Sicilian Hospitality

“ SPEAKING of Sicilian hospitality,” said my estimable friend, Mr. A—, in his off-hand, chatty way, “ I never in all my travels met with anything so cordial, spontaneous, and charming as on my first visit to Palermo, many years ago. With some fourteen others, mostly English, I was a passenger in the old steamer Re Ferdinando; and at every place we stopped on the coast of Italy we used to go together, visiting the different objects of interest. A friend of mine had given me a letter of introduction to a Sicilian gentleman, which I delivered on my arrival. He received me with the greatest cordiality, and as my fellow-travelers had planned an excursion to the famous cathedral of Monreale for the next day, he offered to go with us. We drove the four miles up the mountain side under his guidance, the next morning, stopping to see several villas and gardens on our way. Reaching the town, we admired the ancient Norman structure with Byzantine mosaic interior, Monrealese’s chef-d'œuvre in the convent attached to it, and from its balconies the magnificent panorama of the Conca d’ Oro (golden shell, so called), the valley and bay of Palermo. Being then somewhat fatigued both by the drive and sight-seeing, we proposed to have a luncheon. Our Sicilian friend took us to the best restaurant of the place, where they served us an excellent collation. When we had finished and asked for our bill, the landlord told us that it had already been paid by my friend, much to my surprise. I expostulated with him on the ground that, whatever kindness or hospitality he desired to extend to me on the strength of my letter of introduction, he was not called upon to bestow it on my numerous companions, who were only my fellow-travelers, and had no claim on myself, much less on him. But he was inexorable, saying that the Sicilian customs made it imperative on him not to allow payment for anything they called for while in his company, no matter under what circumstances they happened to be so placed. And in fact he would not suffer us even to pay for our carriages, having paid the fare before we started. What made it rather unpleasant for us was that we could not repay the courtesy in any way, for the next day we had to be on board continuing our tour. I never had occasion to meet the gentleman again in my travels, and only hope that my English fellow-travelers may have returned his civility in England, where he often traveled in the summer.”

The anecdote excited the curiosity of the company in which it was told, and they insisted upon hearing from me something more about Sicilian hospitality. I accordingly related the following experience.

Curiosity enticing me once to visit the classic soil of Trapani (Drepanum), — where, as Virgil states, Æneas lost his father Anchises, on his flight from Ilium to Italy, and where he left all the women, who, tired of wandering from sea to sea, had attempted to burn his fleet, — I accepted the invitation of a friend of mine belonging in that town, whom I had often met in Palermo, to be a guest at his house.

Small towns in Sicily are so little visited by travelers that there is hardly one which has a good hotel; they have only miserable inns, much like the Spanish ventas, fit only for muleteers and poor traders. Therefore, from time immemorial, country gentlemen have offered hospitality to people of their class happening to visit the town or village where they resided, even on a very slight acquaintance. This is considered by them a sacred duty, and they would look upon it as an insult if any one should refuse them, and go to an inn.

During the stay the guest is master of the house, and is not allowed even to fee the servants, the whole family vying with one another in attention to him, so as to make it sometimes oppressive ; but, by another old custom, he is never expected to stay more than a few days at a time, unless very intimate.

On the strength of our invitation, my wife and I started on this visit, on a fair October day, in one of those Sicilian steamers crowded with a motley company of Sicilians and Arabs on their way to the coast towns of Sicily and Tunis. Five hours of a chopping sea brought us to Trapani.

The present town is on the left shore of a natural harbor. The shore on the right is studded with windmills and innumerable pyramids of white salt, that look very picturesque from the sea. Salt is the most important production of the whole coast from Trapani to Marsala. A wide plain and gradual ascent of some three or four miles from the town leads to the foot of Mt. Eryx, now called San Giuliano, which rises four or five thousand feet above the level of the sea. In this plain must have been played the martial games for the funeral of Anchises, as told by Virgil in the fifth book of the Æneid. The old town of Eryx is still standing on the summit of the mountain, and is an object of curiosity.

As the steamer dropped her anchor, an innumerable quantity of small boats, manned by wild, piratical-looking boatmen, surrounded her, the men yelling at the top of their voices with Southern volubility, and gesticulating like the windmills on the shore. Fortunately our host had been before advised of our coming, and was there with a private boat to take us on shore. Thus we escaped the most serious trial of patience that travelers undergo on arriving at any port in Sicily, — the boatmen and hackmen.

Our host belonged to one of the oldest families of the place, possessing a large old palace in town, villas and estates on the northern slope of Mt. Eryx and elsewhere. It is surprising to notice the moral influence that such people have over the lower classes, who to an inexperienced foreign traveler seem brigandish or piratical, with their impulsive, volcanic nature, excitable temperament, picturesque costume, and the intense fiery expression of their eyes ; for, as our boat reached the crowd of others that were pressing on the gangway, all the Masaniello-like boatmen gave way respectfully, so that our friend was able to come on deck to welcome us and take us on shore at once. His carriage waited for us at the landing to drive us to the house, which might have been reached in a few minutes, only that our host, desirous of parading his guests before the clubs and cafés where the notabilities of the place met, took a circuitous route through the two principal streets of the city.

Arriving at the house, we were received by his wife, a handsome, goodnatured, portly lady, with olive complexion, and black eyes and hair, who spoke nothing but the native dialect; and by an only daughter of theirs, who was a counterpart of the mother, — a shade darker, if anything, and rather thin, though one could perceive that in a few years she would equal her in size. They met us with the utmost cordiality, installed us in a suite of rooms, with balconies over the street and a fine view of the harbor, and left us to our toilette, requesting us to join them in the drawingroom at our leisure, where they expected a number of friends, who desired the honor of being presented to us.

“ Dear me ! ” said my wife, the moment they left the room, “ I wish they had waited till to-morrow to have us see people. I am so sick and tired that I would prefer to take a cup of tea and go to bed.”

“ Yes, my dear ; but what can we do ? It would seem very rude in us not to see these people, whom they have asked on purpose to meet us. You must try to make the best of it. And as for tea, I am pretty sure they have no such thing in the house.”

