Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter IX


WHEN Ione entered the spacious hall of the Egyptian, the same awe which had crept over her brother impressed itself also upon her: there seemed to her as to him something ominous and warning in the still and mournful faces of those dread Theban monsters, whose majestic and passionless features the marble so well portrayed:

Their look, with the reach of past ages, was wise,
And the soul of eternity thought in their eyes.
The tall AEthiopian slave grinned as he admitted her, and motioned to
her to proceed. Half-way up the hall she was met by Arbaces himself, in
festive robes, which glittered with jewels. Although it was broad day
without, the mansion, according to the practice of the luxurious, was
artificially darkened, and the lamps cast their still and odor-giving
light over the rich floors and ivory roofs.

'Beautiful Ione,' said Arbaces, as he bent to touch her hand, 'it is you that have eclipsed the day—it is your eyes that light up the halls—it is your breath which fills them with perfumes.'

'You must not talk to me thus,' said Ione, smiling, 'you forget that your lore has sufficiently instructed my mind to render these graceful flatteries to my person unwelcome. It was you who taught me to disdain adulation: will you unteach your pupil?'

There was something so frank and charming in the manner of Ione, as she thus spoke, that the Egyptian was more than ever enamoured, and more than ever disposed to renew the offence he had committed; he, however, answered quickly and gaily, and hastened to renew the conversation.

He led her through the various chambers of a house, which seemed to contain to her eyes, inexperienced to other splendor than the minute elegance of Campanian cities, the treasures of the world.

In the walls were set pictures of inestimable art, the lights shone over statues of the noblest age of Greece. Cabinets of gems, each cabinet itself a gem, filled up the interstices of the columns; the most precious woods lined the thresholds and composed the doors; gold and jewels seemed lavished all around. Sometimes they were alone in these rooms—sometimes they passed through silent rows of slaves, who, kneeling as she passed, proffered to her offerings of bracelets, of chains, of gems, which the Egyptian vainly entreated her to receive.

'I have often heard,' said she, wonderingly, 'that you were rich; but I never dreamed of the amount of your wealth.'

'Would I could coin it all,' replied the Egyptian, 'into one crown, which I might place upon that snowy brow!'

'Alas! the weight would crush me; I should be a second Tarpeia,' answered Ione, laughingly.

'But thou dost not disdain riches, O Ione! they know not what life is capable of who are not wealthy. Gold is the great magician of earth—it realizes our dreams—it gives them the power of a god—there is a grandeur, a sublimity, in its possession; it is the mightiest, yet the most obedient of our slaves.'

The artful Arbaces sought to dazzle the young Neapolitan by his treasures and his eloquence; he sought to awaken in her the desire to be mistress of what she surveyed: he hoped that she would confound the owner with the possessions, and that the charms of his wealth would be reflected on himself. Meanwhile, Ione was secretly somewhat uneasy at the gallantries which escaped from those lips, which, till lately, had seemed to disdain the common homage we pay to beauty; and with that delicate subtlety, which woman alone possesses, she sought to ward off shafts deliberately aimed, and to laugh or to talk away the meaning from his warming language. Nothing in the world is more pretty than that same species of defence; it is the charm of the African necromancer who professed with a feather to turn aside the winds.

The Egyptian was intoxicated and subdued by her grace even more than by her beauty: it was with difficulty that he suppressed his emotions; alas! the feather was only powerful against the summer breezes—it would be the sport of the storm.

Suddenly, as they stood in one hall, which was surrounded by draperies of silver and white, the Egyptian clapped his hands, and, as if by enchantment, a banquet rose from the floor—a couch or throne, with a crimson canopy, ascended simultaneously at the feet of Ione—and at the same instant from behind the curtains swelled the invisible and softest music.

Arbaces placed himself at the feet of Ione—and children, young and beautiful as Loves, ministered to the feast.

The feast was over, the music sank into a low and subdued strain, and Arbaces thus addressed his beautiful guest:

'Hast thou never in this dark and uncertain world—hast thou never aspired, my pupil, to look beyond—hast thou never wished to put aside the veil of futurity, and to behold on the shores of Fate the shadowy images of things to be? For it is not the past alone that has its ghosts: each event to come has also its spectrum—its shade; when the hour arrives, life enters it, the shadow becomes corporeal, and walks the world. Thus, in the land beyond the grave, are ever two impalpable and spiritual hosts—the things to be, the things that have been! If by our wisdom we can penetrate that land, we see the one as the other, and learn, as I have learned, not alone the mysteries of the dead, but also the destiny of the living.'

'As thou hast learned!—Can wisdom attain so far?'

