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A Traveller in Romance (1909)

Short Stories


For six and thirty hours snow had fallen in the valley of the Engadine. It was not the soft snow of England, which flutters down in heavy flakes like the petals of roses overblown, but a blinding storm, tenuous as a Scotch mist, driven by the wind from the Alpine heights. I had taken a place in the post-chaise that went from St. Moritz into Italy, and when I reached the office I found waiting already a closed sleigh, gaudily painted in yellow, drawn by four horses. Three persons had taken their seats, and it held but four. The driver mounted his box, and the postman climbed up beside him. We carried the mails to Chiavenna and to the villages by the wayside. Leaving St. Moritz, with its fashionable gaieties and its vast hotels, we descended the hill silently. Below was the lake, frost-bound and covered with snow; while all around, like a vast amphitheatre, were the white mountains.

The driving snow blurred all the outlines. But my contemplation of the desolate prospect was interrupted by my companions, who insisted on closing the windows. I had brought with me, to avoid the possible tediousness of the journey, a volume of Casanova's memoirs: that amusing libertine is the best of all travelling companions; and, strange though it may appear, he has in this respect a certain quite moral value, for none can read him without learning the lesson valuable to all, but especially to the wanderer, that life gives its fullness only to those who are willing to take risks. It persuades one to cultivate a spirit of adventure, without which travel is but a tame affair, and with his example one at least resolves to make the most of passing moments. But my fellow travellers were talking too loudly to allow me to read, and closing the book I sought to gather some amusement from their conversation. A stage-coach is imbued with the romantic spirit, and he must be dull indeed who does not feel a singular thrill when he travels in one. I called back to my mind the descriptions which Casanova has left of his journeys in such conveyances, and wondered what profit he would have drawn from my present company. There were two stout men of middle age, who appeared to have a business connection, for they discussed the sale of some piece of land in a mixture of bad German and worse Italian, and the fourth passenger was a woman who, without previous acquaintance with the others, joined vigorously in the conversation. To her, I feel sure, Casanova would have addressed himself immediately, and within an hour the pair would have been on the best of terms. I reproached myself because I had not even the inclination to whisper the appropriate nothings. It is true that she was hard upon fifty, stout and ill-favoured, but I am not convinced that the fickle Venetian would have hesitated on this account. So many fair ladies crossed his path that I cannot help supposing their beauty lay mostly in his own passionate imagination.

At Kampfer we stopped and my fellow passengers got out. I hoped for the rest of the journey to have the carriage to myself, but just before we started a man entered. He gave me a glance and bade me good-morning in English. He was a fellow of immense size, with massive bones and large hands. He had a huge nose and a strong square chin. In his tie was an imitation diamond of considerable size, and on his fingers were rings whose imposing stones had never seen the mines of South Africa or Brazil. I put him down as a commercial-traveller; and this in fact he was, for, beginning to talk as soon as we set off, he told me that he had been in St. Moritz to get orders from hotels and was now on his way to Milan. Since the carriages was full he had been forced to come as far as Kampfer in an open sleigh. He talked very quickly, very fluently, but in broken English that was often difficult to follow. I did not know to what nation he belonged. I set myself to improve the shining hour, and i learnt various things about the traveller of commerce which I trust will be useful for me to know. He seemed to like to hear himself speak, and there was a curious grandiloquence in his phraseology which did not fail to entertain me.

We stopped again, this time at Maloggia, and still the snow swept on. It is a place where tourists go in summer, and the vast hotel, with its shuttered windows, looked singularly cheerless. It seemed as though the sun could never shine in that deserted spot. It was luncheon time, and we went into a little inn, but the driver told me he could only wait five minutes. It was too brief a time to appease my hunger, so I hit upon the ingenious device of ordering a bottle of wine and asking the driver to drink with me. Each time he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked doubtfully at the horses I filled his glass, thus gaining sufficient time to eat the food I had brought with me.

As he stepped back into the carriage my friend the traveller waves hi hand somewhat dramatically towards the Switzerland we were abandoning.