“ I wish you would ask, though,” insisted my wife ; “ for I think a cup of strong tea would set me right.”

“ Well, I will,” said I, with a doubtful expression, from my knowledge of the people of the island.

I rang a little silver bell that was on a writing-desk ; for bell ropes, to say nothing of electric bell wires, had not penetrated so far as the interior of Sicily. A servant who sat in an outer room, ready to receive our orders, entered at once.

“ Tell me, my man, are they in the habit of drinking tea in the house ? ”

“ Tea ? ” repeated the man, with a blank expression of face. “ What is that, sir ? ”

“ You don’t know what tea is ? An herb which is infused in boiling water, making an excellent beverage with sugar and milk, that the English people use for breakfast or supper instead of wine; it is also very good when persons don’t feel well.”

“ Ah ! capisco! I understand; a decoction. I do not believe there is any in the house ; but the apothecary opposite keeps all kinds of dried herbs, — camomile, poppy leaves, laurel, maiden’s hair, — and I suppose he has the tea also. If you desire it, I will inform the steward, who will get it instantly.”

“ Oh, no, no, my good man, I will not give so much trouble. Besides, the apothecary may not have exactly what we want.”

“ Is the signora unwell ? ” asked he, seeing my wife reclining on a couch.

“ Yes; she was sea-sick on the voyage, and does not feel very well.”

“ But surely the signora does not wish to take medicine for mere sea-sickness ? What she needs is something more substantial,— a good consommé, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee or chocolate, something to eat. You can have anything at a moment’s notice; the house is at your disposal.”

I ordered a consommé and a cup of chocolate. In less than ten minutes he brought in a silver tray with a tête-à-tête of very choice Sèvres, an excellent consommé, a pot of very rich chocolate ready sugared, two bottles, one of red and the other of white wine, and a silver basket of superb fruit. (Fruit and wines are served in Italy at every meal.) We sat down comfortably to our luncheon, and a bowl of the consommé with a glass of wine was as good as tea after sea-sickness.

“ How that porter’s bell keeps ringing ! ” observed my wife. “ I am afraid the whole town is coming up to be presented to us.”

It is customary in such houses for the porter to ring a large bell in the courtyard to announce the arrival of any caller, in order that the servants may be ready to receive him at the entrance door: one bell indicates the arrival of a gentleman; two bells the arrival of a lady, whether escorted by a gentleman or not; three the arrival of the mistress of the house ; four the arrival of the master.

“ Yes, I am afraid it is so; and I think we had better hurry our lunch, and join our hosts in the drawing-room; for those people are specially invited to meet us.”

We went into the drawing-room, the servant who had been assigned to our special service opening the several doors for us.

The house we were in was one of those baronial palaces built in the fifteenth century, when many of the feudal nobility left the turreted castles on their estates, and established themselves in the cities, where they enjoyed the first honors. It had descended by inheritance to our host, and to all appearance it had never been altered from its original construction and furnishing, except in a very few articles of furniture which replaced those that had decayed. It was a square building of about seventy feet front, built of solid blocks of porous yellow stone that had become brown by age.

It had a small square in front, with a number of low, crumbling, miserable old houses, leaning one against the other, and a few poor shops in the basement ; an old apothecary displayed in his window a variety of very old Sicilian majolica pots with salves of all sorts, and there was a small café, with a blue and white awning over the door, and two or three small tables and chairs outside under it. These houses, in days gone by, had sheltered the retainers of the feudal lord; but now they were rented, and occupied by a very common class of the population. This contrast of a superb palace surrounded by poor tenements is most peculiar and characteristic of Italian towns, especially the small ones, and those out of the way of modern influence, reminding one of the times when they were built, — times of caste and privileges; of immense wealth among the few at the expense of the poverty and degradation of the many ; of a proud feudatory lord, exacting and enjoying the fruits of the labor of thousands of vassals, over whom he held sway as sovereign master.

The front entrance formed an archway which led to an interior court-yard, in the centre of which stood a very old granite fountain, with wide basins for horses to drink out of. By hereditary custom it was also used as a public dispenser of water to all the poor of the neighborhood, whose ragged children were constantly coming in and out to fill their earthen jars. The whole basement of the palace opening into this interior court-yard, which in feudal times received the armed retainers and their horses, the granaries and kitchens, was now turned into stables and carriagehouses, the washing and cleaning of which was done in the court-yard itself, near the fountain, making it a scene of bustle and dirt, rather unpleasant to one not used to it.

Along the whole front of the palace ran a worn-out marble seat, which was the usual resort of the idlers and beggars of the neighborhood; and over it, very wide apart, opened a number of high and narrow pointed windows, protected by enormous iron gratings, that gave it more the aspect of a prison than of a private residence. Opening from the main apartments, were large balconies, each adorned with pots of every variety of flowers, and large enough to accommodate half a dozen people.

On the right of the archway of the entrance was a marble staircase leading to the family apartments, or quarto nobile. In the hall were several doors leading to them, the rooms being all on the same floor, opening one into the other. Our bed-chamber was of a very peculiar construction : it was divided in two by an alcove in the middle, having on each side a paneled door leading into two dressing-rooms, both the alcove and dressing-rooms opening into the back of the chamber, which had a space as large as the front, with two windows looking out into the court-yard, and containing wardrobes and chests of drawers. The front part had two balconies over the square, and was quaintly furnished with old rococo furniture very much worn; the floor was paved with glazed tiles, and had no carpet, except an Oriental rug here and there. The rooms were furnished in the style of the sixteenth century; they were high studded, with fresco paintings of mythological subjects, now almost faded by age and dampness ; high paneled doors of white and gold, — the white turned to a dusty gray, and the gold to a dark yellow ; there were old portraits of knights and magistrates, ancestors of our host, and an air of antiquity about everything that was very charming to us.

On entering the drawing-room, we found it already filled with a number of people, the élite of the place, to whom we were presented by our host and hostess. My wife, being a native American, was naturally an object of great curiosity, and the absurd questions asked her about America would fill a volume ; but as I have been asked as absurd ones about Italy by prominent people in the interior towns of America, I refrain from repeating them.

