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- A Thorny Path, Volume 10. - 6/9 -
The "friends" of the emperor looked at him anxiously as, with furrowed brow, he asked, impatiently: "Macrinus not here yet?"
Theocritus and others who had looked with envy upon Melissa and her relatives, and with distrust upon her union with the emperor, now heartily wished the girl back again.
But the prefect Macrinus came not; and while the emperor, having sent messengers to fetch Melissa, turned with darkly boding brow to his station overlooking the brightly lighted race-course, still hoping the augury would prove false, and the sunny day turn yet in his favor, Macrinus was in the full belief that the gate of greatness and power was opening to him. Superstitious as the emperor himself and every one else of his time, he was to-day more firmly persuaded than ever of the existence of men whose mysterious wisdom gave them powers to which even he must bend--the hard-headed man who had raised himself from the lowest to the highest station, next to the Caesar himself.
In past nights the Magian Serapion had caused him to see and hear much that was incomprehensible. He believed in the powers exerted by that remarkable man over spirits, and his ability to work miracles, for he had proved in the most startling manner that he had perfect control even over such a determined mind as that of the prefect. The evening before, the magician had bidden Macrinus come to him at the third hour after sunrise of the next day, which he had unhesitatingly promised to do. But the emperor had risen later than usual this morning, and the prefect might expect to be called to his master at any moment. In spite of this, and although his absence threatened to rouse Caesar to fury, and everything pointed to the necessity of his remaining within call, Macrinus, drawn by an irresistible craving, had followed the invitation, which sounded more like a command. This, indeed, had seemed to him decisive; for, as the seer ruled over his stern spirit, albeit he was alive, even so must the spirits of the departed do his bidding. His every interest urged him now to believe in the prophecy made to him by Serapion, to-day for the third time, which foretold that he, the prefect, should mount the throne of the Caesars, clad in the purple of Caracalla. But it was not alone to repeat this prophecy that the seer had called Macrinus to him, but to inform him that the future empress was betrothed to a young Alexandrian, and that the tender intercourse between the lovers had not been interrupted during Caracalla's courtship. This had come to Serapion's ears yesterday afternoon, through his adroit assistant Kastor, and he had taken advantage of the information to prepare Caesar during the night for the faithlessness of his chosen bride.
The Magian assured the prefect that what the spirit of the great Macedonian had hinted at yesterday had since been confirmed by the demons in his service. It would now be easy for Macrinus to possibly hinder Melissa, who might have been all-powerful, from coming between him and the great goal which the spirits had set before him.
Serapion then repeated the prophecy, which came with such convincing power from the bearded lips of the sage that the prudent statesman cast his last doubts from him, and, exclaiming, "I believe your words, and shall press forward now in spite of every danger!" he grasped the prophet's hand in farewell.
Up to this point Macrinus, the son of a poor cobbler, who had had difficulty in rearing his children at all, had received these prophetic utterances with cool deliberation, and had ventured no step nearer to the exalted aim which had been offered to his ambition. In all good faith he had done his best to perform the duties of his office as an obedient servant to his master and the state. This had all changed now, and, firmly resolved to risk the struggle for the purple, he returned to the emperor's apartments.
Macrinus had no reason to expect a favorable reception when he entered the tablinum, but his great purpose upheld his courage. He, the upstart, was well aware that Fortune requires her favorites to keep their eyes open and their hands active. He therefore took care to obtain a full account of what had happened from his confidential friend the senator Antigonus, a soldier of mean birth, who had gained favor with Caesar by a daring piece of horsemanship. Antigonus closed his report with the impudent whistle of the Greek athlete; he dwelt chiefly on his astonishment at Melissa's absence. This gave food for thought to the prefect, too; but before entering the tablinum he was stopped by the freedman Epagathos, who handed over to him a scroll which had been given to him for the emperor. The messenger had disappeared directly afterward, and could not be overtaken. Might it not endanger the life of the reader by exhaling a poisonous perfume?
"Nothing is impossible here," answered the prefect. "Ours it is to watch over the safety of our godlike master."
This letter was that which Melissa had intrusted to the slave Argutis for Caesar, and with unwarrantable boldness the prefect and Epagathos now opened it and ran rapidly over its contents. They then agreed to keep this strange missive from the emperor till Macrinus should send to ask whether the youths were assembled in their full number on the race- course. They judged it necessary to prepare Caesar in some sort, to prevent a fresh attack of illness.
