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A Thorny Path
by Georg Ebers
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But no! Her heart was beating still; she could feel how strongly it throbbed. Then where was she?

There certainly had not been any such coverlet as this on her bed in the Serapeum, and the room there was much lower. She looked about her and succeeded in turning on her side toward the evening breeze which blew in on her, so pure and soft and sweet. She raised her delicate emaciated hand to her head and found that her thick hair was gone. Then she must have cut it off to disguise herself.

But where was she? Whither had she fled?

It mattered not. The Serapeum was far away, and she need no longer fear Zminis and his spies. Now for the first time she raised her eyes thankfully to Heaven, and next she looked about her; and while she gazed and let her eyes feed themselves full, a faint cry of delight escaped her lips. Before her, in the silvery light of the bright disk of the young moon lay a splendid blooming garden, and over the palms which towered above all else, in shadowy masses, in the distance the evening star was rising just in front, the moonlight twinkled and flashed in the rising and falling drops of the fountain; and as she lay, stirred to the depths of her soul by this silent splendor, thinking of kindly Selene moving on her peaceful path above, of Artemis hunting in the moonlight, of the nymphs of the waters, and the dryads just now perhaps stealing out of the great trees to dance with sportive fauns, the chant suddenly broke out again in solemn measure, and she heard, to deep manly voices, the beginning of the Psalm:

"Give thanks unto the Lord and declare his name; proclaim his wonders among the nations.

"Sing of him and praise him; tell of all his wonders; glorify his holy name; their hearts rejoice that seek the Lord."

Here the men ceased and the women began as though to confirm their praise of the most High, singing the ninetieth Psalm with enthusiastic joy:

"O Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.

"Before the mountains were brought forth, or, ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

"For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is passed, and as a watch in the night."

Then the men's voices broke in again

"The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.

"Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge."

And the women in their turn took up the chant, and from their grateful breasts rose clear and strong the Psalm of David:

"Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

"Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

"Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases.

"Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies."

Melissa listened breathlessly to the singing, of which she could hear every word; and how gladly would she have mingled her voice with theirs in thanksgiving to the kind Father in heaven who was hers as well as theirs! There lay His wondrous works before her, and her heart echoed the verse:

"Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies," as though it were addressed especially to her and sung for her by the choir of women.

The gods of whom she had but just been thinking with pious remembrance appeared to her now as beautiful, merry, sportive children, as graceful creatures of her own kind, in comparison with the Almighty Creator and Ruler of the universe, whose works among the nations, whose holy name, whose wonders, greatness, and loving-kindness these songs of praise celebrated. The breath of His mouth dispersed the whole world of gods to whom she had been wont to pray, as the autumn wind scatters the many-tinted leaves of faded trees. She felt as though He embraced the garden before her with mighty and yet loving arms, and with it the whole world. She had loved the Olympian gods; but in this hour, for the first time, she felt true reverence for one God, and it made her proud to think that she might love this mighty Lord, this tender Father, and know that she was beloved by Him. Her heart beat faster and faster, and she felt as though, under the protection of this God, she need never more fear any danger.

As she looked out again at the palm-trees beyond the tamarisks, above whose plumy heads the evening star now rode in the azure blue of the night sky, the singing was taken up again after a pause; she heard once more the angelic greeting which had before struck her soul as so comforting and full of promise when she read it in the Gospel:

"Glory to God on high, on earth peace, good-will toward men."

That which she had then so fervently longed for had, she thought, come to pass. The peace, the rest for which she had yearned so miserably in the midst of terror and bloodshed, now filled her heart-all that surrounded her was so still and peaceful! A wonderful sense of home came over her, and with it the conviction that here she would certainly find those for whom she was longing.

Again she looked up to survey the scene, and she was now aware of a white figure coming toward her from the tamarisk hedge. This was Euryale. She had seen Agatha among the worshipers, and had quitted the congregation, fearing that the sick girl might wake and find no one near her who cared for her or loved her. She crossed the grass plot with a swift step. She had passed the fountain; her head came into the moonlight, and Melissa could see the dear, kind face. With glad excitement she called her by name, and as the matron entered the veranda she heard the convalescent's weak voice and hastened to her side. Lightly, as if joy had made her young again, she sank on her knees by the bed of the resuscitated girl to kiss her with motherly tenderness and press her head gently to her bosom. While Melissa asked a hundred questions the lady had to warn her to remain quiet, and at last to bid her to keep silence.

