The fire was burning under the ashes, and the canon Rametta took care, for a good purpose, of keeping him alive. Good man’s dough, a little short of brains, full of religious scruples, he had let himself be duped by the Marquis of Camutello, who one day had sent him to call him to talk about a family chaplaincy, whose chaplain was in point of death.
– I thought of you, Mr. Canon!
– Thank you, thank you! … I can not accept – the canon replied humbly.
– Why, Mr. Canon?
“I do not know how to meet the obligations, Mr. Marquis.” You can not say more than one mass a day, and I have just a few weeks left empty in the year.
– Ah, I would not bother you! I would not like to see your celebravit … I never asked for it  to the chaplain that the Lord is now about to take to heaven.
“And my conscience, Mr. Marquis?”
– There is the Pope, finally! An amnesty does not cost too much …
– Anything! Thank you, Mr. Marquis. Thank you!
And the Marquis, having changed his speech at once, had told him of his poor cousin baroness and the girls who lived as nuns, of those three nephews, one crazier than the other, of a pure race of the Zingàli, and of the baron, who had already finished reducing them. all in misery.
– I, Mr. Canon, you know well, I have been pulled by the hair. I was calm, in my possession; and he came to tell me: I want to drive you out of there! … Words are not enough, dear Mr. Canon! … So – what do you want? We are men! – I have answered him for rhymes – Cantorìa was once of the Marquises of Camutello … Let’s see for a while. – So I started to muddy the water as well I … What do you want? Men we are! … Only the saints turn the other cheek when they have received a slap … I am sorry for the cousin baroness and for those two good creatures of her daughters … What do they think they are doing? Close in a convent? And those three crazy? … Marco, is it true that he wants to find the perpetual motion? …
– Think of a mill of his own invention.
– A mill? … A Dry Mill Fountains! The soul cries … But what to do with that mule’s head of my cousin the baron? … I believe me, I stand firm, firmly in my right … If it were not so, I would not spend so much money to argue … And yet, if I were to propose a good accommodation … Understand … I can not be the first one … I would be prejudiced. I have been attacked and I defend myself … But it is useless to reason … I’m sorry for the chaplaincy. I did not foresee your refusal. Street! think about it …
– Thank you, Mr. Marquis; it’s impossible! The canon Rametta, referring to the baroness that conversation, had unwittingly introduced into her soul the leaven of rebellion against her husband’s despotism. For the baroness her confessor was a saint; if she did not perform miracles in her life, she firmly believed that she would do them as soon as she died. One evening, in fact, talking about him with his daughters, he exclaimed:
– You will see; if they boil him eight days after dead, he will give blood as a living person.
And waiting for this infallible sign of sanctity, which however the Baroness hoped to see as late as possible, she blindly left the canon the direction of his conscience and that of his two daughters, and helped him in some good work, with alms that were her own acts of heroism; for the narrowness became greater every day in the family; the expenses of the quarrel absorbed every resource; and the sons, who for one account, some for another, turned to the baroness to get the money they needed.
– They sting me on all sides! – she complained to the confessor.
The canon Rametta, although pale and thin even for the penitences and the macerations to which he submitted, the saints had especially the stubbornness that makes them persevere in what they seem to be a good and just thing. Convinced that the intentions of the Marquis of Camutello were excellent and that the facts gave him reason (no one could attest better than him, confessor of the baroness, who often often, not having his sins to confess, poured into his ear those of her husband, and the poor baron could not be blamed other than to think day and night of the dispute); Convinced, therefore, that the words of the Marquis: “If they proposed a good accommodation” were sincere, and that this arrangement could be avoided by the Baron’s family and to him the extreme ruin, the canon Rametta, after having mentioned something in a veil, given that the baroness and his sons lacked the courage to oppose the will of the barons, he had thought it opportune to change tone, and speak no longer in his own name, but in the name of that God whose confession he was, according to his expression, unworthy, yes, but true minister.
