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

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AGRIGENTUM

[67] WE shall not follow our hero's journey through Sicily. It will suffice to say that he met his chief, and in his company reached Agrigentum, which was one of the chief towns of his district. They found it a busy place, its streets thronged with passengers and vehicles, its harbor filled with vessels, big and little, many of which were occupied with taking in cargoes of sulphur. Lucius had of course seen sulphur before, but he had never thought whence it came and even what it was. "This stuff," said his elder companion, "shows us where we are. I showed you Ætna the other day, with its cap of smoke upon its head. It is far away to the north-east; but we are in its country, so to say. You know the old fable, how the giant lies with Ætna on his breast, his right hand stretched out to Pelorus, his left to Pachynon, and how he shakes the island when he gives a turn in his bed. You have never felt an earthquake, I suppose. Well, you won't like it when you do; and the oftener it comes you will like it the less. It is a curious thing, that while men get used to other dangers they never get used to this. A native is always more frightened than a stranger. But let us hope that the giant will sleep sound for the present."

[68] All the lions of the town were duly visited, the chief lion, if the phrase may be allowed, being of course the brazen bull in which, five hundred years before, the tyrant Phalaris had been accustomed to roast his victims alive. The town was vastly proud of this curious monument of the past, though it was not much to its credit that it should ever have submitted to so abominable a tyranny. Men, however, are not very particular about such things, and a curiosity, like even the most discreditable ancestor, is sure to be valued if it can be traced back to a time sufficiently remote. Every visitor was at once taken to the Bull. The principal inn was known by this sign. The silversmiths did a brisk trade in little bulls of silver or bronze; and even the first and second founders of the city were not more gratefully remembered than the great Scipio who had brought back to it this precious possession after an absence of three hundred and fifty years. This and the other sights having been duly inspected and admired, the two companions made their way to the house of the mayor, if we may so style the chief magistrate of the town, where it was usual that distinguished visitors should be entertained.

The dinner, to which they sat down about six o'clock in the evening, the luxuriously early hours of Rome not having yet made their way into the busy trading town, was sufficiently sumptuous. The Agrigentine merchants were rich, and no one was more affluent or more hospitable than the mayor. In the course of their after-dinner talk he inquired of his guests whether they had happened to notice a house by the harbor, which was called the "Ship."

"Yes," said Lucius; "it was pointed out to me, and my [69] guide seemed to take it for granted that I knew all about it. There seemed to be some joke; but the house looked common enough, and I could not understand."

"Yes," replied the host. "There is a joke, and we think it a good one in Agrigentum. I will tell you the story. It happened about a hundred and fifty years ago, and an ancestor of mine, I have always heard, was concerned in it. There was a young fellow named Doricles, belonging to one of the best families in the town, and he was going to be married. It is a custom here, and I dare say it is in most places, for a man to give a dinner to his friends a few days before the wedding. They call it bidding good-by to their freedom, though a good many of them, I fancy, have pretty nearly as much freedom after they are married as before. Well, Doricles gave his dinner to some ten or twelve friends, and they drank, as they do at such times, pretty hard, and kept at it till it was close upon morning. By that time some of them were past noticing any thing, and the rest were ready for any nonsense in the world. One of them makes his way across the room to the window to get a breath of fresh air. As you may suppose, he was not very steady on his feet, and the floor of the room seemed to go up and down, as it will to a drunken man. He was always a mad kind of fellow, and now he cries out, 'Ho, there, mates, rouse up! This is a terrible storm, and we shall be wrecked if we don't take care.' It was rough weather, as it happened, and there was a great gale blowing from the sea. 'Let us lighten the ship.' The notion just caught the fellows' fancy, and they set to work with a will, throwing chairs and tables and mattresses, every thing, in fact, that they [70] could lay their hands on, out of the window. By this time it was beginning to grow light, and the people were going to their work. It was not long before there was a crowd about the house, and such a shouting and laughing as never was heard. It was a good day's work for some of the loafers. If the town had been sacked they could not have made a better harvest. Well, before long the magistrates heard of the uproar, and made their appearance on the scene. They called for Doricles, and he came to the window with a garland hanging down over one ear, and generally not a little the worse for wine. 'Doricles,' shouted the senior magistrate, 'what is the meaning of all this?'—'Gentlemen Tritons,' he said, 'I am very glad to see you. You will excuse my messmates; the weather has been too much for them, and they are terribly sea-sick. To tell you the truth, when I heard your voice I was lying under a bench half dead with fear. We had done our best to lighten the ship, but I thought that it was all over with us. But now that you have had the goodness to appear, things, I am sure, will go well.'—' No more of this nonsense, Doricles,' said the magistrate. 'A man does not get married every day, and this once we will look over it; but don't do any thing like it again.'—'Thanks, Gentlemen Tritons. We won't forget your kindness. If ever we get into harbor, and I begin to hope that we may, you shall have a sacrifice, as sure as my name is Doricles. Your coming in this way, in your cloaks and all, just as if you were so many mortal men, is most uncommonly kind, and you won't find us ungrateful.' And he shut down the window. That was how the house came to be called the Ship.

