By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXX. THE SKIRTS OF MONTALTO
After such sights of suffering humanity–back to the fields and mountains! Aspromonte, the wild region behind Reggio, was famous, not long ago, for Garibaldi’s battle. But the exploits of this warrior have lately been eclipsed by those of the brigand Musolino, who infested the country up to a few years ago, defying the soldiery and police of all Italy. He would still be safe and unharmed had he remained in these fastnesses. But he wandered away, wishful to leave Italy for good and all, and was captured far from his home by some policemen who were looking for another man, and who nearly fainted when he pronounced his name. After a sensational trial, they sentenced him to thirty odd years’ imprisonment; he is now languishing in the fortress of Porto Longone on Elba. Whoever has looked into this Spanish citadel will not envy him. Of the lovely little bay, of the loadstone mountain, of the romantic pathway to the hermitage of Monserrato or the glittering beach at Rio–of all the charms of Porto Longone he knows nothing, despite a lengthy residence on the spot.
They say he has grown consumptive and witless during the long solitary confinement which preceded his present punishment–an eternal night in a narrow cell. No wonder. I have seen the condemned on their release from these boxes of masonry at the island of Santo Stefano: dazed shadows, tottering, with complexions the colour of parchment. These are the survivors. But no one asks after the many who die in these dungeons frenzied, or from battering their heads against the wall; no one knows their number save the doctor and the governor, whose lips are sealed. . . .
I decided upon a rear attack of Aspromonte. I would go by rail as far as Bagnara on the Tyrrhenian, the station beyond Scylla of old renown; and thence afoot via Sant’ Eufemia [Footnote: Not to be confounded with the railway station on the gulf of that name, near Maida.] to Sinopoli, pushing on, if day permitted, as far as Delianuova, at the foot of the mountain. Early next morning I would climb the summit and descend to the shores of the Ionian, to Bova. It seemed a reasonable programme.
All this Tyrrhenian coast-line is badly shattered; far more so than the southern shore. But the scenery is finer. There is nothing on that side to compare with the views from Nicastro, or Monte-leone, or Sant’ Elia near Palmi. It is also more smiling, more fertile, and far less malarious. Not that cultivation of the land implies absence of malaria–nothing is a commoner mistake! The Ionian shore is not malarious because it is desert–it is desert because malarious. The richest tracts in Greece are known to be very dangerous, and it is the same in Italy. Malaria and intensive agriculture go uncommonly well together. The miserable anopheles-mosquito loves the wells that are sunk for the watering of the immense orange and lemon plantations in the Reggio district; it displays a perverse predilection for the minute puddles left by the artificial irrigation of the fields that are covered with fruit and vegetables. This artificial watering, in fact, seems to be partly responsible for the spread of the disease. It is doubtful whether the custom goes back into remote antiquity, for the climate used to be moister and could dispense with these practices. Certain products, once grown in Calabria, no longer thrive there, on account of the increased dryness and lack of rainfall.
But there are some deadly regions, even along this Tyrrhenian shore. Such is the plain of Maida, for instance, where stood not long ago the forest of Sant’ Eufemia, safe retreat of Parafante and other brigand heroes. The level lands of Rosarno and Gioia are equally ill-reputed. A French battalion stationed here in the summer of 1807 lost over sixty men in fourteen days, besides leaving two hundred invalids in the hospital at Monteleone. Gioia is so malarious that in summer every one of the inhabitants who can afford the price of a ticket goes by the evening train to Palmato sleep there. You will do well, by the way, to see something of the oil industry of Palmi, if time permits. In good years, 200,000 quintals of olive oil are manufactured in the regions of which it is the commercial centre. Not long ago, before modern methods of refining were introduced, most of this oil was exported to Russia, to be burned in holy lamps; nowadays it goes for the most part to Lucca, to be adulterated for foreign markets (the celebrated Lucca oil, which the simple Englishman regards as pure); only the finest quality is sent elsewhere, to Nice. From Gioia there runs a postal diligence once a day to Delianuova of which I might have availed myself, had I not preferred to traverse the country on foot.
The journey from Reggio to Bagnara on this fair summer morning, along the rippling Mediterranean, was short enough, but sufficiently long to let me overhear the following conversation:
A.–What a lovely sea! It is good, after all, to take three or four baths a year. What think you?
B.–I? No. For thirteen years I have taken no baths. But they are considered good for children.
