Nox erat, paene aurora. Comissatores aut discesserant aut vino superati obdormiverant. Et ultima tibicina in lectulo iuxta syposiarchon stertebat. Soli etiam vigiles eramus, ego et Aulus. Certe nos graves somni fiebamus, attamen, ut nobis mos, domum abire nolebamus. Aulus breviter e lectulo descendit vinum petitum, sed frustra ut mox reveniret.
— Nil manet, ait, heu nisi haec patella ficorum.
— Da mihi, inquam. Necesse est cibus ne stomachus iterum torqueretur.
Annuit, me iuxta recubuit, et ficos tacite partiebamur. Ei mentis agitationem in vultu conspexi, sed rogare non ausus sum. Tandem, ut diutina amicitia me docuerat, mihi omnia fateretur.
— Num, iquit, O care Decime, tusculam tuam ducabis ?
— Immo vero, aio, ducam.
— At olim Roma reges etruscos depulit. Quam ob rem tusculae domum tuam tradas... reginae?
— Papae ! pulchre dixisti.
— Nonne respondes ? Dic, O amice, cur tusculam ducas ? Cur istam ?
— Quid ais ? Aule, mi bone, quam ob rem putas ? Volumniam amo.
— Non nego. Tamen, mi Decime, puellam omne amas... donec Kalendae veniunt.
— Hahae. Fortasse sapis. At tibi dico me hanc puellam non sepositurum. Pater moriens me hortatus est, iussit paene, ut uxorem ducerem, quae filios multos filiasque dabit, ne stirps nostra depereat. Hanc puellam eligi, quia hanc amo toto corde.
— Quare ? Ex omnibus Romae puellis, quare hanc ?
— Amans sum, nec philosophus. Dic : quare tu oderis ?
— Non odi. Neque amo. Neque ei credo. Vultus non placet. Non dico eam non pulchram, sed... oculi animum sollicitant. Et semper sordidi sunt ungues.
— Est rusticula, aio. In praedio adolevit. Coquere amat et hortulum suum colet. Ne servos quidem in culinam patitur ; inibi omnia regit ipsa. Sunt qui talem frugalitatem laudant.
— Parsimoniam eius non exprobro. Sollicitor enim. Quid aliud sola in culina, suo in adyto, facit?
— Aisne eam veneficam ? O Aule, nisi cupuditas catamitorum bellorum, superstitio est tibi vitium pessimum.
— Vereor ne miserum faciat.
* * *
Nihilominus Aulus nuptiis adfuit. Neque ullus vehementius exsultabat, nullus avidius cantabat (neque ullus quidem pocula crebrius epotabat) quam optimus mihi amicus.
Nuptiis actis menses ruri agebamus, dum operae domum urbanum, quae longius erat expers feminarum, reficiebant ut dulci uxori, immo matronae romanae, deceret. Menses igitur amicitia Auli algebat — e nobis neuter epistolas scribere solet. Cum autem incipiento autumno Romam rediissem, statim familiaritatem refovimus.
Itaque nox erat, et, vino hospitis exhausto, soli per vias Viminalis errantes loquimur.
— Nonne beatus es ? inquit. Maritus factus es, mox civis honestus fies.
— Est mihi uxor, inquam, nec carcerius.
— Ut dicis. Vix te inviso.
— Urbe afui.
— Videlicet. Nunc revenisti. Attamen vereor ne non saepius abnoctare possimus. Promitte : non sinas uxorem te regere.
— Non regit ! Amat vero res omnes ipsa ordinare. Vix servos requirit, ita non memet domi desiderat. Possum ubivis ire, possum quodvis facere, sin autem culinam evito. Haec totum Volumniae regnum.
— Quoniam inibi veneficium gerit... Noli irasci : modo iocor.
— Semper iocaris. Sed scio te eam non amare. Vix toleras. Fortasse, O mi Aule, quippe nimis es ei similis.
— Ain tu ?
— Aio. Vero est ea superstitiosior quam tu. Nam, ad cenam apud nos dum prima ovis occissa'st, iecur eripuit ut tusca arte exquireret. E culina ad me cucurrit territa, iecur sanguinolentum tenens manibus ambabus. « Vide ! ait. Inspice !» « Deliciae meae, inquam, cruor tibi stolam maculat. Quidnam facis ? Quid fles?» « Inspice ! ait, omen. » « Omen ignoro. Non video. » « Inspice, iterum ait, iecur vibrans, hic et hic et hic. Non potes cras exire. Si in foro ambulaveris, si basilicam ingressus eris, morieris. » « Officium me vocat. Debeo ad basilicam ire. Dies est fastus; augures Urbis nostrae ipsi adfirmunt diem negotii idoneum. » « Augures mentiuntur ! Coelum non aequaliter dividunt. » Reliqua sermonis non enarrabo. In fine autem me vicit. Mane servum ad basilicum misi qui Marco Labieno codicillos traderet. Non revenit. Proximo die nuntiatum'st : columna in basilicae stoa diffisa'st, et casus protecti homines IV vulneravit, XI ad Orcum misit.
