'The one is named Berbix—he has conquered twelve times; the other assumes the arrogant name of Nobilior. They are both Gauls.'
While thus conversing, the first formalities of the show were over. To these succeeded a feigned combat with wooden swords between the various gladiators matched against each other. Amongst these, the skill of two Roman gladiators, hired for the occasion, was the most admired; and next to them the most graceful combatant was Lydon. This sham contest did not last above an hour, nor did it attract any very lively interest, except among those connoisseurs of the arena to whom art was preferable to more coarse excitement; the body of the spectators were rejoiced when it was over, and when the sympathy rose to terror. The combatants were now arranged in pairs, as agreed beforehand; their weapons examined; and the grave sports of the day commenced amidst the deepest silence—broken only by an exciting and preliminary blast of warlike music.
It was often customary to begin the sports by the most cruel of all, and some bestiarius, or gladiator appointed to the beasts, was slain first, as an initiatory sacrifice. But in the present instance, the experienced Pansa thought it better that the sanguinary drama should advance, not decrease, in interest and, accordingly, the execution of Olinthus and Glaucus was reserved for the last. It was arranged that the two horsemen should first occupy the arena; that the foot gladiators, paired Off, should then be loosed indiscriminately on the stage; that Glaucus and the lion should next perform their part in the bloody spectacle; and the tiger and the Nazarene be the grand finale. And, in the spectacles of Pompeii, the reader of Roman history must limit his imagination, nor expect to find those vast and wholesale exhibitions of magnificent slaughter with which a Nero or a Caligula regaled the inhabitants of the Imperial City. The Roman shows, which absorbed the more celebrated gladiators, and the chief proportion of foreign beasts, were indeed the very reason why, in the lesser towns of the empire, the sports of the amphitheatre were comparatively humane and rare; and in this, as in other respects, Pompeii was but the miniature, the microcosm of Rome. Still, it was an awful and imposing spectacle, with which modern times have, happily, nothing to compare—a vast theatre, rising row upon row, and swarming with human beings, from fifteen to eighteen thousand in number, intent upon no fictitious representation—no tragedy of the stage—but the actual victory or defeat, the exultant life or the bloody death, of each and all who entered the arena!
The two horsemen were now at either extremity of the lists (if so they might be called); and, at a given signal from Pansa, the combatants started simultaneously as in full collision, each advancing his round buckler, each poising on high his light yet sturdy javelin; but just when within three paces of his opponent, the steed of Berbix suddenly halted, wheeled round, and, as Nobilior was borne rapidly by, his antagonist spurred upon him. The buckler of Nobilior, quickly and skillfully extended, received a blow which otherwise would have been fatal.
'Well done, Nobilior!' cried the praetor, giving the first vent to the popular excitement.
'Bravely struck, my Berbix!' answered Clodius from his seat.
And the wild murmur, swelled by many a shout, echoed from side to side.
The vizors of both the horsemen were completely closed (like those of the knights in after times), but the head was, nevertheless, the great point of assault; and Nobilior, now wheeling his charger with no less adroitness than his opponent, directed his spear full on the helmet of his foe. Berbix raised his buckler to shield himself, and his quick-eyed antagonist, suddenly lowering his weapon, pierced him through the breast. Berbix reeled and fell.
'Nobilior! Nobilior!' shouted the populace.
'I have lost ten sestertia,' said Clodius, between his teeth.
'Habet!—he has it,' said Pansa, deliberately.
The populace, not yet hardened into cruelty, made the signal of mercy; but as the attendants of the arena approached, they found the kindness came too late—the heart of the Gaul had been pierced, and his eyes were set in death. It was his life's blood that flowed so darkly over the sand and sawdust of the arena.
'It is a pity it was so soon over—there was little enough for one's trouble,' said the widow Fulvia.
'Yes—I have no compassion for Berbix. Any one might have seen that Nobilior did but feint. Mark, they fix the fatal hook to the body—they drag him away to the spoliarium—they scatter new sand over the stage! Pansa regrets nothing more than that he is not rich enough to strew the arena with borax and cinnabar, as Nero used to do.'
'Well, if it has been a brief battle, it is quickly succeeded. See my handsome Lydon on the arena—ay—and the net-bearer too, and the swordsmen! oh, charming!'
There were now on the arena six combatants: Niger and his net, matched against Sporus with his shield and his short broadsword; Lydon and Tetraides, naked save by a cincture round the waist, each armed only with a heavy Greek cestus—and two gladiators from Rome, clad in complete steel, and evenly matched with immense bucklers and pointed swords.
The initiatory contest between Lydon and Tetraides being less deadly than that between the other combatants, no sooner had they advanced to the middle of the arena than, as by common consent, the rest held back, to see how that contest should be decided, and wait till fiercer weapons might replace the cestus, ere they themselves commenced hostilities. They stood leaning on their arms and apart from each other, gazing on the show, which, if not bloody enough, thoroughly to please the populace, they were still inclined to admire, because its origin was of their ancestral Greece.
No person could, at first glance, have seemed less evenly matched than the two antagonists. Tetraides, though not taller than Lydon, weighed considerably more; the natural size of his muscles was increased, to the eyes of the vulgar, by masses of solid flesh; for, as it was a notion that the contest of the cestus fared easiest with him who was plumpest, Tetraides had encouraged to the utmost his hereditary predisposition to the portly. His shoulders were vast, and his lower limbs thick-set, double-jointed, and slightly curved outward, in that formation which takes so much from beauty to give so largely to strength. But Lydon, except that he was slender even almost to meagreness, was beautifully and delicately proportioned; and the skilful might have perceived that, with much less compass of muscle than his foe, that which he had was more seasoned—iron and compact. In proportion, too, as he wanted flesh, he was likely to possess activity; and a haughty smile on his resolute face which strongly contrasted the solid heaviness of his enemy's, gave assurance to those who beheld it, and united their hope to their pity: so that, despite the disparity of their seeming strength, the cry of the multitude was nearly as loud for Lydon as for Tetraides.
Whoever is acquainted with the modern prize-ring—whoever has witnessed the heavy and disabling strokes which the human fist, skillfully directed, hath the power to bestow—may easily understand how much that happy facility would be increased by a band carried by thongs of leather round the arm as high as the elbow, and terribly strengthened about the knuckles by a plate of iron, and sometimes a plummet of lead. Yet this, which was meant to increase, perhaps rather diminished, the interest of the fray: for it necessarily shortened its duration. A very few blows, successfully and scientifically planted, might suffice to bring the contest to a close; and the battle did not, therefore, often allow full scope for the energy, fortitude and dogged perseverance, that we technically style pluck, which not unusually wins the day against superior science, and which heightens to so painful a delight the interest in the battle and the sympathy for the brave.
'Guard thyself!' growled Tetraides, moving nearer and nearer to his foe, who rather shifted round him than receded.
Lydon did not answer, save by a scornful glance of his quick, vigilant eye. Tetraides struck—it was as the blow of a smith on a vice; Lydon sank suddenly on one knee—the blow passed over his head. Not so harmless was Lydon's retaliation: he quickly sprung to his feet, and aimed his cestus full on the broad breast of his antagonist. Tetraides reeled—the populace shouted.
'You are unlucky to-day,' said Lepidus to Clodius: 'you have lost one bet——you will lose another.'
'By the gods! my bronzes go to the auctioneer if that is the case. I have no less than a hundred sestertia upon Tetraides. Ha, ha! see how he rallies! That was a home stroke: he has cut open Lydon's shoulder. A Tetraides!—a Tetraides!'
'But Lydon is not disheartened. By Pollux! how well he keeps his temper. See how dexterously he avoids those hammer-like hands!—dodging now here, now there—circling round and round. Ah, poor Lydon! he has it again.'
'Three to one still on Tetraides! What say you, Lepidus?'
'Well, nine sestertia to three—be it so! What! again, Lydon? He stops—he gasps for breath. By the gods, he is down. No—he is again on his legs. Brave Lydon! Tetraides is encouraged—he laughs loud—he rushes on him.'
'Fool—success blinds him—he should be cautious. Lydon's eye is like the lynx's,' said Clodius, between his teeth.
