Read The Uncertain Hour Online

Authors: Jesse Browner

The Uncertain Hour

BOOK: The Uncertain Hour









Title Page


Author’s Note



A Note on the Author

By the same author


For Judy

“Death is plucking at your ear: ‘Get on and live,’ he says

‘I’m coming.’”


messengers and given his orders for supper, Petronius decided to go for a walk.

A low door led directly from his study to the kitchen garden. A boy was there, stooped over in the thin sunlight, cutting rosemary. A tiny brown puppy, tethered to the boy’s ankle by a string around its neck, sat quietly at his side, sniffing at a weed in the pathway. Petronius could not see the boy’s face; his hair was sandy, breeze-swept, flashing white and yellow as it caught the light. Unseen by the boy, a goldfinch alit on the path of crushed shells by his feet. It hopped onto the rim of his basket, looked within, cocked its head, and flew off into the orchard. The boy took up the basket and headed for the kitchen, leaning to the side to swipe a spray of mint as he passed. It was an elegant gesture, Petronius thought, and a wave of sadness swept through him and was gone, like the goldfinch. He stood in the shadow of the door frame and waited until the boy had returned indoors. Then he stepped into the thin sunlight.

He took one step, two steps, and stopped, stunned by a sudden, acute hypersensitivity. An ebbing breath of wind through the naked branches of the fruit trees; the varied calls of busy birds; the crunch of shells beneath his sandals; the crackle of a bonfire beyond the garden wall; the distant rumble of the surf and the nearer hiss of waves rising through the shale; the clatter of crockery and low murmuring from the kitchen. Smells—burning fennel, putrescent seaweed, thyme, brine, wood smoke, box resin. A million bright diamonds on the sea, a web of dancing shadows beneath the trees, one purple shard of nacre on the white path, a solitary dove on the spine of an outhouse roof. Momentarily overwhelmed, Petronius sternly took himself in hand. This would not do at all. He did not like to be angry with himself today, but he was perhaps a little disappointed by the banality of his body. Would it cling to the world today of all days, the hypocrite? Too little, too late. Now, of all times, was not the moment to give in to sentiment and nostalgia. A second-rate rhetorician in the marketplace was more imaginative than that. He stepped over a low border of samphire that separated the kitchen garden from the orchard.

In the springtime, the orchard was sewn with wildflowers—rock-rose, periwinkle, hyacinth, gillyflower—to provide early work for the bees, before the apple and pear blossomed. In the summer, the buzzing was all but loud enough to drown out the crash of the surf. Now the bees were asleep in their hives of woven fennel, and it was bare sand and the sighing of the wind. Petronius strolled abstractedly through the trees and stopped at the foot of the opobalsam, imported at great expense from Syria. Here, by the side of an ornamental canal, lined with smooth stones from the bed of the Savo and shaded by a pergola draped in oleander and viburnum, stood a small statue of Priapus, guardian of the orchard, carved of Megarian marble. The god held a willow sickle in one hand and his huge, erect penis in the other. He faced the back end of the orchard, where the baby Dionysus and his three nurses cavorted in an artificial grotto, above a cornucopia feeding water into the canal. Poor Priapus—condemned forever to observe, never to participate! Petronius gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat, then crossed over a miniature arched bridge and turned left, toward the sea.

The border of the orchard was guarded by a line of bearded herms overlooking a jujube hedge. Petronius passed through a gate in the hedge and emerged into the walled enclosure of the perfume garden, its beds trimmed back to the soil. Here, in warmer weather, his gardeners grew iris, cassia, fenugreek, marjoram, narcissus, spikenard, and styrax. None of it a patch on the balm of Gilead, as far as Petronius was concerned, but the homemade perfumes, bottled in crystal, made coveted gifts for his guests. In the opposite wall was another iron gate leading to a roofed colonnade, beyond which the cliff tumbled down to the beach. Here, Petronius paused. To his left, the colonnade led back to the house, where he had much business to attend to before dinner; to the right, it gave on to a small suite of rooms and a terrace overlooking the water, a place of jealously guarded solitude and contemplation. Petronius closed his eyes, sickened by his own weariness. Former consul, provincial governor, legion commander, he could not decide which way to turn.

A gardener was sweeping the walkway. “You. Salvius, is it?” The gardener stood to attention. “Tell Demetrius to meet me on the terrace.” The gardener bowed and hurried off to the house, and Petronius turned right. He felt better already.

He followed the colonnade to a half-moon terrace where the cliff top dwindled to a finger of rock pointing due west. There he waited, staring out to sea. To the north, the strand swept unbroken to Liternum; to the south, it curved outward to the promontory at Misenum, with the Bay of Naples beyond and Pithecusa perched on the horizon. The pleasure boats of Baiae seldom ventured along this unsheltered stretch of coast, and the sea was all but empty at this time of the afternoon, the Cumae fishing fleet already beached for the day. A lone trireme far out at sea, on exercises no doubt, was making for the Bay of Puteoli. At this distance, it seemed motionless. Petronius leaned against the balustrade. He thought of the men on board, the slaves, the rats, the fleas. Each fully expecting to go to sleep that night, to wake up tomorrow morning. Nothing strange in that at all. No one, not even a slave or a flea, could ever go to sleep without that credulous trust in the dawn. He cocked an eye to the sky. The few clouds hugging the coast—they, too, seemed motionless, undecided, at the outset of their journey across the wine-dark sea to Africa, as to whether it was a journey worth rousing themselves for. Down below, Petronius’s yacht lay moored against the wooden pier, the hollow clap of waves against its hull the loudest disturbance of a late autumn’s afternoon. His mind spontaneously gravitated to the full store of provisions and fresh water in its hold, and he shook his head to dispel the vision. Even had he been tempted to set sail, to flee and sacrifice his honor, he wouldn’t get very far. He was almost certainly being observed at this very moment. He closed his eyes again, breathed deeply, once, twice.

