PETRONIUS woke only about midday, and as usual greatly wearied. The evening before he had been at one of Nero's feasts, which was prolonged till late at night. For some time his health had been failing. He said himself that he woke up benumbed, as it were, and without power of collecting his thoughts. But the morning bath and careful kneading of the body by trained slaves hastened gradually the course of his slothful blood, roused him, quickened him, restored his strength, so that he issued from the elæothesium, that is, the last division of the bath, as if he had risen from the dead, with eyes gleaming from wit and gladness, rejuvenated, filled with life, exquisite, so unapproachable that Otho himself could not compare with him, and was really that which he had been called,—arbiter elegantiarum.
He visited the public baths rarely, only when some rhetor happened there who roused admiration and who was spoken of in the city, or when in the ephebias there were combats of exceptional interest. Moreover, he had in his own "insula" private baths which Celer, the famous contemporary of Severus, had extended for him, reconstructed and arranged with such uncommon taste that Nero himself acknowledged their excellence over those of the Emperor, though the imperial baths were more extensive and finished with incomparably greater luxury.
After that feast, at which he was bored by the jesting of Vatinius with Nero, Lucan, and Seneca, he took part in a diatribe as to whether woman has a soul. Rising late, he used, as was his custom, the baths. Two enormous balneatores laid him on a cypress table covered with snow-white Egyptian byssus, and with hands dipped in perfumed olive oil began to rub his shapely body; and he waited with closed eyes till the heat of the laconicum and the heat of their hands passed through him and expelled weariness.
But after a certain time he spoke, and opened his eyes; he inquired about the weather, and then about gems which the jeweller Idomeneus had promised to send him for examination that day. It appeared that the weather was beautiful, with a light breeze from the Alban hills, and that the gems had not been brought. Petronius closed his eyes again, and had given command to bear him to the tepidarium, when from behind the curtain the nomenclator looked in, announcing that young Marcus Vinicius, recently returned from Asia Minor, had come to visit him.
Petronius ordered to admit the guest to the tepidarium, to which he was borne himself. Vinicius was the son of his oldest sister, who years before had married Marcus Vinicius, a man of consular dignity from the time of Tiberius. The young man was serving then under Corbulo against the Parthians, and at the close of the war had returned to the city. Petronius had for him a certain weakness bordering on attachment, for Marcus was beautiful and athletic, a young man who knew how to preserve a certain aesthetic measure in his profligacy; this, Petronius prized above everything.
"A greeting to Petronius," said the young man, entering the tepidarium with a springy step. "May all the gods grant thee success, but especially Asklepios and Kypris, for under their double protection nothing evil can meet one."
"I greet thee in Rome, and may thy rest be sweet after war," replied Petronius, extending his hand from between the folds of soft karbas stuff in which he was wrapped. "What's to be heard in Armenia; or since thou wert in Asia, didst thou not stumble into Bithynia?"
Petronius on a time had been proconsul in Bithynia, and, what is more, he had governed with energy and justice. This was a marvellous contrast in the character of a man noted for effeminacy and love of luxury; hence he was fond of mentioning those times, as they were a proof of what he had been, and of what he might have become had it pleased him.
"I happened to visit Heraklea," answered Vinicius. "Corbulo sent me there with an order to assemble reinforcements."
"Ah, Heraklea! I knew at Heraklea a certain maiden from Colchis, for whom I would have given all the divorced women of this city, not excluding Poppæa. But these are old stories. Tell me now, rather, what is to be heard from the Parthian boundary. It is true that they weary me every Vologeses of them, and Tiridates and Tigranes,—those barbarians who, as young Arulenus insists, walk on all fours at home, and pretend to be human only when in our presence. But now people in Rome speak much of them, if only for the reason that it is dangerous to speak of aught else."
"The war is going badly, and but for Corbulo might be turned to defeat."
"Corbulo! by Bacchus! a real god of war, a genuine Mars, a great leader, at the same time quick-tempered, honest, and dull. I love him, even for this,—that Nero is afraid of him."
"Corbulo is not a dull man."
"Perhaps thou art right, but for that matter it is all one. Dulness, as Pyrrho says, is in no way worse than wisdom, and differs from it in nothing."
Vinicius began to talk of the war; but when Petronius closed his eyes again, the young man, seeing his uncle's tired and somewhat emaciated face, changed the conversation, and inquired with a certain interest about his health.
Petronius opened his eyes again.
Health!—No. He did not feel well. He had not gone so far yet, it is true, as young Sissena, who had lost sensation to such a degree that when he was brought to the bath in the morning he inquired, "Am I sitting?" But he was not well. Vinicius had just committed him to the care of Asklepios and Kypris. But he, Petronius, did not believe in Asklepios. It was not known even whose son that Asklepios was, the son of Arsinoe or Koronis; and if the mother was doubtful, what was to be said of the father? Who, in that time, could be sure who his own father was?
Hereupon Petronius began to laugh; then he continued,—"Two years ago, it is true, I sent to Epidaurus three dozen live blackbirds and a goblet of gold; but dost thou know why? I said to myself, 'Whether this helps or not, it will do me no harm.' Though people make offerings to the gods yet, I believe that all think as I do,—all, with the exception, perhaps, of mule-drivers hired at the Porta Capena by travellers. Besides Asklepios, I have had dealings with sons of Asklepios. When I was troubled a little last year in the bladder, they performed an incubation for me. I saw that they were tricksters, but I said to myself: 'What harm! The world stands on deceit, and life is an illusion. The soul is an illusion too. But one must have reason enough to distinguish pleasant from painful illusions.' I shall give command to burn in my hypocaustum, cedar-wood sprinkled with ambergris, for during life I prefer perfumes to stenches. As to Kypris, to whom thou hast also confided me, I have known her guardianship to the extent that I have twinges in my right foot. But as to the rest she is a good goddess! I suppose that thou wilt bear sooner or later white doves to her altar."
"True," answered Vinicius. "The arrows of the Parthians have not reached my body, but a dart of Amor has struck me—unexpectedly, a few stadia from a gate of this city."
"By the white knees of the Graces! thou wilt tell me of this at a leisure hour."
"I have come purposely to get thy advice," answered Marcus.
But at that moment the epilatores came, and occupied themselves with Petronius. Marcus, throwing aside his tunic, entered a bath of tepid water, for Petronius invited him to a plunge bath.
"Ah, I have not even asked whether thy feeling is reciprocated," said Petronius, looking at the youthful body of Marcus, which was as if cut out of marble. "Had Lysippos seen thee, thou wouldst be ornamenting now the gate leading to the Palatine, as a statue of Hercules in youth."
The young man smiled with satisfaction, and began to sink in the bath, splashing warm water abundantly on the mosaic which represented Hera at the moment when she was imploring Sleep to lull Zeus to rest. Petronius looked at him with the satisfied eye of an artist.
When Vinicius had finished and yielded himself in turn to the epilatores, a lector came in with a bronze tube at his breast and rolls of paper in the tube.
"Dost wish to listen?" asked Petronius.
"If it is thy creation, gladly!" answered the young tribune; "if not, I prefer conversation. Poets seize people at present on every street corner."
"Of course they do. Thou wilt not pass any basilica, bath, library, or book-shop without seeing a poet gesticulating like a monkey. Agrippa, on coming here from the East, mistook them for madmen. And it is just such a time now. Cæsar writes verses; hence all follow in his steps. Only it is not permitted to write better verses than Cæsar, and for that reason I fear a little for Lucan. But I write prose, with which, however, I do not honor myself or others. What the lector has to read are codicilli of that poor Fabricius Veiento."
"Because it has been communicated to him that he must dwell in Odyssa and not return to his domestic hearth till he receives a new command. That Odyssey will be easier for him than for Ulysses, since his wife is no Penelope. I need not tell thee, for that matter, that he acted stupidly. But here no one takes things otherwise than superficially. His is rather a wretched and dull little book, which people have begun to read passionately only when the author is banished. Now one hears on every side, 'Scandala! scandala!' and it may be that Veiento invented some things; but I, who know the city, know our patres and our women, assure thee that it is all paler than reality. Meanwhile every man is searching in the book,—for himself with alarm, for his acquaintances with delight. At the book-shop of Avirnus a hundred copyists are writing at dictation, and its success is assured."
"Are not thy affairs in it?"
"They are; but the author is mistaken, for I am at once worse and less flat than he represents me. Seest thou we have lost long since the feeling of what is worthy or unworthy,—and to me even it seems that in real truth there is no difference between them, though Seneca, Musonius, and Trasca pretend that they see it. To me it is all one! By Hercules, I say what I think! I have preserved loftiness, however, because I know what is deformed and what is beautiful; but our poet, Bronzebeard, for example, the charioteer, the singer, the actor, does not understand this."
"I am sorry, however, for Fabricius! He is a good companion."
"Vanity ruined the man. Every one suspected him, no one knew certainly; but he could not contain himself, and told the secret on all sides in confidence. Hast heard the history of Rufinus?"
"Then come to the frigidarium to cool; there I will tell thee."
They passed to the frigidarium, in the middle of which played a fountain of bright rose-color, emitting the odor of violets. There they sat in niches which were covered with velvet, and began to cool themselves. Silence reigned for a time. Vinicius looked awhile thoughtfully at a bronze faun which, bending over the arm of a nymph, was seeking her lips eagerly with his lips.
"He is right," said the young man. "That is what is best in life."
"More or less! But besides this thou lovest war, for which I have no liking, since under tents one's finger-nails break and cease to be rosy. For that matter, every man has his preferences. Bronzebeard loves song, especially his own; and old Scaurus his Corinthian vase, which stands near his bed at night, and which he kisses when he cannot sleep. He has kissed the edge off already. Tell me, dost thou not write verses?"
"No; I have never composed a single hexameter."
"And dost thou not play on the lute and sing?"
"And dost thou drive a chariot?"
"I tried once in Antioch, but unsuccessfully."
"Then I am at rest concerning thee. And to what party in the hippodrome dost thou belong?"
"To the Greens."
"Now I am perfectly at rest, especially since thou hast a large property indeed, though thou art not so rich as Pallas or Seneca. For seest thou, with us at present it is well to write verses, to sing to a lute, to declaim, and to compete in the Circus; but better, and especially safer, not to write verses, not to play, not to sing, and not to compete in the Circus. Best of all, is it to know how to admire when Bronzebeard admires. Thou art a comely young man; hence Poppæa may fall in love with thee. This is thy only peril. But no, she is too experienced; she cares for something else. She has had enough of love with her two husbands; with the third she has other views. Dost thou know that that stupid Otho loves her yet to distraction? He walks on the cliffs of Spain, and sighs; he has so lost his former habits, and so ceased to care for his person, that three hours each day suffice him to dress his hair. Who could have expected this of Otho?"
"I understand him," answered Vinicius; "but in his place I should have done something else."
"I should have enrolled faithful legions of mountaineers of that country. They are good soldiers,—those Iberians."
"Vinicius! Vinicius! I almost wish to tell thee that thou wouldst not have been capable of that. And knowest why? Such things are done, but they are not mentioned even conditionally. As to me, in his place, I should have laughed at Poppæa, laughed at Bronzebeard, and formed for myself legions, not of Iberian men, however, but Iberian women. And what is more, I should have written epigrams which I should not have read to any one,—not like that poor Rufinus."
"Thou wert to tell me his history."
"I will tell it in the unctorium."
But in the unctorium the attention of Vinicius was turned to other objects; namely, to wonderful slave women who were waiting for the bathers. Two of them, Africans, resembling noble statues of ebony, began to anoint their bodies with delicate perfumes from Arabia; others, Phrygians, skilled in hairdressing, held in their hands, which were bending and flexible as serpents, combs and mirrors of polished steel; two Grecian maidens from Kos, who were simply like deities, waited as vestiplicæ, till the moment should come to put statuesque folds in the togas of the lords.
"By the cloud-scattering Zeus!" said Marcus Vinicius, "what a choice thou hast!"
