The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/An Italian Rain-Storm
AN ITALIAN RAIN-STORM.
The coast-road between Nice and Genoa,—known throughout the world for its unrivalled beauty of scenery, the altitudes to which it climbs, and the depths to which it dives,—now on the olive-clad heights, now close down upon the shore shaded by palm or carob-trees, now stretching inland amid orange-grounds and vineyards, now rounding some precipitous point that hangs hundreds of feet over the Mediterranean,—is generally seen with all the advantage of an unclouded sky above, and a sea as blue beneath.
It was the fortune of a certain party of four to behold it under the unusual aspect of bad weather. They set out in the diligence one winter evening, expecting to arrive at Genoa by the same time next day, according to ordinary course. But no one unaccustomed to the effect of rain, continuous rain, in mountainous districts, can conceive the wonders worked by a long succession of wet days. The arrival was retarded six hours, and the four found themselves in Genova la superba somewhere about midnight. However, this was only the commencement of the pouring visitation; and the roads had been rendered merely so "heavy" as to make the horses contumacious when dragging the ponderous vehicle up hill, which contumacy had occasioned the delay in question. Despite the hopes entertained that the weather would clear, the rain set in; and during no interval did it hold up, with the exception of a short period, which permitted one gentleman of the party of four to visit on business two bachelor brothers, manufacturers in Genoa. The residence of these brothers being in rather an out-of-the-way quarter of the city, and being very peculiar in itself, the gentleman advised the rest of his party to accompany him on this visit.
The four, only too glad to find themselves able to get out of doors, set forth on foot through the steep and narrow streets of Genoa, which make driving in a carriage a fatigue, and walking a feat of great excitement, especially when mud prevails. Trucks, ponderously laden with bales of goods, and pushed along at a reckless rate of speed by mahogany-complexioned men; dashing coaches, impelled by drivers hallooing when close upon you with distracting loudness and abruptness; mules coming onward with the blundering obtuseness peculiar to their tribe, or with their heads fastened to doorways, and their flanks extending across the street, affording just space enough for the passenger to slide behind their heels; a busy, jostling crowd of people hurrying to and fro, with no definite current, but streaming over any portion of the undistinguishable carriage-way and foot-way,—all combine to make Genoese pedestrianism a work only less onerous than driving.
Choosing the minor trouble, our party trusted to their own legs; and, after picking their way through sludge and mire, along murky alleys that branched off into wharves and quays, and up slippery by-ways that looked like paved staircases without regular steps, the four emerged upon an open space in front of a noble church. Leaving this on their left hand, they turned short into a place that wore something the appearance of a stable-yard,—with this difference, that there were neither steeds nor stabling to be seen; but instead there were blank walls, enclosing a kind of court adjoining a huge old mansion, and beyond there was a steep descent leading down to the sea-side.
On ringing a bell that hung beside a gate in the wall enclosure, the door opened apparently of itself, and a dismal scream ensued. The scream proceeded from a sea-gull, peering out of a kind of pen formed by a wooden paling in one corner of a grass-grown patch, half cabbage-garden, half excavated earth and rock; and the mysterious opening of the door was explained by a connecting cord pulled by some unseen hand within a smaller house that stood near to the huge old mansion. From the house appeared, advancing towards us, the two bachelor brothers, who welcomed our friend and his three companions with grave Italian courtesy. Understanding the curiosity the four felt to see their premises, they did the honors of their place, with a minuteness as politely considerate towards the strangers as it was gratifying to the interest felt by them.
First the visitors were led by the bachelor brothers to see the huge old mansion, which they called the Palazzo. Let no one who has seen an ordinary Genoese palace, magnificent with gilding, enriched by priceless pictures, supplied with choice books, and adorned with gorgeous furniture, figure to himself any such combination in the palazzo in question. This was a vast pile of building, that would make five moderate-sized dwelling-houses, one in the roof, and the other four in the habitable portion of the edifice. A general air of ramshackledness pervaded the exterior, while the interior presented an effect of interminable ranges of white-washed walls, divided off into numberless apartments of various sizes, from a saloon on the piano nobile, or principal floor, measuring more than forty feet long, to small square attic rooms that were little more than cupboards. But this attic story was not all composed of chambers thus dimensioned. Among its apartments were rooms that might have accommodated a banqueting assemblage, had diners been so inclined; while among the accommodations comprised in this garret range was a kitchen, with spacious dressers, stoves, closets, and a well of water some hundred and odd feet deep. It was impossible for the imagination to refrain from picturing the troops of ghosts which doubtless occupied these upper chambers of the old palazzo, and held nightly vigil, undisturbed, amid the silence and solitude of their neglected spaces. Through one of the dwarf windows that pierced at intervals all sides of the mansion, just beneath the lofty roof, and which gave light to the attic story, we were directed to look by the emphatic words of the elder bachelor brother,—"Ma, veda che vista c' è!"
