The Burnt Hand
Hindered from marching into Rome as easily as he had expected, Porsena prepared to surround and besiege it. The prospect of a siege greatly frightened the people; for they had not much food in the city, and feared the famine which would soon take place.
The Romans were, therefore, placed on very short rations; but even so, the famine soon came. All suffered much from hunger,—all except Horatius Cocles, for the starving Romans each set aside a small portion of their scanty food, and bade him accept it. It was thus that they best showed their gratitude for the service he had done them, for they proved that they were brave enough to deny themselves in order to reward him.
The Romans were still unwilling to surrender, but they feared that Porsena would not give up until he had taken possession of the city. Some of the young men, therefore, made up their minds to put an end to the war by murdering him. A plot was made to kill the King of Clusium by treachery; and Mucius, a young Roman, went to his camp in disguise.
When Mucius came into the midst of the enemy, he did not dare ask any questions, lest they should suspect him. He was wandering around in search of Porsena, when all at once he saw a man so splendidly dressed that he was sure it must be the king. Without waiting to make sure, he sprang forward and plunged his dagger into the man's heart.
The man sank lifeless to the ground, but Mucius was caught and taken into the presence of Porsena. The king asked him who he was, and why he had thus murdered one of the officers. Mucius stood proudly before him and answered:
"I am a Roman, and meant to kill you, the enemy of my country."
When Porsena heard these bold words, he was amazed, and threatened to punish Mucius for his attempt by burning him alive. But even this threat did not frighten the brave Roman. He proudly stepped forward, and thrust his right hand into a fire that was blazing near by. He held it there, without flinching, until it was burned to a crisp; and then he said:
"Your fire has no terrors for me, nor for three hundred of my companions, who have all sworn to murder you if you do not leave Rome."
When Porsena heard these words, and saw the courage that Mucius displayed, he realized for the first time how hard it would be to conquer the Romans, and made up his mind to make peace. So he sent Mucius away without punishing him, for he admired the courage of the young man who loved his country so truly.
Mucius returned to Rome, and there received the nickname of Scævola, or the Left-handed. Soon after, Porsena began to offer peace, and the Romans were only too glad to accept it, even though they had to give him part of their land, and send some of their children into his camp as hostages.
Porsena treated these young people very kindly; but they soon grew homesick, and longed to return home. One of the hostages, a beautiful girl named Clœlia, was so anxious to go back to Rome that she sprang upon a horse, plunged into the Tiber, and boldly swam across it. Then she rode proudly into the city, followed by several of her companions, whom she had persuaded to imitate her.
The Romans were delighted to see their beloved children again, until they heard how they had escaped. Then they sadly told the hostages that they would have to return to Porsena. Clœlia and her companions objected at first; but they finally consented to go back, when they understood that it would be dishonorable if the Romans failed to keep the promises they had made, even to an enemy.
The king, who had witnessed their escape with astonishment, was even more amazed at their return. Full of admiration for Clœlia's pluck and for the honesty of the Romans, he gave the hostages full permission to go home, and left the country with all his army.