Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter XI


'AND you have the courage then, Julia, to seek the Witch of Vesuvius this evening; in company, too, with that fearful man?'

'Why, Nydia?' replied Julia, timidly; 'dost thou really think there is anything to dread? These old hags, with their enchanted mirrors, their trembling sieves, and their moon-gathered herbs, are, I imagine, but crafty impostors, who have learned, perhaps, nothing but the very charm for which I apply to their skill, and which is drawn but from the knowledge of the field's herbs and simples. Wherefore should I dread?'

'Dost thou not fear thy companion?'

'What, Arbaces? By Dian, I never saw lover more courteous than that same magician! And were he not so dark, he would be even handsome.'

Blind as she was, Nydia had the penetration to perceive that Julia's mind was not one that the gallantries of Arbaces were likely to terrify. She therefore dissuaded her no more: but nursed in her excited heart the wild and increasing desire to know if sorcery had indeed a spell to fascinate love to love.

'Let me go with thee, noble Julia,' said she at length; 'my presence is no protection, but I should like to be beside thee to the last.'

'Thine offer pleases me much,' replied the daughter of Diomed. 'Yet how canst thou contrive it? we may not return until late, they will miss thee.'

'Ione is indulgent,' replied Nydia. 'If thou wilt permit me to sleep beneath thy roof, I will say that thou, an early patroness and friend, hast invited me to pass the day with thee, and sing thee my Thessalian songs; her courtesy will readily grant to thee so light a boon.'

'Nay, ask for thyself!' said the haughty Julia. 'I stoop to request no favor from the Neapolitan!'

'Well, be it so. I will take my leave now; make my request, which I know will be readily granted, and return shortly.'

'Do so; and thy bed shall be prepared in my own chamber.' With that, Nydia left the fair Pompeian.

On her way back to Ione she was met by the chariot of Glaucus, on whose fiery and curveting steeds was riveted the gaze of the crowded street.

He kindly stopped for a moment to speak to the flower-girl.

'Blooming as thine own roses, my gentle Nydia! and how is thy fair mistress?—recovered, I trust, from the effects of the storm?'

'I have not seen her this morning,' answered Nydia, 'but...'

'But what? draw back—the horses are too near thee.'

'But think you Ione will permit me to pass the day with Julia, the daughter of Diomed?—She wishes it, and was kind to me when I had few friends.'

'The gods bless thy grateful heart! I will answer for Ione's permission.'

'Then I may stay over the night, and return to-morrow?' said Nydia, shrinking from the praise she so little merited.

'As thou and fair Julia please. Commend me to her; and hark ye, Nydia, when thou hearest her speak, note the contrast of her voice with that of the silver-toned Ione. Vale!'

His spirits entirely recovered from the effect of the past night, his locks waving in the wind, his joyous and elastic heart bounding with every spring of his Parthian steeds, a very prototype of his country's god, full of youth and of love—Glaucus was borne rapidly to his mistress.

Enjoy while ye may the present—who can read the future?

As the evening darkened, Julia, reclined within her litter, which was capacious enough also to admit her blind companion, took her way to the rural baths indicated by Arbaces. To her natural levity of disposition, her enterprise brought less of terror than of pleasurable excitement; above all, she glowed at the thought of her coming triumph over the hated Neapolitan.

A small but gay group was collected round the door of the villa, as her litter passed by it to the private entrance of the baths appropriated to the women.

'Methinks, by this dim light,' said one of the bystanders, 'I recognize the slaves of Diomed.'

'True, Clodius,' said Sallust: 'it is probably the litter of his daughter Julia. She is rich, my friend; why dost thou not proffer thy suit to her?'

'Why, I had once hoped that Glaucus would have married her. She does not disguise her attachment; and then, as he gambles freely and with ill-success...'

'The sesterces would have passed to thee, wise Clodius. A wife is a good thing—when it belongs to another man!'

'But,' continued Clodius, 'as Glaucus is, I understand, to wed the Neapolitan, I think I must even try my chance with the dejected maid. After all, the lamp of Hymen will be gilt, and the vessel will reconcile one to the odor of the flame. I shall only protest, my Sallust, against Diomed's making thee trustee to his daughter's fortune.'

'Ha! ha! let us within, my comissator; the wine and the garlands wait us.'

Dismissing her slaves to that part of the house set apart for their entertainment, Julia entered the baths with Nydia, and declining the offers of the attendants, passed by a private door into the garden behind.

'She comes by appointment, be sure,' said one of the slaves.

