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Ch. 11: The Mount of Refuge

My thoughts turned continually to Catanzaro. It is a city set upon a hill, overlooking the Gulf of Squillace, and I felt that if I could but escape thither, I should regain health and strength. Here at Cotrone the air oppressed and enfeebled me; the neighbourhood of the sea brought no freshness. From time to time the fever seemed to be overcome, but it lingered still in my blood and made my nights restless. I must away to Catanzaro.

When first I spoke of this purpose to Dr. Sculco, he indulged my fancy, saying "Presently, presently!" A few days later, when I seriously asked him how soon I might with safety travel, his face expressed misgiving. Why go to Catanzaro? It was on the top of a mountain, and had a most severe climate; the winds at this season were terrible. In conscience he could not advise me to take such a step: the results might be very grave after my lung trouble. Far better wait at Cotrone for a week or two longer, and then go on to Reggio, crossing perhaps to Sicily to complete my cure. The more Dr. Sculco talked of windy altitudes, the stronger grew my desire for such a change of climate, and the more intolerable seemed my state of languishment. The weather was again stormy, but this time blew sirocco; I felt its evil breath waste my muscles, clog my veins, set all my nerves a-tremble. If I stayed here much longer, I should never get away at all. A superstitious fear crept upon me; I remembered that my last visit had been to the cemetery.

One thing was certain: I should never see the column of Hera's temple. I made my lament on this subject to Dr. Sculco, and he did his best to describe to me the scenery of the Cape. Certain white spots which I had discovered at the end of the promontory were little villas, occupied in summer by the well-to-do citizens of Cotrone; the Doctor himself owned one, which had belonged to his father before him. Some of the earliest memories of his boyhood were connected with the Cape: when he had lessons to learn by heart, he often used to recite them walking round and round the great column. In the garden of his villa he at times amused himself with digging, and a very few turns of the spade sufficed to throw out some relic of antiquity. Certain Americans, he said, obtained permission not long ago from the proprietor of the ground on which the temple stood to make serious excavations, but as soon as the Italians heard of it, they claimed the site as a national monument; the work was forbidden, and the soil had to be returned to its former state. Hard by the ancient sanctuary is a chapel, consecrated to the Madonna del Capo; thither the people of Cotrone make pilgrimages, and hold upon the Cape a rude festival, which often ends in orgiastic riot.

All the surface of the promontory is bare; not a tree, not a bush, save for a little wooded hollow called Fossa del Lupo--the wolf's den. There, says legend, armed folk of Cotrone used to lie in wait to attack the corsairs who occasionally landed for water.

When I led him to talk of Cotrone and its people, the Doctor could but confirm my observations. He contrasted the present with the past; this fever-stricken and waterless village with the great city which was called the healthiest in the world. In his opinion the physical change had resulted from the destruction of forests, which brought with it a diminution of the rainfall. "At Cotrone," he said, "we have practically no rain. A shower now and then, but never a wholesome downpour." He had no doubt that, in ancient times, all the hills of the coast were wooded, as Sila still is, and all the rivers abundantly supplied with water. To-day there was scarce a healthy man in Cotrone: no one had strength to resist a serious illness. This state of things he took very philosophically; I noticed once more the frankly mediaeval spirit in which he regarded the populace. Talking on, he interested me by enlarging upon the difference between southern Italians and those of the north. Beyond Rome a Calabrian never cared to go; he found himself in a foreign country, where his tongue betrayed him, and where his manners were too noticeably at variance with those prevailing. Italian unity, I am sure, meant little to the good Doctor, and appealed but coldly to his imagination.

I declared to him at length that I could endure no longer this dreary life of the sick-room; I must get into the open air, and, if no harm came of the experiment, I should leave for Catanzaro. "I cannot prevent you," was the Doctor's reply, "but I am obliged to point out that you act on your own responsibility. It is pericoloso, it is pericolosissimo! The terrible climate of the mountains!" However, I won his permission to leave the house, and acted upon it that same afternoon. Shaking and palpitating, I slowly descended the stairs to the colonnade; then, with a step like that of an old, old man, tottered across the piazza, my object being to reach the chemist's shop, where I wished to pay for the drugs that I had had and for the tea. When I entered, sweat was streaming from my forehead; I dropped into a chair, and for a minute or two could do nothing but recover nerve and breath. Never in my life had I suffered such a wretched sense of feebleness. The pharmacist looked at me with gravely compassionate eyes; when I told him I was the Englishman who had been ill, and that I wanted to leave to-morrow for Catanzaro, his compassion indulged itself more freely, and I could see quite well that he thought my plan of travel visionary. True, he said, the climate of Cotrone was trying to a stranger. He understood my desire to get away; but--Catanzaro! Was I aware that at Catanzaro I should suddenly find myself in a season of most rigorous winter? And the winds! One needed to be very strong even to stand on one's feet at Catanzaro. For all this I returned thanks, and, having paid my bill, tottered back to the Concordia. It seemed to me more than doubtful whether I should start on the morrow.

That evening I tried to dine. Don Ferdinando entered as usual, and sat mute through his unchanging meal; the grumbler grumbled and ate, as perchance he does to this day. I forced myself to believe that the food had a savour for me, and that the wine did not taste of drugs. As I sat over my pretended meal, I heard the sirocco moaning without, and at times a splash of rain against the window. Near me, two military men were exchanging severe comments on Calabria and its people. "Che paese!"--"What a country!" exclaimed one of them finally in disgust. Of course they came from the north, and I thought that their conversation was not likely to knit closer the bond between the extremes of Italy.