"Adieu, degenerate land of hotel-keepers," he cried. "Adieu!"

I stared at him, and, smiling, asked if he did not like the Swiss. He shrugged his shoulders with impatient scorn.

"Of the peasants I know nothing, but the others, pah! they have souls of shop-walkers. They're extortionate and mean; overbearing and insolent to their inferiors, servile towards their betters. I loathe above all the reptile soul of the manager of a first-class hotel."

Though not indisposed to agree with him, i surmised that my friend had not done good business in the country we were leaving. I confess i had suspected, however, that the politeness of the gentlemen who conduct these caravanserais is barely skin-deep. It must be pleasanter to be one of their guests than one of their waiters.

But we had done with climbing, and now began to descend a winding road. It was very steep, and quickly we came to such a level that the snowy mountains all about us towered still more impressively. On their slopes were forests of fir-trees covered with snow, and their dark jade contrasted astonishingly with the surrounding whiteness. Above, the sky was heavy still with snow. Presently we were driving among the fir-trees, and they clustered thick around us. It was like one of those fairy-land which goblins haunt and where beautiful princesses inevitably lose their way. When we came out of the forest the mountains in front seemed to divide, and i hoped that when we turned the corner we should find ourselves in the magic land of all desires.

"There is our gateway into Italy," I suggested.

But my traveller put his hand impressively on my arm.

"It is ten times more than that. It is the doorway of Romance."

I looked at him with astonishment, but made no remark. It occurred to me that this was not an article upon which he could hope to make large percentages, and his failure with the Swiss hotel-keepers was comprehensible if he offered them such a commodity. The conversation was interrupted by our arrival at Vicosoprano, where we changed the sleigh for a trim diligence. We had come to the end of the snow, and the rest of our journey was conducted amid the rattle of wheels on the hard high road. A different driver conducted the four horses, and instead of German gutturals, he addressed them in Italian. He called on San Antonio when they stumbled. The monotonous fir was no longer the only tree that covered the mountains, snow-capped still, for there was now the mountain ash, and presently the hill-side was planted with vines. but they seemed shrivelled by the cold. In their leaflessness they looked like giant spiders set in rows in some naturalist's museum. Still we would round the mountains, and each turn, instead of the expected plain, brought another huge rugged peak; they stood like sentinels of stone as if to guard the way into Italy. My friend watched the scene with gleaming eyes, and presently, as though by special favour of the gods, the sun broke through the clouds and touched the snowy summits with gold. The traveller pointed with a disdainful thumb at the boxes which contained his samples.

"Those goods I sell are but a pretext," he said. "I travel in Romance. I am a Pole, and when I left my country in my boyhood, they placed me in an office in Liverpool. My soul soared above the writing of letters and the casting of accounts, and at nights I read of Italy and Greece." He lit a really execrable cigar, and with a fine gesture passed his fingers through his hair. "At last my chance came, for my firm wanted a traveller. I saw that I could earn bread to eat and at the same time seek the Romance which was as dear to me as life. And look, you see in front of you a mountain and nothing more, but I see the plain of Lombardy and the Venetian lagoons, Tuscany and the Umbrian hills." His eyes glittered and he blew the smoke from his mouth in heavy clouds. He rolled out a list of names, pell-mell, as though their sound gave him exquisite pleasure: "Leonardo, Cæsar Borgia, Ariosto, Boccaccio. It is true that for a few brief hours in the day I deal with sordid merchandise, but when my work is done I turn to the great ones of the past. And I have the sunset, and the Tuscan wine, and the white teeth of the women of Rome. I am a traveller in Romance."

At last, exhausted by incessant talking, he fell asleep with a smile upon his lips. It seemed to me, indeed, that he had more in him of Casanova's spirit than most of us can boast of. Presently we came to a little town, grey, dull, and cold, surrounded by the mountains. It was one of those places that depress one utterly because existence there seems inevitably narrow and dreary. Our journey had ended, for this was Chiavenna.

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