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   Chapter 5 No.5

Italian Journeys By William Dean Howells Characters: 19079

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I have no doubt

"Calm Capri waits,"

where we left it, in the Gulf of Salerno, for any traveller who may choose to pay it a visit; but at the time we were there we felt that it was on exhibition for that day only, and would, when we departed, disappear in its sapphire sea, and be no more; just as Niagara ceases to play as soon as your back is turned, and Venice goes out like a pyrotechnic display, and all marvelously grand and lovely things make haste to prove their impermanence.

We delayed some days in Naples in hopes of fine weather, and at last chose a morning that was warm and cloudy at nine o'clock, and burst into frequent passions of rain before we reached Sorrento at noon The first half of the journey was made by rail, and brought us to Castellamare, whence we took carriage for Sorrento, and oranges, and rapture,-winding along the steep shore of the sea, and under the brows of wooded hills that rose high above us into the misty weather, and caught here and there the sunshine on their tops. In that heavenly climate no day can long be out of humor, and at Sorrento we found ours very pleasant, and rode delightedly through the devious streets, looking up to the terraced orange-groves on one hand, and down to the terraced orange-groves on the other, until at a certain turning of the way we encountered Antonino Occhio d'Argento, whom fate had appointed to be our boatman to Capri. We had never heard of Antonino before, and indeed had intended to take a boat from one of the hotels; but when this corsair offered us his services, there was that guile in his handsome face, that cunning in his dark eyes, that heart could not resist, and we halted our carriage and took him at once.

He kept his boat in one of those caverns which honey-comb the cliff under Sorrento, and afford a natural and admirable shelter for such small craft as may be dragged up out of reach of the waves, and here I bargained with him before finally agreeing to go with him to Capri. In Italy it is customary for a public carrier when engaged to give his employer as a pledge the sum agreed upon for the service, which is returned with the amount due him, at the end, if the service has been satisfactory; and I demanded of Antonino this caparra, as it is called. "What caparra?" said he, lifting the lid of his wicked eye with his forefinger, "this is the best caparra," meaning a face as honest and trustworthy as the devil's. The stroke confirmed my subjection to Antonino, and I took his boat without further parley, declining even to feel the muscle of his boatmen's arms, which he exposed to my touch in evidence that they were strong enough to row us swiftly to Capri. The men were but two in number, but they tossed the boat lightly into the surf, and then lifted me aboard, and rowed to the little pier from which the ladies and T. got in.

The sun shone, the water danced and sparkled, and presently we raised our sail, and took the gale that blew for Capri-an oblong height rising ten miles beyond out of the heart of the azure gulf. On the way thither there was little interest but that of natural beauty in the bold, picturesque coast we skirted for some distance; though on one mighty rock there were the ruins of a seaward-looking Temple of Hercules, with arches of the unmistakable Roman masonry, below which the receding waves rushed and poured over a jetting ledge in a thunderous cataract.

Antonino did his best to entertain us, and lectured us unceasingly upon his virtue and his wisdom, dwelling greatly on the propriety and good policy of always speaking the truth. This spectacle of veracity became intolerable after a while, and I was goaded to say: "Oh then, if you never tell lies, you expect to go to Paradise." "Not at all," answered Antonino compassionately, "for I have sinned much. But the lie doesn't go ahead" (non va avanti), added this Machiavelli of boatmen; yet I think he was mistaken, for he deceived us with perfect ease and admirable success. All along, he had pretended that we could see Capri, visit the Blue Grotto, and return that day; but as we drew near the island, painful doubts began to trouble him, and he feared the sea would be too rough for the Grotto part of the affair. "But there will be an old man," he said, with a subtile air of prophecy, "waiting for us on the beach. This old man is one of the Government guides to the Grotto, and he will say whether it is to be seen to-day."

