Another April arrived with all of its sweetness. The land budded and blossomed with potential as Proserpina returned to the loving arms of her mother. Spring’s bounty was used to adorn the village of Somnolentus Oppidum for the festival of Cerealia.
Lord Gaius Marcus Valerius arrived back from Rome on the day that the celebrations were to begin. All of the inhabitants of his vast estate gathered to greet the master upon his return.
“How are things in Rome, my lord?” asked his wife, Lady Cornelia.
“Noisy and corrupt as usual, my lady,” his lordship answered.
Then approached his two stepdaughters, Augusta and Lavinia, and Lord Gaius kissed them affectionately. They were tall, womanly, and beautiful girls with their mother’s dark eyes and hair and carved ivory features.
“Young Octavian, is he as handsome as everyone says?” Augusta inquired.
“He is everything a man of twenty-six could hope to be.”
“And his new wife, they say she is the most beautiful woman in Rome,” Lavinia joined in.
“She is nothing compared to thee, Lavinia, my dear.”
“Father!” a sweet voice like that of a lark called out from the garden.
It was his own dear child, Eurydice, returning with henna blossoms for her hair. Eurydice and her stepsisters were close in age but she was the youngest. Small and delicate, she appeared as though she would blow away in the wind like the posies in her hand. Her golden brown hair shown a ruddy gold in the sun and her sea colored eyes danced with delight upon seeing her father.
“Oh, how I missed thee.”
Lord Gaius bestowed his fatherly blessing upon her with a kiss.
“Well, my beauties, I see thou all art ready to go to the festival.”
The three girls were dressed, nymph-like, in diaphanous robes with bare feet and adorned with flowers. They danced together like the three graces in anticipation of excitement and pleasure, bracelets and earrings jingling as they moved.
Somnolentus Oppidum’s Cerealia festival coincided with the arrival of a group of traveling performers lead by a character called Oeagrus the Thracian. What caught the village’s attention was a boy among the Thracian’s band who was devastatingly handsome. Swarthy and freckled with a wild head of deep brown curls, merry dark eyes, and a wide, roguish grin full of dazzling white teeth, he was the type of youth who made parents wish to hide away their daughters. Even more striking was how well he sang and played the lyre.
The music that this young man made seemed to cause nature itself to stop and listen. The wind quieted down, the birds ceased their chattering, the trees and flowers appeared to bend in his direction as if hanging on his every note.
It went around that he was Orpheus, the adopted son of Oeagrus. Rumor had it that he was the bastard offspring of Apollo himself and had gods and goddesses for his relatives. His mother had been called Calliope for her beautiful voice. Her enchanting singing was said to have caused Apollo to be consumed with passion for her. But this love turned out to be her downfall; she died bringing forth their child into the world. Bacchus, who gossip named as the boy’s uncle, gave Little Orpheus to his faithful servant, Oeagrus, to raise, since his wife was barren. Orpheus grew up favored by the gods: Apollo, his possible father, gave him the gift of song; Venus gave him beauty and success with the girls; Bacchus, his patron, looked after him.
Eros was often found at such village festivals because they were ideal places for him to work his mischief. He appeared in Somnolentus Oppidum as a common farm boy and blended into the crowd which had gathered to watch a troupe of musicians and dancing girls. Recognizable were the voice and lyre of his cousin, Orpheus, who was a great favorite with both him and his mother, Venus because he sang their praises so beautifully.
Eros took his bow and aimed an arrow at the young bard’s heart. Perhaps a youth such as him would like to spend the night frolicking in the bed of some village maid. But his concentration was broken by a trumpet fanfare announcing the arrival of Lord Gaius Marcus Valerius and his family. The man himself, paunchy and pompous in his toga, rose from his sedan chair and took the place of honor to watch the festivities. His wife, graceful, elegant, and serene with a diadem studded with pearls and rubies adorning her hair, appeared from behind the blue curtains of her sedan and went to join Lord Gaius. Then appeared three maidens, who looked awfully tempting in their thin silk stolas. The oldest wore the blue, green, and purple shades of a peacock and the middle one wore the gold and bronze hues of money. Pearls dangled from their earlobes and their arms were covered in golden bracelets; their eyes lined in black with the lids shaded purple. The youngest was dressed in virginal white, her waist girded with a belt of lustful red and henna blossoms were arranged into her hair. Her eyelids and fingernails were painted blue; gold chains with tiny bells adorned her delicate ankles. The tiny bells jiggled as she scampered off with her sisters to join the dancing.
