THE stories which relate to earthquakes and the cognate volcanic phenomena have ever been strangely exciting to the imagination. We feel that we are brought face to face with the Inexorable; that we are dealing with potencies utterly beyond human sway. Fire, water, when either bursts its allotted bound, are indeed terrible agencies, wrecking human property, destroying human life; after a certain time, however, we can resume wonted control, again governing and repressing them. But when the earth, heaving from beneath, prostrates cities, projects mountains from the plain, or from under the sea; or again, when it swallows up entire districts, or vomits forth, from some lofty, gigantic outlet, rivers of liquid rock that hold their desolating course for miles: then, in the presence of these stupendous elements of destruction, dealing death, at times, to tens of thousands on a single spot and in a few brief minutes of time, man can but gaze and suffer and submit.
Living where Nature is comparatively quiet and inaggressive, we but dimly realize the portents and calamities that visit more perturbed regions. Perhaps we may remember that, in 1783, Hecla poured forth, from a lateral crevice, a stream of lava which reached a distance of fifty miles in forty-two days, and which is said to have been upwards of six hundred feet deep and to have spread out, at one place, into a lake fifteen miles wide. But it has probably slipped out* memory that, in 1835, the ashes from a Nicaraguan volcano, Conseguina, rising but a few miles from the Pacific, swept across the Isthmus and the Caribbean Sea, and fell in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, seven hundred miles off; while at a distance of thirty miles the fine pumice dust covered the ground to the depth of ten feet, destroying woods and dwellings, and shrouding man, beast, and bird.
Earthquakes count their victims by more than hundreds of thousands. The story of the great earthquake of Lisbon, where sixty thousand lives were lost, is comparatively familiar: but it is not so well known that in Calabria, in 1783, an earthquake destroyed nearly forty thousand persons; nor that, in 1772, great part of Papandayang, a mountain in that island of volcanoes, Java, was swallowed up, carrying with it the inhabitants on its declivities, warned too late, by terrific subterranean noises, of their danger, —the area thus sunk being fifteen miles long by six miles wide. It is usually estimated that, throughout the ages, thirteen millions of human beings (more than the entire population of the United States fifty years ago) have perished by these earth-convulsions.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1874, by H. O. HOUGHTON & Co., in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
The tragic has its own attractions. When I read in a morning paper, twenty years ago, my appointment to Naples, one of my first feelings was of gladness that I was about to reside in a country where I might, chance to witness some of these prodigies of nature. I called to mind, indeed, that there had been but four eruptions of Vesuvius in the present century, the last in 1850; I knew that, since the first great outbreak on record, eighteen hundred years since,—when a quiet mountain that had been covered, all but the flat summit, with flowery meadows,1 suddenly revealed all its destructive grandeur, — the capricious volcano had sometimes slumbered, undisturbed, for centuries. Yet still I hoped that mine might be the exceptional good fortune to be present when the torpid monster should again awake to action. Nor was I to be disappointed.
I have, indeed, no incidents to tell that will match the phenomena witnessed by the Neapolitans in 1631, when rocks weighing twenty or thirty tons were flung to a distance of twelve or fifteen miles, and when the dead were counted by thousands, yet I saw what I shall recollect to my dying day.
On the first of May, 1855, I was awoke by the startling tidings, “ Vesuvius in eruption!” Soon all Naples was astir. From the dense mass of cloud that veiled the cone of the mountain, occasional flames had begun to flash out. After a time a slender line of fire crept from beneath the dark covering. Toward evening, though the flames could scarcely penetrate the gloomy mass, their effect was visible in reflection from cloud to cloud, till the whole sky was ablaze with light.
Nor was it to be a mere passing exhibition, however gorgeous, of a few hours, or a day or two. For twentyeight successive days did the lava pour forth in a continuous stream. During twenty-eight successive nights was the country illuminated for miles around. The fire-stream came not from the summit-crater, but from several small supplemental craters— bocchi di fuoca, “ firemouths,” as they were called — that burst out about a third of the way up the cone.
