A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
While Alexander, well nursed by old Argutis and Johanna, lay in high fever, raving in his delirium of Agatha and his brother Philip, and still oftener calling for his sister, Melissa was alone in her hiding-place. It was spacious enough, indeed, for she was concealed in the rooms prepared to receive the Exoterics before the mysteries of Serapis. A whole suite of apartments, sleeping-rooms and halls, were devoted to their use, extending all across the building from east to west. Some of these were square, others round or polygonal, but most of them much longer than they were wide. Painters and sculptors had everywhere covered the walls with pictures in color and in high relief, calculated to terrify or bewilder the uninitiated. The statues, of which there were many, bore strange symbols, the mosaic flooring was covered with images intended to excite the fancy and the fears of the beholder.
When Melissa first entered her little sleeping room, darkness had concealed all this from her gaze. She had been only too glad to obey the matron's bidding and go to rest at once. Euryale had remained with her some time, sitting on the edge of the bed to hear all that had happened to the girl during the last few hours, and she had impressed on her how she should conduct herself in case of her hiding-place being searched.
When she presently bade her good-night, Melissa repeated what the waiting-woman Johanna had told her of the life of Jesus Christ; but she expressed her interest in the person of the Redeemer in such a strange and heathen fashion that Euryale only regretted that she could not at once enlighten the exhausted girl. With a hearty kiss she left her to rest, and Melissa was no sooner alone than sleep closed her weary young eyes.
It was near morning when she fell asleep; and when she awoke, accustomed as she was to early hours, she was startled to see how much of the day was spent. So she rose hastily, and then perceived that the lady Euryale must already have come to see her, for she found fresh milk by the bedside, and some rolls of manuscript which had not been there the day before. Her first thought was for her imperiled relatives--her father, her brothers, her lover--and she prayed for each, appealing first to the manes of her mother, and then to mighty Serapis and kindly Isis, who would surely hear her in these precincts dedicate to them.
The danger of those she loved made her forget her own, and she vividly pictured to herself what might be happening to each, what each one might be doing to protect her and save her from the spies of the despot, who by this time must have received her missive. Still, the doubt whether he might not, after all, be magnanimous and forgive her, rose again and again to her mind, though everything led her to think it impossible.
During her prayer and in her care for the others she had felt reasonably calm; but at the first thought of Caesar a painful agitation took possession of her soul, and to overcome it she began an inspection of her spacious hiding-place, where the lady Euryale had prepared her to be amazed. And, indeed, it was not merely strange, but it filled her heart and mind with astonishment and terror. Wherever she looked, mystic figures puzzled her; and Melissa turned from a picture in relief of beheaded figures with their feet in the air, and a representation of the damned stewing in great caldrons and fanning themselves with diabolical irony, only to see a painting of a female form over whose writhing body boats were sailing, or a four-headed ram, or birds with human heads flying away with a mummified corpse. On the ceiling, too, there was strange imagery; and when she looked at the floor to rest her bewildered fancy, her eyes fell on a troop of furies pursuing the wicked, or a pool of fire by which horrible monsters kept guard.
And all these pictures were not stiff and formal like Egyptian decorative art, but executed by Greek artists with such liveliness and truth that they seemed about to speak; and Melissa could have fancied many times that they were moving toward her from the ceiling or the walls.
If she remained here long, she thought she must go out of her mind; and yet she was attracted, here by a huge furnace on whose metal floor large masses of fuel seemed to be, and there by a pool of water with crocodiles, frogs, tortoises, and shells, wrought in mosaic.
Besides these and other similar objects, her curiosity was aroused by some large chests in which book-rolls, strange vessels, and an endless variety of raiment of every shape and size were stored, from the simple chiton of the common laborer to the star-embroidered talar of the adept.
Her protectress had told her that the mystics who desired to be admitted to the highest grades here passed through fire and water, and had to go through many ceremonies in various costumes. She had also informed her that the uninitiated who desired to enter these rooms had to open three doors, each of which, as it was closed, gave rise to a violent ringing; so that she might not venture to get away from the room, into which, however, she could bar herself. If the danger were pressing, there was a door, known only to the initiated, which led to the steps and out of the building. Her sleeping-place, happily, was not far from a window looking to the west, so that she was able to refresh her brain after the bewildering impressions which had crowded on her in the inner rooms.
