George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





In visiting Sinigaglia, a place associated with such names as the above, he fully expected to revel in the picturesque; but he found that the Italians, troubled as they are with such terrible epidemic visitations, have grown to pay greater respect to sanitary measures than did their ancestors, and in consequence ancient ruins with their echoes of the past do not receive the respect we pay to them in England. He found one grand old citadel, but the Italians had been behaving to it like Vandals, or, to be more familiar of speech, like our honest old British churchwardens when they distribute whitewash. Other ruins, such as nowadays we place under the care of some learned society, he found had been patched up and turned to some useful purpose.

The fair was in full force, but by no means English-looking. There were no roundabouts, either steam or worked by expectant boys in return for an occasional ride; no swings, no dramatic shows, no giants, no fat or spotted ladies, no freaks such as our American friends accustomed to Saint Barnum of show fame rejoice to see, no music, no noise. It did not seem at all like a fair; but he found other attractions in the large town of about twenty-three thousand inhabitants, which was built as a fort about a third of a mile from the almost tideless sea, which, after the fashion of Venice, was connected therewith by a wide and deep canal. This canal offered passage for good-sized vessels, and ran up right through the town, all of which was very interesting from a commercial point of view; but it was the middle of hot August, and the place had a greater attraction for our traveller because it happened to be one of the most fashionable watering-places of eastern Italy. Henty here draws attention to the great advantage the Italians possess in living on a sea like the Mediterranean, where bathing-places can be erected, and where at all times there is a sufficient depth of water to enable one so desirous, to have a plunge without having to go lumbering out in one of the miserable rickety boxes on wheels which we call bathing-machines.

The same advantages are offered in the harbour of Ancona, at which town, at this period, Henty was making his head-quarters. Here he found floating baths represented by a chamber of about fifteen feet square, into which the sea had free ingress, and also a larger bath big enough for a swim, while if one were so disposed there was egress to the sea.

To return to Sinigaglia: seeing that it was fair time the streets were furnished with awnings to keep off the sun, and the place was after all very attractive, with its streets filled with women displaying their baskets of goods for sale. Being a f?te day the peasantry had flocked in from the surrounding country in their best and most picturesque costumes of bright colours and snowy white, with their hair carefully dressed in a peculiar fashion, and a plentiful display of gold necklaces or ear-rings. Their dark hair, warm complexions, and large dark eyes all tended to form a very attractive scene.

Henty however always displayed a mind receptive of anything connected with utility.

As a rule he looked out for matters concerning sanitation, and while he condemned the vandalism, he had a word to say here respecting the purifying effect of whitewash. But in a place like this, so intimately associated with the old and historical, it is amusing to find that he takes a walk round the outskirts of the ancient city, and very unpoetically notes that the hills about Sinigaglia would gladden the heart of a London brickmaker if they could be dropped down in the neighbourhood of the metropolis. It stands to reason that he must have had Southall in his eye, for he says that the Sinigaglia hills are entirely composed of fine brick clay of apparently unlimited depth and extent.

As far as the fair was concerned, Henty writes soon after from Rimini most poetic of names! that he was glad that he went back to Ancona for the fair in that town, for it differed entirely from that at Sinigaglia, in that it was especially lively, amusing, and attractive.

The fair, he says, begins where Ancona ceases. The attractions were almost entirely devoted to the young, so that for the time being the place was turned into an attractive toy-land. The Grand Promenade of Ancona, in the neighbourhood of the sea, and planted with rows of trees, was the centre of interest. The fair stalls, which were most abundant, were small, but were made most attractive. Each had its speciality, and was, of course, thronged with eager, bright-eyed children. One contained drums only; the next military toys, small swords, guns and pistols; the next would be all small carts; then came one with dolls furniture, most neatly made in japanned tin or iron. A little farther on the stalls were filled with the noisy playthings so dear to childrens hearts whistles, trumpets, accordions, and rattles of the most ingenious construction and maddening power. Then, again, there were stalls displaying the ingenuity and delicacy of Italian taste, where they sold only dolls head-dresses, the most jaunty little caps, hats, and veils conceivable, quite an equipment, in fact, for the heads of a whole troop of little fairies.

