TO one of those parts of Pompeii, which were tenanted not by the lords of pleasure, but by its minions and its victims; the haunt of gladiators and prize-fighters; of the vicious and the penniless; of the savage and the obscene; the Alsatia of an ancient city — we are now transported.
It was a large room, that opened at once on the confined and crowded lane. Before the threshold was a group of men, whose iron and well-strung muscles, whose short and Herculean necks, whose hardy and reckless countenances, indicated the champions of the arena. On a shelf, without the shop, were ranged jars of wine and oil; and right over this was inserted in the wall a coarse painting, which exhibited gladiators drinking — so ancient and so venerable is the custom of signs! Within the room were placed several small tables, arranged somewhat in the modern fashion of ‘boxes’, and round these were seated several knots of men, some drinking, some playing at dice, some at that more skilful game called ‘duodecim scriptae’, which certain of the blundering learned have mistaken for chess, though it rather, perhaps, resembled backgammon of the two, and was usually, though not always, played by the assistance of dice. The hour was in the early forenoon, and nothing better, perhaps, than that unseasonable time itself denoted the habitual indolence of these tavern loungers.
Yet, despite the situation of the house and the character of its inmates, it indicated none of that sordid squalor which would have characterized a similar haunt in a modern city. The gay disposition of all the Pompeians, who sought, at least, to gratify the sense even where they neglected the mind, was typified by the gaudy colors which decorated the walls, and the shapes, fantastic but not inelegant, in which the lamps, the drinking-cups, the commonest household utensils, were wrought.
‘By Pollux!’ said one of the gladiators, as he leaned against the wall of the threshold, ‘the wine thou sellest us, old Silenus’— and as he spoke he slapped a portly personage on the back —‘is enough to thin the best blood in one’s veins.’
The man thus caressingly saluted, and whose bared arms, white apron, and keys and napkin tucked carelessly within his girdle, indicated him to be the host of the tavern, was already passed into the autumn of his years; but his form was still so robust and athletic, that he might have shamed even the sinewy shapes beside him, save that the muscles had seeded, as it were, into flesh, that the cheeks were swelled and bloated, and the increasing stomach threw into shade the vast and massive chest which rose above it.
‘None of thy scurrilous blusterings with me,’ growled the gigantic landlord, in the gentle semi-roar of an insulted tiger; ‘my wine is good enough for a carcass which shall so soon soak the dust of the spoliarium.’
‘Croakest thou thus, old raven!’ returned the gladiator, laughing scornfully; ‘thou shalt live to hang thyself with despite when thou seest me win the palm crown; and when I get the purse at the amphitheatre, as I certainly shall, my first vow to Hercules shall be to forswear thee and thy vile potations evermore.’
‘Hear to him — hear to this modest Pyrgopolinices! He has certainly served under Bombochides Cluninstaridysarchides,’ cried the host. ‘Sporus, Niger, Tetraides, he declares he shall win the purse from you. Why, by the gods! each of your muscles is strong enough to stifle all his body, or I know nothing of the arena!’
‘Ha!’ said the gladiator, coloring with rising fury, ‘our lanista would tell a different story.’
‘What story could he tell against me, vain Lydon?’ said Tetraides, frowning.
‘Or me, who have conquered in fifteen fights?’ said the gigantic Niger, stalking up to the gladiator.
‘Or me?’ grunted Sporus, with eyes of fire.
‘Tush!’ said Lydon, folding his arms, and regarding his rivals with a reckless air of defiance. ‘The time of trial will soon come; keep your valor till then.’
‘Ay, do,’ said the surly host; ‘and if I press down my thumb to save you, may the Fates cut my thread!’
‘Your rope, you mean,’ said Lydon, sneeringly: ‘here is a sesterce to buy one.’
The Titan wine-vender seized the hand extended to him, and griped it in so stern a vice that the blood spirted from the fingers’ ends over the garments of the bystanders.
They set up a savage laugh.
‘I will teach thee, young braggart, to play the Macedonian with me! I am no puny Persian, I warrant thee! What, man! have I not fought twenty years in the ring, and never lowered my arms once? And have I not received the rod from the editor’s own hand as a sign of victory, and as a grace to retirement on my laurels? And am I now to be lectured by a boy?’ So saying, he flung the hand from him in scorn.
Without changing a muscle, but with the same smiling face with which he had previously taunted mine host, did the gladiator brave the painful grasp he had undergone. But no sooner was his hand released, than, crouching for one moment as a wild cat crouches, you might see his hair bristle on his head and beard, and with a fierce and shrill yell he sprang on the throat of the giant, with an impetus that threw him, vast and sturdy as he was, from his balance — and down, with the crash of a falling rock, he fell — while over him fell also his ferocious foe.
Our host, perhaps, had had no need of the rope so kindly recommended to him by Lydon, had he remained three minutes longer in that position. But, summoned to his assistance by the noise of his fall, a woman, who had hitherto kept in an inner apartment, rushed to the scene of battle. This new ally was in herself a match for the gladiator; she was tall, lean, and with arms that could give other than soft embraces. In fact, the gentle helpmate of Burbo the wine-seller had, like himself, fought in the lists — nay under the emperor’s eye. And Burbo himself — Burbo, the unconquered in the field, according to report, now and then yielded the palm to his soft Stratonice. This sweet creature no sooner saw the imminent peril that awaited her worse half, than without other weapons than those with which Nature had provided her, she darted upon the incumbent gladiator, and, clasping him round the waist with her long and snakelike arms, lifted him by a sudden wrench from the body of her husband, leaving only his hands still clinging to the throat of his foe. So have we seen a dog snatched by the hind legs from the strife with a fallen rival in the arms of some envious groom; so have we seen one half of him high in air — passive and offenceless — while the other half, head, teeth, eyes, claws, seemed buried and engulfed in the mangled and prostrate enemy. Meanwhile, the gladiators, lapped, and pampered, and glutted upon blood, crowded delightedly round the combatants — their nostrils distended — their lips grinning — their eyes gloatingly fixed on the bloody throat of the one and the indented talons of the other.
‘Habet! (he has got it!) habet!’ cried they, with a sort of yell, rubbing their nervous hands.
‘Non habeo, ye liars; I have not got it!’ shouted the host, as with a mighty effort he wrenched himself from those deadly hands, and rose to his feet, breathless, panting, lacerated, bloody; and fronting, with reeling eyes, the glaring look and grinning teeth of his baffled foe, now struggling (but struggling with disdain) in the gripe of the sturdy amazon.
‘Fair play!’ cried the gladiators: ‘one to one’; and, crowding round Lydon and the woman, they separated our pleasing host from his courteous guest.
But Lydon, feeling ashamed at his present position, and endeavoring in vain to shake off the grasp of the virago, slipped his hand into his girdle, and drew forth a short knife. So menacing was his look, so brightly gleamed the blade, that Stratonice, who was used only to that fashion of battle which we moderns call the pugilistic, started back in alarm.
‘O gods!’ cried she, ‘the ruffian! — he has concealed weapons! Is that fair? Is that like a gentleman and a gladiator? No, indeed, I scorn such fellows.’ With that she contemptuously turned her back on the gladiator, and hastened to examine the condition of her husband.
But he, as much inured to the constitutional exercises as an English bull-dog is to a contest with a more gentle antagonist, had already recovered himself. The purple hues receded from the crimson surface of his cheek, the veins of the forehead retired into their wonted size. He shook himself with a complacent grunt, satisfied that he was still alive, and then looking at his foe from head to foot with an air of more approbation than he had ever bestowed upon him before:
‘By Castor!’ said he, ‘thou art a stronger fellow than I took thee for! I see thou art a man of merit and virtue; give me thy hand, my hero!’
‘Jolly old Burbo!’ cried the gladiators, applauding, ‘staunch to the backbone. Give him thy hand, Lydon.’
‘Oh, to be sure,’ said the gladiator: ‘but now I have tasted his blood, I long to lap the whole.’
‘By Hercules!’ returned the host, quite unmoved, ‘that is the true gladiator feeling. Pollux! to think what good training may make a man; why, a beast could not be fiercer!’
‘A beast! O dullard! we beat the beasts hollow!’ cried Tetraides.
‘Well, well said Stratonice, who was now employed in smoothing her hair and adjusting her dress, ‘if ye are all good friends again, I recommend you to be quiet and orderly; for some young noblemen, your patrons and backers, have sent to say they will come here to pay you a visit: they wish to see you more at their ease than at the schools, before they make up their bets on the great fight at the amphitheatre. So they always come to my house for that purpose: they know we only receive the best gladiators in Pompeii — our society is very select — praised be the gods!’
‘Yes,’ continued Burbo, drinking off a bowl, or rather a pail of wine, ‘a man who has won my laurels can only encourage the brave. Lydon, drink, my boy; may you have an honorable old age like mine!’
‘Come here,’ said Stratonice, drawing her husband to her affectionately by the ears, in that caress which Tibullus has so prettily described —‘Come here!’
‘Not so hard, she-wolf! thou art worse than the gladiator,’ murmured the huge jaws of Burbo.
‘Hist!’ said she, whispering him; ‘Calenus has just stole in, disguised, by the back way. I hope he has brought the sesterces.’
‘Ho! ho! I will join him, said Burbo; ‘meanwhile, I say, keep a sharp eye on the cups — attend to the score. Let them not cheat thee, wife; they are heroes, to be sure, but then they are arrant rogues: Cacus was nothing to them.’
‘Never fear me, fool!’ was the conjugal reply; and Burbo, satisfied with the dear assurance, strode through the apartment, and sought the penetralia of his house.
‘So those soft patrons are coming to look at our muscles,’ said Niger. ‘Who sent to previse thee of it, my mistress?’
‘Lepidus. He brings with him Clodius, the surest better in Pompeii, and the young Greek, Glaucus.’
‘A wager on a wager,’ cried Tetraides; ‘Clodius bets on me, for twenty sesterces! What say you, Lydon?’
‘He bets on me!’ said Lydon.
‘No, on me!’ grunted Sporus.
‘Dolts! do you think he would prefer any of you to Niger?’ said the athletic, thus modestly naming himself.
‘Well, well,’ said Stratonice, as she pierced a huge amphora for her guests, who had now seated themselves before one of the tables, ‘great men and brave, as ye all think yourselves, which of you will fight the Numidian lion in case no malefactor should be found to deprive you of the option?’
‘I who have escaped your arms, stout Stratonice,’ said Lydon, ‘might safely, I think, encounter the lion.’
‘But tell me,’ said Tetraides, ‘where is that pretty young slave of yours — the blind girl, with bright eyes? I have not seen her a long time.’
‘Oh! she is too delicate for you, my son of Neptune,’ said the hostess, ‘and too nice even for us, I think. We send her into the town to sell flowers and sing to the ladies: she makes us more money so than she would by waiting on you. Besides, she has often other employments which lie under the rose.’
‘Other employments!’ said Niger; ‘why, she is too young for them.’
‘Silence, beast!’ said Stratonice; ‘you think there is no play but the Corinthian. If Nydia were twice the age she is at present, she would be equally fit for Vesta — poor girl!’
‘But, hark ye, Stratonice,’ said Lydon; ‘how didst thou come by so gentle and delicate a slave? She were more meet for the handmaid of some rich matron of Rome than for thee.’
‘That is true,’ returned Stratonice; ‘and some day or other I shall make my fortune by selling her. How came I by Nydia, thou askest.’
‘Why, thou seest, my slave Staphyla — thou rememberest Staphyla, Niger?’
‘Ay, a large-handed wench, with a face like a comic mask. How should I forget her, by Pluto, whose handmaid she doubtless is at this moment!’
‘Tush, brute! — Well, Staphyla died one day, and a great loss she was to me, and I went into the market to buy me another slave. But, by the gods! they were all grown so dear since I had bought poor Staphyla, and money was so scarce, that I was about to leave the place in despair, when a merchant plucked me by the robe. “Mistress,” said he, “dost thou want a slave cheap I have a child to sell — a bargain. She is but little, and almost an infant, it is true; but she is quick and quiet, docile and clever, sings well, and is of good blood, I assure you.” “Of what country?” said I. “Thessalian.” Now I knew the Thessalians were acute and gentle; so I said I would see the girl. I found her just as you see her now, scarcely smaller and scarcely younger in appearance. She looked patient and resigned enough, with her hands crossed on her bosom, and her eyes downcast. I asked the merchant his price: it was moderate, and I bought her at once. The merchant brought her to my house, and disappeared in an instant. Well, my friends, guess my astonishment when I found she was blind! Ha! ha! a clever fellow that merchant! I ran at once to the magistrates, but the rogue was already gone from Pompeii. So I was forced to go home in a very ill humor, I assure you; and the poor girl felt the effects of it too. But it was not her fault that she was blind, for she had been so from her birth. By degrees, we got reconciled to our purchase. True, she had not the strength of Staphyla, and was of very little use in the house, but she could soon find her way about the town, as well as if she had the eyes of Argus; and when one morning she brought us home a handful of sesterces, which she said she had got from selling some flowers she had gathered in our poor little garden, we thought the gods had sent her to us. So from that time we let her go out as she likes, filling her basket with flowers, which she wreathes into garlands after the Thessalian fashion, which pleases the gallants; and the great people seem to take a fancy to her, for they always pay her more than they do any other flower-girl, and she brings all of it home to us, which is more than any other slave would do. So I work for myself, but I shall soon afford from her earnings to buy me a second Staphyla; doubtless, the Thessalian kidnapper had stolen the blind girl from gentle parents. Besides her skill in the garlands, she sings and plays on the cithara, which also brings money, and lately — but that is a secret.’
‘That is a secret! What!’ cried Lydon, ‘art thou turned sphinx?’
‘Sphinx, no! — why sphinx?’
‘Cease thy gabble, good mistress, and bring us our meat — I am hungry,’ said Sporus, impatiently.
‘And I, too,’ echoed the grim Niger, whetting his knife on the palm of his hand.
The amazon stalked away to the kitchen, and soon returned with a tray laden with large pieces of meat half-raw: for so, as now, did the heroes of the prize-fight imagine they best sustained their hardihood and ferocity: they drew round the table with the eyes of famished wolves — the meat vanished, the wine flowed. So leave we those important personages of classic life to follow the steps of Burbo.
IN the earlier times of Rome the priesthood was a profession, not of lucre but of honour. It was embraced by the noblest citizens — it was forbidden to the plebeians. Afterwards, and long previous to the present date, it was equally open to all ranks; at least, that part of the profession which embraced the flamens, or priests — not of religion generally but of peculiar gods. Even the priest of Jupiter (the Flamen Dialis) preceded by a lictor, and entitled by his office to the entrance of the senate, at first the especial dignitary of the patricians, was subsequently the choice of the people. The less national and less honored deities were usually served by plebeian ministers; and many embraced the profession, as now the Roman Catholic Christians enter the monastic fraternity, less from the impulse of devotion than the suggestions of a calculating poverty. Thus Calenus, the priest of Isis, was of the lowest origin. His relations, though not his parents, were freedmen. He had received from them a liberal education, and from his father a small patrimony, which he had soon exhausted. He embraced the priesthood as a last resource from distress. Whatever the state emoluments of the sacred profession, which at that time were probably small, the officers of a popular temple could never complain of the profits of their calling. There is no profession so lucrative as that which practises on the superstition of the multitude.
