Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Summer days in Ischia

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SUMMER DAYS IN ISCHIA.

Castle of Ischia (Hine).png

Castle of Ischia.

Signori miei,” said Michele, looking back at us from the driving-seat of his calessino, “if we meet any men with Ischia cherries, shall I stop for you to buy some?”

We were bowling along the dusty road to Pozzuoli, after passing through the Posilipo tunnel, under a burning Midsummer sun; and the idea of cherries rose refreshingly before our minds. Besides, we made a point of attending to Michele’s suggestions, which generally proved to be valuable: so we readily acceded. Michele was a treasure of a hackney-man: the best driver in Naples (where the best whips in Europe, next to the London cabmen, are to be found), and perhaps the only Neapolitan who did not grumble at his fare, or his gratuity: with a good carrettella and a fast-trotting horse, he added to these virtues those of intelligence, good-humour, and a punctuality hardly to be found out of England, and by no means universal there. What wonder that, having chanced upon such a Phœnix, we cheerfully gave ourselves up to his guidance? even in such serious matters as the purchase of a basket of Ischian cherries.

The wished-for opportunity soon occurred. Michele pulled up, and after a short debate in a to us nearly unintelligible language, consisting principally of gesticulation and double mm’s, he concluded a bargain for us, and the cherries were handed in. Such cherries! fair and rosy, plump and smooth as the cheek of a cherub! tender, juicy, and luscious to the taste as they were lovely to the eye.

“The Signori have never been in Ischia,” resumed Michele, who generally kept up a running fire of conversation over his shoulder as he drove along. “I wonder they do not go! they are so fond of fine views and of drawing. They would find so much to draw. Artists often go there. And there is such a good inn. And it is not so hot as Naples. And then the fruit! Why the apricots at Ischia are twice as big as those at Naples, ‘e d’una sugosita!” And here he wound up with one of those ineffable grimaces and gestures with which men of his nation are wont to intimate that words fall short to express their enthusiasm.

We had intended making an excursion to the island in question, taking passage by the little steamer which in summer daily toddles over from Naples at the rate of four or five knots an hour; but now, after taking counsel with our guide, philosopher, and friend, Michele, we decided on proceeding thither on that same evening by a sailing boat from beyond Miseno, after going through the proper routine of sightseeing on the Pozzuoli shore. The day was splendid; there was a good breeze to carry us over, and we had performed our duty to the gods and goddesses, the Sybils, the Mephitic grottoes and legendary terrors of the shore, in time to make our little voyage before sunset, when we drove down to Miniscola. Who knows not Miniscola? the scene of so many varied adventures, “deeds and gestes” of ancient and modern heroes,—Daædalus, Æneas, Pliny, Nelson.

But I am not going to take an unfair advantage of my reader, and proceed to detail the interesting circumstances connected with these shores and commanders, after looking them up myself carefully in Virgil and Ovid, Middleton’s Cesare Cantu, and Southey’s Narratives. “If he knows them already, what is the use of telling him?” as Dangle justly asks Puff. If he does not, he will find them all concisely put together in Mr. John Murray’s Handbook.

So I proceed to relate a recent passage of arms, which he will not find even in the latest editions of that valuable epitome of information.

As we approached this historical strand, a number of picturesque-looking men, brown-eyed, brown-skinned, and brown-clothed, started up from the beach, where they had been lying basking in the sun among the fishing-boats, and came rushing after the carriage, vociferously and eagerly offering their services, and each extolling the exclusive excellence of the boat to which he belonged.

We drew up. “Yes! we want a boat. How much will you charge to take us to Ischia?”

There was a moment’s pause. They had not expected us, or any other fare: they were merely awaiting the hour of fishing, and had not decided to what amount they might attempt to fleece the forestieri. After a moment’s thought, however, the answer was ready and confident. “Four piastres!”

This was something so audaciously beyond the ordinary rules of extortion, that the regular process of beating down was not available. It could be met only with offended integrity. Rising from my seat, and throwing all the tragic expression they could assume into my colourless Anglo-Saxon face and eyes, I regarded the men a moment with appalling severity; and then, waving my hand to Michele, imperatively bade him drive back to Naples.

