A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
While the lady Euryale preceded her young charge with a lamp up a narrow, dark staircase, Alexander waited in one of the audience-rooms till the emperor should call him. The high-priest of Serapis, several soothsayers of the temple, Aristides, the new head of the night-watch, and other "friends" of the monarch had accompanied him thus far. But admittance to the innermost apartments had not been permitted, for Caracalla had ordered the magician Serapion to call up spirits before him, and was having the future declared to him in the presence of the prefect of the praetorians and a few other trusty followers.
The deputation of citizens, who had come to apologize to Caesar for the annoying occurrences in the Circus, had been told to wait till the exorcisms were over. Alexander would have preferred to hold aloof from the others, but no one here seemed to think ill of him for his thoughtless behavior. On the contrary, the courtiers pressed round him--the brother of the future empress-with the greatest assiduity: the high-priest inquired after his brother Philip; and Seleukus, the merchant, who had come with the deputation, addressed many flattering remarks to him on his sister's beauty. Some of the Roman senators whose advances he had received coldly enough at first, now took up his whole attention, and described to him the works of art and the paintings in the new baths of Caracalla; they advised him to offer himself as a candidate for the ornamentation of some of the unfinished rooms with frescoes, and led him to expect their support. In short, they behaved toward the young man as if he might command their services, in spite of their gray hairs. But Alexander saw through their purpose.
Their discourse ceased suddenly, for voices were audible in the emperor's apartments, and they all listened with outstretched necks and bated breath if they might catch a word or two.
Alexander only regretted not having either charcoal or tablets at hand, that he might fix their intent faces on the wood; but at last he stood up, for the door was opened and the emperor entered from the tablinum, accompanied by the magician who had shown Caesar several spirits of the departed. In the middle of the demonstration, at Caracalla's desire, the beheaded Papinian had appeared in answer to Serapion's call. Invisible hands replaced his severed head upon his shoulders, and, having greeted his sovereign, he promised him good fortune. Last of all great Alexander had appeared, and assured the emperor in verse, and with many a flowery phrase, that the soul of Roxana had chosen the form of Melissa to dwell in. Caracalla would enjoy the greatest happiness through her, as long as she was not alienated from him by love for another man. Should this happen, Roxana would be destroyed and her whole race with her, but Caesar's glory and greatness would reach its highest point. The monarch need have no misgivings in continuing to live out his (Alexander's) life. The spirit of his godlike father Severus watched over him, and had given him a counselor in the person of Macrinus, in whose mortal body the soul of Scipio Africanus had awakened to a new life.
With this, the apparition, which, like the others, had shown itself as a colored picture moving to and fro upon the darkened wall of the tablinum, vanished. The voice of the great Macedonian sounded hollow and unearthly, but what he said had interested the emperor deeply and raised his spirits.
However, his wish to see more spirits had remained unsatisfied. The magician, who remained upon his knees with uplifted hands while the apparitions were visible, declared that the forces he was obliged to employ in exercising his magic power over the spirits had exhausted him. His fine, bearded face was deathly pale, and his tall form trembled and shook. His assistants had silently disappeared. They had kept themselves and their great scrolls concealed behind a curtain. Serapion explained that they were his pupils, whose office it was to support his incantations by efficient formulas.
Caracalla dismissed him graciously, then turning to the assembled company, he gave with much affability a detailed account of the wonders he had seen and heard.
"A marvelous man, this Serapion," he exclaimed to the high-priest Timotheus--"a master in his art. What he said before proceeding to the incantations is convincing, and explains much to me. According to him, magic holds the same relation to religion as power to love, as the command to the request. Power! What magic effect it has in real life? We have seen its influence upon the spirits, and who among the children of men can resist it? To it I owe my greatest results, and hope to be still further indebted. Even reluctant love must bow to it."
He gave a self-satisfied laugh, and continued: "As the pious worshiper of the gods can move the heavenly ones by prayer and sacrifice, so--the wondrous man declared--the magician can force them by means of his secret lore to do his will. Therefore, he who knows and can call the gods and spirits by the right name, him they must obey, as the slave his master. The sages who served the Pharaohs in the gray dawn of time succeeded in fathoming the mystery of these names given to the everlasting ones at their birth, and their wisdom has come down to him through the generations as a priceless secret. But it is not sufficient to murmur the name to one's self, or be able to write it down. Every syllable has its special meaning like every member of the human frame. It depends, too, on how it is pronounced and where the emphasis lies; and this true name, containing in itself the spiritual essence of the immortals, and the outward sign of their presence, is different again from the names by which they are known among men.
"Could I have any suspicion--and here Serapion addressed himself to me--which god he forced to obey him when he uttered the words, 'Abar Barbarie Eloce Sabaoth Pachnuphis,' and more like it! I have only remembered the first few words. But, he continued, it was not enough to be able to pronounce these words. The heavenly spirits would submit only to those mortals who shared in some of their highest characteristics. Before the Magian dared to call them, he must purify his soul from all sensual taint, and sanctify his body by long and severe fasting. When the Magian succeeded, as he had done in these days, in rendering himself impervious to the allurements of the senses, and in making his soul, as far as was humanly possible, independent of the body, only then had he attained to that degree of godliness which entitled him to have intercourse with the heavenly ones and the entire spirit-world as with his equals, and to subdue them to his will.
"He exerted his power, and we saw with our bodily eyes that the spirits came to his call. But we discovered that it was not done by words alone. What a noble-looking man he is! And the mortifications that he practices--these, too, are heroic deeds! The cavilers in the Museum might take example from him. Serapion performed an action and a difficult one. They waste their time over words, miserable words! They will prove to you by convincing argument that yonder lion is a rabbit. The Magian waved his hands and the king of beasts cringed before him. Like the worthies of the Museum, every one in this city is merely a mouth on two legs. Where but here would the Christians--I know their doctrines--have invented that term for their sublime teacher--The Word become flesh? I have heard nothing here," he turned to the deputation, "but words and again words--from you, who humbly assure me of your love and reverence; from those who think that their insignificant persons may slip through my fingers and escape me, paltry, would-be witty words, dipped in poison and gall. In the Circus, even, they aimed words at me. The Magian alone dared to offer me deeds, and he succeeded wonderfully; he is a marvelous man!"
