THE FIRST OF THE WHEAT SHIPS
 THE time is an hour or so after sunrise on the
fifteenth of May in the year 50 of our era; the place
is one of the piers of the Emperor Claudius's new
harbour at Ostia. Two men, whose dress and features
show them plainly enough to be Jews, are watching the
ship which is slowly moving shoreward under a press of
"Your eyes are better than mine, Raphael," says the
elder of the two to his companion. "Can you make her
"Scarcely yet, father," replied the young man. He had
scarcely spoken, however, when the passing of a cloud
let a brilliant ray of sunshine fall on the vessel's
bow. "There, there," cried Raphael ben Manasseh—this
was the young man's name—"I can distinguish The Twin
"Accursed idols!" growled Manasseh, spitting on the
ground as he spoke.
Raphael shrugged his shoulders, casting at the same
time an apprehensive glance around him.
 "Don't you think, father," he said in a deprecatory
voice, "that it might make a little awkwardness, if
any people happened to be near? And if we charter these
people's ships, might we not put up with their ways?"
"Well, well, you youngsters are all for compromise and
peace. I often wish that I was well away from this land
of abomination. Dear Hebron! I can't think what made me
"Business very slack there, I take it," murmured
Raphael. "I doubt whether one could find a hundred
shekels in the whole place? But see, sir," he went on,
"they are lowering a boat; a good thing too, or we
might be loitering here till noon."
While father and son are waiting, with what patience
they can summon, the arrival of the boat, we may
explain the situation. The ship, which bears the name
and sign of The Twin Brothers, to become famous
afterwards for carrying a very distinguished
was the first of the great
 fleet of wheat ships which would be making the passage
between Alexandria and Ostia during the navigating
season of the year. Their arrival was an event of no
little importance. For some months past there had been
much speculation in Rome and elsewhere in what are now
called "futures" in the slang of the corn market. Even
in these days, when the system of communication is so
complete, the estimates of a crop that has yet to be
gathered in differ not a little. Interested parties are
influenced more than they know by their hopes and
fears. Sellers talk gloomily, buyers are
correspondingly sanguine. This year the prospects were
more than usually uncertain. The Nile of the previous
season had been indifferent,
but certainly significant of scarcity rather than
plenty. The weather, too, during the harvest had been
less consistently fine than usual. Altogether the
chances were greatly in
 favour of an increased price, and the Jewish corn
merchants at Rome, who combined in a way that gave them
a great advantage over their Gentile rivals, had acted
accordingly. Manasseh, who was the wealthiest member of
the syndicate, and had a predominant interest in its
speculations, had journeyed to Ostia to get the
earliest information. In spite of his sentimental
recollections of his peaceful birthplace, he was a very
keen man of business. Nothing, one may be sure, would
have been a more unwelcome change than to leave his
highly speculative business in Rome to take up again
the cultivation of his ancestral acres, cherished as
the thought of them was in what may be termed a
different compartment of his soul.
THE FIRST OF THE WHEAT SHIPS.
The boat had now reached the pier. It carried two men
in the stern. One of them who held the rudder lines was
the captain, who was also a part owner. He was a
thick-set man of middle age, a Corsican by birth, who
might have sat for the portrait of one of the brigands
of his native island. Just then, however, he was on his
best behaviour. Manasseh was his very good friend and
partner, who had lent him the money at the quite
moderate interest of ten percent to enable him to take
up a share in The Twin Brothers. He stood up in
 and respectfully saluted the great man on the shore, a
politeness which the Jew returned with as much courtesy
as he could bring himself to show to a heathen dog. The
other passenger, who was no less a person than the
supercargo, climbed up the steps of the pier. Manasseh
and Raphael greeted him warmly; he was, in fact, a near
kinsman, a nephew of the elder and cousin of the
younger man. His name was Eleazar.
"Welcome, nephew," said Manasseh. "You have had a good
voyage, that I can tell from your having come in such
excellent time. And you are well—to that your blooming
looks bear witness. And you bring good news?"
"That, my dear uncle, depends upon how you take them,"
replied Eleazar, "but—"
And he looked round on the little crowd which had by
this time gathered on the pier. Then as now a very
little incident sufficed to bring a crowd together at
the seaside. This particular occasion, too, as some of
the bystanders were aware, was one of special
importance. The seafaring men had recognised The
Twin Brothers, and knew that she was the first
comer of the wheat ships, and they had also a shrewd
idea that a meagre time might be at hand.