Orpheus sang praises to Bacchus and the joys of wine and revelry. The crowd was entranced and moved with reckless abandon. Eros again raised his bow in the direction of the bard and fired one of his lovely and deadly arrows into his heart.
The first thing that Orpheus noticed was the maiden with the bells on her ankles prancing and twirling her veil around, intoxicated by the music. Eros’s poison made his heart burn with longing for the girl which was further inflamed by watching her dance. The theme of the bard’s song changed to love and desire; the hearts of the crowd were uplifted by the knowledge that there were so much beauty and pleasure in the world.
Eurydice was happier than she had ever been in the entirety of her young life. All of her fears and cares flew away as she lost herself in the rhythm. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder which made her nearly jump out of her skin. Fortunately, it was only her stepsister, Lavinia.
“I’m sorry to scare thee, Eurydice, my love,” Lavinia said, “Especially when thou wert enjoying thyself so much.”
“I thought thou wert someone else,” Eurydice answered.
“A handsome boy?”
“A frightening man.”
“Why frightening, dear sister?”
“Because he has been following me like a shadow which reappears whenever I think I have lost him.”
“It is because thou art beautiful, my love. A face like thine cannot expect but to drive men mad.”
“He goes about in what looks a shroud and wears a mask of a dead man’s face; he looks like death itself.”
“Tis only a reveler looking to make merry. Many go about sporting disguises during these happy days.”
“I went to pray at the temple of Diana nearly two weeks ago, he has tormented me since then. Every time I go into the village, he has appeared to frighten me.”
“I thought thou wert nearly a woman, but I see thou art a child still.”
Shamed by her own cowardice, Eurydice hung her head. Lavinia took her hands and they rejoined the dancing.
Orpheus took a break from playing. He noticed his fair dancer talking with another maiden, presumably her sister. A small peasant boy was near them playing the timbrel.
“My good man,” he said to the child, “Dost thou know that maiden over there, the one with the henna blossoms in her hair.”
“Aye,” the little peasant answered, “Tis Eurydice of the Valerii, daughter of Gaius Marcus Valerius, who owns that big villa near here.”
“Many thanks, take this for thy pains”
He tossed a coin into the timbrel; the boy thanked him and danced off.
So her name was Eurydice. Should he approach her? If so, what should he say? He, a lowly bard, could not just walk up to the daughter of a great lord and speak words of love. Such words got stuck in his throat unless he sang them. His music could say more than plain speech ever would.
The young bard did not suspect that the little peasant boy with the timbrel was, in fact, his cousin, Eros, who was laughing at his plight. A poor, wandering player in love with a high born lady, it was all too much. One of Eros’s favorite jokes was making someone fall for a person they could never have. Even if Fair Eurydice did return his love, her family would never approve. The case of poor Orpheus was hopeless.
A group of women clad in white robes carrying torches walked through the streets of the village when it grew dark, symbolizing Proserpina’s reunion with her mother, Ceres. But the behavior of the crowds belonged more to Bacchus. Music and riotous dancing filled the night. Much wine was drunk.
Although it was late, Eurydice was not one bit tired. She felt as though she could dance forever and never feel fatigued. Many of the other revelers had donned costumes and masks. Among the crowd appeared a slender, agile, cat-like form shrouded in a dark cloak. He wore a pale gaunt face which looked like a skull.
All of the color drained from Eurydice’s face and she let out a chilling scream. Her stepsisters rushed over to comfort her.
“Sweet sister, what troubles thee so?” Augusta asked.
“Dost thou see him?” Eurydice responded.
