[Credits: Project Gutenberg, the source of this text]

IN the earlier times of Rome the priesthood was a profession, not of lucre but of honour. It was embraced by the noblest citizens—it was forbidden to the plebeians. Afterwards, and long previous to the present date, it was equally open to all ranks; at least, that part of the profession which embraced the flamens, or priests—not of religion generally but of peculiar gods. Even the priest of Jupiter (the Flamen Dialis) preceded by a lictor, and entitled by his office to the entrance of the senate, at first the especial dignitary of the patricians, was subsequently the choice of the people. The less national and less honored deities were usually served by plebeian ministers; and many embraced the profession, as now the Roman Catholic Christians enter the monastic fraternity, less from the impulse of devotion than the suggestions of a calculating poverty. Thus Calenus, the priest of Isis, was of the lowest origin. His relations, though not his parents, were freedmen. He had received from them a liberal education, and from his father a small patrimony, which he had soon exhausted. He embraced the priesthood as a last resource from distress. Whatever the state emoluments of the sacred profession, which at that time were probably small, the officers of a popular temple could never complain of the profits of their calling. There is no profession so lucrative as that which practises on the superstition of the multitude.

Calenus had but one surviving relative at Pompeii, and that was Burbo. Various dark and disreputable ties, stronger than those of blood, united together their hearts and interests; and often the minister of Isis stole disguised and furtively from the supposed austerity of his devotions; and gliding through the back door of the retired gladiator, a man infamous alike by vices and by profession, rejoiced to throw off the last rag of an hypocrisy which, but for the dictates of avarice, his ruling passion, would at all time have sat clumsily upon a nature too brutal for even the mimicry of virtue.

Wrapped in one of those large mantles which came in use among the Romans in proportion as they dismissed the toga, whose ample folds well concealed the form, and in which a sort of hood (attached to it) afforded no less a security to the features, Calenus now sat in the small and private chamber of the wine-cellar, whence a small passage ran at once to that back entrance, with which nearly all the houses of Pompeii were furnished.

Opposite to him sat the sturdy Burbo, carefully counting on a table between them a little pile of coins which the priest had just poured from his purse—for purses were as common then as now, with this difference—they were usually better furnished!

'You see,' said Calenus, that we pay you handsomely, and you ought to thank me for recommending you to so advantageous a market.'

'I do, my cousin, I do,' replied Burbo, affectionately, as he swept the coins into a leathern receptacle, which he then deposited in his girdle, drawing the buckle round his capacious waist more closely than he was wont to do in the lax hours of his domestic avocations. 'And by Isis, Pisis, and Nisis, or whatever other gods there may be in Egypt, my little Nydia is a very Hesperides—a garden of gold to me.'

'She sings well, and plays like a muse,' returned Calenus; 'those are virtues that he who employs me always pays liberally.'

'He is a god,' cried Burbo, enthusiastically; 'every rich man who is generous deserves to be worshipped. But come, a cup of wine, old friend: tell me more about it. What does she do? she is frightened, talks of her oath, and reveals nothing.'

'Nor will I, by my right hand! I, too, have taken that terrible oath of secrecy.'

'Oath! what are oaths to men like us?'

'True oaths of a common fashion; but this!'—and the stalwart priest shuddered as he spoke. 'Yet,' he continued, in emptying a huge cup of unmixed wine, 'I own to thee, that it is not so much the oath that I dread as the vengeance of him who proposed it. By the gods! he is a mighty sorcerer, and could draw my confession from the moon, did I dare to make it to her. Talk no more of this. By Pollux! wild as those banquets are which I enjoy with him, I am never quite at my ease there. I love, my boy, one jolly hour with thee, and one of the plain, unsophisticated, laughing girls that I meet in this chamber, all smoke-dried though it be, better than whole nights of those magnificent debauches.'

'Ho! sayest thou so! To-morrow night, please the gods, we will have then a snug carousal.'

'With all my heart,' said the priest, rubbing his hands, and drawing himself nearer to the table.

At this moment they heard a slight noise at the door, as of one feeling the handle. The priest lowered the hood over his head.