"You are quite right, my dear Eleazar," said the old
man, interpreting correctly his nephew's
 look; "this is too public a place for discussing
business. We can find a convenient room at the inn, if
you know our countryman Jonah's place by the Old
Harbour. I daresay that you could drink a cup of wine.
For my part I never could fancy either food or drink on
board a ship. Everything seems to me to taste of bilge
"Thanks, uncle," said Eleazar, "I am too used to the
sea to feel quite like that; still, I do vastly enjoy
my first bite and sup when I get on shore."
The party soon reached the tavern, a building with a
humble exterior, which, in accordance with the
universal Jewish custom, belied the comfort, not to say
the luxury, of the interior.
"What do you say to a flask of Lebanon?"
Raphael made a wry face. "My dear father, Lebanon, when
one can get Falernian or Formian!"
"Would you drink these Gentile abominations?" growled
the old man.
"Surely, sir, there is nothing in the law that forbids
Manasseh could hardly say that there was, and Raphael
was served with his flask of Falernian, his cousin
admiring his courage, but caring little for the matter
"And now to business," said Manasseh. "How about the
 "A very short harvest, and poor in quality."
spoke he drew out of his pocket a little sample bag
such as dealers carry now, and have doubtless carried
from time immemorial, and poured out the contents upon
the table. Manasseh and Raphael carefully examined the
grain. They were not long in coming to a conclusion.
"As poor a sample as I have ever seen," remarked the
"Well," said the father, "I can hardly go so far as that. I
can remember a long time, you see; but it is very poor.
And this, you say, is a fair sample."
"Yes," replied Eleazar, "quite a fair sample; some of
the grain from Upper Egypt is better, but then some is
worse—that, for instance, from the Moeris country,
where the canals were not more than half filled."
"And the price?" asked the older man.
"Well," said the other, "the price is a very serious
matter. It is pretty high now; but no one can say what
it will rise to. Let me tell you what I have done.
Early last month I bought a million medimni, to be
delivered before the end of May, at a hundred and
twenty-five sesterces the medimnus.
I felt that so far
 I could not be wrong. Well, I could have sold the wheat
the day before I started at one hundred and sixty, and
I haven't the least doubt in the world that it will go
Manasseh and his son looked very grave. They had hoped
for a rise and, as has been seen, stood to win
considerably by it; the supercargo's bargain meant a
gain of at least £250,000—but
there might easily be too much of a good thing. The
State had a way of interfering when prices rose above
all bearing, and private interest went to the walls.
And nowhere was this more likely to happen than at
"You have done quite right," said Manasseh after a
pause; "and I should not have complained if you had
bought five times the quantity. But I must confess that
I don't like the prospect. The Treasury is in a very
poor way. This fine
 new harbour has cost an enormous sum of money; so have
the drainage works and the aqueducts and the markets.
And then for every pound honestly spent another pound
has been stolen. Those two scoundrels of freedmen,
Pallas and Narcissus, must have at least two million
apiece. These are the lions, and there are whole herds
of jackals and wolves that are fed to the full. Every
farthing comes out of the Treasury. Now what I want to
know is this—how is the corn that is given away every
week to be paid for? We are under contract to supply a
hundred thousand bushels every month. We have guarded
against a rise in price, but not against such a rise as
this. The Treasury won't—in fact, it can't—pay the
price that we ought to ask. I see trouble ahead."
It is needless to repeat the subsequent conversation.
The practical conclusion arrived at was to buy up all
the wheat that could be got, before the impending
scarcity became a matter of public knowledge. There
would have to be large concessions in the way of
prices; but this would hurt them the less, the stronger
they could make their position or holding. It was
arranged that Eleazar should enjoy the hospitality of
his uncle's house as long as he remained in Italy. The
Twin Brothers would discharge her cargo with all
possible speed, and return to Alexandria, with a
 cargo, if this could be found at a short notice, but in
any case without delay, and the supercargo would
return with her. His acquaintance with the conditions
of the Alexandria wheat market made his presence
indispensable, especially at so critical a time.
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