Naples: Drifting lazily of a summer evening

Drifting lazily of a summer evening over the Bay of Naples in a brown old fishing felucca with a friendly ancient boatman for companion, careless of time or direction; the night winds soft; the moon clear; indolent boating-parties in joyous relaxation all about; languorous, plaintive songs of Italy near by and far away; Vesuvius glorious and mysterious in the purple offing, and the gray old city, touched with silver, beaming down from all her crescent hillsides, – here, indeed, is the stuff of which day dreams are compounded! Chimes in shadowy belfries take soft, musical notice of the hour; and my thoughts recede with those fading echoes and retrace the bright and pleasant stages that have led me this evening into an environment of such charm and romance.

Thus, then, it was. Two hours ago, as I loitered along the crowded Via Caracciolo on the Bay front and watched Neapolitan Fashion take the air, I again encountered my Old Man of the Sea at his landing-place, – swarthy, wrinkled Luigi of the hoop earrings and faded blue trousers rolled to the knees. Little was he bothering his grizzled head over the frivolity that fluttered above him; and yet it was, in fact, a charming show. Old Luigi makes a mistake, in my opinion, in ignoring the elegant passeggiata; for afternoon promenading on the Caracciolo is something that most of Naples will do more than lift its head to see. Besides, what an attractive setting it has! The boasted park, the Villa Nazionale, arrays the western front in a pleasant old woods of broad and shady trees, along the water side of which stretches the handsome boulevard of the Caracciolo. The distinguishing mark is thus supplied to divide society between the carriage set who hector it here and along the Villa’s winding drives, and those lesser lights who venture to raise their heads secure from snubs in the promenading spaces under the trees and before the cafes and bandstand. With the latter, as the elders salute friends, renew acquaintances, and exchange civilities with jubilant exclamations, delighted shrugs, and storms of exultant gestures, the younger men, in flannel suits and foppish canes, flirt desperately by twirling their waxed little mustaches, and the snappyeyed signorinas respond in kind by a subtle and discrete use of the fan. The contemplative promenader will stroll along the cool, statue-lined allees, issuing forth from time to time to enjoy the brisk music of the band. The hardened idler will take a mean delight in penetrating the retired and romantic retreats in the neighborhood of the Paestum Fountain .and thus arousing whole coveys of indignant lovers who have regarded this region as peculiarly their own from time immemorial; in the event of threatened reprisals the disturber can seek sanctuary in the renowned Aquarium, just at hand, and there spend his time to better advantage in contemplating octopi and sensitive plants, and all sorts of astonishing fishes. But the real show, of course, is en voiture. With a clatter and dash along they come: The jeunesse doree, with straw hats cocked rakishly, shouting loudly to their horses and sawing desperately on the reins; young beauties in the latest word of milliner and modiste loll back in handsome victorias, reveling in the sensation they are creating, and with great black eyes flashing in curious contrast to the studied placidity of their quiet faces; consequential senators down from Rome; fat merchants trying to appear at ease; and all the usual remnants of the fashionable rout. On the wide sidewalks the promenaders proceed leisurely and with more goodhumored democracy: prim little girls with governesses; romping schoolboys in caps of all colors; back-robed students; long-haired artisti; and priests by the score strolling sedately and gesturing earnestly with dark, nervous hands.

To all this brave parade Luigi turns a blind eye and a deaf ear; but he always manages to see me, I have noticed. This afternoon his programme was the attractive one of a sail down to the Cape of Posilipo for a fishdinner at a rustic little ristoranti, with the table to be spread under a chestnut-tree on a weathered stone terrace at the water’s edge where the spray from an occasional wave-top could spatter the cloth and I might fleck the ashes of my cigar straight down into the Bay. This old fellow can interest any one, I believe, when he wrinkles up into his insinuating and enthusiastic grin and plays that trump card, “And after dinner, if the signore wish, we can drift about the Bay or sail over toward Capri and Sorrento.” Naturally, this is my cue to enter. Into the boat I go; off come hat, coat, collar, and tie, and up go sleeves to the shoulder. I am allowed the tiller, and the genial old fisherman stretches at his ease beside the slanting mast and lights a long, black, quill-stemmed cheroot. Now for comfort and romance and all the delights of Buchanan Read’s inspired vision:

“I heed not if My rippling skiff Float swift or slow from cliff to clifF,; – With dreamful eyes My spirit lies Under the walls of Paradise.”

