Matilde Serao.

The land of Cockayne : a novel online

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got a slap. Whilst he waited in the room that served as a
parlour, study and dining-room, from beyond that is to say,
the kitchen, in the bedroom, and even the landing-place
cries burst out from the quarrelsome family. But in a silent
interval the Professor came in, putting on an old jacket all
spotted with grease, and setting his spectacles on his nose
with an ecclesiastical gesture.

' I have come for my money,' Don Crescenzio said brutally.

' I have got none,' the debtor answered sulkily.

' That does not matter to me. You must give it to me.'

' I have no money.'

' Find some. I must have my seven hundred francs, you

' I have not got it.'


' Give a lien on your salary : get a loan that way.'

' I have not got a salary now.'

' What ! are you not a professor now ?'

' No ; I have been dismissed from my post.'

' What ! are you dismissed ?'

' Yes turned out by force. I was accused of selling the
examination papers to the students.'

' It was not true, of course ?'

' Of course not. But the plot to ruin me was well arranged.
The Senate advised me to resign.'

' So you are on the pavement ?'

' Yes ; I am destitute.'

Then only Don Crescenzio noticed that Professor
Colaneri's face was pallid and distorted. But this third
disappointment enraged him.

' I don't know what to do to you ; you must give me the
seven hundred francs, at any rate.'

' Have you got five francs to lend me ?'

' Don't talk nonsense ! I want my money for to-morrow
at latest, mind.'

' Crescenzio, you are putting a man already on the rack
to torture.'

That is fine chatter. I can't go to San Francesco on
your account. You are so many murderers. I go to Costa
for money, and find that he has failed that he is going off
to Rome, to do he knows not what. If it is true, he is going
to Rome . . . and I get no money. I go to Marzano, and
find him half dead. Here you tell me you are on the pave-
ment and have no money.'

' We are all ruined all of us,' muttered the ex-priest.

' Well, you all want to kill me, do you ? But when you
needed credit I gave it to you . . . and now you want to kill
me and my family ! But you have got sons also ; you
must think about feeding them to-morrow and every other
day ; you ought to do something. You will think of me
think of my babies think that we are Christians, too !'

' Do you know what I must do to-morrow to give my
little ones bread ?'

' What do I care ? I know you will give it to them. I
know that my children are not to go fasting while yours get
their food.'

' Well, listen : I am not a priest now ; I have been excom-
municated, I am outside the pale of the Church ; therefore


I will get no help there. I had a professor's post, a good
safe thing, but I have lost it ; I needed money too much.
Don't ask me for sad confessions. I will not get my post
again, nor any other ; I am a marked man.'

' But what is the use of telling me about these sorrows ?
I know about them. I know they will do my affairs no good.'

' Look here, then : I have no outlook ; now, as I have
put unlucky beings into the world, I feel that it is my duty
to give them bread at least that. I have gambled away
on the lottery what they had as a certainty, an unfailing
resource ; but it is folly to think of that. Therefore I have
taken the great decision, once for all.'

'What are you referring to?" asked Don Crescenzio,
much astonished.

' To-morrow I am going to accept the offer the Evan-
gelical Society has made me. I will become a Protestant

' Oh, God !' said the lottery-keeper, astonished above

' As you say,' said the other, gulping as if he could hardly

' And you will give up our religion ?'

' I am leaving it through hunger.'

'And that other ... do you believe in it?'

' No, I do not.'

' And how will you set about preaching ?'

' I will do it ; I will get accustomed to it.'

' You will have to abjure, will you ?'

' Yes, I have to do that.'

' Will it be a grand ceremony ?'

' A very grand one.'

They spoke in a whisper, and Colaneri's cynical face was
distorted, as if he could not stand the idea of abjuring. Don
Crescenzio, too, in his astonishment, had forgotten his

' You have got to apostatize ?'

' Yes, I must apostatize.'

' Well, your priest's orders have been taken from you.'

' Still, to deny the faith is a different thing,' said Colaneri

' Then, it distresses you very much to do it ?'

' I hate to do it.'

' How much will you gain by it ?'


' Two hundred francs a month in some village they will
send me to.'

' It is hardly enough for bread.'