* * *
Hanc post noctem cum Aulo saepius conveniebam, et familiaritas florescebat, etsi non tam ardens quam aetate ante nuptias meas. Aulus enim tibicinas et catamitos consectabatur, egomet prudentius — vel pudentius — ad uxorem semper reveniebam. Si abnoctavi, succensuit. Nonnumquam Volumnia vetebat me abire, omina timens. Praesagia eius non irrisi, attamen magis magisque suspiciebam. Si noverat — si credidit — me Aulum invisurum, semper omine pessimo me domi retinuit. Cur nescio, sed omnia exta Romae meo de amico loquebatur.
Itaque praetextu quovis domo discedebam, et vespertinas per vias errabam sperens Aulo obviam iturum, ne sub imperio uxoris me tuentis morarer. Non dico me semper Volumniam evitasse. Nova marita et pulchra est omni viro illecebra, ut nonnumquam domi manere haud repuerem. Est apud nos atrium tranquillum, hortus amoenus, et thalamus... hem, nonne dixi nos maritos novos fuisse ?
Mox gravida facta'st. Laetabatur, quippe desiderium ultimum mei patris expletura sit. Sed cum gravitate aeque crescebat superstitio. Diebus nefastis semper me domi vinculabat. Aves, fulgur, astra, fumus, victimae omnes ei calamitatem promittebant, si ego foras irem. Mea mors ei obsidebat animum, ut egomet pavesceret. Diu Volumniae morigerabar, utpote morositatem tolerarem, at in fine iratus sum ut magno clamore rixaremur. Si ea fulgur, ego factus sum tonitrus, ut sine consilio vero in vias profectus sum. Inscienter passus me ad forum vortebant, Parcae me in Aulum proiecerunt.
— Quid te laedet ? inquit Aulus. Quid singultas ?
— Quid putas ? inquam flebile.
— Prima coniugum rixa semper dolet, o mi—
— Non erat prima. Haudquaquam prima. Immo pessima.
— Ita solum est unum tibi doloris remedium : Lethe.
— Noli iocari. De morte non—
— Non iocor. Lethe est nomen tibicinae, suavis puellae flexibilisque. Vero cuius ministerio molestiarum omnium oblivisceris. Vespere apud M. Didium canet. Parasiti eamus.
Itaque ad Didii domicilium Aulum secutus sum. Cum advenissemus, comissatio etiam saeviebat. Aulus sicut mater sollicita bene me curabat, immo quam bene posset. In principio ira moesta me supprimebat, sed morositate denique victa gaudiebam. Tandem tibicinae veniunt, ut Aulus ridens Lethei me commendaret. Nummos puellae in manum pressit, aliquid obscurum ei in aurem susurravit. Totam deinde noctem cum Lethei egi. Neque semel tibiam cecinit.
Ad primum diluculum domum ebrius reveni. Furtive in atrium meum repsi. Parvus lychnus etiam calebat, umbrae autem crassae muros celabant. Haud passus V inivissem, cum vox Volumniae statim me stitit.
— Revenisti, ait.
Non potui eam cernere. Tenebras scrutatus sum, sed caeca manebat. Iterum ait: Revenisti.
— Volumnia, inquam, deliciae meae, nox erat mihi longa. Velim obdormire. Cras, immo hodie postea, loquamur.
— Eam in te odoror. Scorto oles. Cur prodisti ? Omen exitium promisit.
— Postea disceptemus. Fessus sum.
Volumnia denique e caligone profecta'st, nudis pedibus, solum idusium gerens, imissi ei capilli. Iecur tenebat cruentum, de quo sanguis profluebat, quod mihi in manus trusit, clamans: Inspice !
— Nolo, inquam aegre.
— Non te sinam. Inspice !
— Maculat tunicam meam...
— Inspice. Signa intuere. Nonne vides ? Ostendit finem stirpis tuae !
Perturbatus iecur in manibus inspexi. Nihil vidi, nisi massulam carnis sanguinolentam. Oculos iterum ad Volumniam versavi ; at evanuit. Humi vestigia cruoris conspexi, quae in caligonem sequebar. In umbra formam inveni, quam lux aurorae crescentis patefecerat. Appropinquabam, inscius in vestigiis pergens, donec conspectus attonuit. In scamno sub Laribus Volumnai iacebat. Venter discissus est. Exta hianti e vulnere prominebant. Culter in stagno sanguis natat.
