Varia/Guides: A Protest

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GUIDES: A PROTEST.


"Life," sighed Sir George Cornwall Lewis, "would be endurable, if it were not for its pleasures;" and the impatient wanderer in far-off lands is tempted to paraphrase this hackneyed truism into, "Traveling would be enjoyable, if it were not for its guides." Years ago, Mark Twain endeavored to point out how much fun could be derived from these "necessary nuisances" by a judicious course of chaffing; and the apt illustrations of his methods furnished some of the most amusing passages in "Innocents Abroad." But it is not every tourist who bubbles over with mirth, and that unquenchable spirit of humor which turns a trial into a blessing. The facility for being diverted where less fortunate people are annoyed is a rare birthright, and worth many a mess of pottage. Moreover, in these days when Baedeker smooths the traveler's path to knowledge, guides are no longer "necessary nuisances." They are plagues to no purpose, whose persistency deprives inoffensive strangers of that tranquil enjoyment they have come so far to seek. Nothing is more difficult than to dilate with a correct emotion when every object of interest is pointed rigorously out, and a wearisome trickle of information, couched in broken English, is dropped relentlessly into our tired ears.

It need not be supposed for a moment that there is any real option about employing a guide or dispensing with his services. There is none. Practically speaking, I don't employ him. He takes possession of me, and never relaxes his hold. In some parts of Europe, Sicily for example, his unlawful ownership begins from the first moment I set my foot upon the soil. At Syracuse he is waiting at the station, in charge of the hotel coach. I think him the hotel porter, point out our bags, and give him the check for our boxes. As soon as we are under way, he leans over and informs us confidentially that he is the English interpreter and guide, officially connected with the hotel, and that he is happy to place his services at our disposal. At these ominous words our hearts sink heavily. We know that the hour of captivity is at hand, and that all efforts to escape will only tighten our chains. Nevertheless, we make the effort that very day, resolved not to yield without a struggle.

The afternoon is drawing to a close by the time we are settled in our rooms, have had a cup of tea, and have washed away some of the dirt of travel. There is only light enough left for a short stroll; and this first walk through a strange city is one of my principal pleasures in traveling. I love to find myself amid the unfamiliar streets; to slip into quiet churches; to stare in shop-windows; to wander, with no other clue than Baedeker, through narrow byways, and stumble unaware upon some open court, with its fine old fountain splashing lazily over the worn stones. Filled with these agreeable anticipations, we steal downstairs, and see our guide standing like a sentinel at the door. He is prepared to accompany us, but we decline his services, explaining curtly that we are only going out for a walk, and need no protection whatever. It sounds decisive—to us—and we congratulate one another upon such well-timed firmness, until, glancing back, we perceive our determined guardian following us on the other side of the street. Now, as long as we keep straight ahead, pretending to know our way, we are safe; but the trouble is we don't know our way, and in a few minutes it is necessary to consult Baedeker and find out where we are. We do this as furtively as possible, gathering around the book to hide it, and moving slowly on while we read. But such foolish precautions are in vain. The guide has seen us pause. He knows that we are astray, that we are trying to right ourselves,—a thing he never permits,—and he is by our side in an instant. If the ladies desire to see the cathedral, they must turn to the left. It is very near,—not more than a few minutes' walk,—and it is open until six o'clock. We think of saying that we don't want to see the cathedral, and of turning to the right; but this course appears rather too perilous. The fact is, we do want to see it very much; and we should like, moreover, to see it without delay, and alone. So we thank Brocconi,—that is the guide's name,—and say we can find our way now without any trouble. And so we could, if we were left to ourselves; but the knowledge that we are still being pursued at a respectful distance, and that we dare not pause a moment for consideration, flusters us sadly. We come to a point where two streets meet at an acute angle, hesitate, plunge down the nearer, and hear Brocconi's warning voice once more at our elbows. The ladies have taken a wrong turning. With their permission, he will point them out the road. So we surrender at discretion, feeling all further resistance to be useless, and are conducted to the cathedral in a pitiable state of subjection; are marched dolorously around; are shown old tombs, and faded pictures, and beautiful bits of mosaic; and then are led back to the hotel, and dismissed with the assurance that we will be waited on early the next morning, and that a carriage will be ready for us by ten.

