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Lloyd C. Douglas
By Lloyd C. Douglas
Published by Magdalene Press, November 2015
First published by
DEDICATED WITH APPRECIATION TO HAZEL MCCANN
Because she was only fifteenand busy with her growing up, Lucia’s periods of reflection were brief and infrequent; but this morning she felt weighted with responsibility.
Last night her mother, who rarely talked to her about anything more perplexing than the advantages of clean hands and a pure heart, had privately discussed the possible outcome of Father’s reckless remarks yesterday in the Senate; and Lucia, flattered by this confidence, had declared maturely that Prince Gaius wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.
But after she had gone to bed, Lucia began to fret. Gaius might indeed overlook her father’s heated comments about the extravagances and mismanagement of his government, if he had had no previous occasion for grievance against the Gallio family. There was, however, another grievance that no one knew about except herself—and Diana. They would all have to be careful now or they might get into serious trouble.
The birds had awakened her early. She was not yet used to their flutterings and twitterings, for they had returned much sooner than usual, Spring having arrived and unpacked before February’s lease was up. Lucia roused to a consciousness of the fret that she had taken to bed with her. It was still there, like a toothache.
Dressing quietly so as not to disturb Tertia, who was soundly sleeping in the alcove—and would be alarmed when she roused to find her mistress’s couch vacant—Lucia slipped her sandals softly over the exquisitely wrought mosaics that led from her bedchamber and through her parlor into the long corridor and down the wide stairway to thespacious hall and out into the vast peristyle where she paused, shielding her eyes against the sun.
For the past year or more, Lucia had been acutely conscious of her increasing height and rapid development into womanhood; but here on this expanse of tessellated tiling she always felt very insignificant. Everything in this immense peristyle dwarfed her; the tall marble columns that supported the vaulted roofs, the stately statues standing in their silent dignity on the close-clipped lawn, the high silver spray of the fountain. No matter how old she became, she would be ever a child here.
Nor did it make her feel any more mature when, proceeding along the patterned pavement, she passed Servius whose face had been as bronzed and deep-lined when Lucia was a mere toddler. Acknowledging with twinkling fingers and a smile the old slave’s grave salute, as he brought the shaft of his spear to his wrinkled forehead, she moved on to the vine-covered pergola at the far end of the rectangle.
There, with her folded arms resting on the marble balustrade that overlooked the terraced gardens, the arbors, the tiled pool, and commanded a breath-taking view of the city and the river, Lucia tried to decide whether to tell Marcellus. He would be terrifically angry, of course, and if he did anything about it at all he might make matters worse; but—somebody in the family must be informed where we stood in the opinion of Gaius before any more risks were taken. It was unlikely, thought Lucia, that she would have an opportunity to talk alone with her brother until later in the day; for Marcellus had been out—probably all night—at the Military Tribunes’ Banquet, and wouldn’t be up before noon; but she must resolve at once upon a course of action. She wished now that she had told Marcellus last summer, when it had happened.
The soft whisper of sandal-straps made her turn about. Decimus the butler was approaching, followed by the Macedonian twins bearing silver trays aloft on their outspread palms. Would his mistress, inquired Decimus with a deep bow, desire her breakfast served here?
‘Why not?’ said Lucia, absently.
Decimus barked at the twins and they made haste to prepare the table while Lucia watched their graceful movements with amused curiosity, as ifobserving the antics of a pair of playful terriers. Pretty things, they were; a little older than she, though not so tall; agile and shapely, and as nearly alike as two peas. It was the first time that Lucia had seen them in action, for they had been purchased only a week ago. Apparently Decimus, who had been training them, thought they were ready now for active duty. It would be interesting to see how they performed, for Father said they had been brought up in a home of refinement and were probably having their first experience of serving a table. Without risking an inquiring glance at the young woman who stood watching them, they proceeded swiftly but quietly with their task. They were both very white, observed Lucia, doubtless from confinement in some prisonship.
One of Father’s hobbies, and his chief extravagance, was the possession of valuable slaves. The Gallio family did not own very many, for Father considered it a vulgar, dangerous, and ruinously expensive vanity to have swarms of them about with little to do but eat, sulk, and conspire. He selected his slaves with the same discriminating care that he exercised when purchasing beautiful statuary and other art objects. He had no interest in public sales. Upon the return of a military expedition from some civilized country, the commanding officers would notify a few of their well-to-do acquaintances that a limited number of high-grade captives were available; and Father would go down, the day before the sale, and look them over, learn their history, sound them out, and if he found anything he wanted to add to his household staff he would bid. He never told anyone in the family how much he had paid for their slaves, but it was generally felt that he had never practiced economy in acquiring such merchandise.
Most of the people they knew were in a constant dither about their slaves; buying and selling and exchanging. It wasn’t often that Father disposed of one; and when, rarely, he had done so, it was because the slave had mistreated another over whom he had some small authority. They had lost an excellent cook that way, about a year ago. Minna had grown crusty and cruel toward the kitchen crew, scolding them loudly and knocking them about. She had been warned a few times. Then, one day,Minna had slapped Tertia. Lucia wondered, briefly, where Minna was now. She certainly did know how to bake honey cakes.
You had to say this for Father: he was a good judge of people. Of course, slaves weren’t people, exactly; but some of them were almost people. There was Demetrius, for example, who was at this moment marching through the colonnade with long, measured strides. Father had bought Demetrius six years ago and presented him to Marcellus on his seventeenth birthday. What a wonderful day that was, with all their good friends assembled in the Forum to see Marcellus—clean-shaven for the first time in his life—step forward to receive his white toga. Cornelius Capito and Father had made speeches, and then they had put the white toga on Marcellus. Lucia had been so proud and happy that her heart had pounded and her throat had hurt, though she was only nine then, and couldn’t know much about the ceremony except that Marcellus was expected to act like a man now—though sometimes he forgot to, when Demetrius wasn’t about.
Lucia pursed her full lips and grinned as she thought of their relationship; Demetrius, two years older than Marcellus, always so seriously respectful, never relaxing for an instant from his position as a slave; Marcellus, stern and dignified, but occasionally forgetting to be the master and slipping absurdly into the role of intimate friend. Very funny, it was sometimes. Lucia loved to watch them together at such moments. Of course she had about the same relation to Tertia; but that seemed different.
Demetrius had come from Corinth, where his father—a wealthy shipowner—had taken a too conspicuous part in defensive politics. Everything had happened at once in Demetrius’ family. His father had been executed, his two elder brothers had been given to the new Legate of Achaea, his patrician mother had committed suicide; and Demetrius—tall, handsome, athletic—had been brought to Rome under heavy guard, for he was not only valuable but violent.
