"Chapter Fifteen" by Petronius.
Eumolpus having declaimed this effusion with prodigious volubility, we eventually entered the gates of Croton. Here we baited at a small, mean inn, but started out next morning to find a lodging of greater pretensions. We soon fell in with a mob of legacy hunters, who plied us with questions as to who we were and where we came from. So we answered both inquiries, in strict accordance with the plan arranged between us, with an exaggerated glibness, and they believed every word of it; for they instantly put their fortunes at Eumolpus's disposal, almost fighting which should be first to do him this service. One and all offer presents, in order to curry favor with the supposed millionaire.
Things went on thus at Croton for a long time, till Eumolpus, intoxicated with success, so completely forgot his former lowly condition as to boast to his followers how no one could resist his influence, and that any misdemeanor they might have committed in the town, they could carry off with impunity by his friends' good offices. For my part however, though every day I
stuffed my swollen carcass with a greater superfluity of good things and really thought Fortune had at last ceased watching me with an eye of malevolence, still I often reflected on my present mode of life and the way it had come about. "What if some astute legacy hunter," I often said to myself, "sent some one to Africa to make inquiries, and discovered our swindle? What if Eumolpus's servant, as is just possible, sick of this life of luxury, should give a hint to his cronies and betray the whole imposture out of malice? Why! we should just have to fly once more, return to the penury we have at last got the better of, and start begging afresh. Gods and goddesses of heaven! what a life outlaws lead, forever dreading the penalty of one felony or another!"
Thus communing with myself, I quit the house in a most melancholy mood, hoping to refresh my spirits with the open air out of doors. I had scarcely entered the public promenade, when a girl of far from unpleasing exterior met me, and calling "Polyaenos," the name I had adopted by way of disguise, informed me that her mistress desired permission to speak with me.
"You have surely made a mistake," I answered in some confusion; "I am but a foreigner and a slave, and quite undeserving of the honor."
"Nay! my mission was to yourself," she returned; "but I see, because you know your own beauty, you give yourself airs, and sell your favors, instead of giving them. What else can those waved and well combed locks mean, and that made-up face, and the languishing look of your eyes? For what else that studied gait, and mincing steps that never exceed a measured pace, except to sell your person by the meretricious display of your charms? Look at me; I am no augur, no student of the planets like the astrologers, yet I can infer a man's character from his looks, and foretell his intentions the moment I see his way of walking. Therefore, if you are willing to sell us what I require, there's a customer all ready; or, if you will give it, like a gentleman, we shall be glad to be under this obligation to you. You tell me you are a slave and a common varlet; this only the more inflames my mistress's heated imagination. There are women fancy muck, whose passions are stirred only at the sight of slaves or runner boys with bare legs. Others are hot after gladiators, or dusty muleteers, or actors swaggering on the boards. This is the sort my mistress is; she jumps clean over the fourteen rows from orchestra to gallery, to seek her choice among the rabble of the back benches."
So, charmed with her fascinating chatter, "Tell me, my dear," I said, "is this lady who loves me yourself?"
The maid laughed heartily at my cool way of putting it, saying, "Pray! pray! don't be so mighty pleased with yourself. I've never given myself to a slave yet; and God forbid I should waste my embraces on gallows-birds. 'Tis their own lookout, if ladies go kissing the marks the lash has left; for my part, though I'm only a servant maid, I never go with anybody below a knight.
"Tastes differ 'tis as chance disposes;
Some like thorns, and some like roses."
I was astounded at such abnormal predilections, and thought it monstrous thus to find the maid with the mistress's fastidiousness, the mistress with the maid's vulgar tastes.
Presently, after further pleasantries had passed, I begged the girl to bring her mistress into the plane tree avenue. She was quite agreeable, and tucking up her skirts dived into a laurel wood that bordered the promenade. In a very few moments she brought out her mistress from where she was hiding, and led her up to me, a more perfect being than ever artist fashioned. There are no words to express her beauty, for anything I can say will fall far short of the reality. Her locks, which curled naturally, rippled all over her shoulders, her brow was low, the hair being turned back from it, her brows, extending to the very spring of the cheek, almost met between the eyes, which shone brighter than stars in a moonless sky, her nose was slightly aquiline, her little mouth such as Praxiteles gave Diana. Chin, neck, hands, snow-white feet confined in elegant sandals of gold work, all vied with Parian marble in brilliancy. For the first time I thought lightly of Doris, whose long-time admirer I was.
