Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VIII


WHILE Arbaces had been thus employed, Sorrow and Death were in the house of Ione. It was the night preceding the morn in which the solemn funeral rites were to be decreed to the remains of the murdered Apaecides. The corpse had been removed from the temple of Isis to the house of the nearest surviving relative, and Ione had heard, in the same breath, the death of her brother and the accusation against her betrothed. That first violent anguish which blunts the sense to all but itself, and the forbearing silence of her slaves, had prevented her learning minutely the circumstances attendant on the fate of her lover. His illness, his frenzy, and his approaching trial, were unknown to her. She learned only the accusation against him, and at once indignantly rejected it; nay, on hearing that Arbaces was the accuser, she required no more to induce her firmly and solemnly to believe that the Egyptian himself was the criminal. But the vast and absorbing importance attached by the ancients to the performance of every ceremonial connected with the death of a relation, had, as yet, confined her woe and her convictions to the chamber of the deceased. Alas! it was not for her to perform that tender and touching office, which obliged the nearest relative to endeavor to catch the last breath—the parting soul—of the beloved one: but it was hers to close the straining eyes, the distorted lips: to watch by the consecrated clay, as, fresh bathed and anointed, it lay in festive robes upon the ivory bed; to strew the couch with leaves and flowers, and to renew the solemn cypress-branch at the threshold of the door. And in these sad offices, in lamentation and in prayer, Ione forgot herself. It was among the loveliest customs of the ancients to bury the young at the morning twilight; for, as they strove to give the softest interpretation to death, so they poetically imagined that Aurora, who loved the young, had stolen them to her embrace; and though in the instance of the murdered priest this fable could not appropriately cheat the fancy, the general custom was still preserved.

The stars were fading one by one from the grey heavens, and night slowly receding before the approach of morn, when a dark group stood motionless before Ione's door. High and slender torches, made paler by the unmellowed dawn, cast their light over various countenances, hushed for the moment in one solemn and intent expression. And now there arose a slow and dismal music, which accorded sadly with the rite, and floated far along the desolate and breathless streets; while a chorus of female voices (the Praeficae so often cited by the Roman poets), accompanying the Tibicen and the Mysian flute, woke the following strain:


O'er the sad threshold, where the cypress bough
Supplants the rose that should adorn thy home,
On the last pilgrimage on earth that now
Awaits thee, wanderer to Cocytus, come!
Darkly we woo, and weeping we invite—
Death is thy host—his banquet asks thy soul,
Thy garlands hang within the House of Night,
And the black stream alone shall fill thy bowl.

No more for thee the laughter and the song,
The jocund night—the glory of the day!
The Argive daughters' at their labours long;
The hell-bird swooping on its Titan prey—

The false AEolides upheaving slow,
O'er the eternal hill, the eternal stone;
The crowned Lydian, in his parching woe,
And green Callirrhoe's monster-headed son—

These shalt thou see, dim shadowed through the dark,
Which makes the sky of Pluto's dreary shore;
Lo! where thou stand'st, pale-gazing on the bark,
That waits our rite to bear thee trembling o'er!
Come, then! no more delay!—the phantom pines
Amidst the Unburied for its latest home;
O'er the grey sky the torch impatient shines—
Come, mourner, forth!—the lost one bids thee come.

As the hymn died away, the group parted in twain; and placed upon a couch, spread with a purple pall, the corpse of Apaecides was carried forth, with the feet foremost. The designator, or marshal of the sombre ceremonial, accompanied by his torch-bearers, clad in black, gave the signal, and the procession moved dreadly on.

First went the musicians, playing a slow march—the solemnity of the lower instruments broken by many a louder and wilder burst of the funeral trumpet: next followed the hired mourners, chanting their dirges to the dead; and the female voices were mingled with those of boys, whose tender years made still more striking the contrast of life and death—the fresh leaf and the withered one. But the players, the buffoons, the archimimus (whose duty it was to personate the dead)—these, the customary attendants at ordinary funerals, were banished from a funeral attended with so many terrible associations.

