A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
On the wide ascent leading to the Serapeum the praetorians stood awaiting Caesar's commands. They had not yet formed in rank and file, but were grouped round the centurion Martialis, who had come to tell them, sadly, of his removal to Edessa, and to take leave of his comrades. He gave his hand to each one of them in turn, and received a kindly pressure in return; for the stubborn fellow, though not of the cleverest, had proved himself a good soldier, and to many of them a trusty friend. There was not one who did not regret his going from among them. But Caesar had spoken, and there was no gainsaying his orders. In the camp, after service, they might talk the matter over; for the present it were wise to guard their tongues.
The centurion had just said farewell to the last of his cohort, when the prefect, with the legate Quintus Flavius Nobilior, who commanded the legion, and several other higher officers, appeared among them. Macrinus greeted them briefly, and, instead of having the tuba blown as usual and letting them fall into their ranks, he told them to gather close round him, the centurions in front. He then disclosed to them the emperor's secret orders. Caesar, he began, had long exercised patience and mercy, but the insolence and malice of the Alexandrians knew no bounds; therefore, in virtue of his power over life and death, he had pronounced judgment upon them. To them as being nearest to his person he handed over the most remunerative part of the work of punishment. Whomsoever they found on the Kanopic way, the greatest and richest thoroughfare of the city, they were to cut down as they would the rebellious inhabitants of a conquered town. Only the women and children and the slaves were to be spared. If for this task, a hideous one at best, they chose to pay themselves out of the treasures of the citizens, nobody would blame them.
A loud cheer followed these orders, and many an eye gleamed brighter. Even the coolest among them seemed to see a broad, deep pool of blood into which he need only dip his hand and bring out something worth the catching. And the fish that were to be had there were not miserable carp, but heavy gold and silver vessels, and coins and magnificent ornaments. Macrinus then proceeded to inform the higher and lower officers of the course of action he had agreed upon with the emperor and Zminis. Seven trumpet-blasts from the terrace of the Serapeum would give the signal for the attack to begin. Then they were to advance, maniple on maniple; but they were not required to keep their ranks--each man had his own work to do. The legion was to assemble again at sunset at the Gate of the Sun, at the eastern end of the road, after having swept it from end to end.
By order of the emperor, each man, however, must be particularly careful whom he cut down in any hiding-place, for Caesar wished to give the following Alexandrians--who had sinned most flagrantly against him--the benefit of a trial, and they must therefore be taken alive. He then named the gem-cutter Heron, his son Alexander, and his daughter Melissa, the Alexandrian senator Polybius, his son Diodoros, and the wife of Seleukus.
He described them as well as he was able. For each one Caesar promised a reward of three thousand drachmas, and for Heron's daughter twice as much, but only on condition of their being delivered up unhurt. It would therefore be to their own advantage to keep their eyes open in the houses, and to be cautious. Whoever should take the daughter of the gem-cutter--and he described Melissa once more--would render a special service to Caesar and might reckon on promotion.
The centurion Julius Martialis stayed to hear the end of this discourse, and then hurriedly departed. He felt just as he had done in the war with the Alemanni when a red-haired German had dealt him a blow on the helmet with his club. His head whirled and swam as it did then--only to-day blood-red lights danced before his eyes instead of deep blue and gold. It was some time before he could collect his thoughts to any purpose; but when he did, he clinched his fists as he recalled Caesar's malignant cruelty in forcing him away from his family.
Presently his large mouth widened into a satisfied smile. He was no longer in that company, and need take no part in the horrid butchery. In any other place he would no doubt have joined in it like the rest, glad of the rich booty; but here, in his own home, where his mother and wife and child dwelt, it seemed a monstrous and accursed deed. Besides the gemcutter's family, in whom Martialis took no interest, Caesar seemed to have a special grudge against the lady Berenike, whose husband Seleukus had been master to the centurion's father; nay, his own wife was still in the service of the merchant.
