Italy – Forza Maggiore

I IMAGINE that Grossetto is not a town much known to travel, for it is absent from all the guide-books I have looked at. However, it is chief in the Maremma, where sweet Pia de’ Tolommei languished and perished of the poisonous air and her love’s cruelty, and where, so many mute centuries since, the Etrurian cities flourished and fell. Further, one may say that Grossetto is on the diligence road from Civita Vecchia to Leghorn, and that in the very heart of the place there is a lovely palm-tree, rare, if not sole, in that latitude. This palm stands in a well-sheltered, dull little court, out of every thing’s way, and turns tenderly toward the wall that shields it on the north. It has no other company but a beautiful young girl, who leans out of a window high aver its head, and I have no doubt talks with it. At the moment we discovered the friends, the maiden was looking pathetically to the northward, while the palm softly stirred and opened its plumes, as a bird does when his song is finished ; and there is very lit-de question but it had just been singing to her that song of which the palms are so fond, —

“Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam Im Norden auf kahler Hoh’.”

Grossetto does her utmost to hide the secret of this tree’s existence, as if a hard, matter-of-fact place ought to be ashamed of a sentimentality of the kind. It pretended to be a very worldly town, and tried to keep us in the neighborhood of its cathedral, where the caffè and shops are, and where, in the evening, four or five officers of the garrison clinked their sabres on the stones, and promenaded up and down, and as many ladies shopped for gloves ; and as many citizens sat at the principal caffe and drank black coffee. This was lively enough ; and we knew that the citizens were talking of the last week’s news and the Roman question ; that the ladies were really looking for loves, not gloves ; that such of the officers as had no local intrigue to keep their hearts at rest were terribly bored, and longed for Florence or Milan or Turin.

Besides the social charms of her piazza, Grossetto put forth others of an artistic nature. The cathedral was very old and very beautiful, — built of alternate lines of red and white marble, and lately, restored in the best spirit of fidelity and reverence. But it was not open, and we were obliged to turn from it to the group of statuary in the middle of the piazza, representative of the Maremma and Family returning thanks to the Grand Duke Leopold III. of Tuscany for his goodness in causing her swamps to be drained. The Maremma and her children are arrayed in the scant draperies of Allegory, but the Grand Duke is fully dressed, and is shown looking down with some surprise at their figures, and with a visible doubt of the propriety of their public appearance in that state.

There was also a Museum at Grossetto, and I won-der what was in it ?

The wall of the town was perfect yet, though the moat at its feet had been so long dry that it was only to be known from the adjacent fields by the richness of its soil. The top of the wall had been leveled, and planted with shade, and turned into a peaceful promenade, like most of such mediaeval defenses in Italy ; though I am not sure that a little military life did not still linger about a bastion here and there. From somewhere, when we strolled out early in the morning, to walk upon the wall, there came to us a throb of drums ; but I believe that the only armed men we saw, beside the officers in the piazza, were the numerous sportsmen resorting at that season to Grossetto for the excellent shooting in the marshes. All the way to Florence we continued to meet them and their dogs ; and our inn at Grossetto overflowed with abundance of game. On the kitchen floor and in the court were heaps of larks, pheasants, quails, and beccafichi, at which a troop of scullion-boys constantly plucked, and from which the great, noble, beautiful, white-aproned cook forever fried, stewed, broiled, and roasted. We lived chiefly upon these generous birds during our sojourn, and found, when we attempted to vary our bill of fare, that the very genteel waiter attending us had few distinct ideas beyond them. He was part of the repairs and improvements which that hostelry had recently under gone, and had evidently come in with the four. pronged forks, the chromo – lithographs of Victor Emanuel, Garibaldi, Solferino, and Magenta in the large dining-room, and the iron stove in the small one. He had nothing, evidently, in common with the brick floors of the bed-chambers, and the ancient rooms with great fire-places. He strove to give a Florentine blandishment to the rusticity of life in the Maremma ; and we felt sure that he must know what beefsteak was. When we ordered it, he assumed to be perfectly conversant with it, started to bring it, paused, turned, and, with a great sacrifice of personal dignity, demanded, ” Bifsteca di manzo, o bifsteca di motone . ” —” Beefsteak of beef, or beefsteak of mutton ? ”

Of Grossetto proper, this is all I remember, if I except a boy whom I heard singing after dark in the streets, —

” Camicia rossa, O Garibaldi ! ”