Perhaps our conduct may appear pusillanimous to those whose resolution has never been so severely tested. We feel this ourselves, and deplore the cowardly strain in our natures, as we trail meekly and disconsolately upstairs. There is a little cushioned bench just outside my bedroom door, and I know that when I go to breakfast in the morning Brocconi will be sitting there, waiting for his prey. I know that when I come back from breakfast Brocconi will be still sitting there, and that I can never leave my room without seeing him in unquestioned and ostentatious attendance upon me. He stands up, hat in hand, to salute me, every time I pass him; and after a while I take to lurking, I might almost say to skulking within my chamber, rather than encounter his disappointed and reproachful gaze. With the natural tendency of a woman to temporize, I buy my freedom one day by engaging his services for the next. If he will permit me to go alone and in peace to the Greek theatre, to sit on the grassy hill amid the wild flowers, to look at the charming view and breathe the delicious air for a long, lazy afternoon, I will drive with him the following morning over the dusty glaring road to Fort Euryelus, and be marched submissively through the endless intricacies of its subterranean corridors, and have every tiresome detail pointed out to me and explained with merciless prolixity.

On the same lamentably weak principle, I purchase—we all purchase—his faded and crumpled photographs, so as to be let off from buying his "antiquities," a forlorn collection of mouldy coins and broken bits of terra cotta, which he carries around in a handkerchief and hands down to us, one by one, when we are prisoners in our carriage, and cannot refuse to look at them. He is so pained at our giving them back again that we compromise on the photographs, though they are the most decrepit specimens I have ever beheld; almost as worn and flabby as the little letters of recommendation which are lent to us for perusal, and which state with monotonous amiability that the writer has employed Domenico Brocconi as guide and interpreter during a three days' stay in Syracuse, and has found him intelligent, capable, and obliging. I know I shall have to write one of these letters before I go away. Indeed, my conscience aches remorsefully when I think of the number of such testimonials I have strewn broadcast over the earth to be a delusion and a snare to my fellow man. It never occurred to me that any one would regard them seriously, until an acquaintance informed me, with some asperity, that he had employed a guide on my recommendation, and had been cheated by him. I felt very sorry for this; for, beyond a little overcharging in the matter of fees or carriages, which is part of the recognized perquisites of the calling, no guide has ever cheated me. On the contrary, he has sometimes saved me money. My aversion to him is based exclusively on the fact that he strikes a discordant note wherever he appears. He has always something to tell me which I don't want to hear, and his is that leaden touch which takes all color and grace from every theme he handles.

Constantinople, as the chosen abode of insecurity, is perhaps the only city within the tourist's beaten track where a guide or dragoman is necessary for personal safety, as well as for the information he imparts. Baedeker has ignored Constantinople, or perhaps the authorities of that curiously misgoverned municipality have forbidden his profane researches into their august privacy. Labor-saving devices find scant favor with the subjects of the Sultan. Vessels may not approach the docks to be unloaded, though there is plenty of water to float them, because that would interfere with the immemorial privileges of the boatmen. There is no delivery of city mail, but a man can always be hired to carry your letter from Pera to Stamboul. Guide-books are unknown, but a dragoman is attached to your service as soon as you arrive, and is as inseparable as your shadow until the hour you leave.

