Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The Centurion's escape
THE CENTURION’S ESCAPE.
A TALE OF THE EGYPTIAN PRIESTHOOD.
“How cursedly hot it is,” muttered the Centurion Septimius, to his lieutenant, grave old Lepidus, as he lay half stripped in the shade of his tent, longing for the Northern wind.
And he might well say so. The place was Syene, the time the month of August, and the almost vertical sun was pouring down his rays with a fierceness such as the Roman officer had never felt before.
Septimius and his cohort had been marched up to Syene to hold in check the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who, servile in general, and little recking then as now who was their master, provided the taxes were not too heavy, had been stirred up by the priests to a state of most unwonted agitation, in consequence of some insult offered by the Roman soldiery to the sacred animals of the district.
The palm-trees were standing motionless, not a breath stirring their long pendent branches; the broad, swollen Nile was glittering like molten metal, as he rolled majestically to the sea. In the back ground the steep sandy ridges and black crags were baking in the sun, and the only sound that broke the silence was the roar of the distant cataract.
“Curse these Egyptians and their gods,” muttered poor melting Septimius. “I only wish I had the bull Apis here to-day, or that lumbering brute Basis which pretty Cleopatra used to worship at Hermonthis, and I would see how he could stand this weather. I say, Lepidus, a steak cut out of Apis would be a blessed change for us from those eternal scraggy fowls, that they feed us on. How snug the fat brute looked in his temple at Memphis. I only wish the Emperor’s Centurions were put up half as luxuriously.”
“Hush, hush, Septimius,” answered Lepidus, his second in command, “you shouldn’t ventilate those free-thinking opinions of yours so openly. Whatever you think, keep a check on your tongue, for the old priesthood is jealous and powerful even yet, and strange stories are told of their secret doings.”
“A fig for the priesthood!” quoth Septimius. “What care I for Apis or Osiris either? I am a Roman citizen and a Roman soldier. I fear no man but my superior officer, and I know no god but the Emperor.”
“Mark my words,” was the reply. “Antony was a greater than you, Septimius, and he bowed the knee to Apis and Osiris too; why, they say, he was consecrated himself, and stood high in the priestly ranks, and yet he crouched like a beaten hound to old Petamon, the priest of Isis, and obeyed his very nod. I have heard strange things of that Petamon; men say he knew the old Egyptian secrets, and could raise the very dead from their long sleep to answer him. And his grandson and successor is a mightier enchanter than his sire. It was he that stirred up these poor Egyptian slaves almost to rebellion, not ten days ago, because one of the legionaries broke the head of a dirty ape that he caught stealing the stores. They say he is at Philæ just now concocting some new plot; so, my good fellow, do keep your eyes open, and your mouth shut—if you can.”
Septimius laughed, half good-naturedly, half contemptuously; and, humming a stave of Horace, turned in to take a nap, while Lepidus went round the sentries, to see that none were sleeping on their posts.
It was evening, the sun had set some half hour before; and the sky, after melting through all the hues of the rainbow, had merged in one delicious violet, in which the pure clear moon and the planet Venus were shining with a glorious light such as they never attain in duller climes, and throwing long, quivering, silver reflections across the dark water; the soldiery were preparing for their night’s rest, and the simple inhabitants of the country had already forgotten all their cares in sleep. The silence was broken only by the baying of a few dogs, and the howl of a distant jackal, when Septimius, shaking off his drowsiness, left his tent to saunter through the village and see how his troop were faring.
The beauty and stillness of the night tempted him to extend his ramble. The purlieus of the town were soon passed, the few dogs he met shrank cowering from before his tall form and the clank of the good sword at his side, and in a few moments he was alone in the desert. He had more than once followed the same track towards the now silent quarries, where the old Egyptians once hewed those blocks of granite which are a wonder to all succeeding ages. It was the same scene, yet how different! When he had marched over the ground once before at the head of his legionaries to check an incursion of one of the marauding desert tribes, the sky seemed brass, the earth iron, the sun was blazing overhead like a ball of molten metal, and scorching all colour and life out of the landscape; the heat, reflected from the black basalt and red syenite rocks, had beaten on his armour almost beyond endurance; while his stout soldiers could barely struggle on through the heavy sand, sighing and groaning for one drop of water where none was to be had.
How different it was now; the moon, hanging low in heaven, threw the long black shadows of the craggy rocks over the silvered sand; and the air was deliciously cool and fresh after the extreme heat of the day.
