The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


PADRON ‘NTONI, now that he had no one but Alessio to help him with the boat, had to hire some one by the day Cousin Nunzio, perhaps, who had a sick wife and a large family of children; or the son of La Locca, who came whining to him behind the door that his mother was starving, and that his uncle Crucifix would give them nothing, because, he said, the cholera had ruined him, so many of his debtors had died and had cheated him out of his money, and he had taken the cholera himself. “But he hadn’t died,” added the son of La Locca, and shook his head ruefully. “ Now we might have plenty to live on, I and my mother and all the family, if he had died. We stayed two days with Vespa, nursing him, and it seemed as if he were dying every minute, but he didn’t die after all.” However, the money that the Malavoglia gained day by day was often not enough to pay Cousin Nunzio or the son of La Locca, and they were obliged to take up those precious coins so painfully put together to buy back the house by the medlar-tree. Every time Mena went to take the stocking from under the mattress she and her grandfather sighed. La Locca’s son was not to blame, poor fellow he would have done four men’s work sooner than not give the full worth of his wages it was the fish, that would not let them-selves be caught. And when they came ruefully home empty, rowing, with loosened sails, he said to Padron ‘Ntoni: “ Give me wood to split, or fag-ots to bind; I will work until midnight, if you say so, as I did with my uncle. I don’t want to steal the wages from you.”

So Padron ‘Ntoni, after having thought the mat-ter over carefully, consulted Mena as to what was to be done. She was clear-headed, like her moth-er, and she was the only one left for him to consult the only one left of so many! The best thing was to sell the Provvidenza, which brought in nothing, and only ate up the wages of Cousin Nunzio or the son of La Locca to no purpose; and the money put aside for the house was melting away, little by little. The Provvidenza was old, and always needed to be mended every now and then to keep her afloat. Later, if ‘Ntoni came back and brought better fortune once more among them, they might buy a new boat and call that also the Prov-videnza.

On Sunday he went to the piazza, after the mass, to speak to Goosefoot about it. Cousin Tino shrug-ged his shoulders, shook his head, said that the Provvidenza was good for nothing but to put under the pot, and talking in this way he drew him down to the shore. The patches, he said, could be seen under the paint, like some women he knew of with wrinkles under their stays; and went on kicking her in the hull with his lame foot. Besides, the trade was going badly; rather than buy, every-body was trying to sell their boats, much better than the Provvidenza. And who was going to buy her? Padron Cipolla didn’t want old stuff like that. This was an affair for Uncle Crucifix. But at this moment Uncle Crucifix had something else on his hands with that demon-ridden Vespa, who was tormenting his soul out running after all the marriageable men in the place. At last, for old friendship’s sake, he agreed to go and speak to Uncle Crucifix about it, if he found him in a good humor if Padron ‘Ntoni were really anxious to sell’ the Provvidenza for an old song; for, after all, he, Goosefoot, could make Uncle Crucifix do anything he liked. In fact, when he did speak of it drawing him aside towards the horse — trough Uncle Crucifix replied with shrugs and frantic shakings of his head, till he looked like one possessed, and tried to slip out of Goosefoot’s hands. Cousin Tino, poor man, did his best caught him by the coat and held him by force; shook him, to make him give his attention; put his arm round his neck, and whispered in his ear: “ Yes, you are an ass if you let slip such a chance! Going for an old song, I tell you! Padron ‘Ntoni sells her because he can’t manage her any longer, now his grandson is gone. But you could put her into the hands of Cousin Nunzio, or of your own nephew, who are dying of hunger, and will work for next to nothing. Every soldo she gains will come into your pocket. I tell you, you are a fool. The boat is in perfectly good condition good as new. Old Pa-dron ‘Ntoni knew very well what he was about when he had her built. This is a real ready money business as good as that of the lupins, take my word for it!”

But Uncle Crucifix wouldn’t listen to him almost crying, with his yellow hatchet-face uglier than ever since he had nearly died of the cholera and tried to get away, even to the point of leaving his jacket in Uncle Tino’s hands.

“I don’t care about it,” said he; “I don’t care about anything. You don’t know all the trouble I have, Cousin Tino! Everybody wants to suck my blood like so many leeches. Here’s Vanni Pizzuti running after Vespa, too; they’re like a pack of hunting-dogs.”

“Why don’t you marry her yourself? After all, is she not your own blood, she and her field? It will not be another mouth to feed, not at all! She has a clever pair of hands of her own, she is well worth the. bread she eats, that woman. You’ll have a servant without wages, and the land will be yours. Listen, Uncle Crucifix: you’ll have another affair here as good as that of the lupins.”

