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- A Thorny Path, Volume 8. - 4/10 -
seated by the emperor's side in a golden chariot. A thousand voices shouted to her, and beside her stood a horn of plenty, running over with golden solidi and crimson roses, and it never grew empty, however much she took from it. Her heart was moved; and when, in the crowd which her lively imagination had conjured up before her, she caught sight of the wife of the blacksmith Herophilus, who had been thrown into prison through an accusation from Zminis, she turned to Caracalla whom she still imagined seated beside her, and cried, "Pardon!" and Caracalla nodded a gracious consent, and the next moment Herophilus's wife lay on her liberated husband's breast, while the broken fetters still clanked upon his wrists. Their children were there, too, and stretched up their arms to their parents, offering their happy lips first to them and then to Melissa.
How beautiful it all was, and how it cheered her compassionate heart!
And this, said the newly awakened, meditative spirit within her, need be no dream; no, it lay in her power to impart this happiness to herself and many others, day by day, until the end.
Then she felt that she must arise and cry to her friend, "I will follow your counsel and remain! "But her imagination had already begun to work again, and showed her the widow of Titianus, as she entreated Caesar to spare her noble, innocent husband, while he mercilessly repulsed her. And it flashed through her mind that her petitions might share the same fate, when at that moment the emperor's threatening voice sounded from the adjoining room.
How hateful its strident tones were to her ear! She dropped her eyes and caught sight of a dark stain on the snow-white plumage of the doves in the mosaic pavement at her feet.
That was a last trace of the blood of the young tribune, which the attendants had been unable to remove. And this indelible mark of the crime which she had witnessed brought the image of the wounded Aurelius before her: just as he now lay, shaken with fever, so had she seen her lover a few days before. His pale face rose before her inward sight; would it not be to him a worse blow than that from the stone, when he should learn that she had broken her faith to him in order to gain power and greatness, and to protect others, who were strangers to her, from the fury of the tyrant?
His heart had been hers from childhood's hour, and it would bleed and break if she were false to the vows in which he placed his faith. And even if he succeeded at last in recovering from the wound she must deal him, his peace and happiness would be destroyed for many a long day. How could she have doubted for a moment where her real duty lay?
If she followed Philostratus's advice--if she acceded to Caracalla's wishes--Diodoros would have every right to condemn and curse her. And could she then feel so entirely blameless? A voice within her instantly said no; for there had been moments in which her pity had grown so strong that she felt more warmly toward the sick Caesar than was justifiable. She could not deny it, for she could not without a blush have described to her lover what she felt when that mysterious, inexplicable power had drawn her to the emperor.
And now the conviction rapidly grew strong in her that she must not only preserve her lover from further trouble, but strive to make good to him her past errors. The idea of renouncing her love in order to intercede for others, most likely in vain, and lighten their lot by sacrificing herself for strangers, while rendering her own and her lover's life miserable, now seemed to her unnatural, criminal, impossible; and with a sigh of relief she remembered her promise to Andreas. Now she could once more look freely into the grave and earnest face of him who had ever guided her in the right way.
This alone was right--this she would do!
But after the first quick step toward Philostratus, she stood still, once more hesitating. The saying about the fulfilling of the time recurred to her as she thought of the Christian, and she said to herself that the critical moment which comes in every life was before her now. The weal or woe of her whole future depended on the answer she should give to Philostratus. The thought struck terror to her heart, but only for a moment. Then she drew herself up proudly, and, as she approached her friend, felt with joy that she had chosen the better part; yea, that it would cost her but little to lay down her life for it.
Though apparently absorbed in his conversation with the Thracian, Philostratus had not ceased to observe the girl, and his knowledge of human nature showed him quickly to what decision she had come. Firmly persuaded that he had won her over to Caracalla's side, he had left her to her own reflections. He was certain that the seed he had sown in her mind would take root; she could now clearly picture to herself what pleasures she would enjoy as empress, and from what she could preserve others. For she was shrewd and capable of reasoning, and above all--and from this he hoped the most--she was but a woman. But just because she was a woman he could not be surprised at her disappointing him in his expectations. For the sake of Caracalla and those who surrounded him he would have wished it to be otherwise; but he had become too fond of her, and had too good a heart, not to be distressed at the thought of seeing her fettered to the unbridled young tyrant.
Before she could address him, he took his leave of the Thracian. Then, as he led her back to the divan, he whispered: "Well, I have gained one more experience. The next time I leave a woman to come to a decision, I shall anticipate from the first that she will come to an opposite conclusion to that which, as a philosopher and logical thinker, I should expect of her. You are determined to keep faith with your betrothed and stab the heart of this highest of all wooers--after death he will be ranked among the gods--for such will be the effect of your flight."
