Complete Works of Wilkie Collins (8 page)

The lady started. It was evident that Vetranio had a reputation.

‘Yes!’ continued the lively Camilla, ‘that is the accomplished Vetranio; but he will be no favourite of yours, for he sometimes swears — swears by the ancient gods, too, which is forbidden!’

‘He is handsome.’

‘Handsome! he is beautiful! Not a woman in Italy but is languishing for him!’

‘I have heard that he is clever.’

‘Who has not? He is the author of some of the most celebrated sauces of the age. Cooks of all nations worship him as an oracle. Then he writes poetry, and composes music, and paints pictures! And as for philosophy — he talks it better than my uncle the bishop!’

‘Is he rich?’

‘Ah! my uncle the bishop! — I must tell you how I helped Vetranio to make a satire on him! When I was staying with him at Rome, I used often to see a woman in a veil taken across the garden to his study; so, to perplex him, I asked him who she was. And he frowned and stammered, and said at first that I was disrespectful; but he told me afterwards that she was an Arian whom he was labouring to convert. So I thought I should like to see how this conversion went on, and I hid myself behind a bookcase. But it is a profound secret; I tell it you in confidence.’

‘I don’t care to know it. Tell me about Vetranio.’

‘How ill-natured you are! Oh! I shall never forget how we laughed when I told Vetranio what I had seen. He took up his writing materials, and made the satire immediately. The next day all Rome heard of it. My uncle was speechless with rage! I believe he suspected me; but he gave up converting the Arian lady, and — ’

‘I ask you again — Is Vetranio rich?’

 

‘Half Sicily is his. He has immense estates in Africa, olive-grounds in Syria, and corn-fields in Gaul. I was present at an entertainment he gave at his villa in Sicily. He fitted up one of his vessels from the descriptions of the furnishing of Cleopatra’s galley, and made his slaves swim after us as attendant Tritons. Oh! it was magnificent!’

‘I should like to know him.’

‘You should see his cats! He has a perfect legion of them at his villa. Twelve slaves are employed to attend on them. He is mad about cats, and declares that the old Egyptians were right to worship them. He told me yesterday, that when his largest cat is dead he will canonise her, in spite of the Christians! And then he is so kind to his slaves! They are never whipped or punished, except when they neglect or disfigure themselves; for Vetranio will allow nothing that is ugly or dirty to come near him. You must visit his banqueting-hall in Rome. It is perfection!’

‘But why is he here?’

‘He has come to Ravenna, charged with some secret message from the Senate, and has presented a rare breed of chickens to that foolish — ’

‘Hush! you may be overheard!’

‘Well! — to that wise emperor of ours! Ah! the palace has been so pleasant since he has been here!’

At this instant the above dialogue — from the frivolity of which the universally-learned readers of modern times will, we fear, recoil with contempt — was interrupted by a movement on the part of its hero which showed that his occupation was at an end. With the elabourate deliberation of a man who disdains to exhibit himself as liable to be hurried by any mortal affair, Vetranio slowly folded up the vellum he had now filled with writing, and depositing it in his bosom, made a sign to a slave who happened to be then passing near him with a dish of fruit.

Having received his message, the slave retired to the entrance of the apartment, and beckoning to a man who stood outside the door, motioned him to approach Vetranio’s couch.

This individual immediately hurried across the room to the window where the elegant Roman awaited him. Not the slightest description of him is needed; for he belonged to a class with which moderns are as well acquainted as ancients — a class which has survived all changes of nations and manners — a class which came in with the first rich man in the world, and will only go out with the last. In a word, he was a parasite.

He enjoyed, however, one great superiority over his modern successors: in his day flattery was a profession — in ours it has sunk to a pursuit.

‘I shall leave Ravenna this evening,’ said Vetranio.

The parasite made three low bows and smiled ecstatically.

‘You will order my travelling equipage to be at the palace gates an hour before sunset.’

The parasite declared he should never forget the honour of the commission, and left the room.

The sprightly Camilla, who had overheard Vetranio’s command, jumped off her couch, as soon as the parasite’s back was turned, and running up to the senator, began to reproach him for the determination he had just formed.

‘Have you no compunction at leaving me to the dulness of this horrible palace, to satisfy your idle fancy for going to Rome,’ said she, pouting her pretty lip, and playing with a lock of the dark brown hair that clustered over Vetranio’s brow.

 

‘Has the senator Vetranio so little regard for his friends as to leave them to the mercy of the Goths?’ said another lady, advancing with a winning smile to Camilla’s side.

‘Ah, those Goths!’ exclaimed Vetranio, turning to the last speaker. ‘Tell me, Julia, is it not reported that the barbarians are really marching into Italy?’

‘Everybody has heard of it. The emperor is so discomposed by the rumour, that he has forbidden the very name of the Goths to be mentioned in his presence again.’

‘For my part,’ continued Vetranio, drawing Camilla towards him, and playfully tapping her little dimpled hand, ‘I am in anxious expectation of the Goths, for I have designed a statue of Minerva, for which I can find no model so fit as a woman of that troublesome nation. I am informed upon good authority, that their limbs are colossal, and their sense of propriety most obediently pliable under the discipline of the purse.’

‘If the Goths supply you with a model for anything,’ said a courtier who had joined the group while Vetranio was speaking, ‘it will be with a representation of the burning of your palace at Rome, which they will enable you to paint from the inexhaustible reservoir of your own wounds.’

