Part 1 out of 5
Tonya Allen, Eric Eldred, Charles Franks, and the Online Distributed
"SOUTH WIND," "THEY WENT," "TOGETHER," ETC.
TO HIS FRIEND
WHO PRINTED SOME OF THESE TRIVIALITIES
IN THAT "ANGLO-ITALIAN REVIEW"
WHICH DESERVED A BETTER FATE
SANT' AGATA, SORRENTO
What ages ago it seems, that "Great War"!
And what enthusiasts we were! What visionaries, to imagine that in such
an hour of emergency a man might discover himself to be fitted for some
work of national utility without that preliminary wire-pulling which was
essential in humdrum times of peace! How we lingered in long queues, and
stamped up and down, and sat about crowded, stuffy halls, waiting, only
waiting, to be asked to do something for our country by any little
guttersnipe who happened to have been jockeyed into the requisite
position of authority! What innocents....
I have memories of several afternoons spent at a pleasant place near St.
James's Park station, whither I went in search of patriotic employment.
It was called, I think, Board of Trade Labour Emergency Bureau (or
something equally lucid and concise), and professed to find work for
everybody. Here, in a fixed number of rooms, sat an uncertain number of
chubby young gentlemen, all of whom seemed to be of military age, or
possibly below it; the Emergency Bureau was then plainly--for it may
have changed later on--a hastily improvised shelter for privileged
sucklings, a kind of nursery on advanced Montessori methods. Well, that
was not my concern. One must trust the Government to know its own
During my second or third visit to this hygienic and well-lighted
establishment I was introduced, most fortunately, into the sanctuary of
Mr. R----, whose name was familiar to me. Was he not his brother's
brother? He was. A real stroke of luck!
Mr. R----, a pink little thing, laid down the pen he had snatched up as
I entered the room, and began gazing at me quizzically through enormous
tortoise-shell-rimmed goggles, after the fashion of a precocious infant
who tries to look like daddy. What might he do for me?
We had a short talk, during which various forms were conscientiously
filled up as to my qualifications, such as they were. Of course, there
was nothing doing just then; but one never knows, does one? Would I mind
Would I mind? I should think not. I should like nothing better. It did
one good to be in contact with this youthful optimist and listen to his
blithe and pleasing prattle; he was so hopeful, so philosophic, so
cheery; his whole nature seemed to exhale the golden words: "Never say
die." And no wonder. He ought to have been at the front, but some
guardian angel in the haute finance had dumped him into this soft and
safe job: it was enough to make anybody cheerful. One should be
cautious, none the less, how one criticises the action of the
authorities. May be they kept him at the Emergency Bureau for the
express purpose of infusing confidence, by his bright manner, into the
minds of despondent patriots like myself, and of keeping the flag flying
in a general way--a task for which he, a German Jew, was pre-eminently
Be that as it may, his consolatory tactics certainly succeeded in my
case, and I went home quite infected with his rosy cheeks and words.
Yet, on the occasion of my next visit a week or two later, there was
still nothing doing--not just then, though one never knows, does one?
"Tried the War Office?" he added airily.
The War Office was a nightmare in those early days. It resembled
Liverpool Street station on the evening of a rainless Bank Holiday. The
only clear memory I carried away--and even this may have been due to
some hallucination--was that of a voice shouting at me through the
rabble: "Can you fly?" Such was my confusion that I believe I answered
in the negative, thereby losing, probably, a lucrative billet as
Chaplain to the Forces or veterinary surgeon in the Church Lads'
Brigade. Things might have been different had my distinguished cousin
still been on the spot; I, too, might have been accommodated with a big
desk and small work after the manner of the genial Mr. R----. He died in
harness, unfortunately, soon after the outbreak of war.
I said to my young friend:
"Everybody tells one to try the War Office--I don't know why. Of course
I tried it. I wish I had a shilling for every hour I wasted in that
"Ah!" he replied. "I feel sure a good many men would like to be paid at
that rate. Anyhow, trust me. We'll fix you up, sooner or later. (He kept
his word.) Why not have a whack at the F.O., meanwhile?"
"Because I have already had a whack at it."
I then possessed, indeed, in reply to an application on my part, a
holograph of twelve pages in the elegant calligraphy of H.M.
Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the same gentleman who was
viciously attacked by the Pankhurst section for his supposed
pro-Germanism. It conveyed no grain of hope. Other Government
Departments, he opined, might well be depleted at this moment; the
Foreign Office was in exactly the reverse position. It overflowed with
diplomatic and consular officials returned, perforce, from belligerent
countries, and now in search of occupation. Was it not natural, was it
not right, to give the preference to them? One was really at a loss to
know what to do with all those people. He had tried, hitherto in vain,
to find some kind of job for his own brother.
A straightforward, convincing statement. Acting on the hint, I visited
the Education Office, notoriously overstaffed since Tudor days; it might
now be emptier; clerical work might be obtained there in substitution of
some youngster who had been induced to join the colours. I poked my nose
into countless recesses, and finally unearthed my man.
They were full up, said Mr. F----.
Then, after some further conversation as to my capacities, he thought he
might find me employment as teacher of science in the country, to
replace somebody or other.
The notion was distasteful to me. I am not averse to learning from the
young; I only once tried to teach them--at a ragged school, long since
pulled down, near Ladbroke Grove, where I soon discovered that my little
pupils knew a great deal more than I did, more, indeed, than was good
for body or soul. Still, this was a tangible, definite offer of
unremunerative but at the same time semi-pseudo-patriotic work, not to
be sneezed at. An idea occurred to me.
"Supposing I stick it out and give satisfaction, shall I be able to
interchange later into this department? I am more fitted for office
duties. In fact, I have had a certain experience of them."
"No chance of that," he replied. "It is the German system. Their
schoolmasters are sometimes taken to do administrative work at
head-quarters, and vice versa. Our English rule is: Once a teacher,
always a teacher."
Here was a deadlock. For in such matters as teaching, a man may put a
strain on himself for a certain length of time; he may even be a
success, up to a point. But if he lacks the temperamental gift of
holding classes, the results in the long run will not be fair to the
children, to say nothing of himself. With reluctance I rose to depart,
Mr. F---- adding, by way of letting me down gently:
"Tried the War Office?"
If the War Office was too lively, this place was too slumberous by half.
A cobwebby, Rip-van-Winkle-ish atmosphere brooded about those passages
and chambers. One could not help thinking that a little "German system"
might work wonders here. And this is merely one of several similar sites
I explored, and endeavoured to exploit, for patriotic purposes; I am
here only jotting down a few of the more important of those that occur
And, oh! for the brush of a Hogarth to depict the gallery of faces with
which I came in contact as I went along. They were all different, yet
all alike; different in their degrees of beefiness, stolidity, and
self-sufficiency, but plainly of the same parentage--British to the
backbone; British of the wrong kind, with a sprinkling of Welshmen,
Irishmen, and Jews. Not a Scotsman discoverable in that whole mob of
complacent office-jacks. My countrymen were conspicuous by their
absence; they were otherwise engaged, in the field, the colonies, the
engine-room. I can only remember one single exception to this rule, this
type; it was the head of the Censorship Department.
For of course I offered my services there, climbing up that decent
red-carpeted stairway, and glad to find myself among respectable
surroundings after all the unseemly holes I had lately wallowed in. I
sent up a card which, to my surprise, caused me to be ushered forthwith
into the presence of the Chief, who may have heard of my existence from
some mutual friend. Here, at all events, was a man with a face worth
looking at, a man who had done notable things in his day. What a relief,
moreover, to be able to talk to a gentleman for a change! I wished I
could have had him to myself for five minutes; there were one or two
things one would have liked to learn from him. Unfortunately he was
surrounded, as such people are, by half a dozen of the characteristic
masks. For the rest, His ex-Excellency seemed to be ineffably bored with
his new functions.
"What on earth brings you here?" he began in a fascinatingly
absent-minded style, as if he had known me all my life, and with an
inimitable nasal drawl. "This is a rotten job, my dear sir. Rotten! I
cannot recommend it. Not your style at all, I should say."
"But, my dear Sir F----, I am not applying for your job. Something
subordinate, I mean. Anything, anything."
"What? Down there, cutting up newspapers at twenty-two shillings a week?
No, no. Let's have your address, and we will communicate with you when
we find something worth your while. By the way, have you tried the War
And it stands to reason that I tried the Munitions more than once.
It was my rare good fortune--luck pursued me on these patriotic
expeditions--to come face to face, at the Munitions, with the fons et
origo; the deputy fountain-head, that is to say; a very peculiar
private-secretary-in-chief for that department. He was a perpendicular,
iron-grey personality, if I remember rightly, who smelt of some
indifferent hair-wash and lost no time in giving you to understand that
he was preternaturally busy.
Did I know anything about machinery?
Nothing to speak of, I replied. As co-manager and proprietor of some
cotton mills employing several hundred hands for spinning and weaving, I
naturally learnt how to handle a fair number of machines--sufficiently
well, at all events, to start and stop them and tell the girls how to
avoid being scalped or having their arms torn out whenever I happened to
be passing that way. This life also gave me some experience, useful
perhaps at the Munitions, in dealing with factory-hands----
That was not the kind of machinery he meant. Did I know anything about
Nothing at all.
"You are like everybody else," he replied with a weary sigh, as much as
to say: How am I going to run the British Empire with a collection of
imbeciles like this? "We have several thousands of applicants like
yourself," he went on. "But I will put your name down. Come again."
"You are very kind."
"Do call again," he added, in his best private-secretary manner.
I called again a couple of weeks later. It struck me, namely, that they
might have acquired a sufficient stock of bankers and mechanics by this
time, and be able possibly to discover a vacancy for a public-school man
with a fairish knowledge of the world and some other things--one who,
moreover, had himself served in a cranky and fussy Government Department
and, though working in another sphere, had been thanked officially for
certain labours--once by the Admiralty, twice by the Board of Trade; and
anyway, hang it! one was not so infernally venerable as all that, was
"I called about a fortnight ago. You have my name down."
"Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. We have such thousands of applicants. I
remember you! A mechanic, aren't you?"
"No. And you asked me if I understood banking, and I said I didn't."
