THE PALACE across the river nearly opposite Simonides’ place is said to have been completed by the famous Epiphanes, and was all such a habitation can be imagined; though he was a builder whose taste ran to the immense rather than the classical, now so called—an architectural imitator, in other words, of the Persians instead of the Greeks.
The wall enclosing the whole island to the waters edge, and built for the double purpose of bulwark against the river and defence against the mob, was said to have rendered the palace unfit for constant occupancy, insomuch that the legates abandoned it and moved to another residence erected for them on the western ridge of Mount Sulpius, under the Temple of Jupiter. Persons were not wanting, however, who flatly denied the bill against the ancient abode. They said, with shrewdness at least, that the real object of the removal of the legates was not a more healthful locality, but the assurance afforded them by the huge barracks, named, according to the prevalent style, citadel, situated just over the way on the eastern ridge of the mount. And the opinion had plausible showing. Among other pertinent things, it was remarked that the palace was kept in perpetual readiness for use; and when a consul, general of the army, king, or visiting potentate of any kind arrived at Antioch, quarters were at once assigned him on the island.
As we have to do with but one apartment in the old pile, the residue of it is left to the reader’s fancy; and as pleases him, he may go through its gardens, baths, halls, and labyrinth of rooms to the pavilions on the roof, all furnished as became a house of fame in a city which was more nearly Milton’s “gorgeous East” than any other in the world.
At this age the apartment alluded to would be termed a saloon. It was quite spacious, floored with polished marble slabs, and lighted in the day by skylights in which colored mica served as glass. The walls were broken by Atlantes, no two of which were alike, but all supporting a cornice wrought with arabesques exceedingly intricate in form, and more elegant on account of superadditions of color—blue, green, Tyrian purple, and gold. Around the room ran a continuous divan of Indian silks and wool of Cashmere. The furniture consisted of tables and stools of Egyptian patterns grotesquely carved. We have left Simonides in his chair perfecting his scheme in aid of the miraculous king, whose coming he has decided is so close at hand. Esther is asleep; and now, having crossed the river by the bridge, and made way through the lion-guarded gate and a number of Babylonian halls and courts, let us enter the gilded saloon.
There are five chandeliers hanging by sliding bronze chains from the ceiling—one in each corner, and in the centre one—enormous pyramids of lighted lamps, illuminating even the demoniac faces of the Atlantes and the complex tracery of the cornice. About the tables, seated or standing, or moving restlessly from one to another, there are probably a hundred persons, whom we must study at least for a moment.
They are all young, some of them little more than boys. That they are Italians and mostly Romans is past doubt. They all speak Latin in purity, while each one appears in the in-door dress of the great capital on the Tiber; that is, in tunics short of sleeve and skirt, a style of vesture well adapted to the climate of Antioch, and especially comfortable in the too close atmosphere of the saloon. On the divan here and there togas and lacernæ lie where they have been carelessly tossed, some of them significantly bordered with purple. On the divan also lie sleepers stretched at ease; whether they were overcome by the heat and fatigue of the sultry day or by Bacchus we will not pause to inquire.
The hum of voices is loud and incessant. Sometimes there is an explosion of laughter, sometimes a burst of rage or exultation; but over all prevails a sharp, prolonged rattle, at first somewhat confusing to the non-familiar. If we approach the tables, however, the mystery solves itself. The company is at the favorite games, draughts and dice, singly or together, and the rattle is merely of the tesseræ, or ivory cubes, loudly shaken, and the moving of the hostes on the checkered boards.
Who are the company?
“Good Flavius,” said a player, holding his piece in suspended movement, “thou seest yon lacerna; that one in front of us on the divan. It is fresh from the shop, and hath a shoulder-buckle of gold broad as a palm.”
“Well,” said Flavius, intent upon his game, “I have seen such before; wherefore thine may not be old, yet, by the girdle of Venus, it is not new! What of it?”
“Nothing. Only I would give it to find a man who knows everything.”
“Ha, ha! For something cheaper, I will find thee here several with purple who will take thy offer. But play.”
“So, by all the Jupiters! Now, what sayest thou? Again?”
“Be it so.”
“And the wager?”
Then each drew his tablets and stilus and made a memorandum; and, while they were resetting the pieces, Flavius returned to his friend’s remark.
“A man who knows everything! Hercle! the oracles would die. What wouldst thou with such a monster?”
