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- A Thorny Path, Volume 8. - 3/10 -
children, he began to express these sentiments. But he did not get far, for the hour for the morning meal being just over, the court-yard began to fill from all sides with officials and servants of the temple. So, father and son silently followed the maiden through the crowded galleries and apartments, into the house of the highpriest.
Here they were received by Philostratus, who hardly gave Melissa time to greet the lady Euryale before he informed her, but with unwonted hurry and excitement, that the emperor was awaiting her with impatience.
The philosopher motioned to her to follow him, but she clung, as if seeking help, to her brother, and cried: "I will not go again to Caracalla! You are the kindest and best of them all, Philostratus, and you will understand me. Evil will come of it if I follow you--I can not go again to Caesar."
But it was impossible for the courtier to yield to her, in the face of his monarch's direct commands; therefore, hard as it was to him, he said, resolutely: "I well understand what holds you back; still, if you would not ruin yourself and your family, you must submit. Besides which, you know not what Caesar is about to offer you-fortunate, unhappy child!"
"I know--oh, I know it!" sobbed Melissa; "but it is just that . . . I have served the emperor willingly, but before I consent become the wife of such a monster--"
"She is right," broke in Euryale, and drew Melissa toward her. But the philosopher took the girl's hand and said, kindly:--"You must come with me now, my child, and pretend that you know nothing of Caesar's intentions toward you. It is the only way to save you. But while you are with the emperor, who, in any case, can devote but a short time to you to-day, I will return here and consult with your people. There is much to be decided, of the greatest moment, and not to you alone." Melissa turned with tearful eyes to Euryale, and questioned her with a look; whereupon the lady drew the girl's hand out of that of the philosopher, and saying to him, "She shall be with you directly," took her away to her own apartment.
Here she begged Melissa to dry her eyes, and arranging the girl's hair and robe with her own hands, she promised to do all in her power to facilitate her flight. She must do her part now by going into Caesar's presence as frankly as she had done yesterday and the day before. She might be quite easy; her interests were being faithfully watched over.
Taking a short leave of her father, who was looking very sulky because nobody seemed to care for his opinion, and of Alexander, who lovingly promised her his help, she took the philosopher's hand and walked with him through one crowded apartment after another. They often had difficulty in pressing through the throng of people who were waiting for an audience, and in the antechamber, where the Aurelians had had to pay so bitterly for their insolence yesterday, they were detained by the blonde and red-Haired giants of the Uermanian body-guard, whose leader, Sabinus, a Thracian of exceptional height and strength, was acquainted with the philosopher.
Caracalla had given orders that no one was to be admitted till the negotiations with the Parthian ambassadors, which had begun an hour ago, were brought to a conclusion. Philostratus well knew that the emperor would interrupt the most important business if Melissa were announced, but there was much that he would have the maiden lay to heart before he led her to the monarch; while she wished for nothing so earnestly as that the door which separated her from her terrible wooer might remain closed to the end of time. When the chamberlain Adventus looked out from the imperial apartments, she begged him to give her a little time before announcing her.
The old man blinked consent with his dim eyes, but the philosopher took care that Melissa should not be left to herself and the terrors of her heart. He employed all the eloquence at his command to make her comprehend what it meant to be an empress and the consort of the ruler of the world. In flaming colors he painted to her the good she might do in such a position, and the tears she might wipe away. Then he reminded her of the healing and soothing influence she had over Caracalla, and that this influence came doubtless from the gods, since it passed the bounds of nature and acted so beneficently. No one might reject such a gift from the immortals merely to gratify an ordinary passion. The youth whose love she must give up would be able to comfort himself with the thought that many others had had much worse to bear, and he would find no difficulty in getting a substitute, though not so beautiful a one. On the other hand, she was the only one among millions whose heart, obedient to a heaven-sent impulse, had turned in pity toward Caracalla. If she fled, she would deprive the emperor of the only being on whose love he felt he had some claim. If she listened to the wooing of her noble lover, she would be able to tame this ungovernable being and soothe his fury, and would gain in return for a sacrifice such as many had made before her, the blissful consciousness of having rendered an inestimable service to the whole world. For by her means and her love, the imperial tyrant would be transformed into a beneficent ruler. The blessing of the thousands whom she could protect and save would make the hardest task sweet and endurable.
Here Philostratus paused, and gazed inquiringly at her; but she only shook her head gently, and answered:
"My brain is so confused that I can scarcely hear even, but I feel that your words are well meant and wise. What you put before me would certainly be worth considering if there were anything left for me to consider about. I have promised myself to another, who is more to me than all the world--more than the gratitude and blessings of endangered lives of which I know nothing. I am but a poor girl who only asks to be happy. Neither gods nor men expect more of me than that I should do my duty toward those whom I love. And, then, who can say for certain that I should succeed in persuading Caesar to carry out my desires, whatever they might be?"