'Ha, Clodius! saw you that? Your man totters! Another blow—he falls—he falls!'
'Earth revives him, then. He is once more up; but the blood rolls down his face.'
'By the thunderer! Lydon wins it. See how he presses on him! That blow on the temple would have crushed an ox! it has crushed Tetraides. He falls again—he cannot move—habet!—habet!'
'Habet!' repeated Pansa. 'Take them out and give them the armor and swords.'
'Noble editor,' said the officers, 'we fear that Tetraides will not recover in time; howbeit, we will try.'
In a few minutes the officers, who had dragged off the stunned and insensible gladiator, returned with rueful countenances. They feared for his life; he was utterly incapacitated from re-entering the arena.
'In that case,' said Pansa, 'hold Lydon a subdititius; and the first gladiator that is vanquished, let Lydon supply his place with the victor.' The people shouted their applause at this sentence: then they again sunk into deep silence. The trumpet sounded loudly. The four combatants stood each against each in prepared and stern array.
'Dost thou recognize the Romans, my Clodius; are they among the celebrated, or are they merely ordinary?'
'Eumolpus is a good second-rate swordsman, my Lepidus. Nepimus, the lesser man, I have never seen before: but he is the son of one of the imperial fiscales, and brought up in a proper school; doubtless they will show sport, but I have no heart for the game; I cannot win back my money—I am undone. Curses on that Lydon! who could have supposed he was so dexterous or so lucky?'
'Well, Clodius, shall I take compassion on you, and accept your own terms with these Romans?'
'An even ten sestertia on Eumolpus, then?'
'What! when Nepimus is untried? Nay, nay; that is to bad.'
'Well—ten to eight?'
While the contest in the amphitheatre had thus commenced, there was one in the loftier benches for whom it had assumed, indeed, a poignant—a stifling interest. The aged father of Lydon, despite his Christian horror of the spectacle, in his agonized anxiety for his son, had not been able to resist being the spectator of his fate. One amidst a fierce crowd of strangers—the lowest rabble of the populace—the old man saw, felt nothing, but the form—the presence of his brave son! Not a sound had escaped his lips when twice he had seen him fall to the earth—only he had turned paler, and his limbs trembled. But he had uttered one low cry when he saw him victorious; unconscious, alas! of the more fearful battle to which that victory was but a prelude.
'My gallant boy!' said he, and wiped his eyes.
'Is he thy son said a brawny fellow to the right of the Nazarene; 'he has fought well: let us see how he does by-and-by. Hark! he is to fight the first victor. Now, old boy, pray the gods that that victor be neither of the Romans! nor, next to them, the giant Niger.'
The old man sat down again and covered his face. The fray for the moment was indifferent to him—Lydon was not one of the combatants. Yet—yet—the thought flashed across him—the fray was indeed of deadly interest—the first who fell was to make way for Lydon! He started, and bent down, with straining eyes and clasped hands, to view the encounter.
The first interest was attracted towards the combat of Niger with Sporus; for this species of contest, from the fatal result which usually attended it, and from the great science it required in either antagonist, was always peculiarly inviting to the spectators.
They stood at a considerable distance from each other. The singular helmet which Sporus wore (the vizor of which was down) concealed his face; but the features of Niger attracted a fearful and universal interest from their compressed and vigilant ferocity. Thus they stood for some moments, each eyeing each, until Sporus began slowly, and with great caution, to advance, holding his sword pointed, like a modern fencer's, at the breast of his foe. Niger retreated as his antagonist advanced, gathering up his net with his right hand, and never taking his small glittering eye from the movements of the swordsman. Suddenly when Sporus had approached nearly at arm's length, the retiarius threw himself forward, and cast his net. A quick inflection of body saved the gladiator from the deadly snare! he uttered a sharp cry of joy and rage, and rushed upon Niger: but Niger had already drawn in his net, thrown it across his shoulders, and now fled round the lists with a swiftness which the secutor in vain endeavored to equal. The people laughed and shouted aloud, to see the ineffectual efforts of the broad-shouldered gladiator to overtake the flying giant: when, at that moment, their attention was turned from these to the two Roman combatants.
They had placed themselves at the onset face to face, at the distance of modern fencers from each other: but the extreme caution which both evinced at first had prevented any warmth of engagement, and allowed the spectators full leisure to interest themselves in the battle between Sporus and his foe. But the Romans were now heated into full and fierce encounter: they pushed—returned—advanced on—retreated from each other with all that careful yet scarcely perceptible caution which characterizes men well experienced and equally matched. But at this moment, Eumolpus, the elder gladiator, by that dexterous back-stroke which was considered in the arena so difficult to avoid, had wounded Nepimus in the side. The people shouted; Lepidus turned pale.
'Ho!' said Clodius, 'the game is nearly over. If Eumolpus fights now the quiet fight, the other will gradually bleed himself away.'
'But, thank the gods! he does not fight the backward fight. See!—he presses hard upon Nepimus. By Mars! but Nepimus had him there! the helmet rang again!—Clodius, I shall win!'
'Why do I ever bet but at the dice?' groaned Clodius to himself;—or why cannot one cog a gladiator?'
'A Sporus!—a Sporus!' shouted the populace, as Niger having now suddenly paused, had again cast his net, and again unsuccessfully. He had not retreated this time with sufficient agility—the sword of Sporus had inflicted a severe wound upon his right leg; and, incapacitated to fly, he was pressed hard by the fierce swordsman. His great height and length of arm still continued, however, to give him no despicable advantages; and steadily keeping his trident at the front of his foe, he repelled him successfully for several minutes. Sporus now tried, by great rapidity of evolution, to get round his antagonist, who necessarily moved with pain and slowness. In so doing, he lost his caution—he advanced too near to the giant—raised his arm to strike, and received the three points of the fatal spear full in his breast! He sank on his knee. In a moment more, the deadly net was cast over him, he struggled against its meshes in vain; again—again—again he writhed mutely beneath the fresh strokes of the trident—his blood flowed fast through the net and redly over the sand. He lowered his arms in acknowledgment of defeat.
The conquering retiarius withdrew his net, and leaning on his spear, looked to the audience for their judgement. Slowly, too, at the same moment, the vanquished gladiator rolled his dim and despairing eyes around the theatre. From row to row, from bench to bench, there glared upon him but merciless and unpitying eyes.
Hushed was the roar—the murmur! The silence was dread, for it was no sympathy; not a hand—no, not even a woman's hand—gave the signal of charity and life! Sporus had never been popular in the arena; and, lately, the interest of the combat had been excited on behalf of the wounded Niger. The people were warmed into blood—the mimic fight had ceased to charm; the interest had mounted up to the desire of sacrifice and the thirst of death!
The gladiator felt that his doom was sealed: he uttered no prayer—no groan. The people gave the signal of death! In dogged but agonized submission, he bent his neck to receive the fatal stroke. And now, as the spear of the retiarius was not a weapon to inflict instant and certain death, there stalked into the arena a grim and fatal form, brandishing a short, sharp sword, and with features utterly concealed beneath its vizor. With slow and measured steps, this dismal headsman approached the gladiator, still kneeling—laid the left hand on his humbled crest—drew the edge of the blade across his neck—turned round to the assembly, lest, in the last moment, remorse should come upon them; the dread signal continued the same: the blade glittered brightly in the air—fell—and the gladiator rolled upon the sand; his limbs quivered—were still—he was a corpse.'
His body was dragged at once from the arena through the gate of death, and thrown into the gloomy den termed technically the spoliarium. And ere it had well reached that destination, the strife between the remaining combatants was decided. The sword of Eumolpus had inflicted the death-wound upon the less experienced combatant. A new victim was added to the receptacle of the slain.
Throughout that mighty assembly there now ran a universal movement; the people breathed more freely, and resettled themselves in their seats. A grateful shower was cast over every row from the concealed conduits. In cool and luxurious pleasure they talked over the late spectacle of blood. Eumolpus removed his helmet, and wiped his brows; his close-curled hair and short beard, his noble Roman features and bright dark eye attracted the general admiration. He was fresh, unwounded, unfatigued.
