Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VIII


ARBACES was seated in a chamber which opened on a kind of balcony or portico that fronted his garden. His cheek was pale and worn with the sufferings he had endured, but his iron frame had already recovered from the severest effects of that accident which had frustrated his fell designs in the moment of victory. The air that came fragrantly to his brow revived his languid senses, and the blood circulated more freely than it had done for days through his shrunken veins.

'So, then,' thought he, 'the storm of fate has broken and blown over—the evil which my lore predicted, threatening life itself, has chanced—and yet I live! It came as the stars foretold; and now the long, bright, and prosperous career which was to succeed that evil, if I survived it, smiles beyond: I have passed—I have subdued the latest danger of my destiny. Now I have but to lay out the gardens of my future fate—unterrified and secure. First, then, of all my pleasures, even before that of love, shall come revenge! This boy Greek—who has crossed my passion—thwarted my designs—baffled me even when the blade was about to drink his accursed blood—shall not a second time escape me! But for the method of my vengeance? Of that let me ponder well! Oh! Ate, if thou art indeed a goddess, fill me with thy direst Inspiration!' The Egyptian sank into an intent reverie, which did not seem to present to him any clear or satisfactory suggestions. He changed his position restlessly, as he revolved scheme after scheme, which no sooner occurred than it was dismissed: several times he struck his breast and groaned aloud, with the desire of vengeance, and a sense of his impotence to accomplish it. While thus absorbed, a boy slave timidly entered the chamber.

A female, evidently of rank from her dress, and that of the single slave who attended her, waited below and sought an audience with Arbaces.

'A female!' his heart beat quick. 'Is she young?'

'Her face is concealed by her veil; but her form is slight, yet round, as that of youth.'

'Admit her,' said the Egyptian: for a moment his vain heart dreamed the stranger might be Ione.

The first glance of the visitor now entering the apartment sufficed to undeceive so erring a fancy. True, she was about the same height as Ione, and perhaps the same age—true, she was finely and richly formed—but where was that undulating and ineffable grace which accompanied every motion of the peerless Neapolitan—the chaste and decorous garb, so simple even in the care of its arrangement—the dignified yet bashful step—the majesty of womanhood and its modesty?

'Pardon me that I rise with pain,' said Arbaces, gazing on the stranger: 'I am still suffering from recent illness.'

'Do not disturb thyself, O great Egyptian!' returned Julia, seeking to disguise the fear she already experienced beneath the ready resort of flattery; 'and forgive an unfortunate female, who seeks consolation from thy wisdom.'

'Draw near, fair stranger,' said Arbaces; 'and speak without apprehension or reserve.'

Julia placed herself on a seat beside the Egyptian, and wonderingly gazed around an apartment whose elaborate and costly luxuries shamed even the ornate enrichment of her father's mansion; fearfully, too, she regarded the hieroglyphical inscriptions on the walls—the faces of the mysterious images, which at every corner gazed upon her—the tripod at a little distance—and, above all, the grave and remarkable countenance of Arbaces himself: a long white robe like a veil half covered his raven locks, and flowed to his feet: his face was made even more impressive by its present paleness; and his dark and penetrating eyes seemed to pierce the shelter of her veil, and explore the secrets of her vain and unfeminine soul.

'And what,' said his low, deep voice, 'brings thee, O maiden! to the house of the Eastern stranger?'

'His fame,' replied Julia.

'In what?' said he, with a strange and slight smile.

'Canst thou ask, O wise Arbaces? Is not thy knowledge the very gossip theme of Pompeii?'

'Some little lore have I indeed, treasured up,' replied Arbaces: 'but in what can such serious and sterile secrets benefit the ear of beauty?'

'Alas!' said Julia, a little cheered by the accustomed accents of adulation; 'does not sorrow fly to wisdom for relief, and they who love unrequitedly, are not they the chosen victims of grief?'

'Ha!' said Arbaces, 'can unrequited love be the lot of so fair a form, whose modelled proportions are visible even beneath the folds of thy graceful robe? Deign, O maiden! to lift thy veil, that I may see at least if the face correspond in loveliness with the form.'

Not unwilling, perhaps, to exhibit her charms, and thinking they were likely to interest the magician in her fate, Julia, after some slight hesitation, raised her veil, and revealed a beauty which, but for art, had been indeed attractive to the fixed gaze of the Egyptian.

'Thou comest to me for advice in unhappy love,' said he; 'well, turn that face on the ungrateful one: what other love-charm can I give thee?'

'Oh, cease these courtesies!' said Julia; 'it is a love-charm, indeed, that I would ask from thy skill!'

'Fair stranger!' replied Arbaces, somewhat scornfully, 'love-spells are not among the secrets I have wasted the midnight oil to attain.'

'Is it indeed so? Then pardon me, great Arbaces, and farewell!'

'Stay,' said Arbaces, who, despite his passion for Ione, was not unmoved by the beauty of his visitor; and had he been in the flush of a more assured health, might have attempted to console the fair Julia by other means than those of supernatural wisdom.

