Serapis by Georg Ebers
Gorgo sat by the bed of her apparently lifeless father, gazing fondly at the worn and wax-like features, and listening to his breathing, now soft and easy and again painful and convulsive, as it fluttered through his nostrils. She held his cold damp hand tightly clasped, or stroked it gently, or now and then, when his closed eyelids quivered, raised it tenderly to her lips.
The room in which they were lay on one side of the hypostyle and behind the right-hand--or western--colonnade; more forward, therefore, than the veiled statue and to its left hand. The noise of the toilers at the barricade and the crash of the blows of the battering-ram came up from just below, and at each thud of the engine the senseless man started convulsively and a look of intense pain crossed his face. But, though it was indeed grievous to Gorgo to see her father suffering, though she told herself again and again that, ere long, the sanctuary must fall into the hands of the Christians, she felt safe, thankful and sheltered up here, in her old friend's half-lighted and barely-furnished room, shut off, at any rate, from the frenzied wretches of whom she thought only with loathing and fear.
She was wearied out with her night of unrest, but the agitation and excitement she had gone through were still vividly present to her mind, and even on the comfortable couch in her own snug room at home her perturbed spirit would have prevented her sleeping. Her brain was still in a ferment, and here, in comparative peace, she had time to think over all she had gone through during the last few hours, and the catastrophes that had befallen her grandmother and her father. She had exchanged but few words with the physician, who was still unceasingly busy in trying to restore his patient to consciousness, and who had assured her that he had every hope of her father's recovery.
But at length the girl looked up with an eager gaze and said, sadly enough: "You said something about an antidote to poison, Apuleius? Then my father tried to escape the final destruction by attempting to kill himself.--Is it so?"
The leech looked at her keenly, and after confirming her suspicion and explaining to her exactly how the fateful deed had been accomplished, he went on:
"The storm had completely unnerved him--it unmanned us all--and yet that was only the prelude to the tremendous doom which is hanging over the universe. It is at hand; we can hear its approach; the stones are yielding! the Christian's engines are opening the way for it to enter!"
Apuleius spoke in a tone of sinister foreboding, and the falling stones dislodged by the battering-ram thundered a solemn accompaniment to his prophecy. Gorgo, turned pale; but it was not the physician's ominous speech that alarmed her, but the quaking of the walls of the room. Still, the Serapeum was built for eternity; the ram might bring down a wall, but it could not destroy or even shake the building itself.
Outside, the hubbub of fighting men grew louder and louder every minute, and Apuleius, increasingly anxious, went to the door to listen. Gorgo could see that his hands trembled! he--a man--was frightened, while she felt no anxiety but for her suffering father! Through that breach Constantine would enter--and where he commanded she was safe. As to the destruction of the universe--she no longer believed in it. When the physician turned round and saw her calmly and quietly wiping the cold drops from the sick man's brow, he said gloomily: "Of what use is it to shut our eyes like the ostrich. They are fighting down there for life or death--we had better prepare for the end. If they venture--and they will--to lay a sacrilegious hand on the god, besiegers and besieged alike--the whole world together, must perish."
But Gorgo shook her head. "No, no," she cried, with zealous confidence. "No, Apuleius, Serapis is not what you believe him to be; for, if he were, would he suffer his enemies to overthrow his temple and his image? Why does he not, at this supreme moment, inspire his worshippers with courage? I have seen the men--mere boys--and the women who have assembled here to fight for him. They are nothing but drivellers and triflers. If the master is like his men it serves him right if he is overthrown; to weep for him would be waste of woe!"
"And can the daughter of Porphyrius say this?" exclaimed the leech.
"Yes, Apuleius, yes. After what I have seen, and heard, and endured this night, I cannot speak otherwise. It was shameful, horrible, sickening; I could rage at the mere thought of being supposed to be one of that debased crew. It is disgrace and ignominy even to be named in the same breath! A god who is served as this god has been is no god of mine! And you--you are learned--a sage and a philosopher--how can you believe that the God of the Christians when he has conquered and crippled yours, will ever permit Serapis to destroy His world and the men He created?"
Apuleius drew himself up. "Are you then a Christian?" he asked swiftly and sternly.
But Gorgo could not reply; she colored deeply and Apuleius vehemently repeated his question: "Then you really are a Christian?"
She looked frankly in his face: "No," she said, "I am not; but I wish I were."
The physician turned away with a shrug; but Gorgo drew a breath of relief, feeling that her avowal had lifted a heavy burthen from her soul. She hardly knew how the bold and momentous confession had got itself spoken, but she felt that it was the only veracious answer to the physician's question.
They spoke no more; she was better pleased to remain silent, for her own utterance had opened out to her a new land of promise--of feeling and of thought.
