The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


THE worst part of it was that the lupins had been bought on credit, and Uncle Crucifix was not content with “fair words and rotten apples.” He was called Dumb-bell because he was deaf on one side, and turned that side when people wanted to pay him with talk, saying, “the payment can be arranged.” He lived by lending to his friends, having no other trade, and for this reason he stood about all day in the piazza, or with his back to the wall of the church, with his hands in the pockets of that ragged old jacket that nobody would have given him a soldo for; but he had as much money as you wanted, and if any one wanted ten francs he was ready to lend them right off, on pledge, of course “He who lends money without security loses his friends, his goods, and his wits” with the bargain that they should be paid back on Sun-day, in silver, with the account signed, and a carlino more for interest, as was but right, for, in affairs, there’s no friendship that counts. He also bought a whole cargo of fish in the lump, with discount, if the poor fellow who had taken the fish wanted his money down, but they must be weighed with his scales, that were as false as Judas’s, so they said. To be sure, such fellows were never contented, and had one arm long and the other short, like Saint Francesco: and he would advance the money for the port taxes if they wanted it, and only took the money beforehand, and half a pound of bread per head and a little quarter flask of wine, and wanted no more, for he was a Christian, and one of those who knew that for what one does in this world one must answer to God. In short, he was a real Prov-idence for all who were in tight places, and had invented a hundred ways of being useful to his neigh-bors; and without being a seaman, he had boats and tackle and everything for such as hadn’t them, and lent them, contenting himself with a third of the fish, and something for the boat that counted as much as the wages of a man and something more for the tackle, for he lent the tackle too; and the end was that the boat ate up all the profits, so that they called it the devil’s boat. And when they asked him why he didn’t go to sea, too, and risk his own skin instead of swallowing every-thing at other people’s expense, he would say, “Bravo! and if an accident happened, Lord avert it! and if I lost my life who would attend to my business?” He did attend to his business, and would have hired out his very shirt; but he wanted to be paid without so much talk, and there was no use arguing with him because he was deaf, and, more than that, wasn’t quite right in his head, and couldn’t say anything but “ Bargaining’s no cheating;” or, “ The honest man is known when pay-day comes.”

Now his enemies were laughing in their sleeves at him, on account of those blessed lupins that the devil had swallowed; and he must say a De profundis for Bastianazzo too, when the funeral cere-mony took place, along with the other Brothers of the Happy Death, with the bag over his head.

The windows of the little church flashed in the sunshine, and the sea was smooth and still, so that it no longer seemed the same that had robbed La Longa of her husband; wherefore the brothers were rather in a hurry, wanting to get away each to his own work, now that the weather had cleared up. This time the Malavoglia were all there on their knees before the bier, washing the pavement with their tears, as if the dead man had been really there, inside those four boards, with the lupins round his neck, that Uncle Crucifix had given him on credit, because he had always known Padron ‘Ntoni for an honest man; but if they meant to cheat him out of his goods on the pretext that Ba-stianazzo was drowned, they might as well cheat our Lord Christ. By the holy devil himself, he would put Padron ‘Ntoni in the hulks for it! there was law, even at Trezza.

Meanwhile Don Giammaria flung two or three asperges of holy — water on the bier, and Mastro Cirino went round with an extinguisher putting out the candles. The brothers strode over the benches with arms over their heads, pulling off their habits; and Uncle Crucifix went and gave a pinch of snuff to Padron ‘Ntoni by the way of consolation; for, after all, when one is an honest man one leaves a good name behind one and wins Paradise, and this is what he had said to those who asked him about his lupins: “ With the Malavoglia I’m safe, for they are honest people, and don’t mean to leave poor Bastianazzo in the claws of the devil. Padron ‘Ntoni might see for himself that everything had been done without skimping in honor of the dead so much for the mass, so much for the tapers, so much for the requiem he counted it all off on his big fingers in their white cotton gloves; and the children looked with open mouths at all these things which cost so much and were for papa the catafalque, the tapers, the paper-flowers; and the baby, seeing the lights, and hearing the organ, began to laugh and to dance.

