Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VIII


THE evening darkened over the restless city as Apaecides took his way to the house of the Egyptian. He avoided the more lighted and populous streets; and as he strode onward with his head buried in his bosom, and his arms folded within his robe, there was something startling in the contrast, which his solemn mien and wasted form presented to the thoughtless brows and animated air of those who occasionally crossed his path.

At length, however, a man of a more sober and staid demeanor, and who had twice passed him with a curious but doubting look, touched him on the shoulder.

'Apaecides!' said he, and he made a rapid sign with his hands: it was the sign of the cross.

'Well, Nazarene,' replied the priest, and his face grew paler; 'what wouldst thou?'

'Nay,' returned the stranger, 'I would not interrupt thy meditations; but the last time we met, I seemed not to be so unwelcome.'

'You are not unwelcome, Olinthus; but I am sad and weary: nor am I able this evening to discuss with you those themes which are most acceptable to you.'

'O backward of heart!' said Olinthus, with bitter fervor; and art thou sad and weary, and wilt thou turn from the very springs that refresh and heal?'

'O earth!' cried the young priest, striking his breast passionately, 'from what regions shall my eyes open to the true Olympus, where thy gods really dwell? Am I to believe with this man, that none whom for so many centuries my fathers worshipped have a being or a name? Am I to break down, as something blasphemous and profane, the very altars which I have deemed most sacred? or am I to think with Arbaces—what?' He paused, and strode rapidly away in the impatience of a man who strives to get rid of himself. But the Nazarene was one of those hardy, vigorous, and enthusiastic men, by whom God in all times has worked the revolutions of earth, and those, above all, in the establishment and in the reformation of His own religion—men who were formed to convert, because formed to endure. It is men of this mould whom nothing discourages, nothing dismays; in the fervor of belief they are inspired and they inspire. Their reason first kindles their passion, but the passion is the instrument they use; they force themselves into men's hearts, while they appear only to appeal to their judgment. Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm; it is the real allegory of the tale of Orpheus—it moves stones, it charms brutes. Enthusiasm is the genius of sincerity, and truth accomplishes no victories without it.

Olinthus did not then suffer Apaecides thus easily to escape him. He overtook and addressed him thus:

'I do not wonder, Apaecides, that I distress you; that I shake all the elements of your mind: that you are lost in doubt; that you drift here and there in the vast ocean of uncertain and benighted thought. I wonder not at this, but bear with me a little; watch and pray—the darkness shall vanish, the storm sleep, and God Himself, as He came of yore on the seas of Samaria, shall walk over the lulled billows, to the delivery of your soul. Ours is a religion jealous in its demands, but how infinitely prodigal in its gifts! It troubles you for an hour, it repays you by immortality.'

'Such promises,' said Apaecides, sullenly, 'are the tricks by which man is ever gulled. Oh, glorious were the promises which led me to the shrine of Isis!'

'But,' answered the Nazarene, 'ask thy reason, can that religion be sound which outrages all morality? You are told to worship your gods. What are those gods, even according to yourselves? What their actions, what their attributes? Are they not all represented to you as the blackest of criminals? yet you are asked to serve them as the holiest of divinities. Jupiter himself is a parricide and an adulterer. What are the meaner deities but imitators of his vices? You are told not to murder, but you worship murderers; you are told not to commit adultery, and you make your prayers to an adulterer! Oh! what is this but a mockery of the holiest part of man's nature, which is faith? Turn now to the God, the one, the true God, to whose shrine I would lead you. If He seem to you too sublime, two shadowy, for those human associations, those touching connections between Creator and creature, to which the weak heart clings—contemplate Him in His Son, who put on mortality like ourselves. His mortality is not indeed declared, like that of your fabled gods, by the vices of our nature, but by the practice of all its virtues. In Him are united the austerest morals with the tenderest affections. If He were but a mere man, He had been worthy to become a god. You honour Socrates—he has his sect, his disciples, his schools. But what are the doubtful virtues of the Athenian, to the bright, the undisputed, the active, the unceasing, the devoted holiness of Christ? I speak to you now only of His human character. He came in that as the pattern of future ages, to show us the form of virtue which Plato thirsted to see embodied. This was the true sacrifice that He made for man; but the halo that encircled His dying hour not only brightened earth, but opened to us the sight of heaven! You are touched—you are moved. God works in your heart. His Spirit is with you. Come, resist not the holy impulse; come at once—unhesitatingly. A few of us are now assembled to expound the word of God. Come, let me guide you to them. You are sad, you are weary. Listen, then, to the words of God: "Come to me", saith He, "all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!"'

