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Ch. 9: My Friend the Doctor

In the morning I arose as usual, though with difficulty. I tried to persuade myself that I was merely suffering from a violent attack of dyspepsia, the natural result of Concordia diet. When the waiter brought my breakfast I regarded it with resentful eye, feeling for the moment very much like my grumbling acquaintance of the dinner hour. It may be as well to explain that the breakfast consisted of very bad coffee, with goat's milk, hard, coarse bread, and goat's butter, which tasted exactly like indifferent lard. The so-called butter, by a strange custom of Cotrone, was served in the emptied rind of a spherical cheese--the small caccio cavallo, horse cheese, which one sees everywhere in the South. I should not have liked to inquire where, how, when, or by whom the substance of the cheese had been consumed. Possibly this receptacle is supposed to communicate a subtle flavour to the butter; I only know that, even to a healthy palate, the stuff was rather horrible. Cow's milk could be obtained in very small quantities, but it was of evil flavour; butter, in the septentrional sense of the word, did not exist.

It surprises me to remember that I went out, walked down to the shore, and watched the great waves breaking over the harbour mole. There was a lull in the storm, but as yet no sign of improving weather; clouds drove swiftly across a lowering sky. My eyes turned to the Lacinian promontory, dark upon the turbid sea. Should I ever stand by the sacred column? It seemed to me hopelessly remote; the voyage an impossible effort.

I talked with a man, of whom I remember nothing but his piercing eyes steadily fixed upon me; he said there had been a wreck in the night, a ship carrying live pigs had gone to pieces, and the shore was sprinkled with porcine corpses.

Presently I found myself back at the Concordia, not knowing exactly how I had returned. The dyspepsia--I clung to this hypothesis--was growing so violent that I had difficulty in breathing: before long I found it impossible to stand.

My hostess was summoned, and she told me that Cotrone had "a great physician," by name "Dr. Scurco." Translating this name from dialect into Italian, I presumed that the physician's real name was Sculco, and this proved to be the case. Dr. Riccardo Sculco was a youngish man, with an open, friendly countenance. At once I liked him. After an examination, of which I quite understood the result, he remarked in his amiable, airy manner that I had "a touch of rheumatism"; as a simple matter of precaution, I had better go to bed for the rest of the day, and, just for the form of the thing, he would send some medicine. Having listened to this with as pleasant a smile as I could command, I caught the Doctor's eye, and asked quietly, "Is there much congestion?" His manner at once changed; he became businesslike and confidential. The right lung; yes, the right lung. Mustn't worry; get to bed and take my quinine in dosi forti, and he would look in again at night.

The second visit I but dimly recollect. There was a colloquy between the Doctor and my hostess, and the word cataplasma sounded repeatedly; also I heard again "dosi forti." The night that followed was perhaps the most horrible I ever passed. Crushed with a sense of uttermost fatigue, I could get no rest. From time to time a sort of doze crept upon me, and I said to myself, "Now I shall sleep"; but on the very edge of slumber, at the moment when I was falling into oblivion, a hand seemed to pluck me back into consciousness. In the same instant there gleamed before my eyes a little circle of fire, which blazed and expanded into immensity, until its many-coloured glare beat upon my brain and thrilled me with torture. No sooner was the intolerable light extinguished than I burst into a cold sweat; an icy river poured about me; I shook, and my teeth chattered, and so for some minutes I lay in anguish, until the heat of fever re-asserted itself, and I began once more to toss and roll. A score of times was this torment repeated. The sense of personal agency forbidding me to sleep grew so strong that I waited in angry dread for that shock which aroused me; I felt myself haunted by a malevolent power, and rebelled against its cruelty.

Through the night no one visited me. At eight in the morning a knock sounded at the door, and there entered the waiter, carrying a tray with my ordinary breakfast. "The Signore is not well?" he remarked, standing to gaze at me. I replied that I was not quite well; would he give me the milk, and remove from my sight as quickly as possible all the other things on the tray. A glimpse of butter in its cheese-rind had given me an unpleasant sensation. The goat's milk I swallowed thankfully, and, glad of the daylight, lay somewhat more at my ease awaiting Dr. Sculco.

