The Pentamerone, or The Story of Stories/Peruonto




A good deed is never lost: he who sows courtesy reaps benefit, and he who plants kindness gathers love. Pleasure bestowed upon a grateful mind was never sterile, but generates gratitude, and begets reward. In stances of this occur continually in the actions of men, and you will see an example of it in the story which I will tell you.



A good woman at Casoria[1], named Ceccarella, had a son called Peruonto, who was the most hideous figure, the greatest fool and the most doltish idiot that Nature had ever created. So that the heart of his unhappy mother was blacker than a dish-clout, and a thousand times a day did she bestow a hearty curse on all who had a hand in bringing into the world such a blockhead, who was not worth a dog's mess. For the poor woman might scream at him till she burst her throat, and yet the moon-calf would not stir to do the slightest hand's turn for her[2].

At last, after a thousand dinnings at his brain, and a thousand splittings of his head, and a thousand "I tell you" and "I told you," bawling today and yelling tomorrow, she got him to go to the wood for a faggot, saying, "Come now, it is time for us to get a morsel to eat; so run off for some sticks, and don't forget yourself on the way, but come back as quick as you can, and we will boil ourselves some cabbage, to keep the life in us."

Away went Peruonto, the blockhead, and he went just like one that was going to the gallows[3]: away he went, and he moved as if treading on eggs, with the gait of a jackdaw, and counting his steps, going fair and softly, at a snail's gallop, and making all sorts of zig-zags and circumbendibuses on his way to the wood, to come there after the fashion of the raven[4]. And when he reached the middle of a plain, through which a river ran, growling and murmuring at the want of manners in the stones that were stopping his way, he met three youths, who had made themselves a bed of the grass, and a pillow of a flint stone, and were lying dead asleep under the blaze of the Sun, who was shooting his rays down point blank. When Peruonto saw these poor creatures, who were made a fountain of water in the midst of a furnace of fire, he felt pity for them, and cutting some branches of an oak he made a handsome arbour over them. Meanwhile the youths, who were the sons of a fairy, awoke, and seeing the kindness and courtesy of Peruonto, they gave him a charm, that everything he asked for should be done.

Peruonto, having performed this good action, went his ways towards the wood, where he made up such an enormous faggot that it would require an engine to drag it; and seeing that it was all nonsense for him to think of carrying it on his back, he got astride on it, and cried, "Oh what a lucky fellow I should be if this faggot would carry me riding a-horseback!" And the word was hardly out of his mouth, when the faggot began to trot and to gallop like a Bisignanian horse[5]; and when it came in front of the king's palace, it pranced and capered and curveted in a way that would amaze you. The ladies, who were standing at one of the windows, on seeing such a wonderful sight, ran to call Vastolla, the daughter of the king, who, going to the window and observing the caracoles of a faggot and the bounds of a bundle of wood, burst out a-laughing,—a thing which, owing to a natural melancholy, she never remembered to have done before. Peruonto raised his head, and seeing that it was at him they were laughing, exclaimed, "O Vastolla, I wish you were with child!" and so saying, he struck his heels into the flanks of his faggot, and in a dashing faggoty gallop he was at home before many minutes, with such a train of little boys at his heels, bawling and shouting after him, that if his mother had not been quick to shut the door, they would have killed him with rotten fruit and vegetables.

'Meanwhile Vastolla began to feel certain qualms, and a palpitation of the heart, and other symptoms, which convinced her that she was in the family way. She did all in her power to keep her condition concealed, but at length the matter could no longer be a secret. The king, when he discovered it, was like a bedlamite[6]; and he summoned his council, and said, "Ye know by this time that the moon of my honour has got horns: ye know by this time that my daughter has provided me with matter for having chronicles, or rather cornicles, of my shame written; so now speak, and advise me. My own opinion would be, to make her bring forth her soul before she brought forth an ill breed. I should be for making her feel the pangs of death before she felt the pains of labour; it would be my wish to put her out of the world before she brought any offspring into it."

The councillors, who had in their time consumed more oil than wine[7], said, "Of a truth she deserves to be severely punished; and the haft of the knife which should take away her life ought to be made of the horns that she has placed on your brows. Nevertheless, if we put her to death before the child is born, that audacious scoundrel who, to put you into a battle of annoyances, has armed both your left and your right wing[8]— who, to teach you the policy of Tiberius[9], has set a Cornelius Tacitus before you—who, to represent to you a true dream of infamy, has made you come out through the gate of horn[10]—he will escape through the broken meshes of the net. Let us wait then till it comes to light, and we discover the root of this disgrace, and then we will think it over, and resolve cum grano salis what were best to be done." This counsel pleased the king; for he saw that they spoke like sensible, prudent men: so he held his hand, and said, "Let us wait and see the end of this business."