"I prefer choice to numbers," answered Petronius. "My whole 'familia' [household servants] in Rome does not exceed four hundred, and I judge that for personal attendance only upstarts need a greater number of people."
"More beautiful bodies even Bronzebeard does not possess," said Vinicius, distending his nostrils.
"Thou art my relative," answered Petronius, with a certain friendly indifference, "and I am neither so misanthropic as Barsus nor such a pedant as Aulus Plautius."
When Vinicius heard this last name, he forgot the maidens from Kos for a moment, and, raising his head vivaciously, inquired,—"Whence did Aulus Plautius come to thy mind? Dost thou know that after I had disjointed my arm outside the city, I passed a number of days in his house? It happened that Plautius came up at the moment when the accident happened, and, seeing that I was suffering greatly, he took me to his house; there a slave of his, the physician Merion, restored me to health. I wished to speak with thee touching this very matter."
"Why? Is it because thou hast fallen in love with Pomponia perchance? In that case I pity thee; she is not young, and she is virtuous! I cannot imagine a worse combination. Brr!"
"Not with Pomponia—eheu!" answered Vinicius.
"With whom, then?"
"If I knew myself with whom? But I do not know to a certainty her name even,—Lygia or Callina? They call her Lygia in the house, for she comes of the Lygian nation; but she has her own barbarian name, Callina. It is a wonderful house,—that of those Plautiuses. There are many people in it; but it is quiet there as in the groves of Subiacum. For a number of days I did not know that a divinity dwelt in the house. Once about daybreak I saw her bathing in the garden fountain; and I swear to thee by that foam from which Aphrodite rose, that the rays of the dawn passed right through her body. I thought that when the sun rose she would vanish before me in the light, as the twilight of morning does. Since then, I have seen her twice; and since then, too, I know not what rest is, I know not what other desires are, I have no wish to know what the city can give me. I want neither women, nor gold, nor Corinthian bronze, nor amber, nor pearls, nor wine, nor feasts; I want only Lygia. I am yearning for her, in sincerity I tell thee, Petronius, as that Dream who is imaged on the Mosaic of thy tepidarium yearned for Paisythea,—whole days and night do I yearn."
"If she is a slave, then purchase her."
"She is not a slave."
"What is she? A freed woman of Plautius?"
"Never having been a slave, she could not be a freed woman."
"Who is she?"
"I know not,—a king's daughter, or something of that sort."
"Thou dost rouse my curiosity, Vinicius."
"But if thou wish to listen, I will satisfy thy curiosity straightway. Her story is not a long one. Thou art acquainted, perhaps personally, with Vannius, king of the Suevi, who, expelled from his country, spent a long time here in Rome, and became even famous for his skilful play with dice, and his good driving of chariots. Drusus put him on the throne again. Vannius, who was really a strong man, ruled well at first, and warred with success; afterward, however, he began to skin not only his neighbors, but his own Suevi, too much. Thereupon Vangio and Sido, two sister's sons of his, and the sons of Vibilius, king of the Hermunduri, determined to force him to Rome again—to try his luck there at dice."
"I remember; that is of recent Claudian times."
"Yes! War broke out. Vannius summoned to his aid the Yazygi; his dear nephews called in the Lygians, who, hearing of the riches of Vannius, and enticed by the hope of booty, came in such numbers that Cæsar himself, Claudius, began to fear for the safety of the boundary. Claudius did not wish to interfere in a war among barbarians, but he wrote to Atelius Hister, who commanded the legions of the Danube, to turn a watchful eye on the course of the war, and not permit them to disturb our peace. Hister required, then, of the Lygians a promise not to cross the boundary; to this they not only agreed, but gave hostages, among whom were the wife and daughter of their leader. It is known to thee that barbarians take their wives and children to war with them. My Lygia is the daughter of that leader."
"Whence dost thou know all this?"
"Aulus Plautius told it himself. The Lygians did not cross the boundary, indeed; but barbarians come and go like a tempest. So did the Lygians vanish with their wild-ox horns on their heads. They killed Vannius's Suevi and Yazygi; but their own king fell. They disappeared with their booty then, and the hostages remained in Hister's hands. The mother died soon after, and Hister, not knowing what to do with the daughter, sent her to Pomponius, the governor of all Germany. He, at the close of the war with the Catti, returned to Rome, where Claudius, as is known to thee, permitted him to have a triumph. The maiden on that occasion walked after the car of the conqueror; but, at the end of the solemnity,—since hostages cannot be considered captives, and since Pomponius did not know what to do with her definitely—he gave her to his sister Pomponia Græcina, the wife of Plautius. In that house where all—beginning with the masters and ending with the poultry in the hen-house—are virtuous, that maiden grew up as virtuous, alas! as Græcina herself, and so beautiful that even Poppæa, if near her, would seem like an autumn fig near an apple of the Hesperides."
"And I repeat to thee that from the moment when I saw how the sun-rays at that fountain passed through her body, I fell in love to distraction."
"She is as transparent as a lamprey eel, then, or a youthful sardine?"
"Jest not, Petronius; but if the freedom with which I speak of my desire misleads thee, know this,—that bright garments frequently cover deep wounds. I must tell thee, too, that, while returning from Asia, I slept one night in the temple of Mopsus to have a prophetic dream. Well, Mopsus appeared in a dream to me, and declared that, through love, a great change in my life would take place."
"Pliny declares, as I hear, that he does not believe in the gods, but he believes in dreams; and perhaps he is right. My jests do not prevent me from thinking at times that in truth there is only one deity, eternal, creative, all-powerful, Venus Genetrix. She brings souls together; she unites bodies and things. Eros called the world out of chaos. Whether he did well is another question; but, since he did so, we should recognize his might, though we are free not to bless it."
"Alas! Petronius, it is easier to find philosophy in the world than wise counsel."
"Tell me, what is thy wish specially?"
"I wish to have Lygia. I wish that these arms of mine, which now embrace only air, might embrace Lygia and press her to my bosom. I wish to breathe with her breath. Were she a slave, I would give Aulus for her one hundred maidens with feet whitened with lime as a sign that they were exhibited on sale for the first time. I wish to have her in my house till my head is as white as the top of Soracte in winter."
"She is not a slave, but she belongs to the 'family' of Plautius; and since she is a deserted maiden, she may be considered an 'alumna.' Plautius might yield her to thee if he wished."
"Then it seems that thou knowest not Pomponia Græcina. Both have become as much attached to her as if she were their own daughter."
"Pomponia I know,—a real cypress. If she were not the wife of Aulus, she might be engaged as a mourner. Since the death of Julius she has not thrown aside dark robes; and in general she looks as if, while still alive, she were walking on the asphodel meadow. She is, moreover, a 'one-man woman'; hence, among our ladies of four and five divorces, she is straightway a phoenix. But! hast thou heard that in Upper Egypt the phoenix has just been hatched out, as 'tis said?—an event which happens not oftener than once in five centuries."
"Petronius! Petronius! Let us talk of the phoenix some other time."
"What shall I tell thee, my Marcus? I know Aulus Plautius, who, though he blames my mode of life, has for me a certain weakness, and even respects me, perhaps, more than others, for he knows that I have never been an informer like Domitius Afer, Tigellinus, and a whole rabble of Ahenobarbus's intimates [Nero's name was originally L. Domitius Ahenobarbus]. Without pretending to be a stoic, I have been offended more than once at acts of Nero, which Seneca and Burrus looked at through their fingers. If it is thy thought that I might do something for thee with Aulus, I am at thy command."
"I judge that thou hast the power. Thou hast influence over him; and, besides, thy mind possesses inexhaustible resources. If thou wert to survey the position and speak with Plautius."
"Thou hast too great an idea of my influence and wit; but if that is the only question, I will talk with Plautius as soon as they return to the city."
"They returned two days since."
"In that case let us go to the triclinium, where a meal is now ready, and when we have refreshed ourselves, let us give command to bear us to Plautius."
"Thou hast ever been kind to me," answered Vinicius, with vivacity; "but now I shall give command to rear thy statue among my lares,—just such a beauty as this one,—and I will place offerings before it."
Then he turned toward the statues which ornamented one entire wall of the perfumed chamber, and pointing to the one which represented Petronius as Hermes with a staff in his hand, he added,—"By the light of Helios! if the 'godlike' Alexander resembled thee, I do not wonder at Helen."
And in that exclamation there was as much sincerity as flattery; for Petronius, though older and less athletic, was more beautiful than even Vinicius. The women of Rome admired not only his pliant mind and his taste, which gained for him the title Arbiter elegantiæ, but also his body. This admiration was evident even on the faces of those maidens from Kos who were arranging the folds of his toga; and one of whom, whose name was Eunice, loving him in secret, looked him in the eyes with submission and rapture. But he did not even notice this; and, smiling at Vinicius, he quoted in answer an expression of Seneca about woman,—Animal impudens, etc. And then, placing an arm on the shoulders of his nephew, he conducted him to the triclinium.
In the unctorium the two Grecian maidens, the Phrygians, and the two Ethiopians began to put away the vessels with perfumes. But at that moment, and beyond the curtain of the frigidarium, appeared the heads of the balneatores, and a low "Psst!" was heard. At that call one of the Grecians, the Phrygians, and the Ethiopians sprang up quickly, and vanished in a twinkle behind the curtain. In the baths began a moment of license which the inspector did not prevent, for he took frequent part in such frolics himself. Petronius suspected that they took place; but, as a prudent man, and one who did not like to punish, he looked at them through his fingers.
In the unctorium only Eunice remained. She listened for a short time to the voices and laughter which retreated in the direction of the laconicum. At last she took the stool inlaid with amber and ivory, on which Petronius had been sitting a short time before, and put it carefully at his statue. The unctorium was full of sunlight and the hues which came from the many-colored marbles with which the wall was faced. Eunice stood on the stool, and, finding herself at the level of the statue, cast her arms suddenly around its neck; then, throwing back her golden hair, and pressing her rosy body to the white marble, she pressed her lips with ecstasy to the cold lips of Petronius.
After a refreshment, which was called the morning meal and to which the two friends sat down at an hour when common mortals were already long past their midday prandium, Petronius proposed a light doze. According to him, it was too early for visits yet. "There are, it is true," said he, "people who begin to visit their acquaintances about sunrise, thinking that custom an old Roman one, but I look on this as barbarous. The afternoon hours are most proper,—not earlier, however, than that one when the sun passes to the side of Jove's temple on the Capitol and begins to look slantwise on the Forum. In autumn it is still hot, and people are glad to sleep after eating. At the same time it is pleasant to hear the noise of the fountain in the atrium, and, after the obligatory thousand steps, to doze in the red light which filters in through the purple half-drawn velarium."
Vinicius recognized the justice of these words; and the two men began to walk, speaking in a careless manner of what was to be heard on the Palatine and in the city, and philosophizing a little upon life. Petronius withdrew then to the cubiculum, but did not sleep long. In half an hour he came out, and, having given command to bring verbena, he inhaled the perfume and rubbed his hands and temples with it.
"Thou wilt not believe," said he, "how it enlivens and freshens one. Now I am ready."
The litter was waiting long since; hence they took their places, and Petronius gave command to bear them to the Vicus Patricius, to the house of Aulus. Petronius's "insula" lay on the southern slope of the Palatine, near the so-called Carinæ; their nearest way, therefore, was below the Forum; but since Petronius wished to step in on the way to see the jeweller Idomeneus, he gave the direction to carry them along the Vicus Apollinis and the Forum in the direction of the Vicus Sceleratus, on the corner of which were many tabernæ of every kind.
Gigantic Africans bore the litter and moved on, preceded by slaves called pedisequii. Petronius, after some time, raised to his nostrils in silence his palm odorous with verbena, and seemed to be meditating on something.
"It occurs to me," said he after a while, "that if thy forest goddess is not a slave she might leave the house of Plautius, and transfer herself to thine. Thou wouldst surround her with love and cover her with wealth, as I do my adored Chrysothemis, of whom, speaking between us, I have quite as nearly enough as she has of me."
Marcus shook his head.
