The stations are far between—an hour from one to another. Ah, how weary one gets of these journeys, they last so long. We look across a valley—a stone's throw. But alas, the little train has no wings, and can't jump. So back turns the line, back and back towards Gennargentu, a long rocky way, till it comes at length to the poor valley-head. This it skirts fussily, and sets off to pelt down on its traces again, gaily.[Pg 167] And a man who was looking at us doing our round-about has climbed down and crossed the valley in five minutes.
The peasants nearly all wear costumes now, even the women in the fields: the little fields in the half-populated valleys. These Gennargentu valleys are all half-populated, more than the moors further south.
It is past three o'clock, and cold where there is no sun. At last only one more station before the terminus. And here the peasants wake up, sling the bulging sacks over their shoulders, and get down. We see Tonara away above. We see our old grimy black-and-white peasant greeted by his two women who have come to meet him with the pony—daughters handsome in vivid rose and green costume. Peasants, men in black and white, men in madder-brown, with the close breeches on their compact thighs, women in rose-and-white, ponies with saddle-bags, all begin to trail up the hill-road in silhouette, very handsome, towards the far-off, perched, sun-bright village of Tonara, a big village, shining like a New Jerusalem.
The men at the back suddenly laughed, glad to turn the joke against the forward girovago. He looked down his nose at me. But seeing I was laughing without malice, he leaned to me and said softly, secretly:
"What is your affair then? What affair is it, yours?"
"How? What?" I exclaimed, not understanding.[Pg 193]
"Che genere di affari? What sort of business?"
"How—affari?" said I, still not grasping.
"What do you sell?" he said, flatly and rather spitefully. "What goods?"
"I don't sell anything," replied I, laughing to think he took us for some sort of strolling quacks or commercial travellers.
"Cloth—or something," he said cajolingly, slyly, as if to worm my secret out of me.
"But nothing at all. Nothing at all," said I. "We have come to Sardinia to see the peasant costumes—" I thought that might sound satisfactory.
"Ah, the costumes!" he said, evidently thinking I was a deep one. And he turned bandying words with his dark-browed mate, who was still poking the meat at the embers and crouching on the hearth. The room was almost quite dark. The mate answered him back, and tried to seem witty too. But the girovago was the commanding personality! rather too much so: too impudent for the q-b, though rather after my own secret heart. The mate was one of those handsome, passive, stupid men.
"Him!" said the girovago, turning suddenly to me and pointing at the mate. "He's my wife."
"Your wife!" said I.[Pg 194]
"Yes. He's my wife, because we're always together."
There had become a sudden dead silence in the background. In spite of it the mate looked up under his black lashes and said, with a half smile:
"Don't talk, or I shall give thee a good bacio to-night."
There was an instant's fatal pause, then the girovago continued:
"Tomorrow is festa of Sant 'Antonio at Tonara. Tomorrow we are going to Tonara. Where are you going?"
"To Abbasanta," said I.
"Ah Abbasanta! You should come to Tonara. At Tonara there is a brisk trade—and there are costumes. You should come to Tonara. Come with him and me to Tonara tomorrow, and we will do business together."
I laughed, but did not answer.
"Come," said he. "You will like Tonara! Ah, Tonara is a fine place. There is an inn: you can eat well, sleep well. I tell you, because to you ten francs don't matter. Isn't that so? Ten francs don't matter to you. Well, then come to Tonara. What? What do you say?"
I shook my head and laughed, but did not answer.[Pg 195]
To tell the truth I should have liked to go to Tonara with him and his mate and do the brisk trade: if only I knew what trade it would be.
"You are sleeping upstairs?" he said to me.
"This is my bed," he said, taking one of the home-made rush mats from against the wall. I did not take him seriously at any point.
"Do they make those in Sorgono?" I said.
"Yes, in Sorgono—they are the beds, you see! And you roll up this end a bit—so! and that is the pillow."
He laid his cheek sideways.
"Not really," said I.
