Fragrance in Literature- Rambles in the Islands of Corsica and Sardinia, by Thomas Forester

Rambles in the Islands of Corsica and
Sardinia, by Thomas Forester

On its picturesque scenes we were now entering, with everything to give them the highest zest. The autumn[55] rains had refreshed the arid soil, and the aromatic shrubs filled the air with their richest perfume. Escaped from cities, and from steam-boats, redolent of far other odours, and having turned our backs on marsh, and stagna, and wearisome causeway, well strung to our work, and gaining fresh vigour in the evening breeze, we brushed through the waving thickets with little thought of Giovanni and his mules, left far behind, and as little concern whither our path would lead us. It was a beaten track, and must be our guide to some habitation. A few hours ago we set foot on shore, and we were already engaged in some sort of adventure—and that, too, in Corsica, which has an ugly reputation! “N'importe; it is our usual luck; it will turn out right.” But let us push on, for the sun has long set, and the twilight is fading.

There were only a few small vessels, employed in the coasting trade, in the port. We rowed round the mole, under the frowning bastions of the citadel, a regular work covering a point stretching into the bay; and then hoisting sail, stood out into the gulf. The wind was too light to admit of our gaining its entrance; we sailed down it, however, for four or five miles in the mid-channel, the rocky islands at the northern entrance gradually opening; one crowned with the tower of a lighthouse, another with[218] a village on its summit. The coast to our right was clothed with the deep verdure of the ever memorable Corsican shrubbery, breathing aromatic odours as we drifted along: otherwise, it appeared desolate; not a village appeared, and the barren and rugged mountain chain towered above.

However, we walked the deck long after the other passengers had gone below; enjoying the fresh breeze, though it was no soft zephyr wafting sweet odours from the Ausonian shore. It is a sublime thing to stand on the poop of a good ship when she is surging through the waves at ten knots an hour in utter darkness, whether impelled by wind or steam; especially when the elements are in strife. Nothing can give a higher idea of the power of man to control them. With no horizon, not a star visible in the vault above, and only the white curl on the crest of the boiling waves, glimmering in our wake, on—on, we rush, the ship dipping and rising over the long swells, and dashing floods of water and clouds of spray from her bows.

The lights began to twinkle from the windows of Ajaccio, and the cathedral bells tolling for the Ave Maria, stole on the ear across the gulf in the silence of the twilight hour. Reluctant to leave the scene, we lingered till it was shrouded from view, and an evening never to be forgotten closed in. Then we wound slowly towards the city along the shore, at the foot of hills laid out in vineyards hedged by the prickly cactus, or lightly sprinkled with myrtles and cystus, and all those odoriferous plants which now perfumed the balmy night air. Embowered in these, we had remarked some mortuary chapels, the burying-places of Ajaccian families. One of them, high up on the hill-side, was in the form of a Grecian temple; and we now passed another, standing among cypresses, close to the shore. Nearer the city, two stone pillars stand at the entrance of an avenue leading up to a dilapidated country-house, formerly the residence of Cardinal Fesch, and where Madame Bonaparte and her family generally spent the summer. Among the neglected shrubberies, and surrounded by the wild olive, the cactus, the clematis, and the almond, is a singular and isolated granite rock, called Napoleon's grotto, once his favourite retreat.

The air is so perfumed by the aromatic plants, that there was no exaggeration in Napoleon's language when conversing, at St. Helena, of the recollections of his youth, he said:
“La Corse avait mille charmes; tout y était meilleur jusqu'à l'odeur du sol même. Elle lui eût suffi pour la deviner, les yeux fermés. Il ne l'avait retrouvée nulle part.”
A trifling occurrence in my own travels gives some faint idea of the sentiment which dictated this remark. At St. Helena the flora of the North and South singularly meet. Patches of gorse (Ulex Europæa)—that idol of Linnæus and ornament of our English and Cambrian wastes—grow freely on the higher grounds, rivalling the purple heath in their golden bloom, and shrubs of warmer climates in their sweet perfume. Returning to England after lonely wanderings in the southern hemisphere, I well remember how the sight and the scent of this rude plant, dear in its very homeliness, recalled former scenes associated with it. I recollect, too, that the mettlesome barb which bounded over the downs surrounding Longwood did not partake of my sympathy for the golden bough I had plucked. The smooth turf and the yellow furze had no charms for the exile of St. Helena. Never was the “lasciate ogni speranza” more applicable than to his island-prison, and in his melancholy hours his thoughts naturally reverted, with a gush of fond tenderness, to the land of his birth, little as he had shown partiality for it in his hour of prosperity.

A slight ascent over a stony bank landed us at once on the verge of the thickets. It had been browsed by cattle, and scattered myrtle-bushes, of low growth, were the first objects that gladdened our eyes. A new botany, a fresh scenery was before us. The change from the littoral, with its rank vegetation, close atmosphere, and weary length of interminable causeway, was so sudden, that it took us by surprise. Presently we were winding through a dense thicket of arbutus, tree-heaths, alaternus, daphne, lentiscus, blended with myrtles, cystus, and other aromatic shrubs, massed and mingled in endless variety—the splendid arbutus, with its white bell-shaped flowers and pendulous bunches of red and orange berries, most prevailing.

We had been ascending, generally at a pretty sharp angle, from the time we crossed the Bevinco, and had walked about three hours, when, emerging from the skirts of the ilex forest, we found ourselves on an elevated ridge connected with the vast wastes of which the greater part of the east and north-east of the province of Nebbio is composed. The surface is bare and stony, with a very scanty herbage among aromatic plants and bushes of low growth, consisting principally of the branching cistuses, which, however they may enliven these barren heaths by their flowers in the earlier part of the year, increased its parched and arid appearance now that the leaves hung withered on their stems.

What with a Pisan campanile, a Corsican manse, festooning vines, a cluster of bamboo canes—indicative of the warm south—and the group of mountains with the truncated peak in the distance, a very clever sketch was produced,[123] though not one of my friend's best;—and I have great reason to be obliged to him for his sketches, without which I fear this would be a dull book. At that moment, indeed, I would have preferred his companionship. However, bating this feeling and a certain hankering for my breakfast in the course of a two hours' walk, I trudged on alone in a very pleasant frame of mind. Nothing could be more charming than the green slopes round which the path wound, with occasional glimpses of the Golo beneath,—its rapid stream white as the milky Rhone,—after leaving behind the orchards and gardens. The rest of the descent lay through evergreen shrubbery so frequently mentioned, and a more exquisite piece of máquis I had not seen. Thus sauntering on, sometimes talking with Antoine, a species of shrub, which I had not much observed before, attracted my particular attention among the arbutus and numerous other well-known varieties. It was a bushy evergreen, of shapely growth, five or six feet high, with masses of foliage and clusters of bright red berries, having an aromatic scent.
“What do you call this shrub, Antoine?” plucking a branch.
“Lustinea; the country people express an oil from the berries for use in their lamps.”
“Ah! I perceive it is the Lentiscus.” In Africa and the isle of Scios they make incisions in the stems, from which the gum mastic is procured. The Turks chew it to sweeten the breath. It grows also in Provence, Italy, and Spain.