From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 18, p154-172.
After Fifty Years
H. M. Tomlinson
ONCE I wrote a propitiatory letter to my wife--yes, but once?--because my absence, it was more than a surmise, would seem to her long drawn out. I wrote from Sicily. She was in London; and was already aware, though new to it all, that a journalist is subject to so many unpredictable compulsions that married life had turned out to be largely an intimacy with messages bearing foreign post-marks, not all of them verifiable by her atlas. I wrote that morning long ago in eloquence, in magnanimity, even in some exaltation, because I had just seen from the high ramparts of Taormina the sunrise catch light to the array of the Calabrian mountains, and spill over to flood the Straits of Messina with a day of new colours; I had witnessed in surprise the fact that splendour had not left our earth. The high gods might still be about. It was a warning. This rejoiced me. I said in my letter that some day we must stand side by side and witness together this revelation.
As in all fairy tales, this promise became no more than once upon a time. To be exact, it had grown to be fifty years old. After so long, I was surprised to be reminded of it, too careless of the fact that her fond memory, and her will, remain unimpaired when the past is accepted as past. Nor would she hear, even from me, of aeroplanes and railways. Nothing of that for her. It must be the sea, and a ship; and, moreover, a ship doing the proper work of a ship. The time had come, she explained, when she should see this herself, to like it, or, if unable to like it, to be unable to leave it. For the truth is, though the familiar talk of her own folk since childhood had been so much concerned with the various ways of ships over the deep, yet she had never embarked, even on a cross-channel ferry, nor wanted to. She had been satisfied with what the men said about it, when home again. It would have satisfied anybody.
It was easy to sympathize with her desire, but in this new era not so easy to gratify it. How to find such a ship, after all the restrictions, prohibitions, and priorities of the war; in fact with the world upside down? Once you went down to a dock and there the ship was, naturally, as in an old tale. But not to-day. I don't mean a liner extending all the way between a forecastle and a nursery, but a ship that must earn her keep by the constant use of her winches and derricks on cargo, a ship in which you are of less importance than the fluctuations of commerce. And to-day, if the right little freighter is alongside a quay, there is so much hectoring by the State, so many exactions as to passports, and currency, and what you may take with you, or are forbidden to take, and so great a spread of official forms, signed and embossed back and front to show that, so far, you are not proved to be a villain, or a foe to august office-holders--which is so much the same thing nowadays that the difficulty of mounting a gangway, and off with you, is all but insuperable. When first I left home to go abroad a passport was an indifferent formality; you could go without one, and did. The authorities at most foreign ports had no interest in you. You walked ashore forthwith, as a free man should, and went where you liked. Not so now. As a Frenchman recently remarked, "One more great victory for freedom, and we shall all be slaves." I was asked to produce my wife's birth and marriage certificates--and where could they be found?--and her application had to be witnessed by a man of the law who could vouch for her, before her native country would allow her to depart with her husband on a Golden Wedding voyage. No wonder that Frenchman spoke bitterly, and for all of us.
We broke through, however. It was now or never. Board our little ship we did, but only through the good offices ot the privileged who knew where such a ship happened to be. We went down to Dover to meet her, for she had left London and was on her way from Hamburg to Mediterranean ports, including those of Sicily. I'll admit I had an anxiety without telling anybody of it, and especially not a word to my fellow traveller, who would only have laughed. I was aware, that is, when she was not, that our ship was only a little above 2,000 registered tons; and we had to cross the Bay. One knows that Bay of Biscay. It is very unpopular, and is nothing to laugh at. Perhaps it will keep fine for us, I pessimistically conjectured, as we passed through the hop-fields and orchards of Kent in the calm radiance of spring's uprising.
Our ship was not at Dover, so far, but there seemed to be some hope. Her agent, meanwhile, entertained us with stories of Dover in the days when Hitler stood over at Calais; but they are inappropriate here, and I wish some of them were not, for they have never been printed, and never will be, just like all the best stories of any war. We idly watched Dover's noble harbour till darkness fell over it, and only unrelated lights appeared, while we wondered whether we were forgotten. A sudden interruption came in the middle of a yarn. A ship was reported signalling outside the harbour, and a tender took us out to meet her. There our s.s. Philomel was, dimly, and I was satisfied on approach. A little ship with such amiable lines could go anywhere and make no fuss about it. After all, I should have kept in mind that her house flag was that of the General Steam Navigation Company, which has had more than a hundred years to learn the best way of managing the battle and the breeze. My companion expressed surprise, as she descended from the top deck down through a comfortable sitting-room into a corridor in search of her own place; surprise that, after all she had heard of life at sea, this freighter was aware of civility. It was a notable bouquet she found in her cabin, saying it was from the chairman and directors of the company, which convinced her then that I had been up to something; but I knew nothing of it. I had never seen such a thing done before in all my time at sea, and was dumb with astonishment. Our last sight of England was of a distant town unknown, looped like a glittering diamond necklace on indiscernible black velvet. We were away.
