One great help in getting off to a good start in Anacapri—this was about eight years ago—was the very fact that I had come to Anacapri, instead of staying in Capri, the fashionable resort down the side of the mountain, where most of the visiting foreigners stay. It was out of season, and the Anacapresi were pleased at an interruption of the dullness of their lives.
Not that my arrival was any great event, but a new person always gives something to talk about. The island of Capri had been recommended to me for a rest cure for a serious illness, and I took lodgings with a comfortable balcony, where I reclined all day on a chaise longue. I had nothing to do but listen to conversation, which floated up to me from the street below, and the Anacapresi always seemed to have time for plenty of conversation. A new arrival who is never seen provides ample talking material, for there is no limit to speculation, and I soon knew, not only about the village, but all about myself.
I am sufficiently Italian to know that the important thing —the paramount thing—is to be known as a signora seria. I must have got off to a good start in this also, for it was not long before I heard myself praised for the steadiness of my life, and my habit of not smoking.
Several ladies called, and were very sympathetic about the illness, recommending different climates, different positions on the chaise longue, and different vegetable tonics. The only thing which could cause even the minutest flutter was a visit from the local priest—that is, from the priest for that particular division of Anacapri—a dignified old cleric, who talked to me very charmingly about the antiquities of the village, which are quiet and modest, making no comparison at all with those of the other end of the island, where the odor of Tiberius still lingers.
The climate was delightful, and very effective, for soon I was able to get up, and a little later I could walk about the village in a modest way. I was even invited to a dinner, given by the priests of Anacapri for well-to-do and respectable citizens, so that my social progress must have been really splendid. The priests looked formidable, all together in black. They explained that they wished to beautify the church with a new statue of the Virgin, and the party was to discuss ways and means of raising money for this. It was decided to hold a lottery, and of course I took a large block of tickets. I was introduced to the Arciprete, but for the rest of the evening he was out of conversational range, although within earshot, for I heard him, talking to a Lady who obviously had known neither Sin nor Temptation, saying that Modern Woman was a scandal, for she painted her lips and dressed without seemliness. I had prudently worn a most decent black garment, with long sleeves and high neck, so I felt that my serietd would remain undimmed.
When the lottery day arrived, I could stay up all the time and walk about quite a lot, though I was still to avoid excitement. I took my seat in the piazza, among all the villagers, waiting to hear who were the fortunate ones. The Arciprete came onto the platform, where the priests and the local dignitaries were, and began a little speech about the new statue. Then a little seven-year-old girl, in an angelic white dress, but with flashing black eyes, was blindfolded and began drawing the numbers from a bowl, and the Arciprete announced the winners, beginning with the lowest prizes.
Tension mounted high for the last to be announced, the first prize. I remembered the doctors’ orders, and began to relax. The Arciprete read out the number “Cento Settant’ Otto.” “Who has Cento Settant’ Otto?” Everything began to swim around me; there was no doubt about it, the number on one of the tickets in my hand was 178.
“Will the owner of 178 please step forward to receive the prize?” Still swimming in my dream, I moved out into the aisle, and began to step forward. I had suddenly become the owner of the first prize, and this was, by the munificence of one of the rich citizens, a beautiful little grey donkey.
As I stumbled along the aisle, I had to do some quick thinking. To receive the donkey was simple, but what to do with it was a problem. Was I to take it back with me to London, to become the Costers’ Pearly Queen? By the time I reached the platform, I had the solution. Directly after the Arciprete, with a little bow, had delivered the halter of the donkey into my hands, I asked him who was the villager the most unfortunate, the most poverty stricken, and the most industrious, who would benefit most from the gift of a donkey. For I intended to bestow my prize in the village, upon the person most worthy to receive it. At this the Arciprete literally radiated.
