TO one of those parts of Pompeii, which were tenanted not by the lords of pleasure, but by its minions and its victims; the haunt of gladiators and prize-fighters; of the vicious and the penniless; of the savage and the obscene; the Alsatia of an ancient city—we are now transported.
It was a large room, that opened at once on the confined and crowded lane. Before the threshold was a group of men, whose iron and well-strung muscles, whose short and Herculean necks, whose hardy and reckless countenances, indicated the champions of the arena. On a shelf, without the shop, were ranged jars of wine and oil; and right over this was inserted in the wall a coarse painting, which exhibited gladiators drinking—so ancient and so venerable is the custom of signs! Within the room were placed several small tables, arranged somewhat in the modern fashion of 'boxes', and round these were seated several knots of men, some drinking, some playing at dice, some at that more skilful game called 'duodecim scriptae', which certain of the blundering learned have mistaken for chess, though it rather, perhaps, resembled backgammon of the two, and was usually, though not always, played by the assistance of dice. The hour was in the early forenoon, and nothing better, perhaps, than that unseasonable time itself denoted the habitual indolence of these tavern loungers.
Yet, despite the situation of the house and the character of its inmates, it indicated none of that sordid squalor which would have characterized a similar haunt in a modern city. The gay disposition of all the Pompeians, who sought, at least, to gratify the sense even where they neglected the mind, was typified by the gaudy colors which decorated the walls, and the shapes, fantastic but not inelegant, in which the lamps, the drinking-cups, the commonest household utensils, were wrought.
'By Pollux!' said one of the gladiators, as he leaned against the wall of the threshold, 'the wine thou sellest us, old Silenus'—and as he spoke he slapped a portly personage on the back—'is enough to thin the best blood in one's veins.'
The man thus caressingly saluted, and whose bared arms, white apron, and keys and napkin tucked carelessly within his girdle, indicated him to be the host of the tavern, was already passed into the autumn of his years; but his form was still so robust and athletic, that he might have shamed even the sinewy shapes beside him, save that the muscles had seeded, as it were, into flesh, that the cheeks were swelled and bloated, and the increasing stomach threw into shade the vast and massive chest which rose above it.
'None of thy scurrilous blusterings with me,' growled the gigantic landlord, in the gentle semi-roar of an insulted tiger; 'my wine is good enough for a carcass which shall so soon soak the dust of the spoliarium.'
'Croakest thou thus, old raven!' returned the gladiator, laughing scornfully; 'thou shalt live to hang thyself with despite when thou seest me win the palm crown; and when I get the purse at the amphitheatre, as I certainly shall, my first vow to Hercules shall be to forswear thee and thy vile potations evermore.'
'Hear to him—hear to this modest Pyrgopolinices! He has certainly served under Bombochides Cluninstaridysarchides,' cried the host. 'Sporus, Niger, Tetraides, he declares he shall win the purse from you. Why, by the gods! each of your muscles is strong enough to stifle all his body, or I know nothing of the arena!'
'Ha!' said the gladiator, coloring with rising fury, 'our lanista would tell a different story.'
'What story could he tell against me, vain Lydon?' said Tetraides, frowning.
'Or me, who have conquered in fifteen fights?' said the gigantic Niger, stalking up to the gladiator.
'Or me?' grunted Sporus, with eyes of fire.
'Tush!' said Lydon, folding his arms, and regarding his rivals with a reckless air of defiance. 'The time of trial will soon come; keep your valor till then.'
'Ay, do,' said the surly host; 'and if I press down my thumb to save you, may the Fates cut my thread!'
'Your rope, you mean,' said Lydon, sneeringly: 'here is a sesterce to buy one.'
The Titan wine-vender seized the hand extended to him, and griped it in so stern a vice that the blood spirted from the fingers' ends over the garments of the bystanders.
They set up a savage laugh.
'I will teach thee, young braggart, to play the Macedonian with me! I am no puny Persian, I warrant thee! What, man! have I not fought twenty years in the ring, and never lowered my arms once? And have I not received the rod from the editor's own hand as a sign of victory, and as a grace to retirement on my laurels? And am I now to be lectured by a boy?' So saying, he flung the hand from him in scorn.
Without changing a muscle, but with the same smiling face with which he had previously taunted mine host, did the gladiator brave the painful grasp he had undergone. But no sooner was his hand released, than, crouching for one moment as a wild cat crouches, you might see his hair bristle on his head and beard, and with a fierce and shrill yell he sprang on the throat of the giant, with an impetus that threw him, vast and sturdy as he was, from his balance—and down, with the crash of a falling rock, he fell—while over him fell also his ferocious foe.
