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Ch. 17: The Grotta

About a mile beyond Squillace the line passes by a tunnel through the promontory of Mons Moscius. At this point on the face of the sea-cliff I was told that I should discover a grotta, one of the caverns which some think are indicated by Cassiodorus when he speaks of his fish-preserves. Arrived near the mouth of the tunnel I found a signal-box, where several railway men were grouped in talk; to them I addressed myself, and all immediately turned to offer me guidance. We had to clamber down a rocky descent, and skirt the waves for a few yards; when my cluster of companions had sufficiently shown their good-will, all turned back but one, who made a point of giving me safe conduct into the cave itself. He was a bronzed, bright-eyed, happy-looking fellow of middle age, his humorous intelligence appearing in a flow of gossip about things local. We entered a narrow opening, some twelve feet high, which ran perhaps twenty yards into the cliff. Lenormant supposes that this was a quarry made by the original Greek colonists. If Cassiodorus used it for the purpose mentioned, the cave must have been in direct communication either with the sea or the river; at present, many yards of sloping shingle divide it from the line of surf, and the river flows far away. Movement of the shore there has of course been, and the Pellena may have considerably changed the direction of its outflow; our author's description being but vague, one can only muse on probabilities and likelihoods.

Whilst we talked, the entrance to the cave was shadowed, and there entered one of the men who had turned back half-way; his face betrayed the curiosity which had after all prevailed to bring him hither. Shouting merrily, my companion hailed him as "Brigadiere." The two friends contrasted very amusingly; for the brigadiere was a mild, timid, simple creature, who spoke with diffidence; he kept his foolishly good-natured eyes fixed upon me, a gaze of wonder. After listening to all that my guide had to say--it was nothing to the point, dealing chiefly with questions of railway engineering--I had just begun to explain my interest in the locality, and I mentioned the name of Cassiodorus. As it passed my lips the jovial fellow burst into a roar of laughter. "Cassiodorio! Ha, ha! Cassiodorio! Ha, ha, ha!" I asked him what he meant, and found that he was merely delighted to hear a stranger unexpectedly utter a name in familiar local use. He ran out from the cave, and pointed up the valley; yonder was a fountain which bore the name "Fontana di Cassiodorio." (From my authors I knew of this; it may or may not have genuine historic interest.) Thereupon, I tried to discover whether any traditions hung to the name, but these informants had only a vague idea that Cassiodorus was a man of times long gone by. How, they questioned in turn, did I know anything about him? Why, from books, I replied; among them books which the ancient himself had written more than a thousand years ago. This was too much for the brigadiere; it moved him to stammered astonishment. Did I mean to say that books written more than a thousand years ago still existed? The jovial friend, good-naturedly scornful, cried out that of course they did, and added with triumphant air that they were not in the language of to-day but in latino, latino! All this came as a revelation to the other, who stared and marvelled, never taking his eyes from my face. At length he burst out with an emphatic question; these same books, were they large? Why yes, I answered, some of them. Were they--were they as large as a missal? A shout of jolly laughter interrupted us. It seemed to me that my erudite companion was in the habit of getting fun of out his friend the brigadiere, but so kindly did he look and speak, that it must have been difficult for the simpleton ever to take offence.

Meanwhile the sullen sky had grown blacker, and rain was descending heavily. In any case, I should barely have had time to go further, and had to be content with a description from my companions of a larger cave some distance beyond this, which is known as the Grotta of San Gregorio--with reference, no doubt, to S. Gregory the Thaumaturgist; to him was dedicated a Greek monastery, built on the ruined site of Vivariense. After the Byzantine conquest of the sixth century, Magna Graecia once more justified its ancient name; the civilization of this region became purely Greek; but for the Lombards and ecclesiastical Rome, perhaps no Latin Italy would have survived. Greek monks, who through the darkest age were skilful copyists, continued in Calabria the memorable work of Cassiodorus. The ninth century saw Saracen invasion, and then it was, no doubt, that the second religious house under Mons Moscius perished from its place.

