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- The Emperor, Part 1, Volume 1. - 10/11 -
delivered his orders to Keraunus, the palace-steward, to come to him, and to put the cressets and lamps commonly used for the external illuminations, at the service of his workmen.
"Three times," was the answer "have I been myself to the man, but each time he puffed himself out like a frog and answered me not a word, but only sent me into a little room with his daughter--whom you must see, for she is charming--and a miserable black slave, and there I found these few wretched lamps that are now burning."
"Did you order him to come to me?"
"Three hours ago, and again a second time, when you were talking with Papias."
The architect turned his back upon the foreman in angry haste, unrolled the plan of the palace, quickly found upon it the abode of the recalcitrant steward, seized a small red-clay lamp that was standing near him, and being quite accustomed to guide himself by a plan, went straight through the rooms, which were not a few, and by a long corridor from the hall of the Muses, to the lodging of the negligent official. An unclosed door led him into a dark ante-chamber followed by another room, and finally into a large, well-furnished apartment. All these door-ways, into what seemed to be at once the dining and sitting-room of the steward, were bereft of doors, and could only be closed by stuff curtains, just now drawn wide open. Pontius could therefore look in, unhindered and unperceived, at the table on which a three-branched bronze lamp was standing between a dish and some plates. The stout man was sitting with his rubicund moon-face towards the architect, who, indignant as he was, would have gone straight up to him with swift decision, if, before entering the second room, a low but pitiful sob had not fallen on his ear.
The sob proceeded from a slight young girl who came forward from a door beyond the sitting-room, and who now placed a platter with a loaf on the table by the steward.
"Come, do not cry, Selene," said the steward, breaking the bread slowly and with an evident desire to soothe his child.
"How can I help crying," said the girl. "But tomorrow morning let me buy a piece of meat for you; the physician forbade you to eat bread."
"Man must be filled," replied the fat man, "and meat is dear. I have nine mouths to fill, not counting the slaves. And where am I to get the money to fill us all with meat?"
"We need none, but for you it is necessary."
"It is of no use, child. The butcher will not trust us any more, the other creditors press us, and at the end of the month we shall have just ten drachmae left us."
The girl turned pale, and asked in anxiety:
"But, father, it was only to-day that you showed me the three gold pieces which you said had been given you as a present out of the money distributed on the arrival of the Empress."
The steward absently rolled a piece of bread-crumb between his fingers and said:
"I spent that on this fibula with an incised onyx--and as cheap as dirt, I can tell you. If Caesar comes he must see who and what I am; and if I die any one will give you twice as much for it as I paid. I tell you the Empress's money was well laid out on the thing." Selene made no answer, but she sighed deeply, and her eye glanced at a quantity of useless things which her father had acquired and brought home because they were cheap, while she and her seven sisters wanted the most necessary things.
"Father," the girl began again after a short silence, "I ought not to go on about it, but even if it vexes you, I must--the architect, who is settling all the work out there, has sent for you twice already."
"Be silent!" shouted the fat man, striking his hand on the table. "Who is this Pontius, and who am I!"
"You are of a noble Macedonian family, related perhaps even to the Ptolemies; you have your seat in the Council of the Citizens--but do, this time, be condescending and kind. The man has his hands full, he is tired out."
"Nor have I been able to sit still the whole day, and what is fitting, is fitting. I am Keraunus the son of Ptolemy, whose father came into Egypt with Alexander the Great, and helped to found this city, and every one knows it. Our possessions were diminished; but it is for that very reason that I insist on our illustrious blood being recognized. Pontius sends to command the presence of Keraunus! If it were not infuriating it would be laughable--for who is this man, who? I have told you his father was a freedman of the former prefect Claudius Balbillus, and by the favor of the Roman his father rose and grew rich. He is the descendant of slaves, and you expect that I shall be his obedient humble servant, whenever he chooses to call me?"
But father, my dear father, it is not the son of Ptolemy, but the palace- steward that he desires shall go to hire."
"Mere chop-logic!--you have nothing to say, not a step do I take to go to him."
The girl clasped her hands over her face, and sobbed loudly and pitifully. Keraunus started up and cried out, beside himself.
"By great Serapis. I can bear this no longer. What are you whimpering about?"
