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- A Thorny Path, Volume 5. - 3/8 -
"Then," said Philostratus, and his eyes flashed brightly, "I may promise you, in the name of the gods, that your prayer and offering were pleasing in their eyes. I myself, noble girl, owe you a rare pleasure. But, tell me--how did you feel as you left the sanctuary?"
"Light-hearted, my lord, and content," she answered, with a frank, glad look in her fine eyes. "I could have sung as I went down the road, though there were people about."
"I should have liked to hear you," he said, kindly, and he still held her hand, which he had grasped with the amiable geniality that characterized him, when they were joined by the senator and his sister-in-law.
"Has she won your good offices?" asked Coeranus; and Philostratus replied, quickly, "Anything that it lies in my power to do for her shall certainly be done."
Berenike bade them both to join her in her own rooms, for everything that had to do with the banquet was odious to her; and as they went, Melissa told her new friend her brother's story. She ended it in the quiet sitting-room of the mistress of the house, an artistic but not splendid apartment, adorned only with the choicest works of early Alexandrian art. Philostratus listened attentively, but, before she could put her petition for help into words, he exclaimed:
"Then what we have to do is, to move Caesar to mercy, and that--Child, you know not what you ask!"
They were interrupted by a message from Seleukus, desiring Coeranus to join the other guests, and as soon as he had left them Berenike withdrew to take off the splendor she hated. She promised to return immediately and join their discussion, and Philostratus sat for a while lost in thought. Then he turned to Melissa and asked her:
"Would you for their sakes be able to make up your mind to face bitter humiliation, nay, perhaps imminent danger?"
"Anything! I would give my life for them!" replied the girl, with spirit, and her eyes gleamed with such enthusiastic self-sacrifice that his heart, though no longer young, warmed under their glow, and the principle to which he had sternly adhered since he had been near the imperial person, never to address a word to the sovereign but in reply, was blown to the winds.
Holding her hand in his, with a keen look into her eyes, he went on:
"And if you were required to do a thing from which many a man even would recoil--you would venture?"
And again the answer was a ready "Yes." Philostratus released her hand, and said:
"Then we will dare the worst. I will smooth the way for you, and to-morrow--do not start--tomorrow you yourself, under my protection, shall appeal to Caesar."
The color faded from the girl's cheeks, which had been flushed with fresh hopes, and her counselor had just expressed his wish to talk the matter over with the lady Berenike, when she came into the room. She was now dressed in mourning, and her pale, beautiful face showed the traces of the tears she had just shed. The dark shadows which, when they surround a woman's eyes, betray past storms of grief, as the halo round the moon --the eye of night--gives warning of storms to come, were deeper than ever; and when her sorrowful gaze fell on Melissa, the girl felt an almost irresistible longing to throw herself into her arms and weep on her motherly bosom.
Philostratus, too, was deeply touched by the appearance of this mother, who possessed so much, but for whom everything dearest to a woman's heart had been destroyed by a cruel stroke of Fate. He was glad to be able to tell her that he hoped to soften Caesar. Still, his plan was a bold one; Caracalla had been deeply offended by the scornful tone of the attacks on him, and Melissa's brother was perhaps the only one of the scoffers who had been taken. The crime of the Alexandrian wits could not be left unpunished. For such a desperate case only desperate remedies could avail; he therefore ventured to propose to conduct Melissa into Caesar's presence, that she might appeal to his clemency.
The matron started as though a scorpion had stung her. In great agitation, she threw her arm round the girl as if to shelter her from imminent danger, and Melissa, seeking help, laid her head on that kind breast. Berenike was reminded, by the scent that rose up from the girl's hair, of the hours when her own child had thus fondly clung to her. Her motherly heart had found a new object to love, and exclaiming, "Impossible!" she clasped Melissa more closely.
But Philostratus begged to be heard. Any plea urged by a third person he declared would only be the ruin of the rash mediator.
"Caracalla," he went on, looking at Melissa, "is terrible in his passions, no one can deny that; but of late severe suffering has made him irritably sensitive, and he insists on the strictest virtue in all who are about his person. He pays no heed to female beauty, and this sweet child, at any rate, will find many protectors. He shall know that the high-priest's wife, one of the best of women, keeps an anxious eye on Melissa's fate; and I myself, his mother's friend, shall be at hand. His passion for revenge, on the other hand, is boundless--no one living can control it; and not even the noble Julia can shield those who provoke it from a cruel end. If you do not know it, child, I can tell you that he had his brother Geta killed, though he took refuge in the arms of the mother who bore them both. You must understand the worst; and again I ask you, are you ready to risk all for those you love? Have you the courage to venture into the lion's den?"
