Here in the valley over the left shoulder, as you climb up toward the cone of ashes, lies the little newly-destroyed town of St. Sebastian. In one of the houses you see two pictures still hanging on the wall. The lava has surrounded the house and locked the doors, and you stand on the lava and look in through a little window.
This lava cuts some strange freaks. In another cottage of St. Sebastian you see where it has climbed up to the window, pushed itself through many feet, and then curved down and cooled; and there it stands, with its nose stuck into the poor cotter's house, reaching out black and crooked like the trunk of some great elephant.
After a pleasant ride of only three hours, all told, from Naples, they came to the steep and stupendous base of the great ashen cone or pyramid. The missionary spurred his little horse boldly against the mountain till he sank in the ashes to his knees; then he took his long, lean, hungry-looking umbrella under his arm, dismounted, and they began slowly to walk up the soft and uncertain road of ashes. How they were assailed by guides and beggars at the base! The beggars said that two men alone had never ventured so far before. The two men asked them what could harm them. They answered, robbers, brigands, thieves.
Murietta looked on them, and was not afraid.
Half-naked, brown, long-haired and hard-looking fellows they were, to be sure. They mostly had ropes fastened round their waists, and would run before the travellers and almost compel them to lay hold of those ropes for support. But these two had set out to make the little trip alone and unassisted, and so they did to the end.
The other party came up as the two ascended the cone, and one of the gentlemen was carried up in a chair by eight of these reformed brigands; but the lady laid hold of ropes, and, tucking her pretty dress prettily up under her waist, came boldly on at the head of her party.
The ascent here is steep, very steep indeed, and you sink into the ashes and advance very slowly; but as the distance is short, and as you have the fresh sea-air blowing in your face all the time, there is not a bit of trouble about respiration. You find it very much like walking over a field of newly-ploughed ground, only here the field seems to be set pretty nearly up on its edge. After an hour of not unpleasant climbing, they sat down with a gentle brigand, who had some wine in a basket, which he called by the pretty name of Lachrymae Christi; and, emptying one of the bottles, they again looked below.
Naples seemed to be nearer than ever; and the ships sailed right up against the base of Vesuvius as it seemed, and wound and wove over the bluish bay in a dreamy sort of way, that seemed almost supernatural and is certainly indescribable. To the right and left lay little white towns dotted over the plains, and below them the white houses looked like flocks huddled together and at rest.
Away, away at sea the little fishing boats, with their snowy sails, looked like swarms of swallows blowing idly in the sun.
Another hour up this field of ploughed land set up on its edge, and the ground grows very warm to the feet. Then you come upon little seams and puffs of smoke curling lazily out from under the clods beneath you. Then you begin to smell sulphur, and coal, and tar, and turpentine, and almost every other decoction that you can conceive of.
As you approach the crater, which is exactly on the summit, you are all the time reminded of a mighty coal-pit; such a coal-pit as you see on the banks of the Ohio and elsewhere out West, where the woodmen burn charcoal. Only, of course, it is multiplied by all the figures in the arithmetic.
The smoke is rather dense and quite unpleasant to inhale; but as there is always a current of wind blowing from the sea, you can always get more or less fresh air and do not suffer.
It is certainly very hot as you draw nearer to the crater; and the ploughed land seems to be ploughed a great deal deeper, and to be sowed and planted with fire, — which seemed to be coming up in a first-rate crop, for Murietta stopped at a little crevice by the way and coolly — if one may be allowed to say coolly in this case — lighted his cigar.
And now after two hours and a half, suddenly and almost before they expected it, they stood by the great crater of the New Vesuvius.
The first view of this chasm of smoke and fire is awful in the extreme. Broad and bottomless, round and vast, boiling and seething, it seems alive and full of pent-up strength.
You can hear the monster breathe. You stand, you lean over, you look down, down into the monster's open mouth — the monster that has swallowed up cities and even seas — and you are mute with awe and wonder. You feel a fascination and desire that you hope never to feel again. It is an impulse, almost irresistible, to leap into this awful glowing mouth of restless mother earth, and become a part of the grand spectacle before you.
