This eBook was transcribed by Les Bowler.
DIVERSIONS IN SICILY
BY HENRY FESTING JONES
[Picture: Title illustration]
LONDON: A. C. FIFIELD 1920
First Published . . . 1909 Re-issued . . . 1920
TO ENRICO PAMPALONE
MY DEAR ENRICO,
Your father and I, sitting one summer night on the terrace at Castellinaria watching the moon on the water, agreed that this book might be dedicated to you, although you have not yet put it into my power to ask your permission.
"After all," exclaimed your father, "what is existence?" And I was unable to give him a satisfactory reply.
When Orlando and his Paladins were overcome at Roncisvalle through the treachery of Gano di Magonza, were they all slain? When "the Crusaders' streams of shadowy midnight troops sped with the sunrise," did none linger? When the angel carried up to heaven the soul of Guido Santo, did he never fight another battle? The young men of your island hardly think so; their thoughts and actions are still coloured by the magnificent language and the chivalrous exploits of Christian and Turk. As long as there is an imaginative shoeblack in the Quattro Canti working for pennies by day, so long will those pennies be paid for the story to be told by night in the marionette theatre. Often will Angelica recover her ring, and as often be robbed of it again; often will the ghostly voice of Astolfo, imprisoned in a myrtle upon Alcina's magic isle, reveal the secret of his woe; often will Rinaldo drink of the Fountains of Hatred and of Love, and, forgetful of the properties of those waters, return and drink once more.
And what of those other and less heroic figures—the brigadier and his guards gambling among the ruins of Selinunte, the ingenious French gentleman classifying the procession at Calatafimi, Micio buying his story-books and chocolate at Castellinaria, and many another whom I should like to think you will some day meet, palely wandering up and down these pages?
To pursue the subject might disincline you ever to take leave of the world of the unborn, whereas I am desirous of making your acquaintance as soon as possible. Let me, then, rather assure you that life is not all marionettes and metaphysics, and that I know of no reason why you should not at once enter upon an existence as real as that enjoyed by your dear father or your beautiful mother—it would be unbecoming in a son to expect more. Castellinaria is waiting to welcome you. You could not have a more delightful birthplace than your native town, or more charming compatriots than your fellow-townspeople. Only resemble your parents, and you will never regret having hastened the day when I shall be entitled to sign myself
Your affectionate Godfather, HENRY FESTING JONES.
Chapters VIII-XI have been enlarged and re-written since August, 1903, when they appeared as A Festa on Mount Eryx in The Monthly Review. I have to thank Mr. John Murray for kindly giving me permission to reprint them here.
A few sentences in Chapter XIII have been taken from a pamphlet I wrote and had printed for private circulation in 1904, entitled: Diary of a Journey through North Italy to Sicily in the spring of 1903, undertaken for the purpose of leaving the MSS. of three books by Samuel Butler at Varallo-Sesia, Aci-Reale and Trapani.
It would be impossible to enumerate and thank all the many friends who, with the courtesy and patience that never desert a Sicilian, have given me information, explanation and assistance. Among them are two, however, to whom, and to whose families, I desire to give my special thanks, namely: Cavaliere Uffiziale Giovanni Grasso, of the Teatro Macchiavelli, Catania; and Signor Achille Greco, of the Marionette Theatre, in the Piazza Nuova, Palermo.
Signor Greco wrote to me recently that, for Rosina's riddle in his episode of the masks in Samson, he had dipped in the stream of children's games current to-day in Palermo; he did not appear to know that Plato had dipped in his own Athenian stream for the riddle quoted by Glaucon towards the end of the fifth book of the Republic. The riddles are similar not because Rosina had read the dialogue, nor because Glaucon had seen the play, but because the two streams flowed as one until Greek colonists took their folk-lore with them into Sicily before Plato was born. CONTENTS
SELINUNTE CHAPTER PAGE I. THE BRIGADIER AND THE 3 LOTTERY
II. PEPPINO 29 III. THE PROFESSOR 41 IV. THE WINE-SHIP 52
V. MICHELLE AND THE 77 PRINCESS OF BIZERTA
VI. FERRAU AND ANGELICA 97 VII. THE DEATH OF 113 BRADAMANTE
VIII. MONTE SAN GIULIANO 131 IX. THE MADONNA AND THE 149 PERSONAGGI X. THE UNIVERSAL DELUGE 166 XI. THE RETURN 181
XII. FAITH AND 189 SUPERSTITION
XIII. THE PRODIGAL SON AND 213 THE ARTS
XIV. SAMSON 235 XV. THE CONVERSION OF THE 254 EMPEROR CONSTANTINE
XVI. A GREAT ACTOR 279 XVII. SUPPER WITH THE 290 PLAYERS XVIII. A YOUNG CRITIC 304 XIX. BRANCACCIA 317 SELINUNTE
CHAPTER I—THE BRIGADIER AND THE LOTTERY
One wet Saturday evening in May I found myself at Castelvetrano consulting Angelo, the guide, about the weather. His opinion was that it would clear up during the night; I said that if it did we would go to Selinunte, and this confirmed his view; so, on the understanding that there was to be no rain, I appointed him padrone of the expedition and promised to acquiesce in all his arrangements.
He was quite right; Sunday morning was brilliantly fine, and at about 8.30 we started. He began by showing me his purchases; he had been out early, marketing, and his basket contained fresh tunny, the first of the season, veal, salame, dried fish, bread and oranges, but no wine; he said we should find that at the locanda, where they would cook the tunny and the veal for us.
Cicciu, our driver, was one of those queer creatures one sometimes meets in Italy. At first I took him to be of feeble intellect, for when I spoke to him or merely looked at him, he shut up his eyes, showed his teeth and covered his face all over with grinning wrinkles; but on knowing him better, I found he was really extremely intelligent and perfectly good. He was about sixteen, but would have passed for twenty. His general appearance was grey, the actual colour of his face, hands and clothes being powdered out of sight by the dust which held all together like a transparent glaze over a painting. He drove us along between flowery fields of cistus until the temples of Selinunte came in sight, then down to the Marinella, a handful of houses on the shore under the low cliff. We drew up at the locanda which distinguished itself by displaying over the door, in a five-ounce medicine bottle, a sample of a cloudy, canary-coloured fluid to advertise the wine Angelo had spoken of, and the forlorn bunch of five or six faded sprigs of camomile which hung on the same hook constituted the bush. We left our basket with instructions and drove off to inspect the acropolis and the ruins, returning in about an hour and a half.
The locanda was an immense, cavernous room divided into front and back by a partition about seven feet high with an opening in the middle. There was no regular window, but we were only a few feet from the sea which reflected the sunshine through the open door and up into the arched roof and illuminated the front part. In the obscurity behind the partition were dim ladders leading up to trap-doors and, through a few holes in the roof and in the end wall, blinding rays of light glinted on piles of earthenware—saucepans, jugs, cups and saucers, coloured crockery lamps, rough basins glazed green inside, heaped up in stacks and protected from one another by straw. There were hanks of rope, fans of hawks' feathers for blowing the fire, palm-leaf brooms and oil-jars big enough for thieves. There were horns on the walls to keep off the evil eye, prints of the Madonna, some with sprigs of camomile stuck into the frame, a cheapissimo coloured lithograph of S. Giuseppe with the Bambino, and in front of it on a little bracket, in half a tumbler of oil, floated a burning wick. In a corner was the landlord putting his whole soul into the turning about of a sieve full of coffee beans which he had roasted and was now cooling. And everything was covered with a grey dust like the bloom on a plum or like Cicciu.
Our table was spread in a clearing among the pottery in the front part of the room and everything was ready on a clean white cloth, wine and all. Besides the landlord and his wife there were two men in uniform, one a corporal of the coastguards and the other a policeman. There was also a third man in ordinary clothes—I did not find out what he was, but they were all, including the landlord, friends of Angelo who, in his capacity of padrone, invited them to join us at lunch. We were just about to begin when I missed Cicciu. Angelo said we need not wait for him, he had only gone to the sea to wash his feet. So we sat down without him and presently he returned saying he had washed all over, but he looked just as dusty as before his bath.
There must be something in the air of Selinunte that encourages bathing, for they told me that in a few days an annual festa was to take place there, the pilgrims arriving the evening before and spending the whole night bathing in the sea, the men in one part and the women in another; at dawn they would come out of the water, dress and attend to their religious duties. I said I should like very much to see it, whereupon the corporal, who sat next me and clinked glasses with me every time he drank, invited me to stay—there would be plenty of room in the caserma and they could make me comfortable for as long as I would remain. I had, however, made appointments elsewhere, so I told him it was unfortunate, but I could not alter my plans and was sorry I must decline his invitation.
