George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life



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Passing the cultivated fields and crossing the little stream which forms its boundary, Henty learned that he was in the Republic of San Marino, that the circumference of the state was thirty-five miles, and that the mountain, or crag as it should rather be called, rose almost in its centre. With the exception of the rock itself, every part was extremely fertile and well cultivated, and of more value than land in the surrounding country, on account of the absence of taxation and other advantages peculiar to the republic, chief among which was the freedom from military conscription. Every male in San Marino is, it is true, a soldier, but soldiering involves no fighting or absence from home. Although all are liable to be called upon to serve in case of necessity, only those under a certain age are on ordinary occasions called out. The strength of this regular army of the republic is eight hundred men. Of these, seven hundred form the National Guard; the remaining hundred are the body-guard of the president.

They have their uniform of blue, the National Guard having red facings, the body-guard yellow, the band white. Then they have their national flag of blue and white; and a police force administered by a chief and five carbineers, whose uniform is dark blue with white cross-belts and grey trousers, so that they look on the whole much like the carbineers of the Italian service. These five are, of course, always on duty, and are regular salaried police. The army only appears in uniform upon Sundays and f?te days, when the men are drilled; but the troops receive no pay.

“We arrived,” says Henty, “at the village of Serravalle. Here the carriage stopped, and I had to take my seat in a little pair-wheeled trap drawn by a good-sized pony. These berruchinos, as they are called, are by no means comfortable, for instead of being boarded, the floor is composed of a loose network of cords, which affords little rest for the feet. They have no dash– or splash-board, and you are consequently in unpleasant proximity to the horse’s heels, if it should take it into its head to kick. They have, besides, no rail or other rest for the back.” It was an intensely hot day, and at the village from which he made his fresh start he was glad to accept the loan of an immense blue umbrella. And now began an adventure.

They had ascended a steep hill, so steep that the driver got down and walked, and he had not retaken his seat when, without the slightest previous notice of its intention, and presumably induced thereto by the bite of a fly in some more than ordinarily tender part, the wretched little pony started off at full gallop.

At this time Henty was sitting quietly under the umbrella, tranquilly smoking and chatting to the driver, when there was a sudden jerk. His feet having no hold and his back no support, the former flew up into the air and his head went back. Instinctively he made a desperate grasp at the side rail with his unoccupied hand, but it gave way, and in an instant he was on his back in the middle of the road with the blue umbrella perfectly shut up beneath him.

Fortunately the trap was not very high, and his bones were at that period of his life very well protected, so in a moment he was on his feet again, much more astonished than hurt. Bearing the relics of the blue umbrella he pursued the trap, which in spite of the efforts of the driver was going on at full speed, dragging him after it, and it was three or four hundred yards from the place where the pony started before the man was able to bring it to a standstill.

A little scene ensued, for when he came up Henty found the driver looking pale as death, and so much scared that it was with the greatest difficulty he could be persuaded that his fare was not seriously hurt.

It was rather a remarkable escape; but Henty states that he was so little shaken that he did not even suffer with a headache from the effects. Of course, however, the principal damage was to the blue umbrella, and on his return to Serravalle he had a very lengthy amount of talk and argument with the old lady, its owner, as to the amount of compensation to be paid, for it was irretrievably ruined.

The rest of Henty’s journey to the Burgo of San Marino, a village containing about seven hundred inhabitants, was uneventful. It is planted at the foot of a precipice, at the top of which the old town, which is populated to about the same extent, is perched. It is a remarkable mountain, rising as it does almost perpendicularly, and therefore being a very suitable spot for the erection of a fortress in the old dangerous times, for all around there lie nothing but softly swelling hills, no other so suitable a defensive place occurring until far back in the Apennines, another twenty-five miles inland.

The rock is about half a mile long, and to the east the face is absolutely perpendicular, while to the west it has a gradual but still rapid fall, the land being cultivated up to the very walls of the town upon its summit.

