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- A Thorny Path, Volume 11. - 4/10 -
murderers, now that I know that revenge will not sleep."
"And your husband?" interposed Nemesianus.
She answered with a bitter smile: "He? He has the gift of being easily consoled.--But what was that?"
Loud voices were audible outside the sick-room. Nemesianus stationed himself in front of the lady, sword in hand. This protection, however, proved unnecessary, for, instead of the praetorians, Johanna entered the room, supporting on her arm the half-sinking form of a young man in whom no one would have recognized the once beautifully curled and carefully dressed Alexander. A long caracalla covered his tall form; Dido the slave had cut off his hair, and he himself had disguised his features with streaks of paint. A large, broad-brimmed hat had slipped to the back of his head like a drunken man's, and covered a wound from which the red blood flowed down upon his neck. His whole aspect breathed pain and horror, and Berenike, who took him for a hired cut-throat sent by Caracalla, retreated hastily from him till Johanna revealed his name.
He nodded his head in confirmation, and then sank exhausted on his knees beside Apollinaris's couch and managed with great difficulty to stammer out: "I am searching for Philip. He went into the town-ill-out of his senses. Did he not come to you?"
"No," answered Berenike. "But what is this fresh blood? Has the slaughter begun?"
The wounded man nodded. Then he continued, with a groan: "In front of the house of your neighbor Milon--the back of my head--I fled--a lance--"
His voice failed him, and Berenike cried to the tribune: "Support him, Nemesianus! Look after him and tend him. He is the brother of the maiden--you know--If I know you, you will do all in your power for him, and keep him hidden here till all danger is over."
"We will defend him with our lives!" cried Apollinaris, giving his hand to the lady.
But he withdrew it quickly, for from the impluvium arose the rattle of arms, and loud, confused noise.
Berenike threw up her head and lifted her hands as if in prayer. Her bosom heaved with her deep breath, the delicate nostrils quivered, and the great eyes flashed with wrathful light. For a moment she stood thus silent, then let her arms fall, and cried to the tribunes:
"My curse be upon you if you forget what you owe to yourselves, to the Roman Empire, and to your dying friend. My blessing, if you hold fast to what you have promised."
She pressed their hands, and, turning to do the same to the artist, found that he had lost consciousness. Johanna and Nemesianus had removed his hat and caracalla, to attend to his wound.
A strange smile passed over the matron's stern features. Snatching the Gallic mantle from the Christian's hand, she threw it over her own shoulders, exclaiming:
"How the ruffian will wonder when, instead of the living woman, they bring him a corpse wrapped in his barbarian's mantle!"
She pressed the hat upon her head, and from a corner of the room where the brothers' weapons stood, selected a hunting-spear. She asked if this weapon might be recognized as belonging to them, and, on their answering in the negative, said:
"My thanks, then, for this last gift!"
At the last moment she turned to the waiting-woman:
"Your brother will help you to burn Korinna's picture. No shameless gaze shall dishonor it again." She tore her hand from that of the Christian, who, with hot tears, tried to hold her back; then, carrying her head proudly erect, she left them.
The brothers gazed shudderingly after her. "And to know," cried Nemesianus, striking his forehead, "that our own comrades will slay her! Never were the swords of Rome so disgraced!"
"He shall pay for it!" replied the wounded man, gnashing his teeth.
"Brother, we must avenge her!"
"Yes--her, and--may the gods hear me!--you too, Apollinaris," swore the other, lifting his hand as for an oath.
Loud screams, the clash of arms, and quick orders sounded from below and broke in upon the tribune's vow. He was rushing to the window to draw back the curtain and look upon the horrid deed with his own eyes, when Apollinaris called him back, reminding him of their duty toward Melissa's brother, who was lost if the others discovered him here.
Hereupon Nemesianus lifted the fainting youth in his strong arms and carried him into the adjoining room, laying him upon the mat which had served their faithful old slave as a bed. He then covered him with his own mantle, after hastily binding up the wound on his head and another on his shoulder.
By the time the tribune returned to his brother the noise outside had grown considerably less, only pitiable cries of anguish mingled with the shouts of the soldiers.
Nemesianus hastily pulled aside the curtain, letting such a flood of blinding sunshine into the room that Apollinaris covered his wounded face with his hands and groaned aloud.
