BOOK THE FIFTH
7. Chapter VII
THE PROGRESS OF THE DESTRUCTION.
THE cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day, had now
settled into a solid and impenetrable mass. It resembled less even the
thickest gloom of a night in the open air than the close and blind darkness
of some narrow room. 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 the usual hues of fire; no rainbow
ever rivalled their varying and prodigal dyes. Now brightly blue as the
most azure depth of a southern sky--now of a livid and snakelike green,
darting restlessly to 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 the whole city from arch to arch--then
suddenly dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of their own life!
In the pauses of the showers, you 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. Sometimes the
cloud appeared to break from its solid mass, and, by the lightning, to
assume quaint and vast mimicries of human or of monster shapes, striding
across the gloom, hurtling one upon the other, and vanishing swiftly into
the turbulent abyss of shade; so that, to the eyes and fancies of the
affrighted wanderers, the unsubstantial vapors were as the bodily forms of
gigantic foes--the agents of terror and of death.
The ashes in many places were already knee-deep; and the boiling showers
which came from the steaming breath of the volcano forced their way into the
houses, bearing with them a strong and suffocating vapor. 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.