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20. The Breach Repassed
Slowly and mournfully the sentinel at the rifted wall raised his eyes towards the
eastern clouds as they brightened before the advancing dawn. Desolate as was the
appearance of the dull, misty daybreak, it was yet the most welcome of all the
objects surrounding the starving soldier on which he could fix his languid gaze.
To look back on the city behind him was to look back on the dreary charnel-house
of famine and death; to look down on the waste ground without the walls was to
look down on the dead body of the comrade of his watch, who, maddened by the
pangs of hunger which he had suffered during the night, had cast himself from the
rampart to meet a welcome death on the earth beneath. Famished and despairing,
the sentinel crouched on the fortifications which he had now neither strength to
pace nor care to defend, yearning for the food that he had no hope to obtain, as he
watched the grey daybreak from his solitary post.
While he was thus occupied, the gloomy silence of the scene was suddenly broken
by the sound of falling brick-work at the inner base of the wall, followed by faint
entreaties for mercy and deliverance, which rose on his ear, strangely mingled
with disjointed expression of defiance and exultation from a second voice. He
slowly turned his head, and, looking down, saw on the ground beneath a young
girl struggling in the grasp of an old man, who was hurrying her onward in the
direction of the Pincian Gate.
For one moment the girl's eye met the sentinel's vacant glance, and she renewed,
with a last effort of strength, and a greater vehemence of supplication, her cries
for help; but the soldier neither moved nor answered. Exhausted as he was, no
sight could affect him now but the sight of food. Like the rest of the citizens, he
was sunk in a heavy stupor of starvation--selfish, reckless, brutalised. No disasters
could depress, no atrocities rouse him. Famine had torn asunder every social tie,
had withered every human sympathy among his besieged fellow- citizens, and he
was famishing like them.
At the moment when the dawn had first appeared, could he have looked down by
some mysterious agency to the interior foundations of the wall, from the rampart
on which he kept his weary watch, such a sight must then have presented itself as
would have aroused even his sluggish observation to rigid attention and
involuntary surprise.
Winding upward and downward among jagged masses of ruined brick-work, now
lost amid the shadows of dreary chasms, now prominent over the elevations of
rising arches, the dark irregular passages broken by Ulpius in the rotten wall
would then have presented themselves to his eyes; not stretching forth in dismal
solitude, not peopled only by the reptiles native to the place, but traced in all their
mazes by human forms. Then he would have perceived the fierce, resolute Pagan,
moving through darkness and obstacles with a sure, solemn progress, drawing
after him, like a dog devoted to his will, the young girl whose hapless fate had
doomed her to fall into his power. Her half-fainting figure might have been seen,
sometimes prostrate on the higher places of the breach, while her fearful guide