Cornelia, the "Mother of the Gracchi", was at this time not far from fifty years of age, but retained by favour of nature, often so capricious in what she gives or takes away, much of the beauty of youth. Left a widow with a numerous family—she had borne twelve children to her husband, but all had not survived—she had found a royal suitor in Ptolemy, king of Egypt. This suit it had probably not caused her any effort to decline. A daughter of the great Cornelian house would have disdained in any case an alliance with so doubtful a race as the Ptolemies, and this particular Ptolemy, whose bloated appearance had earned him the name of Physcon, was a degenerate scion of it. But Cornelia had had serious troubles. Of her twelve children two only were now alive, Tiberius, now a lad of seventeen, and Caius, a child of five. Both, indeed, gave the fairest promise; the elder, though he had but lately assumed the manly gown, had exhausted such education as Roman teachers could then supply, and was already an accomplished rhetorician; the younger was a boy of singular beauty and intelligence. But Cornelia, a remarkably clear-sighted woman, had already begun to view with alarm the rapid development of Tiberius's character. The young man's political tendencies were strongly marked, and they seemed likely to bring him into dangerous collision with the aristocratic traditions of his mother's house. As for Caius, he was self-willed and imperious to an extraordinary degree. Still, no mother could have been prouder of her children, as none certainly could have been more devoted to them.
At this particular time, however, when Cleanor paid his first visit to the villa at Misenum, all was brightness and gaiety. Theoxena and her daughter had learned by this time to feel themselves thoroughly at home in Cornelia's hospitable house. The elder woman had suffered so much in the past that the best happiness which could be hoped for her was peace; but Daphne had blossomed out into a most attractive personality. There was a peculiar radiance about her beauty, which had all the greater charm because the girl's own disposition and the gracious example of her hostess, a very pearl among women, tempered it with a certain air of virginal reserve. Cleanor she met at first with her old sisterly frankness, but there was an ardour in the young man's glance, and a thrill in his voice—though he vainly attempted to subdue them into the greeting of a respectful affection—which seemed to alarm her. As for Cleanor, after the first day spent in her company, he could doubt no longer as to the real nature of his feelings. Daphne would be thenceforward the one woman in the world for him.
The holiday, which was prolonged to the beginning of the new year, passed only too quickly. The days were spent either in hare-hunting—larger game was not to be found in a region already thickly populated—or in excursions on the water, which were favoured by weather that, though it was the depth of winter, was remarkably calm and warm. Possibly the most delightful expedition of the season was the ascent of Vesuvius, then clothed almost to the summit with lovely woods, and giving no sign of the hidden forces which, two centuries later, were to spread desolation over the fairest region of Italy.
The evenings were begun by a meal, simply yet elegantly served, at which the whole party assembled, even the little Caius being allowed to be present for at least a time. The meal over there was no lack of entertainment. Tiberius was an accomplished reciter, and could give one of Terence's comedies with an artistic variety of voice and emphasis. Cleanor charmed the company with a passage from Homer, from Pindar, or from one of the great Athenian dramatists. Sometimes, by special request, he would dance the Pyrrhic dance, a pastime which in sterner Roman society would have more than savoured of frivolity. And now and then Daphne was persuaded to sing to the lute an exquisite little lyric from Stesichorus.
The last day of the year, which was also to be the last of the most delightful of visits, Cleanor determined to make as long as possible. Rising as soon as the first streaks of dawn began to show themselves in the sky, he began to explore more thoroughly than he had before an opportunity of doing, the beautifully ordered gardens which surrounded the villa. Following a path of velvet sward, sheltered on either side by shrubberies of box-wood, he came to a spot which gave him a wide prospect over the lovely bay of Naples. He noticed, but in the most casual way, the figure of a gardener, who was busy, as it seemed, in trimming the surrounding shrubs, the whole spot, except on that side which fronted the sea, being protected from the wind by a dense growth of box and laurel, arbutus and bay.
He threw himself down on a rustic bench and gazed on the scene before him. He was looking westward, and the sea at his feet lay in shadow, a dark purple in colour. In the distance the sun was just touching with golden light the crags of Prochyta and of the more remote Inarimé. For a time the beauty of the scene wholly occupied him, for nature stirred the hearts of the men of those days even as it stirs ours, though they had only begun to give their feelings articulate expression.
Then his thoughts recurred to what was the dominant emotion of the time with him, his love for Daphne. How, he asked himself, how should he make it known? How should he approach her? To speak directly, at least in the first instance, was not the custom of his race, though doubtless love, there as elsewhere, made exceptions of his own to the severest rule. Through her mother? But Theoxena was, he knew, only too thoroughly devoted to him. To her his wish would be a command; she would make it a matter of filial obedience with her daughter, and he wanted the voluntary submission that was wholly free. Through Cornelia? But would she favour such an alliance? She was a noble of the nobles, filled with the keenest sympathy for the people, but profoundly conscious the social difference between her class and them and with her own class she would certainly rank the well-born Cleanor.