My modest official position had given those good people a very exalted notion of my consequence, and my kind host, with the excitable imagination of the natives of that volcanic island, seemed bent upon fostering it to the highest degree. I was asked my views of all the most important political questions of both America and Europe. The viceprefect of the province, the mayor of the city, the vice-consuls of several nations, were there to meet me, and delicately insinuated in their conversation some inquiries and innuendoes respecting the object of my visit to their city ; and when repeatedly told that I only came to visit the place for its classical associations they bowed with a deferential smile of acquiescence, but with a look of diplomatic finesse.

When this morning reception was over, our friends informed us that carriages would be ready in a few minutes for the afternoon drive on the sea-shore promenade. There was no escaping it, for a refusal would have been considered a great discourtesy ; we had therefore to put on our things and join them.

Small towns in Italy ape the large ones in all manner of public amusements, whether they have the means or not. Turin has the Piazza d’Armi, Florence the Cascine, Rome the Pincio, Naples the Chiaja, Palermo the Marina; Trapani likewise must have its promenade. This is a public road by the port, extending from the gate of the city to the end of its ancient battlement, with a dozen or two of diminutive trees and a wooden stand against the city walls, where fifteen or twenty musicians, calling themselves a band, blow popular airs out of discordant brazen instruments. A motley throng of people of all classes, with many boatmen and sailors near their boats at the pier, walked about the place, while in some twenty or thirty carriages the aristocracy of the place drove up and down, now and then stopping in front of the band to hear the music, or chat. At such times, gentlemen on foot surrounded the carriages of friends to pay their compliments to the ladies. We had to undergo the presentation of a great number of these people, and to be stared at and pointed out as foreign lions, much to the gratification of our host and family, who seemed to enjoy the notoriety exceedingly.

Throughout the afternoon drive two young men on horseback followed the carriage where I, with my wife, our hostess, and her daughter, sat, and one of them stared so persistently at our party as to attract my wife’s notice, who called my attention to it, with considerable surprise at the young man’s impertinence, as she supposed. But I, who knew the peculiar ways of the natives, assured her that the black-eyed damsel at my side might be the cause of the young gentleman’s pursuit, and that there might be no impertinence at all intended on his part. We returned to the house about dark, when dinner was immediately served. There were several guests invited, making about ten of us at table, with three or four servants waiting, and a great display of old family silver. The cooking was excellent, though with an attempt at being French which disappointed us; for we would have preferred the old Sicilian dishes, such as macherroni a stufato or cuscusu. The wines served were all excellent, and products of our host’s vineyards. One especially, which he called San Giuliano Bianco from the southeastern slope of Mt. Eryx, was of remarkable delicacy, resembling very much the higher grades of Chablis.

“ Is this also a wine from your estates?” I asked him.

“ Oh, yes, indeed! I never use at my table any wine except of my own making, so as to be sure of what I am drinking; especially now that everything is so adulterated. This is my choicest; and I make only a few casks of it, for my private use.”

“ Why not make it for commercial purposes?” said I. “ Wine so superior would fetch a very high price if exported and introduced abroad.”

Ma, caro signore, io non faccio il mercante di vino! ” (But, my dear sir, I am not a wine merchant! ) He said this with a lordly, deprecating air that more than astonished me, fresh as I was from America, where such aristocratic notions would be thought absurd; having forgotten, from long absence, the old Spanish pride of the nobility of the island.

“ I beg your pardon ! ” I replied. “I did not mean it for a commercial speculation, but for the benefit you would bestow on all good connoisseurs, who would extol your name to the skies, if you allowed them to partake of the superior products of your vineyards.” I said this with the most insinuating smile of admiration, sipping the delicious juice with ecstatic commendations of its superlative quality; for in reality the wine deserved them.

“ Troppe seccature, troppe seccature! ” (Too much trouble, too much trouble ! ) he replied, much pleased, however, with my appreciation of his wine.1

After dinner, we thought that they would have a short conversazione, and then retire. But it was not so ; for, hardly had we finished our coffee, when the carriage was announced to take us to the theatre to witness a tiresome dramatized representation of Azeglio’s Niccolò de’ Lapi. However, we were shown all the élite of the place, consisting of some thirty or forty families, who owned boxes, some of whom we had met in the morning. Many gentlemen called in our box, and chatted a way, in spite of those who wished to listen to the play.

My wife was very tired, and paid little attention either to the play or the conversation; but something very peculiar attracted her attention, and she watched it with a great deal of curiosity as a very extraordinary proceeding.

She was sitting in the place of honor, on the right of the box, our hostess opposite to her, and her daughter in the middle, the three thus occupying the whole front of the box ; the gentlemen sitting in the back of it. Across from us, in the lower tier, were two boxes opening into each other, and full of young men of the first families, who form clubs and hire two or three boxes for the season. Among these were the two young lions who had followed our carriage in the afternoon, one of whom, a very finelooking fellow, sat back in one of the boxes, and never even glanced at the stage, but kept his opera-glass fixed on our box, or rather on the daughter of our friend, who upon her part returned the glance openly with or without the opera-glass, without regard for anybody around, or her mother, who sat near her. This they kept up throughout the play, and no one either in the young man’s box or in ours seemed to take the slightest notice of it.

When we finally returned home, and were allowed to retire, — for, with the usual Sicilian excess of hospitality, they insisted upon our sitting down to a cold supper, — my wife, though very tired, could not resist asking me, —

“ Did you notice that telegraphing going on between our host’s daughter and that young man in the club boxes, the same whom we observed this afternoon at the drive ? ”

“ Yes, I noticed,” I replied indifferently.

“ Well ! Don’t you think it very strange to carry on such a flirtation so openly in a public place ? And what do you think of her parents allowing it, — for they could n’t have helped seeing it?”

“ Flirtation, my dear ? ” said I, laughing. “ The Sicilians don’t know what flirtation is. They make love, but they never flirt. There is n’t such a thing as flirting in the whole island! ”

“ So much the worse, then,” she insisted, with American ideas of propriety. “ Don’t you think it very improper to carry on such love-making in public? ”

“Well, that is according as we look upon such matters. In America they make love in private, but the lovers are most of the time alone by themselves ; here they do it in public, but at such a distance that they have to use operaglasses to see each other. Besides, if they carry it on so openly and without any restraint, that indicates that it is authorized.”