Melissa nodded gayly, and rejoined, "The blunt weapon that I carry would surely not cost Caesar his life, even if he were no future immortal."
"Scarcely," answered Philostratus; "but what he may suffer through you will drive him to turn his own all-too-sharp sword against others. Caracalla being a man, my calculations regarding him have generally proved right. You will see how firmly I believe in them in this case, when I tell you that I have already taken advantage of a letter brought by the messengers of the empress-mother to take my leave of the emperor. For, I reasoned, if Melissa listens to the emperor, she will need no other confederate than the boy Eros; if, however, she takes flight--then woe betide those who are within range of the tyrant's arm, and ten times woe to me who brought the fugitive before his notice! Early to-morrow, before Caracalla leaves his couch, I shall return with the messengers to Julia; my place in the ship--"
"O my lord," interrupted Melissa, in consternation, "if you, my kind protector, forsake me, to whom shall I look for help?"
"You will not require it if you carry out your intentions," said the philosopher. "Throughout this day you will doubtless need me; and let me impress upon you once more to behave before Caracalla in such a manner that even his suspicious mind may not guess what you intend to do. To- day you will still find me ready to help you. But, hark! That is Caesar raging again. It is thus he loves to dismiss ambassadors, when he wishes they should clearly understand that their conditions are not agreeable to him. And one word more: When a man has grown gray, it is doubly soothing to his heart that a lovely maiden should so frankly regret the parting. I was ever a friend of your amiable sex, and even to this day Eros is sometimes not unfavorably inclined to me. But you, the more charming you are, the more deeply do I regret that I may not be more to you than an old and friendly mentor. But pity at first kept love from speaking, and then the old truth that every woman's heart may be won save that which already belongs to another."
The elderly admirer of the fair sex spoke these words in such a pleasant, regretful tone that Melissa gave him an affectionate glance from her large, bright eyes, and answered, archly: "Had Eros shown Philostratus the way to Melissa instead of Diodoros, Philostratus might now be occupying the place in this heart which belongs to the son of Polybius, and which must always be his in spite of Caesar!"
CHAPTER XXI V.
The door of the tablinum flew open, and through it streamed the Parthian ambassadors, seven stately personages, wearing the gorgeous costume of their country, and followed by an interpreter and several scribes. Melissa noticed how one of them, a young warrior with a fair beard framing his finely molded, heroic face, and thick, curling locks escaping from beneath his tiara, grasped the hilt of his sword in his sinewy hand, and how his neighbor, a cautious, elderly man, was endeavoring to calm him.
Scarcely had they left the antechamber than Adventns called Melissa and Philostratus to the emperor. Caracalla was seated on a raised throne of gold and ivory, with bright scarlet cushions. As on the preceding day, he was magnificently dressed, and wore a laurel wreath on his head. The lion, who lay chained beside the throne, stirred as he caught sight of the new-comers, which caused Caracalla to exclaim to Melissa: "You have stayed away from me so long that my 'Sword of Persia' fails to recognize you. Were it not more to my taste to show you how dear you are to me, I could be angry with you, coy bird that you are!"
As Melissa bent respectfully before him, he gazed delighted into her glowing face, saying, as he turned half to her and half to Philostratus: "How she blushes! She is ashamed that, though I could get no sleep during the night, and was tortured by an indescribable restlessness, she refused to obey my call, although she very well knows that the one remedy for her sleepless friend lies in her beautiful little hand. Hush, hush! The high-priest has told me that you did not sleep beneath the same roof as I. But that only turned my thoughts in the right direction. Child, child!--See now, Philostratus--the red rose has become a white one. And how timid she is! Not that it offends me, far from it--it delights me. --Those flowers, Philostratus! Take them, Melissa; they add less to your beauty than you to theirs." He seized the splendid roses he had ordered for her early that morning and fastened the finest in her girdle himself. She did not forbid him, and stammered a few-low words of thanks.
How his face glowed! His eyes rested in ecstatic delight upon his chosen one. In this past night, after he had called for her and waited in vain with feverish longing for her coming, it had dawned on him with convincing force that this gentle child had awakened a new, intense passion in him. He loved her, and he was glad of it--he who till now had taken but a passing pleasure in beautiful women. Longing for her till it became torture, he swore to himself to make her his, and share his all with her, even to the purple.
It was not his habit to hesitate, and at daybreak he had sent for his mother's messengers that they might inform her of his resolve. No one dared to gainsay him, and he expected it least of all from her whom he designed to raise so high. But she felt utterly estranged from him, and would gladly have told him to his face what she felt.
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