'Wilt thou prove my knowledge, Ione, and behold the representation of thine own fate? It is a drama more striking than those of AEschylus: it is one I have prepared for thee, if thou wilt see the shadows perform their part.'

The Neapolitan trembled; she thought of Glaucus, and sighed as well as trembled: were their destinies to be united? Half incredulous, half believing, half awed, half alarmed by the words of her strange host, she remained for some moments silent, and then answered:

'It may revolt—it may terrify; the knowledge of the future will perhaps only embitter the present!'

'Not so, Ione. I have myself looked upon thy future lot, and the ghosts of thy Future bask in the gardens of Elysium: amidst the asphodel and the rose they prepare the garlands of thy sweet destiny, and the Fates, so harsh to others, weave only for thee the web of happiness and love. Wilt thou then come and behold thy doom, so that thou mayest enjoy it beforehand?'

Again the heart of Ione murmured 'Glaucus'; she uttered a half-audible assent; the Egyptian rose, and taking her by the hand, he led her across the banquet-room—the curtains withdrew as by magic hands, and the music broke forth in a louder and gladder strain; they passed a row of columns, on either side of which fountains cast aloft their fragrant waters; they descended by broad and easy steps into a garden. The eve had commenced; the moon was already high in heaven, and those sweet flowers that sleep by day, and fill, with ineffable odorous, the airs of night, were thickly scattered amidst alleys cut through the star-lit foliage; or, gathered in baskets, lay like offerings at the feet of the frequent statues that gleamed along their path.

'Whither wouldst thou lead me, Arbaces?' said Ione, wonderingly.

'But yonder,' said he, pointing to a small building which stood at the end of the vista. 'It is a temple consecrated to the Fates—our rites require such holy ground.'

They passed into a narrow hall, at the end of which hung a sable curtain. Arbaces lifted it; Ione entered, and found herself in total darkness.

'Be not alarmed,' said the Egyptian, 'the light will rise instantly.' While he so spoke, a soft, and warm, and gradual light diffused itself around; as it spread over each object, Ione perceived that she was in an apartment of moderate size, hung everywhere with black; a couch with draperies of the same hue was beside her. In the centre of the room was a small altar, on which stood a tripod of bronze. At one side, upon a lofty column of granite, was a colossal head of the blackest marble, which she perceived, by the crown of wheat-ears that encircled the brow, represented the great Egyptian goddess. Arbaces stood before the altar: he had laid his garland on the shrine, and seemed occupied with pouring into the tripod the contents of a brazen vase; suddenly from that tripod leaped into life a blue, quick, darting, irregular flame; the Egyptian drew back to the side of Ione, and muttered some words in a language unfamiliar to her ear; the curtain at the back of the altar waved tremulously to and fro—it parted slowly, and in the aperture which was thus made, Ione beheld an indistinct and pale landscape, which gradually grew brighter and clearer as she gazed; at length she discovered plainly trees, and rivers, and meadows, and all the beautiful diversity of the richest earth. At length, before the landscape, a dim shadow glided; it rested opposite to Ione; slowly the same charm seemed to operate upon it as over the rest of the scene; it took form and shape, and lo!—in its feature and in its form Ione beheld herself!

Then the scene behind the spectre faded away, and was succeeded by the representation of a gorgeous palace; a throne was raised in the centre of its hall, the dim forms of slaves and guards were ranged around it, and a pale hand held over the throne the likeness of a diadem.

A new actor now appeared; he was clothed from head to foot in a dark robe—his face was concealed—he knelt at the feet of the shadowy Ione—he clasped her hand—he pointed to the throne, as if to invite her to ascend it.

The Neapolitan's heart beat violently. 'Shall the shadow disclose itself?' whispered a voice beside her—the voice of Arbaces.

'Ah, yes!' answered Ione, softly.

Arbaces raised his hand—the spectre seemed to drop the mantle that concealed its form—and Ione shrieked—it was Arbaces himself that thus knelt before her.

'This is, indeed, thy fate!' whispered again the Egyptian's voice in her ear. 'And thou art destined to be the bride of Arbaces.'

Ione started—the black curtain closed over the phantasmagoria: and Arbaces himself—the real, the living Arbaces—was at her feet.

