The Curse of Positano

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THE CURSE OF POSITANO

By ROBERT BARR

IT is bad for a man quarrel with the saints, and still worse if he accepts the aid of the devil in substitution for the countenance of the children of God, thus withdrawn from him. For Satan comes in many a guise other than that of the roaring lion, and it behooves us all to walk warily lest we be cozened by him. This was the parlous position in which Flavius Gioja found himself, having grievously insulted and maltreated Saint Antonius, through his image carven in wood and superbly painted in many colors by that deft artificer, Giovanni Parello, maker of images by the waterside of Positano.

The misuse of the saint came about in this way. Although Gioja was still a young man, he has prospered much, and was already captain of that stout fishing boat, the Assunta, with a crew of four men under his command. Standing high on the prow of the craft was the wooden painted image of Saint Anthony, patron of all fishers, placed in this elevated position not only out of reverence for his sanctity, but also for the more practical purpose that he might front whatever waves there were, and thus experience in his own likeness the roughness of the sea, should he so far forget those in his care as to permit a tempest to rage while they were afloat. One would have supposed that this subtle device might have secured for the Assunta an eternal summer sea, but such, alas! was not the case, for Saint Antonius is notoriously one of the most absent-minded of the seraphic throng, and seemed to welcome a drenching as much as he avoided all watery immersion while a resident of this earth. The Assunta therefore frequently encountered weather as heavy as if she had not a gaudily-decorated Saint Antonius at the prow.

One day, however, she put out from Positano in a fair wind, intending, as usual, not to lose sight of land, when suddenly it came on to blow with a vengeance; one of those fierce, quick storms which sometimes torment this section of the Mediterranean, and which generally dies down as speedily as it has arisen, if a boat can but live through it. This storm, however, persisted beyond all reason, and now was the time for the saint to exert himself if he were to prove worthy of the prayers and contributions lavished upon him, to say nothing of his new paint. The pious crew implored him to intervene, else they were never to see Positano again, but the calm saint merely smiled upon them and took his periodical duckings without the flutter of an eyelid. From persuasion the desperate crew took to revilings, as was right and proper, for hard words break no bones, and may be apologized for after, and strong language has been known to bring saints to some sense of their duties. They told Anthony plainly that he was but an encumbrance; a pretender; a bogus saint; not worth the wood he had been fashioned from. Still the image smiled, and still the storm increased.

Now Gioja himself was not a man to be trifled with, and this watery tumult was growing past all endurance. He was a determined, somewhat domineering person, as it well befits a captain to be, but, in addition, was hot-headed, and rash when angered, qualities not so useful when one has a boiling sea to deal with. He stood at the rudder, scowling upon the smiling saint at the other end of the tossing, wave-drenched boat, cursing in the teeth of the tempest, knowing his vessel could not withstand such a liquid onset much longer. At last he bawled an order for one of his kneeling mariners to take his place. He would deal with Antonius. Whether the placid saint had any premonition of what was to follow is nowhere recorded, but certainly the crew had none, and were horrified by the action of their captain, who came staggering down the lurching boat, wrenched Anthony from his place, tied a thin cord about his waist and flung him wide over the tossing waves, fastening the other end of the cord to the mast.

"There, maledictions on you," he roared, "take some of your own medicine. If the sea is too boisterous for you, calm it down, confound you!"

With that he made his way to the stern again, leaving Anthony to drag through the waves as best he might. Treatment certainly not to be defended by me, even at this late day. The crew was panic-stricken. Each member implored the irate captain to pull in the slack and restore the saint to his place, but Gioja was as deaf to supplications as Antonius himself had been, and his underlings dared not attempt to coerce him, as they had tried to do with the saint.

"If he doesn't like it, let him calm the waters then," shouted Flavius Gioja, outvoicing the storm. He was a brave man and a good stalwart captain, as all were ready to admit, but to lay violent hands on Antonius, to submerge him in the Mediterranean, was going a trifle too far. Yet who shall say how we should treat the saints; how much they will put up with; where the line should be drawn? What lesson should be learned from this impetuous outheaval of the image? The crew expected instant overwhelming and felt that they deserved it. They groveled at the bottom of the boat, shrinking, cowering from the anticipated mass of foam-crowned water that must engulf them. But the looked-for wave never came. Instead, the wind stopped as abruptly as if the wooden image, so impetuously cast abroad, had been a plug thrust into the hole from which the tempest came. The waves began to subside, and the crew to raise their faces from the planks. Gioja alone stood erect, lowering upon them and upon the vacant place of the saint. He was a bold man, but had not this punishment of Antonio gone far enough? The waves were undoubtedly subsiding, and poor Antonius, far astern, bobbed up pathetically as if calling dumbly for rescue. He had had enough of salt water and was now contrite. I think if he had been hauled in at this time it would have been better, and the crew were unanimously of the same opinion.