From all garish distractions our little boat bore us in rippling leisure along the picturesque Mergellina front and under the long, villa-dotted heights of the Posilipo hillside, whose shadows crept slowly out on the waters as Apollo drove his flaming chariot beyond the ridge to seek the dread Sibyl of Cumae. Nature has always been partial to her gay, irresponsible Naples, and this afternoon she seemed resolved to outdo herself in clothing it withcharm and beauty. Under the setting sun the entire sky over Posilipo became a gorgeous riot of crimson and gold, and the opposite Vesuvian shore basked with indolent Oriental listlessness in a brilliant deluge that penetrated the deepest recesses of its vineyards and fruited terraces. Through this magic realm of richest color we floated lightly, silently responsive to the varying phases of the calm and glorious sunset hour. In deepest content

“my hand I trail Within the shadow of the sail.”

The region to which we lifted our eyes is one of veritable poet-worship. How incredible to think that on this hillside Lucullus has lived and Horace strolled and Virgil mused over his deathless verse! Look again, and under a clump of gnarled old trees one sees the latter’s venerated tomb. Over these waters came the pious A~neas with his Trojan galleys to question the Cumaean Sibyl; and since the age of fable what fleets of Carthage have passed around Cape Miseno, what barks of savage pirates, what brazen triremes of Rome, what armadas of Spain and navies of all the world! It staggers the mind to attempt to recall the scenes of war and pillage that have been enacted under the frowning brows of these storied hills during the last three thousand years.

The wonderful sail was all too brief, and almost before I was aware the goal was at hand, and I stepped ashore at the ristoranti approved of Luigi and entered upon the promised joys. It was all as he had predicted; with possibly the exception of a few details he had discreetly neglected to warn me against. That it required four determined efforts and a threat of police to get the proper change when I came to settle the bill is really no jarring memory at all. It is the usual experience with the “forgetful” Neapolitan restaurant keeper. And what are foreigners for, anyway? And was it not worth something extra to have dined face to face with this glittering Bay, with the panorama of Naples on one hand and a sunset over Cape Miseno on the other? So with many bows and mutual civilities I parted with the zealous boniface and rejoined the waiting felucca. A light shove, and the shadows of the terrace fell behind us and we were out again on the Bay. Such are the alluring stages, among others, that may bring one eventually to an evening’s moonlight sail at Naples.

Just now the bells rang eight. Luigi grows sentimental. Again he declines my cigars, stretches at his ease and produces another quilled specimen of government monopoly such as, when at home, he lights at the end of a smouldering rope dangling in a tobacco shop of the Mercato. In the gathering gloom one sees little now of the trellised paths of Posilipo, the white marble villas with their balconies and terraces, or the brilliant clustering roses gay against the glossy green of groves of lemons and oranges. In the darkness of the firs each cavern and grotto of this legend-haunted headland disappears and one can barely make out the wavewashed Rock of Virgil, at the farthest extremity, where, the Neapolitans will tell you, the poet was wont to practice his enchantments. The ruddy sky pales over the mouth of Avernus and the Elysian Fields, and Apollo abandons us to Diana and the broad flecking of the lights of Parthenope. We swing a wide circle in the offing. Between us and the distant rim of water-front lamps hundreds of light craft are idly floating. Romantic, pleasure-loving Naples has dined and taken to the water, to cheer its heart with laughter and song. Like glowworms the lights of the little boats lift and sway with the movement of the waves; while seaward, the drifting torches of fishermen flare in search of frutti di mare.