But, as Heaven would have it, the hour of the birth came, and Vastolla brought into the world two little boys, like two golden apples. The king, who was still full of wrath, summoned his councillors to advise with him; and he said, "Well, now my daughter is brought to bed, it is time for us to follow up the business by knocking out her brains." "No," said those wise old men, (and it was all to give time to Time,) let us wait till the little ones grow big enough to enable us to discover the features of their father." The king, who never wrote without having the ruled-lines of his council to prevent his writing crooked, shrugged up his shoulders, but had patience, and waited till the children were seven years old. At which time, summoning his councillors anew, he urged them to make an end of the business: then one of them said, "Since you have not been able to draw the secret out of your daughter, and find out who the false coiner is that has altered the crown on your image, we will now hunt out the stain. Order then a great banquet to be prepared, and let every nobleman and every man of rank in the city come to it; and let us be on the watch, and, with our eyes on the alert[11], see to whom the little children shall turn most willingly, moved thereto by nature; for beyond doubt that will be the father, and we will instantly lay hold on him and put him out of the way."

The king was pleased with this counsel, and ordering the banquet to be got ready, he invited all the people of rank and note. And when they had done feasting, he had them all placed in a row, and made the children pass before them; but the children took no more notice of them than Alexander's bull-dog did of the rabbits; so that the king was outrageous, and bit his lips; and though he did not want for shoes, yet this pump of grief was so tight for him that he stamped his feet on the ground. But the councillors said to him, "Softly, softly, your Majesty! quiet your wrath. Let us make another banquet tomorrow, not for people of condition, but for the lower sort; maybe, as a woman always attaches herself to the worst, we shall find among the cutlers, and bead-makers, and comb-sellers, the root of your anger, which we have not discovered among the cavaliers."

This reasoning jumped with the humour of the king, and he ordered a second banquet to be prepared; to which, on proclamation being made, came all the riff-raff and tag-rag-and-bobtail of the city, such as rogues, scavengers, tinkers, pedlars, penny-boys, sweeps, beggars, and such-like rabble, who were all in high glee; and taking their seats, like noblemen, at a great long table, they began to feast and gobble away.

Now when Ceccarella heard this proclamation, she began to urge Peruonto to go there too, until at last she got him to set out for the feast. And scarcely had he arrived there, when the pretty little children came running round him, and began to caress him, and to fawn upon him beyond the beyonds[12]. When the king saw this he tore his beard, seeing that the bean of this cake[13], the prize in this lottery, had fallen to an ugly beast, the very sight of whom was enough to make one sick; who, besides having a shaggy head, owls' eyes, a parrot's nose, a deer's mouth, was bandy- and bare-legged; so that, without reading Fioravanti[14], you might see at once what he was. Then heaving a deep sigh, the king said, "What can that jade of a daughter of mine have seen to make her take a fancy to this sea-ogre, or strike up a dance with this hairy-foot? Ah vile, false creature, what metamorphosis is this? But why do we delay? let her suffer the punishment she deserves: let her undergo the penalty that shall be decreed by you; and take her from my presence, for I cannot endure the sight of her."

Then the councillors consulted together, and they resolved that she, as well as the malefactor and the children, should be shut up in a cask, and thrown into the sea; so that, without the king's dipping his hands in his own blood, they might put a full stop to the sentence of their lives. No sooner was the judgement pronounced, than the cask was brought, and all four were put into it; but before they coopered it up, some of Vastolla's ladies, crying and sobbing as if their hearts would break, put into it a little basket of raisins and dried figs, that she might have wherewithal to live on for some little time. And when the cask was closed up, it was carried and flung into the open sea, along which it went floating as the wind drove it.

Meanwhile Vastolla, weeping and making two rivers of her eyes, said to Peruonto, "What a sad misfortune is this of ours, to have the cradle of Bacchus for our coffin! Oh, if I but knew who has played me this trick, to have me caged in this dungeon! Alas, alas! to find myself in this plight without knowing how. Tell me, tell me, O cruel man, what incantation was it you made, and what wand did you employ, to bring me within the circle of this cask?" Peruonto, who had been for some time lending her a chapman's car, at last said, "If you want me to tell you, you must give me some figs and raisins." So Vastolla, to draw the secret out of him, gave him a handful of both; and as soon as he had his gullet full, he told her accurately all that had befallen him with the three youths, and then with the faggot, and then with herself at the window; which when the poor lady heard, she took heart, and said to Peruonto, "Brother of mine, shall we then let our lives run out in a cask? Why don't you cause this tub to be changed into a fine ship, and run into some good harbour to escape this danger?" And Peruonto replied,

"If you would have me say the spell,
With figs and raisins stuff me well."

So Vastolla, to make him open his throat, instantly filled his throat; and, like a fisherwoman at the Carnival[15], with the figs and raisins she fished the words fresh out of his mouth. And lo! as soon as Peruonto had said what she desired, the cask was turned into a ship, with all the rigging necessary for sailing, and with all the sailors required for working the vessel. There you might see one pulling at a sheet, another mending the rigging, one taking the helm, another setting the sails, another mounting to the round-top, one crying 'Larboard!' and another 'Starboard!' one sounding a trumpet, another firing the guns, one doing one thing and one another; so that Vastolla was in the ship, and was swimming in a sea of delight.

