There was a man,
A Roman soldier, for some daring deed
That trespassed on the laws, in dungeon low
Chained down. His was a noble spirit, rough,
But generous, and brave, and kind.
He had a son; it was a rosy boy,
A little faithful copy of his sire,
In face and gesture. From infancy, the child
Had been his father's solace and his care.
The father shared and heightened. But at length,
The rigorous law had grasped him, and condemned
To fetters and to darkness.
The captive's lot,
He felt in all its bitterness: the walls
Of his deep dungeon answered many a sigh
And heart-heaved groan. His tale was known, and touched
His jailer with compassion; and the boy,
Thenceforth a frequent visitor, beguiled
His father's lingering hours, and brought a balm
With his loved presence, that in every wound
Dropped healing. But, in this terrific hour,
He was a poisoned arrow in the breast
Where he had been a cure.
With earliest morn
Of that first day of darkness and amaze,
He came. The iron door was closed—for them
Never to open more! The day, the night
Dragged slowly by; nor did they know the fate
Impending o'er the city. Well they heard
The pent-up thunders in the earth beneath,
And felt its giddy rocking; and the air
Grew hot at length, and thick; but in his straw
The boy was sleeping: and the father hoped
The earthquake might pass by: nor would he wake
From his sound rest the unfearing child, nor tell
The dangers of their state.
On his low couch
The fettered soldier sank, and, with deep awe,
Listened the fearful sounds: with upturned eye,
To the great gods he breathed a prayer; then, strove
To calm himself, and lose in sleep awhile
His useless terrors. But he could not sleep:
His body burned with feverish heat; his chains
Clanked loud, although he moved not; deep in earth
Groaned unimaginable thunders; sounds,
Fearful and ominous, arose and died,
Like the sad mornings of November's wind,
In the blank midnight. Deepest horror chilled
His blood that burned before; cold, clammy sweats
Came o'er him; then anon, a fiery thrill
Shot through his veins. Now, on his couch he shrunk
And shivered as in fear; now, upright leaped,
As though he heard the battle trumpet sound,
And longed to cope with death.
He slept, at last,
A troubled, dreamy sleep. Well had he slept
Never to waken more! His hours are few,
But terrible his agony.
Soon the storm
Burst forth; the lightnings glanced; the air
Shook with the thunders. They awoke; they sprung
Amazed upon their feet. The dungeon glowed
A moment as in sunshine—and was dark:
Again, a flood of white flame fills the cell,
Dying away upon the dazzled eye
In darkening, quivering tints, as stunning sound
Dies throbbing, ringing in the ear.
With intensest awe,
The soldier's frame was filled; and many a thought
Of strange foreboding hurried through his mind,
As underneath he felt the fevered earth
Jarring and lifting; and the massive walls,
Heard harshly grate and strain: yet knew he not,
While evils undefined and yet to come
Glanced through his thoughts, what deep and cureless wound
Fate had already given.—Where, man of woe
Where, wretched father! is thy boy? Thou call'st
His name in vain:—he can not answer thee.
Loudly the father called upon his child:
No voice replied. Trembling and anxiously
He searched their couch of straw; with headlong haste
Trod round his stinted limits, and, low bent,
Groped darkling on the earth:—no child was there.
Again he called: again, at farthest stretch
Of his accursed fetters, till the blood
Seemed bursting from his ears, and from his eyes
Fire flashed, he strained with arm extended far,
And fingers widely spread, greedy to touch
Though but his idol's garment. Useless toil!
Yet still renewed: still round and round he goes,
And strains, and snatches, and with dreadful cries
Calls on his boy.
Mad frenzy fires him now.
He plants against the wall his feet; his chain
Grasps; tugs with giant strength to force away
The deep-driven staple; yells and shrieks with rage:
And, like a desert lion in the snare,
Raging to break his toils,—to and fro bounds.
But see! the ground is opening;—a blue light
Mounts, gently waving,—noiseless;—thin and cold
It seems, and like a rainbow tint, not flame;
But by its luster, on the earth outstretched,
Behold the lifeless child! his dress is singed,
And, o'er his face serene, a darkened line
Points out the lightning's track.
The father saw,
And all his fury fled:—a dead calm fell
That instant on him:—speechless—fixed—he stood,
And with a look that never wandered, gazed
Intensely on the corse. Those laughing eyes
Were not yet closed,—and round those ruby lips
The wonted smile returned.
Silent and pale
The father stands:—no tear is in his eye:—
The thunders bellow;—but he hears them not:—
The ground lifts like a sea;—he knows it not:—
The strong walls grind and gape:—the vaulted roof
Takes shape like bubble tossing in the wind;
See! he looks up and smiles; for death to him
Is happiness. Yet could one last embrace
Be given, 't were still a sweeter thing to die.
It will be given. Look! how the rolling ground,
At every swell, nearer and still more near
Moves toward the father's outstretched arm his boy.
Once he has touched his garment:—how his eye
Lightens with love, and hope, and anxious fears!
Ha, see! he has him now!—he clasps him round;
Kisses his face; puts back the curling locks,
That shaded his fine brow; looks in his eyes;
Grasps in his own those little dimpled hands;
Then folds him to his breast, as he was wont
To lie when sleeping; and resigned, awaits
And death came soon and swift
And pangless. The huge pile sank down at once
Into the opening earth. Walls—arches—roof—
And deep foundation stones—all—mingling—fell!