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


 

 

VERRES

[80] PUNCTUALLY on the day appointed (the month named by Verres expiring on the fifteenth of June) Lucius presented himself at the gate of the governor's palace in Syracuse. He was a little surprised to find it closed, for it was an hour (about seven o'clock in the morning) when a great man's house at Rome would have been thronged with callers. A kick at the gate produced no effect, and it was only when this had been repeated at least half a dozen times that a slave, whose unwashed face and garments hastily huddled on showed that he was but that moment risen from his bed, slowly opened the wicket.

What do you want, young sir?" said the man in a surly tone.

"I am come by appointment to see the governor," replied our hero with as much dignity as he could assume.

"And, pray, who sent you here to see the governor?" retorted the man. "It was a fool's errand anyhow. The governor is not at home." And vouchsafing no further information he slammed the door in the visitor's face.

Astonished and indignant at this reception, Lucius was about to recommence his attack on the gate when a passerby, [81] who had stopped by the way to listen to the dialogue, courteously accosted him.

"You are a stranger here, sir, I imagine, and don't know the ways of the place. His Excellency finds the palace too hot for him in the summer time, and lives in tents on the shore. The sea air, you will understand," he added with a smile, "is necessary for his health. You will find him there; but you must not go too early—we don't keep up your early Roman habits here. In fact, you had better send a messenger with a note, and ask him to fix the time for an interview."

Lucius thanked his informant, and followed his advice. The note was duly written, despatched, and delivered, but the great man vouchsafed no answer. Three days had passed, and Lucius, uneasy at this unaccountable silence, had begun to fear that he had made a mistake in not at once presenting himself to the governor, whether he was living in his palace or in a tent, when he received a note, which ran thus:

"Lucius Verres to Lucius Marius, greeting.

"I invite you to dinner to-day at three o'clock, when you will meet your superior officer. If you have any companions who are likely to be good company, bring them. Write back and say how many there will be of you. Farewell.

"From my palace by the sea, June 18th."

It was already past noon; for the messenger had loitered on his way for one gossip at the baths and another at the wine-shop. Lucius wrote back an acceptance, adding that he had no companion to bring. That done he promptly [82] put himself into the hands of a barber, who curled his hair and shaved off the slight traces of down which his youthful chin presented. These important operations concluded, he had little more than the necessary time to make his way in one of the carriages which plied for hire in the streets to the governor's seaside quarters. The row of tents in which the luxurious Roman was accustomed to spend the hot summer months formed something like a camp, and had been pitched as near to the water's edge as the necessity of allowing for an occasional rise of the sea (due to wind rather than to tide) permitted. It was the largest of these which served as a dining-room, and into which Lucius was ushered. It was a spacious apartment, measuring as much as fifty feet each way, and rising in the middle to a height not very much less. These were the dimensions as viewed from within; viewed from without they were considerably larger, for the tent was double throughout, and there was a space of six feet between the outer and the inner coverings. This arrangement considerably mitigated the heat of the sun. Openings, which could be closed or enlarged at pleasure, had been arranged on the north and south sides. Both could be opened when the wind was not blowing strongly enough to produce an inconvenient draught. On this particular occasion, as there was a brisk breeze, they were open towards the south only, affording a delightful view of the bay. The walls of the tent, to the height of eight or ten feet, were hung with purple. The floor was of tessellated pavement, with patterns of fishes and birds upon it.

Lucius arrived almost exactly as Verres and his guests were preparing to take their places at the table. The [83] governor, who, contrary to his usual custom, wore the dress of a Roman magistrate, the white toga with its broad edging of purple, occupied a couch at the top of the horse-shoe table. At his left hand was a chair in which sat a lady of remarkable beauty, clad in a graceful but perhaps too gayly colored Greek costume. On the lady's right hand again was another couch with a single occupant, evidently a fop of the first order. His Greek dress was of the newest and most fashionable cut; his hair was elaborately curled and almost dripping with perfume; his fingers were loaded with rings, and he had even condescended to the feminine ornaments of a necklace and bracelets. His features were pleasing, but had a weak expression; while the flush upon them showed that, young as he was, intemperance had already begun to leave its tokens behind it. Lucius found his own place next to this fashionable young gentleman. His neighbor on the other side was a lad of about fourteen, who still wore the boy's dress (which closely resembled the official costume). The party was completed by two freedmen, who occupied a fourth couch on the left hand of the governor.

Verres introduced his new guest with a careless but not uncourteous brevity. Lucius learned that the handsome lady was named Niké; that his fashionable neighbor was her husband, Cleomenes, his future commander, a fact that surprised and did not altogether please him; and that the boy was the governor's own son. The two freedmen were not thought worth an introduction. These were invited to amuse the other guests, and in fact were professional performers, who considered themselves sufficiently paid by [84] their dinner and by other gains, not always of a respectable kind, which they picked up by the favor of their host.


[Illustration]

AT DINNER WITH THE ROMAN GOVERNOR.

The talk turned at first on the merits of the various dishes and wines, which were more sumptuous and varied than any thing that Lucius had ever seen or heard of. Accustomed to the simple fare of a country-house, where the old habits of Italian frugality had been scrupulously retained, he was simply amazed by the succession of delicacies, some of them wholly unknown to him even by name, which the slaves in waiting continued to offer him. His young companion, however, boy as he was, seemed thoroughly acquainted with the merits of every thing. The ignorance or indifference of his neighbor excited his unbounded surprise. "Is it possible that you don't like oysters?" he cried, as Lucius passed, without helping himself, a dish of the shell-fish which a slave had offered him. "These came all the way from Misenum. Perhaps you thought them Sicilians, which, I must confess, are somewhat flabby. But you may rely on these being genuine."