The house by the medlar was full of people. “Sad is the house where there is the l visit’ for the husband.” Everybody passing and seeing the poor little orphaned Malavoglia at the door, with dirty faces, and hands in their pockets, shook their heads, saying:

“Poor Cousin Maruzza, now her hard times are beginning.”

The neighbors brought things, as the custom is macaroni, eggs, wine, all the gifts of God that one could only finish if one was really happy and Cousin Alfio Mosca came with a chicken in his hands, “Take this, Cousin Mena,” he said, “ I only wish I’d been in your father’s place I swear it at least I should not have been missed, and there would have been none to mourn for me.”

Mena, leaning against the kitchen door, with her apron over her face, felt her heart beat as if it would fly out of her breast, like that of the poor frightened bird she held in her hand. The dowry of Sant’Agata had gone down, down in the Provvi-denza, and the people who came to make the visit of condolence in the house by the medlar looked round at the things, as if they saw Uncle Crucifix’s claws already grasping at them; some sat perched on chairs, and went off, without having spoken a word, like regular stockfish as they were; but who-ever had a tongue in their heads tried to keep up some sort of conversation to drive away melan-choly, and to rouse those poor Malavoglia, who went on crying all day long, like four fountains. Uncle Cipolla related how there was a rise of a franc to a barrel in the price of anchovies, which might interest Padron ‘Ntoni if he still had any an-chovies on hand; he himself had reserved a hun-dred barrels, which now came in very well; and he talked of poor Cousin Bastianazzo, too, rest his soul; how no one could have expected it a man like that, in the prime of life, and positively bursting with health and strength, poor fellow!

There was the sindaco, too, Master Croce Calta “Silk-worm “ called also Giufa with Don Silves-tro, the town-clerk, and he stood sniffing with nose in the air, so that people said he was waiting for the wind to see what way to turn looking now at one who was speaking, now at another, as if he were watching the leaves in the wind, in real ear-nest, and if he spoke he mumbled so no one could hear him, and if Don Silvestro laughed he laughed too.

“No funeral without laughter, no marriage with-out tears.” The druggist’s wife twisted about on her chair with disgust at the trifling conversation, sitting with her hands in her lap and a long face, as is the custom in town under such circumstances, so that people became dumb at the sight of her, as if the corpse itself had been sitting there, and for this reason she was called the Lady. Don Sil-vestro strutted about among the women, and started forward every minute to offer a chair to some new-comer, that he might hear his new boots creak. “They ought to be burned alive, those tax-gather-ers!” muttered La Zuppidda, yellow as a lemon; and she said it aloud, too, right in the face of Don Silvestro, just as if he had been one of the tax-gatherers. She knew very well what they were after, these bookworms, with their shiny boots with-out stockings; they were always trying to slip into people’s houses, to carry off the dowry and the daughters. ’Tis not you I want, my dear, ’tis your money. For that she had left her daughter Bar-bara at home. “ Those faces I don’t like.”

“It’s a beastly shame!” cried Donna Rosolina, the priest’s sister, red as a turkey, fanning herself with her handkerchief; and she railed at Garibaldi, who had brought in the taxes; and nowadays no-body could live and nobody got married any more.

“As if that mattered to Donna Rosolina now,” murmured Goosefoot.

Donna Rosolina meanwhile went on talking to Don Silvestro of the lot of work she had on her hands: thirty yards of warp on the loom, the beans to dry for winter, all the tomato — preserve to be made. She had a secret for making it, so that it kept fresh all winter; she always got the spices from town on purpose, and used the best quality of salt. A house without a woman never goes on well, but the woman must have brains, and know how to use her hands as she did, not one of those little geese that think of nothing but brushing their hair before the glass. “ Long hair little wit,” says the proverb, specially when the husband goes under the water like poor Bastianazzo, rest his soul!

“Blessed that he is!” sighed Santuzza, “he died on a fortunate day, a day blessed by the Church the eve of Our Lady of Sorrows and now he’s praying for us sinners, like the angels and the saints. ‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.’ He was a good man, one of those who mind their own business, and don’t go about speaking ill of their neighbors, as so many do, falling into mortal sin.”