It was a little after midnight, in fine, summer weather, that I first reached the spot, in company with several American friends. The lava had then been flowing for several days. Five craters were visible, the uppermost, however, only occasionally to be seen, when it lightened through dense clouds. We moved slowly upward as near to the largest of these as the guide deemed safe. No words can depict the strange and solemn grandeur that surrounded us. We stood amid a crowd looking like spectres in the preternatural light, and hushed out of their natural garrulousness by the solemnity of the scene. In front was a dark-gray mass of what had been liquid lava thirty-six hours before; hardened on the surface but hot still, and showing, in the fissures which seamed it, the red gleam of the yet uncooled liquid beneath. The lava-stream then flowing was just beyond it, some forty yards distant, glowing like fused metal, the warmth from it reaching us where we stood. Though it flowed down a steep descent, its current was sluggish, not exceeding, I think, two or three miles an hour. The grating sound caused by the countless thousands of tons of molten rock, as they ground their way down the rough hill-side, was peculiar; somewhat resembling the dull murmur of some mountain torrent rushing over a shingly bed. This was drowned every few minutes by a moaning noise, like distant subterranean thunder, succeeded each time by a huge tongue of flame that shot up from one or other of the craters into the air, carrying with it masses of stones and cinders and scoriæ that were thrown up to a considerable height, and which, but for the death-like stillness of the air which suffered them to drop back perpendicularly, might have fallen so close to where we stood as to be perilous; for one “ fire-mouth ” was less than a hundred and fifty yards from the spot. Over all was a sulphurous canopy of heavy clouds, lurid with the reflection of the red lava-stream, and occasionally lighted up more brilliantly by the fire-gleams from the craters, rolling its heavy masses against the mountain, and shrouding in impenetrable darkness the summit of Vesuvius. Beneath, around, above, every sound and sight was weird, unearthly, portentous. I still remember that, as I looked up with a strange longing to ascend into the gloom and penetrate its mysteries, there came to me the lines in Schiller’s Diver, with the change of a single word: —
Und der Mensch versuche die Götter nicht,
Und begehre nimmer und Dimmer zu schauen
Was sie gnädig bedecken mit Nacht und mit Grauen.” 2
I was awakened from my dream by a lady’s voice, addressing me a question. Colonel Van Buren, son of our deceased President, and his wife were of our party, and it was Mrs. Van Buren who spoke: —
“ Do you think there would be any danger in crossing this old lava and getting to the edge of that magnificent stream beyond it? ”
I appealed to our guide, and as he replied that the lady incurred no danger if her boots were thick-soled and her dress not too long, I gave her my arm and we ventured. The heat struck even through our thick boots; and when we had proceeded half-way across, my companion, stopped: “ Don’t you think there ’s some risk in going farther? ”
“ Let us return, then,” I said.
But curiosity proved stronger than fear; the lady pressed forward till we were some ten yards only from the stream. Another pause, with the remark that perhaps that was near enough. But Eve’s daughter was not yet satisfied. I felt a forward pressure on my arm, and in a few seconds we stood within two feet of the moving lava. For a minute or more we remained speechless; then Mrs. Van Buren said, " Mr. Owen, before we go, tell me, so that we may not forget it, just what you think that resembles.”
Perhaps I should never have carried away so exact an idea of the moment’s impression but for this opportune question. " I could imagine,” I replied, " that the interior of this vast cone was filled with melted gold to the brim, and that a portion of it had escaped from some fissure and was flowing at our feet.”
“Precisely; that is my impression also. I wondered if it. seemed the same to you.”
In effect the stream, some forty or fifty feet wide, appeared divided, in its width, into three parts; the central belt perfectly fused, exactly resembling a moving surface of burnished gold; while on each side the shallower stream, coming into contact with the shore, was already a little cooled and ruffled, so that it seemed more like what we call frosted gold.
The heat from the boiling mass was intense; but, for the moment, so great was the excitement, neither my companion nor I was fully aware of it. Though we did not linger more than a minute or two on the edge of this Plutonian stream, our faces did not recover from the scorching for more than two days, the skin slightly and partially peeling off.
Following the course of the lava we found that, half a mile farther down, it had reached a perpendicular descent of some thirty or forty feet. Over this poured the cataract of fire, probably seventy or eighty feet wide, but divided near the centre by a projecting rock. By this time large blocks of lava, somewhat hardened by cooling, came floating along like huge rocks and toppled over, not swiftly or suddenly, as heavy bodies drop over a waterfall, but quietly and lazily, in part arrested by sinking somewhat into the thick, viscous mass.
Some days afterward I visited, from the lower valley, the bed of the lavastream in its last descent from the mountain. We had arranged to reach the spot as soon as it was quite dark. What a spectacle presented itself, far exceeding in magnificence all we had yet seen! The descent was a wide and nearly perpendicular pitch of full one thousand feet. Down this vast precipice the lava was descending in several streams, so as to illumine the whole face of the rock. Conceive one of the wildest and loftiest of Swiss waterfalls, with every accessory of mountain scenery; then imagine the ice-water from the Alps suddenly converted, by some magician’s wand, into liquid gold, and you may faintly realize what here we saw.
A week or two later, the lava-stream, accumulating in the valley and spreading out, here and there, to a great width, had reached a point seven miles distant from its source, and within a third of a mile of a village on the road to Naples, named La Cercola, the village being only three or four miles from the city. It advanced, an inevitable Fate. Field, orchard, olive-grove disappeared beneath it, never again to be seen while the world endures. Cottages were swept away and buried. Trees were surrounded, scorched, and withered by the fiery mass — the charred tops of the largest still projecting, like masts of vessels that had gone down in a tempest.
