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III THE HOME-COMING
It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.

When you come down to Reggio on the Strait of Messina, and see Sicily emerge from the sea like a bank of fog, you are at first almost impatient. “Is it nothing else?” you say. “It is only a land like all others.”

And when you disembark at Messina you are still impatient. Something ought to have happened while you have been away. It is dreadful to be met by the same poverty, the same rags, the same misery as when you went away.

You see that the spring has come. The fig-trees are again in leaf; the grape-vines send out tendrils which grow yards long in a few hours, and a mass of peas and beans are spread out on the fruit-stands by the harbor.

If you glance towards the heights above the town, you see that the gray cactus plants that climb along the edges of the cliffs are covered with blood-red flowers. They have blossomed everywhere like little, glowing flames. It looks as if the flower cups had been filled with fire, which now is breaking out.

But, however much the cactus blossoms, it is still gray and dusty and cobwebby. You say to yourself[339] that the cactus is like Sicily. However many springs it may blossom, it is still the gray land of poverty.

It is hard to realize that everything has remained quiet and the same. Scylla and Charybdis ought to have begun to roar as in former days. The stone giant in the Girgenti temple should have risen with reconstructed limbs. The temple of Selinunto ought to have raised itself from its ruins. All Sicily should have awakened.

If you continue your journey from Messina down the coast, you are still impatient. You see that the peasants are still ploughing with wooden ploughs and that their horses are just as thin and broken and jaded.

Yes, everything is the same. The sun sheds its light over the earth like a rain of color; the pelargoniums bloom at the roadside; the sea is a soft pale blue, and caresses the shore.

Wild mountains with bold peaks line the coast. Etna’s lofty top shines in the distance.

You notice all at once that something strange is taking place. All your impatience is gone. Instead you rejoice in the blossoming earth and in the mountains and in the sea. You are reclaimed by the beautiful earth as a bit of her lost property. There is no time to think of anything but tufts and stones.

At last you approach your real home, the home of your childhood. What wicked thoughts have filled your mind while you have been away! You never wished to see that wretched home again, because you had suffered too much there. And then you see the old walled town from afar, and it smiles at you innocently, unconscious of its guilt.[340] “Come and love me once more,” it says. And you can only be happy and grateful because it is willing to accept your love.

Ah, when you go up the zigzag path that leads to the gate of the town! The light shade of the olive-tree falls over you. Was it meant as a caress? A little lizard scampers along a wall. You have to stop and look. May not the lizard be a friend of your childhood who wishes to say good-day?

Suddenly a fear strikes you. Your heart begins to throb and beat. You remember that you do not know what you may be going to hear when you come home. No one has written letters; you have received none. Everything that recalled home you have put away. It seemed the most sensible way, since you were never to come home again. Up to that moment your feelings for your home have been dead and indifferent.

But in that moment you do not know how you can bear it if everything is not exactly the same on the mountain of your birth. It will be a mortal blow if there is a single palm missing on Monte Chiaro or if a single stone has loosened from the town wall.

Where is the big agave at the turn of the cliff? The agave is not there; it has blossomed and been cut down. And the stone bench at the street-corner is broken. You will miss that bench; it has been such a pleasant resting-place. And look, they have built a barn on the green meadow under the almond-trees. You will never again be able to stretch out there in the flowering clover.

You are afraid of every step. What will you meet next?

You are so moved that you feel that you could[341] weep if a single old beggar-woman has died in your absence.

No, you did not know that to come home was so strange.

You came out of prison a few weeks ago, and the torpor of the prison still has possession of you. You hardly know if you will take the trouble to go home. Your beloved is dead; it is too terrible to tear your longing from its grave. So you drift aimlessly about, and let one day pass like the next. At last you pluck up courage. You must go home to your poor mother.

And when you are there, you feel that you have been longing for every stone, every blade of grass.

Ever since he came into the shop Donna Elisa has thought: “Now I will tell him of Micaela. Perhaps he does not even know that she is alive.” But she puts it off from minute to minute, not only because she wishes to have him for a while to herself alone, but also because as soon as she mentions Micaela’s name he will fall into the anguish and misery of love. For Micaela will not marry him; she has said so to Donna Elisa a thousand times. She would like to free him from prison, but she will not be the wife of an atheist.

Only for one half-hour will Donna Elisa keep Gaetano for herself; only for one half-hour.

But even so long she may not sit with his hand in hers, asking him a thousand questions, for the people have learned that he has come. All at once the whole street is full of those who wish to see him. Donna Elisa has bolted the door, for she knew that she would not have him in peace a moment after[342] they had discovered him, but it was of little avail. They knock on the windows, and pound on the door.

“Don Gaetano,” they cry; “Don Gaetano!”

Gaetano comes laughing out to the steps. They wave their caps and cheer. He hurries down into the crowd, and embraces one after another.

But that is not what they wish. He must go up on the steps and make a speech. He must tell them how cruel the government has been to him, and how he has suffered in prison.