Then, again, there were many stalls with dolls dressed in the extreme of fashion; but in a fatherly manner, suggestive of thoughts of home, he goes on to say that the dolls themselves would not at all come up to an English childs idea of what such a toy ought to be, being all cheap wooden dolls. I did not see one made of wax in the fair.

Many of the toys exhibited were unquestionably German, similar to those seen in our own bazaars, but some, particularly the drums, he noticed were Italian. It was easy to detect the difference in the colouring, the paints used being of less clear and bright shades; and they were unvarnished, which is seldom or never the case with German toys. Round these stalls the crowd of little people and their friends was constant.

Observant of the country again, Henty goes on to say, with thoughts of home: Children here have few amusements, few toys, and still fewer of those charming story-books with which so many of our booksellers shop windows are full, especially about Christmas time. It is worthy of notice that this was in 1866, about two years previous to the production of Hentys first boys story, and over thirty years before the time when, with scrupulous regularity, the booksellers shop windows were annually displaying two or more of his own productions specially written for the young.

The parents and the friends seemed disposed to indulge the children to the utmost upon this occasion, for all had their hands full of toys. Boys drummed and blew trumpets and whistles till he was nearly deafened; little girls clung tightly to the skirts of their mothers dresses with one hand, and with the other held out their new dolls admiringly before them; and appeared to be continually questioning their friends as to whether they were quite sure that sundry other purchases carried in paper bags were safe.

It was a charming scene, for the stalls were lit up by candles, which burned steadily in the serene summer air. Nothing could have been more attractive the crowds, the pleasure of the children, the number of well-dressed people in their varied refinements of fashion, and the peasant women in their bright-coloured handkerchiefs, but many with no other decoration to their heads save their abundant smooth and neatly-braided hair.

Other picturesque features in the crowd were afforded by the soldiers, sailors, and marines, with their round hats and drooping plumes of black cocks feathers, and the uniforms of the National Guards and officers of all these services.

Passing onward, he came upon stalls significant of his being in a hot country, for at these only fans were sold fans of every size and colour. In Italy, it must be remembered, as in Japan, nearly everyone carries a fan, and uses it instead of a parasol to shade the face when walking and to cool the bearer when sitting down.

And now began the stalls of the vendors of more useful articles. First were the basket-makers and turners, trades which seemed to be generally united, as if the women of the family pursued the one branch, the men the other. There were baskets of every size and form, from those which might hold a ladys fancy-work, right up to the enormous holder in which Falstaff himself might have been borne.

The turners display of the works of their lathes was wonderful in variety, and included wooden bowls, platters, distaffs, and spindles, strings of buttons, bowls, and articles that were more the work of the carving tool, in the shape of spoons, taps, and pegs.

Then there were stalls with articles made from horn instead of wood, followed by displays of articles in iron and tin, notably small charcoal stoves, coffee-roasting apparatus, and ladles, while last in utility there were sieves of cane, wire, and horse-hair. The variety was wonderful. Now the stalls were covered with hats from the coarsest straw or chip, to those once fashionable in England and worn by our grandmothers under the name of Tuscan and Leghorn, while a brisk sale of cutlery was being carried on, men selling wooden-handled knives of the cheapest kind, such as the peasants always have at hand.

Elsewhere there were copper cooking utensils in plenty. Cooking in Italy is almost always done in copper pans and pots, and there is no cottage so poor that it has not its half-dozen, at least, of these brightly kept vessels.

And now, where the crowd was thickest, Henty found that he had been too hurried in his judgment of Italian fairs, for he found the old English fair equalled, if not excelled. Here were the shows and menageries, with the outside pictures of terrific combats with impossible animals, conspicuous among them being a snake, by the side of which the sea serpent would sink into insignificance, engaged in the operation of devouring a boat-load of Hindus, or so they seemed to be by their complexion and costume. This show boasted a band, while its neighbour contained our old friends the wax figures, representing heroes of modern times, among which he noted that, in remembrance of the Crimea, the showman had done England the honour of placing Lord Raglan. By way of extra attraction the little exhibition was furnished with an organ and cymbals.

If he had shut his eyes now, he says, he could almost have imagined himself in England the music, the shouting of the touters at the booths, the blowing of trumpets and whistles, the beating of small drums, all recalling home. But there was one difference that was unmistakable. There was no pushing, no foul language; there were no drunken people, no roughs, all of which appear to be the inseparable elements of an English fair.