Underfoot, he felt a small pebble that had embedded itself in the leather sole of his sandal. He lifted his left foot and found not a pebble, but a square tile of black glass, no bigger than the nail of his little finger. It had evidently come loose from the mosaic border of intertwined vine leaves that encircled the terrace’s marble inlay. But where did it belong? Petronius felt himself, knew himself to be pathetic as he went down on one knee to search for the tiny gap in the border. At that instant, a thousand thoughts raced through his mind, as fleeting and as piercing as the reflections off the sea, contradictory thoughts, admonitory thoughts, he could feel them arise and dissipate like waves without once being able to grasp their substance. He found himself pondering the nature of these thoughts even as they pursued their course, and it occurred to him that they were perhaps the infinitesimal fabric of consciousness, just as the fabric of the physical universe is said to be made up of invisible atoms which, in a moment of distraction, suddenly seem to come into focus, dancing before one’s eyes. He wondered whether, if time were to slow to a fraction of its usual pace, one might examine these thoughts and find that each was a fully developed philosophy, sophisticated and coherent, on which an entire life might be structured. And if that were so, in an entire lifetime of such endlessly cascading thoughts, then the very one that he needed at this moment had already come to him, and he had carelessly discarded it. And so he continued to search for the minuscule hole in the mosaic into which this one tile would fit, though he knew he would not find it, even as footsteps sounded across the terrace.

“You sent for me, sir?” Demetrius stood at a respectful distance, tablets and stylus in hand. Petronius considered him a moment, opened his mouth to speak, then restrained himself.

“I want you to take a letter,” he said at last. Demetrius immediately opened his wooden writing frame and poised the stylus above the wax. “Why don’t you sit? This may take some time.” Petronius gestured to a nearby granite bench, but the secretary shook his head deferentially. Petronius cleared his throat.

“‘Titus Petronius Niger to Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Greetings.’” He paused. The trireme, while never visibly progressing, had rounded the cape and altered its course toward the port. The minutes seemed to be playing a trick on him, concealing themselves, then rushing forward to a new hiding place. Petronius felt the blood rush to his cheeks and turned away from Demetrius, dictating now to the waves.

“‘Sire, time is growing short and I have much to say, I who once called myself your friend …’ No; strike that, Demetrius. Let’s start over.” Petronius chided himself for starting this, of all letters, with a lie. Should he stand on his dignity? Was that the proper tone? After all, a copy of the letter might very well survive.

“‘Sire, the Senate and people of Rome …’ No, stop. That’s not it either.” He kicked the base of the balustrade in frustration. The problem was, he didn’t know what he wanted to say. He had been counting on inspiration, but he ought to have started drafting this letter years ago, he realized now. A man with his experience in warfare and civil administration should have been better prepared. What did he want to say? What could one hope to say? Oh, how could one think?

“Perhaps a bath, sir, to clear your mind?” Demetrius suggested demurely. Petronius stared at him, uncertain if he had been speaking aloud to himself or if the secretary had read his mind. Suddenly he grew hot.

“No, no, Demetrius,” he snapped. “This is no time for baths. Are you out of your mind?” He turned back to the sea.

The sun had cleared the cape in the southwest and was now more than halfway through its arc from apex to horizon. The trireme had rounded the cape and disappeared. Down on the beach, the yacht’s stern, barnacle-encrusted and glistening, had been grounded by the ebbing tide. How much longer until nightfall? It was impossible to tell how fast time was passing. All these journeys, measured by impossible, invisible increments. Where were the geometers, the clepsydras, the milestones when they were needed? Who can live this way? Who … ?

“‘Sire,’” he blurted, loud enough to startle a swallow from the eaves of the bathhouse. “‘My life’s journey is almost at its end, and I know not whereby it has brought me to this pass. A Roman understands his duty when he reaches this juncture, and you may rest assured I shall not fail in mine. Nonetheless, I will not descend into the valley without I turn for one last word with he whom …’ Damn it! Damn it! Go away, Demetrius. I’ll have my bath after all.”

Demetrius, in no way offended, backed off and turned away.

“Wait a moment,” Petronius said with the kind of abrupt modulation he had once used to inspire his troops on the morning of a battle. Demetrius stopped.

“I know tomorrow’s a holiday, Demetrius,” he said softly. “But I’d appreciate it if you would make yourself available throughout the night. I may need you late.”

“Sir.” Demetrius bowed and departed.

Now thoroughly irritated with himself, and in no mood to succumb to another fit of indecision, Petronius bounded briskly up the steps of his private suite and through a pair of bronze-paneled doors into the bedroom. It was here—or, in the heat of summer, on the lightly thatched porch outside—that he customarily took his afternoon nap, and it was here, at this citrus-wood desk, that he had sat writing several hours of every day for the past two years. The desk disgusted him now, a monument to misguided effort. A narrow vestibule led to the first of the bath chambers, from which there wafted a hint of lavender-scented steam. The slave Syrus, having stoked the boiler, stood in attendance at the doorway. At a nod from Petronius, he knelt at his master’s feet, removed his sandals, pulled his tunic over his head, and loosened his loincloth.

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