' To each of my boys that turn Protestant they will give
a small sum. I will be able to marry their mother.'

'But to have to leave Christ's religion!' exclaimed Don
Crescenzio, with that horror of Protestantism that is in all
humble Neapolitan consciences.

' What would you have ? It is hunger drives me to it,'
Colaneri muttered desperately.

He seemed now altogether changed, even in his character ;
it was clear to him now how fatal his rage for gambling had
been ; he saw what he had done against himself and his own
gifts, and he felt an unconquerable distaste for that apostasy.
He had done wicked things ; he had descended to crime,
even, of a coarse kind, having got corrupted in that unhealthy
atmosphere ; but now he found the punishment in front of
him, he trembled and lost all his bravery ; he trembled at
having to deny his faith, his God, for a loaf of bread.

Don Crescenzio looked at him and said nothing, amazed.
He had always thought Colaneri a scoundrel, and, if he had
given him credit, it was only because he thought he could
seize his salary. But now, on this decisive day, he saw him
cast down, moved to his inmost soul by an awful fear of the
Divinity he had already betrayed and insulted, whom he
was again outraging by his apostasy. Don Crescenzio,
although small-minded, felt the agony of that conscience
that was now fighting in its last outpost, having got to the
stage where human endurance ends, the hardest, most
wearing hours in life. So he dared not say anything more
to him about the money. He stammered :

' Your wife what does she say ?'

' She would like to prevent me doing it, except for the
children's sake.'

' The poor children, must they lose their souls also ?'

' They are innocent. The Lord sees ; He will be just.
Besides, why has He set me with my back to the wall ?
For each child that enters the Protestant Church they give
me a small sum.'

'When will this come off?' Don Crescenzio asked, after

' In a month. A month of instruction is needed for the
poor innocents.'


' It will be too late for me,' the other said in a low tone,
still thinking of his money.

' I will give you a receipt if you like, then.'

' It is too late. I am ruined.'

' What a punishment what a punishment !' the apostate
said, hiding his face in his hands.

' I am going away,' Don Crescenzio said, prostrate now,
in a state of utter depression.

' Be patient.'

' What is the use of patience ? it is a punishment ! You
spoke the truth just now : it is a chastisement ! I am going
away ; good-bye.'

They did not look at each other nor say another word ;
both of them felt seized and cowed by the frightfulness of
the punishment, not feeling any more rage or rancour in
that breaking-down of all pride and vanity that the Divine
chastisement brings. When he was on the stairs, Don
Crescenzio was seized with such faintness that he had to sit
down on a step, and stay there confused, neither seeing nor
hearing in that moral numbness that comes on after great
excitement. How long did he stay there ? In the end, it
was the step of someone going up and brushing past him
that roused him, and with that start all his frightful pain
came back unbearably. He rushed downstairs helter-
skelter, and ran through the streets like one in a dream,
urged on as if someone with a straight, unbending weapon
were pushing him with the point. He got to Guantai
Street, to the little inn, Villa Borghese, a resort of country
people, where for four months past Trifari had lived with
his father and mother, who had left their village at his
bidding. The two humble peasants had managed, from
youth to old age, to put some pence together and buy some
bits of land by working eighteen hours a day and eating
stale black bread, being content with beet soup cooked in
water, with no salt, and sleeping all in one large room, with
only a bed and a chest in it, upon a straw pallet ; and this
they bore for the sake of making their son a doctor, handing
on to him all their peasant's vanity, making him have an
unbounded longing to be a gentleman, a great man, superior
to everyone in the country-side, so giving him, unknowingly,
that rage for gambling that, according to him, was to make
him grow rich suddenly, very rich, so as to crush everyone
with his power and luxury.


