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- A Thorny Path, Volume 10. - 1/9 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
A THORNY PATH
By Georg Ebers
The amphitheatre was soon emptied, amid the flare of lightning and the crash and roll of thunder. Caracalla, thinking only of the happy omen of Tarautas's wonderful escape, called out to Melissa, with affectionate anxiety, to fly to shelter as quickly as possible; a chariot was in waiting to convey her to the Serapeum. On this she humbly represented that she would rather be permitted to return under her brother's escort to her father's house, and Caracalla cheerfully acceded. He had business on hand this night, which made it seem desirable to him that she should not be too near him. He should expect her brother presently at the Serapeum.
With his own hand he wrapped her in the caracalla and hood which old Adventus was about to put on his master's shoulders, remarking, as he did so, that he had weathered worse storms in the field.
Melissa thanked him with a blush, and, going close up to her, he whispered: "To-morrow, if Fate grants us gracious answers to the questions I shall put to her presently after this storm--tomorrow the horn of happiness will be filled to overflowing for you and me. The thrifty goddess promises to be lavish to me through you."
Slaves were standing round with lighted lanterns; for the torches in the theatre were all extinguished, and the darkened auditorium lay like an extinct crater, in which a crowd of indistinguishable figures were moving to and fro. It reminded him of Hades and a troop of descending spirits; but he would not allow anything but what was pleasant to occupy his mind or eye. By a sudden impulse he took a lantern from one of the attendants, held it up above Melissa's head, and gazed long and earnestly into her brightly illuminated face. Then he dropped his hand with a sigh and said, as though speaking in a dream: "Yes, this is life! Now I begin to live."
He lifted the dripping laurel crown from his head, tossed it into the arena, and added to Melissa: "Now, get under shelter at once, sweetheart. I have been able to see you this whole evening, even when the lamps were out; for lightning gives light. Thus even the storm has brought me joy. Sleep well. I shall expect you early, as soon as I have bathed."
Melissa wished him sound slumbers, and he replied, lightly:
"If only all life were a dream, and if to-morrow I might but wake up, no longer the son of Severus, but Alexander; and you, not Melissa, but Roxana, whom you so strongly resemble! To be sure I might find myself the gladiator Tarautas. But, then, who would you be? And your stalwart father, who stands there defying the rain, certainly does not look like a vision, and this storm is not favorable to philosophizing."
He kissed his hand to her, had a dry caracalla thrown over his shoulders, ordered Theocritus to take care of Tarautas and carry him a purse of gold --which he handed to the favorite--and then, pulling the hood over his head, led the way, followed by his impatient courtiers; but not till he had answered Heron, who had come forward to ask him what he thought of the mechanical arts of the Alexandrians, desiring him to postpone that matter till the morrow.
The storm had silenced the music. Only a few stanch trumpeters had remained in their places; and when they saw by the lanterns that Caesar had left the Circus, they sounded a fanfare after him, which followed the ruler of the world with a dull, hoarse echo.
Outside, the streets were still crowded with people pouring out of the amphitheatre. Those of the commoner sort sought shelter under the archways of the building, or else hurried boldly home through the rain. Heron stood waiting at the entrance for his daughter, though the purple- hemmed toga was wet, through and through. But she had, in fact, hurried out while he was pushing forward to speak to Caesar, and in his excitement overlooked everything else. The behavior of his fellow- citizens had annoyed him, and he had an obscure impression that it would be a blunder to claim Caesar's approval of anything they had done; still, he had not self-control enough to suppress the question which had fluttered on his lips all through the performance. At last, in high dudgeon at the inconsiderateness of young people and at the rebuff he had met with--with the prospect, too, of a cold for his pains--he made his way homeward on foot.
To Caracalla the bad weather was for once really an advantage, for it put a stop to the unpleasant demonstrations which the "Green" party had prepared for him on his way home.
Alexander soon found the closed carruca intended for Melissa, and placed her in it as soon as he had helped Euryale into her harmamaxa. He was astonished to find a man inside it, waiting for his sister. This was Diodoros, who, while Alexander was giving his directions to the charioteer, had, under cover of the darkness, sprung into the vehicle from the opposite side. An exclamation of surprise was followed by explanations and excuses, and the three young people, each with a heart full almost to bursting, drove off toward Heron's house. Their conveyance was already rolling over the pavement, while most of the magnates of the town were still waiting for their slaves to find their chariots or litters.
