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A short story by F. Anstey

Accompanied On The Flute, A Tale Of Ancient Rome

Title:     Accompanied On The Flute, A Tale Of Ancient Rome
Author: F. Anstey [More Titles by Anstey]

The Consul Duilius was entering Rome in triumph after his celebrated defeat of the Carthaginian fleet at Mylæ. He had won a great naval victory for his country with the first fleet that it had ever possessed--which was naturally a gratifying reflection, and he would have been perfectly happy now, if he had only been a little more comfortable.

But he was standing in an extremely rickety chariot, which was crammed with his nearer relations and a few old friends, to whom he had been obliged to send tickets. At his back stood a slave who held a heavy Etruscan crown on the Consul's head, and whenever he thought his master was growing conceited, threw in the reminder that he was only a man after all--a liberty which at any other time he might have had good reason to regret.

Then the large Delphic wreath, which Duilius wore as well as the crown, had slipped down over one eye and was tickling his nose, while--as both his hands were occupied, one with a sceptre, the other with a laurel bough, and he had to hold on tightly to the rail of the chariot whenever it jolted--there was nothing to do but suffer in silence.

They had insisted, too, upon painting him a beautiful bright red all over, and though it made him look quite new, and very shining and splendid, he had his doubts at times whether it was altogether becoming, and particularly, whether he would ever be able to get it off again.

But these were but trifles after all, and nothing compared with the honour and glory of it! Was not everybody straining to catch a glimpse of him? Did not even the spotted and skittish horses which drew the chariot repeatedly turn round to gaze upon his vermilioned features? As Duilius remarked this, he felt that he was, indeed, the central personage in all this magnificence, and that, on the whole, he liked it.

He could see the beaks of the ships he had captured, bobbing up and down in the middle distance; he could see the white bulls destined for sacrifice entering completely into the spirit of the thing, and redeeming the procession from any monotony by occasionally bolting down a back street, or tossing on their gilded horns some of the flamens who were walking solemnly in front of them.

He could hear, too, above five distinct brass bands, the remarks of his friends as they predicted rain, or expressed a pained surprise at the smallness of the crowd and the absence of any genuine enthusiasm; and he caught the general purport of the very offensive ribaldry circulated at his own expense among the brave legions that brought up the rear.

This was merely the usual course of things on such occasions, and a great compliment when properly understood, and Duilius felt it to be so. In spite of his friends, and the red paint, and the familiar slave, in spite of the extreme heat of the weather and his itching nose, he told himself that this--and this alone--was worth living for.

And it was a painful reflection to him that, after all, it would only last a day: he could not go on triumphing like this for the remainder of his natural life--he would not be able to afford it on his moderate income; and yet--and yet--existence would fall woefully flat after so much excitement.

It may be supposed that Duilius was naturally fond of ostentation and notoriety, but this was far from being the case; on the contrary, at ordinary times his disposition was retiring and almost shy; but his sudden success had worked a temporary change in him, and in the very flush of triumph he found himself sighing to think that, in all human probability, he would never go about with trumpeters and trophies, with flute-players and white oxen, any more in his whole life.

And then he reached the Porta Triumphalis, where the chief magistrates and the Senate awaited them, all seated upon spirited Roman-nosed chargers, which showed a lively emotion at the approach of the procession, and caused some of their riders to dismount, with as much affectation of method and design as their dignity enjoined and the nature of the occasion permitted.

There Duilius was presented with the freedom of the City and an address, which last he put in his pocket, as he explained, to read at home.

And then an Ædile informed him in a speech, during which he twice lost his notes and had to be prompted by a lictor, that the grateful Republic, taking into consideration the Consul's distinguished services, had resolved to disregard expense, and on that auspicious day to give him whatever reward he might choose to demand--'in reason,' the Ædile added cautiously, as he quitted his saddle with an unexpectedness which scarcely seemed intentional.

Duilius was naturally a little overwhelmed by such liberality, and, like everyone else favoured suddenly with such an opportunity, was quite incapable of taking complete advantage of it.

For a time he really could not remember in his confusion anything he would care for at all, and he thought it might look mean to ask for money.

At last he recalled his yearning for a Perpetual Triumph, but his natural modesty made him moderate, and he could not find courage to ask for more than a fraction of the glory that now attended him.

So, not without some hesitation, he replied that they were exceedingly kind, and since they left it entirely to his discretion, he would like--if they had no objection--he would like a flute-player to attend him whenever he went out.

Duilius very nearly asked for a white bull as well; but, on second thoughts, he felt it might lead to inconvenience, and there were many difficulties connected with the proper management of such an animal; the Consul, from what he had seen that day, felt that it would be imprudent to trust himself in front of the bull--while, if he walked behind, he might be mistaken for a cattle-driver, which would be odious. And so he gave up that idea, and contented himself with a simple flute-player.