Calenus had but one surviving relative at Pompeii, and that was Burbo. Various dark and disreputable ties, stronger than those of blood, united together their hearts and interests; and often the minister of Isis stole disguised and furtively from the supposed austerity of his devotions; and gliding through the back door of the retired gladiator, a man infamous alike by vices and by profession, rejoiced to throw off the last rag of an hypocrisy which, but for the dictates of avarice, his ruling passion, would at all time have sat clumsily upon a nature too brutal for even the mimicry of virtue.
Wrapped in one of those large mantles which came in use among the Romans in proportion as they dismissed the toga, whose ample folds well concealed the form, and in which a sort of hood (attached to it) afforded no less a security to the features, Calenus now sat in the small and private chamber of the wine-cellar, whence a small passage ran at once to that back entrance, with which nearly all the houses of Pompeii were furnished.
Opposite to him sat the sturdy Burbo, carefully counting on a table between them a little pile of coins which the priest had just poured from his purse — for purses were as common then as now, with this difference — they were usually better furnished!
‘You see,’ said Calenus, that we pay you handsomely, and you ought to thank me for recommending you to so advantageous a market.’
‘I do, my cousin, I do,’ replied Burbo, affectionately, as he swept the coins into a leathern receptacle, which he then deposited in his girdle, drawing the buckle round his capacious waist more closely than he was wont to do in the lax hours of his domestic avocations. ‘And by Isis, Pisis, and Nisis, or whatever other gods there may be in Egypt, my little Nydia is a very Hesperides — a garden of gold to me.’
‘She sings well, and plays like a muse,’ returned Calenus; ‘those are virtues that he who employs me always pays liberally.’
‘He is a god,’ cried Burbo, enthusiastically; ‘every rich man who is generous deserves to be worshipped. But come, a cup of wine, old friend: tell me more about it. What does she do? she is frightened, talks of her oath, and reveals nothing.’
‘Nor will I, by my right hand! I, too, have taken that terrible oath of secrecy.’
‘Oath! what are oaths to men like us?’
‘True oaths of a common fashion; but this!’— and the stalwart priest shuddered as he spoke. ‘Yet,’ he continued, in emptying a huge cup of unmixed wine, ‘I own to thee, that it is not so much the oath that I dread as the vengeance of him who proposed it. By the gods! he is a mighty sorcerer, and could draw my confession from the moon, did I dare to make it to her. Talk no more of this. By Pollux! wild as those banquets are which I enjoy with him, I am never quite at my ease there. I love, my boy, one jolly hour with thee, and one of the plain, unsophisticated, laughing girls that I meet in this chamber, all smoke-dried though it be, better than whole nights of those magnificent debauches.’
‘Ho! sayest thou so! To-morrow night, please the gods, we will have then a snug carousal.’
‘With all my heart,’ said the priest, rubbing his hands, and drawing himself nearer to the table.
At this moment they heard a slight noise at the door, as of one feeling the handle. The priest lowered the hood over his head.
‘Tush!’ whispered the host, ‘it is but the blind girl,’ as Nydia opened the door, and entered the apartment.
‘Ho! girl, and how durst thou? thou lookest pale — thou hast kept late revels? No matter, the young must be always the young,’ said Burbo, encouragingly.
The girl made no answer, but she dropped on one of the seats with an air of lassitude. Her color went and came rapidly: she beat the floor impatiently with her small feet, then she suddenly raised her face, and said with a determined voice:
‘Master, you may starve me if you will — you may beat me — you may threaten me with death — but I will go no more to that unholy place!’
‘How, fool!’ said Burbo, in a savage voice, and his heavy brows met darkly over his fierce and bloodshot eyes; ‘how, rebellious! Take care.’
‘I have said it,’ said the poor girl, crossing her hands on her breast.
‘What! my modest one, sweet vestal, thou wilt go no more! Very well, thou shalt be carried.’
‘I will raise the city with my cries,’ said she, passionately; and the color mounted to her brow.
‘We will take care of that too; thou shalt go gagged.’
‘Then may the gods help me!’ said Nydia, rising; ‘I will appeal to the magistrates.’
‘Thine oath remember!’ said a hollow voice, as for the first time Calenus joined in the dialogue.
At these words a trembling shook the frame of the unfortunate girl; she clasped her hands imploringly. ‘Wretch that I am!’ she cried, and burst violently into sobs.
Whether or not it was the sound of that vehement sorrow which brought the gentle Stratonice to the spot, her grisly form at this moment appeared in the chamber.
‘How now? what hast thou been doing with my slave, brute?’ said she, angrily, to Burbo.
‘Be quiet, wife,’ said he, in a tone half-sullen, half-timid; ‘you want new girdles and fine clothes, do you? Well then, take care of your slave, or you may want them long. Voe capiti tuo — vengeance on thy head, wretched one!’
‘What is this?’ said the hag, looking from one to the other.
Nydia started as by a sudden impulse from the wall against which she had leaned: she threw herself at the feet of Stratonice; she embraced her knees, and looking up at her with those sightless but touching eyes:
‘O my mistress!’ sobbed she, ‘you are a woman — you have had sisters — you have been young like me, feel for me — save me! I will go to those horrible feasts no more!’
‘Stuff!’ said the hag, dragging her up rudely by one of those delicate hands, fit for no harsher labor than that of weaving the flowers which made her pleasure or her trade; ‘stuff! these fine scruples are not for slaves.’
‘Hark ye,’ said Burbo, drawing forth his purse, and chinking its contents: ‘you hear this music, wife; by Pollux! if you do not break in yon colt with a tight rein, you will hear it no more.’
‘The girl is tired,’ said Stratonice, nodding to Calenus; ‘she will be more docile when you next want her.’
‘You! you! who is here?’ cried Nydia, casting her eyes round the apartment with so fearful and straining a survey, that Calenus rose in alarm from his seat.
‘She must see with those eyes!’ muttered he.
‘Who is here! Speak, in heaven’s name! Ah, if you were blind like me, you would be less cruel,’ said she; and she again burst into tears.
‘Take her away,’ said Burbo, impatiently; ‘I hate these whimperings.’
‘Come!’ said Stratonice, pushing the poor child by the shoulders. Nydia drew herself aside, with an air to which resolution gave dignity.
‘Hear me,’ she said; ‘I have served you faithfully — I who was brought up — Ah! my mother, my poor mother! didst thou dream I should come to this?’ She dashed the tear from her eyes, and proceeded: ‘Command me in aught else, and I will obey; but I tell you now, hard, stern, inexorable as you are — I tell you that I will go there no more; or, if I am forced there, that I will implore the mercy of the praetor himself — I have said it. Hear me, ye gods, I swear!’
The hag’s eyes glowed with fire; she seized the child by the hair with one hand, and raised on high the other — that formidable right hand, the least blow of which seemed capable to crush the frail and delicate form that trembled in her grasp. That thought itself appeared to strike her, for she suspended the blow, changed her purpose, and dragging Nydia to the wall, seized from a hook a rope, often, alas! applied to a similar purpose, and the next moment the shrill, the agonized shrieks of the blind girl, rang piercingly through the house.
‘HOLLA, my brave fellows!’ said Lepidus, stooping his head as he entered the low doorway of the house of Burbo. ‘We have come to see which of you most honors your lanista.’ The gladiators rose from the table in respect to three gallants known to be among the gayest and richest youths of Pompeii, and whose voices were therefore the dispensers of amphitheatrical reputation.
‘What fine animals!’ said Clodius to Glaucus: ‘worthy to be gladiators!’
‘It is a pity they are not warriors,’ returned Glaucus.
A singular thing it was to see the dainty and fastidious Lepidus, whom in a banquet a ray of daylight seemed to blind — whom in the bath a breeze of air seemed to blast — in whom Nature seemed twisted and perverted from every natural impulse, and curdled into one dubious thing of effeminacy and art — a singular thing was it to see this Lepidus, now all eagerness, and energy, and life, patting the vast shoulders of the gladiators with a blanched and girlish hand, feeling with a mincing gripe their great brawn and iron muscles, all lost in calculating admiration at that manhood which he had spent his life in carefully banishing from himself.
So have we seen at this day the beardless flutterers of the saloons of London thronging round the heroes of the Fives-court — so have we seen them admire, and gaze, and calculate a bet — so have we seen them meet together, in ludicrous yet in melancholy assemblage, the two extremes of civilized society — the patrons of pleasure and its slaves — vilest of all slaves — at once ferocious and mercenary; male prostitutes, who sell their strength as women their beauty; beasts in act, but baser than beasts in motive, for the last, at least, do not mangle themselves for money!
‘Ha! Niger, how will you fight?’ said Lepidus: ‘and with whom?’
‘Sporus challenges me,’ said the grim giant; ‘we shall fight to the death, I hope.’
‘Ah! to be sure,’ grunted Sporus, with a twinkle of his small eye.
‘He takes the sword, I the net and the trident: it will be rare sport. I hope the survivor will have enough to keep up the dignity of the crown.’
‘Never fear, we’ll fill the purse, my Hector,’ said Clodius:
‘let me see — you fight against Niger? Glaucus, a bet — I back Niger.’
‘I told you so,’ cried Niger exultingly. ‘The noble Clodius knows me; count yourself dead already, my Sporus.’
Clodius took out his tablet. ‘A bet — ten sestertia. What say you?’
‘So be it,’ said Glaucus. ‘But whom have we here? I never saw this hero before’; and he glanced at Lydon, whose limbs were slighter than those of his companions, and who had something of grace, and something even of nobleness, in his face, which his profession had not yet wholly destroyed.
‘It is Lydon, a youngster, practised only with the wooden sword as yet,’ answered Niger, condescendingly. ‘But he has the true blood in him, and has challenged Tetraides.’
‘He challenged me,’ said Lydon: ‘I accept the offer.’
‘And how do you fight?’ asked Lepidus. ‘Chut, my boy, wait a while before you contend with Tetraides.’ Lydon smiled disdainfully.
‘Is he a citizen or a slave?’ said Clodius.
‘A citizen — we are all citizens here,’ quoth Niger.
‘Stretch out your arm, my Lydon,’ said Lepidus, with the air of a connoisseur.
The gladiator, with a significant glance at his companions, extended an arm which, if not so huge in its girth as those of his comrades, was so firm in its muscles, so beautifully symmetrical in its proportions, that the three visitors uttered simultaneously an admiring exclamation.
‘Well, man, what is your weapon?’ said Clodius, tablet in hand.
‘We are to fight first with the cestus; afterwards, if both survive, with swords,’ returned Tetraides, sharply, and with an envious scowl.
‘With the cestus!’ cried Glaucus; ‘there you are wrong, Lydon; the cestus is the Greek fashion: I know it well. You should have encouraged flesh for that contest: you are far too thin for it — avoid the cestus.’
‘I cannot,’ said Lydon.
‘I have said — because he has challenged me.’
‘But he will not hold you to the precise weapon.’
‘My honour holds me!’ returned Lydon, proudly.
‘I bet on Tetraides, two to one, at the cestus,’ said Clodius; shall it be, Lepidus? — even betting, with swords.’
‘If you give me three to one, I will not take the odds, said Lepidus: ‘Lydon will never come to the swords. You are mighty courteous.’
‘What say you, Glaucus?’ said Clodius.
‘I will take the odds three to one.’
‘Ten sestertia to thirty.’
Clodius wrote the bet in his book.
‘Pardon me, noble sponsor mine,’ said Lydon, in a low voice to Glaucus: ‘but how much think you the victor will gain?’
‘How much? why, perhaps seven sestertia.’
‘You are sure it will be as much?’
‘At least. But out on you! — a Greek would have thought of the honour, and not the money. O Italians! everywhere ye are Italians!’
A blush mantled over the bronzed cheek of the gladiator.
‘Do not wrong me, noble Glaucus; I think of both, but I should never have been a gladiator but for the money.’
‘Base! mayest thou fall! A miser never was a hero.’
‘I am not a miser,’ said Lydon, haughtily, and he withdrew to the other end of the room.
‘But I don’t see Burbo; where is Burbo? I must talk with Burbo,’ cried Clodius.
‘He is within,’ said Niger, pointing to the door at the extremity of the room.
‘And Stratonice, the brave old lass, where is she?’ quoth Lepidus.
‘Why, she was here just before you entered; but she heard something that displeased her yonder, and vanished. Pollux! old Burbo had perhaps caught hold of some girl in the back room. I heard a female’s voice crying out; the old dame is as jealous as Juno.’
‘Ho! excellent!’ cried Lepidus, laughing. ‘Come, Clodius, let us go shares with Jupiter; perhaps he has caught a Leda.’
At this moment a loud cry of pain and terror startled the group.
‘Oh, spare me! spare me! I am but a child, I am blind — is not that punishment enough?’
‘O Pallas! I know that voice, it is my poor flower-girl!’ exclaimed Glaucus, and he darted at once into the quarter whence the cry rose.
He burst the door; he beheld Nydia writhing in the grasp of the infuriate hag; the cord, already dabbled with blood, was raised in the air — it was suddenly arrested.
‘Fury!’ said Glaucus, and with his left hand he caught Nydia from her grasp; ‘how dare you use thus a girl — one of your own sex, a child! My Nydia, my poor infant!’
‘Oh? is that you — is that Glaucus?’ exclaimed the flower-girl, in a tone almost of transport; the tears stood arrested on her cheek; she smiled, she clung to his breast, she kissed his robe as she clung.
‘And how dare you, pert stranger! interfere between a free woman and her slave. By the gods! despite your fine tunic and your filthy perfumes, I doubt whether you are even a Roman citizen, my mannikin.’
‘Fair words, mistress — fair words!’ said Clodius, now entering with Lepidus. ‘This is my friend and sworn brother; he must be put under shelter of your tongue, sweet one; it rains stones!’
‘Give me my slave!’ shrieked the virago, placing her mighty grasp on the breast of the Greek.
‘Not if all your sister Furies could help you,’ answered Glaucus. ‘Fear not, sweet Nydia; an Athenian never forsook distress!’
‘Holla!’ said Burbo, rising reluctantly, ‘What turmoil is all this about a slave? Let go the young gentleman, wife — let him go: for his sake the pert thing shall be spared this once.’ So saying, he drew, or rather dragged off, his ferocious help-mate.
‘Methought when we entered,’ said Clodius, ‘there was another man present?’
‘He is gone.’
For the priest of Isis had indeed thought it high time to vanish.
