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SEEKERS IN SICILY
[Illustration: “Demeter’s Well-Beloved Children”]
SEEKERS IN SICILY
Being a Quest for Persephone by Jane and Peripatetica
Done into the Vernacular
ELIZABETH BISLAND AND ANNE HOYT
New York: John Lane Company. MCMIX London: John Lane, The Bodley Head
Copyright, 1909 By John Lane Company
ANDERS AND FRAU ZORN
FROM THE NORTH, IN MEMORY OF THE SUN AND THE SOUTH, THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED
A PAIR OF “WORD BRAIDERS”
_THE designs upon the cover of this book, and at the heads of the chapters, are the tribe signs or totems of the original inhabitants of the island of Sicily, which have survived all conquests and races and are still considered as tokens of good luck and defenders from the Evil-eye._
WHEN this book was written—in the spring of the year—the Land of the Older Gods was unmarred by the terrible seismic convulsions which wrought such ruin in the last days of 1908.
Very sad to each of us it is when time and the sorrows of “this unintelligible world” carve furrows upon our own countenances, but when the visage of the globe shrivels and wrinkles with the lapse of ages then the greatness of the disaster touches the whole race. Sicily, whose history is so full of blood and tears, has been the victim of the greatest natural tragedy that man’s chronicles record because of this line drawn by Time upon our planet’s face—yet it leaves her still so fair, so poignantly lovely, that pilgrims of beauty will—forgetting this slight blemish—still journey to see the sweetest remnant of the world’s youth. Happily Messina, the one city injured, was the one city where travellers rarely paused. All the others remain unmarred and are still exactly as they were when this chronicle of their ancient beauty and charm was set down.
E. B. AND A. H.
PAGE PREFACE 9 CHAPTER I ON THE ROAD TO THE LAND OF THE GODS 15 II A NEST OF EAGLES 45 III ONE DEAD IN THE FIELDS 126 IV THE RETURN OF PERSEPHONE 178 V A CITY OF TEMPLES 192 VI THE GOLDEN SHELL 229
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
“Demeter’s Well-Beloved Children” _Frontispiece_
“A Place Where the Past Reveals Itself” 68
“Pan’s Goatherd” 132
“Ætna, The Salient Fact of Sicily” 186
“The Saffron Mass of Concordia” 198
“Lifting Themselves Airily From a Sea of 218 Flowers”
“Sicily’s Picture-book, The Painted 234 Cart”
“The Last Resting Place of Queen 248 Constance”
SEEKERS IN SICILY
ON THE ROAD TO THE LAND OF THE GODS
“He ne’er is crown’d with immortality Who fears to follow where airy voices lead.”
“OH, Persephone, Persephone!... Surely Koré is in Hell.”
This is a discouraged voice from the window.
“Peripatetica, that _sounds_ both insane and improper. Would it fatigue you too much to explain in the vernacular what you are trying, in your roundabout way, to suggest?”
Thus Jane, a mere diaphanous mauve cloud, from which the glimmering fire picked out glittering points here and there. When Jane takes to teagowns she is really very dressy.
Peripatetica strolled up and down the dusky drawing-room two or three times, without answering. Outside a raging wind drove furiously before it in the darkness the snow that flew upward in long spirals, like desperate hunted ghosts. Finally she took up a book from the table, and kneeling, to get the light from the logs on the page, began to read aloud.
These two were on such kindly terms that either one could read aloud without arousing the other to open violence.
“Persephone, sometimes called Koré—” read Peripatetica, “having been seized by Pluto, as she gathered narcissus, and wild thyme, and mint, and the violet into her green kirtle—was carried, weeping very bitterly, into his dark hell. And Demeter, her mother, missing her fair and sweet-curled daughter, sought her through all the world with tears and ravings; the bitter sound and moisture of her grief making a noise as of winter wind and rain. And her warm heart being so cold with pain the blossoms died on her bosom, and her vernal hair was shredded abroad into the air, and all growing things drooped and perished, and her brown benignant face became white as the face of the dead are white——”
Peripatetica closed the book, put it back on the table, and drew a hassock under her for a seat.
“I see,” said Jane. “Demeter is certainly passing this way to-night, poor dear! It’s a pity she can’t realize Persephone, that sweet soul of Spring, will come back. She always does come back.”
“Yes; but Demeter, the mother-earth, always fears that this time she may not; that Pluto will keep her in hell always. And every time she makes the same outcry about it.”
“I suppose she always finds her first in Enna,” Jane hazarded. “Isn’t Enna in Sicily?”
“Yes, I think so; but I don’t know much about Sicily, though everybody goes there nowadays. Let’s go there, Jane, and help Demeter find Persephone.”
“Let’s!” agreed Jane, with sympathetic enthusiasm, and they went.
* * * * *
Now, being Americans, and therefore accustomed to the most obliging behaviour on the part of the male sex, it never occurred to them that Pluto might be ungallant enough to object to their taking a hand in. But he did—as they might have foreseen would be likely in a person so unmannerly as to snatch lovely daughters from devoted mothers.
It began on the ocean. On quite a calm evening a wave, passing from under the side of the ship, threw its crest back—perhaps to look at the stars—and fell head over heels into their open port. Certainly as much as two tons of green and icy Atlantic entered impulsively, and by the time they were dried out and comforted by the tight-corseted, rosy, sympathetic Lemon every object they possessed was a mere bunch of depressed rumples. Throughout the rest of the voyage they presented the unfortunate appearance of having slept in their clothes, including their hats. These last, which they had believed refreshingly picturesque, or coquettish, at starting, had that defiantly wretched aspect displayed by the broody hen after she has been dipped in the rain-barrel to check her too exuberant aversion to race-suicide.
That was how Pluto began, and it swiftly went from bad to worse.
Three large tourist ships discharged bursting cargoes of humanity upon Naples on one and the same day, and the hotel-keepers rose to their opportunity and dealt guilefully with the horde clamouring as with one voice for food and shelter. That one’s hard-won shelter was numbered 12 _bis_ (an artful concealment of the unlucky number 13) was apparently an unimportant detail. It was shelter, though even a sea-sodden mind should have seen something suspicious in those egregious frescoes of fat ladies sitting on the knife edge of crescent moons with which Room 13 endeavoured to conceal its real banefulness. Even such a mind should have distrusted that flamingly splendid fire-screen in front of a walled-up fireplace; should have scented danger in that flamboyant black and gold and blue satin furniture of the vintage of 1870. There was plainly, to an observant eye, something sinister and meretricious in so much dressiness, but Jane and Peripatetica yielded themselves up to that serpent lodging without the smallest precaution, and lived to rue their impulsive confidence.
To begin with, Naples, instead of showing herself all flowers and sunshine, tinkling mandolins, and moonlight and jasper seas, was as merry and pleasing as an iced sponge. Loud winds howled through the streets, driving before them cold deluges of rain, and in these chilling downpours the street troubadours stood one foot in the puddles snuffling songs of “Bella Napoli” to untuned guitars, with water dripping from the ends of their noses. Peripatetica—whose eyes even under her low-spirited hat had been all through the voyage full of dreamful memories of Neapolitan tea-roses and blue blandness—curled up like a disappointed worm and retired to a fit of neuralgia and a hot-water bottle. There was something almost uncanny in the scornful irony of her expression as she hugged her steaming comforter to her cheek, and paced the floor in time to those melancholy damp wails from the street. Instead of tea-roses she was prating all day of American comforts, as she clasped the three tepid coils of the chilly steam-heater to her homesick bosom, while Jane paddled about under an umbrella in search of the traditional ideal Italian maid, who would be willing to contribute to the party all the virtues and a cheerful disposition, for sixty francs a month.
Minna, when she did appear, proved to be Swiss instead of Italian, but she carried an atmosphere of happy comfort about her, could spin the threads of three languages with her gifted tongue, while sixty francs seemed to satisfy her wildest dreams of avarice. So the two depressed pilgrims, soothed by Minna’s promise to assume their burdens the next day, fell asleep dreaming that the weather might moderate or even clear.
Eight o’clock of the following morning came, but Minna didn’t. Jane interviewed the concierge, who had recommended her. The concierge interviewed the heavens and the earth, and the circumambient air, but spite of outflung fingers and polyglot cries, the elements had nothing to say about the matter, and for twenty-four hours they declined to let the secret leak out that other Americans in the same hotel had ravished their Minna from them with the glittering lure of twenty francs more.
Finally it dawned upon two damp and depressed minds that some unknown enemy had put a _comether_ on them—though at that time they had no inkling of his identity. Large-eyed horror ensued. First aid to the hoodooed must be sought. Peripatetica tied a strip of red flannel around her left ankle.
“In all these very old countries,” she said oracularly, “secret malign influences from the multitudes of wicked dead rise up like vapours from the soil where they have been buried.”
Jane listened and, pale but resolute, went forth and purchased a coral _jettatura_.
“Let us pass on at once from this moist Sodom,” she said.
Visions of sun and Sicily dawned upon their mildewed imaginations.
Now there is really but one way to approach Sicily satisfactorily. Of course a boat leaves Naples every evening for Palermo, but the Mediterranean is a treacherous element in February. It had broken night after night in thunderous shocks upon the sea wall, making the heavy stone-built hotel quiver beneath their beds, and in the darkness of each night they had seen the water squadron charge again and again, the foremost spinning up tall and white to fling itself in frenzied futile spray across the black street. So that the thought of trusting insides jaded by two weeks of the Atlantic to such a foe as this was far from their most reckless dreams. The none too solid earth was none too good for such as they, and a motor eats up dull miles by magic. Motors are to be had in Naples even when fair skies lack, and with a big Berliet packed with luggage, and with the concierge’s tender, rueful smile shedding blessings, at last they slid southward.
—Pale clouds of almond blossoms were spread against grey terraces.... Less pale smells rose in gusty whiffs.... Narrow yellow streets crooked before them, where they picked a cautious hooting way amid Italy’s rising population complicated with goats and asses.... Then flat, muddy roads, and Berliet bumping, splashing between fields of green artichokes.... The clouds held up; thinned, and parted, showing rifts of blue.... Vesuvius pushed the mists from her brow, and purple shadows dappled her shining, dripping flanks.... Orange groves rose along the way. Flocks of brown goats tinkled past. More almond boughs leaned over walls washed a faded rose. Church bells clanked sweetly through the moist air from far-away hills. Runnels chattered out from secret channels fringed with fern. Grey olive orchards hung like clouds along the steep.... The sun was fairly out, and Italy assuming her old traditional air of professional beauty among the nations of the earth....
The Berliet climbed as nimbly as a goat toward Sorrento. The light deepened; the sea began to peacock. More and more the landscape assumed the appearance of the impossibly chromatic back drop of an opera, and as the turn was made under the orange avenue of the hotel at Sorrento everything was ready for the chorus of merry villagers, and for the prima donna to begin plucking song out of her bosom with stereotyped gestures.
It was there they began to offer the light wines of the country, as sweetly perfumed and innocent as spring violets; no more like to the astringent red inks masquerading in straw bottles in America under the same names, than they to Hercules. The seekers of Persephone drank deeply—as much as a wine-glass full—and warmed by this sweet ichor of Bacchus they bid defiance to hoodoos and pushed on to Amalfi.
Berliet swam along the Calabrian shore, lifting them lightly up the steeps, swooping purringly down the slopes,—swinging about the bold curves of the coast; rounding the tall spurs, where the sea shone, green and purple as a dove’s neck, five hundred feet below, and where orange, lemon, and olive groves climbed the narrow terraces five hundred feet above. They were following the old, old way, where the Greeks had gone, where the Romans went, where Normans rode, where Spaniards and Saracens marched; the line of the drums and tramplings of not three, but of three hundred conquests! They were following—in a motor car—the passageway of three thousand years of European history that was to lead them back beyond history itself to the old, old gods.
The way was broad and smooth, looping itself like a white ribbon along the declivity, and even Peripatetica admitted it was lovely, though she has an ineradicable tendency to swagger about the unapproachable superiority of Venezuelan scenery; probably because so few are in a position to contradict her, or because she enjoys showing off her knowledge of out-of-the-way places which most of us don’t go to. She had always sniffed at the Mediterranean as overrated in the matter of colour, and declared it pale and dull beside the green and blue fire of Biscayne Bay in Florida, but it was a nice day, and a nice sight, and Peripatetica handsomely acknowledged that _after_ Venezuela this was the very best scenery she knew.
“Where amid her mulberry trees Sits Amalfi in the heat, Bathing ever her white feet In the tideless summer seas,”
they climbed 175 steps to the Cappucini convent which hangs like a swallow’s nest in a niche of the cliffs, flanked by that famous terrace the artists paint again and again, from every angle, at every season of the year, at every hour of the day. There they imbibed a very superior tea, while sea and sky did their handsomest, listening meanwhile to a fellow tourist brag of having climbed to Ravello in his motor car.
If one cranes one’s neck from the Cappucini terrace, on a small peak will be seen what purports to be a town, but the conclusion will be irresistible that the only way to reach such a dizzy eminence is by goat’s feet, or hawk’s wings, and the natural inference is that the fellow tourist is fibbing. Nevertheless one hates to be outdone, and one abandons all desire to sleep in one of those coldly clean little monk-cells of the convent, and climbs resolutely down the 175 steps again and interviews Berliet. Berliet thinks his chassis is too long for the sharp turns. Thinks that the road is bad; that it is also unsafe; that the hotel in Ravello is not possible; that he suspects his off fore tire; that there’s not time to do it before dark; that his owner forbids his going to Ravello at all; that he has an appointment that evening with a good-looking lady in Amalfi; that he is tired with his long run, and doesn’t want to any way. All of which eleven reasons appeared so irrefutable, collectively and individually, that Jane and Peripatetica climbed into their seats and announced that they would go to Ravello, and go immediately.
Berliet muttered unpleasant things in his native tongue as to signori being reckless, obstinate, and inconsiderate; wound them up sulkily and took them.
Peripatetica admitted in a whisper that up to that very day she had never even heard of Ravello, which proved to be a really degrading piece of ignorance, for every human being they met for the next three months knew all about the place—or said they did. Further experience taught them to know that Italy is crowded with little crumbling towns one has never heard of before, which when examined prove to be the very particular spots in which took place about a half of all the history that ever happened. History being a thing one must be pretty skilful if one means to evade it in Italy, for the truth is that whenever history took a notion to _be_, it promptly went on a trip to Italy and _was_.
They hooted slowly again through narrow streets, pushed more goats and children out their way, and then Berliet swung round on one wheel and began to mount. Began to climb like the foreseen goat, to soar like the imagined hawk, up sharp zigzags that lifted them by almost exact parallels. Everything that puts on power and speed, and makes noises like bomb explosions in a saw-factory, was pushed forward or pulled back. They rushed noisily round and round the peak at locomotive speed, and finally half way up into the very top of the sky they pulled up sharply in a cobble-paved square. Berliet leaped nimbly out, unscrewed a hot lid—with the tail of his linen duster—from which lid liquids and steam and smells boiled as from an angry geyser, and they found themselves in the wild eyrie of Ravello. That ubiquituosity—(with the name of a hotel on his cap)—who springs out from every stone in Italy like a spider upon the foolish swarming tourist fly, was waiting for them in the square as if by appointment, and before they could draw the first gasp of relief he had their possessions loaded upon the backs of the floating population, and they were climbing in the dusk a stone stairway that called itself a street—meekly and weakly unwitting of their possible destination. The destination proved to be a vaulted courtyard, opening behind a doorway which was built of a choice assortment of loot from four periods of architecture and sculpture; proved to be a reckless jumble of winding steps, of crooked passages, of terraces, balconies, and loggias, and the whole of this destination went by the name of the Hotel Bellevue. And once there, then suddenly, after all the noise and odours, the confusion and human clatter of the last three weeks, they stepped quietly out upon a revetment of Paradise.
Below—a thousand feet below—in the blue darkness little sparks of light were Amalfi. In the blue darkness above, hardly farther away it seemed, were the larger sparks of the rolling planets. The cool, lonely darkness bathed their spirits as with a blessed chrism. The place was, for the night, theirs alone, and for one holy moment the swarming tourist failed to swarm.
* * * * *
“In the Highlands! In the country places!”—
murmured Jane, gratefully declining upon a broad balustrade, and Peripatetica echoed softly—declining in her turn—
... “Oh, to dream; oh, to awake and wander There, and with delight to take and render Through the trance of silence Quiet breath.”...
And Jane took it up again—
... “Where essential silence cheers and blesses, And forever in the hill recesses Her more lovely music broods and dies.”
Just then essential silence was broken by the last protesting squawk of a virtuous hen, who seemed to be about to die that they might live. Peripatetica recognized that plaintive cry. Hens were kept handy in fattening-coops on the Plantation, against the sudden inroads of unexpected guests.
“When the big-gate slams chickens begin to squawk,” was a well-remembered Plantation proverb.
“How tough she will be, though,” Jane gently moaned, “and we shan’t be able to eat her, and she will have died in vain.”
Little did she reck of Signor Pantaleone Caruso’s beautiful art, for when they had dressed by the dim, soothing flicker of candles in big clean bed-rooms that were warmed by smouldering olive-wood fires, they were sweetly fed on a dozen lovely dishes; dishes foamy and yellow, with hot brown crusts, made seemingly of varied combinings of meal and cheese, and called by strange Italian cognomens. And the late—so very late—pullet appeared in her due course amid maiden strewments of crisp salads; proving, by some Pantaleonic magic, to be all that a hen could or should be. And they drank gratefully to her manes in Signor Caruso’s own wine, as mellow and as golden as his famous cousin’s voice. After which they ate small, scented yellow apples which might well have grown in Hesperidian gardens, and drowsed contentedly by the musky olive-wood blaze, among bowls of freesias and violets, until the almost weird hour of half past eight, when inward blessedness and a day of mountain air would no longer be denied their toll.
Yet all through the hours of sleep “old forgotten, far-off things, and battles long ago” stirred like an undertone of dreams within dreams. The clank of armed feet moved in the street. Ghostly bells rang whispered tocsins of alarm, and shadowy life swept back and forth in the broken, deserted town. The “Brass Hats” glimmered in the darkness. Goths set alight long extinguished fires. Curved Saracen swords glittered faintly, and Normans grasped the heights with mailed hands. The Rufolis, the d’Affliti, the Confalones, and della Maras married, feasted, and warred again in dumb show, and up and down the stairs of this very house rustled the silk robes and soft shod feet of sleek prelates.
Even the sea below—where the new moon floated at the western rim like a golden canoe—was astir with the myriad sails of _revenants_. First the white wings of that—
“Grave Syrian trader ... Who snatched his rudder and shook out his sail ... Between the Syrtes and soft Sicily.”
After him followed hard the small ghostly sails of the Greeks.
“They were very perfect men, and could do all and bear all that could be done and borne by human flesh and blood. Taking them all together they were the most faultlessly constructed human beings that ever lived, and they knew it, for they worshipped bodily health and strength, and spent the lives of generations in the cultivation of both. They were fighting men, trained to use every weapon they knew, they were boxers and wrestlers, athletes, runners and jumpers, and drivers of chariots; but above all they were seamen, skilled at the helm, quick at handling the sails, masters of the oar, and fearless navigators when half of all navigation led sooner or later to certain death. For though they loved life, as only the strong and the beautiful can love it, and though they looked forward to no condition of perpetual bliss beyond, but only to the shadowy place where regretful phantoms flitted in the gloom as in the twilight of the Hebrew Sheol, yet they faced dying as fighters always have and always will, with desperate hands and a quiet heart.”
The golden canoe of the young moon filled and sank behind the sea’s rim, but through the darkness came the many-oared beat of ponderous Roman galleys carrying the dominion of the earth within their great sides, and as they vanished like a fog-wreath along the horizon, followed fast the hawk-winged craft of the keen-bladed, keen-faced Saracen, whose sickle-like crescent would never here on this coast round to the full. For, far away on the grey French coast of Coutance was a Norman gentleman named Tancred, very strong of heart, and very stout of his hands. There was no rumour of him here, as he rode to the hunt and spitted the wild boar upon his terrible length of steel. What should the Moslems know of a simple Norman gentleman, or care?—and yet in those lion loins lay the seeds of a dozen mighty whelps who were to rend their Christian prey from the Moslem and rule this warm coloured South as kings and dukes and counts, and whose blood was to be claimed by every crown in Europe for a thousand years. Very few among the shadowy sails were those of the de Hautevilles, but quality, not quantity, counts most among men, and those ships carried a strange, potent race. Anna Comnena thus describes one of them:
“This Robert de Hauteville was of Norman origin—he united a marvellous astuteness with immense ambition, and his bodily strength was prodigious. His whole desire was to attain to the wealth and power of the greatest living men; he was extremely tenacious of his designs and most wise in finding means to attain his ends. In stature he was taller than the tallest; of a ruddy hue and fair-haired, he was broad-shouldered, and his eyes sparkled with fire; the perfect proportion of all his limbs made him a model of beauty from head to heel, as I have often heard people tell. Homer says of Achilles that those who heard his voice seemed to hear the thundering shout of a great multitude, but it used to be said of the de Hautevilles that their battle cry would turn back tens of thousands. Such a man, one in such a position, of such a nature, and of such spirit, naturally hated the idea of service, and would not be subject to any man; for such are those natures which are born too great for their surrounding.”
* * * * *
When morning dawned all spirits of the past had vanished, and only the noisy play of the young hopes of the Caruso family disturbed the peace of the echoing court. Jane insisted upon calling these innocent infants Knickerbockers, because, she said, they were only short Pantaleones—which is the sort of mild pleasantry Jane affects. Peripatetica doesn’t lend herself to these gentler forms of jest. It was she who put in all that history and poetry. (See above.)
Ravello used to be famous for her dye stuffs, and for the complete thorough-goingness of her attacks of plague, but her principal industries to-day are pulpits, and fondness for the Prophet Jonah. Her population in the day of dyes and plague was 36,000, and is now, by generous computation, about thirty-six—which does not include the Knickers. Just opposite the Hotel Bellevue is one of these pulpits, in the church of St. John of the Bull; a church which about a thousand years ago was a very superior place indeed; but worse than Goths or Vandals, or Saracens, or plague, was the pernicious activity of the Eighteenth Century. Hardly a church in Italy has escaped unscathed from its busy rage. No sanctuary was too reverend or too beautiful to be ravaged in the name of Palladio, or of “the classic style.” Marbles were broken, mosaics torn out, dim aisles despoiled, brass and bronze melted, carvings chopped and burned, rich glass shattered, old tapestries flung on the dust heap. All the treasures of centuries—sweet with incense, softened and tinted by time, sanctified by a thousand prayers, and beautified by the tenderest emotions—were bundled out of the way of those benighted savages, and tons of lime were had into the poor gaunt and ruined fanes to transform them into whited sepulchres of beauty. Blank plaster walls hid the sweetest of frescoes; clustered grey columns were limed into ghastly imitations of the Doric; soaring arches—flowered like forest boughs—vanished in stodgy vaultings; Corinthian pilasters shoved lacelike rood-screens out of the way, and fat sprawling cherubs shouldered bleeding, shadowy Christs from the altars.
The spirit which inspired this stupid ruthlessness was perfectly expressed by Addison, who, commenting upon the great Cathedral of Siena, said pragmatically:
“When a man sees the prodigious pains that our forefathers have been at in these barbarous buildings, one cannot but fancy what miracles of architecture they would have left us had they only been instructed in the right way; for when the devotion of those ages was much warmer than it is at present, and the riches of the people much more at the disposal of the priests, there was so much money consumed on these Gothic churches as would have finished a greater variety of noble buildings than have been raised before or since that time. Than these Gothic churches nothing can make a prettier show to those who prefer false beauties and affected ornaments to a noble and majestic simplicity”—of dull plaster!
Much has been said of the irreverence of the Nineteenth Century. The Eighteenth respected nothing their forefathers had wrought; not even in this little far-away mountain town, and St. John of the Bull is now—poor Saint!—housed drearily in a dull, dusty, echoing white cavern, with not one point of beauty to hold the protesting eye save the splendid marble pulpit—escaped by some miracle of ruth to stand out in that dull waste upon delicate twisted alabaster columns, which stand in their turn upon crawling marble lions. Its four sides, and its baldachino, show beautiful patterns of precious mosaics, wrought with lapis lazuli, with verd antique, and with sanguine Egyptian marbles. The carefullest and richest of these mosaics, of course—along the side of the pulpit’s stair—is devoted to picturing that extremely qualmish archaic whale who in all Ravello’s churches _unswallows_ the Prophet Jonah with every evidence of emotion and relief.
Recently, in the process of removing some of the acres of Eighteenth Century plaster, there was brought to light in a little chapel in the crypt a life-sized relief of St. Catherine and her wheel.
Such a lovely lady!—so fair, so pure, so saint-like; with faint memories of old tinting on her small lips, on her close-folded hair, and her downcast eyes—that even the most frivolous of tourists might be moved to tears by the thought that she alone is the one sweet ghost escaped from all that brutal destruction of mediæval beauty; resurrected by the merest chance from her plaster tomb.
Jane at the thought of it became quite dangerously violent. She insisted upon digging up the Eighteenth Century and beating it to death again with its own dusty old wig, and was soothed and calmed only by being taken outside to look once more by daylight at the delicious marble mince of fragments which the Hotel Bellevue has built into its portals—Greek and Roman capitals upside down; marble lambs and crosses, gargoyles, and corbels adorning the sides and lintels in a charming confusion of styles, periods, and purposes.
Ravello, as are all these arid ancient towns from which the tides of life have drained away, is as dry and empty as an old last year’s nut; a mere hollow shell, ridged and parched, out of which the kernel of existence has vanished.
A tattered, rosy-cheeked child runs up the uncertain footway—the stair-streets—with feet as light and sure as a goat’s. An old, old man, with head and jaws bound in a dirty red kerchief, and with the keen hawk-like profile of some far-off Saracen ancestry, crouches in a doorway with an outstretched hand. He makes no appeal, but his apparent confidence that his age and helplessness will touch them, does touch them, and they search their pockets hastily for coppers, with a faint anguished sense of the thin shadow of a dial-finger which for them too creeps round and round, as for this old derelict man, for this old skeleton city....
A donkey heaped with brushwood patters up the steep narrow way; so narrow that they must flatten themselves against the wall to admit of his stolidly sorrowful passage. They may come and go, as all the others have come and gone, but our brother, the ass, is always there, recking not of Greek or Roman, of American or Tedeschi; for all of them he bears burdens with the same sorrowful stolidity, and from none does he receive any gratitude....
These are the only inhabitants of Ravello they see until they reach the Piazza and the Cathedral of Saint Pantaleone. They know beforehand that the Cathedral too has been spoiled and desecrated, but there still remain the fine bronze doors by the same Barisanus who made the famous ones in the church at Monreale in Sicily, and here they find the most beautiful of the pulpits, and the very biggest Jonah and the very biggest whale in all Ravello.
Before that accursed Bishop Tafuri turned it into a white-washed cavern the old chroniclers exhausted their adjectives in describing the glories of Saint Pantaleone’s Cathedral. The richness of its sixteen enormous columns of verd antique; its raised choir with fifty-two stalls of walnut-wood, carved with incredible richness; its high altar of alabaster under a marble baldachino glowing with mosaics and supported upon huge red Egyptian Syenite columns—its purple and gold Episcopal throne; its frescoed walls, its silver lamps and rich tombs, its pictures and shrines and hangings—all pitched into the scrap heap by that abominable prelate, save only this fine pulpit, and the Ambo. The Ambo gives itself wholly to the chronicles of the prophet Jonah. On one stairside he leaps nimbly and eagerly down the wide throat which looks so reluctant to receive him, as if suspecting already the discomfort to be caused by the uneasy guest. But Jonah’s aspect is all of a careless gaiety; he is not taking this lodging for more than a day or two, and is aware that after his brief occultation his reappearance will be dramatic and a portent. On the opposite stair it happens as he had prophetically foreseen, the mosaic monster disgorging him with an air of mingled violence and exhausted relief.
No one can tell us why Jonah is so favourite a topic in Ravello. “_Chi lo sara_” everyone says, with that air of weary patience Italy so persistently assumes before the eccentric curiosity of Forestieri.
Rosina Vokes once travelled about with a funny little playlet called “The Pantomime Rehearsal,” which concerned itself with the sufferings of the author and stage manager of an English house-party’s efforts at amateur theatricals. The enthusiastic conductor used to say dramatically:
“Now, Lord Arthur, you enter as the Chief of the fairies!”
To which the blond guardsman replies with puzzled heaviness: “Yes; but _why_ fairies?”
Producing in the wretched author a sort of paralysis of bafflement. The same look comes so often into these big Italian eyes. The thing just _is_. Why clamour for reasons? It is as if these curious wandering folk, always staring and chattering and rushing about, and paying good money that would buy bread and wine, merely to look at old stones, should ask _why_ the sun, or why the moon, or why anything at all?...
So they abandon Jonah and take on the pulpit instead, the most famous of all the mosaic pulpits in a region celebrated for mosaic pulpits. It is done after the same pattern as that of St. John of the Bull, but the pattern raised to the _n_th power. More and bigger lions; more and taller columns; richer scrolls of mosaics; the bits of stone more deeply coloured; the marble warmed by time to a sweeter and creamier blond. The whole being crowned, moreover, by an adorable bust of Sigelgaita Rufolo, wife of the founder of the Cathedral and giver of the pulpit. A pompous Latin inscription under the bust records the virtues of this magnificent patron of religion. The inscription including the names of all the long string of stalwart sons Sigelgaita brought forth, and it calls in dignified Latinity the attention of the heavenly powers to the eminent deserts of this generous Rufolo, this mediæval Carnegie.
Sigelgaita’s bust is an almost unique example of the marble portraiture of the Thirteenth Century—if indeed it truly be a work of that time, for so noble, so lifelike is this head with its rolled hair, its princely coronet and long earrings, so like is it to the head of the Capuan Juno, that one half suspects it of being from a Roman hand—those masters of marmoral records of character—and that it was seized upon by Sigelgaita to serve as a memorial of herself.
Bernardo Battinelli, a notary of Ravello, writing in 1540 relates an anecdote which shows what esteem was inspired by this marble portrait long after its original was dust:
“I remember in the aforesaid month and year, the Spanish Viceroy Don Pietro di Toledo sent for the marble bust, which is placed in the Cathedral and much honest resistance was made, so that the first time he that came returned empty-handed, but shortly after he came back, and it was necessary to send it to Naples in his keeping, and having sent the magnifico Giovanni Frezza, who was in Naples, and Ambrose Flomano from this place to his Excellency, after much ado, by the favour of the glorious Virgin Mary, and by virtue of these messengers from thence after a few days the head was returned.”
In the year 1851 the palace of these splendid Rufoli, which in the time of Roger of Sicily had housed ninety knights with their men at arms, had fallen to tragical decay. A great landslide in the Fifteenth Century destroyed the harbour of Amalfi; hid its great quays and warehouses, its broad streets and roaring markets beneath the sea, and reduced it from a powerful Republic, the rival of Venice and Genoa, to a mere fishing village. A little later the plague followed, and decimated the now poverty-stricken inhabitants of Ravello, and then the great nobles began to drift away to Naples, came more and more rarely to visit their Calabrian seats, and these gradually sank in the course of time into ruin and decay. Fortunately in the year before mentioned a rich English traveller, making the still fashionable “grand tour,” happened into Ravello, saw the possibilities of this crumbling castle set upon one of the most beautiful sites in the world, and promptly purchased it from its indifferent Neapolitan owner. He, much absorbed in the opera dancers and the small intrigues of the city, was secretly and scornfully amused that a mad Englishman should be willing to part with so much good hard money in exchange for ivied towers and gaping arches in a remote country town.
The Englishman mended the arches, strengthened the towers, gathered up from among the weeds the delicate sculptures and twisted columns, destroyed nothing, preserved and restored with a reverent hand, and made for himself one of the loveliest homes in all Italy. It was in that charming garden, swung high upon a spur of the glorious coast, that Jane and Peripatetica contracted that passion for Ravello which haunted them with a homesickness for it all through Sicily. For never again did they find anywhere such views, such shadowed green ways of ilex and cypress, such ivy-mantled towers, such roses, such sheets of daffodils and blue hyacinths. They dreamed there through the long day, regretting that their luggage had been sent on to Sicily by water, and—forgetting quite their quest of Persephone—that they were therefore unable to linger in the sweet precincts of the Pantaleone wines and cooking, devoting weeks to exploring the neighbouring hills, and to unearthing more pulpits and more Jonahs in the nearby churches.
In the dusk they lingered by the Fountain of Strange Beasts, in the dusk they wandered afoot down the cork-screwed paths up which they had so furiously and smellily mounted. Berliet hooted contemptuously behind them as he crawled after, jeering as at “scare-cats,” who dared mount, but shrank from descending these abrupt curves and tiptilted inclines except in the safety of their own low-heeled shoes.
At Amalfi they plunged once again into the noisy tourist belt—the _va et vient_, the chatter, the screaming flutter of the passenger pigeons of the Italian spring. And yet there was peace in the tiny white cells in which they hung over the sheer steep, while the light died nacreously along the West. There was quiet in certain tiny hidden courts and terraces under the icy moonlight, and Jane said in one of these—her utterance somewhat interrupted by the chattering of her teeth, for Italian spring nights are as cold as Italian spring days are warm—Jane said:
“What idiotic assertions are made in our time about ancient Europe having no love for, no eye for, Nature’s beauty! Did you ever come across a mediæval monastery, a Greek or Roman temple that was not placed with an unerring perception of just the one point at which it would look best, just at the one point at which everything would look best from it?”
“Of course I never did,” Peripatetica admitted with sympathetic conviction. “We get that absurd impression of their indifference from the fact that our forebears were not nearly so fond of talking about their emotions as we. They had a trust in their fellow man’s comprehension that we have lost. We always imagine that no one can know things unless we tell them, and tell them with all our t’s carefully crossed and our i’s elaborately dotted. The old literatures are always illustrating that same confidence in other people’s imaginations, stating facts with what to our modern diffuseness appears the baldest simplicity, and yet somehow conveying all their subtlest meanings. Our ancestors happily were not ‘inebriated with the exuberance of their own verbosity.’... And now, Jane, bring that congealed nose of yours in out of the open air. The moon isn’t going on a vacation. She will be doing her old romance and beauty business at the same old stand long after we are dead and buried, not to mention to-morrow night.”
Berliet was all his old self the next day, and they swooped and soared, slid and climbed toward Pæstum, every turn around every spur showing some new beauty, some new effect. Gradually the coast sank and sank toward the sea; the snow-caps moved further back into the horizon; grew more and more mere white clouds above, more and more mere vapoury amethyst below, and at last they shot at a right angle into a wide level plain, and commenced to experience thrills. For the guide-books were full, one and all, of weird tales of Pæstum which lay, so they said, far back in a country as cursed and horrible as the dreadful land of the Dark Tower. About it, they declared, stretched leprous marshes of stagnant ooze choked with fat reeds, where fierce buffalo wallowed in the slime. The contadini passed through its deadly miasma in shuddering haste, gazing large-eyed upon a dare-devil Englishman who had once had the courage to pass a night there in order to gratify a bold, fantastic desire to see the temples by moonlight. It was such a strange, tremendous story, that of the Greek Poseidonia, later the Roman Pæstum.
Long ago those adventuring mariners from Greece had seized the fertile plain which at that time was covered with forests of great oak and watered by two clear and shining rivers. They drove the Italian natives back into the distant hills, for the white man’s burden even then included the taking of all the desirable things that were being wasted by incompetent natives, and they brought over colonists—whom the philosophers and moralists at home maligned, no doubt, in the same pleasant fashion of our own day. And the colonists cut down the oaks, and ploughed the land, and built cities, and made harbours, and finally dusted their busy hands and busy souls of the grime of labour and wrought splendid temples in honour of the benign gods who had given them the possessions of the Italians and filled them with power and fatness. Every once in so often the natives looked lustfully down from the hills upon this fatness, made an armed snatch at it, were driven back with bloody contumely, and the heaping of riches upon riches went on. And more and more the oaks were cut down—mark that! for the stories of nations are so inextricably bound up with the stories of trees—until all the plain was cleared and tilled; and then the foothills were denuded, and the wave of destruction crept up the mountain sides and they too were left naked to the sun and the rains.
At first these rains, sweeping down torrentially, unhindered by the lost forests, only enriched the plain with the long hoarded sweetness of the trees, but by and by the living rivers grew heavy and thick, vomiting mud into the ever-shallowing harbours, and the lands soured with the undrained stagnant water. Commerce turned more and more to deeper ports, and mosquitoes began to breed in the brackish soil that was making fast between the city and the sea. Who of all those powerful land-owners and rich merchants could ever have dreamed that little buzzing insects could sting a great city to death? But they did. Fevers grew more and more prevalent. The malaria-haunted population went more and more languidly about their business. The natives, hardy and vigorous in the hills, were but feebly repulsed. Carthage demanded tribute, and Rome took it, and changed the city’s name from Poseidonia to Pæstum. After Rome grew weak Saracen corsairs came in by sea and grasped the slackly defended riches, and the little winged poisoners of the night struck again and again, until grass grew in the streets, and the wharves crumbled where they stood. Finally the wretched remnant of a great people wandered away into the more wholesome hills, the marshes rotted in the heat and grew up in coarse reeds where corn and vine had flourished, and the city melted back into the wasted earth. So wicked a name had the miasmatic, fever-haunted plain that age after age rolled away and only birds and serpents and wild beasts dared dwell there, or some outlaw chose to face its sickly terrors rather than the revenge of the law.
“Think,” said Jane, “of the sensations of the man who came first upon those huge temples standing lonely in the naked plain! So lonely that their very existence had been long forgotten. Imagine the awe and surprise of such a discovery——”
They were spinning—had been spinning for half an hour—along a rather bad highway, and Peripatetica found it hard to call up the proper emotions in answer to Jane’s suggestion, so occupied was she in looking for the relishing grimness insisted upon by the guide-books. There were reeds; there were a very few innocuous-looking buffalo, but for the most part there were nice cultivated fields of grain and vines on either hand, and occasionally half a mile or so of neglected shrubby heath.
“Why, half of Long Island is wilder than this!” grumbled Peripatetica. “Where’s the Dark Tower country? Childe Roland would think this a formal garden. I _insist_ upon Berliet taking us somewhere that will thick our blood with horror.”
As it turned out, a wise government had drained the accursed land, planted eucalyptus trees, and was slowly reclaiming the plain to its old fertility, but the guide-books feel that the story is too good to be spoiled by modern facts, and cling to the old version of 1860.
Just then—by way of compensation, Berliet having fortunately slowed down over a bad bit—an old altar-piece of a Holy Family stepped down out its frame and came wandering toward them in the broad light of day. On the large mild gray ass—a real altar-piece ass—sat St. Anna wrapped in a faded blue mantle, carrying on her arm a sleeping child. At her right walked the child’s mother, whose thin olive cheek and wide, timid eyes seemed half ghostly under the white linen held together with one hand under her chin. Young St. John led the ass. A wreath of golden-brown curls blew about his golden-red cheeks, and he wore goat-hide shoes, and had cross-gartered legs.
Jane now says they never saw them at all. That it was just a mirage, or a bit of glamourie, and that there is nothing remaining in new Italy which could look so like the typical old Italy—but if Jane is right then how did the two happen to have exactly the same glamour at exactly the same moment? How could they both imagine the benign smile of that strayed altar picture? Is it likely that a motor car would lend itself to sacred visions? I ask you that!
There was certainly some illusion—not sacred—about the dare-devilishness of that Englishman who once spent a moonlit night at the temples, for a little farming village lies close to the enclosure that shuts off the temples from the highway, the inhabitants of which village seemed as meek as sheep and anything but foolhardy, and there was reason to believe that they spend every night there, whether the moon shines or not.
But the Temples were no illusion, standing in stately splendour in the midst of that wide shining green plain, by a sea of milky chalcedony, and in a semicircle behind them a garland of purple mountains crowned with snow. Great-pillared Neptune was all of dull, burned gold, its serried columns marching before the blue background with a curious effect of perfect vigour in repose, of power pausing in solid ease. No picture or replica gives the sense of this energy and power. Doric temples tend to look lumpish and heavy in reproductions, but the real thing at its very best (and this shrine of Neptune is the perfectest of Greek temples outside of Athens) has a mighty grace, a prodigious suggestion of latent force, of contained, available strength that wakes an awed delight, as by the visible, material expression of an ineffable, glorious, all-powerful god.
“Well, certainly those Greeks——!” gasped Jane when the full meaning of it all began to dawn upon her, and Peripatetica, who usually suffers from chronic palpitation of the tongue, simply sat still staring with shining eyes. Greeks to her are as was King Charles’ head to Mr. Dick. She is convinced the Greeks knew everything worth knowing, and did everything worth doing, and any further proof of their ability only fills her with a gratified sense of “I-told-you-so-ness.” So she lent a benign ear to a young American architect there, who pointed out many constructive details, which, under an appearance of great simplicity, proved consummate grasp of the art, and of the subtlest secrets of architectural harmonics.
Before the land made out into the harbour Poseidon’s temple stood almost on the sea’s edge. The old pavement of the street before its portals being disinterred shows the ruts made by the chariot wheels still deep-scored upon it, and it was here
“The merry Grecian coaster came Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine, Green bursting figs, and tunnies steeped in brine—”
anchoring almost under the shadow of the great fane of the Lord of the Waters; and here, when his cargo was discharged, he went up to offer sacrifices and thanks to the Sea-god of Poseidonia, and
“Hung his sea-drenched garments on the wall,”
and prayed for skill to outwit his fellows in trade; for fair winds to blow him once more to Greece.
Besides the temple of Neptune there was, of course, the enormous Basilica, and a so-called temple of Ceres, and some Roman fragments, but these were so much less interesting than the golden-pillared shrine of the Trident God, that the rest of the time was spent in looking vainly and wistfully for Pæstum’s famous rose gardens, of which not even the smallest bud remained, and then Berliet gathered them up, and went in search of the Station of La Cava.
A NEST OF EAGLES
“So underneath the surface of To-day Lies yesterday and what we call the Past, The only thing which never can decay.”
TRUSTFULLY and sleepily Jane and Peripatetica, in the icy starlight of La Cava, boarded the express of European _de Luxe_. Drowsy with the long day’s rush through the wind, they believed that the train’s clatter would be a mere lullaby to dreams of golden temples and iris seas and “the glory that was Greece.” No robbers or barbarians nearer than defunct corsairs crossed their imaginings; the hoodoo had faded from mind, shaken off by the glorious swoop of Berliet, and they supposed it left behind at Naples, clinging bat-like under the gaudy frescoes of Room 13 to descend on other unwary travellers.
Half of their substance had been paid to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits for this night’s rolling lodging, and they begrudged it not, remembering that it entitled their fatigue to the comforts of a room to themselves in all the vaunted superior civilization and decencies of a European compartment car. Presenting their tickets in trusting calm they prepared to follow the porter to a small but cosy room where two waiting white beds lay ready for their weary heads. But the Hoodoo had come on from Naples in that very train. Compartments and beds there were, but not for them. The porter led on, and in a toy imitation of an American Pullman, showed them to a Lilliputian blue plush seat and a ridiculous wooden shelf two feet above that pretended it could unfold itself into an upper berth. This baby section in the midst of a shrieking babble of tongues, a suffocation of unaired Latin and Teutonic humanity, was their compartment room, “à vous seules, Mesdames!” telegraphed for to Rome and made over to them with such flourish by the polite agent at Naples!
If the car was Lilliputian its passengers were not. Mammoth French dowagers and barrel-like Germans overflowed all its tiny blue seats, and the few slim Americans more than made good by their generous excess of luggage. It was a very sardine box.
In a fury too deep for words or tears Peripatetica and Jane sank into the few narrow inches the porter managed to clear for them, and resigned themselves to leaving their own dear bags in the corridor.
“They will, of course, be stolen, but then we may never need them again. We can’t undress, and shall probably be suffocated long before morning,” remarked Peripatetica bitterly, with a hopeless glare at the imitation ventilators not made to open. Their fury deepened at the slow struggles of the porter to adjust the inadequate little partitions, at the grimy blankets and pillows on the little shelves, at the curtains which didn’t conceal them, the wash-room without water or towels and the cattle-train-like burden of grunts and groans and smells floating on the unbreathable atmosphere.
Morning dawned golden on the flying hills at last, and then deepest fury of all was Peripatetica’s, that passionate lover of fresh air, to find that in spite of everything she _had_ slept, and was still breathing!
Calabria, lovely as ever, melted down to her glowing seas; one last swooping turn of the rails, and another line of faint hills rose opposite—and that was Sicily!
The train itself coiled like a weary serpent into a waiting steamer, which slipt smoothly by the ancient perils of Scylla and Charybdis; and nearer and nearer it rose, that gold and amethyst mountain-home of the Old Gods. The white curve of Messina, “the Sickle,” showed clear at the base of the cloud-flecked hills. Kronos, father of Demeter, enthroned on those very mountain peaks, had dropped his scythe at the sea’s edge, cutting space there for the little homes of men, and leaving them the name of his shining blade, “Zancle,” the sickle, through all Greek days. It was there, really there in actual vision, land of fire and myths; the place of the beginnings of gods and men.
