STANDING on the Carraja Bridge at Florence and looking sixty miles away to the westward, the spectator sees three prominent peaks rising like a triple crown over ranges of mountains which break up the nearer and farther distance into walls of luminous purple and deepest blue. A flood of opalescent splendor shimmers around them at sunset, wrapping the scene in golden mist, just as the burning atmosphere of the summer’s day cools into limpid starlight. In winter the snow-robed crown sparkles in the frosty air as if it were cut out of solid diamond, giving to the Carrara mountains, on whose head it rests, the queenship of the Apennines. But this wintry magnificence, like a glimpse of another world too bright for mortal eyes, can only be enjoyed afar off. When, however, the warm months envelop it in soft sheen and mysterious space melting into shadowy heights, the gazer lingers wistfully over the shifting forms and hues and yearns to be among them. For myself, I have never seen these mountains in winter or summer without an involuntary desire to go there. They appeal to the inner sense as a restingplace midway between earth and heaven, where body and soul might receive strength for either. The summer of 1869 was so beautiful in Florence that it was a penance even to think of going elsewhere, as indeed it is at all times to those who have long resided within its walls. Nevertheless I could never cross the bridge without being haunted by my temptation, now of eighteen years’ growth. A daughter was tardily recovering from a long fever, the legacy of a whooping-cough, when the physician prescribed mountain air as more healing than drugs. So Pescaglia was recommended as affording the best. But where was Pescaglia? Precisely within the charmed circle of this triple crown of Carrara hills, nestling amid chestnut and oak trees, embedded in fragrant vegetation, and clinging with divers sister-hamlets, as ancient as the Cæsars, to steep crags divided from each other by cool glens, joyous with running streams, and shaded by old monarchs of the forest which had braved the centuries since the days of the tyrant Castruccio, and maybe the pious Countess Matilda. Here, if anywhere, nature was serene and charming; a health-giver to spirit and sense, promising a loving return in her own motherly way to human confidence! True, there was not a semblance of an inn; an unfatted calf was killed only once a week, to be divided among the few eaters of meat of the region; bread dark and acid had to be brought many miles; fruits were scanty and half wild; in fact the diet must be restricted to such supplies as could be gleaned from the scantily stocked farms of the peasantry, who were as innocent of any knowledge of the ways and wants, and even the persons, of city people, as so many Calmucks. The fare was not attractive, for the only food in reliable abundance was the staple clammy chestnut cake, of a deep chocolate color, which only the habits of a goat could render digestible, while to the untutored stomach it was a nightmare of a thousand fiend power. Still, there was something so bewitching in this mingling of feast of the soul and famine of the body — nature, at once so æsthetic, spiritual, and sanitary, doctoring dilapidated frames without fees and hindering all excesses of mind and body, whether we consented or not — that it hit the appetite for novelty if it missed the more carnal one. Moreover, even greater boons were promised. Complete social enfranchisement, harmony, and equality with the natural world; absolute genuineness of life even for a fleeting moment; not having to say to society’s Satan, “ Get thee behind me,” for he never came to Pescaglia: these were indeed royal gifts.
Being loath to tempt the tempter into this Eden, I decline to name the town where we exchanged the rail for the district road, which came to an abrupt end at the foot of the picturesque crag, out of which Pescaglia grows as naturally as its chestnuts and vineyards. No carriage-wheels ever profane the quiet of its narrow streets. The strong visitor must climb to it on his own limbs, and the invalid be borne in a chair on sturdy mountaineers’ shoulders. Suffice it to know that the road to Peseaglia is lovely even in the most fertile province of Italy. Winding beside a coquettish river, it passes through tunnels, under toppling cliffs, along gorges flattening out into meadows and orchards, shadowed by olive and vine growing hills covered with renaissant villas and feudal towers, and bordered by ivy and rose-draped walls fringed with hoary mosses, amid which flit in imperial livery of green and gold mercurial lizards. It opens on mediæval churches far gone in decrepitude, like the temporal power that reared their walls, but whose silver-toned bells are as sense-enrapturing as ever, as their mellow strains echo throughout the neighboring peaks. It stretches across dry torrents, choked with the avalanches of spring, and devastated fields. It is caressed by wild plants bending beneath the weight of their fragrant charms, as they listen to the chatter of merry brooks or flirt with amorous insects. Now and then you encounter a country cart clattering along at a break-neck pace, top-heavy with embrowned maidens going to and from reeling the cocoons of silk-worms in those strange buildings with steaming loggia which surprise the novice in their mysteries. The valleys shut the road in closer and closer, narrowing and deepening until the last turn brought it to an abrupt termination at an old stone bridge over the precipitous streams which furrow the mountain on either side of Pescaglia, and whenever it rains much make it roar with the rush of their impatient floods. There stood our “ city of refuge,” looking from its perpendicular eyrie almost straight down upon us, and peeping out of a bower of green, overtopped by the ruins of a venerable castle backed against precipices half hidden in luxuriant green, but too rough to be ascended otherwise than by the tortuous paths which led to the highest pasturages, just under the naked peaks that cut sharply but gracefully against the young twilight. Everywhere the outlines of the Apennines have a feminine beauty of contour and delicacy of curve. Here, although in mass of almost Alpine grandeur, this specific quality was particularly noticeable, especially as the tender shadows of night crept slowly up the mountain sides, and mingling with the rays of the sun tinged with royal purple the topmost peaks.
