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Lucius. Adventures of a Roman Boy by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE

[313] EARLY in April Marius and his family arrived in Tarentum. One of the merchantmen belonging to the fleet owned by the late Plautinus had taken them on board in the harbor of Pylos, and had conveyed them without mishap to their destination. It had been descried in the offing early in the day by some of the loungers that spent their day on the harbor piers, and as its approach had been delayed by light and baffling winds, time had been given to organize something like a triumphal reception. Tarentum was all alive to see the strangers who had thus become in a moment its wealthiest citizens. It did not accord with the dignity of the senate to be present officially to welcome even the richest of private citizens, but there was not a senator but was present. Atilius the notary, a wizened old man with a keen but not unkindly face, was of course on the spot, conspicuous with a newly washed white toga, edged with a purple stripe of unusual breadth (he held the high office of town-clerk). That day he had the proud position of introducer. It was he, and he alone, who, for the time at least, could determine who should and who should not have the pleasure of making acquaintance with the wealthy Philareté. [314] And he had accordingly the satisfaction of having persons of distinction, who were commonly somewhat cold and distant, claiming a familiar acquaintance with him. He had small opportunities, however, of dispensing his favors. He had barely introduced himself when Marius, rather alarmed by the crowd, to which the loneliness of Scyllus had not accustomed him, whispered in his ear, "My dear sir, let us have nothing of a procession. Say whatever is civil and right to our friends, but let us get home as quickly as we can."

"You must at least greet the senators," answered the notary; and Marius, promptly concealing his weariness and anxiety to be gone, spoke a few courteous words to the ten gentlemen whom he proceeded to introduce. "I hope," he said with a polite inclination, "I hope to receive my friends very speedily. Meanwhile we all want rest."

A litter, carried by eight stout African slaves, was in waiting for the ladies. Marius and his son followed on foot, accompanied by the notary, who did the honors of the town with much ceremony. It was indeed a town of which its citizens might well be proud. The streets were broad and well kept, the houses stately, shining with white marble, which, in that fine climate, was still almost as bright as on the day in which it was hewn into shape. More than one towering temple struck the eyes of the strangers as they passed along, the most conspicuous among them being that of the great Twin Brethren, the deities under whose special protection Tarentum was supposed to be. But for all its splendor the city had something of the air of decay. There were few vehicles in the streets; these few were for the [315] most part not wagons or carts engaged in trade, but the carriages of the wealthy. On the footways there was no throng of passengers; in the least frequented streets grass might be seen growing.

The house for which our party was bound stood on the south side of the market-place. Its outside appearance was unpretending and even mean; but when the porter, who had evidently been watching for the arrival of the new owners, threw open the outer door the scene was changed as if by magic. The vestibule was paved with variegated marbles, and lined on either side by statues in white marble. Beyond this was an open court, with a fountain rising in the middle so high that its topmost jets were touched by the evening sun, and with orange and lemon trees, on which the fruit was just beginning to form, round the sides. Opening out of this court were a library, lighted from above, with its four walls lined with bookcases; a winter dining chamber, looking upon the bay, with its windows so arranged that they could catch every ray of the sun from its rising to its setting; another for summer use, looking to the north; smaller chambers meant for sitting-rooms and boudoirs, and two ranges of bed-chambers, intended for summer and winter use. Our friends had brought only three or four personal attendants, but they found all their wants carefully and promptly attended to. A large and, it was evident, a carefully drilled, army of slaves was at their command. The notary, who continued to play the part of host, whispered a few directions to an elderly slave of portly figure who was in attendance. After a short interval had been allowed for the washing and changing which are so grateful after a [316] voyage, the party was summoned to the dining chamber. They would gladly have been alone, but Marius saw that the notary expected an invitation, and was too kind-hearted not to give it. The repast, for the meagreness of which the man of business thought it necessary to apologize, was yet sumptuous enough to astonish our friends, accustomed as they had been for many years to the simple fare of their country home. There were six kinds of fish, dressed with various sauces, and their attention was especially called to an unusually large turbot which had been caught, they were told, by a fisherman of Barium, and sent by special messenger as a present to the Lady Philareté. A fat goose, a couple of guinea-fowl, a score of thrushes, a dish of sow's udder, and a quarter of lamb, were among the other delicacies provided, Philareté mentally resolving, as dish after dish was presented to her, that she would have less profuse house-keeping in the future. On the subject of wine the notary waxed eloquent. "That, sir," he said, pointing to a flask of ample proportions which stood at Lucius' elbow, "is the wine of the country, and the best that can be got. It is considered patriotic to have it on one's table, but I cannot unreservedly commend it. Our southern suns make it somewhat fiery. After all, there is nothing like Falernian and Setine. Our dear friend who is gone did not agree with me, I know. He was a true Tarentine, and would seldom drink what he called Roman wines. But he always kept them for his friends, and of the very best. We have—Pardon me, sir; I should have said you have casks in your cellar that, I venture to say, are a good deal older than yourself, but I thought that to-day an ordinary vintage would suffice."