"What a pity. Now if you knew about banking----"
Nothing, evidently, had been done about my application, nor, for that
matter, about those thousands of others. We were being played with. I
began to feel grumpy. It was a lovely afternoon, and I remembered, with
regret, that I had thrown over an engagement to go for a walk with a
friend at Wimbledon. About this hour, I calculated, we should be
strolling along Beverley Brook or through the glades of Coombe Woods
with sunshine filtering through the birches overhead; it would have been
more pleasant, and far more instructive, than wasting my time with a
hatchet-faced automaton like this. That comes, I thought, of being
patriotic. I observed:
"Your department seems to require only bankers and mechanics. Would it
not be well to advertise the fact and save trouble and time to those
thousands of applicants who, you say, are in the same predicament as
myself? I came here to do national work of some general kind."
"So I gather. And if you understood banking----"
"If I did, I should be a banker at my time of life--don't you see?--and
lending money to you people, and giving you good advice, instead of
asking you for employment. Isn't that fairly obvious? As a matter of
fact, my acquaintance with banking is limited to a knowledge of how to
draw cheques, and even that useful accomplishment is fast fading from my
memory, under the stress of the times."
Being a Welshman--so I presume, from his name--he condescended to smile
faintly, but not for long; his salary was too high. As for myself, I
refrained from saying a few harsher things I was minded to say; indeed,
I made myself so vastly agreeable, after my own private recipe, that he
was quite touched. He remarked:
"I think I had better put your name down, although we have thousands of
applicants, you know. Call again, won't you?"
For which I humbly thanked him, instead of saying, as I ought to have
"You go to blazes. The public is a pack of idiots to run after people
who merely keep them loitering about while they feather their own nests.
We are out to lick the Germans, and yours is not the way to do it."
Did I understand banking? The full ineptitude of this conundrum only
dawned upon me by degrees. Manifestly, if I understood banking, I might
do some specialised kind of work for the Government. But in that case I
would not apply to the Munitions. Granted they wanted bankers. Well,
there was my friend M----, renowned in the City as a genius for banking;
he could have saved them untold thousands of pounds. They would have
none of him. They sent him into the trenches, where he was duly shot.
How easy it is for a disappointed place-seeker to jibe and rail against
the powers that be, especially when he is not in full possession of the
data! For all I know, they may have discovered my friend M---- to be a
dangerous character, and have been only too glad to remove him out of
society without unnecessary fuss, in an outwardly honourable fashion,
with a view to saving his poor but respectable parents the humiliating
experience of a criminal trial and possible execution in the family.
If I understood banking ... why did they want bankers at this
institution? Ah, it was not my business to probe into such mysteries of
administration. To my limited intelligence it would seem that the mere
fact of a man applying at the Munitions was prima facie evidence that
banking was not one of his accomplishments. It seemed to me,
furthermore, that there was no end to such "ifs"--patriotic or
otherwise. If I were a woman, for instance, I would promptly aid the
cause by jumping into a nurse's outfit, telling improper stories to the
Tommies, and getting myself photographed for the Press every morning.
But I am only a man. If I were a high-class trumpeter, I could qualify
for a job in one of the Allied Armies or, failing that, on Judgment Day.
But I can only strum the piano. And if the moon were made of green
cheese, we might all try to get hold of a slice of it, mightn't we?...
Such was my pigheadedness, my boyish zeal, my belief in human nature or
perverse sense of duty, that I actually broke my vow and returned to
that ridiculous establishment. Yes, I "called again," flattering myself
with the conjecture that, even if they had not yet obtained a requisite
amount of bankers and mechanics, and even if persons of my particular
aptitudes were still a drug in the market, there might nevertheless be
room, amid the ramifications and interstices of so great a department,
for a man or two who could help to count up or pack munitions, or, if
that proposal were hopelessly wide of the mark, for the services of
something even more recondite and exotic--an intelligent corpse-washer,
for instance, or half a dozen astrologers. I felt I could distinguish
myself, at a national crisis like this, in either capacity. Anyhow, it
was only one more afternoon wasted--one out of how many!
This time I saw Mr. W----. Though I had never met him in the flesh, I
once enjoyed the privilege of perusing a manuscript from his pen--a
story about a girl in Kew Gardens. A nice-looking young Hebrew was Mr.
W----. He had made himself indispensable, somehow or other, to the
Minister, and would doubtless by this time have been pitchforked into
some permanent and prominent job, but for that unfortunate name of his,
with its strong Teutonic flavour.
This, by the way, was about the eighth official of his tribe, and of his
age, I had come across in the course of my recent peregrinations. How
did they get there? Tell me, who can. Far be it from me to disparage the
race of Israel. I have gained the conviction--firm-fixed, now, as the
Polar Star--that the Hebrew is as good a man as the Christian. Yet one
would like to know their method, their technique, in this instance. How
was the thing done? How did they manage it, these young Jews, all
healthy-looking and of military age--how did they contrive to keep out
of the Army? Was there some secret society which protected them? Or were
they all so preposterously clever that the Old Country would straightway
evaporate into thin air unless they sat in some comfortable office,
while our own youngsters were being blown to pieces out yonder?
Mr. W----, I regret to say, was not a good Oriental. He lacked the
Semite's pliability. He was graceful, but not gracious. A consequence,
doubtless, of having inhaled for some time past the rarefied atmosphere
of the Chief, and swallowed a few pokers during the process, his manner
towards me was freezingly non-committal--worthy of the best Anglo-Saxon
Had I come a little earlier, he avowed, he might perhaps have been able
to squeeze me into one of his departments--thus spake this infant: "One
of my departments." As it was, he feared there was nothing doing;
nothing whatsoever; not just then. Tried the War Office?
I even visited, though only twice, an offshoot of that establishment in
Victoria Street near the Army and Navy Stores, where candidates for the
position of translator--quasi-confidential work and passable pay, five
pounds a week--were interviewed. On the second occasion, after waiting
in an ante-room full of bearded and be-spectacled monsters such as haunt
the British Museum Library, I was summoned before a board of reverend
elders, who put me through a catechism, drowsy but prolonged, as to my
qualifications and antecedents. It was a systematic affair. Could I
decipher German manuscripts? Let them show me their toughest one, I
said. No! It was merely a pro forma question; they had enough German
translators on the staff. So the interrogation went on. They were going
to make sure of their man, in whom, I must say, they took little
interest save when they learnt that he had passed a Civil Service
examination in Russian and another in International Law. At that
moment--though I may be mistaken--they seemed to prick up their ears.
Not long afterwards I was allowed to depart, with the assurance that I
might hear further.
Their inquiries into my attainments and references must have given
satisfaction, for in the fulness of time a missive arrived to the effect
that, assuming me to be a competent Turkish scholar, they would be glad
to see me again with a view to a certain vacancy.
Turkish--a language I had not mentioned to them, a language of which I
never possessed more than fifty words, every one of them forgotten long
"How very War Office," I thought.
These good people were mixing up Turkish and Russian--a natural error,
when one comes to think of it, for, though the respective tongues might
not be absolutely identical, yet the countries themselves were
sufficiently close together to account for a little slip like this.
Was it a slip? Who knows? It is so easy to criticise when one is not
fully informed about things. They may have suggested my acting as
Turkish translator for reasons of their own--reasons which I cannot
fathom, but which need not therefore be bad ones. Chagrined
office-hunters like myself are prone to be bitter. In an emergency of
this magnitude a citizen should hesitate before he finds fault with the
wisdom of those whom the nation has chosen to steer it through troubled
waters. No carping! You only hamper the Government. The general public
should learn to keep a civil tongue in its head. Theirs but to do and
None the less, it was about this time that I began to experience certain
moments of despondency, and occasionally let a whole day slip by without
endeavouring to be of use to The Cause--moments when, instead of asking
myself, "What have I done for my country?" I asked, "What has my country
done for me?"--moments when I envied the hotel night-porters,
taxi-drivers, and red-nosed old women selling flowers in Piccadilly
Circus who had something more sensible to do than to bother their heads
about trying to be patriotic, and getting snubbed for their pains. Yet,
with characteristic infatuation for hopeless ventures, I persevered.
Another "whack" at the F.O. leading to another holograph, two more
whacks at the Censorship, interpreter jobs, hospital jobs, God knows
what--I persevered, and might for the next three years have been kicking
my heels, like any other patriot, in the corridor of some dingy
Government office at the mercy of a pack of tuppenny counter-jumpers,
but for a God-sent little accident, the result of sheer boredom, which
counselled a trip to the sunny Mediterranean.
Fortune was nearer to me, at that supreme moment, than she had ever yet
been. For on the day prior to my departure I received a communication
from the Board of Trade Labour, etc., etc., whose methods of work, it
was now apparent, were as expeditious as its own name was brief. That
hopeful Mr. R----, that bubbling young optimist who had so
conscientiously written down a number of my qualifications, such as they
were--he was keeping his promise after months, and months, and months.
Never say die. The dear little fellow! What job had he captured for me?
An offer to work in a factory at Gretna Green, wages to commence at 17s.
6d. per week.
The remuneration was not on a princely scale, but I like to think that
it included the free use of the lavatory, if there happened to be one on
So luck pursued me to the end, though it never quite caught me up. For
bags were packed, and tickets taken. And therefore:
"What did you do in the Great War, grandpapa?"
"I loafed, my boy."
"That was naughty, grandpapa."
"Naughty, but nice...."
Discovered, in a local library--a genuine old maid's library: full of
the trashiest novels--those two volumes of sketches by J. A. Symonds,
and forthwith set to comparing the Mentone of his day with that of ours.
What a transformation! The efforts of Dr. James Henry Bennet and
friends, aided and abetted by the railway, have converted the idyllic
fishing village into--something different. So vanishes another fair spot
from earth. And I knew it. Yet some demon has deposited me on these
shores, where life is spent in a round of trivialities.
One fact suffices. Symonds, driving over from Nice, at last found
himself at the door of "the inn." The inn.... Are there any inns left at
A propos of inns, here is a suggestive state of affairs. At the present
moment, twenty-two of the principal hotels and pensions of Mentone are
closed, because owned or controlled or managed by Germans. Does not this
speak rather loudly in favour of Teuton enterprise? Where, in a German
town of 18,000 inhabitants, will you find twenty-two such establishments
in the hands of Frenchmen?
