CHAPTER XXXIX 

Balthus Reports



I, BALTHUS, assert, the later unfolding of it will show you, that it was regrettable that the young priestess to whom Helen whispered her convenience for that dinner with S. Cornelius, was in the pay of, and perhaps in the profitable beds of Eros. That meant her information was relayed to Eros, thence as courtesy in the service of no good, Eros would tell Simon.  Such gossip becomes intelligence to be put towork. In relaying it, Eros would please Simon, that for Eros’, not Simon’s purposes.  These were reciprocal matters, for Simon would try use Eros.  I shall tell more of that unsavory business later, simply know that the device of the young priestess in the supposed service of discretion, turned out hardly that. Insofar as I had suggested the strategy, its failure was my fault. Once again, I was taught the Roman lesson; do nothing which assumes trust.


I arrived in the boss’s office before midday.  When I came in he was pacing.  The outer office was empty; he had sent the subordinate secretaries, attending slaves away.   He asked me, “What did she say, Balthus? What does she look like, is she as beautiful as I think?  Is she as noble as her role, her voice told me?  Is she as wise as were her words to me in the sanctuary?  Does she care for me as much as she did that day?  Is she grateful that I saved her from being identified as Apollo’s archer?  Does she appreciate how the palace will support for the temple rebuilding?  Does she intuit my feelings?  Is she going to be my guest?  Why didn’t she come sooner?  Will she really come?  I’ve got to know it all, and now. Get on with it, Man!  No, I mean “yes” but I apologize, I don’t mean to be brusque, but why take so long, tell me! Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not the tone to take, but, you know it already, I am an idiot”


I restrained my impulse to agree whole-heartedly.  I did say that all times are difficult when a man in love does not find it reciprocated. .  I did not add it might be even worse to love a woman with imagined qualities, ones which she had not nor would be capable of assuming, or might assume disingenuously.  Yes, Helen was beautiful, clever, confident, decisive, clearly well born and bred, and independent  As for such qualities, few of them were to my farmer’s taste. Any man’s encounter would likely be an unfair match.  As oracle, assuming on my own evidence she was that,  she would know a great deal about him, not us about her. On the other hand,  he had invented her.. Would the results of these fantasies be grounds for a satire by Juvenal, a mocking poem by Martial, a tragedy by Euripedes, or- throw them in bed, lusty and  drunk thus an account of sweaty frolic by Petronius.? Time and tears would tell. Who laughed last was what mattered.


Even were there to be harmonic vibrations between these two, I presumed nevertheless a failed outcome.   Helen was an intolerant woman,  and tough.  The Mule, however many he had killed in battle, was an otherwise gentle man, too unsure to be intolerant of anyone but wrongdoers. Even in good matches, disappointments are inevitable.  Were either of them up for these?  She would not tolerate flaws. He, overly sensitive, would have to flee. No woman is the perfect lock into which a man’s key fits, orgasm is one thing, but on the higher planes of mind there will be friction.  I myself, being less adventuresome and intolerant of self- inflicted pain, have chosen to abide the dull but reliable ease of an old marriage maintained over a great distance. I go my own way.

For active but brief, so the more tolerable, encounters, I roam the taverns, contribute to a tart’s purse, benefit from casual solicitations, or bed a friend’s wife. If that friend’s wife takes me, it will be because she is vengeful, lonely or bored. None of these are my concern. I do know such wives take such lovers as me for their private reasons, ones which will have little to do with my charm.  It is instead my availability and discretion, and some ability to entertain. The absence of a loathsome disease is also a consideration.  Such lovers as I of married women must have no delusions. We are their convenience,  All half- attractive men, of some equivalence demographically, all of our sort wandering loose near her at the propitious moment are fungible. A man bedded by a married woman, unless her husband is impotent, diseased, away, or exceedingly dull,  is to praise himself for nothing but the luck of being near-by when she fancy took her.  An experienced man appreciates, with a touch of sadness, how little importance his person is.  I have listed common reasons for her frivolousness, this catalogue of opportunities. It is not complete, for each woman may enjoy her own other causes for impulse, scheming, and I think the secondary entertainment of the sheer joy of the two backed, humping beast. No man can adequately conceive a woman’s range of reasons, lies to herself or the man, or truths, none of us will know.  The range of them is defined by how more or less convoluted is her mind.  You might as well ask how it was she bought cabbage instead of onions for dinner.