Lucia remembered when, a week before Marcellus’ coming of age, she had heard Father telling Mother about his purchase of the Corinthianslave, only an hour earlier. She had been much impressed—and a little frightened, too.
‘He will require careful handling for a while,’ Father was saying. ‘He has seen some rough treatment. His keeper told me I had better sleep with a dagger under my pillow until the Corinthian cooled down. It seems he had badly beaten up one of his guards. Ordinarily, of course, they would have dealt with him briefly and decisively; but they were under orders to deliver him uninjured. They were quite relieved to get him off their hands.’
‘But is this not dangerous?’ Mother had inquired anxiously. ‘What might he not do to our son?’
‘That,’ Father had replied, ‘will be up to Marcellus. He will have to win the fellow’s loyalty. And he can do it, I think. All that Demetrius needs is an assurance of fair play. He will not expect to be petted. He is a slave, and he knows it—and hates it; but he will respond to decent discipline.’ And then Father had gone on to say that after he had paid the money and signed the documents, he had himself led Demetrius out of the narrow cell; and, when they were in the open plaza, had unlocked his chains; very carefully, too, for his wrists were raw and bleeding. ‘Then I walked on ahead of him,’ Father had continued, ‘without turning to see whether he was following me. Aulus had driven me down and was waiting inthe chariot at the Appian Gate, a few yards away. I had planned to bring the Corinthian back with me. But, as we neared the chariot, I decided to give him instructions about how to reach our villa on foot.’
‘Alone?’ Mother had exclaimed. ‘Was that not very risky?’
‘Yes,’ Father had agreed, ‘but not quite so risky as to have brought him here as a shackled prisoner. He was free to run away. I wanted him to be in a position to decide whether he would rather take a chance with us than gamble on some other fate. I could see that my gestures of confidence had surprised and mellowed him a little. He said—in beautiful Greek, for he had been well educated,“What shall I do, sir, when I arrive at your villa?”I told him to inquire for Marcipor, who would advise him. He nodded, and stood fumbling with the rusty chains that I had loosed from his hands.“Throw them away,”I said. Then I mounted the chariot, and drove home.’
‘I wonder if you will ever see him again,’ Mother had said; and, in answer to her question, Marcipor appeared in the doorway.
‘A young Corinthian has arrived, Master,’ said Marcipor, a Corinthian himself. ‘He says he belongs to us.’
‘That is true,’ Father said, pleased with the news. ‘I bought him this morning. He will attend my son, though Marcellus is to know nothing of this for the present. Feed him well. And provide him with a bath and clean clothing. He has been imprisoned for a long time.’
‘The Greek has already bathed, Master,’ replied Marcipor.
‘Quite right,’ approved Father. ‘That was thoughtful of you.’
‘I had not yet thought of it,’ admitted Marcipor. ‘I was in the sunken garden, supervising the building of the new rose arbor, when this Greek appeared. Having told me his name, and that he belonged here, he caught sight of the pool—’
‘You mean’—expostulated Mother— ‘that he dared to use our pool?’
‘I am sorry,’ Marcipor replied. ‘It happened so quickly I was unable to thwart it. The Greek ran swiftly, tossing aside his garments, and dived in. I regret the incident. The pool will be drained immediately, and thoroughly cleansed.’
‘Very good, Marcipor,’ said Father. ‘And do not rebuke him; though he should be advised not to do that again.’ And Father had laughed, after Marcipor had left the room. Mother said, ‘The fellow should have known better than that.’ ‘Doubtless he did,’ Father had replied. ‘But I cannot blame him. He must have been immensely dirty. The sight of that much water probably drove him temporarily insane.’
One could be sure, reflected Lucia, that Marcipor hadn’t been too hard on poor Demetrius; for, from that day, he had treated him as if he were his own son. Indeed, the attachment was so close that slaves more recently acquired often asked if Marcipor and Demetrius were not somehow related.
** * * *
Demetrius had reappeared from the house now, and was advancing over the tiled pavement on his way to the pergola. Lucia wondered whaterrand was bringing him. Presently he was standing before her, waiting for a signal to speak.
‘Yes, Demetrius?’ she drawled.
‘The Tribune,’ he announced, with dignity, ‘presents his good wishes for his sister’s health and happiness, and requests that he be permitted to join her at breakfast.’
Lucia brightened momentarily; then sobered, and replied, ‘Inform your master that his sister will be much pleased—and tell him,’ she added, in a tone somewhat less formal, ‘that breakfast will be served here in the pergola.’
After Demetrius had bowed deeply and was turning to go, Lucia sauntered past him and proceeded along the pavement for several yards. He followed her at a discreet distance. When they were out of earshot, she paused and confronted him.
‘How does he happen to be up so early?’ she asked, in a tone that was neither perpendicular nor oblique, but frankly horizontal. ‘Didn’t he go to the banquet?’
‘The Tribune attended the banquet,’ replied Demetrius, respectfully. ‘It is of that, perhaps, that he is impatient to speak.’
‘Now don’t tell me that he got into some sort of mess, Demetrius.’ She tried to invade his eyes, but the bridge was up.
‘If so,’ he replied, prudently, ‘the Tribune may wish to report it without the assistance of his slave. Shall I go now?’
‘You were there, of course, attending my brother,’ pursued Lucia. And when Demetrius bowed an affirmative, she asked, ‘Was Prince Gaius there?’ Demetrius bowed again, and she went on, uncertainly, ‘Did you—was he—had you an opportunity to notice whether the Prince was in good humor?’
‘Very,’ replied Demetrius— ‘until he went to sleep.’
‘Drunk?’ Lucia wrinkled her nose.
‘It is possible,’ deliberated Demetrius, ‘but it is not for me to say.’
‘Did the Prince seem friendly—toward my brother?’ persisted Lucia.
‘No more than usual.’ Demetrius shifted his weight and glanced toward the house.
Lucia sighed significantly, shook her black curls, and pouted.
‘You can be very trying sometimes, Demetrius.’
‘I know,’ he admitted ruefully. ‘May I go now? My master—’
‘By all means!’ snapped Lucia. ‘And swiftly!’ She turned and marched back with clipped steps to the pergola. Something had gone wrong last night, or Demetrius wouldn’t have taken that frozen attitude.
Decimus, whose instinct advised him that his young mistress was displeased, retreated to a safe distance. The twins, who had now finished laying the table, were standing side by side awaiting orders. Lucia advanced on them.
‘What are you called?’ she demanded, her tone still laced with annoyance.
