Almost ere he was aware he found himself opposite the entrance of the painter's habitation; a shudder, like a death-chill, shot through his frame. He applied his key. A distant gleam, a dim lurid light, seemed to quiver before him. He heard the quick jar, the withdrawing bolt, that gave him admittance, as though it were a spectral voice warning him to desist.
The unknown dangers he anticipated, rendered more terrific by their vague indefinite character, were enough to appal a stouter bosom. De Vessey would have faced and defied earthly perils, but these were almost beyond his fortitude to endure. Love, however, gave excitement, if not courage, and he resolved either to succeed or perish in the attempt. The stairs were partially illumined by an uncertain glimmer from a narrow window into the street. He felt his way, and every step sent the life-blood curdling to his heart. He reached the topmost stair; laid one hand on the latch. He listened; all was still save the hollow gusts that rumbled round the dwelling.
With a feeling somewhat akin to desperation he entered. A lamp, yet burning, emitted a feeble glare, but was well-nigh spent, giving a more dismal aspect to this lonely chamber. It was apparently unoccupied. The chair, the black funeral pall left by the officers of justice over the pallet, the mysterious cabinet, the desk where the painter usually sat, all remained undisturbed. De Vessey's attention was more particularly directed towards the cabinet; there alone, according to his instructions, were the means of deliverance. A cold, clammy perspiration, a freezing shiver, came upon him as he approached. He laid one hand on the latch; it resisted as before. He tried force, a loud groan was heard in the chamber. Every fibre of his frame seemed to grow rigid; every limb stiffened with horror; and he drew back.
This was a sorry beginning to the adventure, and he inwardly repented of his rashness. Looking round in extreme agony, his eyes rested on the black pall. Could it be, or was it from the expiring glimmer of the lamp? The drapery appeared to move. Another and a deeper groan! De Vessey for a space was unable to move; but his courage came apace, inasmuch as it was some relief, and a diversion from the awful mysteries of that grim cabinet. He approached the pallet hastily, throwing off the heavy coverlet. The recumbent body was yet beneath, but convulsed, as though struggling to free itself from an oppressive burden. De Vessey watched, while his blood froze with terror. Gradually these convulsive movements extended to the features. The lips quivered as though essaying to speak; the eye-balls rolling rapidly under their lids. A slight flush dawned upon the cheek; the hands were tightly closed, and another groan preceded one desperate attempt to throw off the load which prevented returning animation. At length the eyes opened with a ghastly stare; but evidently conveying no outward impression to the inward sense. With a loud shriek the body started up; then, uttering a wild and piercing cry, rolled on the floor, foaming and struggling for life as though with some powerful adversary.
"Save me!—save me!" was uttered in a tone so harrowing and dreadful, more than mortal agony, that De Vessey would have fled, but his limbs refused their office.
"He strangles me! Fiend—have—have mercy! Wilt thou not? Oh, mercy, mercy, Heaven!" His senses, though evidently bewildered, resumed their functions. With a glare of intense anguish he appeared as though supplicating help and deliverance.
"Who art thou?" was the first inquiry and symptom of returning reason. "I know thee, De Vessey. But why art thou here? Another victim. Yes, to torture me. Where am I? In my own chamber! Oh—that horrid cabinet! Yet—yet these cruel torments. Will they never end?"
De Vessey immediately perceived there was no delusion; the mortal form of the artist was really before him. Terrible though it were, yet it was a relief to have companionship with his kind, a being of flesh and blood beside him. He might now peradventure accomplish his task. Providence, maybe, had opened a way for his deliverance, and hope once more dawned on his spirit. He helped the miserable artist to regain his couch, and sought to soothe him, beseeching the helpless victim not to give way to frenzy, doubtless resulting from his strange and emaciated condition. A miracle or a spell had been wrought for his resuscitation; but the events of the last few hours were alike enigmas, beyond the common operations of nature to explain.
"Yesterday I attempted suicide," said the artist, "taking poison to escape a life insupportable to me. Fain would I have broken the chain which binds me to this miserable existence. But yon tyrant hath given me a charmed life. I cannot even die!"
"Thy body was dragged from the Seine."
"How?" inquired the artist, with an incredulous look.
"And exposed this morning in the Morgue," continued De Vessey.
"When will my sufferings cease? How have I prayed for deliverance from this infernal thraldom!"
"Yon deceiver hath doubtless thrown thee into the river, and supposing thou wert dead, he designs me to supply thy place; to carry on the dark mystery of iniquity, a glimpse of which hath already been revealed."
"Would that I had been left to perish—that my doom were ended. Avarice—ambition—how enslaved are your victims! How have I longed for my miserable cottage, my poverty, my obscurity—cold and pinching want, but a quiet conscience to season my scanty meal! I bartered all for gold, for fame and—misery! A cruel bondage! compared to which I could envy the meanest thing that crawls on this abject earth. In my trance I dreamed of green fields and babbling streams; of my brethren, my playmates, my days of innocence and sport, when all was freshness and anticipation—life one bright vista beyond, opening to sunny regions of rapture and delight. And now, what am I?—a wretch, degraded, undone—a spectacle of misery beyond what human thought can conceive. Doomed to years, ages it may be, of woe—to scenes of horror such as tongue ne'er told, and even imagination might scarce endure, and my miseries but a foretaste of that hereafter!"
Here the guilty victim writhed in a paroxysm of agony; his veins swollen almost to bursting. Whether real or imaginary, whether a victim to insanity or of some supernatural agent, its influence was not the less terrible in its effects. Starting suddenly from his grovelling posture, he cried, fixing his eyes on De Vessey with a searching glance—
"What brings thee hither?"
"Leonora is in jeopardy by your spells. I seek her deliverance."
"She is beyond rescue. Leonora da Rimini is THE SKELETON'S BRIDE."
Here the painter threw such a repulsive glance towards the cabinet that the cavalier shrank back as though expecting some grisly spectre from its portals; yet, himself the subject of an extraordinary fascination, he could not withdraw his gaze.
"Fly, fly, or thou art lost! My tormentor will be here anon—I would have saved her, and he fixed his burning gripe here, I feel it still; not a night passes that he comes not hither. Away! shouldest thou meet him thy doom is fixed, and for ever. I would not that another fell into his toils. Couldest thou know, ay, but as a whisper, the secrets of this prison-house, thy spirit would melt, thy flesh would shrink as though the hot wind of the desert had passed over it. What I have endured, and what I must endure, are alike unutterable."
"Thy keeper comes not to-night. He hath sent me to this chamber of death instead. He knows not thou art alive."
"Thee!—to—but I must not reveal; my tongue cleaves to my mouth. Nay, nay, it cannot be; none but a fiend could do his behest. Away! for thy life, away!"
De Vessey related the events of the last few hours. The artist ruminated awhile, then abruptly exclaimed—
"He hath some diabolical design thereupon which I am not yet able to fathom. That it is for thine undoing, Sir Knight, for thy misery here and hereafter, doubt not. Thou hast promised, but not yet offered him a victim. Thus far thou art safe; but he will pursue thee; and think not to escape his vengeance. How to proceed is beyond my counsel. Should midnight come, thou wouldest see horrors in this chamber that might quail the stoutest heart. Thou art bereft of life or reason if thou tarry."
"I leave not without an attempt, even should I fail, to wrench her, who is dearer to me than either, from that demon's grasp. I will not hence alone."
"Alas! I fear there is little hope; yet shall he not escape yonder prison before to-morrow. Even his arts cannot convey him through its walls; the magician's body, if such he be, is subject to like impediments with our own. This night, for good or ill, is thine."
"To work, then, to work," said De Vessey, as though inspired with new energy, "to the rescue, and by this good cross," kissing the handle of his sword, "I defy ye!"