You feel a little tinge of this on first looking down into Niagara, and something more of it on coming upon Yosemite; but nothing half so maddening as this feeling on coming suddenly into the very jaws of Vesuvius. You can then and there well believe that men have indeed ascended this mountain and never returned.
The yellow smoke curls lazily about the rim of the crater at your feet; but the opposite side of the vast round and hollowed mountain, half a mile away, stands up before you clear and fair as pictures on a wall.
It is sometimes perfectly clear of smoke and flame. At such times you see an unbroken perpendicular wall away down, almost a mile down into this mountain, made light and bright with fires from below, and you see little mountains of flame and sulphur at the very bottom.
Surely here are colours that no man has named.
That wall that stands over opposite is painted, lined, hung, barred and starred by all the known colours, crossing, blending into each other, or standing out boldly and alone in perfect garden plots of yellow, green, red, and all other known and unknown, named and unnamed hues. Mighty frescoes miles and miles in depth perhaps, and wide as the walls of a city.
Even the reverend doctor was overcome. For the first time Murietta now saw him perfectly silent. He could talk neither in French, German, nor Kanaka. He held tight on to his umbrella, but he stood up straight and tall as a flagstaff on the American Fourth of July.
The guide kept all the time insisting on standing between them and the rim of the crater, which he informed them was all the time shelving off and falling in. And— shall I confess it? — after Murietta had got partly over his desire to leap into the crater he was seized with an unaccountable desire to push this fellow in backward as he stood before them.
Surely there is something devilish in the atmosphere of Vesuvius. Possibly this is why the Neapolitans, as a people, are so utterly base and depraved.
After a time they loosened some stones that lay on the rim of the crater. The doctor held his breath. Murietta held his watch, and noted the time that went by from the moment the stones were loosened till the last sound came up from the fiery depths.
Rumble! Rumble! Rumble! Crash! Thud! Boom! There was the sound of an avalanche away down in the depths of the crater, among the mountains of sulphur and flame. And then the smoke rolled up in double and treble density.
They had loosened blocks and comers of the shelving crater, and old Vesuvius was very angry.
After that they could scarcely see anything in the crater at all. Marietta was rather glad of that. He thought it was something to be able to stir up this old monster, and make him howl and smoke at will, and was well satisfied with the result.
Then they started on the circuit of the crater. It is a little trail carefully cleared out by the guides, is about two feet wide, and lies immediately on the rim.
If you choose to step six inches to your left as you advance, your friends can have the funeral services preached either in New York or San Francisco as they see fit. The undertaker, however, will find but little profit in your loss. A step in the other direction will be quite as effectual, only your friends might be troubled by having your boots and perhaps a fragment of scalp brought in by the gentle brigands from the base of the pyramid.
Murietta knew perfectly well that the doctor wanted to go back before they got fairly started. He was as certain of this as he was that the doctor turned his head over his shoulder and said, "If anything happens, my mother's address is Chestnut Street, Boston." But they kept on. Murietta lit his cigar by one of the eternal and infernal furnaces on the rim of the crater, and also burnt his fingers in the achievement What in the name of all that is scientific keeps the flame so near the surface one cannot conceive. You cannot see what the flames feed upon. You may have seen many volcanoes and looked into many craters on the Pacific side of America, but never anything like this.
They passed on around to the other side, describing a half-moon in their half-hour's walk, and now stood on the extreme summit of that portion of the mountain which has been formed by the various eruptions of the last eighteen centuries.
Standing here you can distinctly see all the outlines of the great crater of a.d. 78, which was formed when the cities were overwhelmed. That crater was many miles in circumference, but the mountain was not nearly so high then as now. This present crater, remember, is in the centre of a vast ash-heap or cone which has risen out of the centre of the great crater of 78. This present pyramid is the work of nearly two thousand years.
