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Ch. 14: Squillace

In meditating my southern ramble I had lingered on the thought that I should see Squillace. For Squillace (Virgil's "ship-wrecking Scylaceum") was the ancestral home of Cassiodorus, and his retreat when he became a monk; Cassiodorus, the delightful pedant, the liberal statesman and patriot, who stands upon the far limit of his old Roman world and bids a sad farewell to its glories. He had niched himself in my imagination. Once when I was spending a silent winter upon the shore of Devon, I had with me the two folio volumes of his works, and patiently read the better part of them; it was more fruitful than a study of all the modern historians who have written about his time. I saw the man; caught many a glimpse of his mind and heart, and names which had been to me but symbols in a period of obscure history became things living and recognizable.

I could have travelled from Catanzaro by railway to the sea-coast station called Squillace, but the town itself is perched upon a mountain some miles inland, and it was simpler to perform the whole journey by road, a drive of four hours, which, if the weather favoured me, would be thoroughly enjoyable. On my last evening Don Pasquale gave a good account of the sky; he thought I might hopefully set forth on the morrow, and, though I was to leave at eight o'clock, promised to come and see me off. Very early I looked forth, and the prospect seemed doubtful; I had half a mind to postpone departure. But about seven came Don Pasquale's servant, sent by his master to inquire whether I should start or not, and, after asking the man's opinion, I decided to take courage. The sun rose; I saw the streets of Catanzaro brighten in its pale gleams, and the rack above interspaced with blue.

Luckily my carriage-owner was a man of prudence; at the appointed hour he sent a covered vehicle--not the open carozzella in which I should have cheerfully set forth had it depended upon myself. Don Pasquale, too, though unwilling to perturb me, could not altogether disguise his misgivings. At my last sight of him, he stood on the pavement before the hotel gazing anxiously upwards. But the sun still shone, and as we began the descent of the mountain-side I felt annoyed at having to view the landscape through loopholes.

Of a sudden--we were near the little station down in the valley--there arose a mighty roaring, and all the trees of the wayside bent as if they would break. The sky blackened, the wind howled, and presently, as I peered through the window for some hope that this would only be a passing storm, rain beat violently upon my face. Then the carriage stopped, and my driver, a lad of about seventeen, jumped down to put something right in the horses' harness.

"Is this going to last?" I shouted to him.

"No, no, signore" he answered gaily. "It will be over in a minute or two. Ecco il sole!"

I beheld no sun, either then or at any moment during the rest of the day, but the voice was so reassuring that I gladly gave ear to it. On we drove, down the lovely vale of the Corace, through orange-groves and pine-woods, laurels and myrtles, carobs and olive trees, with the rain beating fiercely upon us, the wind swaying all the leafage like billows on a stormy sea. At the Marina of Catanzaro we turned southward on the coast road, pursued it for two or three miles, then branched upon our inland way. The storm showed no sign of coming to an end. Several times the carriage stopped, and the lad got down to examine his horses--perhaps to sympathize with them; he was such a drenched, battered, pitiable object that I reproached myself for allowing him to pursue the journey.

"Brutto tempo!" he screamed above the uproar, when I again spoke to him; but in such a cheery tone that I did not think it worth while to make any further remark.

Through the driving rain, I studied as well as I could the features of the country. On my left hand stretched a long fiat-topped mountain, forming the southern slope of the valley we ascended; steep, dark, and furrowed with innumerable torrent-beds, it frowned upon a river that rushed along the ravine at its foot to pour into the sea where the mountain broke as a rugged cliff. This was the Mons Moscius of old time, which sheltered the monastery built by Cassiodorus. The headlong, swollen flood, coloured like yellow clay, held little resemblance to the picture I had made of that river Pellena which murmurs so musically in the old writer's pages. Its valley was heaped with great blocks of granite--a feature which has interest for the geologist; it marks an abrupt change of system, from the soft stone of Catanzaro (which ends the Apennine) to the granitic mass of Aspromonte (the toe of Italy) which must have risen above the waters long before the Apennines came into existence. The wild weather emphasized a natural difference between this valley of Squillace and that which rises towards Catanzaro; here is but scanty vegetation, little more than thin orchards of olive, and the landscape has a bare, harsh character. Is it changed so greatly since the sixth century of our era? Or did its beauty lie in the eyes of Cassiodorus, who throughout his long life of statesmanship in the north never forgot this Bruttian home, and who sought peace at last amid the scenes of his childhood?

At windings of the way I frequently caught sight of Squillace itself, high and far, its white houses dull-gleaming against the lurid sky. The crag on which it stands is higher than that of Catanzaro, but of softer ascent. As we approached I sought for signs of a road that would lead us upward, but nothing of the sort could be discerned; presently I became aware that we were turning into a side valley, and, to all appearances, going quite away from the town. The explanation was that the ascent lay on the further slope; we began at length to climb the back of the mountain, and here I noticed with a revival of hope that there was a lull in the tempest; rain no longer fell so heavily; the clouds seemed to be breaking apart. A beam of sunshine would have set me singing with joy. When half-way up, my driver rested his horses and came to speak a word; we conversed merrily. He was to make straight for the hotel, where shelter and food awaited us--a bottle of wine, ha! ha! He knew the hotel, of course? Oh yes, he knew the hotel; it stood just at the entrance to the town; we should arrive in half an hour.