“ Authorized ? I don’t understand what you mean.”

“ It means that it is authorized by the parents of both, in order to bring about a match. They may be already engaged, for all we know, only that it is not formally announced yet. In fact, I rather think this is the case; otherwise, her relations would n’t have allowed such a public display of it.”

“ Engaged! ” exclaimed my wife, with astonishment. “ Then, why have we not met the gentleman in the house this whole day, or this evening in the box at the theatre, when so many other gentlemen called ? ”

Because they are engaged ! ”

“What! Because they are engaged he is not admitted in the house, or even in the box, of his lady-love ? ”

“Just so; or, at least, not until the engagement is formally acknowledged, or the marriage contract signed.”

“ I understand less than ever now ! ”

“Of course you do, my dear, because you come from a country where such matters are arranged by the young people themselves. Americans begin first by a little flirting, then they come to love-making, finally to an engagement; and when all is arranged to their satisfaction then they apply to their respective parents for their consent; or, as in many cases, they merely announce the fact to them. In Sicily, on the contrary, these matters proceed in an inverse ratio. Usually the parents of both parties arrange it for them among themselves. Then they go to work, and quietly call the attention of each to the other: the parents of the young man by praising the beauty, virtue, accomplishments, of the young lady, whose parents do the same for the young gentleman. This naturally leads to a mutual interest on their part, and they first interchange glances, afterwards smiles, then signals; now and then a billet-doux, which they suppose is delivered clandestinely, but of which the parents are duly advised; finally, the young man gets to be actually in love, and confides it to his mamma, who is greatly astonished, of course. He, such a young man, — his education not yet finished ! What will papa say about it ? He will be very much surprised. But then the young lady is of a good family, very pretty, modest, religious, etc., and if she had to choose for him she knows no one she would have preferred. Therefore, she will be very indulgent to him; she will try to bring matters about satisfactorily; only he must not be too impatient about marrying, for these matters take a long time to arrange; and he must not say anything to papa about it, for he may not like it on account of his being very young; above all, he must be a good boy, and deport himself as becomes his birth and education, for if she is to arrange this alliance with such highly respectable people as the family of the young lady, she must prove that her son is very worthy of her and of such a connection ; and so on, for an hour or two of maternal anxious talk for his welfare. Then follow days and weeks of negotiations between the two mammas. The young lady, by the frequent visits and confabulations between her own and the young gentleman’s mother, begins to suspect that there is something in the wind. He, on his side, to win her favor, daily increases his assiduity about her: for instance, at certain hours he passes through the street, stops at the café, or apothecary’s, or opposite her house, and she is expected to be at the window or balcony to exchange glances. When she goes out to drive with her family, he will be on horseback or in another carriage, and will follow her and never lose sight of her till she returns home; she, on her part, is expected to cast a loving glance at him at every turning, and a very long one as the carriage disappears under the gate-way of her house. He is well informed about all her daily movements by secret (?) messages, and by fan telegraphing (an art totally ignored by American young ladies, through which any movement of the fan, by prearranged understanding, conveys communications intelligible to the gentleman, and entirely incomprehensible to everybody else), and is sure to be present wherever she goes: at the theatre, for instance, and there he must never look at the play, but ogle her through the performance; at the church on Sunday, and he is to be ready at the door to lift the heavy curtain as she goes in, offer her the holy water at the font to cross herself with, and then take position against a marble pillar opposite where she sits with her mamma or duenna.

“ After this has gone on for a considerable time, the young gentleman’s father finally consents to his making a formal demand for the young lady’s hand. This formal demand should be understood ad literam; for it is really a formality, the match having been already agreed upon by the parents of both. On the day appointed the young gentleman, with his parents, calls on the family of the young lady. (And this is the first time that he enters the house, unless the two families had been connected, or long acquainted; in which case he may have been there before, but he has never seen her or spoken to her by herself, as young ladies never meet gentlemen alone.) They are received by the parents, and after the usual preliminaries they formally ask the hand of their daughter for their son. Her relatives will thank them for the honor conferred by the request of such an alliance, and assure them that their daughter would be only too happy to become the wife of such an estimable young man. Whereupon the mother rises and introduces the young lady, who enters blushing, with her eyes modestly cast down. As she comes forward, the young man’s father addresses her somewhat as follows: —

“ ' Signorina Emilia, we have come, with your parents’ permission, to ask your hand in marriage for our son Eduardo; and, conscious as we are of the mutual affection that exists between you, we have no doubt that you will do us the honor to accept him, and make him happy.’

“ On this, the young man usually advances towards his beloved, and adds a personal application, such as, —

“ ' I hope, Signorina Emilia, that you will not refuse what is the wish of my relatives and the long-desired aspiration of my heart.’

“ At this, the young lady will blush, — naturally or not, according to circumstances ; then casting first a longing look at the young gentleman, and a timid one at his and her own relatives, she will lower her long eyelashes, and answer hesitatingly something like this : —

“ ‘ I am confused by the high honor and the preference undeservedly shown me by Signor Eduardo and his worthy parents, and I gladly accept his hand, with the consent of my own, if so it please them to grant it.’

“ Here follow shaking of hands, embraces, and mutual congratulations. The servants bring in wines and refreshments. The elder people draw to one side of the room, leaving alone for the first time the young couple on the other for fifteen or twenty minutes, to say a few loving words by themselves ; after which they retire, the engagement is made formally public, and the marriage contract is drawn up and signed.”

“ And after the formal engagement are they allowed to be in each other’s company ? ”

“Yes ; but not as in America, where they can be alone together continually. Here, instead, after the formal engagement comes out and the marriage contract is signed, the young gentleman is allowed to ride in the same carriage with his fiancée, but with her relatives ; and even if they get out to walk in some garden or promenade, they may walk alone in front, but the mamma, or other relative, walks behind. In the evening he may call at the house, or in her box at the theatre, but always in presence of company. In fact, they never see each other alone, or, at least, out of sight of anybody, till after the marriage.”