By main force he attempted, and in the end tore open the door of the cabinet. The grinning skeleton was before him, the miniature in its grasp. A moment's pause. The cavalier carefully surveyed his prize. Suspended by an iron chain, the links entwined round its bony arm, rendered the picture difficult, if not impossible, to detach without touching the limbs. Gathering fresh courage from the countenance and smile of his beloved, he snatched the portrait, but the wearer was too tenacious of the charmed treasure, and resisted his utmost efforts. He thought a savage, a malicious grin crept upon his features. A smile more than usually hideous mocked him. From those hollow sockets too, or his imagination played strange antics, a faint glare shot forth. A dizzy terror crept over him. His brain reeled. His energies were becoming prostrate; and unless one desperate attempt could be made, all hopes of rescue were past. He sought the ebony wand, but forgetful or incautious, laid hold of the chain which encircled the skeleton's wrist. A bell answered to the pressure,—a deep hollow reverberation, like a death-knell, in his ear.
"Hark! that iron tongue—lost—lost! Oh! mercy, mercy!" shrieked the death-painter, covering his eyes.
At this moment De Vessey heard a noise like the jarring of bolts and hinges. Ere he was aware the skeleton's arms were fastened round him; the doors closed; the floor gave way under his feet. He felt the pressure relaxing; he fell; the hissing wind rushed in his ears. Stunned with his fall, he lay for a while in the dark, scarcely able to move. It was not long ere he was able to grope about. Rotting carcases and bones met his touch—a noisome charnel-house gorged with human bodies in all the various stages of decay. His heart sickened with a fearful apprehension that he was left to perish by a lingering death, like those around him. Despair for the first time benumbed his faculties. His courage gave way at the dreadful anticipation, and he grasped the very carcase on which he trod for succour.
Suddenly, a loud yell burst above him. A blaze of burning timbers flashed forth—crackling, they hissed, and fell into the vault. Through an opening overhead he saw the skeleton seized by devouring flames. They twined, they clung round it. Their forky tongues licked the bones that appeared to writhe and crawl in living agony.
Soon the chain which held the portrait gave way, and it dropped at his feet unhurt. A shriek issued from the flaming cabinet, and he saw the painter with a burning torch above. A maniac joy lighted up his features; he shouted to De Vessey, and with frantic gestures beckoned that he should escape.
"If thou canst climb yonder stair," he cried, "before the flames cut off thy retreat, thou art safe. See, Leonora is already free. Haste—this way—there—there—now leap—mind thy footing—'tis too frail—creep round—those rafters are unbroken; another spring, and thou mayest reach them in safety."
The flames were close upon him. He was nigh suffocated. A perilous attempt; but at length he gained the upper floor, and his deliverer exclaimed—
"Thanks, thanks, he is safe! By this good hand, too, that wrought your misery. Oh! that a life of penitence and prayer might atone for my guilt. It was a thought inspired by Heaven, prompted me to set on fire that insatiate demon, to whom my taskmaster offered those wretched victims, and every month a bride, on pain of his own destruction. What might be the nature of that skeleton form, or their compact, thou canst neither know nor understand. Even I, though nightly witnessing horrors which have given to youth the aspect and decrepitude of age, cannot explain. A connection, if not inseparable, yet intimate as body and soul, existed between those demon-haunted bones and yon monster who sought and accomplished my ruin. What I have seen must not, cannot be told. My lips are for ever sealed. But the flames are fast gaining on us. Let us hasten ere they prevent our retreat. The whole fabric will shortly be enveloped, and every record of this diabolical confederacy consumed. Go to thy lady-love. She is recovered, and as one newly-awakened from some terrific dream. With the earliest dawn hie thee to the prison lest he escape. Let him be instantly secured. When summoned, I will not fail to confront, to denounce the wretch. He cannot penetrate yonder walls save by fraud or stratagem. How I have escaped death is one of the mysteries which time perchance may never develop. One might fancy the cunning leech who supplied the drug did play me false. Instead of poison, mayhap, one of those potions of which we have heard, that so benumb and stupify the faculties that for a space they mimic death, nor can anything rouse or recover from its influence until the appointed time be past."
They hurried away as he spoke. De Vessey could scarcely wait until daylight. His first care was to secure the old sorcerer. He sought aid from the police, and, as far as might be, revealed the dreadful secret.
An immediate visit was made to the cell. On entering, its inmate was in bed—a scorched, a blackened corpse!
It may be supposed the lover was not long in attending on his mistress. She was free from disorder, and happily unconscious of what had passed during the interval, save that an ugly dream had troubled her. Nor was she aware that more than one night had elapsed. In a few days afterwards De Vessey led her to the altar.
The mystery was never fully penetrated. That imposture and partial insanity might be involved, and have the greatest share in its development, is beyond doubt; but they cannot explain the whole of these diabolical proceedings. That the powers of darkness may have power over the bodies of wicked and abandoned men cannot be denied.
Whether this narration discloses another instance of such mysterious agency our readers must determine.
What the painter knew was buried in eternal silence. The monks of La Trappe received a brother whose vows were never broken!
THE CRYSTAL GOBLET.
A TALE OF THE EMPEROR SEVERUS.
It was midnight—yet a light was burning in a small chamber situated in one of the narrowest and least frequented streets of Eboracum, then the metropolis of the world. York at that period being the residence of the Emperor Severus, his court and family were conveyed hither; and the government of the world transferred to an obscure island in the west, once the ultima Thuleǐ of civilisation, its native inhabitants hardly yet emerged from a state of barbarism, and addicted to the most gross and revolting superstitions.
A lamp of coarse earthenware was fastened on a bronze stand, having several beaks, and of a boat-like shape. Near it stood the oil-vase for replenishing, almost empty—while the wicks, charred and heavy with exuviae, looked as though for some time untrimmed. On the same table was a Greek and a Coptic manuscript, an inkhorn, and the half of a silver penny, the Roman symbolum. Breaking a peace of money as a keepsake between two friends was, even at that period, a very ancient custom. A brass rhombus, used by magicians, lay on a cathedra or easy chair, which stood as though suddenly pushed aside by its occupier in rising hastily from his studies. An iron chest was near, partly open, wherein papers and parchments lay tumbled about in apparent disorder. Vellum, so white and firm as to curl even with the warmth of the hand; purple skins emblazoned in gold and silver, and many others, of rare workmanship, were scattered about with unsparing profusion. It was evidently the study, the librarium of some distinguished person, and consisted of an inner chamber beyond the court, having one window near the roof, and another opening into a small garden behind. From the ceiling there hung a dried ape, a lizard, and several uncouth, unintelligible reptiles, put together in shapes that nature's most fantastic forms never displayed. Vases of ointments, and unguents of strange odours, stood in rows upon a marble slab on one side of the apartment. Scrinia, or caskets for the admission of rolls and writing materials, were deposited on shelves, forming a library of reference to the individual whose sanctum we are now describing: it was apparently undisturbed by any living occupant save a huge raven, now roosting on a wooden perch, his head buried under a glossy tissue of feathers, and to all appearance immovable as the grinning and hideous things that surrounded him. A magpie, confined in a cage above the door, was taught to salute those who entered with the word "chaire" (Greek letters transcribed) a Grecian custom greatly in vogue amongst the most opulent of the Romans.
Ere long there came a footstep and a gentle summons at the door. The bird gave the usual response; and straightway entered a stout muscular figure, wrapped in a chlamys, fastened on the shoulder with a richly-embossed fibula. Beneath was the usual light leathern cuirass, covered with scales of shining metal; the centre, over the abdomen, ornamented with a gorgon's head and other warlike devices; a short sword being stuck in his girdle. From the lowest part hung leathern straps, or lambrequins, highly wrought and embellished. He wore breeches or drawers reaching to the knees, and his feet and the lower part of the leg were covered with the cothurnus, a sort of traveller's half-boot. A sumptuous mantle, made of leopard skin, was thrown carelessly about his head, hardly concealing his features, for the folds, relaxing in some measure as he entered, showed a youthful countenance, yet dark and ferocious, indicating a character of daring and vindictive energy, and a disposition where forgiveness or remorse rarely tempered the fiercer passions. As he looked round the raven raised his head on a sudden, and peering at him with that curious and familiar eye so characteristic of the tribe, gave a loud and hollow croak, which again arrested the notice of the intruder.
"Most auspicious welcome truly, ill-omened bird. Is thy master visible?"