“Ah! briganti! Ah! scelerati!” cried the faithful Michele, seconding my motion. “Is this the way to treat strangers? Is this the way to make them prefer your boats to the steamer? Ah! you thought you could rob them at your ease, did you? But they know better; and if they did not, do you suppose I would bring them here to have their pockets picked? Your boats may go empty to Ischia. They won’t have them now, at any price!”

So saying, Michele turned his horse’s head, and, with a vigorous application of the whip, set off at as brisk a pace as if determined not to draw rein until we reached Naples. Never was fausse sortie better executed. In three minutes the whole crew were at our heels, running, shouting, and offering to come to terms. As if unwillingly, our Jehu pulled up once more.

“Che cosa darete Signori? Buon battello! Quattro rami!” said one of our breathless pursuers.

Now supposing that the usual battle was going to begin, and would end in our getting at the fair price by a process of elimination, I thought it necessary to start as much too low in the scale, as their pitch was too high. I therefore answered, “Un ducato.”

To my amazement, it was accepted; and as we drove back to the shore, I felt the sort of remorse that affected poor Poll Sweedlepipes when he had charged Bailey, jun., three halfpence for a penny Redpoll, because he thought he would beat him down, “and he didn’t!” Nevertheless, we embarked upon as amicable terms with our crew as if no difference of opinion had existed between us: for the mobile southern temper blazes up and subsides with a rapidity that is unintelligible to our phlegmatic natures. In fact, the struggle that a Neapolitan makes to extort more than his fair remuneration, is merely a duty that he owes to himself. Once this duty discharged, successfully or unsuccessfully, he dismisses it from his mind, feeling neither gratitude nor animosity towards his adversary. If he conquers, he is pleased with himself: if you conquer, he rarely sulks. He fights to the last: he prays, he remonstrates, he swears, he calls all the gods of heathendom and saints of Christendom to witness to the justice of his demand: but once convinced that you are not to be overcome, he gives in with a good grace, and rather likes and respects you for the prowess you have shown. The same man who one minute would be throwing himself into attitudes of despair, and threatening, cursing, swearing, imploring and invoking all sorts of mischief on his head, if he were not the most ill-used of mortals, and we the most cruel of tyrants and oppressors,—the next, if he found his appeal disregarded, would be lounging beside us on the grass or shore, affably conversing, watching our sketches, and asking questions on the subject of our manners and customs, without a trace of ill-humour remaining.

The breeze carried us merrily off, and we scudded rapidly through the blue waters till, under the lee of Procida, it died away. The sail was lowered and the oars put in requisition. Now, our offered ducat seemed more than ever disproportionate to the service required. Just as we had, however, decided that the ducat should be a piastre, and that then we would, in our magnanimity, bestow something more for una bottiglia, we were anticipated by a proposal from the Padrone to bring us back again from Ischia when we wished to return.

“But we mean to stay a day or two.”

Non fa niente,—we can fish there or here,—all alike.”

So we agreed for a piastre each way, ultimately vindicating the liberality of forestieri, as we had already borne witness to their commercial ability, by giving a gratuity which was received with unusual thankfulness, and parting with mutual satisfaction.

As we neared Ischia, the declining sun, casting a rosy light on the noble rock and Castello di Nerone, which stands out like a sentinel to challenge all comers—warned us to lose no time, so we determined to accept the services of the first guide who should offer himself on landing; and committing to him the care of our sacs de nuit, and of hiring donkeys to take us to Casamicciola, indulge our artistic estro by setting off immediately to sketch.

Lacco Ameno (OAW).png

Lacco, from Monte Tabor.

We were not as yet aware of all our importance and its inconveniences. It was too early in the year for the water-drinkers’ season to have commenced, and we were among the first visitors. The appearance of our boat was therefore the signal for the simultaneous appearance on the shore of half the guides and donkeys in the town, and more were seen advancing in the distance. The candidates for our custom came running down the beach and even into the water, pressing their services upon us with the accustomed volubility of their class.

“I strongly recommend the Signori to engage me in preference to all other guides,” said one disinterested gentleman.

“I charge no more, and I know a great deal more; I can tell them the dates of all the eruptions of the mountain. I can take them to all the best points of view. I was guide to an illustrious English painter, Stefil (Stanfield?) was his name, and went everywhere with him.”

