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The Night Villa

Chapter 1

When the first call came that morning I was with a student, so I
didn’t answer it.

“Don’t worry,” I told Agnes Hancock, one of my
most promising classics majors, “the machine will get

But it stopped after the third ring.

“I guess whoever was calling changed his mind,” Agnes
said, relacing her fingers to conceal the ragged cuticle on her
right thumb. She’d been gnawing on it when I found her
waiting outside my door --- ten minutes early for my eight
o’clock office hours. Most of my students were sound asleep
at this hour, which was why I held my office hours so early: to
discourage all but the most zealous. Agnes was definitely a zealot.
She was on a scholarship, for one thing, and had to maintain a high
average, but Agnes was also one of those rare students who seemed
to have a genuine passion for the material. She’d gone to a
high school with a rigorous Latin program and gotten the highest
score on the national Latin exam in the state. Not shabby for a
state as big as Texas. She wasn’t just good at declensions,
though; she had the ability to translate a line of ancient poetry
and turn it into poetry again, and the agility of mind to compare
the myths from one culture to those of another. She could have a
successful academic career in classics or comparative literature.
The only problem was that her personal life was often chaotic --- a
result, I suspected, of her looks.

Agnes was blessed with the kind of classic American beauty that you
thought only existed in fashion magazines --- until you saw someone
like her walking down the street. Long, shiny blond hair, flawless
skin, straight teeth she was born with, blue eyes --- the kind of
Barbie-looks I would have traded my dark hair and olive skin for
when I was growing up. I couldn’t complain though; the
enrollment in my Latin and mythology classes had never been so high
before Agnes declared her major. There were always a couple of
suitors waiting outside on the quad when we emerged from Parlin
Hall, but they had been replaced this year by one in particular: a
wild-eyed philosophy major who pursued her relentlessly through the
fall and then became so jealously possessive of her when she
finally agreed to go out with him that she’d broken up with
him over spring break. I hadn’t seen him since then and
I’d heard that he dropped out. Now I wondered if he was back.
I have a feeling the torn cuticles and dark shadows under her eyes
are his doing, but I’m afraid that if I ask her about it
she’ll burst into tears. And that won’t do either of us
any good. We’re both due in Main Building at nine
o’clock for the Classics Department’s summer internship
interviews. Which is why, no doubt, she’d camped out on my
doorstep so early this morning.

“It was probably someone calling about the final,” I
say, reaching toward the phone. “I’ll turn the ringer
off so we won’t be disturbed.”

“Oh no, you don’t have to do that, Dr. Chase. It
wasn’t anything that important . . .” She’s
already half out of her chair. I’d forgotten how easily
spooked she gets when attention, good or bad, is directed at her.
It surprised me at first because I thought that, with her looks,
she’d be used to it, but I’ve gathered through talks
we’ve had about her childhood that her father, a Baptist
minister in a small west Texas town, preached endlessly against the
sin of vanity. She seems to think it’s her fault when boys
fall in love with her, which has made it all the more difficult to
deal with her possessive ex-boyfriend.

“Don’t be silly, Agnes, I do it all the time. Believe
me, they’ll just e-mail me instead. My inbox will be filled
with a dozen questions designed to ferret out the exact passage
that’ll be on the exam. Anything to avoid actually reading
the whole of Metamorphoses.”

“But Ovid writes so beautifully,” Agnes says, her eyes
widening in genuine disbelief. “Why would anyone not want to
read everything he wrote? I especially love his version of the
Persephone and Demeter story. I’m using it for my

I smile, not just because of the pleasure of a shared literary
passion, but because my ploy has worked. At the mention of her
favorite poet a calm has settled over Agnes. She’s sunk back
into her chair and her hands, released from the knot she’d
wrung them into, fan open, loose and graceful, in her lap, like one
of those paper flowers that expand in water.

“Is that what you wanted to see me about? Your proposal to
Dr. Lawrence for the Papyrus Project?”

Agnes hesitates and I see her gaze stray out my second-story window
toward the quad, where a few students are lounging in patches of
shade cast by the live oaks. It’s not yet nine, but the
temperature is already in the eighties and the forecast predicts
it’ll break a hundred by noon. The sunlight between the trees
is so bright that it’s hard to make out anything but
amorphous shapes in the shade. So if Agnes is checking to see if
her ex-boyfriend is waiting for her, she’ll be looking in

“It’s on the role of women in mystery rites?” I
prompt. Since my specialty is women in the ancient world,
I’ve been coaching Agnes on her proposal.

“Yes,” she answers, tearing her eyes away from the
window. “I plan to argue that the frescoes in the newly
excavated section of the Villa della Notte, which was buried in the
eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, depict a mystery rite similar
to the ‘little mysteries’ of Agrai, which combined
Eleusinian and Dionysian elements.”

“And can you give a brief definition of mystery rites and of
those two in particular?”

