A Thorny Path by Georg Ebers
While this conversation was taking place, Melissa and her companion had reached the shore of the lake, the large inland sea which washed the southern side of the city and afforded anchorage for the Nile-boats. The ferry-boat which would convey them to the gardens of Polybius started from the Agathodaemon Canal, an enlarged branch of the Nile, which connected the lake with the royal harbor and the Mediterranean; they had, therefore, to walk some distance along the shore.
The setting sun shot slanting rays on the glittering surface of the glassy waters in which the numberless masts of the Nile-boats were mirrored.
Vessels large and small, with white or gayly-painted lateen sails gleaming in the evening glow, large galleys, light skiffs, and restless, skimming pleasure-boats, were flitting to and fro; and among them, like loaded wagons among chariots and horsemen, the low corn-barges scarcely seemed to move, piled as they were with pyramids of straw and grain as high as a house.
The bustle on the quay was less conspicuous than usual, for all who were free to follow their curiosity had gone into the city. There were, however, many slaves, and Caesar's visit no more affected their day's toil than it did the course of the sun. To-day, as every other day, they had to pack and unload; and though few ships were sailing, numbers were arriving from the south, and throwing out the landing-bridges which connected them with the shore.
The number of pleasure-boats, on the other hand, was greater than usual; for business was suspended, and many who hated the crowd found pleasure in rowing in their own boats. Others had come to see the imperial barge, which had been newly furnished up, and which was splendid enough to attract even the luxurious Alexandrians. Gold and ivory, purple sails, bronze and marble statues at the prow and stern, and in the little shrines on the after-deck, combined in a gorgeous display, made all the more brilliant by the low sun, which added vividness to every hue.
It was pleasant to linger on the strand at this hour. Spreading sycamores and plumed palms cast a pleasant shade; the heat of the day had abated, and a light air, which always blew in from the lake, fanned Melissa's brow. There was no crushing mob, and no dust came up from the well-watered roadway, and yet the girl had lost her cheerful looks, in spite of the success of her bold venture; and Andreas walked by her side, silent and ill-pleased.
She could not understand him; for, as long as she could remember, his grave looks had always brightened at anything that had brought gladness to her or to her mother. Besides, her success with the Roman would be to the advantage of Diodoros, and the freedman was devoted to him. Every now and then she perceived that his eye rested on her with a compassionate expression, and when she inquired whether he were anxious about the sufferer, he gave her some evasive answer, quite unlike his usual decisive speech. This added to her alarm. At last his dissatisfied and unsatisfactory replies vexed the usually patient girl, and she told him so; for she could not suspect how painfully her triumph in her hasty deed jarred on her truth-loving friend. He knew that it was not to the great Galenus, but to the wealthy Serenus Samonicus, that she had spoken; for the physician's noble and thoughtful features were familiar to him from medals, statues, and busts. He had seen Samonicus, too, at Antioch, and held his medical lore, as expressed in verse, very cheap. How worthless would this man's help be! In spite of his promise, Diodoros would after all have to be conveyed to the Serapeum; and yet Andreas could not bear to crush his darling's hopes.
He had hitherto known her as a patient, dutiful child; to-day he had seen with what unhesitating determination she could carry out a purpose; and he feared that, if he told her the truth, she would at once make her way into Caesar's quarters, in defiance of every obstacle, to crave the assistance of the true Galen. He must leave her in error, and yet he could not bear to do so, for there was no art in which he was so inexpert as that of deceit. How hard it was to find the right answer, when she asked him whether he did not hope everything from the great physician's intervention, or when she inquired what were the works to which Galen owed his chief fame!
As they came near to the landing-stage whence the ferry started, she wanted to know how old he should suppose the Roman leech to be; and again he avoided answering, for Galen was above eighty, and Serenus scarcely seventy.
She looked up at him with large, mournful eyes, saying, "Have I offended you, or is there something you are concealing from me?"
"What could you do to offend me?" he replied; "life is full of sorrows, my child. You must learn to have patience."
"Patience!" echoed Melissa, sadly. "That is the only knowledge I have ever mastered. When my father is more sullen than you are, for a week at a time, I scarcely heed it. But when you look like that, Andreas, it is not without cause, and that is why I am anxious."
"One we love is very sick, child," he said, soothingly; but she was not to be put off so, and exclaimed with conviction:
"No, no, it is not that. We have learned nothing fresh about Diodoro--and you were ready enough to answer me when we came away from the Christian's house. Nothing but good has happened to us since, and yet you look as if the locusts had come down on your garden."
