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


 

 

A START IN LIFE

[1] TWO lads, each of whom carried a fishing-rod in his, hand and a roughly-made basket of willow-work on his shoulders, were making their way up the left or eastern bank of the Liris, near Arpinum. The elder of the two was a lad of about seventeen, though his tall and well-developed frame made him look considerably older; the younger may have been his junior by about three years. The time was about an hour before sunset of a day in the latter half of March.

"Come, Caius," said the elder of the two lads to his companion, "we have had about enough of this tiresome Liris. I hate this dull, thick water. There is not much fun in catching these fish; and when they are caught they are so muddy and flabby that they are scarcely worth the trouble of carrying home. Let us see whether we cannot get something out of the Fibrenus. At home they always say that a Fibrenus fish is worth twenty out of the Liris. Now [2] that the sun has got so low I think that we may do something."

The two friends had just reached the Fibrenus, a little stream that, after running a short, swift course from the hills among which Arpinum was situated, mingled its clear waters with the slower and more turbid current of the Liris. It broadened out just before the point of junction into a reach which had something of the look of a small lake. Most of this pool was covered with water-weed, which was then just breaking out into flower, but a narrow channel in the middle was kept open by the force of the stream. The water was remarkably bright, and curiously cold to the touch. The first peculiarity made the fish particularly difficult to catch; the second gave them, it was supposed, the firmness of flesh and the delicacy of flavor for which they were celebrated through the whole country-side. Only the most skilful of the neighboring anglers found it worth while to try their hands on the shy perch and still shyer trout which inhabited the Fibrenus, and even these returned more often than not with empty baskets. At the upper end of the pool which has been just described was one of the most favorite spots for the exercise of the angler's craft. The river here made a little fall. The water was therefore broken; commonly, too, it was covered with foam, which sometimes helped the angler by concealing the fall of his bait. The elder of the two companions, whom we may without further delay introduce to our readers by the name of Lucius Marius, had often taken a fine fish out of the little eddies that were formed by the cascade, and he now resolved to try them again.

The younger lad, who had a modest distrust of his powers, [3] stood at some distance from the water's side, and contented himself with watching the operations of his more experienced comrade. Putting a new bait, the largest and freshest worm which he could find in his bag, upon his hook, he waited for a little puff of wind to help him in his cast, for the breeze was, as usual, dying away as the sun sank towards the horizon. The puff, the approach of which was signified by a gentle rustling of the tree-tops behind, came in due course, and Lucius threw his bait with all the skill which he possessed, and, as it happened, exactly at the right moment. It fell on the centre of the deepest eddy, about four or five feet below the fall, and had not sunk more than half-way to the bottom when it was seized by a large fish, heavier and stronger, as Lucius, with his well-practised hand, felt in a moment, than any that he had before had the chance of securing. The place, he knew, was one in which it would require all his skill to play a large fish with success. The water for some five or six yards below the cascade was clear and deep. If the fish could be kept there all would be well, if only he had been securely hooked, for the tackle was both new and strong. But beyond this distance the water began to shoal, and the weed-beds afforded a refuge by help of which, as the anglers of Arpinum knew to their cost, many a fine fish had escaped. The trout, a fine fellow of three pounds, for such he had shown himself to be by a frantic leap into the air almost immediately after feeling the hook, would infallibly make for this shelter. It was the choice which the angler knows so well, and which he always finds so difficult to make between two dangers, the danger of losing the fish by checking him in his rush, the danger [4] of losing him by allowing him to reach some place from which it is impossible to get him out. In this instance fortune favored the angler. The fish, as a heavy fish sometimes will, seemed to prefer to keep his head up against the stream; and for the first two or three minutes, always the most dangerous time in such an affair, wasted his strength, now in rushes down to the bottom of the pool, now in wild leaps out of the water. When he changed his tactics and began to make for the weed-beds he was sensibly weaker, and it became less dangerous to check his course. Once, and once only, he managed to get the line round a weed, and Lucius' heart, to use a common phrase, was in his mouth. Happily for the fisherman, the weed had not reached its strongest growth, and yielded to the pressure which he ventured to put upon it. The trout was not yet taken, but he was practically vanquished. Once and again he showed his broad spotted side, his rushes became weaker and shorter, his leaps out of the water ceased altogether. Lucius skilfully piloted him to a place where the bank over-hung the water. Then, shortening the line as much as possible, and handing the rod to his young companion, he threw himself at full length upon the bank, and, reaching out his hand, thrust his fingers into the trout's open gills. A strong and skilful jerk landed the creature on the bank, where it lay, glittering with purple and gold in the slanting sunbeams, the most splendid prize that Fibrenus had yielded for many a year to the angler's skill.

