From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 391-396.391
THEY called him Don Pietro, The Hunchback, but as a matter of fact the hunchback had been his father before him who, in spite of two humps, one in front and the other behind, had found a woman of sufficient courage to resign herself to marrying him and thereafter to present him with two sons as straight as spindles. The nickname, however, had remained fastened upon the family, and probably the whole race of D’Accurso would continue to be called The Hunchbacks down to the last generation.
Don Pietro D’Accurso, so people said, deserved to be a hunchback, even if he was not one. And they used to say in addition that he wore his hump in his heart. During his whole life he had never given a beggar so much as a bean-pod or a drop of water, never, never! And if a beggar went to him to ask for charity and tried to win his pity by saying, “For two days I have not had a morsel of food in my stomach!” he would have the effrontery to answer:
“Lucky man to be able to live for two whole days without eating! Look at me, — it is only two hours since I had breakfast, and my stomach feels empty already.”
According to him there was no worse misery than that of being rich. What anxieties! What vexations! And how he envied those ragamuffins who had not a penny in their pockets nor a foot of farmland in the sunshine, nor a roof under which to house themselves! For them there were no tax-gatherers nor agents nor receivers, no hearth-tax, no duty on provisions, no toll on wagons! They could laugh merrily in the face of the government and of death, — while he, miserable man! could not draw a free breath from morning until night, but was always making his rounds in 392 this direction and in that, in order to pay, pay, pay; and almost before he had finished, he had to begin and do it all over again! The Lord had seen fit to place this heaviest of crosses upon his shoulder, and for his part, it was only right that he should bear his Calvary as best he could.
His Calvary was known as the Puddáro, with olive groves covering its slopes, with a vineyard on one side, and vast fields of grain upon the other, reaching clear to the base of Mount Etna; and a big group of buildings in the middle, half villa, half farmhouse, with a press for extracting oil, a mill, a wine-cellar, stalls for the oxen, barns for the hay and straw, and ever and ever so many other burdens!
Ah! did you ever think what it cost, just to harvest the olives? A score of men to beat the branches; some fifty girls to do the gathering; and besides that, ten or a dozen good-for-nothings, to work, night and day, at the oil-press, filthy, reeking with oil, yellowed from loss of sleep and who nevertheless ate like wolves even when they were not hungry. Where in the world id they put it all, that endless mess of undigested food that his housekeeper was forced to cook for them? A month and a half of everlasting torments!
The oil jars, it is true, were meantime being filled; but he was obliged every now and then to descend to the cellar, at the risk of breaking his neck on those rickety steps, to keep the men from blundering when they poured the first quality of oil into one set of jars, and the pressing from the dregs into another. If he did not keep his eyes just so wide open all the time, who knows how big a mess they would make of things for him?
And when it was all over, those cormorants would gather together their handkerchieffuls of five-franc pieces, clean themselves up, and reappear dressed like new; while he, poor man, after barely sleeping two or three hours a night for a month and a half at a stretch, felt completely broken down, with the nauseating reek of olives in his nostrils and his throat. — Oh, there was no end to it!
Even now, the confounded oil couldn’t stay forever, could 393 it, down cellar in jars? It had to be sold. But before that! — it must be decanted two or three times, the dregs removed from the bottom of the jars; and then, wait for the price to go up, up, up! Of course he must wait, while poor folk, who had only three or four kegs for sale, could unload at once and think no more about it!
And what discussions and quarrels on the days of the sale, with those thieves of measurers who used false measures and held a sponge around the neck of the flask to soak up the oil as they poured it out of the dipper! And what maddening clashes with the purchasers, who were even bigger thieves, and tried to pass off on him counterfeit five-franc pieces that were brand new, and would have ruined him if he had not examined each one with the patience of a saint, turning and returning them, and ringing them, one at a time, on the marble counter, to see if they rang true! He literally earned them with the sweat of his brow, working himself into such a rage that he lost his voice. And then, within two days, what had become of them all? What had become of all those piles of five-franc pieces?
In the hands of the collector, of the tax-agent, of the receiver of revenues, that’s where they were!
“You have none of these vexations!” he used to say to Cannizzu, a patient soul, who served him with the fidelity of a dog, and remained lank and lean in the midst of all his master’s plenty.
“Supposing your excellency gives everything to me! Then you will have no more vexations!” Cannizzu answered him, with a laugh.
“A fine present I should be making you! You would curse me day and night! Don’t speak of it! Let us think instead about our next planting!”
Down yonder on the Puddáro twenty or thirty plows were preparing the ground; and at the grain stores in town the winnower sifted out the wheat, the rye, and the barley, in the midst of a cloud of dust that set Don Pietro coughing as though he would lose both lungs. But that also was his cross! To have his eyes on everything, to be on his 394 guard against everyone, so as not to be stripped alive, in these days when there is no morality left in the world, while as for honest men, the very type and pattern had been lost.