Standing here you get a perfect knowledge of all the surroundings of this wonderful mountain. You have wondered what were its relations with other mountains. You now find that it has none whatever. You see that it is built in an open plain, as if man had been building another mightier pyramid. It stood in a plain four or five miles back from the sea, and as perfectly alone as if it were an isle in mid-ocean. As you stand here you can see every foot of the plain surrounding the great volcano. You can count at least a hundred cities and villages in sight.
You may take a carriage in Naples and drive quite around Mount Vesuvius and be back to your hotel in time for dinner, without going up or down any hills at all. Vesuvius is a growth of the level plain. One can very well fancy that the lazy Italian in the remote past tended his flocks on the spot where the mountain now stands, or lay gracefully down on his load of cabbages heaped on the back of his little mule, and slept peacefully on his way to market— just as he does even to this day.
The doctor and Murietta could advance no further than where they now stood. You are told by guides and guide-books that you can walk quite around the crater; but they now found they could just about as easily cross "the impassable gulf." At their feet, in a canyon more than half a mile in depth, lay the bed of the St. Sebastian stream of lava, still smoking and burning in its rocky sulphurous bottom.
You must bear in mind that in 1871 the whole character of the mountain was changed. A gap was broken through the southern rim of the old crater, and through this flowed a stream of lava which, at a rough calculation, you may say is a hundred feet deep, half a mile wide, and five miles long.
There it lies, a great, black, crooked serpent, crawling out of the crater of Vesuvius, stealing down into the garden of the plain. Its ugly head is buried in the pretty little village of St. Sebastian. Before returning, the doctor insisted on loosening one more big stone that hung on the edge of the crater. The guide remonstrated, saying that it was too narrow, and dangerous; but the doctor got down on his hands and knees, and then straightened out. He was so long and so thin and so straight, he looked as if he had originally been made for a poker. He was now doing service as a crowbar. He struck out with his feet, fastened them against the heap of lava which he wished to loosen, as if his legs had been handspikes, and began to push heavily at the stone. It gave signs of yielding.
"Look at your watch!" cried the doctor.
Murietta looked at his watch. "Now!" cried the doctor; and he drew up his long thin legs and kicked with all his might.
The stone gave way. There was a loose rattling of other stones; then a shelving, sliding, rumbling; then a long thin man flat on his belly, with a face white as a ghost, clutching and scrambling in the dust and ashes for life.
He writhed and wriggled, and clutched and scrambled, but he seemed to be losing ground and going down slowly and surely into the terrible gulf of fire. The steep ashen slope of the mountain seemed to slide away and draw him in faster than he could by any possible effort draw himself out. He looked like some great black lizard writhing in a heap of hot ashes.
It seemed that the crater would never stop shelving and sliding! It seemed as if the long thin man would never again get on his feet! Murietta reached him his staff; but he had not time to lay hold. As fast as he crawled and scrambled up, the crater drew him back; and both his hands and feet were busy as a crab's. As for the guide, he ran away — as they usually do when most needed.
All this of course was done in an instant. But to the doctor and Murietta it seemed to be much the biggest half of that day.
At last there was a kind of compromise, a sort of mutual suspension of operations. The doctor grew too exhausted to kick or scramble, and it seemed as he ceased to kick and scramble that the earth ceased to shelve and give way; and Murietta now got him by the coat sleeve, and by the aid of the guide drew him up out of the crater, nearly suffocated with dust and ashes.
He sat down in the path, and looked silently around. His hands were bleeding, but he said nothing whatever. In his coat of sackcloth and ashes, he looked very much like a mouse that has just escaped from a bag of meal.
"What did you say was your mother's address?" at last asked Murietta, to rouse his spirits, in a sort of banter. But the doctor, who had now risen to his feet preparatory to the return, was busy brushing the ashes from his coat, and did not hear.
It was a gloomy and solemn walk back on their half-moon circuit, but they reached the spot all right, and buying some eggs of a half-naked peasant lad, they cooked them over the fires of Vesuvius and extemporized a dinner, after which the doctor was all right and ready to return.
As they were about to descend, there came up out of the smoke a very, very beautiful lady, with a party of English and American tourists.