There was no reply; and the inquirer, after a cautious glance round the chamber, sat down, evidently disconcerted by this unexpected reception. Scarcely seated, he felt the clasp on his shoulder suddenly risen, as though by an intruder from behind. Looking round, he saw the raven with the bauble in his beak, hopping off with great alacrity to his perch. The magpie set up a loud scream, as though vexed he was not a participator in the spoil. The owner, angry at his loss, pursued the thief, who defied every attempt to regain it, getting far above his reach; ever and anon the same ominous croak sounding dismally through the gloom by which he was concealed. Finding it fruitless, the stranger gave up the pursuit, and again sat down, examining carelessly the papers which lay open for perusal. But it might seem these feathered guardians were entrusted with the care of their master's chamber during his absence.
"Beware!" said the same querulous voice that before accosted him. Looking up, he saw the magpie, his neck stretched to the utmost through the bars of his cage, and in the act of repeating the injunction.
"'Tis an ill augur to my suit," he muttered, hastily. "Destiny!" Starting up at the word, which he spoke aloud, he clenched his hand.
"The inexorable gods may decree, but would it not be worthy of my purpose to brave them; to render even fate itself subservient to me!"
He hurried to and fro across the chamber with an agitated step. Suddenly he stood still in the attitude of listening. He drew the folds of his mantle closer about his head, when, by another entrance, there approached a tall majestic figure, clad in dark vestments, who, without speaking, came near and stood before him. A veil of rich net-work fell gracefully below his mantle, being in that era the distinctive garb of soothsayers and diviners. His hair, for he was an Asiatic, was twisted in the shape of a mitre, investing his form with every advantage from outward appearances.
"I would know," said he, "by what right thou art at this untimely hour an intruder on my privacy?"
"By a will which even thou darest not disobey," was the answer.
"It is past midnight. Knowest thou of my long watching, and the dark portents of the stars?"
"Nay. But passing, I saw the door of the vestibule partly open. The fates are propitious. I crossed the court, intending to consult the most famous soothsayer in the emperor's dominions."
"Peradventure 'tis no accidental meeting. To-night I have read the stars, the book of heaven. Comest thou not, blind mortal, at their bidding?"
"I have neither skill nor knowledge in the art"——
The stranger hesitated, as though he had as lief the conversation was resumed by the diviner himself.
"Thy father. What of him?" said the Chaldean, with a look as though he had penetrated his inmost thoughts.
"True, 'tis mine errand," said the intruder. "But the event?"
"The augury is not complete!"
"Thine auguries are like my good fortune—long in compassing. The best augur, I trow, is this good steel. I would sooner trust it than the best thou canst bestow."
"Rash mortal! Impatience will be thy destruction. Listen!"
The raven hopped down upon his shoulder. A low guttural sound appeared to come from this ill-omened bird. The augur bent his ear. Sounds shaped themselves into something like articulation, and the following couplet was distinctly heard:—
"While the eagle is in his nest, the eaglet shall not prevail; Nor shall the eagle be smitten in his eyrie."
"Azor," said the warrior, clenching his sword, "these three times hast thou mocked me, and by the immortal gods thou diest!"
"Impious one! I could strike thee powerless as the dust thou treadest on. Give me the bauble," said he, addressing the raven. The bird immediately gave the clasp he had purloined into his master's hand.
"This shall witness between us," continued he. "Dare to lift thy hand, the very palace shall bear testimony to thy treason—that thou hast sought me for purposes too horrible even for thy tongue to utter. Hence! When least expected I may meet thee. If it had not been for thy mother's sake, and for my vow, the emperor ere this had been privy to it."
Stung with rage and disappointment, he put back his weapon, and with threats and imprecations departed.
On a couch inlaid with ivory and pearl, within a vaulted chamber in the Praetorian Palace of the royal city, lay the emperor, in a coverlid of rich stuff. Disease had crushed his body, but the indomitable spirit was unquenched. Tossing and disturbed, at length he started from his bed. Calling to his chamberlain, he demanded if there had not been footsteps in the apartment. The ruler of the world, whose nod could shake the nations, and whose word was the arbiter of life or death to millions of his fellow-men, lay here—startled at the passing of a sound, the falling of a shadow! His face, whose chief characteristic was power—that strength and determination of spirit which all acknowledge, and but few comprehend—was furrowed with deeper marks than care had wrought. Sixty years had moulded the steady and inflexible purpose of his soul in lines too palpable to be misunderstood. His beard was short and grizzled; and a swarthy hue, betraying his African birth, was now become sallow, and even sickly in the extreme; but an eagle eye still beamed in all its fierceness and rapacity from under his scanty brows. His nose was not of the Roman sort, like the beak of that royal bird, but thick and even clumsy, lacking that sharp and predacious intellect generally associated with forms of this description.
Such was Septimus Severus, then styled on a coin just struck "BRITANNICVS MAXIMVS," in commemoration of a great victory gained over the Caledonians, whom he had driven beyond Adrian's Wall. Though suffering from severe illness, he was carried in a horse-litter; and, marching from York at the head of his troops, penetrated almost to the extremity of the island, where he subdued that fierce and intractable nation the Scots. Returning, he left his son Caracalla to superintend the building of a stone wall across the island in place of the earthen ramparts called Adrian's; a structure, when completed, that effectually resisted the inroads of those barbarians for a considerable period.
He called a third time to Virius Lupus, one, the most confidential of his attendants, to whom many of the most important secrets of the state were entrusted.
"Thrice have I heard it, Virius. Again and again it seems to mock and elude my grasp." He paused, the officer yet listening with becoming reverence. The emperor continued, more like one whose thoughts had taken utterance than as if he were addressing the individual before him.
"When I led the Pannonian legions to victory; when Rome opened her gates at my command; when I fought my way through blood to the throne—I quailed not then! Now—satiated with power, careless of fame, the prospects of life closed, and for ever—when all that is left for me to do is to die—behold, I tremble at the shaking of a leaf! I start even at the footstep that awakes me!"
"Long live the emperor!" said the cringing secretary. Interrupting him, as he would have proceeded with the customary adulations, the emperor again continued as though hardly noticing his presence—
"Caracalla yet remains with the army. Once I censured the misguided clemency of Marcus, who by an act of justice might have prevented the miseries that his son Caligula brought upon the empire; and yet I, even I," said the haughty monarch, bitterly, "nourish the very weakness that in others I despise!"
He dashed away the sweat from his brow, ashamed of the weakness he could not quell.
"He hath sought your life," said the wily sycophant.
"He hath. Traitor! parricide! the distinctions he would have earned. But my better genius triumphed, and history hath been spared this infamy. It may be, this temporary exile from our court with the northern army shall tame his spirit to submission. My life or his, once the bitter alternative, may yet be avoided."
"But may not his presence with the army be impolitic, should he turn the weapon wherewith you have girded him to your own hurt?"
"'Tis an evil choice; whichever way I turn, mischief is before me."
"Were it not best that he be recalled?"
"What? To plot and practise against my life! To mount upon my reeking body to the throne! He will not reign with Geta. The proud boy disdains a divided empire. And was not mine own soul fashioned in the same mould? When Niger would have ruled in Syria, and Albinus in Britain, I scattered their legions to the winds, and levelled their hopes with their pride. 'Tis nature; and shall I, the author of his being, punish him for mine own gift?"
He raised himself on his couch. The fierce blaze of ambition broke the dark cloud of bodily infirmities, and the monarch and the tyrant again dilated his almost savage features.
The secretary, used to these fiery moods, stood awaiting his commands. The emperor, as though exhausted, sank down on his pillow, exclaiming—
"I have governed the world, but I cannot govern a wayward heart!"
Thus did he often lament, and provoke himself the more with these vain regrets; forgetting that, if he had exercised the same firmness in his private as public capacity, the government of his own house would have been easy as the government of the world.
"Virius Lupus, there is danger—and to-night. As I have told thee, the stars do betoken mischief. But the peril is at my threshold. Let Caracalla remain; so shall we avert his weapon. Should the assassin come, it will not be with the blow of a parricide. Thou mayest retire to thy couch, but first let the guards be doubled, the watchword and countersign changed. And, hark thee, tell the tribune that he look well to the tessera, and have the right count from the inspectors. Should despatches come from Rome, let the messenger have immediate audience."