"What he showed you," said the high-priest, "was no more than what the sorcerers achieved, as the old writings tell us, under the builders of the Pyramids. Our astrologers, who traced out for you the path of the stars--"
"They, too," interrupted Caesar, bowing slightly to the astrologers, "have something better to show than words. As I owe to the Magian an agreeable hour, so I thank you, my friends, for a happy one."
This remark had reference to the information which had been brought to Caesar, during a pause in the incantations, that the stars predicted great happiness for him in his union with Melissa, and that this prediction was well-founded, was proved by the constellations which the chief astrologer showed and explained to him.
While Caracalla was receiving the thanks of the astrologers, he caught sight of Alexander, and at once graciously inquired how Melissa had got back to her fathers house. He then asked, laughingly, if the wits of Alexandria were going to treat him to another offering like the one on his arrival. The youth, who had determined in the Circus to risk his life, if need be, in order to clear himself of the taint of suspicion, judged that the moment had come to make good the mistake which had robbed him of his fellow-citizens' esteem.
The presence of so many witnesses strengthened his courage; and fully expecting that, like the consul Vindex, his speech would cost him his head, he drew himself up and answered gravely, "It is true, great Caesar, that in a weak moment and without considering the results, I repeated some of those witticisms to you--"
"I commanded, and you had to obey," retorted Caesar, and added, coldly, "But what does this mean?"
"It means," began Alexander--who already saw the sword of execution leap from its scabbard--with pathetic dignity, which astonished the emperor as coming from him, "it means that I herewith declare before you, and my Alexandrian fellow-citizens here present, that I bitterly repent my indiscretion; nay, I curse it, since I heard from your own lips how their ready wit has set you against the sons of my beloved native city."
"Ah, indeed! Hence these tears?" interposed Caesar, adopting a well-known Latin phrase. He nodded to the painter, and continued, in a tone of amused superiority: "Go on performing as an orator, if you like; only moderate the tragic tone, which does not become you, and make it short, for before the sun rises we all--these worthy citizens and myself--desire to be in bed."
Blushes and pallor alternated on the young man's face. Sentence of death would have been more welcome to him than this supercilious check to a hazardous attempt, which he had looked upon as daring and heroic. Among the Romans he caught sight of some laughing faces, and hurt, humiliated, confused, scarcely capable of speaking a word, and yet moved by the desire to justify himself, he stammered out: "I have--I meant to assure--No, I am no spy! May my tongue wither before I--You can, of course--It is in your power to take my life!"
"Most certainly it is," interposed Caracalla, and his tone was more contemptuous than angry. He could see how deeply excited the artist was, and to save him--Melissa's brother-from committing a folly which he would be obliged to punish, he went on with gracious consideration: "But I much prefer to see you live and wield the brush for a long time to come. You are dismissed."
The young man bent his head, and then turned his back upon the emperor, for he felt that he was threatened now with what, to an Alexandrian, was the most unbearable fate-to appear ridiculous before so many.
Caracalla allowed him to go, but, as he stepped across the threshold, he called after him: "Tomorrow, then, with your sister, after the bath! Tell her the stars and the spirits are propitious to our union."
Caesar then beckoned to the chief of the nightwatch, and, having laid the blame of the unpleasant occurrences in the Circus on his carelessness, cut the frightened officer short when he proposed to take every one prisoner whom the lictors had marked among the noisy.
"Not yet! On no account to-morrow," Caracalla ordered. "Mark each one carefully. Keep your eyes open at the next performance. Put down the names of the disaffected. Take care that the rope hangs about the neck of the guilty. The time to draw it tight will come presently. When they think themselves safe, the cowardly show their true faces. Wait till I give the signal--certainly not in the next few days; then seize upon them, and let none escape!"
Caesar had given these orders with smiling lips. He wanted first to make Melissa his, and, like a shepherd, to revel with her in the sweetness of their love. No moment of this time should be darkened for him by the tears and prayers of his bride. When she should hear, later on, of her husband's bloody vengeance upon his enemies, she would have to accept it as an accomplished fact; and means, no doubt, would be found to soothe her indignation.
Those who after the insulting occurrences in the Circus had expected to see Caesar raging and storming, were hurried from one surprise to another; for even after his conversation with the night-watch he looked cheerful and contented, and exclaimed: "It is long since you have seen me thus! My own mirror will ask itself if it has not changed owners. It is to be hoped it may have cause to accustom itself to reflect me as a happy man as often as I look in it. The two highest joys of life are before me, and I know not what would be left for me to desire if only Philostratus were here to share the coming days with me."
The grave senator Cassius Dio here stepped forward and observed that there were advantages in their amiable friend's withdrawal from the turmoil of court life. His Life of Apollonius, to which all the world was looking forward, would come all the sooner to a close.
"If only that I might talk to him of the man of Tyana," cried the emperor, "I wish his biographer were here to-day. To possess little and require nothing is the wish of the sage; and I can well imagine circumstances in which one who has enjoyed power and riches to satiety should consider himself blessed as a simple countryman following out the precept of Horace, 'procul negotiis,' plowing his fields and gathering the fruit of his own trees. According to Apollonius, the wise man must also be poor, and, though the citizens of his state are permitted to acquire treasures, the wealthy are looked upon as dishonorable. There is some sense in this paradox, for the possessions that are to be obtained with money are but vulgar joys. I know by experience what it is that purifies the soul, that lifts it up and makes it truly blessed. It does not come of power or riches. Whoso has known it, he to whom it has been revealed--"
He stopped short, surprised at himself; then laughed as he shook his head and exclaimed, "Behold, the tragedy hero in the purple with one foot in an idyl!" and wished the assembled company pleasant slumbers for the short remains of the night.