The invalids with their luggage had been put down on the roadside, and left by the driver to contemplate the scenery until help should come from above to make the ascent. Shut in below as we were by the steep and close hills, it was almost dark before help came. Meantime the gossips of the sole habitation hereabouts brought out some rude chairs and proffered such hospitality as their meagre household might, yield, with genuine good-will and an absence of disposition to make money out of our position that showed no theories of backshish had yet entered their souls. They were decidedly behind the age, but in the right direction for travelers.
Under the circumstances of onr appearance, in this sudden fashion stranded on their highway, an indefinite amount of voluble curiosity would have been pardonable. Their manners, however, were not merely unexceptionable, but the acme of refined courtesy. I felt at once as if I had always lived there, and each face was a familiar friend’s. The few foot-travelers, peddlers of wooden shoes and cheap female finery, or peasants driving before them files of donkeys laden with wood, manifested no more surprise at our improvised encampment than would a city idler on meeting a do-nothing neighbor following his praiseworthy example. Saluting us kindly they passed on without one furtive glance. This was not owing to stolidity of temperament, for on questioning any, their replies were vivacious and sensible enough. One time - furrowed old lady was eloquent on the woes of life in the abstract, dwelling on the hardship of being rooted for more than seventy years to a spot which had no change except of the monotonous seasons. From birth to burial she had to see the same few faces, eat the same meagre food, do the same frame-racking work, and look on the same hardhearted mountains. Fine scenery, forsooth, but what good came of that to her! Evidently she was a misanthrope in principle just as there are pitiless philanthropists. The world needed a certain amount of grumbling to keep it moving, as a donkey requires the cudgel, and Pescaglia had fallen to her lot for its castigation. As she turned to go with a lugubrious shake of her withered head and a pitying glance of her sharp eye, she asked “if we came voluntarily.” On being assured that it was actually so, “ You ’ll find good air and water; nothing else; this is all Pescaglia gives to any one; much good may they do to you; good day,” she ejaculated, as she hobbled off.
Others stopped for a chat of a more cheerful turn, doing the honors of their mountainous scenery with a sincere appreciation of the “ fine air and water ” which all agreed were its distinctive merits. But even these could not quite take it in that we had come “voluntarily.” Never did people show a more touching humility as to their own importance and local advantages ; but whatever they had was at our disposal. Their talk was so simple-minded and unworldly that I was almost sorry when the carriers did arrive. We made a merry cortége up the paved footway under the trees, more picturesque but steeper and more winding each step, as we drew near the house in which we were to be lodged, and whose owner, leaving a singular history, had died the year previous. Our self-made friends seemingly attached a peculiar importance to us because we were to occupy this grand “villa,” which in their eyes was the
seat of untold magnificence, the like of which it was doubtful if we had ever seen. It was superbly furnished, in short, a miniature Versailles, if we might construe their adjectives in their common significance, spoken in an undertone of mingled awe and mystery. Having expected nothing superior to the stone floors and rough quarters of an ordinary farm-house, this intelligence was agreeable, besides piquing to the curiosity. Our path left the real Pescaglia somewhat on the right hand and ascended a twin hill, skirting the mossy walls of an extinguished convent, and a tiny church of the Lombard period, — that is, all of it that had not been restored by modern vandals into architectural and spiritual inanity, — until losing itself on a narrow, ankle - wrenching pavement between rows of stone houses, so called by courtesy, though in reality cheerless hovels of prosaic discomfort and poverty within and picturesque outlook in mass without. These led to a cul-de-sac that terminated in an embattlemented doorway and court-yard. On ringing a brisk bell the entrance flew open, presenting an agreeable spectacle, if not the counterpart of Versailles. A turreted wall inclosed a tiny garden on a terrace overhanging the valley, with miniature parapets and towers, having the grand air of a feudal castle even if it were not as big as a real one. In the centre was a marble fountain throwing up exquisite jets of mountain-water, as clear as crystal, sprinkling confused masses of lemon and orange trees, vines, roses, tea-plants, and others rare and common, helter-skelter in a labyrinth of democratic weeds. Fronting us one way, with drawn sword and full panoply of armor, was the Archangel Michael, the guardian of the gate, in lively fresco, but with his celestial splendor somewhat dimmed by long exposure to earthly showers and incipient cryptogamia. The villa itself formed two sides of the garden. On the left, as we went towards the principal door, was an elaborate fresco covering two stories with an extraordinary composition. In the centre stood the Madonna in Glory, with a face of ineffable sweetness, gazing on rats jumping through hoops held by other rats, and doing all kinds of circus antics, besides stealthily cutting off the tail of a huge cat unsuspiciously moralizing on the top of a queer palisade. Others were holding up gold coins in their mouths to the Virgin, or blowing soap-bubbles in her honor. But the queerest fact was the humanity expressed in the features of all the rats, as distinctive as so many human beings, but otherwise cleverly drawn and colored rats of all degrees and ages; singularly coherent expression in an extravagant incoherence of entire composition.
