Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter XVI


IT was now late on the third and last day of the trial of Glaucus and Olinthus. A few hours after the court had broken up and judgment been given, a small party of the fashionable youth at Pompeii were assembled round the fastidious board of Lepidus.

'So Glaucus denies his crime to the last?' said Clodius.

'Yes; but the testimony of Arbaces was convincing; he saw the blow given,' answered Lepidus.

'What could have been the cause?'

'Why, the priest was a gloomy and sullen fellow. He probably rated Glaucus soundly about his gay life and gaming habits, and ultimately swore he would not consent to his marriage with Ione. High words arose; Glaucus seems to have been full of the passionate god, and struck in sudden exasperation. The excitement of wine, the desperation of abrupt remorse, brought on the delirium under which he suffered for some days; and I can readily imagine, poor fellow! that, yet confused by that delirium, he is even now unconscious of the crime he committed! Such, at least, is the shrewd conjecture of Arbaces, who seems to have been most kind and forbearing in his testimony.'

'Yes; he has made himself generally popular by it. But, in consideration of these extenuating circumstances, the senate should have relaxed the sentence.'

'And they would have done so, but for the people; but they were outrageous. The priest had spared no pains to excite them; and they imagined—the ferocious brutes!—because Glaucus was a rich man and a gentleman, that he was likely to escape; and therefore they were inveterate against him, and doubly resolved upon his sentence. It seems, by some accident or other, that he was never formally enrolled as a Roman citizen; and thus the senate is deprived of the power to resist the people, though, after all, there was but a majority of three against him. Ho! the Chian!'

'He looks sadly altered; but how composed and fearless!'

'Ay, we shall see if his firmness will last over to-morrow.' But what merit in courage, when that atheistical hound, Olinthus, manifested the same?'

'The blasphemer! Yes,' said Lepidus, with pious wrath, 'no wonder that one of the decurions was, but two days ago, struck dead by lightning in a serene sky.' The gods feel vengeance against Pompeii while the vile desecrator is alive within its walls.'

'Yet so lenient was the senate, that had he but expressed his penitence, and scattered a few grains of incense on the altar of Cybele, he would have been let off. I doubt whether these Nazarenes, had they the state religion, would be as tolerant to us, supposing we had kicked down the image of their Deity, blasphemed their rites, and denied their faith.'

'They give Glaucus one chance, in consideration of the circumstances; they allow him, against the lion, the use of the same stilus wherewith he smote the priest.'

'Hast thou seen the lion? hast thou looked at his teeth and fangs, and wilt thou call that a chance? Why, sword and buckler would be mere reed and papyrus against the rush of the mighty beast! No, I think the true mercy has been, not to leave him long in suspense; and it was therefore fortunate for him that our benign laws are slow to pronounce, but swift to execute; and that the games of the amphitheatre had been, by a sort of providence, so long since fixed for to-morrow. He who awaits death, dies twice.'

'As for the Atheist, said Clodius, 'he is to cope the grim tiger naked-handed. Well, these combats are past betting on. Who will take the odds?' A peal of laughter announced the ridicule of the question.

'Poor Clodius!' said the host; I to lose a friend is something; but to find no one to bet on the chance of his escape is a worse misfortune to thee.'

'Why, it is provoking; it would have been some consolation to him and to me to think he was useful to the last.'

'The people,' said the grave Pansa, 'are all delighted with the result. They were so much afraid the sports at the amphitheatre would go off without a criminal for the beasts; and now, to get two such criminals is indeed a joy for the poor fellows! They work hard; they ought to have some amusement.'

'There speaks the popular Pansa, who never moves without a string of clients as long as an Indian triumph. He is always prating about the people. Gods! he will end by being a Gracchus!'

'Certainly I am no insolent patrician,' said Pansa, with a generous air.

'Well,' observed Lepidus, it would have been assuredly dangerous to have been merciful at the eve of a beast-fight. If ever I, though a Roman bred and born, come to be tried, pray Jupiter there may be either no beasts in the vivaria, or plenty of criminals in the gaol.'

'And pray,' said one of the party, 'what has become of the poor girl whom Glaucus was to have married? A widow without being a bride—that is hard!'

'Oh,' returned Clodius, 'she is safe under the protection of her guardian, Arbaces. It was natural she should go to him when she had lost both lover and brother.'

'By sweet Venus, Glaucus was fortunate among the women. They say the rich Julia was in love with him.'

