The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


AFTER midnight the wind began to howl as if all the cats in the place had been on the roof, and to shake the shutters. The sea roared round the Fa-riglione as if all the bulls of the Fair of Saint Alfio had been there, and the day opened as black as the soul of Judas. In short, an ugly September Sunday dawned a Sunday in false September which lets loose a tempest on one between the cup and the lip, like a shot from behind a prickly-pear. The village boats were all drawn up on the beach, and well fastened to the great stones under the washing-tank; so the boys amused themselves by hissing and howling whenever there passed by some lonely sail far out at sea, tossed amid mist and foam, dancing up and down as if chased by the devil; the women, instead, made the sign of the cross, as if they could see with their eyes the poor fellows who were on board.

Maruzza la Longa was silent, as behooved her; but she could not stand still a minute, and went up and down and in and out without stopping, like a hen that is going to lay an egg. The men were at the tavern, or in Pizzuti’s shop, or under the butch-er’s shed, watching the rain, sniffing the air with their heads up. On the shore there was only Pa-dron ‘Ntoni, looking out for that load of lupins and his son Bastianazzo and the Provvidenza, all out at sea there; and there was La Locca’s son too, who had nothing to lose, only his brother Menico was out at sea with Bastianazzo in the Provvidenza, with the lupins. Padron Fortunato Cipolla, getting shaved in Pizzuti’s shop, said that he wouldn’t give two baiocchi for Bastianazzo and La Locca’s Me-nico with the Provvidenza and the load of lupins.

“Now everybody wants to be a merchant and to get rich,” said he, shrugging his shoulders; “ and then when the steed is stolen they shut the stable door.”

In Santuzza’s bar-room there was a crowd that big drunken Rocco Spatu shouting and spitting enough for a dozen; Daddy Tino Goosefoot, Mastro Cola Zuppiddu, Uncle Mangiacarubbe; Don Mi-chele, the brigadier of the coast-guard, with his big boots and his pistols, as if he were going to look for smugglers in this sort of weather; and Mastro Mariano Cinghialenta. That great big elephant of a man, Mastro Cola Zuppiddu, went about giving people thumps in fun, heavy enough to knock down an ox, as if he had his calker’s mallet in his hand all the time, and then Uncle Cinghialenta, to show that he was a carrier, and a courageous man who knew the world, turned round upon him, swearing and blaspheming.

Uncle Santoro, curled all up in the corner of the little porch, waited with out-stretched hand until some one should pass that he might ask for alms.

“Between the two, father and daughter, they must make a good sum on such a day as this,” said Zuppiddu, “ when everybody comes to the tavern.”

“Bastianazzo Malavoglia is worse off than he is at this moment,” said Goosefoot. “ Mastro Cirino may ring the bell as much as he likes, today the Malavoglia won’t go to church they are angry with our Lord because of that load of lupins they’ve got out at sea.”

The wind swept about the petticoats and the dry leaves, so that Vanni Pizzuti, with the razor in his hand, held on to the nose of the man he was shaving, and looked out over his shoulder to see what was going on; and when he had finished, stood with hand on hip in the door-way, with his curly hair shining like silk; and the druggist stood at his shop door, under that big ugly hat of his that looked as if he had an umbrella on his head, pretending to have high words with Don Silvestro, the town-clerk, because his wife didn’t force him to go to church in spite of himself, and laughed under his beard at the joke, winking at the boys who were tumbling in the gutters.

“To-day “ Daddy Goosefoot went about saying, “Padron ‘Ntoni is a Protestant, like Don Franco the apothecary.”

“If I see you looking after that old wretch Don Silvestro, I’ll box your ears right here where we are,” shouted La Zuppidda, crossing the piazza, to her girl. “ That one I don’t like.”

La Santuzza, at the last stroke of the bell, left her father to take care of the tavern, and went into church, with her customers behind her. Uncle San-toro, poor old fellow, was blind, and didn’t go to the mass, but he didn’t lose his time at the tavern, for though he couldn’t see who went to the bar, he knew them all by the step as one or another went to take a drink.

“The devils are out on the air,” said Santuzza, as she crossed herself with the holy water. “A day to commit a mortal sin!”

Close by, La Zuppidda muttered Ave Marias mechanically, sitting on her heels, shooting sharp glances hither and thither, as if she were on evil terms with the whole village, whispering to whoever would listen to her: “ There’s Maruzza la Longa doesn’t come to church, and yet her husband is out at sea in this horrid weather! There’s no need to wonder why the Lord sends judgments on us. There’s even Menico’s mother comes to church, though she doesn’t do anything there but watch the flies.”