The next morning we were up betimes, so as to be ready for an excursion, which had been arranged before, to the old town on the top of Mt. Eryx. As I rung for the hot water, the servant brought in at the same time a pot of hot coffee, black and strong; but no milk, or anything to eat with it. I took a cup, but my wife, who had not as yet got used to that Italian custom, asked for a cup of chocolate instead.

An hour afterwards breakfast was announced, at which we joined the family. It was not very different from an American breakfast, except that it was served with wine instead of tea or coffee. After this we sat on the balconies, looking out over the square and street, waiting for the time to start. I was in one balcony, with my host and his family physician; my wife in another, with our hostess and her black-eyed daughter, the latter watching anxiously any one who appeared at the corner of the street. A few minutes afterwards the young gentleman before referred to made his appearance. The young lady fixed her eyes on him at once, and her face became irradiated with a flush of delight, which suffused her olive cheeks with a deep peach bloom that was lovely to look at.

As he passed arm in arm with his friend under her balcony, he elegantly bowed to the ladies, the young one replying with a modest glance. They saluted us as they passed under ours, and then walked across the square to the café opposite, where they sat in front, sipping their coffee and smoking a cigarette in the open air; one of them glancing sentimentally at his Diva, who returned it shyly; while my wife observed to me in English across the balcony, “ There they are at it again ! ”

I took this opportunity of remarking to my host, “ I believe I saw those two young gentlemen at the theatre, last evening; who are they ? ”

“ They are cousins,” he politely replied, “ belonging to one of our best families. The one on the right is the son of my friend, Marquis C—, and the futuro [future husband] of my daughter. He is a very fine fellow, bright, well educated, a good horseman, musician, and of good parts. The arrangements are nearly finished, and in two or three days we shall sign the marriage contract. I hope you will remain with us till then, and honor us with your presence on such an occasion.”

“ Oh, I thank you very much,” said I, “but I would not want to impose upon your hospitality so long.”

“ Not at all, not at all! You will stay ; it will be a great pleasure for us to have you. We hope to arrange the matter for the evening after to-morrow, and count upon your being with us.”

Here the servants announced that the carriages were ready for our excursion. We started at once, and as we went out of the house we noticed that the two young men had disappeared from the café.

The mountain is about three miles from the town, the road ascending gradually to its foot. Half-way rises the famous church and monastery of the miraculous Madonna of Trapani.

As we issued from the city gates we saw a carriage before us, which slackened its pace to let ours pass; in this were the two young men, who bowed as we drove by, and then followed us at a respectful distance, in full sight of our young lady, who faced towards her futuro, and exchanged loving glances with him.

Arriving at the church we alighted, and under the guidance of one of the monks visited all there was to be seen. There was nothing remarkable either in it or in the monastery, except the chapel and statue of the Madonna in white alabaster, of no artistic merit whatever; both Madonna and child had gold crowns, and were heaped with offerings consisting of jewelry of all imaginable kinds and shapes, — gold and silver watches, chains, necklaces, rings in bundles of different number, and trinkets of all sorts there accumulated for the last three or four hundred years. The chapel was literally covered with paintings, or rather daubs, representing the miracles performed by the Madonna,— mostly in behalf of shipwrecked mariners whom she had rescued from a watery grave.

Our young physician, who was one of the party, called our attention to a picture of recent date : a girl sitting in an arm-chair, with two stout women, one grasping her arms and the other holding her head back ; while a physician performed an operation on her eyes; several male and female figures were kneeling about the room, with their arms raised in the act of supplication ; and over all, in a halo surrounded by a cloud, was a diminutive figure of the Madonna of Trapani.

“ That is the latest miracle of the Madonna,” said he to us.

“ Indeed! And what does it represent ? ” we curiously inquired.

“ You can see for yourselves,” he replied. “ The young girl is one of my patients, who had been afflicted by a cataract; the surgeon is myself performing the operation, which having been successful, and her sight restored, all the merit is ascribed to a miracle of the Madonna ! ”

“ And justly so,” interrupted the monk, who had overheard the conversation ; “ for who guided your hand in the delicate and difficult performance of the operation but our blessed Madonna, whose devotees the girl and her family are, and to whom they had prayed and made vows for the success of the operation ? Skill is a necessary thing in all professions, but without the assistance of God, the holy Madonna, and the blessed saints, nothing can be accomplished.”

That argument silenced our Æsculapius and all of us ; there was no gainsaying it, nor any logic to prove the contrary; therefore with such an assurance of the power of miracles we left the church. Going out of the front door to our carriages, we perceived the young futuro, with his cousin, leaning against a pilaster opposite the entrance, smoking a cigarette, and — studying the barocco architecture of the front of the church!

Proceeding on our journey, we arrived in a short time at the foot of the mountain. There we found a number of donkeys ready saddled to take us up to the summit by a short cut of about three miles, but very steep and stony. There is a road for carriages which ascends by a roundabout circuit of more than seven miles, but it is not so romantic and picturesque. We mounted the donkeys, that were of such diminutive size as to seem incapable of carrying the weight of any one of us; but they were strong, wiry little animals, sure-footed, and so used to that ascent, which would have been difficult even to a foot - traveler, that they carried us to the summit without a fall or a misstep.

The town is at the top of the mountain, on a plateau of irregular outline, sloping down on every side, in some places most precipitously. There is a small esplanade, where we dismounted to admire the view. From that elevation we overlooked an extensive reach of the western coast of Sicily. Below us, lapped by the sea, lay the walled city of Trapani, with its shipping, windmills, and salt pyramids, which at that altitude looked like the tents of a vast encampment. The whole panorama, rich with vineyards, olive groves, grain fields, carob-trees, oranges and lemons, almonds, fig-trees, pomegranates, and all the luxuriant variety of that almost Oriental vegetation up to the very top of the mountain, with hedges and partitions formed of rows of aloes with their tall stems and flowery tops, prickly-pear trees with their enormous thorny leaves, and blackberry bushes, was studded with elegant white villas and farm-houses, near which grew the tall, mushroomshaped Italian pines, that shaded them like gigantic parasols, and the erect palm-trees, which told of the proximity of the African coast opposite. Besides the productive soil of every available slope, this mountain contains in its substratum a great variety of precious marbles, such as alabaster, jasper, agate, porphyry, verd-antique, scagliola, and many others.