Peripatetica and Jane burst from the car and climbed to the narrow deck above to get clearer view. The sea wind swept the dust from their eyes and all fatigue and discomfort from their memories. Their spirits rose to meet that Spirit Land where Immortals had battled and labored; had breathed themselves into man,—the divine spirit stirring his little passing life with revelation of that which passeth not; that soul of beauty and wisdom, and of poetry which should move through the ages. Their eyes were wide to see the land where man’s imaginings had brought the divine into all surroundings of his life, until every tree and spring and rock and mountain grew into semblance of a god. Oh, was it all a “creed outworn”? Here might not one perchance still see
“Proteus rising from the sea, Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn”?
In these very mountains before them had man himself been shaped; hammered out by Vulcan upon his forge in Ætna. Here, in this land he had been taught by Demeter to nourish himself from the friendly earth, taught how to shelter himself from the inclement elements by Orion, Hunter and Architect—a god before he was a star. There Zeus, all-conquering wisdom, had prevailed against his opponents and placed his high and fiery seat, this very Ætna, upon the bound body of the last rebellious Titan, making even the power of ignorance the pediment of his throne. There the fair maiden goddesses, Artemis and Minerva and Persephone, had played in flowery fields. There had Pluto stolen the fairest away from among the blossoms, the entrance to his dark underworld gaping suddenly among the sunny meadows. There had the desolate mother Demeter lit at Ætna the torch for her long and desperate search. There had demi-gods and heroes lived and loved and struggled. Its very rivers were transformed nymphs, its islands rocks tossed in Cyclop’s battles. There Ulysses had wandered and suffered; there Pythagoras had taught, Theocritus had sung. There—but man nor woman either is yet entirely spirit; and though it was in truth the actual land of their pilgrimage, of the birthplace of myth, of beauty and wonder, Persephone had not yet returned. The icy wind was turning all sentiment into shivers and they fled back to the Twentieth Century and its Pullman car.
Messina looked still more enticing when close at hand; both prosperous and imposing with its lines of stone quays and palaces on the sea front. Beyond these there were famous fountains they knew, and colourful marketplaces, and baroque churches with spires like fluted seashells, and interiors gleaming like sea caverns with all the rich colour and glow of Sicilian mosaics. In one of the churches was the shrine of a miracle-working letter from the Madonna, said to have been written by her own hand. There was besides an old Norman Cathedral, built of Greek ruins and Roman remains; much surviving Spanish quaintness, but to two unbreakfasted _Wagon Lit_ passengers all this was but ashes in the mouth. They felt that the attractions of Messina could safely remain in the guide-books. They were impelled on to Taormina.... No prophetic vision warned them that in their haste they were losing the chance of ever seeing that doomed Sickle-City at all. In that placid, modern port, where travellers for pleasure rarely paused, there seemed nothing to stay them. No ominous shadow lay upon it to tell that it was marked for destruction by “the Earth-Shaker,” or that before the year had gone it would be echoing the bitter cry of lost Berytus:
“Here am I, that unhappy city—no more a city—lying in ruins, my citizens dead men, alas! most ill-fated of all! The Fire-god destroyed me after the shock of the Earth-Shaker. Ah me! From so much loveliness I am become ashes. Yet do ye who pass me by bewail my fate, and shed a tear in my honour who am no more. A tomb of tombless men is the city, under whose ashes we lie.”
Taormina, the little mountain town, crouched under Ætna’s southern side, not far from those meadows of Enna from which Persephone had been ravished away. There she would surely first return to the upper world, and Demeter’s joy burst into flowers and sunshine. So there they decided to seek her, and turned their grimy faces straight to the train. The only sight-seeing that appealed to them now was a vision of the San Domenico Hotel with quiet white monkish cells like to Amalfi’s to rest their weariness in, peaceful pergolas, large bathtubs, and a hearty table d’hôte luncheon.
So they stayed not for sights, and stopped not for stone—nor breakfast, nor washing, nor even for their trunks, which had not materialized, but sat in a dusty railway carriage impatient for the train to start.
“It was beautiful,” remarked Jane, thinking of the harbour approach to the city.
“Yes,” said Peripatetica, jumping at her unexpressed meaning as usual. “Messina has always been a famous beauty, and always will be. But she is, and always has been, an incorrigible cocotte,—submitting without a struggle to every invader of Sicily in turn. And she certainly doesn’t in the least look her enormous age in spite of having led a _vie orageuse_. Whenever the traces of her past become too obvious she goes and takes an earthquake shock, they say, and rises fresh and rejuvenated from the ruins, ready to coquette again with a new master and be enticing and treacherous all over again.”
Messina suffered a terrific earthquake shock in 1783 and has had in her history serious damage from seismic convulsions no less than nine times.
It was hard to imagine on her modern boulevards the armies of the past—all those many conquerors that Messina had herself called in, causing half the wars and troubles of Sicily by her invitations to new powers to come and take possession, and to do the fighting for her that she never would do for herself; betraying in turn every master, good or bad, for the excitement of getting a new one....
Greeks, Carthagenians, Mamertines, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards—where were the ways of their tramplings now? On that modern light-house point there was not even a trace of the Golden Temple in which Neptune sat on a crystal altar “begirt with smooth-necked shells, sea-weeds, and coral, looking out eastward to the morning sun?”
“If it were near the 15th of August I would stay here in spite of everything,” ventured Peripatetica, looking up from her book. “The Procession of the Virgin is the only thing really worth seeing left in Messina.” And in answer to Jane’s enquiring eyebrows Peripatetica began to read aloud of that extraordinary pageant of the Madonna della Lettera and her car, that immense float, dragged through Messina’s streets by hundreds of men and women; of its tower fifty feet high, on which are ranged tiers over tiers of symbolically dressed children standing upon all its different stories; poor babies with painted wings made to fly around on iron orbits up to the very top of the erection; of the great blue globe upon which stands a girl dressed in spangled gauze, representing the Saviour, holding upon her right hand—luckily supported by iron machinery—another child representing the Soul of the Blessed Virgin.
“Not real children—not live babies!” protested Jane.
“Yes, indeed, just listen to Hughes’ account of it.” Peripatetica read: “At an appointed signal this well-freighted car begins to move, when it is welcomed with reiterated shouts and vivas by the infatuated populace; drums and trumpets play; the Dutch concert in the machine commences, and thousands of _pateraroes_ fired off by a train of gunpowder make the shores of Calabria re-echo with the sound; then angels, cherubim, seraphim, and ‘animated intelligences,’ all begin to revolve in such implicated orbits as to make even the spectators giddy with the sight; but alas for the unfortunate little actors in the pantomime; they in spite of their heavenly characters are soon doomed to experience the infirmities of mortality; angels droop, cherubim are scared out of their wits, seraphim set up outrageous cries, ‘souls of the universe’ faint away, and ‘moving intelligences’ are moved by the most terrible inversion of the peristaltic nerves; then thrice happy are those to whom an upper station has been allotted. Some of the young brats, in spite of the fracas, seem highly delighted with their ride, and eat their ginger-bread with the utmost composure as they perform their evolutions; but it not unfrequently happens that one or more of these poor innocents fall victims to this revolutionary system and earn the crown of martyrdom.”
Jane seized the book to make sure it was actually so written and not just one of Peripatetica’s flights of fancy, and plunged into an account of another part of the pageant—the giant figures of Saturn and Cybele fraternizing amiably with the Madonna; Cybele “seated on a large horse clothed like a warrior. Her hair is tied back with a crown of leaves and flowers with a star in front, and the three towers of Messina. She wears a collar and a large blue mantle covered with stars, which lies on the back of the horse. A mace of flowers in her right hand and a lance in her left. The horse is barded, and covered with rich trappings of red, with arabesques of flowers and ribbons.”...
All this, along with every treasure of her past, has now disappeared.
“What curious folk the Sicilians are! They accept new creeds and ceremonies, but the old never quite lose their place. Where else would the Madonna allow a Pagan goddess to figure in her train? And did you notice in this very procession they still carry the identical skin of the camel on which Roger entered the city when he began his conquest of Sicily? I wish it were near the 15th of August!”
“I wish it were near the time this train starts, if it ever does,” replied Peripatetica crossly.
And, as if but waiting the expression of her wish, the train did begin to stream swiftly along the deeply indented coast beside whose margin came that wild Norman raid upon Messina of the dauntless young hawks of de Hauteville. Roger, the youngest and greatest of the twelve sons, accompanied by but sixty knights and their squires, two hundred men in all, pouncing daringly upon a kingdom. A half dozen galleys slipped over from Reggio by night, and the morning sun flashed upon the dew-wet armour as they galloped through the dawn to Messina’s walls. The great fortified city was in front of them, a hostile country around them, and a navy on the watch to cut them off from reinforcements or return by sea. That they should succeed was visibly impossible. But determined faces were under the steel visors, the spirit of conquering adventure shining in their grey eyes. Every man of the host was confessed and absolved for this fight of the Cross against the Crescent and their young Commander was dedicated to a life pure and exemplary, if to him was entrusted the great task of winning Sicily to Christian dominion.
They did it because they thought they could do it; as in the old Greek games success was to the man who believed in his success. The Saracens fell into a panic at the sight of that intrepid handful at their gates, thinking from the very smallness of the band that it must be the advance pickets of a great army already past their guarding navy and advancing upon the city.
“So the Saracens gave up in panic, and Roger and his two hundred took all the town with much gold and many slaves, as was a conquering warrior’s due.”
The key of Messina was sent to Brother Robert in Calabria with the proud message that the city was his to come and take possession of. And the Normans went on with the same bold confidence; and always their belief was as a magic buckler to them as over all the island they extended their conquest. Seven hundred Normans routed an army of 15,000 Saracens, killing 10,000. And young Serbo, nephew of Roger, conquered 30,000 Arabs, attacking them with only one hundred knights.
It was one of Jane’s pet romances, the career of this landless youngest son of a small French noble carving out with sword and brain “the most brilliant of European Kingdoms,” leaving a dominion to his successors with power stretching far beyond Sicily as long as they governed upon his principles. The young conqueror, unspoiled by his dazzling success, ruled with justice, mercy, and genius, making Sicily united and prosperous; the freest country in the world at that time; the only one where all religions were tolerated, where men of different creeds and tongues could live side by side, each in his own way; each governed justly and liberally according to his own laws—French statutes for Normans, the Koran for Mussulmen, the Lombard laws for Italians, and the old Roman Code for the natives.
“Peripatetica,” Jane burst out. “Roger must have been a delightful person—‘so good, _so dear_, so great a king!’ Don’t you think there is something very appealing in a king’s being called ‘so dear’? It is much easier for them to be ‘great.’”
“Normans are too modern for me now,” said Peripatetica, whose own enthusiasm was commencing to catch fire. “We are coming to the spot of all the Greek beginnings, where their very first settlement began—do you realize that?”
And Jane, who had been hard at work with her histories, could see it clearly. The little narrow viking-like boats of Theocles, the Greek merchant, driven before the sudden northeast storm they could not beat up against nor lie to, straight upon the coast of this dread land. It had always been a land awesome and mysterious to the Greeks. They had imagined half the dramas of their mythology as happening there. It was sacred ground, too sacred to be explored by profane foot; and was besides the home of fierce cannibals, as they believed the Sikilians to be, and of all manner of monstrous and half divine beings. But, desperately choosing before certain destruction at sea the unknown perils of the shore, Theocles had rounded the point and beached his boats safely on that strip of yellow sand that still fringes the cove below Taormina.
He and his companions, who feared to adventure no perils of the treacherous Mediterranean in their tiny crafts, but feared very much the monsters of their imagination in this haunted country, built to Apollo an altar of the sea-worn rocks, and sacrificed on it their last meal and wine, praying him for protection and help to save them from the Læstrygones, from Polyphemus, and Hephæstos at his nearby smoking forge. And Apollo must have found it good, the savour of that his first sacrifice on Sicilian land, for straightway succour came. The natives, drawn down from the hillsides in curiosity at that strange fire on the shore, were not raging cannibals but peaceful and friendly farmer folk, who looked kindly on the shipwrecked merchants, and gladly bartered food and rich dark wine for Greek goods. And through the days of the storm the Greeks lived unmolested on the shore, impressed by all that met their eyes; the goodness of that “fairest place in the world.” When at last came favourable winds and the Greeks could set sail again, Theocles vowed to return to that fertile shore, and if Apollo, protector of colonists and giver of victory, should favour his enterprise, to build there a shrine in his honour.
But in Athens none would believe his accounts of the rich land and the mild natives. They said that even so it would be unwise to disturb Polyphemus, or to run the risk of angering Hephæstos, and that it was no proper site for a colony any way! Theocles did not falter at discouragement; he took his tale to other cities and over in Eubœa the Chalcydians were won to him. After the oracle of Apollo had promised them his protection and all good fortune, more Ionians and some Dorians joined them; and in the spring they set forth, a great fleet of vessels laden with all necessary things to found a colony. Theocles piloted them to the spot of his first sheltering; and there on the red rock horns of the point above the beach they founded Naxos, and built the great shrine of Apollo Archagates, founder and beginner, with that wonderful statue which is spoken of as still existing in the time of Augustus, 36 B.C.
Naxos itself had no such length of life. It knew prosperous centuries of growth and importance, of busy commerce and smiling wealth. Then came Dionysius, Tyrant of Syracuse, subdued the mother city to his jealous power and absolutely exterminated it, killing or carrying off into slavery all its population. “The buildings were swept away, and the site of Naxos given back to the native Sikilians. They never returned, and for twenty-two centuries no man has dwelt there.” Of all the shrines and palaces of Naxos not one stone remains upon another, not one surviving trace to identify now the exact site even of the Mother of all Greek cities in Sicily. But from her sprang Taormina.
Such of her population as managed to escape from Dionysius, climbed up to those steep rocks above and there, sheltering with the Sikilians, out of tyrants’ reach in that inaccessible mountain nest, Greek and Sikilian mingling produced a breed of eagles that with fierce strugglings has held fast its own on those peaks through all the centuries.
But these shipwrecks and temples and sieges grew dim behind the gritty cloud of railroad cinders. Jane felt the past melt away from her and fade entirely into the cold discomfort of the present. She subsided into limp weariness in a corner of the carriage, incapable of interest in anything, while Peripatetica’s spirits revived, approaching the tracks of her adored Greeks, and her imagination took fire and burst into words.
“Oh those wonderful days!” she cried. “If one could only have seen that civilization, that beauty, with actual eyes. Jane, wouldn’t you give anything to get back into the Past even for a moment?”
“No, I’d rather get somewhere in the now—and to breakfast,” grumbled Jane with hopeless materialism as she vainly tried to stay her hunger on stale chocolate. So Peripatetica saw visions alone, Jane only knowing dimly that miles and miles of orange groves, and of a sea a little paled and faded from its Calabrian blue, were slipping by.
A box of a station announced itself as Giardini-Taormina. A red-cheeked porter bore the legend “Hotel San Domenico” on his cap; and much luggage and two travellers fell upon him. But, ah, that hoodoo!
“Desolated, but the hotel was full. Yes, their letter had been received, but it had been impossible to reserve rooms,” said the cheerful porter heartlessly; “no doubt other hotels could accommodate them.” He didn’t seem to feel his cheerfulness in the least diminished by the dismay pictured in the dusty faces before him.
“Oh, well,” said Jane bravely, “picturesque monasteries are all very well, but modern comfort does count in the end. We will probably like the Castel-a-Mare, and if we don’t, there is the Timeo.”
A small man buzzing “Metropole, Metropole! Come with me, Ladies—beautiful rooms—my omnibus is just going!” hung upon their skirts, but they brushed him sternly aside, and permitted the rosy-cheeked porter to pile them and the mountains of their motoring-luggage into a dusty cab, and sing “Castel-a-Mare” cheerily to its driver.
“We will go there first as it’s nearest,” they agreed, “but if the rooms aren’t very nice, then the Timeo—the royalties all prefer the Timeo.”
The road was twisting up and up a bare hillside. They roused themselves to think that they were approaching Taormina, the crown of Sicily’s beauty, the climax of all earthly loveliness, the spot apostrophised alike with dying breath by German poets and English statesmen, as being the fairest of all that their eyes had beheld on earth, place of “glories far worthier seraph’s eyes” than anything sinful man ought to expect in this blighted world according to Cardinal Newman.
But where was it, that glamour of beauty? Underneath was a leaden stretch of sea, overhead a cold, clouded sky, jagged into by forbidding peaks. The grey road wound up and folded back upon itself, and slowly—oh dear departed Berliet, how slowly!—up they crawled. It was all grey, receding sea and rocky hillside, grey dust thick on parched bushes and plants, greyer still on grey olives and cactus, and what—those other dingy trees—could they be _almonds_!—those shrivelled and pallid ghosts of rosy bloom shivering in the icy wind? Was it all but a chill shadow, that for which they had left home and roaring fires and good steam heat?
A furry grey head surmounted a dust wave, a donkey and a small square cart emerged behind him, following a line of others even greyer and dustier. Jane looked listlessly at the forlorn procession until her eyes discerned colour and figures dim beneath the dirt on the cart’s sides, and underneath fantastic mud gobs what appeared to be carvings. Could these be the famous Painted Carts, the “walking picture books” of a romance and colour loving people, the pride of a Sicilian peasant, frescoed and wrought, though the owner lived in a cave—the asses hung with velvet and glittering bits of mirrors though he himself walked in rags? Was everything hoped for in Sicily to prove a delusion?
Up whirled the San Domenico porter in a cloud of dust, his empty carriage passing their laden one.
“You might try the ‘Pension Bellevue,’ ladies—beautiful outlook—opposite the Castel-a-Mare, if you are not suited there,” he called out as he rolled by.
They thanked him coldly, with spines stiffening in spite of fatigue.
A pension? Never! If they could not have ascetic cells at San Domenico or the flowery loggias of the Castel-a-Mare, then at least the chambers that had sheltered a German Empress!
Gardens and flowers began to appear behind the dust; a wave-fretted promontory ran into the sea below, a towering peak crowned with a brown rim loomed overhead. In a few more dusty twists of road the Castel-a-Mare was reached, and two large rooms with the best view carelessly demanded.
The Concierge looked troubled and sent for a bland proprietor. Rooms? He had none! wouldn’t have for a month—could give one room just for that very night—that was all!
To the Timeo then.
More dusty road, a quaint gateway, a narrow street with all the town’s population walking in the middle of it, a stop in front of a delightful bit of garden. A stern and decided concierge this time—_No rooms!_
In the mile and a half from the Castel-a-Mare at the end of one promontory, to the Internationale at the extreme end of the other, that dusty cab stopped at every hotel and, oh lost pride! at every pension in the town and out. The same stern refusal everywhere; no one wanted the weary freight. They felt their faces taking on the meek wistfulness of lost puppies vainly trying to ingratiate themselves into homes with bones.
“Does no one in the world want us?” wailed Peripatetica. “Can’t any one see how nice we really are and give us a mat and a crust?”
“The Metropole man did want us,” reminded Jane hopefully. “He even begged for us. Let’s go there!”
That had been the one and only place passed by, the Domenico porter had seemed so scornful of its claim at the station, but now they would condescend to any roof, and thought gratefully of that only welcome offered them in all Taormina.
How pleased the little porter would be to have them coming to his beautiful rooms after all! Their meek faces became proud again. They looked with approving proprietorship on the waving palm in front of the Metropole, and the old bell tower rising above it.
Peripatetica’s foot was on the carriage step ready to alight and Jane was gathering up wraps and beloved Kodak when out came a languid concierge and the usual words knelled in their ears—“_No rooms!_”
They refused to believe. “But your porter said you had.”
“Yes, an hour ago, but now they are taken.”
A merciful daze fell upon Peripatetica and Jane....
How they returned to the “Castel-a-Mare” and got themselves and their mountain of luggage into the one room in all Taormina they might call theirs for as much as a night, they never knew; when consciousness came back they were sitting in front of food in a bright dining-room, and knew by each other’s faces that hot water and soap must have happened in the interval.
Speech came back to Peripatetica, and she announced that she was never going to travel more, except to reach some place where she might stay on and on forever. Jane might tour through Sicily if she liked, but as for her, Syracuse and Girgenti and all could remain mere words on the map, and Cook keep her tickets—if she had to move on again on the morrow, she would go straight to Palermo and there stay!
Jane admitted to congenial feelings, and resigned all intervening Sicily without a pang. There would be no place in inhospitable Taormina for Persephone to squeeze into any way!
They went to question the Concierge of trains to Palermo. He took it as a personal grief that they must leave Taormina so soon. “The air of Palermo is not like ours.” They hoped it was not, as they shivered in a cold blast from the open door, and put it to him that they could hardly live on air alone, and that Taormina offered them nothing more. But he had something to suggest—furnished rooms that he had heard that a German shop-keeper wished to let. Peripatetica did not take to the suggestion kindly, in fact her aristocratic nose quite curled up at it. But she assented dejectedly that they might as well walk there as anywhere, and give the place a look.
Through the dust and shrivelled almond blossoms they trailed back into town. The sun was still behind grey clouds and an icy wind whipped up the dust.
“Too late for the almond bloom, too early for warmth. What _is_ the right moment for Sicily?” murmured Peripatetica.
The mountains with their sweeping curves into the sea were undeniably beautiful; the narrow town street they entered through the battlemented gate was full of gay colour, but it left them cold and homesick for Calabria. A little old Saracen palace, with some delicate Moorish windows and mouldings still undefaced, held the antiquity shop of the Frau Schuler. Brisk and rosy she seemed indeed the “trustable person” of the Concierge’s description.
Yes, indeed, she had rooms and hoped they might please the ladies. Her niece would show them. A white-haired loafer was beckoned from the Square, and Peripatetica and Jane turned over to his guidance. Behind his faded blue linen back they threaded their way between the swarming tourists, children, panniered donkeys, and painted carts.
Suddenly the old man vanished into a crack between two houses, which turned out to be an alley, half stair, half gutter, dropping down to lower levels. Everything no longer needed in the kitchen economy of the houses on either side had been cast into the alley—the bones of yesterday’s dinners, vegetable parings of to-day’s, the baby’s bath, the father’s old shoes lay in a rich ooze through which chickens clucked and squabbled. At the bottom of the crack a high wall and a pink gateway ... they were in a delicious garden, descending a pergola of roses and grapes. Violets and freesias, geraniums and heliotrope spread in a dazzle of colour and sweetness under gnarled olives and almonds and blossoming plums; stone benches, bits of old marbles, a violet-fringed pool and a terrace leading down to a square white house, a smiling young German girl inviting them in, and then a view—dazzling to even their fatigued, dulled eyes.
In front a terrace, and then nothing but the sea, 700 feet below, the surf-rimmed coast line melting on and off indefinitely to the right in great soft curves of up-springing mountains, a deep ravine, then the San Domenico point with the old convent and church rising out of its gardens. On the left the ruins of the Greek theatre hanging over their heads; and on the very edge of the terrace an old almond-tree with chairs and a table under it, all waiting for tea.
Fortunately the villa’s interior showed comfortable rooms, clean, airy, and spacious. But the terrace settled it. They would have slept anywhere to belong to that. No longer outcast tramps but semi-proprietors of a villa, a terrace, a garden, and a balcony, they returned beaming to the friendly Concierge.
And all Taormina looked different now. The brocades and laces waved enticingly at the “antichita’s” doors, old jewels and enamels gleamed temptingly; mountains rose more majestic, the sea seemed less disappointingly lacking in Calabrian colour.... And as for the tourists, so disgustingly superior in the morning with their clean faces and unrumpled clothes, assured beds and table d’hôtes; now, how the balance had changed! They were mere tourists. What a superior thing to be an inhabitant, with a terrace all one’s own!
Life at the Villa Schuler was inaugurated in a pouring rain. But even that did not dim its charm; though to descend the Scesa Morgana—as the gutter-alley called itself—was like shooting a polluted Niagara, and the stone floors of the villa itself were damply chill, and American bones ached for once despised steam heat. Yet smiling little Sicilian maids, serving with an ardour of willingness that never American maid knew, with radiant smiles staggered through the rain bearing big pieces of luggage, carried in huge pitchers of that acqua calda the forestieri had such a strange passion for, and then, as if it were the merriest play in the world, pulled about heavy pieces of furniture to rearrange the rooms according to American ideas, which demanded that dressing-tables should have light on their mirrors, and sofas not be barriered behind the immemorial German tables.
Maria of the beaming smile, and Carola of the gentle eyes, what genius was yours? Two dumb forestieri, who had never learned your beautiful tongue, found that they had no more need of words to express their wants than a baby has to tell his to knowing mother and nurses. Did they have a wish, all they had to do was to call “Maria!”—smile and stutter, look into her sympathetic face, and somehow from the depths of their eyes she drew out their desire....
“Si, si, Signora!”
She was off and back again with a smile still more beaming.
Yes, “questo” was always the desired article!
At first they did make efforts at articulate speech, and with many turnings over of dictionary and phrase-book attempted to translate their meaning. But that was fatal. Compilers of phrase-books may be able to converse with each other, but theirs is a language apart—of their own, apparently—known to no other living Italians. They soar in cloudy regions of politeness, those phrase-books, all flourishes and unnecessary compliments; but when it comes to the solid substantials of existence they are nowhere! Towels are not towels to them, nor butter, butter.
At first two trusting forestieri loyally believed in them, and book in hand read out confidently to Maria their yearnings for a clean table cloth, or a spoon. But a dictionary spoon never was a spoon to Maria—dazed for once she would look at them blankly until meaning dawned on her from their eyes; then “ah!” and she would exclaim an entirely different word from the dictionary’s, and produce the article at last.
But then according to Maria’s vocabulary “_questo?_” “_qui!_” were the only really vital and necessary words in all the Italian language. It merely depended upon how you inflected these to make them express any human need or emotion. “Questo” meant everything from mosquito-bars to vegetables; and the combination of the two words with a sprinkling of “si’s” and “non’s” were all one needed to define any shade of feeling—pride, surprise, delight, regret, apology, sadness. From the time Maria brought in the breakfast trays in the mornings to the hot-water bottles at night it rang through the villa all day long; for the intricacies of her duties, the demands of the lodgers, scoldings from the Fraulein, chatter with other maids, “questo! qui!” sounded near and echoed from the distance like a repeated birdnote.
No nurse ever showed more pride in a precocious infant’s lispings than did Maria when they caught up her phrases and repeated them to her—when the right words to express the arrangement of tub and dinner table were remembered and stammered out. She seemed to feel that there might be hope of her charges eventually developing into rational articulate beings, and “questo-ed” every article about to them, with all the enthusiasm of a kindergartner.
* * * * *
Next morning the sun had come out, and so had Ætna. There it suddenly was, towering over the terrace, a great looming presence dominating everything; incredibly high and white, its glittering cone clear cut as steel against the blue morning sky, rising far above the clouds which still clung in tatters of drapery about the immense purple flanks. Enceladus for once lay quiet upon his fiery bed; no tortured breathings of steam floated about the icy clearness of the summit. It was a vision all of frozen majestic peace, yet awesomely full of menace, of the times when the prisoned Titan turned and groaned and shook the earth with his struggles, and poured out tears of blood in floods of burning destruction over all the smiling orchards and vineyards and soft green valleys.
Suddenly, Germans armed with easels and palettes sprang up fully equipped at every vantage viewpoint. The terrace produced a fertile crop of them, solemnly reducing the wonderful vision to mathematical dabs of purple and mauve and grey upon yellow canvas. One felt it comforting to know that even if Ætna never pierced the clouds again all Germany might feast its eyes on the colored snap shots then being made of that morning’s aspect of the Great Presence amid a patronising chorus of “Kolossals” and “achs reizends.” But once seen, it remained impressed on sense and spirit, that vision—whether visible or not. It was always with one, dominating all imaginings as it did every actual circumstance of life at Taormina, the weather, the temperature, the colour of every prospect. Though the sky behind San Domenico might be a blank and empty grey, _one knew it was there_, that mysterious and wonderful presence. And when it stood out, a Pillar of Heaven indeed, all clear and fair in white garment of fresh-fallen snow, it was still a menace to the blossoming land below, whether from its summit were sent down icy winds and grey mists or shrivelling fire and black pall of lava.
[Illustration: “A PLACE WHERE THE PAST REVEALS ITSELF”]
Equal in importance with this vision of Ætna was the appearance of Domenica—both events happening in the same day. Domenica too began as a bland outline. Small, middle-aged, and primly shawled; a smooth black head, gold earrings, and a bearing and nose of such Roman dignity and ability that two weary forestieri yearned at once to put themselves and their undarned stockings into the charge of her capable little hands. She respectfully asserted her willingness to serve them; they could make that out—but how tell her their requirements and the routine of the service they wished? It was seen to be beyond the powers of any phrase-book or even of Maria, presiding over the interview with beaming interest, and carefully repeating with louder tone and hopeful smile all Domenica’s words. No mutual understanding could be reached. They gave it up, and regretfully saw the shining black head bow itself out. But Domenica had to be. Their fancy clamoured for her, and all their poor clothes, full of the dust of travel and the rents of ruthless washerwoman, demanded her insistently. A more competent interpreter was found, and their needs explained at length. Domenica’s eyes sparkled with willing intelligence; she professed herself capable of doing anything and everything they asked of her; and mutual delight gilded the scene until the question of terms came up. What would the ladies pay? They mentioned a little more than the Frau Schuler had told them would be expected, and waited for the pleased response to their generosity—but what was happening? The grey shawl was tossed from shoulders that suddenly shrugged, and arms that flew about wildly; fierce lightnings flashed from the black eyes, a torrent of ever faster and shriller words rose almost into shrieks.
Peripatetica and Jane shrank aghast, expecting to see a stiletto plunged into the stolid form of their interpreter, bravely breasting the fury.
“What _is_ the matter?” they cried.
“Oh nothing,” smiled the interpreter, “she is saying it isn’t enough; that the ladies at the hotels pay their maids more, and her husband wouldn’t permit her to take so little.”
Dear me, she need not! they certainly would not want such a fury.
The fury had subsided into tragic melancholy, and subdued after-mutterings of the storm rumbled up from the reshawled bosom.
“She says she will talk it over with her husband to-night,” said the gentle interpreter with a meaning wink. “She is really good and able; the ladies will find her a brave woman.”
They didn’t exactly feel that bravery was needed on her side as much as on theirs after that storm, but they had liked no other applicant, and again the imposing nose and capable appearance asserted their charm, and they remembered their stockings. Their offer still stood, they said, but it must be accepted or declined at once; they wanted a maid that very evening. Renewed flashes—she dared not accept such a pittance without consulting her husband.... Very well, other maids had applied, expecting less. A change of aspect dawned—she would like to serve the ladies, would they not give half of what she asked for? Consultation with the interpreter—ten cents more a day offered only—instant breaking out of smiles and such delighted bobbings and bowings as she departed that it seemed impossible to believe that furious transformation had ever really happened.
They felt a little uneasy. Had they caught a Tartar? Remembering all the tales of Sicilian temper it seemed scarcely comfortable to have a maid who might draw a stiletto should one give her an unpleasing order. They awaited the beginning of her service a bit doubtfully. But when that grey shawl was hung inside the villa door, the only fierceness its owner showed was in her energy for work. The black eyes never flashed again, until ... but that comes later. They beamed almost as happy and instant a comprehension of all needs as Maria’s. And her capacity for work was appalling. At first they watched its effects with mutual congratulations; such an accumulation of the dilapidations of travel as was theirs had seemed to them quite hopeless ever to catch up with, but now the great heaps of tattered stockings turned into neat-folded pairs in their drawers, under-linen coquetted into ribbons again, and all their abused belongings straightened into freshness and neatness once more. Domenica’s energy was as fiery as Ætna’s during an eruption, only unlike the mountains it never seemed to know a surcease. Dust departed from skirts instantly at the fierce onslaught of her brushings; things flew into their places; sewing seemed to get itself done as if at the wave of a magician’s wand. Accustomed to the dilatoriness of Irish Abigails at home, Peripatetica and Jane were quite dazzled with delight at first—but then incredibly soon came the time when there was nothing left undone; when the little personal waiting on they needed could not possibly fill Domenica’s days, and it became a menace, the sight of that little grey-clad figure asking with empty hands, “what next, Signora?”
“The Demon,” they began calling her instead of Domenica, and felt that like Michael Scott and his demon servant, they would be obliged to set her to weaving ropes of sand, the keeping her supplied with normal tasks seemed so impossible. It became almost a pleasure to find a gown too loose or too tight, that she might alter it, or to spot or tear one, and as for ripped skirt bindings or torn petticoat ruffles, they looked at each other in delight and cried exultantly, “a job for the Demon!” Tea-basket kettles to scour they gave her, silver to clean, errands to do, fine things to wash, their entire wardrobes to press out; yet still the little figure sat in her corner reproachfully idle, looking at them questioningly, and sighing like a furnace until some new task was procured her. Desperately they took to giving her afternoons off, and invariably dismissed her before the bargained time in the evening. But still to find grist for the mill of her industry kept them racking their brains unsuccessfully through all their Taormina days.
* * * * *
Home comforts and maid once secured they could turn to Taormina itself with open minds, and plunge into a flood of beauty and queernesses and history. Of the guide-books some say that Taormina was the acropolis of Naxos, an off-shoot of that first Greek town, others that it, like Mola, was a Sikilian stronghold long before the days of the Greeks. Jane’s private theory was that neither Greeks nor Sikilians had been its founders, that eagles alone would ever first have built on that dizzy windy perch!
On the very ridge of a mountain spine with higher peaks overhanging, Taormina twists its one real street, houses climbing up or slipping down hill as best they may, all clinging tight, and holding hands fast along the street to balance themselves there at all. Dark stairway cracks between lead up or down, and overhead flying arches or linked stories keep the clasp unbroken. Here and there a little street manages to twist off and find a few curves for itself on another level, or the street widens into a wee square, or a terrace beside an old church is edged with a stone-benched balustrade where ancient loafers may sun themselves and look down at the tiny busy specks of fishing boats in the sea far below.
Every hour of the day the Street is a variety show with the mixed life passing through it, and acting its dramas there. Flocks of goats squeezing through on their way to pasture; donkeys carrying distorted wine skins or gay glazed pottery protruding from their panniers; women going to the fountain, balancing slender Greekish water jars on their heads; the painted carts carrying up the tourists’ luggage; the tourists themselves in veils and goggles bargaining at enticing shop doorways, or peering into the windowless room of Taormina’s kindergarten, where a dozen or more infants are primly ranged, every mother’s daughter with knitting pins in hand and silky brown curls knotted on top of head like little old women, sitting solemnly in the scant light of the open door, acquiring from a gentle old crone the art of creating their own stockings. There the barber strums his guitar on a stool outside the “Salone” door while he waits for custom; the Polichinello man obstructs traffic with the delighted crowds of boys collected by Punch’s nasal chantings and the shrill squeaks of “Il Diavolo.” There come the golden loads of oranges and lemons; green glistening lettuces and feathery finochi; bread hot from the bakers in queer twists and rings; live chickens borne squawking from market, and poor little kids going to the butchers. The busy tide of every-day life never ebbed its colourful flow from the beginning of the street at the arch of one old gateway until its end at the arch of the other. Buying and selling, learning, working, and idling, the Present surged there, but a step aside into any of the backways, and one was instantly in the Past. Old women spinning in doorways with the very same twirling spindles as those of two thousand years ago. The very same old women, one had almost said, their hawk-like dried faces were so unimaginably far removed from youth, from all modernness.
The very names of the streets spell history and drama. History rises up and becomes alive.
In the Street of Timoleon one hears the clank of armour—the Great Leader and his Corinthians swing down the road. Only a few days ago they had landed at the beach of ruined Naxos in answer to the call of Andromachus, Taormenium’s ruler. They have been warmly entertained at his palace, have there rested, learning from him of the lay of the land and state of affairs; now they set out to begin the campaign. The staring people stand watching the march of these strong new friends, murmuring among themselves in awestruck whispers of the portents attending the setting forth of these allies. How great Demeter and Persephone herself had appeared to the servitors of their temple, promising divine assistance and protection to this expedition for the succour of their island—a rumour too that Apollo had dropped the laurel wreath of victory from his statue at Delphi upon Timoleon’s head; a marvel, not a rumour, for it was beheld with very eyes by some amongst themselves. How the ships bringing these deliverers had come in through the night to the harbour below with mysterious unearthly fires hovering in front of them and hanging in balls at the masthead, to light them on the way!
In the midst of the soldiers is a taller figure—or one that seems so—a face like Jupiter’s own, of such majesty and sternness and calm. The crowd surges and thrills and shouts with all its heart and soul and stout Sicilian lungs.
“Who is that?” ask the children.
“Timoleon! Timoleon, the Freer!” they are answered when the shouting is over. “Remember all your life long that you have seen him.”
And when years later those boys, grown to manhood in a free prosperous Sicily, hear of the almost divine honours that grateful Syracuse is paying to her adored deliverer, of the impassioned crowds thronging the theatre, mad with excitement at every appearance of the great old blind man, they too thrill to know that their eyes too have seen “The Liberator,” greatest and simplest of men.
It is the Street of the Pro-Consulo Romano. Here comes Verres, cruelest of tyrants, most rapacious of robbers. The people shrink out of the way, out of sight as fast as may be, at the first gleam of the helmets of the Pro-Consul’s guard, when “carried by eight stalwart slaves in a litter, lying upon cushions stuffed with rose leaves, clad in transparent gauze and Maltese lace, with garlands of roses on his head and round his neck, and delicately sniffing at a little net filled with roses lest any other odour should offend his nostrils,” the sybarite tyrant is borne along, passing the statue of himself he has just had erected in the Forum, on his way to the theatre.
The Street of Cicero; it is only necessary to close one’s eyes to see that lean, long-nosed Roman lawyer. A fixed, silent sleuth-hound on this same Verres’ track; following, following close, nose fixed to the trail, for all the cunning doublings and roundings of the fox, questing all over Sicily, gathering everywhere evidence, building up his case, silently, inexorably; until at last his quarry is cornered, no squirming tricks of further avail. Verres is caught by the throat, exposed, denounced; so passionately, that as long as man’s appreciation of logic and eloquence endures the great lawyer’s pleading of that case is remembered and quoted.
Children are playing in the Via Sextus Pompeius, but one sees instead a gleam of golden armour, of white kilts swinging from polished limbs—the proud figure of Pompey; splendid perfumed young dandy who, the fair naughty ladies say, is the “sweetest-smelling man in Rome.”
Here, with instinctive climb to the heights, he is desperately watching the surge of that great new power flooding, foaming, submerging all the world; rising up to him even here, the bubbling wave started by that other Roman dandy, the young man Julius Cæsar, who knotted his girdle so exquisitely....
The street from which the Villa Schuler’s pink door opened was that of the Bastiones, where the town’s fortified wall had once been. Corkscrewing dizzily down the sheer hillside among the cacti and rocks ran a narrow little trail. Jane had settled it to her own satisfaction that this was the scene of Roger’s adventure when besieging Taormina, then Saracen Muezza—last stronghold on the East coast to hold out against him; as it had two hundred years ago been one of the last in succumbing to the Moslems.
Roger had completely surrounded the strong place with works outside its walls, and was slowly reducing it by starvation. Going the rounds one day, with his usual reckless courage almost unaccompanied, he is caught in a narrow way by a strong party of the enemy. The odds are overwhelming, even to Normans, on that steep hillside. Roger must retreat or be cut down. For attackers and pursued the only foothold is the one narrow path. Evisand, devoted follower of Roger, is quick to see the advantage of that—one man alone may delay a whole host for a few important minutes there, and he offers up his life to cover his master’s escape. Alone, on the narrow way he makes a stand against all the Moslem swarm, with such mighty wielding of sword that it is five minutes before the crooked Moslem blades can clear that impediment from their way. Roger, who has had time to reach safety before the brave heart succumbs to innumerable wounds, dashes back with reinforcements, wins the day, recovers his loyal servitor’s body, buries it with royal honours, and afterwards builds a church in memory of this preservation, and for the soul of his preserver. And Taormina, yielding to Roger and starvation, regains her name and the Cross....
Picking their way one morning up through the puddles and hens of their own alleyway, Peripatetica, raising her eyes an instant from the slime to look at the label on the house corner, said:
“Who could have been the Morgana this scandal of a street ever stole its name from? ... you don’t suppose....”
“Why, that it could have been the Fata Morgana? Her island first appeared somewhere off the Sicilian coast.”
“Oh, Peripatetica! how could a fairy, lovely and enchanting, ever have become associated with this!”
Peripatetica had a fine newborn theory on her tongue’s tip, but ere she could voice it, a nervous hen above them suddenly decided there was no room on that road for two to pass on foot, and took to her wings with wild squawk and a lunge straight at Peripatetica’s face in an attempt to pass overhead. Peripatetica ducked and safely dodged all the succeeding hens whom the first dame’s hysteria instantly infected to like behaviour. By the time she caught her breath again in safety at the street’s level, the theory was lost, but another more interesting one was born to her as they proceeded.
“‘Street of Apollo Archagates,’—Jane, do you see meaning in that? The Greeks always put their greatest temples _on the heights_—Athens, Girgenti, Eryx, wherever there were hills the Great Shrine was on the Acropolis. Taormina must have been the Acropolis of those Naxos people—they certainly never stayed on the unprotected shore below without mounting to these heights. I believe Apollo’s temple stood up here, not below. Here they built it, dominating the city, shining far out to sea, a mark for miles to all their ships and to the sailormen worshipping Apollo, Protector of Commerce.”
“No one has ever suggested that,” said Jane.
“What if they haven’t? It’s just as apt to be true, though even tradition has left no trace of it now but the name of this dirty little street. I for one am going to believe it, and that was why the statue survived until the time of the Romans.”
And so it was that every step they took stirred up wraiths of myth and history. Even on the Street in the midst of all its humming bustle, rotund German tourists and donkeys, all the modern life would suddenly melt away, and they would resurrect old St. Elio, attired only in chains and his drawers, kneeling in front of the Catania gate, exhorting the Byzantine soldiers to cleanse themselves from their sins before destruction came from the Saracens then raging like mad wolves outside the devoted town’s walls, in a fury that it alone—save Rometta—of all Christian Sicily should still hold out against them. Then the air would fill with the screaming and strugglings of those old fierce eagle fights, and the donkey boys’ cries of “A-ah-ee!” would change to the fierce triumphant shouts of “Allah Akbar!” with which Ibrahim’s cruel soldiery finally broke in to massacre garrison and townsfolk.
Although Taormina sat apart on her mountain eyrie with no epoch-making events finding room on her perch to happen, the stream of all Sicily’s history, from first Greek settlement to the revolts of modern days against King Bomba’s tyranny, have surged around and through her. An American living in Taormina did a kindness to her native cook, for which in grateful return the cook insisted on presenting her a quantity of old coins, which her husband had turned up through the years in their little garden. Showing them to the Curator of a Museum, “Madame,” he said to the fortunate recipient of the gift, “you have a complete epitome of all Sicilian history in these coins.”
All the different races and dynasties dominating Sicily from her beginning, all the great cities that rose into local power were represented in these treasure troves from the silt of the centuries, dug by a peasant from the soil of one little garden.
It was the Greek theatre which first revealed the Sicily of their dreams to Peripatetica and Jane; consoling for the vague disappointment of those first days of dust and rain by the glamour of its presentment of the loveliness of nature and the majesty of the past.
Greek that wonderful ruin still essentially is, for all its Roman remodelling and incrusting of brick. Only the Greeks could have so lovingly and instinctively combined with nature and seized so harmoniously all nature’s fairest to enhance their own creation. The place, the setting, the spirit of it is Greek; what matter if the actual material shape now is Roman, with the Greek form only glimmering through like a body of the old statuesque beauty cramped and hidden under distorting modern dress? Not that the theatre’s Roman clothing is ugly—the warm red brick, contrasting with the creamy marble fragments, has an undeniable charm, Greek and Roman together. It is an exquisite ruin of human conceivings, contrived to have blue sea and curving shore and Ætna’s snowy cone as the background of the open stage arches, and in the foyer, the arcaded walk back and behind the top tiers of the auditorium, all the differing panorama of beauty of the northern coast line.
Nature from the beginning did more than man for the building, and now she has taken it back to herself again, blending Greek and Roman in binding of vine and flower and moss; twining all the stone-seated tiers into an herb and flower garden, and putting the song of birds into the vaulted halls of the Greek Chorus.
An enchanting place, where the Past seems to reveal itself in all that it had most of beauty and splendour. Peripatetica and Jane thought themselves fortunate to live under its wings; actually in its shadow, and so be on intimate calling terms at any hour of the day, learning its beauty familiarly through every changing transformation of light, cool morning’s grey and glowing noon’s gold, fiery sunsets, blue twilights, and early moonrise—mountains and sea and wide-flung sky dissolving magically and mysteriously into ever different pictures.