By the time we had got thus far, our general escort had vanished like so many shadows, evidently having either a wholesome respect for the grandeur of the premises or a mystical fear of its painted inmates. If the exterior decoration were queer, the interior was even more so. Each room, anteroom, stairway, and ceiling was thickly painted in strong oil-colors with similar compositions, done not unskillfully by a free brush and vigorous stroke. I must describe some. The great hall was laid out in Chinese scenery of the cheap teatray fashion, jumbled with chaotic phenomena of the heavens, ships scudding against the winds, and a demon-visaged comet dashing headlong into the sun just rising over the hills in the shape of a human face surrounded by spiked rays, with eyes weeping mammoth tears, in harrowed anticipation of the collision. A nautical rat, standing upright on the topmost leaf of a tall tree, was inspecting the scene through a telescope, while another at the foot was inquiring what it all meant.
Our chief bedroom had a very weird and apocalyptical aspect, three sides being filled with hosts of doves sweeping centrewards in regular, interminable converging lines, feathery hosts on hosts, some full grown, others just bursting from their egg-shells, led by naked amorini with immense dickeys about their throats, epaulettes on their shoulders, and regulation kepis on their heads. For a moment the room seemed to whirl round and round with their whirring flight, while the great blue eyes of the military cupids glared at us so wildly in the dim light that I exclaimed, “ I can’t bear this; if I sleep here I shall go crazy.” Was the air of the chamber filled with infectious madness? But the ringing laugh of my wife quickly drove away the demon of gloom and summoned the imp of the ridiculous in its place. The paintings soon became such an unfailing source of amusement and speculation that it was agreeable to be among them. Incoherent as they were to the last decree, they begot at last in me a dreamy repose of mind and body eminently refreshing and companionable, as if they were the embodiment of unseen, inscrutable joys, rather than maddening woes.
But to return to first sensations. A shout of laughter, of wonderment, from the children drew us to their discovery: a decidedly original picture of Divine Providence and Family Love, as it was inscribed. A lady rat, just confined, was lying in a stately bed, with lace cap and ruffles, awaiting her gruel, which a tidy rat nurse was bringing her in the orthodox vessel always provided for this momentous domestic event. The potbellied father was lying on his back on the floor amid a heap of toys, tossing several of his babies on his four feet into the air, while the rest of the brood were enjoying their playthings or quarreling as fraternally as if they had been human babies. Stores of apples and other toothsome dainties formed the walls and ceiling of the nursery of this happy family. My own little rats, the youngest only fifteen months, never grew tired of examining and commenting on this wonderful composition.
On the opposite wall there was a far different scene. At the left sat an impressive allegorical, gigantic figure of a woman of majestic mien and handsome features, dressed in blue, surrounded by mystical emblems and inscriptions in unknown tongues, of gracious look and abstracted air, leaving one in doubt whether she was meant to be the incarnation of the arcana of the black art, or one of the mysteries of the Apocalypse. At all events it was a masterpiece of intense supernatural suggestiveness which would not have discredited William Blake. There was a wise solemnity and spiritual composure about it that soothingly contrasted with the crack-brain character of the rest of the wall decorations. Immediately next to it, behind the bed, was a handsome Madonna in Glory, watching flying fiery serpents and nondescript monsters wildly shooting through space, wept over by a lugubrious sun like the one in the hall, rising over a foreground of slablike rocks, broken into sharp precipices, down which, sitting on drums, rats, travestied as soldiers of the line of the time of Napoleon I., were sliding, falling, pirouetting, or presenting arms to the Virgin. The chambers above, which formed our nursery, were known as the “ rooms of the sacred mysteries,” so the custode of the villa told us, although anything more mysterious than those below it would be difficult to conjure up. Some of their scenes were naively curious. One, a party of old rats with human expressions, gambling; the oldest and wickedest glancing over his cards with sardonic satisfaction at the chagrin and fury of those whom he has cheated, overlooking an outsider who is slyly stealing the stakes. Another was a more elaborate affair occupying an entire side of the room, in the centre of which was the Holy Family and attendant saints in masses of clouds, listening to polkas performed by bands of rats dressed as military musicians. Near by two rats were blowing the face of the sun with great bellows to keep up its heat, and in a corner the moon, pale and sickly-looking, was being fed by one of these quadrupeds with porridge out of a huge spoon.
