Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VI


A SLAVE entered the chamber of Ione. A messenger from Glaucus desired to be admitted.

Ione hesitated an instant.

'She is blind, that messenger,' said the slave; 'she will do her commission to none but thee.'

Base is that heart which does not respect affliction! The moment she heard the messenger was blind, Ione felt the impossibility of returning a chilling reply. Glaucus had chosen a herald that was indeed sacred—a herald that could not be denied.

'What can he want with me? what message can he send?' and the heart of Ione beat quick. The curtain across the door was withdrawn; a soft and echoless step fell upon the marble; and Nydia, led by one of the attendants, entered with her precious gift.

She stood still a moment, as if listening for some sound that might direct her.

'Will the noble Ione,' said she, in a soft and low voice, 'deign to speak, that I may know whither to steer these benighted steps, and that I may lay my offerings at her feet?'

'Fair child,' said Ione, touched and soothingly, 'give not thyself the pain to cross these slippery floors, my attendant will bring to me what thou hast to present'; and she motioned to the handmaid to take the vase.

'I may give these flowers to none but thee,' answered Nydia; and, guided by her ear, she walked slowly to the place where Ione sat, and kneeling when she came before her, proffered the vase.

Ione took it from her hand, and placed it on the table at her side. She then raised her gently, and would have seated her on the couch, but the girl modestly resisted.

'I have not yet discharged my office,' said she; and she drew the letter of Glaucus from her vest. 'This will, perhaps, explain why he who sent me chose so unworthy a messenger to Ione.'

The Neapolitan took the letter with a hand, the trembling of which Nydia at once felt and sighed to feel. With folded arms, and downcast looks, she stood before the proud and stately form of Ione—no less proud, perhaps, in her attitude of submission. Ione waved her hand, and the attendants withdrew; she gazed again upon the form of the young slave in surprise and beautiful compassion; then, retiring a little from her, she opened and read the following letter:

'Glaucus to Ione sends more than he dares to utter. Is Ione ill? thy slaves tell me "No", and that assurance comforts me. Has Glaucus offended Ione?—ah! that question I may not ask from them. For five days I have been banished from thy presence. Has the sun shone?—I know it not. Has the sky smiled?—it has had no smile for me. My sun and my sky are Ione. Do I offend thee? Am I too bold? Do I say that on the tablet which my tongue has hesitated to breathe? Alas! it is in thine absence that I feel most the spells by which thou hast subdued me. And absence, that deprives me of joy, brings me courage. Thou wilt not see me; thou hast banished also the common flatterers that flock around thee. Canst thou confound me with them? It is not possible! Thou knowest too well that I am not of them—that their clay is not mine. For even were I of the humblest mould, the fragrance of the rose has penetrated me, and the spirit of thy nature hath passed within me, to embalm, to sanctify, to inspire. Have they slandered me to thee, Ione? Thou wilt not believe them. Did the Delphic oracle itself tell me thou wert unworthy, I would not believe it; and am I less incredulous than thou I think of the last time we met—of the song which I sang to thee—of the look that thou gavest me in return. Disguise it as thou wilt, Ione, there is something kindred between us, and our eyes acknowledged it, though our lips were silent. Deign to see me, to listen to me, and after that exclude me if thou wilt. I meant not so soon to say I loved. But those words rush to my heart—they will have way. Accept, then, my homage and my vows. We met first at the shrine of Pallas; shall we not meet before a softer and a more ancient altar?

'Beautiful! adored Ione! If my hot youth and my Athenian blood have misguided and allured me, they have but taught my wanderings to appreciate the rest—the haven they have attained. I hang up my dripping robes on the Sea-god's shrine. I have escaped shipwreck. I have found THEE. Ione, deign to see me; thou art gentle to strangers, wilt thou be less merciful to those of thine own land? I await thy reply. Accept the flowers which I send—their sweet breath has a language more eloquent than words. They take from the sun the odorous they return—they are the emblem of the love that receives and repays tenfold—the emblem of the heart that drunk thy rays, and owes to thee the germ of the treasures that it proffers to thy smile. I send these by one whom thou wilt receive for her own sake, if not for mine. She, like us, is a stranger; her fathers' ashes lie under brighter skies: but, less happy than we, she is blind and a slave. Poor Nydia! I seek as much as possible to repair to her the cruelties of Nature and of Fate, in asking permission to place her with thee. She is gentle, quick, and docile. She is skilled in music and the song; and she is a very Chloris to the flowers. She thinks, Ione, that thou wilt love her: if thou dost not, send her back to me.

'One word more—let me be bold, Ione. Why thinkest thou so highly of yon dark Egyptian? he hath not about him the air of honest men. We Greeks learn mankind from our cradle; we are not the less profound, in that we affect no sombre mien; our lips smile, but our eyes are grave—they observe—they note—they study. Arbaces is not one to be credulously trusted: can it be that he hath wronged me to thee? I think it, for I left him with thee; thou sawest how my presence stung him; since then thou hast not admitted me. Believe nothing that he can say to my disfavor; if thou dost, tell me so at once; for this Ione owes to Glaucus. Farewell! this letter touches thy hand; these characters meet thine eyes—shall they be more blessed than he who is their author. Once more, farewell!'