"No?" inquired Petronius. "In the worst event, the case would be left with Cæsar, and thou mayst be certain that, thanks even to my influence, our Bronzebeard would be on thy side."
"Thou knowest not Lygia," replied Vinicius.
"Then permit me to ask if thou know her otherwise than by sight? Hast spoken with her? hast confessed thy love to her?"
"I saw her first at the fountain; since then I have met her twice. Remember that during my stay in the house of Aulus, I dwelt in a separate villa, intended for guests, and, having a disjointed arm, I could not sit at the common table. Only on the eve of the day for which I announced my departure did I meet Lygia at supper, but I could not say a word to her. I had to listen to Aulus and his account of victories gained by him in Britain, and then of the fall of small states in Italy, which Licinius Stolo strove to prevent. In general I do not know whether Aulus will be able to speak of aught else, and do not think that we shall escape this history unless it be thy wish to hear about the effeminacy of these days. They have pheasants in their preserves, but they do not eat them, setting out from the principle that every pheasant eaten brings nearer the end of Roman power. I met her a second time at the garden cistern, with a freshly plucked reed in her hand, the top of which she dipped in the water and sprinkled the irises growing around. Look at my knees. By the shield of Hercules, I tell thee that they did not tremble when clouds of Parthians advanced on our maniples with howls, but they trembled before the cistern. And, confused as a youth who still wears a bulla on his neck, I merely begged pity with my eyes, not being able to utter a word for a long time."
Petronius looked at him, as if with a certain envy. "Happy man," said he, "though the world and life were the worst possible, one thing in them will remain eternally good,—youth!"
After a while he inquired: "And hast thou not spoken to her?"
"When I had recovered somewhat, I told her that I was returning from Asia, that I had disjointed my arm near the city, and had suffered severely, but at the moment of leaving that hospitable house I saw that suffering in it was more to be wished for than delight in another place, that sickness there was better than health somewhere else. Confused too on her part, she listened to my words with bent head while drawing something with the reed on the saffron-colored sand. Afterward she raised her eyes, then looked down at the marks drawn already; once more she looked at me, as if to ask about something, and then fled on a sudden like a hamadryad before a dull faun."
"She must have beautiful eyes."
"As the sea—and I was drowned in them, as in the sea. Believe me that the archipelago is less blue. After a while a little son of Plautius ran up with a question. But I did not understand what he wanted."
"O Athene!" exclaimed Petronius, "remove from the eyes of this youth the bandage with which Eros has bound them; if not, he will break his head against the columns of Venus's temple.
"O thou spring bud on the tree of life," said he, turning to Vinicius, "thou first green shoot of the vine! Instead of taking thee to the Plautiuses, I ought to give command to bear thee to the house of Gelocius, where there is a school for youths unacquainted with life."
"What dost thou wish in particular?"
"But what did she write on the sand? Was it not the name of Amor, or a heart pierced with his dart, or something of such sort, that one might know from it that the satyrs had whispered to the ear of that nymph various secrets of life? How couldst thou help looking on those marks?"
"It is longer since I have put on the toga than seems to thee," said Vinicius, "and before little Aulus ran up, I looked carefully at those marks, for I know that frequently maidens in Greece and in Rome draw on the sand a confession which their lips will not utter. But guess what she drew!"
"If it is other than I supposed, I shall not guess."
"What dost thou say?"
"I say, a fish. What did that mean,—that cold blood is flowing in her veins? So far I do not know; but thou, who hast called me a spring bud on the tree of life, wilt be able to understand the sign certainly."
"Carissime! ask such a thing of Pliny. He knows fish. If old Apicius were alive, he could tell thee something, for in the course of his life he ate more fish than could find place at one time in the bay of Naples."
Further conversation was interrupted, since they were borne into crowded streets where the noise of people hindered them.
From the Vicus Apollinis they turned to the Boarium, and then entered the Forum Romanum, where on clear days, before sunset, crowds of idle people assembled to stroll among the columns, to tell and hear news, to see noted people borne past in litters, and finally to look in at the jewellery-shops, the book-shops, the arches where coin was changed, shops for silk, bronze, and all other articles with which the buildings covering that part of the market placed opposite the Capitol were filled.
One-half of the Forum, immediately under the rock of the Capitol, was buried already in shade; but the columns of the temples, placed higher, seemed golden in the sunshine and the blue. Those lying lower cast lengthened shadows on marble slabs. The place was so filled with columns everywhere that the eye was lost in them as in a forest.
Those buildings and columns seemed huddled together. They towered some above others, they stretched toward the right and the left, they climbed toward the height, and they clung to the wall of the Capitol, or some of them clung to others, like greater and smaller, thicker and thinner, white or gold colored tree-trunks, now blooming under architraves, flowers of the acanthus, now surrounded with Ionic corners, now finished with a simple Doric quadrangle. Above that forest gleamed colored triglyphs; from tympans stood forth the sculptured forms of gods; from the summits winged golden quadrigæ seemed ready to fly away through space into the blue dome, fixed serenely above that crowded place of temples. Through the middle of the market and along the edges of it flowed a river of people; crowds passed under the arches of the basilica of Julius Cæsar; crowds were sitting on the steps of Castor and Pollux, or walking around the temple of Vesta, resembling on that great marble background many-colored swarms of butterflies or beetles. Down immense steps, from the side of the temple on the Capitol dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, came new waves; at the rostra people listened to chance orators; in one place and another rose the shouts of hawkers selling fruit, wine, or water mixed with fig-juice; of tricksters; of venders of marvellous medicines; of soothsayers; of discoverers of hidden treasures; of interpreters of dreams. Here and there, in the tumult of conversations and cries, were mingled sounds of the Egyptian sistra, of the sambuké, or of Grecian flutes. Here and there the sick, the pious, or the afflicted were bearing offerings to the temples. In the midst of the people, on the stone flags, gathered flocks of doves, eager for the grain given them, and like movable many-colored and dark spots, now rising for a moment with a loud sound of wings, now dropping down again to places left vacant by people. From time to time the crowds opened before litters in which were visible the affected faces of women, or the heads of senators and knights, with features, as it were, rigid and exhausted from living. The many-tongued population repeated aloud their names, with the addition of some term of praise or ridicule. Among the unordered groups pushed from time to time, advancing with measured tread, parties of soldiers, or watchers, preserving order on the streets. Around about, the Greek language was heard as often as Latin.
Vinicius, who had not been in the city for a long time, looked with a certain curiosity on that swarm of people and on that Forum Romanum, which both dominated the sea of the world and was flooded by it, so that Petronius, who divined the thoughts of his companion, called it "the nest of the Quirites—without the Quirites." In truth, the local element was well-nigh lost in that crowd, composed of all races and nations. There appeared Ethiopians, gigantic light-haired people from the distant north, Britons, Gauls, Germans, sloping-eyed dwellers of Lericum; people from the Euphrates and from the Indus, with beards dyed brick color; Syrians from the banks of the Orontes, with black and mild eyes; dwellers in the deserts of Arabia, dried up as a bone; Jews, with their flat breasts; Egyptians, with the eternal, indifferent smile on their faces; Numidians and Africans; Greeks from Hellas, who equally with the Romans commanded the city, but commanded through science, art, wisdom, and deceit; Greeks from the islands, from Asia Minor, from Egypt, from Italy, from Narbonic Gaul. In the throng of slaves, with pierced ears, were not lacking also freemen,—an idle population, which Cæsar amused, supported, even clothed,—and free visitors, whom the ease of life and the prospects of fortune enticed to the gigantic city; there was no lack of venal persons. There were priests of Serapis, with palm branches in their hands; priests of Isis, to whose altar more offerings were brought than to the temple of the Capitoline Jove; priests of Cybele, bearing in their hands golden ears of rice; and priests of nomad divinities; and dancers of the East with bright head-dresses, and dealers in amulets, and snake-tamers, and Chaldean seers; and, finally, people without any occupation whatever, who applied for grain every week at the storehouses on the Tiber, who fought for lottery-tickets to the Circus, who spent their nights in rickety houses of districts beyond the Tiber, and sunny and warm days under covered porticos, and in foul eating-houses of the Subura, on the Milvian bridge, or before the "insulæ" of the great, where from time to time remnants from the tables of slaves were thrown out to them.
Petronius was well known to those crowds. Vinicius's ears were struck continually by "Hic est!" (Here he is). They loved him for his munificence; and his peculiar popularity increased from the time when they learned that he had spoken before Cæsar in opposition to the sentence of death issued against the whole "familia," that is, against all the slaves of the prefect Pedanius Secundus, without distinction of sex or age, because one of them had killed that monster in a moment of despair. Petronius repeated in public, it is true, that it was all one to him, and that he had spoken to Cæsar only privately, as the arbiter elegantiarum whose æsthetic taste was offended by a barbarous slaughter befitting Scythians and not Romans. Nevertheless, people who were indignant because of the slaughter loved Petronius from that moment forth. But he did not care for their love. He remembered that that crowd of people had loved also Britannicus, poisoned by Nero; and Agrippina, killed at his command; and Octavia, smothered in hot steam at the Pandataria, after her veins had been opened previously; and Rubelius Plautus, who had been banished; and Thrasea, to whom any morning might bring a death sentence. The love of the mob might be considered rather of ill omen; and the sceptical Petronius was superstitious also. He had a twofold contempt for the multitude,—as an aristocrat and an æsthetic person. Men with the odor of roast beans, which they carried in their bosoms, and who besides were eternally hoarse and sweating from playing mora on the street-corners and peristyles, did not in his eyes deserve the term "human." Hence he gave no answer whatever to the applause, or the kisses sent from lips here and there to him. He was relating to Marcus the case of Pedanius, reviling meanwhile the fickleness of that rabble which, next morning after the terrible butchery, applauded Nero on his way to the temple of Jupiter Stator. But he gave command to halt before the book-shop of Avirnus, and, descending from the litter, purchased an ornamented manuscript, which he gave to Vinicius.
"Here is a gift for thee," said he.
"Thanks!" answered Vinicius. Then, looking at the title, he inquired, "'Satyricon'? Is this something new? Whose is it?"
"Mine. But I do not wish to go in the road of Rufinus, whose history I was to tell thee, nor of Fabricius Veiento; hence no one knows of this, and do thou mention it to no man."
"Thou hast said that thou art no writer of verses," said Vinicius, looking at the middle of the manuscript; "but here I see prose thickly interwoven with them."
"When thou art reading, turn attention to Trimalchion's feast. As to verses, they have disgusted me, since Nero is writing an epic. Vitelius, when he wishes to relieve himself, uses ivory fingers to thrust down his throat; others serve themselves with flamingo feathers steeped in olive oil or in a decoction of wild thyme. I read Nero's poetry, and the result is immediate. Straightway I am able to praise it, if not with a clear conscience, at least with a clear stomach."
When he had said this, he stopped the litter again before the shop of Idomeneus the goldsmith, and, having settled the affair of the gems, gave command to bear the litter directly to Aulus's mansion.
"On the road I will tell thee the story of Rufinus," said he, "as proof of what vanity in an author may be."
But before he had begun, they turned in to the Vicus Patricius, and soon found themselves before the dwelling of Aulus. A young and sturdy "janitor" opened the door leading to the ostium, over which a magpie confined in a cage greeted them noisily with the word, "Salve!"
On the way from the second antechamber, called the ostium, to the atrium itself, Vinicius said,—"Hast noticed that thee doorkeepers are without chains?" "This is a wonderful house," answered Petronius, in an undertone. "Of course it is known to thee that Pomponia Græcina is suspected of entertaining that Eastern superstition which consists in honoring a certain Chrestos. It seems that Crispinilla rendered her this service,—she who cannot forgive Pomponia because one husband has sufficed her for a lifetime. A one-man Woman! To-day, in Rome, it is easier to get a half-plate of fresh mushrooms from Noricum than to find such. They tried her before a domestic court—"
"To thy judgment this is a wonderful house. Later on I will tell thee what I heard and saw in it."
