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The Last Days of Pompeii
by Edward Bulwer Lytton
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes


(1834)



Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (later the 1st Baron Lytton) of Norfolk was born on 25 May 1803 and died in 1873. The early death of his father, his discontent at school and an unhappy marriage may have contributed to his popular success as an author.

Abridged: JH

For more works by Edward Bulwer Lytton, see The Index



The Last Days of Pompeii


I. - The Athenian's Love Story

Within the narrow compass of the walls of Pompeii was contained a specimen of every gift which luxury offered to power. In its minute but glittering shops, its tiny palaces, its baths, its forum, its theatre, its circus - in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole Roman Empire. It was a toy, a plaything, a show-box, in which the gods seemed pleased to keep the representation of the great monarchy of earth, and which they afterwards hid from time, to give to the wonder of posterity - the moral of the maxim, that under the sun there is nothing new.

Crowded in the glassy bay were vessels of commerce and gilded galleys for the pleasures of the rich citizens. The boats of the fishermen glided to and fro, and afar off you saw the tall masts of the fleet under the command of Pliny.

Drawing a comrade from the crowded streets, Glaucus the Greek, newly returned to Pompeii after a journey to Naples, bent his steps towards a solitary part of the beach; and the two, seated on a small crag which rose amidst the smooth pebbles, inhaled the voluptuous and cooling breeze which, dancing over the waters, kept music with its invisible feet. There was something in the scene which invited them to silence and reverie.

Clodius, the aedile, who sought the wherewithal for his pleasures at the gaming table, shaded his eyes from the burning sky, and calculated the gains of the past week. He was one of the many who found it easy to enrich themselves at the expense of his companion. The Greek, leaning upon his hand, and shrinking not from that sun, his nation's tutelary deity, with whose fluent light of poesy and joy and love his own veins were filled, gazed upon the broad expanse, and envied, perhaps, every wind that bent its pinions toward the shores of Greece.

Glaucus obeyed no more vicious dictates when he wandered into the dissipations of his time that the exhilarating voices of youth and health. His heart never was corrupted. Of far more penetration than Clodius and others of his gay companions deemed, he saw their design to prey upon his riches and his youth; but he despised wealth save as the means of enjoyment, and youth was the great sympathy that united him to them. To him the world was one vast prison to which the sovereign of Rome was the imperial gaoler, and the very virtues which, in the free days of Athens, would have made him ambitious, in the slavery of earth made him inactive and supine.

"Tell me, Clodius," said the Athenian at last, "hast thou ever been in love?"

"Yes, very often."

"He who has loved often," answered Glaucus, "has loved never."

"Art thou, then, soberly and earnestly in love? Hast thou that feeling which the poets describe - a feeling which makes us neglect our suppers, forswear the theatre, and write elegies? I should never have thought it. You dissemble well."

"I am not far gone enough for that," returned Glaucus, smiling. "In fact, I am not in love; but I could be if there but be occasion to see the object."

"Shall I guess the object? Is it not Diomed's daughter? She adores you, and does not affect to conceal it. She is both handsome and rich. She will bind the door-post of her husband with golden fillets."

"No, I do not desire to sell myself. Diomed's daughter is handsome, I grant; and at one time, had she not been the grandchild of a freedman, I might have - yet, no - she carries all her beauty in her face; her manners are not maiden-like, and her mind knows no culture save that of pleasure."

"You are ungrateful. Tell me, then, who is the fortunate virgin."

"You shall hear, my Clodius. Several months ago I was sojourning at Naples, a city utterly to my own heart. One day I entered the temple of Minerva to offer up my prayers, not for myself more than for the city on which Pallas smiles no longer. The temple was empty and deserted. The recollections of Athens crowded fast and meltingly upon me. Imagining myself still alone, my prayer gushed from my heart to my lips, and I wept as I prayed. I was startled in the midst of my devotions, however, by a deep sigh. I turned suddenly, and just behind me was a female. She had raised her veil also in prayer, and when our eyes met, methought a celestial ray shot from those dark and smiling orbs at once into my soul.