He arrived about half-past nine, and was agreeably surprised to find me no worse. But the way in which his directions had been carried out did not altogether please him. He called the landlady, and soundly rated her. This scene was interesting, it had a fine flavour of the Middle Ages. The Doctor addressed mine hostess of the Concordia as "thou," and with magnificent disdain refused to hear her excuses; she, the stout, noisy woman, who ruled her own underlings with contemptuous rigour, was all subservience before this social superior, and whined to him for pardon. "What water is this?" asked Dr. Sculco, sternly, taking up the corked jar that stood on the floor. The hostess replied that it was drinking water, purchased with good money. Thereupon he poured out a little, held it up to the light, and remarked in a matter-of-fact tone, "I don't believe you."

However, in a few minutes peace was restored, and the Doctor prescribed anew. After he had talked about quinine and cataplasms, he asked me whether I had any appetite. A vision of the dining-room came before me, and I shook my head. "Still," he urged, "it would be well to eat something." And, turning to the hostess, "He had better have a beefsteak and a glass of Marsala." The look of amazement with which I heard this caught the Doctor's eye. "Don't you like bistecca?" he inquired. I suggested that, for one in a very high fever, with a good deal of lung congestion, beefsteak seemed a trifle solid, and Marsala somewhat heating. "Oh!" cried he, "but we must keep the machine going." And thereupon he took his genial leave.

I had some fear that my hostess might visit upon me her resentment of the Doctor's reproaches; but nothing of the kind. When we were alone, she sat down by me, and asked what I should really like to eat. If I did not care for a beefsteak of veal, could I eat a beefsteak of mutton? It was not the first time that such a choice had been offered me, for, in the South, bistecca commonly means a slice of meat done on the grill or in the oven. Never have I sat down to a bistecca which was fit for man's consumption, and, of course, at the Concordia it would be rather worse than anywhere else. I persuaded the good woman to supply me with a little broth. Then I lay looking at the patch of cloudy sky which showed above the houses opposite, and wondering whether I should have a second fearsome night. I wondered, too, how long it would be before I could quit Cotrone. The delay here was particularly unfortunate, as my letters were addressed to Catanzaro, the next stopping-place, and among them I expected papers which would need prompt attention. The thought of trying to get my correspondence forwarded to Cotrone was too disturbing; it would have involved an enormous amount of trouble, and I could not have felt the least assurance that things would arrive safely. So I worried through the hours of daylight, and worried still more when, at nightfall, the fever returned upon me as badly as ever.

Dr. Sculco had paid his evening visit, and the first horror of ineffectual drowsing had passed over me, when my door was flung violently open, and in rushed a man (plainly of the commercial species), hat on head and bag in hand. I perceived that the diligenza had just arrived, and that travellers were seizing upon their bedrooms. The invader, aware of his mistake, discharged a volley of apologies, and rushed out again. Five minutes later the door again banged open, and there entered a tall lad with an armful of newspapers; after regarding me curiously, he asked whether I wanted a paper. I took one with the hope of reading it next morning. Then he began conversation. I had the fever? Ah! everybody had fever at Cotrone. He himself would be laid up with it in a day or two. If I liked, he would look in with a paper each evening--till fever prevented him. When I accepted this suggestion, he smiled encouragingly, cried "Speriamo!" and clumped out of the room.

I had as little sleep as on the night before, but my suffering was mitigated in a very strange way. After I had put out the candle, I tormented myself for a long time with the thought that I should never see La Colonna. As soon as I could rise from bed, I must flee Cotrone, and think myself fortunate in escaping alive; but to turn my back on the Lacinian promontory, leaving the cape unvisited, the ruin of the temple unseen, seemed to me a miserable necessity which I should lament as long as I lived. I felt as one involved in a moral disaster; working in spite of reason, my brain regarded the matter from many points of view, and found no shadow of solace. The sense that so short a distance separated me from the place I desired to see, added exasperation to my distress. Half-delirious, I at times seemed to be in a boat, tossing on wild waters, the Column visible afar, but only when I strained my eyes to discover it. In a description of the approach by land, I had read of a great precipice which had to be skirted, and this, too, haunted me with its terrors: I found myself toiling on a perilous road, which all at once crumbled into fearful depths just before me. A violent shivering fit roused me from this gloomy dreaming, and I soon after fell into a visionary state which, whilst it lasted, gave me such placid happiness as I have never known when in my perfect mind. Lying still and calm, and perfectly awake, I watched a succession of wonderful pictures. First of all I saw great vases, rich with ornament and figures; then sepulchral marbles, carved more exquisitely than the most beautiful I had ever known. The vision grew in extent, in multiplicity of detail; presently I was regarding scenes of ancient life--thronged streets, processions triumphal or religious, halls of feasting, fields of battle. What most impressed me at the time was the marvellously bright yet delicate colouring of everything I saw. I can give no idea in words of the pure radiance which shone from every object, which illumined every scene. More remarkable, when I thought of it next day, was the minute finish of these pictures, the definiteness of every point on which my eye fell. Things which I could not know, which my imagination, working in the service of the will, could never have bodied forth, were before me as in life itself. I consciously wondered at peculiarities of costume such as I had never read of; at features of architecture entirely new to me; at insignificant characteristics of that by-gone world, which by no possibility could have been gathered from books. I recall a succession of faces, the loveliest conceivable; and I remember, I feel to this moment the pang of regret with which I lost sight of each when it faded into darkness.