Her lover henceforth was no longer her enemy; and as the tumult of the struggle by the breach fell on her ear, she could think with joy of his victorious arms. She felt that this was the purer, the nobler, the better cause; and she rejoiced in the love of which he had spoken as the support and the stay of their future life together--as sheltering them like a tower of strength and a mighty refuge. Compared with that love all that she had hitherto held dear or indispensable as gracing life, now seemed vain and worthless; and as she looked at her father's still face, and remembered how he had lived and what he had suffered, she applied those words of Paul which Constantine had spoken at their meeting after his return, to him, too; and her heart overflowed with affection towards her hapless parent. She knew full well the meaning of the deep lines that marked his lips and brow; for Porphyrius had never made any secret of his distress and vexation whenever he found himself compelled to confess a creed in which he did not honestly believe. This great falsehood and constant duplicity, this divided allegiance to two masters, had poisoned the existence of a man by nature truthful; and Gorgo knew for whose sake and for what reasons he had subjected himself to this moral martyrdom. It was a lesson to her to see him lying there, and his look of anguish warned her to become, heart and soul, a Christian as she felt prompted. She would confess Christ for love's sake-aye, for love's sake; for in this hour the thing she saw most clearly in the faith which she purposed to adopt, and of which Constantine had so often spoken to her with affectionate enthusiasm, was Everlasting Love.
Never in her life had she felt so much at peace, so open to all that was good and beautiful; and yet, outside, the strife grew louder and more furious; the Imperial tuba sounded above the battle-cry of the heathen, and the uproar of the struggle came nearer and nearer.
The battering-ram had made a large breach in the southern wall, and, protected by their shed, the heavy-armed infantry of the twenty-second legion had forced their way up; but many a veteran had paid for his rashness with his life, for the storming party had been met by a perfect shower of arrows and javelins. Still, the great shield had turned many a spear, and many an arrow had glanced harmless from the brazen armor and helmets; the men that had escaped pressed onwards, while fresh ranks of soldiers made their way in, over the bodies of the fallen. The well-drilled foe came creeping up to the barricade on their knees, and protected by bronze bucklers, while others, in the rear, flung lances and arrows over their heads at the besieged. A few of the heathen fell, and the sight of their blood had a wonderful effect on their comrades. Rage surged up in the breasts of the most timid, and fear vanished before the passion for revenge; cowardice turned to martial ardor, and philosophers and artists thirsted for blood. The red glare of strife danced before the eyes of the veriest book-worm; fired by the terrible impulse to kill, to subdue, to destroy the foe, they fought desperately and blindly, staking their lives on the issue.
Karnis, that zealous votary of the Muses, stood with Orpheus, on the very top of the barricade throwing lance after lance, while he sang at the top of his voice snatches of the verses of Tyrtaeus, in the teeth, as it were, of the foe who were crowding through the breach; the sweat streamed from his bald head and his eye flashed fire. By his side stood his son, sending swift arrows from an enormous bow. The heavy curls of his hair had come unbound and fell over his flushed face. When he hit one of the Imperial soldiers his father applauded him eagerly; then, collecting all his strength, flung another lance, chanting a hexameter or a verse of an ode. Herse crouched half hidden behind a sacrificial stone which lay at the top of the hastily-constructed rampart, and handed weapons to the combatants as they needed them. Her dress was torn and blood-stained, her grey hair had come loose from the ribbands and crescent that should have confined it; the worthy matron had become a Megaera and shrieked to the men: "Kill the dogs! Stand steady! Spare never a Christian!"
But the little garrison needed no incitement; the fevered zeal which possessed them wholly, seconded their thirst for blood and doubled their strength.
An arrow, shot by Orpheus, had just glanced over the breastplate and into the throat of a centurion who had already set foot on the lowest step, when Karnis suddenly dropped the spear he was preparing to fling and fell without a cry. A Roman lance had hit him, and he lay transfixed by the side of a living purple fount, like a rock in the surf from which a sapling has sprung. Orpheus saw his father's life-blood flowing and fell on his knees by his side; but the old man pointed to the bow that his son had cast aside and murmured eagerly: "Leave me--let me be. What does it matter about me? Fight--for the gods--I say. For the gods! Go on, aim truly!"
But the lad would not leave the dying man, and seeing how deeply the spear had struck to the old man's heart he groaned aloud, throwing up his arms in despair. Then an arrow hit his shoulder, another pierced his neck, and he, too, fell gasping for breath. Karnis saw him drop, and painfully raised himself a little to help him; but it was too much for him; he could only clench his fist in helpless fury and chant, half-singing, half-speaking, as loud he was able, Electra's curse:
"This my last prayer, ye gods, do not disdain! For them turn day to night and joy to pain!"