[71] "Ah!" said the host after a pause; "it was pretty well the last merrymaking the poor fellows had. Our poor town was the lamb for which the wolf and the fox were fighting—excuse me, gentlemen, but you Romans boast of having something of the wolf in you, and Carthage, every one knows, was a fox. Well, Agrigentum was supposed to be on the side of Carthage, not that it really wanted any thing but to be left in peace. Then some scoundrel of an African—you can buy any of them, I believe, for a handful of silver—opened the gates to that butcher Lævinus—pardon me, I forget myself—to the proconsul, I should have said, and of course the people who had to pay for it all were, not the Carthaginians, who cleared out in good time, but our poor citizens, who could not run away. Doricles, who had not been married more than a year—he was a magistrate himself by that time— was sent to the stone-quarries at Syracuse, and my ancestor and some twelve or fifteen others, all the best-born and richest men in the place, bore him company. You never saw the stone-quarries, gentlemen? The most terrible prison in the world, as black and as hot as Tartarus, and pretty well as hard to get out of. Doricles did get out, and my ancestor too, or else I should not have had the pleasure of entertaining you to-day, but it cost their families pretty nearly every drachma they had to ransom them."

"Well," said Lucius, "I suppose those days are gone for good. Nothing of the kind could go on now; there could not be another Laevinus."

"Hush!" said the host; "we may talk about the past as much as we please, but the present is another matter. [72] "Somebody may be listening;" and he went to the door to satisfy himself that nobody was near.

"I have as good a set of slaves as any one, and I try to be kind to them, but I don't care to trust them further than I can help. You see, it is a terrible temptation to a man to put a rope round his master's neck when he can get his freedom for doing it, and perhaps a talent as well, to set him up in business. Well, gentlemen, there are awkward rumors about the governor. We haven't suffered much in Agrigentum here, but I have heard strange stories of his doings elsewhere. You are pretty safe, anyhow, to hear a good deal about him before you leave the island—but he is coming here to-morrow; you will see him and judge for yourselves."

It was about three or four o'clock in the afternoon of the next day when the governor made his expected appearance. He was certainly very unlike all that Lucius had looked for. Instead of a dignified official, majestic with his robes of state and insignia of power, he saw an effeminate lounger, who seemed as if he could have no thoughts beyond his dress and his dinner. The Roman costume he had entirely discarded. His tunic was of Greek fashion, and he wore a gay upper garment of purple embroidered with gold, which might have become one of the dandies of Ephesus or Corinth, but looked strangely out of place in the ruler of a Roman province. This languid exquisite—who, however, could show energy enough when the occasion demanded some act of audacious robbery or violence—was clearly incapable of any thing like the exertion of riding on horseback. He was carried in a litter by eight bearers, stout [73] Bithynians, who were just then the fashion for this kind of service. A cushion, covered with muslin so fine and transparent that the roses with which it was stuffed could be seen through it, lay on the floor of the conveyance. Roses, indeed, seemed to be the great man's special fancy; he had a garland round his head, and another hanging loosely from his neck. He was a man of between forty and fifty, stout in figure, with a red and bloated countenance which bore the tokens of excess. The exertion even of alighting at the gate and walking to his chamber seemed to be too much for him, for his bearers carried him in his litter straight to his apartment, while he bestowed a careless salutation on his host, who stood obsequiously at the door with something like terror in his face. Lucius and his chief he honored with a supercilious stare.

