A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
The Nubian boat-keeper and his boy had soon ferried them across the lake. Melissa and her companion then turned off from the shore into a street which must surely lead into that where the Christians dwelt. Still, even as she went on, she began to be doubtful whether she had taken the right one; and when she came out by a small temple, which she certainly had not seen before, she knew not which way to go, for the streets here crossed each other in a perfect labyrinth, and she was soon obliged to confess to her companion that she had lost her road. In the morning she had trusted herself to Andreas's knowledge of the town, and while talking eagerly to him had paid no heed to anything else.
What was to be done? She stood meditating; and then she remembered the spot where she had seen Caesar drive past. This she thought she could certainly recognize, and from thence make her way to the street she sought.
It was quite easy to find the street of Hermes, for the noise of the revelers, who were to-night even more numerous than usual in this busy highway, could be heard at a considerable distance. They must follow its guidance till they should come to the little temple of Aphrodite; and that was a bold enterprise, for the crowd of men who haunted the spot at this hour might possibly hinder and annoy two unescorted women. However, the elder woman was sturdy and determined, and sixty years of age; while Melissa feared nothing, and thought herself sufficiently protected when she had arranged her kerchief so as to hide her face from curious eyes.
As she made her way to the wide street with a throbbing heart, but quite resolved to find the house she sought at any cost, she heard men's voices on a side street; however, she paid no heed to them, for how, indeed, could she guess that what they were saying could nearly concern her?
The conversation was between a woman and a man in the white robe of a Christian priest. They were standing at the door of a large house; and close to the wall, in the shadow of the porch of a building opposite, stood a youth, his hair covered by the hood of a long caracalla, listening with breathless attention.
This was Alexander.
He had been standing here for some time already, waiting for the return of Agatha, the fair Christian whom he had followed across the lake, and who had vanished into that house under the guidance of a deaconess. The door had not long closed on them when several men had also been admitted, whom he could not distinguish in the darkness, for the street was narrow and the moon still low.
It was sheer folly--and yet he fancied that one of them was his father, for his deep, loud voice was precisely like that of Heron; and, what was even more strange, that of the man who answered him seemed to proceed from his brother Philip. But, at such an hour, he could more easily have supposed them to be on the top of Mount Etna than in this quarter of the town.
The impatient painter was very tired of waiting, so, seating himself on a feeding-manger for asses which stood in front of the adjoining house, he presently fell asleep. He was tired from the sleepless night he had last spent, and when he opened his eyes once more and looked down the street into which the moon was now shining, he did not know how long he had been slumbering. Perhaps the damsel he wanted to see had already left the house, and he must see her again, cost him what it might; for she was so amazingly like the dead Korinna whom he had painted, that he could not shake off the notion that perhaps--for, after Serapion's discourse, it seemed quite likely--perhaps he had seen the spirit of the departed girl.
He had had some difficulty in persuading Glaukias, who had come across the lake with him, to allow him to follow up the fair vision unaccompanied; and his entreaties and prohibitions would probably alike have proved vain, but that Glaukias held taken it into his head to show his latest work, which a slave was carrying, to some friends over a jar of wine. It was a caricature of Caesar, whom he had seen at the Kanopic Gate, modeled while he was in the house of Polybius, with a few happy touches.
When Alexander woke, he crept into the shadow of the porch opposite to the house into which Korinna's double had disappeared, and he now had no lack of entertainment. A man came out of the tall white house and looked into the street, and the moonlight enabled the artist to see all that took place.
The tall youth who had come to the door wore the robe of a Christian priest. Still, it struck Alexander that he was too young for such a calling; and he soon detected that he was certainly not what he seemed, but that there was some treachery in the wind; for no sooner had a woman joined him, whom he evidently expected, than she blamed him for his want of caution. To this he laughingly replied that he was too hot in his disguise, and, pulling out a false beard, he showed it to the woman, who was dressed as a Christian deaconess, exclaiming, "That will do it!"
He went on to tell her, in a quick, low tone, much of which escaped the listener, that Serapion had dared much that day, and that the performance had ended badly, for that the Christian girl he had so cleverly persuaded to come from the other side of the lake had taken fright, and had insisted on knowing where she was.
