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- A Thorny Path, Volume 12. - 2/9 -


"The corpse!" Caesar echoed gloomily. "And it was the Alexandrians, you say, who destroyed the house?"

"Yes, my lord; a raging mob, and mingled with them men of every race- Jews, Greeks, Syrians, what not. Most of them had lost a father, a son, or a brother, sent to Hades by your vengeance. Their wildest curses were for Alexander, the painter, who in fact had played the spy for you. But the Macedonian phalanx arrived at the right moment. They killed most of them and took some prisoners. You can see them yourself in the morning. As regards the wife of Seleukus--"

"Well," exclaimed Caesar, and his eye brightened again.

"She fell a victim to the clumsiness of the praetorians."

"Indeed!" interrupted the legate Quintus Flavius Nobilior, who had granted Alexander's life to the prayer of the twins Aurelius; and Macrinus also forbade any insulting observations as to the blameless troops whom he had the honor to command.

But the Egyptian was not to be checked; he went on eagerly: "Pardon, my lords. It is perfectly certain, nevertheless, that it was a praetorian-- his name is Rufus, and he belongs to the second cohort--who pierced the lady Berenike with his spear."

Flavius here begged to be allowed to speak, and reported how Berenike had sought and found her end. And he did so as though he were narrating the death of a heroine, but he added, in a tone of disapproval: "Unhappily, the misguided woman died with a curse on you, great Caesar, on her treasonable lips."

"And this female hero finds her Homer in you!" cried Caesar. "We will speak together again, my Quintus."

He raised a brimming cup to his lips and emptied it at a draught; then, setting it on the table with such violence that it rang, he exclaimed "Then you have brought me none of those whom I commanded you to capture? Even the feeble girl who had not quitted her father's house you allowed to be murdered by those coarse monsters! And you think I shall look on you with favor? By this time to-morrow the gem-cutter and his son Alexander are here before me, or by the head of my divine father you go to the wild beasts in the Circus."

"They will not eat such as he," observed old Julius Paulinus, and Caesar nodded approvingly. The Egyptian shuddered, for this imperial nod showed him by how slender a thread his life hung.

In a flash he reflected whither he might fly if he should fail to find this hated couple. If, after all, he should discover Melissa alive, so much the better. Then, he might have been mistaken in identifying the body; some slave girl might have stolen the bracelet and put it on before the house was burned down. He knew for a fact that the charred corpse of which he had spoken was that of a street wench who had rushed among the foremost into the house of the much-envied imperial favorite--the traitress--and had met her death in the spreading flames.

Zminis had but a moment to rack his inventive and prudent brain, but he already had thought of something which might perhaps influence Caesar in his favor. Of all the Alexandrians, the members of the Museum were those whom Caracalla hated most. He had been particularly enjoined not to spare one of them; and in the course of the ride which Caesar, attended by the armed troopers of Arsinoe, had taken through the streets streaming with blood, he had stayed longest gazing at the heap of corpses in the court-yard of the Museum. In the portico, a colonnade copied from the Stoa at Athens, whither a dozen or so of the philosophers had fled when attacked, he had even stabbed several with his own hand. The blood on the sword which Caracalla had dedicated to Serapis had been shed at the Museum.

The Egyptian had himself led the massacre here, and had seen that it was thoroughly effectual. The mention of those slaughtered hair-splitters must, if anything, be likely to mitigate Caesar's wrath; so no sooner had the applause died away with which the proconsul's jest at his expense had been received, than Zminis began to give his report of the great massacre in the Museum. He could boast of having spared scarcely one of the empty word-pickers with whom the epigrams against Caesar and his mother had originated. Teachers and pupils, even the domestic officials, had been overtaken by the insulted sovereign's vengeance. Nothing was left but the stones of that great institution, which had indeed long outlived its fame. The Numidians who had helped in the work had been drunk with blood, and had forced their way even into the physician's lecture-rooms and the hospital adjoining. There, too, they had given no quarter; and among the sufferers who had been carried thither to be healed they had found Tarautas, the wounded gladiator. A Numidian, the youngest of the legion, a beardless youth, had pinned the terrible conqueror of lions and men to the bed with his spear, and then, with the same weapon, had released at least a dozen of his fellow-sufferers from their pain.

As he told his story the Egyptian stood staring into vacancy, as though he saw it all, and the whites of his eyeballs gleamed more hideously than ever out of his swarthy face. The lean, sallow wretch stood before Caesar like a talking corpse, and did not observe the effect his narrative of the gladiator's death was producing. But he soon found out. While he was yet speaking, Caracalla, leaning on the table by his couch with both hands, fixed his eyes on his face, without a word.

