The solicitor Don Emanuele Cerrotta opened his study long before dawn for the provincial customers, early and early, who also had other tasks to attend during the day in Catania. Don Calogero, the scribe, came to wake up the porter, lit up the oil lamp on the stairs and went into the studio where his principal had been working for a few hours.
In the anteroom, half a dozen chairs and a light, with a smoked pipe and a tin reflector, on the wall. In the study, two shelves full of scriptures and legal memories, three chairs complying with those of the antechamber and one with armrests; a table of fir, dyed in mahogany use, cluttered with papers, next to the inkwell, a blue cotton handkerchief and a painted cardboard snuffbox, half open to make it easier to take the rap to whom Don Emanuele was suddenly filling his nose, scattering half of every grip on the shot of his nightgown and on the papers in front of him.
The oil lamp, with three spouts, just illuminated the table and the two people who were seated around it, that is: Don Emanuele with an astrakhan cap stretched up to his eyes, the black silk handkerchief twisted around his neck like a tie ( the tips of the shirt collar faced one from the top, the other from the bottom) and an old woolen shawl thrown over his shoulders; on the right, Don Calogero who copied or wrote under dictation, without ever looking up and noticing the people who from dawn to nine entered the studio, reasoned, argued, shouted, according to the character of each one until the principal he cut short the words in the mouth of boring customers, saying abruptly:
– All right; we’ll talk about it again; today I have to do. Good morning!…
And he resumed dictating to the scribe:
«So … In fact and in law …»
That morning, seeing Don Pietro-Paolo Zingàli, baron of Fontane Asciutte and Cantorìa, go on tiptoe (for a year and a half, every morning he was the firstappeared in the study) Don Emanuele had not given himself, as usual, not even a moment to stop reading the legal memory that he was writing down; and he continued a good piece, almost no one had sat on the chair in front of him. At the last, after sinking the index and thumb of the right hand in the snuffbox and having pulled up a huge socket of rapa, after having given with the handkerchief two taps of cleaning the nose, one from starboard and the other from left, Don Emanuele raised his halter glasses on his forehead and grumbled:
– Good morning, baron! … What’s new?
The baron, carefully placed the chair at the table, put his arms on the writings and gathered his hands almost in act of prayer, with a humble, insinuating smile, and in a more insinuating and humble tone of voice, he stammered:
– Here it is: I thought …
“No, I do not want to know what you have thought or thought; I ask only if you have some paper, some new documents … You dig one a day! …
– I wrote some notes, to better light … the most important point …
And the baron, carefully extracted from the inside pocket of his overcoat half a sheet of paper, covered with a round inscription, thickly thick, with calls to the margins, he presented it to his procurator.
– I will read, with convenience … I understand what it is … Nothing else?
– … You are tarì, you know! – answered the baron, lowering his eyes.
Don Emanuele drew the drawer of the table and took a handful of copper coins, carlini, pieces of six grains and two grains, he counted, – one, two, three … Are you enough tarì?
– For two weeks. Take note of it.
– Wind fields! Exclaimed Don Emanuele, compassionately collapsing his head.
And while the baron withdrew the money with tremulous hand, taking one after the other the pillars of each tarì and putting them in his pocket, he made four quick scuffs on a small notebook where strings of significant numbers were aligned and other tarì administered to the baron during the dispute, and all the upfront expenses for him, to be resumed together with the winning and finished liaisons.
This, in short, meant that the solicitor was quite sure of the success of it; but he also wanted to say that the poor old man inspired him with profound piety, almost reduced to begging from the wickedness of his wife and children.
Wife and children had rebelled against the baron precisely for that dispute, which had lasted for ten years, and no one could foresee when it would end. The Marquis of Camutello, the cousin of the baron and his adversary, had first put the hell in his family through the confessor of the baroness, making them paint the future of the house in very dark colors; then he proposed, with the same means, a transaction.