The editor paused, and proclaimed aloud that, as Niger's wound disabled him from again entering the arena, Lydon was to be the successor to the slaughtered Nepimus, and the new combatant of Eumolpus.
'Yet, Lydon,' added he, 'if thou wouldst decline the combat with one so brave and tried, thou mayst have full liberty to do so. Eumolpus is not the antagonist that was originally decreed for thee. Thou knowest best how far thou canst cope with him. If thou failest, thy doom is honorable death; if thou conquerest, out of my own purse I will double the stipulated prize.'
The people shouted applause. Lydon stood in the lists, he gazed around; high above he beheld the pale face, the straining eyes, of his father. He turned away irresolute for a moment. No! the conquest of the cestus was not sufficient—he had not yet won the prize of victory—his father was still a slave!
'Noble aedile!' he replied, in a firm and deep tone, 'I shrink not from this combat. For the honour of Pompeii, I demand that one trained by its long-celebrated lanista shall do battle with this Roman.'
The people shouted louder than before.
'Four to one against Lydon!' said Clodius to Lepidus.
'I would not take twenty to one! Why, Eumolpus is a very Achilles, and this poor fellow is but a tyro!'
Eumolpus gazed hard on the face of Lydon; he smiled; yet the smile was followed by a slight and scarce audible sigh—a touch of compassionate emotion, which custom conquered the moment the heart acknowledged it.
And now both, clad in complete armor, the sword drawn, the vizor closed, the two last combatants of the arena (ere man, at least, was matched with beast), stood opposed to each other.
It was just at this time that a letter was delivered to the proctor by one of the attendants of the arena; he removed the cincture—glanced over it for a moment—his countenance betrayed surprise and embarrassment. He re-read the letter, and then muttering—'Tush! it is impossible!—the man must be drunk, even in the morning, to dream of such follies!'—threw it carelessly aside, and gravely settled himself once more in the attitude of attention to the sports.
The interest of the public was wound up very high. Eumolpus had at first won their favor; but the gallantry of Lydon, and his well-timed allusion to the honour of the Pompeian lanista, had afterwards given the latter the preference in their eyes.
'Holla, old fellow!' said Medon's neighbor to him. 'Your son is hardly matched; but never fear, the editor will not permit him to be slain—no, nor the people neither; he has behaved too bravely for that. Ha! that was a home thrust!—well averted, by Pollux! At him again, Lydon!—they stop to breathe. What art thou muttering, old boy
'Prayers!' answered Medon, with a more calm and hopeful mien than he had yet maintained.
'Prayers!—trifles! The time for gods to carry a man away in a cloud is gone now. Ha! Jupiter! what a blow! Thy side—thy side!—take care of thy side, Lydon!'
There was a convulsive tremor throughout the assembly. A fierce blow from Eumolpus, full on the crest, had brought Lydon to his knee.
'Habet!—he has it!' cried a shrill female voice; 'he has it!' It was the voice of the girl who had so anxiously anticipated the sacrifice of some criminal to the beasts.
'Be silent, child!' said the wife of Pansa, haughtily. 'Non habet!—he is not wounded!'
'I wish he were, if only to spite old surly Medon,' muttered the girl.
Meanwhile Lydon, who had hitherto defended himself with great skill and valor, began to give way before the vigorous assaults of the practised Roman; his arm grew tired, his eye dizzy, he breathed hard and painfully. The combatants paused again for breath.
'Young man,' said Eumolpus, in a low voice, 'desist; I will wound thee slightly—then lower thy arms; thou hast propitiated the editor and the mob—thou wilt be honorably saved!'
'And my father still enslaved!' groaned Lydon to himself. 'No! death or his freedom.'
At that thought, and seeing that, his strength not being equal to the endurance of the Roman, everything depended on a sudden and desperate effort, he threw himself fiercely on Eumolpus; the Roman warily retreated—Lydon thrust again—Eumolpus drew himself aside—the sword grazed his cuirass—Lydon's breast was exposed—the Roman plunged his sword through the joints of the armor, not meaning, however, to inflict a deep wound; Lydon, weak and exhausted, fell forward, fell right on the point: it passed through and through, even to the back. Eumolpus drew forth his blade; Lydon still made an effort to regain his balance—his sword left his grasp—he struck mechanically at the gladiator with his naked hand, and fell prostrate on the arena. With one accord, editor and assembly made the signal of mercy—the officers of the arena approached—they took off the helmet of the vanquished. He still breathed; his eyes rolled fiercely on his foe; the savageness he had acquired in his calling glared from his gaze, and lowered upon the brow darkened already with the shades of death; then, with a convulsive groan, with a half start, he lifted his eyes above. They rested not on the face of the editor nor on the pitying brows of his relenting judges. He saw them not; they were as if the vast space was desolate and bare; one pale agonizing face alone was all he recognized—one cry of a broken heart was all that, amidst the murmurs and the shouts of the populace, reached his ear. The ferocity vanished from his brow; a soft, a tender expression of sanctifying but despairing love played over his features—played—waned—darkened! His face suddenly became locked and rigid, resuming its former fierceness. He fell upon the earth.
'Look to him,' said the aedile; 'he has done his duty!'
The officers dragged him off to the spoliarium.
'A true type of glory, and of its fate!' murmured Arbaces to himself, and his eye, glancing round the amphitheatre, betrayed so much of disdain and scorn, that whoever encountered it felt his breath suddenly arrested, and his emotions frozen into one sensation of abasement and of awe.
Again rich perfumes were wafted around the theatre; the attendants sprinkled fresh sand over the arena.
'Bring forth the lion and Glaucus the Athenian,' said the editor.
And a deep and breathless hush of overwrought interest, and intense (yet, strange to say, not unpleasing) terror lay, like a mighty and awful dream, over the assembly.
SALLUST AND NYDIA'S LETTER.
THRICE had Sallust awakened from his morning sleep, and thrice, recollecting that his friend was that day to perish, had he turned himself with a deep sigh once more to court oblivion. His sole object in life was to avoid pain; and where he could not avoid, at least to forget it.
At length, unable any longer to steep his consciousness in slumber, he raised himself from his incumbent posture, and discovered his favorite freedman sitting by his bedside as usual; for Sallust, who, as I have said, had a gentlemanlike taste for the polite letters, was accustomed to be read to for an hour or so previous to his rising in the morning.
'No books to-day! no more Tibullus! no more Pindar for me! Pindar! alas, alas! the very name recalls those games to which our arena is the savage successor. Has it begun—the amphitheatre? are its rites commenced?'
'Long since, O Sallust! Did you not hear the trumpets and the trampling feet?'
'Ay, ay; but the gods be thanked, I was drowsy, and had only to turn round to fall asleep again.'
'The gladiators must have been long in the ring.'
'The wretches! None of my people have gone to the spectacle?'
'Assuredly not; your orders were too strict.'
'That is well—would the day were over! What is that letter yonder on the table?'
'That! Oh, the letter brought to you last night, when you were—too—too...'
'Drunk to read it, I suppose. No matter, it cannot be of much importance.'
'Shall I open it for you, Sallust,'
'Do: anything to divert my thoughts. Poor Glaucus!'
The freedman opened the letter. 'What! Greek?' said he: some learned lady, I suppose.' He glanced over the letter, and for some moments the irregular lines traced by the blind girl's hand puzzled him. Suddenly, however, his countenance exhibited emotion and surprise. 'Good gods! noble Sallust! what have we done not to attend to this before? Hear me read!
'"Nydia, the slave, to Sallust, the friend of Glaucus! I am a prisoner in the house of Arbaces. Hasten to the praetor! procure my release, and we shall yet save Glaucus from the lion. There is another prisoner within these walls, whose witness can exonerate the Athenian from the charge against him—one who saw the crime—who can prove the criminal in a villain hitherto unsuspected. Fly! hasten! quick! quick! Bring with you armed men, lest resistance be made, and a cunning and dexterous smith; for the dungeon of my fellow-prisoner is thick and strong. Oh! by thy right hand and thy father's ashes, lose not a moment!"'
'Great Jove!' exclaimed Sallust, starting, 'and this day—nay, within this hour, perhaps, he dies. What is to be done? I will instantly to the praetor.'
