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- A Thorny Path, Volume 11. - 5/10 -
"'Shame upon men and soldiers who let themselves be hounded on like dogs to murder and dishonor!' Rufus raised his sword to make an end of her, but I caught his arm and knelt beside her, begging her to let me see to her wound. With that she seized the lance in her breast with both hands, and with her last breath murmured, 'He desired to see the living woman-- bring him my body, and my curse with it! Then with a last supreme effort she buried the spear still deeper in her bosom; but it was not necessary.
"I gazed petrified at the high-bred, wrathful face, still beautiful in death, and the mysterious, wide-open eyes that must have flashed so proudly in life. It was enough to drive a man mad. Even after I had closed her eyes and spread the mantle over her--"
"What has been done with the body?" asked Apollinaris.
"I caused it to be carried into the house and the door of the death- chamber carefully locked. But when I returned to the men. I had to prevent them from tearing Rufus to pieces for having lost them the large reward which Caesar had promised for the living prisoner."
"And you," cried Apollinaris, excitedly, "had to look on while our men, honest soldiers, plundered this house--which entertained many of us so hospitably--as if they had been a band of robbers! I saw them dragging out things which were used in our service only yesterday."
"The emperor--his permission!" sighed Flavius. "You know how it is. The lowest instincts of every nature come out at such a time as this, and the sun shines upon it all. Many a poor wretch of yesterday will go to bed a wealthy man to-day. But, for all that, I believe much was hidden from them. In the room of the mistress of the house whence I have just come, a fire was still blazing in which a variety of objects had been burned. The flames had destroyed a picture--a small painted fragment betrayed the fact. They perhaps possessed masterpieces of Apelles or Zeuxis. This woman's hatred would lead her to destroy them rather than let them fall into the hands of her imperial enemy; and who can blame her?"
"It was her daughter's portrait," said Nemesianus, unguardedly.
The legate turned upon him in surprise. "Then she confided in you?" he asked.
"Yes," returned the tribune, "and we are proud to have been so honored by her. Before she went to her death she took leave of us. We let her go; for we at least could not bring ourselves to lay hands upon a noble lady."
The officer looked sternly at him and exclaimed, angrily:
"Do you suppose, young upstart, that it was less painful to me and many another among us? Cursed be this day, that has soiled our weapons with the blood of women and slaves, and may every drachma which I take from the plunder here bring ill-luck with it! Call the accident that has kept you out of this despicable work a stroke of good fortune, but beware how you look down upon those whose oath forces them to crush out every human feeling from their hearts! The soldier who takes part with his commander's enemy--"
He was interrupted by the entrance of Johanna, the Christian, who saluted the legate, and then stood confused and embarrassed by the side of Apollinaris's bed. The furtive glance she cast first at the side-room and then at Nemesianus did not pass unobserved by the quick eye of the commander, and with soldierly firmness he insisted on knowing what was concealed behind that door.
"An unfortunate man," was Apollinaris's answer.
"Seleukus, the master of this house?" asked Quintus Flavius, sternly.
"No," replied Nemesianus. "It is only a poor, wounded painter. And yet --the praetorians will go through fire and water for you, if you deliver up this man to them as their booty. But if you are what I hold you to be--"
"The opinion of hot-headed boys is of as little consequence to me as the favor of my subordinates," interposed the commander. "Whatever my con science tells me is right, I shall do. Quick, now! Who is in there?"
"The brother of the maiden for whose sake Caesar--" stammered the wounded man.
"The maiden whom you have to thank for that disfigured face?" cried the legate. "You are true Aurelians, you boys; and, though you may doubt whether I am the man you take me for, I confess with pleasure that you are exactly as I would wish to have you. The praetorians have slain your friend and servant; I give you that man to make amends for it."
With deep emotion Nemesianus seized his old friend's hands, and Apollinaris spoke words of gratitude to him from his couch. The officer would not listen to their thanks, and walked toward the door; but Johanna stood before him, and entreated him to allow the twins, whose servant had been killed, to take another, from whom they need have no fear of treachery. He had been captured in the impluvium by the praetorians while trying, in the face of every danger, to enter the house where the painter lay, to whose father he had belonged for many years. He would be able to tend both Apollinaris and Melissa's brother, and make it possible to keep Alexander's hiding-place a secret. The soldiery would be certain to penetrate as far as this, and other lives would be endangered if they should bear off the faithful servant and force him on the rack to disclose where Melissa's father and relatives were hidden.
The legate promised to insure the freedom of Argutis.