"Oh, master," they cried, "possess us once more of the worthy Antonio. See you not the storm is abating?"

"Let him soak," answered Flavius sternly, "’twill teach him to attend to his affairs in future."

At which the crew moaned, and sat despairingly on the tranquilizing bulwarks, yearningly intent upon the ever-reappearing saint upjutting in the waves so far behind them. They feared the cord might loosen, and thus their loss of him be final. Perhaps, as I have said, up to this point Gioja might have been forgiven. He could well have averred to Antonius that he gave him but excellent opportunity to preach again to the fishes, perturbed by the storm. Indeed, 'tis wonderful what lame excuses will pass with the saints, even the wisest of them, if but fervently presented. And then on Antonius's behalf, admitting he was derelict in the matter of the storm, what more can a saint do, or a man either, for that matter, than apologize and repair the evil his negligence has wrought? This Anthony had done, dumbly begging pardon, as his grotesque gyrations showed, besides corking up the wind the moment he was cast to sea. The captain asked too much, even of a saint, and as the waters smoothed themselves the image ceased to supplicate, floating quiescent upon them, a most ominous sign, as the mariners growlingly admitted among themselves, taking good care, however, that the master should not hear.

At last, with the leveling sea, the wrath of the captain departed.

"Let's have him in," he commanded, "and learn if he knows how to conduct himself."

Willingly all hands flew to the rope, and it was noted at the time that the line dragged heavy, as if the saint were loath again to bear company with such an unworthy assemblage. As they brought him aboard, each piously whispered his assurance to the image that only the captain was to blame for the enforced immersion. Did Antonius hear them? I doubt it, for, woe to tell, his ears were gone; mouth and eyes had vanished. All these had been of paint, and had departed, together with the sumptuous costume, also in pigment. Only the nose remained, and that was of wood. A smiling, chromatic saint had gone forth; a pallid timber corpse had returned. The gaze of Antonius was now blank and stony; in fact, there might well have been dispute which side was the front of him had it not been for the nose. No wonder the crew were appalled at the transformation, even the captain paled as he looked on the havoc he had caused.

"Set him up in his place again," he ordered in a subdued voice, and the crew obeyed in silence, fixing Anthony as firmly in the prow as they could with the appliances at hand. This done, they had opportunity to look about them and attend to the business of navigation, a duty neglected during the exciting events that had preceded the rehabilitation of the saint. For some time there had been a dead calm, and the waves were sullenly subsiding, although the boat still rolled uneasily. There was no land in sight, a circumstance that might have engendered fear were it not that a thickening of the atmosphere had drawn the horizon in a close circle around them, and they were sure that as soon as the haze lifted they would see some friendly coast. But as the sea became glassy once more, the gloom about them deepened, and soon they were enveloped in a dense fog. Not a breath of wind, the sea like a thick soup beneath them, a clinging obscure mist overhead and all about them. There was no profit in taking to the oars, for they knew not whither to row.

Now they began to realize what comes of meddling with saints. During the storm there was at least a clear sky, and they had a chance of battling for the land. Now they could do nothing but huddle together, praying, in the prow, while the captain sat moody and silent by the lifeless tiller, he looming large as a gloomy demon in the vapor. Indeed at times he disappeared altogether from their view, and they whispered that the devil at last had him, but he was always there if they crept a little closer. It was vain to appeal to Antonius, for he had neither eyes to see their distress nor ears to hear their plaints. By a lucky chance one of the men thought of a device to which they probably owed their safety, although the doubting captain never admitted it. The man scraped tar from the seams of the boat, and, in a rude way—for he was no artist like Parello—endowed the saint with mouth, eyes and ears of a sort. Still his stare was ghastly and fearful; and there was some misgiving as to whether the tar were an improvement or not.

"Oh, holy Antonio!" they cried, "we have done the best we can for thee, and if it is not pleasing to thee, we will instantly amend it with Parello's brushes if you but get us to him and our beloved Positano. Yea, we will gild thee from head to foot with real gold if we are brought safely to land again."

And surely this was a most efficient bribe, could the saint but see himself as they had now bedecked him. But Gioja sat grimly still, taking no part in their supplications, a smile of scorn on his set lips, showing the hardening of his heart in spite of the evidence before him of the evil he had wrought.

