Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter X


ARBACES had tarried only till the cessation of the tempest allowed him, under cover of night, to seek the Saga of Vesuvius. Borne by those of his trustier slaves in whom in all more secret expeditions he was accustomed to confide, he lay extended along his litter, and resigning his sanguine heart to the contemplation of vengeance gratified and love possessed. The slaves in so short a journey moved very little slower than the ordinary pace of mules; and Arbaces soon arrived at the commencement of a narrow path, which the lovers had not been fortunate enough to discover; but which, skirting the thick vines, led at once to the habitation of the witch. Here he rested the litter; and bidding his slaves conceal themselves and the vehicle among the vines from the observation of any chance passenger, he mounted alone, with steps still feeble but supported by a long staff, the drear and sharp ascent.

Not a drop of rain fell from the tranquil heaven; but the moisture dripped mournfully from the laden boughs of the vine, and now and then collected in tiny pools in the crevices and hollows of the rocky way.

'Strange passions these for a philosopher,' thought Arbaces, 'that lead one like me just new from the bed of death, and lapped even in health amidst the roses of luxury, across such nocturnal paths as this; but Passion and Vengeance treading to their goal can make an Elysium of a Tartarus.' High, clear, and melancholy shone the moon above the road of that dark wayfarer, glossing herself in every pool that lay before him, and sleeping in shadow along the sloping mount. He saw before him the same light that had guided the steps of his intended victims, but, no longer contrasted by the blackened clouds, it shone less redly clear.

He paused, as at length he approached the mouth of the cavern, to recover breath; and then, with his wonted collected and stately mien, he crossed the unhallowed threshold.

The fox sprang up at the ingress of this newcomer, and by a long howl announced another visitor to his mistress.

The witch had resumed her seat, and her aspect of gravelike and grim repose. By her feet, upon a bed of dry weeds which half covered it, lay the wounded snake; but the quick eye of the Egyptian caught its scales glittering in the reflected light of the opposite fire, as it writhed—now contracting, now lengthening, its folds, in pain and unsated anger.

'Down, slave!' said the witch, as before, to the fox; and, as before, the animal dropped to the ground—mute, but vigilant.

'Rise, servant of Nox and Erebus!' said Arbaces, commandingly; 'a superior in thine art salutes thee! rise, and welcome him.'

At these words the hag turned her gaze upon the Egyptian's towering form and dark features. She looked long and fixedly upon him, as he stood before her in his Oriental robe, and folded arms, and steadfast and haughty brow. 'Who art thou,' she said at last, 'that callest thyself greater in art than the Saga of the Burning Fields, and the daughter of the perished Etrurian race?'

'I am he,' answered Arbaces, 'from whom all cultivators of magic, from north to south, from east to west, from the Ganges and the Nile to the vales of Thessaly and the shores of the yellow Tiber, have stooped to learn.'

'There is but one such man in these places,' answered the witch, 'whom the men of the outer world, unknowing his loftier attributes and more secret fame, call Arbaces the Egyptian: to us of a higher nature and deeper knowledge, his rightful appellation is Hermes of the Burning Girdle.'

'Look again, returned Arbaces: 'I am he.'

As he spoke he drew aside his robe, and revealed a cincture seemingly of fire, that burned around his waist, clasped in the centre by a plate whereon was engraven some sign apparently vague and unintelligible but which was evidently not unknown to the Saga. She rose hastily, and threw herself at the feet of Arbaces. 'I have seen, then,' said she, in a voice of deep humility, 'the Lord of the Mighty Girdle—vouchsafe my homage.'

'Rise,' said the Egyptian; 'I have need of thee.'

So saying, he placed himself on the same log of wood on which Ione had rested before, and motioned to the witch to resume her seat.

'Thou sayest,' said he, as she obeyed, 'that thou art a daughter of the ancient Etrurian tribes; the mighty walls of whose rock-built cities yet frown above the robber race that hath seized upon their ancient reign. Partly came those tribes from Greece, partly were they exiles from a more burning and primeval soil. In either case art thou of Egyptian lineage, for the Grecian masters of the aboriginal helot were among the restless sons whom the Nile banished from her bosom. Equally, then, O Saga! thy descent is from ancestors that swore allegiance to mine own. By birth as by knowledge, art thou the subject of Arbaces. Hear me, then, and obey!'

The witch bowed her head.

'Whatever art we possess in sorcery,' continued Arbaces, 'we are sometimes driven to natural means to attain our object. The ring and the crystal, and the ashes and the herbs, do not give unerring divinations; neither do the higher mysteries of the moon yield even the possessor of the girdle a dispensation from the necessity of employing ever and anon human measures for a human object. Mark me, then: thou art deeply skilled, methinks, in the secrets of the more deadly herbs; thou knowest those which arrest life, which burn and scorch the soul from out her citadel, or freeze the channels of young blood into that ice which no sun can melt. Do I overrate thy skill? Speak, and truly!'

