A THORNY PATH - VOLUME 5.
A THORNY PATH - VOLUME 5.
Nothing delighted old Dido more than to dress the daughter of her beloved
mistress in all her best for she had helped to bring her up; but to-day
it was a cruel task; tears dimmed her old eyes. It was not till she had
put the finishing touches to braiding the girl's abundant brown hair
pinned her peplos on the shoulders with brooches and set the girdle
straight that her face cleared as she looked at the result. Never had
she seen her darling look so fair. Nothing indeed remained of the
child-like timidity and patient submissiveness which had touched Dido
only two days since as she plaited Melissa's hair. The maiden's brow
was grave and thoughtful the lips firmly set; but she seemed to Dido to
have grown and to have gained something of her mother's mature dignity.
She looked the old woman told her like the image of Pallas Athene;
adding to make her smile that if she wanted an owl she Dido could
fill the part. Jesting had never been the old woman's strong point and
to-day it was less easy than ever; for if the worst befell and she were
sent in her old age to a strange house--and Argutis no doubt to
another--she would have to turn the handmill for the rest of her days.
But it was a hard task which the motherless--and now fatherless--girl
had set herself and she must try to cheer her darling. While she was
dressing her she never ceased praying to all the gods and goddesses she
could think of to come to the maiden's aid and move the souls of those
who could help her. And though she was as a rule ready to expect the
worst this time she hoped for the best; for Seleukus's wife must have a
heart of stone if she could close it to such innocence such beauty and
the pathetic glance of those large imploring eyes.
When at length Melissa quitted the house deeply veiled with Argutis to
escort her she took his arm; and he wearing his master's mantle and
exempted long since from keeping his hair cropped was so proud of this
that he walked with all the dignity of a freeman and no one could have
guessed that he was a slave. Melissa's face was completely hidden and
she like her companion was safe from recognition. Argutis
nevertheless led her through the quietest and darkest lanes to the
Kanopic way. Both were silent and looked straight before them.
Melissa as she walked on could not think with her usual calm. Like a
suffering man who goes to the physician's house to die or be cured by the
knife she felt that she was on her way to something terrible in itself
to remedy if possible something still more dreadful. Her father--
Alexander so reckless and so good-hearted--Philip whom she pitied--and
her sick lover came in turn before her fancy. But she could not control
her mind to dwell on either for long. Nor could she as usual when she
had any serious purpose in hand put up a prayer to her mother's manes or
the immortals; and all the while an inner voice made itself heard
confidently promising her that Caesar for whom she had sacrificed
and who might be kinder and more merciful than others fancied would at
once grant all she should ask. But she would not listen; and when she
nevertheless ventured to consider how she could make her way into
Caesar's presence a cold shiver ran down her back and again Philip's
last words sounded in her ears "Death rather than dishonor!"
Other thoughts and feelings filled the slave's soul. He who had always
watched over his master's children with far more anxious care than Heron
himself had not said a word to dissuade Melissa from her perilous
expedition. Her plan had indeed seemed to him the only one which
promised any success. He was a man of sixty years and a shrewd fellow
who might easily have found a better master than Heron had been; but he
gave not a thought to his own prospects--only to Melissa's whom he loved
as a child of his own. She had placed herself under his protection and
he felt responsible for her fate. Thus he regarded it as great good
fortune that he could be of use in procuring her admission to the house
of Seleukus for the door-keeper was a fellow-countryman of his whom
Fate had brought hither from the banks of the Moselle. At every
festival which secured a few hours' liberty to all the slaves they had
for years been boon companions and Argutis knew that his friend would do
for him and his young mistress all that lay in his power. It would of
course be difficult to get an audience of the mistress of a house where
Caesar was a guest but the door-keeper was clever and ingenious and
would do anything short of the impossible.
So he walked with his head high and his heart full of pride and it
confirmed his courage when one of Zminis's men whom they passed in the
brightly illuminated Kanopic street and who had helped to secure Philip
looked at him without recognizing him.
There was a great stir in this the handsomest road through the city.
The people were waiting for Caesar; but stricter order was observed than
on the occasion of his arrival. The guard prohibited all traffic on the
southern side of the way and only allowed the citizens to walk up and
down the footpath shaded by trees between the two roadways paved with
granite flags and the arcades in front of the houses on either side.
The free inhabitants unaccustomed to such restrictions revenged
themselves by cutting witticisms at Caesar's expense "for clearing the
streets of Alexandria by his men-at-arms as he did those of Rome by the
executioner. He seemed to have forgotten as he kept the two roads open
that he only needed one now that he had murdered his brother and
Melissa and her companion were ordered to join the crowd on the footway;
but Argutis managed to convince a man on guard that they were two of the
mimes who were to perform before Caesar--the door-keeper at the house of
Seleukus would confirm the fact--and the official himself made way for
them into the vestibule of this splendid dwelling.