The individual who uttered this last observation was remarkable among the brilliant circle around him by his excessive ugliness. Urged by his personal disadvantages, and the loss of all his property at the gaming-table, he had latterly personated a character, the accomplishments attached to which rescued him, by their disagreeable originality in that frivolous age, from oblivion or contempt. He was a Cynic philosopher.

His remark, however, produced no other effect on his hearers’ serenity than to excite their merriment. Vetranio laughed, Camilla laughed, Julia laughed. The idea of a troop of barbarians ever being able to burn a palace at Rome was too wildly ridiculous for any one’s gravity; and as the speech was repeated in other parts of the room, in spite of their dulness and lassitude the whole Court laughed.

‘I know not why I should be amused by that man’s nonsense,’ said Camilla, suddenly becoming grave at the very crisis of a most attractive smile, ‘when I am so melancholy at the thought of Vetranio’s departure. What will become of me when he is gone? Alas! who will be left in the palace to compose songs to my beauty and music for my lute? Who will paint me as Venus, and tell me stories about the ancient Egyptians and their cats? Who at the banquet will direct what dishes I am to choose, and what I am to reject? Who?’ — and poor little Camilla stopped suddenly in her enumeration of the pleasures she was about to lose, and seemed on the point of weeping as piteously as she had been laughing rapturously but the instant before.

Vetranio was touched — not by the compliment to his more intellectual powers, but by the admission of his convivial supremacy as a guide to the banquet, contained in the latter part of Camilla’s remonstrance. The sex were then, as now, culpably deficient in gastronomic enthusiasm. It was, therefore, a perfect triumph to have made a convert to the science of the youngest and loveliest of the ladies of the Court.

‘If she can gain leave of absence,’ said the gratified senator, ‘Camilla shall accompany me to Rome, and shall be present at the first celebration of my recent discovery of a Nightingale Sauce.’

Camilla was in ecstasies. She seized Vetranio’s cheeks between her rosy little fingers, kissed him as enthusiastically as a child kisses a new toy, and darted gaily off to prepare for her departure.

 

‘Vetranio would be better employed,’ sneered the Cynic, ‘in inventing new salves for future wounds than new sauces for future nightingales! His carcase will be carved by Gothic swords as a feast for the worms before his birds are spitted with Roman skewers as a feast for his guests! Is this a time for cutting statues and concocting sauces? Fie on the senators who abandon themselves to such pursuits as Vetranio’s!’

‘I have other designs,’ replied the object of all this moral indignation, looking with insulting indifference on the Cynic’s repulsive countenance, ‘which, from their immense importance to the world, must meet with universal approval. The labour that I have just achieved forms one of a series of three projects which I have for some time held in contemplation. The first is an analysis of the new priesthood; the second, a true personification, both by painting and sculpture, of Venus; the third, a discovery of what has been hitherto uninvented — a nightingale sauce. By the inscrutable wisdom of Fate, it has been so willed that the last of the objects I proposed to myself has been the first attained. The sauce is composed, and I have just concluded on this vellum the ode that is to introduce it at my table. The analysation will be my next labour. It will take the form of a treatise, in which, making the experience of past years the groundwork of prophecy for the future, I shall show the precise number of additional dissensions, controversies, and quarrels that will be required to enable the new priesthood to be themselves the destroyers of their own worship. I shall ascertain by an exact computation the year in which this destruction will be consummated; and I have by me as the materials for my work an historical summary of Christian schisms and disputes in Rome for the last hundred years. As for my second design, the personification of Venus, it is of appalling difficulty. It demands an investigation of the women of every nation under the sun; a comparison of the relative excellences and peculiarities of their several charms; and a combination of all that is loveliest in the infinite variety of their most prominent attractions, under one form. To forward the execution of this arduous project, my tenants at home and my slave-merchants abroad have orders to send to my villa in Sicily all women who are born most beautiful in the Empire, or can be brought most beautiful from the nations around. I will have them displayed before me, of every shade in complexion and of every peculiarity in form! At the fitting period I shall commence my investigations, undismayed by difficulty, and determined on success. Never yet has the true Venus been personified! Should I accomplish the task, how exquisite will be my triumph! My work will be the altar at which thousands will offer up the softest emotions of the heart. It will free the prisoned imagination of youth, and freshen the fading recollections on the memory of age!’

Vetranio paused. The Cynic was struck dumb with indignation. A solitary zealot for the Church, who happened to be by, frowned at the analysation. The ladies tittered at the personification. The gastronomists chuckled at the nightingale sauce; but for the first few minutes no one spoke. During this temporary embarrassment, Vetranio whispered a few words in Julia’s ear; and — just as the Cynic was sufficiently recovered to retort — accompanied by the lady, he quitted the room.

Never was popularity more unalloyed than Vetranio’s. Gifted with a disposition the pliability of which adapted itself to all emergencies, his generosity disarmed enemies, while his affability made friends. Munificent without assumption, successful without pride, he obliged with grace and shone with safety. People enjoyed his hospitality, for they knew that it was disinterested; and admired his acquirements, for they felt that they were unobtrusive. Sometimes (as in his dialogue with the Cynic) the whim of the moment, or the sting of a sarcasm, drew from him a hint at his station, or a display of his eccentricities; but, as he was always the first soon afterwards to lead the laugh at his own outbreak, his credit as a noble suffered nothing by his infirmity as a man. Gaily and attractively he moved in all grades of the society of his age, winning his social laurels in every rank, without making a rival to dispute their possession, or an enemy to detract from their value.

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