Maruzza, sitting at the foot of the bed, pale and limp as a wet rag, looking like Our Lady of Sor-rows herself, began to cry louder than ever at this; and Padron ‘Ntoni, bowed and stooping, looking a hundred years older than he did three days before, went on looking and looking at her, shaking his head, not knowing what to say, with that big thorn Bastianazzo sticking in his breast as if a shark had been gnawing at him.

“Santuzza’s lips drop nothing but honey,” ob-served Cousin Grace Goosefoot.

“To be a good tavern-keeper,” said La Zup-pidda, “one must be like that; who doesn’t know his trade must shut his shop, and who can’t swim must be drowned.”

“They’re going to put a tax on salt,” said Uncle Mangiacarubbe. “ Don Franco saw it in the paper in print. Then they can’t salt the anchovies any more, and we may just use our boats for firewood.”

Master Turi, the calker, was lifting up his fist and his voice, “ Blessed Lord “ he began, but caught sight of his wife and stopped short.

“With the dear times that are coming,” added Padron Cipolla, “this year, when it hasn’t rained since Saint Clare, and if it wasn’t for this last storm when the Provvidenza was lost, that was a real blessing, the famine this year would be solid enough to cut with a knife.”

Each one talked of his own trouble to comfort the Malavoglia and show them that they were not the only ones that had trouble. “ Troubles old and new, some have many and some have few;” and such as stood outside in the garden looked up at the sky to see if there was any chance of more rain that was needed more than bread was. Padron Cipolla knew why it didn’t rain any longer as it used to do, “ It rained no longer on account of that cursed telegraph-wire that drew all the rain to itself and carried it off.” Daddy Tino and Uncle Man-giacarubbe at this stood staring with open mouths, for there was precisely on the road to Trezza one of those very telegraph-wires; but Don Silvestro began to laugh with his hen’s cackle, ah! ah! ah! and Padron Cipolla jumped up from the wall in a fury, and railed at “ ill-mannered brutes with ears as long as an ass’s.” Didn’t everybody know that the telegraph carried the news from one place to another; this was because inside the wires there was a certain fluid like the sap in the vines, and in the same way it sucked the rain out of the sky and carried it off where there was more need of it; they might go and ask the apothecary, who said it himself; and it was for this reason that they had made a law that whoever broke the telegraph-wire should go to prison. Then Don Silvestro had no more to say, and put his tongue between his teeth.

“Saints of Paradise! some one ought to cut down those telegraph-posts and burn them!” began Uncle Zuppiddu, but no one listened to him, and to change the subject looked round the garden.

“A nice piece of ground,” said Uncle Mangia-carubbe; “ when it is well worked it gives food enough for a whole year.”

The house of the Malavoglia had always been one of the first in Trezza, but now with Bastia-nazzo drowned, and ‘Ntoni gone for a soldier, and Mena to be married, and all those hungry little ones it was a house that leaked at every seam.

“In fact what could it be worth, the house?”

Every one stretched out his neck from the gar-den, measuring the house with his eye, to guess at the value of it, cursorily as it were. Don Silvestro knew more about it than any one, for he had the papers safe in the clerk’s room at Aci Castello.

“Will you bet five francs that all is not gold that glitters,” he said, showing the shining new silver piece of money. He knew that there was a mort-gage of two francs the year, so he began to count on his fingers what would be the worth of the house with the well and the garden and all.

“Neither the house nor the boat can be sold, for they are security for Maruzza’s dowry,” said some one else; and they began to wrangle about it until their voices might have been heard even inside, where the family were mourning for the dead. “Of course,” cried Don Silvestro, like a pistol — shot, “there’s the dowry mortgage.”

Padron Cipolla, who had spoken with Padron ‘Ntoni about the marriage of his son Brasi and Mena, shook his head and said nothing.

“Then,” said Uncle Cola, “nobody’ll suffer but Uncle Crucifix, who loses his lupins that he sold on credit.”