– It’s up to you, madam Baroness; God ordains you by my means!
The baroness, who alone with him, as a penitent to confessor, had sometimes expressed herself a little boldly, having heard these terrible words, became a small child on the walnut chair where she sat next to the canon. Her voice stopped in her throat, the tears flowed from her eyes and she could hardly stutter:
– To me? It’s my turn? But your fatherhood knows very well …
– I know this is your duty as a wife and mother of a family; I know that you do not have to grab hell for all eternity, disobeying God’s command, which made you a baroness and a mother perhaps only to save this family from the extreme disaster. I do not have to know anything else. Think about it, and pray to God and Our Lady to give you strength and courage!
And confession ended, he began to reasonof the same subject in the presence of the young ladies.
Mariangela immediately approved. His squalid face, where his eyes seemed sleepy in a kind of nausea of the world and his vanities, suddenly became animated, colored, and the pupils flashed them, when he said with profound bitterness:
“He does not want me to go into his room even to make him the bed!”
Rosaria, the younger sister, dark-haired, with a hard face, with full lips, was a piece to listen, she had got up with a click:
– Where are you going? Asked the baroness.
– I’m going to call the brothers; they must also agree.
* * *
At first the baron had collapsed, smiling sympathetically at the Baroness’s remarks that timidly manifested his terrors of the future; then he answered calmly and with dignity:
– Baroness, quarrels are not things a woman has to deal with!
Mariangela, who one day had dared to add a few words to her mother’s insistence, had heard a reply: – Silly, silly! – that made her cry half a day.
Rosaria instead thought that it was useless to try to persuade the baron and induce him to propose an accommodation; and therefore he often went to his room with his brothers, when he knew that all three were there, and was shaking them from inert indifference, he urged them:
– What men are you? Now you are no longer boys!
– Body of …! What must I do? Take this shotgun and make a marquis cousin a flash?
Marco did not answer. He had already finished the wooden and tin model of his mill, and made it work, satisfied that it was better than he had hoped. The big wheel, which was supposed to give the movement to the hopper and the millstones, would have been so huge that two floors of the building were needed to make room for it. He would have liked to explain to his sister the whole mechanism, take it out from under his eyes and reassemble the model; but Rosaria had turned her back to get close to Feliciano, who was studying with his elbows resting on the table and his head on his fists.
– In short, do you wash your hands too?
Feliciano looked up and stared at her sister:
“There’s only one way,” he said; – but we will never want to use them.
– The interdiction.
– What does it mean?
– It means…
Ercole, the hunter, interrupted him laughing.
“It means – he explained – that we are like rats who wanted to attach the bell to the cat’s neck.
– Come over there, mother.
Rosaria spoke so imperiously that the three brothers followed her one behind the other, quietly silent.
In the room of the baroness, seated around the walnut high chair where she stood almost on a throne, dressed in gray cloth by Artega, with a black silk handkerchief around her fat, flaccid face and her hair cut in two bands on the forehead, the children waited for the mother to speak.
The room was untidy; the bed not yet redone. On the canterale, on the chairs, on the table in front of the window, a confusion of disparate objects: items of linen, baskets with fruit, knitting needles, scissors, thimbles, a crown coconut, a distaff, two spindles, and between the canterale and the table the spinning wheel with a skein of blue cotton to unravel. If not that the canterale was finely encrusted with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl, and the distaff and the spinning wheel were precious work of an ancient family shepherd, who had sculpted with the tip of the little knife strange fantasies of complicated ornaments. Marco had gone to admire them even now, before taking his place next to his sister Mariangela.
The baroness brought the handkerchief to her eyes.
Hercules broke the silence, repeating his wit:
– Here’s the mouse’s advice!
Rosaria scolded him harshly:
– Taci, buggy!
And turning to Feliciano he said:
– So? This interdiction?
The baroness was sobbing.
