In climbing Vesuvius it is best to set out in the morning, the earlier the better, unless one takes the railway as far as the foot of the crater. In making the ascent a carriage insures the greater comfort, but the view is better and one can climb higher on horseback. Until the lava is reached, so smooth is the road and so gradual the rise, that bicycles may be used to good advantage to the height of one thousand feet. In coming down there is a ten mile slope along the coast on which a wheel glides like the light.
Our party of four started out on horseback, and it was scarcely light when we began our journey. We went on a brisk trot most of the way, each one trying to pass the others. The horses we rode were small, bony affairs, and, if our feelings when we dismounted were to be relied upon, they were like turtles and wore their skeletons on the outside.
Now, unless you have seen this locality, you can-not have a very satisfactory idea of its essential features, and a careful and intelligent study of this scene is, therefore, worth the reading of many volumes.
We are now facing east. Part of the ground between here and the summit was overflowed by streams of lava only a little over one hundred years ago (1794). The fearful eruption of 1906 sent clouds of volcanic dust over this way, but the lava-flow ran down the farther (east) side of the mountain and down its southern side, i. e., the one towards the right.
After having taken a good look at Vesuvius, you will want to know what this white building is, the one just the other side of the roadway. It is a way-side chapel, of which there are many in Italy, and it was built in commemoration of the victims, members of a party of spectators, who perished here during an eruption of the volcano a number of years ago. At that time, 1872, amidst terrific thundering, the crater poured forth huge volumes of vapor, mingled with glowing stones and lava, to a height of nearly five thousand feet. An inscription over the entrance records the tragedy. Above the inscription you may see a shrine of the Virgin. The façade of the little structure is decorated by a cross and a diminutive belfry. The only window in the building is a circular, grated one beneath the cross and, except for the presence of an altar, the interior is destitute of furniture. A spring issues from the farther extremity of the right wall and you can see two thirsty wayfarers refreshing themselves with its cool and sparkling waters. Almost as far as eye can see, except on the summit of that fiery mountain, are luxuriant vineyards interspersed with gardens and villas ; for, in spite of repeated warnings, these slopes are all inhabited and cultivated on account of the extraordinary fertility of the soil. From some of these hill-tops delightful views of the bay are obtained, and the choicest of fruit is raised here, for, remember, we are
“In lands where the olives grow, Where the sun with a golden mouth can blow Blue bubbles of grapes down a vineyard row.”
To the left of the cross upon the little chapel, you will notice a fine old stone house crowning one of the noblest spurs of Vesuvius, and commanding a superb view of the surrounding country.
There is a legend connected with that house which our guide related to us in his enthusiastic and impressive way, as we lingered about this wayside spring that gushes forth from the white wall of the little chapel. As nearly as I can recollect it, this is the story that he told. When Paul, the Christian philosopher and preacher, was being brought a prisoner to Rome the ship touched at Puteoli (Pozzuoli on our map, about ten miles to the west of Naples, on the coast). Hardly had the anchor been let go when the centurion summoned his noted prisoner and said, ” We stay here seven days. If you desire you may visit Naples, but accompanied by a soldier.” Paul gladly accepted the invitation, for there was a handful of Christians in the place, and he longed to see them that he might cheer and strengthen their hearts. So he sought out his brethren in the faith and that night they sat together in unity. Thus the apostle came to Naples and the followers of the Nazarene were made glad by his coming. But the temples and the theaters of the city, its mad swirl of pleasure and its gay and giddy throngs wearied him, and his feet turned away from its clamor and its frivolity and sought the majestic solitude and the inspiring grandeur of the then calm Vesuvius. Then there was no terror in its mien or in its name ; no cloud of destruction hung above it, not a sign that there was an awful fire within. Only floods of golden sun-light rested upon its brow, and dwellings, simple yet adorned with every comfort, nestled upon its shoulders of perpetual bloom. Somewhat exhausted by his long walk and heated by what had now begun to be an arduous climb, he sat down, according to tradition, to rest upon the