Padron ‘Ntoni meanwhile waited for the answer before Pizzuti’s shop, and watched the two who were discussing his affairs, like a soul in purgatory. Now it seemed as if everything were at an end, now they began again, and he tried to guess wheth-er or no Uncle Crucifix would consent to the bar-gain. Goosefoot came and told him how much he had been able to obtain for him, then went back to Uncle Crucifix going backward and forward in the piazza like the shuttle in the loom, dragging his club-foot behind him, until he had succeeded in bringing them to an agreement.

“Capital!” he said to Padron ‘Ntoni; then to Uncle Crucifix, “ For an old song, I tell you!” And in this way he managed the sale of all the tackle, which, of course, was no longer of any use to the Malavoglia, now that they had no boat; but it seemed to Padron ‘Ntoni that they took away his very heart from within him, as he saw them carry away the nets, the baskets, the oars, the rope everything.

“I’ll manage to get you a position by the day, and your grandson Alessio too, never fear,” said Goosefoot to Padron ‘Ntoni; “but you mustn’t expect high wages, you know! i Strength of youth and wisdom of age/ For my assistance in the bar-gaining I trust to your good-will.”

“In time of famine one eats barley bread,” an-swered Padron ‘Ntoni. “ Necessity has no nobil-ity.”

“That’s right, that’s right! I understand,” replied Goosefoot, and away he went, in good earnest, to speak to Padron Cipolla at the drug-store, where Don Silvestro had at last succeeded in enticing him, as well as Master Filippo and a few other big-wigs, to talk over the affairs of the Commune for after all, the money was theirs, and it is silly not to take one’s proper place in the government when one is rich and pays more taxes than all the rest put together.

“You, who are rich, can afford a bit of bread to that poor old Padron ‘Ntoni,” suggested Goosefoot. “It will cost you nothing to take him on by the day, him and his grandson Alessio. You know that he understands his business better than any one else ‘n the place, and he will be content with little, fox’ they are absolutely without bread. It is an affair worth gold to you, Padron Fortunato; it is indeed.”

Padron Fortunato, caught as he was just at that propitious moment, could not refuse; but after hig-gling and screwing over the price for, now that the times were so bad, he really hadn’t work for any more men he at last made a great favor of taking on Padron ‘Ntoni.

“Yes, I’ll take him if he’ll come and speak to me himself. Will you believe that they are out of temper because I broke off my son’s marriage with Mena? A fine thing I should have made of it! And to be angry about it! What could I do?”

Don Silvestro, Master Filippo, Goosefoot himself all of them, in fact hastened to say that Pa-dron Fortunate was quite right.

Mena, meanwhile, did not even put her nose at the window, for it was not seemly to do so now that her mother was dead and she had a black kerchief on her head; and, besides, she had to look after the little one and to be a mother to her, and she had no one to help her in the housework, so that she had to go to the tank to wash and to the fountain, and to take the men their luncheon when they were at work on land; so that she was not Sant’Agata any longer, as in the days when no one ever saw her and she was all day long at the loom. In these days she had but little time for the loom. Don Michel.e, since the day when the Zuppidda had given him such a talking to from her terrace, and had threatened to put out his eyes with her distaff, never failed to pass by the black street; and some-times he passed two or three times a day, looking after Barbara, because he wasn’t going to have peo-pie say that he was afraid of the Zuppidda or of her distaff; and when he passed the house where the Malavoglia lived he slackened his pace, and looked in to see the pretty girls who were growing up at the Malavoglia’s.

In the evening, when the men came back from sea, they found everything ready for them: the pot boiling on the fire, the cloth ready on the table that table that was so large for them, now that they were so few, that they felt lost at it. They shut the door and ate their supper in peace; then they sat down on the door-step to rest after the fatigues of the day. At all events, they had enough for the day’s needs, and were not obliged to touch the money that was accumulating for the house. Pa-dron ‘Ntoni had always that house in his mind, with its closed windows and the medlar-tree rising above the wall. Maruzza had not been able to die in that house, nor perhaps should he die there; but the money was beginning to grow again, and his boys at least would go back there some day or other, now that Alessio was growing into a man, and was a good boy, and one of the true Malavoglia stamp. When they had bought back the house, and married the girls, if they might get a boat again they would have nothing more to wish for, and Pa-dron ‘Ntoni might close his eyes in peace.

