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The Miserly Old Woman

The Miserly Old Woman.1

There was an old woman who had three sons, and from her stinginess she could not bear that anyone should have anything to eat. One day the eldest son came to her and said he must take a wife.

‘If you must, you must,' replied the miserly mother. ‘But mind she is one who brings a great dowry, eats little, and can work all day long.'

The eldest son went his way and told the girl he was going to marry his mother's hard terms. As the girl loved him very much, she made no objection, and he married her, and brought her home.2

The first morning the mother-in-law came before it was light, and knocked at the door, and bid the bride get up and come down to her work.

‘It is very hard for you,' said the young husband.

‘Ah, well! I promised to submit to it before we married,' she replied. ‘I won't break my promise.'

So she got up and went down and helped her mother-in-law to do the work of the house. By twelve o'clock she was very hungry; but the miserly mother-in-law only took out an apple and a halfpenny roll, and gave her half of each for all her food. She took it without a murmur; and so she went on every day, working hard, and eating little, and making no complaint.

By-and-by the second son came and told his mother that he was going to take a wife. The mother made the same conditions, and the wife submitted to them with equally good grace.

Then the third son came and said he too must take a wife. To him the old woman made the same terms; but he could not find a wife who would submit to them for his sake. The girl he wanted to marry, however, was very lively and spirited, and she said at last—

‘Never mind the conditions; let's marry, and we'll get through the future somehow.'

Then they married. When her son brought home this wife, and the old woman found she had no dowry, she was in a great fury; but it was too late to help it.

The first morning, when she knocked at their door to wake her, she called out—

‘Who's there?' though she knew well enough.

The mother-in-law answered, ‘Time to get up!'

Oibo!' exclaimed the young wife. ‘Don't imagine I'm going to get up in the middle of the night like this! I shall get up when I please, and not before.' Then she turned to her husband, and said, ‘Just for her bothering me like this I shan't get up till twelve o'clock.' Neither did she.

The house was now filled with the old woman's lamentations. ‘This woman upsets everything! This woman will be the ruin of us all!' she kept exclaiming. But the third wife paid no heed, and dressed herself up smart, and amused herself, and did no work at all.

When supper-time came the old woman took out her apple and her halfpenny loaf, and cut them in four quarters, serving a bit all round.

‘What's that?' said the third wife, stooping to look at it, as if she could not make it out, and without taking it in her hand.

‘It's your supper,' replied the mother-in-law.

‘My supper! do you think I've come to my second childhood, to be helped to driblets like that!' and she filliped it to the other end of the room.

Then she went to her husband and said—

‘I'll tell you what we must do; we must have false keys made, and get into the store-closet 3  and take what we want.'

Though the mother-in-law was so miserly, there was good provision of everything in the store-closet; and so with the false keys she took flour and lard and ham, and they had plenty of everything. One day she had made a delicious cake of curdled sheep's milk,4  and she gave a woman a halfpenny to take it to the baker's to bake, saying—

‘Make haste, and bring it back, that we may get through eating it while the old woman is at mass.'

She was not quick enough, however, and the mother-in-law came in just about the same time that the cake came back from the baker's. The third son's wife to hide it from her caught it up and put it under her petticoats, but it burned her ankles, so that she was obliged to bring it out. Then the mother-in-law understood what had been going on, and went into such a fury, the house could not hold her.

Then the third son's wife sent the same woman to the chemist, saying, ‘get me three pauls of quicksilver.' And she took the quicksilver, when the mother-in-law was asleep, and put it into her mouth and ears, so that she could not storm or scold any more. But after a time she died of vexation; and then they opened wide the store-room, and lived very comfortably.

[Here may follow a couple of stories of mixed folly and craft.]


1 ‘La Vecchia Avara.' This story was told in emulation of the last, otherwise it is hardly worth reproducing. The only merit of the story consisted in the liveliness of the pantomime with which the words of the third wife were rendered. To the poor, however, such a story is a treasure, as it tells of the condign punishment of an oppressor; and there are few of them who have not some experience of what it is to be trampled on. 

2 According to the local custom prevailing among all classes, of married sons and daughters continuing to live in the same house with their parents. 

3 ‘Dispensa,' store-room. 

4 ‘Pizza,' a cake; ‘ricotta,' curds of sheep's milk.