The view thence was indeed well worthy his praise; and he himself formed an appropriate companion-picture to the scene. Bluish-gray eyes, a fairer complexion than usually belongs to men of his clime and country, a look of penetration, combined with an expression of quiet content, were surmounted by a steeple-crowned hat that might have become a Dutch burgomaster, or one of Teniers's land-proprietors, rather than a denizen of a southern city. Yet the association which his face, figure, and costume had with some of George Cruikshank's illustrations of German tales afforded pictorial harmony with the range of ghostly rooms we were viewing. He "marshalled us the way that we should go," by leading us down a steep flight of steps, which landed us on the piano nobile. This, for the present, was tenanted by a set of weavers, to whom the principal floor of the palazzo had been let for a short term. They had proved but turbulent occupants, being in a constant state of refractoriness against their landlords, the bachelor brothers, who seemed to be somewhat in awe of them. On the present occasion, for instance, the brothers apologized for being unable to show us the grand saloon, as the weavers (whom we could hear, while he spoke, singing in a loud, uproarious, insurgent kind of way, that might well have drawn three souls out of one of their own craft, and evidently made the souls of their two landlords quail) did not like to be disturbed.
Their contumacious voices, mingled with the clamor of their looms, died off in the distance, while we proceeded down the back staircase to the ground-floor. We at first fancied that this apparently surreptitious proceeding was perhaps traceable to the awe entertained by the bachelor brothers for their unruly tenants; but we were relieved from the sense of acting in a style bordering on poltroonery, by finding that the principal staircase had been boarded up to preserve its marble steps and sides from injury. On arriving at the foot we found ourselves in a spacious hall, opposite the approach to the grand staircase, which looked like an archway built for giants, toweringly defined above the scaffold-planks by which it was barricaded. Many doors opened from this hall, to each of which, in turn, one of the bachelor brothers applied successive keys from a ponderous bunch that he held in his hand. These doors led to vast suites of apartments, all unfurnished, like the upper rooms, with the exception of one suite, which the brothers had lent to a friend of theirs, and which was sparely supplied with some old Italian furniture, of so antique a fashion that each article might have been a family heirloom ever since the times of that famous Genoese gentleman, Christopher Columbus. One peculiarity the four remarked, which spoke volumes for the geniality of the climate: in all this huge rambling edifice they saw only one room which could boast of a fireplace. The sun's warmth evidently supplied all the heat necessary, and—as might be conjectured from its other peculiarities as well as this—anything like what the English call "the joys and comforts of the domestic hearth" seemed an impossible attainment in this dreary old palazzo. The social amenities must wither in its desolate atmosphere, and dwindle to chill shadows, like the ghosts that haunt the attic story.
To complete the air of saddening vacancy that clung like a damp to the really arid white walls, when the brothers led us down a wide staircase to the vaulted space beneath the basement, we came upon some hundreds of small bird-cages, containing each a miserable linnet, titmouse, or finch, condemned to chirp out its wretched existence in this airless underground region. In reply to our pitying exclamation, we were told that the bachelors' friend who occupied the corner apartment on the ground-floor was a great sportsman, and devotedly fond of la caccia; that these unhappy little prisoners were employed by him in the season as decoy-birds; that they were kept in these dungeons during the other months of the year; and that they were blinded to make them sing better and be more serviceable at the period when he needed them. As we looked shudderingly at these forlorn little creatures, and expressed our commiseration at their fate, the younger brother stepped forward, and, examining one of the cages, in which sat hunched up in one corner a stiff lump of feathers, coolly announced that "this goldfinch" was dead.
It was with a feeling of relief that we left the death-released bird, and the vaults beneath the old palazzo, to return once more to the fresh air and the breathing-space of the broad earth and sky. Our next visit was to the bachelor brothers' factory, which was for the fabrication of wax candles. Adjoining this was a terrace-plot of ground, dotted over with what looked like Liliputian tombstones. We were beginning to wonder whether this were a cemetery for the dead birds,—speculating on the probability that these might be the monumental tributes placed over their graves by the sportsman friend of the two brothers,—when the elder informed us that this was the place they used for bleaching the wax, and that the square stones we saw were the supports on which rested the large flat stands whereon it was laid to whiten in the sun. From this terrace-plot of ground,—which projected in a narrowish green ledge, skirted by a low ivy-grown wall, over the sea,—we beheld a prospect of almost matchless beauty. Before us stretched a wide expanse of Mediterranean waters; to the extreme left was just visible the bold rocky point of Porto Fino; to the right extended westward a grand line of picturesque coast, including the headlands of Capo di Noli and Capo delle Mele; and near at hand lay the harbor of Genoa, with its shipping, its amphitheatre of palaces, surmounted by the high ground above, and crowned by the fortressed summits beyond.