So he wandered on, till he reached a huge boulder, on which some old Pharaoh, now forgotten, had carved the record of his marches and victories. The figures of gods and kings were half obliterated, but the Centurion stood trying to follow the mouldering lines in idle curiosity.
“Be their gods true or false,” muttered he, “they were great men, these Egyptians, and their works are mighty—surely ‘there were giants in those days.’”
As he turned round, a huge crag behind him was shaped out by the uncertain moonlight into the figure of a colossus seated on a throne, such as he had seen at Thebes, on his way to Syene, and that so distinctly that he was for a moment fairly startled. Ere long the light changed, and the colossus faded away again into an ordinary rock.
Suddenly from behind the boulder an old man advanced to him, and bowing low, with the cringing servility to which the lower classes of the Egyptians had been reduced by long ages of tyranny, prostrated himself at the feet of the Centurion, and in broken Greek craved a hearing. Septimius was good-natured, and at a loss for occupation: he, therefore, gladly welcomed the interruption, and as he was, like all well-educated men of his time, as well or better acquainted with Greek than with his native tongue, in a few kindly words bade the old man speak on.
“My lord Centurion,” said the beggar, “I have followed your steps for days, in the hope of obtaining a hearing. My tongue is Greek, but my heart is true. You have heard of the Egyptian priesthood, and their wiles; not long ago one of your nation, a Centurion like yourself, fell into their hands, and they hold him captive in the neighbourhood. If you would deliver him, come here to-morrow night, and come alone; I will tell you then what must be done, but I cannot now—meanwhile, farewell.”
And ere the Centurion could utter a word he had vanished behind the rocks.
“By Castor and Pollux,” muttered Septimius, “was ever a decent fellow—not that I am a particularly decent fellow—in such a fix before? It may be a trap set for me; yet surely they dare not touch a soldier of the Emperor’s—a Centurion too,” he said. “Ay, poor Claudius vanished a month ago, they said it was a crocodile, but none saw it; yes, it must be Claudius; go I will, let Lepidus say what he likes; but stay, if I tell Lepidus, he will have my steps dogged, or some such nonsense. I’ll keep my own counsel; I’ll go, and go alone.” With a brisk step he turned on his heel, and wended his way back to his quarters.
The beggar stood behind the rock, his keen black eyes glittering with the light of triumph; his long white beard fell off, and the rags dropped from his shoulders, as he joined his companion, who was lying perdue behind the rock. He drew himself up to his full stature, and his haughty step and proud port marked Petamon, the son of Osorkon, and grandson of Petamon, the high priest of Isis at Philæ.
“Hey, Sheshonk,” he laughed to his subordinate, with a snort of scorn, “I have baited the trap for my eagle right daintily, and the noble bird shall have his wings clipped ere long. He mocks the divine Apis does he, and blasphemes the Apes of Thoth! He thinks to come here and lord it over us all, with his licentious soldiery, and his cursed Roman pride. We have been slaves before, but we have never been slaves for long; and, as the Shepherds and the Persians have passed away to nothingness, and we remain, so these Romans shall have their day and perish too. The vengeance of Heaven fell heavily on Cambyses for the blood of the murdered Apis, and shall this son of the Italian wolf escape? By Him that sleeps in Philæ, he shall bow the knee to the gods, and swear to betray his country and his emperor, or die!” And his pale face, in which, worn though it was with care, and distorted by passion, might still be traced the majestic lineaments of the great Rameses himself, spoke his unchangeable resolve.
“Well done, Petamon,” quoth Sheshonk, the assistant-priest, whose low forehead, heavy brow, and sensual lips, were in strange contrast to his companion’s face, “what a pity there is nobody here to listen to you; and that such eloquence should be thrown away upon me, who know, as well as you do yourself, if the truth were told, that Apis is only a bull after all, and Thoth’s ape is a very dirty troublesome ape; at least the one I had charge of at Hermopolis was.”
“Peace, fool,” replied Petamon, with an angry glare of his eye, “the beasts are but beasts, that I know as well as you: but the beast is only the type of the divinity, whom the vulgar may not know. Enough.”
The rest of their conversation was lost in the distance, as they slowly wended their way to the south.
Next day Septimius was somewhat thoughtful; he retired early to his tent on the pretence of weariness, and when all was still he stole out of the town as before. The hour was the same, but how different this night was from the last. A tornado had been blowing from the south all day, raising the sand in huge clouds, which obscured everything, and nearly choked man and beast with a penetrating and impalpable dust. Even now the air was hot and depressing, the sand felt heavy under foot, and the Centurion’s heart was so full of foreboding that more than once he had almost turned back.