After lunch by general consent we all went strolling up the cliff and through a garden belonging to a large house. I assumed that Angelo had been arranging something in dialect and asked the corporal, who happened to be next me, where we were going. He first picked a geranium most politely and stuck it in my button-hole; then he told me we were going to the big house which was the caserma. It appeared that he had been so overcome by my hospitality that he had invited Angelo to bring me to call upon the brigadier and his companions-in-arms at the guard-house. It was really Angelo who had shown the hospitality, nevertheless, though not directly responsible for all details, I was responsible for having shifted the responsibility on Angelo by making him padrone of the expedition, so that the hospitality was in a sense mine. But if left to myself, I should never have had the courage to invite two such influential members of the legal profession as a coastguard and a policeman to lunch with me, not to speak of the third man who might have been anything from a sheriff's officer to the Lord Chancellor himself. But they were all friends of Angelo and so was I and in Sicily the maxim "Gli amici dei nostri amici sono i nostri" is acted upon quite literally.
Passing through the door of the caserma we entered a large oblong room; at each end were three or four beds and on the side opposite the door two open windows. Through the windows across a barley-field, lightly stirred by the breeze from the sea, the Temple of Apollo was lying in the heat, an extinct heap of ruins, as though the naughty boy of some family of Cyclopes had spilt his brother's box of bricks. In the middle of the room ten or twelve men were sitting round a table on which were dishes of what at first I took to be some kind of frutta di mare, objects about the size and shape of sea-urchins. The brigadier received me with great courtesy and put me to sit next him, and the corporal sat on the other side of me. A dreamy Sunday afternoon feeling pervaded the air, the brigadier said they were slaughtering time ("bisogna ammazzare un po' di tempo"). Being to a certain extent soldiers, their business was to kill something and they were compassing the destruction of their present enemy by drinking wine and eating not sea-urchins but cold boiled artichokes. He gave me some and begged me to make myself at home. The corporal clinked glasses with me and said that the wine was better than that at the locanda, wherein I agreed with him, but I did not tell him I found the artichokes a little uninteresting. They were so very small and there was so much to do to get what little there was of them that they were more trouble than shrimps or walnuts. Looked at from the brigadier's point of view, as a means of passing the time on Sunday, they reminded me of the Litany; pulling off each leaf was like listening to each short clause and eating the unimportant little bit at the end was like intoning the little response; then the larger piece that was left, when all the leaves were off, followed like the coda and finale of the Litany after the more monotonous part has been disposed of. The Litany has, however, the advantage that it comes only one at a time, we do not kneel down to a whole plateful of it; on the other hand, there was wine with the artichokes and they were free from any trace of morbid introspection.
The brigadier and Angelo were in earnest conversation about something, and, as my mind began to wander from the artichokes (here again they resembled the Litany) and was able to attend more to what was going on, I became aware that they were talking about the lottery. Selinunte depends for news upon chance visitors and Angelo had brought the winning numbers which he had got from a cousin of his in one of the lottery offices at Castelvetrano. The brigadier had lost and in giving his instructions for the next week's drawing seemed to experience great difficulty in making up his mind.
Presently there looked in at one of the windows a hunchback riding on a mule and carrying a guitar. Several of the guards went to help him in, greeting him with shouts of—
He lifted one of his legs over the saddle, and then I saw that not only was he a hunchback but that his legs were withered. He reached up and hung on to the ledge over the window with both hands and swung himself very cleverly and with no assistance into a sitting position on the window-sill; two of the guards then picked him up, carried him into the room, set him on a chair and gave him some wine and artichokes. Being a jolly fellow, as cripples often are, he soon tired of the artichokes, asked for his guitar and began to sing Neapolitan songs. He had not sung more than two before the brigadier told me I should like to wash my hands and had better come into his bedroom. I glanced at Angelo who nodded back and the brigadier took me off with him. He began by showing me his room which was very clean and tidy. His bed was at one end, his table, with his official papers and books, in the middle and against the wall hung his guns which he showed me particularly, declaring that he was passionately devoted to the chase. After he had done the honours I washed my hands and so did he; then he led the conversation to what his manner betrayed was the real business of the interview. He asked me my name and age, whether I was married or single and particulars of my family, whether I was an Englishman from London or from New York and how much a metre I had paid for the stuff my clothes were made of. This last was the only question that gave me any real trouble, but I made a hasty calculation, converted the result into francs, deducted five per cent. for cash and hazarded—
In return for his polite interest in my affairs I pretended a similar interest in his, and it turned out that we had a friend in common—a maresciallo dei carabinieri whom I had met on Monte San Giuliano and of whom I was able to give the latest information namely, that he had retired, gone home to Cremona and married. Carabinieri are not allowed to marry so long as they are in service, or rather they may marry but only on condition of depositing a sum of money which is fixed at an amount beyond anything they are likely to be able to lay their hands on.
Having exhausted our questions and answers we returned to the guard-room and the corporal welcomed us by filling our glasses again. The brigadier, before sitting down, took Angelo aside and became again immersed in conversation; this time he appeared to be getting on more satisfactorily with his instructions. The artichokes were beginning to lose their attractions for every one, so I took out a packet of cigarettes and offered them round. In those days there used to be in every packet of Italian cigarettes a loose piece of paper about the size of a postage stamp with a number on it. Boxes of biscuits in England sometimes have a similar paper to identify the person responsible for the packing should anything be found to be wrong. In my packet there happened to be two pieces of paper which fluttered out upon the table as I opened it. The brigadier instantly pounced upon them. There was silence in the room. Every one watched and waited. Each of my pieces of paper bore the number thirty-three. The brigadier did me the honour of cancelling all his previous orders to Angelo and of putting his money for next week's lottery on thirty-three. The corporal and several of the men who had not intended to gamble changed their minds and gave similar instructions.
It was now time to think of returning, so Angelo got out of the window into the sunlight and went off to fetch the carriage and the guards began to chaff poor Cicciu about his watch-chain which was a massive and extensive affair in silver. The corporal said they were playing a game with him and offered to teach it to me. I am not good at games, but this one was so simple that I mastered it in less than a minute and played it thus—
First I asked Cicciu to tell me the time. He shut up his eyes, showed his teeth and covered his face all over with grinning wrinkles. Then I asked him the time again. He replied in the same way. I asked him again and so on till he had overcome his shyness and at last pulled out his watch which was found to consist of a circular piece of tin with a paper watch-face gummed on to one side of it. Then we all laughed at the contrast between this and what his elaborate watch-chain had led us to expect.
While we were still laughing, Angelo drove up to the window and said it was time to go, so we began saying "Good-bye." Some of the men departed before us, but the brigadier, the corporal and one or two others were going our way. The brigadier fetched his gun in order to enjoy the chase and we all got out of the window. Angelo accompanied the hunting party, but the corporal came in the carriage with me and Cicciu drove us round the barley-field to the Temple of Apollo to wait for the others. On the way we heard the brigadier firing off his gun and wondered what sport he was having, and I took a leaf out of his book of politeness and asked the corporal his age and particulars of his family, after which, of course, I had to tell him all about myself and to promise I would take the first opportunity of visiting him in his home to clink glasses and drink wine with him.
We went all over the ruins while waiting for the hunting party which presently joined us. The brigadier was satisfied with his sport and permitted himself the pleasure of offering me the spoils—two birds the size of sparrows—which Angelo was to cook for supper. Then we said "Good-bye," promising to exchange picture postcards when I should be back in England. The corporal, however, was still going our way and we took him in the carriage a little further. We asked if he could not come with us all the way to Castelvetrano and he seemed inclined to do so, but he had to patrol the coast in the direction of Marsala from eleven o'clock that night till eleven the next morning, and it was so annoying because, as he must go to Castelvetrano in a few days, he might almost just as well come with us now. We hoped he would see his way to doing so and he hesitated and appeared to be on the point of yielding, but finally made the Herculean choice of duty before pleasure on the very sensible ground that, if it should be discovered he had deserted his post, he would be put into prison for two months. With the brigadier and all the guards in the secret, it seemed impossible that he should escape detection, so we pressed the invitation no further and took leave of him after exchanging names and addresses and promising to send postcards to one another.
As we drove away I could not but draw a comparison in my mind between the corporal's refusal of my invitation and mine of his, and I was ashamed of myself for the way I had scamped the bathing festa. I had made another engagement and there was an end of it. The corporal, on the other hand, had spared no expense in the manner of his refusal, nothing short of two months' imprisonment could have prevented him from coming with us. We English ought to be able to do this and some of us, I suppose, can, but there is no Italian who cannot. The French are polite, but not always to be trusted. A Frenchman, speaking of an Englishman to whom I had introduced him, said to me—
"He speaks French worse than you do."
Any Italian, wishing to express a similar idea, would have said—
"He speaks Italian, it is true, but not so well as you do."