There were a great number of fruit stalls, which seemed to be doing a good business among the lower orders, especially at the counters devoted to the sale of slices of water-melon, which the people of Italy seem never tired of eating. Henty ventures to say they were very nice to one who got used to them, but for his part, he declares he would just as soon have eaten the same weight of grass.

When he left the place that night the proceedings were still in full swing, and when he returned to it at six oclock the next morning, there was the same crowd as late the night before, and a brisk trade was still going on. Noticing again the vast number of fruit stalls, the thought occurred to him that it was fortunate that there was no cholera in the town, for if all the fruit that he saw in Ancona were consumed by the people before it got bad, it would produce an increase of that epidemic which was terrible to contemplate. There were hundreds of cart-loads of melons, water-melons, and peaches, which were poor tasteless things and always picked too soon; he declares he never tasted a ripe peach while he was in Italy. Pears too, figs, and grapes were plentiful; but he gives them no praise.

To his surprise and amusement, perhaps consequent upon Ancona being so old-world a city, he came upon one relic of the past, and that was a stall for supplying the matches such as our grandmothers used, such, in fact, as used to be sold by every pitiful vendor in the streets, in the shape of long thin strips of wood cut into a sharp point at each end, dipped in melted sulphur, and then tied up in bunches like fans. These were, of course, the predecessors of the lucifer matches, as they were called, which were sold in neat little boxes, with an oblong piece of sanded card laid on the top. This folded across, and between its folds the match was drawn sharply, when it burst into flame. These were soon succeeded by a somewhat similar match, with the sand-paper a fixture on the bottom of the box, and the priming of the match so increased in inflammability that the ignition took place as at the present time, and the name Congreve Light came in, the light soon dying out, and giving way to Congreve or matches only. Of course, those which Henty saw on sale were for use in connection with the old-world flint and steel and tinder-box.

Passing on that morning, he went through the Custom House, to find beyond it the regular food market at its height. Hundreds of neatly dressed peasant women and girls were standing with their baskets before them, ready to supply eggs, butter, cheeses, fowls, turkeys, ducks, pigeons, and larks, for the most part alive, but doomed. There were one or two baskets which contained puppies, probably, however, not doomed, at least, to be cooked. But there were baskets in plenty containing delicacies in the nature of molluscs! He was within reach of the sea, but they were neither oysters, scallops, mussels, cockles, nor winkles, but the fine pale-shelled, spiral, Roman snails, that doubtless had been captured in the moist eve or early morn when ascending the poles of some vineyard. Delicate, but not tempting to the English taste.

To do the fair thoroughly, Henty, before leaving, visited the cattle, to find that the supply of horses was just then very small; but there was the prospect that, directly peace was signed and the enormous transport train paid off, horses would become as cheap in Italy as they then were dear.

There was a large show, though, of the beautiful patient, docile, draught oxen, which were fetching from twenty to thirty pounds a pair; and with these he concluded his inspection of the two fairs. He then suffered a most Inquisition-like examination of his baggage, and started for a visit to one of the smallest republics in the world, a country close to the Adriatic shore, which had been for some time attracting his attention. This he hoped to see and report upon before the festivities of peace should commence consequent upon the complete freedom of Italy, or troubles should arise once more and make busy in other ways the war correspondents pen.

Chapter Ten.
The Visit to San Marino

On his way to San Marino Henty found himself at Rimini. This place is the Ariminium of the Romans. It was enlarged and beautified by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Here, too, in a.d. 359 the Aryan doctrine was denounced. As the centuries rolled by, the town fell into the hands of the Lombards, and was given by the Emperor Otho to Malatesta, whose family ceded it to the Venetians, from whom it was afterwards wrested by the Popes, and it remained part of the Papal dominions till 1860.

It has its antiquities, the principal one being an arch erected in honour of Augustus, and bearing still in perfect preservation the old Roman carvings, representing on one side Jupiter and Minerva, on the other, Neptune and Venus.