At last he reached the granite boulder, and crouching in its shade, as before, sat the beggar. He rose as the Centurion approached, and beckoned him silently to proceed. Somewhat puzzled, Septimius obeyed, and followed in silence, plodding wearily through the deep sand. At last the beggar turned.
“Sir Centurion,” he said, “the night is hot, and the way heavy; let me ease you of your sword;” and before Septimius could remonstrate or resist, his nimble hands had unstrapped the belt, and slung the sword over his own shoulder. “What men you Romans are!” he continued, slightly raising his voice, as they passed along a narrow track between high rocks on either side. “You fear nothing in heaven or on earth. I verily believe you would make beefsteaks of the Divine Apis;” and he halted full in the way, and seemed absolutely to grow before the Centurion’s eyes, he loomed so large and majestic in the moonlight, while his eyes glared like blazing coals with hatred and revenge.
The Centurion recoiled, and at the same moment two from each side, four strange white figures, each with the head of a hawk, surmounted by the disk of the sun, glided forth and laid hands on him. Septimius struggled like a snared lion, but it was of no avail; he threatened them with the wrath of the Emperor, and they answered with a low mocking laugh. He made one furious rush at the ci devant beggar who had betrayed him, and clutched him by the robe. Petamon quietly threw the sword far away over the sand, and crossed his arms, while his ghostly allies advanced to the rescue. In another moment the prisoner was torn away, but not before he had rent off a fragment of the priest’s robes, which fell upon the sand. His good sword was gone far beyond his reach, and after a few frantic plunges he was bound hand and foot, and lashed to a rude litter which was brought from behind the rock. The four mysterious phantoms silently raised the litter and bore it swiftly across the sands, while Petamon, with a vigour remarkable in one so far advanced in years, led the way.
They had advanced along the sandy track for some distance, when suddenly the eye of Septimius, who could just raise his head and look forward by straining painfully against his bonds, caught the glimmer of the moonlight on the water, and before him rose perhaps the most unearthly, most beautiful scene that can meet the eyes of man.
Ruined as it now is, with its broken columns and shattered piers, marked at every turn by the hand of the destroyer, Philæ, and Philæ by moonlight, is wondrously lovely; what must it have been then?
In the midst of a quiet lagoon lay the Sacred Island, girt in by hills, on whose rugged sides the black basaltic rocks were piled in the most magnificent confusion—a green spot in the midst of a desert of stone—and, amid the Grove of Palms upon its shore, rose the roofs of temples, and the tops of huge pyramidal gateways, while the solemn moonlight poured over all. A boat, manned by four more of the strange hawk-headed beings, was anchored at the shore. Silently the priest embarked, silently Septimius was lifted on board, silently the rowers bent to their oars, and in a few minutes they were passing along under the massy wall which rises sheer out of the water on the western side.
Suddenly the boat stopped, and the Priest struck the wall thrice, repeating each time, “In the name of Him who sleeps at Philæ.” Silently, a portion of the apparently massy wall swung back and disclosed a narrow stair, up which they carried the Centurion; and by a side door entered the outer court. Before them rose the huge gateway, on each of whose towers was carved the giant semblance of a conqueror grasping with his left hand a group of captives by the hair, while he lifts the right to strike the death-blow. They hurried on through the great Hall of Pillars up a narrow stair, and opening a small aperture, more like a window than a door, thrust in the Centurion, and left him, bound hand and foot, to his own reflections. These, you may imagine, were not of the most cheerful description, and might be put in words as follows: “Well, I have made a fool of myself pretty effectually this time; what a laugh honest Lepidus will have at me when I get back, if I do get back at all, of which there does not seem to be much prospect at present. I wonder what the fellows mean to do with me; and what, in the name of Pluto and Proserpine, were those hawk-heads that fell upon me, were they men or demons? I remember there were some pictures of things very like them at Thebes; and who can the old fox be that trapped me so cleverly? Lepidus was talking of their Egyptian guile. It must be Petamon himself, or perhaps the ape Thoth; it was a most apish trick he played me. And if they do put an end to me, what next? Will that be the finish, or is there a world beyond? If there be, I hope it is something different from this, for it would be somewhat fatiguing to be a Centurion for ever, and hear every day that eternal story of Domitian’s, of how to boil a turbot, for ten years on end.” And here Septimius, who was young and cheery, began to hum a tune, and ere long fell fast asleep.
