The House of Lucilius
It was a house of trouble into which the two sisters were thus brought. The only child of Lucilius was prostrated with a fever which had for some time been epidemic in Nicæa. He was a promising lad of sixteen, whose fine, generous, temper curiously contrasted with the mean and ignoble character of his father. For the last year or so, indeed,—since he had begun to be aware of what the outside world thought about the man whom as a son he was bound to respect—this contrast had troubled him much; and he had felt acutely the unhappiness of his home. His mother—sweet-tempered and gentle as she was, and carrying wifely obedience to the very verge of what duty enjoined—had a conscience that would not allow her to see wrong done without a protest. She would put up with any privation for herself; but to see her child stinted in what was necessary for his health, or the household slaves starved or half-poisoned with unwholesome food, was a thing that she could not endure in silence. Painful scenes became, in consequence, more and more frequent in the family. Lucilius's miserly habits grew upon him, as such habits will grow; and the gentle protests of his wife were met with furious anger, sometimes even with actual violence. These experiences were nothing less than agony to the son's sensitive temper. He loved his mother with his whole heart; he would fain have loved his father. In the old days, before the ruling passion had so mastered the man's being, his child was the one thing for which he cared; and even now the feeling was not wholly lost. If the miser had a soft spot in his heart—one not quite crusted over with the hardness of avarice—it was in his regard for his only child. Now and then he would show some tenderness for the boy; once or twice, by some tremendous effort of the will, he would even loosen his purse strings to buy something that would please him. It was curiously characteristic of the man's ruling vice that he found it easier to purchase for him some useless ornament than to relax the niggardly rules of his household expenditure. He would give the lad a costly jewel, and yet allow him to pine for the want of good and sufficient food. Possibly this kind of gift gratified his vanity; it may be—for there are no depths of meanness to which avarice will not descend—he could not help remembering that the good food was a perishable commodity, while the jewel represented a permanent value, and, in fact, was only property in another shape.
It can easily be imagined that these causes told, directly and indirectly, upon a constitution that had never been very strong, and that the fever found in the younger Lucilius a victim dangerously ready to succumb to its attack. The early symptoms of the disease had not passed unnoticed by the mother, and she had implored her husband to call in at once the assistance of a physician. Of course he refused. He had trained himself not to believe in the existence of anything that necessitated the expenditure of money, and he wilfully shut his eyes to indications which were manifest enough to every one else. In two or three days' time this self-deception ceased to be possible. The father had refused to notice—though not, we may believe, without some stifled misgivings—the flushed cheeks, the frequent cough, and the failing appetite; but when the lad could not rise from his bed, and when the ravings of delirium were heard outside the door of the boy's chamber, he could not ignore any longer the presence of disease. Then the physician was sent for in hot haste.
Dioscorides was a Greek who claimed to belong to what may be called the physician caste of the ancient world, the Asclepids, who traced their descent to Æsculapius, the god of healing, himself. For nearly fifty years he had the principal practice of Nicæa; his experience was vast, his skill and readiness of resource never failed him. It was these—rather than any traditionary secrets of methods and remedies, such as popular report credited him with—that made him extraordinarily successful. He was an old man, whose face seemed to show at once much firmness and much benevolence. To his patients he was kindness and gentleness itself. He neglected nothing that could please, or even humour them. A modern practitioner of the healing art would perhaps smile at the extraordinary care with which he would prepare himself for a visit to a patient. His long white hair was always carefully combed and delicately perfumed; his robes were beautifully clean. "We must please," he would say, "a sick man's senses as much as we can. Nothing ought to be neglected that can minister to that end."
But while he was gentle, he was firm when firmness was needed. Pretences of every kind met with no sort of mercy from him. If a fine lady, whose only real malady was indolence, sent for him, she was sure to hear the truth without any attempt at disguise. He was no fashionable physician, making a profit out of the whims and fancies of idleness and luxury. "You work too little; you eat and drink too much," was the homely formula with which he described the ailments of these imaginary invalids. If they dismissed him, as they were apt to do in the first annoyance of hearing an unwelcome truth, he accepted the dismissal with a smile. His practice was too large and lucrative to make him care for the loss of this or that patient; and he knew perfectly well that, when any serious cause occurred, he would be sent for again.
Lucilius, whose character and habits were perfectly well known to him, was, of course, not going to escape without hearing some truth from his lips.
"You should have sent for me," he said, "three days ago."
"I did not think that there was any need," said the father, in a faltering voice. His conscience had begun to prick him; and he knew, too, that all disguises would be useless with the clear-sighted, plain-speaking Dioscorides.
"Nonsense, man!" answered the physician, sharply. "You can see, you can hear! You must have heard the lad cough; you must have seen him wasting before your eyes! Don't tell me you didn't think there was any need. The truth is that you shut your eyes and ears because you were afraid of the fees. Now I am very much afraid that it is too late!"
