Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter XIII


IMPATIENTLY Nydia awaited the arrival of the no less anxious Sosia. Fortifying his courage by plentiful potations of a better liquor than that provided for the demon, the credulous ministrant stole into the blind girl's chamber.

'Well, Sosia, and art thou prepared? Hast thou the bowl of pure water?'

'Verily, yes: but I tremble a little. You are sure I shall not see the demon? I have heard that those gentlemen are by no means of a handsome person or a civil demeanor.'

'Be assured! And hast thou left the garden-gate gently open?'

'Yes; and placed some beautiful nuts and apples on a little table close by?'

'That's well. And the gate is open now, so that the demon may pass through it?'

'Surely it is.'

'Well, then, open this door; there—leave it just ajar. And now, Sosia, give me the lamp.'

'What, you will not extinguish it?'

'No; but I must breathe my spell over its ray. There is a spirit in fire. Seat thyself.'

The slave obeyed; and Nydia, after bending for some moments silently over the lamp, rose, and in a low voice chanted the following rude:—


Loved alike by Air and Water
Aye must be Thessalia's daughter;
To us, Olympian hearts, are given
Spells that draw the moon from heaven.
All that Egypt's learning wrought—
All that Persia's Magian taught—
Won from song, or wrung from flowers,
Or whisper'd low by fiend—are ours.

Spectre of the viewless air!
Hear the blind Thessalian's prayer!
By Erictho's art, that shed
Dews of life when life was fled—
By lone Ithaca's wise king,

Who could wake the crystal spring
To the voice of prophecy?
By the lost Eurydice,
Summon'd from the shadowy throng,
As the muse-son's magic song—
By the Colchian's awful charms,
When fair-haired Jason left her arms—

Spectre of the airy halls,
One who owns thee duly calls!
Breathe along the brimming bowl,
And instruct the fearful soul
In the shadowy things that lie
Dark in dim futurity.
Come, wild demon of the air,
Answer to thy votary's prayer!
Come! oh, come!

And no god on heaven or earth—
Not the Paphian Queen of Mirth,
Not the vivid Lord of Light,
Nor the triple Maid of Night,
Nor the Thunderer's self shall be
Blest and honour'd more than thee!
Come! oh, come!

'The spectre is certainly coming,' said Sosia. 'I feel him running along my hair!'

'Place thy bowl of water on the ground. Now, then, give me thy napkin, and let me fold up thy face and eyes.'

'Ay! that's always the custom with these charms. Not so tight, though: gently—gently!'

'There—thou canst not see?'

'See, by Jupiter! No! nothing but darkness.'

'Address, then, to the spectre whatever question thou wouldst ask him, in a low-whispered voice, three times. If thy question is answered in the affirmative, thou wilt hear the water ferment and bubble before the demon breathes upon it; if in the negative, the water will be quite silent.'

'But you will not play any trick with the water, eh?'

'Let me place the bowl under thy feet—so. Now thou wilt perceive that I cannot touch it without thy knowledge.'

'Very fair. Now, then, O Bacchus! befriend me. Thou knowest that I have always loved thee better than all the other gods, and I will dedicate to thee that silver cup I stole last year from the burly carptor (butler), if thou wilt but befriend me with this water-loving demon. And thou, O Spirit! listen and hear me. Shall I be enabled to purchase my freedom next year? Thou knowest; for, as thou livest in the air, the birds have doubtless acquainted thee with every secret of this house,—thou knowest that I have filched and pilfered all that I honestly—that is, safely—could lay finger upon for the last three years, and I yet want two thousand sesterces of the full sum. Shall I be able, O good Spirit! to make up the deficiency in the course of this year? Speak—Ha! does the water bubble? No; all is as still as a tomb.—Well, then, if not this year, in two years?—Ah! I hear something; the demon is scratching at the door; he'll be here presently.—In two years, my good fellow: come now, two; that's a very reasonable time. What! dumb still! Two years and a half—three—four? ill fortune to you, friend demon! You are not a lady, that's clear, or you would not keep silence so long. Five—six—sixty years? and may Pluto seize you! I'll ask no more.' And Sosia, in a rage, kicked down the water over his legs. He then, after much fumbling and more cursing, managed to extricate his head from the napkin in which it was completely folded—stared round—and discovered that he was in the dark.

