been drawn to the corner window of her apartment by the
purple dusk, a reminder of Africa. Her rooms were in a
quarter of the palace above the eastward slope of the
Quirinal hill. From her high corner she could see both her
garden and the street, two worlds separated by a wall: the
street full of corruption and corrupt people, dropping off
into the city’s slums; the garden a small paradise of
white statues and garlanded pillars, with a summer-house
beside a marble pond.
stood at the same window three years earlier, watching the
reflections of a blood-red sunset, when the news of
Attila’s invasion had been brought by her breathless
servants, crying Adriana! Adriana! and wondering
where they could hide. In that year, Huns had flowed like
lava through northern Italy, leaving the dead thick in the
streets, in the naves of churches, on the thresholds of
houses, in burned barns and dismembered villas. Gassy
corpses had lain under canopies of flies all over the
smoking countryside, and the yellow Italian farm-dogs had
grown so fond of human flesh that in time they had dared
to attack the surviving peasants as well as the dead.
Pope Leo and a plague, the city had escaped the calamity
that raged in the north. What new calamity could be taking
shape in the odd disasters of recent weeks? Could the pope
rescue the city a second time?
slipped up behind her so quietly that she froze when his
arms circled her waist.
tense," he murmured in his quiet baritone. "Are
you watching the nightfall, or something more
her head back on his shoulder, taking pleasure in the
soft, dry texture of his trim beard against her cheek.
staring into space and wishing tonight’s dinner were
dead and buried," she admitted.
friends are a burden to you?"
friends," she repeated skeptically, and sighed.
down there," she said, pointing at a heap of wreckage
in the valley. "Isn’t that the tenement that fell
yesterday for no apparent reason? Someone said thirty or
forty people died in the collapse. Flavia’s chief
concern has been that the dust-cloud greyed all the
flowers on her balconies and kept her from hanging her
parrots out for their airing."
never shown a great deal of compassion," Quintus said
more to it than that," Adriana said.
you imagining conspiracies again?" he chided her
gently, kissing her on the back of the neck.
she said simply. "I’ve known Faustinus too long not
to recognize his hand in mysterious disasters that foolish
people assign to the will of God."
think too much about politics," Quintus said.
"You’ll make yourself sick."
be much sicker when my brother-in-law eats the city alive,
beginning with my husband, because Your Generosity went on
innocently imagining that there’s room for both of you
at the emperor’s right hand. Please remember that the
Urban Prefect’s house is the first to be burned when
there’s civil unrest."
herself to relax. She wanted to please Quintus, not argue
with him. He was home late in the day, still wearing the
civil-service regalia of his high office. His eyes were
would you behave toward Faustinus?" he asked
with gentle condescension.
position with the emperor is shaky; yours is secure,"
she said. "I’d gather evidence of what he’s doing
to the city and expose him. Petronius Maximus is shallow
but not blind. Surely he must understand that there’s a
reason for what we see: mysterious crumblings of
aqueducts, crashes of state vehicles, riots of people whom
the State has done more than enough to pacify."
think Faustinus is responsible for that list of woes?
Where could he get the funds and the personnel? Flavia’s
rich, but not that rich."
yourself the name of Rome’s great enemy," Adriana
Geiseric an ally to Faustinus? Are you serious?"
Quintus smiled. "Dinner will be good for you. It’ll
take your mind off politics."
and framed Quintus’s square-jawed face with her hands.
The twilight gave his features an apostolic glow. At the
same time it exaggerated the yearning quality in his
wide-set hazel eyes and the pleading cast of his lips.
I’m sorry," she said quietly and earnestly. "I
know that dinners are the life of the court. It’s just
that I’d rather spend an eternity thinking about
politics than one hour in a roomful of gorgeous birds with
no more sense than you’d find in a bird-cage."
about Lady Sulpicia?" Quintus said hopefully.
"Intelligence must go with such a face, wouldn’t
an owl," Adriana smiled, "a brainless bird with
a philosophical expression."
her cheek against his. "Pardon my martyrdom. It
isn’t only the dinner. Flavia has threatened to visit
me, after the others have mercifully vanished into the
her to go home," Quintus said. "She has a home
of her own."
know I can’t. The hypocrisy is the worst of these
affairs, and the worst of it is my hypocrisy toward my
pain, she noticed, behind the good-nature of Quintus’s
wideset eyes. Instinctively she knew that her complaint
was not the cause of it. Perhaps it had to do with the
demands of the Urban Prefecture; perhaps there was a less
respectable reason. She wished she could take away the
source of irritation, but by experience she knew better
than to try. A large part of Quintus’s life was still a
locked room, containing his darkest secrets. She had
agreed with herself to leave it locked, so long as the
contents offered no threat to their life together.
do you think of my new German maid?" she asked,
picking an inoffensive subject.
not bright, poor thing," he answered, with an
emphasis that seemed unnecessary. "She’s
small-brained and peaceable, like a pigeon."
she’s a willing worker, and her gold hair ornaments my
entourage, don’t you think?"
suppose so. I’m sure she’ll do well, if she can keep
from getting pregnant by the stableboys. I have to get out
of these clothes."
have to put on my beads and paint, like a Nubian
warrior," Adriana sighed, "because my husband
has a career and thinks my suffering is good for it."
won’t last forever," Quintus said. "Try to be
smile and smile, until my jaw is dislocated."