And certainly there was the old man on the beach-a short patriarch, with his baldness covered by a kind of bloated woolen sock-a blear-eyed sage, and a bare-legged. He waded through the surf toward the boat, and when we asked him whether the Grotto was to be seen, he paused knee-deep in the water, (at a secret signal from Antonino, as I shall always believe,) put on a face of tender solemnity, threw back his head a little, brought his hand to his cheek, expanded it, and said, "No; to-day, no! To-morrow, yes!" Antonino leaped joyously ashore, and delivered us over to the old man, to be guided to the Hotel di Londra, while he drew his boat upon the land. He had reason to be contented, for this artifice of the patriarch of Capri relieved him from the necessity of verifying to me the existence of an officer of extraordinary powers in the nature of a consul, who, he said, would not permit boats to leave Capri for the main-land after five o'clock in the evening.

When it was decided that we should remain on the island till the morrow, we found so much time on our hands, after bargaining for our lodging at the Hotel di Londra, that we resolved to ascend the mountain to the ruins of the palaces of Tiberius, and to this end we contracted for the services of certain of the muletresses that had gathered about the inn-gate, clamorously offering their beasts. The muletresses chosen were a matron of mature years and of a portly habit of body; her daughter, a mere child; and her niece, a very pretty girl of eighteen, with a voice soft and sweet as a bird's. They placed the ladies, one on each mule, and then, while the mother and daughter devoted themselves to the hind-quarters of the foremost animal, the lovely niece brought up the rear of the second beast, and the patriarch went before, and T. and I trudged behind. So the cavalcade ascended; first, from the terrace of the hotel overlooking the bit of shipping village on the beach, and next from the town of Capri, clinging to the hill-sides, midway between sea and sky, until at last it reached the heights on which the ruins stand. Our way was through narrow lanes, bordered by garden walls; then through narrow streets bordered by dirty houses; and then again by gardens, but now of a better sort than the first, and belonging to handsome villas.

On the road our pretty muletress gossiped cheerfully, and our patriarch gloomily, and between the two we accumulated a store of information concerning the present inhabitants of Capri, which, I am sorry to say, has now for the most part failed me. I remember that they said most of the land-owners at Capri were Neapolitans, and that these villas were their country-houses; though they pointed out one of the stateliest of the edifices as belonging to a certain English physician who had come to visit Capri for a few days, and had now been living on the island twenty years, having married (said the muletress) the prettiest and poorest girl in the town, from this romance-something like which the muletress seemed to think might well happen concerning herself-we passed lightly to speak of kindred things, the muletress responding gayly between the blows she bestowed upon her beast. The accent of these Capriotes has something of German harshness and heaviness: they say non bosso instead of non posso, and monto instead of mondo, and interchange the t and d a good deal; and they use for father the Latin pater, instead of padre. But this girl's voice, as I said, was very musical, and the island's accent was sweet upon her tongue.

I.-What is your name?

She.-Caterina, little sir (signorin).

I.-And how old are you, Caterina?

She.-Eighteen, little sir.

I.-And you are betrothed?

She feigns not to understand; but the patriarch, who has dropped behind to listen to our discourse, explains,-"He asks if you are in love."

She.-Ah, no! little sir, not yet.

I.-No? A little late, it seems to me. I think there must be some good-looking youngster who pleases you-no?

She.-Ah, no! one must work, one cannot think of marrying. We are four sisters, and we have only the buonamano from hiring these mules, and we must spin and cook.

The Patriarch.-Don't believe her; she has two lovers.

She.-Ah, no! It isn't true. He tells a fib-he!

But, nevertheless, she seemed to love to be accused of lovers,-such is the guile of the female heart in Capri,-and laughed over the patriarch's wickedness. She confided that she ate maccaroni once a day, and she talked constantly of eating it just as the Northern Italians always talk of polenta. She was a true daughter of the isle, and had never left it but once in her life, when she went to Naples. "Naples was beautiful, yes; but one always loves one's own country the best." She was very attentive and good, but at the end was rapacious of more and more buonamano. "Have patience with her, sir," said the blameless Antonino, who witnessed her greediness; "they do not understand certain matters here, poor little things!"