"Never, my Clodius, have I seen mortal face more exquisitely moulded. A certain melancholy softened, and yet elevated, its expression. Tears were rolling down her eyes. I guessed at once that she was of Athenian lineage. I spoke to her, though with a faltering voice. 'Art thou not, too, Athenian?' said I. At the sound of my voice she blushed, and half drew her veil across her face. 'My forefathers' ashes,' she said, 'repose by the waters of Ilyssus; my birth is of Naples; but my heart, as my lineage, is Athenian.'

"'Let us, then,' said I, 'make our offerings together!' And as the priest now appeared, we stood side by side, and so followed the ceremonial prayer. Together we touched the knees of the goddess; together we laid our olive garlands on the altar. Silently we left the temple, and I was about to ask her where she dwelt, when a youth, whose features resembled hers, took her by the hand. She turned and bade me farewell, the crowd parted us, and I saw her no more; nor when I returned to Naples after a brief absence at Athens, was I able to discover any clue to my lost country-woman. So, hoping to lose in gaiety all remembrance of that beautiful apparition, I hastened to plunge myself amidst the luxuries of Pompeii. This is all my history, I do not love but I remember and regret."

So said Glaucus. But that very night, in a house at Pompeii, whither she had come from Naples during his absence, Glaucus came face to face once more with the beautiful lone, the object of his dreams. And no longer was he able to say, "I do not love."

II. - Arbaces, the Egyptian

Amongst the wealthy dwellers in Pompeii was one who lived apart, and was at once an object of suspicion and fear. The riches of this man, who was known as Arbaces, the Egyptian, enabled him to gratify to the utmost the passions which governed him - the passion of sensual indulgence and the blind force which impelled him to seek relief from physical satiety in the pursuit of that occult knowledge which he regarded as the heritage of his race.

In Naples, Arbaces had known the parents of Ione and her brother Apaecides, and it was under his guardianship that they had come to Pompeii. The confidence which, before their death, their parents had reposed in the Egyptian was in turn fully given to him by lone and her brother. For Apaecides the Egyptian felt nothing but contempt; the youth was to him but an instrument that might be used by him in bending lone to his will. But the mind of Ione, no less than the beauty of her form, appealed to Arbaces. With her by his side, his willing slave, he saw no limit to the heights his ambition might soar to. He sought primarily to impress her with his store of unfamiliar knowledge. She, in turn, admired him for his learning, and felt grateful to him for his guardianship. Apaecides, docile and mild, with a soul peculiarly alive to religious fervour, Arbaces placed amongst the priests of Isis, and under the special care of a creature of his own, named Calenus. It pleased his purpose best, where Ione was concerned, to leave her awhile surrounded by the vain youth of Pompeii, so that he might gain by comparison.

It fell not within Arbaces' plans to show himself too often to his ward. Consequently it was some time before he became aware of the warmth of the friendship that was growing up between Ione and the handsome Greek. He knew not of their evening excursions on the placid sea, of their nightly meetings at Ione's dwelling, till these had become regular happenings in their daily lives. But one day he surprised them together, and his eyes were suddenly opened. No sooner had the Greek departed than the Egyptian sought to poison Ione's mind against him by exaggerating his love of pleasure and by unscrupulously describing him as making light of Ione's love.

Following up the advantage he gained by this appeal to her pride, Arbaces reminded Ione that she had never seen the interior of his home. It might, he said, amuse her. "Devote then," he went on, "to the austere friend of your youth one of these bright summer evenings, and let me boast that my gloomy mansion has been honoured with the presence of the admired Ione."

Unconscious of the pollutions of the mansion, of the danger that awaited her, Ione readily assented to the proposal. But there was one who, by accident, had become aware of the nature of the spells cast by Arbaces upon his visitors, and who was to be the humble means of saving lone from his toils. This was the blind flower-girl Nydia.