The cause of our sojourn there was an instance of forza maggiore, as the agent of the diligence company defiantly expressed it, in refusing us damages for our overturn into the river. It was in the early part of the winter when we started from Rome for Venice, and we were traveling northward by diligence because the railways were still more or less interrupted by the storms and floods predicted of Matthieu de la Drôme, — the only reliable prophet France has produced since Voltaire ; — and if our accident was caused by an overruling Providence, the company, according to the very law of its existence, was not responsible. To be sure, we did not see how an overruling Providence was to blame for loading upon our diligence the baggage cf two diligences, or for the clumsiness of our driver but on the other hand, it is certain that the company did not make it rain or cause the inundation. And, in fine, although we could not have traveled by railway, we were masters to have taken the steamer instead of the diligence at Civita Vecchia.

The choice of either of these means of travel had presented itself in vivid hues of disadvantage all the way from Rome to the Papal port, where the French steamer for Leghorn lay dancing a hornpipe upon the short, chopping waves, while we approached by railway. We had leisure enough to make the decision, if that was all we wanted. Our engine-driver had derived his ideas of progress from an Encyclical Letter, and the train gave every promise of arriving At Civita Vecchia five hundred years behind time. But such was the desolating and depressing influence of the weather and the landscape, that we reached Civita Vecchia as undecided as we had left Rome. On the one hand, there had been the land, soaked and sodden, — wild, shagged with scrubby growths of timber and brooded over by sullen clouds, and visibly inhabited only by shepherds, leaning upon their staves at an angle of forty-five degrees, and looking, in their immovable dejection, with their legs wrapped in long-haired goat-skins, like satyrs that had been converted, and were trying to do right turning dim faces to us, thy warned us with every mute appeal against the land, as a waste of mud from one end of Italy to the other. On the other hand, there was the sea-wind raving about our train and threatening to blow it over, and whenever we drew near the coast, heaping the waves upon the beach in thundering menace.

We weakly and fearfully remembered our former journeys by diligence over broken railway routes ; we recalled our cruel voyage from Genoa to Naples by sea ; and in a state of pitiable dismay we ate ive francs’ worth at the restaurant of the Civita Vecchia station before we knew it, and long before we had made up our minds. Still we might have lingered and hesitated, and perhaps returned to Rome at last, but for the dramatic resolution of the old man who solicited passengers for the diligence, and carried their passports for a final Papal visa at the police-office. By the account he gave of himself, he was one of the best men in the world, and unique in those parts for honesty and truthfulness ; and he be-sought us, out of that affectionate interest with which our very aspect had inspired him, not to go by steamer, but to go by diligence, which in nineteen hours would land us safe, and absolutely refreshed by the journey, at the railway station in Follonica. And now, once, would we go by diligence ? twice, would we go ? three times, would we go ?

” Signore,” said our benefactor, angrily, ” I lose my time with you ; ” and ran away, to be called back in the course of destiny, as he knew well enough, and besought to taxe us as a special favor.

From the passports he learned that there was official dignity among us, and addressed the unworthy bearer of public honors as Eccellenza, and, at parting bequeathed his advantage to the conductor, commending us all in set terms to his courtesy. Ile hovered caressingly about us as long as we remained, straining politeness to’ do us some last little service ; and when the diligence rolled away, he did all that one man could to give us a round of applause.

We laughed together at this silly old man, when out of sight ; but we confessed that, if travel in our own country ever came, with advancing corruption, to be treated with the small deceits practiced upon it in Italy, it was not likely to be treated with the small civilities also there attendant on it, — and so tried to console ourselves.

At the moment of departure, we were surprised to have enter the diligence a fellow-countryman, whom we had first seen on the road. from Naples to Rome. He had since crossed our path with that iteration of travel which brings you again and again in view of the same trunks and the same tourists in the round of Europe, and finally at Civita Vecchia he had turned up, a silent spectator of our scene with the agent of the diligence, and had gone off apparently a confirmed passenger by steamer. Perhaps a nearer view of the sailor’s hornpipe, as danced by that vessel in the harbor, shook his resolution. At any rate, here he was again, and with his ticket for Follonica, — a bright-eyed, rosy-checked man, and we will say a citizen of Portland, though he was not. For the first time in our long acquaintance with one another’s faces, we entered into conversation, and wondered whether we should find brigands or any thing to eat on the road, without expectation of finding either. In respect of robbers, we were not disappointed ; but shortly after nightfall we stopped at a lonely post house to change horses, and found that the landlord had so far counted on our appearance as to have, just roasted and fragrantly fuming, a leg of lamb, with certain small fried fish, and a sufficiency of bread. It was a very lonely place as I say ; the sky was gloomy overhead ; and the wildness of the landscape all about us gave our provision quite a gamy flavor ; and brigands could have added nothing to our sense of solitude.

