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Chapter 73

  • 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, —
  • "So!"
  • 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.