I STOOD within the walls of Fort King George, looking seaward to the other isles of Adria, and my fancy bridged the ninety years that lie between this and the days 'when George III. was King-England a power in these seas-Lissa the Malta of the Adriatic.
I thought how often English eyes had gazed as mine did on this scene, eyes weary of the sunny landscapes of the South, of Adria's palms and vines; sick for the sight of English fields and hedgerows which maybe they would never see again !
I looked across the water to the little English churchyard by the farther shore, where many gallant British seamen long forgotten sleep their last, far from their native land, and my heart was filled with mingled pride and sadness. Pride for the country and the men who have so greatly dared, that in every quarter of the globe our dead are sleeping; sadness for the Page 215young lives laid down in England's cause, for the mothers, wives, and 'sweethearts of the past, now long since dust, who waited long ago for their wanderers' return.
So runs the simple record outside the English churchyard of Lissa; within is another monument erected
I laid some rosemary on their grave. Rosemary-that's for remembrance !
Bentinck and Wellington are still commemorated in the names of the old English forts, and above the little sheltered bay known as "the English harbour" is a semicircular stone seat, erected by the former and still kept in repair out of the fund provided by our Government for this and the upkeeping of the Page 216churchyard. On this stone bench, they say, the English officers sat on summer evenings. A very pleasant spot it is, in the shelter of the hills, with the clear water below and the little town of Lissa lying across the intervening channel.
You can fancy them in their cocked hats and gold lace, discussing with animation the chances of the Napoleonic wars-the harbour in front not empty save for fishing-smacks, as it is to-day, but full of sails of merchantmen and frigates and line-of-battleships, ready from this spot to pounce on any unwary Frenchman venturing in these waters. Those were stirring times, when Nelson and Trafalgar were fresh in all men's minds, filling officers and men alike with desire to carry on the victorious traditions of the great commander, and chances to do and dare might come any day !
Lissa was handed over to the Austrians' in 1815, and the English forts are now dismantled; not, however, without having played their part in the world historic sea-fight between the Austrians and Italians on July 20, 1866, which is commemorated by the monument known as the Lion of Lissa, in the Roman Catholic Page [216a]
Here, too, is the monastery of San Girolamo, surely among monasteries unique, for it is built upon the site and out of the stones which once formed a Roman arena, connected by a vestibule with a Roman villa on the shore. Strange vicissitudes of the centuries! The peaceful monks keep their wine to-day in the dungeons around the arena where the wild beasts waited to be loosed upon their prey; and in the central space, where blood of men and animals was spilt to please the populace, or skilled warriors met in deadly combat, vines grow and grapes ripen in the sun ; where lions roared, hyenas yelled, and a frenzied people shrieked applause, the sound of convent bell now floats across the water, calling to Matins or Evensong.
Of Rome's dominion in this isle there remains but little to be seen; here and there bits of crumbling wall, fragments of pavement and coins in a private museum-that is all! A figure said to be that of Domitian was sent with other interesting finds to Vienna, and the museum there hungers for three immense bronze vases of the Roman time, which liePage 218beneath the water close by the old arena and are distinctly visible from the shore; but so far funds to- raise them have not been forthcoming, and it seems as if they may continue to lie where they do now for many a long year.
Hard by the site of the Roman villa is a date-palm, which is unmatched for size and beauty upon the shores and islands of the Adriatic. It grows in a neglected garden by the seashore and lifts its stately head full eighty feet or more into the air, rising from a bed of wild flowers and surrounded by satellite palms which would be noticeable elsewhere, and seem small only in comparison with their giant neighbour.
Three hundred years at least, the natives say, this monarch among palms has kept watch and ward upon the shores of Adria. It witnessed the invasion of the armies of the Crescent, which sent a terrified people crowding to the towers of refuge and defence, which still stand, and add a very picturesque touch to the town. There seems no reason why it should not stand here for centuries still, and witness the awakening of sleeping Lissa to the throb of modern life which is surely coming.
Page 219It was but a few years ago that the island had only weekly communication with Triest; now four steamers call each week, and a driving-road, the first upon the island, is being made to Comisa, at present accessible only on muleback or by water. Even in this far-off Adriatic isle "the old order changeth, giving place to new," and those of us who love the past witness it with somewhat selfish regret, for progress spells prosperity to the islanders.