He gave his hand to a few favored ones; but, as he clasped that of the proconsul Julius Paulinus, who, with unheard-of audacity, had put on mourning garments for his brother-in-law Vindex, beheaded that day, Caesar's countenance grew dark, and, turning his back upon them all, he walked rapidly away. Scarcely had he disappeared when the mourning proconsul exclaimed in his dry manner, as if speaking to himself:
"The idyl is to begin. Would it might be the satyr-play that closes the bloodiest of tragedies!"
"Caesar has not been himself to-day," said the favorite Theocritus; and the senator Cassius Dio whispered to Paulinus, "And therefore he was more bearable to look at."
Old Adventus gazed in astonishment as Arjuna, the emperor's Indian body-slave, disrobed him; for, though Caracalla had entered the apartment with a dark and threatening brow, while his sandals were being unfastened, he laughed to himself, and cried to his old servant with beaming eyes, "To-morrow!" and the chamberlain called down a blessing on the morrow, and on her who was destined to fill the coming years with sunshine for mighty Caesar.
Caracalla, generally an early riser, slept this time longer than on other days. He had retired very late to rest, and the chamberlain therefore put off waking him, especially as he had been troubled by evil dreams, in spite of his happy frame of mind when he sought his couch. When at last he rose he first inquired about the weather, and expressed his satisfaction when he heard that the sun had risen with burning rays, but was now veiled in threatening clouds.
His first visit led him to the court of sacrifice. The offerings had fallen out most favorably, and he rejoiced at the fresh and healthy appearance of the bullocks' hearts and livers which the augurs showed him. In the stomach of one of the oxen they had found a flint arrow-head, and, on showing it to Caracalla, he laughed, and observed to the high-priest Timotheus: "A shaft from Eros's quiver! A hint from the god to offer him a sacrifice on this happy day."
After his bath he caused himself to be arrayed with peculiar care, and then gave orders for the admittance, first, of the prefect of the praetorians, and then of Melissa, for whom a mass of gorgeous flowers stood ready.
But Macrinus was not to be found, although Caesar had commanded him yesterday to give in his report before doing anything else. He had twice come to the antechamber, but had gone away again shortly before, and had not yet returned.
Determined to let nothing damp his spirits, Caesar merely shrugged his shoulders, and gave orders to admit the maiden, and--should they have accompanied her--her father and brother. But neither Melissa nor the men had appeared as yet, though Caracalla distinctly remembered having commanded all three to visit him after the bath, which he had taken several hours later than usual.
Vexed, and yet endeavoring to keep his temper, he went to the window. The sky was overcast, and a sharp wind from the sea drove the first rain-drops in his face.
In the wide square at his feet a spectacle presented itself which would have delighted him at another time, when in better spirits.
The younger men of the city--as many as were of Greek extraction--were trooping in. They were divided into companies, according to the wrestling-schools or the Circus and other societies to which they belonged. The youths marched apart from the married men, and one could see that they came gladly, and hoped for much enjoyment from the events of the day. Some of the others looked less delighted. They were unaccustomed to obey the orders of a despot, and many were ill-pleased to lose a whole day from their work or business. But no one was permitted to absent himself; for, when the chief citizens had invited the emperor to visit their wrestling-schools, he replied that he preferred to inspect the entire male youths of Alexandria in the Stadium. This was situated close by his residence in the Serapeum, and in this great space a spectacle would be afforded to him at one glance, which he could otherwise only enjoy by journeying laboriously from one gymnasium to another. He loved the strong effects produced by great masses; and being on the race-course, the wrestlers and boxers, the runners and discus-throwers, could give proof of their strength, dexterity, and endurance.
It occurred to him at the moment that among these youths and men there might be some of the descendants of the warriors who, under the command of the great Alexander, had conquered the world. Here, then, was an opportunity of gathering round him--rejuvenated and, so to speak, born anew--those troops who, under the guidance of the man whose mission on earth he was destined to accomplish, had won such deathless victories. That was a pleasure he had every right to permit himself, and he wished to show to Melissa the re-created military forces of him to whom, in a former existence, as Roxana, she had been so dear.
Quick as ever to suit the deed to the word, he at once ordered the head citizens to assemble the youth of Alexandria on the morning of the day in question, and to form them into a Macedonian phalanx. He wished to inspect them in the stadium, and they were now marching thither.
He had ordered helmets, shields, and lances to be made after well-known Macedonian patterns and to be distributed to the new Hellenic legion. Later on they might be intrusted with the guarding of the city, should there be a Parthian war; and he required the attendance of the Alexandrian garrison.
The inspection of this Greek regiment would be certain to give pleasure to Melissa. He expected, too, to see Alexander among them. When once his beloved shared the purple with him, he could raise her brother to the command of this chosen phalanx.
Troop after troop streamed on to the course, and he thought he had seldom seen anything finer than these slender youths, marching along with elastic step, and garlands in their black, brown, or golden locks.
When the young noblemen who belonged to the school of Timagetes filed past him, he took such delight in the beauty of their heads, the wonderful symmetry of their limbs strengthened by athletic games, and the supple grace of most of them, that he felt as if some magic spell had carried him back to the golden age of Greece and the days of the Olympian games in the Altis.
What could be keeping Melissa? This sight would assuredly please her, and for once he would be able to say something flattering about her people. One might easily overlook a good deal from such splendid youths.
Carried away by his admiration he waved his scarf to them, which being remarked by the gymnasiarch, who with his two assistants-herculean athletes--walked in front, was answered by him with a loud "Hail, Caesar!"
