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9. The Two Interviews
The time, is the evening of the first day of the Gothic blockade; the place, is
Vetranio's palace at Rome. In one of the private apartments of his mansion is
seated its all-accomplished owner, released at length from the long sitting
convened by the Senate on the occasion of the unexpected siege of the city.
Although the same complete discipline, the same elegant regularity, and the same
luxurious pomp, which distinguished the senator's abode in times of security, still
prevail over it in the time of imminent danger which now threatens rich and poor
alike in Rome, Vetranio himself appears far from partaking the tranquility of his
patrician household. His manner displays an unusual sternness, and his face an
unwonted displeasure, as he sits, occupied by his silent reflections and thoroughly
unregardful of whatever occurs around him. Two ladies who are his companions
in the apartment, exert all their blandishments to win him back to hilarity, but in
vain. The services of his expectant musicians are not put into requisition, the
delicacies on his table remain untouched, and even 'the inestimable kitten of the
breed most worshipped by the ancient Egyptians' gambols unnoticed and
unapplauded at his feet. All its wonted philosophical equanimity has evidently
departed, for the time at least, from the senator's mind.
Silence--hitherto a stranger to the palace apartments--had reigned uninterruptedly
over them for some time, when the freedman Carrio dissipated Vetranio's
meditations, and put the ladies who were with him to flight, by announcing in an
important voice, that the Prefect Pompeianus desired a private interview with the
Senator Vetranio.
The next instant the chief magistrate of Rome entered the apartment. He was a
short, fat, undignified man. Indolence and vacillation were legibly impressed on
his appearance and expression. You saw, in a moment, that his mind, like a
shuttlecock, might be urged in any direction by the efforts of others, but was
utterly incapable of volition by itself. But once in his life had the Prefect
Pompeianus been known to arrive unaided at a positive determination, and that
was in deciding a fierce argument between a bishop and a general, regarding the
relative merits of two rival rope-dancers of equal renown.
'I have come, my beloved friend,' said the Prefect in agitated tones, 'to ask your
opinion, at this period of awful responsibility for us all, on the plan of operations
proposed by the Senate at the sitting of to- day! But first,' he hastily continued,
perceiving with the unerring instinct of an old gastronome, that the inviting
refreshments on Vetranio's table had remained untouched, 'permit me to fortify
my exhausted energies by a visit to your ever-luxurious board. Alas, my friend,
when I consider the present fearful scarcity of our provision stores in the city, and
the length of time that this accursed blockade may be expected to last, I am
inclined to think that the gods alone know (I mean St. Peter) how much longer we
may be enabled to give occupation to our digestions and employment to our