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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911

Plymouth, Sept. 19th, 1890

Plymouth, Sept. 19th, 1890.

My dear St. John,

After a year's holiday, I am here, about to sail again for New Zealand, in S.S. Rimutaka. In January I went abroad, for, though I have been twice round the world, I knew nothing of the Continent, and was especially anxious to visit Italy. At Cannes I found our old Eton and Oxford friend, Wollaston, who is the permanent Chaplain of St. Paul's Church, having had to give up his living in England owing to throat trouble. He advised me to make an expedition to the Island of St. Honorat, one of the Isles de Lerins, some six miles distant, where I had a most interesting time.

One of these Islands is the place where the man with the iron mask was confined; the other famous for its monastery, founded by Honoratus in 410 a.d. It is a little gem of beauty in the blue Mediterranean; "Beata ilia Insula" was its old title; that Isle of Happiness. Not far from the landing-place there is an archway crossing the road that leads to the buildings, and on it these words:

"Pulcrior in toto non est locus orbe Lerina,
Dispeream hie si non vivere semper amem,"


"In all the world no place more lovely than Lerina.
Let me die if I would not live here for ever."

page 237

Perhaps if we had lived when the Roman Empire was tottering to its fall, Alaric sacking Rome, Lerina would have seemed just such a haven of refuge as these words suggest, such as its first inmates found it, but who made it something more than a place of selfish ease and peace; from the first it was a school of study and personal preparation for active missionary work, a centre of light in days of darkness, and the forerunner of similar institutions in the Middle Ages.

With other tourists, Italian and French, I went to the entrance of the monastery, where the Prior, in the white Cistercian habit, received us. Speaking in French, he said there were one hundred monks, of whom thirty were engaged chiefly in cultivating the land, producing all needed for their maintenance; the rest engaged in literary work, editing, compiling, with original work as well, and printing. Each monk has two cells, a bedroom and a study. In the refectory opposite each seat I noticed a cruet stand for oil, vinegar and wine; "Yes, we grow our own wine." Many of the monks are artists; the walls of their chapel, lately restored by their own hands, show excellent examples of fresco painting. Owing to their reputation as scholars, the Government has not suppressed the monastery, or reduced its numbers. Its history is unique; its scholars and trained men in the Fifth Century and later furnished the Church in the South of France with notable Bishops, such as St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Martin of Tours; here also for a time St. Patrick was educated. It also produced great writers and thinkers, one especially, Vincentius Lerinensis, whose well-known maxim of true Church doctrine and practice was couched in the page 238words: "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum," i.e. "That which always, everywhere, and by all has been believed."

Happening to let fall a word or two in English, the Prior, drawing me aside, said, "I am English; stay behind, and I will show you what I do not usually show to visitors. "He is an Oxford man who has joined the Roman Communion. Taking me to his rooms, he showed me valuable manuscripts, and a splendid chromo-lithographic copy of a presentation book they had taken six years to complete as an offering to the Pope, on the occasion of his Jubilee. It contained the Magnificat in every known language, with illustrations in colour and photography of each country to which the language belonged. Turning over the leaves, I came across the Magnificat in Maori. The Prior seemed well pleased with the chance of a talk with a fellow Oxford man, and before I took leave of him, led me down to a typical monastic cellar, where stood brass bound barrels of wine, and bottles of a famous liqueur, made from herbs found in the island. The cellarer produced biscuits and glasses, and we toasted each other happily. On the seaward side of the island there is a picturesque fortress, built by the Monks about 1100 a.d. to protect the island from Saracen pirates, who were ravaging the Mediterranean. They beat them off, but later the place was taken by Genoese marauders and held by them for a short time, until help came from France.