But in a few years his whole professional career was
ended, for he scorned it and gave it up ; he had begun to lead
a life of shameless indebtedness, expedients, and dodges.
He had begun by deceiving his parents, and had ended by
weaving for himself nets of intrigues and embarrassments.
His father and mother gloomily, in the silence of their
peasant souls that know of no outlet, had sold off every-
thing gradually, going on sacrificing themselves for this son
that was their idol, whom they adored because he was
made of better clay than themselves. They were at last so
reduced, so chastened in their pride, they waited in their
old house for their son to send them ten or twenty francs
now and then for food. And he did it ; bound to his old
folk by a fierce love made up of filial instinct and gratitude,
he shivered with shame and grief every time they told him,
resignedly, that in spite of being well on in years they would
have to go back to work in the fields to earn their daily
bread, so as not to be a burden upon him. But these helps
had got to be less frequent ; the rage for gambling blinded
him so he could not even take ten francs off his stakes to
send to the unlucky peasants. The finishing stroke was
when he wrote imperiously, ordering them to sell the last
house they had left, the old home with its sparse furniture
and kitchen utensils, to bring the money and come and
live in Naples with him ; they would spend less there, and
be more comfortable.

It was a dreadful blow, for these unhappy folk held so
to the habit, now become a passion, of living in their own
house and village, and the very word Naples frightened
them. Still, saying not a word of their sufferings, they kept
up their pride, told the villagers they were going to live as
gentlefolk with their gentleman son at Naples, and had obeyed.
They had haggled for a long time over the price of the old
house and those few bits of old furniture they got at the
time of their marriage ; but at last, hoarding up the few
hundred francs they had got for them carefully in a linen
bag, and travelling third class, they got to Naples,
frightened, not sad, but buried in that dumbness that is
the only sign of a peasant's ill-humour.

They had lived four months at that inn, in two dark
rooms ; for they were on the first-floor with their son, who
always came in at a very late hour, sometimes when they
were getting up. They had no occupation, and never spoke


to each other ; staying up in their own room, they looked
with melancholy, surprised eyes on all the extraordinary
Naples people that moved about in that narrow, populous
road, Guantai Nuova. They stayed hours and hours, wrapt
up in gazing on a sight that stupefied them ; but they were
incapable, however, of making any complaint, though they
were suspicious of everything, of the spring bed, of the bad,
greenish glass of the mirror, of the miserable dinners served
in their own rooms. As it was a thing they were not ac-
customed to, they thought they were living in unheard-of
luxury. They disliked the servants, who scoffed at the two
peasants, and the washerwoman, who brought back their
coarse shifts all in holes, and loaded them with abuse in the
true Naples style if they made any remarks.

Sometimes, getting over their instinctive shyness about
speaking, they told their son to take them away from the
inn and hire a small house, where his mother would cook
and do the housework ; but he pointed out to them that
would require too much money, and they would do it later,
when he had got the fine fortune he was expecting from day
to day.

In the meanwhile, their fortune grew smaller, and every
time they loosened the linen purse at the end of the week,
their hearts gave a twinge. Often, when they pulled out
the money, they saw their son's eyes brighten up, as if an
irresistible love-longing filled them ; but he never asked
them for it one could see he put a check on himself not to
ask. But each day he became gloomier, wilder ; he no
longer ate with his parents, and spent his nights outside, not
coming back to the inn, so that even into these peasants' dull
minds had come the idea of some danger threatening.

The mother told her beads for hours, that the Lord would
have pity on their old age ; whilst the father, being sharper,
and more experienced, thought that perhaps some bad
woman was making his son unhappy. But they said nothing
to him ; even the luxury they lived in, as they thought,
although they paid for it themselves, seemed to them a
condescension on their son's part, a favour he did his parents.
Like him, without understanding or knowing why, they
began to hope for this fortune that was to turn up, some
day or another, to make them gentlefolk. The old peasant-
woman's purple lips were constantly moving, saying prayers,
in the small, mean, dark room of the Guantai Street hotel,


whilst the old man went out every day, going always
the same road, that is to say, into Municipio Square, and
from there to the Molo, to gaze at the blackish sea, the
ships in the mercantile port, and the men-of-war in the
military one ; he was fascinated and struck only with that
in all the great town, going nowhere else, knowing nothing
of the rest of Naples, being afraid of the noise of carriages,
and dreading thieves perhaps. He retraced his steps slowly,
looking round him suspiciously.