‘I am Helen,’ squeaked one of them, nervously. ‘My sister is Nesta.’
‘Can’t she talk?’
‘Please—she is frightened.’
Their long-lashed eyes widened with apprehension as Lucia drew closer, but they did not flinch. Cupping her hands softly under their round chins, she drew up their faces, smiled a little, and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I won’t bite you.’ Then—as if caressing a doll—she toyed with the tight little curls that had escaped from Helen’s cap. Turning to Nesta, she untied and painstakingly retied her broad sash. Both girls’ eyes were swimming. Nesta stopped a big tear with the back of her hand.
‘Now, now,’ soothed Lucia, ‘don’t cry. No one is going to hurt you here.’ She impulsively abandoned the lullaby, drew herself erect, and declared proudly: ‘You belong to Senator Marcus Lucan Gallio! He paid a great price for you—because you are valuable; and—because you are valuable—you will not be mistreated.... Decimus’—she called, over her shoulder— ‘see that these pretty children have new tunics; white ones—with coral trimmings.’ She picked up their hands, one by one, and examined them critically. ‘Clean,’ she remarked, half aloud— ‘and beautiful, too. That is good.’ Facing Decimus, she said: ‘You may go now. Take the twins. Have them bring the food. My brother will have breakfast with me here. You need not come back.’
Lucia had never liked Decimus very well; not that there was any particular ground for complaint, for he was a perfect servant; almost too deferential, a chilling deference that lacked only a little of being sulkiness. It had been Lucia’s observation that imported slaves were more comfortable to live with than the natives. Decimus had been born in Rome and had been in their family for almost as long as Lucia could remember. He had a responsible position: attended to all the purchasing of supplies for their tables, personally interviewed the merchants, visited the markets, met the foreign caravans that brought spices and other exotics from afar; a very competent person indeed, who minded his own business, kept his own counsel, and carried himself with dignity. But he was a stranger.
One never could feel toward Decimus as one did toward good old Marcipor who was always so gentle—and trustworthy too. Marcipor had managed the business affairs of the family for so long that he probably knew more about their estate than Father did.
Decimus bowed gravely now, as Lucia dismissed him, and started toward the house, his stiff back registering disapproval of this episode that had flouted the discipline he believed in and firmly exercised. The Macedonians, their small even teeth flashing an ecstatic smile, scampered away, hand in hand, without waiting for formal permission. Lucia stopped them in their tracks with a stern command.
‘Come back here!’ she called severely. They obeyed with spiritless feet and stood dejectedly before her. ‘Take it easy,’ drawled Lucia. ‘You shouldn’t romp when you’re on duty. Decimus does not like it.’
They looked up shyly from under their long lashes, and Lucia’s lips curled into a sympathetic grin that relighted their eyes.
‘You may go now,’ she said, abruptly resuming a tone of command. Lounging onto the long marble seat beside the table, she watched the twins as they marched a few paces behind Decimus, their spines straight and stiff as arrows, accenting each determined step with jerks of their heads from side to side, in quite too faithful imitation of the crusty butler. Lucia chuckled. ‘The little rascals,’ she muttered. ‘They deserve to be spanked for that.’ Then she suddenly sobered and sat studiously frowning at the rhythmic flexion of her sandaled toes. Marcellus would be here in amoment. How much—if anything—should she tell her adored brother about her unpleasant experience with Gaius? But first, of course, she must discover what dreadful thing had happened last night at the Tribunes’ Banquet.
* * * * *
‘Good morning, sweet child!’ Marcellus tipped back his sister’s head, noisily kissed her between the eyes, and tousled her hair, while Bambo, his big black sheep-dog, snuggled his grinning muzzle under her arm and wagged amiably.
‘Down! Both of you!’ commanded Lucia. ‘You’re uncommonly bright this morning, Tribune Marcellus Lucan Gallio. I thought you were going to a party at the Club.’
‘Ah—my infant sister—but what a party!’ Marcellus gingerly touched his finely moulded, close-cropped, curly head in several ailing areas, and winced. ‘You may well be glad that you are not—and can never be—a Tribune. It was indeed a long, stormy night.’
‘A wet one, at any rate, to judge from your puffy eyes. Tell me about it—or as much as you can remember.’ Lucia scooped Bambo off the marble lectus with her foot, and her brother eased himself onto the seat beside her. He laughed, reminiscently, painfully.
‘I fear I disgraced the family. Only the dear gods know what may come of it. His Highness was too far gone to understand, but someone will be sure to tell him before the day is over.’
Lucia leaned forward anxiously, laid a hand on his knee, and searched his cloudy eyes.
‘Gaius?’ she asked, in a frightened whisper. ‘What happened, Marcellus?’
‘A poem,’ he muttered, ‘an ode; a long, tiresome, incredibly stupid ode, wrought for the occasion by old Senator Tuscus, who, having reached that ripeness of senescence where Time and Eternity are mistaken for each other—’
‘Sounds as if you’d arrived there, too,’ broke in Lucia. ‘Can’t you speed it up a little?’
‘Don’t hurry me, impatient youth,’ sighed Marcellus. ‘I am very frail. As I was saying, this interminable ode, conceived by the ancient Tuscus to improve his rating, was read by his son Antonius, also in need of royal favor; a grandiloquent eulogy to our glorious Prince.’
‘He must have loved the flattery,’ observed Lucia, ‘and of course you all applauded it. You and Tullus, especially.’
‘I was just coming to that,’ said Marcellus, thickly. ‘For hours there had been a succession of rich foods and many beverages; also a plentitude of metal music interspersed with Greek choruses—pretty good—and an exhibition of magic—pretty bad; and some perfunctory speeches, of great length and thickness. A wrestling-match, too, I believe. The night was far advanced. Long before Antonius rose, my sister, if any man among us had been free to consult his own desire, we would all have stretched out on our comfortable couches and slept. The gallant Tullus, of whose good health you are ever unaccountably solicitous, sat across from me, frankly asleep like a little child.’
‘And then you had the ode,’ encouraged Lucia, crisply.
‘Yes—we then had the ode. And as Antonius droned on—and on—he seemed to recede farther and farther; his features became dimmer and dimmer; and the measured noise he was making sounded fainter and fainter, as my tortured eyes grew hotter and heavier—’
‘Marcellus!’ shouted Lucia. ‘In the name of every immortal god! Get on with it!’
‘Be calm, impetuous child. I do not think rapidlyto-day. Never again shall I be anything but tiresome. That ode did something to me, I fear. Well—after it had been inching along for leagues and decades, I suddenly roused, pulled myself together, and gazed about upon the distinguished company. Almost everyone had peacefully passed away, except a few at the high table whose frozen smiles were held with clenched teeth; and Antonius’ insufferable young brother, Quintus, who was purple with anger. I can’t stomach that arrogant pup and he knows I despise him.’