He left the
room. Is something wrong? The words welled up in
her, and stopped at the tip of her tongue. Quintus had
been odd for more than a week. The stiff, condescending
cheerfulness was that of a physician without knowledge or
a priest without faith. In Quintus it always suggested
anxiety or a bad conscience. Politics were doubtless the
turned to the window again. The sun had set; lamps shone
pale in the mansions on the Viminal hill. A chill breeze
stirred up dust in the street. In the garden, a pair of
nightingales were singing in a laurel grove. The silver
sound reminded Adriana of the fragility of her world, and
the struggle she faced to preserve it.
gathering darkness, Rome lay quaking, dreading the future,
anxious for the present, dreaming of the Apocalypse. The
poor, on the city’s squalid flats, survived just long
enough to pass the disease of life to another generation.
The rich on the surrounding hills lived behind fortified
walls. For years the great families of Rome had kept
virtual private legions in their houses, arming all the
slaves who could be trusted, and posting guards on the
roofs and walls, day and night. They had bricked up their
lower windows. Packs of dogs were kept in their
vestibules. The more vulnerable gardens were torchlit at
night. Nevertheless, thieves regularly penetrated the
defenses, taking the guards by subterfuge. Porters were
occasionally found dead in their lodges beside their dead
dogs, their throats cut by the same practiced hand.
Italy, wolves howled on the outskirts of half-ruined
villages, and starving serf-children whimpered in their
sleep. Beyond the last of the decaying villages and farms,
Germans gathered on the shrunken borders of the empire:
huge, superstitious, dangerous children who drank curdled
milk and ate mice, and had no fear of swords and javelins.
And beyond the hordes of Germans, pressing against them,
were the Huns. Meanwhile, the court distracted itself
expensively, with palaces too impressive to be
comfortable, meals too extravagant to be tasty, fashions
that gave neither warmth nor comfort, and the stately
artificialities of aristocratic society that had no power
the city by Quintus’s affairs of state, Adriana had once
again missed seeing the spring in the Tiber countryside.
She shut her eyes and imagined herself at her bedroom
window in the villa at Nomentum, still an island of peace
in her life. In her mind she tried to recreate the
May-smells of clematis and broom drifting in from the
rolling hills, the song of nightingales on the wooded
heights, the twinkle of fireflies in the ripening fields.
She thought of peasant girls singing like thrushes at
their open windows, and of the smell of honeycakes and
wine in the kitchen, and the hyacinths rioting in her
rustic garden, a sea of blue. . . .
There was a
timid knock at the door; Adriana’s maids had come to
torture her into the shape of high fashion. It was time to
suffer. There would be an end to the damnable dinner,
however, and an end to the season. As soon as she could
detach herself from the numbing rituals of the court, she
would pack her robes in lavender, lock up her jewels, and
head for the farm, where she would drink too much and
sleep until midday, and sit in the doorway and spin, if
she felt like it; and climb the highest hill in the
neighborhood, and lie on a flat rock with nothing but
olive boughs and pine branches between herself and heaven.
She would dress all day like a serf-woman, in a coarse
tunic and sandals, and perhaps in her rough and dusty rags
she would call on the household of Senator Virius so she
could see Lady Petasia’s eyebrows rise.
survived the banquet with an indecent amount of energy. As
always, she was stunning in festive dress, soft green silk
worked with threads of gold. Adriana’s reception chamber
could have been created to display her; the golden tint of
the walls seemed to emanate from Flavia on her couch at
the center of the room.
toward Adriana, grasping the table between them with a
small white hand.
seem tired," Flavia said, with every evidence of
dinner was dreadful."
I hope Faustinus and I had nothing to do with its
dreadfulness. The food was wonderful. I must say your
servants seemed a little dizzy. Faustinus asked one for a
bowl of water and the dear boy brought a
must be amazed by my guests," Adriana said wearily.
"Do they know the nature of the world they live in?
The German wolf is at the door; my guests go on eating
their truffled chicken and abusing the pope and bringing
up another amphora of Chios wine. The world is dying and
the people call for a circus."
yawned. "Lord, Adriana! You sound like a meeting of
the Senate. Why bother yourself about troubles you’re in
no position to correct?"
does one cancel a thought?" Adriana asked. "We
hear, and we comment. Something’s in the wind. The
emperor was in distress today, I’m told. He was purple
with wine and complaining that he lives under the sword of
Damocles. Old Salvia, my head-maid, prophesied this
morning. She said that when green and blue are tangled
together at the races, the Vandals will take the city. I
wonder where she got the idea of a German invasion."
face was a study in neutrality, absolutely controlled,
she smiled archly. "A throw of dice would cool your
fevered brain. Why don’t you bring in one of your
gorgeous stable-boys and have him kneel down between us as
shook a tiny handbell. Salvia appeared, moving her lips
dice, Salvia," Adriana ordered.
head-maid shuffled off, muttering about the worthlessness
of worldly labor, and that there would be no dice in
heaven. In a moment she returned with dice on a gold
plate, set them on the table, and shambled away.
you should get rid of her, Adriana," Flavia drawled.
