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- A Thorny Path, Volume 12. - 4/9 -
Caracalla was listening intently. This discourse attracted him.
He, like the other Caesars, must after his death be deified by the senate; but he felt convinced, for his part, that the Olympians would never count him as one of themselves. At the same time he was philosopher enough to understand that no existing thing could ever cease to exist. The restoration of each part of his body to that portion of the universe to which it was akin, pleased his fancy. There was no place in the Indian's creed for the responsibility of the soul at the judgment of the dead. Caesar was already on the point of asking the slave to reveal his secret, when Adventus prevented him by exclaiming:
"You may confide to me what will be left of me--unless, indeed, you mean the worms which shall eat me and so proceed from me. It can not be good for much, at any rate, and I will tell no one."
To this Arjuna solemnly replied: "There is one thing which persists to all eternity and can never be lost in all the ages of the universe, and that is--the deed."
"I know that," replied the old man with an indifferent shrug; but the word struck Caesar like a thunder-bolt. He listened breathlessly to hear what more the Indian might say; but Arjuna, who regarded it as sacrilege to waste the highest lore on one unworthy of it, went on reading to himself, and Adventus stretched himself out to sleep.
All was silent in and about the sleeping-room, and the fearful words, "the deed," still rang in the ears of the man who had just committed the most monstrous of all atrocities. He could not get rid of the haunting words; all the ill he had done from his childhood returned to him in fancy, and seemed heaped up to form a mountain which weighed on him like an incubus.
His, too, must live on, and with it his name, cursed and hated to the latest generations of men. The souls of the slain would have carried the news of the deeds he had done even to Hades; and if Tarautas were to come and fetch him away, he would be met below by legions of indignant shades --a hundred thousand! And at their head his stern father, and the other worthy men who had ruled Rome with wisdom and honor, would shout in his face: "A hundred thousand times a murderer! robber of the state! destroyer of the army!" and drag him before the judgment-seat; and before judgment could be pronounced the hundred thousand, led by the noblest of all his victims, the good Papinian, would rush upon him and tear him limb from limb.
Dozing as he lay, he felt cold, ghostly hands on his shoulder, on his head, wherever the cold breath of the waning night could fan him through the open window; and with a loud cry he sprang out of bed as he fancied he felt a touch of the shadowy hand of Vindex. On hearing his voice, Adventus and the Indian hurried in, with Epagathos, who had even heard his shriek in the farther room. They found him bathed in a sweat of horror, and struggling for breath, his eyes fixed on vacancy; and the freedman flew off to fetch the physician. When he came Caesar angrily dismissed him, for he felt no physical disorder. Without dressing, he went to the window. It was about three hours before sunrise.
However, he gave orders that his bath should be prepared, and desired to be dressed; then Macrinus and others were to be sent for. Sooner would he step into boiling water than return to that bed of terror. Day, life, business must banish his terrors. But then, after the evening would come another night; and if the sufferings he had just gone through should repeat themselves then, and in those to follow, he should lose his wits, and he would bless the spirit of Tarautas if it would but come to lead him away to death.
But "the deed"! The Indian was right--that would survive him on earth, and mankind would unite in cursing him.
Was there yet time--was he yet capable of atoning for what was done by some great and splendid deed? But the hundred thousand--
The number rose before him like a mountain, blotting out every scheme he tried to form as he went to his bath--taking his lion with him; he reveled in the warm water, and finally lay down to rest in clean linen wrappers. No one had dared to speak to him. His aspect was too threatening.
In a room adjoining the bath-room he had breakfast served him. It was, as usual, a simple meal, and yet he could only swallow a few mouthfuls, for everything had a bitter taste. The praetorian prefect was roused, and Caesar was glad to see him, for it was in attending to affairs that he most easily forgot what weighed upon him. The more serious they were, the better, and Macrinus looked as if there was something of grave importance to be settled.
Caracalla's first question was with reference to the Parthian ambassadors. They had, in fact, departed; now he must prepare for war. Caesar was eager to decide at once on the destination of each legion, and to call the legates together to a council of war; but Macrinus was not so prompt and ready as usual on such occasions. He had that to communicate which, as he knew, would to Caesar take the head of all else. If it should prove true, it must withdraw him altogether from the affairs of government; and this was what Macrinus aimed at when, before summoning the legates, he observed with a show of reluctance that Caesar would be wroth with him if, for the sake of a council of war, he were to defer a report which had just reached his ears.