Our host, perhaps, had had no need of the rope so kindly recommended to him by Lydon, had he remained three minutes longer in that position. But, summoned to his assistance by the noise of his fall, a woman, who had hitherto kept in an inner apartment, rushed to the scene of battle. This new ally was in herself a match for the gladiator; she was tall, lean, and with arms that could give other than soft embraces. In fact, the gentle helpmate of Burbo the wine-seller had, like himself, fought in the lists—nay under the emperor's eye. And Burbo himself—Burbo, the unconquered in the field, according to report, now and then yielded the palm to his soft Stratonice. This sweet creature no sooner saw the imminent peril that awaited her worse half, than without other weapons than those with which Nature had provided her, she darted upon the incumbent gladiator, and, clasping him round the waist with her long and snakelike arms, lifted him by a sudden wrench from the body of her husband, leaving only his hands still clinging to the throat of his foe. So have we seen a dog snatched by the hind legs from the strife with a fallen rival in the arms of some envious groom; so have we seen one half of him high in air—passive and offenceless—while the other half, head, teeth, eyes, claws, seemed buried and engulfed in the mangled and prostrate enemy. Meanwhile, the gladiators, lapped, and pampered, and glutted upon blood, crowded delightedly round the combatants—their nostrils distended—their lips grinning—their eyes gloatingly fixed on the bloody throat of the one and the indented talons of the other.
'Habet! (he has got it!) habet!' cried they, with a sort of yell, rubbing their nervous hands.
'Non habeo, ye liars; I have not got it!' shouted the host, as with a mighty effort he wrenched himself from those deadly hands, and rose to his feet, breathless, panting, lacerated, bloody; and fronting, with reeling eyes, the glaring look and grinning teeth of his baffled foe, now struggling (but struggling with disdain) in the gripe of the sturdy amazon.
'Fair play!' cried the gladiators: 'one to one'; and, crowding round Lydon and the woman, they separated our pleasing host from his courteous guest.
But Lydon, feeling ashamed at his present position, and endeavoring in vain to shake off the grasp of the virago, slipped his hand into his girdle, and drew forth a short knife. So menacing was his look, so brightly gleamed the blade, that Stratonice, who was used only to that fashion of battle which we moderns call the pugilistic, started back in alarm.
'O gods!' cried she, 'the ruffian!—he has concealed weapons! Is that fair? Is that like a gentleman and a gladiator? No, indeed, I scorn such fellows.' With that she contemptuously turned her back on the gladiator, and hastened to examine the condition of her husband.
But he, as much inured to the constitutional exercises as an English bull-dog is to a contest with a more gentle antagonist, had already recovered himself. The purple hues receded from the crimson surface of his cheek, the veins of the forehead retired into their wonted size. He shook himself with a complacent grunt, satisfied that he was still alive, and then looking at his foe from head to foot with an air of more approbation than he had ever bestowed upon him before:
'By Castor!' said he, 'thou art a stronger fellow than I took thee for! I see thou art a man of merit and virtue; give me thy hand, my hero!'
'Jolly old Burbo!' cried the gladiators, applauding, 'staunch to the backbone. Give him thy hand, Lydon.'
'Oh, to be sure,' said the gladiator: 'but now I have tasted his blood, I long to lap the whole.'
'By Hercules!' returned the host, quite unmoved, 'that is the true gladiator feeling. Pollux! to think what good training may make a man; why, a beast could not be fiercer!'
'A beast! O dullard! we beat the beasts hollow!' cried Tetraides.
'Well, well said Stratonice, who was now employed in smoothing her hair and adjusting her dress, 'if ye are all good friends again, I recommend you to be quiet and orderly; for some young noblemen, your patrons and backers, have sent to say they will come here to pay you a visit: they wish to see you more at their ease than at the schools, before they make up their bets on the great fight at the amphitheatre. So they always come to my house for that purpose: they know we only receive the best gladiators in Pompeii—our society is very select—praised be the gods!'
'Yes,' continued Burbo, drinking off a bowl, or rather a pail of wine, 'a man who has won my laurels can only encourage the brave. Lydon, drink, my boy; may you have an honorable old age like mine!'
'Come here,' said Stratonice, drawing her husband to her affectionately by the ears, in that caress which Tibullus has so prettily described—'Come here!'
'Not so hard, she-wolf! thou art worse than the gladiator,' murmured the huge jaws of Burbo.
'Hist!' said she, whispering him; 'Calenus has just stole in, disguised, by the back way. I hope he has brought the sesterces.'
'Ho! ho! I will join him, said Burbo; 'meanwhile, I say, keep a sharp eye on the cups—attend to the score. Let them not cheat thee, wife; they are heroes, to be sure, but then they are arrant rogues: Cacus was nothing to them.'
'Never fear me, fool!' was the conjugal reply; and Burbo, satisfied with the dear assurance, strode through the apartment, and sought the penetralia of his house.
