Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter V


STUNNED by his reprieve, doubting that he was awake, Glaucus had been led by the officers of the arena into a small cell within the walls of the theatre. They threw a loose robe over his form, and crowded round in congratulation and wonder. There was an impatient and fretful cry without the cell; the throng gave way, and the blind girl, led by some gentler hand, flung herself at the feet of Glaucus.

'It is I who have saved thee,' she sobbed; now let me die!'

'Nydia, my child!—my preserver!'

'Oh, let me feel thy touch—thy breath! Yes, yes, thou livest! We are not too late! That dread door, methought it would never yield! and Calenus—oh! his voice was as the dying wind among tombs—we had to wait—gods! it seemed hours ere food and wine restored to him something of strength. But thou livest! thou livest yet! And I—I have saved thee!'

This affecting scene was soon interrupted by the event just described.

'The mountain! the earthquake!' resounded from side to side. The officers fled with the rest; they left Glaucus and Nydia to save themselves as they might.

As the sense of the dangers around them flashed on the Athenian, his generous heart recurred to Olinthus. He, too, was reprieved from the tiger by the hand of the gods; should he be left to a no less fatal death in the neighboring cell? Taking Nydia by the hand, Glaucus hurried across the passages; he gained the den of the Christian! He found Olinthus kneeling and in prayer.

'Arise! arise! my friend,' he cried. 'Save thyself, and fly! See! Nature is thy dread deliverer!' He led forth the bewildered Christian, and pointed to a cloud which advanced darker and darker, disgorging forth showers of ashes and pumice stones—and bade him hearken to the cries and trampling rush of the scattered crowd.

'This is the hand of God—God be praised!' said Olinthus, devoutly.

'Fly! seek thy brethren!—Concert with them thy escape. Farewell!'

Olinthus did not answer, neither did he mark the retreating form of his friend. High thoughts and solemn absorbed his soul: and in the enthusiasm of his kindling heart, he exulted in the mercy of God rather than trembled at the evidence of His power.

At length he roused himself, and hurried on, he scarce knew whither.

The open doors of a dark, desolate cell suddenly appeared on his path; through the gloom within there flared and flickered a single lamp; and by its light he saw three grim and naked forms stretched on the earth in death. His feet were suddenly arrested; for, amidst the terror of that drear recess—the spoliarium of the arena—he heard a low voice calling on the name of Christ!

He could not resist lingering at that appeal: he entered the den, and his feet were dabbled in the slow streams of blood that gushed from the corpses over the sand.

'Who,' said the Nazarene, 'calls upon the son of God?'

No answer came forth; and turning round, Olinthus beheld, by the light of the lamp, an old grey-headed man sitting on the floor, and supporting in his lap the head of one of the dead. The features of the dead man were firmly and rigidly locked in the last sleep; but over the lip there played a fierce smile—not the Christian's smile of hope, but the dark sneer of hatred and defiance. Yet on the face still lingered the beautiful roundness of early youth. The hair curled thick and glossy over the unwrinkled brow; and the down of manhood but slightly shaded the marble of the hueless cheek. And over this face bent one of such unutterable sadness—of such yearning tenderness—of such fond and such deep despair! The tears of the old man fell fast and hot, but he did not feel them; and when his lips moved, and he mechanically uttered the prayer of his benign and hopeful faith, neither his heart nor his sense responded to the words: it was but the involuntary emotion that broke from the lethargy of his mind. His boy was dead, and had died for him!—and the old man's heart was broken!

'Medon!' said Olinthus, pityingly, 'arise, and fly! God is forth upon the wings of the elements! The New Gomorrah is doomed!—Fly, ere the fires consume thee!'

'He was ever so full of life!—he cannot be dead! Come hither!—place your hand on his heart!—sure it beats yet?'

'Brother, the soul has fled! We will remember it in our prayers! Thou canst not reanimate the dumb clay! Come, come—hark! while I speak, yon crashing walls!—hark! yon agonizing cries! Not a moment is to be lost!—Come!'

'I hear nothing!' said Medon, shaking his grey hair. 'The poor boy, his love murdered him!'

'Come! come! forgive this friendly force.'

'What! Who could sever the father from the son?' And Medon clasped the body tightly in his embrace, and covered it with passionate kisses. 'Go!' said he, lifting up his face for one moment. 'Go!—we must be alone!'

'Alas!' said the compassionate Nazarene, 'Death hath severed ye already!'

The old man smiled very calmly. 'No, no, no!' muttered, his voice growing lower with each word—'Death has been more kind!'

With that his head drooped on His son's breast—his arms relaxed their grasp. Olinthus caught him by the hand—the pulse had ceased to beat! The last words of the father were the words of truth—Death had been more kind!

Meanwhile Glaucus and Nydia were pacing swiftly up the perilous and fearful streets. The Athenian had learned from his preserver that Ione was yet in the house of Arbaces. Thither he fled, to release—to save her! The few slaves whom the Egyptian had left at his mansion when he had repaired in long procession to the amphitheatre, had been able to offer no resistance to the armed band of Sallust; and when afterwards the volcano broke forth, they had huddled together, stunned and frightened, in the inmost recesses of the house. Even the tall Ethiopian had forsaken his post at the door; and Glaucus (who left Nydia without—the poor Nydia, jealous once more, even in such an hour!) passed on through the vast hall without meeting one from whom to learn the chamber of Ione. Even as he passed, however, the darkness that covered the heavens increased so rapidly that it was with difficulty he could guide his steps. The flower-wreathed columns seemed to reel and tremble; and with every instant he heard the ashes fall cranchingly into the roofless peristyle. He ascended to the upper rooms—breathless he paced along, shouting out aloud the name of Ione; and at length he heard, at the end of a gallery, a voice—her voice, in wondering reply! To rush forward—to shatter the door—to seize Ione in his arms—to hurry from the mansion—seemed to him the work of an instant! Scarce had he gained the spot where Nydia was, than he heard steps advancing towards the house, and recognized the voice of Arbaces, who had returned to seek his wealth and Ione ere he fled from the doomed Pompeii. But so dense was already the reeking atmosphere, that the foes saw not each other, though so near—save that, dimly in the gloom, Glaucus caught the moving outline of the snowy robes of the Egyptian.

They hastened onward—those three. Alas! whither? They now saw not a step before them—the blackness became utter. They were encompassed with doubt and horror!—and the death he had escaped seemed to Glaucus only to have changed its form and augmented its victims.

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