The priests of Isis came next in their snowy garments, barefooted, and supporting sheaves of corn; while before the corpse were carried the images of the deceased and his many Athenian forefathers. And behind the bier followed, amidst her women, the sole surviving relative of the dead—her head bare, her locks disheveled, her face paler than marble, but composed and still, save ever and anon, as some tender thought—awakened by the music, flashed upon the dark lethargy of woe, she covered that countenance with her hands, and sobbed unseen; for hers were not the noisy sorrow, the shrill lament, the ungoverned gesture, which characterized those who honored less faithfully. In that age, as in all, the channel of deep grief flowed hushed and still.

And so the procession swept on, till it had traversed the streets, passed the city gate, and gained the Place of Tombs without the wall, which the traveler yet beholds.

Raised in the form of an altar—of unpolished pine, amidst whose interstices were placed preparations of combustible matter—stood the funeral pyre; and around it drooped the dark and gloomy cypresses so consecrated by song to the tomb.

As soon as the bier was placed upon the pile, the attendants parting on either side, Ione passed up to the couch, and stood before the unconscious clay for some moments motionless and silent. The features of the dead had been composed from the first agonized expression of violent death. Hushed for ever the terror and the doubt, the contest of passion, the awe of religion, the struggle of the past and present, the hope and the horror of the future!—of all that racked and desolated the breast of that young aspirant to the Holy of Life, what trace was visible in the awful serenity of that impenetrable brow and unbreathing lip? The sister gazed, and not a sound was heard amidst the crowd; there was something terrible, yet softening, also, in the silence; and when it broke, it broke sudden and abrupt—it broke, with a loud and passionate cry—the vent of long-smothered despair.

'My brother! my brother!' cried the poor orphan, falling upon the couch; 'thou whom the worm on thy path feared not—what enemy couldst thou provoke? Oh, is it in truth come to this? Awake! awake! We grew together! Are we thus torn asunder? Thou art not dead—thou sleepest. Awake! awake!'

The sound of her piercing voice aroused the sympathy of the mourners, and they broke into loud and rude lament. This startled, this recalled Ione; she looked up hastily and confusedly, as if for the first time sensible of the presence of those around.

'Ah!' she murmured with a shiver, 'we are not then alone!' With that, after a brief pause, she rose; and her pale and beautiful countenance was again composed and rigid. With fond and trembling hands, she unclosed the lids of the deceased; but when the dull glazed eye, no longer beaming with love and life, met hers, she shrieked aloud, as if she had seen a spectre. Once more recovering herself she kissed again and again the lids, the lips, the brow; and with mechanic and unconscious hand, received from the high priest of her brother's temple the funeral torch.

The sudden burst of music, the sudden song of the mourners announced the birth of the sanctifying flame.



On thy couch of cloud reclined,
Wake, O soft and sacred Wind!
Soft and sacred will we name thee,
Whosoe'er the sire that claim thee—
Whether old Auster's dusky child,
Or the loud son of Eurus wild;
Or his who o'er the darkling deeps,
From the bleak North, in tempest sweeps;
Still shalt thou seem as dear to us
As flowery-crowned Zephyrus,
When, through twilight's starry dew,
Trembling, he hastes his nymph to woo.


Lo! our silver censers swinging,
Perfumes o'er thy path are flinging—
Ne'er o'er Tempe's breathless valleys,
Ne'er o'er Cypria's cedarn alleys,
Or the Rose-isle's moonlit sea,
Floated sweets more worthy thee.
Lo! around our vases sending
Myrrh and nard with cassia blending:
Paving air with odorous meet,
For thy silver-sandall'd feet!


August and everlasting air!
The source of all that breathe and be,
From the mute clay before thee bear
The seeds it took from thee!
Aspire, bright Flame! aspire!
Wild wind!—awake, awake!
Thine own, O solemn Fire!
O Air, thine own retake!