Learning that the hamlet was threatened, and the inhabitants fleeing for their lives, I drove out to the spot, where crowds had gathered. The lava presented a nearly perpendicular front full a hundred feet wide and some fifteen feet high, cooled down to a dark gray color, and beginning to harden into rock. The vast mass, however, still moved on, inch by inch. From time to time, too, the top crust was pressed forward and toppled over, each time gaining a few feet. Human attempt to arrest or divert its progress was as unavailing as would have been an effort to check a planet in its course.
I remember to have seen but two earthly phenomena that impressed me with the idea of omnipotent power. One was the central portion of the principal fall at Niagara; the other was this gigantic lava-wall moving—a doom! — toward the affrighted village.
As I gazed, my attention was attracted by a strange, distant sound, as of persons in distress. Turning, I saw a religious procession just issuing from La Cercola, quarter of a mile away. In front was borne, on men’s shoulders, an image of the patron saint of the village, brought there as an intercessor, to arrest the advancing destruction. Next came a number of priests in their robes of ceremony, and behind, a crowd, chiefly of women. In the intervals of the prayers that the priests intoned, these women burst forth in a simultaneous wail, which, coming from hundreds of voices, produced the most lugubrious chorus it was ever my lot to hear. It gave one a vivid idea of the weeping of a multitude, and of a multitude readily stirred to frantic expressions either of joy or grief. But for the absorbed earnestness of the mourners, and the terrible reality of the approaching danger, it might have seemed grotesque. As it was, the spectacle was equally impressive and unique. The lava advanced but a rod or two farther; and the hamlet was saved.
Portici, so frequent a sufferer by former eruptions, was threatened by this, but escaped. I. heard of no fatal accident. During a previous eruption (in 1850), an American gentleman lost his life. Without engaging a guide, he had ascended to the summit when Vesuvius was casting forth rocks and scoriæ. Not noticing that there was a slight breeze, he passed incautiously to leeward of the crater. A fragment of rock, diverted by the wind from the perpendicular, dropped on his arm, crushing it; and before aid came, losing much blood, he sank and died.
The story came to my knowledge through a guide, riding with me on my first journey to the mountain, Tragical though it was, I could not help smiling at the professional moral with which he closed his narration. “ Ecco! ” he exclaimed, turning toward me, rising in his stirrups and throwing out his right arm with a theatrical air, “ behold the effects of ascending Vesuvius without a guide!”
I witnessed also, albeit at some distance from its ravages, an earthquake. It was one evening about ten o’clock, in the year 1857.
The walls of the house in which we lived, fronting on the Chiaja, were nearly seven feet thick; yet we felt the massive building shake and roll. The first shock lasted, I think, eight or ten seconds. We sprang to our feet; and after a brief interval there followed a second shock, more violent than the first, so that our footing seemed to fail beneath us. A chandelier suspended in the room swung about a foot out of the perpendicular, and continued to vibrate for several minutes. The bells in the house rang, and three or four doors opened.
We were startled, of course; but Mrs. Owen, not readily alarmed, took it quietly. I reminded her that, as throughout two or three thousand years there had been no record of any substantial building being thrown down, or any lives lost by an earthquake in the city, it was the most unlikely thing in the world that we should be the first sufferers. So she merely laid the children’s clothes to be ready at a moment’s warning, and we retired to rest, sleeping tranquilly till morning.
But others had less faith. The common people rushed by thousands into the street and spent the night imploring the intercession of the Holy Virgin; for Naples addresses her prayers to Mary, not to God: while hundreds of the nobility, getting into their carriages, drove for refuge to the southern side of the Chiaja, out of reach of any houses if they had fallen; and we saw a line of these equipages early next morning, still strung along in front of our windows, just outside of the Villa Reale.
But the night, so quietly spent by us, was to be one of death or of torture to tens of thousands. The centre of this terrific earth perturbation was about ninety miles southeast of Naples, in the interior of the kingdom, nearly half-way to the Adriatic; namely, in and around Potenza, capital of the province of Basilicata, a city of sixteen thousand souls. Two thirds of the place were laid in ruins, whole rows of buildings falling flat into the streets. Thirty or forty neighboring villages met a similar, or worse fate; ten or twelve of these being utterly destroyed. The most moderate calculation put the deaths at twenty-five thousand, and ten thousand people were maimed or injured, most of them for life: all this frightful destruction occurring within a single minute of time. Several thousands remained for days under the ruins in misery which it is horrible to think of Some died almost at the moment of release; many more came out dreadfully mutilated; there were four thousand amputations performed in Potenza alone.
I was sorely tempted to visit the terrible scenes. But professional duties prevented me. Several English and American travelers brought me heart-rending accounts of what they saw.
That Naples herself has ever escaped similar tragedies is probably due to the close vicinity of a safety-valve — in Vesuvius.
