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- The Emperor, Part 1, Volume 2. - 6/12 -
"Then I wish that they would attempt a revolt, for if this led to the destruction of the rich ones, their gold, at any rate, would remain."
"Meanwhile I will try and keep them alive, as being good rate-payers."
"And does Hadrian share your wish?"
"Your successor may perhaps bring him to another mind."
"He always acts according to his own judgment, and for the present I am in office," answered Titianus haughtily.
"And may the God of the Jews long preserve you in it!" retorted Sabina scornfully.
Before Titianus could open his lips to reply, the principal door of the room was opened cautiously but widely, and the praetor Lucius Aurelius Verus, his wife Domitia Lucilla, the young Balbilla and, last of all, Annaeus Florus, the historian, entered. All four were in the best spirits, and immediately after the preliminary greetings, were eager to report what they had seen at Lochias; but Sabina waved silence with her hand, and breathed out:
"No, no; not at present. I feel quite exhausted. This long waiting, and then--my smelling-bottle, Verus. Leukippe, bring me a cup of water with some fruit-syrup--but not so sweet as usual."
The Greek slave-girl hastened to execute this command, and the Empress, as she waved an elegant bottle carved in onyx, under her nostrils, went on:
"It is a little eternity--is it not, Titianus, that we have been discussing state affairs? You all know how frank I am and that I cannot be silent when I meet with perverse opinions. While you have been away I have had much to hear and to say; it would have exhausted the strength of the strongest. I only wonder you don't find me more worn out, for what can be more excruciating for a woman, that to be obliged to enter the lists for manly decisiveness against a man who is defending a perfectly antagonistic view? Give me water, Leukippe."
While the Empress drank the syrup with tiny sips twitching her thin lips over it, Verus went up to the prefect and asked him in an under tone:
"You were a long while alone with Sabina, cousin?"
Yes," replied Titianus, and he set his teeth as he spoke and clenched his fist so hard that the praetor could not misunderstand, and replied in a low voice:
"She is much to be pitied, and particularly just now she has hours--"
"What sort of hours?" asked Sabina taking the cup from her lips.
"These," replied Verus quickly, "in which I am not obliged to occupy myself in the senate or with the affairs of state. To whom do I owe them but to you?"
With these words he approached the mature beauty, and taking the goblet out of her hand with affectionate subservience, as a son might wait on his honored and suffering mother, he gave it to the Greek slave. The Empress bowed her thanks again and again to the praetor with much affability, and then said, with a slight infusion of cheerfulness in her tones:
"Well--and what is there to be seen at Lochias?"
"Wonderful things," answered Balbilla readily and clasping her little hands.
"A swarm of bees, a colony of ants, have taken possession of the palace. Hands black, white and brown--more than we could count, are busy there and of all the hundreds of workmen which are astir there, not one got in the way of another, for one little man orders and manages them all, just as the prescient wisdom of the gods guides the stars through the 'gracious and merciful night' so that they may never push or run against each other."
"I must put in a word on behalf of Pontius the architect," interposed Verus. "He is a man of at least average height."
"Let us admit it to satisfy your sense of justice," returned Balbilla. "Let us admit it--a man of average height, with a papyrus-roll in his right-hand and a stylus in the left, controls them. Now, does my way of stating it please you better?"
"It can never displease me," answered the praetor. "Let Balbilla go on with her story," commanded the Empress.
"What we saw was chaos," continued the girl, "still in the confusion we could divine the elements of an orderly creation in the future; nay, it was even visible to the eye."
"And not unfrequently stumbled over with the foot," laughed the praetor. "If it had been dark, and if the laborers had been worms, we must have trodden half of them to death--they swarmed so all over the pavement."
"What were they doing?"
"Every thing," answered Balbilla quickly. "Some were polishing damaged pieces, others were laying new bits of mosaic in the empty places from which it had formerly been removed, and skilled artists were painting colored figures on smooth surfaces of plaster. Every pillar and every statue was built round with a scaffolding reaching to the ceiling on which men were climbing and crowding each other just as the sailors climb into the enemy's ships in the Naumachia."
The girl's pretty cheeks had flushed with her eager reminiscence of what she had seen, and, as she spoke, moving her hands with expressive gestures, the tall structure of curls which crowned her small head shook from side to side.
"Your description begins to be quite poetical," said the Empress, interrupting her young companion. "Perhaps the Muse may even inspire you with verse."
"All the Pierides," said the praetor, "are represented at Lochias. We saw eight of them, but the ninth, that patroness of the arts, who protects the stargazer, the lofty Urania, has at present, in place of a head--allow me to leave it to you to guess divine Sabina?"
"A wisp of straw."
"Alas," sighed the Empress. "What do you say, Florus? Are there not among your learned and verse spinning associates certain men who resemble this Urania?"
"At any rate," replied Florus, "we are more prudent than the goddess, for we conceal the contents of our heads in the hard nut of the skull, and under a more or less abundant thatch of hair. Urania displays her straw openly."
"That almost sounds," said Balbilla laughing and pointing to her abundant locks, "as if I especially needed to conceal what is covered by my hair."
"Even the Lesbian swan was called the fair-haired," replied Florus.
"And you are our Sappho," said the praetor's wife, drawing the girl's arm to her bosom.
"Really! and will you not write in verse all that you have seen to-day?" asked the Empress.
Balbilla looked down on the ground a minute and then said brightly: "It might inspire me, everything strange that I meet with prompts me to write verse."
"But follow the counsel of Apollonius the philologer," advised Florus. "You are the Sappho of our day, and therefore you should write in the ancient Aeolian dialect and not Attic Greek." Verus laughed, and the Empress, who never was strongly moved to laughter, gave a short sharp giggle, but Balbilla said eagerly:
"Do you think that I could not acquire it and do so? To-morrow morning I will begin to practise myself in the old Aeolian forms."
"Let it alone," said Domitia Lucilla; "your simplest songs are always the prettiest."
"No one shall laugh at me!" declared Balbilla pertinaciously. "In a few weeks I will know how to use the Aeolian dialect, for I can do anything I am determined to do--anything, anything."
"What a stubborn little head we have under our curls!" exclaimed the Empress, raising a graciously threatening finger.
"And what powers of apprehension," added Florus.
"Her master in language and metre told me his best pupil was a woman of noble family and a poetess besides--Balbilla in short."
The girl colored at the words, and said with pleased excitement:
"Are you flattering me or did Hephaestion really say that?"
"Woe is me!" cried the praetor, "for Hephaestion was my master too, and I am one of the masculine scholars beaten by Balbilla. But it is no news to me, for the Alexandrian himself told me the same thing as Florus."
"You follow Ovid and she Sappho," said Florus; "you write in Latin and she in Greek. Do you still always carry Ovid's love-poems about with you?"
"Always," replied Verus, "as Alexander did his Homer."
"And out of respect for his master your husband endeavors, by the grace of Venus, to live like him," added Sabina, addressing herself to Domitia Lucilla.
The tall and handsome Roman lady only shrugged her shoulders slightly in answer to this not very kindly-meant speech; but Verus said, while he picked up Sabina's silken coverlet, and carefully spread it over her
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