A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
Andreas, who had so much on his shoulders, had lost much time, and was urgently required at home. After gratifying Melissa's wish by describing how Diodoros had immediately recovered consciousness on the completion of the operation performed by Galen, and painting the deep amazement that had fallen on all the other physicians at the skill of this fine old man, he had done all he could for the present to be of use to the girl. He was glad, therefore, when in the street of Hermes, now swarming again with citizens, soldiers, and horsemen, he met the old nurse, who, after conducting Agatha home to her father, had been sent back to the town to remain in attendance, if necessary, on Diodoros. The freedman left it to her to escort Melissa to her own home, and went back to report to Polybius--in the first place, as to his son's state.
It was decided that Melissa should for the present remain with her father; but, as soon as Diodoros should be allowed to leave the Serapeum, she was to go across the lake to receive the convalescent on his return home.
The old woman assured her, as they walked on, that Diodoros had always been born to good luck; and it was clear that this had never been truer than now, when Galenus had come in the nick of time to restore him to life and health, and when he had won such a bride as Melissa. Then she sang the praises of Agatha, of her beauty and goodness, and told her that the Christian damsel had made many inquiries concerning Alexander. She, the speaker, had not been chary of her praise of the youth, and, unless she was much mistaken, the arrow of Eros had this time pierced Agatha's heart, though till now she had been as a child--an innocent child--as she herself could say, who had seen her grow up from the cradle. Her faith need not trouble either Melissa or Alexander, for gentler and more modest wives than the Christian women were not to be found among the Greeks--and she had known many.
Melissa rarely interrupted the garrulous old woman; but, while she listened, pleasant pictures of the future rose before her fancy. She saw herself and Diodoros ruling over Polybius's household, and, close at hand, on Zeno's estate, Alexander with his beautiful and adored wife. There, under Zeno's watchful eye, the wild youth would become a noble man. Her father would often come to visit them, and in their happiness would learn to find pleasure in life again. Only now and then the thought of the sacrifice which the vehement Philip must make for his younger brother, and of the danger which still threatened Alexander, disturbed the cheerful contentment of her soul, rich as it was in glad hopes.
The nearer they got to her own home, the more lightly her heart beat. She had none but good news to report there. The old woman, panting for breath, was obliged to beg her to consider her sixty years and moderate her pace.
Melissa willingly checked her steps; and when, at the end of the street of Hermes, they reached the temple of the god from whom it was named and turned off to the right, the good woman parted from her, for in this quiet neighborhood she could safely be trusted to take care of herself.
Melissa was now alone. On her left lay the gardens of Hermes, where, on the southern side, stood her father's house and that of their neighbor Skopas. Though the old nurse had indeed talked of nothing that was not pleasant, it was a comfort not to have to listen to her, but to be free to follow her own thoughts. Nor did she meet with anything to distract them, for at this hour the great public garden was left almost entirely to children and their attendants, or to the inhabitants of the immediate neighborhood who frequented the temples of Hermes or Artemis, or the little shrine of Asklepios, which stood in a grove of mimosas on the skirt of the park, and to which Melissa herself felt attracted. It had been a familiar spot at the time when her mother was at the worst. How often had she flown hither from her home near at hand to pour oil on the altar of the god of healing--to make some small offering and find comfort in prayer!
The day was now hot, she was tired, and, when she saw the white marble columns gleaming among the greenery, she yielded to the impulse to enjoy a few minutes' rest in the cool cella and accomplish the vow she had taken an hour or two since. She longed, indeed, to get home, that her father might share the happiness which uplifted her heart; but then she reflected that she would not soon have the opportunity of carrying out, unobserved, the purpose she had in her mind. Now, if ever, was the time to offer sacrifice for Caesar and for the mitigation of his sufferings. The thought that Galenus perhaps was right, and that of Caracalla's myriad subjects she might be the only one who would do so much for his sake, strengthened her resolve.
The chief temple of Asklepios, whom the Egyptians called Imhotep, was at the Serapeum. Imhotep was the son of Ptah, who, at Alexandria, was merged in Serapis. There he was worshiped, conjointly with Serapis and Isis, by Egyptians, Greeks, and Syrians alike. The little sanctuary near her father's house was the resort of none but Greeks. Ptolemaeus Philadelphus, the second Macedonian King of Egypt, had built it as an appendage to the Temple of Artemis, after the recovery from sickness of his wife Arsinoe.
It was small, but a masterpiece of Greek art, and the statues of Sleep and of A Dream, at the entrance, with the marble group behind the altar, representing Asklepios with his sister Hygeia and his wife Epione the Soother, was reckoned by connoisseurs as among the noblest and most noteworthy works of art in Alexandria.