‘Oh, a friend of mine! a brother cupman, a quiet dog, who does not love these snarlings,’ said Burbo, carelessly. ‘But go, child, you will tear the gentleman’s tunic if you cling to him so tight; go, you are pardoned.’
‘Oh, do not — do not forsake me!’ cried Nydia, clinging yet closer to the Athenian.
Moved by her forlorn situation, her appeal to him, her own innumerable and touching graces, the Greek seated himself on one of the rude chairs. He held her on his knees — he wiped the blood from her shoulders with his long hair — he kissed the tears from her cheeks — he whispered to her a thousand of those soothing words with which we calm the grief of a child — and so beautiful did he seem in his gentle and consoling task, that even the fierce heart of Stratonice was touched. His presence seemed to shed light over that base and obscene haunt — young, beautiful, glorious, he was the emblem of all that earth made most happy, comforting one that earth had abandoned!
‘Well, who could have thought our blind Nydia had been so honored!’ said the virago, wiping her heated brow.
Glaucus looked up at Burbo.
‘My good man,’ said he, ‘this is your slave; she sings well, she is accustomed to the care of flowers — I wish to make a present of such a slave to a lady. Will you sell her to me?’ As he spoke he felt the whole frame of the poor girl tremble with delight; she started up, she put her disheveled hair from her eyes, she looked around, as if, alas, she had the power to see!
‘Sell our Nydia! no, indeed,’ said Stratonice, gruffly.
Nydia sank back with a long sigh, and again clasped the robe of her protector.
‘Nonsense!’ said Clodius, imperiously: ‘you must oblige me. What, man! what, old dame! offend me, and your trade is ruined. Is not Burbo my kinsman Pansa’s client? Am I not the oracle of the amphitheatre and its heroes? If I say the word, break up your wine-jars — you sell no more. Glaucus, the slave is yours.’
Burbo scratched his huge head, in evident embarrassment.
‘The girl is worth her weight in gold to me.’
‘Name your price, I am rich,’ said Glaucus.
The ancient Italians were like the modern, there was nothing they would not sell, much less a poor blind girl.
‘I paid six sestertia for her, she is worth twelve now,’ muttered Stratonice.
‘You shall have twenty; come to the magistrates at once, and then to my house for your money.’
‘I would not have sold the dear girl for a hundred but to oblige noble Clodius,’ said Burbo, whiningly. ‘And you will speak to Pansa about the place of designator at the amphitheatre, noble Clodius? it would just suit me.’
‘Thou shalt have it,’ said Clodius; adding in a whisper to Burbo, ‘Yon Greek can make your fortune; money runs through him like a sieve: mark today with white chalk, my Priam.’
‘An dabis?’ said Glaucus, in the formal question of sale and barter.
‘Dabitur,’ answered Burbo.
‘Then, then, I am to go with you — with you? O happiness!’ murmured Nydia.
‘Pretty one, yes; and thy hardest task henceforth shall be to sing thy Grecian hymns to the loveliest lady in Pompeii.’
The girl sprang from his clasp; a change came over her whole face, bright the instant before; she sighed heavily, and then once more taking his hand, she said:
‘I thought I was to go to your house?’
‘And so thou shalt for the present; come, we lose time.’
IONE was one of those brilliant characters which, but once or twice, flash across our career. She united in the highest perfection the rarest of earthly gifts — Genius and Beauty. No one ever possessed superior intellectual qualities without knowing them — the alliteration of modesty and merit is pretty enough, but where merit is great, the veil of that modesty you admire never disguises its extent from its possessor. It is the proud consciousness of certain qualities that it cannot reveal to the everyday world, that gives to genius that shy, and reserved, and troubled air, which puzzles and flatters you when you encounter it.
Ione, then, knew her genius; but, with that charming versatility that belongs of right to women, she had the faculty so few of a kindred genius in the less malleable sex can claim — the faculty to bend and model her graceful intellect to all whom it encountered. The sparkling fountain threw its waters alike upon the strand, the cavern, and the flowers; it refreshed, it smiled, it dazzled everywhere. That pride, which is the necessary result of superiority, she wore easily — in her breast it concentred itself in independence. She pursued thus her own bright and solitary path. She asked no aged matron to direct and guide her — she walked alone by the torch of her own unflickering purity. She obeyed no tyrannical and absolute custom. She moulded custom to her own will, but this so delicately and with so feminine a grace, so perfect an exemption from error, that you could not say she outraged custom but commanded it. The wealth of her graces was inexhaustible — she beautified the commonest action; a word, a look from her, seemed magic. Love her, and you entered into a new world, you passed from this trite and commonplace earth. You were in a land in which your eyes saw everything through an enchanted medium. In her presence you felt as if listening to exquisite music; you were steeped in that sentiment which has so little of earth in it, and which music so well inspires — that intoxication which refines and exalts, which seizes, it is true, the senses, but gives them the character of the soul.
She was peculiarly formed, then, to command and fascinate the less ordinary and the bolder natures of men; to love her was to unite two passions, that of love and of ambition — you aspired when you adored her. It was no wonder that she had completely chained and subdued the mysterious but burning soul of the Egyptian, a man in whom dwelt the fiercest passions. Her beauty and her soul alike enthralled him.
Set apart himself from the common world, he loved that daringness of character which also made itself, among common things, aloof and alone. He did not, or he would not see, that that very isolation put her yet more from him than from the vulgar. Far as the poles — far as the night from day, his solitude was divided from hers. He was solitary from his dark and solemn vices — she from her beautiful fancies and her purity of virtue.
If it was not strange that Ione thus enthralled the Egyptian, far less strange was it that she had captured, as suddenly as irrevocably, the bright and sunny heart of the Athenian. The gladness of a temperament which seemed woven from the beams of light had led Glaucus into pleasure. He obeyed no more vicious dictates when he wandered into the dissipations of his time, than the exhilarating voices of youth and health. He threw the brightness of his nature over every abyss and cavern through which he strayed. His imagination dazzled him, but his heart never was corrupted. Of far more penetration than his companions deemed, he saw that they sought to prey upon his riches and his youth: but he despised wealth save as the means of enjoyment, and youth was the great sympathy that united him to them. He felt, it is true, the impulse of nobler thoughts and higher aims than in pleasure could be indulged: but the world was one vast prison, to which the Sovereign of Rome was the Imperial gaoler; and the very virtues, which in the free days of Athens would have made him ambitious, in the slavery of earth made him inactive and supine. For in that unnatural and bloated civilization, all that was noble in emulation was forbidden. Ambition in the regions of a despotic and luxurious court was but the contest of flattery and craft. Avarice had become the sole ambition — men desired praetorships and provinces only as the license to pillage, and government was but the excuse of rapine. It is in small states that glory is most active and pure — the more confined the limits of the circle, the more ardent the patriotism. In small states, opinion is concentrated and strong — every eye reads your actions — your public motives are blended with your private ties — every spot in your narrow sphere is crowded with forms familiar since your childhood — the applause of your citizens is like the caresses of your friends. But in large states, the city is but the court: the provinces — unknown to you, unfamiliar in customs, perhaps in language — have no claim on your patriotism, the ancestry of their inhabitants is not yours. In the court you desire favor instead of glory; at a distance from the court, public opinion has vanished from you, and self-interest has no counterpoise.
Italy, Italy, while I write, your skies are over me — your seas flow beneath my feet, listen not to the blind policy which would unite all your crested cities, mourning for their republics, into one empire; false, pernicious delusion! your only hope of regeneration is in division. Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa, may be free once more, if each is free. But dream not of freedom for the whole while you enslave the parts; the heart must be the centre of the system, the blood must circulate freely everywhere; and in vast communities you behold but a bloated and feeble giant, whose brain is imbecile, whose limbs are dead, and who pays in disease and weakness the penalty of transcending the natural proportions of health and vigour.
Thus thrown back upon themselves, the more ardent qualities of Glaucus found no vent, save in that overflowing imagination which gave grace to pleasure, and poetry to thought. Ease was less despicable than contention with parasites and slaves, and luxury could yet be refined though ambition could not be ennobled. But all that was best and brightest in his soul woke at once when he knew Ione. Here was an empire, worthy of demigods to attain; here was a glory, which the reeking smoke of a foul society could not soil or dim. Love, in every time, in every state, can thus find space for its golden altars. And tell me if there ever, even in the ages most favorable to glory, could be a triumph more exalted and elating than the conquest of one noble heart?
And whether it was that this sentiment inspired him, his ideas glowed more brightly, his soul seemed more awake and more visible, in Ione’s presence. If natural to love her, it was natural that she should return the passion. Young, brilliant, eloquent, enamoured, and Athenian, he was to her as the incarnation of the poetry of her father’s land. They were not like creatures of a world in which strife and sorrow are the elements; they were like things to be seen only in the holiday of nature, so glorious and so fresh were their youth, their beauty, and their love. They seemed out of place in the harsh and every-day earth; they belonged of right to the Saturnian age, and the dreams of demigod and nymph. It was as if the poetry of life gathered and fed itself in them, and in their hearts were concentrated the last rays of the sun of Delos and of Greece.
But if Ione was independent in her choice of life, so was her modest pride proportionably vigilant and easily alarmed. The falsehood of the Egyptian was invented by a deep knowledge of her nature. The story of coarseness, of indelicacy, in Glaucus, stung her to the quick. She felt it a reproach upon her character and her career, a punishment above all to her love; she felt, for the first time, how suddenly she had yielded to that love; she blushed with shame at a weakness, the extent of which she was startled to perceive: she imagined it was that weakness which had incurred the contempt of Glaucus; she endured the bitterest curse of noble natures — humiliation! Yet her love, perhaps, was no less alarmed than her pride. If one moment she murmured reproaches upon Glaucus — if one moment she renounced, she almost hated him — at the next she burst into passionate tears, her heart yielded to its softness, and she said in the bitterness of anguish, ‘He despises me — he does not love me.’
From the hour the Egyptian had left her she had retired to her most secluded chamber, she had shut out her handmaids, she had denied herself to the crowds that besieged her door. Glaucus was excluded with the rest; he wondered, but he guessed not why! He never attributed to his Ione — his queen — his goddess — that woman — like caprice of which the love-poets of Italy so unceasingly complain. He imagined her, in the majesty of her candour, above all the arts that torture. He was troubled, but his hopes were not dimmed, for he knew already that he loved and was beloved; what more could he desire as an amulet against fear?
At deepest night, then, when the streets were hushed, and the high moon only beheld his devotions, he stole to that temple of his heart — her home; and wooed her after the beautiful fashion of his country. He covered her threshold with the richest garlands, in which every flower was a volume of sweet passion; and he charmed the long summer night with the sound of the Lydian lute: and verses, which the inspiration of the moment sufficed to weave.
But the window above opened not; no smile made yet more holy the shining air of night. All was still and dark. He knew not if his verse was welcome and his suit was heard.
Yet Ione slept not, nor disdained to hear. Those soft strains ascended to her chamber; they soothed, they subdued her. While she listened, she believed nothing against her lover; but when they were stilled at last, and his step departed, the spell ceased; and, in the bitterness of her soul, she almost conceived in that delicate flattery a new affront.
I said she was denied to all; but there was one exception, there was one person who would not be denied, assuming over her actions and her house something like the authority of a parent; Arbaces, for himself, claimed an exemption from all the ceremonies observed by others. He entered the threshold with the license of one who feels that he is privileged and at home. He made his way to her solitude and with that sort of quiet and unapologetic air which seemed to consider the right as a thing of course. With all the independence of Ione’s character, his heart had enabled him to obtain a secret and powerful control over her mind. She could not shake it off; sometimes she desired to do so; but she never actively struggled against it. She was fascinated by his serpent eye. He arrested, he commanded her, by the magic of a mind long accustomed to awe and to subdue. Utterly unaware of his real character or his hidden love, she felt for him the reverence which genius feels for wisdom, and virtue for sanctity. She regarded him as one of those mighty sages of old, who attained to the mysteries of knowledge by an exemption from the passions of their kind. She scarcely considered him as a being, like herself, of the earth, but as an oracle at once dark and sacred. She did not love him, but she feared. His presence was unwelcome to her; it dimmed her spirit even in its brightest mood; he seemed, with his chilling and lofty aspect, like some eminence which casts a shadow over the sun. But she never thought of forbidding his visits. She was passive under the influence which created in her breast, not the repugnance, but something of the stillness of terror.
Arbaces himself now resolved to exert all his arts to possess himself of that treasure he so burningly coveted. He was cheered and elated by his conquests over her brother. From the hour in which Apaecides fell beneath the voluptuous sorcery of that fete which we have described, he felt his empire over the young priest triumphant and insured. He knew that there is no victim so thoroughly subdued as a young and fervent man for the first time delivered to the thraldom of the senses.
When Apaecides recovered, with the morning light, from the profound sleep which succeeded to the delirium of wonder and of pleasure, he was, it is true, ashamed — terrified — appalled. His vows of austerity and celibacy echoed in his ear; his thirst after holiness — had it been quenched at so unhallowed a stream? But Arbaces knew well the means by which to confirm his conquest. From the arts of pleasure he led the young priest at once to those of his mysterious wisdom. He bared to his amazed eyes the initiatory secrets of the sombre philosophy of the Nile — those secrets plucked from the stars, and the wild chemistry, which, in those days, when Reason herself was but the creature of Imagination, might well pass for the lore of a diviner magic. He seemed to the young eyes of the priest as a being above mortality, and endowed with supernatural gifts. That yearning and intense desire for the knowledge which is not of earth — which had burned from his boyhood in the heart of the priest — was dazzled, until it confused and mastered his clearer sense. He gave himself to the art which thus addressed at once the two strongest of human passions, that of pleasure and that of knowledge. He was loth to believe that one so wise could err, that one so lofty could stoop to deceive. Entangled in the dark web of metaphysical moralities, he caught at the excuse by which the Egyptian converted vice into a virtue. His pride was insensibly flattered that Arbaces had deigned to rank him with himself, to set him apart from the laws which bound the vulgar, to make him an august participator, both in the mystic studies and the magic fascinations of the Egyptian’s solitude. The pure and stern lessons of that creed to which Olinthus had sought to make him convert, were swept away from his memory by the deluge of new passions. And the Egyptian, who was versed in the articles of that true faith, and who soon learned from his pupil the effect which had been produced upon him by its believers, sought, not unskilfully, to undo that effect, by a tone of reasoning, half-sarcastic and half-earnest.
‘This faith,’ said he, ‘is but a borrowed plagiarism from one of the many allegories invented by our priests of old. Observe,’ he added, pointing to a hieroglyphical scroll —‘observe in these ancient figures the origin of the Christian’s Trinity. Here are also three gods — the Deity, the Spirit, and the Son. Observe, that the epithet of the Son is “Saviour”— observe, that the sign by which his human qualities are denoted is the cross.’ Note here, too, the mystic history of Osiris, how he put on death; how he lay in the grave; and how, thus fulfilling a solemn atonement, he rose again from the dead! In these stories we but design to paint an allegory from the operations of nature and the evolutions of the eternal heavens. But the allegory unknown, the types themselves have furnished to credulous nations the materials of many creeds. They have travelled to the vast plains of India; they have mixed themselves up in the visionary speculations of the Greek; becoming more and more gross and embodied, as they emerge farther from the shadows of their antique origin, they have assumed a human and palpable form in this novel faith; and the believers of Galilee are but the unconscious repeaters of one of the superstitions of the Nile!’