threshold of yonder house ; and, beside him, stern, silent, Herculean, sat the Roman soldier. The owner of the house, an old man with silvery hair, when he saw the stranger, stopped his work among his vines and came forward to meet him, thinking at first he must be some distinguished personage for he had caught sight of the flash of the soldier’s helmet and the gleam of the scabbard in which hung his short sword. Judge of his surprise when he beheld a man, bent and round shouldered, not old, but worn with labor and with care, with eyes so weak that he shaded them continually from the sun, and yet with a genial light in them that spoke of a noble and sympathetic soul. The heart of the old man was touched at the sight of this gracious yet battered man and he invited him to come under his roof. Paul accepted the invitation and the soldier, who never left his side, followed his prisoner into the house. Then the daughter brought forth the fruits of the field and the vine, and the real ” lacrymae,” to be recognized ever by its deep, rich color and its exquisite bouquet. Paul praised the wine and said, ” For years it has been as though I were tossed on a wild and wintry sea and felt the full brunt of its surges and its storms. I fear I shall not endure it long, no man could, and this wine “- and he held it from him in a broad stream of sunlight that entered the room, turning the precious liquid into a ruby gold -” this wine pours new life and gladness into me. It is strange, since I do not usually care for wine.” Then spake the host, and while in silence his face took on an expression of beautiful repose, when he spoke, light seemed to stream through every pore and his countenance was fascinating to behold. ” Its origin, too, is of the strangest, and, as yet, I cannot understand it. One day, many years gone now, I was coming from my vineyard when I met a young man seated just where I found you to-day; he had golden locks and curly beard and a brow as white as a lily. He was clothed as a Hebrew, but beautiful as a son of a god and not unlike Dionysus. The young man, who sat looking over the land and the ever widening shores and the vanishing sea, remarked that this spot was a bit of the glory of paradise ; and, as he spoke, he wept at the thought of the sin and suffering with which the world was filled. After he had departed, there sprang up from the ground upon which his tears had fallen a vine, which grew with remarkable vigor and rapidity and bore the grapes that made the wine that you are now drinking. Since that day I have pondered long over the matter and I have my own thoughts about the youth; a god has honored the earth with his presence. He was Dionysus, the giver of the grape and son of the supreme god.”
” I think with you,” assented the soldier gruffly as he emptied his goblet, and these were the only words he had as yet spoken.
” You are both right,” said the apostle, ” for God’s son he assuredly was, and a noble, life-giving wine He has given us, similar, I should say from what the other apostles have told me, to that He made at Cana of Galilee, and I drink the cup in memory of Him.”
” You know Him, then, you also? ”
” Yes, even to me He has appeared on the earth, not as Dionysus, but as Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the Living God.”
” Jesus of Nazareth? He did so name himself!” cried the old man, passing his hand over his fore-head as if he would revive a half-forgotten memory.
“Would you care to hear more of him ? ” asked the apostle, and both father and daughter and even the rough soldier cried as if in one voice, ” Yes, tell us all you know ! ”
And Paul began to speak, beginning with his experience on the road to Damascus when, in one high noon-time, he saw Him face to face ; and he was still speaking when the sun sank behind Ischia and flooded the sea and its hovering sails with the purple light of evening. Before him sat the three earnest listeners ; the old man dignified and noble, the soldier with his grim but eager bearing, and the lovely daughter drinking in every word’ that fell from the apostle’s lips with rapt and angelic countenance. It grew dark, the lamp was lighted, and still the converted Jew spoke on, until the shadows of the long night were hidden away in the rosy folds of another day. Before he departed, he had baptized the whole household, and even the soldier, who ever after guarded him in the name of the Lord Christ; and as for the wine, it was ever after called ” lacrymae Christi.”
As we left the wayside chapel, peasants crowded about us and offered what they called ” lacrymae Christi ” for one franc a bottle, but I fear it was not genuine, at any rate we did not buy any. We shall stand next upon the second ridge in front of us, the one beyond the two white villas. Further to the right, through the haze, you may catch a glimpse of the railroad that climbs the mountain side.