The calamities that Bagnara has suffered in the past have been so numerous, so fierce and so varied that, properly speaking, the town has no right to exist any longer. It has enjoyed more than its full share of earthquakes, having been shaken to the ground over and over again. Sir William Hamilton reports that 3017 persons were killed in that of 1783. The horrors of war, too, have not spared it, and a certain modern exploit of the British arms here strikes me as so instructive that I would gladly extract it from Grant’s “Adventures of an Aide-de-Camp," were it not too long to transcribe, and far too good to abbreviate.
A characteristic story, further, is told of the methods of General Manhes at Bagnara. It may well be an exaggeration when they say that the entire road from Reggio to Naples was lined with the heads of decapitated brigands; be that as it may, it stands to reason that Bagnara, as befits an important place, was to be provided with an -appropriate display of these trophies. The heads were exhibited in baskets, with strict injunctions to the authorities that they were not to be touched, seeing that they served not only for decorative but also moral purposes–as examples. Imagine, therefore, the General’s feelings on being told that one of these heads had been stolen; stolen, probably, by some pious relative of the deceased rascal, who wished to give the relic a decent Christian burial.
“That’s rather awkward,” he said, quietly musing. “But of course the specimen must be replaced. Let me see. . . . Suppose we put the head of the mayor of Bagnara into the vacant basket? Shall we? Yes, we’ll have the mayor. It will make him more careful in future.” And within half an hour the basket was filled once more.
There was a little hitch in starting from Bagnara. From the windings of the carriage-road as portrayed by the map, I guessed that there must be a number of short cuts into the uplands at the back of the town, undiscoverable to myself, which would greatly shorten the journey. Besides, there was my small bag to be carried. A porter familiar with the tracks was plainly required, and soon enough I found a number of lusty youths leaning against a wall and doing nothing in particular. Yes, they would accompany me, they said, the whole lot of them, just for the fun of the thing.
“And my bag?” I asked.
“A bag to be carried? Then we must get a woman.”
They unearthed a nondescript female who undertook to bear the burden as far as Sinopoli for a reasonable consideration. So far good. But as we proceeded, the boys began to drop off, till only a single one was left. And then the woman suddenly vanished down a side street, declaring that she must change her clothes. We waited for three-quarters of an hour, in the glaring dust of the turnpike; she never emerged again, and the remaining boy stoutly refused to handle her load.
“No,” he declared. “She must carry the bag. And I will keep you company.”
The precious morning hours were wearing away, and here we stood idly by the side of the road. It never struck me that the time might have been profitably employed in paying a flying visit to one of the most sacred objects in Calabria and possibly in the whole world, one which Signor N. Marcene describes as reposing at Bagnara in a rich reliquary–the authentic Hat of the Mother of God. A lady tourist would not have missed this chance of studying the fashions of those days. [Footnote: See next chapter.]
Finally, in desperation, I snatched up the wretched luggage and poured my griefs with unwonted eloquence into the ears of a man driving a bullock-cart down the road. So much was he moved, that he peremptorily ordered his son to conduct me then and there to Sinopoli, to carry the bag, and claim one franc by way of payment. The little man tumbled off the cart, rather reluctantly.
“Away with you!” cried the stern parent, and we began the long march, climbing uphill in the blazing sunshine; winding, later on, through shady chestnut woods and across broad tracts of cultivated land. It was plain that the task was beyond his powers, and when we had reached a spot where the strange-looking new village of Sant’ Eufemia was visible–it is built entirely of wooden shelters; the stone town was greatly shaken in the late earthquake–he was obliged to halt, and thenceforward stumbled slowly into the place. There he deposited the bag on the ground, and faced me squarely.
“No more of this!” he said, concentrating every ounce of his virility into a look of uncompromising defiance.
“Then I shall not pay you a single farthing, my son. And, moreover, I will tell your father. You know what he commanded: to Sinopoli. This is only Sant’ Eufemia. Unless-----”
“You will tell my father? Unless-----?”
“Unless you discover some one who will carry the bag not only to Sinopoli, but as far as Delianuova.” I was not in the mood for repeating the experiences of the morning.
“It is difficult. But we will try.”
He went in search, and returned anon with a slender lad of unusual comeliness–an earthquake orphan. “This big one,” he explained, “walks wherever you please and carries whatever you give him. And you will pay him nothing at all, unless he deserves it. Such is the arrangement. Are you content?”
“You have acted like a man.”
The earthquake survivor set off at a swinging pace, and we soon reached Sinopoli–new Sinopoli; the older settlement lies at a considerable distance. Midday was past, and the long main street of the town–a former fief of the terrible Ruffo family–stood deserted in the trembling heat. None the less there was sufficient liveliness within the houses; the whole place seemed in a state of jollification. It was Sunday, the orphan explained; the country was duller than usual, however, because of the high price of wine. There had been no murders to speak of–no, not for a long time past. But the vintage of this year, he added, promises well, and life will soon become normal again.