She seemed to lead them, for she came on, dimly seen through the smoke, ahead of all the party. How tall and superb she seemed as seen through the curling smoke that wreathed about her form as she advanced, as if she was borne in a chariot of fire!
At first only her form was visible; and Murietta stood contemplating her from a distance with awe and wonder. How tall she was! How gracefully she moved! She seemed to ride on the rising clouds of smoke that curled about her dark mantle. She came on but slowly, up the steep and stupendous field of fire, and Murietta felt an almost irresistible desire to go down and lead her to the summit.
At last through the smoke he saw dimly behind her the faces of others. Only their faces were seen through the clouds of smoke, and it gave them a weird and unearthly appearance. Their feet and forms were hidden in the smoke that curled up from out a thousand pores and fissures of the earth; but their faces lifted above this and they seemed to be floating in the air. They looked, back there in the dim, drifting, shifting clouds, as if they were spirits following always after, and attending on the tall and wonderful woman in black who was just now emerging from the smoke, and turning the crest of the pyramid.
Murietta had resolved to go forward and offer her his arm. He took a step forward as she emerged from the smoke. Then he saw her face fairly and fully for the first time, and stepped back, turned his head, and hurried away to one side. His heart beat with a mad and intense delight.
It was Annette, the one fair woman! At last he had again looked upon the one woman of all the world for whom he had waited, and the woman who had visited him for years and years in his dreams.
She stood at last, as he shrank back into the smoke, up on the topmost rim of the pyramid in the full light, leaning on her staff, resting there, looking down into that matchless and magnificent panorama of colours and the awful commotion of the elements.
She was silent as before. Her brows lifted, a hand passed back the splendour of midnight hair that blew loosely about her shoulders, but she did not speak.
How fitting it was that she should stand alone! Murietta clasped his hands and bent his knees till they touched the steep side of the mountain where he stood, and he lifted his face in gratitude to God.
This to him was the most perfect moment that he had ever known. It was a moment large and full and rich to overflowing. He felt that it was such a time, such a scene, such a combination of grandeur and beauty and splendour, so much of history, of love, of poetry — the past, the present, the future — as he had not found before. It was such a scene, he thought, as his soul had aspired to from the first dawning of his adoration for things that are divine.
Still clasping his hands, he bent his head, and said softly to himself,
'' I — I scattered roses in her path! It is a good omen. I scattered roses in your path. Oh beautiful and divinest of women, without knowing that it was you! Some day I will tell you this, and you will look at me and will not be displeased"
The lady moved. He was afraid he would be seen. He hastily arose and fell back further in the smoke and down the mountain almost out of sight. He had sooner dared go into the presence of the Madonna, had she stood there on the crest of the mountain invoking the Deity.
The doctor and guide came down and stood with him as if ready to descend,
Murietta looked up once more. The beautiful woman was moving along the rim of the mountain now in the midst of her party.
"I scattered roses in her path!" he kept saying to himself, and thanking Heaven for the happy thought and the happy opportunity that had led him to do this little service for the only woman he had ever really loved, or now could ever love.
He was the happiest man in all that happy band of happy, happy people. Never had the sun looked down so soft and golden and glorious as it did now. Never had fair Italy seemed half so fair as at this hour.
His heart was full of gratitude, and all things seemed fair and good, and full of hope and happiness.
"I scattered roses in her path!" he said, and peered among the clouds of smoke that curled about his face as if they had been blowing curtains, as if to see her still more perfectly.
Then the clouds blew low and close to the ground, and left him quite unveiled before her. He turned hastily and half frightened down the mountain, as if he had stolen into Paradise and was afraid of being seen.
"I scattered roses in her path! " he said again, and still kept watching her, and retired slowly down the mountain, and deeper into the smoke, as if to be certain he could not be seen.
"I scattered roses in her path! Will she follow me down here? Perhaps she will come directly down this way! Then I shall be covered with confusion. Possibly I shall leap down this precipice into the chasm of St. Sebastian. O, if it would please her, if rather she would weep and think of me, I would leap into the depths of Vesuvius! "
"I scattered roses in her path!" Poor man, she had not seen him or thought of him at all! Such is life — such is love.