Then he suddenly sprang up, and, beside himself with rage, he interrupted the terrified Egyptian and railed at him furiously:

"My Tarautas, who had so narrowly escaped death! The bravest hero of his kind basely murdered on his sick-bed, by a barbarian, a beardless boy! And you, you loathsome jackal, could allow it? This deed--and you know it, villain--will be set down to my score. It will be brought up against me to the end of my days in Rome, in the provinces, everywhere. I shall be cursed for your crime wherever there is a human heart to throb and feel, and a human tongue to speak. And I--when did I ever order you to slake your thirst for blood in that of the sick and suffering? Never! I could never have done such a thing! I even told you to spare the women and helpless slaves. You are all witnesses, But you all hear me-- I will punish the murderer of the wretched sick! I will avenge you, foully murdered, brave, noble Tarautas!--Here, lictors! Bind him--away with him to the Circus with the criminals thrown to the wild beasts! He allowed the girl whose life I bade him spare to be burned to death before his eyes, and the hapless sick were slain at his command by a beardless boy!--And Tarautas! I valued him as I do all who are superior to their kind; I cared for him. He was wounded for our entertainment, my friends. Poor fellow--poor, brave Tarautas!"

He here broke into loud sobs, and it was so unheard-of, so incomprehensible a thing that this man should weep who, even at his father's death had not shed a tear, that Julius Paulinus himself held his mocking tongue.

The rest of the spectators also kept anxious and uneasy silence while the lictors bound Zminis's hands, and, in spite of his attempts to raise his voice once more in self-defense, dragged him away and thrust him out across the threshold of the dining-hall. The door closed behind him, and no applause followed, though every one approved of the Egyptian's condemnation, for Caracalla was still weeping.

Was it possible that these tears could be shed for sick people whom he did not know, and for the coarse gladiator, the butcher of men and beasts, who had had nothing to give Caesar but a few hours of excitement at the intoxicating performances in the arena? So it must be; for from time to time Caracalla moaned softly, "Those unhappy sick!" or "Poor Tarautas!"

And, indeed, at this moment Caracalla himself could not have said whom he was lamenting. He had in the Circus staked his life on that of Tarautas, and when he shed tears over his memory it was certainly less for the gladiator's sake than over the approaching end of his own existence, to which he looked forward in consequence of Tarautas's death. But he had often been near the gates of Hades in the battle-field with calm indifference; and now, while he thus bewailed the sick and Tarautas with bitter lamentations, in his mind he saw no sick-bed, nor, indeed, the stunted form of the braggart hero of the arena, but the slender, graceful figure of a sweet girl, and a blackened, charred arm on which glittered a golden armlet.

That woman! Treacherous, shameless, but how lovely and beloved! That woman, under his eyes, as it were, was swept out of the land of the living; and with her, with Melissa, the only girl for whom his heart had ever throbbed faster, the miracle-worker who had possessed the unique power of exorcising his torments, whose love--for so he still chose to believe, though he had always refused her petitions that he would show mercy--whose love would have given him strength to become a benefactor to all mankind, a second Trajan or Titus. He had quite forgotten that he had intended her to meet a disgraceful end in the arena under fearful torments, if she had been brought to him a prisoner. He felt as though the fate of Roxana, with whom his most cherished dream had perished, had quite broken his heart; and it was Melissa whom he really bewailed, with the gladiator's name on his lips and the jewel before his eyes which had been his gift, and which she had worn on her arm even in death. But he ere long controlled this display of feeling, ashamed to shed tears for her who had cheated him and who had fled from his love. Only once more did he sob aloud. Then he raised himself, and while holding his handkerchief to his eyes he addressed the company with theatrical pathos:

"Yes, my friends, tell whom you will that you have seen Bassianus weep; but add that his tears flowed from grief at the necessity for punishing so many of his subjects with such rigor. Say, too, that Caesar wept with pity and indignation. For what good man would not be moved to sorrow at seeing the sick and wounded thus maltreated? What humane heart could refrain from loud lamentations at the sight of barbarity which is not withheld from laying a murderous hand even on the sacred anguish of the sick and wounded? Defend me, then, against those Romans who may shrug their shoulders over the weakness of a weeping Caesar--the Terrible. My office demands severity; and yet, my friends, I am not ashamed of these tears."

With this he took leave of his guests and retired to rest, and those who remained were soon agreed that every word of this speech, as well as Caesar's tears, were rank hypocrisy. The mime Theocritus admired his sovereign in all sincerity, for how rarely could even the greatest actors succeed in forcing from their eyes, by sheer determination, a flood of real, warm tears--he had seen them flow. As Caesar quitted the room, his hand on the lion's mane, the praetor Priscillianus whispered to Cilo:

"Your disciple has been taking lessons here of the weeping crocodile."

.........................

Out on the great square the soldiers were resting after the day's bloody work. They had lighted large fires in front of the most sacred sanctuary of a great city, as though they were in the open field. Round each of these, foot and horse soldiers lay or squatted on the ground, according to their companies; and over the wine allowed them by Caesar they told each other the hideous experiences of the day, which even those who had grown rich by it could not think of without disgust. Gold and silver cups, the plunder of the city, circulated round those camp-fires and the


A Thorny Path, Volume 12. - 2/9

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