A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
As Melissa made her way with the philosopher through the crowd, Philostratus said to her: "It is for your sake, child, that these hundreds have had so long to wait to-day, and many hopes will be disappointed. To satisfy all is a giant's task. But Caracalla must do it, well or ill."
"Then he will forget me!" replied Melissa, with a sigh of relief.
"Hardly," answered the philosopher. He was sorry for the terrified girl, and in his wish to lighten her woes as far as he could, he said, gravely: "You called him terrible, and he can be more terrible than any man living. But he has been kind to you so far, and, if you take my advice, you will always seem to expect nothing from him that is not good and noble."
"Then I must be a hypocrite," replied Melissa. "Only to-day he has murdered the noble Titianus."
"That is an affair of state which does not concern you," replied Philostratus. "Read my description of Achilles. I represent him among other heroes such as Caracalla might be. Try, on your part, to see him in that light. I know that it is sometimes a pleasure to him to justify the good opinion of others. Encourage your imagination to think the best of him. I shall tell him that you regard him as magnanimous and noble."
"No, no!" cried Melissa; "that would make everything worse."
But the philosopher interrupted her.
"Trust my riper experience. I know him. If you let him know your true opinion of him, I will answer for nothing. My Achilles reveals the good qualities with which he came into the world; and if you look closely you may still find sparks among the ashes."
He here took his leave, for they had reached the vestibule leading to the high-priest's lodgings, and a few minutes later Melissa found herself with Euryale, to whom she related all that she had seen and felt. When she told her older friend what Philostratus had advised, the lady stroked her hair, and said: "Try to follow the advice of so experienced a man. It can not be very difficult. When a woman's heart has once been attached to a man--and pity is one of the strongest of human ties--the bond may be strained and worn, but a few threads must always remain."
But Melissa hastily broke in:
"There is not a spider's thread left which binds me to that cruel man. The murder of Titianus has snapped them all."
"Not so," replied the lady, confidently. "Pity is the only form of love which even the worst crime can not eradicate from a kind heart. You prayed for Caesar before you knew him, and that was out of pure human charity. Exercise now a wider compassion, and reflect that Fate has called you to take care of a hapless creature raving in fever and hard to deal with. How many Christian women, especially such as call themselves deaconesses, voluntarily assume such duties! and good is good, right is right for all, whether they pray to one God or to several. If you keep your heart pure, and constantly think of the time which shall be fulfilled for each of us, to our ruin or to our salvation, you will pass unharmed through this great peril. I know it, I feel it."
"But you do not know him," exclaimed Melissa, "and how terrible he can be! And Diodoros! When he is well again, if he hears that I am with Caesar, in obedience to his call whenever he sends for me, and if evil tongues tell him dreadful things about me, he, too, will condemn me!"
"No, no," the matron declared, kissing her brow and eyes. "If he loves you truly, he will trust you."
"He loves me," sobbed Melissa; "but, even if he does not desert me when I am thus branded, his father will come between us."
"God forbid!" cried Euryale. "Remain what you are, and I will always be the same to you, come what may; and those who love you will not refuse to listen to an old woman who has grown gray in honor."
And Melissa believed her motherly, kind, worthy friend; and, with the new confidence which revived in her, her longing for her lover began to stir irresistibly. She wanted a fond glance from the eyes of the youth who loved her, and to whom, for another man's sake, she could not give all his due, nay, who had perhaps a right to complain of her. This she frankly confessed, and the matron herself conducted the impatient girl to see Diodoros.
Melissa again found Andreas in attendance on the sufferer, and she was surprised at the warmth with which the high-priest's wife greeted the Christian.
Diodoros was already able to be dressed and to sit up. He was pale and weak, and his head was still bound up, but he welcomed the girl affectionately, though with a mild reproach as to the rarity of her visits.
Andreas had already informed him that Melissa was kept away by her mediation for the prisoners, and so he was comforted by her assurance that if her duty would allow of it she would never leave him again. And the joy of having her there, the delight of gazing into her sweet, lovely face, and the youthful gift of forgetting the past in favor of the present, silenced every bitter reflection. He was soon blissfully listening to her with a fresh color in his cheeks, and never had he seen her so tender, so devoted, so anxious to show him the fullness of her great love. The quiet, reserved girl was to-day the wooer, and with the zeal called forth by her ardent wish to do him good, she expressed all the tenderness of her warm heart so frankly and gladly that to him it seemed as though Eros had never till now pierced her with the right shaft.
