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- A Thorny Path, Volume 12. - 6/9 -
Quite mad he was not, for the illusions which haunted him were often absent for several hours, when he spoke with perfect lucidity, received reports, and gave orders. It was with peculiar terror that his soul avoided every recollection of his mother, of Theokritus, and all those whose opinion he had formerly valued and whose judgment was not indifferent to him.
In constant terror of the dagger of an avenger--a dread which, with many other peculiarities, the leech could hardly ascribe to the diseased phenomena of his mental state--he only showed himself to his soldiers, and he might often be seen making a meal off a pottage he himself had cooked to escape the poison which had been fatal to his lion. He was never for an instant free from the horrible sense of being hated, shunned, and persecuted by the whole world.
Sometimes he would remember that once a fair girl had prayed for him; but when he tried to recall her features he could only see the charred arm with the golden snake held up before him as he had pictured it that night after the most hideous of his massacres; and every time, at the sight of it, that word came back to him which still tortured his soul above all else--"The deed." But his attendants, who heard him repeating it day and night, never knew what he meant by it.
When Zminis met his end by the wild beasts in the arena, it was before half-empty seats, though several legions had been ordered into the amphitheatre to fill them. The larger number of the citizens were slain, and the remainder were in mourning for relatives more or less near; and they also kept away from the scene to avoid the hated despot.
Macrinus now governed the empire almost as a sovereign, for Caesar, formerly a laborious and autocratic ruler, shrank from all business. Even before they left Alexandria the plebeian prefect could see that Serapion's prophecy was fulfilling itself. He remained in close intimacy with the soothsayer; but only once more, and just before Caesar's departure, could the magian be induced to raise the spirits of the dead, for his clever accomplice, Castor, had fallen a victim in the massacre because, prompted by the high price set on Alexander's head, and his own fierce hatred of the young painter, he would go out to discover where he and his sister had concealed themselves.
When at last the unhappy monarch quitted Alexandria one rainy morning, followed by the curses of innumerable mourners--fathers, mothers, widows, and orphans--as well as of ruined artisans and craftsmen, the ill-used city, once so proudly gay, felt itself relieved of a crushing nightmare. This time it was not to Caesar that the cloudy sky promised welfare--his life was wrapped in gloom--but to the people he had so bitterly hated. Thousands looked forward hopefully to life once more, in spite of their mourning robes and widows' veils, and notwithstanding the serious hindrances which the malice of their "afflicted" sovereign had placed in the way of the resuscitation of their town, for Caracalla had commanded that a wall should be built to divide the great merchant city into two parts.
Nay, he had intended to strike a death-blow even at the learning to which Alexandria owed a part of her greatness, by decreeing that the Museum and schools should be removed and the theatres closed.
Maddening alike to heart and brain was the memory that he left behind him, and the citizens would shake their fists if only his name were spoken. But their biting tongues had ceased to mock or jest. Most of the epigramatists were silenced forever, and the nimble wit of the survivors was quelled for many a month by bitter curses or tears of sorrow.
But now--it was a fortnight since the dreadful man had left--the shops and stores, which had been closed against the plunderers, were being reopened. Life was astir again in the deserted and silent baths and taverns, for there was no further fear of rapine from insolent soldiers, or the treacherous ears of spies and delators. Women and girls could once more venture into the highways, the market was filled with dealers, and many an one who was conscious of a heedless speech or suspected of whistling in the circus, or of some other crime, now came out of his well-watched hiding-place.
Glaukias, the sculptor, among others, reopened his work-rooms in Heron's garden-plot. In the cellar beneath the floor the gem-cutter had remained hidden with Polybius and his sister Praxilla, for the easy-going old man could not be induced to embark in the vessel which Argutis had hired for them. Sooner would he die than leave Alexandria. He was too much petted and too infirm to face the discomforts of a sea voyage. And his obstinacy had served him well, for the ship in which they were to have sailed, though it got out before the harbor was closed, was overtaken and brought back by an imperial galley.
Polybius was, however, quite willing to accept Heron's invitation to share his hiding-place.
Now they could both come out again; but these few weeks had affected them very differently. The gem-cutter looked like the shadow of himself, and had lost his upright carriage. He knew, indeed, that Melissa was alive, and that Alexander, after being wounded, had been carried by Andreas to the house of Zeno, and was on the way to recovery; but the death of his favorite son preyed on his mind, and it was a great grievance that his house should have been wrecked and burned. His hidden gold, which was safe with him, would have allowed of his building a far finer one in its stead, but the fact that it should be his fellow-citizens who had destroyed it was worst of all. It weighed on his spirits, and made him morose and silent.
Old Dido, who had risked her life more than once, looked at him with mournful eyes, and besought all the gods she worshiped to restore her good master's former vigor, that she might once more hear him curse and storm; for his subdued mood seemed to her unnatural and alarming--a portent of his approaching end.