If one travels one eats. We immediately began to munch biscuits, and the old peasant in his white, baggy[Pg 217] breeches and black cuirass, his old face smiling wonderingly under his old stocking cap, although he was only going to Tonara, some seven or eight miles, began to peel himself a hard-boiled egg, which he got out of his parcel. With calm wastefulness he peeled away the biggest part of the white of the egg with the shell—because it came away so. The citizen of Nuoro, for such the bright-faced young man was, said to him—"But see how you waste it."—"Ha!" said the old peasant, with a reckless indifferent wave of the hand. What did he care how much he wasted, since he was en voyage and riding for the first time in his life in an automobile.
The citizen of Nuoro told us he had some sort of business in Sorgono, so he came back and forth constantly. The peasant did some work or other for him—or brought him something down from Tonara. He was a pleasant, bright-eyed young man, and he made nothing of eight hours in a motor-bus.
He told us there was still game among these hills: wild boars which were hunted in big hunts, and many hares. It was a curious and beautiful sight, he said, to see a hare at night fascinated by the flare of the lamps of the automobile, racing ahead with its ears back, always keeping in front, inside the beam, and flying[Pg 218] like mad, on and on ahead, till at some hill it gathered speed and melted into the dark.
We descended into a deep, narrow valley to the road-junction and the canteen-house, then up again, up and up sharp to Tonara, our village we had seen in the sun yesterday. But we were approaching it from the back. As we swerved into the sunlight, the road took a long curve on to the open ridge between two valleys. And there in front we saw a glitter of scarlet and white. It was in slow motion. It was a far-off procession, scarlet figures of women, and a tall image moving away from us, slowly, in the Sunday morning. It was passing along the level sunlit ridge above a deep, hollow valley. A close procession of women glittering in scarlet, white and black, moving slowly in the distance beneath the grey-yellow buildings of the village on the crest, towards an isolated old church: and all along this narrow upland saddle as on a bridge of sunshine itself.
Were we not going to see any more? The bus turned again and rushed along the now level road and then veered. And there beyond, a little below, we saw the procession coming. The bus faded to a standstill, and we climbed out. Above us, old and mellowed among the smooth rocks and the bits of flat grass[Pg 219] was the church, tanging its bell. Just in front, above, were old, half-broken houses of stone. The road came gently winding up to us, from what was evidently two villages ledged one above the other upon the steep summit of the south slope. Far below was the south valley, with a white puff of engine steam.
And slowly chanting in the near distance, curving slowly up to us on the white road between the grass came the procession. The high morning was still. We stood all on this ridge above the world, with the deeps of silence below on the right. And in a strange, brief, staccato monody chanted the men, and in quick, light rustle of women's voices came the responses. Again the men's voices! The white was mostly men, not women. The priest in his robes, his boys near him, was leading the chanting. Immediately behind him came a small cluster of bare-headed, tall, sunburnt men, all in golden-velveteen corduroy, mountain-peasants, bowing beneath a great life-size seated image of Saint Anthony of Padua. After these a number of men in the costume, but with the white linen breeches hanging wide and loose almost to the ankles, instead of being tucked into the black gaiters. So they seemed very white beneath the back kilt frill. The black frieze body-vest was cut low, like an evening suit, and the stocking caps were variously perched. The men[Pg 220] chanted in low, hollow, melodic tones. Then came the rustling chime of the women. And the procession crept slowly, aimlessly forward in time with the chant. The great image rode rigid, and rather foolish.
After the men was a little gap—and then the brilliant wedge of the women. They were packed two by two, close on each other's heels, chanting inadvertently when their turn came, and all in brilliant, beautiful costume. In front were the little girl-children, two by two, immediately following the tall men in peasant black-and-white. Children, demure and conventional, in vermilion, white and green—little girl-children with long skirts of scarlet cloth down to their feet, green-banded near the bottom: with white aprons bordered with vivid green and mingled colour: having little scarlet, purple-bound, open boleros over the full white shirts: and black head-cloths folded across their little chins, just leaving the lips clear, the face framed in black. Wonderful little girl-children, perfect and demure in the stiffish, brilliant costume, with black head-dress! Stiff as Velasquez princesses! The bigger girls followed, and then the mature women, a close procession. The long vermilion skirts with their green bands at the bottom flashed a solid moving mass of colour, softly swinging, and the white aprons with their band of brilliant mingled green seemed to gleam. At the throat the[Pg 221] full-bosomed white shirts were fastened with big studs of gold filigree, two linked filigree globes: and the great white sleeves billowed from the scarlet, purplish-and-green-edged boleros. The faces came nearer to us, framed all round in the dark cloths. All the lips still sang responses, but all the eyes watched us. So the softly-swaying coloured body of the procession came up to us. The poppy-scarlet smooth cloth rocked in fusion, the bands and bars of emerald green seemed to burn across the red and the showy white, the dark eyes peered and stared at us from under the black snood, gazed back at us with raging curiosity, while the lips moved automatically in chant. The bus had run into the inner side of the road, and the procession had to press round it, towards the sky-line, the great valley lying below.
