IX. MOVING SOUTHWARDS
The train conveying me to Taranto was to halt for the night at the second station beyond Venosa - at Spinaz-zola. Aware of this fact, I had enquired about the place and received assuring reports as to its hotel accommodation. But the fates were against me. On my arrival in the late evening I learnt that the hotels were all closed long ago, the townsfolk having gone to bed "with the chickens"; it was suggested that I had better stay at the station, where the manageress of the restaurant kept certain sleeping quarters specially provided for travellers in my predicament.
Presently the gentle dame lighted a dim lantern and led me across what seemed to be a marsh (it was raining) to the door of a hut which was to be my resting-place. At the entrance she paused, and after informing me that a band of musicians had taken all the beds save one which was at my disposal if I were good enough to pay her half a franc, she placed the lantern in my hand and stumbled back into the darkness.
I stepped into a low chamber, the beds of which were smothered under a profusion of miscellaneous wraps. The air was warm - the place exhaled an indescribable esprit de corps. Groping further, I reached another apartment, vaulted and still lower than the last, an old-fashioned cow-stable, possibly, converted into a bedroom. One glance sufficed me: the couch was plainly not to be trusted. Thankful to be out of the rain at least, I lit a pipe and prepared to pass the weary hours till 4 a.m.
It was not long ere I discovered that there was another bed in this den, opposite my own; and judging by certain undulatory and saltatory movements within, it was occupied. Presently the head of a youth emerged, with closed eyes and flushed features. He indulged in a series of groans and spasmodic kicks, that subsided once more, only to recommence. A flute projected from under his pillow.
"This poor young man," I thought, "is plainly in bad case. On account of illness, he has been left behind by the rest of the band, who have gone to Spinazzola to play at some marriage festival. He is feverish, or possibly subject to fits - to choriasis or who knows what disorder of the nervous system. A cruel trick, to leave a suffering youngster alone in this foul hovel." I mis-liked his symptoms - that anguished complexion and delirious intermittent trembling, and began to run over the scanty stock of household remedies contained in my bag, wondering which of them might apply to his complaint. There was court plaster and boot polish, quinine, corrosive sublimate and Worcester sauce (detestable stuff, but indispensable hereabouts).
Just as I had decided in favour of the last-named, he gave a more than usually vigorous jerk, sat up in bed and, opening his eyes, remarked:
This, then, was the malady. I enquired why he had not joined his companions.
He was tired, he said; tired of life in general, and of flute-playing in particular. Tired, moreover, of certain animals; and with a tiger-like spring he leapt out of bed.
Once thoroughly awake, he proved an amiable talker, though oppressed with an incurable melancholy which no amount of tobacco and Venosa wine could dispel. In gravely boyish fashion he told me of his life and ambitions. He had passed a high standard at school, but - what would you? - every post was crowded. He liked music, and would gladly take it up as a profession, if anything could be learnt with a band such as his; he was sick, utterly sick, of everything. Above all things, he wished to travel. Visions of America floated before his mind - where was the money to come from? Besides, there was the military service looming close at hand; and then, a widowed mother at home - the inevitable mother - with a couple of little sisters; how shall a man desert his family? He was born on a farm on the Murge, the watershed between this country and the Adriatic. Thinking of the Murge, that shapeless and dismal range of limestone hills whose name suggests its sad monotony, I began to understand the origin of his pagan wistfulness.
"Happy foreigners!" - such was his constant refrain - "happy foreigners, who can always do exactly what they like! Tell me something about other countries," he said.
"Anything - anything!"
To cheer him up, I replied with improbable tales of Indian life, of rajahs and diamonds, of panthers whose eyes shine like moonbeams in the dark jungle, of elephants huge as battleships, of sportive monkeys who tie knots in each others' tails and build themselves huts among the trees, where they brew iced lemonade, which they offer in friendliest fashion to the thirsty wayfarer, together with other light refreshment - -
"Cigarettes as well?"
"No. They are not allowed to cultivate tobacco."
"Ah, that monopolio, the curse of humanity!"
He was almost smiling when, at 2.30 a.m., there resounded a furious knocking at the door, and the rest of the band appeared from their unknown quarters in the liveliest of spirits. Altogether, a memorable night. But at four o'clock the lantern was extinguished and the cavern, bereft of its Salvator-Rosa glamour, resolved itself into a prosaic and infernally unclean hovel. Issuing from the door, I saw those murky recesses invaded by the uncompromising light of dawn, and shuddered. . . .