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- The Emperor, Part 2, Volume 10. - 4/13 -
might take in hand, and even name him as his successor in due time, when he had risen from one post of honor to another. For the present this plan must remain unrevealed.
When he publicly adopted Verus any idea of a possible new selection of a son was excluded, and he might unhesitatingly venture to appoint Sabina's darling his successor, for the most famous of the Roman physicians had written to Hadrian, by his desire, saying that the praetor's undermined strength could not be restored, and that, at the best, he could only have a limited number of years to live. Well, then, Verus might die slowly and contentedly in the midst of the most splendid anticipations, and when he should have closed his eyes it would be time enough to set the dreamer--by that time matured to vigorous manhood--in the vacant place.
On the return journey from Thebes to Alexandria Hadrian met his wife at Abydos, and revealed to her his intention of proclaiming the son of her choice as his successor. Sabina thanked him with an exclamation of "At last!" which expressed partly her satisfaction, but partly too her annoyance at her husband's long delay. Hadrian gave her his permission to return to Rome from Alexandria, and on the very same day messages were despatched with letters both to the Senate and to the prefects of Egypt.
The despatch intended for Titianus charged him to proclaim publicly the adoption of the praetor, to arrange at the same time for a grand festival, and on that occasion to grant to the people, in Caesar's name, all the boons and favors which by the traditional law of Egypt the Sovereign was expected to bestow at the birth of an heir to the throne. The whole suite of the Imperial pair celebrated Hadrian's decision by splendid banquets, but the Emperor did not himself take part in them, but crossed to the other bank of the Nile and went to Antaeopolis in the desert, meaning to penetrate from thence into the gorges of the Arabian desert and to chase wild beasts. No one was to accompany him but Antinous, Mastor, and a few huntsmen and some dogs.
He meant to rejoin the ships at Besa. He had postponed his visit to this place till the return journey, because he had travelled up by the western shore of the Nile, and the passage across the river would have taken up too much time.
The travellers' tents were pitched one sultry evening in November, between the Nile and the limestone range, in which was arrayed a long row of tombs of the period of the Pharaohs. Hadrian had gone to visit these, for the remarkable pictures on the walls delighted him, but Antinous remained behind, for he had already looked at similar works oftener than he cared for, in Upper Egypt. He found these pictures monotonous and unlovely, and he had not the patience to investigate their meaning as his master did. He had been a hundred times into the ancient rock-tombs, only not to leave Hadrian and not for his own amusement; but to-day--he could hardly bear himself for impatience and excitement, for he knew that a ride, a walk, of a few hours, would carry him to Besa and to Selene. The Emperor would remain absent three or four hours at any rate, and if he made up his mind to it he could have sought out the girl for whom his heart was longing before his return, and still be back again before his master.
But before acting he must reflect. There was the Emperor climbing the hill-side where he could see him, and messengers were expected and he had been charged to receive them. It they should bring bad news, his master must on no account be alone. Ten times did he go up to his good hunter to leap upon his back; once he even took down the horse's head-gear to put on his bridle, but in the very act of slipping the complicated bit between the teeth of his steed his resolution gave way. During all this delay and hesitation the minutes slipped away, and at last it was so late that Hadrian might return and it was folly to think of carrying his plan into execution. The expected express arrived with several letters, but the Emperor did not come back. It grew dark, and heavy rain-drops fell from the overcast sky, and still Antinous was alone. His anxious longing was mingled with regret for the lost opportunity of seeing Selene and alarm at the Emperor's prolonged absence.
In spite of the rain, which began to fill more violently, he went out into the open air, of which the sweltering oppressiveness had helped to fetter his feeble volition, and called to the dogs, with whose help he proposed seeking the Emperor; but just then he heard the bark of Argus, and soon after Hadrian and Mastor stepped out of the darkness into the brightness which shone out from the tent, where lights were burning.
The Emperor gave his favorite but a brief greeting and silently submitted while Antinous dried his hair and brought him some refreshments, and Mastor bathed his feet and dressed him in fresh garments. As he reclined with the Bithyman, before the supper which was standing ready, he said:
"A strange evening! how hot and oppressive the atmosphere is. We must be on the lookout, something serious is brewing."
"What happened to you, my Lord?"
"Many things. At the door of the very first tomb that I was about to enter I found an old black woman who stretched out her hands against us to keep us out and shrieked out words that sounded horrible."
"Did you understand her?"
"No--who can learn Egyptian."
"Then you do not know what she said?"
"I was to find out--she cried out 'Dead!' and again 'Dead!' and in the tomb which she was watching there were I know not how many persons attacked by the plague."
"You saw them?"
"Yes, I had only heard of this disease till then. It is frightful, and quite answers to the descriptions I had read of it."
"But Caesar!" cried Antinous reproachfully and in alarm.
"When we turned our backs on the tombs," continued Hadrian, paying no heed to the lad's exclamation, "we were met by an elderly man dressed in white and a strange-looking maiden. She was lame but of remarkable beauty."
"And she was going to the sick?"
"Yes, she had brought medicine and food to them."
"But she did not go in among them?" asked Antinous eagerly.
"She did, in spite of my warnings. In her companion I recognized an old acquaintance."
'An old one?"
"At any rate older than myself. We had met in Athens when we still were young. At that time he was one of the school of Plato and the most zealous, nay, perhaps the most gifted of us all."
"How came such a man among the plague-stricken people of Besa? Is he become a physician?"
"No. But at Athens he sought fervently and eagerly for the truth, and now he asserts that he has found it."
"Here, among the Egyptians?"
"In Alexandria among the Christians."
"And the lame girl who accompanied the philosopher--does she too believe in the crucified God?"
"Yes. She is a sick-nurse or something of the kind. Indeed there is something grand in the ecstatic craze of these people."
"Is it true that they worship an ass and a dove?"
"I did not want to believe it; and at any rate they are kind, and succor all who suffer, even strangers who do not belong to their sect."
"How do you know?"
"One hears a great deal about them in Alexandria."
"Alas! alas!--I never persecute an imaginary foe, as such I reckon the creeds and ideas of other men; still, I cannot but ask myself whether it can add to the prosperity of the state when citizens cease to struggle against the pressure and necessity of life and console themselves for them instead, by the hope of visionary happiness in another world which perhaps only exists in the fancy of those who believe in it."
"I should wish that life might end with death," said Antinous thoughtfully; "and yet--"
"If I were sure that in that other world I should find those I long to see again, then I might long for a future life."
"And would you really like, throughout all eternity, to push and struggle in the crowd of old acquaintances which death does not diminish but rather multiplies?"
"Nay, not that--but I should like to be permitted to live for ever with a few chosen friends."
"And should I be one of them?"
"Yes--indeed," cried Antinous warmly and pressing his lips to Hadrian's hand.
"I was sure of it--but even with the promise of never being obliged to part with you my darling, I would never sacrifice the only privilege which man enjoys above the immortals."
"What privilege can you mean?"
"The right of withdrawing from the ranks of the living as soon as annihilation seems more endurable than existence and I choose to call death to release me."
"The gods, it is true, cannot die."
"And the Christians only to link a new life on to death."
"But a fairer and a happier than this on earth." They say it is a life of bliss. But the mother of this everlasting life is the ineradicable love of existence in even the most wretched of our race, and hope is its father. They believe in a complete freedom from suffering in that other
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