The Vineyard Mosaic
IT was a warm October day and there was little to do in the dreamy Italian village of Castiglioncello. Italy is ever a place for dreams more than deeds; but the visiting American, after the manner of his countrymen, must always be seeking pretexts for activity, even in that leisured land. We had already explored the old Roman wall by the sea, the Etruscan mound, and the little Etruscan Museum, piled with the snow of its alabaster relics. There seemed little else to investigate, until, in the very midst of our sojourn, word came that an old peasant, in his vineyard just beyond the village, had but yesterday chanced upon a Roman relic. We were eager to see the place at once. Surely this peasant-antiquarian must feel as the elected of the gods, the chosen of the saints. To discover a fragment of Rome in one’s back yard! The glory of it! The vistaed splendor!
So, near sunset-time, when the spires of the cypresses were beginning to take shadow against a golden sky, and the sparrows flittered up in gusty flocks from the ancient Italian dust to the tops of the ilex trees, we began our little journey of exploration. Homewardbound villagers passed us on the way, and each face had a smile of greeting or a friendly radiance that was in itself a salutation. In a little field, just before we reached our destination, a peasant was ploughing with two white oxen and the plough of long ago — a great, simple, pointed piece of wood. He paused for a moment as we approached, and with a low gracious bow of his head, as if he were doffing a plumed hat, he accosted us with ‘Felice sera’ (A happy evening). ‘Felice sera’! It lingered on the evening air like the benediction that it was. It carried with it all the music and all the grace of Italy. And it evoked faintly troubled memories of our casual, curt ‘Good evening’ and ‘Hello.’
A little farther on we came to the house of our archæological peasant. The sound of our voices brought him and his wife and several kinsfolk to the door. The peasant was an old man with a tawny, corrugated face, whose welcoming smile cut enormous chasms and knolls on his cheeks. His old wife had a similar toothless, cracked, venerable countenance, the kind that endows an onlooker with the painter’s longing. They seemed relics themselves of the Roman days or even of the Etruscan veritable genii of the soil. Surely, through the two thousand years since Roman days — the mere sixty or seventy generations, so slowly evolving in Italy, so very slow in peasant clay — the type could not have very greatly changed. We were looking, perhaps, upon the seventieth descendant of a peasant who supplied wine to the table of Augustus. Not impossible. And how appropriate that he should find himself the custodian of a Roman mosaic!
He would be very glad to show us the fragment, he said. His ancient face beamed and warped and cracked with kindly humor, perhaps also a trifle venal.
We followed him over the cobblestone walk and the sod of the vineyard to the very edge of the little plantation of the russet vines, while his wife hobbled slowly behind and two or three grandchildren romped around us on the way. He told us that he had been digging to extend his vineyard, making trenches for new vines, when his shovel struck that which was not earth or stone.
It was almost dusk when we came to the sacred spot and looked down into the shadowy trench upon a little plot of glimmering white mosaic pavement with a dimly discerned square-pattern border of inserted black. It glowed with delicate beauty against its crude dark trough of new-turned earth. It brought up, with subtle enchantment, the ubiquitous glory of Rome out of the sepulchre of the centuries.
After a moment of silent marveling, we turned to the fortunate peasant.
‘How wonderful to find it here, in your very vineyard!’
But his eyes hardened strangely, and with a shrug of his shoulders he exclaimed: ‘No, no! I do not like it. The Government has stopped all my digging. I cannot dig any more in my own vineyard. And what becomes of my new vines and my new wine? I like my new wine better than old mosaics! The Government should pay me for it, or take this thing away.’
‘Or take this thing away’! The profane words sent a shudder through the sacred Roman air. The sentiments sounded like the shabby expression of narrow cupidity anywhere, the wide world over. Ever the same human nature, even in Italy, over a Roman shrine. Oh, unworthy discoverer! Oh, unconsecrated custodian!
‘Here are some other things that I found down there,’ continued the peasant, ignorant of our falling estimate of him. Stooping to a pile of dirt, he picked up a broken piece of pottery — and a skull. The perfectly intact white teeth of the skull gleamed in the purple dusk. The pattern of a Roman face looked out at us. Those sockets might have held eyes which looked on Casar or Augustus. Over those white teeth the grandiloquent Latin language surely flowed once.
But the peasant was thinking other thoughts. The skull which he held awkwardly in his hand lacked Yorick’s inspiration for him. Into our reverie he broke thus, while his old wife smiled raggedly beside him: —
‘ I said to my old woman, when I found this here skull, “You keep these teeth. They may come in handy sometime. You have hardly any left.”’
As his mouth broadened in a rustic grin, his bony old wrinkled face looked not unlike the countenance of the skull.
Brothers under the skin! Great, great, seventy times great-grandfather and son. Perhaps, after all, this ancient Roman ancestor was a numskull, too, before he was a skull. But he had evoked great visions.
When we turned homeward, the hunter’s moon was shining, not over fresh golden fields of corn and pumpkins, and virgin prairies, and the young farmsteads of America, but over the venerable vineyards, the mellow gardens, the hoary olive-trees, and all the myriad fragments of lost beauty lying in the ancient treasure-house, the marble tomb of Italy.