Not being skilled in any trade, he had entered the army early. As Evocatus he had married the daughter of a free gardener of Seleukus, and when he was ordered to Rome to join the praetorians his wife had obtained the post of superintendent of the merchant's villa at Kanopus. For this they had to thank the kindness of the lady Berenike and her now dead daughter Korinna; and he was honestly grateful to the wife of Seleukus, for, as his wife was established in the villa, he could leave her without anxiety and go with the army wherever it was ordered.
Having by this time reached the Kanopic street on his way to his family, he perceived the statues of Hermes and Demeter which stood on each side of the entrance to the merchant's house, and his slow mind recapitulated the long list of benefits he had received from Seleukus and his wife; a secret voice urged upon him that it was his duty to warn them.
He owed nothing to Caesar, that crafty butcher, who out of pure malice could deprive an honest soldier of his only joy in life and cheat him of half his pay--for the praetorians had twice the wages of the other troops; and if he only knew some handicraft, he would throw away his sword today.
Here, at least, he could interfere with Caesar's ruthless schemes, besides doing his benefactors a good turn. He therefore entered the house of the merchant, instead of pursuing on his homeward way.
He was well known, and the mistress of the house was at once apprised of his arrival.
All the lower apartments were empty, the soldiers who had been quartered in them having joined the others at the Serapeum.
But what had happened to the exquisite garden in the impluvium? What hideous traces showed where the soldiers had camped, and, drunk with their host's costly wine, had given free play to their reckless spirits!
The velvet lawn looked like a stable-floor; the rare shrubs had been denuded of their flowers and branches. Blackened patches on the mosaic pavement showed where fires had been kindled; the colonnades were turned into drying-grounds for the soldiers' linen, and a rope on which hung some newly washed clothes was wound at one end round the neck of a Venus from the hand of Praxiteles, and at the other round the lyre of an Apollo fashioned in marble by Bryaxis. Some Indian shrubs, of which his father-in-law had been very proud, were trampled underfoot; and in the great banqueting-hall, which had served as sleeping-room for a hundred praetorians, costly cushions and draperies were strewn, torn from the couches and walls to make their beds more comfortable.
Used to the sights of war as he was, the soldier ground his teeth with wrath at this scene. As long as he could remember, he had looked upon everything here with reverence and awe; and to think that his comrades had destroyed it all made his blood boil.
As he approached the women's apartments he took fright. How was he to disclose to his mistress what threatened her?
But it must be done; so he followed the waiting-maid Johanna, who led him to her lady's livingroom.
In it sat the Christian steward Johannes, with writing tablets and scrolls of papyrus, working in the service of his patroness. She herself was with the wounded Aurelius; and Martialis, on hearing this, begged to be admitted to her.
Berenike was in the act of renewing the wounded soldier's bandages, and when the centurion saw how cruelly disfigured was the handsome, blooming face of the young tribune, to whom he was heartily attached, the tears rose to his eyes. The matron observed it, and witnessed with much surprise the affectionate greeting between the young noble and the plain soldier.
The centurion greeted her respectfully; but it was not till Nernesianus asked him how it was that the troops had been called to arms at this hour, that Martialis plucked up courage and begged the lady of the house to grant him an interview.
But Berenike had still to wash and bandage the wounds of her patient--a task which she always performed herself and with the greatest care; she therefore promised the soldier to be at his disposal in half an hour.
"Then it will be too late!" burst from the lips of the centurion; then she knew, by his voice and the terror-stricken aspect of the man whom she had known so long, that he meant to warn her, and there was but one from whom the danger could come.
"Caesar?" she asked. "He is sending out his creatures to murder me?"
The imperious gaze of Berenike's large eyes so overpowered the simple soldier as to render him speechless for a while. But Caesar had threatened his mistress's life--he must collect himself, and thus he managed to stammer:
"No, lady, no! He will not have you killed assuredly not! On the contrary-they are to let you live when they cut down the others!"
"Cut down!" cried Apollinaris, raising himself up and staring horrified at this messenger of terror; but his brother laid his hand upon the centurion's broad shoulder, and, shaking him vigorously, commanded him as his tribune to speak out.