We were roused from the absorbing admiration which this majestic sea and land view had excited, by one of the four asking whether there were any access to the palazzo from this terrace. Whereupon the brothers showed us a winding turret staircase, which led by a subterranean passage into one of the lower vaulted rooms. Nothing more like a place in a wonderful story-book ever met us in real life; and while we were lost in a dream of romantic imaginings, one of the brothers was engaged in giving a prosaic relation of how the old palazzo had come into their family by a lawsuit, which terminated in their favor, and left them possessors of this unexpected property. During the narrative a brood of adolescent chickens had come near to where we stood listening on the green plot, and eyed us with expectant looks, as if accustomed to be fed or noticed. The elder brother indulged the foremost among the poultry group—a white bantam cock of courageous character—by giving him his foot to assault. Valiantly the little fellow flew at, and spurred, and pecked the boot and trousers; again and again he returned to the charge, while the blue-gray eyes beamed smilingly down from beneath the steeple-crowned hat, as the old man humored the bird's pugnacious spirit.
Presently a shy little girl of some ten or twelve years came peering out at the strangers from beneath a row of evergreen oaks that ornamented the back of the dwelling-house overlooking the terrace. There she stood at the foot of the ilexes, shading her eyes with one hand, (for the sun coyly gleamed through the rain-clouds at that moment,) while the other was employed in restraining the lumbering fondness of two large bull-dogs, that gambolled heavily round her. She was introduced to us as the daughter of the younger of the two brothers; who proved after all to be no bachelor, but a widower. One ponderous brindled brute poked his black muzzle against the child with such a weight of affection that we expected to see her overturned on the sward; but she seemed to have complete control over her canine favorites, and to live with them and a large macaw she had up stairs in her own room (we afterwards found it perched there, when taken to see the upper floor of the bachelor residence), as her familiars and sole associates,—like some enchanted princess in a fairy-tale.
On entering the house from the terrace, we found ourselves in its kitchen, which strongly resembled a cavern made habitable. It was hewn out of the rock on which the dwelling stood; and it only required the presence of the black man and the old woman who figure in Gil Blas's story to give, to the life, the cooking-department of the robbers' cave there. As we ascended a rude stone staircase that led from it, we heard the lowing of cows; and, turning, we saw two of these animals comfortably stalled in a side recess, not far from the rocky ledge on which the culinary apparatus for dressing the food of the establishment was deposited. Mounting into the parlor, we discovered a good-sized apartment, its windows looking out through the foliage of the ilexes over the sea, skirted by the extensive coast view. Behind was the dining-room; on each side were the brothers' bedrooms; and leading from a small entrance-hall at the back was a large billiard-room. This opened on a small garden nook, in which were orange-trees and camellias, full of bud and blossom,—from which some of the flowers were gathered for us by the Italian brethren, on our taking leave and thanking them for the unusual treat we had had in going over their curious abode.
The transient gleam of sunshine that had shone forth while we were there was the only intermission vouchsafed by the rain, which afterwards poured down with a steady vehemence and pertinacity seldom seen on the Ligurian Riviera. The effects of this rare continuance of wet weather were soon made impressively perceptible to the four as they emerged upon the open road, after passing the Lighthouse of Genoa and the long straggling suburbs of San Pier d'Arena, Pegli, and Voltri. The horses splashed through channels of water which filled the spongy ruts, smoking, and toiling, and plunging on; while the whoops and yells of the postilion urging them forward, together with the loud smacks of his whip, made a savage din. This was farther increased as we crashed along a ledge road, cut in a cliff overhanging the sea;—the waves tearing up from beneath with a whelming roar; the rocks jutting forth in points, every one of which was a streaming water-spout; the rain pelting, the wind rushing, the side-currents pouring and dashing. These latter, ordinarily but small rills, carrying off the drainage of the land by gentle course, were now swollen to rough cataracts, leaping with furious rapidity from crag to crag in deluges of turbid water, discolored to a dingy yellow-brown by the heaps of earth and stone which they dislodged and brought down with them, and hurled hither and thither over the precipitous projections, and occasionally flung athwart the highway. At one spot, where a heap of such stones—large, flat slabs—had been tossed upon the road, and a few of their companions were in the very act of plunging down after them, our postilion drew up to guide his cattle among those already fallen; and, raising his voice above the thunder of the sea-waves, rain, wind, and waters, shouted out in broad Genoese to the falling ones, "Halloo, you there, up above! Stop a bit, will you? Wait a moment, you up there!" Then, driving on carefully till he had steered by the largest of the fragments that lay prostrate, he turned back his head, shook his whip at it, and apostrophised it with, "Ah, you big pig! I've passed you, for this time!"
