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- The Emperor, Part 1, Volume 1. - 4/11 -


CHAPTER II.

One of the palaces built in Alexandria by the Ptolemaic kings stood on the peninsula called Lochias which stretched out into the blue sea like a finger pointing northwards; it formed the eastern boundary of the great harbor. Here there was never any lack of vessels but to-day they were particularly numerous, and the quay-road paved with smooth blocks of stone, which led from the palatial quarter of the town--the Bruchiom as it was called--which was bathed by the sea, to the spit of land was so crowded with curious citizens on foot and in vehicles, that all conveyances were obliged to stop in their progress before they had reached the private harbor reserved for the Emperor's vessels.

But there was something out of the common to be seen at the landing- place, for there lying under the shelter of the high mole were the splendid triremes, galleys, long boats and barges which had brought Hadrian's wife and the suite of the imperial couple to Alexandria. A very large vessel with a particularly high cabin on the after deck and having the head of a she-wolf on the lofty and boldly-carved prow excited the utmost attention. It was carved entirely in cedar wood, richly decorated with bronze and ivory, and named the Sabina. A young Alexandrian pointed to the name written in gold letters on the stern, nudging his companion and saying with a laugh:

"Sabina has a wolf's head then!"

"A peacock's would suit her better. Did you see her on her way to the Caesareum?" replied the other.

"Alas! I did," said the first speaker, but he said no more perceiving, close behind him, a Roman lictor who bore over his left shoulder his fasces, a bundle of elmrods skilfully tied together, and who, with a wand in his right-hand and the assistance of his comrades, was endeavoring to part the crowd and make room for the chariot of his master, Titianus, the imperial prefect, which came slowly in the rear. This high official had overheard the citizens' heedless words, and turning to the man who stood beside him, while with a light fling he threw the end of his toga into fresh folds, he said:

"An extraordinary people! I cannot feel annoyed with them, and yet I would rather walk from here to Canopus on the edge of a knife than on that of an Alexandrian's tongue."

"Did you hear what the stout man was saying about Verus?"

"The lictor wanted to take him up, but nothing is to be done with them by violence. If they had to pay only a sesterce for every venomous word, I tell you Pontius, the city would be impoverished and our treasury would soon be fuller than that of Gyges at Sardis."

"Let them keep their money," cried the other, the chief architect of the city, a man of about thirty years of age with highly-arched brows and eager piercing eyes; and grasping the roll he held in his hand with a strong grip, he continued:

"They know how to work, and sweat is bitter. While they are busy they help each other, in idleness they bite each other, like unbroken horses harnessed to the same pole. The wolf is a fine brute, but if you break out his teeth he becomes a mangy hound."

"You speak after my own heart," cried the prefect. "But here we are, eternal gods! I never imagined anything so bad as this. From a distance it always looked handsome enough!"

Titianus and the architect descended from the chariot, the former desired a lictor to call the steward of the palace, and then he and his companion inspected first the door which led into it. It looked fine enough with its double columns which supported a lofty pediment, but, all the same, it did not present a particularly pleasing aspect, for the stucco had, in several places, fallen from the walls, the capitals of the marble columns were lamentably injured and the tall doors, overlaid with metal, hung askew on their hinges. Pontius inspected every portion of the door-way with a keen eye and then, with the prefect, went into the first court of the palace, in which, in the time of the Ptolemies, the tents had stood for ambassadors, secretaries, and the officers in waiting on the king. There they met with an unexpected hindrance, for across the paved court- yard, where the grass grew in tufts, and tall thistles were in bloom, a number of ropes were stretched aslant from the little house in which dwelt the gate-keeper; and on these ropes were hung newly-washed garments of every size and shape.

"A pretty residence for an Emperor," sighed Titianus, shrugging his shoulders, but stopping the lictor, who had raised his fasces to cut the ropes.

"It is not so bad as it looks," said the architect positively. "Gate- keeper! hi, gate-keeper! Where is the lazy fellow hiding himself?"

While he called out and the lictor hurried forward into the interior of the palace, Pontius went towards the gate-keeper's lodge, and having made his way in a stooping attitude through the damp clothes, there he stood still. Ever since he had come in at the gate annoyance and vexation had been stamped on his countenance, but now his large mouth spread into a smile, and he called to the prefect in an undertone:

"Titianus, just take the trouble to come here."

