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DEATH WEARS A MASK
"Eco," I said, "do you mean to tell me that you have never seen a play?"
He looked up at me with his big brown eyes and shook his head.
"Never laughed at the bumbling slaves who have a falling- out? Never swooned to see the young heroine abducted by pirates? Never thrilled at the discovery that our hero is the secret heir to a vast fortune?"
Eco's eyes grew even larger, and he shook his head more vigorously.
"Then there must be a remedy, this very day!" I said.
It was the Ides of September, and a more beautiful autumn day the gods had never fashioned. The sun shone warmly on the narrow streets and gurgling fountains of Rome; a light breeze swept up from the Tiber, cooling the seven hills; the sky above was a bowl of purest azure, without a single cloud. It was the twelfth day of the sixteen days set aside each year for the Roman Festival, the city's oldest public holiday. Perhaps Jupiter himself had decreed that the weather should be so perfect; the holiday was in his honor.
For Eco, the festival had been an endless orgy of discoveries. He had seen his first chariot race in the Circus Maximus, had watched wrestlers and boxers in the public squares, had eaten his first calf's-brain-and-almond sausage from a street vendor. The race had thrilled him, mostly because he thought the horses so beautiful; the pugilists had bored him, since he had seen plenty of brawling in public before; the sausage had not agreed with him (or perhaps his problem was the spiced green apples on which he gorged himself afterward).
It was four months since I had rescued Eco in an alley in the Subura, from a gang of boys pursuing him with sticks and cruel jeers. I knew a little of his history, having met him briefly in my investigations for Cicero that spring. Apparently his widowed mother had chosen to abandon little Eco in her desperation, leaving him to fend for himself. What else could I do but take him home with me?
He struck me as exceedingly clever for a boy of ten. I knew he was ten, because whenever he was asked, he held up ten fingers. Eco could hear (and add) perfectly well, even if his tongue was useless.
At first, his muteness was a great handicap for us both. (He had not been born mute, but had been made that way, apparently by the same fever that claimed his father's life.) Eco is a skillful mime, to be sure, but gestures can convey only so much. Someone had taught him the letters, but he could read and write only the simplest words. I had begun to teach him myself, but the going was made harder by his speechlessness.
His practical knowledge of the streets of Rome was deep but narrow. He knew all the back entrances to all the shops in the Subura, and where the fish and meat vendors down by the Tiber left their scraps at the end of the day. But he had never been to the Forum or the Circus Maximus, had never heard a politician declaim (lucky boy!) or witnessed the spectacle of the theater. I spent many hours showing him the city that summer, rediscovering its marvels through the wide eyes of a ten- year- old boy.
So it was that, on the twelfth day of the Roman Festival, when a crier came running through the streets announcing that the company of Quintus Roscius would be performing in an hour, I determined that we should not miss it.
"Ah, the company of Roscius the Comedian!" I said. "The magistrates in charge of the festival have spared no expense. There is no more famous actor today than Quintus Roscius, and no more renowned troupe of performers than his!"
We made our way from the Subura down to the Forum, where holiday crowds thronged the open squares. Between the Temple of Jupiter and the Senian Baths, a makeshift theater had been erected. Rowsof benches were set before a wooden stage that had been raised in the narrow space between the brick walls.
"Some day," I remarked, "a rabble- rousing politician will build the first permanent theater in Rome. Imagine that, a proper Grecian-style theater made of stone, as sturdy as a temple! The old- fashioned moralists will be scandalized— they hate the theater because it comes from Greece, and they think that all things Greek must be decadent and dangerous. Ah, we're early— we shall have good seats."
The usher led us to an aisle seat on a bench five rows back from the stage. The first four rows had been partitioned by a rope of purple cloth, set aside for those of senatorial rank. Occasionally the usher tromped down the aisle, followed by some toga- clad magistrate and his party, and pulled aside the rope to allow them access to the benches.
While the theater slowly filled around us, I pointed out to Eco the details of the stage. Before the first row of benches there was a small open space, the orchestra, where the musicians would play; three steps at either side led up to the stage itself. Behind the stage and enclosing it on either side was a screen of wood with a folding door in the middle and other doors set into the left and right wings. Through these doors the actors would enter and exit. Out of sight, behind the stage, the musicians could be heard warming up their pipes, trilling snatches of familiar tunes.