'I cannot now,' said Apaecides; 'another time.'

'Now—now!' exclaimed Olinthus, earnestly, and clasping him by the arm.

But Apaecides, yet unprepared for the renunciation of that faith—that life, for which he had sacrificed so much, and still haunted by the promises of the Egyptian, extricated himself forcibly from the grasp; and feeling an effort necessary to conquer the irresolution which the eloquence of the Christian had begun to effect in his heated and feverish mind, he gathered up his robes and fled away with a speed that defied pursuit.

Breathless and exhausted, he arrived at last in a remote and sequestered part of the city, and the lone house of the Egyptian stood before him. As he paused to recover himself, the moon emerged from a silver cloud, and shone full upon the walls of that mysterious habitation.

No other house was near—the darksome vines clustered far and wide in front of the building and behind it rose a copse of lofty forest trees, sleeping in the melancholy moonlight; beyond stretched the dim outline of the distant hills, and amongst them the quiet crest of Vesuvius, not then so lofty as the traveler beholds it now.

Apaecides passed through the arching vines, and arrived at the broad and spacious portico. Before it, on either side of the steps, reposed the image of the Egyptian sphinx, and the moonlight gave an additional and yet more solemn calm to those large, and harmonious, and passionless features, in which the sculptors of that type of wisdom united so much of loveliness with awe; half way up the extremities of the steps darkened the green and massive foliage of the aloe, and the shadow of the eastern palm cast its long and unwaving boughs partially over the marble surface of the stairs.

Something there was in the stillness of the place, and the strange aspect of the sculptured sphinxes, which thrilled the blood of the priest with a nameless and ghostly fear, and he longed even for an echo to his noiseless steps as he ascended to the threshold.

He knocked at the door, over which was wrought an inscription in characters unfamiliar to his eyes; it opened without a sound, and a tall Ethiopian slave, without question or salutation, motioned to him to proceed.

The wide hall was lighted by lofty candelabra of elaborate bronze, and round the walls were wrought vast hieroglyphics, in dark and solemn colors, which contrasted strangely with the bright hues and graceful shapes with which the inhabitants of Italy decorated their abodes. At the extremity of the hall, a slave, whose countenance, though not African, was darker by many shades than the usual color of the south, advanced to meet him.

'I seek Arbaces,' said the priest; but his voice trembled even in his own ear. The slave bowed his head in silence, and leading Apaecides to a wing without the hall, conducted him up a narrow staircase, and then traversing several rooms, in which the stern and thoughtful beauty of the sphinx still made the chief and most impressive object of the priest's notice, Apaecides found himself in a dim and half-lighted chamber, in the presence of the Egyptian.

Arbaces was seated before a small table, on which lay unfolded several scrolls of papyrus, impressed with the same character as that on the threshold of the mansion. A small tripod stood at a little distance, from the incense in which the smoke slowly rose. Near this was a vast globe, depicting the signs of heaven; and upon another table lay several instruments, of curious and quaint shape, whose uses were unknown to Apaecides. The farther extremity of the room was concealed by a curtain, and the oblong window in the roof admitted the rays of the moon, mingling sadly with the single lamp which burned in the apartment.

'Seat yourself, Apaecides,' said the Egyptian, without rising.

The young man obeyed.

