THE shade of the long green arbor of the Albergo del Sole invited me as I came out on the hot dusty road after my visit to the amphitheater of Pompeii. It was five in the afternoon and I had spent all day seeing the marvellous new part of old Pompeii, the street where walls are bright with signs and election notices, wine-shops display their amphorae, bronze pitchers and drinking-bowls, huge doors studded with great bronze nails swing on old hinges, rooms be-hind them open vistas of color on mosaic floor and frescoed wall, and dominating the street by her magnificence the Venus of Pompeii, come to life again in this uncovered painting, attended by her divine son, triumphantly drives four elephants before her chariot. The goddess had held my fancy while I walked over the amphitheater for last views of the great gray bowl sunk in the green hollow presided over by distant blue Vesuvius. Strange contrasts were in my mind, for I had just seen the last discovery in the Street of Abundance, five skeletons found under the roof of a house, persons evidently overcome while trying to escape there, each with a little money-bag of copper coins in his hand. There they lay in their pitiful ruin and on the wall down the street the Venus Pompeiana still rode in all her bright power. The triumph of art! Or is it that the gods alone are deathless?
So I had meditated, walking through the amphitheater, and now I was ready for my tea as I sat down at one of the little white tables in the vine-trellised arbor of the Albergo del Sole. A genial white-haired old man, whom I judged to be the host of the Inn, left his work among the flowers, received and delivered my order, then returned to training jasmine and roses over the Inn wall. Presently a sun-burned, large-eyed young woman brought my tray and was turning to leave quietly when my eyes fell upon an unusual amulet which she wore. Its large oval pictured in bright colors a Madonna and child, their heads crowned and surrounded with a circlet of stars and before them San Domenico and Santa Catarina, kneeling in astonished rapture. The Madonna wore a golden rosary.
“Stay a minute with me, please,” I said. “What is your name? Carmelita? Tell me about this picture that you wear. What Madonna is it?”
Her placid face instantly flashed – a happy response and as she pressed the amulet to her lips, she answered : . “Signorina, do you not know the Madonna of Pompeii, the Madonna of the Rosary? Have you not been to her shrine ?”
At her amazement over my “No,” I begged her, if she had time, to enlighten me while I drank my tea. So, standing where the sunlight flickered down through the grape-vine on her earnest and devout face, Carmelita told me her story.
“Years ago, Signorina, Valle di Pompeii was not a large town as you see it today, but just a little hamlet on the edge of the great estate of the young Count, and the Count’s chapel was very, very small, just large enough for the few families in the village to have their little service in, each Sunday. The Count then was always in Naples, for he is a very great Avvocato, Signorina, and the Countess is a noble lady whose family has lived in Naples for hundreds of years. One year not long ago, the Count was not well and he stayed all winter out on his estate at Valle di Pompeii, and my father says he remembers when it was, for that was the year when they found the picture of the goddess with the elephants in the scavi at old Pompeii (my father was one of the workmen digging there) and the year when the new Madonna came to the little chapel. Did you see the picture of the Venus with the elephants? The new scavi are not open to the public yet so I have never seen her. But the Madonna ! One morning when my father went in to say his prayers, there over the altar was this Madonna with the gold rosary and the stars, and the prayers that he made to her that day were all answered by nightfall, for Giuseppe paid him twenty lire he owed him and my headache stopped for the whole afternoon. I was just a little girl then and always sick, Signorina.
“My father told Giuseppe that his prayer was answered and Giuseppe laughed and laughed. He is a very wicked man and never goes to church, so it is no wonder that he is poor. He told my father terrible lies, making him promise not to repeat them, and I heard, for I was just inside the door, and could not help hearing. He said that this new picture of the Madonna had been for days in the window of an old Antiquarian’s shop in Naples which he passed every time he drove the mules in, and then it disappeared from the window, and one day the Count had told him when he brought out the next load of fertilizer to the estate, to stop at the Antiquarian’s shop for a package and bring it on top of the load. It was a very, very heavy package. He took it to the Count’s villa and in a few days, there was the Madonna f the Antiquarian’s window in Naples in the Count’s chapel at Valle di Pompeii. My father told him he was a wicked liar, but Giuseppe just went off laughing.
“Other people besides my father had their prayers to the Madonna answered, and then about a month later, a wonderful thing happened. A friend of the Countess, another great lady in Naples, was very, very ill. She had been thrown out f a carriage in an accident and no one could see where she was hurt, but all the time she cried and cried, and at night she did not sleep, and she had grown so thin that you could see through her hands. The Countess begged her to come out and try praying to the Madonna f the Rosary, so the beautiful, pale young lady came, and she knelt in the little old chapel (I saw her) and promised the Madonna that she would give her a golden crown if she would only make her well. The Madonna heard her prayer and from that moment, Signorina, the queer pains left her, she could sleep, and she did not cry at all. Every-one knew about the miracle because the golden crowns came, two, one for the Madonna and one for the Bambino. All the papers wrote about the cure and the splendid gifts. Then every Sunday people began to come out from Naples to the shrine, especially the sick people and every week someone was healed. After-wards everyone who was cured was so happy that he sent back or brought back some present to our Lady, and some very rich people who saw that the little chapel had no room for all who came gave money to build the great new church where I was cured.