Of Thessalian extraction, and gentle nurture, Nydia had been stolen and sold into the slavery of an ex-gladiator named Burbo, a relative of the false priest Calenus. To save her from the cruelty of Burbo, Glaucus had purchased her, and, in return, the blind girl had become devoted to him - so devoted that her gentle heart was torn when he made it plain to her that his action was prompted by mere natural kindness of heart, and that it was his purpose to send her to Ione.

But she cast all feeling of jealousy aside when she heard of Ione's visit to the Egyptian, and quickly apprised Glaucus and Apaecides of the fair Athenian's peril.

On her arrival, Arbaces greeted Ione with deep respect. But he found it harder than he thought to resist the charm of her presence in his house, and in a moment of forgetful passion he declared his love for her. "Arbaces," he declared, "shall have no ambition save the pride of obeying thee - Ione. Ione, do not reject my love!" And as he spoke he knelt before her.

Alone, and in the grip of this singular and powerful man, Ione was not yet terrified; the respect of his language, the softness of his voice, reassured her; and in her own purity she felt protection. But she was confused, astonished. It was some moments before she could recover the power of reply.

"Rise, Arbaces," said she at length. "Rise! and if thou art serious, if thy language be in earnest - - "

"If - - " said he tenderly.

"Well, then, listen. You have been my guardian, my friend, my monitor. For this new character I was not prepared. Think not," she added quickly, as she saw his dark eyes glitter with the fierceness of his passion, "think not that I scorn; that I am untouched; that I am not honoured by this homage; but, say, canst thou hear me calmly?"

"Ay, though the words were lightning and could blast me!"

"I love another!" said Ione blushingly, but in a firm voice.

"By the gods," shouted Arbaces, rising to his fullest height, "dare not tell me that! Dare not mock me! It is impossible! Whom hast thou seen? Whom known? Oh, Ione, it is thy woman's invention, thy woman's art that speaks; thou wouldst gain time. I have surprised - I have terrified thee."

"Alas!" began Ione; and then, appalled before his sudden and unlooked for violence, she burst into tears.

Arbaces came nearer to her, his breath glowed fiercely on her cheek. He wound his arms round her; she sprang from his embrace. In the struggle a tablet fell from her bosom. Arbaces perceived, and seized it; it was a letter she had received that morning from Glaucus.

Ione sank upon the couch, half-dead with terror.

Rapidly the eyes of Arbaces ran over the writing. He read it to the end, and then, as the letter fell from his hand, he said, in a voice of deceitful calmness, "Is the writer of this the man thou lovest?"

Ione sobbed, but answered not.

"Speak!" he demanded.

"It is - it is!"

"Then hear me," said Arbaces, sinking his voice into a whisper. "Thou shalt go to thy tomb rather than to his arms."

At this instant a curtain was rudely torn aside, and Glaucus and Apsecides appeared. There was a severe struggle, which might have had a more sinister ending had not the marble head of a goddess, shaken from its column, fallen upon Arbaces as he was about to stab the Greek, and struck the Egyptian senseless to the ground. As it was, Ione was saved, and she and her lover were then and for ever reconciled to one another.

III. - The Love Philtre

Clodius had not spoken without warrant when he had said that Julia, the daughter of the rich merchant Diomed, thought herself in love with Glaucus. But since Glaucus was denied to her, her thoughts were concentrated on revenge. In this mood she sought out Arbaces, presenting herself as one loving unrequitedly, and seeking in sorrow the aid of wisdom.

"It is a love charm," admitted Julia, "that I would seek from thy skill. I know not if I love him who loves me not, but I know that I would see myself triumph over a rival. I would see him who has rejected me my suitor. I would see her whom he has preferred in her turn despised."

Very quickly Arbaces discerned Julia's secret, and when he heard that Glaucus and Ione were shortly to be wedded, he gladly availed himself of this opportunity to rid himself of his hated rival. But he dealt not in love potions, he said; he would, however, take Diomed's daughter to one who did - the witch who dwelt on the slopes of Vesuvius.