"I yield to no one in my admiration for Salvia’s
historic perfections, but I wonder whether at her age she
can have any value apart from her charming white hair, and
her charming, charming mannerisms."
me to repeat myself," Adriana said. "She runs
the apartment well. My sheets smell of lavender. My maids
are well-drilled. She doesn’t gossip."
let’s not fight," Flavia said virtuously, drawing a
small, heavy purse from the folds of her clothing and
laying it on the table. She picked up the dice-box.
"A short life and a merry, eh? Highest of five takes
it? A solidus to start?"
Adriana said, laying a gold piece in front of her.
leaned forward and pitched the three dice out over the
damn it, first throw," she hissed at the pair of
spots that rolled up with a four.
final throw, Adriana turned up fives and a six, with an
elegant flick of the wrist.
and Fortune!" Flavia whispered coldly, sliding her
gold piece across the table.
a little wine would help," Adriana chided gently.
swallowed half her goblet. There was a dangerous look in
her eyes; the loss had made her quarrelsome. Adriana
foraged her mind for neutral subjects, but Flavia seized
the conversational initiative.
cornered the other day by Montius’s daughter
Carina," she drawled. "Such a pretty little
dullard: no more sense than a hummingbird. She’s married
a handsome boy from Gaul, and he’s never to be seen, and
she worries about that, and wanted to know if I believe in
the eternity of Love."
sure I can’t imagine what you told her," Adriana
said, sensing the approach of an unpleasant subject.
told her," Flavia announced, "that in my opinion
marriage is to love as law is to justice. There’s not
the slightest connection. I told her that three months
after Faustinus had married me, I bored him as thoroughly
as if I’d been a dancing-girl with the brain of a
squirrel. I said that Faustinus and I provide each other
with a social presence, a list of connections, and more
money than we’d enjoy separately; that I haven’t yet
discovered the limits of his selfishness, which is so
instinctive that he can hardly be blamed for it; and that
I’m glad I never loved him, because if I had, he would
have crushed my heart."
folds of her gown Flavia produced a little hand-mirror,
and examined her face. On a recent horrid occasion, one
eyebrow had been higher than the other.
dread growing old," Flavia said with tipsy
abruptness. "All that dismal business of grey-and-yellow
teeth, and a chin like a pelican’s, and black specks in
the pores of one’s nose. Surely you’ve given some
thought of your own to the prospect, dear? Not that the
matter is of much concern to our loved ones. Why be
sentimental? Our husbands wish us to look well because we
represent them, but there’s no point in pretending that
they care about us."
seemed to have recovered her spirits after the early loss.
She took a ring from her finger, a large blood-ruby in
it if you can," she said archly, sliding the ring
onto the table. "What can you lay? I’ll accept that
hideous sapphire you’re so fond of. If it falls into my
hands I’ll certainly have it reset. Best of five
Adriana said, laying the sapphire ring in front of her.
me strip you," Flavia exulted.
rattled in their box and fell lightly on the marble table.
They seemed to be conspiring together in brittle
The gods have blasted my luck," Flavia whispered, and
a drop of sweat appeared on her upper lip.
of dice, small curses, and little exclamations of triumph
and despair went on monotonously. At the final throw
Flavia’s hand shook, and she watched Adriana’s face
like a lynx.
and a six. Kiss Fortune goodbye, dear!" she exclaimed
as the dice turned up, her lashes flicking rapidly over
her eager eyes.
threw paired sixes and a four. Flavia brought her fist
down on the table with a curse, lifted her goblet to her
lips, and drained it, splashing her cheeks.
do you think of Senator Apion, dear?" she asked,
wiping her face on her sleeve. The subject of Flavia’s
weekly adultery had surfaced at last, transparently a ploy
to conceal her rage at the loss of the ruby ring.
shrugged. "He has a pleasant face, for a Greek, and a
decent figure, for a bureaucrat."
that the limit of your charity?"
me see. I suppose there’s some truth in what Lady
Tulliana always says, that men from Constantinople make
other men seem provincial. Marcus Apion certainly does
that. He speaks fashionably; he arranges his hair
fashionably. He has a good eye for boys and women, and
makes love to both impartially. What more is there to
daresay I know him better than you," Flavia snorted
daresay you do," Adriana agreed, "beginning, as
always, with the externals."
offered the jibe lightly and without malice, but at once
she knew she had pushed Flavia too far. Her sister’s
eyes flashed fire.
rather deal with frank externals than a sham of
virtue," Flavia hissed.
unexpectedly, the way Adriana imagined a mosquito might
smile, landing on the nose of a sleeper. Adriana was
certain that mosquitoes had green eyes, the exact shade of
of sham virtue," Flavia drawled with languid malice,
"and in the context of this game of pure chance:
I’ve always wondered if you knew that when Quintus took
you for his own, the court used to make bets on the two of
you? Valentinian and Aetius had a hundred gold solidi on
it. That was long before they killed each other off, of
course. I believe Aetius put his money on Quintus merely
as a matter of courtesy, because everyone knew what would
would happen, Flavia?" Adriana asked, irritated and
do you pretend naïveté, dear? I can’t decide whether
you’re completely cynical or a little childish. I
suppose there’d be no threat if your husband were old as
the Capitol and ugly as Priapus, but he’s young and
handsome, and you seem to be in love with him. That’s a
difficult position to be in at Rome, as I’m sure you
makes you indiscreet," Adriana said. "Let’s
hear the subject of the wager."