The mule track from here to Delianuova traverses some pretty scenery, both wild and pastoral. But the personal graces of my companion made me take small heed of the landscape. He was aglow with animal spirits, and his conversation naively brilliant and of uncommon import. Understanding at a glance that he belonged to a type which is rather rare in Calabria, that he was a classic (of a kind), I made every effort to be pleasant to him; and I must have succeeded, for he was soon relating anecdotes which would have been neither instructive, nor even intelligible, to the jeune fille; all this, with angelic serenity of conscience.
This radiantly-vicious child was the embodiment of the joy of life, the perfect immoralist. There was no cynicism in his nature, no cruelty, no obliquity, no remorse; nothing but sunshine with a few clouds sailing across the fathomless blue spaces–the sky of Hellas. Nihil humani alienum; and as I listened to those glad tales, I marvelled at the many-tinted experiences that could be crammed into seventeen short years; what a document the ad-verttures of such a frolicsome demon would be, what a feast for the initiated, could some one be induced to make them known! But such things are hopelessly out of the question. And that is why so many of our wise people go into their graves without ever learning what happens in this world.
Among minor matters, he mentioned that he had already been three times to prison for “certain little affairs of blood,” while defending “certain friends.” Was it not dull, I asked, in prison? “The time passes pleasantly anywhere,” he answered, “when you are young. I always make friends, even in prison.” I could well believe it. His affinities were with the blithe crew of the Liber Stratonis. He had a roving eye and the mouth of Antinous; and his morals were those of a condescending tiger-cub.
Arriving at Delianuova after sunset, he conceived the project of accompanying me next morning up Montalto. I hesitated. In the first place, I was going not only up that mountain, but to Bova on the distant Ionian littoral-----
“For my part,” he broke in, “ho pigliato confidenza. If you mistrust me, here! take my knife,” an ugly blade, pointed, and two inches in excess of the police regulation length. This act of quasi-filial submission touched me; but it was not his knife I feared so much as that of “certain friends.” Some little difference of opinion might arise, some question of money or other argument, and lo! the friends would be at hand (they always are), and one more stranger might disappear among the clefts and gullies of Montalto. Aspromonte, the roughest corner of Italy, is no place for misunderstandings; the knife decides promptly who is right or wrong, and only two weeks ago I was warned not to cross the district without a carbineer on either side of me.
But to have clothed my thoughts in words during his gracious mood would have been supremely unethical. I contented myself with the trite but pregnant remark that things sometimes looked different in the morning, which provoked a pagan fit of laughter; farewelled him “with the Madonna!” and watched as he withdrew under the trees, lithe and buoyant, like a flame that is swallowed up in the night.
Only then did the real business begin. I should be sorry to say into how many houses and wine-shops the obliging owner of the local inn conducted me, in search of a guide. We traversed all the lanes of this straggling and fairly prosperous place, and even those of its suburb Paracorio, evidently of Byzantine origin; the answer was everywhere the same: To Montalto, yes; to Bova, no! Night drew on apace and, as a last resource, he led the way to the dwelling of a gentleman of the old school–a retired brigand, to wit, who, as I afterwards learned, had some ten or twelve homicides to his account. Delianuova, and indeed the whole of Aspromonte, has a bad reputation for crime.
It was our last remaining chance.
We found the patriarch sitting in a simple but tidy chamber, smoking his pipe and playing with a baby; his daughter-in-law rose as we entered, and discreetly moved into an adjoining room. The cheery cut-throat put the baby down to crawl on the floor, and his eyes sparkled when he heard of Bova.
“Ah, one speaks of Bova!” he said. “A fine walk over the mountain!” He much regretted that he was too old for the trip, but so-and-so, he thought, might know something of the country. It pained him, too, that he could not offer me a glass of wine. There was none in the house. In his day, he added, it was not thought right to drink in the modern fashion; this wine-bibbing was responsible for considerable mischief; it troubled the brain, driving men to do things they afterwards repented. He drank only milk, having become accustomed to it during a long life among the hills. Milk cools the blood, he said, and steadies the hand, and keeps a man’s judgment undisturbed.
The person he had named was found after some further search. He was a bronzed, clean-shaven type of about fifty, who began by refusing his services point-blank, but soon relented, on hearing the ex-brigand’s recommendation of his qualities.