At Cannes, meeting some old friends, we drove from Nice by the Via Corniche, the road which Napoleon cut across the spurs of the maritime Alps. The road rises at one point to a great height at Turbie, where there is a grand relic of Roman greatness, a page 239huge tower built in honour of the conquest of the Alpine tribes by Augustus; a little lower you look down on Monte Carlo, and the tiny kingdom of Monaco; for miles the road overhangs precipitous cliffs, indented with bays, in which the Mediterranean sparkles with ever changing tints, amethyst, sapphire, and green where the water shallows. Little vegetation, till it descends to lower levels, except ilex and olive, but below vines, figs, and oranges. I was much surprised to see the trees in places sprinkled with snow. The orange tree never seems to rest, having fruit in various stages of maturity at all times of the year, reminding one of George Herbert's lines:

"I would I were an orange plant,
That ever busy tree,
Then should I never want
Some fruit for Him that dresseth me."

Here are some notes by the way: Men on the roads with cloaks and cowls, some with scarlet caps; women with nothing on their heads but their own thick dark hair; long narrow carts drawn by mules; in the villages streets so narrow that two vehicles can scarcely pass; lofty houses, heavy overhanging eaves, and wayside shrines. In one of these, beneath a statuette of the Virgin, with its little oil lamp and some artificial flowers, this inscription:

"Pro infermis et invalidis adsum,
In mare irato, in subitâ procellâ,
Invoco te, nostra benigna stella."

i.e "For the infirm and invalid I am present.
In angry sea, in sudden storm,
I call on thee, our kindly Star."

page 240

The Coast people know well what the Mediterranean can do in its angry moods. Passing through the village of Coglietto, I noticed a house, said to have been the birthplace of Christopher Columbus; over the doorway runs this inscription, in terse Latin:

"Hospes siste pedem; fuit hic lux prima Columbo; orbe viro majori heu nimis arcta domus.
Unus erat mundus; duo sunt, ait ille; fuere."
i.e. "Stranger, stay thy foot, Columbus here first saw the light;
A house, alas, too narrow for a man greater than the world."
"There was one world; there are two, said he;—there were."

Halting at Alassio for the night, we heard a story from the padrone of the hotel, who warned me not to sketch fortresses, however picturesque. An English Clergyman, staying with him, went off for a tramp in the hills, and began to sketch a fortress in a narrow pass. He was promptly run in by soldiers and being unable to talk Italian was taken for a spy. After a day or two he managed to send a letter to the hotel, and was released. "But why," I said, "did he not explain somehow that he was an English Padre?" "That," said the padrone, "would be no good in your case; has the Signor seen our Padres, how they walk?" and he imitated the stately gait of an Italian priest. "No good, for the Signor walks like this; I've seen him," and he strode up and down the room.

At Arma di Taggia, a little fishing village, one of our horses cast a shoe, and whilst it was being shod we sat down to eat lunch, and sketch a bell tower page 241topped with a Saracenic looking dome. Italians take a lively interest in visitors, and soon several children and grown-ups were eagerly watching the result. "Look, they are painting our tower—come and see!" Italians never seem in a hurry, as one of their proverbs has it: "Time for everything," which includes an amount of loafing and gossip which would simply bore the average Anglo-Saxon, but which greatly adds to the amusement of the holiday traveller. Not far from here there are the remains of a large church, wrecked in the earthquake of 1887, a mass of ruin, broken columns and stonework. Inquiring why nothing had been done to remove the ruin, we learnt that underneath lie scores of people who in panic had rushed into the church, and were overwhelmed. They had let them lie there untouched.

Very curious are the habits of Italians with regard to their dead. Professionals perform the last offices for them; no one else, not even near relatives, go near the body. The services in church are impressive, but the actual burial takes place attended by only a few officials. The cemeteries are enclosed with walls, with cloisters and arcades, under which stand elaborate monuments, but the actual graves in the centre of the ground are only known to the sexton. They are very particular in keeping the days of the death of a relative, and going to the cemetery, spend some time by the monument, making a sort of family reunion of the occasion. At Genoa the Campo Santo, as it is termed, is of great extent, and full of magnificent sculpture; not exactly the place a visitor affects, yet directly you are recognized as a sightseer, guides and cabbies beset you with the invitation: "II Cimeterio, Signor?"