Meanwhile they had entered the atrium. The slave appointed to it, called atriensis, sent a nomenclator to announce the guests; and Petronius, who, imagining that eternal sadness reigned in this severe house, had never been in it, looked around with astonishment, and as it were with a feeling of disappointment, for the atrium produced rather an impression of cheerfulness. A sheaf of bright light falling from above through a large opening broke into a thousand sparks on a fountain in a quadrangular little basin, called the impluvium, which was in the middle to receive rain falling through the opening during bad weather; this was surrounded by anemones and lilies. In that house a special love for lilies was evident, for there were whole clumps of them, both white and red; and, finally, sapphire irises, whose delicate leaves were as if silvered from the spray of the fountain. Among the moist mosses, in which lily-pots were hidden, and among the bunches of lilies were little bronze statues representing children and water-birds. In one corner a bronze fawn, as if wishing to drink, was inclining its greenish head, grizzled, too, by dampness. The floor of the atrium was of mosaic; the walls, faced partly with red marble and partly with wood, on which were painted fish, birds, and griffins, attracted the eye by the play of colors. From the door to the side chamber they were ornamented with tortoise-shell or even ivory; at the walls between the doors were statues of Aulus's ancestors. Everywhere calm plenty was evident, remote from excess, but noble and self-trusting.
Petronius, who lived with incomparably greater show and elegance, could find nothing which offended his taste; and had just turned to Vinicius with that remark, when a slave, the velarius, pushed aside the curtain separating the atrium from the tablinum, and in the depth of the building appeared Aulus Plautius approaching hurriedly.
He was a man nearing the evening of life, with a head whitened by hoar frost, but fresh, with an energetic face, a trifle too short, but still somewhat eagle-like. This time there was expressed on it a certain astonishment, and even alarm, because of the unexpected arrival of Nero's friend, companion, and suggester.
Petronius was too much a man of the world and too quick not to notice this; hence, after the first greetings, he announced with all the eloquence and ease at his command that he had come to give thanks for the care which his sister's son had found in that house, and that gratitude alone was the cause of the visit, to which, moreover, he was emboldened by his old acquaintance with Aulus.
Aulus assured him that he was a welcome guest; and as to gratitude, he declared that he had that feeling himself, though surely Petronius did not divine the cause of it.
In fact, Petronius did not divine it. In vain did he raise his hazel eyes, endeavoring to remember the least service rendered to Aulus or to any one. He recalled none, unless it might be that which he intended to show Vinicius. Some such thing, it is true, might have happened involuntarily, but only involuntarily.
"I have great love and esteem for Vespasian, whose life thou didst save," said Aulus, "when he had the misfortune to doze while listening to Nero's verses."
"He was fortunate," replied Petronius, "for he did not hear them; but I will not deny that the matter might have ended with misfortune. Bronzebeard wished absolutely to send a centurion to him with the friendly advice to open his veins."
"But thou, Petronius, laughed him out of it."
"That is true, or rather it is not true. I told Nero that if Orpheus put wild beasts to sleep with song, his triumph was equal, since he had put Vespasian to sleep. Ahenobarbus may be blamed on condition that to a small criticism a great flattery be added. Our gracious Augusta, Poppæa, understands this to perfection."
"Alas! such are the times," answered Aulus. "I lack two front teeth, knocked out by a stone from the hand of a Briton, I speak with a hiss; still my happiest days were passed in Britain."
"Because they were days of victory," added Vinicius.
But Petronius, alarmed lest the old general might begin a narrative of his former wars, changed the conversation.
"See," said he, "in the neighborhood of Præneste country people found a dead wolf whelp with two heads; and during a storm about that time lightning struck off an angle of the temple of Luna,—a thing unparalleled, because of the late autumn. A certain Cotta, too, who had told this, added, while telling it, that the priests of that temple prophesied the fall of the city or, at least, the ruin of a great house,—ruin to be averted only by uncommon sacrifices."
Aulus, when he had heard the narrative, expressed the opinion that such signs should not be neglected; that the gods might be angered by an over-measure of wickedness. In this there was nothing wonderful; and in such an event expiatory sacrifices were perfectly in order.
"Thy house, Plautius, is not too large," answered Petronius, "though a great man lives in it. Mine is indeed too large for such a wretched owner, though equally small. But if it is a question of the ruin of something as great, for example, as the domus transitoria, would it be worth while for us to bring offerings to avert that ruin?"
Plautius did not answer that question,—a carefulness which touched even Petronius somewhat, for, with all his inability to feel the difference between good and evil, he had never been an informer; and it was possible to talk with him in perfect safety. He changed the conversation again, therefore, and began to praise Plautius's dwelling and the good taste which reigned in the house.
"It is an ancient seat," said Plautius, "in which nothing has been changed since I inherited it."
After the curtain was pushed aside which divided the atrium from the tablinum, the house was open from end to end, so that through the tablinum and the following peristyle and the hall lying beyond it which was called the oecus, the glance extended to the garden, which seemed from a distance like a bright image set in a dark frame. Joyous, childlike laughter came from it to the atrium.
"Oh, general!" said Petronius, "permit us to listen from near by to that glad laughter which is of a kind heard so rarely in these days."
"Willingly," answered Plautius, rising; "that is my little Aulus and Lygia, playing ball. But as to laughter, I think, Petronius, that our whole life is spent in it."
"Life deserves laughter, hence people laugh at it," answered Petronius, "but laughter here has another sound."
"Petronius does not laugh for days in succession," said Vinicius; "but then he laughs entire nights."
Thus conversing, they passed through the length of the house and reached the garden, where Lygia and little Aulus were playing with balls, which slaves, appointed to that game exclusively and called spheristæ, picked up and placed in their hands. Petronius cast a quick passing glance at Lygia; little Aulus, seeing Vinicius, ran to greet him; but the young tribune, going forward, bent his head before the beautiful maiden, who stood with a ball in her hand, her hair blown apart a little. She was somewhat out of breath, and flushed.
In the garden triclinium, shaded by ivy, grapes, and woodbine, sat Pomponia Græcina; hence they went to salute her. She was known to Petronius, though he did not visit Plautius, for he had seen her at the house of Antistia, the daughter of Rubelius Plautus, and besides at the house of Seneca and Polion. He could not resist a certain admiration with which he was filled by her face, pensive but mild, by the dignity of her bearing, by her movements, by her words. Pomponia disturbed his understanding of women to such a degree that that man, corrupted to the marrow of his bones, and self-confident as no one in Rome, not only felt for her a kind of esteem, but even lost his previous self-confidence. And now, thanking her for her care of Vinicius, he thrust in, as it were involuntarily, "domina," which never occurred to him when speaking, for example, to Calvia Crispinilla, Scribonia, Veleria, Solina, and other women of high society. After he had greeted her and returned thanks, he began to complain that he saw her so rarely, that it was not possible to meet her either in the Circus or the Amphitheatre; to which she answered calmly, laying her hand on the hand of her husband:
"We are growing old, and love our domestic quiet more and more, both of us."
Petronius wished to oppose; but Aulus Plautius added in his hissing voice,—"And we feel stranger and stranger among people who give Greek names to our Roman divinities."
"The gods have become for some time mere figures of rhetoric," replied Petronius, carelessly. "But since Greek rhetoricians taught us, it is easier for me even to say Hera than Juno."
He turned his eyes then to Pomponia, as if to signify that in presence of her no other divinity could come to his mind: and then he began to contradict what she had said touching old age.
"People grow old quickly, it is true; but there are some who live another life entirely, and there are faces moreover which Saturn seems to forget."
Petronius said this with a certain sincerity even, for Pomponia Græcina, though descending from the midday of life, had preserved an uncommon freshness of face; and since she had a small head and delicate features, she produced at times, despite her dark robes, despite her solemnity and sadness, the impression of a woman quite young.
Meanwhile little Aulus, who had become uncommonly friendly with Vinicius during his former stay in the house, approached the young man and entreated him to play ball. Lygia herself entered the triclinium after the little boy. Under the climbing ivy, with the light quivering on her face, she seemed to Petronius more beautiful than at the first glance, and really like some nymph. As he had not spoken to her thus far, he rose, inclined his head, and, instead of the usual expressions of greeting, quoted the words with which Ulysses greeted Nausikaa,—
"I supplicate thee, O queen, whether thou art some goddess or a mortal! If thou art one of the daughters of men who dwell on earth, thrice blessed are thy father and thy lady mother, and thrice blessed thy brethren."
The exquisite politeness of this man of the world pleased even Pomponia. As to Lygia, she listened, confused and flushed, without boldness to raise her eyes. But a wayward smile began to quiver at the corners of her lips, and on her face a struggle was evident between the timidity of a maiden and the wish to answer; but clearly the wish was victorious, for, looking quickly at Petronius, she answered him all at once with the words of that same Nausikaa, quoting them at one breath, and a little like a lesson learned,—
"Stranger, thou seemest no evil man nor foolish."
Then she turned and ran out as a frightened bird runs.
This time the turn for astonishment came to Petronius, for he had not expected to hear verses of Homer from the lips of a maiden of whose barbarian extraction he had heard previously from Vinicius. Hence he looked with an inquiring glance at Pomponia; but she could not give him an answer, for she was looking at that moment, with a smile, at the pride reflected on the face of her husband.
He was not able to conceal that pride. First, he had become attached to Lygia as to his own daughter; and second, in spite of his old Roman prejudices, which commanded him to thunder against Greek and the spread of the language, he considered it as the summit of social polish. He himself had never been able to learn it well; over this he suffered in secret. He was glad, therefore, that an answer was given in the language and poetry of Homer to this exquisite man both of fashion and letters, who was ready to consider Plautius's house as barbarian.
"We have in the house a pedagogue, a Greek," said he, turning to Petronius, "who teaches our boy, and the maiden overhears the lessons. She is a wagtail yet, but a dear one, to which we have both grown attached."
Petronius looked through the branches of woodbine into the garden, and at the three persons who were playing there. Vinicius had thrown aside his toga, and, wearing only his tunic, was striking the ball, which Lygia, standing opposite, with raised arms was trying to catch. The maiden did not make a great impression on Petronius at the first glance; she seemed to him too slender. But from the moment when he saw her more nearly in the triclinium he thought to himself that Aurora might look like her; and as a judge he understood that in her there was something uncommon. He considered everything and estimated everything; hence her face, rosy and clear, her fresh lips, as if set for a kiss, her eyes blue as the azure of the sea, the alabaster whiteness of her forehead, the wealth of her dark hair, with the reflection of amber or Corinthian bronze gleaming in its folds, her slender neck, the divine slope of her shoulders, the whole posture, flexible, slender, young with the youth of May and of freshly opened flowers. The artist was roused in him, and the worshipper of beauty, who felt that beneath a statue of that maiden one might write "Spring." All at once he remembered Chrysothemis, and pure laughter seized him. Chrysothemis seemed to him, with golden powder on her hair and darkened brows, to be fabulously faded,—something in the nature of a yellowed rose-tree shedding its leaves. But still Rome envied him that Chrysothemis. Then he recalled Poppæa; and that most famous Poppæa also seemed to him soulless, a waxen mask. In that maiden with Tanagrian outlines there was not only spring, but a radiant soul, which shone through her rosy body as a flame through a lamp.
"Vinicius is right," thought he, "and my Chrysothemis is old, old!—as Troy!"
Then he turned to Pomponia Græcina, and, pointing to the garden, said,—"I understand now, domina, why thou and thy husband prefer this house to the Circus and to feasts on the Palatine."
"Yes," answered she, turning her eyes in the direction of little Aulus and Lygia.
But the old general began to relate the history of the maiden, and what he had heard years before from Atelius Hister about the Lygian people who lived in the gloom of the North.
The three outside had finished playing ball, and for some time had been walking along the sand of the garden, appearing against the dark background of myrtles and cypresses like three white statues. Lygia held little Aulus by the hand. After they had walked a while they sat on a bench near the fish-pond, which occupied the middle of the garden. After a time Aulus sprang up to frighten the fish in the transparent water, but Vinicius continued the conversation begun during the walk.
