A Vesuvian Episode
THERE hangs on a wall in my rectory one of the Naples pastels familiar to every traveler in Italy. It represents Vesuvius as it appeared under the exceptional conditions of a snow that fell, and for some days robed at least the ridge of Somma and the cone, in December, 1867.
Shortly before thus time, a young Englishman, of refined and cultured family and character, visiting Florence greatly broken in health, brought me a letter of introduction from a near relative and my own friend, a clergyman of the Church. This young man, whom I will call Thorpe, exhausted by close and excessive brain work, was suffering from a singular and morbid state of mind. He had long wished to visit Italy, and especially to see Naples and Vesuvius, with a desire so passionately strong that he had come to fear lest it was in itself sinful, and lest to yield to it would be an almost unpardonable act of self-indulgence.
His friends had persuaded him to take the rest from his duties and the mental relaxation which he so greatly needed; and they had even induced him to come to Italy, — so far, at least, as Florence. But, having reached this city, he was arrested by the conviction that he had guiltily yielded to his longing, and that, instead of going on to Naples, he ought at once, if indeed it were not already too late, to return to London. The morbid peculiarity of his state of mind was this : that no sooner did he reach one decision, either to go on or to return, than all the reasons for the opposite course came back on him in their full force; and he alternately either felt the folly of coming to Italy, and then repressing the intense longing which had brought him there, or, if he persuaded himself to stay and to go to Naples, he was at once haunted by the presentiment that such a course would be punished by death.
It was a strange experience which had given this presentiment such power over him.
A friend of his boyhood, visiting Italy, had died in Leghorn, and had been buried in the little cemetery adjoining the English Church. On reaching Italy, Thorpe stopped to spend Sunday in Leghorn, and, before the time for service, he sought this cemetery and his friend’s grave. He found it, and on the headstone he read, after the name and date, this appropriate text: “He brought down my strength in my journey, and shortened my days.” At once and morbidly applying these words to himself as a warning, he sat there for some time, lost in thought, until he was aroused, by the sound of the church organ, to the fact that the service had commenced. With some reluctance he rose, and, after a little delay, left the graveyard and entered the church. As he opened the door, he saw the congregation standing, and realized that the service had proceeded as far as the Psalter. It was the twentieth day of the month. The first words which fell on his ear from the officiating clergyman, as he himself stood in the doorway, were, “ He brought down my strength in my journey, and shortened my days.”
Struck by these words as by a blow, he was only able to stagger to a seat, and was almost oblivious of all that followed, until, during the singing of a hymn, the minister entered the pulpit. The hymn sung, as Thorpe calmed himself to listen, the preacher announced his text, — the twenty - third verse of Psalm cii. : " He brought down my strength in my journey, and shortened my days.”
Thorpe sprang up, and rushed from the church.
That this extraordinary concurrence was not imaginary was proven by the fact that I myself subsequently found the grave and this text upon the headstone. The chaplain also told me that on the day when those words occurred in the Psalter he had preached from them, and that he remembered seeing a young man, on the same day, enter during the reading of the Psalter, and suddenly leave the church as soon as he had given out his text.
In this state of mind and under these circumstances, Thorpe came to Florence. For some weeks I did what I could to interest him, to occupy his mind, and to divert his thoughts from himself. Once, on the impulse of the moment, he did actually start for Naples. He went, however, no farther than Rome, where he was so overcome with the reaction that he returned immediately to Florence, and had been there some days before I learned of his return and found him. I now wrote to his relative, and urged that some member of his family should come to him. Meanwhile, finding that I had a great influence over him, — possibly because of being a clergyman, — I kept him as much as possible with me.
About the middle of December, his relative and my friend, Canon Thorpe, arrived in Florence, and some anxious consultations followed during the next two days.
Thorpe’s strong desire to see Vesuvius was now intensified by the reports of an eruption which gave promise to he of more than ordinary interest; but with this the conviction of the sinfulness of such a self-indulgence also grew stronger, and the warning of the thricerepeated text.
The canon and I finally concurred in thinking that the best hope of breaking the spell lay in actually getting Thorpe to Naples, and, if we could do so, to Vesuvius; but we could not rid ourselves of some anxiety for the result of taking such a responsibility.
We laid our plans for Monday, the 16th. The canon invited me to dine with them at the hotel. I went, taking my valise, and leaving it, unknown to Thorpe, with the porter. While I chatted with Thorpe before dinner, in the reading-room, the canon saw to it that their luggage was ready to be taken down to the porter during dinner. We talked of everything else for some time, and when dessert was brought on, suddenly and for the first time we turned the conversation to Naples and the eruption. As we had anticipated, Thorpe was at once eager to go ; and I said, “ Come; the omnibus is now at the door; let us all go this evening.” “Good!” responded the canon, rising; and Thorpe adding, “ Capital! ” we all instantly rose, descended to the door, and got into the omnibus. The porter, having had his instructions, when he saw us get in, threw our luggage on the top. This was all done so rapidly that Thorpe had no time to reflect or to demur. But no sooner had the omnibus started than he exclaimed, first in a query about my own sudden departure, and then, “ Our luggage ! ” I gave some sufficing reply, and the canon that our luggage was with us, and Thorpe then, for a while, acquiesced; but before we reached the station the reaction came. He declared that he dared not commit a sin so presumptuous as this would be. Neither the canon nor I attempted to argue with him. but one of us simply said, “Well, we have started; if we give up Naples, better go back at once to London. The train for Paris starts at about the same time.” “ Yes.” replied Thorpe sadly, “ it were better to do so.” “ Very well,” we answered, as we drove up and descended.