Well, he said to himself, after a pause of reflection, which did not seem to make the matter clearer, "these things will settle themselves. I love her, and I think she loves me, so that nothing will keep us apart." And he broke into the beautiful choric song of the Antigone—for it was his habit, as it is the habit of all true lovers of poetry, thus to interrupt his solitary musings—
"O love invincible!"
After this came a stave of Alcæus, and after this again a piece of melodious tenderness from Sappho.
As he turned to retrace his steps to the house, for he had risen early, and the keen morning air made him feel that he had fasted long, he was startled to hear his name called from behind him, not the name by which he was known to the world, but the pet family name, which he had not heard since the home of his childhood had vanished in fire and blood.
"Cle," said the voice, and its tones seemed to be strangely familiar. He turned; no one was within sight but the gardener. The man had dropped the shears, and stood with his hands stretched out in a supplicating gesture.
"What is it?" he cried; "what or whom do you want?" He took two or three steps forward, and as he approached there seemed to be something strangely familiar in the figure before him.
"Yes, it is—" and the speaker swayed to and fro for a moment, and then fell unconscious to the ground. The wide-brimmed hat, which had been drawn down low over the face, to conceal, as it seemed, the features, was displaced by the fall, and revealed the graceful contour of the forehead, and the shapely head covered with short curls of sunny gold.
"Great Zeus!" cried Cleanor, as he lifted the prostrate figure from the ground. "Great Zeus! if I am not mad or dreaming, this is Cleoné come to life again."
Close by a tiny spring trickled down from a rock. Cleanor held his cap beneath it till it was half full, and dashed the water in his sister's face. She drew two or three deep breaths, and then opened her eyes. Vacant at first, for she could not remember where she was or what had happened, they soon became radiant with happy light.
"Dearest brother," she murmured, "have I found you again? But come to my little hut—it is close by. There you shall hear my story, and we will consider what is to be done."
Briefly put, for in the actual telling it was interrupted, as may be supposes, with numberless exclamations and questions, Cleoné's story was this:—
"I remember nothing after I was struck down by a blow from a soldier's sword in the market-place of Chelys, till I found myself in the hold of a ship at sea."
"Then you were not killed?" cried Cleanor.
"It seems not," said the girl with a merry laugh, "for even were I an Eurydice there was no Orpheus to bring me back from the house of Hades."
"Ah!" said the young man, "now I begin to understand what old Judas meant. He said, you must know, that they bribed the soldiers not to kill the prisoners, but to stun them."
"Well, as I was saying, I found myself in the hold of a ship which was evidently making very bad weather. I was lying with my head close to the deck, and I could hear two men talking just over me. There was such a roaring of the wind, and such a creaking of timbers, that I lost a good deal of what they said. Still I could make out something. Someone—I supposed it was the captain—was cursing his ill-luck. 'Here,' he said, 'is a bit of cursed spite—as good a speculation as ever I made in my life all comes to nothing. There are fifty as likely young fellows as I have had the handling of since I went into the business five-and-twenty years ago down there, and what is going to become of them? They are worth two hundred thousand sesterces if they are worth one, and now the whole lot is going to the bottom.' 'What is the odds?' growled the other, whom I took to be the steersman. 'What is the odds if you are going too?' 'I tell you what,' said the other again after a pause, 'you should give the fellows a chance. Open the hatches, and let them get to land if they can.' 'What is the good?' answered the captain sulkily; 'they may drown for all I care.' 'Nay, but you talk like a fool. If they live, they are still yours, and you may get hold of them, or, at least, of some of them again.' 'True,' said the owner, 'that is so. They shall have a chance.' A minute or two afterwards the hatches were opened, and the fellow cried, 'Up with you as quick as you can? The ship hasn't many minutes to float, and if you don't want to go to the bottom with her, now is your time.' About two score out of the fifty clambered upon deck. Some had never recovered from the blow which had stunned them—it can't be an easy thing to give just the right sort of stroke—and some, I take it, were so far gone with sea-sickness that they did not care to move. As for me, I felt a little dazed; sea-sickness never troubles me, as you know. We got up on deck only just in time, the ship was already close upon the rocks. The next minute she struck. What happened to the crew and to my companions is more than I can say; all I know is that I have never seen one of them since, except, indeed, sole dead bodies that I found on the shore next morning. I had a desperate struggle to get to land, and, indeed, I never should have done it, though, as you know, I am no bad swimmer, but that an extra big wave threw me up almost high and dry, and I had just strength enough to crawl away out of reach of the sea. The rest of the night—it was about the middle of the third watch, as near as I could guess, when this happened—I passed in a thicket in a bed of dry leaves, where I slept as soundly as ever I did in my life. The next day I rigged myself out with clothes that I took from the dead men on the shore—it was no robbery, I thought, poor fellows! I found some money, too, in their pockets. Following a road which led in-land, I came to a village where there was a tavern. Here I got some bread and a draught of sour wine. I thought it safest, I should tell you, to pretend to be deaf and dumb, and made them to understand by signs that I wanted something to eat and drink. I paid for what I had, but was careful to let the people know that I had very little, for I made up the few coppers that were wanted from one place and another. Then I got them to understand that I wanted to work for my living. First I made as if I were digging, then as if I were sawing wood. They happened to want someone, for it was a busy time of the year, and they saw that they could get the work done very cheaply, for they gave me no pay besides my food and lodging in an outhouse, which, happily, I had to myself. Here I stopped for about a month. Then I overheard some people talking of a great lady who lived in the neighbourhood. She was a widow, they said, and managed everything—house and garden and farm—all by herself. That, I thought to myself, is the place for me. Perhaps some day I shall be able to tell her my story. However, the day has never come. I got employment just in the same way as I did at the tavern, and I have the little hut to myself, where I look after some fowls and pigeons. But, somehow, I could never summon up courage to speak.