'You ask me,' resumed Arbaces, after a short pause, in which he seemed absorbed in thought—'You ask me, or would do so, the mightiest secrets which the soul of man is fitted to receive; it is the enigma of life itself that you desire me to solve. Placed like children in the dark, and but for a little while, in this dim and confined existence, we shape our spectres in the obscurity; our thoughts now sink back into ourselves in terror, now wildly plunge themselves into the guideless gloom, guessing what it may contain; stretching our helpless hands here and there, lest, blindly, we stumble upon some hidden danger; not knowing the limits of our boundary, now feeling them suffocate us with compression, now seeing them extend far away till they vanish into eternity. In this state all wisdom consists necessarily in the solution of two questions: "What are we to believe? and What are we to reject?" These questions you desire me to decide.'

Apaecides bowed his head in assent.

'Man must have some belief,' continued the Egyptian, in a tone of sadness. 'He must fasten his hope to something: is our common nature that you inherit when, aghast and terrified to see that in which you have been taught to place your faith swept away, you float over a dreary and shoreless sea of incertitude, you cry for help, you ask for some plank to cling to, some land, however dim and distant, to attain. Well, then, have not forgotten our conversation of to-day?'


'I confessed to you that those deities for whom smoke so many altars were but inventions. I confessed to you that our rites and ceremonies were but mummeries, to delude and lure the herd to their proper good. I explained to you that from those delusions came the bonds of society, the harmony of the world, the power of the wise; that power is in the obedience of the vulgar. Continue we then these salutary delusions—if man must have some belief, continue to him that which his fathers have made dear to him, and which custom sanctifies and strengthens. In seeking a subtler faith for us, whose senses are too spiritual for the gross one, let us leave others that support which crumbles from ourselves. This is wise—it is benevolent.'


'This being settled,' resumed the Egyptian, 'the old landmarks being left uninjured for those whom we are about to desert, we gird up our loins and depart to new climes of faith. Dismiss at once from your recollection, from your thought, all that you have believed before. Suppose the mind a blank, an unwritten scroll, fit to receive impressions for the first time. Look round the world—observe its order—its regularity—its design. Something must have created it—the design speaks a designer: in that certainty we first touch land. But what is that something?—A god, you cry. Stay—no confused and confusing names. Of that which created the world, we know, we can know, nothing, save these attributes—power and unvarying regularity—stern, crushing, relentless regularity—heeding no individual cases—rolling—sweeping—burning on; no matter what scattered hearts, severed from the general mass, fall ground and scorched beneath its wheels. The mixture of evil with good—the existence of suffering and of crime—in all times have perplexed the wise. They created a god—they supposed him benevolent. How then came this evil? why did he permit it—nay, why invent, why perpetuate it? To account for this, the Persian creates a second spirit, whose nature is evil, and supposes a continual war between that and the god of good. In our own shadowy and tremendous Typhon, the Egyptians image a similar demon. Perplexing blunder that yet more bewilders us!—folly that arose from the vain delusion that makes a palpable, a corporeal, a human being, of this unknown power—that clothes the Invisible with attributes and a nature similar to the Seen. No: to this designer let us give a name that does not command our bewildering associations, and the mystery becomes more clear—that name is NECESSITY. Necessity, say the Greeks, compels the gods. Then why the gods?—their agency becomes unnecessary—dismiss them at once. Necessity is the ruler of all we see—power, regularity—these two qualities make its nature. Would you ask more?—you can learn nothing: whether it be eternal—whether it compel us, its creatures, to new careers after that darkness which we call death—we cannot tell. There leave we this ancient, unseen, unfathomable power, and come to that which, to our eyes, is the great minister of its functions. This we can task more, from this we can learn more: its evidence is around us—its name is NATURE. The error of the sages has been to direct their researches to the attributes of necessity, where all is gloom and blindness. Had they confined their researches to Nature—what of knowledge might we not already have achieved? Here patience, examination, are never directed in vain. We see what we explore; our minds ascend a palpable ladder of causes and effects. Nature is the great agent of the external universe, and Necessity imposes upon it the laws by which it acts, and imparts to us the powers by which we examine; those powers are curiosity and memory—their union is reason, their perfection is wisdom. Well, then, I examine by the help of these powers this inexhaustible Nature. I examine the earth, the air, the ocean, the heaven: I find that all have a mystic sympathy with each other—that the moon sways the tides—that the air maintains the earth, and is the medium of the life and sense of things—that by the knowledge of the stars we measure the limits of the earth—that we portion out the epochs of time—that by their pale light we are guided into the abyss of the past—that in their solemn lore we discern the destinies of the future. And thus, while we know not that which Necessity is, we learn, at least, her decrees. And now, what morality do we glean from this religion?—for religion it is. I believe in two deities—Nature and Necessity; I worship the last by reverence, the first by investigation. What is the morality my religion teaches? This—all things are subject but to general rules; the sun shines for the joy of the many—it may bring sorrow to the few; the night sheds sleep on the multitude—but it harbors murder as well as rest; the forests adorn the earth—but shelter the serpent and the lion; the ocean supports a thousand barks—but it engulfs the one. It is only thus for the general, and not for the universal benefit, that Nature acts, and Necessity speeds on her awful course. This is the morality of the dread agents of the world—it is mine, who am their creature. I would preserve the delusions of priestcraft, for they are serviceable to the multitude; I would impart to man the arts I discover, the sciences I perfect; I would speed the vast career of civilizing lore: in this I serve the mass, I fulfill the general law, I execute the great moral that Nature preaches. For myself I claim the individual exception; I claim it for the wise—satisfied that my individual actions are nothing in the great balance of good and evil; satisfied that the product of my knowledge can give greater blessings to the mass than my desires can operate evil on the few (for the first can extend to remotest regions and humanize nations yet unborn), I give to the world wisdom, to myself freedom. I enlighten the lives of others, and I enjoy my own. Yes; our wisdom is eternal, but our life is short: make the most of it while it lasts. Surrender thy youth to pleasure, and thy senses to delight. Soon comes the hour when the wine-cup is shattered, and the garlands shall cease to bloom. Enjoy while you may. Be still, O Apaecides, my pupil and my follower! I will teach thee the mechanism of Nature, her darkest and her wildest secrets—the lore which fools call magic—and the mighty mysteries of the stars. By this shalt thou discharge thy duty to the mass; by this shalt thou enlighten thy race. But I will lead thee also to pleasures of which the vulgar do not dream; and the day which thou givest to men shall be followed by the sweet night which thou surrenderest to thyself.'

