By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
The sun has entered the Lion. But the temperature at Cotrone is not excessive–five degrees lower than Taranto or Milan or London. One grows weary, none the less, of the deluge of implacable light that descends, day after day, from the aether. The glistering streets are all but deserted after the early hours of the morning. A few busy folks move about till midday on the pavements; and so do I–in the water. But the long hours following luncheon are consecrated to meditation and repose.
A bundle of Italian newspapers has preceded me hither; upon these I browse dispersedly, while awaiting the soft call to slumber. Here are some provincial sheets–the “Movement” of Castro-villari–the “New Rossano"–the “Bruttian” of Corigliano, with strong literary flavour. Astonishing how decentralized Italy still is, how brimful of purely local patriotism: what conception have these men of Rome as their capital? These articles often reflect a lively turmoil of ideas, well-expressed. Who pays for such journalistic ventures? Typography is cheap, and contributors naturally content themselves with the ample remuneration of appearing in print before their fellow-citizens; a considerable number of copies are exported to America. Yet I question whether the circulation of the “New Rossano,” a fortnightly in its sixth year, can exceed five hundred copies.
But these venial and vapid Neapolitan dailies are my pet aversion. We know them, nous autres, with their odious personalities and playful blackmailing tactics; many “distinguished foreigners,” myself included, could tell a tale anent that subject. Instead of descending to such matters, let me copy–it is too good to translate–a thrilling item of news from the chiefest of them, the Mattino, which touches, furthermore, upon the all-important subject of Calabrian progress.
“CETRARO. Per le continuate premure ed insistenze di questo egregio uffiziale postale Signor Rocca Francesco–che nulla lascia pel bene avviamento del nostro uffizio–presso 1’ on. Dirczione delle poste di Cosenza, si e ottenuta una cassetta postale, che affissa lungo il Corso Carlo Pancaso, ci da la bella commodita di imbucare le nostre corrispondenze per essere rilevate tre volte al giorno non solo, quanto ci evita persino la dolorosa e lunga via crucis che dovevamo percorrere qualvolta si era costretti d’ imbuccare una lettera, essendo il nostro uffizio situato ali’ estremita del paese.
“Tributiamo percio sincera lode al nostro caro uffiziale postale Sig. Rocca, e ci auguriamo che egli continui ancora al miglioramento deli’ uffizio istesso, e merce 1’ opera sua costante ed indefessa siamo sicuri che 1’ uffizio postale di Cetraro assurgera fra non molto ad un’ importanza maggiore di quella che attualmente.”
The erection of a letter-box in the Street of a small place of which 80 per cent of the readers have never so much as heard. ... I begin to understand why the cultured Tarentines do not read these journals.
By far the best part of all such papers is the richly-tinted personal column, wherein lovers communicate with each other, or endeavour to do so. I read it conscientiously from beginning to end, admiring, in my physical capacity, the throbbing passion that prompts such public outbursts of confidence and, from a literary point of view, their lapidary style, model of condensation, impossible to render in English and conditioned by the hard fact that every word costs two sous. Under this painful material stress, indeed, the messages are sometimes crushed into a conciseness which the females concerned must have some difficulty in unperplexing: what on earth does the parsimonious Flower mean by his Delphic fourpenny worth, thus punctuated–
“(You have) not received. How. Safety.”
One cannot help smiling at this circuitous and unromantic method of touching the hearts of ladies who take one’s fancy; at the same time, it testifies to a resourceful vitality, striving to break through the barriers of Hispano-Arabic convention which surround the fair sex in this country. They are nothing if not poetic, these love-sick swains. Arrow murmurs: “My soul lies on your pillow, caressing you softly"; Strawberry laments that “as bird outside nest, I am alone and lost. What sadness,” and Star finds the “Days eternal, till Thursday.” And yet they often choose rather prosaic pseudonyms. Here is Sahara who “suffers from your silence,” while Asthma is “anticipating one endless kiss,” and Old England observing, more ir sorrow than in anger, that he “waited vainly one whole hour.”
But the sagacious Cooked Lobster desires, before commiting himself further, “a personal interview.” He has perhaps been cooked once before.