This was the last argument which completely subdued the priest. It was necessary to him, as to all, to believe in something; and undivided and, at last, unreluctant, he surrendered himself to that belief which Arbaces inculcated, and which all that was human in passion — all that was flattering in vanity — all that was alluring in pleasure, served to invite to, and contributed to confirm.
This conquest, thus easily made, the Egyptian could now give himself wholly up to the pursuit of a far dearer and mightier object; and he hailed, in his success with the brother, an omen of his triumph over the sister.
He had seen Ione on the day following the revel we have witnessed; and which was also the day after he had poisoned her mind against his rival. The next day, and the next, he saw her also: and each time he laid himself out with consummate art, partly to confirm her impression against Glaucus, and principally to prepare her for the impressions he desired her to receive. The proud Ione took care to conceal the anguish she endured; and the pride of woman has an hypocrisy which can deceive the most penetrating, and shame the most astute. But Arbaces was no less cautious not to recur to a subject which he felt it was most politic to treat as of the lightest importance. He knew that by dwelling much upon the fault of a rival, you only give him dignity in the eyes of your mistress: the wisest plan is, neither loudly to hate, nor bitterly to contemn; the wisest plan is to lower him by an indifference of tone, as if you could not dream that he could be loved. Your safety is in concealing the wound to your own pride, and imperceptibly alarming that of the umpire, whose voice is fate! Such, in all times, will be the policy of one who knows the science of the sex — it was now the Egyptian’s.
He recurred no more, then, to the presumption of Glaucus; he mentioned his name, but not more often than that of Clodius or of Lepidus. He affected to class them together as things of a low and ephemeral species; as things wanting nothing of the butterfly, save its innocence and its grace. Sometimes he slightly alluded to some invented debauch, in which he declared them companions; sometimes he adverted to them as the antipodes of those lofty and spiritual natures, to whose order that of Ione belonged. Blinded alike by the pride of Ione, and, perhaps, by his own, he dreamed not that she already loved; but he dreaded lest she might have formed for Glaucus the first fluttering prepossessions that lead to love. And, secretly, he ground his teeth in rage and jealousy, when he reflected on the youth, the fascinations, and the brilliancy of that formidable rival whom he pretended to undervalue.
It was on the fourth day from the date of the close of the previous book, that Arbaces and Ione sat together.
‘You wear your veil at home,’ said the Egyptian; ‘that is not fair to those whom you honour with your friendship.’
‘But to Arbaces,’ answered Ione, who, indeed, had cast the veil over her features to conceal eyes red with weeping —‘to Arbaces, who looks only to the mind, what matters it that the face is concealed?’
‘I do look only to the mind,’ replied the Egyptian: ‘show me then your face — for there I shall see it.’
‘You grow gallant in the air of Pompeii,’ said Ione, with a forced tone of gaiety.
‘Do you think, fair Ione, that it is only at Pompeii that I have learned to value you?’ The Egyptian’s voice trembled — he paused for a moment, and then resumed.
‘There is a love, beautiful Greek, which is not the love only of the thoughtless and the young — there is a love which sees not with the eyes, which hears not with the ears; but in which soul is enamoured of soul. The countryman of thy ancestors, the cave-nursed Plato, dreamed of such a love — his followers have sought to imitate it; but it is a love that is not for the herd to echo — it is a love that only high and noble natures can conceive — it hath nothing in common with the sympathies and ties of coarse affection — wrinkles do not revolt it — homeliness of feature does not deter; it asks youth, it is true, but it asks it only in the freshness of the emotions; it asks beauty, it is true, but it is the beauty of the thought and of the spirit. Such is the love, O Ione, which is a worthy offering to thee from the cold and the austere. Austere and cold thou deemest me — such is the love that I venture to lay upon thy shrine — thou canst receive it without a blush.’
‘And its name is friendship!’ replied Ione: her answer was innocent, yet it sounded like the reproof of one conscious of the design of the speaker.
‘Friendship!’ said Arbaces, vehemently. ‘No; that is a word too often profaned to apply to a sentiment so sacred. Friendship! it is a tie that binds fools and profligates! Friendship! it is the bond that unites the frivolous hearts of a Glaucus and a Clodius! Friendship! no, that is an affection of earth, of vulgar habits and sordid sympathies; the feeling of which I speak is borrowed from the stars’— it partakes of that mystic and ineffable yearning, which we feel when we gaze on them — it burns, yet it purifies — it is the lamp of naphtha in the alabaster vase, glowing with fragrant odorous, but shining only through the purest vessels. No; it is not love, and it is not friendship, that Arbaces feels for Ione. Give it no name — earth has no name for it — it is not of earth — why debase it with earthly epithets and earthly associations?’
Never before had Arbaces ventured so far, yet he felt his ground step by step: he knew that he uttered a language which, if at this day of affected platonisms it would speak unequivocally to the ears of beauty, was at that time strange and unfamiliar, to which no precise idea could be attached, from which he could imperceptibly advance or recede, as occasion suited, as hope encouraged or fear deterred. Ione trembled, though she knew not why; her veil hid her features, and masked an expression, which, if seen by the Egyptian, would have at once damped and enraged him; in fact, he never was more displeasing to her — the harmonious modulation of the most suasive voice that ever disguised unhallowed thought fell discordantly on her ear. Her whole soul was still filled with the image of Glaucus; and the accent of tenderness from another only revolted and dismayed; yet she did not conceive that any passion more ardent than that platonism which Arbaces expressed lurked beneath his words. She thought that he, in truth, spoke only of the affection and sympathy of the soul; but was it not precisely that affection and that sympathy which had made a part of those emotions she felt for Glaucus; and could any other footstep than his approach the haunted adytum of her heart?
Anxious at once to change the conversation, she replied, therefore, with a cold and indifferent voice, ‘Whomsoever Arbaces honors with the sentiment of esteem, it is natural that his elevated wisdom should color that sentiment with its own hues; it is natural that his friendship should be purer than that of others, whose pursuits and errors he does not deign to share. But tell me, Arbaces, hast thou seen my brother of late? He has not visited me for several days; and when I last saw him his manner disturbed and alarmed me much. I fear lest he was too precipitate in the severe choice that he has adopted, and that he repents an irrevocable step.’
‘Be cheered, Ione,’ replied the Egyptian. ‘It is true that, some little time since he was troubled and sad of spirit; those doubts beset him which were likely to haunt one of that fervent temperament, which ever ebbs and flows, and vibrates between excitement and exhaustion. But he, Ione, he came to me his anxieties and his distress; he sought one who pitied me and loved him; I have calmed his mind — I have removed his doubts — I have taken him from the threshold of Wisdom into its temple; and before the majesty of the goddess his soul is hushed and soothed. Fear not, he will repent no more; they who trust themselves to Arbaces never repent but for a moment.’
‘You rejoice me,’ answered Ione. ‘My dear brother! in his contentment I am happy.’
The conversation then turned upon lighter subjects; the Egyptian exerted himself to please, he condescended even to entertain; the vast variety of his knowledge enabled him to adorn and light up every subject on which he touched; and Ione, forgetting the displeasing effect of his former words, was carried away, despite her sadness, by the magic of his intellect. Her manner became unrestrained and her language fluent; and Arbaces, who had waited his opportunity, now hastened to seize it.
‘You have never seen,’ said he, ‘the interior of my home; it may amuse you to do so: it contains some rooms that may explain to you what you have often asked me to describe — the fashion of an Egyptian house; not indeed, that you will perceive in the poor and minute proportions of Roman architecture the massive strength, the vast space, the gigantic magnificence, or even the domestic construction of the palaces of Thebes and Memphis; but something there is, here and there, that may serve to express to you some notion of that antique civilization which has humanized the world. Devote, then, to the austere friend of your youth, one of these bright summer evenings, and let me boast that my gloomy mansion has been honored with the presence of the admired Ione.’
Unconscious of the pollutions of the mansion, of the danger that awaited her, Ione readily assented to the proposal. The next evening was fixed for the visit; and the Egyptian, with a serene countenance, and a heart beating with fierce and unholy joy, departed. Scarce had he gone, when another visitor claimed admission. . . . But now we return to Glaucus.
THE morning sun shone over the small and odorous garden enclosed within the peristyle of the house of the Athenian. He lay reclined, sad and listlessly, on the smooth grass which intersected the viridarium; and a slight canopy stretched above, broke the fierce rays of the summer sun.
When that fairy mansion was first disinterred from the earth they found in the garden the shell of a tortoise that had been its inmate. That animal, so strange a link in the creation, to which Nature seems to have denied all the pleasure of life, save life’s passive and dream-like perception, had been the guest of the place for years before Glaucus purchased it; for years, indeed which went beyond the memory of man, and to which tradition assigned an almost incredible date. The house had been built and rebuilt — its possessors had changed and fluctuated — generations had flourished and decayed — and still the tortoise dragged on its slow and unsympathizing existence. In the earthquake, which sixteen years before had overthrown many of the public buildings of the city, and scared away the amazed inhabitants, the house now inhabited by Glaucus had been terribly shattered. The possessors deserted it for many days; on their return they cleared away the ruins which encumbered the viridarium, and found still the tortoise, unharmed and unconscious of the surrounding destruction. It seemed to bear a charmed life in its languid blood and imperceptible motions; yet it was not so inactive as it seemed: it held a regular and monotonous course; inch by inch it traversed the little orbit of its domain, taking months to accomplish the whole gyration. It was a restless voyager, that tortoise! — patiently, and with pain, did it perform its self-appointed journeys, evincing no interest in the things around it — a philosopher concentrated in itself. There was something grand in its solitary selfishness! — the sun in which it basked — the waters poured daily over it — the air, which it insensibly inhaled, were its sole and unfailing luxuries. The mild changes of the season, in that lovely clime, affected it not. It covered itself with its shell — as the saint in his piety — as the sage in his wisdom — as the lover in his hope.
It was impervious to the shocks and mutations of time — it was an emblem of time itself: slow, regular, perpetual; unwitting of the passions that fret themselves around — of the wear and tear of mortality. The poor tortoise! nothing less than the bursting of volcanoes, the convulsions of the riven world, could have quenched its sluggish spark! The inexorable Death, that spared not pomp or beauty, passed unheedingly by a thing to which death could bring so insignificant a change.
For this animal the mercurial and vivid Greek felt all the wonder and affection of contrast. He could spend hours in surveying its creeping progress, in moralizing over its mechanism. He despised it in joy — he envied it in sorrow.
Regarding it now as he lay along the sward — its dull mass moving while it seemed motionless, the Athenian murmured to himself:
‘The eagle dropped a stone from his talons, thinking to break thy shell: the stone crushed the head of a poet. This is the allegory of Fate! Dull thing! Thou hadst a father and a mother; perhaps, ages ago, thou thyself hadst a mate. Did thy parents love, or didst thou? Did thy slow blood circulate more gladly when thou didst creep to the side of thy wedded one? Wert thou capable of affection? Could it distress thee if she were away from thy side? Couldst thou feel when she was present? What would I not give to know the history of thy mailed breast — to gaze upon the mechanism of thy faint desires — to mark what hair — breadth difference separates thy sorrow from thy joy! Yet, methinks, thou wouldst know if Ione were present! Thou wouldst feel her coming like a happier air — like a gladder sun. I envy thee now, for thou knowest not that she is absent; and I— would I could be like thee — between the intervals of seeing her! What doubt, what presentiment, haunts me! why will she not admit me? Days have passed since I heard her voice. For the first time, life grows flat to me. I am as one who is left alone at a banquet, the lights dead, and the flowers faded. Ah! Ione, couldst thou dream how I adore thee!’
From these enamoured reveries, Glaucus was interrupted by the entrance of Nydia. She came with her light, though cautious step, along the marble tablinum. She passed the portico, and paused at the flowers which bordered the garden. She had her water-vase in her hand, and she sprinkled the thirsting plants, which seemed to brighten at her approach. She bent to inhale their odor. She touched them timidly and caressingly. She felt, along their stems, if any withered leaf or creeping insect marred their beauty. And as she hovered from flower to flower, with her earnest and youthful countenance and graceful motions, you could not have imagined a fitter handmaid for the goddess of the garden.
‘Nydia, my child!’ said Glaucus.
At the sound of his voice she paused at once — listening, blushing, breathless; with her lips parted, her face upturned to catch the direction of the sound, she laid down the vase — she hastened to him; and wonderful it was to see how unerringly she threaded her dark way through the flowers, and came by the shortest path to the side of her new lord.
‘Nydia,’ said Glaucus, tenderly stroking back her long and beautiful hair, ‘it is now three days since thou hast been under the protection of my household gods. Have they smiled on thee? Art thou happy?’
‘Ah! so happy!’ sighed the slave.
‘And now,’ continued Glaucus, ‘that thou hast recovered somewhat from the hateful recollections of thy former state — and now that they have fitted thee (touching her broidered tunic) with garments more meet for thy delicate shape — and now, sweet child, that thou hast accustomed thyself to a happiness, which may the gods grant thee ever! I am about to pray at thy hands a boon.’
‘Oh! what can I do for thee?’ said Nydia, clasping her hands.
‘Listen,’ said Glaucus, ‘and young as thou art, thou shalt be my confidant. Hast thou ever heard the name of Ione?’
The blind girl gasped for breath, and turning pale as one of the statues which shone upon them from the peristyle, she answered with an effort, and after a moment’s pause:
‘Yes! I have heard that she is of Neapolis, and beautiful.’
‘Beautiful! her beauty is a thing to dazzle the day! Neapolis! nay, she is Greek by origin; Greece only could furnish forth such shapes. Nydia, I love her!’
‘I thought so,’ replied Nydia, calmly.
‘I love, and thou shalt tell her so. I am about to send thee to her. Happy Nydia, thou wilt be in her chamber — thou wilt drink the music of her voice — thou wilt bask in the sunny air of her presence!’
‘What! what! wilt thou send me from thee?’
‘Thou wilt go to Ione,’ answered Glaucus, in a tone that said, ‘What more canst thou desire?’
Nydia burst into tears.
Glaucus, raising himself, drew her towards him with the soothing caresses of a brother.
‘My child, my Nydia, thou weepest in ignorance of the happiness I bestow on thee. She is gentle, and kind, and soft as the breeze of spring. She will be a sister to thy youth — she will appreciate thy winning talents — she will love thy simple graces as none other could, for they are like her own. Weepest thou still, fond fool? I will not force thee, sweet. Wilt thou not do for me this kindness?’
