T was then the day for Diomed's banquet to the most select of his friends. The graceful Glaucus, the beautiful Ione, the official Pansa, the high-born Clodius, the immortal Fulvius, the exquisite Lepidus, the epicurean Sallust, were not the only honourers of his festival. He expected, also, an invalid senator from Rome (a man of considerable repute and favor at court), and a great warrior from Herculaneum, who had fought with Titus against the Jews, and having enriched himself prodigiously in the wars, was always told by his friends that his country was eternally indebted to his disinterested exertions! The party, however, extended to a yet greater number: for although, critically speaking, it was, at one time, thought inelegant among the Romans to entertain less than three or more than nine at their banquets, yet this rule was easily disregarded by the ostentatious. And we are told, indeed, in history, that one of the most splendid of these entertainers usually feasted a select party of three hundred. Diomed, however, more modest, contented himself with doubling the number of the Muses. His party consisted of eighteen, no unfashionable number in the present day.
It was the morning of Diomed's banquet; and Diomed himself, though he greatly affected the gentleman and the scholar, retained enough of his mercantile experience to know that a master's eye makes a ready servant. Accordingly, with his tunic ungirdled on his portly stomach, his easy slippers on his feet, a small wand in his hand, wherewith he now directed the gaze, and now corrected the back, of some duller menial, he went from chamber to chamber of his costly villa.
He did not disdain even a visit to that sacred apartment in which the priests of the festival prepare their offerings. On entering the kitchen, his ears were agreeably stunned by the noise of dishes and pans, of oaths and commands. Small as this indispensable chamber seems to have been in all the houses of Pompeii, it was, nevertheless, usually fitted up with all that amazing variety of stoves and shapes, stew-pans and saucepans, cutters and moulds, without which a cook of spirit, no matter whether he be an ancient or a modern, declares it utterly impossible that he can give you anything to eat. And as fuel was then, as now, dear and scarce in those regions, great seems to have been the dexterity exercised in preparing as many things as possible with as little fire. An admirable contrivance of this nature may be still seen in the Neapolitan Museum, viz., a portable kitchen, about the size of a folio volume, containing stoves for four dishes, and an apparatus for heating water or other beverages.
Across the small kitchen flitted many forms which the quick eye of the master did not recognize.
'Oh! oh!' grumbled he to himself, 'that cursed Congrio hath invited a whole legion of cooks to assist him. They won't serve for nothing, and this is another item in the total of my day's expenses. By Bacchus! thrice lucky shall I be if the slaves do not help themselves to some of the drinking vessels: ready, alas, are their hands, capacious are their tunics. Me miserum!'
The cooks, however, worked on, seemingly heedless of the apparition of Diomed.
'Ho, Euclio, your egg-pan! What, is this the largest? it only holds thirty-three eggs: in the houses I usually serve, the smallest egg-pan holds fifty, if need be!'
'The unconscionable rogue!' thought Diomed; 'he talks of eggs as if they were a sesterce a hundred!'
'By Mercury!' cried a pert little culinary disciple, scarce in his novitiate; 'whoever saw such antique sweetmeat shapes as these?—It is impossible to do credit to one's art with such rude materials. Why, Sallust's commonest sweetmeat shape represents the whole siege of Troy; Hector and Paris, and Helen... with little Astyanax and the Wooden Horse into the bargain!'
'Silence, fool!' said Congrio, the cook of the house, who seemed to leave the chief part of the battle to his allies. 'My master, Diomed, is not one of those expensive good-for-noughts, who must have the last fashion, cost what it will!'
'Thou liest, base slave!' cried Diomed, in a great passion—and thou costest me already enough to have ruined Lucullus himself! Come out of thy den, I want to talk to thee.'
The slave, with a sly wink at his confederates, obeyed the command.
'Man of three letters,' said Diomed, with his face of solemn anger, 'how didst thou dare to invite all those rascals into my house?—I see thief written in every line of their faces.'