"Yes," said he, in a low, quivering voice, scarcely audible; "barely had I cast aside the pretexta, when I was sent to the legions in Asia. I had not become acquainted with the city, nor with life, nor with love. I know a small bit of Anacreon by heart, and Horace; but I cannot like Petronius quote verses, when reason is dumb from admiration and unable to find its own words. While a youth I went to school to Musonius, who told me that happiness consists in wishing what the gods wish, and therefore depends on our will. I think, however, that it is something else,—something greater and more precious, which depends not on the will, for love only can give it. The gods themselves seek that happiness; hence I too, O Lygia, who have not known love thus far, follow in their footsteps. I also seek her who would give me happiness—"
He was silent—and for a time there was nothing to be heard save the light plash of the water into which little Aulus was throwing pebbles to frighten the fish; but after a while Vinicius began again in a voice still softer and lower,—"But thou knowest of Vespasian's son Titus? They say that he had scarcely ceased to be a youth when he so loved Berenice that grief almost drew the life out of him. So could I too love, O Lygia! Riches, glory, power are mere smoke, vanity! The rich man will find a richer than himself; the greater glory of another will eclipse a man who is famous; a strong man will be conquered by a stronger. But can Cæsar himself, can any god even, experience greater delight or be happier than a simple mortal at the moment when at his breast there is breathing another dear breast, or when he kisses beloved lips? Hence love makes us equal to the gods, O Lygia."
And she listened with alarm, with astonishment, and at the same time as if she were listening to the sound of a Grecian flute or a cithara. It seemed to her at moments that Vinicius was singing a kind of wonderful song, which was instilling itself into her ears, moving the blood in her, and penetrating her heart with a faintness, a fear, and a kind of uncomprehended delight. It seemed to her also that he was telling something which was in her before, but of which she could not give account to herself. She felt that he was rousing in her something which had been sleeping hitherto, and that in that moment a hazy dream was changing into a form more and more definite, more pleasing, more beautiful.
Meanwhile the sun had passed the Tiber long since, and had sunk low over the Janiculum. On the motionless cypresses ruddy light was falling, and the whole atmosphere was filled with it. Lygia raised on Vinicius her blue eyes as if roused from sleep; and he, bending over her with a prayer quivering in his eyes, seemed on a sudden, in the reflections of evening, more beautiful than all men, than all Greek and Roman gods whose statues she had seen on the façades of temples. And with his fingers he clasped her arm lightly just above the wrist and asked,—"Dost thou not divine what I say to thee, Lygia?"
"No," whispered she as answer, in a voice so low that Vinicius barely heard it.
But he did not believe her, and, drawing her hand toward him more vigorously, he would have drawn it to his heart, which, under the influence of desire roused by the marvellous maiden, was beating like a hammer, and would have addressed burning words to her directly had not old Aulus appeared on a path set in a frame of myrtles, who said, while approaching them,—"The sun is setting; so beware of the evening coolness, and do not trifle with Libitina."
"No," answered Vinicius; "I have not put on my toga yet, and I do not feel the cold."
"But see, barely half the sun's shield is looking from behind the hill. That is a sweet climate of Sicily, where people gather on the square before sunset and take farewell of disappearing Phoebus with a choral song."
And, forgetting that a moment earlier he had warned them against Libitina, he began to tell about Sicily, where he had estates and large cultivated fields which he loved. He stated also that it had come to his mind more than once to remove to Sicily, and live out his life there in quietness. "He whose head winters have whitened has bad enough of hoar frost. Leaves are not falling from the trees yet, and the sky smiles on the city lovingly; but when the grapevines grow yellow-leaved, when snow falls on the Alban hills, and the gods visit the Campania with piercing wind, who knows but I may remove with my entire household to my quiet country-seat?"
"Wouldst thou leave Rome?" inquired Vinicius, with sudden alarm.
"I have wished to do so this long time, for it is quieter in Sicily and safer."
And again he fell to praising his gardens, his herds, his house hidden in green, and the hills grown over with thyme and savory, among which were swarms of buzzing bees. But Vinicius paid no heed to that bucolic note; and from thinking only of this, that he might lose Lygia, he looked toward Petronius as if expecting salvation from him alone.
Meanwhile Petronius, sitting near Pomponia, was admiring the view of the setting sun, the garden, and the people standing near the fish-pond. Their white garments on the dark background of the myrtles gleamed like gold from the evening rays. On the sky the evening light had begun to assume purple and violet hues, and to change like an opal. A strip of the sky became lily-colored. The dark silhouettes of the cypresses grew still more pronounced than during bright daylight. In the people, in the trees, in the whole garden there reigned an evening calm.
That calm struck Petronius, and it struck him especially in the people. In the faces of Pomponia, old Aulus, their son, and Lygia there was something such as he did not see in the faces which surrounded him every day, or rather every night. There was a certain light, a certain repose, a certain serenity, flowing directly from the life which all lived there. And with a species of astonishment he thought that a beauty and sweetness might exist which he, who chased after beauty and sweetness continually, had not known. He could not hide the thought in himself, and said, turning to Pomponia,—"I am considering in my soul how different this world of yours is from the world which our Nero rules."
She raised her delicate face toward the evening light, and said with simplicity,—"Not Nero, but God, rules the world."
A moment of silence followed. Near the triclinium were heard in the alley, the steps of the old general, Vinicius, Lygia, and little Aulus; but before they arrived, Petronius had put another question—"But believest thou in the gods, then, Pomponia?"
"I believe in God, who is one, just, and all-powerful," answered the wife of Aulus Plautius.
"SHE believes in God who is one, all-powerful, and just," said Petronius, when he found himself again in the litter with Vinicius. "If her God is all-powerful, He controls life and death; and if He is just, He sends death justly. Why, then, does Pomponia wear mourning for Julius? In mourning for Julius she blames her God. I must repeat this reasoning to our Bronzebeard, the monkey, since I consider that in dialectics I am the equal of Socrates. As to women, I agree that each has three or four souls, but none of them a reasoning one. Let Pomponia meditate with Seneca or Cornutus over the question of what their great Logos is. Let them summon at once the shades of Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, and Plato, who are as much wearied there in Cimmerian regions as a finch in a cage. I wished to talk with her and with Plautius about something else. By the holy stomach of the Egyptian Isis! If I had told them right out directly why we came, I suppose that their virtue would have made as much noise as a bronze shield under the blow of a club. And I did not dare to tell! Wilt thou believe, Vinicius, I did not dare! Peacocks are beautiful birds, but they have too shrill a cry. I feared an outburst. But I must praise thy choice. A real 'rosy-fingered Aurora.' And knowest thou what she reminded me of too?—Spring! not our spring in Italy, where an apple-tree merely puts forth a blossom here and there, and olive groves grow gray, just as they were gray before, but the spring which I saw once in Helvetia,—young, fresh, bright green. By that pale moon, I do not wonder at thee, Marcus; but know that thou art loving Diana, because Aulus and Pomponia are ready to tear thee to pieces, as the dogs once tore Actæon."
Vinicius was silent a time without raising his head; then he began to speak with a voice broken by passion,—"I desired her before, but now I desire her still more. When I caught her arm, flame embraced me. I must have her. Were I Zeus, I would surround her with a cloud, as he surrounded Io, or I would fall on her in rain, as he fell on Danaë; I would kiss her lips till it pained! I would hear her scream in my arms. I would kill Aulus and Pomponia, and bear her home in my arms. I will not sleep to-night. I will give command to flog one of my slaves, and listen to his groans—"
"Calm thyself," said Petronius. "Thou hast the longing of a carpenter from the Subura."
"All one to me what thou sayst. I must have her. I have turned to thee for aid; but if thou wilt not find it, I shall find it myself. Aulus considers Lygia as a daughter; why should I look on her as a slave? And since there is no other way, let her ornament the door of my house, let her anoint it with wolf's fat, and let her sit at my hearth as wife."
"Calm thyself, mad descendant of consuls. We do not lead in barbarians bound behind our cars, to make wives of their daughters. Beware of extremes. Exhaust simple, honorable methods, and give thyself and me time for meditation. Chrysothemis seemed to me too a daughter of Jove, and still I did not marry her, just as Nero did not marry Acte, though they called her a daughter of King Attalus. Calm thyself! Think that if she wishes to leave Aulus for thee, he will have no right to detain her. Know also that thou art not burning alone, for Eros has roused in her the flame too. I saw that, and it is well to believe me. Have patience. There is a way to do everything, but to-day I have thought too much already, and it tires me. But I promise that to-morrow I will think of thy love, and unless Petronius is not Petronius, he will discover some method."
They were both silent again.
"I thank thee," said Vinicius at last. "May Fortune be bountiful to thee."
"Whither hast thou given command to bear us?"
"Thou art happy in possessing her whom thou lovest."
"I? Dost thou know what amuses me yet in Chrysothemis? This, that she is false to me with my freedman Theokles, and thinks that I do not notice it. Once I loved her, but now she amuses me with her lying and stupidity. Come with me to her. Should she begin to flirt with thee, and write letters on the table with her fingers steeped in wine, know that I shall not be jealous."
And he gave command to bear them both to Chrysothemis.
But in the entrance Petronius put his hand on Vinicius's shoulder, and said,—"Wait; it seems to me that I have discovered a plan."
"May all the gods reward thee!"
"I have it! I judge that this plan is infallible. Knowest what, Marcus?"
"I listen to thee, my wisdom."
"Well, in a few days the divine Lygia will partake of Demeter's grain in thy house."
"Thou art greater than Cæsar!" exclaimed Vinicius with enthusiasm.
IN fact, Petronius kept his promise. He slept all the day following his visit to Chrysothemis, it is true; but in the evening he gave command to bear him to the Palatine, where he had a confidential conversation with Nero; in consequence of this, on the third day a centurion, at the head of some tens of pretorian soldiers, appeared before the house of Plautius.
The period was uncertain and terrible. Messengers of this kind were more frequently heralds of death. So when the centurion struck the hammer at Aulus's door, and when the guard of the atrium announced that there were soldiers in the anteroom, terror rose through the whole house. The family surrounded the old general at once, for no one doubted that danger hung over him above all. Pomponia, embracing his neck with her arms, clung to him with all her strength, and her blue lips moved quickly while uttering some whispered phrase. Lygia, with a face pale as linen, kissed his hand; little Aulus clung to his toga. From the corridor, from chambers in the lower story intended for servant-women and attendants, from the bath, from the arches of lower dwellings, from the whole house, crowds of slaves began to hurry out, and the cries of "Heu! heu, me miserum!" were heard. The women broke into great weeping; some scratched their cheeks, or covered their heads with kerchiefs.
Only the old general himself, accustomed for years to look death straight in the eye, remained calm, and his short eagle face became as rigid as if chiselled from stone. After a while, when he had silenced the uproar, and commanded the attendants to disappear, he said,—"Let me go, Pomponia. If my end has come, we shall have time to take leave."
And he pushed her aside gently; but she said,—"God grant thy fate and mine to be one, O Aulus!"
Then, failing on her knees, she began to pray with that force which fear for some dear one alone can give.
Aulus passed out to the atrium, where the centurion was waiting for him. It was old Caius Hasta, his former subordinate and companion in British wars.
"I greet thee, general," said he. "I bring a command, and the greeting of Cæsar; here are the tablets and the signet to show that I come in his name."
"I am thankful to Cæsar for the greeting, and I shall obey the command," answered Aulus. "Be welcome, Hasta, and say what command thou hast brought."
"Aulus Plautius," began Hasta, "Cæsar has learned that in thy house is dwelling the daughter of the king of the Lygians, whom that king during the life of the divine Claudius gave into the hands of the Romans as a pledge that the boundaries of the empire would never be violated by the Lygians. The divine Nero is grateful to thee, O general, because thou hast given her hospitality in thy house for so many years; but, not wishing to burden thee longer, and considering also that the maiden as a hostage should be under the guardianship of Cæsar and the senate, he commands thee to give her into my hands."
