We returned late. The young moon, lying in the lap of the old one, was superintending the brilliant sunset over Capri, as we passed the last point commanding it; and the light, fading away, left us stumbling over the rough path among the hills, darkened by the high walls. We were not sorry to emerge upon the crest above the Massa road. For there lay the sea, and the plain of Sorrento, with its darkening groves and hundreds of twinkling lights. As we went down the last descent, the bells of the town were all ringing, for it was the eve of the fete of St. Antonino.
“Cap, signor? Good day for Grott.” Thus spoke a mariner, touching his Phrygian cap. The people here abbreviate all names. With them Massa is Mas, Meta is Met, Capri becomes Cap, the Grotta Azzurra is reduced familiarly to Grott, and they even curtail musical Sorrento into Serent.
Shall we go to Capri? Should we dare return to the great Republic, and own that we had not been into the Blue Grotto? We like to climb the steeps here, especially towards Massa, and look at Capri. I have read in some book that it used to be always visible from Sorrento. But now the promontory has risen, the Capo di Sorrento has thrust out its rocky spur with its ancient Roman masonry, and the island itself has moved so far round to the south that Sorrento, which fronts north, has lost sight of it.
We never tire of watching it, thinking that it could not be spared from the landscape. It lies only three miles from the curving end of the promontory, and is about twenty miles due south of Naples. In this atmosphere distances dwindle. The nearest land, to the northwest, is the larger island of Ischia, distant nearly as far as Naples; yet Capri has the effect of being anchored off the bay to guard the entrance. It is really a rock, three miles and a half long, rising straight out of the water, eight hundred feet high at one end, and eighteen hundred feet at the other, with a depression between. If it had been chiseled by hand and set there, it could not be more sharply defined. So precipitous are its sides of rock, that there are only two fit boat-landings, the marina on the north side, and a smaller place opposite. One of those light-haired and freckled Englishmen, whose pluck exceeds their discretion, rowed round the island alone in rough water, last summer, against the advice of the boatman, and unable to make a landing, and weary with the strife of the waves, was in considerable peril.
Sharp and clear as Capri is in outline, its contour is still most graceful and poetic. This wonderful atmosphere softens even its ruggedness, and drapes it with hues of enchanting beauty. Sometimes the haze plays fantastic tricks with it,—a cloud-cap hangs on Monte Solaro, or a mist obscures the base, and the massive summits of rock seem to float in the air, baseless fabrics of a vision that the rising wind will carry away perhaps. I know now what Homer means by “wandering islands.” Shall we take a boat and sail over there, and so destroy forever another island of the imagination? The bane of travel is the destruction of illusions.