The paved roadway dividing the Serapeum from the stadium was at first fairly crowded; but the chariots, horsemen, and foot-passengers on whose heads she looked down from her high window interested her as little as the wide inclosure of the stadium, part of which lay within sight.
A race, no doubt, was to be held there this morning, for slaves were raking the sand smooth, and hanging flowers about a dais, which was no doubt intended for Caesar. Was it to be her fate to see the dreadful man from the place where she was hiding from him? Her heart began to beat faster, and at the same time questions crowded on her excited brain, each bringing with it fresh anxiety for those she loved, of whom, till now, she had been thinking with calm reassurance.
Whither had Alexander fled?
Had her father and Philip succeeded in concealing themselves in the sculptor's work-room?
Could Diodoros have escaped in time to reach the harbor with Polybius and Praxilla?
How had Argutis contrived that her letter should reach Caesar's hands without too greatly imperiling himself?
She was quite unconscious of any guilt toward Caracalla. There had been, indeed, a strong and strange attraction which had drawn her to him; even now she was glad to have been of service to him, and to have helped him to endure the sufferings laid upon him by a cruel fate. But she could never be his. Her heart belonged to another, and this she had confessed in a letter--perhaps, indeed, too late. If he had a heart really capable of love, and had set it on her, he would no doubt think it hard that he should have bestowed his affections on a girl who was already plighted to another, even when she first appeared before him as a suppliant, though deeply moved by pity; still, he had certainly no right to condemn her conduct. And this was her firm conviction.
If her refusal roused his ire--if her father's prophecy and Philostratus's fears must be verified, that his rage would involve many others besides herself in ruin, then--But here her thought broke off with a shudder.
Then she recalled the hour when she had been ready and willing to be his, to sacrifice love and happiness only to soften his wild mood and protect others from his unbridled rage. Yes, she might have been his wife by this time, if he himself had not proved to her that she could never gain such power over him as would control his sudden fits of fury, or obtain mercy for any victim of his cruelty. The murder of Vindex and his nephew had been the death-blow of this hope. She best knew how seriously she had come to the determination to give up every selfish claim to future happiness in order that she might avert from others the horrors which threatened them; and now, when she knew the history of the Divine Lord of the Christians, she told herself that she had acted at that moment in a manner well-pleasing to that sublime Teacher. Still, her strong common sense assured her that to sacrifice the dearest and fondest wish of her heart in vain would not have been right and good, but foolish.
The evil deeds which Caracalla was now preparing to commit he would have done even if she were at his side. Of what small worth would she have seemed to him, and to herself!--When this tyranny should be overpast, when he should be gone to some other part of his immense empire, if those she loved were spared she could be happy--ah! so happy with the man to whom she had given her heart--as happy as she would have been miserable if she had become the victim to unceasing terrors as Caesar's wife.
Euryale was right, and Fate, to which she had appealed, had decided well for her. That, the greatest conceivable sacrifice, would have been in vain; for the sake of a ruthless tyrant's foul desire she would have been guilty of the basest breach of faith, have poisoned her lover's heart and soul, and have wrecked his whole future life as well as her own. Away, then, with foolish doubts! Pythagoras was wise in warning her against torturing her heart. The die was cast. She and Caracalla must go on divergent roads, Her duty now was to fight for her own happiness against any who threatened it, and, above all, against the tyrant who had compelled her, innocent as she was, to hide like a criminal.
She was full of righteous wrath against the sanguinary persecutor, and holding her head high she went back into her sleeping-room to finish dressing. She moved more quickly than usual, for the bookrolls which Euryale had laid by her bed while she was still asleep attracted her eye with a suggestion of promise. Eager to know what their contents were, she took them up, drew a stool to the window, and tried to read.
But many voices came up to her from outside, and when she looked down into the road she saw troops of youths crowding into the stadium. What fine fellows they were, as they marched on, talking and singing; and she said to herself that Diodoros and Alexander were taller even than most of these, and would have been handsome among the handsomest! She amused herself for some time with watching them; but when the last man had entered the stadium, and they had formed in companies, she again took up the rolls.
One contained the gospel of Matthew and the other that of Luke.