“The one in the death mask.”
Augusta and Lavinia searched around to see what she was speaking of. They did not see anything. Poor Eurydice grew more hysterical.
“There’s the man I spoke to you of. Lavinia, thou shouldst remember.”
“Poor child,” Lady Cornelia added, “All this Bacchanalia has caused her to run mad.”
Eurydice was sent home in a sedan chair and told to go straight to bed. The slave assigned to be Eurydice’s maid was a girl her own age named Flora, who had been born in Lord Gaius’s household. She had been a playmate to Eurydice when they were children and a confident now that they were older. Flora helped Eurydice undress and drew her a bath scented with rose petals and cinnamon oil. While she bathed, Flora read Cicero aloud to her.
The night’s festivities ended with a pack of foxes with lit forces tied to their tails being released into the fields to purify them and scare away vermin. It had been a rewarding evening for Eros, who had managed to seduce a baker’s daughter. Imagine the look on her betrothed’s face when he realizes that someone already took a bit out of his little pastry. Then there had been a shepherd boy; Eros flattered himself that he had been a step up from the shepherd’s flock of sheep.
With nothing more to do, Eros decided to follow his cousin, Orpheus. Love drew the young bard to the villa of Gaius Marcus Valerius and showed him to the lit window which belonged to Eurydice. He began to play, singing of love in his sweetest notes.
His song soothed Eurydice’s troubled mind and drew her to her window. She had never heard such beautiful music before and desired to know where it came from.
“Thou playest marvelously,” she said to the young man below her, “But if anyone seest thou, my stepmother is sure to have thee killed. What a shame it would be to kill the source of such lovely sounds.”
“Come down, sweetest Eurydice,” he implored, “and we’ll disappear into the night where no one can see us.”
“Such a thing is impossible. Thou art too forward.”
“Then I will come up and claim the fee for my song.”
He began to climb up a vine-covered trellis to her window. Eros aimed one of this arrows at the maiden’s heart, and laughed, suspecting that she would not be a maiden for much longer. He hit the mark and she felt an unbearable pang.
Orpheus took one of Eurydice’s tiny, delicate hands and kissed it. She felt flushed and dizzy. He leaned in and gave her another kiss on the mouth before descending with one of his roguish grins.
The sweet days of April and May passed in a dreamy blur for Orpheus. He wandered the meadows when the sun was in the sky, strumming his lyre and singing to himself. Wildflowers, ruby red poppies, bright blue cornflowers, and golden buttercups, bobbed in the wind as if waving a greeting to him.
At night, he would return to the window of Eurydice and sing the songs he spent the day composing. The feelings of love which he inspired in her were so unfamiliar and overpowering that she felt they would be the death of her. He smiled, knowing that her heart was more and more his every time they met. Then he would climb up the trellis and claim a kiss as a reward for his song.
When the sun rose on the horizon, Orpheus would walk through a forest outside of her father’s estate and rest under one of the trees for a few hours; lovers need very little sleep. The yews, the limes, the maples, the willows, and the elms all would bend their branches as if bowing to him as he entered. A gentle breeze would seem to whisper “there he is, the dreamer; there he is, the lover.”
The center of the courtyard of the Valerii villa was taken up by a bathing pool which was tiled in blue mosaics. At its far end was a fountain which spilled over into a fish pond. Surrounding the pool were fruit trees which grew figs, peaches, apricots, and pomegranates.
Eurydice lay by the bathing pool while one of the maids rubbed fragrant almond oil into her skin. The sweet voice of a greek slave girl read aloud from The Odyssey accompanied by the strumming of a lyre. Other maids combed cinnamon oil through Augusta’s hair, plucked at Lavinia’s armpits, and hung up silk sheets to be aired which provided privacy for the bathers. Lady Cornelia reclined under a blue canopy. The flock of peacocks, which followed her around as if she were Juno herself, were gathered around her, eating seeds from her hand; one rested its head in her lap.