‘Well, if I can serve thee, command. See, I weep no longer — I am calm.’
‘That is my own Nydia,’ continued Glaucus, kissing her hand. ‘Go, then, to her: if thou art disappointed in her kindness — if I have deceived thee, return when thou wilt. I do not give thee to another; I but lend. My home ever be thy refuge, sweet one. Ah! would it could shelter all the friendless and distressed! But if my heart whispers truly, I shall claim thee again soon, my child. My home and Ione’s will become the same, and thou shalt dwell with both.’
A shiver passed through the slight frame of the blind girl, but she wept no more — she was resigned.
‘Go, then, my Nydia, to Ione’s house — they shall show thee the way. Take her the fairest flowers thou canst pluck; the vase which contains them I will give thee: thou must excuse its unworthiness. Thou shalt take, too, with thee the lute that I gave thee yesterday, and from which thou knowest so well to awaken the charming spirit. Thou shalt give her, also, this letter, in which, after a hundred efforts, I have embodied something of my thoughts. Let thy ear catch every accent, every modulation of her voice, and tell me, when we meet again, if its music should flatter me or discourage. It is now, Nydia, some days since I have been admitted to Ione; there is something mysterious in this exclusion. I am distracted with doubts and fears; learn — for thou art quick, and thy care for me will sharpen tenfold thy acuteness — learn the cause of this unkindness; speak of me as often as thou canst; let my name come ever to thy lips: insinuate how I love rather than proclaim it; watch if she sighs whilst thou speakest, if she answer thee; or, if she reproves, in what accents she reproves. Be my friend, plead for me: and oh! how vastly wilt thou overpay the little I have done for thee! Thou comprehendest, Nydia; thou art yet a child — have I said more than thou canst understand?’
‘And thou wilt serve me?’
‘Come to me when thou hast gathered the flowers, and I will give thee the vase I speak of; seek me in the chamber of Leda. Pretty one, thou dost not grieve now?’
‘Glaucus, I am a slave; what business have I with grief or joy?’
‘Sayest thou so? No, Nydia, be free. I give thee freedom; enjoy it as thou wilt, and pardon me that I reckoned on thy desire to serve me.’
‘You are offended. Oh! I would not, for that which no freedom can give, offend you, Glaucus. My guardian, my saviour, my protector, forgive the poor blind girl! She does not grieve even in leaving thee, if she can contribute to thy happiness.’
‘May the gods bless this grateful heart!’ said Glaucus, greatly moved; and, unconscious of the fires he excited, he repeatedly kissed her forehead.
‘Thou forgivest me,’ said she, ‘and thou wilt talk no more of freedom; my happiness is to be thy slave: thou hast promised thou wilt not give me to another . . . ’
‘I have promised.’
‘And now, then, I will gather the flowers.’
Silently, Nydia took from the hand of Glaucus the costly and jewelled vase, in which the flowers vied with each other in hue and fragrance; tearlessly she received his parting admonition. She paused for a moment when his voice ceased — she did not trust herself to reply — she sought his hand — she raised it to her lips, dropped her veil over her face, and passed at once from his presence. She paused again as she reached the threshold; she stretched her hands towards it, and murmured:
‘Three happy days — days of unspeakable delight, have I known since I passed thee — blessed threshold! may peace dwell ever with thee when I am gone! And now, my heart tears itself from thee, and the only sound it utters bids me — die!’
A SLAVE entered the chamber of Ione. A messenger from Glaucus desired to be admitted.
Ione hesitated an instant.
‘She is blind, that messenger,’ said the slave; ‘she will do her commission to none but thee.’
Base is that heart which does not respect affliction! The moment she heard the messenger was blind, Ione felt the impossibility of returning a chilling reply. Glaucus had chosen a herald that was indeed sacred — a herald that could not be denied.
‘What can he want with me? what message can he send?’ and the heart of Ione beat quick. The curtain across the door was withdrawn; a soft and echoless step fell upon the marble; and Nydia, led by one of the attendants, entered with her precious gift.
She stood still a moment, as if listening for some sound that might direct her.
‘Will the noble Ione,’ said she, in a soft and low voice, ‘deign to speak, that I may know whither to steer these benighted steps, and that I may lay my offerings at her feet?’
‘Fair child,’ said Ione, touched and soothingly, ‘give not thyself the pain to cross these slippery floors, my attendant will bring to me what thou hast to present’; and she motioned to the handmaid to take the vase.
‘I may give these flowers to none but thee,’ answered Nydia; and, guided by her ear, she walked slowly to the place where Ione sat, and kneeling when she came before her, proffered the vase.
Ione took it from her hand, and placed it on the table at her side. She then raised her gently, and would have seated her on the couch, but the girl modestly resisted.
‘I have not yet discharged my office,’ said she; and she drew the letter of Glaucus from her vest. ‘This will, perhaps, explain why he who sent me chose so unworthy a messenger to Ione.’
The Neapolitan took the letter with a hand, the trembling of which Nydia at once felt and sighed to feel. With folded arms, and downcast looks, she stood before the proud and stately form of Ione — no less proud, perhaps, in her attitude of submission. Ione waved her hand, and the attendants withdrew; she gazed again upon the form of the young slave in surprise and beautiful compassion; then, retiring a little from her, she opened and read the following letter:
‘Glaucus to Ione sends more than he dares to utter. Is Ione ill? thy slaves tell me “No”, and that assurance comforts me. Has Glaucus offended Ione? — ah! that question I may not ask from them. For five days I have been banished from thy presence. Has the sun shone? — I know it not. Has the sky smiled? — it has had no smile for me. My sun and my sky are Ione. Do I offend thee? Am I too bold? Do I say that on the tablet which my tongue has hesitated to breathe? Alas! it is in thine absence that I feel most the spells by which thou hast subdued me. And absence, that deprives me of joy, brings me courage. Thou wilt not see me; thou hast banished also the common flatterers that flock around thee. Canst thou confound me with them? It is not possible! Thou knowest too well that I am not of them — that their clay is not mine. For even were I of the humblest mould, the fragrance of the rose has penetrated me, and the spirit of thy nature hath passed within me, to embalm, to sanctify, to inspire. Have they slandered me to thee, Ione? Thou wilt not believe them. Did the Delphic oracle itself tell me thou wert unworthy, I would not believe it; and am I less incredulous than thou I think of the last time we met — of the song which I sang to thee — of the look that thou gavest me in return. Disguise it as thou wilt, Ione, there is something kindred between us, and our eyes acknowledged it, though our lips were silent. Deign to see me, to listen to me, and after that exclude me if thou wilt. I meant not so soon to say I loved. But those words rush to my heart — they will have way. Accept, then, my homage and my vows. We met first at the shrine of Pallas; shall we not meet before a softer and a more ancient altar?
‘Beautiful! adored Ione! If my hot youth and my Athenian blood have misguided and allured me, they have but taught my wanderings to appreciate the rest — the haven they have attained. I hang up my dripping robes on the Sea-god’s shrine. I have escaped shipwreck. I have found THEE. Ione, deign to see me; thou art gentle to strangers, wilt thou be less merciful to those of thine own land? I await thy reply. Accept the flowers which I send — their sweet breath has a language more eloquent than words. They take from the sun the odorous they return — they are the emblem of the love that receives and repays tenfold — the emblem of the heart that drunk thy rays, and owes to thee the germ of the treasures that it proffers to thy smile. I send these by one whom thou wilt receive for her own sake, if not for mine. She, like us, is a stranger; her fathers’ ashes lie under brighter skies: but, less happy than we, she is blind and a slave. Poor Nydia! I seek as much as possible to repair to her the cruelties of Nature and of Fate, in asking permission to place her with thee. She is gentle, quick, and docile. She is skilled in music and the song; and she is a very Chloris to the flowers. She thinks, Ione, that thou wilt love her: if thou dost not, send her back to me.
‘One word more — let me be bold, Ione. Why thinkest thou so highly of yon dark Egyptian? he hath not about him the air of honest men. We Greeks learn mankind from our cradle; we are not the less profound, in that we affect no sombre mien; our lips smile, but our eyes are grave — they observe — they note — they study. Arbaces is not one to be credulously trusted: can it be that he hath wronged me to thee? I think it, for I left him with thee; thou sawest how my presence stung him; since then thou hast not admitted me. Believe nothing that he can say to my disfavor; if thou dost, tell me so at once; for this Ione owes to Glaucus. Farewell! this letter touches thy hand; these characters meet thine eyes — shall they be more blessed than he who is their author. Once more, farewell!’
It seemed to Ione, as she read this letter, as if a mist had fallen from her eyes. What had been the supposed offence of Glaucus? — that he had not really loved! And now, plainly, and in no dubious terms, he confessed that love. From that moment his power was fully restored. At every tender word in that letter, so full of romantic and trustful passion, her heart smote her. And had she doubted his faith, and had she believed another? and had she not, at least, allowed to him the culprit’s right to know his crime, to plead in his defence? — the tears rolled down her cheeks — she kissed the letter — she placed it in her bosom: and, turning to Nydia, who stood in the same place and in the same posture:
‘Wilt thou sit, my child,’ said she, ‘while I write an answer to this letter?’
‘You will answer it, then!’ said Nydia, coldly. ‘Well, the slave that accompanied me will take back your answer.’
‘For you,’ said Ione, ‘stay with me — trust me, your service shall be light.’
Nydia bowed her head.
‘What is your name, fair girl?’
‘They call me Nydia.’
‘The land of Olympus — Thessaly.’
‘Thou shalt be to me a friend,’ said Ione, caressingly, ‘as thou art already half a countrywoman. Meanwhile, I beseech thee, stand not on these cold and glassy marbles. There! now that thou art seated, I can leave thee for an instant.’
‘Ione to Glaucus greeting. Come to me, Glaucus,’ wrote Ione, ‘come to me tomorrow. I may have been unjust to thee; but I will tell thee, at least, the fault that has been imputed to thy charge. Fear not, henceforth, the Egyptian — fear none. Thou sayest thou hast expressed too much — alas! in these hasty words I have already done so. Farewell.’
As Ione reappeared with the letter, which she did not dare to read after she had written (Ah! common rashness, common timidity of love!)— Nydia started from her seat.
‘You have written to Glaucus?’
‘And will he thank the messenger who gives to him thy letter?’
Ione forgot that her companion was blind; she blushed from the brow to the neck, and remained silent.
‘I mean this,’ added Nydia, in a calmer tone; ‘the lightest word of coldness from thee will sadden him — the lightest kindness will rejoice. If it be the first, let the slave take back thine answer; if it be the last, let me — I will return this evening.’
‘And why, Nydia,’ asked Ione, evasively, ‘Wouldst thou be the bearer of my letter?’
‘It is so, then!’ said Nydia. ‘Ah! how could it be otherwise; who could be unkind to Glaucus?’
‘My child,’ said Ione, a little more reservedly than before, ‘thou speakest warmly — Glaucus, then, is amiable in thine eyes?’
‘Noble Ione! Glaucus has been that to me which neither fortune nor the gods have been — a friend!’
The sadness mingled with dignity with which Nydia uttered these simple words, affected the beautiful Ione: she bent down and kissed her. ‘Thou art grateful, and deservedly so; why should I blush to say that Glaucus is worthy of thy gratitude? Go, my Nydia — take to him thyself this letter — but return again. If I am from home when thou returnest — as this evening, perhaps, I shall be — thy chamber shall be prepared next my own. Nydia, I have no sister — wilt thou be one to me?’ The Thessalian kissed the hand of Ione, and then said, with some embarrassment:
‘One favor, fair Ione — may I dare to ask it?’
‘Thou canst not ask what I will not grant,’ replied the Neapolitan.
‘They tell me,’ said Nydia, ‘that thou art beautiful beyond the loveliness of earth. Alas! I cannot see that which gladdens the world! Wilt thou suffer me, then, to pass my hand over thy face? — that is my sole criterion of beauty, and I usually guess aright.’
She did not wait for the answer of Ione, but, as she spoke, gently and slowly passed her hand over the bending and half-averted features of the Greek — features which but one image in the world can yet depicture and recall — that image is the mutilated, but all-wondrous, statue in her native city — her own Neapolis — that Parian face, before which all the beauty of the Florentine Venus is poor and earthly — that aspect so full of harmony — of youth — of genius — of the soul — which modern critics have supposed the representation of Psyche.
Her touch lingered over the braided hair and polished brow — over the downy and damask cheek — over the dimpled lip — the swan-like and whitish neck. ‘I know now, that thou art beautiful,’ she said: ‘and I can picture thee to my darkness henceforth, and for ever!’
When Nydia left her, Ione sank into a deep but delicious reverie. Glaucus then loved her; he owned it — yes, he loved her. She drew forth again that dear confession; she paused over every word, she kissed every line; she did not ask why he had been maligned, she only felt assured that he had been so. She wondered how she had ever believed a syllable against him; she wondered how the Egyptian had been enabled to exercise a power against Glaucus; she felt a chill creep over her as she again turned to his warning against Arbaces, and her secret fear of that gloomy being darkened into awe. She was awakened from these thoughts by her maidens, who came to announce to her that the hour appointed to visit Arbaces was arrived; she started, she had forgotten the promise. Her first impression was to renounce it; her second, was to laugh at her own fears of her eldest surviving friend. She hastened to add the usual ornaments to her dress, and doubtful whether she should yet question the Egyptian more closely with respect to his accusation of Glaucus, or whether she should wait till, without citing the authority, she should insinuate to Glaucus the accusation itself, she took her way to the gloomy mansion of Arbaces.
‘DEAREST Nydia!’ exclaimed Glaucus as he read the letter of Ione, ‘whitest robed messenger that ever passed between earth and heaven — how, how shall I thank thee?’
‘I am rewarded,’ said the poor Thessalian.
‘To-morrow — tomorrow! how shall I while the hours till then?’
The enamoured Greek would not let Nydia escape him, though she sought several times to leave the chamber; he made her recite to him over and over again every syllable of the brief conversation that had taken place between her and Ione; a thousand times, forgetting her misfortune, he questioned her of the looks, of the countenance of his beloved; and then quickly again excusing his fault, he bade her recommence the whole recital which he had thus interrupted. The hours thus painful to Nydia passed rapidly and delightfully to him, and the twilight had already darkened ere he once more dismissed her to Ione with a fresh letter and with new flowers. Scarcely had she gone, than Clodius and several of his gay companions broke in upon him; they rallied him on his seclusion during the whole day, and absence from his customary haunts; they invited him to accompany them to the various resorts in that lively city, which night and day proffered diversity to pleasure. Then, as now, in the south (for no land, perhaps, losing more of greatness has retained more of custom), it was the delight of the Italians to assemble at the evening; and, under the porticoes of temples or the shade of the groves that interspersed the streets, listening to music or the recitals of some inventive tale-teller, they hailed the rising moon with libations of wine and the melodies of song. Glaucus was too happy to be unsocial; he longed to cast off the exuberance of joy that oppressed him. He willingly accepted the proposal of his comrades, and laughingly they sallied out together down the populous and glittering streets.