They had reached a spot on the shore where a ship was being unloaded of its cargo of granite blocks from Syene. Black and brown slaves were dragging them to land. An old blind man was piping a dismal tune on a small reed flute to encourage them in their work, while two men of fairer hue, whose burden had been too heavy for them, had let the end of the column they were carrying sink on the ground, and were being mercilessly flogged by the overseer to make them once more attempt the impossible.
Andreas had watched the scene; a surge of fury had brought the blood to his face, and, stirred by great and genuine emotion, he broke out:
"There--there you see the locusts which destroy my garden--the hail which ruins my crops! It falls on all that bears the name of humanity--on me and you. Happy, girl? None of us can ever be happy till the Kingdom shall arise for which the fullness of the time is come."
"But they dropped the column; I saw them myself," urged Melissa.
"Did you, indeed?" said Andreas. "Well, well, the whip, no doubt, can revive exhausted powers. And that is how you look upon such deeds!--you, who would not crush a worm in the garden, think this is right and just!"
It suddenly struck Melissa that Andreas, too, had once been a slave, and the feeling that she had hurt him grieved her to the heart. She had often heard him speak sternly and gravely, but never in scorn as he did now, and that, too, distressed her; and as she could not think of the right thing to say in atonement for the wrong she had done, she could only look up with tearful entreaty and murmur, "Forgive me!"
"I have nothing to forgive," he replied in an altered tone. "You have grown up among the unjust who are now in power. How should you see more clearly than they, who all walk in darkness? But if the light should be shown to you by one to whom it hath been revealed, it would not be extinguished again.--Does it not seem a beautiful thing to you to live among none but brethren and sisters, instead of among oppressors and their scourged victims; or is there no place in a woman's soul for the holy wrath that came upon Moses the Hebrew? But who would ever have spoken his great name to you?"
Melissa was about to interrupt his vehement speech, for, in a town where there were so many Jews, alike among the citizens and the slaves, even she had heard that Moses had been their lawgiver; but he prevented her, by adding hastily: "This only, child, I would have you remember--for here is the ferry--the worst ills that man ever inflicts on his fellow-man are the outcome of self-interest; and, of all the good he may do, the best is the result of his achieving self-forgetfulness to secure the happiness and welfare of others."
He said no more, for the ferry-boat was about to put off, and they had to take their places as quickly as possible.
The large flat barge was almost unoccupied; for the multitude still lingered in the town, and more than one seat was empty for the weary girl to rest on. Andreas paced to and fro, for he was restless; but when Melissa beckoned to him he came close to her, and, while he leaned against the little cabin, received her assurance that she now quite understood his desire to see all slaves made free. He, if any one, must know what the feelings of those unhappy creatures were.
"Do I not know!" he exclaimed, with a shake of the head. Then, glancing round at the few persons who were sitting at the other end of the boat, he went on sadly: "To know that, a man must himself have been branded with the marks of his humiliation." He showed her his arm, which was usually hidden by the long sleeve of his tunic, and Melissa exclaimed in sorrowful surprise: "But you were free-born! and none of our slaves bear such a brand. You must have fallen into the hands of Syrian pirates."
He nodded, and added, "I and my father."
"But he," the girl eagerly put in, "was a great man."
"Till Fate overtook him," Andreas said.
Melissa's tearful eyes showed the warm sympathy she felt, as she asked:
"But how could it have happened that you were not ransomed by your relations? Your father was, no doubt, a Roman citizen; and the law--"
"The law forbids that such a one should be sold into slavery," Andreas broke in, "and yet the authorities of Rome left him in misery--left--"
At this, her large, gentle eyes flashed with indignation, and, stirred to the depths of her nature, she exclaimed:
"How was such horrible injustice possible? Oh, let me hear. You know how truly I love you, and no one can hear you."
The wind had risen, the waves splashed noisily against the broad boat, and the song of the slaves, as they plied their oars, would have drowned a stronger voice than the freedman's; so he sat down by her side to do her bidding.
And the tale he had to tell was sad indeed.