'A mere fable, my friend,' said Clodius, coxcombically; 'I was with her to-day. If any feeling of the sort she ever conceived, I flatter myself that I have consoled her.'

'Hush, gentlemen!' said Pansa; 'do you not know that Clodius is employed at the house of Diomed in blowing hard at the torch? It begins to burn, and will soon shine bright on the shrine of Hymen.'

'Is it so?' said Lepidus. 'What! Clodius become a married man?—Fie!'

'Never fear,' answered Clodius; 'old Diomed is delighted at the notion of marrying his daughter to a nobleman, and will come down largely with the sesterces. You will see that I shall not lock them up in the atrium. It will be a white day for his jolly friends, when Clodius marries an heiress.'

'Say you so?' cried Lepidus; 'come, then, a full cup to the health of the fair Julia!'

While such was the conversation—one not discordant to the tone of mind common among the dissipated of that day, and which might perhaps, a century ago, have found an echo in the looser circles of Paris—while such, I say, was the conversation in the gaudy triclinium of Lepidus, far different the scene which scowled before the young Athenian.

After his condemnation, Glaucus was admitted no more to the gentle guardianship of Sallust, the only friend of his distress. He was led along the forum till the guards stopped at a small door by the side of the temple of Jupiter. You may see the place still. The door opened in the centre in a somewhat singular fashion, revolving round on its hinges, as it were, like a modern turnstile, so as only to leave half the threshold open at the same time. Through this narrow aperture they thrust the prisoner, placed before him a loaf and a pitcher of water, and left him to darkness, and, as he thought, to solitude. So sudden had been that revolution of fortune which had prostrated him from the palmy height of youthful pleasure and successful love to the lowest abyss of ignominy, and the horror of a most bloody death, that he could scarcely convince himself that he was not held in the meshes of some fearful dream. His elastic and glorious frame had triumphed over a potion, the greater part of which he had fortunately not drained. He had recovered sense and consciousness, but still a dim and misty depression clung to his nerves and darkened his mind. His natural courage, and the Greek nobility of pride, enabled him to vanquish all unbecoming apprehension, and, in the judgment-court, to face his awful lot with a steady mien and unquailing eye. But the consciousness of innocence scarcely sufficed to support him when the gaze of men no longer excited his haughty valor, and he was left to loneliness and silence. He felt the damps of the dungeon sink chillingly into his enfeebled frame. He—the fastidious, the luxurious, the refined—he who had hitherto braved no hardship and known no sorrow. Beautiful bird that he was! why had he left his far and sunny clime—the olive-groves of his native hills—the music of immemorial streams? Why had he wantoned on his glittering plumage amidst these harsh and ungenial strangers, dazzling the eyes with his gorgeous hues, charming the ear with his blithesome song—thus suddenly to be arrested—caged in darkness—a victim and a prey—his gay flights for ever over—his hymns of gladness for ever stilled! The poor Athenian! his very faults the exuberance of a gentle and joyous nature, how little had his past career fitted him for the trials he was destined to undergo! The hoots of the mob, amidst whose plaudits he had so often guided his graceful car and bounding steeds, still rang gratingly in his ear. The cold and stony faces of former friends (the co-mates of merry revels) still rose before his eye. None now were by to soothe, to sustain, the admired, the adulated stranger. These walls opened but on the dread arena of a violent and shameful death. And Ione! of her, too, he had heard naught; no encouraging word, no pitying message; she, too, had forsaken him; she believed him guilty—and of what crime?—the murder of a brother! He ground his teeth—he groaned aloud—and ever and anon a sharp fear shot across him. In that fell and fierce delirium which had so unaccountably seized his soul, which had so ravaged the disordered brain, might he not, indeed, unknowing to himself, have committed the crime of which he was accused? Yet, as the thought flashed upon him, it was as suddenly checked; for, amidst all the darkness of the past, he thought distinctly to recall the dim grove of Cybele, the upward face of the pale dead, the pause that he had made beside the corpse, and the sudden shock that felled him to the earth. He felt convinced of his innocence; and yet who, to the latest time, long after his mangled remains were mingled with the elements, would believe him guiltless, or uphold his fame? As he recalled his interview with Arbaces, and the causes of revenge which had been excited in the heart of that dark and fearful man, he could not but believe that he was the victim of some deep-laid and mysterious snare—the clue and train of which he was lost in attempting to discover: and Ione—Arbaces loved her—might his rival's success be founded upon his ruin? That thought cut him more deeply than all; and his noble heart was more stung by jealousy than appalled by fear. Again he groaned aloud.