For three days and three nights the unfortunate Assunta hung thus in the Mediterranean, helpless. Once or twice they cast their nets at the command of their captain, but brought not forth even so much as a piece of sea-weed. And yet, proud man, dares to wrestle with the Powers of Light! Hunger and thirst tortured them. When again the captain ordered the casting forth of the net they refused, and bade him prostrate himself before the image at the prow; but he never left his place, and made no effort to stem their mutiny, merely laughing hoarsely a little and relapsing into silence again. The almost forgotten story of Jonah recurred to their memories, and they determined to treat the captain as he had used the saint, trusting to the deep to furnish the whale.

The eyes of Flavius Gioja seemed to burn them through the mist as they slowly approached him, moving four abreast, each tremblingly seeking courage from his fellows. The captain sat fixed as a marble statue, with firm, set lips, and eyes aflame. Suddenly he sprang forward, grasped two of the men, one in either hand, and flung them airily into the sea as if they had been wooden saints. The remaining two tumbled over each other in their haste to reach the comparative safety of the prow. The men say, and we shall probably all agree with them, that Gioja must have been aided in this feat by evil influence. They even assert that he exactly resembled the fiend as he stood there, with clenched fists, seemingly twice the size of an ordinary man, roaring out:—

"Scramble on board again, you groveling cowards, and behave yourselves, or I'll throw the four of you over, with Antonio to keep you afloat, if you prefer that much wood to the safe timber of the boat."

The dripping men crawled in, and all four huddled supinely in the fore part of the vessel, wisely deferring their contest with Satan to a more appropriate season.

On the fourth day one of the men appeared to go mad with hunger and thirst and the hopelessness of the situation. He leaped to his feet, waved his hands above his head and declared that he heard the voice of his wife, and that she was walking on the water. "We are doomed! we are doomed!" he cried; then shrieked her name, "Marietta! Marietta!"

In the awed silence that followed, every man aboard heard plainly a woman's scream and the words, "He is indeed lost. They were all lost in the storm. I hear my husband calling from the deep waters!" As the men fell on their knees it actually seemed that the mist was alive with the murmur of many voices and with weeping. But the captain, grasping the idle tiller, said, sneeringly: "Up to your feet, you superstitious fools, and take to the oars. We are opposite Positano."

Truly the methods of the saints are marvelous and past our finding out. The fog, being no longer serviceable to them, was that instant lifted, revealing the steep hillside resembling a green mantle flung over the mountain, its edge in the sea, and white Positano like an embroidery of pure lace on its hem. The sun shone warm upon the picture, and the surface of the water was without a ripple save a fleecy thin fringe of foam at the back, where the whole population was gathered, wondering to see the well-known shape of the Assunta approach them, and blessing the saints that it was so.

Great was the rejoicing; and the four men, when they had embraced their wives and kissed their children, gathered round Parello, bargaining for the very cheapest coat of gilt that would make their promise good regarding the redecoration of the much-abused saint. Even the thinnest varnish was surprisingly expensive, and they regretted their prodigality of assurance and appealed to the captain to contribute to the fund. But he, being far sunk in wickedness, made disdainful reply:

"I promised him no covering of gold. Cheat him in your own fashion. From what I think of him, he has not the sense to know the difference between yellow paint and the true metal, therefore daub him like a ripe orange and economize. 'Twas the current setting against this shore brought us here, and not Antonio," whereupon Gioja laughed, madly as the lost laugh, and strode toward his own house, while the silent, amazed crowd crossed themselves and looked upon the retreating man in fear. The crew, in awesome whispers, told the particulars of their fruitless voyage, and the sense of horror deepened in all who listened. The good priest groaned and shook his head, departing sadly. Nevertheless, the crew adopted the suggestion of the captain and had Antonio smeared with a yellow mixture, but stipulated that a minute quantity of gold dust should be sprinkled thereon, and presently the image, under the educated manipulation of Parello, smiled upon them as of yore, gorgeous as a sunset.

But the strident Gioja soon learned that he could not throw a town into the sea as he had tossed two half-starved mariners. From the day he set foot in Positano, after the great fog—unexampled in that locality, therefore surely the work of the saint—he was a marked man, avoided by all his fellows. The girl he was to marry wept incessantly, but would have no more to do with him. The priests passed him by without recognition. Noisy games were hushed at his approach. Never again could he persuade a crew to accompany him upon the Assunta, and the boat itself proved unsalable, until at last it was purchased by a man in Salerno, who cared nothing at all for a curse upon the craft, so long as the price were cheap. He was a descendant of the Saracens who had once ravished this coast, and therefore is not to be accounted other than a heathen. The boat should have sunk with him on the first trip, but he had, alas, villainously good sailing blood in his veins.

