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- A Thorny Path, Volume 10. - 3/9 -
bitterly that Melissa regretted having alluded to the misfortunes of their family, and did her best to inspire him with courage.
As soon as Caesar should have left the city and she had evaded his pursuit, the citizens would be easily persuaded of his innocence. They would see then how little she had cared for the splendor and wealth of empire; why, he himself knew how quickly everything was forgotten in Alexandria. His art, too, would be a comfort to him, and if he only had the chance of making his way in his career he would have no difficulty in winning Agatha. He would have her on his side, and Diodoros, and the lady Euryale.
But to all these kind speeches the young man only sadly shook his head. How could he, despised and contemned, dare to aspire to the daughter of such a man as Zeno? He ended with a deep sigh; and Melissa, whose heart grew heavier as they approached the Serapeum through the side streets, still forced herself to express her confidence as though the lady Euryale's protection had relieved her of every anxiety. It was so difficult to appear calm and cheerful that more than once she had to wipe her eyes; still, their eager talk shortened the way, and she stood still, surprised to find herself so near her destination, when Alexander showed her the chain which was stretched across the end of the street of Hermes to close in the great square in front of the Serapeum.
The storm had passed away and the rain had ceased; the sky was clear and cloudless, and the moon poured its silvery light in lavish splendor, as though revived, on the temple and on the statues round the square. Here they must part, for they saw that it was impossible that they should cross the open space together.
It was almost deserted, for the populace were not allowed to go there. Of the hundreds of tents which till lately had covered it, only those of the seventh cohort of the praetorian guard remained; for these, having to protect the person of the emperor, had not been quartered in the town. If Alexander and Melissa had crossed this vast square, where it was now as light as clay, they would certainly have been seen, and Melissa would have brought not herself only but her protectress also into the greatest danger.
She still had so much on her mind that she wanted to say to her brother, especially with regard to her father's welfare; and then--what a leavetaking was this when, as her gloomy forebodings told her, they were parting never to meet again But Euryale must have been long and anxiously waiting for her, and Alexander, too, was very late for his appointment.
It was impossible to let the girl cross the square alone, for it was guarded by soldiers. If she could but reach the side of the sanctuary where she was expected, and where the road was in the shadow of the riding-school opposite, all would be well, and it seemed as though there was no alternative but for Alexander to lead his sister through by-ways to her destination. They had just made up their minds to this inevitable waste of time, when a young woman was seen coming toward them from one of the tents with a swift, light step, winged with gladness. Alexander suddenly released his sister's hand, and saying:
"She will escort you," he advanced to meet her. This was the wife of Martialis, who had charge of the villa at Kanopus, and whose acquaintance the artist had made when he was studying the Galatea in the merchant's country-house for the portrait of Korinna. Alexander had made friends with the soldier's wife in his winning, lively way, and she was delighted to meet him again, and quite willing to escort his sister across the square, and hold her tongue about it. So, after a short grasp of the hand, and a fervent last appeal to her brother, "Never for a moment let us forget one another, and always remember our mother!" Melissa followed her companion.
This evening the woman had sought her husband to tell him that she and her mother had got safely out of the Circus, and to thank him for the entertainment, of which the splendor, in spite of the various disturbances and interruption, had filled their hearts and minds.
The first words she spoke to the girl led to the question as to whether she, too, had been at the Circus; and when Melissa said yes, but that she had been too frightened and horrified to see much, the chattering little woman began to describe it all.
Quite the best view, she declared, had been obtained from the third tier of places. Caesar's bride, too, had been pointed out to her. Poor thing! She would pay dearly for the splendor of the purple. No one could dispute Caracalla's taste, however, for the girl was lovely beyond description; and as she spoke she paused to look at Melissa, for she fancied she resembled Caesar's sweetheart. But she went on again quicker than before, remarking that Melissa was not so tall, and that the other was more brilliant looking, as beseemed an emperor's bride.
At this Melissa drew her kerchief more closely over her face; but it was a comfort to her when the soldier's wife, after describing to her what she herself had worn, added that Caracalla's choice had fallen on a modest and well-conducted maiden, for, if she had not been, the high- priest's wife would never have been so kind to her. And the lady Euryale was sister-in-law to the master she herself served, and she had known her all her life.
Then, when Melissa, to change the subject, asked why the public were forbidden to approach the Serapeum, her companion told her that since his return from the Circus Caesar had been devoting himself to astrology, soothsaying, and other abstruse matters, and that the noise of the city disturbed him. He was very learned in such things, and if she only had time she could have told Melissa wonderful things. Thus conversing, they crossed the square, and when it lay behind them and they were under the shadow of the stadium, Melissa thanked her lively companion for her escort, while she, on her part, declared that it had been a pleasure to do the friendly painter a service.