The statistical mood is upon me. I wander either among the tombs of that
cemetery overhead, studying sepulchral inscriptions and drawing
deductions, from what is therein stated regarding the age, nationality
and other circumstances of the deceased, as to the relative number of
consumptives here interred. Sixty per cent, shall we say? Or else, in
the streets of the town, I catch myself endeavouring--hitherto without
success--to count up the number of grocers' shops. They are far in
excess of what is needful. Now, why? Well, your tailor or hatter or
hosier--he makes a certain fixed profit on each article he sells, and he
does not sell them at every moment of the day. The other, quite apart
from small advantages to be gained owing to the ever-shifting prices of
his wares, is ceaselessly engaged in dispensing trifles, on each of
which he makes a small gain. The grocery business commends itself warmly
to the French genius for garnering halfpennies. Nowhere on earth, I
fancy, will you see butter more meticulously weighed than here. Buy a
ton of it, and they will replace on their counter a fragment of the
weight and size of a postage stamp, rather than let the balance descend
on your side.
And so the days, the weeks, have passed. Will one ever again escape from
Mentone? It may well be colder in Italy, but anything is preferable to
this inane Riviera existence....
I am not prone to recommend restaurants, or to discommend them, for the
simple reason that, if they have proved bad, I smile to think of other
men being poisoned and robbed as well as myself; as to the good
ones--why, only a fool would reveal their whereabouts. Since, however, I
hope so to order my remaining days of life as never to be obliged to
return to these gimcrack regions, there is no inducement for withholding
the name of the Merle Blanc at Monte Carlo, a quite unpretentious place
of entertainment that well deserves its name--white blackbirds being
rather scarcer here than elsewhere. The food is excellent--it has a
cachet of its own; the wine more than merely good. And this is
surprising, for the local mixtures (either Italian stuff which is dumped
down in shiploads at Nice, Marseille, Cette, etc., or else the poor
though sometimes aromatic product of the Var) are not gratifying to the
palate. One imbibes them, none the less, in preference to anything else,
as it is a peculiarity of what goes under the name of wine hereabouts
that the more you pay for it, the worse it tastes. If you adventure into
the Olympic spheres of Chateau Lafite and so forth, you may put your
trust in God, or in a blue pill. Chateau Cassis would be a good name for
these finer vintages, seeing that the harmless black currant enters
largely into their composition, though not in sufficient quantity to
render them wholly innocuous. Which suggests a little problem for the
oenophilist. What difference of soil or exposure or climate or treatment
can explain the fact that Mentone is utterly deficient in anything
drinkable of native origin, whereas Ventimiglia, a stone's throw
eastwards, can boast of its San Biagio, Rossese, Latte, Dolceacqua and
other noble growths, the like of which are not to be found along the
whole length of the French Riviera?
Having pastured the inner man, to his complete satisfaction, at the
hospitable Merle Blanc, our traveller will do well to pasture his eyes
on the plants in the Casino gardens. Whoever wants to see flowers and
trees on their best behaviour, must come to Monte Carlo, where the
spick-and-span Riviera note is at its highest development. Not a leaf is
out of place; they have evidently been groomed and tubbed and manicured
from the hour of their birth. And yet--is it possible? Lurking among all
this modern splendour of vegetation, as though ashamed to show their
faces, may be discerned a few lowly olive trees. Well may they skulk!
For these are the Todas and Veddahs, the aboriginals of Monte Carlo, who
peopled its sunny slopes in long-forgotten days of rustic life--once
lords of the soil, now pariahs. What are they doing here? And how comes
it that the eyesore has not yet been detected and uprooted by those
keen-sighted authorities that perform such wonders in making the visitor
feel at home, and hush up with miraculous dexterity everything in the
nature of a public scandal?
In exemplification whereof, let me tell a trivial Riviera tale. There
was an Englishwoman here, one of those indestructible modern ladies who
breakfast off an ether cocktail and half a dozen aspirins and feel all
the better for it, and who, one day, found herself losing rather heavily
at the tables. "Another aspirin is going to turn my luck," she thought,
and therewith swallowed surreptitiously her last tabloid of the panacea.
Not unobserved, however; for straightway two elegant gentlemen--they
might have been Russian princes--pounced upon her and led her to that
underground operating-room where a kindly physician is in perennial
attendance. He brushed aside her explanations.
"It would be a thousand pities for so charming a lady to poison herself.
But since you wish to take that step, why choose the Casino which has a
reputation to keep up? Are there not hotels----"
"I tell you it was only aspirin."
"Alas, we are sufficiently familiar with that tale! Now, Madam, let us
not lose a moment! It is a question of life and death."
"Aspirin, I tell you----"
"Kindly submit, or the three of us will be obliged to employ force."
The stomach-pump was produced.
It is the drawback of all sea-side places that half the landscape is
unavailable for purposes of human locomotion, being covered by useless
water. Mentone is more unfortunate than most of them, for its Hinterland
is so cloven and contorted that unless you keep on the main roads, or
content yourself with short but pleasant strolls, you will soon find all
progress barred by some natural obstruction. And one really cannot walk
along the esplanade all day long, though it is worth while, once in a
lifetime, continuing that promenade as far as Cap Martin, if only in
memory of the inspiration which Symonds drew therefrom. Who, he
asks--who can resist the influence of Greek ideas at the Cape St.
Martin? Anybody can, nowadays. The place is encrusted with smug villas
of parvenus (wherein we include the Empress Eugenie), to say nothing of
that preposterous hotel at the very point, which disfigures the country
for leagues around.
On other occasions you may find your way towards evening up to Gorbio
and stay for supper, provided you do not mind being cheated. Or wander
further afield, over Sospel to Breil by the old path--note the lavender:
they make a passable perfume of it--or else to Moulinet (famous for bad
food and a mastodontic breed of mosquitoes) and thence along the
stream--note the bushes of wild box--and over a wooded ridge to the
breezy heights of Peira Cava, there to dream away the daylight under the
pines. These are summer rambles. At present the snow lies deep.
One of my favourite excursions has been up the so-called Berceau, the
cradle-shaped hill which dominates Mentone on the east. I was there
to-day for a solitary luncheon, resting awhile in the timbered saddle
between the peaks. The summit is only about five minutes' walk from this
delectable grove, but its view inland is partially intercepted by a
higher ridge. From here, if you are in the mood, you may descend
eastward over the Italian frontier, crossing the stream which is spanned
lower down by the bridge of St. Louis, and find yourself at Mortola
Superiore (try the wine) and then at Mortola proper (try the wine).
Somewhere in this gulley was killed the last wolf of these regions; so a
grey-haired local Nimrod told me. He had wrought much mischief in his
time. That is to say, he was not killed, but accidentally
drowned--drowned in one of those artificial reservoirs which are
periodically filled and drawn off for irrigating the gardens lower down;
an ignoble death, for a wolf! A goat lay drowned beside him. The event,
he reckoned, must have taken place half a century ago. Since then, the
wolf has never been seen.
This afternoon, however, I preferred to repose in that shady dell, while
a flock of goldcrests were investigating the branches overhead and two
buzzards cruised, in dreamy spirals, about the sunny sky of midday; to
repose; to indulge my genius and review the situation; to profit, in
short, by that sense of aloofness peculiar to such aerial spots, which
tempts the mind to set its house in order. What are we doing, in these
empty regions? Why not wander hence? That cursed traveller's gift of
sitting still; of remaining stationary, no matter where, until one is
actually pushed away! And yet, how enjoyable this land might be, were it
inhabited by any race save one whose thousand little meannesses, public
and private, are calculated to drain away a man's last ounce of
self-respect! Not many are the glad memories I shall carry from Mentone.
I can think of no more than two.
There is my landlady, to begin with, who spies out every detail of my
daily life; of decent birth and richer than Croesus, but inflamed with a
peevish penuriousness which no amount of plain speaking on my part will
correct. Never a day passes that she does not permit herself some
jocular observation anent my spendthrift habits. The following is an
example of our matutinal converse:
"I fear, Monsieur, you omitted to put out the light in a certain place
last night. It was burning when I returned home."
"Certainly not, Madame. I have been nicely brought up. I never visit
places at night. You ought to be familiar with my habits after all this
"True. Then it must have been some one else. Ah, these electricians'
"Monsieur, Monsieur! The English Consul called yesterday with his little
dog at about five o'clock. He waited in your room, but you never came
"Five o'clock? I was at the baths."
"I have heard of that establishment. What do they charge for a hot
"--if you take an abonnement. Otherwise, it may well be more."
"And so you go there. Why then--why must you also wash in the morning
and splash water on my floor? It may have to be polished after your
departure. Would you mind asking the Consul, by the way, not to sit on
the bed? It weakens the springs."
"Might I beg you, Monsieur, to tread more lightly on the carpet in your
room? I bought it only nine years ago, and it already shows signs of
"Nine years--that old rag? It must have survived by a miracle."
"I do not ask you to avoid using it. I only beg you will tread as
lightly as possible."
"Carpets are meant to be worn out."
"You would express yourself less forcibly, if you had to pay for them."
"Let us say then: carpets are meant to be trodden on."
"I am not a fairy, Madame."
"I wish you were, Monsieur."
Thrice already, in a burst of confidence, has she told me the story of
an egg--an egg which rankles in the memory. Some years ago, it seems,
she went to a certain shop (naming it)--a shop she has avoided ever
since--to buy an egg; and paid the full price--yes, the full price--of a
fresh egg. That particular egg was not fresh. So far from fresh was it,
that she experienced considerable difficulty in swallowing it.
A memorable episode occurred about a fortnight ago. I was greeted
towards 8 a.m. with moanings in the passage, where Madame tottered
around, her entire head swathed in a bundle of nondescript woollen
wraps, out of which there peered one steely, vulturesque eye. She looked
more than ever like an animated fungus.
Her teeth--her teeth! The pain was past enduring. The whole jaw, rather;
all the teeth at one and the same time; they were unaccountably loose
and felt, moreover, three inches longer than they ought to feel. Never
had she suffered such agony--never in all her life. What could it be?
It was easy to diagnose periostitis, and prescribe tincture of iodine.
"That will cost about a franc," she observed.
"I think I'll wait."
Next day the pain was worse instead of better. She would give anything
to obtain relief--anything!
"Anything?" I inquired. "Then you had better have a morphia injection. I
have had numbers of them, for the same trouble. The pain will vanish
like magic. There is my friend Dr. Theophile Fornari----"
"I know all about him. He demands five francs a visit, even from poor
people like myself."
"You really cannot expect a busy practitioner to come here and climb
your seventy-two stairs for much less than five francs."
"I think I'll wait. Anyhow, I am not wasting money on food just now, and
that is a consolation."
Now periostitis can hardly be called an amusing complaint, and I would
have purchased a franc's worth of iodine for almost anybody on earth.
