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   Chapter 6 No.6

Italian Journeys By William Dean Howells Characters: 10227

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Standing on the height among the ruins of Tiberius's palace, the patriarch had looked out over the waters, and predicted for the morrow the finest weather that had ever been known in that region; but in spite of this prophecy the day dawned stormily, and at breakfast time we looked out doubtfully on waves lashed by driving rain. The entrance to the Blue Grotto, to visit which we had come to Capri, is by a semicircular opening, some three feet in width and two feet in height, and just large enough to admit a small boat. One lies flat in the bottom of this, waits for the impulse of a beneficent wave, and is carried through the mouth of the cavern, and rescued from it in like manner by some receding billow. When the wind is in the wrong quarter, it is impossible to enter the grot at all; and we waited till nine o'clock for the storm to abate before we ventured forth. In the mean time one of the Danish gentlemen, who-after assisting his companion to compel the boatmen to justice the night before-had stayed at Capri, and had risen early to see the grotto, returned from it, and we besieged him with a hundred questions concerning it. But he preserved the wise silence of the boy who goes in to see the six-legged calf, and comes out impervious to the curiosity of all the boys who are doubtful whether the monster is worth their money. Our Dane would merely say that it was now possible to visit the Blue Grotto; that he had seen it; that he was glad he had seen it. As to its blueness, Messieurs-yes, it is blue. C'est i dire….

The ladies had been amusing themselves with a perusal of the hotel register, and the notes of admiration or disgust with which the different sojourners at the inn had filled it. As a rule, the English people found fault with the poor little hostelry and the French people praised it. Commander Joshing and Lieutenant Prattent, R.N., of the former nation, "were cheated by the donkey women, and thought themselves extremely fortunate to have escaped with their lives from the effects of Capri vintage. The landlord was an old Cossack." On the other hand, we read, "J. Cruttard, homme de lettres, a passè quinze jours ici, et n'a eu que des félicités du patron de cêt h?tel et de sa famille." Cheerful man of letters! His good-natured record will keep green a name little known to literature. Who are G. Bradshaw, Duke of New York, and Signori Jones and Andrews, Hereditary Princes of the United States? Their patrician names followed the titles of several English nobles in the register. But that which most interested the ladies in this record was the warning of a terrified British matron against any visit to the Blue Grotto except in the very calmest weather. The British matron penned her caution after an all but fatal experience. The ladies read it aloud to us, and announced that for themselves they would be contented with pictures of the Blue Grotto and our account of its marvels.

On the beach below the hotel lay the small boats of the guides to the Blue Grotto, and we descended to take one of them. The fixed rate is a franc for each person. The boatmen wanted five francs for each of us. We explained that although not indigenous to Capri, or even Italy, we were not of the succulent growth of travellers, and would not be eaten. We retired to our vantage ground on the heights. The guides called us to the beach again. They would take us for three francs apiece, or say six francs for both of us. We withdrew furious to the heights again, where we found honest Antonino, who did us the pleasure to yell to his fellow-scoundrels on the beach, "You had better take these signori for a just price. They are going to the syndic to complain of you." At which there arose a lamentable outcry among the boatmen, and they called with one voice for us to come down and go for a franc apiece. This fable teaches that common-carriers are rogues everywhere; but that whereas we are helpless in their hands at home, we may bully them into rectitude in Italy, where they are afraid of the law.

We had scarcely left the landing of the hotel in the boat of the patriarch-for I need hardly say he was first and most rapacious of the plundering crew-when we found ourselves in very turbulent waters, in the face of mighty bluffs, rising inaccessible from the sea. Here and there, where their swarthy fronts were softened with a little verdure, goat-paths wound up and down among the rocks; and midway between the hotel and the grotto, in a sort of sheltered nook, we saw the Roman masonry of certain antique baths-baths of Augustus, says Valery; baths of Tiberius, say the Capriotes, zealous for the honor of their infamous hero. Howbeit, this was all we saw on the way to the Blue Grotto. Every moment the waves rose higher, emulous of the bluffs, which would not have afforded a foothold, or any thing to cling to, had we been upset and washed against them-and we began to talk of the immortality of the soul. As we neared the grotto, the patriarch entertained us with stories of the perilous adventures of people who insisted upon entering it in stormy weather,-esp