“One must pray also for sinners,” said Santuzza; “that is what good people are for.”

Uncle Crucifix was kneeling at the foot of the altar of the Sorrowing Mother of God, with a very big rosary in his hand, and intoned his prayers with a nasal twang which would have touched the heart of Satan himself. Between one Ave Maria and another he talked of the affair of the lupins, and of the Provvidenza, which was out at sea, and of La Longa, who would be left with five children.

“In these days,” said Padron Cipolla, shrugging his shoulders, “no one is content with his own estate; everybody wants the moon and stars for himself.”

“The fact is,” concluded Daddy Zuppiddu, “that this will be a black day for the Malavoglia.”

“For my part,” added Goosefoot, “ I shouldn’t care to be in Cousin Bastianazzo’s shirt.”

The evening came on chill and sad; now and then there came a blast of north wind, bringing a shower of fine cold rain; it was one of those evenings when, if the bark lies high and safe, with her belly in the sand, one enjoys watching the simmering pot, with the baby between one’s knees, and listening to the housewife trotting to and fro behind one’s back. The lazy ones preferred going to the tavern to enjoy the Sunday, which seemed likely to last over Monday as well; and the cup-boards shone in the firelight until even Uncle Santoro, sitting out there with his extended hand, moved his chair to warm his back a little.

“He’s better off than poor old Bastianazzo just now,” said Rocco Spatu, lighting his pipe at the door.

And without further reflection he put his hand in his pocket, and permitted himself to give two centimes in alms.

“You are throwing your alms away, thanking God for being in safety from the storm; there’s no danger of your dying like Bastianazzo.”

Everybody laughed at the joke, and then they all stood looking out at the sea, that was as black as the wet rocks.

Padron ‘Ntoni had been going about all day, as if he had been bitten by the tarantula, and the apothecary asked him if he wanted a tonic, and then he said, “ Fine providence this, eh, Padron? Ntoni?” But he was a Protestant and a Jew; all the world knew that.

La Locca’s son, who was out there with his hands in his empty pockets, began:

“Uncle Crucifix is gone with old Goosefoot to get Padron ‘Ntoni to swear before witnesses that he took the cargo of lupins on credit.”

At dusk Maruzza, with her little ones, went out on the cliffs to watch the sea, which from that point could be seen quite well, and hearing the moaning waves, she felt faint and sick, but said nothing. The little girl cried, and these poor things, forgot-ten up there on the rocks, seemed like souls in Purgatory. The little one’s cries made the moth-er quite sick it seemed like an evil omen; she couldn’t think what to do to keep the child quiet, and she sang to her song after song, with a trem-bling voice loaded with tears.

The men, on their way back from the tavern, with pot of oil or flask of wine, stopped to exchange a few words with La Longa, as if nothing had happened; and some of Bastianazzo’s special friends Cipolla, for example, or Mangiacarubbe walking out to the edge of the cliff, and giving a look out to see in what sort of a temper the old growler was going to sleep in, went up to Cousin Maruzza, asking about her husband, and staying a few minutes to keep her company, pipe in mouth, or talking softly among themselves. The poor lit-tle woman, frightened by these unusual attentions, looked at them with sad, scared eyes, and held her baby tight in her arms, as if they had tried to steal it from her. At last the hardest, or the most compassionate of them, took her by the arm and led her home. She let herself be led, only saying over and over again: “ O Blessed Virgin! O Blessed Virgin Mary!” The children clung to her skirts, as if they had been afraid somebody was going to steal something from them too. When they passed before the tavern all the customers stopped talking, and came to the door in a cloud of smoke, gazing at her as if she were already a curiosity.

“Requiem ceternam” mumbled old Santoro, under his breath: “ that poor Bastianazzo always gave me something when his father let him have a soldo to spend for himself.”

The poor little thing, who did not even know she was a widow, went on crying: “ O Blessed Virgin! O Blessed Virgin! Q Virgin Mary!”

Before the steps of her house the neighbors were waiting for her, talking among themselves in a low voice. When they saw her coming, Mammy Goose-foot and her cousin Anna came towards her silent-ly, with folded hands. Then she wound her hands wildly in her hair, and with a distracted screech rushed to hide herself in the house.

“What a misfortune!” they said among them-selves in the street. “And the boat was loaded forty scudi worth of lupins !”

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