ASCENT OF VESUVIUS
I shall remember our trip to Vesuvius for many a day partly because of its sight-seeing experiences, but chiefly on account of the fatigue of the journey. Two or three of us had been resting ourselves among the tranquil and beautiful scenery of the island of Ischia, eighteen miles out in the harbor, for two days; we called it “resting,” but I do not remember now what the resting consisted of, for when we got back to Naples we had not slept for forty-eight hours. We were just about to go to bed early in the evening, and catch up on some of the sleep we had lost, when we heard of this Vesuvius expedition. There were to be eight of us in the party, and we were to leave Naples at mid-night.
We laid in some provisions for the trip, engaged carriages to take us to Annunciation, and then moved about the city, to keep awake, till twelve. We got away punctually, and in the course of an hour and a half arrived at the town of Annunciation. Annunciation is the very last place under the sun. In other towns in Italy, the people lie around quietly and wait for you to ask them a question or do some overt act that can be charged for, but in Annunciation they have lost even that fragment of delicacy; they seize a lady's shawl from a chair and hand it to her and charge a penny; they open a carriage door, and charge for it, shut it when you get out, and charge for it; they help you take off a duster, two cents; brush your clothes and make them worse than they were before, two cents; smile upon you, two cents; bow, with a lickspittle smirk, hat in hand, two cents; they volunteer all information, such as that the mules will arrive presently, two cents; warm day, sir, two cents , take you four hours to make the ascent; two cents. And so they go. They crowd you, infest you, swarm about you, and sweat and smell offensively, and look sneaking and mean, and obsequious. There is no office too degrading for them to perform, for money. I have had no opportunity to find out anything about the upper classes by my own observation, but from what I hear said about them I judge that what they lack in one or two of the bad traits the canaille have, they make up in one or two others that are worse. How the people beg! — many of them very well dressed, too.
I said I knew nothing against the
upper classes by personal observation. I must recall
it! I had forgotten. What I saw their bravest and
their fairest do last night, the lowest multitude that
could be scraped up out of the purlieus of Christendom
would blush to do, I think. They assembled by
hundreds, and even thousands, in the great Theater of
San Carlo, to do —
what? Why, simply, to make fun of an old woman —
to deride, to hiss, to jeer at an actress they once
worshipped; but whose beauty is faded now and whose
voice has lost its former richness. Everybody spoke of
the rare sport there was to be. They said the theater
would be crammed, because Frezzolini was going to
sing. It was said she could not sing well, now, but
then the people liked to see her, anyhow. And we went.
And every time the woman sang they hissed and laughed
the whole magnificent house —
and as soon as she left the stage they called her on
again with applause. Once or twice she was encored
five and six times in succession, and received with
hisses and when she appeared, and discharged with
hisses and laughter when she had finished, then instantly encored and insulted
again! And how the high-born knaves enjoyed it!
White-kidded gentlemen and ladies laughed till the
tears came, and clapped their hands in very ecstasy
when that unhappy old woman would come meekly out for
the sixth time, with uncomplaining patience, to meet a
storm of hisses! It was the cruelest exhibition, the most wanton, the most unfeeling.
The singer would have conquered an audience of
American rowdies by her brave, unflinching tranquility
(for she answered encore after encore, and smiled and
bowed pleasantly, and sang the best she possibly
could, and went bowing off, through all the jeers and
hisses, without ever losing countenance or temper);
and surely in any other land than Italy her sex and
her helplessness must have been an ample protection to
her — she
could have needed no other. Think what a multitude of
small souls were crowded into that theater last night.
If the manager could have filled his theater with
Neapolitan souls alone, without the bodies, he could
not have cleared less than ninety millions of dollars.