In bedding a friend’s wife, the three of us are made happy.  The husband will be the happier, for her cunning will see to his cozening.  These attentions provide a new covering on his bed, diverting from my own earlier presence there.  She will of course have fulfilled her purposes, but she will keep those smiles to herself.  Such inner smiles are the more lasting.   I will have enjoyed her at no immediate or little committing expense. Even so, another man’s wife bedded twice or more, requires protestations of love, for she will demand to be flattered.  If  she is at all embarrassed by doing what she fully intended, she will typically say she is taken with overpowering love, that the man’s fault while she is still inclined to the horizontal.  Love is blamed for her perfectly clear decisions. The swearing of it assuages any sense of indecorum which might trouble her. As for the falling in and falling out of it, she will always conclude that is the man’s fault, or some spell-binding witch a malicious neighbor woman has hired.  Since one does not know until one is in bed the weight of oaths and swearing as lies she requires, I counsel any man who truly values his breath and time, to keep his lies simple. I don’t follow my advice here, when I say that even though expensive, there are advantages to frequenting higher clasas brothels of the sort Eros keeps.  It frees a man from onerous burdens, including the worst which is losing control of outcomes or is purse.  A man’s vanity, should  he think otherwise, will multiply his sorrows. 


So here I am, listening to the Mule gone love-mad.  By contrast  my happiness is simple,  for it is constituted of my being rather pleased with myself.  The Mule, on the other hand, makes demands on the world that cannot be met, has, further I suspect, demands he cannot identify, and in the one he does know as love,  for the virtual woman Helen represents, he is doing it the hard way.  All of that could drive him beyond distress, to prayer.  In comparing satisfactions, I am at this, the Mule’s preoccupied momen, the more fortunate.  All in all mine is a good life, women enough, pay enough, rank enough, slaves at my call, palace rooms much above my earlier station.  Were I to be asked what I might I need pray for,  I have no serious answer. If asked what I might thank gods for, perhaps I would say that it is the fact they don’t exist. That relieves me of the need for superstition, none of its beseeching, ritual, pay to magicians, buying  gifts for the gods which, of course, end up in the hands of temple priests and priestesses.  So,  I thank the gods for their absence, but in amusing stories..  I want no part of being what Theophrastus wrote on the superstitious man:  foolish, or being the butt of ridicule..  No,  I am a sensible man, or try.


It is only as precaution that I keep polished the Baltic bog amber amulet around my neck,  the one with the insect in it, one my mother gave me long ago. It has proved its power.  I am alive, happy,  and as far as I can tell from looking in the mirror,  wear no horns. I have a good wife, and particularly good is that she lives away, sometimes in Germany with her sister’s family, rarely coming to  Rome.  She came here once, neither of us liked the result. I remind her from time to time that she does not like Syria. She agrees.  I do not think too hard on why she might agree so readily, it has occurred to me that I have perhaps too accommodating friends in Rome, but then, invisible horns put no weight on my head. A good and worldly man in Rome wants a happy wife and knows that jealousy is bad for several appetites.


As for the major source of my current dissatisfaction, it is with myself over that drunken episode in Daphne. I will forever regret I didn’t have the capacity to gut Eros on the spot, and make of his intestines, as Greeks do of sheep’s on a spit, nicely broiled souvlakie to serve to his unknowing children as dinner.  I also was unwise with Helen,  in my too liberal offering an honest opinion as to women’s place. Since she is my social superior, that place cannot help but be, in fact, well above me. If she gets on well with my boss, even worse, for she will have power to enforce inequalities.   Even so, I maintain I am quite right in my opinion,  I forgive myself. My faults are minor.  Today will  not a bad one as my  Daphne hangover eases.  I wear a clean tunic,  its medals shine, The girls take a look at me. I will go the baths and barber, have a good dinner tonight and then find some frolicsome wench as company. 


