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- A Thorny Path, Volume 9. - 5/8 -
He now suddenly wished that brighter light might dispel the gloom which just now he had found so restful; for the lady Euryale's demeanor would show him whether Melissa were still a virtuous maiden. If the matron were as friendly with her as ever, her heart was perhaps still his; it was not the splendor of the purple that had led her astray, but the coercion of the tyrant.
His silent reflections were here interrupted by the loud sounding of trumpets, battle-cries, and, immediately after, the fall of some heavy body, followed by repeated acclamations, noisy outcries, and the applause of those about him. Not till then had he been aware that the performances had begun. Below him, indeed, on the arena from which he had not once raised his eyes, nothing was to be seen on the yellow sand but the scented fountain and a shapeless body, by which a second and a third were soon lying; but overhead something was astir, and, from the right-hand side, bright rays flashed across the wide space. Above the vast circle of seats, arranged on seven tiers, suns and huge, strangely shaped stars were seen, which shed a subdued, many-tinted radiance; and what the youth saw over his head was not the vault of heaven, which to- night bent over his native city darkened by clouds, but a velarium of immense size on which the nocturnal firmament was depicted. This covered in the whole of the open space. Every constellation which rose over Alexandria was plainly recognizable. Jupiter and Mars, Caesar's favorites, outdid the other planets in size and brightness; and in the center of this picture of the sky, which slowly revolved round it, stars were set to form the letters of Caracalla's names, Bassianus and Antoninus. But their light, too, was dim, and veiled as it were with clouds. Soft music was heard from these artificial heavens, and in the stratum of air immediately beneath, the blare of war-trumpets and battle- cries were heard. Thus all eyes were directed upward, and Diodoros's with the rest.
He perceived, with amazement, that the givers of the entertainment, in their anxiety to set something absolutely new before their imperial guest, had arranged that the first games should take place in the air. A battle was being fought overhead, on a level with the highest places, in a way that must surely be a surprise even to the pampered Romans. Black and gold barks were jostling each other in mid-air, and their crews were fighting with the energy of despair. The Egyptian myth of the gods of the great lights who sail the celestial ocean in golden barks, and of the sun-god who each morning conquers the demons of darkness, had suggested the subject of this performance.
The battle between the Spirits of Darkness and of Light was to be fought out high above the best rows of seats occupied by Caesar and his court; and the combatants were living men, for the most part such as had been condemned to death or to the hardest forced labor. The black vessels were manned by negroes, the golden by fair-haired criminals, and they had embarked readily enough; for some of them would escape from the fray with only a few wounds and some quite unhurt, and each one was resolved to use his weapons so as to bring the frightful combat to a speedy end.
The woolly-haired blacks did not indeed know that they had been provided with loosely made swords which would go to pieces at the first shock, and with shields which could not resist a serious blow; while the fair- haired representatives of the light were supplied with sharp and strong weapons of offense and defense. At any cost the spirits of darkness must not be allowed to triumph over those of light. Of what value was a negro's life, especially when it was already forfeited?
While Euryale and Melissa sat with eyes averted from the horrible scene going on above them, and the matron, holding her young companion's hand, whispered to her:
"O child, child! to think that I should be compelled to bring you here!" loud applause and uproarious clapping surrounded them on every side.
The gem-cutter Heron, occupying one of the foremost cushioned seats, radiant with pride and delight in the red-bordered toga of his new dignity, clapped his big hands with such vehemence that his immediate neighbors were almost deafened. He, too, had been badly received, on his arrival, with shrill whistling, but he had been far from troubling himself about that. But when a troop of "Greens" had met him, just in front of the imperial dais, shouting brutal abuse in his face, he had paused, chucked the nearest man under the chin with his powerful fist, and fired a storm of violent epithets at the rest. Thanks to the lictors, he had got off without any harm, and as soon as he found himself among friends and men of rank, on whom he looked in speechless respect, he had recovered his spirits. He was looking forward with intense satisfaction to the moment when he might ask Caesar what he now thought of Alexandria.
Like his father, Alexander was intent on the bloody struggle--gazing upward with breathless interest as the combatants tried to fling each other into the yawning depth below them. But at the same time he never for an instant forgot the insults he had endured outside. How deeply he felt them was legible in his clouded face. Only once did a smile pass over it--when, toward the end of this first fight, the place was made lighter, he perceived in the row of seats next above him the daughter of his neighbor Skopas, pretty Ino, whom but a few days since he had vowed to love. He was conscious of having treated her badly, and given her the right to call him faithless. Toward her, indeed, he had been guilty of treachery, and it had really weighed on his soul. Their eyes met, and she gave him to understand in the plainest way that she had heard him stigmatized as Caesar's spy, and had believed the calumny. The mere sight of him seemed to fill her with anger, and she did her utmost to show him that she had quickly found a substitute for him; and it was to Alexander, no doubt, that Ktesias, her young kinsman, who had long paid her his addresses, owed the kindliness with which Ino now gazed into his eyes. This was some comfort to the luckless, banished lover. On her account, at any rate, he need reproach himself no longer. Diodoros was sitting opposite to him, and his attention, too, was frequently interrupted.