The rivalry among these men is of a very active order, as I speedily discovered when I stepped from the Oriental Express into that scene of mad confusion and tumult, the Constantinople station. It was drizzling hard. I was speechless from a heavy cold. We were all three worn out with the absurd and fatiguing travesty of a quarantine on the frontier. Twenty Turkish porters made a wild rush for our bags the instant the train stopped, and fought over them like howling beasts. A tall man with a cast in his eye, handed me a card on which my own name was legibly written, and said he was the dragoman sent by the hotel to take us in charge. A little man with a nervous and excited manner handed me a card on which also my name was legibly written, and said he was the dragoman sent by the hotel to take us in charge. It was a case for the judgment of Solomon; and I lacked not only the wisdom to decide, but the voice in which to utter my decision. There was nothing for it but to let the claimants fight it out, which they proceeded to do with fervor, rolling over the station floor and pounding each other vigorously. The tall man, being much the better combatant, speedily routed his rival, dragged him ignominiously from the carriage when he attempted to scale it, and carried us off in triumph. But the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. The little dragoman was game enough not to know when he was beaten. He followed us in another carriage, and made good his case, evidently, with the hotel landlord; for we found him, placid and smiling, in the corridor next morning, waiting his orders for the day. I never ventured to ask how this change came about, lest indiscreet inquiries should bring a second dragoman upon my devoted head; so Demetrius remained our guide, philosopher, and friend for the three weeks we spent in Constantinople. He was not a bad little man, on the whole; was extremely patient about carrying wraps, and was honestly anxious we should suffer no annoyance in the streets. But his knowledge upon any subject was of the haziest character. He had a perfect talent for getting us to places at the wrong time,—but that may have been partly our fault,—and if there ever was anything interesting to tell, he assuredly never told it. On the other hand, he considered that, to our Occidental ignorance, the simplest architectural devices needed an explanation. He would say, "This is a well," "That is a doorway," "These are columns supporting the roof," with all the benevolent simplicity of Harry and Lucy's father enlightening those very intelligent and ignorant little people.

The only severe trial that Demetrius suffered in our service was the occasional attendance of the two Kavasses from the American Legation, whose protection was afforded us twice or thrice, through the courtesy of the ministry. These magnificent creatures threw our poor little dragoman so completely into the shade, and regarded him with such open and manifest contempt, that all his innocent airs of importance shriveled into humility and dejection. It is but honest to state that the Kavasses appeared to despise us quite as cordially as they did Demetrius; but we sustained their scorn with more tranquillity for the sake of the splendor and distinction they imparted. One of them was a very handsome and very supercilious Turk, who never condescended to look at us nor to speak to us; the other a Circassian, whose pride was tempered by affability, and who was good enough to hold with us the strictly necessary intercourse. I hear it is said now and then by censorious critics that American women are the most arrogant of their sex, affecting a superiority which is based upon no justifiable claim. But I candidly admit that all such airy notions, born of the New World and of the nineteenth century, dwindled rapidly away before the disdainful composure of those two lordly Mohammedans. The old primitive instincts are never wholly eradicated; only overlaid with the acquired sentiments of our time and place. I have not been without my share of self-assertion; but my meekness of spirit in Constantinople, the perfectly natural feeling I had in being snubbed by two ignorant Kavasses blazing with gold embroidery, will always remain one of the salutary humiliations of my life.