So Gioja strode the town a saturnine figure, but stubborn, not to be driven away from his native town by either cowls or scowls. He had a house of his own and money which served his simple needs, although those who took his coins spat on them and crossed themselves, never refusing, however, to drive a good bargain. It was at this time that the devil sought to make Flavio entirely his own, and succeeded. He took the form of a shipwrecked mariner, an object craftily purposed to engage the sympathy of such a person as Gioja. A wild storm had driven a strange ship on the rocks, and the good people of Positano were collected along the front, watching the waves, and bearing some hope that they might perhaps profit in goods by the breakup of the derelict, the sea being generous to this devout population in other directions than the furnishing of fish. They were much disappointed when the wreck was totally engulfed by the billows and sent not a single bale ashore. And then, as if to add insult to injury, there came, riding a spar, a clinging man calling loudly for help when not temporarily overwhelmed by the spume that lashed over him. Now such a victim is unlucky at best, and there is more chance of catching some plague from him than the acquiring of treasure, when, as was likely, he came from the East. No hand was extended toward him; and when at last he staggered, half exhausted, to shore, he seemed to search his apparel for some hidden gem, which, to his satisfaction, he found safe, and so came up the beach, a black stone in his hand, to which, in his after treatment, he clung desperately. The indignant, cheated population fell upon him with clubs and reviling, against which he was too weak successfully to defend himself. He beseeched them brokenly in their own language, exhibiting himself thus as a foreigner, to whom rightfully no mercy could be expected, and they would have made short work of him had they not been terrorized by a shout whose origin they knew but too well.

"You selfish fiends, who draw your lives from the sea, use you thus an unfortunate wretch whom the cruel waves themselves have spared? Back from him, or it will be the worse for you. What poltroon among you but may be in the same plight in the next storm; and that thought should teach you common kindness."

The angry giant Gioja scattered them right and left, and, to tell the truth, they were nimble enough in getting out of his way. Their prone, beclubbed prey, though half insensible, seemed to recognize an element of hope in the dominant tones of the incomer, and raised his hand feebly for help, but still clutched with the other the black stone from which, in the struggle, he had never parted. Gioja raised him in his arms as lightly as if he had been a child, and so, unheeding the popular mutterings, bore the wounded stranger to his own house. And thus had Positano, despite itself, an omen of unknown evil in its very midst.

Gioja nursed the foreigner with assiduous care, and could get aid or consolation from neither doctor nor priest. The populace howled about his door, but showed some eagerness to get speedily elsewhere whenever the owner appeared on the threshold. He soon saw that the foreigner had been too sorely stricken to recover, and the victim himself realized this.

"Put me out on the hillside to die," he murmured. "You are a kind man and a good, but your favor to me has brought down upon you the hatred of the town. It is not just that you should suffer through my misfortune. Set me out on the street, and let them work their will upon me. 'Twill but hasten the inevitable."

"Not so," returned Gioja, stoutly. "Positano hated me before you came, and I care nothing for its malice." Then he related to the foreigner the story of the storm and the fog, and the latter part of the recital appeared to move the dying man strangely, not that he seemed to care much about saints, for how could that be expected of Satan, or to mourn the absence of some holy friar, which also is proof of his grim origin. He asked Gioja to prop him up with pillows, and this done, he drew the dark, mysterious stone from his bosom.

"It is the way of ignorance to use roughly those who would befriend mankind. Did those stupid mariners but know it, they were near losing a talisman for their own safety. I have traveled far, and in distant China found a pearl beyond any man's estimation of value. I hoped to reach with it my own land of France, but that was not to be. It will bring you lasting fame, and perchance great wealth, but in the using of it I beg you to name it for France, or in some way connect it with my beloved country that I shall never see again. And now procure for me a basin of clear water, a small piece of light wood, or, better still, a portion of cork bark, and a long sailor's needle, such as you use in the making and mending of sails."

Gioja set a small table beside the bed, placed upon it the basin of water, and next it the cork and the needle. He supposed that the foreigner was about to perform some heathen rite to the erroneous consolations of which his spirit would depart. Gioja had never intermeddled with magic incantations, and secretly held them in abhorrence; still he saw that his wan guest had but a few minutes to live, and if these mummeries of water, metal, wood and stone permitted him to quit this earth untroubled, an earth upon which he had been so shamefully molested, Flavio was willing to assist, even to the raising of demons, although he would have preferred the presence of one monk to all the hosts of Hades. His quarrel with Antonio left him in such bad case that enchantments could hardly make it worse, and so increased a natural recklessness that may be mistaken for bravery by the wicked. At any rate, here were the materials; and now for the sorcery.

