Unprotected Females in Sicily



"And climbed with heart the adverse steep."

A soft tinkling of bells beneath the window said "Rise!" and though the young moon was alone in the sky with one pale star, the orange dawn lay as a broad belt on the dark Ionian sea.

We boundingly dress, and spring on the mules with palpitating pleasure, for it is not the fulfilment of our dream, our object,--and you of ardent temperament know all that word contains,--near its fulfilment?

Nicolosi, black sepulchre of lava as it seems, with its sleeping inhabitants, is traversed in silence, the ponderous animals sink hoof-deep into the jetty sand, and trembling hope keeps us speechless. On, on,--let the village sink contemptuously into formless mass with the kindred blocks around,--our aim is there, where a soft, soft form is felt to rise.

Soon sight comes to feeling; and as a white light slowly spreads around, it is more decidedly caught by eastward sloping snows, till waxing and waxing with purer intensity, through reflecting its flameless brilliancy, a white vacuum is made by a spotless pyramid in the deep blue sky.

Pace on, pace on, ye steady mules! with your noses so methodically strung together; dawn is advancing into morn, the pure white light is changing into ardent fire, and now one glorious flame leaps forth; the mountain quails at its touch, the snow bounds as it feels the scorch of its golden light, and cold Ătna is wrapped in sunbeams.

Now glow, O east! now blush, O mount! now sparkle, O hoar-frost, which covers with diamond manna the Desert of Lava! Rejoice with us that a glorious summer's day had begun in mid-winter, while Angiolo and Gorgio devoutly smile upwards, and thank Santa Lucia!

At the moment the sun's rays reach the ground, the oaks stretch out their shady branches to us, and we enter the region called "Bosco." Though the month is December, and much snow has fallen, many of the leaves still cling to the trees, the ivy round the trunks is brilliantly green; the roots are buried in ferns; the scene is that of a beautiful English park, we continually expect peeping antlers to rise and disappear, followed by bounding fawns. In summer when the cool grot to arrive at the Bosco from the horrid coal-cellar below, which the sun, I am sure, mistaking for the real thing, endeavours with all his might to ignite. The hour and a half passed in this sylvan scene, the only one in poor heated Sicily, was delightful! Breathing the morning freshness we were carried dreamingly on, and it was not till a few patches of snow commenced sharing the ground with the moss, and at every step became more and more y encroaching, usurping the who˛e ground, only just allowing the heavy oaks room to rise knottingly upwards, that the sense of the presence of Ătna above returned. The mules, from which the guides had alighted, after battling bravely with their slippery footing, were beginning to sink knee-deep in the snow; then one in crossing the frozen bed of a rivulet turned completely over. The guides looked what they would say--"Yours may do the same any moment." We dismounted with a sigh in front of a great hill of perpendicular white, one of the little inequalitied of the mountain, and then felt the moment was come when two of the wonders of creation, a snowy volcano and a woman's curiosity, were to try their ardour against each other, though the former had placed its crater 11,000 feet out of reach. The Bosco continued for some distance yet, and other explorers had always been able to ride beyond it. However, at the foot of Monte Vittorý our mule sacrifice was made; and as in getting off I staggered a little from sitting two hours in the same position, I saw one of the guides shake his head distrustfully to the other, without having then an idea of the extent of their doubts of our powers; for you must know, reader, though occasionally making a wonderful exertion, we are "deceitfully delicate looking," as some have said with surprise after reading our passage of the Sˇgne Fjeld in Norway. The cloaks, hoods, and over[-]stocking, and all extras, were left with the muleteer, who had orders to wait at the confines of the wood. The guides wished much to leave the shawls also; but dreading the twenty degrees of cold promised above, we would not give them up. Mamma took Angiolo's, I Georgio's arm, and we set off with a conquering step.

After a few paces I began to outstrip her, when she called me back, and said in a mild, but matronly firm tone, "My dear, the single condition on which I will attempt this ascent is, that you remain behind me, merely following, letting me regulate the rate at which we walk;" which she did on so excellent a plan, that I attribute the success of the whole attempt to her, and think it the only one on which ladies, and perhaps some gentlemen also, can ascend high mountains with comfort. It was to continue at a uniform steady pace, stopping to breathe every now and then, before the lungs were quite exhausted. By this proceeding we got on so comfortably, that, if there were no other obstacle, I felt we could easily have walked up the Himalayas with plenty of time, and the repressed ardour acted as steam later on the journey.

As yet hills of snow rose on every side, succeeding each other and allowing of no view; by degrees they became farther apart, and sinking one below the other as we rose, presented an extraordinary appearance. Extinct craters as they were, and all concave at the summit, their hollows filled with glistening snow, looking down upon them they seemed a collection of colossal porcelain wash-hand basins. At this point the view began to be interesting, as the lower craters were also visible, some half covered with snow, others only slightly podered, the amount of white showing their distance, till they melted into the rich red and puce of Sicilian surface. One of the beauties of Ătna's ascent is, that owing to its sloping sides, nothing invidiously hides the vast horizon around, which expands beneath the charmed eye so captivatingly that it must watch it, thus cheating fatigue, and animating by a feeling of commanding position to continual advancement, until within reach of the great "Piano delle Lave" towards the summit, when nearer objects of interest advance, and for a while console the climber until his former horizon reappear in magic grandeur.