'Mighty Hermes, such lore is, indeed, mine own. Deign to look at these ghostly and corpse-like features; they have waned from the hues of life merely by watching over the rank herbs which simmer night and day in yon cauldron.'

The Egyptian moved his seat from so unblessed or so unhealthful a vicinity as the witch spoke.

'It is well,' said he; 'thou hast learned that maxim of all the deeper knowledge which saith, "Despise the body to make wise the mind." But to thy task. There cometh to thee by to-morrow's starlight a vain maiden, seeking of thine art a love-charm to fascinate from another the eyes that should utter but soft tales to her own: instead of thy philtres, give the maiden one of thy most powerful poisons. Let the lover breathe his vows to the Shades.'

The witch trembled from head to foot.

'Oh pardon! pardon! dread master,' said she, falteringly, 'but this I dare not. The law in these cities is sharp and vigilant; they will seize, they will slay me.'

'For what purpose, then, thy herbs and thy potions, vain Saga?' said Arbaces, sneeringly.

The witch hid her loathsome face with her hands.

'Oh! years ago,' said she, in a voice unlike her usual tones, so plaintive was it, and so soft, 'I was not the thing that I am now. I loved, I fancied myself beloved.'

'And what connection hath thy love, witch, with my commands?' said Arbaces, impetuously.

'Patience,' resumed the witch; 'patience, I implore. I loved! another and less fair than I—yes, by Nemesis! less fair—allured from me my chosen. I was of that dark Etrurian tribe to whom most of all were known the secrets of the gloomier magic. My mother was herself a saga: she shared the resentment of her child; from her hands I received the potion that was to restore me his love; and from her, also, the poison that was to destroy my rival. Oh, crush me, dread walls! my trembling hands mistook the phials, my lover fell indeed at my feet; but dead! dead! dead! Since then, what has been life to me I became suddenly old, I devoted myself to the sorceries of my race; still by an irresistible impulse I curse myself with an awful penance; still I seek the most noxious herbs; still I concoct the poisons; still I imagine that I am to give them to my hated rival; still I pour them into the phial; still I fancy that they shall blast her beauty to the dust; still I wake and see the quivering body, the foaming lips, the glazing eyes of my Aulus—murdered, and by me!'

The skeleton frame of the witch shook beneath strong convulsions.

Arbaces gazed upon her with a curious though contemptuous eye.

'And this foul thing has yet human emotions!' thought he; 'still she cowers over the ashes of the same fire that consumes Arbaces!—Such are we all! Mystic is the tie of those mortal passions that unite the greatest and the least.'

He did not reply till she had somewhat recovered herself, and now sat rocking to and fro in her seat, with glassy eyes fixed on the opposite flame, and large tears rolling down her livid cheeks.

'A grievous tale is thine, in truth,' said Arbaces. 'But these emotions are fit only for our youth—age should harden our hearts to all things but ourselves; as every year adds a scale to the shell-fish, so should each year wall and incrust the heart. Think of those frenzies no more! And now, listen to me again! By the revenge that was dear to thee, I command thee to obey me! it is for vengeance that I seek thee! This youth whom I would sweep from my path has crossed me, despite my spells:—this thing of purple and broidery, of smiles and glances, soulless and mindless, with no charm but that of beauty—accursed be it!—this insect—this Glaucus—I tell thee, by Orcus and by Nemesis, he must die.'

And working himself up at every word, the Egyptian, forgetful of his debility—of his strange companion—of everything but his own vindictive rage, strode, with large and rapid steps, the gloomy cavern.

'Glaucus! saidst thou, mighty master!' said the witch, abruptly; and her dim eye glared at the name with all that fierce resentment at the memory of small affronts so common amongst the solitary and the shunned.

'Ay, so he is called; but what matters the name? Let it not be heard as that of a living man three days from this date!'

'Hear me!' said the witch, breaking from a short reverie into which she was plunged after this last sentence of the Egyptian. 'Hear me! I am thy thing and thy slave! spare me! If I give to the maiden thou speakest of that which would destroy the life of Glaucus, I shall be surely detected—the dead ever find avengers. Nay, dread man! if thy visit to me be tracked, if thy hatred to Glaucus be known, thou mayest have need of thy archest magic to protect thyself!'

'Ha!' said Arbaces, stopping suddenly short; and as a proof of that blindness with which passion darkens the eyes even of the most acute, this was the first time when the risk that he himself ran by this method of vengeance had occurred to a mind ordinarily wary and circumspect.