As an example of the more elaborate visions that passed before me, I will mention the only one which I clearly recollect. It was a glimpse of history. When Hannibal, at the end of the second Punic War, was confined to the south of Italy, he made Croton his head-quarters, and when, in reluctant obedience to Carthage, he withdrew from Roman soil, it was at Croton that he embarked. He then had with him a contingent of Italian mercenaries, and, unwilling that these soldiers should go over to the enemy, he bade them accompany him to Africa. The Italians refused. Thereupon Hannibal had them led down to the shore of the sea, where he slaughtered one and all. This event I beheld. I saw the strand by Croton; the promontory with its temple; not as I know the scene to-day, but as it must have looked to those eyes more than two thousand years ago. The soldiers of Hannibal doing massacre, the perishing mercenaries, supported my closest gaze, and left no curiosity unsatisfied. (Alas! could I but see it again, or remember clearly what was shown tome!) And over all lay a glory of sunshine, an indescribable brilliancy which puts light and warmth into my mind whenever I try to recall it. The delight of these phantasms was well worth the ten days' illness which paid for them. After this night they never returned; I hoped for their renewal, but in vain. When I spoke of the experience to Dr. Sculco, he was much amused, and afterwards he often asked me whether I had had any more visioni. That gate of dreams was closed, but I shall always feel that, for an hour, it was granted to me to see the vanished life so dear to my imagination. If the picture corresponded to nothing real, tell me who can, by what power I reconstructed, to the last perfection of intimacy, a world known to me only in ruined fragments.

Daylight again, but no gleam of sun. I longed for the sunshine; it seemed to me a miserable chance that I should lie ill by the Ionian Sea and behold no better sky than the far north might have shown me. That grey obstruction of heaven's light always weighs upon my spirit; on a summer's day, there has but to pass a floating cloud, which for a moment veils the sun, and I am touched with chill discouragement; heart and hope fail me, until the golden radiance is restored.

About noon, when I had just laid down the newspaper bought the night before--the Roman Tribuna, which was full of dreary politics--a sudden clamour in the street drew my attention. I heard the angry shouting of many voices, not in the piazza before the hotel, but at some little distance; it was impossible to distinguish any meaning in the tumultuous cries. This went on for a long time, swelling at moments into a roar of frenzied rage, then sinking to an uneven growl, broken by spasmodic yells. On asking what it meant, I was told that a crowd of poor folk had gathered before the Municipio to demonstrate against an oppressive tax called the fuocatico. This is simply hearth-money, an impost on each fireplace where food is cooked; the same tax which made trouble in old England, and was happily got rid of long ago. But the hungry plebs of Cotrone lacked vigour for any effective self-assertion; they merely exhausted themselves with shouting "Abbass' 'o sindaco!" and dispersed to the hearths which paid for an all but imaginary service. I wondered whether the Sindaco and his portly friend sat in their comfortable room whilst the roaring went on; whether they smoked their cigars as usual, and continued to chat at their ease. Very likely. The privileged classes in Italy are slow to move, and may well believe in the boundless endurance of those below them. Some day, no doubt, they will have a disagreeable surprise. When Lombardy begins in earnest to shout "Abbasso!" it will be an uneasy moment for the heavy syndics of Calabria.


George Gissing