The western side of the immense temple stood quite detached from the town. There were on that side but few bronze doors, and these, which were opened only to the inhabitants of the building, had long since been locked for the night and needed no guard. As the inhabitants were forbidden to cross the space dividing the stadium from the Serapeum, all was perfectly still. Dark shadows lay on the road, and the high structures which shut it in like cliffs seemed to tower to the sky. The lonely girl's heart beat fast with fears as she stole along, close under the wall, from which a warm vapor breathed on her after the recent rain. The black circles which seemed to stare at her like dark, hollow eye- sockets from the wall of the stadium, were the windows of the stables.
If a runaway slave, an escaped wild beast, or a robber were to rush out upon her! The owls swept across over her head on silent wings, and bats flitted to and fro, from one building to the other, almost touching the frightened girl. Her terrors increased at every step, and the wall which she must follow to the end was so long--so endlessly long!
Supposing, too, that the lady Euryale had been tired of waiting and had given her up! There would then be nothing for it but to make her way back to the town past the guards, or to enter the temple through the great gates--where that dreadful man was--and where she would at once be recognized! Then there could be no escape, none--and she must, yes, she must evade her dreadful suitor. Every thought of Diodoros cried, "You must!"--even at the cost of her young life, of which, indeed, she saw the imminent end nearer and nearer with every step. She knew not whither her flight might take her, but a voice within declared that it would be to an early grave.
Only a narrow strip of sky was visible between the tall buildings, but, as she looked up to the heavens, she perceived that it was two hours past midnight. She hurried on, but presently checked her pace again. From the square, three trumpet-calls, one after another, rang through the silence of the night. What could these signals mean at so unwonted an hour?
There could be but one explanation--Caesar had again condemned some hapless wretch to death, and he was being led to execution. When Vindex and his nephew were beheaded, three trumpet-calls had sounded; her brother had told her so.
And now, before her inward eye, rose the crowd of victims to Caracalla's thirst for blood. She fancied that Plautilla, whom her imperial consort had murdered, was beckoning her to follow her to an early grave. The terrors of the night were too much for her; and, as when a child, at play with her brothers, she flew on as fast as her feet would carry her. She fled as though she were pursued, her long dress hampering her steps, along by the temple wall, till her gaze, fixed on her left, fell on the spot which had been designated to her.
Here she stopped, out of breath; and, while she was identifying the landmarks which she had impressed on her memory to guide her to the right doorway, the temple wall seemed to open before her as if by a charm, and a kind voice called her name, and then exclaimed, "At last!" and in a moment she had grasped Euryale's hand and was drawn into the building.
Here, as if at the touch of a magician's wand, all fear and horror vanished; and, although she still panted for breath, she would at once have explained to her beloved protectress what it was that had prompted her to run so fast, but that Euryale interrupted her, exclaiming: "Only make haste! No one must see that block of porphyry turn on its pin. It is invisible from the outside, and closes the passage by which the mystics and adepts find their way to the mysteries after dedication. All who know of it are sworn to secrecy."
With this she led the way into a dark vestibule adjoining the temple, and in a few moments the great block of stone which had admitted them had turned into its place again. Those who passed by, even in broad sunshine, could not distinguish it from all the other blocks of which the ground-floor of the edifice was built.
While the lady Euryale preceded her young charge with a lamp up a narrow, dark staircase, Alexander waited in one of the audience-rooms till the emperor should call him. The high-priest of Serapis, several soothsayers of the temple, Aristides, the new head of the night-watch, and other "friends" of the monarch had accompanied him thus far. But admittance to the innermost apartments had not been permitted, for Caracalla had ordered the magician Serapion to call up spirits before him, and was having the future declared to him in the presence of the prefect of the praetorians and a few other trusty followers.
The deputation of citizens, who had come to apologize to Caesar for the annoying occurrences in the Circus, had been told to wait till the exorcisms were over. Alexander would have preferred to hold aloof from the others, but no one here seemed to think ill of him for his thoughtless behavior. On the contrary, the courtiers pressed round him --the brother of the future empress-with the greatest assiduity: the high-priest inquired after his brother Philip; and Seleukus, the merchant, who had come with the deputation, addressed many flattering remarks to him on his sister's beauty. Some of the Roman senators whose advances he had received coldly enough at first, now took up his whole
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