“Ah! What fortune,” he said, “what fortune that we should have among us such a fine and beautiful and distinguished signora, who will become a benefactress to the village. For after winning this fine and handsome prize, what does she do but offer to give it away to the most needful citizen. If it would please the signora, I suggest that she might give it to Gennaro Squagliuzzi, who is a poor fisherman, and has eleven children, and is pious and diligent, and it is hard for him to fill all the mouths that cry to him for bread.”
How things got started, from then on, I was not able to remember clearly. The meeting, that is to say the whole village, resolved itself into a procession, which went slowly from the piazza to the hut of the Squagliuzzi family.
When we reached Gennaro’s hut, the Arciprete had his speech all ready, and it was very fine indeed. The gist of it was that I was a public benefactress, and worthy of heaven knows what honors in the village. Also, I was a very fine signora seria, with every virtue and every grace. Gennaro Squagliuzzi, who looked just as a fisherman from Capri should look, was embarrassed, and sincerely grateful. His worn-looking wife called all the blessings of the saints upon me, and kept on kissing the medal of the Virgin that hung on her black dress. We were not invited into the house, but Gennaro made a little impromptu speech that was dignified and most moving. He enumerated his eleven difficulties, with a short eulogy of me between each. Peppino was a fine strong lad, but lazy; Nunziatina was a good girl, and the donkey, the munificent gift of the signora, would be wonderfully useful when she bought things in the village; and so on down to Cecchina, who had just been weaned; and finally Nicolino, who had been baptized only last week, and was already quieter because his original sin had been driven out. The whole family would be eternally grateful to the fine and beautiful signora, who had made them such a rich gift, and they would all pray for her.
The very next morning the brass band of the village assembled right under my balcony to play tunes for me, especially “The Last Round Up,” which had taken the island by storm. I invited them all to come up to the balcony, to drink what in Italian is called a Vermouth of Honor. They declared themselves to be honored by this, perhaps just as honored as I truly felt myself to be.
The same evening I went out to dine with the priests again. 1 sat next to the Arciprete, who told me what an admiration he had for the best type of Nordic womanhood, especially when it was tempered with Italian blood, as in my case.
A few days later I had a delightfully worded, formal dinner invitation from Gennaro Squagliuzzi. His house had been cleaned spick and span. Since it was a two-room affair, we were to eat in the kitchen, and to make the occasion more festive, the big bed in which half of the family slept had been pushed into the other room, and a new coat of whitewash applied to the walls. All the Squagliuzzi offspring were present, so dreadfully scrubbed that I felt sorry for them. At first, we grown-ups, including the children down to number eight, drank our respective healths in mar-sala. Conversation proceeded on stately lines: we enquired into each other’s families and in-laws, and Signora Squagliuzzi asked me how many children I had. So urgent was her tone of voice, that I felt ashamed to own to less than four, whom I invented and named on the spot. The dinner was ready. The table was laid with a shining and obviously new white cloth, and a big bunch of red paper carnations adorned the center. Gennaro explained that we were to have a typically Caprese meal, with typical Caprese allegria, pointing to the jugs of wine on the table. He had been fortunate, he said, and was able to offer me a very special dish. It was a naked cuttlefish, boiled and dark brown in color, as large as Nicolino’s head, with heaven knows how many tentacles. It tasted to me like very strong-flavored India rubber, and its looks were worse than its taste. I must have been successful in eating it all down with a poker face, but my virtue served me ill, for another and larger helping was heaped on my plate. However, it was socially a successful meal, and we parted with thanks for each other’s exquisite kindness, as they say in Italy. For the rest of my stay in Anacapri, my reputation re-mained on the same high level. I retired again to my chaise longue, and made few public appearances; thus the legend about me was not dulled by familiarity. What did happen, I had known was going to happen, for I had tried cuttlefish once before, and found out not only that I do not like it, but also that I am violently allergic to it. I came out in boils, many of them, in inconvenient places. The whole village said: “Povera signora, she is so ill, and has come to Anacapri to get better. The good food and good climate here will soon make her well.” The scars of the boils have always remained with me.
As for the original ailment, which brought me to Anacapri, the rest cure was complete.