A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
The sun had risen an hour since. Heron had betaken himself to his workshop, whistling as he went, and in the kitchen his old slave Argutis was standing over the hearth preparing his master's morning meal. He dropped a pinch of dill into the barley-porridge, and shook his gray head solemnly.
His companion Dido, a Syrian, whose wavy white hair contrasted strangely with her dark skin, presently came in, and, starting up, he hastily inquired, "Not in yet?"
"No," said the other woman, whose eyes were full of tears. "And you know what my dream was. Some evil has come to her, I am certain; and when the master hears of it--" Here she sobbed aloud; but the slave reproved her for useless weeping.
"You never carried her in your arms," whimpered the woman.
"But often enough on my shoulder," retorted the Gaul, for Argutis was a native of Augusta Trevirorum, on the Moselle. "Assoon as the porridge is ready you must take it in and prepare the master."
"That his first fury may fall on me!" said the old woman, peevishly. "I little thought when I was young!"
"That is a very old story," said Argutis, "and we both know what the master's temper is. I should have been off long ago if only you could make his porridge to his mind. As soon as I have dished it I will go to seek Alexander--there is nothing to prevent me--for it was with him that she left the house."
At this the old woman dried her tears, and cried "Yes, only go, and make haste. I will do everything else. Great gods, if she should be brought home dead! I know how it is; she could bear the old man's temper and this moping life no longer, and has thrown herself into the water.
"My dream, my dream! Here--here is the dish, and now go and find the boy. Still, Philip is the elder."
"He!" exclaimed the slave in a scornful tone. "Yes, if you want to know what the flies are talking about! Alexander for me. He has his head screwed on the right way, and he will find her if any man in Egypt can, and bring her back, alive or dead."
"Dead!" echoed Dido, with a fresh burst of sobs, and her tears fell in the porridge, which Argutis, indeed, in his distress of mind had forgotten to salt.
While this conversation was going on the gemcutter was feeding his birds. Can this man, who stands there like any girl, tempting his favorites to feed, with fond words and whistling, and the offer of attractive dainties, be the stormy blusterer of last night? There is not a coaxing name that he does not lavish on them, while he fills their cups with fresh seed and water; and how carefully he moves his big hand as he strews the little cages with clean sand! He would not for worlds scare the poor little prisoners who cheer his lonely hours, and who have long since ceased to fear him. A turtle-dove takes peas, and a hedge-sparrow picks ants' eggs from his lips; a white-throat perches on his left hand to snatch a caterpillar from his right. The huge man was in his garden soon after sunrise gathering the dewy leaves for his feathered pets. But he talks and plays longest with the starling which his lost wife gave him. She had bought it in secret from the Bedouin who for many years had brought shells for sale from the Red Sea, to surprise her husband with the gift. The clever bird had first learned to call her name, Olympias; and then, without any teaching, had picked up his master's favorite lament, "My strength, my strength!"
Heron regarded this bird as a friend who understood him, and, like him, remembered the never-to-be-forsaken dead. For three years had the gem cutter been a widower, and he still thought more constantly and fondly of his lost wife than of the children she had left him. Heron scratched the bird's knowing little head, saying in a tone which betrayed his pity both for himself and his pet "Yes, old fellow, you would rather have a soft white finger to stroke you down. I can hear her now, when she would call you 'sweet little pet,' or 'dear little creature.' We shall neither of us ever hear such gentle, loving words again. Do you remember how she would look up with her dear sweet face--and was it not a lovely face?--when you called her by her name 'Olympias'? How many a time have her rosy lips blown up your feathers, and cried, 'Well done, little fellow! '--Ay, and she would say 'Well done' to me too, when I had finished a piece of work well. Ah, and what an eye she had, particularly for art! But now well, the children give me a good word too, now that her lips are silent!"
