Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VII


THE night was somewhat advanced, and the gay lounging places of the Pompeians were still crowded. You might observe in the countenances of the various idlers a more earnest expression than usual. They talked in large knots and groups, as if they sought by numbers to divide the half-painful, half-pleasurable anxiety which belonged to the subject on which they conversed: it was a subject of life and death.

A young man passed briskly by the graceful portico of the Temple of Fortune—so briskly, indeed, that he came with no slight force full against the rotund and comely form of that respectable citizen Diomed, who was retiring homeward to his suburban villa.

'Holloa!' groaned the merchant, recovering with some difficulty his equilibrium; 'have you no eyes? or do you think I have no feeling? By Jupiter! you have well nigh driven out the divine particle; such another shock, and my soul will be in Hades!'

'Ah, Diomed! is it you? forgive my inadvertence. I was absorbed in thinking of the reverses of life. Our poor friend, Glaucus, eh! who could have guessed it?'

'Well, but tell me, Clodius, is he really to be tried by the senate?'

'Yes; they say the crime is of so extraordinary a nature that the senate itself must adjudge it; and so the lictors are to induct him formally.'

'He has been accused publicly, then?'

'To be sure; where have you been not to hear that?'

'Why, I have only just returned from Neapolis, whither I went on business the very morning after his crime—so shocking, and at my house the same night that it happened!'

'There is no doubt of his guilt,' said Clodius, shrugging his shoulders; 'and as these crimes take precedence of all little undignified peccadilloes, they will hasten to finish the sentence previous to the games.'

'The games! Good gods!' replied Diomed, with a slight shudder: 'can they adjudge him to the beasts?—so young, so rich!'

'True; but then he is a Greek. Had he been a Roman, it would have been a thousand pities. These foreigners can be borne with in their prosperity; but in adversity we must not forget that they are in reality slaves. However, we of the upper classes are always tender-hearted; and he would certainly get off tolerably well if he were left to us: for, between ourselves, what is a paltry priest of Isis!—what Isis herself? But the common people are superstitious; they clamor for the blood of the sacrilegious one. It is dangerous not to give way to public opinion.'

'And the blasphemer—the Christian, or Nazarene, or whatever else he be called?'

'Oh, poor dog! if he will sacrifice to Cybele or Isis, he will be pardoned—if not, the tiger has him. At least, so I suppose; but the trial will decide. We talk while the urn's still empty. And the Greek may yet escape the deadly Theta of his own alphabet. But enough of this gloomy subject. How is the fair Julia?'

'Well, I fancy.'

'Commend me to her. But hark! the door yonder creaks on its hinges; it is the house of the praetor. Who comes forth? By Pollux! it is the Egyptian! What can he want with our official friend!'

'Some conference touching the murder, doubtless,' replied Diomed; 'but what was supposed to be the inducement to the crime? Glaucus was to have married the priest's sister.'

'Yes: some say Apaecides refused the alliance. It might have been a sudden quarrel. Glaucus was evidently drunk—nay, so much so as to have been quite insensible when taken up, and I hear is still delirious—whether with wine, terror, remorse, the Furies, or the Bacchanals, I cannot say.'

'Poor fellow!—he has good counsel?'

'The best—Caius Pollio, an eloquent fellow enough. Pollio has been hiring all the poor gentlemen and well-born spendthrifts of Pompeii to dress shabbily and sneak about, swearing their friendship to Glaucus (who would not have spoken to them to be made emperor!—I will do him justice, he was a gentleman in his choice of acquaintance), and trying to melt the stony citizens into pity. But it will not do; Isis is mightily popular just at this moment.'

'And, by-the-by, I have some merchandise at Alexandria. Yes, Isis ought to be protected.'

'True; so farewell, old gentleman: we shall meet soon; if not, we must have a friendly bet at the Amphitheatre. All my calculations are confounded by this cursed misfortune of Glaucus! He had bet on Lydon the gladiator; I must make up my tablets elsewhere. Vale!'

Leaving the less active Diomed to regain his villa, Clodius strode on, humming a Greek air, and perfuming the night with the odorous that steamed from his snowy garments and flowing locks.

'If,' thought he, 'Glaucus feed the lion, Julia will no longer have a person to love better than me; she will certainly doat on me—and so, I suppose, I must marry. By the gods! the twelve lines begin to fail—men look suspiciously at my hand when it rattles the dice. That infernal Sallust insinuates cheating; and if it be discovered that the ivory is clogged, why farewell to the merry supper and the perfumed billet—Clodius is undone! Better marry, then, while I may, renounce gaming, and push my fortune (or rather the gentle Julia's) at the imperial court.'