The youths who followed him imitated his example, and the troop that came after them returned his greeting loud and heartily. The young voices could be heard from afar, and the news soon spread to the last ranks of the first division to whom these greetings were addressed. But, among the men who already were masters of households of their own, there were many who deemed it shameful and unworthy to raise their voices in greeting to the tyrant whose heavy hand had oppressed them more than once; and a group of young men belonging to the party of the "Greens," who ran their own horses, had the fatal audacity to agree among themselves that they would leave Caesar's greeting unanswered. A many-headed crowd is like a row of strings which sound together as soon as the note is struck to which they are all attuned; and so each one now felt sure that his acclamation would only increase the insolence of this fratricide, this bloodstained monster, this oppressor and enemy of the citizens. The succeeding ranks of "Greens" followed the example, and from the midst of a troop of young married men, members in the gymnasium of the society of the Dioscuri, one foolhardy spirit had the reckless temerity to blow a shrill, far-sounding whistle between his fingers.
He found no imitators, but the insulting sound reached the emperor's ear, and seemed to him like the signal-call of Fate; for, before it had died away, the clouds broke, and a stream of brilliant sunshine spread over the race-course and the assembled multitude. The cloudy day that was to have brought happiness to Caesar had been suddenly transformed by the sun of Africa into a bright one; and the radiant light which cheered the hearts of others seemed to him to be a message from above to warn him that, instead of the highest bliss, this day would bring him disappointment and misfortune. He said nothing of this, for there was no one there in whom it would be any relief to confide, or of whose sympathy he could be sure. But those who watched him as he retired from the window saw plainly that the idyl, which he had promised them should begin to-day, would assuredly not do so for the next few hours at least, unless some miracle should occur. No, he would have to wait awhile for the pastoral joys he had promised himself. And it seemed as if, instead of the satyr-play of which old Julius Paulinus had spoken, that fatal whistle had given the signal for another act in Caracalla's terrible life-tragedy.
The "friends" of the emperor looked at him anxiously as, with furrowed brow, he asked, impatiently: "Macrinus not here yet?"
Theocritus and others who had looked with envy upon Melissa and her relatives, and with distrust upon her union with the emperor, now heartily wished the girl back again.
But the prefect Macrinus came not; and while the emperor, having sent messengers to fetch Melissa, turned with darkly boding brow to his station overlooking the brightly lighted race-course, still hoping the augury would prove false, and the sunny day turn yet in his favor, Macrinus was in the full belief that the gate of greatness and power was opening to him. Superstitious as the emperor himself and every one else of his time, he was to-day more firmly persuaded than ever of the existence of men whose mysterious wisdom gave them powers to which even he must bend--the hard-headed man who had raised himself from the lowest to the highest station, next to the Caesar himself.
In past nights the Magian Serapion had caused him to see and hear much that was incomprehensible. He believed in the powers exerted by that remarkable man over spirits, and his ability to work miracles, for he had proved in the most startling manner that he had perfect control even over such a determined mind as that of the prefect. The evening before, the magician had bidden Macrinus come to him at the third hour after sunrise of the next day, which he had unhesitatingly promised to do. But the emperor had risen later than usual this morning, and the prefect might expect to be called to his master at any moment. In spite of this, and although his absence threatened to rouse Caesar to fury, and everything pointed to the necessity of his remaining within call, Macrinus, drawn by an irresistible craving, had followed the invitation, which sounded more like a command. This, indeed, had seemed to him decisive; for, as the seer ruled over his stern spirit, albeit he was alive, even so must the spirits of the departed do his bidding. His every interest urged him now to believe in the prophecy made to him by Serapion, to-day for the third time, which foretold that he, the prefect, should mount the throne of the Caesars, clad in the purple of Caracalla. But it was not alone to repeat this prophecy that the seer had called Macrinus to him, but to inform him that the future empress was betrothed to a young Alexandrian, and that the tender intercourse between the lovers had not been interrupted during Caracalla's courtship. This had come to Serapion's ears yesterday afternoon, through his adroit assistant Kastor, and he had taken advantage of the information to prepare Caesar during the night for the faithlessness of his chosen bride.
The Magian assured the prefect that what the spirit of the great Macedonian had hinted at yesterday had since been confirmed by the demons in his service. It would now be easy for Macrinus to possibly hinder Melissa, who might have been all-powerful, from coming between him and the great goal which the spirits had set before him.
Serapion then repeated the prophecy, which came with such convincing power from the bearded lips of the sage that the prudent statesman cast his last doubts from him, and, exclaiming, "I believe your words, and shall press forward now in spite of every danger!" he grasped the prophet's hand in farewell.
Up to this point Macrinus, the son of a poor cobbler, who had had difficulty in rearing his children at all, had received these prophetic utterances with cool deliberation, and had ventured no step nearer to the exalted aim which had been offered to his ambition. In all good faith he had done his best to perform the duties of his office as an obedient servant to his master and the state. This had all changed now, and, firmly resolved to risk the struggle for the purple, he returned to the emperor's apartments.
Macrinus had no reason to expect a favorable reception when he entered the tablinum, but his great purpose upheld his courage. He, the upstart, was well aware that Fortune requires her favorites to keep their eyes open and their hands active. He therefore took care to obtain a full account of what had happened from his confidential friend the senator Antigonus, a soldier of mean birth, who had gained favor with Caesar by a daring piece of horsemanship. Antigonus closed his report with the impudent whistle of the Greek athlete; he dwelt chiefly on his astonishment at Melissa's absence. This gave food for thought to the prefect, too; but before entering the tablinum he was stopped by the freedman Epagathos, who handed over to him a scroll which had been given to him for the emperor. The messenger had disappeared directly afterward, and could not be overtaken. Might it not endanger the life of the reader by exhaling a poisonous perfume?
"Nothing is impossible here," answered the prefect. "Ours it is to watch over the safety of our godlike master."
