21. Father And Child
Forsaken as it appears on an outward view, during the morning of which we now
write, the house of Numerian is yet not tenantless. In one of the sleeping
apartments, stretched on his couch, with none to watch by its side, lies the master
of the little dwelling. We last beheld him on the scene mingled with the famishing
congregation in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, still searching for his child amid
the confusion of the public distribution of food during the earlier stages of the
misfortunes of besieged Rome. Since that time he has toiled and suffered much;
and now the day of exhaustion, long deferred, the hours of helpless solitude,
constantly dreaded, have at length arrived.
From the first periods of the siege, while all around him in the city moved
gloomily onward through darker and darker changes, while famine rapidly
merged into pestilence and death, while human hopes and purposes gradually
diminished and declined with each succeeding day, he alone remained ever
devoted to the same labour, ever animated by the same object--the only one
among all his fellow-citizens whom no outward event could influence for good or
evil, for hope or fear.
In every street of Rome, at all hours, among all ranks of people, he was still to be
seen constantly pursuing the same hopeless search. When the mob burst furiously
into the public granaries to seize the last supplies of corn hoarded for the rich, he
was ready at the doors watching them as they came out. When rows of houses
were deserted by all but the dead, he was beheld within, passing from window to
window, as he sought through each room for the treasure that he had lost. When
some few among the populace, in the first days of the pestilence, united in the
vain attempt to cast over the lofty walls the corpses that strewed the street, he
mingled with them to look on the rigid faces of the dead. In solitary places, where
the parent, not yet lost to affection, strove to carry his dying child from the desert
roadway to the shelter of a roof; where the wife, still faithful to her duties,
received her husband's last breath in silent despair--he was seen gliding by their
sides, and for one brief instant looking on them with attentive and mournful eyes.
Wherever he went, whatever he beheld, he asked no sympathy and sought no aid.
He went his way, a pilgrim on a solitary path, an unregarded expectant for a boon
that no others would care to partake.
When the famine first began to be felt in the city, he seemed unconscious of its
approach--he made no effort to procure beforehand the provision of a few days'
sustenance; if he attended the first public distributions of food, it was only to
prosecute his search for his child amid the throng around him. He must have
perished with the first feeble victims of starvation, had he not been met, during his
solitary wanderings, by some of the members of the congregation whom his piety
and eloquence had collected in former days.