What traits of character must a man have to enable him
to help three thousand miscreants to hiss, and jeer,
and laugh at one friendless old woman, and shamefully
humiliate her? He must have all the vile, mean traits
there are. My observation persuades me (I do not like
to venture beyond my own personal observation) that
the upper classes of Naples possess those traits of
character. Otherwise they may be very good people; I
ASCENT OF VESUVIUS -- CONTINUED
Chapel of the Treasures of S. Gennaro
In this city of Naples, they believe in and support one of the wretchedest of all the religious impostures one can find in Italy— the miraculous liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius. Twice a year the priests assemble all the people at the Cathedral, and get out this vial of clotted blood and let them see it slowly dissolve and become liquid, and every day for eight days this dismal farce is repeated, while the priests go among the crowd and collect money for the exhibition. The first day, the blood liquefies in forty-seven minutes — the church is crammed, then, and time must be allowed the collectors to get around: after that it liquefies a little quicker and a little quicker, every day, as the houses grow smaller, till on the eighth day, with only a few dozen present to see the miracle, it liquefies in four minutes. And here, also, they used to have a grand procession, of priests, citizens, soldiers, sailors, and the high dignitaries of the City Government, once a year, to shave the head of a made up Madonna — a stuffed and painted image, like a milliner’s dummy — whose hair miraculously grew and restored itself every twelve months. They still kept up this shaving procession as late as four or five years ago. It was a source of great profit to the church that possessed the remarkable effigy, and the ceremony of the public barbering of her was always carried out with the greatest possible éclat and display, the more the better, because the more excitement there was about it the larger the crowds it drew and the heavier the revenues it produced, but at last a day came when the Pope and his servants were unpopular in Naples, and the City Government stopped the Madonna's annual show.
There we have two specimens of
these Neapolitans, two of
the silliest possible frauds, which half the
population religiously and faithfully believed, and
the other half either believed also or else said
nothing about, and thus lent themselves to the support
of the imposture. I am very well satisfied to think
the whole population believed in those poor, cheap,
a people who want two cents every time they bow to
you, and who abuse a woman, are capable of it, I
ASCENT OF VESUVIUS -- CONTINUED
These Neapolitans always ask four
times as much money as they intend to take, but if you
give them what they first demand, they feel ashamed of
themselves for aiming so low, and immediately ask
more. When money is to be paid and received, there is
always some vehement jawing and gesticulating about
it. One cannot buy and pay for two cents’ worth of
clams without trouble and a quarrel. One “course,” in
a two-horse carriage, costs a franc —
that is law —
but the hackman always demands more, on some pretense
or other, and if he gets it he makes a new demand. It
is said that a stranger took a one-horse carriage for
a course —
tariff, half a franc. He gave the man five francs, by
the way of experiment. He demanded more, received
another franc. Again he demanded more, and got a franc
more, and it was refused. He grew vehement, was again refused and became noisy. The
stranger said, “Well, give me the seven francs again,
and I will see what I can do,” and when he got them, he handed the
hackman half a franc, and he immediately asked for two
cents to buy a drink with. It may be thought that I am
prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself
if I were not.
ASCENT OF VESUVIUS -- CONTINUED
Well, as I was saying,
we got our mules and horses, after an hour and a half
of bargaining with the population of Annunciation, and
started sleepily up the mountain, with a vagrant at
each mule’s tail who pretended to be driving the brute
along, but was really holding on and getting himself
dragged up instead. I made slow headway at first, but
I began to get dissatisfied at the idea of paying my
minion five francs to hold my mule back by the tail
and keep him from going up the hill, and so I
discharged him. I got along faster then. We had one
magnificent picture of Naples from a high point on the
mountain side. We saw nothing but the gas lamps, of
course, two-thirds of a
circle, skirting the great Bay, a necklace of diamonds glinting up
through the darkness from the remote distance —
less brilliant than the stars overhead, but more
softly, richly beautiful, and
over all the great city the lights crossed and
recrossed each other in many and many a sparkling line
and curve. And back of the town, far around and abroad
over the miles of level campagna, were scattered rows,
and circles, and clusters of lights, all glowing like
so many gems, and marking where a score of villages
were sleeping. About this time, the fellow who was
hanging on to the tail of the horse in front of me and
practicing all sorts of unnecessary cruelty upon the
animal, got kicked some fourteen rods, and this
incident, together with the fairy spectacle of the
lights far in the distance, made me serenely happy,
and I was glad I started to Vesuvius.
ASCENT OF VESUVIUS --CONTINUED
This subject will be excellent matter for a chapter, and to-morrow or next day I will write it.