Nunziata and Anna, their cousin, came to sit on the stones with them in the evenings to talk over old times, for they, too, were left lonely and deso-late, so that they seemed like one family. Nun-ziata felt as if she were at home in the house, and came with her brood running after her, like a hen with her chickens. Alessio, sitting clown by her, would say, “ Did you finish your linen?” or “Are you going on Monday to Master Filippo to help with the vintage? Now that the olive harvest is coming you’ll always find a day’s work somewhere, even when you haven’t any washing to do; and you can take your brother, too; they’ll give him two soldi a day.” Nunziata talked to him gravely, and asked his advice with regard to her plans, and they talked apart together, as if they had already been a gray-haired old couple.

“They have grown wise in their youth because they have had so much trouble,” said Padron ‘Ntoni. “Wisdom comes of suffering.”

Alessio, with his arms round his knees like his grandfather, asked Nunziata, “ Will you have me for a husband when I grow up?”

“Plenty of time yet to think about that,” replied she.

“Yes, there’s time, but one must begin to think about it now, so that one may settle what is to be done. First, of course, we must marry Mena, and Lia when she is grown up. Lia wants to be dressed like a woman now, and you have your boys to find places for. We must buy a boat first; the boat will help us to buy the house. Grandfather wants to buy back the house by the medlar, and I should like that best, too, for I know my way all about it, even in the dark, without running against anything; and the court is large, so that there’s plenty of room for the tackle; and in two minutes one is at the sea. Then, when my sisters are mar-ried, grandfather can stay with us, and we’ll put him in the big room that opens on the court, where the sun comes in; so, when he isn’t able to go to sea any longer, poor old man! he can sit by the door in the court, and in the summer the medlar-tree will make a shade for him. We’ll take the room on the garden. You’ll like that? The kitch-en is close by, so you’ll have everything under your hand, won’t you? When my brother ‘Ntoni comes back we’ll give him that room, and we’ll take the one up-stairs; there are only the steps to climb to reach the kitchen and the garden.”

“In the kitchen there must be a new hearth,” said Nunziata. “The last time we cooked any-thing there, when poor Cousin Maruzza was too unhappy to do it herself, we had to prop up the pot with stones.”

“Yes, I remember,” said Alessio, sitting with his chin in his hands, and nodding gravely, with wide dreamy eyes as if he saw Nunziata at the fire and his poor mother weeping beside the bed.

“And you, too,” said he, “can find your way in the dark about the house by the medlar, you have been there so often. Mamma always said you were a good girl.”

“Now they have sown onions in the garden, and they’re grown as big as oranges.”

“Do you like onions?”

“I must; I have no choice. They help the bread down, and they are cheap. When we haven’t mon-ey enough to buy macaroni we always eat them I and my little ones.”

“For that they sell so well. Uncle Crucifix doesn’t care about planting cabbages or lettuce at the house by the medlar, because he has them at his own house, and so he puts nothing there but onions. But we’ll plant broccoli and cauliflower. Won’t they be good, eh?”

The girl, with her arms across her knees, curled upon the threshold, looked out with dreaming eyes, as well as the boy; then after a while she began to sing, and Alessio listened with all his ears. At last she said, “ There’s plenty of time yet.”

“Yes,” assented Alessio; “first we must marry Mena and Lia, and we must find places for the boys, but we must begin to talk it over now.”

“When Nunziata sings,” said Mena, coming to the door, “ it is a sign that it will be fair weather, and we can go tomorrow to wash.”

Cousin Anna was in the same mind, for her field and vineyard was the washing-tank, and her feast-days were those on which she had her hands full of clothes to be washed; all the more now that her son Rocco was feasting himself every day, after his fashion, at the tavern, trying to drown his regret for the Mangiacarubbe, who had thrown him over for Brasi Cipolla, like a coquette as she was.

“’ It’s a long lane that has no turning/ “ said Padron ‘Ntoni. “Perhaps this may bring your son Rocco to his senses. And it will be good for my ‘Ntoni, too, to be away from home for a while; for when he comes back, and is tired of wandering about the world, everything will seem as it should be, and he will not complain any more. And if we succeed in once more putting our own boat at sea and it’s putting our own beds in the old places that we know so well you will see what pleasant times we shall have resting on the door-steps there, when we are tired after our day’s work, when the day has been a good one. And how bright the light will look in that room where you have seen it so often, and have known all the faces that were dearest to you on earth! But now so many are gone, and never have come back, that it seems as if the room would be always dark, and the door shut, as if those who are gone had taken the key with them forever. ‘Ntoni should not have gone away,” added the old man, after a long silence. “ He knew that I was old, and that when I am gone the children will have no one left.”