[317] "I am very much obliged to you for all your care," said Marius, "but the truth is that I seldom drink any wine, be the vintage good or bad. My son is still more abstemious, and the ladies never touch it by any chance."

"My dear sir," said the little man, "you astonish me. A very few of our most aristocratic ladies are water-drinkers. It is a tradition in our best Greek families; but among gentlemen the habit is unknown. You and your son are likely to be the only water-drinkers in Tarentum, except, it may be, one or two Jew merchants."

Not long after he took his leave, disappointed of the long carouse which, on the strength of his acquaintance with the well-filled cellars of Plautinus, he had promised himself. The family, not a little relieved at his departure, looked at each other for a little while in a silence which Rhodium was the first to break. "This is awful," she said. "If this is a meagre dinner, for so the little man called it, what must a full one be like? How shall we live through it?"

"My dear Rhodium," her mother replied, "we won't be made the slaves of our riches; but we shall have to submit to go through a good deal that will be very tiresome. I sometimes wish that the old man had found some other way of disposing of his money. Still there arc consolations, and one of them I may administer at once. Your father and I have made up our minds that though we must live here for several months in the year we will pay a long visit every year to our old dear little home in Scyllus. With summer and autumn there we can very well get through winter and spring here. After a while, I dare say, you will find riches more [318] tolerable than you think. Take care that their charm does not grow upon you."

The room in which the party was assembled might well indeed have done something to reconcile one to wealth. The prospect from the windows was glorious; the famous bay lay stretched before the eyes almost as calm as a lake, and now brightened with the long lines of the latest sun-beams glistening upon it. Three windows occupied the whole of one side of the room, and made a prominent bow, with the left side almost facing the east, the right just catching the sunset. The opposite wall, in which were doors leading to the kitchen, and to two or three sleeping and sitting chambers, was wholly covered with a rich purple curtain, one of the finest products of the dyeing-works of the town. The western wall was covered with a fresco, "The Gods Feasting in Olympus," a copy of one of the best pictures of the palmy days of Greece; on the opposite side of the room the patriotism of a native artist had pictured one of the victories of Pyrrhus, the friend whose help had cost Tarentum so dear. It was a spirited battle scene, in which the elephants, the "huge earth-shaking beasts" that had more than once broken the Roman line of battle, were conspicuous. The floor was tessellated. Heads of Ceres the corn-goddess, and of Pomona the fruit-goddess, fish with scales of gold and silver and purple, pheasants with all their gorgeous colors, and doves with their sheeny plumage admirably represented, were among the patterns. The couches and chairs were of ebony, picked out with gold; every coverlet and cushion was of Tarentine purple. The library, besides its books, which Marius afterwards [319] found to be admirably selected, was adorned with priceless marbles and bronzes. Every chamber was appropriately furnished. It was evident, in fact, that Plautinus had had not less taste than wealth.

Our friends, on separating for the night, agreed to meet for an early morning walk. To give this as much as possible the interest of an exploration, it was agreed that they should go without a guide, and take the direction that chance suggested. The result, we shall see, was curiously interesting.

"Which way shall we go?" said Marius to his wife and children as they met in the vestibule. "Say, Rhodium; we leave the choice to you."

"With the wind," cried the girl; and as she spoke there came a light breath, carrying with it a delicious remembrance of the sea from the gulf. Obedient to the guide thus chosen, the party turned their faces northwards. A walk of a few hundred yards brought them to the north gate of the city, through which the women from the neighboring villages were now thronging with their baskets of poultry, fruit, and other delicacies for the insatiable town. The country immediately under the walls was flat, and, to all appearance, somewhat neglected; and the walk did not promise much interest. But a sudden turn in the road changed the prospect. An enclosure of some six or seven jugera (a little more than four acres) in extent, surrounded with a low hedge of privet, which was in full bloom, lay before them. The garden, for such it evidently was, was a perfect blaze of color. On the north side, where they would not hinder the sunshine, was a row of young plane-trees. [320] Apple, pear, and plum trees, planted so as to leave ample room for air and sunshine, reached in orderly array to the southern boundary, where a long line of bee-hives was set, skilfully placed so as to be sheltered but not shadowed by the hedge. A narrow path divided the garden into two parts, which seemed severally devoted to profit and pleasure, one being stocked with every variety of vegetable, the other variegated with flower-beds of every variety of hue and fragrance. Over the gate was an inscription in Latin, a couple of verses inviting the passer-by to enter. Close by, busy with a rose-tree which, early as it was in the year, already promised to be a mass of bloom, stood an old man, who was evidently the master of the place, and who, hearing the sound of footsteps, turned round and courteously repeated the invitation of his inscription. This done, he turned again to resume a conversation which the arrival of the strangers had interrupted.