The road creeps along the coast for some distance from Civita Vecchia, within hearing of the sea, and nowhere widely forsakes it, I believe, all the way to Follonica. The country is hilly, and we stopped every two hours to change horses ; at which times we looked out, and, seeing that it was a gray and windy night, though not rainy, exulted that we had Jot taken the steamer. With very little change, the wisdom of our decision in favor of the diligence formed the burden of our talk during the whole night; and to think of eluded sea-sickness requited us in the agony of our break-neck efforts to catch a little sleep, as, mounted upon our nightmares, we rode steeple-chases up and down the highways and by-ways of horror. Any thing that absolutely wakened us was accounted a blessing ; and I remember few things in life with so keen a pleasure as the summons that came to us to descend from, our places and cross a river in one boat, while the two diligences of our train followed in another. Here we had time to see our fellow-passengers, as the pulsating light of their cigars illumined their faces, and to discover among them that Italian, common to all large companies, who speaks English, and is very eager to practice it with you, — who is such a benefactor if you do not know his own language, and such a bore if you do. After this, being landed, it was rapture to stroll up and down the good road, and feel it hard and real under our feet, and not an abysmal impalpability, while all the grim shapes of our dreams fled to the spectral line of small boats sustaining the ferry-barge, and swaying slowly from it as the drowned men at their keels tugged them against the tide.

” S’ accommodino, Signori ! ” cries the cheerful voice of the conductor, and we ascend to our places in the diligence. The nightmares are brought out again ; we mount, and renew the steeple-chase as be-fore.

Suddenly, it all comes to an end, and we sit wide awake in the diligence, amid a silence only broken by the hiss of rain against the windows, and the sweep of gusts upon the roof. The diligence stands still ; there is no rattle of harness, nor other sound to prove that we have arrived at the spot by other means than dropping from the clouds. The idea that we are passengers in the last diligence destroyed before the Deluge, and are now waiting our fate on the highest ground accessible to wheels, fades away as the day dimly breaks, and we find ourselves planted, as the Italians say, on the banks of another river. There is no longer any visible conductor, the horses have been spirited away, the driver has vanished.

The rain beats and beats upon the roof, and begins to drop through upon us in great, wrathful tears, while the river before us rushes away with a momently swelling flood. Enter now from the depths of the storm a number of rainy peasants, with our conductor and driver perfectly waterlogged, and group themselves on the low, muddy shore, near a flat ferry-barge, evidently wanting but a hint of forza maggiore to go down with any thing put into it. A moment they dispute in pantomime, sending now and then a windy tone of protest and expostulation to our ears, and then they drop into a motionless silence, and stand there in the tempest, not braving it, but enduring it with the pathetic resignation of their race, as if it were some form of hopeless political oppression. At last comes the conductor to us and says, It is impossible for our diligences to cross in the boat, and he has sent for others to meet us on the opposite shore. He expected them long before this, but we See ! They are not come. Patience and malediction !

Remaining planted in these unfriendly circum–tances from four o’clock till ten, we have still the effrontery to be glad that we did not take the steamer. What a storm that must be at sea! When at last our connecting diligences appear on the other shore we are almost light-hearted, and make a jest of the Ombrone, as we perilously pass it in the ferry-boat too weak for our diligences. Between the landing and the vehicles there is a space of heavy mud to cross, and when we reach them we find the coupe appointed us occupied by three young Englishmen, who insist that they shall be driven to the boat. With that graceful superiority which endears their nation to the world, and makes the traveling Englishman a universal favorite, they keep the seats to which they have no longer any right, while the tempest drenches the ladies to whom the places belong ; and it is only by the forza maggiore of our conductor that they can be dislodged. In the mean time the Portland man exchanges with them the assurances of personal and national esteem, which that mighty bond of friendship, the language of Shakespeare and Milton, enables us to offer so idiomatically to our transatlantic cousins.