"My best fish," said Lucius, after looking at his captive in silent delight for a few seconds; "and, I strongly suspect, my last out of Fibrenus for many a day."

[5] "Your last!" replied his young companion; "why your last? What is going to happen to you?"

"Happen to me! That I don't know: 'all these things lie upon the knees of the gods.' But I know that I have got to go out into the world. Arpinum is a dear old place, but one can't stay here all one's days. The farm is not enough to satisfy one; and besides, there is not really work enough for me. My father can manage it very well with his bailiff, and I must do something for myself. Do you know, Caius, sometimes I like the idea of going, and sometimes I hate it. At this moment I am envying you with all my heart. You will go back to school and have the jolliest time of it, the working for prizes, the games—I never knew how jolly these things were till I had left them behind me. And then you will come back here, and there will be the fishing, and the hare-hunting, and the harvest, and the vintage. Yes; just now I should like to be a boy again. Now you, I dare say, are almost ready to give one of your eyes to put on the man's gown, and be, as people say, your own master. Well, it is a good thing, perhaps, that wishing has nothing to do with it. I can't go back, and you can't go forward—at least, as fast as you wish. The thing is to be content with what one has and where one is. Somehow or other I have a kind of presentiment that I shall hear something to-day about my future. Marcus Tullius—the great barrister at Rome, you know—has been [6] looking out for something for me, and he is expected home to-night, and may very well have something to tell me."

"Oh, don't you hope," eagerly cried the younger lad, "that it will be something to take you across the seas? Wouldn't you like a commission under Lucullus, and to get a cut at Mithradates, or to make a cruise against the pirates? Then there is always something going on in Gaul, and Spain, and in Africa against the blacks. Oh! it makes me mad to think that I shall be tied to those stupid books for two or three years yet. It is all very well for you to preach to me about being content. You were just as bad yourself six months ago, and now you do nothing but talk about 'happy school-days,' and 'the delight of being a boy again,' and such rubbish. But promise me that if you hear of a chance you won't forget me. Father would very likely take a year off my time. You know Pompey was a soldier before he was sixteen."

The two companions had by this time reached the house of Lucius' father.

"Come in, Caius," said the elder lad, "and help us to eat the big trout."

"My dear Lucius, I should be delighted above all things, but it is impossible. You know my dear mother. By this time she is probably in the agonies of bereavement. It is the same thing every time I go out. She sends me away with her blessing; and as she likes me to enjoy myself she is really cheerful for about an hour after I have started. Then she begins to be a little anxious. Her fears increase as the sun goes down. At sunset, if by any chance I have not yet returned, they become positive despair. At this [7] moment, I dare say, she is dismally reckoning up the cost of the wood and spices for burning me, and of putting the slaves into mourning, and of a neat little monument in the family burying-place with an appropriate inscription to the best of sons! No; I must go, or she will positively have given out the contract for my funeral. Farewell; and don't forget to look out for me."

"Farewell! I doubt whether I should not be doing you an ill turn by taking you away too soon from your books; but, depend upon it, I won't forget you."