Aulus was too much a soldier and too much a veteran to permit himself regret in view of an order, or vain words, or complaint. A slight wrinkle of sudden anger and pain, however, appeared on his forehead. Before that frown legions in Britain had trembled on a time, and even at that moment fear was evident on the face of Hasta. But in view of the order, Aulus Plautius felt defenceless. He looked for some time at the tablets and the signet; then raising his eyes to the old centurion, he said calmly,—"Wait, Hasta, in the atrium till the hostage is delivered to thee."
After these words he passed to the other end of the house, to the hall called oecus, where Pomponia Græcina, Lygia, and little Aulus were waiting for him in fear and alarm.
"Death threatens no one, nor banishment to distant islands," said he; "still Cæsar's messenger is a herald of misfortune. It is a question of thee, Lygia."
"Of Lygia?" exclaimed Pomponia, with astonishment.
"Yes," answered Aulus.
And turning to the maiden, he began: "Lygia, thou wert reared in our house as our own child; I and Pomponia love thee as our daughter. But know this, that thou art not our daughter. Thou art a hostage, given by thy people to Rome, and guardianship over thee belongs to Cæsar. Now Cæsar takes thee from our house."
The general spoke calmly, but with a certain strange, unusual voice. Lygia listened to his words, blinking, as if not understanding what the question was. Pomponia's cheeks became pallid. In the doors leading from the corridor to the oecus, terrified faces of slaves began to show themselves a second time.
"The will of Cæsar must be accomplished," said Aulus.
"Aulus!" exclaimed Pomponia, embracing the maiden with her arms, as if wishing to defend her, "it would be better for her to die."
Lygia, nestling up to her breast, repeated, "Mother, mother!" unable in her sobbing to find other words.
On Aulus's face anger and pain were reflected again. "If I were alone in the world," said he, gloomily, "I would not surrender her alive, and my relatives might give offerings this day to 'Jupiter Liberator.' But I have not the right to kill thee and our child, who may live to happier times. I will go to Cæsar this day, and implore him to change his command. Whether he will hear me, I know not. Meanwhile, farewell, Lygia, and know that I and Pomponia ever bless the day in which thou didst take thy seat at our hearth."
Thus speaking, he placed his hand on her head; but though he strove to preserve his calmness, when Lygia turned to him eyes filled with tears, and seizing his hand pressed it to her lips, his voice was filled with deep fatherly sorrow.
"Farewell, our joy, and the light of our eyes," said he.
And he went to the atrium quickly, so as not to let himself be conquered by emotion unworthy of a Roman and a general.
Meanwhile Pomponia, when she had conducted Lygia to the cubiculum, began to comfort, console, and encourage her, uttering words meanwhile which sounded strangely in that house, where near them in an adjoining chamber the lararium remained yet, and where the hearth was on which Aulus Plautius, faithful to ancient usage, made offerings to the household divinities. Now the hour of trial had come. On a time Virginius had pierced the bosom of his own daughter to save her from the hands of Appius; still earlier Lucretia had redeemed her shame with her life. The house of Cæsar is a den of infamy, of evil, of crime. But we, Lygia, know why we have not the right to raise hands on ourselves! Yes! The law under which we both live is another, a greater, a holier, but it gives permission to defend oneself from evil and shame even should it happen to pay for that defence with life and torment. Whoso goes forth pure from the dwelling of corruption has the greater merit thereby. The earth is that dwelling; but fortunately life is one twinkle of the eye, and resurrection is only from the grave; beyond that not Nero, but Mercy bears rule, and there instead of pain is delight, there instead of tears is rejoicing.
Next she began to speak of herself. Yes! she was calm; but in her breast there was no lack of painful wounds. For example, Aulus was a cataract on her eye; the fountain of light had not flowed to him yet. Neither was it permitted her to rear her son in Truth. When she thought, therefore, that it might be thus to the end of her life, and that for them a moment of separation might come which would be a hundred times more grievous and terrible than that temporary one over which they were both suffering then, she could not so much as understand how she might be happy even in heaven without them. And she had wept many nights through already, she had passed many nights in prayer, imploring grace and mercy. But she offered her suffering to God, and waited and trusted. And now, when a new blow struck her, when the tyrant's command took from her a dear one,—the one whom Aulus had called the light of their eyes,—she trusted yet, believing that there was a power greater than Nero's and a mercy mightier than his anger.
And she pressed the maiden's head to her bosom still more firmly. Lygia dropped to her knees after a while, and, covering her eyes in the folds of Pomponia's peplus, she remained thus a long time in silence; but when she stood up again, some calmness was evident on her face.
"I grieve for thee, mother, and for father and for my brother; but I know that resistance is useless, and would destroy all of us. I promise thee that in the house of Cæsar I will never forget thy words."
Once more she threw her arms around Pomponia's neck; then both went out to the oecus, and she took farewell of little Aulus, of the old Greek their teacher, of the dressing-maid who had been her nurse, and of all the slaves. One of these, a tall and broad-shouldered Lygian, called Ursus in the house, who with other servants had in his time gone with Lygia's mother and her to the camp of the Romans, fell now at her feet, and then bent down to the knees of Pomponia, saying,—"O domina! permit me to go with my lady, to serve her and watch over her in the house of Cæsar."
"Thou art not our servant, but Lygia's," answered Pomponia; "but if they admit thee through Cæsar's doors, in what way wilt thou be able to watch over her?"
"I know not, domina; I know only that iron breaks in my hands just as wood does."
When Aulus, who came up at that moment, had heard what the question was, not only did he not oppose the wishes of Ursus, but he declared that he had not even the right to detain him. They were sending away Lygia as a hostage whom Cæsar had claimed, and they were obliged in the same way to send her retinue, which passed with her to the control of Cæsar. Here he whispered to Pomponia that under the form of an escort she could add as many slaves as she thought proper, for the centurion could not refuse to receive them.
There was a certain comfort for Lygia in this. Pomponia also was glad that she could surround her with servants of her own choice. Therefore, besides Ursus, she appointed to her the old tire-woman, two maidens from Cyprus well skilled in hair-dressing, and two German maidens for the bath. Her choice fell exclusively on adherents of the new faith; Ursus, too, had professed it for a number of years. Pomponia could count on the faithfulness of those servants, and at the same time consoled herself with the thought that soon grains of truth would be in Cæsar's house.
She wrote a few words also, committing care over Lygia to Nero's freedwoman, Acte. Pomponia had not seen her, it is true, at meetings of confessors of the new faith; but she had heard from them that Acte had never refused them a service, and that she read the letters of Paul of Tarsus eagerly. It was known to her also that the young freedwoman lived in melancholy, that she was a person different from all other women of Nero's house, and that in general she was the good spirit of the palace.
Hasta engaged to deliver the letter himself to Acte. Considering it natural that the daughter of a king should have a retinue of her own servants, he did not raise the least difficulty in taking them to the palace, but wondered rather that there should be so few. He begged haste, however, fearing lest he might be suspected of want of zeal in carrying out orders.
The moment of parting came. The eyes of Pomponia and Lygia were filled with fresh tears; Aulus placed his hand on her head again, and after a while the soldiers, followed by the cry of little Aulus, who in defence of his sister threatened the centurion with his small fists, conducted Lygia to Cæsar's house.
The old general gave command to prepare his litter at once; meanwhile, shutting himself up with Pomponia in the pinacotheca adjoining the oecus, he said to her,—"Listen to me, Pomponia. I will go to Cæsar, though I judge that my visit will be useless; and though Seneca's word means nothing with Nero now, I will go also to Seneca. To-day Sophonius, Tigellinus, Petronius, or Vatinius have more influence. As to Cæsar, perhaps he has never even heard of the Lygian people; and if he has demanded the delivery of Lygia, the hostage, he has done so because some one persuaded him to it,—it is easy to guess who could do that."
She raised her eyes to him quickly.
"Is it Petronius?"
A moment of silence followed; then the general continued,—"See what it is to admit over the threshold any of those people without conscience or honor. Cursed be the moment in which Vinicius entered our house, for he brought Petronius. Woe to Lygia, since those men are not seeking a hostage, but a concubine."
And his speech became more hissing than usual, because of helpless rage and of sorrow for his adopted daughter. He struggled with himself some time, and only his clenched fists showed how severe was the struggle within him.
"I have revered the gods so far," said he; "but at this moment I think that not they are over the world, but one mad, malicious monster named Nero."
"Aulus," said Pomponia. "Nero is only a handful of rotten dust before God."
But Aulus began to walk with long steps over the mosaic of the pinacotheca. In his life there had been great deeds, but no great misfortunes; hence he was unused to them. The old soldier had grown more attached to Lygia than he himself had been aware of, and now he could not be reconciled to the thought that he had lost her. Besides, he felt humiliated. A hand was weighing on him which he despised, and at the same time he felt that before its power his power was as nothing.
But when at last he stifled in himself the anger which disturbed his thoughts, he said,—"I judge that Petronius has not taken her from us for Cæsar, since he would not offend Poppæa. Therefore he took her either for himself or Vinicius. Today I will discover this."
And after a while the litter bore him in the direction of the Palatine. Pomponia, when left alone, went to little Aulus, who did not cease crying for his sister, or threatening Cæsar.
AULUS had judged rightly that he would not be admitted to Nero's presence. They told him that Cæsar was occupied in singing with the lute-player, Terpnos, and that in general he did not receive those whom he himself had not summoned. In other words, that Aulus must not attempt in future to see him.
Seneca, though ill with a fever, received the old general with due honor; but when he had heard what the question was, he laughed bitterly, and said,—"I can render thee only one service, noble Plautius, not to show Cæsar at any time that my heart feels thy pain, or that I should like to aid thee; for should Cæsar have the least suspicion on this head, know that he would not give thee back Lygia, though for no other reason than to spite me."
He did not advise him, either, to go to Tigellinus or Vatinius or Vitelius. It might be possible to do something with them through money; perhaps, also, they would like to do evil to Petronius, whose influence they were trying to undermine, but most likely they would disclose before Nero how dear Lygia was to Plautius, and then Nero would all the more resolve not to yield her to him. Here the old sage began to speak with a biting irony, which he turned against himself: "Thou hast been silent, Plautius, thou hast been silent for whole years, and Cæsar does not like those who are silent. How couldst thou help being carried away by his beauty, his virtue, his singing, his declamation, his chariot-driving, and his verses? Why didst thou not glorify the death of Britannicus, and repeat panegyrics in honor of the mother-slayer, and not offer congratulations after the stifling of Octavia? Thou art lacking in foresight, Aulus, which we who live happily at the court possess in proper measure."
Thus speaking, he raised a goblet which he carried at his belt, took water from a fountain at the impluvium, freshened his burning lips, and continued,—"Ah, Nero has a grateful heart. He loves thee because thou hast served Rome and glorified its name at the ends of the earth; he loves me because I was his master in youth. Therefore, seest thou, I know that this water is not poisoned, and I drink it in peace. Wine in my own house would be less reliable. If thou art thirsty, drink boldly of this water. The aqueducts bring it from beyond the Alban hills, and any one wishing to poison it would have to poison every fountain in Rome. As thou seest, it is possible yet to be safe in this world and to have a quiet old age. I am sick, it is true, but rather in soul than in body."
This was true. Seneca lacked the strength of soul which Cornutus possessed, for example, or Thrasea; hence his life was a series of concessions to crime. He felt this himself; he understood that an adherent of the principles of Zeno, of Citium, should go by another road, and he suffered more from that cause than from the fear of death itself.
But the general interrupted these reflections full of grief.
"Noble Annæus," said he, "I know how Cæsar rewarded thee for the care with which thou didst surround his years of youth. But the author of the removal of Lygia is Petronius. Indicate to me a method against him, indicate the influences to which he yields, and use besides with him all the eloquence with which friendship for me of long standing can inspire thee."
