Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter V


THE sun shone gaily into that beautiful chamber in the house of Glaucus, which I have before said is now called the 'Room of Leda'. The morning rays entered through rows of small casements at the higher part of the room, and through the door which opened on the garden, that answered to the inhabitants of the southern cities the same purpose that a greenhouse or conservatory does to us. The size of the garden did not adapt it for exercise, but the various and fragrant plants with which it was filled gave a luxury to that indolence so dear to the dwellers in a sunny clime. And now the odorous, fanned by a gentle wind creeping from the adjacent sea, scattered themselves over that chamber, whose walls vied with the richest colors of the most glowing flowers. Besides the gem of the room—the painting of Leda and Tyndarus—in the centre of each compartment of the walls were set other pictures of exquisite beauty. In one you saw Cupid leaning on the knees of Venus; in another Ariadne sleeping on the beach, unconscious of the perfidy of Theseus. Merrily the sunbeams played to and fro on the tessellated floor and the brilliant walls—far more happily came the rays of joy to the heart of the young Glaucus.

'I have seen her, then,' said he, as he paced that narrow chamber—'I have heard her—nay, I have spoken to her again—I have listened to the music of her song, and she sung of glory and of Greece. I have discovered the long-sought idol of my dreams; and like the Cyprian sculptor, I have breathed life into my own imaginings.'

Longer, perhaps, had been the enamoured soliloquy of Glaucus, but at that moment a shadow darkened the threshold of the chamber, and a young female, still half a child in years, broke upon his solitude. She was dressed simply in a white tunic, which reached from the neck to the ankles; under her arm she bore a basket of flowers, and in the other hand she held a bronze water-vase; her features were more formed than exactly became her years, yet they were soft and feminine in their outline, and without being beautiful in themselves, they were almost made so by their beauty of expression; there was something ineffably gentle, and you would say patient, in her aspect. A look of resigned sorrow, of tranquil endurance, had banished the smile, but not the sweetness, from her lips; something timid and cautious in her step—something wandering in her eyes, led you to suspect the affliction which she had suffered from her birth—she was blind; but in the orbs themselves there was no visible defect—their melancholy and subdued light was clear, cloudless, and serene. 'They tell me that Glaucus is here,' said she; 'may I come in?'

'Ah, my Nydia,' said the Greek, 'is that you I knew you would not neglect my invitation.'

'Glaucus did but justice to himself,' answered Nydia, with a blush; 'for he has always been kind to the poor blind girl.'

'Who could be otherwise?' said Glaucus, tenderly, and in the voice of a compassionate brother.

Nydia sighed and paused before she resumed, without replying to his remark. 'You have but lately returned?'

'This is the sixth sun that hath shone upon me at Pompeii.'

'And you are well? Ah, I need not ask—for who that sees the earth, which they tell me is so beautiful, can be ill?'

'I am well. And you, Nydia—how you have grown! Next year you will be thinking what answer to make your lovers.'

A second blush passed over the cheek of Nydia, but this time she frowned as she blushed. 'I have brought you some flowers,' said she, without replying to a remark that she seemed to resent; and feeling about the room till she found the table that stood by Glaucus, she laid the basket upon it: 'they are poor, but they are fresh-gathered.'

'They might come from Flora herself,' said he, kindly; 'and I renew again my vow to the Graces, that I will wear no other garlands while thy hands can weave me such as these.'

'And how find you the flowers in your viridarium?—are they thriving?'

'Wonderfully so—the Lares themselves must have tended them.'

'Ah, now you give me pleasure; for I came, as often as I could steal the leisure, to water and tend them in your absence.'

'How shall I thank thee, fair Nydia?' said the Greek. 'Glaucus little dreamed that he left one memory so watchful over his favorites at Pompeii.'

The hand of the child trembled, and her breast heaved beneath her tunic. She turned round in embarrassment. 'The sun is hot for the poor flowers,' said she, 'to-day and they will miss me; for I have been ill lately, and it is nine days since I visited them.'

'Ill, Nydia!—yet your cheek has more color than it had last year.'

'I am often ailing,' said the blind girl, touchingly; 'and as I grow up I grieve more that I am blind. But now to the flowers!' So saying, she made a slight reverence with her head, and passing into the viridarium, busied herself with watering the flowers.

'Poor Nydia,' thought Glaucus, gazing on her; 'thine is a hard doom! Thou seest not the earth—nor the sun—nor the ocean—nor the stars—above all, thou canst not behold Ione.'