The Senate, visibly relieved by so very unassuming a request, granted it with positive effusion; Duilius was invited to select his musician, and chose the biggest, after which the procession moved on through the Arch and up the Capitoline Hill, while the Consul had time to remember things he would have liked even better than a flute-player, and to suspect dimly that he might have made rather an ass of himself.

* * * * *

That night Duilius was entertained at a supper given at the public expense; he went out with the proud resolve to show his sense of the compliment paid him by scaling the giddiest heights of intoxication. The Romans of that day only drank wine and water at their festivals, but it is astonishing how inebriated a person of powerful will can become--even on wine and water--if he only gives his mind to it. And Duilius, being a man of remarkable determination, returned from that hospitable board particularly drunk; the flute-player saw him home, however, helped him to bed, though he could not induce him to take off his sandals, and lulled him to a heavy slumber by a selection from the popular airs of the time.

So that the Consul, although he awoke late next day with a bad headache and a perception of the vanity of most things, still found reason to congratulate himself upon his forethought in securing so invaluable an attendant, and planned, rather hopefully, sundry little ways of making him useful about the house.

As the subsequent history of this great naval commander is examined with the impartiality that becomes the historian, it is impossible to be blind to the melancholy fact that, in the first flush of his elation, Duilius behaved with an utter want of tact and taste that must have gone far to undermine his popularity, and proved a source of much gratification to his friends.

He would use that flute-player everywhere--he overdid the thing altogether: for example, he used to go out to pay formal calls, and leave the flute-player in the hall, tootling to such an extent that at last his acquaintances were forced in self-defence to deny themselves to him.

When he attended worship at the temples, too, he would bring the flute-player with him, on the flimsy pretext that he could assist the choir during service; and it was the same at the theatres, where Duilius--such was his arrogance--actually would not take a box unless the manager admitted his flute-player to the orchestra and guaranteed him at least one solo between the acts.

And it was the Consul's constant habit to strut about the Forum with his musician executing marches behind him, until the spectacle became so utterly ridiculous that even the Romans of that age, who were as free from the slightest taint of humour as a self-respecting nation can possibly be, began to notice something peculiar.

But the day of retribution dawned at last. Duilius worked the flute so incessantly that the musician's stock of airs was very soon exhausted, and then he was naturally obliged to blow them all through once more.

The excellent Consul had not a fine ear, but even he began to hail the fiftieth repetition of 'Pugnare nolumus,' for instance--the great national peace anthem of the period--with the feeling that he had heard the same tune at least twice before, and preferred something slightly fresher, while others had taken a much shorter time in arriving at the same conclusion.

The elder Duilius, the Consul's father, was perhaps the most annoyed by it; he was a nice old man in his way--the glass and china way--but he was a typical old Roman, with a manly contempt for pomp, vanity, music, and the fine arts generally.

So that his son's flute-player, performing all day in the court-yard, drove the old gentleman nearly mad, until he would rush to the windows and hurl the lighter articles of furniture at the head of the persistent musician, who, however, after dodging them with dexterity, affected to treat them as a recognition of his efforts, and carried them away gratefully to sell.

Duilius senior would have smashed the flute, only it was never laid aside for a single instant, even at meals; he would have made the player drunk and incapable, but he was a member of the Manus Spei, and he would with cheerfulness have given him a heavy bribe to go away, if the honest fellow had not proved absolutely incorruptible.

So he could only sit down and swear, and then relieve his feelings by giving his son a severe thrashing, with threats to sell him for whatever he might fetch: for, in the curious conditions of ancient Roman society, a father possessed both these rights, however his offspring might have distinguished himself in public life.

Naturally, Duilius did not like the idea of being put up to auction, and he began to feel that it was slightly undignified for a Roman general who had won a naval victory and been awarded a first-class Triumph to be undergoing corporal punishment daily at the hands of an unflinching parent, and accordingly he determined to go and expostulate with his flute-player.

He was beginning to find him a nuisance himself, for all his old shy reserve and unwillingness to attract attention had returned to him; he was fond of solitude, and yet he could never be alone; he was weary of doing everything to slow music, like the bold bad man in a melodrama.

He could not even go across the street to purchase a postage-stamp without the flute-player coming stalking out after him, playing away like a public fountain; while, owing to the well-known susceptibility of a rabble to the charm of music, the disgusted Consul had to take his walks abroad at the head of Rome's choicest scum.

Duilius, with a lively recollection of these inconveniences, would have spoken very seriously indeed to his musician, but he shrank from hurting his feelings by the plain truth. He simply explained that he had not intended the other to accompany him always, but only on special occasions; and, while professing the sincerest admiration for his musical proficiency, he felt, as he said, unwilling to monopolise it, and unable to enjoy it at the expense of a fellow-creature's rest and comfort.