No one attempted to go round to the other side of the crater again that day. The smoke was now rolling dark, thick, and threatening, and the new comers decided to return to the plain.
Seeing that the fair lady was about to return, and from some unexplained timidity fearing above all things to meet her then, Murietta led the way, and descended by a more steep and direct route, the great ash-heap moving with them as they strode down with steps that had amazed the giants.
There is nothing more exhilarating and exciting than this descent. It is much like going down a very precipitous mountain after a deep fall of snow, when the new snow moves down the mountain in little avalanches with you. In less than fifteen minutes they were mounted and on their return to town.
As they started off a young man came striding down the mountain, who had that day set out from Naples on foot and alone to do Vesuvius at the expense of one cent. He invested the cent in a biscuit, and accomplished his task without difficulty or danger. From this the student or traveller who travels to see rather than to be seen, can understand that the ascent of Vesuvius is neither an expensive nor formidable undertaking in any sense whatever.
"I scattered roses in her path!" Murietta murmured that night as he rode home around the Bay of Naples, and watched the stars down in the water, and heard the fishermen singing far out as they lay at rest under the white wings of their fishing boats.
A cripple, with his legs in the air and his hands where his feet should be, rolled in the dusty road before him.
"Poor man! Poor man! How miserable he must be!"
Murietta put his hand in his vest pocket, and drawing out a roll of little notes, scattered a perfect snowstorm of francs before the wretch as he rode on — as if he was still scattering roses in the path of the woman he loved.
The beggar shouted his good fortune down the road to other beggars, and Marietta was beset by a legion that would not be denied. They laid hold of the bridles of the two horses, and shouted and screamed and yelled and implored in tears. Till the doctor grew almost as wild as they, and struck out with his long lean umbrella — that umbrella in which you could count every rib — as if it had been a lance and he a knight of old.
It was no use! The beggars would not be denied. The men could not move. The crowd thickened; the howling became still more hideous; and Murietta long since had emptied his pockets. Behind them the omnibuses, and before them the carriages drove against the thick wall of beggars.
There was seen a line of helmets in the bright moonlight. Swords came out, and the black Italian horses drove along the dusty road in such hot haste that brigands and beggars had scarcely time to. scamper back to the walls, and ditches, and wine-shops, and lava-caves that line the road, before the police were upon them.
Then the two rode on as the polite captain of police gave a kind salute, and under the guns of the old city wall before which Garibaldi rode as the matches burned in the timid hands of the king's guards, they passed and entered Naples — and one all the time was saying to himself:
"I scattered roses in her path! It is a good omen."
That night as he slept he could see only this tall, dark woman towering above the smoke and fire of Vesuvius, and all the time he kept thinking of, and thanking God for the roses.
It is remarkable how constantly, and all the time, one turns to look at Vesuvius when in this part of Italy. You see people — people who were born in Naples, perhaps — standing in the street staring up at the gray and grizzled mountain. No matter on which side of the bay you find yourself, it is the last thing you look upon at night on going indoors, and the first thing in the morning. You know you will be lonesome without it when you go away.
The next day they went down to the bay, the doctor and Murietta, to look at the little town of Pozzuoli, where St. Paul was landed when brought to Rome. How beautiful! How peaceful! What a touch of tenderness in all things! And yet Murietta found himself, as they stood together on the broken piers of twenty centuries ago, looking away across the bay at the curling smoke of Vesuvius.
As the sun settled to the west they left the little town, and walked on around the bay to Lake Averno. They stood on the shore in the broken and crumbling Temple of Apollo, and looked across the bottomless lake straight into the mouth of the cave which Virgil pronounced the entrance into hell.
How solemn and how serene! There were a thousand white-coated goats feeding on the green hill above the door of the cave, and the Sibyl's Cave opened its black, mysterious mouth close at hand to the left Away out to the right a little boat, with a little white sail, bore its two lovers silently along.
