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Saunterings - St. Maria A Castello Post by :pujangga Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :3425

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Saunterings - St. Maria A Castello

The Great St. Angelo and that region are supposed to be the haunts of brigands. From those heights they spy out the land, and from thence have, more than once, descended upon the sea-road between Castellamare and Sorrento, and caught up English and German travelers. This elevation commands, also, the Paestum way. We have no faith in brigands in these days; for in all our remote and lonely explorations of this promontory we have never met any but the most simple-hearted and good-natured people, who were quite as much afraid of us as we were of them. But there are not wanting stories, every day, to keep alive the imagination of tourists.

We are waiting in the garden this sunny, enticing morning-just the day for a tramp among the purple hills--for our friend, the long Englishman, who promised, over night, to go with us. This excellent, good-natured giant, whose head rubs the ceiling of any room in the house, has a wife who is fond of him, and in great dread of the brigands. He comes down with a sheepish air, at length, and informs us that his wife won't let him go.

"Of course I can go, if I like," he adds. "But the fact is, I have n't slept much all night: she kept asking me if I was going!" On the whole, the giant don't care to go. There are things more to be feared than brigands.

The expedition is, therefore, reduced to two unarmed persons. In the piazza we pick up a donkey and his driver for use in case of accident; and, mounting the driver on the donkey,--an arrangement that seems entirely satisfactory to him,--we set forward. If anything can bring back youth, it is a day of certain sunshine and a bit of unexplored country ahead, with a whole day in which to wander in it without a care or a responsibility. We walk briskly up the walled road of the piano, striking at the overhanging golden fruit with our staves; greeting the orange-girls who come down the side lanes; chaffing with the drivers, the beggars, the old women who sit in the sun; looking into the open doors of houses and shops upon women weaving, boys and girls slicing up heaps of oranges, upon the makers of macaroni, the sellers of sour wine, the merry shoemakers, whose little dens are centers of gossip here, as in all the East: the whole life of these people is open and social; to be on the street is to be at home.

We wind up the steep hill behind Meta, every foot of which is terraced for olive-trees, getting, at length, views over the wayside wall of the plain and bay and rising into the purer air and the scent of flowers and other signs of coming spring, to the little village of Arola, with its church and bell, its beggars and idlers,--just a little street of houses jammed in between the hills of Camaldoli and Pergola, both of which we know well.

Upon the cliff by Pergola is a stone house, in front of which I like to lie, looking straight down a thousand or two feet upon the roofs of Meta, the map of the plain, and the always fascinating bay. I went down the backbone of the limestone ridge towards the sea the other afternoon, before sunset, and unexpectedly came upon a group of little stone cottages on a ledge, which are quite hidden from below. The inhabitants were as much surprised to see a foreigner break through their seclusion as I was to come upon them. However, they soon recovered presence of mind to ask for a little money. Half a dozen old hags with the parchment also sat upon the rocks in the sun, spinning from distaffs, exactly as their ancestors did in Greece two thousand years ago, I doubt not. I do not know that it is true, as Tasso wrote, that this climate is so temperate and serene that one almost becomes immortal in it. Since two thousand years all these coasts have changed more or less, risen and sunk, and the temples and palaces of two civilizations have tumbled into the sea. Yet I do not know but these tranquil old women have been sitting here on the rocks all the while, high above change and worry and decay, gossiping and spinning, like Fates. Their yarn must be uncanny.

But we wander. It is difficult to go to any particular place here; impossible to write of it in a direct manner. Our mulepath continues most delightful, by slopes of green orchards nestled in sheltered places, winding round gorges, deep and ragged with loose stones, and groups of rocks standing on the edge of precipices, like medieval towers, and through village after village tucked away in the hills. The abundance of population is a constant surprise. As we proceed, the people are wilder and much more curious about us, having, it is evident, seen few strangers lately. Women and children, half-dressed in dirty rags which do not hide the form, come out from their low stone huts upon the windy terraces, and stand, arms akimbo, staring at us, and not seldom hailing us in harsh voices. Their sole dress is often a single split and torn gown, not reaching to the bare knees, evidently the original of those in the Naples ballet (it will, no doubt, be different when those creatures exchange the ballet for the ballot); and, with their tangled locks and dirty faces, they seem rather beasts than women. Are their husbands brigands, and are they in wait for us in the chestnut-grove yonder?