Subito vox feminae caeca — vox enim Volumniae demortuae — clamabat: « Serva me ! Homicidium ! Me necat !»
Tum celeros passus auscultavi. Vigiles strictis cum gladiis in ianuam currebant. Vi me ceperunt, eitam iecur sanguine sudans tenentem.
It was night, or almost morning. The revellers had all either gone away or, overcome by wine, had fallen asleep. Even the last flute-girl was stretched out in a couch next to the master of the feast, snoring. We alone were still awake, Aulus and I. Of course we too were becoming heavy with sleep, and yet, as is our wont, we did not wish to go home. Aulus briefly got up from the couch in search of more wine, but soon came back empty-handed.
"Alas, there's nothing left," he said, "but this plate of figs."
"Give it here," I said, "I need food to keep my stomach from churning again.
He nodded and reclined next to me. We began to share the figs in silence. I could read the agitation of his mind upon his face, but I didn't dare ask about it. At length, as our enduring friendship had taught me, he would reveal all.
"So," he said, "my dear Decimus, you're not going to marry your little Etruscan girl, are you?
"Indeed I am," I replied.
"But once upon a time Rome cast out its Etruscan Kings. Wherefore then would you hand your house over to an Etruscan queen?"
"Wonderful! Beautifully said."
"Will you not respond? Tell me, O my friend, why are you going to marry the Etruscan girl? Why her?
"What do you mean? My good Aulus, why do you think? I'm in love with Volumnia."
"I don't doubt it. Nevertheless, O Decimus, you love every girl... until the next Kalends comes round."
"Ha ha! Perhaps you're right. But I tell you that I won't toss aside this girl. My father, on his deathbed, encouraged— nay, ordered — me to take a wife, one who'd give me many sons and see that our line doesn't die out. I have chosen this girl, because I love her with all my heart."
"But why? Out of all the girls in Rome, why this one?"
"I'm a lover, not a philosopher. You tell me: why do you hate her so?"
"I don't hate her. Nor love her. Nor do I trust her. I don't like her face. I'm not saying she isn't beautiful, but... her eyes worry me. And her nails are always filthy."
"She's a country girl," I said. "She grew up on a farm. She likes to cook and tend her garden. She won't even have slaves near her kitchen; she looks after it all herself. There are some who would praise such frugality."
"I don't reproach her thrift. But I'm concerned. What else does she do in her kitchen — in her innermost sanctuary?"
"Are you saying she's a witch? O Aulus, next to cupidity for lovely pathics, superstition is your worst vice."
"I'm just afraid she'll make you unhappy."
* * *
Nevertheless Aulus was at the wedding. And not a one more enthusiastically rejoiced, nor more avidly sang (nor indeed more cups drained) than my dearest friend.
When the nuptials were over we spent a month in the country whilst the workmen redid our house in Town, which had for too long been devoid of women, to make it suitable for my sweet wife — indeed, for a Roman matron. For months, then, Aulus' friendship was neglected. However, when I came back to Rome at the beginning of autumn, our friendship was instantly rekindled.
And so it was night, and the host's supply of wine had been exhausted, thus we were wandering the streets of the Viminal alone.
"You're happy, aren't you?" he asked. "You've become a married man, and are soon to become an honest citizen."
"She's my wife," said I, "not my gaoler."
"As you say. I hardly see you."
"I was out of Rome."
"Apparently. Now you have returned. And yet I fear we cannot stay out all night as often. Promise me you won't let your wife rule you."
"She doesn't rule me! She likes to manage everything by herself. She hardly needs slaves, so she want me around the house. I can go anywhere, do anything, so long as I avoid her kitchen. Therein lies the whole of her kingdom."
"For that's where she practises her witchcraft... Don't be cross, I'm only joking."
"You're always joking. But I know you don't like her. You can hardly stand her. Perhaps, my good Aulus, it's because you two are so similar."
"You don't say?"
"Indeed I do. Truly she is even more superstitious than are you. For instance, when we had a lamb slaughtered for our first meal in our new home, she plucked out the liver so that she could examine it with the Etruscan art. She ran out of the kitchen and came to me, terrified, holding the bleeding liver with both hands. 'See!' she cried. 'Look closely!' 'My dearest,' said I, 'the blood is staining your dress. Whatever in the world are you doing? Why are you crying?' 'Look,' she said, 'an omen!' 'I don't know about any omen. I don't see it.' 'Look,' she said again, shaking the liver, 'here and here and here. You cannot go out tomorrow. If you go to the forum, if you enter the basilica, you will die.' 'Duty calls me. I must to the basilica. It's a dies fastus. The augurs of our City themselves affirm the day is proper for conducting business.' 'The augurs lie! They don't divide the sky evenly.' I shan't relate the rest of our discussion. But in the end she bested me. In the morning I sent a slave to the basilica with a tablet to deliver to Marcus Labienus. He didn't come back. The next day we got news that a column in the basilica's porch had collapsed, and the falling ceiling injured four men, and sent eleven to Hades.
