A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
Melissa had supposed that, according to custom, the litter would be carried up the incline or the steps, and into the Serapeum by the great door; but in consequence of the emperor's visit this could not be. The sick man was borne round the eastern side of the huge building, which covered a space on which a whole village might have stood. The door at the back, to the south, through which he was finally admitted, opened into a gallery passing by the great quadrangle where sacrifice was made, and leading to the inner rooms of the temple, to the cubicles among others.
In these it was revealed to the sick in dreams by what means or remedies they might hope to be healed: and there was no lack of priests to interpret the visions, nor of physicians who came hither to watch peculiar cases, to explain to the sufferers the purport of the counsel of the gods--often very dark--or to give them the benefit of their own.
One of these, a friend of Ptolemaeus, who, though he had been secretly baptized, still was one of the pastophori of the temple, was awaiting the little party, and led the way as guide.
The bellowing of beasts met them on the very threshold. These were to be slaughtered at this early hour by the special command of Caracalla; and, as Caesar himself had promised to be present at the sacrificial rites, none but the priests or "Caesar's friends" were admitted to the court-yard. The litter was therefore carried up a staircase and through a long hall forming part of the library, with large windows looking down on the open place where the beasts were killed and the entrails examined. Diodoros saw and heard nothing, for the injury to the skull had deprived him of all consciousness; Ptolemaeus, however, to soothe Melissa, assured her that he was sleeping soundly.
As they mounted the stairs she had kept close to her lover's side; but on this assurance she lingered behind and looked about her.
As the little procession entered the gallery, in which the rolls of manuscript lay in stone or wooden cases on long rows of shelves, the shout was heard of "Hail, Caesar!" mingling with a solemn chant, and announcing the sovereign's approach.
At this the physician pointed to the court-yard, and said to the girl, whose beauty had greatly attracted him: "Look down there if you want to see Caesar. We must wait here, at any rate, till the crowd has gone past in the corridor beyond that door." And Melissa, whose feminine curiosity had already tempted her to the window, looked down into the quadrangle and on to the steps down which a maniple of the praetorian guard were marching, with noble Romans in togas or the uniform of legates, augurs wearing wreaths, and priests of various orders. Then for a few minutes the steps were deserted, and Melissa thought she could hear her own heart beating, when suddenly the cry: "Hail, Caesar!" was again heard, loud trumpets rang out and echoed from the high stone walls which surrounded the inclosure, and Caracalla appeared on the broad marble steps which led down into the court of sacrifice.
Melissa's eyes were riveted as if spell-bound on this figure, which was neither handsome nor dignified, and which nevertheless had a strange attraction for her, she knew not why. What was it in this man, who was short rather than tall, and feeble rather than majestic, which so imperatively forbade all confident advances? The noble lion which walked by his side, and in whose mane his left hand was buried, was not more unapproachable than he. He called this terrible creature, which he treated with as much familiarity as if it were a lapdog, his "Persian sword"; and as Melissa looked she remembered what fate might be in store for her brother through this man, and all the crimes of which he was accused by the world--the murders of his brother, of his wife, and of thousands besides.
For the first time in her life she felt that she could hate; she longed to bring down every evil on that man's head. The blood mounted to her cheeks, and her little fists were clinched, but she never took her eyes off him; for everything in his person impressed her, if not as fine, still as exceptional--if not as great, still as noteworthy.
She knew that he was not yet thirty, but yesterday, as he drove past her, he had looked like a surly misanthropist of more than middle age. To-day how young he seemed! Did he owe it to the laurel crown which rested on his head, or to the white toga which fell about him in ample folds, leaving only the sinewy arm bare by which he led the lion?
From where she stood she could only see his side-face as he came down the steps, and indeed it was not ill-favored; brow, nose, and chin were finely and nobly formed; his beard was thin, and a mustache curled over his lips. His eyes, deeply set under the brows, were not visible to her, but she had not forgotten since yesterday their sinister and terrible scowl.
At this moment the lion crept closer to his master.