They wandered through chorus halls and dressing-rooms, the obscure regions under the stage and the dizzy ones on top of it; strolled in the outside arcade on top of the auditorium, where the loveliness of the view was a fresh wonder every time it burst on them, sat in the top rows and the bottom ones on the flowery sod now covering all the seats, looking from every angle at that most charming of marble stage settings and most wonderful of all backgrounds, trying to imagine the times when the surrounding tiers had been filled with 4,000 eager spectators, and the walls had echoed to the tragedies of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Looking wonderingly at the curious drains and holes and underground passages below the stage, they wondered if Æschylus, that eminent stage manager as well as poet, had not himself perhaps contrived some of them on his visit to Sicily, to introduce new thrills of stage effects into the performances of his tragedies here. Æschylus, who was inventor of stage realism, first to introduce rich costuming, accessories, and stage machinery, the mutter of stage thunder, shrieks, and sounds from behind the scenes suggestive of the deeds considered too shocking to happen in the audience’s sight—inventor of the “Deus ex Machina,” that obliging god popping from out his trap-door to divinely straighten out a situation snarled past natural conclusion.
As one sat there in the calm splendour of the setting of earth and sky, sun, and great winds streaming overhead, it became easier to understand the spirit of the old Greek plays; how the drama had been to them not mere amusement but almost a form of religion, and an expounding of their beliefs, an attempt to “justify the ways of God to man.” If perhaps such settings had not instinctively formed the differing tendencies of their great play-writers; Æschylus to represent suffering as the punishment of sin; Sophocles to justify the law of God against the presumption of man; and in these spacious open-air settings if the great rugged elementary simplicity of their plays had not been necessary and inevitable.
“In the Greek tragedy the general point of view predominates over particular persons. It is human nature that is represented in the broad, not this or that highly specialized variation.... To the realization of this general aim the whole form of the Greek drama was admirably adapted. It consisted very largely of conversations between two persons representing two opposed points of view, and giving occasion for an almost scientific discussion of every problem of action raised in the play; and between these conversations were inserted lyric odes in which the chorus commented on the situation, bestowed advice or warning, praise or blame, and finally summed up the moral of the whole.”
More akin to an opera than to a play in our modern sense, the Greek drama had as its basis music. The song and stately dance of its mimetic chorus being the binding cord of the whole, “bringing home in music to the passion of the heart the idea embodied in lyric verse, the verse transfigured by song, and song and verse reflecting as in a mirror to the eye by the swing and beat of the limbs they stirred to consonance of motion.”
Sitting in the thyme-scented breeze Peripatetica and Jane read Euripides until they seemed to become a part of a breathless audience waiting for his tragedies to be performed before their eyes, waiting for the first gleam of the purple and saffron robes of the chorus, sweeping out from their halls in chanting procession. And it would all seem to take place once more on the stage in front of them, that feast for the eye and ear and intelligence at once. It became clear that across such great unroofed space the actors could not rely on “acting,” in our sense, for their results. It must be something bigger and simpler than any exact realism of petty actions; play of facial expression, subtle changes of voice and gesture would be ineffectually lost there. So, though at first the stage conventions of a different age seemed strange to these modern spectators, the actors raised above their natural height on stilted boots, their faces covered by masks, their voices mechanically magnified; yet in wonderful effects of statuesque posings the meaning came clear to the eye, and the chanting intonation brought out every beautiful measure of the rolling majestic verse which a realistic conversational delivery would have obscured. So the representation became “moving sculpture to the eye, and to the ear, as it were, a sleep of music between the intenser intervals of the chorus,” and the spectators found themselves “without being drawn away by an imitative realism from the calm of impassioned contemplation into the fever and fret of a veritable actor on the scene,” receiving all the beautiful lucid thought and sentiment of the text, heightened by the accompanying appeal to the senses of perfect groupings of forms and colours, of swaying dance, and song and recitative, until it all blended into one perfect satisfying whole—perhaps the most wonderful form of art production that has ever existed.
And then some German tourist would scream, “Ach Minna, komm mal her! ’s doch famos hier oben!” and they would be waked from their day dream of old harmonies into the shrill bustling present again.
“It is like all really great fresco painting,” said Peripatetica on one of these comings back, “kept in the flat. Anything huge has to be treated so as to make its meaning tell; it has to be done in flat outline to stay in the picture, to make the whole effective. All the great imposing frescoes are like that; when the seventeenth century tried to heighten its effects by moulding out arms and legs in the round, its pictures dropped to pieces; any idea it was trying to express became lost. One is conscious of nothing but the nearest sprawling realistic limb thrusting out at one. Oh, those delicious marvellous Greeks! everything that is beautiful and perfect they did first, and anything good that has ever been done since is only copying them.”
Jane had a deep respect for the Greeks herself, but she sometimes turned against too much laudation of them.
“Do you suppose the æsthetic effect of their tragedies was really greater than that of a Wagner opera, well given? That the lament for Iphigenia could be more deeply thrilling than Siegfried’s funeral march?”
Peripatetica almost bounded from her seat.
“But that’s just it!” she cried. “Wagner operas are a revival of the Greek ideal! the only modern analogy of their drama! He had the same idea of painting on a huge canvas great heroic figures in the flat, keeping them in the picture without rounding out into petty realism. And he has attempted exactly what they did, to present his dramatic theme in a mingling of music, poetry, picture, and dance, every branch of art combined!”
“That’s interesting, and perhaps true, my dear, but if you discourse on about King Charles’ head, we shall get caught by that shower racing down the coast. There is just time to beat it to home and Vesuvius!”
Vesuvius was, after Domenica, their greatest acquisition, and the one that most soothingly spread about an atmosphere of home comfort. Until he came life had been a thing of shivers and sneezes, of days spent in ceaseless trampings to keep their chilled blood in circulation, and of evenings sitting swathed in fur coats and steamer rugs, with feet raised high above the cold drafts of the floor.
Fireplaces, or any means of artificial heating were unknown to the villa. They had waited patiently for the Southern sun to come and do his duty, but he didn’t; and a day came when Jane took to bed as the only hope of warmth, when even Domenica sneezed and said it was “_molto freddo_,” and then Peripatetica sallied forth determined to find some warmth nearer than Ætna. “Vesuvius” was the result of her quest. Not much was he to look at outwardly. Small was his round black form; oh, pitifully small he seemed at first view to those whose only hope he was. A mere rusty tin lantern on three little feet, he looked—but when his warm heart began to glow and to send delicious hot rays percolating through the holes of his sides and pointed lid, the charms of his fiery nature won respect at once. He made his small presence felt incredibly, from stone floor to high ceiling. Shawls and coats could be shed, feet lowered and at once frozen spines relaxed into long-forgotten comfort.
His breath was not pleasant to be sure, his charcoal fumes troubled at first, but when a Sicilian oracle had recommended the laying of sliced lemons on his head, all fumes were absorbed, he breathed only refreshing incense and became altogether a joy. Every day, except on rainy ones, when his company was called for earlier, he made his appearance at six of the evening—and how eagerly the sight of Maria bearing him in used to be waited for! Then with feet toasting and backs relaxing in delightful warmth, Peripatetica and Jane sat over his little glowing holes with quite the thrill and comfort of a real hearthstone.
Ardent fire worshippers they found themselves becoming in this supposedly Southern land. If Persephone had ever been as cold as they, they doubted if that _enlèvement_ to Pluto’s warm, furnace-heated realm could have been so distasteful after all!
* * * * *
Paddling out in the rain to hotels for meals was at first a drawback to life in the Villa Schuler. To sit with damp ankles through the endless procession of table d’hôte meals, and afterwards have the odoriferous bespatterings of the Scesa Morgana as dessert, was not an enjoyable feature of local colour. Frau Schuler was implored to feed her lodgers.
“But we are simple people; our plain cooking would not satisfy the ladies,” she protested, distressed. But the ladies felt that a crust and an egg in their own sitting-room would be more satisfying than all the triumphs of hotel chefs out in the wet. And to bread and eggs they resigned themselves. Instead came a five-course banquet, served by beaming Butler Maria in a dazzling new grass-green bodice—soup and macaroni, meat and vegetables, perfect in seasoning and succulence, crisp salad from the garden, and with it the demanded poached eggs which were to have constituted the whole dinner, almond pudding with a wondrous sauce; dates, oranges, sugary figs beaded on slivers of bamboo, mellow red wine. It seemed a very elastic two lire which could cover all that, as Frau Schuler said it did! Truly the Fraulein Niece was an artist. Peripatetica and Jane thereafter dined at home in tea gowns and luxury—and the pudding sauces grew more bland and wonderful every night. Also eggs continued to give originality by the vagaries of their appearance. As Peripatetica said, “they just ran along anyhow, and jumped on at any course they took a fancy to!” And to see where they were going to land—in the soup, the vegetables, the salad, the stewed fruit of dessert—or what still other and stranger companionships they might form, lent a sort of prize-packet excitement to each succeeding course. Dinner at the Villa Schuler, with little Vesuvius glowing warmingly through all his fiery eyes and steaming out spicy incense of lemon and mandarin peel, the soft low lamplight, the gleam of Maria’s smile and green bodice, the blessed remoteness from all tourist gabble, was truly a cosy function. They took to making elaborate toilets in honour of it, adding their Taormina acquisitions of old lace and jewels to Maria’s round-eyed amazement. When Jane burst out in an Empire diadem, and Peripatetica not to be outdone donned a ravishing lace cap, their status as good republicans was forever lost in the villa. Maria spread the tale of this splendour abroad, firmly convinced that these lodgers were incognito members of the most exalted nobility of distant “Nuova Yorka.” The tongues which could not pronounce their harsh foreign names insisted on labelling them the “Big and Little Princess”—and no protests could bring their rank down lower than “the most gentle Countesses,” upon their washing-bills.
It amused them in fine weather to try the various hotels for lunch. In mid-town was the Hotel Victoria, the haunt of artists and gourmets, famous for its food and for its garden, which climbed the hillside in blooming terraces and loggias, all stairways, springing bridges, and queer little passages leading to buildings and courts on different levels. Peripatetica and Jane wandered into it almost by accident. They noticed the name over a dingy door as they were strolling aimlessly one day, and Peripatetica remembered having heard of a picturesque garden within. Penetrating through empty hall and up various winding stairways they came to a charming garden court. There appeared the proprietor, and in Parisian French treated their curiosity as a boon and a pleasure. A little man, the Padrone, with nothing large about him but the checks of his trousers and the soft black eyes which turned upon the gay colour about him with gentle melancholy. He did the honours of the place with all the courtesy and dignity of Louis XIV showing Versailles. When they admired the aviary of Sicilian and tropical birds, the budding roses clambering everywhere, the strange feathery-fringed irises like gaudy little cockatoos, the delicate bits of Moorish carving and arches built into the hotel walls, he accepted all their enthusiasm for the charms of his property with no sign of pride, but rather with the pensive melancholy of one whose soul was above such things, as of one who knew the hollowness of earthly delights. Courteously he exhibited everything, taking them to still higher and more glowing terraces where his laden orange trees were burnished green and gold, and his violets sheets of deepest, royalest purple underneath.
A pair of monkeys lived in cage up there, and while the Signor deftly fed them for the amusement of his visitors he warmed up into caustic philosophic comment upon human and monkey nature, comment not unspiced with wit. Peripatetica, always ready for philosophy, immediately plunged into the depths of her French vocabulary and responded in kind. The discussion grew warm and fluent, and the little Padrone became a new man. With kindling eye and a pathetic eagerness he kept the ball rolling in polished Voltairian periods, intoxicated apparently with the joy of mental intercourse. He snatched and clung to it, inventing new pretexts to detain them, new things to exhibit, while the talk rolled on.
But Peripatetica, whose next passion to Philosophy is Floriculture, broke off to exclaim at the violets as they passed a bed of purple marvels. Emperors they were among violets. The Padrone immediately proffered some, setting two contadini to picking more. Peripatetica contemplating gluttonously the wonderful spread of the deep purple calyx, the long firm stems of those in her hand, and at the profusion of others sweetening the air, cried from her heart, “Oh, Monsieur, what luxury to have such a garden! You should be one of the happiest creatures in the world to be able to grow such flowers as these!”
The Padrone, from his knees, picking more violets, glanced up, and gloom fell over him again.
“Madame,” he inquired bitterly, “does happiness ever consist in what one possesses of material things? Contentment, perhaps—but happiness? Not the most beautiful garden in the world can grow that,” and with dark Byronic mystery, “Ah, one can live amid brightness and yet be very miserable.”
They parted with much friendliness, the Padrone hoping the ladies would do his hotel the honour of visiting it again. Surely, yes, they said; they would give themselves the pleasure of lunching there some day.... Upon that it seemed as if his gloom grew darker, but he implied courteously that that would do him too much honour, but if they did venture as much he would do his best to content them. His was but a rough little place, but it had been wont to be the haunt of artists and “they, you know, are always ‘_un peu gourmet!_’”
“What do you suppose is the story of that man?” they asked each other; and amused themselves inventing romantic pretexts to explain his air of blighted hopes and poetic pain.
Before long their curiosity impelled them to try the Victoria’s cuisine. They were a half hour before the time. No guests had yet gathered. They stood again in front of the aviary, but no polite philosopher made his appearance. A little yellow-haired maid in a frock as brightly purple as the violets, carrying decanters into the empty dining-room, was the only creature about. The sitting room offered them shelter from the wind, and for entertainment heaps of German novels and innumerable sketches of Sicilian scenery and types, which they hoped the Victoria’s artist patrons had not given in settlement of their hotel bills. A bell rang, and people streamed in until every seat in the clean, bare dining-room had its occupant. Not the artists Peripatetica and Jane were looking for, but types fixed and amusing, such as they had never before encountered in such numbers and contrasts. Rosy, bland English curates and their meek little wives; flashy fat Austrians, with powdered ladies of unappetizing look; limp English spinsters of the primmest propriety; seedy old men with dyed moustaches and loud clothes, diffusing an aroma of shady gambling-rooms. Scholarly old English professors; and Germans, Germans, Germans of all varying degrees of fatness, shininess, and loud-voicedness, but all united in double-action feeding power of knife and fork.
An expectant hush held them all for a while before empty plates. Then the little purple-gowned maid, and a sister one in ultramarine blue, with the same brilliant yellow hair knotted on top of her head, appeared with omelettes. Omelettes of such melting perfection as to explain the solemn expectancy of the waiting faces.
Followed a meal in which every course—fish, vegetables, meat, and salad, in a land where the tourist expects to subsist alone on oranges and scenery—was of a deliciousness to have made a Parisian epicure compliment the chef of his pet restaurant.
The Germans were explained; lovers of feeding and of thrift, of course, they had come in their hordes to this modest Inn. And how they made the most of it! Back they called the little maids for two and three helpings of each delicious platter. Food was piled upon plates in mountains, but before Peripatetica and Jane could more than nibble at their own share, the German plates would be polished clean, and the little maids called for another supply. The caraffes of strong new Sicilian claret were emptied too, until Tedeschi faces grew very red, and tongues more than ever loud.
Peripatetica and Jane dared not meet each other’s eyes. Next to them sat an elderly maiden lady from Hamburg “doing” Sicily without luggage, prepared for any and every occasion in black silk bodice and cloth skirt, which could be made short or long by one of the mysterious arrangements of loops and strings the female German mind adores. With maiden shyness but German persistence she firmly insisted on human intercourse with the French commercial traveller across the table. He clung manfully to the traditional gallantry of his race, though the Hamburgian’s accent in his mother tongue threw him into wildest confusion as to the lady’s meaning. When he confided his wife’s confinement to bed with a cold, and his ineffectual struggles to get the proper drugs for her in Taormina, the German lady announced the theory that violent exercise followed by a bath was better cure for a cold than any drugs, “the bath the main point,” she said. “The exercise and the _transpiration_ without that being of no use.”
“A _bath_! with a _cold_! Not a complete wash all over?” protested the startled Frenchman.
“Yes, indeed, one must wash one’s self entirely—though it might be done a bit at a time—but completely, all over, with water and soap,” insisted the German, which daring hygienic theory so convinced the Frenchman that its propounder’s reason must be unhinged that stammering and trembling he gulped down his wine and fled from the table without waiting for the sweets.
All this time Peripatetica and Jane had caught no glimpse of their friend, the Padrone. They wondered, but decided that his poetic nature soared above the materialities of hotel keeping.
The meal had reached the sweet course—a pudding of delectableness no words can describe. It inspired even the gorged Germans with emotion. Thoroughly stuffed as they already were they still demanded more of its ambrosia and the purple-frocked one flew back to the kitchen, leaving the door open.... Alas! their philosopher of the garden, in cook’s apron, was pouring sauce on more pudding for the waiting maid!
Ah, poor Philosopher! This the secret of his blighted being. The poet driven to cooking-pots, the artistic temperament expending itself in omelettes and puddings for hungry tourists. How wonder at the irony with which he had watched the monkeys feed!
* * * * *
Maria and Vesuvius were not the only possessors of ardent temperaments in the Villa. Another existed in a round soft ball of tan and white fuzz.
He of the innocent grey eyes, black nose with pink tongue-trimming, and the most open and trusting heart in the world. On friends and strangers alike his smiles and warm licks fell. He bounded into every room all a-quiver of joy to be with such delightful people in such an altogether charming world. And never could it enter his generous thoughts that others might not equally yearn for his society; that Jane might object to having a liberal donation of fleas and mud left on the tail of her gown; that at 6 A.M. Peripatetica might not be enchanted to have a friendly call and a boisterous worry of her slippers all over the stone floor; or Fraulein might prefer the front of the stove entirely to herself during sacredest rites of cooking. He could not be brought to understand. He was cheerfully confident that every one loved him as much as he loved them, and that nothing could possibly be accomplished in that family without his valuable assistance. Many times a day loud wails rose to heaven, announcing that he had come to grief in the course of his labours; had encountered some one’s foot or hand, or had some door shut in his face; but in the midst of grief he would see in the distance something being accomplished without him—charcoal being carried in, the hall swept, or the garden watered—and he would rise from his tears and offer his enthusiastic assistance once more, all undaunted, and continue to give encouraging chews to the worker’s ankles, and stimulating barks of advice entirely undeterred by being called “an _injurienza_ puppy!”
Peripatetica claimed that his grey eyes showed that he was Norman descent, as Jane insisted they did in all the grey-eyed children of Taormina. But Fraulein, appealed to on that question, said he was of the colley race, and she revealed the dark and dreadful destiny laid upon him—that he was to grow up into a fierce and suspicious watch-dog; to live chained on the upper terrace, a menace to all intruders, a terror to frighten thieves from the garden plums!
And alas for natural bent of temperament when it must yield to contrary training. The grey-eyed one’s fate soon overtook him. Wild and indignant wails and shrieks woke Jane one sunny morning, and continued steadily in mounting crescendo all the while she clothed herself in haste to go to the rescue. Following the wails to the top of the garden she found the Puppy, a red ribbon around his soft neck, and from that a string attaching him to a pole. Nearby stood the Fraulein admonishing him that it was time his duties in life should begin, and he must commence to learn the routine of his profession without so much repining. In spite of Jane’s protests she insisted on leaving him there; and in vain all that quarter of Taormina rang with the wails of protesting indignation that welled from the confined one’s heart in the bewilderment of being left in loneliness, separated from all his friends and their doings. Every day after that he had to undergo his hour or two of schooling in the stern training of his grim profession. Soft-hearted Jane released him whenever she could, but Fraulein inexorably put him back, and even his playfellow Maria sternly held him to his duties. Between times he mixed with the family again on the old footing, but it was pathetic to see how soon nature was affected by the mould into which it was pressed, how soon he acquired the mannerisms and habits of his profession—curbing his exuberance of sociability, imposing on himself a post on the door mat, when strangers appeared, confining all welcome to his tail end, which would still wag friendlily though head did its duty in theatrical staccato growls.
* * * * *
In Taormina everything happens in the street. Houses are merely dark damp holes in which to take shelter at night, but life is lived outside them. Food is prepared in the street, clothes are mended there, hair is combed and arranged, neighbours gossiped with, lace and drawn-work made. The cobbler soles his shoes in the street, the tinsmith does his hammering and soldering there. It is the poultry run of hens and turkeys, the pasture grounds for goats and kids, the dance hall for light-footed children to tarantelle in, the old men’s club, the general living-room of all Taormina. Peripatetica and Jane found endless amusement there, though they seldom tarried in town. Like Demeter they wandered all day in meadow and mountain seeking Persephone, and found her not. Preparation for her beloved coming Mother Demeter seemed to be making everywhere; grass springing green when once the cold rain ceased, and carpets of opening blossoms spreading in orchards and fields for the little white feet to press. Every night they said, “She will come to-morrow,”—but still Demeter’s loneliness dissolved into cold tears hiding the face of the sun, and the chill winds told of nothing but Ætna’s snow, and the Lost One did not return.
But though they searched for her in vain in the setting of sunshine and blossom their fancy had pictured, Peripatetica and Jane found much else on their rambles—idyls of Theocritus still being lived, quaint little adventures, bits of local colour, new friends and old acquaintances among contadini, animals and flowers, and always and all about, the Bones of the Past. Everywhere obscured under the work-a-day uses of the Present, or rising out of them in beauty; half hidden among flowers in lonely fields or a part of squalid modern huts, they stumbled upon those remains of antiquity, debased and crumbled and inexplicable often, but beautiful with a lost strange charm, sad and haunting.
Taormina prides herself more on scenery than antiquities, but they found many of the latter in their scrambles on rough little mountain trails, learning all sorts of charms and secrets undreamed of by luxurious tourists rolling dustily in landaus along the one high road. Theirs was an unhurried leisure to take each day as it came. Without plans or guides they merely wandered wherever interest beckoned, until gradually they learned all the town and its setting of mountain and shore by heart.
They sallied forth untrammelled of fixed destination, ready to take up with the first adventure that offered—and one always did offer to adventurers of such receptive natures. They made plans only to break them; for inevitably they were distracted by something of interest more vital than the thing they had set out to see.
They might start, staff in hand, on a pilgrimage to the Madonna of Rocca Bella, whose brown shrine nestled dizzily on one of the strange peaks shooting their distorted summits threateningly above their own Villa, those peaks so vividly described by another Idle Woman in Sicily: “Behind, wildly flinging themselves upwards, rise three tall peaks, as of mountains altogether gone mad and raving.... The nearest peak of a yellow-grey, splintered and cleft like a lump of spar, and so upright that it becomes a question how it supports itself, is divided into two heads—one thrusting itself forward headlong over the town and crowned with the battlements of a ruined Saracenic-Norman castle; the other in the rear carrying the outline of a little church, and the vague vestige of a house or two; Saracenic-Norman castle and church (Madonna della Rocca) both so precisely the tint of the rock that it requires time and patience to disentangle each, and not to put the whole down as a further evidence of mountain insanity.”...
When Jane sat herself, muffled in furs and rugs, to read or sew in one of the quaint tile-encrusted arbours of the garden, those jagged peaks fell out of the sky overhead so menacingly, coming ever nearer and nearer to her shrinking head, that for all the sweetness of the flowers and birds she never could stay there long, but always, panic-struck, fled to the bare sea-terrace, and the prospect of calm and distant Ætna.
But to go back to Our Lady of Rocca Bella, which Peripatetica and Jane never managed to see, there were so many distractions on that path! Did they start with the firmest of pilgrim intentions, a new garden opened unexplored paths of sweetness, or a brown old sea-dog, Phrygian-capped, smiled a “buon giorno” on his bare-footed way up from the shore, showed them the strange sea creatures gleaming under the seaweed in his basket, and enticed them down to the shore. There on the golden beach of Theocles’ landing place, they embarked in a heavy boat pulled by their friend, and another old gold-earringed mariner, to the “_grotte molto interessante_” in the Isola Bella. They poked their heads between waves into coral caves where the light filtering through the bright water was dyed almost as intense an azure as in the famous Capri Blue Grotto, and the whole coast line of mountains came to them in a new revelation of beauty from the level of wide-stretching sea. And beside the queer bits of coral presented by the sea-dogs as souvenirs, they carried away salt-water whetted appetites of wonderful keenness, and pictures, bestowed safely behind their eyes, of deliciously moulded mountain sides rising straight from clear green seas, of wave-carved fantasies in sun-bathed coral rocks, of red nets being stretched on yellow sands by bare-legged, graceful fisher folk; memories they would not have exchanged for any wide map-like vista the Madonna could have given them from her high-perched eyrie.
It was the same story with the Fontana Vecchia. If they had persisted in reaching its clear spring they might have heard the nightingales singing in the wooded dell, but they would never have known Carmela and her sunny mountain meadow.
It was a day of shifting clouds and cold winds. Peripatetica was depressed. Her energies wilted in the cold, and she had only gone forth to walk because the salon was too icily vaultlike for habitation. Jane tried to cheer her with prospect of hot tea at the Fontana, but her spirit refused to respond to any material comforting. She complained of what had been troubling her for some time, a sense of feeling a mere ghost herself in these Past-pervaded spots; a cold and shivering ghost aimlessly blown about in the wind, pressed upon by all the thronging crowds of other ghosts haunting these places where through the centuries each succeeding throng of beings had struggled and laboured, laughed and suffered. Living among ghosts in these days of idleness, her own existence cut off from the real living and doing of the world, from the duties and responsibilities of her own place in life, from the warm clutching hands of the people dependent on her, she had come to seem to herself entirely vague and ineffectual. She felt a mere errant, disembodied spirit, she said, and it was a bleak and dreary feeling.
Jane said she thought a disembodied spirit, able to soar over the sharp cobbles of that road, an exceedingly enviable thing to be at that moment; but she quite understood, and was herself affected by the same sense of chill aloofness from actual, vital human living.
And then they saw Carmela—a little old Sibyl twirling her distaff at an open gate that looked out on the quiet road. Sitting in the sun with cotton kerchief, bodice, and apron all faded into soft harmonies of colour, she made such a picture through the arch of the gate’s break in the dull stone wall, with the green of the garden behind her, that they stopped a moment to look.
“Buon giorno”—the picture smiled, her little round face breaking into friendly wrinkles. She rose to her bare feet, and with graceful gesture invited them in—wouldn’t they like to see the farm? she asked. There was a _molto bella vista_ beyond. Always welcoming the unexpected they at once accepted, and found themselves passing through olive and orange groves. The property was not hers, their hostess explained; she was merely a servant; it all belonged to a _molto vecchia_ lady, Donna Teresa by name. Though owning no part of it, Carmela pointed out the old vines, the thriving newly planted young vineyard, the grafts on the almond trees, with proud proprietorship.
Donna Teresa made her appearance; a tiny bent crone, bare-footed like her maid and dressed in cottons as faded if not as patched, but showing traces of a refined type of beauty in the delicate features of her old face and the soft fine white hair curling still like grape tendrils about her well-shaped head. She accepted her maid’s explanation of the strangers’ presence, and proceeded to outdo her in hospitality. They must do more than see the vista—must pick some flowers too. With cordial toothless chatter, of which the friendly meaning was the only thing they could entirely understand, she led through the farmyard court where blue and white doves cooed on the carved stone well-head, and a solemn white goat, his shaggy neck hung about with charms and amulets, attached himself to the party and followed down the stone stairs to a lower terrace. There was a view entrancing indeed, also a strange little old round building resembling a Roman tomb. Carmela could tell no more than that it was _cosa di molto antichita_ and very useful to store roots in. Under a sheltering wall was a purple bank of violets to which the old Donna led them with much pride, inviting them to pick for themselves. When they did so too modestly to suit her, she fell on her knees and gathered great handfuls, thrusting on them besides all the oranges and mandarins they could carry, until her lavishments became an embarrassment. For all her bare feet and poor rags there was that in the grace of her hospitality they felt they could not offer money to. All they could do was to press francs into the maid’s hand, offer the Donna, as curiosities from distant America, the maple sugar drops Jane had filled her pocket with before starting, and try to make smiles fill the gaps in thanks of their halting Italian.
Carmela showed redoubled friendliness from the moment America was mentioned. She still clung to them after her mistress bade them goodby at the gate, and offered to show them another vista still more beautiful. They would rather have continued their interrupted way, but the little round face falling sadly changed their protestations into thanks, and she trotted happily beside them, smiling at their compliments on the even thread she spun as she walked, confiding how much it brought her a hank, what she could spin in a day, and that Donna Teresa was a good mistress, but a little weakened in her head by age.
She pattered along, her bare feet skimming carelessly over the sharp-cobbled road, spindle steadily whirling, past the Campo Santo, where at the top of a sudden ravine the road forked and strings of panniered donkeys and straight, graceful girls with piles of linen on their heads were going down to a hidden stream tinkling below. They longed to follow, but Carmela took them on around a curve, through a door in a high wall, past a deserted barn, along a grassy path under almond trees, and they found themselves in a spot that made them catch breath with delight.
The crown of a mountain spur dropped in terraced orchards and gardens to the sea below. Taormina was hidden behind intervening heights. Below, an opal sea divided Sicily from wraiths of the Calabrian mountains drifting along the horizon, and curves of yellow sand and white, surf-frothed rocks outlined the far indentations of the Island’s mountainous coast spreading blue and rosy-purple on their left. Fringed with blossoming plum and yellow gorse, the spur on which they stood dropped sheer to the river ravine, and above still towered Mola and Monte Venere.
It was a world of sun and colour and sweet silence. The cold, moaning wind was shut off by the heights behind them, and turned full to the glowing South, a real warmth of sun bathed the sheltered spot and had spread a carpet of flowers of more brilliant and harmonious arabesques than any of Oriental weaving. Of purple and puce and gold, coral and white and orange, of blues faint and deep, of rose and sharp crimson, it was woven exquisitely through the warp of young spring green. Even without the view, nothing so sweet and really springlike as that bit of mountain meadow had Peripatetica and Jane yet seen. They cried out in joy and sat them down among all the unknown bewitching flowers.
Carmela’s face lit up at their appreciation. She too sat down, let her spindle fall, and gazed about as if her eyes loved what they rested upon; then looking from one strange face to the other:
“You are really from America?” she asked, and let her pathetic little story pour out. Nine children she had borne, and all but one dead. She told how that one, a splendid youth, had gone to America three years ago to make a fortune for himself and her, and at first had written to her that he was doing well; but for two years she had spent her hard earnings to have letters written to him, and had prayed with tears at the Madonna’s shrine, but for two long years now—no answer.
Her round little old, yet childlike, face fell into tragic lines. With work-scarred hands clasping her knees across her patched apron she sat, a creature of simple and dignified pathos, opening her heart in brief and poignant words to the response in Peripatetica’s eyes. Among the blossoms and the bees the three women of such different lives and experiences, with the barrier of a strange tongue between them, came into close touch for a moment in the elementary humanity of that pain known to all women—Goddess Demeter and ragged peasant alike—when their dearest has gone forth from the longing shelter of their arms and theirs is the part of passive loneliness and waiting.
“Yes, life was _brutta_,” said Carmela simply, “but one had always one’s work.”
Picking up the spindle, winding again her even thread, smilingly she bade these strange friends “_a rivedercela_,” and departed, a certain tragic dignity clinging to the square little figure going sturdily, yet with head drooping, back to her life of hard and lonely labour. Whether that moment of sympathetic intercourse had meant anything to her or not, to the two idle ones that trusting touch of the life about them meant much. It pulled them out of the world of ghosts, from the empty sense of being outside of any connection with other lives, and by that contact of living, pitiful drama they came back into realities.
* * * * *
For all the tiny extent of Taormina’s boundaries, the discoveries of its antiquities seemed never ending; the cella of a Greek temple hidden in San Pancrazio’s church; the tiny Roman theatre, a section of its pit and auditorium with seats still in perfect rows sticking out from another old church whose greediness had only succeeded in half swallowing it; the enormous Roman baths whose old pools and conduits a thriving lemon orchard is now enjoying; the Roman pavement next to the Hotel Victoria; that bit of Greek inscription hospitably let into church walls, exciting imagination with its record that the “people of Tauromenium accord these honours to Olympis, son of Olympis” for having gained the prize in horse racing at the Pythian games.
The wall of the loveliest garden in Taormina is honeycombed with ancient tombs. The slender cypresses, like exclamation points emphasizing its rhythms of colour, have their roots among the very bones of antiquity. In this garden Protestant worship has succeeded Catholic in the old Chapel of the delicious little Twelfth Century Convent whose cloisters are now an English lady’s villa—and who knows in how many earlier shrines man’s groping faith has prayed in this very spot?
All over Taormina fragments of old marbles and carvings and columns appear in the most unlikely places; a marble mask from the theatre over the door of a modest little “Sarta” in a back alleyway, bits of porphyry columns supporting the steps of a peasant’s hovel. The traces of Norman and Saracen embellishment are, of course, even more numerous, almost every house on the street breaking out into some odd and delicate bit. The façade of the palace in which dwelt the Frau Schuler’s antiquity shop is freaked with charming old lava inlays and queer forked “merluzzi” battlements. Forcing one’s way through the chickens into its courtyard, one finds a vivid Fourteenth Century relief of the story of Eve’s creation, temptation, and punishment climbing up the stone stairway, and an inscription “_Est mihi i locu refugii_,” which tradition says was placed by John of Aragon taking refuge here once in the days when it was a Palace of the Aragonese Kings. Beyond that inscription with its legend, and some few Spanish-looking iron balconies, the Spaniard has left no trace of his dominion in Taormina. The Norman printed himself on churches and convents, but it is the Greeks and Romans, and above all the Saracens, who have stamped themselves indelibly upon Taormina. Moorish workmen must have been employed by their conquerors for centuries to build them palaces and convents, baths and even churches. And the Arab blood still shows strongly in hawk-like, keen-eyed faces passing through Taormina’s streets as haughtily as in the days when their progenitors ruled there with hand of iron upon the dogs of Christians.
In those Moslem days much liberty in the practice of religion was allowed to such of the Christians as did not show the cross in public, read the gospel loud enough to penetrate to Moslem ears, or ring their church bells “furiously.” How often in Sicily one wishes that last regulation were still in force! They might go on worshipping freely in all existing churches and convents, though to build new ones was not allowed. In matters of religion the Arab was strangely liberal, but in civil matters he reduced the conquered people to a sort of serfdom. Christians were not allowed to carry arms, to ride on horseback, or even donkeyback, to build houses as high as the Mussulman’s, to drink wine in public, to accompany their dead to burial with any pomp or mourning. Christian women might not enter the public baths when Moslem women were there, nor remain if they came in. Christians must give way to Moslems on the street; indoors they must rise whenever a man of the conquering race came in or went out. “And that they might never forget their inferiority, they had to have a mark on the doors of their houses and one on their clothes.” They were bid wear turbans of different fashion and colour from Moslems, and particular girdles of leather.
Yet many good gifts these Eastern conquerors brought—introduction of silkworms and the mulberry, of sugar-cane and new kinds of olives and vines; new ways of preserving and salting fish; new processes of agriculture and commerce; their wonderful methods of irrigation; the clear Arabic numeration; advance in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, all sciences; and even “the slaves in Sicily under the Moslem rule were better off than the Italian populations of the mainland under the Lombards and Franks.”
* * * * *
Jane and Peripatetica were taking tea in the San Domenico gardens—a flowery terrace dizzily flung out to sea, and almost as high as their own. There is nothing prettier in Taormina than that garden; tile-paved, mossy stone pergolas of dense shade still breathing of quiet monkish meditations; open, yet sheltered, nooks to bask in the sun, and the loveliness of the outlook on Ætna and his sweeping foothills, and the milky-streaked green sea; mats of fragrant sweetness, purple and ivory, of violets and freesias; royal splash of bougainvilla against the buff stucco of old convent walls; coast steamers, white yachts, and tiny black fishing boats far, far below, the only hint of the world’s bustle; here in the garden was only slumberous quiet and fragrant peace.
“On his terrace high in air Nothing doth the good monk care For such worldly themes as these. From the garden just below Little puffs of perfume blow, And a sound is in his ears Of the murmur of the bees In the shimmering chestnut trees. Nothing else he heeds or hears. All the landscape seems to swoon In the happy afternoon.”
Little has been changed since the good monk really dozed there. The charm of his peaceful days still lingers in cloister and garden, and the conventual atmosphere still asserts itself in spite of the frivolous swarm of tourists, who leave innovation trunks in the stone-flagged corridors. But that same tourist sits in the monk’s painted wooden stalls, has a beflowered little shrine and altar perhaps opposite his own bedroom door; walks under saintly frescoes, hangs his hat on the Father’s carved towel-frame outside the Refectory door, and eats his dinner under pictures of martyrdoms. The chapel in the midst of the modern caravanserai is still the parish church, the vaulted stone corridors echo to the solemn boom of its organ many times a day—a wrong turn on the way to the dining-room and the tourist finds himself not in gas-lit, soup-redolent, salle-à-manger, but among the dim, carved stalls, taper-lit altars, and incense-sweet air of the chapel.
It was the one place which ever caused Peripatetica and Jane to think ungratefully of their villa. Whenever they wandered through either of the vine-draped old cloisters; looked up the delightfully twisted stone stairways, and along mysterious Gothic passages, they wished that they too might have had a “belonging” door in one of the arches of that quiet incense-perfumed corridor, such sense of unhurried calm reigned there; the frescoed saints over each cell door looked so peacefully benignant.
“Jane,” queried Peripatetica, “do you notice that these Saints are all women?—a gentle lady saint over every Brother’s door! even where no living woman was allowed to penetrate they still clung to some memory of the Eternal Feminine!”
Tea was seeming unusually good that afternoon after hours passed amid the excitements and wonderful finds and bargains of the beguiling antiquity shops of Taormina’s main street. Now, the pot drained to the last drop, the last crumb of bread and honey eaten, they sat tranquilly watching the shadows lengthen in the garden.
“This is the only really peaceful spot in Taormina,” said Jane. “What a relief to escape from all that old overwhelming Past for once and just be soothingly lulled in this placid monkish calm. I know nothing ever happened here more exciting than the scandal of some fat Brother’s unduly prolonging his siesta in a sheltered nook, and so missing Vespers.”
A boy appeared at her elbow; one of the little shy fauns of Von Gloëden’s photographs. He pulled a cactus leaf out of one pocket, a penknife out of another, and trimming off the cactus prickles tossed the leaf out into space in such deft way that in graceful curves and birdlike swoops it whirled slowly down to the far bottom of the cliff. Jane leaned over the gratefully substantial stone parapet and watched, fascinated, as he proceeded to send yet another and another after it in more elaborate curves each time. The boy’s shyness melted under her admiration of his trick and the coppers it was expressed in; he showed white teeth in much merriment when she too attempted to toss the green discs only to have them drop persistently without any whirling. He began to chatter.
“Yes, it was very high that cliff, and of much interest to pitch things over and watch them fall. In the old days they had pitched men over it—yes indeed, prigionieri; many hundreds of them.”
“Oh Peripatetica! black dramas even here! what can he mean?”
“The insurgent slaves of the Servile War, perhaps. Their whole garrison was hurled alive over some cliff here—native tradition may have it this one.”
Jane remembered. Eight hundred men thus treated by Publius Rupilius, Roman Consul in 132 B.C.
The dark flood of old cruelty surged back to her. Sicily was a country of great landowners holding estates of eighty miles round and more; working them by slave labour; owning slaves in thousands. Twenty thousand slaves was not an exaggerated number for a great noble to own, two hundred a fair allowance for an ordinary citizen. Two-thirds of Sicily’s population were then slaves.
Of course the human live-stock possessed in such indistinguishable hordes, like cattle, had to be branded with the owner’s mark. They did their work in irons, to be safely under their overseer’s power; were lodged in holes under ground; their daily rations but one pound of barley or wheat, and a little salt and oil. Against atrocious cruelties they revolt at last. All over Sicily they rise, two hundred thousand men soon finding arms and power to mete to masters the same cruelties that had been shown them. For six years all the might of Rome cannot crush them, but eventually her iron claw closes in upon them—only impregnable Enna and Taormina still remain in the hands of the slave army. It is a struggle to test all Rome’s mettle. These slaves too are of the eagle’s blood. Men free-born and bred, most of them; Greeks and Franks from the mainland, prisoners of war or of debt. Fiercely, indomitably, they cling to their rocky eyries. But in Taormina starvation fights direfully against them. There was not one grain, one blade of grass even, left. Still the garrison clings and strikes back at the Romans. They devour their own children, next the women, then at last eat one another—but still hold out.
Commanus, the slave commander, weakens and tries to escape from the horrors. He creeps alone from the city, but is captured and brought before the Consul. He knows what methods will be tried to make him give information of the town’s condition—can his weakness hold out against torture? With apparent acquiescence he appears willing to answer all Roman questions, but bends his head and draws his cloak over it as if shielding his eyes to better collect his thoughts.... Under the cloak he grips his throat between his fingers and with the last remnant of once phenomenal physical strength crushes his own windpipe, and falls safely silent at the Consul’s feet.
But the horrors of Taormina in that siege are too much for another slave—a Syrian. He betrays the town to the Romans ... and Publius disposes of all the remaining garrison over the edge of the cliff.
* * * * *
Shopping is an important part of a stay in Taormina. Surely no other street of its length anywhere in the world has so many beguilements to part the tourist from his coin. The dark little shops spilling their goods out upon the pavement; things so bizarre, so good, so cheap, the lire of the forestieri flow away in torrents. Beautiful inlaid furniture; lovely old jewelry of flawed rubies and emeralds set amid the famous antique Sicilian pearl-work and enamelling. Old Spanish paste in delightful designs; red Catanian amber, little Roman intaglios, delicate old cameos, enamelled orders; necklaces, rings, pendants; earrings in odd and charming settings; delightful old trinkets in richer assortment of variety and quality here than any other place in Italy. Old Sicilian thread lace, coarse but effective, in shawls and scarfs of many charming old designs; old altar lace too in great abundance; better laces, as one may have luck to find them, or to be on the spot when gleanings from churches and convents in the interior are brought in—bundles containing varied treasures, from brocades and embroideries and splendid lace of priestly vestments, to drawn-work altar cloths and the lace cottas little choirboys’ restless arms have worn sad holes in. Churchly silver too, reliquaries and ornaments and old medals, abound in Taormina for scarcely more than the value of the silver’s weight. Old coins dug up in its gardens, the old porcelains bought from its impoverished nobles; old drawn-work, on heavy hand-woven linen, still firmly carrying its processions of marvellous beasts and birds and personages in wide lace-like bands. Beasts conceived by the same imagination that evolved the gargoyles of Gothic cathedrals, such wonderful mixtures of animal and bird and human as Adam never named in Garden of Eden. These horned birds and winged animals processioning around churchly altar cloths are old, old pagan Siculian luck charms—protectors against the evil eye. Peripatetica and Jane instantly proceeded to combat their Hoodoo with valiant processions of fat little many-horned stags romping around throat and wrist—and of all the many exorcisms they had tried this truly seemed the most effective!
Taormina’s naïve native pottery, too, drapes the outside walls of shops and doorways in bright garlands of strange shapes of fishes and fruits and beasts, is stacked in shining heaps of colour, jugs and pots and platters of every possible form and design. Some of it reminiscent of Sevillian pottery in elaborate Renaissance decoration, but for the most part rough little shapes of clay, covered with hard bright glaze and no two ever exactly alike in either shape or tint. The favourite model being a gay Sicilian Lady Godiva, riding either a stag or a cock, attired proudly in a crown and a floating blue ribbon!
Day after day, all through March, the sun moped behind clouds, the wind lashed the sea against the rocks, and milky foam bands streaked the turbid green. Rain beat on the Villa windows, and even through them, to the great amusement of Maria, who appeared to consider mopping up the streaming floors a merry contest with the elements.
But when the rare sun burst out and revealed a fresh-washed sky, a land shimmering through thinnest gauze of mist, or the moon could escape from the clouds and rise behind the theatre ruins to hang, hugely bright over the gleaming sea floor so far, far below, it seemed a fair world all prepared to greet its radiant returning goddess.
On such days no shop could beguile. Even the old dames weaving towels on hand looms by their open doors, always so ready for friendly chat with these forestieri, would be passed with only a smile, for the breath of the fields called loudly to hillside and orchard, “where all fair herbs bloom, red goat-wort and endive, and fragrant bees-wort”; the only sound breaking the sunny calm being the notes of a shepherd boy on a neighbouring hill, piping as if his reed flute held the very spirit of youth, the bubbling notes sparkling like a little fountain of joy flinging its spray on the spring breeze. Or on a day like this to wander far afield; or else in the high hillside orchards where the birds sang “Sicily! Sicily! Sicily!” or called mockingly “Who are you? Who are you?”
On such a day they adventured to Mola and the heights of Monte Venere’s peak in the company of those brave _asinelli_ Giovanino and Francesco, and in the charge of Domenico, Sheik of guides, whose particular exploitation they had long ago become.
