Two visitors at the front door, Master.” Belbo looked at me from under his brow and shifted from foot to foot uncertainly.
“They wouldn’t say.”
“I’ve never seen them before, Master.”
“Did they say what they wanted?”
I pondered this for a moment and stared into the flames of the brazier.
“I see. Two men—”
“Not exactly, Master . . .”
“Two visitors, you said. Are they both men or not?”
“Well,” Belbo said, wrinkling his brow, “I’m pretty sure that one of them is a man. At least I think so . . .”
“And the other?”
“A woman—I think. Or maybe not . . .” He looked thoughtfully but without much concern into the middle distance, as if trying to remember what he had eaten for breakfast.
I raised an eyebrow and looked beyond the flaming brazier, through the narrow window and into the garden, where the statue of Minerva kept watch over a little fishpond. The sun was beginning to lower. Days in Januarius are all too short, especially for a man of fifty-four like myself, old enough to feel the cold in his bones. But the daylight was still strong enough to see clearly, certainly clearly enough to tell if someone at the door was male or female. Was Belbo’s sight beginning to fail?
Belbo is not the cleverest of slaves. What he lacks in brains he has always made up for with brawn. For a long time this hulking mass of bulging muscles and straw-colored hair has been my bodyguard, but in recent years his reflexes have grown noticeably slower. I had thought I might be able to start using him as a doorkeeper, reasoning that his long service at my side would enable him to recognize most of my visitors and that his size should intimidate those he didn’t. Alas, if he couldn’t even tell the difference between a man and a woman it would hardly do to have him answering the door.
Belbo ceased to ponder the middle distance and cleared his throat. “Should I show them in, Master?”
“Let me see if I understand you: two strangers of indeterminate sex, who refuse to give their names, have come to call on a man with a lifetime’s worth of enemies, here in the most dangerous city in the world. Show them in, you ask? Why not?”
My sarcasm was apparently too subtle. Belbo nodded and left the room before I could call him back.
A moment later he returned with my visitors. I stood to greet them, and realized that Belbo’s eyes were indeed still sharp, probably sharper than my own. Had I seen this couple across the street or walking through the Forum, I might have taken them to be exactly what they appeared to be, a rather small young man with delicate features, dressed in an fitting toga and wearing a broad-brimmed hat (despite the less than sunny weather), and a much older, much larger woman wrapped in a stola that modestly covered her from head to toe. But on closer inspection, there was something amiss.
I could see nothing of the young man’s body, obscured as it was by the loose folds of his oversize toga, but his face was not quite right; there was no sign of a beard on his cheeks, and his soft, beautifully manicured hands moved with a delicacy that was not masculine. Also, instead of lying flat around his ears and the back of his neck, his hair appeared to have been pushed up under his hat, which meant it must be unusually long. The color of his hair was odd as well—dark at the roots, but turning blond where it was tucked up under the brim of his hat, which he declined to take off.
As for the woman, a woolen mantle draped over her head obscured much of her face, but I could see that her cheeks had been painted, and not too expertly, with a rose-colored blush. The wrinkles of her neck hung down in folds considerably looser than the folds of the stola that strained to contain her bulk, especially around the middle. Her shoulders seemed a bit too broad and her hips too narrow. Nor did her hands seem quite right, for Roman matrons take pride in keeping their flesh as pale as possible, and hers were dark and weathered as if by many years of exposure to the sun, and while any woman vain enough to color her cheeks might be expected to take good care of her fingernails, those of my visitor were ragged and bitten down to the quick.
The couple stood mute beside the brazier.
“I understand that you’ve come to pay me a visit,” I finally said.
They merely nodded. The young man pursed his lips and peered at me, his face stiff. The old woman tilted her head so that the brazier lit up her eyes. Between lashes stained black with antimony I saw a flash of apprehension.
I waved to Belbo, who fetched a pair of folding chairs and placed them opposite my own.
“Sit,” I offered. They did, demonstrating even more clearly that things were not what they seemed. The wearing of the toga is an art, as is the wearing of the stola, I imagine. From their manifest awkwardness it seemed highly unlikely that the little man had ever worn a toga before, or that his companion had ever worn a stola. Their clumsiness was almost comical.
“Wine?” I offered.
“Yes!” said the young man, sitting forward, his face suddenly animated. His voice was high and somehow too delicate, like his hands. The old woman stiffened and whispered “No!” in a hoarse voice. She nervously fiddled with her fingers, then bit at her thumbnail.
I shrugged. “For myself, I feel the need of something to stave off the chill in the air. Belbo, ask one of the serving girls to bring some water and wine. And something to eat, perhaps?” I looked inquiringly at my visitors.
