The Tiber in Flood - Typhoid fever in Rome - Florence - A Jew acquaintance - Drinking in Provence - Buying bric-a-brac with the Jew - The carro on Easter Eve - Its real Origin - My Jew friend's letters - Italian dolce far niente.

Conceive yourself confronted by a pop-gun, some ten feet in diameter, charged with mephitic vapours and plugged with microbes of typhoid fever. Conceive your sensations when you were aware that the piston was being driven home.

That was my situation in March, 1890, when I got a letter from Messrs. Allen asking me to go into Provence and Languedoc, and write them a book thereon. I dodged the microbe, and went.

To make myself understood I must explain.

I was in Rome. For ten days with a sirocco wind the rains had descended, as surely they had never come down since the windows of heaven were opened at the Flood. The Tiber rose thirty-two feet. Now Rome is tunnelled under the streets with drains or sewers that carry all the refuse of a great city into the Tiber. But, naturally, when the Tiber swells high above the crowns of the sewers, they are choked. All the foulness of the great town is held back under the houses and streets, and breeds gases loathsome to the nose and noxious to life. Not only so, but a column of water, some twenty to twenty-five feet in height, is acting like the piston of a pop-gun, and is driving all the accumulated gases charged with the germs of typhoid fever into every house which has communication with the sewers. There is no help for it, the poisonous vapours must be forced out of the drains and must be forced into the houses. That is why, with a rise of the Tiber, typhoid fever is certain to break out in Rome.

As I went over Ponte S. Angelo I was wont to look over the parapet at the opening of the sewer that carried off the dregs of that portion of the city where I was residing. One day I looked for it, and looked in vain. The Tiber had swelled and was overflowing its banks, and for a week or fortnight there could be no question, not a sewer in the vast city would be free to do anything else but mischief. I did not go on to the Vatican galleries that day. I could not have enjoyed the statues in the Braccio Nuovo, nor the frescoes in the Loggia. I went home, found Messrs. Allen's letter, packed my Gladstone bag, and bolted. I shall never learn who got the microbe destined for me, which I dodged.

I went to Florence; at the inn where I put up - one genuinely Italian, Bonciani's, - I made an acquaintance, a German Jew, a picture-dealer with a shop in a certain capital, no matter which, editor of a bric-a-brac paper, and a right merry fellow. I introduce him to the reader because he afforded me some information concerning Provence. He had a branch establishment - never mind where, but in Provence - and he had come to Florence to pick up pictures and bric-a-brac.

Our acquaintance began as follows. We sat opposite each other at table in the evening. A large rush-encased flask is set before each guest in a swing carriage, that enables him to pour out his glassful from the big-bellied flask without effort. Each flask is labelled variously Chianti, Asti, Pomino, but all the wines have a like substance and flavour, and each is an equally good light dinner-wine. A flask when full costs three francs twenty centimes; and when the guest falls back in his seat, with a smile of satisfaction on his face, and his heart full of good will towards all men, for that he has done his dinner, then the bottle is taken out, weighed, and the guest charged the amount of wine he has consumed. He gets a fresh flask at every meal.

"Du lieber Himmel!" exclaimed my vis-a-vis. "I do b'lieve I hev drunk dree francs. Take up de flasche and weigh her. Tink so?"

"I can believe it without weighing the bottle," I replied.

"And only four sous - twenty centimes left!" exclaimed the old gentleman, meditatively. "But four sous is four sous. It is de price of mine paper" - brightening in his reflections - "I can but shell one copy more, and I am all right." Brightening to greater brilliancy as he turns to me: "Will you buy de last number of my paper? She is in my pocket. She is ver' interesting. Oh! ver' so. Moche information for two pence."

"I shall be charmed," I said, and extended twenty centimes across the table.

"Ach Tausend! Dass ist herrlich!" and he drew off the last drops of Pomino. "Now I will tell you vun ding. Hev you been in Provence?"

"Provence! Why - I am on my way there, now."

