Roman Holidays And Others – William Dean Howells
With that genially serious attention to minute details, that humorous circumstantiality in treating the commonplace, which we have all come to know so well and to like (or dislike) so heartily in Mr. Howells, he has filled a substantial volume with his easily-flowing narrative of a Mediterranean vacation journey, naming his book ‘Roman Holidays and Others.’ The first landing of his party was made at Madeira, whence they proceeded to Gibraltar, and then to Genoa, Naples, Rome, Leghorn, Pisa, Genoa again, and Monte Carlo. The style of the narrative – if it is necessary to indicate it at all – is well illustrated by the opening words of the second chapter: “There is nothing strikes the traveler in his approach to the rock of Gibraltar so much as its resemblance to the trade-mark of the Prudential Insurance Company. He cannot help feeling that the famous stronghold is pictorially a plagiarism from the advertisements of that institution.” Mr. Howells says of the Romans of these days that they have “a republican simplicity of manner, and I liked this better in the shop people and work people than the civility overflowing into servility which one finds among the like folk, for instance, in England.”
Roman Holidays And Others.
Excerpt from the text:
No drop-curtain, at any theatre I have seen, was ever so richly imagined, with misty tops and shadowy clefts and frowning cliffs and gloomy valleys and long, plunging cataracts, as the actual landscape of Madeira, when we drew nearer and nearer to it, at the close of a tearful afternoon of mid-January. The scenery of drop-curtains is often very boldly beautiful, but here Nature, if she had taken a hint from art, had certainly bettered her instruction. During the waits between acts at the theatre, while studying the magnificent painting beyond the trouble of the orchestra, I have been most impressed by the splendid variety which the artist had got into his picture, where the spacious frame lent itself to his passion for saying everything; but I remembered his thronging fancies as meagre and scanty in the presence of the stupendous reality before me. I have, for instance, not even mentioned the sea, which swept smoother and smoother in toward the feet of those precipices and grew more and more translucently purple and yellow and green, while half a score of cascades shot straight down their fronts in shafts of snowy foam, and over their pachydermatous shoulders streamed and hung long reaches of gray vines or mosses. To the view from the sea the island is all, with its changing capes and promontories and bays and inlets, one immeasurable mountain; and on the afternoon of our approach it was bestridden by a steadfast rainbow, of which we could only see one leg indeed, but that very stout and athletic.
There were breadths of dark woodland aloft on this mountain, and terraced vineyards lower down; and on the shelving plateaus yet farther from the heights that lost themselves in the clouds there were scattered white cottages; on little levels close to the sea there were set white villas. These, as the ship coquetted with the vagaries of the shore, thickened more and more, until after rounding a prodigious headland we found ourselves in face of the charming little city of Funchal: long horizontal lines of red roofs, ivory and pink and salmon walls, evenly fenestrated, with an ancient fortress giving the modern look of things a proper mediaeval touch. Large hotels, with the air of palaces, crowned the upland vantages; there were bell-towers of churches, and in one place there was a wide splotch of vivid color from the red of the densely flowering creeper on the side of some favored house. There was an acceptable expanse of warm brown near the quay from the withered but unfailing leaves of a sycamore-shaded promenade, and in the fine roadstead where we anchored there lay other steamers and a lead-colored Portuguese war-ship. I am not a painter, but I think that here are the materials of a water-color which almost any one else could paint. In the hands of a scene-painter they would yield a really unrivalled drop-curtain. I stick to the notion of this because when the beautiful goes too far, as it certainly does at Madeira, it leaves you not only sated but vindictive; you wish to mock it.
The afternoon saddened more and more, and one could not take an interest in the islanders who came out in little cockles and proposed to dive for shillings and sixpences, though quarters and dimes would do. The company’s tender also came out, and numbers of passengers went ashore in the mere wantonness of paying for their dinner and a night’s lodging in the annexes of the hotels, which they were told beforehand were full. The lights began to twinkle from the windows of the town, and the dark fell upon the insupportable picturesqueness of the prospect, leaving one to a gayety of trooping and climbing lamps which defined the course of the streets.
The morning broke in sunshine, and after early breakfast the launches began to ply again between the ship and the shore and continued till nearly all the first and second cabin people had been carried off. The people of the steerage satisfied what longing they had for strange sights and scenes by thronging to the sides of the steamer until they gave her a strong list landward, as they easily might, for there were twenty-five hundred of them. At Madeira there is a local Thomas Cook & Son of quite another name, but we were not finally sure that the alert youth on the pier who sold us transportation and provision was really their agent. However, his tickets served perfectly well at all points, and he was of such an engaging civility and personal comeliness that I should not have much minded their failing us here and there. He gave the first charming-touch of the Latin south whose renewed contact is such a pleasure to any one knowing it from the past. All Portuguese as Funchal was, it looked so like a hundred little Italian towns that it seemed to me as if I must always have driven about them in calico-tented bullock-carts set on runners, as later I drove about Funchal.