It has sometimes occurred to me that the devotional sentiment of this nation may have owed both its earnestness and its superstitious phase, in a measure, to such startling phenomena as these; phenomena that, by an excited and uncultured people, might easily be set down as acts of retribution direct from God. It is certain that, from the King to the lowest of the lazzaroni, religion among them was, as a general rule, more of an ever-present sentiment than it usually is among us.
In the autumn of 1855, being about to negotiate a treaty of amity, commerce, and navigation with the Neapolitan Government, I had instructions from our State Department to have inserted therein, if possible, a provision permitting the erection, in Naples, of a church for Protestant worship. I replied that I should strictly obey instructions, though hopeless of success, I met the three Neapolitan plenipotentiaries, Don Luigi Carafa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Cometini, an officer of the King’s household, and Don Giuseppe Arpino, Advocate General, and when I brought up this proposal, they received it in complete silence. After the session closed the Minister begged me to remain a few minutes.
“ Signor Ministro,” he said, “ I think you cannot doubt the extreme desire of his Majesty to do whatever may be agreeable to your President and to the great country you represent, so far as national honor and our sacred religion permit. ”
“ There is one proposition,” he went on, “ and I think only one, among those you are likely to propose, that we are not permitted freely to discuss with you: that which regards a Protestant church. The King prefers to lose the treaty and all its advantages rather than concede that to which his conscience, all the traditions of his government, and the rules of the Holy Catholic church are alike opposed. I am frank with you, so that your time and ours may not be lost.”
I was prepared for this; for we were in the habit, in the diplomatic corps, of talking the King over very freely. So I gave up the point, and the treaty was concluded October 1, 1855.
The superstition of the people differed in phase from the bigotry of their king. I detected but little intolerance of heretics in it. It had its reverential and its grotesque side. There are niches in the front walls of many houses in the old part of Naples, with small figures of saints, or more usually of the Virgin and Child. When I hired a carrozzella
— the cab of that city, much used there
— I found the driver in the habit of stopping his horse without apparent cause, in the street. Looking out for an explanation, I observed that, on such occasions, he took off his hat and turned toward one of these images, his lips moving silently; after a few moments he put his wiry little horse in motion again. It was image-worship, no doubt; yet I felt more disposed to respect the man for the sentiment, than to smile at the delusion.
The grotesque phase might be seen at the street corners any Saturday afternoon, while the drawing of lotteries was going on. The Neapolitans, though every one of them who can at all afford it drinks wine, are, like the Spaniards, a specially temperate people. I think that during five years I saw scarcely half a dozen of them intoxicated. Their substitute in the way of excitement is gambling; “ playing in the lottery,” as they call it. I think that I had not a servant in my house who failed to spend five, ten, twenty cents a week, or more, for a lottery ticket. At the close of the week, when the result was announced, crowds gathered round the lottery offices, which were almost as common in Naples as grog-shops in New York. Five numbers, drawn from the wheel, were exhibited, at considerable intervals of time, above each office door; if one of these appeared on a ticket, it gave the holder a very small prize, probably repaying him his venture; if two, a larger proportion, and so on; the ticket containing all these lucky numbers winning the capital prize.
The excitement of the crowd, as each successive number appeared, may be imagined. On such an occasion I remember singling out one of the many lazzaroni present — a stalworth, embrowned, half-clad fellow — and watching his acts and emotions. He held before his face a leaden image of his patron saint, to which, while awaiting the drawing, he addressed his entreaties, as devoutly, I dare say, as ever Louis XI. of France did, for good luck. When the exhibition of the first number caused a rustle among the anxious waiters, he looked up, and I read disappointment on his face, but he was submissive; tliere were four chances yet, and he went on with his prayers. So, when the second came out. As the third was shown, I saw his weather-beaten face darken and the black eyes flash, but he resorted to his saint again. When a fourth came, evidently with the same result, he shook the image with an oath; but then, recollecting himself, he calmed down, and his half-uttered, imploring tones indicated a last, fervent intercession. Then, trembling with agitation, he waited the final chance. It came; and, with a heart-spoken " Maladetto! ” he flung the image on the ground, and trampled it under foot.
During: the chief festival of Naples, celebrated yearly in the vast cathedral,3 I witnessed a still more striking example of the familiarity— unchecked, it seems, by the church—with which these people arc wont to treat what they call their spiritual protectors.
San Gennaro (St. Januarius) is held to be the guardian saint of Naples. The alleged miracle by which the blood of this holy person (contained in a closed phial or glass tube) changes from a solid to a liquid state, is well known. Admitted by special favor, with five or six others, into the sanctuary of the cathedral, and seated within a few feet of the officiating priest, I had an excellent opportunity to observe the ceremony and its effect upon the assembled thousands who came to await the result.