There is no flat ground upon the top. It is a mere narrow ridge, the descent beginning from the very edge of the perpendicular east face. When looking up the rock from the road all that is seen of the town are three towers perched upon the three highest points, and the church. None of the houses is visible owing to their position upon the west slope.

Enquiries brought an introduction to one of the ancients of the place, who acted as cicerone to strangers visiting San Marino, and during a walk he was found to be charged with a pretty full description of the politics and history of the little state.

Everything was in a delightful state of innocency, honour more than money seeming to be generally the object sought. There were two captains-regent instead of presidents, who were allowed seventy-five francs each during their term of office of six months. The home and foreign ministers were each paid two hundred and fifty francs for office expenses, postage, etc. The commander-in-chief of the army got honour alone and not a sou besides, and apparently had to pay for his own uniform. Then came the highest paid officials of the republic. These were three, two physicians and one surgeon, who received thirteen hundred and fifty francs, or fifty-four pounds a year each, and for this had to be at the call of all the citizens of the state, to whom they rendered their services gratis. The only patients who had to put their hands in their pockets were those who lived out of town, and they had also to provide conveyance.

There was a judge who went on circuit, and he was chosen for a period of three years, but might be re-elected twice. To meet these stupendous demands, which meant an expenditure of about three thousand pounds a year, the government raised a revenue by the profits upon the sale of tobacco and salt, these being, as in other parts of Italy, state monopolies.

In addition to this a very small tax was levied on the landed proprietors, and the Italian government paid a sum of eighteen thousand francs a year, which was used for making roads, assisting the poor, giving aid in cases of loss by fire or misfortune, and repairing the public buildings. This sum was paid by the Italian government for customs dues.

Following his guide, Henty found the city to be a long narrow village on and below the crest of the cliff. It was enclosed by a wall some twenty-five feet high, surmounted by numerous round bastions. It showed every proof of having been very strong in former times, and even then, although the walls were very old and crumbling, it was evident that a thousand men could defend it for some time against a strong force, the rock falling so steeply away below it that it would be difficult to bring cannon to bear on it. Within the walls the houses were all crowded together; the streets, although they all zigzagged upwards, were so steep that no horse could draw a vehicle up them.

Among the antiquities of the place were the old Assembly Hall and the building which contained the rooms of the captain regent, displaying the arms of the republic – three towers with plumes on the tops and the motto “Libertas.” These towers represented the three which stood upon the highest points of the rocks. The view from the summit of the rock was superb. A thousand feet below lay the Burgo. Beyond that for miles upon miles spread a gently undulating country, dotted with innumerable towns and villages, stretching away to the seashore. To the north lay a perfectly flat marsh land through which the Po and Adige find their way into the sea, this – the Adriatic – looking like a blue wall dotted with white sails. The guide assured the visitor that just before sunrise the mountains of Dalmatia, a hundred miles distant at least, were plainly visible.

Away to the west the Apennines shut in the view. Upon one of the spurs the castle of Saint Leon was visible, where the celebrated Cagliostro was imprisoned and died.

Henty observed upon his descent to the gate of the tower six strong posts, four being placed to make a parallelogram with cross pieces at the top, to one of which was attached a windlass. The remaining two posts were placed one in front and one behind, the whole suggesting the possibility that they had been used in former times in the defence of the tower. On being questioned, however, the guide explained that they were used for a much more matter-of-fact purpose. When oxen are being shoved they are not so calm and patient over the operation as a horse, generally objecting very strongly to the performance. Hence they were driven in between the posts, ropes were fastened to the cross-bar on one side, these were attached to the windlass, and when this was turned, the bullock was swung up into the air, and his feet fastened to the posts in front and behind.

It proved to be a delightful visit, the visitor ending by dining at a little auberge in the village at the foot of the hill, where to his surprise he found that they had an excellent cook.

Chapter Eleven.
A Land of Mystery

Henty, having been interested in mining early in life, was at any time eager to seize upon an opportunity to plunge into the bowels of the earth, and not long after he commenced as war correspondent to the Standard, that is, at the termination of the Italo-Austrian campaign, he took occasion when at Trieste to run up into the hill country for a few days and visit the three great sights of Carniola, namely, the Grotto of Adelsberg, the Lake of Zirknitz, and the quicksilver mines of Idria.