‘Gaius!’ barked Lucia, in her brother’s face, so savagely that Bambo growled. ‘I want to know what you did to offend Gaius!’
Marcellus laughed whimperingly, for it hurt; then burst into hysterical guffaws.
‘If the Glorious One had been merely asleep, quietly, decently, with his fat chins on his bosom—as were his devoted subjects—your unfortunate brother might have borne it. But our Prince had allowed his head to tip far back. His mouth—by no means a thing of beauty, at best—was open. The tongue protruded unprettily and the bulbous nose twitched at each resounding inhalation. Our banquet-hall was deathly quiet, but for Antonius and Gaius, who shared the floor.’
‘Revolting!’ muttered Lucia.
‘A feeble word, my sister. You should give more heed to your diction. Well—at that fateful moment Antonius had reached the climax of his father’s ode with an apostrophe to our Prince that must have caused a storm on Mount Parnassus,Gaius was a Fountain of Knowledge! The eyes of Gaius glowed with Divine Light! When the lips of Gaius moved, Wisdom flowed and Justice smiled!... Precious child,’ went on Marcellus, taking her hand, ‘I felt my tragic mishap coming on, not unlike an unbeatable sneeze. I suddenly burst out laughing! No—I do not mean that I chuckled furtively into my hands: I threw back my head and roared! Howled! Long, lusty yells of insane laughter!’ Reliving the experience, Marcellus went off again into an abandon of undisciplined mirth. ‘Believe me—I woke everybody up—but Gaius.’
Suddenly sobered by the tone of alarm in his sister’s voice, he looked into her pale, unsmiling face.
‘What is it, Lucia?’ he demanded. ‘Are you ill?’
‘I’m—afraid!’ she whispered, weakly.
He put his arm about her and she pressed her forehead against his shoulder.
‘There, there!’ he murmured. ‘We’ve nothing to fear, Lucia. I was foolish to have upset you. I thought you would be amused. Gaius will beangry, of course, when he learns of it; but he will not venture to punish the son of Marcus Lucan Gallio.’
‘But—you see—’ stammered Lucia, ‘it was only yesterday that Father openly criticized him in the Senate. Had you not heard?’
‘Of course; but the Pater’s strong enough to take care of himself,’ declared Marcellus, almost too confidently to be convincing. There was a considerable pause before his sister spoke. He felt her body trembling.
‘If it were just that one thing,’ she said, slowly, ‘perhaps it might be overlooked. But—now you have offended him. And he was already angry at me.’
‘You!’ Marcellus took her by the shoulders and stared into her worried eyes. ‘And why should Gaius be angry at you?’
‘Do you remember, last summer, when Diana and her mother and I were guests at the Palace on Capri—and Gaius came to visit the Emperor?’
‘Well? Go on!’ demanded Marcellus. ‘What of it? What did he say? What did he do?’
‘He tried to make love to me.’
‘That loathsome beast!’ roared Marcellus, leaping to his feet. ‘I’ll tear his dirty tongue out! I’ll gouge his eyes out with my thumbs! Why haven’t you told me this before?’
‘You have given the reason,’ said Lucia, dejectedly. ‘I was afraid of the tongue-tearing—and eye-gouging. Had my brother been a puny, timid man, I might have told him at once. But my brother is strong and brave—and reckless. Now that I have told him, he will kill Gaius; and my brother, whom I so dearly love, will be put to death, and my father, too, I suppose. And my mother will be banished or imprisoned, and—’
‘What did Mother think about this?’ broke in Marcellus.
‘I did not tell her.’
‘Why not? You should have done so—instantly!’
‘Then she would have told Father. That would have been as dangerous as telling my brother.’
‘You should have told the Emperor!’ spluttered Marcellus. ‘Tiberius is no monument to virtue, but he would have done something about that! He’s not so very fond of Gaius.’
‘Don’t be foolish! That half-crazy old man? He would probably have gone into one of his towering tantrums, and scolded Gaius in the presence of everybody; and then he would have cooled off and forgotten all about it. But Gaius wouldn’t have forgotten! No—I decided to ignore it. Nobody knows—but Diana.’
‘Diana! If you thought you had such a dangerous secret, why should you tell that romping infant Diana?’
‘Because she was afraid of him, too, and understood my reasons for not wanting to be left alone with him. But Diana is not a baby, Marcellus. She is nearly sixteen. And—if you pardon my saying so—I think you should stop mussing her hair, and tickling her under the chin, when she comes here to visit me—as if she were five, and you a hundred.’
‘Sorry! It hadn’t occurred to me that she would resent my playful caresses. I never thought of her except as a child—like yourself.’
‘Well—it’s time you realized that Diana is a young woman. If she resents your playful caresses, it is not because they are caresses but because they are playful.’ Lucia hesitated; then continued softly, her eyes intent on her brother’s gloomy face. ‘She might even like your caresses—if they meant anything. I think it hurts her, Marcellus, when you call her“Sweetheart.”’
‘I had not realized that Diana was so sensitive,’ mumbled Marcellus. ‘She is certainly stormy enough when anything displeases her. She was audacious enough to demand that her name be changed.’
‘She hated to be called Asinia, Marcellus,’ said Lucia, loyally. ‘Diana is prettier, don’t you think?’
‘Perhaps,’ shrugged Marcellus. ‘Name of a silly goddess. The name of the Asinius stock is noble; means something!’
‘Don’t be tiresome, Marcellus!’ snapped Lucia. ‘What I am saying is: Diana would probably enjoy having you call her “Sweetheart”—if—’
Marcellus, who had been restlessly panthering about, drew up to inspect his sister with sudden interest.
‘Are you trying to imply that this youngster thinks she is fond of me?’
‘Of course! And I think you’re pretty dumb, not to have noticed it! Come and sit down—and compose yourself. Our breakfast is on the way.’
Marcellus glanced casually in the direction of the house; then stared frowningly; then rubbed his eyes with his fists, and stared again. Lucia’s lips puckered into a reluctant grin.
‘In truth, my sister,’ he groaned, ‘I am in much worse condition than I had supposed.’
‘You’re all right, Tribune,’ she drawled. ‘There really are two of them.’
‘Thanks! I am relieved. Are they as bright as they are beautiful?’ he asked, as the twins neared.
‘It is too early to tell. This is their first day on duty. Don’t frighten them, Marcellus. They’re already scared half out of their wits. They have never worked before... No, no, Bambo! Come here!’