Thus muttering the schemes of his ambition, if by that high name the projects of Clodius may be called, the gamester found himself suddenly accosted; he turned and beheld the dark brow of Arbaces.

'Hail, noble Clodius! pardon my interruption; and inform me, I pray you, which is the house of Sallust?'

'It is but a few yards hence, wise Arbaces. But does Sallust entertain to-night?'

'I know not,' answered the Egyptian; 'nor am I, perhaps, one of those whom he would seek as a boon companion. But thou knowest that his house holds the person of Glaucus, the murderer.'

'Ay! he, good-hearted epicure, believes in the Greek's innocence! You remind me that he has become his surety; and, therefore, till the trial, is responsible for his appearance.' Well, Sallust's house is better than a prison, especially that wretched hole in the forum. But for what can you seek Glaucus?'

'Why, noble Clodius, if we could save him from execution it would be well. The condemnation of the rich is a blow upon society itself. I should like to confer with him—for I hear he has recovered his senses—and ascertain the motives of his crime; they may be so extenuating as to plead in his defence.'

'You are benevolent, Arbaces.'

'Benevolence is the duty of one who aspires to wisdom,' replied the Egyptian, modestly. 'Which way lies Sallust's mansion?'

'I will show you,' said Clodius, 'if you will suffer me to accompany you a few steps. But, pray what has become of the poor girl who was to have wed the Athenian—the sister of the murdered priest?'

'Alas! well-nigh insane! Sometimes she utters imprecations on the murderer—then suddenly stops short—then cries, "But why curse? Oh, my brother! Glaucus was not thy murderer—never will I believe it!" Then she begins again, and again stops short, and mutters awfully to herself, "Yet if it were indeed he?"'

'Unfortunate Ione!'

'But it is well for her that those solemn cares to the dead which religion enjoins have hitherto greatly absorbed her attention from Glaucus and herself: and, in the dimness of her senses, she scarcely seems aware that Glaucus is apprehended and on the eve of trial. When the funeral rites due to Apaecides are performed, her apprehension will return; and then I fear me much that her friends will be revolted by seeing her run to succour and aid the murderer of her brother!'

'Such scandal should be prevented.'

'I trust I have taken precautions to that effect. I am her lawful guardian, and have just succeeded in obtaining permission to escort her, after the funeral of Apaecides, to my own house; there, please the gods! she will be secure.'

'You have done well, sage Arbaces. And, now, yonder is the house of Sallust. The gods keep you! Yet, hark you, Arbaces—why so gloomy and unsocial? Men say you can be gay—why not let me initiate you into the pleasures of Pompeii?—I flatter myself no one knows them better.'

'I thank you, noble Clodius: under your auspices I might venture, I think, to wear the philyra: but, at my age, I should be an awkward pupil.'

'Oh, never fear; I have made converts of fellows of seventy. The rich, too, are never old.'

'You flatter me. At some future time I will remind you of your promise.'

'You may command Marcus Clodius at all times—and so, vale!'

'Now,' said the Egyptian, soliloquising, 'I am not wantonly a man of blood; I would willingly save this Greek, if, by confessing the crime, he will lose himself for ever to Ione, and for ever free me from the chance of discovery; and I can save him by persuading Julia to own the philtre, which will be held his excuse. But if he do not confess the crime, why, Julia must be shamed from the confession, and he must die!—die, lest he prove my rival with the living—die, that he may be my proxy with the dead! Will he confess?—can he not be persuaded that in his delirium he struck the blow? To me it would give far greater safety than even his death. Hem! we must hazard the experiment.'

Sweeping along the narrow street, Arbaces now approached the house of Sallust, when he beheld a dark form wrapped in a cloak, and stretched at length across the threshold of the door.

So still lay the figure, and so dim was its outline, that any other than Arbaces might have felt a superstitious fear, lest he beheld one of those grim lemures, who, above all other spots, haunted the threshold of the homes they formerly possessed. But not for Arbaces were such dreams.

'Rise!' said he, touching the figure with his foot; 'thou obstructest the way!'

'Ha! who art thou cried the form, in a sharp tone, and as she raised herself from the ground, the starlight fell full on the pale face and fixed but sightless eyes of Nydia the Thessalian. 'Who art thou? I know the burden of thy voice.'

'Blind girl! what dost thou here at this late hour? Fie!—is this seeming thy sex or years? Home, girl!'