This letter was that which Melissa had intrusted to the slave Argutis for Caesar, and with unwarrantable boldness the prefect and Epagathos now opened it and ran rapidly over its contents. They then agreed to keep this strange missive from the emperor till Macrinus should send to ask whether the youths were assembled in their full number on the race-course. They judged it necessary to prepare Caesar in some sort, to prevent a fresh attack of illness.
Caracalla was standing near a pillar at the window whence he might see without being seen. That whistle still shrilled in his ears. But another idea occupied him so intensely that he had not yet thought of wiping out the insult with blood.
What could be delaying Melissa and her father and brother?
The painter ought to have joined the other Macedonian youths on the race-course, and Caracalla was engaged in looking out for him, stretching forward every time he caught sight of some curly head that rose above the others.
There was a bitter taste in his mouth, and at every fresh disappointment his rebellious, tortured heart beat faster; and yet the idea that Melissa might have dared to flee from him never entered his mind.
The high-priest of Serapis had informed him that his wife had seen nothing of her as yet. Then it suddenly occurred to him that she might have been wet through by the rain yesterday and now lay shaken by fever, and that this must keep her father away, too; a supposition which cheered the egoist more than it pained him, and with a sigh of relief he turned once more to the window.
How haughtily these boys carried their heads; their fleet, elastic feet skimmed over the ground; how daringly they showed off the strength and dexterity that almost seemed their birthright! This reminded him that, prematurely aged as he was by the wild excesses of his younger years, with his ill-set broken leg and his thin locks, he must make a lamentable contrast to these others of his own age; and he said to himself that perhaps the whistle had come from the lips of one of the strongest and handsomest, who had not considered him worth greeting.
And yet he was not weaker than any single individual down there; aye, and if he chose he could crush them all together, as he would the glow-worm creeping on that window-sill. With one quick squeeze of his fingers he put an end to the pretty little insect, and at that moment he heard voices behind him.
Had his beloved come at last?
No, it was only the prefect. He should have been there long ago, if he were obedient to his sovereign's commands. Macrinus was therefore a convenient object on which to vent his anger. How mean was the face of this long-legged upstart, with its small eyes, sharp nose, and furrowed brow! Could the beautiful Diadumenianus really be his son? No matter! The boy, the apple of his father's eye, was in his power, and was a surety for the old man's loyalty. After all, Macrinus was a capable, serviceable officer, and easier to deal with than the Romans of the old noble families.
Notwithstanding these considerations, Caracalla addressed the prefect as harshly as if he had been a disobedient slave, but Macrinus received the flood of abuse with patience and humility. When the emperor reproached him with never being at hand when he was wanted, he replied submissively that it was just because he found he could be of service to Caesar that he had dared to absent himself. The refractory young brood down there were being kept well in hand, and it was entirely owing to his effectual measures that they had contented themselves with that one whistle. Later on it would be their duty to punish such audacity and high-treason with the utmost rigor.
The emperor gazed in astonishment at the counselor, who till now had ever advised him to use moderation, and only yesterday had begged him to ascribe much to Alexandrian manners, which in Rome would have had to be treated with severity. Had the insolence of these unruly citizens be come unbearable even to this prudent, merciful man?
Yes, that must be it; and the grudge that Macrinus now showed against the Alexandrians hastened the pardon which Caesar silently accorded him.
Caracalla even said to himself that he had underrated the prefect's intellect, for his eyes flashed and glowed like fire, notwithstanding their smallness, and lending a force to his ignoble face which Caracalla had never noticed before. Had Caesar no premonition that in the last few hours this man had grown to be such another as himself?--for in his unyielding mind the firm resolve had been strengthened to hesitate at nothing--not even at the death of as many as might come between him and his high aim, the throne.
Macrinus knew enough of human nature to observe the miserable disquietude that had seized upon the emperor at his bride's continued absence, but he took good care not to refer to the subject. When Caracalla, however, could no longer conceal his anxiety, and asked after her himself, the prefect gave the appointed sign to Epagathos, who then handed Melissa's freshly re-sealed letter to his master.
"Let me open it, great Caesar," entreated Macrinus. "Even Homer called Egypt the land of poison."
But the emperor did not heed him. No one had told him, and he had never in his life received a letter in a woman's hand, except from his mother; and yet he knew that this delicate little roll had come from a woman--from Melissa.
It was closed with a silken thread, and the seal with which Epagathos had replaced the one they had broken. If Caracalla tore it open, the papyrus and the writing might be damaged. He called impatiently for a knife, and the body physician, who had just entered with other courtiers, handed him his.
"Back again?" asked Caracalla as the physician drew the blade from its sheath.
"At break of day, on somewhat unsteady legs," was the jovial answer. Caracalla took the knife from him, cut the silk, hastily broke the seal, and began to read.
Till now his hands had performed their office steadily, but suddenly they began to tremble, and while he ran his eye over Melissa's refusal--there were but a few lines-his knees shook, and a sharp, low cry burst from him, like no sound that lies by nature in the throat of man. Rent in two pieces, the strip of papyrus fluttered to the ground.
The prefect caught the despot, who, seized with giddiness, stretched out his hands as if seeking a support. The physician hurriedly brought out the drug which Galenus had advised him to use in such cases, and which he always carried with him, and then, pointing to the letter, asked the prefect:
"In the name of all the gods, from whom?"
"From the gem-cutter's fair daughter," replied Macrinus, with a contemptuous shrug.
"From her?" cried the physician, indignantly. From that light Phryne, who kissed and embraced my rich host's son down there in his sick-room?
"At this the emperor, who had not lost consciousness for one moment, started as if stung by a serpent, and sprang at the physician's throat screaming while he threatened to strangle him:
"What was that? What did you say? Cursed babbler! The truth, villain, and the whole truth, if you love your life!"
The half-choked man, ever prone to talking, had no reason for concealing from Caesar what he had seen with his own eyes, and had subsequently heard in the Serapeum and at the table of Polybius.