They never went out with their son never, as they were
just peasants and so dressed. They always refused when
he feebly invited them to go out with him, guessing, in spite
of their dulness, that it would not please him to show himself
with them. He was so handsome, such a gentleman, in his
great-coat and tall hat. But one evening he came in more
excited than usual. Quickly, in rather a hard voice, such
as he had never used to them, Dr. Trifari told his parents
that his business, his big affair, his plan for getting rich, in
short, required money to be laid out, so they should hand
him over these last few hundred francs they were keeping in
reserve ; do him this last great sacrifice, and he would give it
all back a hundredfold. He spoke quickly, with his eyes
down, as if he did not wish to intercept the dreadful, chilled,
despairing look the two peasants exchanged, feeling struck
to the heart, frozen. The father and mother held their
tongues, looking on the ground ; then he, speaking quicker,
in an anxious tone, trying to soften his harsh voice, implored
and implored, begging them, if they loved him, to give him
the money if they did not want to see his death. They,
without making any remark, glanced assent at each other,
and with senile, quivering hands the father undid the linen
bag and took out the money, counting it slowly and care-
fully, starting again at each hundred francs, following the
money with a troubled eye and a convulsive movement of
the lower lip.

There were four hundred and twenty francs, the whole
fortune of the three. Pale at first, the doctor got very red,
his eyes filled with tears, and before either of them could
stop him, he bent down and kissed his father's and mother's old
brown, rugged, horny hands that had worked so hard. Not
another word had been said between them, and he was gone.
He did not come back to the hotel in the evening ; but now
they did not take any notice of his being absent. Still, the



next day he did not come back to dinner ; it was the first
time it had happened. They waited till evening, but he did
not come. The peasant woman told her beads, always be-
ginning again ; they ended by dining off a bit of bread and
two oranges they had in their room.

Dr. Trifari did not come back the second night either,
and it was about noon of the second day that a letter, with
a halfpenny stamp, by the local post, came, addressed to
Signer Giovanni Trifari, Villa Borghese. Ah ! they were
peasants, with dull intellects and simple hearts ; they never
imagined things, or even thought much ; they were curt,
silent people. But when that letter was brought to them,
and they recognised their son's well-known and loved
writing, they both began to tremble, as if a sudden, over-
powering palsy had come on. Twice or thrice, his rough
spectacles shaking on his nose, with the slowness of a man
not knowing how to read well, and having to keep back his
tears, the old peasant read over his son's letter, in which,
just before starting for America, he said good-bye to them
filially and tenderly ; and, feeling the gentle, terrible letter
getting well printed on her mind, the old woman kissed her
beads and gave a low groan. Twice an inn servant came
in, with the sceptical look of one accustomed to all the
chances and changes of life. He asked them if they wanted
anything to eat ; but they, blind, deaf, and forgetful, did not
even answer. When, towards six o'clock, Don Crescenzio
came in, after knocking fruitlessly, he found them, almost in
the dark, seated near the balcony in perfect silence.

' Is the doctor here ?'

Neither of the two answered, as if death's stupor had
overcome them.

' I wished to know if Dr. Trifari was here.'

' No, sir, he is not,' the old father said.

' Has he gone out ?'

' Yes, he is out.'

' How long has he been absent ?'

' He has been away a long time,' the old peasant muttered,
and a groan from his wife echoed him.

' When is he coming back ?' shouted Don Crescenzio,
very agitated, taking an angry fit.

' I can't tell you; we don't know,' the old man said,
shaking his head.

' You are his father ; you must know.'


' He did not tell me.'

' But where is he gone ? Where is that scoundrel gone ?'

' To America to Buenos Ayres.'

' Good Lord !' Don Crescenzio just managed to bring out,
falling full weight on a chair.

They said no more. The mother devoutly clutched her
rosary. But both Trifari's parents seemed so tired that
Don Crescenzio felt desperate, finding everywhere different
forms of misfortunes, and greater ones than his own. Still,
he clutched at a straw ; above everything, he wished to
know all about it, with that bitter enjoyment a man feels in
tasting the full agony of his misfortune. He, too, had fled,
then ; he, too, had escaped him ; that money, too, was lost
lost for ever.

' But who gave him the money to get away ?' he cried out
in an exasperated tone.

' Are you really friendly to him ?'

' Yes, yes, I am.'

' Truly are you?'

' Yes, I tell you.'

' Here is his letter. Take it ; you will find out from it.'