The first change of horses took place at a village close down on the sea-shore, where some fishermen were busily employed hauling up the last of a row of boats that lay upon the beach. Every available hand, not occupied in aiding the conductor and postilion to unharness the diligence horses and put to the fresh team, was enlisted in the service of the boat-hauling. Young gentlemen out for an evening's amusement, attired in sacks or tarpaulins thrown over their shoulders, while their nether garments were rolled up tightly into a neat twist that encircled the top of each thigh, were frisking about a line of men with weather-beaten countenances and blown hair, who tugged bare-legged at the sides of the fishing-boat, half in the water and half out. Occasionally one of these young gentry, feeling perhaps that he had aided sufficiently in the general work, betook himself to a doorway near, dripping and shaking himself, and looking out through the sheeted rain at his companions, who were still in the excitement of whisking round the heaving and tugging fishermen, while the waves rose high, the spray dashed up in mist over their grizzled heads and beards, and the wind whistled sharply amid the deeper tumult of the sea and torrent waters. To heighten the grim wildness of the scene, the shades of evening were closing round, and by the time the four travellers were off again and proceeding on their way, darkness was fast setting in.
Nightfall found them toiling up a steep ascent that diverges inland for a few miles, winding round the estate of some inflexible proprietor, upon whom nothing can prevail to permit the high-road to take its passage through his land, there bordering the sea-side. Up the ascent we labored, and down the descent we lunged, the wheels lodging in deep mire at every moment, and threatening to abide in the deeper holes and furrows which the water-courses (forced from their due channels by overflowing and by obstructive fallen masses) had cut and dug into the road as they strayed swiftly over it.
By the time the next stage was reached, the conductor consulted the four on the advisability of stopping to sleep, instead of proceeding on such a tempestuous night, the like of which, for perilous effects, he said he had but once before encountered during the whole of the sixteen years he had been in office on this road. The three coupé passengers, consisting of two ladies—sisters—and a ruddy-faced, cheerful gentleman in a velvet travelling-cap, who made it a principle, like Falstaff, to take things easily, and "not to sweat extraordinarily," warmly approved the conductor's proposal as a sensible one; and even the alert gentleman in the banquette agreed that it would be more prudent to remain at the first good inn the diligence came to. This, the conductor replied, was at Savona, one stage farther, as the place they now were at was a mere boat-building hamlet, that scarcely boasted an inn at all,—certainly not "good beds." A group of eager, bronzed faces were visible by lamp-light, assembled round the conductor, listening to him as he held this conference with his coach-passengers; and at its close the bronze-faced crowd broke into a rapid outburst of Genoese dialect, which was interrupted by our conductor's making his way through them all, and disappearing round the corner of the small piazza wherein the diligence stood to have its horses changed. After some moments' pause,—not in the rain, or wind, or sea-waves, for they kept pouring and rushing and roaring on,—but in the hurly-burly of rapid talk, which ceased, owing to the talkers' hurrying off in pursuit of the vanished conductor, he returned, saying, "Andiamo a Savona." It soon proved that he had been to ascertain the feasibility of what the group of bronze-faced men had proposed, namely, that they would undertake to convey the diligence (without its horses, its "outsides," and its "insides") bodily over a high, steep, slippery mule-bridge, which crossed a torrent near at hand, now swollen to an unfordable depth and swiftness. The four beheld this impassable stream, boiling and surging and sweeping on to mingle itself with the madly leaping sea-waves out there in the dim night-gloom to the left, as they descended from the diligence and prepared to go on foot across something that looked like a rudely-constructed imitation of the Rialto Bridge at Venice, seen through a haze of darkness, slanting rain, faintly-beaming coach-lamps, pushing and heaving men, panting led horses, passengers muffled up and umbrellaed, conductor leading and directing. Then came the reharnessing of the horses, the reassembling of the passengers, the remounting of the "insides," the reclambering to his seat of the alert banquette "outside" (after a hearty interchange of those few brief, smiling words with his coupé companions which, between English friends, say so much in so little utterance at periods of mutual anxiety and interest), the payment of the agreed-for sum by the conductor to the bronze-faced pushers and heavers, amid a violent renewal of the storm of Genoese jargon, terminated by an authoritative word from the payer as he swung himself up into his place by a leathern strap dangling from the coach-side, a smart crack of the postilion's whip, a forward plunge of the struggling horses, an onward jerk of the diligence, and the final procedure into the wet and dark and roar of the wild night.
The gas and stir of Savona came as welcome tokens of repose to the toilsome journey; and the four alighted at one of the hotels there with an inexpressible sense of relief. His fellow-travellers were warned, however, by the alert gentleman, that they must hold themselves in readiness to start before dawn next morning, as the conductor wished to avail himself of the first peep of daylight in passing several torrents on the road which lay beyond Savona. Velvet-cap assented with a grunt; one of the sisters—all briskness at night, but fit for nothing of a morning—proposed not to go to bed at all; while the other—quite used up at night, but "up to everything" of a morning—undertook to call the whole party in time for departure.
This she did,—ordering coffee, seeing that some was swallowed by the sister who had been unwillingly roused from the sleep she had willingly offered to forego overnight, collecting cloaks, baskets, and travelling-rugs, and altogether looking so wakeful and ready that she wellnigh drove her drowsy sister to desperation.