Later that night, alone on deck, I recognized familiar marine smells, and heard those sounds of waters as old as time, till presently the ship on which I was became a phantom in the undated past, on a voyage that was over long ago. By her heart-beats, too, she was evidently one of the old sort down below, with reciprocating engines; and the connecting rods, eccentrics, and throws were then lightly dancing the familiar measure that M'Andrew, Chief Engineer, made into a hymn tune, in the days of Rudyard Kipling. We had chanced on exactly the kind of ship to prove to my wife that the tales she had heard in childhood's home were as true to life as are all folk ballads.
I was leaving the driving dark, and passing below, but paused in the little saloon. Another lonely man was there. There was no need to stand and consider whether that figure might be the ship's master. We merely nodded to each other, without introduction, and sat at a table together. I mentioned the doubt I had unfairly entertained of his charge, before I saw her. He, however, had confidence in her. My surprise returned when I heard that she had been completely round the world when war was in every sea, and had been bombed rather too often when full of explosives; yet here she was, as I could see. I had to understand, it appeared, that, if given her fair ration of luck, she was all right.
I heard even more. There was a book in what I heard, but that book belongs to those illustrious epics that are one with the voice of ocean's surge, the everlasting sky, and mortality's self-communing in solitude; it can never be written, and it is a pity. Anyhow, I had gained something. This Philomel already was mine, and now her master and I, who were strangers till that hour, would never have to explain things to each other; and that is always a priceless boon in any adventure. He knew the sea books, too, but, thank God, not mine.
When I reached my cabin my fellow traveller was awake, though what the hour was in the early morning I do not know. She was in repressed alarm, and when she saw me she betrayed relief with asperity. She had been thinking I might have fallen overboard.
Overboard? What, so soon? We're not off Cape Horn yet. I then climbed into the upper bunk, as very rightly our cabin had no bedsteads, glad to have discovered that youth is never a matter of years. I am old only when I stop, looking backward, as if doing that with a sigh would close the gap. This day our ship was outward bound. After tomorrow our course would be by the south.
When Ushant was rounded the wind was at south-east. It then shifted to south-west, notifying us with a deplorable gesture that here was the Bay. The sun was too brilliant, the sky too hard a blue, and the piled nimbus clouds had edges of steel. The seas rose ahead, and the fountains raked us for'ard. The ship had many movements. It was decided by one of us that she either could not or she would not get up. The weather then went on to give us four days of that sort of thing, and each was worse than the last. My companion refused to succumb, but wished it were not thus. There had been a hope that, when we had turned Finisterre, we should enjoy it more. Not so. Harsh reality continued down the Portuguese coast. The Philomel behaved like a lady, but she had to confess to rude difficulties in her way, though we could witness the fact that we were not really so badly off as some others. A long tanker of enormous tonnage passed us, going the other way, and every time she pitched her foredeck disappeared under a weight of ocean. We overhauled a labouring Portuguese freighter and while we were going by her close abeam she stood on her head every half-minute to show us that her propeller was still going round. The Philomel did nothing so extreme. There was one sunset when the gathering of cyclonic vapours to the north-west was ominous and frightful. I was glad our course was not set that way. Those ponderous masses poised in the vault, livid and sulphurous, and the wild lights under them on tossing waters in a bleak air, belied the opinion that man has at last subdued the elements, and is getting along beautifully.
I consulted the prone victim in our cabin, fearing that this sort of thing, carried too far, might be her undoing; but she refused all sympathy except that of a medicinal brandy with soda, and stated her resolve to see it through. Her argument was simply that if this was the sea, then she must get over it. The idea that the ship should put into Gibraltar on her behalf, as a kindly and anxious official of the company, who was with us, had suggested to me, was very nice of him, but could not be entertained. Her words were disjointed by the creaking of bulkheads, the gurgling of water in the waste pipe, the smash of spray against the port-light, and the inconstant angles of slope when one sea happened to be steeper than the others, and was less considerate in onset and relapse. "You leave me alone. You go and talk to the captain."
