The Old Man of the Sea

WE were bound for Italy, hence in nowise peculiar, though the sun of the south beat hot with its summer promise, and it promised a summer of heat. But our gallant passengers were not recruited from the feverish who bustle from end to end of hotel-piazzas in search of evasive breezes, and drown protesting in the first hot wave. One, still young, was for Egypt; another for Palestine and rejoicing to run his race; a third for the parched Sicilian slopes; but most of us were satisfied to begin with the blaze of Italian June, and we thought ourselves brave enough.

I feared the heat of the sun no more than the rest, yet I somehow pitied my companions, for the face of each was set with a firm resolve, which, if I guessed aright, meant determination to enjoy the coming hot experience to the full, to achieve a thoroughly concentrated form of recreation. They would make the most of poor Italy. They were making the most of her already; for about lay books of every weight and fatness, and Baedeker — even redder than usual — blistered in the sun. The steamer-chairs gathered together in impassable barriers; the worried faces bent over the flapping of charts and maps took on a look of habitual anxiety. Yes, they were planning the campaign; they would cram the minutes tight.

And even then the golden minutes came and passed over the blue Mediterranean, if those passengers had but stopped to heed. We had left the tawny bulk of Gibraltar and the gleaming vision of the tanned Sierras, ranging snow-streaked, beyond the yellow shore. The feel of land was all around, for it lay now on the south, so near that a tired bird flew over from Africa to bring us a greeting from the desert behind the dim coast-hills. The steerage babies crowed happy in the warm air, as the boat dipped lightly on the clear sea; and the young men danced to the flute, glad at the hope of home.

I was content to watch the blue slowly heave above the rail and slowly sink from sight, startled only by the quick flash of a rising fin or a distant glimpse of porpoises discreetly curving in line. But for my friends? Ah, they would not have heard, even had old ‘Triton blown his wreathed horn!’ They were poring over their ‘works’ of travel, and, as I strolled about, I read the titles: Walks in Rome, Walks in Venice, The Road in Tuscany. It was all so worthy and so conscientious that I felt a pang as of a remembered duty, and the call of the mild sea sounded a note less comfortable.

‘Alas,’ thought I, ‘are we to be so agile in the promised land? Always the road? Must we always be walking?’ And like a cloud forward I saw looming ahead the momentous summer of my fellows. They would descend into the chilliest crypt; they would charge through the longest gallery; they would crowd into three short weeks the comprehension of Italy’s three worlds, and never miss a train, but pass on, like Alexander and ‘ bonnie Leslie,’‘ to spread their conquests farther.’

Frankly I admired this zeal of exploration. I knew it for the same spirit which drew our undaunted forefathers westward across the great water. They saw ‘this to be the only thing in the world that was left undone whereby a notable mind might be made famous and fortunate.’ But even as I was ruefully descending to burrow for books in my turn, I felt that ‘this quest was not for me.’

And there came a rash thought, growing straightway to a possibility of unchartered freedom. Could this weight of duty be only the fabled Old Man of the Sea himself, type of all unnecessary loads borne for conscience’ sake? This was a very likely place to meet him. If he were to be dislodged, it must be at once, before he had become adjusted to my shoulders.

A shake, and he was off’! ‘Once more I saw the ocean green,’ unhaunted by the phantom of enormous activities. Yes, I was neither Æneas, nor Hannibal, nor Gibbon. I knew it and I did not mind. I would not ‘ do ’ Italy at all, this Italy so amply competent to ‘do’ itself. Only for my pleasure would I walk in Rome, only at my fancy take the ‘road in Tuscany.’ I might miss half the porphyry from Hadrian’s villa, might never see the ‘ best ten paintings,’ but at least in this land of flowered pergola, and shimmering olive shade, I should have the liberty of quiet. So perhaps even to me might come a whisper from the voice of immemorial days, or a glimpse of some ancient presence now grown timid.

And in Italy I kept to my privilege, asking from her store only pictures warm for my keeping: of her ripening summer, her ancient shades of ancient greatness, her prodigal holiday of living color as precious as all her graves.

They are but the common scenes familiar to the sight of all who wander, but seldom shall we find traveler so graceless as to turn from a memory of his own Italian summers without the wish of thanks,—

‘Benedetto sia l‘ giorno e ’l mese e l’ anno
E la stagione e ’l tempo, e l’ ora e ’l punto
E ’l bel paesc e l loco.’