The preannounced torrents proved as swollen as were expected; so that the passengers had to unpack themselves from the heaps of wrappings stowed snugly round their feet and knees, and issue forth into the keen morning air, armed with difficultly-put-up umbrellas, to traverse certain wooden foot-bridges, in the midst of which they could not help halting to watch the lightened diligence dragged splashingly through the deep and rapid streams, expecting, at every lunge it made into the water-dug gullies, to see it turn helplessly over on its side in the very midst of them. Nevertheless, no such accident occurred; and the four jogged on, along soaking, soppy, drenched roads, that seemed never to have known dust or drought. At one saturated village, they saw a dripping procession of people under crimson umbrellas, shouldering two rude coffins of deal boards, which were borne to the door of a church that stood by the wayside,—where the train waited in a kind of moist dejection to be admitted, and to look dispiritedly after the passing diligence. The alert gentleman heard from what the conductor gathered from an old woman wrapped in a many-colored gaudy-patterned scarf of chintz, which, wet through, covered her head and shoulders clingingly, that this was the funeral of a poor peasant-man and his wife, who had both died suddenly and both on the same day. The old woman held up her brown, shrivelled hands, and gesticulated pityingly with them in the pouring rain, as she mumbled her hurried tale of sorrow; while the postilion involuntarily slackened pace, that her words might be heard where he and the conductor sat.
The horses were suffered to creep on at their own snail pace, while the influence of the funeral scene lasted; but soon the long lash was plied vivaciously again, and we came to another torrent, more deep, more rapid, more swollen than any previous one. Fortunately for us, a day or two before there had been a postilion nearly drowned in attempting to drive through this impassable ford; and still more fortunately for us, this postilion chanced to have a relation who was a servant in the household of Count Cavour, then prime-minister to King Victor Emanuel. "Papa Camillo's" servant's kinsman's life being endangered, an order had come from Turin only a few hours before our diligence arrived at the bank of the dangerous stream,—now swollen into a swift, broad river,—decreeing that the new road and bridge, lately in course of construction on this spot, should be opened immediately for passage to and fro. The road was more like a stone-quarry than a carriageable public highway, so encumbered was it with granite fragments, heaped ready for top-dressing and finishing; and the bridge led on to a raised embankment, coming to a sudden fissure, where the old coach-road crossed it. Still, our conductor, finding that some few carts and one diligence had actually passed over the ground, set himself to the work of getting ours also across. First, the insides and outsides were abstracted from the coach,—which they had by this time come to regard as quite an extraneous part of their travelling, not so much a "conveyance" as something to be conveyed,—and the four took their way over the stones, amused at this new and most unexpected obstacle to their progress. Hastening across the fissure, they went and placed themselves (always under umbrellas) beside a troop of little vagabond boys,—who had come to see the fun, and had secured good front places on the opposite bank,—to view the diligence brought down the sharp declivity of the embankment to the old road below. The spectators beheld the jolting vehicle come slowly and gratingly along, like a sturdy recusant, holding back, until the straining horses had tugged it by main force to the brink of the fissure. Here the animals stopped, snorted, eyed the sheer descent with twitching ears and quivering skins, as though they said in equine language, "We're surely not required to drag it down this!" They were soon relieved from their doubt, by being taken out of the traces, patted, and gently led down the embankment, leaving their burdensome charge behind. There it stuck, helplessly alone,—even more thoroughly belying its own name than diligences usually do,—perched on the edge of a declivity of the height of a tall house, stock still, top-heavy with piled luggage, deserted by its passengers, abandoned of its friend in the velvet cap, a motionless and apparently objectless coach. How it was to be dislodged and conveyed down the "vast abrupt" became matter of conjecture to the four, when presently some men came to the spot with a large coil of cable-cord, which they proceeded to pass through the two hindmost side-windows of the diligence, threading it like a bead on a string; and then they gradually lowered the lumbering coach down the side of the descent, amid the evvivas of the vagabond boys, led by an enthusiastic "Bravissimo!" from Velvet-cap.
