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High on the cypress-clad hills of the Eternal City the evening sun had flamed valediction, and the last lights of the dying day were fading away on the waves of the Tiber whose changeless tide has rolled down through centuries of victory and defeat, of pride and shame, of glory and disgrace.
The purple dusk began to weave its phantom veil over the ancient capital of the Cæsars and a round blood-red moon was climbing slowly above the misty crests of the Alban Hills, draining the sky of its crimson sunset hues.
The silvery chimes of the Angelus, pealing from churches and convents, from Santa Maria in Trastevere to Santa Maria of the Aventine, began to sing their message of peace into the heart of nature and of man.
As the hours of the night advanced and the moon rose higher in the star-embroidered canopy of the heavens, a vast concourse of people began to pour from shadowy lanes and thoroughfares, from sanctuaries and hostelries, into the Piazza Navona. Romans and peasants from the Campagna, folk from Tivoli, Velletri, Corneto and Terracina, pilgrims from every land of the then known world, Africans and Greeks, Lombards and Franks, Sicilians, Neapolitans, Syrians and Kopts, Spaniards and Saxons, men from the frozen coast of Thulé and the burning sands of Arabia, traders from the Levant, sorcerers from the banks of the Nile, conjurers from the mythical shores of the Ganges, adventurers from the Barbary coast, gypsies from the plains of Sarmatia, monks from the Thebaide, Normans, Gascons and folk from Aquitaine.
In the Piazza Navona booths and stalls had been erected for the sale of figs and honey, and the fragrant products of the Roman osterié.
Strings of colored lanterns danced and quivered in the air. The fitful light from the torches, sending spiral columns of resinous smoke into the night-blue ether, shed a lurid glow over the motley, fantastic crowd that increased with every moment, recruited from fishermen, flower girls, water-carriers and herdsmen from the Roman Campagna.
Ensconced in the shadow of a roofless portico, a relic of the ancient Circus Agonalis, which at one time occupied the site of the Piazza Navona, and regarding the bewildering spectacle which presented itself to his gaze, with the air of one unaccustomed to such scenes, stood a stranger whose countenance revealed little of the joy of life that should be the heritage of early manhood.