Vergil in Averno: Book Two of the Vergil Magus Series, page 1
Vergil in Averno
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Vergil in Averno
Whereas in other cities they had taken him to see the bears and lions, the dancing girls and dancing boys, or the chambers with the painted walls, all quite commonly done, and in one city they had done a thing by no means common: they had shown him the treasury, crammed with rubies of Balas and of Balas-shan, male spider rubies and females of the same, diamonds and adamants and pearls the size of babies’ fists, ancient golden anklets and amulets and silver newly brightly minted, chryselephantine with turquoise and sapphire and stone of lapis lazuli — here they had taken him, with every mark of respect and favor, to see the torture-chambers instead.
He had gone.
Had he not gone, would they not have tortured?
Besides: Are not the pains of the few to be preferred to the pains of the many? Did not the distant Idumaeans say, “Pray for the welfare of the Empire, for were it not for fear of it, men would swallow one another up alive”? And yet the Idumaeans loved the Empire not.
But as for torture . . . still . . . In Rome, the Consul Pretorius, who “kept the king’s sword” (King! as though the title had not long ago been subsumed into a vaster one!) was able with his words and ways alone to wring secrets out of the most forsworn to silence, and in Athens old Illyriodorus did as much with dreams (though these were different secrets, clean different ones indeed), but in Averno different ways were kept (and clean different ones they were, too; if not precisely clean). They took Vergil to see the torture chambers, as one would go to see the bears.
• • •
There were no such chill dungeon deeps as had caused the captive in the Histories to exclaim, “How cold are your baths, O Romans!” All was well warmed, all along the deep stone steps (deeper, even, in the center of each, worn, probably, by the passage of many feet over the passing of many years) all along the deep stone steps and long stone corridors, and, indeed, well lighted as well. His host had paused to take up a wax tablet which stood upon a stand, as though he were taking up a menu; his host was the Magnate Brosa Brosa. “Hm,” said he, “this morning they have someone named” — the name meant nothing to Vergil, whatever it was — “who stands accused of conspiracy and interloping.” He raised his eyebrows. “ ‘Conspiracy and interloping,’ ” he repeated thoughtfully with slight change of emphasis. “Can’t have that.”
He stood aside and gestured courteously, asked, “Shall we go in, master?”
They went in.
Vergil had gone in first, with some polite murmur, but he did not at first go in very far; for, the door closing behind them with a heavy thud that for some reason somewhat sickened him (as some sounds do), it was at first dim-dark. But even before his eyes regained full vision — he had with him, always, of course, a source of light of his own, but did not care always, or even often, to make use of it — even then he was able to see that, first, there was some glow of light from somewhere; next he saw, in that dim glow, evidently the man being “put to the question” — horrid obliquity of phrase! — a man, a young man, well muscled and unclad and arms upraised and wrists in chains; but —
“At least he does not barber his armpits,” said the magnate-host . . . hanging, thus, that beautiful body, and face intent and in pain, the young man naked and in chains: Vergil pitied him with all his heart, what matter for the moment all philosophy and polity and prating of the welfare of the Res Publica, the Public Thing: the State? The muscles of the arms and breast and belly moved and played and writhed, the upper body bent forward and moved, the chain moved somewhat; somewhere near, a bellows sighed and sounded: and, gods! what mattered where he shaved or not?
“Else we had not hired him.” The soft voice of the host in Vergil’s ear. “We want no perverts for this work, you know.”
The young man all naked and all sweat was not the victim. He was the torturer. The chains were not those of bondage, he had merely wound them round his wrists for purchase as he forced the bellows to force the fire, working it to heat his instruments. It was, of sorts, a shock. The young man’s pain was merely that of effort.
And when the actual prisoner, uncomely in body and in face, was lifted forward and fixed upon the frame, white hairs crawling upon bosom and belly — even then attention and favor, even pity, certainly sympathy, once fast-centered, moved and changed with difficulty. For one long, unlovely moment it had seemed right to Vergil, and proper, that youth and beauty should torture old age and ugly . . . and, or . . . at least . . . wrong that it should be obliged to tarry there to do so, for, clearly (from the torturer’s straining muscles and concerned face — scarcely observed, the commencement of the question . . . the questions . . . When last did you conspire to admit interlopers unlicensed to the trade and commerce of the Very Rich City of Averno in violation of its strict and meritorious laws?) clearly, youth could take and took no pleasure in this association with age, and surely beauty would prefer the sunlight and the cooler air outside, the sweet smells of gardens and of fields to this hot room, dark, and fetid with sweat and fear. Clearly, surely, then (it seemed), age, ugly age, should at once confess and die and set youth free, unchained, to go forth once more into the light and air to play….
Then, suddenly, simul and semel with the first groan and scream, it came to him, Vergil, that there was “outside” no cooler air, no sweet smells, no gardens and no fields, little better light, and certainly little in the way of play: He was in Averno.
The very rich city.
How came he there?