'What is that to thee?' said a superintendent, sourly; 'she pays for the baths, and does not waste the saffron. Such appointments are the best part of the trade. Hark! do you not hear the widow Fulvia clapping her hands? Run, fool—run!'

Julia and Nydia, avoiding the more public part of the garden, arrived at the place specified by the Egyptian. In a small circular plot of grass the stars gleamed upon the statue of Silenus—the merry god reclined upon a fragment of rock—the lynx of Bacchus at his feet—and over his mouth he held, with extended arm, a bunch of grapes, which he seemingly laughed to welcome ere he devoured.

'I see not the magician,' said Julia, looking round: when, as she spoke, the Egyptian slowly emerged from the neighboring foliage, and the light fell palely over his sweeping robes.

'Salve, sweet maiden!—But ha! whom hast thou here? we must have no companions!'

'It is but the blind flower-girl, wise magician,' replied Julia: 'herself a Thessalian.'

'Oh! Nydia!' said the Egyptian. 'I know her well.'

Nydia drew back and shuddered.

'Thou hast been at my house, methinks!' said he, approaching his voice to Nydia's ear; 'thou knowest the oath!—Silence and secrecy, now as then, or beware!'

'Yet,' he added, musingly to himself, 'why confide more than is necessary, even in the blind—Julia, canst thou trust thyself alone with me? Believe me, the magician is less formidable than he seems.'

As he spoke, he gently drew Julia aside.

'The witch loves not many visitors at once,' said he: 'leave Nydia here till your return; she can be of no assistance to us: and, for protection—your own beauty suffices—your own beauty and your own rank; yes, Julia, I know thy name and birth. Come, trust thyself with me, fair rival of the youngest of the Naiads!'

The vain Julia was not, as we have seen, easily affrighted; she was moved by the flattery of Arbaces, and she readily consented to suffer Nydia to await her return; nor did Nydia press her presence. At the sound of the Egyptian's voice all her terror of him returned: she felt a sentiment of pleasure at learning she was not to travel in his companionship.

She returned to the Bath-house, and in one of the private chambers waited their return. Many and bitter were the thoughts of this wild girl as she sat there in her eternal darkness. She thought of her own desolate fate, far from her native land, far from the bland cares that once assuaged the April sorrows of childhood—deprived of the light of day, with none but strangers to guide her steps, accursed by the one soft feeling of her heart, loving and without hope, save the dim and unholy ray which shot across her mind, as her Thessalian fancies questioned of the force of spells and the gifts of magic.

Nature had sown in the heart of this poor girl the seeds of virtue never destined to ripen. The lessons of adversity are not always salutary—sometimes they soften and amend, but as often they indurate and pervert. If we consider ourselves more harshly treated by fate than those around us, and do not acknowledge in our own deeds the justice of the severity, we become too apt to deem the world our enemy, to case ourselves in defiance, to wrestle against our softer self, and to indulge the darker passions which are so easily fermented by the sense of injustice. Sold early into slavery, sentenced to a sordid taskmaster, exchanging her situation, only yet more to embitter her lot—the kindlier feelings, naturally profuse in the breast of Nydia, were nipped and blighted. Her sense of right and wrong was confused by a passion to which she had so madly surrendered herself; and the same intense and tragic emotions which we read of in the women of the classic age—a Myrrha, a Medea—and which hurried and swept away the whole soul when once delivered to love—ruled, and rioted in, her breast.

Time passed: a light step entered the chamber where Nydia yet indulged her gloomy meditations.

'Oh, thanked be the immortal gods!' said Julia, 'I have returned, I have left that terrible cavern! Come, Nydia! let us away forthwith!'

It was not till they were seated in the litter that Julia again spoke.

'Oh!' said she, tremblingly, 'such a scene! such fearful incantations! and the dead face of the hag!—But, let us talk not of it. I have obtained the potion—she pledges its effect. My rival shall be suddenly indifferent to his eye, and I, I alone, the idol of Glaucus!'

'Glaucus!' exclaimed Nydia.

'Ay! I told thee, girl, at first, that it was not the Athenian whom I loved: but I see now that I may trust thee wholly—it is the beautiful Greek!'

What then were Nydia's emotions! she had connived, she had assisted, in tearing Glaucus from Ione; but only to transfer, by all the power of magic, his affections yet more hopelessly to another. Her heart swelled almost to suffocation—she gasped for breath—in the darkness of the vehicle, Julia did not perceive the agitation of her companion; she went on rapidly dilating on the promised effect of her acquisition, and on her approaching triumph over Ione, every now and then abruptly digressing to the horror of the scene she had quitted—the unmoved mien of Arbaces, and his authority over the dreadful Saga.