Rosy with embarrassment, the Macedonians began unburdening their silver trays, fussily pretending they were not under observation.
‘Cute little things; aren’t they?’ chirped Marcellus. ‘Where did Father pick them up?’
‘Don’t!’ whispered Lucia. She rose and walked to the balustrade, her brother sauntering after her. They turned their faces toward the city. ‘What did Tullus think of what you did?’ she asked, irrelevantly.
‘Tell me’—Marcellus ignored her query— ‘is there anything peculiar about these slaves that makes you so extraordinarily considerate?’
Lucia shook her head, without looking up—and sighed.
‘I was just thinking,’ she said, at length, ‘how I might feel if I were in their place.’ Her troubled eyes lifted to meet his look of inquiry. ‘It is not impossible, Marcellus, that I may soon find myself in some such predicament.... You wouldn’t like that. Would you?’
‘Nonsense!’ he growled, out of the corner of his mouth. ‘You’re making too great a disaster of this! Nothing’s going to happen. I’ll see to that.’
‘How?’ demanded Lucia. ‘How are you going to see to it?’
‘Well’—temporized Marcellus— ‘what do you think I should do—short of going to that ugly reptile with an apology?’
Lucia brightened a little and laid her hand on his arm.
‘Do that!’ she pleaded. ‘To-day! Make peace with him, Marcellus! Tell him you were drunk. You were; weren’t you?’
‘I’d rather be flogged—in the market-place!’
‘Yes—I know. And perhaps you will be. Gaius is dangerous!’
‘Ah—what could he do? Tiberius would not permit his half-witted stepson to punish a member of the Gallio family. It’s common knowledge that the old man despises him.’
‘Yes—but Tiberius consented to his regency because Julia demanded it. And Julia still has to be reckoned with. If it came to a decision whether that worn-out old man should stand up for the Gallio family—against Gaius—with his shrewish wife screaming in his ears, I doubt that he would trouble himself. Julia would stop at nothing!’
‘The vindictive old—’ Marcellus paused on the edge of a kennel word.
‘Think it over.’ Lucia’s tone was brighter, as if she felt herself gaining ground. ‘Come—let us eat our breakfast. Then you will go to Gaius, and take your medicine. Praise him! Flatter him! He can stand any amount of it. Tell him he is beautiful! Tell him there’s nobody in the whole Empire as wise as he is. Tell him he is divine! But—be sure you keep your face straight. Gaius already knows you have a keen sense of humor.’
* * * * *
Having decided to accept his sister’s counsel, Marcellus was anxious to perform his unpleasant duty and be done with it. Prudence suggested that he seek an interview through the formal channels and await the convenience of the Prince; but, increasingly impressed by the gravity of his position, he resolved to ignore the customary court procedure and take a chance of seeing Gaius without an appointment. By appearing at the Palace shortly before noon, he might even be lucky enough to have a few minutes alone with the Prince before anyone had informed him about last night’s mishap.
At ten, rejuvenated by a hot bath, a vigorous massage by Demetrius, and a plunge in the pool, the Tribune returned to his rooms, dressed with care, and sauntered downstairs. Observing that the library door was ajar, he paused to greet his father, whom he had not seen since yesterday. The handsome, white-haired Senator was seated at his desk, writing. He glanced up, nodded, smiled briefly, and invited Marcellus to come in.
‘If you are at libertyto-day, my son, I should be pleased to have you go with me to inspect a span of matched Hispanian mares.’
‘I should like to, sir; but might to-morrow serve as well? I have an important errand to do; something that cannot be put off.’ There was a note of anxiety in the Tribune’s voice that narrowed the wise old eyes.
‘Nothing serious, I trust.’ Gallio pointed to a vacant seat.
‘I hope not, sir.’ Marcellus sat tentatively on the broad arm of the chair as a fair compromise between candid reticence and complete explanation.
‘Your manner,’ observed his father, pointedly, ‘suggests that you are worried. I have no wish to intrude upon your private perplexities, but is there anything I might do for you?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir; thank you.’ After a moment of indecision, Marcellus slowly slid into the chair and regarded his distinguished parent with a sober face. ‘If you have the time, I will tell you.’
Gallio nodded, put down his stylus, and leaned forward on his folded arms encouragingly. It was quite a long narrative. Marcellus did not spare himself. He told it all. At one juncture, he was half-disposed to introduce Lucia’s dilemma as relevant to his own; but decided against it, feeling that their pater was getting about all he could take for one session. He concluded, at length, with the declaration that he was going at once to apologize. Gallio, who had listened attentively but without comment, now shook his leonine head and shouted ‘No!’ He straightened and shook his head again. ‘No!—No, no!’
Amazed by his father’s outburst, for he had anticipated his full approval, Marcellus asked, ‘Why not, sir?’
‘The most dangerous implement a man can use for the repair of a damaged relationship is an abject apology.’ Gallio pushed back his huge chair and rose to his full height as if preparing to deliver an address. ‘Even in the most favorable circumstances, as when placating an injured friend, a self-abasing apology may do much harm. If the friend is contented with nothing less, he should not be served with it at all; for his friendship is not worth its upkeep. In the case of Gaius, an apology would be a fatality; for you are not dealing here with a gentleman, but with a congenital scoundrel. Your apology will imply that you expect Gaius to be generous. Generosity,in his opinion, is a sign of weakness. By imputing it to him, you will have given him further offense. Gaius has reasons to be sensitive about his power. Never put yourself on the defensive with a man who is fretting about his own insecurity. Here, he says, is at least one opportunity to demonstrate my strength.’
‘Perhaps you are right, sir,’ conceded Marcellus.
‘Perhaps? Of course, I am right!’ The Senator walked to the door, closed it softly, and resumed his seat. ‘And that is not all,’ he went on. ‘Let me refresh your mind about the peculiar relations in the imperial family which explain why Gaius is a man to be watched and feared. There is old Tiberius, alternately raging and rotting in his fifty-room villa on Capri; a pathetic and disgusting figure, mooning over his necromancies and chattering to his gods—My son,’ Gallio interrupted himself, ‘there is always something fundamentally wrong with a rich man or a king who pretends to be religious. Let the poor and helpless invoke the gods. That is what the gods are for—to distract the attention of the weak from their otherwise intolerable miseries. When an emperor makes much ado about religion, he is either cracked or crooked. Tiberius is not crooked. If he is cracked, the cause is not far to seek. For a score of years he has nursed a bitter grudge against his mother for demanding that he divorce Vipsania—the only creature he ever loved—’
‘I think he is fond of Diana,’ interjected Marcellus.
