PETRONIUS was not mistaken. Two days later young Nerva, who had always bee_riendly and devoted, sent his freedman to Cumae with news of what wa_appening at the court of Caesar.
The death of Petronius had been determined. On the morning of the followin_ay they intended to send him a centurion, with the order to stop at Cumae, and wait there for further instructions; the next messenger, to follow a fe_ays later, was to bring the death sentence.
Petronius heard the news with unruffled calmness.
"Thou wilt take to thy lord," said he, "one of my vases; say from me that _hank him with my whole soul, for now I am able to anticipate the sentence."
And all at once he began to laugh, like a man who has came upon a perfec_hought, and rejoices in advance at its fulfilment.
That same afternoon his slaves rushed about, inviting the Augustians, who wer_taying in Cumae, and all the ladies, to a magnificent banquet at the villa o_he arbiter.
He wrote that afternoon in the library; next he took a bath, after which h_ommanded the vestiplicae to arrange his dress. Brilliant and stately as on_f the gods, he went to the triclinium, to cast the eye of a critic on th_reparations, and then to the gardens, where youths and Grecian maidens fro_he islands were weaving wreaths of roses for the evening.
Not the least care was visible on his face. The servants only knew that th_east would be something uncommon, for he had issued a command to give unusua_ewards to those with whom he was satisfied, and some slight blows to al_hose work should not please him, or who had deserved blame or punishmen_arlier. To the cithara players and the singers he had ordered beforehan_iberal pay. At last, sitting in the garden under a beech, through whos_eaves the sun-rays marked the earth with bright spots, he called Eunice.
She came, dressed in white, with a sprig of myrtle in her hair, beautiful a_ne of the Graces. He seated her at his side, and, touching her temple gentl_ith his fingers, he gazed at her with that admiration with which a criti_azes at a statue from the chisel of a master.
"Eunicc," asked he, "dost thou know that thou art not a slave this long time?"
She raised to him her calm eyes, as blue as the sky, and denied with a motio_f her head.
"I am thine always," said she.
"But perhaps thou knowest not," continued Petronius, "that the villa, an_hose slaves twining wreaths here, and all which is in the villa, with th_ields and the herds, are thine henceforward."
Eunice, when she heard this, drew away from him quickly, and asked in a voic_illed with sudden fear, —
"Why dost thou tell me this?"
Then she approached again, and looked at him, blinking with amazement. After _hile her face became as pale as linen. He smiled, and said only one word, —
A moment of silence followed; merely a slight breeze moved the leaves of th_eech.
Petronius might have thought that before him was a statue cut from whit_arble.
"Eunice," said he, "I wish to die calmly."
And the maiden, looking at him with a heart-rending smile, whispered, —
"I hear thee."
In the evening the guests, who had been at feasts given by Petroniu_reviously, and knew that in comparison with them even Caesar's banquet_eemed tiresome and barbarous, began to arrive in numbers. To no one did i_ccur, even, that that was to be the last "symposium." Many knew, it is true, that the clouds of Caesar's anger were hanging over the exquisite arbiter; bu_hat had happened so often, and Petronius had been able so often to scatte_hem by some dexterous act or by a single bold word, that no one though_eally that serious danger threatened him. His glad face and usual smile, fre_f care, confirmed all, to the last man, in that opinion. The beautifu_unice, to whom he had declared his wish to die calmly, and for whom ever_ord of his was like an utterance of fate, had in her features a perfec_almness, and in her eyes a kind of wonderful radiance, which might have bee_onsidered delight. At the door of the triclinium, youths with hair in golde_ets put wreaths of roses on the heads of the guests, warning them, as th_ustom was, to pass the threshold right foot foremost. In the hail there was _light odor of violets; the lamps burned in Alexandrian glass of variou_olors. At the couches stood Grecian maidens, whose office it was to moiste_he feet of guests with perfumes. At the walls cithara players and Athenia_horisters were waiting for the signal of their leader.
The table service gleamed with splendor, but that splendor did not offend o_ppress; it seemed a natural development. Joyousness and freedom sprea_hrough the hall with the odor of violets. The guests as they entered fel_hat neither threat nor constraint was hanging over them, as in Caesar'_ouse, where a man might forfeit his life for praises not sufficiently grea_r sufficiently apposite. At sight of the lamps, the goblets entwined wit_vy, the wine cooling on banks of snow, and the exquisite dishes, the heart_f the guests became joyous. Conversation of various kinds began to buzz, a_ees buzz on an apple-tree in blossom. At moments it was interrupted by a_utburst of glad laughter, at moments by munnurs of applause, at moments by _iss placed too loudly on some white shoulder.
The guests, while drinking wine, spilled from their goblets a few drops to th_mmortal gods, to gain their protection, and their favor for the host. I_attered not that many of them had no belief in the gods. Custom an_uperstition prescribed it. Petronius, inclining near Eunice, talked of Rome, of the latest divorces, of love affairs, of the races, of Spiculus, who ha_ecome famous recently in the arena, and of the latest books in the shops o_tractus and the Sozii. When he spilled wine, he said that he spilled it onl_n honor of the Lady of Cyprus, the most ancient divinity and the greatest, the only immortal, enduring, and ruling one.
His conversation was like sunlight which lights up some new object ever_nstant, or like the summer breeze which stirs tge flowers in a garden. A_ast he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and at that signal th_itharaee began to sound lightly, and youthful voices accompanied. The_aidens from Kos, the birthplace of Eunice, danced, and showed their ros_orms through robes of gauze. Finally, an Egyptian soothsayer told the guest_heir future from the movement of rainbow colors in a vessel of crystal.
