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seemed, as it were, to run disturbedly back from the shore; while along the blue and stately river Sarnus
whose ancient breadth of channel the traveler now vainly seeks to discover — there crept a hoarse and sullen murmur, as it glided by the laughing plains and the gaudy villas of the wealthy citizens.
Clear above the low mist rose the time-worn towers of the immemorial town, the red-tiled roofs of the bright streets, the solemn columns of many temples, and the statue-crowned portals of the Forum and the Arch of Triumph.
Far in the distance, the outline of the circling hills soared above the vapors, and mingled with the changeful hues of the morning sky. The cloud that had rested so long over the crest of Vesuvius had suddenly vanished, and its rugged and haughty brow looked without a frown over the beautiful scenes below.
Despite the earliness of the hour, the gates of the city were already opened. Horseman upon horseman, vehicle after vehicle, poured rapidly in; and the voices of numerous pedestrian groups, clad in holiday attire, rose high in joyous and excited merriment; the streets were crowded with strangers from the populous neighborhood of Pompeii; and noisily, fast, confusedly, swept the many streams of life toward the fatal show.
Despite the vast size of the amphitheater, seemingly so disproportioned to the extent of the city, and formed to include nearly the whole population of Pompeii itself, so great was the concourse of strangers from all parts of Campania, that the space before the building was usually crowded for several hours previous to the commencement of the sports by such persons as were not entitled by their rank to appointed and special seats. And the intense curiosity, which the trial and sentence of two criminals so remarkable had occasioned, increased the crowd on this day to an extent wholly unprecedented.
It was an awful and imposing spectacle, with which modern times have, happily, nothing to compare; a vast theater, rising row upon row, and swarming with human beings, from fifteen to eighteen thousand in number, intent upon no fictitious representation, no tragedy of the stage, but the actual victory or defeat, the exultant life or the bloody death, of each and all who entered the arena.
The lion had been kept without food twenty-four hours, and the animal had, during the whole morning, testified a singular and restless uneasiness, which the keeper had attributed to the pangs of hunger. Yet its bearing seemed rather that of fear than of rage ; its roar was painful and distressed; it hung its head, snuffed the air through the bars; then lay down; started again, — and again uttered its wild and farresounding cries. And now, in its den, it lay utterly dumb and mute, with distended nostrils forced hard against the grating, and disturbing, with a heaving breath, the sand below on the arena,
The manager's lip quivered, and his cheek grew pale; he looked anxiously around'; hesitated; delayed; the crowd became impatient. Slowly he gave the sign. The keeper, who was behind the den, cautiously removed the grating, and the lion leaped forth with a mighty and glad roar of release. The keeper hastily retreated through the grated passage leading from the arena, and left the lord of the forest — and his prey.
But, to the unutterable astonishment of all, the beast seemed not even aware of the presence of the criminal. ... It evinced no sign, either of wrath or hunger; its tail drooped along the sand, instead of lashing its gaunt sides; and its eye, though it wandered at times to the victim, rolled again listlessly from him. At length, as if tired of attempting to escape, it crept with a moan into its cage, and once more laid itself down to rest.
The people had been already rendered savage by the exhibition of blood. The power of the pretor was as a reed beneath the whirlwind.
In despair, and in a terror which beat down even pride, Arbaces glanced his eyes over the rolling and rushing crowd ; when, right above them, through the wide chasm which had been left in the valeria, he beheld a strange and awful apparition. He stretched his hand on high. “Behold!” he shouted with a voice of thunder, “behold how the gods protect the guiltless !”
The eyes of the crowd followed the gesture, and beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapor shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine tree; the trunk, blackness, — the branches, fire; a fire that shifted and wavered every moment, now fiercely luminous, now of a dull and dying red, that again blazed terrifically forth with intolerable glare.
There was a dead, heart-sunken silence, through which there suddenly broke the roar of the lion, which was echoed back from within the building by the sharper and fiercer yells of its fellow-beast. Dread seers were they of the Burden of the Atmosphere, and wild prophets of the wrath to come!
Then there arose on high the universal shrieks of women; the men stared at each other, but were dumb. At that moment they felt the earth shake beneath their feet; the walls of the theater trembled ; and, beyond in the distance, they heard the crash of falling roofs; an instant more, and the mountain cloud seemed to roll toward them, dark and rapid, like a torrent; at the same time it cast forth from its bosom a shower of ashes mixed with vast fragments of burning stone! Over the crushing vines; over the desolate streets; over the amphitheater itself; far and wide, with many a mighty splash in the agitated sea, — fell that awful shower!
No longer the crowd thought of justice or of Arbaces; safety for themselves was
their only thought. Each turned to fly; each dashing, pressing, crushing, against the other. Trampling recklessly over the fallen, amidst groans, and oaths, and prayers, and sudden shrieks, the enormous crowd vomited itself forth through the numerous passages.
Whither should they fly? Some, anticipating a second earthquake, hastened to their homes to load themselves with their more costly goods, and escape while it was yet time; others, dreading the showers of ashes that now fell fast, torrent upon torrent, over the streets, rushed under the roofs of the nearest houses, or temples, or sheds, - shelter of any kind, — for protection from the terrors of the open air. But darker, and larger, and mightier, spread the cloud above them. It was a sudden and more ghastly Night rushing upon the realm of Noon! Meanwhile the streets were already thinned; the crowd had hastened to disperse itself under shelter; the ashes began to fill the lower parts of the town. But here and there might be heard the steps of fugitives cranching warily, or there might be seen their pale and haggard faces by the blue glare of the lightning, or the more unsteady glare of torches, by which they endeavored to steer their steps. But ever and anon, the boiling water, or the straggling ashes, mysterious and gusty winds rising and dying in a breath, extinguished these wandering lights, and with them the last hope of those who bore them. [Abridgment.]
EDWARD BULWER LYTTON.