As soon as Euryale was absorbed in conversation with Andreas, she offered him her lips with gay audacity, as though in defiance of some stern dragon of virtue, and he, drunk with rapture, enjoyed what she granted him. And soon it was he who became daring, declaring that there would be time enough to talk another day; that for the present her rosy mouth had nothing to do but to cure him with kisses. And during this sweet give and take, she implored him with pathetic fervor never, never to doubt her love, whatever he might hear of her. Their older friends, who had turned their backs on the couple and were talking busily by a window, paid no heed to them, and the blissful conviction of being loved as ardently as she loved flooded her whole being.
Only now and then did the thought of Caesar trouble for a moment the rapture of that hour, like a hideous form appearing out of distant clouds. She felt prompted indeed to tell her lover everything, but it seemed so difficult to make him understand exactly how everything had happened, and Diodoros must not be distressed. And, indeed, intoxicated as he was with heated passion, he made the attempt impossible.
When he spoke it was only to assure her of his love; and when the lady Euryale at last called her to go, and looked in the girl's glowing face, Melissa felt as though she were snatched from a rapturous dream.
In the anteroom they were stopped by Andreas. Euryale had indeed relieved his worst fears, still he was anxious to lay before the girl the question whether she would not be wise to take advantage of this very night to make her escape. She, however, her eyes still beaming with happiness, laid her little hand coaxingly on his bearded mouth, and begged him not to sadden her high spirits and hopes of a better time by warnings and dismal forecasts. Even the lady Euryale had advised her to trust fearlessly to herself, and sitting with her lover she had acquired the certainty that it was best so. The freedman could not bear to disturb this happy confidence, and only impressed on Melissa that she should send for him if ever she needed him. He would find her a hiding-place, and the lady Euryale had undertaken to provide a messenger. He then bade them godspeed, and they returned to the high-priest's dwelling.
In the vestibule they found a servant from the lady Berenike; in his mistress's name he desired Euryale to send Melissa to spend the night with her.
This invitation, which would remove Melissa from the Serapeum, was welcome to them both, and the matron herself accompanied the young girl down a private staircase leading to a small side-door. Argutis, who had come to inquire for his young mistress, was to be her escort and to bring her back early next morning to the same entrance.
The old slave had much to tell her. He had been on his feet all day. He had been to the harbor to inquire as to the return of the vessel with the prisoners on board; to the Serapeum to inquire for her; to Dido, to give her the news. He had met Alexander in the forenoon on the quay where the imperial galleys were moored. When the young man learned that the trireme could not come in before next morning at the soonest, he had set out to cross the lake and see Zeus and his daughter. He had charged Argutis to let Melissa know that his longing for the fair Agatha gave him no peace.
He and old Dido disapproved of their young master's feather-brain, which had not been made more steady and patient even by the serious events of this day and his sister's peril; however, he did not allow a word of blame to escape him. He was happy only to be allowed to walk behind Melissa, and to hear from her own lips that all was well with her, and that Caesar was gracious.
Alexander, indeed, had also told the old man that he and Caesar were "good friends"; and now the slave was thinking of Pandion, Theocritus, and the other favorites of whom he had heard; and he assured Melissa that, as soon as her father should be free, Caracalla would be certain to raise him to the rank of knight, to give him lands and wealth, perhaps one of the imperial residences on the Bruchium. Then he, Argutis, would be house steward, and show that he knew other things besides keeping the workroom and garden in order, splitting wood, and buying cheaply at market.
Melissa laughed and said he should be no worse off if only the first wish of her heart were fulfilled, and she were wife to Diodoros; and Argutis declared he would be amply content if only she allowed him to remain with her.
But she only half listened and answered absently, for she breathed faster as she pictured to herself how she would show Caesar, on whom she had already proved her power, that she had ceased to tremble before him.
Thus they came to the house of Seleukus.
A large force had taken up their quarters there. In the pillared hall beyond the vestibule bearded soldiers were sitting on benches or squatting in groups on the ground, drinking noisily and singing, or laughing and squabbling as they threw the dice on the costly mosaic pavement. A riotous party were toping and reveling in the beautiful garden of the impluvium round a fire which they had lighted on the velvet turf. A dozen or so of officers had stretched themselves on cushions under one of the colonnades, and, without attempting to check the wild behavior of their men, were watching the dancing of some Egyptian girls who had been brought into the house of their involuntary host. Although Melissa was closely veiled and accompanied by a servant, she did not escape rude words and insolent glances. Indeed, an audacious young praetorian had put out his hand to pull away her veil, but an older officer stopped him.
The lady Berenike's rooms had so far not been intruded on; for Macrinus, the praetorian prefect, who knew Berenike through her brother-in-law the senator Coeranus, had given orders that the women's apartments were to be exempt from the encroachments of the quartermaster of the body-guard. Breathing rapidly and with a heightened color, Melissa at last entered the room of Seleukus's wife.
