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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE CASKET

[276] THE judges at once adjourned the inquiry to the private room provided for them in one of the buildings that adjoined the course, and began by calling on the objector for a prima facie justification of the course which he had taken. By common repute, they said, Eubulus is the son of Eumenes, for many years a well known and generally respected inhabitant of Corinth. His name is so entered in more than one public document. He contended in this name, and was so described in a boys' competition, and no objection was taken. The objector answered this appeal in what seemed to be a perfectly straightforward fashion. He had first hand evidence, he said, of the truth of what he alleged, and this he was ready to produce on the spot. If the judges would wait for something less than a single "water," he would bring the witness [277] before them. The witness was a woman, and he had not been able to bring her within the sacred precincts as long as the Games were actually in progress. The brief adjournment was, of course, granted. The time had barely expired when the objector reappeared, bringing with him a middle-aged woman of respectable appearance, and, indeed, well known in the city by name and repute. She followed the occupation of a sick nurse, and was well thought of for skill and, what was perhaps less common in those days, not to speak of later times, for honesty. Her testimony was perfectly clear and to the point. Something more than twenty-one years before she had been summoned to attend what had been described to her as a case of serious illness. The messenger who brought the summons had taken her to a house in Corinth which she knew as one let from time to time to temporary residents in the city. It was large and well furnished, and the rent demanded for the use of it amounted, she knew, to a considerable sum of money. The patient had expired before she reached the place, apparently in consequence of the rupture of a blood vessel. She was a young and beautiful woman. All the belongings of the bedchamber betokened refinement and wealth. On the fingers of the deceased [278] were several richly jewelled rings. By the side of the bed sat a man of middle age, considerably older, she thought, than the dead woman. He seemed to be stupefied with grief, and took no notice of her presence. After a while, however, he seemed to rouse himself, and struck a hand-bell which stood on a table by his side. A young man dressed as a slave appeared in answer to the summons. A conversation carried on in a low voice followed. When this was concluded, the master left the room and the young slave then delivered the message, with which, as it seemed, he had been entrusted. The purport of it was this. Would the nurse wait for some time, possibly three or four hours, till he had made his arrangements? A change had been made necessary on the sudden death of his wife. She would be fully recompensed for any trouble that she might have to take or any inconvenience to which she might be subjected. He was instructed meanwhile to offer her anything in the way of food or drink that she might want. He was also to introduce her to a child for whom her good offices would be asked, but in what way and to what extent it was not at present in his power to say. The slave then conducted her to an adjoining chamber, also richly furnished, where there was a boy child, apparently three [279] or four months old, asleep in a cradle, in the charge, as it seemed, of an elderly woman. After the lapse of about four hours, the young slave reappeared and conducted her back to the chamber to which she had been first brought. The dead body had been removed, and the husband, as she supposed him to be, was collected and calm. He asked her whether she knew Eumenes of Sicyon, putting the question, for so it struck her, as if he were quite confident of receiving an answer in the affirmative. As a matter of fact she did know him well. He then went on, "I wish you to take the child whom you have seen in the next room to Eumenes and his wife; he is, I know, recently married. Hand them this casket, this letter and this bag of gold. Here are ten gold pieces for your own trouble. I have set free those two slaves—they are mother and son—giving them enough to keep them from want for the future. For myself I shall wait here till you return with an acknowledgment from Eumenes and his wife that they have accepted the charge which I have asked them to undertake."

The woman concluded her story thus,

"I took the casket with the letter and the money, the child being carried for me by the woman whom I have mentioned. Before long I brought back the acknowledgment de- [280] sired. The stranger received it from me in silence, and I saw him no more. The next day I heard that a man had been found dead, apparently from the effects of poison, in the house before mentioned."

"Is this," asked the Archon, "the first time you have told this story?"

The woman looked distressed. "Yes," she said, "it is, except that I told my husband at the time what had taken place. He has been dead about two years. He was a very good husband to me, but a little wine got into his head, and at such times he let his tongue run away with him."