I fear it would be tedious to describe any more of our “Versailles gallery,” but the dining-room must not be omitted. Next to rats the favored topics were Franciscan friars. All of this part of the villa was dedicated to them. The painted background formed the whole interior architecture of a convent, exposing cells, refectory, prison, chapel, and cortile. In some of the cells the friars were uncorking champagne bottles labeled with the insignia of the Holy Ghost. In another scene one was carrying his head under his arm in a procession, a miracle unnoticed by his brethren, among whom were two women in disguise, whom also they discreetly failed to see. The prison held a friar undergoing penance, tormented by bedeviled cats and frightened by a bodiless arm ringing a bell over his head, while another kept rapping on his window. In the refectory the table was laid with two big bottles of wine and a small bit of bread for each friar. The standard of conventual holiness was decidedly material. Our deceased host himself had been a great collector of bottles. These, of all sorts and shapes, were arranged by hundreds on shelves in the dining-room, filled with extraordinary liquids, and decorated with masonic and Christian emblems and signs of the Trinity in silver and gold paper. The chapel itself had been partly converted into a studio, and in part devoted to an altar covered with tawdry French ornaments and dismal souvenirs of the grave. Altogether it was a strange villa.
The history of its owner was still stranger. He had been city-born, of a noble family, rich, as provincial fortunes count; had traveled, sojourned often in Paris, whence came the “luxury” of furniture, linen, silver, glass, and books we found here; and finally, after many bachelor experiments in love, had decided on marrying a peasant girl with whom he was really enamored. To this turn of his eccentricities his relations put their veto. In America there would have been but one ending to similar interferences, but in Italy, where family discipline is supreme, the family triumphed. The defeated lover was seized with an artistic mania for decorating this villa, in which he passed most of his time, bewildering and amusing his rustic neighbors, wasting his patrimony in painting and repainting, harmless in his ways, often jocose and hospitable, ducking unsuspecting girls by suddenly letting loose his fountain on them, experimenting in horticulture and entertaining monks, who enjoyed his fare if they did not his frescoes. Thus he lived on in a half-serious, half-droll manner, but gradually growing sadder and madder until his kind guardians, who had provoked his madness, sent him, vainly protesting, to a mad-house to die, which he speedily did of the longing he had to be back painting his quaint imaginings once more on the walls of his quiet home at Pescaglia.
And now, patient reader, if you do not weary of this storyless tale, let us chat a little with our living neighbors. The first comer, and not the least gossip, is the gentleman who brings our milk. I say gentleman advisedly, because bis language and manners are thoroughly gentlemanly, his bearing easy, independent, and courteous, indicative of self-respect and respect of others. Had our croaking old dame below added fine manners to her scanty list of good things at Pescaglia, she would have come within the truth ; for they were as abundant and spontaneous as the fine air and water themselves. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that the quality of these elements had much to do with the prevailing manifestations of genial humanity. In his outer self our milkman was as rough — perhaps we should call it untidy in America, where dirt has no sense of the picturesque under any combinations — as his brother peasants, but his frank deportment was more becoming than fine raiment. It struck me, as I looked at him, that to be clothed in one’s “right mind ” was better on the whole than being in the “ height of fashion.” He never poured out his measure of milk without making it an overflowing bumper, unwatered (was not that the trait of a gentleman? ), or giving the servants an extra quantity to drink to his health, as we sat cozily together on the stone steps, listening to his tales of Pescaglia life. He was a widower with a baby-daughter, and would marry again if he could find a woman who would be kind to his pet. For himself he preferred the single existence. His means, a few cows, chickens, some chestnut and olive trees, insuring him a few hundred francs income, were sufficient. But his sister was a grand lady. She owned sixty cows, and made no end of butter, which traders from Leghorn came for weekly. Once a year all the relatives and the curé dined with her. Such a feast was rarely seen anywhere. Roast meat, salad, cheese — he gave us a sample tougher than gutta-percha — enough for every one, and unlimited vino sincero, — the acrid wine of the district, beside which mineral vinegar is honey itself. But his relish of this diet would have been cheaply bought by a city epicure with half his fortune. A broker of marriages — it appears this kind of business is rife in the rural districts — had just described to him a stoutish, goodtempered girl on the other side of the mountain, who had several thousand francs and eagerly desired a husband; in short, a genuine buxom heiress, of strong hips and spine, whom he would secure for something less than the regular commission, as the candidate was no novice in matrimony.