The dignity and benevolence of the god were admirably expressed in the features of the divinity, somewhat resembling the Olympian Zeus, who leaned on his serpent staff; and the graceful, inviting sweetness of Hygeia, holding out her cup as though she were offering health to the sufferer, was well adapted to revive the hopes of the despondent. The god's waving locks were bound with a folded scarf, and at his feet was a dog, gazing up at his lord as if in entreaty.
The sacred snakes lay coiled in a cage by the altar; they were believed to have the power of restoring themselves, and this was regarded as a promise to the sick that they should cast off their disease as a serpent casts its skin. The swift power of the reptile over life and death, was an emblem to the votaries of the power of the god to postpone the death of man or to shorten his days.
The inside of the little sanctuary was a cool and still retreat. Tablets hung on the white marble walls, inscribed with the thanksgivings or vows of those who had been healed. On several, the remedies were recorded which had availed in certain cases; and on the left of the little hall, behind a heavy hanging, a small recess contained the archives of the temple, recipes, records of gifts, and documents referring to the history of the sanctuary.
In this deserted, shady spot, between these thick marble walls, it was much cooler than outside. Melissa lifted her hands in prayer before the statue of the god. She was alone, with the exception of the priest in charge. The temple-servant was absent, and the priest was asleep, breathing heavily, in an arm-chair in a dark nook behind the marble group. Thus she was free to follow the impulse of her heart, and pray, first for her sick lover, and then for the sufferer to whom the whole subservient world belonged.
For Diodoros, indeed, as she knew, other hands and hearts were uplifted in loving sympathy. But who besides herself was praying for the hated sovereign who had at his command the costliest and rarest gifts of fortune, all poisoned by bitter anguish of mind and body? The world thought only of the sufferings he had inflicted on others; no one dreamed of the pangs he had to endure--no one but herself, to whom Galenus had spoken of them. And had not his features and his look betrayed to her that pain was gnawing at his vitals like the vulture at those of Prometheus? Hapless, pitiable youth, born to the highest fortune, and now a decrepit old man in the flower of his age! To pray and sacrifice for him must be a pious deed, pleasing to the gods. Melissa besought the marble images over the altar from the very bottom of her heart, never even asking herself why she was bestowing on this stranger, this cruel tryant, in whose name her own brother was in danger of the law, an emotion which nothing but her care for those dearest to her had ever stirred. But she did not feel that he was a stranger, and never thought how far apart they were. Her prayers came easily, too, in this spot; the bonds that linked her to these beautiful marble beings were familiar and dear to her. While she gazed up into the face of Asklepios, imploring him to be gracious to the imperial youth, and release him from the pain but for which he might have been humane and beneficent, the stony features seemed to live before her eyes, and the majesty and dignity that beamed on the brow assured her that the god's power and wisdom were great enough to heal every disease. The tender smile which played on his features filled her soul with the certainty that he would vouchsafe to be gracious; nay, she could believe that he moved those marble lips and promised to grant her prayer. And when she turned to the statue of Hygeia she fancied the beautiful, kind face nodded to her with a pledge of fulfillment.
She raised her beseeching arms higher still, and addressed her sculptured friends aloud, as though they could hear her:
"I know that nothing is hidden from you, eternal gods," she began, "and when it was your will that my mother should be taken from me my foolish heart rebelled. But I was then a child without understanding, and my soul lay as it were asleep. Now it is different. You know that I have learned to love a man; and many things, and, the certainty that the gods are good, have come to me with that love. Forgive the maid the sins of the child, and make my lover whole, as he lies under the protection and in the sanctuary of the great Serapis, still needing your aid too. He is mending, and the greatest of thy ministers, O Asklepios, says he will recover, so it must be true. Yet without thee even the skill of Galenus is of little avail; wherefore I beseech you both, Heal Diodoros, whom I love!--But I would fain entreat you for another. You will wonder, perhaps--for it is Bassianus Antoninus, whom they call Caracalla and Caesar.
"Thou, Asklepios, dost look in amazement, and great Hygeia shakes her head. And it is hard to say what moves me, who love another, to pray for the blood-stained murderer for whom not another soul in his empire would say a word to you. Nay, and I know not what it is. Perhaps it is but pity; for he, who ought to be the happiest, is surely the most wretched man under the sun. O great Asklepios, O bountiful and gracious Hygeia, ease his sufferings, which are indeed beyond endurance! Nor shall you lack an offering. I will dedicate a cock to you; and as the cock announces a new day, so perchance shall you grant to Caracalla the dawn of a new existence in better health.
