The Last Days of Pompeii

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Preview: Issue 1 of 1

BOOK THE FIRST

Chapter I.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF POMPEII.

'Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?' said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.

'Alas, no! dear Clodius; he has not invited me,' replied Diomed, a man of portly frame and of middle age. 'By Pollux, a scurvy trick! for they say his suppers are the best in Pompeii'.

'Pretty well --though there is never enough of wine for me. It is not the old Greek blood that flows in his veins, for he pretends that wine makes him dull the next morning.'

'There may be another reason for that thrift,' said Diomed, raising his brows. 'With all his conceit and extravagance he is not so rich, I fancy, as he affects to be, and perhaps loves to save his amphorae better than his wit.'

'An additional reason for supping with him while the sesterces last. Next year, Diomed, we must find another Glaucus.'

'He is fond of the dice, too, I hear.'

'He is fond of every pleasure; and while he likes the pleasure of giving suppers, we are all fond of him.'

'Ha, ha, Clodius, that is well said! Have you ever seen my wine-cellars, by-the-by?'

'I think not, my good Diomed.'

'Well, you must sup with me some evening; I have tolerable muraenae in my reservoir, and I ask Pansa the aedile to meet you.'

'O, no state with me!--Persicos odi apparatus, I am easily contented. Well, the day wanes; I am for the baths--and you...'

'To the quaestor--business of state--afterwards to the temple of Isis. Vale!'

'An ostentatious, bustling, ill-bred fellow,' muttered Clodius to himself, as he sauntered slowly away. 'He thinks with his feasts and his wine-cellars to make us forget that he is the son of a freedman--and so we will, when we do him the honour of winning his money; these rich plebeians are a harvest for us spendthrift nobles.'

Thus soliloquising, Clodius arrived in the Via Domitiana, which was crowded with passengers and chariots, and exhibited all that gay and animated exuberance of life and motion which we find at this day in the streets of Naples.

The bells of the cars as they rapidly glided by each other jingled merrily on the ear, and Clodius with smiles or nods claimed familiar acquaintance with whatever equipage was most elegant or fantastic: in fact, no idler was better known in Pompeii.

'What, Clodius! and how have you slept on your good fortune?' cried, in a pleasant and musical voice, a young man, in a chariot of the most fastidious and graceful fashion. Upon its surface of bronze were elaborately wrought, in the still exquisite workmanship of Greece, reliefs of the Olympian games; the two horses that drew the car were of the rarest breed of Parthia; their slender limbs seemed to disdain the ground and court the air, and yet at the slightest touch of the charioteer, who stood behind the young owner of the equipage, they paused motionless, as if suddenly transformed into stone--lifeless, but lifelike, as one of the breathing wonders of Praxiteles. The owner himself was of that slender and beautiful symmetry from which the sculptors of Athens drew their models; his Grecian origin betrayed itself in his light but clustering locks, and the perfect harmony of his features. He wore no toga, which in the time of the emperors had indeed ceased to be the general distinction of the Romans, and was especially ridiculed by the pretenders to fashion; but his tunic glowed in the richest hues of the Tyrian dye, and the fibulae, or buckles, by which it was fastened, sparkled with emeralds: around his neck was a chain of gold, which in the middle of his breast twisted itself into the form of a serpent's head, from the mouth of which hung pendent a large signet ring of elaborate and most exquisite workmanship; the sleeves of the tunic were loose, and fringed at the hand with gold: and across the waist a girdle wrought in arabesque designs, and of the same material as the fringe, served in lieu of pockets for the receptacle of the handkerchief and the purse, the stilus and the tablets.

'My dear Glaucus!' said Clodius, 'I rejoice to see that your losses have so little affected your mien. Why, you seem as if you had been inspired by Apollo, and your face shines with happiness like a glory; any one might take you for the winner, and me for the loser.'

'And what is there in the loss or gain of those dull pieces of metal that should change our spirit, my Clodius? By Venus, while yet young, we can cover our full locks with chaplets--while yet the cithara sounds on unsated ears--while yet the smile of Lydia or of Chloe flashes over our veins in which the blood runs so swiftly, so long shall we find delight in the sunny air, and make bald time itself but the treasurer of our joys. You sup with me to-night, you know.'

