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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

A May-Day in Albano

By Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885)

From ‘Bits of Travel’

WE went Maying on donkeys, and we found more flowers than could have been picked in a month. What a May-day for people who had all their lives before gone Maying in india-rubbers and an east wind, on the Atlantic coast of America; had been glad and grateful over a few saxifrages and houstonias, and knelt in ecstasy if they found a shivering clump of dog-tooth violets!

Our donkey-man looked so like a New-Englander that I have an uncomfortable curiosity about him: slim, thin, red-haired, freckled, blue-eyed, hollow-chested, I believe he had run away in his youth from Barnstable, and drifted to the shores of the Alban Lake. I watched him in vain to discover any signs of his understanding our conversation, but I am sure I heard him say “Gee” to the donkeys.

The donkey-boy too had New England eyes,—honest, dark blue-gray, with perpetual laugh in them. It was for his eyes I took him along, he being as superfluous as a fifth leg to the donkey. But when he danced up and down with bare feet on the stones in front of the hotel door, and twisted and untwisted his dirty little fingers in agony of fear lest I should say no, all the while looking up into my face with a hopeful imploring smile, so like one I shall never see again,—I loved him, and engaged him then and there always to walk by my donkey’s nose so long as I rode donkeys in Albano. I had no sooner done this than, presto! my boy disappeared; and all I could see in his stead was a sort of human pin-wheel, with ten dangerous toes for spokes, flying round and round by my side. What a pleased Italian boy, aged eleven, can do in the way of revolving somersets passes belief, even while you are looking at it. But in a moment he came down right end up, and with the air of a mature protector, took my donkey by the rope, and off we went.

I never find myself forming part of a donkey, with a donkey-man in rear, without being reminded of all the pictures I have seen of the Flight into Egypt, and being impressed anew with a sense of the terrible time that Holy Family must have had trying to make haste on such a kind of animal: of all beasts, to escape from a hostile monarch on! And one never pities Joseph any more for having to go on foot: except for the name of the thing, walking must always be easier.

If I say that we climbed up a steep hill to the Capuchin church and convent, and then bore off to the right along the shores of the Alban lake, and resolved to climb on till we reached the Convent of Palazzuola, which is half-way up the side of Monte Cavo, it does not mean anything to people who do not know the Alban Lake and Monte Cavo. Yet how else can I tell where we had our Maying? The donkey path from Albano up to Palazzuola—and there is no other way of going up—zigzags along the side of the hill, which is the south shore of the Alban Lake. Almost to the last it is thickly wooded: looking at this south shore from a distance, those who have been through the path can trace its line faintly marked among the tree-tops, like a fine thread indenting them; but strangers to it would never dream that it was there. The path is narrow; only wide enough for two donkeys to pass, if both behave well.

On the left hand you look down into the mystic lake, which is always dark and troubled, no matter how blue the sky: never did I see a smile or a placid look of rest on the Alban Lake. Doubtless it is still linked with fates and oracles we do not know. On the right hand the hill stretches up, sometimes sharply in cliffs, sometimes in gentle slopes with moist hollows full of ivies and ferns; everywhere are flowers in clusters, beds, thickets. It seemed paltry to think of putting a few into a basket, hopeless to try to call the roll of their names. First come the vetches—scrambling in and out, hooking on to everything without discrimination; surely a vetch is the most easily contented of plants: it will hold by a grass stalk or an ilex trunk, or lie flat on the roadside, and blossom away as fast as it can in each place. Yellow, and white, and crimson, and scarlet, and purple, and pink, and pale green;—seven different vetches we brought home. Periwinkle, matted and tangled, with flowers one inch and a half in diameter (by measurement); violets in territories, and of all shades of blue; Solomon’s-seals of three different kinds; dark blue bee-larkspur whose stems were two feet high; white honeysuckle wreathing down from tall trees; feathery eupatoriums; great arums, not growing like ours, on a slender stalk, but looking like a huge cornucopia made out of yellow corn-husks, with one end set in the ground; red catchfly and white; tiny pinks not bigger than heads of pins; clovers of new sorts and sizes,—one of a delicate yellow, a pink one in small flat heads, and another growing in plumes or tassels two inches long, crimson at base and shading up to white at top. One could not fancy this munched in mouthfuls even by sacred cattle: it should be eaten head by head like asparagus, nibbled slowly down to the luscious color at the stem.

The holly was in blossom and the white thorn, and huge bushes of yellow broom swung out across our path at every turn; we thought they must light it up at night. Here and there were communities of crimson cyclamens, that most bewildering of all Italy’s flowers. “Mad violets” the Italians call them, and there is a pertinence in the name: they hang their heads and look down as if no violet could be more shy, but all the while their petals turn back like the ears of a vicious horse, and their whole expression is of the most fascinating mixture of modesty and mischief. Always with the cyclamens we found the forget-me-nots, nodding above them in fringing canopies of blue; also the little flower that the Italians call forget-me-not, which is the tiniest of things, shaped like our forget-me-not, but of a pale purple color. Dandelions there were too, and buttercups, warming our hearts to see; we would not admit that they were any more golden than under the colder sun where we had first picked them. Upon the chickweed, however, we looked in speechless wonder: chickweed it was, and no mistake,—but if the canary-birds in America could only see it! One bud would be a breakfast. One bud, do I say? I can fancy a thrifty Dicky eating out a ragged hole in one side, like a robin from a cherry, and leaving the rest for next day. The flowers are as wonderful as the buds, whitening the ground and the hedges everywhere with their shining white stars, as large as silver quarters of dollars used to be.