The Archon was extra-judicially acquainted with the fact that Eumenes had left Corinth, and that he had transferred the guardianship of his son to Aquila and Priscilla, and he suggested that the Jew should be sent for, and invited to communicate to the judges any information that he might happen to possess. But it was not necessary to send for him; he was already in waiting, for intelligence of the objection having been lodged had reached him, and he felt sure that the time was come for opening the casket. This he had accordingly brought with him, and he had also taken care to have the letter which he had received with it from [281] Eumenes ready for inspection. No little sensation was produced when he answered to his name, and intimated to the judges that he was possessed of documents the contents of which, though wholly unknown to him in detail, would, he felt confident, clear up the mystery that surrounded the birth of Eubulus. The question arose whether the court of judges, constituted as it was, and open to the public, was a proper tribunal for an investigation which might be of a delicate kind. Finally it was agreed that a committee of two should be asked to examine the documents in the first instance. The Archon was naturally one of the two, and the senior judge was the other; they were to invite Gallio the Proconsul to act as their president. Gallio, who was on the spot, at once consented, and the inquiry was commenced without further delay.

The president of the committee opened the casket in the presence of his colleagues, and took out its contents. These were a paper closely written on both sides and a small leather bag, containing some twelve jewels of great size and evidently of great value. The writing was a singularly beautiful script, which did not require more than a few minutes to read. When the Proconsul had mastered its contents, he handed it to the [282] Archon, and the Archon, having perused it, passed it to his colleague. It ran thus—

"I who write these words am by name Alexander, son of Philip, and by family of the royal house, or I should rather say of what was the royal house, of Macedonia, being sixteenth in descent from that Alexander who befriended the Greeks in the days of Xerxes. My genealogy, with such proofs as may be wanted to support it, is laid up in the municipal archives of the city of Pella. I will not describe the various perplexities and troubles which this descent has brought upon me. The heirs of royal houses which Rome has brought to the ground—and of such there are many—the representatives of parties which have failed to acquire or to retain power; the members of families which have not succeeded in their ambitions—all these have sought in me a possible ally or confederate. I will not mention the names of any, lest haply I should do any an injury. Let it therefore suffice to say that I had made a resolve in my mind that I would be the last of my race. But who is master of himself or of his own fate? No one certainly—least of all when Aphrodite takes to herself the spindle of Clotho and weaves the web of his fate. I loved a woman more good and more beautiful than words can say. My love woke in me the [283] hope that I might yet cheat my fate. I would retire to some place where the gods of the country, Pan and Silvanus and the Dryad Sisterhood, extend a benignant patronage to the tillers of the soil. For awhile all things went well. with us; a son was born to us, and I thought to myself, 'I have provided him a peaceful inheritance which the malignant desires and ambitions of cities should not mar; it will be enough for him if he gathers the fruits of the harvest which I plant.' Alas! I had not reckoned with the envy of fate. My wife sickened of some dread disease; I took her to Corinth in hope that one of the physicians of that city might heal her. She died. More I cannot say, for I am writing this while her body is being prepared for the funeral fires. Then I came to this resolve. I will hand over my son to the care of some virtuous couple of the burgher class. They shall bring him up to their own condition of life, to the occupation, humble but useful, which they themselves follow. I hope that thus he will escape the fate which has haunted me. Nevertheless, remembering that from fate no man can escape, I have provided against the chance that my plans may be defeated. I can see that it may become necessary to reveal that which I desire to hide, that circumstances [284] may require that my son shall cease to be a mechanic and be shown to be a descendant of kings. I therefore deposit in this casket the secret of his race."

A pause of some duration followed the reading of this document. Gallio broke it by announcing a decision which his colleagues promptly recognized as indicating the only course which under the circumstances could be followed. He said: "We will dismiss the objection to the Greek descent of Eubulus, and will announce that it has been proved to our entire satisfaction that in this respect the competitor is fully qualified as victorious in the Long Race to receive the Crown of Pine, and we will add, if it pleases you, some special distinction on account of the unprecedented character of his victory. But the strange revelation of the young man's parentage makes it necessary to act with the utmost prudence in dealing with the charge which has been brought against him. It is manifest, indeed, to us that he is wholly free from any guilty knowledge of plans adverse to the public welfare. Yet they who govern this Empire are bound to be on their guard against all possible danger, and they rightly expect caution and discretion from those to whom they delegate their power. I dare not release on my own responsibility one [285] who may by some possibility, however remote, become dangerous to the peace of the world, Eubulus must go to Rome and must answer for himself before Caesar. I am sure that he will suffer no harm from the magnanimous Claudius, secure as he is in his own virtues and in the favour of the gods. He shall go, not as a criminal, but as one to whom, both for his own sake, and for the sake of those who have gone before him, Rome will gladly do honour. I will take care that the dispatch which accompanies or precedes him shall do justice to him in every way."


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