'What, ho! Nydia; the lamp is gone. Ah, traitress; and thou art gone too; but I'll catch thee—thou shalt smart for this!' The slave groped his way to the door; it was bolted from without: he was a prisoner instead of Nydia. What could he do? He did not dare to knock loud—to call out—lest Arbaces should overhear him, and discover how he had been duped; and Nydia, meanwhile, had probably already gained the garden-gate, and was fast on her escape.

'But,' thought he, 'she will go home, or, at least, be somewhere in the city. To-morrow, at dawn, when the slaves are at work in the peristyle, I can make myself heard; then I can go forth and seek her. I shall be sure to find and bring her back, before Arbaces knows a word of the matter. Ah! that's the best plan. Little traitress, my fingers itch at thee: and to leave only a bowl of water, too! Had it been wine, it would have been some comfort.'

While Sosia, thus entrapped, was lamenting his fate, and revolving his schemes to repossess himself of Nydia, the blind girl, with that singular precision and dexterous rapidity of motion, which, we have before observed, was peculiar to her, had passed lightly along the peristyle, threaded the opposite passage that led into the garden, and, with a beating heart, was about to proceed towards the gate, when she suddenly heard the sound of approaching steps, and distinguished the dreaded voice of Arbaces himself. She paused for a moment in doubt and terror; then suddenly it flashed across her recollection that there was another passage which was little used except for the admission of the fair partakers of the Egyptian's secret revels, and which wound along the basement of that massive fabric towards a door which also communicated with the garden. By good fortune it might be open. At that thought, she hastily retraced her steps, descended the narrow stairs at the right, and was soon at the entrance of the passage. Alas! the door at the entrance was closed and secured. While she was yet assuring herself that it was indeed locked, she heard behind her the voice of Calenus, and, a moment after, that of Arbaces in low reply. She could not stay there; they were probably passing to that very door. She sprang onward, and felt herself in unknown ground. The air grew damp and chill; this reassured her. She thought she might be among the cellars of the luxurious mansion, or, at least, in some rude spot not likely to be visited by its haughty lord, when again her quick ear caught steps and the sound of voices. On, on, she hurried, extending her arms, which now frequently encountered pillars of thick and massive form. With a tact, doubled in acuteness by her fear, she escaped these perils, and continued her way, the air growing more and more damp as she proceeded; yet, still, as she ever and anon paused for breath, she heard the advancing steps and the indistinct murmur of voices. At length she was abruptly stopped by a wall that seemed the limit of her path. Was there no spot in which she could hide? No aperture? no cavity? There was none! She stopped, and wrung her hands in despair; then again, nerved as the voices neared upon her, she hurried on by the side of the wall; and coming suddenly against one of the sharp buttresses that here and there jutted boldly forth, she fell to the ground. Though much bruised, her senses did not leave her; she uttered no cry; nay, she hailed the accident that had led her to something like a screen; and creeping close up to the angle formed by the buttress, so that on one side at least she was sheltered from view, she gathered her slight and small form into its smallest compass, and breathlessly awaited her fate.

Meanwhile Arbaces and the priest were taking their way to that secret chamber whose stores were so vaunted by the Egyptian. They were in a vast subterranean atrium, or hall; the low roof was supported by short, thick pillars of an architecture far remote from the Grecian graces of that luxuriant period. The single and pale lamp, which Arbaces bore, shed but an imperfect ray over the bare and rugged walls, in which the huge stones, without cement, were fitted curiously and uncouthly into each other. The disturbed reptiles glared dully on the intruders, and then crept into the shadow of the walls.

Calenus shivered as he looked around and breathed the damp, unwholesome air.