"Den listen to me. Ebery peoples hev different ways of doing de same ding. You go into a cabaret dere, and you ask for wine. De patron brings you a bottle, and at de same time looks at de clock and wid a bit of chalk he mark you down your time. You say you will drink at two pence, or dree pence, or four pence. You drink at dat price you have covenanted for one hour, you drink at same price anodder hour, and you sleep - but you pay all de same, wedder you drink or wedder you sleep, two pence, or dree pence, or four pence de hour. It is an old custom. You understand? It is de custom of de country - of La belle Provence."

"I quite understand that it is to the interest of the taverner to make his customers drunk."

"Drunk!" repeated my Mosaic acquaintance. "I will tell you one ding more, ver' characteristic of de nationalities. A Frenchman - il boit ; a German - er sauft; and an Englishman - he gets fresh. Der you hev de natures of de dree peoples as in a picture. De Frenchman, he looks to de moment, and not beyond. Il boit. De German, he looks to de end. Er sauft. De Englishman, he sits down fresh and intends to get fuddled; but he is a hypocrite. He does not say de truth to hisself nor to nobody, he says, I will get fresh, when he means de odder ding. Big humbug. You understand?"

One morning my Jew friend said to me: "Do you want to see de, what you call behind-de-scenes of Florence? Ver' well, you come wid me. I am going after pictures."

He had a carriage at the door. I jumped in with him, and we spent the day in driving about the town, visiting palaces and the houses of professional men and tradesmen - of all who were "down on their luck," and wanted to part with art-treasures. Here we entered a palace, of roughed stone blocks after the ancient Florentine style, where a splendid porter with cocked hat, a silver-headed baton, and gorgeous livery kept guard. Up the white marble stairs, into stately halls overladen with gilding, the walls crowded with paintings in cumbrous but resplendent frames. Prince So-and-So had got into financial difficulties, and wanted to part with some of his heirlooms.

There we entered a mean door in a back street, ascended a dirty stair, and came into a suite of apartments, where a dishevelled woman in a dirty split dressing-gown received us and showed us into her husband's sanctum, crowded with rare old paintings on gold grounds. Her good man had been a collector of the early school of art; now he was ill, he could not attend to his business, he might not recover, and whilst he was ill his wife was getting rid of some of his treasures.

There we entered the mansion of a widow, who had lost her husband recently, a rich merchant. The heirs were quarrelling over the spoil, and she was in a hurry to make what she could for herself before a valuer came to reckon the worth of the paintings and silver and cabinets.

In that day I saw many sides of life.

"But how in the world," I asked of my guide, "did you know that all these people were wanting to sell?"

"I have my agents ebberywhere," was his reply.

I thought of the Diable boiteux carrying the student of Alcala over the city, Madrid, removing the roofs of the houses, and exposing to his view the stories of the lives and miseries of those within.

I was at Florence on Easter Eve. A ceremony of a very peculiar character takes place there on that day at noon. In the morning a monstrous black structure on wheels, some twenty-five feet high, is brought into the square before the cathedral by oxen, garlanded with flowers. This erection, the carro, is also decorated with flowers, but is likewise covered with fireworks. A rope is then extended from the carro to a pole which is set up in the choir of the Duomo, before the high altar. For this purpose the great west doors are thrown open, and the rope extends the whole length of the nave. Upon it, close to the pole, is perched a white dove of plaster.

Crowds assemble both in the square and in the nave of the cathedral. Peasants from the countryside come in in bands, and before the hour of noon every vantage place is occupied, and the square and the streets commanding it are filled with a sea of heads.