The first, beginning with the genealogy, gave her a string of strange, barbarous names which did not attract her; so she took up the roll of Luke, and his simple narrative style at once charmed her. There were difficulties in it, no doubt, and she skipped sundry unintelligible passages, but the second chapter captivated her attention. It spoke of the birth of the great Teacher whom the Christians worshiped as their God. Angels had announced to the shepherds in the field that great joy should come on the whole world, because the Saviour was born; and this Saviour and Redeemer was no hero, no sage, but a child wrapped in swaddling-clothes and lying in a manger.
At this she smiled, for she loved little children, and had long known no greater pleasure than to play with them and help them. How many delightful hours did she owe to the grandchildren of their neighbor Skopas!
And this child, hailed at its birth by a choir of angels, had become a God in whom many believed! and the words of the angels' chant were: "Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, good-will toward men!"
How great and good it sounded! With eager excitement she fastened the rolls together, and on her features was depicted impatient longing to put an end to an intolerable state of things, as she exclaimed, though there was no one but herself to hear: "Ay, peace, salvation, good-will! Not this hatred, this thirst for revenge, this blood, this persecution, and, as their hideous fruit, this terror, these horrible, cruel fears--"
Here she was interrupted by the clatter of arms and rapping of hammers which came up from below. Caesar's Macedonian guard and other infantry troops were silently coming up in companies and vanishing into the side-doors which led to the upper tiers of the stadium. What could this mean? Meanwhile carpenters were busy fastening up the chief entrance with wooden beams. It looked like closing up sluice-gates to hinder the invasion of a high tide. But the stadium was already full of men. She had seen thousands of youths march in, and there they stood in close ranks in the arena below her. Besides these, there were now an immense number of soldiers. They must all get out again presently, and what a crush there would be in the side exits if the vomitorium were closed! She longed to call down, to warn the carpenters of the folly of their act. Or was it that the youth of the town were to be pent into the stadium to hear some new and more severe decree, while some of the more refractory were secured?
It must be so. What a shame!
Then came a few vexilla of Numidian troopers at a slow pace. At their head, on a particularly high horse, rode the legate, a very tall man. He glanced up to the side where she was, and Melissa recognized the Egyptian Zminis. At this her hand sought the place of her heart, for she felt as though it had ceased to beat. What! This wretch, the deadly foe of her father and brother, here, at the head of the Roman troops? Something horrible, impossible, must be about to happen!
The sun was mirrored in the shining coat of his horse, and in the lictor's axe he bore, carrying it like a commander's staff. He raised it once, twice, and, high as she was above him, she could see how sharp the contrast was between the yellow whites of his eyes and the swarthy color of his face.
Now, for the third time, the bright steel of the axe flashed in the sunshine, and immediately after trumpet-calls sounded and were repeated at short intervals, which still, to her, seemed intolerably long. How Melissa had presence of mind enough to count them she knew not, but she did. At the seventh all was still, and soon after a short blast on the tuba rang out from above, below, and from all sides of the stadium. Each went like an arrow to the heart of the anxious, breathless girl. From the moment when she had seen Zminis she had expected the worst, but the cry of rage and despair from a thousand voices which now split her ear told her how far the incredible reality outdid her most horrible imaginings.
Breathless, and with a throbbing brain, she leaned out as far as she could, and neither felt the burning sun-which was now beginning to fall on the western face of the temple--nor heeded the risk of being seen and involving herself and her protectress in ruin. Trembling like a gazelle in a frosty winter's night, she would gladly have withdrawn from the window, but she felt as if some spell held her there. She longed to shut her ears and eyes, but she could not help looking on. Her every instinct prompted her to shriek for help, but she could not utter a sound.
There she stood, seeing and hearing, and her low moaning changed to that laughter which anguish borrows from gladness when it has exhausted all forms of expression. At last she sank on her knees on the floor, and while she shed tears of pain still laughed shrilly, till she understood with sudden horror what was happening. She started violently; a sob convulsed her bosom; she wept and wept, and these tears did her good.
When, at one in the afternoon, the sun fell full on her window, she had not yet found strength to move. A flood of bright light, in which whirled millions of motes, danced before her eyes; and as her breath sent the atoms flying, it passed through her mind that at this very moment the reprobate utterance of a madman's lips was blowing happiness, joy, peace, and hope out of the lives of many thousands--blowing them into nothingness, like the blast of a storm.
