The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


‘NTONI got back on a Sunday, and went from door to door saluting his friends and acquaintances, the centre of an admiring crowd of boys, while the girls came to the windows to look at him; the only one that was not there was Mammy Tudda’s Sara.

“She has gone to Ognino with her husband,” Santuzza told him. “ She has married Menico Trinca, a widower with six children, but as rich as a hog. She married him before his first wife had been dead a month. God forgive us all!”

“A widower is like a soldier,” added La Zup-pidda; “a soldier’s love is soon cold; at tap of drum, adieu, my lady!”

Cousin Venera, who went to the station to see if Mammy Tudda’s Sara would come to say good-bye to Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni, because she had seen them talking to each other over the vineyard wall, hoped to put ‘Ntoni out of countenance by this piece of news. But time had changed him too “Out of sight, out of mind “ ‘Ntoni now wore his cap over his ear.

“I don’t like those flirts who make love to two or three people at a time,” said the Mangiacarubbe, pulling the ends of her kerchief tighter under her chin, and looking as innocent as a Madonna. “ If I were to love anybody, I’d stick to that one, and would change, no, not for Victor Emmanuel himself, or Garibaldi, even.”

“I know whom you love!” said ‘Ntoni, with his hand on his hip.

“No, Cousin ‘Ntoni, you don’t know; they have told you a lot of gossip without a word of truth in it. If ever you are passing my door, just you come in, and I’ll tell you the whole story.”

“Now that the Mangiacarubbe has set her heart on Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni, it will be a real mercy for his cousin Anna if anything comes of it,” said Cousin Venera.

‘Ntoni went off in high feather, swaggering with his hand on his hip, followed by a train of friends, wishing that every day might be Sunday, that he might carry his pretty shirts out a-walking. That afternoon he amused himself by wrestling with Cousin Pizzuti, who hadn’t the fear of God before his eyes (though he had never been for a soldier), and sent him rolling on the ground before the tavern, with a bloody nose; but Rocco Spatu was stronger than ‘Ntoni, and threw him down.

In short, ‘Ntoni amused himself the whole day long; and while they were sitting chatting round the table in the evening, and his mother asked him all sorts of questions about one thing and another, and Mena looked at his cap, and his shirt with the stars, to see how they were made, and the boys, half asleep, gazed at him with all their eyes, his grand-father told him that he had found a place for him, by the day, on board Padron Fortunato Cipolla’s bark, at very good wages.

“I took him for charity,” said Padron Fortunato to whoever would listen to him, sitting on the bench in front of the barber’s shop. “ I took him because I couldn’t bear to say no when Padron ‘Ntoni came to ask me, under the elm, if I wanted men for the bark. I never have any need of men, but Mn prison, in sickness, and in need one knows one’s friends’; with Padron ‘Ntoni, too, who is so old that his wages are money thrown away.”

“He’s old, but he knows his business,” replied, old Goosefoot. “ His wages are by no means thrown away, and his grandson is a fellow that any one might be glad to get away from him or from you, for that matter.”

“When Master Bastian has finished mending the Provvidenza we’ll get her to sea again, and then we sha’n’t need to go out by the day,” said Padron ‘Ntoni.

In the morning, when he went to wake his grand-son, it wanted two hours to dawn, and ‘Ntoni would have preferred to remain under the blankets; when he came yawning out into the court, the Three Sticks were still high over Ognino, and the Puddara4 shone on the other side, and all the stars glittered like the sparks under a frying-pan. “ It’s the same thing over again as when I was a soldier and they beat the reveille on deck,” growled ‘Ntoni. “ It wasn’t worth while coming home, at this rate!”

“Hush,” said Alessio. “ Grandpapa is out there getting ready the tackle; he’s been up an hour already;” but Alessio was a boy. just like his father Bastianazzo, rest his soul! Grandfather went about here and there in the court with his lantern; out-side could be heard the people passing towards the sea, knocking at the doors as they passed to rouse

4 The Great Bear. their companions. All the same, when they came to the shore, where the stars were mirrored in the black smooth sea, which murmured softly on the stones, and saw here and there the lights of the other boats, ‘Ntoni, too, felt his heart swell within him. “Ah,” he exclaimed, with a mighty stretch of his arms, “ it is a fine thing to come back to one’s own home. This sea knows me.” And Pa-dron ‘Ntoni said, “No fish can live out of water,” and “ For the man who is born a fish the sea waits.”

