Under the Shadow of Etna by Giovanni Verga

HOW PEPPA LOVED GRAMIGNA.

Dear Farina, this is not a story, but the outline of a story.

It will at least have the merit of being short, and of having fact for
its foundation; it is a human document, as the phrase goes
nowadays:–interesting perhaps for you and for all those who study the
mighty book of the heart. I will tell it just as I found it among the
country paths, and in almost the same simple and picturesque words
that characterize the tales of the people; and really you will prefer
to find yourself facing the bare and unadulterated fact rather than
being obliged to read between the lines of the book through the
author’s spectacles.

The simple truth of human life will always make us thoughtful; will
always have the effectiveness of reality, of genuine tears, of the
fevers and sensations that have inflicted the flesh. The mysterious
processes whereby conflicting passions mingle, develop and mature,
will long constitute the chief fascination in the study of that
psychological phenomenon called the plot of a story, and which modern
analysis tries to follow with scientific care, through the hidden
paths of oftentimes apparently contradictory complications.

Of the one that I am going to tell you to-day I shall only narrate the
starting point and the ending, and that will suffice for you, as,
perchance, some day it will suffice for all.

We replace the artistic method to which we owe so many glorious
masterpieces by a different method, more painstaking and more
recondite; we willingly sacrifice the effect of the catastrophe, of
the psychological result as it was seen through an almost divine
intuition by the great artists of the past, and employ instead a
logical development, inexorably necessary, less unexpected, less
dramatic, but not less fatalistic; we are more modest, if not more
humble; but the conquests that we make with our psychological verities
will not be any less useful to the art of the future. Supposing such
perfection in the study of the passions should be ever attained that
it would be useless to go further in the study of the interior man,
will the science of the human heart, the fruit of the new art, so far
and so universally develop all the resources of the imagination that
in the future the only romances written will be “Various Facts?”

I have a firm belief that the triumph of the Novel, the completest and
most human of all the works of art, will increase until the affinity
and cohesion of all its parts will be so perfect, that the process of
its creation will remain a mystery like the development of human
passions; I have a firm belief that the harmony of its forms will be
so absolute, the sincerity of its reality so evident, its method and
justification so deeply rooted, that the artist’s hand will remain
absolutely invisible.

Then the romance will seem to portray a real event, and the work of
art will apparently have come about by itself, spontaneously springing
into being and maturing like a natural fact, without any point of
contact with its author. It will not have preserved in its living form
any stamp of the mind in which it originated, any shade of the eye
that beheld it, any trace of the lips that murmured the first words
thereof as the creative fiat; it will exist by its own reason, by the
mere fact that it is as it should be and must be, palpitating with
life and as immutable as a statue of bronze, the author of which has
had the divine courage of eclipsing himself and disappearing in his
immortal work.

* * * * *

A few years ago, down by the Simeto, they were giving chase to a
brigand, a certain Gramigna,[1] if I am not mistaken, a name as cursed
as the weed that bears it. The man had left behind him, from one end
of the province to the other, the terror of his evil reputation.
Carabineers, _compagni d’armi_, and cavalry-men had been on his track
for two months, without ever succeeding in putting their claws on him;
he was alone, but was equal to ten, and the evil plant threatened to
take firm root.

[1] Gramigna means dog’s-tail-grass.

Moreover the harvest-time was approaching, the crops already covered
the fields, the ears bent over and were calling to the reapers, who
indeed had their reaping-hooks in their hands, and yet not a single
proprietor dared show his nose over the hedge of his estate, for fear
of meeting Gramigna, who might be stretched out among the furrows
with his carbine between his legs, ready to blow off the head of the
first person who should venture to meddle with his affairs.

Thus the complaints were general. Then the prefect summoned all those
gentlemen of the district–carabineers and companies of armed men and
told them two words of the kind that makes men prick up their ears.
The next day an earthquake in every nook and corner:–patrols,
squadrons, scouts for every ditch and behind every wall; they hunted
him by day, by night, on foot, on horseback, by telegraph, as if he
had been a wild beast! Gramigna eluded them every time, and replied
with shots if they came too close on his track.

In the fields, in the villages, among the factories, under the signs
of country taverns, wherever people met, Gramigna was the only topic
of conversation,–that wild chase, that desperate flight. The
carabineers’ horses returned dead-tired; the soldiers threw
themselves down in utter weariness on the ground when they got back to
the stables; the patrols slept wherever chance offered; Gramigna alone
was never tired, never slept, kept always on the wing, climbed down
precipices, slipped through the harvest-fields, crept on all fours
among the prickly pear-trees,[2] made his way out of danger like a
wolf by means of the hidden channels of the torrents.

[2] Fichidindia, also called Indian figs.

