Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter VII


THE elegant Julia sat in her chamber, with her slaves around her—like the cubiculum which adjoined it, the room was small, but much larger than the usual apartments appropriated to sleep, which were so diminutive, that few who have not seen the bed-chambers, even in the gayest mansions, can form any notion of the petty pigeon-holes in which the citizens of Pompeii evidently thought it desirable to pass the night. But, in fact, 'bed' with the ancients was not that grave, serious, and important part of domestic mysteries which it is with us. The couch itself was more like a very narrow and small sofa, light enough to be transported easily, and by the occupant himself, from place to place; and it was, no doubt, constantly shifted from chamber to chamber, according to the caprice of the inmate, or the changes of the season; for that side of the house which was crowded in one month, might, perhaps, be carefully avoided in the next. There was also among the Italians of that period a singular and fastidious apprehension of too much daylight; their darkened chambers, which first appear to us the result of a negligent architecture, were the effect of the most elaborate study. In their porticoes and gardens they courted the sun whenever it so pleased their luxurious tastes. In the interior of their houses they sought rather the coolness and the shade.

Julia's apartment at that season was in the lower part of the house, immediately beneath the state rooms above, and looking upon the garden, with which it was on a level. The wide door, which was glazed, alone admitted the morning rays: yet her eye, accustomed to a certain darkness, was sufficiently acute to perceive exactly what colors were the most becoming—what shade of the delicate rouge gave the brightest beam to her dark glance, and the most youthful freshness to her cheek.

On the table, before which she sat, was a small and circular mirror of the most polished steel: round which, in precise order, were ranged the cosmetics and the unguents—the perfumes and the paints—the jewels and combs—the ribands and the gold pins, which were destined to add to the natural attractions of beauty the assistance of art and the capricious allurements of fashion. Through the dimness of the room glowed brightly the vivid and various colourings of the wall, in all the dazzling frescoes of Pompeian taste. Before the dressing-table, and under the feet of Julia, was spread a carpet, woven from the looms of the East. Near at hand, on another table, was a silver basin and ewer; an extinguished lamp, of most exquisite workmanship, in which the artist had represented a Cupid reposing under the spreading branches of a myrtle-tree; and a small roll of papyrus, containing the softest elegies of Tibullus. Before the door, which communicated with the cubiculum, hung a curtain richly broidered with gold flowers. Such was the dressing-room of a beauty eighteen centuries ago.

The fair Julia leaned indolently back on her seat, while the ornatrix (i.e. hairdresser) slowly piled, one above the other, a mass of small curls, dexterously weaving the false with the true, and carrying the whole fabric to a height that seemed to place the head rather at the centre than the summit of the human form.

Her tunic, of a deep amber, which well set off her dark hair and somewhat embrowned complexion, swept in ample folds to her feet, which were cased in slippers, fastened round the slender ankle by white thongs; while a profusion of pearls were embroidered in the slipper itself, which was of purple, and turned slightly upward, as do the Turkish slippers at this day. An old slave, skilled by long experience in all the arcana of the toilet, stood beside the hairdresser, with the broad and studded girdle of her mistress over her arm, and giving, from time to time (mingled with judicious flattery to the lady herself), instructions to the mason of the ascending pile.

'Put that pin rather more to the right—lower—stupid one! Do you not observe how even those beautiful eyebrows are?—One would think you were dressing Corinna, whose face is all of one side. Now put in the flowers—what, fool!—not that dull pink—you are not suiting colors to the dim cheek of Chloris: it must be the brightest flowers that can alone suit the cheek of the young Julia.'

'Gently!' said the lady, stamping her small foot violently: 'you pull my hair as if you were plucking up a weed!'

'Dull thing!' continued the directress of the ceremony. 'Do you not know how delicate is your mistress?—you are not dressing the coarse horsehair of the widow Fulvia. Now, then, the riband—that's right. Fair Julia, look in the mirror; saw you ever anything so lovely as yourself?'

When, after innumerable comments, difficulties, and delays, the intricate tower was at length completed, the next preparation was that of giving to the eyes the soft languish, produced by a dark powder applied to the lids and brows; a small patch cut in the form of a crescent, skillfully placed by the rosy lips, attracted attention to their dimples, and to the teeth, to which already every art had been applied in order to heighten the dazzle of their natural whiteness.

To another slave, hitherto idle, was now consigned the charge of arranging the jewels—the ear-rings of pearl (two to each ear)—the massive bracelets of gold—the chain formed of rings of the same metal, to which a talisman cut in crystals was attached—the graceful buckle on the left shoulder, in which was set an exquisite cameo of Psyche—the girdle of purple riband, richly wrought with threads of gold, and clasped by interlacing serpents—and lastly, the various rings, fitted to every joint of the white and slender fingers. The toilet was now arranged according to the last mode of Rome. The fair Julia regarded herself with a last gaze of complacent vanity, and reclining again upon her seat, she bade the youngest of her slaves, in a listless tone, read to her the enamoured couplets of Tibullus. This lecture was still proceeding, when a female slave admitted Nydia into the presence of the lady of the place.

'Salve, Julia!' said the flower-girl, arresting her steps within a few paces from the spot where Julia sat, and crossing her arms upon her breast. 'I have obeyed your commands.'

'You have done well, flower-girl,' answered the lady. 'Approach—you may take a seat.'

One of the slaves placed a stool by Julia, and Nydia seated herself.