I ought to explain that the " strong hip and spine” qualifications are essential for the steep, rocky hills, up and down which the women from infancy are trained to carry heavy burdens on their heads, while the men rest theirs on their shoulders supported by a strap around their foreheads, pulling by it much as the oxen do by theirs. Even in polite Pescaglia tlie biggest and weightiest loads were invariably borne by the women. Indeed, there is a common saying of the men in some parts of Italy in regard to an extra heavy burden, that " it is a woman’s load. " Why there should be such a distinction in the mode of carrying, tlie female skull being thinner and more delicate than the male, I never could clearly make out. The best reason ever vouchsafed me from the most interested party was “they are used to it,” “they always do so.” The sanitary effects of the custom were unexceptionable, for such straight-backed nymphs, of firm, elastic step and lofty carriage, could nowhere else be found. " Female troubles ” could not find lodgment in frames trained, like Milo’s, to carry the calf until it grew to be the ox. The broker was right, therefore, in presenting foremost the best points of his human wares. But our friend was not eager at snuffing the bait. The reduction of commission had a look of a double commission; the girl might be paying something herself. Who knows, and for what reason? She might not be kind to his little one. In fine, he gave the cold shoulder to the broker, but told us confidentially that he meant to drop over on the sly to get an anonymous look at her charms.
Here comes the mercurial messenger, under plea of bringing our letters from the post, a service which he has voted to himself. He is the newsmonger and wiseacre of the whole neighborhood; a philosopher, too, caring neither for the great nor the little world; ambitionless, doing nothing to support himself, and no one doing anything for him; a seedy, spare-ribbed, faded-out youth of mysterious means, the maximum less than a franc a day, always obliging, and as Chirpy as one of the sparrows the Lord feeds, and no less restless of movement and tongue. Well up is he in the politics of the world; fluent in Italian literature, conservative in tone but liberal in theory, partisan of nothing, weighing the Pope and Garibaldi in a just balance, and pronouncing wisely wherein each was wanting; sagacious in his estimate of the French and Germans in the war just ended, possessing broad ideas and but small geographical knowledge; preferring Pescaglia, summer and winter, to all the world beside, an idler without an atom of laziness, epicurean with nothing to keep him in condition; knowing the precise value in francs of every girl in the region about, her glowing estimate of her own charms and the counter estimate of her rivals and lovers; in total, the daily, biped New York Herald of Pescaglia, taken in by every householder whether he would or no. His topic this evening was somewhat in the vein of the milkman’s, only he omitted his own confessions. The mother of Signorina X. had just snubbed Signore Z. by telling him, after a personal inspection, that he was not handsome enough to be her son-in-law, although the daughter was only too glad to accept any one unseen. Pescaglia was as innocent of evil as Arcadia itself, but it had one trying fault : everybody knew everybody’s business in advance. Pescaglia was as watchful over female deportment as the greatest city. No mother in society would permit an unmarried daughter of any age less than threescore to go out unattended by herself. If she did, who would marry the sweet dove? Rustic lovers had a better time. Fashion cared less for their courtships, and hence they were happier and honester. After this edifying manner he rambled on until his instinct told him it was opportune to leave, when he would gracefully invent an engagement, and disappear.
A more serious visitor was an aged priest, learned and liberal, exiled by vindictive superiors to this wilderness, who avenged himself by combating papal infallibility and the temporal power in pamphlets which, with praiseworthy frankness, he addressed directly to Pius IX. himself. The other priests told his parishioners that masses said by him would have no efficacy in saving their souls. Although living in solitude, devoured by a cruel dyspepsia that refused him regular sleep and drove him to solitary rambles at strange hours, he had won the esteem and confidence of the people. Whenever his archbishop sent him a dubious circular to read to his congregation he had the habit of forgetting it, which preserved their brains from being infected by the casuistries of the Vatican, while their uninformed consciences were equally kept from any superstitious strain. But there could be no sounder evidence of the enlightened spirit of the population than their toleration and even support of him in his antagonism to the pet dogmas and ideas of the Pope. Only a few years before he would have been effectually silenced by the Inquisition. But in Pescaglia the people at large are in advance of their teachers in their readiness to learn and independence of judgment. The general type of the Italian peasant indicates a race of remarkable quickness of intellect and fine physical and mental stamina, obscured, it is true, by poverty and the ignorance forced on them by vitiated institutions and habits of mind highly esteemed by the papacy as a pledge of unquestioning obedience in its sons. In this outpost our priest was doing good service to liberal progress by disseminating ideas which are steadily undermining the system of intellectual bondage in which the peasantry of Italy has been too long held.
