By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXXIX. MIDDAY AT PETELIA
Day after day, I look across the six miles of sea to the Lacinian promontory and its column. How reach it? The boatmen are eager for the voyage: it all depends, they say, upon the wind.
Day after day–a dead calm.
“Two hours–three hours–four hours–according!” And they point to the sky. A little breeze, they add, sometimes makes itself felt in the early mornings; one might fix up a sail.
“And for returning at midday?”
“Three hours–four hours–five hours–according!”
The prospect of rocking about for half a day in a small boat under a blazing sky is not my ideal of enjoyment, the novelty of such an experience having worn off a good many years ago. I decide to wait; to make an attack, meanwhile, upon old Petelia–the “Stromboli” of my lady-friend at the Catanzaro Museum....
It is an easy day’s excursion from Cotrone to Strongoli, which is supposed to lie on the site of that ancient, much-besieged town. It sits upon a hill-top, and the diligence which awaits the traveller at the little railway-station takes about two hours to reach the place, climbing up the olive-covered slopes in ample loops and windings.
Of Strangoli my memories, even at this short distance of time, are confused and blurred. The drive up under the glowing beams of morning, the great heat of the last few days, and two or three nights’ sleeplessness at Cotrone had considerably blunted my appetite for new things. I remember seeing some Roman marbles in the church, and being thence conducted into a castle.
Afterwards I reposed awhile in the upper regions, under an olive, and looked down towards the valley of the Neto, which flows not far from here into the Ionian. I thought upon Theocritus, trying to picture this vale of Neaithos as it appeared to him and his shepherds. The woodlands are gone, and the rains of winter, streaming down the earthen slopes, have remodelled the whole face of the country.
Yet, be nature what it may, men will always turn to one who sings so melodiously of eternal verities–of those human tasks and needs which no lapse of years can change. How modern he reads to us, who have been brought into contact with the true spirit by men like Johnson-Cory and Lefroy! And how unbelievably remote is that Bartolozzi-Hellenism which went before! What, for example–what of the renowned pseudo-Theocritus, Salamon Gessner, who sang of this same vale of Neto in his “Daphnis”? Alas, the good Salamon has gone the way of all derivative bores; he is dead–deader than King Psammeticus; he is now moralizing in some decorous Paradise amid flocks of Dresden-China sheep and sugar-watery youths and maidens. Who can read his much-translated masterpiece without unpleasant twinges? Dead as a doornail!
So far as I can recollect, there is an infinity of kissing in “Daphnis." It was an age of sentimentality, and the Greek pastoral ideal, transfused into a Swiss environment of 1810, could not but end in slobber and Gefuehlsduselei. True it is that shepherds have ample opportunities of sporting with Amaryllis in the shade; opportunities which, to my certain knowledge, they do not neglect. Theocritus knew it well enough. But, in a general way, he is niggardly with the precious commodity of kisses; he seems to have thought that in literature, if not in real life, one can have too much of a good thing. Also, being a southerner, he could not have trusted his young folks to remain eternally at the kissing-stage, after the pattern of our fish-like English lovers. Such behaviour would have struck him as improbable; possibly immoral. . . .
From where I sat one may trace a road that winds upwards into the Sila, past Pallagorio. Along its sides are certain mounded heaps and the smoke of refining works. These are mines of that dusky sulphur which I had observed being drawn in carts through the streets of Cotrone. There are some eight or ten of them, they tell me, discovered about thirty years ago–this is all wrong: they are mentioned in 1571–and employing several hundred workmen. It had been my intention to visit these excavations. But now, in the heat of day, I wavered; the distance, even to the nearest of them, seemed inordinately great; and just as I had decided to look for a carnage with a view of being driven there (that curse of conscientiousness!) an amiable citizen snatched me up as his guest for luncheon. He led me, weakly resisting, to a vaulted chamber where, amid a repast of rural delicacies and the converse of his spouse, all such fond projects were straightway forgotten. Instead of sulphur-statistics, I learnt a little piece of local history.
“You were speaking about the emptiness of our streets of Strangoli,” my host said. “And yet, up to a short time ago, there was no emigration from this place. Then a change came about: I’ll tell you how it was. There was a guardia di finanze here–a miserable octroi official. To keep up the name of his family, he married an heiress; not for the sake of having progeny, but–well! He began buying up all the land round about–slowly, systematically, cautiously–till, by dint of threats and intrigues, he absorbed nearly all the surrounding country. Inch by inch, he ate it up; with his wife’s money. That was his idea of perpetuating his memory. All the small proprietors were driven from their domains and fled to America to escape starvation; immense tracts of well-cultivated land are now almost desert. Look at the country! But some day he will get his reward; under the ribs, you know.”
By this purposeful re-creation of those feudal conditions of olden, days, this man has become the best-hated person in the district.
Soon it was time to leave the friendly shelter and inspect in the glaring sunshine the remaining antiquities of Petelia. Never have I felt less inclined for such antiquarian exploits. How much better the hours would have passed in some cool tavern! I went forth, none the less; and was delighted to discover that there are practically no antiquities left–nothing save a few walls standing near a now ruined convent, which is largely built of Roman stone-blocks and bricks. Up to a few years ago, the municipality carried on excavations here and unearthed a few relics which were promptly dispersed. Perhaps some of these are what one sees in the Catanzaro Museum. The paternal government, hearing of this enterprise, claimed the site and sat down upon it; the exposed remains were once more covered up with soil.
A goat-boy, a sad little fellow, sprang out of the earth as I dutifully wandered about here. He volunteered to show me not only Strongoli, but all Calabria; in fact, his heart’s desire was soon manifest: to escape from home and find his way to America under my passport and protection. Here was his chance–a foreigner (American) returning sooner or later to his own country! He pressed the matter with naif forcefulness. Vainly I told him that there were other lands on earth; that I was not going to America. He shook his head and sagely remarked:
“I have understood. You think my journey would cost too much. But you, also, must understand. Once I get work there, I will repay you every farthing.”
As a consolation, I offered him some cigarettes. He accepted one; pensive, unresigned.
The goat-herds had no such cravings–in the days of Theocritus.