My meditations were interrupted by Angelo who had been taking stock of our possessions and, on looking into the basket, exclaimed with disgust that we had been robbed of our fish. It was the first I had heard about our fish, but he said the brigadier had given us ten and he had put them into the basket. How could they have got out again? All the afternoon we had been surrounded by coastguards and policemen whose profession is, as every one knows, to prevent robbery and to take up thieves. Angelo was furious and wanted to drive back and complain to the brigadier, but, on looking further through the basket, we found there were still two fish and I said they would be quite enough for supper—with the sparrows—and he finally agreed that we had better do nothing, it might look as though we thought the brigadier was not up to his business.
"And when the tailor is wearing a coat that does not fit him," said Angelo, "it is rude to tell him of it."
So we drove on among the cistus bushes and I asked him about the lottery. Every Saturday morning ninety cards numbered from one to ninety are put into a wheel of fortune and a blind-folded child from the orphan asylum publicly draws out five. Italy is divided into several districts and a drawing takes place in the chief town of each, the winning numbers are telegraphed to the lottery offices all over the country and afterwards posted up and published in the newspapers. Any one wishing to try his luck chooses one or more numbers and buys a ticket and this choosing of the numbers is a very absorbing business. In the neighbourhood of Castelvetrano at that time the favourite numbers were five and twenty-six and the people were betting on those numbers when they had no special reason for choosing any others. Angelo could not tell why these two numbers were preferred, he could only say that the people found them sympathetic and, as a matter of fact, twenty-six had come out the day before. There are many ways of choosing a number if you find five and twenty-six unsympathetic; you can wait till something remarkable happens to you, look it out in "the useful book that knows" and then bet on its number, for everything really remarkable has a number in the book and, if you do not possess a copy, it can be consulted in a shop as the Post Office Directory can be consulted in London. Or, if nothing remarkable happens to you in real life, perhaps you may have dreamt of a lady in a white dress, or of a man whetting a scythe, or of meeting a snake in the road—anything will do, so long as it strikes you at the time. When you see the country people coming into town on market day you may be sure that each one has received instructions from relations and friends at home to put something on a number for them.
Some make a practice of gambling every week, others only try their luck when they have a few spare soldi, others only when they have witnessed something irresistibly striking. A favourite way of choosing a number is to get into conversation with certain old monks who have a reputation for spotting winners, if I may so speak. You do not ask the monk for a number outright, you engage him in conversation on general topics and as he understands what is expected of him, though he pretends he does not, he will presently make some such irrelevant remark as, "Do you like flowers?" whereupon you rapidly bring the interview to a conclusion and, if you do not know the number for "flower," you look it out in the book and bet on it. It occurred to me that possibly that was what the brigadier had been doing with me when he took me into his room to wash.
"Of course it was," said Angelo; "he did not really want you to wash your hands, he wanted to get a number out of you."
"Did he get one?" said I.
"He told me to put his money on 14."
"That must have been because I said I paid 14 francs a metre for this cloth. But he changed that afterwards."
"Yes," replied Angelo. "He thought the number that came out of your packet of cigarettes would be better."
Angelo was not strictly right about the brigadier not wanting me to wash, he said so merely to agree with me, for in Sicily, among those who have not become sophisticated by familiarity with money and its little ways nor cosmopolitanized by travel, and whose civilization remains unmodified by northern and western customs, it is usual for the host to give his guest an opportunity to wash after eating. Sometimes the lady of the house has herself taken me into her bedroom, poured out the water and held the basin while I have washed; she has then handed me the towel and presently escorted me back to the sitting-room.
We soon overtook a man who had caught a rabbit and wanted to sell it for a lira and a half. Angelo bargained with him for ever so long and, being at last satisfied that the rabbit was freshly killed, bought it for a lira and put it into the basket, saying he would cook it for supper, and that no doubt the Madonna had sent it to make up for the loss of the fish.
I asked him what I must do to get a ticket in the lottery for the following Saturday. He replied that his cousin would be happy to sell me one and, if I would settle how much to risk and what number to put it on, he would take me to the office in the morning. I said I would risk a lira, which he thought overdoing it, as he and his friends seldom risked more than four or five soldi, but there was still the troublesome matter of the number. He asked whether anything unusual had happened to me lately, either in real life or in a dream. I told him that I seldom remembered a dream, but that I had had an unusually delightful day in real life at Selinunte. In his capacity of padrone he acknowledged the compliment, but feared there would be no number for that in the book. Then I asked if there was likely to be a number for having breakfast with a coastguard as it was the first time I had done so. He mused and said no doubt there would be a number for breakfast and another for coastguard, but not for the combination. Could not we add the two numbers together and bet on whatever they amounted to, if it were not over 90? Angelo would not hear of anything of the kind; we must think of something less complicated. It would never have occurred to him to read for Metaphysics under M and for China under C, and combine the information into the article that appeared in the Eatanswill Gazette as a review of a work on Chinese Metaphysics. He asked if I had not lately had "una disgrazia qualunque." I reminded him of the theft of our fish, but that did not satisfy him, he considered it too trivial, though he had made enough fuss about it at the time, and 17, which in Sicily is one of the numbers for an ordinary misfortune, was too general. It seemed a pity I had not been involved in the fall of a balcony because that was a very good thing to bet on and he knew it had a number, although he did not remember it at the moment. Filippo, the hunchback, was no use because, though it is fortunate to meet hunchbacks, and of course they have a number, there was nothing remarkable in seeing Filippo at the caserma—he is always there.
By this time we had reached Castelvetrano, and supper overshadowed the lottery. Angelo cooked everything; we began with maccaroni, after which we ate the fish and the sparrows, and wound up with the rabbit. It was all very good, but it seemed hardly right to eat the sparrows, besides, there was scarcely as much on one of them as there had been on one of the artichokes at the caserma.
During supper, something—it may have been the sparrows or, perhaps, the Madonna again—inspired me with an idea for a number that met with Angelo's enthusiastic approval. I remembered that my birthday was near and proposed to put my money upon the number of that day of the month. Nothing could have been better and he recommended me to take also my age, that would give me two numbers and I could have an ambo, I should not win on a single number unless it came out first, whereas, if I did not specify their positions, my two numbers might come out anywhere and if they did I should win about 250 francs. Angelo accepted as a good omen the fact that neither of my numbers exceeded 90, and next morning we called on his cousin and put a franc on 27 and 52.
Now, a lottery is an immoral thing, accordingly I expected to feel as though I had committed an immoral action, instead of which I felt just as I usually do. I, therefore, gave my ticket to Angelo in order that, if I should develop a conscience by the time the numbers came out, I might silence it by the consciousness of having disclaimed all hope of gain. This was perhaps a little cowardly, for the effects of a lottery are said to be most pernicious to those who win. But no harm was done in the end, the actual numbers drawn the following Saturday being 39, 42, 89, 83, 28, so Angelo lost and likewise the brigadier and the corporal and the guards who had put their money on 33.
The train passed through the tunnel under the headland on which stands the Albergo Belvedere, and steamed into the station of Castellinaria, a town that is not so marked on any map of Sicily. I had written to Carmelo to meet the train and drive me up, but he was not among the coachmen. I recognized his brother, and said to him—
"Hullo! Rosario, where have you been all these years?"
"Well, you see," he replied, "I have been away. First there was the military service and then I had a disgrazia; but I have come back now."
I avoided inquiring into the disgrazia till I could ascertain from some one else whether he meant what we should call a misfortune or something more serious and merely said I was glad it was all over and asked after his brother.
"Carmelo is quite well—he is in private service. He told me to meet you and sent you his salutes and apologies for not coming himself; he will call on you this evening."
"At the Albergo Belvedere?"
"No, excuse me, the Belvedere is closed; he told me to take you to the Albergo della Madonna, unless you wish to go anywhere else."
So Rosario drove me with my luggage up the zigzags for an hour and a half through dust and sunshine, past orchards of lemons and oranges, among prickly pears and agave overgrown with pink and red geranium, by rocky slopes of mesembryanthemum, yellow marguerites, broom and sweet peas, between white walls with roses straggling over them and occasional glimpses of the sea dotted with fishing boats and, now and then, of the land covered with olives, almonds, and vines.
We stopped in the corso at the Albergo della Madonna (con giardino) and were received by a young man who introduced himself as Peppino, the son of the landlord. He also said he remembered me, that he had been a waiter in a restaurant in Holborn where I used to dine; I did not recognize him, though, of course, I did not say so. There was something in his manner as though he had recently been assured by my banker that the balance to my credit during the last ten years or so had never fallen below a much larger sum than my passbook had been in the habit of recording. He would not hear of my doing anything about my luggage or dinner, he knew my ways and would show me to my room at once. It was a very fine room with two beds, and he promised that no one should be put into the second bed, not even during the festa which in a few days would fill the town with pilgrims. He then departed to bring up my luggage and I went out on to the balcony.