The elderly dignitary, whose tall figure exceeded that of the architect in height by a full head, did not find it quite so easy to pass under the ropes with his head bent down; but he did it with good humor, and while carefully avoiding pulling down the wet linen, he called out:

"I am beginning to feel some respect for children's shirts; one can at any rate get through them without breaking one's spine. Oh! this is delicious--quite delicious!"

This exclamation was caused by the sight which the architect had invited the prefect to come and enjoy, and which was certainly droll enough. The front of the gate-keeper's house was quite grown over with ivy which framed the door and window in its long runners. Amidst the greenery hung numbers of cages with starlings, blackbirds, and smaller singing-birds. The wide door of the little house stood open, giving a view into a tolerably spacious and gaily-painted room. In the background stood a clay model of an Apollo of admirable workmanship; above, and near this, the wall was hung with lutes and lyres of various size and form.

In the middle of the room, and near the open door, was a table, on which stood a large wicker cage containing several nests of young goldfinches, and with green food twined among the osiers. There were, too, a large wine-jar and an ivory goblet decorated with fine carving. Close to the drinking-vessels, on the stone top of the table, rested the arm of an elderly woman who had fallen asleep in the arm-chair in which she sat. Notwithstanding the faint grey moustache that marked her upper-lip and the pronounced ruddiness of her fore head and cheeks, she looked pleasant and kind. She must have been dreaming of something that pleased her, for the expression of her lips and of her eyes-one being half open and the other closely shut-gave her a look of contentment. In her lap slept a large grey cat, and by its side--as though discord never could enter this bright little abode which exhaled no savor of poverty, but, on the contrary, a peculiar and fragrant scent--lay a small shaggy dog, whose snowy whiteness of coat could only be due to the most constant care. Two other dogs, like this one, lay stretched on the floor at the old lady's feet, and seemed no less soundly asleep.

As the prefect came up, the architect pointed to this study of still- life, and said in a whisper:

"If we had a painter here it would make a lovely little picture."

"Incomparable," answered Titianus, "only the vivid scarlet on the dame's cheeks seems to me suspicious, considering the ample proportions of the wine-jar at her elbow."

"But did you ever see a calmer, kindlier, or more contented countenance?"

"Baucis must have slept like that when Philemon allowed himself leave of absence for once! or did that devoted spouse always remain at home?"

"Apparently he did. Now, peace is at an end." The approach of the two friends had waked one of the little dogs. He gave tongue, and his companion immediately jumped up and barked as if for a wager. The old woman's pet sprang out of her lap, but neither his mistress nor the cat let themselves be disturbed by the noise, and slept on.

"A watcher among a thousand!" said the architect, laughing.

"And this phalanx of dogs which guard the palace of a Caesar," added Titianus, "might be vanquished with a blow. Take heed, the worthy matron is about to wake."

The dame had in fact been disturbed by the barking. She sat up a little, lifted her hands, and then, half singing, half muttering a few words, she sank back again in her chair.

"This is delicious!" cried the prefect.

"Begone dull care" she sang in her sleep.

"How may this rare specimen of humanity look when she is awake?"

"I should be sorry to drive the old lady out of her nest!" said the architect unrolling his scroll.

"You shall touch nothing in the little house," cried the prefect eagerly. "I know Hadrian; he delights in such queer things and queer people, and I will wager he will make friends with the old woman in his own way. Here at last comes the steward of this palace."

The prefect was not mistaken; the hasty step he had heard was that of the official they awaited. At some little distance they could already hear the man, panting as he hurried up, and as he came, before Titianus could prevent him, he had snatched down the cords that were stretched across the court and flung all the washing on the ground. As soon as the curtain had thus dropped which had divided him from the Emperor's representative and his companion, he bowed to the former as low as the rotund dimensions of his person would allow; but his hasty arrival, the effort of strength he had made, and his astonishment at the appearance of the most powerful personage in the Nile Province in the building entrusted to his care, so utterly took away his breath--of which he at all times was but "scant"--that he was unable even to stammer out a suitable greeting. Titianus gave him a little time, and then, after expressing his regret at the sad plight of the washing, now strewn upon the ground, and mentioning to the steward the name and position of his friend Pontius, he briefly explained to him that the Emperor wished to take up his abode in the palace now in his charge; that he--Titianus--was cognizant of the bad condition in which it then was, and had come to take


The Emperor, Part 1, Volume 1. - 4/11

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