Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VI


THE door of Diomed's house stood open, and Medon, the old slave, sat at the bottom of the steps by which you ascended to the mansion. That luxurious mansion of the rich merchant of Pompeii is still to be seen just without the gates of the city, at the commencement of the Street of Tombs; it was a gay neighborhood, despite the dead. On the opposite side, but at some yards nearer the gate, was a spacious hostelry, at which those brought by business or by pleasure to Pompeii often stopped to refresh themselves. In the space before the entrance of the inn now stood wagons, and carts, and chariots, some just arrived, some just quitting, in all the bustle of an animated and popular resort of public entertainment. Before the door, some farmers, seated on a bench by a small circular table, were talking over their morning cups, on the affairs of their calling. On the side of the door itself was painted gaily and freshly the eternal sign of the chequers. By the roof of the inn stretched a terrace, on which some females, wives of the farmers above mentioned, were, some seated, some leaning over the railing, and conversing with their friends below. In a deep recess, at a little distance, was a covered seat, in which some two or three poorer travellers were resting themselves, and shaking the dust from their garments. On the other side stretched a wide space, originally the burial-ground of a more ancient race than the present denizens of Pompeii, and now converted into the Ustrinum, or place for the burning of the dead. Above this rose the terraces of a gay villa, half hid by trees. The tombs themselves, with their graceful and varied shapes, the flowers and the foliage that surrounded them, made no melancholy feature in the prospect. Hard by the gate of the city, in a small niche, stood the still form of the well-disciplined Roman sentry, the sun shining brightly on his polished crest, and the lance on which he leaned. The gate itself was divided into three arches, the centre one for vehicles, the others for the foot-passengers; and on either side rose the massive walls which girt the city, composed, patched, repaired at a thousand different epochs, according as war, time, or the earthquake had shattered that vain protection. At frequent intervals rose square towers, whose summits broke in picturesque rudeness the regular line of the wall, and contrasted well with the modern buildings gleaming whitely by.

The curving road, which in that direction leads from Pompeii to Herculaneum, wound out of sight amidst hanging vines, above which frowned the sullen majesty of Vesuvius.

'Hast thou heard the news, old Medon?' said a young woman, with a pitcher in her hand, as she paused by Diomed's door to gossip a moment with the slave, ere she repaired to the neighboring inn to fill the vessel, and coquet with the travellers.

'The news! what news?' said the slave, raising his eyes moodily from the ground.

'Why, there passed through the gate this morning, no doubt ere thou wert well awake, such a visitor to Pompeii!'

'Ay,' said the slave, indifferently.

'Yes, a present from the noble Pomponianus.'

'A present! I thought thou saidst a visitor?'

'It is both visitor and present. Know, O dull and stupid! that it is a most beautiful young tiger, for our approaching games in the amphitheatre. Hear you that, Medon? Oh, what pleasure! I declare I shall not sleep a wink till I see it; they say it has such a roar!'

'Poor fool!' said Medon, sadly and cynically.

'Fool me no fool, old churl! It is a pretty thing, a tiger, especially if we could but find somebody for him to eat. We have now a lion and a tiger; only consider that, Medon! and for want of two good criminals perhaps we shall be forced to see them eat each other. By-the-by, your son is a gladiator, a handsome man and a strong, can you not persuade him to fight the tiger? Do now, you would oblige me mightily; nay, you would be a benefactor to the whole town.'

'Vah! vah!' said the slave, with great asperity; 'think of thine own danger ere thou thus pratest of my poor boy's death.'

'My own danger!' said the girl, frightened and looking hastily around—'Avert the omen! let thy words fall on thine own head!' And the girl, as she spoke, touched a talisman suspended round her neck. '"Thine own danger!" what danger threatens me?'

'Had the earthquake but a few nights since no warning?' said Medon. 'Has it not a voice? Did it not say to us all, "Prepare for death; the end of all things is at hand?"'

'Bah, stuff!' said the young woman, settling the folds of her tunic. 'Now thou talkest as they say the Nazarenes talked—methinks thou art one of them. Well, I can prate with thee, grey croaker, no more: thou growest worse and worse—Vale! O Hercules, send us a man for the lion—and another for the tiger!'