The matron's voice was full of bitterness as she greeted her young visitor with the exclamation "You look as if you had fled to escape persecution! And in my house, too! Or"--and her large eyes flashed brightly--"or is the blood-hound on the track of his prey? My boat is quite ready--" When Melissa denied this, and related what had happened, Berenike exclaimed: "But you know that the panther lies still and gathers himself up before he springs; or, if you do not, you may see it to-morrow at the Circus. There is to be a performance in Caesar's honor, the like of which not even Nero ever saw. My husband bears the chief part cf the cost, and can think of nothing else. He has even forgotten his only child, and all to please the man who insults us, robs and humiliates us! Now that men kiss the hands which maltreat them, it is the part of women to defy them. You must fly, child! The harbor is now closed, but it will be open again to-morrow morning, and, if your folks are set free in the course of the day, then away with you at once! Or do you really hope for any good from the tyrant who has made this house what you now see it?"
"I know him," replied Melissa, "and I look for nothing but the worst."
At this the elder woman warmly grasped the girl's hand, but she was interrupted by the waiting woman Johanna, who said that a Roman officer of rank, a tribune, craved to be admitted.
When Berenike refused to receive him, the maid assured her that he was a young man, and had expressed his wish to bring an urgent request to the lady's notice in a becoming and modest manner.
On this the matron allowed him to be shown in to her, and Melissa hastily obeyed her instructions to withdraw into the adjoining room.
Only a half-drawn curtain divided it from the room where Berenike received the soldier, and without listening she could hear the loud voice which riveted her attention as soon as she had recognized it.
The young tribune, in a tone of courteous entreaty, begged his hostess to provide a room for his brother, who was severely wounded. The sufferer was in a high fever, and the physician said that the noise and rattle of vehicles in the street, on which the room where he now lay looked out, and the perpetual coming and going of the men, might endanger his life. He had just been told that on the side of the women's apartments there was a row of rooms looking out on the impluvium, and he ventured to entreat her to spare one of them for the injured man. If she had a brother or a child, she would forgive the boldness of his request.
So far she listened in silence; then she suddenly raised her head and measured the petitioner's tall figure with a lurid fire in her eye. Then she replied, while she looked into his handsome young face with a half-scornful, half-indignant air: "Oh, yes! I know what it is to see one we love suffer. I had an only child; she was the joy of my heart. Death--death snatched her from me, and a few days later the sovereign whom you serve commanded us to prepare a feast for him. It seemed to him something new and delightful to hold a revel in a house of mourning. At the last moment--all the guests were assembled--he sent us word that he himself did not intend to appear. But his friends laughed and reveled wildly enough! They enjoyed themselves, and no doubt praised our cook and our wine. And now--another honor we can duly appreciate!--he sends his praetorians to turn this house of mourning into a tavern, a wine-shop, where they call creatures in from the street to dance and sing. The rank to which you have risen while yet so young shows that you are of good family, so you can imagine how highly we esteem the honor of seeing your men trampling, destroying, and burning in their camp-fires everything which years of labor and care had produced to make our little garden a thing of beauty. 'Only look down on them!' Macrinus, who commands you, promised me, moreover, that the women's apartments should be respected. 'No praetorian, whether common soldier or commander,' and here she raised her voice, 'shall set foot within them!' Here is his writing. The prefect set the seal beneath it in Caesar's name."
"I know of the order, noble lady," interrupted Nemesianus, "and should be the last to wish to act against it. I do not demand, I only appeal humbly to the heart of a woman and a mother.'
"A mother!" broke in Berenike, scornfully; "yes! and one whose soul your lord has pierced with daggers--a woman whose home has been dishonored and made hateful to her. I have enjoyed sufficient honor now, and shall stand firmly on my rights."
"Hear but one thing more," began the youth, timidly; but the lady Berenike had already turned her back upon him, and returned with a proud and stately carriage to Melissa in the adjoining apartment.
Breathing hard, as if stunned by her words, the tribune remained standing on the threshold where the terrible lady had vanished from his sight, and then, striving to regain his composure, pushed back the curling locks from his brow. But scarcely had Berenike entered the other room than Melissa whispered to her: "The wounded man is the unfortunate Aurelius, whose face Caracalla wounded for my sake."
At this the lady's eyes suddenly flashed and blazed so strangely that the girl's blood ran cold. But she had no time to ask the reason of this emotion, for the next moment the queenly woman grasped the weaker one by the wrist with her strong right hand, and with a commanding "Come with me," drew her back into the room they had just quitted. She called to the tribune, whose hand was already on the door, to come back.