ASCENT OF VESUVIUS -- CONTINUED
“See Naples and die.” Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently. To see Naples as we saw it in the early dawn from far up on the side of Vesuvius, is to see a picture of wonderful beauty. At that distance its dingy buildings looked white — and so, rank on rank of balconies, windows and roofs, they piled themselves up from the blue ocean till the colossal castle of St. Elmo topped the grand white pyramid and gave the picture symmetry, emphasis, and completeness. And when its lilies turned to roses — when it blushed under the sun’s first kiss — it was beautiful beyond all description. One might well say, then, “See Naples and die.” The frame of the picture was charming, itself. In front, the smooth sea — a vast mosaic of many colors; the lofty islands swimming in a dreamy haze in the distance; at our end of the city the stately double peak of Vesuvius, and its strong black ribs and seams of lava stretching down to the limitless level campagna — a green carpet that enchants the eye and leads it on and on, past clusters of trees and isolated houses, and snowy villages, until it shreds out in a fringe of mist and general vagueness far away. It is from the Hermitage, there on the side of Vesuvius, that one should “see Naples and die.”
But do not go within the walls and look at it in detail. That takes away some of the romance of the thing. The people are filthy in their habits, and this makes filthy streets and breeds disagreeable sights and smells. There never was a community so prejudiced against the cholera as these Neapolitans are. But they have good reason to be. The cholera generally vanquishes a Neapolitan when it seizes him, because, you understand before the doctor can dig through the dirt and get at the disease the man dies. The upper classes take a sea-bath every day, and are pretty decent.
The streets are generally about
wide enough for one wagon and how they do swarm with
people! It is Broadway repeated in every street, in
every court, in every alley! Such masses such throngs,
such multitudes of hurrying, bustling, struggling
humanity! We never saw the like of it, hardly even in
New York, I think. There are seldom any sidewalks, and
when there are, they are not often wide enough to pass
a man on without caroming on him. So everybody walks
in the street, and where
the street is wide enough, carriages are forever
dashing along. Why a thousand people are not run over
and crippled every day is a mystery that no man can
But if there is an eighth wonder in the world, it must be the dwelling-houses of Naples. I honestly believe a good majority of them are a hundred feet high! And the solid brick walls are seven feet through. You go up nine flights of stairs before you get to the “first” floor. No, not nine, but there or thereabouts There is a little bird-cage of an iron railing in front of every window clear away up, up, up, among the eternal clouds, where the roof is, and there is always somebody looking out of every window — people of ordinary size looking out from the first floor, people a shade smaller from the second, people that look a little smaller yet from the third, and from thence upward they grow smaller and smaller by a regularly graduated diminution, till the folks in the topmost windows seem more like birds in the uncommonly tall martin-box than anything else. The perspective of one of these narrow cracks of streets, with its rows of tall houses stretching away till they come together in the distance like railway tracks; its clothes-lines crossing over at all altitudes and waving their bannered raggedness over the swarms of people below; and the white-dressed women perched in balcony railings all the way from the pavement up to the heavens — a perspective like that is really worth going into Neapolitan details to see.
Naples, with its immediate
suburbs, contains six hundred and twenty-five thousand
inhabitants, but I am satisfied it covers no more
ground than an American city of one hundred and fifty
thousand. It reaches up into the air infinitely higher
than three American cities, though, and there is where
the secret of it lies. I will observe here, in
passing, that the contrasts between opulence and
poverty, and magnificence and misery, are more
frequent and more striking in Naples than in Paris
even. One must go to the Bois de Boulogne to see
fashionable dressing, splendid equipages, and stunning
liveries, and to the Faubourg St. Antoine to see vice,
misery, hunger, rags, dirt, but in the thoroughfares of Naples
these things are all mixed together. Naked boys of
nine years and the fancy-dressed children of luxury;
shreds and tatters, and brilliant uniforms; jackass
carts and state carriages; beggars, princes, and
bishops, jostle each other in every street.
Chiaia starts here at Piazza dell Vittoria and
runs due west for about one mile, flanking the large
Villa Comunale (left). Period photo (c. 1900) C. Brogi.
At six o’clock every
evening, all Naples turns out to drive on the Riviera
di Chiaja (whatever that may mean); and for two hours
one may stand there and see the motliest and the
worst-mixed procession go by that ever eyes beheld.