The doctor raised his glasses and looked long and earnestly across the lake and straight into the mouth of hell. Then he took down his glasses and turned his head thoughtfully to Murietta across his shoulder. But he did not speak, and the artist approached and stood attentively by his side, for the doctor was not without the gift of expression, and Murietta felt that at last the scene would inspire him to speak.
Again he raised his glasses, and again he gazed long and earnestly. Then he slowly let them drop, and, turning to Murietta thoughtfully, he said :
"Now I can understand why kid gloves are so very cheap in Naples."
The artist did not see that there was any particular answer needed to this allusion to the goats, and they went back towards the Bay of Naples. They stopped again at Pozzuoli, and went on the broken and deserted pier, and thought of the apostle Paul, and stood there a long time silent.
Yonder upon the hillside still steamed the hot bath of Nero, There, but a stone's throw away, was the spot where he had his mother butchered. There was the headland where Aneas had landed after deserting Dido, and from that little hill to the right, Pliny had witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius, and waited in vain for the return of his uncle.
The sun, that had stood in high midheaven all day, like a warrior with lifted shield, now settled his shield on his low left hand. Lower and lower he let it fall and settle and sink, till it touched the sea. The sun had set on Vesuvius.
Again Murietta found himself gazing at the rising column of smoke. The great gray column grew and grew from the summit of the mighty mountain, taller than a California cedar— and then it branched and branched away and blossomed into stars.
While he stood gazing at Vesuvius, watching the sun go down and drinking in the scene with all the thirst and eagerness of a poet's or a painter's longing, unsatisfied soul, another party had silently come upon the pier; and they, too, stood still and reverential, as if awed by the scene and the story of the holy place.
At last the winds blew in and fanned the stars till they shone like torches, and Murietta reluctantly turned to go.
He turned, and there with her party, right in his path, before he had time to retreat or escape in any manner, stood the lady he so earnestly and devoutly worshipped.
She seemed full of the scene before her. She gathered her blown garments closer about her, and advanced even a step nearer. Marietta's heart beat as if he was about to take part in his first battle.
She was looking away at the sea, and did not speak or notice him, although he could distinctly hear the rustle of her robes. He could almost touch the hem of her garments with his hand. Then she turned a little, and looked down the coast in the direction of Naples, at the three little islands.
How earnest her eyes were! What a glow and glory in her beautiful face as she looked on the spot where Brutus took his last farewell of Portia, and turned his upon breast to the battle front. What could she have been thinking of?
Murietta bowed his head as if he had stood in a sacred temple and the high priest stood before him. He did not even dare lift his eyes for fear he should disturb her and break her meditations.
She turned at last to look out to sea, and as he lifted his face their eyes met.
His hat was in his hand, and he bowed and tried to speak, but he could only stammer inaudibly, and his voice trembled like his half-extended hand.
She did not answer; she did not lift her hand towards his; she did not even smile, nor bend her head, nor make any sign whatever.
She only stepped a little to one side to let him pass from the pier.
Murietta did not lift his eyes again. He could have gone into battle and died with perfect delight; he would have smiled. He could have leapt into the warm, soft seawater, and ended it all there and then; but lift his eyes! He could not have done it for the kingdom of Naples. He felt that every one of that strange party was looking at him — laughing at him, and he felt as if he had been crushed beneath a weight.
On over the broken pier, on up the dusty road, on past the little town — the doctor hurrying after — the man strode, almost ran, with his head held down, and his heart as if it was a great stone in his breast.
He reached his lodgings, and sent for one of the painters there, with whom he had often talked of Spain.
"Carlton, what is the best route to reach Barcelona?"
"Barcelona! Barcelona? Ah, you may take rail here, pass through Rome, through Florence, Turin, the Mont Cenis tunnel, and so through France down to the sea. But you may find it besieged by land, and in that case you had better go by water."
"Well, well, the best way — I will go by water, then."
"To Barcelona? Do you know they are fighting there?"
"Are they, Carlton? Are they fighting —fighting sharp— killing each other by the regiment?"
"Ah, indeed they do kill!"
"Good! I will go to Barcelona tomorrow,"Start reading Chapter 9 ofThe One Fair Lady