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- A Thorny Path, Volume 8. - 6/10 -
Who has given life immortal To the heroes of his lay.
He it was from death who snatched me; He who gave Patroclus life; Rescued, in perennial glory, Godlike Ajax from the dead!
His the lute to whose sweet accents, Ilion owes undying fame, And the triumph and the praises Which surround her deathless name.
The "Sword of Persia" seemed peculiarly affected by his master's song, which he accompanied by a long-drawn howl of woe; and, before the imperial virtuoso had concluded, a discordant cry sounded for a short time from the street, in imitation of the squeaking of young pigs. It arose from the crowd who were waiting round the Serapeum to see Caesar drive to the Circus; and Caracalla must have noticed it, for, when it waxed louder, he gave a sidelong glance toward the place from which it came, and an ominous frown gathered upon his brow.
But it soon vanished, for scarcely had he finished when stormy shouts of applause rose from the antechamber. They proceeded from the friends of Caesar, and the deep voices of the Germanic bodyguard, who, joining in with the cries they had learned in the Circus, lent such impetuous force to the applause, as even to satisfy this artist in the purple.
Therefore, when Philostratus spoke words of praise, and Melissa thanked him with a blush, he answered with a smile: "There is something frank and untrammeled in their manner of expressing their feelings outside. Forced applause sounds differently. There must be something in my singing that carries the hearers away. My Alexandrian hosts, however, are overready to show me what they think. It did not escape me, and I shall add it to the rest."
Then he invited Melissa to make a return for his song by singing Sappho's Ode to Aphrodite. Pale, and as if obeying some strange compulsion, she seated herself at the instrument, and the prelude sounded clear and tuneful from her skillful fingers.
"Beautiful! Worthy of Mesomedes!" cried Caracalla, but Melissa could not sing, for at the first note her voice was broken by stormy sobs.
"The power of the goddess whom she meant to extol!" said Philostratus, pointing to her; and the tearful, beseeching look with which she met the emperor's gaze while she begged him in low tones--"Not now! I can not do it to-day!"--confirmed Caracalla in his opinion that the passion he had awakened in the maiden was in no way inferior to his own-perhaps even greater. He relieved his full heart by whispering to Melissa a passionate, "I love you," and, desiring to show her by a favor how kindly he felt toward her, added: "I will not let your fellow-citizens wait outside any longer--Adventus! The deputation from the Circus!"
The chamberlain withdrew at once, and the emperor throwing himself back on the throne, continued, with a sigh:
"I wonder how any of these rich tradesmen would like to undertake what I have already gone through this day. First, the bath; then, while I rested, Macrinus's report; after that, the inspection of the sacrifices; then a review of the troops, with a gracious word to every one. Scarcely returned, I had to receive the ambassadors from my mother, and then came the troublesome affair with Vindex. Then the dispatches from Rome arrived, the letters to be examined, and each one to be decided on and signed. Finally the settling of accounts with the idiologos, who, as high-priest of my choosing, has to collect the tribute from all the temples in Egypt. . . . Next I gave audience to several people--to your father among the rest. He is strange, but a thorough man, and a true Macedonian of the old stock. He repelled both greeting and presents, but he longed to be revenged--heavily and bloodily--on Zminis, who denounced him and brought him to the galleys. . . . How the old fellow must have raged and stormed when he was a prisoner! I treated the droll old gray-beard like my father. The giant pleases me, and what skillful fingers he has on his powerful hands! He gave me that ring with the portraits of Castor and Pollux."
"My brothers were the models," remarked Melissa, glad to find something to say without dissembling.
Caracalla examined the stone in the gold ring more closely, and exclaimed in admiration: "How delicate the little heads are! At the first glance one recognizes the hand of the happily gifted artist. Your father's is one of the noblest and most refined of the arts. If I can raise a statue to a lute-player, I can do so to a gem-cutter."
Here the deputation for the arrangement of the festival was announced, but the emperor, calling out once more, "Let them wait," continued:
"You are a handsome race--the men powerful, the women as lovely as Aphrodite. That is as it should be! My father before me took the wisest and fairest woman to wife. You are the fairest--the wisest?--well, that too, perhaps. Time will show. But Aphrodite never has a high forehead, and, according to Philostratus, beauty and wisdom are hostile sisters with you women."
"Exceptions," interposed the philosopher, as he pointed to Melissa, "prove the rule."