Lucius found on entering his home that the preparations for the evening meal were far advanced. The great fish was duly admired; his tail-fin was cut off to serve as a witness of his size against the incredulity of future times—for anglers were even then the victims of the cruel suspicion which doubts the accuracy of their weights—and he was then consigned to the gridiron under the clever hands of Ofella, the old Sabine cook, a freewoman whose honest and skilful services the house of Marius had been fortunate enough to enjoy for many years past.

The apartment in which the household was collected was a long, low room, not unlike the kitchen of an old-fashioned English farmhouse. Hams and flitches of bacon hung from the rafters, and a great log of beech wood was burning cheerily in a large open fire-place. On the mantle-piece were quaint images of a highly antique appearance. These were the household gods, and were almost the only peculiar features of the room. A long table of polished oak ran down the middle of the room, its only ornament being a silver salt-cellar of considerable size, the old-fashioned shape [8] of which showed that it was an ancient possession of the family. At this table the whole family sat clown to the evening meal; the older slaves, among whom were two or three gray-headed men (for the elder Marius did not hold with Cato's cruel counsel to the farmer that he should sell his worn-out slaves), joined from time to time in the conversation of their masters. Smoking bowls of pease-porridge, a dish of young cabbages stewed in a savory gravy, huge loaves of rye and barley bread, with one of wheaten flour for the upper end of the table, and a cheese made from goat's milk, were the principal viands. There was also a knuckle of ham, which had already seen some service, and some salt fish. The trout made, as may be supposed, a welcome addition to the fare of the evening.

Lucius, who had commonly all the healthy appetite of youth, sharpened by exercise, could hardly eat for excitement. His presentiment had been correct: he was to hear something of his future that day. "Marcus Tullius wishes to see you to-night," his father had said to him before they sat down to their meal. In the impatience of youth he was for starting off at once, but his father insisted on his taking some food. "Have your supper in peace," he said, "and let our friend have his."

The lad was content to obey, but he waited for the time to start with manifest impatience.

The house of the great advocate, to which he soon made his way, had evidently been in former times very much the same kind of dwelling as that which has been just described—a simple farmhouse; but it had had additions made to it as its owners grew richer and came to have [9] more wants and more refined tastes. The room into which he was introduced by the young slave to whose guidance the porter at the outer door committed him, was evidently one of these additions. It was a handsome chamber, fitted up with book-cases on the three sides which were not occupied by the windows. Each book-case was surmounted by a marble bust of some philosopher or poet, while the spaces between them were occupied with pedestal statues of Mercury and Minerva.

In this room four persons were sitting when Lucius was announced. One of these was an old man with a remarkably pleasing and refined face, who sat by the fire reading a parchment roll, and occasionally making a remark to a lady who faced him on the opposite side of the hearth, and who was busy embroidering a little child's cloak. The lady was a handsome woman, somewhat fair in complexion for an Italian, of five-and-twenty or thereabouts, simply dressed in a matron's robe of white, reaching to her feet, and confined at her waist by a crimson girdle. Her hair, which was abundant and of a rich chestnut color, was fastened in a Greek knot, through which a silver arrow was run. Two silver bracelets on her left arm, and two or three rings, one of which contained a particularly fine sapphire, were her only ornaments. Marcus Tullius himself, whom our readers will recognize by the more familiar name of Cicero, was walking up and down the room, dictating to a secretary, who sat busily writing at a table. He was a man of about four-and-thirty, slightly above the middle height, spare in figure, with a long, rather sallow face, generally somewhat grave in expression, but able to light up occasionally with [10] a pleasant smile. On hearing the slave announce Lucius' name he suspended his dictation, and came forward with a frank and hearty greeting.

"Welcome, my dear Lucius. I made sure that we should have you here directly. I got home last night for my holiday. You have not left school so long as to have forgotten that these are Minerva's Five Days. The good people at Rome are busy with the shows, which, I own, are not very much to my taste. So I have stolen away for a breath of country air, and I don't know where one can get this fresher than at Arpinum. But I can't get quite quit of work, and am busy revising my last speech for the booksellers."

