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- The Emperor, Part 2, Volume 7. - 6/10 -


his knees by her couch. She looked in his handsome face with deep emotion, laid her hands on his temples, and pressed her lips on his dark curls.

A moist brilliancy sparkled in those eyes, unapt to tears, and in a soft and appealing tone that no one had ever before heard in her voice she said:

"Even at the summit of fortune, after your adoption, even in the purple all will be the same between us two. Will it? Tell me, will it?"

"Always, always!" cried Verus. "And if our hopes are fulfilled--"

"Then, then," interrupted Sabina and she shivered as she spoke. "Then, still you will be to me the same that you are now; but to be sure, to be sure--the temples of the gods would be empty if mortals had nothing left to wish for."

"Ah! no. Then they would bring thank-offerings to the divinity," cried Verus, and he looked up at the Empress; but she turned away from his smiling glance and exclaimed in a tone of reproof and alarm:

"No playing with words, no empty speeches or rash jesting! in the name of all the gods, not at this time! For this hour, this night is among its fellows what a hallowed temple is among other buildings--what the fervent sun is among the other lights of heaven. You know not how I feel, nay, I hardly know myself. Not now, not now, one lightly-spoken word!"

Verus gazed at Sabina with growing astonishment. She had always been kinder to him than to any one else in the world and he felt bound to her by all the ties of gratitude and the sweet memories of childhood. Even as a boy, out of all his playfellows he was the only one who, far from fearing her had clung to her. But to-night! who had ever seen Sabina in such a mood? Was this the harsh bitter woman whose heart seemed filled with gall, whose tongue cut like a dagger every one against whom she used it? Was this Sabina who no doubt was kindly disposed towards him but who loved no one else, not even herself? Did he see rightly, or was he under some delusion? Tears, genuine, honest, unaffected tears filled her eyes as she went on:

"Here I he, a poor sickly woman, sensitive in body and in soul as if I were covered with wounds. Every movement, and even the gaze and the voice of most of my fellow-creatures is a pain to me. I am old, much older than you think and so wretched, so wretched, none of you can imagine how wretched. I was never happy as a child, never as a girl, and as a wife--merciful gods!--every kind word that Hadrian has ever vouchsafed me I have paid for with a thousand humiliations."

"He always treats you with the utmost esteem," interrupted Verus.

"Before you, before the world! But what do I care for esteem! I may demand the respect, the adoration of millions and it will be mine. Love, love, a little unselfish love is what I ask--and if only I were sure, if only I dared to hope that you give me such love, I would thank you with all that I have, then this hour would be hallowed to me above all others."

"How can you doubt me Mother? My dearly beloved Mother!"

"That is comfort, that is happiness!" answered Sabina. "Your voice is never too loud for me, and I believe you, I dare trust you. This hour makes you my son, makes me your mother."

Tender emotion, the emotion that softens the heart, thrilled through Sabina's dried-up nature and sparkled in her eyes. She felt like a young wife of whom a child is born, and the voice of her heart sings to her in soothing tones: "It lives, it is mine, I am the providence of a living soul, I am a mother."

She gazed blissfully into Verus' eyes and exclaimed, "Give me your hand my son, help me up, for I will be here no longer. What good spirits I feel in! Yes, this is the joy that is allotted to other women before their hair is grey! But child--dear and only child--you must love me really as a mother. I am too old for tender trifling, and yet I could not bear it if you gave me nothing but a child's reverence. No, no, you must be my friend whose heart warns him of my wishes, who can laugh with me to-day, and weep with me to-morrow--and who shows that he is happier when his eye meets mine. You are now my son; and soon you shall have the name of son; that is happiness enough for one evening. Not another word --this hour is like the finished masterpiece of some great painter; every touch that could be added might spoil it. You may kiss my forehead, I will kiss yours; now I will go to rest, and to-morrow when I wake I shall say to myself that I possess something worth living for--a child, a son."

When the Empress was alone she raised her hand in prayer but she could find no words of thanksgiving. One hour of pure happiness she had indeed enjoyed, but how many days, months, years of joylessness and suffering lay behind her! Gratitude knocked at the door of her heart but it was instantly met by bitter defiance; what was one hour of happiness in the balance against a ruined lifetime?

Foolish woman! she had never sown the seeds of love, and now she blamed the gods for niggardliness and cruelty in denying her a harvest of love. And now, on what soil had the seed of maternal tenderness fallen?