“Master in Philosophy. Master in Arts Magical. Adept of the First Three Grades at Grammarie. Passed Master on the Astrolabe. Astrologue, West of Corinth, and Astrologue, East of Corinth.” The voice paused, continued. “But not yet Incantor et Magus.” The voice ceased. It had not asked a question; it had made a statement.
Vergil said, “Not yet.” Also a statement.
The man of the voice had entered the hot-wine shop a half-moment ahead of him, and only in that half-moment had Vergil half-realized (realized, that is, with half his mind) that the other’s striped robe had already been in the wine-shop lane when he himself turned into it. As for turning, the man had not turned up his face when Vergil had come to stand next to him . . . indeed, could have stood nowhere much else, there being but that much little room at the small counter where the wine-pots squatted in their hot-water baths above the charcoal glow. Giving their orders as the dramster looked at each in turn, “White and sweet,” said one, “Red and spicy,” said the other. Vergil was that other, and this was no pre-arranged signal, to be responded to with some phrase such as I have the key to Memphis, countered with (perhaps) And I to Mizraim, such sports as boys employ to obtain entrance to clandestine gatherings of boys who cannot yet get girls. Had the dramster stood a bit nearer in offering the steamy cup with one hand and holding out the other for the two groats — an ancient buffoonery among street-players: Spare two groats for the bath, boss? What bath? The one in Lucu’s wineshop . . . Change the name for every street, it still drew its laugh from loiterers — had this dramster’s stance not made it necessary for Vergil to turn a bit to the left, he would not even have seen the other wine-drinker’s face in profile: no extraordinary face, say of not quite three decades, with a sparse beard and large white teeth.
Vergil had raised his cup and lowered his face and, while he blew and sipped, this other, this one in the striped robe, as
It was a tiny dram-shop, Vergil had been in privies that were larger, and it announced its wares with a reek as strong, though of course different. He had, in a sudden urge, desired a cheap sip: as cheap in quality as price, he could afford better now, but old tastes have a way of returning. Though you expel Nature with a pitchfork, she will always return. And now out of nowhere, as he drank the rough and raffish wine, was a stranger murmuring degrees and titles as though reading them off a tablet or a scroll. As though they had been gained as easily as they were being recited. As easily as a child gains names.
Vergil blew and sipped and sipped and swallowed. Spicy, it was not very spicy, some infusion of something much-infused had tinctured it, no more; probably the other’s chosen dram was not more than the very least sweet, had been mixed with the water washed through a much-washed honey-pot.
The pleasures of the poor.
But . . . two groats. Price of admission to the bath, any bath, a mere token, of course, public baths being supported by public funds. The drink was worth what one paid for it. Somewhat it warmed him, somewhat it refreshed him, somewhat it brought back memories of times when there had been an adventure in buying a dram in a wineshop. The voice next to him now: “From Sevilla to Averno” — still the same casual mutter — “is a rather far journey. The dyer Haddadius might be pleased to learn of some of the many things discovered on such a journey. He might be prepared to.” The man set down the cup, belched politely, walked out. Vergil did not look up. The dramster took the empty cup, sloshed it in a wide basin of the coarse-painted pottery used for the purpose, set it back on the shelf.
Boss shook his head. After a moment took his own leave. Sevilla. Sometimes called city of the sundry secret schools. Sometimes called sewer of a thousand different devils. Vergil did not constantly think of Sevilla, but to have heard it mentioned in the way he had, there in that dirty concrete cell with its pots of half-vinegar cooking at the counter (on the walls, rough-scratched graffitti: Polonio for President of the Lousepickers’ Guild . . . Julia pisses better stuff than what they sell here …) — well, it was rather a surprise. And as to what it meant, who knew? Everything meant something, still, some meanings were revealed sooner than others. And that some were seemingly never revealed in no way disproved the fact.
Averno. And the dyer Haddadius.
“… might be prepared to …” . . . to what? If the last word had not been “pay,” and it was not entirely clear what it had been, then what had it been? He did not bother to note down in his tablets, but he toyed with some half-formed fancy about the dyer’s hand, which, proverbially, proclaimed its owner’s trade.
And then, having other things to remember, this one he very easily forgot.
• • •
That night he could not sleep.
• • •
There is a certain book that is of hard-seeking, and, it is said, if found and opened by one who does not deserve to know what it contains, the book does not allow itself to be read. Evidently Vergil had, without wanting to, found it, here in his small library in this small port, the book disguised in the binding of some other and well-familiar work, for as often as he blinked, and trimmed the wick of the lamp once more, and examined the half-eggshell suspended above it and filled with oil to see if the hole was clear and the oil still dripping drop by drop by slow slow drop into the well of the lamp below and as often as he returned his gaze to the page, as often the letters melted and flowed. He would never get his lesson this way. Indeed, when his preceptor, old Vlaho, that good man, said to him, “Recite the syllogism which I set for you to learn,” he had to confess that, sir, he had not learned it. Old Vlaho shook his bald head, rimmed with soft short gray hairs, and raised his hand to hit him a reproving slap: the hand, from nails to wrist, was blue as woad.
