Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter V


THE morning sun shone over the small and odorous garden enclosed within the peristyle of the house of the Athenian. He lay reclined, sad and listlessly, on the smooth grass which intersected the viridarium; and a slight canopy stretched above, broke the fierce rays of the summer sun.

When that fairy mansion was first disinterred from the earth they found in the garden the shell of a tortoise that had been its inmate. That animal, so strange a link in the creation, to which Nature seems to have denied all the pleasure of life, save life's passive and dream-like perception, had been the guest of the place for years before Glaucus purchased it; for years, indeed which went beyond the memory of man, and to which tradition assigned an almost incredible date. The house had been built and rebuilt—its possessors had changed and fluctuated—generations had flourished and decayed—and still the tortoise dragged on its slow and unsympathizing existence. In the earthquake, which sixteen years before had overthrown many of the public buildings of the city, and scared away the amazed inhabitants, the house now inhabited by Glaucus had been terribly shattered. The possessors deserted it for many days; on their return they cleared away the ruins which encumbered the viridarium, and found still the tortoise, unharmed and unconscious of the surrounding destruction. It seemed to bear a charmed life in its languid blood and imperceptible motions; yet it was not so inactive as it seemed: it held a regular and monotonous course; inch by inch it traversed the little orbit of its domain, taking months to accomplish the whole gyration. It was a restless voyager, that tortoise!—patiently, and with pain, did it perform its self-appointed journeys, evincing no interest in the things around it—a philosopher concentrated in itself. There was something grand in its solitary selfishness!—the sun in which it basked—the waters poured daily over it—the air, which it insensibly inhaled, were its sole and unfailing luxuries. The mild changes of the season, in that lovely clime, affected it not. It covered itself with its shell—as the saint in his piety—as the sage in his wisdom—as the lover in his hope.

It was impervious to the shocks and mutations of time—it was an emblem of time itself: slow, regular, perpetual; unwitting of the passions that fret themselves around—of the wear and tear of mortality. The poor tortoise! nothing less than the bursting of volcanoes, the convulsions of the riven world, could have quenched its sluggish spark! The inexorable Death, that spared not pomp or beauty, passed unheedingly by a thing to which death could bring so insignificant a change.

For this animal the mercurial and vivid Greek felt all the wonder and affection of contrast. He could spend hours in surveying its creeping progress, in moralizing over its mechanism. He despised it in joy—he envied it in sorrow.

Regarding it now as he lay along the sward—its dull mass moving while it seemed motionless, the Athenian murmured to himself:

'The eagle dropped a stone from his talons, thinking to break thy shell: the stone crushed the head of a poet. This is the allegory of Fate! Dull thing! Thou hadst a father and a mother; perhaps, ages ago, thou thyself hadst a mate. Did thy parents love, or didst thou? Did thy slow blood circulate more gladly when thou didst creep to the side of thy wedded one? Wert thou capable of affection? Could it distress thee if she were away from thy side? Couldst thou feel when she was present? What would I not give to know the history of thy mailed breast—to gaze upon the mechanism of thy faint desires—to mark what hair—breadth difference separates thy sorrow from thy joy! Yet, methinks, thou wouldst know if Ione were present! Thou wouldst feel her coming like a happier air—like a gladder sun. I envy thee now, for thou knowest not that she is absent; and I—would I could be like thee—between the intervals of seeing her! What doubt, what presentiment, haunts me! why will she not admit me? Days have passed since I heard her voice. For the first time, life grows flat to me. I am as one who is left alone at a banquet, the lights dead, and the flowers faded. Ah! Ione, couldst thou dream how I adore thee!'

From these enamoured reveries, Glaucus was interrupted by the entrance of Nydia. She came with her light, though cautious step, along the marble tablinum. She passed the portico, and paused at the flowers which bordered the garden. She had her water-vase in her hand, and she sprinkled the thirsting plants, which seemed to brighten at her approach. She bent to inhale their odor. She touched them timidly and caressingly. She felt, along their stems, if any withered leaf or creeping insect marred their beauty. And as she hovered from flower to flower, with her earnest and youthful countenance and graceful motions, you could not have imagined a fitter handmaid for the goddess of the garden.

'Nydia, my child!' said Glaucus.

At the sound of his voice she paused at once—listening, blushing, breathless; with her lips parted, her face upturned to catch the direction of the sound, she laid down the vase—she hastened to him; and wonderful it was to see how unerringly she threaded her dark way through the flowers, and came by the shortest path to the side of her new lord.

'Nydia,' said Glaucus, tenderly stroking back her long and beautiful hair, 'it is now three days since thou hast been under the protection of my household gods. Have they smiled on thee? Art thou happy?'

'Ah! so happy!' sighed the slave.

'And now,' continued Glaucus, 'that thou hast recovered somewhat from the hateful recollections of thy former state,—and now that they have fitted thee (touching her broidered tunic) with garments more meet for thy delicate shape—and now, sweet child, that thou hast accustomed thyself to a happiness, which may the gods grant thee ever! I am about to pray at thy hands a boon.'