'Who ever forgets the invitation of Glaucus!'

'But which way go you now?'

'Why, I thought of visiting the baths: but it wants yet an hour to the usual time.'

'Well, I will dismiss my chariot, and go with you. So, so, my Phylias,' stroking the horse nearest to him, which by a low neigh and with backward ears playfully acknowledged the courtesy: 'a holiday for you to-day. Is he not handsome, Clodius?'

'Worthy of Phoebus,' returned the noble parasite--'or of Glaucus.'

Chapter II

THE BLIND FLOWER-GIRL, AND THE BEAUTY OF FASHION. THE ATHENIAN'S CONFESSION. THE READER'S INTRODUCTION TO ARBACES OF EGYPT.

Talking lightly on a thousand matters, the two young men sauntered through the streets; they were now in that quarter which was filled with the gayest shops, their open interiors all and each radiant with the gaudy yet harmonious colors of frescoes, inconceivably varied in fancy and design. The sparkling fountains, that at every vista threw upwards their grateful spray in the summer air; the crowd of passengers, or rather loiterers, mostly clad in robes of the Tyrian dye; the gay groups collected round each more attractive shop; the slaves passing to and fro with buckets of bronze, cast in the most graceful shapes, and borne upon their heads; the country girls stationed at frequent intervals with baskets of blushing fruit, and flowers more alluring to the ancient Italians than to their descendants (with whom, indeed, "latet anguis in herba," a disease seems lurking in every violet and rose); the numerous haunts which fulfilled with that idle people the office of cafes and clubs at this day; the shops, where on shelves of marble were ranged the vases of wine and oil, and before whose thresholds, seats, protected from the sun by a purple awning, invited the weary to rest and the indolent to lounge--made a scene of such glowing and vivacious excitement, as might well give the Athenian spirit of Glaucus an excuse for its susceptibility to joy.

'Talk to me no more of Rome,' said he to Clodius. 'Pleasure is too stately and ponderous in those mighty walls: even in the precincts of the court--even in the Golden House of Nero, and the incipient glories of the palace of Titus, there is a certain dulness of magnificence--the eye aches--the spirit is wearied; besides, my Clodius, we are discontented when we compare the enormous luxury and wealth of others with the mediocrity of our own state. But here we surrender ourselves easily to pleasure, and we have the brilliancy of luxury without the lassitude of its pomp.'

'It was from that feeling that you chose your summer retreat at Pompeii?'

'It was. I prefer it to Baiae: I grant the charms of the latter, but I love not the pedants who resort there, and who seem to weigh out their pleasures by the drachm.'

'Yet you are fond of the learned, too; and as for poetry, why, your house is literally eloquent with AEschylus and Homer, the epic and the drama.'

'Yes, but those Romans who mimic my Athenian ancestors do everything so heavily. Even in the chase they make their slaves carry Plato with them; and whenever the boar is lost, out they take their books and their papyrus, in order not to lose their time too. When the dancing-girls swim before them in all the blandishment of Persian manners, some drone of a freedman, with a face of stone, reads them a section of Cicero "De Officiis". Unskilful pharmacists! pleasure and study are not elements to be thus mixed together, they must be enjoyed separately: the Romans lose both by this pragmatical affectation of refinement, and prove that they have no souls for either. Oh, my Clodius, how little your countrymen know of the true versatility of a Pericles, of the true witcheries of an Aspasia! It was but the other day that I paid a visit to Pliny: he was sitting in his summer-house writing, while an unfortunate slave played on the tibia. His nephew (oh! whip me such philosophical coxcombs!) was reading Thucydides' description of the plague, and nodding his conceited little head in time to the music, while his lips were repeating all the loathsome details of that terrible delineation. The puppy saw nothing incongruous in learning at the same time a ditty of love and a description of the plague.'

'Why, they are much the same thing,' said Clodius.