It is best to be honest with oneself, but by no means with others. I confess to paid for that Daphne caper, starting with those two well-titied, sweet nested, mist-born nymphs who, sadly mortal so not godly at all, proved to be Eros’ trade goods. I paid with humbled pride even though their gyrations were compliments of the house.  I hate getting so drunk I am humiliated. At those times I do not hear good sense. My ears are then the source of my problem. It could be worse, for example the Mule is all of himself tuned to morality’s bells. For most us us these ring are far away, but for him close and  loud, their din sets him all a-quiver. 


What can anyone say to the Mule, who is like every fool who’s been in love with a woman he doesn’t know.  Love for those you know too well is also its own problem. But with  a new girl, we create her with our imagination.  It is an art form known to most men. The paint is applied with a hot brush using smoke for pigment, a wish for a palette,  framed by inexperience, hung on the wall of desire, there guarded by fierce dogs of unadmitted stupidity.. Who buys it?  The fool himself.    When viewed by sensible friends, the painter is furious to be told his art is muddled, his mind not sound, his subject not simply misrepresented but, not uncommonly, belongs to someone else. If she’s an harlot who has tricked him, quite embarrassin, but if she is readily available but is the emperor’s wife, what then?  If the latter, intimate success and execution might visit the lover the same night.  With this as my wisdom,  what would I tell the Mule?  


There he waited,  pacing his office, impatient for my reply. I hesitated. Tell him that I have concluded inconclusively that Helen was Pythia, possibly whore, liar, legend, princess, and immortal and soon to be high priestess for Wisdom and, which ever of these is real, surely tough as brick? Drive him quite mad with jealousy by telling the Mule that Simon talked her into partnership, whether consort or no, time will tell, on the simple, practical ground that she would become rich,  star of his show,  and doing good deeds for women?  The Mule offers total love and sincerity.  Simon none of these.  What hope does a Mule have in honest wooing, when Simon gives her glitter as goddess before an audience perhaps of thousands eager to be defrauded? 


Shall I tell him that in associating in any way with Simon, whom our intelligence files show is a charlatan and thief, she is also unwisely impulsive?  She had been safe in sacred, guarded, celibate and  isolation as Pythia. That may have been her problem. Like a young mare breaking for her freedom after too long in the stable, she would gallop into wild country, careless of lions waiting. A mare in season for all I know.  I also judged her too full of herself. As for her insults, accurate or not, she was careless, for one is a fool to speak one’s mind, as opposed to one’s best interests, anywhere in Empire outside of family and true friends. I say she is a provocatrice, her kind of beauty, mind, rank having bred a daring vanity.  She may believe herself a sharp sword but swords are best complemented by shields. The sacred and august of Apollo’s,  Pythia’s sanctuary was a fortress of respect, whereas she is let loose in Daphne, thence Antioch where even good conduct is disbelived. 

 

It is my responsibility as the palace spymaster to contemplate the worst of her or anyone.   To begin with, take warning. Consider that she had known, used, my boss’s private name, “Mule” She had known something, I think not enough of Simon, but he had not had audience with the oracle and the vetting that I was sure preceded it.  On the other hand,  she might be informed by high sources. What if she were close to real power, not some fanciful Apollo but a serious patron in a position to have made that prestigious appointment to be Pythia? Who did appoint her?  Trajan? Who supported her?  Hadrian possibly, after all in his immense interest, she had prophesied his becoming imperator. What the oracle foresees sets courses, determine destinies, can guarantee itself, for a prophecy from Pythia is an influence on the course of history, not simply its forecast. 