'Yet, I assure you, master, that they are men of most respectable character—the best cooks of the place; it is a great favor to get them. But for my sake...'
'Thy sake, unhappy Congrio!' interrupted Diomed; and by what purloined moneys of mine, by what reserved filchings from marketing, by what goodly meats converted into grease, and sold in the suburbs, by what false charges for bronzes marred, and earthenware broken—hast thou been enabled to make them serve thee for thy sake?'
'Nay, master, do not impeach my honesty! May the gods desert me if...'
'Swear not!' again interrupted the choleric Diomed, 'for then the gods will smite thee for a perjurer, and I shall lose my cook on the eve of dinner. But, enough of this at present: keep a sharp eye on thy ill-favored assistants, and tell me no tales to-morrow of vases broken, and cups miraculously vanished, or thy whole back shall be one pain. And hark thee! thou knowest thou hast made me pay for those Phrygian attagens enough, by Hercules, to have feasted a sober man for a year together—see that they be not one iota over-roasted. The last time, O Congrio, that I gave a banquet to my friends, when thy vanity did so boldly undertake the becoming appearance of a Melian crane—thou knowest it came up like a stone from AEtna—as if all the fires of Phlegethon had been scorching out its juices. Be modest this time, Congrio—wary and modest. Modesty is the nurse of great actions; and in all other things, as in this, if thou wilt not spare thy master's purse, at least consult thy master's glory.'
'There shall not be such a coena seen at Pompeii since the days of Hercules.'
'Softly, softly—thy cursed boasting again! But I say, Congrio, yon homunculus—yon pigmy assailant of my cranes—yon pert-tongued neophyte of the kitchen, was there aught but insolence on his tongue when he maligned the comeliness of my sweetmeat shapes? I would not be out of the fashion, Congrio.'
'It is but the custom of us cooks,' replied Congrio, gravely, to undervalue our tools, in order to increase the effect of our art. The sweetmeat shape is a fair shape, and a lovely; but I would recommend my master, at the first occasion, to purchase some new ones of a...'
'That will suffice,' exclaimed Diomed, who seemed resolved never to allow his slave to finish his sentences. 'Now, resume thy charge—shine——eclipse thyself. Let men envy Diomed his cook—let the slaves of Pompeii style thee Congrio the great! Go! yet stay—thou hast not spent all the moneys I gave thee for the marketing?' '"All!" alas! the nightingales' tongues and the Roman tomacula, and the oysters from Britain, and sundry other things, too numerous now to recite, are yet left unpaid for. But what matter? every one trusts the Archimagirus of Diomed the wealthy!'
'Oh, unconscionable prodigal!—what waste!—what profusion!—I am ruined! But go, hasten—inspect!—taste!—perform!—surpass thyself! Let the Roman senator not despise the poor Pompeian. Away, slave—and remember, the Phrygian attagens.'
The chief disappeared within his natural domain, and Diomed rolled back his portly presence to the more courtly chambers. All was to his liking—the flowers were fresh, the fountains played briskly, the mosaic pavements were as smooth as mirrors.
'Where is my daughter Julia?' he asked.
'At the bath.'
'Ah! that reminds me!—time wanes!—and I must bathe also.'
Our story returns to Apaecides. On awaking that day from the broken and feverish sleep which had followed his adoption of a faith so strikingly and sternly at variance with that in which his youth had been nurtured, the young priest could scarcely imagine that he was not yet in a dream; he had crossed the fatal river—the past was henceforth to have no sympathy with the future; the two worlds were distinct and separate—that which had been, from that which was to be. To what a bold and adventurous enterprise he had pledged his life!—to unveil the mysteries in which he had participated—to desecrate the altars he had served—to denounce the goddess whose ministering robe he wore! Slowly he became sensible of the hatred and the horror he should provoke amongst the pious, even if successful; if frustrated in his daring attempt, what penalties might he not incur for an offence hitherto unheard of—for which no specific law, derived from experience, was prepared; and which, for that very reason, precedents, dragged from the sharpest armoury of obsolete and inapplicable legislation, would probably be distorted to meet! His friends—the sister of his youth—could he expect justice, though he might receive compassion, from them? This brave and heroic act would by their heathen eyes be regarded, perhaps, as a heinous apostasy—at the best as a pitiable madness.