On board the bark they chaffed ‘Ntoni because Sara had jilted him. While they were furling the sails, and the Carmela was rowed slowly round and round, dragging the big net after her like a ser-pent’s tail, “’ Swine’s flesh and soldier’s faith last but a little while,’ for that Sara threw you over,” they said to him.

“When the Turk turns Christian the woman keeps her word,” said Uncle Cola.

“I have plenty of sweethearts, if I want them,” replied ‘Ntoni; “at Naples, they ran after me.”

“At Naples you had a cloth coat and a cap with a name on it, and shoes on your feet,” said Ba-rabbas.

“Are the girls at Naples as pretty as the ones here?”

“The girls here are not fit to hold a candle to those in Naples. I had one with a silk dress, and red ribbons in her hair, an embroidered corset, and gold epaulets like the captain’s. A fine, handsome girl who brought her master’s children out to walk, and did nothing else.”

“It must be a fine thing to live in those ports,” observed Barabbas.

“You on the left there, stop rowing!” called out Padron ‘Ntoni.

“Blood of Judas! You’ll send the bark onto the net,” shouted Uncle Cola from the helm. “Will you stop chattering! Are we here to scratch our-selves or to work?”

“It’s the tide drives us up,” said ‘Ntoni.

“Draw in there, you son of a pig; your head is so full of those queens of yours that you’ll make us lose the whole day,” shouted Barabbas.

“Sacrament!” replied ‘Ntoni, with his oar in the air. “ If you say that again I’ll bring it down on your head.”

“What’s all this?” cried Uncle Cola from the helm. “ Did you learn when you were a soldier not to hear a word from anybody?”

“I’ll go,” said ‘Ntoni.

“Go along, then! With Padron Fortunato’s mon-ey he’ll soon find another.”

“Prudence is for the master, patience for the man,” said Padron ‘Ntoni.

‘Ntoni continued to row, growling all the while, as he could not get up and walk away; and Cousin Mangiacarubbe, to put an end to the quarrelling, said it was time for breakfast.

At that moment the sun was just rising, and a draught of wine was pleasant in the cold air which began to blow. So the boys began to set their jaws at work, with flask between their knees, while the bark moved slowly about inside the ring of corks.

“A kick to whoever speaks first,” said Uncle Cola.

Not to be kicked, they all began to chew like so many oxen, watching the waves that came rolling in from the open sea and spreading out without foam, those green billows that on a fair sunny day remind one of a black sky and a slate-colored sea.

“Padron Cipolla will be swearing roundly at us to-night,” said Uncle Cola; “but it isn’t our fault. In this fresh breeze there’s no chance of fish.”

First Goodman Mangiacarubbe let fly a kick at Uncle Cola, who had broken silence himself after declaring the forfeit, and then answered:

“Since we are here, we may as well leave the net out a while longer.”

“The tide is coming from the open; that will help us,” said Padron ‘Ntoni.

“Ay, ay!” muttered Uncle Cola meanwhile.

Now that the silence was broken, Barabbas asked ‘Ntoni Malavoglia for a stump of a cigar.

“I haven’t but one,” said ‘Ntoni, without thinking of the recent quarrel, “but I’ll give you half of mine.”

The crew of the bark, leaning their backs against the bench, with hands behind their heads, hummed snatches of songs under their breath, each on his own account, to keep himself awake, for it was very difficult not to doze in the blazing sun; and Ba-rabbas snapped his fingers at the fish which leaped flashing out of the water.

“They have nothing to do,” said ‘Ntoni, “and they amuse themselves by jumping about.”

“How good this cigar is!” said Barabbas. “ Did you smoke these at Naples?”

“Yes, plenty of them.”

“All the same, the corks are beginning to sink,” said Goodman Mangiacarubbe.

“Do you see where the Provvidenza went down with your father?” said Barabbas to ‘Ntoni; “there at the Cape, where the sun glints on those white houses, and the sea seems as if it were made of gold.”

“The sea is salt, and the sailor sinks in the sea,” replied ‘Ntoni.