Not then. On the contrary, I grew positively low-spirited when, after
three more days, the lamentations began to diminish in volume. They were
sweet music to my ears, at the time. They are sweeter by far, in
retrospect. If only one could extract the same amount of innocent and
durable pleasure out of all other landladies!...
My second joyful memory centres round another thing of beauty--a spiky
agave (miscalled aloe) of monstrous dimensions which may be seen in the
garden of a certain hill-side hotel. Many are the growths of this kind
which I have admired in various lands; none can vaunt as proud and
harmonious a development as this one. You would say it had been cast in
some dull blue metal. The glaucous wonder stands by itself, a prodigy of
good style, more pleasing to the eye than all that painfully generated
tropicality of Mr. Hanbury's Mortola paradise. It is flawless. Vainly
have I teased my fancy, endeavouring to discover the slightest defect in
shape or hue. Firm-seated on the turf, in exultant pose, with a pallid
virginal bloom upon those mighty writhing leaves, this plant has drawn
me like a magnet, day after day, to drink deep draughts of contentment
from its exquisite lines.
For the rest, the whole agave family thrives at Mentone; the ferox is
particularly well represented; one misses, among others, that delightful
medio-picta variety, of which I have noticed only a few indifferent
specimens.  It is the same with the yuccas; they flourish here,
though one kind, again, is conspicuous by its absence-- the Atkinsi
(some such name, for it is long since I planted my last yucca) with
drooping leaves of golden-purple. You will be surprised at the number of
agaves in flower here. The reason is, that they are liable to be moved
about for ornamental purposes when they want to be at rest; the plant,
more sensitive and fastidious than it looks, is outraged by this
forceful perambulation and, in an access of premature senility, or
suicidal mania, or sheer despair, gives birth to its only flower--herald
of death. The fatal climax could be delayed if gardeners, in
transplanting, would at least take the trouble to set them in their old
accustomed exposure so far as the cardinal points are concerned. But
your professional gardener knows everything; it is useless for an
amateur to offer him advice; worse than useless, of course, to ask him
for it. Indeed, the flowers, even the wild ones, might almost reconcile
one to a life on the Riviera. Almost.... I recall a comely plant, for
instance, seven feet high at the end of June, though now slumbering
underground, in the Chemin de Saint Jacques--there, where the steps
And here my afternoon musings, up yonder, took on a more acrid
complexion. I remembered a recent talk with one of the teachers at the
local college who lamented that his pupils displayed a singular dullness
in their essays; never, in his long career at different schools, had he
met with boys more destitute of originality. What could be expected, we
both agreed? Mentone was of recent growth--the old settlement, Mentone
of Symonds, proclaims its existence only by a ceaseless and infernal
clanging of bells, rivalling Malta--no history, no character, no
tradition--a mushroom town inhabited by shopkeepers and hoteliers who
are there for the sole purpose of plucking foreigners: how should a
youngster's imagination be nurtured in this atmosphere of savourless
modernism? Then I asked myself: who comes to these regions, now that
invalids have learnt the drawbacks of their climate? Decayed Muscovites,
Englishmen such as you will vainly seek in England, and their painted
women-folk with stony, Medusa-like gambling eyes, a Turk or two, Jews
and cosmopolitan sharks and sharpers, flamboyant Americans, Brazilian,
Peruvian, Chilian, Bolivian rastaqueros with names that read like a
nightmare (see "List of Arrivals" in New York Herald)--the whole exotic
riff-raff enlivened and perfumed by a copious sprinkling of
And I let my glance wander along that ancient Roman road which led from
Italy to Arles and can still be traced, here and there; I took in the
section from Genoa to Marseille, an enormous stretch of country, and
wondered: what has this coast ever produced in the way of thought or
action, of great men or great women? There is Doria at Genoa, and Gaby
Deslys at Marseille; that may well exhaust the list. Ah, and half-way
through, a couple of generals, born at Nice. It is really an instructive
phenomenon, and one that should appeal to students of Buckle--this
relative dearth of every form of human genius in one of the most
favoured regions of the globe. Here, for unexplained reasons, the
Italian loses his better qualities; so does the Frenchman. Are the
natives descended from those mysterious Ligurians? Their reputation was
none of the best; they were more prompt, says Crinagoras, in devising
evil than good. That Mentone man, to be sure, whose remains you may
study at Monaco and elsewhere, was a fine fellow, without a doubt. He
lived rather long ago. Even he, by the way, was a tourist on these
shores. And were the air of Mentone not unpropitious to the composition
of anything save a kind of literary omelette soufflee, one might like to
expatiate on Sergi's remarkable book, and devise thereto an incongruous
footnote dealing with the African origin of sundry Greek gods, and
another one referring to the extinction of these splendid races of men;
how they came to perish so utterly, and what might be said in favour of
that novel theory of the influence of an ice-age on the germplasm
producing mutations--new races which breed true ... enough! Let us
remain at the Riviera level.
In the little museum under those cliffs by the sea, where the Grimaldi
caves are, I found myself lately together with a young French couple,
newly married. The little bride was vastly interested in the attendant's
explanations of the habits of those remote folk, but, as I could plainly
see, growing more and more distrustful of his statements as to what
happened all those hundreds of thousands of years ago.
"And this, Messieurs, is the jaw-bone of a cave-bear--the competitor,
one might say, in the matter of lodging-houses, with the gentleman whose
anatomy we have just inspected. Here are bones of hippopotamus, and
rhinoceros, which he hunted with the weapons you saw. And the object on
which your arm is reposing, Madame, is the tooth of an elephant. Our
ancestor must have been pretty costaud to kill an elephant with a
"Elephants?" she queried. "Did elephants scramble about these precipices
and ravines? I should like to have seen that."
"Pardon me, Madame. He probably killed them down there," and his arm
swept over the blue Mediterranean, lying at our feet. "Do you mean to
say that elephants paddled across from Algiers in order to be
assassinated by your old skeleton? I should like to have seen that."
"Pardon me, Madame. The Mediterranean did not exist in those days."
The suggestion that this boundless sea should ever have been dry land,
and in the time of her own ancestors, was too much for the young lady.
She smiled politely, and soon I heard her whispering to her husband:
"I had him there, eh? Quel farceur!"
"Yes. You caught him nicely, I must say. But one must not be too hard on
these poor devils. They have got to earn their bread somehow."
This will never do.
I have loafed into Levanto, on the recommendation of an Irish friend
who, it would seem, had reasons of his own for sending me there.
"Try Levanto," he said. "A little place below Genoa. Nice, kindly
people. And sunshine all the time. Hotel Nazionale. Yes, yes! The food
is all right. Quite all right. Now please do not let us start that
We started it none the less, and at the end of the discussion he added:
"You must go and see Mitchell there. I often stayed with him. Such a
good fellow! And very popular in the place. He built an aqueduct for the
peasants--that kind of man. Mind you look him up. He will be bitterly
disappointed if you don't call. So make a note of it, won't you? By the
way, he's dead. Died last year. I quite forgot."
"Dead, is he? What a pity."
"Yes; and what a nuisance. I promised to send him down some things by
the next man I came across. You would have been that man. I know you do
not carry much luggage, but you could have taken one or two trifles at
least. He wanted a respectable English telescope, I remember, to see the
stars with--a bit of an astronomer, you know. Chutney, too--devilish
fond of chutney, the old boy was; quite a gastro-maniac. What a
nuisance! Now he will be thinking I forgot all about it. And he needed a
clothes-press; I was on no account to forget that clothes-press. Rather
fussy about his trousers, he was. And a type-writer; just an ordinary
one. But I doubt whether you could have managed a type-writer."
"Easily. And a bee-hive or two. You know how I like carrying little
parcels about for other people's friends. What a nuisance! Now I shall
have to travel with my bags half empty."
"Don't blame me, my dear fellow. I did not tell him to die, did I?"....
It must have been about midnight as the train steamed into Levanto
station. Snow was falling; you could hear the moan of the sea hard by;
an icy wind blew down from the mountains.
Sunshine all the time!
Everybody scurried off the platform. A venerable porter, after looking
in dubious fashion at my two handbags, declared he would return in a few
moments to transport them to the hotel, and therewith vanished round the
corner. The train moved on. Lamps were extinguished. Time passed. I
strode up and down in the semi-darkness, trying to keep warm and
determined, whatever happened, not to carry those wretched bags myself,
when suddenly a figure rose out of the gloom--a military figure of
youthful aspect and diminutive size, armed to the teeth.
"A cold night," I ventured.
"Do you know, Sir, that you are in the war-zone--the zona di difesa?"
He began to fumble at his rifle in ominous fashion.
Nice, kindly people!
"It is hard to die so young. And I particularly dislike the looks of
that bayonet, which is half a yard longer than it need be. But if you
want to shoot me, go ahead. Do it now. It is too cold to argue."
"Your papers! Ha, a foreigner. Hotel Nazionale? Very good. To-morrow
morning you will report yourself to the captain of the carbineers. After
that, to the municipality. Thereupon you will take the afternoon train
to Spezia. When you have been examined by the police inspector at the
station you will be accompanied, if he sees fit, to head-quarters in
order that your passport may be investigated. From there you will
proceed to the Prefecture for certain other formalities which will be
explained to you. Perhaps--who knows?--they will allow you to return to
"How can you expect me to remember all that?" Then I added: "You are a
Sicilian, I take it. And from Catania."
He was rather surprised. Sicilians, because they learn good Italian at
their schools, think themselves indistinguishable from other men.
Yes; he explained. He was from a certain place in the Catania part of
the country, on the slopes of Etna.
I happened to know a good deal of that place from an old she-cook of
mine who was born there and never wearied of telling me about it. To his
still greater surprise, therefore, I proceeded to discourse learnedly
about that region, extolling its natural beauties and healthy climate,
reminding him that it was the birthplace of a man celebrated in
antiquity (was it Diodorus Siculus?) and hinting, none too vaguely, that
he would doubtless live up to the traditions of so celebrated a spot.
Straightway his manner changed. There is nothing these folks love more
than to hear from foreign lips some praise of their native town or
village. He waxed communicative and even friendly; his eyes began to
sparkle with animation, and there we might have stood conversing till
sunrise had I not felt that glacial wind searching my garments, chilling
my humanity and arresting all generous impulses. Rather abruptly I bade
farewell to the cheery little reptile and snatched up my bags to go to
the hotel, which he said was only five minutes' walk from there.
