,” answered his grandfather for him; “but we must commend ourselves to God.”

“Holy devil!” exclaimed ‘Ntoni. “ Here one ought to have arms of iron, like the steam-engine. The sea is getting the best of it.”

The grandfather was silent, listening to the blast.

“Mamma must by this time have come to the shore to watch for us.”

Don’t talk about mamma now,” said the old man; “ it is better not to think about her.”

“Where are we now?” asked ‘Ntoni after some time, hardly able to speak for fatigue.

“In God’s hands,” answered the grandfather.

“Then let me cry!” exclaimed Alessio, who could bear it no longer; and he began to scream aloud and to call for his mother at the top of his voice, in the midst of the noise of the wind and of the sea, and neither of them had the heart to scold him.

“It’s all very well your howling, but nobody can hear you, and you had best be still,” said his broth-er at last, in a voice so changed and strange that he hardly knew it himself. “ Now hush!” he went on; “ it is best for you and best for us.”

“The sail!” ordered Padron ‘Ntoni. “ Put her head to the wind, and then leave it in the hands of God.”

The wind hindered them terribly, but at last they got the sail set, and the Provvidenza began to dance over the crests of the waves, leaning to one side like a wounded bird.

The Malavoglia kept close together on one side, clinging to the rail. At that moment no one spoke, for, when the sea speaks in that tone no one else dares to utter a word.

Only Padron ‘Ntoni said, “ Over there they are saying the rosary for us.”

And no one spoke again, and they flew along through the wild tempest and the night, that had come on as black as pitch.

“The light on the mole!” cried ‘Ntoni; “ do you see it?”

“To the right!” shouted Padron ‘Ntoni; “ to the right! It is not the light on the mole. We are driving on shore! Furl, furl!”

“I can’t,” cried ‘Ntoni; “ the rope’s too wet.” His voice was hardly to be heard through the storm, so tired he was. “ The knife, the knife! quick, Alessio!”

“Cut away, cut away!”

At that moment a crash was heard; the Provvi-denza righted suddenly, like a still spring let loose, and they were within one of being flung into the sea; the spar with the sail fell across the deck, snapped like a straw. They heard a voice which cried out as if some one were hurt to death.

“Who is it? Who called out?” demanded ‘Ntoni, aiding himself with his teeth and the knife to clear away the rigging of the sail, which had fallen with the mast across the deck, and covered everything. Suddenly a blast of wind took up the sail and swept it whistling away into the night. Then the broth-ers were able to disengage the wreck of the mast, and to fling it into the sea. The boat rose up, but Paclron ‘Ntoni did not rise, nor did he answer when ‘Ntoni called to him. Now, when the wind and the sea are screaming their worst together, there is nothing more terrible than the silence which comes instead of the voice which should answer to our call

“Grandfather! grandfather!” called out Alessio, too; and in the silence which followed the brothers felt the hair rise up on their heads as if it had been alive. The night was so black that they could not see from one end of the boat to the other, and Alessio was silent from sheer terror. The grand-father was stretched in the bottom of the boat with his head broken. ‘Ntoni found him at last by groping about for him, and thought he was dead, for he did not move, nor even breathe. The helm swung from side to side, while the boat leaped up and then plunged headlong into the hollows of the waves.

“Ah, Saint Francis de Paul! Ah, blessed Saint Francis!” cried the boys, now that they knew nothing else to do. And Saint Francis mercifully heard while he passed through the whirlwind helping his flock, and spread his mantle under the Provvidenza just as she was ready to crash like a rotten nut on the “ Cliffs of the Domes,” under the lookout of the coast-guard. The boat sprang over the rocks like a colt, and ran on shore, burying her nose in the sand. “ Courage, courage!” cried the guards from the shore; “here we are, here we are!” and they ran here and there with lanterns, ready to fling out ropes.

At last one of the ropes fell across the Provvi-denza, which trembled like a leaf, and struck ‘Ntoni across the face like a blow from a whip, but not the gentlest of caresses could have seemed sweeter to him at that moment.

“Help, help!” he cried, catching at the rope, which ran so fast that he could hardly hold it in his hands. Alessio came to his assistance with all his force, and together they gave it two turns around the rudder-post, and those on shore drew them in.

Padron ‘Ntoni, however, gave no sign of life, and when the light was brought they found his face cov-ered with blood, and the grandsons thought him dead, and tore their hair. But after an hour or two arrived Don Michele, Rocco Spatu, Vanni Piz-zuti, and all the idlers that had been at the tavern when the news had come, and by force of rubbing and of cold water they brought him to himself, and he opened his eyes. The poor old man, when he heard where he was, and that there wanted less than an hour to reach Trezza, asked them to carry him home on a ladder. Maruzza, Men a, and the neighbors, screaming and beating their breasts in the piazza, saw him arrive like that, stretched out on the ladder, pale and still, as if he had been dead.