"Olympias!" cried the bird loudly and articulately, and the clouds that shadowed the gem-cutter's brow lifted a little, as with an affectionate smile he went on:
"Yes, yes; you would be glad, too, to have her back again. You call her now, as I did yesterday, standing by her grave--and she sends you her love.
"Do you hear, little one? Peck away at the old man's finger; he knows you mean it kindly, and it does not hurt. I was all alone out there, and Selene looked down on us in silence. There was rioting and shouting all round, but I could hear the voice of our dead. She was very near me, and her sad soul showed me that she still cared for me. I had taken a jar of our best wine of Byblos under my cloak; as soon as I had poured oil on her gravestone and shed some of the noble liquor, the earth drank it up as though it were thirsty. Not a drop was left. Yes, little fellow, she accepted the gift; and when I fell on my knees to meditate on her, she vouchsafed replies to many of my questions.
"We talked together as we used--you know. And we remembered you, too; I gave you her love.
"You understand me, little fellow, don't you? And, I tell you, better times are coming now."
He turned from the bird with a sharp movement of annoyance, for the slave-woman came in with the bowl of barley-porridge.
"You!" exclaimed Heron, in surprise. "Where is Melissa?"
"She will come presently," said the old woman, in a low and doubtful tone.
"Oh, thanks for the oracle!" said the artist, ironically.
"How you mock at a body!" said the old woman. "I meant--But eat first--eat. Anger and grief are ill food for an empty stomach."
Heron sat down to the table and began to eat his porridge, but he presently tossed away the spoon, exclaiming:
"I do not fancy it, eating by myself."
Then, with a puzzled glance at Dido, he asked in a tone of vexation:
"Well, why are you waiting here? And what is the meaning of all that nipping and tugging at your dress? Have you broken another dish? No? Then have done with that cursed head-shaking, and speak out at once!"
"Eat, eat," repeated Dido, retreating to the door, but Heron called her back with vehement abuse; but when she began again her usual complaint, "I never thought, when I was young--" Heron recovered the good temper he had been rejoicing in so lately, and retorted: "Oh! yes, I know, I have the daughter of a great potentate to wait on me. And if it had only occurred to Caesar, when he was in Syria, to marry your sister, I should have had his sister-in-law in my service. But at any rate I forbid howling. You might have learned in the course of thirty years, that I do not eat my fellow-creatures. So, now, confess at once what is wrong in the kitchen, and then go and fetch Melissa." The woman was, perhaps, wise to defer the evil moment as long as possible. Matters might soon change for the better, and good or evil could come only from without. So Dido clung to the literal sense of her master's question, and something note-worthy had actually happened in the kitchen. She drew a deep breath, and told him that a subordinate of the night-watch had come in and asked whether Alexander were in the house, and where his painting-room was.
"And you gave him an exact description?" asked Heron.
But the slave shook her head; she again began to fidget with her dress, and said, timidly:
"Argutis was there, and he says no good can come of the night-watch. He told the man what he thought fit, and sent him about his business."
At this Heron interrupted the old woman with such a mighty blow of his fist on the table that the porridge jumped in the bowl, and he exclaimed in a fury:
"That is what comes of treating slaves as our equals! They begin to think for themselves. A stupid blunder can spoil the best day! The captain of the night-watch, I would have you to know, is a very great man, and very likely a friend of Seleukus's, whose daughter Alexander has just painted. The picture is attracting some attention.--Attention? What am I saying? Every one who has been allowed to see it is quite crazy about it. Everything else that was on show in the embalmers' hall was mere trash by comparison. Often enough have I grumbled at the boy, who would rather be anywhere than here; but, this time, I had some ground for being proud to be his father! And now the captain of the watch sends his secretary, or something of the kind, no doubt, in order to have his portrait, or his wife's or daughter's--if he has one--painted by the artist who did Korinna's; and his own father's slave--it drives me mad to think of it--makes a face at the messenger and sends him all astray. I will give Argutis a lesson! But by this time, perhaps--Just go and fetch him in." With these words Heron again dropped his spoon, wiped his beard, and then, seeing that Dido was still standing before him as though spellbound, twitching her slave's gray gown, he repeated his order in such angry tones--though before he had spoken to her as gently as if she were one of his own children--that the old woman started violently and made for the door, crouching low and whimpering bitterly.