The captain admitted on the bridge--a sanctuary at the top of a ladder which one should never ascend unless invited --that the weather was not to his liking. It was burning up too much fuel for nothing. She'd been driving against head seas since she left home. As he spoke a squall struck us, like the burst of a gun charged with a deluge. The night became impenetrable. He set the radar going. Radar in action was new to me, and I watched on its screen--which is like that of a television set--its bright but enigmatic display of outer night. High over the ship revolved, with a whining sound, the "scanner"; a very appropriate name for it. The scanner looks round to report to its screen what is going on all about in an obscurity into which human sight cannot go. I watched what it told the screen under my nose, in my first attempt, not at all successful, to read the news. The screen was luminous with the reflections of rain and breaking waters. These transient flashes are called "splash", and should be ignored. You must look for what is steadfast. I could see a ship, otherwise invisible, far away on our starboard bow; or I could do so when the captain advised me that that particular bright mark was a ship. Nor was it, he said, so far away.
My wonder was genuine. What a boon to a navigator, I said, this instrument! The captain said he valued it. What with radar, and the echo-sounder switched on to show the sea's depth under the keel, and other accessories to safety new to the bridge, navigation, you'd think, was brought down to the level of weak heads. This, he warned me, was a grave mistake. It was the other way about. These mechanical aids had a tendency, unfortunately, to lessen understanding and to weaken judgment, if allowed. A good man would refuse to leave it to them. Young seamen, it seems, in a state of confident reliance on magical accessories, are at times prone to dispense with the private use of the brain and to trust these automata. The result is not invariably good. He had heard of two ships speeding through a fog, and each had radar, and each saw the other approaching. They collided. Responsible officers, in their reliance on modern physics, had misjudged distance and rate of approach. The scanner, of course, does not care. It has no soul to consult, and no certificate of competency to lose. The worth of seamanship and navigation will always vary according to the quality of the lonely man, as it was in the beginning.
That sanctuary of a ship, the bridge, with its silence, and the eyes of the man at the wheel lowered to the shrine, the binnacle, he as intent and still as a hierophant waiting to interpret the oracle, and the other ministrants there too absorbed in the mysteries to have anything to say, is always Sabbath-like. The chart of the day is spread on a desk with dividers and parallel rulers. There are dials to tell how your microcosm fares in its remote and hidden parts. Beyond the bridge's forward glass screen is the empty brightness into which the ship is heading, and you watch her prow soar and decline on the line separating sea from sky. If the right fellow is with you, then there is no better place. I once commiserated with a shipmaster, whose home I knew, that he had to turn about so soon, and depart. He answered in a low voice, yet distinctly, that he never came to himself till he was in his own place in his ship, and was clear of the land. I think I understand. The sea is inconstant, certainly, and will change for the worse, and keep it up; but responsibility on a ship's bridge means living apart from the distractions of the community, and standing instead always face to face with the stark verities, which change not. Even the ubiquitous radio cannot alter that; when its speech is heard in a ship, the import of what it says is reduced to a limited temporal significance.
We passed Gibraltar long before sunrise. The rain it still rained, and the scanner of the radar was still whirring. Yet daylight brought a quick change. We escaped from Atlantic influence. The sky became clear, and the sun was just what he ought to be off southern Spain. The sea alongside ran in clear sapphire mounds. My fellow traveller was prompt to the bell to breakfast, and refused little that was there. She told me that if the sort of men she used to hear talk, and she knew them very well, could suffer life afloat, she had no doubt she too could support it. I was sure of it; the subject was closed. We were then close under the uprising of a wild coast, making for Genoa. Spain all day to port kept us alert. Even if you have seen it often, that does not matter. Clouds loosely wrapping the bare and savage shoulders of the mountains were transient scarves of gossamer. My wife had not known it was possible to mistake the earthly for the ethereal till she pointed up beyond the crags of the coast to peeps of superior cloud far away in the sky, which did not move; but they were the snows of the Sierra Nevada.