There was much for Lady Cornelia and her daughters to speak about. Both Augusta and Lavinia were to be married that summer to wealthy and handsome young patricians. Love and marriage were things which Eurydice had not yet thought about until now. What she felt for Orpheus was so strong that she believed she would run off with him without the solemnization of marriage if he wished her to. As her father’s only child, she would inherit everything when he died and when most men saw her, they saw his fortune. A peasant maiden could marry for love but a wealthy heiress had other considerations, though finding love was not impossible; Augusta and Lavinia both loved the men they were betrothed to. Orpheus only wanted her and did not care who her father was or how rich he was.
Eurydice would swear that she heard something rustling in among the fruit trees in the orchard. It may of have been just her febrile imagination but she saw a death’s head poke out at her.
“Eurydice, Eurydice, what ails thee, child?” Lady Cornelia shouted in concern when she saw her step-daughter faint.
“Tis him, my lady: the death’s head!” Eurydice cried.
“Nonsense, thou hast spent too much time in the sun. Tis all.”
She called for a maid to bring the girl some refreshments. The maid returned with a glass of sweet and chilled wine. After taking this sustenance, Eurydice was brought back inside to rest.
Lord Gaius was immensely proud of a giant, black, brute of a stallion which was a new addition to his stables. To celebrate the acquisition of the animal, His Lordship threw a dinner party for some of his friends. The party lasted until late into the night. Rollicking drunk, Lord Gaius, and his friends went out to the stables to see the horse. A stable lad was ordered to bring out the horse.
Orpheus snuck into the grounds of the Valerii villa that night for another of trysts with Eurydice. To his surprise, he discovered that the villa was bustling with activity. A group of noblemen, including Lord Gaius, lead by slaves carrying torches came towards the stables to look at a fine black stallion, restrained by a pair of stable lads. Something in the bushes must have startled the horse for he broke free from his handlers and charged towards the group of noblemen. He reared and looked as though he would trample Lord Gaius.
Orpheus stepped in and began to strum his lyre and sing a hymn in praise of tempestuous Poseidon, who created the first horse in a vain attempt to woo his sister Demeter. The black stallion became calm and gentle and let the young man stroke his flanks.
“My son,” Lord Gaius said, “I owe thee my life. Whatever thou ask for in return, I shall grant.”
“My lord,” Orpheus replied, “I ask far too great a price for such a small service but it is the only thing I want. I humbly ask for the hand of thy daughter, Eurydice.”
Lord Gaius was shocked by the audacity of this request but he had given his word. He called for Eurydice and told her that if she loved this brave and bold young man, he would think over letting him marry her.
“I love him,” Eurydice swore, “and I will be no one else’s wife but his.”
Lady Cornelia and her daughters disapproved of the match. Eurydice deserved better, they argued, than to traipse about the empire, begging for coins and sharing a pauper’s couch. But Lord Gaius dismissed their arguments, saying that this was a matter for the gods. He would go to the temple of Apollo in Rome and seek guidance from the family patron.
The temple oracle burned bay laurel leaves to summon the god and Lord Gaius poured half the contents of a goblet of fine wine onto the ground and drank the rest. His lordship beseeched the god for guidance in choosing a husband for his beloved child.
Apollo had seen that his son loved this mortal’s daughter and sought her for his wife. He took the form of a particular elderly nobleman, an old friend of Lord Gaius, and asked what was troubling him.
“I wish to know if I should consent to have my daughter marry a young man who has asked for her hand,” Lord Gaius responded.
“Who is this young man?” Apollo asked.
“Orpheus the bard. He is poor and yet blessed beyond most men in his voice and lyre, which he has used to win the love of my daughter.
“He is certainly blessed, not least of all in his parentage. His father is Apollo himself and his mother Calliope was said to exceed most women in her beauty and skill with music. Any maiden would highly fortunate if she were to become his wife.”
Lord Gaius was won over by the prospect of having a demigod as a son-in-law and semi-divine grandchildren. He sent for young Orpheus and gave his consent for the youth to marry Eurydice.