Then she commanded herself, for the horrible scene before her threatened to stamp itself on her eye like the image her father could engrave on an onyx; and she must avoid that, or give up all hope of ever being light-hearted again. Hardly an hour since she had seen the arena looking like a basket of fresh flowers, full of splendid, youthful men. Then the warriors of the Macedonian phalanx had taken their places on the long ranks of seats on which she looked down, with several cohorts of archers, brown Numidians and black Ethiopians, like inquisitive spectators of the expected show--but all in full armor. At first the youths and men had formed in companies, with singing, talk, and laughter, and here and there a satirical chant; but presently there had been squabbles with the town-watch, and while the younger and more careless still were gay enough, whole companies on the other hand had looked up indignantly at the Romans; some had anxiously questioned each other's eyes, or stared down in sullen dismay at the sand.
The hot, seething blood of these men--the sons of a free city, and accustomed to a life of rapid action in hard work and frenzied enjoyment--took the delay very much amiss; and when it was rumored that the doors were being locked, impatience and distrust found emphatic utterance. Timid whistling and other expressions of disapproval had been followed by louder demonstrations, for to be locked up was intolerable. But the lictors and guards took no notice, after removing the member of the Museum who had perpetrated the epigram on Caesar's mother. This one, who had certainly gone too far, was to pay for all, it would seem.
Then the trumpets sounded, and the most heedless of the troop of youths began to feel acute anxiety and alarm. From her high post of observation Melissa could see that, although the appearance of Zminis on the scene had caused a fever of agitation, they now broke their serried squares, wandered about as if undecided what to do, but prepared for the worst, and turned their curly heads now to this side and now to that, till the trumpetblast from the seats attracted every eye upward, and the butchery began.
Did the cry, "Stop, wretches!" really break from Melissa's lips, or had she only intended to shout it down to the people in the stadium? She did not know; but as she recollected the long rank of Numidians who, quick as lightning, lifted their curved bows and sent a shower of arrows down on the defenseless lads in the arena, she felt as though she had again shrieked out: "Stop!" Then it seemed as though a storm of wind had torn thousands of straight boughs with metallic leaves that flashed in the sunshine from some huge invisible tree, and flung them into the arena; and, as her eve followed their fall, she could have fancied that she looked on a corn-field beaten down by a terrific hail-storm; but the boughs and leaves were lances and arrows, and each ear of corn cut down was a young and promising human being.
Zminis's preposterous suggestion had been acted on. Caracalla was avenged on the youth of Alexandria.
Not a tongue could wag now in abuse; every pair of young lips which had dared utter a scornful cry or purse up to whistle at the sight of Caesar, was silenced forever-and, with the few guilty, a hundred times more who were innocent. She knew now why the great gate had been barred with beams, and why the troop had entered by the side-doors. The scene of the brilliant display had become a lake of blood, full of the dead and dying. Death had invaded the rows of seats; instead of laurel wreaths and prizes, deadly weapons were showered down into the arena. It seemed now as though the sun, with its blinding radiance, were mercifully fain to hinder the human eye from looking down on the horrible picture. To avoid the sickening sight. Melissa closed her eyes and dragged herself to her feet with an effort, to hide herself she knew not where.
But again there was a flourish of trumpets and loud acclamations, and again an irresistible power dragged her to the window.
A splendid quadriga had stopped at the gate of the stadium, surrounded by courtiers and guards. It was Caracalla's, for Pandion held the reins. Could Caracalla approve of this most horrible crime, organized by the wretch Zminis, by appearing on the scene; or might it not be that, in his wrath at the bloodthirsty zeal of his vile tool, he had come to dismiss him?
She hoped it was this; and, at any cost, she must know the truth as to this question, which was not based on mere curiosity. Holding one hand to her wildly beating heart, she looked across the bloodstained arena to the rows of seats and the dais decorated for Caesar. There stood Caracalla, with the Egyptian at his side, pointing down at the arena with his finger. And what was to be seen on the spot he indicated was so horrible that she again shut her eyes, and this time she even covered them with her hands. But she would and must see, and once more she looked across; and the man whose assurances she had once believed, that it was only his care for the throne and state and the compulsion of cruel fate which had ever made him shed blood--that man was standing side by side with the vile, ruthless spy whose tall figure towered far above his master's. His hand lay on the villain's arm, his eye rested on the corpse-strewn arena beneath; and now he raised his head, he turned his face, whose look of suffering had once moved her soul, toward her--and he laughed--she could see every feature--laughed so loud, so heartily, so gleefully, as she had never before seen him laugh. He laughed till his whole body and shoulders shook. Now he took his hand from the Egyptian's arm and pointed to the dead lying at his feet.
