Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter XII


THE second night of the trial had set in; and it was nearly the time in which Sosia was to brave the dread Unknown, when there entered, at that very garden-gate which the slave had left ajar—not, indeed, one of the mysterious spirits of earth or air, but the heavy and most human form of Calenus, the priest of Isis. He scarcely noted the humble offerings of indifferent fruit, and still more indifferent wine, which the pious Sosia had deemed good enough for the invisible stranger they were intended to allure. 'Some tribute,' thought he, 'to the garden god. By my father's head! if his deityship were never better served, he would do well to give up the godly profession. Ah! were it not for us priests, the gods would have a sad time of it. And now for Arbaces—I am treading a quicksand, but it ought to cover a mine. I have the Egyptian's life in my power—what will he value it at?'

As he thus soliloquised, he crossed through the open court into the peristyle, where a few lamps here and there broke upon the empire of the starlit night; and issuing from one of the chambers that bordered the colonnade, suddenly encountered Arbaces.

'Ho! Calenus—seekest thou me?' said the Egyptian; and there was a little embarrassment in his voice.

'Yes, wise Arbaces—I trust my visit is not unseasonable?'

'Nay—it was but this instant that my freedman Callias sneezed thrice at my right hand; I knew, therefore, some good fortune was in store for me—and, lo! the gods have sent me Calenus.'

'Shall we within to your chamber, Arbaces?'

'As you will; but the night is clear and balmy—I have some remains of languor yet lingering on me from my recent illness—the air refreshes me—let us walk in the garden—we are equally alone there.'

'With all my heart,' answered the priest; and the two friends passed slowly to one of the many terraces which, bordered by marble vases and sleeping flowers, intersected the garden.

'It is a lovely night,' said Arbaces—'blue and beautiful as that on which, twenty years ago, the shores of Italy first broke upon my view. My Calenus, age creeps upon us—let us, at least, feel that we have lived.'

'Thou, at least, mayst arrogate that boast,' said Calenus, beating about, as it were, for an opportunity to communicate the secret which weighed upon him, and feeling his usual awe of Arbaces still more impressively that night, from the quiet and friendly tone of dignified condescension which the Egyptian assumed—'Thou, at least, mayst arrogate that boast. Thou hast had countless wealth—a frame on whose close-woven fibres disease can find no space to enter—prosperous love—inexhaustible pleasure—and, even at this hour, triumphant revenge.'

'Thou alludest to the Athenian. Ay, to-morrow's sun the fiat of his death will go forth. The senate does not relent. But thou mistakest: his death gives me no other gratification than that it releases me from a rival in the affections of Ione. I entertain no other sentiment of animosity against that unfortunate homicide.'

'Homicide!' repeated Calenus, slowly and meaningly; and, halting as he spoke, he fixed his eyes upon Arbaces. The stars shone pale and steadily on the proud face of their prophet, but they betrayed there no change: the eyes of Calenus fell disappointed and abashed. He continued rapidly—'Homicide! it is well to charge him with that crime; but thou, of all men, knowest that he is innocent.'

'Explain thyself,' said Arbaces, coldly; for he had prepared himself for the hint his secret fears had foretold.

'Arbaces,' answered Calenus, sinking his voice into a whisper, 'I was in the sacred grove, sheltered by the chapel and the surrounding foliage. I overheard—I marked the whole. I saw thy weapon pierce the heart of Apaecides. I blame not the deed—it destroyed a foe and an apostate.'

'Thou sawest the whole!' said Arbaces, dryly; 'so I imagined—thou wert alone.'

'Alone!' returned Calenus, surprised at the Egyptian's calmness.

'And wherefore wert thou hid behind the chapel at that hour?'

'Because I had learned the conversion of Apaecides to the Christian faith—because I knew that on that spot he was to meet the fierce Olinthus—because they were to meet there to discuss plans for unveiling the sacred mysteries of our goddess to the people—and I was there to detect, in order to defeat them.'