The soldier, ever accustomed to obey, and only too anxious that his warning should not come too late, disclosed in hurried words what he had learned from the prefect. The brothers interrupted him from time to time with some exclamation of horror or disgust, but Berenike remained silent till Martialis stopped with a deep breath.
Then the lady gave a shrill laugh, and as the others looked at her in amazement she said coolly "You men will wade through blood and shame with that reprobate, if he but orders you to do so. I am only a woman, and yet I will show him that there are limits even to his malignity."
She remained for a few moments lost in thought, and then ordered the centurion to go and find out where her husband was.
Martialis obeyed at once, and no sooner was the door closed behind him than she turned to the two brothers, and addressing herself first to one and then to the other with equal vehemence, she cried "Who is right now? Of all the villains who have brought shame upon the throne and name of mighty Caesar, this is the most dastardly. He has written plainly enough upon Apollinaris's face how much he values a brave soldier, the son of a noble house. And you, Nemesianus--are you not also an Aurelius? You say so; and yet, had he not chanced to let you care for your brother, you would at this moment be wandering through the city like a mad dog, biting all who crossed your path. Why do you not speak? Why not tell me once more, Nemesianus, that a soldier must obey his commander blindly?--And you, Apollinaris, will you dare still to assert that the hand with which Caesar tore your face was guided only by righteous indignation at an insult offered to an innocent maiden? Have you the courage to excuse the murders by Caracalla of his own wife, and many other noble women, by his anxiety for the safety of throne and state? I, too, am a woman, and may hold up my head with the best; but what have I to do with the state or with the throne? My eye met his, and from that moment the fiend was my deadly enemy. A quick death at the hands of one of his soldiers seemed too good for the woman he hated. Wild beasts were to tear me to pieces before his eyes. Is that not sufficient for you? Put every abomination together, everything unworthy of an honorable man and abhorrent to the gods, and you have the man whom you so willingly obey. I am only the wife of a citizen. But were I the widow of a noble Aurelian and your mother--" Here Apollinaris, whose wounds were beginning to burn again, broke in: "She would have counseled us to leave revenge to the gods. He is Caesar!"
"He is a villain!" shrieked the matron--"the curse, the shame of humanity, a damnable destroyer of peace and honor and life, such as the world has never beheld before! To kill him would be to earn the gratitude and blessing of the universe. And you, the scions of a noble house, you, I say, prove that there still are men among so many slaves! It is Rome herself who calls you through me--like her, a woman maltreated and wounded to the heart's core--to bear arms in her service till she gives you the signal for making an end of the dastardly blood hound!"
The brothers gazed at one another pale and speechless, till at last Nemesianus ventured to say "He deserves to die, we know, a thousand deaths, but we are neither judges nor executioners. We can not do the work of the assassin."
"No, lady, we can not," added Apollinaris, and shook his wounded head energetically.
But the lady, nothing daunted, went on: "Who has ever called Brutus a murderer? You are young--Life lies before you. To plunge a sword into the heart of this monster is a deed for which you are too good. But I know a hand that understands its work and would be ready to guide the steel. Call it out at the right moment and be its guide!"
"And that hand?" Apollinaris asked in anxious expectation.
"It is there," replied Berenike, pointing to Martialis, who entered the room at that moment. Again the brothers interchanged looks of doubt, but the lady cried: "Consider for a moment! I would fain go hence with the certainty that the one burning desire shall be fulfilled which still warms this frozen heart."
She motioned to the centurion, left the apartment with him, and preceded him to her own room. Arrived there, she ordered the astonished freedman Johannes, in his office as notary, to add a codicil to her will. In the event of her death, she left to Xanthe, the wife of the centurion Martialis, her lawful property the villa at Kanopus, with all it contained, and the gardens appertaining to it, for the free use of herself and her children.
The soldier listened speechless with astonishment. This gift was worth twenty houses in the city, and made its owner a rich man. But the testator was scarcely ten years older than his Xanthe, and, as he kissed the hem of his mistress's robe in grateful emotion, he cried: "May the gods reward you for your generosity; but we will pray and offer up sacrifices that it may be long before this comes into our hands!"