If only the brute should spring on that more blood-stained and terrible beast of prey who could kill not only with claws and teeth but with a word from his lips, a wave of his hand!--the world would be rid of the ferocious curse. Ay, his eye, which had yesterday scorned to look at the multitudes who had hailed his advent, was that of a cruel tyrant.
And then--she felt as if he must have guessed her thoughts--while he patted the lion and gently pushed him aside he turned his face full on her, and she knew not whether to be pleased or angry, for the odious, squinting eyes were not now terrible or contemptuous; nay, they had looked kindly on the beast, and with a somewhat suffering expression. The dreadful face of the murderer was not hideous now, but engaging--the face of a youth enduring torments of soul or of body.
She was not mistaken. On the very next step Caracalla stood still, pressed his right hand to his temples, and set his lips as if to control some acute pain. Then he sadly shook his head and gazed up at the walls of the court, which had been decorated in his honor with hangings and garlands of flowers. First he studied the frieze and the festal display on his right, and when he turned his head to look at the side where Melissa stood, an inward voice bade her withdraw, that the gaze of this monster might not blight her. But an irresistible attraction held her fast; then suddenly she felt as if the ground were sinking from under her feet, and, as a shipwrecked wretch snatches at a floating spar, she clung to the little column at the left of the window, clutching it with her hand; for the dreadful thing had happened-Caracalla's eye had met hers and had even rested on her for a while! And that gaze had nothing bloodthirsty in it, nor the vile leer which had sparkled in the eyes of the drunken rioters she had met last night in the streets; he only looked astonished as at some wonderful thing which he had not expected to see in this place. But presently a fresh attack of pain apparently made him turn away, for his features betrayed acute suffering, as he slowly set his foot on the next step below.
Again, and more closely, he pressed his hand to his brow, and then beckoned to a tall, well-built man with flowing hair, who walked behind him, and accepted the support of his offered arm.
"Theocritus, formerly an actor and dancer," the priest whispered to Melissa. "Caesar's whim made the mimic a senator, a legate, and a favorite."
But Melissa only knew that he was speaking, and did not take in the purport of his speech; for this man, slowly descending the steps, absorbed her whole sympathy. She knew well the look of those who suffer and conceal it from the eyes of the world; and some cruel disease was certainly consuming this youth, who ruled the earth, but whose purple robes would be snatched at soon enough by greedy hands if he should cease to seem strong and able. And now, again, he looked old and worn--poor wretch, who yet was so young and born to be so abundantly happy! He was, to be sure, a base and blood-stained tyrant, but not the less a miserable and unhappy man. The more severe the pain he had to endure, the harder must he find it to hide it from the crowd who were constantly about him. There is but one antidote to hatred, and that is pity; it was with the eager compassion of a woman's heart that Melissa marked every movement of the imperial murderer, as soon as she recognized his sufferings, and when their eyes had met. Nothing now escaped her keen glance which could add to her sympathy for the man she had loathed but a minute before. She noticed a slight limp in his gait and a convulsive twitching of his eyelids; his slender, almost transparent hand, she reflected, was that of a sick man, and pain and fever, no doubt, had thinned his hair, which had left many places bald.
And when the high--priest of Serapis and the augurs met him at the bottom of the steps and Caesar's eye again put on the cruel scowl of yesterday, she would not doubt that it was stern self-command which gave him that threatening glare, to seem terrible, in spite of his anguish, to those whose obedience he required. He had really needed his companion's support as they descended the stair, that she could plainly see; and she had observed, too, how carefully his guide had striven to conceal the fact that he was upholding him; but the courtier was too tall to achieve the task he had set himself. Now, she was much shorter than Caesar, and she was strong, too. Her arm would have afforded him a much better support.
But how could she think of such a thing?--she, the sister of Alexander, the betrothed of Diodoros, whom she truly loved!
Caesar mingled with the priests, and her guide told her that the corridor was now free. She peeped into the litter, and, seeing that Diodoros still slept, she followed him, lost in thought, and giving short and heedless answers to Andreas and the physicians She had not listened to the priest's information, and scarcely turned her head to look out, when a tall, thin man with a bullet-head and deeply wrinkled brow was pointed out to her as Macrinus, the prefect of the body-guard, the most powerful man in Rome next to Caesar; and then the "friends" of Caracalla, whom she had seen yesterday, and the historian Dion Cassius, with other senators and members of the imperial train.
