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14. The Famine
The end of November is approaching. Nearly a month has elapsed since the
occurrence of the events mentioned in the last chapter, yet still the Gothic lines
stretch round the city walls. Rome, that we left haughty and luxurious even while
ruin threatened her at her gates, has now suffered a terrible and warning change.
As we approach her again, woe, horror, and desolation have already gone forth to
shadow her lofty palaces and to darken her brilliant streets.
Over Pomp that spurned it, over Pleasure that defied it, over Plenty that scared it
in its secret rounds, the spectre Hunger has now risen triumphant at last. Day by
day has the city's insufficient allowance of food been more and more sparingly
doled out; higher and higher has risen the value of the coarsest and simplest
provision; the hoarded supplies that pity and charity have already bestowed to
cheer the sinking people have reached their utmost limits. For the rich, there is
still corn in the city--treasure of food to be bartered for treasure of gold. For the
poor, man's natural nourishment exists no more; the season of famine's loathsome
feasts, the first days of the sacrifice of choice to necessity have darkly and
irretrievably begun.
It is morning. A sad and noiseless throng is advancing over the cold flagstones of
the great square before the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The members of the
assembly speak in whispers. The weak are tearful--the strong are gloomy--they all
move with slow and languid gait, and hold in their arms their dogs or other
domestic animals. On the outskirts of the crowd march the enfeebled guards of the
city, grasping in their rough hands rare favourite birds of gaudy plumage and
melodious note, and followed by children and young girls vainly and piteously
entreating that their favourites may be restored.
This strange procession pauses, at length, before a mighty caldron slung over a
great fire in the middle of the square, round which stand the city butchers with
bare knives, and the trustiest men of the Roman legions with threatening weapons.
A proclamation is then repeated, commanding the populace who have no money
left to purchase food, to bring up their domestic animals to be boiled together over
the public furnace, for the sake of contributing to the public support.
The next minute, in pursuance of this edict, the dumb favourites of the crowd
passed from the owner's caressing hand into the butcher's ready grasp. The faint
cries of the animals, starved like their masters, mingled for a few moments with
the sobs and lamentations of the women and children, to whom the greater part of
them belonged. For, in this the first stage of their calamities, that severity of
hunger which extinguishes pity and estranges grief was unknown to the populace;
and though fast losing spirit, they had not yet sunk to the depths of ferocious
despair which even now were invisibly opening between them. A thousand pangs
were felt, a thousand humble tragedies were acted, in the brief moments of
separation between guardian and charge. The child snatched its last kiss of the
bird that had sung over its bed; the dog looked its last entreaty for protection from
the mistress who had once never met it without a caress. Then came the short
interval of agony and death, then the steam rose fiercely from the greedy caldron,