'But,' continued the witch, 'if instead of that which shall arrest the heart, I give that which shall sear and blast the brain—which shall make him who quaffs it unfit for the uses and career of life—an abject, raving, benighted thing—smiting sense to drivelling youth to dotage—will not thy vengeance be equally sated—thy object equally attained?'

'Oh, witch! no longer the servant, but the sister—the equal of Arbaces—how much brighter is woman's wit, even in vengeance, than ours! how much more exquisite than death is such a doom!'

'And,' continued the hag, gloating over her fell scheme, 'in this is but little danger; for by ten thousand methods, which men forbear to seek, can our victim become mad. He may have been among the vines and seen a nymph—or the vine itself may have had the same effect—ha, ha! they never inquire too scrupulously into these matters in which the gods may be agents. And let the worst arrive—let it be known that it is a love-charm—why, madness is a common effect of philtres; and even the fair she that gave it finds indulgence in the excuse. Mighty Hermes, have I ministered to thee cunningly?'

'Thou shalt have twenty years' longer date for this,' returned Arbaces. 'I will write anew the epoch of thy fate on the face of the pale stars—thou shalt not serve in vain the Master of the Flaming Belt. And here, Saga, carve thee out, by these golden tools, a warmer cell in this dreary cavern—one service to me shall countervail a thousand divinations by sieve and shears to the gaping rustics.' So saying, he cast upon the floor a heavy purse, which clinked not unmusically to the ear of the hag, who loved the consciousness of possessing the means to purchase comforts she disdained. 'Farewell,' said Arbaces, 'fail not—outwatch the stars in concocting thy beverage—thou shalt lord it over thy sisters at the Walnut-tree,' when thou tellest them that thy patron and thy friend is Hermes the Egyptian. To-morrow night we meet again.'

He stayed not to hear the valediction or the thanks of the witch; with a quick step he passed into the moonlit air, and hastened down the mountain.

The witch, who followed his steps to the threshold, stood at the entrance of the cavern, gazing fixedly on his receding form; and as the sad moonlight streamed over her shadowy form and deathlike face, emerging from the dismal rocks, it seemed as if one gifted, indeed, by supernatural magic had escaped from the dreary Orcus; and, the foremost of its ghostly throng, stood at its black portals—vainly summoning his return, or vainly sighing to rejoin him. The hag, then slowly re-entering the cave, groaningly picked up the heavy purse, took the lamp from its stand, and, passing to the remotest depth of her cell, a black and abrupt passage, which was not visible, save at a near approach, closed round as it was with jutting and sharp crags, yawned before her: she went several yards along this gloomy path, which sloped gradually downwards, as if towards the bowels of the earth, and, lifting a stone, deposited her treasure in a hole beneath, which, as the lamp pierced its secrets, seemed already to contain coins of various value, wrung from the credulity or gratitude of her visitors.

'I love to look at you,' said she, apostrophising the moneys; 'for when I see you I feel that I am indeed of power. And I am to have twenty years' longer life to increase your store! O thou great Hermes!'

She replaced the stone, and continued her path onward for some paces, when she stopped before a deep irregular fissure in the earth. Here, as she bent—strange, rumbling, hoarse, and distant sounds might be heard, while ever and anon, with a loud and grating noise which, to use a homely but faithful simile, seemed to resemble the grinding of steel upon wheels, volumes of streaming and dark smoke issued forth, and rushed spirally along the cavern.

'The Shades are noisier than their wont,' said the hag, shaking her grey locks; and, looking into the cavity, she beheld, far down, glimpses of a long streak of light, intensely but darkly red. 'Strange!' she said, shrinking back; 'it is only within the last two days that dull, deep light hath been visible—what can it portend?'

The fox, who had attended the steps of his fell mistress, uttered a dismal howl, and ran cowering back to the inner cave; a cold shuddering seized the hag herself at the cry of the animal, which, causeless as it seemed, the superstitions of the time considered deeply ominous. She muttered her placatory charm, and tottered back into her cavern, where, amidst her herbs and incantations, she prepared to execute the orders of the Egyptian.

'He called me dotard,' said she, as the smoke curled from the hissing cauldron: 'when the jaws drop, and the grinders fall, and the heart scarce beats, it is a pitiable thing to dote; but when,' she added, with a savage and exulting grin, 'the young, and the beautiful, and the strong, are suddenly smitten into idiocy—ah, that is terrible! Burn, flame—simmer herb—swelter toad—I cursed him, and he shall be cursed!'

On that night, and at the same hour which witnessed the dark and unholy interview between Arbaces and the Saga, Apaecides was baptized.

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