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A Pair of Wheels and An Old Parasol by T. A. T.

The threads from which the tissue of history is being woven are ever in unceasing and rapid motion in the hands of the Fates. But these deities for the most part love to work unseen, like the bees. It is only when the spinning is going on with exceptional rapidity and vigor that the movements of the threads and the characteristics of the operation can be observed on the surface of social life, Such is the case in these days at Rome, and it is not necessary to watch the actions of governments or listen to the discussions of legislative chambers in order to assure one's self of the fact. One cannot walk the streets without having the phenomena which are the outward and visible signs of it thrust in a thousand ways on the observation of our senses. The other day I read a whole chapter of contemporary history compressed into the appearance of a pair of wheels engaged in their ordinary daily duty in the streets. It was in that central and crowded part of the city which is between the church of the Gesù and the Farnese palace, a labyrinth of tortuous streets and lanes, not often visited by foreigners unless when bent on some special expedition of sight-seeing. There are no sidewalks for foot-passengers in these streets. They are narrow, very tortuous and very crowded. Foot-passengers and vehicles of all sorts find their way along as best they may in one confused mass. It was there I saw the historic pair of wheels in question. They were attached to the barrow of a coster-monger, who was retailing a stock of onions, carrots and "cavolo Romano" which he had just purchased at the neighboring market of the "Campo de' Fiori." His wares, I fear, had been selected from the refuse of the market, and he and his barrow were in a state of dilapidated shabbiness that matched his stock in trade. But not so the wheels on which his barrow was supported. They were wheels of the most gorgeous description. The spokes and the circumference were painted of the most brilliant scarlet, and the entire nave was gilded so as to have the appearance of a solid mass of gold. It is impossible to imagine anything more bizarre than the effect of these magnificent wheels doing the work of carrying such an equipage. Nevertheless, the apparition seemed to attract very little attention in the crowded street. The grand scarlet and gilded wheels flamed along among the crowd of shabby men and shabby vehicles with their load of onions and cabbages, and scarcely anybody turned his head to stare at them. I suppose the denizens of the district were used to the apparition of them. To me they looked as if they had been the originals from which Guido Reni painted those of the car in which he has placed the celebrated Aurora of his world-famous fresco. They were solidly and heavily built wheels—very barbarous an English carriage-builder would have considered them in their heavy and clumsy magnificence—but they were very gorgeous. What could be the meaning of their appearance in public under such circumstances? I was walking with an Italian friend at the time, who saw my state of amazement at so strange a phenomenon, and explained it all by a single remark.

"Yes," said he, "there go a pair of His Eminence's wheels. They are sharing the fortunes of their late master in a manner that is at once dramatic and historical."

The wheels from a cardinal's carriage! Of course they were. How was it possible that such wheels should be mistaken for any other in the world? A few years ago, when pope and cardinals had not yet suffered the horrible eclipse which has overtaken them, one of the most notable features of the Roman streets and suburban roads used to consist of the carriages of the members of the Sacred College taking their diurnal drive. It was not etiquette for a cardinal to walk in the streets, or indeed anywhere else, without his carriage following him. There was no mistaking these barbarously gorgeous vehicles. They were all exactly like each other, and unlike any other carriages to be seen in the nineteenth century—heavy, clumsy, coarsely built and gorgeously painted of the most flaming scarlet, and largely gilded. They were drawn by long-tailed black horses covered with heavy harness richly plated with silver, or something that looked like it, and driven by a coachman whose livery, always as shabby as magnificent, was as heavily laden with huge masses of worsted lace of the kind that used to be placed on carriage-linings some five-and-twenty years ago. Two similarly bedizened footmen always stood on the monkey-board at the rear, who descended and walked behind His Eminence and his chaplain when the cardinal left his carriage to get his constitutional. Ichabod! Ichabod! The glory has departed! Such cavalcades are no longer to be seen crawling along the Via Appia, or following His Eminence on a fine and sunny afternoon about four o'clock as he walks on the footpath between the Porta Pia and the Basilica of St. Agnes in search of an appetite for his dinner. The world will never see such carriages and such servants any more. Fuit Ilium! I thought of the old lines on the "high—mettled racer," and of "imperial Cæsar, dead and turned to clay, stopping a hole to keep the wind away." To see such splendor reduced to the service of such vile uses! Yes, as my Italian friend said, "There go the cardinal's wheels," and it is impossible not to feel sure that the phenomenon is symbolical of the way the cardinal is going himself. When an institution, a dignity, a social arrangement of any sort, has grown to be purely ornamental, has become so splendid that its splendor has come to be the essence of it, it will no longer be able to exist shorn of its splendor, however much it may in its origin have been adapted for use rather than for show. The wheels were heavy, cumbrous and ill put together; they were not well adapted for the costermonger's purpose, and will probably fall to pieces before long. Their fate is a type of that of their once master. That ornamental individual, shorn of his ornamental character, is useless. His raison d'être is gone as entirely as Othello's occupation was. And it will probably not be long before the fate of the cardinal's wheels overtakes the cardinal himself.