“You must go and see it tomorrow, Signorina. Do you wish to hear what the Madonna did for me? When I was fourteen, my father died and I was alone, for my mother had gone long before, and I did not know what I would do. I had no money and no relatives, and I was very sick. I had worked hard to get my father’s meals and to help him sometimes in his work for the Padrone in the field. I worked even when my head ached and now it always ached and I was always coughing and very cold. I was in despair when my father died.
“The priest who came to see him before he died said he would get me a place in the Orfanotrofio f the Ma-donna’s sanctuary. The church was so rich now that the Count had built this home for orphan girls out f the gifts to our Lady. I was very unhappy and did not wish to leave our two little rooms where we lived and I lay on the bed very sick, crying, the day when my father had been buried, waiting for the Sister to come and get me. The Sisters are very kind to the girls at the Orphanage, but I could not take an interest in any-thing and I kept feeling more and more ill. I went to the church every day and said the prayers, but I said them only with my lips and they left me cold.
“One day all was different, Signorina. The Cardinal came out from Naples to the festa and all the girls from the Orphanage marched in the great procession through the town behind the cross and him. He blessed us all and in the church afterwards he preached a little sermon and told us that our god was a god f love, that the Blessed Virgin understood all women, that faith could remove mountains and the Madonna f the Rosary would answer our prayers. He pointed to the thousands f silver offerings on the panels f the church (you can see them there, Signorina), and said they were a cloud of witnesses to the power of the Madonna of the Rosary and as our faith so would be our strength; we had only to believe and ask what we needed most and our prayers would be answered.
“Signorina, the Cardinal was so big and wonderful in his red robe that I believed at last and I dropped on my knees, looking up to the Madonna’s picture and I prayed with all my heart to be cured and to have a little home f my own. It was very ungrateful of me, for the Sisters in the Orphanage were most kind, but the Blessed Madonna understood, and, Signorina, as I prayed and watched her, I saw, I really saw her face turn a little towards me, and she smiled, she smiled at me ! I knew then that my prayers were answered and I went out very happy. That night Giovanni who is the cameriere here at the Albergo asked me to marry him and I told him I would. I have never been sick since that moment of my prayer, Signorina. Do I not look well? Giovanni and I have given a silver heart to the Madonna and every day I look at it when I go to say my prayers and thank her again. You can see it, for it is the fourth heart in the top row of the third panel from the front on the right f the altar.
“If you are ever ill, Signorina, you have only to go and pray at our Shrine. You should go and buy an amulet now and the little book f prayers that the Count has written for us. He is always working for the church and never goes in to his office in Naples now. He has built little houses on his estate for the priests and for the people who work at the shrine and a little inn for the sick people who come, and he writes a great deal about the shrine and all the blessed work of our Lady. People from all over Italy come to the shrine, just as they go to Santa Rosalia’s on Monte Pellegrino in Palermo and to Lourdes in France. No one comes to see old Pompeii now without coming to see the wonder-working Madonna f Valle di Pompeii.
“Strange people come sometimes, Signorina. There was an English artist who stayed here at the Inn several days to paint and he wished to paint a picture f me. He said I must talk to him while he painted so I would look natural. I told him my story as I have you, and he became very much excited on hearing that the Ma-donna appeared and began her miracles the same day the fresco f the goddess with the elephants was discovered in old Pompeii. He told me such strange things, that the goddess f the elephants was a goddess f love with a little winged son, and she could make people do what she wished; that she loved flowers just as our Blessed Virgin does. You will see her painted among lilies and roses on the walls f the church. He said she was always the goddess of Pompeii and that he is sure when she was re-discovered in the Strada dell’ Abbondanza, as her picture came to light, her power was freed, and she appeared in just another form in our little chapel to be the goddess of Pompeii again, to work for the people, and to make the new city famous, and because she always was the goddess of love, she cured me by making me marry Giovanni.
“I did not know what to make of the story, so I told Giovanni about it and he said the Englishman was undoubtedly crazy, and we would both go that very night and pray together to the Madonna of the Rosary, and I was never again to think f the English artist or such nonsense. -So we went and prayed together for a child, Signorina, and now we have a beautiful baby girl, named Maria for the Blessed Virgin who cured me and gave me Giovanni and my home.”
It was time for me to start for the train to Naples, but as I promised Carmelita, on my way to the station I stopped at the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Rosary and as I knelt there for a moment with the great throng of devout worshippers and looked up at the beautiful queen of heaven, adorned with jewels, surrounded with flowers, I felt a strange sense of awe at the wonders of worship, of faith and of healing, and at the eternally new-old needs of the human soul for its god. Venus rediviva? No! But there remaineth still the mystery of religion, the unexplainable verity, the perennial belief in the miraculous powers of heaven, and it was passing strange to me that here in Pompeii where the Venus Pompeiana once reigned, I was now kneeling in the great church of the wonder-working Madonna of the Rosary.