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- A Thorny Path, Volume 9. - 4/8 -
"He?" said an older centurion, shaking his scarred head. "Sooner would I believe that the shouts of the populace were intended for the old woman and not for the young one."
"Then a sycophant he is and will remain," said the Alexandrian with a laugh. "For, as a matter of fact, it is the elder lady they are greeting, and, by Heracles, she deserves it! She is the wife of the high-priest of Serapis. There are few poor in this city to whom she has not done a kindness. She is well able, no doubt, for her husband is the brother of Seleukus, and her father, too, sat over his ears in gold."
"Yes, she is able," interrupted Martialis, with a tone of pride, as though it were some credit to himself. "But how many have even more, and keep their purse-strings tight! I have known her since she was a child, and she is the best of all that is good. What does not the town owe to her! She risked her life to move Caesar's father to mercy toward the citizens, after they had openly declared against him and in favor of his rival Pescennius Niger. And she succeeded, too."
"Why, then, are they whistling?" asked the older centurion.
"Because her companion is a spy," repeated the Alexandrian. "And the girl--In Caesar's favor! But, after all, which of you all would not gladly see his sister or his niece Caesar's light of love?"
"Not I!" cried Martialis. "But the man who speaks ill of that girl only does so because he likes blue eyes best. The maiden who comes in the lady Euryale's chariot is spotless, you may swear."
"Nay, nay," said the younger Alexandrian soothingly. "That black-haired fellow and his companions would whistle another tune if they knew any evil of her, and she would not be in the lady Euryale's company--that is the chief point--. But, look there! The shameless dogs are stopping their way! 'Green' to a man.--But here come the lictors."
"Attention!" shouted Martialis, firmly resolved to uphold the guardians of the peace, and not to suffer any harm to the matron and her fair companion; for Euryale's husband was the brother of Seleukus, whom his father and father-in-law had served years ago, while in the villa at Kanopus his mother and wife were left in charge to keep it in order. He felt that he was bound in duty to the merchant, and that all who were of that household had a right to count on his protection. But no active measures were needed; a number of "Blues" had driven off the "Greens" who had tried to bar Alexander's way, and the lictors came to their assistance.
A young man in festal array, who had pushed into the front rank of the bystanders, had looked on with panting breath. He was very pale, and the thick wreath he wore was scarcely sufficient to hide the bandage under it. This was Diodoros, Melissa's lover. After resting awhile at his friend's house he had been carried in a litter to the amphitheatre, for he could yet hardly walk. His father being one of the senators of the town, his family had a row of seats in the lowest and best tier; but this, on this occasion, was entirely given up to Caesar and his court. Consequently the different members of the senate could have only half the usual number of seats. Still, the son of Polybius might in any case claim two in his father's name; and his friend Timon--who had also provided him with suitable clothing--had gone to procure the tickets from the curia. They were to meet at the entrance leading to their places, and it would be some little time yet before Timon could return.
Diodoros had thought he would behold his imperial rival; however, instead of Caracalla he had seen the contemptuous reception which awaited Alexander and Melissa, from some at least of the populace. Still, how fair and desirable had she seemed in his eyes, whom, only that morning, he had been blessed in calling his! As he now moved away from the main entrance, he asked himself why it was such torture to him to witness the humiliation of a being who had done him such a wrong, and whom he thought he hated and scorned so utterly. Hardly an hour since he had declared to Timon that he had rooted his love for Melissa out of his heart. He himself would feel the better for using the whistle he wore, in derision of her, and for seeing her faithlessness punished by the crowd. But now? When the insolent uproar went up from the "Greens," whose color he himself wore, he had found it difficult to refrain from rushing on the cowardly crew and knocking some of them down.
He now made his way with feeble steps to the entrance where he was to meet his friend. The blood throbbed in his temples, his mouth was parched, and, as a fruit-seller cried her wares from one of the archways, he took a few apples from her basket to refresh himself with their juice. His hand trembled, and the experienced old woman, observing the bandage under his wreath, supposed him to be one of the excited malcontents who had perhaps already fallen into the hands of the lictors. So, with a significant grin, she pointed under the table on which her fruit-baskets stood, and said "I have plenty of rotten ones. Six in a wrapper, quite easy to hide under your cloak. For whom you will. Caesar has given the golden apple of Paris to a goddess of this town. I should best like to see these flung at her brother, the sycophant."
"Do you know them?" asked Diodoros, hoarsely.
"No," replied the old woman. "No need for that. I have plenty of customers and good ears. The slut broke her word with a handsome youth of the town for the sake of the Roman, and they who do such things are repaid by the avenging gods." Diodoros felt his knees failing under him, and a wrathful answer was on his lips, when the huckster suddenly shouted like mad: "Caesar, Caesar! He is coming."