Before me lay one of those stupendous panoramas which are among the glories of Sicily. First a garden of flowers with orange and lemon trees whose blossoms scented the air, then a thicket of almonds full of glittering goldfinches, then a drop of several hundred feet; beyond, to the right, a great mountain with snow on its rocky summit, its lower slopes and the intervening country highly cultivated; to the left the sea, an illimitable opal gleaming in the sunset. Between the mountain and the sea the coastline went in and out, in and out, in a succession of bays and promontories that receded and receded until sea and land and sky were blended into one distant haze. Across the first bay was the port and, as the dusk deepened, constellations of lights gathered and glowed among the shipping. I took possession, thinking that if, like Peppino's parents, I might spend my declining days here, the troubles of life, and especially those attendant upon old age, might be easier to bear. And yet, possibly, a stupendous panorama might turn out as deceitful as proficiency at whist, or great riches, or worldly honours, or any of the other adjuncts of age popularly supposed to be desirable; for I suspect that most of these things fail and become as naught in the balance when weighed against a good digestion, a modest competency and a quiet conscience. These are the abiding securities that smooth our passage through life and bring a man peace at the last, and each of us has his own way of going about to win them.
Peppino brought my luggage and, with no nonsense about what I would have for dinner or when or where I should like it, told me that it would be ready at 7.30 in the garden. Accordingly I went down punctually and found a table spread under a trellis of vines from which hung an electric light. Peppino waited on me as, according to his account, he used to do in London, and entertained me with reminiscences of his life there. He had attended divine service at St. Paul's, which he called il Duomo di Londra, and had found it a more reverent function, though less emotional, than Mass at home. He was enthusiastic about the river Thames, the orators in Hyde Park and the shiny soldiers riding in the streets. He remembered the lions in the Zoological Gardens and the "Cock" at Highbury, where he once drank a whisky-soda and disliked it intensely. He had stood on the base of La Torre del Duca di Bronte (by which he meant the Nelson Column) to see the Lord Mayor's Show, and considered it far finer than any Sicilian procession—more poetical in conception, he said, and carried out with greater magnificence. He had been to Brighton from Saturday to Monday and burst into tears when he saw the sea again. It is difficult to travel on the Underground Railway without losing oneself, but Peppino can do it. He got lost once, but that was in some street near Covent Garden, soon after his arrival, and before he had ventured alone in the Underground; he asked his way of a policeman who spoke Italian and told him the way: he believes that all London policemen speak Italian, but he himself prefers English if he can get a chance to speak it.
Sicilians always want to speak English, especially those of the lower orders who invariably consider it as a master-key that will open every door leading to wealth. Sometimes what they say is, of course, nothing more than otiose compliment; sometimes they are merely introducing the subject of their want of money in an artistic manner in the hope of anything from a soldo to a promise to take them into service as valet, courier, coachman, or whatever it may be—a sort of shaking of Fortune's bag to see what will come out. Sometimes they really do want to learn English and some of them even make attempts to pick up a few words and actually retain them.
I went once from Siracusa to Malta at the end of December; it was abominably rough, and my luggage was thrown about in the cabin with such violence that some of the things slipped out of my bag. I was too sea-sick to be sure I had picked them all up, but afterwards discovered that the only thing left behind was my new diary for the next year. On returning from Valletta to Siracusa about a fortnight later, I asked the steward if he had found my diary and it was produced by the cabin-boy who must have been a youth of considerable energy and enterprise. He had apparently learnt by ear several English words and, finding a book full of blank paper, had written them down, spelling them the best way he could, that is phonetically, according to Italian pronunciation, and writing the Italian equivalents, spelt in his own way, in a parallel column. His writing is so distinct that I am certain I have got every letter right, but I do not recognize his second English word for latrina, it is probably some corrupt form of lavatory. The vocabulary, though restricted, seems a fairly useful one for a cabin-boy to begin with:
ENGL. ITALY. Fork Forketa Spoun Cuchiaio Neif Coltelo Pleit Piati Glas Bichiere Bootl Butiglia Voutsch Orologio Tebl Tavola Ceaer Sedia Taul Tavaglia Serviet Serviette Dabliusii Latrina Lavetrim ,, Vouder Aqua Badi Letto
Peppino is not exactly of this class, his parents were able to give him a good education, he took his degree at the University of Palermo and, though he does not practise his profession, is a qualified engineer. When he returned from London his English was probably better than the cabin-boy's will ever be, but he is a little out of practice.
I had observed a couple of picturesque ruffians hovering about in the gloom of the garden; towards the end of dinner they wandered into the circle of the electric light and resolved themselves into Carmelo and Rosario. We invited them to sit down, gave them wine and cigarettes and talked over the changes that had taken place in the town since I had last been there.
When they had gone, I asked Peppino about Rosario's misfortune and learnt that he had been put into prison for stabbing his father. He had only wounded him, and Peppino thought the father had probably been in the wrong, for he has a bad history in the books of the police, but Rosario had not done himself any good over it, because, of course, the crime and its consequences have now gone down into his own history.
An Englishman may be a mass of prejudices, but I confess I did not like the idea of hob-nobbing with a would-be parricide and determined that Rosario should not drive me any more; if I wanted a carriage, Carmelo should get leave of his padrone and take me.
Next morning, while I was having my coffee, there was a sound of passing music; I recognized it as belonging to a funeral, and asked Peppino if he knew who was dead. Several people were dead and he did not know which this was, unless it was old Baldassare; it must be either a married woman or a grown-up man. I asked how he knew that. He replied that when apprenticed to his father, who had been sagrestano before taking the hotel, he had learnt all about the ceremonies of the Church.
"They do this," he said, "when it is a married lady dead or a grown man. If it shall be the woman dead unmarried or a boy dead, then shall it be a different song, a different ring of bell and the dead shall go very directly in the paradiso; it is like the—please, what is fuochi artificiali? Excuse me, it is the rocket; prestissimo and St. Peter he don't be asking no question. Did you understand?"
He then diverged to ceremonies connected with last illnesses—
"When the doctor is coming it is telling always that you would be good of the malady, but when the priest is coming it is telling that you are finished. This is not a good thing. It is difficult to hope when the doctor is shaking the head and is telling 'Please, you; go, catch the priest quickly, quickly.' And sometimes the notary, the man of law, if the malade is having money; if no money, it is the notary not at all. When the doctor is coming out, the priest is coming in, and generally after would be the death. But you must pay. If to pay less would come only one priest and not well dressed, if to pay more, very well dressed and too many priests. If to pay plenty, plenty, then to ring all the bells and enter by the great door; but if to pay few, then not many bells and to enter by the second door. Did you understand?
"When they die the parents always, and also the man that is to die, they fear the—please, what is not the paradiso? Excuse me, it is the inferno: and they tell to the priest 'Please come.' Then they pay him to tell all that is good, and sometimes the priest arrive that you will be dead. If you shall suicide, very likely you are dead before. Then shall the parents pay him to tell that the man to die has taken all the functions of religion and the holy oil to put in the foot to prevent him the death. But it is prevent not at all.
"Did you know what is sacramento? All right, I shall tell you. The priest is going with the sacramento on the hand and the umbrella on the head and you must pay—always must pay, it is the interesting thing. And the old women are going and are praying because the man is dead: and the soldiers are going and are taking the arms before the risorgimento, but now the law it is redeemed. Then they arrive into the room of the malade and take the sacramento and up and down and put the holy oil in the foot and pray and went away, and the malade who is not dead would very soonly die."
CHAPTER III—THE PROFESSOR
The day before the festa there came a professor of pedagogy, and Peppino was not best pleased to see him because he knew him as a jettatore. I had supposed this word to mean a person with the evil eye who causes misfortunes to others, but he used it in the sense of one who causes misfortunes to himself or, at least, who is always in trouble—a man who is constitutionally unfortunate, the sort of man with whom Napoleon would have nothing to do. He will miss his train more often than not; if he has to attend a funeral it will be when he has a cold in his head, and all his white pocket-handkerchiefs will be at the wash, so that he must use a coloured one; he will attempt to take his medicine in the dark, thereby swallowing the liniment by mistake. Of course, this kind of man is incidentally disastrous to others as well as to himself and is, therefore, also a jettatore in the other sense, so that Napoleon was quite right.
The arrival of the professor led Peppino into giving me a great deal of information about the evil eye in which he swore he did not believe. It was all rather indefinite and contradictory, partly, no doubt, because those who believe in it most firmly are the analfabeti and unaccustomed to express themselves clearly.