The soft-hearted tyrant was really sorry for the faithful old servant he had bought a generation since for the home to which he had brought his fair young wife, and he began to speak kindly to her, as he had previously done to the birds.
This comforted the old woman so much that again she could not help crying; but, notwithstanding the sincerity of her tears, being accustomed of old to take advantage of her master's moods, she felt that now was the time to tell her melancholy story. First of all she would at any rate see whether Melissa had not meanwhile returned; so she humbly kissed the hem of his robe and hurried away.
"Send Argutis to me!" Heron roared after her, and he returned to his breakfast with renewed energy.
He thought, as he ate, of his son's beautiful work, and the foolish self-importance of Argutis, so faithful, and usually, it must be owned, so shrewd. Then his eyes fell on Melissa's vacant place opposite to him, and he suddenly pushed away his bowl and rose to seek his daughter.
At this moment the starling called, in a clear, inviting tone, "Olympias!" and this cheered him, reminding him of the happy hour he had passed at his wife's grave and the good augury he had had there. The belief in a better time at hand, of which he had spoken to the bird, again took possession of his sanguine soul; and, fully persuaded that Melissa was detained in her own room or elsewhere by some trifling matter, he went to the window and shouted her name; for hers, too, opened on to the garden.
And it seemed as though the dear, obedient girl had come at his bidding, for, as he turned back into the room again, Melissa was standing in the open door.
After the pretty Greek greeting, "Joy be with you," which she faintly answered, he asked her, as fractiously as though he had spent hours of anxiety, where she had been so long. But he was suddenly silent, for he was astonished to see that she had not come from her room, but, as her dress betrayed, from some long expedition. Her appearance, too, had none of the exquisite neatness which it usually displayed; and then--what a state she was in! Whence had she come so early in the day?
The girl took off the kerchief that covered her head, and with a faint groan pushed her tangled hair off her temples, and her bosom heaved as she panted out in a weary voice: "Here I am! But O, father, what a night I have spent!"
Heron could not for a minute or two find words to answer her.
What had happened to the girl? What could it be which made her seem so strange and unlike her self? He gazed at her, speechless, and alarmed by a hundred fearful suspicions. He felt as a mother might who has kissed her child's fresh, healthy lips at night, and in the morning finds them burning with fever.
Melissa had never been ill from the day of her birth; since she had donned the dress of a full-grown maiden she had never altered; day after day and at all hours she had been the same in her quiet, useful, patient way, always thinking of her brothers, and caring for him rather than for herself.
It had never entered into his head to suppose that she could alter; and now, instead of the gentle, contented face with faintly rosy cheeks, he saw a pallid countenance and quivering lips. What mysterious fire had this night kindled in those calm eyes, which Alexander was fond of comparing to those of a gazelle? They were sunk, and the dark shadows that encircled them were a shock to his artistic eye. These were the eyes of a girl who had raved like a maenad the night through. Had she not slept in her quiet little room; had she been rushing with Alexander in the wild Bacchic rout; or had something dreadful happened to his son?
Nothing could have been so great a relief to him as to rave and rage as was his wont, and he felt strongly prompted to do so; but there was something in her which moved him to pity or shyness, he knew not which, and kept him quiet. He silently followed her with his eyes while she folded her mantle and kerchief in her orderly way, and hastily gathered together the stray, curly locks of her hair, smoothed them, and bound them round her head.
Some one, however, must break the silence, and he gave a sigh of relief when the girl came up to him and asked him, in a voice so husky as to give him a fresh shock:
"Is it true that a Scythian, one of the nightwatch, has been here already?"
Then he broke out, and it really did him good to give vent to his repressed feelings in an angry speech:
"There again--the wisdom of slaves! The so-called Scythian brought a message from his master.