The obvious! Which of you, Quintus or yourself, would be
first to defile the marriage bed."
spoke softly, her voice shaking with anger.
cuckoo is a fool to lay her eggs in another bird’s
nest," she said, watching Flavia’s face.
one must accept the cuckoo as she is," Flavia said
with triumphant malice. "Only a greater fool would
try to improve her character. Surely I’m not breaching
the limits of my own business by suggesting that Quintus
is male. Most men—no, all men—are the same. The
desire for forbidden fruit is in them, like the fly in a
horse’s ear. Certain defects are part of
by no means peculiar to men, Flavia."
calm," Flavia said with a little chuckle. "I
like to provoke you because you have such . . . ideals.
But don’t you think it’s unreasonable to expect that
one’s husband will be one’s lover forever? Oh, it’s
natural that when you first married Quintus he was your
god, your idol, your universe. But at some point you must
have realized you were giving him the uncomfortable
sensation that he’d never be able to get away from
night, Flavia," Adriana said coldly, rising.
back obstinately on her couch, not to be hurried. She
laughed the easy, tinkling laugh that charmed even her
victims, the sound of water running over pebbles in a
sorry to have offended your simple goodness," she
said placidly. "No, dearest, marriage is a cage. The
male bird is always trying to get out, and the female bird
is always checking the wires and trying to convince him
that nothing could be more delightful than the perch where
the two of them sit side by side until they’re
grateful for your concern," Adriana said coldly.
concerned for your dignity most of all," Flavia said
with a dangerous look in her eye.
not in any man’s power, or in your power, Flavia, to
injure that," Adriana said, her thoughts whirling
with the drunken flow of her sister’s thought, the logic
laughed again and rose. She clapped her little white hands
for her attending eunuch, and let the flabby monster wrap
her in her mantle. With the usual cruel perfection of her
timing, she delivered her parting remarks over her
shoulder as she turned to leave.
have one canary in that nest of crows you maintain,
Adriana. Keep an eye on her."
new German maid," Adriana said woodenly, with a flash
course. The perfect gift to one’s husband. . . ."
enough!" Adriana snapped, and the room was filled
with the silence anticipating a storm.
should examine all your maids," Flavia
persisted, "but don’t do it your way, with
all the subtlety of a Hun. Go in the opposite direction,
so to speak, as if you were stalking a deer."
darling," Flavia said sweetly, taking Adriana by the
shoulders and pursing her lips.
turned to let the kiss fall on her cheek. She stood by her
closed door and listened to the patter of Flavia’s
fashionable boots in the marble corridor. Then she picked
up the ring she had won, and went to a streetside window.
The moon was full. For a moment she imagined herself
watching her apple trees sleep in the silver light at
beggar crouched in the street under the palace wall,
dozing in the glow of his smudgepot. Adriana knew him, and
had expected to see him there. He was crippled, a father,
extremely religious. She tossed her winnings, coin by
coin, so they landed within a few feet of the hunched
form, and after them she threw Flavia’s blood-ruby ring.
The boy struggled to his feet and bowed his gratitude. She
nodded and closed the shutter.
quarter-hour she wandered aimlessly through her rooms. Her
thoughts seemed like noise in the wooden silence of the
house. Over the years she had been made aware of the
darkest of Quintus’s secrets, a fondness for low girls,
but it had never occurred to her that he would be
shameless enough to satisfy his appetite at the expense of
a cloak over her shoulders and slipped down a private
staircase into the palace garden and the cool comfort of
the May night. The hour was too late for serious danger;
the city’s burglars were in their narrow beds. By habit
she walked to the summer-house where she had made love
with Quintus many times.
sharp pain she thought of that ecstasy, and sat down on a
marble step. The fragrance of early-summer flowers drifted
down the silent walkways. Beyond the cypresses along the
garden wall, the night sky twinkled reassuringly.
must be some place for warmth in this cold world, she
thought, and watched the fireflies dance around a
moss-grown statue of Hercules. She put her head down on
her knees and fell into a waking dream, unable to focus
her thoughts, but far from sleep.
twilight between wakefulness and sleep, she was a child
again, taking for granted that the joy of living would
never end. Life was an infinite succession of golden
mornings on the green hills of Nomentum, followed by an
eternal hot afternoon in her mother’s garden, ripe with
the smell of warm flowers. In the landscape of her mind
she lived again the freedom of swimming in the Tiber and
hawking in the open meadows, the foggy comfort of the
baths, the songs to be sung by lamplight, feasts to be
eaten, the great church festivals, long walks under the
stars, and all the hopes and hungers of the brief Maytime
between childhood and marriage.