However, I always went on hoping and hoping, and now, dearest Cleanor, that you are come, all will be right."
"Yes," said the young man, "and the first thing, my dear Cleoné, will be to get you some proper clothes."
The girl blushed.
"By Castor!" she said, "I had almost forgotten that I was dressed as a man. But how will you manage it?"
"Easily enough," replied her brother. "The lady Cornelia has an excellent housekeeper with whom I am in high favour; I don't doubt that she will let me have everything I want. But I must go; the sooner we manage this the better."
Poor Cleoné, woman-like, felt the courage which had never failed before desert her when she had to part even for half an hour with her long-lost brother. She clung to him, and wept piteously. "Don't leave me," she sobbed.
The young man, to whom this sort of thing was quite a anew experience, looked at her with astonishment. "What, Cleoné, is the meaning of this after all you have gone through?"
"Yes," she said, smiling through her tears, "I am a fool. And besides," she went on, looking at her dirty and ragged garments, "I do want some decent clothes."
The good Pollia, who acted as wardrobe-keeper, mother-of-the-maids, and housekeeper in general to Cornelia, was not a little astonished when Cleanor asked her to supply him with the various articles of a young lady's toilet, not so numerous in those days, it should be mentioned, as they are now. He was a great favourite, however, and she asked no questions, probably thinking that some joke was being meditated. She searched accordingly among the treasures in her charge, and had no difficulty in finding all that was wanted.
Fashions did not change in those days as they change under the vagaries of modern taste. Women were careful, indeed perhaps more careful than they are now, to suit their dress to their age. But what the mother had worn at twenty, the daughter, reaching the same years, might wear without even the suspicion of oddity, and the garments might be handed down, if they were of the quality that was suited to so long a life, to yet another generation.
Cleanor was soon making his way with an armful of suitable apparel to the gardener's hut. Cleoné, who seemed to be bent on making up as quickly as possible for her enforced separation from all feminine vanities, received the precious burden with a shriek of delight. When she emerged, half an hour afterwards, from her hut it would have passed all human skill to recognize in the brilliant young beauty who held Cleanor's hand the shabby deaf-mute who for many months past had plied his solitary task in Cornelia's gardens.
All these confidences and preparations had taken time, and the house party had just assembled for the midday meal when the pair walked into the dining-room. Never since Misenum got its name had the place seen a more startling sight. At first it seemed as if Cleanor had found his double, for brother and sister were curiously alike. But the time that had passed since they were so tragically parted had changed them not a little. The young man had grown in height, and his frame, knit by the continual activities of an adventurous life, had developed the ampler proportions that became his sex. The girl was his very image, but now on a somewhat smaller scale. A fairer couple had never been seen in Italy.
"Cleanor has turned into Apollo," cried the little Caius, "and he has brought Diana with him."
As for the rest of the company, they gazed with an astonishment that was almost stupefaction on the scene. Cornelia was the first to recover herself. She advanced to greet the new-comer. "You are welcome," she said, "for your brother's sake—for Cleanor must surely be your brother—and, I am sure, for your own." Then Theoxena threw herself at the girl's feet and clasped her knees. "It Cleoné," she cried. "The gods have nothing more to give me." Little Cephalus kissed her hand, and Daphne, somewhat shy at first of the splendid stranger, was not long behind with an affectionate greeting.
"Not a word," said Cornelia, "till you have eaten and drunk. For the present," she said, smiling at the little Caius, "they will have to be content without ambrosia and nectar."
The meal ended, Cornelia heard the whole story. Her mind, always eminently practical, discerned at once the first thing that had to be done.
"We must assure without delay," she said, "this young lady's civil status. At present it would be very perplexing to say who or what she is."
A message was immediately despatched to the nearest town with a letter requiring the immediate presence of the resident notary. He arrived before sunset, and by a formal act of emancipation Cleoné, slave of Cornelia, was made free.
"Pardon me, my daughter," she said, "if I speak of you as my slave. And indeed my title is a very weak one; no one, however, is likely to make out a better. Meanwhile, as far as I can secure your freedom, you are free."