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FIRST BOOK “There shall be great want” I MONGIBELLO
Towards the end of the seventies there was in Palermo a poor boy whose name was Gaetano Alagona. That was lucky for him! If he had not been one of the old Alagonas people would have let him starve to death. He was only a child, and had neither money nor parents. The Jesuits of Santa Maria i Jesu had taken him out of charity into the cloister school.

One day, when studying his lesson, a father came and called him from the school-room, because a cousin wished to see him. What, a cousin! He had always heard that all his relatives were dead. But Father Josef insisted that it was a real Signora, who was his relative and wished to take him out of the monastery. It became worse and worse. Did she want to take him out of the monastery? That she could never do! He was going to be a monk.

He did not at all wish to see the Signora. Could not Father Josef tell her that Gaetano would never leave the monastery, and that it was of no avail to[26] ask him? No, Father Josef said that he could not let her depart without seeing him, and he half dragged Gaetano into the reception-room. There she stood by one of the windows. She had gray hair; her skin was brown; her eyes were black and as round as beads. She had a lace veil on her head, and her black dress was smooth with wear, and a little green, like Father Josef’s very oldest cassock.

She made the sign of the cross when she saw Gaetano. “God be praised, he is a true Alagona!” she said, and kissed his hand.

She said that she was sorry that Gaetano had reached his twelfth year without any of his family asking after him; but she had not known that there were any of the other branch alive. How had she found it out now? Well, Luca had read the name in a newspaper. It had stood among those who had got a prize. It was a half-year ago now, but it was a long journey to Palermo. She had had to save and save to get the money for the journey. She had not been able to come before. But she had to come and see him. Santissima madre, she had been so glad! It was she, Donna Elisa, who was an Alagona. Her husband, who was dead, had been an Antonelli. There was one other Alagona, that was her brother. He, too, lived at Diamante. But Gaetano probably did not know where Diamante was. The boy drew his head back. No, she thought as much, and she laughed.

“Diamante is on Monte Chiaro. Do you know where Monte Chiaro is?”

“No.”

She drew up her eyebrows and looked very roguish.

[27]

“Monte Chiaro is on Etna, if you know where Etna is.”

It sounded so anxious, as if it were too much to ask that Gaetano should know anything about Etna. And they laughed, all three, she and Father Josef and Gaetano.

She seemed a different person after she had made them laugh. “Will you come and see Diamante and Etna and Monte Chiaro?” she asked briskly. “Etna you must see. It is the greatest mountain in the world. Etna is a king, and the mountains round about kneel before him, and do not dare to lift their eyes to his face.”

Then she told many tales about Etna. She thought perhaps that it would tempt him.

And it was really true that Gaetano had not thought before what kind of a mountain Etna was. He had not remembered that it had snow on its head, oak forests in its beard, vineyards about its waist, and that it stood in orange groves up to its knees. And down it ran broad, black rivers. Those streams were wonderful; they flowed without a ripple; they heaved without a wind; the poorest swimmer could cross them without a bridge. He guessed that she meant lava. And she was glad that he had guessed it. He was a clever boy. A real Alagona!

And Etna was so big! Fancy that it took three days to drive round it and three days to ride up to the top and down again! And that there were fifty towns beside Diamante on it, and fourteen great forests, and two hundred small peaks, which were not so small either, although Etna was so big that they seemed as insignificant as a swarm of flies on a[28] church roof. And that there were caves which could hold a whole army, and hollow old trees, where a flock of sheep could find shelter from the storm!

Everything wonderful was to be found on Etna. There were rivers of which one must beware. The water in them was so cold that any one who drank of it would die. There were rivers which flowed only by day, and others that flowed only in winter, and some which ran deep under the earth. There were hot springs, and sulphur springs, and mud-volcanoes.

It would be a pity for Gaetano not to see the mountain, for it was so beautiful. It stood against the sky like a great tent. It was as gayly colored as a merry-go-round. He ought to see it in the morning and evening, when it was red; he ought to see it at night, when it was white. He ought also to know that it truly could take every color; that it could be blue, black, brown or violet; sometimes it wore a veil of beauty, like a signora; sometimes it was a table covered with velvet; sometimes it had a tunic of gold brocade and a mantle of peacock’s-feathers.