'I know thee,' said Nydia, in a low voice, 'thou art Arbaces the Egyptian': then, as if inspired by some sudden impulse, she flung herself at his feet, and clasping his knees, exclaimed, in a wild and passionate tone, 'Oh dread and potent man! save him—save him! He is not guilty—it is I! He lies within, ill-dying, and I—I am the hateful cause! And they will not admit me to him—they spurn the blind girl from the hall. Oh, heal him! thou knowest some herb—some spell—some countercharm, for it is a potion that hath wrought this frenzy!

'Hush, child! I know all!—thou forgettest that I accompanied Julia to the saga's home. Doubtless her hand administered the draught; but her reputation demands thy silence. Reproach not thyself—what must be, must: meanwhile, I seek the criminal—he may yet be saved. Away!'

Thus saying, Arbaces extricated himself from the clasp of the despairing Thessalian, and knocked loudly at the door.

In a few moments the heavy bars were heard suddenly to yield, and the porter, half opening the door, demanded who was there.

'Arbaces—important business to Sallust relative to Glaucus. I come from the praetor.'

The porter, half yawning, half groaning, admitted the tall form of the Egyptian. Nydia sprang forward. 'How is he?' she cried; 'tell me—tell me!'

'Ho, mad girl! is it thou still?—for shame! Why, they say he is sensible.'

'The gods be praised!—and you will not admit me? Ah! I beseech thee...'

'Admit thee!—no. A pretty salute I should prepare for these shoulders were I to admit such things as thou! Go home!'

The door closed, and Nydia, with a deep sigh, laid herself down once more on the cold stones; and, wrapping her cloak round her face, resumed her weary vigil.

Meanwhile Arbaces had already gained the triclinium, where Sallust, with his favorite freedman, sat late at supper.

'What! Arbaces! and at this hour!—Accept this cup.'

'Nay, gentle Sallust; it is on business, not pleasure, that I venture to disturb thee. How doth thy charge?—they say in the town that he has recovered sense.'

'Alas! and truly,' replied the good-natured but thoughtless Sallust, wiping the tear from his eyes; 'but so shattered are his nerves and frame that I scarcely recognize the brilliant and gay carouser I was wont to know. Yet, strange to say, he cannot account for the cause of the sudden frenzy that seized him—he retains but a dim consciousness of what hath passed; and, despite thy witness, wise Egyptian, solemnly upholds his innocence of the death of Apaecides.'

'Sallust,' said Arbaces, gravely, 'there is much in thy friend's case that merits a peculiar indulgence; and could we learn from his lips the confession and the cause of his crime, much might be yet hoped from the mercy of the senate; for the senate, thou knowest, hath the power either to mitigate or to sharpen the law. Therefore it is that I have conferred with the highest authority of the city, and obtained his permission to hold a private conference this night with the Athenian. Tomorrow, thou knowest, the trial comes on.'

'Well,' said Sallust, 'thou wilt be worthy of thy Eastern name and fame if thou canst learn aught from him; but thou mayst try. Poor Glaucus!—and he had such an excellent appetite! He eats nothing now!'

The benevolent epicure was moved sensibly at this thought. He sighed, and ordered his slaves to refill his cup.

'Night wanes,' said the Egyptian; 'suffer me to see thy ward now.'

Sallust nodded assent, and led the way to a small chamber, guarded without by two dozing slaves. The door opened; at the request of Arbaces, Sallust withdrew—the Egyptian was alone with Glaucus.

One of those tall and graceful candelabra common to that day, supporting a single lamp, burned beside the narrow bed. Its rays fell palely over the face of the Athenian, and Arbaces was moved to see how sensibly that countenance had changed. The rich color was gone, the cheek was sunk, the lips were convulsed and pallid; fierce had been the struggle between reason and madness, life and death. The youth, the strength of Glaucus had conquered; but the freshness of blood and soul—the life of life—its glory and its zest, were gone for ever.

The Egyptian seated himself quietly beside the bed; Glaucus still lay mute and unconscious of his presence. At length, after a considerable pause, Arbaces thus spoke:

'Glaucus, we have been enemies. I come to thee alone and in the dead of night—thy friend, perhaps thy saviour.'

As the steed starts from the path of the tiger, Glaucus sprang up breathless—alarmed, panting at the abrupt voice, the sudden apparition of his foe. Their eyes met, and neither, for some moments, had power to withdraw his gaze. The flush went and came over the face of the Athenian, and the bronzed cheek of the Egyptian grew a shade more pale. At length, with an inward groan, Glaucus turned away, drew his hand across his brow, sunk back, and muttered:

'Am I still dreaming?'