He dared, he renounced, everything in this world, in the hope of securing that eternity in the next, which had so suddenly been revealed to him. While these thoughts on the one hand invaded his breast, on the other hand his pride, his courage, and his virtue, mingled with reminiscences of revenge for deceit, of indignant disgust at fraud, conspired to raise and to support him.
The conflict was sharp and keen; but his new feelings triumphed over his old: and a mighty argument in favor of wrestling with the sanctities of old opinions and hereditary forms might be found in the conquest over both, achieved by that humble priest. Had the early Christians been more controlled by 'the solemn plausibilities of custom'—less of democrats in the pure and lofty acceptation of that perverted word—Christianity would have perished in its cradle!
As each priest in succession slept several nights together in the chambers of the temple, the term imposed on Apaecides was not yet completed; and when he had risen from his couch, attired himself, as usual, in his robes, and left his narrow chamber, he found himself before the altars of the temple.
In the exhaustion of his late emotions he had slept far into the morning, and the vertical sun already poured its fervid beams over the sacred place.
'Salve, Apaecides!' said a voice, whose natural asperity was smoothed by long artifice into an almost displeasing softness of tone. 'Thou art late abroad; has the goddess revealed herself to thee in visions?'
'Could she reveal her true self to the people, Calenus, how incenseless would be these altars!'
'That,' replied Calenus, 'may possibly be true; but the deity is wise enough to hold commune with none but priests.'
'A time may come when she will be unveiled without her own acquiescence.'
'It is not likely: she has triumphed for countless ages. And that which has so long stood the test of time rarely succumbs to the lust of novelty. But hark ye, young brother! these sayings are indiscreet.'
'It is not for thee to silence them,' replied Apaecides, haughtily.
'So hot!—yet I will not quarrel with thee. Why, my Apaecides, has not the Egyptian convinced thee of the necessity of our dwelling together in unity? Has he not convinced thee of the wisdom of deluding the people and enjoying ourselves? If not, oh, brother! he is not that great magician he is esteemed.'
'Thou, then, hast shared his lessons?' said Apaecides, with a hollow smile.
'Ay! but I stood less in need of them than thou. Nature had already gifted me with the love of pleasure, and the desire of gain and power. Long is the way that leads the voluptuary to the severities of life; but it is only one step from pleasant sin to sheltering hypocrisy. Beware the vengeance of the goddess, if the shortness of that step be disclosed!'
'Beware, thou, the hour when the tomb shall be rent and the rottenness exposed,' returned Apaecides, solemnly. 'Vale!'
With these words he left the flamen to his meditations. When he got a few paces from the temple, he turned to look back. Calenus had already disappeared in the entry room of the priests, for it now approached the hour of that repast which, called prandium by the ancients, answers in point of date to the breakfast of the moderns. The white and graceful fane gleamed brightly in the sun. Upon the altars before it rose the incense and bloomed the garlands. The priest gazed long and wistfully upon the scene—it was the last time that it was ever beheld by him!
He then turned and pursued his way slowly towards the house of Ione; for before possibly the last tie that united them was cut in twain—before the uncertain peril of the next day was incurred, he was anxious to see his last surviving relative, his fondest as his earliest friend.
He arrived at her house, and found her in the garden with Nydia.
'This is kind, Apaecides,' said Ione, joyfully; 'and how eagerly have I wished to see thee!—what thanks do I not owe thee? How churlish hast thou been to answer none of my letters—to abstain from coming hither to receive the expressions of my gratitude! Oh! thou hast assisted to preserve thy sister from dishonour! What, what can she say to thank thee, now thou art come at last?'