But the heavy infantry, who by this time were crowding through the breach, neither heard nor heeded his curse. He lost consciousness and did not recover it till Herse, after lifting up her son and propping him against a plinth, pressed a cloth against the stump of the lance still remaining in the wound to staunch the swiftly flowing blood, and sprinkled his brow with wine. He felt her warm tears on his face, and as he looked up into her kind, faithful eyes, brimming over with tears of sympathy and regret, his heart melted to tenderness. All the happiest hours of the life they had spent together crowded on his memory; he answered her glance with a loving and grateful gaze and painfully held out his hand. Herse pressed it to her lips, weeping bitterly; but he smiled up at her, nodding his head and repeating again and again the line from Lucian: "Be comforted: you, too, must soon follow."
"Yes, yes--I shall follow soon," she repeated with sobs. "Without you, without either of you, without the gods--what would become of me here."
And she turned to her son who, fully conscious, had followed every word and every gesture of his parents and tried himself to say something. But the arrow in his neck choked his breath, and it was such agony to speak that he could only say hoarsely: "Father mother!" But these poor words were full of deep love and gratitude, and Karnis and Herse understood all he longed to express.
Tears choked the poor woman's utterance so that neither of the three could say another word, but they were at any rate close together, and could look lovingly in each other's eyes. Thus passed some few minutes of peace for them, in spite of the blare of trumpets, and shrieks and butchery; but Herse's kerchief was dyed and soaked with her husband's blood, and the old man's eyes were glazed and staring as they wandered feebly on the scene, as though to get a last general picture of the world in which they had always sought to see only what was fair. Suddenly they remained fixed on the face of a statue of Apollo, which had been flung on to the barricade; and the longer they dwelt on the beautiful countenance of the god the more they sparkled with a clear transfigured gleam. Once more, with a final effort, he raised his heavy hand and pointed to the sun-crowned head of the immortal youth while he softly murmured:
"He--he--all that was fair in existence--Orpheus, Herse--we owe it all to him. He dies with us.--They--the enemy--in conquering us conquer thee! They dream of a Paradise beyond death; but where thou reignest, O Phoebus, there is bliss even on earth! They boast that they love death and hate life; and when they are the victors they will destroy lute and pipe, nay, if they could, would exterminate beauty and extinguish the sun. This beautiful happy world they would have dark, gloomy, melancholy, hideous; thy kingdom, great Phoebus, is sunny, joyful and bright . . . !" Here his strength failed him; but presently he rallied once more and went on, with eager eyes: "We crave for light, for music, lutes and pipes--for perfumed flowers on careless brows--we--hold me up Herse--and thou, heal me, O Phoebus Apollo!--Hail, all hail! I thank thee--thou hast accepted much from me and hast given me all! Come, thou joy of my soul! Come in thy glorious chariot, attended by Muses and Hours! See, Orpheus, Herse--do you see Him coming?"
He pointed with a confident gesture to the distance; and his anxious eyes followed the indication of his hand; he raised himself a little by a last supreme effort; but instantly fell back; his head sank on the bosom of his faithful partner and a stream of blood flowed from his quivering lips. The votary of the Muses was dead; and a few minutes after Orpheus, too, fell senseless.
War-cries and trumpet-calls rang and echoed through the Serapeum. The battle was now a hand-to-hand fight; the besiegers had surmounted the barricade and stood face to face with the heathen. Herse saw them coming; she snatched the dart from her husband's wound, and fired by hatred and a wild thirst for vengeance, she rushed upon the besiegers with frantic and helpless fury, cursing them loudly. She met the death she craved; a javelin struck her and she fell close to her husband and son. Her death struggle was a short one; she had only time and strength to extend a hand to lay on each before she herself was a corpse.
The battle raged round the heap of dead; the Imperial troops drove the garrison backwards into the temple-halls, and the plan of attack which had been agreed upon at a council of war held in the palace of the Comes, was carried out, point by point, with cool courage and irresistible force. A few maniples pursued the fugitives into the main entrance hall, helped them to force the gates open, and then drove them down the slope and steps, over the stones that had been heaped up for protection, and into the very arms of the division placed in front of the temple. These at once surrounded them and took them prisoners, as the hunter traps the game that rushes down upon him when driven by the dogs and beaters. Foremost to fly were the women from the rotunda, who were welcomed with acclamations by the soldiers.
But those who now tried to defend themselves found no quarter. Berenice had picked up a sword that was lying on the ground and had opened a vein with the point of it; her body, bathed in blood, was found at the foot of the statue of justice.
No sooner had the Christians mastered the barricade than a few maniples had been sent up to the roof, and the defenders had been compelled to surrender or to throw themselves from the parapet. Old Memnon, who had been fighting against his Imperial master and could hope for no mercy, sprang at once into the gulf below, and others followed his example; for the end of all things was now close at hand, and to the nobler souls to die voluntarily in battle for great Serapis seemed finer and worthier than to languish in the enemy's chains.