‘Right! And why? He is fond of the child because she is Vipsania’s granddaughter. Let us remember that he was not a bad ruler in his earlier days. Rome had never known such prosperity; not even under Julius. As you know, when Vipsania passed out of his life, Tiberius went to pieces; lost all interest in the Empire; surrounded himself with soothsayers, mountebanks, priests, and astrologers. Presently his mind was so deranged by all this nonsense that he consented to marry Julia, whom he had despised from childhood.’ The Senator chuckled, not very pleasantly, and remarked: ‘Perhaps that was why he wished to be relieved of all his administrative duties. He found that to hate Julia as adequately as she deserved to be hated, he had to make it a full-time occupation. So—there was the vixenish Julia, together with the obnoxious offspring she hadwhelped before he married her. And he has not only hated Julia: he has been deathly afraid of her—and with good reason—for she has the morbid mind of an assassin—and the courage, too.’
‘Lucia says the old gentleman never touches his wine, at table, until the Empress has tasted it,’ put in Marcellus, ‘but she thought that was just a little family joke.’
‘We will not disturb your young sister with any other interpretation,’ advised the Senator, ‘but it is no joke; nor is Tiberius merely trying to be playful when he stations a dozen Numidian gladiators at the doors and windows of his bedchamber.... Now, these facts are, I suspect, never absent very long from Gaius’ mind. He knows that the Emperor is half-insane; that his mother lives precariously; and that if anything should happen to her his regency would last no longer than it takes a galley to clear for Crete with a deposed prince on board.’
‘Were that to happen,’ broke in Marcellus, ‘who would succeed Gaius?’
‘Well—’ Gallio slighted the query with a shrug. ‘It will not happen. If anyone dies, down there, it won’t be Julia. You can depend on that.’
‘But—just supposing—’ persisted Marcellus. ‘If, for any reason—accident, illness, or forthright murder—Julia should be eliminated—and Gaius, too, in consequence—do you think Tiberius might put Asinius Gallus on the throne?’
‘It is possible,’ said Gallio. ‘The Emperor might feel that he was making tardy amends to Vipsania by honoring her son. And Gallus would be no mean choice. No Roman has ever commanded more respect than Pollio, his learned sire. Gallus would have the full support of our legions—both at home and abroad. However’—he added, half to himself— ‘a brave soldier does not inevitably make a wise monarch. Your military commander has only a foreign foe to fight. All that he requires is tactics and bravery. An emperor is forever at war with a jealous court, an obstreperous Senate, and a swarm of avaricious landholders. What he needs is a keen scent for conspiracy, a mind crafty enough to outmaneuver treachery, a natural talent for duplicity—and the hide of an alligator.’
‘Thick enough to turn the point of a stiletto,’ assisted Marcellus.
‘It is a hazardous occupation,’ nodded Gallio, ‘but I do not think our excellent friend Gallus will ever be exposed to its dangers.’
‘I wonder how Diana would like being a princess,’ remarked Marcellus, absently. He glanced up to find his father’s eyes alight with curiosity.
‘We are quite far afield, aren’t we; discussing Diana?’ observed Gallio, slyly. ‘Are you interested in her?’
‘Not any more than Lucia is,’ replied Marcellus, elaborately casual. ‘They are, as you know, inseparable. Naturally, I see Diana almost every day.’
‘A beautiful and amazingly vivacious child,’ commented the Senator.
‘Beautiful and vivacious,’ agreed Marcellus—‘but not a child. Diana is nearly sixteen, you know.’
‘Old enough to be married: is that what you are trying to say? You could hardly do better—if she can be tamed. Diana has fine blood. Sixteen, eh? It is a wonder Gaius has not noticed. He might do himself much good in the esteem of the Emperor—and he certainly is in need of it—if he should win Diana’s favor.’
‘She loathes him!’
‘Indeed? Then she has talked with you about it?’
‘No, sir. Lucia told me.’
There was a considerable interval of silence before Gallio spoke again, slowly measuring his words.
‘In your present strained relation to Gaius, my son, you would show discretion, I think, if you made your attentions to Diana as inconspicuous as possible.’
‘I never see her anywhere else than here, sir.’
‘Even so: treat her casually. Gaius has spies everywhere.’
‘Here—in our house?’ Marcellus frowned incredulously.
‘Why not? Do you think that Gaius, the son of Agrippa, who never had an honest thought in his life, and of Julia, who was born with both ears shaped like keyholes, would be too honorable for that?’ Gallio deftly rolled up the scroll that lay at his elbow, indicating that he was ready to put aside his work for the day. ‘We have discussed this fully enough, I think. As for what occurred last night, the Prince’s friends may advise him to let thematter drop. Your best course is to do nothing, say nothing—and wait developments.’ He rose and straightened the lines of his toga. ‘Come! Let us ride to Ismael’s camp and look at the Hispanians. You will like them; milk-white, high-spirited, intelligent—and undoubtedly expensive. Ismael, the old rascal, knows I am interested in them, unfortunately for my purse.’
Marcellus responded eagerly to his father’s elevated mood. It was almost as if the shrewd Marcus Lucan Gallio had firmly settled the unhappy affair with Gaius. He opened the door for the Senator to precede him. In the atrium, leaning against a column, lounged Demetrius. Coming smartly to attention he saluted with his spear and followed a few paces behind the two men as they strolled through the vasty rooms and out to the spacious western portico.
‘Rather unusual for Demetrius to be loitering in the atrium,’ remarked Marcellus in a guarded undertone.
‘Perhaps he was standing there,’ surmised Gallio, ‘to discourage anyone else from loitering by the door.’
‘Do you think he may have had a special reason for taking that precaution?’
‘Possibly. He was with you at the banquet; knows that you gave offense to Gaius; concludes that you are in disfavor; and, by adding it all up, thinks it is time to be vigilant.’
‘Shall I ask him if he suspects that there are spies in the house?’ suggested Marcellus.
Gallio shook his head.
‘If he observes anything irregular, he will tell you, my son.’
‘I wonder who this is coming.’ Marcellus nodded toward a uniformed Equestrian Knight who had just turned in from the Via Aurelia. ‘We’re to be honored,’ he growled. ‘It is Quintus, the younger Tuscus. The Prince has been seeing much of him lately, I hear.’
The youthful Tribune, followed by a well-mounted aide, rode briskly toward them; and, neglecting to salute, drew a gilded scroll from the belt of his tunic.
‘I am ordered by His Highness, Prince Gaius, to deliver this message into the hands of Tribune Marcellus Lucan Gallio,’ he barked, haughtily.The aide, who had dismounted, carried the scroll up the steps and handed it over.