Next morning Lepidus was early astir, and, after going his rounds, entered the tent of Septimius. It was empty, the bed had not been slept on, and there were no signs whatever of the tenant. “Mad boy,” muttered Lepidus; “off on some frolic as usual. I must hush it up, or Septimius, great though his family interest be, will get but a rough welcome from the General on our return. I must say he is sick, or tired, or busy. He gives me more trouble than the whole cohort put together, and yet I love the lad for his merry face and his kindly smile more than I love anything on earth:” and for a moment the soldier’s rough face was mellowed by a smile of wondrous softness.
Noonday and evening came and went, and still Septimius was absent; and next morning, Lepidus, blaming himself much for having delayed so long, gave the alarm that the Centurion had vanished or been spirited away, and instituted a regular inquiry. Little information could be elicited. One of the sentries had noticed Septimius wandering away towards the desert, but he was too much accustomed to his officer’s little vagaries to take much note of the fact. Doubt and gloom hung over all, for the Centurion, rash as he was, was a brave leader, and a kindly cheerful man. Parties were detached to search the neighbourhood in every direction, and Lepidus could only sit and wait for information, chafing inwardly at every moment’s delay.
Towards evening one of the sergeants craved an audience of him, and when they were alone together produced the Centurion’s sword and a piece of a heavy golden fringe. He had struck into the desert, come upon a spot where there were evident marks of a struggle, and picked up the sword and torn fringe lying on the ground. Sergeant and officer looked at each other, and the same fear clouded the faces of both.
“Petamon is at Philæ?” inquired Lepidus.
“He is, sir.”
“Then may Jove the Preserver help the poor boy, for he will need all his help. I see it now: his foolish scoffs at the gods have reached the ears of the crafty priest who has hated us Romans bitterly for long, and he has kidnapped the lad. We may be too late to save him, not too late for revenge. Muster the men at once, and let us to Philæ—quick!”
In half an hour the cohort were tramping through the sand under the still moonlight, and an hour more brought them to the banks of the quiet river. There was no boat, and they had to halt till morning broke.
At sunrise a boat was brought from the neighbouring village, and Lepidus, embarking with a portion of his troop, was rowed over to the Sacred Island. He landed at a flight of steps on the northern side, and mounting them, halted for an instant, giving the quick imperative, “In the name of the Emperor.” Ere many minutes elapsed, a band of priests, headed by Petamon himself, appeared at the great gateway, and the Centurion, advancing, briefly demanded to speak with their High Priest.
Petamon, with the rising sun flashing on his leopard-skin cloak, and the golden fringe of his girdle, with his head and beard close shaven, in his pure linen garments and papyrus sandals, stepped forward.
“I am Petamon, the grandson of Petamon, High Priest of Isis. Roman soldier, speak on.”
“I seek,” commenced Lepidus; but he stopped abruptly. His eye had caught the glitter of the golden fringe, and he saw that at one side a piece had been torn away. He sprung forward like a tiger and grasped the priest’s throat. “Petamon, Priest of Isis, I arrest you on the charge of kidnapping a Roman citizen. In the name of Cæsar Domitian; Soldiers, secure him!”
Priests and soldiers stood for a moment transfixed with amazement, while Lepidus slowly released his grasp on the priest’s throat, and they stood face to face, till the Roman almost quailed before the fierce glare of the Egyptian’s eye. The other priests began to press forward with threatening gestures; they outnumbered the Romans three times, and, though the strength and discipline of the latter would doubtless have proved victorious in the end, might have offered a stout resistance; but Petamon motioned them back. “Fear not, children,” he said, speaking in the Greek tongue, so that both parties might understand him, “the gods can protect their own, and you, Sir Roman, that have laid hands on the servant of Isis, tremble!” He walked forward, and surrendered himself to two of the soldiers.
“Rather him than me,” muttered Sheshonk, “The gods are all very well to fool the people with, but I doubt if Isis herself will save him under the Roman rods.”
Petamon raised his eyes and met those of Sheshonk. A few words in the Egyptian tongue, and a few secret signals passed between them, and Sheshonk, with a deep obeisance, retired into the temple and disappeared.
The soldiers were despatched to search the Island, and poor Septimius heard them several times pass the very door of his prison, but his gaolers had had time to thrust a gag into his mouth, so he could give no alarm. He lay there sick at heart, for he was stiff and weary, and even his cheerful spirits felt nearly broken.
The search was fruitless, as Lepidus had fully expected; and he commanded Petamon again to be brought before him. “Sir Priest,” he said, “I seek Septimius the Centurion, who is or was in your hands; unless he is restored before to-morrow’s sun sinks in the west, you die the death.”