His father had been of knightly rank, and in the reign of Marcus Aurelius he had been in the service of Avidius Cassius, his fellow-countryman, the illustrious governor of Asia as 'procurator ab epistolis'. As holding this high post, he found himself involved in the conspiracy of Avidius against the emperor. After the assassination of his patron, who had already been proclaimed emperor by the troops, Andreas's father had been deprived of his offices, his citizenship, and his honors; his possessions were confiscated, and he was exiled to the island of Anaphe. It was to Caesar's clemency that he owed his life.
On their voyage into exile the father and son fell into the hands of Syrian pirates, and were sold in the slave-market of Alexandria to two separate masters. Andreas was bought by a tavern-keeper; the procurator, whose name as a slave was Smaragdus, by the father of Polybius; and this worthy man soon learned to value his servant so highly, that he purchased the son also, and restored him to his father. Thus they were once more united.
Every attempt of the man who had once held so proud a position to get his release, by an act of the senate, proved vain. It was with a broken heart and enfeebled health that he did his duty to his master and to his only child. He pined in torments of melancholy, till Christianity opened new happiness to him, and revived hope brought him back from the very brink of despair; and, even as a slave, he found the highest of all dignities--that, namely, which a Christian derives from his faith.
At this point Melissa interrupted her friend's narrative, exclaiming, as she pointed across the waters:
"There! there! look! In that boat--I am sure that is Alexander! And he is making for the town."
Andreas started up, and after convincing himself that she was indeed right, for the youth himself had recognized his sister, who waved her hand to him, he wrathfully exclaimed:
"Madman!" and by intelligible and commanding signs he ordered the reckless young artist to turn his little skiff, and follow in the wake of the ferry-boat, which was by this time nearing land.
But Alexander signaled a negative, and, after gayly blowing a kiss to Melissa, plied his oars again with as much speed and energy as though he were rowing for a wager. How swiftly and steadily the keel of his little boat cut through the crisply foaming waves on which it rose and fell! The daring youth did not lack strength, that was certain, and the couple who watched him with so much uneasiness soon understood that he was striving to overtake another and larger bark which was at some distance in front of him. It was being pulled by slaves, whose stalwart arms made the pace a good one, and under the linen awning which shaded the middle part of it two women were seated.
The rays of the sun, whose fiery globe was now sinking behind the palm-groves on the western shore, flooded the sky with ruby light, and tinged the white robes of these women, the light canopy over their heads, and the whole face of the lake, with a rosy hue; but neither Andreas nor his companion heeded the glorious farewell of departing day.
Melissa pointed out to her friend the strangeness of her brother's attire, and the hood which, in the evening light, seemed to be bordered with gold. He had on, in fact, a Gallic mantle, such as that which had gained Caesar the nickname of Caracalla, and there was in this disguise something to reassure them; for, if Alexander pulled the hood low enough, it would hide the greater part of his face, and make it difficult to recognize him. Whence he had procured this garment was not hard to divine, for imperial servants had distributed them in numbers among the crowd. Caesar was anxious to bring them into fashion, and it might safely be expected that those Alexandrians who had held out their hands to accept them would appear in them on the morrow, as no order required that they should be worn. Alexander could not do better than wear one, if only by such means he could escape Zminis and his men.
But who were the women he was pursuing? Before Melissa could ask the question, Andreas pointed to the foremost boat, and said:
"Those are Christian women, and the bark they are in belongs to Zeno, the brother of Seleukus and of the high-priest of Serapis. That is his landing-creek. He lives with his family, and those of the faith to whom he affords refuge, in the long, white house you can just see there among the palm-trees. Those vineyards, too, are his. If I am not mistaken, one of the ladies in that boat is his daughter, Agatha."
"But what can Alexander want of two Christian women?" asked Melissa.
Andreas fired up, and a vein started on his high forehead as he retorted angrily:
"What should he not want! He and those who are like him--the blind--think nothing so precious as what satisfies the eye.--There! the brightness has vanished which turned the lake and the shore to gold. Such is beauty!--a vain show, which only glitters to disappear, and is to fools, nevertheless, the supreme object of adoration!"
"Then, is Zeno's daughter fair?" asked the girl.
"She is said to be," replied the other; and after a moment's pause he added: "Yes, Agatha is a rarely accomplished woman; but I know better things of her than that. It stirs my gall to think that her sacred purity can arouse unholy thoughts. I love your brother dearly; for your mother's sake I can forgive him much; but if he tries to ensnare Agatha--"
"Have no fear," said Melissa, interrupting his wrathful speech. "Alexander is indeed a butterfly, fluttering from flower to flower, and apt to be frivolous over serious matters, but at this moment he is enslaved by a vision--that of a dead girl; and only last night, I believe, he pledged himself to Ino, the pretty daughter of our neighbor Skopas. Beauty is to him the highest thing in life; and how should it be otherwise, for he is an artist! For the sake of beauty he defies every danger. If you saw rightly, he is no doubt in pursuit of Zeno's daughter, but most likely not to pay court to her, but for some other season."