He would also like to know how it could be that old King Arthur was sitting there in a cave. Donna Elisa said that it was quite certain that he still lived on Etna, for once, when the bishop of Catania was riding over the mountain, three of his mules ran away, and the men who followed them found them in the cave with King Arthur. Then the king asked the guides to tell the bishop that when his wounds were healed he would come with his knights of the Round Table and right everything that was in disorder in Sicily. And he who had eyes to see knew[29] well enough that King Arthur had not yet come out of his cave.

Gaetano did not wish to let her tempt him, but he thought that he might be a little friendly. She was still standing, but now he fetched her a chair. That would not make her think that he wanted to go with her.

He really liked to hear her tell about her mountain. It was so funny that it should have so many tricks. It was not at all like Monte Pellegrino, near Palermo, that only stood where it stood. Etna could smoke like a chimney and blow out fire like a gas jet. It could rumble, shake, vomit forth lava, throw stones, scatter ashes, foretell the weather, and collect rain. If Mongibello merely stirred, town after town fell, as if the houses had been cards set on end.

Mongibello, that was also a name for Etna. It was called Mongibello because that meant the mountain of mountains. It deserved to be called so.

Gaetano saw that she really believed that he would not be able to resist. She had so many wrinkles in her face, and when she laughed, they ran together like a net. He stood and looked at it; it seemed so strange. But he was not caught yet in the net.

She wondered if Gaetano really would have the courage to come to Etna. For inside the mountain were many bound giants and a black castle, which was guarded by a dog with many heads. There was also a big forge and a lame smith with only one eye in the middle of his forehead. And worst of all, in the very heart of the mountain, there was a sulphur sea which cooked like an oil kettle, and in it lay[30] Lucifer and all the damned. No, he never would have the courage to come there, she said.

Otherwise there was no danger in living there, for the mountain feared the saints. Donna Elisa said that it feared many saints, but most Santa Agata of Catania. If the Catanians always were as they should be to her, then neither earthquake nor lava could do them any harm.

Gaetano stood quite close to her and he laughed at everything she said. How had he come there and why could he not stop laughing? It was a wonderful signora.

Suddenly he said, in order not to deceive her, “Donna Elisa, I am going to be a monk.”—“Oh, are you?” she said. Then without anything more she began again to tell about the mountain.

She said that now he must really listen; now she was coming to the most important of all. He was to fellow her to the south side of the mountain so far down that they were near the castle of Catania, and there he would see a valley, a quite big and wide oval valley. But it was quite black; the lava streams came from all directions flowing down into it. There were only stones there, not a blade of grass.

But what had Gaetano believed about the lava? Donna Elisa was sure that he believed that it lay as even and smooth on Etna as it lies in the streets. But on Etna there are so many surprises. Could he understand that all the serpents and dragons and witches that lay and boiled in the lava ran out with it when there was an eruption? There they lay and crawled and crept and twisted about each other, and tried to creep up to the cold earth, and held each other fast in misery until the lava hardened about[31] them. And then they could never come free. No indeed!

The lava was not unproductive, as he thought. Although no grass grew, there was always something to see. But he could never guess what it was. It groped and fell; it tumbled and crept; it moved on its knees, on its head, and on its elbows. It came up the sides of the valley and down the sides of the valley; it was all thorns and knots; it had a cloak of spider’s-web and a wig of dust, and as many joints as a worm. Could it be anything but the cactus? Did he know that the cactus goes out on the lava and breaks the ground like a peasant? Did he know that nothing but the cactus can do anything with the lava?

Now she looked at Father Josef and made a funny face. The cactus was the best goblin to be found on Etna; but goblins were goblins. The cactus was a Turk, for it kept female slaves. No sooner had the cactus taken root anywhere than it must have almond trees near it. Almond trees are fine and shining signoras. They hardly dare to go out on the black surface, but that does not help them. Out they must, and out they are. Oh, Gaetano should see if he came there. When the almond trees stand white with their blossoms in the spring on the black field among the gray cacti, they are so innocent and beautiful that one could weep over them as over captive princesses.