But Melissa was as little in the humor to admire all the lavish
magnificence which surrounded her as Alexander had been a few days since.
Still veiled she modestly took a place among the choir who stood on each
side of the hall ready to welcome Caesar with singing and music. Argutis
stopped to speak with his friend. She dimly felt that the whispering and
giggling all about her was at her expense; and when an elderly man the
choir-master asked her what she wanted and desired her to remove her
veil she obeyed at once saying: "Pray let me stand here the Lady
Berenike will send for me."
"Very well" replied the musician; and he silenced the singers who were
hazarding various impertinent guesses as to the arrival of so pretty a
girl just when Caesar was expected.
As Melissa dropped her veil the splendor of the scene lighted up by
numberless tapers and lamps forced itself on her attention. She now
perceived that the porphyry columns of the great hall were wreathed with
flowers and that garlands swung in graceful curves from the open roof;
while at the farther end statues had been placed of Septimus Severus and
Julia Domna Caracalla's parents. On each side of these works of art
stood bowers of plants in which gay-plumaged birds were fluttering
about excited by the lights. But all these glories swam before her
eyes and the first question which the artist's daughter was wont to
ask herself "is it really beautiful or no?" never occurred to her mind.
She did not even notice the smell of incense until some fresh powder was
thrown on and it became oppressive.
She was fully conscious only of two facts when at last Argutis returned:
that she was the object of much curious examination and that every one
was wondering what detained Caesar so long.
At last after she had waited many long minutes the door-keeper
approached her with a young woman in a rich but simple dress in whom
she recognized Johanna the Christian waiting-maid of whom Alexander
had spoken. She did not speak but beckoned her to come.
Breathing anxiously and bending her head low Melissa following her
guide reached a handsome impluvium where a fountain played in the midst
of a bed of roses. Here the moon and starlight mingled with that of
lamps without number and the ruddy glare of a blaze; for all round the
basin from which the playing waters danced skyward stood marble genii
carrying in their hands or on their heads silver dishes in which the
leaping flames consumed cedar chips and aromatic resins.
At the back of this court where it was as light as day at the top of
three steps stood the statues of Alexander the Great and Caracalla.
They were of equal size; and the artist who had wrought the second in
great haste out of the slightest materials had been enjoined to make
Caesar as like as possible in every respect to the hero he most revered.
Thus they looked like brothers. The figures were lighted up by the fires
which burned on two altars of ivory and gold. Beautiful boys dressed as
armed Erotes fed the flames.
The whole effect was magical and bewildering; but as she followed her
guide Melissa only felt that she was in the midst of a new world such
as she might perhaps have seen in a dream; till as they passed the
fountain the cool drops sprinkled her face.
Then she suddenly remembered what had brought her hither. In a minute
she must appear as a supplicant in the presence of Korinna's mother--
perhaps even in that of Caesar himself--and the fate of all dear to her
depended on her demeanor. The sense of fulfilling a serious duty was
uppermost in her mind. She drew herself up and replaced a stray lock of
hair; and her heart beat almost to bursting as she saw a number of men
standing on the platform at the top of the steps round a lady who had
just risen from her ivory seat. Giving her hand to a Roman senator
distinguished by the purple edge to his toga she descended the steps
and advanced to meet Melissa.
This dignified matron who was awaiting the ruler of the world and yet
could condescend to come forward to meet a humble artist's daughter was
taller by half a head than her illustrious companion; and the few minutes
during which Berenike was coming toward her were enough to fill Melissa
with thankfulness confidence and admiration. And even in that short
time as she gazed at the magnificent dress of blue brocade shot with
gold and sparkling with precious stones which draped the lady's majestic
figure she thought how keen a pang it must cost the mother so lately
bereft of her only child to maintain a kindly nay a genial aspect in
the midst of this display toward Caesar and a troop of noisy guests.
The sincerest pity for this woman rich and preeminent as she was filled
the soul of the girl who herself was so much to be pitied. But when the
lady had come up to her and asked in her deep voice what was the
danger that threatened her brother Melissa with unembarrassed grace
and although it was the first time she had ever addressed a lady of such
high degree answered simply with a full sense of the business in hand:
"My name is Melissa; I am the sister of Alexander the painter. I know it
is overbold to venture into your presence just now when you have so much
else to think of; but I saw no other way of saving my brother's life
which is in peril."
At this Berenike seemed surprised. She turned to her companion who was
her sister's husband and the first Egyptian who had been admitted to the
Roman Senate and said in a tone of gentle reproach:
"Did not I say so Coeranus? Nothing but the most urgent need would have
brought Alexander's sister to speak with me at such an hour."
