The House by the Medlar-Tree, by Giovanni Verga


LUCA, poor fellow, was neither better off nor worse. He did his duty abroad, as he had done it at home, and was content. He did not often write, certainly the stamps cost twenty centimes each nor had he sent his portrait, because from his boy-hood he had been teased about his great ass’s ears; instead, he every now and then sent a five-franc note, which he made out to earn by doing odd jobs for the officers. The grandfather had said, “ Mena must be married first.” It was not yet spoken of, but thought of always, and now that the money was accumulating in the drawer, he considered that the anchovies would cover the debt to Goosefoot, and the house remain free for the dowry of the girl. Wherefore he was seen sometimes talking quietly with Padron Fortunato on the beach while waiting for the bark, or sitting in the sun on the church steps when no one else was there.

Padron Fortunato had no wish to go back from his word if the girl had her dowry, the more that his son always was causing him anxiety by running after a lot of penniless girls, like a stupid as he was. “ The man has his word, and the bull has his horns,” he took to repeating again. Mena had often a heavy heart as she sat at the loom, for girls have quick senses. And now that her grandfather was always with Padron Fortunato, and she so often heard the name Cipolla mentioned in the house, it seemed as if she had the same sight forever before her, as if that blessed Christian Cousin Alfio were nailed to the beams of the loom like the pictures of the saints. One evening she waited until it was quite late to see Cousin Alfio come back with his donkey-cart, holding her hands under her apron, for it was cold and all the doors were shut, and not a soul was to be seen in the little street; so she said good-evening to him from the door.

“Will you go down to Biccocca at the first of the month?” she asked him, finally.

“Not yet; there are still a hundred loads of wine for Santuzza. Afterwards, God will provide.”

She knew not what to say while Cousin Alfio came and went in the little court, unharnessing the donkey and hanging the harness on the knobs, car-rying the lantern to and fro.

“If you go to Biccocca we shall not see each other any more,” said Mena, whose voice was quite faint.

“But why? Are you going away too?”

The poor child could not speak at all at first, though it was dark and no one could see her face.

From time to time the neighbors could be heard speaking behind the closed doors, or children crying, or the noise of the platters in some house where supper was late; so that no one could hear them talking.

“Now we have half the money we want for old Goosefoot, and at the salting of the anchovies we can pay the other half.”

Alfio, at this, left the donkey in the court and came out into the street. “ Then you will be mar-ried after Easter ?”

Mena did not reply.

“I told you so,” continued Alfio. “ I saw Padron ‘Ntoni talking with Padron Cipolla.”

“It will be as God wills,” said Mena. “ I don’t care to be married if I might only stay on here.”

“What a fine thing it is for Cipolla,” went on Mosca, “ to be rich enough to marry whenever he pleases, and take the wife he prefers, and live where he likes!”

“Good-night, Cousin Alfio,” said Mena, after stop-ping a while to gaze at the lantern hanging on the wicket, and the donkey cropping the nettles on the wall. Cousin Alfio also said good-night, and went back to put the donkey in his stall.

Among those who were looking after Barbara was Vanni Pizzuti, when he used to go to the house to shave Master Bastiano, who had the sciatica; and also Don Michele, who found it a bore to do nothing but march around with the pistols in his belt’ when he wasn’t behind Santuzza’s counter, and went ogling the pretty girls to pass away the time. Barbara at first returned his glances, but afterwards, when her mother told her that those fellows were only loafing around to no purpose a lot of spies all foreigners were only fit to be flogged she slammed the window in his face mustache, gold-bordered cap and all; and Don Michele was furious, and for spite took to walking up and down the street, twisting his mustache, with his cap over his ear. On Sunday, however, he put on his plumed hat, and went into Vanni Pizzuti’s shop to make eyes at her as she went by to mass with her mother. Don Silvestro also took to going to be shaved among those who waited for the mass, and to warming himself at the brazier for the hot water, exchanging saucy speeches with the rest. “That Barbara begins to hang on ‘Ntoni Malavoglia’s hands,” he said. “What will you bet he doesn’t marry her after all? There he stands, waiting, with his hands in his pockets, waiting for her to come to him.”

At last, one day, Don Michele said:

“If it were not for the cap with the border, I’d make that ugly scamp ‘Ntoni Malavoglia hold the candle for me that I would.”

Don Silvestro lost no time in telling ‘Ntoni every-thing, and how Don Michele, the brigadier, who was not the man to let the flies perch on his nose, had a grudge against him.