"Oh! sir, don't say so," cried the wretched man, whose heart, hardened as it was with the most deadening of all vices, was touched by the danger of his son—"don't say so. I will spare nothing; save him, and you shall name your own fee."
"Not all the gold in the world," returned the physician, "can purchase the three days that have been lost; but I will do all I can for the lad and his mother. Only the gods in heaven know," he added in a half-audible aside, "how such a woman came to marry such a mean hound—only there is no knowing the follies of women—and how such a father came to have such a son." He went on, turning to Lucilius, "The only chance for the boy now is the best of nursing. His mother is not strong enough; besides, she is too anxious. As a rule I don't believe in mothers' nursing; they are apt to lose their heads. And hired nursing is seldom much good either," went on the old man, talking to himself; "just what's in the letter of the bond, and no more; must have their so many hours' rest, and so forth; all for themselves and nothing for the patient. Of course there are exceptions, but I can't think of any one who is available just at this moment. Now, if you could get one of those two young women, Rhoda or Cleoné, or both of them—for it will be more than one can well manage—it would be perfect; they would do the thing for love, and yet not be too anxious. But then they have been mixed up in this foolish business of the Christians, and there is no getting at them, I suppose."
"By good fortune, sir," Lucilius interrupted at this moment, "the two young women are to be put in my keeping, pending the arrival of the Emperor's letter."
"Thank the gods for your good fortune," cried the old physician in his delight; "if anything can save the lad, it will be their nursing. I have had some opportunities for observing it, and it is simply perfect. When do they come?
"I had notice that they would be delivered to my hands at noon," answered Lucilius.
"That will give me time," said the physician, "to visit two or three other patients. I will return and give them my instructions; and, mind, in case I should not see you again, they must have every thing they ask for."
This, then, was the state of things which the two prisoners found on their arrival at the house of Lucilius. They threw themselves into the duty which they found so strangely ready to their hand with wonderful energy, though Rhoda was more fit to be nursed than to nurse. With a touching humility and sacrifice of personal feeling, the mother gave up her charge into their hands. To be allowed to help, to do something for the darling of her heart, was all that she asked. Even this consolation she was ready to give up if she thought that the service it was such a delight to render was better given by another.
But when all their efforts seemed unavailing, when the lad grew weaker every day, and the delirium left fewer and fewer lucid intervals, the behaviour of the mother underwent a curious change—all the more curious when it was contrasted with the altered demeanour of her husband. Something had found its way at last to the cold heart of the miser; disappointed ambition had something to do with it. He had wanted to give his family such rank as could be acquired by wealth, and wealth had about as much power in Bithynia in the days of Trajan as it has in London in the days of Victoria. But what if the son for whom he was saving—and he constantly salved his conscience for mean or unprincipled acts by repeating to himself at all his savings were for his son—what if is son should die? Curiously mixed up with this meaner motive was a genuine love for his child. For the time, at least, the man's hard nature was broken through. His purse was opened now without reluctance to purchase anything that the sick lad could need. He would wait with humble patience outside the door of the sick-chamber for the latest news. The sisters naturally thought that this manifest softening of the heart would have brought him nearer to his wife; but they were astonished to see that the woman, for all the gentleness of her nature, shrank more and more from him, and seemed to feel no comfort in his sympathy, and not to be touched by his manifest grief. Rhoda was the unwilling witness of a painful scene in which this growing alienation seemed to culminate. Made desperate by the increasing peril which threatened his son's life—and, indeed, Dioscorides himself, the most hopeful as he was the most skilful of his profession, had begun to give up hope—the wretched man turned, by way of a last resource, to the help of heavenly powers. He tried to persuade himself that it might not be altogether unavailing; he could anyhow believe that it would do no harm to appeal to it. This idea he communicated to his wife in the presence of the elder of the two sisters. The physician was paying one of his visits, and Cleoné was in the room to hear the instructions as to what was to be done till he should come again. Lucilius and his wife, with Rhoda, were in an adjoining chamber.
"Shall we offer a sacrifice for our poor boy?" he asked.
Then the gentle woman's wrath fairly blazed out. Rhoda watched the explosion with such astonishment as one might feel were a lamb to show the ferocity of a tiger.
"You," she cried, "you offer sacrifice! Will the righteous gods listen to you? Will you even dare to touch their altars with your murderous hands? This is their judgment upon you. I knew it would come sooner or later. I had hoped that it would not be till I had got my release from the horrible bond that ties me to you. But the gods do not suffer me to escape, for I, too, am guilty. And now the stroke has fallen on you and on me!"
A terrible fascination seemed to keep the girl's yes fixed on the face of Lucilius as the woman, who seemed positively transfigured by her rage, poured out this stream of reproaches on him. At first it expressed keen astonishment, then a dreadful look of fear seemed to creep over it. Once and again he opened his lips, as if he would have spoken, but no sound came forth from them.
"Be silent—be silent," at last he managed to utter, and so turned and staggered out of the room.