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- A Thorny Path, Volume 11. - 6/10 -
variety of raiment of every shape and size were stored, from the simple chiton of the common laborer to the star-embroidered talar of the adept.
Her protectress had told her that the mystics who desired to be admitted to the highest grades here passed through fire and water, and had to go through many ceremonies in various costumes. She had also informed her that the uninitiated who desired to enter these rooms had to open three doors, each of which, as it was closed, gave rise to a violent ringing; so that she might not venture to get away from the room, into which, however, she could bar herself. If the danger were pressing, there was a door, known only to the initiated, which led to the steps and out of the building. Her sleeping-place, happily, was not far from a window looking to the west, so that she was able to refresh her brain after the bewildering impressions which had crowded on her in the inner rooms.
The paved roadway dividing the Serapeum from the stadium was at first fairly crowded; but the chariots, horsemen, and foot-passengers on whose heads she looked down from her high window interested her as little as the wide inclosure of the stadium, part of which lay within sight.
A race, no doubt, was to be held there this morning, for slaves were raking the sand smooth, and hanging flowers about a dais, which was no doubt intended for Caesar. Was it to be her fate to see the dreadful man from the place where she was hiding from him? Her heart began to beat faster, and at the same time questions crowded on her excited brain, each bringing with it fresh anxiety for those she loved, of whom, till now, she had been thinking with calm reassurance.
Whither had Alexander fled?
Had her father and Philip succeeded in concealing themselves in the sculptor's work-room?
Could Diodoros have escaped in time to reach the harbor with Polybius and Praxilla?
How had Argutis contrived that her letter should reach Caesar's hands without too greatly imperiling himself?
She was quite unconscious of any guilt toward Caracalla. There had been, indeed, a strong and strange attraction which had drawn her to him; even now she was glad to have been of service to him, and to have helped him to endure the sufferings laid upon him by a cruel fate. But she could never be his. Her heart belonged to another, and this she had confessed in a letter--perhaps, indeed, too late. If he had a heart really capable of love, and had set it on her, he would no doubt think it hard that he should have bestowed his affections on a girl who was already plighted to another, even when she first appeared before him as a suppliant, though deeply moved by pity; still, he had certainly no right to condemn her conduct. And this was her firm conviction.
If her refusal roused his ire--if her father's prophecy and Philostratus's fears must be verified, that his rage would involve many others besides herself in ruin, then--But here her thought broke off with a shudder.
Then she recalled the hour when she had been ready and willing to be his, to sacrifice love and happiness only to soften his wild mood and protect others from his unbridled rage. Yes, she might have been his wife by this time, if he himself had not proved to her that she could never gain such power over him as would control his sudden fits of fury, or obtain mercy for any victim of his cruelty. The murder of Vindex and his nephew had been the death-blow of this hope. She best knew how seriously she had come to the determination to give up every selfish claim to future happiness in order that she might avert from others the horrors which threatened them; and now, when she knew the history of the Divine Lord of the Christians, she told herself that she had acted at that moment in a manner well-pleasing to that sublime Teacher. Still, her strong common sense assured her that to sacrifice the dearest and fondest wish of her heart in vain would not have been right and good, but foolish.
The evil deeds which Caracalla was now preparing to commit he would have done even if she were at his side. Of what small worth would she have seemed to him, and to herself!--When this tyranny should be overpast, when he should be gone to some other part of his immense empire, if those she loved were spared she could be happy--ah! so happy with the man to whom she had given her heart--as happy as she would have been miserable if she had become the victim to unceasing terrors as Caesar's wife.
Euryale was right, and Fate, to which she had appealed, had decided well for her. That, the greatest conceivable sacrifice, would have been in vain; for the sake of a ruthless tyrant's foul desire she would have been guilty of the basest breach of faith, have poisoned her lover's heart and soul, and have wrecked his whole future life as well as her own. Away, then, with foolish doubts! Pythagoras was wise in warning her against torturing her heart. The die was cast. She and Caracalla must go on divergent roads, Her duty now was to fight for her own happiness against any who threatened it, and, above all, against the tyrant who had compelled her, innocent as she was, to hide like a criminal.
She was full of righteous wrath against the sanguinary persecutor, and holding her head high she went back into her sleeping-room to finish dressing. She moved more quickly than usual, for the bookrolls which Euryale had laid by her bed while she was still asleep attracted her eye with a suggestion of promise. Eager to know what their contents were, she took them up, drew a stool to the window, and tried to read.