Princes (there are more princes than policemen in
the city is infested with them) —
princes who live up seven flights of stairs and don’t
own any principalities, will keep a carriage and go
hungry; and clerks, mechanics, milliners, and
strumpets will go without their dinners and squander
the money on a hack-ride in the Chiaja; the rag-tag
and rubbish of the city stack themselves up, to the
number of twenty or thirty, on a rickety little
go-cart hauled by a donkey not much bigger than a cat,
and they drive in the Chiaja; dukes and bankers, in
sumptuous carriages and with gorgeous drivers and
footmen, turn out, also, and so the furious procession
goes. For two hours rank and wealth, and obscurity and
poverty, clatter along side by side in the wild
procession, and then go home serene, happy, covered
I was looking at a magnificent marble staircase in the King’s palace, the other day, which, it was said, cost five million francs, and I suppose it did cost half a million, may be. I felt as if it must be a fine thing to live in a country where there was such comfort and such luxury as this. And then I stepped out musing, and almost walked over a vagabond who was eating his dinner on the curbstone — a piece of bread and a bunch of grapes. When I found that this mustang was clerking in a fruit establishment (he had the establishment along with him in a basket), at two cents a day, and that he had no palace at home where he lived, I lost some of my enthusiasm concerning the happiness of living in Italy.
This naturally suggests to me a
thought about wages there. Lieutenants in the army get
about a dollar a day, and common soldiers a couple of
cents. I only know one clerk —
he gets four dollars a month. Printers get six dollars
and a half a month, but I have heard of a foreman who
gets thirteen. To be growing suddenly and violently
rich, as this man is, naturally makes him a bloated
aristocrat. The airs he puts on are insufferable. And,
speaking of wages, reminds me of prices of
merchandise. In Paris you pay twelve dollars a dozen
for Jouvin’s best kid gloves; gloves of about as good
quality sell here at three or dollars a dozen. You pay
five and six dollars apiece for fine four linen shirts
in Paris; here and in Leghorn you pay two and a half.
In Marseilles you pay forty dollars for a first-class
dress coat made by a good tailor, but in Leghorn you
can get a full dress suit for the same money. Here you
get handsome business suits at from ten to twenty
dollars, and in Leghorn you can get an overcoat for
fifteen dollars that would cost you seventy in New
York. Fine kid boots are worth eight dollars in
Marseilles and four dollars here. Lyons velvets rank
higher in America than those of Genoa. Yet the bulk of
Lyons velvets you buy in the States are made in Genoa
and imported into Lyons, where they receive the Lyons
stamp and are then exported to America. You can buy
enough velvet in Genoa for twenty-five dollars to make
a five hundred dollar cloak in New York —
so the ladies tell me. Of course, these things bring
me back, by a natural and easy transition, to the
VESUVIUS -- CONTINUED
And thus the wonderful Blue Grotto is suggested to me. It is situated on the island of Capri, twenty-two miles from Naples. We chartered a little steamer and went out there. Of course the police boarded us and put us through a health examination, and inquired into our politics, before they would let us land. The airs these little insect governments put on are in the last degree ridiculous. They even put a policeman on board of our boat to keep an eye on us as long as we were in the Capri dominions. They thought we wanted to steal the grotto, I suppose. It was worth stealing. The entrance to the cave is four feet high and four feet wide, and is in the face of a lofty perpendicular cliff — the sea wall. You enter in small boats, and a tight squeeze it is, too. You cannot go in at all when the tide is up. Once within, you find yourself in an arched cavern about one hundred and sixty feet long, one hundred and twenty wide, and about seventy high. How deep it is no man knows. It goes down to the bottom of the ocean. The waters of this placid subterranean lake are the brightest, loveliest blue that can be imagined. They are as transparent as plate glass, and their coloring would shame the richest sky that ever bent over Italy, No tint could be more ravishing, no luster more superb. Throw a stone into the water, and the myriad of tiny bubbles that are created flash out a brilliant glare like blue theatrical fires. Dip an oar, and its blade turns to splendid frosted silver, tinted with blue. Let a man jump in, and instantly he is cased in an armor more gorgeous than ever kingly Crusader wore.
Then we went to Ischia, but I had
already been to that island and tired myself to death
“resting” a couple of days and studying human
villainy, with the landlord of the Grande Sentinelle
for a model. So we went to Procida, and from thence to
Pozzuoli, where St. Paul landed after he sailed from
Samos. I landed at precisely the same spot where St.
Paul landed, and so did Dan and the others. It was a
remarkable coincidence. St. Paul preached to these
people seven days before he started to Rome.