To my delight I looked forth next morning on a sunny and calm sky, such as I had not seen during all my stay at Cotrone. I felt better, and decided to leave for Catanzaro by train in the early afternoon. Shaking still, but heartened by the sunshine, I took a short walk, and looked for the last time at the Lacinian promontory. On my way back I passed a little building from which sounded an astonishing noise, a confused babble of shrill voices, blending now and then with a deep stentorian shout. It was the communal school--not during playtime, or in a state of revolt, but evidently engaged as usual upon its studies. The school-house was small, but the volume of clamour that issued from it would have done credit to two or three hundred children in unrestrained uproariousness. Curiosity held me listening for ten minutes; the tumult underwent no change of character, nor suffered the least abatement; the mature voice occasionally heard above it struck a cheery note, by no means one of impatience or stern command. Had I been physically capable of any effort, I should have tried to view that educational scene. The incident did me good, and I went on in a happier humour.

Which was not perturbed by something that fell under my eye soon afterwards. At a shop door hung certain printed cards, bearing a notice that "wood hay-makers," "wood binders," and "wood mowers" were "sold here." Not in Italian this, but in plain, blunt English; and to each announcement was added the name of an English manufacturing firm, with an agency at Naples. I have often heard the remark that Englishmen of business are at a disadvantage in their export trade because they pay no heed to the special requirements of foreign countries; but such a delightful illustration of their ineptitude had never come under my notice. Doubtless these alluring advertisements are widely scattered through agricultural Calabria. Who knows? they my serve as an introduction to the study of the English tongue.

Not without cordiality was my leave-taking. The hostess confided to me that, in the first day of my illness, she had felt sure I should die. Everybody had thought so, she added gaily; even Dr. Sculco had shaken his head and shrugged his shoulders; much better, was it not, to be paying my bill? Bill more moderate, under the circumstances, no man ever discharged; Calabrian honesty came well out of the transaction. So I tumbled once more into the dirty, ramshackle diligenza, passed along the dusty road between the barred and padlocked warehouses, and arrived in good time at the station. No sooner had I set foot on the platform than I felt an immense relief. Even here, it seemed to me, the air was fresher. I lifted my eyes to the hills and seemed to feel the breezes of Catanzaro.

The train was made up at Cotrone, and no undue haste appeared in our departure. When we were already twenty minutes late, there stepped into the carriage where I was sitting a good-humoured railway official, who smiled and greeted me. I supposed he wanted my ticket, but nothing of the kind. After looking all round the compartment with an air of disinterested curiosity, he heaved a sigh and remarked pleasantly to me, "Non manca niente"--"Nothing is amiss." Five minutes more and we steamed away.

The railway ascended a long valley, that of the Esaro, where along the deep watercourse trickled a scarce perceptible stream. On either hand were hills of pleasant outline, tilled on the lower slopes, and often set with olives. Here and there came a grassy slope, where shepherds or goatherds idled amid their flocks. Above the ascent a long tunnel, after which the line falls again towards the sea. The landscape took a nobler beauty; mountains spread before us, tenderly coloured by the autumn sun. We crossed two or three rivers--rivers of flowing water, their banks overhung with dense green jungle. The sea was azure, and looked very calm, but white waves broke loudly upon the strand, last murmur of the storm which had raged and renewed itself for nearly a fortnight.

At one of the wayside stations entered a traveller whom I could not but regard with astonishment. He was a man at once plump and muscular, his sturdy limbs well exhibited in a shooting costume. On his face glowed the richest hue of health; his eyes glistened merrily. With him he carried a basket, which, as soon as he was settled, gave forth an abundant meal. The gusto of his eating, the satisfaction with which he eyed his glasses of red wine, excited my appetite. But who was he? Not, I could see, a tourist; yet how account for this health and vigour in a native of the district? I had not seen such a man since I set out upon my travels; the contrast he made with the figures of late familiar to me was so startling that I had much ado to avoid continuously gazing at him. His proximity did me good; the man radiated health.

When next the train stopped he exchanged words with some one on the platform, and I heard that he was going to Catanzaro. At once I understood. This jovial, ruddy-cheeked personage was a man of the hills. At Catanzaro I should see others like him; perhaps he fairly represented its inhabitants. If so, I had reason for my suspicion that poor fever-stricken Cotrone regarded with a sort of jealousy the breezy health of Catanzaro, which at the same time is a much more prosperous place. Later, I found that there did exist some acerbity of mutual criticism between the two towns, reminding one of civic rivalry among the Greeks. Catanzaro spoke with contempt of Cotrone. Happily I made no medical acquaintance in the hill town; but I should have liked to discuss with one of these gentlemen the view of their climate held by Dr. Sculco.

In the ages that followed upon the fall of Rome, perpetual danger drove the sea-coast population of Calabria inland and to the heights. Our own day beholds a counter movement; the shore line of railway will create new towns on the old deserted sites. Such a settlement is the Marina of Catanzaro, a little port at the mouth of a wide valley, along which runs a line to Catanzaro itself, or rather to the foot of the great hill on which the town is situated. The sun was setting when I alighted at the Marina, and as I waited for the branch train my eyes feasted upon a glory of colour which made me forget aching weariness. All around lay orchards of orange trees, the finest I had ever seen, and over their solid masses of dark foliage, thick hung with ripening fruit, poured the splendour of the western sky. It was a picture unsurpassable in richness of tone; the dense leafage of deepest, warmest green glowed and flashed, its magnificence heightened by the blaze of the countless golden spheres adorning it. Beyond, the magic sea, purple and crimson as the sun descended upon the vanishing horizon. Eastward, above the slopes of Sila, stood a moon almost at its full, the yellow of an autumn leaf, on a sky soft-flushed with rose.

In my geography it is written that between Catanzaro and the sea lie the gardens of the Hesperides.


George Gissing