"The captain of the night-watch--you will see--wishes to honor Alexander with a commission."
"No, no," interrupted the girl. "They are hunting my brother down. I thank the gods that the Scythian should have come; it shows that Alexander is still free."
The gem-cutter clasped his bushy hair in both hands, for it seemed to him that the room was whirling round. But his old habits still got the better of him; he roared out with all the power of his mighty lungs: "What is that? What do you say? What has Alexander done? Where have you--both of you-been?" With two long strides the angry man came close up to the terrified girl; the birds fluttered in their cages, and the starling repeated his cries in melancholy tones. Heron stood still, pushing his fingers through his thick gray hair, and with a sharp laugh exclaimed: "I came away from her grave full of fresh hopes for better days, and this is how they are fulfilled! I looked for fame, and I find disgrace! And you, hussy! where have you spent this night--where have you come from? I ask you once more!"
He raised his fist and shook it close in front of Melissa's eyes.
She stood before him as pale as death, and with wide-open eyes, from which the heavy tears dropped slowly, one by one, trickling down her cheeks as if they were tired. Heron saw them, and his rage melted. He staggered to a seat like a drunken man, and, hiding his face in his hands, moaned aloud, "Wretch, wretch that I am!" But his child's soft hand was laid on his head; warm, girlish lips kissed his brow; and Melissa whispered beseechingly: "Peace, father, peace. All may yet be well. I have something to tell you that will make you glad too; yes, I am sure it will make you glad."
Her father shrugged his shoulders incredulously, but wanted to know immediately what the miracle was that could smooth his brow. Melissa, however, would not tell him till it came in its place in her story. So he had to submit; he drew his seat up to the table, and took up a lump of modeling-wax to keep his restless fingers employed while he listened. She, too, sat down; she could scarcely stand.
At first he listened calmly to her narrative; and when she told him of Alexander's jest at Caesar's expense his face brightened. His Alexandrian blood and his relish for a biting speech got the upper hand; he gave a sounding slap on his mighty leg, and exclaimed: "A cursed good thought! But the boy forgot that when Zeus only lamed his son it was because he is immortal; while Caesar's brother was as feeble a mortal as Caracalla himself is said to be at this day."
He laughed noisily; but it was for the last time that morning; for hardly had he heard the name of Zminis, and learned that it was he who had over heard Alexander, than he threw down the wax and started to his feet in horror, crying:
"That dog, who dared to cast his eyes on your mother, and persecuted her long after she had shown him the door! That sly mischief-maker! Many a time has he set snares in our path. If he succeeds in tightening the noose into which the boy has so heedlessly thrust his head--But first tell me, has he caught him already, or is Alexander still at liberty?"
But no one, not even Argutis, who was still out on the search, could tell him this; and he was now so greatly disturbed that, during the rest of Melissa's narrative, he perpetually paced the room, interrupting her now and then with questions or with outbursts of indignation. And then it occurred to him that he ought himself to seek his son, and he occupied himself with getting ready to go out.
Even when she spoke of the Magian, and his conviction that those who know are able to hold intercourse with the souls of the dead, he shrugged his shoulders incredulously, and went on lacing his sandals. But when Melissa assured him that not she alone, but Diodoros with her, had seen the wandering soul of the departed Korinna in the train of ghosts, he dropped the straps he had bound round his ankle, and asked her who this Magian was, and where he might be found. However, she knew no more than that his name was Serapion, and she briefly described his dignified presence.
Heron had already seen the man, and he seemed still to be thinking of him, when Melissa, with a blush and downcast eyes, confessed that, as soon as he was well again, Diodoros was coming to her father to ask her of him in marriage.
It was a long story before she came at last to her own concerns, but it was always her way not to think of herself till every one else had had his due.