As she saw that laugh, of which she could not hear a sound, Melissa felt as though a hyena had yelled in her ear, and, yielding to an irresistible impulse, she looked down once more at the destruction of youthful life and happiness which had been wrought in one short hour--at the stream of blood after which so many bitter tears must flow. The sight indeed cut her to the heart, and yet she was thankful for it; for the first time the reckless cruelty of that laughing monster was evident in all its naked atrocity. Horror, aversion, loathing for that man to whom everything but power, cruelty, and cunning, was as nothing, left no room for fear or pity, or even the least shade of self-reproach for having aroused in him a desire which she could not gratify.
She clenched her little fists, and, without vouchsafing another glance at the detestable butcher who had dared to cast his eyes on her, she withdrew from the window and cried out aloud, though startled at the sound of her own voice: "The time, the time! It is fulfilled for him this day!"
And how her eyes flashed and her bosom heaved and fell! With what a firm step did she pace the long suite of rooms, while the conviction was borne in on her that this deed of the vile assassin in the purple must bring the day of salvation and peace nearer--that day of which Andreas dreamed! As in her silent walk she passed the book-rolls which the lady Euryale had so quietly laid by her bedside, she took up the glad message of Luke with enthusiastic excitement, held it on high, and shouted the angels' greeting which had impressed itself on her memory out of the window, as though she longed that Caracalla should hear it--"Peace on earth and good-will toward men!"
Then she resumed her walk through the rooms of the heathen mystics, repeating to herself all the comfortable words she had ever heard from Euryale and the freedman Andreas. The image of the divine Lord, who had come to bestow love on the world, and seal his sublime doctrine by sacrificing his life, rose up before her soul, and all that the Christian Johanna had told her of him made the picture clear, till he stood plainly before her, beautiful and gentle, in a halo of love and kindness, and yet strong and noble, for the crucified One was a heroic Saviour.
At this she remembered with satisfaction the struggle she herself had fought, and her comfort when she had decided to sacrifice her own happiness to save others from sorrow. She now resolutely grasped the lady Euryale's book-rolls, for they contained the key to the inner chambers of the wondrous structure into whose forecourt life itself and her own intimate experience had led her. She was soon sitting with her back to the window, and unrolled the gospel of Matthew till she came to the first sentence which Euryale had marked for her with a red line.
Melissa was too restless to read straight on; as impatient as a child who finds itself for the first time in a garden which its parents have bought, she rushed from one tempting passage to another, applying each to herself, to those whom she loved, or in another sense to the disturber of her peace.
With a joyful heart she now believed the promise which at first had staggered her, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.
But her eye ran swiftly over the open roll, and was attracted by a mark drawing her attention to a whole chapter. She there read how Jesus Christ had gone up on to a mountain to address the vast multitude who followed him. He spoke of the kingdom of heaven, and of who those were that should be suffered to enter there. First, they were the poor in spirit--and she no doubt was one of those. Among those who were rich in spirit her brother Philip was certainly one of the richest, and whither had an acute understanding and restless brain led him that they so seldom gave his feelings time to make themselves heard?
Then the mourners were to be comforted. Oh, that she could have called the lady Berenike to her side and bid her participate in this promise! And the meek--well, they might come to power perhaps after the downfall of the wretch who had flooded the world with blood, and who, of all men on earth, was the farthest removed from the spirit which gazed at her from this scripture, so mild and genial. Of those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness she again was one: they should be filled, and the lady Euryale and Andreas had already loaded the board for her.
The merciful, she read, should obtain mercy; and she, if any one, had a right to regard herself as a peacemaker: thus to her was the promise that she should be called one of the children of God.
But at the next verse she drew herself up, and her face was radiant with joy, for it seemed to have been written expressly for her; nay, to find it here struck her as a marvel of good fortune, for there stood the words: "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you."
All these things had come upon her in these last days-though not, indeed, for the sake of Jesus Christ and righteousness, but only for the sake of those she loved; yet she would have been ready to endure the worst.
And the hapless victims in the arena! Might not the promised bliss await them too? Oh, how gladly would she have bestowed on them the fairest reward! And if this should indeed be their lot after death, where was the revenge of their bloodthirsty murderer?