“If we buy the house by the medlar while he is gone,” said Mena, “he won’t know it, and will come here to find us.”

Padron ‘Ntoni shook his head sadly. “ But there’s time enough yet,” he said at last, like Nun-ziata; and Cousin Anna added, “If ‘Ntoni comes back rich he can buy the house.”

Padron ‘Ntoni answered nothing, but the whole place knew that ‘Ntoni would come back rich, now he had been gone so long in search of fortune; and many envied him already, and wanted to go in search of fortune too, like him. In fact they were not far wrong. They would only leave a few women to fret after them, and the only ones who hadn’t the heart to leave their women were that stupid son of La Locca, whose mother was what everybody knew she was, and Rocco Spatu, whose soul was at the tavern. Fortunately for the women, Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni was suddenly discovered to have come back, by night, in a bark from Catania, ashamed to show himself, as he had no shoes. If it were true that he had come back rich he had nowhere to put his money, for his clothes were all rags and tatters. But his family received him as affectionately as if he had come back loaded with gold. His sisters hung round his neck, crying and laughing for joy, and ‘Ntoni did not know Lia again, so tall she was, and they all said to him, “Now you won’t leave us again, will you?”

The grandfather blew his nose and growled, “Now I can die in peace now that these children will not be left alone in the world.”

But for a whole week ‘Ntoni never showed himself in the street. Every one laughed when they saw him, and Goosefoot went about saying, “ Have you seen the grand fortune that Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni has brought home?” And those who had not been in such a terrible hurry to make up their bundles of shirts and stockings, to leave their homes like a lot of fools, could not contain themselves for laughing.

Whoever goes in search of fortune and does not find it is a fool. Everybody knows that. Don Sil-vestro, Uncle Crucifix, Padron Cipolla, Master Fi-lippo, were not fools, and everybody did their best to please them, because poor people always stand with their mouths open staring at the rich and fortunate, and work for them like Cousin Mosca’s ass, instead of kicking the cart to pieces and run-ning off to roll on the grass with heels in the air.

The druggist was quite right when he said that it was high time to kick the world to pieces and make it over again. And he himself, with his big beard and his fine talk about making the world over again, was one of those who had known how to make a fortune, and to hold on to it too, and he had nothing to do but to stand at his door and chat with this one and that one; for when he had done pounding that little bit of dirty water in his mortar his work was finished for the day. That fine trade he had learned of his father to make money out of the water in the cistern. But ‘Ntoni’s grandfather had taught him a trade which was nothing but breaking one’s arms and one’s back all day long, and risking one’s life, and dying of hun-ger, and never having. a day to one’s self when one could lie on the grass in the sun, as even Mosca’s ass could sometimes do; a real thieves’ trade, that wore one’s soul out, by Our Lady! And he for one was tired of it, and would rather be like Rocco Spatu, who at least didn’t work. And for that mat-ter he cared nothing for Barbara, nor Sara, nor any other girl in the world. They care for nothing but fishing for husbands to work worse than dogs to give them their living, and buy silk handker-chiefs for them to wear when they stand at their doors of a Sunday with their hands on their full stomachs. He’d rather stand there himself, Sunday and Monday too, and all the other days in the week, since there was no good in working all the time for nothing. So ‘Ntoni had learned to spout as well as the druggist that much at least he had brought back from abroad for now his eyes were open like a kitten’s when it is nine days old. “The hen that goes in the street comes home with a full crop.” If he hadn’t filled his crop with anything else, he had filled it with wisdom, and he went about telling all he had learned in the piazza in Pizzuti’s shop, and also at Santuzza’s tavern. Now he went openly to the tavern, for after all he was grown up, and his grandfather wasn’t likely to come there after him and pull his ears, and he should know very well what to say to anybody who tried to hin-der him from going there after the little pleasure that there was to be had.

His grandfather, poor man, instead of pulling his ears, tried to touch his feelings. “See,” he said, “now you have come, we shall soon be able to man-age to get back the house.” Always that same old song about the house. “Uncle Crucifix has prom-ised not to sell it to any one else. Your mother, poor dear, was not able to die there. We can get the dowry for Mena on the house. Then, with God’s help, we can set up another boat; because, I must tell you, that at my age it is hard to go out by the clay, and obey other people, when one has been used to command. You were also born of masters. Would you rather that we should buy the boat first with the money, instead of the house? Now you are grown up, and can have your choice, because you have seen more of the world, and should be wiser than I am now I am old. What would you rather do?”