Barabbas passed him his flask, and they began to mutter to each other under their breath against Uncle Cola, who was a regular dog for the crew of the bark, watching everything they said and did; they might as well have Padron Cipolla himself on board.

“And all to make him believe that the boat couldn’t get on without him,” added Barabbas; “an old spy. Now he’ll go saying that it is he that has caught the fish by his cleverness, in spite of the rough sea. Look how the nets are sinking; the corks are quite under water; you can’t see them.”

“Holloa, boys!” shouted Uncle Cola; “ we must draw in the net, or the tide will sweep it away.”

“O-hi! O-o-o-hi!” the crew began to vociferate, as they passed the rope from hand to hand.

“Saint Francis!” cried Uncle Cola, “ who would have thought that we should have taken all this precious load in spite of the tide?”

The nets shivered and glittered in the sun, and all the bottom of the boat seemed full of quick-silver.

“Padron Fortunato will be contented now,” said Barabbas, red and sweaty, “ and won’t throw in our faces those few centimes he pays us for the day.”

“This is what we get,” said ‘Ntoni, “to break our backs for other people; and then when we have put a few soldi together comes the devil and carries them off.”

“What are you grumbling about?” asked his grandfather. “ Doesn’t Padron Fortunato pay your day’s wages?”

The Malavoglia were mad after money: La Longa took in weaving and washing; Padron ‘Ntoni and his grandsons went out by the day, and helped each other as best they could; and when the old man was bent double with sciatica, he stayed in the court and mended nets and tackle of all kinds, of which trade he was a master. Luca went to work at the bridge on the railroad for fifty cen-times a day, though ‘Ntoni said that wasn’t enough to pay for the shirts he spoiled by carrying loads on his back but Luca didn’t mind spoiling his shirts, or his shoulders either; and Alessio went gathering crabs and mussels on the shore, and sold them for ten sous the pound, and sometimes he went as far as Ognino or the Cape of the Mills, and came back with his feet all bloody. But Good-man Zuppiddu wanted a good sum every Saturday for mending the Provvidenza; and one wanted a good many nets to mend, and rolls of linen to weave, and crabs at ten sous the pound, and linen to bleach, too, with one’s feet in the water, and the sun on one’s head, to make up two hundred francs. All Souls was come, and Uncle Crucifix did nothing but promenade up and down the little street, with his hands behind his back, like an old basilisk.

“This story will end with a bailiff,” old Dumb-bell went on saying to Don Silvestro and to Don Giammaria, the vicar %

“There will be no need of a bailiff, Uncle Cruci-fix,” said Padron ‘Ntoni, when he was told what old Dumb-bell had been saying. “The Malavoglia have always been honest people, and have paid their debts without the aid of a bailiff.”

“That does not matter to me,” said Uncle Cru-cifix, as he stood against the wall of his court meas-uring the cuttings of his vines; “I only know I want to be paid.”

Finally, through the interposition of the vicar, Dumb-bell consented to wait until Christmas, taking for interest that sixty-five francs which Maruzza had managed to scrape together sou by sou, which she kept in an old stocking hid under the mattress of her bed.

“This is the way it goes,” growled Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni; “ we work night and day for old Crucifix. When we have managed to rake and scrape a franc we have to give it to old Dumb-bell.”

Grandfather, with Maruzza, consoled each other by building castles in the air for the summer, when there would be anchovies to be salted, and Indian figs at ten for eight centimes; and they made fine projects of going to the tunny-fishing, and the fishing for the sword-fish when one gains a good sum by the day and in the mean time Cousin Bastian would have put the Provvidenza in order. The boys listened attentively, with elbows on their knees, to this discourse, as they sat on the landing, or after supper; but ‘Ntoni, who had been in for-eign ports, and knew the world better than the others, was not amused by such talk, and preferred going to lounge about the tavern, where there was a lot of people who did nothing, and old Uncle Santoro the worst of them, who had only that easy trade of begging to follow, and sat muttering Ave Marias; or he went down to Master Zuppiddu’s to see how the Provvidenza was getting on, to have a little talk with Barbara, who came out with fagots for the fire under the kettle of pitch, when Cousin ‘Ntoni was there.

“You’re always busy, Cousin Barbara,” said ‘Ntoni; “you’re the right hand of the house; it’s for that your father doesn’t want to get you mar-ried.”