“Answer to one question, my Flavius; then, Perpol! I would cut his throat.”
“And the question?”
“I would have him tell me the hour—Hour, said I?—nay, the minute—Maxentius will arrive to-morrow.”
“Good play, good play! I have you! And why the minute?”
“Hast thou ever stood uncovered in the Syrian sun on the quay at which he will land? The fires of the Vesta are not so hot; and, by the Stator of our father Romulus, I would die, if die I must, in Rome. Avernus is here; there, in the square before the Forum, I could stand, and, with my hand raised thus, touch the floor of the gods. Ha, by Venus, my Flavius, thou didst beguile me! I have lost. O Fortune!”
“I must have back my sestertium.”
“Be it so.”
And they played again and again; and when day, stealing through the skylights, began to dim the lamps, it found the two in the same places at the same table, still at the game. Like most of the company, they were military attaches of the consul, awaiting his arrival and amusing themselves meantime.
During this conversation a party entered the room, and, unnoticed at first, proceeded to the central table. The signs were that they had come from a revel just dismissed. Some of them kept their feet with difficulty. Around the leader’s brow was a chaplet which marked him master of the feast, if not the giver. The wine had made no impression upon him unless to heighten his beauty, which was of the most manly Roman style; he carried his head high raised; the blood flushed his lips and cheeks brightly; his eyes glittered; though the manner in which, shrouded in a toga spotless white and of ample folds, he walked was too nearly imperial for one sober and not a Cæsar. In going to the table, he made room for himself and his followers with little ceremony and no apologies; and when at length he stopped, and looked over it and at the players, they all turned to him, with a shout like a cheer.
“Messala! Messala!” they cried.
Those in distant quarters, hearing the cry, re-echoed it where they were. Instantly there were dissolution of groups, and breaking-up of games, and a general rush towards the centre.
Messala took the demonstration indifferently, and proceeded presently to show the ground of his popularity.
“A health to thee, Drusus, my friend,” he said to the player next at his right; “a health—and thy tablets a moment.”
He raised the waxen boards, glanced at the memoranda of wagers, and tossed them down.
“Denarii, only denarii—coin of cartmen and butchers!” he said, with a scornful laugh. “By the drunken Semele, to what is Rome coming, when a Cæsar sits o’ nights waiting a turn of fortune to bring him but a beggarly denarius!”
The scion of the Drusi reddened to his brows, but the bystanders broke in upon his reply by surging closer around the table, and shouting, “The Messala! the Messala!”
“Men of the Tiber,” Messala continued, wresting a box with the dice in it from a hand near-by, “who is he most favored of the gods? A Roman. Who is he lawgiver of the nations? A Roman. Who is he, by sword right, the universal master?”
The company were of the easily inspired, and the thought was one to which they were born; in a twinkling they snatched the answer from him.
“A Roman, a Roman!” they shouted.
“Yet—yet”—he lingered to catch their ears—“yet there is a better than the best of Rome.”
He tossed his patrician head and paused, as if to sting them with his sneer.
“Hear ye?” he asked. “There is a better than the best of Rome.”
“Ay—Hercules!” cried one.
“Bacchus!” yelled a satirist.
“Jove—Jove!” thundered the crowd.
“No,” Messala answered, “among men.”
“Name him, name him!” they demanded.
“I will,” he said, the next lull. “He who to the perfection of Rome hath added the perfection of the East; who to the arm of conquest, which is Western, hath also the art needful to the enjoyment of dominion, which is Eastern.”
“Perpol! His best is a Roman, after all,” some one shouted; and there was a great laugh, and long clapping of hands—an admission that Messala had the advantage.
“In the East” he continued, “we have no gods, only Wine, Women, and Fortune, and the greatest of them is Fortune; wherefore our motto, ‘Who dareth what I dare?’—fit for the senate, fit for battle, fittest for him who, seeking the best, challenges the worst.”
His voice dropped into an easy, familiar tone, but without relaxing the ascendancy he had gained.
“In the great chest up in the citadel I have five talents coin current in the markets, and here are the receipts for them.”
From his tunic he drew a roll of paper, and, flinging it on the table, continued, amidst breathless silence, every eye having him in view fixed on his, every ear listening:
“The sum lies there the measure of what I dare. Who of you dares so much! You are silent. Is it too great? I will strike off one talent. What! still silent? Come, then, throw me once for these three talents—only three; for two; for one—one at least—one for the honor of the river by which you were born—Rome East against Rome West!—Orontes the barbarous against Tiber the sacred!”
