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Saints of Italy by  Ella Noyes
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THE FAMINE

[34]

I
T happened in a certain year that the country where the good San Niccolo was bishop was visited by a grievous famine, and all the grain in the city having been consumed, so that no bread was to be had anywhere, the people began to be in sore straights. Niccolo, grieving for their distress, distributed all his own stores among them, and when there was nothing more left he became sadly perplexed, for he knew not how to relieve their sufferings. He prayed continually to God for succour. One day it was told him that three ships, laden with [35] grain for Constantinople, were come into the port of the city. He rose, and went down to the harbour, and commanded the captains of the ships to unlade and deliver to him a certain measure of wheat, sufficient to feed his people. But they refused, saying, "We dare not do it, for the grain was measured at Alexandria, and must be rendered up in full to the Emperor." Then said Niccolo, "Fear not, for of a surety the Lord will replenish your sacks." And after a little the excellence of his speech prevailed with them, so that they did as he required. And continuing their journey, they came at length to Constantinople, and when they unladed the ship they were rejoiced to find the number of the sacks of corn complete as when they had set out from Alexandria, and in each sack the full measure of grain. Now, this was the Lord's doing. And of the grain they had given to the good bishop, he distributed abundantly to all of the city, and there remained over and above enough wherewith to sow the ground for another year.

Having thus happily delivered the city from its trouble, Niccolo set forth on a journey into the country round about, wishing to see how the people fared. And there was everywhere great scarcity, and men in their hunger were become cruel, each one snatching what he might for himself, heedless of his neighbour's want, so that Niccolo found much occasion to reprove them. When he was come to a certain village, a poor woman, [36] who was a widow, met him and fell at his feet, weeping bitterly, and implored him to give her back her three young sons, who had disappeared, and she did not know where to find them. Niccolo said, "How may I restore to thee thy sons, good woman? Without doubt they have wandered into some forest in search of food, and are fallen dead of hunger." But she cried, saying, "Nay, for I had victual enough, and my children were not an hungered, but were fat and well liking." The good bishop comforted her and continued on his way to the inn, where he entered in and commanded the host to serve him with supper, expecting that a little bread and water at the most should have been brought. But the innkeeper set before him a dish of roasted meat. "What is this, fellow?" said Niccolo. "How comest thou by this meat, seeing the dearth is so sore in the land?" The innkeeper, bowing low before him, answered, "It was told me that the holy bishop was about to enter into my house, whereupon I took the kid that remained to me alone of all my flocks and killed it that I might hav meat for thy refreshment." But Niccolo perceived by the countenance of the man that he lied, and said, "Bring me to thy larder." The inn keeper began to shake in all his limbs, yet not daring to refuse, he went before the holy man with the candle in his hand, and led him into the courtyard. Here were set three tubs, full of salted meat. "What do I see?" cried Niccolo. [37] "Thou wicked one, and murderer of helpless babes. This is not the flesh of kids but of children." And he prayed to the Lord with a loud voice to deliver the innocent, and immediately the pieces of meat began to stir in the tubs and join themselves together and became three little live boys, who sprang up before the eyes of all who stood there. They knelt down before the bishop; then seeing the innkeeper standing there, they began to weep and be sore afraid; but Niccolo comforted them, and bad them tell everything that had befallen them. Then they related how the man had met them in a wood and had cunningly persuaded them to go with him to his house, and had there bound and killed them, and made them into meat for the strangers which should come to the inn. Then the wicked fellow was terrified beyond measure, and fell at Niccolo's feet, imploring mercy; but the good bishop answered sternly, and sending for the soldiers, delivered him up to be carried before the magistrates and punished as his iniquities deserved. The three children were restored to the woman, who rejoiced over them with so great tenderness that the beholders were moved to tears, and joined with one heart and mind in glorifying God "Who causeth the widow's heart to sing for joy."


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