He would rather do nothing, that’s what he would rather do. What did he care about the boat or the house? Then there would come another bad year, another cholera, some other misfortune, and eat up the boat and the house, and they would have to begin all over again, like the ants. A fine thing! And when they had got the boat and the house, could they leave off working, or could they eat meat and macaroni every day? While instead, down there where he had been,, there were people that went about in carriages every day; that’s what they did. People beside whom Don Franco and the town-clerk were themselves no better than beasts of burden, working, as they did, all day long, spoiling paper and beating dirty water in a mortar. At least he wanted to know why there should be peo-ple in the world who had nothing to do but to enjoy themselves, and were born with silver spoons in their mouths, and others who had nothing, and must drag a cart with their teeth all their lives. Besides which, that idea of going out by the day was not at all to his taste; he was born a master his grandfather had said so himself. He to be ordered about by a lot of people who had risen from nothing, who, as everybody in the place knew, had put their money together soldo after soldo, sweating and struggling! He had gone out by the day only because his grandfather took him, and he hadn’t strength of mind to refuse. But when the overseer stood over him like a dog, and called out from the stern, “ Now, then, boy, what are you at?” he felt tempted to hit him over the head with the oar, and he preferred to weave baskets or to mend nets, sitting on the beach, with his back against a stone, for then if he folded his arms for a minute nobody called out at him.

Thither came also Rocco Spatu to yawn and stretch his arms, and Vanni Pizzuti, between one customer and another, in his idle moments; and Goosefoot came there too, for his business was to mix himself up with every conversation that he could find in search of bargaining;6 and they talked of all that happened in the place.

6 Senseru a sort of very small brokerage, upon which a tiny percentage is paid.

From one thing to another they got talking of Uncle Crucifix, who had, they said, lost more than thirty scudi, through people that had died of the cholera and had left pledges in his hands. Now, Dumb-bell, not knowing what to do with all these ear-rings and finger-rings that had remained on his hands, had made up his mind to marry Vespa; the thing was certain, they had been seen to go togeth-er to write themselves up at the Municipality, in Don Silvestro’s presence.

“It is not true that he is marrying on account of the jewellery,” said Goosefoot, who was in a position to know; “the things are of gold or of silver, and he could go and sell them by weight in the city; he would have got back a good percentage on the money he had lent on them. He marries Vespa because she took him to the Municipality to show him the paper that she had had drawn up, ready to be signed before the notary, with Cousin Spatu here, now that the Mangiacarubbe has drop-ped him for Brasi Cipolla. Excuse me. Eh, Cous-in Rocco?”

“Oh, I don’t mind, Cousin Tino,” answered Roc-co Spatu. “ It is nothing to me; for whoever trusts to one of those false cats of womankind is worse than a pig. I don’t want any sweetheart except Santuzza, who lets me have my wine on credit when I like, and she is worth two of the Mangiacarubbe any day of the week. A good handful, eh, Cousin -Tino?”

“Pretty hostess, heavy bill,” said Pizzuti, spitting in the sand.

“They all look out for husbands to work for them,” added ‘Ntoni. “ They’re all alike.”

“And,” continued Goosefoot, “ Uncle Crucifix ran off panting to the notary, with his heart in his mouth. So he had to take the Wasp after all.”

Here the apothecary, who had come down to the beach to smoke his pipe, joined in the conversation, and went on pounding in his usual way upon his usual theme that the world ought to be put in a mortar and pounded to pieces, and made all over again. But this time he really might as well have pounded dirty water in his mortar, for not one of them understood a word he said, unless, perhaps, it were ‘Ntoni. He at least had seen the world, and opened his eyes, like the kittens; when he was a soldier they had taught him to read, and for that reason he, too, went to the drug — shop door and listened when the newspaper was read, and stayed to talk with the druggist, who was a good-natured fellow, and did not give himself airs like his wife, who kept calling out to him, “Why will you mix yourself up with what doesn’t concern you?”

“One must let the women talk, and manage things quietly,” said Don Franco, as soon as his wife was safe up-stairs. He didn’t mind taking counsel even with those who went barefoot, provided they didn’t put their feet on the chairs, and explained to them word for word all that there was printed in the newspaper, following it with his ringer, telling them that the world ought to go, as it was written down there.

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