He rattled the dice overhead while waiting.
“The Orontes against the Tiber!” he repeated, with an increase of scornful emphasis.
Not a man moved; then he flung the box upon the table and, laughing, took up the receipts.
“Ha, ha, ha! By the Olympian Jove, I know now ye have fortunes to make or to mend; therefore are ye come to Antioch. Ho, Cecilius!”
“Here, Messala!” cried a man behind him; “here am I, perishing in the mob, and begging a drachma to settle with the ragged ferryman. But, Pluto take me! these new ones have not so much as an obolus among them.”
The sally provoked a burst of laughter, under which the saloon rang and rang again. Messala alone kept his gravity.
“Go, thou,” he said to Cecilius, “to the chamber whence we came, and bid the servants bring the amphoræ here, and the cups and goblets. If these our countrymen, looking for fortune, have not purses, by the Syrian Bacchus, I will see if they are not better blessed with stomachs! Haste thee!”
Then he turned to Drusus, with a laugh heard throughout the apartment.
“Ha, ha, my friend! Be thou not offended because I levelled the Cæsar in thee down to the denarii. Thou seest I did but use the name to try these fine fledglings of our old Rome. Come, my Drusus, come!” He took up the box again and rattled the dice merrily. “Here, for what sum thou wilt, let us measure fortunes.”
The manner was frank, cordial, winsome. Drusus melted in a moment.
“By the Nymphæ, yes!” he said, laughing. “I will throw with thee, Messala—for a denarius.”
A very boyish person was looking over the table watching the scene. Suddenly Messala turned to him.
“Who art thou?” he asked.
The lad drew back.
“Nay, by Castor! and his brother too! I meant not offence. It is a rule among men, in matters other than dice, to keep the record closest when the deal is least. I have need of a clerk. Wilt thou serve me?”
The young fellow drew his tablets ready to keep the score: the manner was irresistible.
“Hold, Messala, hold!” cried Drusus. “I know not if it be ominous to stay the poised dice with a question; but one occurs to me, and I must ask it though Venus slap me with her girdle.”
“Nay, my Drusus, Venus with her girdle off is Venus in love. To thy question—I will make the throw and hold it against mischance. Thus—”
He turned the box upon the table and held it firmly over the dice.
And Drusus asked, “Did you ever see one Quintus Arrius?”
“I knew not he had a son.”
“Well, it is nothing,” Drusus added, indifferently; “only, my Messala, Pollux was not more like Castor than Arrius is like thee.”
The remark had the effect of a signal: twenty voices took it up.
“True, true! His eyes—his face,” they cried.
“What!” answered one, disgusted. “Messala is a Roman; Arrius is a Jew.”
“Thou sayest right,” a third exclaimed. “He is a Jew, or Momus lent his mother the wrong mask.”
There was promise of a dispute; seeing which, Messala interposed. “The wine is not come, my Drusus; and, as thou seest, I have the freckled Pythias as they were dogs in leash. As to Arrius, I will accept thy opinion of him, so thou tell me more about him.”
“Well, be he Jew or Roman—and, by the great god Pan, I say it not in disrespect of thy feelings, my Messala!—this Arrius is handsome and brave and shrewd. The emperor offered him favor and patronage, which he refused. He came up through mystery, and keepeth distance as if he felt himself better or knew himself worse than the rest of us. In the palaestræ he was unmatched; he played with the blue-eyed giants from the Rhine and the hornless bulls of Sarmatia as they were willow wisps. The duumvir left him vastly rich. He has a passion for arms, and thinks of nothing but war. Maxentius admitted him into his family, and he was to have taken ship with us, but we lost him at Ravenna. Nevertheless he arrived safely. We heard of him this morning. Perpol! Instead of coming to the palace or going to the citadel, he dropped his baggage at the khan, and hath disappeared again.”
At the beginning of the speech Messala listened with polite indifference; as it proceeded, he became more attentive; at the conclusion, he took his hand from the dice-box, and called out, “Ho, my Caius! Dost thou hear?”
A youth at his elbow—his Myrtilus, or comrade, in the day’s chariot practice—answered, much pleased with the attention, “Did I not, my Messala, I were not thy friend.”
“Dost thou remember the man who gave thee the fall to-day?”
