An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius by Bulwer
The following magnificent description of perhaps the most
awful phenomenon in nature, gives full scope for almost every
tone and gesture. Care should, however, be taken that the
natural grandeur of the subject be not marred by a stilted,
pompous, or affected delivery. Let the speaker try to realize the
thought and feelings of a spectator of the dark scene of desolation,
and he cannot go amiss:
HE eyes of the crowd beheld, with ineffable dismay,
a vast vapour shooting from the summit of
Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the
trunk, blackness; the branches, fire, that shifted
and wavered in its hues with every moment: now
fiercely luminous, now of a dull and dying red, that
again blazed terrifically forth with intolerable glare.
Then there arose on high the universal shrieks of
women; the men stared at each other, but were
dumb. At that moment they felt the earth shake
beneath their feet; the walls of the theatre trembled;
and beyond, in the distance, they heard the crash of
falling roofs. An instant more, and the mountain-cloud
seemed to roll toward them, dark and rapid
like a torrent; at the same time it cast forth from its
bosom a shower of ashes, mixed with fragments of
burning stone! Over the crushing vines, over the
desolate streets, over the amphitheatre itself,—far
and wide,—with many a mighty splash in the agitated
sea, fell that awful shower!
The cloud advanced, darker, disgorging showers
of ashes and pumice stones; and, amid 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.
The cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness
over the day, at length settled into a solid and
impenetrable mass. But in proportion as the blackness
gathered did the lightnings around Vesuvius
increase in their vivid and scorching glare.
Nor was their horrible beauty confined to their hues
of fire. Now brightly blue, as the most azure depth
of a southern sky; now of a livid and snake-like
green, darting restlessly
and fro, as the folds of
an enormous serpent; now of a lurid and intolerable
crimson, gushing forth through the columns of smoke
far and wide, and lighting up all Pompeii; then suddenly
dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of
its own life!
In the pauses of the showers were heard the
rumbling of the earth beneath, and the groaning
waves of the tortured sea; or, lower still, and audible
but to the watch of intensest fear, the grinding and
hissing murmur of the escaping gases through the
chasms of the distant mountain.
The ashes, in many places, were already knee-deep;
and in some places immense fragments of
rock, hurled upon the house-roofs, bore down along
the streets masses of confused ruin, which yet more
and more, with every hour, obstructed the way; and,
as the day advanced, the motion of the earth was
more sensibly felt; the footing seemed to slide and
creep, nor could chariot or litter be kept steady, even
on the most level ground.
Sometimes the huger stones, striking against each
other as they fell, broke into countless fragments,
emitting sparks of fire, which caught whatever was
combustible within their reach; and along the plains
beyond the city the darkness was now terribly relieved,
for several houses and even vineyards had been
set on flames; and at various intervals the fire rose
fiercely and sullenly against the solid gloom. The
citizens had endeavoured to place rows of torches in
the most frequented spots; but these rarely continued
long; the showers and the wind extinguished them.
Suddenly arose an intense and lurid glow. Bright
and gigantic through the darkness which closed
around it, the mountain shone, a pile of fire! Its
summit seemed riven in two; or rather, above its surface,
there seemed to rise two monster-shapes, each
confronting each, as demons contending for a world.
These were of one deep blood-red hue of fire, which
lighted up the whole atmosphere; but below, the
nether part of the mountain was still dark and
shrouded, save in three places, adown which flowed
serpentine, and irregular rivers of molten lava.
Darkly red through the profound gloom of their
banks, they flowed slowly on, as towards the devoted
city. And through the still air was heard the rattling
of the fragments of rock, hurling one upon another,
as they were borne down the fiery cataracts, darkening
for one instant the spot where they fell, and
suffused the next in the burnished hues of the flood
along which they floated!
Suddenly a duller shade fell over the air; and one
of the two gigantic crests into which the summit had
been divided, rocked and waved to and fro; and
then, with a sound, the mightiness of which no
language can describe, it fell from its burning base,
and rushed, an avalanche of fire, down the sides of
the mountain. At the same instant gushed forth a
volume of blackest smoke, rolling on, over air, sea
and earth. Another, and another, and another
shower of ashes, far more profuse than before, scattered
fresh desolation along the streets, and darkness
once more wrapped them as a veil.
The whole elements of civilization were broken up.
If in the darkness, wife was separated from husband,
or parent from child, vain was the hope of reunion.
Each hurried blindly and confusedly on. Nothing
was left save the law of self-preservation.