A voice from the recess of the darkness answered that burst of anguish. 'Who (it said) is my companion in this awful hour? Athenian Glaucus, it is thou?'

'So, indeed, they called me in mine hour of fortune: they may have other names for me now. And thy name, stranger?'

'Is Olinthus, thy co-mate in the prison as the trial.'

'What! he whom they call the Atheist? Is it the injustice of men that hath taught thee to deny the providence of the gods?'

'Alas!' answered Olinthus: 'thou, not I, art the true Atheist, for thou deniest the sole true God—the Unknown One—to whom thy Athenian fathers erected an altar. It is in this hour that I know my God. He is with me in the dungeon; His smile penetrates the darkness; on the eve of death my heart whispers immortality, and earth recedes from me but to bring the weary soul nearer unto heaven.'

'Tell me,' said Glaucus, abruptly, 'did I not hear thy name coupled with that of Apaecides in my trial? Dost thou believe me guilty?'

'God alone reads the heart! but my suspicion rested not upon thee.'

'On whom then?'

'Thy accuser, Arbaces.'

'Ha! thou cheerest me: and wherefore?'

'Because I know the man's evil breast, and he had cause to fear him who is now dead.'

With that, Olinthus proceeded to inform Glaucus of those details which the reader already knows, the conversion of Apaecides, the plan they had proposed for the detection of the impostures of the Egyptian upon the youthful weakness of the proselyte. 'Therefore,' concluded Olinthus, 'had the deceased encountered Arbaces, reviled his treasons, and threatened detection, the place, the hour, might have favored the wrath of the Egyptian, and passion and craft alike dictated the fatal blow.'

'It must have been so!' cried Glaucus, joyfully. 'I am happy.'

'Yet what, O unfortunate! avails to thee now the discovery? Thou art condemned and fated; and in thine innocence thou wilt perish.'

'But I shall know myself guiltless; and in my mysterious madness I had fearful, though momentary, doubts. Yet tell me, man of a strange creed, thinkest thou that for small errors, or for ancestral faults, we are for ever abandoned and accursed by the powers above, whatever name thou allottest to them?'

'God is just, and abandons not His creatures for their mere human frailty. God is merciful, and curses none but the wicked who repent not.'

'Yet it seemeth to me as if, in the divine anger, I had been smitten by a sudden madness, a supernatural and solemn frenzy, wrought not by human means.'

'There are demons on earth,' answered the Nazarene, fearfully, 'as well as there are God and His Son in heaven; and since thou acknowledgest not the last, the first may have had power over thee.'

Glaucus did not reply, and there was a silence for some minutes. At length the Athenian said, in a changed, and soft, and half-hesitating voice. 'Christian, believest thou, among the doctrines of thy creed, that the dead live again—that they who have loved here are united hereafter—that beyond the grave our good name shines pure from the mortal mists that unjustly dim it in the gross-eyed world—and that the streams which are divided by the desert and the rock meet in the solemn Hades, and flow once more into one?'

'Believe I that, O Athenian No, I do not believe—I know! and it is that beautiful and blessed assurance which supports me now. O Cyllene!' continued Olinthus, passionately, 'bride of my heart! torn from me in the first month of our nuptials,' shall I not see thee yet, and ere many days be past? Welcome, welcome death, that will bring me to heaven and thee!'

There was something in this sudden burst of human affection which struck a kindred chord in the soul of the Greek. He felt, for the first time, a sympathy greater than mere affliction between him and his companion. He crept nearer towards Olinthus; for the Italians, fierce in some points, were not unnecessarily cruel in others; they spared the separate cell and the superfluous chain, and allowed the victims of the arena the sad comfort of such freedom and such companionship as the prison would afford.

'Yes,' continued the Christian, with holy fervor, 'the immortality of the soul—the resurrection—the reunion of the dead—is the great principle of our creed—the great truth a God suffered death itself to attest and proclaim. No fabled Elysium—no poetic Orcus—but a pure and radiant heritage of heaven itself, is the portion of the good.'

'Tell me, then, thy doctrines, and expound to me thy hopes,' said Glaucus, earnestly.

Olinthus was not slow to obey that prayer; and there—as oftentimes in the early ages of the Christian creed—it was in the darkness of the dungeon, and over the approach of death, that the dawning Gospel shed its soft and consecrating rays.

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