Loafing in the fountain square, watching the women filling jars at the fountain, and speculating as usual over the history of its presiding deity (who as St. Taypotem is the local genius and emblem of the town, a saint utterly unknown to churchly calendar)—a lady centaur, and a two-legged one at that, uprearing her plump person on two neat little hoofed heels raised high above the four archaic beasts spouting water—Peripatetica and Jane fell a prey to a genial Arab, a beguiling smile wrinkling his dark hawk-like face. Wouldn’t they like a donkey ride? The best donkeys in all Sicily were his—Domenico’s—guide No. 5, beloved of all tourists, as they could see by reading his book. A dingy little worn note-book was fluttered under their noses, an eager brown finger pointed to this and that page of English writing, all singing the praises of Domenico and his beasts on many an expedition. More influenced by the smile than the testimonials they promised that he should conduct them to Mola. From that instant Domenico’s wing was spread over them in brooding solicitude. Yes, the weather was too threatening to ride out anywhere that afternoon, but did they know all the sights of the town? he inquired. Had they seen the Bagni Saraceni? No, they admitted. Oh, that was _molto interessante_ and close at hand; he would show them! Hypnotized by the smile they followed meekly, though the Bagni turned out to be the Norman Moorish ruins of the San Stefano Palace with which they were already familiar. But not as it was shown by Domenico. The surly old contadina in charge, bullied into offering the choicest of the oranges and flowers growing among the ruins, the smile gilding all the dark corners of antiquity and lighting up the vaulted cellar in which by graphic pantomime of jumps into its biggest holes they were shown exactly how the Saracens had once bathed, much as more modern folk did, it seemed.
After that days came and went of such greyness and cold wind or rain, that Domenico and his donkeys attended in vain at the pink gateway to take Peripatetica and Jane excursioning. But not for that did they lose the sunniness of the smile. Like a benevolent spider, Domenico was to be always lying in wait to pounce around any corner with friendly greeting, to give them the news of the town in his patois of mixed Italian, English, and pantomime; to suggest carrying home their bundles for them if they were on a shopping tour, to point out an antiquity or garden to inspect if they seemed planless, or a lift home on the painted cart whose driver he had been enlivening with merry quips, when met on the high road outside town. And once, oh blessed time, when he encountered Jane at the Catania gate, her tongue hanging out with thirst and fatigue after a long mountain climb, he haled her straightway into a friend’s garden to refresh herself with juicy oranges from the trees.
Finally the long waited-for day came, when not a cloud threatened and the mountains beckoned through crystalline, sunny air. So Francesco and Giovanino laden with Peripatetica and Jane, Domenico and a brown young hawkling of the Domenican brood laden with lunch, they climbed upwards. Ætna stood out in glistening, freshly renewed snow mantle, icy sharp against the most perfect of blue skies. Taormina dropped far below, a tiny huddled human nest of brown among the green, green hilltops. Mola, which for so long had loomed far over their heads on its beetling crags, now too sank below. The pink mountain villa where Hichens had written “The Call of the Blood,” the vineyards and the orchards, all dropped away. Only Ætna, high and white, soared against the sky, remote and inaccessible. The trail grew steeper and steeper, but Francesco and Giovanino, noble pair, with unbroken wind and gloomy energy picked their way unfalteringly among the rolling stones, and both Domenicos, like two-legged flies, seemed to take to the perpendicular as easily as the horizontal.
Francesco, tall and grey and of a loquacious turn of mind, made all the mountains echo to his voice whenever a fellow _asinello_ was encountered on the trail. Giovanino, small and brown, attended strictly to the business of finding secure places for his tiny hoofs among the stones, but developed two idiosyncrasies rather dismaying to his rider. Whenever the path led along a precipice’s edge, on the very outside edge of it would his four obstinate little feet go, with Jane’s feet dangling horribly over empty space; whenever it skirted a stone wall his furry sides insisted upon rubbing it clingingly, sternly regardless of his rider’s toes. The path ceased being a path. It became a stairway climbing up the mountains’ bare marble side in rough stone steps a foot or more in height.
“But we can’t ride up _that_!” cries the appalled Peripatetica in the lead. In vain Domenico assures her that she can, that people do it every day. She looks at its dizzy turns and insists on taking to her own feet. Jane, having acquired a reverential confidence in Giovanino’s powers after their mutual tussles, puts more faith in his head and knees than in her own, and goes on, clutchingly. Young Domenico, hanging like a balance weight to Giovanino’s tail, keeps up a chorus of “Ah-ees” and assurances that the Signorina need have no fear, he is there to guide her! In reality he knows that his small person could no more interfere with the orbit of Giovanino’s movements than with those of the planets, but also that there is no more need that he should—Giovanino’s grey head holds a perfect chart of the way, with the safest hoof-placings plainly marked out on it, and he follows it imperturbably.
Travellers to Monte Venere do not know much of what they are passing the last forty minutes. They are too busy wondering whether each minute will not be their last—on those daunting stairs of living rock and rolling stones. Breathless, dizzy, speechless, they at last realize a firm level terrace is under foot, and reel against the comforting solid walls of the little _tratoria_. The donkeys are quite unruffled and unheated, less dejected than when they started. The young Domenico, who has pulled himself on shuffling small bare feet thrust in his father’s heavy boots all up that mountain wall, is as unflushed of face, unshortened of breath, as if he had come on wings! Old Domenico, escorting an exhausted Peripatetica, is bubbling faster than ever with vehement chatter. He cannot understand why his charges insist on rest, on holding fast to the solid house. It fills him with surprised distress that they will not go on to the top. “The view over all Sicily awaits them there, and it is such a clear day. Corragio! only one-half hour more!”...
But Peripatetica and Jane plant their feet on that little level platform with more than donkey obstinacy—with reeling heads they look out into the great blue gulfs of air and over the green ripples of mountain tops. This is high enough for them, they pant, feeling like quivering earth-worms clinging to the top of a telegraph pole and invited to go out along the wires. Shivering in the wind which, in spite of sun, is icy keen at this height, they proceed to eat their cold lunch; the tratoria offering only tables and crockery, wine, goat’s milk, and coffee to its patrons. Between two infants of the house begging for tidbits, three skeleton dogs so long unacquainted with food they snatched greedily even at egg shells, a starved cat, and the two Domenicos, who, it seems, also expect to lunch on their leavings, Peripatetica and Jane have themselves no heart to eat. Wishing they had brought another _asinello_ laden only with food, that all the inhabitants of this hungry height might for once be filled, they divide their own meal as evenly as possible among all its aspirants and try to sustain themselves on the view. Peripatetica looked on the far expanse of hills and sea below, sourly asserting her fixed lowlander’s conviction that mountains are only beautiful looked up to, and that a bird’s-eye-view is no view. But when a comforting concoction of hot goat’s milk and something called coffee had been swallowed, and numbed fingers thawed out over the tiny fire of grapevine prunings in the tratoria kitchen, they succumbed to Domenico’s insistence about the view it is their duty to see, and climbed higher.
The crest of Monte Venere is a green knoll rising above rock walls. Around and below it enough mountains to fill a whole world roll confusedly on every side. They felt more than ever like earth-worms too far removed from friendly earth, and stayed only to listen to the pipings of a curly-headed goatherd flinging trills out into space; while Domenico, pained at their indifference to his vaunted coup d’état of “bella vistas,” but benevolent still, clambered about like a goat himself, gathering for them the “mountain violets” as he called the delicate mauve flowers starring the sod.
So soon they were back at the tratoria that Francesco and Giovanino had not half chewed their little handfuls of hay, and young Domenico’s red tongue was still delightedly polishing off the interior of their tin of potted chicken, while the lean dogs watched enviously, waiting for their chance at this queer bone. Another personage was lunching luxuriously, stretched at his ease on the steep hillside, a large sleek white goat, munching solemnly at grass and blossom, wagging his beard and rolling watery pink-rimmed eyes with such evangelical air of pious complacence Peripatetica and Jane instantly recognized him as an incarnation of a New England country deacon, and sat down respectfully to pass the time of day with him.
Going down even Jane takes to her own feet. Slipping, sliding, jumping, the worst is somehow past with bones still unbroken. The mountainside is yet like the wall of a house, but Domenico, with more cries of “corragio,” and proverbs as to those who “Va piano, va sano,” urges them to mount, and Jane, quite confident that four legs have more clinging power than two, is glad to lie back along Giovanino’s tail while he balances himself on his nose, with young Domenico serving as a brake on his tail, and so slides and hitches calmly down hill.
Mola is a climb again, the narrow path twisting up the one accessible ledge to its sharp peak. One wonders why human beings ever first climbed there to build, and even more why they still live in its cramped buildings, and with what toil they can find ways to squeeze daily bread out of the bleak rocks. Yet before the first Greek colonists landed at Naxos, Mola was already a town. It looked down on infant Taormina when the Naxos refugees fled to its heights. It loomed above, still Siculian and intact, on its bare unassailable crags, through all the squabbles and screamings below of the different eagle broods taking possession of Taormina’s nest. The conqueror who tried to take Mola had usually only his trouble for his pains. Even Dionysius, with all Sicily clutched in his cruel hand, failed in his snatch at Mola. His attempt to steal into it by surprise one dark winter’s night ended in an ignominious, breakneck, hurling repulse of tyrant and all his victory-wonted veterans. And Mola still lives to-day. All its huddled houses seem to be inhabited, though only bent old men, palsied crones, black pigs, and babies are to be met with in its steep narrow alleys. Domenico said scornfully that there was nothing to be seen in it, but led the way to the tiny town-square terrace beside the church, and had a brown finger ready to emphasize all points of interest in the spread of country and sea stretching below its parapet. Once Mola had a sister town, he told, on another crag across the valley; but Ætna opened a sudden mouth and lava rivers pouring down to the sea flowed over it and swallowed it completely. Whether this is actual history or Domenican invention remains in doubt. No other historian mentions the lost town. But then, as Domenico said, there is Ætna, and there the lava mound still black and ugly, as proof!
* * * * *
Again it rained, and Ætna sulked behind a cloudy mantle. Vesuvius worked all day long, yet fur coats were a necessary house dress. The poor Demon took the influenza and coughed, and shivered in spite of her hot energies; turned livid yellow and feverish, and had to be sent to a doctor. Scarcely able to hold her head up, but protesting to the end, she gave in to going home to bed and staying there. But first she reappeared, pale but proud, with a fashionably dressed young lady of fourteen, her _figlia_ Adalina, to whom she had shown and told everything, and who could do all the ladies’ service quite as well as herself.
Adalina was very high as to pompadour and equally high as to the French heels on the tight boots which finished off the plump legs emerging from her smart kilted skirt—but height of intelligence was not in her; none of her mother’s quickness and energy seemed to have passed into the head under the high rolling thatch of hair. Feet were Adalina’s strong point, and she knew it. There was probably not another such grand pair of real French boots as hers in all Taormina! So her life consisted in showing them off. She arranged Peripatetica’s and Jane’s belongings, and brushed their clothes, as Mother had shown her, but with pirouettings and side steps—one, two, three, all the best dancing positions—between every touch of brush or laying out of garment. It absorbed so much time to keep her feet arranged in the most perfect placings to exhibit pointed toes that very little else could be expected of her in the course of the day. She opened her mouth wide at Peripatetica’s and Jane’s broken babblings, but no sense from them ever penetrated her intelligence. Maria had to be called to interpret everything, and usually to do it too. A charm seemed to have departed from the villa with no Demon to keep them comfortable and uncomfortable at once.
“Why should we wait and shiver here any longer?” asked Peripatetica. “Persephone is surely coming first on the other side of Ætna.”
“Why should we? Let us start on,” said Jane.
Domenica returned to them, a pale yellow Demon, but bustling as ever, too late to affect their decision. Trunks were packed, towering packing-cases stuffed with their Taormina acquisitions. Fraulein’s last wonderful pudding eaten, Ætna seen looming vapory white above the terrace for the last time, Old Nina had carried down through the garden from the well, in a Greek jar on her grey head, the water for their last tub, Maria had peeped her last “Questo,” Frau Schuler and her polite son, the Fraulein, Maria, and Carola, had all presented fragrant nosegays, Adalina, too, with pompadour more aggressive than ever, appeared to offer them violets and hint a receptivity to a parting douceur herself. Every one was bidding them regretful farewells. Touched, and themselves regretful to leave so much kindness and charm, with melting heart the last goodby of all was said to Domenica, and her wages for the last two weeks pressed into her palm.
“You have served us so well, we have made no deduction for the days you were first ill, and we had no one; nor for the days when we had your little girl instead,” said Jane.
Oh! had Ætna burst into eruption? The whole smiling morning landscape was darkened by the wild black figure pouring down shrill volleys of wrathful Italian on their devoted heads. This Fury threatening with flashing eyes and wild gesture was their gentle Domenica—now a demon indeed!
They shrank aghast unable to catch a word in the rapid torrent.
“What _is_ the matter?” they cried to Frau Schuler.
With Teuton phlegm she dropped a word into the flood.
“You have not paid her for the hour she has been here this morning.”
“No, because we have paid her just the same for the days on which we had no one and the ten days on which we had only that stupid child—and have given the precious Adalina a _mancia_ too. But good gracious, we will pay her more if she feels that way!”
“Indeed, you must not!” said the Frau briskly. “It is an abominable imposition. She has been much overpaid now, that is the trouble, she thinks you easy game. Listen, my woman, and shame yourself,” she turned to Domenica, “you disgrace your town to these good Signorine, who have acted so generously to you!”
The raging demon looked into her calm face and at the two astounded American ones, and the storm quieted as quickly as it had come ... in an instant’s metamorphosis she was again the amiable little person of all the weeks of service, saying:
“Many, many thanks to the ladies, and a pleasant journey, and might they come back again soon to Taormina!”
She snatched Peripatetica’s coat away from Maria, and Jane’s kodak from out her hand, and bore them off to the carriage with all her usual assiduous energy.
One last pat to the puppy, graduated this very morning to real collar and chain attaching him to new huge kennel, the warring friendliness of his heart and the conscientious effort to live up to his responsibilities struggling more pathetically than ever in his grey eyes, and they passed up the pergola for the last time, and out of the pink gate to continue their quest.
ONE DEAD IN THE FIELDS
“Where he fell there he lay down and died.”
SIR JOHN LUBBOCK tells a story—and this story teaches an obvious lesson—of certain red warrior ants, who capture black fellow pismires, and hold them as slaves; an outrage which must certainly shock all true pismitarian ants. The captors become in time so dependent upon their negro servants that, when deprived of their attendants, they are unable to feed or clean themselves, and lie helplessly upon their backs, feebly waving their paws in the air!...
Peripatetica, having but recently suffered the loss of a maiden slave of a dozen years’ standing, had suffered a like moral disintegration, and she violently lost her taste for travel whenever it became necessary to move from one place to another, attempting to deal with her packing by a mere series of helpless paw-wavings, most picturesque to observe, but which for all practical purposes were highly inefficient. So when she and Jane dropped down and down the zigzags to Giardini—each of those famous views self-consciously presenting itself in turn for the last time—the light figure which hurled itself boldly down the steeps by a short cut, springing along the daring descent with the sure-footed confidence of a goat, proved to be not a wing-heeled Mercury conveying an affectionate message from the gods, but merely a boy from the villa fetching Peripatetica’s left-behind nail brush, hot-water bottle, and umbrella....
From Giardini a spacious plain curves all the way to Syracuse. This broken level is built upon a foundation of inky lava cast out from Hephæstos’ forge in Ætna, in whose wrinkled crevices of black and broken stone has been caught and held all the stored richness of the denuded mountains so long ago stripped of trees; and in this plain grain and flowers and trees innumerable find food and footing. Peripatetica, bred in deep-soiled, fertile fields with wide horizons, drew, as they passed into the open vistas, deep breaths of refreshment and joy. The fierce, soaring aridity of Taormina had oppressed her with a restless sense of imprisonment. Her elbows were as passionate lovers of liberty as the Spartans, and she demanded proper space in which to move them. What she called a view was a _view_, not merely more mountains climbing, blind and obstinate, between the eye and the landscape. Being, too, of a race always worshippers of Demeter—a race which had spent generations in her service, which considered the cultivation of the soil the only possible occupation of a gentleman, and all other businesses the mere wretched astonishing fate of the unfortunate—she rejoiced loudly and fatiguingly over the blessedness of a return to a sweet land of farms.
“I don’t call that Taormina window-box-gardening on tiny stone ledges a thousand feet up in the air _farming_,” she scoffed.
“If your tongue was a spade what crops you would raise!” sniffed Jane.
“Well, I raise big harvests of diversion in my own spirit,” retorted the unsuppressed chatterer. “Besides, it’s now my turn to talk. You have done a lot of elaborate speechifying about Taormina. I made you a present of the whole jaggèd, attitudinizing old place, and for the moment I mean to flow unchecked! You needn’t listen if you don’t like. I enjoy hearing myself speak, whether anyone pays the smallest attention or not.”
Which was why, while Jane settled down comfortably to a copy of Theocritus, Peripatetica continued to entertain her own soul with spoken and unspoken comments as to a certain restful letting down of tension which resulted from sliding away from the dazzling, lofty Olympianism of Taormina into a region Cyclopean, perhaps, but with a dawning suggestion of coming humanity. For here, in this plain, succeeding those bright presences that were the elementary forces of nature—forces of the earth and sea and sun, of fire and dew, of thunder, wind, and rain, of the shining day, and the night with its changing moon—first came the primitive earth-spirits, rude and rugged, or delicate and vapourous. Creatures not gods—no longer immutable and immortal, but stronger, older, greater than man, who was yet to come. Creatures partaking somewhat of the nature of both gods and men, but subject to transformation into stream and fountain, into tree and flower; very near to the earth, yet swayed by human passions, by human sorrows and joys.
This plain was the home of nymph and oread, of dryad and faun. Here had the Cyclops and the Titans wrought—first of the great race of Armourers and Smiths—under the tutelage of Vulcan, shaping the beams of the heavens, and the ribs of the earth; arming the gods and forging the lightning.
Ulysses, the earliest of impassioned tourists, had had dealings on this very spot with the last of the Cyclops. A degenerate scion of the great old race, as the last of a great race is apt to be, Polyphemus had sunk to the mere keeping of sheep, and according to Ulysses’ own story he got the better of Polyphemus, and related, upon returning home, the triumph of his superior cunning, with the same naïve relish with which the modern Cookie retails his supposed outwitting of the native curio dealer. Very near to the train, as it ran by the sea’s edge, lay the huge fragments of lava which the blinded Cyclop had cast in futile rage after the escaping Greeks. He was a great stone-thrower, was Polyphemus, for further along the coast lay the boulders he had flung at Acis, the beautiful young shepherd. Polyphemus having still an eye in those days, his aim was truer, and the shepherd was killed, but who may baffle true love? The dead boy melted away beneath the stones and was transformed to the bright and racing river Acis (which they crossed just then), and the river, flowing round the stones, runs still across the plain to fling itself into the arms of the sea-nymph Galatea. So the two still meet as of old, and play laughingly together in and out among the huge rocks, which certainly might have been flung there by Ætna in one of her volcanic furies, but which, if one may believe the Greek story, were really the gigantic weapons of a cruel jealousy.
Jane and Peripatetica could put their heads out of the windows and study history and legend at their ease, the train ambling amiably and not too rapidly through the lovely land, where the near return of Persephone was foreshadowed in the delicate rosy clouds of the Judas trees drifting across the black green of dense carobs. It was foretold, too, by the broad yellow mustard fields blooming under the shadow of silver-grey olive orchards; Fields-of-the-Cloth-of-Gold they were, about which Spring was pitching white tents of plum flowers in which to sign royal alliance with Summer. They saw old Sicilian farm-steadings here and there crowning the rising ground on either hand, freaked and lichened with years, and showing among their spiring cypresses the square towers to which the inhabitants had fled for safety in the old days of Levantine piracy. Many of these houses were very old, six or eight hundred years old, it was said. Orange and lemon groves on either side the way still hung heavy with fruit, plainly feeling it a duty laid upon them to look like the trees in Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes; like the trees of all the Old Masters’ backgrounds. Invariably being round, close clumps of green set thick with golden balls, quite unlike the orange trees in America, which have never had proper decorative and artistic models set for their copying, and therefore grow carelessly and less beautifully.
As far as the eye could reach the whole land was furred with the tender green of sprouting corn. For this was once Europe’s granary, and the place of Rome’s bread; here Demeter first taught man to sow and reap, and despite Ætna’s fires, despite the destruction and ravaging of a thousand wars, and thousands of years of careless unrestorative use of the soil, corn still grows on this plain, so hard, so perfect, and so nourishing of grain that no Sicilian can afford to eat it, selling his own crop to macaroni manufacturers, and contenting himself with a poorer imported wheat for his dark daily bread.
In these rich meadows, too, replacing the frigid little Evangelical-looking goat of Taormina, browsed fat flocks in snowy silken fleeces, and with long wavy horns. Flocks that were tended by shepherds draped in faded blue or brown hooded cloaks, wearing sheep’s wool bound about their cross-gartered legs, their feet shod with hairy goat-skin shoes. They leaned in contemplative attitudes on long staves—as every right-minded shepherd should—so old a picture, so unchanged from far-off, pastoral days! Just so had they shown themselves to Theocritus, when that sweet young singer of the early time had wandered here among the herdsmen, the fishers, and the delvers in the good brown earth, in the days when the Greeks still lived and ruled here, so long and long ago.
“I wish they would pipe,” said Peripatetica. “It only needs to complete the picture that innocent sweet trilling of the shepherd’s reed that is like the voices of the birds and of the cicalas.”
“Oh, they daren’t do it here in high noon,” remonstrated Jane. “For fear of Pan, you know.” And she turned back the pages of her little book to read aloud the sweetest and perfectest of the Idyls....
THYRSIS. Sweet, meseems, is the whispering sound of yonder pine tree, goatherd, that murmureth by the wells of water; and sweet are thy pipings. After Pan the second prize shalt thou bear away, and if he take the horned goat, the she-goat shalt thou win; but if he choose the she-goat for his meed, the kid falls to thee, and dainty is the flesh of kids ere the age when thou milkest them.
THE GOATHERD. Sweeter, O shepherd, is thy song than the music of yonder water that is poured from the high face of the rock! Yea, if the Muses take the young ewe for their gift, a stall-fed lamb shalt thou receive for thy meed; but if it please them to take the lamb, thou shalt lead away the ewe for the second prize.
THYRSIS. Wilt thou, goatherd, in the nymphs’ name, wilt thou sit thee down here, among the tamarisks, on this sloping knoll, and pipe while in this place I watch thy flocks?
[Illustration: “PAN’S GOAT HERD”]
GOATHERD. Nay, shepherd, it may not be; we may not pipe in the noontide. ’Tis Pan we dread, who truly at this hour rests weary from the chase; and bitter of mood is he, the keen wrath sitting ever at his nostrils. But, Thyrsis, for that thou surely wert wont to sing _The Affliction of Daphnis_, and hast most deeply meditated the pastoral muse, come hither, and beneath yonder elm let us sit down, in face of Priapus and the fountain fairies, where is that resting-place of the shepherds, and where the oak trees are. Ah! if thou wilt but sing as on that day thou sangest in thy match with Chromis out of Libya, I will let thee milk, ay, three times, a goat that is the mother of twins, and even when she has suckled her kids her milk doth fill two pails. A deep bowl of ivy-wood, too, I will give thee, rubbed with sweet bees’-wax, a two-eared bowl newly wrought, smacking still of the knife of the graver. Round its upper edges goes the ivy winding, ivy besprent with golden flowers; and about it is a tendril twisted that joys in its saffron fruit. Within is designed a maiden, as fair a thing as the gods could fashion, arrayed in a sweeping robe, and a snood on her head. Beside her two youths with fair love-locks are contending from either side, with alternate speech, but her heart thereby is all untouched. And now on one she glances, smiling, and anon she lightly flings the other a thought, while by reason of the long vigils of love their eyes are heavy, but their labour is all in vain.
Beyond these an ancient fisherman and a rock are fashioned, a rugged rock, whereon with might and main the old man drags a great net for his cast, as one that labours stoutly. Thou wouldst say that he is fishing with all the might of his limbs, so big the sinews swell all about his neck, grey-haired though he be, but his strength is as the strength of youth. Now divided but a little space from the sea-worn old man is a vineyard laden well with fire-red clusters, and on the rough wall a little lad watches the vineyard, sitting there. Round him two she-foxes are skulking, and one goes along the vine-rows to devour the ripe grapes, and the other brings all her cunning to bear against the scrip, and vows she will never leave the lad, till she strand him bare and breakfastless. But the boy is plaiting a pretty locust-cage with stalks of asphodel, and fitting it with reeds, and less care of his scrip has he, and of the vines, than delight in his plaiting.
All about the cup is spread the soft acanthus, a miracle of varied work, a thing for thee to marvel on. For this bowl I paid to a Calydonian ferryman a goat and a great white cream cheese. Never has its lip touched mine, but it still lies maiden for me. Gladly with this cup would I gain thee to my desire, if thou, my friend, wilt sing me that delightful song. Nay, I grudge it thee not at all. Begin, my friend, for be sure thou canst in no wise carry thy song with thee to Hades, that puts all things out of mind!
_The Song of Thyrsis._
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_ Thyrsis of Ætna am I, and this is the voice of Thyrsis. Where, ah! where were ye when Daphnis was languishing; ye Nymphs, where were ye? By Peneus’ beautiful dells, or by dells of Pindus? for surely ye dwelt not by the great stream of the river Anapus, nor on the watch-tower of Ætna, nor by the sacred water of Acis.
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
For him the jackals, for him the wolves did cry; for him did even the lion out of the forest lament. Kine and bulls by his feet right many, and heifers plenty, with the young calves bewailed him.
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
Came Hermes first from the hill, and said, “Daphnis, who is it that torments thee; child, whom dost thou love with so great desire?” The neatherds came, and the shepherds; the goatherds came; all they asked what ailed him. Came also Priapus,—
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
And said: “Unhappy Daphnis, wherefore dost thou languish, while for thee the maiden by all the fountains, through all the glades is fleeting, in search of thee? Ah! thou art too laggard a lover, and thou nothing availest! A neatherd wert thou named, and now thou art like the goatherd.”
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
“For the goatherd, when he marks the young goats at their pastime, looks on with yearning eyes, and fain would be even as they; and thou, when thou beholdest the laughter of maidens, dost gaze with yearning eyes, for that thou dost not join their dances.”
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
Yet these the herdsman answered not again, but he bare his bitter love to the end, yea, to the fated end he bare it.
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
Ay, but she too came, the sweetly smiling Cypris, craftily smiling she came, yet keeping her heavy anger; and she spake, saying: “Daphnis, methinks thou didst boast that thou wouldst throw Love a fall, nay, is it not thyself that hast been thrown by grievous Love?”
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
But to her Daphnis answered again: “Implacable Cypris, Cypris terrible, Cypris of mortals detested, already dost thou deem that my latest sun has set; nay, Daphnis even in Hades shall prove great sorrow to Love.
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
“Get thee to Ida, get thee to Anchises! There are oak trees—here only galingale blows, here sweetly hum the bees about the hives!
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
“Thine Adonis, too, is in his bloom, for he heards the sheep and slays the hares, and he chases all the wild beasts. Nay, go and confront Diomedes again, and say, ‘The herdsman Daphnis I conquered, do thou join battle with me.’”
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
“Ye wolves, ye jackals, and ye bears in the mountain caves, farewell! The herdsman Daphnis ye never shall see again, no more in the dells, no more in the groves, no more in the woodlands. Farewell Arethusa, ye rivers good-night, that pour down Thymbris your beautiful waters.
_Begin, ye Muses dear, begin the pastoral song!_
“That Daphnis am I who here do herd the kine, Daphnis who water here the bulls and calves.
“O Pan, Pan! whether thou art on the high hills of Lycæus, or rangest mighty Mænalus, haste hither to the Sicilian isle! Leave the tomb of Helice, leave that high cairn of the son of Lycæon, which seems wondrous fair, even in the eyes of the blessed.
_Give o’er, ye Muses, come, give o’er the pastoral song!_
“Come hither, my prince, and take this fair pipe, honey-breathed with wax-stopped joints; and well it fits thy lip; for verily I, even I, by Love am now haled to Hades.
_Give o’er, ye Muses, come, give o’er the pastoral song!_
“Now violets bear, ye brambles, ye thorns bear violets and let fair narcissus bloom on the boughs of juniper! Let all things with all be confounded—from pines let men gather pears, for Daphnis is dying! Let the stag drag down the hounds, let owls from the hills contend in song with the nightingales.”
_Give o’er, ye Muses, come, give o’er the pastoral song!_
So Daphnis spake, and ended; but fain would Aphrodite have given him back to life. Nay, spun was all the thread that the Fates assigned, and Daphnis went down the stream. The whirling wave closed over the man the Muses loved, the man not hated of the nymphs.
_Give o’er, ye Muses, come, give o’er the pastoral song!_
And thou, give me the bowl, and the she-goat, that I may milk her and pour forth a libation to the Muses. Farewell, oh, farewells manifold, ye Muses, and I, some future day, will sing you yet a sweeter song.
_The Goatherd._ Filled may thy fair mouth be with honey, Thyrsis, and filled with the honeycomb; and the sweet dried fig mayest thou eat of Ægilus, for thou vanquishest the cicala in song! Lo, here is thy cup, see, my friend, of how pleasant a savour! Thou wilt think it has been dipped in the well-spring of the Hours. Hither, hither, Cissætha: do thou milk her, Thyrsis. And you young she-goats, wanton not so wildly lest you bring up the he-goat against you.
* * * * *
“What a crowded place Sicily is!” cried Jane, heaving an oppressed breath.
“Isn’t it?” sympathized Peripatetica. “Here we are on our way to the very fountain, as it seems, of history—Syracuse, where nearly everything happened that ever did happen, and yet one has to mentally push one’s way through a swarming crowd of events to get there, because almost everything that didn’t happen in Syracuse occurred in these Sicilian plains. When you think of the layer on layer of human life, like geologic strata, that lies all over this place, you realize that it would take half a lifetime to come to some understanding of the significance of it all, and that it’s foolish to go on until one can get some hold upon the meaning of what lies right here.”
This “simple but first-class conversation” took place in the eating-station at Catania which the two had all to themselves, most of the Tedeschi tourists frugally remaining in the train and staying their pangs from bottles, and with odds and ends out of paper parcels, from which feasts they emerged later replete but crumby.
Poor Catania! sunk to a mere feeding-trough for passing tourists. She, the great city sitting blandly among her temples and towers, wooed for her money bags by all the warlike neighbours. For whenever her neighbours squabbled with one another, which was pretty nearly all the time—or whenever an outsider intervened—each strove to engage the aid of this rich landholder, sending embassies and emissaries to bully or cajole Catania. As rich folk will, she always tried to protect herself by taking neither side completely, speaking fair to each, and, like all Laodiceans, she made thereby two enemies instead of one, and was considered fair prey by both.
That splendid, dangerous dandy, Alcibiades, was one of these ambassadors. Almost under the feet of Jane and Peripatetica, as they sat with their mouths full of crisp delectable little tarts, had the wily Athenian spoken in the Catanian theatre. The older men enjoyed his eloquent, graceful Greek, but they were quite determined not to be persuaded by it to let his fleet enter their harbour, his army enter their city, or to be used as a base from which to strike the Syracusians. The Catanians didn’t like Syracuse, but they didn’t mean to embroil themselves with her. They secretly hoped the Athenians would reduce that dangerous neighbour to despair, but if either destroyed the other—why, then it would be well to be able to show the victor their clean hands.
Alcibiades was quite aware he was not convincing them, but he enjoyed turning brilliant periods in public, and was meanwhile pleasantly conscious of the young men in the audience admiring the chasing of his buckles, the artful folds of his gold-embroidered chalmyde, the exquisite angle at which he knotted his fillet, privately resolving to readjust their own provincial toilets by the model of this famous glass of fashion. And when they all poured out of the theatre after his brilliantly preferred request had been politely refused, he could afford to smile calmly, for, behold! there was the Athenian fleet in the harbour, the Athenian army in the city. He had not been using those well-turned phrases for mere idleness. They had availed to keep the authorities occupied while his subordinates had executed his commands.
And their caution was of no avail whatever, for in due time, when Alcibiades was in exile and the Athenians rotting in the Latomiæ, Syracuse duly turned and “took it out of” Catania. Took it out good and hard too.
There was no use stopping over a train to see the old theatre and realize for themselves this curious bit of history; it only meant crawling through black passages by the light of a smoky candle, for Ætna in 1669—in a fit of ennui with poor Catania—had pitched down thousands of tons of lava upon her and hid all the rich city’s ancient glories from the sun.
It was from Catania that another interesting Greek had set out upon his last journey. A journey to the crest of that volcano which has been constantly taking a hand in the destinies of Sicily, with what—in its careless malice, its malignant furies—seems almost like the personal wickedness of some demon; that incalculable mountain whose soaring outlines had been coming out at Jane and Peripatetica all day whenever the train turned a corner, as if to reassure them that they couldn’t lose her if they tried. Ætna was from the very beginning the pre-eminent fact in this part of Sicily.
First Zeus—who always had a cheerful disregard of any rules of chivalry in dealing with his enemies—tied down the unlucky Titan Enceladus upon this very spot, and, gathering up enough of Sicily to make a mountain the size of Ætna, heaped it on top of him, probably congratulating himself the while that he had put a complete end to that particular annoyance. But quite a number of rulers since Zeus have discovered that in a rebellious temperament there reside resources of annoyingness which even a god cannot entirely foresee or provide against, and the Titan still heaves restlessly at his load from time to time, rocking the whole island with his struggles, toppling towers, engulfing cities, tearing the earth apart in his furies.
Some of the myths accuse Demeter herself of having set Ætna alight in her frenzy, that all Sicily might thus be illumined to aid her in the search for Persephone, and that never since that reckless day has she been able to extinguish it, but must fight, with rain and dews and snows to save her people’s bread from the flames forever threatening to destroy it. The fire pours forth from time to time, spreading cruel ruin, but ever, aided by her, man creeps up and up once more. Up to Randazzo; up to Brontë, the “thunder town,” given to Lord Nelson by Marie Antoinette’s sister, then Queen of the Two Sicilies, where the Dukes of Brontë, Nelson’s descendants, still live part of each year in their wild eyrie.
The vine and the olive climb and climb after each catastrophe. They cover the old scars of the eruptions, perch in crevices where a goat can scarce stand, and wring from the rich crumbs of soil “wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil that causeth his countenance to shine.”
Up to the top of this Ætna—ten thousand feet up—on the last journey from Catania climbed Empedocles, that strange figure who passes with ringing brazen sandals through the history of Sicily. Empedocles, clothed in purple, crowned with a wreath of golden leaves, followed by thousands to whom he taught some strange, half Pythagorean worship, the form and meaning of which have vanished with time, save for some hints of a sort of mental healing practised upon his followers. Empedocles, composing vast poems of thousands of lines, and vaunting himself as a Super-man, saying:
“An immortal god, and no longer a mortal man, I wander among you; honoured by all, adorned with priestly diadems and blooming wreaths. Into whatever illustrious towns I enter men and women pay me reverence, and I am accompanied by thousands who thirst for their advantage; some being desirous to know the future, and others, tormented by long and terrible disease, waiting to hear the spells that soothe suffering.”
Whether his following fell away; whether he became the victim of some wild melancholy, some corroding _welt-schmerz_—unable to cure the ills of his own soul with his own doctrines—no one knows, but the dramatic manner of his exit printed his name indelibly upon the memory of the world from which he fled.
Deserting late at night a feast in Catania, he mounted a mule, climbed the rough steeps, threaded the dusky oak woods, dismissed his last follower, and—after lingering a moment to listen to the boy-harper Callicles singing in the dawn at the edge of the forest—he passed on upward through the snows, and was seen no more by human eye. Only the brazen sandal was found beside the crater, into whose unutterable furnace—urged by some divine despair—he had flung himself: all that had been that aspiring, passionate life vanishing in an instant in a hiss of steam, a puff of gas, upon the most stupendous funeral pyre ever chosen by man.
* * * * *
There was endless history waiting to be looked into at Catania; frightful passagings and scufflings, massacres and exilings, murders, conspiracies and poisonings, and every other uncomfortable exhibition of “man’s inhumanity to man”—accompanied, of course, by heroisms, patriotic self-sacrifice, and a thousand humble, unremembered kindnesses and virtues, such as forever form warp and woof of the web of life and time. But railway schedules, even in Sicily, are almost heartlessly indifferent to tradition, and when the last tartlet was consumed the two seekers for Persephone were dragged Syracuse-ward, along with the crumby Tedeschi, divided during the long afternoon between increasing drowsiness and reproachful Baedekers. At last came sea marshes, where salt-pans evaporated in the sun, and toward sunset the train dumped them all promiscuously into station omnibuses at the capital of history; too grubby and fatigued to care whether the first class in historical research was called or not.
The Tedeschi, after their frugal fashion, went in search of cheap pensions in the city, and only Jane and Peripatetica entered the wheeled tender of the Villa Politi, along with a young Italian pair, obviously engaged upon a honeymoon. A pair who never ceased to look unutterable things at each other out of fine eyes bistred with railway grime, nor ceased to murmur soft nothings from lips surrounded with the shadows of railway soot, undaunted by the frank interest of the hotel portier hanging on to the step, nor by the joltings of the dusty white road that led, through the noisy building of many ugly new villas, up to bare, wind-swept heights.
Strong in the possession of a note from the proprietor promising accommodation, with which, this time, the wayfarers had had the prudence to arm themselves, Jane and Peripatetica swept languidly up the steps, ordering that their luggage be placed in their rooms and tea served immediately upon the terrace.
But there were no rooms. No rooms of any kind, single or double!
The note was produced. There it was, down in black and white!
The young Signor Antonio drew a similar weapon—more black and white promises!
The Padrone raised eyes and hands in a gesture almost consoling in its histrionic effectiveness.
Could he _make_ guests depart at the time they said they would depart?
Could he cast them out neck and crop when they found Syracuse so attractive that they changed their minds about going away and vacating rooms promised to others?
He left it to Jane. He left it to Peripatetica. He left it to Signor Antonio. He left it to Signor Antonio’s beautiful bride, his “bellissima sposa.” _Could_ he? He asked that!...
The two seekers were sternly sarcastic. Signor Antonio imitated the histrionic attitude. The Bellissima Sposa simply smiled fatuously. Beloved Antonio now held her destinies in his strong hand. Was it a royal suite? Well and good. Was it a corner of a stone wall under an umbrella? It was still well and good, for would she not still be with her Antonio?
The honeyed submissiveness of this was too much for even the wicked obduracy of the Padrone.
There _was_ a billiard room—for the night. To-morrow some one must keep his promise and go. They could choose among themselves.
The bride was led away to the billiard room, still gazing upon her Antonio with intoxicated content, and two cross females, shaking the dust of the Villa Politi’s glowing garden and vine-wreathed terraces from their feet, jolted back again indignantly along the bare, windy heights fretted by the clamour of a sirocco-tortured sea. Past the gritty precincts of the ugly building villas, to the gaunt precincts of an hotel within the shrunken town. There to climb early into beds of the sloping pitch and rugged surface of a couple of tiled roofs; to lay their heads upon pillows undoubtedly stuffed with the obdurate skulls of all Syracuse’s myriad dead, and to listen in the wakefulness thereby induced to the dull sickening thuds about the floor which they knew, for good and sufficient reasons, to be the nocturnal hopping of the mighty Syracusan flea....
“Fancy anyone being tempted to remain over _here_!” sneered Peripatetica.
This was in the morning. They had compared the bleatings of the goats; the raucous early cries of the population; the effects of sirocco; the devices by which, clinging with teeth and nails, they had succeeded in maintaining their perch on the tile roofs; had boasted of their shikarry among the hopping, devouring monsters of the dark.
“Talk of history!” mourned Jane. “Who could be the adequate Herodotus of last night?”
They were on their way to the Temple of Minerva. The route led by a wide sea-street, half of whose length gave upon that famous Inner Harbour so often filled with hostile fleets, so often barred by great chains, so often echoing with clanging battles, with the bubbling shrieks of the drowning. Now the sparkling waters rolled untinged with blood, the clean salt air swept unhindered across their path, for half of the huge sea-wall had been recently demolished to let in wind and sun, though part still towered grimly, darkening the way, shutting out the light from the opposite dwellings.
The path turned at right angles and wound through narrow foot-pathless cracks, between houses; cracks that served the older Syracuse in lieu of streets, where swarmed in the dingy narrownesses the everlasting goat, the ever pervasive child. Very different children these from those cherub heads, with busy little legs growing out of them, who formed the rising population of Taormina. Taormina, who has solved that whole question of educating children; a question which still so puzzles the unintelligent rest of mankind. For weeks they had walked the ancient ways of that high-perched town, picking careful steps amid its infant hordes, and never once had they heard a cry, or seen a discontented child.
“Occupation was the secret of all that cherubic goodness, I think,” said Peripatetica reflectively. “Don’t you remember that every single one of them had a job?”
“Of course, I remember,” said Jane crossly. “You needn’t remind _me_. It was only twenty-four hours ago we were there—though it seems ages since we fell out of the tender protecting care of dear ‘Questo-qui.’ You can put it all in the book if you feel you must talk about it.”
“Jane, your usually charming temper has been spoiled by a night on a roof. It has made a cat of you,” persisted Peripatetica as she calmly circled round a goat. When the fount of her eloquence was unsealed it was not to be choked by the mere casting of a stony snub into it.
“I devoted some of the dark hours on my tiles to profound philosophic reflection upon the Taorminian methods with children,” she continued. “I have often thought the ennui suffered by children and pet animals was the cause of much of their restless fretfulness. Even the most undeveloped nature feels the difference between a real occupation and an imitation one; feels the importance of being an economic factor. Now those Taormina children from the age of two years are made to feel they are really important and necessary members of the family. They knit as soon as they can walk; they sew, they do drawn-work, at five. They sit in the streets at little tables and help cobble shoes or mend teakettles. They shop for busy parents; they fetch and carry. They pull out of the gardens and orchards weeds as tall as themselves, and everywhere are calm and self-respecting, and receive from their parents and their grown-up neighbours that serious courtesy and consideration due to useful and well-behaved citizens. One does not slap or jerk or scold valuable and important members of the community, and no youthful Taorminian would permit such an unjustifiable liberty from a parent.”
Borne on this flood of words they suddenly flowed out into a big irregular square where stood one of the most curious buildings in the world; the great temple of Pallas of the Syracusans. The enormous fluted Doric columns were sunk into the walls of a Cathedral, for Zosimus, bishop of Syracuse in the Seventh Century, had seized the columned frame and had plastered his church upon it—but so great was the diameter of the pillars that their sides and capitals protruded through the walls inside and out like the prodigious stone ribs of some huge skeleton. The Saracens had come later, and, after slaughtering the priests and women who clung shrieking to the altars, had added battlements to the roof, and the Eighteenth Century, being unable, of course, to keep its finger out of even the most reverend pie, had gummed upon the portal a flaring baroque façade of yellow stone. But through all disfigurements and defacements the temple still showed its soaring majesty, and Peripatetica, at sight of it, cried:
“One dead in the fields!”...
For suddenly was revealed to the two the meaning of what they had been journeying to see—it was the dead body of a great civilization.
Here, nearly three thousand years since, had come Archias, the rich Heraclid of Corinth. He had gathered sullenly into little ships his wealth, his family, and his servants, and had fled far down the horizon, an execrated fugitive because of the slaying of beautiful Actæon. And, finding on the coast of the distant God’s-land a reproduction of the bays and straits of the Corinth which had cast him out, he founded there a city. A city that was to have a life like the life of some gifted, powerful man, growing from timid infancy to a lusty youth full of dreams and passions and vague towering ambitions; struggling with and conquering his fellows; grasping at power and glory, heaping up riches unbelievable, decking himself in purple and gold, living long and gloriously and tumultuously; and who was to know rise and fall, defeats and triumphs, and finally was to die on the battlefield, and be left there by the victor to rot. So that all the flesh would drop from the long frame, the muscles dry and fall apart, the eyes be sightless, and the brain dark; and the little busy insects of the earth would carry away the fragments bit by bit, and on the field where he lay would be found at last only the hollow skull once so full of proud purpose; only the slack white bones of the arm that had wielded the strong sword, the vast arch of the gaunt ribs that once had sheltered the brave heart of Syracuse. And among these dry bones little curious creatures would come to peep and peer and build their homes; spiders spinning webs over the empty eye sockets, mice weaving their nests among the wide-flung knuckles....