It was warm enough on the ship, but here in the town we found ourselves in weather that one could easily have taken for summer, if the inhabitants had not repeatedly assured us that it was the season of winter, and that there were no flowers and no fruits. They could not, if they had wished, have denied the flies; these, in a hotel interior to which we penetrated, simply swarmed. If it was winter in Funchal it was no wintrier than early autumn would have been in one of those Italian towns of other days; it had the same temperament, the same little tree-planted spaces, the same devious, cobble-paved streets, the same pleasant stucco houses; the churches had bells of like tone, and if their facades confessed a Spanish touch they were not more Spanish than half the churches in Naples. The public ways were of a scrupulous cleanliness, as if, with so many English signs glaring down at them, they durst not untidy out-of-doors, though in-doors it was said to be different with them. There are three thousand English living at Funchal and everybody speaks English, however slightly. The fresh faces of English girls met us in the streets and no doubt English invalids abound.
We shipmates were all going to the station of the funicular railway, but our tickets did not call for bullock-sleds and so we took a clattering little horse-car, which climbed with us through up-hill streets and got us to the station too soon. Within the closed grille there the handsomest of swarthy, black-eyed, black-mustached station-masters (if such was his quality) told us that we could not have a train at once, though we had been advised that any ten of us could any time have a train, because the cars had all gone up the mountain and none would be down for twenty minutes. He spoke English and he mitigated by a most amiable personality sufferings which were perhaps not so great as we would have liked to think. Some of us wandered off down a pink-and-cream colored avenue near by and admired so much the curtains of red-and-yellow flowers—a cross between honeysuckles and trumpet blossoms—overhanging a garden-wall that two friendly boys began to share our interest in them. One of them mounted the other and tore down handfuls of the flowers, which they bestowed upon us with so little apparent expectation of reward that we promptly gave them of the international copper coinage current in Madeira, and went back to the station doubtless feeling guiltier than they. Had we not been accessory after the fact to something like theft and, as it was Sunday, to Sabbath-breaking besides? Afterward flowers proved so abundant in Madeira in spite of its being winter, that we could not feel the larceny a serious one, and the Sunday was a Latin Sabbath well used to being broken. The pony engine which was to push our slanting car over the cogged track up the mountain arrived with due ceremony of bell and whistle, and we were let through the grille by the station-master as politely as if we had been each his considered guest. Then the climb began through the fields of sugar-cane, terraced vineyards, orchards of fruit trees, and gardens of vegetables planted under the arbors over which the grapes were trained. One of us told the others that the vegetables were sheltered to save them from being scorched by the summer sun, and that much of the work among them was done by moonlight to save the laborers from the same fate. I do not know how he had amassed this knowledge, and I am not sure that I have the right to impart it without his leave. I myself saw some melons lolling on one of the tiled roofs of the cottages where they had perhaps been pushed by the energetic forces of the earth and sky. The grape-vines were quiescent, partly because it was winter, as everybody said, and partly because the wine culture is no longer so profitable in the island. It has been found for the moment that Madeira is bad for the gout, and this discovery of the doctors is bad for the peasants (already cruelly overtaxed by Portugal), who are leaving their homes in great numbers and seeking their fortunes in both of the Americas, as well as the islands of all the seas. It must be a heartbreak for them to forsake such homes as we saw in the clean white cottages, with the balconies and terraces.
But there were no signs of depopulation either of old or young. Smiling mothers and fathers of all ages, in their Sunday leisure and their Sunday best, watched our ascent as if they had never seen the like before, and our course was never so swift but we could be easily overtaken by the children; they embarrassed us with the riches of the camellias which they flung in upon us, and they were accompanied by small dogs which barked excitedly. Our train almost grazed the walls of the door-yards as we passed through the succession of the one- and two-story cottages, which dotted the mountain-side in every direction. When the eye could leave them it was lured from height to height, and at each rise of the track to some wider and lovelier expanse of the sea. We could see merely our own steamer in the roadstead, with the Portuguese war-ship, and the few other vessels at anchor, but we could never exhaust the variety of those varied mountain slopes and tops. Their picturesqueness of form and their delight of color would beggar any thesaurus of its descriptive reserves, and yet leave their beauty almost unhinted. A drop-curtain were here a vain simile; the chromatic glories of colored postal-cards might suggest the scene, but then again they might overdo it. Nature is modest in her most magnificent moods, and I do not see how she could have a more magnificent mood than Madeira. It can never be represented by my art, but it may be measurably stated: low lying sea; the town scattering and fraying everywhere into outlying hamlets, villas and cottages; steep rising upon steep, till they reach uninhabitable climaxes where the woods darken upward into the everlasting snows, in one whole of grandeur resuming in its unity every varying detail.