When life was at stake a promise to a freedman could be of no account, so he gave free rein to his tongue, and answered the questions Caracalla hoarsely put to him without reserve, and--being a man used to the ways of a court--with insinuations that were doubly welcome to a judge so eager for damning evidence.
Yesterday, the day before, and the day before that--every day on which Melissa had pretended to feel the mysterious ties that bound her heart to his, every day that she had feigned love and led him on to woo her, she had--as he now learned--granted to another what she had refused to him with such stern discretion. Her prayer for him, the sympathy she said she felt, the maidenly sensibility which had charmed him in her--all, all had been lies, deceit, sham, in order to attain an object. And that old man and the brothers to serve whom she had dared to approach him--they all knew the cruel game she was playing with him and his heart's love. The lips that had lured him into the vilest trap with lying words had kissed another. He seemed to hear the Alexandrians laughing at the forsaken bridegroom, to see them pointing the finger of derision at the man whom cunning woman had deceived even before marriage. What a feast for their ribald wit!
And yet--he would have willingly borne it all, and more, for the certainty that she had really loved him once; that her heart had been his, if only for one short hour.
On those shreds of papyrus scattered over the floor she confessed she was not able to accede to his wishes, because she had already given her faith to another before she ever saw Caracalla. It was true she had felt herself drawn to him as to no other but her betrothed; and had he been content to let her be near him as a faithful servant and sicknurse, then indeed . . . In short, he was informed in so many words that every tie that bound her to him must be broken in favor of another, and the hypocritical regret with which she sought to cover up the hard facts only made him doubly indignant.
Lies, lies--even in this letter nothing but lies and heartless dissimulation!
How it stabbed his heart! But he possessed the power to wound her in return. Wild beasts should tear her fair body limb from limb, as she had torn his soul in this hour.
One wish alone filled his heart--to see her whom he had loved above all others, to whom he had revealed his inmost soul, for whose sake he had amended his actions as he had never done for his own mother--to see her lying in the dust before him, and to inflict upon her such tortures as no mortal had ever endured before. And not only she, but all whom she loved and who were her accomplices, should atone for the torment of this hour. The time of reckoning had come, and every evil instinct of his nature mingled its exulting voice with the anguished cries of his bleeding heart.
The prefect knew his master well, and watched his every expression while apparently listening to the voluble physician, but in reality absorbed in a train of thought. By the twitching of his eyelids, the sharply outlined red patches on his cheeks, the quivering nostrils, and the deep furrows between his eyes, he must be revolving some frightful plan in his mind.
Yesterday, had he found him in this condition, Macrinus would have endeavored by every means in his power to calm his wrath; but to-day, if Caesar had set the world in flames, he would only have added fuel to the fire, for who could more surely upset the firmly established power of this emperor and son of emperors as Caracalla himself? The people of Rome had endured unimaginable sufferings at his hands; but the cup was full, and, judging from Caesar's looks, he would cause it to overflow this day. Then the rising flood which tore the son of an idolized father from the throne, might possibly bear him, the child of lowliness and poverty, into the palace.
But Macrinus remained silent. No word from him should change the tenor of the emperor's thoughts. The plan he was thinking out must be allowed to ripen to its full horror. The lowering, uncertain glance that Caracalla cast round the tablinum at the close of the physician's narrative showed that the prefect's reticence was an unnecessary precaution.
Caesar's mind and tongue still seemed paralyzed; but at that moment something occurred which recalled him to himself and brought firmness to his wandering gaze.
There was a sudden disturbance in the antechamber, with a confused sound of cries and shouting. Those friends of Caesar who wore swords drew them, and Caracalla, who was unarmed, called to Antigonus to give him his.
"A revolt?" he asked Macrinus with flashing eyes, and as if he wished the answer to be in the affirmative; but the prefect had hastened to the door with drawn sword. Before he reached it, it was thrown open, and Julius Asper, the legate, burst into the tablinum as if beside himself, crying: "Cursed den of murderers! An attempt on your life, great Caesar; but we have him fast!"
"Assassination!" interrupted Caracalla with furious joy. "That was the only thing left undone! Bring the murderer! But first"--and he addressed himself to Aristides--"close the city gates and the harbor. Not a man, not a ship must be let through without being searched. The vessels that have weighed anchor since daybreak must be followed and brought back. Mounted Numidians under efficient officers must scour the high-roads as soon as the gate-keepers have been examined. Every house must be open to your men, every temple, every refuge. Seize Heron, the gem-cutter, his daughter, and his two sons. Also--Diodoros is the young villain's name?--him, his parents, and everybody connected with them! The physician knows where they are to be found. Alive, do you hear?--not dead! I will have them alive! I give you till midnight! Your head, if you let the jade and her brothers escape!"
With drooping head the unhappy officer departed. On the threshold he was met by Martialis, the praetorian centurion. After him, his hands bound behind his back, walked the criminal. A deep flush overspread his handsome face, his eyes glowed under the too lofty brow with the fierce light of fever, his waving locks stood out in wild confusion round his head, while the finely cut upper lip with its disdainful curl seemed the very seat of scorn and bitterest contempt. Every feature wore that same expression, and not a trace of fear or regret. But his panting breast betrayed to the physician's first glance that they had here to deal with a sick man in raging fever.
They had already torn off his mantle and discovered beneath its folds the sharp-edged butcher's knife which plainly betrayed his intentions. He had penetrated to the first antechamber when a soldier of the Germanic body-guard laid hold on him. Martialis had him by the girdle now, and the emperor looked sharply and mistrustfully at the praetorian, as he asked if it were he who had captured the assassin.
The centurion replied that he had not. Ingiomarus, the German, had noticed the knife; he, Martialis, was here only in right of his privilege as a praetorian to bring such prisoners before great Caesar.