But many voices came up to her from outside, and when she looked down into the road she saw troops of youths crowding into the stadium. What fine fellows they were, as they marched on, talking and singing; and she said to herself that Diodoros and Alexander were taller even than most of these, and would have been handsome among the handsomest! She amused herself for some time with watching them; but when the last man had entered the stadium, and they had formed in companies, she again took up the rolls.
One contained the gospel of Matthew and the other that of Luke.
The first, beginning with the genealogy, gave her a string of strange, barbarous names which did not attract her; so she took up the roll of Luke, and his simple narrative style at once charmed her. There were difficulties in it, no doubt, and she skipped sundry unintelligible passages, but the second chapter captivated her attention. It spoke of the birth of the great Teacher whom the Christians worshiped as their God. Angels had announced to the shepherds in the field that great joy should come on the whole world, because the Saviour was born; and this Saviour and Redeemer was no hero, no sage, but a child wrapped in swaddling-clothes and lying in a manger.
At this she smiled, for she loved little children, and had long known no greater pleasure than to play with them and help them. How many delightful hours did she owe to the grandchildren of their neighbor Skopas!
And this child, hailed at its birth by a choir of angels, had become a God in whom many believed! and the words of the angels' chant were: "Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, good-will toward men!"
How great and good it sounded! With eager excitement she fastened the rolls together, and on her features was depicted impatient longing to put an end to an intolerable state of things, as she exclaimed, though there was no one but herself to hear: "Ay, peace, salvation, good-will! Not this hatred, this thirst for revenge, this blood, this persecution, and, as their hideous fruit, this terror, these horrible, cruel fears--"
Here she was interrupted by the clatter of arms and rapping of hammers which came up from below. Caesar's Macedonian guard and other infantry troops were silently coming up in companies and vanishing into the side- doors which led to the upper tiers of the stadium. What could this mean? Meanwhile carpenters were busy fastening up the chief entrance with wooden beams. It looked like closing up sluice-gates to hinder the invasion of a high tide. But the stadium was already full of men. She had seen thousands of youths march in, and there they stood in close ranks in the arena below her. Besides these, there were now an immense number of soldiers. They must all get out again presently, and what a crush there would be in the side exits if the vomitorium were closed! She longed to call down, to warn the carpenters of the folly of their act. Or was it that the youth of the town were to be pent into the stadium to hear some new and more severe decree, while some of the more refractory were secured?
It must be so. What a shame!
Then came a few vexilla of Numidian troopers at a slow pace. At their head, on a particularly high horse, rode the legate, a very tall man. He glanced up to the side where she was, and Melissa recognized the Egyptian Zminis. At this her hand sought the place of her heart, for she felt as though it had ceased to beat. What! This wretch, the deadly foe of her father and brother, here, at the head of the Roman troops? Something horrible, impossible, must be about to happen!
The sun was mirrored in the shining coat of his horse, and in the lictor's axe he bore, carrying it like a commander's staff. He raised it once, twice, and, high as she was above him, she could see how sharp the contrast was between the yellow whites of his eyes and the swarthy color of his face.
Now, for the third time, the bright steel of the axe flashed in the sunshine, and immediately after trumpet-calls sounded and were repeated at short intervals, which still, to her, seemed intolerably long. How Melissa had presence of mind enough to count them she knew not, but she did. At the seventh all was still, and soon after a short blast on the tuba rang out from above, below, and from all sides of the stadium. Each went like an arrow to the heart of the anxious, breathless girl. From the moment when she had seen Zminis she had expected the worst, but the cry of rage and despair from a thousand voices which now split her ear told her how far the incredible reality outdid her most horrible imaginings.
Breathless, and with a throbbing brain, she leaned out as far as she could, and neither felt the burning sun-which was now beginning to fall on the western face of the temple--nor heeded the risk of being seen and involving herself and her protectress in ruin. Trembling like a gazelle in a frosty winter's night, she would gladly have withdrawn from the window, but she felt as if some spell held her there. She longed to shut her ears and eyes, but she could not help looking on. Her every instinct prompted her to shriek for help, but she could not utter a sound.
There she stood, seeing and hearing, and her low moaning changed to that laughter which anguish borrows from gladness when it has exhausted all forms of expression. At last she sank on her knees on the floor, and while she shed tears of pain still laughed shrilly, till she understood with sudden horror what was happening. She started violently; a sob convulsed her bosom; she wept and wept, and these tears did her good.
When, at one in the afternoon, the sun fell full on her window, she had not yet found strength to move. A flood of bright light, in which whirled millions of motes, danced before her eyes; and as her breath sent the atoms flying, it passed through her mind that at this very moment the reprobate utterance of a madman's lips was blowing happiness, joy, peace,
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