Why tarries Jove, scorning the arts of Love,
Mute and inglorious in the heavens above?
How well the Bull would now the God become,
Or his gray hairs to be transformed to down!
Here's Danae's self,-- a touch from her would fire,
And make the God in liquid joys expire.
Quite delighted, she smiled so sweetly I thought I saw the moon breaking full-faced from a cloud. Presently, with fingers punctuating her words, she laughed, "If you are not too proud to enjoy a woman of condition, and one who only within the year has known your sex. I offer you a 'sister,' fair youth. You have a 'brother' already, I know, for I did not disdain to make inquiries, but what hinders you to adopt a sister too? I claim a like dignity. Only taste and try, when you will, how you like my kisses."
"Nay!" I replied, "by your own loveliness I adjure you, deign to admit an alien among your worshipers. You will find him a sincere devotee, if you give him leave to adore you. And that you may not think I enter this temple of Love giftless, I will sacrifice my 'brother' to you."
"What!" she cried, "you sacrifice to me the being you cannot live without, on whose kisses your happiness depends, whom you love as I would have you love me?" As she said these words, they sounded so sweetly you might have thought it was the Siren's harmonies came floating on the breeze. So, lost in admiration and dazzled with a wondrous effulgence brighter than the light of heaven, I was fain to ask my divinity's name.
"Why! did not my maid tell you," she replied, "I was called Circe? I am not indeed the daughter of the Sun; nor did my mother ever stay at her good pleasure the course of the revolving globe. Still I have one noble boon to thank heaven for, if the fates unite us two. Yes! some god's mysterious, silent workings are beneath all this. 'Tis not without a cause Circe loves Polyaenos; a great torch of sympathy flames between these names. Then take your will of me, beloved one. For we have no prying interference to dread, and your 'brother' is far away."
With these words Circe threw her arms, that were softer than down, around my neck, and drew me down on the flower-bespangled grass:
On Ida's top, when Jove his nymph caressed,
And lawless heat in open view expressed,
His mother Earth in all her charms was seen,
The rose, the violet, the sweet jasmine,
And the fair lily smiling on the green.
Such was the plat whereon my Venus lay;
Our Love was secret, but the charming day
Was bright, like her, and as her temple gay.
Side by side on the grass we lay, dallying with a
thousand kisses, the prelude to robuster joys. But alas! a sudden debility of my nerves quite disappointed Circe, who exclaimed, infuriated at the affront, "What now? do my kisses revolt you? is my breath offensive with fasting? are my armpits uncleanly and smelling? If it is nothing of this sort, can it be that you are afraid of Giton?"
Flushing hotly at her words, I lost any little vigor still left me, and my whole frame feeling dislocated, I besought my mistress, "Do not, my Queen, aggravate my misery. I am bewitched."
So trivial an excuse was far from appeasing Circe's indignation. She turned her eyes contemptuously away from me, and glancing towards her maid, "Tell me, Chrysis," she said, "and tell me true. Am I repulsive? am I sluttish? is there some natural blemish disfigures my beauty? Do not deceive your mistress; there must be something strangely amiss about us."
Then, as Chrysis stood silent, she snatched up a mirror, and after rehearsing all the looks and smiles lovers are wont to exchange, she shook out her robe that lay crumpled on the ground, and flounced off into the Temple of Venus. I was left standing like a convicted felon, or a man horror-struck with some awful vision, asking myself whether the bliss I had been cheated of was indeed a reality or only a dream.
As when in sleep our wanton Fancy sports,
And our fond eyes with hidden riches courts,
We hug the theft; the smiling treasure fills
Our guilty hands; the conscious sweat distills;
Whilst laboring fear sits heavy on the mind,
Lest the big secret should an utterance find.
But when with night th' illusive joys retreat,
And our eyes open to the gay deceit,
That which we ne'er possessed, as lost, we mourn,
And for imaginary blessings burn.
My calamity really seemed to me a dream, or rather a hallucination; and so long did my enervation last, I could not so much as get up off the ground. However the mind recovering its tone by degrees, my strength slowly came back to me, and I made for home, where feigning indisposition, I threw myself down on my pallet. Before long, Giton, who had heard I was ill, entered my chamber in much concern. To make his mind easier, I told him I had gone to bed merely to take a rest, talking a deal of other stuff besides, but not a word about my misadventure, as I very much dreaded his jealousy. So to avoid all suspicion, drawing him to my side, I tried to give him a proof of my love, but all my panting and sweating was in vain. He got up full of indignation, and upbraiding me with debilitated vigor and diminished affection, declared he had noticed for a long time I must certainly have been expending my strength of mind and body elsewhere.
