“Strange, lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps be even now caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry,” says George Eliot, speaking of the Midland Counties of England. Stranger yet, perhaps, is the survival of the old pagan spirit, the haunting echo of old pagan legend, which any visitor to the hills of Tuscany may verify. Let him join the peasants as they meet now in one house, now in another, to spend the long winter evenings round the fire; or let him stroll, in the early autumn, into some low, dark kitchen where neighbours sit among piles of chestnut twigs, busily stripping off the leaves and making them into bundles for winter use in the baking of chestnut cakes (necci). There, among stornelli and rispetti, he may well chance upon some such shrewd, quaint tale as the following:—
ONCE upon a time there was a man called Padre Ulivo. He was always cheerful, always singing, and very fond of good company. He had a barrel of wine in the cellar, and every evening his friends used to come and see him, sit round the fire, eat, drink, sing, and lead a merry life. But at last the barrel was empty, and all his provisions run out, so that he had nothing more to offer to those who came, and all his pleasant evenings were at an end. Now everyone avoided him, and his cottage grew dull and lonely. One night he had just enough flour left for one small cake.
“Well,” said he, “I’ll make a little schiacciata this evening, bake it in the ashes, and to-morrow I must take what God sends.”
So he made the schiacciata, ate half of it, and got into bed. He had not been there long before he heard a knock at the door.
“Who’s there?” he called out.
“Padre Ulivo,” said a voice from outside, “we want to come in and warm ourselves at your fire; open the door to us.”
So Padre Ulivo jumped out of bed, opened the door, and there were twelve men outside.
“Wait a minute while I put on my trousers,” said he, for he was in his shirt.
“Now, Padre Ulivo,” said one of the men, “we want something to eat.”
“Something to eat! How can I give you that when I have nothing in the house! I made a little schiacciata of my last flour this evening. Look, here’s the bit I’ve not eaten.”
“No, no; you must give us something to eat—we’re hungry.”
“But, indeed, I don’t do it to deceive you. I have nothing; absolutely nothing.”
“Go and look again in the cupboard.”
“But what’s the good? It’s empty. Do you believe that I want to deceive you?”
“Go and look, at all events.”
So Padre Ulivo opened the cupboard, and found it quite full of meat and bread, and everything nice. Quite full! and of such good things as he had never hoped to have.
“Oh!” said he, “don’t think I was deceiving you; there really was nothing there last time I went to it.”
So he laid the table and they began to eat.
“But we want wine,” said the man; “go to the cellar and get some.”
“I have none,” said Padre Ulivo; “I used up all mine some time ago.”
“Go and see.”
“But it’s no good; my barrel is quite empty. Indeed it is not because I am greedy. I have none left.”
“Go and see. We’ll come too.”
So they all went down to the cellar.
“You see,” said Padre Ulivo, tapping the barrel. “Listen how hollow it sounds!”
“Draw out the spigot.”
He did so, and immediately there spurted out such a stream of wine as knocked him right against the opposite wall.
“Oh, oh!” said he. “I swear it was empty last time I came here.”
Then he filled a big jug, and they all went upstairs and made a good supper.
“Now we want to sleep here,” said the men.
“But I have only one bed,” answered Padre Ulivo; “and there are thirteen of us! I know what I’ll do, though; I’ll put the mattress on the floor, and we must manage the best way we can.”
So he put the mattress on the floor, spread sheets on it, and they slept comfortably, some on the mattress and some on the bed.
The next morning the men went away, and Padre Ulivo accompanied them for some little distance on their journey, walking behind with one who was especially friendly.
“The one in front,” said this man, “the most important of us all, is Dominiddio  himself. Go and ask him a favour.”
So Padre Ulivo ran on, and threw himself on his knees in the road.
“What do you want?” said Dominiddio. “I will grant you whatever you ask for.”
“I want that anyone who sits down on my chair may be unable to rise without my permission.”
“Be it so.”
And Padre Ulivo returned to his companion.
“Have you asked a favour?”
“Yes, and it’s granted.”
“What did you ask?”
Padre Ulivo told him.
“Oh, you stupid man! But go and ask another favour quickly. And mind it’s something great, and something really for yourself. Remember you are speaking to Dominiddio.”
Padre Ulivo ran on again and knelt down.
“What do you want this time? You shall have it.”
“Let anyone who gets up into my fig-tree be unable to come down without my permission.”
“Very well; it shall be so.”
And Padre Ulivo came back leaping for joy.
“Well, and what did you ask for?”
