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- A Thorny Path, Volume 12. - 1/9 -
A THORNY PATH
By Georg Ebers
Caracalla's evening meal was ended, and for years past his friends had never seen the gloomy monarch in so mad a mood. The high-priest of Serapis, with Dio Cassius the senator, and a few others of his suite, had not indeed appeared at table; but the priest of Alexander, the prefect Macrinus, his favorites Theocritus, Pandion, Antigonus, and others of their kidney, had crowded round him, had drunk to his health, and wished him joy of his glorious revenge.
Everything which legend or history had recorded of similar deeds was compared with this day's work, and it was agreed that it transcended them all. This delighted the half-drunken monarch. To-day, he declared with flashing eyes, and not till to-day, he had dared to be entirely what Fate had called him to be--at once the judge and the executioner of an accursed and degenerate race. As Titus had been named "the Good," so he would be called "the Terrible." And this day had secured him that grand name, so pleasing to his inmost heart.
"Hail to the benevolent sovereign who would fain be terrible!" cried Theocritus, raising his cup; and the rest of the guests echoed him.
Then the number of the slain was discussed. No one could estimate it exactly. Zminis, the only man who could have seen everything, had not appeared: Fifty, sixty, seventy thousand Alexandrians were supposed to have suffered death; Macrinus, however, asserted that there must have been more than a hundred thousand, and Caracalla rewarded him for his statement by exclaiming loudly "Splendid! grand! Hardly comprehensible by the vulgar mind! But, even so, it is not the end of what I mean to give them. To-day I have racked their limbs; but I have yet to strike them to the heart, as they have stricken me!"
He ceased, and after a short pause repeated unhesitatingly, and as though by a sudden impulse, the lines with which Euripides ends several of his tragedies:
"Jove in high heaven dispenses various fates; And now the gods shower blessings which our hope Dared not aspire to, now control the ills We deemed inevitable. Thus the god To these hath given an end we never thought."
And this was the end of the revolting scene, for, as he spoke, Caesar pushed away his cup and sat staring into vacancy, so pale that his physician, foreseeing a fresh attack, brought out his medicine vial.
The praetorian prefect gave a signal to the rest that they should not notice the change in their imperial host, and he did his best to keep the conversation going, till Caracalla, after a long pause, wiped his brow and exclaimed hoarsely: "What has become of the Egyptian? He was to bring in the living prisoners--the living, I say! Let him bring me them."
He struck the table by his couch violently with his fist; and then, as if the clatter of the metal vessels on it had brought him to himself, he added, meditatively: "A hundred thousand! If they burned their dead here, it would take a forest to reduce them to ashes."
"This day will cost him dear enough as it is," the high-priest of Alexander whispered; he, as idiologos, having to deposit the tribute from the temples and their estates in the imperial treasury. He addressed his neighbor, old Julius Paulinus, who replied:
"Charon is doing the best business to-day. A hundred thousand obolus in a few hours. If Tarautas reigns over us much longer, I will farm his ferry!"
During this whispered dialogue Theocritus the favorite was assuring Caesar in a loud voice that the possessions of the victims would suffice for any form of interment, and an ample number of thank-offerings into the bargain.
"An offering!" echoed Caracalla, and he pointed to a short sword which lay beside him on the couch. "That helped in the work. My father wielded it in many a fight, and I have not let it rust. Still, I doubt whether in my hands and his together it ever before yesterday slaughtered a hundred thousand."
He looked round for the high-priest of Serapis, and after seeking him in vain among the guests, he exclaimed:
"The revered Timotheus withdraws his countenance from us to-day. Yet it was to his god that I dedicated the work of vengeance. He laments the loss of worshipers to great Serapis, as you, Vertinus"--and he turned to the idiologos--"regret the slain tax-payers. Well, you are thinking of my loss or gain, and that I can not but praise. Your colleague in the service of Serapis has nothing to care for but the honor of his god; but he does not succeed in rising to the occasion. Poor wretch! I will give him a lesson. Here Epagathos, and you, Claudius--go at once to Timotheus; carry him this sword. I devote it to his god. It is to be preserved in his holy of holies, in memory of the greatest act of vengeance ever known. If Timotheus should refuse the gift--But no, he has sense--he knows me!"