This incident occupied much time; and though the travellers made some progress during the afternoon, the gray shades of twilight were gathering over and deepening the gloom of the already gray sky and gray landscape,—deadened to that color from their naturally brilliant hues by the prevailing wet,—as the travellers stopped to change horses again at the entrance of the town of Oneglia. Here, while the conductor ran into a house to make purchase of a loaf about half a yard in length and a corpulent bottle of wine, the four saw another funeral train approaching. This time it was still more dreary, being attended by a show of processional pomp, inexpressibly forlorn and squalid. The coffin was palled with a square of rusty black velvet, whence all the pile had long been worn, and which the soaking rain now helped age to embrown and make flabby; a standard cross was borne by an ecclesiastical official, who had on a quadrangular cap surmounted by a centre tuft; two priests followed, sheltered by umbrellas, their sacerdotal garments dabbled and draggled with mud, and showing thick-shod feet beneath the dingy serge and lawn that flapped above them, as they came along at a smart pace, suggestive of anything but solemnity. As little of that effect was there in the burial-hymn which they bawled, rather than chanted, in a careless, off-hand style, until they reached the end of the street and of the town, when the bawlers suddenly ceased, took an abrupt leave of the coffin and its bearers, fairly turned on their heels, accompanied by the official holy standard-bearer, and went back at a brisk trot, having, it seems, fulfilled the functions required of them. Obsequies more heartless in their manner of performance, it was never the fate of the four to behold. The impression left by this sight assorted well with the deep and settled murkiness that dwelt like a thick veil on all around. Even the cheery tones of Velvet-cap's voice lost their elasticity, and the sprightliness of the sister's spirits, that invariably rose with the coming on of night, failed under the depressing influence of that rain-hastened funeral and that "set-in" rainy evening. As for the sister whose spirits fell with the fall of day, she was fast lapsing into a melancholy condition of silence and utter "giving-up."
Rattling over the pavement of the long, straggling town,—plashing along a few miles of level road,—struggling up hill,—rattling through another pavemented town,—striking into the country again,—we came to another long ascent. As we toiled to the top, a postilion, having the care of five return horses, joined company with ours, the two men walking up hill together, while their beasts paced slowly on, with drooping heads and smoking sides. Now and then, when the road was less steep, and levelled into trotting-ground, the postilions climbed to their seats,—ours on his rightful box-seat, the other on an impromptu one, which he made for himself upon a sack of corn slung beneath the front windows of the coupé,—and while our horses fell into an easy jog, we could see the return ones go on before at a swagging run, with their loosened harness tossing and hanging from them as they took their own course, now on one side of the way, now on the other, according to the promptings of their unreined fancy.
Suddenly, at a turn of the road, we came upon an undistinguishable something, which, when our eyes could pierce through and beyond the immediate light afforded by our diligence-lamp, we discovered to be another diligence leaning heavily over a ditch, while its conductor and postilion were at their horses' heads, endeavoring to make them extricate it from its awkward position. This, however, was a feat beyond the poor beasts' strength; and our conductor, after a few "Sacramentos" at this new delay, got down and ran to see what could be done to help them out of the scrape. It had been occasioned partly by the carelessness of the conductor, who, unlike ours, (for the latter was a man of good sense and judgment, self-possessed, and perfectly attentive to the duties of his office,) had neglected to light the diligence-lamp, and partly by the obstinacy of a drunken postilion, who insisted on keeping too close to the ditch side of the road, while he instinctively avoided the precipice side. Nearly two mortal hours was our diligence detained, during which time our cattle were taken from their traces and harnessed to those of the half-overturned coach, in various attempts to dislodge it. The first resulted in a further locking of the wheel against a projecting point of rock, and an additional bundling sideways of the leaning diligence; the second was made by attaching the horses to the back of it, while the men set their strength to the wheels, endeavoring to push them round by main force in aid of the straining team. The weight of the heavily-loaded coach resisted their efforts to move it; and then the passengers were requested to descend. Out into the rain and mud and darkness they came, warned by our conductor, in his prompt, thoughtful way, to beware of stumbling over the precipitous cliff, which dropped straight from the roadside there, hundreds of feet down, into the sea. We could hear the dash of the waves far below, as our conductor's voice sounded out clear and peremptory, uttering the timely reminder; we could hear the words of two French commis-voyageurs, coming from the ditch-sunk diligence, making some facetious remark, one to the other, about their present adventure being very much like some of Alexandre Dumas's Impressions de Voyage; we could hear the cries and calls of the men refastening the horses, and preparing to push anew at the wheels; we could distinguish a domestic party dismounting from the back portion of the other diligence, consisting of a father and mother with their baby and the bonne; we could see the little white cap covered up carefully with a handkerchief by the young mother, while the father held an umbrella over their heads, and conducted them to the counterpart portion of our diligence, where the family took refuge during the fresh attempts to drag theirs forth.
Then there came a tap against our coupé window, and an unmistakably British accent was heard to say: "Anglais? Anglais?" Tap—tap—tap. "Any English here?"
Velvet-cap let the window down, and answered in his cheerfullest tone, "Yes."
This reply seemed to rejoice the heart of the inquirer, who immediately rejoined, "Oh!—Well, I really wished to know if there were any one here who could understand me. These fellows don't comprehend one word that I say; and I can't speak one word of their jabber. Just listen to them! What a confounded row they keep up! Parcel of stupid brutes! If I could only have made myself understood, I could have told them how to get it out in a minute. Confounded thing this, ain't it? Kept last night, too, by something of the same kind of accident; and I couldn't get those stupid fellows to make out what I meant, and give me my carpet-bag."
Polite condolences from Velvet-cap.
"I say, are these your Italian skies? Is Nice no better than this? By George, I didn't come here for this, though!"