Yes, and I know it is not a subject for light and easy converse, but it has its importance in the Mediterranean. We are now voyaging the sea on which man in curiosity first ventured out to learn the sort of world he was in. From here man's starry circumstance began to be regarded with the soul's concern. Just there on the Philomel's port beam is Malaga, founded anciently as Malacca by voyagers from Carthage, and Carthage was a colony promoted by Tyre and Sidon; those men had gone on more to westward. Palos is on the day's chart, the point of departure of Columbus in the beginning of our own age, on a voyage still further to the west; but Columbus was very many thousand years from the start of it all. On the shores of this sea, or rather on the selvage of fertile soil between the almost tideless waters and the sunny steeps, originated our way of life. Here our own sort of people first made permanent homes, with temples in the midst. They first smelted metals, and experimented for the best shape for a ship. They began on these shores to speculate on which was reality and which was appearance, and never quite made up their minds; nor yet have we; and in their temples hymns were first sung to the highest in the height. It was very pleasant to know that the Philomel was to coast along while we watched the place where our earliest lamps were lit. And our ship's name was well suited to the scene. That also belonged to a yarn, told at ancient hearths in the beginning of time, of a daughter of a king of Athens, and explains why the song of the nightingale is not altogether joyous. Even in Eden sad things happened.
We went close enough under the Balearic islands to see the surf whiten round half-sunken reefs, and the houses and the vineyards hanging above the surf. Of the whole handsome group the one for us would have been the rugged little one, Formentera, of which we had never been told; but we gave up all the group. One life, though a long one, is not nearly long enough for visiting every choice island of this sea; even Delos of the Cyclades must go, that inviolate and holy isle, the birthplace of Apollo--and from which now he is quite absent, because man has made of its sanctity, as you have already guessed, an uninhabited desert of marble rubble--even Delos must be firmly put with the other unprofitable dreams of youth, especially as it is sadly unattainable. So also are time Fortunate Isles. It is no matter. We shall land on Sicily the way we are going, and that will serve for all the landfalls we want to make but never shall.
My companion had left me to brood by myself, for she says that mood of mine is a wasteful indulgence. What we were bound for, she said, was all to the good, and all we ought to expect to get. She went to be with the captain at the starboard bulwarks, and he was pointing out to her more facts than I shall ever learn of the land in sight. A smart American liner which put us in the shade then passed us, going south. The sun went down a bare sky, till his radiant ball was halved by the dark horizon. I told the captain that though I had looked for it many times, I had only once seen the "green flash". He handed my wife his binoculars, as if green flashes were part of his dispensation, advising the use of the glasses only when the sun was all but sunk. We waited. As the bright hemisphere diminished to an effulgent point on the waters there was not only a vivid green flash, but a green halo to follow, and that was something new. Had I been the showman it would not have happened. It never does. But then, our master is a meteorologist. He is used to it. Four times a day the Philomel sends by wireless weather reports, wind direction, sea and air temperatures, barometric pressure, and much else, for the use of a central bureau which broadcasts advice to all ships. She advises others far away with what she learns as she goes along, and she also discloses how much for discovery the original Argo had ahead of her.
A little ship with a company so small that in a few days you know everybody--and they think they know you, too--in which the very bo'sun, he himself, can be confidential, is a home. It has defects? Well, yes; yet we never envied the sightseers who looked down on us from the promenade deck of a liner, a princess of a motor-ship, as she went by, as sometimes one did--this is the sea for variety of traffic--and if they were too ignorant to admire the Philomel, what was that to us? We looked candidly at Her Grace on her processional way, and so did our bo'sun. He is from the Clyde, where ships are built. You cannot misinform him about ships, and with what he himself knows he is laconic, and in Doric. When he is, as he was that day, directing the men in the tops in the preparation of gear for cargo, and they are hitched on by their toes aloft, contorting naked sunburnt busts while adjusting heavy and awkward weights in suspension, you see that you are no sailor, and never can be, and why.