– An infamy! – said the baron. – Rather be cut off your hands, than to underwrite that attack on the sacrosanct rights of the barony of Fontane Asciutte and Cantorìa. As long as I camp! …
But after six months of terrible struggle, one day in the silent rooms of the Zingàli palace there were shouts of male voices, screams of women’s voices heard from the street and making people stop.
* * *
The carved hard stone facade, with the vast door and the terraces and the high cornice at the top, gave the building the air of fortitude among the narrow little houses from which it was surrounded. But it was enough to start climbing up stairs to realize immediately that the interior could be called a ruin. Naked stairs; walls without plaster; floors without bricks; large windows, half with old boards badly nailed and walled in place of shutters and railings; vôlte real stained wet for the water that dripped from the roof on rainy days; big rooms dingy, dusty, and full of spiderwebs, several with a small table or a trunk in a corner and a few ramshackle chairs around for furniture, someone with large pictures without frames on the walls – sacred pictures, family portraits blackened by time, skinned, broken down – and nothing else.
It was necessary to cross four or five of these rooms, illuminated by the little light that penetrated from the cracks of the tables, stuck to the windows thirty years ago as temporary taxes – and that they had crooked there without anyone ever thinking of adding a nail – you had to cross four or five of these rooms before arriving at the rooms where the baron’s family had reduced to living.
The baroness and her two daughters lived segregated, deep down, in the rooms that gave onto the alley of the east side. In one room, divided in the middle by a screen covered with red damask, ragged and flaky, they slept the two sisters; in the next one, the baroness. She spent her days doing socks, mending linen, spinning linen in winter evenings, acting together with her endless daughters rosaries, sitting on the massive walnut high chair with leather backs curling up at the corners from where the bills had gone. Here she received the rare visits of some friends and the peasants who brought them baskets of fruit, baskets of fresh eggs, bunches of asparagus or chicory, according to the seasons; there she confessed, the first and fifteen of each month, with the old canon Rametta, who also came to tell her about the news and gossip of the town, before or after confessing it, as it pleased the lady baroness, who did not he was always in the same mood.
His sons, Ercole, Marco and Feliciano, slept in what should have been the grand reception hall if the palace had been completed. Around the three cots leaning against the corners (those of Ercole and Marco facing each other, that of Feliciano in one of the opposite corners between two large windows) were hung on the walls different tools that revealed the inclinations and occupations of each of their. Rifles, game bags, rabbits and quails nets; wooden cage for ferret; boots squire, with large bullets to the soles; two large-brimmed hats, one of gray-colored felt, the other of straw; a jacket, a waistcoat with many pockets, and gray cotton velvet trousers, promptly made the hunter guess in Hercules, who only took care of rifles, ferrets and bracelets. Saws, planes, hammers, pincers, gimlets, welders, chisels, scissors, files, rasps, lathe, boards, sticks, bellows, a drill, an anvil, a cooker indicated in Marco the mechanic. From the table with a bookshelf full of modern books, files of works being published, notebooks of summaries and notes, one could understand the inclination to study of the younger brother Feliciano.
The baron occupied the room to the left of the hall where the three boys slept. Facing the door, a large rustic shelf, with no windows or counters, full of decks of ancient scriptures, telling the compre, the sales, the transmission of possession, the arguments, the sentences, in short all the complicated history of the fiefdoms of Fontane Asciutte, Cantorìa, Barchino, Tumminello, Cento-Salme, Canneto, once heritage of the Zingàli family, now part alienated, part ceduti, part lost for the legendary storditaggine of the baron don Calcedonio, father of don Pietro-Paolo. The scriptures were arranged by date order, and by each deck, by eachissue was a paper tab that indicated its contents. Before the death of Baron Don Calcedonius, all those papers lay in bulk in two old boxes without lid, together with other papers piled up, in a dark closet, among broken chairs, useless tools and rags of every kind thrown there for years and years. Don Pietro-Paolo, who had found himself baron of Fontane Asciutte and Cantorìa from one day to the next, had also felt the disorder of the house administration gravitating down from one day to the next, around which he had not even been able to breathe living the father who believed himself to be Domineddio in person, indisputable authority over his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law and his nephews.