The shouts of the crowd hailing their emperor had already become audible through the heavy evening air, at first low and distant, and louder by degrees. They now suddenly rose to a deafening uproar, and while the sound rolled on like approaching thunder, broken by shrill whistles suggesting lightning, the sturdy old apple-seller clambered unaided on to her table, and shouted with all her might:
"Caesar! Here he is!--Hail, hail, hail to great Caesar!"
At the imminent risk of tumbling off her platform, she bent low down to reach under the table for the blue cloth which covered her store of rotten apples, snatched it off, and waved it with frantic enthusiasm, as though her elderly heart had suddenly gone forth to the very man for whom a moment ago she had been ready to sell her disgusting missiles. And still she shouted in ringing tones, "Hail, hail, Caesar!" again and again, with all her might, till there was no breath left in her overbuxom, panting breast, and her round face was purple with the effort. Nay, her emotion was so vehement that the bright tears streamed down her fat cheeks.
And every one near was shrieking like the applewoman, "Hail, Caesar!" and it was only where the crowd was densest that a sharp whistle now and then rent the roar of acclamations.
Diodoros, meanwhile, had turned to look at the main entrance, and, carried away by the universal desire to see, had perched himself on an unopened case of dried figs. His tall figure now towered far above the throng, and he set his teeth as he heard the old woman, almost speechless with delight, gasp out:
"Lovely! wonderful! He would never have found the like in Rome. Here, among us--"
But the cheers of the multitude now drowned every other sound. Fathers or mothers who had children with them lifted them up as high as they could; where a small man stood behind a tall one, way was willingly made, for it would have been a shame to hinder his view of such a spectacle. Many had already seen the great monarch in his shining, golden chariot, drawn by four splendid horses; but such an array of torch-bearers as now preceded Caracalla was a thing never seen within the memory of the oldest or most traveled man. Three elephants marched before him and three came behind, and all six carried in their trunks blazing torches, which they held now low and now aloft to light his road. To think that beasts could be trained to such a service! And that here, in Alexandria, such a display could be made before the haughty and pampered Romans!
The chariot stood still, and the black Ethiopians who guided the huge four-footed torch-bearers took the three leaders to join their fellows behind the chariot. This really was a fine sight; this could not but fill the heart of every one who loved his native town with pride and delight. For what should a man ever shout himself hoarse, if not for such a splendid and unique show? Diodoros himself could not take his eyes off the elephants. At first he was delighted with them, but presently the sight annoyed him even more than it had pleased him; for he reflected that the tyrant, the villain, his deadly enemy, would certainly take to himself the applause bestowed on the clever beasts. With this, he grasped the reed pipe in the breast of his tunic. He had been on the point of using it before now, to retaliate on Melissa for some portion of the pain she had inflicted on him. At this thought, however, the paltriness of such revenge struck him with horror, and with a hasty impulse he snapped the pipe in two, and flung the pieces on the ground in front of the apple-stall. The old woman observed it and exclaimed:
"Ay, ay, such a sight makes one forgive a great deal"; but he turned his back on her in silence, and joined his friend at the appointed spot.
They made their way without difficulty to the seats reserved for the senators' families, and when they had taken their places, the young man replied but briefly to the sympathetic inquiries as to his health which were addressed to him by his acquaintances. His friend Timon gazed anxiously into his handsome but pale, sad face, as Diodoros sat crushed and absorbed in thought. He would have liked to urge him to quit the scene at once, for the seats just opposite were those destined to Caesar and his court-among them, no doubt, Melissa. In the dim light which still prevailed in the vast amphitheatre it was impossible to recognize faces. But there would soon be a blaze of light, and what misery must await the hapless victim of her faithlessness, still so far from perfect health! After the glare of light outside, which was almost blinding, the twilight within was for the moment a relief to Diodoros. His weary limbs were resting, a pleasant smell came up from the perfumed fountains in the arena, and his eyes, which could not here rest on anything to gratify him, were fixed on vacancy.
And yet it was a comfort to him to think that he had broken his pipe. It would have disgraced him to whistle it; and, moreover, the tone would have reached the ear of the noble lady who had accompanied Melissa, and whom he himself had, only yesterday, revered as a second mother.
Loud music now struck up, he heard shouts and cheers, and just above him --for it could only proceed from the uppermost tiers--there was an extraordinary tumult. Still he paid no heed, and as he thought of that matron the question suddenly arose in his mind, whether she would have consented to be seen with Melissa if she thought that the girl was indeed capable of ruthless falsehood or any other unworthy act. He, who never missed a show in the arena, had never seen the lady Euryale here. She could hardly have come to-day for her own pleasure; she had come, then, for Melissa's sake; and yet she knew that the girl was betrothed to him. Unless Caesar had commanded the matron's presence, Melissa must still be worthy of the esteem and affection of this best of women; and at this reflection Hope once more raised her head in his tortured soul.
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