Nero’s Baths, the ruins of Baiae, the
Temple of Serapis; Cumae, where the Cumaean Sibyl
interpreted the oracles, the Lake Agnano [ed. note: Lake Agnano
was not an ancient Lake. It formed in the Middle
Ages and was drained in 1870, after MT wrote these
lines. It no longer exists. See
this entry.], with its
ancient submerged city still visible far down in the
depths. These and a
hundred other points of interest we examined with
critical imbecility, but the Grotto of the Dog claimed
our chief attention, because we had heard and read so
much about it. Everybody has written about the Grotto
del Cane and its poisonous vapors, from Pliny down to
Smith, and every tourist has held a dog over its floor
by the legs to test the capabilities of the place. The
dog dies in a minute and a half —
instantly. As a general thing, strangers who crawl in
there to sleep do not get up until they are called.
And then they don’t, either. The stranger that
ventures to sleep there takes a permanent contract. I
longed to see this grotto. I resolved to take a dog
and hold him myself; suffocate him a little, and time
him; suffocate him some more, and then finish him. We
reached the grotto about three in the afternoon, and
proceeded at once to make the experiments. But now, an
important difficulty presented itself. We had no dog.
ASCENT OF VESUVIUS -- CONTINUED
At the Hermitage we were about fifteen or eighteen hundred feet above the sea, and thus far a portion of the ascent had been pretty abrupt. For the next two miles the road was a mixture — sometimes the ascent was abrupt and sometimes it was not; but one characteristic it possessed all the time, without failure — without modification — it was all uncompromisingly and unspeakably infamous. It was a rough, narrow trail, and led over an old lava-flow, a black ocean which was tumbled into a thousand fantastic shapes, and barrenness, a wild chaos of ruin, desolation, a wilderness of billowy upheavals, of furious whirlpools, of miniature mountains rent asunder, of gnarled and knotted, wrinkled and twisted masses of blackness that mimicked branching roots, great vines, trunks of trees, all interlaced and mingled together; and all these weird shapes, all this turbulent panorama, all this stormy, far-stretching waste of blackness, with its thrilling suggestiveness of life, of action of boiling, surging, furious motion, was petrified! — all stricken dead and cold in the instant of its maddest rioting! — fettered, paralyzed, and left to glower at heaven in impotent rage forevermore!
Finally we stood in a level, narrow valley (a valley that had been created by the terrific march of some old-time eruption) and on either hand towered the two steep peaks of Vesuvius. The one we had to climb — the one that contains the active volcano — seemed about eight hundred or one thousand feet high and looked almost too straight-up-and-down for any man to climb, and certainly no mule could climb it with a man on his back. Four of these native pirates will carry you to the top in a sedan chair, if you wish it, but suppose they were to slip and let you fall — is it likely that you would ever stop rolling? Not this side of eternity, perhaps. We left the mules, sharpened our finger nails, and began the ascent I have been writing about so long at twenty minutes to six in the morning. The path led straight up a rugged sweep of loose chunks of pumice-stone, and for about every two steps forward we took, we slid back one. It was so excessively steep that we had to stop, every fifty or sixty steps, and rest a moment. To see our comrades, we had to look very nearly straight up at those above us, and very nearly straight down at those below. We stood on the summit at last. It had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip.
What we saw there was simply a circular crater — a circular ditch, if you please — about two hundred feet deep, and four or five hundred feet wide, whose inner wall was about half a mile in circumference. In the center of the great circus-ring thus formed was a torn and ragged upheaval a hundred feet high, all snowed over with a sulphur crust of many and many brilliant and beautiful color, and the ditch enclosed this like the moat of a castle or surrounded it as a little river does a little island, if the simile is better. The sulphur coating of that island was gaudy in the extreme, all mingled together in the richest confusion were red, blue, brown, black, yellow, white — I do not know that there was a color, or shade of a color, or combination of colors, unrepresented, and when the sun burst through the morning mists and fired this tinted magnificence, it topped imperial Vesuvius like a jeweled crown!
The crater itself — the ditch — was not so variegated in coloring, but yet, in its softness, richness, and unpretentious elegance, it was more charming, more fascinating to the eye. There was nothing “loud” about its well-bred and well-dressed look. Beautiful? One could stand and look down upon it for a week without getting tired of it. It had the semblance of a pleasant meadow, whose slender grasses and whose velvety mosses were frosted with a shining dust, and tinted with palest green that deepened gradually to the darkest hue of the orange leaf, and deepened yet again into gravest brown, then faded into orange, then into brightest gold, and culminated in the delicate pink of a new-blown rose. Where portions of the meadow had sunk and where other portions had been broken up like an ice-floe, the cavernous openings of the one, and the ragged upturned edges exposed by the other, were hung with a lacework of soft-tinted crystals of sulphur that changed their deformities into quaint shapes and figures that were full of grace and beauty.