What Grossetto was like, as we first rode through it, we scarcely looked to see. In four or five hours we should strike the railroad at Follonica ; and we merely asked of intermediate places that they should lot detain us. We dined in Grossetto at an inn of the Larthian period, — a cold inn and a damp, which seemed never to have been swept since the broom dropped from the grasp of the last Etrurian chambermaid, — and we ate with the two-pronged iron forks of an extinct civilization. All the while we dined, a boy tried to kindle a fire to warm us, and beguiled his incessant failures with stories of inundation on the road ahead of us. But we believed him so little, that when he said a certain stream near Grossetto was impassable, our company all but hissed him.

When we left the town and hurried into the open country, we perceived that he had only too great reason to be an alarmist. Every little rill was risen, and boiling over with the pride of harm, and the broad fields lay hid under the yellow waters that here and there washed over the road. Yet the freshet only presented itself to us as a pleasant excitement ; and even when we came to a place where the road itself was covered for a quarter of a mile, we scarcely looked outside the diligence to see how deep the water was. We were surprised when our horses were brought to a stand on a rising ground, and the conductor, cap in hand, appeared at the door. He was a fat, well-natured man, full of a smiling good-will ; and he stood before us in a radiant desperation.

Would Eccellenza descend, look at the water in front, and decide whether to go on ? The conductor desired to content ; it displeased him to delay, — ma, in somma ! — the rest was confided to the conductor’s eloquent shoulders and eyebrows.

Eccellenza, descending, beheld but a disheartening prospect. On every hand the country was under water. The two diligences stood on a stone bridge spanning the stream, that, now swollen to an angry torrent, brawled over a hundred yards of the road before us. Beyond, the ground rose, and on is slope stood a farm-house up to its second story in water. Without the slightest hope in his purpose; and merely as an experiment, Eccellenza suggested that a man should be sent in on horseback ; which being done, man and horse in a moment floundered into swimming depths.

The conductor, vigilantly regarding Eccellenza, gave a great shrug of desolation.

Eccellenza replied with a foreigner’s broken shrug, — a shrug of sufficiently correct construction, but wanting the tonic accent, as one may say, though ex-pressing, however imperfectly, an equal desolation.

It appeared to be the part of wisdom not to go ahead, but to go back if we could ; and we reentered the water we had just crossed. It had risen a little meanwhile, and the road could now be traced only by the telegraph-poles. The diligence before us went safely through ; but our driver, trusting rather to inspiration than precedent, did not follow it care-fully, and directly drove us over the side of a small viaduct. All the baggage of the train having been lodged upon the roof of our diligence, the unwieldy vehicle now lurched heavily, hesitated, as if preparing, like Csar, to fall decently, and went over on its side with a stately deliberation that gave us ample time to arrange our plans for getting out.

The torrent was only some three feet deep, but it was swift and muddy, and it was with a fine sense of shipwreck that Eccellenza felt his boots filling with water, while a conviction that it would have been better, after all, to have taken the steamer, struck coldly home to him. We opened the window in the top side of the diligence, and lifted the ladies through it, and the conductor, in the character of life-boat, bore them ashore ; while the driver cursed his horses in a sullen whisper, and could with difficulty be diverted from that employment to cut the lines and save one of them from drowning.

Here our compatriot, whose conversation with the Englishman at the Ombrone we had lately admired, showed traits of strict and severe method which afterward came into even bolder relief. The ladies being rescued, he applied himself to the rescue of their hats, cloaks, rubbers, muffs, books, and bags, and handed them up through the window with tireless perseverance, making an effort to wring or dry each article in turn. The other gentleman on top received them all rather grimly, and had not perhaps been amused by the situation but for the exploit of hi* hat. It was of the sort called in Italian as in English slang a stove-pipe (canna), and having been made in Italy, it was of course too large for its wearer. It had never been any thing but a horror and reproach to him, and he was now inexpressibly delighted to see it steal out of the diligence in company with one of the red-leather cushions, and glide darkly down the flood. It nodded and nodded to the cushion with a superhuman tenderness and elegance, and had a preposterous air of whispering, as it drifted out of sight, —

“It may be we shall reach the Happy Isles,—It may be that the gulfs shall wash us down.”