Melissa clung more closely to the motherly woman, and her pale lips answered faintly but firmly, "I am ready, and he will grant my prayer."
"Child, child," cried Berenike in horror, "you know not what lies before you! You are dazzled by the happy confidence of inexperienced youth. I know what life is. I can see you, in your heart's blood, as red and pure as the blood of a lamb! I see--Ah, child! you do not know death and its terrible reality."
"I know it!" Melissa broke in with feverish excitement. "My dearest--my mother--I saw her die with these eyes. What did I not bury in her grave! And yet hope still lived in my heart; and though Caracalla may be a reckless murderer, he will do nothing to me, precisely because I am so feeble. And, lady, what am I? Of what account is my life if I lose my father, and my brothers, who are both on the high-road to greatness?"
"But you are betrothed," Berenike eagerly put in. "And your lover, you told me, is dear to you. What of him? He no doubt loves you, and, if you come to harm, sorrow will mar his young life."
At this Melissa clasped her hands over her face and sobbed aloud. "Show me, then, any other way--any! I will face the worst. But there is none; and if Diodoros were here he would not stop me; for what my heart prompts me to do is right, is my duty. But he is lying sick and with a clouded mind, and I can not ask him. O noble lady, kindness looks out of your eyes; cease to rub salt into my wounds! The task before me is hard enough already. But I would do it, and try to get speech with that terrible man, even if I had no one to protect me."
The lady had listened with varying feelings to this outpouring of the young girl's heart. Every instinct rebelled against the thought of sacrificing this pure, sweet creature to the fury of the tyrant whose wickedness was as unlimited as his power, and yet she saw no other chance of saving the artist, whom she held in affectionate regard. Her own noble heart understood the girl's resolve to purchase the life of those she loved, even with her blood; she, in the same place, would have done the same thing; and she thought to herself that it would have made her happy to see such a spirit in her own child. Her resistance melted away, and almost involuntarily she exclaimed, "Well, do what you feel to be right."
Melissa flew into her arms again with a grateful sense of release from a load, and Berenike did all she could to smooth the thorny way for her. She discussed every point with Philostratus as thoroughly as though for a child of her own; and, while the tumult came up from the banquet in the men's rooms, they settled that Berenike herself should conduct the girl to the wife of the high-priest of Serapis, the brother of Seleukus, and there await Melissa's return. Philostratus named the hour and other details, and then made further inquiries concerning the young artist whose mocking spirit had brought so much trouble on his family.
On this the lady led him into an adjoining room, where the portrait of her adored daughter was hanging. It was surrounded by a thick wreath of violets, the dead girl's favorite flower. The beautiful picture was lighted up by two three-branched lamps on high stands; and Philostratus, a connoisseur who had described many paintings with great taste and vividness, gazed in absorbed silence at the lovely features, which were represented with rare mastery and the inspired devotion of loving admiration. At last he turned to the mother, exclaiming:
"Happy artist, to have such a subject! It is a work worthy of the early, best period, and of a master of the time of Apelies. The daughter who has been snatched from you, noble lady, was indeed matchless, and no sorrow is too deep to do her justice. But the divinity who has taken her knows also how to give; and this portrait has preserved for you a part of what you loved. This picture, too, may influence Melissa's fate; for Caesar has a fine taste in art, and one of the wants of our time which has helped to embitter him is the paralyzed state of the imitative arts. It will be easier to win his favor for the painter who did this portrait than for a man of noble birth. He needs such painters as this Alexander for the Pinakothek in the splendid baths he has built at Rome. If you would but lend me this treasure to-morrow--"
But she interrupted him with a decisive "Never!" and laid her hand on the frame as if to protect it. Philostratus, however, was not to be put off; he went on in a tone of the deepest disappointment: "This portrait is yours, and no one can wonder at your refusal. We must, therefore, consider how to attain our end without this important ally." Berenike's gaze had lingered calmly on the sweet face while he spoke, looking more and more deeply into the beautiful, expressive features. All was silent.
At last she slowly turned to Melissa, who stood gazing sadly at the ground, and said in a low voice: "She resembled you in many ways. The gods had formed her to shed joy and light around her. Where she could wipe away a tear she always did so. Her portrait is speechless, and yet it tells me to act as she herself would have acted. If this work can indeed move Caracalla to clemency, then--You, Philostratus, really think so?"
"Yes," he replied, decisively. "There can be no better mediator for Alexander than this work." Berenike drew herself up, and said:
"Well, then, to-morrow morning early, I will send it to you at the Serapeum. The portrait of the dead may perish if it may but save the life of him who wrought it so lovingly." She turned away her face as
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