The young man brightened and nodded eagerly. The woman glowered and struck at his arm, making him wince. “Are you mad?” she whispered gruffly. I thought I detected a slight accent, and was trying to place it when I heard her stomach growl.
“Yes, of course, exactly,” the young man muttered. He too had an accent, faint but vaguely eastern. This was curious, for only Roman citizens wear the toga. “No food, please,” he said.
“How unfortunate,” I said, “for we have some very good must-cakes left over from breakfast this morning, flavored with honey and pepper in the Egyptian style. My wife comes from Alexandria, you see. I spent some time there myself as a young man—oh, that must have been over thirty years ago. The Egyptians are famous for their soft breads, as I’m sure you know. My wife gays it was a baker at the mouth of the Nile who discovered the secret of leavening and dedicated his first loaf to the great Alexander when he founded the city.”
The woman’s mouth began to twitch. She pulled at her mantle to shade her eyes, but I could feel her gaze on me as hot as the flames of the brazier. The little man’s face lost its animation and turned stiff again.
Belbo returned with a small folding table which he set between us. A serving girl followed with three cups and two ewers, one of water and one of wine. The girl poured wine into each cup and then departed, leaving it to me to apportion the water. “For myself, in the cold months I take it almost straight,” I said, leaning forward and adding only a splash of water to the nearest cup. “And you?” I looked at the young man. He held up his forefinger and pressed his thumb against the furthest joint. “A knuckle’s worth of water,” I said, pouring, then looked at his companion. “And will you join us after all?” She hesitated, then copied the little man’s gesture. Again I noticed her bitten nails and the sun-weathered flesh of her hands.
“You won’t regret it,” I said. “This comes from my private stock. I still have some jars of wine remaining from my brief tenure as a farmer up in Etruria a few years ago. It was a very good year—for the wine, anyway.” I handed them each a cup. Before I could pick up my own, the woman quickly put hers down and reached for mine. “I changed my mind,” she whispered hoarsely. “Less water will suit me. If you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.” I picked up the cup she had abandoned and held it before my lips, pretending to savor the bouquet. She watched me intently and put her cup beneath her fleshy nose, sniffing at it cautiously with no pretense of enjoyment, waiting for me to take a sip before she would do the same. It was an absurd moment, like a scene in some hackneyed comedy, except that had we been on a stage the audience would have hooted at us for playing our parts too broadly.
At last I put the cup to my mouth and drank, letting the red wine linger on my lips for a moment before licking them clean, to show her I had swallowed. Only then did she sip cautiously from her cup. Her companion, having watched this interchange as if awaiting permission, put his cup to his lips and drained it. “Excellent!” he exclaimed, his voice, slipping into a higher register. He cleared his throat. “Excellent,” he said again in a voice that was deeper but, still distinctly feminine.
For a moment we sipped our wine in silence, listening to the crackling of the brazier. “You seem cautious about stating your purpose,” I finally said. “Perhaps you could begin by telling me your names.”
The little man looked at the woman, who then turned away from the flames and hid her face in shadow. After a moment the little man looked back to me. “No names,” he said softly. “Not yet.”
I nodded. “As you wish. What do names matter, anyway? Names are but a cloak, a garment which men put on and take off. A disguise, if you will. Don’t you agree?”
The little man looked at me with gleaming eyes—was he intrigued, or had he simply drained his cup too quickly? His companion kept her face in shadow, but again I felt the heat of her gaze. “A name is not the same as a thing,” she finally whispered.
I nodded. “So I was taught long ago—when I lived in Alexandria, as a matter of fact. And yet, without names, we have no way of discoursing with one another about the things those names represent.”
The woolen mantle nodded gravely up and down.
“A thing is called one name in Greek, another in Latin,” I said. “The thing remains the same. That which applies to things must also apply to persons. King Ptolemy of Egypt, for example, is King Ptolemy, whether we give him the Greek title basileus or the Latin title rex.”
The figure in the stola drew a sharp breath and seemed on the verge of speaking, but held back.
“So it is with the gods themselves,” I went on. “Romans call the father of the gods Jupiter; Greeks call him Zeus. ‘Jupiter’ is an onomatopoeia for the sound of lightning striking the earth, while ‘Zeus’ captures the sound of a thunderbolt cutting through the air. Thus do names convey to the ear what the eye and the soul of man perceive, however imperfectly.”
“Exactly!” whispered my visitor. The head tilted to reveal the eyes, which were fixed upon me with the excitement of a teacher who hears his pupil repeating back to him a lesson learned long ago but never forgotten.