“It is well,” said the priest, while the mock submission of his attitude was belied by the sinister fire of his eye; “the gods can protect their own.”
Towards evening Petamon requested an audience of Lepidus, and when they were again together, addressed him with more civility than he had hitherto condescended to use. He explained that it was the practice that the High Priest should, at certain seasons, sleep in the sacred recesses of the temple, and have the decrees of the goddess revealed to him in visions; he humbly craved permission to perform this sacred duty, it might be for the last time. Lepidus mused for a moment, and then gave orders that the priest, chained between two soldiers, should have leave to sleep where he would.
The night closed in; the shrine of the goddess was illuminated; and the blaze of a hundred lamps flashed on the rich colours and quaint designs on the walls of the shrine. One picture specially, behind the altar, attracted the eye of Lepidus. It represented King Ptolemy trampling down an enemy, while Isis stood by his side, with her hand raised in blessing, and Osiris held out a huge blue falchion, as if to bid him complete his task. Before the altar stood Sheshonk burning incense, while Petamon, chained between his guards, bowed for a time in prayer. By midnight the ceremony was over; Petamon, chained to a soldier on each side, lay down before the altar; the lights, all but one, were extinguished; the great door of the sacred chamber was closed. Lepidus lay down across it with his drawn sword in his hand, and, wearied with anxiety and care, soon fell fast asleep.
The sun was rising when he awoke, and, hastily rising, gave orders to change the guard upon the prisoner, and himself entered the chamber to see that the fetters were properly secured. The lamp was burning dimly, and there lay the two soldiers: but where was the prisoner? He was gone—utterly gone. The fetters were there, but Petamon had vanished. Half mad with vexation, Lepidus gave one of the soldiers an angry kick; the man neither stirred nor groaned; he snatched up the lamp and threw its rays upon the soldier’s face. It was white and still, and a small stream of blood, which had flowed from a wound over the heart, told too plain a tale. It was the same with the other; the soldiers’ last battle was fought, and they had gone to their long home.
Terrified and perplexed beyond measure, Lepidus rushed out into the court, and hastily roused the cohort. It was some minutes ere he could get them to comprehend what had happened; and even then the men followed him most unwillingly as he snatched up a torch and hurried back. To his amazement, the corpses of the soldiers were gone, and in their place lay two rams, newly slaughtered, and bound with palm ropes: the fetters had also vanished. He raised his eyes, and now noticed what he had not seen before,—the picture of Osiris and Isis was behind the altar still, but the blade of the falchion of the god was dyed red, and dripping with newly-shed gore. Shuddering and horror-stricken, he left the chamber, followed by the soldiers; and, as he passed out of the temple, met Sheshonk in his priestly robes going in to perform the morning services.
A panic seized the soldiery, in which Lepidus more than half concurred. They were men, they said; why fight against the gods? in half an hour they had left Philæ, and were marching through the desert to Syene, with drooping heads and weary steps, under the already scorching sun.
Terrified though he was, at this awful tragedy, Lepidus was too honest and true to abandon the quest. The soldiers positively refused to assist further in the search, and he was left almost to his own resources. After much thought he published a proclamation in Egyptian and Greek, offering a thousand pieces of gold for the Centurion, if alive; five hundred for the conviction of his murderers, if dead; and five hundred more for the head of the priest Petamon; and threatening the last penalty of the law on all men detaining the Roman a prisoner, or sheltering his murderers.
His hopes were faint, hut he could do no more; and having despatched a full report of the whole case to the Roman General at Alexandria, he waited, impatiently enough, his heart sickened with alternate hopes and fears.
During the next few days he was much disturbed by the sentiments of disaffection which he heard being muttered among the soldiers. Like all ignorant men, they were superstitious, the events which had occurred at Philæ had produced a deep impression on their minds, and they murmured almost openly at Lepidus for having taken them to such a fearful place, and even now for halting in so ill-omened a neighbourhood.
This feeling was much increased by an old beggar-man who constantly haunted the camp. He had attracted the attention of the soldiers by some ordinary tricks of magic, and was constantly telling fortunes and reciting prophecies, all foreboding evil to the cohort, if it stayed in the neighbourhood; and, indeed, foretelling the speedy and utter downfall of the Roman power.
Much grieved and perplexed, Lepidus ordered the beggar to be brought before him, and when he came, taxed him with attempting to incite the soldiers to mutiny, and sternly reminded him that the punishment for such an attempt was death. The old man listened quietly and calmly, crossing his arms and fixing his glittering eye, which seemed strangely familiar to Lepidus, on the Roman officer.