'Nay; not so. The praetor (as well as Pansa, the editor himself) is the creature of the mob; and the mob will not hear of delay; they will not be balked in the very moment of expectation. Besides, the publicity of the appeal would forewarn the cunning Egyptian. It is evident that he has some interest in these concealments. No; fortunately thy slaves are in thy house.'
'I seize thy meaning,' interrupted Sallust: 'arm the slaves instantly. The streets are empty. We will ourselves hasten to the house of Arbaces, and release the prisoners. Quick! quick! What ho! Davus there! My gown and sandals, the papyrus and a reed.' I will write to the praetor, to beseech him to delay the sentence of Glaucus, for that, within an hour, we may yet prove him innocent. So, so, that is well. Hasten with this, Davus, to the praetor, at the amphitheatre. See it given to his own hand. Now then, O ye gods! whose providence Epicurus denied, befriend me, and I will call Epicurus a liar!'
Chapter IV THE AMPHITHEATRE ONCE MORE.
GLAUCUS and Olinthus had been placed together in that gloomy and narrow cell in which the criminals of the arena awaited their last and fearful struggle. Their eyes, of late accustomed to the darkness, scanned the faces of each other in this awful hour, and by that dim light, the paleness, which chased away the natural hues from either cheek, assumed a yet more ashy and ghastly whiteness. Yet their brows were erect and dauntless—their limbs did not tremble—their lips were compressed and rigid. The religion of the one, the pride of the other, the conscious innocence of both, and, it may be, the support derived from their mutual companionship, elevated the victim into the hero.
'Hark! hearest thou that shout They are growling over their human blood,' said Olinthus.
'I hear; my heart grows sick; but the gods support me.'
'The gods! O rash young man! in this hour recognize only the One God. Have I not taught thee in the dungeon, wept for thee, prayed for thee?—in my zeal and in my agony, have I not thought more of thy salvation than my own?'
'Brave friend!' answered Glaucus, solemnly, 'I have listened to thee with awe, with wonder, and with a secret tendency towards conviction. Had our lives been spared, I might gradually have weaned myself from the tenets of my own faith, and inclined to thine; but, in this last hour it were a craven thing, and a base, to yield to hasty terror what should only be the result of lengthened meditation. Were I to embrace thy creed, and cast down my father's gods, should I not be bribed by thy promise of heaven, or awed by thy threats of hell? Olinthus, no! Think we of each other with equal charity—I honoring thy sincerity—thou pitying my blindness or my obdurate courage. As have been my deeds, such will be my reward; and the Power or Powers above will not judge harshly of human error, when it is linked with honesty of purpose and truth of heart. Speak we no more of this. Hush! Dost thou hear them drag yon heavy body through the passage? Such as that clay will be ours soon.'
'O Heaven! O Christ! already I behold ye!' cried the fervent Olinthus, lifting up his hands; 'I tremble not—I rejoice that the prison-house shall be soon broken.'
Glaucus bowed his head in silence. He felt the distinction between his fortitude and that of his fellow-sufferer. The heathen did not tremble; but the Christian exulted.
The door swung gratingly back—the gleam of spears shot along the walls.
'Glaucus the Athenian, thy time has come,' said a loud and clear voice; 'the lion awaits thee.'
'I am ready,' said the Athenian. 'Brother and co-mate, one last embrace! Bless me—and farewell!'
The Christian opened his arms—he clasped the young heathen to his breast—he kissed his forehead and cheek—he sobbed aloud—his tears flowed fast and hot over the features of his new friend.
'Oh! could I have converted thee, I had not wept. Oh! that I might say to thee, "We two shall sup this night in Paradise!"'
'It may be so yet,' answered the Greek, with a tremulous voice. 'They whom death part not, may meet yet beyond the grave: on the earth—on the beautiful, the beloved earth, farewell for ever!—Worthy officer, I attend you.'
Glaucus tore himself away; and when he came forth into the air, its breath, which, though sunless, was hot and arid, smote witheringly upon him. His frame, not yet restored from the effects of the deadly draught, shrank and trembled. The officers supported him.
'Courage!' said one; 'thou art young, active, well knit. They give thee a weapon! despair not, and thou mayst yet conquer.'
Glaucus did not reply; but, ashamed of his infirmity, he made a desperate and convulsive effort, and regained the firmness of his nerves. They anointed his body, completely naked, save by a cincture round the loins, placed the stilus (vain weapon!) in his hand, and led him into the arena.
And now when the Greek saw the eyes of thousands and tens of thousands upon him, he no longer felt that he was mortal. All evidence of fear—all fear itself—was gone. A red and haughty flush spread over the paleness of his features—he towered aloft to the full of his glorious stature. In the elastic beauty of his limbs and form, in his intent but unfrowning brow, in the high disdain, and in the indomitable soul, which breathed visibly, which spoke audibly, from his attitude, his lip, his eye—he seemed the very incarnation, vivid and corporeal, of the valor of his land—of the divinity of its worship—at once a hero and a god!
The murmur of hatred and horror at his crime, which had greeted his entrance, died into the silence of involuntary admiration and half-compassionate respect; and with a quick and convulsive sigh, that seemed to move the whole mass of life as if it were one body, the gaze of the spectators turned from the Athenian to a dark uncouth object in the centre of the arena. It was the grated den of the lion!
'By Venus, how warm it is!' said Fulvia; 'yet there is no sun. Would that those stupid sailors could have fastened up that gap in the awning!'
'Oh! it is warm, indeed. I turn sick—I faint!' said the wife of Pansa; even her experienced stoicism giving way at the struggle about to take place.
The lion had been kept without food for twenty-four hours, and the animal had, during the whole morning, testified a singular and restless uneasiness, which the keeper had attributed to the pangs of hunger. Yet its bearing seemed rather that of fear than of rage; its roar was painful and distressed; it hung its head—snuffed the air through the bars—then lay down—started again—and again uttered its wild and far-resounding cries. And now, in its den, it lay utterly dumb and mute, with distended nostrils forced hard against the grating, and disturbing with a heaving breath, the sand below on the arena.
The editor's lip quivered, and his cheek grew pale; he looked anxiously around—hesitated—delayed; the crowd became impatient. Slowly he gave the sign; the keeper, who was behind the den, cautiously removed the grating, and the lion leaped forth with a mighty and glad roar of release. The keeper hastily retreated through the grated passage leading from the arena, and left the lord of the forest—and his prey.
Glaucus had bent his limbs so as to give himself the firmest posture at the expected rush of the lion, with his small and shining weapon raised on high, in the faint hope that one well-directed thrust (for he knew that he should have time but for one) might penetrate through the eye to the brain of his grim foe.
But, to the unutterable astonishment of all, the beast seemed not even aware of the presence of the criminal.
At the first moment of its release it halted abruptly in the arena, raised itself half on end, snuffing the upward air with impatient sighs; then suddenly it sprang forward, but not on the Athenian. At half-speed it circled round and round the space, turning its vast head from side to side with an anxious and perturbed gaze, as if seeking only some avenue of escape; once or twice it endeavored to leap up the parapet that divided it from the audience, and, on failing, uttered rather a baffled howl than its deep-toned and kingly roar. It evinced no sign, either of wrath or hunger; its tail drooped along the sand, instead of lashing its gaunt sides; and its eye, though it wandered at times to Glaucus, rolled again listlessly from him. At length, as if tired of attempting to escape, it crept with a moan into its cage, and once more laid itself down to rest.
The first surprise of the assembly at the apathy of the lion soon grew converted into resentment at its cowardice; and the populace already merged their pity for the fate of Glaucus into angry compassion for their own disappointment.
The editor called to the keeper.
'How is this? Take the goad, prick him forth, and then close the door of the den.'
As the keeper, with some fear, but more astonishment, was preparing to obey, a loud cry was heard at one of the entrances of the arena; there was a confusion, a bustle—voices of remonstrance suddenly breaking forth, and suddenly silenced at the reply. All eyes turned in wonder at the interruption, towards the quarter of the disturbance; the crowd gave way, and suddenly Sallust appeared on the senatorial benches, his hair disheveled—breathless—heated—half-exhausted. He cast his eyes hastily round the ring. 'Remove the Athenian,' he cried; 'haste—he is innocent! Arrest Arbaces the Egyptian—HE is the murderer of Apaecides!'