Again the emperor stretched himself on the couch, and again his slumbers were interrupted. A murmur was heard along the halls and passages where the guards were stationed. The noise grew louder, approaching the very door of the royal chamber. The monarch started as from a dream, and the door at that moment opened. The Chaldean soothsayer stood before him.
"Azor!" said the emperor, "at this hour? What betides such unseemly greeting?"
"Caesar trembles on his throne; but the world quakes not! The angel of death is at thy door. Caracalla hath returned."
"Returned? Surely thy wits are disturbed. Caracalla! Ay, even yesterday, we had despatches from the camp."
"Howbeit, he is at thy threshold. The sound of his feet is behind me."
"Impossible! the mischief is not from him."
"Even now I looked in the crystal, and behold"——The soothsayer paused. Horror was gathering on his features. The light suspended above him began to quiver; and as it waved to and fro his countenance assumed a tremulous and distorted expression.
Severus watched the result with no little anxiety. The magician drew a crystal cup from his girdle. Looking in apparently with great alarm, he presented it at arm's length to the emperor, who beheld a milky cloud slowly undulating within the vessel.
"Take this," said the soothsayer, "and tell me what thou seest."
The monarch took it at his bidding. The cloud seemed to be clearing away, as the morning mist before the sun.
"I see nothing," said the emperor, "but a silver clasp at the bottom."
"And the owner?"
"As I live," said the astonished parent, drawing forth a curiously-embossed clasp from the goblet, and holding it out to the light, "this token of rare workmanship did the empress present to Caracalla ere he departed. Whence came it? and wherefore hast thou brought it hither?"
"A silent witness to my word. Within the hour thy son returns; and"——The seer's voice grew more ominous whilst he spake. "Beware! there's mischief in the wind. The raven scents his prey afar off!"
"If in this thou art a true prophet I will give thee largess; but if a lying spirit of divination possess thee, my power is swift to punish as to reward."
"I heed not either. Do I serve thee for lucre? Look thee, in less time than I would occupy in telling thee on't I could fill thy palace with gold and silver!—and do I covet thy paltry treasures? The kingdoms of this world are his whom I serve, and shall I seek thy perishing honours? Behold, I leave this precious goblet as my pledge. I must away. Thou shalt render it back on my return. I would not part with that treasure for the dominion of the Caesars. Beware thou let it not forth from thy sight, for there be genii who are bound to serve its possessor, and peradventure it shall give thee warning when evil approaches."
The soothsayer departed, and the emperor laid the crystal goblet on a table opposite his couch. He clapped his hands, and the chief secretary approached.
"What said our messenger from the north? Read again the despatch they brought yesterday."
The secretary drew forth a roll from his cabinet, and read as follows:—
"Again the supreme gods have granted victory to our legions. Favoured by the darkness and their boats, the barbarians attacked us from three separate points. Led on by Fingal and his warriors, whom beforetime we erroneously reported to be slain, they crossed over to the station where we had pitched our tents. But the Roman eagle was yet watchful. Though retreating behind our last defences, we left not the field until a thousand, the choicest of our foes, bit the dust. Morning showed us the red-haired chief and his bards, but they were departing, and their spears were glittering on the mountains."
"Enough!" said the emperor. "Caracalla tarries yet with the camp. Our person is not menaced by his hand. Prithee, send a brasier hither. The night is far spent, and slumber will not again visit these eyelids."
A bronze tripod was brought supported by sphinxes, the worship of Isis being a fashionable idolatry at that period. Charred wood was then placed in a round dish pierced with holes, and perfumes thrown in to correct the smell. The emperor commanded that he should be left alone. Covering his shoulders with a richly-embroidered mantle, he took from behind his pillow a Greek treatise on the occult sciences, to the study of which he was passionately addicted.
It is said of him by historians that he was guided by his skill in judicial astrology to the choice of the reigning empress, having lost his first wife when governor of the Lyonnese Gaul. Finding that a lady of Emesa in Syria, one Julia Domna, had what was termed "a royal nativity," he solicited and obtained her hand, thus making the prophecy the means of its accomplishment.
A woman of great beauty and strong natural acquirements, she was at the same time the patron of all that was noble and distinguished in the philosophy and literature of the age. It was even said that secretly she was a favourer of the Christians. Be this as it may, we do not find she ever became a professor of the faith.
Sleep, that capricious guest which comes unbidden but not invited, was just stealing over the monarch's eyelids when the roll fell from his grasp. The unexpected movement startled him. His eye fell on the bright crystal opposite. He thought a glimmer was moving in the glass. He remembered the words of the sage, and his eye was riveted on the mystic goblet. A sudden flash was reflected from it. He started forward, when a naked sword fell on the couch: the stroke he only escaped by having so accidentally changed his place! The glass had revealed the glitter of the blade behind him, and he was indebted to a few inches of space for his life!
Looking round, he beheld a masked figure preparing to repeat the stroke. Severus, with his usual courage and presence of mind, threw his mantle across the assassin's sword. He cried out, and the chamber was immediately filled with guards; but whether from treachery or inadvertence, the traitor was nowhere to be found. He had escaped, leaving his weapon entangled in the folds of the mantle. On examination, the emperor's surprise was visibly increased when he recognised the sword as one belonging to Caracalla! The soothsayer's prediction was apparently fulfilled. To the emperor's superstitious apprehensions the crystal goblet was charged with his safety. But lo! on being sought for, the charmed cup was gone!
* * * * *
The next morning, as the sun was just rising over the green wolds, and the fresh air came brisk and sharply on the traveller's cheek, a stranger was noticed loitering through the narrow streets of the imperial city. He had passed the great Galcarian or western gate, from which the statue of the reigning emperor on that memorable morning was found razed from its pedestal. The outer and inner faces of the gate were whitened for the writing of edicts and proclamations by the government scribes, and likewise for the public notices of minor import, these being daubed on the walls with various degrees of skill, in red or black pigments, according to the nature of the decrees that were issued by the praetor, and the caprice of the artist.
On that morning a number of idlers had assembled about the gate. The statue of the emperor, fallen prostrate, had been removed, and an edict promptly supplied, to the purport that an impious hand, having attempted the life of the monarch, a reward of one hundred thousand sestertia would be the price of his apprehension. Another reward of the like sum was offered for the discovery of a crystal goblet stolen from the emperor's chamber.
The individual we have just noticed wore the common sleeved tunic of coarse wool; over it was a cloak buckled on the right shoulder, the yarn being dyed in such wise that, when woven, it might resemble the skin of a brindled ox—such was the dress of the ancient Britons. His head was covered with a close cap, but his feet were naked; and the only weapon he bore was a two-handed sword, stuck in his girdle.
Ere he passed the gate it might be supposed that his business and credentials would have been rigidly scrutinised by the guards; but he merely showed a large signet-ring to the superior officer, and was immediately allowed to pass. He soon came to the wooden bridge over the river, now kept by a body of the Praetorian guards. Here, on attempting to pass, he was immediately seized. With an air of stupid or affected concern, the prisoner drew the same signet from his hand, the sight of which again procured him immediate access. The bridge was crossed, and after passing along the narrow winding streets he came to a small triumphal arch leading into the Forum. This was an area of but mean extent, surrounded by a colonnade, serving as a market for all sorts of wares, and the trades carried on under its several porticoes. The outer walls behind the columns were painted in compartments, black and red, and here a number of citizens were assembled. There was hurrying to and fro. Soldiers and messengers, even so early, were bustling about with ominous activity. The stranger looked on for a while with a vacant sort of curiosity, then, turning to the left hand, went forward towards the gate of the palace. On a corner of the building he saw another edict to the same purport as before. Near it was the announcement of a spectacle at the theatre, the gift of a wealthy patrician for the amusement and gratification of the people. Still the stranger passed on, apparently uninterested by all, until he came to the outer gate, where he merely paused a few moments, as though to observe the movements of the soldiers and the changing of the guard. The sound of the trumpet seemed to attract especial notice from this barbarian, whose uncouth air and rude manners drew upon him the gaze of many as they passed by. He now turned into a narrower street behind the palace, and here he sought out a common tavern, where the chequers newly painted on the door-posts betokened good entertainment for travellers. Having entered, the hostess, whose tucked-up dress and general appearance Martial, in his epigrams, so cunningly describes, brought him a vase or flagon of wine. It was not of the true Falernian flavour, as may be readily surmised, but a mixture of stuff which can hardly be described, of nauseous taste, smelling abominably of resin or pitch, and flavoured with myrrh and other bitters. Both hot and cold refections solicited the taste and regaled the sight of the visitor. Flitches of bacon were suspended from above, and firewood stuffed between the rafters, black and smoky with the reeking atmosphere below. At his own request, the stranger was installed in a small chamber behind the public room, where stood a couch, a three-footed table, and a lavatory. Here he was served with radishes, cheese, and roasted eggs in earthen vessels, with a relish of cornels in pickle. Ere this refection was brought in the table was rubbed over with a sprig of mint, and the coarse pottery betrayed an exquisite odour of thyme and garlic.
