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- A Thorny Path, Volume 4. - 3/10 -
interpret the visions, nor of physicians who came hither to watch peculiar cases, to explain to the sufferers the purport of the counsel of the gods--often very dark--or to give them the benefit of their own.
One of these, a friend of Ptolemaeus, who, though he had been secretly baptized, still was one of the pastophori of the temple, was awaiting the little party, and led the way as guide.
The bellowing of beasts met them on the very threshold. These were to be slaughtered at this early hour by the special command of Caracalla; and, as Caesar himself had promised to be present at the sacrificial rites, none but the priests or "Caesar's friends" were admitted to the court- yard. The litter was therefore carried up a staircase and through a long hall forming part of the library, with large windows looking down on the open place where the beasts were killed and the entrails examined. Diodoros saw and heard nothing, for the injury to the skull had deprived him of all consciousness; Ptolemaeus, however, to soothe Melissa, assured her that he was sleeping soundly.
As they mounted the stairs she had kept close to her lover's side; but on this assurance she lingered behind and looked about her.
As the little procession entered the gallery, in which the rolls of manuscript lay in stone or wooden cases on long rows of shelves, the shout was heard of "Hail, Caesar!" mingling with a solemn chant, and announcing the sovereign's approach.
At this the physician pointed to the court-yard, and said to the girl, whose beauty had greatly attracted him: "Look down there if you want to see Caesar. We must wait here, at any rate, till the crowd has gone past in the corridor beyond that door." And Melissa, whose feminine curiosity had already tempted her to the window, looked down into the quadrangle and on to the steps down which a maniple of the praetorian guard were marching, with noble Romans in togas or the uniform of legates, augurs wearing wreaths, and priests of various orders. Then for a few minutes the steps were deserted, and Melissa thought she could hear her own heart beating, when suddenly the cry: "Hail, Caesar!" was again heard, loud trumpets rang out and echoed from the high stone walls which surrounded the inclosure, and Caracalla appeared on the broad marble steps which led down into the court of sacrifice.
Melissa's eyes were riveted as if spell-bound on this figure, which was neither handsome nor dignified, and which nevertheless had a strange attraction for her, she knew not why. What was it in this man, who was short rather than tall, and feeble rather than majestic, which so imperatively forbade all confident advances? The noble lion which walked by his side, and in whose mane his left hand was buried, was not more unapproachable than he. He called this terrible creature, which he treated with as much familiarity as if it were a lapdog, his "Persian sword"; and as Melissa looked she remembered what fate might be in store for her brother through this man, and all the crimes of which he was accused by the world--the murders of his brother, of his wife, and of thousands besides.
For the first time in her life she felt that she could hate; she longed to bring down every evil on that man's head. The blood mounted to her cheeks, and her little fists were clinched, but she never took her eyes off him; for everything in his person impressed her, if not as fine, still as exceptional--if not as great, still as noteworthy.
She knew that he was not yet thirty, but yesterday, as he drove past her, he had looked like a surly misanthropist of more than middle age. To-day how young he seemed! Did he owe it to the laurel crown which rested on his head, or to the white toga which fell about him in ample folds, leaving only the sinewy arm bare by which he led the lion?
From where she stood she could only see his side-face as he came down the steps, and indeed it was not ill-favored; brow, nose, and chin were finely and nobly formed; his beard was thin, and a mustache curled over his lips. His eyes, deeply set under the brows, were not visible to her, but she had not forgotten since yesterday their sinister and terrible scowl.
At this moment the lion crept closer to his master.
If only the brute should spring on that more blood-stained and terrible beast of prey who could kill not only with claws and teeth but with a word from his lips, a wave of his hand!--the world would be rid of the ferocious curse. Ay, his eye, which had yesterday scorned to look at the multitudes who had hailed his advent, was that of a cruel tyrant.
And then--she felt as if he must have guessed her thoughts--while he patted the lion and gently pushed him aside he turned his face full on her, and she knew not whether to be pleased or angry, for the odious, squinting eyes were not now terrible or contemptuous; nay, they had looked kindly on the beast, and with a somewhat suffering expression. The dreadful face of the murderer was not hideous now, but engaging-- the face of a youth enduring torments of soul or of body.
She was not mistaken. On the very next step Caracalla stood still, pressed his right hand to his temples, and set his lips as if to control some acute pain. Then he sadly shook his head and gazed up at the walls of the court, which had been decorated in his honor with hangings and garlands of flowers. First he studied the frieze and the festal display on his right, and when he turned his head to look at the side where Melissa stood, an inward voice bade her withdraw, that the gaze of this monster might not blight her. But an irresistible attraction held her fast; then suddenly she felt as if the ground were sinking from under her feet, and, as a shipwrecked wretch snatches at a floating spar, she clung to the little column at the left of the window, clutching it with her hand; for the dreadful thing had happened-Caracalla's eye had met hers and had even rested on her for a while! And that gaze had nothing bloodthirsty in it, nor the vile leer which had sparkled in the eyes of the drunken rioters she had met last night in the streets; he only looked astonished as at some wonderful thing which he had not expected to see in this place. But presently a fresh attack of pain apparently made him turn away, for his features betrayed acute suffering, as he slowly set his foot on the next step below.