In the meantime Nydia once more gained the house of Ione, who had long left it; she inquired indifferently whither Ione had gone.
The answer arrested and appalled her.
‘To the house of Arbaces — of the Egyptian? Impossible!’
‘It is true, my little one,’ said the slave, who had replied to her question. ‘She has known the Egyptian long.’
‘Long! ye gods, yet Glaucus loves her?’ murmured Nydia to herself.
‘And has,’ asked she aloud, ‘has she often visited him before?’
‘Never till now,’ answered the slave. ‘If all the rumored scandal of Pompeii be true, it would be better, perhaps, if she had not ventured there at present. But she, poor mistress mine, hears nothing of that which reaches us; the talk of the vestibulum reaches not to the peristyle.’
‘Never till now!’ repeated Nydia. ‘Art thou sure?’
‘Sure, pretty one: but what is that to thee or to us?’
Nydia hesitated a moment, and then, putting down the flowers with which she had been charged, she called to the slave who had accompanied her, and left the house without saying another word.
Not till she had got half-way back to the house of Glaucus did she break silence, and even then she only murmured inly:
‘She does not dream — she cannot — of the dangers into which she has plunged. Fool that I am — shall I save her? — yes, for I love Glaucus better than myself.’
When she arrived at the house of the Athenian, she learnt that he had gone out with a party of his friends, and none knew whither. He probably would not be home before midnight.
The Thessalian groaned; she sank upon a seat in the hall and covered her face with her hands as if to collect her thoughts. ‘There is no time to be lost,’ thought she, starting up. She turned to the slave who had accompanied her.
‘Knowest thou,’ said she, ‘if Ione has any relative, any intimate friend at Pompeii?’
‘Why, by Jupiter!’ answered the slave, ‘art thou silly enough to ask the question? Every one in Pompeii knows that Ione has a brother who, young and rich, has been — under the rose I speak — so foolish as to become a priest of Isis.’
‘A priest of Isis! O Gods! his name?’
‘I know it all,’ muttered Nydia: ‘brother and sister, then, are to be both victims! Apaecides! yes, that was the name I heard in . . . Ha! he well, then, knows the peril that surrounds his sister; I will go to him.’
She sprang up at that thought, and taking the staff which always guided her steps, she hastened to the neighboring shrine of Isis. Till she had been under the guardianship of the kindly Greek, that staff had sufficed to conduct the poor blind girl from corner to corner of Pompeii. Every street, every turning in the more frequented parts, was familiar to her; and as the inhabitants entertained a tender and half-superstitious veneration for those subject to her infirmity, the passengers had always given way to her timid steps. Poor girl, she little dreamed that she should, ere many days were passed, find her blindness her protection, and a guide far safer than the keenest eyes!
But since she had been under the roof of Glaucus, he had ordered a slave to accompany her always; and the poor devil thus appointed, who was somewhat of the fattest, and who, after having twice performed the journey to Ione’s house, now saw himself condemned to a third excursion (whither the gods only knew), hastened after her, deploring his fate, and solemnly assuring Castor and Pollux that he believed the blind girl had the talaria of Mercury as well as the infirmity of Cupid.
Nydia, however, required but little of his assistance to find her way to the popular temple of Isis: the space before it was now deserted, and she won without obstacle to the sacred rail.
‘There is no one here,’ said the fat slave. ‘What dost thou want, or whom Knowest thou not that the priests do not live in the temple?’
‘Call out,’ said she, impatiently; ‘night and day there is always one flamen, at least, watching in the shrine of Isis.’
The slave called — no one appeared.
‘Seest thou no one?’
‘Thou mistakest; I hear a sigh: look again.’
The slave, wondering and grumbling, cast round his heavy eyes, and before one of the altars, whose remains still crowd the narrow space, he beheld a form bending as in meditation.
‘I see a figure, said he; ‘and by the white garments, it is a priest.’
‘O flamen of Isis!’ cried Nydia; ‘servant of the Most Ancient, hear me!’
‘Who calls?’ said a low and melancholy voice.
‘One who has no common tidings to impart to a member of your body: I come to declare and not to ask oracles.’
‘With whom wouldst thou confer? This is no hour for thy conference; depart, disturb me not; the night is sacred to the gods, the day to men.’
‘Methinks I know thy voice? thou art he whom I seek; yet I have heard thee speak but once before. Art thou not the priest Apaecides?’
‘I am that man,’ replied the priest, emerging from the altar, and approaching the rail.
‘Thou art! the gods be praised!’ Waving her hand to the slave, she bade him withdraw to a distance; and he, who naturally imagined some superstition connected, perhaps, with the safety of Ione, could alone lead her to the temple, obeyed, and seated himself on the ground, at a little distance. ‘Hush!’ said she, speaking quick and low; ‘art thou indeed Apaecides?’
‘If thou knowest me, canst thou not recall my features?’
‘I am blind,’ answered Nydia; ‘my eyes are in my ear, and that recognizes thee: yet swear that thou art he.’
‘By the gods I swear it, by my right hand, and by the moon!’
‘Hush! speak low — bend near — give me thy hand; knowest thou Arbaces? Hast thou laid flowers at the feet of the dead? Ah! thy hand is cold — hark yet! — hast thou taken the awful vow?’
‘Who art thou, whence comest thou, pale maiden?’ said Apaecides, fearfully: ‘I know thee not; thine is not the breast on which this head hath lain; I have never seen thee before.’
‘But thou hast heard my voice: no matter, those recollections it should shame us both to recall. Listen, thou hast a sister.’
‘Speak! speak! what of her?’
‘Thou knowest the banquets of the dead, stranger — it pleases thee, perhaps, to share them — would it please thee to have thy sister a partaker? Would it please thee that Arbaces was her host?’
‘O gods, he dare not! Girl, if thou mockest me, tremble! I will tear thee limb from limb!’
‘I speak the truth; and while I speak, Ione is in the halls of Arbaces — for the first time his guest. Thou knowest if there be peril in that first time! Farewell! I have fulfilled my charge.’
‘Stay! stay!’ cried the priest, passing his wan hand over his brow. ‘If this be true, what — what can be done to save her? They may not admit me. I know not all the mazes of that intricate mansion. O Nemesis! justly am I punished!’
‘I will dismiss yon slave, be thou my guide and comrade; I will lead thee to the private door of the house: I will whisper to thee the word which admits. Take some weapon: it may be needful!’
‘Wait an instant,’ said Apaecides, retiring into one of the cells that flank the temple, and reappearing in a few moments wrapped in a large cloak, which was then much worn by all classes, and which concealed his sacred dress. ‘Now,’ he said, grinding his teeth, ‘if Arbaces hath dared to — but he dare not! he dare not! Why should I suspect him? Is he so base a villain? I will not think it — yet, sophist! dark bewilderer that he is! O gods protect — hush! are there gods? Yes, there is one goddess, at least, whose voice I can command; and that is — Vengeance!’
Muttering these disconnected thoughts, Apaecides, followed by his silent and sightless companion, hastened through the most solitary paths to the house of the Egyptian.
The slave, abruptly dismissed by Nydia, shrugged his shoulders, muttered an adjuration, and, nothing loath, rolled off to his cubiculum.
WE must go back a few hours in the progress of our story. At the first grey dawn of the day, which Glaucus had already marked with white, the Egyptian was seated, sleepless and alone, on the summit of the lofty and pyramidal tower which flanked his house. A tall parapet around it served as a wall, and conspired, with the height of the edifice and the gloomy trees that girded the mansion, to defy the prying eyes of curiosity or observation. A table, on which lay a scroll, filled with mystic figures, was before him. On high, the stars waxed dim and faint, and the shades of night melted from the sterile mountain-tops; only above Vesuvius there rested a deep and massy cloud, which for several days past had gathered darker and more solid over its summit. The struggle of night and day was more visible over the broad ocean, which stretched calm, like a gigantic lake, bounded by the circling shores that, covered with vines and foliage, and gleaming here and there with the white walls of sleeping cities, sloped to the scarce rippling waves.
It was the hour above all others most sacred to the daring science of the Egyptian — the science which would read our changeful destinies in the stars.
He had filled his scroll, he had noted the moment and the sign; and, leaning upon his hand, he had surrendered himself to the thoughts which his calculation excited.
‘Again do the stars forewarn me! Some danger, then, assuredly awaits me!’ said he, slowly; ‘some danger, violent and sudden in its nature. The stars wear for me the same mocking menace which, if our chronicles do not err, they once wore for Pyrrhus — for him, doomed to strive for all things, to enjoy none — all attacking, nothing gaining — battles without fruit, laurels without triumph, fame without success; at last made craven by his own superstitions, and slain like a dog by a tile from the hand of an old woman! Verily, the stars flatter when they give me a type in this fool of war — when they promise to the ardour of my wisdom the same results as to the madness of his ambition — perpetual exercise — no certain goal! — the Sisyphus task, the mountain and the stone! — the stone, a gloomy image! — it reminds me that I am threatened with somewhat of the same death as the Epirote. Let me look again. “Beware,” say the shining prophets, “how thou passest under ancient roofs, or besieged walls, or overhanging cliffs — a stone hurled from above, is charged by the curses of destiny against thee!” And, at no distant date from this, comes the peril: but I cannot, of a certainty, read the day and hour. Well! if my glass runs low, the sands shall sparkle to the last. Yet, if I escape this peril — ay, if I escape — bright and clear as the moonlight track along the waters glows the rest of my existence. I see honors, happiness, success, shining upon every billow of the dark gulf beneath which I must sink at last. What, then, with such destinies beyond the peril, shall I succumb to the peril? My soul whispers hope, it sweeps exultingly beyond the boding hour, it revels in the future — its own courage is its fittest omen. If I were to perish so suddenly and so soon, the shadow of death would darken over me, and I should feel the icy presentiment of my doom. My soul would express, in sadness and in gloom, its forecast of the dreary Orcus. But it smiles — it assures me of deliverance.’
As he thus concluded his soliloquy, the Egyptian involuntarily rose. He paced rapidly the narrow space of that star-roofed floor, and, pausing at the parapet, looked again upon the grey and melancholy heavens. The chills of the faint dawn came refreshingly upon his brow, and gradually his mind resumed its natural and collected calm. He withdrew his gaze from the stars, as, one after one, they receded into the depths of heaven; and his eyes fell over the broad expanse below. Dim in the silenced port of the city rose the masts of the galleys; along that mart of luxury and of labor was stilled the mighty hum. No lights, save here and there from before the columns of a temple, or in the porticoes of the voiceless forum, broke the wan and fluctuating light of the struggling morn. From the heart of the torpid city, so soon to vibrate with a thousand passions, there came no sound: the streams of life circulated not; they lay locked under the ice of sleep. From the huge space of the amphitheatre, with its stony seats rising one above the other — coiled and round as some slumbering monster — rose a thin and ghastly mist, which gathered darker, and more dark, over the scattered foliage that gloomed in its vicinity. The city seemed as, after the awful change of seventeen ages, it seems now to the traveler — a City of the Dead.’
The ocean itself — that serene and tideless sea — lay scarce less hushed, save that from its deep bosom came, softened by the distance, a faint and regular murmur, like the breathing of its sleep; and curving far, as with outstretched arms, into the green and beautiful land, it seemed unconsciously to clasp to its breast the cities sloping to its margin — Stabiae, and Herculaneum, and Pompeii — those children and darlings of the deep. ‘Ye slumber,’ said the Egyptian, as he scowled over the cities, the boast and flower of Campania; ‘ye slumber! — would it were the eternal repose of death! As ye now — jewels in the crown of empire — so once were the cities of the Nile! Their greatness hath perished from them, they sleep amidst ruins, their palaces and their shrines are tombs, the serpent coils in the grass of their streets, the lizard basks in their solitary halls. By that mysterious law of Nature, which humbles one to exalt the other, ye have thriven upon their ruins; thou, haughty Rome, hast usurped the glories of Sesostris and Semiramis — thou art a robber, clothing thyself with their spoils! And these — slaves in thy triumph — that I (the last son of forgotten monarchs) survey below, reservoirs of thine all-pervading power and luxury, I curse as I behold! The time shall come when Egypt shall be avenged! when the barbarian’s steed shall make his manger in the Golden House of Nero! and thou that hast sown the wind with conquest shalt reap the harvest in the whirlwind of desolation!’
As the Egyptian uttered a prediction which fate so fearfully fulfilled, a more solemn and boding image of ill omen never occurred to the dreams of painter or of poet. The morning light, which can pale so wanly even the young cheek of beauty, gave his majestic and stately features almost the colors of the grave, with the dark hair falling massively around them, and the dark robes flowing long and loose, and the arm outstretched from that lofty eminence, and the glittering eyes, fierce with a savage gladness — half prophet and half fiend!
He turned his gaze from the city and the ocean; before him lay the vineyards and meadows of the rich Campania. The gate and walls — ancient, half Pelasgic — of the city, seemed not to bound its extent. Villas and villages stretched on every side up the ascent of Vesuvius, not nearly then so steep or so lofty as at present. For, as Rome itself is built on an exhausted volcano, so in similar security the inhabitants of the South tenanted the green and vine-clad places around a volcano whose fires they believed at rest for ever. From the gate stretched the long street of tombs, various in size and architecture, by which, on that side, the city is as yet approached. Above all, rode the cloud-capped summit of the Dread Mountain, with the shadows, now dark, now light, betraying the mossy caverns and ashy rocks, which testified the past conflagrations, and might have prophesied — but man is blind — that which was to come!
Difficult was it then and there to guess the causes why the tradition of the place wore so gloomy and stern a hue; why, in those smiling plains, for miles around — to Baiae and Misenum — the poets had imagined the entrance and thresholds of their hell — their Acheron, and their fabled Styx: why, in those Phlegrae, now laughing with the vine, they placed the battles of the gods, and supposed the daring Titans to have sought the victory of heaven — save, indeed, that yet, in yon seared and blasted summit, fancy might think to read the characters of the Olympian thunderbolt.
But it was neither the rugged height of the still volcano, nor the fertility of the sloping fields, nor the melancholy avenue of tombs, nor the glittering villas of a polished and luxurious people, that now arrested the eye of the Egyptian. On one part of the landscape, the mountain of Vesuvius descended to the plain in a narrow and uncultivated ridge, broken here and there by jagged crags and copses of wild foliage. At the base of this lay a marshy and unwholesome pool; and the intent gaze of Arbaces caught the outline of some living form moving by the marshes, and stooping ever and anon as if to pluck its rank produce.