Caracalla bent a searching gaze upon the soldier; for he thought he recognized in him the man who had aroused his envy and whose happiness he had once greatly desired to damp, when against orders he had received his wife and child in the camp. Recollections rose in his mind that drove the hot blood to his cheek, and he cried, disdainfully:
"I might have guessed it! What can be expected beyond the letter of their service from one who so neglects his duties? Did you not disport yourself with lewd women in the camp before my very eyes, setting at naught the well-known rules? Hands off the prisoner! This is your last day as praetorian and in Alexandria. As soon as the harbor is opened--to-morrow, I expect--you go on board the ship that carries reinforcements to Edessa. A winter on the Pontus will cool your lascivious blood."
This attack was so rapid and so unexpected to the somewhat dull-witted centurion, that he failed at first to grasp its full significance. He only understood that he was to be banished again from the loved ones he had so long been deprived of. But when he recovered sufficiently to excuse himself by declaring that it was his own wife and children who had visited him, Caesar cut him short by commanding him to report his change of service at once to the tribune of the legion.
The centurion bowed in silence and obeyed. Caracalla then went up to the prisoner, and dragging him, weakly resisting, from the dark back ground of the room to the window, he asked with a sneer:
"And what are assassins like in Alexandria? Ah, ha! this is not the face of a hired cut-throat! Only thus do they look whose sharp wit I will answer with still sharper steel."
"For that answer at least you are not wont to be at a loss," came contemptuously from the lips of the prisoner.
The emperor winced as if he had been struck, and then exclaimed
"You may thank your bound hands that I do not instantly return you the answer you seem to expect of me."
Then turning to his courtiers, he asked if any of them could give him information as to the name and history of the assassin; but no one appeared to know him. Even Timotheus, the priest of Serapis, who as head of the Museum had so often delighted in the piercing intellect of this youth, and had prophesied a great future for him, was silent, and looked at him with troubled gaze.
It was the prisoner himself who satisfied Caesar's curiosity. Glancing round the circle of courtiers, and casting a grateful look at his priestly patron, he said:
"It would be asking too much of your Roman table-companions that they should know a philosopher. You may spare yourself the question, Caesar. I came here that you might make my acquaintance. My name is Philippus, and I am son to Heron, the gem-cutter."
"Her brother!" screamed Caracalla, as he rushed at him, and thrusting his hand into the neck of the sick youth's chiton--who already could scarcely stand upon his feet--he shook him violently, crying, with a scoffing look at the high-priest:
"And is this the ornament of the Museum, the free-thinker, the profound skeptic Philippus?"
He stopped suddenly, and his eyes flashed as if a new light had burst upon him; he dropped his hand from the prisoner's robe, and bending his head close to the other, he whispered in his ear, "You have come from Melissa?"
"Not from her," the other answered quickly, the flush deepening on his face, "but in the name of that most unhappy, most pitiable maiden, and as the representative of her noble Macedonian house, which you would defile with shame and infamy; in the name of the inhabitants of this city, whom you despoil and tread under foot; in the interests of the whole world, which you disgrace!"
Trembling with fury Caracalla broke in:
"Who would choose you for their ambassador, miserable wretch?"
To which the philosopher replied with haughty calm:
"Think not so lightly of one who looks forward with longing to that of which you have an abject fear."
"Of death, do you mean?" asked Caracalla, sneering, for his wrath had given place to astonishment.
And Philip answered: "Yes, Death--with whom I have sworn friendship, and who should be ten times blessed to me if he would but atone for my clumsiness and rid the world of such a monster!"
The emperor, still spell-bound by the unheard-of audacity of the youth before him, now felt moved to keep step with the philosopher, whom few could equal in sharpness of wit; and, controlling the raging fury of his blood, he cried, in a tone of superiority:
"So that is the boasted logic of the Museum? Death is your dearest desire, and yet you would give it to your enemy?"
"Quite right," replied Philip, his lip curling with scorn. "For there is something which to the philosopher stands higher than logic. It is a stranger to you, but you know it perhaps by name--it is called justice."
These words, and the contemptuous tone in which they were spoken, burst the flood-gates of Caracalla's painfully restrained passion; his voice rose harsh and loud, till the lion growled angrily and dragged at his chain, while his master flung hasty words of fury in the face of his enemy:
"We shall soon see, my cunning fencer with words, whether I know how to follow your advice, and how sternly I can exercise that virtue denied to me by an assassin. Will any one accuse me now of injustice if I punish the accursed brood that has grown up in this den of iniquity with all the rigor that it deserves? Yes, glare at me with those great, burning eyes! Alexandrian eyes, promising all and granting nothing--persuading him who trusts in them to believe in innocence and chastity, truth and affection. But let him look closer, and he finds nothing but deep corruption, foul cunning, despicable self-seeking, and atrocious faithlessness!
"And everything else in this city is like those eyes! Where are there so many gods and priests, where do they sacrifice so often, where do they fast and apply themselves so assiduously to repentance and the cleansing of the soul? And yet, where does vice display itself so freely and so unchecked? This Alexandria--in her youth as dissolute as she was fair--what is she now but an old hag? Now that she is toothless, now that wrinkles disfigure her face, she has turned pious, that, like the wolf in sheep's clothing, she may revenge herself by malice for the loss of joy and of the admiration of her lovers! I can find no more striking comparison than this; for, even as hags find a hideous pleasure in empty chatter and spiteful slanderings, so she, once so beautiful and renowned, has sunk deeper and deeper in the mire, and can not endure to see anything that has achieved greatness or glory without maliciously bespattering it with poison.
"Justice!--yes, I will exercise justice, oh, sublime and virtuous hero, going forth to murder--a dagger hidden in your bosom! I thank you for that lesson!