Here the man who had studied mining in his youth with the possibility of succeeding to his father’s industrial occupation was in his element, and showed himself ready to study the country with an open and receptive mind. He was eager at once to investigate the mountainous and sterile country covered by the Alps and Tyrol, the vast forests and their timber, the transport, the burning of charcoal, and the general cheerlessness of a land of desolation often covered with huge boulders and scaurs of white stone. Quite the geologist here, he notes the hard white limestone of the secondary formation, quarried extensively, being excellent for building, and known through Italy as Istrian marble. He speaks of it as being the same stone which extends through Carniola and through Dalmatia into Greece, and here he seems to revel in a kind of exciting pleasure as he finds himself in a limestone formation somewhat similar to that of our own Derbyshire, asking to be explored and tempting him to excursions, honeycombed as it is with fissures and caverns.

Probably in no tract of country of equal size in the world are there so many singular freaks of nature. Rivers of navigable size and depth issue from its mountains – rivers which far surpass the subterranean streams of Central France – and these, after running for a few miles, enter a cavern and lose themselves as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared.

It is a land of mystery and wonder, and, as if the spirit were moving within him to store up his mind with the natural wonders for attractive stories to come, such as would in some form or another fascinate readers yet unborn, Henty, with great eagerness, embraced the opportunity here offered to explore a wild land of savage sterility, where, as if to be in keeping with the “crag, knoll, and mound confusedly hurled, the fragments of an earlier world,” terrible tempests sweep with irresistible force. In the fury which rages in this inhospitable region, horses and wagons are not infrequently hurled over precipices, and a foot passenger, surprised in one of the tempestuous mountain squalls, is forced to seek for shelter beneath the parapets that have been built along the road.

Here he found that he was in a country where the railroads were protected by strong stone walls ten or twelve feet high, or equally lofty wooden palisading supported on both sides by massive struts, so as to afford some shelter to the passing trains which, when the gales are at their worst, are quite unable to pursue their journey.

Here, too, the engineering difficulties encountered in the construction of one of the lines had the deepest interest for Henty as a mining engineer, for not only was he face to face with the difficulties of the making of the railroad, but also with those of obtaining a supply of water at the various stations. Where the line ran, all was aridity and desolation. The water was below, requiring the help of powerful engines to raise it, and aqueducts over the surface to bear it along, one of these water-bridges being twenty-five miles in length. It was a very giant-land for a writer of fiction to fill with adventure.

Passing through this country of desolation, he at last reached the well-named village of Adelsberg, which in a state of nature might very well have supplied the crags where the eagles built. This he found a comfortable well-to-do village, Swiss-like in appearance, with its chalet style of architecture; but he was bent on the works of nature, and drove out to the famed Lake of Zirknitz, a piece of water that has obtained fame through its peculiar habit of quitting its bed once a year for a few weeks and so supplying the natives of those parts with an opportunity for growing a crop of coarse grass and millet before its return. This is all a suggestion of the peculiar workings of the subterranean waters below, and the regularity is more or less wonderful.

About midsummer the waters of the lake begin to shrink, growing lower and lower, and so rapidly that, after about twenty days in July, the lake is empty, remaining so till September or October, according to the season. This is the rule; but as there is no rule without an exception, the lake sometimes remains full for three or four years together, to the great loss of the people of the stony neighbourhood, who depend upon the little crop of buckwheat and millet which they are able to grow in the muddy bed. They also look forward to another harvest given to them when the water dries away; for, strange to state, at this time a plentiful supply of fish that flourish in the depths of the lake is left high and dry, and forms a portion of the natives’ food.