To the edge
of womanhood she was a wild girl. Vainly the adults in her
life urged her to move with gravity, blush often, lower
her eyes in the presence of men, and cultivate the
whiteness of her hands, all the habits that Flavia had not
needed to be taught. But even at fourteen, past the time
when her breasts had become inconveniently large, she rode
her own horse bareback and ran half-naked through the
fields at the heels of an old grey dog.
her governess would cry in desperation, "are we
hounds, or are we ladies?"
she recited odes, played the lyre, danced like a Greek,
and invoked Diana in respectable verse of her own, but she
had no desire to be a domina, the mistress of a
household. Womanhood came to her unsought. To her mild
surprise she discovered one day, in front of her
mother’s long mirror, that she was handsome, more with
the bold good looks of the South than the pale elegance of
the emperor’s court. Her eyes and hair were dark; her
rose-tan skin was smooth and lustrous, her teeth white and
strong. She spoke, and watched her face move. The brows
and lips were full of life. She smiled, and was pleased to
see that her smile was enchanting.
away from the mirror and forgot what she had seen. Part of
her beauty was her unconsciousness of it. When she rushed
into the house on a summer day, her face flushed with
exertion, her white teeth flashing in a hospitable smile,
her grandfather’s guests became silent and respectful,
and sometimes cleared their throats and passed their hands
over their eyes.
In the year
when her life changed, her lessons became difficult. She
felt unnecessarily large sometimes, when she wandered
barefoot and a little drunk through the fields. She sighed
over her wax tablets and chewed all her styluses to
shreds. She shed tears over spring violets, and wrote
weepy letters to the moon. At times unexpectedly her whole
body would blossom with pleasure the color of fire, and
sometimes if she touched herself with an intimate hand,
the pleasure would turn to a delicious yearning that
seemed to radiate outward from the pit of her belly to the
surface of her skin.
first time in her life, she talked too much.
ah!" her governess sighed. "She used to climb
trees like a woodpecker, but now she’s a cuckoo, all
voice and feathers."
to notice peasant boys, like damaged statues, with fine
biceps and pretty eyes, and broken teeth, and necks so
dirty that one might plant mustard-seed on them with some
hope of a crop. But her hunger was still formless. She was
not sure that she envied Flavia, who managed to live out
most of her carnal ambitions with the sons of Senator
Calvus, in the swamp meadows by the Tiber. Although
Flavia’s lips spoke of the glow, her eyes communicated
the affectionless emptiness that followed the glow. I’ll
wait and keep my eyes open, Adriana decided, and
when the man comes to whom I’ll give myself, I’ll know
how to make him my own.
fifteenth year, he came. On a warm hunting-weekend in
April, when the estate house was full of guests, a serf
dog chased Adriana’s pet kitten up a chestnut tree that
towered above her grandfather’s ball-court. The
frightened animal crouched on a roof overlooking the
court, mewing like a black-and-white bird. Adriana climbed
the tree to the roof, scraping her wrists and her young
breasts against the spiral ridges of bark.
dismay and fascination, the court was full of young men,
naked and noisy. Adriana forgot the cat.
impulse that she hardly understood, she crouched in a
shadowed groin of the red-tiled roof, and peeked down into
the forbidden area. Seven young men, two lines of three
and one in the middle, played harpastum in the
bright sun. There was a frantic slapping of open palms
against the hollow ball. Boys dozed on the sand. Others
squirted wine into their mouths and scattered the empty
wineskins, cheered from the marble benches in the
courtside shade, swore dangerous oaths by Juno and
Minerva, and drank toasts to every letter in the name of
Romula, an inexhaustible old prostitute of the Subura.
mild-eyed Quintus Jovinus, whom Adriana had liked as a
child, was the young man in the middle of the ball game.
He jumped high to intercept passes between the opposing
lines. The exact contours of his body were etched so
clearly on her mind that she knew the impression would
last forever, even if she never saw him naked again. The
other young men faded into the sand. Adriana had eyes only
for Quintus, for the snaking of muscle in his legs and
long torso as he arched through the air like a cat leaping
at a butterfly.
herself away, knowing that she would be punished severely
if she were caught spying from the roof. She detached her
pet from its perch and dropped it gently to the ground.