The walls of the ditch were brilliant with yellow banks of sulphur and with lava and pumice-stone of many colors. No fire was visible anywhere, but gusts of sulphurous steam issued silently and invisibly from a thousand little cracks and fissures in the crater, and were wafted to our noses with every breeze. But so long as we kept our nostrils buried in our handkerchiefs, there was small danger of suffocation.
Some of the boys thrust long slips of paper down into holes and set them on fire, and so, achieved the glory of lighting their cigars by the flames of Vesuvius, and others cooked eggs over fissures in the rocks and were happy.
The view from the summit would
have been superb but for the fact that the sun could
only pierce the mists at long intervals.Thus the
glimpses we had of the grand panorama below were only
fitful and unsatisfactory.
The descent of the mountain was a labor of only four minutes. Instead of stalking down the rugged paths we ascended, we chose one which was bedded knee-deep in loose ashes, and plowed our way with prodigious strides that would almost have shamed the performance of him of the seven-league boots. The Vesuvius of to-day is a very poor affair compared to the mighty volcano of Kilauea, in the Sandwich Islands, but I am glad I visited it. It was well worth it.
It is said that during one of the
grand eruptions of Vesuvius it discharged massy rocks
weighing many tons a thousand feet into the air, its
vast jets of smoke and steam ascended thirty miles
toward the firmament, and clouds of its ashes were
wafted abroad and fell upon the decks of ships seven
hundred and fifty miles at sea! I will take the ashes
at a moderate discount, if any one will take the
thirty miles of smoke, but I do not feel able to take
a commanding interest in the whole story by myself.
THE BURIED CITY OF POMPEII.
They pronounce it Pompeii. I always had an idea that you went down into Pompeii with torches, by the way of damp, dark stairways, just as you do in silver mines, and traversed gloomy tunnels with lava overhead and something on either hand like dilapidated prisons gouged out of the solid earth, that faintly resembled houses. But you do nothing of the kind. Fully oneself of the buried city, perhaps, is completely exhumed and thrown open freely to the light of day; and there stand the long rows of solidly built brick houses (roofless) just as they stood eighteen hundred years ago, hot with the flaming sun; and there lie their floors, clean swept, and not a bright fragment tarnished or wanting of the labored mosaics that pictured them with the beasts and birds and flowers which we copy in perishable carpets to-day; and there are the Venus's and Abacuses and Adonis's, making love and getting drunk in many hued frescoes on the walls of saloon and bedchamber; and there are the narrow streets and narrower sidewalks, paved with flags of good hard lava, the one deeply rutted with the chariot wheels, and the other with the passing feet of the Pompeii's of by-gone centuries; and there are the bookshops, the temples, the halls of justice, the baths, the theaters -- all clean scraped and neat, and suggesting nothing of the nature of a silver mine away down in the bowels of the earth. The broken pillars lying about, the odorless doorways and the crumbled tops of the wilderness of walls, were wonderfully suggestive of the “burnt district” in one of our cities, and if there had been any charred timbers, shattered windows, heaps of debris, and general blackness and smokiness about the place, the resemblance would have been perfect. But no — the sun shines as brightly down on old Pompeii to-day as it did when Christ was born in Bethlehem, and its streets are cleaner a hundred times than ever Pompeii saw them in her prime. I know whereof I speak, for in the great, chief thoroughfares (Merchant Street and the Street of Fortune) have I not seen with my own eyes how for two hundred years at least the pavements were not repaired! — how ruts five and even ten inches deep were worn into the thick flagstones by the chariot wheels of generations of swindled taxpayers? And do I not know by these signs that street commissioners of Pompeii never attended to their business, and that if they never mended the pavements they never cleaned them? And, besides, is it not the inborn nature of street commissioners to avoid their duty whenever they get a chance? I wish I knew the name of the last one that held office in Pompeii so that I could give him a blast. I speak with feeling on this subject, because I caught my foot in one of those ruts, and the sadness that came over me when I saw the first poor skeleton, with ashes and lava sticking to it, was tempered by the reflection that may be that party was the street commissioner.
No, Pompeii is no longer a buried city. It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost, without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.