'Art thou mad, O Sallust!' said the praetor, rising from his seat. 'What means this raving?'
'Remove the Athenian!—Quick! or his blood be on your head. Praetor, delay, and you answer with your own life to the emperor! I bring with me the eye-witness to the death of the priest Apaecides. Room there!—stand back!—give way! People of Pompeii, fix every eye upon Arbaces—there he sits! Room there for the priest Calenus!'
Pale, haggard, fresh from the jaws of famine and of death, his face fallen, his eyes dull as a vulture's, his broad frame gaunt as a skeleton—Calenus was supported into the very row in which Arbaces sat. His releasers had given him sparingly of food; but the chief sustenance that nerved his feeble limbs was revenge!
'The priest Calenus!—Calenus!' cried the mob. 'Is it he? No—it is a dead man?'
'It is the priest Calenus,' said the praetor, gravely. 'What hast thou to say?'
'Arbaces of Egypt is the murderer of Apaecides, the priest of Isis; these eyes saw him deal the blow. It is from the dungeon into which he plunged me—it is from the darkness and horror of a death by famine—that the gods have raised me to proclaim his crime! Release the Athenian—he is innocent!'
'It is for this, then, that the lion spared him. A miracle! a miracle!' cried Pansa.
'A miracle; a miracle!' shouted the people; 'remove the Athenian—Arbaces to the lion!'
And that shout echoed from hill to vale—from coast to sea—'Arbaces to the lion!'
Officers, remove the accused Glaucus—remove, but guard him yet,' said the praetor. 'The gods lavish their wonders upon this day.'
As the praetor gave the word of release, there was a cry of joy—a female voice—a child's voice—and it was of joy! It rang through the heart of the assembly with electric force—it, was touching, it was holy, that child's voice! And the populace echoed it back with sympathizing congratulation!
'Silence!' said the grave praetor—'who is there?'
'The blind girl—Nydia,' answered Sallust; 'it is her hand that has raised Calenus from the grave, and delivered Glaucus from the lion.'
'Of this hereafter,' said the praetor. 'Calenus, priest of Isis, thou accusest Arbaces of the murder of Apaecides?'
'Thou didst behold the deed?'
'Praetor—with these eyes...'
'Enough at present—the details must be reserved for more suiting time and place. Arbaces of Egypt, thou hearest the charge against thee—thou hast not yet spoken—what hast thou to say.
The gaze of the crowd had been long riveted on Arbaces: but not until the confusion which he had betrayed at the first charge of Sallust and the entrance of Calenus had subsided. At the shout, 'Arbaces to the lion!' he had indeed trembled, and the dark bronze of his cheek had taken a paler hue. But he had soon recovered his haughtiness and self-control. Proudly he returned the angry glare of the countless eyes around him; and replying now to the question of the praetor, he said, in that accent so peculiarly tranquil and commanding, which characterized his tones:
'Praetor, this charge is so mad that it scarcely deserves reply. My first accuser is the noble Sallust—the most intimate friend of Glaucus! my second is a priest; I revere his garb and calling—but, people of Pompeii! ye know somewhat of the character of Calenus—he is griping and gold-thirsty to a proverb; the witness of such men is to be bought! Praetor, I am innocent!'
'Sallust,' said the magistrate, 'where found you Calenus?'
'In the dungeons of Arbaces.'
'Egyptian,' said the praetor, frowning, 'thou didst, then, dare to imprison a priest of the gods—and wherefore?'
'Hear me,' answered Arbaces, rising calmly, but with agitation visible in his face. 'This man came to threaten that he would make against me the charge he has now made, unless I would purchase his silence with half my fortune: I remonstrated—in vain. Peace there—let not the priest interrupt me! Noble praetor—and ye, O people! I was a stranger in the land—I knew myself innocent of crime—but the witness of a priest against me might yet destroy me. In my perplexity I decoyed him to the cell whence he has been released, on pretence that it was the coffer-house of my gold. I resolved to detain him there until the fate of the true criminal was sealed, and his threats could avail no longer; but I meant no worse. I may have erred—but who amongst ye will not acknowledge the equity of self-preservation? Were I guilty, why was the witness of this priest silent at the trial?—then I had not detained or concealed him. Why did he not proclaim my guilt when I proclaimed that of Glaucus? Praetor, this needs an answer. For the rest, I throw myself on your laws. I demand their protection. Remove hence the accused and the accuser. I will willingly meet, and cheerfully abide by, the decision of the legitimate tribunal. This is no place for further parley.'
'He says right,' said the praetor. 'Ho! guards—remove Arbaces—guard Calenus! Sallust, we hold you responsible for your accusation. Let the sports be resumed.'
'What!' cried Calenus, turning round to the people, 'shall Isis be thus contemned? Shall the blood of Apaecides yet cry for vengeance? Shall justice be delayed now, that it may be frustrated hereafter? Shall the lion be cheated of his lawful prey? A god! a god!—I feel the god rush to my lips! To the lion—to the lion with Arbaces!'
His exhausted frame could support no longer the ferocious malice of the priest; he sank on the ground in strong convulsions—the foam gathered to his mouth—he was as a man, indeed, whom a supernatural power had entered! The people saw and shuddered.
'It is a god that inspires the holy man! To the lion with the Egyptian!'
With that cry up sprang—on moved—thousands upon thousands! They rushed from the heights—they poured down in the direction of the Egyptian. In vain did the aedile command—in vain did the praetor lift his voice and proclaim the law. The people had been already rendered savage by the exhibition of blood—they thirsted for more—their superstition was aided by their ferocity. Aroused—inflamed by the spectacle of their victims, they forgot the authority of their rulers. It was one of those dread popular convulsions common to crowds wholly ignorant, half free and half servile; and which the peculiar constitution of the Roman provinces so frequently exhibited. The power of the praetor was as a reed beneath the whirlwind; still, at his word the guards had drawn themselves along the lower benches, on which the upper classes sat separate from the vulgar. They made but a feeble barrier—the waves of the human sea halted for a moment, to enable Arbaces to count the exact moment of his doom! In despair, and in a terror which beat down even pride, he glanced his eyes over the rolling and rushing crowd—when, right above them, through the wide chasm which had been left in the velaria, he beheld a strange and awful apparition—he beheld—and his craft restored his courage!
He stretched his hand on high; over his lofty brow and royal features there came an expression of unutterable solemnity and command.
'Behold!' he shouted with a voice of thunder, which stilled the roar of the crowd; 'behold how the gods protect the guiltless! The fires of the avenging Orcus burst forth against the false witness of my accusers!'
The eyes of the crowd followed the gesture of the Egyptian, and beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapor shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the trunk, blackness—the branches, fire!—a fire that shifted and wavered in its hues with every moment, now fiercely luminous, now of a dull and dying red, that again blazed terrifically forth with intolerable glare!
There was a dead, heart-sunken silence—through which there suddenly broke the roar of the lion, which was echoed back from within the building by the sharper and fiercer yells of its fellow-beast. Dread seers were they of the Burden of the Atmosphere, and wild prophets of the wrath to come!
Then there arose on high the universal shrieks of women; the men stared at each other, but were dumb. At that moment they felt the earth shake beneath their feet; the walls of the theatre trembled: and, beyond in the distance, they heard the crash of falling roofs; an instant more and the mountain-cloud seemed to roll towards them, dark and rapid, like a torrent; at the same time, it cast forth from its bosom a shower of ashes mixed with vast fragments of burning stone! Over the crushing vines—over the desolate streets—over the amphitheatre itself—far and wide—with many a mighty splash in the agitated sea—fell that awful shower!