Lucius owned that he should not know the difference. "In fact," he said, "I never tasted an oyster. We get fresh-water mussels at home, but I confess that I don't much like them."

"I should think not," cried the boy. "Mussels indeed! Who ever heard of such a thing? Never to have tasted an oyster! And you have put on the man's gown! "

He seemed lost in astonishment to think that a fellow creature's education had been so neglected. "But," he continued, as he caught sight of a new dish which the elderly man, who was in command of the waiters, was [85] bringing in with some pomp, "here comes something that you are sure to like."

It was a peacock, as was evident from its gorgeous tail-feathers. It was evident from the state with which it was served, the dish on which it rested being of silver gilt, that it was regarded as one of the principal ornaments of the banquet.

"And what do you think of that?" cried the lad when Lucius had finished his portion.

"To tell you the truth," said the other, "it seems to me a little tough and dry. A common pullet is just as good, and, but for the look of the thing, even better."

The boy looked at him as he might have looked at a savage. "Well," he said, after a pause, "try that white wine. It comes from a vineyard near Ętna; a little fiery, perhaps, as it should be, coming from such a soil, but with a very fine flavor. You shake your head! Perhaps you are right. I was forgetting. 'A white wine with boiled meats, a red with roast,' I have heard my father say so often, and I ought to have remembered. Fill your cup—stay a moment and have a clean cup—with that Cęcuban. It is thirty years old, and you can't get a better wine in Sicily."

Lucius began to feel himself very much out of place. Being little more than a boy he was ashamed to make a confession, which he knew would rouse his young companion's contempt. However, he screwed up his courage and said:

"The truth is I seldom drink any wine."

"What, in the name of the twelve gods, do you drink?"

[86] "Why, water, or milk, and sometimes, when the vintage is going on, a draught of the must before it goes into the vat. Two or three times in the year, on my father's birthday, or Saturn's days, we have a jar of real wine put on the table, but I must say that I care very little for it."

The boy looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. "And if this is your drink," he went on, "pray what do you eat? "

"Pulse porridge, and cakes baked in the embers, and any vegetables and fruits that may be in season, and a slice of mutton-ham or salt pork on most days. Sometimes we have a hare roasted. Sometimes we get quails or partridges. Once or twice in the year we have a haunch of venison or a fore-quarter of wild boar. That is our bill of fare; and I can tell you," added our hero, who was a little nettled at his companion's airs of superiority; "I can tell you that it is no bad training for a soldier."

"A soldier! Hercules and Venus, who wants to be a soldier? When you have been here a month you will see that there are better trades than a soldier's." With this remark the lad turned away and applied himself seriously to the business of dinner. He had done his duty to a guest whom he felt to be under his special care; but now it was evidently useless to waste any more trouble upon him.

Lucius' other neighbor had overheard, with not a little amusement, some of this conversation.

"You are quite of the primitive sort," he said with a [87] pleasant smile; "one of the Romans who have conquered the world, which our young friend there," he added in a lower voice, "certainly never will be. I haven't the good fortune to be one of your countrymen, but I have the good sense to admire their virtues. At present I am delighted that you are going to serve under me. You are just the man that I want. Things are not quite in the good order that I should like to see them in; but with your good help we will alter all that. But 'business to-morrow.' Come and see me—every one knows where I live —and we will talk over what is to be done." By this time the tedious succession of dishes, for such it seemed to one at least of the guests, had come to an end, and the wine was set on. Verres took from the table before him a two-handled cup. "To Jupiter, good and great; to Venus, to Bacchus," he said, pouring, at each name, a few drops of wine upon the pavement. "And now," he went on, "let us drink to our new comrade, Lucius Marius. 'Tis a name that smacks of victory, and I have good reason to know that it is worthily borne. These rascally pirates shall be taught something that they don't know at present. By right this is a toast that should be drunk in bumpers; but we would be merciful to women and children; and my guests will please themselves." The cup was passed round, Verres first taking a deep draught, Nike just touched it with her rosy lips, the Greek's potation also was moderate. Young Verres had by this time nearly reached the limit of his powers. Lucius felt himself absolved from drinking to his own health, and passed the goblet at once to the freedmen, whose well-practised throats easily drained it to the bottom. For a [88] short time the conversation turned on the pirates, their recent doings, and the chastisement that was in store for them. The subject, however, did not seem one interesting to any of the company except Lucius. Art was the next topic introduced, and Verres discoursed, with the eloquence of a connoisseur,  on pictures, marbles, bronzes, gems, and the varieties of Samian and Tyrian ware. When the conversation flagged the freedmen felt that the time was come for them to earn, or rather to pay for, their dinner. They pretended to quarrel, and set to work to abuse each other with a flow and variety of language which seemed vastly diverting to their entertainer and his guests. As they went on their jokes grew broader and coarser; Nike hid, or pretended to hide, her face with her napkin; and Lucius, who was really a modest and well-conducted youth, felt himself more awkwardly placed than he had ever been before in his life. At this moment an opportune diversion relieved him from his difficulty. Young Verres, who had been devoting himself with more than usual diligence to the wine-cup, turned to him and whispered in unsteady tones: "Help me out." Lucius was only too glad to seize the opportunity of escape. He helped the boy to rise from his couch, and supported him out of the tent, handing him over to a young slave who was apparently waiting to receive him, and who showed no surprise at his state. An elderly man, in whom Lucius recognized the bearer of the peacock dish, was standing by. "Will the governor expect me to return?" he asked, devoutly hoping that it would not be expected of him. The steward, for such he was, a little surprised to see one of his master's guests so [89] thoroughly master of himself, thought that his absence would probably not be noticed, and Lucius gladly escaped. It was still early in the evening, and there was time for a stroll about the great harbor, a scene of bustle and activity, of which it was impossible to tire.


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