‘Ho!’ said he, aloud, ‘I have then, another companion in these unworldly night — watches. The witch of Vesuvius is abroad. What! doth she, too, as the credulous imagine — doth she, too, learn the lore of the great stars? Hath she been uttering foul magic to the moon, or culling (as her pauses betoken) foul herbs from the venomous marsh? Well, I must see this fellow-laborer. Whoever strives to know learns that no human lore is despicable. Despicable only you — ye fat and bloated things — slaves of luxury — sluggards in thought — who, cultivating nothing but the barren sense, dream that its poor soil can produce alike the myrtle and the laurel. No, the wise only can enjoy — to us only true luxury is given, when mind, brain, invention, experience, thought, learning, imagination, all contribute like rivers to swell the seas of SENSE! — Ione!’
As Arbaces uttered that last and charmed word, his thoughts sunk at once into a more deep and profound channel. His steps paused; he took not his eyes from the ground; once or twice he smiled joyously, and then, as he turned from his place of vigil, and sought his couch, he muttered, ‘If death frowns so near, I will say at least that I have lived — Ione shall be mine!’
The character of Arbaces was one of those intricate and varied webs, in which even the mind that sat within it was sometimes confused and perplexed. In him, the son of a fallen dynasty, the outcast of a sunken people, was that spirit of discontented pride, which ever rankles in one of a sterner mould, who feels himself inexorably shut from the sphere in which his fathers shone, and to which Nature as well as birth no less entitles himself. This sentiment hath no benevolence; it wars with society, it sees enemies in mankind. But with this sentiment did not go its common companion, poverty. Arbaces possessed wealth which equalled that of most of the Roman nobles; and this enabled him to gratify to the utmost the passions which had no outlet in business or ambition. Travelling from clime to clime, and beholding still Rome everywhere, he increased both his hatred of society and his passion for pleasure. He was in a vast prison, which, however, he could fill with the ministers of luxury. He could not escape from the prison, and his only object, therefore, was to give it the character of the palace. The Egyptians, from the earliest time, were devoted to the joys of sense; Arbaces inherited both their appetite for sensuality and the glow of imagination which struck light from its rottenness. But still, unsocial in his pleasures as in his graver pursuits, and brooking neither superior nor equal, he admitted few to his companionship, save the willing slaves of his profligacy. He was the solitary lord of a crowded harem; but, with all, he felt condemned to that satiety which is the constant curse of men whose intellect is above their pursuits, and that which once had been the impulse of passion froze down to the ordinance of custom. From the disappointments of sense he sought to raise himself by the cultivation of knowledge; but as it was not his object to serve mankind, so he despised that knowledge which is practical and useful. His dark imagination loved to exercise itself in those more visionary and obscure researches which are ever the most delightful to a wayward and solitary mind, and to which he himself was invited by the daring pride of his disposition and the mysterious traditions of his clime. Dismissing faith in the confused creeds of the heathen world, he reposed the greatest faith in the power of human wisdom. He did not know (perhaps no one in that age distinctly did) the limits which Nature imposes upon our discoveries. Seeing that the higher we mount in knowledge the more wonders we behold, he imagined that Nature not only worked miracles in her ordinary course, but that she might, by the cabala of some master soul, be diverted from that course itself. Thus he pursued science, across her appointed boundaries, into the land of perplexity and shadow. From the truths of astronomy he wandered into astrological fallacy; from the secrets of chemistry he passed into the spectral labyrinth of magic; and he who could be sceptical as to the power of the gods, was credulously superstitious as to the power of man.
The cultivation of magic, carried at that day to a singular height among the would-be wise, was especially Eastern in its origin; it was alien to the early philosophy of the Greeks; nor had it been received by them with favor until Ostanes, who accompanied the army of Xerxes, introduced, amongst the simple credulities of Hellas, the solemn superstitions of Zoroaster. Under the Roman emperors it had become, however, naturalized at Rome (a meet subject for Juvenal’s fiery wit). Intimately connected with magic was the worship of Isis, and the Egyptian religion was the means by which was extended the devotion to Egyptian sorcery. The theurgic, or benevolent magic — the goetic, or dark and evil necromancy — were alike in preeminent repute during the first century of the Christian era; and the marvels of Faustus are not comparable to those of Apollonius. Kings, courtiers, and sages, all trembled before the professors of the dread science. And not the least remarkable of his tribe was the most formidable and profound Arbaces. His fame and his discoveries were known to all the cultivators of magic; they even survived himself. But it was not by his real name that he was honored by the sorcerer and the sage: his real name, indeed, was unknown in Italy, for ‘Arbaces’ was not a genuinely Egyptian but a Median appellation, which, in the admixture and unsettlement of the ancient races, had become common in the country of the Nile; and there were various reasons, not only of pride, but of policy (for in youth he had conspired against the majesty of Rome), which induced him to conceal his true name and rank. But neither by the name he had borrowed from the Mede, nor by that which in the colleges of Egypt would have attested his origin from kings, did the cultivators of magic acknowledge the potent master. He received from their homage a more mystic appellation, and was long remembered in Magna Graecia and the Eastern plain by the name of ‘Hermes, the Lord of the Flaming Belt’. His subtle speculations and boasted attributes of wisdom, recorded in various volumes, were among those tokens ‘of the curious arts’ which the Christian converts most joyfully, yet most fearfully, burnt at Ephesus, depriving posterity of the proofs of the cunning of the fiend.
The conscience of Arbaces was solely of the intellect — it was awed by no moral laws. If man imposed these checks upon the herd, so he believed that man, by superior wisdom, could raise himself above them. ‘If (he reasoned) I have the genius to impose laws, have I not the right to command my own creations? Still more, have I not the right to control — to evade — to scorn — the fabrications of yet meaner intellects than my own?’ Thus, if he were a villain, he justified his villainy by what ought to have made him virtuous — namely, the elevation of his capacities.
Most men have more or less the passion for power; in Arbaces that passion corresponded exactly to his character. It was not the passion for an external and brute authority. He desired not the purple and the fasces, the insignia of vulgar command. His youthful ambition once foiled and defeated, scorn had supplied its place — his pride, his contempt for Rome — Rome, which had become the synonym of the world (Rome, whose haughty name he regarded with the same disdain as that which Rome herself lavished upon the barbarian), did not permit him to aspire to sway over others, for that would render him at once the tool or creature of the emperor. He, the Son of the Great Race of Rameses — he execute the orders of, and receive his power from, another! — the mere notion filled him with rage. But in rejecting an ambition that coveted nominal distinctions, he but indulged the more in the ambition to rule the heart. Honoring mental power as the greatest of earthly gifts, he loved to feel that power palpably in himself, by extending it over all whom he encountered. Thus had he ever sought the young — thus had he ever fascinated and controlled them. He loved to find subjects in men’s souls — to rule over an invisible and immaterial empire! — had he been less sensual and less wealthy, he might have sought to become the founder of a new religion. As it was, his energies were checked by his pleasures. Besides, however, the vague love of this moral sway (vanity so dear to sages!) he was influenced by a singular and dreamlike devotion to all that belonged to the mystic Land his ancestors had swayed. Although he disbelieved in her deities, he believed in the allegories they represented (or rather he interpreted those allegories anew). He loved to keep alive the worship of Egypt, because he thus maintained the shadow and the recollection of her power. He loaded, therefore, the altars of Osiris and of Isis with regal donations, and was ever anxious to dignify their priesthood by new and wealthy converts. The vow taken — the priesthood embraced — he usually chose the comrades of his pleasures from those whom he made his victims, partly because he thus secured to himself their secrecy — partly because he thus yet more confirmed to himself his peculiar power. Hence the motives of his conduct to Apaecides, strengthened as these were, in that instance, by his passion for Ione.
He had seldom lived long in one place; but as he grew older, he grew more wearied of the excitement of new scenes, and he had sojourned among the delightful cities of Campania for a period which surprised even himself. In fact, his pride somewhat crippled his choice of residence. His unsuccessful conspiracy excluded him from those burning climes which he deemed of right his own hereditary possession, and which now cowered, supine and sunken, under the wings of the Roman eagle. Rome herself was hateful to his indignant soul; nor did he love to find his riches rivalled by the minions of the court, and cast into comparative poverty by the mighty magnificence of the court itself. The Campanian cities proffered to him all that his nature craved — the luxuries of an unequalled climate — the imaginative refinements of a voluptuous civilization. He was removed from the sight of a superior wealth; he was without rivals to his riches; he was free from the spies of a jealous court. As long as he was rich, none pried into his conduct. He pursued the dark tenour of his way undisturbed and secure.
It is the curse of sensualists never to love till the pleasures of sense begin to pall; their ardent youth is frittered away in countless desires — their hearts are exhausted. So, ever chasing love, and taught by a restless imagination to exaggerate, perhaps, its charms, the Egyptian had spent all the glory of his years without attaining the object of his desires. The beauty of tomorrow succeeded the beauty of today, and the shadows bewildered him in his pursuit of the substance. When, two years before the present date, he beheld Ione, he saw, for the first time, one whom he imagined he could love. He stood, then, upon that bridge of life, from which man sees before him distinctly a wasted youth on the one side, and the darkness of approaching age upon the other: a time in which we are more than ever anxious, perhaps, to secure to ourselves, ere it be yet too late, whatever we have been taught to consider necessary to the enjoyment of a life of which the brighter half is gone.
With an earnestness and a patience which he had never before commanded for his pleasures, Arbaces had devoted himself to win the heart of Ione. It did not content him to love, he desired to be loved. In this hope he had watched the expanding youth of the beautiful Neapolitan; and, knowing the influence that the mind possesses over those who are taught to cultivate the mind, he had contributed willingly to form the genius and enlighten the intellect of Ione, in the hope that she would be thus able to appreciate what he felt would be his best claim to her affection: viz, a character which, however criminal and perverted, was rich in its original elements of strength and grandeur. When he felt that character to be acknowledged, he willingly allowed, nay, encouraged her, to mix among the idle votaries of pleasure, in the belief that her soul, fitted for higher commune, would miss the companionship of his own, and that, in comparison with others, she would learn to love herself. He had forgot, that as the sunflower to the sun, so youth turns to youth, until his jealousy of Glaucus suddenly apprised him of his error. From that moment, though, as we have seen, he knew not the extent of his danger, a fiercer and more tumultuous direction was given to a passion long controlled. Nothing kindles the fire of love like the sprinkling of the anxieties of jealousy; it takes then a wilder, a more resistless flame; it forgets its softness; it ceases to be tender; it assumes something of the intensity — of the ferocity — of hate.
Arbaces resolved to lose no further time upon cautious and perilous preparations: he resolved to place an irrevocable barrier between himself and his rivals: he resolved to possess himself of the person of Ione: not that in his present love, so long nursed and fed by hopes purer than those of passion alone, he would have been contented with that mere possession. He desired the heart, the soul, no less than the beauty, of Ione; but he imagined that once separated by a daring crime from the rest of mankind — once bound to Ione by a tie that memory could not break, she would be driven to concentrate her thoughts in him — that his arts would complete his conquest, and that, according to the true moral of the Roman and the Sabine, the empire obtained by force would be cemented by gentler means. This resolution was yet more confirmed in him by his belief in the prophecies of the stars: they had long foretold to him this year, and even the present month, as the epoch of some dread disaster, menacing life itself. He was driven to a certain and limited date. He resolved to crowd, monarch-like, on his funeral pyre all that his soul held most dear. In his own words, if he were to die, he resolved to feel that he had lived, and that Ione should be his own.
WHEN Ione entered the spacious hall of the Egyptian, the same awe which had crept over her brother impressed itself also upon her: there seemed to her as to him something ominous and warning in the still and mournful faces of those dread Theban monsters, whose majestic and passionless features the marble so well portrayed:
Their look, with the reach of past ages, was wise,
And the soul of eternity thought in their eyes.
The tall AEthiopian slave grinned as he admitted her, and motioned to
her to proceed. Half-way up the hall she was met by Arbaces himself, in
festive robes, which glittered with jewels. Although it was broad day
without, the mansion, according to the practice of the luxurious, was
artificially darkened, and the lamps cast their still and odor-giving
light over the rich floors and ivory roofs.
‘Beautiful Ione,’ said Arbaces, as he bent to touch her hand, ‘it is you that have eclipsed the day — it is your eyes that light up the halls — it is your breath which fills them with perfumes.’
‘You must not talk to me thus,’ said Ione, smiling, ‘you forget that your lore has sufficiently instructed my mind to render these graceful flatteries to my person unwelcome. It was you who taught me to disdain adulation: will you unteach your pupil?’
There was something so frank and charming in the manner of Ione, as she thus spoke, that the Egyptian was more than ever enamoured, and more than ever disposed to renew the offence he had committed; he, however, answered quickly and gaily, and hastened to renew the conversation.
He led her through the various chambers of a house, which seemed to contain to her eyes, inexperienced to other splendor than the minute elegance of Campanian cities, the treasures of the world.
In the walls were set pictures of inestimable art, the lights shone over statues of the noblest age of Greece. Cabinets of gems, each cabinet itself a gem, filled up the interstices of the columns; the most precious woods lined the thresholds and composed the doors; gold and jewels seemed lavished all around. Sometimes they were alone in these rooms — sometimes they passed through silent rows of slaves, who, kneeling as she passed, proffered to her offerings of bracelets, of chains, of gems, which the Egyptian vainly entreated her to receive.
‘I have often heard,’ said she, wonderingly, ‘that you were rich; but I never dreamed of the amount of your wealth.’
‘Would I could coin it all,’ replied the Egyptian, ‘into one crown, which I might place upon that snowy brow!’
‘Alas! the weight would crush me; I should be a second Tarpeia,’ answered Ione, laughingly.
‘But thou dost not disdain riches, O Ione! they know not what life is capable of who are not wealthy. Gold is the great magician of earth — it realizes our dreams — it gives them the power of a god — there is a grandeur, a sublimity, in its possession; it is the mightiest, yet the most obedient of our slaves.’
The artful Arbaces sought to dazzle the young Neapolitan by his treasures and his eloquence; he sought to awaken in her the desire to be mistress of what she surveyed: he hoped that she would confound the owner with the possessions, and that the charms of his wealth would be reflected on himself. Meanwhile, Ione was secretly somewhat uneasy at the gallantries which escaped from those lips, which, till lately, had seemed to disdain the common homage we pay to beauty; and with that delicate subtlety, which woman alone possesses, she sought to ward off shafts deliberately aimed, and to laugh or to talk away the meaning from his warming language. Nothing in the world is more pretty than that same species of defence; it is the charm of the African necromancer who professed with a feather to turn aside the winds.
The Egyptian was intoxicated and subdued by her grace even more than by her beauty: it was with difficulty that he suppressed his emotions; alas! the feather was only powerful against the summer breezes — it would be the sport of the storm.
Suddenly, as they stood in one hall, which was surrounded by draperies of silver and white, the Egyptian clapped his hands, and, as if by enchantment, a banquet rose from the floor — a couch or throne, with a crimson canopy, ascended simultaneously at the feet of Ione — and at the same instant from behind the curtains swelled the invisible and softest music.