At that last thought his mind flew back to the past evening, and was a second time disturbed in its reveries by the entrance of Clodius. It was a proof how much a single evening had sufficed to increase and to refine the love of the Athenian for Ione, that whereas he had confided to Clodius the secret of his first interview with her, and the effect it had produced on him, he now felt an invincible aversion even to mention to him her name. He had seen Ione, bright, pure, unsullied, in the midst of the gayest and most profligate gallants of Pompeii, charming rather than awing the boldest into respect, and changing the very nature of the most sensual and the least ideal—as by her intellectual and refining spells she reversed the fable of Circe, and converted the animals into men. They who could not understand her soul were made spiritual, as it were, by the magic of her beauty—they who had no heart for poetry had ears, at least, for the melody of her voice. Seeing her thus surrounded, purifying and brightening all things with her presence, Glaucus almost for the first time felt the nobleness of his own nature—he felt how unworthy of the goddess of his dreams had been his companions and his pursuits. A veil seemed lifted from his eyes; he saw that immeasurable distance between himself and his associates which the deceiving mists of pleasure had hitherto concealed; he was refined by a sense of his courage in aspiring to Ione. He felt that henceforth it was his destiny to look upward and to soar. He could no longer breathe that name, which sounded to the sense of his ardent fancy as something sacred and divine, to lewd and vulgar ears. She was no longer the beautiful girl once seen and passionately remembered—she was already the mistress, the divinity of his soul. This feeling who has not experienced?—If thou hast not, then thou hast never loved.

When Clodius therefore spoke to him in affected transport of the beauty of Ione, Glaucus felt only resentment and disgust that such lips should dare to praise her; he answered coldly, and the Roman imagined that his passion was cured instead of heightened. Clodius scarcely regretted it, for he was anxious that Glaucus should marry an heiress yet more richly endowed—Julia, the daughter of the wealthy Diomed, whose gold the gamester imagined he could readily divert into his own coffers. Their conversation did not flow with its usual ease; and no sooner had Clodius left him than Glaucus bent his way to the house of Ione. In passing by the threshold he again encountered Nydia, who had finished her graceful task. She knew his step on the instant.

'You are early abroad?' said she.

'Yes; for the skies of Campania rebuke the sluggard who neglects them.'

'Ah, would I could see them!' murmured the blind girl, but so low that Glaucus did not overhear the complaint.

The Thessalian lingered on the threshold a few moments, and then guiding her steps by a long staff, which she used with great dexterity, she took her way homeward. She soon turned from the more gaudy streets, and entered a quarter of the town but little loved by the decorous and the sober. But from the low and rude evidences of vice around her she was saved by her misfortune. And at that hour the streets were quiet and silent, nor was her youthful ear shocked by the sounds which too often broke along the obscene and obscure haunts she patiently and sadly traversed.

She knocked at the back-door of a sort of tavern; it opened, and a rude voice bade her give an account of the sesterces. Ere she could reply, another voice, less vulgarly accented, said:

'Never mind those petty profits, my Burbo. The girl's voice will be wanted again soon at our rich friend's revels; and he pays, as thou knowest, pretty high for his nightingales' tongues.

'Oh, I hope not—I trust not,' cried Nydia, trembling. 'I will beg from sunrise to sunset, but send me not there.'

'And why?' asked the same voice.

'Because—because I am young, and delicately born, and the female companions I meet there are not fit associates for one who—who...'

'Is a slave in the house of Burbo,' returned the voice ironically, and with a coarse laugh.

The Thessalian put down the flowers, and, leaning her face on her hands, wept silently.