And the senator whose black eyes had rested with pleasure on Melissa's
rare beauty promptly replied "And if she had come for the veriest
trifle she would be no less welcome to me."
"Let me hear no more of such speeches" Berenike exclaimed with some
annoyance.--"Now my child be quick. What about your brother?"
Melissa briefly and truthfully reported Alexander's heedless crime and
the results to her father and Philip. She ended by beseeching the noble
lady with fervent pathos to intercede for her father and brothers.
Meanwhile the senator's keen face had darkened and the lady Berenike's
large eyes too were downcast. She evidently found it hard to come to
a decision; and for the moment she was relieved of the necessity for
runners came hurrying up and the senator hastily desired Melissa to
He whispered to his sister-in-law:
"It will never do to spoil Caesar's good-humor under your roof for the
sake of such people" and Berenike had only time to reply "I am not
afraid of him" when the messenger explained to her that Caesar himself
was prevented from coming but that his representatives charged with his
apologies were close at hand.
On this Coeranus exclaimed with a sour smile: "Admit that I am a true
prophet! You have to put up with the same treatment that we senators
have often suffered under."
But the matron scarcely heard him. She cast her eyes up to heaven with
sincere thanksgiving as she murmured with a sigh of relief "For this
mercy the gods be praised!"
She unclasped her hands from her heaving bosom and said to the steward
who had followed the messengers:
"Caesar will not be present. Inform your lord but so that no one else
may hear. He must come here and receive the imperial representatives
with me. Then have my couch quietly removed and the banquet served at
once. O Coeranus you can not imagine the misery I am thus spared!"
"Berenike!" said the senator in a warning voice and he laid his
finger on his lips. Then turning to the young supplicant he said to her
in a tone of regret: "So your walk is for nothing fair maid. If you are
as sensible as you are pretty you will understand that it is too much to
ask any one to stand between the lion and the prey which has roused his
The lady however did not heed the caution which her brother-in-law
intended to convey. As Melissa's imploring eyes met her own she said
with clear decision:
"Wait here. We shall see who it is that Caesar sends. I know better
than my lord here what it is to see those dear to us in peril. How old
are you child?"
"Eighteen" replied Melissa.
"Eighteen?" repeated Berenike as if the word were a pain to her for her
daughter had been just of that age. Then she said louder and with
"All that lies in my power shall be done for you and yours.--And you
Coeranus must help me."
"If I can" he replied "with all the zeal of my reverence for you and my
admiration for beauty. But here come the envoys. The elder I see is
our learned Philostratus whose works are known to you; the younger is
Theocritus the favorite of fortune of whom I was telling you. If the
charm of that face might but conquer the omnipotent youth--"
"Coeranus!" she exclaimed with stern reproof; but she failed to hear
the senator's excuses for her husband Seleukus followed her down the
steps and with a hasty sign to her advanced to meet his guests.
Theocritus was spokesman and notwithstanding the mourning toga which
wrapped him in fine folds his gestures did not belie his origin as an
actor and dancer. When Seleukus presented him to his wife Theocritus
assured her that when but an hour since his sovereign lord who was
already dressed and wreathed for the banquet had learned that the gods
had bereft of their only child the couple whose hospitality had promised
him such a delightful evening he had been equally shocked and grieved.
Caesar was deeply distressed at the unfortunate circumstance that he
should have happened in his ignorance to intrude on the seclusion which
was the prerogative of grief. He begged to assure her and her husband of
the high favor of the ruler of the world. As for himself Theocritus he
would not fail to describe the splendor with which they had decorated
their princely residence in Caesar's honor. His imperial master would be
touched indeed to hear that even the bereaved mother who like Niobe
mourned for her offspring had broken the stony spell which held her to
Sipylos and had decked herself to receive the greatest of all earthly
guests as radiant as Juno at the golden table of the gods.
The lady succeeded in controlling herself and listening to the end of
these pompous phrases without interrupting the speaker. Every word which
flowed so glibly from his tongue fell on her ear as bitter mockery; and
he himself was so repugnant to her that she felt it a release when
after exchanging a few words with the master of the house he begged
leave to retire as important business called him away. And this
indeed was the truth. For no consideration would he have left this duty
to another for it was to communicate to Titianus who had offended him
the intelligence that Caesar had deprived him of the office of prefect
and intended to examine into certain complaints of his administration.
The second envoy however remained though he refused Seleukus's
invitation to fill his place at the banquet. He exchanged a few words
with the lady Berenike and presently found himself taken aside by the
senator and after a short explanation led up to Melissa whom Coeranus
desired to appeal for help to Philostratus the famous philosopher who
enjoyed Caesar's closest confidence.
Coeranus then obeyed a sign from Berenike who wished to know whether he
would be answerable for introducing this rarely pretty girl who had
placed herself under their protection--and whom she for her part meant
to protect--to a courtier of whom she knew nothing but that he was a
writer of taste.