At this the deaconess seemed somewhat dismayed, and poured out endless questions in a low voice. He, however, cast all the blame on the philosopher, whom his master had got hold of the day before. Then, as the woman desired more particular information, he briefly told her the story.
The fair Agatha, he said, after being invited by him, at noon, in the name of Bishop Demetrius, to a meeting that evening, had reached the ferryhouse at about sunset. She had been told that many things of immediate importance were to be announced to the maidens of the Christian congregation; more especially, a discussion was to be held as to the order issued by the prefect for their taking part in a procession in Caesar's honor when he should quit Alexandria. Old Dorothea had met the girl at the ferry-house, and had brought her hither. The woman who had attended her across the lake was certainly none of the wisest, for Dorothea had easily persuaded her to remain in her house during the meeting.
"Once there," the sham priest went on, "the girl's waiting-woman must have had some dose in wine or sirup and water, for she is fast asleep at this moment in the ferry-house, or wherever Dorothea took her, as she could not be allowed to wake under Dorothea's roof.
"Thus every one was out of the way who could make any mischief; and when the Syrian, dressed as a Christian priest, had explained to Agatha what the patriarch required of his maidens, I led her on to the stage, on which the spectators were to see the ghosts through a small opening.
"The Syrian had desired her to put up so many and such prayers for the congregation in its peril from Caesar; and, by Aphrodite! she was as docile as a lamb. She fell on her knees, and with hands and eyes to heaven entreated her god. But hark!
"Did you hear anything? Something is stirring within. Well, I have nearly done.
"The philosopher was to see her thus, and when he had gazed at her as if bewitched for some little time through the small window, he suddenly cried out, 'Korinna! Korinna!' and all sorts of nonsense, although Serapion had strictly forbidden him to utter a sound. Of course, the curtain instantly dropped. But Agatha had heard him call, and in a great fright she wanted to know where she was, and asked to go home.--Serapion was really grand. You should have heard how the fox soothed the dove, and at the same time whispered to me what you now are to do!"
"I?" said the woman, with some annoyance. "If he thinks that I will risk my good name in the congregation for the sake of his long beard--"
"Just be quiet," said Castor, in a pacifying tone. "The master's beard has nothing to do with the case, but something much more substantial. Ten solidi, full weight, shall be yours if you will take Agatha home with you, or safe across the lake again, and pretend to have saved her from mystics or magicians who have decoyed her to some evil end. She knows you as a Christian deaconess, and will go with you at once. If you restore her to her father, he is rich, and will not send you empty away. Tell him that you heard her voice out in the street, and with the help of a worthy old man--that am I--rescued her from any peril you may invent. If he asks you where the heroic deed was done, name any house you please, only not this. Your best plan is to lay it all on the shoulders of Hananja, the thaumaturgist; we have owed him a grudge this many a day. However, I was not to teach you any lesson, for your wits are at least a match for ours."
"Flattery will not win me," the woman broke in. "Where is the gold?"
Castor handed her the solidi wrapped in a papyrus leaf, and then added:
"Stay one moment! I must remove this white robe. The girl must on no account recognize me. I am going to force my way into the house with you--you found me in the street, an old man, a total stranger, and appealed to me for help. No harm is done, nothing lost but Dorothea's credit among the Christians. We may have to get her safe out of the town. I must escort you and Agatha, for nothing unpleasant must happen to her on the way home. The master is imperative on that point, and so much beauty will certainly not get through the crowded streets without remark. And for my part, I, of course, am thinking of yours."
Here Castor laughed aloud, and rolled the white robe into a bundle. Alexander peeped out of his nook and shook his head in amazement, for the supple youth, who a moment before stood stalwart and upright, had assumed, with a bent attitude and a long, white beard hastily placed on his chin, the aspect of a weary, poor old man.
"I will give you a lesson!" muttered Alexander to himself, and he shook his fist at the intriguing rascal as he vanished into the house with the false deaconess.
So Serapion was a cheat! And the supposed ghost of Korinna was a Christian maiden who was being shamefully deluded. But he would keep watch over her, and bring that laughing villain to account. The first aim of his life was not to lose sight of Agatha. His whole happiness, he felt, depended on that. The gods had, as it were, raised her from the dead for him; in her, everything that he most admired was united; she was the embodiment of everything he cared for and prized; every feeling sank into the shade beside the one desire to make her his. She was, at this moment, the universe to him; and all else--the pursuers at his heels, his father, his sister, pretty Ino, to whom he had vowed his love only the night before--had ceased to exist for him.