With whom might she have slept? The Governor?  If so, she shared his agile equipment with Livia Drusilla.  Ironic if the Mule is doubly to be cuckolded by Publius Marcellus of so little other talent. Drusilla and now Helen, oh by the three faces of Hecate, the whim of the Dirae, those sweet ones, if that were so, S. Cornelius was woman-doomed.  Not a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, or was it? I remembered how the Drusus bust and that sense of a god-warning had been perturbing.  Bad family luck over generations, no harm in him, just the Fates, those sweet girls, the Direa, purveyors of souls to Dis-Pluto-the Devil, and Hades. Was Helen herself fore-ordained to be the instrument of his dark destiny? Or was she such a power as to ordain?  As with Paris and all of Troy, so here later in Syria where legend has it, Troy’s fate was sealed, now again, from Helen herself perhaps yet of Troy and, I note, of all in that war and adventure, only her surviving.  What might be made of that?


The Mule was agitated,   “Come, come Balthus, stop stewing, moving from one leg to another, by Jupiter, man, you’re sweating. What’s bothering you?  Don’t choose your words for my sake, and it had better not be for your own sake either, damn you, talk, answer my questions.!”


“Yes, Boss, I am trying to organize it all.  Be generally glad, although you will not be proud of me.  As my message told you, Pythia, Helen now, is safe.  Her word to you is that she will be your guest two evenings from now. “  I told him the details of place and time for the carriage and guard to get her. S. Cornelius lost some, not all semblance, of his best-known face; its somberness, dignity, brooding hardness, concentrating eyes.  He walked over to me, I was reporting to him as at military attention, a stiff stance before him as my commander.  “Oh let go, man, at ease, it’s magnificent news.  See to the transport, I’ll see to orders for the house, the meal, the garden.  Ah, it’s wonderful.  Now, Balthus, speak to my as the friend you are, what happened?  What do you think of her? Tell me everything, please, hurry, no, take your time, no both hurry and take your time.  Now here, sit down” he brought over a chair, near-pushed me into it  “Wine, Balthus old friend, do you want a cup of wine, something to eat, Here let me call a slave, no, a troop of slaves, this is a momentous time!”


I stopped him, told him I wanted nothing, and most certainly no slaves nor anyone else to hear us.  All my ponderings, weighing had been for naught.  There was no craft in me for it, but where I had worries, I replaced them in my speech with such phrases as “it came to mind that possibly….”, or  “good sense requires we think of the possibility that…” He waved it all away, kept pressing me for more, and so I did.: my drunkenness, Eros’ bribe attempt, my total humiliation.  He waved it all off, saying “Forget it, man” go on, more about Helen!” So it was he collected all my doubts, all her gossiped attributes, all of the reality of her which I had watched, and from some of which I had suffered; more of which had done the same to more deserving of her sharp tongue,  Simon.  Her rebuff hit him hard, I would say, close to his very vanity’s groin, which is often the place a man’s  vanity resides. Even so, I put it as that metaphor of the young mare loosed and wild,  I did not warn S. Cornelius that I did not rule out that she might have powerful lovers as her own intelligence sources. After all , she and such a source (or many of them), so very well placed in society, armies, temples or palaces would be exceedingly useful  to one another. It is a practical world. I ended on a gloomier note than I had planned,  


“And so, Boss, politically we must guard against Simon, for he can and would like to raise the rabble in the name of his brand of Christianity, nothing genuine or kind in it.  We must guard against Eros who has cunning, wealth, and ambition which, seeing in Simon the uses of religion, is likely to buy the Ignatius assembly’s bishopric should it be vacated.  Guard against me as well,  Boss, when drunk I’m useless and disgusting.   As for Helen, I have told you her legendary names, how little I know of her background, my fears for her once launched with Simon, my fear of her on your behalf. There is too so much unknown. I do not have her bona fides, cannot guess her intentions, and suspect her on general grounds..  I will be frank, Boss, I am her inferior and resentful.  I admire her, I fear her, and I suspect her, that’s the nub of it. And, however much you object, I have a duty to protect you.  With her on the loose in your heart, and wild perhaps hereabouts, her keeping the company she inclines too,   I can’t protect you. Boss, this woman’s arrows can fall anywhere. We have seen what they can do.  I fear for you, and my own inability to safeguard you. I am ashamed, Boss, of what I said and drank in Daphne, and now of what I can’t predict. What kind of intelligencer is that?  I am not used to being ashamed, Boss, I that part badly