* * *
After this night I began to see Aulus more, and our friendship was in flower, if not as brilliantly as in the era before my marriage. Aulus of course chased after his flute-girls and catamites, whilst I more prudently — or prudishly — always returned to my wife. If I stayed out all night, she became incensed. Sometimes Volumnia forbade me to go out, fearing the omens. I didn't laugh at her presentiments, although I began to regard them with more and more suspicion. If she knew — or suspected — I was going to see Aulus, she always saw the worst omen, by which she'd keep me at home. I don't know why, but all the entrails in Rome seemed to be speaking of Aulus.
And so on any pretext whatsoever I would leave our house, and wander the evening streets hoping to bump into Aulus, lest I be detained under the yoke of a wife keeping watch over me. I don't mean to day that I always avoided Volumnia. A new wife — and a beautiful one — is an enticement to every man, such that sometimes I did not mind staying in. And at home there was a peaceful atrium, and pleasant garden, and a bedchamber that... well, have I not just said we were newly married?
Soon Volumnia became with child. She was very happy, for she was going to fulfil my father's dying wish. But with pregnancy came an equal increase in her superstition. She'd keep me sequestered at home on inauspicious days. Birds, lightning, stars, smoke, sacrifices — all promised her disaster, should I leave the house. My death obsessed her, so much so that even I began to be afraid. For a long while I humoured her, insofar as I could put up with her fretfulness, but in the end I became angry and we had a screaming row. If she was lightning, I became thunder, and then I stormed out into the street, without any sort of plan. My steps turned me unconsciously towards the forum, and the Fates threw me right into Aulus' path.
"What is the matter?" asked Aulus. "Why are you sobbing?"
"Why do you think?" I replied tearfully.
"A couple's first quarrel is always painful, my fr—"
"It wasn't our first. Not at all. Rather, our worst."
"Then there is only one remedy for your ills: Lethe."
"Don't joke about it. Death is not something I wish to—"
"I'm not joking. Lethe is the name of a flute-girl. Very delightful. And flexible... truly her ministrations will make you forget all your troubles. She's playing tonight at Marcus Didius'. Let us go there, and sponge off his good fortune."
And so I followed Aulus to the home of Marcus Didius. When we arrived, the party had already become a bacchanal. Aulus was like a concerned mother, and he looked after me well — or as well as he could. In the beginning a melancholy anger was holding me back, but having finally conquered my misery I began to enjoy myself. At length the flute-girls arrived, so that a grinning Aulus could finally introduce me to Lethe. He pressed some coins into the girls hand, and whispered something secretively in her ear. And then I spent the remainder of the night with Lethe. Nor did she once play her flute.
It was near dawn when I made my drunken return home. I crawled stealthily into the house. A small lamp yet burned in the atrium, but dark shadows hid the walls. I had hardly gone five paces into the room when the voice of Volumnia stopped me in my tracks.
"You've come back," she said.
I couldn't see her. I peered into the darkness, but she remained unseen. "You've come back," she said again.
"Volumnia, my darling" said I, "my night has been very long. I would like to go to sleep. Let us discuss this tomorrow — I mean, later today."
"I smell her on you. You reek of the whore. Why did you go out? The omen promised ruin."
"Let us discuss this later. I'm tired."
Finally, Volumnia stepped forth from the shadows, barefoot, clad only in her night dress, her hair all undone. She was holding a bloody and dripping liver, which she thrust into my hands, shouting, "Look at this!"
"I don't want to," I said weakly.
"I won't let you alone. Look at it!"
"You're getting blood on my tunic..."
"Look at it. Read the signs. Do you not see? It shews the end of your family line!"
I nervously examined the liver in my hands. I saw nothing, but a lump of bloody meat. I looked back to Volumnia; but she had vanished. I saw bloody footprints on the floor, which I followed into the darkness. I discovered a shape in the shadows, which the light of approaching dawn had revealed. I drew near, unconsciously still following the bloody tracks. And then came the shocking sight: on a low bench beneath the Lares lay Volumnia. Her stomach had been ripped asunder. Her entrails protruded from the gaping wound. A knife swam in a pool of blood.
Suddenly the voice of an unseen woman — the very voice of my dead Volumnia — cried out: "Save me! Murder! He's killing me!"
Then I heard running footsteps. Some vigiles, with swords drawn, came rushing into the house. They seized me roughly, still holding the bleeding liver...