Padre Ulivo told him.
“Oh, you fool! Go again, you will get one more favour; but mind you ask for something really good for yourself.”
He wanted him to ask to go to Paradise.
“Again!” said Dominiddio, when he saw Padre Ulivo in the dust before him. “Well, this is the last time. What do you want?”
“Let me always win at cards, no matter whom I may be playing with.”
“Be it so. And now no more.”
Padre Ulivo came back to his companion singing for joy.
“What have you asked for this time? Something really great?”
“Oh, yes,” said Padre Ulivo, and told him.
“Well, you’ve lost your chance now. Good-bye.”
With that he left him and Padre Ulivo went home.
Now his jolly times began again. His barrel of wine never ran dry, and his cupboard never grew empty. Everybody came to see him. They ate, drank, and led a merry life.
But Padre Ulivo grew old; and one day Death came to him.
“Oh, how do you do?” said Padre Ulivo. “You want me, do you? Well, I was just beginning to fear you had forgotten me, and to wonder where you could be. Sit down and take a rest, and then I’ll come with you.”
So Death sat down on the chair in the chimney-corner, while Padre Ulivo piled on wood and made a splendid blaze.
“Now we must go,” said Death, when he was warm. “Oh, oh! what’s this?” For when he tried to get up the chair stuck to him and he could not move. “Oh, oh!” And he pulled at the chair that seemed glued firmly to him. “Padre Ulivo, let me go! I have to go for the carpenter’s daughter before sundown. Oh, oh! I can’t get up. You’ve bewitched me.”
“Promise not to come back for a hundred years, and you shall go free.”
“A hundred! A hundred and one, if you like! Only take the spell off.”
So Padre Ulivo gave him permission to rise, and Death went away.
Things went on as usual for the hundred years, with feasting and merry-making. But at last, as Padre Ulivo was among his friends, Death appeared again.
“Yes, yes, I’m ready. But let us have a feast of figs first. See what splendid fruit there! I and my friends had as much as we wanted yesterday, it’s your turn to-day. Go up and help yourself; I am too old to climb.”
So Death went up the tree and picked and ate to his heart’s content.
“Now we must go,” said he. “Hullo! I can’t get down. Oh, Padre Ulivo, you’ve bewitched me again!” And he stretched out now an arm, now a leg, and twisted and turned; but it was all of no good, and the others stood below laughing at him.
“Oh, Padre Ulivo! I’ll leave you another hundred years, if you’ll only let me get down.”
“Very well; then you may come.”
So Death climbed down and went away.
When the hundred years were passed, he came and stood outside the cottage.
“Padre Ulivo, Padre Ulivo, come out! I shan’t come near your house this time. I don’t want to be tricked again.”
“Oh, no, I’m coming. Wait till I get my jacket.”
So he put on his coat and went with Death.
On the way they met the Devil.
“Ah, good morning, Padre Ulivo” (one can see they knew each other very well), “so you’re coming my way, are you?”
“To be sure I am. But let’s have a game at cards first.”
“By all means! What shall we play for?”
“For souls. A soul for every game.”
“Good! I’m not afraid. Nobody ever beat the Devil yet at cards.”
So they began, and Padre Ulivo won game after game.
The Devil got very angry and spit flames of fire from sheer rage, as he saw the crowd of souls collecting round Padre Ulivo.
“This will never do,” he said at last. “I shall have no fire left to warm myself at if I go on losing my fuel at this rate. Padre Ulivo, take your souls and be off. I have had enough of you.”
They left the Devil boiling over with fury, and went and knocked at the gate of Heaven.
“I’ll go and ask if you may come in.” Then, after a little time: “Dominiddio says you may come in, if you’re alone; but you must not bring anyone else.”
“Go and tell Dominiddio that when he came to me I let him in with all his friends. He ought to do the same by me.”
The porter took the message, and then came and opened the gates.
“Dominiddio says you may all come in together.”
So they threw themselves down in the armchairs of Paradise, and enjoyed themselves for ever.
Surely a tale of this kind is an eloquent commentary on the mind of the people who have preserved it. The shrewd cunning, the frank materialism, the lavish generosity, so long as there is anything to be generous with (“since it’s there,” they will say as they offer or use the last of their store), are all strongly marked features among these peasants.
At the same time, the story itself suggests a curious feeling that we have to do with Jupiter and Mercury transformed in the crucible of Christian history and Catholic dogma. The transformation is an instructive one in many ways, and it would be interesting to know whether it has taken place in any other country besides Italy.