Meanwhile, Glaucus sought the house of the beautiful Neapolitan. He found Ione sitting amidst her attendants, who were at work around her. Her harp stood at her side, for Ione herself was unusually idle, perhaps unusually thoughtful, that day. He thought her even more beautiful by the morning light and in her simple robe, than amidst the blazing lamps, and decorated with the costly jewels of the previous night: not the less so from a certain paleness that overspread her transparent hues—not the less so from the blush that mounted over them when he approached. Accustomed to flatter, flattery died upon his lips when he addressed Ione. He felt it beneath her to utter the homage which every look conveyed. They spoke of Greece; this was a theme on which Ione loved rather to listen than to converse: it was a theme on which the Greek could have been eloquent for ever. He described to her the silver olive groves that yet clad the banks of Ilyssus, and the temples, already despoiled of half their glories—but how beautiful in decay! He looked back on the melancholy city of Harmodius the free, and Pericles the magnificent, from the height of that distant memory, which mellowed into one hazy light all the ruder and darker shades. He had seen the land of poetry chiefly in the poetical age of early youth; and the associations of patriotism were blended with those of the flush and spring of life. And Ione listened to him, absorbed and mute; dearer were those accents, and those descriptions, than all the prodigal adulation of her numberless adorers. Was it a sin to love her countryman? she loved Athens in him—the gods of her race, the land of her dreams, spoke to her in his voice! From that time they daily saw each other. At the cool of the evening they made excursions on the placid sea. By night they met again in Ione's porticoes and halls. Their love was sudden, but it was strong; it filled all the sources of their life. Heart—brain—sense—imagination, all were its ministers and priests. As you take some obstacle from two objects that have a mutual attraction, they met, and united at once; their wonder was, that they had lived separate so long. And it was natural that they should so love. Young, beautiful, and gifted—of the same birth, and the same soul—there was poetry in their very union. They imagined the heavens smiled upon their affection. As the persecuted seek refuge at the shrine, so they recognized in the altar of their love an asylum from the sorrows of earth; they covered it with flowers—they knew not of the serpents that lay coiled behind.

One evening, the fifth after their first meeting at Pompeii, Glaucus and Ione, with a small party of chosen friends, were returning from an excursion round the bay; their vessel skimmed lightly over the twilight waters, whose lucid mirror was only broken by the dripping oars. As the rest of the party conversed gaily with each other, Glaucus lay at the feet of Ione, and he would have looked up in her face, but he did not dare. Ione broke the pause between them.

'My poor brother,' said she, sighing, 'how once he would have enjoyed this hour!'

'Your brother!' said Glaucus; 'I have not seen him. Occupied with you, I have thought of nothing else, or I should have asked if that was not your brother for whose companionship you left me at the Temple of Minerva, in Neapolis?'

'It was.'

'And is he here?'

'He is.

'At Pompeii! and not constantly with you? Impossible!'

'He has other duties,' answered Ione, sadly; 'he is a priest of Isis.'

'So young, too; and that priesthood, in its laws at least, so severe!' said the warm and bright-hearted Greek, in surprise and pity. 'What could have been his inducement?'

'He was always enthusiastic and fervent in religious devotion: and the eloquence of an Egyptian—our friend and guardian—kindled in him the pious desire to consecrate his life to the most mystic of our deities. Perhaps in the intenseness of his zeal, he found in the severity of that peculiar priesthood its peculiar attraction.'

'And he does not repent his choice?—I trust he is happy.'

Ione sighed deeply, and lowered her veil over her eyes.

'I wish,' said she, after a pause, 'that he had not been so hasty. Perhaps, like all who expect too much, he is revolted too easily!'

'Then he is not happy in his new condition. And this Egyptian, was he a priest himself? was he interested in recruits to the sacred band?

'No. His main interest was in our happiness. He thought he promoted that of my brother. We were left orphans.'

'Like myself,' said Glaucus, with a deep meaning in his voice.

Ione cast down her eyes as she resumed:

'And Arbaces sought to supply the place of our parent. You must know him. He loves genius.'

'Arbaces! I know him already; at least, we speak when we meet. But for your praise I would not seek to know more of him. My heart inclines readily to most of my kind. But that dark Egyptian, with his gloomy brow and icy smiles, seems to me to sadden the very sun. One would think that, like Epimenides, the Cretan, he had spent forty years in a cave, and had found something unnatural in the daylight ever afterwards.'

'Yet, like Epimenides, he is kind, and wise, and gentle,' answered Ione.

'Oh, happy that he has thy praise! He needs no other virtues to make him dear to me.'

'His calm, his coldness,' said Ione, evasively pursuing the subject, 'are perhaps but the exhaustion of past sufferings; as yonder mountain (and she pointed to Vesuvius), which we see dark and tranquil in the distance, once nursed the fires for ever quenched.'

They both gazed on the mountain as Ione said these words; the rest of the sky was bathed in rosy and tender hues, but over that grey summit, rising amidst the woods and vineyards that then clomb half-way up the ascent, there hung a black and ominous cloud, the single frown of the landscape. A sudden and unaccountable gloom came over each as they thus gazed; and in that sympathy which love had already taught them, and which bade them, in the slightest shadows of emotion, the faintest presentiment of evil, turn for refuge to each other, their gaze at the same moment left the mountain, and full of unimaginable tenderness, met. What need had they of words to say they loved?

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