In the front rank of the audience, some ten feet from us, were seated twenty or thirty women, some very old, the reputed descendants of the saint. At their head, and evidently chief of this favored corps, was a tall, masculine woman, of middle age, — a very Meg Merrilies in appearance, — with the flashing eye and the bold port of a popular ring-leader. Like most matrons in the rank of small but well-to-do Neapolitan shopkeepers, her fingers were covered with massive silver rings, and her neck was adorned with a heavy chain and other ornaments of the same metal. This Amazon seemed, for the nonce, to have assumed the lead in the devotional exercises of her neighbors.
These, when the priest first held up the sacred phial with its clotted contents, were quiet and reverential; uttered in low tones, but audible where we sat, “ Holy Gennaro! Save, protect us! Bless the city of Naples and keep it from plagues and earthquakes and all other ills. Do this miracle, so we may see that thy power and thy favor are still with us. Blessed San Gennaro, pray for us,” and so on.
After each installment of prayer there was an interval of some ten minutes; then the supplications recommenced, patiently enough for an hour or more, during which the still refractory blood was, from time to time, displayed. Then, gradually, the tone became querulous, and supplication changed to remonstrance. ‘ ‘ How long, O holy man of God! how long! Art thou resolved to weary out our patience ? Come quickly! Hasten to show thy power! ” then usually dropping back into the refrain, “ Blessed San Gennaro, pray for us! ”
When nearly two hours had elapsed, the patience of this Amazonian leader evidently failed. It was a sultry day toward the end of May, the crowd was densely packed, and I saw drops of perspiration standing out on her swarthy forehead.
“ San Gennaro,” she exclaimed, “ are you going to keep us here, sweating in this accursed crowd, all day long? Who ’s to attend to that little shop of mine, I wonder, while I'm gone? Do you want it to be entered and robbed? You know I can’t afford to be away from it all this time.” Then, as if the thought crossed her that she had gone a little too far, “ Blessed Saint! Holy Gennaro! Pray for us. ”
Half an hour more elapsed, and still, as the venerated relic was held on high before the congregation, the obdurate blood remained unliquefied. At the sight, our dame of the silver chain and rings, unable longer to stand such treatment from her canonized ancestor, broke forth. Pointing her long, lank finger at the silver-gilt bust of the saint (which had been brought from his chapel and set on a pedestal near us), “ Faccia gialla ! ” she cried. “ Yellow face! You! It ’s past all bearing! Have you no mercy? Hurry up! Be about it! Come, set that blood a-flowing in God’s name, at once; and let us depart in peace! ”
Her face all aflame and the nervous agitation of her whole person, as she rose to her feet and tossed her arms excitedly, attested the vehement reality of her emotion. Had I been inclined to laugh, which I was not, I think any such exhibition of levity might have endangered my life, at the hands of that exasperated multitude.
It was some ten minutes after this objurgation that the priest, stepping to the front, — this time with a complacent smile lighting up his face, — showed the miracle wrought, and the blood flowing freely in the tube.
Then there went up from the assembled thousands such a wild shout of exultation as one hears only in Southern climes; and there only when fear and expectation, wound up to highest pitch and endured for hours, burst forth in triumphant congratulation at last.
While all this was passing, the priest who officiated had very politely brought to us, for examination, the vessel containing the blood; affording us satisfactory evidence that it was at first coagulated and that it had liquefied at the close. It may readily be imagined that we did not moot the question with him how this result was produced.
It would be an error to suppose that the Neapolitans are a fiercely quarrelsome people; though such an impression might be made by perusing the above narrative, or by a sight of the daily scenes that occur in Santa Lucia or other crowded thoroughfares. One may witness there, at any hour of the day, street squabbles which, to judge by the intensity of tone and gesture in the wranglers, seem likely to terminate in blows or blood. Nothing of the sort! I saw or heard no evidence of the stiletto, commonly associated with the Italian; and cases of assault and battery I found to be of rarest occurrence. The excitement of this people, real for the moment, seems to evaporate harmlessly in words and gesticulation. Among themselves, and with strangers if decently treated, they are essentially a good-natured race, with more of the genial element about them than falls to the Anglo-Saxon’s share.
I had little trouble with my servants. In each household of any importance there is a maggiordomo, through whom one manages all the rest. Andrea was the name of mine; a staid, grave, respectful man of fifty, always neatly dressed in black with white cravat. At first he quietly took the upper hand with me. This I tolerated for a few months, lacking experience in my new position, and willing to adopt some of his ways. Finally I sent for him. “ Andrea,” said I, “ this is a comfortable place of yours, is it not? ”
“ Your Excellency surely knows what an honor I esteem it to serve the American Minister.”
“ I think you had been out of a situation some time when I engaged you; and if you lost this place you might not be able soon to find one that suited you as well.”
“ Dio mio! who has been maligning me to your Excellency? ”
“ No one. And, in many respects, you are an excellent servant. You are always respectable-looking; you receive my guests admirably; you are attentive and obliging, and you keep good order in the house. But you have one fault which does not suit me at all.”