As the Egyptian ceased there rose about, around, beneath, the softest music that Lydia ever taught, or Iona ever perfected. It came like a stream of sound, bathing the senses unawares; enervating, subduing with delight. It seemed the melodies of invisible spirits, such as the shepherd might have heard in the golden age, floating through the vales of Thessaly, or in the noontide glades of Paphos. The words which had rushed to the lip of Apaecides, in answer to the sophistries of the Egyptian, died tremblingly away. He felt it as a profanation to break upon that enchanted strain—the susceptibility of his excited nature, the Greek softness and ardour of his secret soul, were swayed and captured by surprise. He sank on the seat with parted lips and thirsting ear; while in a chorus of voices, bland and melting as those which waked Psyche in the halls of love, rose the following song:


By the cool banks where soft Cephisus flows,
A voice sail'd trembling down the waves of air;
The leaves blushed brighter in the Teian's rose,
The doves couch'd breathless in their summer lair;

While from their hands the purple flowerets fell,
The laughing Hours stood listening in the sky;—
From Pan's green cave to AEgle's haunted cell,
Heaved the charm'd earth in one delicious sigh.

Love, sons of earth! I am the Power of Love!
Eldest of all the gods, with Chaos born;
My smile sheds light along the courts above,
My kisses wake the eyelids of the Morn.

Mine are the stars—there, ever as ye gaze,
Ye meet the deep spell of my haunting eyes;
Mine is the moon—and, mournful if her rays,
'Tis that she lingers where her Carian lies.

The flowers are mine—the blushes of the rose,
The violet—charming Zephyr to the shade;
Mine the quick light that in the Maybeam glows,
And mine the day-dream in the lonely glade.

