Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VI


THE sudden catastrophe which had, as it were, riven the very bonds of society, and left prisoner and jailer alike free, had soon rid Calenus of the guards to whose care the praetor had consigned him. And when the darkness and the crowd separated the priest from his attendants, he hastened with trembling steps towards the temple of his goddess. As he crept along, and ere the darkness was complete, he felt himself suddenly caught by the robe, and a voice muttered in his ear:

'Hist!—Calenus!—an awful hour!'

'Ay! by my father's head! Who art thou?—thy face is dim, and thy voice is strange.

'Not know thy Burbo?—fie!'

'Gods!—how the darkness gathers! Ho, ho!—by yon terrific mountain, what sudden blazes of lightning!'—How they dart and quiver! Hades is loosed on earth!'

'Tush!—thou believest not these things, Calenus! Now is the time to make our fortune!'


'Listen! Thy temple is full of gold and precious mummeries!—let us load ourselves with them, and then hasten to the sea and embark! None will ever ask an account of the doings of this day.'

'Burbo, thou art right! Hush, and follow me into the temple. Who cares now—who sees now—whether thou art a priest or not? Follow, and we will share.'

In the precincts of the temple were many priests gathered around the altars, praying, weeping, grovelling in the dust. Impostors in safety, they were not the less superstitious in danger! Calenus passed them, and entered the chamber yet to be seen in the south side of the court. Burbo followed him—the priest struck a light. Wine and viands strewed the table; the remains of a sacrificial feast.

'A man who has hungered forty-eight hours,' muttered Calenus, 'has an appetite even in such a time.' He seized on the food, and devoured it greedily. Nothing could perhaps, be more unnaturally horrid than the selfish baseness of these villains; for there is nothing more loathsome than the valor of avarice. Plunder and sacrilege while the pillars of the world tottered to and fro! What an increase to the terrors of nature can be made by the vices of man!

'Wilt thou never have done?' said Burbo, impatiently; 'thy face purples and thine eyes start already.'

'It is not every day one has such a right to be hungry. Oh, Jupiter! what sound is that?—the hissing of fiery water! What! does the cloud give rain as well as flame! Ha!—what! shrieks? And, Burbo, how silent all is now! Look forth!'

Amidst the other horrors, the mighty mountain now cast up columns of boiling water. Blent and kneaded with the half-burning ashes, the streams fell like seething mud over the streets in frequent intervals. And full, where the priests of Isis had now cowered around the altars, on which they had vainly sought to kindle fires and pour incense, one of the fiercest of those deadly torrents, mingled with immense fragments of scoria, had poured its rage. Over the bended forms of the priests it dashed: that cry had been of death—that silence had been of eternity! The ashes—the pitchy streams—sprinkled the altars, covered the pavement, and half concealed the quivering corpses of the priests!

'They are dead,' said Burbo, terrified for the first time, and hurrying back into the cell. 'I thought not the danger was so near and fatal.'

The two wretches stood staring at each other—you might have heard their hearts beat! Calenus, the less bold by nature, but the more griping, recovered first.

'We must to our task, and away!' he said, in a low whisper, frightened at his own voice. He stepped to the threshold, paused, crossed over the heated floor and his dead brethren to the sacred chapel, and called to Burbo to follow. But the gladiator quaked, and drew back.

'So much the better,' thought Calenus; 'the more will be my booty.' Hastily he loaded himself with the more portable treasures of the temple; and thinking no more of his comrade, hurried from the sacred place. A sudden flash of lightning from the mount showed to Burbo, who stood motionless at the threshold, the flying and laden form of the priest. He took heart; he stepped forth to join him, when a tremendous shower of ashes fell right before his feet. The gladiator shrank back once more. Darkness closed him in. But the shower continued fast—fast; its heaps rose high and suffocatingly—deathly vapors steamed from them. The wretch gasped for breath—he sought in despair again to fly—the ashes had blocked up the threshold—he shrieked as his feet shrank from the boiling fluid. How could he escape? he could not climb to the open space; nay, were he able, he could not brave its horrors. It were best to remain in the cells, protected, at least, from the fatal air. He sat down and clenched his teeth. By degrees, the atmosphere from without—stifling and venomous—crept into the chamber. He could endure it no longer. His eyes, glaring round, rested on a sacrificial axe, which some priest had left in the chamber: he seized it. With the desperate strength of his gigantic arm, he attempted to hew his way through the walls.

Meanwhile, the streets were already thinned; the crowd had hastened to disperse itself under shelter; the ashes began to fill up the lower parts of the town; but, here and there, you heard the steps of fugitives cranching them warily, or saw their pale and haggard faces by the blue glare of the lightning, or the more unsteady glare of torches, by which they endeavored to steer their steps. But ever and anon, the boiling water, or the straggling ashes, mysterious and gusty winds, rising and dying in a breath, extinguished these wandering lights, and with them the last living hope of those who bore them.

In the street that leads to the gate of Herculaneum, Clodius now bent his perplexed and doubtful way. 'If I can gain the open country,' thought he, 'doubtless there will be various vehicles beyond the gate, and Herculaneum is not far distant. Thank Mercury! I have little to lose, and that little is about me!'

'Holla!—help there—help!' cried a querulous and frightened voice. 'I have fallen down—my torch has gone out—my slaves have deserted me. I am Diomed—the rich Diomed—ten thousand sesterces to him who helps me!'

At the same moment, Clodius felt himself caught by the feet. 'Ill fortune to thee—let me go, fool,' said the gambler.

'Oh, help me up!—give me thy hand!'


'Is this Clodius? I know the voice! Whither fliest thou?'

'Towards Herculaneum.'

'Blessed be the gods! our way is the same, then, as far as the gate. Why not take refuge in my villa? Thou knowest the long range of subterranean cellars beneath the basement—that shelter, what shower can penetrate?'

'You speak well,' said Clodius musingly. 'And by storing the cellar with food, we can remain there even some days, should these wondrous storms endure so long.'

'Oh, blessed be he who invented gates to a city!' cried Diomed. 'See!—they have placed a light within yon arch: by that let us guide our steps.'

The air was now still for a few minutes: the lamp from the gate streamed out far and clear: the fugitives hurried on—they gained the gate—they passed by the Roman sentry; the lightning flashed over his livid face and polished helmet, but his stern features were composed even in their awe! He remained erect and motionless at his post. That hour itself had not animated the machine of the ruthless majesty of Rome into the reasoning and self-acting man. There he stood, amidst the crashing elements: he had not received the permission to desert his station and escape.

Diomed and his companion hurried on, when suddenly a female form rushed athwart their way. It was the girl whose ominous voice had been raised so often and so gladly in anticipation of 'the merry show'.

'Oh, Diomed!' she cried, 'shelter! shelter! See'—pointing to an infant clasped to her breast—'see this little one!—it is mine!—the child of shame! I have never owned it till this hour. But now I remember I am a mother! I have plucked it from the cradle of its nurse: she had fled! Who could think of the babe in such an hour, but she who bore it? Save it! save it!'

'Curses on thy shrill voice! Away, harlot!' muttered Clodius between his ground teeth.

'Nay, girl,' said the more humane Diomed; 'follow if thou wilt. This way—this way—to the vaults!'

They hurried on—they arrived at the house of Diomed—they laughed aloud as they crossed the threshold, for they deemed the danger over.

Diomed ordered his slaves to carry down into the subterranean gallery, before described, a profusion of food and oil for lights; and there Julia, Clodius, the mother and her babe, the greater part of the slaves, and some frightened visitors and clients of the neighborhood, sought their shelter.

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