Any boy who has read Marryat's _Midshipman Easy_ will remember how that cheeky young Naval officer and a friend of his went for a spree in an Italian sailing boat from Malta to Sicily, which is eighty miles away, and how their spree turned into a pretty desperate adventure.
The boys were attacked by their boat's crew during the night, and they only saved themselves by using their pistols on the Italian desperadoes. They eventually landed on the Sicilian coast not far from Syracuse.
Anyone who has read Count Erbach's diary of his visit to Malta in the time of the Knights of St. John will remember his exciting experiences when, on leaving the island, for Sicily, the vessel in which he sailed had got within sight of Syracuse when a rakish-looking craft, which proved to be an Algerian pirate, ran out from under the land, and chased and captured his ship, and carried him off a prisoner to Tunis.
Going farther back, every boy who has read his Greek and Roman history knows how Syracuse was in ancient days one of the great war harbours of the Mediterranean.
It was the arsenal where fleets fitted out, and the depot where they brought back their booties of valuables and slaves after their victorious raids.
You may imagine, then, that it was interesting to us to steam into the beautiful bay on a calm, sunny morning, past the old fort which guards the entrance, and into the back of the island on which the town now stands.
All was looking sweet and peaceful where for hundreds of years had been the scene of strife and adventure. The Cathedral and Circus.
The walls of the cathedral are supported by immense columns, which, 500 years before Christ was born, formed the walls of the Temple of Jupiter.
Many are the signs of the Greek and Roman occupation of the place.
We visited the great open-air circus where gladiators used to fight each other to the death, and where slaves were given to lions to devour before the eager eyes of ten thousand spectators. The seats are still there, and the dungeons of the slaves, and the dens of the wild beasts.
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THE EAR OF DIONYSIUS.
In the neighbourhood are the great quarries in which the slaves not only worked, but also lived. They were made to cut the walls so that they inclined inwards, and therefore could not be climbed.
The only entrance to the quarries was by ladder, so there was no escape for a man once he got in there.
There are huge caves cut in the walls of the quarries in which the slaves lived, and one of these caves has been cut into a narrow cleft exactly on the principle of the inside of your ear. So that anyone sitting at the top of the cleft can hear every word that is being spoken or even whispered in the cave below.
It is said that Dionysius, the ruler of Syracuse, had this made so that he could sit in the cleft (where there is a little chamber with private door) unknown to the people in the cave, and there he could overhear all that the prisoners talked about and plotted among themselves.
The whole cave is called "The Ear of Dionysius."
I remember a similar kind of "ear" in a natural cave in Matabeleland. It was here that one of the native sorcerers used to hide himself, and when he whispered through a crack in the rocks it could be heard all over the cave.
The people believed that it was the voice of a god speaking to them, so they used to come and pray to him for advice, and the old villain told them that they must rise up and murder all the white people, and their chief, Lobengula, who had long been dead, would come to life and lead them against their enemies once more.
He had nearly persuaded them to come out on the war-path, when Burnham, the American scout, made his way into the secret part of the cave and shot the supposed god while he was preaching murder.
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CARTS IN SICILY.
A curious thing that strikes you in Sicily is the kind of cart and harness used by the country people.
[Illustration: A SICILIAN PAINTED CART AND DECORATED HARNESS.]
The cart is a light, two-wheeled affair of an ordinary kind, but every inch of it inside and out as far as the ends of the shafts and down the spokes of the wheels, is painted in gaudy colours, for the most part yellow, blue, red, and green.
Pictures of incidents in Bible history, of the war against the Turks in Tripoli, of ballet dancers, etc., are to be seen on most of these carts, while on others ornamental patterns only are painted.
Then the harness of the horse is of a very gaudy kind when new, but being largely made up of cheap gold braid and coloured cloth, it soon fades and looks tawdry.
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A MUSICAL SADDLE.
In place of a bit there is a steel noseband on the horse's bridle by which he is driven and guided, and instead of the ordinary pad on the horse's back, a great ornamental brass affair is used.
Years ago I bought one of these pads and brought it home as a curiosity. A friend met me as I was bringing it along, and said:
"Hullo! what on earth is this? Surely it must be some sort of musical instrument. Look here! I am getting up a concert; you _must_ bring your instrument and play it there. Will you?"
Of course, I always like to oblige a friend, and I did not like to disappoint this one, so I meekly promised.
I chose a beautiful piece of high-class music, and got the orchestra to practise it over as accompaniment to my instrument, the "sellura." I tuned it by winding the brass flags which adorn it.