“Tis nothing, ’tis nothing!” called out Don Mi-chele, at the head of the crowd. “ ’Tis only a slight thing.” And he went off to the druggist’s for the Thieves’ vinegar. Don Franco came himself with it, holding the bottle with both hands; and Goose-foot, too, came running, and his wife and Dumb-bell and the Zuppiddi and Padron Cipolla and all the neighborhood, for at such a time all differences are forgotten; there came even poor La Locca, who always went wherever there was a crowd or a bustle, by night or by day, as if she never slept, but was always seeking her lost Menico. So that the people were crowded in the little street before the Mala-voglia’s house as if a corpse had been there, and their cousin Anna had to shut the door in their faces.

“Let me in, let me in!” cried Nunziata, pounding with her fist on the door, having run over only half dressed. “ Let me in to see what has hap-pened to Cousin Maruzza!”

“What good was it sending us for the ladder if we can’t come in and see what’s going on?” shouted the son of La Locca.

The Zuppidda and the Mangiacarubbe had for-gotten all the hard words that had passed between them, and stood chatting before the door, with hands under their aprons. Yes, it was always so with this trade, and it was bound to finish this way one day or another. Whoever marries their daughter to a seafaring man is sure to see her come back to the house a widow, and with children into the bar-gain; and if it had not been for Don Michele there would have remained not one of the Mala-voglia to carry on the family. The best thing to do was to do nothing, like those people who got paid for just that like Don Michele, for example; why, he was as big and as fat as a canon, and he ate as much as ten men, and everybody smoothed him down the right way; even the druggist, that was always railing at the King, took off his great ugly black hat to him.

“It will be nothing,” said Don Franco, coming out of the house; “ we have bandaged his head properly; but if fever doesn’t come on, I won’t an-swer for him.”

Goosefoot insisted on going in “ because he was one of the family, almost,” and Padron Fortunato, and as many more as could manage to pass.

“I don’t like the looks of him a bit!” pronounced Padron Cipolla, shaking his head. “ How do you feel, Cousin ‘Ntoni ?”

For two or three days Padron ‘Ntoni was more dead than alive. The fever came on, as the apoth-ecary had said it would, but it was so strong that it went nigh to carry the wounded man off altogether. The poor old fellow never complained, but lay quiet in his corner, with his white face and his long beard, and his head bound up. He was only dread-fully thirsty; and when Mena or La Longa gave him to drink, he caught hold of the cup with both trembling hands, and clung to it as if he feared it would be taken from him.

The doctor came every morning, dressed the wound, felt his pulse, looked at his tongue, and went away again shaking his head.

At last there came one evening when the doctor shook his head more sadly than ever; La Longa placed the image of the Madonna beside the bed, and they said their rosary around it, for the sick man lay still, and never spoke, even to ask for water, and it seemed as if he had even ceased to breathe.

Nobody went to bed that night, and Lia nearly broke her jaws yawning, so sleepy was she. The house was so silent that they could hear the glasses by the bedside rattle when the carts passed by on the road, making the watchers by the sick man start; so passed the day, too, while the neighbors stood outside talking in low tones, and watching what went on through the half — door. Towards evening Padron ‘Ntoni asked to see each member of his family one by one, and looking at them with dim, sunken eyes, asked them what the doctor had said. ‘Ntoni was at the head of the bed, crying like a child, for the fellow had a kind heart.

“Don’t cry so!” said his grandfather, “ don’t cry. Now you are the head of the house; Think how they are all on your hands, and do as I have done for them.”

The women began to cry bitterly, and to tear their hair, hearing him speak in that way. Even little Lia did the same, for women have no reason at such times, and did not notice how the poor man’s face worked, for he could not endure to see them grieve for him in that way. But the weak voice continued:

“Don’t spend money for me when I am gone. The Lord will know that you have no money, and will be content with the rosary that Mena and Maruzza will say for me. And you, Mena, go on doing as your mother has done, for she is a saint of a woman, and has known well how to bear her sorrows; and keep your little sister under your wing as a hen does her chickens. As long as you cling together your sorrows will seem less bitter. Now ‘Ntoni is a man, and before long Alessio will be old enough to help you too.”

“Don’t talk like that, don’t! for pity’s sake, don’t talk so!” cried the women, as if it were of his own free-will that he was leaving them. He shook his head sadly, and replied:

“Now I have said all I wished to say, I don’t mind. Please turn me on the other side. I am tired. I am old, you know; when the oil is burned out the lamp goes out too.”

Later on he called ‘Ntoni, and said to him:

“Don’t sell the Provvidenza, though she is so old; if you do you will have to go out by the day, and you don’t know how hard it is when Padron Cipolla or Uncle Cola says to you, ‘There’s nobody wanted on Monday.’ And another thing I want to say to you, ‘Ntoni. When you have put by enough money you must marry off Mena, and give her to a seaman like her father, and a good fellow like him. And I want to say, also, when you shall have portioned off Lia, too, try and put by money to buy back the house by the medlar-tree. Uncle Crucifix will sell it if you make it worth his while, for it has always belonged to the Malavoglia and thence your father and Luca went away, never to return.”