He kept his promise; but the entire philtre given to Julia was one which went direct to the brain, and the effects of which - for neither Arbaces nor his creature, the witch, wished to place themselves within the power of the law - were such as caused those who witnessed them to attribute them to some supernatural agency.

But once again, though less happily than on the former occasion, Nydia was destined to be the means of thwarting the schemes of the Egyptian. The devotion of the blind flower-girl had deepened into love for her deliverer. She was jealous of Ione. Now, for Julia had taken her into confidence, and both believed in the love charm, she was confronted with another rival. By a simple ruse Nydia obtained the poisoned draught and in its place substituted a phial of simple water.

At the close of a banquet given by Diomed, to which the Greek was invited, Julia duly administered that which she imagined to be the secret love potion. She was disappointed when she found Glaucus coldly replace the cup, and converse with her in the same unmoved tone as before.

"But to-morrow," thought she, "to-morrow, alas for Glaucus!"

Alas for him, indeed!

When Glaucus arrived at his own house that evening, Nydia was waiting for him. She had, as usual, been tending the flowers and had lingered awhile to rest herself.

"It has been warm," said Glaucus. "Wilt thou summon Davus? The wine I have drunk heats me, and I long for some cooling drink."

Here at once, suddenly and unexpectedly, the very opportunity that Nydia awaited presented itself. She breathed quickly. "I will prepare for you myself," said she, "the summer draught that Ione loves - of honey and weak wine cooled in snow."

"Thanks," said the unconscious Glaucus. "If Ione loves it, enough; it would be grateful were it poison."

Nydia frowned, and then smiled. She withdrew for a few moments, and returned with the cup containing the beverage. Glaucus took it from her hand.

What would not Nydia have given then to have seen the first dawn of the imagined love! Far different, as she stood then and there, were the thoughts and emotions of the blind girl from those of the vain Pompeian under a similar suspense!

Glaucus had raised the cup to his lips. He had already drained about a fourth of its contents, when, suddenly glancing upon the face of Nydia, he was so forcibly struck by its alteration, by its intense, and painful, and strange expression, that he paused abruptly, and still holding the cup near his lips, exclaimed. "Why, Nydia - Nydia, art thou ill or in pain? What ails thee, my poor child?"

As he spoke, he put down the cup - happily for him, unfinished - and rose from his seat to approach her, when a sudden pang shot coldly to his heart, and was followed by a wild, confused, dizzy sensation at the brain.

The floor seemed to glide from under him, his feet seemed to move on air, a mighty and unearthly gladness rushed upon his spirit. He felt too buoyant for the earth; he longed for wings - nay, it seemed as if he possessed them. He burst involuntarily into a loud and thrilling laugh. He clapped his hands, he bounced aloft. Suddenly this perpetual transport passed, though only partially, away. He now felt his blood rushing loudly and rapidly through his veins.

Then a kind of darkness fell over his eyes. Now a torrent of broken, incoherent, insane words gushed from his lips, and, to Nydia's horror, he passed the portico with a bound, and rushed down the starlit streets, striking fear into the hearts of all who saw him.

IV. - The Day of Ghastly Night

Anxious to learn if the drug had taken effect, Arbaces set out for Julia's house on the morrow. On his way he encountered Apaecides. Hot words passed between them, and stung by the scorn of the youth, he stabbed him into the heart with his stylus. At this moment Glaucus came along. Quick as thought the Egyptian struck the already half-senseless Greek to the ground, and steeping his stylus in the blood of Apaecides, and recovering his own, called loudly for help. The next moment he was accusing Glaucus of the crime.

For a time fortune favoured the Egyptian. Glaucus, his strong frame still under the influence of the poison, was sentenced to encounter a lion in the amphitheatre, with no weapon beyond the incriminating stylus. Nydia, in her terror, confessed to the Egyptian the exchange of the love philtre. She he imprisoned in his own house. Calenus, who had witnessed the deed, sought Arbaces with the intention of using his knowledge to his own profit. He, by a stratagem, was incarcerated in one of the dungeons of the Egyptian's dwelling. The law gave Ione into the guardianship of Arbaces. But, for a third time, Nydia was the means of frustrating the plans of Arbaces.