After a pause he spoke—“My lord,” and again the tone struck Lepidus as strangely familiar to his ear, “I serve the gods, and you the Emperor: let us both serve our masters truly. You would have news of Septimius the Centurion? It may be that the gods will permit you to see a vision: shall it be so?”
A slight curl of contempt was on the Roman’s lips as he answered:
“You know the proclamation. I am prepared to fulfil its terms.”
The old man shook himself, like an awakening lion, and again the gesture struck Lepidus as familiar.
“I seek not gold,” he said; “give me your attention, and keep the gold for those that need it.”
“It is well,” said Lepidus; “proceed.”
A small stove was burning in the tent; the old man cast upon the charcoal some drugs that raised a dense smoke, and filled the tent with a heavy perfumed smell.
“Look!” said the old man, pointing to the smoke; and retiring behind Lepidus, he crouched upon the ground.
A circle of light formed itself clearly and well-defined among the smoke, and in its midst Lepidus suddenly saw the image of the bull Apis, as he had seen him once before at Memphis, with all his gorgeous scarlet and gold trappings, and the golden disk between his horns. A moment, and the image suddenly grew smaller and smaller, and vanished from the eyes of the wondering Roman.
Again the circle of light formed, and he saw Osiris seated on his judgment throne, and the human soul being tried before him. There was the child Horus seated on a lotus flower, with his finger at his lips. There was the dog of the infernal regions, panting to devour the wicked; and there was the ape of Thoth, watching the turn of the balance. Again the vision faded.
“These are our gods,” said the beggar. “Now behold thine own.”
The circle formed again, and he saw the Emperor Domitian, his features bloated with intemperance, revelling among the degenerate senators and trembling patricians. The soldier sighed, and the vision faded again.
Again the circle formed, and this time he saw the Centurion Septimius sitting at his tent door, as when we first saw him, and, stranger still, he saw himself in converse with him.
But suddenly, whether it was the perfumes or the excitement that overcame him he never knew, but the circle of light, the old man, the tent spun round and round, and he sank fainting to the ground.
When he awoke from his swoon, the stove was burnt out, the old man was gone, and he hardly knew whether he had been dreaming or not. He felt dull and heavy, and could scarcely rise. His servant entered with a light. He glanced at his finger on which he wore his signet-ring, with which all important despatches must be sealed, and which marked their authenticity—it was gone. He felt in his bosom for the secret orders which the general had entrusted to him rather than to the headlong Septimius—they were gone too. His head still swum round; he could not think, he fell upon his bed, and sank into a long heavy dreamless slumber.
We must now return to Philæ—on the fifth day after Lepidus so hurriedly left it.
Septimius was still alive. A scanty allowance of bread and water was daily furnished him, and his bonds had been somewhat loosed, but he had not seen the light of day since his capture, and his heart sank within him in hopeless despondency. Release seemed impossible, rescue hopeless;—he could see no way out of his calamities but by death. He had never seen or spoken to anyone since his capture; invisible were the hands that had relaxed his bonds, and invisible the attendants who supplied his daily food.
Petamon had been stirring here, there, and everywhere, rousing priests and people, reminding them of old wrongs and old memories, and urging them to join in one strong effort, and expel the Roman despots.
The news of Lepidus’ proclamation had just reached the Island of Philæ. It was the turn of Sheshonk to officiate at the altar of Isis, and, while the incense was burning, he stood for a few moments wrapped in deep thought.
“Petamon is crafty and wise,” so his meditations ran; “but Rome is strong, and we can never resist her. Better swim with the flood of the river, and release that poor Centurion—and the gold, ay, the gold!—and the wrath of the gods, what of that? I have helped the trickery here for so many years that I hardly know whether there be gods at all. Petamon believes in them; but I am not Petamon. The gold is my god. I will save the youngster yet.”
He mused for a few moments longer, and then proceeded briskly about his accustomed duties.
The evening closed, the night was half spent, and Petamon, who had been away all day—on what errand the reader may easily guess—had not returned, when Sheshonk stole silently up the stair with a bundle under his arm, and, touching the spring, entered the dungeon of Septimius. The weary-worn Centurion inquired in a languid voice who it was.
“A friend,” whispered Sheshonk. “Hush, Sir Centurion, and hearken. Lepidus, your second in command, has offered a thousand pieces of gold for your safe return; do you confirm the offer?”
“Ay, and add a thousand to it,” answered the Centurion. “I have an old father in Rome, who values his son at that sum ten times told, spendthrift youngster though he be.”
