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He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
And scorn was in his eye. Quoth he, "The she-wolf's litter21
Stand savagely at bay: But will ye dare to follow,
If Astur clears the way?"
Then, whirling up his broadsword
With hoth hands to the height. He rushed against Horatius,
And smote with all his might. With shield and blade Horatius
Right deftly turned the blow. The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh; It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh: The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
To see the red blood flow.
He reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space; Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds,
Sprang right at Astur's face.
So fierce a thrust he sped,
Behind the Tuscan's head.
And the great Lord of Luna
Fell at that deadly stroke, As falls on Mount Alvernus
A thunder-smitten oak.
21. Romulus, the founder of Rome, and Remus, his brother, were, according to the legend, rescued and brought up by a she-wolf, after they had been east into the Tiber to die.
Far o'er the crashing forest
The giant arms lie spread;
Gaze on the blasted head.
On Astur's throat Horatius
Right firmly pressed his heel, And thrice and four times tugged amain,
Ere he wrenched out the steel. "And see," he cried, "the welcome,
Fair guests, that waits you here! What noble Lucumo comes next
To taste our Roman cheer?"
But at his haughty challenge
A sullen murmur ran, Mingled of wrath and shame and dread,
Along that glittering van. There lacked not men of prowess,
Nor men of lordly race; For all Etruria's noblest
Were round the fatal place.
But all Etruria's noblest
Felt their hearts sink to see On the earth the bloody corpses,
In the path the dauntless Three: And, from the ghastly entrance
Where those bold Romans stood. All shrank, like boys who unaware, Ranging the woods to start a hare, Come to the mouth of the dark lair Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
Lies amidst bones and blood.
Was none who would be foremost
To lead such dire attack:
And those before cried "Back!"
Wavers the deep array;
Dies fitfully away.
Yet one man for one moment
Stood out before the crowd; Well known was he to all the Three,
And they gave him greeting loud, "Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
Now welcome to thy home! Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
Here lies the road to Rome."
Thrice looked he at the city;
Thrice looked he at the dead; And thrice came on in fury,
And thrice turned back in dread; And, white with fear and hatred,
Scowled at the narrow way Where, wallowing in a pool of blood, v The bravest Tuscans lay.
But meanwhile axe and lever
And now the bridge hangs tottering
"Come back, come back, Horatius!" Loud cried the Fathers all.
"Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
Back darted Spurius Lartius;
Herminius darted back: And, as they passed, beneath their feet
They felt the timbers crack.
And on the farther shore
They would have crossed once more.
But with a crash like thunder
Fell every loosened beam,
Lay right athwart the stream;
Rose from the walls of Rome, As to the highest turret-tops
Was splashed the yellow foam.
And, like a horse unbroken
When first he feels the rein, The furious river struggled hard,
And tossed his tawny mane,
Rejoicing to be free,
Rushed headlong to the sea.
Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind; Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
"Down with him!" cried false Sextus,
With a smile on his pale face. "Now yield thee," cried Lars Porsena,
"Now yield thee to our grace."
Round turned he, as not deigning
Those craven ranks to see; Naught spake he to Lars Porsena,
To Sextus naught spake he; But he saw on Palatinus2
The white porch of his home; And he spake to the noble river
That rolls by the towers of Rome.
"O Tiber! father Tiber!23
To whom the Romans pray,
Take thou in charge this day!"
The good sword by his side,
Plunged headlong in the tide.
No sound of joy or sorrow
Was heard from either bank; But friends and foes in dumb surprise, With parted lips and straining eyes.
Stood gazing where he sank; And when above the surges
They saw his crest appear, All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
22. The Palatine is one of the seven hills of Rome.
23. The Romans personified the Tiber River, and even offered prayers to it.