The lady shook her head with a bitter smile, and, drawing the soldier aside, she disclosed to him in rapid words her determination to quit this life before the praetorians entered the house. She then informed the horror-stricken man that she had chosen him to be her avenger. To him, too, the emperor had dealt a malicious blow. Let him remember that, when the time came to plunge the sword in the tyrant's heart. Should this deed, however, cost Martialis his life--which he had risked in many a battle for miserable pay--her will would enable his widow to bring up their children in happiness and comfort.
The centurion had thrown in a deprecatory word or two, but Berenike continued as if she had not heard him, till at last Martialis cried:
"You ask too much of me, lady. Caesar is hateful to me, but I am no longer one of the praetorians, and am banished the country. How is it possible that I should approach him? How dare I, a common man--"
The lady came closer to him, and whispered:
"You will perform this deed to which I have appointed you in the name of all the just. We demand nothing from you but your sword. Greater men than you--the two Aurelians--will guide it. At their word of command you will do the deed. When they give you the signal, brave Martialis, remember the unfortunate woman in Alexandria whose death you swore to revenge. As soon as the tribunes--"
But the centurion was suddenly transformed. "If the tribunes command it," he interrupted with decision, his dull eye flashing--"if they demand it of me, I do it willingly. Tell them Martialis's sword is ever at their service. It has made short work of stronger men than that vicious stripling."
Berenike gave the soldier her hand, thanked him hurriedly, and begged him, as he could pass unharmed through the city, to hasten to her husband's counting-house by the water-side, to warn him and carry him her last greetings.
With tears in his eyes Martialis did as she desired. When he had gone, the steward began to implore his mistress to conceal herself, and not cast away God's gift of life so sinfully; but she turned from him resolutely though kindly, and repaired once more to the brothers' room.
One glance at them disclosed to her that they had come to no definite conclusion; but their hesitation vanished as soon as they heard that the centurion was ready to draw his sword upon the emperor when they should give the signal; and Berenike breathed a sigh of relief at this resolution, and clasped their hands in gratitude.
They, too, implored her to conceal herself, but she merely answered:
"May your youth grow into happy old age! Life can offer me nothing more, since my child was taken from me--But time presses--I welcome the murderers, now that I know that revenge will not sleep."
"And your husband?" interposed Nemesianus.
She answered with a bitter smile: "He? He has the gift of being easily consoled.--But what was that?"
Loud voices were audible outside the sick-room. Nemesianus stationed himself in front of the lady, sword in hand. This protection, however, proved unnecessary, for, instead of the praetorians, Johanna entered the room, supporting on her arm the half-sinking form of a young man in whom no one would have recognized the once beautifully curled and carefully dressed Alexander. A long caracalla covered his tall form; Dido the slave had cut off his hair, and he himself had disguised his features with streaks of paint. A large, broad-brimmed hat had slipped to the back of his head like a drunken man's, and covered a wound from which the red blood flowed down upon his neck. His whole aspect breathed pain and horror, and Berenike, who took him for a hired cut-throat sent by Caracalla, retreated hastily from him till Johanna revealed his name.
He nodded his head in confirmation, and then sank exhausted on his knees beside Apollinaris's couch and managed with great difficulty to stammer out: "I am searching for Philip. He went into the town-ill-out of his senses. Did he not come to you?"
"No," answered Berenike. "But what is this fresh blood? Has the slaughter begun?"
The wounded man nodded. Then he continued, with a groan: "In front of the house of your neighbor Milon--the back of my head--I fled--a lance--"
His voice failed him, and Berenike cried to the tribune: "Support him, Nemesianus! Look after him and tend him. He is the brother of the maiden--you know--If I know you, you will do all in your power for him, and keep him hidden here till all danger is over."
"We will defend him with our lives!" cried Apollinaris, giving his hand to the lady.
But he withdrew it quickly, for from the impluvium arose the rattle of arms, and loud, confused noise.
Berenike threw up her head and lifted her hands as if in prayer. Her bosom heaved with her deep breath, the delicate nostrils quivered, and the great eyes flashed with wrathful light. For a moment she stood thus silent, then let her arms fall, and cried to the tribunes:
"My curse be upon you if you forget what you owe to yourselves, to the Roman Empire, and to your dying friend. My blessing, if you hold fast to what you have promised."