I turned to see a tall, thin figure looming over us.
"Statilius!" I cried. "It's good to see you."
"And you as well. But who is this?" He ruffled Eco's mop of brown hair with his long fingers.
"This is Eco," I said.
"A long- lost nephew?"
"Ah, an indiscretion from the past?" Statilius raised an eyebrow.
"Not that, either." My face turned hot. And yet I suddenly wondered how it would feel to say, "Yes, this is my son." Not for the first time I considered the possibility of adopting Eco legally— and as quickly banished the thought from my mind. A man like myself, who oftenrisks death, has no business becoming a father; so I told myself. If I truly wanted sons, I could have married a proper Roman wife long ago and had a houseful by now. I quickly changed the subject.
"But Statilius, where is your costume and your mask? Why aren't you backstage, getting ready?" I had known Statilius since we were boys; he had become an actor in his youth, joining first one company and then another, always seeking the training of established comedians. The great Roscius had taken him on a year before.
"Oh, I still have plenty of time to get ready."
"And how is life in the company of the greatest actor in Rome?"
"Wonderful, of course!"
I frowned at the note of false bravado in his voice.
"Ah, Gordianus, you always could see through me. Not wonderful, then— terrible! Roscius— what a monster! Brilliant, to be sure, but a beast! If I were a slave I'd be covered with bruises. Instead, he whips me with his tongue. What a taskmaster! The man is relentless, and never satisfied. He makes a man feel no better than a worm. The galleys or the mines could hardly be worse. Is it my fault that I've grown too old to play heroines and haven't yet the proper voice to be an old miser or a braggart soldier? Ah, perhaps Roscius is right. I'm useless— talentless—I bring the whole company into disrepute."
"Actors are all alike," I whispered to Eco. "They need more coddling than babies." Then to Statilius: "Nonsense! I saw you in the spring, at the Festival of the Great Mother, when Roscius put on The Brothers Menaechmus. You were brilliant playing the twins."
"Do you really think so?"
"I swear it. I laughed so hard I almost fell off the bench."
He brightened a bit, then frowned. "I wish that Roscius thought so. Today I was all set to play Euclio, the old miser—"
"Ah, then we're seeing The Pot of Gold?"
"One of my favorite plays, Eco. Quite possibly Plautus's funniest comedy. Crude, yet satisfying—"
"I was to play Euclio," Statilius said rather sharply, drawing the conversation back to himself, "when suddenly, this morning, Rosciusexplodes into a rage and says that I have the role all wrong, and that he can't suffer the humiliation of seeing me bungle it in front of all Rome. Instead I'll be Megadorus, the next- door neighbor."
"Another fine role," I said, trying to remember it.
"Fah! And who gets the plum role of Euclio? That parasite Panurgus— a mere slave, with no more comic timing than a slug!" He abruptly stiffened. "Oh no, what's this?"
I followed his gaze to the outer aisle, where the usher was leading a burly, bearded man toward the front of the theater. A blond giant with a scar across his nose followed close behind— the bearded man's bodyguard; I know a hired ruffian from the Subura when I see one. The usher led them to the far end of our bench; they stepped into the gap and headed toward us to take the empty spot beside Eco.
Statilius bent low to hide himself and groaned into my ear. "As if I hadn't enough worries— it's that awful moneylender Flavius and one of his hired bullies. The only man in Rome who's more of a monster than Roscius."
"And just how much do you owe this Flavius?" I began to say, when suddenly, from backstage, a roaring voice rose above the discordant pipes.
"Fool! Incompetent! Don't come to me now saying you can't remember the lines!"
"Roscius," Statilius whispered, "screaming at Panurgus, I hope. The man's temper is terrible."
The central door on the stage flew open, revealing a short, stocky man already dressed for the stage, wearing a splendid cloak of rich white fabric. His lumpy, scowling face was the sort to send terror into an underling's soul, yet this was, by universal acclaim, the funniest man in Rome. His legendary squint made his eyes almost invisible, but when he looked in our direction, I felt as if a dagger had been thrown past my ear and into the heart of Statilius.
"And you!" he bellowed. "Where have you been? Backstage, immediately! No, don't bother to go the long way round— backstage, now!" He gave commands as if he were speaking to a dog.