Love, sons of earth—for love is earth's soft lore,
Look where ye will—earth overflows with ME;
Learn from the waves that ever kiss the shore,
And the winds nestling on the heaving sea.

'All teaches love!'—The sweet voice, like a dream,
Melted in light; yet still the airs above,
The waving sedges, and the whispering stream,
And the green forest rustling, murmur'd 'LOVE!'
As the voices died away, the Egyptian seized the hand of Apaecides, and
led him, wandering, intoxicated, yet half-reluctant, across the chamber
towards the curtain at the far end; and now, from behind that curtain,
there seemed to burst a thousand sparkling stars; the veil itself,
hitherto dark, was now lighted by these fires behind into the tenderest
blue of heaven. It represented heaven itself—such a heaven, as in the
nights of June might have shone down over the streams of Castaly. Here
and there were painted rosy and aerial clouds, from which smiled, by the
limner's art, faces of divinest beauty, and on which reposed the shapes
of which Phidias and Apelles dreamed. And the stars which studded the
transparent azure rolled rapidly as they shone, while the music, that
again woke with a livelier and lighter sound, seemed to imitate the
melody of the joyous spheres.

'Oh! what miracle is this, Arbaces,' said Apaecides in faltering accents. 'After having denied the gods, art thou about to reveal to me...'

'Their pleasures!' interrupted Arbaces, in a tone so different from its usual cold and tranquil harmony that Apaecides started, and thought the Egyptian himself transformed; and now, as they neared the curtain, a wild—a loud—an exulting melody burst from behind its concealment. With that sound the veil was rent in twain—it parted—it seemed to vanish into air: and a scene, which no Sybarite ever more than rivalled, broke upon the dazzled gaze of the youthful priest. A vast banquet-room stretched beyond, blazing with countless lights, which filled the warm air with the scents of frankincense, of jasmine, of violets, of myrrh; all that the most odorous flowers, all that the most costly spices could distil, seemed gathered into one ineffable and ambrosial essence: from the light columns that sprang upwards to the airy roof, hung draperies of white, studded with golden stars. At the extremities of the room two fountains cast up a spray, which, catching the rays of the roseate light, glittered like countless diamonds. In the centre of the room as they entered there rose slowly from the floor, to the sound of unseen minstrelsy, a table spread with all the viands which sense ever devoted to fancy, and vases of that lost Myrrhine fabric, so glowing in its colors, so transparent in its material, were crowned with the exotics of the East. The couches, to which this table was the centre, were covered with tapestries of azure and gold; and from invisible tubes the vaulted roof descended showers of fragrant waters, that cooled the delicious air, and contended with the lamps, as if the spirits of wave and fire disputed which element could furnish forth the most delicious odorous. And now, from behind the snowy draperies, trooped such forms as Adonis beheld when he lay on the lap of Venus. They came, some with garlands, others with lyres; they surrounded the youth, they led his steps to the banquet. They flung the chaplets round him in rosy chains. The earth—the thought of earth, vanished from his soul. He imagined himself in a dream, and suppressed his breath lest he should wake too soon; the senses, to which he had never yielded as yet, beat in his burning pulse, and confused his dizzy and reeling sight. And while thus amazed and lost, once again, but in brisk and Bacchic measures, rose the magic strain:


In the veins of the calix foams and glows
The blood of the mantling vine,
But oh! in the bowl of Youth there glows
A Lesbian, more divine!
Bright, bright,
As the liquid light,
Its waves through thine eyelids shine!

Fill up, fill up, to the sparkling brim,
The juice of the young Lyaeus;
The grape is the key that we owe to him
From the gaol of the world to free us.
Drink, drink!
What need to shrink,
When the lambs alone can see us?

Drink, drink, as I quaff from thine eyes
The wine of a softer tree;
Give the smiles to the god of the grape—thy sighs,
Beloved one, give to me.
Turn, turn,
My glances burn,
And thirst for a look from thee!
As the song ended, a group of three maidens, entwined with a chain of
starred flowers, and who, while they imitated, might have shamed the
Graces, advanced towards him in the gliding measures of the Ionian
dance: such as the Nereids wreathed in moonlight on the yellow sands of
the AEgean wave—such as Cytherea taught her handmaids in the
marriage-feast of Psyche and her son.