Now, as they made their way through halls and passages where the foot of the uninitiated rarely intruded, she looked about her with more interest when the priest drew her attention to some particularly fine statue or picture, or some symbolical presentment. Even now, however, though association with her brothers had made her particularly alive to everything that was beautiful or curious, she glanced round with less interest than she otherwise might have done, for she had much else to think of. In the first place, of the benefits Diodoros was to derive from the great Galen; then of her father, who this day must dispense with her assistance; and, finally, of the state of mind of her grave brother Philip. He and Alexander, who usually were such united friends, now both were in love with Agatha, and what could come of that? And from time to time her thoughts flew back to Caesar, and she felt as though some tie, she knew not what, linked them together.
As soon as the litter had to be carried up or down steps, she kept an eye on the bearers, and gave such help as was needed when the sleeper's position was changed. Whenever she looked in his handsome face, flushed as it was by fever and framed in tumbled curls, her heart swelled, and she felt that she had much to thank the gods for, seeing that her lover was so full of splendid youth and in no respect resembled the prematurely decrepit and sickly wearer of the purple. Nevertheless, she thought a good deal of Caracalla, and it even occurred to her once that if it were he who was being carried instead of Diodoros, she would tend him no less carefully than her betrothed. Caesar, who had been as far out of her ken as a god, and of whose overwhelming power she had heard, had suddenly come down to her. She involuntarily thought of him as one of those few with whom she had come into personal contact, and in whose weal or woe she had some sympathetic interest. He could not be altogether evil and hardened. If he could only know what pain it caused her to see him suffer, he would surely command Zminis to abandon the pursuit of her brother.
Just as they were reaching the end of their walk, the trumpets rang out once more, reminding her that she was under the same roof with him. She was so close to him--and yet how far he was from guessing the desires of a heart which beat with compassion for him!
Several sick persons, eager for some communication from the gods, and some who, without being sick, had slept in the Serapeum, had by this time left their beds, and were taking counsel in the great hall with interpreters and physicians. The bustle was like that of a market-place, and there was one old man with unkempt hair and fiery eyes who repeated again and again in a loud voice, "It was the god himself who appeared to me, and his three-headed dog licked my cheeks." And presently a hideous old woman plucked at Melissa's robe, whispering: "A healing draught for your lover; tears from the eyes of the infant Horus. I have them from Isis herself. The effect is rapid and certain. Come to Hezron, the dealer in balsams in the street of the Nekropolis. Your lover's recovery--for five drachmae."
But Melissa, who was no stranger here since her mother's last sickness, went on without pausing, following the litter down the long hall full of beds, a room with a stone roof resting on two rows of tall columns. Familiar to her too was the aromatic scent of kyphi,--[incense]--which filled the hall, although fresh air was constantly pouring in from outside through the high windows. Red and green curtains hung in front of them, and the subdued light which came through fell in tinted twilight on the colored pictures in relief of the history of the gods, which covered the walls. Speech was forbidden here, and their steps fell noiseless on the thick, heavy mats.
Most of the beds were already empty; only those between the long wall and the nearest row of columns were still for the most part occupied by the sick who sought the help of the god. On one of these Diodoros was laid, Melissa helping in silence, and with such skill as delighted even the physicians. Still, this did not wake him, though on the next bed lay a man who never ceased speaking, because in his dream he had been bidden to repeat the name of Serapis as many times as there were drops in a cup of water filled from the Agathodaemon Canal.
"A long stay in this strong perfume will be bad for him," whispered Ptolemaeus to the freedman. "Galenus sent word that he would visit the sick early to-day; but he is not here yet. He is an old man, and in Rome, they say, it is the custom to sleep late."
He was interrupted by a stir in the long hall, which broke in on the silence, no one knew from whence; and immediately after, officious hands threw open the great double doors with a loud noise.