"Flavio, I bestow upon you this black stone. Treasure it, for it is more precious than fine gold or the greatest diamond ever given forth by the earth. Rub it, I beg of you, along that needle from eye to point several times."

Gioja did as he was bid.

"I see no change in either," he said at last. "The color of the stone comes not off on the iron, neither does the needle wear away as it might on a sharpening block."

"Nevertheless the change has taken place, although invisible to your eye or to mine. A strange virtue has passed unseen from stone to metal. Balance the needle carefully upon the cork and let the cork float, carrying the needle above the surface of the water."

Gioja did this also, and the needle, describing an ever-lessening arc, swayed to and fro until it rested trembling, pointing to the north.

"It floats," said Gioja, "which is not to be wondered at, as the cork is beneath it."

"It does more than float," replied the traveler weakly, "as you will understand if you deflect the point toward west or east, or try to make it indicate the south."

Flavio, with ever-increasing amazement, endeavored to turn the needle from its direction, but the moment it was released it returned to its former position. He was too expert a sailor not to see at once the tremendous possibilities of this simple instrument could it but retain its virtue on sea as on land, but surely this must be magic as black as the stone that was the cause of it all. He crossed himself, but the needle did no more than quiver slightly. The stranger smiled as he watched the face of his friend.

"Will the needle act thus at sea?" asked Flavius.

"Aye, everywhere—on earth or sea. Had you this index finger in the fog, Flavio, you might have rowed unerringly to the coast."

"Must the black stone be ever with it?"

"Not so. The stone will make for you a thousand such needles, and never part with a tithe of its power for animating untold thousands more."

Flavio drew a deep sigh as one coming to a fateful resolution, and his lips compressed for a moment with the determination to complete his purpose.

"Sir," he said slowly, "it is palpable you are not what you seem, and such gifts as this are never given without return. I suspect that the price is my undying soul. You know me as a true mariner who will not undervalue the goods you sell. Learn, then, I am willing to pay the price, for the sake of the poor fellows coming after me who battle for their bread with the revengeful sea. Better one man in eternal torment than that unborn generations should be bereft of this guiding finger of enchanted iron."

The stranger's eyes filled, his lip trembled, and for some moments he seemed unable to speak. At last he said in a low, uncertain voice:

"Flavio, I have traveled far, I am now at the end of my journey, but those are the noblest words I have ever heard from the lips of man. Would that my own soul were as white as thine! It runs no jeopardy from me. The potent stone has already been overpaid in thy kindness to an unknown. And think not evil of a broken man, but see rather in me a touch of the Christ, and not of the devil, for I reward you who, in our Saviour's words, took in a stranger and comforted him. And yet there is little good in me; I am but a plain human waif who hate my enemies and love my friends, and must take what comes to such, for I curse the Positano that has murdered me before my time, and may it ever be peopled with unwise children, since their fathers are so brutal."

This long speech exhausted him, and he fell back, gasping his last breath, which was a most deplorable one. Gioja buried him with his own hands in his own garden, well knowing that holy ground was closed to either of them. He set up a little wooden cross at the head, and laid a flat slab of stone upon the grave, and carved rudely on the stone with his chisel:

"Every man has some touch of righteousness in him. O Lord Christ, be merciful to one unjustly slain by the populace, even though thy saints, suffering less than Thou, frown upon him."

Flavius Gioja, in the silence of his own house, worked night and day with the magic stone, perfecting the new instrument, abandoning the basin of water and poising the needle on a delicate point, where it quivered to the north. He marked out the different points and designated the north with the fleur de lis of France in honor of the stranger from that land, so that the world might know to whom the mariner's compass belonged. Wealth came to him and unending fame.

As for the malediction of the dying stranger, wise men have ever differed regarding its meaning, and it is not for me to unravel a mystery that has baffled the sages of the world. Nor can any one tell whether or not the curse had any effect, as we have such disputed knowledge of its significance. It has been supposed that the mariner's compass, although it enriched Flavius Gioja, exerted a baleful influence upon the men of Positano, for since that day they have been scattered to the ends of the earth, many hawking their wares throughout Italy and returning annually on their chief church festival; others in the Americas or distant lands come to Positano only when they are old. all chasing the divergent points of the compass that had its origin in their town. So Positano was, and is to-day, a seaport populated by women, children and old men. Yet it has flourished, and has not decreased in population. Positano is proud of three things,—the beauty of its women, the number of its children and the fame of Flavius Gioja, inventor of the mariner's compass.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.