One little spider, about ten minutes old, lay in wait for these two tourist flies at the side door of the Cathedral with an offer to guide them, and though they sternly endeavoured to brush the insect aside, doubting his infantile capacity to direct their older intelligences, the Spider was not of the to-be-brushed-aside variety and knew better than they what they really needed. While they wandered through the vulgar uglinesses of Zosimus’ shrine, trying to recall Cicero’s glowing picture of the temple in its glory, he never took his claws off of them. While they talked of the great doors inlaid with gold and ivory, of the brazen spears, of the cella walls frescoed with the portraits and the battles of the Sikel Kings, of the pedestals between each column bearing images of the gods in ivory, silver, and bronze, the Spider was patient and merely murmured “Greco” or “molto antico” by way of encouraging chorus. He let them babble unchecked of the tall image of armed Pallas standing behind the altar, with plumed helmet and robe of Tyrian purple, grasping her great spear in her right hand and resting the left hand upon the golden shield that bore a sculptured Medusa head. Upon her pedestal was carved the cock, the dragon, and the serpent, and the altar before her was heaped with fresh olive boughs about the smouldering spices sending up wavering clouds of scented smoke that coiled among the ceiling’s gilded plates. Without, upon the roof, stood another great shield of gilded bronze, a beacon for sailors who, setting out upon long voyages, carried a cup of burning ashes from her altar to sprinkle on the waves as the glittering landmark faded down the sky.
But when these reminiscences of the “molto antico” finally exhausted themselves, the Spider rose to his occasion. He was vague about Minerva, but Santa Lucia was his trump card. He was eminently capable of guiding any number of travellers to the chapel of that big swarthy idol adorned with wire-and-cotton wreaths, and hung about with votive silver hands and hearts, arms and legs, in grateful testimony of the limbs and organs cured by her mercy and power. He could pour out in burning Sicilian, illustrated by superb spidery gestures, a thrilling description of the yearly _villegiatura_ of Syracuse’s patron saint. How twice in a twelvemonth she feels the need of change of air, and all the town attends her visit of a few days to the church beyond the bridge, she being escorted by priests and censors, and blaring bands, and wearing her finest jewels and toilet, as befits a lady on ceremonial travels. It is a festa for all Syracuse, Spider explains, with much good eating and “molto buono vino.”
Jane, always a molten mass of useful information, interjects sotto voce into the flood of his narrative that precisely the same ceremony was used for the image of Diana when she was the patron goddess of the Syracusans, and the very same molto buono vino so overcame the populace at one of Diana’s festas that Marcellus, the Roman, after a siege of three years, captured the long and fiercely defended city that very night.
The Spider took them later to see the handful of fragments alone remaining of Diana’s fane—broken columns sunk in a fosse between two houses—though once a temple as splendid as Minerva’s. A temple served by many priestesses, and surrounded by a great grove sloping down to the fountain of Arethusa. Among these trees the Oceanides herded the sacrificial deer, and troops of just such silken-coated, wavy-horned goats as feed to-day upon the Catanian plain. And to this grove came young girls, offering up, to please the great Huntress, their abandoned childish toys of baked clay. For oddly enough the wild, arrowy goddess who loved to shed the blood of beasts, adored children, and was a special patron of theirs, and would even listen favourably to the petitions of barren wives.
There seemed some strange vagueness, some shadowy inexplicableness in the worship of Diana. All the other gods typified some force of nature, some resultant struggle and passion of man caught in nature’s web, but of the moon they knew only that it influenced tides and the growing of plants. What is one to make then of this fierce ivory-skinned Maid who sweeps, crescent-crowned, through the moonlit glades of the deep primitive forests, with bayings of lean questing hounds and echoing call of silver horns, hard on the track of crashing boar, of leaping deer? There is something as glimmeringly elusive, as magically haunting in the personality and the worship of Diana as in the moon itself.
They offered the web of this conundrum to the Spider, but he wisely refused to allow himself to be entangled in it. This, however, is anticipating the real course of events.
Already, before leaving the Cathedral, another conundrum had been asked and not answered.
High on opposite sides of the walls of the nave Jane and Peripatetica had observed two ornate glass and gilt coffins. The one on the left contained the half-mummy, half-skeleton of a man. A young, beardless face it was, the still fair skin drawn tight over the features; the still blond hair clustering about it in curls of dusty gold. The fleshless visage was handsome, and though strange and ghostly, not repulsive. The skeleton body was clothed in velvet and gold, and the bony, gloved fingers clasped a splendid silver-scabbarded sword; an empty dagger case was hanging from an embroidered baldrick across the dead man’s breast. He lay on his side in an uneasy attitude, looking through the transparent pane of his last home toward the opposite crystal sarcophagus. This opposite coffin contained a half-mummied, half-skeleton woman—a woman also young and fair-haired; artfully coiffed, her tresses wrapped with pearls. Neither was _her_ face repulsive; some strange process had preserved a dry whiteness in the skin stretched smooth and unwrinkled upon the bones and integuments, though all the flesh was gone. She too was clothed in gold and silk in a fashion centuries old. Through the lace of the sleeves showed the white polished bones of what must once have been warm rounded arms. She too was gloved; she too crouched upon her side uneasily, but she did not face her companion. Her head was thrown back as if in pain; and plunged through the pointed silk corselet—just where there must once have beat a young heart—was the gold-handled dagger from the empty dagger case hung to the embroidered baldrick.
Who were they?
What tragedy was this? why did they lie here in their crystal sepulchres—was it the record of some strange crime, preserved with meticulous care for all the world to see?
The Spider could not tell. They had always been there. He did not know their names or their story. He could not refer to anyone who did. Baedeker was equally indifferent and uncommunicative; he made no mention of them. Hare was silent. Sladen ignored them. No questioning of guide-books or guides ever unravelled that mystery.
* * * * *
From the temple of Diana the Spider led Jane and Peripatetica through more narrow, crooked streets thronged with rough, fierce Syracusan children, to see the Sixteenth Century palace of the Montaltos, now fallen on grimy days. The windows with their ogives and delicate twisted columns were crumbling, and the noble court—through which silken guests and mailed retainers had passed to mount the great stairs and throng the long balconies—was now full of squalid, squalling populace, and flocks of evil-savoured brown goats being milked for the evening meal.
For some unexplained reason the mere presence of the Spider was an offence to the lowering boys who laired in this court. His grown-up air of being capably in charge of two female forestieri stank in their resentful nostrils, but Spider was an insect of his hands, landing those hands resoundingly upon the cheeks of his buffeters and hustlers until an enraged mother took the part of one of her discomfited offspring, and under her fierce cuffings the Spider melted into outraged tears.
Peripatetica had already discovered that angry English had a demoralizing effect upon the natives. Its crisp consonants seemed as daunting as blows to the vowelled Sicilian; armed with which, and a parasol, the Spider was rescued and borne half way to the fountain of Arethusa before he could control his sniffles and his protesting fingers, upon which he offered passionate illustration that even Hercules could not overcome the odds of ten to one, and that tears under the circumstances left no smirch upon nascent manhood.
Jane, with her usual large grasp of financial questions, applied a lire to the wounded heart with the happiest results, and it was a once more united and cheerful trio which leaned over Arethusa’s inadequate little fount with its green scum and its frowzy papyrus plants. Poor Nymph! She of the rainbow, and the “couch of snows”—she whose “footsteps were paved with green.” Flying from the gross wooing of Alpheus she comes all the way from Elis under the sea to take refuge with moon-crowned Artemis—Artemis “the protectress”—and for safety is turned into a sparkling pool which feeds all Syracuse with its sweet waters. Now Artemis is dead. Her cool groves have given way to acres of arid stone convents; earthquakes have cracked Arethusa’s basin, letting the sea in and the sweet water out; modern bad taste has walled her vulgarly about, and the poor old nymph can only gurgle reiterantly, “I was once a beauty; long ago, long ago!” with not the smallest hope that any tourist will believe it.
* * * * *
The Spider has retired to his web. _Pranzo_ has been discussed, and Jane and Peripatetica, refreshed, are taking another nibble at the vast mouthful of Syracuse’s past.
It was a thrilling _pranzo_. Not because of the food, nor of its partakers. The food was the same old stereotyped menu. Gnocchi with cheese. Vegetables, divorced from the meats—they cannot apparently occupy the same course in any part of Italy. More cheese—a _jardinière_ of pomegranates, oranges, dates, and almonds. Wine under a new name, but with the same delicate perfumed savour of all the other wines they have drunk.
No more did the guests offer any startling variety. The same tall condescending English woman; elderly, manacled with bracelets, clanking with chains; domineering a plain, red cheek-boned, flat-chested daughter obviously needing a lot of marrying off on Mamma’s part; dominating also a nervous, impetuous husband—the travelling Englishman being much given to nervous impetuosity. A few fat, greasy Italians with napkin corners planted deeply into their collars, and scintillating the gross joys of gluttony. Two dark-faced melancholy-eyed _foreigners_, not easily placed as to nationality. All types of feminine Americans. If it were possible to see only their eyes they would be recognizable as Americans from their glance of bold, alert self-confidence and cheerfulness, very noticeable by contrast with the European eye. Also if one could see only that inevitable ready-made silk bodice the wearers would be recognizable as fellow countrywomen. The man who manufactures that type of bodice at home must be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
No; the thrill of the _pranzo_ was due to invisible causes.
Behind the door from which the hopelessly estranged meat and vegetables emerged there arose a clash and murmur as of some domestic storm, and the waiters passed the spinach course with an air so tense and distrait that the crunching horde felt their forks strain with curiosity in their hands. Even the fat Italians paused in their gorging to stare. Even the foreigners’ melancholy dark eyes grew interested.
After the spinach course ensued a long interval; the waiters lingering about with empty platters and furtive pretences of occupation, plainly not daring to enter that door, behind which ever waxed the loud rumour of domestic war.
The interval increased in length. The clamour rose and rose, and someone went in search of the Padrone.
Ours was a splendid Padrone; clothed upon with a _redingote_ and an historic and romantic dignity. For had not Guy de Maupassant mentioned him with respectful affection in “La Vie Errante”? The memory of which artistic appreciation still surrounded him with an aura. The Padrone entered that fateful door with calm, stern purpose, while the guests crumbled their bread in patient hope.
The domestic storm drew breath for one terrible moment, then suddenly rose to the fury of a cyclone, and the Padrone was shot convulsively forth into our midst, the romantic aura hanging in tragic tatters about him. Holding to the wall he swallowed hard several times, seeking composure, then passed, with knees wabbling nervously beneath the stately redingote, to the office, where could be witnessed his passionately protesting gestures and whispers poured into the sympathetic bosom of the concierge.
The cyclone had expended itself; the courses resumed their course, but what had taken place behind that closed door was never known. It remained another Syracusan mystery.
* * * * *
The Museo at Syracuse, though small, is the best in Europe, for here, as on an open page, is written the whole history of the island of Sicily—not a gap or a break in the story of more than three thousand years; of perhaps five thousand years, for it antedates all the certain dates of history. Here are cases full of the stone and obsidian tools and weapons of the autochthonous Sikels; their crude pottery, their rough burial urns, their bone ornaments, and feathery wisps of their woven stuffs. These are all curiously like the relics of the Mound-builders of America, now in the Smithsonian Institution. Apparently the Stone Age was as deadeningly similar everywhere as is our own Age of Steel.
Follows the rude metal working of the Siculians, who, having some knowledge of the use of iron, can build boats, and come across the narrow strait at Messina and drive out the Sikels. So long ago as that the old process of “assimilation” begins. The Siculians begin to work in colour, to ornament their pottery, to dye their stuffs, to mark their silver and iron with rough chisel patterns—patterns and colours again astonishingly like those of our own Pueblo Indians.
There are fragments of Phœnician work here and there—the traders from Tyre and Sidon are beginning to cruise along the coast and barter their superior wares with the inhabitants.
All at once the arts make a great spring upward. The Greeks have appeared. Rude, archaic, Dorian, these arts at first, but strong, and showing a new spirit. The potteries have a glaze, the patterns grow more intricate, the reliefs show a plastic striving for grace and life, the ornaments are of gold as well as silver and bronze, and steel has appeared. Follows a splendid flowering; an apogee of beauty is reached. Vases of exquisite contours covered with spirited paintings, pictures of life and death, of war and love. Coins that are unrivaled in numismatic beauty; struck frequently with the quadriga to celebrate the winning of the chariot race at the Olympic games; a triumph valued as greatly by the Greeks of Sicily as is the winning of the Derby by English horsemen. Tools, jewels, arms, all adorned with infinite taste and skill. Statues of such subtle grace and loveliness as this famous “Nymph,” the long-buried marble now grown to tints of blond pearl. Figurines of baked clay, reproducing the costumes, the ornaments, the physiology of the passing generations—faces arch, lovely, full of gay humour. Splendid sarcophagi, and burial urns still holding ashes and calcined bones, and tiny clay reproductions of the death masks of the departed, full of tender human individuality, or else heads of the gods, such as that enchanting tinted and crowned Artemis, that still lies in one of the great sarcophagi amid a handful of burned bones.
Punic and Roman remains begin to show themselves, recording that tremendous struggle between Europe and Africa for dominion in the midland sea, under the impact of which the Greek civilization is to be crushed. Byzantine ornament appears. Africa makes another struggle and is for a while triumphant, leaving record of the Moorish domination in damascened arms, in deep-tinted tiles.
The Goths and Normans fuse with the Saracen arts at first, but soon dominate the Eastern influence and shake it off, developing an art inferior only to the Greek. The Spanish follow, baroque, sumptuous, pseudo-classical. All the story of all the conquerors is here.
“Oh!” sighs Peripatetica. “What an illustrated history; I could go on turning its pages for days.”
“Well, you’ll turn them alone!” snapped Jane, clutching frantically at her side, and adding in a dreadful whisper: “There are _fleas_ hopping all over these historical pages. Come away this instant.”
But they linger a moment on the way out to look again at the famous headless Venus Landolina.
“There is only one real Venus,” commented Peripatetica contemptuously. “The Melian. All the rest are only plump ladies about to step into their baths. I detest these fat women with insufficient clothing who sprawl all over Europe calling themselves the goddesses of love. Goddesses indeed! They look more like soft white chestnut worms. That great dominating, irresistible lady of the Louvre is a deity, if you like—Our Lady of Beauty—besides, this little person’s calf is flat on the inner side.”
“Iss it not righd dat her calve should be vlat on de inside?” queried an elderly Swiss, also looking, and showing all her handsome porcelain teeth in a smile of anxious uncertainty. “I dink dat must be righd, because Baedeker marks her wid a ztar.”
“Don’t allow your opinions to be unsettled by this lady’s,” consoled Jane sweetly. “She isn’t really an authority. It would be wiser perhaps and more comfortable to be guided by Baedeker.”
“Bud she has no head,” grieved the Swiss. “How can Baedeker mark her wid a ztar w’en she has no head?”
How indeed? But then, there is such a lot of body!...
It is some days later. They have “done” the river Amapus; have been rowed among the towering feathery papyrus plants, the original roots of which were sent to Heiro I. by Ptolemy, and which still flourish in Sicily though all the parent plants have vanished out of Egypt.
They have looked down into the clear depths of La Pisma’s spring. Jane says it is less beautiful than the Silver Spring in Florida out which the Ocklawaha river rises, but that fountain of a tropical forest—transparent as air, and held in a great argent bowl—has no history, while La Pisma was the playmate of fair Persephone, and on seeing her ravished away by fiery Pluto melted quite away into a flood of bright tears. And it was she who, having caught up Persephone’s dropped veil, floated it to the feet of Demeter, and told her where to look for the lost daughter. La Pisma and Anapus her lover were, too, the real guardians of Syracuse, for as one after another of the armies of invading enemies camped on their oozy plain they sapped the invaders’ strength, and blighted their courage with fevers from the miasmatic breaths exhaled upon the foes as they slept.
Jane and Peripatetica have found another mystery. Syracuse, it appears, is full of mysteries. This last is known as the Castle of Euryalus, and they must take horse and drive to it, six miles from the hotel, though still within the walls of the original city, once twenty-two miles about; shrunk in these later days to less than three. This six miles of pilgrimage gives ample time to search the guide-books for information as to this thing they have come out for to see. But the guide-books palter, and shuffle and evade, as they are prone to do about anything really interesting. Euryalus, solid enough to their eyes and to their sense of touch, seems as illusive in history as the cloudy towers of the Fata Morgana—now you see it, and now you don’t. It seems to come from nowhere. No one can tell when or by whom it was built, but it always turns up in the history of Syracuse in moments of stress—much like those Christian patron-saints who used suddenly to descend in shining armour to turn the tide of battle. One hears of Dionysius strengthening it when news comes that the dread Himilcon is on his way from Carthage with two hundred triremes accompanied by rafts, galleys, and transports innumerable. Dionysius makes Euryalus the key of a surprise he prepares for the Carthagenians, for when the latter come sailing into the harbour—“A forest of black masts and dark sails, with transports filled with elephants trumpeting at the smell of land,” and from the West “comes trampling across the plain by the Helorian road and the banks of the Anapus, the Punic army 300,000 strong, with 3,000 horse led by Himilcon in person,”—there stands waiting for them one of the most amazing works ever wrought by the will of a single man.
Dionysius in twenty days has built a wall three miles long barring Himilcon’s ingress at the only weak point. Seventy thousand of the inhabitants of Syracuse had worked at this building. Forty thousand slaves had been in the Latomiæ cutting the blocks of easily hewn sandstone, which six thousand oxen carried to the wall, while other armies of men had been upon the slopes of Ætna ravaging the oak woods for huge beams. When Himilcon comes the wall is complete.
Then there are more appearings and disappearings through the years, and suddenly Euryalus fills the foreground again. Archimedes is helping Hieronymus to fortify it against Marcellus—is designing veiled sally ports, and oblique apertures from which his “scorpions” and other curious war engines may hurl stones, is placing there the burning glasses with which he will set the Roman galleys on fire by means of the sun’s heat. But though the Carthagenians were terrible the Roman is more terrible still, and in spite of Archimedes they get into Syracuse after a three years’ siege. While the furies of final capture are raging Archimedes sits calmly drawing figures upon the sand. A Roman soldier rushing by carelessly smears them with his foot. Archimedes is angry, and “uses language.” The soldier, angry in his turn—no doubt “language” in Greek sounded especially insulting—shortens his sword and stabs “the greatest man then living in the world.”
Marcellus sheds tears when he hears it, and buries the father of mathematics with splendid honours, marking the tombstone—as Archimedes had wished—with no name, with only a sphere and a cylinder. He spared Syracuse too; left her temples and splendours intact, and forbid the usual plundering and massacres. Marcellus was, it seems, in every way a very decent person, and Peripatetica grieved that those frigid Romans wouldn’t let him have a triumph when he went home, and Jane breathed a hope that he used more language to that murderous soldier....
Later comes Cicero to Syracuse, hunting evidence against Verres, who had, as pro-consul, robbed the city of all the treasures Marcellus had spared, and the great lawyer takes time from his examination of witnesses to look out Archimedes’ resting place. He finds it overgrown with thistles and brambles, but recognizes it by the sphere and cylinder, and sets it once more in order.
“So Tully paused, amid the wrecks of time, On the rude stone to trace the truth sublime, Where at his feet in honoured dust disclosed The immortal Sage of Syracuse reposed.”
“You cribbed that from one of the guide-books,” jeered Jane.
“Of course I did,” admitted Peripatetica with calm unblushingness. “Do you imagine I go around with samples of formal Eighteenth Century Pope-ry concealed about my person?”
* * * * *
They are on their way to the theatre, passing by the ancient site of the Forum, which site is now a mere dusty, down-at-heels field where goats browse and donkeys graze, and where squads of awkward recruits are being trained to take cover behind a couple of grass blades, to fire their empty rifles with some pretence at unanimity.
The road winds between walled orange and lemon groves, in which contadini are drying and packing miles of pungent golden peel for transportation to French and English confectioners. The air is redolent with it.
Themistocles—Jane doubts his sponsors in baptism having had any hand in this, but the grubby card he presented with so pleasant a glance, so fine a gesture at the time of striking a bargain for the day, bore it printed as plain as plain—Themistocles, then, dismounts before a small drinking shop lying at the foot of an elevation. With one broad sweep of his hand he signifies that he is making them free of history, and yields them to the care of a nobleman in gold and blue; a nobleman possessing a pleasing manner and one of those plangent, golden-strung voices which the lucky possessors always so enjoy using.
The two demand the Latomia Paradiso; the name having seduced their sentimental imaginations. The peer intimates that the name is misleading, but with gentle firmness they drop down the path which descends into the quarries from which Dionysius hurriedly snatched the material for his wall; material (almost as easy to cut as cheese, but hardening in the air) which has been dug, scooped, and riven away as fantastically as if sculptured by the capricious flow of water, leaving caverns, towers, massy columns, arches, a thousand freaked shapes. Now all this is draped with swaying curtains of ivy, with climbing roses heavy with unblown buds, with trailing geraniums hanging from crannies, with wild flowers innumerable. Lemon and fig trees grow upon the quarries’ floor, mosses and ferns carpet the shady places, black-green caroba trees huddle in neglected corners.
The nobleman, however, is impatient to show other wonders. He leads the way into caverns through whose openings shafts of sunlight steal, turning the dusk within to a blond gloom, caverns where rope-makers walk to and fro twisting long strands, twirling wheels, with a cheerful chatter that booms hollowly back to them from the vaulted darkness over their heads; where the birds who flit in and out hear their twitterings reflected enormously, with a curious effect; where even the sound of dripping moisture is magnified into a large solemnity.
He has saved the best for the last. Here an arch soars a hundred feet, giving entrance to a lofty narrow cave. Where the sides of the arch meet is a small channel of chiselled smoothness, ending in an orifice through which a glimpse of the sky shows like a tiny blue gem. It is the Ear of Dionysius. In this cave, so the story runs, the Tyrant confined suspected conspirators, for this is a natural whispering gallery, and the lowest of confidential talk within it would mount the walls, each lightest word would run along that smooth channel, as through the tube of an ear, and reach the listener at the orifice. For the uneasy Dictator knows that his turbulent Greek subjects, who cannot rule themselves, are equally unable to bear placidly the rule of another, and it would have been interesting, and at times exciting, to have been permitted to watch that stern, bent face as the rebellious protests climbed in whispers to the greedy ear a hundred feet above.
A wonderful echo lives in this cave. Now it is plain why the guide has such large and vibrant tones—he was chosen because of that natural gift.
“Addio!” he cries gaily. “_Addio_,” calls the darkness, a little sadly and wistfully. The guide sings a stave, and all the dusk is full of melodious chorus. He intones a sonorous verse, and golden words roll down to them through the gloom.
“Speak! speak!” the nobleman urges, and Jane and Peripatetica meekly breathe a few banalities in level American tones. Not a sound returns; their syllables are swallowed by the silence.
“Staccato! staccato!” remonstrates the guide, and when they comply, light laughing voices vouchsafe answers.
“I think,” says Peripatetica reflectively, as they leave the Latomia, “that one has to address life like that if one is to get a clear reply—to address it crisply, definitely, with quick inflections. Level, flat indefiniteness will awake no echoes.”
“‘How true’! as the ladies write on the margins of circulating library books,” comments Jane with unveiled sarcasm.
The guide has lots more up his gold-braided sleeve. He opens a gate and displays to them with a flourish the largest altar in the world. Six hundred feet one way, sixty feet the other; cut partly from solid rock, made in part of masonry. Hiero II. thought he knew a trick of governing worth any amount of listening at doors. Those who are fed and amused are slack conspirators. So this huge altar to Zeus is built, and here every year he sacrifices 450 oxen to the ruler of heaven.
“It must have rather run into money for him,” says Jane thoughtfully, “but he probably considered it cheaper to sacrifice oxen than be sacrificed himself.”
“Yes,” says Peripatetica, who has just been consulting the guide-book. “It must have been rather like the barbecues the American politicians used to give to their constituents half a century ago, for only the choicest bits were burnt before the gods, sprinkled with oil and wine and sweet-smelling spices, and the populace, I suppose, carried home the rest. No doubt Hiero found it a paying investment.”
The theatre, when reached, is found, of course, to have a beautiful situation. All Greek theatres have. They were a people who liked to open all the doors of enjoyment at once, and when they filled this enormous semicircle (24,000 could sit there) cut from the living rock upon the hillside, they could not only listen to the rolling, organ-like Greek of the great poets, and have their souls shaken with the “pity and terror” of tragedy, or laugh at the gay mockery of comedy, but by merely lifting their eyes they could look out upon the blue Ionian sea, the smiling flowered land, and in the distance the purple hills dappled with flying shadows. In their time all the surrounding eminences were crowned with great temples, and behind them—this was a contrast very Greek—lay the Street of Tombs. For they had not a shuddering horror of death, hastening their departed into remote isolation from their own daily life. They liked to pass to their occupations and amusements among the beautiful receptacles made for the ashes of those they had loved.
In this theatre Syracuse saw not only the great dramas, but the great dramatists and poets. Æschylus, sitting beside Hiero I., saw all his plays produced here; “The Ætnaiai” and “The Persians” were written for this stage. Pindar was often here; so were Bacchylides and Simonides, and a host of lesser playwrights. Indeed, no theatre has ever known such famous auditors. Theocritus, Pythagoras, Sappho, Empedocles, Archimedes, Plato, Cicero, have all sat here.
Plato was long in Syracuse; called by Dionysius to train his son Dion, he labours with such poor success that Dion is driven from the power inherited from his father, by the citizens outraged at the grossness of his vices. Before this fall Plato has left him in disgust, Dion remarking with careless insolence:
“I fear you will not speak kindly of me in Athens.”
To which the philosopher, with still more insolent sarcasm, replies:
“We are little likely to be so in want of a topic in Athens as to speak of you at all.”
Yet it would seem as if no good effort was ever wholly lost, for when Dion, earning his bread in exile as an obscure schoolmaster, is sneeringly asked what he ever learned from Plato, his dignified answer is, “He taught me to bear misfortune with resignation.”
* * * * *
Themistocles has conducted them, with much cracking of his whip, much irrelevant conversation, quite to the other side of what once was Syracuse, and has deposited them before a little low gate that pierces a high wall. Inside this gate is a tiny garden cultivated by two monks who do the work by means of short-handled double-ended hoes; a laborious-looking Sicilian implement. The garden is full of pansies growing between low hedges of sweet-smelling thyme and rosemary. At the same moment there debarks a carriage load of touring Germans. Typical touring Germans; solid, rosy, set four-square to the winds; all clinging to Baedekers encased in covers of red and yellow cross stitch of Berlin wool, all breathing a fixed intention of seeing everything worth seeing in the thorough-going German fashion. The monks openly squabble as to the division of the parties who have come to see the church and the catacombs, and eventually the big, shaggy, red-haired one, who might be some ancient savage Gaul come to life, sullenly carries off the Teutons. It is somewhat of a shock to Jane and Peripatetica when their slim, supple, handsome Sicilian explains to them that this contest has its reason not in their personal charm, but is owing to a reluctance to guide the hated Tedeschi.
There is something inexplicable in this universal unpopularity of the Teuton in Italy. Germany has been dotingly sentimental about Italy for generations.
“Kennst du das Land”
has hovered immanent on every lip from beyond the Rhine ever since the days of Goethe. They passionately study her language, her literature, her monuments, and her history. They make pilgrimages to worship at all her shrines, pouring in reverent Pan-Germanic hordes across the Alps to do it, and despite their extreme and skilful frugality they must necessarily leave in the Peninsula hundreds of thousands of their hard-earned, laboriously hoarded marks, which they have not grudged to spend in the service of beauty. Yet Italy seems possessed of a sullen repugnance to the entire race.
“Tedeschi!” hisses the monk. “Tutto ‘_Ja! Ja! Wunderschön!_’” with a deliriously funny imitation of their accent and gestures, as he steers swiftly around a corner to prevent the two parties fusing into one.
The church of San Giovanni is, of course, founded upon a Greek temple—most Sicilian churches are, and—of all places!—this one stands upon a ruin of a temple of Bacchus—the fragments of which poke up all through the tiny garden. The church, equally, of course, has been Eighteenth Centuried, but happily not wholly; remaining a great wheel window, and beautiful bits here and there of Twelfth Century Gothic in the outer walls, though the interior is in the usual dusty and neglected gaunt desuetude. The whole place is in decay, even the attendant monastery is crumbling, the number of monks shrunk to a mere handful, despite the fact that this is a spot of special sanctity, for when they descend into the massive chapel of the crypt there is pointed out to them the little altar before which Saint Paul preached when he was in Syracuse.
“Of course, St. Paul was here,” said Jane. “Everybody who was anybody came to Syracuse sooner or later—including ourselves.”
The guide is firm as to the altar having stood in this very chapel when that remarkable Hebrew poured out to the Syracusans his strange new message of democracy, but this is clearly the usual fine monkish superiority to cramping probabilities, for such rib-vaultings as these were as yet undreamed of by the architects of Paul’s day.
The altar is Greek, and no doubt was standing in the fane of Bacchus when the Jew spoke by it. The Greeks were interested and tolerant about new religions, and the life and death which Paul described would hardly have seemed strange to them, spoken in that place. That birth and death, the blood turned to wine, the sacred flesh eaten in hope of regeneration, having so many and such curious resemblances to the legends, and to the worship of the Vine God celebrated on that very spot. “At Thebes alone,” had said Sophocles, speaking of the birth of Bacchus, “mortal women bear immortal gods.” The violent death, the descent into hell, the resurrection, were all familiar to them, and what a natural echo would be found in their hearts to the saying, “I am the true Vine.”...
The monk only smiles bitterly when it is demanded of him to explain why a spot of so reverent an association should be abandoned to dust and decay, and to the interest of curious tourists, when the mere apocryphal vision of an hysterical peasant girl should draw hordes of miracle-seeking pilgrims to Lourdes.
Perhaps there was something typical in that anguished Christ painted upon the great flat wooden crucifix that hung over the altar in the crypt; a Christ fading slowly into a mere grey shadow; the dim, hardly visible ghost of a once living agony....
The monk goes before, the flickering candle which he shades with his fingers throwing a fan of yellow rays around his tonsured head. These are the Catacombs of Syracuse.
“On every hand the roads begin.”
Roads underground, these, leading away endlessly into darkness. At long intervals they widen into lofty domed chapels rudely hewn, as is all this place, directly from the rock. Here and there a narrow shaft is cut upward through the earth, letting in faint gleams of sunshine through a fringe of grass and ferns, showing sometimes an oxalis drooping its pale little golden face to peer over the shaft’s edge into the gloom below. And in all these roads—miles and miles of roads, extending as far as Catania it is said; roads under roads three tiers deep—and in all these roads and chapels are only open graves. Graves in the floor beneath one’s feet; graves in every inch of the walls; graves over graves, graves behind graves. Great family graves cut ten feet back into the rock, containing narrow niches for half a dozen bodies—graves where four generations have slept side by side. Graves that are mere shallow scoopings hardly more than three spans in length, where newborn babies must have slept alone. Tombs innumerable beyond reckoning, all hewn from the solid rock, and each and all vacant. An incredibly vast city of the dead from which all the dead inhabitants have departed.
This is the crowning mystery of mysterious Syracuse. Who were this vast army of the buried? And where have their dead bodies gone?... Christians, everyone says.
“But why,” clamours Peripatetica, “should Christians have had these peculiar mole-like habits?”
The monk merely shrugs.
“Oh, I know,” she goes on quickly before Jane can get her mouth open. “Persecution is the explanation always given, but will you tell me how you can successfully persecute a population of this size? There must be half a million of graves, at least, in this place, and there would have to be a good many living to bury the dead, and Syracuse in its best days hadn’t a million inhabitants. Now, you can’t successfully martyrize nine-tenths of the population, even if it is as meek and sheep-like as the early Christians pretended to be.”
“They didn’t all die at once,” suggests Jane helpfully. “This took years.”
“I should think it did! Years? It took generations, or else the Christians died like flies, and proved that piety was dreadfully undermining to the health. No wonder the pagans wouldn’t accept anything so fatal. But populations as large as this one must have been to furnish so many dead, don’t go on burrowing underground for generations. They come out and impose their beliefs upon the rest. And, besides, how can the stories of their worshipping and burying in secret be true when the mass of material taken out of these excavations would have to be put somewhere? And how could the presence or the removal of all that refuse stone escape attention? The persecuted Christian theory doesn’t explain the mystery.”
Even Peripatetica had to pause sometimes for breath, and then Jane got her innings.
“Equally mysterious, in my opinion,” she said, “is the rifling of all these graves. The monk tells me ‘the Saracens did it,’ but the Saracens were in Syracuse less than two hundred years, and of all these myriad graves only two or three have been found intact, and these two or three were graves beneath graves. Every other one for sixty miles, from the largest to the smallest, has been opened and entirely emptied. The Saracen population in Syracuse was never very large. It consisted in greater part of the ruling classes. The bulk of the people were natives and Christians, who would regard this grave-rifling as the horridest sacrilege, and if the Saracens undertook alone this enormous task they would have had, even in two hundred years, time for nothing else. The opening of the graves is as strange a puzzle as the making of them.”
“Perhaps some last trump was blown over Syracuse alone,” hazarded Peripatetica, “and all the dead here rose and left their graves behind them empty.”
“Come up into the air and sunlight,” said Jane. “Your mind shows the need of it.”
At the little gate sat one of the monastery dependents, whose perquisite was a permission to sell post-cards, and such coins and bits of pottery as he could retrieve by grubbing in the rubbish of the empty graves. He had a few tiny earthenware lamps, marked with a cross and still smoke-blackened, some so-called tear jugs, and one or two small clay masks which, from the closed eyelids and smooth sunken contours, must have been modelled in miniature from real death masks. Among these they found Arsinoë—or so they named her—whose face was touched with that strange, secret archness, that sweet smiling scorn so often seen on faces one day dead. The broad brow with its drooping hair, the full tender lips so instinct with vivid personality, went with them, and became to them like the record of some one seen long ago and dimly remembered, though the lovely benignant original must have been mere dust of dust for more than a thousand years.
* * * * *
A nun in a faded blue gown has been showing them the relics of Santa Lucia. She has also been telling them how the Saint, when a young man admired her eyes, snatched them out of her head with her own hands and handed them to the young man on a plate.
“What a very rude and unpleasant thing to do!” comments Jane in English. “But invariably saints seem so lamentably deficient in amiability and social charm.”
The nun unlocks the gate of the Cappucini Latomia, and Jane and Peripatetica descend the long stair cut in the rocks. They are seeking the place where the remnant of that army Alcibiades so skilfully introduced into Catania, finally perished.
They have been reading tales of the Athenians’ long siege of Syracuse, of their final frightful despairing struggle, so full of anguish, terror, and fierce courage—“when Greek met Greek”—and they have come to look at the spot where those seven thousand unhappy prisoners finally found an end. When they were driven into this quarry they were all that remained of the tremendous expedition which Athens had drained her best blood to send. Alcibiades had fled long ago, and was in exile. Nicias and Demosthenes, who had surrendered them, were now dead; fallen on their own swords. The harbour of Syracuse was strewn with the charred wrecks of their fleet. The marshes of Anapus were rotting with their comrades, the fountain of Cyane choked with them. They themselves were wounded to a man, shuddering with fevers, starving, demoralised with long fighting and the horrible final _débâcle_ when they were thrust all together into this Latomia; not as now a glorious garden with thyme and mint and rosemary beneath their feet, ivy-hung, full of groves and orchards, but raw, glaring, shaled with chipped stone, the staring yellow sides towering smoothly up for a hundred feet to the burning blue of the Sicilian sky. There in that waterless furnace for seventy days they died and died. Died of wounds, of thirst, of starvation; died of the poisonings of those already dead.
And the populace of Syracuse came day by day, holding lemons to their noses, to look down at them curiously, until there was not one movement, not one sound from any one of the seven thousand.
There is but one human gleam in the whole demoniacal story—a touch characteristically Greek. Some of the prisoners had beguiled the tedium of dying by chanting the noble choruses of Euripides’ newest play, which Syracuse had not yet heard, and these had been at once drawn up from among their fellows and treated with every kindness. They were entreated to repeat as much as they could remember of the poet’s lines again and again, and were finally sent back to Athens with presents and much honour.
Not a trace of the tragedy remains. The only record of death now in those lovely wild, deep-sunken gardens is a banal monument to Mazzini, and a tomb hollowed out of the wall in one of the caves. A tomb closed with a marble slab, upon which was cut an epitaph telling, in the pompous formal language of that day, of the young American naval lieutenant who died here suddenly on his ship in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century, and because he was a Protestant, and therefore could not occupy any Catholic graveyard, was laid to rest alone in this place of hideous memories.
Poor lad! Sleeping so far from his own people, and thrust away here by himself, since he must, of course, not expect to lie near those who had been baptised with a different motion of the fingers. Seeing which isolation Peripatetica quoted that amused saying of an ironic old Pagan world, “Behold, how these Christians love one another!”
* * * * *
It is the terrace of the Villa Politi. They have finally forgiven the villa, and have climbed up here from the Latomia to sit on its lovely terrace, to drink tea and eat the honey of Hybla, to look down on one side into the blossom-hung depths of the Athenians’ prison, on the other out to the mauve and silver of the twilight sea.
“Peripatetica,” says Jane with great firmness, “I am suffering from an indigestion of history. I am going away somewhere. All these spirits of the past block up the place so that I’ve no freedom of movement. It’s an oppression to feel that every time one puts a foot down it’s in the track of thousands and thousands of dead feet, and that one’s stirring up the dust of bones with every step we take. Everything we look at is covered so thick with layer on layer of passion and pain that I’ve got an historic heartache. _I_ leave to-morrow.”
Peripatetica didn’t answer at first. She was looking out over the dusky sea, from which breathed a soft slow wind.
The change had come while they were in the Latomia; had come suddenly. That bleak unkindness in the atmosphere—of which they were always conscious even in the sun—had all at once disappeared. Even though the sun was gone a mild sweetness seemed to exhale from the earth, as from a heart at last content.
“Jane,” said Peripatetica, turning shining eyes upon her, “Persephone has returned. Let us go to Enna and meet her!”
THE RETURN OF PERSEPHONE
“God’s three chief gifts, Man’s bread and oil and wine.”
No doubt the usual things that happen to travellers happened to Jane and Peripatetica at Enna-Castrogiovanni, and on their way to it. Things annoying and amusing, tiresome or delightful, but they have no memory of these things, all lesser matters having been swallowed up in the final satisfaction of their quest.
Memory is an artist who works in mosaic, and all the fantastic jumble and contrast of the experiences of travel she heaps pell-mell together in her bag. Bits of sights but half seen, but half understood; vague memories of other things seen before and seemingly but slightly related to these new impressions, mere faint associations but partly realised, along with keen emotions and strong pleasures; all tumbled in together and rubbing corners with petty vexations, small inconveniences, practical details. Memory gathers them all without discrimination and carries them along with her, a most unsatisfactory-looking mess at first sight, out of which it would seem nothing much could be made. But give her time. While one’s attention is occupied with other matters she is busy—sorting, arranging, rejecting here, adding there. Recollections that bulked large at first she often files down to a mere point; much that appeared but dull rubbish with no colour she finds valuable when pushed into the background, because its neutral tones serve to bring out more clearly the outlines of the design. Dark bits are skilfully employed for the sake of the contrast, and to intensify the warm tones of richer fragments. The shadowy associations give body and modelling to impressions otherwise flat and ineffective. All at once the picture is seen; a complete delineation of an episode, taking form and warmth, and vivid life; and over the whole she spreads the magic bloom of distance, which transforms the crude materials, hides the joinings of the mosaic, and makes of it a treasure of the soul.
Something of this sort she did for Castrogiovanni. ’Tis but an impressionist picture. They only see, looking back to it, two great, divine shadows breathing such passion and pain, such essential, heart-stirring loveliness that the eye hardly observes the wreathed border about the picture, a border which serves merely as a frame for those two significant figures revived from the dreams of primitive man.
Here is an incident taken from the unimportant frame of the picture....
Jane and Peripatetica are in the train. It seems quaint to be finding one’s way to the “Plutonian Shore” in a little puffing, racketting Sicilian train. To be properly in the picture they should have been included in a band of pilgrim shepherds piping in the hills as they wander upward to the great shrine of Demeter, to give thanks for the increase of their flocks, to offer her white curds, and goat cheeses, and the snowy wool of washed fleeces. Pilgrims who are weeks upon the road; climbing higher and higher each day through the steady sunshine, and sleeping at night under the large stars, with the little olive-wood fire, that cooked the evening meal, winking and smouldering beside them in the dewy darkness. Resting here and there at the Greek farms, where new pilgrims are waiting to add themselves to the pious band.
Jane, who consults her Theocritus oftener in Sicily than her Baedeker—for she says she finds that Theocritus has on the whole a better literary style—is the one who suggests this idyllic alternative.
“Just listen to him!” she cries. “This would be travel really worth while recording. He is telling of just such a journey, and of the pause at one of the hill farms:
“‘So I, and Eucritus, and the fair Amyntichus, turned aside into the house of Phrasidamus, and lay down with delight in beds of sweet tamarisk and fresh cuttings from the vines, strewed on the ground. Many poplars and elm trees were waving over our heads, and not far off the running of the sacred water from the cave of the nymphs warbled to us; in the shimmering grass the sunburnt grasshoppers were busy with their talk, and from afar the owl cried softly out of the tangled thorns of the blackberry. The larks were singing and the hedge birds, and the turtle dove moaned; the bees flew round and round the fountains, murmuring softly. The scent of late summer and the fall of the year was everywhere; the pears fell from the trees at our feet, and apples in number rolled down at our sides, and the young plum trees bent to the earth with the weight of their fruit.
“‘The wax, four years old, was loosed from the heads of the wine jars. O! nymphs of Castalia, who dwell on the steeps of Parnassus, tell me, I pray you, was it a draught like this that the aged Chiron placed before Hercules, in the stony cave of Phulus? Was it nectar like this that made that mighty shepherd on Anapus’ shore, Polyphemus, who flung the rocks upon Ulysses’ ships, dance among his sheep-folds? A cup like this ye poured out now upon the altar of Demeter, who presides over the threshing floor. May it be mine once more to dig my big winnowing-fan through her heaps of corn; and may I see her smile upon me, holding poppies and handfuls of corn in her two hands!’”
* * * * *
Instead of being accompanied on their arcadian journey by Eucritus and the fair Amyntichus, they have as companions in the little carriage of the Regie Ferrovia the two dark foreigners from Syracuse, upon whose nationality they have speculated at idle moments. They prove to be Poles. Two gentlemen from Cracow, escaped for a moment from its snows to make a little “giro” in the Sicilian sunshine.
Conversation develops around Ætna—of all places! Peripatetica catches sight of it, as the train rounds a curve, sees it suddenly looming against the sky, a glittering cone of silver swimming upon a base of misty hyacinth-blue. By a gesture she calls everyone’s attention to this new and charming pose of that ever spectacular mountain.
Jane glances up from her book and signifies a condescending approval, but the sight has a most startling and electrifying effect upon the Poles. They miss, in their enthusiasm, flinging themselves from the carriage window merely by a hair’s breadth, and crying, “Ætna! Ætna!” with passionate satisfaction, not only solemnly clasp hands with one another, but also grasp and shake the limply astonished hands of Jane and Peripatetica. Transpires that the foreigners have been three weeks in Sicily without once having caught a glimpse of the ever present, ever dominant mountain, since, with sulky coquetry, whenever they were within sight it promptly hid in veils of mist, and now they are bound for Cracow, via Palermo, facing uneasily the confession at home of having been to the play and missed seeing the star.
They hang from the window in eager endeavour to cram all lost opportunities into one, and rend the heavens with lamentations when the carriage comes to rest immediately opposite a tiny station whose solid minuteness is sufficient to blot from sight all that distant majesty.
“It is like life,” the taller foreigner wails, sinking back baffled from an attempt to pierce the obdurate masonry with a yearning eye. “One little ugly emotion close by can shut out from one’s sight all the loftiest beauties of existence!”
This fine generalization gathers acuity from the fact that a sharp turn soon after leaving the station piles up elevations that quickly rob them of their long-sought opportunity, but for the rest of the time that the paths of the four lie together the Poles insist upon attributing to the direct intervention of Jane and Peripatetica the wiping of this blot from their travelling ’scutcheon—an attitude which Jane and Peripatetica find both soothing and refreshing, and they affect a large familiarity and possessiveness with the Volcano, which the Poles bear with polite and grateful respect; the more so, no doubt, as the two seekers possess—as Americans—a novelty almost more startling and intense than Ætna. The gentlemen from Cracow have never met Americans until now, and make no attempt to disguise the exhilaration of so unwonted a spectacle—confessing that in their turn they too have been speculating upon the racial identity of “the foreign ladies,” whose nationality they were unable to guess. They are consumed with an inexhaustible curiosity to get the “natives’” point of view, and exchange secret glances of surprise and pleasure at the exhibition of human intelligence in a people so remote from Cracow. When the necessary change of train detaches them from their eager investigations Peripatetica is still futilely engaged in her persistent endeavour to combat in the European mind its strange delusion as to the real relations of the sexes in her own land.
... “No; the American man in no respect resembles the Sicilian donkey ... no; he does not ordinarily spend his life toiling humbly under the intolerable loads laid upon him by his imperious mate.... No; he is not a dull unintelligent drudge wholly unworthy of the radiant beings who permit him to surround them with an incredible luxury.... No; the American woman is not his intellectual superior. In everything of real practical importance _he_ is immensely the superior.... No; he isn’t this.... No; he isn’t that.... He isn’t any one of the things the European thinks he is and—good bye!”
