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Ch. 10: Children of the Soil

Any northern person who passed a day or two at the Concordia as an ordinary traveller would carry away a strong impression. The people of the house would seem to him little short of savages, filthy in person and in habits, utterly uncouth in their demeanour, perpetual wranglers and railers, lacking every qualification for the duties they pretended to discharge. In England their mere appearance would revolt decent folk. With my better opportunity of judging them, I overcame the first natural antipathy; I saw their good side, and learnt to forgive the faults natural to a state of frank barbarism. It took two or three days before their rough and ready behaviour softened to a really human friendliness, but this came about at last, and when it was known that I should not give much more trouble, that I needed only a little care in the matter of diet, goodwill did its best to aid hopeless incapacity.

Whilst my fever was high, little groups of people often came into the room, to stand and stare at me, exchanging, in a low voice, remarks which they supposed I did not hear, or, hearing, could not understand; as a matter of fact, their dialect was now intelligible enough to me, and I knew that they discussed my chances of surviving. Their natures were not sanguine. A result, doubtless, of the unhealthy climate, every one at Cotrone seemed in a more or less gloomy state of mind. The hostess went about uttering ceaseless moans and groans; when she was in my room I heard her constantly sighing, "Ah, Signore! Ah, Cristo!"--exclamations which, perhaps, had some reference to my illness, but which did not cease when I recovered. Whether she had any private reason for depression I could not learn; I fancy not; it was only the whimpering and querulous habit due to low health. A female servant, who occasionally brought me food (I found that she also cooked it), bore herself in much the same way. This domestic was the most primitive figure of the household. Picture a woman of middle age, wrapped at all times in dirty rags (not to be called clothing), obese, grimy, with dishevelled black hair, and hands so scarred, so deformed by labour and neglect, as to be scarcely human. She had the darkest and fiercest eyes I ever saw. Between her and her mistress went on an unceasing quarrel: they quarrelled in my room, in the corridor, and, as I knew by their shrill voices, in places remote; yet I am sure they did not dislike each other, and probably neither of them ever thought of parting. Unexpectedly, one evening, this woman entered, stood by the bedside, and began to talk with such fierce energy, with such flashing of her black eyes, and such distortion of her features, that I could only suppose that she was attacking me for the trouble I caused her. A minute or two passed before I could even hit the drift of her furious speech; she was always the most difficult of the natives to understand, and in rage she became quite unintelligible. Little by little, by dint of questioning, I got at what she meant. There had been guai, worse than usual; the mistress had reviled her unendurably for some fault or other, and was it not hard that she should be used like this after having tanto, tanto lavorato! In fact, she was appealing for my sympathy, not abusing me at all. When she went on to say that she was alone in the world, that all her kith and kin were freddi morti (stone dead), a pathos in her aspect and her words took hold upon me; it was much as if some heavy-laden beast of burden had suddenly found tongue, and protested in the rude beginnings of articulate utterance against its hard lot. If only one could have learnt, in intimate detail, the life of this domestic serf! How interesting, and how sordidly picturesque against the background of romantic landscape, of scenic history! I looked long into her sallow, wrinkled face, trying to imagine the thoughts that ruled its expression. In some measure my efforts at kindly speech succeeded, and her "Ah, Cristo!" as she turned to go away, was not without a touch of solace.

Another time my hostess fell foul of the waiter, because he had brought me goat's milk which was very sour. There ensued the most comical scene. In an access of fury the stout woman raged and stormed; the waiter, a lank young fellow, with a simple, good-natured face, after trying to explain that he had committed the fault by inadvertence, suddenly raised his hand, like one about to exhort a congregation, and exclaimed in a tone of injured remonstrance, "Un po' di calma! Un po' di calma!" My explosion of laughter at this inimitable utterance put an end to the strife. The youth laughed with me; his mistress bustled him out of the room, and then began to inform me that he was weak in his head. Ah! she exclaimed, her life with these people! what it cost her to keep them in anything like order! When she retired, I heard her expectorating violently in the corridor; a habit with every inmate of this genial hostelry.