Statilius hurried up the aisle, leaped onto the stage and disappearedbackstage, closing the door behind him— but not, I noticed, before casting a furtive glance at the newcomer who had just seated himself beside Eco. I turned and looked at Flavius the moneylender, who returned my curious gaze with a scowl. He did not look like a man in the proper mood for a comedy.
I cleared my throat. "Today you'll see The Pot of Gold, " I said pleas -antly, leaning past Eco toward the newcomers. Flavius gave a start and wrinkled his bushy brows. "One of Plautus's very best plays, don't you think?"
Flavius parted his lips and peered at me suspiciously. The blond bodyguard looked at me with an expression of supreme stupidity.
I shrugged and turned my attention elsewhere.
From the open square behind us, the crier made his last announcement. The benches filled rapidly. Latecomers and slaves stood wherever they could, crowding together on tiptoe. Two musicians stepped onto the stage and descended to the orchestra, where they began to blow upon their long pipes.
A murmur of recognition passed through the crowd at the familiar strains of the miser Euclio's theme, the first indication of the play we were about to see. Meanwhile the usher and the crier moved up and down the aisles, playfully hushing the noisier members of the audience.
At length the overture was finished. The central door on the stage rattled open. Out stepped Roscius, wearing his sumptuous white cloak, his head obscured by a mask of grotesque, happy countenance. Through the holes I glimpsed his squinting eyes; his mellow voice resonated throughout the theater.
"In case you don't know who I am, let me briefly introduce myself," he said. "I am the Guardian Spirit of this house—Euclio's house. I have been in charge of this place now for a great many years . . ." He proceeded to deliver the prologue, giving the audience a starting point for the familiar story— how the grandfather of Euclio had hidden a pot of gold beneath the floorboards of the house, how Euclio had a daughter who was in love with the next- door neighbor's nephew and needed only a dowry to be happily married, and how he, the Guardian Spirit, intended to guide the greedy Euclio to the pot of gold and so set events in motion.
I glanced at Eco, who stared up at the masked figure enraptured, hanging on every word. Beside him, the moneylender Flavius wore the same unhappy scowl as before. The blond bodyguard sat with his mouth open, and occasionally reached up to pick at the scar across his nose.
A muffled commotion was heard from backstage. "Ah," said Ros-cius in a theatrical whisper, "there's old Euclio now, pitching a fit as usual. The greedy miser must have located the pot of gold by now, and he wants to count his fortune in secret, so he's turning the old house keeper out of the house." He quietly withdrew through the door in the right wing.
Through the central door emerged a figure wearing an old man's mask and dressed in bright yellow, the traditional color for greed. This was Panurgus, the slave- actor, taking the plum leading role of the miser Euclio. Behind him he dragged another actor, dressed as a lowly female slave, and flung him to the middle of the stage. "Get out!" he shouted. "Out! By Hades, out with you, you old snooping bag of bones!"
Statilius had been wrong to disparage Panurgus's comic gifts; already I heard guffaws and laughter around me.
"What have I done? What? What?" cried the other actor. His grimacing feminine mask was surmounted by a hideous tangled wig. His gown was in tatters about his knobby knees. "Why are you beating a long- suffering old hag?"
"To give you something to be long- suffering about, that's why! And to make you suffer as much as I do, just looking at you!" Panurgus and his fellow actor scurried about the stage, to the uproarious amusement of the audience. Eco bounced up and down on the bench and clapped his hands. The moneylender and his bodyguard sat with their arms crossed, unimpressed.
HOUSEKEEPER: But why must you drive me out of the house?
EUCLIO: Why? Since when do I have to give you a reason? You're asking for a fresh crop of bruises!
HOUSEKEEPER: Let the gods send me jumping off a cliff if I'll put up with this sort of slavery any longer!EUCLIO: What's she muttering to herself? I've a good mind to poke your eyes out, you damned witch!
At length the slave woman disappeared and the miser went back into his house to count his money; the neighbor Megadorus and his sister Eunomia occupied the stage. From the voice, it seemed to me that the sister was played by the same actor who had performed the cringing slave woman; no doubt he specialized in female characters. My friend Statilius, as Megadorus, performed adequately, I thought, but he was not in the same class with Roscius, or even with his rival Panurgus. His comic turns inspired polite guffaws, not raucous laughter.
EUNOMIA: Dear brother, I've asked you out of the house to have a little talk about your private affairs.