"He is coming," whispered their priestly guide; and the instant after an old man crossed the threshold, followed by a troop of pastophori, as obsequious as the courtiers at the heels of a prince.
"Gently, brothers," murmured the greatest physician of his age in a low voice, as, leaning on a staff, he went toward the row of couches. It was easy to see the traces of his eighty years, but his fine eyes still gleamed with youthful light.
Melissa blushed to think that she could have mistaken Serenus Samonicus for this noble old man. He must once have been a tall man; his back was bent and his large head was bowed as though he were forever seeking something. His face was pale and colorless, with a well-formed nose and mouth, but not of classic mold. Blue veins showed through the clear white skin, and the long, silky, silvery hair still flowed in unthinned waves round his massive head, bald only on the crown. A snowy beard fell over his breast. His aged form was wrapped in a long and ample robe of costly white woolen stuff, and his whole appearance would have been striking for its peculiar refinement, even if the eyes had not sparkled with such vivid and piercing keenness from under the thick brows, and if the high, smooth, slightly prominent forehead had not borne witness to the power and profundity of his mind. Melissa knew of no one with whom to compare him; he reminded Andreas of the picture of John as an old man, which a wealthy fellow-Christian had presented to the church of Saint Mark.
If this man could do nothing, there was no help on earth. And how dignified and self-possessed were the movements of this bent old man as he leaned on his staff! He, a stranger here, seemed to be showing the others the way, a guide in his own realm. Melissa had heard that the strong scent of the kyphi might prove injurious to Diodoros, and her one thought now was the desire that Galenus might soon approach his couch. He did not, in fact, begin with the sick nearest to the door, but stood awhile in the middle of the hall, leaning against a column and surveying the place and the beds.
When his searching glance rested on that where Diodoros was lying, an answering look met his with reverent entreaty from a pair of beautiful, large, innocent eyes. A smile parted his bearded lips, and going up to the girl he said: "Where beauty bids, even age must obey. Your lover, child, or your brother?"
"My betrothed," Melissa hastened to reply; and the maidenly embarrassment which flushed her cheek became her so well that he added:
"He must have much to recommend him if I allow him to carry you off, fair maid."
With these words he went up to the couch, and looking at Diodoros as he lay, he murmured, as if speaking to himself and without paying any heed to the younger men who crowded round him:
"There are no true Greeks left here; but the beauty of the ancestral race is not easily stamped out, and is still to be seen in their descendants. What a head, what features, and what hair!"
Then he felt the lad's breast, shoulders, and arms, exclaiming in honest admiration, "What a godlike form!"
He laid his delicate old hand, with its network of blue veins, on the sick man's forehead, again glanced round the room, and listened to Ptolemaeus, who gave him a brief and technical report of the case; then, sniffing the heavy scent that filled the hall, he said, as the Christian leech ceased speaking:
"We will try; but not here--in a room less full of incense. This perfume brings dreams, but no less surely induces fever. Have you no other room at hand where the air is purer?"
An eager "Yes," in many voices was the reply; and Diodoros was forthwith transferred into a small cubicle adjoining.
While he was being moved, Galenus went from bed to bed, questioning the chief physician and the patients. He seemed to have forgotten Diodoros and Melissa; but after hastily glancing at some and carefully examining others, and giving advice where it was needful, he desired to see the fair Alexandrian's lover once more.
As he entered the room he nodded kindly to the girl. How gladly would she have followed him! But she said to herself that if he had wished her to be present he would certainly have called her; so she modestly awaited his return. She had to wait a long time, and the minutes seemed hours while she heard the voices of men through the closed door, the moaning and sighing of the sufferer, the splashing of water, and the clatter of metal instruments; and her lively imagination made her fancy that something almost unendurable was being done to her lover.