"No praiseworthy reason, you may be sure," said Andreas. "Here we are. Now take your kerchief out of the basket. It is damp and cool after sundown, especially over there where I am draining the bog. The land we are reclaiming by this means will bring your future husband a fine income some day."
They disembarked, and ere long reached the little haven belonging to Polybius's estate. There were boats moored there, large and small, and Andreas hailed the man who kept them, and who sat eating his supper, to ask him whether he had unmoored the green skiff for Alexander.
At this the old fellow laughed, and said: "The jolly painter and his friend, the sculptor, met Zeno's daughter just as she was getting into her boat with Mariamne. Down they came, running as if they had gone mad. The girl must have turned their heads. My lord Alexander would have it that he had seen the spirit of one who was dead, and he would gladly give his life to see her once again."
It was now dark, or it would have alarmed Melissa to see the ominous gravity with which Andreas listened to this tale; but she herself was sufficiently startled, for she knew her brother well, and that no risk, however great, would stop him if his artistic fancy were fired. He, whom she had believed to be in safety, had gone straight into the hands of the pursuers; and with him caution and reflection were flown to the winds when passion held sway. She had hoped that her friend Ino had at last captured the flutterer, and that he would begin to live a settled life with her, as master of a house of his own; and now, for a pretty face, he had thrown everything to the winds, even the duty of self-preservation. Andreas had good reason to be angry, and he spoke no more till they reached their destination, a country house of handsome and important aspect.
No father could have received his future daughter more heartily than did old Polybius. The fiend gout racked his big toes, stabbing, burning, and nipping them. The slightest movement was torture, and yet he held out his arms to her for a loving embrace, and, though it made him shut his eyes and groan, he drew her pretty head down, and kissed her cheeks and hair. He was now a heavy man, of almost shapeless stoutness, but in his youth he must have resembled his handsome son. Silvery locks flowed round his well-formed head, but a habit of drinking wine, which, in spite of the gout, he could not bring himself to give up, had flushed his naturally good features, and tinged them of a coppery red, which contrasted strangely with his snowy hair and beard. But a kind heart, benevolence, and a love of good living, beamed in every look.
His heavy limbs moved but slowly, and if ever full lips deserved to be called sensual, they were those of this man, who was a priest of two divinities.
How well his household understood the art of catering for his love of high living, was evident in the meal which was served soon after Melissa's arrival, and to eat which the old man made her recline on the couch by his side.
Andreas also shared the supper; and not the attendant slaves only, but Dame Praxilla, the sister of their host, whose house she managed, paid him particular honor. She was a widow and childless, and, even during the lifetime of Diodoros's mother, she had given her heart, no longer young, to the freedman, without finding her love returned or even observed. For his sake she would have become a Christian, though she regarded herself as so indispensable to her brother that she had rarely left him to hold intercourse with other Christians. Nor did Andreas encourage her; he doubted her vocation. Whatever happened in the house, the excitable woman made it her own concern; and, although she had known Melissa from childhood, and was as fond of her as she could be of the child of "strangers," the news that Diodoros was to marry the gem-cutter's daughter was displeasing to her. A second woman in the house might interfere with her supremacy; and, as an excuse for her annoyance, she had represented to her brother that Diodoros might look higher for a wife. Agatha, the beautiful daughter of their rich Christian neighbor Zeno, was the right bride for the boy.
But Polybius had rated her sharply, declaring that he hoped for no sweeter daughter than Melissa, who was quite pretty enough, and in whose veins as pure Macedonian blood flowed as in his own. His son need look for no wealth, he added with a laugh, since he would some day inherit his aunt's.
In fact, Praxilla owned a fine fortune, increasing daily under the care of Andreas, and she replied:
"If the young couple behave so well that I do not rather choose to bestow my pittance on worthier heirs."
But the implied threat had not disturbed Polybius, for he knew his sister's ways. The shriveled, irritable old lady often spoke words hard to be forgiven, but she had not a bad heart; and when she learned that Diodoros was in danger, she felt only how much she loved him, and her proposal to go to the town next morning to nurse him was sincerely meant.