Goosefoot, when he went to be shaved and heard that Don Michele would have given him something to get rid of ‘Ntoni Malavoglia, ruffled himself up like a turkey-cock because he was so much thought of in the place. Vanni Pizzuti went on, saying: “Don Michele would give anything to have the Malavoglia in his hands as you have. Oh, why did you let that row with ‘Ntoni pass off so easily?”

Goosefoot shrugged his shoulders, and went on warming his hands over the brazier. Don Silves-tro began to laugh, and answered for him:

“Master Vanni would like to pull the chestnuts out of the fire with Goosefoot’s paws. We know already that Gossip Venera will have nothing to say to foreigners or to gold-bordered caps, so if ‘Ntoni Malavoglia were out of the way he would be the only one left for the girl.”

Vanni Pizzuti said nothing, but he lay awake the whole night thinking of it. “ It wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” he thought to himself; “every-thing depends upon getting hold of Goosefoot some day when he is in the right sort of humor.”

It came that day, once when Rocco Spatu was nowhere to be seen. Goosefoot had come in two or three times^ rather late, to look for him, with a pale face and starting eyes, too; and the customs guard had been seen rushing here and there, full of business, smelling about like hunting-dogs with noses to the ground, and Don Michele along with them, with pistols in belt and trousers thrust into his boots.

“You might do a good service to Don Michele if you would take ‘Ntoni Malavoglia out of his way,” said Vanni to Papa Tino, as he stood in the darkest corner of the shop buying a cigar. “ You’d do him a famous service, and make a friend of him for life.”

“I dare say,” sighed Goosefoot. He had no breath that evening, and said nothing more.

In the night were heard shots over towards the cliffs called the Rotolo and along all the beach, as if some one were hunting quail. “ Quail, indeed!” murmured the fisher-folk as they started up in bed to listen. “ Two-legged quail, those are; quail that bring sugar and coffee and silk handkerchiefs that pay no duty. That’s why Don Michele had his boots in his trousers and his pistols in his belt.”

Goosefoot went as usual to the barber’s shop for his morning glass before the lantern over the door had been put out, but that next morning he had the face of a dog that has upset the kettle. He made none of his usual jokes, and asked this one and that one why there had been such a devil of a row in the night, and what had become of Roc-co Spatu and Cinghialenta, and doffed his cap to Don Michele, and insisted on paying for his morning draught. Goosefoot said to him: “ Take a glass of spirits, Don Michele; it will do your stomach good after your wakeful night. Blood of Judas!” exclaimed Goosefoot, striking his fist on the coun-ter and feigning to fly into a real rage, “ it isn’t to Rome that I’ll send that young ruffian ‘Ntoni to do penance.”

“Bravo!” assented Vanni. “ I wouldn’t have passed it over, I assure you; nor you, Don Michele, I’ll swear.”

Don Michele approved with a growl.

“I’ll take care that ‘Ntoni and all his relations are put in their places,” Goosefoot went on threat-ening. “ I’m not going to have the whole place laughing at me. You may rest assured of that much, Don Michele.” And off he went, limping and blaspheming, as if he were in a fearful rage, while all the time he was saying to himself, “ One must keep friends with all these spies,” and rumi-nating on how he was to make a friend of Santuz-za as well, going to the inn, where he heard from Uncle Santoro that neither Rocco Spatu nor Cin-ghialenta had been there; then went on to Cousin Anna’s, who, poor thing, hadn’t slept a wink, and stood at her door looking out, pale as a ghost. There he met the Wasp, who had come to see if Cousin Anna had by chance a little leaven.

“To-day I must speak with your uncle Dumb-bell about the affair you know of,” said Goosefoot. Dumb-bell was willing enough to speak of that af-fair which never came to an end, and “ When things grow too long they turn into snakes.” Padron ‘Ntoni was always preaching that the Malavoglia were honest people, and that he would pay him, but he (Dumb-bell) would like to know where the money was to come from. In the place, everybody knew to a centime what everybody owned, and those honest people, the Malavoglia, even if they sold their souls to the Turks, couldn’t manage to pay even so much as the half by Easter; and to get possession of the house one must have stamped paper and all sorts of expenses; that he knew very well.

And all this time Padron ‘Ntoni was talking of marrying his granddaughter. He’d seen him with Padron Cipolla, and Uncle Santoro had seen him, and Goosefoot had seen him too; and he, too, went on doing the go-between for Vespa and that lazy hound Alfio Mosca, that wanted to get hold of her field.

“But I tell you that I do nothing of the sort!” shouted Goosefoot in his ear. “ Your niece is over head and ears in love with him, and is always at his heels. I can’t shut the door in her face, out ‘oi respect for you, when she comes to have a chat with my wife; for, after all, she is your niece and your own blood.”