No longer thought the crowd of justice or of Arbaces; safety for themselves was their sole thought. Each turned to fly—each dashing, pressing, crushing, against the other. Trampling recklessly over the fallen—amidst groans, and oaths, and prayers, and sudden shrieks, the enormous crowd vomited itself forth through the numerous passages. Whither should they fly? Some, anticipating a second earthquake, hastened to their homes to load themselves with their more costly goods, and escape while it was yet time; others, dreading the showers of ashes that now fell fast, torrent upon torrent, over the streets, rushed under the roofs of the nearest houses, or temples, or sheds—shelter of any kind—for protection from the terrors of the open air. But darker, and larger, and mightier, spread the cloud above them. It was a sudden and more ghastly Night rushing upon the realm of Noon!
THE CELL OF THE PRISONER AND THE DEN OF THE DEAD. GRIEF UNCONSCIOUS OF HORROR.
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.
CALENUS AND BURBO. DIOMED AND CLODIUS. THE GIRL OF THE AMPHITHEATRE AND JULIA.
THE sudden catastrophe which had, as it were, riven the very bonds of society, and left prisoner and jailer alike free, had soon rid Calenus of the guards to whose care the praetor had consigned him. And when the darkness and the crowd separated the priest from his attendants, he hastened with trembling steps towards the temple of his goddess. As he crept along, and ere the darkness was complete, he felt himself suddenly caught by the robe, and a voice muttered in his ear:
'Hist!—Calenus!—an awful hour!'
'Ay! by my father's head! Who art thou?—thy face is dim, and thy voice is strange.
'Not know thy Burbo?—fie!'
'Gods!—how the darkness gathers! Ho, ho!—by yon terrific mountain, what sudden blazes of lightning!'—How they dart and quiver! Hades is loosed on earth!'
'Tush!—thou believest not these things, Calenus! Now is the time to make our fortune!'
'Listen! Thy temple is full of gold and precious mummeries!—let us load ourselves with them, and then hasten to the sea and embark! None will ever ask an account of the doings of this day.'
'Burbo, thou art right! Hush, and follow me into the temple. Who cares now—who sees now—whether thou art a priest or not? Follow, and we will share.'
In the precincts of the temple were many priests gathered around the altars, praying, weeping, grovelling in the dust. Impostors in safety, they were not the less superstitious in danger! Calenus passed them, and entered the chamber yet to be seen in the south side of the court. Burbo followed him—the priest struck a light. Wine and viands strewed the table; the remains of a sacrificial feast.
'A man who has hungered forty-eight hours,' muttered Calenus, 'has an appetite even in such a time.' He seized on the food, and devoured it greedily. Nothing could perhaps, be more unnaturally horrid than the selfish baseness of these villains; for there is nothing more loathsome than the valor of avarice. Plunder and sacrilege while the pillars of the world tottered to and fro! What an increase to the terrors of nature can be made by the vices of man!
'Wilt thou never have done?' said Burbo, impatiently; 'thy face purples and thine eyes start already.'
'It is not every day one has such a right to be hungry. Oh, Jupiter! what sound is that?—the hissing of fiery water! What! does the cloud give rain as well as flame! Ha!—what! shrieks? And, Burbo, how silent all is now! Look forth!'
Amidst the other horrors, the mighty mountain now cast up columns of boiling water. Blent and kneaded with the half-burning ashes, the streams fell like seething mud over the streets in frequent intervals. And full, where the priests of Isis had now cowered around the altars, on which they had vainly sought to kindle fires and pour incense, one of the fiercest of those deadly torrents, mingled with immense fragments of scoria, had poured its rage. Over the bended forms of the priests it dashed: that cry had been of death—that silence had been of eternity! The ashes—the pitchy streams—sprinkled the altars, covered the pavement, and half concealed the quivering corpses of the priests!
'They are dead,' said Burbo, terrified for the first time, and hurrying back into the cell. 'I thought not the danger was so near and fatal.'
The two wretches stood staring at each other—you might have heard their hearts beat! Calenus, the less bold by nature, but the more griping, recovered first.
'We must to our task, and away!' he said, in a low whisper, frightened at his own voice. He stepped to the threshold, paused, crossed over the heated floor and his dead brethren to the sacred chapel, and called to Burbo to follow. But the gladiator quaked, and drew back.
'So much the better,' thought Calenus; 'the more will be my booty.' Hastily he loaded himself with the more portable treasures of the temple; and thinking no more of his comrade, hurried from the sacred place. A sudden flash of lightning from the mount showed to Burbo, who stood motionless at the threshold, the flying and laden form of the priest. He took heart; he stepped forth to join him, when a tremendous shower of ashes fell right before his feet. The gladiator shrank back once more. Darkness closed him in. But the shower continued fast—fast; its heaps rose high and suffocatingly—deathly vapors steamed from them. The wretch gasped for breath—he sought in despair again to fly—the ashes had blocked up the threshold—he shrieked as his feet shrank from the boiling fluid. How could he escape? he could not climb to the open space; nay, were he able, he could not brave its horrors. It were best to remain in the cells, protected, at least, from the fatal air. He sat down and clenched his teeth. By degrees, the atmosphere from without—stifling and venomous—crept into the chamber. He could endure it no longer. His eyes, glaring round, rested on a sacrificial axe, which some priest had left in the chamber: he seized it. With the desperate strength of his gigantic arm, he attempted to hew his way through the walls.
Meanwhile, the streets were already thinned; the crowd had hastened to disperse itself under shelter; the ashes began to fill up the lower parts of the town; but, here and there, you heard the steps of fugitives cranching them warily, or saw their pale and haggard faces by the blue glare of the lightning, or the more unsteady glare of torches, by which they endeavored to steer their steps. But ever and anon, the boiling water, or the straggling ashes, mysterious and gusty winds, rising and dying in a breath, extinguished these wandering lights, and with them the last living hope of those who bore them.
In the street that leads to the gate of Herculaneum, Clodius now bent his perplexed and doubtful way. 'If I can gain the open country,' thought he, 'doubtless there will be various vehicles beyond the gate, and Herculaneum is not far distant. Thank Mercury! I have little to lose, and that little is about me!'
'Holla!—help there—help!' cried a querulous and frightened voice. 'I have fallen down—my torch has gone out—my slaves have deserted me. I am Diomed—the rich Diomed—ten thousand sesterces to him who helps me!'
At the same moment, Clodius felt himself caught by the feet. 'Ill fortune to thee—let me go, fool,' said the gambler.
'Oh, help me up!—give me thy hand!'
'Is this Clodius? I know the voice! Whither fliest thou?'
'Blessed be the gods! our way is the same, then, as far as the gate. Why not take refuge in my villa? Thou knowest the long range of subterranean cellars beneath the basement—that shelter, what shower can penetrate?'
'You speak well,' said Clodius musingly. 'And by storing the cellar with food, we can remain there even some days, should these wondrous storms endure so long.'
'Oh, blessed be he who invented gates to a city!' cried Diomed. 'See!—they have placed a light within yon arch: by that let us guide our steps.'
The air was now still for a few minutes: the lamp from the gate streamed out far and clear: the fugitives hurried on—they gained the gate—they passed by the Roman sentry; the lightning flashed over his livid face and polished helmet, but his stern features were composed even in their awe! He remained erect and motionless at his post. That hour itself had not animated the machine of the ruthless majesty of Rome into the reasoning and self-acting man. There he stood, amidst the crashing elements: he had not received the permission to desert his station and escape.
Diomed and his companion hurried on, when suddenly a female form rushed athwart their way. It was the girl whose ominous voice had been raised so often and so gladly in anticipation of 'the merry show'.
'Oh, Diomed!' she cried, 'shelter! shelter! See'—pointing to an infant clasped to her breast—'see this little one!—it is mine!—the child of shame! I have never owned it till this hour. But now I remember I am a mother! I have plucked it from the cradle of its nurse: she had fled! Who could think of the babe in such an hour, but she who bore it? Save it! save it!'
'Curses on thy shrill voice! Away, harlot!' muttered Clodius between his ground teeth.
'Nay, girl,' said the more humane Diomed; 'follow if thou wilt. This way—this way—to the vaults!'
They hurried on—they arrived at the house of Diomed—they laughed aloud as they crossed the threshold, for they deemed the danger over.
Diomed ordered his slaves to carry down into the subterranean gallery, before described, a profusion of food and oil for lights; and there Julia, Clodius, the mother and her babe, the greater part of the slaves, and some frightened visitors and clients of the neighborhood, sought their shelter.
