Claudius began to breathe his last, and could not
make an end of the matter. Then Mercury, who had always been much pleased with his
wit, drew aside one of the three Fates, and said: "Cruel beldame, why do you let the
poor wretch be tormented? After[p. 375]
all this torture cannot he have a
rest? Four and sixty years it is now since he began to pant for breath. What grudge
is this you bear against him and the whole empire? Do let the astrologers tell the
truth for once; since he became emperor, they have never let a year pass, never a
month, without laying him out for his burial. Yet it is no wonder if they are wrong,
and no one knows his hour. Nobody ever believed he was really quite born.1
Do what has to be done: “Kill him, and let a better man
rule in his
Clotho replied: 'Upon my word, I did wish to give him another hour or two, until he
should make Roman citizens of the half dozen who are still outsiders. (He made up
his mind, you know, to see the whole world in the toga, Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards,
Britons, and all.) But since it is your pleasure to leave a few foreigners for seed,
and since you command me, so be it." She opened her box and out came three spindles.
One was for Augurinus, one for Baba, one for Claudius.2
“These three,” she says,“I will cause to die within one year and
at no great distance apart, and I will not dismiss him unattended. Think of all
the thousands of men he was wont to see following after him, thousands going
before, thousands all crowding about him; and it would never do to leave him
alone on a sudden. These boon companions will satisfy him for the nonce.”
This said, she twists the thread around his ugly spindle once,
Snaps off the last bit of the life of that Imperial dunce.
But Lachesis, her hair adorned, her tresses neatly bound,
Pierian laurel on her locks, her brows with garlands crowned,
Plucks me from out the snowy wool new threads as white as snow,
Which handled with a happy touch change colour as they go,
Not common wool, but golden wire; the Sisters wondering gaze,
As age by age the pretty thread runs down the golden days.
World without end they spin away, the happy fleeces pull;
What joy they take to fill their hands with that delightful wool!
Indeed, the task performs itself: no toil the spinners know:
Down drops the soft and silken thread as round the spindles go;
Fewer than these are Tithon's years, not Nestor's life so long.
Phoebus is present: glad he is to sing a merry song;
Now helps the work, now full of hope upon the harp doth play;
The Sisters listen to the song that charms their toil away.
They praise their brother's melodies, and still the spindles run,
Till more than man's allotted span the busy hands have spun.
Then Phoebus says, "O sister Fates! I pray take none away,
But suffer this one life to be longer than mortal day.
Like me in face and lovely grace, like me in voice and song,
He'll bid the laws at length speak out that have been dumb so long,
Will give unto the weary world years prosperous and bright.
Like as the daystar from on high scatters the stars of night,
As, when the stars return again, clear Hesper brings his light,
Or as the ruddy dawn drives out the dark, and brings the day,
As the bright sun looks on the world, and speeds along its way
His rising car from morning's gates: so Caesar doth arise,
So Nero shows his face to Rome before the people's eyes;
His bright and shining countenance illumines all the air,
While down upon his graceful neck fall rippling waves of hair."
Thus Apollo. But Lachesis, quite as ready to cast a favourable eye on a
handsome man, spins away by the handful, and bestows years and years upon Nero out
of her own pocket. As for Claudius, they tell everybody
to speed him on his way
With cries of joy and solemn litany.
At once he bubbled up the ghost, and there was an end to that shadow of a
life. He was listening to a troupe of comedians when he died, so you see I have
reason to fear those gentry. The last words he was heard to speak in this world were
these. When he had made a great noise with that part of him which talked[p. 381]
easiest, he cried out, “Oh dear, oh dear! I think I have made
a mess of myself.” Whether he did or no, I cannot say, but certain it is
he always did make a mess of everything.