He paused, and turned to look at Macrinus, who had risen to speak to some officials and soldiers who had entered the room. They brought the news that the Parthian envoys had broken off all negotiations, and had left the city in the afternoon. They would enter into no alliance, and were prepared to meet the Roman army.
Macrinus repeated this to Caesar with a shrug of his shoulders, but he withheld the remark added by the venerable elder of the ambassadors, that they did not fear a foe who by so vile a deed had incurred the wrath of the gods.
"Then it is war with the Parthians!" cried Caracalla, and his eyes flashed. "My breast-plated favorites will rejoice."
But then he looked grave, and inquired: "They are leaving the town, you say? But are they birds? The gates and harbor are closed."
"A small Phoenician vessel stole out just before sundown between our guard-ships," was the reply. "Curse it!" broke from Caesar's lips in a loud voice, and, after a brief dialogue in an undertone with the prefect, he desired to have papyrus and writing materials brought to him. He himself must inform the senate of what had occurred, and he did so in a few words.
He did not know the number of the slain, and he did not think it worth while to make a rough estimate. All the Alexandrians, he said, had in fact merited death. A swift trireme was to carry the letter to Ostia at daybreak.
He did not, indeed, ask the opinion of the senate, and yet he felt that it would be better that news of the day's events should reach the curia under his own hand than through the distorting medium of rumor.
Nor did Macrinus impress on him, as usual, that he should give his dispatch a respectful form. This crime, if anything, might help him to the fulfillment of the Magian's prophecy.
As Caesar was rolling up his missive, the long-expected Zminis came into the room. He had attired himself splendidly, and bore the insignia of his new office. He humbly begged to be pardoned for his long delay. He had had to make his outer man fit to appear among Caesar's guests, for-- as he boastfully explained--he himself had waded in blood, and in the court-yard of the Museum the red life-juice of the Alexandrians had reached above his horse's knees. The number of the dead, he declared with sickening pride, was above a hundred thousand, as estimated by the prefect.
"Then we will call it eleven myriad," Caracalla broke in. "Now, we have had enough of the dead. Bring in the living."
"Whom?" asked the Egyptian, in surprise. Hereupon Caesar's eyelids began to quiver, and in a threatening tone he reminded his bloody-handed tool of those whom he had ordered him to take alive. Still Zminis was silent, and Caesar furiously shrieked his demand as to whether by his blundering Heron's daughter had escaped; whether he could not produce the gem-cutter and his son. The blood-stained butcher then perceived that Caesar's murderous sword might be turned against him also. Still, he was prepared to defend himself by every means in his power. His brain was inventive, and, seeing that the fault for which he would least easily be forgiven was the failure to capture Melissa, he tried to screen himself by a lie. Relying on an incident which he himself had witnessed, he began: "I felt certain of securing the gem-cutter's pretty daughter, for my men had surrounded his house. But it had come to the ears of these Alexandrian scoundrels that a son of Heron's, a painter, and his sister, had betrayed their fellow-citizens and excited your wrath. It was to them that they ascribed the punishment which I executed upon them in your name. This rabble have no notion of reflection; before we could hinder them they had rushed on the innocent dwelling. They flung fire-brands into it, burned it, and tore it down. Any one who was within perished, and thus the daughter of Heron died. That is, unfortunately, proved. I can take the old man and his son tomorrow. To-day I have had so much to do that there has not been time to bind the sheaves. It is said that they had escaped before the mob rushed on the house."
"And the gem-cutter's daughter?" asked Caracalla, in a trembling voice. "You are sure she was burned in the building?"
"As sure as that I have zealously endeavored to let the Alexandrians feel your avenging hand," replied the Egyptian resolutely, and with a bold face he confirmed his he. "I have here the jewel she wore on her arm. It was found on the charred body in the cellar. Adventus, your chamberlain, says that Melissa received it yesterday as a gift from you. Here it is."
And he handed Caracalla the serpent-shaped bracelet which Caesar had sent to his sweetheart before setting out for the Circus. The fire had damaged it, but there was no mistaking it. It had been found beneath the ruins on a human arm, and Zminis had only learned from the chamberlain, to whom he had shown it, that it had belonged to the daughter of Heron.
"Even the features of the corpse," Zminis added, "were still recognizable."
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