Cloisters have always had for me a subtle charm, which it is difficult to express in words. It comes not principally from their religious associations, nor even from the great antiquity that most of them possess; but chiefly from the fact that they are peaceful, solitary promenades, made beautiful by art, enclosing usually a fragrant garden, and forming in themselves retired avenues, which, while sufficiently open to the sun and sky for light and air, are yet so sheltered from the weather, that one may walk in them at any time, in moments when one craves to be alone. A stroll on country roads or over pathless fields, however unfrequented, does not arouse the same emotions as a quiet walk through such secluded pas-sageways, where nothing from the outer world diverts the mind from the main subject of its contemplation; and the relief of now and then escaping thus completely from the strife and tumult of the crowd is indescribable. The age of cloister-building has gone by; yet never has there been a time when it was so essential for the earnest, thoughtful soul to seek in calm retirement a temporary respite from the friction of a frivolous society and the exhausting competition of commercial life. More cloister and less crowd would be an admirable motto for the panting slaves of modern strenuosity.
A Place Of Solitude And Peace.
In The Garden Of The Cloisters.
A View Of La Con'Ca D'Oro, From Monreale.
The mounting flood of worthless publications, resembling a swarm of gnats compared to the few literary eagles of the past; the daily record of the horrors, crimes, and follies of humanity secured by scavengers of sensationalism in every nook and corner of the globe, and every morning poured upon our minds and hearts at lightning speed; and the tremendous strain of complex social claims, made always greater by inventions of still swifter means of travel and communication, - all these combine to kill one's lofty, individual thought, and dwarf the soul. Occasional intervals of solitude are, therefore, now as necessary as sleep; and every one possessing high ideals should have for his own use some quiet cloister of seclusion, whence he can look out on the universe serenely, with eyes undimmed alike by the blinding dust of the arena and the soot of strident streets. The nearest approach to a cloistered promenade, accessible to the author, is found in the long, shaded paths of his Tyrolean vineyard, where In and out through the silence sweet, While plash of fountain and song of bird Are the only sounds in my loved retreat By which the air is ever stirred, I pace, as in long-drawn aisles of prayer, So hushed is my Promenade Solitaire.
Onward rushes the world without,
But the breeze which over my garden steals
Brings from it merely a distant shout
Or the echo light of chariot wheels;
In its din and drive I have now no share,
As I muse in my Promenade Solitaire.
Ever since hearing, as a youth, the opera of the "Sicilian Vespers," I had been eager to behold the spot where was enacted the first scene of the appalling tragedy which Verdi thus commemorated. Accordingly, soon after my arrival in Palermo, I drove out half a mile beyond the city limits, across the swiftly running, turbid mountain stream, called the Oreto, to one of the most interesting sites connected with Sicilian history. The place is occupied to-day, as it has always been since 1173, by the imposing Norman church of Santo Spirito, or, as it is now by preference called, the "Church of the Vespers." I had expected that the ancient edifice would be a ruin; but, on the contrary, it is in excellent condition, having been thoroughly restored in 1882, in honor of the six hundredth anniversary of the famous national revolt which started at its threshold. Around it also is a well-kept cemetery, which, although modern, is in harmony with the memories of the place, and renders its surroundings beautiful. Like all such popular uprisings, that of the Sicilian Vespers was terrific in its fury, but never was a massacre more excusable. The brilliant and enlightened Norman sovereignty was extinct. The last of its great kings, the wise and noble-hearted Frederick II., was no more. Manfred, his% son, while fighting like a hero for his kingdom, had been slain in battle; and Conradin, his grandson, the surviving heir, a fair-haired, lovable youth of seventeen, had been beheaded like a common felon, by the public executioner. Thus, in a few-short years, the splendid toleration of the Normans had been superseded by the shameful and unbearable oppression of the French usurper, Charles of Anjou, brother of the King of France. This tyrant, having conquered Sicily by crime, had governed it for fourteen years with cruelty. So far were its inhabitants from being pacified, that every city still had to be garrisoned by brutal soldiers, whose orders were to wring from the people all the money possible, and to inspire every one with terror. To make this task a safe one for the soldiery, no citizen was allowed to carry arms, and hence the wretched islanders were powerless to defend either their property from spoliation, or their wives and daughters from their conquerors' lust. At last so ripe was Sicily for revolution, that only a spark was needed to set the island in a blaze. That spark was quickly struck. The time was Easter Tuesday, the 30th of March, 1282. The hour was five o'clock in the afternoon. The sun was sinking toward the crest of Monte Pellegrino, and in this church of Santo Spirito the bells were ringing out their vesper call. Upon the neighboring esplanade, where now the cemetery stands, a number of people had assembled, some on their way to vespers, others for a pleasant stroll. Meanwhile, French soldiers, standing by, displayed the customary insolence of military quartered in a foreign land; and, ogling the women as they passed, made many of them blush at their indecent jests. At last their captain, bolder than the rest, pretending to suspect that some of the ladies might be carrying hidden weapons, approached a young and beautiful Sicilian, and, though she was accompanied by her husband, thrust his hand into her bosom. The insulted woman with a cry fell fainting into her husband's arms. The latter, pointing to his lifeless burden, shouted to his comrades, "Now, at last, let these Frenchmen die!" It was enough. At once a young man snatched the captain's sword, and ran him through the heart. Fired by this example, others threw themselves upon their hated foes; and, though the latter were well armed, the maddened populace contrived with stones and sticks, or any weapons they could find, to kill two hundred soldiers on the esplanade. Then rushing to the city, where the bell of San Giovanni degl' Eremiti was already sounding the alarm, they roused their fellow-countrymen to the work of massacre. The latter, long since waiting for an opportunity to strike for freedom, eagerly responded to their call. Whenever they were in doubt about a person's nationality, they held a dagger up before him, and told him to pronounce the difficult word, "Ciceri." The utterance of these syllables showed instantly whether the speaker were a native or a Frenchman; and if he could not speak them in Sicilian fashion, the poignard pierced his throat, while yet his livid lips were trembling with the sounds that fixed his fate. Thus, ere the following morning dawned, two thousand Frenchmen in Palermo had been slain. Yet this was only the beginning; for, spreading from La Conca d' Oro, the spirit of revolt ran through the island like a prairie fire, and in eight days all Frenchmen found in Sicily had been put to death. The hated sovereignty of the French was at an end.