While we were thus admiring the beautiful view, the carriage containing the young futuro and his cousin arrived on the esplanade. They got out, and, bowing very politely to us, entered the main street of the town, where we followed them shortly after.

It is a very old place, with narrow streets going up and down by means of wide, stone-paved stairs, which prevent any carriages, or even horses, passing through them. The walls of the houses, which are never more than two stories high, seemed crumbling to dust, and reminded us more of Pompeii as it looks now than any other old town ; the interiors were mere dark holes, crowded by a rural population. There is but one object of antiquity, a church, of which the walls and most of the columns once belonged to a temple of Vesta. There is an old tradition about this temple and the progenitors of the people of this town which is worth relating : —

During the many centuries of decay of the Roman Empire, the strict religious laws and customs were so far relaxed that whenever any one of the vestal virgins was discovered faithless to her vows, instead of being buried alive, according to the old law, she was relegated to this temple of Vesta on Mt. Eryx, where, at length, she and others like her intermarried with the priests and people of the place, who were of Trojan origin. From their union descended the present population. This, of course, is a mere tradition, yet it is supported by a very curious physiological fact. The natives of this mountain town have more of the old Roman type of face and person than any of the other two millions of people that inhabit Sicily. The women are famous for their beauty, their fair complexions, long necks, large black eyes, and superb busts. There are also many blondes with blue eyes amongst them, — a type never seen in the true Sicilian race.

We had heard this story, and were anxious to observe the female part of the population; but as we walked, or rather climbed, up and down the steps of the streets, we saw none but men and very old women sitting in front of their dismal house doors.

There were shops where they sold oil, contained in just such huge clay jars as one sees at Pompeii; public cooks frying their meats at the threshold of their front doors; lamps, both of clay and bronze, of Pompeian shape; bread on the bakers’ counters of the precise pattern as that found carbonized at Pompeii ; and many other things reminded us of that old Roman town.

We arrived finally at the centre of the town, where there was a small square, the only level place in the city, with the principal church, of no sort of interest, and the usual café, apothecary shop, and club-rooms. The young futuro and his friend were already installed in front of the last,2 chatting with several gentlemen of the place. On our appearance, several of these came forward to greet our host and party, and three or four joined us to guide us about the place. There was very little to be seen, except an old fortress, anciently a Saracenic castle of great strength, perched above a perpendicular precipice of some two thousand feet.

We were allowed to throw two or three huge stones down it, which, falling from such a height on a marble quarry at the bottom, broke into fragments, and ricochetted like cannon-balls over fields, vineyards, and olive groves on the slope, bounding over enormous distances three or four times.

It had been arranged that we should lunch at our host’s villa, which lay halfway down the southern slope of the mountain ; but one of the gentlemen of the place, who had joined us, insisted upon our accepting his hospitality. It was useless for our host to expostulate ; as he had prepared a refection at his villa, he would admit of no excuse. We were therefore marched back to the square, and made to enter a two-story house opposite the church. It was one of the few neat-looking houses in the place, containing a number of large rooms on the second floor elegantly furnished, and, what astonished us, having fire-places in every room.3

We were shown into a superb hall overlooking the square, and introduced to the lady of the house and several young children. She was a native of the place, and had never been out of it, except to make a visit of a few days, every now and then, to Trapani. Placed in contrast with our dark hostess and still darker daughter, she and her children seemed to be of quite another race, their complexion being much lighter, smoother, and less sunburnt. This must be the effect not so much of their Roman descent, I surmised, as of the climate and atmosphere of that lofty place, which reminded us when there, and from description, of the English climate ; for they have daily fogs, from the clouds that settle over it and stay there, and that look so bright and picturesque from the lower part of the mountain and from the plain, that are basking in the sunshine.

After a few minutes of conversation, during which our young lady stood at the window, fanning herself in many ways, though it was cool enough at that height, the servants entered bringing trays with refections, which they passed round. These consisted of sweet biscuits, candied fruits, — such as citrons, mandarin oranges, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, figs, — etc., with several varieties of confectioneries, sweet wines, and liqueurs.

The above may seem a very strange sort of lunch to an Anglo-Saxon, who would have preferred a cold chicken, a slice of ham, an olive, sardine, or piece of cheese, with a glass of dry wine, and above all fresh fruits, with which the trees were loaded down in that season of the year, instead of candied ones. But none of the last would have been comme il faut, according to the idea of a Sicilian gentleman ; and the first could not have been found ready in the house so impromptu, for meats are never provided for more than one day’s use, as the climate soon spoils them.

While we were thus entertained there came out from the church in the square a crowd of people, mostly women, who had been attending some religious service, and we then had an opportunity of ascertaining the truth about their peculiar beauty. As far as we could observe, the young girls were of a light complexion, with Romanesque necks and busts, but the matrons and old women were not very different from the generality of the peasant classes of the island.

We left the house soon after to take a turn about the streets on our way back. Passing by a little shop containing objects made of the various marbles that are found in the mountain, such as agate knife handles and amulets, porphyry seals, verd-antique paper-weights, alabaster statuettes of madonnas, etc., we selected a few articles as mementoes of the place, fortunately of little value; for, when I took out my purse to pay for them, the shopman refused the money, stating that they had already been paid for by the gentleman who had entertained us at the place.

When half-way down the mountain we left the main road, and entered a wide avenue that led to our host’s villa. This was lined with yellow stone pilasters surmounted by vases containing cactuses, many of them in bloom, and supporting cross-beams over the road, intersected with light canes, the whole covered over with vines, whose leaves sheltered us, like an awning, from the sun, which at that noon hour was very hot; and, hanging from them, we could discern through the whole length of the avenue myriads of ripe bunches of zibibo (malaga) and corniola grapes. We stopped the carriages, and standing in them we picked enough fruit to fill a large basket in a few moments.