“Yes, grandfather, yes, I will,” promised ‘Ntoni, with many tears. And Alessio also listened grave-ly, as if he too had been a man.

The women thought the sick man must be wan-dering, hearing him go on talking and talking, and they went to put wet cloths on his forehead.

“No,” said Padron ‘Ntoni, “ I am in right senses. I only want to finish what I have to say before I go away from you.”

By this time they had begun to hear the fisher-men calling from one door to another, and the carts began to pass along the road. “ In two hours it will be day,” said Padron ‘Ntoni, “ and you can go call Don Giammaria.”

Poor things! they looked for day as for the Mes-siah, and went to the window every few minutes to look for the dawn. At last the room grew lighter, and Padron ‘Ntoni said, “ Now go call the priest, for I want to confess.”

Don Giammaria came when the sun had already risen; and all the neighbors, when they heard the bell tinkle in the black street, went after it, to see the viaticum going to the Malavoglia. And all went in, too; for when the Lord is within the door can be shut upon nobody; so that the mourning family, seeing the house full of people, dared not weep nor cry; while Don Giammaria muttered the prayers between his teeth, and Master Cirino put a candle to the lips of the sick man, who lay pale and stiff as a candle himself.

“He looks just like the patriarch Saint Joseph, in that bed, with that long beard,” said Santuzza, who arranged all the bottles and straightened every-thing, for she was always about when Our Lord went anywhere “ Like a raven,” said the druggist.

The doctor came while the vicar was still there, and at first he wanted to turn his donkey round and go home again. “Who told you to call the priest?” he said; “that is the doctor’s affair, and I am astonished that Don Giammaria should have come without a certificate. Do you know what? There is no need of the priest he’s better that’s what he is.”

“It is a miracle, worked by Our Lady of Sor-rows,” cried La Longa; “Our Lady has done this for us, for Our Lord has come too often to this house.”

“Ah, Blessed Virgin! Ah, Holy Virgin!” exclaimed Mena, clasping her hands; “ how gracious art thou to us!” And they all wept for joy, as if the sick man were quite ready to get up and be off to his boat again.

The doctor went off growling. “ That’s always the way. If they get well it is Our Lady has saved them; if they die, it is we who have killed them.”

“Don Michele is to have the medal for throwing the rope to the Provvidenza, and there’s a pension attached to it,” said the druggist. “ That’s the way they spend the people’s money!”

Goosefoot spoke up in defence of Don Michele, saying that he had deserved the medal, and the pension, too, for he had gone into the water up to his knees, big boots and all, to save the Malavoglia three persons. “ Do you think that a small thing three lives? and was within a hair’s-breath of losing his own life, too, so that everybody was talking of him: and on a Sunday, when he put on his new uniform, the girls couldn’t take their eyes off him, so anxious were they to see if he really had the medal or not.”

“Barbara Zuppidda, now that she’s got rid of that lout of a Malavoglia, won’t turn her back on Don Michele any more,” said Goosefoot. “ I’ve seen her with her nose between the shutters when he’s passed along the street.”

‘Ntoni, poor fellow, as long as they couldn’t do without him, had run hither and thither indefatiga-bly, and had been in despair while his grandfather was so ill. Now that he was better, he took to lounging about, with his arms akimbo, waiting till it was time to take the Provvidenza to Master Zup-piddu to be mended, and went to the tavern to chat with the others, though he hadn’t a sou to spend there, and told to this one and that one how near he had been to drowning, and so passed the time away, lounging and spitting about, doing nothing. When any one would pay for wine for him he would get angry about Don Michele — and say he had taken away his sweetheart; that he went every evening to talk to Barbara at the window; that Uncle Santoro had seen him; that he had asked Nunziata if she hadn’t seen Don Michele pass by the black street.

“But, blood of Judas! my name isn’t ‘Ntoni Mal-avoglia if I don’t put a stop to that. Blood of Judas!”

It amused the others to see him storm and fume, so they paid for him to drink on purpose. San-tuzza, when she was washing the glasses, turned her back upon them so as not to hear the oaths and the ugly words that were always passing among them, but hearing Don Michele’s name, she forgot her manners, and listened with all her ears. She also became curious, and listened to them with open mouth, and gave Nunziata’s little brother and Ales-sio apples or green almonds to get out of them what had passed in the black street. Don Michele swore there was no truth in the story, and often in the evening, after the tavern was shut, they might be still heard disputing, and her voice would be audible, screaming, “ Liar! Assassin! Miscreant! Thief!” and other pretty names; so much so that

Don Michele left off going to the tavern at all, and used to send for his wine instead, and drink it by himself at Vanni Pizzuti’s shop.

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