I fingered the knobs up and down the front of it as if they were the notes; the big projections on either side I pulled as if to alter the tone.
And the music? Well, I got that out of a comb and paper affixed to the back, and into which I sang.
But, mixed up with the other instruments, it sounded all right, and I got lots of applause and lots of questions afterwards as to where you could buy these wonderful organs, and how long did it take one to learn to play them, and so on!
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Six hundred feet up on a mountain spur overhanging the sea stands the little town of Taormina.
Long ago it was chosen as a beauty spot by the Romans and Greeks, and here they had their villas and baths and theatre.
The theatre stands to this day, in ruins, it is true, but sufficiently whole to show what an ancient theatre was like.
One can sit in the upper circle and look down upon the "pit" and "orchestra," and the marble pillars and wall which formed the back of the stage in those days in place of scenery.
But an earthquake has thrown down the greater part of the back wall, and has thereby opened up a beautiful view of the coast of blue water and white sand far below, and of the purple slopes and snowy crest of Mount Etna above--a scene such as no scene painter could have equalled.
[Illustration: THE THEATRE AT TAORMINA.]
Among the quaint and ancient buildings of the town stand the old monastery and church of San Domenico. The monastery is now the chief hotel, and with the splendid view from its windows and its pretty gardens makes a charming place to stay at in this most charming spot.
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NAPLES. - VESUVIUS.
Naples is a city lying around a great bay on the Italian coast, and behind it, about ten miles distant, rises the double-peaked mountain, Vesuvius. Vesuvius is, as you know, a volcano and a thin cloud of smoke is always coming out of it.
When I visited Naples a few years ago, the mountain was shaped like this:
Now it is like this
It lost its peak in one night, and I was there the night that it happened.
I was sleeping peacefully in my hotel, when I was awakened in the middle of the night by heavy bangings, and it at once occurred to me that the artillery were firing guns in the street below my window.
I thought: "Hullo, here's a revolution or something going on," and I rushed out on to my balcony.
The street below was empty, but in other streets I could hear people calling to each other and crying out.
Then came more of the awful banging, like claps of thunder, all round. Then there was suddenly a great blaze of red light up in the sky, and I realised that Vesuvius was breaking out.
It was just like a fountain of fire squirting up, with volumes of smoke and steam above it all lit up with the glow, and round it jagged, white lightning kept blazing and darting about.
Soon the flames were dimmed, the whole outbreak became a dull glare, even the houses round us grew indistinct, and what seemed to be a regular London fog set in.
But it was not a fog; it was a cloud of light dust--the ashes from the volcano, which had begun to fall over Naples.
When daylight came you could no longer see the mountain, although you could hear it rumbling like thunder.
You could scarcely see across the street, so thick was the ash fog. The fine dust got into one's eyes and nose, and everything, indoors and out, was covered with a thick coating of grit.
At the foot of Vesuvius a great stream of red-hot lava mud slid down the mountain side, straight across fields and roads, and over farms and villages, slowly but steadily pushing its way, the country people fleeing before it with such of their property as they were able to bundle on to carts or carry away with them.
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But on the whole the people were not so frightened after the first outbreak as one might have expected.
Yet they had every reason to be, because near the mountain stand the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was overwhelmed, not by lava, but by just such a fall of ashes from a great eruption of Vesuvius about thirty years after the death of Christ.
The ashes had fallen lightly at first, but so thickly that in a very short space of time the whole city was buried under tons of it, and the people were crushed or suffocated in their homes.
You will find the whole story of it in the novel called _The Last Days of Pompeii_, but if you ever go to Pompeii the ruins which have been dug out tell their own story better than any book can do.
You walk through silent streets of beautifully decorated houses, of shops, theatres, and baths; the pavement is scored with the wheelmarks of the chariots, and in some of the houses the skeletons of the inhabitants are still to be seen.
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BOY SCOUTS OF NAPLES.
To-day the whole country around the foot of the mountain is thickly populated, and towns and villages stand on the slopes of Vesuvius as if there were no danger of his ever breaking out again.
And Naples itself is a great, flourishing city with big factories, and a busy seaport where ships of every nation congregate.
And last, but not least, it has its Boy Scouts.
They are Italian boys, but they dress and work just the same as their British brothers. They have done a lot of camping out, and are all very good at cooking their grub. And also they do a bit of sea scouting in the splendid harbour and bay of Naples.