When the worst of my fever had subsided, the difficulty was to obtain any nourishment suitable to my state. The good doctor, who had suggested beefsteak and Marsala when I was incapable of taking anything at all, ruled me severely in the matter of diet now that I really began to feel hungry. I hope I may never again be obliged to drink goat's milk; in these days it became so unutterably loathsome to me that I had, at length, to give it up altogether, and I cannot think of it now without a qualm. The broth offered me was infamous, mere coloured water beneath half an inch of floating grease. Once there was a promise of a fowl, and I looked forward to it eagerly; but, alas! this miserable bird had undergone a process of seething for the extraction of soup. I would have defied anyone to distinguish between the substance remaining and two or three old kid gloves boiled into a lump. With a pleased air, the hostess one day suggested a pigeon, a roasted pigeon, and I welcomed the idea joyously. Indeed, the appearance of the dish, when it was borne in, had nothing to discourage my appetite--the odour was savoury; I prepared myself for a treat. Out of pure kindness, for she saw me tremble in my weakness, the good woman offered her aid in the carving; she took hold of the bird by the two legs, rent it asunder, tore off the wings in the same way, and then, with a smile of satisfaction, wiped her hands upon her skirt. If her hands had known water (to say nothing of soap) during the past twelve months I am much mistaken. It was a pity, for I found that my teeth could just masticate a portion of the flesh which hunger compelled me to assail.

Of course I suffered much from thirst, and Dr. Sculco startled me one day by asking if I liked tea. Tea? Was it really procurable? The Doctor assured me that it could be supplied by the chemist; though, considering how rarely the exotic was demanded, it might have lost something of its finer flavour whilst stored at the pharmacy. An order was despatched. Presently the waiter brought me a very small paper packet, such as might have contained a couple of Seidlitz powders; on opening it I discovered something black and triturated, a crumbling substance rather like ground charcoal. I smelt it, but there was no perceptible odour; I put a little of it to my tongue, but the effect was merely that of dust. Proceeding to treat it as if it were veritable tea, I succeeded in imparting a yellowish tinge to the hot water, and, so thirsty was I, this beverage tempted me to a long draught. There followed no ill result that I know of, but the paper packet lay thenceforth untouched, and, on leaving, I made a present of it to my landlady.

To complete the domestic group, I must make mention of the "chambermaid." This was a lively little fellow of about twelve years old, son of the landlady, who gave me much amusement. I don't know whether he performed chambermaid duty in all the rooms; probably the fierce-eyed cook did the heavier work elsewhere, but upon me his attendance was constant. At an uncertain hour of the evening he entered (of course, without knocking), doffed his cap in salutation, and began by asking how I found myself. The question could not have been more deliberately and thoughtfully put by the Doctor himself. When I replied that I was better, the little man expressed his satisfaction, and went on to make a few remarks about the pessimo tempo. Finally, with a gesture of politeness, he inquired whether I would permit him "di fare un po' di pulizia"--to clean up a little, and this he proceeded to do with much briskness. Excepting the good Sculco, my chambermaid was altogether the most civilized person I met at Cotrone. He had a singular amiability of nature, and his boyish spirits were not yet subdued by the pestilent climate. If I thanked him for anything, he took off his cap, bowed with comical dignity, and answered "Grazie a voi, Signore." Of course these people never used the third person feminine of polite Italian. Dr. Sculco did so, for I had begun by addressing him in that manner, but plainly it was not familiar to his lips. At the same time there prevailed certain forms of civility, which seemed a trifle excessive. For instance, when the Doctor entered my room, and I gave him "Buon giorno," he was wont to reply, "Troppo gentile!"--too kind of you!