She pressed their hands, and, turning to do the same to the artist, found that he had lost consciousness. Johanna and Nemesianus had removed his hat and caracalla, to attend to his wound.
A strange smile passed over the matron's stern features. Snatching the Gallic mantle from the Christian's hand, she threw it over her own shoulders, exclaiming:
"How the ruffian will wonder when, instead of the living woman, they bring him a corpse wrapped in his barbarian's mantle!"
She pressed the hat upon her head, and from a corner of the room where the brothers' weapons stood, selected a hunting-spear. She asked if this weapon might be recognized as belonging to them, and, on their answering in the negative, said:
"My thanks, then, for this last gift!"
At the last moment she turned to the waiting-woman:
"Your brother will help you to burn Korinna's picture. No shameless gaze shall dishonor it again." She tore her hand from that of the Christian, who, with hot tears, tried to hold her back; then, carrying her head proudly erect, she left them.
The brothers gazed shudderingly after her. "And to know," cried Nemesianus, striking his forehead, "that our own comrades will slay her! Never were the swords of Rome so disgraced!"
"He shall pay for it!" replied the wounded man, gnashing his teeth.
"Brother, we must avenge her!"
"Yes--her, and--may the gods hear me!--you too, Apollinaris," swore the other, lifting his hand as for an oath.
Loud screams, the clash of arms, and quick orders sounded from below and broke in upon the tribune's vow. He was rushing to the window to draw back the curtain and look upon the horrid deed with his own eyes, when Apollinaris called him back, reminding him of their duty toward Melissa's brother, who was lost if the others discovered him here.
Hereupon Nemesianus lifted the fainting youth in his strong arms and carried him into the adjoining room, laying him upon the mat which had served their faithful old slave as a bed. He then covered him with his own mantle, after hastily binding up the wound on his head and another on his shoulder.
By the time the tribune returned to his brother the noise outside had grown considerably less, only pitiable cries of anguish mingled with the shouts of the soldiers.
Nemesianus hastily pulled aside the curtain, letting such a flood of blinding sunshine into the room that Apollinaris covered his wounded face with his hands and groaned aloud.
"Sickening! Horrible! Unheard of!" cried his brother, beside himself at the sight that met his eyes. "A battle-field! What do I say? The peaceful house of a Roman citizen turned into shambles. Fifteen, twenty, thirty bodies on the grass! And the sunshine plays as brightly on the pools of blood and the arms of the soldiers as if it rejoiced in it all. But there--Oh, brother! our Marcipor--there lies our dear old Marci!--and beside him the basket of roses he had fetched for the lady Berenike from the flower-market. There they be, steeped in blood, the red and white roses; and the bright sun looks down from heaven and laughs upon it!"
He broke down into sobs, and then continued, gnashing his teeth with rage: "Apollo smiles upon it, but he sees it; and wait--wait but a little longer, Tarautas! The god stretches out his hand already for the avenging bow! Has Berenike ventured among them? Near the fountain-how it flashes and glitters with the hues of Iris!--they are crowding round something on the ground--Mayhap the body of Seleukus. No--the crowd is separating. Eternal gods! It is she--it is the woman who tended you!"
"Dead?" asked the other.
"She is lying on the ground with a spear in her bosom. Now the legate-yes, it is Quintus Flavius Nobilior--bends over her and draws it out. Dead--dead! and slain by a man of our cohort!"
He clasped his hands before his face, while Apollinaris muttered curses, and the name of their faithful Marcipor, who had served their father before them, coupled with wild vows of vengeance.
Nemesianus at length composed himself sufficiently to follow the course of the horrible events going on below.
"Now," he went on, describing it to his brother, "now they are surrounding Rufus. That merciless scoundrel must have done something abominable, that even goes beyond what his fellows can put up with. There they have caught a slave with a bundle in his hand, perhaps stolen goods. They will punish him with death, and are themselves no better than he. If you could only see how they come swarming from every side with their costly plunder! The magnificent golden jug set with jewels, out of which the lady Berenike poured the Byblos wine for you, is there too!--Are we still soldiers, or robbers and murderers?"