Verus it is true had left her content and full of hope--Sabina's altered demeanor, it is true, had touched his heart--he purposed to cling to her faithfully even after his formal adoption; but the light in his eye was not that of a proud and happy son, on the contrary it sparkled like that of a warrior who hopes to gain the victory.

Notwithstanding the late hour, his wife had not yet gone to bed. She had heard that he had been summoned to the Empress on his return home, and awaited him not without anxiety, for she was not accustomed to anything pleasant from Sabina. Her husband's hasty step echoed loudly from the stone walls of the sleeping palace. She heard it at some distance, and went to the door of her room to meet him. Radiant, excited, and with flushed cheeks, he held out both his hands to her. She looked so fair in her white night-wrapper of fine white material, and his heart was so full that he clasped her in his arms as fondly as when she was his bride; and she loved him even now no less than she had done then, and felt for the hundredth time with grateful joy that the faithless scapegrace had once more returned to her unchangeable and faithful heart, like a sailor who, after wandering through many lands seeks his native port.

"Lucilla," he cried, disengaging her arms from round his neck. "Oh, Lucilla! what an evening this has been! I always judged Sabina differently from you, and have felt with gratitude that she really cared for me. Now all is clear between her and me! She called me her son. I called her mother. I owe it to her, and the purple--the purple is ours! You are the wife of Verus Caesar; you are certain of it if no signs and omens come to frighten Hadrian."

In a few eager words, which betrayed not merely the triumph of a lucky gambler, but also true emotion and gratitude, he related all that had passed in Sabina's room. His frank and confident contentment silenced her doubts, her dread of the stupendous fate which, beckoning her, yet threatening her, drew visibly nearer and nearer. In her mind's eye she saw the husband she loved, she saw her son, seated on the throne of the Caesars, and she herself crowned with the radiant diadem of the woman whom she hated with all the force of her soul. Her husband's kindly feeling towards the Empress and the faithful allegiance which had tied him to her from his boyhood did not disquiet her; but a wife allows the husband of her choice every happiness, every gift excepting only the love of another woman, and will forgive her hatred and abuse rather than such love.

Lucilla was greatly excited, and a thought, that for years had been locked in the inmost shrine of her heart, to-day proved too strong for her powers of reticence. Hadrian was supposed to have murdered her father, but no one could positively assert it, though either he or another man had certainly slain the noble Nigrinus. At this moment the old suspicion stirred her soul with revived force, and lifting her right hand, as if in attestation, she exclaimed:

"Oh, Fate, Fate! that my husband should be heir of the man who murdered my father!"

"Lucilla," interrupted Verus, "it is unjust even to think of such horrors, and to speak of them is madness. Do not utter it a second time, least of all to-day. What may have occurred formerly must not spoil the present and the future which belong to us and to our children."

"Nigrinus was the grandfather of those children," cried the Roman mother with flashing eyes.

"That is to say that you harbor in your soul the wish to avenge your father's death on Caesar."

"I am the daughter of the butchered man."

"But you do not know the murderer, and the purple must outweigh the life of one man, for it is often bought with many thousand lives. And then, Lucilla, as you know, I love happy faces, and Revenge has a sinister brow. Let us be happy, oh wife of Caesar! Tomorrow I shall have much to tell you, now I must go to a splendid banquet which the son of Plutarch is giving in my honor. I cannot stay with you--truly I cannot, I have been expected long since. And when we are in Rome never let me find you telling the children those old dismal stories--I will not have it."

As Verus, preceded by his slaves bearing torches, made his way through the garden of the Caesareum he saw a light in the rooms of Balbilla, the poetess, and he called up merrily:

"Good-night, fair Muse!"

"Good-night, sham Eros!" she retorted.

You are decking yourself in borrowed feathers, Poetess," replied he, laughing. "It is not you but the ill-mannered Alexandrians who invented that name!"

"Oh! and other and better ones," cried she. "What I have heard and seen to-day passes all belief!"

"And you will celebrate it in your poems?"

"Only some of it, and that in a satire which I propose to aim at you."

"I tremble!"

"With delight, it is to be hoped; my poem will embalm your memory for posterity."

"That is true, and the more spiteful your verses, the more certainly will future generations believe that Verus was the Phaon of Balbilla's Sappho, and that love scorned filled the fair singer with bitterness."

"I thank you for the caution. To-day at any rate you are safe from my verse, for I am tired to death."


The Emperor, Part 2, Volume 7. - 6/10

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