A few more words of thanks and farewell, and Quintus had fulfilled his mission to the Aurelians. Shortly afterward the tuba sounded to assemble the plunderers still scattered about Seleukus's house, and Nemesianus saw the men marching in small companies into the great hall. They were followed by their armor-bearers, loaded with treasure of every kind; and three chariots, drawn by fine horses, belonging to Seleukus and his murdered wife, conveyed such booty as was too heavy for men to carry. In the last of these stood the statue of Eros by Praxiteles. The glorious sunshine lighted up the smiling marble face; with the charm of bewitching beauty he seemed to gaze at the lurid crimson pools on the ground, and at the armed cohorts which marched in front to shed more blood and rouse more hatred.
As Nemesianus withdrew from the window, Argutis came into the room. The legate had released him; and when Johanna conducted the faithful fellow to Alexander's bedside, and he saw the youth lying pale and with closed eyes, as though death had claimed him for his prey, the old man dropped on his knees, sobbing loudly.
While Alexander, well nursed by old Argutis and Johanna, lay in high fever, raving in his delirium of Agatha and his brother Philip, and still oftener calling for his sister, Melissa was alone in her hiding-place. It was spacious enough, indeed, for she was concealed in the rooms prepared to receive the Exoterics before the mysteries of Serapis. A whole suite of apartments, sleeping-rooms and halls, were devoted to their use, extending all across the building from east to west. Some of these were square, others round or polygonal, but most of them much longer than they were wide. Painters and sculptors had everywhere covered the walls with pictures in color and in high relief, calculated to terrify or bewilder the uninitiated. The statues, of which there were many, bore strange symbols, the mosaic flooring was covered with images intended to excite the fancy and the fears of the beholder.
When Melissa first entered her little sleeping room, darkness had concealed all this from her gaze. She had been only too glad to obey the matron's bidding and go to rest at once. Euryale had remained with her some time, sitting on the edge of the bed to hear all that had happened to the girl during the last few hours, and she had impressed on her how she should conduct herself in case of her hiding-place being searched.
When she presently bade her good-night, Melissa repeated what the waiting-woman Johanna had told her of the life of Jesus Christ; but she expressed her interest in the person of the Redeemer in such a strange and heathen fashion that Euryale only regretted that she could not at once enlighten the exhausted girl. With a hearty kiss she left her to rest, and Melissa was no sooner alone than sleep closed her weary young eyes.
It was near morning when she fell asleep; and when she awoke, accustomed as she was to early hours, she was startled to see how much of the day was spent. So she rose hastily, and then perceived that the lady Euryale must already have come to see her, for she found fresh milk by the bedside, and some rolls of manuscript which had not been there the day before. Her first thought was for her imperiled relatives--her father, her brothers, her lover--and she prayed for each, appealing first to the manes of her mother, and then to mighty Serapis and kindly Isis, who would surely hear her in these precincts dedicate to them.
The danger of those she loved made her forget her own, and she vividly pictured to herself what might be happening to each, what each one might be doing to protect her and save her from the spies of the despot, who by this time must have received her missive. Still, the doubt whether he might not, after all, be magnanimous and forgive her, rose again and again to her mind, though everything led her to think it impossible.
During her prayer and in her care for the others she had felt reasonably calm; but at the first thought of Caesar a painful agitation took possession of her soul, and to overcome it she began an inspection of her spacious hiding-place, where the lady Euryale had prepared her to be amazed. And, indeed, it was not merely strange, but it filled her heart and mind with astonishment and terror. Wherever she looked, mystic figures puzzled her; and Melissa turned from a picture in relief of beheaded figures with their feet in the air, and a representation of the damned stewing in great caldrons and fanning themselves with diabolical irony, only to see a painting of a female form over whose writhing body boats were sailing, or a four-headed ram, or birds with human heads flying away with a mummified corpse. On the ceiling, too, there was strange imagery; and when she looked at the floor to rest her bewildered fancy, her eyes fell on a troop of furies pursuing the wicked, or a pool of fire by which horrible monsters kept guard.
And all these pictures were not stiff and formal like Egyptian decorative art, but executed by Greek artists with such liveliness and truth that they seemed about to speak; and Melissa could have fancied many times that they were moving toward her from the ceiling or the walls.
If she remained here long, she thought she must go out of her mind; and yet she was attracted, here by a huge furnace on whose metal floor large masses of fuel seemed to be, and there by a pool of water with crocodiles, frogs, tortoises, and shells, wrought in mosaic.
Besides these and other similar objects, her curiosity was aroused by some large chests in which book-rolls, strange vessels, and an endless
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