'So those soft patrons are coming to look at our muscles,' said Niger. 'Who sent to previse thee of it, my mistress?'
'Lepidus. He brings with him Clodius, the surest better in Pompeii, and the young Greek, Glaucus.'
'A wager on a wager,' cried Tetraides; 'Clodius bets on me, for twenty sesterces! What say you, Lydon?'
'He bets on me!' said Lydon.
'No, on me!' grunted Sporus.
'Dolts! do you think he would prefer any of you to Niger?' said the athletic, thus modestly naming himself.
'Well, well,' said Stratonice, as she pierced a huge amphora for her guests, who had now seated themselves before one of the tables, 'great men and brave, as ye all think yourselves, which of you will fight the Numidian lion in case no malefactor should be found to deprive you of the option?'
'I who have escaped your arms, stout Stratonice,' said Lydon, 'might safely, I think, encounter the lion.'
'But tell me,' said Tetraides, 'where is that pretty young slave of yours—the blind girl, with bright eyes? I have not seen her a long time.'
'Oh! she is too delicate for you, my son of Neptune,' said the hostess, 'and too nice even for us, I think. We send her into the town to sell flowers and sing to the ladies: she makes us more money so than she would by waiting on you. Besides, she has often other employments which lie under the rose.'
'Other employments!' said Niger; 'why, she is too young for them.'
'Silence, beast!' said Stratonice; 'you think there is no play but the Corinthian. If Nydia were twice the age she is at present, she would be equally fit for Vesta—poor girl!'
'But, hark ye, Stratonice,' said Lydon; 'how didst thou come by so gentle and delicate a slave? She were more meet for the handmaid of some rich matron of Rome than for thee.'
'That is true,' returned Stratonice; 'and some day or other I shall make my fortune by selling her. How came I by Nydia, thou askest.'
'Why, thou seest, my slave Staphyla—thou rememberest Staphyla, Niger?'
'Ay, a large-handed wench, with a face like a comic mask. How should I forget her, by Pluto, whose handmaid she doubtless is at this moment!'
'Tush, brute!—Well, Staphyla died one day, and a great loss she was to me, and I went into the market to buy me another slave. But, by the gods! they were all grown so dear since I had bought poor Staphyla, and money was so scarce, that I was about to leave the place in despair, when a merchant plucked me by the robe. "Mistress," said he, "dost thou want a slave cheap I have a child to sell—a bargain. She is but little, and almost an infant, it is true; but she is quick and quiet, docile and clever, sings well, and is of good blood, I assure you." "Of what country?" said I. "Thessalian." Now I knew the Thessalians were acute and gentle; so I said I would see the girl. I found her just as you see her now, scarcely smaller and scarcely younger in appearance. She looked patient and resigned enough, with her hands crossed on her bosom, and her eyes downcast. I asked the merchant his price: it was moderate, and I bought her at once. The merchant brought her to my house, and disappeared in an instant. Well, my friends, guess my astonishment when I found she was blind! Ha! ha! a clever fellow that merchant! I ran at once to the magistrates, but the rogue was already gone from Pompeii. So I was forced to go home in a very ill humor, I assure you; and the poor girl felt the effects of it too. But it was not her fault that she was blind, for she had been so from her birth. By degrees, we got reconciled to our purchase. True, she had not the strength of Staphyla, and was of very little use in the house, but she could soon find her way about the town, as well as if she had the eyes of Argus; and when one morning she brought us home a handful of sesterces, which she said she had got from selling some flowers she had gathered in our poor little garden, we thought the gods had sent her to us. So from that time we let her go out as she likes, filling her basket with flowers, which she wreathes into garlands after the Thessalian fashion, which pleases the gallants; and the great people seem to take a fancy to her, for they always pay her more than they do any other flower-girl, and she brings all of it home to us, which is more than any other slave would do. So I work for myself, but I shall soon afford from her earnings to buy me a second Staphyla; doubtless, the Thessalian kidnapper had stolen the blind girl from gentle parents. Besides her skill in the garlands, she sings and plays on the cithara, which also brings money, and lately—but that is a secret.'
'That is a secret! What!' cried Lydon, 'art thou turned sphinx?'
'Sphinx, no!—why sphinx?'
'Cease thy gabble, good mistress, and bring us our meat—I am hungry,' said Sporus, impatiently.
'And I, too,' echoed the grim Niger, whetting his knife on the palm of his hand.
The amazon stalked away to the kitchen, and soon returned with a tray laden with large pieces of meat half-raw: for so, as now, did the heroes of the prize-fight imagine they best sustained their hardihood and ferocity: they drew round the table with the eyes of famished wolves—the meat vanished, the wine flowed. So leave we those important personages of classic life to follow the steps of Burbo.