At half-past eleven, the archbishop, the canons, the choir, go down the nave in procession, and make the circuit of the Duomo, then re-enter the cathedral, take their places in the choir, and the mass for Easter Eve is begun. At the Gospel - at the stroke of twelve, a match is applied to a fusee, and instantly the white dove flies along the rope, pouring forth a tail of fire, down the nave, out at the west gates, over the heads of the crowd, reaches the carro, ignites a fusee there, turns, and, still propelled by its fiery tail, whizzes along the cord again, till it has reached its perch on the pole in the choir, when the fire goes out and it remains stationary. But in the meantime the match ignited by the dove has communicated with the squibs and crackers attached to the carro, and the whole mass of painted wood and flowers is enveloped in fire and smoke, from which issue sheets of flame and loud detonations. Meanwhile, mass is being sung composedly within the choir, as though nothing was happening without. The fireworks continue to explode for about a quarter of an hour, and then the great garlanded oxen, white, with huge horns, are reyoked to the carro, and it is drawn away.

The flight of the dove for its course of about 540 feet is watched by the peasants with breathless attention, for they take its easy or jerky flight as ominous of the weather for the rest of the year and of the prospects of harvest. If the bird sails along without a hitch, then the summer will be fine, but if there be sluggishness of movement, and one halt, then another, the year is sure to be one of storms and late frosts and hail.

Now what is the origin of this extraordinary custom - a custom that is childish, and yet is so curious that one would hardly wish to see it abolished?

Several stories are told to explain it, none very satisfactory. According to one, a Florentine knight was in the crusading host of Godfrey de Bouillon, and was the first to climb the walls of Jerusalem, and plant thereon the banner of the Cross. He at once sent tidings of the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre back to his native town by a carrier pigeon, and thus the Florentines received the glad tidings long before it reached any other city in Europe. In token of their gladness at the news, they instituted the ceremony of the white pigeon and the carro on Easter Eve.

Another story is to the effect that this Florentine entered the city of Jerusalem before the first crusade, broke off a large fragment of the Holy Sepulchre, and carried it to Florence. He was pursued by the Saracens, but escaped by shoeing his horse with reversed irons. Another version is that he resolved to bring back to Florence the sacred flame that burnt in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accordingly he lighted thereat a torch, and rode back to Italy with the torch flaming. But to protect it from the wind, he rode with his face to the tail of his steed, screening the torch with his body. As he thus rode, folk who saw him shouted "Pazzi! Pazzi!" - Fool! Fool! and this name was assumed by his family ever after. The Pazzis of Florence every year paid all the expenses of the carro till quite recently, when the Municipality assumed the charge and now defray it from the city chest. Clearly the origin of the custom is forgotten; nevertheless it is not difficult to explain the meaning of the ceremony.

In the Eastern Church, and still, in many churches in the West, the lights are extinguished on Good Friday, and formerly this was the case with all fires, those of the domestic hearth as well as the lamps in church. On Easter Day, fresh fire was struck with flint and steel by the bishop, and all candles, lamps and hearths were rekindled from this new light. At the present day one of the most solemn scenes in the Eastern Church is this kindling of the Easter fire, and its communication from one to another in a vast congregation assembled to receive it and carry it off to their homes. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, the new fire kindled and blessed by the patriarch, is cast down from the height of the dome.

In Florence, anciently, it was much the same. The archbishop struck the Easter fire, and it was then distributed among the people; but there were inconveniences, unseemly scuffles, accidents even, and the dove was devised as a means of conveying the Easter fire outside the Duomo, and kindling a great bonfire, whereat the people might light their torches without desecrating the sacred building by scrambling and fighting therein for the hallowed flame. At this bonfire all could obtain the fire without inconvenience. By degrees the bonfire lost its significance, so did the dove, and fables were invented to explain the custom. The bonfire, moreover, degenerated into an exhibition of fireworks at mid-day.

One morning my Jew friend insisted on my reading a letter he had just received from his daughter, aged fourteen. He was proud of the daughter, and highly pleased with the letter.

It began thus: "Cher papa - nous sommes sauves. That picture of a Genoese lady you bought for 200 francs, and doubted if you would be able to get rid of, I sold before we left home for Provence to an American, as a genuine Queen Elizabeth for 1,000 francs." Then followed three closely-written pages of record of business transactions, all showing a balance to the good, all showing a profit nowhere under thirty per cent. Finally, the letter concluded: "Mamma's back is better. Louis and I went on Sunday to see a farm. A cow, a stable, an old peasantess saying her rosary, a daughter knitting - all real, not waxwork. Votre fille tres devouee, LEAH."