"Petronius and I," answered Seneca, "are men of two opposite camps; I know of no method against him, he yields to no man's influence. Perhaps with all his corruption he is worthier than those scoundrels with whom Nero surrounds himself at present. But to show him that he has done an evil deed is to lose time simply. Petronius has lost long since that faculty which distinguishes good from evil. Show him that his act is ugly, he will be ashamed of it. When I see him, I will say, 'Thy act is worthy of a freedman.' If that will not help thee, nothing can."
"Thanks for that, even," answered the general.
Then he gave command to carry him to the house of Vinicius, whom he found at sword practice with his domestic trainer. Aulus was borne away by terrible anger at sight of the young man occupied calmly with fencing during the attack on Lygia; and barely had the curtain dropped behind the trainer when this anger burst forth in a torrent of bitter reproaches and injuries. But Vinicius, when he learned that Lygia had been carried away, grew so terribly pale that Aulus could not for even an instant suspect him of sharing in the deed. The young man's forehead was covered with sweat; the blood, which had rushed to his heart for a moment, returned to his face in a burning wave; his eyes began to shoot sparks, his mouth to hurl disconnected questions. Jealousy and rage tossed him in turn, like a tempest. It seemed to him that Lygia, once she had crossed the threshold of Cæsar's house, was lost to him absolutely. When Aulus pronounced the name of Petronius, suspicion flew like a lightning flash through the young soldier's mind, that Petronius had made sport of him, and either wanted to win new favor from Nero by the gift of Lygia, or keep her for himself. That any one who had seen Lygia would not desire her at once, did not find a place in his head. Impetuousness, inherited in his family, carried him away like a wild horse, and took from him presence of mind.
"General," said he, with a broken voice, "return home and wait for me. Know that if Petronius were my own father, I would avenge on him the wrong done to Lygia. Return home and wait for me. Neither Petronius nor Cæsar will have her."
Then he went with clinched fists to the waxed masks standing clothed in the atrium, and burst out,—"By those mortal masks! I would rather kill her and myself." When he had said this, he sent another "Wait for me" after Aulus, then ran forth like a madman from the atrium, and flew to Petronius's house, thrusting pedestrians aside on the way.
Aulus returned home with a certain encouragement. He judged that if Petronius had persuaded Cæsar to take Lygia to give her to Vinicius, Vinicius would bring her to their house. Finally, the thought was no little consolation to him, that should Lygia not be rescued she would be avenged and protected by death from disgrace. He believed that Vinicius would do everything that he had promised. He had seen his rage, and he knew the excitability innate in the whole family. He himself, though he loved Lygia as her own father, would rather kill her than give her to Cæsar; and had he not regarded his son, the last descendant of his stock, he would doubtless have done so. Aulus was a soldier; he had hardly heard of the Stoics, but in character he was not far from their ideas,—death was more acceptable to his pride than disgrace.
When he returned home, he pacified Pomponia, gave her the consolation that he had, and both began to await news from Vinicius. At moments when the steps of some of the slaves were heard in the atrium, they thought that perhaps Vinicius was bringing their beloved child to them, and they were ready in the depth of their souls to bless both. Time passed, however, and no news came. Only in the evening was the hammer heard on the gate.
After a while a slave entered and handed Aulus a letter. The old general, though he liked to show command over himself, took it with a somewhat trembling hand, and began to read as hastily as if it were a question of his whole house.
All at once his face darkened, as if a shadow from a passing cloud had fallen on it.
"Read," said he, turning to Pomponia.
Pomponia took the letter and read as follows:—
"Marcus Vinicius to Aulus Plautius greeting. What has happened, has happened by the will of Cæsar, before which incline your heads, as I and Petronius incline ours."
A long silence followed.
PETRONIUS was at home. The doorkeeper did not dare to stop Vinicius, who burst into the atrium like a storm, and, learning that the master of the house was in the library, he rushed into the library with the same impetus. Finding Petronius writing, he snatched the reed from his hand, broke it, trampled the reed on the floor, then fixed his fingers into his shoulder, and, approaching his face to that of his uncle, asked, with a hoarse voice,—"What hast thou done with her? Where is she?"
Suddenly an amazing thing happened. That slender and effeminate Petronius seized the hand of the youthful athlete, which was grasping his shoulder, then seized the other, and, holding them both in his one hand with the grip of an iron vice, he said,—"I am incapable only in the morning; in the evening I regain my former strength. Try to escape. A weaver must have taught thee gymnastics, and a blacksmith thy manners."
On his face not even anger was evident, but in his eyes there was a certain pale reflection of energy and daring. After a while he let the hands of Vinicius drop. Vinicius stood before him shamefaced and enraged.
"Thou hast a steel hand," said he; "but if thou hast betrayed me, I swear, by all the infernal gods, that I will thrust a knife into thy body, though thou be in the chambers of Cæsar."
"Let us talk calmly," said Petronius. "Steel is stronger, as thou seest, than iron; hence, though out of one of thy arms two as large as mine might be made, I have no need to fear thee. On the contrary, I grieve over thy rudeness, and if the ingratitude of men could astonish me yet, I should be astonished at thy ingratitude."
"Where is Lygia?"
"In a brothel,—that is, in the house of Cæsar."
"Calm thyself, and be seated. I asked Cæsar for two things, which he promised me,—first, to take Lygia from the house of Aulus, and second to give her to thee. Hast thou not a knife there under the folds of thy toga? Perhaps thou wilt stab me! But I advise thee to wait a couple of days, for thou wouldst be taken to prison, and meanwhile Lygia would be wearied in thy house."
Silence followed. Vinicius looked for some time with astonished eyes on Petronius; then he said,—"Pardon me; I love her, and love is disturbing my faculties."
"Look at me, Marcus. The day before yesterday I spoke to Cæsar as follows: 'My sister's son, Vinicius, has so fallen in love with a lean little girl who is being reared with the Auluses that his house is turned into a steambath from sighs. Neither thou, O Cæsar, nor I—we who know, each of us, what true beauty is—would give a thousand sesterces for her; but that lad has ever been as dull as a tripod, and now he has lost all the wit that was in him.'"
"If thou understand not that I said this to insure Lygia's safety, I am ready to believe that I told the truth. I persuaded Bronzebeard that a man of his æsthetic nature could not consider such a girl beautiful; and Nero, who so far has not dared to look otherwise than through my eyes, will not find in her beauty, and, not finding it, will not desire her. It was necessary to insure ourselves against the monkey and take him on a rope. Not he, but Poppæa, will value Lygia now; and Poppæa will strive, of course, to send the girl out of the palace at the earliest. I said further to Bronzebeard, in passing: 'Take Lygia and give her to Vinicius! Thou hast the right to do so, for she is a hostage; and if thou take her, thou wilt inflict pain on Aulus.' He agreed; he had not the least reason not to agree, all the more since I gave him a chance to annoy decent people. They will make thee official guardian of the hostage, and give into thy hands that Lygian treasure; thou, as a friend of the valiant Lygians, and also a faithful servant of Cæsar, wilt not waste any of the treasure, but wilt strive to increase it. Cæsar, to preserve appearances, will keep her a few days in his house, and then send her to thy insula. Lucky man!"
"Is this true? Does nothing threaten her there in Cæsar's house?"
"If she had to live there permanently, Poppæa would talk about her to Locusta, but for a few days there is no danger. Ten thousand people live in it. Nero will not see her, perhaps, all the more since he left everything to me, to the degree that just now the centurion was here with information that he had conducted the maiden to the palace and committed her to Acte. She is a good soul, that Acte; hence I gave command to deliver Lygia to her. Clearly Pomponia Græcina is of that opinion too, for she wrote to Acte. To-morrow there is a feast at Nero's. I have requested a place for thee at the side of Lygia."
"Pardon me, Caius, my hastiness. I judged that thou hadst given command to take her for thyself or for Cæsar."
"I can forgive thy hastiness; but it is more difficult to forgive rude gestures, vulgar shouts, and a voice reminding one of players at mora. I do not like that style, Marcus, and do thou guard against it. Know that Tigellinus is Cæsar's pander; but know also that if I wanted the girl for myself now, looking thee straight in the eyes, I would say, 'Vinicius! I take Lygia from thee and I will keep her till I am tired of her."
Thus speaking, he began to look with his hazel eyes straight into the eyes of Vinicius with a cold and insolent stare. The young man lost himself completely.
"The fault is mine," said he. "Thou art kind and worthy. I thank thee from my whole soul. Permit me only to put one more question: Why didst thou not have Lygia sent directly to my house?"
"Because Cæsar wishes to preserve appearances. People in Rome will talk about this,—that we removed Lygia as a hostage. While they are talking, she will remain in Cæsar's palace. Afterward she will be removed quietly to thy house, and that will be the end. Bronzebeard is a cowardly cur. He knows that his power is unlimited, and still he tries to give specious appearances to every act. Hast thou recovered to the degree of being able to philosophize a little? More than once have I thought, Why does crime, even when as powerful as Cæsar, and assured of being beyond punishment, strive always for the appearances of truth, justice, and virtue? Why does it take the trouble? I consider that to murder a brother, a mother, a wife, is a thing worthy of some petty Asiatic king, not a Roman Cæsar; but if that position were mine, I should not write justifying letters to the Senate. But Nero writes. Nero is looking for appearances, for Nero is a coward. But Tiberius was not a coward; still he justified every step he took. Why is this? What a marvellous, involuntary homage paid to virtue by evil! And knowest thou what strikes me? This, that it is done because transgression is ugly and virtue is beautiful. Therefore a man of genuine æsthetic feeling is also a virtuous man. Hence I am virtuous. To-day I must pour out a little wine to the shades of Protagoras, Prodicus, and Gorgias. It seems that sophists too can be of service. Listen, for I am speaking yet. I took Lygia from Aulus to give her to thee. Well. But Lysippus would have made wonderful groups of her and thee. Ye are both beautiful; therefore my act is beautiful, and being beautiful it cannot be bad. Marcus, here sitting before thee is virtue incarnate in Caius Petronius! If Aristides were living, it would be his duty to come to me and offer a hundred minæ for a short treatise on virtue."
But Vinicius, as a man more concerned with reality than with treatises on virtue, replied,—"To-morrow I shall see Lygia, and then have her in my house daily, always, and till death."
"Thou wilt have Lygia, and I shall have Aulus on my head. He will summon the vengeance of all the infernal gods against me. And if the beast would take at least a preliminary lesson in good declamation! He will blame me, however, as my former doorkeeper blamed my clients but him I sent to prison in the country."
"Aulus has been at my house. I promised to give him news of Lygia."
"Write to him that the will of the 'divine' Cæsar is the highest law, and that thy first son will bear the name Aulus. It is necessary that the old man should have some consolation. I am ready to pray Bronzebeard to invite him to-morrow to the feast. Let him see thee in the triclinium next to Lygia."
"Do not do that. I am sorry for them, especially for Pomponia."
And he sat down to write that letter which took from the old general the remnant of his hope.
ONCE the highest heads in Rome inclined before Acte, the former favorite of Nero. But even at that period she showed no desire to interfere in public questions, and if on any occasion she used her influence over the young ruler, it was only to implore mercy for some one. Quiet and unassuming, she won the gratitude of many, and made no one her enemy. Even Octavia was unable to hate her. To those who envied her she seemed exceedingly harmless. It was known that she continued to love Nero with a sad and pained love, which lived not in hope, but only in memories of the time in which that Nero was not only younger and loving, but better. It was known that she could not tear her thoughts and soul from those memories, but expected nothing; since there was no real fear that Nero would return to her, she was looked upon as a person wholly inoffensive, and hence was left in peace. Poppæa considered her merely as a quiet servant, so harmless that she did not even try to drive her from the palace.