As there was no basis of comparison, except of the outward man, where all were unknown to us, we accepted him, and installed him in the care of the carpet-bags, desiring him to come for us with the donkeys in an hour to a spot whence we were going to make our sketches. But we were not to be let off so easily. The donkey-drivers would not submit to the indignity of being selected by the guide, but insisted on an appeal to ourselves, and the bipeds crowded round us screaming, jabbering, pushing, dragging the unfortunate quadrupeds by the bridle, vaunting the strength and speed of one—the saddle of another—all stunning and bewildering us with their noise; till, at last, a man who was running backwards before us up the street stumbled over a little half-naked urchin who had joined the cortège to stare at us, rolled the child over, fell himself against a donkey which immediately began kicking, and a chorus of loud brays and a battle royal ensued. How to escape from the melée was now our only question, when we were unexpectedly rescued. A respectable-looking elderly gentleman, gliding into the throng, touched my arm, drew us quietly away, and opening a door in the wall, said politely:

“Come in, and leave them to fight it out.”

We found ourselves suddenly restored to peace and quietness, in a long narrow paved passage through which our conductor brought us to a pleasant room overlooking the sea, and commanding a beautiful view of the castle. Placing chairs on the balcony, he said:

“You want to draw?—all strangers draw this. Stay as long as you like. You will be in nobody’s way.”

And with a bow and “good evening” this beneficent person vanished like one of the mysterious veiled guides who inaugurate the adventures of unsuspecting travellers in the “Arabian Nights.”

Ours had, however, no romantic end. We were shortly joined by the guide, who had escaped from the fray without loss of life or limb, and when the fading daylight obliged us to quit our employment and seek the little piazza and the donkeys, we found them standing patiently awaiting us, looking as meek and enduring as if they had never lent the assistance of their heels and throats to swell the storm that raged half an hour before. The bellicose natives had dispersed, and only the usual complement of idlers and ragged children hung upon the skirts of our march. The short southern twilight had ended before we had got far on our road. The stars began to twinkle above and the glow-worms below, while the fireflies flashed through the bushes on either side, darting in and out—across the road—out of the orange-trees into the vines—the prettiest and most fanciful of the freaks of nature. The wine-dark sea deepening and deepening in shade spread out on the right whenever the high walls which generally border the road, ceasing for a space, permitted us a view of it; and it was dark night, though not more than nine o’clock on a June evening, when we reached the Piccola Sentinella at Casamicciola. Up-stairs, of course, one flight—up another flight—and we are ushered into a long wide verandah, from which doors open into neat little rooms paved with Dutch tiles and furnished with iron bedsteads and clean white curtains. Opposite the door, in lieu of a window, is another, half glass,—on opening which we find ourselves in a garden, a perfect wilderness of sweets. The inn is built on the side of so rapid an ascent that the second story of the front is the ground-floor of the back. But before we explore farther there is the commissariat department to be attended to, and the waiter asking our orders.

“Can you give us some supper?”

“It is Friday, Signori miei,” was his significant answer.”

But, on reflection, he suggested that a fish might perhaps be forthcoming, and at any rate eggs, and would we like some tea? We should never have thought of asking for such a thing, but were ready to put ourselves entirely into his hands, when he offered to “do the best he could for us.” So we strolled out into the garden to enjoy the delicious coolness of the night air, redolent of the mingled scents of roses, jessamine, carnations, orange and lemon blossoms. The nightingales were singing the last songs of the season—myriads of stars shone overhead—sedate glow-worms showed their steady light in the grass at our feet, and the panting fireflies darted wildly to and fro to the astonishment and alarm of my little dog who had followed us. At last one of these fitful creatures settled a moment, throbbing, on the path before her. Evidently taking it for a new kind of firework, and expecting it instantly to explode, poor Zélie took to her heels, and no calling or coaxing could induce her to remain. We found her, long after, under a bed, squeezed up against the wall in a state of abject terror, and she could not be induced to come from her hiding-place till the doors were shut for the night, and there was no fear of her being again forced into so dangerous a locality.