“Good,” said the priest. “Petamon seeks your life, and in a few days will take it; you cannot be worse than you are, therefore you can lose nothing by trusting me—will you do so?”
“I will,” said the Centurion.
A knife was drawn gently across the cords which bound him, and he stretched his limbs here and there with a delicious sense of recovered freedom. Cautiously the priest struck a light with flint and steel, and lighted a small lantern, after which he produced from his bundle a pair of huge hawks’ heads, surmounted by the disk of the sun, with great glass eyes, and a pair of white disguises, such as the original captors of Septimius had worn. The Centurion eyed them with an amused smile, and muttering to himself “So much for the hawk demons,” proceeded to array himself in the disguise, while Sheshonk did the same. This accomplished, the priest opened the door, and they cautiously descended the stair. They met a young priest, but at a whispered word from Sheshonk he bowed and passed them by. They entered a small chamber on the west side; the priest touched a mark on the floor, and a trapdoor opened at their feet, showing a long dark stair. Down this they slowly made their way, the priest stopping for a moment to draw a heavy bolt on the under side of the trapdoor to impede pursuit. After some time the Centurion heard a rushing of water above him, the passage grew damper and damper, and the priest in a whisper explained that they were passing under the bed of the river. In a little while they again ascended a high flight of steps, another trapdoor opened at the touch of Sheshonk, and they emerged in a small temple on the island of Snem, now called Biggeh. The priest silently opened the door, and they stole out. The fresh breeze was blowing from the north, and Septimius, raising for a moment the choking weight of the hawk’s head, let the air play about his temples, and then, at a warning sign from his companion, replaced the mask.
The moon had set and the night was almost dark. Cautiously picking their steps they crossed the island, and found at the other side a small skiff lying at anchor, and two swarthy Nubian rowers in attendance; a few words passed between them and Sheshonk.
“We must wait,” he said, “till the day breaks; they dare not pass the cataract by night. Sleep if you can, and I will watch.”
Septimius was too glad of the permission; he had slept but ill in his dungeon, and, taking off the heavy mask, he buried his head in his garments and fell fast asleep.
In a few hours the morning broke, and, ere the sun was risen, Sheshonk and Septimius were on board the boat. The rowers pulled stoutly at their oars, and they soon neared the cataract, whose roar became louder as they advanced. Before them lay a stretch of the river, fenced in on either hand with desolate rocky hills;—here, there, everywhere, in the course of the stream jutted out the heads of cruel black rocks, round which the water foamed and raced like the stream of a milldam. On sped the boat. The Centurion shut his eyes and held his breath; the current caught them; they were hurried helplessly along for a moment, stern foremost, and were on the point of being dashed upon a rock, when a dexterous stroke of one of the oars righted them: a rush—a tumult of waters—dashing spray and the roar of the current for a moment, then the boat floated again in calm water and the danger was past.
In a few moments they reached the Roman encampment. The Nubians, at a word from Sheshonk, pulled away up the stream, while the two hawk-headed ones hurried through the camp, to the no small wonderment of several drowsy sentries.
Lepidus was just awakening with the weary disheartened feelings of one who dreads impending misfortune, when the flap of his tent-door was thrown back, and the sleepy officer fancied he must still be dreaming, when he saw a strange hawk-headed phantom rush into the room.
It was no phantom, as he found to his cost, for it hugged him close in its arms, while its huge beak left a dint on his face that he bore till his dying day, and a voice—the voice of Septimius—issued forth, hollow sounding, from the depths of the mask:
“Dear, dear, old Lepidus. I never thought to see your sulky face again.”
There was little time for greeting and congratulations. Sheshonk was urgent on them to complete their work, and, ere long, the legionaries, their fears dispelled by the re-appearance of the gay young Centurion, hastened again across the desert to Philæ, burning so hotly to wipe out the insult that had been offered to the Roman name that they never felt the sun.
Several boats were lying at the shore, and while Lepidus, with the main body of the men made for the stairs upon the northern side, Septimius and a few chosen followers, under the guidance of Sheshonk, crept along under the western wall in a small boat, and reached the secret door. It opened, obedient to the touch of the priest, and silently they mounted the stair—they met the other party in the great Hall of Columns; the island seemed deserted—no living thing was to be seen.
Sheshonk’s eye twinkled.
“Five hundred golden pieces for Petamon’s head!”
“Ay, and five hundred more,” said Septimius.