A cock crew. It was near to dawn. He had fallen asleep anyway, and so, with a sigh, he turned over in his bed in the wall-niche. It was some while before he remembered that night’s dream.
• • •
Away, away, the Isle of Goats in the hazy distance, it thrust upward like any mountain, save in being surrounded by waves instead of clouds. Aurelio the freedman arose and bowed as Vergil came up. Aurelio did not point, but he moved his hand to where Naples glittered on its hills, also far off, but not near so far as the Isle of Goats. “Well, sir, we have the horsehair, as you ordered. Apollo! how they wanted to charge me for it, there in the city!” He wagged his head in wonder, but it was a contented wag. And a contented wonder. They may have wanted to charge . . . whatever it was they had wanted . . . but it was clear that the price Aurelio had paid was not the one asked. “All because I insisted it should be white horsehair only. But any excuse will do them. ‘Why does it need be pure white?’ the man said. ‘Dark horsehair is stronger, anyway.’ Well, I dunno it is or not, but I say, ‘In that case, all the more why the white should be cheaper.’ ” He chuckled. “And so, Master Vergil, sir, we are ready to begin mixing the plaster; there is the lime, and over here is the sand, sir.”
Vergil thrust his hand into the opened bales of hair, lifted, sifted, let it drop. Then he stooped and did the same with the sand, but this time he put some on his tongue; and this he did several times. “Yes, this will do,” he said. “We won’t want more than this much horsehair, just enough to give a certain roughness so it will grip and hold the coating.”
Aurelio had evidently been about to ask the question to which Vergil, unrequested, had supplied the answer; and now seemed satisfied, pleased. But now another question came into the freedman’s mind, and, thence, across his face. And this time too, Vergil answered it first.
“I tasted it to be sure it had not been mixed with sea-sand, because the salt would, for one thing, attract and hold the moisture and you would have damp and dripping walls at times . . . at times when you would least want them, too: in wet weather . . . and, also, the plaster would be less likely to hold firm upon the walls. And then, too . . . salt . . . the principal savor of mankind, though some things it preserves, yet, some things it destroys….” Vergil waved his hands a bit and raised his brows a bit, and made . . . a bit . . . a certain gesture that Aurelio understood; repeated. Salt. Sorcery.
Aurelio’s face, which had for just a moment clouded, cleared, and he grunted with gratification. “One has to have learned many things in philosophy, sir, in order to build a house correctly, sir.”
Vergil was undoing the strings of a dark bag of rich, soft samite. He nodded. The knots were not simple, but he had tied them himself. As the last one fell slack, he said, “Yes. Principles. Proportions. Mathematics. Materials. And more. Much more. Even” — he lifted out an instrument — “how to space and set and tune the five chords of this lute.” And he ran his fingers over them all five: yellow the first, for bile; red for blood, and twice as thick the chord, white for sperm, and thrice as thick the chord; the black chord, for the black bile, was the fourth, and was one-fourth the thickness of the first and the highest in pitch. These four had long been traditional; to them Vergil had ventured to add a fifth: This was of a color between rose and purple, and it represented that aspect of man higher than any humor, and this, though his own idea, had been suggested to him by some word or other in the Great Antiphonal of the Saracen, Syryabus, which nicked and clicked — as it had so seemed at the time — with some lines, a few, not more, from the nameless books of the music played at the courts of Asoka and Chandragupta, the Great High Kings of Ind. Then there was Vitruvius, and before him, Amphion; excellent exempla. And again he
The name of his song was “The Walls of Thebes.”
The work of building went on, as it had begun, to the sounds of, and the rhythms of, music.
After a while the music began to enter a slower phase, and, the movements of the workmen, slowly, in time with it, gradually ceased. And, after some pause, Vergil said, “Ser Aurelio — ”
“Aurelio, Aurelio. It is kind of you and I am not of a rank to gainsay what a learned master such as yourself is pleased to utter, but if you please, sir: plain Aurelio. There are others who have not your gracious nature and much they would resent hearing I suffered meself to be called Ser Aurelio. Me. A freedman.”
The haze had burned away from off all the water. The Isle of Goats stood proud and high and blue and distant, like the haunt of a peri or of many a faun. Naples glittered brightlier than ever. “Your former master, Aurelio, then — ”
“The late and honored Aurelio Favio, Master Vergil. Whose name he was good enough to bestow when he manumitted me. And what of him, sir?”
Vergil stroked his short black beard, and then, as though stretching his fingers from their long stint at the lute, gave a stroke to each side of the short black hair that fitted his head like a cap. “Yes, just what I was going to ask. What of him? What sort of man?”
“The best sort. Worked hard, dealt honest, and I worked hard and honest with him, down there in the old wharf where we had the first warehouse.” Gestured. “He lived in a simple, frugal way, my master, and a chaste one; no boys, sir, and just the one woman, Julia by name she was, as kind as he was, and even quieter. Then she died, then he freed me, then he went to join her, sir, as they do say. And as we must hope. And left me his heir.”
AVRAM DAVIDSON SERIES:
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