"No! no! darling," I interrupted, "my affection for you has always been the same; but reason now prevails over love and lechery."
"Well! thank you, thank you for the Socratic innocency of your passion. Alcibiades was not more uncontaminated when he lay in his
preceptor's bed." "I tell you, little brother," I went on, "I have lost all knowledge and sense of manhood. Dead and buried is that part of me that once made me a very Achilles!"
Seeing I was really unnerved, and afraid, if he were caught alone with me, it might give rise to scandal, he withdrew in haste, retreating to an inner room of the house. He was hardly gone when Chrysis entered my room and handed me her mistress's tablets, on which was written the following letter:
CIRCE TO POLYAENOS-- GREETING.
"If I were a mere wanton, I should complain of my disappointment. Instead I am positively grateful to your impotence; for so I enjoyed longer dalliance with the semblance of pleasure. What I ask is, how you do, and whether you got home on your own legs; for doctors say a man cannot walk without nerves. I will tell you what I think; beware, young Sir, of paralysis. I never saw a patient in more imminent danger; upon my word and honor, you are as good as dead already. If a like lethargy attack your knees and hands, I should advise you to send immediately for the undertaker's men.
"Well! well! dire as is the affront I have received, still I will never grudge a prescription to a man in your miserable plight. If you would be cured, ask Giton's help. You will recover your nerve, I assure you, if you sleep three nights running apart from your 'little brother.' For myself, I have no fear but I can find another admirer to love me a little. My mirror and my reputation both tell me this is true.
Farewell, (if you can)."As soon as Chrysis saw I had read this caustic epistle to the end, "These accidents are common enough," she said, "and particularly in this city, where there are women who can lure down the moon out of the sky. So never fear, your matter shall be set right; only write back graciously to my mistress and restore her confidence with a candid and gently-worded reply. For to tell you the honest truth-- from the hour you wronged her, she has not been her own woman."
I complied very willingly with the girl's suggestion, and wrote the following answer on the tablets:
POLYAENOS TO CIRCE-- GREETING.
"I confess, Lady, I have often offended; I am but a man, and a young one still. But never before this day have I done mortal sin. The criminal admits his crime; any penalty you inflict, I have richly deserved. I have betrayed a trust, slain a man, violated a temple; assign due punishment for all these crimes. If you choose to kill me, I hand you my sword; if you are satisfied with stripes, I haste to throw myself naked at my mistress's feet. Remember one thing only, 'twas not myself, but my tools that failed me. The soldier was ready but he had no arms. What so demoralized me, I cannot tell. Perhaps my imagination outran my lagging powers, perhaps in my all-aspiring eagerness, I lavished by ardor prematurely. I know not how it was. You bid me beware of paralysis; as if a greater palsy could exist than that which robbed me of the power to possess you. But this is the sum and substance of my plea: I will satisfy you yet, if you will grant me leave to repair my fault."
After dismissing Chrysis with fair promises of this sort, I put my body, which had served me so ill, into special training, and pretermitting the bath together, restricted myself to a moderate use of unguents. Then adopting a more fortifying diet, that is to say onions and snails' heads without sauce, I also cut down my wine. Finally composing my nerves by an easy walk before retiring, I went to bed with no Giton to share my couch. For anxious as I was to make my peace, I was afraid of even the slightest contact with my favorite.
Next day, having risen sound in mind and body, I
went down to the same plane tree walk, though truly I felt a dread of the ominous locality, and waited for Chrysis to act as my guide. After strolling to and fro for a while, I had just sat down in the same spot as the day before, when she came in sight, bringing a little old woman with her. When she had saluted me, "How now, Sir Squeamsih," she began, "do you feel yourself in better fettle?"
The old woman meantime drew from her pocket a hank of plaited yarns of different colors, and tied it round my neck. Then puddling dust and spittle together, she dipped her middle finder in the mess, and disregarding my repugnance, marked my forehead with it.
Never despair! Priapus I invoke,
To help the parts that make his altars smoke.