We passed through the gate which faces the Mediterranean (called the “Marine Gate”), and by the rusty, broken image of Minorca, still keeping tireless watch and ward over the possessions it was powerless to save, and went up a long street and stood in the broad court of the Forum of Justice. The floor was level and clean, and up and down either side was a noble colonnade of broken pillars, with their beautiful Ionic and Corinthian columns scattered about them. At the upper end were the vacant seats of the judges, and behind them we descended into a dungeon where the ashes and cinders had found two prisoners chained on that memorable November night, and tortured them to death. How they must have tugged at the pitiless fetters as the fierce fires surged around them!
Then we lounged through many and many a sumptuous private mansion which we could not have entered without a formal invitation in incomprehensible Latin, in the olden time, when the owners lived there, and we probably wouldn't have got it. These people built their houses a good deal alike. The floors were laid in fanciful figures wrought in mosaics of many colored marbles. At the threshold your eyes fall upon a Latin sentence of welcome, sometimes, or a picture of a dog, with the legend, “Beware of the Dog,” and sometimes a picture of a bear or a faun with no inscription at all. Then you enter a sort of vestibule, where they used to keep the hayrack, I suppose; next a room with a large marble basin in the midst and the pipes of a fountain; on either side are bedrooms; beyond the fountain is a reception room, then a little garden, dining room, and so forth and so on. The floors were all mosaic, the walls were stocked, or frescoed, or ornamented with bas-reliefs, and here and there were statues, large and small, and little fish pools, and cascades of sparkling water that sprang from secret places in the colonnade of handsome pillars that surrounded the court, and kept the flower beds fresh and the air cool. Those Pompeii's were very luxurious in their tastes and habits.
The most exquisite bronzes we have seen in Europe came from the exhumed cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and also the finest cameos and the most delicate engravings on precious stones; their pictures, the leader of the orchestra beating time, and the “versatile” sounds (who had “just returned from a most successful tour in the provinces to play his last and farewell engagement of positively six nights only, in Pompeii, previous to his departure for Herculaneum”) charging around the stage and piling the agony mountains high, but I could not do it with such a “house” as that; those empty benches tied my fancy down to dull reality. I said, these people that ought to be here have been dead, and still, and moldering to dust for ages and ages, and will never care for the trifles and follies of life any more forever — "Owing to circumstances, etc., etc., there will not be any performance to-night.” Close down the curtain. Put out the lights.
And so I turned away and went through shop after shop and store after store, far down the long street of the merchants, and called for the wares of Rome and the East, but the tradesmen were gone, the marts were silent, and nothing was left but the broken jars all set in cement of cinders and ashes; the wine and the oil that once had filled them were gone with their owners. In a bookshop was a mill for grinding the grain, and the furnaces for baking the bread; and they say that here, in the same furnaces, the exhumes of Pompeii found nice, well baked loaves which the baker had not found time to remove from the ovens the last time he left his shop, because circumstances compelled him to leave in such a hurry.
In one house (the only building in Pompeii which no woman is now allowed to enter) were the small rooms and short beds of solid masonry, just as they were in the old times, and on the walls were pictures which looked almost as fresh as if they were painted yesterday, but which no pen could have the hardihood to describe; and here and there were Latin inscriptions, obscene scintillation's of wit, scratched by hands that possibly were uplifted to Heaven for succor in the midst of a driving storm of fire before the night was done.
In one of the principal streets was a ponderous stone tank, and a waterspout that supplied it, and where the tired, heated toilers from the Campagna used to rest their right hands when they bent over to put their lips to the spout, the thick stone was worn down to a broad groove an inch or two deep. Think of the countless thousands of hands that had pressed that spot in the ages that are gone, to so reduce a stone that is as hard as iron!
They had a great public bulletin board in Pompeii, a place where announcements for gladiatorial combats, elections, and such things, were posted,not on perishable paper, but carved in enduring stone. One lady, who, I take it, was rich and well brought up, advertised a dwelling or so to rent, with baths and all the modern improvements, and several hundred shops, stipulating that the dwellings should not be put to immoral purposes. You can find out who lived in many a house in Pompeii by the carved stone droplets affixed to them: and in the same way you can tell who they were that occupy the tombs. Everywhere around are things that reveal to you something of the customs and history of this forgotten people. But what would a volcano leave of an American city, if it once rained its cinders on it? Hardly a sign or a symbol to tell its story.
