In the eventful year of the eruption of Vesuvius, there lived in Pompeii a young Greek by the name of Glaucus. Heaven had given him every blessing but one; it had denied him the heritage of freedom.
He was born in Athens, the subject of Rome. Succeeding early to an ample inheritance, he had indulged that inclination for travel, so natural to the young, and consequently knew much of the gorgeous luxuries of the imperial court. His ideals in life were high. At last he discovered the long-sought idol of his dreams in the person of Ione, a beautiful, young Neapolitan, also of Greek parentage, who had lately come to Pompeii. She was one of those brilliant characters which seldom flash across our career. She united in the highest perfection the rarest of earthly gifts,—Genius and Beauty. No wonder that the friendship of these two ripened into a higher love than that which served a theme for the idle gossip of the Roman baths, or the epicurean board of a Sallust or a Diomede.
Arbaces, the legal guardian of Ione, was a subtle, crafty, cunning Egyptian, whose conscience was solely of the intellect awed by no moral laws. His great wealth and learning, and his reputation as a magician gave him great power and influence over not only the superstitious worshipers, but also the priesthood of Isis. Shrouding the deceit and vices of a heathen metaphysical philosophy in a brilliant and imposing ceremonial, Arbaces was the better able to gratify his own desires and work out his diabolical scheme.
As Ione just ripened into beautiful womanhood, Arbaces determined to claim her life and her love for himself alone; but his first overture not only met with rebuff, but revealed the fact that she already loved Glaucus. Angered by a fate which not even his dark sorcery could remove, and which the prophecy of the stars had foretold, he is further enraged by the violent opposition of Apæcides, the brother of Ione, who on his own account threatens and has prepared to expose the lewd deceits and hypocrisy of the worship of Isis. Arbaces murders Apæcides, imprisons the priest Calenus, the only witness of the deed, and with great cunning weaves a convicting net of circumstantial evidence around Glaucus, his hated rival. Glaucus is tried, convicted and doomed to be thrown to the lion.
The day of the sports of the amphitheater had come. The gladiatorial fights and other games were completed. “Bring forth the lion and Glaucus the Athenian,” said the editor. Glaucus had been placed in that gloomy and narrow cell in which the criminals of the arena awaited their last and fearful struggle. 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. “Worthy officer, I attend you.”
When he came into the air its breath, which, though sunless, was hot and arid, smote witheringly upon him. They anointed his body, placed the stylus 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 fullness 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 assumed 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 stillness 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 center of the arena. It was the grated den of the lion. Kept without food for twenty-four hours, 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-reaching cries.
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 retreated hastily 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 high, in the faint hope that one well directed thrust might penetrate through the eye to the brain of his grim foe.
At the first moment of its release the lion halted in the arena, raised itself half on end, snuffing the upward air with impatient sighs; then suddenly sprang forward, but not on the Athenian. At half speed it circled around and around the arena; once or twice it endeavored to leap up the parapet that separated it from the audience. 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 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 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, toward the quarter of disturbance; the crowd gave way, and suddenly Sallust appeared on the senatorial benches, his hair disheveled,—breathless—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 Apæcides.”
“Art thou mad, O Sallust?” said the prætor, rising from his seat. “What means this raving?”
“Remove the Athenian. Quick! or his blood be on your head. Prætor, delay and you answer with your own life to the Emperor. I bring with me the eye-witness to the death of Apæcides. Room there—stand back—give way. People of Pompeii, fix every eye on Arbaces—there he sits. Room there for the priest Calenus.”
“The priest Calenus,—Calenus,” cried the mob. “Is it he?”
“It is the priest Calenus,” said the prætor. “What hast thou to say?”
“Arbaces of Egypt is the murderer of Apæcides, 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.”
“A miracle—a miracle,” shouted the people. “Remove the Athenian. Arbaces to the lion!”
“Officers, remove the accused Glaucus—remove, but guard him yet,” said the prætor.
“Calenus, priest of Isis, thou accusest Arbaces of the murder of Apæcides?”
“Thou didst behold the deed?”
“Prætor—with these eyes—”
“Enough at present—the details must be reserved for more suiting time and place. Ho! guards—remove Arbaces—guard Calenus! Sallust, we hold you responsible for your accusation. Let the sports be resumed.”
“To the lion with the Egyptian!” cried the people.
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 ædile command—in vain did the prætor lift his voice and proclaim the law. The people had been already rendered savage.
Arbaces 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 which stilled the roar of the crowd; “behold 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. 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 theater 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 amphitheater itself,—far and wide,—with many a mighty splash in that agitated sea,—fell that awful shower! The crowd 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; prisoner, gladiator and wild beast now alike freed from their confines.
Glaucus paced swiftly up the perilous and fearful streets, having learned that Ione was yet in the house of Arbaces. Thither he fled to release—to save her! Even as he passed, however, the darkness that covered the heavens increased so rapidly, that it was with difficulty he could guide his steps. 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! He rescued her and they made their way to the sea, boarded a vessel and were saved from the wrath of Vesuvius.
Arbaces returned to his house to seek his wealth and Ione ere he fled from the doomed Pompeii. He found them not; all was lost to him. In the madness of despair he rushed forth and hurried along the street he knew not whither; exhausted or lost he halted at the east end of the Forum. 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. 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, crushing Arbaces and riving the solid pavement where it crashed! The prophecy of the stars was fulfilled!
So perished the wise Magician—the great Arbaces—the Hermes of the Burning Belt—the last of the royalty of Egypt.