20th June 1901: Water Carry On

Belloc didn’t hang around to watch the sun rise. As day began to break, he stepped out of the shed and went on his way. Of course, this was as much to ensure that the shed’s owner didn’t catch him as out of fear of meeting anyone from the inn, though I am sure it was in Belloc’s mind that one of them could be the owner.

Upon reaching Medesano, Belloc heard Mass and drank coffee in a local inn. Using such Italian as he could muster, he asked locals how he might cross the Taro river to get to Fornovo. Their response was not encouraging: it couldn’t be done.

But what was impossible to men was possible to a boy, and so it was that a young lad told Belloc about a man who would be able to carry him across the river.

They went in search of the fellow, walking alongside the Taro as they did so. Belloc saw that it ran in seven streams, none of which seemed very strong. Is a guide really necessary? he wondered. On the far side, Fornovo shone in the sunlight.

The boy’s act of kindness was replicated by the guide.

They bought him at last down from his hut among the hills. He came with great strides, a kindly-looking man, extremely tall and thin, and with very pale eyes. He smiled.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.331

A price for the crossing was agreed and Belloc mounted the man’s back for the first stream. It ran in a torrent; now Belloc understood why the villagers had said that the Taro could not be crossed. Thank goodness he had taken a guide. Although, disaster still nearly struck…

The second stream was too strong to be forwarded where Belloc and his guide now stood. To get across it, they had to walk a mile up river to find a suitable crossing point.

Midway across, however, the loose stones on the river bed caused the guide to lose his footing. Belloc plunged into the water. Such was its power that he could have drowned. Fortunately, the guide managed to regain his balance and pull Belloc to safety.

The third to sixth stream provided no drama. The seventh, however, ran hard; Belloc waded it alone and threw the guide’s payment back to him so that he would not have to risk the journey. A kind gesture for a kind man.

Belloc found a peasant resting on the far bank.

He rose and walked with me to Fornovo. He knew the guide.
“He is a good man,” he said to me of this friend, “He is as good as a little piece of bread.”
“E vero,” I answered; “e San Christophero.”
This pleased the peasant; and indeed it was true. For the guide’s business was exactly that of St. Christopher, except that the Saint took no money, and lived, I suppose, on air.

The Path to Rome, p.334

I really like Belloc’s aside there. It puts some of his more ultramontane statements into perspective.

Belloc arrived in Calestano in the evening. He had had a good day but now that came to a sudden end. The kindness of the boy and guide was replaced by the ill will of the locals and two police officers. Perhaps Belloc didn’t help himself by shouting ‘at the ill natured hostess’ (The Path to Rome, p.340) of the inn where he had gone to eat but when he asked where he might find a bed for the night – and having been told ‘sullenly’ (Ibid) that none were available – two police officers approached and arrested him. Just like that.

Two gendarmes arrived. They demanded Belloc’s passport, which he could not produce, and conducted an impromptu interrogation. Matters were not helped by Belloc’s inability to make himself understood. He asked to speak to a priest – he, at least, might know Latin.

This was a fine touch. They winced, and parried it by saying that the Sindaco [Mayor] knew French.

The Path to Rome, p.342

Belloc was imprisoned in the local barracks while the sindaco was informed of what had happened. He ordered Belloc to be brought to him. When the two men met, however, it became apparent that the mayor did not know any French at all. This might have been very unpromising for Belloc’s prospects but the mayor had no desire to see this matter continued; he resolved it by coming back to a familiar word that Belloc had used: ‘”Tourist-e?” he said.’ (The Path to Rome, p.343) Belloc nodded. It was enough. The mayor had him released. Belloc returned to the inn in triumph.

What a contrast was there between the hour when I had gone out of the café a prisoner and that when I returned rejoicing with a crowd about me… The landlady smiled and bowed… The men at the tables made me a god! Nor did I think them worse for this. Why should I? A man unknown, unkempt, unshaven, in tatters, covered with weeks of travel and mud, and in a suit that originally cost not ten shillings…

The Path to Rome, p.343

I take Belloc’s point, but I still think he is stretching the limit of generosity here. He had been treated meanly, and all the more so because he looked like a tramp. That aside, let’s talk about how ironic it is that Belloc was saved by being taken (whether genuinely or just to get him about of the mayor’s hair) for that thing he really despised: a tourist.

Full of forgiveness, Belloc stayed the night at the inn.