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Death at Volterra 24/12/2010

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c. 1900

The great fortress by the gate impresses itself upon you as you draw near; monstrous bulk, monstrous strength, such dignity as consists with mass, it has. The huge walls are of a piece; work of giants, titanic, but not lordly. Etruscan heads directed all this immensity; what goaded slave-hordes wrought it, I know not. It looks as inert and spiritless as convict labour; gloomier Etruscan stronghold Herr Baedeker can never have seen. Fiesole is savage, Chiusi mournful, Perugia a termagant; Volterra has the dulness of the brute. You do but get a premonition of it as you climb the weary leagues into the town, and have Terrific uo time to enlarge it, since you are to shocked again. When the sinister country has you fast, when your spirits have flagged to their lowest, suddenly, a huge bloodcoloured cliff confronts you, clothed in scrub to the peak, the Mons Tumba of this muddy waste. Backed by a storm-cloud, abode for vampires and snakes, spell-struck into silence, it terrifies you. It is as if all your flying fears, winging to a point, should take shape: a bare grey land, a storm brewing in the north, and a blood-red cliff dead in your way. Thus fared knights-errant in the old tales when they took their lives in their hands. ‘And Pereduc journeyed three days and three nights over the desert. And he came to a great mountain in the midst, which was as red as blood, and hight Pavidus.’

‘Brutto paese!’ quoth Trombino, a snug youth for choice… Once past this fatal place you have the grim bulk of the fortezza towering over your way. As my own cortege crawled up, Iremember that a little company of madmen strayed about us, going slowly homewards to Volterra – fit pinfold! – herded by one man in a Government cap. He seemed glad of my company, so I conversed with him a little. His madmen were very old, but had, he told me, all been homicides in their day. Solitary confinement had done its work; they would lay hands suddenly on no other men. So the law allows them to roam at will, to pick wild-flowers and twist garlands for their white pows: a peaceful ending to their labours. They looked upon us. our equipage and advance, with mild unwondering eyes. Once we had been grist for their long knives, but now were less than the flowers in the hedgerow. After life’s fitful fever… A straggling suburb succeeded, a row of drab houses, a cheerless trattoria with unglazed windows, pigs, chickens, children, stern-faced women in men’s hats – here are disjected notes. A diligence came tearing down the hill, full of scared pale people escaping from Volterra; but we crept ever upwards and trailed painfully by the walls, the watch-tower, the great boulder of the fortress, and entered the doomed city by the Florence Gate.

Trombino flogged the horses into a feeble canter, and brought us up to the door of the old inn with some sort of a rattle. Cut a thin reed from scream-beset Scamander For hazard of this music! No one came out to receive us. It might have been a dead-house; and so it was. Windtortured abode of madmen and grey murderers! Heart of earthquakes, fallen, still falling Volterra! It wanted but this. But I must endeavour to be calm. To our notions—whose inns are as good as our hotels are bad – there is no comfort, but much hospitality in a Tuscan inn. At Volterra, the fact is that I had neither; but there were reasons. Mr. Carmichael, in a recent and agreeable work, shows that he found something to his taste. His landlord, however, was not dying of typhoid as mine was. To me all Volterra was exactly accursed, from the landlord to the land. A raw sea-mist was blown upon a searching wind through all the corridors of the house. Mad old women whispered and chuckled to themselves in corners, pawing and patting, as it seemed to me, waxen figures of the stricken host. Now and then there came a scurrying of fear-fanned feet, now and then the clanking of pails, the sudden banging of doors. A daughter of the house was in tears, her sister in hysterics; the doctor spat upon the floor, signifying his diagnostic pother. Death alone sat hale in the guest-chambers, and had bespoken the chief seat at the feast. Clearly, all these things were far from Mr. Carmichael, who was able to ruminate with unencumbered mind upon the Etruscans, the alabaster industry, and the landslip – as most pleasantly he does in his little Tuscan book. To me the gloom, the shadow, the cruel sea-wind with its tainted burden of fog, blighted the eyes, and perhaps struck a palsy upon the judgment. But I am by no means so sure that this, which has been foretold by the road, is not sealed to Volterra by history.

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