“By the love-locks of Bacchus, have I not a bruised shoulder to help me keep it in mind?” and he seconded the words with a shrug that submerged his ears.
“Well, be thou grateful to the Fates—I have found thy enemy. Listen.”
Thereupon Messala turned to Drusus.
“Tell us more of him—perpol!—of him who is both Jew and Roman—by Phœbus, a combination to make a Centaur lovely! What garments cloth he affect, my Drusus?”
“Those of the Jews.”
“Hearest thou, Caius?” said Messala. “The fellow is young—one; he hath the visage of a Roman—two; he loveth best the garb of a Jew—three; and in the palaestræ fame and fortune come of arms to throw a horse or tilt a chariot, as the necessity may order—four. And, Drusus, help thou my friend again. Doubtless this Arrius hath tricks of language; otherwise he could not so confound himself, to-day a Jew, to-morrow a Roman; but of the rich tongue of Athene—discourseth he in that as well?”
“With such purity, Messala, he might have been a contestant in the Isthmia.”
“Art thou listening, Caius?” said Messala. “The fellow is qualified to salute a woman—for that matter Aristomache herself—in the Greek; and as I keep the count, that is five. What sayest thou?”
“Thou hast found him, my Messala,” Caius answered; “or I am not myself.”
“Thy pardon, Drusus—and pardon of all—for speaking in riddles thus,” Messala said, in his winsome way. “By all the decent gods, I would not strain thy courtesy to the point of breaking, but now help thou me. See!”—he put his hand on the dice-box again, laughing—“See how close I hold the Pythias and their secret! Thou didst speak, I think, of mystery in connection with the coming of the son of Arrius. Tell me of that.”
“’Tis nothing, Messala, nothing,” Drusus replied; “a child’s story. When Arrius, the father, sailed in pursuit of the pirates, he was without wife or family; he returned with a boy—him of whom we speak—and next day adopted him.”
“Adopted him?” Messala repeated. “By the gods, Drusus, thou dost, indeed, interest me! Where did the duumvir find the boy? And who was he?”
“Who shall answer thee that, Messala? who but the young Arrius himself? Perpol! in the fight the duumvir—then but a tribune—lost his galley. A returning vessel found him and one other—all of the crew who survived—afloat upon the same plank. I give you now the story of the rescuers, which hath this excellence at least—it hath never been contradicted. They say, the duumvir’s companion on the plank was a Jew—”
“A Jew!” echoed Messala.
“And a slave.”
“How Drusus? A slave?”
“When the two were lifted to the deck, the duumvir was in his tribune’s armor, and the other in the vesture of a rower.”
Messala rose from leaning against the table.
“A galley”—he checked the debasing word, and looked around, for once in his life at loss. Just then a procession of slaves filed into the room, some with great jars of wine, others with baskets of fruits and confections, others again with cups and flagons, mostly silver. There was inspiration in the sight. Instantly Messala climbed upon a stool.
“Men of the Tiber,” he said, in a clear voice, “let us turn this waiting for our chief into a feast of Bacchus. Whom choose ye for master?”
“Who shall be master but the giver of the feast?” he said. “Answer, Romans.”
They gave their reply in a shout.
Messala took the chaplet from his head, gave it to Drusus, who climbed upon the table, and, in the view of all, solemnly replaced it, making Messala master of the night.
“There came with me into the room,” he said, “some friends just risen from table. That our feast may have the approval of sacred custom, bring hither that one of them most overcome by wine.”
A din of voices answered, “Here he is, here he is!”
And from the floor where he had fallen, a youth was brought forward, so effeminately beautiful he might have passed for the drinking-god himself—only the crown would have dropped from his head, and the thyrsus from his hand.
“Lift him upon the table,” the master said.
It was found he could not sit.
“Help him, Drusus, as the fair Nyone may yet help thee.”
Drusus took the inebriate in his arms.
Then addressing the limp figure, Messala said, amidst profound silence, “O Bacchus! greatest of the gods, be thou propitious to-night. And for myself, and these thy votaries, I vow this chaplet”—and from his head he raised it reverently—“I vow this chaplet to thy altar in the Grove of Daphne.”
He bowed, replaced the crown upon his locks, then stooped and uncovered the dice, saying, with a laugh, “See, my Drusus, by the ass of Silenus, the denarius is mine!”
There was a shout that set the floor to quaking, and the grim Atlantes to dancing, and the orgies began.