Eating grapes as we drove on, we arrived finally at the villa, or casino, as it is called in Sicily.

No American cottage or farm-house, nor even an Italian villa such as one finds in Tuscany or Romagna, can give an idea of the country-seats in the interior of Sicily. The one our friend had inherited from his ancestors consisted of a rectangular building inclosing a courtyard some hundred feet front by seventy feet deep. We entered through a gateway or porch, twenty-five feet deep, having two strong iron-barred gates, one on the outside and the other on the inside. All along both the walls of this could be seen loop-holes covering the outer gate and the whole length of the porch, so that in case of any attempt at entering, a very few persons from the inside could protect the entrance; and should the assailants even succeed in carrying the first gate, they could be repulsed before reaching, or while endeavoring to break through, the second, without being able to see the defenders.

Over this porch, and extending somewhat on each side, rose a one-story stone building, occupied by the factor and his family. On the sides of each window of this, which was protected by an iron grate, were also loop-holes, covering the small esplanade in front and the gate itself. On each side of this there ran along the whole front store-houses some twenty feet high, containing the usual three tiers of wine butts in which to deposit the vintage. These store-houses continued through the two sides of the rectangle and all along the back of the building, thus inclosing the court-yard, into which they all opened, having no doors and hardly any windows, except loop-holes, on the outside. The villa itself was built over these store-houses, and opposite the entrance porch and the factor’s house. The only access to this was by a double stone staircase in the courtyard, protected by a stone parapet reaching the height above the store-houses where were the landing and entrance door. Both the stair and landing were exposed to the fire of hundreds of loopholes from every building in the place and from the villa itself, so that any attempt to break into the house would have been next to impossible.

As our carriages drove into the courtyard a novel sight met our eyes. The place was thronged with donkeys going in and out, led by little boys and carrying two long, wide wooden tubs, shaped somewhat like baskets, filled with white and black grapes, which some of the laborers emptied into huge wooden receptacles, from which other boys took them in buckets and carried them into the wine-press visible through the wideopen door of one of the store - houses. We were so anxious to see the process of pressing that, in spite of our host’s urging us to go up into the villa to lunch, we insisted upon viewing it first.

The process was very primitive and not very agreeable. There was built in the middle of the store-house a stone basin, some six feet above the ground and twelve or fifteen feet square, with a stone parapet three feet high. Within this were ten or twelve men, with bare legs and feet, dancing and smashing mounds of grapes under them. The juice came out through four tubes at the bottom of each side of the basin into buckets, and was then poured into the empty butts of the store-houses, where the wine would go through the process of fermentation.

After the grapes had been pressed by the feet as much as possible, they were taken out, and placed in soft rush baskets under a wooden screw press, and every drop of juice squeezed out. The wine extracted by this second pressure is not, however, so good as the first, as the press squeezes also the unripe grapes and acid pulps.

As we retraced our steps into the courtyard, where the great bulk of grapes were being brought in, I noticed that several women were assorting them by choosing the best and ripest white clusters and placing them in separate tubs. My wife, who, somewhat disgusted at the sight of the barefooted men dancing jigs over the grapes, had gone where the women were, and was regaling herself with the best of them, asked my host why they were assorting these.

“ Ah,” said he, “ for the reason that in the contract with my factor he is bound to provide me with three butts of white grape wine at every vintage ; and as he was in our family long before I was born, and is very fond of me and mine, he naturally chooses the very best white grapes to make it out of. These will make the same wine you tasted last evening, and liked so much.”

“ Oh, yes, I see,” said I jocosely: “you keep the choicest for yourself, and let the world have the rest.”

“ Not exactly, for I have nothing to do with all the rest; it belongs to my factor, who rents the whole produce of the estate. He could assort the vintage, if he chose, and produce three or four different qualities of wine, some of which would be of a very high grade ; but he prefers to sell it for ready money, for he sells all the wine he makes before the year is out, while my three butts take three years before the wine is properly matured; and it will improve by age. Therefore, you can imagine what an enormous capital it would require to keep the produce of three or four years stored, in order to have a higher grade of wine ; to say nothing of the risk. Neither I nor my factor would care to have the trouble and anxiety of such a speculation. Besides, as I told you last evening, I am not a merchant, and feel utterly incapable of such work. But let us go into the house, and see what our factor has prepared for us, for I am getting hungry.”

We went up the staircase and entered the villa. It consisted of a rotunda painted in fresco, representing a Doric temple with Apollo and the Muses, for an entrance hall, with four doors leading to four suites of rooms : those looking into the court-yard had large balconies shaded by trellises of grape-vines; but those looking into the open country had only very small windows commanding a magnificent view of the valley beneath, the sea, and the opposite islands. These windows and balconies were also loop-holed.

After lunching on a peculiar cold dish composed of egg-plant cut up fine, with bits of fried polyp stewed together with sugar and vinegar, sprinkled over with crumbs of burnt almonds and boiled shrimps, and on other cold dishes as odd, which had been sent out from the city, we sat on the balconies over the work in the court-yard, looking at the caravan of donkeys bringing up the grapes, and the vast plateau and distant mountains opposite us. My wife had a curiosity to know something about the loop-holes we had seen everywhere about the buildings, so she said to our host: —

“ I have noticed that the whole place is loop-holed, and though not a castle, yet is so arranged for defense that it could stand a siege. Is there any necessity for such a precaution?”

“Oh, dear, no!” replied he. “All these precautions were necessary when my great-great-grandfather built it, and as long as the Algerine pirates were allowed in the Mediterranean. Our coast is only twenty-four hours from the coast of Africa, and those three islands that look so picturesque opposite our shore were a good hiding-place for the corsairs; for they would lay to behind them in the day-time, and when night came, if they had a favorable wind, they could reach our shores in a couple of hours, land in force, and raid over the country, collecting booty, and prisoners, whom they sold as slaves. You must have noticed at every few miles on the coast a watchtower. These were built to signal the appearance of piratical craft, which they did by a smoke in the day-time and a light in the night. The moment the peasants were thus warned of the approach of the corsairs, they took up arms, and with their families crowded into all places that were capable of defense, until the danger was past. Proprietors accordingly built their country houses with conveniences to shelter the poor peasants, and defend themselves against those renegades, and this house was one of them. There is no record, however, that it was ever assaulted, for my factor remembers of having been told by his grandfather that when the corsairs were on our coast the armed peasantry flocked here in such numbers as to have half a dozen guns for every loop-hole.”