'Oh, Ione!' said he, passionately gazing upon her, 'listen to one who has long struggled vainly with his love. I adore thee! The Fates do not lie—thou art destined to be mine—I have sought the world around, and found none like thee. From my youth upward, I have sighed for such as thou art. I have dreamed till I saw thee—I wake, and I behold thee. Turn not away from me, Ione; think not of me as thou hast thought; I am not that being—cold, insensate, and morose, which I have seemed to thee. Never woman had lover so devoted—so passionate as I will be to Ione. Do not struggle in my clasp: see—I release thy hand. Take it from me if thou wilt—well be it so! But do not reject me, Ione—do not rashly reject—judge of thy power over him whom thou canst thus transform. I, who never knelt to mortal being, kneel to thee. I, who have commanded fate, receive from thee my own. Ione, tremble not, thou art my queen—my goddess—be my bride! All the wishes thou canst form shall be fulfilled. The ends of the earth shall minister to thee—pomp, power, luxury, shall be thy slaves. Arbaces shall have no ambition, save the pride of obeying thee. Ione, turn upon me those eyes—shed upon me thy smile. Dark is my soul when thy face is hid from it: shine over me, my sun—my heaven—my daylight!—Ione, Ione—do not reject my love!'

Alone, and in the power of this singular and fearful man, Ione was not yet terrified; the respect of his language, the softness of his voice, reassured her; and, in her own purity, she felt protection. But she was confused—astonished: it was some moments before she could recover the power of reply.

'Rise, Arbaces!' said she at length; and she resigned to him once more her hand, which she as quickly withdrew again, when she felt upon it the burning pressure of his lips. 'Rise! and if thou art serious, if thy language be in earnest...'

'If!' said he tenderly.

'Well, then, listen to me: you have been my guardian, my friend, my monitor; for this new character I was not prepared—think not,' she added quickly, as she saw his dark eyes glitter with the fierceness of his passion—'think not that I scorn—that I am untouched—that I am not honored by this homage; but, say—canst thou hear me calmly?'

'Ay, though thy words were lightning, and could blast me!'

'I love another!' said Ione, blushingly, but in a firm voice.

'By the gods—by hell!' shouted Arbaces, rising to his fullest height; 'dare not tell me that—dare not mock me—it is impossible!—Whom hast thou seen—whom known? Oh, Ione, it is thy woman's invention, thy woman's art that speaks—thou wouldst gain time; I have surprised—I have terrified thee. Do with me as thou wilt—say that thou lovest not me; but say not that thou lovest another!'

'Alas!' began Ione; and then, appalled before his sudden and unlooked-for violence, she burst into tears.

Arbaces came nearer to her—his breath glowed fiercely on her cheek; he wound his arms round her—she sprang from his embrace. In the struggle a tablet fell from her bosom on the ground: Arbaces perceived, and seized it—it was the letter that morning received from Glaucus. Ione sank upon the couch, half dead with terror.

Rapidly the eyes of Arbaces ran over the writing; the Neapolitan did not dare to gaze upon him: she did not see the deadly paleness that came over his countenance—she marked not his withering frown, nor the quivering of his lip, nor the convulsions that heaved his breast. He read it to the end, and then, as the letter fell from his hand, he said, in a voice of deceitful calmness:

'Is the writer of this the man thou lovest?'

Ione sobbed, but answered not.

'Speak!' he rather shrieked than said.

'It is—it is!

'And his name—it is written here—his name is Glaucus!'

Ione, clasping her hands, looked round as for succour or escape.

'Then hear me,' said Arbaces, sinking his voice into a whisper; 'thou shalt go to thy tomb rather than to his arms! What! thinkest thou Arbaces will brook a rival such as this puny Greek? What! thinkest thou that he has watched the fruit ripen, to yield it to another! Pretty fool—no! Thou art mine—all—only mine: and thus—thus I seize and claim thee!' As he spoke, he caught Ione in his arms; and, in that ferocious grasp, was all the energy—less of love than of revenge.

But to Ione despair gave supernatural strength: she again tore herself from him—she rushed to that part of the room by which she had entered—she half withdrew the curtain—he had seized her—again she broke away from him—and fell, exhausted, and with a loud shriek, at the base of the column which supported the head of the Egyptian goddess. Arbaces paused for a moment, as if to regain his breath; and thence once more darted upon his prey.

At that instant the curtain was rudely torn aside, the Egyptian felt a fierce and strong grasp upon his shoulder. He turned—he beheld before him the flashing eyes of Glaucus, and the pale, worn, but menacing, countenance of Apaecides. 'Ah,' he muttered, as he glared from one to the other, 'what Fury hath sent ye hither?'

'Ate,' answered Glaucus; and he closed at once with the Egyptian. Meanwhile, Apaecides raised his sister, now lifeless, from the ground; his strength, exhausted by a mind long overwrought, did not suffice to bear her away, light and delicate though her shape: he placed her, therefore, on the couch, and stood over her with a brandishing knife, watching the contest between Glaucus and the Egyptian, and ready to plunge his weapon in the bosom of Arbaces should he be victorious in the struggle. There is, perhaps, nothing on earth so terrible as the naked and unarmed contest of animal strength, no weapon but those which Nature supplies to rage. Both the antagonists were now locked in each other's grasp—the hand of each seeking the throat of the other—the face drawn back—the fierce eyes flashing—the muscles strained—the veins swelled—the lips apart—the teeth set—both were strong beyond the ordinary power of men, both animated by relentless wrath; they coiled, they wound, around each other; they rocked to and fro—they swayed from end to end of their confined arena—they uttered cries of ire and revenge—they were now before the altar—now at the base of the column where the struggle had commenced: they drew back for breath—Arbaces leaning against the column—Glaucus a few paces apart.