Letters and numbers are best, after all. So thinks F. N. 13, who is utterly disgusted with his flame–
“Your silence speaks. Useless saying anything. Ca ira.” And likewise 7776–B, a designing rogue and plainly a spendthrift, who wastes ninepence in making it clear that he “wishes to marry rich young lady, forgiving youthful errors.” If I were the girl, I would prefer to take my chances with “Cooked Lobster.”
“Will much-admired young-lady cherries-in-black-hat indicate method possible correspondence 10211, Post-Office?”
How many of these arrows, I wonder, reach their mark?
Ah, here are politics and News of the World, at last. A promising article on the “Direttissimo Roma-Napoli"–the railway line that is to connect the two towns by way of the Pontine Marshes. . . . Dear me! This reads very familiarly. . . . Why, to be sure, it is the identical dissertation, with a few changes by the office-boy, that has cropped up periodically in these pages for the last half-century, or whenever the railway was first projected. The line, as usual, is being projected more strenuously than before, and certain members of the government have goneso far as to declare. . .. H’m! Let me try something else: “The Feminist Movement in England” by Our London Correspondent (who lives in a little side street off the Toledo); that sounds stimulating. . . . The advanced English Feminists–so it runs–are taking the lead in encouraging their torpid sisters on the Continent. . . . Hardly a day passes, that some new manifestation of the Feminist Movement ... in fact, it may be avowed that the Feminist Movement in England. . . .
The air is cooler, as I awake, and looking out of the window I perceive from the mellow light-effects that day is declining.
Towards this sunset hour the unbroken dome of the sky often undergoes a brief transformation. High-piled masses of cloud may then be seen accumulating over the Sila heights and gathering auxiliaries from every quarter; lightning is soon playing about the livid and murky vapours–you can hear the thunders muttering, up yonder, to some drenching downpour. But on the plain the sun continues to shine in vacuously benevolent fashion; nothing is felt of the tempest save unquiet breaths of wind that raise dust-eddies from the country roads and lash the sea into a mock frenzy of crisp little waves. It is the merest interlude. Soon the blue-black drifts have fled away from the mountains that stand out, clear and refreshed, in the twilight. The wind has died down, the storm is over and Cotrone thirsts, as ever, for rain that never comes. Yet they have a Madonna-picture here–a celebrated black Madonna, painted by Saint Luke–who “always procures rain, when prayed to.”
Once indeed the tail of a shower must have passed overhead, for there fell a few sad drops. I hurried abroad, together with some other citizens, to observe the phenomenon. There was no doubt about the matter; it was genuine rain; the drops lay, at respectable intervals, on the white dust of the station turnpike. A boy, who happened to be passing in a cart, remarked that if the shower could have been collected into a saucer or some other small receptacle, it might have sufficed to quench the thirst of a puppy-dog.
I usually take a final dip in the sea, at this time of the evening. After that, it is advisable to absorb an ice or two–they are excellent, at Cotrone–and a glass of Strega liqueur, to ward off the effects of over-work. Next, a brief promenade through the clean, well-lighted streets and now populous streets, or along the boulevard Margherita to view the rank and fashion taking the air by the murmuring waves, under the cliff-like battlements of Charles the Fifth’s castle; and so to dinner.
This meal marks the termination of my daily tasks; nothing serious is allowed to engage my attention, once that repast is ended; I call for a chair and sit down at one of the small marble-topped tables in the open street and watch the crowd as it floats around me, smoking a Neapolitan cigar and imbibing, alternately, ices and black coffee until, towards midnight, a final bottle of vino di Ciro is uncorked–fit seal for the labours of the day.
One might say much in praise of Calabrian wine. The land is full of pleasant surprises for the cenophilist, and one of these days I hope to embody my experiences in the publication of a wine-chart of the province with descriptive text running alongside–the purchasers of which, if few, will certainly be of the right kind. The good Dr. Barth–all praise to him!–has already done something of the kind for certain parts of Italy, but does not so much as mention Calabria. And yet here nearly every village has its own type of wine and every self-respecting family its own peculiar method of preparation, little known though they be outside the place of production, on account of the octroi laws which strangle internal trade and remove all stimulus to manufacture a good article for export. This wine of Ciro, for instance, is purest nectar, and so is that which grows still nearer at hand in the classical vale of the Neto and was praised, long ago, by old Pliny; and so are at least two dozen more. For even as Gregorovius says that the smallest Italian community possesses its duly informed antiquarian, if you can but put your hand upon him, so, I may be allowed to add, every little place hereabouts can boast of at least one individual who will give you good wine, provided–provided you go properly to work to find him.