Three or four wagons followed, conveying the baggage of the governor and of his staff, one of them being specially devoted to his travelling kitchen, another to his wine-cellar, and a third being loaded with masses of snow from Ætna.

That evening our hero saw nothing more of the great man. The Agrigentine magistrate was a worthy fellow, and though he could not escape the unwelcome necessity of witnessing, if not sharing, the revels of the governor, had far too much good feeling to bring his young guest into such a scene. Lucius had his meal with the two sons of the house, one of them a year older, the other a year younger, than himself. They had plenty to talk about. The young Agrigentines were as fond of sport as Lucius himself, and had had better opportunities of following it. Hares and roe-deer were common in the woods near the town, and it was not [74] unusual to find a wild boar, a possible peril which gave a flavor of danger to the experience. The lads were anglers, too, though the Sicilian streams were apt to shrink in a way that sadly interfered with their sport. But they astonished Lucius with their accounts of the sea-fish which they took in the bay and along the neighboring coasts. The size, the variety, and the number of their captures fairly made his mouth water. From exchanging these experiences of sport they turned to draughts, and fox and geese, games in which Lucius found himself very much outmatched by his more nimble-witted companions. Late in the forenoon of the following day Lucius received, somewhat to his surprise, a summons to the presence of the great man. Verres was sitting in a room that looked out upon the garden. By his side was a jar of water tinged with fruit syrup, and buried up to its brim in snow. His dress consisted of a fine under-shirt and drawers of silk, with a loose wrap of the slightest and most transparent material over it. He was busy examining with the eye of a connoisseur a small bronze. It was the figure of a satyr, carrying over his shoulder a wounded deer. The tense sinews of the satyr, who was evidently putting out his strength to support his burden, contrasted vividly with the slackened limbs of the animal. The Agrigentine host was standing by in an attitude of respectful attention, but with uneasiness manifest in his face.

"And this you say is an Euphranor?" said the governor.

"The pedigree, my lord, is undoubted. The artist made it for an ancestor of my own, who was one of the first settlers in the new foundation, and it has been in the family ever since."

[75] "That sounds very well; but do you feel sure that the master did it all himself? These great men have a way of doing a great deal of work by the hands of their pupils. The satyr's head and neck are very good; but the rest of the piece seems hardly up to Euphranor's mark. Still it is worth having, and I shall be very glad to buy it."

"Excuse me, my lord, but I should be very sorry to part with it; it has been a long time in the family. In fact, it is an heirloom, and not mine to sell."

"Never mind that, my good friend; I will hold you blameless. The prætor's receipt will be quittance enough in any court of law, heirloom or no heirloom. Come, I will give you two thousand sesterces for it."

"Two thousand sesterces, my lord! why, my ancestor gave ten times that for it three hundred years ago!"

"Then he was taken in. No; two thousand is quite as much as the thing is worth."

"My lord, I really can't sell it for that," stammered out the magistrate, roused to assert himself by seeing the most valuable work of art that he had about to slip out of his hands. "You could not get a copy done for that money even in common bronze, and this is the best Corinthian."

"Two thousand is my maximum. I never go beyond it; and mark you, sir, I have got some better things than this for no more."

The expression on the governor's face changed as he spoke from an easy, careless gayety to a sternness which it was not pleasant to see.

"I don't always buy," he went on; "I have had many fine things given to me."

[76] Beckoning to the magistrate to approach, he whispered a few words in his ear. The poor man grew pale. Lucius heard afterwards what they were. "I find that a week or two in the stone-quarries has a wonderful way of opening a man's hand or loosening his purse-strings."

"You shall have it, my lord," the magistrate stammered out.

Verres scratched a few words on a piece of paper, which he tossed carelessly to the merchant. It was an order on the quæstor for the money. He then clapped his hands, and a slave, who was waiting outside the door, came in. "See this is packed up," he said, pointing to the bronze, "and see that it gets no damage. If it does, so much the worse for you," he added, with a scowl which made the man visibly tremble.