But what about her father? Had she spoken inaudibly, or was he really unable to-day to be glad? or what ailed him, that he paid no heed to the news which, even for him, was not without its importance, but, without a word of consent or disapproval, merely bade her go on with her story?
Melissa called him by name, as if to wake a man from sleep, and asked whether it were indeed possible that he really felt no pleasure in the happy prospect that lay before her, and that she had confessed to him. And now Heron lent an ear, and gave her to understand the satisfaction of his fatherly heart by kissing her. This news, in fact, made up for much that was evil, for Diodoros was a son-in-law after his own heart, and not merely because he was rich, or because his mother had been so great a friend of Olympias's. No, the young man's father was, like himself, one of the old Macedonian stock; he had seen his daughter's lover grow to manhood, and there was not in the city a youth he could more heartily welcome. This he freely admitted; he only regretted that when she should set up house with her husband on the other side of the lake, he (Heron) would be left as lonely as a statue on its pedestal. His sons had already begun to avoid him like a leper!
Then, when he heard of what had befallen Diodoros, and Melissa went on to say that the people who had thrown the stone at the dog were Christians, and that they had carried the wounded youth into a large, clean dwelling, where he was being carefully attended when she had left him, Heron broke out into violent abuse. They were unpatriotic worshipers of a crucified Jew, who multiplied like vermin, and only wanted to turn the good old order of things upside down. But this time they should see--the hypocrites, who pretended to so much humanity, and then set ferocious dogs on peaceful folk!--they should learn that they could not fall on a Macedonian citizen without paying for it.
He indignantly refused to hear Melissa's assurance that none of the Christians had set the dog on her lover; she, however, maintained stoutly that it was merely by an unfortunate accident that the stone had hit Diodoros and cut his head so badly. She would not have quitted her lover but that she feared lest her prolonged absence should have alarmed her father.
Heron at last stood still for a minute or two, lost in thought, and then brought out of his chest a casket, from which he took a few engraved gems. He held them carefully up to the light, and asked his daughter: "If I learn from Polybius, to whom I am now going, that they have already caught Alexander, should I venture now, do you think, to offer a couple of choice gems to Titianus, the prefect, to set him free again? He knows what is good, and the captain of the watch is his subordinate."
But Melissa besought him to give up the idea of seeking out Alexander in his hiding-place; for Heron, the gem-cutter, was known to every one, and if a man-at-arms should see him he would certainly follow him. As regarded the prefect, he would not apprehend any one this day, for, as her father knew, Caesar was to arrive at Alexandria at noon, and Titianus must be on the spot to meet him with all his train.
"But if you want to be out of doors and doing," she added, "go to see Philip. Bring him to reason, and discuss with him what is to be done."
She spoke with firm decision, and Heron looked with amazement at the giver of this counsel. Melissa had hitherto cared for his comfort in silence, without expressing any opinions of her own, and submitting to be the lightning-conductor for all his evil tempers. He did not rate her girlish beauty very high, for there were no ugly faces in his family nor in that of his deceased Olympias. And all the other consolations she offered him he took as a matter of course--nay, he sometimes made them a ground of complaint; for he would occasionally fancy that she wanted to assume the place of his beloved lost wife, and he regarded it as a duty to her to show his daughter, and often very harshly and unkindly, how far she was from filling her mother's place.
Thus she had accustomed herself to do her duty as a daughter, with quiet and wordless exactitude, looking for no thanks; while he thought he was doing her a kindness merely by suffering her constant presence. That he should ever exchange ideas with his daughter, or ask her opinion, would have seemed to Heron absolutely impossible; yet it had come to this, and for the second time this morning he looked in her face with utter amazement.
He could not but approve her warning not to betray Alexander's hiding-place, and her suggestion that he should go to see his eldest son coincided with an unspoken desire which had been lurking in his mind ever since she had told him of her having seen a disembodied soul. The possibility of seeing her once more, whose memory was dearer to him than all else on earth, had such a charm, that it moved him more deeply than the danger of his son, who was, nevertheless, very dear to his strangely tempered heart.
