Vergil in Averno Online - Avram Davidson

Whereas in other cities they had taken him to see the bears and lions, the dancing girls and dancing boys, or the chambers with the painted walls, all quite commonly done, and in one city they had done a thing by no means common: they had shown him the treasury, crammed with rubies of Balas and of Balas-shan, male spider rubies and females of the same, diamonds and adamants and pearls the size of babies’ fists, ancient golden anklets and amulets and silver newly brightly minted, chryselephantine with turquoise and sapphire and stone of lapis lazuli — here they had taken him, with every mark of respect and favor, to see the torture-chambers instead.

He had gone.

Had he not gone, would they not have tortured?

Besides: Are not the pains of the few to be preferred to the pains of the many? Did not the distant Idumaeans say, “Pray for the welfare of the Empire, for were it not for fear of it, men would swallow one another up alive”? And yet the Idumaeans loved the Empire not.

But as for torture . . . still . . . In Rome, the Consul Pretorius, who “kept the king’s sword” (King! as though the title had not long ago been subsumed into a vaster one!) was able with his words and ways alone to wring secrets out of the most forsworn to silence, and in Athens old Illyriodorus did as much with dreams (though these were different secrets, clean different ones indeed), but in Averno different ways were kept (and clean different ones they were, too; if not precisely clean). They took Vergil to see the torture chambers, as one would go to see the bears.

• • •

There were no such chill dungeon deeps as had caused the captive in the Histories to exclaim, “How cold are your baths, O Romans!” All was well warmed, all along the deep stone steps (deeper, even, in the center of each, worn, probably, by the passage of many feet over the passing of many years) all along the deep stone steps and long stone corridors, and, indeed, well lighted as well. His host had paused to take up a wax tablet which stood upon a stand, as though he were taking up a menu; his host was the Magnate Brosa Brosa. “Hm,” said he, “this morning they have someone named” — the name meant nothing to Vergil, whatever it was — “who stands accused of conspiracy and interloping.” He raised his eyebrows. “ ‘Conspiracy and interloping,’ ” he repeated thoughtfully with slight change of emphasis. “Can’t have that.”

He stood aside and gestured courteously, asked, “Shall we go in, master?”

They went in.

Vergil had gone in first, with some polite murmur, but he did not at first go in very far; for, the door closing behind them with a heavy thud that for some reason somewhat sickened him (as some sounds do), it was at first dim-dark. But even before his eyes regained full vision — he had with him, always, of course, a source of light of his own, but did not care always, or even often, to make use of it — even then he was able to see that, first, there was some glow of light from somewhere; next he saw, in that dim glow, evidently the man being “put to the question” — horrid obliquity of phrase! — a man, a young man, well muscled and unclad and arms upraised and wrists in chains; but —

“At least he does not barber his armpits,” said the magnate-host . . . hanging, thus, that beautiful body, and face intent and in pain, the young man naked and in chains: Vergil pitied him with all his heart, what matter for the moment all philosophy and polity and prating of the welfare of the Res Publica, the Public Thing: the State? The muscles of the arms and breast and belly moved and played and writhed, the upper body bent forward and moved, the chain moved somewhat; somewhere near, a bellows sighed and sounded: and, gods! what mattered where he shaved or not?

“Else we had not hired him.” The soft voice of the host in Vergil’s ear. “We want no perverts for this work, you know.”


The young man all naked and all sweat was not the victim. He was the torturer. The chains were not those of bondage, he had merely wound them round his wrists for purchase as he forced the bellows to force the fire, working it to heat