Thinking over this, I walked away from the cave and climbed again to the railway; my friends also were silent and ruminative. Not unnaturally, I suspected that a desire for substantial thanks had some part in their Silence, and at a convenient spot I made suitable offering. It was done, I trust, with all decency, for I knew that I had the better kind of Calabrian to deal with; but neither the jovially intelligent man nor the pleasant simpleton would for a moment entertain this suggestion. They refused with entire dignity--grave, courteous, firm-and as soon as I had apologized, which I did not without emphasis, we were on the same terms as before; with handshaking, we took kindly leave of each other. Such self-respect is the rarest thing in Italy south of Rome, but in Calabria I found it more than once.

By when I had walked back to the station, hunger exhausted me. There was no buffet, and seemingly no place in the neighbourhood where food could be purchased, but on my appealing to the porter I learnt that he was accustomed to entertain stray travellers in his house hard by, whither he at once led me. To describe the room where my meal was provided would be sheer ingratitude: in my recollection it compares favourably with the Albergo Nazionale of Squillace. I had bread, salame, cheese, and, heaven be thanked, wine that I could swallow--nay, for here sounds the note of thanklessness, it was honest wine, of which I drank freely. Honest, too, the charge that was made; I should have felt cheap at ten times the price that sudden accession of bodily and mental vigour. Luck be with him, serviceable facchino of Squillace! I remember his human face, and his smile of pleasure when I declared all he modestly set before me good and good again. His hospitality sent me on my way rejoicing--glad that I had seen the unspeakable little mountain town, thrice glad that I had looked upon Mons Moscius and trodden by the river Pellena. Rain fell in torrents, but I no longer cared. When presently the train arrived, I found a comfortable corner, and looked forward with a restful sigh to the seven hours' travel which would bring me into view of Sicily.

In the carriage sat a school-boy, a book open upon his knee. When our eyes had met twice or thrice, and an ingenuous smile rose to his handsome face, I opened conversation, and he told me that he came every day to school from a little place called San Sostene to Catanzaro, there being no nearer instruction above the elementary; a journey of some sixteen miles each way, and not to be reckoned by English standards, for it meant changing at the Marina for the valley train, and finally going up the mountain side by diligenza. The lad flushed with delight in his adventure--a real adventure for him to meet with some one from far-off England. Just before we stopped at San Sostene, he presented me with his card--why had he a card?--which bore the name, De Luca Fedele. A bright and spirited lad, who seemed to have the best qualities of his nation; I wish I might live to hear him spoken of as a man doing honour to Italy.

At this station another travelling companion took the school-boy's place; a priest, who soon addressed me in courteous talk. He journeyed only for a short way, and, when alighting, pointed skyward through the dark (night had fallen) to indicate his mountain parish miles inland. He, too, offered me his card, adding a genial invitation; I found he was Parroco (parish priest) of San Nicola at Badolato. I would ask nothing better than to visit him, some autumn-tide, when grapes are ripening above the Ionian Sea.

It was a wild night. When the rain at length ceased, lightning flashed ceaselessly about the dark heights of Aspromonte; later, the moon rose, and, sailing amid grandly illumined clouds, showed white waves rolling in upon the beach. Wherever the train stopped, that sea-music was in my ears--now seeming to echo a verse of Homer, now the softer rhythm of Theocritus. Think of what one may in day-time on this far southern shore, its nights are sacred to the poets of Hellas. In rounding Cape Spartivento, I strained my eyes through the moonlight--unhappily a waning moon, which had shone with full orb the evening I ascended to Catanzaro--to see the Sicilian mountains; at length they stood up darkly against the paler night. There came back to my memory a voyage at glorious sunrise, years ago, when I passed through the Straits of Messina, and all day long gazed at Etna, until its cone, solitary upon the horizon, shone faint and far in the glow of evening--the morrow to bring me a first sight of Greece.


George Gissing