"Sickening! Horrible! Unheard of!" cried his brother, beside himself at the sight that met his eyes. "A battle-field! What do I say? The peaceful house of a Roman citizen turned into shambles. Fifteen, twenty, thirty bodies on the grass! And the sunshine plays as brightly on the pools of blood and the arms of the soldiers as if it rejoiced in it all. But there--Oh, brother! our Marcipor--there lies our dear old Marci!--and beside him the basket of roses he had fetched for the lady Berenike from the flower-market. There they be, steeped in blood, the red and white roses; and the bright sun looks down from heaven and laughs upon it!"
He broke down into sobs, and then continued, gnashing his teeth with rage: "Apollo smiles upon it, but he sees it; and wait--wait but a little longer, Tarautas! The god stretches out his hand already for the avenging bow! Has Berenike ventured among them? Near the fountain-how it flashes and glitters with the hues of Iris!--they are crowding round something on the ground--Mayhap the body of Seleukus. No--the crowd is separating. Eternal gods! It is she--it is the woman who tended you!"
"Dead?" asked the other.
"She is lying on the ground with a spear in her bosom. Now the legate- yes, it is Quintus Flavius Nobilior--bends over her and draws it out. Dead--dead! and slain by a man of our cohort!"
He clasped his hands before his face, while Apollinaris muttered curses, and the name of their faithful Marcipor, who had served their father before them, coupled with wild vows of vengeance.
Nemesianus at length composed himself sufficiently to follow the course of the horrible events going on below.
"Now," he went on, describing it to his brother, "now they are surrounding Rufus. That merciless scoundrel must have done something abominable, that even goes beyond what his fellows can put up with. There they have caught a slave with a bundle in his hand, perhaps stolen goods. They will punish him with death, and are themselves no better than he. If you could only see how they come swarming from every side with their costly plunder! The magnificent golden jug set with jewels, out of which the lady Berenike poured the Byblos wine for you, is there too!--Are we still soldiers, or robbers and murderers?"
"If we are," cried Apollinaris, "I know who has made us so."
They were startled by the approaching rattle of arms in the corridor, and then a loud knock at the chamber-door. The next moment a soldier's head appeared in the doorway, to be quickly withdrawn with the exclamation, "It is true--here lies Apollinaris!"
"One moment," said a second deep voice, and over the threshold stepped the legate of the legion, Quintus Flavius Nobilior, in all the panoply of war, and saluted the brothers.
Like them, he came of an old and honorable race, and was acting in place of the prefect Macrinus, whose office in the state prevented him from taking the military command of that mighty corps, the praetorians. Twenty years older than the twins, and a companion-in-arms of their father, he had managed their rapid promotion. He was their faithful friend and patron, and Apollinaris's misfortune had disgusted him no less than the order in the execution of which he was now obliged to take part. Having greeted the brothers affectionately, observed their painful emotion, and heard their complaints over the murder of their slave, he shook his manly head, and pointing to the blood that dripped from his boots and greaves, "Forgive me for thus defiling your apartments," he said. "If we came from slaughtering men upon the field of battle, it could only do honor to the soldier; but this is the blood of defenseless citizens, and even women's gore is mixed with it."
"I saw the body of the lady of this house," said Nemesianus, gloomily. "She has tended my brother like a mother."
"But, on the other hand, she was imprudent enough to draw down Caesar's displeasure upon her," interposed the Flavian, shrugging his shoulders. "We were to bring her to him alive, but he had anything but friendly intentions toward her; however, she spoiled his game. A wonderful woman! I have scarcely seen a man look death--and self-sought death--in the face like that! While the soldiers down there were massacring all who fell into their hands--those were the orders, and I looked on at the butchery, for, rather than--well, you can imagine that for yourselves--through one of the doors there came a tall, extraordinary figure. The wide brim of a traveling hat concealed the features, and it was wrapped in one of the emperor's fool's mantles. It hurried toward the maniple of Sempronius, brandishing a javelin, and with a sonorous voice reviling the soldiers till even my temper was roused. Here I caught sight of a flowing robe beneath the caracalla, and, the hat having fallen back, a beautiful woman's face with large and fear-inspiring eyes. Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this grim despiser of death, being a woman, was doubtless she whom we were to spare. I shouted this to my men; but--and at that moment I was heartily ashamed of my profession--it was too late. Tall Rufus pierced her through with his lance. Even in falling she preserved the dignity of a queen, and when the men surrounded her she fixed each one separately with her wonderful eyes and spoke through the death-rattle in her throat:
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