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- A Thorny Path, Volume 12. - 5/9 -
and the old man busied himself for some time behind the steward's back. At last he had cut off what he wanted, and gazed with singular tenderness at the piece of red, veinless meat. On returning to his laboratory, he hastily bolted himself in, and when he came out again a few minutes later his calm, wrinkled old face had a malignant and evil look. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking about him cautiously; then he flew up the steps with the agility of youth, and at a turn in the stairs he stuck the piece of meat close to the foot of the balustrade.
He returned as nimbly as he had gone, cast a sorrowful glance through the open laboratory window at the arena where all that had graced his life lay dead, and passed his hand over his tearful face. At last he returned to his task, but he was less able to do it than before. It was with a trembling hand that he weighed out the juniper berries and cedar resin, and he listened all the time with bated breath.
Presently there was a stir on the stairs, and the kitchen slaves shouted that Caesar was coming. So he went out of the laboratory, which was behind the stairs, to see what was going forward, and a turnspit at once made way for the old man so as not to hinder his view.
Was that little young man, mounting the steps so gayly, with the high- priest at his side and his suite at his heels, the dreadful monster who had murdered his noble sons? He had pictured the dreadful tyrant quite differently. Now Caesar was laughing, and the tall man next him made some light and ready reply--the head cook said it was the Roman priest of Alexander, who was not on good terms with Timotheus. Could they be laughing at the high-priest? Never, in all the years he had known him, had he seen Timotheus so pale and dejected.
The high-priest had indeed good cause for anxiety, for he suspected who it was that Caesar hoped to find in the mystic rooms, and feared that his wife might, in fact, have Melissa in hiding in that part of the building to which he was now leading the way. After Macrinus had come to fetch him he had had no opportunity of inquiring, for the prefect had not quitted him for a moment, and Euryale was in the town busy with other women in seeking out and nursing such of the wounded as had been found alive among the dead.
Caesar triumphed in the changed, gloomy, and depressed demeanor of a man usually so self-possessed; for he fancied that it betrayed some knowledge on the part of Timotheus of Melissa's hiding-place; and he could jest with the priest of Alexander and his favorite Theokritus and the other friends who attended him, while he ignored the high-priest's presence and never even alluded to Melissa.
Hardly had they gone past the old man when, just as the kitchen slaves were shouting "Hail, Caesar!" the lady Euryale, as pale as death, hurried in, and with a trembling voice inquired whither her husband was conducting the emperor.
She had turned back when half way on her road, in obedience to the impulse of her heart, which prompted her, before she went on her Samaritan's errand, to visit Melissa in her hiding-place, and let her see the face of a friend at the beginning of a new, lonely, and anxious day. On hearing the reply which was readily given, her knees trembled beneath her, and the steward, who saw her totter, supported her and led her into the laboratory, where essences and strong waters soon restored her to consciousness. Euryale had known the old pastophoros a long time, and, noticing his mourning garb, she asked sympathetically: "And you, too, are bereft?"
"Of both," was the answer. "You were always so good to them-- Slaughtered like beasts for sacrifice--down there in the stadium," and tears flowed fast down the old man's furrowed cheeks. The lady uplifted her hands as though calling on Heaven to avenge this outrageous crime; at the same instant a loud howl of pain was heard from above, and a great confusion of men's voices.
Euryale was beside herself with fear. If they had found Melissa in her room her husband's fate was sealed, and she was guilty of his doom. But they could scarcely yet have opened the chambers, and the girl was clever and nimble, and might perhaps escape in time if she heard the men approaching. She eagerly flew to the window. She could see below her the stone which Melissa must move to get out; but between the wall and the stadium the street was crowded, and at every door of the Serapeum lictors were posted, even at that stone door known only to the initiated, with the temple slaughterers and other servants who seemed all to be on guard. If Melissa were to come out now she would be seized, and it must become known who had shown her the way into the hiding-place that had sheltered her.
At this moment Theokritus came leaping down the stairs, crying out to her: "The lion--a physician--where shall I find a leech?"
The matron pointed to the old man, who was one of the medical students of the sanctuary, and the favorite shouted out to him, "Come up!" and then rushed on, paying no heed to Euryale's inquiry for Melissa; but the old man laughed scornfully and shouted after him, "I am no beast-healer."
Then, turning to the lady, he added:
"I am sorry for the lion. You know me, lady. I could never till yesterday bear to see a fly hurt. But this brute! It was as a son to that bloodhound, and he shall feel for once something to grieve him. The lion has had his portion. No physician in the world can bring him to life again."