“ And are there any brigands here ? ”

“Brigands ? ” exclaimed our host with a look of astonishment, — " brigands ? My dear madam, we are neither in the Abruzzi, nor in the Roman Campagna, nor in Greece. There are some robbers in the neighborhood of Palermo and Girgenti; but, with the exception of petty thieves, this part of the island is as safe as a convent. Of course, robberies happen in the best regulated communities; but regular brigandage — armed bands of outlaws raiding over the country, and plundering travelers, proprietors, and farmers — has never been known here.”

Our friend proposed to walk down to where they were gathering the grapes, having our carriages follow us along the road. We entered an extensive olive grove and vineyard.

Vines in Sicily are not cultivated as in other parts of Italy, where they hang them in festoons across willow, elm, or other trees. In Sicily, instead, each vine is planted in the centre of a fivefoot hollow square, and allowed to grow only to the height of a foot or so, when it spreads its shoots over the whole space, so low, that when they are loaded with grapes, these often touch the ground. The olive-trees grow up somewhat irregularly among the vines; or rather they occupied the soil long before these were planted, for they were introduced into Sicily by the Arabs during their occupation of the island in the eighth and ninth centuries, and many of them date back to that time. They do not interfere with the growth of the grapes, because their roots sink very deep into the soil, and their small and narrow leaves do not obstruct the heat of the sun; so that from the same soil are derived two products, wine and oil.

As we passed the fields which the vintagers had been through, we noticed crowds of children gleaning the little bunches of grapes that, either on account of their smallness, or because hidden among the foliage, had been left ungathered. Our host explained to us that from time immemorial the poor children in the neighborhood of estates had the privilege of entering during the vintage or the harvest, and gleaning all that was left after the vintagers ; and no proprietor would dare to forbid this time-honored charitable custom. The vintagers were all field hands, who clipped the grapes with sharp pincers and with extraordinary swiftness, filling their baskets in a short time.

We noticed also that there were no women working among them, as is often the custom in other parts of Italy and other countries of the continent of Europe. This is very characteristic of the Sicilians, and without doubt is of Arabic origin : they never allow their women, even among the poorest classes, to do any outdoor work ; they are always kept in the house, and do home work.

After having seen the vintagers at work, we regained our carriages, and descending the zigzag road at a quick trot reached the convent of the Madonna of Trapani at about sunset. We found our friend the futuro again studying the architecture of the façade, with an enormous bouquet of flowers, which he had probably obtained from the garden of the monastery. A short time after our arrival at the house, when we sat down to dinner, we noticed in the middle of the table the very bunch of flowers we had seen in his hand, which somehow or other had got there.

At our host’s earnest solicitation, we stayed two days more than we had intended, in order to be present at the marriage contract of his daughter. It took place in the evening, shortly after dinner. The bouse had been decorated as for a ball, and in fact the evening ended with dancing. The company was not very large, consisting mostly of relatives and intimate friends of both families, though it comprised all there was of the élite of the town. The bridegroom, accompanied by his family, was the last to arrive, and it was the first time that he had entered the house. A few minutes after, the servants brought in a table covered with a green cloth, on which they placed an elegant silver ink-stand and three silver candlesticks with three lighted wax candles, though the room was as light as day.4

When the notary sat at the table to read the contract, the bride stood one step in front, between her father and mother, on his right; the bridegroom in the same position on the left, and the company all about them. The notary read in a loud voice, detailing every item of property that each possessed or received from his or her parents, even to the very dresses and underclothes, sheets and pillow-cases, to say nothing of the jewelry and silver, of the bride’s trousseau, with the value attached to each, the sum total of which formed the dowry. This dowry is secured on all the bridegroom’s property over any possible creditor, in favor of the wife and their issue. When the reading was through, the bride signed first, then the bridegroom, then their fathers and mothers and any number of witnesses they pleased; so that even our names were appended to that marriage contract. Then followed congratulations, refreshments, and dancing to a late hour.

We left the next day for home, delighted with the excursion, and with the cordial and expansive, though at times almost oppressive, form of Sicilian hospitality.

Luigi Monti.

  1. Landed proprietors in Southern Italy and Sicily seldom carry on the cultivation of their estates themselves, as they reside in the cities, and visit them only once or twice a year for a few days of villeggiatura. They usually rent their lands to farmers, reserving, however, some rights in kind; such as the so-called first fruits, namely, a certain number of baskets of the first fruits of the season. If there are vineyards and olive groves, they reserve enough wine and oil to provide for their family use. These are of course of very choice quality, for they take both pains and pride in them ; but they would never think for a moment of making merchandise of these or any other products of their lands. The farmers or renters are very ignorant men, and cultivate these fruitful lands in a primitive style; hence, most of the wines and oils are coarse and of poor quality, with the exception of what the proprietors refine for their private use. I have very often tasted most exquisite wines in private houses which could not be had in the market at any price.
  2. Clubs in Sicily are seldom in-doors, but generally in some square of the city, on a level with the street, differing only from public cafés in that none but members or invited guests have a right to enter; and as in public cafés there are chairs and tables under an awning in front when it is warm and pleasant.
  3. Fire-places are found nowhere in Sicily except in the houses of the wealthiest people, and then as a luxury in one or two drawing-rooms.
  4. This was in old times a necessary formality to make the marriage contract legal. The Latin form of such contracts, used until the French Revolution, was expressed somewhat as follows : “ Before me, N. N., notary public, in the presence of, etc., cum tribus luminibus accensis (with three lighted candles), personally appeared,” etc. This, though not a legal requirement now, has been kept up as a traditional custom. The origin of it is very obscure ; though it is possible that, after the expulsion of the Arabs and the Jews, with the exception of those who had embraced Christianity, they adopted this formality to try their sincerity, for the three candles indicated the Trinity.