The mountains all this while have been peaking up; mounting, climbing, rolling more wildly, and at last two of them soar splendidly, sweep up close on to three thousand feet into the sky ... Castrogiovanni and Calascibetta, and the train drops Jane and Peripatetica at their feet.
Memory has cast out, or has pushed into the background, the long weary jolting up to the wild little wind-swept town; makes no record of the hotel or the fellow tourists; has jotted down a certain straight wild beauty in the inhabitants, who have eagle-like Saracen profiles, but grey Norman eyes. Has left well in the foreground a dark castle, and a cluster of half-ruined towers. All else of modern details she has rejected, except a great wash of blue, a vast vista of tumbling broken landscape, huge and stern, for she has been busy with a picture of the past; building up an imagination of vanished gods moving about their mighty affairs, playing out Olympian dramas in this lofty land. Here is the very centre of the God’s-land, the “umbilicus Siciliæ,” the Key of Sicily, Enna “the inexpugnable,” the strongest natural fortress in the world, which no one ever took except by treachery; which the Saracens besieged in vain for thirty-one years, and when they finally got it, through a treason, the Normans in their turn could not dislodge them until all Sicily had been theirs for a quarter of a century, and then only through another betrayal. In the great slave war Eunus, the serf, held it against the whole power of Rome for two years until he too was betrayed.
Broken and wild as is the land it is still cultivated; the olive still climbs up to where the clouds come down, but where are the magnificent forests, the wonder and joy of antiquity? Where the brooks and streams and lakes, whose dropping waters sang all through the records of the elder world? Where are those fields so blessed by Demeter that they offered to the hands of men illimitable floods of golden grain? Where are the vines that wreathed the mountains’ brows with green and purple grapes, as if it had been the brow of Dionysius the wine god? Where, too, are the meadows so thick with flowers that for the richness of the perfume the hounds could not hold the scent of the game? Meadows where the bees wantoned in such honeyed delight that the air vibrated with their murmuring as with the vibrating of multitudinous harp strings?...
Listen to the story, which, when it was told was only a prophecy and a warning, but a warning never heeded.
Erysicthon cuts down the grove sacred to Demeter. A grove so thick “that an arrow could hardly pass through; its pines and fruit trees and tall poplars within, and the water like pale gold running through the conduits.” One of the poplars receives the first stroke, and Demeter, hearing the ringing of the axe, appears, stern and awful, hooded and veiled, and carrying poppies in her hand. To the ravager of her groves she threatens a divine curse of an everlasting thirst, of an insatiable, unsatisfied hunger, and the workmen, awed, depart, leaving the axes sticking in the trees, but Erysicthon drives them to their task again with blows, and soon the grove is levelled, and the heat of the day enters where once all was sweet shade. Erysicthon laughs at the futile curse of the goddess; he has had his will and nothing has happened. The water still runs and he can slake his drought, but the water escapes as he stoops for it, sinking into the earth before his eyes, leaving upon his lips only choking dust. No one can safely ignore the warnings of the gods, and he wanders, whipped by intolerable longings, and dies dreadfully, raving of his own folly.
Neither Greeks, Romans, Saracens, nor Norman heed this parable, told ages and ages before the meaning of the loss of forests was understood. All over the land the clothing of oaks, chestnuts, and pines was stripped from the hills, and slowly but surely the curse of Demeter has turned it into a place of thirst. To-day less than five per cent of the whole island contains timber, and these high lands, these “fields which in the days of the Greeks returned one hundred times the amount of seed sowed, now yield but seven-fold, and only one-ninth of all the land is productive.” This is the story of the ravaging of Enna, once the true garden of Paradise, and now a rocky waste burned to the bone.
* * * * *
[Illustration: “ÆTNA, THE SALIENT FACT OF SICILY”]
Always from the very earliest records the goddess of the harvest was worshipped in this place. Long before the coming of the Greeks the Siculians had here a shrine to Gaia, the Earth Mother, from whose brown breast man sucked his life and food. And the Siculians had traditions of the Sikels making pilgrimages to Enna to give thanks to a goddess representing some principle of fertility, by whose power the earth was made blessed to its children. Very vague and shadowy are the traditions of the worship of this Bread-giver. There are hints of a great cave with a rude dark figure within, this idol having, curiously, a head roughly resembling the head of a horse, where the people timidly laid their offerings of the first fruits of their primitive culture. This figure is heard of later at Eleusis, to which the Greeks transpose the image and the worship, but the myth, so sympathetic to the Greek nature, becomes refined and spiritualized; takes on many new plays of thought and colour, and when the great temple of Demeter is built here the story has cleared and defined itself, and is hung about with the garlands of a thousand gracious imaginings.
Our Lady of Bread—daughter herself of Zeus, the overarching sky—has one child, Persephone, the spirit of Spring, that dear vernal impulse which rejuvenates all the world and “puts a spirit of life in everything”; that is forever sweetly renewing hope of happiness. Persephone’s playmates are the maiden goddesses, Pallas and Artemis, and also those light spirits of the fields, the water and the air—the nymphs, the oreads, and the oceanides—but she is not without duties and labours too, for “Proserpina, filling the house soothingly with her low song, was working a gift against the return of her mother, with labour all to be in vain. In it she marked out with her needle the houses of the gods and the series of the elements, showing by what law nature, the parent of all, settled the strife of ancient times.... The lighter elements are borne aloft; the air grows bright with heat; the sea flows; the earth hangs in its place. And there were divers colours in it; she illuminated the stars with gold, infused a purple shade into the water, and heightened the shore with gems of flowers; and under her skilful hand the threads with their inwrought lustre swell up in counterfeit of the waves; you might think the sea wind caused them to creep over the rocks and sands. She put in the fire zones, marking with a red ground the midmost zone possessed by burning heat; on either side lay the two zones proper for human life, and at the extremes she drew the twin zones of numbing cold, making her work dun and sad with the lines of perpetual frost. She works in, too, the sacred places of Dis and the Manes so fatal to her. And an omen of her doom was not wanting, for as she worked, as if with foreknowledge of the future, her face became wet with a sudden burst of tears. And now in the utmost border of the tissue she had begun to wind in the wavy line of the Ocean that goes round about all, but the door sounds on its hinges, and she perceives the goddesses coming; the unfinished work drops from her hands and a ruddy blush lights her clear and snow-white face.”...
Leaving her needle in the many-coloured web, she wanders down the mountain side to Lake Pergusa, then lying like a blue jewel in enamelled meads, but ever since that tragic day dark and sulphurous, as with fumes of hell.
This is the story of the ravishment, as told in the great Homeric Hymn that was sung in honour of the Mother of Corn.
“I begin the song of Demeter. The song of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, whom Aidoneus carried away as she played apart from her mother with the deep-bosomed daughters of the Ocean, gathering flowers in a meadow of soft grass—roses and the crocus and the fair violets and flags and hyacinths, and above all the strange flower of the narcissus, which the Earth, favouring the desire of Aidoneus, brought forth for the first time to snare the footsteps of the flower-like girl. A hundred heads of blossom grew up from the roots of it, and the sky and the earth and the salt wave of the sea were glad at the scent thereof. She stretched forth her hands to take the flower; thereupon the earth opened and the King of the great nation of the Dead sprang out with his immortal horses. He seized the unwilling girl, and bore her away weeping on his golden chariot. She uttered a shrill cry, calling upon Zeus; but neither man nor god heard her voice, nor even the nymphs of the meadow where she played; except Hecate only, sitting as ever in her cave, half veiled with a shining veil, and thinking delicate thoughts, she, and the Sun also, heard her.
“So long as Persephone could still see the earth and the sky and the sea with the great waves moving, and the beams of the sun, and still thought to see again her mother, and the race of the ever-living gods, so long hope soothed her in the midst of her grief. The peaks of the hills and the depths of the sea echoed her cry. And the Mother heard it. A sharp pain seized her at the heart; she plucked the veil from her hair, and cast down the blue hood from her shoulders, and fled forth like a bird, seeking her daughter over dry land and sea.
“Nine days she wandered up and down upon the earth, having blazing torches in her hands, and in her great sorrow she refused to taste of ambrosia, or of the cup of the sweet nectar, nor washed her face. But when the tenth morning came Hecate met her, having a light in her hands. But Hecate had heard the voice only, and had seen no one, and could not tell Demeter who had borne the girl away. And Demeter said not a word, but fled away swiftly with Hecate, having the blazing torches in her hands, till they came to the Sun, the watchman of Gods and men; and the goddess questioned him, and the Sun told her the whole story.”...
What a picture the Greek singer makes of the melancholy earth calling for comfort to the moon! for Hecate was not Artemis, but a vaguer, vaster principle of the night; an impersonalized shadow of the Huntress, as Hertha was the shadow, formless and tremendous, of Demeter. Hecate was a pale luminous force, “half veiled with a shining veil, and thinking delicate thoughts,” and ten days later, having rounded to the full, the bereaved mother meets her “bearing a light in her hands,” though the night is nearing morning, and moon and earth turn together toward the coming sun.
The Homeric Hymn tells much of the wandering and grieving mother; of her disguises; of her nursing of the sick child Demophoon, whose own mother snatched him back from the immortality which the goddess was ensuring by passing him through the fire—as many a loving and timid mother since has held her son back from the fires that confer immortality. The Hymn tells of her teaching of Triptolemus of the winged feet, instructing him in Eleusinian mysteries—“those mysteries which no tongue may speak. Only blessed is he whose eyes have seen them; his lot after death is not as the lot of other men!”
But Jane and Peripatetica loved more the story of the ending of her vigil, when Hermes descended into Hell in his chariot.
“And Persephone ascended into it, and Hermes took the reins in his hands and drove out through the infernal halls; and they two passed quickly over the ways of that long journey, neither the waters of the sea, nor of the rivers, and the deep ravines of the hills, nor the cliffs of the shore resisting them; till at last Hermes placed Persephone before the door of the temple where her mother was, who, seeing her, ran out quickly to meet her, like a Mænad coming down a mountain side dusky with woods.”
So these two saw Persephone come home; saw the spring return to the earth in the high places of the gods. Saw the land, even though no longer a paradise, yet—despite Erysicthon’s foolish waste of the sacred trees—saw it “laden with leaves and flowers and the waving corn,” and, having seen it, they passed on through Sicily satisfied.
A CITY OF TEMPLES
“’Tis right for him To touch the threshold of the gods.”
THEY were running swiftly through the dark. On either hand was a dim and gloomy land of bare, shrivelled peaks, grey cinder heaps, and sulphurous smells. Intermittently visible by the strange subterranean glowings rose black, glowering mountains in the background, and nearer at hand were shadowy shapes of men and asses bringing sulphur from the mines. Within, the garlic-reeking tongue of a flickering gas-lamp vaguely illumined the dusk of the railway carriage.
“This is Pluto’s own realm,” declared Jane, removing her nose from the window-pane, through which she had been endeavouring to peer into the outer gloom. “If it’s not the very threshold of the infernal regions it ought to be. Peripatetica, you might spare me a glimmer or two from your Baedeker. Were there no temples to Pluto here? These are surely the very surroundings in which he should have been worshipped.”
“A temple to Pluto?” replied Peripatetica sleepily. “Where?... I never heard of one that I can remember; have you?”
Jane suddenly realized that her recollections held no account of any spot where that dark King of the Under World had been honoured under the sun; it was another mystery of the past, to which there was no answer, though Peripatetica gave up her nap in the effort to solve it—why had Pluto, supreme in the Under World as Zeus in the Upper one, beneath whose sway all men born must come, remained so unhonoured among living men?
The Greeks did believe in a future life; the spirit expiating or rewarded for deeds done in the flesh. Those were facts which men thought they knew, which were an integral axis of their faith—how so believing, did they treat it thus unconcernedly, seeing things in such different proportions from ourselves? So much concern for the fulness of life in the present, so little for the shadowy hereafter—shrines and temples and sacrifices on every hillside to the Deities of Life, of Birth, and Fertility; nothing for the God of Death.
Death and Life—they touched as closely in ancient days as now, perhaps more closely. The Greeks did not push away their dead to a dim, silent oblivion. Near to the warm heart of life they were held in bright, oft-invoked memory. In the busiest centres of life were placed the tombs of their dead; close to the theatre—to the Forum—wherever the living most thronged the Road of Tombs was; one where all the busiest tide of life flowed. Invocations and offerings and sweet ceremonies of remembrance were given to their dead more often than tears. And constantly the living turned to the dear and honoured dead—“much frequented” was the Greek adjective which went oftenest with the tomb. But the grim God of Death was apparently not for living man to make his spirit “sick and sorry” by worshipping. It was Life—glorious, glowing fulness of life to the uttermost—that was important to the Greek; Life that governed Death and made it either honoured and reposeful, or a state of shadowy wanderings and endless regret.
To the modern mind, still tinged with mediæval morbidity, groping back into the clear serenity of those golden days, it seemed to be life, life, only life that preoccupied the Greeks, and yet, they too had hearts to feel Death’s sting even as we—to be aware of the underlying sadness of all the joy upon this rolling world. They too could deeply feel the inexorable mingling of delight and pain, of life and loss....
Their great Earth Mother, blond and sunny as her golden grain, the deity of all fruitfulness and beneficent increase, is also _Ceres Deserta_—the Mater Dolorosa—shrouded in the dark blue robe of all earth’s shadows, haggard with tears of wasting desolation—“the type of divine sorrow,” as well as of joyous fruition ... her emblem the blood-red poppy, symbol in its drowsy juices, of sleep and death, as in its multitudinous seeds the symbol of life and resurrection.
And her daughter, like herself the most specially and intimately beloved by the Greeks among all their deities, had even more the dual quality—Goddess of Spring, of resurrection, and rejuvenescence, and yet too, Queen of the dark Under World. She was the impulse of all spring’s teeming life, and yet herself “compact of sleep and death and narcotic flowers bearing always in the swallowed pomegranate seeds the secret of ultimate decay, of return to the grave.”
Korè, the maiden, the incarnation of all fresh and sweet and innocent joyousness, was also symbol of its evanescence—“a helpless plucked flower in the arms of Aidoneus,” so that upon the sarcophagi of women who had died in early youth the Greeks were wont to carve Pluto’s stealing of Persephone, picturing the Divine Maiden with the likeness of the dear dead one’s face.
* * * * *
Dark, blurred shapes in Greek-like drapery of many-folded cape and shawl, appeared now and then in shifting crowds upon station platforms, like the uneasy shades of Pluto’s kingdom seeking escape.
To Peripatetica and Jane it began to seem as if their quest for the Lost Spring had taken them into the Under World of her imprisonment to behold with thrills of half pity, half awe, in “that dim land where all things are forgotten” her transformation into the mate of gloomy Dis, no longer bright, golden-haired girl-flower, but veiled _Proserpina Despœna_, the Queen of the Dead, where now:
“Pale, beyond porch and portal, Crowned with calm leaves, she stands, Who gathers all things mortal With cold immortal hands;
She waits for each and other, She waits for all men born, Forgets the Earth, her mother, The life of fruits and corn.”
* * * * *
Escaping at last from the sulphur fumes, the strange glares and the Hades visions, they found themselves standing under a clear star-strewn sky with a gentle air blowing in their faces. In an open carriage they were whirled off, they knew not where, into the night, stars bright overhead and lights like fallen stars on a high hill to the right, the soft wind of the darkness breathing of spring and green growing things.
Suddenly there was the welcoming door of the Hotel des Temples, and then little white bedrooms and quick oblivion.
* * * * *
There is a pounding on Jane’s door.
“Hurry, you sluggard!” says Peripatetica’s voice. “Come out and see what a delicious place this is!” and she enters radiant. “There’s no mistake about spring this time; everything is riotous with it—and it’s real country. Not mere theatrical scenery like Taormina, nor mere bones and stones like Syracuse, but real dear Arcadian country, with trees, actually _trees_! and there are great golden temples rising out of the trees, with the sea and the hills behind, and nothing but sweet peaceful meadows and orchards all around us—I want to stay here forever.”
When Jane too stood upon the hotel terrace drinking in all the fairness of the outlook which Peripatetica silently but proudly displayed, in the proprietorship of earlier rising, she was quite ready to echo the wish. Billowy orchards of almonds in tenderest leafage, hoary groves of olives, the silver and white of wind-stirred bean-fields in blossom, vivid emerald of young wheat, crimson meadows of lupine rolling down to a peacock sea glittering to a wide horizon.
Soft mountains, not too high; old stone pines black against the azure sky; brown walls of convents, and bell towers emerging from the dark green of oranges and pines; and rising out of all this Arcadian sweetness of meadow and grove the tawny columns of the Temples.
“Oh, let’s get to them at once!” cried Jane, and guideless and impatient they went, as the bird flies, straight across the intervening country, towards those beckoning golden pillars. Plunging down the hillside in front, garden-orchard, ploughed field, dusty highroad—all were merely a road between them and those temples of Lost Gods still rising unsubmerged above the tree tops. Little boys digging in the fields shyly offered them fossil shells and the bits of pottery their shovels had turned up, old women at garden gates called invitations to come in and pick oranges or inspect the ruins of “Casa Greco’s,” but they held straight on through olive groves seemingly old as the temples themselves, through velvety young wheat and flowery meadows. The distance was greater than had appeared from above. Sometimes the gleam of columns through the green beckoned illusively to impossible short cuts, as when a tempting grass path seemed to run straight to the feet of the nearest temple and instead led into a farmyard inhabited by fiercely barking dogs. A noise that called out the farm people to explain as politely as if these were the first strangers who had ever made the intrusive mistake, that an impassable wall made it impossible to reach the Temples through their property, and to detail a wee, starry-eyed bronze faun in tattered blue rags to put them upon the correct but roundabout road.
In the glowing sun of the spring morning—the old world renewing itself in blooming freshness all about—songs of birds and petals of fruit-blossoms in the air, against the shimmering blue of sky and sea and the new green of the earth’s breast, was upreared the saffron mass of Concordia—shrine of a Peace twenty centuries old.
It looked its name, did Concord, standing with all its amber columns worn but perfect, in unbroken accord, still upholding architrave and tympanum.
Intact in all but roof, on its platform of steep, worn steps it stands—in the midst of fields and groves that were once a clanging stone city, close beside the dusty highroad along which come the landau loads of hurried tourists—with its calm still unbroken. It embodies the permanence of peace through all the evanescent life of the flowing years. Unaltered through all the changes of time, its Doric columns rise, tranquil and fair, and hospitably it offers welcome to all who come.
[Illustration: “THE SAFFRON MASS OF CONCORDIA”]
As of old one may climb its steps to worship and admire. The road winds to its very base, and it stands as free to all comers as to the sun and wind. It alone of all the glories of once magnificent Akragas remains in its original shape. Other shrines were greater, larger, more splendid in their day. The high house of Zeus, with its mammoth columns, was nearly three times the height of Concord; it had an enclosure of three hundred and seventy-two feet to Concord’s one hundred and thirty-eight, and must once have looked scornfully on its little neighbour. Hercules, with his marvels of sculpture and painting; Juno, with her statue-enriched “thymele” terrace extending her precincts around its out-door altar and her renowned picture by Zeuxis, for whose composite beauty the five loveliest girls of the city had been models, probably outranked simple Concord. No record of its holding venerated treasures of beauty has come down from the days of its prime. Yet it alone has survived whole; emerging intact from the storms of war and nature, as if its own distilled atmosphere of serenity has acted as a preservative against Time. Even the Middle Ages treated it gently. St. Gregory of the Turnips took it for a shrine, and a gentle, serene saint he must have been; one able to dwell in the abode of Peace without feeling any desire to alter and rebuild, glad to look out of its open peristyle and watch his turnips in the sunny fields, wisely refraining from choking the pillars into walls and plaster like poor Minerva’s at Syracuse. Concordia’s cella seemed to have been just a cosy fit for St. Gregory and he a careful tenant, leaving only the two arched openings in its walls to mark his occupancy. And so the Temple is to-day the best preserved in existence—shorn of all its statues, stucco, and decoration, a little blurred and worn in outline, as if Time’s maw, while refraining from crushing, has yet mumbled it over gently.
It was apparently this completeness of preservation which had so enamoured Goethe that he dared to speak lightly of the stern majesty of the temple of Pæstum by comparison. Poseidon’s great fane he thought as inferior to Concord’s as a hero is inferior to a god.
“A god to a hero,” quoted Jane with a resentful sniff. “It was just like that pompous, stodgy old German to be carried away by mere preservation, and to prefer this sugary-slightly-melted-vanilla-caramel temple to that solemn splendour of Pæstum.”
“What an abominable simile you’ve used for this lovely thing,” scolded Peripatetica. “You’re even worse than Goethe—if possible.”
“It isn’t an abominable simile,” protested Jane flippantly. “It _is_ exactly the colour of a good vanilla caramel, and moreover it looks like one licked all over by some giant tongue.”
Having said an outrageous thing she pretended to defend it and believe it, but her heart smote her for irreverence as she and Peripatetica strolled about the peristyle, gazing through the columns at the pictures their tawny flutings framed, and she grudgingly admitted that the situation at least was divine.
Perched on the crest of a sheer-dropping rocky cliff, Concordia faces the west. To the south dark blue sea, and to the north billowy woods and fields in all the gamut of spring greens surge up to the apricot-tinted town, which is the last shrunken remnant of old Akragas. Beneath the cliff green meadows stretch smooth to the African Sea. Eastwards, on a neighbouring knoll, Juno lifts her exquisite columns against the blue, and softly moulded hills melt into the distant ruggedness of Castrogiovanni’s mountains. To the north lie fields and groves and orchards, with dottings of farmhouse and church, up to the top of the Rupe Athena, where, with her usual passion for conspicuousness, high Athena had once kept watch in her Temple, that now, according to the so frequent fate of the mighty, is fallen into nothingness.
How worshipful his blithe gods of Sun and Abundance must have here appeared to the Greek; how good the world spread out for him in all its fairness; the citadel-crowned hill protecting his rich city, the shining sea carrying his commerce; the mountains of the bounteous Earth Mother’s home encircling the rolling groves and meadowland she blessed so fruitfully, and the triumphs of his own handiwork in the marvellous temples and buildings of this splendid Akragas, “fairest of mortal cities,” as even the poets of Greece admitted.
The Plutonian shore of the previous night seemed very far away, now that Persephone was back in her own “belonging” country again; the dark terrors of Hades had grown dim. Naturally the gods of Light and Day were the only ones worshipped; they were supreme for life—and after—ah well! “the dark Fate which lay behind gods and men could not be propitiated by any rites, and must be encountered manfully as one meets the inevitable.”...
“Of course there were no temples to Pluto, they wouldn’t have known how to build one,” said Peripatetica, looking from the enclosed cella to the sunlit peristyle outside. “I never quite realized before the cheerful, self-possessed publicity of Greek worship; their temples standing always in these open elevated sites; open themselves to the light and air—majestically simple. There is just the little enclosure to shelter the statue of the god, and all the rest is clear openness, where the worshippers stood under glowing sun and sky, or looking out into it. It’s essentially an out-of-door building, the Greek Temple, spreading its beauty to light and air like a flower. Pluto would have had to evolve a type of his own, he never could have fitted into this calm cheerfulness.”
“No,” pondered Jane, “there is no room for superstitious terrors in the sunshine. I wonder does superstition turn naturally to caves and gloom, or do dark holes in the ground breed it? There is all the space of light and darkness between the sermon preached on the Mount, all beatitudes and tenderness, and the theology of the monks in the Middle Ages after the Christians had made their churches in such catacombs as those of Syracuse.”...
All Girgenti’s temples are wrought from this native chrome-yellow tufa; a sort of solidified sea-beach—compacted sand, pebbles, and fossil shells. The original snow-white stucco, made of marble dust, has flaked away, save here and there in some protected niche. The dry sirocco gnaws into the soft sandstone, and on the seaside of the columns show the long deep scorings of its viewless teeth, sunk in places nearly half through the huge diameter of the pillars.
Peripatetica was in two minds as to whether the temples had not been even more lovely in their original virgin whiteness. “After all,” she mourned, “they are but a frame without the pictures; for the Greek temple existed primarily to be a setting for its sculpture. Sculpture was an essential part of its planning, not a mere decoration, and without it pediment, metopes, frieze, and pedestals are meaningless forms. That sculpture that stood and walked on the pediments and gave life to the frieze; that animated the exterior, or sat calm and strong in the central shrine. To a Greek even this wonderfully preserved Concordia, bare of sculpture, would seem but a melancholy skeleton of a once fair shrine.”
But Jane was obstinately sure that nothing could be better than the natural harmonies of the naked stone.
“Nothing,” she insisted with bland firmness, “not even your blind conviction that everything the Greeks did was exactly right—just because they did it—will persuade me that they improved these temples by any marble plaster. Come over here and look at the warm red gold of those soaring fluted stems against the vivid blue! It is as if the splendour of sunset glowed upon them all day long. As if they had soaked in so much sun through all the bright centuries that now even the very stones gave it out again.”
Peripatetica had been half inclined to believe this herself at first, but of course Jane’s opposition clinched her wavering suffrages for the stucco.
“You lack in imagination,” she announced loftily. “You see only what you see. Try to realize what the marble background meant to the saffron-robed, flower-garlanded priests, and to the worshippers massed on the steps and in the peristyles in delicate-tinted chiton and chamyle—crocus, daffodil, violet-rose, ivory—like a living flower wreath from out the spring meadows encircling the white temple’s base—”
“Oh, do stop trying to be Pater-esque!” scoffed Jane, “and let’s go to luncheon. That sounds too much like sublimated guide-book, and the hotel looks miles away to my unimaginative eye.”
* * * * *
“We won’t, will we?” said Jane half an hour later, with her irreverent mouth full.
Peripatetica knew what she meant.
“Go on to-morrow? No, indeed. We’ll telegraph Cook to send our mail here until further notice—the idea of being told there was nothing to linger for at Girgenti! It’s the nicest place we’ve yet found in Sicily.”
The room was full of the munching of tourists. From the talk in German, English, and French, could be gathered they had one and all “done” the five temples, the tombs, and San Niccola that morning—would “take in” the town sights that afternoon and pass on that evening or the next morning. The two Seekers, to whom the morning had not been long enough in which to dream and dispute over one temple, felt their heads growing dizzy at the rush with which the tourist stream flowed along its Cook-dug channels, and they gladly resolved to leave the current and climb up high and dry on the bank of this inviting little backwater.
The announcement of their intention to stay on seemed to give the polite young proprietor of the hotel a strange shock. He offered better rooms looking on the terrace, and _pension_ rates if they stayed more than three days, instead of the usual week for which that reduction is commonly made. A flutter of excitement at their behaviour passed at once through all the personnel of the hotel.
First came the concierge. “You are really not leaving to-morrow morning, ladies? For what day do you wish me to get your tickets stamped?” He was startledly incredulous when told that the day was still too far in the future for a date to be fixed. The porter came to ask at what time he was to carry out their luggage in the morning—the head waiter to know for which train they wished to be called. The stolid chambermaid’s mouth fell open in surprise when asked to move their things to other rooms. The two-foot-high Buttons shifted about chairs four times his own size in the lobby to get a chance to gaze satisfactorily at such peculiar ladies, and by tea-time the German waiters were staring as they carried about tea-trays, and pointing out to one another the strangely behaving two who were not leaving the next day!
The pretty little hotel was like a railway restaurant. Successive sets of hurried tourists appeared, made a one-meal or a one-night stop, and rushed on, leaving their places to others. In a week’s time so many sets had come and gone that Peripatetica and Jane began to take on the air of pre-historic aborigines; as if they had been sitting on their sunny bank watching all the invading hordes of nations since the Carthagenians made their first raid.
By way of emphasizing the superior intelligence of their own methods they savoured slowly and lingeringly Girgenti’s endless charms. Loafing placidly on the flowery terrace for an hour after breakfast to enjoy the distant view of the golden temples, or to watch the patient labours of ancient brown Orlando and his ancient grey ass Carlo, who spent all their waking hours in climbing down, down the precipitous road to the Fonte dei Greci with empty water-barrels, and toilsomely bringing them up full and dripping to be emptied into the terrace well with its lovely carved well head. Or they retired to the niche below the terrace stairs under the feathery pepper tree, and sat amid a blaze of poppies and mauve to write letters, punctuated by frequent pauses to look across the olive orchards and young wheat fields to the wide blue fields of the sea. And every day they strolled away through the orchard footpaths towards the temples, which were ever their goal, though they might be hours in reaching that goal because of being led away by adventures on the road.
It was by way of this footpath that they first fell into the hands of Fortunato. They were forever falling into some one’s hands and finding the results agreeable, for they kept their minds open to suggestion and abjured all hard and fast lines of intention, being wise enough to realize that what is known as “a good traveller” usually misses all the good of travel by the cut-and-driedness of his aims.
Fortunato was sure that he could “spika da Englishy,” though what led him to suppose so, other than a large command of illuminative gesture, never became clear. Some half-dozen words—adorned with superfluous vowels to a point of unrecognizability—he did possess; the rest was Sicilian, sympathy, and vivid intelligence, which sufficed to make him the perfectly delightful guide he explained himself to be. His age he declared to be fourteen, he looked all of ten, but his knowledge of the world, of life, of history, and of the graces of conversation could hardly have been acquired by any one less than forty. Within twenty minutes he had made them free of such short and simple annals of his career as he judged to be suited to their limited forestieri minds, having first firmly assumed the burden of all their small impedimenta—jackets, kodaks, and parasols. He was one of fifteen, he explained, and also the main staff of his parents’ declining years; the six staffs younger than himself being somewhat too short for that filial office. The other eight had been removed from this service by the combined ravages of marriage, the army, and emigration. When time and the growth of his juniors enabled him to lay down his absorbing duties he had the intention of joining in Nuova Yorka a distinguished barber, who enjoyed the privilege of being his elder brother. Nuova Yorka, he had been given to understand by this brother, boasted no such mountains as these of Girgenti, but its streets were filled for months with hills of ice and snow, and this information Peripatetica and Jane were regretfully obliged to confirm.
No matter! even such rigours could not check his ambition to “barb,” and as his brother had explained how necessary it was that he should be complete master of Englishy before landing in Nuova Yorka if he hoped to escape being “plucked” (great business of illuminating gestures of rapacity) he employed in guiding Americans such brief hours as he could snatch from school.
They discovered later that Fortunato snatched from school just seven entire days every week.
It had been the intention of the two to spend the morning among the gigantic ruins of the temple of Zeus, and yet when Fortunato put pressure upon their ever flexible impulses at the gate of the strange old Panitteri garden, they found themselves instead under the walls of the church of San Niccola, where the gillyflowers and wild mignonette rioted from every crevice. Meekly they climbed a great stone terrace adorned with crumbling statues and Corinthian entablatures. Meekly they examined the great baths, and delighted in the shining panorama of sea and plain and hill, with golden Concordia seen in its most lovely aspect between two gigantic stone pines.
Still sternly shepherded by the small guide they climbed down again to make a closer acquaintance with the Oratory of Phalaris. Phalaris of the infamous legend of the brazen bull, into whose heated body were cast the enemies of the ancient Tyrant of Akragas, because that humorous gentleman’s fancy was highly diverted by the similarity of their moanings, as they slowly roasted, to the lowing of kine. It is said that he fretted a good deal because nobody else appeared to think the thing as good a joke as it seemed to him, but then taste in jests _will_ differ, unfortunately. The Carthagenians when they came over and conquered Sicily were quite delighted with the ingenious toy, and carried it off triumphantly to Africa. They were finished artists in torture themselves, and appreciated a valuable new idea. Scipio found the bull in Carthage, when he made a final end of that city, and he returned it to Akragas, but appetite for really poignant fun appears to have died out by that time, and Fortunato, whom they consulted, seemed to think it was probably eventually broken up for the purpose of manufacturing braziers, or possibly warming-pans.
Memory of the Bull almost obscured the fact that the Oratory was a beautiful Greek chapel, such as was used to hold some statue of a god, and the memorials of ancestors, and served for private daily devotions without need of a priest. The Normans had the same habit of private family chapels, so the Oratory had served them in turn, being pierced by a Norman window and the square-headed entrance door fitted with an arch.
Half a dozen races and centuries had each had a hand in the Church and Convent of San Niccola too, apparently. It was built from stones filched from that vast ruin of the Temple of Zeus they were on their roundabout way to see, and which has always been an exhaustless quarry for Girgenti. So late as in the last century the huge stones that formed the Porto Empedocle, a long mole from which the sulphur is shipped, were stolen from poor Zeus. Doors, windows, roofs, arches, had been added or changed in San Niccola, just as each generation needed, and each in the taste of the period. The holy-water stoup at the entrance, for example, was an enormous marble hand, taken from one of the temples. For the Greeks too had fonts of holy water, consecrated by plunging into it a burning torch from the altar, and as the worshippers entered they were asperged with a branch of laurel.
The poor Saint was not in flourishing circumstances in these later days, it would seem, judging by the bareness of his sanctuary, and the torn cotton lace upon the altars, and yet he was an industrious healer, if one might reason from the votives that hung about his picture. A few were wrought in silver, but more in wax, or carved and painted wood, reproducing with hideous fidelity the swollen limbs, the cancerous breasts, the goitered throats, the injured eyes, the carbuncles and abcesses he had healed through his miraculous intervention. Indeed, he was a general jobber in miracles, for the naïve, rude little paintings on the wall showed a spirited donkey running away with a painted cart, the terrified occupant frantically making signals of distress to San Niccola in heaven, who was preparing promptly to check the raging ass. Or he was drawing a chrome-yellow petitioner from a cobalt sea, or turning a Mafia dagger aside, or finding a lost child in the mountains. He certainly “studied to please,” and it did seem a pity he should be housed in so bare and poverty-stricken a shrine. Many less active saints lived amid welters of gilding and luxury.
In spite of Fortunato dragging them aside later to see a little “Casa Greco,” where they could trace delicate tesselated pavements and the bases of the columns of the atrium amid the grass, they still succeeded in arriving that same afternoon at their original goal.
Only the temple of Diana at Ephesus was larger than this great shrine to the spirit of the overarching sky, and even yet, though moles and churches and villas have been wrought from its remains, the gigantic ruin daunts the imagination with its colossal fragments, its huge tumble of stone, its fallen mountains of masonry. Each triglyph alone weighed twelve tons, and the enormous columns around the whole length of its three hundred and seventy-two feet were more than sixty feet high. Theron, the benevolent despot of Akragas, built it with the labours of his Carthagenian captives, and no doubt a memory of their frightful toilings in the Sicilian noons inspired the Carthagenians, when they captured the city, to their fury of destruction against the fane they themselves had wrought. It would seem as if only some convulsion of nature could have brought down that prodigious construction, but still visible upon the bases of the fallen pillars are the cuts made by the Punic conquerors, sufficient to disturb the equilibrium of even these monster columns. When their rage had at last expended itself nothing of all that incredible mass of masonry remained standing save three of the enormous Telamone—the male caryatids—that had supported the entablature. And so firmly were these built that they stood there for fifteen centuries more before time and a quaking of the earth at last brought them down.
Now the last of these lies in the centre of the ruin, perhaps the most impressive figure wrought by man’s hands, so like does it seem—blurred, vague, tremendous—to some effort to symbolize in stone the whole human race—the very frame of the world itself. Shoulder and breast an upheaved mountain range, down which the mighty muscles pour like leaping rivers to the plain of the enormous loins and thighs. Rough-hewn locks cluster about the frowning brows, as a gnarled forest grips a cliff’s edge, from beneath which stare darkly the caverned eyes. Primeval, prehistoric in form, overrun by gnawing lichens, smeared by lapse of time to a mere vast adumbration of the human form.
This temple had been the supreme effort of Akragas, the richest and most beautiful city the Greeks ever built. The stories of its wealth, of its luxury, of its gardens, palaces, theatres, baths, its gaieties, and its pomps, sound like a description of Rome under the Empire, and would be incredible if such ruins as this did not exist to attest to the facts.
Far more characteristic of the Greek were those twin temples of Castor and Pollux
—“These be the great Twin Brethren To whom the Dorians pray”—
to which Fortunato turned their steps as a refreshing counteraction of the stern immensities of Zeus. Light, delicate, gracious fragments they were, lifting themselves airily from a sea of flowers on the edge of the ravine-like Piscina, once the reservoir for the city’s water, but now full of lemon orchards, and fringed by immense dark carouba trees....
Another day, conducted by Fortunato always, they pilgrimed to the temple of Hercules, oldest and most archaic of them all, containing still in the cella remains of the pedestal on which stood that famous bronze statue of the muscular hero and demigod. The statue which that unscrupulous collector, Verres, tried to remove and thereby provoked a riot in the city. In this temple too had hung Zeuxis’ renowned painting of Hercules’ mother, Alcmena.
It was on still another day that Fortunato led through olive groves and bowery lanes to the temple of Juno Lacina, beguiling the way with light songs—some of them distinctly light—and scintillating conversation upon all matters in the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. He mimicked deliciously the characteristics of English, French, German, and American tourists, differentiating their national peculiarities with delicate acuity. He made no effort to disguise that he had pondered much upon the sexes, and opined, with a shrug, that there was a hopeless and lifelong irreconcilability in their two points of view. Marriage, he frankly conceded to be a necessity, but considered it a lamentable one. Of course one must come to it soon or late, but, for a man, how sad a fate! Then he broke off to sing of undying passion, and interrupted himself to ask if the donkeys in Nuova Yorka were as quick and strong as those of Sicily; he supposed the streets must be crowded with them, where the needs of commerce were so great.
Eventually he brought them out upon the lovely eminence of the temple of the Mother of Heaven—Juno Lacina, special deity of mothers, which crowns the edge of a sheer cliff of orange-yellow tufa four hundred feet above the sea. The sea had washed close under the cliff when the temple was first built, but now at its foot the alluvial plains stretch level and rich, bearing orchards and meadows and vineyards more fertile than any old Akragas knew, though this very shrine was built from the proceeds of exportation of oil to Carthage.
Earthquakes had shaken down more than half the tall, slim columns. Sirocco has bitten deep into those still standing, and into the fallen fragments which strew the landward slope; fragments lying among gnarled olives, seemingly as wind-eaten and ancient as themselves. Among these fluted fragments grew wild pansies and crimson lupins, from which little Fortunato gathered nosegays, as he shrilled, in his boyish falsetto, songs of love and sorrow—or sat and kicked his heels upon the margin of an old bottle-shaped cistern. Tourists whirled up dustily for a cursory inspection—Baedeker in hand—and whirled as quickly away, bent on getting through the sights and passing on; but still Peripatetica and Jane lingered and dreamed among the ruins until Fortunato, visibly bored, suggested a short cut back to the hotel. It led them by fields of lupin, spread like crimson velvet mantles on the hillside, where the contadini cut the glowing crop, heaping it upon asses until they seemed but a moving mass of blossom trotting home on brown legs. Goats, Fortunato volunteered, detested—for some curious goatish reason he could not explain—this picturesque food, but donkeys! ah, to donkeys it was—in a burst of superlative explanation—“the donkey macaroni.”
This short cut led, too—apparently to Fortunato’s surprise and dismay—directly through a walled farmyard surrounding a frowning, half-ruined casa, nail-studded of door and barred of window, and with an air of ancient and secretive menace. It was the sort of place travellers in such books as “The Mysteries of Udolpho” used to come upon at nightfall, far from any other habitation, with a thunderstorm about to break among the mountains, and the leader of their four-horsed travelling carriage hopelessly lame, so that the delicate and shrinking heroine must, willy nilly, beg for a night’s accommodation and the surly inhabitant’s sinister hospitality. Curiously enough the dwellers in this casa were, it seemed, of the exact Udolpho variety. Ringing the correctly rusty bell, and battering upon the massive gate with their parasol handles aroused a storm of deep-mouthed baying of dogs within, and a fierce brown face finally appeared at a small wooden shutter to demand the cause of the intrusion. Fortunato’s heart and legs plainly turned to water at the sight of this person, but realizing that he had got Jane and Peripatetica into a hole and must get them out, he wheedled in such honeyed and persuasive Sicilian, that at last, and reluctantly, the heavy portal
“Ground its teeth to let them pass,”
the furious dogs having first been chained. Very arid and ruined and poor this jealously guarded dwelling seemed. Nothing was visible the protection of which required those four big wolf-like dogs that shrieked and bounded and tore at their chains as the intruders passed; nor that the lean fierce man and his leaner and fiercer wife and children should accompany them like a jailer’s guard to the exit. Fortunately this nether door was unbarred before the lean man demanded money for having permitted them to cross his land, and having a sense of Fortunato’s imploring eyes upon them they made the gift a lire instead of a copper, and pushing through the door fled as for their lives.
“So there really was an Italy like the Italy of the romantic Georgian novel!” said Jane wonderingly, as soon as she could catch breath.
“It’s only another proof,” gasped Peripatetica, “that travellers really do tell the truth. It’s the ignorant stay-at-homes who can’t believe anything they haven’t seen themselves. Fortunato,” she demanded sternly, “who are those people, and why do they behave so absurdly? What are they concealing?”
But no explanation was to be had from that erstwhile fluent and expansive _homme du monde_. He was frightened, he was vague, and simply darkened counsel.
“I strongly suspect there is some Mafia business behind all this—you naughty boy!” said Jane reprovingly, but Fortunato only pulled his cap over his eyes and slunk away without claiming his day’s wage.
Because of this episode Fortunato found his offered services frigidly dispensed with the next day when he presented himself, Jane and Peripatetica setting out alone to explore the town of Girgenti. They were quite sure they could themselves discover a short cut to the small city which would be much more amusing than the dusty highway. It seemed but a stone’s throw distant, and surely by striking down this footpath, and rounding that rise....
An hour later, panting, dripping, and disgusted, they climbed into the rear of the town, having stumbled through the boulders of dry water-courses, struggled over the huge old rugged pavements of ancient Akragas—washed out of their concealment by winter torrents—skirted outlying villas, and laboured up steps. The short cut had proved the longest way round they could possibly have taken to the inadequate, shabby little museum they had set out to see in this modern successor of the great Greek city. Girgenti, though one of the most thriving of Sicilian towns, thanks to its sulphur mines, only manages to fill one small corner of the hill acropolis of that ancient city, which once covered all the miles stretching between this and the temple-crowned ridge of the southern boundary of cliffs. Akragas found space for nearly a million of inhabitants where Girgenti nourishes but twenty thousand or so.
It was not till 580 B.C. that this Rhodian colony was founded, so Akragas was a century and a half younger than her great rival, Syracuse—the offspring of Corinth. But that site on the steep river-girt hill, rising from such fertile country, proved so favourable to life and commerce; trade with the opposite coast of Africa developed so richly, that Akragas’ rise to wealth and power was rapid, and she was soon pressing Syracuse hard for the place of first city. Her temples were the greatest of all Sicily, almost of all Greece. The city’s magnificence became a bye-word, and accounts of the wealth and prodigality of its private citizens read like Arabian Nights imaginings. In the public gymnasium the people used golden strigils and gold vessels for oil. One rich Akragantine kept slaves in waiting all day at the door of his great mansion to invite every passing stranger in to feast and repose in his spacious courts, where there were baths and fresh garments always waiting and slaves to entertain with dance and music; flower garlands and food and wine unlimited at his call. There was wine in the cellars by the reservoir full—three hundred reservoirs of nine hundred gallons each—hewn in the solid rock! This same genial Gelleas, when five hundred riders came at once from Gela, took them all in, and, it being the dead of winter, presented each man with new warm garments.
They delighted in pageants and splendid public festivals, these splendour-loving Akragantines, of whom their philosopher Empedocles said that they “built as if they were to live forever and feasted as if they were to die on the morrow!” We know they went out to welcome young Exainetos, victor at the Olympian Games, with three hundred glittering chariots drawn all by milk-white horses; we know of the wonderful illuminations that lit all the city, from the monuments of the high Acropolis to the temple-crowned sea-rampart, when a noble bride passed at night to her new home, with flutings and chorus, and an escort of eight hundred carriages and riders innumerable.
Now the town seemed to be mostly a winding tangle of steep stairs—with houses for walls—and these stairs were bestrewn with ancient remnants of vegetables that had outlived their usefulness, and a swarming population of children. Fazelli mentions an Agrigentian woman of his time who brought forth seventy-three children at thirty-three births, and judging from the appearance of the streets that rabbit-like practice still maintains. Way could hardly be made through the swarm of juvenile pests, clamouring for pennies and offering themselves as guides, until a boy in slightly cleaner rags was chosen to show the way to the Cathedral. Once given an official position he furiously put his competitors to flight, and with goat-footed lightness flitted before up the ladder-like alleys, while the two panted after until it seemed as if they should be able easily to step off into the sky.