Meanwhile Nydia recovered her self-possession: a thought flashed across her: she slept in the chamber of Julia—she might possess herself of the potion.

They arrived at the house of Diomed, and descended to Julia's apartment, where the night's repast awaited them.

'Drink, Nydia, thou must be cold, the air was chill to-night; as for me, my veins are yet ice.'

And Julia unhesitatingly quaffed deep draughts of the spiced wine.

'Thou hast the potion,' said Nydia; 'let me hold it in my hands. How small the phial is! of what color is the draught?'

'Clear as crystal,' replied Julia, as she retook the philtre; 'thou couldst not tell it from this water. The witch assures me it is tasteless. Small though the phial, it suffices for a life's fidelity: it is to be poured into any liquid; and Glaucus will only know what he has quaffed by the effect.'

'Exactly like this water in appearance?'

'Yes, sparkling and colorless as this. How bright it seems! it is as the very essence of moonlit dews. Bright thing! how thou shinest on my hopes through thy crystal vase!'

'And how is it sealed?'

'But by one little stopper—I withdraw it now—the draught gives no odor. Strange, that that which speaks to neither sense should thus command all!'

'Is the effect instantaneous?'

'Usually—but sometimes it remains dormant for a few hours.'

'Oh, how sweet is this perfume!' said Nydia, suddenly, as she took up a small bottle on the table, and bent over its fragrant contents.

'Thinkest thou so? the bottle is set with gems of some value. Thou wouldst not have the bracelet yestermorn—wilt thou take the bottle?'

'It ought to be such perfumes as these that should remind one who cannot see of the generous Julia. If the bottle be not too costly...'

'Oh! I have a thousand costlier ones: take it, child!'

Nydia bowed her gratitude, and placed the bottle in her vest.

'And the draught would be equally efficacious, whoever administers it?'

'If the most hideous hag beneath the sun bestowed it, such is its asserted virtue that Glaucus would deem her beautiful, and none but her!'

Julia, warmed by wine, and the reaction of her spirits, was now all animation and delight; she laughed loud, and talked on a hundred matters—nor was it till the night had advanced far towards morning that she summoned her slaves and undressed.

When they were dismissed, she said to Nydia, 'I will not suffer this holy draught to quit my presence till the hour comes for its use. Lie under my pillow, bright spirit, and give me happy dreams!'

So saying, she placed the potion under her pillow. Nydia's heart beat violently.

'Why dost thou drink that unmixed water, Nydia? Take the wine by its side.'

'I am fevered,' replied the blind girl, 'and the water cools me. I will place this bottle by my bedside, it refreshes in these summer nights, when the dews of sleep fall not on our lips. Fair Julia, I must leave thee very early—so Ione bids—perhaps before thou art awake; accept, therefore, now my congratulations.'

'Thanks: when next we meet you may find Glaucus at my feet.'

They had retired to their couches, and Julia, worn out by the excitement of the day, soon slept. But anxious and burning thoughts rolled over the mind of the wakeful Thessalian. She listened to the calm breathing of Julia; and her ear, accustomed to the finest distinctions of sound, speedily assured her of the deep slumber of her companion.

'Now befriend me, Venus!' said she, softly.

She rose gently, and poured the perfume from the gift of Julia upon the marble floor—she rinsed it several times carefully with the water that was beside her, and then easily finding the bed of Julia (for night to her was as day), she pressed her trembling hand under the pillow and seized the potion. Julia stirred not, her breath regularly fanned the burning cheek of the blind girl. Nydia, then, opening the phial, poured its contents into the bottle, which easily contained them; and then refilling the former reservoir of the potion with that limpid water which Julia had assured her it so resembled, she once more placed the phial in its former place. She then stole again to her couch, and waited—with what thoughts!—the dawning day.

The sun had risen—Julia slept still—Nydia noiselessly dressed herself, placed her treasure carefully in her vest, took up her staff, and hastened to quit the house.

The porter, Medon, saluted her kindly as she descended the steps that led to the street: she heard him not; her mind was confused and lost in the whirl of tumultuous thoughts, each thought a passion. She felt the pure morning air upon her cheek, but it cooled not her scorching veins.

'Glaucus,' she murmured, 'all the love-charms of the wildest magic could not make thee love me as I love thee. Ione!—ah; away hesitation! away remorse! Glaucus, my fate is in thy smile; and thine! hope! O joy! O transport, thy fate is in these hands!'

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