For the lovers this was a very different scene from the terrible one they had just witnessed in the Circus, for, in spite of the narrow space and total darkness in which they sat, and the rain rattling and splashing on the dripping black leather hood which sheltered them, in their hearts they did not lack for sunshine. Caracalla's saying that the lightning, too, was light, proved true more than once in the course of their drive, for the vivid flashes which still followed in quick succession enabled the reunited lovers to exchange many confidences with their eyes, for which it would have been hard to find words. When both parties to a quarrel are conscious of blame, it is more quickly made up than when one only needs forgiveness; and the pair in the carruca were so fully prepared to think the best of each other that there was no need for Alexander's good offices to make them ready and willing to renew their broken pledges. Besides, each had cause to fear for the other; for Diodoros was afraid that the lady Euryale's power was not far-reaching enough to conceal Melissa from Caesar's spies, and Melissa trembled at the thought that the physician might too soon betray to Caesar that she had been betrothed before he had ever seen her, and to whom; for, in that case, Diodoros would be the object of relentless pursuit. So she urged on her lover to embark, if possible, this very night.
Hitherto Alexander had taken no part in the conversation. He could not forget the reception he had met with outside the amphitheatre. Euryale's presence had saved his sister from evil imputations, but had not helped him; and even his gay spirits could make no head against the consciousness of being regarded by his fellow- citizens as a hired traitor. He had withdrawn to one of the back seats to see the performance; for as soon as the theatre was suddenly lighted up, he had become the object of dark looks and threatening gestures. For the first time in his life he had felt compassion for the criminals torn by wild beasts, and for the wounded gladiators, whose companion in misfortune he vaguely felt himself to be. But, what was worst of all, he could not regard himself as altogether free from the reproach of having accepted a reward for the service he had so thoughtlessly rendered.
Nor did he see the remotest possibility of ever making those whose opinion he cared for understand how it had come to pass that he should have acceded to the desire of the villain in the purple, now that his father, by showing himself to the people in the 'toga pretexta', had set the seal to their basest suspicions. The thought that henceforth he could never hope to feel the grasp of an honest man's hand gnawed at his heart.
The esteem of Diodoros was dear to him, and, when his young comrade spoke to him, he felt at first as though he were doing him an unexpected honor; but then he fell back into the suspicion that this was only for his sister's sake.
The deep sigh that broke from him induced Melissa to speak a few words of comfort, and now the unhappy man's bursting heart overflowed. In eloquent words he described to Diodoros and Melissa all he had felt, and the terrible consequences of his heedless folly, and as he spoke acute regret filled his eyes with tears.
He had pronounced judgment on himself, and expected nothing of his friend but a little pity. But in the darkness Diodoros sought and found his hand, and grasped it fervently; and if Alexander could but have seen his old playfellow's face, he would have perceived that his eyes glistened as he said what he could to encourage him to hope for better days.
Diodoros knew his friend well. He was incapable of falsehood; and his deed, which under a false light so easily assumed an aspect of villainy, had, in fact, been no more than an act of thoughtlessness such as he had himself often lent a hand in. Alexander, however, seemed determined not to hear the comfort offered him by his sister and his friend. A flash of lightning revealed him to them, sitting with a bent head and his hands over his brow; and this gloomy vision of one who so lately had been the gayest of the gay troubled their revived happiness even more than the thought of the danger which, as each knew, threatened the others.
As they passed the Temple of Artemis, which was brightly illuminated, reminding them that they were reaching their destination, Alexander at last looked up and begged the lovers to consider their immediate affairs. His mind had remained clear, and what he said showed that he had not lost sight of his sister's future.
As soon as Melissa should have effected her escape, Caesar would undoubtedly seize, not only her lover, but his father as well. Diodoros must forthwith cross the lake and rouse Polybius and Praxilla, to warn them of the imminent danger, while Alexander undertook to hire a ship for the party. Argutis would await the fugitives in a tavern by the harbor, and conduct them on board the vessel which would be in readiness. Diodoros, who was not yet able to walk far, promised to avail himself of one of the litters waiting outside the Temple of Artemis.
Just before the vehicle stopped, the lovers took leave. They arranged where and how they might have news of each other, and all they said, in brief words and a fervent parting kiss, in this moment, when death or imprisonment might await them, had the solemn purport of a vow.
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