True, they know no poverty such as exists in great cities; their vineyards are productive, the wines of finest quality, the sea yields them a rich harvest, and they carry on that quaint industry peculiar to Dalmatia-the cultivation of wild chrysanthemums or marguerite daisies, which flourish exceedingly in this rocky soil, and are afterwards dried (you may see them laid out on sail-cloth by the sea-shores millions together, looking in the distance like linen laid to bleach) and converted into insect powder for export as well as home use.* When burnt in a room with closed doors and windows, this powder is death to mosquitoes, which are one of the plagues of this as of all Southern lands.
Page 220Wheeled vehicles there are none on Lissa. Mules and donkeys are much used for transport, cows are rarely seen, goats plentiful, though the law allows only one to a family on account of the harm they do to vegetation.
Lissa, called by the ancients Issa, enjoys a classical celebrity. A Greek colony, which was the parent of the other Dalmatian Greek colonies of Dalmatia, as, for example, Tragurian (Trau) and Pharia (Lesina), existed B.c. 392. After the Illyrian King Agron conquered the latter island, the men of Issa, fearing the same fate, allied themselves with Rome for protection against his widow, Queen Teuta, who played so large a part in the history of these isles. On their side, the Lissaners placed ships at the disposal of the Romans in their wars against the Macedonian King Philip and the men of Carthage.
Under Augustus, Lissa formed part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, and from that time onward had no vicissitudes till destroyed by the Goths, A.D. 535.
But the inhabitants, who had fled before the barbarians at that time, returned and Page 221rebuilt their homes; fruitful Lissa, with its salubrious climate, was too fertile an island to be abandoned, just as it was ever an envied prize in war.
It was ravaged once more, yet not wiped out, in the Venetian time by the fleet of the King of Aragon, 1483. Soaked with the blood of men fighting not alone for glory, but for hearth and home, is this little spot of earth only about eleven English miles in length, and half of that in breadth.
It has its natural beauties and curiosities, as well as its stirring history. Two remarkable grottoes, that would be more famous than they are were they not overshadowed by the greater fame of the neighbouring blue grotto of Busi, are hid in its rocky coast.
One of these, known as the Scoglio Ravnik, in the south-east of the island, suggests the Pantheon at Rome by its dome-like form and central opening in the roof, through which the light streams on to the mirror-like water beneath. It is the haunt of numerous bats, which, hanging motionless on the walls by day, are hardly distinguishable from the stalactites which line them.
Page 222The second grotto, in the north-west of the island, is remarkable for its natural pillars and vaultings.
Alas that the elements did not permit of our visiting Busi ! Only when the Adriatic sleeps on a summer's day can boats enter the fairy recesses of the Blue Grotto, and wind and waves forbade making the attempt,so I must fain describe its magic by hearsay.
It was discovered by Baron Ransonnet in 1884, and is one of many grottoes in this tiny islet. The entrance through a natural door is wide enough for a boat containing ten or twelve persons to pass in, but the height above the level of the sea is not more than five feet, hence its inaccessibility except in calmest weather.
This doorway gives access to a canal which leads through mysterious twilight to the grotto, and enhances its beauty when you pass from the semi-darkness to its azure radiance. The oars of your boat, your hand, if you dip it in the magic flood--everything beneath the water shimmers like molten silver. The everyday orld is shut out by the gloomy entrance through which your boat has borne you-you are in fairyland. For this Dalmatian grotto Page [222a]
The isle of Busi, too, has a very special interest on account of its remoteness from even the Dalmatian world. Separated from Lissa, itself remote, by something like seven miles of stormy sea, its two hundred inhabitants form a little world to themselves. Of Croatian stock, and Catholics by religion, they follow mostly the calling of fishermen. The sardine fisheries of the island are famous; the soil is singularly fertile, and vines and fruits are cultivated by the islanders. Bee-keeping is another industry, as the myrtle, rosemary, and other flowers rich in honey grow wild in profusion on this far Adrian isle.
Nothing in Dalmatia surprised me more than the existence of an English consulate on the little isle of Lissa, though there is none at the important port of Spalato. But this, I learnt, is a relic of our past possession. The consul's duties consist chiefly in caring for the English churchyard, though the gentleman who now fills the office, Signor Topic, very kindly made it his duty to welcome us personally on our arrival, and escort us to the rooms he had Page 224engaged for us in the absence of an hotel. Unfortunately, he had to leave next day for Vienna, but his secretary and right-hand man was ever at our disposal as guide, and daily supplies of glorious roses and carnations from the gardens of Signor Topic's lovely villa turned our little sitting-room into a flowery bower.