'Hast thou told living ear what thou didst witness?'

'No, my master: the secret is locked in thy servant's breast.'

'What! even thy kinsman Burbo guesses it not! Come, the truth!'

'By the gods...'

'Hush! we know each other—what are the gods to us?'

'By the fear of thy vengeance, then—no!'

'And why hast thou hitherto concealed from me this secret? Why hast thou waited till the eve of the Athenian's condemnation before thou hast ventured to tell me that Arbaces is a murderer? And having tarried so long, why revealest thou now that knowledge?'

'Because—because...' stammered Calenus, coloring and in confusion.

'Because,' interrupted Arbaces, with a gentle smile, and tapping the priest on the shoulder with a kindly and familiar gesture—'because, my Calenus (see now, I will read thy heart, and explain its motives)—because thou didst wish thoroughly to commit and entangle me in the trial, so that I might have no loophole of escape; that I might stand firmly pledged to perjury and to malice, as well as to homicide; that having myself whetted the appetite of the populace to blood, no wealth, no power, could prevent my becoming their victim: and thou tellest me thy secret now, ere the trial be over and the innocent condemned, to show what a desperate web of villainy thy word to-morrow could destroy; to enhance in this, the ninth hour, the price of thy forbearance; to show that my own arts, in arousing the popular wrath, would, at thy witness, recoil upon myself; and that if not for Glaucus, for me would gape the jaws of the lion! Is it not so?'

'Arbaces, replied Calenus, losing all the vulgar audacity of his natural character, 'verily thou art a Magician; thou readest the heart as it were a scroll.'

'It is my vocation,' answered the Egyptian, laughing gently. 'Well, then, forbear; and when all is over, I will make thee rich.'

'Pardon me,' said the priest, as the quick suggestion of that avarice, which was his master-passion, bade him trust no future chance of generosity; 'pardon me; thou saidst right—we know each other. If thou wouldst have me silent, thou must pay something in advance, as an offer to Harpocrates.' If the rose, sweet emblem of discretion, is to take root firmly, water her this night with a stream of gold.'

'Witty and poetical!' answered Arbaces, still in that bland voice which lulled and encouraged, when it ought to have alarmed and checked, his griping comrade. 'Wilt thou not wait the morrow?'

'Why this delay? Perhaps, when I can no longer give my testimony without shame for not having given it ere the innocent man suffered, thou wilt forget my claim; and, indeed, thy present hesitation is a bad omen of thy future gratitude.'

'Well, then, Calenus, what wouldst thou have me pay thee?'

'Thy life is, very precious, and thy wealth is very great,' returned the priest, grinning.

'Wittier and more witty. But speak out—what shall be the sum?'

'Arbaces, I have heard that in thy secret treasury below, beneath those rude Oscan arches which prop thy stately halls, thou hast piles of gold, of vases, and of jewels, which might rival the receptacles of the wealth of the deified Nero. Thou mayst easily spare out of those piles enough to make Calenus among the richest priests of Pompeii, and yet not miss the loss.'

'Come, Calenus,' said Arbaces, winningly, and with a frank and generous air, 'thou art an old friend, and hast been a faithful servant. Thou canst have no wish to take away my life, nor I a desire to stint thy reward: thou shalt descend with me to that treasury thou referrest to, thou shalt feast thine eyes with the blaze of uncounted gold and the sparkle of priceless gems; and thou shalt for thy own reward, bear away with thee this night as much as thou canst conceal beneath thy robes. Nay, when thou hast once seen what thy friend possesses, thou wilt learn how foolish it would be to injure one who has so much to bestow. When Glaucus is no more, thou shalt pay the treasury another visit. Speak I frankly and as a friend?'

'Oh, greatest, best of men!' cried Calenus, almost weeping with joy, 'canst thou thus forgive my injurious doubts of thy justice, thy generosity?'

'Hush! one other turn and we will descend to the Oscan arches.'

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