 

S. Cornelius had been pacing.  He stopped.  He had been agitated.  He was now quiet. I had pleased then shocked him  Perhaps he was, in the face of my suspicion, confession, rallying himself,as when a battle turns against one, one’s legionnaires are pushed back in disarray, their formations faltering.  Now there was nothing Drusus quizzical in his face. Had he discovered something about me? I had. Mine had beena voice of shame, sans bravado..  I almost cried, for I was moved by a depth of affectionate respect, and the bitter awareness of my inferiority.  He had not yet disdained me, as he should have, only because he had not held me to his standards.  He spoke,


“Balthus, you are a good man. You worry too much. The gods willing, knowing Helen better will be my job, not yours.  I have also known humiliation, although in earlier years when there was and is no recovering from it. Drunk? Of course, any Roman has been that, but only the best are embarrassed if events turn awry. Relax my friend, love yourself.  I am grateful to you”


I was immensely grateful, but by no means at ease. In confessing, I had peeled away a layer or two of me and found, in that inner onion, good and bad, both in flavors too strong. A Roman, particularly a North German provincial raising himself by toughness, opportunity and lies, knows honesty is dangerous. Taking advantage of any weakness, will be one’s enemies real or potential. In Rome that can be  anyone.   I had spoken honestly to S. Cornelius without retribution. There was warm wonder in it.  My father would have beaten me,  my mother sent me to sleep in the woodshed, company for rats. Only brother Tuisito tolerated the truth of me. Tuisito and now S. Cornelius, both better natures, and both  likely to suffer for it. From the looks of him, S. Cornelius, this evening from nerves to joy to kindness,  had peeled a covering off himself as well.  The persons of him facing me in my crisis showed enough by way of being solid selves to serve us both this moment.  Future moments?  Who could say?.

 

S. Cornelius continued. “Balthus, your loyalty pleases me.. You owe me nothing but ordinary service yet you render concern, admissions, kindness.  I have been so full of myself that I have not seenthe world around me, of which world, you, clearly, are an important part.  Believe me when I say this, I do not have your clarity about myself. I am working toward it. In my life, I walk on the uncertain ice of a springtime melting pond. But you, Balthus, are, however you doubt it, a rock.  I will not lean on you, for that is against my nature, but insofar as a rock can talk, and you do, “he smiled as he said, “volubly” then went on,” I will listen. So, you warn me about not what is known of Helen, but what is her legend which you agree you have never heard her claim as true.  What if there once was another Helen?  It did not disqualify her for the most honored woman’s post in all this East.  It was there as Pythia, for I do know she was that, that she told me of my own calling and potentials. Her sculpting, Balthus, is already shaping me. I am certain of her goodness.  As for her playing to Sophia, she is a free woman and adventuresome. She has just lost her god and place.  Allow her to be not as sure as you experience her. New again to the world, I credit her with seeing what it is like. And mind you,Balthus, there is no shae in serving Sophia.”   


I have now, by offering, foretold one future for her, a goodly path for her footsteps to try. You tell me she will come, so she has heard me. In her Pythian sanctuary I heard her woman’s voice, not oracular.  There was need in it, Balthus. You shake your head..  You wonder if  I may have heard more than what was there? “  


“Yes,  Boss, think of me as kind of a Pandora box, not everything popping out is welcome.  Remember the Greek myth that Zeus created Pandora as the first woman, What followed was all evil was let out on the world, with only ‘hope’ counter balancing. Those old myths are true, men fear the power of women, suppress them. just as I keep my own good wife distant from me.  I can be overwhelmed by her. Perhaps that is why I worry about Helen, for some of her is legend, thus myth as well.  As Pythia she loosed far more value than Pandora ever. I suspect Helen stands in fear of no god at all, she is that strong. She will have her way.  We need to know where she would have that take her, or you.”