The flashing swords and torches in the hands of the Spirits of Light, and the dimly gleaming stars above their heads, had not so far dispelled the darkness as that the two young people could identify each other. Diodoros, indeed, even throughout this absorbing fight, had frequently glanced at the imperial seats, but had failed to distinguish his beloved from the other women in Caracalla's immediate vicinity. But it now grew lighter, for, while the battle was as yet undecided, a fresh bark, full of Spirits of Light, flourishing their torches, was unexpectedly launched to support their comrades, and Heaven seemed to have sent them forth to win the fight, which had already lasted longer than the masters of the ceremonies had thought possible.
The wild shouts of the combatants and the yells of the wounded had long since drowned the soft music of the spheres above their heads. The call of tubas and bugles rang without ceasing through the great building, to the frequent accompaniment of the most horrible sound of all in this hideous spectacle--the heavy fall of a dead man dropping from above into the gulf.
But this dreadful thud was what gave rise to the loudest applause among the spectators, falling on their satiated ears as a new sound. This frenzied fight in the air, such as had never before been seen, gave rise to the wildest delight, for it led the eye, which was wont in this place to gaze downward, in a direction in which it had never yet been attracted. And what a glorious spectacle it was when black and white wrestled together! How well the contrast of color distinguished the individual combatants, even when they clung together in close embrace! And when, toward the end of the struggle, a bark was overturned bodily, and some of the antagonists would not be parted, even as they fell, trying to kill each other in their rage and hatred, the very walls of the great structure shook with the wild clamor and applause of thousands of every degree.
Only once did the roar of approval reach a higher pitch, and that was after the battle was ended, at what succeeded. Hardly had the victorious Spirits of Light been seen to stand up in their barks, waving their torches, to receive from fluttering genii wreaths of laurel which they flung down to where Caesar sat, than a perfumed vapor, emanating from the place where the painted sky met the wall of the circular building, hid the whole of the upper part of it from the sight of the spectators. The music stopped, and from above there came a strange and ominous growling, hissing, rustling, and crackling. A dull light, dimmer even than before, filled the place, and anxious suspicions took possession of the ten thousand spectators.
What was happening? Was the velarium on fire; had the machinery for lighting up refused to work; and must they remain in this uncomfortable twilight?
Here and there a shout of indignation was heard, or a shrill whistle from the capricious mob. But the mist had already gradually vanished, and those who gazed upward could see that the velarium with the sun and stars had made way for a black surface. No one knew whether this was the real cloudy sky, or whether another, colorless awning closed them in. But suddenly the woven roof parted; invisible hands drew away the two halves. Quick, soft music began as if at a signal from a magician, and at the same time such a flood of light burst down into the theatre that every one covered his eyes with his hand to avoid being blinded. The full glory of sunshine followed on the footsteps of night, like a triumphant chorus on a dismal mourning chant.
The machinists of Alexandria had done wonders. The Romans, who, even at the night performances of the festival of Flora, had never seen the like, hailed the effect with a storm of applause which showed no signs of ceasing, for, when they had sufficiently admired the source of the light which flooded the theatre, reflected from numberless mirrors, and glanced round the auditorium, they began again to applaud with hands and voices. At a given signal thousands of lights appeared round the tiers of seats, and, if the splendor of the entertainment answered at all to that of the Alexandrian spectators, something fine indeed was to be expected.
It was now possible to see the beauty of the women and the costliness of their attire; not till now had the precious stones shown their flashing and changeful radiance. How many gardens and lotus-pools must have been plundered, how many laurel-groves stripped to supply the wreaths which graced every head in the upper rows! And to look round those ranks and note the handsome raiment in which men and women alike were arrayed, suggested a belief that all the inhabitants of Alexandria must be rich. Wherever the eye turned, something beautiful or magnificent was to be seen; and the numerous delightful pictures which crowded on the sight were framed with massive garlands of lotos and mallow, lilies and roses, olive and laurel, tall papyrus and waving palm, branches of pine and willow-here hanging m thick festoons, there twining round the columns or wreathing the pilasters and backs of seats.
Of all the couples in this incomparable amphitheatre one alone neither saw nor heard all that was going on. Scarcely had the darkness given way to light, when Melissa's eyes met those of her lover, and recognition was immediately followed by a swift inquiry and reply which filled the unhappy pair with revived hopes. Melissa's eyes told Diodoros that she loved him and him alone, and she read in his that he could never give her up. Still, his also expressed the doubt and anxiety of his tortured soul, and sent question after question across to Melissa.
And she understood the mute appeal as well as though looks were words. Without heeding the curious crowd about her, or considering the danger of
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