Perhaps he put the thing a little too delicately to secure the object he had in view, for the musician, although he was obviously deeply touched by such unwonted consideration, waived it aside with a graceful fervour that was quite irresistible.

He assured the Consul that he was only too happy to have been selected to render his humble tribute to the naval genius of so eminent a commander; he would not admit that his own rest and comfort were in the least affected by his exertions, for, being naturally fond of the flute, he could, he protested, perform upon it continuously for whole days without fatigue. And he concluded by pointing out very respectfully that for the Consul to dispense, even to a small extent, with an honour decreed (at his own particular request) by the Republic, would have the appearance of ingratitude, and expose him to the gravest suspicions. After which he rendered the ancient love chant 'Ludus idem, ludus vetus,' with singular sweetness and expression.

Duilius felt the force of his arguments: Republics are proverbially forgetful, and he was aware that it might not be safe, even for him, to risk offending the Senate.

So he had nothing to do but just go on, and be followed about by the flute-player, and castigated by his parent in the old familiar way, until he had very little self-respect left.

At last he found a distraction in his care-laden existence--he fell deeply in love. But even here a musical Nemesis attended him, to his infinite embarrassment, in the person of his devoted follower. Sometimes Duilius would manage to elude him and slip out unseen to some sylvan retreat, where he had reason to hope for a meeting with the object of his adoration. He generally found that in this expectation he had not deceived himself; but always, just as he had found courage to speak of the passion that consumed him, a faint tune would strike his ear from afar, and, turning his head in a fury, he would see his faithful flute-player striding over the fields in pursuit of him with unquenchable ardour.

He gave in at last, and submitted to the necessity of speaking all his tender speeches 'through music.' Claudia did not seem to mind it, perhaps finding an additional romance in being wooed thus, and Duilius himself, who was not eloquent, found that the flute came in very well at awkward pauses in the conversation.

Then they were married, and, as Claudia played very nicely herself upon the tibiæ, she got up musical evenings, when she played duets with the flute-player, which Duilius, if he had only had a little more taste for music, might have enjoyed immensely.

As it was, beginning to observe for the first time that the musician was far from uncomely, he forbade the duets. Claudia wept and sulked, and Claudia's mother said that Duilius was behaving like a brute, and she was not to mind him; but the harmony of their domestic life was broken, until the poor Consul was driven to take long country walks in sheer despair, not because he was fond of walking, for he hated it, but simply to keep the flute-player out of mischief.

He was now debarred from all other society, for his old friends had long since cut him dead whenever he chanced to meet them. 'How could he expect people to stop and talk,' they asked indignantly, 'when there was that confounded fellow blowing tunes down the backs of their necks all the time?'

Duilius had had enough of it himself, and felt this so strongly that one day he took his flute-player a long walk through a lonely wood, and, choosing a moment when his companion had played 'Id omnes faciunt' till he was somewhat out of breath, he turned on him suddenly. When he left the lonely wood he was alone, and somewhere in the undergrowth lay a broken flute, and near it something which looked as if it might once have been a musician.

The Consul went home and sat there waiting for the deed to become generally known. He waited with a certain uneasiness, because it was impossible to tell how the Senate might take the thing, or the means by which their vengeance would declare itself.

And yet his uneasiness was counterbalanced by a delicious relief: the State might disgrace, banish, put him to death even, but he had got rid of slow music for ever; and as he thought of this, the stately Duilius would snap his fingers and dance with secret delight.

All disposition to dance, however, was forgotten upon the arrival of lictors bearing an official missive. He looked at it for a long time before he dared to break the big seal and cut the cord which bound the tablets which might contain his doom.

He did it at last, and smiled with relief as he began to read; for the decree was courteously, almost affectionately, worded. The Senate, considering (or affecting to consider) the disappearance of the flute-player a mere accident, expressed their formal regret at the failure of the provision made in his honour.

Then, as he read on, Duilius dashed the tablets into small fragments, and rolled on the ground, and tore his hair, and howled: for the Senatorial decree concluded by a declaration that, in consideration of his brilliant exploits, the State thereby placed at his disposal two more flute-players, who, it was confidently hoped, would survive the wear and tear of their ministrations longer than the first.

Duilius retired to his room and made his will, taking care to have it properly signed and attested. Then he fastened himself in, and when they broke down the door next day, they found a lifeless corpse, with a strange sickly smile upon its pale lips.

No one in Rome quite made out the reason of this smile, but it was generally thought to denote the gratification of the deceased at the idea of leaving his beloved ones in comfort, if not luxury; for, though the bulk of his fortune was left to Carthaginian charities, he had had the forethought to bequeath a flute-player apiece to his wife and mother-in-law.

[The end]
F. Anstey's short story: Accompanied On The Flute, A Tale Of Ancient Rome