Like an aged beauty Naples is at her best by night, when the ravages of time are concealed. Lights glitter brightly along the shore line from Posilipo to Sorrento and all over the hillsides, and even beyond Sant’ Elmo and the low white priory of San Martino the palace-crowned heights of Capodimonte, where the paperchases of early spring afford so much diversion to the young gallants of the court. Popular restaurants up the hillsides are marked by groups of colored lights. A thick spangle of lamps proclaims the progress of some neighborhood festa. The moon is full; the sky brilliant with enormous stars. In the distance the curling smoke of Vesuvius glows with a sultry red or fades fitfully into gloomy tones, as suits that imperious will which threescore of eruptions have rendered absolute. But, as all the world knows, this aged beauty of a city that “lights up” so well by night is far from “plain” by day. Then appears the charm and distinction of the original way she has of parting her hair, as it were, with the great dividing rocky ridge that runs downward from Capodimonte to Sant’ Elmo and then on to Pizzofalcone, “Rock of the Falcon.” She even secures a coquettish touch in the projecting point, like an antique necklace pendant, at the centre of her double-crescented shore, where juts a low reef and at its end rests the ancient, blackened Castello dell’ Ovo, – on a magically supported egg, they say, – the accredited theatre of so many extravagant adventures. And by day she looks down in indolent content through the half-closed eyes of ten thousand windows and surveys a glorious sea of milky blue, brimming tawny curving beaches crowned with white villas in luxuriant groves and vineyards, expanding in turquoise about soft headlands and dim precipices, and bearing, on its smooth, restful bosom in the far, faint offing, magical islands of pink and pearl that seem no more than tinted clouds.

A shoal of skiffs hangs under the black hull of a belated liner, whose rails are crowded with new arrivals delighted at so picturesque and enthusiastic a reception, and whose silver falls merrily into the inverted umbrellas of the boys and girls who are singing and dancing in the little boats by the light of flaming torches. Very shortly these visitors will learn that the interest they excite in Neapolitans is to be measured very strictly in terms of ready cash. Secretly, they will be despised. There is no smile-hid rapacity comparable with that encountered here. The incoming steamer has not yet warped into her berth before the Neapolitan has begun his campaign for money. Beggars crawl out on the pier flaunting their hideous deformities and wailing for soldi, and insulting cabmen lie in ambush at the gates. At no other port does a foreigner disembark with so much embarrassment. He goes ashore feeling like a lamb marked for the shearing, and lives to fulfill the expectation with humiliating dispatch. It has to be admitted, on the other hand, that the customs-officers occasionally catch strange flashes of transmarine interests that must puzzle them not a little. As an instance, the first person to land from the steamer I was on was a young American athlete in desperate quest of the latest daily paper, and bent, as we presumed, upon securing instant word of some matter of great and immediate importance. He succeeded; but what was our astonishment to behold him a minute later leap and shout for joy and announce to every one about him that Princeton had again won the Yale baseball series and remained the college champions!

Naples, tonight, is vibrant with song; faithful to her ancient myth of the nymph Parthenope, whose sweet singing long lured men to destruction until Ulysses withstood it and the chagrined goddess cast herself into the sea and perished and her body floated to these shores. Parthenope’s children here do not destroy people by their singing now, but rather delight and revitalize them. Mandolins and guitars are throbbing softly on every hand and the old familiar songs of Naples fill the air. “Traviata,” “Trovatore,” and the “Cavalleria” reign prime favorites. To be sure, there is no escaping the linked sweetness of the wailing “Sa-an-ta-a Luu-ci-a,” nor that notion of perpetual and hilarious youth conveyed in the ubiquitous “Funiculi-Funicola.” In martial staccato, as of old, Margarita, the love-lorn seamstress, is jestingly warned against Salvatore,-”Mar-ga-ri, ‘e perzo a Salvatore!” – and the skittish “Frangese” recites for the millionth time the discouraging experience of the giddy young peddler who undertook to barter his “pretty pins from Paris” in exchange for kisses that would only bring “a farthing for five” in Paradise. More than one singer is deploring the heartless coquetry of “La Bella Sorrentina,” while as many more appeal amorously to the charming Maria with promises of “beds of roseleaves,” – “Ah! Maria Mar!! Quanta suonna che perdo pe te!”