'My sweet Ione, thou owest me no gratitude, for thy cause was mine. Let us avoid that subject, let us recur not to that impious man—how hateful to both of us! I may have a speedy opportunity to teach the world the nature of his pretended wisdom and hypocritical severity. But let us sit down, my sister; I am wearied with the heat of the sun; let us sit in yonder shade, and, for a little while longer, be to each other what we have been.'
Beneath a wide plane-tree, with the cistus and the arbutus clustering round them, the living fountain before, the greensward beneath their feet; the gay cicada, once so dear to Athens, rising merrily ever and anon amidst the grass; the butterfly, beautiful emblem of the soul, dedicated to Psyche, and which has continued to furnish illustrations to the Christian bard, rich in the glowing colors caught from Sicilian skies, hovering about the sunny flowers, itself like a winged flower—in this spot, and this scene, the brother and the sister sat together for the last time on earth. You may tread now on the same place; but the garden is no more, the columns are shattered, the fountain has ceased to play. Let the traveler search amongst the ruins of Pompeii for the house of Ione. Its remains are yet visible; but I will not betray them to the gaze of commonplace tourists. He who is more sensitive than the herd will discover them easily: when he has done so, let him keep the secret.
They sat down, and Nydia, glad to be alone, retired to the farther end of the garden.
'Ione, my sister,' said the young convert, 'place your hand upon my brow; let me feel your cool touch. Speak to me, too, for your gentle voice is like a breeze that hath freshness as well as music. Speak to me, but forbear to bless me! Utter not one word of those forms of speech which our childhood was taught to consider sacred!'
'Alas! and what then shall I say? Our language of affection is so woven with that of worship, that the words grow chilled and trite if I banish from them allusion to our gods.'
'Our gods!' murmured Apaecides, with a shudder: 'thou slightest my request already.'
'Shall I speak then to thee only of Isis?'
'The Evil Spirit! No, rather be dumb for ever, unless at least thou canst—but away, away this talk! Not now will we dispute and cavil; not now will we judge harshly of each other. Thou, regarding me as an apostate! and I all sorrow and shame for thee as an idolater. No, my sister, let us avoid such topics and such thoughts. In thy sweet presence a calm falls over my spirit. For a little while I forget. As I thus lay my temples on thy bosom, as I thus feel thy gentle arm embrace me, I think that we are children once more, and that the heaven smiles equally upon both. For oh! if hereafter I escape, no matter what peril; and it be permitted me to address thee on one sacred and awful subject; should I find thine ear closed and thy heart hardened, what hope for myself could countervail the despair for thee? In thee, my sister, I behold a likeness made beautiful, made noble, of myself. Shall the mirror live for ever, and the form itself be broken as the potter's clay? Ah, no—no—thou wilt listen to me yet! Dost thou remember how we went into the fields by Baiae, hand in hand together, to pluck the flowers of spring? Even so, hand in hand, shall we enter the Eternal Garden, and crown ourselves with imperishable asphodel!'
Wondering and bewildered by words she could not comprehend, but excited even to tears by the plaintiveness of their tone, Ione listened to these outpourings of a full and oppressed heart. In truth, Apaecides himself was softened much beyond his ordinary mood, which to outward seeming was usually either sullen or impetuous. For the noblest desires are of a jealous nature—they engross, they absorb the soul, and often leave the splenetic humors stagnant and unheeded at the surface. Unheeding the petty things around us, we are deemed morose; impatient at earthly interruption to the diviner dreams, we are thought irritable and churlish. For as there is no chimera vainer than the hope that one human heart shall find sympathy in another, so none ever interpret us with justice; and none, no, not our nearest and our dearest ties, forbear with us in mercy! When we are dead and repentance comes too late, both friend and foe may wonder to think how little there was in us to forgive!
'I will talk to thee then of our early years,' said Ione. 'Shall yon blind girl sing to thee of the days of childhood? Her voice is sweet and musical, and she hath a song on that theme which contains none of those allusions it pains thee to hear.'
'Dost thou remember the words, my sister?' asked Apaecides.