The grove is charming; and the men we meet there gathering sticks are not so surly as the women. They point the way; and when we emerge from the wood, St. Maria a Castello is before us on a height, its white and red church shining in the sun. We climb up to it. In front is a broad, flagged terrace; and on the edge are deep wells in the rock, from which we draw cool water. Plentifully victualed, one could stand a siege here, and perhaps did in the gamey Middle Ages. Monk or soldier need not wish a pleasanter place to lounge. Adjoining the church, but lower, is a long, low building with three rooms, at once house and stable, the stable in the center, though all of them have hay in the lofts. The rooms do not communicate. That is the whole of the town of St. Maria a Castello.

In one of the apartments some rough-looking peasants are eating dinner, a frugal meal: a dish of unclean polenta, a plate of grated cheese, a basket of wormy figs, and some sour red wine; no bread, no meat. They looked at us askance, and with no sign of hospitality. We made friends, however, with the ragged children, one of whom took great delight in exhibiting his litter of puppies; and we at length so far worked into the good graces of the family that the mother was prevailed upon to get us some milk and eggs. I followed the woman into one of the apartments to superintend the cooking of the eggs. It was a mere den, with an earth floor. A fire of twigs was kindled against the farther wall, and a little girl, half-naked, carrying a baby still more economically clad, was stooping down to blow the smudge into a flame. The smoke, some of it, went over our heads out at the door. We boiled the eggs. We desired salt; and the woman brought us pepper in the berry. We insisted on salt, and at length got the rock variety, which we pounded on the rocks. We ate our eggs and drank our milk on the terrace, with the entire family interested spectators. The men were the hardest-looking ruffians we had met yet: they were making a bit of road near by, but they seemed capable of turning their hands to easier money-getting; and there couldn't be a more convenient place than this.

When our repast was over, and I had drunk a glass of wine with the proprietor, I offered to pay him, tendering what I knew was a fair price in this region. With some indignation of gesture, he refused it, intimating that it was too little. He seemed to be seeking an excuse for a quarrel with us; so I pocketed the affront, money and all, and turned away. He appeared to be surprised, and going indoors presently came out with a bottle of wine and glasses, and followed us down upon the rocks, pressing us to drink. Most singular conduct; no doubt drugged wine; travelers put into deep sleep; robbed; thrown over precipice; diplomatic correspondence, flattering, but no compensation to them. Either this, or a case of hospitality. We declined to drink, and the brigand went away.

We sat down upon the jutting ledge of a precipice, the like of which is not in the world: on our left, the rocky, bare side of St. Angelo, against which the sunshine dashes in waves; below us, sheer down two thousand feet, the city of Positano, a nest of brown houses, thickly clustered on a conical spur, and lying along the shore, the home of three thousand people,--with a running jump I think I could land in the midst of it,--a pygmy city, inhabited by mites, as we look down upon it; a little beach of white sand, a sailboat lying on it, and some fishermen just embarking; a long hotel on the beach; beyond, by the green shore, a country seat charmingly situated amid trees and vines; higher up, the ravine-seamed hill, little stone huts, bits of ruin, towers, arches. How still it is! All the stiller that I can, now and then, catch the sound of an axe, and hear the shouts of some children in a garden below. How still the sea is! How many ages has it been so? Does the purple mist always hang there upon the waters of Salerno Bay, forever hiding from the gaze Paestum and its temples, and all that shore which is so much more Grecian than Roman?

After all, it is a satisfaction to turn to the towering rock of St. Angelo; not a tree, not a shrub, not a spire of grass, on its perpendicular side. We try to analyze the satisfaction there is in such a bald, treeless, verdureless mass. We can grasp it intellectually, in its sharp solidity, which is undisturbed by any ornament: it is, to the mind, like some complete intellectual performance; the mind rests on it, like a demonstration in Euclid. And yet what a color of beauty it takes on in the distance!

When we return, the bandits have all gone to their road-making: the suspicious landlord is nowhere to be seen. We call the woman from the field, and give her money, which she seemed not to expect, and for which she shows no gratitude. Life appears to be indifferent to these people. But, if these be brigands, we prefer them to those of Naples, and even to the innkeepers of England. As we saunter home in the pleasant afternoon, the vesper-bells are calling to each other, making the sweetest echoes of peace everywhere in the hills, and all the piano is jubilant with them, as we come down the steeps at sunset.

"You see there was no danger," said the giant to his wife that evening at the supper-table.

"You would have found there was danger, if you had gone," returned the wife of the giant significantly.

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