Could he even be sure that all the grain he used for seed went, as it should, into the open furrows? He couldn’t have a hundred eyes, he couldn’t be like God Almighty, present everywhere at once! He did what he could, and wore his life to tatters; he was losing his health and his appetite!
“You are a lucky fellow, Cannizzu! Bread and onions, eh? Big mouthfuls of them! As for me, if I don’t have a good beef soup, a bit of fried meat or fish, a steak or a roast, a little Swiss cheese, and pudding and fruit and coffee, — why, that’s all that keeps me on my feet! Ah, if I only had your stomach of an ostrich, able to digest anything, even iron! And you can drink even a vinegar like that, and lick your lips over it! While poor, unfortunate I couldn’t’ get along without my two fingers of Marsala, or Moscato, or Calabrian! Our own wines don’t agree with me, they stick in my throat. And besides that, I must have a little Chianti, or a little Bordeaux. It is hard, but we must all submit to the will of God!”
Occasionally Cannizzu would answer:
“I shouldn’t mind having your sort of chance of submitting to the will of God!”
This would bring down Don Pietro’s wrath upon him:
“Beast! beast! Bread and onions! Thank the good Lord for not giving you anything else! Look at my brother. He has nothing, and yet he plays the gentleman. He is a rural policeman; he rides around on horseback from morning until night. What does he have to guard? Why, nothing but the goatherds, leading their flocks of goats along the country highways! He has never been willing to save anything; he has played and eaten and drunk up all that he makes, — and he is happy! But since he is more of a beast than you are, he hates me because I have not done the same as he. Am I to blame for that? It is my misfortune. I have been like the ant. Everything has always gone well with me, everything still goes well; if I put water 395 in my lamps, I believe it would burn like petroleum! Am I to blame for that? And I must slave all day, and think all night, think of this and of that, and of a hundred things! My head is in a whirl! How I wish I could sleep a good, sound sleep, as you do, on your hard, narrow straw bed! What good does it do me, if my bed does have three mattresses of selected wool, and is soft and well shaken-up? My head is in a whirl! I toss this way, and I toss that! Yes, yes! Heaven forbid that I should sleep and snore as soundly as you do! Who would think of the reaping and the threshing? Who would think of the vintage? Do I ever have time to breathe? Oh, you laugh, you big animal, as if I were talking nonsense! But I tell you I should be only too glad to change places with you!”
“Then let s change places, your excellency!”
“You would curse my very soul a hundred times a day!”
“But, after all, a hundred years from now, your excellency can’t take all this with you into the other world! Whom are you working for?”
“How do I know? It is my cross, don’t you understand? You don’t suppose that I enjoy all this wealth, do you? For, as you very well know, the Lord has favored me, the Lord certainly has favored me! The storehouse is as full of grain as an egg; the cellar has not a single empty cask; the larder has forty jars full to the very brims. And so forth and so on! And if I were to tell you what the Baron Pitulla owes me! A nice lot of mortgages! But what good does that do? He squanders everything on women, in Naples, in Rome, in Turin, in Paris. And I have only been to Rome one single time, on a pilgrimage to see the Pope! And if I had not come back immediately, good-by to the harvest! Can I go off jaunting, like that? No, no, my cross is here. The Lord’s will be done!”
And Don Pietro D’Accurso, nicknamed The Hunchback, had grown old, eating well, and drinking even better, fat, rosy, well groomed, with his eternal lamentation on his lips, and always preaching that there was no worse misery than that of being rich; never giving charity to anyone, not even 396 to his brother, who had eight children and did not know how to keep them from starvation on his wretched pay as rural policeman; giving employment to a large number of people, and paying them all punctually down to the last centime, never a centime too much and never a centime too little. An egoist, yes, but sincere in his lamentations and in his favorite aphorism, “There is no worse misery than that of riches!”
And this is very clearly shown in his last illness.
When he perceived that his hour had arrived, he sent for his brother.
“Listen, Nanni. A great misfortune is about to befall you. You are going to become rich, very rich. May the Lord have mercy upon you! See to my funeral. You will be force to spend several thousand francs. There is no help for it! The money is there, in that drawer. Poor folk can go into the next world without torches or priests or music. But I am rich, and so I have to think of such anxieties, even at the point of death! Listen, Nanni: a fine coffin of black walnut, lined with satin. It will cost you something, — but there is no help for it. If you had died as a rural policeman, you have had to be satisfied with a plain coffin; you could have gone off without a thing to worry you, without a penny of expense! Never mind; I am going now. I am sorry to have brought this trouble upon you, this great affliction of making you rich. Do the will of God, as I have done! I am going now to render my account up yonder. Who knows how it will turn out? Let us hope for the best. Remember all that I have asked you to see to: the coffin, the funeral, the music. — And — hurry, hurry, — send me the confessor!”