A queer old Fourteenth Century campanile, with Norman ogives and Moorish balconies, still gives character to the exterior of this thousand-foot-long Cathedral of San Gerlando perched aloft in the windy blue, but inside the Eighteenth Century had done its worst. Baroque rampant; colossal stucco mermaids and cupids, interspersed with gilded whorls and scrolls as thick as shells upon the “shell-work” boxes of the seaside booths. A giant finger could flick out a dozen cupids anywhere without their ever being missed. Yet it stands upon the ruins of a temple to Jove, and here for more than two thousand years have prayers and praise and incense gone up to the gods of the overarching blue that looks so near, so that even stucco and gilding cannot render it irreverent or lessen its power to brood the children of earth beneath its wings.
[Illustration: TEMPLES OF CASTOR AND POLLUX, GIRGENTI “LIFTING THEMSELVES AIRILY FROM A SEA OF FLOWERS”] Even so it seemed to-day, for merrily and thickly as the throngs of naked little stucco cupids chased each other on the walls, infants of flesh and blood in gay rags and heavy hob-nailed shoes swarmed over the marble floor. As if it were a kindergarten small boys played games of tag around the columns, small girls trotted about more demurely, or flocked like rows of perching sparrows around the numerous altars. The church resounded with the hum of their voices and the patter of their feet; yet the old women at prayer continued their devotions, quite undisturbed, and no passing priest or sacristan did more than shake a gentle finger at some especially boisterous youngster.
The sacristy holds the jewel of the Cathedral, a ravished jewel which does not belong at all in this ecclesiastical setting—the lovely Greek sarcophagus portraying the passionate story of Hippolytus and Phædra. This is the one remnant now left to Akragas out of all her treasures of Greek art. Found in the temple of Concord, where the gentle St. Gregory had probably cherished it, the Girgentians offered it to their Cathedral, and in that most tolerant of churches it served for long as the High Altar until influx of the outer world made some sense of its incongruity felt even here. At one end of the tomb Phædra swoons amourously among her maidens, their delicate little round child-like faces and soft-draped forms melting into the background in exquisite low relief. Two of a more stately beauty hold up the Queen’s limp arms and support her as she confesses to her old nurse the secret passion consuming her for that god-like boy, son of her own husband, whom with all her fiery blood she had once hated as illegitimate rival to her own children, but now had come to find so dear that she “loved the very touch of his fleecy coat”—that simple grey-and-white homespun his Amazon mother’s loving fingers had woven. In high bold relief of interlacing trees Hippolytus on the other side hunts as joyously as his patroness Artemis herself. Opposite, arrested among his dogs and companions, he stands in the clear purity of his young beauty, like “the water from the brook or the wild flowers of the morning, or the beams of the morning star turned to human flesh,” turning away his head from the bent shrunken form of the old nurse pleading her shameful embassy. And on the other end is carved the tragedy of his death, the revenge of Aphrodite in anger at his obduracy against herself and her votary Phædra. “Through all the perils of darkness he had guided the chariot safely along the curved shore; the dawn was come, and a little breeze astir as the grey level spaces parted delicately into white and blue, when angry Aphrodite awoke from the deep betimes, rent the tranquil surface; a great wave leapt suddenly into the placid distance of the little shore, and was surging here to the very necks of the plunging horses, a moment since enjoying so pleasantly with him the caress of the morning air, but now, wholly forgetful of their old affectionate habit of obedience, dragging their leader headlong over the rough pavements.”
Life seemed to breathe from the ivory-coloured marble. So vividly had its creator’s hand carried out the conception of his brain that all the elapsed centuries since the vision of beauty had come to him were but as drifting mists. Races, dynasties, powers, the very form of the earth itself, had altered, in the changing ages, but the grace of this little dream was still a living force.
“Oh Attic shape! Fair Attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens, over wrought With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity; Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waile Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
* * * * *
On the steps of the Cathedral they witnessed a pretty sight.
“Peripatetica,” announced Jane, “I will not walk back to the hotel! It may be only one mile from town, by the high road, but it was certainly four by that short cut, and all this hill-climbing on slippery cobbles has turned my knees to tissue paper. The boy must get us a cab—how does one say it? You tell him.”
The boy hesitated at first at Peripatetica’s request, but went off in obedience to the firm command of her tone.
Accustomed to the ubiquitous, ever present and ever-pestering cab of Taormina and Syracuse, they expected his instant return. But the minutes passed and passed, and sitting on the parapet of the Cathedral steps they had long opportunity to watch the world wag on. Apparently it was “Children’s Day” at the Cathedral, to which they were being mustered for catechism. The swarms inside were now explained. Though it had seemed as if every child in town must already be there, they were still flocking in.
Mites of every size and sort between the ages of two and ten, small things with no accompanying elders, came toiling up the steep streets Cathedralwards, climbing the long flights of steps and boldly shoving into the great doorway.
But the different manner of their coming! The unfaltering steady advance of the devout—heads brushed, shirts and frocks clean, faces set and solemn, no words or smiles for their companions, minds fixed on duty. Little girls came in bands, tongues going like mill-hoppers even as they plunged within the sacred portal. Little boys enlivened their pilgrimage with chasings and scuffles. Wee tots, timidly attached to the hand of some patriarch of eight or nine; receiving therefrom protecting encouragement, or being ruthlessly dragged along at the top speed of chubby legs, regardless of their streaming tears. Loiterers arriving with panting pink tongues, stockings half off and dragging, clothes all in disarray from some too delightful game on the way, plodding breathless up the steps with worried rubbings on clothes of dirty little paws; still casting reluctant looks at the sunshine before they made the plunge behind the dark leather curtain. Reprobates, at the very last refusing to enter at all; refusing to exchange the outer darkness of play and sunshine for the inner light of wax tapers and the Catechism; giving themselves boldly over to sin on the very Cathedral steps in merry games of tag and loud jeerings and floutings of the old beggar men who had given up their sunny posts at the doors in attempts to drive these backsliders in. And the Reluctant, coming with slow and dragging feet; heads turned back to all the mundane charms of the streets, lingering as long as possible before final hesitating entrance. For these last it was very hard that, straight in their way, just in front of the Cathedral, a brother Girgentian, whose very tender age still rendered him immune from religious duties, was thrillingly disporting himself with an iron barrel-hoop tied to a string, the leg of a chicken, and two most delightful mud-puddles. The care-free sportings and delicious condition of dirt of this Blessed Being made their own soaped and brushed virtue most cruelly unsatisfying to many of the Pilgrims. But there was the Infant Example, who, with crisp short skirts rustling complacency, and Mother’s large Prayer-book clasped firmly to her bosom, climbed the steps with eyes rolled raptly heavenwards and little black pig-tails vibrating piety. And some little boys with both stockings firmly gartered, jackets irreproachably buttoned, and a consciousness of all the answers to the Catechism safely bestowed in their sleek little heads, made their way in eagerly, wrapped in the “showing off” excitement. These little Lambs passed coldly and disapprovingly through those who had chosen to be goats in the outer sunshine. But many small ewes sent glances of fearful admiration from soft dark eyes at those bold flouters of authority, and many proper youths looked sidewise at them so longingly it was plain that only the fear of evil report taken home by sisters in tow, kept them from joining the Abandoned Ones.
Peripatetica, amused and interested, forgot the flight of time. Jane, suddenly realizing it, cried:
“That boy has been gone a half hour—do you suppose you really told him to get a cab? I believe you must have said something wild and strange which the poor thing will spend the rest of his life questing while we turn into lichens on this parapet.”
Peripatetica, indignantly denying this slur on her Italian, insisted she had clearly and correctly demanded a cab, and a cab only.
“I remember,” she reflected, “the boy looked very troubled as he went off—and now that I come to think of it, we haven’t met a horse in this town to-day. The Romans must have looted all the conveyances in their last sack of the city; the only one left is now kept in the Museum in a glass case, and allowed out for no less a person than the German Emperor—but I _won’t_ walk back. I should suppose the boy had deserted us, except that he hasn’t been paid.”
“Poor little wretch! That was why he looked so troubled,” exclaimed Jane. “He knew the long and difficult search he was being sent upon, and perhaps thought it was a mere Barbarian ruse to shake him off, so that we could get away without paying him.”
As she spoke the sound of thudding hoofs echoed from the walls of the Cathedral, and the white anxious face of their guide appeared on flying legs. The reassurance that changed his expression into a beaming smile at sight of the two still there, made it clear that Jane’s supposition had been correct. He had evidently feared to find both his clients and the silver rewards of his labours vanished. The relief with which he gasped out his explanation of having had to go all the way down into the valley to the railway station to get a carriage which was now on its way while he had dashed ahead on foot up a short cut, was so pathetic they gave him double pay to console him for his worry.
And then with a noise between the rumble of a thunderstorm and the clatter of a tinman’s wagon came their “carrozza.” Its cushions were in rags, the harness almost all rope, one door was off a hinge and swung merrily useless—but two lean steeds drew this noble barouche and two men in rags sat solemnly on its ricketty box with such an air of importance its passengers felt as if they were being conducted homeward in a chariot of state.
* * * * *
Fortunato, restored to favour, was leading them up the Rupe Athena, that rose steeply immediately behind their hotel; he was leading them not straight up, but by a series of long “biases”—as Jane expressed it. The end of the first bias reached the little lonely church of San Biago, dreary and uninteresting enough in its solitary perch, save for the fact that it stood upon the site of a temple to Demeter and Persephone:
“Our Lady of the Sheaves, And the Lily of Hades, the Sweet Of Enna”
placed here no doubt because this high spur was the only point in Girgenti from which one could catch a glimpse of the lofty steeps of Enna-Castrogiovanni.
Turning at a sharp angle again they went slanting up across the bare hillside, the wild thyme sending up a keen sweet incense beneath their climbing feet, until they came to the verge of the great yellow broken cliff that shot up more than a thousand feet from the valley below. Some crumpling of the earth’s crust, ages ago, had forced up this sheer mass of sandstone, hung now with cactus, thyme, and vines, which served as one of the natural defences of Akragas, behind whose unscalable heights the unwarlike city had been enabled peacefully to pursue its gathering of wealth and luxury.
Fortunato, leaning over the marge, clapped his hands suddenly, and a cloud of rock pigeons flew forth from the crevices, to wheel and flutter and settle again among the vines. Probably descendants of those pigeons who lived in these same crevices in the days of the monster Phalaris, and helped to compass his death.
Pythagoras—that strange wanderer and mystic, whose outlines loom so beautiful and so incomprehensible through the vagueness of legend, was first flattered and then threatened by the Tyrant, who feared the philosopher’s teachings of freedom and justice. At one of those public discussions, so impossible in any other country ruled despotically, and yet so characteristically Greek—Pythagoras rounded a burst of eloquence by pointing to a flock of these pigeons fleeing before a hawk.
“See what a vile fear is capable of,” he cried. “If but one of these pigeons dared to resist he would save his companions, who would have time to flee.”
Fired by the suggestion the old Telemachus threw a stone at the Tyrant and despite the efforts of his guards, Phalaris was ground to a bloody paste by the stones and fury of the suddenly enfranchised Akragantines.
* * * * *
“It is our last day,” Jane had said; “we will go and bid the temples good-bye.”
Which was why she and Peripatetica were scaling in the sunset the golden cliffs which Concordia crowned, having come to it by a détour to Theron’s tomb.
They drew themselves laboriously up to the crest, and sank breathlessly upon the verge among the crumbled grave pits, where the Greeks buried their dead along the great Temple road. Not only their beloved human companions they interred here, but the horses who had been Olympian victors, their faithful dogs, and their pet birds. It was in rifling these graves, in search of jewels and treasure, that the greedy Carthagenians had reaped a hideous pestilence as a price of their impiety. Now the graves were but empty grass-grown troughs, and one might sit among them safely to watch the skyey glories flush across the sapphire sea, and redden the hill where the little shrunken Girgenti sent down the soft pealing of Cathedral chimes from her airy distance. Beside them Concordia’s columns deepened to tints of beaten gold in the last rays, and across the level plain far below—already dusk—the people streamed home from their long day’s labour. Flocks of silky, antlered goats strayed and cropped as they moved byre-wards, urged by brown goatherds who piped the old country tunes as they went. The same tunes Theocritus listened to in the dusk thousands of summers since, or that Empedocles, purple-clad, and golden-crowned, might have heard vaguely fluting through his dreams of life and destiny as he meditated beneath these temple shadows as night came down.
Asses pattered and tinkled towards the farms, laden with crimson burdens of sweet-smelling lupin. Painted carts rattled by with oil or wine; and cries and laughter and song came faintly up to them as the evening grew grey.
“How little it changes,” said Peripatetica wistfully. “We will pass and vanish as all these did on whose tombs we rest, and hundreds of years from now there will be the same colours and the same songs to widen the new eyes with delight.”
“Let us be grateful for the joys of Theocritus, and for our joys and for the same joy in the same old beauties of those to come,” said Jane, sententiously. “And let us go home, for the moon is rising.”
Large and golden it came out of the rosy east, the west still smouldering with the dying fires of the ended day.
Their way led through the olive orchards, grown argent in the faint light, and taking on fresh fantasies of gnarling, and of ghostly resemblances to twisted, convoluted human forms. Among the misty olives the blooming pear-trees showed like delicate silvery-veiled brides in the paling dark, and with the falling dew arose the poignant incense of ripening lemons, of blossoming weeds, and of earth freshly tilled.
Wandering a little from the faintly traced path, grown invisible in the vagueness of the diffused moon-radiance, they called for help to a young shepherd going lightly homeward, with his cloak draped in long classic folds from one shoulder, and singing under his breath. A shepherd who may have been merely a commonplace, handsome young Sicilian by day, but who in this magic shining dusk was the shepherd of all pastoral verse, strayed for a moment from Arcady. Following his swift light feet they were set at last into the broad road among the herds and the asses and the homing labourers—Demeter’s well-beloved children.
“E’en now the distant farms send up their smoke, And shadows lengthen from the lofty hills.
* * * * *
—Now the gloaming star Bids fold the flock and duly tell their tale, And moves unwelcome up the wistful sky. . . . . . . Go home, my full-fed goats, Cometh the Evening Star, my goats, go home.”
THE GOLDEN SHELL
“_Kennst du das Land, wo die Citronen blüh’n?_”
WHEN Ulysses Grant had ended the Civil War in America and was made President, he turned from uttering his solemn oath of office before the cheering multitudes and said under his breath to his wife who stood beside him, in that tone of half-resentful, half-weary patience the American husband usually adopts in speaking to his mate, “Well, now, Julia, I hope you’re satisfied!”
There was the same exasperated patience in Jane’s voice as she climbed into the railway carriage for Palermo and, throwing herself back upon the cushions, exclaimed:
“Well, now, Peripatetica, I hope you’ve had enough of the Greeks! For my part I go on to the next course; something a little more modern. Tombs and goddesses and columns and myths cloy as a steady diet for months, and even the ridiculous pompous old Eighteenth Century would seem rather home-like and comfy as a change. I could find it in my heart to relish a bit of the odious decadence of _l’art nouveau_ simply by way of contrast.”
Peripatetica treated this shameful outburst with all the stern contempt it so truly merited, as she was engaged in making the acquaintance of a descendant of that great race of Northmen who had made history all over Sicily and the rest of Europe. He too was a conqueror, though his weapon was a paint-brush and a modelling tool instead of a sword, and kings received him with all the honours due an acknowledged ruler of a realm. He dwelt by a great lake far to the north in that “nursery of kings” in a home built five hundred years ago of huge fir-trees; logs so sound and clean-fibred that the centuries had left the wood still as firm as stone. Making his play of resurrection of the old wild melodies of the North, of the old costumes and industries of the people from whose loins had sprung half the rulers of the continent. The Sea Rover’s blood was strong in him too, driving him to wander in a boat no bigger than those of his Viking ancestors along the stormy fjords and fierce coasts to the still more distant north.
For the adornment of the log-built home Sicily had yielded to his wise searching various relics of antiquity, Greek, Norman, Saracen, and Spanish, and in the ensuing days in which Jane and Peripatetica were permitted to tread the same path with the Northman and his beautiful wife, these treasures came out of pockets to be fitted with dates and history, and even, in the delightful instance of one small ghostly grotesque, to change owners.
While the two seekers of Persephone were gathering and savouring this refreshing tang of the cold salt of the northern seas, this large vista of the gay, poised strength of a mighty race—their train was looping and coiling through summer hills to the seat of summer—cherry and apple, peach and pear trees tossed wreaths of rose and white from amid the grey of olives and the green of citron, for this was the land of Mignon’s homesick dream—“das Land, wo die Citronen blüh’n.”
Miles and miles and miles of orange and lemon groves ran beside their path; climbing the hills and creeping down to the edge of the tideless sea. Trees that were nurtured like babies; each orchard gathered about old grey or rose-washed tanks holding the precious water which is the life-blood of all this golden culture during the rainless summer. Tanks moist and dripping and fringed with ferns, mirroring the overhanging yellow fruit, or the pink geraniums that peeped over the shoulders of the broad-bladed cacti to blush happily at their own reflections in the water.
An exquisite form of orcharding, this, as delicate and perfect as a hot-house, with every inch of the soil utilized for the vegetables set about the trees’ roots, and the trees themselves growing in unbelievable numbers to the acre. For not one superfluous leaf or branch was there—just the requisite number to carry and nourish the greatest possible quantity of fruit. In consequence of which the whole land was as if touched by some vegetable Midas and turned all to gold. Millions and millions of the yellow globes hung still unpicked, though already the trees were swelling the buds which within ten days were to break forth into a far-flung bridal wreath, and intoxicate all the land with honeyed perfumes.
And, mark you, how nations are influenced by their trees! In the bad old days of constant war and turmoil the isolated family was never secure, and the people clung to the towns, but modern careful culture of the orange has forced orchardists to live close by their charges, and the population is being slowly pushed back into rural life, with the result of better health, better morals, and a great decrease of homicides. One has really no convenient time for sticking knives into one’s friends when one is showing lemon-trees how to earn $400 an acre and orange-trees half as much....
“It is the most beautiful town in the whole world,” said Peripatetica in that tiresomely dogmatic way she has of expressing the most obvious fact.
They had wandered out of their hotel, and through a pair of stately iron gates crowned with armorial beasts. Beyond the gates lay a garden. But a garden! Acres of garden, laced by sweeping avenues, shadowed by cypress and stone pines, by ilex and laurel. From the avenues dipped paths which wound through _boscoes_, looped under bridges veiled with curtains of wisteria and yellow banksias, climbed again to pass through pleached walks; paths that tied themselves about shadowy pools where swans floated in the gloom of palm groves, or debouched across emerald lawns where clumps of forget-me-nots and cinerarias made splashes of bold colour in the grass.
“They do these things so well in Europe,” remarked Peripatetica approvingly, as a splendid functionary, in a long blue coat and carrying a silver-headed staff, lifted his cockaded hat to them as they entered the gates. “Now where at home would one find one of our park guardians with such a manner, and looking so like a nobleman’s servant? This,” she went on, in an instructive tone, being newly arisen from a guide-book, “is the Giardino Inglese; one of the public parks, and it has exactly the air of loved and carefully tended private possession.”
They lounged over the parapets of the carved bridges, with their elbows set among roses, to look down into the little ravines where small runnels flowed among the soft pink-purple clouds of Judas-trees. They were tempted into allées bordered their whole length with the white fountains of blossoming spireas, or hedged on both sides by pink hermosas. They strolled past clumps of feathery bamboos to gaze along the shadowy vistas of four broad avenues meeting at a bright circle where a sculptured fountain tossed its waters in the sun. They lingered in paths where tea-roses were garlanded from tree to tree, or by walls curtained by Maréchale Niels. They inspected the nurseries and admired the greenhouse. They came with delight upon a double ring of giant cypresses lifting dark spires into the dazzling blue of the sky, and sat to rest happily upon a great curved marble seat whose back had lettered upon it a reminder to the “Shadowed Soul” that wisdom comes only in shade and peace.
“E La Sagezza Vieni Solo Nel’ Ombra E Pace.”
And finally they mounted the little tiled and columned belvedere hanging at the corner of the garden’s lofty wall to gaze upon a view unrivalled of this most beautifully placed city.
Palermo lay stretched before them in its plain of the Conca d’Oro—the golden shell. Round it as a garland rose a semicircle of vapoury mountains like rosy-purple clouds, bending on beyond the plain on either side to clasp a bay of dazzling violet whose waters glowed at the city’s feet; the city itself warmly cream-tinted and roofed with dull red tiles. A city towered, columned, arched; with here the ruddy bubbles of San Giovanni degli Eremiti’s domes, there the tall spires and fretted crest of the Cathedral; and flowing through it all, or resting here and there in pools, the green of orange groves, the flushing mist of Judas-trees, the long stream of verdant parks and gardens.
“Not only is this the loveliest city in the whole world,” said Jane, “but this is also the sweetest of all gardens, and a curious thing is that we seem to have it quite to ourselves. You’d suppose all Palermo would want to come here for at least half of every day, but not a soul have we met except those two dear, queer old gardeners sitting on the tank’s edge playing a game with orange seeds.”
“Well, if the Palermians haven’t intelligence enough to use such a garden, we have,” announced Peripatetica. “And we will come here every day.”
Which they did for a while; bringing their fountain pens to write letters in the bosco, or resting after sight-seeing in the cool shade of the cypress ring. And it might have served them to the end as their intimate joy had it not been for Peripatetica’s insane passion for gardening.
[Illustration: “SICILY’S PICTURE-BOOK, THE PAINTED CART”]
All about the edge of the long _tapis vert_ which lay before the handsome building at the end of the garden—a building which they supposed housed some lucky park official—stood at intervals fine standard roses. Now one unlucky day Peripatetica descried aphides upon the delicate shoots and young buds of these standards. That was sufficient. An aphis, to her rose-growing mind, is a noxious wild beast, and promptly stripping off her gloves she ravened among them.
“Perhaps you’d better leave them alone,” warned Jane in a whisper. “The gardeners look so surprised.”
“By no means!” objected Peripatetica in lofty obstinacy, with a backward glance of contempt at the visibly astonished attendants. “The city no doubt pays them well to grow roses, and I mean to shame them for this indecent neglect of their duties. Besides, I am enjoying it immensely; I’ve been hungering and thirsting for a little gardening.”
That very day it was conveyed to their intelligence—or their lack of it—that they had not been enjoying the Giardino Inglese, a dull park which lay almost opposite, but had been calmly annexing the private grounds of Prince Travia. He, however, being a model of princely courtesy, was glad to have the foreign ladies amuse themselves there as much as they liked. Only once more did they see it; on the day of departure, when they blushingly left a tip in the hands of the handsome old silver-staffed portiere, who had truly looked like a nobleman’s servant, and behaved like one as he saluted them with unprotesting dignity each time they had passed in and out of that beauteous spot in which they had no right to be.
There were many other gardens in Palermo, but none so fair. The green world was so enchanting in this glowing spring that a day of _villegiatura_ was necessary between every two days of sight-seeing, and having been banished from the Travia garden by their own innate sense of decency, they took lunch in their pockets and set out for the famous Villa Giulia which had aroused such enthusiasm in Goethe.
The Villa Giulia, as they might have foreseen, was just the sort of thing Goethe would have liked—and they had been violently disagreeing with Goethe all over Sicily. An untouched example of the most tiresome form of Eighteenth Century gardening—a cross between a wedding cake and a German Noah’s Ark. All rigid, glaring, gravelly little allées, with trees as denuded of natural luxuriance as a picked chicken; sugar-icing grottoes; baroque fountains; gaudy music kiosks; cages of frowzy birds and mangy monkeys; and posé busts in self-conscious bowers. Not here could these Eden-exiled Eves lunch, nor yet in the untidy, uninteresting Botanic Gardens next door—a wilderness of potted specimens and obtrusive labels—but wandering melancholily around a vast egregious gas tank, they came upon a long, neglected avenue of great trees; all that was left of some once lovely villa swept out of existence by the gas works. And here upon a stone bench in the glimmering shade they fed at the feet of a feeble little knock-kneed marble King. One of the Spanish monarchs of Sicily it was, thus commemorated in marble Roman armour and a curled marble wig, and his rickety, anæmic majesty moved them to smiling pity, so feeble and miserable he looked, forgotten and overshadowed by modern gas tanks, his boneless legs ready to give under him, and his peevish face smeared with creeping lichens. The green tunnel of the trees framed a blazing sapphire at the other end—a glimpse of the bay—and ragged pink roses, and neglected purple iris bloomed together along the path. Ere another year the blight of the gas works will have swept away the airy avenue, the wilding flowers, the poor spineless little King, and the two bid it all a wistfully smiling farewell, knowing they should never again eat an April day’s bread and cheese under those sweet auspices.
... Will travellers from the roaring cities of Central Africa come a couple of centuries hence and mark with regret the last bit of some now flourishing boscage being eaten away by Twenty-Second Century progress, and smile indulgently at one of our foolishly feeble statues, in granite frock coats, tottering to lichened oblivion? No doubt. Palermo has seen so many changes since the Phœnicians used to trade and build along this coast. For this was the Carthagenian “sphere of influence” from the first, and the Greeks were here but little, and have left no traces in Palermo, though in the long wars between Carthagenian and Greek it was captured by the latter from time to time, and held for a space. The Greeks called it Panormous—meaning all harbour, for in their day deep water curved well up into the town, where are now streets and palaces and hotels. Of course Rome held it for a while, as she held pretty nearly everything. Held it for close upon a thousand years—with the Goths for its masters at one interval—but there are few traces of Rome either, and then the Arabs took it and set their seal so deep, in less than two centuries, that after the lapse of nearly another thousand years their occupation is still visible at every turn. For under the Saracens it was a capital, and after their destruction of Syracuse, which ended Greek domination in the Island, it gained a pre-eminence among Sicilian cities never afterwards lost.
That garrulous old traveller from Bagdad, Ibn Haukal, writing in 943, says that Palermo then had a most formidable nine-gated wall, a population of close upon half a million, and many mosques. He also says that near where the Cathedral now stands was a great swamp full of papyrus plants, serving not only for paper but for the manufacture of rope.
Already Sicily was beginning to suffer from the scarcity of water, and the merchant from Bagdad, accustomed to the abundant pools and conduits of his own city, makes severe comments upon the lack of these in Palermo. It could only have been by contrast, however, that the Palermians could have seemed to Haukal dirty, because Jane and Peripatetica, going to see a part of the old Moorish quarter, in process of demolition, found multitudinous water-pipes in the houses, entering almost every chamber. Haukal says that the Greek philosopher Aristotle was buried in one of the mosques of Palermo, and he opines that the most serious defect of the citizens was their universal consumption of onions. Peripatetica—to whom that repulsive vegetable is a hissing and an astonishment—read aloud in clamant sympathy this outburst of Haukal’s:
“There is not a person among them, high or low, who does not eat them in his house daily, both in the morning and at evening. This is what has ruined their intelligence and affected their brains and degraded their senses and distracted their faculties and crushed their spirits and spoiled their complexions, and so altogether changed their temperaments that everything, or almost everything, appears to them quite different from what it is.”
“That gentleman from Bagdad is a man after my own heart,” she declared triumphantly. “I have always been sure that people who eat onions must be those to whom ‘almost everything appears quite different from what it is,’ for if they had the slightest idea of ‘what it is’ for other people to be near them after they have indulged that meretricious appetite they would certainly never do it!”
This Arab impress, though visible everywhere, is more a general atmosphere than definite remains; for with but few exceptions their creations are so overlaid and modified by subsequent Occidental work that it glows through this overlay rather than defines itself. It was while searching for Moorish fragments that Jane and Peripatetica came upon La Ziza. The guide-books unanimously asserted that Al Aziz—La Ziza—was the work of the Norman King, William I., but the guide-books, they had long since discerned, were as prone to jump to unwarranted conclusions, and, having jumped, to be as aggravatingly cocksure in sticking to their mistakes as was Peripatetica herself. So they took leave to doubt this assertion, and concluded that William probably seized the lovely country-house of some Moorish magnate, adding to it sufficiently to make of it a “lordly pleasure dome” for himself in the wide orange gardens, but the core of the place was wholly Moorish in character; well worth the annexing, well worth its name Al Aziz—The Beloved.
They came through the hot, white sunshine up wide, low steps, through a huge grille in an enormous archway, to find a windowless room where the glaring day paled to glaucous shadow against the green tiles of a lofty chamber, as cool and glistening as a sea cave. And the sound of rippling water echoed from the lucent sides and honeycomb vaultings, for a shining fountain gushed from the wall into a tiled channel of irregular levels, artfully planned to chafe the sliding water into music before it slept for awhile in a pool, and then slipped again through another channel to another pool, and so passed from the chamber—having glinted over its shining path of gold and green and blue, and having filled the place with cool moisture and clear song.
“With fierce noons beaming, Moons of glory gleaming, Full conduits streaming Where fair bathers lie—”
Quoted Peripatetica—who might be safely counted on to have a tag of verse concealed about her person for every possible occasion.
“Did you ever see anything that so adequately embodied the Arab conception of pleasure? Coolness, moisture, the singing of water, noble proportions, and clean colour wrought into grave and continent devices? Was there ever anything,” she went on, “so curious as the contradictions of racial instincts? Who could suppose that this would be the home-ideal of those wild desert dwellers who always loved and fought like demons; who were the most voluptuous, the most cruel, the most poetic and the ‘so fightingest’ race the world has probably ever seen!”
“Oh, contradictions!” laughed Jane. “Here’s a flat contradiction, if you like. Please contemplate the delicious, the exquisite absurdities of these frescoes.”
For, needless to say, the Eighteenth Century had not allowed to escape so exquisite an opportunity to make an ass of itself, and had spread over the clean, composed patterns of the tiled walls a layer of lime-wash on which it had proceeded to paint in coarse, bright colours indecently unclad goddesses, all flushed blowzy and beribboned; all lolloping amourously about on clouds or in chariots, or falling into the arms of be-wigged deities of war or of love. Fortunately the greater part of these gross conceptions had been diligently scrubbed away, but enough remained to make Peripatetica splutter indignantly:
“Well, of all the hideous barbarians! The Eighteenth Century was really the darkest of dark ages.”
“My dear,” Jane explained contemptuously, “the Eighteenth Century wasn’t a period of time. It was merely a deplorable state of mind. And the mind seems to have been slightly tipsy, it was so fantastic and ridiculous, and yet so gravely self-satisfied.”
La Cuba, another Saracenic relic, was so obliterated into the mere military barrack to which it had been transformed that there was nothing for it but to pass on to the Normans, and to great Roger de Hauteville, a fit companion of the Paladins, so heavy a “Hammer of the Moors” was he—so knightly, so romantic, so beautiful.
Not until twelve years after that bold attempt at Messina to conquer a kingdom with only sixty companions was Roger able to enter Palermo, and he and his nephews chose for themselves “delectable gardens abounding with fruit and water, and the knights were royally lodged in an earthly paradise.”
No hideous massacre or sack followed the taking of Palermo, for though Roger had conquered the island for himself he was a true mirror of chivalry, and was never cruel. He was chivalrous not only to the defeated, but to those other helpless creatures, women, who in his day were mere pawns in the great military and political games played by the men; married whether they would or no, and unmarried without heed of any protest from them; thrust into convents against their wishes, and haled out of convents if they were needed. And swept ruthlessly from the board when they had served their purpose, or when they got in the way of those fierce pieces passaging back and forth across the chequered squares of the field of life. Roger loved the Norman maid Eremberga from his early boyhood, it appears, and as soon as his hazardous fortunes would permit she was had out from Normandy, and the history of the great soldier is full of his devotion, and of her fidelity and courage. As at the siege of Troina, when the two were reduced by hunger and cold to the greatest extremities, sharing one cloak between them, so that finally Roger, rendered desperate by his wife’s sufferings, burst through the ring of Saracens, leaving her to defend the fortress with unshaken valour until he returned with a force adequate to save her, and raise the siege.
There is an amusing story of Roger and his eldest brother, that ruthless old fox, Robert Guiscard. They were fighting one another at the time, and Roger’s soldiers captured Robert, who was disguised and spying. He with difficulty rescued Robert from the angry captors, took him to a private room, kissed him, helped him to escape, and promptly next day fell upon his forces with such fury that Robert was glad to make peace and fulfil the broken promises which had caused the dispute....
It was not Roger, the great Count—he had little time in his busy life for building—but his son Roger the King, who raised the great pile at Monreale which Jane and Peripatetica were on their way to see. Not by way of the winding rocky road which for centuries the pious pilgrims had climbed, but whisked up the heights by an electric tram which pretended it was a moving-picture machine, displaying from its windows an ever widening panorama of burning blue sea, of pink and purple mountains, of valleys down which flowed rivers of orange groves, of a domed and spired city in the plain, and a foreground freaked with an astonishing carpet of flowers.
“If you were to see that in a picture you wouldn’t believe it,” quoted Jane from the famous Book of Bromides, writhing her neck like an uneasy serpent in an endeavour to see it all at once.
“No, of course, you wouldn’t,” said Peripatetica resentfully. “And when we try to tell it to people at home they’ll simply say our style is ‘plushy.’ There’s nothing so resented as an attempt to carry back in words to a pale-coloured country the incredible splendours of the south. The critics always call it ‘orchid and cockatoo writing,’ and sulkily declare, whenever they do have a fairly nice colourful day, that they are sure the tropics have nothing finer, whereas, if they only knew, it is but an echo of an echo of the real thing, and—” but words failed even Peripatetica.
On the breezy height, dominating all the deep-toned landscape, stood the Abbey church of Monreale—truly a royal mount, crowned by one of the finest shrines in Europe. The famous bronze doors of the main entrance had been oxidised by time and weather with a patine of greens and blues that lent subtle values to the bold delicate modelling of the metal, framed in a toothed doorway of warm, cream-tinted stone, whose magic harmony of colour was a fitting preliminary to the lofty glories of the interior. An unbelievable interior! faced throughout its three hundred and thirty-three feet of length with millions upon millions of tiny stones, gold and red and blue—stones of every colour. For all the interior they found, up to the very roof, was of this dim, glowing, gold-mosaic set with pictures of the Christian faith—the creation of Adam and Eve, the temptation by the Serpent, the casting out from Eden, the wrestling of Jacob, the whole Bible history, culminating above the altar in a gigantic Christ. More than 700,000 square feet of pictures made of bits of stone; and around and about pulpit, ambo, and altar, across steps and pavement, and enclosing every window and door, lovely mosaic patterns and devices, no two alike....
Brown-faced old peasants pushed aside the leathern curtain at the entrance and knelt, crossing themselves, in the shadow of enormous pillars, as their forebears had knelt and crossed themselves there for a thousand years. A mass droned from a side altar. Groups of young priests-in-the-making sauntered gossipping in whispers, or coming and going on ecclesiastic errands. Knots of tourists stared and wandered about the great spaces, and from behind the high altar rose boys’ voices at choir practice, echoing thin and pure from the painted roof.
Of all the Norman print upon Sicily nothing gave like this great church a sense of the potency of Tancred de Hauteville and his mighty brood. For no defacing hand has been laid upon this monument to their piety and power. It stands as they wrought, tremendous, glorious; commemorating the winning of the kingship of the Land of the Gods. A story as strange as any of the myths of the mythic world. And perhaps thousands of years hence the historians will relegate the Norman story, too, to the catalogue of the incredible—to the list of the sun-myths; and Tancred will be thought of as a principle of life and fecundity—his twelve strong sons be held to be merely signs of months and seasons.
Of the great Benedictine Abbey founded by William in connection with the Cathedral almost nothing remains unaltered except the delicious cloistered court with its fountain, and its two hundred and sixteen delicate, paired columns, no two alike, and with endless variations of freakish capitals.
All this freshness and richness of invention resulted from the mingling of the Saracen with the Norman, all this early work being wrought by Moslem hands under Norman direction, since King Roger and King William were no bigots, and, giving respect and security to their Saracen subjects, could command in return their skilled service and fine taste. So that this bold, springing, early Norman architecture, Gothic in outward form, is adorned by the chaste, delicate minuteness of the grave Arab ornament.
... It is Palm Sunday, and Jane and Peripatetica are at a reception—otherwise a Sicilian high mass. They have come, still on the trail of their beloved Normans, who have almost ousted the Greeks in their affections, to the Cappella Palatina in the Royal Palace. The chapel is less than a third as large as Monreale but is even more golden, more dimly splendid, more richly beautiful than the Abbey Church. It is crowded to the doors. Everywhere candles wink and drip in the blue clouds of incense. The voices of boys soar in a poignant treble, and the organ tones of men answer antiphonally. The priests mutter and drone, and occasionally take snuff. Mass goes on at a dozen side altars, oblivious of the more stately ceremonies conducted in the chancel. The congregation comes and goes. A family with all the children, including baby and _nounou_, enter and pray and later go out. Aristocrats and their servants kneel side by side. The crowd thickens and melts again, and companions separate to choose different altars and different masses, according to taste. All are familiar, friendly, at ease. The divine powers are holding a reception, and worshippers, having paid their respects, feel free to leave when they like. Long palm branches are carried to the altar from time to time by arriving visitors, each branch more splendid than the last. Palms braided and knotted, fluttering with ribbons, tied with rosettes of scarlet and blue, wrought with elaborate intricacies—hundreds of branches, which are solemnly sanctified, asperged, censed, with many genuflections. Priests in gold, in white, in scarlet, accompanied by candles, swinging censors and chanting, take up the palms and make a circuit of all the altars among the kneeling worshippers, and finally distribute the branches to their owners who bear their treasures away proudly.
With them go Jane and Peripatetica, joining a group, who, having paid their respects to heaven, are now ambitious to inspect the state chambers in the palace of their earthly sovereign. These prove to be the usual dull, uninviting apartments—flaring with gilt, and with the satins of _criard_ colours which modern royalty always affect. There are the usual waxed floors, the usual uncomfortable _fauteuils_ ranged stiffly against walls hung with inferior pictures, that are so tediously characteristic of palaces, and it is with relief and delight that Jane and Peripatetica find sandwiched amid these vulgar rooms two small chambers that by some miracle have escaped the ravages of the upholsterer. Two chambers, left intact from Norman days, that are like jewel caskets. Walls panelled with long smooth slabs of marble, grown straw-coloured with age, the delicate graining of the stone being matched like the graining of fine wood; panels set about with rich mosaics of fantastic birds and imaginary beasts framed in graceful arabesques. These are the Stanza Ruggiero; the rooms occupied by King Roger, the furnishings, such scant bits as there are, being also of his time.
“In Roger’s day,” commented Jane, “kings were not content with housings and plenishings of the ‘Early Pullman, or Late Hamburg-American School’; they knew how to be kingly in their surroundings.”
“It’s a curious fact,” agreed Peripatetica, “that there isn’t a modern palace in Europe that a self-respecting American millionaire wouldn’t blush to live in. No one ever hears of great artists being called upon to design or beautify a modern royal residence. Bad taste in furnishing seems universal among latter-day kings, who appear to form their ideas of domestic decoration from second-rate German hotels. Fancy any one seeing the high purity and beauty of Roger’s chambers and then ordering such ruthless splashings of gilt and cotton satin! Why, even ‘the best families’ of Podunk or Kalamazoo would gibe at the contrast, and as for the Wheat and Pork Kings of Denver or Chicago—they would have the whole place made _époque_ in a week, if they had to corner the lard market, or form a breakfast-food trust to be able to afford it!”
* * * * *
“God made the day to be followed by the night. The moon and stars are at His command. Has He not created all things? Is He not Lord of all? Blessed be the Everlasting God!”
Jane was reading aloud from her guide-book.
They had been to Cefalu, looking for Count Roger in the great Cathedral built by his son, but found that he had vanished long ago, and his sarcophagus was in Naples. They had found instead traces of Sikel, Greek, and Roman; had lingered long before the splendid church, so noble even in decay, and now they were back again in Palermo, still on the track of their Normans. What Jane read from her book was also inscribed over the portal of Palermo’s Cathedral before which they stood, but being carved in Cufic script, and Jane’s Cufic being—to put it politely—not fluent enough to be idiomatic, she preferred to use the guide-book’s translation rather than deal with the original.
[Illustration: THE CATHEDRAL AT PALERMO—“THE LAST RESTING PLACE OF QUEEN CONSTANCE”] They had been skirting about the Duomo for days, for it dominated all Palermo with its bigness. Seated in a wide Piazza that was dotted about with mussy-looking marble saints and bishops, and a great statue of Santa Rosalia, the city’s patron, the Cathedral was flanked by the huge Archepiscopal Palace, by enormous convents and public buildings, so that one couldn’t hope to ignore or escape it. Yet they had deferred the Duomo from day to day because they knew their pet abomination, the Eighteenth Century, had been there before them, and that they would find it but an extremely mitigated joy in consequence.
They knew that the swamp full of pxapyrus plants of Haukal’s time had given way to the “Friday Mosque” which the two Rogers and William the Bad had left undisturbed, but which had been pulled down by William the Good—being somewhat ruinous, and also seeing that William was “the Good” in the eyes of his ecclesiastic historians because he reversed the old Norman liberality to his Moslem subjects. Then Walter of the Mill, an Englishman, built the Cathedral, making it glorious within and without, and time and additions only made it more lovely until the modern tinkering began. A foolish, unsuitable dome was thrust among its delicate towers, and the whole interior ravaged and vulgarised.
Still, if one were hunting Normans, the Cathedral must be seen, and most of all they wished to find the last resting-place of Constance, around whose memory hung a drama and a mystery, and drama and mystery were as the very breath of their nostrils to Jane and Peripatetica.
The interior was impressive for size despite all the scrolled and writhed and gilded mud pies with which Ferdinand Fuga, the Neapolitan, had plastered it by way of decoration, and here and there still lingered things worth seeing. Such as the delicious bas reliefs of Gagini, Sicily’s greatest native sculptor; his statues of the Apostles and the fine old choir stalls, only making clearer by their ancient beauty how much that was beautiful had been swept away. Also there was the splendid silver sarcophagus of Santa Rosalia, weighing more than a thousand pounds, and other such matters, but the real attraction of the Cathedral was the great porphyry tombs of the Kings—huge coffers of ensanguined stone, as massive and tremendous as the mummy cases of the Pharaohs. Here lay Roger the King in the sternest and plainest of them, under a fretted Gothic canopy. In one more ornate, his daughter Constance, and near at hand her husband Henry VI. of Germany, and their son, the Emperor Frederick the Second.
Jane and Peripatetica longed that Constance, like Hamlet’s Father might
“ope those ponderous and marble jaws”
and come forth to tell them the real story of her strange life. For she too had been one of those hapless feminine pawns used so recklessly in the game of kingdoms played by the men about her; yet a whisper still lingered that this pawn had not been always passive, but had reached out her white hand and lifted the king from the board, and thus altered the whole course of the game!
Constance, King Roger’s daughter, had early made her choice for peace and safety by retiring into the veiled seclusion of the convent. But even the coif of the religieuse was no sure guard if the woman who wore it was an heiress, or of royal blood, and, the German alliance being needed after her father’s death, she was plucked forth by her brother, and in spite of her vows wedded to Henry of Hohenstaufen, son of Frederick Barbarossa, a man of such nature she must have hated him from the first. She bore him one son, and when her brother and her nephew—William the Bad and William the Good—were both dead without heirs, Henry Hohenstaufen immediately laid claim to the Sicilian crown in the name of his son. The Sicilians, however, had no mind to be ruled by the Germans, and chose instead Tancred, son of the House of de Hauteville, though with a bar sinister upon his shield. Tancred—a good and able sovereign—fought off Henry for five years, but then he too was dead, and only his widow and infant son stood between Henry, now Emperor of Germany, and the much-lusted-after throne of Sicily. Against the wish of Constance, who would have gladly abjured her rights, the German invaded the island and after incredible cruelties and ravagings reduced the widow and baby King to such straits that they negotiated an honourable surrender. But no sooner were they in Henry’s hands than the child was murdered, and there ensued a reign of abominable oppressions and furious revolts, stamped out each time with blood and fire, and followed by still bitterer injustice and plunderings. When matters had reached a stage of desperation Henry died suddenly while besieging a rebellious town.
Now in the Middle Ages no charge was so frequently and lightly made as that of poisoning. Nearly all sudden deaths not wrought by cold steel were attributed to some secret malfeasance by drugs. The fear of it fairly obsessed the mediæval mind, and gave rise to legends of poisoned gloves and rings, deadly smelling-balls and pounce boxes, and fatal chalices. A whole series of myths grew around it. Modern bacteriological discoveries, and a knowledge of ptomaines, incline the modern mind to believe that many a poor wretch brutally done to death for the crime of poisoning really died an innocent martyr to medical ignorance. Yet Henry’s taking off was so welcome and so opportune, and that Constance had struggled to protect her fellow countrymen and kinspeople from his cruelties was so well known, it began to be breathed about that she was a second Judith who had reached out in agony to protect her people, even though the blow fell upon the father of her child. At all events, whatever the truth may have been, she, when she buried Henry with imperial pomp, cut off her magnificent hair and laid it in his tomb. Then, sending away the Germans, she ruled “in peace with great honour” until the son she had trained to mercy and virtue was ready to take her place.