The chief argument of every discourse at the cross roads, before the
village entrances, was the devouring thirst from which the fugitive
must suffer in the immense, barren plain, under the June sun. The lazy
loungers opened wide their eyes.

Peppa, one of the prettiest girls of Licodia, was expecting at that
time soon to marry _compare_ Finu, called “_Candela di sego_” (the
tallow-candle), who had landed property and a bay mule, and was a
tall young man, handsome as the sun, who carried the standard of Santa
Margherita without bending his back, as though he were a pillar.

Peppa’s mother shed tears of delight over the good fortune that had
befallen her daughter, and spent her time in looking over and over the
bride’s effects in the trunk, all white linen and of the nicest
quality, like a queen’s, and earrings that would hang down to the
shoulders and gold rings for all the ten fingers of both hands; more
money than Santa Margherita could have ever had–and so they were to
have been married on Santa Margherita’s day, which would fall in June,
after the hay had been harvested.

“Candela di Sego,” on his way back from the field, used every evening
to leave his mule at Peppa’s front door and go in to tell how the
crops promised to be a veritable enchantment, unless Gramigna set them
on fire, and the lattice over against the bed would not be large
enough to hold all the grain, and that it seemed to him a thousand
years off before he should carry home his bride on the crupper of his
bay mule.

But Peppa one fine day said to him,–

“Let your mule have a rest, for I do not wish to get married.”

The poor “Candela di Sego” was dumbfounded, and the old mother began
to tear her hair when she heard that her daughter had refused the best
match in the village.

“I am in love with Gramigna,” said the girl, “and he is the only one
whom I will marry.”

“Ah!” screamed the mamma, and she stormed through the house, with her
gray hair streaming so that she looked like a witch–“Ah! that demon
has been here to bewitch my daughter!”

“No,” replied Peppa, with her eyes flashing like a sword–“no, he has
not been here.”

“Where did you ever see him?”

“I never saw him. I have only heard him spoken of. But I feel
something here, that burns me.”

The report spread through the region, though they tried to keep it a
secret. The women and girls who had envied Peppa the prosperous
farming, the bay mule and the handsome youth who could bear the
standard of Santa Margherita without bending his back, went around
telling all sorts of unkind stories: how Gramigna had been to visit
her one night in the kitchen, and how he had been seen hiding under
the bed. The poor mother burnt a lamp for the souls in purgatory and
even the curato went to Peppa’s house to touch her heart with his
stole, so as to drive out that devil of a Gramigna, who had got
possession of it.

But she persisted in her statement that she did not know the fellow by
sight; but that she had seen him one night in a dream, and the
following morning she had got up with her lips dry as if she had
herself suffered from all the thirst which they reported him to be
enduring.

Then the old woman shut her up in the house, so that she might not
hear another word about Gramigna, and she stopped up all the cracks of
the door with images of the saints.

Peppa heard all that was said in the street behind the sacred images,
and she turned red and white, as if the devil had kindled all his
fires in her face.

Finally she heard it said that Gramigna had been located among the
prickly pear-trees of Palagonia.

“They have been firing for two hours,” they said. “He has killed one
carabineer and wounded more than three _compagni d’armi_. But they
sent back such a hailstorm of shots that he must have been hit; there
was a pool of blood where he had been.”

Then Peppa made the sign of the cross before the old mother’s pillow,
and made her escape out of the window.

Gramigna was in the prickly pear-trees of Palagonia, and they were not
able to find him in that stronghold of rabbits. He was ragged and
covered with blood, pale after two days of fasting, burning with
fever, and he had his carbine levelled. When he saw her coming,
resolute, among the prickly pear bushes, in the dim light of the
gloaming, he hesitated a moment whether to shoot or not:–

“What do you want?” he demanded. “What are you coming here for?”

“I am coming to stay with you,” said she, looking straight at him.
“Are you Gramigna?”

“Yes, I am Gramigna. If you expect to get those twenty _oncie_[3] of
reward, you are mightily mistaken.”

[3] An onza is $2.55.

“No, I have come to stay with you,” she replied.

“Go away!” said he. “You can’t stay with me, and I don’t want anyone
with me. If you are after money, I tell you you have made a mistake.
I haven’t any, mind you! For two days I haven’t had even a morsel of
bread.”

“I can’t go back home now,” said she; “the place is all full of
soldiers.”

“Go away! What is that to me? Each for himself.”

As she was turning away like a kicked dog, Gramigna called to her:

“Say, go and get me a jug of water, down yonder in the brook. If you
want to stay with me, you must risk your skin.”

Peppa went without saying a word, and when Gramigna heard the gunshots
he began to laugh immoderately, and said to himself: “That was meant
for me!”

