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The Stranger At The Croce Di Malta
by [?]

At the Croce di Malta, where we stopped–the Odessa, we heard, was atrociously bad–we met a somewhat depressed countryman, whose familiarity with place and people was indicated by several little traits. He rebuked the waiter for the salad oil, and was speedily supplied with better; he remonstrated about the wine, and a superior “cru” was served the day following. The book of the arrivals, too, was brought to him each day as he sat down to table, and he grunted out, I remember, in no very complimentary fashion as he read our names, “Nobodies.”

My Garibaldian friend had gone over to Massa, so that I found myself alone with this gentleman on the night of my arrival; for, when the company of the table-d’hote withdrew, he and I were discovered, as the stage-people say, seated opposite to each other at the fire.

It blew hard without; the sea beat loudly on the shingly shore, and even sent some drifts of spray against the windows; while within doors a cheerful wood-fire blazed on the ample hearth, and the low-ceilinged room did not look a whit the worse that it suggested snugness instead of splendour. I had got my cup of coffee and my cognac on a little table beside me; and while I filled the bowl of my pipe, I bethought me how cheap and come-at-able are often the materials of our comfort, if one had but the prudence which ignores all display. My companion, apparently otherwise occupied in thought, sat gazing moodily at the fire, and to all seeming unaware of my presence.

“Will my smoking annoy you, sir?” asked I, as I was ready to begin.

“No,” said he, without looking up. “I’d like to know where one could go to live nowadays if it did.”

“Very true,” said I; “the practice is almost universal”

“So is child-murder, so is profane swearing, so is wearing a beard, and poisoning by strychnine.”

I was somewhat struck by his enumeration of modern atrocities, and I said, in a tone intended to invite converse, “You are no admirer, then, of what some are fain to call progress?”

He started, and, turning a fierce sharp glance on me, said, “I’d rather you’d touch me with that hot poker there, sir, than hurl that hateful word at my ears. If there’s a thing I hate the most, it’s what cant–a vile modern slang–calls ‘Progress.’ You’re just in the spot at this moment to mark one of its high successes. Do you know Spezia?” “Not in the least; never was here before.” “Well, sir, I have known it, I’ll not stop to count how many years; but I knew it when that spot yonder, where you see that vile tall chimney, with its tail of murky smoke, was a beautiful little villa, all overgrown with fig and olive trees. Where you perceive that red glare–the flame of a smelting furnace–there was an orangery. I ought to know the spot well. There, where a summerhouse stood, on that rocky point, they have got a crane and a windlass. Now, turn to this other side. The road you saw to-day, crossed with four main lines, cut up, almost impassable between mud, rubbish, and fallen timber, with swampy excavations on one side and brick-fields on the other, led–ay, and not four years ago–along the margin of the sea, with a forest of chestnuts on the other side, two lines of acacias forming a shade along it, so that in the mid-day of an Italian July you might walk it in delicious shadow. In the Gulf itself the whole scene was mirrored, and not a headland, nor rock, nor cliff, that was not pictured below. It was, in a word, a little paradise; nor were the people all unworthy of their lovely birthplace. They were a quiet, civil, obliging, simple-minded set–if not inviting strangers to settle amongst them, never rude or repelling to them; equitable in dealings, and strange to all disturbance or outrage. What they are now is no more easy to say than what a rivulet is when a torrent has carried away its banks and swept its bed. Two thousand navvies, the outsweepings of jails and the galleys, have come down to the works; a horde of contractors, sub-contractors, with the several staffs of clerks, inspectors, and suchlike, have settled on the spot, ravaging its beauty, uprooting its repose, vulgarising its simple rusticity, and converting the very gem of the Mediterranean into a dreary swamp–a vast amphitheatre, where liberated felons, robbing contractors, foul miasma, centrifugal pumps, and tertian fevers, fight all day for the mastery. And for what?–for what? To fill the pockets of knavish ministers and thieving officials–to make an arsenal that will never be finished, for a fleet that will never be built.” My companion, it is needless to say, was no optimist; but the strange point was, that while he was unsparing of his censure on Cavour and the “Piedmontese party,” he was no apologist for the old state of things in Italy. So far from it, that he launched out freely in attack of Papal bigotry, superstition, and corruption, and freely corroborated our own Premier’s assertions, by calling the Pope’s the “worst government in Europe.” In fact, he showed very clearly that the smaller states of Italy were well or ill administered in the direct ratio that they admitted or rejected Papal interference,–Modena being the worst, and Tuscany the best of them.