'Methinks yes; for the tune, which is simple, fixed them on my memory.'
'Sing to me then thyself. My ear is not in unison with unfamiliar voices; and thine, Ione, full of household associations, has ever been to me more sweet than all the hireling melodies of Lycia or of Crete. Sing to me!'
Ione beckoned to a slave that stood in the portico, and sending for her lute, sang, when it arrived, to a tender and simple air, the following verses:—
REGRETS FOR CHILDHOOD I It is not that our earlier Heaven Escapes its April showers, Or that to childhood's heart is given No snake amidst the flowers. Ah! twined with grief Each brightest leaf, That's wreath'd us by the Hours! Young though we be, the Past may sting, The present feed its sorrow; But hope shines bright on every thing That waits us with the morrow. Like sun-lit glades, The dimmest shades Some rosy beam can borrow. II It is not that our later years Of cares are woven wholly, But smiles less swiftly chase the tears, And wounds are healed more slowly. And Memory's vow To lost ones now, Makes joys too bright, unholy. And ever fled the Iris bow That smiled when clouds were o'er us. If storms should burst, uncheered we go, A drearier waste before us— And with the toys Of childish joys, We've broke the staff that bore us!
Wisely and delicately had Ione chosen that song, sad though its burthen seemed; for when we are deeply mournful, discordant above all others is the voice of mirth: the fittest spell is that borrowed from melancholy itself, for dark thoughts can be softened down when they cannot be brightened; and so they lose the precise and rigid outline of their truth, and their colors melt into the ideal. As the leech applies in remedy to the internal sore some outward irritation, which, by a gentler wound, draws away the venom of that which is more deadly, thus, in the rankling festers of the mind, our art is to divert to a milder sadness on the surface the pain that gnaweth at the core. And so with Apaecides, yielding to the influence of the silver voice that reminded him of the past, and told but of half the sorrow born to the present, he forgot his more immediate and fiery sources of anxious thought. He spent hours in making Ione alternately sing to, and converse with him; and when he rose to leave her, it was with a calmed and lulled mind.
'Ione,' said he, as he pressed her hand, 'should you hear my name blackened and maligned, will you credit the aspersion?'
'Never, my brother, never!'
'Dost thou not imagine, according to thy belief, that the evil-doer is punished hereafter, and the good rewarded?'
'Can you doubt it?'
'Dost thou think, then, that he who is truly good should sacrifice every selfish interest in his zeal for virtue?'
'He who doth so is the equal of the gods.'
'And thou believest that, according to the purity and courage with which he thus acts, shall be his portion of bliss beyond the grave?'
'So we are taught to hope.'
'Kiss me, my sister. One question more. Thou art to be wedded to Glaucus: perchance that marriage may separate us more hopelessly—but not of this speak I now—thou art to be married to Glaucus—dost thou love him? Nay, my sister, answer me by words.'
'Yes!' murmured Ione, blushing.
'Dost thou feel that, for his sake, thou couldst renounce pride, brave dishonour, and incur death? I have heard that when women really love, it is to that excess.'
'My brother, all this could I do for Glaucus, and feel that it were not a sacrifice. There is no sacrifice to those who love, in what is borne for the one we love.'
'Enough! shall woman feel thus for man, and man feel less devotion to his God?'
He spoke no more. His whole countenance seemed instinct and inspired with a divine life: his chest swelled proudly; his eyes glowed: on his forehead was writ the majesty of a man who can dare to be noble! He turned to meet the eyes of Ione—earnest, wistful, fearful—he kissed her fondly, strained her warmly to his breast, and in a moment more he had left the house.
Long did Ione remain in the same place, mute and thoughtful. The maidens again and again came to warn her of the deepening noon, and her engagement to Diomed's banquet. At length she woke from her reverie, and prepared, not with the pride of beauty, but listless and melancholy, for the festival: one thought alone reconciled her to the promised visit—she should meet Glaucus—she could confide to him her alarm and uneasiness for her brother.
Last modified 4 January 2007