But when he saw her coming back a few minutes later with the jug in
her hand, pale and bleeding, he said, before he sprang forward to
snatch the jug from her, and then when he had drunk till it seemed as
if he had no more breath:

“You escaped, did you? How did you do it?”

“The soldiers were on the other side, and there was a thick bush on
this.”

“But they put a bullet through your skin. There’s blood on your
dress.”

“Yes.”

“Where were you hit?”

“In the shoulder.”

“That’s nothing. You can walk.”

So he allowed her to stay with him. She followed him, all in rags,
shoeless, suffering from the fever caused by the wound, and yet she
went foraging to procure for him a jug of water or a piece of bread,
and if she came back with empty hands, escaping through the gunshots,
her lover, devoured by hunger and thirst, would beat her. At last one
night when the moon was shining in the prickly pears, Gramigna said to
her,–

“They are on us.”

And he obliged her to stand with her back to the rock far in the
crevice; then he fled in another direction. Among the bushes were
heard the frequent reports of the musketry, and the shadows were cut
here and there by quick bright flashes. Suddenly Peppa heard the sound
of steps near her and saw Gramigna coming back, dragging along a
broken leg. He leaned against the prickly pear bushes to reload his
carbine:

“It’s all over,” he said to her. “Now they’ll take me.”

And what froze the blood in her veins more than anything else was the
light that shone in his eyes, as if he were a madman.

Then when he fell on the dry branches like a log of wood, the soldiers
were on him in an instant.

The following day they dragged him through the village street on a
cart, all in rags and covered with blood. The people who had crowded
in to look at him began to laugh when they saw how small he was, how
pale and ugly like a punchinello. And it was for him that Peppa had
deserted _compare_ Finu, the “Candela di Sego!”

The poor “Candela di Sego” went and hid from sight, as if it behoved
him to be ashamed, and Peppa was led off, handcuffed by soldiers, as
if she also were a thief,–she who had as much gold as Santa
Margherita! Her poor mother was obliged to sell all the white linen
stored in her trunk, and the gold earrings and the rings for the ten
fingers, so as to pay the lawyers who defended her daughter and bring
the girl home again,–poor, ill, in shame, ugly as Gramigna, and with
Gramigna’s child in her arms.

But when at the end of the trial her daughter was restored to her, the
poor old soul recited an “Ave Maria” in the bare and already dark jail
among the soldiers of the guard; it seemed to her that they had given
her back a treasure when she had nothing else in the world, and she
wept like a fountain at this consolation.

Peppa on the other hand seemed to have no tears to shed any more, and
said nothing, and disappeared from sight; yet the two women went out
every day to get their living by their own hands. People declared that
Peppa had taken up “the trade” in the woods, and went on robbing
expeditions at night. The truth of the matter was that she hid herself
in the kitchen like a wild beast in its lair, and it was only when her
old mother was dead of her privations, and the house had to be sold,
that she left it.

“See here!” said “Candela di Sego,” who was as much in love with her
as ever, “I could smash your head with two stones for the evil you
have brought on yourself and others.”

“It’s true,” replied Peppa, “I know it. It was God’s will.”

After her house and those few wretched pieces of furniture that were
left to her were sold, she went away from the town by night, just as
she had done before, without turning round to look at the roof under
which she had slept so long, and she went to do God’s will in the
city, with her baby boy, near the prison in which Gramigna was
incarcerated. She could see nothing else besides the black grated
windows along the mighty silent fa├žade, and the sentinels drove her
away if she stopped to look where he might be. At last she was told
that he had not been there for some time, that he had been taken away
to the other side of the sea, manacled, and with a basket fastened
over his shoulder.

She said nothing. She did not go away; for she knew not where to go,
and she had nothing more to expect. She made a shift to live, doing
chores for the soldiers, for the prisoners, as if she herself made a
part of that black and silent building; and she felt for the
carabineers who had taken Gramigna in the thicket of prickly pears,
and who had broken his leg with their shots, a sort of respectful
tenderness, as it were a brute admiration of force.

On holidays, when she saw them with their plumes and their glittering
epaulettes, stiff and erect in their gala uniforms, she devoured them
with her eyes, and she was always at the barracks cleaning the big
rooms and polishing the boots, so that they called her “The
Carabineers’ dish-cloth.”

Only when she saw them load their guns at nightfall and march out, two
and two, with their trousers turned up, revolver in belt, and when
they mounted horse under the light that made the muskets flash, and
heard the clattering of the horses’ feet dying away in the darkness
and the jingling of sabres, she always grew pale, and while she was
closing the door of the stable she shivered; and when her youngster
played with the other urchins on the glacis before the prison, running
among the legs of the soldiers, and the urchins called him “Gramigna’s
son, Gramigna’s son,” she flew into a rage and chased them away with
stones.