‘His Highness might do well to employ messengers with better manners,’ drawled Marcellus. ‘Are you to await an answer?’
‘Imperial commands require obedience; not replies!’ shouted Quintus. He pulled his horse about savagely, dug in his spurs, and made off, pursued by his obsequious aide.
‘Gaius is prompt,’ commented the Senator. There was satisfaction on his face as he watched his son’s steady hands, and the cool deliberateness with which he drew his dagger and thrust the point of it through the wax. Unrolling the ostentatious document, Marcellus held it at an angle where his father might share its contents. Gallio read it aloud, in a rasping undertone.
Prince Gaius Drusus Agrippa to Trib. Marcellus Lucan Gallio:
The courage of a Military Tribune should not be squandered in banquet-halls. It should be serving the Empire in positions where reckless audacity is honorable and valorous. Tribune Marcellus Lucan Gallio is commanded to report, before sunset, at the Praetorium of Chief Legate M. Cornelius Capito, and receive his commission.
Marcellus rolled up the scroll, tossed it negligently to Demetrius, who thrust it into the breast of his tunic; and, turning to his father, remarked, ‘We have plenty of time to go out and see Ismael’s horses.’
The Senator proudly drew himself erect, gave his son a respectful bow, strutted down the marble steps; and, taking the bridle reins, mounted his mettlesome black gelding. Marcellus beckoned to Demetrius.
‘You heard that message?’ he queried, abruptly.
‘Not if it was private, sir,’ countered Demetrius.
‘Sounds a bit malicious,’ observed Marcellus. ‘The Prince evidently wishes to dispose of me.’
‘Yes, sir,’ agreed Demetrius.
‘Well—I brought this upon myself,’ said Marcellus. ‘I shall not order you to risk your life. You are at liberty to decide whether—’
‘I shall go with you, sir.’
‘Very good. Inspect my equipment—and look over your own tackle, too.’ Marcellus started down the steps, and turned to say, soberly, ‘You’re going to your death, you know.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Demetrius. ‘You will need some heavier sandals, sir. Shall I get them?’
‘Yes—and several pairs for yourself. Ask Marcipor for the money.’
After a lively tussle with the bay, who was impatient to overtake her stable-mate, Marcellus drew up beside the Senator, and they slowed their horses to a trot.
‘I tarried for a word with Demetrius. I shall take him with me.’
‘I told him he might decide.’
‘That was quite proper.’
‘I told him he might never come back alive.’
‘Probably not,’ said the Senator, grimly, ‘but you can be assured that he will never come back alone.’
‘Demetrius is a very sound fellow—for a slave,’ observed Marcellus.
The Senator made no immediate rejoinder, but his stern face and flexed jaw indicated that his reflections were weighty.
‘My son,’ he said at length, staring moodily down the road, ‘we could use a few men in the Roman Senate with the brains and bravery of your slave, Demetrius.’ He pulled his horse down to a walk. ‘“Demetrius is a sound fellow—for a slave”; eh? Well—his being a slave does not mean that what he thinks, what he says, and what he does are unimportant. One of these days the slaves are going to take over this rotted Government! They could do it to-morrow if they were organized. You might say that their common desire for liberty should unite them, but that is not enough. All men want more liberty than they have. What the Roman slaves lack is leadership. In time, that will come. You shall see!’ The Senator paused so long, after this amazing declaration, that Marcellus felt some response was in order.
‘I never heard you express that opinion before, sir. Do you think there will be an uprising—among the slaves?’
‘It lacks form,’ replied Gallio. ‘It lacks cohesion. But some day it will take shape; it will be integrated; it will develop a leader, a cause, a slogan, a banner. Three-fourths of this city’s inhabitants either have been or are slaves. Daily our expeditionary forces arrive with new shiploads of them. It would require a very shrewd and powerful Government to keep in subjugation a force three times its size and strength. But—look at our Government! A mere hollow shell! It has no moral fiber! Content with its luxury, indolence, and profligacy, its extravagant pageants in honor of its silly gods; ruled by an insane dotard and a drunken nonentity! So, my son, Rome is doomed! I do not venture to predict when or how Nemesis will arrive—but it is on its way. The Roman Empire is too weak and wicked to survive!’
Cornelius Capito was not in when Marcellus called at three to learn what Gaius had planned for him. This was surprising and a bit ominous too. The conspicuous absence of the Chief Legate, and his deputizing of a young understrapper to handle the case, clearly meant that Capito had no relish for an unpleasant interview with the son of his lifelong friend.
The Gallios had walked their horses for the last two miles of the journey in from Ismael’s camp where the Senator had declined to purchase the Hispanian mares at the exorbitant price demanded by the avaricious old Syrian, though it was plain to see that the day’s events had dulled his interest in the negotiation.
The Senator’s mind was fully occupied now with speculations about Cornelius. If anybody in Rome could temper the punitive assignment which Gaius intended for his son, it would be the Commander of the Praetorian Guard and Chief of the Legates who wielded an enormous power in the making of appointments.
Slipping into a reminiscent—and candidly pessimistic—mood, the elder Gallio had recited the deplorable story they both knew by heart, the dismal epic of the Praetorian Guard. Marcellus had been brought up on it. As if his son had never heard the tale before, the Senator began away back in the time when Julius Caesar had created this organization for his own security. Picked men they were, with notable records for daring deeds. As the years rolled on, the traditions of the Praetorian Guard became richer. A magnificent armory was built to house its battle trophies, and in its spacious atrium were erected bronze and marble tablets certifying to the memorable careers of its heroes. To be a member of the Praetorian Guard in those great—long since outmoded—days when courage and integrity were valuable property, was the highest honor the Empire could bestow.
Then, Gallio had continued gloomily, Augustus—whose vanity had swollen into a monstrous, stinking, cancerous growth—had begun to confer honorary memberships upon his favorites; upon Senators who slavishly approved his mistakes and weren’t above softening the royal sandal-straps with their saliva; upon certain rich men who had fattened on manipulations in foreign loot; upon wealthy slave-brokers, dealers in stolen sculpture; upon provincial revenue-collectors; upon almost anybody indeed who could minister to the diseased Augustan ego, or pour ointment on his itching avarice. And thus had passed away the glory and distinction of the Praetorian Guard. Its memberships were for sale.