Now I come with shamefacedness to speak of the flowers whose names I did not know. What brutish people we are, even those of us who think we love Nature well, to live our lives out so ignorant of her good old families! We are quite sure to know the names and generations of hundreds of insignificant men and women, merely because they go to our church or live in our street; and we should feel ourselves much humiliated if we were not on what is called “speaking terms” with the best people wherever we go. But we are not ashamed to spend summer after summer face to face with flowers and trees and stones, and never so much as know them by name. I wonder they treat us so well as they do, provide us with food and beauty so often, poison us so seldom. It must be only out of the pity they feel, being diviner than we.

The flowers which I did not know were many more than those which I knew, and most of them I cannot describe. There was a blue flower like a liverwort, only larger and lighter, and with a finely notched green leaf; there was a tiny bell-shaped flower, yellow, growing by twos and threes, and nodding perpetually; there was a trumpet-shaped flower the size of a thimble, which had scarlet and blue and purple all blended together in fine lines and shadings; there was another trumpet-shaped flower, quite small, which had its blue and purple and scarlet in separate trumpets but on one stem; there was a tiny blue flower, shaped like a verbena, but set at top of a cluster of shut buds whose hairy calyxes were of a brilliant claret red; there was a yellow flower, tube-shaped, slender, long, white at the brim and brown at the base, and set by twos, in shelter of the joining of its leaves to the stalk; there was a fine feathery white flower, in branching heads, like our wild parsley, but larger petaled, and a white star-shaped flower which ran riot everywhere; and besides these, were so many others which I have no colors to paint, that at night of this wonderful May-day, when we numbered its flowers, there were fifty-two kinds.

As we came out of the woods upon the craggy precipices near the convent, we found the rocks covered with purple and pink thyme. The smell of it, crushed under the donkey’s hoofs, was delicious. Somebody was homesick enough to say that it was like going across a New England kitchen the day before Thanksgiving, and spilling the sweet marjoram.

The door of the cloister was wide open. Two monks were standing just outside, absorbed in watching an artist who was making a sketch of the old fountain. The temptation was too strong for one member of our party: when nobody looked, she sprang in and walked on, determined to have one look over the parapet down into the lake. She found herself under old ilex-trees, among dark box hedges, and the stone parapet many rods ahead. A monk, weeding among the cabbages, lifted his head, turned pale at sight of her, and looked instantly down at his weeding again, doubtless crossing himself and praying to be kept from temptation. She saw other monks hurrying to and fro at end of the garden, evidently consulting what was to be done. She knew no one of them would dare to come and speak to a woman, so she pushed on for the parapet, and reached it. Presently a workman, not a monk, came running breathlessly: “Signorina, signorina, it is not permitted to enter here.”

“I do not understand Italian,” said she, smiling and bowing, and turning away and looking over the parapet. Down, down, hundreds of feet below, lay the lake, black, troubled, unfathomed. A pebble could have been swung by a string from this parapet far out into the lake. It was a sight not to be forgotten. The workman gesticulated with increased alarm and horror: “O dearest signorina, indeed it is impossible for you to remain here. The holy fathers—” at this moment the donkey-man came hurrying in for dear life, with most obsequious and deprecating gestures and words, beckoning the young lady out, and explaining that it was all a mistake, that the signorina was Inglese and did not understand a word of Italian—for which gratuitous lie I hope he may be forgiven. I am sure he enjoyed the joke; at any rate, we did, and I shall always be glad that one woman has been inside the closed cloister of Palazzuola, and looked from its wall down into the lake.

We climbed round the convent on a narrow rocky path overhanging the lake, to see an old tomb “supposed to be that of Cneius Cornelius Scipio Hispallus.” We saw no reason to doubt its being his. Then we climbed still farther up, into a field where there was the most wonderful massing of flowers we had yet seen: the whole field was literally a tangle of many-colored vetches, clovers, chickweed, and buttercups. We stumbled and caught our feet in the vetches, as one does in blackberry-vines; but if we had fallen we should have fallen into the snowy arms of the white narcissus, with which the whole field glistened like a silver tent under the sun. Never have I seen any flower show so solemnly beautiful, unless it might have been a great morning opening I once saw of giant pond-lilies, in a pond on Block Island. But here there were in addition to the glittering white disks, purple and pink and yellow orchids, looking, as orchids always do, like imprisoned spirits just about to escape.

As we came down the mountain the sunset lights kindled the whole Campagna into a flaming sea. The Mediterranean beyond seemed, by some strange optical effect, to be turned up around the horizon, like a golden rim holding the misty sea. The lake looked darker and darker at every step of our descent. Mount Soracte stood clear cut against the northern sky; and between us and it went up the smoke of that enchantress, Rome,—the great dome of St. Peter’s looming and fading and looming and fading again through the yellow mist, like a gigantic bubble, as the power of the faith it represents has loomed and faded and loomed through all the ages.