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Chapter 31

THE BURIED CITY OF POMPEII

They pronounce it Pom-pay-e. 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 the kind.
Fully one-half 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 waiting of the
labored mosaics that pictured them with the beasts, and birds, and
flowers which we copy in perishable carpets to-day; and here are the
Venuses, and Bacchuses, and Adonises, making love and getting drunk in
many-hued frescoes on the walls of saloon and bed-chamber; 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 Pompeiians of by-gone centuries; and there are
the bake-shops, the temples, the halls of justice, the baths, the
theatres--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 doorless 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 Pompeiian 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 tax-payers? 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 Minerva, 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 hat-rack, 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 stuccoed, 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 Pompeiians 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, eighteen or nineteen centuries old, are
often much more pleasing than the celebrated rubbish of the old masters
of three centuries ago. They were well up in art. From the creation of
these works of the first, clear up to the eleventh century, art seems
hardly to have existed at all--at least no remnants of it are left--and
it was curious to see how far (in some things, at any rate,) these old
time pagans excelled the remote generations of masters that came after
them. The pride of the world in sculptures seem to be the Laocoon and
the Dying Gladiator, in Rome. They are as old as Pompeii, were dug from
the earth like Pompeii; but their exact age or who made them can only be
conjectured. But worn, and cracked, without a history, and with the
blemishing stains of numberless centuries upon them, they still mutely
mock at all efforts to rival their perfections.

It was a quaint and curious pastime, wandering through this old silent
city of the dead--lounging through utterly deserted streets where
thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked
and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of
traffic and pleasure. They were not lazy. They hurried in those days.
We had evidence of that. There was a temple on one corner, and it was a
shorter cut to go between the columns of that temple from one street to
the other than to go around--and behold that pathway had been worn deep
into the heavy flagstone floor of the building by generations of
time-saving feet! They would not go around when it was quicker to go
through. We do that way in our cities.

Every where, you see things that make you wonder how old these old houses
were before the night of destruction came--things, too, which bring back
those long dead inhabitants and place the living before your eyes. For
instance: The steps (two feet thick--lava blocks) that lead up out of the
school, and the same kind of steps that lead up into the dress circle of
the principal theatre, are almost worn through! For ages the boys
hurried out of that school, and for ages their parents hurried into that
theatre, and the nervous feet that have been dust and ashes for eighteen
centuries have left their record for us to read to-day. I imagined I
could see crowds of gentlemen and ladies thronging into the theatre, with
tickets for secured seats in their hands, and on the wall, I read the
imaginary placard, in infamous grammar, "POSITIVELY NO FREE LIST, EXCEPT
MEMBERS OF THE PRESS!" Hanging about the doorway (I fancied,) were
slouchy Pompeiian street-boys uttering slang and profanity, and keeping a
wary eye out for checks. I entered the theatre, and sat down in one of
the long rows of stone benches in the dress circle, and looked at the
place for the orchestra, and the ruined stage, and around at the wide
sweep of empty boxes, and thought to myself, "This house won't pay." I
tried to imagine the music in full blast, the leader of the orchestra
beating time, and the "versatile" So-and-So (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 for ever--"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 bake-shop was a mill for grinding the grain, and the furnaces for
baking the bread: and they say that here, in the same furnaces, the
exhumers 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 scintillations 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
water-spout 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 door-plates affixed to them: and in the same way you can
tell who they were that occupy the tombs. Every where 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 Pompeiian 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 can not 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 staid,--because the warrior
instinct forbade him to fly. Had he been a policeman he would have
staid, 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 Venetians, the Genoese 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 unpoetical 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 moonless 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 this
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 Baiae, 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 unsubstantial, unlasting
character of fame. Men lived long lives, in the olden time, and
struggled feverishly through them, toiling like slaves, in oratory, in
generalship, 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 snuffy 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 of General Grant's great name
forty centuries hence? This--in the Encyclopedia for A. D. 5868,
possibly:

"URIAH S. (or Z.) GRAUNT--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 Ah-ah Foo-foo states
that he was a cotemporary 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 to bed.

Mark Twain