Now he must know where Monte Chiaro lay. It shot up from the bottom of that black valley. She tried to make her umbrella stand on the floor. It stood so. It stood right up. It had never thought of either sitting or lying. And Monte Chiaro was[32] as green as the valley was black. It was palm next palm, vine upon vine. It was a gentleman in a flowery dressing-gown. It was a king with a crown on his head. It bore the whole of Diamante about its temples.

Some time before Gaetano had a desire to take her hand. If he only could do it. Yes, he could. He drew her hand to him like a captured treasure. But what should he do with it? Perhaps pat it. If he tried quite gently with one finger, perhaps she would not notice it. Perhaps she would not notice if he took two fingers. Perhaps she would not even notice if he should kiss her hand. She talked and talked. She noticed nothing at all.

There was still so much she wished to say. And nothing so droll as her story about Diamante!

She said that the town had once lain down on the bottom of the valley. Then the lava came, and fiery red looked over the edge of the valley. What, what! was the last day come? The town in great haste took its houses on its back, on its head, and under its arms, and ran up Monte Chiaro, that lay close at hand.

Zigzagging up the mountain the town ran. When it was far enough up it threw down a town gate and a piece of town wall. Then it ran round the mountain in a spiral and dropped down houses. The poor people’s houses tumbled as they could and would. There was no time for anything else. No one could ask anything better than crowding and disorder and crooked streets. No, that you could not. The chief street went in a spiral round the mountain, just as the town had run, and along it had set down here a church and there a palace. But[33] there had been that much order that the best came highest up. When the town came to the top of the mountain it had laid out a square, and there it had placed the city hall and the Cathedral and the old palazzo Geraci.

If he, Gaetano Alagona, would follow her to Diamante, she would take him with her up to the square on the top of the mountain, and show him what stretches of land the old Alagonas had owned on Etna, and on the plain of Catania, and where they had raised their strongholds on the inland peaks. For up there all that could be seen, and even more. One could see the whole sea.

Gaetano had not thought that she had talked long, but Father Josef seemed to be impatient. “Now we have come to your own home, Donna Elisa,” he said quite gently.

But she assured Father Josef that at her house there was nothing to see. What she first of all wished to show Gaetano was the big house on the corso, that was called the summer palace. It was not so beautiful as the palazzo Geraci, but it was big; and when the old Alagonas were prosperous they came there in summer to be nearer the snows of Etna. Yes, as she said, towards the street it was nothing to see, but it had a beautiful court-yard with open porticos in both the stories. And on the roof there was a terrace. It was paved with blue and white tiles, and on every tile the coat of arms of the Alagonas was burnt in. He would like to come and see that?

It occurred to Gaetano that Donna Elisa must be used to having children come and sit on her knees when she was at home. Perhaps she would not[34] notice if he should also come. And he tried. And so it was. She was used to it. She never noticed it at all.

She only went on talking about the palace. There was a great state suite, where the old Alagonas had danced and played. There was a great hall with a gallery for the music; there was old furniture and clocks like small white alabaster temples that stood on black ebony pedestals. In the state apartment no one lived, but she would go there with him. Perhaps he had thought that she lived in the summer palace. Oh, no; her brother, Don Ferrante, lived there. He was a merchant, and had his shop on the lower floor; and as he had not yet brought home a signora, everything stood up there as it had stood.

Gaetano wondered if he could sit on her knees any longer. It was wonderful that she did not notice anything. And it was fortunate, for otherwise she might have believed that he had changed his mind about being a monk.

But she was just now more than ever occupied with her own affairs. A little flush flamed up in her cheeks under all the brown, and she made a few of the funniest faces with her eyebrows. Then she began to tell how she herself lived.

It seemed as if Donna Elisa must have the very smallest house in the town. It lay opposite the summer palace, but that was its only good point. She had a little shop, where she sold medallions and wax candles and everything that had to do with divine service. But, with all respect to Father Josef, there was not much profit in such a trade now-a-days, however it may have been formerly.[35] Behind the shop there was a little workshop. There her husband had stood and carved images of the saints, and rosary beads; for he had been an artist, Signor Antonelli. And next to the workshop were a couple of small rat-holes; it was impossible to turn in them; one had to squat down, as in the cells of the old kings. And up one flight were a couple of small hen-coops. In one of them she had laid a little straw and put up a few hooks. That would be for Gaetano, if he would come to her.