The priest beckoned them on. They entered the sacred chamber where Petamon had kept his vigil on that memorable night, and Lepidus half shuddered as he looked round at the familiar paintings on the wall. The altar was prepared and the fire burning on it. The priest advanced and set his foot heavily on one side of the step in front. Suddenly altar and step, solid though they seemed, rolled away noiselessly to one side, disclosing a dark passage beneath. In a moment the Romans leapt down, Lepidus, hastily lighting a torch at the altar fire as they did so. The passage led them to a small room in the thickness of the wall, and, throwing in the light of his torch, he saw the arms and accoutrements of the two murdered soldiers, and the fetters that had bound Petamon lying in a corner. Here the passage apparently terminated abruptly, but the priest raised a stone in the roof with his hand, and they crept up through the narrow aperture thus opened. A strongly barred wooden door was on their left. They shot back the bolts and the door opened, revealing a small cell hewn out of one solid stone, with no aperture save the door for the admission of air; the light of day never has penetrated those gloomy recesses. The cell was untenanted, but a heap of human bones at one corner told of the uses to which it had been applied.
Shuddering they closed the door, and upon Sheshonk touching another spring, a square aperture opened, through which they glided, serpentwise, into another of the sacred chambers, and gladly hailed the light of day as it glimmered faintly through the door.
They searched the whole temple, but in vain; secret chambers they found more than one; even the dungeon of Septimius was opened, but nothing was discovered, and even the bloodhound sagacity of Sheshonk seemed for a moment at fault.
But his eye soon brightened, and muttering to himself “five hundred pieces of gold,” he led them through the court under the high painted pillars, and opening a door in one of the sides of the pyramidal gateway, proceeded up a long narrow stair. Suddenly a rustle of garments was heard above them, and they caught sight of the robes of Petamon, his leopard-skin cloak and his golden fringe, as he fled before them. The two Romans dashed after him like greyhounds on a hare, but as they reached the top of the staircase Septimius stumbled and fell, and so checked the pursuit for an instant. In a moment he recovered himself, but in that instant Petamon, casting back on his pursuers a glance of baffled malignity, sprang from the tower, and in another moment lay, dashed upon the pavement of the hall, a shapeless mass, while his blood and brains were splashed over the gay painting of the pillars.
The soldiers and Sheshonk, horror-struck, hastened down, and were standing beside the body,—Lepidus had just recovered from the finger of the priest the signet ring that he had lost, and was in the act of drawing the roll of secret orders from his bosom,—Sheshonk had raised his head-dress and was wiping the perspiration from his brows, when suddenly, from aloft—it almost seemed from heaven—a sharp dagger was hurled with unerring aim. It cleft the bald skull of the traitor, and he fell, with scarcely a groan, on the top of Petamon’s corpse.
The Romans looked up: no one was to be seen. With a party of soldiers they searched the huge gateway towers, but, without a guide, such a quest was hopeless, and they never traced the hand from which the dagger came.
Their main object was accomplished. Petamon was dead, and with him expired all chances of a revolutionary outbreak. Sheshonk was dead, too; but, as Lepidus said, that saved the good gold pieces.
The same evening they returned to Syene, and next day the camp was broken up, and the Cohort embarked on the river and floated down to rejoin the garrison at Memphis.
Little more need be said. In six months Septimius and Lepidus left Egypt for good, and when they were fairly out of sight of land they seemed to breathe more freely.
“I owe you many a good turn, Lepidus, old boy,” said the Centurion; “but I’ll never admit, to the end of time, that Apis would not have made splendid beefsteaks.”
“Whoever said he wouldn’t?” retorted the other, his grim features relaxing into a smile; “only I think it would need a braver man than either you or I to eat them under the nose of old Petamon.”
No doubt a good deal more interesting conversation would have followed, but the wind at this point freshened, the sea began to rise, and the two Romans became deplorably sick.
- The plot of the following tale first suggested itself to the writer, while examining the wonderful remains of secret passages, dungeons, etc., in the Island of Philæ, at the southern extremity of Egypt. The story has no foundation in fact: but, so far as passages, escapes, etc., are concerned, might possibly have happened. Somewhat similar machinery has been employed in the early portion of Moore’s “Epicurean.” The only unexplained mystery, the visions which were seen by Lepidus, might have been managed by the help of a magic-lantern; and his subsequent fainting fit is easily explained, by the use of the fumes of Indian hemp or some similar narcotic. The whole magic in the story is trickery. How far the Egyptians, particularly in the olden time, may have been acquainted with mesmerism, clairvoyance, second sight, or similar phenomena is a difficult, perhaps an unanswerable, question. That, in latter times, they adopted mere mechanical and chemical jugglery, there can be no doubt.