“ In the name of the Virgin, what is that, Signor? ”
“ You are as obstinate as the old devil himself. You insist on having your own way. I have let this pass so far. But now take your choice. Either you must do just what I bid you for the future, or else it will be a month’s wages — and dismissal. ’ ’
I never had occasion, throughout the succeeding years, to say a word more on that point. Andrea did all the marketing, and he was an excellent caterer. I had been warned by an English friend, long a resident of Naples, that a major-domo expects to clear ten per cent. on his purchases; it was the custom of the place, he said, and I must not object if he kept to that. As Andrea’s wages were low, I was content. But I found, by comparing prices, that he was gradually running up his percentage till it was nearly double.
“ Look here,” I said to him one day; “ ten per cent. on the market bills for yourself I’m willing to allow; but it must n’t be more.”
“ Oh, Signor, surely you don’t think that I ever charge you one grano above the price I pay ? ’ ’
“ It’s no use pretending, Andrea. I tell you I’m willing to pay ten; but remember, I won’t stand fifteen or twenty.”
He looked me full in the face and saw I was in earnest; then, quite unblusliingly, and with a sly smile, the rogue replied, “ I did n’t think your Excellency was so well informed in these matters.”
Andrea was wont to spend his spare wages, not exactly in “riotous living,” but in giving to his friends occasional evening parties, with supper, — and wine, of course, — in a hall adjoining the servants’ offices. As he always asked permission and kept his guests quiet, I assented for a time. But he had a daughter of eighteen or nineteen, a modest, nice girl; good-looking, with a neat, small figure, and the oval face, light olive complexion, and handsome black eyes and hair of her country. Adelaide was her name, contracted, however, to Delaïta. She had been with us upwards of two years as chambermaid, when I heard that a handsome young fellow, a manufacturer of artificial flowers, who usually made one at her father’s suppertable, was likely to be a suitor for his daughter’s hand. Thereupon I sent for Andrea.
“It is not my business how you spend your money,” I said to him; “ but you will want to marry that pretty daughter of yours one of these days, and there will be the dota — you will be asked to furnish a bedroom; is it not true? ”
“That is the custom, Signor; but do not fear; I shall be prepared.”
A year later, however, he came to me, downhearted. “ I am very unhappy,” he said. “That good young fellow seeks my girl in marriage, and here I have but twenty-five ducats in the world.”
“ Ah! those suppers! I warned you, Andrea.”
“Yes, Signor; but one must be a little hospitable; and then perhaps Tomraaso " ’ —
“ Might not have taken a fancy to Delaita if they had not sat side by side now and then at supper, you think? ”
“ Sicuro! It is so. But if the Signor Ministro would only lend me the sum, and deduct it from my wages; three hundred ducats,4 with what little I have, will suffice.”
“ Well, Delaïta has been an excellent girl, diligent and faithful. She is a great favorite of Mrs. Owen’s, and we always intended to give her something when she married. She shall have a hundred and fifty ducats. I ’ll advance the rest, and you shall repay it, ten ducats a month. You need a little lesson in economy.”
“ Dio glielo renda,5 Eccellenza! ”
The girl was married; our children, to their delight and the gratification of all concerned, being present at the wedding; she did well, and came to see us from time to time. Two days before I left Naples, there was a knock at my library door, and Delaïta — her trim little figure nicely dressed, and, dropping over her head, the graceful black lace veil, which in women of her station replaces, throughout Southern Italy, the hat or bonnet — entered and walked, with a smile, and evidently much moved, up to the desk at which I was writing.
“ I could not let your Excellency go,” she said, “without coming to tell you how I feel about your goodness to me. I owe to you all I have —my pleasant home and the good husband who takes care of me. There is only one thing I can do for you, but that I ’ll never, never neglect. When I kneel before the Blessed Virgin in church, I shall always pray that she will guide and protect you, and give you many happy days.”
By this time tears had gathered in the large, dark eyes, and her voice trembled with emotion as, after a moment’s hesitation, she went on: “ And now there’s one thing I ’m so very sorry for—that —that you’re not a woman, so that I might kiss you before you go.”
“But as I happen unfortunately to be a man, Delaïta, don’t you think it might do just as well for me to kiss you ? ”
A bright blush for answer, and I kissed her as I would my own daughter, the tears dropping from her cheeks the while.
There are many countries where a girl might feel gratitude just as warmly as good Delaïta did; but out of Italy the gratitude would scarcely assume such frank expression. And who knows but that the dear girl’s prayers may, since then, have been to me, in strictest sense, far more than a return for the little service I had been able to render her?
When I was about to leave Naples there was quite a dramatic scene. The servants gathered round me, lamenting as if they were losing a life-long benefactor. Most of them in tears, they kissed my hands, called down upon my head all manner of blessings expressed in some of the various superlatives with which their language abounds; and several of them accompanied me to the steamer in which I embarked.6
In all ranks of this people, from the King down, I found much habitual kindness; in small things, if you will, but small things may smooth and brighten life. One marked example of courtesy in Ferdinand himself here occurs to me.