Assurances of the unusually bad weather this season from Velvet-cap.
"No, but just hark! what a confounded row and jabber those fellows keep up."
A simultaneous "Ee-ye-ho! ee-yuch-yuch!" came from the striving men at this moment, and our British acquaintance, with a hasty "Good night!" hurried off to see the result. It was this time a successful one; the leaning diligence was plucked out, restored to an upright position, and its passengers were reassembled. Once more on its way, our conductor returned to his own coach; and, with the help of our postilion, reharnessed our horses. But the difficulty now was to start them. Tired with their unexpected task of having to tug at another and a stuck-fast diligence,—made startlish with having to stand in the rain and chill night air, in the open road, while the debates were going on as to the best method of attaching them to the sunken vehicle,—when once put back into their own traces, they took to rearing and kicking instead of proceeding. It is by no means amusing to sit in a diligence behind five plunging horses, on a cliff-road,—one edge of which overhangs the sea, and the other consists of a deep ditch or water-way, beneath a sheer upright rock,—"when rain and wind beat dark December"; and even after whip and whoop had succeeded in prevailing on the rearers and kickers to "take the road" again, that road proved so unprecedentedly bad as almost to render futile the struggles of the poor beasts. They did their best; they strained their haunches, they bent their heads forward, they actually made leaps of motion, in trying to lug the clogged wheels on through the sludge and clammy soil; but this was a mauvais pas, where the cantonniers' good offices in road-mending had been lately neglected, and it seemed almost an impossibility to get through with our tired cattle. However, the thing was achieved, and the town of San Remo at length reached.
Here, with a change of horses, it was now our turn to have a drunken postilion; whom our conductor, after seizing him by the collar with both hands, permitted to mount to his high seat and gather up the reins, there being no other driver to be had. Smacking his long whip with an energy that made the night-echoes resound far and wide, galloping his horses up hill at a rate that swayed the coach to and fro and threatened speedy upsetting, screaming and raving like a wild Indian uttering his battle-cry, our charioteer pursued his headlong course, until brought to a stop by something that suddenly obstructed his career.
A voice before us shouted out, "We must all go back to San Remo!"
A silence ensued; and then our conductor got down, running forward to see what was the matter. The three in the coupé saw their alert friend of the banquette descend; which caused Velvet-cap to bestir himself, and let down the window. Not obtaining any satisfactory information by looking out into the darkness and confusion, he opened the door also, and called to some one to help him forth. Whereupon he found himself in the arms of the maudlin postilion; who, taking him doubtless for some foreign lady passenger in great alarm, hugged him affectionately, stuttering out, "N'ayez pas peur! Point de danger! point de danger!"
"Get off with you, will you?" was the ejaculation from Velvet-cap, as he pushed away the man, and went in search of his alert friend.
The latter soon came running back to the coach-side, bidding the sisters get out quickly and come and look at what was well worth seeing.
It was indeed! There lay a gigantic mass of earth, stones, and trees, among which were several large blocks of solid rock, hurled across the road, showing a jagged outline against the night-sky, like an interposing mountain-barrier but just recently dropped in their path. The whole had fallen not an hour ago; and it was matter of congratulation to the four, that it had not done so at the very moment their diligence passed beneath.
There was nothing to be done but what the voice (which proved to be that of the conductor belonging to the other diligence) had proposed, namely, to go back to San Remo.
Here the travellers of both diligences soon arrived; the four, as they passed to their rooms, hearing the British accent on the landing, in disconsolate appeal to a waiter: "Oh!—look here,—sack, you know, sack, sack!"
"Oui, monsieur; votre sac de nuit. Il est en bas,—en bas, sur la diligence. On le montera bientôt."
The lady whose spirits rose at night was flitting about, brisk as a bee, getting morsels of bread and dipping them into wine to revive her sister; who, worn out with fatigue and exhaustion, sat in a collapsed and speechless state on a sofa.
Next morning, however, she was herself again, and able to note the owner of the British accent, who had certainly obtained his desired carpet-bag, since there he was, at the coupé window, brushed and beaming, addressing Velvet-cap with, "Excuse me, as an Englishman; but, could you oblige me with change for a napoleon? I want it to pay my bill with. They could get some from the next shop, if these jabbering fellows would but understand, and go and try."
The morning-animated sister was now also able to observe upon the more promising aspect of the weather, which was evidently clearing up; for it not only did not rain, but showed streaks of brightness over the sea, in lines between the hitherto unbroken gray clouds. She adverted to the pleasant look of the cap-lifting cantonniers, as they stood drawn up and nodding encouragement at the diligence, near the mass of earth which had fallen overnight; and which they, by dint of several hours' hard work from long before dawn, had sufficiently dug away to admit of present passage. She said how comforting the sight of their honest weather-lined faces was, bright with the touch of morning and early good-humor.