For two hours we walked with perfect facility on crisp hard snow, and saw with exulting pleasure that the "Montagnuolo," which from beneath seems almost close to the crater, was gradually losing ita unattainable appearance, and allowing us to sidle up to is base, when an overpowering difficulty made itself felt,--the heat, which placed a fiery barrier on our rising path, and during the whole ascent made an almost invisible resistance to our advancement. The shawls one by one were thrown off, handkerchiefs followed; the heavy cloth petticoats next, till the poor guides were quite disguised with bearing the extra garments, and meekly quoted their former advice to leave them with the muleteer. Yet they had no right to be warm; for if the heat of Africa breathe over Ătna's snows in winter, can the imagination even,--that ardent burner!--glow to the slightest idea of what Sicilian climate must be in summer, when they declared it was much hotter? All the national fire of character became at once comprehensible to us, and even infectious; as stifling heat spreads languos and exhausted indifference around, so do the directly darting rays stir up the soul to rage, and maddening the blood, make it impel the body on to opposition. No, heat! you shall not vanquish! Though, unexpected, determined, and ferocious, you find us without even the shade of a tiny umbrella against your attacks! The hour's toil up to the column was inexpressibly painful. We tried to walk in the guides' shadows, to gasp one panting breath of air, to raise the swimming head,--it was ardour against ardour,--and when, bathed in fire, on a desert of snow, we threw ourselves at the base of the lava pyramid, saw a great white Sahara extending beyond, with another Ătna rising from it in the steamy distance,--then, heat, you had well[-]nigh been conqueror.

A quarter of an hour's torpid rest, immovably stretched upon the despised woollens, restored to us the power of movement, and also made us sensible of a very slight, very sharp, and very refreshing wind, grazing past from the north, and which, when we had donned the thickest shawls, was as the fountain of hop to a blistered mind, or nectar air sent by Jove--that gallant godm always touched by female wishes, and who keeps the hideous Titan Enceladus out of the way, crushed beneath the mountain, sine the war of the giants. This air brought on a great appetite; we told the guides to light the charcoal for warming the coffee: they hesitatingly said, "it had not been brought; they never expected we could possibly reach the column; the few who thought of trying the ascent in winter generally giving way an hour below." In summer, the spot was a favourite halting place, and, had we ascended a week sooner, could have ridden that far. The coffee had to be taken cold, and was most reviving, instead of getting into the head, like spirits; and I am happy to be able to quote Professor Forbes, who also preferred tea to wine on his mountain expeditions. The guides brought out bread and oil, of course; for dessert each had one of our cold veal chops, which we found nice solid things, with a little fruit, making a strengthening and not too heavy meal. After the cooling air, refreshment, and rest of an hour, things began to assume quite a different appearance: when two lovely yellow butterflies came and flitted about, eight thousand feet above the sea stretched below, we sprang up and felt as if we would fly also; for surely what butterflies could reach we could!

The "Piano delle Lave" lay stretched out to the "Casa degli Inglesi," the next goal. Angiolo and Georgio were hooked in again, and soon covered with shawls, for when we moved, the wind seemed to disappear, and the heat raged again undisturbed. The snow had now become soft, and at each step we sank in ankle-deep, then almost knee-deep; it was very, very hard work; while that "Montagnuolo," at first so advancing, seemed as if it would accompany us, and never let un edge beyond its shoulder; the little "Casa degli Inglesi," instead of increasing in size, remained the same insignificant distant dot; even the lovely appearance of the snow, whose alabaster surface was shaded into deep sea-green wherever we had stepped, could not charm us into thinking it less heavy than a dry sandy beach. This was another two hours' probation, seeming never to end, and, like the former, to be endured only by one of those efforts which enthusiasm can force now and then in a lifetime,--it felt rewarded when the little roof of the highest placed house in Europe sloped at touching distance above the snow! As the frozen banks prevented the door being opened, I at once seated Mamma comfortably on an icicle, to examine the effects of the last earthquake, which had thrown down the back rooms -- then rushed off with Angiolo towards the crater, and was out of reach in a moment!

Up and down the little snow-hills we ran with glee, the good soul being as excited as myself, and not till we came to the ascent of the funnel (of which only a gravel walk outside the dome of St. Paul's can give any idea), did I well understand how that many people who even rode up to the Casa never reached the crater of the mountain. For, reader, Ătna being a pyramid, and towering above all nature within the vast horizon around, the miserable beings on her summit are suspended in the air, and merely cling with a poor little pair of feet to a few shifting cinders, while all Sicily waits to receive their bones when, giddy-headed, the roll below. Such beinf the prospect, and the probable result of looking round, it can be imagined that a good head is necessary, as it is impossible, fron the steepness, to take more than four steps upwards without stopping; the rarification of the air had not the slightest effect upon us during the whole ascent; poor Italian travellers are quite torn in pieces by it; they either drink "ruum" or suck lemons the whole way up. The ground was pleasantly warm beneath our feet, if we did not rest too long; here and there, smoke came from slits in the sulphureous yellow ground, called "Papone del Cratere," giving an awful sensation of hollowness beneath.

Toil, toil, toil; is this to be never-ending? Hark, a sound! it must be Vulcan's anvil [p.136]

This digital version prepared by Martin Guy <martinwguy@gmail.com>, october 2001.
Last revision: 24 April 2004.