"That is a girl to be proud of," said my acquaintance. "And only fourteen! But hein! here is another letter I have received, and it is awkward." He told me that when he had been in London on business he had lodged in the house of a couple who were not on the best of terms. The husband had been a widower with one child, a daughter, and the stepmother could not abide the child. Whilst M. Cohen, my friend, was there, the quarrels had been many, and he had done his best to smooth matters between the parties. Then he had invited them over to visit the Continent and stay at his house. They had come, and he had again to exercise the office of mediator. "And now," lamented my good-hearted friend, "nebber one week but I get a letter from de leddy. Here is dis, sent on to me. Read it." The letter ran as follows: -

"Do write to me. I fear my last letter cannot have reached you, or you would have answered it. I am miserable. My husband is so cross about that little girl, because I cannot love the nasty little beast. Oh, Mr. Cohen, do come to London, or let me come abroad and live in your house away from my husband and that child. You were so sensible and so kind. I can't bear to be longer here in the house with my husband and the spoiled child."

My friend looked disconsolately at me.

"What am I to do?" he asked. "She writes ebery week, and I don't answer. And my wife sends on dese letters."

"Do?" said I. "Send this one at once to Madame Cohen, and ask her to answer it for you. That London lady will never trouble you again."

The following circumstance I relate, not that it has the smallest importance except as a characteristic sketch of Italian dolce far niente, and as a lesson to travellers. The proper study of mankind is man, and a little incident such as occurred to me, and which I will now relate, raises the curtain and shows us a feature of humanity in Italy. When I hurried from Rome, I sent off all my luggage by goods train to England, except such articles as I could compress into a Gladstone bag; a change of raiment of course was there. But mark the cruelty of fate. My foot slipped on a white marble stair, and I rent a certain garment at the knee. I at once dived into my Gladstone bag and produced another pair, but found with a shock that they also had suffered - become threadbare, and needed attention from a tailor. What was to be done? I had to leave Florence at noon. The discovery was made the night before. I rose early, breakfasted early, and hung about the shop door of a tailor at 8 A.M. till the door was opened, when I entered, stated my case, and the obliging sartore promised that the trifling remedy should be applied and I should have my garment again in one hour. "In one hour!" he said, holding up his hand in solemn asseveration.

Nine o'clock came; then ten, and my raiment had not returned. I flew to the tailor's shop and asked for my garment. "It was all right," said he, "only the thread being knotted. It should be sent to my inn." So I returned and waited. I had my lunch, paid my bill, packed my bag, looked at my watch. The omnibus was at the door. No garment. I ran to the tailor's. He listened to my tale of distress with an amiable smile on his face, then volunteered to come with me to my inn, and talk the matter over with the host. Accordingly he locked up his shop and sauntered with me to Bonciani's. Bonciani and he considered the circumstances at length, thrashed the subject thoroughly. Then, as the horses were being put into the omnibus - "Come," said the tailor, "I have a brother, a grocer, we will go to him."

"But why?" asked I. "Do you see, the boxes are being put on the omnibus. I want my - garment."

"You must come with me to my brother's," said the tailor. So to the grocer's went we. Vainly did I trust that the journeyman who was engaged on my article of apparel lodged there, and that, done or undone, I could recover it thence. But no - not so. The whole story was related with embellishments to the brother, the grocer, who listened, discussed, commented on, the matter.

"There goes the 'bus!" I shouted, looking down the street. "Even now, if you will let me have the article, I can run to the station and get off; I have my ticket."

"Subito! subito!" said the tailor.

Then the grocer said that the thing in request might be sent by post. "But," I replied, "I am going into France, to Nice, and clothes are subjected to burdensome charges if carried across the frontier."

"Ten minutes!" I gasped. "Almost too late."

A moment later -


"The clock is striking. I am done for."

"Appunto!" and he lighted a cigarette.

So I had to travel by night, instead of by day.