We soon knew all our neighbors. Wherever we strolled courteous salutations greeted us from every door-way, with beaming smiles and pleasant words for the little ones. Here, we received news of a fresh comer into the world, with those domestic details which make the human heart beat as with one pulse; there, the tidings of a last departure, so unnoticed in the living crowd of a city, but where we were shut out of the feverish, great world, particularly solemn and suggestive of one’s own call to bid the long good night to earth. Next door there always sat in the glowing twilight a wan invalid dying of a cancer, and so poor that a little portion of our meagre fare seemed to him a feast of Belshazzar. It was touching to receive his daily godspeed in our walk, and see his grateful, ghastly smile, so corpse-like that death itself could not change it unless to make it even sweeter in spirit. One evening a dozen chickens, just bought and turned loose in the garden to fatten if it were possible, frightened at the prospect, flew over the wall into the outer darkness, lost, as we gloomily fancied, forever to our craving palates. By morning unknown hands had recaptured and brought them all back. The population overflowed with friendliness to us as to one another, agreeably spiced with piquancy of individual character. Our mornings were spent on the grass under the shade of old forest kings, gigantic chestnuts and youthful oaks, breathing the fragrant air, gazing on the clear summits opposite, or following with the eyes the picturesque mountain gaps and valleys as they meandered towards the Serchio in the far distance. Wild flowers profusely spotted the hill-sides. Insect life was the most beautiful I had seen out of Brazil. Indeed, in the shady dells and nooks which gathered up the rivulets into natural fountains and water-falls, the vegetation was almost of tropical exuberance and beauty. Large, rubycolored oleanders enlivened the deep greens of the terraced meadows, alternated by the golden sheen of ripe grain or the silvery gleam of the olive-tree.
Every day brought ns on this spot its social reception of one kind or other. Sometimes animals, birds, insects, flowers, and children played the chief parts, always to the sharp notes and quick beat of the restless cicada, which sung in the trees overhead. Stalwart peasants would stop and chat about their hero Garibaldi; boast that they were better shots than the famous corps of Bersaglieri, and declare how eager they were to strike a blow for republicanism when the hour should come. Papalini retaliated by telling us that the Garibaldini were cowardly marauders of no religion. But political differences seemed to have no sinister effect on their mutual friendship.
Three papers were taken in the village, representing the extremes of radicalism, conservatism, and jesuitism, and freely circulated from hand to hand, so that none were ignorant as to their neighbors’ sentiments. During the hot weather they went to bed at nine P. M., summoned by a noisy hand-bell rung from house to house, the only sound that broke the intense silence of our nights after the clatter of the goats and sheep, following the bells of their leaders coming down the mountains, had ceased. All the workers rose at daybreak to harvest the grain during the cooler hours. In winter they gossiped later around roaring kitchen fires, courting, perchance; indeed, our handsome talker had courted in this manner for ten years, and was so content with his occupation that he might make it a score of years before he committed himself to the more placid joys of wedlock. All agreed that Pescaglia was crimeless, Jealousy and heart-burn never provoked the knife as elsewhere. Stealing was unknown, unless committed by an outside vagabond. Taxes were heartily anathematized for absorbing quite half of their rents or incomes, in one shape or other. Everybody was poor in their scattered population of twenty-five hundred souls, and yet every one was rich; for contentment was the common virtue, and no one ever begged. This exemption from the teasing vice of Italy had greatly surprised us and showed no ordinary degree of self-respect. I fear, however, my wife inadvertently let envy into the heart of our nearest neighbor, a middle-aged dame occupying a stone house rented at twelve francs the year, but which she thought was an exorbitant price, by telling her that a city midwife got twenty-five francs for each case, while her fee was only one franc, and all her numerous relatives must be attended gratis. Ejaculating “ Gesú Maria! is it possible? ” with a dubious shake of her head, she evidently thought she was imposed upon; but whether by us or her clients we could not make out. Still I do not think that the enterprise of Pescaglia will at present take the turn of raising prices on home industries, particularly as some of our providers were wont to ask us what they ought to charge for their produce. Those who had traveled in the course of their lives as far as Lucca, had come back sufficiently developed in the principles of trade to ask a bouncing sum, with the expectation of being set right by our superior information as to the markets elsewhere. But all were easily satisfied, and none showed the least covetousness. Really they were as simple-minded, honest, and polite as if there were no money in the world. Happy in the minor key of existence, satisfied with their meagre portion of worldly riches, they literally seemed not merely void of envy and uncharitableness, but were absolutely generous with their scanty means, insisting at times on bestowing gifts of fruit or vegetables even on us.