ecially of a French painter who had been imprisoned in it four days, and kept alive only on rum, which the patriarch supplied him, swimming into the grotto with a bottle-full at a time. "And behold us arrived, gentlemen!" said he, as he brought the boat skillfully around in front of the small semicircular opening at the base of the lofty bluff. We lie flat on the bottom of the boat, and complete the immersion of that part of our clothing which the driving torrents of rain had spared. The wave of destiny rises with us upon its breast-sinks, and we are inside of the Blue Grotto. Not so much blue as gray, however, and the water about the mouth of it green rather than azure. They say that on a sunny day both the water and the roof of the cavern are of the vividest cerulean tint-and I saw the grotto so represented in the windows of the paint-shops at Naples. But to my own experience it did not differ from other caves in color or form: there was the customary clamminess in the air; the sound of dropping water; the sense of dull and stupid solitude,-a little relieved in this case by the mighty music of the waves breaking against the rocks outside. The grot is not great in extent, and the roof in the rear shelves gradually down to the water. Valery says that some remains of a gallery have caused the supposition that the grotto was once the scene of Tiberius's pleasures; and the Prussian painter who discovered the cave was led to seek it by something he had read of a staircase by which Barbarossa used to descend into a subterranean retreat from the town of Anacapri on the mountain top. The slight fragment of ruin which we saw in one corner of the cave might be taken in confirmation of both theories; but the patriarch attributed the work to Barbarossa, being probably tired at last of hearing Tiberius so much talked about.

We returned, soaked and disappointed, to the hotel, where we found Antonino very doubtful about the possibility of getting back that day to Sorrento, and disposed, when pooh-poohed out of the notion of bad weather, to revive the fiction of a prohibitory consul. He was staying in Capri at our expense, and the honest fellow would willingly have spent a fortnight there.

We summoned the landlord to settlement, and he came with all his household to present the account,-each one full of visible longing, yet restrained from asking buonamano by a strong sense of previous contract. It was a deadly struggle with them, but they conquered themselves, and blessed us as we departed. The pretty muletress took leave of us on the beach, and we set sail for Sorrento, the ladies crouching in the bottom of the boat, and taking their sea-sickness in silence. As we drew near the beautiful town, we saw how it lay on a plateau, at the foot of the mountains, but high above the sea. Antonino pointed out to us the house of Tasso,-in which the novelist Cooper also resided when in Sorrento,-a white house not handsomer nor uglier than the rest, with a terrace looking out over the water. The bluffs are pierced by numerous arched caverns, as I have said, giving shelter to the fishermen's boats, and here and there a devious stairway mounts to their crests. Up one of these we walked, noting how in the house above us the people, with that puerility usually mixed with the Italian love of beauty, had placed painted busts of terra-cotta in the windows to simulate persons looking out. There was nothing to blame in the breakfast we found ready at the Hotel Rispoli; and as for the grove of slender, graceful orange-trees in the midst of which the hotel stood, and which had lavished the fruit in every direction on the ground, why, I would willingly give for it all the currant-bushes, with their promises of jelly and jam, on which I gaze at this moment.

Antonino attended us to our carriage when we went away. He had kept us all night at Capri, it is true, and he had brought us in at the end for a prodigious buonamano; yet I cannot escape the conviction that he parted from us with an unfulfilled purpose of greater plunder, and I have a compassion, which I here declare, for the strangers who fell next into his hands. He was good enough at the last moment to say that his name, Silver-Eye, was a nickname given him according to a custom of the Sorrentines; and he made us a farewell bow that could not be bought in America for money.

At the station of Castellamare sat a curious cripple on the stones,-a man with little, short, withered legs, and a pleasant face. He showed us the ticket-office, and wanted nothing for the politeness. After we had been in the waiting-room a brief time, he came swinging himself in upon his hands, followed by another person, who, when the cripple had planted himself finally and squarely on the ground, whipped out a tape from his pocket and took his measure for a suit of clothes, the cripple twirling and twisting himself about in every way for the tailor's convenience. Nobody was surprised or amused at the sight, and when his measure was thus publicly taken, the cripple gravely swung himself out as he had swung himself in.

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