SUNNY LANDS IN THE BLUE MEDITERRANEAN
When I opened my eyes again I felt myself grasped by the belt with the strong hand of our guide. With the other arm he supported my uncle. I was not seriously hurt, but I was shaken and bruised and battered all over. I found myself lying on the sloping side of a mountain only two yards from a gaping gulf, which would have swallowed me up had I leaned at all that way. Hans had saved me from death whilst I lay rolling on the edge of the crater.
“Where are we?” asked my uncle irascibly, as if he felt much injured by being landed upon the earth again.
The hunter shook his head in token of complete ignorance.
“Is it Iceland?” I asked.
“Nej,” replied Hans.
“What! Not Iceland?” cried the Professor.
“Hans must be mistaken,” I said, raising myself up.
This was our final surprise after all the astonishing events of our wonderful journey. I expected to see a white cone covered with the eternal snow of ages rising from the midst of the barren deserts of the icy north, faintly lighted with the pale rays of the arctic sun, far away in the highest latitudes known; but contrary to all our expectations, my uncle, the Icelander, and myself were sitting half-way down a mountain baked under the burning rays of a southern sun, which was blistering us with the heat, and blinding us with the fierce light of his nearly vertical rays.
I could not believe my own eyes; but the heated air and the sensation of burning left me no room for doubt. We had come out of the crater half naked, and the radiant orb to which we had been strangers for two months was lavishing upon us out of his blazing splendours more of his light and heat than we were able to receive with comfort.
When my eyes had become accustomed to the bright light to which they had been so long strangers, I began to use them to set my imagination right. At least I would have it to be Spitzbergen, and I was in no humour to give up this notion.
The Professor was the first to speak, and said:
“Well, this is not much like Iceland.”
“But is it Jan Mayen?” I asked.
“Nor that either,” he answered. “This is no northern mountain; here are no granite peaks capped with snow. Look, Axel, look!”
Above our heads, at a height of five hundred feet or more, we saw the crater of a volcano, through which, at intervals of fifteen minutes or so, there issued with loud explosions lofty columns of fire, mingled with pumice stones, ashes, and flowing lava. I could feel the heaving of the mountain, which seemed to breathe like a huge whale, and puff out fire and wind from its vast blowholes. Beneath, down a pretty steep declivity, ran streams of lava for eight or nine hundred feet, giving the mountain a height of about 1,300 or 1,400 feet. But the base of the mountain was hidden in a perfect bower of rich verdure, amongst which I was able to distinguish the olive, the fig, and vines, covered with their luscious purple bunches.
I was forced to confess that there was nothing arctic here.
When the eye passed beyond these green surroundings it rested on a wide, blue expanse of sea or lake, which appeared to enclose this enchanting island, within a compass of only a few leagues. Eastward lay a pretty little white seaport town or village, with a few houses scattered around it, and in the harbour of which a few vessels of peculiar rig were gently swayed by the softly swelling waves. Beyond it, groups of islets rose from the smooth, blue waters, but in such numbers that they seemed to dot the sea like a shoal. To the west distant coasts lined the dim horizon, on some rose blue mountains of smooth, undulating forms; on a more distant coast arose a prodigious cone crowned on its summit with a snowy plume of white cloud. To the northward lay spread a vast sheet of water, sparkling and dancing under the hot, bright rays, the uniformity broken here and there by the topmast of a gallant ship appearing above the horizon, or a swelling sail moving slowly before the wind.
This unforeseen spectacle was most charming to eyes long used to underground darkness.
“Where are we? Where are we?” I asked faintly.
Hans closed his eyes with lazy indifference. What did it matter to him? My uncle looked round with dumb surprise.
“Well, whatever mountain this may be,” he said at last, “it is very hot here. The explosions are going on still, and I don’t think it would look well to have come out by an eruption, and then to get our heads broken by bits of falling rock. Let us get down. Then we shall know better what we are about. Besides, I am starving, and parching with thirst.”
Decidedly the Professor was not given to contemplation. For my part, I could for another hour or two have forgotten my hunger and my fatigue to enjoy the lovely scene before me; but I had to follow my companions.
The slope of the volcano was in many places of great steepness. We slid down screes of ashes, carefully avoiding the lava streams which glided sluggishly by us like fiery serpents. As we went I chattered and asked all sorts of questions as to our whereabouts, for I was too much excited not to talk a great deal.
“We are in Asia,” I cried, “on the coasts of India, in the Malay Islands, or in Oceania. We have passed through half the globe, and come out nearly at the antipodes.”
“But the compass?” said my uncle.