The young man stood still, surprised and startled to see Melissa; but the lady Berenike said, calmly, "Now that I have learned the honor that has been accorded to you, too, by the master whom you so faithfully serve, the poor injured man whom you call your brother shall be made welcome within these walls. He is my companion in suffering. A quiet, airy chamber shall be set apart for him, and he shall not lack careful attention, nor anything which even his own mother could offer him. Only two things I desire of you in return: that you admit no one of your companions-in-arms, nor any man whatever, into this dwelling, save only the physician whom I shall send to you. Furthermore, that you do not betray, even to your nearest friend, whom you found here besides myself."
Under the mortification that had wounded his brotherly heart, Aurelius Nemesianus had lost countenance; but now he replied with a soldier's ready presence of mind: "It is difficult for me to find a proper answer to you, noble lady. I know right well that I owe you my warmest thanks, and equally so that he whom you call our master has inflicted as deep a wrong on us as on you; but Caesar is still my military chief."
"Still!" broke in Berenike. "But you are too youthful a tribune for me to believe that you took up the sword as a means of livelihood."
"We are sons of the Aurelia," answered Nemesianus, haughtily, "and it is very possible that this day's work may be the cause of our deserting the eagles we have followed in order to win glory and taste the delights of warfare. But all that is for the future to decide. Meanwhile, I thank you, noble lady, and also in the name of my brother, who is my second self. On behalf of Apollinaris, too, I beg you to pardon the rudeness which we offered to this maiden--"
"I am not angry with you any more," cried Melissa, eagerly and frankly, and the tribune thanked her in his own and his brother's name.
He began trying to explain the unfortunate occurrence, but Berenike admonished him to lose no time. The soldier withdrew, and the lady Berenike ordered her handmaiden to call the housekeeper and other serving-women. Then she repaired quickly to the room she had destined for the wounded man and his brother. But neither Melissa nor the other women could succeed in really lending her any help, for she herself put forth all her cleverness and power of head and hand, forgetting nothing that might be useful or agreeable in the nursing of the sick. In that wealthy, well-ordered house everything stood ready to hand; and in less than a quarter of an hour the tribune Nemesianus was informed that the chamber was ready for the reception of his brother.
The lady then returned with Melissa to her own sleeping apartment, and took various little bottles and jars from a small medicine-chest, begging the girl at the same time to excuse her, as she intended to undertake the nursing of the wounded man herself. Here were books, and there Korinna's lute. Johanna would attend to the evening meal. Tomorrow morning they could consult further as to what was necessary to be done; then she kissed her guest and left the room.
Left to herself, Melissa gave herself up to varying thoughts, till Johanna brought her repast. While she hardly nibbled at it, the Christian told her that matters looked ill with the tribune, and that the wound in the forehead especially caused the physician much anxiety. Many questions were needed to draw this much from the freedwoman, for she spoke but little. When she did speak, however, it was with great kindliness, and there lay something so simple and gentle in her whole manner that it awakened confidence. Having satisfied her appetite, Melissa returned to the lady Berenike's apartment; but there her heart grew heavy at the thought of what awaited her on the morrow. When, at the moment of leaving, Johanna inquired whether she desired anything further, she asked her if she knew a saying of her fellow-believers, which ran, "The fullness of time was come."
"Yes, surely," returned the other; "our Lord himself spoke them, and Paul wrote them to the Galatians."
"Who is this Paul?" Melissa asked; and the Christian replied that of all the teachers of her faith he was the one she most dearly loved. Then, hesitating a little, she asked if Melissa, being a heathen, had inquired the meaning of this saying.
"Andrew, the freedman of Polybius and the lady Euryale, explained it to me. Did the moment ever come to you in which you felt assured that for you the time was fulfilled?"
"Yes," replied Johanna, with decision; "and that moment comes, sooner or later, in every life."
"You are a maiden like myself," began Melissa, simply. "A heavy task lies before me, and if you would confide to me--"
But the Christian broke in: "My life has moved in other paths than yours, and what has happened to me, the freedwoman and the Christian, can have no interest for you. But the saying which has stirred your soul refers to the coming of One who is all in all to us Christians. Did Andrew tell you nothing of His life?"
"Only a little," answered the girl, "but I would gladly hear more of Him."
Then the Christian seated herself at Melissa's side, and, clasping the maiden's hand in hers, told her of the birth of the Saviour, of His loving heart, and His willing death as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The girl listened with attentive ear. With no word did she interrupt the narrative, and the image of the Crucified One rose before her mind's eye, pure and noble, and worthy of all love. A thousand questions rose to her lips, but, before she could ask one, the Christian was called away to attend the lady Berenike, and Melissa was again alone.