Possessed wholly by the thought of her, he never took his eyes off the door opposite; and when at last the maiden came out with the deaconess, whom she called Elizabeth, and with Castor, Alexander followed the ill-matched trio; and he had to be brisk, for at first they hurried through the streets as though they feared to be overtaken. He carefully kept close to the houses on the shady side, and when they presently stopped, so did he.
The deaconess inquired of Agatha whither she would be taken. But when the girl replied that she must go back to her own boat, waiting at the ferry, and return home, the deaconess represented that this was impossible by reason of the drunken seamen, who at this hour made the strand unsafe; she could only advise Agatha to come home with her and remain till daybreak. "This kind old man," and she pointed to Castor, "would no doubt go and tell the oarsmen that they were not to be uneasy at her absence."
The two women stood talking in the broad moonlight, and the pale beams fell on Agatha's beautiful unveiled features, giving them that unearthly, corpse-like whiteness which Alexander had tried to represent in his picture of Korinna. Again the thought that she was risen from the dead sent a chill through his blood--that she would make him follow her, perhaps to the tomb she had quitted. He cared not! If his senses had cheated him--if,--in spite of what he had heard, that pale, unspeakably lovely image were indeed a lamia, a goblin shape from Hecate's dark abode, yet would he follow wherever she might lead, as to a festival, only to be with her.
Agatha thanked the deaconess, and as she spoke raised her eyes to the woman's face; and they were two large, dark orbs sparkling through tears, and as unlike as possible to the eyes which a ghost might snatch from their sockets to fling like balls or stones in the face of a pursuer. Oh, if only those eyes might look into his own as warmly and gratefully as they now gazed into the face of that treacherous woman!
He had a hard struggle with himself to subdue the impulse to put an end, now and here, to the fiendish tricks which guile was playing on the purest innocence; but the street was deserted, and if he had to struggle with the bent old man, whose powerful and supple limbs he had already seen, and if the villain should plant a knife in his ribs--for as a wrestler he felt himself his match--Agatha would be bereft of a protector and wholly in the deceiver's power.
This, at any rate, must not be, and he even controlled himself when he heard the music of her words, and saw her grasp the hand of the pretended graybeard, who, with an assumption of paternal kindness, dared to kiss her hair, and then helped her to draw her kerchief over her face. The street of Hermes, he explained, where the deaconess dwelt, was full of people, and the divine gift of beauty, wherewith Heaven had blessed her, would attract the baser kind, as a flame attracts bats and moths. The hypocrite's voice was full of unction; the deaconess spoke with pious gravity. He could see that she was a woman of middle age, and he asked himself with rising fury whether the gods were not guilty who had lent mean wretches like these such winning graces as to enable them to lay traps for the guileless? For, in fact, the woman's face was well-favored, gentle, and attractive.
Alexander never took his gaze off Agatha, and his artist-eye reveled in her elastic step and her slender, shapely form. Above all, he was bewitched by the way her head was set, with a little forward bend; and as long as the way led through the silent lanes he was never weary of comparing her with lovely images-with a poppy, whose flower bows the stem; with a willow, whose head leans over the water; with the huntress Artemis, who, chasing in the moonlight, bends to mark the game.
Thus, unwearied and unseen, he had followed them as far as the street of Hermes; there his task became more difficult, for the road was swarming with people. The older men were walking in groups of five or six, going to or coming from some evening assembly, and talking as they walked; or priests and temple servants on their way home, tired from night services and ceremonies; but the greater number were young men and boys, some wearing wreaths, and all more or less intoxicated, with street-wenches on the lookout for a companion or surrounded by suitors, and trying to attract a favorite or dismiss the less fortunate.