Oh, that her mother were still alive--that she, Melissa, had been permitted to share this great consolation with her! In a brief aspiration she uplifted her soul to the beloved dead, and as she further unrolled the manuscript her eye fell on the words: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you, and do good to them that hate you." No, she could not do this; this seemed to her to be too much to ask; even Andreas had not attained to this; and yet it must be good and lovely, if only because it helped to cement the peace for which she longed more fervently than for any other blessing.
Next she read: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged," and she shuddered as she thought of the future fate of the man who had by treachery brought murder and death on an industrious and flourishing city as a punishment for the light words and jests of a few mockers, and the disappointment he had suffered from an insignificant girl.
But then, again, she breathed more freely, for she read: "Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened." Could there be a more precious promise? And to her, she felt, it was already fulfilled; for her trembling finger had, as it were, but just touched the door, and, to! it stood open before her, and that which she had so long sought she had now found. But it was quite natural that it should be so, for the God of the Christians loved those who turned to him as His own children. Here it was written why those who asked should receive, and those who sought should find: "For what man is there of you whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?"
If it were only as a peacemaker, she was already a child of Him who had asked this, and she might look for none but good gifts from Him. And what was commanded immediately after seemed to her so simple, so easy to obey, and yet so wise. She thought it over a little, and saw that in this precept--of which it was said that it was all the law and the prophets--there was in fact a rule which, if it were obeyed, must keep all mankind guiltless, and make every one happy. These words, she thought, should be written over every door and on every heart, as the winged sun was placed over every Egyptian temple gate, so that no one should ever forget them for an instant. She herself would bear them in mind, and she repeated them to herself in an undertone, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do unto them." Her eye wandered to the window and out to the stadium. How happy might the world be under a sovereign who should obey that law! And Caracalla?--No, she would not allow the contentment which filled her to be troubled by a thought of him.
With a hasty gesture she placed the ivory rod which she had found in the middle of the roll so as to flatten it out, and her eye fell on the words, "Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." To her, if to any one, was this glorious bidding addressed, for few had a heavier burden to bear. But indeed she already felt it lighter, after the terrors she had gone through on the very verge of despair; and now, even though she was still surrounded by dangers, she was far from feeling oppressed or terrified. Now her heart beat higher with hopeful gladness, and she was full of fervent gratitude as she told herself with lively and confident assurance that she had found a new guide, and, holding His loving and powerful hand, could walk in the way in safety. She felt as though some beloved hand had given her a vial of precious medicine that would cure every disease, when she had learned this verse, too, by heart. She would never forget the friendly promise and invitation that lay in those words. And to Alexander, at least--poor, conscience-stricken Alexander--they might bring some comfort, if not to her father and Philip, since the call of the Son of God was addressed to him too. And she looked as happy as though she had heard something to rejoice her heart and soul. Her red lips parted once more, showing the two white teeth which were never to be seen but when she smiled and some real happiness stirred her soul.
She fancied she was alone, but, even while she was reading the words in which the Saviour called to him the weary and heavy-laden, the lady Euryale had noiselessly opened a secret door leading to Melissa's hiding-place, known only to herself and her husband, and had come close to her. She now stood watching the girl with surprise and astonishment, for she had expected to find her beside herself, desperate, and more than ever needing comfort and soothing. The unhappy girl must have been drawn to the window by the cries of the massacred, and at least have glanced at the revolting scene in the stadium. She would have thought it more natural if she had found Melissa overcome by the horrors she had witnessed, half distraught or paralyzed by distress and rage. And there sat the young creature, whom she knew to be soft-hearted and gentle, smiling and with beaming eyes--though those eyes must have rested on the most hideous spectacle--looking as though the roll in her lap were the first enchanting raptures of a lover. The book lying on Melissa's knees was the gospel of Matthew, which she herself early this morning, while the girl was still sleeping, had laid by her side to comfort her and give her some insight into the blessings of Christianity. But these scriptures, so sacred to Euryale, had seemed to count for less than nothing to this heathen girl, the sister of Philip the skeptic.
Euryale loved Melissa, but far dearer to her was the book to whose all-important contents the maiden seemed to have closed her heart in coldness.