To-day I had to cross the deck to examine a knot that a seaman casually threw, and wondered where he picked up that particular rarity of the whalers. A ship, any ship, even the latest great floating hotel with her hotel manager, is a repository of the lore of the sea, if you have a little of the cunning for the signs. The names for what is in and about a ship are often survivals from remote antiquity. A great ship's angle-irons continue to be her beams, as if she were still made of trees; and elsewhere about her, from the keel up, she remembers what men have named this and that back to the Norse longships. The motor-ship, for an instance, must have her derricks, and derrick was a name for a gallow's post because of a fellow named Derrick, an executioner in Queen Elizabeth's day; for seamen will joke. Above all, it is the tradition of shipmen that their ship is a person, is the person, and that her safety comes before their own; she remains resistant still, therefore, to the evolution of our language. She is an adopted daughter of Eve, the only inanimate object in English of the feminine gender. Therefore let us also resist the degrading influence of the hotelier afloat. If you have ever, as a routine duty, kept a midnight watch alone in the bridge-house with the helmsman, and no light there but the binnacle's glim, and no sound but the bell telling the hours and the surge of the waters, and remembered that you were responsible for the safety of sleeping souls, then you have an inkling of what the eremite felt when looking out on the vast for God, from his solitude under the desert stars. That is worth having; when you are back again in the city, it sustains.
We stood over from Majorca to more islands, the Hyères islands, but it was evening, and they were but frail ghosts in a fading region. We were in the Gulf of Genoa. Early in a Sunday morning we saw why the famous city used to be called The Superb. There in regular strata of white terraces it mounted about an amphitheatre to the ridges of its hills, rank on rank, with the sun on all. We added to the ships in the harbour thrusting their masts and funnels above the lower encircling parapets. There were ships from many ports. The home of a neighbour was Galveston, Texas. The one in the berth ahead was of Antwerp. To a landsman it looks impossible, or at least highly dangerous, to take speed off an enormous weight of displacement and edge her in till she rests between the other monsters at her berth; the Philomel was in position as neatly as a boy goes sideways and rests his bicycle by a kerb. The hatches came off. Business began. Passengers were superfluous and must look after themselves.
We were soon ashore. It was my companion's first meeting with the foreign, and her Italian is less than mine, which doesn't go far. It was also very hot, and the quays were chaotic with railway trucks and wagons, rubbish dumps, mules, casks, uniformed men with guns, bales, and stacks of iron bars; and we didn't know our way. I supposed that this, and the dust, heat, and the exceptionally strange and loud noises, would take her aback. Not in the least. It was exhilarating, and it also became clear that if I proved a guide less than prompt it would be proof that travel had never taught me much, so confirming what she had always suspected.
A tram was boarded, for we supposed it must be going somewhere, and anywhere would do. It was crowded, but a Genoese girl who looked of patrician descent graciously surrendered her seat to one of us in a moment, and the conductor himself bade me take his. It was a good beginning, and somebody was at once pro-Italian. It must be also evident that I really knew how to manage strange matters as if born to it. There was something else in foreign travel I discovered that day, and pondered in the weeks to follow. It had been quite unforeseen by me, and it added considerably to the fun for one of us. Our converse with most of the natives was brief, and concerned mainly refreshment and our whereabouts; but not all day long. With sufficient leisure, one of us could enter into long and easy converse with any small child, and apparently was always well understood, to the amusement and profit of both. Then again, in any city, how much more attractive than its noble relics of the past, its cathedrals and such, than even the alleged birthplace of Columbus, are its markets! Though it must be said that Mediterranean fish, only skin, bone, and colour, should be dismissed with contempt. You cannot compare those things on that fly-blown slab with haddock, turbot, and salmon! You cannot do it. You might as well serve up hairpins in wet washleather.
On the other hand, on the way to Nevi, Portofino, Santa Marguerita, and Rapallo, with the road winding along between a sea of the fabled splendour and the wooded heights, through steep groves of olive and orange and lemon, past precipitous vineyards, and with bougainvillea and geranium everywhere flooding colour extravagantly downhill over walls, there was evidence that in our own northland, where sombre oak and pine match dark weather, we miss much. The question even arose: Would it be possible to get a house here?
I had no time to find an answer to that. Our ship put out for Leghorn, and in a day or two more for Naples. There were more islands on the way. We were so close to Elba that we should know it again. Monte Cristo was plain in the afternoon, but was nothing like so outstanding as Dumas. As to Naples, when first I was there, long ago, I landed early in a drizzle. There was no Naples worth mentioning. There was rain on a quay, a few beggars, and a cab, and I took the cab. I saw in a glance all of Naples I wanted except its railway station, and I soon found that. I learned that our ship, this time, would approach Naples even earlier, so early that it would still be night, more or less. The sun would show himself, our navigator reckoned, as we rounded into the famous Bay. To direct my cabin mate to turn out so soon for a problematical joy was not within a husband's power of persuasion, especially as it was known he had an unfortunate opinion of Naples. But she would always listen to any advice Captain Selmer had to give without a word of critical doubt, and he had told her some fancy tale, in the way that is his own, of a marvel of travel at hand. So up we got, and switched on the light. There is no joy in those early, dark, senseless hours, neither night nor day, when you hardly know why you are out of bed, except what a fool you are.