Climbing down herself, she was strangely and pleasantly
moved at the pit of her stomach.
she pressed her face against her lavender-scented pillow
and gave herself to the fragrant remembrance of the
afternoon. She touched herself intimately. Bliss, like a
warm wave, rolled over her. She pressed her hands against
her breasts and belly, imagining that they were
Quintus’s hands. In ecstasy she fell asleep, and dreamed
that a handsome boy with strong fingers rubbed oil into
her limbs from a silver bowl.
month her grandfather called her into his study, where he
ruled the villa from among his scrolls and statues.
old are you, Adriana?" he asked, having begun to
two days past the Ides of January."
the Virgin, it’s time for marriage," her
grandfather said. "Women are like peaches; they must
not stay long on the branch. You’re older than I
thought. I would’ve paid more attention, I suppose, if
you were more like Flavia, with all her colors and smells
and the rubbish she hangs on herself like a Nubian going
to war. But I must say you’re good to look at, however
much you may ride and spit like a boy. Certainly you’ll
bring fine children into the world, and suckle them on
The old man
stared at her, grinding his teeth as if he were containing
Jovinus wishes to marry you," he said severely at
heart leaped like a dog in a trap, and her wind caught in
recovered herself and answered prettily, with her pulse
drumming in her ears: "Ah. Me? But that’s hard to
believe. I’m brown and ugly."
beautiful as a goddess," her grandfather said,
"or rather, I should say, beautiful as the
is black, but it’s worth gold. The night is dark, but it
wears the moon and the stars."
liturgical drone her grandfather reviewed Quintus
Jovinus’s credentials: great-grandson of the military
dictator Stilicho on his mother’s side; an ancient
senatorial pedigree on his father’s; descendant of
Theodosius the Great’s favorite niece; from a family
that was popular with the rabble, not at all repulsive to
the military, rather cozy with the Senate.
scarcely heard him. Her heart seemed to be in the grip of
a warm hand; she thought of Quintus in the ball-court, and
rejoiced that she would at last press her cheek to his
chest, and touch him intimately, and hear the deep sounds
of pleasure that would build to the hard-breathing frenzy
that Flavia spoke of, quicker than she would prefer.
Flavia said that men were always in haste.
wooed her gently, coming to call with his parents, making
sure that he was acceptable before he authorized his
father to press his suit. Courier-boys brought presents: a
gold bangle, a tortoise-shell ornament set with pearls.
Adriana hid the trinkets in her bedroom, in her little
shrine with its statue of the Virgin. At night she took
them out by moonlight and held them in her hands in the
soft glow, and kissed them.
married at the end of June, Juno’s month, the month of
roses, carnations, and lavender. Her grandfather
suppressed his Christian scruples and consulted both a
Persian astrologer and an old pagan haruspex to be
sure that the stars and the omens were favorable to the
arranged to be slightly drunk all during the noisy
festivities. She remembered everything past the ceremonial
handclasp as a blur of color and light. The notary wept;
the bishop intoned blessings. At some unremembered point,
the celebration migrated to Quintus’s hereditary villa
on the Tiber, where bonfires blazed along the shore, and
barges lying at anchor glowed with colored lamplight.
Slaves praised the wine and fell into the river. Senators
danced to castanets; the bishop tootled the flute. The
great house was submerged in roses. The bride vaguely
remembered gliding down a carpet that unrolled like a
floral highway toward the summer-house in the villa
garden. There she lay like a temple deity on a
sigma-shaped sofa, and Quintus sang worshipfully to her in
his mild baritone, striking the nine-stringed lyre
himself, while the moon rose outside in a blue-green sky,
and the river-breeze sighed in the chamber’s scarlet
day’s festivities were at an end, Quintus swept her away
in defiance of convention. His family’s smallest villa
had been readied for the post-nuptial week, a simple place
on the island of Ischia, open to the sun. During the dry,
clear days the newlyweds gathered wildflowers on the
island heights, and splashed in the surf. At dusk they
chased fireflies in golden fields at the water’s edge.
Once, in a scarlet haze, they climbed to the highest peak
on the island, and watched the gold of the evening sea
turn purple, and violet, and black slashed with starlight.
the fountains in the villa garden seemed to murmur
"Come to bed." A young male slave, trembling
with reverence and curiosity, drew aside the rose-colored
couch-veil in the bride’s perfumed chamber and
reluctantly bowed himself away. Soothed by the distant
roll of the sea against the cliffs along the shore, the
couple drank spiced wine from a silver bowl and made much
drowsy love, and slept long in the soft white bed, which
was huge by any reasonable standard.
before, from the roof by the ball court, Adriana had seen
that secret member of Quintus’s which well-bred women
were expected not to discuss. On their first night
together she was intrigued and a little alarmed by its
sudden size and strength. His hands were strong under her
shoulders, and his breath came quickly against her ear. He
pressed into her, and discharged himself with a choked
little cry. His hair was damp; he breathed deeply, like a
runner at rest.
thanks," he murmured, kissing her gently on the
forehead, and she came near to protesting that she did not
need thanks, that she had enjoyed it quite as much as he.
she became the matron, the domina, that her birth
and breeding required her to be. The vividness of her
wedding journey, a whirl of gorgeous colors and scents,
faded quickly into a grey routine: the management of a
vast household, the entertainment of Quintus’s guests,
the grave recreations of a woman of substance.
morning but the Sabbath, she reviewed household accounts,
disciplined the servants with firm justice, and
coordinated the stewards who kept the palace functioning
like a small city within the City. In the afternoons she
set her face in an expression of dignified enthusiasm, and
presented herself at weddings, funerals, barge parties on
the Tiber, dinners in the mansions on the Aventine and
Caelian hills, dinners in the Palace of the Caesars,
dinners until she would have preferred a bread-and-water
exile to Sardinia.