With all this moral wealth I fear they lacked the one thing needful to a complete appreciation of their resources of happiness. There was no spontaneous sympathy with nature. In this, however, the Pescaglians only partook of the common insensibility of Italians to the beauty of the landscape. Nevertheless “fine air and water,” although to some extent counteracted materially by the villainous chestnut diet and frightfully acid wine, did give a refreshment to their existence which was gratefully acknowledged. The only suggestion of local pride was in their meek boastfulness of the sanitary advantages of their mountain home. No typical Christian of the Apostolic age could be more humble in thought. Indeed, to the last they never ceased their plaintive apostrophe, “ Do you stay here voluntarily? ” and seemed greatly relieved in mind as to the condition of our faculties when as often assured that it was to enjoy their “ fine air and water” we had come; to them the sole intelligible motive. But nature in this secluded laboratory of hers was doing wiser for their weal than they knew. Constantly fanned by breezes untainted by human foulness and crime, fresh from ethereal regions which are the fountain-head of man’s strength and purity, she brought to humanity a moral as well as a physical ozone which imparted to it the finer elements of character and temperament. In some measure the atmosphere of towns is like that of unventilated rooms —an insidious compound of the grossness and disease of the mass of population, depressing and unwholesome to an individual in proportion as his standard of life is higher than the average of his neighbors. False passions and opinions are as contagious as fevers, and infest the air in the same subtle manner. Despite ourselves we incline towards the dominant tone of life amid which we live. If we emerge from stifling cities into the uncorrupted atmosphere of the ocean or mountain, there penetrates into our systems a subtle, soothing exhilaration which elevates the senses into a more spiritual apprehension of the hidden forces of nature, while strengthening our material bodies. For a brief moment before the wave of worldliness again breaks over our quickened faculties, we fancy ourselves nearer to heaven itself. For do not dark spirits affect the gloom of close quarters congenial to their condition ? while the bright ones, if tempted to revisit the earth, must choose the sweetest and purest, whether in the individual heart or the air that feeds its life-blood!
But I have another theory to account for the gentleness of this race, more particularly of the old ladies. Whenever we met any of the aged, toilstained women, so neat in their homespun, often-patched garments, with their placid bearing and courtesy of language, as gracious in form as those of our ideal high-born dames when the spirit of chivalry still lingered in aristocratic manners, I always fancied I was spoken to by a noble lady in lowly disguise, fulfilling a vow of humility to chasten her soul into greater virtue. Why might not these faultlessly polite old ladies in their tattered robes, with their native elegance of manner and unconscious equality and independence, a perfect social type — why might not these gentle, courteous beings be the re-incarnations of haughty, selfish, courtly women, doing voluntary penance for former errors, and acquiring under opposite conditions those Christian qualifications which are needed to give them rank and riches in the court of the Celestial King? If it were so, they were learning their new lessons so well that they might return to the golden city without fearing any further rehabiliment in flesh to remodel lives wasted in pride and luxury. I loved them all. I felt honored by their hearty, kindly questions and wishes. Unwittingly they raised my estimate of the fundamental soundness of human nature when undisturbed by the casuistries of fashion and ambition, and undecked by the weeds of civilization. In them and their progeny lay Italy’s undeveloped promise of power; a promise richer than that of her quarries, her oaks, her olives and vines, and far more precious even than the fine air and water” which nourished their sane bodies; fair seed of the future of the world’s favorite seat of art, song, and beauty.
The true Pescaglia was on the opposite ravine. Ours was merely a rural suburb. Like all the villages of Italy, Pescaglia was a miniature city, with rows of stone houses and balconies facing each other on extremely narrow streets, paved in the ancient Etruscan manner; possessing a public palace, the home of the syndic anil an army of impiegati, on salaries of less than a franc a day; also a tiny church begun when Christianity was in its infancy, and over all a beetling acropolis in ruins. Shop there was none; merely a mongrel café, close aud dark as a convict’s cell, where tobacco, stamps, salt, coarse bread, and, it was reported, acqua gazosa (bottled soda-water) might sometimes be found. A tailor who plied his needle in the open air under a vine was the only evidence of a trade. In less unbelieving times there existed several convents, but so small, they seemed more like play convents than real ones. One about the size of a ship’s cabin still sheltered a few disconsolate nuns, left in their dismal, dingy cells because they had cried so hysterically when the government officials told them they were free to go wherever they liked. Little had they seen of the outside world from their iron-barred loop-holes, except a few trees and patches of sunscorched rocks high in the horizon. What wonder then that they clung as closely to their dens as the tree-slug does to its hole when he hears the woodpecker’s ominous tap? One ventured to call on us, escorted by several relations. The interview began and ended on the part of the suppressed nun in a speechless, prolonged stare of amazement, so persistent that my wife was put to her wits’ end to devise a stratagem to break the situation. Pale, sickly face, empty soul, cramped mind; a feeble, shaded growth of good-fornothing goodness; a being as helpless and timid as a silver-fish in a dry globe; this was the result of complete isolation from mankind to save her soul.