Things turned out exactly as he had predicted. Arrived at Spezia,
however, I found an unpleasant surprise awaiting me. The officer in
command, who was as civil as the majority of such be-medalled jackasses,
suggested that one single day would be quite sufficient for me to see
the sights of Levanto; I could then proceed to Pisa or anywhere else
outside his priceless "zone of defence." I pleaded vigorously for more
time. After all, we were allies, were we not? Finally, a sojourn of
seven days was granted for reasons of health. Only seven days: how
tiresome! From the paper which gave me this authorisation and contained
a full account of my personal appearance I learnt, among other less
flattering details, that my complexion was held to be "natural." It was
a drop of sweetness in the bitter cup.
No butter for breakfast.
The landlord, on being summoned, avowed that to serve crude butter on
his premises involved a flagrant breach of war-time regulations. The
condiment could not be used save for kitchen purposes, and then only on
certain days of the week; he was liable to heavy penalties if it became
known that one of his guests.... However, since he assumed me to be a
prudent person, he would undertake to supply a due allowance to-morrow
and thenceforward, though never in the public dining-room; never, never
in the dining-room!
That is the charm of Italy, I said to myself. These folks are reasonable
and gifted with imagination. They make laws to shadow forth an ideal
state of things and to display their good intentions towards the
community at large; laws which have no sting for the exceptional type of
man who can evade them--the sage, the millionaire, and the "friend of
the family." Never in the dining-room. Why, of course not. Catch me
breakfasting in any dining-room.
Was it possible? There, at luncheon in the dining-room, while devouring
those miserable macaroni made with war-time flour, I beheld an over-tall
young Florentine lieutenant shamelessly engulfing huge slices of what
looked uncommonly like genuine butter, a miniature mountain of which
stood on a platter before him, and overtopped all the other viands. I
could hardly believe my eyes. How about those regulations? Pointing to
this golden hillock, I inquired softly:
"From the cow?"
"From the cow."
"Whom does one bribe?"
He enjoyed a special dispensation, he declared--he need not bribe.
Returned from Albania with shattered health, he had been sent hither to
recuperate. He required not only butter, but meat on meatless days, as
well as a great deal of rest; he was badly run down.... And eggs, raw
eggs, drinking eggs; ten a day, he vows, is his minimum. Enviable
The afternoon being clear and balmy, he took me for a walk, smoking
cigarettes innumerable. We wandered up to that old convent picturesquely
perched against the slope of the hill and down again, across the
rivulet, to the inevitable castle-ruin overhanging the sea. Like all
places along this shore, Levanto lies in a kind of amphitheatre, at a
spot where one or more streams, descending from the mountains, discharge
themselves into the sea. Many of these watercourses may in former times
have been larger and even navigable up to a point. Their flow is now
obstructed, their volume diminished. I daresay they have driven the sea
further out, with silt swept down from the uplands. The same thing has
struck me in England--at Lyme Regis, for instance, whose river was also
once navigable to small craft and at Seaton, about a mile up whose
stream stands that village--I forget its name--which was evidently the
old port of the district in pre-Seaton days. Local antiquarians will
have attacked these problems long ago. The sea may have receded.
A glance from this castle-height at the panorama bathed in that mellow
sunshine made me regret more than ever the enforced brevity of my stay
at Levanto. Seven days, for reasons of health: only seven days! Those
mysterious glades opening into the hill-sides, the green patches of
culture interspersed with cypresses and pines, dainty villas nestling in
gardens, snow-covered mountains and blue sea--above all, the presence of
running water, dear to those who have lived in waterless lands--why, one
could spend a life-time in a place like this!
The lieutenant spoke of Florence, his native city. He would be there
again before long, in order to present himself to the medical
authorities and be weighed and pounded for the hundredth time. He hoped
they would then let him stay there. He was tired to death of Levanto and
its solitude. How pleasant to bid farewell to this "melancholy" sea
which was supposed to be good for his complaints. He asked:
"Do you know why Florentines, coming home from abroad, always rejoice to
see that wonderful dome of theirs rising up from the plain?"
"Can't you guess?"
"Let me see. It is sure to be something not quite proper. H'm.... The
tower of Giotto, for example, has certain asperities, angularities,
"You are no Englishman whatever!" he laughed. "Now try that joke on the
next Florentine you meet.... There was a German here," he went on, "who
loved Levanto. The hotel people have told me all about him. He began
writing a book to prove that there was a different walk to be taken in
this neighbourhood for every single day of the year."
"How German. And then?"
"The war came. He cleared out. The natives were sorry. This whole coast
seems to be saturated with Teutons--of a respectable class, apparently.
They made themselves popular, they bought houses, drank wine, and joked
with the countrymen."
"What do you make of them?" I inquired.
"I am a Tuscan," he began (meaning: I am above race-prejudices; I can
view these things with olympic detachment). "I think the German says to
himself: we want a world-empire, like those damned English. How did they
get it? By piracy. Two can play at that game, though it may be a little
more difficult now than formerly. Of course," he added, "we have a
certain sprinkling of humanitarians even here; the kind of man, I mean,
who stands aside in fervent prayer while his daughter is being ravished
by the Bulgars, and then comes forward with some amateurish attempt at
First Aid, and probably makes a mess of it. But Italians as a
whole--well, we are lovers of violent and disreputable methods; it is
our heritage from mediaeval times. The only thing that annoys the
ordinary native of the country is, if his own son happens to get
"I know. That makes him very angry."
"It makes him angry not with the Germans who are responsible for the
war, but with his own government which is responsible for conscripting
the boys. Ah, what a stupid subject of conversation! And how God would
laugh, if he had any sense of humour! Suppose we go down to the beach
and lie on the sand. I need rest: I am very dilapidated."
"You look thin, I must say."
"Typhoid, and malaria, and pleurisy--it is a respectable combination.
Thin? I am the merest framework, and so transparent that you can see
clean through my stomach. Perhaps you would rather not try? Count my
"Count your ribs? That, my dear Lieutenant, is an occupation for a rainy
afternoon. Judging by your length, there must be a good many of
"We should be kind to our young soldiers," said the Major to whom I was
relating, after dinner, the story of our afternoon promenade. A burly
personage is the Major, with hooked nose and black moustache and
twinkling eyes--retired, now, from a service in the course of which he
has seen many parts of the world; a fluent raconteur, moreover, who
keeps us in fits of laughter with naughty stories and imitations of
local dialects. "We must be nice with them, and always offer them
cigarettes. What say you, Mr. Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir. Offer them cigarettes and everything else you possess. The
dear fellows! They seldom have the heart to refuse."
"Seldom," echoes the judge.
That is our party; the judge, major, lieutenant and myself. We dine
together and afterwards sit in that side room while the fat little host
bustles about, doing nearly all the work of the war-diminished
establishment himself. Presently the first two rise and indulge in a
lively game of cards, amid vigorous thumpings of the table and cursings
at the ways of Providence which always contrives to ruin the best hands.
I order another litre of wine. The lieutenant, to keep me company,
engulfs half a dozen eggs. He tells me about Albanian women. I tell him
about Indian women. We thrash the matter out, pursuing this or that
aspect into its remotest ramifications, and finally come to the
conclusion that I, at the earliest opportunity, must emigrate to
Albania, and he to India.
As for the judge, he was born under the pale rays of Saturn. He has
attached himself to my heart. Never did I think to care so much about a
magistrate, and he a Genoese.
There are some men, a few men, very few, about whom one craves to be
precise. Viewed through the mist of months, I behold a corpulent and
almost grotesque figure of thirty-five or thereabouts; blue-eyed,
fair-haired but nearly bald, clean-shaven, bespectacled. So purblind has
he grown with poring over contracts and precedents that his movements
are pathologically awkward--embryonic, one might say; his unwieldy
gestures and contortions remind one of a seal on shore. The eyes being
of small use, he must touch with his hands. Those hands are the most
distinctive feature of his person; they are full of expression; tenderly
groping hands, that hesitate and fumble in wistful fashion like the
feelers of some sensitive creature of night. There is trouble, too, in
that obese and sluggish body; trouble to which the unhealthy complexion
testifies. He may drink only milk, because wine, which he dearly
loves--"and such good wine, here at Levanto"--it always deranges the
action of some vital organ inside.
The face is not unlike that of Thackeray.
A man of keen understanding who can argue the legs off a cow when duly
roused, he seems far too good for a small place like this, where, by the
way, he is a newcomer. Maybe his infinite myopia condemns him to
relative seclusion and obscurity. He has a European grip of things; of
politics and literature and finance. Needless to say, I have discovered
his cloven hoof; I make it my business to discover such things; one may
(or may not) respect people for their virtues, one loves them only for
their faults. It is a singular tinge of mysticism and credulity which
runs through his nature. Can it be the commercial Genoese, the gambling
instinct? For he is an authority on stocks and shares, and a passionate
card-player into the bargain. Gambling and religion go hand-in-hand
--they are but two forms of the same speculative spirit. Think of the
Poles, an entire nation of pious roulette-lovers! I have yet to meet a
full-blown agnostic who relished these hazards. The unbeliever is not
adventurous on such lines; he knows the odds against backing a winner in
heaven or earth.
Often, listening to this lawyer's acute talk and watching his uncouth
but sympathetic face, I ask myself a question, a very obvious question
hereabouts: How could you cause him to swerve from the path of duty? How
predispose him in your favour? Sacks of gold would be unavailing: that
is certain. He would wave them aside, not in righteous Anglo-Saxon
indignation, but with a smile of tolerance at human weakness. To
simulate clerical leanings? He is too sharp; he would probably be vexed,
not at your attempt to deceive, but at the implication that you took him
for a fool. A good tip on the stock exchange? It might go a little way,
if artfully tendered. Perhaps an apt and unexpected quotation from the
pages of some obsolete jurist--the intellectual method of approach; for
there is a kinship, a kind of freemasonry, between all persons of
intelligence, however antagonistic their moral outlook. In any case, it
would be a desperate venture to override the conscience of such a man.
May I never have to try!
His stern principles must often cause him suffering, needless suffering.
He is for ever at the mercy of some categorical imperative. This may be
the reason why I feel drawn to him. Such persons exercise a strange
attraction upon those who, convinced of the eternal fluidity of all
mundane affairs, and how that our most sacred institutions are merely
conventionalities of time and place, conform to only one rule of
life--to be guided by no principles whatever. They miss so much, those
others. They miss it so pathetically. One sees them staggering
gravewards under a load of self-imposed burdens. A lamentable spectacle,
when one thinks of it. Why bear a cross? Is it pleasant? Is it pretty?