It comes! it comes! Lo! it sweeps,
The Wind we invoke the while!
And crackles, and darts, and leaps
The light on the holy pile!
It rises! its wings interweave
With the flames—how they howl and heave!
Toss'd, whirl'd to and fro,
How the flame-serpents glow!
Rushing higher and higher,
On—on, fearful Fire!
Thy giant limbs twined
With the arms of the Wind!
Lo! the elements meet on the throne
Of death—to reclaim their own!


Swing, swing the censer round—
Tune the strings to a softer sound!
From the chains of thy earthly toil,
From the clasp of thy mortal coil,
From the prison where clay confined thee,
The hands of the flame unbind thee!
O Soul! thou art free—all free!
As the winds in their ceaseless chase,
When they rush o'er their airy sea,
Thou mayst speed through the realms of space,
No fetter is forged for thee!
Rejoice! o'er the sluggard tide
Of the Styx thy bark can glide,
And thy steps evermore shall rove
Through the glades of the happy grove;
Where, far from the loath'd Cocytus,
The loved and the lost invite us.
Thou art slave to the earth no more!
O soul, thou art freed!—and we?—
Ah! when shall our toil be o'er?
Ah! when shall we rest with thee?

And now high and far into the dawning skies broke the fragrant fire; it flushed luminously across the gloomy cypresses—it shot above the massive walls of the neighboring city; and the early fisherman started to behold the blaze reddening on the waves of the creeping sea.

But Ione sat down apart and alone, and, leaning her face upon her hands, saw not the flame, nor heard the lamentation of the music: she felt only one sense of loneliness—she had not yet arrived to that hallowing sense of comfort, when we know that we are not alone—that the dead are with us!

The breeze rapidly aided the effect of the combustibles placed within the pile. By degrees the flame wavered, lowered, dimmed, and slowly, by fits and unequal starts, died away—emblem of life itself; where, just before, all was restlessness and flame, now lay the dull and smouldering ashes.

The last sparks were extinguished by the attendants—the embers were collected. Steeped in the rarest wine and the costliest odorous, the remains were placed in a silver urn, which was solemnly stored in one of the neighboring sepulchres beside the road; and they placed within it the vial full of tears, and the small coin which poetry still consecrated to the grim boatman. And the sepulchre was covered with flowers and chaplets, and incense kindled on the altar, and the tomb hung round with many lamps.

But the next day, when the priest returned with fresh offerings to the tomb, he found that to the relics of heathen superstition some unknown hands had added a green palm-branch. He suffered it to remain, unknowing that it was the sepulchral emblem of Christianity.

When the above ceremonies were over, one of the Praeficae three times sprinkled the mourners from the purifying branch of laurel, uttering the last word, 'Ilicet!'—Depart!—and the rite was done.

But first they paused to utter—weepingly and many times—the affecting farewell, 'Salve Eternum!' And as Ione yet lingered, they woke the parting strain.



Farewell! O soul departed!
Farewell! O sacred urn!
Bereaved and broken-hearted,
To earth the mourners turn.
To the dim and dreary shore,
Thou art gone our steps before!
But thither the swift Hours lead us,
And thou dost but a while precede us,
Loved urn, and thou solemn cell,
Mute ashes!—farewell, farewell!


Ilicet—ire licet—
Ah, vainly would we part!
Thy tomb is the faithful heart.
About evermore we bear thee;
For who from the heart can tear thee?
Vainly we sprinkle o'er us
The drops of the cleansing stream;
And vainly bright before us
The lustral fire shall beam.
For where is the charm expelling
Thy thought from its sacred dwelling?
Our griefs are thy funeral feast,
And Memory thy mourning priest.


Ilicet—ire licet!
The spark from the hearth is gone
Wherever the air shall bear it;
The elements take their own—
The shadows receive thy spirit.
It will soothe thee to feel our grief,
As thou glid'st by the Gloomy River!
If love may in life be brief,
In death it is fixed for ever.
In the hall which our feasts illume,
The rose for an hour may bloom;
But the cypress that decks the tomb—
The cypress is green for ever!

1 of 2
2 of 2