Now approaching, they wreathed their chaplet round his head; now kneeling, the youngest of the three proffered him the bowl, from which the wine of Lesbos foamed and sparkled. The youth resisted no more, he grasped the intoxicating cup, the blood mantled fiercely through his veins. He sank upon the breast of the nymph who sat beside him, and turning with swimming eyes to seek for Arbaces, whom he had lost in the whirl of his emotions, he beheld him seated beneath a canopy at the upper end of the table, and gazing upon him with a smile that encouraged him to pleasure. He beheld him, but not as he had hitherto seen, with dark and sable garments, with a brooding and solemn brow: a robe that dazzled the sight, so studded was its whitest surface with gold and gems, blazed upon his majestic form; white roses, alternated with the emerald and the ruby, and shaped tiara-like, crowned his raven locks. He appeared, like Ulysses, to have gained the glory of a second youth—his features seemed to have exchanged thought for beauty, and he towered amidst the loveliness that surrounded him, in all the beaming and relaxing benignity of the Olympian god.

'Drink, feast, love, my pupil!' said he, 'blush not that thou art passionate and young. That which thou art, thou feelest in thy veins: that which thou shalt be, survey!'

With this he pointed to a recess, and the eyes of Apaecides, following the gesture, beheld on a pedestal, placed between the statues of Bacchus and Idalia, the form of a skeleton.

'Start not,' resumed the Egyptian; 'that friendly guest admonishes us but of the shortness of life. From its jaws I hear a voice that summons us to ENJOY.'

As he spoke, a group of nymphs surrounded the statue; they laid chaplets on its pedestal, and, while the cups were emptied and refilled at that glowing board, they sang the following strain:



Thou art in the land of the shadowy Host,
Thou that didst drink and love:
By the Solemn River, a gliding ghost,
But thy thought is ours above!
If memory yet can fly,
Back to the golden sky,
And mourn the pleasures lost!
By the ruin'd hall these flowers we lay,
Where thy soul once held its palace;
When the rose to thy scent and sight was gay,
And the smile was in the chalice,
And the cithara's voice
Could bid thy heart rejoice
When night eclipsed the day.

Here a new group advancing, turned the tide of the music into a quicker and more joyous strain.


Death, death is the gloomy shore
Where we all sail—
Soft, soft, thou gliding oar;
Blow soft, sweet gale!
Chain with bright wreaths the Hours;
Victims if all
Ever, 'mid song and flowers,
Victims should fall!

Pausing for a moment, yet quicker and quicker danced the silver-footed music:

Since Life's so short, we'll live to laugh,
Ah! wherefore waste a minute!
If youth's the cup we yet can quaff,
Be love the pearl within it!

A third band now approached with brimming cups, which they poured in libation upon that strange altar; and once more, slow and solemn, rose the changeful melody:


Thou art welcome, Guest of gloom,
From the far and fearful sea!
When the last rose sheds its bloom,
Our board shall be spread with thee!
All hail, dark Guest!
Who hath so fair a plea
Our welcome Guest to be,
As thou, whose solemn hall
At last shall feast us all
In the dim and dismal coast?
Long yet be we the Host!
And thou, Dead Shadow, thou,
All joyless though thy brow,
Thou—but our passing GUEST!

At this moment, she who sat beside Apaecides suddenly took up the song:


Happy is yet our doom,
The earth and the sun are ours!
And far from the dreary tomb
Speed the wings of the rosy Hours—
Sweet is for thee the bowl,
Sweet are thy looks, my love;
I fly to thy tender soul,
As bird to its mated dove!
Take me, ah, take!
Clasp'd to thy guardian breast,
Soft let me sink to rest:
But wake me—ah, wake!
And tell me with words and sighs,
But more with thy melting eyes,
That my sun is not set—
That the Torch is not quench'd at the Urn
That we love, and we breathe, and burn,
Tell me—thou lov'st me yet!

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