The second little bit of street incident which recently occurred to me was in itself less striking, but seemed to me to symbolize changes of yet higher moment and wider significance. This time what I saw was in the Ghetto. Many of my readers probably know what the Ghetto at Rome is, but untraveled stayers-at-home may very excusably never have heard of it. The Ghetto is the Jews' quarter in Rome—the district in which they were for many generations compelled to reside and to be locked in by night, and where from habit the greater part, especially of the poorer members of the Jewish community, still live. As will be easily believed, it is the worst and most wretched quarter of the city—the lowest physically as well as morally—and inundated with tolerable certainty every year by the rising of the Tiber. The dilapidated and filthy streets of the other parts of old papal Rome used to look clean and spruce by comparison with the lurid and darksome dens of the Ghetto. There are Ghettos in London—streets where the children of Israel congregate, not in obedience to any law old or new, but drawn together by mutual attraction and similarity of occupation. And the occupations there are very much of the same nature as those pursued in the Ghetto of Rome—the buying and selling of old clothes and second-hand property of all sorts, the preparation and distribution of fried fish, and here and there a little usury. But the genius loci here impresses on the trade in discarded odds and ends a peculiar character of its own. A much larger number of old pictures figure among the hoards of useless "property" than would be the case elsewhere. The constant decay of noble and once wealthy families furnishes to the second-hand market a much more abundant supply of the remains of articles that were once rich and rare in their day—old damask hangings torn from walls that have witnessed the princely revelry of many a generation; rich brocades and stuffs that have made part of the moving pageant in the same saloons; lace of the finest and rarest from the vestments of deceased prelates, whose heirs, as regards such property, have probably been their serving-men; purple and scarlet articles from the wardrobes of cardinals and princes of the Church; and odds and ends of various sorts widely different in kind from aught that could be found in similar repositories in other cities. And another specialty of the Roman Ghetto is that it is not altogether easy to obtain a sight of the miscellaneous treasures of this rag-fair. Partly because the low-lying and narrow lanes of the Ghetto are too murky and filthy to permit of the advantageous exposure of the merchandise in question; partly, probably, from an habitual consciousness on the part of the dealers that the details of their traffic in all its particulars are not of a nature to be safely submitted to the public eye; partly from that secretiveness which is the natural result of living for many generations from father to son under the tyranny of an alien race, whose bitterly hostile prejudices were but little restrained by law or justice; and partly also, no doubt, from the genuine Roman laziness, which in its perfection is capable of overriding even Jewish keenness of trade,—the Jew brokers of the Ghetto are often unwilling to show their hidden stores to the first comer. Some amount of diplomacy and some show of the probability of effecting an advantageous deal must be had recourse to in order to attain the purpose of the explorer.

On the recent occasion to which I have referred these difficulties had been overcome, and I had made my way into the interior of one of the dens I have described in the company of a lady friend who is a confirmed and irreclaimable lace-hunter, and who in pursuit of her game would have confronted worse obstacles than any that we had to encounter. For, in truth, the exterior appearance and the entrance-chambers are the worst part of the Ghetto dwellings. One is curiously reminded of the old mediæval stories of Jewish dwellings, where the utmost squalor and poverty of exterior was a mere blind for an interior gorgeous with every manifestation of wealth and luxury. I will not say that much of the latter is to be found in the dwellings of the Ghetto, but a degree of comfortable decency and indications of the possession of capital may be met with which the exterior appearances would not have led one to anticipate. Well, we had reached the third floor of one of these sinister-looking abodes, conducted by a fat old Jewess with a pair of huge black eyes, a large smooth face as yellow as a guinea, and a vast development of bust clad in dirty white wrappers of some sort. A door on the landing-place jealously locked with two huge keys admitted us into a suite of three good-sized rooms crammed from floor to ceiling with a collection of articles more heterogeneous than can easily be conceived—far more so than can be described.

Those who have ever accompanied a lady lace-hunter when she has struck a promising trail know that the business in hand is likely to be a somewhat long one. My companion on the present occasion very soon convinced the Jewess that she knew quite as much about the matter as she, the dealer, did. But I presume that some of the old yellow stores produced were "the real thing;" for my friend and the old Jewess soon became immersed in an eager and, as it seemed to me interminable, discussion as to qualities, condition and values. Meantime, I had to amuse myself as best I might by looking at the multifarious objects. I must content myself with mentioning one article, the appearance of which in such a place struck me as strange and not a little significant. It was simply an old parasol, very much faded and a little tattered, but not such a parasol as your fair hands ever carried, my dear madam, nor such as the once equally fair hands of any generation of your ancestors ever carried. The article in question was more like the shelter which we see represented in Chinese paintings as carried over the heads of persons of high rank among the Celestials. It was very large, not much curved into the shape of a dome when expanded, very clumsily and coarsely put together, but of gorgeous magnificence of material. It was made of a very thick and rich damask silk, additionally ornamented by embroidery in gold and silver thread, and the handle and points of the supports were richly gilt. In a word, I perceived at once, not being a novice in such matters, that the article before me was one of the canopies used for holding over the "Host" when the holy sacrament is carried by the priest through the streets to a dying person. It needs but a moment's reflection on the Roman Catholic theory of the sacrament of the "Last Supper" to be aware of the extremely sacred nature of the uses to which this parasol had been put, and of the associations connected with it. Nevertheless, I found this bit of sacred church property in the hands of a Jew broker, exposed to sale for a few francs to the first comer, heretic, scoffer or infidel, that might take a fancy to buy it. This would hardly have been the case when the pope was absolute master of Rome and of all in it. The thing could not have happened save by the dishonesty and cynical disbelief of some priest, and indeed probably of more than one. And, upon the whole, it struck me as a second curious indication of the somewhat breakneck speed with which the threads of history are spinning themselves in these days and in these latitudes.