It seemed to Ione, as she read this letter, as if a mist had fallen from her eyes. What had been the supposed offence of Glaucus?—that he had not really loved! And now, plainly, and in no dubious terms, he confessed that love. From that moment his power was fully restored. At every tender word in that letter, so full of romantic and trustful passion, her heart smote her. And had she doubted his faith, and had she believed another? and had she not, at least, allowed to him the culprit's right to know his crime, to plead in his defence?—the tears rolled down her cheeks—she kissed the letter—she placed it in her bosom: and, turning to Nydia, who stood in the same place and in the same posture:

'Wilt thou sit, my child,' said she, 'while I write an answer to this letter?'

'You will answer it, then!' said Nydia, coldly. 'Well, the slave that accompanied me will take back your answer.'

'For you,' said Ione, 'stay with me—trust me, your service shall be light.'

Nydia bowed her head.

'What is your name, fair girl?'

'They call me Nydia.'

'Your country?'

'The land of Olympus—Thessaly.'

'Thou shalt be to me a friend,' said Ione, caressingly, 'as thou art already half a countrywoman. Meanwhile, I beseech thee, stand not on these cold and glassy marbles. There! now that thou art seated, I can leave thee for an instant.'

'Ione to Glaucus greeting. Come to me, Glaucus,' wrote Ione, 'come to me to-morrow. I may have been unjust to thee; but I will tell thee, at least, the fault that has been imputed to thy charge. Fear not, henceforth, the Egyptian—fear none. Thou sayest thou hast expressed too much—alas! in these hasty words I have already done so. Farewell.'

As Ione reappeared with the letter, which she did not dare to read after she had written (Ah! common rashness, common timidity of love!)—Nydia started from her seat.

'You have written to Glaucus?'

'I have.'

'And will he thank the messenger who gives to him thy letter?'

Ione forgot that her companion was blind; she blushed from the brow to the neck, and remained silent.

'I mean this,' added Nydia, in a calmer tone; 'the lightest word of coldness from thee will sadden him—the lightest kindness will rejoice. If it be the first, let the slave take back thine answer; if it be the last, let me—I will return this evening.'

'And why, Nydia,' asked Ione, evasively, 'Wouldst thou be the bearer of my letter?'

'It is so, then!' said Nydia. 'Ah! how could it be otherwise; who could be unkind to Glaucus?'

'My child,' said Ione, a little more reservedly than before, 'thou speakest warmly—Glaucus, then, is amiable in thine eyes?'

'Noble Ione! Glaucus has been that to me which neither fortune nor the gods have been—a friend!'

The sadness mingled with dignity with which Nydia uttered these simple words, affected the beautiful Ione: she bent down and kissed her. 'Thou art grateful, and deservedly so; why should I blush to say that Glaucus is worthy of thy gratitude? Go, my Nydia—take to him thyself this letter—but return again. If I am from home when thou returnest—as this evening, perhaps, I shall be—thy chamber shall be prepared next my own. Nydia, I have no sister—wilt thou be one to me?' The Thessalian kissed the hand of Ione, and then said, with some embarrassment:

'One favor, fair Ione—may I dare to ask it?'

'Thou canst not ask what I will not grant,' replied the Neapolitan.

'They tell me,' said Nydia, 'that thou art beautiful beyond the loveliness of earth. Alas! I cannot see that which gladdens the world! Wilt thou suffer me, then, to pass my hand over thy face?—that is my sole criterion of beauty, and I usually guess aright.'

She did not wait for the answer of Ione, but, as she spoke, gently and slowly passed her hand over the bending and half-averted features of the Greek—features which but one image in the world can yet depicture and recall—that image is the mutilated, but all-wondrous, statue in her native city—her own Neapolis—that Parian face, before which all the beauty of the Florentine Venus is poor and earthly—that aspect so full of harmony—of youth—of genius—of the soul—which modern critics have supposed the representation of Psyche.

Her touch lingered over the braided hair and polished brow—over the downy and damask cheek—over the dimpled lip—the swan-like and whitish neck. 'I know now, that thou art beautiful,' she said: 'and I can picture thee to my darkness henceforth, and for ever!'

When Nydia left her, Ione sank into a deep but delicious reverie. Glaucus then loved her; he owned it—yes, he loved her. She drew forth again that dear confession; she paused over every word, she kissed every line; she did not ask why he had been maligned, she only felt assured that he had been so. She wondered how she had ever believed a syllable against him; she wondered how the Egyptian had been enabled to exercise a power against Glaucus; she felt a chill creep over her as she again turned to his warning against Arbaces, and her secret fear of that gloomy being darkened into awe. She was awakened from these thoughts by her maidens, who came to announce to her that the hour appointed to visit Arbaces was arrived; she started, she had forgotten the promise. Her first impression was to renounce it; her second, was to laugh at her own fears of her eldest surviving friend. She hastened to add the usual ornaments to her dress, and doubtful whether she should yet question the Egyptian more closely with respect to his accusation of Glaucus, or whether she should wait till, without citing the authority, she should insinuate to Glaucus the accusation itself, she took her way to the gloomy mansion of Arbaces.

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