“Respect! Pretty sort of respect! “You’ll chouse me out of the field with your respect.”

“Among them they’ll chouse you out of it. If the Malavoglia girl marries Brasi Cipolla, Mosca will be left out in the cold, and will take to Vespa and her field for consolation.”

“The devil may have her for what I care,” called put old Crucifix, deafened by Uncle Tino’s clatter. “I don’t care what becomes of her, a godless cat that she is. I want my property. I made it of my blood; and one would think I had stolen it, that every one takes it from me Alfio Mosca, Vespa, the Malavoglia. I’ll go to law and take the house.”

“You are the master. You can go to law if you like.”

“No, I’ll wait until Easter ‘the man has his word, and the bull has his horns;’ but I mean to be paid up to the last centime, and I won’t listen to anybody for the least delay.”

In fact, Easter was drawing near. The hills began once more to clothe themselves with green, and the Indian figs were in flower. The girls had sowed basil outside the windows, and the white butterflies came to flutter about it; even the pale plants on the sea-shore were starred with white flowers. In the morning the red and yellow tiles smoked in the rising sun, and the sparrows twit-tered there until the sun had set.

And the house by the medlar-tree, too, had a sort of festive air: the court was swept, the nets and cords were hung neatly against the wall, or spread on — drying-poles; the garden was full of cabbages and lettuce, and the rooms were open and full of sunshine, that looked as if it too were content. All things proclaimed that Easter was at hand. The elders sat on the steps in the evening, and the girls sang at the washing-tank. The wagons began again to pass the high-road by night, and at dusk there began once more the sound of voices in conversation in the little street.

“Cousin Mena is going to be married,” they said; “her mother is busy with her outfit already.”

Time had passed and all things pass away with time, sad things as well as sweet. Now Cousin Maruzza was always busy cutting and sewing all sorts of household furnishing, and Mena never asked for whom they were intended; and one evening Brasi Cipolla was brought into the house, with Master Fortunato, his father, and all his relations.

“Here is Cousin Cipolla, who is come to make you a visit,” said Padron ‘Ntoni, introducing him into the house, as if no one knew anything about it beforehand, while all the time wine and roasted pease were made ready in the kitchen, and the women and the girls had on their best clothes.

That evening Mena looked exactly like Sant’- Agata, with her new dress and her black kerchief on her head, so that Brasi never took his eyes off her, but sat staring at her all the evening like a basilisk, sitting on the edge of his chair, with his hands between his knees, rubbing them now and then on the sly for very pleasure.

“He is come with his son Brasi, who is quite a big fellow now,” continued Padron ‘Ntoni.

“Yes, the children grow and shoulder us into the ground,” answered Padron Fortunato.

“Now you’ll take a glass of our wine of the best we have, and a few dried pease which my daughter has toasted. If we had only known you were coming we might have had something ready better worth your acceptance.”

“We happened to be passing by,” said Padron Cipolla, “ and we said, ‘ Let’ s go and make a visit to Cousin Maruzza/ ”

Brasi filled his pockets with dried pease, always looking at the girl, and then the boys cleared the dish in spite of all Nunziata, with the baby in her arms, could do to hinder them, talking all the while among themselves softly as if they had been in church. The elders by this time were in conversation together under the medlar, all the gossips clus-tering around full of praises of the girl how she was such a good manager, and kept the house neat as a new pin. “The girl as she is trained, and the flax as it is spun,” they quoted.

“Your granddaughter is also grown up,” said Pa-dron Fortunate; “it is time she was married.”

“If the Lord sends her a good husband I ask nothing better,” replied Padron ‘Ntoni.

<f The husband and the bishop are chosen by Heaven,” added Cousin La Longa.

Mena sat by the young man, as is the custom, but she never lifted her eyes from her apron, and Brasi complained to his father, when they came away, that she had not offered him the plate with the dried pease.

“Did you want more?” interrupted Padron For-tunato when they were out of hearing. “ Nobody could hear anything for your munching like a mule at a sack of barley. Look if you haven’t upset the wine on your new trousers, lout! You’ve spoiled a new suit for me.”

Padron ‘Ntoni, in high spirits, rubbing his hands, said to his daughter-inlaw r “ I can hardly believe that everything is so happily settled. Mena will want for nothing, and now we can put in order all our other little matters, and you may say the old daddy was right when he said, ‘ Tears and smiles come close together.’ ”

That Saturday, towards evening, Nunziata came in to get a handful of beans for the children, and said: “Cousin Alfio goes away tomorrow. He’s packing up all his things.”

