University of Virginia Library


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The old town of Sorrento is situated on an elevated plateau,
which stretches into the sunny waters of the Mediterranean,
guarded on all sides by a barrier of mountains which
defend it from bleak winds and serve to it the purpose of
walls to a garden. Here, groves of oranges and lemons,
with their almost fabulous coincidence of fruitage with flowers,
fill the air with perfume, which blends with that of
roses and jessamines; and the fields are so starred and
enamelled with flowers that they might have served as the
type for those Elysian realms sung by ancient poets. The
fervid air is fanned by continual sea-breezes, which give a
delightful elasticity to the otherwise languid climate. Under
all these cherishing influences, the human being develops a
wealth and luxuriance of physical beauty unknown in less
favored regions. In the region about Sorrento one may be
said to have found the land where beauty is the rule and not
the exception. The singularity there is not to see handsome
points of physical proportion, but rather to see those who
are without them. Scarce a man, woman, or child you meet
who has not some personal advantage to be commended,
while even striking beauty is common. Also, under these
kindly skies, a native courtesy and gentleness of manner
make themselves felt. It would seem as if humanity, rocked
in this flowery cradle, and soothed by so many daily caresses
and appliances of nursing Nature, grew up with all that is
kindliest on the outward, — not repressed and beat in, as


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under the inclement atmosphere and stormy skies of the

The town of Sorrento itself overhangs the sea, skirting
along rocky shores, which, hollowed here and there into
picturesque grottoes, and fledged with a wild plumage of
brilliant flowers and trailing vines, descend in steep precipices
to the water. Along the shelly beach, at the bottom,
one can wander to look out on the loveliest prospect in the
world. Vesuvius rises with its two peaks softly clouded in
blue and purple mists, which blend with its ascending vapors,
— Naples and the adjoining villages at its base gleaming
in the distance like a fringe of pearls on a regal mantle.
Nearer by, the picturesque rocky shores of the island of
Capri seem to pulsate through the dreamy, shifting mists
that veil its sides; and the sea shimmers and glitters like
the neck of a peacock with an iridescent mingling of colors:
the whole air is a glorifying medium, rich in prismatic hues
of enchantment.

The town on three sides is severed from the main land
by a gorge two hundred feet in depth and forty or fifty in
breadth, crossed by a bridge resting on double arches, the
construction of which dates back to the time of the ancient
Romans. This bridge affords a favorite lounging-place for
the inhabitants, and at evening a motley assemblage may be
seen lolling over its moss-grown sides, — men with their picturesque
knit caps of scarlet or brown falling gracefully on
one shoulder, and women with their shining black hair and
the enormous pearl ear-rings which are the pride and heirlooms
of every family. The present traveller at Sorrento
may remember standing on this bridge and looking down the
gloomy depths of the gorge, to where a fair villa, with its
groves of orange-trees and gardens, overhangs the tremendous
depths below.


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Hundreds of years since, where this villa now stands was
the simple dwelling of the two women whose history we have
begun to tell you. There you might have seen a small stone
cottage with a two-arched arcade in front, gleaming brilliantly
white out of the dusky foliage of an orange-orchard.
The dwelling was wedged like a bird-box between two
fragments of rock, and behind it the land rose rocky, high,
and steep, so as to form a natural wall. A small ledge or
terrace of cultivated land here hung in air, — below it, a
precipice of two hundred feet down into the Gorge of Sorrento.
A couple of dozen orange-trees, straight and tall,
with healthy, shining bark, here shot up from the fine black
volcanic soil, and made with their foliage a twilight shadow
on the ground, so deep that no vegetation, save a fine velvet
moss, could dispute their claim to its entire nutritious
offices. These trees were the sole wealth of the women and
the sole ornament of the garden; but, as they stood there,
not only laden with golden fruit, but fragrant with pearly
blossoms, they made the little rocky platform seem a perfect
Garden of the Hesperides. The stone cottage, as we have
said, had an open, whitewashed arcade in front, from which
one could look down into the gloomy depths of the gorge, as
into some mysterious underworld. Strange and weird it
seemed, with its fathomless shadows and its wild grottoes,
over which hung, silently waving, long pendants of ivy, while
dusky gray aloes uplifted their horned heads from great
rock-rifts, like elfin spirits struggling upward out of the
shade. Nor was wanting the usual gentle poetry of flowers;
for white iris leaned its fairy pavilion over the black void
like a pale-cheeked princess from the window of some dark
enchanted castle, and scarlet geranium and golden broom and
crimson gladiolus waved and glowed in the shifting beams of