The Valerii had a summer full of weddings. Lady Cornelia scarcely finished planning one bridal feast when she had to start preparing for another. Lord Gaius’s head steward frequently went into the nearby market to order supplies for the kitchen. The head steward was a notoriously discerning individual and would only accept the best for his master.
On the night before her wedding, Eurydice offered up playthings and maiden’s robes at the shrine to her household gods. Among the trinkets of her childhood was a lunula, a crescent-shaped amulet worn as a protective talisman by young girls prior to marriage. In the morning, she was dressed in a white gown with a belt tied around her waist in a special knot called the “knot of Hercules” and an orange veil held in place with a crown of flowers.
Orpheus waited for Eurydice at the Valerii family shrine where they clasped hands and repeated the vows of consents.
He said: “Quando tu Gaia, ego Gaius,” Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius.
She replied: “Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia,” Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia.
He untied her belt, which symbolized her being freed of her family ties. They made an offering of a special type of bread called Panis Farreus to Jupiter and then ate it.
When night fell, oil lamps were lit and placed all around the villa. Guests were lead in through the atrium, past brightly colored murals and mosaics depicting scenes of the countryside, past marble busts of dead family members, including Lady Lucretia, Lord Gaius’s first wife, and past the pool which collected the water that fell in through the skylight, to the dining room.
Slaves washed the feet of the guests as they came in and gave them crowns of roses anointed with perfume to enhance their scent. Bondmaids fanned them with peacock feathers or carried pitchers, basins, and towels for them to wash their hands. The couches were softened with feather cushions and covered in rich fabrics. A table covered in delicious things was brought out at the beginning of each course and removed to be laden again for the next course. Bread dipped in wine was brought out for the first course along with fried pig’s nipples, roasted mice in honey and poppy seeds, fried stuffed cow’s wombs, green and black olives, pomegranate seeds, milk-fed snails stuffed with mincemeat, and goose liver fattened with figs.
Lord Gaius proposed a number of toasts to the health, happiness, and good fortune of his dear daughter and her new husband and brought out the finest wines he could afford.
The next course was made up of a soft cheese, calf’s brain custard with garum, quail eggs, roast capon, honey glazed rabbit sprinkled with rose petals, fish in a pepper sauce, and pork meatballs.
A Trojan hog was the climax of the feast: a pig roasted in garum sauce and served whole on the table with suckling piglets made of pastry nestled up to it. When the pig was cut open, sausages fell out.
A statue of the god Priapus stood as the centerpiece of the final course and held a basket of peaches and figs. The fourth and last course included small cakes that shoot out saffron custard when you touch them, honey fingers, and savillum, a honey-sweetened cheesecake.
Dancing girls dressed in flowing silk appeared at the end of the feast and shimmied and swayed to the music of drums, tambourines, and cymbals, sprinkling rose petals on the guests.
Orpheus, with his bride reclining next to him on the top couch, sang hymns to Hymen, the God who blesses and curses all marriages. His singing summoned the god to the feast.
Hymen arrived to find the torch he had carried with him had cooled to smoking embers. He tried to blow and fan it back into a flame but it was all in vain.
The young couple was oblivious to this ill omen. When the night grew so late that it may be called early, a joyful Eurydice was lead to the bridal chamber by her new husband. She carried a special torch which she blew out and tossed among the guests. Clinging to her stepmother and stepsisters, she made a humorously melodramatic show of pretending to be scared and hesitant to enter her bridal chamber. Orpheus ripped her from their arms with mock force and carried her over the threshold.
Eurydice had never passed such a blissful night. A deep and sweet sleep fell upon her, which lasted until first light. In her half-awake delirium, she saw death’s heads in every dark corner of her chamber.
Orpheus stirred in the bed next to her. He kissed her and bid her good morning. The rosy dawn chased away all of Eurydice’s dark thoughts. Her maids crept in, bringing with them a breakfast of bread dipped in wine, and porridge.
“My Lord, My Lady,” they chirped.
The newlyweds quickly dressed and took their morning meal into the garden. Orpheus composed a song, thanking Venus for the happiness he now enjoyed.