'So I told him, in excuse for his coxcombry--but my youth stared me rebukingly in the face, without taking the jest, and answered, that it was only the insensate ear that the music pleased, whereas the book (the description of the plague, mind you!) elevated the heart. "Ah!" quoth the fat uncle, wheezing, "my boy is quite an Athenian, always mixing the utile with the dulce." O Minerva, how I laughed in my sleeve! While I was there, they came to tell the boy-sophist that his favorite freedman was just dead of a fever. "Inexorable death!" cried he; "get me my Horace. How beautifully the sweet poet consoles us for these misfortunes!" Oh, can these men love, my Clodius? Scarcely even with the senses. How rarely a Roman has a heart! He is but the mechanism of genius--he wants its bones and flesh.'

Though Clodius was secretly a little sore at these remarks on his countrymen, he affected to sympathize with his friend, partly because he was by nature a parasite, and partly because it was the fashion among the dissolute young Romans to affect a little contempt for the very birth which, in reality, made them so arrogant; it was the mode to imitate the Greeks, and yet to laugh at their own clumsy imitation.

Thus conversing, their steps were arrested by a crowd gathered round an open space where three streets met; and, just where the porticoes of a light and graceful temple threw their shade, there stood a young girl, with a flower-basket on her right arm, and a small three-stringed instrument of music in the left hand, to whose low and soft tones she was modulating a wild and half-barbaric air. At every pause in the music she gracefully waved her flower-basket round, inviting the loiterers to buy; and many a sesterce was showered into the basket, either in compliment to the music or in compassion to the songstress--for she was blind.

'It is my poor Thessalian,' said Glaucus, stopping; 'I have not seen her since my return to Pompeii. Hush! her voice is sweet; let us listen.'

THE BLIND FLOWER-GIRL'S SONG

I.

Buy my flowers--O buy--I pray! The blind girl comes from afar; If the earth be as fair as I hear them say, These flowers her children are! Do they her beauty keep? They are fresh from her lap, I know; For I caught them fast asleep In her arms an hour ago. With the air which is her breath-- Her soft and delicate breath-- Over them murmuring low!

On their lips her sweet kiss lingers yet, And their cheeks with her tender tears are wet. For she weeps--that gentle mother weeps-- (As morn and night her watch she keeps, With a yearning heart and a passionate care) To see the young things grow so fair; She weeps--for love she weeps; And the dews are the tears she weeps From the well of a mother's love!

II.

Ye have a world of light, Where love in the loved rejoices; But the blind girl's home is the House of Night, And its beings are empty voices.

As one in the realm below, I stand by the streams of woe! I hear the vain shadows glide, I feel their soft breath at my side. And I thirst the loved forms to see, And I stretch my fond arms around, And I catch but a shapeless sound, For the living are ghosts to me.

Come buy--come buy?-- (Hark! how the sweet things sigh For they have a voice like ours), 'The breath of the blind girl closes The leaves of the saddening roses-- We are tender, we sons of light, We shrink from this child of night; From the grasp of the blind girl free us-- We yearn for the eyes that see us-- We are for night too gay, In your eyes we behold the day-- O buy--O buy the flowers!'

'I must have yon bunch of violets, sweet Nydia,' said Glaucus, pressing through the crowd, and dropping a handful of small coins into the basket; 'your voice is more charming than ever.'

The blind girl started forward as she heard the Athenian's voice; then as suddenly paused, while the blood rushed violently over neck, cheek, and temples.

'So you are returned!' said she, in a low voice; and then repeated half to herself, 'Glaucus is returned!'

'Yes, child, I have not been at Pompeii above a few days. My garden wants your care, as before; you will visit it, I trust, to-morrow. And mind, no garlands at my house shall be woven by any hands but those of the pretty Nydia.'

Nydia smiled joyously, but did not answer; and Glaucus, placing in his breast the violets he had selected, turned gaily and carelessly from the crowd.

'So she is a sort of client of yours, this child?' said Clodius.

'Ay--does she not sing prettily? She interests me, the poor slave! Besides, she is from the land of the Gods' hill--Olympus frowned upon her cradle--she is of Thessaly.'

'The witches' country.'

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