Then turning to his secretary:

"That will do for the present, Tiro. Read it over and mark anything that does not seem to you to run quite smoothly. And now for your business, my dear boy. You will remember, I dare say, that I was in Sicily two or three years ago. I was qustor there in the western division of the island, and I think I may say, without flattering myself, did pretty well. Now, my friend Manilius is just about starting to take up the very same office, and he wants some one to help him. I thought of you at once. You will not be a mere clerk, you understand, though you will, of course, have to do a good deal of clerk's work. You will live with the qustor, go with him on his journeys, and be in fact a sort of aide-de-camp to him. It is a kind of work that will give you a great insight into how things are managed [11] in the provinces; and you could not be under a kinder; more good-natured man than Manilius. Don't be vexed," added the speaker, fancying that he noticed a shade of disappointment on the lad's face, "that it is not a bit of soldiering I am sending you to. That will come soon enough. A Roman is not likely to suffer for want of fighting. But to learn something about business is a chance that does not come every day. It is much easier, though you may not think it, to conquer a province than to govern it. No one can blame Rome for the way in which she has done the first business; but the second—that is another affair altogether. And this reminds me of something I want to say to you. I don't hear altogether good reports of what is going on in Sicily just now. I must not prejudice you against any one; but still I must put you on your guard. You have but just ceased to be a boy here, but there you will have a man's work. You will have some power, and the people in Sicily will fancy that you have a great deal more than is really the fact. They will always be wanting you to speak a word in your chief's ear, and will be ready with their bribes. Whatever you do, keep your hands clean. You come of a race that never cared for money, and you will not disgrace it. And there is another thing for you to remember. They are poor creatures, many of these Sicilians. In their best days they were always falling out of the hands of one tyrant into those of another, and they are very little better than slaves now. But remember that they are Greeks; their ancestors were educated gentlemen when ours were little better than barbarians. Almost every scrap in our literature that is worth [12] having comes from them. Remember this, and try not to despise them. And now about your journey. The qustor is going by land as far as Las in Lucania. There he takes ship. It is a choice of evils, you know. There is Spartacus with his gladiators on the land, and there are the pirates on the sea. You see, my boy, you have got a fair chance of adventures. Spartacus, however, is at present at Thurii, and I should think that you may easily get as far as Las without being troubled by him. However, the qustor has business in the South that must be attended to, and he has made up his mind. The voyage from there to Messina is not a long one, and as safe, I fancy, as any voyage is nowadays. He starts from Rome to-morrow, so it will be of no use your going there. You must join him at Capua, where he is to stay till the 5th of April. And now good-night. Come and see me again while I am here, which will be for four days more. But stay; here is a little keepsake and companion for you."

He went to one of the book-cases and took down a parchment roll, which he handed to Lucius. It was about eight inches long and five or six in diameter, and the page which he unrolled to exhibit to Lucius showed that it was covered with Greek writing, small and close, but exceedingly clear.

"There," he said, "is the best part of the equipment with which Alexander went out to conquer the world. You have heard, I dare say, that he always slept with the Iliad  under his pillow. I know you love Homer, for the last time that I was here I overheard you reciting him to your young friend Caius Frentanus. You had been fishing [13] in the Fibrenus, and I was in my reading-room on the island. And very well you gave it, I must tell you. It was Hector's speech to Polydamas. I never appreciated it so much before. You remember the lines:

"'His sword the brave man draws,

And owns no omen but his country's cause.'

If you are not in too great hurry to get home I should like you to stay and hear a little translation I have made of the passage into our own language."

Lucius, who knew, as indeed did all his neighbors and friends, the great man's weakness for his own verses, professed himself of course anxious to hear. He listened to the translation, which, to tell the truth, was of not more than moderate merit, with deferential attention, and praised it possibly beyond the strict limits of truth. His admiration was certainly not so sincere as his gratitude for Cicero's kindness. This he expressed in the heartiest way. Then, after saying good-night to the elder Cicero, to Terentia, who kindly invited him to pay a special visit to her and to her daughter, his little playfellow Tullia, he made the best of his way home.


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