As we sauntered for the last time up the path leading to the house, so pleasant a little picture of an interior presented itself, that it recalled to our remembrance the fact that we were both tired and hungry. Through the open glass-door and between the muslin curtains we descried a table which might have been prepared for Beauty in Beast’s palace, so dainty, trim, and alluring it looked. Our friend the waiter had indeed justified the confidence reposed in him: and now produced a fine fresh lupo, flanked by a golden lemon newly gathered, shining through its glossy dark-green leaves; a delicate omelette; good bread, butter, milk; a pyramid of strawberries, and a dish of rich crimson cherries, such as we had made acquaintance with in the morning—all glowing under the light of a shaded lamp on the snow-white tablecloth. The tea equipage was neatly set out. In short, in no gentleman’s house could a thé dinatoire have been served more prettily; and we made our compliments thereon to the solemn waiter, who bowed gravely in acknowledgment.

This waiter was quite unlike any of his brethren I had ever met with in Italy—silent, reserved, and distant enough to have been a head attendant at the Clarendon. During my subsequent stay at the Sentinella, I remarked that my little dinners were always served with the same finish and grace which characterised our first meal in the house; but any expression of satisfaction was received with such grave politeness, that it seemed almost an impertinence to make any complimentary observations. One day, however, when a genuine Neapolitan, lively, talkative, Figaro of an under-servant was attending on me, I ventured on expressing some surprise at finding in a place not much frequented by the English, English dishes served as they would be in London. This was à propos to an arrostito d'agnello, triumphantly announced by the waiter con una salsa! (mint-sauce, a thing never seen on the Continent.)

“Ah!” said Filippo, “but is the signora not aware that our cook is a great chief? He has lived in the kitchen of an English prince—Milord ’Olland—and knows all sorts of cookings of all nations—English, French, Chinese!” (This last, I believe, referred to curry.)

He certainly was a great chief, and had culled from the cooking of each nation its peculiar merit with admirable taste and skill. He was a fine eclectic artist, and I beg to record here my humble tribute to his talents and acquirements.

“Oh, dear!” exclaimed my companion, Jingo (so called from his constant appeal to the saint of that name), as we sat on the threshold of the garden-door amusing our leisure with the cherries, when the more serious part of the meal was over; “why are we such fools as to leave a place like this, when once we have found it out?”

“Ah! why, indeed?”

“Only we must ‘move on.

You must—I needn’t.”

“Why, you are not going to be so shabby as to throw me over?”

“Not at all: only you mean to go, and I mean to stay.”

“What a beastly shame!”

Then, after a few minutes’ pause, candour getting the upper hand:

“Wouldn’t I, if I had the chance, that’s all.”

“Come! I’ll do the handsome thing. I’ll go back with you to Naples, and pack your portmanteau, and then—Bon voyage!"

“Well, by Jingo! I think you are in the right.”

 
*****
 

We had ordered our donkeys to come early the next morning, to take us up the Monte Epomeo—the volcano which has now shown no signs of mischievous intentions for many a long year, and is consequently called extinct. On descending from our room, accordingly, at six o’clock, we found them and the guide at the hotel door. The road for the first mile or two, was like most Italian roads, buried between two lofty walls, from whose crevices capers and other creeping plants forced their way, decorating the old stones with their graceful festoons, while grape-vines and orange-trees peeped from above.