Ho! ho! for the merry, merry show,
With a forest of faces in every row!
Lo, the swordsmen, bold as the son of Alcmena,
Sweep, side by side, o'er the hushed arena;
Talk while you may—you will hold your breath
When they meet in the grasp of the glowing death.
Tramp, tramp, how gaily they go!
Ho! ho! for the merry, merry show!

Chanting in a silver and clear voice this feminine ditty, and holding up her tunic from the dusty road, the young woman stepped lightly across to the crowded hostelry.

'My poor son!' said the slave, half aloud, 'is it for things like this thou art to be butchered? Oh! faith of Christ, I could worship thee in all sincerity, were it but for the horror which thou inspirest for these bloody lists.'

The old man's head sank dejectedly on his breast. He remained silent and absorbed, but every now and then with the corner of his sleeve he wiped his eyes. His heart was with his son; he did not see the figure that now approached from the gate with a quick step, and a somewhat fierce and reckless gait and carriage. He did not lift his eyes till the figure paused opposite the place where he sat, and with a soft voice addressed him by the name of:


'My boy! my Lydon! is it indeed thou?' said the old man, joyfully. 'Ah, thou wert present to my thoughts.'

'I am glad to hear it, my father,' said the gladiator, respectfully touching the knees and beard of the slave; 'and soon may I be always present with thee, not in thought only.'

'Yes, my son—but not in this world,' replied the slave, mournfully.

'Talk not thus, O my sire! look cheerfully, for I feel so—I am sure that I shall win the day; and then, the gold I gain buys thy freedom. Oh! my father, it was but a few days since that I was taunted, by one, too, whom I would gladly have undeceived, for he is more generous than the rest of his equals. He is not Roman—he is of Athens—by him I was taunted with the lust of gain—when I demanded what sum was the prize of victory. Alas! he little knew the soul of Lydon!'

'My boy! my boy!' said the old slave, as, slowly ascending the steps, he conducted his son to his own little chamber, communicating with the entrance hall (which in this villa was the peristyle, not the atrium)—you may see it now; it is the third door to the right on entering. (The first door conducts to the staircase; the second is but a false recess, in which there stood a statue of bronze.) 'Generous, affectionate, pious as are thy motives,' said Medon, when they were thus secured from observation, 'thy deed itself is guilt: thou art to risk thy blood for thy father's freedom—that might be forgiven; but the prize of victory is the blood of another. Oh, that is a deadly sin; no object can purify it. Forbear! forbear! rather would I be a slave for ever than purchase liberty on such terms!'

'Hush, my father!' replied Lydon, somewhat impatiently; 'thou hast picked up in this new creed of thine, of which I pray thee not to speak to me, for the gods that gave me strength denied me wisdom, and I understand not one word of what thou often preachest to me—thou hast picked up, I say, in this new creed, some singular fantasies of right and wrong. Pardon me if I offend thee: but reflect! Against whom shall I contend? Oh! couldst thou know those wretches with whom, for thy sake, I assort, thou wouldst think I purified earth by removing one of them. Beasts, whose very lips drop blood; things, all savage, unprincipled in their very courage: ferocious, heartless, senseless; no tie of life can bind them: they know not fear, it is true—but neither know they gratitude, nor charity, nor love; they are made but for their own career, to slaughter without pity, to die without dread! Can thy gods, whosoever they be, look with wrath on a conflict with such as these, and in such a cause? Oh, My father, wherever the powers above gaze down on earth, they behold no duty so sacred, so sanctifying, as the sacrifice offered to an aged parent by the piety of a grateful son!'

The poor old slave, himself deprived of the lights of knowledge, and only late a convert to the Christian faith, knew not with what arguments to enlighten an ignorance at once so dark, and yet so beautiful in its error. His first impulse was to throw himself on his son's breast—his next to start away to wring his hands; and in the attempt to reprove, his broken voice lost itself in weeping.