Gaetano laughs still, and stations himself on the steps. “Prison,” he says; “what is it to talk about? I have had my soup every day, and that is more than many of you can say.”

Little Gandolfo swings his cap and calls to him: “There are many more socialists in Diamante now than when you went away, Don Gaetano.”

“How else could it be?” he laughs. “Everybody must become a socialist. Is socialism anything dreadful or terrible? Socialism is an idyl. It is an idyl of one’s own home and happy work, of which every one dreams from his childhood. A whole world filled with—”

He stops, for he has cast a glance towards the summer-palace. There stands Donna Micaela on one of the balconies, and looks down at him.

He does not think for a moment that it is an illusion or a hallucination. He sees instantly that she is flesh and blood. But just for that reason—and also because the prison life has taken all his strength from him, so that he cannot be considered a well person—

[343]

He feels a terrible difficulty in holding himself upright. He clutches in the air with his hands, tries to get support from the door-post, but nothing helps. His legs give way under him; he slides down the steps and strikes his head on the stones.

He lies there like one dead.

Every one rushes to him, carries him in, runs after surgeon and doctor, prescribes, talks, and proposes a thousand ways to help him.

Donna Elisa and Pacifica get him finally into one of the bedrooms. Luca drives the people out and places himself on guard before the closed door. Donna Micaela, who came in with the others, was taken first of them all by the hand and led out. She was not allowed to stay in at all. Luca had himself seen Gaetano fall as if from a blow on the temple when he caught sight of her.

Then the doctor comes, and he makes one attempt after another to rouse Gaetano. He is not successful; Gaetano lies as if turned to stone. The doctor thinks that he received a dangerous blow on the head when he fell. He does not know whether he will succeed in bringing him to life.

The swoon in itself was nothing, but that blow on the hard edge of the stone steps—

In the house there is an eager bustle. The poor people outside can only listen and wait.

There they stand the livelong day outside Donna Elisa’s door. There stand Donna Concetta and Donna Emilia. No love has been lost between them in former times, but to-day they stand beside one another and mourn.

Many anxious eyes peer in through the windows of Donna Elisa’s house. Little Gandolfo and old[344] Assunta from the Cathedral steps, and the poor old chair-maker, stand there the whole afternoon without tiring. It is so terrible that Gaetano is going to die just when they have got him back again.

The blind stand and wait as if they expected him to give them their sight, and the poor people, both from Geraci and Corvaja, are waiting to hear how it will turn out for their young lord, the last Alagona.

He wished them well, and he had great strength and power. If he could only have lived—

“God has taken his hand from Sicily,” they say. “He lets all those perish who wish to help the people.”

All the afternoon and evening, and even till midnight, the crowd of people are still outside Donna Elisa’s house. At precisely twelve o’clock Donna Elisa throws open the shop-door and comes out on the steps. “Is he better?” they all cry at the sight of her.—“No, he is not better.”

Then there is silence; but at last a single trembling voice asks: “Is he worse?”—“No, no; he is not worse. He is the same. The doctor is with him.”

Donna Elisa has thrown a black shawl over her head and carries a lantern in her hand. She goes down the steps to the street, where the people are sitting and lying, closely packed one beside one another. She makes her way quietly through them.

“Is Gandolfo here?” she asks. “Yes, Donna Elisa.” And Gandolfo comes forward to her.

“You must come with me and open your church for me.”

Every one who hears Donna Elisa say that, understands that she wishes to go to the Christchild in[345] the church of San Pasquale and pray for Gaetano. They rise and wish to go with her.

Donna Elisa is much touched by their sympathy. She opens her heart to them.

“I will tell you something,” she says, and her voice trembles exceedingly. “I have had a dream. I do not know how I could sleep to-night. But while I was sitting at the bedside, and was most anxious, I did fall asleep. I had scarcely closed my eyes before I saw the Christchild before me in his crown and gold shoes, as he stands out in San Pasquale. And he spoke in this way to me: ‘Make the unhappy woman who is on her knees praying in my church your son’s wife, then Gaetano will be well.’ He hardly had time to say it before I awoke, and when I opened my eyes, I seemed to see the Christchild disappearing through the wall. And now I must go out and see if any one is there.

“But now you all hear that I vow that if there is any woman out in the church of San Pasquale, I shall do what the image commanded me. Even if it is the poorest girl from the street, I shall take charge of her and make her my son’s wife.”

When Donna Elisa has spoken, she and all those who have waited in the street go out to San Pasquale. The poor people are filled with shuddering expectation. They can scarcely contain themselves from rushing by Donna Elisa, in order to see if there is any one in the church.

Fancy if it is a gypsy girl who has sought shelter there for the night! Who can be in the church at night except some poor, homeless wanderer? Donna Elisa has made a terrible vow.

At last they come to Porta Etnea, and from there[346] they go quickly, quickly down the hill. The saints preserve us, the church door is open! Some one really is there.

The lantern shakes in Donna Elisa’s hand. Gandolfo wishes to take it from her,............
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