excellent family connections served him well at court. At
nineteen he had been merely a boy-man with a recent
education and a new wife. At twenty-one he was
Superintendent of the Imperial Foresters, at twenty-five
Count of the Private Domains, at twenty-nine Prefect of
the City of Rome, and a chronic annoyance to his chief
competitor for honor and power, Gaius Faustinus.
confident of herself in the glittering and treacherous
life of the court, Adriana had nevertheless felt, at
first, like a dove mingling with peacocks: astonished,
dazzled, disgusted. Her good sense had preserved her from
both vanity and deception. Early she had understood that
everyone wanted to use her in one way or another, and she
learned to negotiate the snares of the professional
manipulators surrounding the emperor.
herself with an unpretentious frankness that both her
admirers and her detractors noticed. Her admirers called
it dignity; her detractors called it arrogance. By habit
she took the shortest distance between two points, calmly
and deliberately, as an empress might pass between rows of
prostrate courtiers. She smiled often, a brilliant smile.
It came from the eyes as well as the lips. Her generous
disposition won her friends and enemies, according to the
smallness or largeness of their spirits. She felt no need
to prove her excellence; when she walked into a room, all
competition collapsed. Other women of the court were as
beautiful as she, but with the beauty of poisonous plants.
Their smiles were offers to sell. Adriana’s smile was a
gift. Decent people understood the difference, and
responded generously. Other people did not matter.
defense, as Flavia had once said in grudging admiration,
was her kindness toward all things, living and dead. She
threw crumbs to the sparrows in her garden, though she
liked them very little. She brought choice cuts of meat to
the porter’s dog, and ordered full meals for the gaunt
nuns who came to collect alms at awkward hours of the day.
She gave coins to the old women and children who sold
vegetables in the street. She spoke gently to her plants
and statues. Once a day, when no one was looking, she
bowed to a fine old bust of Quintus’s great-grandfather,
as a gesture of respect to her husband’s family.
devotion to Quintus was absolute. "How strange it
is," the court ladies said, "that Marcella
Adriana is content with no one but her husband. The whole
city would be a box of toys for her if she wanted to
richest moments of her life were those after sundown when,
in Quintus’s dark bedroom, she lay with her head on his
chest and told him all about the day with the warm
confidence of a child: the house-slave who had broken
three brooms in one morning; the sad and penniless old
senator who had come too late to present himself as a
client, after all the other clients and Quintus himself
had gone; the thief who had crawled over the garden wall,
and had been pitched out head first by the gardeners; the
perfect little baby that one of the cooks had produced;
the senile unruliness of the porter’s dog; the
misbehavior of Adriana’s parrots when Lady Placida had
come to call.
enjoyment of Quintus was uncomplicated. She admired his
good soul, and his body as well, the way a child might
admire a tropical fruit. Its movements fascinated her. She
watched it move, then touched it, taking the beautifully
proportioned rib-cage between her two hands, and feeling
it flex like a horse’s neck under the tough musculature
and smooth skin. Sometimes, as if to assure herself that
he was not made of marble, she ran a finger lightly along
his breastbone, making him twitch and snort in his sleep,
like a young beast tormented by flies.
lean and knotty, like a lion kept hungry before the
games," she thought. "He’ll never be fat like
playful. He would display himself naked at the bedside in
clownish contortions and then pounce on her with enough
energy to break the bed. His hands seemed to have an
intelligence of their own, cupping her belly and breasts,
soothing her tense neck, framing her face as he touched
her eyelids with his lips and then entered her with such
tender strength that she thought her soul would leap out
of her gasping mouth.
accepted with simple pleasure his conventional
exclamations about her almond-shaped eyes, her tip-tilted
nose, her smile that would ripen peaches on a garden wall.
She chose to ignore the truth that after their earliest
nights together he made love to her with more skill than
passion; she did not want to know with whom he had
practiced the art of love.
were born in April, yellow-haired like Quintus’s
brothers. Indeed, they were born with the yellow daisies
of spring, and a few years later they died in September,
just after the daisies had ceased to bloom on the
death, a door closed on the summer of Adriana’s life,
and winter followed without a harvest season. It seemed to
her that she had only dreamed of walking with Quintus in
twilight, with a knot of summer flowers at her throat, and
a handsome golden-haired little boy on her shoulders, and
the boy’s twin sleeping in Quintus’s arms.
unable to speak, she laid out the curly-headed boys side
by side with her own hands, and watched stoically while
they were lowered into the ground, after a rural plague
had overtaken them at a hunting villa in Tuscany.
she gave herself to passionate weeping. She would have
loved Quintus and her own father in the children. She
would have kept them fresh as roses and carried them in
her strong young arms, and taught them with love, like a
nightingale teaching songs to its young. She would have
prayed for them, mended their clothes with her own hands,
made them clean and handsome in body and spirit. But they
were gone, and sometimes she wondered if she were to
blame, and wondered if Quintus blamed her, though she knew
full well that no human will, no matter how strong, could
have turned back the plague.