The incantation ended, she bade me spit out thrice, and thrice toss pebbles into my bosom, which she had wrapped up in purple after pronouncing a charm over them. Then putting her hands to my privates, she began to try my virile condition. Quicker than thought the nerves obeyed her summons, and filled the old lady's hand with a huge erection. Then jumping for joy, "Look, Chrysis, look," she cried, "how I've started the hare for other folk to course." This accomplished, the old woman handed me back to Chrysis, who was overjoyed at the recovery of her mistress's treasure; with all haste she led me straight to the latter, whom we found in a most delightful spot, adorned with everything that fairest Nature can show to charm the eyes.
Where noble Planes cast a refreshing shade,
And well-cared Pines their shaking tops displayed,
And Daphne midst the Cypress crowned her head.
Near-by a circling river gently flows,
And rolls the pebbles as it murmuring goes.
A spot designed for Love; the nightingale
And gentle swallow its delights can tell,
Who on each bush salute the coming day,
And in their orgies sing its hours away.
She lay luxuriously stretched on golden cushions, which supported her marble neck, fanning the calm air with a branch of flowering myrtle. Directly she saw me, she blushed a little, no doubt remembering yesterday's affront; presently, when we were quite alone, and at her invitation I had sat down by her side, she laid the branch over my eyes, and this emboldening her as if a wall had been raised between us, "How goes it, paralytic?" she laughed, "are you quite recovered, that you've come back again today?"
"Why ask me," I returned, "instead of making trial?" and throwing myself bodily into her arms, I took my fill of good, healthy, unbewitched kisses.
drew me irresistibly to her and disposed me to enjoyment. Already had our lips joined in many a sounding kiss, our fingers interlocked had played all sorts of amorous pranks, our two bodies had twined in mutual embraces till our very souls seemed fused in one; yet in the very height of these delicious preliminaries, lo! my nerves once more betrayed me, and I failed utterly to reach the supreme moment of our bliss.
Lashed to fury by two such dire affronts, the lady ends by seeking vengeance, and summoning her chamberlains, orders me a sound thumping. Not content with this cruel treatment of me, she calls together all the spinning wenches and meanest drudges of the house, and bids them spit at me. Clapping my hands to my eyes, and without one word of expostulation, for I knew I richly deserved it all, I fled from the house, driven forth under a hurricane of blows and spittle. Proselenos is kicked out too, and Chrysis beaten. The whole household was in dismay, all grumbling together and asking who it was had put their mistress in so vile a temper. This was some compensation and encouragement to me, and I carefully hid the marks of the blows I had received, not to make Eumolpus merry over my disaster, or Giton sad for the same reason. The only thing I could do to save my dignity was to pretend to be ill; this I did, and creeping into bed, turned the whole fire of my wrath against the vile cause of all my calamities:
With dreadful steel the part I would have lopped;
Thrice from my trembling hand the razor dropped.
Now, what I might before, I could not do;
For, cold as ice, the shuddering thing withdrew,
And shrank behind a wrinkled canopy.
Hiding its head from my revenge and me.
Thus by its fear I'm balked of my intent,
And in mere mouthing words my anger vent.
So raising myself on my elbow, I address the recreant in some such terms as these, "What have you to say for yourself, abomination of gods and men? For indeed your very name must not be mentioned by self-respecting folks. Did I merit such treatment from you,-- to be dragged down from heaven's bliss to hell's torments, to have the prime and vigor of my years maligned and to be reduced to the imbecility of dotage? Give me, I beseech you, give me a proof you are yet good for something." In words such as these I vented my irritation.
But with averted eyes, unmoved he mourned
Nor to my fond reproach one look returned;
Like bended osiers trembling o'er a brook,
Or wounded poppies by no zephyr shook.
Nevertheless, on reaching the end of this undignified expostulation, I beganto be ashamed of what I had been saying, and to blush furtively at having so far forgotten my self-respect as to bandy words with a part of my person men of graver sort do not so much as deign to notice. Presently after rubbing my brow awhile, "After all, what have I done so much amiss," I asked myself, "in thus relieving my resentment by means of a little natural abuse? Do we not habitually curse various parts of our bodies, our belly, throat,-- head even, when it aches, as it often does? Does not Ulysses quarrel with his own heart? and do not our Tragedians rail at their own eyes, as if they could hear? The gouty abuse their feet, the rheumatic their hands, the sore-eyed their optics; and does not a man who has damaged his toes, vent all the agony of his pain on his poor feet?"
Nothing is falser than mankind's silly prejudices, or sillier than an affectation of peculiar gravity.