The prevailing idea seems to be that an evil influence proceeds from the eye of the jettatore who is not necessarily a bad person, at least he need not be desirous of hurting any one. The misfortunes that follow wherever he goes may be averted by the interposition of some attractive object whereby the glance from his eye is arrested, and either the misfortune does not happen at all, or the force of the evil influence is expended elsewhere. Therefore, it is as well always to carry some charm against the evil eye. All over Italy, but especially in the south, it is rare to meet a man who does not carry a charm, either on his watch-chain or in his pocket, or on a string or a chain round his neck under his clothes, and he usually carries more than one. Women, of course, always wear them, which may be because a woman likes to surround herself with pretty things, and, if she can say that they protect her, she has a reason, unconnected with vanity, which she may be apt to profess is her true reason for wearing ornaments. The same applies to men who, though less in the habit of wearing ornaments, are, as has been often remarked, no less vain than women. This may be called the ornamental view and may account for some of the fashions that arise in the wearing of charms. But there is also the utilitarian view, and a new form of charm will sometimes become popular, just as a new sanctuary becomes popular, because it is reported to have been effective in some particular case. Probably no change of fashion will ever banish horns made of coral or mother-of-pearl; being pointed, they are supposed to attract and break up the evil glance as a lightning conductor is supposed to attract and break up a flash of lightning.
Peppino was very contemptuous about all charms and coral horns especially. Even assuming that horns in a general way are prophylactic, it is no use having them made of coral or mother-of-pearl and wearing them on one's watch-chain, because the Padre Eterno, when he designed the human form, was careful to provide man with natural means of making horns so that the evil eye might be averted during the period that would have to elapse before the wearing of ornaments became customary. We can still benefit by this happy forethought if we are threatened with the evil eye when divested of all our charms—when bathing for instance. The pope, Pio Nono, was believed to have the evil eye, and pious pilgrims asking his blessing used, at the same time, to take the precaution of protecting themselves from his malign influence by pointing two fingers at him under their clothes.
Inanimate things, of course, cannot be said literally to have the evil eye, but many of them cause misfortunes. A hearse is a most unlucky thing to meet when it is empty. Peppino says—
"If you shall meet the carriage of the dead man and it is empty, perhaps it shall be coming to take you; this is not a good thing and then must you be holding the horn in the hand. But if the dead man shall be riding in his carriage, then certainly this time it shall not be for you and the horn it is necessary not at all. This is what they believe."
He did not mean that you are bound to die if you see an empty hearse, but that unless you take precautions you will certainly meet with some kind of misfortune. I should say that the professor meets an empty hearse every day of his life. He came up to Castellinaria, not knowing there was to be a festa, found every place full and spent the night wandering about the streets. It was impossible not to be sorry for the poor man when I found him the following afternoon dozing on a chair in the kitchen and, in a fit of expansiveness, I offered him the other bed in my room. He accepted it with gratitude and said he should retire early as he was too much fatigued to care about religious festivities.
Peppino took the earliest opportunity of blowing me up for this, saying that it was most dangerous to sleep with a jettatore in the room. I told him I did not believe in all that nonsense any more than he did and we had a long discussion which he ended by producing a coral horn from his pocket, saying the professor might have the other bed if I would wear the coral all night. Of course I chaffed him about having the horn in his pocket after his protestations of disbelief, but it was like talking to a kitten that has been caught stealing fish and I had to take his charm and promise to conform on the ground that one cannot be too careful.
The procession, which was the climax of the festa, did not begin till 11.30 P.M. and was not over till 3.30 the next morning. On returning to the albergo I found the professor still dozing on his chair, undisturbed by the constant chatter of all the servants and their friends. He had not gone to bed because the padrone, Peppino's father, with the key of my room in his pocket, had gone out early in the evening and got lost in the crowd, so there were both my beds wasted and nothing to be done but to make the best of it. I settled myself on a chair in a corner and wished for day. Whereupon, almost immediately, Peppino, who, though I did not know it till afterwards, had been keeping near me and watching me all night in case I might meet the evil eye among the people, came in and the discussion rose into a tumult of dialect, as the situation was made clear to him, and then sank into complete silence which was broken by his suddenly saying to me—
"You wish to sleep? All right. I show you the bed. Come on."
He preceded me up some back stairs into a room occupied by a lady in one bed, her female attendant in another and, in various shakedowns on the floor, another woman, two men and more children than I could count by the light of one candle. We picked our way among them to the farther end of the room where there was a door. Peppino produced a key and opened it; to my surprise it led into my room.
"Buon riposo," said Peppino, and was about to disappear the way we had come when I reminded him that the professor was to have the other bed. I had some difficulty with him, but when I had hung his coral round my neck he gave way.
After this I saw a great deal of the professor. He said he was forty-five and he was perhaps the most simple-minded, gentle creature I have ever known. Being with him was like listening to a child strumming on a worn-out piano. As we sat down to dinner next day he asked if he could have a little carbonate of soda. Peppino, with a glance at the bill of fare, regretted that there was none in the house. The professor then explained to me the advantages of taking carbonate of soda before meals and said that some chemists gave one an enormous quantity for two soldi. Evidently the professor had not a good digestion. He helped me with his own fork to a piece of meat off his own plate. This is a mark of very great friendliness and makes me think of Joseph entertaining his brethren when they went down to buy corn in Egypt.
"And he took and sent messes unto them from before him; but Benjamin's mess was five times so much as any of theirs."
And I think of Menelaus in the Odyssey sending a piece of meat to Telemachus and Pisistratus when they supped with him at Lacedaemon; and of Ulysses, at supper in the palace of Alcinous, sending a piece of meat to Demodocus to thank him for his singing, in spite of the pain his lays had caused him.
I always accept the gift, after deprecating the honour with words and gestures, and a little later, in accordance with what I believe to be the modern practice, return the compliment.
The professor was pleased to have an opportunity of improving his knowledge of England and asked me many questions. I am afraid he only pretended to believe some of the things I told him. I said that in England a man who is the proprietor of the house he lives in is not on that account necessarily a rich man; he may or may not be, it all depends. He was surprised to hear that I had travelled from London to Castellinaria in less than three weeks; that the channel passage takes under twelve hours and has been known to be smooth; that London is not actually on the coast but a few miles inland and on a river; that we have other towns even more inland and that after the death of Queen Victoria, England did not become a republic.
I had the professor at a disadvantage because, being a Sicilian, his natural politeness would not permit him to show that in his opinion I was drawing upon my imagination after the manner of travellers. Moreover Peppino declared that all I said was quite true and added that what in Sicily is like this (holding his hand out with the palm upwards) in England is like that (holding it with the palm downwards). Nevertheless I was beginning to feel that I had gone far enough and had better be careful, so when he asserted that England refuses Home Rule to New Zealand, and grinds her colonies down under the iron heel of the oppressor because she cannot afford to lose the amount they pay us in our iniquitous income tax, I did not contradict him. It is possible that I misunderstood him, or he may have guessed I did not agree, or there may have been even more confusion in his mind than I suspected, for he afterwards said that the income tax paid by the colonies went into the private pocket of Mr. Chamberlain, and that explained why the Secretary for the Colonies was so rich.
"My dear professor," I said, "permit me to tell you something; my poor mother had a cousin whose name was James. He was perhaps the most simple-minded, gentle creature I have ever known. Being with him was like listening to—well, it was like listening to certain kinds of music. He lived by himself in the country, with an old woman to do for him, and was over sixty before we came to know him; then we were all very fond of him and often wondered what the dear, good old gentleman could have been like in his early days. It has just occurred to me that you, sir, are like what cousin James must have been at your age."
He was overwhelmed; his eyes filled with tears; he said he should remember for all his life the flattering words he had just heard; they constituted the most pleasing and genteel compliment he had ever received; he shook hands with me and remained silent as a sign that his emotion was too deep for more words.
CHAPTER IV—THE WINE-SHIP
Peppino usually took half an hour off and came about noon to wherever I was sketching to fetch me to lunch. One morning as we walked along nearly every man we met smiled and said to him—
"Buona festa, Peppino," and he smiled and returned their salutes with the same words. He accounted for it by saying it was his onomastico—the day of the saint whose name he bears.
"What?" said I, "is it S. Peppino and you never told me? I wish you many happy returns of the day. But it cannot be everybody's onomastico as well, and you say 'Buona festa, Peppino' to all who speak to you."
He replied that it was the 19th of March, the festa of S. Giuseppe, and assured me that he had said "Buona festa, Peppino" to no one who was not a namesake; so that about two-thirds of the men at Castellinaria must have been baptized Giuseppe.
"Then that explains it," said I. "I was beginning to think that you might have become engaged to be married and they were congratulating you."
That did not do at all.
"I got no time to be married," said he, "too much busy. Besides, marriage very bad thing. Look here, I shall tell you, listen to me. Marriage is good for the woman, is bad for the man: every marriage makes to be one woman more in the world, one man less. Did you understand? And they are not happy together. We have a bad example in this town."
"Surely you don't mean to tell me that here in Castellinaria, where everything moves so smoothly and so peacefully, you have an unhappy married couple?"
He replied solemnly, slowly and decidedly, "Not one—all."
He continued in his usual manner, "Did you read the ten commandments for the people who shall be married? If to find, shall be showing you. It says, 'Non quarelate la prima volta.' Did you understand? 'Don't begin to quarrel,' because you will never stop. After the quarrel you make the peace, but it is too late: the man shall forget, perhaps, but the woman shall forget never, never, never, and you have lost.