months that ensued, she was like a Celt in winter, never
far from tears. All her thoughts were of the time when the
little boys’ cradles had been a green grove in the
landscape of her life. Unable to raise her own spirits,
she was in no position to help Quintus with his mute
despair. A distance opened between them. She was powerless
to close it. She tried, with the best that remained in
her, to respond to his moods, to be ardent, thoughtful,
meek, fiery, as the occasion required. But the
artificiality of the effort asserted itself like a badly
masked smell, and drove Quintus further away.
to the occasion.
an idealist!" she chided. "Dear Adriana, all
respectable marriages begin with idolatry and end in
indifference. Isn’t it so? First the dear people can
hardly keep their hands off each other. In six months
they’re bored if they have to lie side by side at a
meal, and he’s thinking what an abominable color she
paints her eyelids, and she’s thinking that he’s
developing the jowls of a groundhog. How often do you see
an exception to this, dearest?"
seldom," Adriana admitted. "People would have to
care for something other than themselves. As you say,
year, her grandfather and her mother were gone, the last
pillars of strength in her life. Her grandfather’s death
left her curiously at peace. He had lived well, and he
died doing the sort of thing he loved best. The servants
found him lying face down in the stables, where he had
been watering his favorite Spanish horse with his own
hands. Adriana’s mother grieved quietly for a season,
and then seemed to make a conscious decision to follow the
old man into the Everlasting Peace. She was buried in
black silk; the serfs filled her coffin with wild
blossoms, and laid a red rose on her lips, saying,
"She breathes flowers."
twenty-second year, Adriana felt alone against an enemy
without face or name. With her own hands she put her
mother’s things away. She lingered a little over the old
gauzes and silks, the shawl that her mother had woven when
she was young, old circus tickets, perfumes, jewelry, a
doll in a linen tunic that her father had given her mother
on their wedding night. Then she closed the brass-lined
chests and locked them, and resolutely fixed her mind on
the present and the future.
In the dark
summer-house she was fully awake again. A stiff breeze had
blown up since Flavia had gone. It stirred the scents of
myrtle and rose, whistling in the colonnades and down the
avenues of ilex. There was a cool patter of raindrops on
the pond at her feet.
Adriana got up and went into the great stillness of the
palace. The night lights seemed hostile, a source of
threatening shadows that wandered over the wall-frescoes.
A pair of sleepy maids followed her into her apartment,
carrying cakes and wine. Adriana whispered thanks, sent
the girls away, and locked the door after them. Then she
undressed herself and threw her clothes in a heap on the
listening to the silences of the building. The acid
resonances of Flavia’s conversation were still with her,
stirring up doubts where none would have occurred
Adriana, at age twenty-six you’re still so . . . young
in some respects," the voice said.
"There’s no such thing as a happy marriage. Some
are calm, at most, and that of course takes a great deal
of money. I really don’t think Nature intended marriage,
any more than wigs or wooden legs. Does the butterfly
marry the buttercup? Of course, there are babies and
poverty to contend with. Perhaps they’re the reasons.
For my part, I always try to remember that when the
passion goes out of a marriage it’s a corpse forever and
ever, and no amount of howling and sobbing can bring it
back to life."
was a corpse at birth, as I recall," Adriana repeated
voice of doubt went on. "Dear, you’ve lived long
enough to know by now that men are born fools. Think of
any man you can name. He doesn’t want a bedmate who’ll
remind him of his duty and argue philosophy with him. He
wants one who’ll stir his hair with her forefinger and
put snow down the back of his neck, and call him ‘Little
disentangled herself from the bedclothes, went to the
window, and looked out into the rain-washed garden. A soft
fragrance of stone-pine came to her in little gusts. The
mansions on the Viminal hill slept altogether now.
she traced the possible routes by which Flavia could have
acquired her servant-gossip. It would be unsatisfying
merely to dismiss the innuendo; Flavia was always sure of
her facts, even when she lied. In any case Adriana knew
where, in the silent palace, the resolution of her turmoil
a simple robe of silk around her shoulders, opened the
bedroom door noiselessly, and went out into the long
corridors, a deserted splendor of cold marble and
statuary, lit at intervals by aromatic lamps. Barefoot,
she walked silently past chamber after chamber, through
puffs of oily perfume and the small night-sounds of the
dormitory was plain and clean: far too clean and not plain
enough, according to Flavia’s standards. Among the rows
of little cubicles, Adriana knew which door she sought.
The room belonged to her Gothic maid, that handsome blond
piece of stupidity.
hesitated before the door, pressed her ear against the
wood, and listened intently. No sound came from behind the
heavy oak paneling. She turned the well-greased lock and
laid her cautious strength against the door. It swung
open. The room whispered with light snoring. A night-light
burned in a corner of the tiny room, a Cupid swinging from
in Liuta’s arms, breathing softly and deeply, his head
cradled between her left shoulder and a well-formed
woke suddenly. Her blue eyes, wide with terror, stared out
over Quintus’s sleeping head. She caught her breath as
if to scream, but all that came out of her mouth was a
constricted rush of air.
raised a finger to her lips, smiled pleasantly, and closed