At last the physician came out. His whole appearance betokened perfect satisfaction. The younger men, who followed him, whispered among themselves, shaking their heads as though some miracle had been performed; and every eye that looked on him was radiant with enthusiastic veneration. Melissa knew, as soon as his eyes met hers, that all was well, and as she grasped the old man's hand she concluded from its cool moisture that he had but just washed it, and had done with his own hand all that Ptolemaeus had expected of his skill. Her eyes were dim with grateful emotion, and though Galenus strove to hinder her from pressing her lips to his hand she succeeded in doing so; he, however, kissed her brow with fatherly delight in her warmhearted sweetness, and said:
"Now go home happy, my child. That stone had hit your lover's brain-roof a hard blow; the pressure of the broken beam--I mean a piece of bone--had robbed him of his consciousness of what a sweet bride the gods have bestowed on him. But the knife has done its work; the beam is in its place again; the splinters which were not needed have been taken out; the roof is mended, and the pressure removed. Your friend has recovered consciousness, and I will wager that at this moment he is thinking of you and wishes you were with him. But for the present you had better defer the meeting. For forty-eight hours he must remain in that little room, for any movement would only delay his recovery."
"Then I shall stay here to nurse him," cried Melissa, eagerly. But Galenus replied, decisively:
"That must not be if he is to get well. The presence of a woman for whom the sufferer's heart is on fire is as certain to aggravate the fever as the scent of incense. Besides, child, this is no place for such as you."
Her head drooped sadly, but he nodded to her cheeringly as he added:
"Ptolemaeus, who is worthy of your entire confidence, speaks of you as a girl of much sense, and you will surely not do anything to spoil my work, which was not easy. However, I must say farewell; other sick require my care."
He held out his hand, but, seeing her eyes fixed on his and glittering through tears, he asked her name and family. It seemed to him of good augury for the long hours before him which he must devote to Caesar, that he should, so early in the day, have met so pure and fair a flower of girlhood.
When she had told him her own name and her father's, and also mentioned her brothers, Philip the philosopher, and Alexander the painter, who was already one of the chief masters of his art here, Galenus answered heartily:
"All honor to his genius, then, for he is the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. Like the old gods, who can scarce make themselves heard for the new, the Muses too have been silenced. The many really beautiful things to be seen here are not new; and the new, alas! are not beautiful. But your brother's work," he added, kindly, "may be the exception."
"You should only see his portraits!" cried Melissa.
"Yours, perhaps, among them?" said the old man, with interest. "That is a reminder I would gladly take back to Rome with me."
Alexander had indeed painted his sister not long before, and how glad she was to be able to offer the picture to the reverend man to whom she owed so much! So she promised with a blush to send it him as soon as she should be at home again.
The unexpected gift was accepted with pleasure, and when he thanked her eagerly and with simple heartiness, she interrupted him with the assurance that in Alexandria art was not yet being borne to the grave. Her brother's career, it was true, threatened to come to an untimely end, for he stood in imminent danger. On this the old man--who had taken his seat on a bench which the attendant physicians of the temple had brought forward-desired to know the state of the case, and Melissa briefly recounted Alexander's misdemeanor, and how near he had been, yesterday, to falling into the hands of his pursuers. Then she looked up at the old man beseechingly; and as he had praised her beauty, so now--she herself knew not how she had such courage--the praises of his fame, his greatness and goodness, flowed from her lips. And her bold entreaties ended with a prayer that he would urge Caesar, who doubtless revered him as a father, to cease from prosecuting her brother.
The old man's face had grown graver and graver; he had several times stroked his white beard with an uneasy gesture; and when, as she spoke the last words, she ventured to raise her timidly downcast eyes to his, he rose stiffly and said in regretful tones:
"How can I be vexed with a sister who knocks at any door to save a brother's life? But I would have given a great deal that it had not been at mine. It is hard to refuse when I would so gladly accede, and yet so it must be; for, though Claudius Galenus does his best for Bassianus Antoninus as a patient, as he does for any other, Bassianus the man and the emperor is as far from him as fire from water; and so it must ever be during the short space of time which may yet be granted to him and me under the light of the sun."
The last words were spoken in a bitter, repellent tone, and yet Melissa felt that it pained the old man to refuse her. So she earnestly exclaimed:
"Oh, forgive me! How could I guess--" She suddenly paused and added, "Then you really think that Caesar has not long to live?"
She spoke with the most anxious excitement, and her question offended Galenus. He mistook their purport, and his voice was wrathful as he replied, "Long enough yet to punish an insult!"
