ALEXANDRIA, Friday, March 14.
Off at nine this morning for Naples, taking Sicily en route. The voyage was a smooth one, and we landed at Catania upon the morning of the fourth day. As we stepped ashore we felt in a moment that we were once more within the bounds of civilization. What a difference between this and the East! And there frowned Mount Etna, ten thousand feet above the sea level, thirty miles distant, and yet seemingly so near we thought that we could almost walk over to its base after breakfast. We ascended a small hill in the centre of the city - which, by the way, has a population of a hundred thousand - and there lay Sicily spread out before us in all its wondrous beauty. Lemon and orange groves in full bearing, and fields of vines just budding; and in the town clean paved streets and pavements, which are unknown in the East; people with shoes and stockings on; statues and fountains, and a good old cathedral; harps and violins, and the chime of church going bells. Ah! Western civilization is not a mistake, nor a myth, nor a thing of doubtful value, as we can testify. At least so thought two happy travellers in Sicily that bright balmy morning, as they felt how blessed a thing it was to be once more in a civilized country.
The pretty island of Sicily (Sechelia, as the Italians pronounce it) contains nearly three millions of people - nearly as many as Scotland - and supports them almost entirely by the produce of the land, for manufactures are little known. The olive and the vine are everywhere, and the crops of oranges and lemons go to most parts of the world. An English gentleman told us he had bought oranges in the season for one cent per dozen. There is one item of export of rather peculiar character - sulphur - which is obtained from the volcano. We saw it drawn through the streets in large blocks.
Only two hundred years ago an eruption of Mount Etna took place, and 27,000 people were buried by the lava. We saw where the stream had rushed down from the crater through part of the town, and far into the sea - almost a mile in width, and thirty miles from its source, bearing destruction to everything in its course, and yet to-day fine new houses stand upon the cold lava, and away up and along the sides of the volcano for miles are to be seen cottages clustering thickly together, the inmates busily engaged in cultivating their vineyards. It was only a few days ago - the monster gave a warning and shook these houses; but they still "sit under their vine and sing the merry songs of peace to all their neighbors" - these merry, light-hearted Sicilians! - as if they had Mount Etna under perfect control.
The railway skirts the shores of the island for its entire length - some fifty miles - and a more beautiful ride is not to be seen in all the world. It is a succession of fine old castles, in perfect ruin, upon every petty promontory, and we go through nothing but orange and lemon groves and vineyards. We pass at the base of Mount Etna; but although all was smiling in the valleys below, its top was enveloped in dark clouds and busy with the thunder and the storm.
Messina is a very quaint Italian city. The funeral services of a distinguished lady were in progress when we stepped into the cathedral, which was illuminated with hundreds of candles - I think I might say almost a thousand - the interior being one mass of light, which shone with strange effect upon the rich black velvet with which the walls were draped. A lady in our party counted the carriages as they passed, and told us there were fifty-three, most of which would compare favorably with those of New York or London. This will give you some idea of the richness of Messina, which we had thought to be an unimportant town.
The Sicilians are strict Roman Catholics and completely under the dominion of that faith. There is scarcely a trace of dissent to be found. When we were about to sail from Messina for Naples a priest walked upon the deck and collected contributions from the devout passengers, for which in return he was expected to give to our good ship the august protection of Holy Mother Church. We noticed that all the passengers contributed and received his blessing with much solemnity. Faith is still there. They were going to sea - probably a first experience to most if not all of them, and were naturally apprehensive. Should we have a stormy night, no doubt, notwithstanding their bargain with the priest, some will resolve with good Dame Partington that under like circumstances if ever she set her foot on dry land she would never again trust herself "so far out of the reach of Providence." But my mother remembers well that when a member of the congregation was about to start from Dunfermline to London, a rare event in those days, though not so very long ago, that his safety was always prayed for in church. I mentioned this to Vandy when he was deploring the ignorance and, as he thought, the impiety of the Sicilians. We are not entirely free from superstition ourselves, and were in the last generation where the Sicilians are in this.
The scene in "The Tempest," the enchanted isle, must have been in the neighborhood of Sechelia, and surely no fitter region in all the world could be found; indeed I found sweet Sechelia so enchanting that I voted it the very spot, and selected my Prospero's Cave on the glittering shore within sight of Mount Etna.
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