I think there must be some secret system of communication by which the guides of one city consign you to the guides of another; for I know that when we reached Piræus at five o'clock in the morning, an olive-skinned, low-voiced, mysterious-looking person, who reminded me strikingly of Eugene Aram, boarded the ship, knocked at my cabin door, and gave me to understand, in excellent English, that we were to be his property in Athens. He said he was not connected with any hotel, but would be happy to wait on us wherever we went; and he had all three of our names neatly written in a little book. I responded as firmly as I could that I did not think we should require his services; whereupon he smiled darkly, and hinted that we would find it difficult, and perhaps dangerous, to go about alone. In reality, Athens is as well conducted as Boston, and very much easier to traverse; but I did not know this then, so, after some hesitation, I promised to employ my mysterious visitor if I had any occasion for a guide. It was a promise not easily forgotten. Morning, noon, and night he haunted us, always with the same air of mingled secrecy and determination. As it chanced, I was ill for several days, and unable to leave my room. Regularly after breakfast there would come a low, resolute knock at my door, and Eugene Aram, pallid, noiseless, authoritative, would slip in, and stand like a sentinel by my bed. It was extremely depressing, and always reminded me of the presentation of a lettre de cachet. I felt that I was wronging my self-elected guide by not getting well and going about, and his civil inquiries anent my health carried with them an undertone of reproach. Yet with returning vigor came a firm determination to escape this melancholy thraldom; and it is one of my keenest pleasures to remember that on the golden afternoon when I first climbed the Acropolis, and looked through the yellow columns of the Parthenon upon the cloudless skies of Greece, and saw the sea gleaming like a silver band, and watched the glory of the sunset from the terrace of the temple of Nike, no Eugene Aram was there to mar my absolute contentment. This was the enchanted hour, never to be repeated nor surpassed, and this hour was mine to enjoy. When I am setting forth my trials with all the wordy eloquence of discontent, let me "think of my marcies," and be grateful.

Thanks to the protecting hand of England, Cairo, which once was little better than Constantinople, is now as safe as London. On the Nile, it is hardly possible to leave one's boat, save under the care of a dragoman. Even at Luxor and Assuân, the attentions of the native population are of a rather overpowering character. But at Cairo, whether amid the hurrying crowds in the bazaars or on the quiet road to the Gézirah, there is no annoyance of any kind to be apprehended. Nevertheless, a little army of guides is connected with every hotel, and troups of irregulars line the streets, and press their services upon you as you pass. I noticed that while a great many Americans had a dragoman permanently attached to their service, and never went out unaccompanied, the English and Germans resolutely ignored these expensive and irritating inutilities. If by chance they desired any attendant, they employed in preference one of the ruminating donkey-boys who stand all day, supple and serious, alongside of their melancholy little beasts. Upon one occasion, an Englishwoman was just stepping into her carriage, having engaged a boy to accompany her to the mosque of the Sultan Hassan, when a tall and turbaned Turk, indignant at this invasion of his privileges, called out to her scornfully, "Do you think that lad will be able to explain to you anything you are going to see?" The Englishwoman turned her smiling face. I fancied she would be angry at the impertinence, but she was not. She had that absolute command of herself and of the situation which is the birthright of her race. "It is precisely because I know he can explain nothing that I take him with me," she said. "If I could be equally sure of your silence, I should be willing to take you."

Local guides are as numerous and as systematic in Cairo as in more accessible cities, and they have the same curious tendency to multiply themselves around any object of interest, and to subdivide the scanty labor attendant on its exhibition. When we went to the Coptic church, for example, a heavy wooden door was opened for us by youth number one, who pointed out the enormous size of the venerable key he carried, and then consigned us to the care of youth number two, who led the way through a narrow, picturesque lane to the church itself, and gave us into the charge of youth number three, a handsome, bare-legged boy with brilliant eyes, who lit a taper and kindly conducted us around. When we had examined the dim old pictures, and the faded missals, and the beautiful screens of inlaid wood, and the grotto wherein the Holy Family is piously believed to have found shelter, this acute child presented us to a white-haired Coptic priest, and explained that it was to him we were to offer our fee. I promptly did as I was bidden, and the boy, after carefully examining and approving the amount,—the priest himself never glanced at it nor at us,—requested further payment for his own share of work. I gave him three piastres, being much pleased with his businesslike methods, whereupon he handed us back to youth number two, who had been waiting all this time at the church door, and whom I was obliged to pay for leading us through the lane. Then, after satisfying youth number one, who mounted guard at the gate, we were permitted to regain our carriage and drive away amid a clamorous crowd of beggars. It was as admirable a piece of organized work as I have ever seen, and would have done credit to a labor union in America.