'No, Glaucus thou art awake. By this right hand and my father's head, thou seest one who may save thy life. Hark! I know what thou hast done, but I know also its excuse, of which thou thyself art ignorant. Thou hast committed murder, it is true—a sacrilegious murder—frown not—start not—these eyes saw it. But I can save thee—I can prove how thou wert bereaved of sense, and made not a free-thinking and free-acting man. But in order to save thee, thou must confess thy crime. Sign but this paper, acknowledging thy hand in the death of Apaecides, and thou shalt avoid the fatal urn.'

'What words are these?—Murder and Apaecides!—Did I not see him stretched on the ground bleeding and a corpse? and wouldst thou persuade me that I did the deed? Man, thou liest! Away!'

'Be not rash—Glaucus, be not hasty; the deed is proved. Come, come, thou mayst well be excused for not recalling the act of thy delirium, and which thy sober senses would have shunned even to contemplate. But let me try to refresh thy exhausted and weary memory. Thou knowest thou wert walking with the priest, disputing about his sister; thou knowest he was intolerant, and half a Nazarene, and he sought to convert thee, and ye had hot words; and he calumniated thy mode of life, and swore he would not marry Ione to thee—and then, in thy wrath and thy frenzy, thou didst strike the sudden blow. Come, come; you can recollect this!—read this papyrus, it runs to that effect—sign it, and thou art saved.'

'Barbarian, give me the written lie, that I may tear it! I the murderer of Ione's brother: I confess to have injured one hair of the head of him she loved! Let me rather perish a thousand times!'

'Beware!' said Arbaces, in a low and hissing tone; 'there is but one choice—thy confession and thy signature, or the amphitheatre and the lion's maw!'

As the Egyptian fixed his eyes upon the sufferer, he hailed with joy the signs of evident emotion that seized the latter at these words. A slight shudder passed over the Athenian's frame—his lip fell—an expression of sudden fear and wonder betrayed itself in his brow and eye.

'Great gods!' he said, in a low voice, 'what reverse is this? It seems but a little day since life laughed out from amidst roses—Ione mine—youth, health, love, lavishing on me their treasures; and now—pain, madness, shame, death! And for what? What have I done? Oh, I am mad still?'

'Sign, and be saved!' said the soft, sweet voice of the Egyptian.

'Tempter, never!' cried Glaucus, in the reaction of rage. 'Thou knowest me not: thou knowest not the haughty soul of an Athenian! The sudden face of death might appal me for a moment, but the fear is over. Dishonour appals for ever! Who will debase his name to save his life? who exchange clear thoughts for sullen days? who will belie himself to shame, and stand blackened in the eyes of love? If to earn a few years of polluted life there be so base a coward, dream not, dull barbarian of Egypt! to find him in one who has trod the same sod as Harmodius, and breathed the same air as Socrates. Go! leave me to live without self-reproach—or to perish without fear!'

'Bethink thee well! the lion's fangs: the hoots of the brutal mob: the vulgar gaze on thy dying agony and mutilated limbs: thy name degraded; thy corpse unburied; the shame thou wouldst avoid clinging to thee for aye and ever!'

'Thou ravest; thou art the madman! shame is not in the loss of other men's esteem—it is in the loss of our own. Wilt thou go?—my eyes loathe the sight of thee! hating ever, I despise thee now!'

'I go,' said Arbaces, stung and exasperated, but not without some pitying admiration of his victim, 'I go; we meet twice again—once at the Trial, once at the Death! Farewell!'

The Egyptian rose slowly, gathered his robes about him, and left the chamber. He sought Sallust for a moment, whose eyes began to reel with the vigils of the cup: 'He is still unconscious, or still obstinate; there is no hope for him.'

'Say not so,' replied Sallust, who felt but little resentment against the Athenian's accuser, for he possessed no great austerity of virtue, and was rather moved by his friend's reverses than persuaded of his innocence—'say not so, my Egyptian! so good a drinker shall be saved if possible. Bacchus against Isis!'

'We shall see,' said the Egyptian.

Suddenly the bolts were again withdrawn—the door unclosed; Arbaces was in the open street; and poor Nydia once more started from her long watch.

'Wilt thou save him?' she cried, clasping her hands.

'Child, follow me home; I would speak to thee—it is for his sake I ask it.'

'And thou wilt save him?'

No answer came forth to the thirsting ear of the blind girl: Arbaces had already proceeded far up the street; she hesitated a moment, and then followed his steps in silence.

'I must secure this girl,' said he, musingly, 'lest she give evidence of the philtre; as to the vain Julia, she will not betray herself.'

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