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the sunlight. Also there was in this little spot what forms
the charm of Italian gardens always, — the sweet song and
prattle of waters. A clear mountain-spring burst through
the rock on one side of the little cottage, and fell with a
lulling noise into a quaint moss-grown water-trough, which
had been in former times the sarcophagus of some old
Roman sepulchre. Its sides were richly sculptured with
figures and leafy scrolls and arabesques, into which the sly-footed
lichens with quiet growth had so insinuated themselves
as in some places almost to obliterate the original
design; while, round the place where the water fell, a veil
of ferns and maiden's hair, studded with tremulous silver
drops, vibrated to its soothing murmur. The superfluous
waters, drained off by a little channel on one side, were
conducted through the rocky parapet of the garden, whence
they trickled and tinkled from rock to rock, falling with a
continual drip among the swaying ferns and pendent ivy-wreaths,
till they reached the little stream at the bottom
of the gorge. This parapet or garden-wall was formed of
blocks or fragments of what had once been white marble,
the probable remains of the ancient tomb from which the
sarcophagus was taken. Here and there a marble acanthus-leaf,
or the capital of an old column, or a fragment of sculpture
jutted from under the mosses, ferns, and grasses with
which prodigal Nature had filled every interstice and carpeted
the whole. These sculptured fragments everywhere
in Italy seem to whisper from the dust, of past life and death,
of a cycle of human existence forever gone, over whose tomb
the life of to-day is built.

“Sit down and rest, my dove,” said Dame Elsie to her
little charge, as they entered their little enclosure.

Here she saw for the first time, what she had not noticed


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in the heat and hurry of her ascent, that the girl was panting
and her gentle bosom rising and falling in thick heart-beats,
occasioned by the haste with which she had drawn
her onward.

“Sit down, dearie, and I will get you a bit of supper.”

“Yes, grandmother, I will. I must tell my beads once
for the soul of the handsome gentleman that kissed my forehead

“How did you know that he was handsome, child?” said
the old dame, with some sharpness in her voice.

“He bade me look on him, grandmother, and I saw it.”

“You must put such thoughts away, child,” said the old

“Why must I?” said the girl, looking up with an eye as
clear and unconscious as that of a three-year old child.

“If she does not think, why should I tell her?” said
Dame Elsie, as she turned to go into the house, and left the
child sitting on the mossy parapet that overlooked the gorge.
Thence she could see far off, not only down the dim, sombre
abyss, but out to the blue Mediterranean beyond, now calmly
lying in swathing-bands of purple, gold, and orange, while
the smoky cloud that overhung Vesuvius became silver and
rose in the evening light.

There is always something of elevation and purity that
seems to come over one from being in an elevated region.
One feels morally as well as physically above the world, and
from that clearer air able to look down on it calmly with
disengaged freedom. Our little maiden sat for a few moments
gazing, her large brown eyes dilating with a tremulous
lustre, as if tears were half of a mind to start in them,
and her lips apart with a delicate earnestness, like one who
is pursuing some pleasing inner thought. Suddenly rousing


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herself, she began by breaking the freshest orange-blossoms
from the golden-fruited trees, and, kissing and pressing them
to her bosom, she proceeded to remove the faded flowers of
the morning from before a little rude shrine in the rock,
where, in a sculptured niche, was a picture of the Madonna
and Child, with a locked glass door in front of it. The picture
was a happy transcript of one of the fairest creations
of the religious school of Florence, done by one of those
rustic copyists of whom Italy is full, who appear to possess
the instinct of painting, and to whom we owe many of those
sweet faces which sometimes look down on us by the wayside
from rudest and homeliest shrines.

The poor fellow by whom it had been painted was one to
whom years before Dame Elsie had given food and shelter
for many months during a lingering illness; and he had
painted so much of his dying heart and hopes into it that it
had a peculiar and vital vividness in its power of affecting
the feelings. Agnes had been familiar with this picture
from early infancy. No day of her life had the flowers
failed to be freshly placed before it. It had seemed to smile
down sympathy on her childish joys, and to cloud over with
her childish sorrows. It was less a picture to her than a
presence; and the whole air of the little orange-garden
seemed to be made sacred by it. When she had arranged
her flowers, she kneeled down and began to say prayers for
the soul of the young gallant.

“Holy Jesus,” she said, “he is young, rich, handsome, and
a king's brother; and for all these things the Fiend may
tempt him to forget his God and throw away his soul. Holy
Mother, give him good counsel!”

“Come, child, to your supper,” said Dame Elsie. “I
have milked the goats, and everything is ready.”