MEGADORUS: How sweet! You are as thoughtful as you are beautiful. I kiss your hand.
EUNOMIA: What? Are you talking to someone behind me?
MEGADORUS: Of course not. You're the prettiest woman I know!
EUNOMIA: Don't be absurd. Every woman is uglier than every other, in one way or another.
MEGADORUS: Mmm, but of course; what ever you say . . .
EUNOMIA: Now give me your attention. Brother dear, I should like to see you married—
MEGADORUS: Help! Murder! Ruin!
EUNOMIA: Oh, quiet down!
Even this exchange, usually so pleasing to the crowd, evoked only lukewarm titters. My attention strayed to Statilius's costume, made of sumptuous blue wool embroidered with yellow, and to his mask, with its absurdly quizzical eyebrows. Alas, I thought, it is a bad sign when a comedian's costume is of greater interest than his delivery. Poor Statilius had found a place with the most respected acting troupe in Rome, but he did not shine there. No wonder the demanding Roscius was so intolerant of him!
Even Eco grew restless. Next to him, the moneylender Flavius leaned over to whisper something in the ear of his blond bodyguard— disparaging the talents of the actor who owed him money, I thought.
At length the sister exited; the miser returned to converse with his neighbor. Seeing the two of them together on the stage— Statilius and his rival, Panurgus— the gulf between their talents was painfully clear. Panurgus as Euclio stole the scene completely, and not just because his lines were better.
EUCLIO: So you wish to marry my daughter. Good enough— but you must know I haven't so much as a copper to donate to her dowry.
MEGADORUS: I don't expect even half a copper. Her virtue and good name are quite enough.
EUCLIO: I mean to say, it's not as if I'd just happened to have found some, oh, buried treasure in my house . . . say, a pot of gold buried by my grandfather, or—
MEGADORUS: Of course not— how ridiculous! Say no more. You'll give your daughter to me, then?
EUCLIO: Agreed. But what's that? Oh no, I'm ruined!
MEGADORUS: Jupiter Almighty, what's wrong?
EUCLIO: I thought I heard a spade . . . someone digging . . .
MEGADORUS: Why, it's only a slave I've got digging up some roots in my garden. Calm down, good neighbor . . .
I inwardly groaned for my friend Statilius; but if his delivery was flat, he had learned to follow the master's stage directions without a misstep. Roscius was famous not only for embellishing the old comedieswith colorful costumes and masks to delight the eyes, but for choreographing the movements of his actors. Statilius and Panurgus were never static on the stage, like the actors in inferior companies. They circled one another in a constant comic dance, a swirl of blue and yellow.
Eco tugged at my sleeve. With a shrug of his shoulder he gestured to the men beside him. Flavius was again whispering in the bodyguard's ear; the big blond was wrinkling his eyebrows, perplexed. Then he rose and lumbered toward the aisle. Eco drew up his feet, but I was too slow. The monster stepped on my foot. I let out a howl. Others around me started doing the same, thinking I was badgering the actors. The blond giant made no apology at all.
Eco tugged at my sleeve. "Let it go, Eco," I said. "One must learn to live with rudeness in the theater."
He only rolled his eyes and crossed his arms in exasperation. I knew that gesture: if only he could speak!
On the stage, the two neighbors concluded their plans for Mega-dorus to wed the daughter of Euclio; with a shrilling of pipes and the tinkling of cymbals, they left the stage and the first act was done.
The pipe players introduced a new theme. After a moment, two new characters appeared on stage. These were the quarreling cooks, summoned to prepare the wedding feast. A Roman audience delights in jokes about food and gluttony, the cruder the better. While I groaned at the awful puns, Eco laughed aloud, making a hoarse, barking sound.
In the midst of the gaiety, my blood turned cold. Above the laughter, I heard a scream.
It was not a woman's scream, but a man's. Not a scream of fear, but of pain.
I looked at Eco, who looked back at me. He had heard it, too. No one else in the audience seemed to have noticed, but the actors on stage must have heard something. They bungled their lines and turned uncertainly toward the door, stepping on one another's feet. The audience only laughed harder at their clumsiness.
The quarreling cooks came to the end of their scene and disappeared backstage.
Excerpted from The House Of The Vestals by Steven Saylor.
Copyright © 1992 by Steven Saylor.
Published in January 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. ermission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.