The flare of the torches which illuminated the street was mirrored in eager eyes glowing with wine and passion, and in the glittering weapons of the Roman soldiery. Most of these were attached to Caesar's train. As in the field, so in the peaceful town, they aimed at conquest, and many a Greek sulkily resigned his claims to some fickle beauty in favor of an irresistible tribune or centurion. Where the courteous Alexandrians made way, they pushed in or thrust aside whatever came in their path, securely confident of being Caesar's favorite protectors, and unassailable while he was near. Their coarse, barbaric tones shook the air, and reduced the Greeks to silence; for, even in his drunken and most reckless moods, the Greek never lost his subtle refinement. The warriors rarely met a friendly glance from the eye of a native; still, the gold of these lavish revelers was as welcome to the women as that of a fellow-countryman.
The blaze of light shone, too, on many a fray, such as flared up in an instant whenever Greek and Roman came into contact. The lictors and townwatch could generally succeed in parting the combatants, for the orders of the authorities were that they should in every case side with the Romans.
The shouts and squabbling of men, the laughing and singing of women, mingled with the word of command. Flutes and lyres, cymbals and drums, were heard from the trellised tavern arbors and cook-shops along the way; and from the little temple to Aphrodite, where Melissa had promised to meet the Roman physician next morning, came the laughter and song of unbridled lovers. As a rule, the Kanopic Way was the busiest and gayest street in the town; but on this night the street of Hermes had been the most popular, for it led to the Serapeum, where Caesar was lodged; and from the temple poured a tide of pleasure-seekers, mingling with the flood of humanity which streamed on to catch a glimpse of imperial splendor, or to look at the troops encamped on the space in front of the Serapeum. The whole street was like a crowded fair; and Alexander had several times to follow Agatha and her escort out into the roadway, quitting the shelter of the arcade, to escape a party of rioters or the impertinent addresses of strangers.
The sham old man, however, was so clever at making way for the damsel, whose face and form were effectually screened by her kerchief from the passers-by, that Alexander had no opportunity for offering her his aid, or proving his devotion by some gallant act. That it was his duty to save her from the perils of spending a whole night under the protection of this venal deceiver and her worthless colleague, he had long since convinced himself; still, the fear of bringing her into a more painful position by attracting the attention of the crowd if he were to attack her escort, kept him back.
They had now stopped again under the colonnade, on the left-hand side of the road. Castor had taken the girl's hand, and, as he bade her good-night, promised, in emphatic tones, to be with her again very early and escort her to the lake. Agatha thanked him warmly. At this a storm of rage blew Alexander's self-command to the four winds, and, before he knew what he was doing; he stood between the rascal and the Christian damsel, snatched their hands asunder, gripping Castor's wrist with his strong right hand, while he held Agatha's firmly in his left, and exclaimed:
"You are being foully tricked, fair maid; the woman, even, is deceiving you. This fellow is a base villain!"
And, releasing the arm which Castor was desperately but vainly trying to free from his clutch, he snatched off the false beard.
Agatha, who had also been endeavoring to escape from his grasp, gave a shriek of terror and indignation. The unmasked rogue, with a swift movement, snatched the hood of the caracalla off Alexander's head, flew at his throat with the fury and agility of a panther, and with much presence of mind called for help. And Castor was strong too while Alexander tried to keep him off with his right hand, holding on to Agatha with his left, the shouts of the deaconess and her accomplice soon collected a crowd. They were instantly surrounded by an inquisitive mob, laughing or scolding the combatants, and urging them to fight or beseeching them to separate. But just as the artist had succeeded in twisting his opponent's wrist so effectually as to bring him to his knees, a loud voice of malignant triumph, just behind him, exclaimed:
"Now we have snared our scoffer! The fox should not stop to kill the hare when the hunters are at his heels!"
"Zminis!" gasped Alexander. He understood in a flash that life and liberty were at stake.
Like a stag hemmed in by dogs, he turned his head to this side and that, seeking a way of escape; and when he looked again where his antagonist had stood, the spot was clear; the nimble rascal had taken to his heels and vanished among the throng. But a pair of eyes met the painter's gaze, which at once restored him to self-possession, and reminded him that he must collect his wits and presence of mind. They were those of his sister Melissa, who, as she made her way onward with her companion, had recognized her brother's voice. In spite of the old woman's earnest advice not to mix in the crowd, she had pushed her way through, and, as the men-at-arms dispersed the mob, she came nearer to her favorite but too reckless brother.
Alexander still held Agatha's hand. The poor girl herself, trembling with terror, did not know what had befallen her. Her venerable escort was a young man--a liar. What was she to think of the deaconess, who was his confederate; what of this handsome youth who had unmasked the deceiver, and saved her perhaps from some fearful fate?