Then by the faint light of fading day he read the unhappy
man's long letter. Eaten up by debts and his ruling passion,
not knowing where to lay his head, he wrote to his parents,
taking leave of them on going to make his fortune in
America. Of the four hundred francs it had taken about
three hundred and fifty to pay for a third-class ticket on a
steamer, counting in a few francs for his keep the first two
or three days in Buenos Ayres. He owned up to every-
thing. He was the cause of his own ruin and of his family's.
He cursed gambling, fate, and himself, swearing at bad luck
and his own bad conscience. He sent back a few francs to
the two poor old folks, begging them to go back to their
village, to get on as well as they could, until he was able to
send them something from Buenos Ayres. He told them
to go home, and he would not forget them, and the money
would just serve for two third-class fares to their village ;
nothing would be left over to buy food even. He begged
them on his knees to forgive him, not to curse him. He
had not had the courage to kill himself, for their sakes ;
still, he begged them to forgive them. Though he was
leaving them like this, he implored them not to give him a
curse as a parting provision on this wretched journey of his.

22 2


He was starting with no luggage or money, and would be
cast into the ship's common sleeping-place. The letter was
full of tenderness and rage : abuse of the rich, of gentlemen
and Government, came alternately with prayers for forgive-
ness and humble excuses.

Don Crescenzio read twice over that agonized letter
written by a man enraged at himself and mankind, feeling
himself wounded in the only tender feeling of his life. He
folded it absent-mindedly, and looked at the two old people.
It seemed to him that they were centenarians, falling to
pieces from decrepitude and hard work, bent by age and

4 What are you going to do now ?' he asked in a whisper,
after a short time.

' We are going to our village,' the old man muttered.
* To-morrow we will go by the first train.'

' Yes, yes, we are going back,' the poor old woman
groaned, without looking up.

' What are you to do there ?' he rejoined, wishing to find
out the full extent of all that misfortune.

' We are to work by the day in the fields,' said the old
man simply.

He examined the two, so old, tired, and bent, now making
ready to begin life again so as to get bread, to dig the
ground with shaking arms, bending their brown faces and
sparse white hair, under the summer sun. Struck to the
heart by this last blow, feeling the chorus of misfortune
growing around him, he did not open his mouth about the
money he was to have got from Trifari ; indeed, feverishly,
he felt such pity for the two old folk that he said to them :

' Can I do anything for you ?'

' No, no, thank you,' the two said, with the despairing
gestures of those who expect no more help.

' Keep up your courage, then.'

' Yes, yes, thank you,' they muttered again.
He left them without saying more. It was night now
when he went down into the street. For a moment, feeling
confused and dismayed, he thought, Where was he to go ?
Anew, set along by quite a mechanical goad, he took
courage, and, crossing Toledo Street, went up to the high
part by San Michele Church, where the Rossi Palace stood
out dark and lofty. In that mansion lived the last of those
largely indebted to him, the most desperate of all. So as


not to have a bad omen at the beginning of the day, he had
kept them to the last. But he had found money nowhere ;
and now, with the natural rebound of the unhappy who
fight against their misfortunes by that strength of hope
which never dies, now he began again to believe that
Cesare Fragala and the Marquis di Formosa would give
him the money in some way that it might rain down from

When he went into Cesare Fragala' s flat, led across an
empty dark room by little Agnesina, who came to open the
door, carrying a half-burnt candle, he had at once regretted
he had come. Husband, wife and daughter were seated
at a small table, with a cloth too small for it, taking their
supper silently, looking at every little bit of fried liver they
put in their mouths for fear of leaving too little for the
others. The child especially, having a healthy youthful
appetite, measured her mouthfuls of bread so as not to eat
too much of it. Cesare Fragala sat very solemnly, all traces
of a smile having gone from his face, and looked at the
tablecloth with his brows knit. His wife, the good Luisella,
with her big black eyes, on whose brow the happy mother's
diamond star had shone, had now a humble, subdued look
in a plain stuff gown. Quietly with her calm eyes the
child looked serenely, with a martyr's patience, at the visitor,
as if she understood and expected the request he was about
to make. Before that gentle, thoughtful child's eye Don

Online LibraryMatilde SeraoThe land of Cockayne : a novel → online text (page 31 of 34)