“Sure. A mystery rite was a secret form of worship that
revealed some kind of ‘truth’ or doctrine only to those
initiated to the rite. They usually had something to do with the
afterlife. The most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which got
their name because they were originally celebrated in Eleusis,
Greece, and although we don’t know exactly what went on
because they were, well . . .”


“Yes, secret mysteries. We know they reenacted the story of
Persephone and Demeter. An initiate probably relived the story of
the rape of Persephone, her trip to the underworld, and then the
wandering of her mother, Demeter, who killed the crops and
everything growing because she was so upset at losing her daughter.
While she’s wandering around she comes to Eleusis, which is
why the rites were there, then she goes to Zeus, who sends Hermes
to bring Persephone back. Only Persephone had eaten some
pomegranate seeds, so she could only spend half the year
aboveground and the other half she had to spend in Hell --- I mean,
Hades . . .”

Agnes blushes at her slip, and I save her by nudging her on to the
next topic. “What about the Dionysian rites?”

“We think they reenacted the story of Dionysus Zagreus, a
variant of the wine god myth. In this version Dionysus is the son
of Zeus and Persephone . . .”

Agnes notices me lifting an eyebrow and a little light of
understanding dawns in her face, “Oh, I hadn’t thought
of that before! Persephone’s a link between the two myths!
Anyway, Hera, jealous of her husband’s illegitimate child,
gets the Titans to eat the baby” --- here Agnes makes a face
and mock shudders --- “but Athene rescues the heart and
brings it to Zeus, who eats it and proceeds to have another affair
--- this time with Semele, who gives birth to a new Dionysus. In
the rites, a group of women, called maenads, become intoxicated
with wine and reenact the dismemberment and consumption of the god
--- ”


“Oh no --- at least we hope not! I mean there is that play by
Euripides where Agave, the queen of Thebes, and her women are so
frenzied they tear apart Agave’s own son, Pentheus, but
probably they just tore apart bread meant to represent the god and
drank some more wine. Of course, if you believe Livy, the rites
turned into this big sex orgy, but I think that was just prejudice
because the rites were popular with women and took place at night.
Anyway . . .”

As Agnes goes on to describe the Dionysian elements in the frescoes
in Herculaneum, such as the presence of the traditional basket
(liknon) and wand (thrysus), I wonder, not for the first time, at a
Baptist minister’s daughter choosing to study pagan
religions. But then, casting off the family religion was no alien
concept to me, and I suppose studying Dionysian orgies and blood
sacrifices was as harmless an act of rebellion as the piercings and
tattoos sported by her contemporaries. Still, her passion for the
subject is a little unsettling. Describing the frenzy of the
maenads she begins to look like one herself, her cheeks pinking,
her blue eyes flashing, and her hair coming loose from its
ponytail. She comes abruptly back to herself when she notices, as I
do, that another call is coming in on my phone. The light flashes
four times and then stops. My caller has apparently gotten slightly
more determined to reach me.

“Excellent,” I say. “And now tell me why you have
to go to Italy to study these frescoes?”

“Well,” Agnes says, taking a deep gulp of air and
refastening her ponytail, “for one thing, the newly excavated
frescoes haven’t been photographed yet, but, most important,
they’ve also found charred papyrus rolls in the villa. The
little taggie things on them --- ”

“Sillyboi,” I suggest, providing the Greek term for the
tags that ancient librarians used to identify papyrus rolls.

“Um, yeah.” She giggles nervously. “I guess I
should use the Greek name, but it always makes me laugh . . . The
sillyboi indicate that the library of the villa was dedicated to
foreign religions --- there are books on Mithraism, Isis worship,
the cult of Cybele, Orphism, Pythagoreans --- so why wouldn’t
there be one that described the little mysteries that went on right
there? And while at one time we wouldn’t have been able to
read these scrolls because they were all burned on the outside when
Vesuvius erupted, Dr. Lawrence is going to use multispectral
imaging to see inside them . . . which I think is just so cool. I
really think Dr. Lawrence is a genius, don’t

Not Agnes, too. She hasn’t gotten caught in his web, has she?
Elgin Lawrence has a history of seducing his teaching assistants,
and Agnes is just his type --- and not just because she’s
beautiful. He preys on young girls who are insecure. Agnes’s
father might have thought he was doing her a favor by scourging her
of vanity, but he would have done better to instill a sense of
self-worth in his daughter.

I open my mouth to form some sort of polite but qualified response
to Elgin Lawrence’s claims to genius, but I am spared such
shameless equivocation by the appearance at the door of Barry
Biddle, Elgin’s grant partner on the Papyrus Project.

Excerpted from THE NIGHT VILLA © Copyright 2011 by Carol
Goodman. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights

The Night Villa
by by Carol Goodman

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • paperback: 413 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345479602
  • ISBN-13: 9780345479600