As in a thunder-storm flash follows flash, so, in this dreadful night, one horror had followed another, to bewilder the brain of a maiden who had always lived a quiet life among good and quiet men and women. And now the guardians of the peace had laid hands on the man who had so bravely taken her part, and whose bright eyes had looked into her own with such truth and devotion. He was to be dragged to prison; so he, too, no doubt, was a criminal. At this thought she tried to release her hand, but he would not let it go; for the deaconess had come close to Agatha, and, in a tone of sanctimonious wrath, desired her to quit this scene.
What was she to do? Terrified and undecided, with deceit on one hand and on the other peril and perhaps disaster, she looked first at Elizabeth and then at Alexander, who, in spite of the threats of the man-at-arms, gazed in turns at her and at the spot where his sister had stood.
The lictors who were keeping off the mob had stopped Melissa too; but while Alexander had been gazing into Agatha's imploring eyes, feeling as though all his blood had rushed to his heart and face, Melissa had contrived to creep up close to him. And again the sight of her gave him the composure he so greatly needed. He knew, indeed, that the hand which still held Agatha's would in a moment be fettered, for Zminis had ordered his slaves to bring fresh ropes and chains, since they had already found use for those they had first brought out. It was to this circumstance alone that he owed it that he still was free. And, above all things, he must warn Agatha against the deaconess, who would fain persuade her to go with her.
It struck his alert wit that Agatha would trust his sister rather than himself, whom the Egyptian had several times abused as a criminal; and seeing the old woman of Polybius's household making her way up to Melissa, out of breath, indeed, and with disordered hair, he felt light dawn on his soul, for this worthy woman was a fresh instrument to his hand. She must know Agatha well, if the girl were indeed the daughter of Zeno.
He lost not an instant. With swift decision, while Zminis and his men were disputing as to whither they should conduct the traitor as soon as the fetters were brought, he released the maiden's hand, placing it in Melissa's, and exclaiming:
"This is my sister, the betrothed of Diodoros, Polybius's son--your neighbor, if you are the daughter of Zeno. She will take care of you." Agatha had at once recognized the old nurse, and when she confirmed Alexander's statement, and the Christian looked in Melissa's face, she saw beyond the possibility of doubt an innocent woman, whose heart she might fully trust.
She threw her arm round Melissa, as if to lean on her, and the deaconess turned away with well-curbed wrath and vanished into an open door.
All this had occupied but a very few minutes; and when Alexander saw the two beings he most loved in each other's embrace, and Agatha rescued from the deceiver and in safe keeping, he drew a deep breath, saying to his sister, as if relieved from a heavy burden:
"Her name is Agatha, and to her, the image of the dead Korinna, my life henceforth is given. Tell her this, Melissa."
His impassioned glance sought that of the Christian; and when she returned it, blushing, but with grateful candor, his mirthful features beamed with the old reckless jollity, and he glanced again at the crowd about him.
What did he see there? Melissa observed that his whole face was suddenly lighted up; and when Zminis signed to the man who was making his way to the spot holding up the rope, Alexander began to sing the first words of a familiar song. In an instant it was taken up by several voices, and then, as if from an echo, by the whole populace.
It was the chant by which the lads in the Gymnasium of Timagetes were wont to call on each other for help when they had a fray with those of the Gymnasium of the Dioscuri, with whom they had a chronic feud. Alexander had caught sight of his friends Jason and Pappus, of the sculptor Glaukias, and of several other fellow-artists; they understood the appeal, and, before the night-watch could use the rope on their captive, the troop of young men had forced their way through the circle of armed men under the leadership of Glaukias, had surrounded Alexander, and run off with him in their midst, singing and shouting.
"Follow him! Catch him! Stop him!--living or dead, bring him back! A price is on his head--a splendid price to any one who will take him!" cried the Egyptian, foaming with rage and setting the example. But the youth of the town, many of whom knew the artist, and who were at all times ready to spoil sport for the sycophants and spies, crowded up between the fugitive and his pursuers and barred the way.
The lictors and their underlings did indeed, at last, get through the solid wall of shouting and scolding men and women; but by that time the troop of artists had disappeared down a side street.