Knowing the character of the lake, Henty on his visit had looked forward to finding the place empty; but it presented no attraction for the visitor, appearing to be only an ordinary sheet of water some four miles long by three wide. There were villages about its shores, and a few small islands dotted its surface; but no opportunity was afforded him of examining what to a mining engineer would have been a matter of intense interest, the natural machinery which operates in the remarkable process of emptying and refilling. For above ground the lake has neither outlet nor inlet; but the limestone which forms its bed contains a number of funnel-shaped holes communicating with the vast caves, grottoes, and reservoirs in the mountains, by which the water enters or is drawn off. Some of these act as ebbing-pipes only; by others the water both enters and retires.

Upon occasions when the lake is empty, and there has been a sudden storm in the mountains, the water pours into the dry bed with such wonderful force and rapidity that it is sometimes filled in twenty-four hours. The annual emptying of the lake, however, is observed almost as a f?te by the surrounding villages. The church announces the strange phenomenon, and the inhabitants become fishers for the nonce. Nets are prepared, and every description of vessel is held ready for the capture of the fish left behind when the water retreats, the nets being principally used as the waters sink and the funnel-shaped holes can be reached by the fishermen, who endeavour to cover these orifices before the fish can descend through them into the natural reservoirs below.

As the waters gradually disappear, a certain number of little pools are left, each being the property of one or other of the villages, and bearing its name. These pools vary greatly in the extent of the harvest they yield the villagers. One year a pool will contain cart-loads of fish, another year perhaps only a few dozen.

Henty gives a most interesting account of the strange phenomenon, but says nothing respecting the quality of the fish, except such as is conveyed by the eagerness of the inhabitants to obtain this natural yielding of the lake. They in all probability, however, belong to the coregonus family, a kind of lake fish which in variety haunt the lakes of Central Europe, and which one can answer for being very good eating, a quality not often possessed by fresh-water fish. In this case, as salt forms a large source of trade in the neighbourhood of Lake Zirknitz, the fish obtained from its waters most likely partake of the firmness and good qualities of those obtained from the sea.

In this mountainous region Henty’s observation was always busy, and he notes everything, not forgetting the accommodation. He describes the inns as rude, but not uncomfortable, the cookery not bad, but considers the people display an undue affection for stewed apples, which they look upon as a vegetable to be consumed with meat of all kinds.

He was much interested, too, in the custom of the villagers of keeping bees. He noticed in some villages several long carts, upon each of which were placed some twenty or thirty bee-hives of the shape of fig-boxes, but about two feet and a half long by a foot wide and nine inches deep. These hives are the property of various villagers, who club together, take a cart, and send it from place to place, so as to give the bees a fresh hunting-ground and a change of blossom for their supply.

Of course it is in the nature of a bee to be busy. Here they all seemed to be very active and hard at work, but they were rather a nuisance in the villages by reason of their numbers. However, they seemed particularly good-tempered bees, a fact of which Henty gives an example, and were not so much a nuisance through offering injury as from their habit of clustering upon the grapes and other fruits exposed for sale.

Henty says he remonstrated with a market woman, of whom he was willing to buy a bunch of grapes, when she held it out to him with eight or ten bees upon it, busily extracting honey, whereupon she laughed at him, picked the insects off with her fingers, and held them out to him to show that they were not disposed to use their stings even when roughly handled. An interesting fact this in natural history, and one which Henty admired, though he preferred seeing it done with other fingers than his own, and was quite content that the woman should have a poor opinion of his personal courage. But there are bees and bees, some more aggressive than others.

We all know the qualities of our own native bee, and any bee-keeper, unless he has been stung frequently and become inured, will tell you that the bees imported of late years from Liguria, and now acclimatised, have a rather vicious disposition.

These from the neighbourhood of Adelsberg are in all probability the reverse in character. Certainly they seem to vary, for Henty describes the honey as by no means good, being very dark-coloured, and having a strong, unpleasant twang. On the other hand, the flavour depends upon the neighbouring growth of flowers, and the taste may be given by some nectary common to the neighbourhood, possibly by what Henty describes when he says the fields were bright with purple crocus, which he had never before seen flowering at this time of year – October – evidently a mistake on his part, for the colchicum, the producer of the old-world remedy for gout.



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