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- A Thorny Path, Volume 11. - 10/10 -
Should she abandon him? She must go on, and to seek protection in the outer wall of the temple meant turning back. So she stood still and held her breath as she watched the advancing lights. Now they stopped. She heard the rattle of arms and men's voices. The lantern-bearers were being detained by the watch. They were the first soldiers she had seen, the others being engaged in drinking, or in the work on the race-course. Would the soldiers find her, too? But, no! They moved on, the torch- bearers in front, toward the street of Hermes.
Who were those people who went wandering about among the slain, turning first to this side and then to that, as if searching for something?
They could not be robbing the dead, or the watch would have seized them.
Now they came quite close to her, and she trembled with fright, for one of them was a soldier. The light of the lantern shone upon his armor. He went before a man and two lads who were following a laden ass, and in one of them Melissa recognized with beating heart a garden slave of Polybius, who had often done her a service.
And now she took courage to look more closely at the man--and it was-- yes, even in the peasant's clothes he wore he could not deceive her quick eyes--it was Andreas!
She felt that every breath that came from her young bosom must be a prayer of thanksgiving; nor was it long before the freedman recognized Melissa in the light-footed black boy who seemed to spring from the earth in order to show them the way, and he, too, felt as if a miracle had been wrought.
Like fair flowers that spring up round a scaffold over which the hungry ravens croak and hover, so here, in the midst of death and horror, joy and hope began to blossom in thankful hearts. Diodoros lived! No word- only a fleeting pressure of the hand and a quick look passed between the elderly man and the maiden--who looked like a boy scarcely passed his school-days--to show what they felt as they knelt beside the wounded youth and bound up the deep gash in his shoulder dealt by the sword that had felled him.
A little while afterward, Andreas drew from the basket which the ass carried, and from which he had already taken bandages and medicine, a light litter of matting. He then lifted Melissa on to the back of the beast of burden, and they all moved onward.
The sights that surrounded them as long as they were near the Serapeum forced her to close her eyes, especially when the ass had to walk round some obstruction, or when it and its guide waded through slimy pools. She could not forget that they were red, nor whence they came; and this ride brought her moments in which she thought to expire of shuddering horror and sorrow and wrath.
Not till they reached a quiet lane in Rhakotis, where they could advance without let or hindrance, did she open her eyes. But a strange, heavy pain oppressed her that she had never felt before, and her head burned so that she could scarcely see Andreas and the two slaves, who, strong in the joy of knowing that their young lord was alive, carried Diodoros steadily along in the litter. The soldier--it was the centurion Martialis, who had been banished to the Pontus--still accompanied them, but Melissa's aching head pained her so much that she did not think of asking who he was or why he was with them.
Once or twice she felt impelled to ask whither they were taking her, but she had not the power to raise her voice. When Andreas came to her side and pointed to the centurion, saying that without him he would never have succeeded in saving her beloved, she heard it only as a hollow murmur, without any consciousness of its meaning. Indeed, she wished rather that the freedman would keep silent when he began explaining his opportune arrival at the fountain, which must seem such a miracle to her.
The slave-brand on his arm had enabled him to penetrate into the house of Seleukus, where he hoped to obtain news of her. There Johanna had led him to Alexander, and with the Aurelians he had found the centurion and the slave Argutis. Argutis had just returned from the lady Euryale, and swore that he had seen the wounded Diodoros. Andreas had then declared his intention of bringing the son of his former master to a place of safety, and the centurion had been prevailed upon by the young tribunes to open a way for the freedman through the sentinels. The gardeners of Polybius, with their ass, had been detained in an inn on this side of Lake Mareotis by the closing of the harbor, and Andreas had taken the precaution of making use of them. Had it not been for the centurion, who was known to the other soldiers, the watch would never have allowed the freedman to get so far as the fountain; Andreas therefore begged Melissa to thank their preserver. But his words fell upon her ear unnoticed, and when the strange soldier left her to devote himself again to Diodoros she breathed more freely, for his rapidly spoken words hurt her.
If he would only not come again--only not speak to her!
She had even ceased to look for her lover. Her one desire was to see and hear nothing. When she did force herself to raise her heavy, throbbing lids, she noticed that they were passing poor-looking houses which she never remembered seeing before. She fancied, however, from the damp wind that blew in her face and relieved her burning head, that they must be nearing the lake or the sea. Surely that was a fishing-net hanging yonder on the fence round a but on which the light of the lantern fell. But perhaps it was something quite different, for the images that passed before her heavy eyes began to mingle confusedly, to repeat themselves, and be surrounded by a ring of rainbow colors. Her head had grown so heavy that her mind had lost all sense of hope or fear; only her thoughts stirred faintly as the procession moved on and on through the darkness, without a pause for rest.
When they had passed the last of the huts she managed to look upward.
The evening star stood out clear against the sky, and she seemed to see the other stars revolving quickly round it.
Her mouth was painful and parched, and more than once she had been seized with giddiness, which forced her to hold tightly to the saddle.
Now they stopped beside a large piece of water, and she felt strangely well and light of heart. That must be the dear, familiar lake. And there stood Agatha waving to her, and at her side the lady Euryale under the spreading shade of a mighty palm. Bright sunshine flooded them both, and yet it was the night; for there was the evening star beaming down upon her.
How could that be?
Yet, when she tried to understand it all, her head pained her so, and she turned so giddy, that she clutched the neck of the ass to save herself from falling.
When she raised herself again she saw a large boat, out of which several people came to meet them, the foremost of them a tall man in a long, white garment. That was no dream, she was quite certain. And yet-why did the lantern which one of them held aloft burn her face so much and not his? Oh, how it burned!
Everything turned in a circle round her, and grew dark before her eyes.
But not for long; suddenly it became light as day, and she heard a deep and friendly voice calling her by name. She answered without fear, "Here am I," and saw before her a stranger in a long, white robe, of lofty yet gentle aspect, just as she had imagined the crucified Saviour of the Christians, and in her ear sounded the loving message with which he bids the weary and heavy-laden come to him that he may give them rest.
How gentle, how consoling, and how full of gracious promise were the words, and how gladly would she do his bidding! "Here am I!" she cried again, and saw the arms of the white-robed man stretched out to receive her. She staggered toward him, and felt a firm and manly hand clasp hers, and then rest in blessing on her throbbing brow. All grew dark again before her, and she saw and heard no more.
Andreas had lifted her from the ass and supported her, while the two Christians thanked the soldier for his timely aid.
Having assured them that he had had no thought of helping them, but only of obeying his superior officers, he disappeared into the night, and the freedman lifted Melissa in his strong arms and carried her down to Zeno's boat, which was waiting for them.
"Her mind wanders," said the freedman, with a loving look at the precious burden in his arms. "Her spirit is strong, but the shocks she has sustained this day have been too much for her. "Thou wilt give me rest," were her last words before losing consciousness. Can she have been thinking of the promise of the Saviour?"
"If not," answered the deep, musical voice of Zeno, "we will show her Him who called the little children to Him, and the weary and heavy-laden. She belongs to them, and she will see that the Lord fulfills what He so lovingly promises."
"One of Christ's sayings, and repeated by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, has taken great hold upon her," added Andreas, "and I think that in these days of terror, for her, too, the fullness of time has come."
As he spoke he stepped on to the plank which led to the boat from the shore: Diodoros had already been placed on board. When Andreas laid the girl on the cushioned seat in the little cabin, he exclaimed, with a sigh of relief, "Now we are safe!"
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