As for the patriarch, he was full of learning relative to himself

and to Capri; and told me with much elaboration that the islanders lived chiefly by fishing, and gained something also by their vineyards. But they were greatly oppressed by taxes, and the strict enforcement of the conscriptions, and they had little love for the Italian Government, and wished the Bourbons back again. The Piedmontese, indeed, misgoverned them horribly. There was the Blue Grotto, for example: formerly travellers paid the guides five, six, ten francs for viewing it; but now the Piedmontese had made a tariff, and the poor guides could only exact a franc from each person. Things were in a ruinous condition.

By this we had arrived at a little inn on the top of the mountain, very near the ruins of the palaces, "Here," said the patriarch, "it is customary for strangers to drink a bottle of the wine of Tiberius." We obediently entered the hostelry, and the landlord-a white-toothed, brown-faced, good-humored peasant-gallantly ran forward and presented the ladies with bouquets of roses. We thought it a pretty and graceful act, but found later that it was to be paid for, like all pretty and graceful things in Italy; for when we came to settle for the wine, and the landlord wanted more than justice, he urged that he had presented the ladies with flowers,-yet he equally gave me his benediction when I refused to pay for his politeness.

"Now here," again said the patriarch in a solemn whisper, "you can see the Tarantella danced for two francs; whereas down at your inn, if you hire the dancers through your landlord, it will cost you five or six francs." The difference was tempting, and decided us in favor of an immediate Tarantella. The muletresses left their beasts to browse about the door of the inn and came into the little public room, where were already the wife and sister of the landlord, and took their places vis-à-vis, while the landlord seized his tambourine and beat from it a wild and lively measure. The women were barefooted and hoopless, and they gave us the Tarantella with all the beauty of natural movement and free floating drapery, and with all that splendid grace of pose which animates the antique statues and pictures of dancers. They swayed themselves in time with the music; then, filled with its passionate impulse, advanced and retreated and whirled away;-snapping their fingers above their heads, and looking over their shoulders with a gay and a laughing challenge to each other, they drifted through the ever-repeated figures of flight and wooing, and wove for us pictures of delight that remained upon the brain like the effect of long-pondered vivid colors, and still return to illumine and complete any representation of that indescribable dance. Heaven knows what peril there might have been in the beauty and grace of the pretty muletress but for the spectacle of her fat aunt, who, I must confess, could only burlesque some of her niece's airiest movements, and whose hard-bought buoyancy was at once pathetic and laughable. She earned her share of the spoils certainly, and she seemed glad when the dance was over, and went contentedly back to her mule.

The patriarch had early retired from the scene as from a vanity with which he was too familiar for enjoyment, and I found him, when the Tarantella was done, leaning on the curb of the precipitous rock immediately behind the inn, over which the Capriotes say Tiberius used to cast the victims of his pleasures after he was sated with them. These have taken their place in the insular imagination as Christian martyrs, though it is probable that the poor souls were any thing but Nazarenes. It took a stone thrown from the brink of the rock twenty seconds to send back a response from the water below, and the depth was too dizzying to look into. So we looked instead toward Amalfi, across the Gulf of Salerno, and toward Naples, across her bay. On every hand the sea was flushed with sunset, and an unspeakable calm dwelt upon it, while the heights rising from it softened and softened in the distance, and withdrew themselves into dreams of ghostly solitude and phantom city. His late majesty the Emperor Tiberius is well known to have been a man of sentiment, and he may often have sought this spot to enjoy the evening hour. It was convenient to his palace, and he could here give a fillip to his jaded sensibilities by popping a boon companion over the cliff, and thus enjoy the fine poetic contrast which his perturbed and horrible spirit afforded to that scene of innocence and peace. Later he may have come hither also, when lust failed, when all the lewd plays and devices of his fancy palled upon his senses, when sin had grown insipid and even murder ceased to amuse, and his majesty uttered his despair to the Senate in that terrible letter: "What to write to you, or how to write, I know not; and what not to write at this time, may all the gods and goddesses torment me wore than I daily feel that I suffer if I do know."