Julia looked hard at the Thessalian for some moments in rather an embarrassed silence. She then motioned her attendants to withdraw, and to close the door. When they were alone, she said, looking mechanically from Nydia, and forgetful that she was with one who could not observe her countenance:

'You serve the Neapolitan, Ione?'

'I am with her at present,' answered Nydia.

'Is she as handsome as they say?'

'I know not,' replied Nydia. 'How can I judge?'

'Ah! I should have remembered. But thou hast ears, if not eyes. Do thy fellow-slaves tell thee she is handsome? Slaves talking with one another forget to flatter even their mistress.'

'They tell me that she is beautiful.'

'Hem!—say they that she is tall?'


'Why, so am I. Dark haired?'

'I have heard so.'

'So am I. And doth Glaucus visit her much?'

'Daily' returned Nydia, with a half-suppressed sigh.

'Daily, indeed! Does he find her handsome?'

'I should think so, since they are so soon to be wedded.'

'Wedded!' cried Julia, turning pale even through the false roses on her cheek, and starting from her couch. Nydia did not, of course, perceive the emotion she had caused. Julia remained a long time silent; but her heaving breast and flashing eyes would have betrayed, to one who could have seen, the wound her vanity had sustained.

'They tell me thou art a Thessalian,' said she, at last breaking silence.

'And truly!'

'Thessaly is the land of magic and of witches, of talismans and of love-philtres,' said Julia.

'It has ever been celebrated for its sorcerers,' returned Nydia, timidly.

'Knowest thou, then, blind Thessalian, of any love-charms?'

'I!' said the flower-girl, coloring; 'I! how should I? No, assuredly not!'

'The worse for thee; I could have given thee gold enough to have purchased thy freedom hadst thou been more wise.'

'But what,' asked Nydia, 'can induce the beautiful and wealthy Julia to ask that question of her servant? Has she not money, and youth, and loveliness? Are they not love-charms enough to dispense with magic?'

'To all but one person in the world,' answered Julia, haughtily: 'but methinks thy blindness is infectious; and... But no matter.'

'And that one person?' said Nydia, eagerly.

'Is not Glaucus,' replied Julia, with the customary deceit of her sex. 'Glaucus—no!'

Nydia drew her breath more freely, and after a short pause Julia recommenced.

'But talking of Glaucus, and his attachment to this Neapolitan, reminded me of the influence of love-spells, which, for ought I know or care, she may have exercised upon him. Blind girl, I love, and—shall Julia live to say it?—am loved not in return! This humbles—nay, not humbles—but it stings my pride. I would see this ingrate at my feet—not in order that I might raise, but that I might spurn him. When they told me thou wert Thessalian, I imagined thy young mind might have learned the dark secrets of thy clime.'

'Alas! no, murmured Nydia: 'would it had!'

'Thanks, at least, for that kindly wish,' said Julia, unconscious of what was passing in the breast of the flower-girl.

'But tell me—thou hearest the gossip of slaves, always prone to these dim beliefs; always ready to apply to sorcery for their own low loves—hast thou ever heard of any Eastern magician in this city, who possesses the art of which thou art ignorant? No vain chiromancer, no juggler of the market-place, but some more potent and mighty magician of India or of Egypt?'

'Of Egypt?—yes!' said Nydia, shuddering. 'What Pompeian has not heard of Arbaces?'

'Arbaces! true,' replied Julia, grasping at the recollection. 'They say he is a man above all the petty and false impostures of dull pretenders—that he is versed in the learning of the stars, and the secrets of the ancient Nox; why not in the mysteries of love?'

'If there be one magician living whose art is above that of others, it is that dread man,' answered Nydia; and she felt her talisman while she spoke.

'He is too wealthy to divine for money?' continued Julia, sneeringly. 'Can I not visit him?'

'It is an evil mansion for the young and the beautiful,' replied Nydia. 'I have heard, too, that he languishes in...'

'An evil mansion!' said Julia, catching only the first sentence. 'Why so?'

'The orgies of his midnight leisure are impure and polluted—at least, so says rumor.'

'By Ceres, by Pan, and by Cybele! thou dost but provoke my curiosity, instead of exciting my fears,' returned the wayward and pampered Pompeian. 'I will seek and question him of his lore. If to these orgies love be admitted—why the more likely that he knows its secrets!'

Nydia did not answer.

'I will seek him this very day,' resumed Julia; 'nay, why not this very hour?'

'At daylight, and in his present state, thou hast assuredly the less to fear,' answered Nydia, yielding to her own sudden and secret wish to learn if the dark Egyptian were indeed possessed of those spells to rivet and attract love, of which the Thessalian had so often heard.

'And who dare insult the rich daughter of Diomed?' said Julia, haughtily. 'I will go.'

'May I visit thee afterwards to learn the result?' asked Nydia, anxiously.

'Kiss me for thy interest in Julia's honour,' answered the lady. 'Yes, assuredly. This eve we sup abroad—come hither at the same hour to-morrow, and thou shalt know all: I may have to employ thee too; but enough for the present. Stay, take this bracelet for the new thought thou hast inspired me with; remember, if thou servest Julia, she is grateful and she is generous.'

'I cannot take thy present,' said Nydia, putting aside the bracelet; 'but young as I am, I can sympathize unbought with those who love—and love in vain.'

'Sayest thou so!' returned Julia. 'Thou speakest like a free woman—and thou shalt yet be free—farewell!'

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