He also has taken me for walks, but they are too slow and too short for
my taste. Every twenty yards or so he must stand still to "admire the
view"--that is, to puff and pant.
"What it is," he then exclaims, "to be an old man in youth, through no
fault of one's own. How many are healthy, and yet vicious to the core!"
"Are you suggesting that there may be a connection between sound health
and what society, in its latest fit of peevish self-maceration, is
pleased to call viciousness?"
"That is a captious question," he replies. "A man of my constitution,
unfit for pleasures of the body, is prone to judge severely. Let me try
to be fair. I will go so far as to say that to certain natures
self-indulgence appears to be necessary as--as sunshine to flowers."
Self-indulgence, I thought. Heavily-fraught is that word; weighted with
meaning. The history of two thousand years of spiritual dyspepsia lies
embedded in its four syllables. Self-indulgence--it is what the ancients
blithely called "indulging one's genius." Self-indulgence! How debased
an expression, nowadays. What a text for a sermon on the mishaps of good
words and good things. How all the glad warmth and innocence have faded
out of the phrase. What a change has crept over us....
Glancing through a glass window not far from the hotel, I was fortunate
enough to espy a young girl seated in a sewing shop. She is decidedly
pretty and not altogether unaware of the fact, though still a child. We
have entered upon an elaborate, classical flirtation. With all the
artfulness of her years she is using me to practise on, as a dummy, for
future occasions when she shall have grown a little bigger and more
admired; she has already picked up one or two good notions. I pretend to
be unaware of this fact. I treat her as if she were grown up, and
profess to feel that she has really cast a charm--a state of affairs
which, if true, would greatly amuse her. And so she has, up to a point.
Impossible not to sense the joy which radiates from her smile and
person. That is all, so far. It is an orthodox entertainment, merely a
joke. God knows what might happen, under given circumstances. Some of a
man's most terrible experiences--volcanic cataclysms that ravaged the
landscape and left a trail of bitter ashes in their rear--were begun as
a joke. You can say so many things in a joking way, you can do so many
things in a joking way--especially in Northern countries, where it is
easy to joke unseen.
Meanwhile, with Ninetta, I discourse sweet nothings in my choicest idiom
which has grown rather rusty in England.
Italian is a flowery language whose rhetorical turns and phrases require
constant exercise to keep them in smooth working order. No; that is not
correct. It is not the vocabulary which deteriorates. Words are ever at
command. What one learns to forget in England is the simplicity to use
them; to utter, with an air of deep conviction, a string of what we
should call the merest platitudes. It sometimes takes your breath
away--the things you have to say because these folks are so enamoured of
rhetoric and will not be happy without it.
An English girl of her social standing--I lay stress upon the standing,
for it prescribes the conduct--an English girl would never listen to
such outpourings with this obvious air of approbation; maybe she would
ask where you had been drinking; in every case, your chances would be
seriously diminished. She prefers an impromptu frontal attack, a system
which is fatal to success in this country. The affair, here, must be a
siege. It must move onward by those gradual and inevitable steps
ordained of old in the unwritten code of love; no lingering by the
wayside, no premature haste. It must march to its end with the measured
stateliness of a quadrille. Passion, well-restrained passion, should be
written on every line of your countenance. Otherwise you are liable to
be dubbed a savage. I know what it is to be called a "Scotch bear," and
only because I trembled too much, or too little--I forget which--on a
I have heard those skilled in amatory matters say that the novice will
do well to confine his attentions to young girls, avoiding married women
or widows. They, the older ones, are a bad school--too prone to pardon
infractions of the code, too indulgent towards foreigners and males in
general. The girls are not so easily pleased; in fact (entre nous) they
are often the devil to propitiate. There is something remorseless about
them. They put you on your mettle. They keep you dangling. Quick-witted
and accustomed to all the niceties of love-badinage, they listen to
every word you have to say, pondering its possibly veiled signification.
Thus far and no further, they seem to imply. Yet each hour brings you
nearer the goal, if--if you obey the code. Weigh well your conduct
during the preliminary stage; remember you are dealing with a
professional in the finer shades of meaning. Presumption, awkwardness,
imprudence; these are the three cardinal sins, and the greatest of these
is imprudence. Be humble; be prepared.
Her best time for conversation, Ninetta tells me, is after luncheon,
when she is generally alone for a little while. At that hour therefore I
appear with a shirt or something that requires a button--would she mind?
The hotel people are so dreadfully understaffed just now--this war!--and
one really cannot live without shirts, can one? Would she mind very
much? Or perhaps in the evening ... is she more free in the evening?
Alas, no; never in the evenings; never for a single moment; never save
on religious festivals, one of which, she suddenly remembers, will take
place in a week or so.
This is innocent coquetry and perhaps said to test my self-restraint,
which is equal to the occasion. An impatient admirer might exclaim----
"Ah, let us meet, then!"
--language which would be permissible after four meetings, and
appropriate after six; not after two. With submissive delicacy I reply
hoping that the may shine brightly, that she may have all the joy she
deserves and give her friends all the pleasure they desire. One of them,
assuredly, would be pained in his heart not to see her on that evening.
Could she guess who it is? Let her try to discover him tonight, when she
is just closing her eyes to sleep, all alone, and thinking about
There I leave it, for the present. Unless a miracle occurs, I fear I
will have quitted Levanto before that festival comes round. True, they
have played the fool with me--how often! Yet, such is my interest in
religious ceremonies, that I am frankly annoyed at the prospect of
missing that evening.
One would like to be able to stroll about the beach with her, or up to
the old castle, instead of sitting in that formal little shop. Such
enterprises are impossible. To be seen together for five minutes in any
public place might injure her reputation. It is the drawback of her sex,
in this country. I am sorry. For though she hides it as best she can,
striving to impress me with the immensity of her worldly experiences,
there is an unsophisticated freshness in her outlook. The surface has
not been scored over.
So it is, with the young. From them you may learn what their elders,
having forgotten it, can nevermore teach you. New horizons unroll
themselves; you are treading untrodden ground. Talk to a simple
creature, farmer or fisherman--well, there is always that touch of
common humanity, that sense of eternal needs, to fashion a link of
conversation. From a professional--lawyer, doctor, engineer--you may
pick up some pungent trifle which yields food for thought; it is never
amiss to hearken to a specialist. But the ordinary man of the street,
the ordinary man or woman of society, of the world--what can they tell
you about art or music or life or religion, about tailors and golf and
exhaust-pipes and furniture--what on earth can they tell you that you
have not heard already? A mere grinding-out of commonplaces! How often
one has covered the same field! They cannot even put their knowledge,
such as it is, into an attractive shape or play variations on the theme;
it is patter; they have said the same thing, in the same language, for
years and years; you have listened to the same thing from other lips, in
the same language, for years and years. How one knows it all
beforehand--every note in that barrel-organ of echoes! One leaves them
feeling like an old, old man, vowing one will never again submit to such
a process of demoralization, and understanding, better than ever, the
justification of monarchies and tyrannies: these creatures are born to
act and think and believe as others tell them. You may be drawn to one
or the other, detecting an unusual kindliness of nature or some
endearing trick; for the most part, one studies them with a kind of
medical interest. How comes it that this man, respectably equipped by
birth, has grown so warped and atrophied, an animated bundle of
Life is the cause--life, the onward march of years. It has a cramping
effect; it closes the pores, intensifying one line of activity at the
expense of all the others; often enough it encrusts the individual with
a kind of shell, a veneer of something akin to hypocrisy. Your ordinary
adult is an egoist in matters of the affections; a specialist in his own
insignificant pursuit; a dull dog. Dimly aware of these defects, he
confines himself to generalities or, grown confidential, tells you of
his little fads, his little love-affairs--such ordinary ones! Like those
millions of his fellows, he has been transformed into a screw, a bolt, a
nut, in the machine. He is standardised.
A man who has tried to remain a mere citizen of the world and refused to
squeeze himself into the narrow methods and aspirations of any epoch or
country, will discover that children correspond unconsciously to his
multifarious interests. They are not standardised. They are more
generous in their appreciations, more sensitive to pure ideas, more
impersonal. Their curiosity is disinterested. The stock may be
rudimentary, but the outlook is spacious; it is the passionless outlook
of the sage. A child is ready to embrace the universe. And, unlike
adults, he is never afraid to face his own limitations. How refreshing
to converse with folks who have no bile to vent, no axe to grind, no
prejudices to air; who are pagans to the core; who, uninitiated into the
false value of externals, never fail to size you up from a more
spiritual point of view than do their elders; who are not oozing
politics and sexuality, nor afflicted with some stupid ailment or other
which prevents them doing this and that. To be in contact with physical
health--it would alone suffice to render their society a dear delight,
quite apart from the fact that if you are wise and humble you may tiptoe
yourself, by inches, into fairyland.
That scarlet sash of hers set me thinking--thinking of the comparative
rarity of the colour red as an ingredient of the Italian panorama. The
natives seem to avoid it in their clothing, save among certain costumes
of the centre and south. You see little red in the internal decorations
of the houses--in their wallpapers, the coloured tiles underfoot, the
tapestries, table-services and carpets, though a certain fondness for
pink is manifest, and not only in Levanto. There is a gulf between pink
It is essentially a land of blue and its derivatives--cool, intellectual
tints. The azure sea follows you far inland with its gleams. Look
landwards from the water--purple Apennines are ever in sight. And up
yonder, among the hills, you will rarely escape from celestial hues.
Speaking of these mountains in a general way, they are bare masses whose
coloration trembles between misty blue and mauve according to distance,
light, and hour of day. As building-stone, the rock imparts a grey-blue
tint to the walls. The very flowers are blue; it is a peculiarity of
limestone formation, hitherto unexplained, to foster blooms of this
colour. Those olive-coloured slopes are of a glaucous tone.
Or wander through the streets of any town and examine the pottery
whether ancient or modern--sure index of national taste. Greens galore,
and blues and bilious yellows; seldom will you see warmer shades. And if
you do, it is probably Oriental or Siculo-Arabic work, or their
One does not ask for wash-hand basins of sang-de-boeuf. One wonders,
merely, whether this avoidance of sanguine tints in the works of man be
an instinctive paraphrase of surrounding nature, or due to some cause
lying deep down in the roots of Italian temperament. I am aware that the
materials for producing crimson are not common in the peninsula. If they
liked the colour, the materials would be forthcoming.