The priest stared, hideous St. Anthony cockled a bit as he passed the butt end of the big grey automobile, the peasant men in gold-coloured corduroy, old, washed soft, were sweating under the load and still singing with opened lips, the loose white breeches of the men waggled as they walked on with their hands behind their backs, turning again, to look at us. The big, hard hands, folded behind black kilt-frill! The women, too, shuffled slowly past, rocking the scarlet and the bars of green, and all twisting as they sang, to[Pg 222] look at us still more. And so the procession edged past the bus, and was trailing upwards, curved solid against the sky-line towards the old church. From behind, the geranium scarlet was intense, one saw the careful, curiously cut backs of the shapen boleros, poppy-red, edged with mauve-purple and green, and the white of the shirt just showing at the waist. The full sleeves billowed out, the black head-cloths hung down to a point. The pleated skirts swing slowly, the broad band of green accentuating the motion. Indeed that is what it must be for, this thick, rich band of jewel green, to throw the wonderful horizontal motion back and forth, back and forth, of the suave vermilion, and give that static, Demeta splendor to a peasant motion, so magnificent in colour, geranium and malachite.
All the costumes were not exactly alike. Some had more green, some had less. In some the sleeveless boleros were of a darker red, and some had poorer aprons, without such gorgeous bands at the bottom. And some were evidently old: probably thirty years old: still perfect and in keeping, reserved for Sunday and high holidays. A few were darker, ruddier than the true vermilion. This varying of the tone intensified the beauty of the shuffling woman-host.
When they had filed into the grey, forlorn little[Pg 223] church on the ridge-top just above us, the bus started silently to run on to the rest-point below, whilst we climbed back up the little rock-track to the church. When we came to the side-door we found the church quite full. Level with us as we stood in the open side doorway, we saw kneeling on the bare stoneflags the little girl-children, and behind them all the women clustered kneeling upon their aprons, with hands negligently folded, filling the church to the further doorway, where the sun shone: the bigger west-end doorway. In the shadow of the whitewashed, bare church all these kneeling women with their colour and their black head-cloths looked like some thick bed of flowers, geranium, black hooded above. They all knelt on the naked, solid stone of the pavement.
There was a space in front of the geranium little girl-children, then the men in corduroys, gold-soft, with dark round heads, kneeling awkwardly in reverence; and then the queer, black cuirasses and full white sleeves of grey-headed peasant men, many bearded. Then just in front of them the priest in his white vestment, standing exposed, and just baldly beginning an address. At the side of the altar was seated large and important the modern, simpering, black-gowned Anthony of Padua, nursing a boy-child. He looked a sort of male Madonna.]
"Now," the priest was saying, "blessed Saint Anthony shows you in what way you can be Christians. It is not enough that you are not Turks. Some think they are Christians because they are not Turks. It is true you are none of you Turks. But you have still to learn how to be good Christians. And this you can learn from our blessed Saint Anthony. Saint Anthony, etc., etc...."
The contrast between Turks and Christians is still forceful in the Mediterranean, where the Mohammedans have left such a mark. But how the word cristiani, cristiani, spoken with a peculiar priestly unction, gets on my nerves. The voice is barren in its homily. And the women are all intensely watching the q-b and me in the doorway, their folded hands are very negligently held together.
"Come away!" say I. "Come away, and let them listen."