Now although, when young, the Calabrian Bacchus has a wild-eyed beaute du diable which appeals to one’s expansive moods, he already begins to totter, at seven years of age, in sour, decrepit eld. To pounce upon him at the psychological moment, to discover in whose cool and cobwebby cellar he is dreaming out his golden summer of manhood–that is what a foreigner can never, never hope to achieve, without competent local aid.
To this end, I generally apply to the priests; not because they are the greatest drunkards (far from it; they are mildly epicurean, or even abstemious) but by reason of their unrivalled knowledge of personalities. They know exactly who has been able to keep his liquor of such and such a year, and who has been obliged to sell or partially adulterate it; they know, from the confessional of the wives, the why and wherefore of all such private family affairs and share, with the chemist, the gift of seeing furthest into the tangled web of home life. They are “gialosi,” however, of these acquirements, and must be approached in the right spirit–a spirit of humility. But if you tactfully lead up to the subject by telling of the manifold hardships of travel in foreign lands, the discomfort of life in hostelries, the food that leaves so much to be desired and, above all, the coarse wine that is already beginning, you greatly fear, to injure your sensitive spleen (an important organ, in Calabria), inducing a hypochondriacal tendency to see all the beauties of this fair land in an odious and sombre light–turning your day into night, as it were–it must be an odd priest, indeed, who is not compassionately moved to impart the desired information regarding the whereabouts of the best vino di famiglia at that moment obtainable. After all, it costs him nothing to do a double favour–one to yourself and another to the proprietor of the wine, doubtless an old friend of his, who will be able to sell his stuff to a foreigner 20 per cent dearer than to a native.
And failing the priests, I go to an elderly individual of that tribe of red-nosed connaisseurs, the coachmen, ever thirsty and mercenary souls, who for a small consideration may be able to disclose not only this secret, but others far more mysterious.
As to your host at the inn–he raises not the least objection to your importing alien liquor into his house. His own wine, he tells you, is last year’s vintage and somewhat harsh (slightly watered, he might add)–and why not? The ordinary customers are gentlemen of commerce who don’t care a fig what they eat and drink, so long as there is enough of it. No horrible suggestions are proffered concerning corkage; on the contrary, he tests your wine, smacks his lips, and thanks you for communicating a valuable discovery. He thinks he will buy a bottle or two for the use of himself and a few particular friends. . . .
Midnight has come and gone. The street is emptying; the footsteps of passengers begin to ring hollow. I arise, for my customary stroll in the direction of the cemetery, to attune myself to repose by shaking off those restlessly trivial images of humanity which might otherwise haunt my slumbers.
Town visions are soon left behind; it is very quiet here under the hot, starlit heavens; nothing speaks of man save the lighthouse flashing in ghostly activity–no, it is a fixed light–on the distant Cape of the Column. And nothing breaks the stillness save the rhythmic breathing of the waves, and a solitary cricket that has yet to finish his daily task of instrumental music, far away, in some warm crevice of the hills.
A suave odour rises up from the narrow patch of olives, and figs loaded with fruit, and ripening vines, that skirts the path by the beach. The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
And so I plough my way through the sand, in the darkness, encompassed by tepid exhalations of earth and sea. Another spirit has fallen upon me–a spirit of biblical calm. Here, then, stood the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation! It is indeed hard to realize that a town thronged with citizens covered all this area. Yet so it is. Every footstep is a memory. Along this very track walked the sumptuous ladies of Croton on their way to deposit their vain jewels before the goddess Hera, at the bidding of Pythagoras. On this spot, maybe, stood that public hall which was specially built for the delivery of his lectures.
No doubt the townsfolk had been sunk in apathetic luxury; the time was ripe for a Messiah.
And lo! he appeared.