After the needful refreshments and ablutions he sallied forth, first inquiring for the residence of the Chaldean soothsayer, before whose door, in due time, he arrived. The gate leading to the vestibule was open, and he entered by a narrow passage terminated by a small inner court. He paused, and looked round. No fountain played in the centre; a clump of rank, unwholesome grass was the only decoration; but the object of his search was a crooked wooden staircase, which led to a sort of gallery above. After a little hesitation he ascended; his country manners showing a determination to persevere, until fairly delivered of his errand. A door at the extremity of the gallery stood ajar, and through this he made bold to enter. A Numidian slave, dwarfish and deformed, was sweeping his master's chamber. He stopped short as the barbarian, with a stupid and wondering look, entered the apartment. After surveying the new comer with an air of deliberate scrutiny, the dwarf burst forth into a violent fit of laughter.
"Mercury hath sent us precious handsel this morning, truly," said he, when his diversion was concluded. "A pretty hound to scent out master's lost goods. The gods do verily mock us in thy most gracious person."
The visitor looked on with dismay during this ungracious and taunting speech. At length he stammered forth—
"Thy master, is he not the Chaldean to whom my mistress, knowing I was bound for the city, hath sent me privily with a message?"
The Briton spoke this in a sort of guttural and broken Latin, which the apish dwarf mimicked in the most mischievous and provoking way imaginable. The messenger, irritated beyond endurance, placed both hands on his weapon, but his antagonist, with little ado, tripped up his heels, and the poor aborigine was completely at the mercy of this grotesque specimen of humanity.
Grinning over him with spite and mischief in his looks, the dwarf stamped on the floor; presently there came two slaves, who, without further notice than a blow now and then when resistance was offered, bound him with stout cords, and bade him lie there until he should be further disposed of. Inquiry was vain as to the cause of this treatment. Bound hand and foot, he was then tossed with little ceremony and less compunction into a corner of the room, and there left to bemoan his hard fate. Perched just above his head sat the cunning raven, who eyed him as though with serious intentions of pecking at him in his present defenceless condition. He was soon aware of this additional source of alarm, and as the bird's eye brightened and twinkled with greedy anticipation, he rubbed his rapacious beak on the perch, apparently whetting it for the feast. He then jumped down on the floor, and hopping close to his victim, gave a hoarse and dismal croak, a death-warning, it might be, to the unfortunate captive. He tried to burst his bonds, and shrieked out in the extremity of his alarm. His struggles kept the bird at a distance, but it continued to survey him with such a longing, liquorish eye, that the poor culprit felt himself already writhing, like another Prometheus, under the beak of his destroyer. His terror increased. It might be some demon sent to torment him; and this conviction strengthened when he saw the dismal and hideous things that surrounded him. Just as his agony was wrought to the highest pitch he heard footsteps. Even the sound was some relief. He knew not what further indignities—not to say violence—he might expect; but at all events there would be a change, and it was hailed as an alleviation to his misery.
The soothsayer presented himself, attended by the ugly dwarf.
"A stupid barbarian thou sayest the Fates have sent us?" said the Chaldean, as he entered. "Bridle thine impious tongue, Merodac; what the dweller in immortal fire hath decreed will be accomplished, though by weak and worthless creatures such as these. What ho! stranger, whence art thou? and why art thou moved so early across our threshold?"
"My lord," said the prisoner, in a tone of entreaty, "these bonds are unlawful—I am a freed man. Though a Briton, I am no slave; and I beseech you to visit this indignity on that rogue who hath so scurvily entreated me."
"I was privy to it, else would he not have dared this."
"And to what end, good master?"
"That we may have an answer propitious to our suit."
"What! are ye about to sacrifice me to your infernal deities?" cried the captive, almost frantic with the anticipation.
"My friend, thou art bound for another purpose—to wit, that through thy instrumentality we may discover the divining cup the emperor hath lost. Knowest thou aught of this precious crystal?" inquired the Chaldean, with a searching look.
But it were vain to describe the astonishment of the victim. He looked almost in doubt of his own identity, or as if he were trying to shake off the impression of some hideous dream. At length he replied—
"'Tis some device surely that ye may slay me!"
He wept; and the tears trickling down his cheek were indeed piteous to behold. "I know not," said he, "your meaning. Let me depart."
"Nay, said the soothsayer, "thou mayest content thyself as thou list, but the cup shall be found, and that by thy ministry. The emperor hath offered rewards nigh to the value of three silver talents for the recovery, and assuredly thou shalt be held in durance until it be regained."
"And by whose authority?" inquired the Briton.
"Why, truly, it becometh thee to ask, seeing thou art a party interested in the matter. The emperor in whose care the jewel was left, hath sworn by the river Styx that unless the cup be brought back to the palace ere to-morrow's dawn, he will punish the innocent with the guilty, and that with no sparing hand. He hath already laid hands on some of the more wealthy citizens, and amerced them in divers sums; others are detained as hostages for suspected persons who are absent from the city. The loss of this cup being connected with a daring attempt on the emperor's life by some unknown hand, he doth suspect that the very palace wants purging from treason; yet where to begin, or on whom to fasten suspicion, he knoweth not. Mine art has hitherto failed me in the matter. The tools they work with baffle my skill, save that the oracle I consult commanded that I should lay hold on the first male person that came hither to-day, and by his ministry the lost treasure should be restored. Shouldst thou refuse, thou art lost; for assuredly the emperor will not be slow to punish thy contumacy."
The miserable captive fell into great perplexity at this discourse. He vowed he knew no more of the lost cup than the very stones he trod on; that he had come since nightfall from his master, Lucius Claudius, lieutenant and standard-bearer of the sixth legion, then at Isurium, on a mere casual errand to the city; and that his mistress, who was a British lady of noble birth, had instructed him, at the same time, to consult the soothsayer on some matters relative to her nativity, which the sage had calculated some years back. Almost a stranger in these parts, how could he pretend to begin the search? He begged piteously for his release; promising, and with great sincerity, that he would never set foot in this inhospitable region again. The magician inquired his name.
"Cedric with the ready foot," was the reply. Unmoved by his entreaties, the soothsayer said he had the emperor's command for the use of every method he could devise for the recovery of this precious and priceless jewel; and that, furthermore, the safety and even lives of many innocent persons depended on the stranger's exertions, and the speedy execution of his mission. But how to begin, or in what quarter to commence the search, was a riddle worthy of the Sphinx. A most unexpected and novel situation for this rude dweller in woods and morasses, to be suddenly thrust forth into a mighty city, without guide or direction, more ignorant of his errand than any of its inhabitants. Besides, he was not without a sort of incipient and instinctive dread that the catastrophe might procure him an interview with the emperor; and he was filled with apprehension lest his own carcase might afford a special treat, a sacrifice to the brutal appetite of the spectators in the amphitheatre, after the manner of the bestiarii, or gladiators, of whom he had often heard. Even could he have gotten word of this mishap to his master, he was by no means certain it would be attended with any beneficial result. The time was too short, and the will and mandate of the emperor would render futile any attempt to obtain deliverance from this quarter.
A few moments sufficed for these considerations. The glance of the mind, when on the rack for expedients, is peculiarly keen, and hath an eagle-like perception that appears as though it could pierce to the dim and distant horizon of its hopes and apprehensions.
"Unbind these withes," said the captive; "I cannot begin the search in this extremity."
"Merodac, undo these bonds; and see thou guard thy prisoner strictly; thy life answers for his safe keeping."