In one of these long Pompeii halls the skeleton of a man was found, with ten pieces of gold in one hand and a large key in the other. He had seized his money and started toward the door, but the fiery tempest caught him at the very threshold, and he sank down and died. One more minute of precious time would have saved him. I saw the skeletons of a man, a woman, and two young girls. The woman had her hands spread wide apart, as if in mortal terror, and I imagined I could still trace upon her shapeless face something of the expression of wild despair that distorted it when the heavens rained fire in these streets, so many ages ago. The girls and the man lay with their faces upon their arms, as if they had tried to shield them from the enveloping cinders. In one apartment eighteen skeletons were found, all in sitting postures, and blackened places on the walls still mark their shapes and show their attitudes, like shadows. One of them, a woman, still wore upon her skeleton throat a necklace, with her name engraved upon it - JULIE DI DIOMEDE.
But perhaps the most poetical thing Pompeii has yielded to modern research, was that grand figure of a Roman soldier, clad in complete armor; who, true to his duty, true to his proud name of a soldier of Rome, and full of the stern courage which had given to that name its glory, stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer. We never read of Pompeii but we think of that soldier; we cannot write of Pompeii without the natural impulse to grant to him the mention he so well deserves. Let us remember that he was a soldier — not a policeman — and so, praise him. Being a soldier, he stayed, because the warrior instinct forbade him to fly. Had he been a policeman he would have stayed, also — because he would have been asleep.
There are not half a dozen flights of stairs in Pompeii, and no other evidences that the houses were more than one story high. The people did not live in the clouds, as do the Venetian, the Genovese and Neapolitans of to-day.
We came out from under the solemn mysteries of this city of the Venerable Past, this city which perished, with all its old ways and its quaint old fashions about it, remote centuries ago, when the Disciples were preaching the new religion, which is as old as the hills to us now — and went dreaming among the trees that grow over acres and acres of its still buried streets and squares, till a shrill whistle and the cry of “All aboard — last train for Naples!” woke me up and reminded me that I belonged in the nineteenth century, and was not a dusty mummy, caked with ashes and cinders, eighteen hundred years old. The transition was startling. The idea of a railroad train actually running to old dead Pompeii, and whistling irreverently, and calling for passengers in the most bustling and business-like way, was as strange a thing as one could imagine, and as unpolitical and disagreeable as it was strange.
Compare the cheerful life and the sunshine of this day with the horrors the younger Pliny saw here, the 9th of November, A.D. 79, when he was so bravely striving to remove his mother out of reach of harm, while she begged him, with all a mother's unselfishness, to leave her to perish and save himself.
“By this time the murky darkness had so increased that one might have believed himself abroad in a black and monocles night, or in a chamber where all the lights had been extinguished. On every hand was heard the complaints of women, the wailing of children, and the cries of men. One called his father, another his son, and another his wife, and only by their voices could they know each other. Many in their despair begged that death would come and end their distress.
“Some implored the gods to succor them, and some believed that the night was the last, the eternal night which should engulf the universe!
“Even so it
seemed to me - and I consoled myself for the
coming death with the reflection: BEHOLD! THE
WORLD IS PASSING AWAY!"
. . . . . . . .
After browsing among the stately ruins of Rome, of Bay, of Pompeii, and after glancing down the long marble ranks of battered and nameless imperial heads that stretch down the corridors of the Vatican, one thing strikes me with a force it never had before: the insubstantial, unlasting character of fame. Men lived long lives, in the olden time, and struggled feverishly through them, toiling like slaves, in oratory, in general ship, or in literature, and then laid them down and died, happy in the possession of an enduring history and a deathless name. Well, twenty little centuries flutter away, and what is left of these things? A crazy inscription on a block of stone, which snuff antiquaries bother over and tangle up and make nothing out of but a bare name (which they spell wrong) - no history, no tradition, no poetry, nothing that can give it even a passing interest. What may be left to General Grant's great name forty centuries hence? This, in the Encyclopedia for A.D. 5868, possibly.
“URIC S. (or
Z.) GRANT -- popular poet of ancient times in the
Aztec provinces of the United States of British
America. Some authors say flourished about A.D.
742; but the learned Shah Food states that he was
a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet,
and flourished about A.D. 1328, some three
centuries after the Trojan war instead of before
it. He wrote ‘Rock me to Sleep, Mother.’ ”
These thoughts sadden me. I will