The romantic interest of this episode had hardly died away, when our adventure acquired an idyllic flavor from the appearance on the scene of four peas-ants in an ox-cart. These the conductor tried to engage to bring out the baggage and right the fallen diligence ; and they, after making him a little speech upon the value of their health, which might be injured, asked him, tentatively, two hundred francs for the service. The simple incident enforced the fact already known to us, — that, if Italians sometimes take advantage of strangers, they are equally willing to prey upon each other ; but I. doubt if any thing could have taught a foreigner the sweetness with which our conductor bore the enormity, and turned quietly from those brigands to carry the Portland man from the wreck, on which he lingered, to the shore.

Here in the gathering twilight the passengers of both diligences grouped themselves, and made merry over the common disaster. As the conductor and the drivers brought off the luggage our spirits rose with the arrival of each trunk, and we were pleased or not as we found it soaked or dry. We applauded and admired the greater sufferers among us : a lady who opened a dripping box was felt to have perpetrated a pleasantry ; and a Brazilian gentleman, whose luggage dropped to pieces and was scattered in the flood about the diligence, was looked upon as a very subtile humorist. Our own contribution to these witty passages was the epigrammatic display of a reeking trunk full of the pretty rubbish people firing away from Rome and Naples, — copies of Pompeian frescos more ruinous than the originals ; photographs floating loose from their cards ; little earthen busts reduced to the lumpishness of common clay ; Roman scarfs stained and blotted out of all memory of their recent hues ; Roman pearls clinging together in clammy masses.

We were a band of brothers and sisters, as we all crowded into one diligence and returned to Grossetto. Arrived there, our party, knowing that a public conveyance in Italy — and everywhere else — always stops at the worst inn in a place, made bold to seek another, and found it without ado, though the person who undertook to show it spoke of it mysteriously and as of difficult access, and tried to make the simple affair as like a scene of grand opera as he could.

We took one of the ancient rooms in which there was a vast fire-place, as already mentioned, and we there kindled such a fire as could not have been known in that fuel-sparing land for ages. The drying of the clothes was an affair that drew out all the energy and method of our compatriot, and at a late hour we left him moving about among the garments that dangled and dripped from pegs and hooks and lines, dealing with them as a physician with his sick, and tenderly nursing his dress-coat, which he wrung and shook and smoothed and pulled this way and that with a never-satisfied anxiety. At midnight, he hired a watcher to keep up the fire and turn the steaming raiment, and, returning at four o’clock, found his watcher dead asleep before the empty fire-place. But I rather applaud than blame the watcher or this. He must have been a man of iron nerve to fall asleep amid all that phantasmal show of masks and disguises. What if those reeking silks had forsaken their nails, and, decking themselves with the blotted Roman scarfs and the slimy Roman pearls, had invited the dress-coats to look over the dripping photographs ? Or if all those drowned garments had assumed the characters of the people whom they had grown to resemble, and had sat down to hear the shade of Pia de’ Tolommei rehearse the story of her sad fate in the Maremma ? I say, if a watcher could sleep in such company, he was right to do so.

On the third day after our return to Grossetto, we gathered together our damaged effects, and packed them into refractory trunks. Then we held the customary discussion with the landlord concerning the effrontery of his account, and drove off once more toward Follonica. We could scarcely recognize the route for the one we had recently passed over ; and it was not until we came to the scene of our wreck, and found the diligence stranded high and dry upon the roadside, that we could believe the whole landscape about us had been flooded three days before. The offending stream had shrunk back to its channel, and now seemed to feign an unconsciousness of its late excess, and had a virtuous air of not knowing how iii the world to account for that upturned diligence. The waters, we learned, had begun to sub-side the night after our disaster ; and the vehicle might have been righted and drawn off— for it was not in the least injured — forty-eight hours previously ; but I suppose it was not en regle to touch it without orders from Rome. I picture it to myself still lying there, in the heart of the marshes, and thrilling sympathetic travel with the spectacle of its ultimate ruin :

“Disfecemi Maremma.”

We reached Follonica at last, and then the cars hurried us to Leghorn. We were thoroughly humbled in spirit, and had no longer any doubt that we did ill to take the diligence at Civita Vecchia instead of the steamer ; for we had been, not nineteen hours, but four days on the road, and we had suffered as aforementioned.

But we were destined to be partially restored to our self-esteem, if not entirely comforted for our losses, when we sat clown to dinner in the Hotel Washington, and the urbane head-waiter, catching the drift of our English discourse, asked us, —

” Have the signori heard that the French steamer, which left Civita Vecchia the same day with their diligence, had to put back and lie in port more than, two days on account of the storm? She is but now come into Leghorn, after a very dangerous passage.’