The Spaniards, a different race, sombre and sensuous, are not averse to
red. Nor are the Greeks. Russians have a veritable cult of it; their
word for "beautiful" means red. It is therefore not a matter of climate.
In Italy, those rare splashes of scarlet--the flaming horse-cloths of
Florence, a ruddy sail that flecks the sea, some procession of
ruby-tinted priests--they come as a shock, a shock of delight. Cross the
Mediterranean, and you will find emotional hues predominating; the land
is aglow with red, the very shadows suffused with it. Or go further
Meanwhile, Attilio hovers discreetly near the hotel-entrance, ready to
convey me to Jericho. He is a small mason-boy to whom I contrived to be
useful in the matter of an armful of obstreperous bricks which refused
to remain balanced on his shoulder. Forthwith, learning that I was a
stranger unfamiliar with Levanto, he conceived the project of abandoning
his regular work and becoming my guide, philosopher and friend.
"Drop your job for the sake of a few days?" I inquired. "You'll get the
sack, my boy."
Not so, he thought. He was far too serviceable to those people. They
would welcome him with open arms whenever--if ever--he cared to return
to them. Was not the mason-in-chief a cousin of his? Everything could be
arranged, without a doubt.
And so it was.
He knows the country; every nook of the hills and sea-shore. A
pleasanter companion could not be found; observant and tranquil, tinged
with a gravity beyond his years--a gravity due to certain family
troubles--and with uncommon sweetness of disposition. He has evidently
been brought up with sisters.
We went one day up the valley to a village, I forget its name, that sits
on a hill-top above the spot where two streams unite; the last part of
the way is a steep climb under olives. Here we suddenly took leave of
spring and encountered a bank of wintry snow. It forced us to take
refuge in the shop of a tobacconist who provided some liquid and other
refreshment. Would I might meet him again, that genial person: I never
shall! We conversed in English, a language he had acquired in the course
of many peregrinations about the globe (he used to be a seaman), and
great was Attilio's astonishment on hearing a man whom he knew from
infancy now talking to me in words absolutely incomprehensible. He
"You two--do you really understand each other?"
On our homeward march he pointed to some spot, barely discernible among
the hills on our left. That was where he lived. His mother would be
honoured to see me. We might walk on to Monterosso afterwards. Couldn't
I manage it?
To be sure I could. And the very next day. But the place seemed a long
way off and the country absolutely wild. I said:
"You will have to carry a basket of food."
"Better than bricks which grow heavier every minute. Your basket, I
daresay, will be pretty light towards evening."
The name of his natal village, a mere hamlet, has slipped my memory. I
only know that we moved at daybreak up the valley behind Levanto and
presently turned to our right past a small mill of some kind; olives,
then chestnuts, accompanied the path which grew steeper every moment,
and was soon ankle-deep in slush from the melted snow. This was his
daily walk, he explained. An hour and a half down, in the chill twilight
of dawn; two hours' trudge home, always up hill, dead tired, through mud
and mire, in pitch darkness, often with snow and rain.
"Do you wonder," he added, "at my preferring to be with you?"
"I wonder at my fortune, which gave me such a charming friend. I am not
always so lucky."
"Luck--it is the devil. We have had no news from my father in America
for two years. No remittances ever come from him. He may be dead, for
all we know. Our land lies half untilled; we cannot pay for the hire of
day labourers. We live from hand to mouth; my mother is not strong; I
earn what I can; one of my sisters is obliged to work at Levanto. Think
what that means, for us! Perhaps that is why you call me thoughtful. I
am the oldest male in the family; I must conduct myself accordingly.
Everything depends on me. It is enough to make anyone thoughtful. My
mother will tell you about it."
She doubtless did, though I gleaned not so much as the drift of her
speech. The mortal has yet to be born who can master all the dialects of
Italy; this one seemed to bear the same relation to the Tuscan tongue
which that of the Basses-Pyrenees bears to French--it was practically
another language. Listening to her, I caught glimpses, now and then, of
familiar Mediterranean sounds; like lamps shining through a fog, they
were quickly swallowed up in the murk. Unlike her offspring, she had
never been to school. That accounted for it. A gentle woman, frail in
health and manifestly wise; the look of the house, of the children, bore
witness to her sagacity. Understanding me as little as I understood her,
our conversation finally lapsed into a series of smiles, which Attilio
interpreted as best he could. She insisted upon producing some apples
and a bottle of wine, and I was interested to notice that she poured out
to her various male offspring, down to the tiniest tot, but drank not a
drop herself, nor gave any to her big daughters.
"She is sorry they will not let you stay at Levanto."
"Carrara lies just beyond the war-zone. I want to visit the marble-mines
when the weather grows a little warmer, and perhaps write something
about them. Ask her whether you can join me there for a week or so, if I
send the money. Make her say yes."
She said yes.
With a companion like this, to reflect my moods and act as buffer
between myself and the world, I felt I could do anything. Already I saw
myself exploring those regions, interviewing directors as to methods of
work and output, poking my nose into municipal archives and libraries to
learn the history of those various quarries of marble, plain and
coloured; tracking the footsteps of Michael Angelo at Seravezza and
Pietrasanta and re-discovering that old road of his and the inscription
he left on the rock; speculating why the Romans, who ransacked the
furthermost corners of the earth for tinted stones, knew so little of
the treasures here buried; why the Florentines were long content to use
that grey bigio, when the lordly black portovenere,  with its golden
streaks, was lying at their very doors....
The gods willed otherwise.
Then, leaving that hospitable dame, we strolled forth along a winding
road--a good road, once more--ever upwards, under the bare chestnuts. At
last the watershed was reached and we began a zigzag descent towards the
harbour of Monterosso, meeting not a soul by the way. Snow lay on these
uplands; it began to fall softly. As the luncheon hour had arrived we
took refuge in a small hut of stone and there opened the heavy basket
which gave forth all that heart could desire--among other things, a
large fiasco of strong white wine which we drank to the dregs. It made
us both delightfully tipsy. So passed an hour of glad confidences in
that abandoned shelter with the snowflakes drifting in upon us--one of
those hours that sweeten life and compensate for months of dreary
A long descent, past some church or convent famous as a place of
pilgrimage, led to the strand of Monterosso where the waves were
sparkling in tepid sunshine. Then up again, by a steep incline, to a
signal station perched high above the sea. Attilio wished to salute a
soldier-relative working here. I remained discreetly in the background;
it would never do for a foreigner to be seen prying into Marconi
establishments in this confounded "zone of defense." Another hour by
meandering woodland paths brought us to where, from the summit of a
hill, we looked down upon Levanto, smiling merrily in its conch-shaped
All this cloudless afternoon we conversed in a flowery dell under the
pine trees, with the blue sea at our feet. It was a different climate
from yesterday; so warm, so balmy. Impossible to conceive of snow! I
thought I had definitely bidden farewell to winter.
Trains, an endless succession of trains, were rumbling through the
bowels of the mountain underneath, many of them filled with French
soldiers bound for Salonika. They have been going southward ever since
my arrival at Levanto.
Attilio was more pensive than usual; the prospect of returning to his
bricks was plainly irksome. Why not join for a change, I suggested, one
of yonder timber-felling parties? He knew all about it. The pay is too
poor. They are cutting the pines all along this coast and dragging them
to the water, where they are sawn into planks and despatched to the
battle-front. It seemed a pity to Attilio; at this rate, he thought,
there would soon be none left, and how then would we be able to linger
in the shade and take our pleasure on some future day?
"Have no fear of that," I said. "And yet--would you believe it? Many
years ago these hills, as far as you can see to right and left and
behind, were bare like the inside of your hand. Then somebody looked at
the landscape and said: 'What a shame to make so little use of these
hundreds of miles of waste soil. Let us try an experiment with a new
kind of pine tree which I think will prosper among the rocks. One of
these days people may be glad of them.'"
"You see what has happened. Right up to Genoa, and down below
Levanto--nothing but pines. You Italians ought to be grateful to that
man. The value of the timber which is now being felled along this
stretch of coast cannot be less than a thousand francs an hour. That is
what you would have to pay, if you wanted to buy it. Twelve thousand
francs a day; perhaps twice as much."
"Twelve thousand francs a day!"
"And do you know who planted the trees? It was a Scotsman."
"A Scozzese. What kind of animal is that?"
"A person who thinks ahead."
"Then my mother is a Scotsman."
I glanced from the sea into his face; there was something of the same
calm depth in both, the same sunny composure. What is it, this limpid
state of the mind? What do we call this alloy of profundity and
frankness? We call it intelligence. I would like to meet that man or
woman who can make Attilio say something foolish. He does not know what
it is to feel shy. Serenely objective, he discards those subterfuges
which are the usual safeguard of youth or inexperience--the evasions,
reservations and prevarications that defend the shallow, the weak, the
self-conscious. His candour rises above them. He feels instinctively
that these things are pitfalls.
"Have you no sweetheart, Attilio?"
"Certainly I have. But it is not a man's affair. We are only children,
you understand--siamo ancora piccoli."
"Did you ever give her a kiss?"
"Never. Not a single one."
I relight my pipe, and then inquire:
"Why not give her a kiss?"
"People would call me a disrespectful boy."
"Nobody, surely, need be any the wiser?"
"She is not like you and me."
"Not like us? How so?"
"She would tell her sister."
"What of it?"
"The sister would tell her mother, who would say unpleasant things to
mine. And perhaps to other folks. Then the fat would be in the fire. And
that is why."
"What would your mother say to you?"
"She would say: 'You are the oldest male; you should conduct yourself
accordingly. What is this lack of judgment I hear about?'"
"I begin to understand."
Driven from the Paradise of Levanto, I landed not on earth but--with one
jump--in Hell. The Turks figure forth a Hell of ice and snow; this is my
present abode; its name is Siena. Every one knows that this town lies on
a hill, on three hills; the inference that it would be cold in January
was fairly obvious; how cold, nobody could have guessed. The sun is
invisible. Streets are deep in snow. Icicles hang from the windows.
Worst of all, the hotels are unheated. Those English, you know,--they
refuse to supply us with coal....