'Stay; although I confess that I have left the witchery of philtres and potions to those whose trade is in such knowledge, yet am I myself not so dull to beauty but that in earlier youth I may have employed them in my own behalf. I may give thee advice, at least, if thou wilt be candid with me. Tell me then, first, art thou unmarried, as thy dress betokens?'

'Yes,' said Julia.

'And, being unblest with fortune, wouldst thou allure some wealthy suitor?'

'I am richer than he who disdains me.'

'Strange and more strange! And thou lovest him who loves not thee?'

'I know not if I love him,' answered Julia, haughtily; 'but I know that I would see myself triumph over a rival—I would see him who rejected me my suitor—I would see her whom he has preferred in her turn despised.'

'A natural ambition and a womanly,' said the Egyptian, in a tone too grave for irony. 'Yet more, fair maiden; wilt thou confide to me the name of thy lover? Can he be Pompeian, and despise wealth, even if blind to beauty?'

'He is of Athens,' answered Julia, looking down.

'Ha!' cried the Egyptian, impetuously, as the blood rushed to his cheek; 'there is but one Athenian, young and noble, in Pompeii. Can it be Glaucus of whom thou speakest!'

'Ah! betray me not—so indeed they call him.'

The Egyptian sank back, gazing vacantly on the averted face of the merchant's daughter, and muttering inly to himself: this conference, with which he had hitherto only trifled, amusing himself with the credulity and vanity of his visitor—might it not minister to his revenge?'

'I see thou canst assist me not,' said Julia, offended by his continued silence; 'guard at least my secret. Once more, farewell!'

'Maiden,' said the Egyptian, in an earnest and serious tone, 'thy suit hath touched me—I will minister to thy will. Listen to me; I have not myself dabbled in these lesser mysteries, but I know one who hath. At the base of Vesuvius, less than a league from the city, there dwells a powerful witch; beneath the rank dews of the new moon, she has gathered the herbs which possess the virtue to chain Love in eternal fetters. Her art can bring thy lover to thy feet. Seek her, and mention to her the name of Arbaces: she fears that name, and will give thee her most potent philtres.'

'Alas!' answered Julia, I know not the road to the home of her whom thou speakest of: the way, short though it be, is long to traverse for a girl who leaves, unknown, the house of her father. The country is entangled with wild vines, and dangerous with precipitous caverns. I dare not trust to mere strangers to guide me; the reputation of women of my rank is easily tarnished—and though I care not who knows that I love Glaucus, I would not have it imagined that I obtained his love by a spell.'

'Were I but three days advanced in health,' said the Egyptian, rising and walking (as if to try his strength) across the chamber, but with irregular and feeble steps, 'I myself would accompany thee. Well, thou must wait.'

'But Glaucus is soon to wed that hated Neapolitan.'


'Yes; in the early part of next month.'

'So soon! Art thou well advised of this?'

'From the lips of her own slave.'

'It shall not be!' said the Egyptian, impetuously. 'Fear nothing, Glaucus shall be thine. Yet how, when thou obtainest it, canst thou administer to him this potion?'

'My father has invited him, and, I believe, the Neapolitan also, to a banquet, on the day following to-morrow: I shall then have the opportunity to administer it.'

'So be it!' said the Egyptian, with eyes flashing such fierce joy, that Julia's gaze sank trembling beneath them. 'To-morrow eve, then, order thy litter—thou hast one at thy command?'

'Surely—yes,' returned the purse-proud Julia.

'Order thy litter—at two miles' distance from the city is a house of entertainment, frequented by the wealthier Pompeians, from the excellence of its baths, and the beauty of its gardens. There canst thou pretend only to shape thy course—there, ill or dying, I will meet thee by the statue of Silenus, in the copse that skirts the garden; and I myself will guide thee to the witch. Let us wait till, with the evening star, the goats of the herdsmen are gone to rest; when the dark twilight conceals us, and none shall cross our steps. Go home and fear not. By Hades, swears Arbaces, the sorcerer of Egypt, that Ione shall never wed with Glaucus.'

'And that Glaucus shall be mine,' added Julia, filling up the incompleted sentence.

'Thou hast said it!' replied Arbaces; and Julia, half frightened at this unhallowed appointment, but urged on by jealousy and the pique of rivalship, even more than love, resolved to fulfill it.

Left alone, Arbaces burst forth:

'Bright stars that never lie, ye already begin the execution of your promises—success in love, and victory over foes, for the rest of my smooth existence. In the very hour when my mind could devise no clue to the goal of vengeance, have ye sent this fair fool for my guide?' He paused in deep thought. 'Yes,' said he again, but in a calmer voice; 'I could not myself have given to her the poison, that shall be indeed a philtre!—his death might be thus tracked to my door. But the witch—ay, there is the fit, the natural agent of my designs!'

He summoned one of his slaves, bade him hasten to track the steps of Julia, and acquaint himself with her name and condition. This done, he stepped forth into the portico. The skies were serene and clear; but he, deeply read in the signs of their various change, beheld in one mass of cloud, far on the horizon, which the wind began slowly to agitate, that a storm was brooding above.

'It is like my vengeance,' said he, as he gazed; 'the sky is clear, but the cloud moves on.'

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