It being new the hour when the Moon begins to play at see-saw with the Sun[16], Vastolla said to Peruonto, "My fine lad, now make this ship be changed into a beautiful palace, for we shall then be more secure: you know the saying, Praise the sea, but keep to the land." And Peruonto replied,

"If you would have me say the spell,
With figs and raisins stuff me well."

So Vastolla instantly repeated the operation; and Peruonto, swallowing them down, asked what was her pleasure; and immediately the ship came to land, and was changed into a beautiful palace, fitted up in a most complete manner, and so full of furniture, and curtains, and hangings, that there was nothing left to desire. So that Vastolla, who a little before would have given her life for a farthing[17], would not now change places with the greatest lady in the world, seeing herself served and treated like a queen. Then, to put the seal to all her good fortune, she besought Peruonto to obtain grace to become handsome and polished in his manners, that they might live happy together; for though the proverb says, 'Better to have a pig for a husband than an emperor for a lover,' still, if his appearance were changed, she should consider it the most fortunate thing in the world. And Peruonto replied as before,

"If you would have me say the spell,
With figs and raisins stuff me well."

Then Vastolla quickly removed the stoppage of his speech; and scarcely had he spoken the word, when he was changed from an owl into a nightingale, from an ogre into a Narcissus, from a scarecrow into a dapper little doll. Vastolla, seeing such a transformation, clasped him in her arms, and was almost beside herself with joy.

Meantime the king, who from the day that this calamity befell him had been full up to the very throat with 'Let-me-alone,' was one day for amusement brought out to hunt by his courtiers. Night overtook them, and seeing a light in the window of that palace, he sent a servant to inquire if they would entertain him; and he was answered, that he might not merely break a glass but even smash a jug there. So the king went to the palace; and going up the staircase, and passing through the chambers, he saw no living being save the two little boys, who skipped about him, crying, "Grandpapa! grandpapa!" The king, surprised and astonished, stood like one that was enchanted; and sitting down to rest himself at a table, to his amazement he saw invisibly spread on it a Flanders tablecloth, with dishes full of roast meats, and viands of various kinds; so that he feasted in truth like a king, waited on by those beautiful children: and all the while he sat at table, a concert of lutes and tambourines never ceased,—such delicious music that it went to the very tips of his fingers and toes. When he had done eating, a bed suddenly appeared, all made of gold; and having his boots taken off, he went to rest, and all his courtiers did the same, after having feasted heartily at a hundred tables, which were laid out in the other rooms.

When morning came, and the king was about to depart, he wished to take with him the two little children. But Vastolla now made her appearance with her husband, and casting herself at his feet, she asked his pardon, and related to him her whole story. The king, seeing that he had found two grandsons who were two jewels, and a son-in law who was a fay[18], embraced first one and then the other, and taking the children up in his arms, he carried them with him to the city. Then he made a great feast, that lasted for many days, on account of this good luck, solemnly confessing to his whole court that

"Man proposes,
But God disposes."



When Meneca had ended her story, which was considered no less beautiful than the former one, from the number of curious adventures, which kept the attention of the hearers awake to the very end, Tolla, at the command of the Prince, began the following story.

  1. A village near Naples. Ceccarella is Fanny.
  2. No marditto servitio—literally, 'a cursed service.'
  3. Comme và chillo che stà mmiezzo a li confrate: that is, 'among the friars who attend criminals to the gallows.'
  4. Pe ffare la venuta de la cuorvo. A common expression in Naples, when a person has gone away not to return, is, 'Ha fatto l'andata del cuorvo.'
  5. The prince of Bisignano (in Apulia) had a famous breed of horses. The Apulian horses were celebrated in the Middle Ages.
  6. Facenno cosa dell' autro munno,—'doing things of the other world.'
  7. That is, had studied much and drunk little.
  8. In the military language of the Romans, the wings were called cornua.
  9. That is, 'to teach you cruelty.' Observe the allusion to horns in Cornelius.
  10. Alluding to the Odyssey, T. 562; and Æneid, vi. 594.
  11. Literally, 'on the chopping-block,' tagliero;—to 'keep one's eyes upon it, is to watch the cats, that they run away with nothing.
  12. Literally—fora de li fora.
  13. It is the custom in Italy and France to make a cake on the Epiphany, in which a bean is put; the cake is broken and divided, and the person who gets the bean is king for the evening. I believe the custom exists in parts of England. In Ireland a ring in put into the twelfth cake.
  14. A writer on physiognomy.
  15. At the carnival persons are sometimes drest like fisherwomen, standing with an angling-rod and line baited with bon-bons.
  16. A histe e veniste e lo luoco te perdisse. The name of a popular game at Naples: it seems to answer to a game we have, in which the fun consists in a scramble for seats, one person being always left out. See-saw is more properly the Neapolitan Sciunnola. Scarica-a-barile is Leap-frog.
  17. Pe tre cavalle—literally, 'for three horses.' The Horse is the arms of Naples, and is impressed on a small piece of money, worth about one-thirtieth of an English penny. The lowest coin now used at Naples is a piece of Sei cavalli.
  18. No fato,—the masculine of fata, fairy.