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- The Emperor, Part 2, Volume 9. - 3/10 -
orders, now on this side, now on that. His figure and that of his horse, which reared uneasily beneath him, were flooded in a crimson glow--a splendid picture! She trembled for him, she gazed in admiration at this calm, resolute, energetic man, and when a blazing beam fell close in front of him and after his frightened horse had danced round and round with him, he forced it to submit to his guidance, the praetor's insinuation recurred to her mind, that she clung to her determination to go to Lochias because she hoped to enjoy the spectacle of Antinous in the flames. Here, before her, was a nobler display, and yet her lively imagination which often, sometimes indeed against her will, gave shape to her formless thoughts--called up the image of the beautiful youth surrounded by the glowing glory which still painted the horizon.
Hour after hour slipped by; the efforts of the thousands who endeavored to extinguish the blaze were crowned by increasing success; one burning mass after another was quenched, if not extinguished, and instead of flames smoke, mingled with sparks, rose from Lochias blacker and blacker- and still Pontius came not to look after her. She could not see any stars for the sky was overcast with clouds, but the beginning of a new day could not be far distant. She was shivering with cold, and her friend's long absence began to annoy her. When, presently, it began to rain in large drops, she went down the ladder that led from the roof and sat down by the fire in the little room where her companion had gone fast asleep.
She had been sitting quite half an hour and gazing dreamily into the warming glow, when she heard the sound of hoofs and Pontius appeared. His face was begrimed, and his voice hoarse with shouting commands for hours. As soon as she saw him Balbilla forgot her vexation, greeted him warmly, and told him how she had watched his every movement; but the eager girl, so readily fired to enthusiasm, could only with the greatest difficulty bring out a few words to express the admiration that his mode of proceeding had so deeply excited in her mind.
She heard him say that his mouth was quite parched and his throat was longing for a draught of some drink, and she--who usually had every pin she needed handed to her by a slave, and on whom fate had bestowed no living creature whom she could find a pleasure in serving--she, with her own hand dipped a cup of water out of the large clay jar that stood in a corner of the room and offered it to him with a request that he would drink it. He eagerly swallowed the refreshing fluid, and when the little cup was empty Balbilla took it from his hand, refilled it, and gave it him again.
Claudia, who woke up when the architect came in, looked on at her foster- child's unheard-of proceedings with astonishment, shaking her head. When Pontius had drained the third cupful that Balbilla fetched for him he exclaimed, drawing a deep breath:
"That was a drink--I never tasted a better in the whole course of my life."
"Muddy water out of a nasty earthen pitcher!" answered the girl.
"And it tasted better than wine from Byblos out of a golden goblet."
"You had honestly earned the refreshment, and thirst gives flavor to the humblest liquor."
"You forget the hand that gave it me," replied the architect warmly.
Balbilla colored and looked at the floor in confusion, but presently raised her face and said, as gayly and carelessly as ever:
"So that you have been deliciously refreshed; and now that is done you will go home and the poor thirsty soul will once more become the great architect. But before that happens, pray inform us what god it was that brought you hither from Pelusium in the very nick of time when the fire broke out, and how matters look now in the palace at Lochias?"
"My time is short," replied Pontius, and he then rapidly told her that, after he had finished his work at Pelusium, he had returned to Alexandria with the imperial post. As he got out of the chariot at the post-house he observed the reflection of fire over the sea and was immediately after told by a slave that it was the palace that was burning. There were horses in plenty at the post-house; he had chosen a strong one and had got to the spot before the crowd had collected. How the fire had originated, so far remained undiscovered. "Caesar," he said, "was in the act of observing the heavens when a flame broke out in a store-shed close to the tower. Antinous was the first to detect it, cried 'Fire,' and warned his master. I found Hadrian in the greatest agitation; he charged me to superintend the work of rescuing all that could be saved. At Lochias. Verus helped me greatly and indeed with so much boldness and judgment that I owe very much to him. Caesar himself kept his favorite within the palace, for the poor fellow burned both his hands."
"Oh!" cried Balbilla with eager regret. "How did that happen?"