"If we are," cried Apollinaris, "I know who has made us so."
They were startled by the approaching rattle of arms in the corridor, and then a loud knock at the chamber-door. The next moment a soldier's head appeared in the doorway, to be quickly withdrawn with the exclamation, "It is true--here lies Apollinaris!"
"One moment," said a second deep voice, and over the threshold stepped the legate of the legion, Quintus Flavius Nobilior, in all the panoply of war, and saluted the brothers.
Like them, he came of an old and honorable race, and was acting in place of the prefect Macrinus, whose office in the state prevented him from taking the military command of that mighty corps, the praetorians. Twenty years older than the twins, and a companion-in-arms of their father, he had managed their rapid promotion. He was their faithful friend and patron, and Apollinaris's misfortune had disgusted him no less than the order in the execution of which he was now obliged to take part. Having greeted the brothers affectionately, observed their painful emotion, and heard their complaints over the murder of their slave, he shook his manly head, and pointing to the blood that dripped from his boots and greaves, "Forgive me for thus defiling your apartments," he said. "If we came from slaughtering men upon the field of battle, it could only do honor to the soldier; but this is the blood of defenseless citizens, and even women's gore is mixed with it."
"I saw the body of the lady of this house," said Nemesianus, gloomily. "She has tended my brother like a mother."
"But, on the other hand, she was imprudent enough to draw down Caesar's displeasure upon her," interposed the Flavian, shrugging his shoulders. "We were to bring her to him alive, but he had anything but friendly intentions toward her; however, she spoiled his game. A wonderful woman! I have scarcely seen a man look death--and self-sought death--in the face like that! While the soldiers down there were massacring all who fell into their hands--those were the orders, and I looked on at the butchery, for, rather than--well, you can imagine that for yourselves--through one of the doors there came a tall, extraordinary figure. The wide brim of a traveling hat concealed the features, and it was wrapped in one of the emperor's fool's mantles. It hurried toward the maniple of Sempronius, brandishing a javelin, and with a sonorous voice reviling the soldiers till even my temper was roused. Here I caught sight of a flowing robe beneath the caracalla, and, the hat having fallen back, a beautiful woman's face with large and fear-inspiring eyes. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this grim despiser of death, being a woman, was doubtless she whom we were to spare. I shouted this to my men; but--and at that moment I was heartily ashamed of my profession--it was too late. Tall Rufus pierced her through with his lance. Even in falling she preserved the dignity of a queen, and when the men surrounded her she fixed each one separately with her wonderful eyes and spoke through the death-rattle in her throat:
"'Shame upon men and soldiers who let themselves be hounded on like dogs to murder and dishonor!' Rufus raised his sword to make an end of her, but I caught his arm and knelt beside her, begging her to let me see to her wound. With that she seized the lance in her breast with both hands, and with her last breath murmured, 'He desired to see the living woman--bring him my body, and my curse with it! Then with a last supreme effort she buried the spear still deeper in her bosom; but it was not necessary.
"I gazed petrified at the high-bred, wrathful face, still beautiful in death, and the mysterious, wide-open eyes that must have flashed so proudly in life. It was enough to drive a man mad. Even after I had closed her eyes and spread the mantle over her--"
"What has been done with the body?" asked Apollinaris.
"I caused it to be carried into the house and the door of the death-chamber carefully locked. But when I returned to the men. I had to prevent them from tearing Rufus to pieces for having lost them the large reward which Caesar had promised for the living prisoner."
"And you," cried Apollinaris, excitedly, "had to look on while our men, honest soldiers, plundered this house--which entertained many of us so hospitably--as if they had been a band of robbers! I saw them dragging out things which were used in our service only yesterday."