But since Cæsar had loved her once and dropped her without offence in a quiet and to some extent friendly manner, a certain respect was retained for her. Nero, when he had freed her, let her live in the palace, and gave her special apartments with a few servants. And as in their time Pallas and Narcissus, though freedmen of Claudius, not only sat at feasts with Claudius, but also held places of honor as powerful ministers, so she too was invited at times to Cæsar's table. This was done perhaps because her beautiful form was a real ornament to a feast. Cæsar for that matter had long since ceased to count with any appearances in his choice of company. At his table the most varied medley of people of every position and calling found places. Among them were senators, but mainly those who were content to be jesters as well. There were patricians, old and young, eager for luxury, excess, and enjoyment. There were women with great names, who did not hesitate to put on a yellow wig of an evening and seek adventures on dark streets for amusement's sake. There were also high officials, and priests who at full goblets were willing to jeer at their own gods. At the side of these was a rabble of every sort: singers, mimes, musicians, dancers of both sexes; poets who, while declaiming, were thinking of the sesterces which might fall to them for praise of Cæsar's verses; hungry philosophers following the dishes with eager eyes; finally, noted charioteers, tricksters, miracle-wrights, tale-tellers, jesters, and the most varied adventurers brought through fashion or folly to a few days' notoriety. Among these were not lacking even men who covered with long hair their ears pierced in sign of slavery.
The most noted sat directly at the tables; the lesser served to amuse in time of eating, and waited for the moment in which the servants would permit them to rush at the remnants of food and drink. Guests of this sort were furnished by Tigellinus, Vatinius, and Vitelius; for these guests they were forced more than once to find clothing befitting the chambers of Cæsar, who, however, liked their society, through feeling most free in it. The luxury of the court gilded everything, and covered all things with glitter. High and low, the descendants of great families, and the needy from the pavements of the city, great artists, and vile scrapings of talent, thronged to the palace to sate their dazzled eyes with a splendor almost surpassing human estimate, and to approach the giver of every favor, wealth, and property,—whose single glance might abase, it is true, but might also exalt beyond measure.
That day Lygia too had to take part in such a feast. Fear, uncertainty, and a dazed feeling, not to be wondered at after the sudden change, were struggling in her with a wish to resist. She feared Nero; she feared the people and the palace whose uproar deprived her of presence of mind; she feared the feasts of whose shamelessness she had heard from Aulus, Pomponia Græcina, and their friends. Though young, she was not without knowledge, for knowledge of evil in those times reached even children's ears early. She knew, therefore, that ruin was threatening her in the palace. Pomponia, moreover, had warned her of this at the moment of parting. But having a youthful spirit, unacquainted with corruption, and confessing a lofty faith, implanted in her by her foster mother, she had promised to defend herself against that ruin; she had promised her mother, herself and also that Divine Teacher in whom she not only believed, but whom she had come to love with her half-childlike heart for the sweetness of his doctrine, the bitterness of his death, and the glory of his resurrection.
She was confident too that now neither Aulus nor Pomponia would be answerable for her actions; she was thinking therefore whether it would not be better to resist and not go to the feast. On the one hand fear and alarm spoke audibly in her soul; on the other the wish rose in her to show courage in suffering, in exposure to torture and death. The Divine Teacher had commanded to act thus. He had given the example himself. Pomponia had told her that the most earnest among the adherents desire with all their souls such a test, and pray for it. And Lygia, when still in the house of Aulus, had been mastered at moments by a similar desire. She had seen herself as a martyr, with wounds on her feet and hands, white as snow, beautiful with a beauty not of earth, and borne by equally white angels into the azure sky; and her imagination admired such a vision. There was in it much childish brooding, but there was in it also something of delight in herself, which Pomponia had reprimanded. But now, when opposition to Cæsar's will might draw after it some terrible punishment, and the martyrdom scene of imagination become a reality, there was added to the beautiful visions and to the delight a kind of curiosity mingled with dread, as to how they would punish her, and what kind of torments they would provide. And her soul, half childish yet, was hesitating on two sides. But Acte, hearing of these hesitations, looked at her with astonishment as if the maiden were talking in a fever. To oppose Cæsar's will, expose oneself from the first moment to his anger? To act thus one would need to be a child that knows not what it says. From Lygia's own words it appears that she is, properly speaking, not really a hostage, but a maiden forgotten by her own people. No law of nations protects her; and even if it did, Cæsar is powerful enough to trample on it in a moment of anger. It has pleased Cæsar to take her, and he will dispose of her. Thenceforth she is at his will, above which there is not another on earth.
"So it is," continued Acte. "I too have read the letters of Paul of Tarsus, and I know that above the earth is God, and the Son of God, who rose from the dead; but on the earth there is only Cæsar. Think of this, Lygia. I know too that thy doctrine does not permit thee to be what I was, and that to you as to the Stoics,—of whom Epictetus has told me,—when it comes to a choice between shame and death, it is permitted to choose only death. But canst thou say that death awaits thee and not shame too? Hast thou heard of the daughter of Sejanus, a young maiden, who at command of Tiberius had to pass through shame before her death, so as to respect a law which prohibits the punishment of virgins with death? Lygia, Lygia, do not irritate Cæsar. If the decisive moment comes when thou must choose between disgrace and death, thou wilt act as thy faith commands; but seek not destruction thyself, and do not irritate for a trivial cause an earthly and at the same time a cruel divinity."
Acte spoke with great compassion, and even with enthusiasm; and being a little short-sighted, she pushed her sweet face up to Lygia's as if wishing to see surely the effect of her words.
But Lygia threw her arms around Acte's neck with childish trustfulness and said,—"Thou art kind, Acte."
Acte, pleased by the praise and confidence, pressed her to her heart; and then disengaging herself from the arms of the maiden, answered,—"My happiness has passed and my joy is gone, but I am not wicked." Then she began to walk with quick steps through the room and to speak to herself, as if in despair.
"No! And he was not wicked. He thought himself good at that time, and he wished to be good. I know that best. All his change came later, when he ceased to love. Others made him what he is—yes, others—and Poppæa."
Here her eyelids filled with tears. Lygia followed her for some time with her blue eyes, and asked at last,—"Art thou sorry for him, Acte?"
"I am sorry for him!" answered the Grecian, with a low voice. And again she began to walk, her hands clinched as if in pain, and her face without hope.
"Dost thou love him yet, Acte?" asked Lygia, timidly.
"I love him."
And after a while she added,—"No one loves him but me."
Silence followed, during which Acte strove to recover her calmness, disturbed by memories; and when at length her face resumed its usual look of calm sorrow, she said,—
"Let us speak of thee, Lygia. Do not even think of opposing Cæsar; that would be madness. And be calm. I know this house well, and I judge that on Cæsar's part nothing threatens thee. If Nero had given command to take thee away for himself, he would not have brought thee to the Palatine. Here Poppæa rules; and Nero, since she bore him a daughter, is more than ever under her influence. No, Nero gave command, it is true, that thou shouldst be at the feast, but he has not seen thee yet; he has not inquired about thee, hence he does not care about thee. Maybe he took thee from Aulus and Pomponia only through anger at them. Petronius wrote me to have care of thee; and since Pomponia too wrote, as thou knowest, maybe they had an understanding. Maybe he did that at her request. If this be true, if he at the request of Pomponia will occupy himself with thee, nothing threatens thee; and who knows if Nero may not send thee back to Aulus at his persuasion? I know not whether Nero loves him over much, but I know that rarely has he the courage to be of an opinion opposite to his."
"Ah, Acte!" answered Lygia; "Petronius was with us before they took me, and my mother was convinced that Nero demanded my surrender at his instigation."
"That would be bad," said Acte. But she stopped for a while, and then said,—"Perhaps Petronius only said, in Nero's presence at some supper, that he saw a hostage of the Lygians at Aulus's, and Nero, who is jealous of his own power, demanded thee only because hostages belong to Cæsar. But he does not like Aulus and Pomponia. No! it does not seem to me that if Petronius wished to take thee from Aulus he would use such a method. I do not know whether Petronius is better than others of Cæsar's court, but he is different. Maybe too thou wilt find some one else who would be willing to intercede for thee. Hast thou not seen at Aulus's some one who is near Cæsar?"
"I have seen Vespasian and Titus."
"Cæsar does not like them."
"If Seneca advised something, that would be enough to make Nero act otherwise."
The bright face of Lygia was covered with a blush. "And Vinicius-"
"I do not know him."
"He is a relative of Petronius, and returned not long since from Armenia."
"Dost thou think that Nero likes him?"
"All like Vinicius."
"And would he intercede for thee?"
Acte smiled tenderly, and said, "Then thou wilt see him surely at the feast. Thou must be there, first, because thou must,—only such a child as thou could think otherwise. Second, if thou wish to return to the house of Aulus, thou wilt find means of beseeching Petronius and Vinicius to gain for thee by their influence the right to return. If they were here, both would tell thee as I do, that it would be madness and ruin to try resistance. Cæsar might not notice thy absence, it is true; but if he noticed it and thought that thou hadst the daring to oppose his will, here would be no salvation for thee. Go, Lygia! Dost thou hear the noise in the palace? The sun is near setting; guests will begin to arrive soon."
"Thou art right," answered Lygia, "and I will follow thy advice."
How much desire to see Vinicius and Petronius there was in this resolve, how much of woman's curiosity there was to see such a feast once in life, and to see at it Cæsar, the court, the renowned Poppæa and other beauties, and all that unheard-of splendor, of which wonders were narrated in Rome, Lygia could not give account to herself of a certainty. But Acte was right, and Lygia felt this distinctly. There was need to go; therefore, when necessity and simple reason supported the hidden temptation, she ceased to hesitate.
Acte conducted her to her own unctorium to anoint and dress her; and though there was no lack of slave women in Cæsar's house, and Acte had enough of them for her personal service, still, through sympathy for the maiden whose beauty and innocence had caught her heart, she resolved to dress her herself. It became clear at once that in the young Grecian, in spite of her sadness and her perusal of the letters of Paul of Tarsus, there was yet much of the ancient Hellenic spirit, to which physical beauty spoke with more eloquence than aught else on earth. When she had undressed Lygia, she could not restrain an exclamation of wonder at sight of her form, at once slender and full, created, as it were, from pearl and roses; and stepping back a few paces, she looked with delight on that matchless, spring-like form.
"Lygia," exclaimed she at last, "thou art a hundred times more beautiful than Poppæa!"
But, reared in the strict house of Pomponia, where modesty was observed, even when women were by themselves, the maiden, wonderful as a wonderful dream, harmonious as a work of Praxiteles or as a song, stood alarmed, blushing from modesty, with knees pressed together, with her hands on her bosom, and downcast eyes. At last, raising her arms with sudden movement, she removed the pins which held her hair, and in one moment, with one shake of her head, she covered herself with it as with a mantle.
Acte, approaching her and touching her dark tresses, said,—
"Oh, what hair thou hast! I will not sprinkle golden powder on it; it gleams of itself in one place and another with gold, where it waves. I will add, perhaps, barely a sprinkle here and there; but lightly, lightly, as if a sun ray had freshened it. Wonderful must thy Lygian country be where such maidens are born!
"I do not remember it," answered Lygia; "but Ursus has told me that with us it is forests, forests, and forests."
"But flowers bloom in those forests," said Acte, dipping her hand in a vase filled with verbena, and moistening Lygia's hair with it. When she had finished this work, Acte anointed her body lightly with odoriferous oils from Arabia, and then dressed her in a soft gold-colored tunic without sleeves, over which was to be put a snow-white peplus. But since she had to dress Lygia's hair first, she put on her meanwhile a kind of roomy dress called synthesis, and, seating her in an armchair, gave her for a time into the hands of slave women, so as to stand at a distance herself and follow the hairdressing. Two other slave women put on Lygia's feet white sandals, embroidered with purple, fastening them to her alabaster ankles with golden lacings drawn crosswise. When at last the hair-dressing was finished, they put a peplus on her in very beautiful, light folds; then Acte fastened pearls to her neck, and touching her hair at the folds with gold dust, gave command to the women to dress her, following Lygia with delighted eyes meanwhile.
But she was ready soon; and when the first litters began to appear before the main gate, both entered the side portico from which were visible the chief entrance, the interior galleries, and the courtyard surrounded by a colonnade of Numidian marble.
Gradually people passed in greater and greater numbers under the lofty arch of the entrance, over which the splendid quadrigæ of Lysias seemed to bear Apollo and Diana into space.