"When Hadrian and Antinous first came down from the tower they brought with them as many of the instruments and manuscripts as they could carry. When they were at the bottom Caesar observed that a tablet with important calculations had been left lying up above and expressed his regret. Meanwhile the fire had already caught the slightly-built turret and it seemed impossible to get into it again. But the dreamy Bithynian can wake out of his slumbers it would seem, and while Caesar was anxiously watching the burning bundles of flax which the wind kept blowing across to the harbor the rash boy rushed into the burning building, flung the tablet down from the top of the tower and then hurried down the stairs. His bold action would indeed have cost the poor fellow his life if the slave Mastor; who meanwhile had hurried to the spot, had not dragged him down the stone stair of the old tower on which the new one stood and carried him into the open air. He was half suffocated at the top of them and had dropped down senseless."
"But he is alive, the splendid boy, the image of the gods! and he is out of danger?" cried Balbilla, with much anxiety.
"He is quite well; only his hands, as I said, are somewhat burnt, and his hair is singed, but that will grow again."
"His soft, lovely curls!" cried Balbilla. "Let us go home, Claudia. The gardener shall cut a magnificent bunch of roses, and we will send it to Antinous to please him."
"Flowers to a man who does not care about them?" asked Pontius, gravely.
"With what else can women reward men's virtues or do honor to their beauty?" asked Balbilla.
"Our own conscience is the reward of our honest actions, or the laurel wreath from the hand of some famous man."
"That of women claims and wins admiration, love too perhaps and flowers- that of men may rejoice the eye, but to do it Honor is a task granted to no mortal woman."
"To whom, then, if I may ask the question?"
"To Art, which makes it immortal."
"But the roses may bring some comfort and pleasure to the suffering youth."
"Then send them-but to the sick boy, and not to the handsome man," retorted Pontius.
Balbilla was silent, and she and her companion followed the architect to the harbor. There he parted from them, putting them into a boat which took them back to the Caesareum through one of the arch-gates under the Heptastadium.
As they were rowed along the younger Roman lady said to the elder:
"Pontius has quite spoilt my fun about the roses. The sick boy is the handsome Antinous all the same, and if anybody could think--well, I shall do just as I please; still it will be best not to cut the nosegay."
The town was out of danger; the fire was extinct. Pontius had taken no rest till noonday. Three horses had he tired out and replaced by fresh ones, but his sinewy frame and healthy courage had till now defied every strain. As soon as he could consider his task at an end he went off to his own house, and he needed rest; but in the hall of his residence he already found a number of persons waiting, and who were likely to stand between him and the enjoyment of it.
A man who lives in the midst of important undertakings cannot, with impunity, leave his work to take care of itself for several days. All the claims upon him become pent up, and when he returns home they deluge him like water when the sluice-gates are suddenly opened behind which it has been dammed up.
At least twenty persons, who had heard of the architect's return, were waiting for him in his outer hall, and crowded upon him as soon as he appeared. Among them he saw several who had come on important business, but he felt that he had reached the farthest limit of his strength, and he was determined to secure a little rest at any cost. The grave man's natural consideration, usually so conspicuous, could not hold out against the demands made on his endurance, and he angrily and peevishly pointed to his begrimed face as he made his way through the people waiting for him.
"To-morrow, to-morrow," he cried; "nay, if necessary, to-day, after sunset. But now I need rest. Rest! Rest! Why, you yourselves can see the state I am in."
All--even the master-masons and purveyors who had come on urgent affairs, drew back; only one elderly man, his sister Paulina's house-steward, caught hold of his chiton, stained as it was with smoke and scorched in many places, and said quickly and in a low tone:
"My mistress greets you; she has things to speak of to you which will bear no delay; I am not to leave you till you have promised to go to see her to-day. Our chariot waits for you at the garden-door."
"Send it home," said Pontius, not even civilly; "Paulina must wait a few hours."
"But my orders are to take you with me at once."
"But in this state--so--I cannot go with you," cried the architect with vehemence. "Have you no sort of consideration? And yet--who can tell-- well, tell her I will be with her in two hours."
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