“I don’t want to marry anybody who isn’t my equal,” answered Barbara. “ Marry with your equals and stay with your own.”

“I would willingly stay with your people, by Our Lady! if you were willing, Cousin Barbara.” —

“Why do you talk to me in this way, Cousin ‘Ntoni? Mamma is spinning in the court; she will hear you.”

“I meant that those fagots are wet and won’t kindle. Let me do it.”

“Is it true you come down here to see the Man-giacarubbe when she comes to the window?”

“I come for quite another reason, Cousin Bar-bara. I come to see how the Provvidenza is get-ting on.”

“She is getting on very well, and papa says that by Christmas she will be ready for sea.”

As the Christmas season drew on the Mala-voglia were always in and out of Master Bastiano Zuppiddu’s court. Meanwhile the whole place was assuming a festive appearance; in every house the images of the saints were adorned with boughs and with oranges, and the children ran about in crowds after the pipers who came playing before the shrines, with the lamps before the doors; only in the Mala-voglia’s house the statue of — the Good Shepherd stood dark and unadorned, while Padron ‘Ntoni’s ‘Ntoni ran here and there like a rooster in the spring. And Barbara Zuppidda said to him:

“At least you’ll remember how I melted the pitch for the Provvidenza when you’re out at sea.”

Goosefoot prophesied that all the girls would want to rob her of him.

“It’s I who am robbed,” whined Uncle Crucifix. “Where am I to get the money for the lupins if ‘Ntoni marries, and they take off the dowry for Mena, and the mortgage that’s on the house, and all the burdens besides that came out at the very last minute? Christmas is here, but no Mala-voglia.”

Padron ‘Ntoni went to him in the piazza, or in his own court, and said to him: “ What can I do if I have no money? Wait till June, if you will do me that favor; or take the boat, or the house; I have nothing else.”

“I want my money,” repeated Uncle Crucifix, with his back against the wall. “You said you were honest people; you can’t pay me with talk about the Provvidenza^ or the house by the medlar-tree.”

He was ruining both body and soul, had lost sleep and appetite, and wasn’t even allowed to relieve his feelings by saying that the end of this story would be the bailiff, because if he did Padron ‘Ntoni sent straightway Don Giammaria or Don Silvestro to beg for pity on him; and they didn’t even leave him in peace in the piazza, where he couldn’t go on his own business without some one was at his heels, so that the whole place cried out on the devil’s money. With Goosefoot he couldn’t talk, because he always threw in his face that the lupins were rotten, and that he had done the broker for him. “But that service he could do me!” said he, sud-denly, to himself; and that night he did not sleep another wink, so charmed was he with the discov-ery. And he went off to Goosefoot as soon as it was day, and found him yawning and stretching at his house door. “You must pretend to buy my debt,” he said to him, “ and then we can send the officers to Malavoglia, and nobody will call you a usurer, or say that yours is the devil’s money.”

“Did this fine idea come to you in the night,” sneered Goosefoot, “that you come waking me at dawn to tell it me?”

“I came to tell you about those cuttings, too; if you want them you may come and take them.”

“Then you may send for the bailiff,” said Goose-foot; “ but you must pay the expenses.”

Before every house the shrines were adorned with leaves and oranges, and at evening the can-dles were lighted, when the pipers played and sang litanies, so that it was a festa everywhere. The boys played at games with hazel-nuts in the street; and if Alessio stopped, with legs apart, to look on, they said to him:

“Go away, you; you haven’t any nuts to play with. Now they’re going to take away your house.”

In fact, on Christinas eve the officer came in a carriage to the Malavoglia’s, so that the whole vil-lage was upset by it; and he went and left a paper with a stamp on it on the bureau, beside the image of the Good Shepherd.

The Malavoglia seemed as if they all had been struck by apoplexy at once, and stayed in the court, sitting in a ring, doing nothing; and that day that the bailiff came there was no table set in the house of the Malavoglia.

“What shall we do?” said La Longa. Padron ‘Ntoni did not know what to say, but at last he took the paper, and went off with his two eldest grand-sons to Uncle Crucifix,’ to tell him to take the Prov-videnza, which Master Bastiano had just finished mending; and the poor old man’s voice trembled as it did when he lost his son Bastianazzo. “ I know nothing about it,” replied Dumb-bell. “I have no more to do with the business. I’ve sold my debt to Goosefoot, and you must manage it the best way you can with him.”