They all turned to look at old Crucifix, who had come, too, for appearance’ sake, and stood straight up in a corner, listening to all that was said, with his mouth open and his nose up in the air, as if he was counting the beams and the tiles of the roof to make a valuation of the house. The most curious stretched their necks to look at him from the door, and winked at each other, as if to point him out.

“He looks like a bailiff making an inventory,” they sneered.

The gossips, who had got wind of the talk between Cipolla and Padron ‘Ntoni about the mar-riage, said to each other that Maruzza must get through her mourning, and then she could settle about that marriage of Mena’s. But now La Longa had other things to think of, poor dear!

Padron Cipolla turned coolly away without a word; and, when everybody was gone, the Mala-voglia were left alone in the court.

“Now,” said Padron ‘Ntoni, “ we are ruined, and the best off of us all is Bastianazzo, who doesn’t know it.”

At these words Maruzza began to cry afresh, and the boys seeing the grown-up people cry began to roar again, too, though it was three days now since papa was dead. The old man wandered about from place to place, without knowing what he was going to do. But Maruzza never moved from the foot of the bed, as if she had nothing left that she could do. When she spoke she only repeated, with fi^ed eyes, as if she had no other idea in her head, “Now I’ve nothing more to do.”

“No!” replied Padron ‘Ntoni. “ No! we must pay the debt to old Dumb-bell; it won’t do to have people saying: Honest men when they grow poor become knaves.” And the thought of the lupins drove the thorn of Bastianazzo deeper into his heart.

The medlar-tree let fall dry leaves, and the wind blew them here and there about the court.

“He went because I sent him,” repeated Padron ‘Ntoni, as the wind bears the leaves here and there, “and if I had told him to fling himself head fore-most from the Fariglione, he would have done it without a word. At least he died while the house and the medlar-tree, even to the last leaf, were his own; and I, who am old, am still here. ‘ Long are the days of the poor man.’ ”

Maruzza said nothing, but in her head there was one fixed idea that beat upon her brains, and gnawed at her heart to know, if she might, what had happened on that night; that was always before her eyes, and if she shut them she seemed to see the Provvidenza out by the Cape of the Mills, where the sea was blue and smooth and sprinkled with boats, which looked like gulls in the sunshine, and could be counted one by one that of Uncle Crucifix, the other of Cousin Barrabbas, Uncle Cola’s Concetta, Padron Fortunato’s bark that it swung her head to see; and she heard Cola Zup-piddu singing fit to split his throat out of his great bull’s lungs, while he hammered away with his mallet, and the scent of the tar came on the air; and Cousin Anna thumped her linen on the stone at the washing-tank, and she heard Mena, too, crying quietly in the kitchen.

“Poor little thing!” said the grandfather to himself, “the house has come down about your ears too.” And he went about touching one by one all the things that were heaped up in the corner, with trembling hands, as old men do, and seeing Luca at the door, on whom they had put his father’s big jacket, that reached to his heels, he said to him, u That’ll keep you warm at your work we must all work now and you must help, for we have to pay the debt for the lupins.”

Maruzza put her hands to her ears that she might not hear La Locca, who, perched on the landing behind the door, screamed all day long with her cracked maniac’s voice, saying that they must give her back her son, and wouldn’t listen to reason from anybody.

“She goes on like that because she’s hungry,” said Cousin Anna, at last. “ Now old Crucifix is furious at them all about the lupins, and won’t do anything for them. I’ll go and give her something to eat, and then she’ll go away.”

Cousin Anna, poor dear, had left her linen and her girls to go and help Cousin Maruzza, who acted as if she were sick, and if they had left her alone she wouldn’t have lighted the fire or anything, but would have left them all to starve. “ Neighbors should be like the tiles on the roof that carry water for each other.” Meanwhile the poor chil-dren’s lips were pale for hunger. Nunziata came to help too, and Alessio with his face black from crying at seeing his mother cry looked after the little boys, crowding round him like a brood of chickens, that Nunziata might have her hands free.

“You know how to manage,” said Cousin Anna to her, “ and you’ll have your dowry ready in your two hands when you grow up.”

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