It was now Lucius' turn for an interview.

"You are a Roman?" said Verres, with a smile that was meant to be reassuring. "Your name, if you please, and your birthplace? "

"Lucius Marius of Arpinum, my lord."

"Marius of Arpinum!" repeated the great man. "Any relative of that"—

He was going to say something disparaging of the great soldier who had delivered Rome from the barbarians, for Verres, though low-born, was a hanger-on of the party of the nobles, to which Marius had been any thing but a friend. But he checked himself. He had a purpose to serve, in which he wanted to make the young Roman useful. He was struck, too, by something frank and bold in the lad's expression, and though it was not in his nature to feel any [77] genuine admiration for these, or indeed for any good qualities, he felt that it would be inexpedient to give offence—"of the distinguished general," he forced himself to say.

"I am his great-nephew, my lord."

"And you are come, I understand, to be quæstor's clerk to my good friend Manilius. Surely, my son, that is a poor employment for a lad of your inches. Any cripple can write and cipher. But a straight well-grown lad, with such shoulders as yours, should do something better worthy a Roman, and the nephew, too, of Marius, perhaps the very best soldier we ever had. You can throw a javelin as far as most, I warrant, and have learnt your sword-play pretty well!"

Lucius would have been something more than mortal boy If he had not been somewhat moved by this condescension and flattery. He had heard little, it is true, about Verres, and that little was not favorable; his frank and pure nature, too, had been repelled by the cruel and sensual expression of the governor's face. But first impressions often pass away. The courtesy of a great man is powerful with every one, and with the young is almost irresistible. Verres exerted himself to please, and he could scarcely fail of success. He showed the keenest interest in all Lucius' tastes and pursuits, made him relate some of his sporting adventures, questioned him in the kindest, pleasantest way about his plans for the future, in a word laid himself to win the young fellow's heart, and, of course, won it.

"I am intending," he said at last, "to fit out a fleet against the pirates. These fellows are becoming perfectly intolerable, and they must have a lesson. A particular friend of mine is to have the command. He is an excellent [78] fellow, as brave a man as ever stepped, and a good sailor. But, unfortunately, he is not a Roman. In fact, he is a Syracusan. Of course there is a good deal of jealousy about the matter. You will hear, I dare say, some very disagreeable things said about it. Pray, don't believe a word of them. When you have lived a little longer in the world you will find that there will be people whom nothing and nobody can please. Still I should like my friend to have a Roman officer near him. There might be a difficulty about asking an older man to go, but with you it is different; besides, I don't mind asking you a favor. Will you go? You will be something like second in command, a pretty bit of promotion to a lad of nineteen."

"I am a little more than seventeen," interposed Lucius, dreadfully afraid that the appointment would be revoked when the governor heard the real state of the case, but fully determined to tell the truth.

"You astonish me! I could have sworn that you were at least nineteen. But never mind. Pompey was in command of a division when he was no more than you. These things go a great deal by luck. Your uncle, you will remember, was nearly forty before he got his tribuneship. But the chance comes sooner or later. Yours has come very soon. The thing is to take it when it comes."

Lucius was eloquent with his thanks. The prospect, in fact, delighted him beyond measure. He had been chafing a little at the thought of confinement to the desk, and here was an opportunity of freedom and distinction far beyond his wildest dreams.

"Well, that is settled," said Verres. "I will make it all [79] right with Manilius. Report yourself to me at Syracuse in a month's time."

Lucius broke out again into thanks. Verres listened with courtesy till he had exhausted himself, and then dismissed him with a courteous farewell. Our young friend would have been less pleased than he was if he could have seen the sneering smile which settled on the governor's countenance when he found himself alone. "Let us hope that you will like it, my young friend," he murmured to himself as the door shut behind the lad.

Lucius was of course nearly out of his senses with delight. He seemed to himself to be at least some inches taller, and, though naturally a modest lad, could scarcely help giving himself some airs. His young friends of the night before viewed him with an admiration not wholly free from envy. Their father was somewhat guarded in his congratulations, and the quæstor was almost discouraging. "You will wish yourself back before long," he said; a prophecy which the lad received with the incredulity which such unwelcome predictions generally meet with.


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