He bent his head and returned to his laboratory; but the matron understood that this kind, peaceable man, in spite of his white hair, had become a poisoner, and that the splendid, guiltless beast owed its death to him. She shuddered. Wherever this unblest man went, good turned to evil; terror, suffering, and death took the place of peace, happiness, and life. He had forced her even into the sin of disobedience to her husband and master. But now her secret hiding of Melissa against his will would be avenged. He and she alike would probably pay for the deed with their life; for the murder of his lion would inevitably rouse Caesar's wildest passions.
Still, she knew that Caracalla respected her; for her sake, perhaps, he would spare her husband. But Melissa? What would her fate be if she were dragged out of her hiding-place?--and she must be discovered! He had threatened to cast her to the beasts; and ought she not to prefer even that fearful fate to forgiveness and a fresh outburst of Caesar's passion?
Pale and tearless, but shaken with alarms, she bent over the balustrade of the stairs and murmured a prayer commending herself, her husband, and Melissa to God. Then she hastened up the steps. The great doors leading to the chambers of mystery stood wide open, and the first person she met was her husband.
"You here?" said he in an undertone. "You may thank the gods that your kind heart did not betray you into hiding the girl here. I trembled for her and for ourselves. But there is not a sign of her; neither here nor on the secret stair. What a morning--and what a day must follow! There lies Caesar's lion. If his suspicion that it has been poisoned should be proved true, woe to this luckless city, woe to us all!"
And Caesar's aspect justified the worst anticipations. He had thrown himself on the floor by the side of his dead favorite, hiding his face in the lion's noble mane, with strange, quavering wailing. Then he raised the brute's heavy head and kissed his dead eyes, and as it slipped from his hand and fell on the floor, he started to his feet, shaking his fist, and exclaiming:
"Yes, you have poisoned him! Bring the miscreant here, or you shall follow him!"
Macrinus assured him that if indeed some basest of base wretches had dared to destroy the life of this splendid and faithful king of beasts, the murderer should infallibly be found. But Caracalla screamed in his face:
"Found? Dare you speak of finding? Have you even brought me the girl who was hidden here? Have you found her? Where is she? She was seen here and she must be here!"
And he hurried from room to room in undignified haste, like a slave hunting for some lost treasure of his master's, tearing open closets, peeping behind curtains and up chimneys, and snatching the clothes, behind which she might have hidden, from the pegs on which they hung. He insisted on seeing every secret door, and ran first down and then up the hidden stairs by which Melissa had in fact escaped.
In the great hall, where by this time physicians and courtiers had gathered round the carcass of the lion, Caesar sank on to a seat, his brow damp with heat, and stared at the floor; while the leeches, who, as Alexandrians for the most part, were anxious not to rouse the despot's rage, assured him that to all appearance the lion, who had been highly fed and getting little exercise, had died of a fit. The poison had indeed worked more rapidly than any the imperial body physician was acquainted with; and he, not less anxious to mollify the sovereign, bore them out in this opinion. But their diagnosis, though well meant, had the contrary effect to that they had intended. The prosecution and punishment of a murderer would have given occupation to his revengeful spirit and have diverted his thoughts, and the capture of the criminal would have pacified him; as it was, he could only regard the death of the lion as a fresh stroke of fate directed against himself. He sat absorbed in sullen gloom, muttering frantic curses, and haughtily desired the high-priest to restore the offering he had wasted on a god who was so malignant, and as hostile to him as all else in this city of abomination.
He then rose, desired every one to stand back from where the lion lay, and gazed down at the beast for many minutes. And as he looked, his excited imagination showed him Melissa stroking the noble brute, and the lion lashing the ground with his tail when he heard the light step of her little feet. He could hear the music of her voice when she spoke coaxingly to the lion; and then again he started off to search the rooms once more, shouting her name, heedless of the bystanders, till Macrinus made so bold as to assure him that the slaughterer's report must have been false. He must have mistaken some one else for Melissa, for it was proved beyond a doubt that Melissa had been burned in her father's house.
At this Caesar looked the prefect in the face with glazed and wandering eyes, and Macrinus started in horror as he suddenly shrieked, "The deed, the deed!" and struck his brow with his fist.
From that hour Caracalla had lost forever the power of distinguishing the illusions which pursued him from reality.
A week later Caracalla quitted Alexandria to make war on the Parthians. What finally drove the unhappy man to hurry from the hated place was the torturing fear of sharing his lion's fate, and of being sent after the murdered Tarautas by the friends who had heard his appeal to fate.
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