Emerging from these narrow ways, we came upon an open pathway on the mountain, which in its various zones resembles its archetype, Etna. On the lower region gardens and orchards, maize, grapes, plums, and cherries, lemons and oranges, crowd every available foot of ground. Above comes a belt of chestnut-trees, but none a cento cavalli. The trees here, being used almost exclusively for coopering, are kept in a state of mere brushwood, like the copses in the hop counties of England. There are no large trees; but their thick leafage made it cool and shady, and the soft green light was most grateful to the eyes of those just emerging from the full blaze of the June sun. Saracenic Fort (OAW).pngSaracenic Fort.Leaving these “delightful pleasant groves,” we came out upon the barren summits of the mountain, but neither snow nor scoria hinder one’s progress. A glorious view opened upon us here. At our feet, far down, lay the little town and port of Ischia, and the Castello di Nerone, diminished, as the American witness would have said, to the size of a bit of chalk; the summer palace of the King embosomed in trees; the Porto Nuovo just finished for the convenience of his Majesty’s yachts; and the vine-clad promontory and white villas of Casamicciola further west, with Foria in the distance. Across the purple sea the whole range of the Italian coast, from the Circæan promontory to the Campanella, was spread before us. The bay of Pozzuoli; the islands of Bivar, Procida, and Nisida; the promontory of Miseno; Posilipo and Vesuvius, and Monte St. Angelo peering over from the other side, as if to assert the pretensions of that other bay of beauty which lay between us and them. The bay of Naples is so generally allowed to be the queen of its class, that it is rather venturous to question its pre-eminence; but I am half inclined to uphold that of Pozzuoli for a certain charm analogous to that of expression in a face which cannot boast such striking features perhaps as another, which, nevertheless, pleases less. The air was so still and clear that every detail was distinctly visible. The rigging of the ships, the windows and chimneys of the houses in the towns, or of the white villas peeping out from their orange gardens, the guns in the forts. It was like looking close at a beautiful little model rather than taking a bird’s-eye view of a large extent of sea and land. In spite of the sun, which now poured its noontide rays upon our heads, we lingered long under the shelter of our white umbrellas, gazing on the map spread out before us; and it was well that we took advantage of the opportunity, for, on reaching the summit of the mountain, half-an-hour later, after turning its flank, we found the whole had disappeared like the baseless fabric of a vision. We were completely enveloped in a white fleecy cloud, and could not see a yard before us. The top of the mountain has been converted into a sort of socialist hermitage, where four or five gentlemen in Carmelite robes, with ropes round their waists, receive travellers, and sell them rosaries and other trifles, forage for their donkeys, and wine for themselves. Their habitation is like that of the Kenites, in the living rock, hollowed partly by nature, partly by art, and furnished with glazed windows and chimneys—not unnecessarily, for it must be very cold up here sometimes. There is no appearance of a crater. The eruptions all seem to have broken out lower down, on the sides of the mountain, as has been the case with Etna for the last thousand years or so. In descending by another road we crossed a tremendous torrent of lava, perhaps a couple of miles wide at the shore. Though this, the latest, eruption took place a.d. 1302 there is not, as yet, the slightest appearance of vegetation on the desert it has created. The lava is as black and harsh as if evolved only a few months ago, and it is difficult to believe that the day will ever come when the olive and vine will flourish again here, “as they have done already on the more ancient streams,” said our guide.

This was the man who had accompanied l’egregio pittore Inglese, whom he designated as “questo Fil.” When asked how he supposed the name to be spelt, he wrote Ste as the Christian name, and Fil as the patronymic; and, in spite of our explanations, persisted in thinking his the best way. He questioned us very much about the standing of this distinguished artist in the profession in England, and the prices his pictures fetched. The sums I mentioned took away his breath. At first he evidently thought I was playing on his credulity, and when convinced that we were in earnest he made a pious ejaculation, fell into a brown study, and was in low spirits for the rest of the day. I suppose he was regretting that he had not made more out of him while in his service. He recovered himself sufficiently to take a slight interest in a sketch from Monte Tabor, which, he said, was “quite as like” as those Ste-Fil had made. How much should I get for mine?

I answered that I should probably not find a buyer, even if I wished to sell; but that I did not, and drew only for my amusement—a confession which evidently sunk me considerably in his estimation. We took advantage of this last halt on our way to embark at Ischia to settle with our donkey-men and the guide. The latter, however, walked down with us to the boat, and on his way privately presented Jingo with a half-piastre, begging I would return it to him again as I went aboard.

Though we could not imagine the meaning of this manœuvre, we did as he desired, supposing it to be some superstition about luck. To our astonishment, the man went through a complete pantomime of discontent, disgust, and expostulation, as we pushed off, and with eloquent gestures showing the money to those about him, flung it disdainfully down. The word of the charade was this. The guides make a sort of guild here, and share, or profess to share, their gains in common. This rogue, therefore, after pocketing secretly our ample donation, went through the farce to which we had so unwittingly lent ourselves, in order to cheat his brethren out of their share. There is not even honour among thieves here, it would seem.

L. Courtenay.