On precisely the same principle, we often find the railed-off chapels of an Italian church to be each under the care of a separate sacristan, who jingles his keys alluringly, and does his best to beguile us into his own especial inclosure. I have suffered a good deal in Sicily and in Naples from sacristans who could not be brought to understand that I had come to church to pray. The mark of the tourist is like the brand of Cain, recognizable to all men. Even one's nationality is seldom a matter of doubt, and an Italian sacristan who cherishes the opinion that English-speaking people stand self-convicted of heresy, can see no reason for my entering the sacred edifice save to be shown its treasures with all speed. So he beckons to me from dark corners, and waves his keys at me; and, finding me unresponsive to these appeals, he sidles through the little kneeling throng to tell me in a loud whisper that Domenichino's picture is over the third altar on the left, or that forty-five princes of the house of Aragon are buried in the sacristy. By this time devout worshipers are beginning to look at me askance, as if it were my fault that I am disturbing them. So I get up and follow my persecutor, and stare at the forty-five wooden sarcophagi of the Aragonese princes, draped with velvet palls, and ranged on shelves like dry goods. Then, mass being over, I slip out of St. Domenica's, and make my way to the cathedral of St. Januarius, where another sacristan instantly lays hands on me, and carries me down to the crypt to see the reliquary of the saint. He is a stout, smiling man, with an unbounded enthusiasm for all he has to show. Even the naked, fat, Cupid-like angels who riot here as wantonly as in every other Neapolitan church fill him with admiration and delight. He taps them on their plump little stomachs, and exclaims, "Tout en marbre! Tout en marbre!" looking at me meanwhile with wide-open eyes, as if marble angels were as much of a rarity in Italy as in Greenland. By the time his transports have moderated sufficiently to allow me to depart, a tall, grim sacristan, with nothing to show, is locking up the cathedral, and I am obliged to go away with all my prayers unsaid.

It is possible to be too discursive when a pet grievance has an airing. Therefore, instead of lingering, as I should like to do, over a still unexhausted subject; instead of telling about a dreadful one-eyed man who pursued me like a constable into the cathedral of Catania, and fairly arrested me at St. Agatha's shrine, whither I had fled for protection; instead of describing an unscrupulous fraud at Amalfi who led me for half a mile in the dripping rain through a soaked little valley, under pretense of showing me a macaroni factory, and then naïvely confessed we had gone in the opposite direction because the walk was so charming,—instead of denouncing the accumulated crimes of the whole sinful fraternity, I will render tardy justice to one Roman guide whose incontestable merits deserve a grateful acknowledgment. He was a bulky and very dirty man in the Castle of St. Angelo, to whose care fourteen tourists, English, French, and Germans, were officially committed. He spoke no language but his own, and he set himself resolutely to work to make every visitor understand all he had to tell by the help of that admirable pantomimic art in which Italians have such extraordinary facility. It was impossible to misapprehend him. If he wished to show us the papal bed-chamber, he retired into one corner and snored loudly on an imaginary couch. When we came to the dining-room, he made a feint of eating a hearty meal. With amazing agility he illustrated the manner of Benvenuto Cellini's escape, and the breaking of his ankles in the fall. He decapitated himself without a sword as Beatrice Cenci, and racked himself without a rack as another unhappy prisoner. He lowered himself as a drawbridge, and even tried to explode himself as a cannon, in his efforts to make us better acquainted with the artillery. He was absolutely serious all this time, yet never seemed flustered nor annoyed by the peals of irresistible laughter which greeted some of his most difficult representations. He had but one object in view,—to be understood. If we were amused, that did not matter; and if we were a little rude, that was merely the manner of foreigners. I do not wish to close a chapter of fault-finding without one word of praise for this clever and conscientious actor, whose performance was limited to the ignoble task of conducting travelers through a dilapidated fortress, but whom I cannot consent to look upon as a guide.