I dwell rather helplessly upon the scenery, because it was what we professedly went up or half up, or one-tenth or-hundredth up, the mountain for. Un-professedly we went up in order to come down by the toboggan of the country, though we vowed one another not to attempt anything so mad. In the meanwhile, before it should be time for lunch, we could walk up to a small church near the station and see the people at prayer in an interior which did not differ in bareness and tawdriness from most other country churches of the Latin south, though it had a facade so satisfyingly Spanish, because I suppose it was so perfectly Portuguese, that heart could ask no more. Not all the people were at prayer within; irregular files of them attended our progress to give us the opportunity of doing charity. The beggars were of every sort, sex, and age, and some, from the hands they held out, with fingers reduced to their last joints, looked as if they might be lepers, but I do not say they were. What I am sure of is that the faces of the worshippers—men, women, and children—when they came out of the church were of a gentleness which, if it was not innocence and goodness, might well have passed for those virtues. They had kind eyes, which seemed as often blue as black, and if they had no great beauty they were seldom quite ugly. I wish I could think we strangers, as they gazed curiously, timorously at us, struck them as favorably.
An involuntary ferocity from the famine which we began to feel may have glared from our visages, for we had eaten nothing for three hours, which was long for saloon passengers. At the first restaurant which we found, and in which we all but sat down at table, our coupons were not good, but this was not wholly loss, for we recouped ourselves in the beauties of the walk on which we wandered along the mountain-side to the right of the restaurant. At the point where we were no longer confident of our way an opportune native appeared and Jed us over paths paved with fine pebbles, sometimes wrought into geometric patterns, and always through pleasing sun and shade, till we reached a pretty hotel set, with its gardens before it, on a shelf of level land and commanding a view of our steamer and the surrounding sea. Tropic growths, which I will venture to call myrtle, oleander, laurel, and eucalyptus, environed the hotel, not too closely nor densely, and our increasing party was presently discovered from the head of its steps by a hospitable matron, who with a cry of comprehensive welcome ran within and was replaced by a head-waiter of as friendly aspect and much more English. He said our coupons were good there and that our luncheon would be ready in two minutes; for proof of the despatch with which we should be served he held up the first and second fingers of his right hand. Restored by his assurance, we did not really mind waiting twice the tale of all his ten fingers, and we spent our time variously in wandering about the plateau, among the wonted iron tables and chairs in front of the hotel, in being photographed in a fairy grotto behind it, and in examining the visitors’ book in the parlor. The names of visitors from South Africa largely prevailed, for the Cape Town steamers, oftener than any others, touch at Madeira, but there was one traveller of Portuguese race who had written his name in bold characters above the cry, “Long live the Portuguese Republic.” Soon after the Portuguese monarchy ceased to live for a time in the person of the murdered king and his heir, but it is doubtful if the health of the potential republic was as great as before.
That bright Sunday morning no shadow of the black event was forecast, and we gave our unstinted sympathy to our unknown co-republican. The luncheon, when we were called to it, had merits of novelty and quality which I will celebrate only as regards the delicate fish fresh from the sea, and the pease fresh from the garden, with poached eggs fresh from the coop dropped upon them. The conception of chops which followed was not so faultless, though the fruit with which we ended did much to repair any error of kid which may have mistaken itself for lamb. Perhaps our enthusiasm was heightened by the fine air which had sharpened our appetites. At any rate, it all ended in an habitual transaction in real estate by which I became the owner of the place, without expropriating the actual possessor, and established there those castles in Spain belonging to me in so many parts of the world.
There remained now nothing for us to do but to toboggan down the mountain, and we overcame our resolution not to do so far enough to go and look at the toboggans under the guidance of our head-waiter. When once we had looked we were lost. The toboggans were flat baskets set on iron-shod runners, and well cushioned and padded; they held one, two, or three passengers; the track on which they descended was paved, in gentle undulations, with thin pebbles set on edge and greased wherever the descent found a level. A smiling native, with a strong rope attached to the toboggan, stood on each side of it, and held it back or pulled it forward, according to the exigencies of the case. It is long since I slid down hill on a sled of my own, and I do not pretend to recall the sensation; but I can remember nothing so luxurious in transportation as the swift flight of the Madeira toboggan, which you temper at will through its guides and guards, but do not wish to temper at all when your first alarm, mainly theoretical, passes into the gayety ending in exultant rejoicing at the bottom of the course.