When I was first appointed to Naples, it was as. chargé d'affaires, being accredited by our Secretary of State to the Neapolitan Minister of Foreign Affairs. Two years later the grade was raised to that of minister; and I had to deliver letters of credence from the President to the King. To a letter announcing this and asking an audience of the King, I got no reply for ten days. Then came the principal secretary of the Foreign Office, who asked me if I had not received a letter from them a week before.
“ No, but I expected one. What did your letter contain? ”
“ An appointment by his Majesty to receive you yesterday as minister.”
“ And what happened? ”
“ He came with his chief officers, waited half an hour, and then, as you failed to appear, he dismissed them and returned to his apartments.”
An awkward dilemma, it will be admitted! Under ordinary circumstances a reasonable apology suffices in case of failure to keep an appointment, but I was not at all sure how it would be received on such an occasion. There was nothing for it, however, except to send a letter to the Foreign Minister, with an explanation,7 an expression of sorrow, and a request for another audience. I did not suppose this request would be refused; but I did expect a cold reception, of which I should certainly not have complained.
When I met the King, there was first, from me, the stereotyped protestation about our President’s desire to maintain and strengthen amicable relations; then, from Ferdinand, the equally stereotyped response that the President could not have given more agreeable assurance of this than by sending to Naples a gentleman so eminent, etc., etc. This over,
I said that it was my duty to express to his Majesty my deep regret that, by an unfortunate accident, I had been prevented —
There he interrupted me, extending his hand and heartily shaking mine.
“ Mr. Owen,” he said, “ I beg that you will not say a word more on that subject. I am quite certain the mistake would not have happened if you could have prevented it; and the only regret I have in the matter is, that I have been deprived of the pleasure of seeing you sooner. ’ ’
Handsomely said and very gracefully turned, let us admit — if it was “ King Bomba ” who said it.
So, on another occasion. When Mr. Buchanan became President I sent in my resignation, as is usual on a change of administration; but I was requested to remain at least another year, and agreed to do so. This fact I communicated to the King at Gaeta, whither the diplomatic corps had been summoned, to condole with him on the death of his favorite sister; a good woman, unassuming, benevolent, and greatly regretted by the poor. I had previously told the King of my resignation, and when I informed him of the change of plan, he said, “ Mr. Owen, when your President requested you to prolong your stay among us, he did me a personal favor.
This was overheard and commented on by my colleagues. My own inference from it was, that, if an American minister shows but common justice in his dealings even with a despotic power, he will hardly fail to secure for himself the good-will of its government, and for his own country the friendship of that to which he is accredited. There was no reasonable demand of mine made, on behalf of American citizens, to the King of Naples or his ministers, that was not ultimately granted.
When one has been kindly treated, there is temptation to extenuate guilt, in view of the kindness. Yet I found evidence sufficient, I think, to prove that the proverb touching his satanic majesty, and the tendency to overdarken his portrait, might apply to Ferdinand II. also. With his submissiveness to the Catholic church was combined another wide-reaching fallacy. He not only believed, as stubbornly as Henry VIII. ever did, in the right divine of a king to dispose, at his will, of his subjects, their lives, and their properties, but also in his further right, derived from God’s grace, to break faith with them, if they rebelled against his legitimate sway. Violating, like Charles I., solemn pledges given to his people,8 like Charles he was an affectionate husband and father; giving, as his enemies alleged, more time and thought to his family than to his kingdom. He was clement, too, on occasion, as I had opportunities to know. I think the wornout system, sustainable only by force, which he persisted in maintaining, had more to do than innate cruelty of disposition with those heinous barbarities toward political offenders which stained the annals of his reign;9 and which, as I myself witnessed, nearly cost him his life. It happened thus: —
The King was wont to review some thirty or forty thousand of his troops annually on the anniversary of that victory at Velletri, by which the reigning dynasty acquired the throne of Naples. On one of these occasions (it was in 1856) I was present with my family, and — the carriages of foreign ministers having the entrée to the inner circle — we were some fifty or sixty yards only from where the King and his aids sat on horseback. Suddenly a slight tumult and tussle in the royal group attracted our attention; and soon after we saw a private soldier led off by one officer, while another carried a musket with its bayonet much bent. As the King remained seated and the troops continued to tile past, I did not learn the full particulars till next day, when, at a levee, I heard them from Ferdinand himself. A soldier had suddenly rushed from the ranks and struck at him with fixed bayonet; but the blow was dealt too low, and the weapon, grazing the saddle and piercing the holster with such violence as to bend the steel, glanced thence against his breast and caused, he said, but a trifling wound. One of his staff officers who was present told me afterwards, however, that when the King put his hand to the spot, the kid glove he wore came away stained with blood, but that he would not allow any attention to be paid to it, saying only, in a quiet tone, “ Take him away, but don’t hurt him. Let the review go on!” Such equanimity betokens a certain force of character, which Ferdinand undoubtedly possessed.
within a year, he dissolved the Chambers and restored the ancient despotism.