“Still, names are not things,” I said, “and while the study of names may fascinate us, it is the study of things, or more precisely our human perception of things, which must occupy anyone who cares to discover philosophy. For example: I see the flame in this brazier, yet how do I know that it exists?”
The little man, who had availed himself of more wine during my discourse, laughed out loud. “Simple—put your hand into the flame!”
I clucked my tongue disapprovingly. “You must be of the Epicurean School, if you believe that by sense perception alone we can determine the actuality of existence. Epicurus taught that all sensations are true; still, the fact that I am burned by the fire should be no proof to you of its existence, sine you would feel no pain.”
“Ah, but I would hear you scream.”
“Perhaps; but there are those who can endure such pain without screaming. If I didn’t scream, would the fire be any more or less real? What if I did scream, and you happened to be deaf and looking elsewhere—would I still have been burned? Then again, if I were to scream, and if you were to hear me, you still would have no way of knowing whether my pain was real or a sham.”
“You seem to know a lot about such things,” said the young man, who smiled and took another sip. I noticed he had spilled a bit of wine on his toga.
“A little. Philosophy is the creation of the Greeks, of course, but a Roman may attempt to comprehend it. My old patron Cicero made himself something of an expert on philosophy, to help his oratory. From the Skeptics he learned that a proposition is always easier to disprove than to prove—a useful thing for a lawyer to know, especially if he has no scruples about defending guilty men.”
I took a long sip of wine. The mood in the room had changed completely. My visitors’ frosty suspicion had melted into trust. The comforting cadence of philosophic discourse was familiar ground, as I suspected it would be.
“But just as a name is not a thing, so appearance is not existence,” I went on. “Consider: two visitors come to my home. At first glance, they appear to be a man and a woman, and this is clearly the impression they wish to give. But on closer scrutiny this is only an impression, not the truth; thus do my senses tell me and my powers of logic deduce. Questions follow: if the man is not a man, and the woman is not a woman, then what are they? Who are they? Why do they wish to be perceived as something they are not? Who are they trying to fool, and why? And why do they come to the house of Gordianus the Finder?”
“And do you know the answers to all these questions?” rasped my visitor in the stola.
“I think so, to most of them, anyway. Though some things about your companion still puzzle me . . .” I looked at the little man, who smiled in a way I couldn’t account for, until I realized that he was smiling not at me but at someone behind me.
I turned to see my daughter, Diana, in the doorway.
Her posture was tentative, as if she had merely paused to have a look into the room and would move on at any moment. She wore the long-sleeved gown that children of both sexes wear, but at thirteen she was already beginning to fill the garment in ways unmistakably feminine Her dark blue gown merged with the dimness of the hallway, so that her face, lit up by the brazier, seemed to hover in the air. Her skin, which had the creamy texture and the rosy glow that my visitor’s painted cheeks so crudely mimicked, made the darkness of her long eyelashes and her thick eyebrows all the more pronounced. The flames caught the highlights of her long black hair, which was parted in the middle and fell down her shoulders. Her brown eyes peered at us curiously and with a hint of amusement. How like her mother she had always been, and how more like her she became every day! Sometimes it seemed to me that I had nothing to do with creating her, so completely was she cast in Bethesda’s image.
She smiled faintly and began to move on. “Diana,” I called, “come here for a moment.”
She stepped into the room, wearing that mysterious smile she inherited from her mother. “Yes, Papa?”
“We have visitors, Diana.”
“Yes, Papa, I know. I saw Belbo let them in at the front door. I was on my way to tell Mother, but I thought I’d have a closer look first.”
“A closer look?”
She gave me a bemused, exasperated look, such as Bethesda gives me when I belabor the obvious. “Well, Papa! It’s not every day that a eunuch and a man dressed as a woman come calling on you, is it?”
She looked at my visitors and smiled sweetly.
They didn’t smile back, but instead looked glumly at each other. “I told you that the pretense was worthless. Even a child saw through it!” grumbled the old man in the stola, no longer disguising his voice or his Alexandrian accent. He wearily pushed back the mantle from his head. His silver hair was pulled back from his face and knotted at the back of his neck. His forehead was wrinkled and covered with spots. The folds of flesh hanging from his chin quivered and he suddenly looked ridiculous, an unhappy old man with painted cheeks and painted eyes.
The eunuch in the toga covered his mouth and giggled tipsily. “But you look so pretty in makeup!”
“Enough of that!” growled the old Egyptian. His mouth settled in a deep frown and his jowls drooped as he stared bleakly into the flames, his eyes full of despair.