Pescaglia had, too, its theatre; a low, dark, stone shed with a few benches and a rude stage, where Orestes was given by the village amateurs in a heroic vein. Alfieri was succeeded by Voltaire’s Zaire; high game both, in this unimaginative century. It was a misfortune that each spectator, at four cents a head, knew every weak spot in the aotor’s costumes and rant, so that the tragedy at times threatened to lapse into broad farce. Finally the poetical overcame the prose elements, and there was a hearty appreciation of the motives of the plays. But for me the best acting was that of the troops of young virgins, as comely, fair, and strong of limb as the Biblical Ruth, who every sunset came trooping down the steep pathway to fill their copper vessels at a cool fountain in a near glen, and then, poising the heavy vases on their heads, walked up the hill with the mien and gait of as many Junos; never failing to give me a smiling greeting, as I sat in the recess of an archway to a shrine, watching them, and overlooking a magnificent prospect forty miles away, beyond luxuriant Pescia. What flexible, elastic, rounded frames, with plenty of good brain to top them! Good stuff there for healthy mothers and apt minds; these Pescaglians were of the flashing eye and ready tongue; no fools they, or fools’ prey either! Behold whence come the “old ladies ” frank,kind, and handsome to the end, despite irksome labors and severer poverty, prolonged beyond threescore years and ten without variation for body or mind. May Abraham’s bosom hold them all in the end! How independent, too, they are of us! For do they not grow and spin their own linen; raise the sheep whose wool they weave into winter’s clothing; cut out their own wooden shoes and decorate them with gay colors and brass nails? while all the meat, grain, oil, wine, lumber, marbles, and even metals they require are at hand in these motherly hills! Why should they covet our ingenious methods of making ourselves unnatural, discontented, and unhealthful?
Although Pescaglia has its army of freethinkers and republicans, who flavor religion and politics not at all to the liking of the cod ini and Jesuits, yet they all cordially unite in keeping up the old fêtes of the Roman church as handed down from its times of absolute power. Every town in Italy has its patron in heaven, charged with its spiritual and material welfare, the duties of which unite in him the functions somewhat of a pagan divinity and a diplomatic agent to a foreign court of the first class. To be doubly sure, Pescaglia had chosen the two strongest saints in the calendar, Peter and Paul, for her guardians. In their honor an annual festival had been instituted, of a very mixed character. Its celebration began in the church by adoring these saints with rites which any genuine pagan god might covet, ending in a triumphant procession of the clergy in fullest ecclesiastical uniform, following files of youthful virgins clad in spotless white, wreaths of flowers on their heads, bearing candles, and chanting hymns as they passed along the streets carpeted with fragrant leaves, amid the vineyards, to the roadside shrine of the Madonna del Carmine, which formed a sort of spiritual outpost to the place, kept in a condition of repair that contrasted sensibly with the picturesque decay of the worldly citadel above. As the procession wound its way at nightfall through lanes bordered with sweet evergreens, roses, and oleanders, its long lines of lights sparkling in the soft distance, and the deep bass voices of the priests intermingling with the shriller notes of the children in a low, mysterious cadence of music like the fall of many waters, the scene was bewitchingly novel. But this material poetry came only too soon to an untimely end in a fracas of rockets, bombs, and squibs let off from the little piazza, against a background of a general illumination of the houses; a flashing uproar, which resounded far and wide up the ravines and over the mountainsummits, plowing the deep shadows with fiery tracks.
Rolling echoes, repeating themselves as they traveled towards the stars, gave an additional wildness to the occasion. But as their far-away, pensive mimicry of the nearer crashes of sound came to an end, quiet starlight again reigned supreme in Pescaglia. And such stillness!
But the quiet of Pescaglia was a balm to the spirit; its solitude delicious and companionable, for the atmosphere was charged with delicate harmonies, while to gaze into the speechless night was listening to celestial melodies. Even the amber sunlight lulled the body into a gentle repose, at peace with itself and all else. In abandoning ourselves to these influences we grew superior to ourselves. One felt how it was that Olympian gods were finer than men. They breathed an atmosphere free from human sighs, groans, rivalry, and hate. Pure air and water insensibly make pure minds, with a little help from honest hearts. How long before the solitude would have turned to weariness of self and nature we did not stay to test. It was breathable bliss while we did stay. There was no overstrain of our welcome on either side. Whooping-cough, lung fever, and moral and social miasma of all degrees of harassment were totally exorcised. One day there came news of some fine ladies from the Baths of Lucca who were seen riding on donkeys at a village fair eight miles off. The report fell on our ears as if it concerned beings on another planet. To the last moment an exhilarating satisfaction of attained rest and health was felt. Instead of fading away on reentering active life, the impressions gained at Pescaglia have settled firmly into the memory, as one of those rare experiences which ever after haunt the imagination more like a dream than a reality, but whose beneficent effects are indelible in the system.
James Jackson Jarves.