"We were witnesses of the power you exercised over him," replied the philosopher; but Melissa shook her head, and continued eagerly: "No, no! he only values in me the hand that eases his pain and want of sleep. The love which he may feel for me makes him neither gentler nor better. Only an hour or two before he declared that his heart was inclined to me, he had Titianus murdered!"
"One word from you," the philosopher assured her, "and it would never have happened. As empress, they will obey you as much as him. Truly, child, it is no small thing to sit, like the gods, far above the rest of mankind."
"No, no!" cried Melissa, shuddering. "Those heights! Only to think of them makes everything spin round me. Only one who is free from such giddiness dare to occupy such a place. Every one must desire to do what he can do best. I could be a good housewife to Diodoros, but I should be a bad empress. I was not born to greatness. And, besides--what is happiness? I only felt happy when I did what was my duty, in peace and quiet. Were I empress, fear would never leave me for a moment. Oh. I know enough of the hideous terror which this awful being creates around him; and before I would consent to let it torture me to death by day and by night-morning, noon, and evening--far rather would I die this very day. Therefore, I have no choice. I must flee from Caesar's sight--away hence--far, far, away!"
Tears nearly choked her voice, but she struggled bravely against them. Philostratus, however, did not fail to observe it, and gazed, first mournfully into her face and then thoughtfully on the ground. At length he spoke with a slight sigh:
"We gather experience in life, and yet, however old we may be, we act contrary to it. Now I have to pay for it. And yet it still lies in your hands to make me bless the day on which I spoke on your behalf. Could you but succeed in rising to real greatness of soul, girl--through you, I swear it, the subjects of this mighty kingdom would be saved from great tribulations!"
"But, my lord," Melissa broke in, "who would ask such lofty things of a lowly maiden? My mother taught me to be kind and helpful to others in the house, to my friends, and fellow-citizens; my own heart tells me to be faithful to my betrothed. But I care not greatly for the Romans, and what to me are Gauls, Dacians, or whatever else these barbarians may be called?"
"And yet," said Philostratus, "you offered a sacrifice for the foreign tyrant."
"Because his pain excited my compassion," rejoined Melissa, blushing.
"And would you have done the same for any masterless black slave, covered with pitiably deep wounds?" asked the philosopher.
"No," she answered, quickly; "him I would have helped with my own hand. When I can do without their aid, I do not appeal to the gods. And then-- I said before, his trouble seemed doubly great because it contrasted so sharply with all the splendor and joy that surrounded him."
"Aye," said the philosopher, earnestly, "and a small thing that affects the ruler recoils tenfold--a thousand-fold-on his subjects. Look at one tree through a cut glass with many facets, and it be comes a forest. Thus the merest trifle, when it affects the emperor, becomes important for the millions over whom he rules. Caracalla's vexation entails evil on thousands--his anger is death and ruin. I fear me, girl, your flight will bring down heavy misfortune on those who surround Caesar, and first of all upon the Alexandrians, to whom you belong, and against whom he already bears a grudge. You once said your native city was dear to you."
"So it is," returned Melissa, who, at his last words had grown first red and then pale; "but Caesar can not surely be so narrow-minded as to punish a whole great city for what the poor daughter of a gem-cutter has done."
"You are thinking of my Achilles," answered the philosopher. "But I only transferred what I saw of good in Caracalla to the figure of my hero. Besides, you know that Caesar is not himself when he is in wrath. Has not experience taught me that no reasons are strong enough to convince a loving woman's heart? Once more I entreat you, stay here! Reject not the splendid gift which the gods offer you, that trouble may not come upon your city as it did on hapless Troy, all for a woman's sake.
"What says the proverb? 'Zeus hearkens not to lovers' vows'; but I say that to renounce love in order to make others happy, is greater and harder than to hold fast to it when it is menaced."
These words reminded her of many a lesson of Andreas, and went to her heart. In her mind's eye she saw Caracalla, after hearing of her flight, set his lions on Philostratus, and then, foaming with rage, give orders to drag her father and brothers, Polybius and his son, to the place of execution, like Titianus. And Philostratus perceived what was going on in her mind, and with the exhortation, "Remember how many persons' weal or woe lies in your hands!" he rose and began a conversation with the Thracian commander of the Germanic guard.
Melissa remained alone upon the divan. The picture changed before her, and she saw herself in costly purple raiment, glittering with jewels, and
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