First of all Melissa wanted to know where she was. Then her lips overflowed with thankfulness and joy, and declarations that she felt as she was sure the souls in bliss must feel, when Euryale had told her in subdued tones that her father was living, that Diodoros and her brother had found a refuge in the house of Zeno, and that Andreas, Polybius, and all dear to them were quite recovered after those evil days. The town had long been rid of Caesar, and Zeno had consented to allow his daughter Agatha to marry Alexander.

In obedience to her motherly adviser, the convalescent remained quiet for a while; but joy seemed to have doubled her strength, for she desired to see Agatha, Alexander, and Andreas, and—she colored, and a beseeching glance met Euryale's eyes—and Diodoros.

But meanwhile the physician Ptolemaeus had come into the room, and he would allow no one to come near her this evening but Zeno's daughter. His grave eyes were dim with tears as, when taking leave, he whispered to the Lady Euryale:

"All is well. Even her mind is saved."

He was right. From day to day and from hour to hour her recovery progressed and her strength improved. And there was much for her to see and hear, which did her more good than medicine, even though she had been moved to fresh grief by the death of her brother and many friends.

Like Melissa, her lover and Alexander had been led by thorny paths to the stars which shine on happy souls and shed their light in the hearts of those to whom the higher truth is revealed. It was as Christians that Diodoros and Alexander both came to visit the convalescent. That which had won so many Alexandrians to the blessings of the new faith had attracted them too, and the certainty of finding their beloved among the Christians had been an added inducement to crave instruction from Zeno. And it had been given them in so zealous and captivating a manner that, in their impressionable hearts, the desire for learning had soon been turned to firm conviction and inspired ardor.

Agatha was betrothed to Alexander.

The scorn of his fellow-citizens, which had fallen on the innocent youth and which he had supposed would prevent his ever winning her love, had in fact secured it to him, for Agatha's father was very ready to trust his child to the man who had rescued her, whom she loved, and in whom he saw one of the lowly who should be exalted.

Alexander was not told of Philip's death till his own wounds were healed; but he had meanwhile confided to Andreas that he had made up his mind to fly to a distant land that he might never again see Agatha, and thus not rob the brother on whom he had brought such disaster of the woman he loved. The freedman had heard him with deep emotion, and within a few hours after Andreas had reported to Zeno the self-sacrificing youth's purpose, Zeno had gone to Alexander and greeted him as his son.

Melissa found in Agatha the sister she had so long pined for; and how happy it made her to see her brother's eyes once more sparkle with gladness! Alexander, even as a Christian and as Agatha's husband, remained an artist.

The fortune accumulated by Andreas—the solidi with which he had formerly paid the scapegrace painter's debts included—was applied to the erection of a new and beautiful house of God on the spot where Heron's house had stood. Alexander decorated it with noble pictures, and as this church was soon too small to accommodate the rapidly increasing congregation, he painted the walls of yet another, with figures whose extreme beauty was famous throughout Christendom, and which were preserved and admired till gloomy zealots prohibited the arts in churches and destroyed their works.

Melissa could not be safe in Alexandria. After being quietly married in the house of Polybius, she, with her young husband and Andreas, moved to Carthage, where an uncle of Diodoros dwelt. Love went them, and, with love, happiness. They were not long compelled to remain in exile; a few months after their marriage news was brought to Carthage that Caesar had been murdered by the centurion Martialis, prompted by the tribunes Apollinaris and Nemesianus Aurelius. Immediately on this, Macrinus, the praetorian prefect, was proclaimed emperor by the troops.