But when her brother retorted: "Go, by all means; I do not prevent you!" she started up, exclaiming:
"And you, and your aches and pains! How you get on when once my back is turned, we know by experience. My presence alone is medicine to you." "And a bitter dose it is very often," replied the old man, with a laugh; but Praxilla promptly retorted: "Like all effectual remedies. There is your ingratitude again!"
The last words were accompanied by a whimper, so Polybius, who could not bear to see any but cheerful faces, raised his cup and drank her health with kindly words. Then refilling the tankard, he poured a libation, and was about to empty it to Melissa's health, but Praxilla's lean frame was standing by his side as quickly as though a serpent had stung her. She was drawing a stick of asparagus between her teeth, but she hastily dropped it on her plate, and with both hands snatched the cup from her brother, exclaiming:
"It is the fourth; and if I allow you to empty it, you are a dead man!"
"Death is not so swift," replied Polybius, signing to a slave to bring him back the cup. But he drank only half of it, and, at his sister's pathetic entreaties, had more water mixed with the wine. And while Praxilla carefully prepared his crayfish--for gout had crippled even his fingers--he beckoned to his white-haired body-slave, and with a cunning smile made him add more wine to the washy fluid. He fixed his twinkling glance on Melissa, to invite her sympathy in his successful trick, but her appearance startled him. How pale the child was--how dejected and weary her sweet face, with the usually bright, expressive eyes!
It needed not the intuition of his kind heart to tell him that she was completely exhausted, and he desired his sister to take her away to bed. But Melissa was already sound asleep, and Praxilla would not wake her. She gently placed a pillow under her head, laid her feet easily on the couch, and covered them with a wrap. Polybius feasted his eyes on the fair sleeper; and, indeed, nothing purer and more tender can be imagined than the girl's face as she lay in dreamless slumber.
The conversation was now carried on in subdued tones, so as not to disturb her, and Andreas completed the history of the day by informing them that Melissa had, by mistake, engaged the assistance not of the great Galen but of another Roman practiced in the healing art, but of less illustrious proficiency. He must, therefore, still have Diodoros conveyed to the Serapeum, and this could be done very easily in the morning, before the populace should again besiege the temple. He must forthwith go back to make the necessary arrangements. Praxilla whispered tenderly:
"Devoted man that you are, you do not even get your night's rest." But Andreas turned away to discuss some further matters with Polybius; and, in spite of pain, the old man could express his views clearly and intelligently.
At last he took his leave; and now Praxilla had to direct the slaves who were to carry her brother to bed. She carefully arranged the cushions on his couch, and gave him his medicine and night-draught. Then she returned to Melissa, and the sight of the sleeping girl touched her heart. She stood gazing at her for some time in silence, and then bent over her to wake her with a kiss. She had at last made up her mind to regard the gem-cutter's daughter as her niece, so, determined to treat her as a child of her own, she called Melissa by name.
This awoke the sleeper, and when she had realized that she was still in Polybius's eating-room, she asked for Andreas.
"He has gone back to the town, my child," replied Praxilla. "He was anxious about your betrothed."
"Is he worse, then?" asked Melissa, in alarm. "No, no," said the widow, soothingly. "It is only--I assure you we have heard nothing new--"
"But what then?" Melissa inquired. "The great Galen is to see him early to-morrow." Praxilla tried to divert her thoughts. But as the girl would take no answer to her declaration that Galen himself had promised to see Diodoros, Praxilla, who was little used to self-command, and who was offended by her persistency, betrayed the fact that Melissa had spoken to the wrong man, and that Andreas was gone to remove Diodoros to the Serapeum.
At this, Melissa suddenly understood why Andreas had not rejoiced with her, and at the same time she said to herself that her lover must on no account be exposed to so great a danger without her presence. She must lend her aid in transporting him to the Serapeum; and when she firmly expressed her views to the widow, Praxilla was shocked, and sincerely repented of having lost her self-control. It was far too late, and when the housekeeper came into the room and gladly volunteered to accompany Melissa to the town, Praxilla threatened to rouse her brother, that he might insist on their remaining at home; but at last she relented, for the girl, she saw, would take her own way against any opposition.
The housekeeper had been nurse to Diodoros, and had been longing to help in tending him. When she left the house with Melissa, her eyes were moist with tears of joy and thankfulness.