Arbaces placed himself at the feet of Ione — and children, young and beautiful as Loves, ministered to the feast.
The feast was over, the music sank into a low and subdued strain, and Arbaces thus addressed his beautiful guest:
‘Hast thou never in this dark and uncertain world — hast thou never aspired, my pupil, to look beyond — hast thou never wished to put aside the veil of futurity, and to behold on the shores of Fate the shadowy images of things to be? For it is not the past alone that has its ghosts: each event to come has also its spectrum — its shade; when the hour arrives, life enters it, the shadow becomes corporeal, and walks the world. Thus, in the land beyond the grave, are ever two impalpable and spiritual hosts — the things to be, the things that have been! If by our wisdom we can penetrate that land, we see the one as the other, and learn, as I have learned, not alone the mysteries of the dead, but also the destiny of the living.’
‘As thou hast learned! — Can wisdom attain so far?’
‘Wilt thou prove my knowledge, Ione, and behold the representation of thine own fate? It is a drama more striking than those of AEschylus: it is one I have prepared for thee, if thou wilt see the shadows perform their part.’
The Neapolitan trembled; she thought of Glaucus, and sighed as well as trembled: were their destinies to be united? Half incredulous, half believing, half awed, half alarmed by the words of her strange host, she remained for some moments silent, and then answered:
‘It may revolt — it may terrify; the knowledge of the future will perhaps only embitter the present!’
‘Not so, Ione. I have myself looked upon thy future lot, and the ghosts of thy Future bask in the gardens of Elysium: amidst the asphodel and the rose they prepare the garlands of thy sweet destiny, and the Fates, so harsh to others, weave only for thee the web of happiness and love. Wilt thou then come and behold thy doom, so that thou mayest enjoy it beforehand?’
Again the heart of Ione murmured ‘Glaucus’; she uttered a half-audible assent; the Egyptian rose, and taking her by the hand, he led her across the banquet-room — the curtains withdrew as by magic hands, and the music broke forth in a louder and gladder strain; they passed a row of columns, on either side of which fountains cast aloft their fragrant waters; they descended by broad and easy steps into a garden. The eve had commenced; the moon was already high in heaven, and those sweet flowers that sleep by day, and fill, with ineffable odorous, the airs of night, were thickly scattered amidst alleys cut through the star-lit foliage; or, gathered in baskets, lay like offerings at the feet of the frequent statues that gleamed along their path.
‘Whither wouldst thou lead me, Arbaces?’ said Ione, wonderingly.
‘But yonder,’ said he, pointing to a small building which stood at the end of the vista. ‘It is a temple consecrated to the Fates — our rites require such holy ground.’
They passed into a narrow hall, at the end of which hung a sable curtain. Arbaces lifted it; Ione entered, and found herself in total darkness.
‘Be not alarmed,’ said the Egyptian, ‘the light will rise instantly.’ While he so spoke, a soft, and warm, and gradual light diffused itself around; as it spread over each object, Ione perceived that she was in an apartment of moderate size, hung everywhere with black; a couch with draperies of the same hue was beside her. In the centre of the room was a small altar, on which stood a tripod of bronze. At one side, upon a lofty column of granite, was a colossal head of the blackest marble, which she perceived, by the crown of wheat-ears that encircled the brow, represented the great Egyptian goddess. Arbaces stood before the altar: he had laid his garland on the shrine, and seemed occupied with pouring into the tripod the contents of a brazen vase; suddenly from that tripod leaped into life a blue, quick, darting, irregular flame; the Egyptian drew back to the side of Ione, and muttered some words in a language unfamiliar to her ear; the curtain at the back of the altar waved tremulously to and fro — it parted slowly, and in the aperture which was thus made, Ione beheld an indistinct and pale landscape, which gradually grew brighter and clearer as she gazed; at length she discovered plainly trees, and rivers, and meadows, and all the beautiful diversity of the richest earth. At length, before the landscape, a dim shadow glided; it rested opposite to Ione; slowly the same charm seemed to operate upon it as over the rest of the scene; it took form and shape, and lo! — in its feature and in its form Ione beheld herself!
Then the scene behind the spectre faded away, and was succeeded by the representation of a gorgeous palace; a throne was raised in the centre of its hall, the dim forms of slaves and guards were ranged around it, and a pale hand held over the throne the likeness of a diadem.
A new actor now appeared; he was clothed from head to foot in a dark robe — his face was concealed — he knelt at the feet of the shadowy Ione — he clasped her hand — he pointed to the throne, as if to invite her to ascend it.
The Neapolitan’s heart beat violently. ‘Shall the shadow disclose itself?’ whispered a voice beside her — the voice of Arbaces.
‘Ah, yes!’ answered Ione, softly.
Arbaces raised his hand — the spectre seemed to drop the mantle that concealed its form — and Ione shrieked — it was Arbaces himself that thus knelt before her.
‘This is, indeed, thy fate!’ whispered again the Egyptian’s voice in her ear. ‘And thou art destined to be the bride of Arbaces.’
Ione started — the black curtain closed over the phantasmagoria: and Arbaces himself — the real, the living Arbaces — was at her feet.
‘Oh, Ione!’ said he, passionately gazing upon her, ‘listen to one who has long struggled vainly with his love. I adore thee! The Fates do not lie — thou art destined to be mine — I have sought the world around, and found none like thee. From my youth upward, I have sighed for such as thou art. I have dreamed till I saw thee — I wake, and I behold thee. Turn not away from me, Ione; think not of me as thou hast thought; I am not that being — cold, insensate, and morose, which I have seemed to thee. Never woman had lover so devoted — so passionate as I will be to Ione. Do not struggle in my clasp: see — I release thy hand. Take it from me if thou wilt — well be it so! But do not reject me, Ione — do not rashly reject — judge of thy power over him whom thou canst thus transform. I, who never knelt to mortal being, kneel to thee. I, who have commanded fate, receive from thee my own. Ione, tremble not, thou art my queen — my goddess — be my bride! All the wishes thou canst form shall be fulfilled. The ends of the earth shall minister to thee — pomp, power, luxury, shall be thy slaves. Arbaces shall have no ambition, save the pride of obeying thee. Ione, turn upon me those eyes — shed upon me thy smile. Dark is my soul when thy face is hid from it: shine over me, my sun — my heaven — my daylight! — Ione, Ione — do not reject my love!’
Alone, and in the power of this singular and fearful man, Ione was not yet terrified; the respect of his language, the softness of his voice, reassured her; and, in her own purity, she felt protection. But she was confused — astonished: it was some moments before she could recover the power of reply.
‘Rise, Arbaces!’ said she at length; and she resigned to him once more her hand, which she as quickly withdrew again, when she felt upon it the burning pressure of his lips. ‘Rise! and if thou art serious, if thy language be in earnest . . . ’
‘If!’ said he tenderly.
‘Well, then, listen to me: you have been my guardian, my friend, my monitor; for this new character I was not prepared — think not,’ she added quickly, as she saw his dark eyes glitter with the fierceness of his passion —‘think not that I scorn — that I am untouched — that I am not honored by this homage; but, say — canst thou hear me calmly?’
‘Ay, though thy words were lightning, and could blast me!’
‘I love another!’ said Ione, blushingly, but in a firm voice.
‘By the gods — by hell!’ shouted Arbaces, rising to his fullest height; ‘dare not tell me that — dare not mock me — it is impossible! — Whom hast thou seen — whom known? Oh, Ione, it is thy woman’s invention, thy woman’s art that speaks — thou wouldst gain time; I have surprised — I have terrified thee. Do with me as thou wilt — say that thou lovest not me; but say not that thou lovest another!’
‘Alas!’ began Ione; and then, appalled before his sudden and unlooked-for violence, she burst into tears.
Arbaces came nearer to her — his breath glowed fiercely on her cheek; he wound his arms round her — she sprang from his embrace. In the struggle a tablet fell from her bosom on the ground: Arbaces perceived, and seized it — it was the letter that morning received from Glaucus. Ione sank upon the couch, half dead with terror.
Rapidly the eyes of Arbaces ran over the writing; the Neapolitan did not dare to gaze upon him: she did not see the deadly paleness that came over his countenance — she marked not his withering frown, nor the quivering of his lip, nor the convulsions that heaved his breast. He read it to the end, and then, as the letter fell from his hand, he said, in a voice of deceitful calmness:
‘Is the writer of this the man thou lovest?’
Ione sobbed, but answered not.
‘Speak!’ he rather shrieked than said.
‘It is — it is!
‘And his name — it is written here — his name is Glaucus!’
Ione, clasping her hands, looked round as for succour or escape.
‘Then hear me,’ said Arbaces, sinking his voice into a whisper; ‘thou shalt go to thy tomb rather than to his arms! What! thinkest thou Arbaces will brook a rival such as this puny Greek? What! thinkest thou that he has watched the fruit ripen, to yield it to another! Pretty fool — no! Thou art mine — all — only mine: and thus — thus I seize and claim thee!’ As he spoke, he caught Ione in his arms; and, in that ferocious grasp, was all the energy — less of love than of revenge.
But to Ione despair gave supernatural strength: she again tore herself from him — she rushed to that part of the room by which she had entered — she half withdrew the curtain — he had seized her — again she broke away from him — and fell, exhausted, and with a loud shriek, at the base of the column which supported the head of the Egyptian goddess. Arbaces paused for a moment, as if to regain his breath; and thence once more darted upon his prey.
At that instant the curtain was rudely torn aside, the Egyptian felt a fierce and strong grasp upon his shoulder. He turned — he beheld before him the flashing eyes of Glaucus, and the pale, worn, but menacing, countenance of Apaecides. ‘Ah,’ he muttered, as he glared from one to the other, ‘what Fury hath sent ye hither?’
‘Ate,’ answered Glaucus; and he closed at once with the Egyptian. Meanwhile, Apaecides raised his sister, now lifeless, from the ground; his strength, exhausted by a mind long overwrought, did not suffice to bear her away, light and delicate though her shape: he placed her, therefore, on the couch, and stood over her with a brandishing knife, watching the contest between Glaucus and the Egyptian, and ready to plunge his weapon in the bosom of Arbaces should he be victorious in the struggle. There is, perhaps, nothing on earth so terrible as the naked and unarmed contest of animal strength, no weapon but those which Nature supplies to rage. Both the antagonists were now locked in each other’s grasp — the hand of each seeking the throat of the other — the face drawn back — the fierce eyes flashing — the muscles strained — the veins swelled — the lips apart — the teeth set — both were strong beyond the ordinary power of men, both animated by relentless wrath; they coiled, they wound, around each other; they rocked to and fro — they swayed from end to end of their confined arena — they uttered cries of ire and revenge — they were now before the altar — now at the base of the column where the struggle had commenced: they drew back for breath — Arbaces leaning against the column — Glaucus a few paces apart.
‘O ancient goddess!’ exclaimed Arbaces, clasping the column, and raising his eyes toward the sacred image it supported, ‘protect thy chosen — proclaim they vengeance against this thing of an upstart creed, who with sacrilegious violence profanes thy resting-place and assails thy servant.’
As he spoke, the still and vast features of the goddess seemed suddenly to glow with life; through the black marble, as through a transparent veil, flushed luminously a crimson and burning hue; around the head played and darted coruscations of livid lightning; the eyes became like balls of lurid fire, and seemed fixed in withering and intolerable wrath upon the countenance of the Greek. Awed and appalled by this sudden and mystic answer to the prayer of his foe, and not free from the hereditary superstitions of his race, the cheeks of Glaucus paled before that strange and ghastly animation of the marble — his knees knocked together — he stood, seized with a divine panic, dismayed, aghast, half unmanned before his foe! Arbaces gave him not breathing time to recover his stupor: ‘Die, wretch!’ he shouted, in a voice of thunder, as he sprang upon the Greek; ‘the Mighty Mother claims thee as a living sacrifice!’ Taken thus by surprise in the first consternation of his superstitious fears, the Greek lost his footing — the marble floor was as smooth as glass — he slid — he fell. Arbaces planted his foot on the breast of his fallen foe. Apaecides, taught by his sacred profession, as well as by his knowledge of Arbaces, to distrust all miraculous interpositions, had not shared the dismay of his companion; he rushed forward — his knife gleamed in the air — the watchful Egyptian caught his arm as it descended — one wrench of his powerful hand tore the weapon from the weak grasp of the priest — one sweeping blow stretched him to the earth — with a loud and exulting yell Arbaces brandished the knife on high. Glaucus gazed upon his impending fate with unwinking eyes, and in the stern and scornful resignation of a fallen gladiator, when, at that awful instant, the floor shook under them with a rapid and convulsive throe — a mightier spirit than that of the Egyptian was abroad! — a giant and crushing power, before which sunk into sudden impotence his passion and his arts. IT woke — it stirred — that Dread Demon of the Earthquake — laughing to scorn alike the magic of human guile and the malice of human wrath. As a Titan, on whom the mountains are piled, it roused itself from the sleep of years, it moved on its tortured couch — the caverns below groaned and trembled beneath the motion of its limbs. In the moment of his vengeance and his power, the self-prized demigod was humbled to his real clay. Far and wide along the soil went a hoarse and rumbling sound — the curtains of the chamber shook as at the blast of a storm — the altar rocked — the tripod reeled, and high over the place of contest, the column trembled and waved from side to side — the sable head of the goddess tottered and fell from its pedestal — and as the Egyptian stooped above his intended victim, right upon his bended form, right between the shoulder and the neck, struck the marble mass! The shock stretched him like the blow of death, at once, suddenly, without sound or motion, or semblance of life, upon the floor, apparently crushed by the very divinity he had impiously animated and invoked!
‘The Earth has preserved her children,’ said Glaucus, staggering to his feet. ‘Blessed be the dread convulsion! Let us worship the providence of the gods!’ He assisted Apaecides to rise, and then turned upward the face of Arbaces; it seemed locked as in death; blood gushed from the Egyptian’s lips over his glittering robes; he fell heavily from the arms of Glaucus, and the red stream trickled slowly along the marble. Again the earth shook beneath their feet; they were forced to cling to each other; the convulsion ceased as suddenly as it came; they tarried no longer; Glaucus bore Ione lightly in his arms, and they fled from the unhallowed spot. But scarce had they entered the garden than they were met on all sides by flying and disordered groups of women and slaves, whose festive and glittering garments contrasted in mockery the solemn terror of the hour; they did not appear to heed the strangers — they were occupied only with their own fears. After the tranquillity of sixteen years, that burning and treacherous soil again menaced destruction; they uttered but one cry, ‘THE EARTHQUAKE! THE EARTHQUAKE!’ and passing unmolested from the midst of them, Apaecides and his companions, without entering the house, hastened down one of the alleys, passed a small open gate, and there, sitting on a little mound over which spread the gloom of the dark green aloes, the moonlight fell on the bended figure of the blind girl — she was weeping bitterly.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51