Could this be the city where I was once nearly roasted to death? It is
an effort to recall that glistening month of the Palio festival, a month
I spent at a genuine pension for a set purpose, namely, to write a study
on the habits of "The Pension-cats of Europe"--those legions of elderly
English spinsters who lead crepuscular lives in continental
boarding-houses. I tore it up, I remember; it was unfair. These ladies
have a perfect right to do as they please and, for that matter, are not
nearly as ridiculous as many married couples that live outside
boarding-houses. But when Siena grew intolerable--a stark,
ill-provisioned place; you will look in vain for a respectable grocer or
butcher; the wine leaves much to be desired; indeed, it has all the
drawbacks of Florence and none of its advantages--why, then we fled into
Mr. Edward Hutton's Unknown Tuscany. There, at Abbadia San Salvatore
(though the summit of Mount Amiata did not come up to expectation) we at
last felt cool again, wandering amid venerable chestnuts and wondrously
tinted volcanic blocks, mountain-fragments, full of miniature glens and
moisture and fernery--a green twilight, a landscape made for fairies....
Was this the same Siena from which we once escaped to get cool? Muffled
up to the ears, with three waistcoats on, I move in and out of doors,
endeavouring to discover whether there be any appreciable difference in
temperature between the external air and that of my bedroom. There
cannot be much to choose between them. They say I am the only foreigner
now in Siena. That, at least, is a distinction, a record. Furthermore,
no matches, not even of the sulphur variety, were procurable in any of
the shops for the space of three days; that also, I imagine, cannot yet
have occurred within the memory of living man.
While stamping round the great Square yesterday to keep my feet warm, a
Florentine addressed me; a commercial gentleman, it would seem. He
disapproved of this square--it was not regular in shape, it was not even
level. What a piazza! Such was his patriotism that he actually went on
to say unfriendly things about the tower. Who ever thought of building a
tower at the bottom of a hill? It was good enough, he dared say, for
Siena. Oh, yes; doubtless it satisfied their artistic notions, such as
This tower being one of my favourites, I felt called upon to undertake
its defence. Recollecting all I had ever heard or read to its credit,
citing authorities neither of us had ever dreamt of--improvising
lustily, in short, as I warmed to my work--I concluded by proving it to
be one of the seven wonders of the world. He said:
"Now really! One would think you had been born in this miserable hole.
You know what we Florentines say:
Di tre cose e piena:
E figli di putane."
"I admit that Siena is deficient in certain points," I replied. "That
wonderful dome of yours, for example--there is nothing like it here."
"No, indeed. Ah, that cupola! Ah, Brunelleschi--che genio!"
"I perceive you are a true Florentine. Could you perhaps tell me why
Florentines, coming home from abroad, always rejoice to see it rising
out of the plain?"
"Some enemy has been talking to you...."
A little red-haired boy from Lucca, carrying for sale a trayful of those
detestable plaster-casts, then accosted me.
Who bought such abominations, I inquired?
Nobody. Business was bad.
Bad? I could well believe it. Having for the first time in my life
nothing better to do, I did my duty. I purchased the entire collection
of these horrors, on the understanding that he should forthwith convey
them in my presence to the desolate public garden, where they were set
up, one after the other, on the edge of a bench and shattered to
fragments with our snow-balls. Thus perished, not without laughter and
in a good cause, three archangels, two Dantes, a nondescript lady with
brocade garments and a delectable amorino whose counterpart, the sole
survivor, was reserved for a better fate--being carried home and
presented as a gift to my chambermaid.
She was polite enough to call it a beautiful work of art.
I was polite enough not to contradict her.
Both of us know better....
This young girl has no illusions (few Tuscans have) and yet a great
charm. Her lover is at the front. There is little for her to do, the
hotel being practically empty. There is nothing whatever for me to do,
in these Arctic latitudes. Bored to death, both of us, we confabulate
together huddled in shawls and greatcoats, each holding a charcoal pan
to keep the fingers from being frostbitten. I say to myself: "You will
never find a maidservant of this type in Rome, so sprightly of tongue,
distinguished in manner and spotless in person--never!"
The same with her words. The phrases trip out of her mouth, immaculate,
each in full dress. Seldom does she make an original remark, but she
says ordinary things in a tone of intense conviction and invests them
with an appetizing savour. Wherein lies that peculiar salt of Tuscan
speech? In its emphasis, its air of finality. They are emphatic, rather
than profound. Their deepest utterances, if you look below the surface,
are generally found to be variants of one of those ancestral saws or
proverbs wherewith the country is saturated. Theirs is a crusted charm.
A hard and glittering sanity, a kind of ageless enamel, is what
confronts us in their temperament. There are not many deviations from
this Tuscan standard. Close by, in Umbria, you will find a softer type.
One can be passably warm in bed. Here I lie for long, long hours,
endeavouring to generate the spark of energy which will propel me from
this inhospitable mountain. Here I lie and study an old travel-book. I
mean to press it to the last drop.
One seldom presses books out, nowadays. The mania for scraps of one kind
or another, the general cheapening of printed matter, seem to have
dulled that faculty and given us a scattered state of mind. We browse
dispersedly, in goatish fashion, instead of nibbling down to the root
like that more conscientious quadruped whose name, if I mentioned it,
would degrade the metaphor. Devouring so much, so hastily, so
irreverentially, how shall a man establish close contact with the mind
of him who writes, and impregnate himself with his peculiar outlook to
such an extent as to be able to take on, if only momentarily, a
colouring different from his own? It is a task requiring submissiveness
And yet, what could be more interesting than really to observe things
and men from the angle of another individual, to install oneself within
his mentality and make it one's habitation? To sit in his bones--what
glimpses of unexplored regions! Were a man to know what his fellow truly
thinks; could he feel in his own body those impulses which drive the
other to his idiomatic acts and words--what an insight he would gain!
Morally, it might well amount to "tout comprendre, c'est ne rien
pardonner"; but who troubles about pardoning or condemning?
Intellectually, it would be a feast. Thus immersed into an alien
personality, a man would feel as though he lived two lives, and
possessed two characters at the same time. One's own life, prolonged to
an age, could never afford such unexpected revelations.
The thing can be done, up to a point, with patient humility; for
everybody writes himself down more or less, though not everybody is
worth the trouble of deciphering.
I purpose to apply this method; to squeeze the juice, the life-blood,
out of what some would call a rather dry Scotch traveller. I read his
book in England for the first time two years ago, and have brought it
here with a view to further dissection. Would I had known of its
existence five years earlier! Strange to say, despite my deplorable
bookishness (vide Press) this was not the case; I could never ascertain
either the author's name or the title of his volume, though I had heard
about him, rather vaguely, long before that time. It was Dr. Dohrn of
the Naples Aquarium who said to me in those days:
"Going to the South? Whatever you do, don't forget to read that book by
an old Scotch clergyman. He ran all over the country with a top-hat and
an umbrella, copying inscriptions. He was just your style: perfectly
Flattered at the notion of being likened to a Scottish divine, I made
all kinds of inquiries--in vain. I abandoned hope of unearthing the
top-hatted antiquarian and had indeed concluded him to be a myth, when a
friend supplied me with what may be absurdly familiar to less bookish
people: "The Nooks and By-ways of Italy." By Craufurd Tait Ramage, LL.D.
A glance sufficed to prove that this Ramage belonged to the brotherhood
of David Urquhart, Mure of Caldwell, and the rest of them. Where are
they gone, those candid inquirers, so full of gentlemanly curiosity, so
informative and yet shrewdly human; so practical--think of Urquhart's
Turkish Baths--though stuffed with whimsicality and abstractions? Where
is the spirit that gave them birth?
One grows attached to these "Nooks and By-ways." An honest book, richly
thoughtful, and abounding in kindly twinkles.
Now, regarding the top-hat. I find no mention of it in these letters.
For letters they are; letters extracted from a diary which was written
on his return from Italy in 1828 from "very full notes made from day to
day during my journey." 1828: that date is important. It was in 1828,
therefore, when the events occurred which he relates, and he allowed an
interval of forty years to elapse ere making them public.
The umbrella on the other hand is always cropping up. It pervades the
volume like a Leitmotif. It is "a most invaluable article" for
protecting the head against the sun's rays; so constantly is it used
that after a single month's wear we find it already in "a sad state of
dilapidation." Still, he clings to it. As a defence against brigands it
might prove useful, and on one occasion, indeed, he seizes it in his
hand "prepared to show fight." This happened, be it remembered, in 1828.
Vainly one conjectures what the mountain folk of South Italy thought of
such a phenomenon. Even now, if they saw you carrying an umbrella about
in the sunshine, they would cross themselves and perhaps pray for your
recovery--perhaps not. Yet Ramage was not mad at all. He was only more
individualistic and centrifugal than many people. Having formed by
bitter experience a sensible theory--to wit, that sunstroke is
unpleasant and can be avoided by the use of an umbrella--he is not above
putting it into practice. Let others think and do as they please!
For the rest, his general appearance was quite in keeping. How
delightful he must have looked! Why have we no such types nowadays?
Wearing a "white merino frock-coat, nankeen trowsers, a large-brimmed
straw hat, and white shoes," he must have been a fairly conspicuous
object in the landscape. That hat alone will have alarmed the peasantry
who to this day and hour wear nothing but felt on their heads. And note
the predominance of the colour white in his attire; it was popular, at
that period, with English travellers. Such men, however, were unknown in
most of the regions which Ramage explored. The colour must have inspired
feelings akin to awe in the minds of the natives, for white is their
bete noire. They have a rooted aversion to it and never employ it in
their clothing, because it suggests to their fancy the idea of
bloodlessness--of anaemia and death. If you want to make one of them ill
over his dinner, wear a white waistcoat.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that he sometimes finds himself "an
object of curiosity." An English Vice-Consul, at one place, was "quite
alarmed at my appearance." Elsewhere he meets a band of peasant-women
who "took fright at my appearance and scampered off in the utmost
confusion." And what happened at Taranto? By the time of his arrival in
that town his clothes were already in such a state that "they would
scarcely fit an Irish beggar." Umbrella in hand--he is careful to
apprise us of this detail--and soaked moreover from head to foot after
an immersion in the river Tara, he entered the public square, which was
full of inhabitants, and soon found himself the centre of a large crowd.
Looking, he says, like a drowned rat, his appearance caused "great
"What is the matter? Who is he?" they asked.
The muleteer explained that he was an Englishman, and "that immediately
seemed to satisfy them."
Of course it did. People in those times were prepared for anything on
the part of an Englishman, who was a far more self-assertive and
self-confident creature than nowadays.