Another antiquity that took Hentys attention as being well worthy of notice, from the way in which it brought back to his memory Westminster School and his studies of the classics, was a short pillar in the market-place with an inscription stating that Caesar stood upon it to harangue his soldiers before passing the Rubicon. Caesar, history informs us, was a short stout man, and Hentys old studies led him to believe that he could not have looked well upon that short column, upon which he would probably have been lifted by the officers of his staff; and somehow or other perhaps the weather was not very genial the column did not impress him with any particular feeling of veneration. His ideas ought to have been classic and stern; but it is strange, as he says, what inopportune ideas strike one. He approached the stone with a thorough belief in it, prepared to picture Caesar aloft, and the heavy-armed legionaries of the Roman cohorts standing armed, leaning upon their spears, with the eagles they had carried triumphantly through so many campaigns erect in their midst. But as he came fully into sight of the stone, the thought of the difficulty of getting upon it and of Caesars ungraceful figure brought to his mind the remembrance of H.K. Brownes etching representing the immortal Pickwick standing upon a chair, with one hand under his coat-tails and the other outstretched, as he harangued the members of his club. And all belief in the legend of the stone faded away at once. In fact, Henty was not an imaginative man. Neither was he a great humourist; but when he was in humorous vein his humour was dry and good.

By the way, legend says that it was at Rimini that Saint Anthony preached to the fishes when the people refused to hear him, and that San Marino, who was a native of Dalmatia, across the Adriatic Sea, came over and settled here. He gave his name afterwards to the little republic and to the mountain which Hentys driver pointed out to him rising far above all the hills in its neighbourhood, nearly fifteen miles away at the beginning of a very charming drive in an open carriage drawn by one of those novelties that are not often let for hire a very fair horse.

This curious little state is in its own way perfectly unique, and its existence is the more singular from its being situated in Italy, though for centuries in the Middle Ages that country was the scene of an uninterrupted succession of wars. The hand of every country was against its neighbours. Towns changed owners every few years; states were swallowed up, conquered, reconquered, but San Marino has remained.

The law of strength was the only law recognised that law which says he shall take who has the power, and he shall keep who can; for the weakest always went to the wall. It is then most singular that this little territory of about eight thousand inhabitants should have remained intact for more than fifteen centuries, and that now, while all its powerful neighbours have become merged into one great state, this tiny republic should be the sole portion of Italian soil possessing a separate autonomy.

History tells us that in the old Roman days, soon after the persecution of the Christians by the Emperor Diocletian commenced, San Marino, finding that there was no rest for his people in Rimini, led his little flock out from that city and established a Christian colony at the summit of the highest and most rugged mountain in that part of the country, then probably a place surrounded by untrodden forests; and the little state thus founded has remained separate ever since.

The road to San Marino led across an undulating and very richly cultivated country, where the peasants were engaged gathering in the grape harvest, which that year, from the extreme dryness of the early part of the season, was the worst the people had ever known. They were also occupied picking the maize, which is so important an item of the Italian farmers crop.

Indian corn is a little better known now in connection with its beautiful growth than when Henty paid his visit, but his description of what was to him almost a novelty is still pleasant reading. He tells us how the plants are thinned out as soon as they appear above the ground, and the blades are left to grow on about a foot apart in a climate where they spring up to the height of about six feet. The stalks, he says, for the first two feet above the ground are about the diameter of a mans thumb, but towards the top they expand to a considerable extent.

He had seen maize growing in its early stage during his previous visits to Italy, but never before having passed the hot season there, this was the first time he had witnessed the harvest, and it was a matter of surprise to him that such thin stalks could support the weight of a head of maize. But now to him the mystery was explained. At about two feet from the ground, at the time the plant flowers, the stem increases in size, presently opens, and a thick shoot makes its appearance, apparently composed of a compressed bunch of leaves. This becomes larger and larger, the leaves expand, open more and more, and spread out like broad wavy blades of grass. The head or cob of maize swells out and forms at its summit a great silky pale golden tassel, while, as the cob becomes larger and larger, much of the upper part of the stalk in the process of the ripening dies and falls off. Then the lower leaves drop away, the grand beauty of the field of maize passes, and from the time the crop is ripe until the harvest the field seems to be composed of stumps with bunches of dead leaves at the top. These leaves, however, enclose the great solid, regularly formed or apparently built-up head of maize, which is left drying as it stands in the torrid sunshine, till it is cut off and carted to the farms. At this stage the Indian corn is taken in hand by the women and children of the family, and the separate grains are picked off and exposed on cloths to dry perfectly in the sun.





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