Every one knows what kind of summer we had in Naples in 1884. The newspapers of all lands teemed with the story of its horrors. The cholera walked abroad like a destroying demon; under its withering touch scores of people, young and old, dropped down in the streets to die. The fell disease, born of dirt and criminal neglect of sanitary precautions, gained on the city with awful rapidity, and worse even than the plague was the unreasoning but universal panic. The never-to-be-forgotten heroism of King Humbert had its effect on the more educated classes, but among the low Neapolitan populace, abject fear, vulgar superstition, and utter selfishness reigned supreme. One case may serve as an example of many others. A fisherman, well known in the place, a handsome and popular young fellow, was seized, while working in his boat, with the first symptoms of cholera. He was carried to his mother’s house. The old woman, a villainous-looking hag, watched the little procession as it approached her dwelling, and taking in the situation at once, she shut and barricaded her door.
“Santissima Madonna!” she yelled, shrilly, through a half-opened window. “Leave him in the street, the abandoned, miserable one! The ungrateful pig! He would bring the plague to his own hard-working, honest mother! Holy Joseph! who would have children? Leave him in the street, I tell you!”
It was useless to expostulate with this feminine scarecrow; her son was, happily for himself, unconscious, and after some more wrangling he was laid down on her doorstep, where he shortly afterward expired, his body being afterward carted away like so much rubbish by the beccamorti.
The heat in the city was intense. The sky was a burning dome of brilliancy, the bay was still as a glittering sheet of glass. A thin column of smoke issuing from the crater of Vesuvius increased the impression of an all-pervading, though imperceptible ring of fire, that seemed to surround the place. No birds sung save in the late evening, when the nightingales in my gardens broke out in a bubbling torrent of melody, half joyous, half melancholy. Up on that wooded height where I dwelt it was comparatively cool. I took all precautions necessary to prevent the contagion from attacking our household; In fact, I would have left the neighborhood altogether, had I not known that hasty flight from an infected district often carries with it the possibility of closer contact with the disease. My wife, besides, was not nervous—I think very beautiful women seldom are. Their superb vanity is an excellent shield to repel pestilence; it does away with the principal element of danger—fear. As for our Stella, a toddling mite of two years old, she was a healthy child, for whom neither her mother nor myself entertained the least anxiety.
Guido Ferrari came and stayed with us, and while the cholera, like a sharp scythe put into a field of ripe corn, mowed down the dirt-loving Neapolitans by hundreds, we three, with a small retinue of servants, none of whom were ever permitted to visit the city, lived on farinaceous food and distilled water, bathed regularly, rose and retired early, and enjoyed the most perfect health.