While they walked up and down in the station till very nearly the last minute, I, trusting to a speedy counter-reaction, went for the tickets, and registered the luggage to Naples. As I rejoined them, Thorpe turned and appealed to me solemnly to say if it would really be wrong to go to Naples, as we had just planned. On my assurance that it would not, he responded, “ Let us go, then; ” and we got instantly into the south-bound train and were off. The matter was now out of his hands, and, seeming satisfied, he soon fell asleep. After that there was no opportunity to turn back. It was a through express, continuing all night to Rome, — where alone we could reverse our plan, — and, our luggage being registered and beyond our present control, go through we must.
We reached Naples Tuesday evening, fatigued enough to predispose us all, above everything else, for a good night’s rest. We took only a half hour during the evening to walk out on the Chiaia, — to see Vesuvius lighted up by the glowing lava flowing down its side towards us, and by the lurid clouds of steam and smoke which hung overhead.
The next day was rainy, and we were therefore constrained to spend it indoors. The canon and Thorpe went to the Museo. In fact, during the afternoon, quite a storm broke upon us.
The day following, it had cleared off, and, lo! wondrous to behold, the cone and shoulders of Vesuvius were covered with snow, and the volumes of smoke and steam rose high and curled up into the keen, frosty air.
Thorpe was now somewhat reassured by the fact that he had come safely, not only to Italy, but to Naples ; and, although he recurred two or three times to his warning and to the improbability that he should get away safely, none the less, with the influence of Vesuvius in its novel and weird beauty before his eyes, it was not so difficult to persuade him to concur in the plan to go that afternoon at least to Pompeii. From Pompeii, after a good dinner at the Hotel Diomede, with two guides and three horses, we set off, between three and four, to make the ascent.
We rode on and up for two hours. It was now beautifully clear, and gave us a magnificent view out to sea and far up the valley southward towards Cava. The shoulders of the mountain were covered with fresh black ashes; the cone and the ridge of Somma, on our right as we advanced, with snow. The contrast was most striking, especially when the snow glowed and glistened in the rays of the now setting sun.
We left our horses at last at a little pizzicheria, and walked on to the right, into the valley between the cone and Somma. Here our progress was stopped by the fresh lava slowly oozing down from the fissures in the side of the cone. As it grew darker we went on more slowly. The snowy lining of Somma, opposite the lava, shone with white and rose tints, in the fiery light of the flames which flashed up intermittently from the crater. The lava had first flowed westwardly, towards the Hermitage and Naples ; but, being now heaped up on that side, the stream had flowed more to the north, into the valley of Somma, and thence worked round in the direction of Pompeii. We were, therefore, going to meet it. When as near as was wise, we clambered to the top of a little ridge of partly cooled lava, and stopped to enjoy the scene.
At first our position seemed somewhat too dangerous for pleasure. We could feel the lava stream moving under us, for it was only five days old, and even the scoria on which we stood was hot through the soles of our shoes. At the same time, while some of these currents of molten lava moved on before and past us, down into the valley below, there was one large flow which was slowly coming down the cone and lapping its way directly towards us. But the distance was probably greater than it appeared, and the lava moved sluggishly, so that we were able to stand there until it was quite dark. It was a glorious sight. Behind us, down in the valley and off towards the plains, southward, it was pitchy black. Above, the clear blue sky was studded with stars. To the right, as we stood, the ridge of Somma, and to the left the Pompeian side of the cone, were white or rosy with the snow. Before us were the fiery masses of molten lava working their way down the cone, whose summit was wrapped with alternately black and lurid smoke; and at times, when the wind swept this smoke away from us, we could look to the very apex, and see the white-hot lava gurgling over and out of the crater.
All this while, dull, reverberating explosions burst upon us every three or four minutes, and, when the smoke permitted, we could see red stones shot up into the air like distant rockets; falling back, for the most part, into the crater, but occasionally on one side, and rolling down towards us.
It was intensely fascinating. Thorpe was quiet, — utterly absorbed in the contemplation of the scene, whose sombre magnificence excluded every other thought. When at length we spoke of the necessity of returning, he at first insisted that we should leave him, — that he wished to stay there all night. But when the lava had come as near us as we could suffer with safety, he yielded; we called our guides, and turned to descend.
As we did this, we entered and passed down through a snow-cloud, — a snowstorm, in fact, of some twenty minutes, — coming out again, below, into the clear starlight.
At the little shop where we had left our horses we were detained so long that we were strongly suspicious that it was for some sinister purpose. It was piercingly cold. Our guides pretended not to understand our inquiries for our horses and our insistence upon proceeding. There were half a dozen fellows around us, very models of brigands; and, late at night as it was, we felt it necessary carefully to avoid a quarrel, firmly to demand our horses, and to keep so closely together, back to back, that none of them could get behind any one of us.
This real or supposed danger was of the greatest advantage to Thorpe. It roused all his manliness; it suppressed every morbid tendency; it directed all his thoughts from himself to us and to the Italians. Finally, the game seemed to be played out, or whatever purpose they may have had was abandoned, for the horses came. We mounted at once and rode on. The storm-clouds, which had been snow above, now overtaking, settled down upon us in the form of heavy rain, so that by the time we reached Torre dell’ Annunziata we were drenched. The ride from thence brought us back to Naples by two o’clock in the morning; as a matter of course, tired out.
When we arose, late in the day, refreshed by sleep, Thorpe was bright and cheery. The spell had been effectually broken.
There was an English revenue cutter in port at the time, just returning to England. The two Englishmen secured, through their consul, permission to go in her ; and, a fortnight later, I learned that they had arrived home in excellent health and spirits.
Thorpe had seen Naples; he had enjoyed a rare, a most exceptional ascent of Vesuvius; and He whom he honored and served had restored his health in his journey, and lengthened his days.
Wm. Chauncy Langdon.