'Oh! what can I do for thee?' said Nydia, clasping her hands.

'Listen,' said Glaucus, 'and young as thou art, thou shalt be my confidant. Hast thou ever heard the name of Ione?'

The blind girl gasped for breath, and turning pale as one of the statues which shone upon them from the peristyle, she answered with an effort, and after a moment's pause:

'Yes! I have heard that she is of Neapolis, and beautiful.'

'Beautiful! her beauty is a thing to dazzle the day! Neapolis! nay, she is Greek by origin; Greece only could furnish forth such shapes. Nydia, I love her!'

'I thought so,' replied Nydia, calmly.

'I love, and thou shalt tell her so. I am about to send thee to her. Happy Nydia, thou wilt be in her chamber—thou wilt drink the music of her voice—thou wilt bask in the sunny air of her presence!'

'What! what! wilt thou send me from thee?'

'Thou wilt go to Ione,' answered Glaucus, in a tone that said, 'What more canst thou desire?'

Nydia burst into tears.

Glaucus, raising himself, drew her towards him with the soothing caresses of a brother.

'My child, my Nydia, thou weepest in ignorance of the happiness I bestow on thee. She is gentle, and kind, and soft as the breeze of spring. She will be a sister to thy youth—she will appreciate thy winning talents—she will love thy simple graces as none other could, for they are like her own. Weepest thou still, fond fool? I will not force thee, sweet. Wilt thou not do for me this kindness?'

'Well, if I can serve thee, command. See, I weep no longer—I am calm.'

'That is my own Nydia,' continued Glaucus, kissing her hand. 'Go, then, to her: if thou art disappointed in her kindness—if I have deceived thee, return when thou wilt. I do not give thee to another; I but lend. My home ever be thy refuge, sweet one. Ah! would it could shelter all the friendless and distressed! But if my heart whispers truly, I shall claim thee again soon, my child. My home and Ione's will become the same, and thou shalt dwell with both.'

A shiver passed through the slight frame of the blind girl, but she wept no more—she was resigned.

'Go, then, my Nydia, to Ione's house—they shall show thee the way. Take her the fairest flowers thou canst pluck; the vase which contains them I will give thee: thou must excuse its unworthiness. Thou shalt take, too, with thee the lute that I gave thee yesterday, and from which thou knowest so well to awaken the charming spirit. Thou shalt give her, also, this letter, in which, after a hundred efforts, I have embodied something of my thoughts. Let thy ear catch every accent, every modulation of her voice, and tell me, when we meet again, if its music should flatter me or discourage. It is now, Nydia, some days since I have been admitted to Ione; there is something mysterious in this exclusion. I am distracted with doubts and fears; learn—for thou art quick, and thy care for me will sharpen tenfold thy acuteness—learn the cause of this unkindness; speak of me as often as thou canst; let my name come ever to thy lips: insinuate how I love rather than proclaim it; watch if she sighs whilst thou speakest, if she answer thee; or, if she reproves, in what accents she reproves. Be my friend, plead for me: and oh! how vastly wilt thou overpay the little I have done for thee! Thou comprehendest, Nydia; thou art yet a child—have I said more than thou canst understand?'


'And thou wilt serve me?'


'Come to me when thou hast gathered the flowers, and I will give thee the vase I speak of; seek me in the chamber of Leda. Pretty one, thou dost not grieve now?'

'Glaucus, I am a slave; what business have I with grief or joy?'

'Sayest thou so? No, Nydia, be free. I give thee freedom; enjoy it as thou wilt, and pardon me that I reckoned on thy desire to serve me.'

'You are offended. Oh! I would not, for that which no freedom can give, offend you, Glaucus. My guardian, my saviour, my protector, forgive the poor blind girl! She does not grieve even in leaving thee, if she can contribute to thy happiness.'

'May the gods bless this grateful heart!' said Glaucus, greatly moved; and, unconscious of the fires he excited, he repeatedly kissed her forehead.

'Thou forgivest me,' said she, 'and thou wilt talk no more of freedom; my happiness is to be thy slave: thou hast promised thou wilt not give me to another...'

'I have promised.'

'And now, then, I will gather the flowers.'

Silently, Nydia took from the hand of Glaucus the costly and jewelled vase, in which the flowers vied with each other in hue and fragrance; tearlessly she received his parting admonition. She paused for a moment when his voice ceased—she did not trust herself to reply—she sought his hand—she raised it to her lips, dropped her veil over her face, and passed at once from his presence. She paused again as she reached the threshold; she stretched her hands towards it, and murmured:

'Three happy days—days of unspeakable delight, have I known since I passed thee—blessed threshold! may peace dwell ever with thee when I am gone! And now, my heart tears itself from thee, and the only sound it utters bids me—die!'

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