– There is no other way! – confirmed Feliciano.
– Let’s try first … as a threat … – insinuated the Baroness.
– Useless. Ask the court question without losing more time.
– A scandal? The baroness exclaimed in alarm.
– Mom! … If there’s no other way! …
Everyone looked at Rosaria. How come that one girl, who was always silent, suddenly showed so much violence and so much audacity? She blushed, almost those glances of wonder and amazement had wanted to read them in the depths of the soul. And at that moment, two terrible years of her young life, closed and hidden, flashed before her eyes, lit her face and made her tremble. But he quickly resumed.
“Speak, be better off,” he said to his brother with a shaky gesture.
* * *
Knowing that that morning the usher had come to release the court summons to the baron, all the children had gathered in the baroness’s room, almost to take refuge under her wings and shelter from the storm that was there to burst.
The baron appeared on the threshold, pale, his eyes staring, convulsively waving the sheet of the quote, unable to speak. Disgust and anger suffocated him, Mariangela took a step toward him, but one of his actions arrested him.
– Vipers! Ingrates! … – began to stammer. – This, this is the reward? … I could … tear your card in your face, flap on the snout; show you who … who is to be banned here … Vipers! … Get in! …
“Baron! … for charity! …” the baroness begged.
“You, Madam, are right … for your gift. But I have already given mortgages, I have tied annuities … I have not spoiled it, no, your dowry. I will immediately give other guarantees, if necessary … I have abused your goodness, it is true; I squandered the dotal fruitiness … for the quarrel; and you, Madame Baroness, as an excellent mother of a family, do not want that fruitiness still to the ruin of your good daughters … Vipers! … of your good children … Ingrates! … This, therefore, is the reward? No one has the courage to look me in the face! … Nobody dares to answer me a word!
In fact, everyone stood there, silent, head bowed, like so many men before their judge. Only the baroness, hands clasped, eyes turned to heaven, seemed to beg for help from up there. The baron threatened the person threateningly:
– I could take you one by one by the shoulders … and let the stairs tumble from this moment. The building is mine; and I, at least for now, I am absolute master here … But I will jeopardize you differently; I want to spare you the wicked attempt to make me interdict … I go out of my palace! … I flee from this den of vipers and ungrateful! I will fight … poor, alone; I will die of heartbreak and of hunger perhaps; it does not matter! … Meanwhile I abandon you all to the curse of God! … Because I believe in God more than you, Madam Baroness, who confess you twice a month and give this fine example to your children! Children? … Daughters? … I no longer have anyone! … No wife! … No one! … I go out of here with only the clothes I wear … I do not want anything else … And the day that the news will bring me: – Your building has collapsed; God has shaken him from the foundations and has buried you all – that day I will sing a Te Deum ! … I will not mourn! …
– Baron, please! – he returned to beg the baroness.
– Viscenza sorry; do not think in this way! …
Feliciano had pronounced these words in a tone that was so humble but so ironic that the baron made an effort to throw himself against him to slap him like a boy. Mariangela gave a shriek, the baroness screamed, as if she were threatened; Rosaria planted herself in front of her brother to shield him with her body, raising her dark head with harsh features, frowning, tightening her full lips. And it was the signal of the great revolt! They were talking, screaming, shouting together, wandering around the room, without knowing what they wanted, nor what they did, while the baron in the midst of them kept repeating broken phrases, arms up, waving the sheet of the quotation as a sign of threat and gastigo; and the baroness standing on the bed of the walnut high chair, weeping, lost, screaming:
– Baron! My children! … My children!
All the zingàli’s madness seemed to have suddenly unleashed, breaking the long squeeze, upsetting those brains, tearing those throats with hideous cries, shaking those bodies in a terrible convulsion of attitudes, moves, furious gestures that would have made people escape. stopped in the street to listen in amazement, if they had climbed up, driven by curiosity or the desire to help, since it was understood that something unusual and sad happened up there.