'And if,' resumed Lydon—'if thy Deity (methinks thou wilt own but one?) be indeed that benevolent and pitying Power which thou assertest Him to be, He will know also that thy very faith in Him first confirmed me in that determination thou blamest.'

'How! what mean you?' said the slave.

'Why, thou knowest that I, sold in my childhood as a slave, was set free at Rome by the will of my master, whom I had been fortunate enough to please. I hastened to Pompeii to see thee—I found thee already aged and infirm, under the yoke of a capricious and pampered lord—thou hadst lately adopted this new faith, and its adoption made thy slavery doubly painful to thee; it took away all the softening charm of custom, which reconciles us so often to the worst. Didst thou not complain to me that thou wert compelled to offices that were not odious to thee as a slave, but guilty as a Nazarene? Didst thou not tell me that thy soul shook with remorse when thou wert compelled to place even a crumb of cake before the Lares that watch over yon impluvium? that thy soul was torn by a perpetual struggle? Didst thou not tell me that even by pouring wine before the threshold, and calling on the name of some Grecian deity, thou didst fear thou wert incurring penalties worse than those of Tantalus, an eternity of tortures more terrible than those of the Tartarian fields? Didst thou not tell me this? I wondered, I could not comprehend; nor, by Hercules! can I now: but I was thy son, and my sole task was to compassionate and relieve. Could I hear thy groans, could I witness thy mysterious horrors, thy constant anguish, and remain inactive? No! by the immortal gods! the thought struck me like light from Olympus! I had no money, but I had strength and youth—these were thy gifts—I could sell these in my turn for thee! I learned the amount of thy ransom—I learned that the usual prize of a victorious gladiator would doubly pay it. I became a gladiator—I linked myself with those accursed men, scorning, loathing, while I joined—I acquired their skill—blessed be the lesson!—it shall teach me to free my father!'

'Oh, that thou couldst hear Olinthus!' sighed the old man, more and more affected by the virtue of his son, but not less strongly convinced of the criminality of his purpose.

'I will hear the whole world talk if thou wilt,' answered the gladiator, gaily; 'but not till thou art a slave no more. Beneath thy own roof, my father, thou shalt puzzle this dull brain all day long, ay, and all night too, if it give thee pleasure. Oh, such a spot as I have chalked out for thee!—it is one of the nine hundred and ninety-nine shops of old Julia Felix, in the sunny part of the city, where thou mayst bask before the door in the day—and I will sell the oil and the wine for thee, my father—and then, please Venus (or if it does not please her, since thou lovest not her name, it is all one to Lydon)—then, I say, perhaps thou mayst have a daughter, too, to tend thy grey hairs, and hear shrill voices at thy knee, that shall call thee "Lydon's father!" Ah! we shall be so happy—the prize can purchase all. Cheer thee! cheer up, my sire!—And now I must away—day wears—the lanista waits me. Come! thy blessing!'

As Lydon thus spoke, he had already quitted the dark chamber of his father; and speaking eagerly, though in a whispered tone, they now stood at the same place in which we introduced the porter at his post.

'O bless thee! bless thee, my brave boy!' said Medon, fervently; 'and may the great Power that reads all hearts see the nobleness of thine, and forgive its error!'

The tall shape of the gladiator passed swiftly down the path; the eyes of the slave followed its light but stately steps, till the last glimpse was gone; and then, sinking once more on his seat, his eyes again fastened themselves on the ground. His form, mute and unmoving, as a thing of stone. His heart!—who, in our happier age, can even imagine its struggles—its commotion?

'May I enter?' said a sweet voice. 'Is thy mistress Julia within?'

The slave mechanically motioned to the visitor to enter, but she who addressed him could not see the gesture—she repeated her question timidly, but in a louder voice.

'Have I not told thee!' said the slave, peevishly: 'enter.'

'Thanks,' said the speaker, plaintively; and the slave, roused by the tone, looked up, and recognized the blind flower-girl. Sorrow can sympathize with affliction—he raised himself, and guided her steps to the head of the adjacent staircase (by which you descended to Julia's apartment), where, summoning a female slave, he consigned to her the charge of the blind girl.

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