"The emperor--his permission!" sighed Flavius. "You know how it is. The lowest instincts of every nature come out at such a time as this, and the sun shines upon it all. Many a poor wretch of yesterday will go to bed a wealthy man to-day. But, for all that, I believe much was hidden from them. In the room of the mistress of the house whence I have just come, a fire was still blazing in which a variety of objects had been burned. The flames had destroyed a picture--a small painted fragment betrayed the fact. They perhaps possessed masterpieces of Apelles or Zeuxis. This woman's hatred would lead her to destroy them rather than let them fall into the hands of her imperial enemy; and who can blame her?"
"It was her daughter's portrait," said Nemesianus, unguardedly.
The legate turned upon him in surprise. "Then she confided in you?" he asked.
"Yes," returned the tribune, "and we are proud to have been so honored by her. Before she went to her death she took leave of us. We let her go; for we at least could not bring ourselves to lay hands upon a noble lady."
The officer looked sternly at him and exclaimed, angrily:
"Do you suppose, young upstart, that it was less painful to me and many another among us? Cursed be this day, that has soiled our weapons with the blood of women and slaves, and may every drachma which I take from the plunder here bring ill-luck with it! Call the accident that has kept you out of this despicable work a stroke of good fortune, but beware how you look down upon those whose oath forces them to crush out every human feeling from their hearts! The soldier who takes part with his commander's enemy--"
He was interrupted by the entrance of Johanna, the Christian, who saluted the legate, and then stood confused and embarrassed by the side of Apollinaris's bed. The furtive glance she cast first at the side-room and then at Nemesianus did not pass unobserved by the quick eye of the commander, and with soldierly firmness he insisted on knowing what was concealed behind that door.
"An unfortunate man," was Apollinaris's answer.
"Seleukus, the master of this house?" asked Quintus Flavius, sternly.
"No," replied Nemesianus. "It is only a poor, wounded painter. And yet--the praetorians will go through fire and water for you, if you deliver up this man to them as their booty. But if you are what I hold you to be--"
"The opinion of hot-headed boys is of as little consequence to me as the favor of my subordinates," interposed the commander. "Whatever my con science tells me is right, I shall do. Quick, now! Who is in there?"
"The brother of the maiden for whose sake Caesar--" stammered the wounded man.
"The maiden whom you have to thank for that disfigured face?" cried the legate. "You are true Aurelians, you boys; and, though you may doubt whether I am the man you take me for, I confess with pleasure that you are exactly as I would wish to have you. The praetorians have slain your friend and servant; I give you that man to make amends for it."
With deep emotion Nemesianus seized his old friend's hands, and Apollinaris spoke words of gratitude to him from his couch. The officer would not listen to their thanks, and walked toward the door; but Johanna stood before him, and entreated him to allow the twins, whose servant had been killed, to take another, from whom they need have no fear of treachery. He had been captured in the impluvium by the praetorians while trying, in the face of every danger, to enter the house where the painter lay, to whose father he had belonged for many years. He would be able to tend both Apollinaris and Melissa's brother, and make it possible to keep Alexander's hiding-place a secret. The soldiery would be certain to penetrate as far as this, and other lives would be endangered if they should bear off the faithful servant and force him on the rack to disclose where Melissa's father and relatives were hidden.
The legate promised to insure the freedom of Argutis.
A few more words of thanks and farewell, and Quintus had fulfilled his mission to the Aurelians. Shortly afterward the tuba sounded to assemble the plunderers still scattered about Seleukus's house, and Nemesianus saw the men marching in small companies into the great hall. They were followed by their armor-bearers, loaded with treasure of every kind; and three chariots, drawn by fine horses, belonging to Seleukus and his murdered wife, conveyed such booty as was too heavy for men to carry. In the last of these stood the statue of Eros by Praxiteles. The glorious sunshine lighted up the smiling marble face; with the charm of bewitching beauty he seemed to gaze at the lurid crimson pools on the ground, and at the armed cohorts which marched in front to shed more blood and rouse more hatred.
As Nemesianus withdrew from the window, Argutis came into the room. The legate had released him; and when Johanna conducted the faithful fellow to Alexander's bedside, and he saw the youth lying pale and with closed eyes, as though death had claimed him for his prey, the old man dropped on his knees, sobbing loudly.