"No, sir," he said, "there is no one in Italy who can bring roses into the market earlier than I can, but they import them from Egypt and beat me. They have absolutely no winter there—I knew the country well when I was young—while here the spring frosts are cruel, positively cruel. I thought that this year we should never have been quit of the north wind, and it was cold as if it blew straight from the Alps, which, they tell me, are covered all the year round with snow."

"My good friend," said the person whom he addressed, "if you had lived as near the Alps as I have you would be better content than you are. In my country I have seen the little pools positively frozen as late as this. I never felt [321] safe about my fruit blossom till long after the middle of the month. Some years it would come almost to nothing, while your trees, as far as I have seen, have about as many apples, and pears, and plums upon them in the autumn as they have had flowers in the spring."

The speaker was a noticeable person. His figure was tall and slight, with something of a stoop; his face pale, dark in complexion and irregular in feature, but lighted up with a pair of singularly brilliant eyes. His voice was peculiarly sweet and gentle, and his accent, as Marius immediately perceived, that of a cultured man.

"Ah, sir!" replied the old man, "frost is only one of the gardener's enemies, and the less we have of that the more we are pestered with weeds and live creatures of every kind. I can hardly look round but I find the whole place choked up with a fresh crop of thistles, and darnel, and burrs, and caltrops. As for the caterpillars, the mice, the beetles, and above all the birds, they are past all bearing. I spent three drachmas, denarii  you call them, on that Priapus there—they told me that it would frighten the birds, and I see the little rascals picking the fruit under his very nose."

"My friend," said the other, "I feel for you. I, too, was a farmer, till I took to a worse trade. But I must not keep you any longer from your work. Give me a bunch of roses, and mind that you keep your first strawberries for me. I have to leave for Rome to-morrow, but I shall be back in time for them." And with a kindly farewell to the old man and a courteous salutation to our party, he turned away.

"That, sir," said the old gardener to Marius, "is, they tell me, a great man at Rome; a poet they call him; gets [322] as much for a score of verses as I can earn in a year. But I don't grudge it to him. He made that inscription for me that you see over the gate—I am told it is very fine—and would take nothing for it but a little twig of olive. That was his fancy, sir. He said it was the best pay he could have. He comes from the north, I understand; had his farm taken away from him by a soldier, and was very near being killed when he tried to get it again. He lives here a good deal in the winter, and I see him most days. He is always asking me questions about my flowers, and about my bees too, sir. He is never tired of talking about bees. I tell him what I notice of their ways, about their following their king, and sharing their work and helping each other. And he has taught me one or two things worth knowing. But he is not quite practical, to my mind. He told me the other day how I was to get a new stock if I should want it. I was to kill a young bullock without breaking the skin and shut it up for a month, and at the end of the time I should find the carcass full of bees. They did so in Egypt, he said. That may be, sir, but I doubt whether here one would get any thing but a stock of flies. If I want a new stock, sir, I shall go and buy it. That will be better, I take it, than risking the value of an ox. No, sir, I doubt whether he is a practical bee-master, but he has a better trade than that, for all he says. But excuse my chattering. It is the way of old men. Let me just finish with this tree, and then I will attend to you."

Marius had long been struck by something that seemed familiar in the old man's face, and still more in his voice, especially when he had grown excited in discoursing on the [323] wrongs of gardeners, but he could not succeed in remembering who he was. Unconsciously the old man helped him out of the difficulty. Taking off his broad-brimmed felt hat he showed a curious scar that seemed half the length of his forehead close under the hair. In a moment there flashed upon Marius, vivid as if he had been present at it but the day before, the scenes of long-past days. He resolved to feel his way by a few questions.

"Have you always been a gardener? I heard you say something about Egypt. Did you follow the same trade there? "

"No, sir; I learned the business here. Began it five-and-thirty years ago come next autumn."

"And you saw something, I dare say, of the world in your youth. A sailor, perhaps?"

"Yes, sir, I was a sailor;" and the old man gave a suspicious look at his questioner.

"Did you ever happen to see the great harbor of Syracuse; see it, I mean, from the water? And do you know an island somewhere off the north-east corner of Crete? And do you remember a young Roman, one Lucius Marius, who owes you something which he never can repay, and certainly will never forget?"

The old gardener had listened with something like dismay to the earlier questions, but at the name of Lucius Marius his anxious gaze relaxed into a smile. "And you "—he said.

"I," replied our hero, "am Lucius Marius."

For a few minutes the old man seemed unable to speak. Recovering himself a little he said, "It is not many of my [324] old acquaintances that I should care to meet. But you—the gods be thanked for sending you in my way."

"Come," said Marius, "tell us your story from the day that we parted. Up to that time my wife and my children know it, I may say, by heart. It was always the tale that the little ones would choose when they were to have a special treat."

"You shall have it, or as much of it as is worth telling. But come and sit down on the bench yonder under that pear-tree, for it won't be finished in a moment or two."


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