'Yet,' said Arbaces, with a smile, perceiving his shudder, 'it is these rude abodes that furnish the luxuries of the halls above. They are like the laborers of the world—we despise their ruggedness, yet they feed the very pride that disdains them.'

'And whither goes yon dim gallery to the left asked Calenus; 'in this depth of gloom it seems without limit, as if winding into Hades.'

'On the contrary, it does but conduct to the upper rooms,' answered Arbaces, carelessly: 'it is to the right that we steer to our bourn.'

The hall, like many in the more habitable regions of Pompeii, branched off at the extremity into two wings or passages; the length of which, not really great, was to the eye considerably exaggerated by the sudden gloom against which the lamp so faintly struggled. To the right of these alae, the two comrades now directed their steps.

'The gay Glaucus will be lodged to-morrow in apartments not much drier, and far less spacious than this,' said Calenus, as they passed by the very spot where, completely wrapped in the shadow of the broad, projecting buttress, cowered the Thessalian.

'Ay, but then he will have dry room, and ample enough, in the arena on the following day. And to think,' continued Arbaces, slowly, and very deliberately—'to think that a word of thine could save him, and consign Arbaces to his doom!'

'That word shall never be spoken,' said Calenus.

'Right, my Calenus! it never shall,' returned Arbaces, familiarly leaning his arm on the priest's shoulder: 'and now, halt—we are at the door.'

The light trembled against a small door deep set in the wall, and guarded strongly by many plates and bindings of iron, that intersected the rough and dark wood. From his girdle Arbaces now drew a small ring, holding three or four short but strong keys. Oh, how beat the griping heart of Calenus, as he heard the rusty wards growl, as if resenting the admission to the treasures they guarded!

'Enter, my friend,' said Arbaces, 'while I hold the lamp on high, that thou mayst glut thine eyes on the yellow heaps.'

The impatient Calenus did not wait to be twice invited; he hastened towards the aperture.

Scarce had he crossed the threshold, when the strong hand of Arbaces plunged him forwards.

'The word shall never be spoken!' said the Egyptian, with a loud exultant laugh, and closed the door upon the priest.

Calenus had been precipitated down several steps, but not feeling at the moment the pain of his fall, he sprung up again to the door, and beating at it fiercely with his clenched fist, he cried aloud in what seemed more a beast's howl than a human voice, so keen was his agony and despair: 'Oh, release me, release me, and I will ask no gold!'

The words but imperfectly penetrated the massive door, and Arbaces again laughed. Then, stamping his foot violently, rejoined, perhaps to give vent to his long-stifled passions:

'All the gold of Dalmatia,' cried he, 'will not buy thee a crust of bread. Starve, wretch! thy dying groans will never wake even the echo of these vast halls; nor will the air ever reveal, as thou gnawest, in thy desperate famine, thy flesh from thy bones, that so perishes the man who threatened, and could have undone, Arbaces! Farewell!'

'Oh, pity—mercy! Inhuman villain; was it for this...'

The rest of the sentence was lost to the ear of Arbaces as he passed backward along the dim hall. A toad, plump and bloated, lay unmoving before his path; the rays of the lamp fell upon its unshaped hideousness and red upward eye. Arbaces turned aside that he might not harm it.

'Thou art loathsome and obscene,' he muttered, 'but thou canst not injure me; therefore thou art safe in my path.'

The cries of Calenus, dulled and choked by the barrier that confined him, yet faintly reached the ear of the Egyptian. He paused and listened intently.

'This is unfortunate,' thought he; 'for I cannot sail till that voice is dumb for ever. My stores and treasures lie, not in yon dungeon it is true, but in the opposite wing. My slaves, as they move them, must not hear his voice. But what fear of that? In three days, if he still survive, his accents, by my father's beard, must be weak enough, then!—no, they could not pierce even through his tomb. By Isis, it is cold!—I long for a deep draught of the spiced Falernian.'

With that the remorseless Egyptian drew his gown closer round him, and resought the upper air.

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