"I was telling to my friend," he continued, "'Please do not be married, because when you would be married you would not love any more that lady.' And he was telling to me that he would marry, because it would be a good thing for him, good wife, good food, good care and many things like this. And I was telling to him, 'I would be seeing if you shall be repeating these words when you shall be married one year.' The year was passed but my friend he don't be saying nothing to me. Excuse me, I am not so bad man to ask him. I found him many times in the street, but he would not meet me, would not speak. Oh, no! And he is not laughing any more. Not one friend; fifteen friends, all married. Never they are telling they are happy."
Having disposed of the question of marriage he told me that Carmelo had been to see me and would call again. He had already been several times, and I was puzzled to know what he wanted. He could hardly be wanting to propose an excursion, for I had already made him get leave and take me for several. But as, sooner or later, an opportunity must occur for clearing up the mystery, I left it alone for the present and asked Peppino, who always knew everything that was going on in the neighbourhood, what ship it was I had seen coming into the bay and making for the port.
He said she was the Sorella di Ninu, returning from Naples, where she had been with a cargo of wine. He knew because she belonged to his cousin Vanni, who was a wine merchant and, if I would give up a morning's sketching, he would give up a morning's work, take me down to the port, introduce me to his cousin and show me over the ship.
Accordingly next morning Carmelo got leave from his padrone and drove us down the zig-zags among the flowers while Peppino told me about his cousin. His father had two brothers, one was the father of Vanni and used to keep a small wine shop down in the port and Vanni, who had a voice, studied singing and went on the opera stage. The other brother emigrated to America and never married. Very little was heard of him, except that he was engaged in some speculative business, until at last news came of his death. Had he died six months before, he would have left nothing, but it happened that the markets were favourable and he died rich. After the usual delays, his money came and was divided between his surviving brothers. Vanni's father enlarged the wine shop, bought vineyards and a ship, took his son away from the stage and sent him to the University. In course of time he enlarged his business and took Vanni into partnership. Peppino's father gave up being sagrestano, bought vineyards and the Albergo della Madonna (con giardino) and educated his son. The part of Peppino's education that was most useful to him was his two years in England, and that did not cost his father anything, for he would only take money enough for the journey and all the time he was away he kept himself and saved, so that he not only repaid his father and paid for his journey home but had money in the bank.
By this time we had arrived at the quay and Peppino went off to his uncle's shop for information as to approaching the Sorella di Ninu, leaving me alone with Carmelo. He seized the opportunity.
"I have been to see you several times because I wanted to tell you that I also have been in prison."
"Hullo! Carmelo," I said, "have you been trying to murder your father?"
"No," he said, "it was not my father. It was a friend. We quarrelled. I drew my knife and stabbed him in the arm. It happened last year."
I sympathized as well as I could and assured him that it should make no difference in the relations between us.
Why did I say this? Why was I so indulgent towards Carmelo and so implacable to Rosario? It seems as though an Englishman may also be a mass of contradictions. It is true that parricide is perhaps the most repulsive form that murder can take, but I do not think this had anything to do with it, for ordinary murder is sufficiently repulsive. I believe I was influenced by a conversation we had had during our last expedition; Carmelo had told me that he intended soon to leave private service, to marry and go into partnership with Rosario.
"But, Carmelo," I had objected, "would not that be rather risky? Don't you remember that Rosario has been to prison for trying to kill your father?"
"Oh, that all happened a long time ago and Rosario has married and settled down since then."
Evidently Carmelo had thought this over and had felt uncomfortable that I should shun Rosario for being a jail-bird and not shun him who was one also. It seemed to indicate considerable delicacy of feeling on his part and I was pleased with him for taking so much trouble to get the confession off his chest. Whereas Rosario had treated his disgrazia as merely an annoying little accident that might happen to any gentleman.
Peppino returned, stood on the quay and shouted to the ships; presently a small boat containing Vanni and a sailor detached herself from the confusion and rowed to our feet. I was introduced and, amid the usual compliments, we took our seats and glided past the Sacro Cuore, the Due Sorelle, the Divina Provvidenza, the Maria Concetta, the Stella Maris, the La Pace, the Indipendente, the Nuova Bambina and many more. Peppino called my attention to the names of the ships and said how commonplace and dull they were after the romantic names he had seen on the beach at Brighton. He gave, as an instance, Pride of the Ocean, which I remembered having often seen there; it was all very well, but somehow it had never impressed me as hitting the bull's-eye of romance. During their voyage through time the words of one's own language become barnacled over with associations so that we cannot see them in their naked purity as we see the words of a foreign tongue. I translated Pride of the Ocean into Vanto del Mare and offered it to Peppino; it seemed to me to gain, but he said I had knocked all the poetry out of it. One of the ships was the Riunione dei due Fratelli. I inquired whether the brothers had quarrelled and made it up.
"Yes," said he, "that is the worst of family quarrels; they do not last."
"What do you mean, Peppino? Surely it is better for brothers to be friends than to quarrel?"
"If to be friends inside also, then is it a good thing and much better; but look here, excuse me; the brothers are quarrelling and fighting and are failing to kill each others and the parents are telling to don't be quarrelling and the brothers are telling that they would be quarrelling and the parents are telling to don't be stupid and to embrace and became friends and the brothers are telling, Go away, parents, and to leave alone to be quarrelling in peace. But it is too difficult and many months are passing and the brothers are—please, what is stanchi? Excuse me, it is fatigued, and are embracing to make pleasure to the parents and to make riunione outside and to baptize the ship, but inside it is riunione not at all. It is to kiss with the lips and the heart is hating each others. This is not a good thing."
The boat with the name that pleased me best was not there. Peppino told me about it: it belonged to him before the money came from America and he used it to ferry tourists across the bay and into the bowels of the promontory through the mouth of a grotto where the reflected lights are lovely on a sunny day; he called it the Anime del Purgatorio.
This would have been just the morning to visit the caves, for there were no clouds. We stood on the deck of the Sorella di Ninu, looking up through the brown masts and the rigging into the blue sky, and watching the gulls as they glided and circled above us and turned their white wings to the sun. Vanni did the honours of his ship, showed us his barrels and casks, nearly all empty now, and made us look down into the hold where there was a cask capable of holding, I forget how much, but it was so big that it could never have been got into the ship after it was made, so it had to be built inside. Then we must taste his wine, of which he still had some in one of the casks, and the captain brought tumblers and another queer-shaped glass with a string round its rim in which to fetch the wine up; it was about the size and shape of a fir-cone, the broad upper part being hollow to hold the wine, and the pointed lower part solid. The captain held it by the string and dropped it neatly down through the bung-hole, as one drops a bucket into a well; its heavy point sank through the wine without any of that swishing and swashing which happens with a flat-bottomed, buoyant, wooden bucket, and he drew it up full and gleaming like a jewel. The first lot was used to rinse the tumblers inside and out and then thrown overboard, sparkling and flashing in the sunlight as it fell into the sea. The taster was lowered again and the tumblers filled.
Vanni, seeing I admired the taster, wanted to give it to me, but it was the only one he had and was in constant use when customers came to the ship, so I declined it and he promised to bring one for me next time his ship made a voyage; in the meantime I took one of the tumblers as a ricordo. Then we went into the captain's cabin and sat round his table listening to his stories and smoking cigarettes. Every now and then a silence came over us, broken occasionally by one of us saying suddenly—
"Ebbene, siamo qua!" ("Well, here we are!")
This sort of thing formerly used to make me feel nervous; it was as though I had failed to entertain my friends or as though they had given up the hope of entertaining me. After experiencing it several times, however, I came to take a different and more accurate view. There was no occasion to do or say anything. We were enjoying one another's society.
Vanni told us he was thinking of taking a cargo of Marsala to England and what would the English people say to it? Now the Marsala was very good and, according to Vanni, could be put upon the market at a very low price, but I foresaw difficulties. Knowing that he had sung in opera in Naples, Palermo, Malta and many other places, I asked if he liked music. He said he adored it. Music, he declared, was the most precious gift of God to man—more precious even than poetry. He had his box at the opera and always occupied it during the season. And he enjoyed music of all kinds, not only the modern operas of Mascagni, Puccini and so on, but also the old music of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini. I asked if he did not like Le Nozze di Figaro. He had never heard of it, nor of Don Giovanni, nor of Fidelio. He had heard the names of Beethoven and Mozart, but not of Handel, Schubert or Brahms. He had heard also of Wagner, but had never heard any of his music.