Caracalla was standing near a pillar at the window whence he might see without being seen. That whistle still shrilled in his ears. But another idea occupied him so intensely that he had not yet thought of wiping out the insult with blood.
What could be delaying Melissa and her father and brother?
The painter ought to have joined the other Macedonian youths on the race- course, and Caracalla was engaged in looking out for him, stretching forward every time he caught sight of some curly head that rose above the others.
There was a bitter taste in his mouth, and at every fresh disappointment his rebellious, tortured heart beat faster; and yet the idea that Melissa might have dared to flee from him never entered his mind.
The high-priest of Serapis had informed him that his wife had seen nothing of her as yet. Then it suddenly occurred to him that she might have been wet through by the rain yesterday and now lay shaken by fever, and that this must keep her father away, too; a supposition which cheered the egoist more than it pained him, and with a sigh of relief he turned once more to the window.
How haughtily these boys carried their heads; their fleet, elastic feet skimmed over the ground; how daringly they showed off the strength and dexterity that almost seemed their birthright! This reminded him that, prematurely aged as he was by the wild excesses of his younger years, with his ill-set broken leg and his thin locks, he must make a lamentable contrast to these others of his own age; and he said to himself that perhaps the whistle had come from the lips of one of the strongest and handsomest, who had not considered him worth greeting.
And yet he was not weaker than any single individual down there; aye, and if he chose he could crush them all together, as he would the glow-worm creeping on that window-sill. With one quick squeeze of his fingers he put an end to the pretty little insect, and at that moment he heard voices behind him.
Had his beloved come at last?
No, it was only the prefect. He should have been there long ago, if he were obedient to his sovereign's commands. Macrinus was therefore a convenient object on which to vent his anger. How mean was the face of this long-legged upstart, with its small eyes, sharp nose, and furrowed brow! Could the beautiful Diadumenianus really be his son? No matter! The boy, the apple of his father's eye, was in his power, and was a surety for the old man's loyalty. After all, Macrinus was a capable, serviceable officer, and easier to deal with than the Romans of the old noble families.
Notwithstanding these considerations, Caracalla addressed the prefect as harshly as if he had been a disobedient slave, but Macrinus received the flood of abuse with patience and humility. When the emperor reproached him with never being at hand when he was wanted, he replied submissively that it was just because he found he could be of service to Caesar that he had dared to absent himself. The refractory young brood down there were being kept well in hand, and it was entirely owing to his effectual measures that they had contented themselves with that one whistle. Later on it would be their duty to punish such audacity and high-treason with the utmost rigor.
The emperor gazed in astonishment at the counselor, who till now had ever advised him to use moderation, and only yesterday had begged him to ascribe much to Alexandrian manners, which in Rome would have had to be treated with severity. Had the insolence of these unruly citizens be come unbearable even to this prudent, merciful man?
Yes, that must be it; and the grudge that Macrinus now showed against the Alexandrians hastened the pardon which Caesar silently accorded him.
Caracalla even said to himself that he had underrated the prefect's intellect, for his eyes flashed and glowed like fire, notwithstanding their smallness, and lending a force to his ignoble face which Caracalla had never noticed before. Had Caesar no premonition that in the last few hours this man had grown to be such another as himself?--for in his unyielding mind the firm resolve had been strengthened to hesitate at nothing--not even at the death of as many as might come between him and his high aim, the throne.
Macrinus knew enough of human nature to observe the miserable disquietude that had seized upon the emperor at his bride's continued absence, but he took good care not to refer to the subject. When Caracalla, however, could no longer conceal his anxiety, and asked after her himself, the prefect gave the appointed sign to Epagathos, who then handed Melissa's freshly re-sealed letter to his master.
"Let me open it, great Caesar," entreated Macrinus. "Even Homer called Egypt the land of poison."
But the emperor did not heed him. No one had told him, and he had never in his life received a letter in a woman's hand, except from his mother; and yet he knew that this delicate little roll had come from a woman-- from Melissa.
It was closed with a silken thread, and the seal with which Epagathos had replaced the one they had broken. If Caracalla tore it open, the papyrus and the writing might be damaged. He called impatiently for a knife, and the body physician, who had just entered with other courtiers, handed him his.
"Back again?" asked Caracalla as the physician drew the blade from its sheath.
"At break of day, on somewhat unsteady legs," was the jovial answer. Caracalla took the knife from him, cut the silk, hastily broke the seal, and began to read.
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