'O ancient goddess!' exclaimed Arbaces, clasping the column, and raising his eyes toward the sacred image it supported, 'protect thy chosen—proclaim they vengeance against this thing of an upstart creed, who with sacrilegious violence profanes thy resting-place and assails thy servant.'

As he spoke, the still and vast features of the goddess seemed suddenly to glow with life; through the black marble, as through a transparent veil, flushed luminously a crimson and burning hue; around the head played and darted coruscations of livid lightning; the eyes became like balls of lurid fire, and seemed fixed in withering and intolerable wrath upon the countenance of the Greek. Awed and appalled by this sudden and mystic answer to the prayer of his foe, and not free from the hereditary superstitions of his race, the cheeks of Glaucus paled before that strange and ghastly animation of the marble—his knees knocked together—he stood, seized with a divine panic, dismayed, aghast, half unmanned before his foe! Arbaces gave him not breathing time to recover his stupor: 'Die, wretch!' he shouted, in a voice of thunder, as he sprang upon the Greek; 'the Mighty Mother claims thee as a living sacrifice!' Taken thus by surprise in the first consternation of his superstitious fears, the Greek lost his footing—the marble floor was as smooth as glass—he slid—he fell. Arbaces planted his foot on the breast of his fallen foe. Apaecides, taught by his sacred profession, as well as by his knowledge of Arbaces, to distrust all miraculous interpositions, had not shared the dismay of his companion; he rushed forward—his knife gleamed in the air—the watchful Egyptian caught his arm as it descended—one wrench of his powerful hand tore the weapon from the weak grasp of the priest—one sweeping blow stretched him to the earth—with a loud and exulting yell Arbaces brandished the knife on high. Glaucus gazed upon his impending fate with unwinking eyes, and in the stern and scornful resignation of a fallen gladiator, when, at that awful instant, the floor shook under them with a rapid and convulsive throe—a mightier spirit than that of the Egyptian was abroad!—a giant and crushing power, before which sunk into sudden impotence his passion and his arts. IT woke—it stirred—that Dread Demon of the Earthquake—laughing to scorn alike the magic of human guile and the malice of human wrath. As a Titan, on whom the mountains are piled, it roused itself from the sleep of years, it moved on its tortured couch—the caverns below groaned and trembled beneath the motion of its limbs. In the moment of his vengeance and his power, the self-prized demigod was humbled to his real clay. Far and wide along the soil went a hoarse and rumbling sound—the curtains of the chamber shook as at the blast of a storm—the altar rocked—the tripod reeled, and high over the place of contest, the column trembled and waved from side to side—the sable head of the goddess tottered and fell from its pedestal—and as the Egyptian stooped above his intended victim, right upon his bended form, right between the shoulder and the neck, struck the marble mass! The shock stretched him like the blow of death, at once, suddenly, without sound or motion, or semblance of life, upon the floor, apparently crushed by the very divinity he had impiously animated and invoked!

'The Earth has preserved her children,' said Glaucus, staggering to his feet. 'Blessed be the dread convulsion! Let us worship the providence of the gods!' He assisted Apaecides to rise, and then turned upward the face of Arbaces; it seemed locked as in death; blood gushed from the Egyptian's lips over his glittering robes; he fell heavily from the arms of Glaucus, and the red stream trickled slowly along the marble. Again the earth shook beneath their feet; they were forced to cling to each other; the convulsion ceased as suddenly as it came; they tarried no longer; Glaucus bore Ione lightly in his arms, and they fled from the unhallowed spot. But scarce had they entered the garden than they were met on all sides by flying and disordered groups of women and slaves, whose festive and glittering garments contrasted in mockery the solemn terror of the hour; they did not appear to heed the strangers—they were occupied only with their own fears. After the tranquillity of sixteen years, that burning and treacherous soil again menaced destruction; they uttered but one cry, 'THE EARTHQUAKE! THE EARTHQUAKE!' and passing unmolested from the midst of them, Apaecides and his companions, without entering the house, hastened down one of the alleys, passed a small open gate, and there, sitting on a little mound over which spread the gloom of the dark green aloes, the moonlight fell on the bended figure of the blind girl—she was weeping bitterly.

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