Again, and more closely, he pressed his hand to his brow, and then beckoned to a tall, well-built man with flowing hair, who walked behind him, and accepted the support of his offered arm.
"Theocritus, formerly an actor and dancer," the priest whispered to Melissa. "Caesar's whim made the mimic a senator, a legate, and a favorite."
But Melissa only knew that he was speaking, and did not take in the purport of his speech; for this man, slowly descending the steps, absorbed her whole sympathy. She knew well the look of those who suffer and conceal it from the eyes of the world; and some cruel disease was certainly consuming this youth, who ruled the earth, but whose purple robes would be snatched at soon enough by greedy hands if he should cease to seem strong and able. And now, again, he looked old and worn--poor wretch, who yet was so young and born to be so abundantly happy! He was, to be sure, a base and blood-stained tyrant, but not the less a miserable and unhappy man. The more severe the pain he had to endure, the harder must he find it to hide it from the crowd who were constantly about him. There is but one antidote to hatred, and that is pity; it was with the eager compassion of a woman's heart that Melissa marked every movement of the imperial murderer, as soon as she recognized his sufferings, and when their eyes had met. Nothing now escaped her keen glance which could add to her sympathy for the man she had loathed but a minute before. She noticed a slight limp in his gait and a convulsive twitching of his eyelids; his slender, almost transparent hand, she reflected, was that of a sick man, and pain and fever, no doubt, had thinned his hair, which had left many places bald.
And when the high--priest of Serapis and the augurs met him at the bottom of the steps and Caesar's eye again put on the cruel scowl of yesterday, she would not doubt that it was stern self-command which gave him that threatening glare, to seem terrible, in spite of his anguish, to those whose obedience he required. He had really needed his companion's support as they descended the stair, that she could plainly see; and she had observed, too, how carefully his guide had striven to conceal the fact that he was upholding him; but the courtier was too tall to achieve the task he had set himself. Now, she was much shorter than Caesar, and she was strong, too. Her arm would have afforded him a much better support.
But how could she think of such a thing?--she, the sister of Alexander, the betrothed of Diodoros, whom she truly loved!
Caesar mingled with the priests, and her guide told her that the corridor was now free. She peeped into the litter, and, seeing that Diodoros still slept, she followed him, lost in thought, and giving short and heedless answers to Andreas and the physicians She had not listened to the priest's information, and scarcely turned her head to look out, when a tall, thin man with a bullet-head and deeply wrinkled brow was pointed out to her as Macrinus, the prefect of the body-guard, the most powerful man in Rome next to Caesar; and then the "friends" of Caracalla, whom she had seen yesterday, and the historian Dion Cassius, with other senators and members of the imperial train.
Now, as they made their way through halls and passages where the foot of the uninitiated rarely intruded, she looked about her with more interest when the priest drew her attention to some particularly fine statue or picture, or some symbolical presentment. Even now, however, though association with her brothers had made her particularly alive to everything that was beautiful or curious, she glanced round with less interest than she otherwise might have done, for she had much else to think of. In the first place, of the benefits Diodoros was to derive from the great Galen; then of her father, who this day must dispense with her assistance; and, finally, of the state of mind of her grave brother Philip. He and Alexander, who usually were such united friends, now both were in love with Agatha, and what could come of that? And from time to time her thoughts flew back to Caesar, and she felt as though some tie, she knew not what, linked them together.
As soon as the litter had to be carried up or down steps, she kept an eye on the bearers, and gave such help as was needed when the sleeper's position was changed. Whenever she looked in his handsome face, flushed as it was by fever and framed in tumbled curls, her heart swelled, and she felt that she had much to thank the gods for, seeing that her lover was so full of splendid youth and in no respect resembled the prematurely decrepit and sickly wearer of the purple. Nevertheless, she thought a good deal of Caracalla, and it even occurred to her once that if it were he who was being carried instead of Diodoros, she would tend him no less carefully than her betrothed. Caesar, who had been as far out of her ken as a god, and of whose overwhelming power she had heard, had suddenly come down to her. She involuntarily thought of him as one of those few with whom she had come into personal contact, and in whose weal or woe she had some sympathetic interest. He could not be altogether evil and hardened. If he could only know what pain it caused her to see him suffer, he would surely command Zminis to abandon the pursuit of her brother.
Just as they were reaching the end of their walk, the trumpets rang out once more, reminding her that she was under the same roof with him. She was so close to him--and yet how far he was from guessing the desires of
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