"Business first!" cried Caracalla, with decisive prohibition.
"As you will. I thought only of what I was told by an official of this temple, that the gem-cutter's daughter--you know the girl--is still alive--"
But he got no further, for Caesar sprang to his feet, and desired to hear more of this.
Macrinus proceeded to relate that a slaughterer in the court of sacrifice had told him that Melissa had been seen last evening, and was somewhere in the Serapeum. More than this the prefect knew not, and Caesar forthwith dismissed him to make further inquiry before he himself should take steps to prove the truth of the report.
Then he paced the room with revived energy. His eye sparkled, and, breathing fast, he strove to reduce the storm of schemes, plans, and hopes which surged up within him to some sort of order. He must punish the fugitive--but yet more surely he would never again let her out of his sight. But if only he could first have her cast to the wild beasts, and then bring her to life again, crown her with the imperial diadem, and load her with every gift that power and wealth could procure! He would read every wish in her eyes, if only she would once more lay her hand on his forehead, charm away his pain, and bring sleep to his horror-stricken bed. He had done nothing to vex her; nay, every petition she had urged-- But suddenly the image rose before him of old Vindex and his nephew, whom he had sent to execution in spite of her intercession; and again the awful word, "the deed," rang in his inward ear. Were these hideous thoughts to haunt him even by day?
No, no! In his waking hours there was much to be done which might give him the strength to dissipate them.
The kitchen-steward was by this time in attendance; but what did Caracalla care for dainties to tickle his palate now that he had a hope of seeing Melissa once more? With perfect indifference he left the catering to the skillful and inventive cook; and hardly had he retired when Macrinus returned.
The slaughterer had acquired his information through a comrade, who said that he had twice caught sight of Melissa at the window of the chambers of mystery in the upper story of the Serapeum, yesterday afternoon. He had hoped to win the reward which was offered for the recovery of the fugitive, and had promised his colleague half the money if he would help him to capture the maiden. But just at sunset, hearing that the massacre was ended, the man had incautiously gone out into the town, where he had been slain by a drunken solder of the Scythian legion. The hapless man's body had been found, but Macrinus's informant had assured him that he could entirely rely on the report of his unfortunate colleague, who was a sober and truthful man, as the chief augur would testify.
This was enough for Caracalla. Macrinus was at once to go for the high- priest, and to take care that he took no further steps to conceal Melissa. The slaughterer had ever since daybreak kept secret watch on all the doors of the Serapeum, aided by his comrades, who were to share in the reward, and especially on the stairway leading from the ground floor up to the mystic's galleries.
The prefect at once obeyed the despot's command. On the threshold he met the kitchen-steward returning to submit his list of dishes for Caesar's approval.
He found Caracalla in an altered mood, rejuvenescent and in the highest spirits. After hastily agreeing to the day's bill of fare, he asked the steward in what part of the building the chambers of mystery were; and when he learned that the stairs leading up to them began close to the kitchens, which had been arranged for Caesar's convenience under the temple laboratory, Caracalla declared in a condescending tone that he would go to look round the scene of the cook's labors. And the lion should come too, to return thanks for the good meat which was brought to him so regularly.
The head cook, rejoiced at the unwonted graciousness of a master whose wrath had often fallen on him, led the way to his kitchen hearth. This had been constructed in a large hall, originally the largest of the laboratories, where incense was prepared for the sanctuary and medicines concocted for the sick in the temple hospital. There were smaller halls and rooms adjoining, where at this moment some priests were busy preparing kyphi and mixing drugs.
The steward, proud of Caesar's promised visit, announced to his subordinates the honor they might expect, and he then went to the door of the small laboratory to tell the old pastophoros who was employed there, and who had done him many a good turn, that if he wished to see the emperor he had only to open the door leading to the staircase. He was about to visit the mystic chambers with his much-talked-of lion. No one need be afraid of the beast; it was quite tame, and Caesar loved it as a son.
At this the old drug-pounder muttered some reply, which sounded more like a curse than the expected thanks, and the steward regretted having compared the lion to a son in this man's presence, for the pastophoros wore a mourning garment, and two promising sons had been snatched from him, slain yesterday with the other youths in the stadium.
But the cook soon forgot the old man's ill-humor; he had to clear his subordinates out of the way as quickly as possible and prepare for his illustrious visitor. As he bustled around, here, there, and everywhere, the pastophoros entered the kitchen and begged for a piece of mutton. This was granted him by a hasty sign toward a freshly slaughtered sheep,
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