Shortly thereafter, the cries ceased, the people dispersed; and the scarce remained the baron Don Pietro-Paolo came out, dressed in black, with the buttoned dress and a large deck of cards under his arm. Nobody dared ask him what he had been. They discovered themselves respectfully, and the baron answered the greeting with his usual affability.
For two and a half years he lived in the dark little room that looked on the stairs of the Sant’Anna Hotel in Catania, a kind of kennel that not even Tina, the dirty and fouled servant, wanted to clean up and clean up because of the stench breath.
He no longer felt that stench; he had become accustomed to it, wearing it around him with the dubious underwear, with the only black suit he wore all year. Of that stench was soaked in that bit of bread that served to sustain it – along with some fruit, summer, and with some cheese, winter – and that he ate at noon and in the evening, before get to bed, tired of the wandering of the day.
In the morning, at dawn, he went to the prosecutor Cerrotta, to bring him some reflections and notes, written in the night by the light of a tallow candle, concerning the quarrel for Cento-Salme. Of himself, of the misery to which he had voluntarily condemned, of the humiliations he suffered seeing himself regarded as a strange and almost avoided beast in the court rooms of the Court or of the Grand Court, where he spent several hours of the day following the discussions to make profit, now he no longer cared. No sacrifice, no suffering seemed to him so as not to have to face it, not having to bear it in view of the victory of the dispute, which day by day seemed more and more certain and sure. And when Don Emanuele Cerrotta, while admiring him for his tenacity, replied to him abruptly, annoyed with those notes, of those reflections or notes that the baron went to introduce him every morning and that he would have examined and discussed together, he did not feel offended; he smiled humbly, apologized, and the next day he insisted … and he won it. Don Emanuele was pulling on a big grip of rapa, gave two irritating strokes of cleaning the nose with his blue cotton handkerchief, he squinted his eyes and listened,
– But of this we have already reasoned avant’ieri!
– Yes, yes, from the point of view …
And he explained from what point of view; but now he was looking at the question from the other side.
– I see; go on!
A slow take of rapes, a new irritable cleansed nose with the large blue cotton handkerchief held close to hand on a thigh, indicated the growing impatience of don Emanuele. But the baron was not discouraged. His whole person seemed to bend, to shrink; his arms pulled his elbows to his sides to soften his gestures, his shoulders tightened, his voice fading in a murmur, because the sound of the words penetrated into the ears without disturbing. He knew he was no longer one of those clients who can impose themselves on their lawyers, their legal agents by virtue of the well-paid fees and the future showy handhelds after winning a fight; on the contrary, it was a client who had to be listened to almost by charity, by tolerance, by making credit for the future, since the lady baroness and her children had wanted that!
He never mentioned them: but at certain moments, when a circumstance forced him to look, notwithstanding his stoicism, to the miserable condition to which he had been reduced, he, Don Pietro-Paolo Zingàli, baron of Fontane Asciutte and Cantorìa, an impetus wild rose from the soles of his feet up the whole body to the brain, almost flame that enveloped him quickly and wanted to pour around to destroy the ungrateful! Oh, they no longer remembered if he existed! And they could not ignore that he lived on charity, almost suffering from hunger, between privations and humiliations of all sorts! Yet they did not even do it hypocritical fiction of submitting, of asking for forgiveness, of wanting to wrest it from the stinking lair that night shelters him … Not even that hypocritical fiction! They knew very well that he would drive them away, that he would never accept anything from them, that he would never forgive them! … By now he let the curse of God worsen on those who one day called with the sweet name of wife , and of children! The ground would sink beneath their sacrilegious feet, sooner or later, and swallow them up! And in these moments of wild impetus the old man, already curved, thin, disfigured, was transfigured in that rotten lair lit by the smoky tallow candle; proudly raising his head, raising his arms invoking the terrible gastigo of God, who could not fail;