We left the church crowded with its kneeling host, and dropped down past the broken houses towards the omnibus, which stood on a sort of level out-look place, a levelled terrace with a few trees, standing silent over the valley. It should be picketed with soldiers having arquebuses. And I should have welcomed a few[Pg 225] thorough-paced infidels, as a leaven to this dreary Christianity of ours.
But it was a wonderful place. Usually, the life-level is reckoned as sea-level. But here, in the heart of Sardinia, the life-level is high as the golden-lit plateau, and the sea-level is somewhere far away, below, in the gloom, it does not signify. The life-level is high up, high and sun-sweetened and among rocks.
We stood and looked below, at the puff of steam, far down the wooded valley where we had come yesterday. There was an old, low house on this eagle-perching piazza. I would like to live there. The real village—or rather two villages, like an ear-ring and its pendant—lay still beyond, in front, ledging near the summit of the long, long, steep wooded slope, that never ended till it ran flush to the depths away below there in shadow.
And yesterday, up this slope the old peasant had come with his two brilliant daughters and the pack-pony.
And somewhere in those ledging, pearly villages in front must be my girovago and his "wife". I wish I could see their stall and drink aqua vitae with them.
"How beautiful the procession!" says the q-b to the driver.
"Ah yes—one of the most beautiful costumes of Sardinia, this of Tonara," he replied wistfully.
Whenever we come to a village we stop and get down, and our little conductor disappears into the post-office for the post-bag. This last is usually a limp affair, containing about three letters. The people crowd round—and many of them in very ragged costume. They look poor, and not attractive: perhaps a bit degenerate. It would seem as if the Italian instinct to get into rapid touch with the world were the healthy instinct after all. For in these isolated villages, which have been since time began far from any life-centre, there is an almost sordid look on the faces of the people. We must remember that the motor-bus is a great innovation. It has been running for five weeks only. I wonder for how many months it will continue.
For I am sure it cannot pay. Our first-class tickets cost, I believe, about twenty-seven francs each. The[Pg 228] second class costs about three-quarters the first. Some parts of the journey we were very few passengers. The distance covered is so great, the population so thin, that even granted the passion for getting out of their own villages, which possesses all people now, still the bus cannot earn much more than an average of two hundred to three hundred francs a day. Which, with two men's wages, and petrol at its enormous price, and the cost of wear-and-tear, cannot possibly pay.
I asked the driver. He did not tell me what his wages were: I did not ask him. But he said the company paid for the keep and lodging for himself and mate at the stopping-places. This being Sunday, fewer people were travelling: a statement hard to believe. Once he had carried fifty people all the way from Tonara to Nuoro. Once! But it was in vain he protested. Ah well, he said, the bus carried the post, and the government paid a subsidy of so many thousands of lire a year: a goodly number. Apparently then the government was the loser, as usual. And there are hundreds, if not thousands of these omnibuses running the lonely districts of Italy and Sicily—Sardinia had a network of systems. They are splendid—and they are perhaps an absolute necessity for a nervous restless population which simply cannot keep still, and which finds some[Pg 229] relief in being whirled about even on the autovie, as the bus-system is called.
The autovie are run by private companies, only subsidised by the government.
On we rush, through the morning—and at length see a large village, high on the summit beyond, stony on the high upland. But it has a magical look, as these tiny summit-cities have from the distance. They recall to me always my childish visions of Jerusalem, high against the air, and seeming to sparkle, and built in sharp cubes.
It is curious what a difference there is between the high, fresh, proud villages and the valley villages. Those that crown the world have a bright, flashing air, as Tonara had. Those that lie down below, infolded in the shadow, have a gloomy, sordid feeling and a repellent population, like Sorgono and other places at which we had halted. The judgment may be all wrong: but this was the impression I got.
We were now at the highest point of the journey. The men we saw on the road were in their sheepskins, and some were even walking with their faces shawl-muffled. Glancing back, we saw up the valley clefts the snow of Gennargentu once more, a white mantle on broad shoulders, the very core of Sardinia. The bus[Pg 230] slid to a standstill in a high valley, beside a stream where the road from Fonni joined ours. There was waiting a youth with a bicycle. I would like to go to Fonni. They say it is the highest village in Sardinia.