Mena turned white, and stopped weaving.

In Alfio’s house there was a light. Everything was topsy-turvy. He came a few minutes after, knocking at the door, also with a very white face, and tying and untying the knot of the lash of his whip, which he held in his hand.

“I’ve come to say good-bye to you all, Cousin Maruzza, Padron ‘Ntoni, the boys, and you too. Cousin Mena. The wine from Aci Catena is fin-ished. Now Santuzza will get it from Master Fi-lippo. I’m going to Biccocca, where there is work to be got for my donkey.”

Mena said nothing; only the mother spoke in reply to him: “ Won’t you wait for Padron ‘Ntoni?’ He will be glad to see you before you go.”

So Cousin Alfio sat down on the edge of a chair, whip in hand, and looked about the room, in the opposite direction to that where Mena was.

“Now, when are you coming back?” said La Longa.

“Who knows when I shall come back? I shall go where my donkey carries me. As long as there is work I shall stay; but I should rather come back here if I could manage to live anyhow.”

“Take care of your health, Cousin Alfio; I’ve been told that people die like flies of the malaria down there at the Biccocca.”

Alfio shrugged his shoulders, saying there was nothing to be done. “ I would much rather not have gone away from here.” He went on looking at the candle. “And you say nothing to me, Cousin Mena?”

The girl opened her mouth two or three times as if to speak, but no words came; her heart beat too fast.

“And you, too, will leave the neighborhood when you are married,” added Alfio. “The world is like an inn, with people coming and going. By-and-by everybody will have changed places, and nothing will be the same as it was.” So saying, he rubbed his hands and smiled, but with lips only not in his heart.

“Girls,” said La Longa, “go where Heaven ap-points them to go. When they are young they are gay and have no care; when they go into the world they meet with grief and trouble.”

Alfio, after Padron ‘Ntoni and the boys had come back, and he had wished them also good-bye, could not make up his mind to go, but stood on the thresh-old, with his whip under his arm, shaking hands now with one, now with another with Cousin Maruzza as well as the rest and went on repeating, as peo-ple do when they are going for a long journey, and are not sure of ever coming back, “ Pardon me if I have been wanting in any way towards any of you.”

The only one who did not take his hand was Sant’Agata, who stayed in the dark corner by the loom. But, of course, that is the proper way for girls to behave on such occasions.

It was a fine spring evening, and the moon shone over the court and the street, over the people sit-ting before the doors and the girls walking up and down singing, with their arms around each other’s waists. Mena came out, too, with Nunziata; she felt as if she should suffocate in the house.

“Now we sha’n’t see Cousin Alfio’s lamp any more in the evenings,” said Nunziata, “ and the house will be shut up.”

Cousin Alfio had loaded his cart with all the wares he was taking away with him, and now he was tying up the straw which remained in the manger into a bundle, while the pot bubbled on the fire with the beans for his supper.

“Shall you be gone before morning, Cousin Al-fio?” asked Nunziata from the door of the little court.

“Yes. I have a long way to go, and this poor . beast has a heavy load. I must let him have a rest in the daytime.”

Mena said nothing, but leaned on the gate-post, looking at the loaded cart, the empty house, the bed half taken down, and the pot boiling for the last time on the hearth.

“Are you there too, Cousin Mena?” cried Alfio as soon as he saw her, and left off what he was engaged upon.

She nodded her head, and Nunziata ran, like a good housekeeper as she was, to skim off the pot, which was boiling over.

“I am glad you are here; now I can say good-bye to you, too.”

“I came here to see you once more,” she said, with tears in her voice. “ Why do you go down there where there is the malaria?”

Alfio began to laugh from the lips outward, as he did when he went to say good-bye to them all.

“A pretty question! Why do I go there? and why do you marry Brasi Cipolla? One does what one can, Cousin Mena. If I could have done as I wished to do, you know what I would have done.”

She gazed and gazed at him, with eyes shining with tears.

“I should have stayed here where the very walls are my friends, and where I can go about in the night to stable my donkey, even in the dark; and I should have married you, Cousin Mena I have held you in my heart this long while and I shall carry you with me to the Biccocca, and wherever I may go. But this is all useless talk, and one must do what one can. My donkey, too, must go where I drive him.”

“Now farewell,” said Mena at last. “ I, too, have something like a thorn here within me. . . . And now when I see this window always shut, it will seem as if my heart were shut too, as if it were shut inside the window heavy as an oaken door. But so God wills. Now I wish you well, and I must go.”

The poor child wept silently, hiding her eyes with her hand, and went away with Nunziata to sit and cry under the medlar-tree in the moonlight.

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