'Tush!' whispered the host, 'it is but the blind girl,' as Nydia opened the door, and entered the apartment.

'Ho! girl, and how durst thou? thou lookest pale—thou hast kept late revels? No matter, the young must be always the young,' said Burbo, encouragingly.

The girl made no answer, but she dropped on one of the seats with an air of lassitude. Her color went and came rapidly: she beat the floor impatiently with her small feet, then she suddenly raised her face, and said with a determined voice:

'Master, you may starve me if you will—you may beat me—you may threaten me with death—but I will go no more to that unholy place!'

'How, fool!' said Burbo, in a savage voice, and his heavy brows met darkly over his fierce and bloodshot eyes; 'how, rebellious! Take care.'

'I have said it,' said the poor girl, crossing her hands on her breast.

'What! my modest one, sweet vestal, thou wilt go no more! Very well, thou shalt be carried.'

'I will raise the city with my cries,' said she, passionately; and the color mounted to her brow.

'We will take care of that too; thou shalt go gagged.'

'Then may the gods help me!' said Nydia, rising; 'I will appeal to the magistrates.'

'Thine oath remember!' said a hollow voice, as for the first time Calenus joined in the dialogue.

At these words a trembling shook the frame of the unfortunate girl; she clasped her hands imploringly. 'Wretch that I am!' she cried, and burst violently into sobs.

Whether or not it was the sound of that vehement sorrow which brought the gentle Stratonice to the spot, her grisly form at this moment appeared in the chamber.

'How now? what hast thou been doing with my slave, brute?' said she, angrily, to Burbo.

'Be quiet, wife,' said he, in a tone half-sullen, half-timid; 'you want new girdles and fine clothes, do you? Well then, take care of your slave, or you may want them long. Voe capiti tuo—vengeance on thy head, wretched one!'

'What is this?' said the hag, looking from one to the other.

Nydia started as by a sudden impulse from the wall against which she had leaned: she threw herself at the feet of Stratonice; she embraced her knees, and looking up at her with those sightless but touching eyes:

'O my mistress!' sobbed she, 'you are a woman—you have had sisters—you have been young like me, feel for me—save me! I will go to those horrible feasts no more!'

'Stuff!' said the hag, dragging her up rudely by one of those delicate hands, fit for no harsher labor than that of weaving the flowers which made her pleasure or her trade; 'stuff! these fine scruples are not for slaves.'

'Hark ye,' said Burbo, drawing forth his purse, and chinking its contents: 'you hear this music, wife; by Pollux! if you do not break in yon colt with a tight rein, you will hear it no more.'

'The girl is tired,' said Stratonice, nodding to Calenus; 'she will be more docile when you next want her.'

'You! you! who is here?' cried Nydia, casting her eyes round the apartment with so fearful and straining a survey, that Calenus rose in alarm from his seat.

'She must see with those eyes!' muttered he.

'Who is here! Speak, in heaven's name! Ah, if you were blind like me, you would be less cruel,' said she; and she again burst into tears.

'Take her away,' said Burbo, impatiently; 'I hate these whimperings.'

'Come!' said Stratonice, pushing the poor child by the shoulders. Nydia drew herself aside, with an air to which resolution gave dignity.

'Hear me,' she said; 'I have served you faithfully—I who was brought up—Ah! my mother, my poor mother! didst thou dream I should come to this?' She dashed the tear from her eyes, and proceeded: 'Command me in aught else, and I will obey; but I tell you now, hard, stern, inexorable as you are—I tell you that I will go there no more; or, if I am forced there, that I will implore the mercy of the praetor himself—I have said it. Hear me, ye gods, I swear!'

The hag's eyes glowed with fire; she seized the child by the hair with one hand, and raised on high the other—that formidable right hand, the least blow of which seemed capable to crush the frail and delicate form that trembled in her grasp. That thought itself appeared to strike her, for she suspended the blow, changed her purpose, and dragging Nydia to the wall, seized from a hook a rope, often, alas! applied to a similar purpose, and the next moment the shrill, the agonized shrieks of the blind girl, rang piercingly through the house.


Victorian Overview Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii Next

Last modified 4 January 2007