"Describe her in that manner to my mother," said Caracalla. "I would not let you go from me, were you not the only person who knows Melissa. I may trust in your eloquence to represent her as she deserves. And now," he continued, hurriedly, "one thing more. As soon as the deputation is dismissed and I have received a few other persons, the feast is to begin. You would perhaps be entertained at it. However, it will be better to introduce you to my 'friends' after the marriage ceremony. After dark, to make up for it, there is the Circus, to which you will, of course, accompany me."
"Oh, my lord!" exclaimed the maiden, frightened and unwilling. But Caracalla cried, decisively: "No refusal, I must beg! I imagine that I have proved sufficiently that I know how to shield you from what is not fitting for a maiden. What I ask of you now is but the first step on the new path of honor that awaits you as future empress."
Melissa raised both voice and hands in entreaty, but in vain. Caracalla cut her short, saying in authoritative tones:
"I have arranged everything. You will go to the Circus. Not alone with me-that would give welcome work to scandalous tongues. Your father shall accompany you--your brothers, too, if you wish it. I shall not join you till after the performance has begun. Your fellow-citizens will divine the meaning of this visit. Besides, Theocritus and the rest have orders to acquaint the people with the distinction that awaits you and the Alexandrians. But why so pale? Your cheeks will regain their color in the Circus. I know I am right--you will leave it delighted and enthralled. You have only to learn for the first time how the acclamations of tens of thousands take hold upon the heart and intoxicate the senses. Courage, courage, Macedonian maiden! Everything grand and unexpected, even unforeseen happiness, is alarming and bewildering. But we become accustomed even to the impossible. A strong spirit like yours soon gets over anything of the kind. But the time is running on. One word more: You must be in the Circus by sunset. In any case, you must be in your place before I come. Adventus will see that you have a chariot or a litter, whichever you please. Theocritus will be waiting at the entrance to lead you to your seats."
Melissa could restrain herself no longer, and, carried away by the wild conflict of passions in her breast, she threw control and prudence to the winds, and cried:
"I will not!" Then throwing back her head as if to call the heavens to witness, she raised her great, wide-open eyes and gazed above.
But not for long. Her bold defiance had roused Caesar's utmost fury, and he broke out with a growl of rage:
"You will not, you say? And you think, unreasoning fool, that this settles the matter?"
He uttered a wild laugh, pressed his hand firmly on his left eyelid, which began to twitch convulsively, and went on in a lower but defiantly contemptuous tone:
"I know better! You shall! And you will not only go to the Circus, but you will do it willingly, or at least with smiling lips. You will start at sunset! At the time appointed I shall find you in your place. If not!--Must I begin so soon to teach you that I can be serious? Have a care, girl! You are dear to me; yet--by the head of my father!--if you defy me, my Numidian lion-keepers shall drag you to the place you belong to!"
Thus far Melissa had listened to the emperor's raging with panting bosom and quivering nostrils, as at a performance, which must sooner or later come to an end; and now she broke in regardless of the consequences:
"Send for them," she cried, "and order them to throw me to the wild beasts! It will doubtless be a welcome surprise to the lookers-on. Which of them can say they have ever seen the daughter of a free Roman citizen who never yet came before the law, torn to pieces in the sand of the arena? They delight in anything new! Yes, murder me, as you did Plautilla, although I never offended either you or your mother! Better die a hundred deaths than parade my dishonor before the eyes of the multitude in the open Circus!"
She ceased, incapable of further resistance, threw herself weeping on the divan, and buried her face in the cushions.
Confounded and bewildered by such audacity, the emperor had heard her out. The soul of a hero dwelt in the frail body of this maiden! Majestic as all-conquering Venus she had resisted him for the second tune, and now how touching did she appear in her tears and weakness! He loved her, and his heart yearned to raise her in his arms, to beg her forgiveness, and fulfill her every wish. But he was a man and a monarch, and his desire to show Melissa to the people in the Circus as his chosen bride had become a fixed resolve during the past sleepless night. And indeed he was incapable of renouncing any wish or a plan, even if he felt inclined to do so. Yet he heartily regretted having stormed at the gentle Greek girl like some wild barbarian, and thus himself thrown obstacles in the way of attaining his desire. His hot blood had carried him away again. Surely some demon led him so often into excesses which he afterward repented of. This time the fiend had been strong in him, and he must use every gentle persuasion he knew of to bend the deeply offended maiden to his will.
He was relieved not to meet her intense gaze as he advanced toward her and took Philostratus's place, who whispered to her to control herself and not bring death and ruin upon them all.
"I Truly I meant well toward you, dearest," he began, in altered tones. "But we are both like overfull vessels--one drop will make them overflow.
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