"Alas, gracious god! but thou art grave, as though the offering were too small. How gladly would I bring a goat, but I know not whether my money will suffice, for it is only what I have saved. By and by, when the youth I love is my husband, I will prove my gratitude; for he is as rich as he is handsome and kind, and will, I know, refuse me nothing. And thou, sweet goddess, dost not look down upon me as graciously as before; I fear thou art angry. Yet think not"--and she gave a low laugh--"that I pray for Caracalla because I care for him, or am in love with him. No, no, no, no! my heart is wholly given to Diodoros, and not the smallest part of it to any other. It is Caesar's misery alone that brings me hither. Sooner would I kiss one of those serpents or a thorny hedgehog than him, the fratricide in the purple. Believe me, it is true, strange as it must seem.
"First and last, I pray and offer sacrifice indeed for Diodoros and his recovery. My brother Alexander, too, who is in danger, I would fain commend to you; but he is well in body, and your remedies are of no effect against the perils which threaten him."
Here she ceased, and gazed into the faces of the statues, but they would not look so friendly as before. It was, no doubt, the smallness of her offering that had offended them. She anxiously drew out her little money-bag and counted the contents. But when, after waking the priest, she had asked how much a goat might cost for sacrifice, her countenance cleared, for her savings were enough to pay for it and for a young cock as well. All she had she left with the old man, to the last sesterce; but she could only wait to see the cock sacrificed, for she felt she must go home.
As soon as the blood of the bird had besprinkled the altar, and she had told the divinities that a goat was also to be killed, she fancied that they looked at her more kindly; and she was turning to the door, as light and gay as if she had happily done some difficult task, when the curtain screening off the library of archives was lifted, and a man came out calling her by name. She turned round; but as soon as she saw that he was a Roman, and, as his white toga told her, of the upper class, she took fright. She hastily exclaimed that she was in a hurry, and flew down the steps, through the garden, and into the road. Once there, she reproached herself for foolish shyness of a stranger who was scarcely younger than her own father; but by the time she had gone a few steps she had forgotten the incident, and was rehearsing in her mind all she had to tell Heron. She soon saw the tops of the palms and sycamores in their own garden, her faithful old dog Melas barked with delight, and the happiness which the meeting with the stranger had for a moment interrupted revived with unchecked glow.
She was weary, and where could she rest so well as at home? She had escaped many perils, and where could she feel so safe as under her father's roof? Glad as she was at the prospect of her new and handsome home on the other side of the lake, and of all the delights promised her by Diodoros's affection, her heart still clung fondly to the pretty, neat little dwelling whose low roof now gleamed in front of her. In the garden, whose shell-strewn paths she now trod, she had played as a child; that window belonged to the room where her mother had died. And then, coming home was in itself a joy, when she had so much to tell that was pleasant.
The dog leaped along by her side with vehement affection, jumping round her and on her, and she heard the starling's cry, first "Olympias!" and then "My strength!"
A happy smile parted her rosy lips as she glanced at the work-room; but the two white teeth which always gleamed when she was gay were presently hidden, for her father, it would seem, was out. He was certainly not at work, for the wide window was unscreened, and it was now nearly noon. He was almost always within at this hour, and it would spoil half her gladness not to find him there.
But what was this? What could this mean? The dog had announced her approach, and old Dido's gray head peeped out of the house-door, to vanish again at once. How strangely she had looked at her--exactly as she had looked that day when the physician had told the faithful creature that her mistress's last hour was at hand!
Melissa's contentment was gone. Before she even crossed the threshold, where the friendly word "Rejoice" greeted her in brown mosaic, she called the old woman by name. No answer.
She went into the kitchen to find Dido; for she, according to her invariable habit of postponing evil as long as possible, had fled to the hearth. There she stood, though the fire was out, weeping bitterly, and covering her wrinkled face with her hands, as though she quailed before the eyes of the girl she must so deeply grieve. One glance at the woman, and the tears which trickled through her fingers and down her lean arms told Melissa that something dreadful had happened. Very pale, and clasping her hand to her heaving bosom, she desired to be told all; but for some time Dido was quite unable to speak intelligibly. And before she could make up her mind to it, she looked anxiously for Argutis, whom she held to be the wisest of mankind, and who, she knew, would reveal the dreadful thing that must be told more judiciously than she could. But the Gaul was not to be seen; so Dido, interrupted by sobs, began the melancholy tale.
Heron had come home between midnight and sunrise and had gone to bed. Next morning, while he was feeding the birds, Zminis, the captain of the night-watch, had come in with some men-at-arms, and had tried to take the artist prisoner in Caesar's name. On this, Heron had raved like a bull, had appealed to his Macedonian birth, his rights as a Roman citizen, and much besides, and demanded to know of what he was accused. He was then informed that he was to be held in captivity by the special orders of the head of the police, till his son Alexander, who was guilty of high-treason, should surrender to the authorities. But her master, said Dido, sobbing, had knocked down the man who had tried to bind him with a mighty blow of his fist. At last there was a fearful uproar, and in fact a bloody fight. The starling shouted his cry through it all, the birds fluttered and piped with terror, and it was like the abode of the damned in the nether world; and strangers came crowding about the house, till Skopas arrived and advised Heron to go with the Egyptian.