Melissa turned pale. She fancied that she apprehended the meaning of these stern words, and, prompted by an earnest desire not to be misunderstood by this man, she eagerly exclaimed:
"I do not wish him dead--no, indeed not; not even for my brother's sake! But just now I saw him near, and I thought I could see that he was suffering great pain. Why, we pity a brute creature when it is in anguish. He is still so young, and it must be so hard to die!"
Galenus nodded approvingly, and replied:
"I thank you, in the name of my imperial patient.--Well, send me your portrait; but let it be soon, for I embark before sunset. I shall like to remember you. As to Caesar's sufferings, they are so severe, your tender soul would not wish your worst enemy to know such pain. My art has few means of mitigating them, and the immortals are little inclined to lighten the load they have laid on this man. Of the millions who tremble before him, not one prays or offers sacrifice of his own free-will for the prosperity of the monarch."
A flash of enthusiasm sparkled in Melissa's eye, but Galenus did not heed it; he briefly bade her farewell and turned away to devote himself to other patients.
"There is one, at any rate," thought she, as she looked after the physician, "who will pray and sacrifice for that unhappy man. Diodoros will not forbid it, I am sure."
She turned to Andreas and desired him to take her to her lover. Diodoros was now really sleeping, and did not feel the kiss she breathed on his fore head. He had all her love; the suffering criminal she only pitied.
When they had quitted the temple she pressed her hand to her bosom and drew a deep breath as if she had just been freed from prison.
"My head is quite confused," she said, "by the heavy perfume and so much anxiety and alarm; but O Andreas, my heart never beat with such joy and gratitude! Now I must collect my thoughts, and get home to do what is needful for Philip. And merciful gods! that good-natured old Roman, Samonicus, will soon be expecting me at the Temple of Aphrodite; see how high the sun is already. Let us walk faster, for, to keep him waiting--"
Andreas here interrupted her, saying, "If I am not greatly mistaken, there is the Roman, in that open chariot, coming down the incline."
He was right; a few minutes later the chariot drew up close to Melissa, and she managed to tell Samonicus all that had happened in so courteous and graceful a manner that, far from being offended, he could wish every success to the cure his great friend had begun. And indeed his promise had somewhat weighed upon his mind, for to carry out two undertakings in one day was too much, at his age, and he had to be present in the evening at a banquet to which Caesar had invited himself in the house of Seleukus the merchant."
"The high-priest's brother?" asked Melissa, in surprise, for death had but just bereft that house of the only daughter.
"The same," said the Roman, gayly. Then he gave her his hand, with the assurance that the thought of her would make it a pleasure to remember Alexandria.
As she clasped his hand, Andreas came up, bowed gravely, and asked whether it would be overbold in him, as a faithful retainer of the maiden's family, to crave a favor, in her name, of Caesar's illustrious and familiar friend.
The Roman eyed Andreas keenly, and the manly dignity, nay, the defiant self-possession of the freedman--the very embodiment of all he had expected to find in a genuine Alexandrian--so far won his confidence that he bade him speak without fear. He hoped to hear something sufficiently characteristic of the manners of the provincial capital to make an anecdote for Caesar's table. Then, when he understood that the matter concerned Melissa's brother, and a distinguished artist, he smiled expectantly. Even when he learned that Alexander was being hunted down for some heedless jest against the emperor, he only threatened Melissa sportively with his finger; but on being told that this jest dealt with the murder of Geta, he seemed startled, and the tone of his voice betrayed serious displeasure as he replied to the petitioner, "Do you suppose that I have three heads, like the Cerberus at the feet of your god, that you ask me to lay one on the block for the smile of a pretty girl?"
He signed to his charioteer, and the horses whirled the light vehicle across the square and down the street of Hermes.
Andreas gazed after him, and muttered, with a shrug
"My first petition to a great man, and assuredly my last."
"The coward!" cried Melissa; but Andreas said, with a superior smile.
"Let us take a lesson from this, my child. Those who reckon on the help of man are badly off indeed. We must all trust in God, and each in himself."