Looking upwards I saw nothing but a mass of ancient ruins, high fragments of shattered wall, a crumbling tower, and great windows through which the clouds were visible. Inhabited Squillace lay, no doubt, behind. I knew that it was a very small place, without any present importance; but at all events there was an albergo, and the mere name of albergo had a delightful sound of welcome after such a journey. Here I would stay for the night, at all events; if the weather cleared, I might be glad to remain for two or three days. Certainly the rain was stopping; the wind no longer howled. Up we went towards those ragged walls and great, vacant windows. We reached the summit; for two minutes the horses trotted; then a sudden halt, and my lad's face at the carriage door.

"Ecco l'albergo, Signore!"

I jumped out. We were at the entrance to an unpaved street of squalid hovels, a street which the rain had converted into a muddy river, so that, on quitting the vehicle, I stepped into running water up to my ankles. Before me was a long low cabin, with a row of four or five windows and no upper storey; a miserable hut of rubble and plaster, stained with ancient dirt and, at this moment, looking soaked with moisture. Above the doorway I read "Osteria Centrale"; on the bare end of the house was the prouder inscription, "Albergo Nazionale"--the National Hotel. I am sorry to say that at the time this touch of humour made no appeal to me; my position was no laughing matter. Faint with hunger, I saw at once that I should have to browse on fearsome food. I saw, too, that there was scarce a possibility of passing the night in this place; I must drive down to the sea-shore, and take my chance of a train which would bring me at some time to Reggio. While I thus reflected--the water rushing over my boots--a very ill-looking man came forth and began to stare curiously at me. I met his eye, but he offered no greeting. A woman joined him, and the two, quite passive, waited to discover my intentions.

Eat I must, so I stepped forward and asked if I could have a meal. Without stirring, the man gave a sullen assent. Could I have food at once? Yes, in a few minutes. Would they show me--the dining room? Man and woman turned upon their heels, and I followed. The entrance led into a filthy kitchen; out of this I turned to the right, went along a passage upon which opened certain chamber doors, and was conducted into a room at the end--for the nonce, a dining-room, but at ordinary times a bedroom. Evidently the kitchen served for native guests; as a foreigner I was treated with more ceremony. Left alone till my meal should be ready, I examined the surroundings. The floor was of worn stone, which looked to me like the natural foundation of the house; the walls were rudely plastered, cracked, grimed, and with many a deep chink; as for the window, it admitted light, but, owing to the aged dirt which had gathered upon it, refused any view of things without save in two or three places where the glass was broken; by these apertures, and at every point of the framework, entered a sharp wind. In one corner stood an iron bedstead, with mattress and bedding in a great roll upon it; a shaky deal table and primitive chair completed the furniture. Ornament did not wholly lack; round the walls hung a number of those coloured political caricatures (several indecent) which are published by some Italian newspapers, and a large advertisement of a line of emigrant ships between Naples and New York. Moreover, there was suspended in a corner a large wooden crucifix, very quaint, very hideous, and black with grime.

Spite of all this, I still debated with myself whether to engage the room for the night. I should have liked to stay; the thought of a sunny morning here on the height strongly allured me, and it seemed a shame to confess myself beaten by an Italian inn. On the other hand, the look of the people did not please me; they had surly, forbidding faces. I glanced at the door--no lock. Fears, no doubt, were ridiculous; yet I felt ill at ease. I would decide after seeing the sort of fare that was set before me.

The meal came with no delay. First, a dish of great peperoni cut up in oil. This gorgeous fruit is never much to my taste, but I had as yet eaten no such peperoni as those of Squillace; an hour or two afterwards my mouth was still burning from the heat of a few morsels to which I was constrained by hunger. Next appeared a dish for which I had covenanted--the only food, indeed, which the people had been able to offer at short notice--a stew of pork and potatoes. Pork (maiale) is the staple meat of all this region; viewing it as Homeric diet, I had often battened upon such flesh with moderate satisfaction. But the pork of Squillace defeated me; it smelt abominably, and it was tough as leather. No eggs were to be had no macaroni; cheese, yes--the familiar cacci cavallo Bread appeared in the form of a fiat circular cake, a foot in diameter, with a hole through the middle; its consistency resembled that of cold pancake. And the drink! At least I might hope to solace myself with an honest draught of red wine. I poured from the thick decanter (dirtier vessel was never seen on table) and tasted. The stuff was poison. Assuredly I am far from fastidious; this, I believe, was the only occasion when wine has been offered me in Italy which I could not drink. After desperately trying to persuade myself that the liquor was merely "rough," that its nauseating flavour meant only a certain coarse quality of the local grape, I began to suspect that it was largely mixed with water--the water of Squillace! Notwithstanding a severe thirst, I could not and durst not drink.

Very soon I made my way to the kitchen, where my driver, who had stabled his horses, sat feeding heartily; he looked up with his merry smile, surprised at the rapidity with which I had finished. How I envied his sturdy stomach! With the remark that I was going to have a stroll round the town and should be back to settle things in half an hour, I hastened into the open.


George Gissing