The blind girl, when vainly endeavouring to escape from the toils of the Egyptian, overheard, in his garden, the conversation of Arbaces and Calenus; and she heard the cries of Calenus from behind the door of the chamber in which he was imprisoned. She herself was caught again by Arbaces' servant, but she contrived to bribe her keeper to take a message to Glaucus's friend, Sallust; and he, taking his servants to Arbaces' house released the two captives, and reached the arena with them, to accuse Arbaces before the multitude at the very moment when the lion was being goaded to attack the Greek, and Arbaces' victory seemed within his grasp.

Even now the nerve of the Egyptian did not desert him. He met the charge with his accustomed coolness. But the frenzied accusation of the priest of Isis turned the huge assembly against him. With loud cries they rose from their seats and poured down toward the Egyptian.

Lifting his eyes at this terrible moment, Arbaces beheld a strange and awful apparition. He beheld, and his craft restored his courage. He stretched his hand on high; over his lofty brow and royal features there came an expression of unutterable solemnity and command.

"Behold," he shouted, with a voice of thunder, which stilled the roar of the crowd, "behold how the gods protect the guiltless! The fires of the avenging Orcus burst forth against the false witness of my accusers!"

The eyes of the crowd followed the gesture of the Egyptian, and beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapour 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. The earth shook. The walls of the theatre trembled. In the distance was heard the crash of falling roofs. The cloud seemed to roll towards the assembly, casting forth from its bosom showers of ashes mixed with fragments of burning stone. Then the burning mountain cast up columns of boiling water.

In the ghastly night thus rushing upon the realm of noon, all thought of justice and of Arbaces left the minds of the terrified people. There ensued a mad flight for the sea. Through the darkness Nydia guided Glaucus, now partly recovered from the effects of the poisoned draught, and Ione to the shore. Her blindness rendered the scene familiar to her alone.

While Arbaces perished with the majority, these three eventually gained the sea, and joined a group, who, bolder than the rest, resolved to hazard any peril rather than continue on the stricken land.

Utterly exhausted, Ione slept on the breast of Glaucus, and Nydia lay at his feet. Meanwhile, showers of dust and ashes fell into the waves, scattered their snows over the deck of the vessel they had boarded, and, borne by the winds, descended upon the remotest climes, startling even the swarthy African, and whirling along the antique soil of Syria and of Egypt.

Meekly, softly, beautifully dawned at last the light over the trembling deep! The winds were sinking into rest, the foam died from the azure of that delicious sea. Around the east thin mists caught gradually the rosy hues that heralded the morning. Light was about to resume her reign. There was no shout from the mariners at the dawning light - it had come too gradually, and they were too wearied for such sudden bursts of joy - but there was a low, deep murmur of thankfulness amidst those watchers of the long night. They looked at each other, and smiled; they took heart. They felt once more that there was a world around and a God above them!

In the silence of the general sleep Nydia had risen gently. Bending over the face of Glaucus, she softly kissed him. She felt for his hand; it was locked in that of Ione. She sighed deeply, and her face darkened. Again she kissed his brow, and with her hair wiped from it the damps of night.

"May the gods bless you, Athenian!" she murmured "May you be happy with your beloved one! May you sometimes remember Nydia! Alas! she is of no further use on earth."

With these words she turned away. A sailor, half-dozing on the deck, heard a slight splash on the waters. Drowsily he looked up, and behind, as the vessel bounded merrily on, he fancied he saw something white above the waves; but it vanished in an instant. He turned round again and dreamed of his home and children.

When the lovers awoke, their first thought was of each other, their next of Nydia. Every crevice of the vessel was searched - there was no trace of her! Mysterious from first to last, the blind Thessalian had vanished from the living world! They guessed her fate in silence, and Glaucus and Ione, while they drew nearer to each other, feeling each other the world itself, forgot their deliverance, and wept as for a departed sister.



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