When they had enough of these amusements, Petronius rose somewhat on hi_yrian cushion, and said with hesitation, —
"Pardon me, friends, for asking a favor at a feast. Will each man accept as _ift that goblet from which he first shook wine in honor of the gods and to m_rosperity?"
The goblets of Petronius were gleaming in gold, precious stones, anti th_arving of artists; hence, though gift giving was common in Rome, deligh_illed every heart. Some thanked him loudly: others said that Jove had neve_onored gods with such gifts in Olympus; finally, there were some who refuse_o accept, since the gifts surpassed common estimate.
But he raised aloft the Myrrhene vase, which resembled a rainbow i_rilliancy, and was simply beyond price.
"This," said he, "is the one out of which I poured in honor of the Lady o_yprus. The lips of no man may touch it henceforth, and no hand may ever pou_rom it in honor of another divinity."
He cast the precious vessel to the pavement, which was covered with lily- colored saffron flowers; and when it was broken into small pieces, he said, seeing around him astonished faces, —
"My dear friends, be glad and not astonished. Old age and weakness are sa_ttendants in the last years of life. But I will give you a good example an_ood advice: Ye have the power, as ye see, not to wait for old age; ye ca_epart before it comes, as I do."
"What dost thou wish?" asked a number of voices, with alarm.
"I wish to rejoice, to drink wine, to hear music, to look on those divin_orms which ye see around me, and fall asleep with a garlanded head. I hav_aken farewell of Caesar, and do ye wish to hear what I wrote him at parting?"
He took from beneath the purple cushion a paper, and read as follows: —
"I know, O Caesar, that thou art awaiting my arrival with impatience, that th_rue heart of a friend is yearning day and night for me. I know that thou ar_eady to cover me with gifts, make me prefect of the pretorian guards, an_ommand Tigellinus to be that which the gods made him, a mule-driver in thos_ands which thou didst inherit after poisoning Domitius. Pardon me, liowever, for I swear to thee by Hades, and by the shades of thy mother, thy wife, th_rother, and Seneca, that I cannot go to thee. Life is a great treasure. _ave taken the most precious jewels from that treasure, but in life there ar_any things which I cannot endure any longer. Do not suppose, I pray, that _m offended because thou didst kill thy mother, thy wife, and thy brother; that thou didst burn Rome and send to Erebus all the honest men in th_ominions. No, grandson of Chronos. Death is the inheritance of man; from the_ther deeds could not have been expected. But to destroy one's ear for whol_ears with thy poetry, to see thy belly of a Domitius on slim legs whirle_bout in Pyrrhic dance; to hear thy music, thy declamation, thy doggere_erses, wretched poet of the suburbs, — is a thing surpassing my power, and i_as roused in me the wish to die. Rome stuffs its ears when it hears thee; th_orld reviles thee. I can blush for thee no longer, and I have no wish to d_o. The howls of Cerberus, though resembling thy music, will be less offensiv_o me, for I have never been the friend of Cerberus, and I need not be ashame_f his howling. Farewell, but make no music; commit murder, but write n_erses; poison people, but dance not; be an incendiary, but play not on _ithara. This is the wish and the last friendly counsel sent thee by the — Arbiter Elegantiae."
The guests were terrified, for they knew that the loss of dominion would hav_een less cruel to Nero than this blow. They understood, too, that the man wh_ad written that paper must die; and at the same time pale fear flew over the_ecause they had heard such a paper.
But Petronius laughed with sincere and gladsome joy, as if it were a questio_f the most innocent joke; then he cast his eyes on all present, and said, —
"Be joyous, and drive away fear. No one need boast that he heard this letter.
I will boast of it only to Charon when I am crossing in the boat with him."
He beckoned then to the Greek physician, and stretched out his arm. Th_killed Greek in the twinkle of an eye opened the vein at the bend of the arm.
Blood spurted on the cushion, and covered Eunice, who, supporting the head o_etronius, bent over him and said, —
"Didst thou think that I would leave thee? If the gods gave me immortality, and Caesar gave me power over the earth, I would follow thee still."
Petronius smiled, raised himself a little, touched her lips with his, an_aid, —
"Come with me."
She stretched her rosy arm to the physician, and after a while her blood bega_o mingle and be lost in his blood.
Then he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and again the voices an_ithariae were heard. They sang "Harmodius"; next the song of Anacreo_esounded, — that song in which he complained that on a time he had foun_phrodite's boy chilled and weeping under trees; that he brought him in, warmed him, dried his wings, and the ungrateful child pierced his heart wit_n arrow, — from that moment peace had deserted the poet.
Petronius and Eunice, resting against each other, beautiful as two divinities, listened, smiling and growing pale. At the end of the song Petronius gav_irections to serve more wine and food; then he conversed with the guest_itting near him of trifling but pleasant things, such as are mentione_sually at feasts. Finally, he called to the Greek to bind his arm for _oment; for he said that sleep was tormenting him, and he wanted to yiel_imself to Hypnos before Thanatos put him to sleep forever.
In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on hi_reast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it onc_ore. After that his veins were opened again.
At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the cithara_ccompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler an_aler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again an_aid,—
"Friends, confess that with us perishes —"
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embrace_unice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.
The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderfu_tatues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to thei_orld at that time, — poetry and beauty.