The girl plucked up courage and going up to the indignant man she said, though more than once interrupted by tears.
"You must go father--indeed you must. I spoke to the foreman, and he told me coolly and decidedly that the architect was placed here in Caesar's name, and that if you do not obey him you will at once be superseded in your office. And if that were to happen, if that-- O father, father, only think of blind Helios and poor Berenice! Arsinoe and I could earn our bread, but the little ones--the little ones."
With these words the girl fell on her knees lifting her hands in entreaty to her obstinate parent. The blood had mounted to the man's face and eyes, and pressing his hand to his purple forehead he sank back in his chair as if stricken with apoplexy. His daughter sprang up and offered him the cup full of wine and water which was standing on the table; but Keraunus pushed it aside with his hands, and panted out, while he struggled for breath:
"Supersede me--in my place--turn me out of this palace! Why there, in that ebony trunk, lies the rescript of Euergetes which confers the stewardship of this residence on my ancestor Philip, and as a hereditary dignity in his family. Now Philip's wife had the honor of being the king's mistress--or, as some say, his daughter. There lies the document, drawn up in red and black ink on yellow papyrus and ratified with the seal and signature of Euergetes the Second. All the princes of the Lagides have confirmed it, all the Roman prefects have respected it, and now--now."
"But father" said the girl interrupting her father, and wringing her hands in despair, "you still hold the place and if you will only give in."
"Give in, give in," shrieked the corpulent steward shaking his fat hands above his blood-shot face. "I will give in--I will not bring you all to misery--for my children's sake I will allow myself to be ill-treated and down-trodden, I will go--I will go directly. Like the pelican I will feed my children with my heart's blood. But you ought to know what it costs me, to humiliate myself thus; it is intolerable to me, and my heart is breaking--for the architect, the architect has trampled upon me as if I were his servant; he wished--I heard him with these ears--he shrieked after me a villanous hope that I might be smothered in my own fat--and the physician has told me I may die of apoplexy! Leave me, leave me. I know those Romans are capable of anything. Well--here I am; fetch me my saffron-colored pallium, that I wear in the council, fetch me my gold fillet for my head. I will deck myself like a beast for sacrifice, and I will show him--"
Not a word of this harangue had escaped the ears of the architect who had been at first indignant and then moved to laughter, and withal it had touched his heart. A sluggish and torpid character was repugnant to his vigorous nature, and the deliberate and indifferent demeanor of the stout steward, on an occasion which had prompted him and all concerned to act as quickly and energetically as possible, had brought words to his lips which he now wished that he had never spoken. It is true that the steward's false pride had roused his indignation, and who can listen calmly to any comment on a stain on his birth? But the appeal of this miserable father's daughter had gone to his heart. He pitied the fatuous simpleton whom, with a turn of his hand, he could reduce to beggary, and who had evidently been far more deeply hurt by his words than Pontius had been by what he had overheard, and so he followed the kindly impulse of a noble nature to spare the unfortunate.
He rapped loudly with his knuckles on the inside of the door-post of the ante-room, coughed loudly, and then said, bowing deeply to the steward on the threshold of the sitting-room:
"Noble Keraunus--I have come, as beseems me, to pay you my respests. Excuse the lateness of the hour, but you can scarcely imagine how busy I have been since we parted."
Keraunus had at first started at the late visitor, then he stared at him in consternation. He now went towards him, stretched out both hands as if suddenly relieved of a nightmare, and a bright expression of such warm and sincere satisfaction overspread his countenance that Pontius wondered how he could have failed to observe what a well-cut face this fat original had.
"Take a seat at our humble table," said Keraunus. "Go Selene and call the slaves. Perhaps there is yet a pheasant in the house, a roast fowl or something of the kind--but the hour, it is true, is late."
"I am deeply obliged to you," replied the architect, smiling. "My supper is waiting for me in the hall of the Muses, and I must return to my work- people. I should be grateful to you if you would accompany me. We must consult together as to the lighting of the rooms, and such matters are best discussed over a succulent roast and a flask of wine."
"I am quite at your service," said Keraunus with a bow.
"I will go on ahead," said the architect, "but first will you have the goodness to give all that you have in the way of cressets, lights and lamps to the slaves, who, in a few minutes, shall await your orders at your door."
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