The dwarf, who seemed never so well pleased as when tormenting the more fortunate and better shapen of his species, unloosed the cords with something of the like feeling and intention as a cat when liberating some unfortunate mouse from her talons.
"There's a chance of rare sport i' the shows to-morrow," said the ugly jailer. "We are sure of thee, anyhow. Didst ever see the criminals fight with wolves, Hyrcanian bears, and such like? I would not miss the sight for the best feather in my cap."
The cruel slave here rubbed his hands, and his yellow eyes glistened with the horrible anticipation. His victim groaned aloud.
"I'll tell thee a rare device," continued he, "whereby thou mayest escape being eaten at least a full hour; and we shall have the longer sport. Mind thee, the beasts do not always get the carcases for dinner. If they be cowardly and show little fight, we give the dead bestiarii to the dogs. I remember me well the last we threw into the emperor's kennel, the dogs made such a fighting for the carrion that he ordered each of us a flagellation for the disturbance. Let me see, there was—ay"——Here the knave began to count the number of shows and human sacrifices he had seen, recounting every particular with the most horrible minuteness. Cedric felt himself already in the gripe of the savages, and his flesh verily quivered on his bones.
Brutal and demoralising were those horrid spectacles. The people of Rome, it has been well observed by a modern writer, were generally more corrupt by many degrees than has been usually supposed possible. Many were the causes which had been gradually operating towards this result, and amongst the rest the continual exhibition of scenes where human blood was poured forth like water. The continual excitement of the populace demanded fresh sacrifices, until even these palled upon the cruel appetites of the multitude. Even the more innocent exhibitions, where brutes were the sufferers, could not but tend to destroy all the finer sensibilities of the nature. "Five thousand wild animals, torn from their native abodes in the wilderness and the forest," have been turned out for mutual slaughter in one single exhibition at the amphitheatre. Sometimes the lanista, or person who exhibited the shows and provided the necessary supplies, by way of administering specially to the gratification of the populace, made it known, as a particular favour, that the whole of these should be slaughtered. These, however, soon ceased to stimulate the appetite for blood. From such combats "the transition was inevitable to those of men, whose nobler and more varied passions spoke directly, and by the intelligible language of the eye, to human spectators; and from the frequent contemplation of these authorised murders, in which a whole people—women as much as men, and children intermingled with both—looked on with leisurely indifference, with anxious expectation, or with rapturous delight, whilst below them were passing the direct sufferings of humanity, and not seldom its dying pangs, it was impossible to expect a result different from that which did, in fact, take place—universal hardness of heart, obdurate depravity, and a twofold degradation of human nature, the natural sensibility and the conscientious principle." "Here was a constant irritation, a system of provocation to the appetite for blood, such as in other nations are connected with the rudest stages of society, and with the most barbarous modes of warfare."
"Whither wilt thou that we direct our steps?" inquired Merodac, with mock submission, when the cords were unloosed.
"Lead the way—I care not," said his moody victim; "'tis as well that I follow."
A bitter and scornful laugh accompanied the reply of the dwarf.
"That were a pretty device truly—to let thee lag behind, and without thy tether. Ah, ah," chuckled the squire as they left the chamber, "Diogenes and his lantern was a wise man's search compared with ours."
How the slave came to be so learned in Grecian lore we know not. His further displays of erudition were cut short by the soothsayer, who cried out to him as they departed—
"Remember, thy carcase for his if he return not."
Now, in York, at this day, may be observed, where an angle of the walls abuts on the "Mint Yard," a building named "the Multangular Tower," and supposed to have been one of the principal fortifications of the city. However this might be, its structure has puzzled not a little even those most conversant with antiquities. The area was not built up all round, but open towards the city. The foundations of a wall have latterly been discovered, dividing it lengthwise through the centre, and continued for some distance into the town; so that the whole may not inaptly be represented by a Jewtrump—the tongue being the division, the circular end the present Multangular Tower, continued by walls on each side. This building, we have every reason to conjecture, was the Greek stadium or Roman circus, which authors tell us was a narrow piece of ground shaped like a staple; the round end called the barrier. The wall dividing it lengthwise is the spina, or flat ridge running through the middle, which was generally a low wall, and sometimes merely a mound of earth. This was usually decorated with statues of gods, columns, votive altars, and the like. As a corroboration of this opinion, there have been found here several small statues, altars, and other figures, betokening a place of public resort or amusement.
The circus was not used merely for horse and chariot races, but likewise for wrestling—the caestus, and other athletic games. It was noted as the haunt of fortune-tellers, and thither the poorer people used to resort and hear their fortunes told.
Near this place stood the barracks, or castra. Long ranges of rooms divided into several storeys, the doors of each chamber opening into one common gallery, ascended by a wooden staircase.
Hither we must conduct our readers at the close of the day on whose inauspicious morning "Cedric with the ready-foot" was placed in such jeopardy.
The whole city meanwhile had been astir. The emperor's wrath and desire of revenge were excited to the utmost pitch. He suspected treachery even amongst the Praetorian guards—his favourite and best-disciplined troops; and there was an apprehension of some terrible disgrace attaching even to them. Still, nothing further transpired implicating the soldiery, save that the assassin had escaped, and apparently through the very midst of the guard; yet no one chose to accuse his fellow, or say by whose means this mysterious outlet was contrived. Not even to his most confidential minister did the emperor reveal the discovery of his son's weapon. Neither that son, nor his guilty accomplices, if any, could be found; and the day was fast closing upon the monarch's threat, that on the morrow his vengeance should have its full work unless the crystal goblet was restored.
There had been a public spectacle at the theatre, but the emperor was not present; and such was the consternation of the whole city that the performance was but scantily attended. The city was apparently on the eve of some sad catastrophe, and the whole population foreboding some fearful event.
In the circus were yet some stray groups, who, having little employment of their own, were listening for news, and loitering about either for mischief or amusement.
In one part was exhibited a narrow wooden box, not unlike to our puppet-show, wherein a person was concealed having figures made of wood and earthenware that seemed to act and speak, to the great wonder and diversion of the audience.
As the rays of the declining sun smote upon the city walls and the white sails of the barks below, there came into the circus the dwarf who had charge of Cedric. The captive now looked like a sort of appendage to his person—being strapped to his arm by a stout thong of bull's hide, such as was used for correcting refractory slaves. The hours allotted for search were nearly gone. Day was drawing to a close, and Cedric had done little else than bemoan his hard fate. The whole day had been spent in wandering from place to place, urged on by the scoffs and jeers of his companion. Some furtive attempts to escape had been the cause of his present bondage. Hither, at length, they arrived. Tired and distressed, he sat down on one of the vacant benches, and gave vent to his sorrows in no very careful or measured language.
"What can I do?" said he, "a stranger in this great city—to set me a-finding what I never knew? A grain of wheat in a barn full of chaff, mayhap—a needle in a truss of hay—anything I might find but what was sheer impossible. And now am I like to be thrown to the dogs, like a heap of carrion!"
"But the oracle, friend."
"Plague on the oracle, for"——Here his speech was interrupted; for happening to look up, he saw, as he fancied, the eyes of one of the little figures in the show-box ogling him, and making mouths in such wise as to draw upon him the attention of the spectators, now roaring with laughter at his expense. Reckless of consequences, and almost furious from sufferings, he suddenly jumped up, and dragging the dwarf along with him, made a desperate blow at the mimic, which, in a moment, laid sprawling a whole company of little actors, together with the prime mover himself, and the showman outside to boot. The fray, as may readily be conceived, waxed loud and furious. The owners and bystanders not discriminating as to the main cause of the attack, would have handled both the keeper and the captive very roughly, had not the noise awakened the attention of the soldiers in the neighbouring barracks. Hearing the affray, a party ran to ascertain the cause of the disturbance, and seeing two men whom a whole crowd had combined to attack, concluded they were culprits, and forthwith haled them before the captain of the guard, a centurion, Diogenes Verecundus by name.
Cedric and the dwarf being rescued from a sound beating, began to abuse one another as the cause of the disturbance; but the officer, by dint of threats and inquiries, soon learned the truth of the matter.