So he answered Melissa coolly, as if he were telling her of a decision already formed:
"Of course! I meant to see Philip too; only"--and he paused, for anxiety about Alexander again came to the front--"I can not bear to remain in such uncertainty about the boy."
At this instant the door opened. The new-comer was Andreas, the man to whom Diodoros had advised Alexander to apply for protection and counsel; and Melissa greeted him with filial affection.
He was a freedman in her lover's family, and was the steward and manager of his master's extensive gardens and lands, which were under his absolute control. No one could have imagined that this man had ever been a slave; his face was swarthy, but his fine black eyes lighted it up with a glance of firm self reliance and fiery energy. It was the look of a man who might be the moving spirit of one of those rebellions which were frequent in Alexandria; there was an imperious ring in his voice, and decision in the swift gestures of his hardened but shapely hands.
For twenty years, indeed, he had ruled over the numerous slaves of Polybius, who was an easy-going master, and an invalid from gout in his feet. He was at this time a victim to a fresh attack, and had therefore sent his confidential steward into the town to tell Heron that he approved of his son's choice, and that he would protect Alexander from pursuit.
All this Andreas communicated in few and business-like words; but he then turned to Melissa, and said, in a tone of kindly and affectionate familiarity: "Polybius also wishes to know how your lover is being cared for by the Christians, and from hence I am going on to see our sick boy."
"Then ask your friends," the gem-cutter broke in, to keep less ferocious dogs for the future."
"That," replied the freedman, "will be unnecessary, for it is not likely that the fierce brute belongs to the community whose friendship I am proud to claim; and, if it does, they will be as much grieved over the matter as we can be."
"A Christian would never do another an ill turn!" said Heron, with a shrug.
"Never, so far as justice permits," replied Andreas, decisively. Then he inquired whether Heron had any message or news to send to his son; and when the gem-cutter replied that he had not, the freedman was about to go. Melissa, however, detained him, saying:
"I will go with you if you will allow me."
"And I?" said Heron, irritably. "It seems to me that children are learning to care less and less what their fathers' views and requirements may be. I have to go to Philip. Who knows what may happen in my absence? Besides--no offense to you, Andreas--what concern has my daughter among the Christians?"
"To visit her lover," replied Andreas, sharply. And he added, more quietly: "It will be a pleasure to me to escort her; and your Argutis is a faithful fellow, and in case of need would be of more use here than an inexperienced girl. I see no reasonable ground for detaining her, Heron. I should like afterwards to take her home with me, across the lake; it would be a comfort to Polybius and soothe his pain to have his favorite with him, his future daughter.--Get ready, my child."
The artist had listened with growing anger, and a swift surge of rage made him long to give the freedman a sharp lesson. But when his glaring eye met the Christian's steady, grave gaze, he controlled himself, and only said, with a shrug which sufficiently expressed his feeling that he was surrendering his veto against his better judgment, addressing himself to Melissa and ignoring Andreas:
"You are betrothed, and of age. Go, for aught I care, in obedience to him whose wishes evidently outweigh mine. Polybius's son is your master henceforth."
He folded his mantle, and when the girl hastened to help him he allowed her to do it; but he went on, to the freedman: "And for aught I care, you may take her across the lake, too. It is natural that Polybius should wish to see his future daughter. But one thing I may ask for myself: You have slaves and to spare; if anything happens to Alexander, let me hear of it at once."
He kissed Melissa on the head, nodded patronizingly to Andreas, and left the house.
His soft-hearted devotion to a vision had weakened his combativeness; still, he would have yielded less readily to a man who had once been a slave, but that the invitation to Melissa released him of her presence for a while.
He was not, indeed, afraid of his daughter; but she need not know that he wanted Philip to make him acquainted with Serapion, and that through his mediation he hoped at least to see the spirit of the wife he mourned. When he was fairly out of the house he smiled with satisfaction like a school-boy who had escaped his master.