At first I was glad that another man's advice had properly misled her. She could see that for herself as she stared ahead. She could see nothing but the dim enigmatic. Neither could I. I determined in that moment of suspense to be better than I am, so did not blithely point out her misfortune; and it was just as well I was forgiving. How far off the mark can be a first impression! The matter becomes worse if you have talked freely about it, thinking the subject suitable for an amusing story.
There is no danger that I shall now attempt to redeem a frivolity, and explain what was gained, while waiting for the coming of day as the Philomel neared Naples. I remembered a poet, whose name is unknown, and that morning I admired more than ever his gift to elevate a subject that to ordinary mortals is beyond reach. I mean the forgotten man who recorded once for all what happened in Genesis when the fiat was given for universal Light to shine, when our earth took shape out of aboriginal night. As our ship approached Naples, we ourselves saw this miracle, the reality so rarely noticed, that Creation goes on; but the words of that nameless Hebrew, perhaps an exile by the waters of Babylon, suffice for me, and for all time.
The Philomel headed for the narrow channel between the mainland and the isle of Procida. That island, and Ischia and others, lie across the approach to the bay from the north. The sun was still well sunk below the mainland mountains. Vesuvius itself was no more than a spectral warning to confiding innocents, a sullen shadow in the wrong place; the bright eye of the lighthouse on the flat island of Procida was far more conspicuous. Superior to this table-like island, and a little more distant on the starboard side, Ischia was foreshadowed, with a host of brilliant stars ranged along its shore, and it was a lovely apparition. Why did I leave Naples at once long ago when Ischia was so near? There must be many good things in life we miss through indifferent attention. To the south were the phantoms of Capri and the Sorrento peninsula; yet I supposed at first they were vast clouds afloat on the horizon, just showing grand arch and curve in a twilight, till I glanced at the chart.
We entered the bay. The day arrived with us. This renewal we witnessed of the original great occasion silenced us. There is nothing to be said. This latest morning light was of rose and amber. The tip of the sun blazed suddenly on a black ridge. There was Naples.
We had time enough for the shore, and saw Pompeii, of course; but one visit to that place, and not a great deal of it then, unless you are an archaeologist, will serve. You see, for one thing, the shape of a dog that was caught, because he was on collar and chain nearly nineteen centuries ago as the fiery ash fell. My wife then sat down on a step, with the remark that she had seen here all she wanted. The ugly lump of the volcano stood, frowning as aforetime, over the street where that exhibit is. The dog's struggle is frozen in its last contortion. There were other exhibits, too, and worse; and that perhaps is why a hurried once is more than enough. Yet I noticed in Pompeii that the treads of the marble steps ascending to the temple of Great Jupiter had been worn into deep crescents by many generations of dutiful and trustful feet. Besides, man himself has discovered a way to perform at least as well as any blasting volcano, when he has become righteously resolute, as well as angry and afraid; so we had better go on to Amalfi and Salerno and forget it. It is not difficult to forget it, while you are there.
The peninsula of Sorrento has no suggestion of the evil sort, but is entirely corrective of it, until you come to Salerno, where there was once a "beach-head". I felt so delighted and scared by the road which serpentined between limestone crags apparently overbalancing overhead, and the blue deep on which floated ships reduced to toys, that I ventured to hint, when home again, to another traveller who has seen many of the world's finest wonders, that the road about that Italian ridge is really pleasant. He remarked abruptly and emphatically that there isn't another road in all the world like it. I cannot be so positive, but it was remarkable to me. However it may be, I wish to see Positano again some day, and to stay for a spell by that little beach lost between precipices where the Galli Rocks stand up just offshore as if posed on a mirror. We learned that day why this region of earth has been named Siren Land. Regretfully, we returned to our ship. She would be getting about her business, which is not directly concerned with oleanders and sirens.