"Thank the stars, I shall be rid of this pestilence to-morrow," said Merodac; "my master could not have found me such another; and how the Fates could pitch upon such a sorry cur for the business seems passing strange. If he find the cup I'll be beaten to a jelly in it. Thy carcase will be meat for the emperor's hounds to-morrow."
"If, as thou sayest," said the centurion, "thou art so mightily weary of thy charge, leave him to my care; I would fain have some discourse with him privily touching what thou hast spoken."
The slave hesitated.
"On the word of a Roman soldier he shall be forthcoming. Tell thy master that Verecundus the centurion hath taken thy prisoner captive. Here is money for thee."
The Ethiop showed his teeth like ivory studs on a coral band, while the rings shook in his wrinkled ears as he took the largess. Yet his brow contracted, and he hung his head. He hesitated to unloose the bonds.
"By what token?" he at length inquired.
"By this!" said the centurion, taking up a thong for his correction. "Stay," continued he, laying it down, "I will not punish thee undeservedly. Take these; they will bear thee harmless with thy master."
The dwarf took the writing thankfully, and made the best of his way to the dwelling of the soothsayer.
The officer now beckoned Cedric that he should follow. In a low room by the guard-chamber at the gate the following conversation took place.
"There is evil denounced us of a truth," said Verecundus; "but it may be the gods have sent thee hither for our rescue, as the oracle hath said."
The Briton fixed his wondering eyes on the soldier whilst he continued.
"I have pondered the words well, and if thou prove trusty, ere this night pass the plot shall be discovered and the ringleaders secured. We have need of such a one as thou—a stranger, whom they will not suspect, and will use the intelligence he obtains with a vigilant and cunning eye. There is work for thee, which, if well done, may bring thee to great wealth and honour. If thou fail, we fall together in the same ruin. There is a plot against the emperor; and one which hath its being, ay in the very secrets of the palace. Those nearest him I am well assured are the chief movers in the conspiracy. 'Tis this makes it so perilous to discover, and without a fitting agent the mischief will not be overcome. I have thought to throw myself at the emperor's feet, but having no proof withal to support my suspicions, I should in all likelihood fall a sacrifice to my own fidelity."
"But how," asked the bewildered Cedric, "shall I discover them? Verily it doth seem that to-day I am destined to work out impossibilities. How it comes to pass that a poor ignorant wretch like myself should compass these things, it faileth my weak fancy to discover!"
"The soothsayer's speech is not lightly to be regarded. Hark thee, knave! Is life precious unto thee?"
"Yea, truly is it. I have a wife and children, besides a few herds and other live stock, likewise sundry beeves i' the forest. But unless I can find favour in your eyes, my goods, alas! I am not like to see again."
"Nor wilt thou peradventure again behold the light of yon blessed sun which hath just gone down. The shades of evening are upon us, and the shadows of death are upon thine eyelids; for, hark thee, I do suspect some treasonable message in thine errand to the city."
Cedric, with a look of terror and incredulity, stammered out—
"As I live, I know not thy meaning!"
"Thou art in my power; and unless thou servest me faithfully, thou diest a cruel and fearful death. What was the exact message wherewith thou was entrusted?"
The Briton's countenance brightened as he replied—
"I give it to thee with right good-will. No treason lurks there, I trow. 'Take this,' said my master, yesternight, giving me a signet ring; 'take it to York by daybreak. At the gate show it to the guard. If they let thee pass, well. If not, return, for there is mischief in the city. At the bridge, shouldest thou get so far, again show it, where, I doubt not, thou shalt find thereby a ready passage. Seek thee out some by-tavern where thou mayest refresh; then about mid-day go into the street called the Goldsmiths', and there inquire for one Caius Lupus, the empress' jeweller. Show him the signet, and mark what he shall tell thee.'"
"Thou hast given him the signet, then?" said the centurion, sharply.
"Nay. For my mistress, as ill-luck would have it, hearing of my journey, and she having had some knowledge of the soothsayer's art aforetime, bade me consult him ere my errand was ready with the goldsmith, and deliver a pressing request for the horoscope which had been long promised. What passed then, as thou knowest, is the cause of my calamity."
"But didst thou not search out the dwelling of this same Caius, and do thine errand?"
"I did. But in the straits which I endured I was not careful to note the time. An hour past mid-day I sought out his dwelling; but he was gone to the palace on urgent business with the empress, nor was it known when he might return."
"Sayest thou so, friend? I would like to look at this same potent talisman."
Cedric drew forth the ring. It was a beautiful onyx, on which, engraven with exquisite workmanship, was a head of the youthful Caracalla encircled by a laurel wreath, showing marks of the most consummate skill.
"Was thine errand told to the soothsayer?" was the next inquiry.
"Verily, nay," said the messenger; "there was little space for parley ere I was thrust forth."
"He saw not the signet, then?"
"Of a truth it has not been shown save to the guards for my passport."
"Now, knave, thy life hangs on a thread so brittle that a breath shall break it. This same goldsmith I do suspect; but thou shalt see him, and whatsoever he showeth I will be at hand that thou mayest tell me privily. I will then instruct thee what thou shalt do. If thou fail not in thy mission, truly thou shalt have great rewards from the emperor. But if thou whisper—ay to the walls—of our meeting, thou diest! Remember thou art watched. Think not to escape."
The poor wretch caught hold on this last hope of deliverance, and promised to obey.
There was a narrow vault beneath the women's apartments in the palace, communicating by many intricate passages with an outlet into the Forum. Here, on this eventful night, was an unusual assemblage. The vault was deep, even below the common foundations of the city, and where the light of day never came. An iron lamp hung from one of the massy arches of the roof; the damp and stagnant vapours lending an awful indistinctness to the objects they surrounded. Chill drops lay on the walls and on the slippery floor. The stone benches were green with mildew; and it seemed as though the foot of man had rarely passed its threshold.
In this chamber several individuals were now assembled in earnest discourse, their conversation whispered rather than spoken; yet their intrepid and severe looks, and animated gestures, ever and anon betrayed some deep and resolute purpose more than usually portentous.
"An untoward event truly," said one of the speakers, Virius Lupus himself, the emperor's private secretary. "If the old magician could have been won, it had been well."
"He might have saved the encounter and hazard we must now undergo. But let him hold his fealty. We have stout hearts and resolute hands enow to bring the matter to a successful issue." Thus spoke Caracalla, the unnatural eldest born of his father.
"And yet," replied the secretary, "he hath a ready admittance to his person, and a great sway over thy father's councils."
"I heed him not, now that brave men work. It were time that our trusty servant, the commander at Isurium, had sent the message, with the token I left him on my departure. Ere this we ought to have known the hour we may expect his troops to move on the capital. I had thought to have made all safe—to have put it beyond the power of fate to frustrate our purpose; but I was foiled like a beardless boy at his weapons." He gnashed his teeth as he spoke; and this monster of cruelty breathed a horrible threat against the life even of a parent and a king.
"Here is the roll," said one, who from his inkhorn and reed-pen seemed to be the scribe, and whose ambition had been lured by a promise that he should have the office of sextumvir in the imperial city.
"Here be the names and disposition of the troops; the avenues and gates to which they are appointed."
"We but wait a messenger from Isurium to make our plans complete," said Caracalla. "By the same courier I send back this cypher. Examine it, Fabricius. The troops of Lucius Claudius are to march directly on the Forum, and slay all who attempt resistance. Thou, Virius Lupus, wilt guide them through the secret passage into the palace."
The secretary bowed assent.
"Though the empress knows not our high purpose, it is by her connivance we are here, safe from the emperor's spies. Under her mantle we are hidden. Suspicion hath crossed her that I am about to head the troops; that my father, oppressed with age and infirmities, will retire to Rome; and that I, Caracalla, rule in Britain."
"Then she knows not the mishap of yesternight?"
"She knows of the attempt, but not the agent. I would the messenger were come. 'Tis an unforeseen delay. I pray the gods there be not treachery somewhere. The officers and guards at the Calcarian gate and the bridge are ours; they were instructed to obey the signet."
"We will vouch for the fidelity," said two or three of the conspirators.
"Should he not arrive before midnight we must strike," said Fabricius.
"Ay, as before," said the more cautious secretary. "But we may now get a broken head for our pains."