THE PROGRESS OF THE DESTRUCTION.
THE cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day, had now settled into a solid and impenetrable mass. It resembled less even the thickest gloom of a night in the open air than the close and blind darkness of some narrow room. But in proportion as the blackness gathered, did the lightnings around Vesuvius increase in their vivid and scorching glare. Nor was their horrible beauty confined to the usual hues of fire; no rainbow ever rivalled their varying and prodigal dyes. Now brightly blue as the most azure depth of a southern sky—now of a livid and snakelike green, darting restlessly to and fro as the folds of an enormous serpent—now of a lurid and intolerable crimson, gushing forth through the columns of smoke, far and wide, and lighting up the whole city from arch to arch—then suddenly dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of their own life!
In the pauses of the showers, you heard the rumbling of the earth beneath, and the groaning waves of the tortured sea; or, lower still, and audible but to the watch of intensest fear, the grinding and hissing murmur of the escaping gases through the chasms of the distant mountain. Sometimes the cloud appeared to break from its solid mass, and, by the lightning, to assume quaint and vast mimicries of human or of monster shapes, striding across the gloom, hurtling one upon the other, and vanishing swiftly into the turbulent abyss of shade; so that, to the eyes and fancies of the affrighted wanderers, the unsubstantial vapors were as the bodily forms of gigantic foes—the agents of terror and of death.
The ashes in many places were already knee-deep; and the boiling showers which came from the steaming breath of the volcano forced their way into the houses, bearing with them a strong and suffocating vapor. In some places, immense fragments of rock, hurled upon the house roofs, bore down along the streets masses of confused ruin, which yet more and more, with every hour, obstructed the way; and, as the day advanced, the motion of the earth was more sensibly felt—the footing seemed to slide and creep—nor could chariot or litter be kept steady, even on the most level ground.
Sometimes the huger stones striking against each other as they fell, broke into countless fragments, emitting sparks of fire, which caught whatever was combustible within their reach; and along the plains beyond the city the darkness was now terribly relieved; for several houses, and even vineyards, had been set on flames; and at various intervals the fires rose suddenly and fiercely against the solid gloom. To add to this partial relief of the darkness, the citizens had, here and there, in the more public places, such as the porticoes of temples and the entrances to the forum, endeavored to place rows of torches; but these rarely continued long; the showers and the winds extinguished them, and the sudden darkness into which their sudden birth was converted had something in it doubly terrible and doubly impressing on the impotence of human hopes, the lesson of despair.
Frequently, by the momentary light of these torches, parties of fugitives encountered each other, some hurrying towards the sea, others flying from the sea back to the land; for the ocean had retreated rapidly from the shore—an utter darkness lay over it, and upon its groaning and tossing waves the storm of cinders and rock fell without the protection which the streets and roofs afforded to the land. Wild—haggard—ghastly with supernatural fears, these groups encountered each other, but without the leisure to speak, to consult, to advise; for the showers fell now frequently, though not continuously, extinguishing the lights, which showed to each band the deathlike faces of the other, and hurrying all to seek refuge beneath the nearest shelter. The whole elements of civilization were broken up. Ever and anon, by the flickering lights, you saw the thief hastening by the most solemn authorities of the law, laden with, and fearfully chuckling over, the produce of his sudden gains. If, in the darkness, wife was separated from husband, or parent from child, vain was the hope of reunion. Each hurried blindly and confusedly on. Nothing in all the various and complicated machinery of social life was left save the primal law of self-preservation!
Through this awful scene did the Athenian wade his way, accompanied by Ione and the blind girl. Suddenly, a rush of hundreds, in their path to the sea, swept by them. Nydia was torn from the side of Glaucus, who, with Ione, was borne rapidly onward; and when the crowd (whose forms they saw not, so thick was the gloom) were gone, Nydia was still separated from their side. Glaucus shouted her name. No answer came. They retraced their steps—in vain: they could not discover her—it was evident she had been swept along some opposite direction by the human current. Their friend, their preserver, was lost! And hitherto Nydia had been their guide. Her blindness rendered the scene familiar to her alone. Accustomed, through a perpetual night, to thread the windings of the city, she had led them unerringly towards the sea-shore, by which they had resolved to hazard an escape. Now, which way could they wend? all was rayless to them—a maze without a clue. Wearied, despondent, bewildered, they, however, passed along, the ashes falling upon their heads, the fragmentary stones dashing up in sparkles before their feet.
'Alas! alas!' murmured Ione, 'I can go no farther; my steps sink among the scorching cinders. Fly, dearest!—beloved, fly! and leave me to my fate!'
'Hush, my betrothed! my bride! Death with thee is sweeter than life without thee! Yet, whither—oh! whither, can we direct ourselves through the gloom? Already it seems that we have made but a circle, and are in the very spot which we quitted an hour ago.'
'O gods! yon rock—see, it hath riven the roof before us! It is death to move through the streets!'
'Blessed lightning! See, Ione—see! the portico of the Temple of Fortune is before us. Let us creep beneath it; it will protect us from the showers.'
He caught his beloved in his arms, and with difficulty and labor gained the temple. He bore her to the remoter and more sheltered part of the portico, and leaned over her, that he might shield her, with his own form, from the lightning and the showers! The beauty and the unselfishness of love could hallow even that dismal time!
'Who is there?' said the trembling and hollow voice of one who had preceded them in their place of refuge. 'Yet, what matters?—the crush of the ruined world forbids to us friends or foes.'
Ione turned at the sound of the voice, and, with a faint shriek, cowered again beneath the arms of Glaucus: and he, looking in the direction of the voice, beheld the cause of her alarm. Through the darkness glared forth two burning eyes—the lightning flashed and lingered athwart the temple—and Glaucus, with a shudder, perceived the lion to which he had been doomed couched beneath the pillars—and, close beside it, unwitting of the vicinity, lay the giant form of him who had accosted them—the wounded gladiator, Niger.
That lightning had revealed to each other the form of beast and man; yet the instinct of both was quelled. Nay, the lion crept nearer and nearer to the gladiator, as for companionship; and the gladiator did not recede or tremble. The revolution of Nature had dissolved her lighter terrors as well as her wonted ties.
While they were thus terribly protected, a group of men and women, bearing torches, passed by the temple. They were of the congregation of the Nazarenes; and a sublime and unearthly emotion had not, indeed, quelled their awe, but it had robbed awe of fear. They had long believed, according to the error of the early Christians, that the Last Day was at hand; they imagined now that the Day had come.
'Woe! woe!' cried, in a shrill and piercing voice, the elder at their head. 'Behold! the Lord descendeth to judgment! He maketh fire come down from heaven in the sight of men! Woe! woe! ye strong and mighty! Woe to ye of the fasces and the purple! Woe to the idolater and the worshipper of the beast! Woe to ye who pour forth the blood of saints, and gloat over the death-pangs of the sons of God! Woe to the harlot of the sea!—woe! woe!'
And with a loud and deep chorus, the troop chanted forth along the wild horrors of the air, 'Woe to the harlot of the sea!—woe! woe!'
The Nazarenes paced slowly on, their torches still flickering in the storm, their voices still raised in menace and solemn warning, till, lost amid the windings in the streets, the darkness of the atmosphere and the silence of death again fell over the scene.
There was one of the frequent pauses in the showers, and Glaucus encouraged Ione once more to proceed. Just as they stood, hesitating, on the last step of the portico, an old man, with a bag in his right hand and leaning upon a youth, tottered by. The youth bore a torch. Glaucus recognized the two as father and son—miser and prodigal.
'Father,' said the youth, 'if you cannot move more swiftly, I must leave you, or we both perish!'
'Fly, boy, then, and leave thy sire!'
'But I cannot fly to starve; give me thy bag of gold!' And the youth snatched at it.
'Wretch! wouldst thou rob thy father?'
'Ay! who can tell the tale in this hour? Miser, perish!'
The boy struck the old man to the ground, plucked the bag from his relaxing hand, and fled onward with a shrill yell.