I was not surprised he should not have heard of those composers who are not famous for operas, nor by his odd list of so-called old musicians, but I was surprised that he should place music so decidedly above poetry. I said it appeared to me he had practically expressed the opinion that Donizetti was a more precious gift of God to man than Dante. Put like that, he did not hold to what he had said and confessed he had been speaking without due consideration. But Peppino said that in some respects Donizetti was a better man than Dante; he was smoother and better tempered, "and many things like this." Peppino had been brought up, like every Italian, to worship Dante, but when he went to London and mastered the English language, when he began to read our literature and to think for himself, then he saw that Dante was "un falso idolo." Every nation gets the poet she deserves and Italy has her faults; but what, asked Peppino, what has Italy done to deserve her dreary Dante? On the other hand, with all his admiration for England, he could hardly believe that we really do deserve our Shakespeare.
I was beginning to feel giddy, as though the Sorella di Ninu, instead of being quietly in port, was out on the tumbling ocean in a sudden gale, so very unusual is it to hear such opinions in Italy. But Peppino is full of surprises. To recover my balance I turned the conversation back to the wine, taking my way through the music and telling them that in England we thought very highly of the Austrian and German composers, and asking Vanni if he would recommend any one to introduce their compositions into Sicily. He replied that if it was pleasing music it might be successful, but that if it was very different from Italian music it would hardly pay to bring it over until the people had been educated. I feared it would be the same with the wine. He must first educate us to forsake our old friends, beer, whisky and tea, before he could create a market on which he could put his Marsala.
Driving back, I told Peppino about the lottery at Castelvetrano and how my numbers had lost. He inquired whether my birthday fell during the week I bought the ticket. It did not.
"Then," said he, "of course you could not be winning and Angelo very stupid to let you play those numbers."
It seems that numbers are no good unless they are connected with something that happens to you during the week. This explained why at Selinunte the brigadier had discarded the price of my clothes, which was not his concern but mine and belonged to the week in which I had bought them, and preferred to play the number that fell from the cigarettes, of which he was at the moment actually smoking one.
"If there shall be a railway accident," continued Peppino, "on Thursday night, then shall there be going plenty much people and shall sleep in the ground to be first on Friday morning, because the office shall shut early to take the papers to Palermo to turn the wheel the Saturday. And if to come out the number, the people shall be gaining many money, but if to don't come out, shall be gaining no money. This is not a good thing.
"They think it is fortunate the—please, what is sogno? Excuse me, it is the dream. But it must be the dream in the week you play. When the man in the dream shall be coming from the other world and shall be saying, 'Please you, play this number,' then they believe you shall certainly win. But if to play the number, very uncertain to win."
They live in a state of wild hope after buying their tickets until the numbers are declared and, the odds being enormously in favour of the government, the gamblers usually lose. Then they live in a state of miserable despair until the possession of a few soldi, the happening of something remarkable, or merely the recollection of the departed joys of hope compared with present actual depression, urges them to try their luck again. So that the gambler's life consists of alternations of feverish expectation and maddening dejection. "This is not a good thing"; but it is a worse thing for the gambler who wins. He sees how easy it is and is encouraged to believe he can do it every time; in his exaltation he stakes again and loses all his winnings, instead of only a few soldi. If he does not do this he spends the money in treating his friends and getting into debt over it and has to pawn his watch. So that the Genovese, by way of wishing his enemy ill-luck, while appearing to observe the proprieties, says to him—
"Ti auguro un' ambo." ("I hope you may win an ambo.")
Peppino does not approve of the lottery, yet he has not made up his mind that it ought to be abolished. It certainly does harm, but so deep is the natural instinct for gambling that innumerable private lotteries would spring up to replace it, and they would do far more mischief, because they would be in the hands of rogues, whereas the government manages the affair quite honestly. The government pays no attention to dreams or ladies in white dresses or anything that happens during the week; it bases its calculations on the mathematical theory of chances, and gathers in the soldi week after week, so that it makes an annual profit of about three million sterling. Besides, if people are willing to pay for the pleasure of a week of hope, why should they not be allowed to do so? The uneducated as a class ought to contribute to the expenses of governing their country, and the lottery is a sure and convenient way of collecting their contributions. It is literally what it is often called—La tassa sull' ignoranza. (The tax upon ignorance.)
Peppino even uses the lottery himself, but in a way of his own. He chooses two numbers every week, according to what occurs to him as though he were going in for an ambo and, instead of buying a ticket, puts four soldi into an earthenware money-box. The numbers he has chosen do not come out and he considers that he has won his four soldi and has put them by. In this way he has accumulated several money-boxes full, and if ever his numbers come out he intends to break his boxes and distribute the contents among the deserving poor.
As a way of making money Peppino prefers the course of always doing whatever there is to be done in the house and in the vineyard. A few years ago his father's vines were suffering from disease; he made inquiries, studied the subject, ascertained the best course to pursue and, with his own hands and some little assistance, rooted up all the plants and laid down American vines, with the result that the yield is now more than double what it ever was before. And this he thinks was a great deal better than losing money week after week in the lottery, not only because of the result, but because of the interest he took in the work. In fact, he attends to his own business and finds every moment of the day occupied. He says—
"Always to begin one thing before to finish some other thing, this is the good life."
Certainly it seems to agree with him. There is not much the matter with Peppino's health nor with his banking account nor with his conscience, so far as I can judge. Every one in the town is fond of him and he is always happy and ready to do any one a good turn. Indeed, his popularity is the only thing that causes me any uneasiness about him. There is generally something wrong about a man who has no enemies—but there are exceptions to every rule.
The poor professor, on the other hand, has at least one enemy and that the worst a man can have, namely himself. The evening before he went away he took me into his confidence and consulted me about his future and his prospects. He is married, but his wife is out of her mind, and he has three sons, all doing badly, one of them very badly. He told me he was not at the moment employed as professor, he was living on his patrimony which consisted of a few acres of vines; he was gradually selling his land and spending the proceeds, and he thought this the best plan because the vines were all diseased and did not bring him in enough money to keep himself and his family. Should I recommend him to come to England, learn English and try to keep himself by the exercise of his profession? It was like Vanni's idea of bringing his wine to England. I could only say I was afraid we already had enough professors. Then he thought he might write and earn a little money that way; he had read all Sir Walter Scott's novels in a translation—thirty-two volumes I think he said; he admired them immensely and was thinking of writing a romance; he had in fact an idea for one, and would I be so good as to give him my opinion about it? A young lady is desired by her father to marry a man she does not love, a rich man, much older than herself. She refuses, but, later on, consents to make the sacrifice. After a year of unhappy married life she meets a man of her own age, falls in love with him, and one day her husband surprises them together, in his rage kills them both and commits suicide.
"Now," said the professor, "what do you think of my theme?"
I said that, so far as I could remember Sir Walter Scott's novels at the moment, they contained nothing from which any one could say he had taken his plot which, of course, was greatly to his credit on the score of originality, but I begged to be allowed to defer giving any further opinion until he had finished the work; so much depends upon the way in which these things are carried out.
He had also written a poem entitled Completo, of which he gave me a copy. It was, he said, "un grido dell' anima." He had not found a publisher for it yet, but if I would translate it into English and get it published in London, I could send him any profits that might accrue. I showed it to Peppino who swore he remembered something very like it in an Italian magazine and that the professor had had nothing to do with it beyond copying it. I translated it without rhymes, the professor not having gone to that expense. I have not offered the result to any English publisher, none of them would receive it as Peppino did when I showed it to him. He said I had performed a miracle, that I had converted a few lines of drivelling nonsense—just the sort of stuff that would attract the professor—into a masterpiece. But I am afraid the prestige of the English language may have blinded Peppino to any little defects, as it made him see more romance than I could find in the names of the English boats. This was my "masterpiece":
The train is full; Ah me! the load of travellers! The engine whistles; Ah me! the piercing shriek! My heart is burdened; Ah me! the weight of sorrows! My soul exclaims; Ah me! the despairing cry!
O Train! have pity upon me For you are strong and I am weak, Transfer to my heart the load of your passengers And take in exchange the weight of my sorrows.
Next time I saw the professor he was in charge of a newspaper kiosk in Palermo, looking older and more dilapidated and still waiting for the manna to fall from heaven. He complained of the slackness of trade. He also complained that the work was too hard and was killing him; so that, one way or the other, he intended to shut up the kiosk and look out for something else.
CHAPTER V—MICHELE AND THE PRINCESS OF BIZERTA
Educated Sicilians have not a high opinion of the marionettes; it is sometimes difficult to induce them to talk on the subject. They say the marionettes are for the lower orders and accuse them of being responsible for many of the quarrels we read about in the newspapers. The people become so fascinated by the glamour of the romance in which they live night after night that they imitate in private life the chivalrous behaviour of the warriors they see fighting in the little theatres, and thus what may begin as a playful reminiscence of something in last night's performance occasionally leads to a too accurate imitation of one of last night's combats and perhaps ends in a fatal wound. This being like the accounts in English papers about boys becoming hooligans or running off to sea as stowaways in consequence of reading trashy literature, my desire to attend a performance of marionettes was increased, but I did not want to go alone for, in the event of a row, with knives, among the audience it would be better to be accompanied by a native.