"The time brooks not delay," said Caracalla. "Every moment now is big with danger to our enterprise."
"Be not again too hasty," replied the secretary; "there be none that will divulge our plans. Let every part be complete before we act. We cannot succeed should there be a disjointed purpose."
Caracalla, vehement, and unused to the curb, was about to reply, when the door opened and a dumb slave slowly entered. He crossed his hands, and pointed to the door.
"A messenger," said they all.
"The gods are at last propitious," said Caracalla. "Let him approach."
Soon one was led in by the sentinel, blindfolded, and the latter immediately withdrew.
"The sign," cried the secretary.
The stranger, without hesitation, presented a ring.
"'Tis the same," said Caracalla. He touched a concealed spring in the signet, and from underneath the gem drew forth a little paper with a scrap of writing in cypher. It was held before the lamp, and the intelligence it contained rendered their plot complete. Ere break of day, the deed would be accomplished. The morning would see Caracalla proclaimed, and Severus deposed.
"Have ye any token to my master?" inquired the messenger.
"Take back this writing," said Virius Lupus. "Thou wilt find him not far from the city. We wait his coming."
"This leaden-heeled Mercury should have a largess," said the chief, "but in this den we have not wherewithal to give him. Hold! here is a good recompense, methinks," continued he, taking the crystal goblet from a recess. "Take this to thy mistress, and tell her to buy it from thee. We will see her anon. That charmed cup hath foiled me once, but I will foil thee now, and the powers thou servest. Thou shall not again cross my path!"
Cedric took the gift, wrapping it beneath his cloak.
"Thou mayest depart."
The dumb sentinel again took charge of him, and led him away by many intricate passages towards the entrance, where it seems the goldsmith had directed him on presenting the signet of Caracalla. The person who took charge of him was a dumb eunuch, a slave in the service of the empress.
But the terrors of death were upon the wretched victim. He knew the centurion would assuredly be at hand to receive his report, and he could not escape. He had not brought back one word of intelligence; and being blindfolded, he knew not whither he had been taken. The writing he carried would assuredly be unintelligible save to those for whom it was intended. His mission, he could perceive, had utterly failed. The centurion would not be able to profit by anything he had brought back, and must inevitably, according to his pledge, at once render him up to the soothsayer. Whilst ruminating on his hard fate a sudden thought crossed him. There was little probability of success, but at all events it might operate as a diversion in his favour, and the design was immediately executed. Skulking for a moment behind the slave, he tore off the bandage, and tripped up the heels of his conductor. Before the latter could recover himself the Briton's gripe was on his throat.
"Now, slave, thou art my prisoner! Lead on, or by this good sword, thou diest!"
The torch he carried was luckily not extinguished in the fall. The eunuch, almost choking, made a sign that he would obey. With the drawn blade at his throat, the slave went on; but Cedrick, ever wary, and with that almost instinctive sagacity peculiar to man in his half-civilised state, kept a tiger-like watch on every movement of his prisoner, which enabled him to detect the fingers of the slave suddenly raised to his lips, and a shrill whistle would have consigned him over to certain and immediate destruction; but he struck down the uplifted hand with a blow which made his treacherous conductor crouch and cringe almost to the ground.
"Another attempt," said Cedric, "and we perish together!"
The wily slave looked all penitence and submission. Silently proceeding, apparently through the underground avenues of the palace, Cedric was momentarily expecting his arrival at the place where the centurion kept watch. A flight of steps now brought them to a spacious landing-place. Suddenly a lamp was visible, and beneath it sat a number of soldiers, the emperor's body-guard. They gave way as the eunuch passed by, followed by Cedric, his sword still drawn. Several of these groups were successively cleared: the guide, by a countersign, was enabled to thread his way through every obstacle that presented itself. The Briton's heart misgave him as they approached a vestibule, before which a phalanx of the guards kept watch. Here he thought it prudent to sheath his weapon, though he still followed the eunuch, as his only remaining chance of escape. Even here they were instantly admitted, and without any apparent hesitation. The door turned slowly on its pivot, and Cedric found himself in a richly-decorated chamber, where, by the light of a single lamp, and with the smell of perfumed vapour in his nostrils, he saw a figure in costly vestments reclining on a couch. The slave prostrated himself.
"What brings thee from thy mistress at this untimely hour? A message from the empress?"
Here the speaker raised himself from the couch, and the slave, with great vehemence, made certain signs, which the wondering Briton understood not.
"Ah!" said the emperor, his eyes directly levelled at the supposed culprit; "thou hast found the thief who, in the confusion of yesternight, bore away the magic cup. Bring him hither that I may question him ere his carcase be sent to the beasts."
The doomed wretch was now fairly in the paws of the very tyrant he had so long dreaded. The death which by every stratagem he had striven to avoid was now inevitable. He was betrayed by means of the very device he had, as he thought, so craftily adopted; but still his natural sagacity did not forsake him even in this unexpected emergency. As he prostrated himself, presenting the cup he had stowed away safely in his cloak, he still kept a wary eye on the slave who had betrayed him. He saw him preparing to depart; and knowing that his only hope of deliverance lay in preventing his guide from giving warning to the conspirators they had just left, Cedric, with a sudden spring, leaped upon him like a tiger, even in the presence of the monarch.
The latter, astounded at this unexpected act of temerity, was for a few moments inactive. This pause was too precious to be lost. Desperation gave him courage, and Cedric addressed the dread ruler of the world even whilst he clutched the gasping traitor.
"Here, great monarch, here is the traitor; and if I prove him not false, on my head be the recompense!"
He said this in a tone of such earnestness and anxiety that the emperor was suddenly diverted from his purpose of summoning his attendants. He saw the favourite slave of the empress writhing in the gripe of the barbarian; but the events of the last few hours had awakened suspicions which the lightest accusations might confirm. He remembered his son's guilt; the facility of his escape; and it might be that treason stood on the very threshold, ready to strike. He determined to sift the matter; and the guard now summoned, the parties were separated—each awaiting the fiat of the monarch.
"Where is Virius Lupus?" was the emperor's first inquiry.
"He hath not returned from the apartments of the empress."
"Let this slave be bound," cried Cedric. "Force him to conduct you even to the place whence, blindfold, he hath just led me; and if you find not a nest of traitors, my own head shall be the forfeit."
Dark and fearful was the flash that shot from the emperor's eye on the devoted eunuch. Pale and trembling he fell on his knees, supplicating with uplifted hands for mercy. He knew it was vain to dissemble.
"And what wert thou doing in such perilous company?" inquired the emperor, turning to Cedric, and in a voice which made him shrink.
"Let the centurion, Diogenes Verecundus, be sought out. He waits my return by the Forum gate. To him the city owes a discovery of this plot, and Rome her monarch!"
The faithful centurion was soon found. The eunuch conducted them secretly to the vault. The conspirators were seized in the very height of their anticipated success. The roll containing the names of the leaders, the plan of attack, and the disposition of the rebellious troops, was discovered; and the morning sun darted a fearful ray on the ghastly and bleeding heads uplifted on the walls and battlements of the imperial palace.
But with misplaced clemency the monster Caracalla was again pardoned. The centurion Diogenes Verecundus was raised to the dignity of Sexumvir. The only reward claimed by the generous and sturdy Briton was an act of immunity for his master, who was merely dismissed from his post and banished the kingdom.
 This tale was written for the Traditions of the County of York. It appeared by permission in an Annual entitled The White Rose of York: but having only had a local circulation at the time, and having been carefully revised by the author during the last winter of his life, it finds a place here.
 Lubinus in Juven. p. 294.
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[i] Pile or Peel of Foundrey, both names are used.
[ii] This seems to be a slight misquote. Oliver Goldsmith's poem starts with "For still I tried each fickle art" and not "And".
[iii] The usual present-day form seems to be: "Non omnes qui habent citharam sunt citharoedi."
[iv] According to the OED one definition of "prog" could conceivably apply: a slang term for food. It also may be a typo for "grog".
[v] Probably "coranto": a baroque/renaissance dance style according to Wikipedia.
ǐ The spelling of "ultima Thule" instead of "Ultima Thule" has been noted, but not corrected.
END OF VOL. II.
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