Now they all lie here together under their pompous canopies, and whatever may be the real dramas of those fierce and turbulent lives, the great porphyry sarcophagi combine to turn a face of cynical and haughty silence to the importunate questioning of peeping tourists.
In 1781 the tombs were opened by the Spanish King Ferdinand I., who found Constance’s son Frederick robed and crowned, with sword and orb beside his pillow, and almost lifelike in preservation. Henry too was almost unchanged by the six hundred years that had passed in such change and turmoil beyond the walls of his silent tomb, and he lay wrapped from head to heel in yellow silk with the heavy blond tresses of his wife laid upon his breast, still golden despite the lapse of long centuries, but “nulle ne peut dire si c’est le dernier sacrifice d’une femme dévouée, ou l’homage ironique d’une reine contrainte à choisir entre deux devoirs; placée entre son époux et son peuple, entre sa famille et sa patrie.”
* * * * *
Gaspero was a gift—a priceless parting gift from the Northman, who had gone farther south to the Punic shores from whence had come the first settlers of the Palermian Coast. And to console Jane and Peripatetica for the loss of his charming boyish gaiety he had made over to them that treasure. For Gaspero not only drove the smartest and most comfortable of all the victorias on hire to the public, but he was an artist in the matter of sight-seeing. A true gastronome, mingling flavours with delicate wisdom; keeping delicious surprises up his sleeve lest one’s spirit might pall, and mingling tombs and sunshine, crypts and “molto bella vistas,” history and the colourful daily life of the people, with a masterhand. And all so fused in the warm atmosphere of his own sympathetic and indulgent spirit that “touristing” became a feast of the soul unknown to those not guided by his discreet and skilful judgment. He knew where one might purchase honey which bees had brewed from orange flowers into a sublimated perfume; and he introduced them to certain patisseries at Cafleisch’s that gave afternoon tea a new meaning.
It was Gaspero who took them to the lofty shrine of Santa Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino; that grotto where lived the royal maiden hermit, and where lie her bones within the tomb on which Gregorio Tedeschi has made an image of her in marble with a golden robe, glowing dimly in the light of a hundred lamps. On that rosy height, dominating the beautiful landscape, Gaspero told them the story of the niece of William the Good, whose asceticism and devotion set so deep a seal of reverence upon the people of Palermo that they enshrined her as the city’s patron saint, and still celebrate her memory every year with a great festival. All the population climb the hill in July to say a prayer in her windy eyrie, and the enormous car bearing her image is dragged through the city’s streets, so towering in its gilded glories that one of the city gates has been unroofed to permit of its entrance. At that time the Marina—the wide sea-front street—instead of being merely a solemn Corso for the staid afternoon drive of the upper classes, becomes the scene of a sort of Pagan Saturnalia. The Galoppo takes place then—races of unmounted free horses—delicious races, Gaspero says, in which there can be no jockeying, and in which the generous-blooded animals strive madly to distance each other from sheer love of the sport and the rivalry. A gay people’s revel, this, of flying hoofs and tossing manes; of dancing feet; of cries and songs; mandolins, pipes, and guitars fluting and twittering. The water-sellers with their glittering carts and delicate bubble-like bottles crying _acqua fredda_, offering golden orange juice, and the beloved pink anisette. The Polichinello booths, the open-air puppet shows, the toy-sellers with their tall poles hung with sparkling trifles, the tables spread with dainties of rosy sugar, with melting pastries, with straw-covered flasks of wine. All perspiring, talking, laughing, guzzling, gormandising in honour of the anæmic, ascetic girl who passed long, lonely, silent days and nights in passionate ecstasies and visions in those high, voiceless solitudes. Gaspero made it all very vivid, with hands, lips, eyes. He was possessed with the drama and strange irony of it.
* * * * *
“Have the Signorine ever seen a Sicilian puppet show?” Gaspero demanded, à propos of nothing in particular, turning from a brown study on the box to inquire.
He plainly intended that this should be a memorable day.
No; the Signorine had not seen a puppet show. If they properly should see one then they would see one. It was for Gaspero to judge. Very well, then. He would come for them at half past eight that evening—at least, he added with proud modesty, if the Signorine would not object to his wearing his best clothes. His festa garments, and not the uniform of his calling.
Object! On the contrary, they would be flattered. Gaspero settled back to his duties with the triumphant expression of the artist who by sudden inspiration has added the crowning touch to his picture. He composed the days for them on his mental palette, and this one he plainly considered one of his masterpieces.
Yesterday had been a failure. Jane and Peripatetica had waked full of plans, but before the breakfast trays had departed they were aware of a heavy sense of languor and ennui which made the pleasantest plans a prospect of weariness and disgust.
“If you sit around in a dressing-gown all day we’ll never get anything done,” suggested Peripatetica crossly, as Jane lounged in unsympathetic silence at the window.
“Considering that you’ve been half an hour dawdling over your hair and have got it up crooked at last, I wouldn’t talk about others,” snapped Jane over her shoulder without changing her attitude.
A strained silence ensued. Peripatetica slammed down a hand mirror and spilled a whole paper of hairpins, which she contemplated stonily, with no movement to recover them.
A hot wind whirled up a spiral of dust in the street.
“My arms are so tired I can’t make a coiffure,” wailed Peripatetica.
Jane merely laid her head on the window sill and rolled a feeble, melancholy eye at the disregarded hairpins.
The wind sent up another curtain of hot dust.
“I don’t know what’s the matter,” complained Jane, “but I don’t feel as if I wanted to see another sight—ever—as long as I live.”
“Perhaps this is the sirocco one hears of,” piped Peripatetica weakly. “The guide-book says ‘the effect of it is to occasion a difficulty in breathing, and a lassitude which unfits one for work, especially of a mental nature.’”
By this time there could be no doubt of the sirocco. A hot, dry tempest raged, whipping the rattling palms, driving clouds of dust before it, so that Jane could only dimly discern an occasional scurrying cab, or an overtaken pedestrian pursuing an invisible hat through the roaring fog of flying sand. The day had turned to a brown and tempestuous dusk, and the voice of a hoarse Saharan wind shouted around the corners.
But that was yesterday. To-day was golden and gracious. Rain in the night had cooled and effaced all memory of the sirocco, and Gaspero was outdoing himself in astonishing and piquant contrasts.
He drove them to the Cappucini Convent by the devious route of the Street of the Washerwomen. This roundabout way of reaching the Convent was one of Gaspero’s artful devices.
Down each side of the broad tree-shadowed way, bordered on either hand by the little stone-built cubicles washed pink or white or blue, in which lived the multitudinous laundresses, ran a clear rushing brook. These brooks flowed through a sort of shallow tunnel with a wide orifice before each dwelling, and in every one of these openings was standing a bare-legged blanchisseuse, dealing strenuously with Palermian linen, with skirts tucked up above sturdy knees that were pink and fresh from the rush of the bright water. Vigorous girls trotted back and forth with large baskets heaped with wet garments, and bent, but still energetic, granddams spread the garments to dry. Hung them from the tree branches, swung them from the low eaves of the little dwellings, threaded them on lines that laced and crossed like spiderwebs, so that the whole vista was a flutter of fabrics—rose and white and green—dancing in the breeze. A human and homely scene, with play of brown arms and bright eyes amid the flying linen and laces; with sounds of rippling leaves, of calls and laughter, and the gurgling of quick water—drudgery that was half a frolic in the cheerful sunshine.
Now behold Gaspero’s sense of dramatic contrast!
A plain, frigid façade, guarded by a bearded and rather grubby monk in a brown robe. The eye does not linger upon the grubby monk, being led away instantly by the vista through the arched doorway behind him of a cloistered court; a court solemn with the dark spires of towering cypresses, and brilliant with roses—roses wine-coloured, golden, pink. Behind this screen of flowers and trees lies the bit of ground possessing the peculiar property of quickly desiccating and mummifying the human bodies buried in it. Many hundreds have been laid in this earth for awhile, and then removed to the convent crypts to make room for others. It is to these crypts another monk leads the way. A saturnine person this, handing his charges over to another, still more gloomy, who sits at the foot of the stairs and watches at the crypt’s entrance. A perfectly comprehensible depression, his, when one reflects that all the sunshiny hours of these golden Sicilian days he sits at the shadowed door of a great tomb, mounting guard over surely the most grisly charge the mind can conceive; over Death’s bitterest jest at Life.
The walls of the high, clean corridors are lined with glass cases like a library, but instead of printed books the shelves are crammed with ghastly phantoms of humanity, all grinning in horrible, silent amusement as at a mordant, unutterable joke.
Jane and Peripatetica gasp and clutch one another’s hand at the grey disorder of this soundless merriment—breathless, fixed, perpetual.
Here and there a monk, crowded for lack of space from the shelves, hangs from a hook in limp, dishevelled leanness, his head drooped mockingly sidewise, his shrunken lips twisted in a dusty fatuous leer, a lid drooped over a withered eye in a hideous wink. Others huddle in fantastic postures within their contracted receptacles, as if convulsed by some obscenely wicked jest which forces them to throw back their heads, to fling out their hands, to writhe their limbs into unseemly attitudes of amusement. One lies flat, with rigid patience in every line of the meagre body, a rictus of speechless agony pinching back the mouldy cheeks.
Coffins are heaped about the floor everywhere. Through the glass tops the occupants grin in weary scorn from amid the brown and crumbling flowers that have dried around their faces.
The ghastliest section of this ghastly place is that where the women crouch in their cases, clad in the fripperies of old fashions. Earrings swing from dusty ears; necklaces clasp lean grey throats; faded hair is tortured into elaborate coiffures; laces, silks, and ribbons swathe the tragic ruins of beauty. And these women, too, all simper horribly, voicelessly, remembering perhaps how dear these faded gauds once were before they passed beyond thought of “tires and crisping pins.”
“Why do they do it?” demanded Peripatetica in whispered disgust. “What strange passion for publicity prompts them thus to flout and outrage the decent privacies of death”—for they noted that each case bore a name and the date of decease, and that some of these dates were but of a few years back. “Didn’t they _know_, from having seen others, how they themselves would look in their turn? Why would any woman be willing to come here in laces and jewels to be a disgusting nightmare of femininity for other women to stare at?”
“Vanity of vanities—all is vanity!” murmured Jane. “Now they all lie here laughing at the strange vanity that brought them to this place—at the vanity that will bring others in their turn to this incredible hypogeum.”
Then they turned a corner and came suddenly upon the little horribly smiling babies, and instantly fled in simultaneous nausea and disgust—flinging themselves at Gaspero, who with a tenderly sympathetic manner suggested an expedition to La Favorita as a corrective of gruesome impressions. Carrying them swiftly to it by way of the long double boulevards of the newer Palermo, between the smiling villas of creamy stone that were wreathed with yellow banksias and purple wisteria, their feet set among gay beds of blossoms and facing the cheerful street life of the town.
“How odd these Sicilians are!” reflected Jane, as they drove. “An incomprehensible mixture to an Anglo-Saxon. For example one finds almost universal open-hearted gentleness and courtesy, and yet the Mafia holds the whole land in a grip of iron—a dangerous, murderous, secret society as widespread as the population, yet never betrayed, and uncontrollable by any power, even so popular and so democratic a one as the present government.”
“Yes; their attitude to life is as puzzling as the face they turn toward death,” agreed Peripatetica, remembering that almost every other building in Taormina and many in Palermo wore nailed to the door a broad strip of mourning—often old and tattered—on which was printed “Per mio Frate,” or “Per mia Madre”—that even a newspaper kiosk had worn weeds—“Per mio Padre.”
At that very moment there passed a cheerful hearse, all glass and gilding, wreathed with fresh flowers into a gay dancing nosegay, and hung with fluttering mauve streamers which announced in golden letters that the white coffin within enclosed all that was mortal of some one’s beloved sister Giuseppina. It might have been a catafalque of some Spirit of Spring, so many, so sweet, so daintily gracious were the blooming boughs that accompanied Giuseppina to her last resting-place.... And yet they had but just come from the grim horrors of that crypt of the Cappuccini!...
La Favorita, curiously, is one of the few monuments of beauty or charm left by that long reign of the Spanish monarchs of Sicily, which, with some mutations, lasted for about six hundred years. They loaded the land with a weight of many churches and convents, yet what one goes to see is what was done by the Greeks, the Moslems, and the Normans. La Favorita is not old, as one counts age in that immemorial land of the High Gods. A slight century or so of age it has, being built for the villegiatura of Ferdinando IV. at the period when the Eighteenth Century affected a taste in Chinoiseries, bought blue hawthorn jars, ate from old Pekin plates, set up lacquered cabinets, and built Pagoda-esque pleasure houses. The Château is but a flimsy and rather vulgar example of the taste of the day, but the Eighteenth Century often planted delicious gardens, and the pleached allées, the ilex avenues, the fountains and plaisances of La Favorita, make an adorable park for modern Palermo, having by time and the years grown into a majestic richness of triumphant verdure.
But Gaspero is not content with La Favorita. He has things even better in store for Jane and Peripatetica—explaining that by giving the most minute gratuity to the guardian of the park’s nether portal they may be allowed to slip through into a private path that leads to the sea. They do give the gratuity, and do slip through, winding along a rough country road leading under the beetling red cliffs of Pellegrino; by way of olive orchards, mistily grey as smoke, through which burn the rosy spring fires of the Judas-trees, whose drifting pink clouds are so much more beautiful than the over-praised almond blossoms. They skirt flowery meadows all broad washes of gold and mauve, past a landscape as fair as a dream of Paradise, and Gaspero draws up at last upon a beach of shining silver upon which a sea of heaving sapphire lips softly and without speech. A sea that strews those argent sands with shells like rose petals, like flakes of gold, like little, curled, green leaves. And dismounting they rest there in the sunset, forgetting “dusty death,” and glad to be alive; glad of Gaspero’s tender indulgent joy in their pleasure as he gathers for them the strewn sea-flowers, tells them little Sicilian stories of the people, and makes them entirely forget they haven’t had their tea.
It was in returning from this place of peace that he had that crowning inspiration about the puppet show, which is why in the darkness of that very evening they are threading a black and greasy alleyway which smells of garlic and raw fish. But they go cheerfully and confidently in the dimly seen wake of Gaspero’s festa richness of attire.
An oil torch flares and reeks before a calico curtain. This curtain, brushed aside, shows a pigeon-hole room, nine feet high, very narrow, and not long. On either wall hangs a frail balcony, into one of which the three wriggle carefully and deposit themselves on a board hardly a palm’s breadth wide. From the vantage point of these choice and expensive seats—for which they have magnificently squandered six cents apiece—they are enabled to look down about four inches on the heads of the commonality standing closely packed into the narrow alley leading to the stage. A strictly masculine commonality, for Gaspero explains in a whisper that the gentler sex of Palermo are not expected to frequent puppet shows, lest their delicate sensibilities may suffer shock from the broad behaviour of the wooden dolls. Of course, he hurries to add, handsomely, all things are permitted to forestieri, whose bold fantasticalities are taken for granted.
The groundlings appear to be such folk as fishpeddlers, longshoremen, ragpickers—what you will—who smoke persistent tiny cigarettes, and refresh themselves frequently with orange juice, or anisette and water. These have plunged to the extent of two cents for their evening’s amusement, and have an air of really not considering expense. The gallery folk are of a higher class. On Peripatetica’s right hand sits one who has the air of an unsuccessful author or artist; immediately upon the entrance of the forestieri he carefully assumes an attitude of sarcastic detachment, as of one who lends himself to the pleasures of the people merely in search of material. Opposite is an unmistakable valet who also, after a quick glance at the newcomers, buttons his waistcoat and takes on an appearance of indulgent condescension to the situation.
A gay drop curtain, the size of a dinner napkin, rolls up after a preliminary twitter from concealed mandolins. The little scene is set in a wood. From the left enters a splendid miniature figure glittering in armour, crowned, plumed, and robed, stepping with a high melodramatic stride. It is King Charlemagne, the inevitable _deus ex machina_ of every Sicilian puppet play. Taking the centre of the stage and the spotlight, he strikes his tin-clad bosom a resounding blow with his good right wooden hand, and bursts into passionate recitative.
“The cursèd Moslem dogs have seized his subjects upon the high seas, and cast them into cruellest slavery. Baptised Christians bend their backs above the galley oars of Saracen pirate ships, and worse—oh, worst of all!”—both hands here play an enraged tattoo upon his resounding bosom-pan—“they have seized noble Christian maidens and haled them to their infernal harems.
“S’death! shall such things be? No! by his halidome, _no_! Rinaldo shall wipe this stain from his ‘scutcheon. What ho—without there!”
Enter hastily from right Orlando.
“His Majesty called?”
“Called? well rather! Go find me that good Knight Rinaldo, the great Paladin, and get the very swiftest of moves on, or something will happen which is likely to be distinctly unpleasant.”
Orlando vanishes, and in a twinkling appears Rinaldo, more shining, more resplendent, more befeathered even than the King; with an appalling stride (varied by a robin-like hop), calculated to daunt the boldest worm of a Moslem.
He awaits his sovereign’s commands with ligneous dignity, but as the King pours out the tale his legs rattle with strained attention, and when the Christian maids come into the story his falchion flashes uncontrollably from its sheath.
“_Will_ he go? Will a bird fly? Will a fish swim?”
Charlemagne retires, leaving Rinaldo to plan the campaign with Orlando.
Enter now another person in armour, but wearing half an inch more of length of blue petticoat, and with luxuriant locks streaming from beneath the plumed helmet. ’Tis Bramante, the warrior maiden, who in shrill soprano declines to be left out of any chivalric ruction. Three six-inch swords flash in the candlelight; three vows to conquer or die bring down the dinner napkin to tumultuous applause.
The pit has been absorbed to the point of letting its cigarettes go out, and the author and the valet hastily resume their forgotten condescension.
Every one cracks and eats melon seeds until the second act reveals the court of a Saracen palace.
The thumps of the three adventurers’ striding feet bring out hasty swarms of black slaves, who fall like grain before the Christian swords. Better metal than this must meet a Paladin!
Turbaned warriors fling themselves into the fray, and the clash of steel on steel rings through the palace. Orlando is down, Rinaldo and Bramante fight side by side, though Rinaldo staggers with wounds. The crescented turbans one by one roll in the dust, and as the two panting conquerors lean exhausted upon their bloody swords—enter the Soldan himself!
Now Turk meets Paladin, and comes the tug of war.
Bramante squeaks like a mouse; hops like a sparrow.
_Ding, dong!_ Rinaldo is beaten to his knee and the Soldan shortens his blade for a final thrust, but—Bramante rushes in, and with one terrific sweep of her sword shears his head so clean from his shoulders that it rolls to the footlights and puts out one of the candles.
_Ha! ha!_ He trusted in his false god, Mahound!
Bramante hops violently.
Enter suddenly, rescued Christian Maid. Also in armour; also possessing piercing falsetto.
Saved! saved! She falls clattering upon Rinaldo’s breast, and Bramante, after an instant’s hesitation, falls there on top of her, with peculiarly vicious intensity.
More dinner napkin. More frenzied applause. Gaspero draws a long breath. His eyes are full of tears of feeling.
Scene in the wood again. Charlemagne has thanked Rinaldo. Has thanked Bramante. Has blessed the Christian Maid, and has retired exhausted to his afternoon nap!
Christian Maid insists upon expressing _her_ gratitude to the Paladin with her arms round his neck.
Bramante drags her off by her back hair, a dialogue ensuing which bears striking likeness to the interview of cats on a back fence.
Christian Maid opines that Bramante is _no lady_, and swords are out instantly.
_One, two, three!—clash, slash, bang!_
Rinaldo hops passionately and futilely around the two contestants.
Ladies! Ladies! he protests in agony, but blood is beginning to flow, when, suddenly, a clap of thunder—a glitter of lightning!
The cover of an ancient tomb in the wood rolls away, and from the black pit rises a grisly skeleton. Six legs clatter and rattle like pie-pans; swords fall. It is the ghost of Rinaldo’s father. Christian Maid is really Rinaldo’s sister, he explains, carried off by Saracens in her childhood.
Skeleton pulls down the cover of the tomb and retires to innocuous desuetude.
Opportune entry of Orlando miraculously cured of his wounds. Rinaldo has an inspiration, and bestows upon Orlando the hand of the Christian Maid.
All the tins of the kitchen tumble at once—everybody has fallen on every one else’s mail-clad bosom!...
Dear Gaspero! It has been a _wonderful_ day.
* * * * *
A slow, fine rain falls. Vapours roll among the vapoury hills.
It is just the day for the museum, and such a museum! Not one of those cold and formal mausoleums built by the modern world for the beauties of the dead past, but a fine old monastery of the Philippines with two cloistered cortile; with a long, closed gallery for the hanging of the pictures; with big refectories, ambulatories, and chapels for housing the sculpture, and with its little cells crammed with gold and silver work, with enamels, with embroideries, with jewels. A gracious casket for the treasures of old time.
The rain is dripping softly into the open cloister, where the wet garlands of wisteria and heavy-clustered gold of the banksias are distilling their mingled fragrance in the damp air. The rain makes sweet tinklings in the old fountains and in the sculptured wellheads gathered in the court; on the cloister walls are grouped bas-reliefs—tinted Madonnas by Gagini; Greek fragments, stone vases standing on the floor, twisted columns, broken but lovely torsos.
Indeed, it is not like a museum at all. No ticketed rigidity, no historical sequence—just treasures set about where the setting will best accord with and display their beauties. There is not even a catalogue to be had, which gives a delightful sense of freedom at first, but this has its drawbacks when Jane and Peripatetica come to the tomb of Aprilis in a side chamber, and wish to know something more of this sad little maid sculptured into the marble of the tomb’s sunken lid—wrapped in a straitly folded wimple, with slim crossed feet, and small head turned half aside; smiling innocently in the sleep which has lasted so long. Aprilis, whose April had never blossomed into May, and whose epitaph has for five hundred years called Sicily to witness the grief of those who lost her:
“Sicilia, Hic Jacet Aprilis. Miseranda Puella Unicce Quælugens Occultipa Diem 18 Otobre XIII 1495.”
Of course, the guide-books ignore her. Trust the guide-books to preserve a stony silence about anything of real human interest!...
Another court; a great basin where papyrus grows, where bananas wave silken banners amid the delicate plumes of tall bamboo, where are more purple wreaths of wistaria and snow-drifts of roses, and where the treasures are mostly Greek. Very notable among these a marble tripod draped with the supple folds of a python; the lax power of the great snake subtly contrasted with, and emphasized by, the rigid lines of the seat of the soothsayer. More notable still, in the Sala del Fauna, is an archaic statue of Athene from Selinunto—like some splendid sharded insect in her helmet and lion skin—rescued from that vast wreck of a city. They had travelled from Palermo a few days before to see that city, drawn by Crawford’s fine passages of description, and there they, too, had wondered at the astonishing remains of those astonishing Greeks.
... “There is nothing in Europe like the ruins of Selinunto. Side by side, not one stone upon another, as they fell at the earthquake shock, the remains of four temples lie in the dust within the city, and still more gigantic fragments of three others lie without the ruined walls. At first sight the confusion looks so terrific that the whole seems as if it might have fallen from the sky, from a destruction of the home of the gods—as if Zeus might have hurled a city at mankind, to fall upon Sicily in a wild wreck of senseless stone. Blocks that are Cyclopean lie like jackstraws one upon another; sections of columns twenty-eight feet round are tossed together upon the ground like leaves from a basket, and fragments of cornice fifteen feet long lie across them, or stand half upright, or lean against the enormous steps. No words can explain to the mind the involuntary shock which the senses feel at first sight of it all. One touches the stones in wonder, comparing one’s small human stature with their mass, and the intellect strains hopelessly to recall their original position; one climbs in and out among them, sometimes mounting, sometimes descending, as one might pick one’s way through an enormous quarry, scarcely understanding that the blocks one touches have all been hewn into shape by human hands, and that the hills from which men brought them are but an outline in the distance.”...
All that quiet falling day Jane and Peripatetica wandered in the transformed monastery, staring at the great metopes; lingering among the Saracenic carvings and jewelled windows, poring over Phœnician seals; over the amazing ecclesiastic needlework, the gold monstrances, the carved gems, and last and best of all some delicious reliefs at sight of which they forgave at once and forever their old enemy, the Eighteenth Century, for all its disgusting crimes against beauty. They sought madly through the books for some mention of these tall, adorable nymphs in adorably impossible attitudes, these curled and winged and dimpled babies, fluttering like fat little wrens sweetly ignorant of the laws of gravitation; but as always on any subject of interest Baedeker and the rest frigidly refused to tell the name of the man out of whose head and hands had grown these enchanting figures.
“Oh, dear Unknown!” cries Jane regretfully, “why is your noble name buried in silence! I wish to make a pilgrimage to your tomb, to cover it with Sicilian roses, and breathe a prayer for the repose of your sweet and gracious soul.”
“Me too!” echoes Peripatetica, in tender scorn of the stodgy rules of English grammar.
* * * * *
The Paschal season is near.
Always, in all lands of all faiths, the coming of Spring, the yearly resurrection of life and nature, has been welcomed with gladness. The occultation of Osiris, of Baldur, of Persephone, of the Christ, is mourned; their coming again hailed with flowers and feasting.
Palermo is filling with visitors; with a glory of flowers and verdure in which the loveliest city in the world grows daily lovelier. The Conca d’Oro—the Shell of Gold—swims in a golden sea of sunshine.
On the Wednesday before Easter the whole population exchanges cakes. Cakes apotheosized by surprising splendours of icing; icing, gilded, silvered, snowily sculptured into Loves and angels and figures of national heroes. Icing wrought into elaborate garlands tinted rose, purple, and green; built into towers and ornate architectural devices. Structures of confectionery three feet high are borne on big platters between two men. Every child carries gay little cakes to be presented to grandparents and godparents, to cousins and playmates.
All Maundy Thursday the population moves from church to church. Masses moan incessant in every chapel. Before the Virgins on every street-shrine, draped in black, candles blaze and drip. Priests and monks hurry to and fro, bent upon preparations for the great spectacle of the morrow.
Friday morning early all Palermo is in the streets in its best attire. Small children dressed as little cardinals, as nuns, as priests, bishops, angels with gilded wings, as Virgins, as John the Baptist, are on their way to the churches from which the processions are to flow. Monks and friars gather from outlying country convents.
At ten o’clock a throbbing dirge begins. The first of the processions is under way. A band plays a funeral march, and is followed by acolytes swinging censers. Pious elderly citizens, perspiring in frock coats, carry tall, flaming candles that drop wax upon their clothes. A few priests, in black and purple, follow, bearing holy vessels. Behind these a row of men in mediæval armour and carrying halberds, surround a heavy, hand-borne bier hung with black velvet, on which rests a glass and gilt case containing an image of the Crucified—a life-sized image, brown with age. Presumably it has been taken from some ancient and revered Spanish crucifix, for it is crowned with thorns, is emaciated, is writhed with pain, painted with the dark, faded red of streaming wounds—one of those agonised figures conceived by the pious realism of the older Spanish sculptors.
Immediately follows another hand-borne litter upon which is standing a tall Virgin clothed in black hood and mantle—a pallid, narrow-faced Virgin—also Spanish and realistic. The delicate clasped hands hold a lace handkerchief, her breast is hung with votive silver hearts. The features are distorted with grief, the lids, reddened with tears, are drooped over sunken, deep-shadowed eyes, and her countenance seamed and withered—a poignant figure of unutterable maternal woe! Burning candles alternate with mounds of roses about the edge of the platform on which she stands.
As the dead Son and the mourning Mother pass, hats come off and heads are bowed, signs of the cross are made. A few of the older peasant women fall to their knees upon the sidewalk and mutter an Agnus Dei, a Hail Mary, with streaming tears. A priest walks last of all, rattling a contribution box at the end of a long stick, looking anxiously at the balconies and windows from which the well-to-do spectators lean. For his is but a poor church; the velvet palls and cloaks are cotton, and frayed and faded, the bier and platform old, and so massive that the stalwart bearers must set them down often to wipe away the sweat, which is why it takes advantage of the unpre-empted morning hours and is early in the field.
Later in the day, in Gaspero’s cab and under his guidance, Jane and Peripatetica take up a coign of vantage in a square debouching upon the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, along which the Jesuits are to parade at four o’clock. Here the crowd is solidly packed, the balconies and windows crowded with the aristocracy of Palermo. The Guarda Mobili in their splendid uniforms keep open the way for the marching fraternities and sodalities with their crucifixes and Virgin-embroidered banners, open a lane for the monks, for the crowds of tiny angels and cardinals who must patter for hours in the slow-moving procession. Priests and acolytes swarm; censers steam, hundreds of candles of all weights and heights flare and flame, and then slowly, slowly, to the wailing music, moves forward a splendid catafalque of crystal in which lies stretched upon a bed of white velvet, richly wrought with gold, a fair youth. A youth with white, naked limbs, relaxed and pure; not soiled by the grimy, bloody agonies of martyrdom, but poetised to a picture of Love too early dead—a charming image. And the beautiful tall Virgin is not the simple Mother of the Carpenter convulsed with despair. She is a stately, sorrowful Queen, crowned, hung with jewels, robed in superb royal weeds; proudly refusing to show the full depth of her bereavement, as she follows her dead Son amid the wax torches shining palely in the sunshine through the white and green of the sheaves of lilies that grow about her knees.
The emotional effect upon the crowd is intense; one can hear like an undertone the sound of indrawn, gulping breath. Gaspero passes his sleeve across the tears in his dark eyes.
This version of the tragedy is lifted above the realism of pain into a penetrating and lovely symbolism that swells the heart with poignant and tender emotions as the divine funeral train winds slowly away, with perfume, with lights, and with the slow sobbing of the muffled drums.
So had Sicilians two thousand years ago crowded every spring to see a similar spectacle of a weeping Queen of Love following an image of a lovely dead youth....
“Ah! and himself—Adonis—how beautiful to behold he lies on his silver couch, with the first down on his cheeks, the thrice beloved Adonis—Adonis beloved even among the dead.... O Queen, O Aphrodite, that playest with gold, lo, from the stream eternal of Acheron they have brought back to thee Adonis—even in the twelfth month they have brought him, the dainty-footed Hours.... Before him lie all that the tall tree-branches bear, and the delicate gardens, arrayed in baskets of silver; and the golden vessels are full of the incense of Syria. And all the dainty cakes that women fashion in the kneading-tray, mingling blossoms manifold with the white wheaten flour, all that is wrought of honey sweet, and in soft olive-oil, all cakes fashioned in semblance of things that fly, and of things that creep, lo, here they are set before him.
“Here are built for him shadowy bowers of green, all laden with tender anise, and children flit overhead—the little Loves—as the young nightingales perched upon the trees fly forth and try their wings from bough to bough....
“But lo, in the morning we will all of us gather with the dew, and carry him forth among the waves that break upon the beach, and with locks unloosed, and ungirt raiment falling to the ankles, and bosoms bare we will begin our shrill sweet song.
“Thou only, dear Adonis, so men tell, thou only of the demigods, dost visit both this world and the stream of Acheron.... Dear has thine advent been, Adonis, and dear shall it be when thou comest again.”
* * * * *
Gaspero never permitted Jane and Peripatetica to lose anything. Doubling through narrow, black streets where lofty buildings nearly met above their heads and where they snatched hurried, delighted glimpses of intricate old grilles, of arched and wheeled windows, of splendid hatchments and fine carved portals—he brought them out at admirable view points for all the many similar parades in widely separated parts of the city.
As the purple dusk came down they found themselves in the Marina, watching the last of the processions moving slowly down the broad avenue to the sea-street. The crowd had thinned. The small angels and John the Baptists went wearily upon dusty little feet, their crowns of now wilted roses canted at dissipated angles over their flushed and tearful faces, the heavy, half-burned wax torches wabbling dangerously near the draggled veils and drooping gilt wings.
The bearers of the images paused often to set down their heavy burdens. The balconies began to blossom with tinted lights. Here and there the Virgin with her twinkling candles was turned toward a balcony filled with some specially faithful children of the church, and stood facing them a moment, tall, ghostly, tragical, in the gathering darkness, before passing onward in her long pilgrimage of mourning that was to end within the church doors as night came down.
“It is enough, Gaspero,” they cried, as the flickering train passed away down the water avenue into the blue blackness of the shadowy evening, and then they went homewards full of that strange mingled sense of languor and refreshment—that “cleansing of the soul with pity and terror” which is the gift of the heroic tragedies....
Every hour of that night the bells rang and masses sang throughout the city. All day Saturday the churches swarmed, and the purple veils, hung before the altar pictures throughout Lent, were rent from top to bottom to the sound of the wailing De Profundis. Sunday the religious world seemed to exhale itself in music and flowers and triumphant masses. Easter Monday morning the populace hurried through the necessary domestic duties at the earliest possible moment, for the Pasqua Flora is the day of villegiatura for all Palermo. Every one wears new clothes. Even the humble asinelli are, for once in the year at least, brushed and combed, and decorated with fresh red tassels if the master is too poor to afford more elaboration of the always elaborate harness. Those asses who have the luck to be the property of rich contadini appear resplendent in new caparison; with towering brass collars heavy with scarlet chenille, flashing with mirrors and inlays of mother-of-pearl, glittering from head to tail with brass buckles, with bells and red tags innumerable, drawing new carts carved and painted with all the myths and legends and history of Sicily in crude chromatic vivacity.
Whole families stream countrywards in these carts to-day; babies clean and starched for once, grandmothers in purple kerchiefs tied under the chin and yellow kerchiefs crossed upon the breast, with gold hoops in their ears; daughters in flowered cottons, their uncovered heads wrought with fearful and wonderful pompadours, sleek and jet black.
Along the seashore, up the sides of Pellegrino, in all the open country about Palermo, they spread and sun themselves, eat, sleep, make love, gossip, dance, and sing in the golden air.
Gaspero drives slowly through the wide-spread picnic, pausing wherever a characteristic group attracts.
Here lies a whole family asleep; gorged with endless coils of macaroni, saturated with sun—a mere heap of crude-coloured clothes, of brown open-mouthed faces, of lax limbs that to-morrow must be gathered up again for a hand-to-hand struggle for bread for another twelve-month.
Under this tree a long table is spread with loaves, with meats, with iced cakes, and straw-covered flasks. A rich confrère of Gaspero celebrates the betrothal of his only daughter, a plump and solid heiress, who beneath an inky and mighty pompadour simpers at the broad jokes of her pursey, elderly fiancé. A solid fiancé, financially and physically. Altogether a solid match, says Gaspero. A dashing guest thrums his guitar and sings throatily of the joys of love and of money in the stocking.
Here a group of very old men watch about a boiling pot hung above a little fire, and twitter reminiscences of youth, catching one last pale gleam of the fast sinking sun of their meagre, toilsome lives.
Everywhere music and laughter and the smell of flowers and food and wine.
A big piano-organ is playing a rouladed waltz to a ring of young spectators, crowding to watch the elaborate steps of dancers swinging about singly with grace-steps, with high prancings, with tarantella flourishes. Male dancers, all. Gaspero explains that no respectable girl would be allowed to join them, the Sicilian girl’s diversions being distressingly limited.
One of the boyish dancers, with the keen, bold face and square head of a mediæval Condottiere, flourishes his light cane in fencing passes as he swings, which challenge inspires a spectator to leap into the ring with his own cane drawn. The newcomer, an obvious dandy in pointed patent-leather shoes, blue-ribboned hat, and light suit of cheap smartness, crosses canes dashingly with the would-be fencer, and the rest of the dancers drop back to see the fun.
The Condottiere finds in a few passes that he has met his master and craftily begins a waiting game. Lithe and quick as a cat, he circles and gives way, his opponent driving him round and round the ring, lunging daringly and playing to the gallery. He flourishes unnecessarily, pursues recklessly, assumes a contemptuous carelessness of the boy, always circling, always on guard, always coolly thrifty of breath and strength.
The dandy grows tired and angry, rushes furiously to make an end of his nimble evasive antagonist, who at last turns with cold courage and by a twist of his weapon sends the dandy’s cane flying clean over the ring of spectators, who scream with delight. But the Condottiere is a generous as well as a wily foe. He offers an embrace. The dandy reluctantly allows himself to be kissed on both cheeks, but the victor catches him about the waist and waltzes him around madly amid the laughter and bravas of the crowd.
* * * * *
It is Jane’s and Peripatetica’s last day in Sicily. Gaspero has taken them to Santa Maria di Gesu, the Minorite Monastery, but has paused by the way for a look at San Giovanni degli Eremiti, whose little red domes float clear against the burning azure sky like coral-tinted bubbles, so airily do they rise from the green of the high hill-garden with its tiny cloisters of miniature columns and miniscule grey arches heavy with yellow roses. And yet from this rosy, arch little fane rang the Sicilian Vespers which gave the signal for one of the bloodiest butcheries in history. It was Pasqua Flora, and all Palermo, as it did yesterday, was feasting and dancing out of doors. One of the French soldiers—then in occupation, upholding the hated House of Anjou—insulted a Sicilian girl and was stabbed. Just then the Vesper bells rang from San Giovanni degli Eremiti, and at the signal the conspiracy, long festering, broke into open flame, and Palermo rose and massacred the French till the streets ran with blood.
The Gesu Monastery has no such sanguinary associations. The plain little building, high on the hillside, stands buried among enormous cypresses and clouds of roses, and surrounded by the massive marble tombs and mortuary chapels of Palermo’s nobility and Sicily’s magnates. It is a place of great peace and silence. A place of unutterable beauty of outlook upon gorges feathered with pines, upon stern violet mountains melting into more distant heights of amethyst, into outlines of hyacinth, into silhouettes of mauve, into high ghostly shadows that vanish into floods of aerial blue. A place which looks on sea and shore and city, and where the chemistry of sun and air transmutes the multitudinous tones of the landscape to an incredible witchery of tint, to living hues like those of the colours of jewels, of flowers, of the little burning feathers of the butterflies’ wings.
“Doubtless God might have made a more beautiful view than this from the Gesu, but doubtless God never did,” sighed Jane.
But still Gaspero is not satisfied. He can never rest content with anything less than perfection. Yes; he admits the Gesu is admirable, but he knows a still more “molto bella vista.”
“There is nothing better than the best,” says Jane sententiously. “I am drenched and satiated with all the loveliness that I can bear. Any other ‘vista’ would be an anticlimax.”
“Dear Jane,” remonstrated Peripatetica, “haven’t you yet guessed that Gaspero is a wizard? I suspected it the very first day. Of course, you can see that he’s no ordinary guide and cab-driver, and, as a matter of fact, I don’t believe there _are_ any such sights as the ones we think he has showed us. You’ve been on Broadway? Well, can you lay your hand on your heart, and honestly affirm that when you are there again you won’t at once realize that there never were such beauties as these we’ve been seeing? Won’t you know then that this is all a glamour—a hypnotic suggestion of Gaspero’s mind upon ours?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” snapped Jane. “What is all this rhodomontade leading to?”
“To a desire to follow the wizard,” answered Peripatetica recklessly. “Whither Gaspero goeth I go! I am fully prepared to wallow in glamours, and besides we’ve luncheon in our basket, so don’t be tiresome, Jane. Let’s abandon the commonplace and ‘follow the Gleam.’”
“Very well,” laughed Jane, climbing into the carriage. “Gaspero and ‘gleam’ if you like.”
Whether the molto bella vista ever existed remains still a subject of dispute. Peripatetica insists that it was only a pretext for leading them to a place where Gaspero intended they should lunch, but Jane, who always kicks against the philosophic pricks of the determinists, contends that she exercised a certain measure of free will in the matter. However that may be, they wound among mountain roads, by caves Gaspero said were once the dwellings of giants, by little outlying villages where old women span and wove in the doorways and young women made lace; where copper-workers sat in the street and with musical clang of little hammers beat out glittering vessels of rosy metal. They scattered flocks of goats from their path, the shaggy white bucks leaping nimbly upon the wall and staring at them with curious ironic, satyr-like glances; and far, very far up, they came upon a mountain meadow mistily shadowed by enormous gnarled olive trees—a meadow knee-deep in flowers. A meadow that was a sea of flowers, orange, golden and lemon, rippling and dimpling in the light and shade, breathed upon by the faint flying airs of those high spaces:
“In Arcady, in Arcady! Where all the leaves are merry—”
cried Peripatetica joyously.
“Of course it’s Arcady,” said Jane, with conviction. “And we have come upon it in the Age—or perhaps the moment—of Gold. Gaspero,” she announced firmly, “we will lunch right here.”
“But Signorina—the Vista!” protested the Wizard with a quizzical smile.
It was really (Peripatetica is convinced) Gaspero’s subtle understanding of Jane’s character which led him to offer just sufficient opposition to fix her determination to stay at the very spot where he could best work his magic, for a flowing world of shadowy purple swam about them in a thousand suave folds down to a shining sea, and he could not have showed them any vista more beautiful. But why attempt to shake Jane’s pleased conviction it was really owing to her that for a few hours she and Peripatetica could truly say, “I too have lived in Arcadia.” That it was owing to her they cheerfully fed there, and lay cradled for long warm hours in that perfumed flood of flowers in happy thoughtless silence, wrapped in a fold of the Earth Mother’s—the great Demeter’s—mantle; a fold embroidered by the fine fingers of her daughter Persephone, the Opener of Flowers.
* * * * *
That night, when the full moon rose over the silky sea, far down the horizon behind them slowly faded into the distance the ghostly silver peaks of the enchanted Land of the Older Gods.
THE COMPLETE WORKS
WILLIAM J. LOCKE
“LIFE IS A GLORIOUS THING.”—_W. J. Locke_
“If you wish to be lifted out of the petty cares of to-day, read one of Locke’s novels. You may select any from the following titles and be certain of meeting some new and delightful friends. His characters are worth knowing.”—_Baltimore Sun._
The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne At the Gate of Samaria A Study in Shadows Where Love Is Derelicts The Demagogue and Lady Phayre The Beloved Vagabond The White Dove The Usurper Septimus Idols
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“Septimus is the joy of the year.”—_American Magazine._
=The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne=
“A literary event of the first importance.”—_Boston Herald._
“One of those rare and much-to-be-desired stories which keep one divided between an interested impatience to get on, and an irresistible temptation to linger for full enjoyment by the way.”—_Life._
=Where Love Is=
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“One of those unusual novels of which the end is as good as the beginning.”—_New York Globe._
“Contains the hall-mark of genius itself. The plot is masterly in conception, the descriptions are all vivid flashes from a brilliant pen. It is impossible to read and not marvel at the skilled workmanship and the constant dramatic intensity of the incident, situations and climax.”—_The Boston Herald._
“Mr. Locke tells his story in a very true, a very moving, and a very noble book. If any one can read the last chapter with dry eyes we shall be surprised. ‘Derelicts’ is an impressive, an important book. Yvonne is a creation that any artist might be proud of.”—_The Daily Chronicle._
“One of the very few distinguished novels of this present book season.”—_The Daily Mail._
“A brilliantly written and eminently readable book.” —_The London Daily Telegraph._
=A Study in Shadows=
“Mr. Locke has achieved a distinct success in this novel. He has struck many emotional chords, and struck them all with a firm, sure hand. In the relations between Katherine and Raine he had a delicate problem to handle, and he has handled it delicately.” —_The Daily Chronicle._
=The White Dove=
“It is an interesting story. The characters are strongly conceived and vividly presented, and the dramatic moments are powerfully realized.”—_The Morning Post._
=The Demagogue and Lady Phayre=
“Think of Locke’s clever books. Then think of a book as different from any of these as one can well imagine—that will be Mr. Locke’s new book.”—_New York World._
=At the Gate of Samaria=
“William J. Locke’s novels are nothing if not unusual. They are marked by a quaint originality. The habitual novel reader inevitably is grateful for a refreshing sense of escaping the commonplace path of conclusion.”—_Chicago Record-Herald._
POEMS WORTH HAVING
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=The Poems of Arthur Symons=
A Collected Edition of the Poet’s works issued in two volumes with a Photogravure Portrait as Frontispiece.
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By ARTHUR SYMONS
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=GILBERT K. CHESTERTON=
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=CHARLES H. SHERRILL=
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=The Red Lily=. Translated by WINIFRED STEPHENS.
=The Well of Saint Clare=. Translated by ALFRED ALLINSON.
=Mother of Pearl=. Translated by FREDERIC CHAPMAN,
The Procurator of Judea Our Lady’s Juggler Amycus and Celestine Madam de Luzy, etc.
=The Garden of Epicurus=. Translated by ALFRED R. ALLINSON, Containing:
In the Elysian Fields Card Houses Careers for Women The Priory, etc.
=The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard=. Translated by LAFCADIO HEARN.
This novel was “crowned” by the French Academy in 1881, the author being received into membership in 1896.
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○ Missing or obscured punctuation was corrected.
○ Unbalanced quotation marks were left as the author intended.
○ Typographical errors were silently corrected.
○ Inconsistent spelling was made consistent when a predominant form was found in this book; otherwise it was not changed.