The man who committed this assault proved to be a monk from a distant province, two of whose brothers had been executed for political offenses, real or suspected. Seeking opportunity to avenge their deaths (and no doubt concealing his vocation), he had enlisted a year before as a soldier. I was not at his trial, but I heard its details from the Marchese Sant’ Angelo, a young man of generous impulse, but loyal to the King.
Counsel was assigned to Milano, so the monk was called; and the defense was — indeed could only be — a plea of insanity. The prisoner maintained complete equanimity throughout the trial; and when, at its close, he was asked if he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced against him, he replied, —
“I desire to thank the gentleman who has defended me, for the zeal he has shown in seeking to prove that I was out of my right mind when I committed the act. I trust he will pardon me when I say that he is quite mistaken. The deed was premeditated, thought over for more than a year past, though the secret was never intrusted to any one; and at the moment I carried it out, I was as sane as any person who now hears me. According to your laws I must suffer death, and I have not a word to say in extenuation. Nay, if I were at liberty to-morrow, I should renew the attempt, believing it to be for the interest of the country that the King ” —
Here he was interrupted by the court and told that they could not listen to any remarks derogatory to his Majesty. The prisoner resumed, in the same dispassionate and respectful tone he had used throughout: —
“ Then I refrain from saying anything more on that subject. But if I thought that my feeble voice could reach the King and move him to compassion, I would implore him to make the tour of the kingdom, so that he might see, with his own eyes, the condition of his miserable subjects! ”
He sat down quietly amid profound silence; and the young marquis told me he thought the court itself was impressed with respect for the man. For himself, he confessed to me that, though he abhorred Milano’s attempted crime, he could not help thinking that his demeanor and his defense, frank, calm, dignified, would bear comparison with some of the historical incidents we most admire, dating back to the best days of Greece or Rome.
He was hanged — some of the English and Piedmontese papers said, after being tortured; but I found, on strict search, no evidence to sustain such a report.
There is a sequel to this — fanciful, some will call it. For nine months previous to December, 1856, I had been devoting my leisure hours to the study of pneumatological phenomena; having found several “mediums” or “psychics” in the circle of our acquaintances. On the sixteenth of that month, during our hundred and thirty-fifth sitting, the (alleged) spirit of Milano announced itself, the name being spelt out. There were present, besides the medium, Mrs. Owen and the Countess d’A—, wife of one of the King’s fa-
vorite general officers. Among other questions, we asked, “ Do you wish to return here alive again ? ’ ’
Answer (very decided). “ Yes.” 10
Q. “ W hy ? ”
A. “To kill Ferdinand.”
Q. “ Why do you wish to kill him ? ’ ’
A. “ Is wretch.”
The Countess (speaking in French). “ I tell you, no! He is not!”
But this leads to another subject. I propose to inform the readers of The Atlantic how I came to investigate such phenomena; prefacing what I have to say in that matter by a statement of my views, forty years ago, on so-called “Free Religion,” and the efforts I made to propagate them.
Robert Dale Owen.
- Strabo, writing about the Christian era, described Vesuvius, then not known to be a volcano, as covered with beautiful meadows, all but the sum mit, which was a sterile level.↩
- Literally : " Up yonder it is fearful; and never more let man, tempting the gods, seek to explore what they, in mercy, have covered with night and with horrors.” The original applies to Charybdis, and begins " Da unten aber,” etc.: " Down yonder.” etc.↩
- Here there is a chapel dedicated to St. Januarius, which was erected, in pursuance of a vow made during the plague of 1527, at a cost of nearly a million dollars, and which is enriched with valuable paintings by Guido and other masters.↩
- About two hundred and fifty dollars.↩
- “ God repay it to you 1 ”↩
- A somewhat similar scene took place when Mrs. Owen and the children, some weeks before, departed, accompanied by a lady friend, for the United States. I went to London, called thither to attend my father during the last months of his life.↩
- Namely, that my servant had carelessly deposited the letter under a copy of the government paper (Giornale Utfiziale delle due Sicilie), which, as it was the dullest paper I ever subscribed for (but this opinion was not included in my explanation to the minister), it chanced that I had failed to read or open.↩
- During the political agitation of 1848, Ferdinand took a public oath to support a constitution modeled after the French Charter of 1830; yet,↩
- Exposed, perhaps exaggerated, by Gladstone, in 1857.↩
- The very first time in our experience that any (alleged) spirit had answered that question in the affirmative The Table (with a bounding, emphatic motion). “ Oui!” adding, after a pause, “mon idole est la Liberté.”↩