“Ay, the compass!” I said, greatly puzzled. “According to the compass we have gone northward.”
“Has it lied?”
“Surely not. Could it lie?”
“Unless, indeed, this is the North Pole!”
“Oh, no, it is not the Pole; but—”
Well, here was something that baffled us completely. I could not tell what to say.
But now we were coming into that delightful greenery, and I was suffering greatly from hunger and thirst. Happily, after two hours’ walking, a charming country lay open before us, covered with olive trees, pomegranate trees, and delicious vines, all of which seemed to belong to anybody who pleased to claim them. Besides, in our state of destitution and famine we were not likely to be particular. Oh, the inexpressible pleasure of pressing those cool, sweet fruits to our lips, and eating grapes by mouthfuls off the rich, full bunches! Not far off, in the grass, under the delicious shade of the trees, I discovered a spring of fresh, cool water, in which we luxuriously bathed our faces, hands, and feet.
Whilst we were thus enjoying the sweets of repose a child appeared out of a grove of olive trees.
“Ah!” I cried, “here is an inhabitant of this happy land!”
It was but a poor boy, miserably ill-clad, a sufferer from poverty, and our aspect seemed to alarm him a great deal; in fact, only half clothed, with ragged hair and beards, we were a suspicious-looking party; and if the people of the country knew anything about thieves, we were very likely to frighten them.
Just as the poor little wretch was going to take to his heels, Hans caught hold of him, and brought him to us, kicking and struggling.
My uncle began to encourage him as well as he could, and said to him in good German:
“Was heiszt diesen Berg, mein Knablein? Sage mir geschwind!“
(“What is this mountain called, my little friend?”)
The child made no answer.
“Very well,” said my uncle. “I infer that we are not in Germany.”
He put the same question in English.
We got no forwarder. I was a good deal puzzled.
“Is the child dumb?” cried the Professor, who, proud of his knowledge of many languages, now tried French: “Comment appellet-on cette montagne, mon enfant?“
“Now let us try Italian,” said my uncle; and he said:
“Dove noi siamo?“
“Yes, where are we?” I impatiently repeated.
But there was no answer still.
“Will you speak when you are told?” exclaimed my uncle, shaking the urchin by the ears. “Come si noma questa isola?“
“STROMBOLI,” replied the little herdboy, slipping out of Hans’ hands, and scudding into the plain across the olive trees.
We were hardly thinking of that. Stromboli! What an effect this unexpected name produced upon my mind! We were in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea, on an island of the Æolian archipelago, in the ancient Strongyle, where Æolus kept the winds and the storms chained up, to be let loose at his will. And those distant blue mountains in the east were the mountains of Calabria. And that threatening volcano far away in the south was the fierce Etna.
“Stromboli, Stromboli!” I repeated.
My uncle kept time to my exclamations with hands and feet, as well as with words. We seemed to be chanting in chorus!
What a journey we had accomplished! How marvellous! Having entered by one volcano, we had issued out of another more than two thousand miles from Snæfell and from that barren, far-away Iceland! The strange chances of our expedition had carried us into the heart of the fairest region in the world. We had exchanged the bleak regions of perpetual snow and of impenetrable barriers of ice for those of brightness and ‘the rich hues of all glorious things.’ We had left over our heads the murky sky and cold fogs of the frigid zone to revel under the azure sky of Italy!
After our delicious repast of fruits and cold, clear water we set off again to reach the port of Stromboli. It would not have been wise to tell how we came there. The superstitious Italians would have set us down for fire-devils vomited out of hell; so we presented ourselves in the humble guise of shipwrecked mariners. It was not so glorious, but it was safer.
On my way I could hear my uncle murmuring: “But the compass! that compass! It pointed due north. How are we to explain that fact?”
“My opinion is,” I replied disdainfully, “that it is best not to explain it. That is the easiest way to shelve the difficulty.”
“Indeed, sir! The occupant of a professorial chair at the Johannæum unable to explain the reason of a cosmical phenomenon! Why, it would be simply disgraceful!”
And as he spoke, my uncle, half undressed, in rags, a perfect scarecrow, with his leathern belt around him, settling his spectacles upon his nose and looking learned and imposing, was himself again, the terrible German professor of mineralogy.
One hour after we had left the grove of olives, we arrived at the little port of San Vicenzo, where Hans claimed his thirteen week’s wages, which was counted out to him with a hearty shaking of hands all round.
At that moment, if he did not share our natural emotion, at least his countenance expanded in a manner very unusual with him, and while with the ends of his fingers he lightly pressed our hands, I believe he smiled.