As soon as the casket of the dead man had left the house, the baron don Pietro-Paolo had taken out the other coffins from the closet, as he said, where treasures of documents lay, very important acts for the sloping quarrels and for those to be started. ; from the morning of the next day he had locked himself in his room, study, bedroom, and reception in one, and in three months of diabolical work, which had made him furious, he had finally managed to rearrange, classify, write down that immense mass of yellowed, moldy papers and here and there rôse from rats. Fortunately, having found so much other stuff to nibble, the rats had spared a bit ‘the scripts of the caissons.
The baroness Donna Fidenzia, sad and disheartened, had told him several times:
– Why amazed with those cartaccie? By now, what went is gone …
– It does not mean! And then … there is still a demand to make. Cento-Salme is ours, not the Marquis of Camutello!
“Do you want to ruin yourselves too, worse than your father?”
– My father was crazy to tie up. God forgive him in the other world where he is now!
And the poor baron Don Pietro-Paolo, who had already been able to plumb the abyss in which the family estate had sunk by the fault of the Baron Don Calcedonio, did not exaggerate, out of indignation, calling his father: Crazy to bind!
Just remember the burlettes that the baron Don Calcedonius had done to his lawyers in Catania, Palermo, Messina, Syracuse (since he had arguments for everything, with individuals, with Municipalities, with the Government, with convents, with Opere pie) to qualify it that way.
From Catania, lawyers tore barely fees and wanted to earn money in the views of, the peppered letters: The His presence is necessary, urgent; so you do not go on .
The old baron had let them sing. One fine day, he unintentionally wrote to his secretary: “I’ll get the other one tomorrow”.
And he sets out on a journey, with a great roar of litters, one for himself and one for his waiter, by that great gentleman who had to show that he was the baron of Fontane Asciutte and Cantorìa.
During a week, his lawyers and those of the opposing party had failed to agree with him and between them around the day, time and place of the conference for the transaction to be discussed. In the house of his principal lawyer they did not want to intervene, by pride of dignity, the opposing lawyers. In the hotel, no; he did not like letting others know the affairs of his house. A neutral place had finally been established, and the day and the hour. But on the morning of that day, before the rising of the sun, the baron had given orders to his lecturers to put the packs with the rattles to the mules, and he started wriggling his laughter for his gracious joker by those crooks of lawyers:
– They will remain with a nose! Ah! Ah!
Along the way, he had repeatedly appeared at the litter’s desk, calling:
– ‘Nzulu! Eh? Wait again! Ah! Ah!
And seeing that the old waiter was shaking his head, disapproving:
– You laugh too, beast! – he had added. – We will repeat the prank to those of Palermo! Ah! Ah!
In fact, he had thoughtlessly repeated it to his lawyers in Palermo, then to those of Messina, then to those of Syracuse, laughing with ‘Nzulu , who replied, collapsing his head, sighing:
– Ah, Mr. baron! Ah, Mr. baron!
– Shut up, beast! … I pay them; I can have fun with them!
And he had so much fun, that he had to abandon the building of the building, give in to the loan sharks, severely, secretly from the lawyers and with enormous damage, quarrels that could not be lost, just to settle at the end, by fury , the money he needed for a trip to Naples, for an apparition as a Knight of Honor to the Courts of Ferdinando I and Francesco I, for a Bellini dancer from Palermo or the San Carlo of Naples; reducing himself, in the last few years, to live in that little town, in that building that was already ruined before it was finished, after having seen the auction of two beautiful buildings and their rich furniture – one in Palermo, the other in Catania – that his possession had been made by him towards the end of 1600, and had passed intact from father to son, up to his crazy great-grandchild!
This is why the baroness Donna Fidenzia observed with a sort of terror all that scuffing of paperwork that kept her husband busy, and she felt her heart tighten to his reply:
– Cento-Salme is ours, not the Marquis of Camutello!