I was in Palermo where I knew a few students, whose education was of course still incomplete, but they were cold on the subject and said that if they came with me we should probably be turned out for laughing. That was not what I wanted. It ought to have been possible to do something with the waiter or the porter, or even with the barber whom I met on the stairs and in the passages of the hotel when he came in the morning to shave the commercial travellers; but they all made difficulties—either they did not get away from their work till too late, or it was not a place for an Englishman or it was not safe. At home, of course, one does not go to the theatre with the waiter, but when in Sicily, though one does not perhaps do altogether as the Sicilians, one does not do as one does in England. I know a Palermitan barber with whom I should be proud to be seen walking in the Via Macqueda any day—that is, any day when his Sunday clothes were not in pawn—and there used to be a conduttore at my hotel who took me round to many of the sights in the town and who was a person of such distinguished manners that when with him I felt as though walking with a Knight-Templar in disguise—a disguise that had to be completed by my buying him a straw hat, otherwise he would have given us away by wearing his cap with "Albergo So-and-so" written all round it. These are the people who really know about the marionettes, for whenever they get an evening off they go. It seemed, however, that I had met with a conspiracy of obstruction. Palermo was treating me as a good woman treats her husband when he wants to do something of which she disapproves—there was no explanation or arguing; what I wanted was quietly made impossible. So I replied by treating Palermo as a good man treats his wife under such circumstances—I pretended to like it and waited till I could woo some less difficult city.
Catania provided what I wanted. There I knew a professor interested in folk-lore and kindred subjects to whom I confided my troubles. He laughed at me for my failures, assured me there was no danger and offered to take me. It was a Sunday evening. On arriving at the teatrino, he spoke to an attendant who showed us in by a side entrance and gave us the best places in the house, that is, we were near the only open window. The seating arrangements would have been condemned by the County Council; there were rows of benches across the floor and no passages, so that the people had to walk on the seats to get to their places; two galleries ran round the house very close together, an ordinary man could not have stood upright in the lower one, and it was difficult to move in the upper one in which we were, because the arches supporting the roof nearly blocked it in three places on each side. Presently a man came round and collected our money, twenty centimes each, the seats on the ground being fifteen.
There were four boys sitting on the stage, two at each side of the curtain, as they used to sit in Shakespeare's theatre. Like the rest of the audience, these boys were of the class they call Facchini, that is, porters, coachmen, shop assistants, shoeblacks, water-sellers, and so on. It sometimes happens when travelling in Sicily that one has to spend half an hour, half a day, or it may be more, in company with one of these men. He is usually a delightful person, dignified, kind, courteous, full of fun and extremely friendly without being obtrusive. During conversation one may perhaps ask him whether he can read and write; he will probably reply that at school he was taught both. Presently one may ask him to read an advertisement, or to write down an address; he will probably reply that the light is bad, or that he is occupied with the luggage or the horses. The fact is that reading and writing are to him very much what the classics and the higher mathematics are to many an English gentleman—the subjects were included in his youthful studies, but as they have never been of the slightest use to him in earning his bread, he has forgotten all he ever learnt of them, and does not care to say so. The Sicilian, however, no matter how uneducated he may be, has an appetite for romance which must be gratified and, as it would give him some trouble to brush up his early accomplishments and stay at home reading Pulci and Boiardo, Tasso and Ariosto, he prefers to follow the story of Carlo Magno and his paladins and the wars against the Saracens in the teatrino. Besides, no Sicilian man ever stays at home to do anything except to eat and sleep, and those are things he does out of doors as often as not; the houses are for the women, the men live in the street. It is as though in England the cab-drivers, railway porters and shop-boys were to spend evening after evening, month after month, looking on at a dramatized version of the Arcadia or The Faerie Queene.
Presently the curtain went up and disclosed two flaring gas-jets, each with a small screen in front of it about halfway down the stage; these were the footlights, and behind them was a back cloth representing a hall with a vista of columns. In the rather confined space between the footlights and the back cloth there came on a knight in armour. He stood motionless, supporting his forehead with his right fist, the back of his hand being outward.
"Is he crying?" I inquired.
"No," replied the professor, "he is meditating; if he were crying the back of his hand would be against his face."
He then dropped his fist and delivered a soliloquy, no doubt embodying the result of his meditation, after which he was joined by his twin brother. They conversed at length of battles and the King of Athens, of Adrianopoli and the Grand Turk, of princesses and of journeys by sea and land. The act of speaking induced a curious nervous complaint, useful because it showed which was the speaker; not only did he move his head and his right arm in a very natural and Sicilian manner, but he was constantly on the point of losing his balance, and only saved himself from falling by swinging one leg from the hip forwards or backwards as the case required. The listening knight stood firm till he had to speak, and then he was attacked by the complaint and the other became still.
At first I was puzzled as to the actual size of the figures and, starting with the idea that marionettes are always small, assumed that these were about three feet high; but, as the novelty wore off, I compared them with the audience and especially with the boys sitting in the corners and with various assistants of whom occasional glimpses could be caught at the wings; sometimes the hand of an operator appeared below the scenery and gave a hint, and gradually I came to the conclusion that the puppets could not be much smaller than life, if at all.
The operators must have been standing on a platform behind the back scene; the figures were able to pass one another, but never came forward more than a step or two, the footlights being in the way, and no doubt the operators could not reach further forward than they did. Each figure was worked by two iron rods, one to his head and one to his right hand, and several strings to which after a few minutes I paid no attention; perhaps their very obviousness saved them from notice. Any attempt to conceal them would have been a mistake, for what is the use of announcing a performance by marionettes and then pretending there is no mechanism? Besides, if one cannot accept a few conventions one had better stay away from the theatre altogether.
At the conclusion of the interview the knights followed one another off; and the buoyancy of their walk must be seen to be believed. The students have seen it and believe it so thoroughly that, when they meet one another in the Quattro Canti, they not unfrequently adopt it to the amusement of the bystanders. But the students make the mistake of slightly overdoing it. The marionettes often take a step or two quite naturally, and this, while adding to the absurdity (which cannot be the intention of the operator), also shows what is possible and makes one think that with a little extra trouble they might be made to walk always as smoothly as they move their heads and arms. It might, however, be necessary for them to have more strings, and this would make them more difficult to manipulate. In Sicily the marionettes who tell the story of the Paladins do not lay themselves out to be of a mechanism so ingenious that they shall appear to be alive; such illusion as they do produce, like the incompetent illustration to Shakespeare which Lamb preferred, is insufficient to cripple the imagination of the audience who are the more intimately touched by the romance of the story and by the voice of the speaker.
The back cloth was raised and we had before us a tranquil sea with two little islands sleeping under a sunset sky. Michele entered; he was a very splendid fellow in golden armour with draperies of purple and scarlet and white, and in his helmet a plume that nearly trailed on the ground. No playbill was provided, but none was wanted for Michele, he could not have been taken for anything but an operatic tenor of noble birth about to proceed against the Saracens. He first meditated and then soliloquized as he paced the sandy shore. The Princess of Bizerta in a flowing robe, covered with spangles, though not actually in sight, was not far off, imparting her griefs to the unsympathetic ocean. Spying the paladin, she strolled in his direction and spoke to him, but it was not an assignation; Michele, indeed, was obviously distressed at having his soliloquy interrupted; nevertheless, being a knight and a gentleman, he could but reply politely, and so they got into conversation. She told him who she was, which would not have been necessary if they had ever met before, then she told him of her unhappy plight, namely, that she was in the custody of an Arabian giant, and then she implored his assistance.
Michele was as unsympathetic as the ocean, his mind being full of Saracens; but before he had time to invent a plausible lie, the giant entered very suddenly. Physically he was not a particularly gigantic giant, being but three or four inches taller than Michele. If he had been much more, his head, which like that of all stage giants was undeveloped at the back, would have been hidden by the clouds that hung from the sky. His inches, however, were enough, for, in romance, height is given to a giant to symbolize power, and provided he is perceptibly taller than the hero, the audience accept him as a giant and a bully and one, moreover, who is, as a rule, nearing the end of his wicked career. Accordingly, when, in a voice of thunder, he demanded of Michele an immediate explanation—wanted to know how he dared address the princess—we all felt that he was putting himself in the wrong and that a catastrophe was imminent. Giants, that is, unscrupulous people in power, are too fond of assuming this attitude of unprovoked hostility and overbearing insolence, but they assume it once too often. Had he remembered Adam and Eve and the apple it might have occurred to him to inquire whether in the present case also the lady had not begun it. Giants, however, are for the most part unintelligent, not to say downright stupid people, and seldom have the sense to know how to use their power wisely—think of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, think of Polyphemus and Ulysses, think of the Inquisition and Galileo.