The ambitious man's sovereignty lasted less than a year; still, the prophecy of Serapion was fulfilled. It cost the Magian his life indeed; for a letter written by him to the prefect, in which he reminded him of what he had foretold, fell into the hands of Caracalla's mother, who opened the letters addressed to her ill-fated son at Antioch, where she was then residing. The warning it contained did not arrive, however, till after Caesar's death, and before the new sovereign could effectually protect the soothsayer. As soon as Macrinus had mounted the throne the persecution of those who had roused the ire of the unhappy Caracalla was at an end. Diodoros and Melissa, Heron and Polybius, could mingle once more with their fellow-citizens secure from all pursuit.

Diodoros and other friends took care that the suspicion of treachery which had been cast on Heron's household should be abundantly disproved. Nay, the death of Philip, and Melissa's and Alexander's evil fortunes, placed them in the ranks of the foremost foes of tyranny.

Within ten months of his accession Macrinus was overthrown, after his defeat at Immae, where, though the praetorians still fought for him bravely, he took ignominious flight; Julia Domna's grandnephew was then proclaimed Caesar by the troops, under the name of Heliogabalus, and the young emperor of fourteen had a statue and a cenotaph erected at Alexandria to Caracalla, whose son he was falsely reputed to be. These two works of art suffered severely at the hands of those on whom the hated and luckless emperor had inflicted such fearful evils. Still, on certain memorial days they were decked with beautiful flowers; and when the new prefect, by order of Caracalla's mother, made inquiry as to who it was that laid them there, he was informed that they came from the finest garden in Alexandria, and that it was Melissa, the wife of the owner, who offered them. This comforted the heart of Julia Domna, and she would have blessed the donor still more warmly if she could have known that Melissa included the name of her crazed son in her prayers to her dying day.

Old Heron, who had settled on the estate of Diodoros and lived there among his birds, less surly than of old, still produced his miniature works of art; he would shake his head over those strange offerings, and once when he found himself alone with old Dido, now a freed-woman, he said, irritably: "If that little fool had done as I told her she would be empress now, and as good as Julia Domna. But all has turned out well—only that Argutis, whom every one treats as if our old Macedonian blood ran in his veins, was sent yesterday by Melissa with finer flowers for Caracalla's cenotaph than for her own mother's tomb—May her new-fangled god forgive her! There is some Christian nonsense at the bottom of it, no doubt. I stick to the old gods whom my Olympias served, and she always did the best in everything."

Old Polybius, too, remained a heathen; but he allowed the children to please themselves. He and Heron saw their grandchildren brought up as Christians without a remonstrance, for they both understood that Christianity was the faith of the future.

Andreas to his latest day was ever the faithful adviser of old and young alike. In the sunshine of love which smiled upon him his austere zeal turned to considerate tenderness. When at last he lay on his death-bed, and shortly before the end, Melissa asked him what was his favorite verse of the Scriptures, he replied firmly and decidedly:

"Now the fullness of time is come."

"So be it," replied Melissa with tears in her eyes. He smiled and nodded, signed to Diodoros to draw off his signet ring—the only thing his father had saved from the days of his wealth and freedom—and desired Melissa to keep it for his sake. Deeply moved, she put it on her finger; but Andreas pointed to the motto, and said with failing utterance:

"That is your road—and mine—my father's motto: Per aspera ad astra. It has guided me to my goal, and you—all of you. But the words are in Latin; you understand them? By rough ways to the stars—Nay what they say to me is: Upward, under the burden of the cross, to bliss here and hereafter—And you too," he added, looking in his darling's face. "You too, both of you; I know it."

He sighed deeply, and, laying his hand on Melissa's head as she knelt by his bed, he closed his faithful eyes in the supporting arms of Diodoros.



ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS FOR THE ENTIRE THORNY PATH:

Begun to enjoy the sound of his own voice Cast off their disease as a serpent casts its skin For what will not custom excuse and sanctify? Force which had compelled every one to do as his neighbors Galenus—What I like is bad for me, what I loathe is wholesome He has the gift of being easily consoled He only longed to be hopeful once more, to enjoy the present It is the passionate wish that gives rise to the belief Man, in short, could be sure of nothing Misfortunes commonly come in couples yoked like oxen Never to be astonished at anything Obstacles existed only to be removed Possess little and require nothing Speaking ill of others is their greatest delight The past must stand; it is like a scar

THE END

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