The baron don Pietro-Paolo had not shown himself to the less despotized family of the baron Don Calcedonio. As he had remained silent and almost trembling before the absolute authority of his father, so now the baroness, the daughters and the three males were silent and trembling before him. As long as they did not pretend to mingle in business, however, he let everyone do their own thing; and the family lived in a kind of anarchy; the mother and the two girls segregated at the end of the palace, absorbed in devout practices; the three brothers in the hall, each occupied with their own affairs: Hercules, taking care to clean up rifles, to mend nets; Marco to return, to weld, to beat up the anvil, all intent on his strange mechanical inventions;Feliciano, immersed in legal studies, mute and closed, ruminating did not know what projects glistened from time to time in the black pupils under the thick eyebrows.
The baron, when he was not away for business, that is, for the quarrel of claims of Cento-Salme, which he immediately started as soon as the documents were put together, spent the whole day, and often often half the nights, deciphering the old Latin writings in which promised to regain rights for other claims. He wanted to return the barons of Fontane Asciutte and Cantorìa, if not to the old opulence, at least to a wealth and a splendor that would have put the name of the Zingàli in honor. This illusion had come to transmit it, after a few years, to Baroness Fidenzia, to his daughters, and to Feliciano, who would gladly help him in the search for the old scriptures, if the Baron had not pretended to do everything himself.
At first the quarrel had been swollen; the Marquis of Camutello, who did not expect that attack, stunned and disconcerted, had gone ahead with fury of quibbles, intrigues and high protections; then, all of a sudden, he had started to fight really, opposing documents to documents, procedures to procedures, expert appraisals, showing off all the most sharp, all the cleverest trickery to tire the adversary, who could not throw away the money in handfuls, as it was easy for him, a meticulous administrator, a bit miserable, and a skilled and broken man at the great handling of the business. The day that the civil court of Catania had wronged him, met his cousin who was beaming with content from the audience, after greeting him with a smile, said:
– See you in front of the Grand Court! Laughs best who laughs last!
And there, in the Grand Court, the dispute had remained eight years! It seemed that the lawyers of the two contending parties, having enjoyed the battle of acts, of procedures, of postponements, enjoyed themselves extending it. The baron slimming and yellowing with bile. He spent long nights summarizing documents, writing brief memoirs to be submitted to the lawyers’ judgment; and prevented his daughter Mariangela, the eldest daughter and his favorite, even to enter his room to tidy up and make the bed.
“No, you would ruffle everything; I do everything from me!
And he had wanted a flask of tin for the oil of the lamp, which he put out of the door when it was empty and had to fill it.
Mariangela, who looked after the housework under her mother’s orders, whenever he found the empty flask beside the door of his father’s room, and presented himself to it in the baroness’s hand.
– In just three nights, a flask!
– Oil and time wasted! – the baroness exclaimed painfully. – God make him revive! Our Lady enlighten him!
But none of them and none of the three males would have dared to repeat in the father’s face: “Oil and time wasted!”
Then, one evening, during dinner, Baroness Fidenzia had asked, unusually, for the baron news of the quarrel for Cento-Salme. The baron had looked at her face, amazed at the tone a bit ‘ironic of her voice, and had answered dryly:
– Everything is alright!
The baroness replied:
– Should we reduce ourselves to alms? I do not speak for the males, who may think of them to get rid of them; I speak for these two holy creatures, sacrificed here …
– I think for everyone! I’ve always thought about everyone! I consume my life for all! … I do not enjoy myself hunting! … I do not have fun with the lathe! … I do not have to educate little people! … I work day and night, for everyone! And, for now, the master here is me and I command … I want you to know and keep in mind!
The baron had uttered these words in a repressed voice, slowly rising from his seat as he spoke; and turning his back to the table, he had left the frowning, rather pale-looking dining-room, but convinced that this unpleasant scene would never be repeated.