"Pride of the Museum!--you lead me to the source whence all your corruption flows. It is that famous nursery of learning where you, too, were bred up. There, yes, there they cherish the heresy that makes the gods into puppets of straw, and the majesty of the throne into an owl for pert and insignificant birds to peck at. Thence comes the doctrine that teaches men and women to laugh at virtue and to break their word. There, where in other days noble minds, protected by the overshadowing favor of princes, followed out great ideas, they now teach nothing but words--empty, useless words. I saw and said that yesterday, and now I know it for certain--every poison shaft that your malice has aimed at me was forged in the Museum."
He paused for breath, and then continued, with a contemptuous laugh:
"If the justice which you rate higher than logic were to take its course, nothing would be juster than to make an end this day of this hot-bed of corruption. But your unlearned fellow-citizens shall taste of my justice, too. You yourself will be prevented by the beasts in the Circus from looking on at the effect your warning words have produced. But as yet you are alive, and you shall hear what the experiences are which make the severest measures the highest justice.
"What did I hope to find, and what have I really found? I heard the Alexandrians praised for their hospitality--for the ardor with which they pursue learning--for the great proficiency of their astronomers--for the piety which has raised so many altars and invented so many doctrines; and, lastly, for the beauty and fine wit of their women.
"And this hospitality! All that I have known of it is a flood of malicious abuse and knavish scoffing, which penetrated even to the gates of this temple, my dwelling. I came here as emperor, and treason pursued me wherever I went--even into my own apartments; for there you stand, whom a barbarian had to hinder from stabbing me with the knife of the assassin. And your learning? You have heard my opinion of the Museum. And the astrologers of this renowned observatory? The very opposite of all they promised me has come to pass.
"Religion? The people, of whom you know as little from the musty volumes of the Museum as of 'Ultima Thule'--the people indeed practice it. The old gods are necessary to them. They are the bread of life to them. But instead of those you have offered them sour, unripe fruit, with a glittering rind-from your own garden, of your own growing. The fruit of trees is a gift from Nature, and all that she brings forth has some good in it; but what you offer to the world is hollow and poisonous. Your rhetoric gives it an attractive exterior, and that, too, comes from the Museum. There they are shrewd enough to create new gods, which start up out of the earth like mushrooms. If it should only occur to them, they would raise murder to the dignity of god of gods, and you to be his high-priest."
"That would be your office," interposed the philosopher.
"You shall see," returned the emperor, laughing shrilly, "and the witlings of the Museum with you! You use the knife; but hear the words of the master: The teeth of wild beasts and their claws are weapons not to be despised. Your father and brother, and she who taught me what to think of the virtue and faith of Alexandrian women, shall tell you this in Hades. Soon shall every one of those follow you thither who forgot, even by a glance of the eye, that I was Caesar and a guest of this city! After the next performance in the Circus the offenders shall tell you in the other world how I administer justice. No later than the day after to-morrow, I imagine, you may meet there with several companions from the Museum. There will be enough to clap applause at the disputations!" Caracalla ended his vehement speech with a jeering laugh, and looked round eagerly for applause from the "friends" for whose benefit his last words had been spoken; and it was offered so energetically as to drown the philosopher's reply.
But Caracalla heard it, and when the noise subsided he asked his condemned victim:
"What did you mean by your exclamation, 'And yet I would that death might spare me'?"
"In order, if that should come true," returned the philosopher quickly, his voice trembling with indignation, "that I might be a witness of the grim mockery with which the all-requiting gods will destroy you, their defender."
"The gods!" laughed the emperor. "My respect for your logic grows less and less. You, the skeptic, expect the deeds of a mortal man from the gods whose existence you deny!"
Then cried Philip, and his great eyes burning with hatred and indignation sought the emperor's: "Till this hour I was sure of nothing, and therefore uncertain of the existence of a god; but now I believe firmly that Nature, by whom everything is carried out according to everlasting, immutable laws, and who casts out and destroys anything that threatens to bring discord into the harmonious workings of all her parts, would of her own accord bring forth a god, if there be not one already, who should crush you, the destroyer of life and peace, in his all-powerful hand!"
Here his wild outburst of indignation was brought to an abrupt close, for a furious blow from Caracalla's fist sent his enfeebled enemy staggering back against the wall near the window.
Mad with rage, Caracalla shrieked hoarsely
"To the beasts with him! No, not to the beasts--to the torture! He and his sister! The punishment I have bethought me of--scum of the earth--"
But the wild despair of the other, in whose breast hatred and fever burned with equal strength, now reached the highest pitch. Like a hunted deer which stays its flight for a moment to find an outlet or to turn upon his pursuers, he gazed wildly round him, and before the emperor could finish his threat; leaning against the pillar of the window as if prepared to receive his death-blow, he interrupted Caracalla:
"If your dull wit can invent no death to satisfy your cruelty, the blood-hound Zminis can aid you. You are a worthy couple. Curses on you! . . .
"At him!" yelled the emperor to Macrinus and the legate, for no substitute had appeared for the centurion he had dismissed.
But while the nobles advanced warily upon the madman, and Macrinus called to the Germanic body-guard in the anteroom, Philip had turned like lightning and disappeared through the window.
The legates and Caesar came too late to hold him back, and from below came cries of: "Crushed!--dead! . . . What crime has he committed? They cast him down! . . . He can not have done it himself . . . Impossible! . . . His arms are bound. . . . A new manner of death invented specially for the Alexandrians!"
Then another whistle sounded, and the shout, "Down with the tyrant!"
But no second cry followed. The place was too full of soldiers and lictors.
"Caracalla heard it all. He turned back into the room, wiped the perspiration from his brow, and said in a voice of studied unconcern, yet with horrible harshness:
"He deserved his death-ten times over. However, I have to thank him for a good suggestion. I had forgotten the Egyptian Zminis. If he is still alive, Macrinus, take him from his dungeon and bring him here. But quickly--in a chariot! Let him come just as he is. I can make use of him now."
The prefect bowed assent, and by the rapidity with which he departed he betrayed how willingly he carried out this order of his master's.