The poor patriarch was also a rascal in his small way, and he presently turned to me with a countenance full of cowardly trouble and base remorse, "I pray you, little sir, not to tell the landlord below there that you have seen the Tarantella danced here; for he has daughters and friends to dance it for strangers, and gets a deal of money by it. So, if he asks you to see it, do me the pleasure to say, lest he should take on (pigliarsi) with me about it: 'Thanks, but we saw the Tarantella at Pompeii!'" It was the last place in Italy where we were likely to have seen the Tarantella; but these simple people are improvident in lying, as in every thing else.

The patriarch had a curious spice of malice in him, which prompted him to speak evil of all, and to as many as he dared. After we had inspected the ruins of the emperor's villa, a clownish imbecile of a woman, professing to be the wife of the peasant who had made the excavations, came forth out of a cleft in the rock and received tribute of us-why, I do not know. The patriarch abetted the extortion, but Parthianly remarked, as we turned away, "Her husband ought to be here; but this is a festa, and he is drinking and gaming in the village," while the woman protested that he was sick at home. There was also a hermit living in great publicity among the ruins, and the patriarch did not spare him a sneering comment. [This hermit I have heard was not brought up to the profession of anchorite, but was formerly a shoemaker, and according to his own confession abandoned his trade because he could better indulge a lethargic habit in the character of religious recluse.] He had even a bad word for Tiberius, and reproached the emperor for throwing people over the cliff, though I think it a sport in which he would himself have liked to join. The only human creatures with whom he seemed to be in sympathy were the brigands of the main-land, of whom he spoke poetically as exiles and fugitives.

As for the palace of Tiberius, which we had come go far and so toilsomely to see, it must be confessed there was very little left of it. When that well-meaning but mistaken prince died, the Senate demolished his pleasure-houses at Capri, and left only those fragments of the beautiful brick masonry which yet remain, clinging indestructible to the rocks, and strewing the ground with rubbish. The recent excavations have discovered nothing besides the uninteresting foundations of the building, except a subterranean avenue leading from one part of the palace to another: this is walled with delicate brickwork, and exquisitely paved with white marble mosaic; and this was all that witnessed of the splendor of the wicked emperor. Nature, the all-forgetting, all-forgiving, that takes the red battle-field into her arms and hides it with blossom and harvest, could not remember his iniquity, greater than the multitudinous murder of war. The sea, which the despot's lust and fear had made so lonely, slept with the white sails of boats secure upon its breast; the little bays and inlets, the rocky clefts and woody dells, had forgotten their desecration; and the gathering twilight, the sweetness of the garden-bordered pathway, and the serenity of the lonely landscape, helped us to doubt history.

We slowly returned to the inn by the road we had ascended, noting again the mansion of the surprising Englishman who had come to Capri for three months and had remained thirty years; passed through the darkness of the village,-dropped here and there with the vivid red of a lamp,-and so reached the inn at last, where we found the landlord ready to have the Tarantella danced for us. We framed a discreeter fiction than that prepared for us by the patriarch, and went in to dinner, where there were two Danish gentlemen in dispute with as many rogues of boatmen, who, having contracted to take them back that night to Naples, were now trying to fly their bargain and remain at Capri till the morrow. The Danes beat them, however, and then sat down to dinner, and to long stories of the imposture and villany of the Italians. One of them chiefly bewailed himself that the day before, having unwisely eaten a dozen oysters without agreeing first with the oyster-man upon the price, he had been obliged to pay this scamp's extortionate demand to the full, since he was unable to restore him his property. We thought that something like this might have happened to an imprudent man in any country, but we did not the less join him in abusing the Italians-the purpose for which foreigners chiefly visit Italy.

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