The Mule was solid now, no woman-quivering about him, “I respect your cautions.  I will listen for trouble even if my heart beats so loudly I have difficulty hearing.  In the meantime, I allow myself love and the hope of being a lover.  It is its application that I need, love’s daily expression. I have to be worthy of love returned, Yes, I will measure me by my ability to love,  not as I feel, but as I can do for others.  Helen, is first among these. 


I prayed a bit last night, Balthus, embarrassed because I was not sure of the nature of the god addressed, but even so, confident there is an high god who might listen. I prayed that I be allowed this extravagant gift, , which is a test of me as fit for Helen and humankind.


You know me,  by now better than anyone.  I am no Greek who loves ideas without substance. Ideals, yes, but worked in practice.  Plato’s shadows from a cave flicker too much for me.  This carpenter must saw real wood,  and it is beyond time I begin the work.   I thank you for reminding me of reality, but keep in mind that includes more unknown than known, and only some of it one day knowable. We may intuit the unknown, sometimes be blessed by it’s reaching out to us. I intuit her and am blessed. She expands me, Balthus, towards joy and worth. I must have these to extend them, first to her and then, one day, to others.”


I had no idea what he was talking about.  


He had the day’s  work to do. Papers on his desk demanded attention.  He rang the bell, which brought the slaves, and clerks back to their outer offices, the guards down the hall returned to their regular, closer posts.  On my way to my own office, as I reached the great door of his office, with its carved lintel supported by fluted faux Corinthian columns, he called, repeating himself,   


“Two afternoons from now, you be sure to have the coach there early, the best horses of course, driver and guards you know and trust.  I will dine with her alone. Apicius will beam. But I would appreciate it, Balthus, if you would stay on a bit after you deliver her, take some wine before dinner, help me ease into conversation, that sort of thing. I’ll give you the sign to leave. If you like, take my carriage back to the palace but be sure it returns quickly.e must get her safely back to Daphne. For both trips, I want an expanded bodyguard troop ready for that risk country road.  


SShe can stay over of course, You have seen my guest rooms, no shame there. Women slaves of course will serve her. If the appearance of propriety overrides convenience and likewise custom, of course we will see to her getting home, but at her age and mine, our stations, that is silly.  I doubt if she is yet known enough in our here-and-now to be gossiped about, as for me I am much too dull and asocial to be of any local interest.  If she does wish to go, I’ll send a slave to the palace stables to fetch the rig and that guard for which you will have arranged. I don’t know what gods, if any, you pray to, Balthus, but if you have such a god, I’d appreciate your whisper in his ear he help me make Helen’s evening happy. How could any god attend to such trivia? I have no idea, but I’m testing this god business.  Lunatic of course, but I have some hopes for it. Obviously I am a latecomer” 


I saod. “I’m not much for gods myself, Boss, but for I allow myself to  think about the idea of them.  In regards to the fair Helen, for instance, given what she insists as to the equal place of women, I’ll light a lamp and give a candied fruit to that goddess to whom I’ve newly been introduced, Sophia, of the Gnostic Christians. Helen is newly committed to being her stand-in, let’s see if Sophia returns the favor by giving the two of you a good time.”


S. Cornelius’ face turned sour. It was not Sophia about whom he was thinking, it was Simon Magus, impresario priest, and fraudster.  Well, we would see what sides Sophia took, Simon’s or S. Cornelius’. Helen stood to win either way.


The Mule didn’t come to his office the next day.  I suspected he was putting his house in welcoming order.  Fact is, he didn’t come in the day after either, but to send a messenger to say I was not to worry, that he was arranging things, hiring a special cook, buying flowers, seeing to new landscaping for portions of the garden to which he was adding a fishpond.   He’d see me the appointed evening along with, his wording was ever so discrete, “my other guest.” 

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