The captain met us with the news that he had been ordered to the Lipari Islands. Then were we to be a rescue party? Had Stromboli blown up? No, he was going there only to pick up some pumice. After all, the reason for our call was of no importance. Pumice was as good an occasion as any other. We are to visit the ancient Aeolian Isles, and though I have seen the cone of Stromboli smoking in the distance, never before has my ship been close to it. It was an unexpected and attractive port of call. They are all volcanic, that group of seventeen islands and islets of the Sicilian Sea. On a dazzling and hot morning we anchored close under Capo Biancho of Lipari, a steep of blinding white pumice. It had also reddish slopes, and descending streams of old black lava, so it was not easy to credit the story that here was the fount of the celebrated Malmsey wine. All day the Philomel swung to her cable, slowly changing vistas through the fantastic archipelago, in which Stromboli alone was alight. We were besieged by a fleet of boats bearing pumice, and bronzed and lissom men who no doubt were the consequence of the virility of Carthagenian rovers and Saracen and Norman pirates that once infested these seas. As for their long boats, carvel-built, they alone were evidence of the antiquity of man's love of propriety and harmony. These Lipari craft had lines as satisfying as the poise of a classic vase, all problems resolved in grace. Buoyant and quick, the boats about us, even when laden, seemed of no weight, swift at a touch to soar above the aquamarine element; for indeed the sea to the eye was but slightly more substantial than the air. Sunlight was on the sea floor six fathoms under the boats. Their shadows followed them about below. It was when an oar struck and fractured the surface of the water that you realized it was still possible to be drowned in it.
We were headed south on another morning. "What's that?" asked my companion. We were gazing beyond the ship's head. In the mid-distance a tanker was steaming west, athwart our course. Above the tanker, high in the sky, towards the meridian, was an immense triangle in white, and it was no cloud.
"That? That's Vulcan's forge," I explained. "That's where he thumps out God's thunderbolts."
"Don't talk nonsense," said my wife.
"He's a long way off to be seen from where we are, said the captain. "That's Etna. Scylla and Charybdis to-morrow."
"I told you so," said I to my lady. "You don't know where you are. You are sailing where Ulysses sailed. There's no end to the surprises here. They only want looking for. Under that high snow, and into the furnace beneath it, is where Jupiter shoved Enceladus because he disapproved of divine goings on. He's there now. When the poor fellow turns over for ease, that's when flames puff out at the top."
"You can't make sense of what went on in Sicily after civilized men first came here," said the captain. "I've tried to sort out the tangle of its history, but it's Bedlam to me. It's full of gorgeous stories though. Didn't the great Empedocles commit suicide by jumping into Etna?"
"So they say. That was the end of the philosopher. It must be true, because the volcano threw up one of his sandals."
"Where is it?" asked my lady.
"You mustn't ask such questions," said the captain, "or you'll get no fun out of history."
"What fun is there in it?" she asked.
It was because of that very doubt, when we put into Messina for some tons of lemon pulp, and she remarked in disappointment over the newness of this ancient city, that nothing was said of one dreadful early morning there in 1908, when all was over in a minute; or anyhow, no more than about a dozen mumbled words. It would have been a pity to blemish our own beautiful day in Messina. Nor was it explained, when later we set out for Taormina, that on the coast below it was Naxos, the first Greek settlement in Sicily, founded 735 B.C.; and that, as usual, enemies destroyed it; and that Taormina was the city built fifty years later to replace it, and for safety placed on top of that mountain over there, Taurus its name. While on our way thither, along the seashore, a trifle of Sicily's more recent history came out clearly. Whenever we passed through a village, most of its houses had D.D.T. stencilled in white on the doors. "I know what that means," said my lady. "Our war passed this way."
Up we mounted towards Taormina. Its houses stand like battlements along the ledges under its high summit. We found ourselves at last on a balcony, an eyrie with a sheer drop to a sea that had the colours of a peacock's tail. Across a broad valley was Etna in silver and black. There was a smell of thyme and wood-smoke. "I've never seen anything like this before," she said, almost to herself.
"That's why we're here."
I said a little more, but she made no answer; so I added, as soon as I could, but not too soon, that as we had other ports of call, and our ship might soon be off, the time was near for us to depart.
There was a long silence. Then she rose, absently gathering her handbag as she looked out thoughtfully into radiant serenity. "I should like to come back to this," she said.