"But even at the door," Dido added, "he called out to me that you, Melissa, could remain with Polybius till he should recover his liberty. Philip was to appeal for help to the prefect Titianus, and offer him the gems--you know them, he said. And, last of all," and again she began to cry, "he especially commended to my care the tomb--and the birds; and the starling wants some fresh mealworms." Melissa heard with dismay; the color had faded from her cheeks, and as Dido ended she asked gloomily:
"And Philip--and Alexander?"
"We have thought of everything," replied the old woman. "As soon as we were alone we held a council, Argutis and I. He went to find Alexander, and I went to Philip. I found him in his rooms. He had come home very late, the porter said, and I saw him in bed, and I had trouble enough to wake him. Then I told him all, and he went on in such mad talk--it will be no wonder if the gods punish him. He wanted to rush off to the prefect, with his hair uncombed, just as he was. I had to bring him to his senses; and then, while I was oiling his hair and helping him into his best new mantle, he changed his mind, for he declared he would come home first, to talk with you and Argutis. Argutis was at home again, but he had not found Alexander, for the poor youth has to hide himself as if he were a murderer." And again she sobbed; nor was it till Melissa had soothed her with kind speeches that she could go on with her story.
Philip had learned yesterday where Alexander was concealed, so he undertook to go across the lake and inform him of what had occurred. But Argutis, faithful and prudent, had hindered him, representing that Alexander, who was easily moved, as soon as he heard that his father was a prisoner would unhesitatingly give himself up to his enemies as a hostage, and rush headlong into danger. Alexander must remain in hiding so long as Caesar was in Alexandria. He (Argutis) would go instead of Philip, who, for his part, might call on the prefect later. He would cross the lake and warn Melissa not to return home, and to tell Alexander what he might think necessary. The watch might possibly follow Argutis; but he knew every lane and alley, and could mislead and avoid them. Philip had listened to reason. The slave went, and must now soon be back again.
Of how different a home-coming had Melissa dreamed! What new and terrible griefs were these! Still, though distressed at the thought of her vehement father in prison, she shed no tears, but told herself that matters could only be mended by rational action on behalf of the victims, and not by lamentations. She must be alone, to collect her strength and consider the situation. So she desired Dido, to her great amazement, to prepare some food, and bring her wine and water. Then, seating herself, with a melancholy glance at her embroidery where it lay folded together, she rested her elbow on the table and her head in her hand, considering to whom she could appeal to save her father.
First she thought of Caesar himself, whose eye had met hers, and for whom she had prayed and offered sacrifice. But the blood fired her cheeks at the thought, and she repelled it at once. Yet her mind would linger at the Serapeum, where her lover, too, still rested his fevered head. She knew that the high-priests' spacious lodgings there, with their splendid rooms and banqueting halls, had been prepared for the emperor; and she remembered various things which her brother had told her of Timotheus, who was at the head not only of the heathen priesthood, but also of the museum. He was said to be a philosopher, and Philip had more than once been distinguished by him, and invited to his house. Her brother must apply to him. He, who was in a way Caracalla's host, would easily succeed in obtaining her father's release, from his imperial guest.
Her grave face brightened at this thought, and, while she ate and drank, another idea struck her. Alexander, too, must be known to the high-priest; for Timotheus was the brother of Seleukus, whose daughter the artist had just painted, and Timotheus had seen the portrait and praised it highly. Thus it was not improbable that the generous man would, if Philip besought him, intercede for Alexander. So all might turn out better than she had ventured to hope.
Firmly convinced that it was her part to rescue her family, she once more reviewed in her mind every acquaintance to whom she might look for aid; but even during her meditations her tired frame asserted its rights, and when Dido came in to remove the remains of the meal and the empty wine-cup, she found Melissa sunk in sleep.
Shaking her head, and saying to herself that it served the old man right for his cruel treatment of a dutiful child--though, for Alexander's sake, she might have tried to keep awake--the faithful soul pushed a cushion under the girl's head, drew the screen across the window, and stood waving off the flies which buzzed about her darling's flushed face, till presently the dog barked, and an energetic knock shook the house-door. Melissa started from her slumbers, the old woman threw aside the fan, and, as she hurried to admit the vehement visitor, cried out to Melissa:
"Be easy, dear child--be easy. It is nothing; depend upon that. I know the knock; it is only Philip."