Praxilla, too, the comfortable widow, had grown pale and thin, but old Dido had learned a great deal from her teaching. Polybius only was more cheerful than ever. He knew that his son and Melissa had escaped the most imminent dangers. This made him glad; and then his sister had done wonders that he might not too greatly miss his cook. His meals had nevertheless been often scanty enough, and this compulsory temperance had relieved him of his gout and done him so much good that, when Andreas led him out into daylight once more, the burly old man exclaimed: "I feel as light as a bird. If I had but wings I could fly across the lake to see the boy. It is you, my brother, who have helped to make me so much lighter." He laid his arm on the freedman's shoulder and kissed him on the cheeks. It was for the first time; and never before had he called him brother. But that his lips had obeyed the impulse of his heart might be seen in the tearful glitter of his eyes, which met those of Andreas, and they, too, were moist.
Polybius knew all that the Christian had done for his son and for Melissa, for him and his, and his jest in saying that Andreas had helped to make him lighter referred to his latest achievement. Julianus, the new governor of the city, who now occupied the residence of the prefect Titianus, had taken advantage of the oppressed people to extract money, and Andreas, by the payment of a large sum, had succeeded in persuading him to sign a document which exonerated Polybius and his son from all criminality, and protected their person and property against soldiers and town guards alike. This safe-conduct secured a peaceful future to the genial old man, and filled the measure of what he owed to the freedman, even to overflowing. Andreas, on his part, felt that his former owner's kiss and brotherly greeting had sealed his acceptance as a free man. He asked no greater reward than this he had just received; and there was another thing which made his heart leap with gladness. He knew now that the fullness of time had come in the best sense for the daughter of the only woman he had ever loved, and that the Good Shepherd had called her to be one of His flock. He could rejoice over this without a pang, for he had learned that Diodoros, too, had entered on the path which hitherto he had pointed out to him in vain.
A calm cheerfulness, which surprised all who knew him, brightened the grave man; for him the essence of Christian love lay in the Resurrection, and he saw with astonishment that a wonderful new vitality was rising out of death. For Alexandria, too, the time was fulfilled. Men and women crowded to the rite of baptism. Mothers brought their daughters, and fathers their sons. These days of horror had multiplied the little Christian congregation to a church of ten thousand members. Caracalla turned hundreds from heathenism by his bloody sacrifices, his love of fighting, his passion for revenge, and the blindness which made him cast away all care for his eternal soul to secure the enjoyment of a brief existence. That the sword which had slain thousands of their sons should have been dedicated to Serapis, and accepted by the god, alienated many of the citizens from the patron divinity of the town. Then the news that Timotheus the high-priest had abdicated his office soon after Caesar's departure, and, with his revered wife Euryale, had been baptized by their friend the learned Clemens, confirmed many in their desire to be admitted into the Christian community.
After these horrors of bloodshed, these orgies of hatred and vengeance, every heart longed for love and peace and brotherly communion. Who of all those that had looked death in the face in these days was not anxious to know more of the creed which taught that the life beyond the grave was of greater importance than that on earth?--while those who already held it went forth to meet, as it were, a bridegroom. They had seen men trodden down and all their rights trampled on, and now every ear was open when a doctrine was preached which recognized the supreme value of humanity, by ascribing, even to the humblest, the dignity of a child of God. They were accustomed to pray to immortal beings who lived in privileged supremacy and wild revelry at the golden tables of the Olympian banquet; and now they were told that the church of the Christians meant the communion of the faithful with their fatherly God, and with His Son who had mingled with other mortals in the form of man and who had done more for them than a brother, inasmuch as He had taken upon Himself to die on the cross for love of them.
To a highly cultured race like the Alexandrians it had long seemed an absurdity to try to purchase the favor of the god; by blood-offerings. Many philosophical sects, and especially the Pythagoreans, had forbidden such sacrifices, and had enjoined the bringing of offerings not to purchase good fortune, but only to honor the gods; and now they saw the Christians not making any offerings at all, but sharing a love-feast. This, as they declared, was to keep them in remembrance of their brotherhood and of their crucified Lord, whose blood, once shed, His heavenly Father had accepted instead of every other sacrifice. The voluntary and agonizing death of the Redeemer had saved the soul of every Christian from sin and damnation; and many who in the late scenes of horror had been inconsolable in anticipation of the grave, felt moved to share in this divine gift of grace.
Beautiful, wise, and convincing sentences from the Bible went from lip to lip; and a saying of Clemens, whose immense learning was well known, was especially effective and popular. He had said that "faith was knowledge of divine things through revelation, but that learning must give the proof thereof"; and this speech led many men of high attainments to study the new doctrines.
The lower classes were no doubt those most strongly attracted, the poor and the slaves; and with them the sorrowing and oppressed. There were
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