Gaetano thought that he would like to pat her cheek. She would be sorry when he could not go with her. Perhaps he could permit himself to pat her. He looked under his hair at Father Josef. Father Josef sat and looked on the floor and sighed, as he was in the habit of doing. He did not think of Gaetano, and she, she noticed nothing at all.

She said that she had a maid, whose name was Pacifica, and a man, whose name was Luca. She did not get much help, however, for Pacifica was old; and, since she had grown deaf, she had become so irritable that she could not let her help in the shop. And Luca, who really was to have been a wood-carver, and carve saints that she could sell, never gave himself time to stand still in the workshop; he was always out in the garden, looking after the flowers. Yes, they had a little garden among the stones on Monte Chiaro. But he need not think it was worth anything. She had nothing like the one in the cloister, that Gaetano would understand. But she wanted so much to have him, because he was one of the old Alagonas. And there at home she and Luca and Pacifica had said to one another: “Do we ask whether we will have a little[36] more care, if we can only get him here?” No, the Madonna knew that they had not done so. But now the question was, whether he was willing to endure anything to be with them.

And now she had finished, and Father Josef asked what Gaetano thought of answering. It was the prior’s wish, Father Josef said, that Gaetano should decide for himself. And they had nothing against his going out into the world, because he was the last of his race.

Gaetano slid gently down from Donna Elisa’s lap. But to answer! That was not such an easy thing to answer. It was very hard to say no to the signora.

Father Josef came to his assistance. “Ask the signora that you may be allowed to answer in a couple of hours, Gaetano. The boy has never thought of anything but being a monk,” he explained to Donna Elisa.

She stood up, took her umbrella, and tried to look glad, but there were tears in her eyes.

Of course, of course he must consider it, she said. But if he had known Diamante he would not have needed to. Now only peasants lived there, but once there had been a bishop, and many priests, and a multitude of monks. They were gone now, but they were not forgotten. Ever since that time Diamante was a holy town. More festival days were celebrated there than anywhere else, and there were quantities of saints; and even to-day crowds of pilgrims came there. Whoever lived at Diamante could never forget God. He was almost half a priest. So for that reason he ought to come. But he should consider it, if he so wished. She would come again to-morrow.

[37]

Gaetano behaved himself very badly. He turned away from her and rushed to the door. He did not say a word of thanks to her for coming. He knew that Father Josef had expected it, but he could not. When he thought of the great Mongibello that he never would see, and of Donna Elisa, who would never come again, and of the school, and of the shut-in cloister garden, and of a whole restricted life! Father Josef never could expect so much of him; Gaetano had to run away.

It was high time too. When Gaetano was ten steps from the door, he began to cry. It was too bad about Donna Elisa. Oh, that she should be obliged to travel home alone! That Gaetano could not go with her!

He heard Father Josef coming, and he hid his face against the wall. If he could only stop sobbing!

Father Josef came sighing and murmuring to himself, as he always did. When he came up to Gaetano he stopped, and sighed more than ever.

“It is Mongibello, Mongibello,” said Father Josef; “no one can resist Mongibello.”

Gaetano answered him by weeping more violently.

“It is the mountain calling,” murmured Father Josef. “Mongibello is like the whole earth; it has all the earth’s beauty and charm and vegetation and expanses and wonders. The whole earth comes at once and calls him.”

Gaetano felt that Father Josef spoke the truth. He felt as if the earth stretched out strong arms to catch him. He felt that he needed to bind himself fast to the wall in order not to be torn away.

“It is better for him to see the earth,” said Father[38] Josef. “He would only be longing for it if he stayed in the monastery. If he is allowed to see the earth perhaps he will begin again to long for heaven.”

Gaetano did not understand what Father Josef meant when he felt himself lifted into his arms, carried back into the reception-room, and put down on Donna Elisa’s knees.

“You shall take him, Donna Elisa, since you have won him,” said Father Josef. “You shall show him Mongibello, and you shall see if you can keep him.”

But when Gaetano once more sat on Donna Elisa’s lap he felt such happiness that it was impossible for him to run away from her again. He was as much captured as if he had gone into Mongibello and the mountain walls had closed in on him.

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