Goosefoot began to scratch his head as soon as he saw them coming in procession to speak to him.

“What do you want me to do?” answered he; .” I’m a poor devil, I need the money, and I can’t do anything with the boat. That isn’t my trade; but if Uncle Crucifix will buy it, I’ll help you to sell it. I’ll be back directly.”

So the poor fellows sat on the wall, waiting and casting longing glances down the road where old Goosefoot had disappeared, not daring to look each other in the face. At last he came limping slowly along (he got on fast enough when he liked, in spite of his crooked leg). “ He says it’s all broken, like an old shoe; he wouldn’t hear of taking it,” he called out from a distance. “ I’m sorry, but I could do nothing.” So the Malavoglia went off home again with their stamped paper.

But something had to be done, for that piece of stamped paper lying on the bureau had power, they had been told, to devour the bureau and the house, and the whole family into the bargain.

“Here we need advice from Don Silvestro,” sug-gested Maruzza. “Take these two hens to him, and he’ll be sure to know of something you can do.”

Don Silvestro said there was no time to be lost, and he sent them to a clever lawyer, Dr. Scipione, who lived in the street of the Sick-men, opposite Uncle Crispino’s stableman d was young, but, from what he had been told, had brains enough to put in his pocket all the old fellows, who asked five scudi for opening their mouths, while he was contented with twenty-five lire.

The lawyer was rolling cigarettes, and he made them come and go two or three times before he would let them come in. The finest thing about it was that they all went in procession, one behind the other. At first they were accompanied by La Longa, with her baby in her arms, as she wished to give her opin-ion, too, on the subject; and so they lost a whole day’s work. When, however, the lawyer had read the papers, and could manage to understand something of the confused answers which he had to tear as if with pincers from Padron ‘Ntoni, while the others sat perched up on their chairs, without daring even to breathe, he began to laugh heartily, and the Ma-lavoglia laughed too, with him, without knowing why, just to get their breath. “Nothing,” replied the lawyer; “you need do nothing.” And when Padron ‘Ntoni told him again that the bailiff had come to the house: “ Let the bailiff come every day if he likes, so the creditors will the sooner tire of the expense of sending him. They can take nothing from you, because the house is ‘settled on your son’s wife; and for the boat, we’ll make a claim on the part of Master Bastiano Zuppiddu. Your daughter-inlaw did not take part in the purchase of the lupins.” The lawyer went on talking with-out drawing breath, without scratching his head even, for more than twenty-five lire, so that Padron ‘Ntoni and his grandson felt a great longing to talk too, to bring out that fine defence of theirs of which their heads were full; and they went away stunned, overpowered by all these wonderful things, rumi-nating and gesticulating over the lawyer’s speech all the way home. Maruzza, who hadn’t been with them that time, seeing them come with bright eyes and rosy faces, felt herself relieved of a great weight, and with a serene aspect waited to hear what the advocate had said. But no one said a word, and they all stood looking at each other.

“Well?” asked Maruzza, who was dying of impatience.

“Nothing! we need fear nothing!” replied Padron ‘Ntoni, tranquilly.

“And the advocate?”

“Yes, the advocate says we need fear nothing.”

“But what did he say?” persisted Maruzza.

“Ah, he knows how to talk! A man with whiskers! Blessed be those twenty-five lire!”

“But what did he tell you to do?”

The grandfather looked at the grandson, and ‘Ntoni looked back at his grandfather. “ Nothing,” answered Padron ‘Ntoni; “he told us to do nothing.”

“We won’t pay anything,” cried ‘Ntoni, boldly, “because they can’t take either the house or the Provvidenza. We don’t owe them anything.”

“And the lupins?”

“The lupins! We didn’t eat them, his lupins; we haven’t got them in our pockets. And Uncle Crucifix can take nothing from us; the advocate said so, said he was spending money for nothing.”

There was a moment’s silence, but Maruzza was still unconvinced.

“So he told you not to pay?”

‘Ntoni scratched his head, and his grandfather added:

“It’s true, the lupins we had them we must pay for them.”

