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Text - "A Rough Shaking" George MacDonald


I need not give more of their talk. It was better than most talk, yet not worth recording. Their guide, perceiving that they knew no more of Italian than he did of English, had withdrawn to the rear, and stumped along behind them all the way, holding much converse with his donkeys however, admonishing now this one, now that one, and seeming not a little hurt with their behaviour, to judge from the expostulations that accompanied his occasionally more potent arguments. Assuredly the speed they made was small; but it was a festa, and hot. They were on the way to a small town some distance from the shore, on the crest of the hill they were now ascending. It would, from the number of its inhabitants, have been in England a village, but there are no villages in the Riviera. However insignificant a place may be, it is none the less a town, possibly a walled town. Somebody had told Mr. and Mrs. Person they ought to visit Graffiacane, and to Graffiacane they were therefore bound: why they ought to visit it, and what was to be seen there, they took the readiest way to know. The place was indeed a curious one, high among the hills, and on the top of its own hill, with approaches to it like the trenches of a siege. All the old towns in that region seem to have climbed up to look over the heads of other things. Graffiacane saw over hills and valleys and many another town-each with its church standing highest, the guardian of the flock of houses beneath it; saw over many a water-course, mostly dry, with lovely oleanders growing in the middle of it; saw over multitudinous oliveyards and vineyards; saw over mills with great wheels, and little ribbons of water to drive them-running sometimes along the tops of walls to get at their work; saw over rugged pines, and ugly, verdureless, raw hillsides-away to the sea, lying in the heat like a heavenly vat in which all the tails of all the peacocks God was making, lay steeped in their proper dye. Numerous were the sharp turns the donkeys made in their ascent; and at this corner and that, the sweetest life-giving wind would leap out upon the travellers, as if it had been lying there in wait to surprise them with the heavenliest the old earth, young for all her years, could give them. But they were getting too tired to enjoy anything, and were both indeed not far from asleep on the backs of their humble beasts, when a sudden, more determined yet more cheerful assault of their guide upon his donkeys, roused both them and their riders; and looking sleepily up, with his loud heeoop ringing in their ears, and a sense of the insidious approach of two headaches, they saw before them the little town, its houses gathered close for protection, like a brood of chickens, and the white steeple of the church rising above them, like the neck of the love-valiant hen. Passing through the narrow arch of the low-browed gateway, hot as was the hour, a sudden cold struck to their bones. For not a ray of light shone into the narrow street. The houses were lofty as those of a city, and parted so little by the width of the street that friends on opposite sides might almost from their windows have shaken hands. Narrow, rough, steep old stone-stairs ran up between and inside the houses, all the doors of which were open to the air-here, however, none of the sweetest. Everywhere was shadow; everywhere one or another evil odour; everywhere a look of abject and dirty poverty-to an English eye, that is. Everywhere were pretty children, young, slatternly mothers, withered-up grandmothers, the gleam of glowing reds and yellows, and the coolness of subdued greens and fine blues. Such at least was the composite first impression made on Mr. and Mrs. Porson. As it was a festa, more men than usual were looking out of cavern-like doorways or over hand-wrought iron balconies, were leaning their backs against door-posts, and smoking as if too lazy to stop. Many of the women were at prayers in the church. All was orderly, and quieter than usual for a festa. None could have told the reason; the townsfolk were hardly aware that an undefinable oppression was upon them-an oppression that lay also upon their visitors, and the donkeys that had toiled with them up the hills and slow-climbing valleys. It added to the gloom and consequent humidity of the town that the sides of the streets were connected, at the height of two or perhaps three stories, by thin arches-mere jets of stone from the one house to the other, with but in rare instance the smallest superstructure to keep down the key of the arch. Whatever the intention of them, they might seem to serve it, for the time they had straddled there undisturbed had sufficed for moss and even grass to grow upon those which Mr. Porson now regarded with curious speculation. A bit of an architect, and foiled, he summoned at last what Italian he could, supplemented it with Latin and a terminational o or a tacked to any French or English word that offered help, and succeeded, as he believed, in gathering from a by-stander, that the arches were there because of the earthquakes. He had not language enough of any sort to pursue the matter, else he would have asked his informant how the arch they were looking at could be of any service, seeing it had no weight on the top, and but a slight endlong pressure must burst it up. Turning away to tell his wife what he had learned, he was checked by a low rumbling, like distant thunder, which he took for the firing of festa guns, having discovered that Italians were fond of all kinds of noises. The next instant they felt the ground under their feet move up and down and from side to side with confused motion. A sudden great cry arose. One moment and down every stair, out of every door, like animals from their holes, came men, women, and children, with a rush. The earthquake was upon them. But in such narrow streets, the danger could hardly be less than inside the houses, some of which, the older especially, were ill constructed-mostly with boulder-stones that had neither angles nor edges, hence little grasp on each other beyond what the friction of their weight, and the adhesion of their poor old friable cement, gave them; for the Italians, with a genius for building, are careless of certain constructive essentials. After about twenty seconds of shaking, the lonely pair began to hear, through the noise of the cries of the people, some such houses as these rumbling to the earth. They were far more bewildered than frightened. They were both of good nerve, and did not know the degree of danger they were in, while the strangeness of the thing contributed to an excitement that helped their courage. I cannot say how they might have behaved in an hotel full of their countrymen and countrywomen, running and shrieking, and altogether comporting themselves as if they knew there was no God. The fear on all sides might there have infected them; but the terror of the inhabitants who knew better than they what the thing meant, did not much shake them. For one moment many of the people stood in the street motionless, pale, and staring; the next they all began to run, some for the gateway, but the greater part up the street, staggering as they ran. The movement of the ground was indeed small-not more, perhaps, than half an inch in any direction-but fear and imagination weakened all their limbs. They had not run far, however, before the terrible unrest ceased as suddenly as it had begun.

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