The question seemed to amuse Coeranus but seeing that his sister-in-law
was very much in earnest he dropped his flippant tone and admitted that
Philostratus as a young man had been one of the last with whom he would
trust a girl. His far-famed letters sufficiently proved that the witty
philosopher had been a devoted and successful courtier of women. But
that was all a thing of the past. He still no doubt did homage to
female beauty but he led a regular life and had become one of the most
ardent and earnest upholders of religion and virtue. He was one of the
learned circle which gathered round Julia Domna and it was by her desire
that he had accompanied Caracalla to keep his mad passions in check when
it might be possible.
The conversation between Melissa and the philosopher had meanwhile taken
an unexpected turn. At his very first address the reply had died on her
lips for in Caesar's representative she had recognized the Roman whom
she had seen in the Temple of Asklepios and who had perhaps overheard
her there. Philostratus too seemed to remember the meeting; for his
shrewd face--a pleasing mixture of grave and gay--lighted up at once with
a subtle smile as he said:
"If I am not mistaken I owe the same pleasure this evening to divine
Caesar as to great Asklepios this morning?"
At this Melissa cast a meaning glance at Coeranus and the lady and
although surprise and alarm sealed her lips her uplifted hands and whole
gesture sufficiently expressed her entreaty that he would not betray her.
He understood and obeyed. It pleased him to share a secret with this
fair child. He had in fact overheard her and understood with
amazement that she was praying fervently for Caesar.
This stirred his curiosity to the highest pitch. So he said in an
"All that I saw and heard in the temple is our secret sweet maid. But
what on earth can have prompted you to pray so urgently for Caesar? Has
he done you or yours any great benefit?"
Melissa shook her head and Philostratus went on with increased
"Then are you one of those whose heart Eros can fire at the sight of an
image or the mere aspect of a man?"
To this she answered hastily:
"What an idea! No no. Certainly not."
"No?" said her new friend with greater surprise. "Then perhaps your
hopeful young soul expects that being still but a youth he may by the
help of the gods become like Titus a benefactor to the whole world?"
Melissa looked timidly at the matron who was still talking with her
brother-in-law and hastily replied:
"They all call him a murderer! But I know for certain that he suffers
fearful torments of mind and body; and one who knows many things told me
that there was not one among all the millions whom Caesar governs who
ever prays for him; and I was so sorry--I can not tell you--"
"And so" interrupted the philosopher "you thought it praiseworthy and
pleasing to the gods that you should be the first and only one to offer
sacrifice for him in secret and of your own free will? That was how it
came about? Well child you need not be ashamed of it."
But then suddenly his face clouded and he asked in a grave and altered
"Are you a Christian?"
"No" she replied firmly. "We are Greeks. How could I have
offered a sacrifice of blood to Asklepios if I had believed in the
"Then" said Philostratus and his eyes flashed brightly "I may promise
you in the name of the gods that your prayer and offering were pleasing
in their eyes. I myself noble girl owe you a rare pleasure. But tell
me--how did you feel as you left the sanctuary?"
"Light-hearted my lord and content" she answered with a frank glad
look in her fine eyes. "I could have sung as I went down the road
though there were people about."
"I should have liked to hear you" he said kindly and he still held her
hand which he had grasped with the amiable geniality that characterized
him when they were joined by the senator and his sister-in-law.
"Has she won your good offices?" asked Coeranus; and Philostratus
replied quickly "Anything that it lies in my power to do for her shall
certainly be done."
Berenike bade them both to join her in her own rooms for everything that
had to do with the banquet was odious to her; and as they went Melissa
told her new friend her brother's story. She ended it in the quiet
sitting-room of the mistress of the house an artistic but not splendid
apartment adorned only with the choicest works of early Alexandrian art.
Philostratus listened attentively but before she could put her petition
for help into words he exclaimed:
"Then what we have to do is to move Caesar to mercy and that--Child
you know not what you ask!"
They were interrupted by a message from Seleukus desiring Coeranus to
join the other guests and as soon as he had left them Berenike withdrew
to take off the splendor she hated. She promised to return immediately
and join their discussion and Philostratus sat for a while lost in
thought. Then he turned to Melissa and asked her:
"Would you for their sakes be able to make up your mind to face bitter
humiliation nay perhaps imminent danger?"
"Anything! I would give my life for them!" replied the girl with
spirit and her eyes gleamed with such enthusiastic self-sacrifice that
his heart though no longer young warmed under their glow and the
principle to which he had sternly adhered since he had been near the
imperial person never to address a word to the sovereign but in reply
was blown to the winds.
Holding her hand in his with a keen look into her eyes he went on:
"And if you were required to do a thing from which many a man even would
recoil--you would venture?"