There was nothing to be said, now that the law-yer was no longer there; they must pay. Padron ‘Ntoni shook his head, muttering:

“Not that, not that! the Malavoglia have never done that. Uncle Crucifix may take the house and the boat and everything, but we can’t do that.”

The poor old man was confused; but his daugh-ter-inlaw cried silently behind her apron.

“Then we must go to Don Silvestro,” concluded Padron ‘Ntoni.

And with one accord, grandfather, grandchildren, and daughter-inlaw, with the little girl, proceeded once more in procession to the house of the communal secretary, to ask him how they were to man-age about paying the debt, and preventing Uncle Crucifix from sending any more stamped paper to eat up the house and the boat and the family.

Don Silvestro, who understood law, was amusing himself by constructing a trap-cage, intended as a present for the children of “ her ladyship.”

He did not do as the lawyer did, he let them talk and talk, continuing silently to sharpen his reeds and fasten them into their places. At last he told them what was necessary, “ Well, now, if Madam Maruzza is willing to put her hand to it, everything may be arranged.” The poor woman could not guess where she was to put her hand. “ You must put it into the sale,” said Don Silvestro to her,

“and give up your dotal mortgage, although you did not buy the lupins.” “We all bought the lu-pins together,” murmured the poor Longa. “And the Lord has punished us all together by taking away my husband.”

The poor ignorant creatures, motionless on their chairs, looked at each other, and Don Silvestro laughed to himself. Then he sent for Uncle Cru-cifix, who came gnawing a dried chestnut, having just finished his dinner, and his eyes were even more glassy than usual. From the very first he would listen to nothing, declaring that he had nothing to do with it, that it was no longer his affair. “I am like the low wall that everybody sits and leans on as much as he pleases; because I can’t talk like an advocate, and give all my reasons prop-erly, my property is treated as if I had stolen it.” And so he went on grumbling and muttering, with his back against the wall, and his hands thrust into his pockets; and nobody could understand a word he said, on account of the chestnut which he had in his mouth. Don Silvestro spoiled a shirt by sweating over the attempt to make him understand how the Malavoglia were not to be called cheats if they were willing to pay the debt, and if the widow gave up her dotal rights. The Malavoglia would be willing to give up everything but their shirts sooner than go to law; but if they were driven to the wall they might begin to send stamped paper as well as other people; Such things have happened before now. “ In short, a little charity one must have, by the holy devil! What will you bet that if you go on planting your feet like a mule in this you don’t lose the whole thing?”

And Uncle Crucifix replied, “ If you take me on that side I haven’t any more to say.” And he promised to speak to old Goosefoot. “ For friend-ship’s sake I would make any sacrifice.” Padron ‘Ntoni could speak for him, how for friendship’s sake he had done as much as that and more; and he offered him his open snuffbox, and stroked the baby’s cheek, and gave her a chestnut. “ Don Silvestro knows my weakness; I don’t know how to say no. This evening I’ll speak to Goosefoot, and tell him to wait until Easter, if Cousin Ma-ruzza will put her hand to it.” Cousin Maruzza did not know where her hand was to be put, but said that she was ready to put it immediately.

“Then you can send for those beans that you said you wanted to sow,” said Uncle Crucifix to Don Silvestro before he went away.

“All right! all right!” replied Don Silvestro. “We all know that for your friends you have a heart as big as the sea.”

Goosefoot, while any one was by, wouldn’t hear of any delay, and screamed and tore his hair and swore they wanted to reduce him to his last shirt, and to leave him without bread for the winter, him and his wife Grace, since they had persuaded him to buy the debt of the Malavoglia, and that those were five hundred lire, one better than another, that they had coaxed him out of, to give them to Uncle Crucifix. His wife Grace, poor thing, opened her eyes very wide, because she couldn’t tell where all that money had come from, and put in a good word for the Malavoglia, who were all good people, and everybody in the vicinity had always known they were honest. And Uncle Crucifix himself now began to take the part of the Malavoglia. “They have said they will pay; and if they don’t they will let you have the house; Madam Maruzza will put her hand to it. Don’t you know that in these days if you want your own you must do the best you can?” Then Goosefoot put on his jacket in a great hurry, and went off swearing and blaspheming, saying that his wife and old Crucifix might do as they pleased, since he was no longer master in his own house.

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