'Ye gods!' cried Glaucus: 'are ye blind, then, even in the dark? Such crimes may well confound the guiltless with the guilty in one common ruin. Ione, on!—on!'
ARBACES ENCOUNTERS GLAUCUS AND IONE.
ADVANCING, as men grope for escape in a dungeon, Ione and her lover continued their uncertain way. At the moments when the volcanic lightnings lingered over the streets, they were enabled, by that awful light, to steer and guide their progress: yet, little did the view it presented to them cheer or encourage their path. In parts, where the ashes lay dry and uncommixed with the boiling torrents, cast upward from the mountain at capricious intervals, the surface of the earth presented a leprous and ghastly white. In other places, cinder and rock lay matted in heaps, from beneath which emerged the half-hid limbs of some crushed and mangled fugitive. The groans of the dying were broken by wild shrieks of women's terror—now near, now distant—which, when heard in the utter darkness, were rendered doubly appalling by the crushing sense of helplessness and the uncertainty of the perils around; and clear and distinct through all were the mighty and various noises from the Fatal Mountain; its rushing winds; its whirling torrents; and, from time to time, the burst and roar of some more fiery and fierce explosion. And ever as the winds swept howling along the street, they bore sharp streams of burning dust, and such sickening and poisonous vapors, as took away, for the instant, breath and consciousness, followed by a rapid revulsion of the arrested blood, and a tingling sensation of agony trembling through every nerve and fibre of the frame.
'Oh, Glaucus! my beloved! my own!—take me to thy arms! One embrace! let me feel thy arms around me—and in that embrace let me die—I can no more!'
'For my sake, for my life—courage, yet, sweet Ione—my life is linked with thine: and see—torches—this way! Lo! how they brave the Wind! Ha! they live through the storm—doubtless, fugitives to the sea! we will join them.'
As if to aid and reanimate the lovers, the winds and showers came to a sudden pause; the atmosphere was profoundly still—the mountain seemed at rest, gathering, perhaps, fresh fury for its next burst; the torch-bearers moved quickly on. 'We are nearing the sea,' said, in a calm voice, the person at their head. 'Liberty and wealth to each slave who survives this day! Courage! I tell you that the gods themselves have assured me of deliverance. On!'
Redly and steadily the torches flashed full on the eyes of Glaucus and Ione, who lay trembling and exhausted on his bosom. Several slaves were bearing, by the light, panniers and coffers, heavily laden; in front of them—a drawn sword in his hand—towered the lofty form of Arbaces.
'By my fathers!' cried the Egyptian, 'Fate smiles upon me even through these horrors, and, amidst the dreadest aspects of woe and death, bodes me happiness and love. Away, Greek! I claim my ward, Ione!'
'Traitor and murderer!' cried Glaucus, glaring upon his foe, 'Nemesis hath guided thee to my revenge!—a just sacrifice to the shades of Hades, that now seem loosed on earth. Approach—touch but the hand of Ione, and thy weapon shall be as a reed—I will tear thee limb from limb!'
Suddenly, as he spoke, the place became lighted with an intense and lurid glow. Bright and gigantic through the darkness, which closed around it like the walls of hell, the mountain shone—a pile of fire! Its summit seemed riven in two; or rather, above its surface there seemed to rise two monster shapes, each confronting each, as Demons contending for a world. These were of one deep blood-red hue of fire, which lighted up the whole atmosphere far and wide; but, below, the nether part of the mountain was still dark and shrouded, save in three places, adown which flowed, serpentine and irregular, rivers of the molten lava. Darkly red through the profound gloom of their banks, they flowed slowly on, as towards the devoted city. Over the broadest there seemed to spring a cragged and stupendous arch, from which, as from the jaws of hell, gushed the sources of the sudden Phlegethon. And through the stilled air was heard the rattling of the fragments of rock, hurtling one upon another as they were borne down the fiery cataracts—darkening, for one instant, the spot where they fell, and suffused the next, in the burnished hues of the flood along which they floated!
The slaves shrieked aloud, and, cowering, hid their faces. The Egyptian himself stood transfixed to the spot, the glow lighting up his commanding features and jewelled robes. High behind him rose a tall column that supported the bronze statue of Augustus; and the imperial image seemed changed to a shape of fire!
With his left hand circled round the form of Ione—with his right arm raised in menace, and grasping the stilus which was to have been his weapon in the arena, and which he still fortunately bore about him, with his brow knit, his lips apart, the wrath and menace of human passions arrested as by a charm, upon his features, Glaucus fronted the Egyptian!
Arbaces turned his eyes from the mountain—they rested on the form of Glaucus! He paused a moment: 'Why,' he muttered, 'should I hesitate? Did not the stars foretell the only crisis of imminent peril to which I was subjected?—Is not that peril past?'
'The soul,' cried he aloud, 'can brave the wreck of worlds and the wrath of imaginary gods! By that soul will I conquer to the last! Advance, slaves!—Athenian, resist me, and thy blood be on thine own head! Thus, then, I regain Ione!'
He advanced one step—it was his last on earth! The ground shook beneath him with a convulsion that cast all around upon its surface. A simultaneous crash resounded through the city, as down toppled many a roof and pillar!—the lightning, as if caught by the metal, lingered an instant on the Imperial Statue—then shivered bronze and column! Down fell the ruin, echoing along the street, and riving the solid pavement where it crashed!—The prophecy of the stars was fulfilled!
The sound—the shock, stunned the Athenian for several moments. When he recovered, the light still illuminated the scene—the earth still slid and trembled beneath! Ione lay senseless on the ground; but he saw her not yet—his eyes were fixed upon a ghastly face that seemed to emerge, without limbs or trunk, from the huge fragments of the shattered column—a face of unutterable pain, agony, and despair! The eyes shut and opened rapidly, as if sense were not yet fled; the lips quivered and grinned—then sudden stillness and darkness fell over the features, yet retaining that aspect of horror never to be forgotten!
So perished the wise Magician—the great Arbaces—the Hermes of the Burning Belt—the last of the royalty of Egypt!
THE DESPAIR OF THE LOVERS. THE CONDITION OF THE MULTITUDE.
GLAUCUS turned in gratitude but in awe, caught Ione once more in his arms, and fled along the street, that was yet intensely luminous. But suddenly a duller shade fell over the air. Instinctively he turned to the mountain, and beheld! one of the two gigantic crests, into which the summit had been divided, rocked and wavered to and fro; and then, with a sound, the mightiness of which no language can describe, it fell from its burning base, and rushed, an avalanche of fire, down the sides of the mountain! At the same instant gushed forth a volume of blackest smoke—rolling on, over air, sea, and earth.
Another—and another—and another shower of ashes, far more profuse than before, scattered fresh desolation along the streets. Darkness once more wrapped them as a veil; and Glaucus, his bold heart at last quelled and despairing, sank beneath the cover of an arch, and, clasping Ione to his heart—a bride on that couch of ruin—resigned himself to die.
Meanwhile Nydia, when separated by the throng from Glaucus and Ione, had in vain endeavored to regain them. In vain she raised that plaintive cry so peculiar to the blind; it was lost amidst a thousand shrieks of more selfish terror. Again and again she returned to the spot where they had been divided—to find her companions gone, to seize every fugitive—to inquire of Glaucus—to be dashed aside in the impatience of distraction. Who in that hour spared one thought to his neighbor? Perhaps in scenes of universal horror, nothing is more horrid than the unnatural selfishness they engender. At length it occurred to Nydia, that as it had been resolved to seek the sea-shore for escape, her most probable chance of rejoining her companions would be to persevere in that direction. Guiding her steps, then, by the staff which she always carried, she continued, with incredible dexterity, to avoid the masses of ruin that encumbered the path—to thread the streets—and unerringly (so blessed now was that accustomed darkness, so afflicting in ordinary life!) to take the nearest direction to the sea-side.
Poor girl!—her courage was beautiful to behold!—and Fate seemed to favor one so helpless! The boiling torrents touched her not, save by the general rain which accompanied them; the huge fragments of scoria shivered the pavement before and beside her, but spared that frail form: and when the lesser ashes fell over her, she shook them away with a slight tremor,' and dauntlessly resumed her course.