For a little while, Tiberius had tried to arrest its accelerating descent into hell. Cornelius Capito, who had so often led his legion into suicidal forays that a legend had taken shape about him—for were not the gods directing a man whose life was so cheaply held and so miraculously preserved?—was summoned home to be Commander of the Praetorian Guard. Capito had not wanted the office, but had obeyed the command. With the same kind of recklessness that had won him honors on many a battlefield, he had begun to clean up the discredited institution. But it hadn’t been long until hard pressure on Tiberius made it necessary for the Emperor to caution the uncompromising warrior about his honest zeal. He mustn’t go too far in this business of cleansing the Praetorian Guard.
‘It was then,’ declaimed Gallio, ‘that brave old Capito discovered, to his dismay, why Tiberius had called him to be the Commander; simply to use his name as a deodorant!’
Marcellus had realized, at this juncture of his father’s painful reflections, that the remainder of the story would be somewhat embarrassing; for it concerned the Military Tribunes.
‘If Augustus had only been content’—the Senator was proceeding according to schedule— ‘with his destruction of the Praetorian Guard! Perhaps, had he foreseen the result of his policy there, not even his rapacious greed could have induced him to work the same havoc with the Order of Tribunes. But you know what happened, my son.’
Yes—Marcellus knew. The Order of Tribunes had been honorable too. You had to be a Tribune, in deed and in truth, if you wanted to wearits insignia. Like the Praetorian Guard, it too was handsomely quartered. Tribunes, home on furlough or recovering from injuries or awaiting orders, took advantage of the library, the baths, the commissary that the Empire had provided for them. Then Augustus had decided to expand the Order of Tribunes to include all sons of Senators and influential taxpayers. You needn’t ever have shouted an order or spent a night in a tent. If your father had enough money and political weight, you could wear the uniform and receive the salute.
Marcellus liked to think that his own case was not quite so indefensible as most of them. He had not been a mere playboy. At the Academy he had given his full devotion to the history of military campaigns, strategy, and tactics. He was an accomplished athlete, expert with the javelin, a winner of many prizes for marksmanship with the bow. He handled a dueling sword with the skill of a professional gladiator.
Nor had his recreations been profitless. Aristocratic youths, eligible to the hierarchy of public offices, disdained any actual practice of the fine arts. They affected to be critics and connoisseurs of painting and sculpture, but would have experienced much embarrassment had they been caught with a brush or chisel in hand. Independent of this taboo, Marcellus had taken a serious interest in sculpture, much to the delight of his father, who—upon observing that he had a natural genius for it—had provided him with competent tutors.
But—sometimes he had been appropriately sensitive about his status as a Military Tribune when, as happened infrequently, some REAL Tribune showed up at the ornate clubhouse, bronzed and battered and bandaged, after grueling months on active duty.
However—Marcellus said to himself—it wasn’t as if he had no qualifications for military service. He was abundantly prepared to accept a commission if required to do so. Occasionally he had wished that an opportunity for such service might arise. He had never been asked to take a command. And a man would be a fool, indeed, to seek a commission. War was a swinish business, intended for bullies who liked to strut their medals and yell obscenities at their inferiors and go for weeks without a bath. He could do all this if he had to. He didn’t have to; but he had neverbeen honestly proud of his title. Sometimes when Decimus addressed him as Tribune’—which was the surly fellow’s custom on such occasions as serving him his late breakfast in bed—Marcellus was tempted to slap him, and he would have done so had he a better case.
They had ridden in silence for a little time, after the Senator had aired his favorite grievances.
‘Once in a while,’ continued Gallio, meditatively, ‘crusty Capito—like blind Samson of the Hebrew myth—rouses to have his way. I am hopeful that he may intervene in your behalf, my son. If it is an honorable post, we will not lament even though it involves peril. I am prepared to hand you over to danger—but not to disgrace. I cannot believe that my trusted friend will fail to do his utmost for you,to-day. I bid you to approach him with that expectation!’
His father had seemed so confident of this outcome that the remainder of their ride had been almost enjoyable. Assured that the gruff but loyal old warrior, who had helped him into his first white toga, would see to it that no indignities were practiced on him by a petulant and vengeful Prince, Marcellus set off light-heartedly to the impressive headquarters of the Chief Legate.
Accompanied by Demetrius, who was himself a striking figure in the saddle, he rode through the increasingly crowded streets on the way to the huge circular plaza, around half of which were grouped the impressive marble buildings serving the Praetorian Guard and ranking officials of the army. To the left stretched a vast parade-ground, now literally filled with loaded camel caravans and hundreds of pack-asses.
An expedition was mobilizing, ready for departure on the long trip to Gaul. The plaza was a stirring scene! Banners fluttered. The young officers were smart in their field uniforms. The legionaries were alert, spirited, apparently eager to be on their way. Maybe an experience of this sort would be stimulating, thought Marcellus.
Unable to ride into the plaza, because of the congestion, they dismounted in the street, Marcellus handing his reins to Demetrius, and proceeding through the narrow lane toward the Praetorium. The broad corridors were filled with Centurions awaiting orders. Many of them heknew. They smiled recognition and saluted. Perhaps they surmised that he was here on some such business as their own, and it gave him a little thrill of pride. You could think what you liked about the brutishness and griminess of war, it was no small honor to be a Roman soldier—whatever your rank! He shouldered his way to the open door leading into Capito’s offices.
‘The Commander is not in,’ rasped the busy deputy. ‘He ordered me to deliver this commission to you.’
Marcellus took the heavily sealed scroll from the fellow’s hand, hesitated a moment, half-inclined to inquire whether Capito expected to return presently, decided against it; turned, and went out, down the broad steps and across the densely packed plaza. Demetrius, seeing him coming, led the horses forward and handed his master the bay mare’s bridle-reins. Their eyes met. After all, thought Marcellus, Demetrius had a right to know where we stood in this business.
‘I have not opened it yet,’ he said, tapping the scroll. ‘Let us go home.’
* * * * *
The Senator was waiting for him in the library.
‘Well—what did our friend Capito have for you?’ he asked, making no attempt to disguise his uneasiness.
‘He was not there. A deputy served me.’ Marcellus laid the scroll on the desk and sat down to wait while his father impatiently thrust his knife through the heavy seals. For what seemed a very long time the narrowed eyes raced the length of the pompous manifesto. Then Gallio cleared his throat, and faced his son with troubled eyes.
‘You are ordered to take command of the garrison at Minoa,’ he muttered.
‘Minoa is a villainously dirty little port city in southern Palestine.’
‘I never heard of it,’ said Marcellus. ‘I know about our forts at Caesarea and Joppa; but—what have we at this Minoa?’
‘It is the point of departure for the old trail that leads to the Dead Sea. Most of our salt comes from there, as you probably know. The duty of our garrison at Minoa is to make that road safe for our caravans.’