My newspaper boy came regularly for a few days, always complaining of feverish symptoms, then ceased to appear. I made inquiry: he was down with illness, and as no one took his place I suppose the regular distribution of newspapers in Cotrone was suspended. When the poor fellow again showed himself, he had a sorry visage; he sat down by my bedside (rain dripping from his hat, and mud, very thick, upon his boots) to give an account of his sufferings. I pictured the sort of retreat in which he had lain during those miserable hours. My own chamber contained merely the barest necessaries, and, as the gentleman of Cosenza would have said, "left something to be desired" in point of cleanliness. Conceive the places into which Cotrone's poorest have to crawl when they are stricken with disease. I admit, however, that the thought was worse to me at that moment than it is now. After all, the native of Cotrone has advantages over the native of a city slum; and it is better to die in a hovel by the Ionian Sea than in a cellar at Shoreditch.

The position of my room, which looked upon the piazza, enabled me to hear a great deal of what went on in the town. The life of Cotrone began about three in the morning; at that hour I heard the first voices, upon which there soon followed the bleating of goats and the tinkling of ox-bells. No doubt the greater part of the poor people were in bed by eight o'clock every evening; only those who had dealings in the outer world were stirring when the diligenza arrived about ten, and I suspect that some of these snatched a nap before that late hour. Throughout the day there sounded from the piazza a ceaseless clamour of voices, such a noise as in England would only rise from some excited crowd on a rare occasion; it was increased by reverberations from the colonnade which runs all round in front of the shops. When the north-east gale had passed over, there ensued a few days of sullen calm, permitting the people to lead their ordinary life in open air. I grew to recognize certain voices, those of men who seemingly had nothing to do but to talk all day long. Only the sound reached me; I wish I could have gathered the sense of these interminable harangues and dialogues. In every country and every age those talk most who have least to say that is worth saying. These tonguesters of Cotrone had their predecessors in the public place of Croton, who began to gossip before dawn, and gabbled unceasingly till after nightfall; with their voices must often have mingled the bleating of goats or the lowing of oxen, just as I heard the sounds to-day.

One day came a street organ, accompanied by singing, and how glad I was! The first note of music, this, that I had heard at Cotrone. The instrument played only two or three airs, and one of them became a great favourite with the populace; very soon, numerous voices joined with that of the singer, and all this and the following day the melody sounded, near or far. It had the true characteristics of southern song; rising tremolos, and cadences that swept upon a wail of passion; high falsetto notes, and deep tum-tum of infinite melancholy. Scorned by the musician, yet how expressive of a people's temper, how suggestive of its history! At the moment when this strain broke upon my ear, I was thinking ill of Cotrone and its inhabitants; in the first pause of the music I reproached myself bitterly for narrowness and ingratitude. All the faults of the Italian people are whelmed in forgiveness as soon as their music sounds under the Italian sky. One remembers all they have suffered, all they have achieved in spite of wrong. Brute races have flung themselves, one after another, upon this sweet and glorious land; conquest and slavery, from age to age, have been the people's lot. Tread where one will, the soil has been drenched with blood. An immemorial woe sounds even through the lilting notes of Italian gaiety. It is a country wearied and regretful, looking ever backward to the things of old; trivial in its latter life, and unable to hope sincerely for the future. Moved by these voices singing over the dust of Croton, I asked pardon for all my foolish irritation, my impertinent fault-finding. Why had I come hither, if it was not that I loved land and people? And had I not richly known the recompense of my love?

Legitimately enough one may condemn the rulers of Italy, those who take upon themselves to shape her political life, and recklessly load her with burdens insupportable. But among the simple on Italian soil a wandering stranger has no right to nurse national superiorities, to indulge a contemptuous impatience. It is the touch of tourist vulgarity. Listen to a Calabrian peasant singing as he follows his oxen along the furrow, or as he shakes the branches of his olive tree. That wailing voice amid the ancient silence, that long lament solacing ill-rewarded toil, comes from the heart of Italy herself, and wakes the memory of mankind.


George Gissing