This brought a muttered rejoinder from the other sister; who, huddled up in one corner, still half asleep, remarked that the faces of the cantonniers were surely far more comforting when visible by the light of the diligence-lamp, coming to bring succor amid darkness and danger.
"But it is precisely because they are never to be seen during the darkness, when danger is increased by there rarely being help at hand, that I dread and dislike night," returned Morning-lover.
"How oppressive the scent of those truffles is, the first thing after breakfast!" exclaimed Night-favorer.
"I had not yet perceived it," replied Morning-lover. "Last evening, indeed, after a whole day's haunting with it, the smell of that hamper of truffles which the conductor took up at Finale was almost insupportable; but now, in the fresh morning air, it is anything but disagreeable. I shall never hereafter encounter the scent of truffles without being forcibly reminded of all the incidents of this journey. That smell seems absolutely interwoven with images of torrent-crossing, cliff-falling, pouring rain, and roaring waves."
The talk fell upon associations of sense with events and places; sounds, sights, and scents, intimately connected with and vividly recalling certain occurrences of our lives. We had missed the glimpse of the baby face and little white cap from the back of the diligence that preceded us during the first portion of the day, owing to our coach having been delayed at Ventimiglia by some peculiar arrangement which required the team that had dragged us up a steep ascent to stop and bait,—merely resting instead of changing, before we went on again.
The Pont St. Louis, with the picturesque ravine it crosses, had been passed, and the pretty town of Mentone was full in view, when we caught sight of the other diligence, some way on the road before us, brought once more to a stand-still, while a crowd of persons surrounded it, and its passengers were to be seen, in the distance, descending, with the baby cap among them. At this instant, an excited French official darted out from a doorway by the side of the road near us, raising his arms distractedly, and throwing his sentences up at the conductor, who understood him to say that there was no going on; that a whole garden had come tumbling down across the road just at the entrance to Mentone, and prevented passing.
We drove on to the spot, and found it was indeed so; the grounds of a villa, skirting the highway on a terrace-ledge, had been loosened by the many days' rain, and had fallen during the forenoon, a heap of ruins,—shrubs, plants, garden-walls, flowers, borders, railings,—one mass of obstruction.
With a glance at the coupé passengers, another French official (the newly-appointed frontier custom-house being close at hand) stepped forward to suggest that the "insides" could be accommodated, during the interim required for the cantonniers to do their work, at a lately-built hotel he pointed to; but the four agreed to spend the time in walking round by the path above the obstruction, so as to see its whole extent.
The wet, percolating and penetrating through the softer soil, gradually accumulates a weight of water behind and beneath the harder and rockier portions, which dislodges them from their places, pushes them forward, and finally topples them over headlong. This is generally prevented where terrace-walls are built up, by leaving holes here and there in the structure, which allow the wet to drain through innocuously; but if, as in the present instance, this caution be neglected, many days' successive rain is almost sure to produce the disaster in question. It had a woful look,—all those garden elegances cast there, flung out upon the high-road, like discarded rubbish; pots of selected flowers, favorite seats, well-worn paths, carefully-tended beds, trailing climbers, torn and snapped branches, all lying to be shovelled away as fast as the road-menders could ply their pickaxes and spades.
At length this task was accomplished; the diligences were hauled over the broken ground (their contents being also "hauled over" at the custom-house); the passengers (after the important ceremonial of handing their passports for inspection, and having them handed back by personages who kept their countenances wonderfully) were in again and off again.
But one more torrent to cross,—where the foremost coach had nearly been overset, and where the occupants of the hindmost one, profiting by example, got out and walked over the footbridge, in time to behold the owner of the British accent wave his hat triumphantly from the coupé with a hearty (English) "Huzza!" as the vehicle recovered, by a violent lurch to the left, from an equally violent one to the right, issuing scathless from the last flood that lay in the way,—and then both diligences began at a leisurely pace to crawl up a long ascent of road, bordered on each side by olive-grounds;—until the view opened to a fine stretch of prospect, now colored and vivified by a glance of the afternoon sun,—the diminutive peninsular kingdom of Monaco, lying down in the very sea, bright, and green, and fairy-like; the bold barren crag of the Turbia rock frowning sternly in front, with its antique Roman tower and modern Italian church; the rocky heights above to the right, with their foreground of olive-trees, vine-trellises, and orange-groves, interspersed with country-houses; while through all wound the ever-climbing road, a white thread in the distance, with the telegraphic poles, dwindled to pin-like dimensions, indicating its numberless turns and bends.
As the sun sank over the far western lines of the Estrelle Mountains, and the sky faded into grayish purple, succeeded by an ever-deepening suffusion of black, unpierced by a single star, the high reach of road above Villafranca Bay was passed; and, on our turning the corner of the last intervening upland, full in view came the many lights of Nice, with its castled rock, its minarets and cupolas, its stretch of sea, its look of sheltered repose;—all most welcome to sight, after our sensational journey on the Cornice Road in a great rain.