What she had already heard of the teaching of the Christians occurred to her once more, and above all that first saying from the sacred Scriptures which had attracted her attention, and about which she had just asked Johanna. Perhaps for her, too, the time was already fulfilled, when she had taken courage to defy the emperor's commands.
She rejoiced at this action, for she felt that the strength would never fail her now to set her will against his. She felt as though she bore a charm against his power since she had parted from her lover, and since the murder of the governor had opened her eyes to the true character of him on whom she had all too willingly expended her pity. And yet she shuddered at the thought of meeting the emperor again, and of having to show him that she felt safe with him because she trusted to his generosity.
Lost in deep thought, she waited for the return of the lady and the Christian waiting-woman, but in vain. At last her eye fell upon the scrolls which the lady Berenike had pointed out to her. They lay in beautiful alabaster caskets on an ebony stand. If they had only been the writings of the Christians, telling of the life and death of their Saviour! But how should writings such as those come here? The casket only held the works of Philostratus, and she took from it the roll containing the story of the hero of whom he had himself spoken to her. Full of curiosity, she smoothed out the papyrus with the ivory stick, and her attention was soon engaged by the lively conversation between the vintner and his Phoenician guest. She passed rapidly over the beginning, but soon reached the part of which Philostratus had told her. Under the form of Achilles he had striven to represent Caracalla as he appeared to the author's indulgent imagination. But it was no true portrait; it described the original at most as his mother would have wished him to be. There it was written that the vehemence flashing from the hero's bright eyes, even when peacefully inclined, showed how easily his wrath could break forth. But to those who loved him he was even more endearing during these outbursts than before. The Athenians felt toward him as they did toward a lion; for, if the king of beasts pleased them when he was at rest, he charmed them infinitely more when, foaming with bloodthirsty rage, he fell upon a bull, a wild boar, or some such ferocious animal.
Yes, indeed! Caracalla, too, fell mercilessly upon his prey! Had she not seen him hewing down Apollinaris a few hours ago?
Furthermore, Achilles was said to have declared that he could drive away care by fearlessly encountering the greatest dangers for the sake of his friends. But where were Caracalla's friends?
At best, the allusion could only refer to the Roman state, for whose sake the emperor certainly did endure many a hardship and many a wearisome task, and he was not the only person who had told her so.
Then she turned back a little and found the words: "But because he was easily inclined to anger, Chiron instructed him in music; for is it not inherent in this art to soothe violence and wrath--And Achilles acquired without trouble the laws of harmony and sang to the lyre."
This all corresponded with the truth, and tomorrow she was to discover what had suggested to Philostratus the story that when Achilles begged Calliope to endow him with the gifts of music and poetry she had given him so much of both as he required to enliven the feast and banish sadness. He was also said to be a poet, and devoted himself most ardently to verse when resting from the toils of war.
To hear that man unjustly blamed on whom her heart is set, only increases a woman's love; but unmerited praise makes her criticise him more sharply, and is apt to transform a fond smile into a scornful one. Thus the picture that raised Caracalla to the level of an Achilles made Melissa shrug her shoulders over the man she dreaded; and while she even doubted Caesar's musical capacities, Diodoros's young, fresh, bell-like voice rose doubly beautiful and true upon her memory's ear. The image of her lover finally drove out that of the emperor, and, while she seemed to hear the wedding song which the youths and maidens were so soon to sing for them both, she fell asleep.
It was late when Johanna came to admonish her to retire to rest. Shortly before sunrise she was awakened by Berenike, who wished to take some rest, and who told her, before seeking her couch, that Apollinaris was doing well. The lady was still sleeping when Johanna came to inform Melissa that the slave Argutis was waiting to see her.
The Christian undertook to convey the maiden's farewell greetings to her mistress.
As they entered the living-room, the gardener had just brought in fresh flowers, among them three rose-bushes covered with full-blown flowers and half-opened, dewy buds. Melissa asked Johanna timidly if the lady Berenike would permit her to pluck one--there were so many; to which the Christian replied that it would depend on the use it was to be put to.
"Only for the sick tribune," answered Melissa, reddening. So Johanna plucked two of the fairest blooms and gave them to the maiden--one for the man who had injured her and one for her betrothed. Melissa kissed her, gratefully, and begged her to present the flowers to the sick man in her name.
Johanna carried out her wish at once; but the wounded man, gazing mournfully at the rose, murmured to himself: "Poor, lovely, gentle child! She will be ruined or dead before Caracalla leaves Alexandria!"