It was for Melissa's sake that, when the high-priest's dwelling was searched by the new magistrate's spies from cellar to garret, she had patiently submitted to her husband's hard words. She had liked to think that she might bring this girl as a pure white lamb into the fold of the Good Shepherd, who to herself was so dear, and through whom her saddened life had found new charm, her broken heart new joys. A few hours since she had assured her friend Origen that she had found a young Greek who would prove to him that a heathen who had gone through the school of suffering with a pure and compassionate heart needed but a sign, a word of flame, to recognize at once the beatitude of Christianity and long to be baptized. And here she discovered the maiden of whom she had such fair hopes, with a smile on her lips and beaming looks, while so many innocent men were being slaughtered, as though this were a joy to her!
What had become of the girl's soft, tender heart, which but yesterday had been ready for self-sacrifice if only she might secure the well-being of those she loved? Was she, Euryale, in her dotage, that she could be so deceived by a child?
Her heart beat faster with disappointment; and yet she would not condemn the sinner unheard. So, with a swift impulse she took the roll up from Melissa's lap, and her voice was sorrowful rather than severe as she exclaimed:
"I had hoped, my child, that these scriptures might prove to you, as to so many before you, a key to open the gates of eternal truth. I thought that they would comfort you, and teach you to love the sublime Being whose exemplary life and pathetic death are no longer unknown to you, since Johanna told you the tale. Nay, I believed that they might presently arouse in you the desire to join us who--"
But here she stopped, for Melissa had fallen on her neck, and while Euryale, much amazed, tried to release herself from her embrace, the girl cried out, half laughing and half in tears:
"It has all come about as you expected! I will live and die faithful to that sublime Saviour, whom I love. I am one of you--yes, mother, now--even before the baptism I long for. For I was weary and heavy-laden above any, and the word of the Lord hath refreshed me. This book has taught me that there is but one path to true happiness, and it is that which is shown us by Jesus Christ. O lady, how much fairer would our life on earth be if what is written here concerning blessedness were stamped on every heart! I feel as though in this hour I had been born again. I do not know myself; and how is it possible that a poor child of man, in such fearful straits and peril as I, and after such a scene of horror, should feel so thankful and so full of the purest gladness?"
The matron clasped her closely in her arms, and her tears bedewed the girl's face while she kissed her again and again; and the cheerfulness which had just now hurt her so deeply she now regarded as a beautiful miracle.
Her time was limited, for she was watched; and she had seized the half-hour during which the townguard had been mustered in the square to report progress. So Melissa had to be brief, and in a few hasty words she told her friend all that she had seen and heard from her high window, and how the gospel of Matthew had been to her glad tidings; how it had given her comfort and filled her soul with infinite happiness in this the most terrible hour of her life. At this, Euryale also forgot the horrors which surrounded them, till Melissa called her back to the dreadful present; for, with bowed head and in deep anxiety, she desired to know whether her friend knew anything of her relations and Diodoros.
The matron had a painful struggle with herself. It grieved her to inflict anxiety on Melissa's heart, as she stood before her eyes like one of the maidens robed in white and going to be baptized, to whom presents were given on the festive occasion, and who were carefully sheltered from all that could disturb them and destroy the silent, holy joy of their souls. And yet the question must be answered: so she said that of the other two she knew nothing, any more than of Berenike and Diodoros, but that of Philip she had bad news. He was a noble man, and, notwithstanding his errors in the search after truth, well worthy of pity. At this, Melissa in great alarm begged to be told what had happened to her brother, and the lady Euryale confessed that he no longer walked among the living, but she did not relate the manner of his death; and she bade the weeping girl to seek for comfort from the Friend of all who grieve and whom she now knew; but to keep herself prepared for the worst, in full assurance that none are tried beyond what they are able to bear, for that the fury of the bloodthirsty tyrant hung like a black cloud over Alexandria and its inhabitants. She herself, merely by coming to Melissa, exposed herself to great danger, and she could not see her again till the morrow. To Melissa's inquiry as to whether it was her refusal to be his which had brought such a fearful fate on the innocent youth of Alexandria, Euryale could reply in the negative; for she had heard from her husband that it was a foul epigram written by a pupil of the Museum which had led to Caesar's outbreak of rage.
With a few soothing words she pointed to a basket of food which she had brought with her, showed the girl once more the secret door, and embraced her at parting as fondly as though Heaven had restored to her in Melissa the daughter she had lost.