At length the sister exited; the miser returned to converse with his neighbor. Seeing the two of them together on the stage-Statilius and his rival, Panurgus-the gulf between their talents was painfully clear. Panurgus as Euclio stole the scene completely, and not just because his lines were better.

EUCLIO: So you wish to marry my daughter. Good enough-but you must know I haven't so much as a copper to donate to her dowry.

MEGADORUS: I don't expect even half a copper. Her virtue and good name are quite enough.

EUCLIO: I mean to say, it's not as if I'd just happened to have found some, oh, buried treasure in my house… say, a pot of gold buried by my grandfather, or-

MEGADORUS: Of course not — how ridiculous! Say no more.You'll give your daughter to me, then?

EUCLIO: Agreed. But what's that? Oh no, I'm ruined!

MEGADORUS: Jupiter Almighty, what's wrong?

EUCLIO: I thought I heard a spade… someone digging…

MEGADORUS: Why, it's only a slave I've got digging up some roots in my garden. Calm down, good neighbor…

I inwardly groaned for my friend Statilius; but if his delivery was flat, he had learned to follow the master's stage directions without a misstep. Roscius was famous not only for embellishing the old comedies with colorful costumes and masks to delight the eyes, but for choreographing the movements of his actors. Statilius and Panurgus were never static on the stage, like the actors in inferior companies. They circled one another in a constant comic dance, a swirl of blue and yellow.

Eco tugged at my sleeve. With a shrug of his shoulder he gestured to the men beside him. Flavius was again whispering in the bodyguard's ear; the big blond was wrinkling his eyebrows, perplexed. Then he rose and lumbered toward the aisle. Eco drew up his feet, but I was too slow. The monster stepped on my foot. I let out a howl. Others around me started doing the same, thinking I was badgering the actors. The blond giant made no apology at all.

Eco tugged at my sleeve. 'Let it go, Eco,' I said. 'One must learn to live with rudeness in the theater.'

He only rolled his eyes and crossed his arms in exasperation. I knew that gesture: if only he could speak!

On the stage, the two neighbors concluded their plans for Megadorus to wed the daughter of Euclio; with a shrilling of pipes and the tinkling of cymbals, they left the stage and the first act was done.

The pipe players introduced a new theme. After a moment, two new characters appeared on stage. These were the quarreling cooks, summoned to prepare the wedding feast. A Roman audience delights in jokes about food and gluttony, the cruder the better. While I groaned at the awful puns, Eco laughed aloud, making a hoarse, barking sound.

In the midst of the gaiety, my blood turned cold. Above the laughter, I heard a scream.

It was not a woman's scream, but a man's. Not a scream of fear, but of pain.

I looked at Eco, who looked back at me. He had heard it, too. No one else in the audience seemed to have noticed, but the actors on stage must have heard something. They bungled their lines and turned uncertainly toward the door, stepping on one another's feet. The audience only laughed harder at their clumsiness.

The quarreling cooks came to the end of their scene and disappeared backstage.

The stage was empty. There was a pause that grew longer and longer. Strange, unaccountable noises came from backstage-muffled gasps, confused shuffling, a loud shout. The audience began to murmur and shift restlessly on the benches.

At last the door from the left wing opened. Onto the stage stepped a figure wearing the mask of the miser Euclio. He was dressed in bright yellow as before, but it was a different cloak. He threw his hands in the air. 'Disaster!' he cried. I felt a cold shiver down my spine.

'Disaster!' he said again. 'A daughter's marriage is a disaster! How can any man afford it? I've just come back from the market, and you wouldn't believe what they're charging for lamb-an arm and a leg for an arm and a leg, that's what they want…'

The character was miserly Euclio, but the actor was no longer Panurgus; it was Roscius behind the mask. The audience seemed not to notice the substitution, or at least not to mind it; they started laughing almost immediately at the spectacle of poor Euclio befuddled by his own stinginess.

Roscius delivered the lines flawlessly, with the practiced comic timing that comes from having played a role many times, but I thought I heard a strange quavering in his voice. When he turned so that I could glimpse his eyes within the mask, I saw no sign of his famous squint. His eyes were wide with alarm. Was this Roscius the actor, frightened of something very real-or Euclio, afraid that the squabbling cooks would find his treasure?

'What's that shouting from the kitchen?' he cried. 'Oh no, they're calling for a bigger pot to put the chicken in! Oh, my pot of gold!' He ran through the door backstage, almost tripping over his yellow cloak. There followed a cacophony of crashing pots.

The central door was thrown open. One of the cooks emerged onstage, crying out in a panic: 'Help, help, help!'

It was the voice of Statilius! I stiffened and started to stand, but the words were only part of the play. 'It's a madhouse in there,' he cried, straightening his mask. He jumped from the stage and ran into the audience. 'The miser Euclio's gone mad! He's beating us over the head with pots and pans! Citizens, come to our rescue!' He whirled about the central aisle until he came to a halt beside me. He bent low and spoke through his teeth so that only I could hear.

'Gordianus! Come backstage, now!'

I gave a start. Through the mask I looked into Statilius's anxious eyes.

'Backstage!' he hissed. 'Come quick! A dagger-blood- Panurgus-murder!'

From beyond the maze of screens and awnings and platforms I occasionally heard the playing of the pipes and actor's voices raised in argument, followed by the muffled roar of the audience laughing. Backstage, the company of Quintus Roscius ran about in a panic, changing costumes, fitting masks onto one another's heads, mumbling lines beneath their breath, sniping at each other or exchanging words of encouragement, and in every other way trying to act as if this were simply another hectic performance and a corpse was not lying in their midst.

The body was that of the slave Panurgus. He lay on his back in a secluded little alcove in the alley that ran behind the Temple of Jupiter, The place was a public privy, one of many built in out-of-the-way nooks on the perimeter of the Forum. Screened by two walls, a sloping floor tilted to a hole that emptied into the Cloaca Maxima. Panurgus had apparently come here to relieve himself between scenes. Now he lay dead with a knife plunged squarely into his chest. Above his heart a large red circle stained his bright yellow costume. A sluggish stream of blood trickled across the tiles and ran down the drain.

He was older than I had thought, almost as old as his master, with gray in his hair and a wrinkled forehead. His mouth and eyes were open wide in shock; his eyes were green, and in death they glittered dully like uncut emeralds.

Eco gazed down at the body and reached up to grasp my hand. Statilius ran up beside us. He was dressed again in blue and held the mask of Megadorus in his hands. His face was ashen. 'Madness,' he whispered. 'Bloody madness.'

'Shouldn't the play be stopped?'

'Roscius refuses. Not for a slave, he says. And he doesn't dare tell the crowd. Imagine: a murder, backstage, in the middle of our performance, on a holiday consecrated to Jupiter himself, in the very shadow of the god's temple-what an omen! What magistrate would ever hire Roscius and the company again? No, the show goes on- even though we must somehow figure out how to fill nine roles with five actors instead of six. Oh dear, and I've never learned the nephew's lines…'

'Statilius!' It was Roscius, returning from the stage. He threw off the mask of Euclio. His own face was almost as grotesque, contorted with fury. 'What do you think you're doing, standing there mumbling? If I'm playing Euclio, you have to play the nephew!' He rubbed his squinting eyes, then slapped his forehead. 'But no, that's impossible-Megadorus and the nephew must be onstage at the same time. What a disaster! Jupiter, why me?'

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