Part 6 out of 12
And he gave me four silver pieces, saying:
"This will keep you in food for a long time, if you are sparing. Good
Then, habited as in the morning, we sallied out, and ate at a cook-shop we
had never before entered, which was full of revellers dressed as votaries
of Isis, as Egyptians, as cut-laws, as Arabians, as anything and
everything. And as we crossed the city on our way to the Aelian Bridge,
as we were passing through a better part of it, I was struck with the
craziness of the costumes, many imitating every imaginable style of garb:
Gallic, Spanish, Moorish, Syrian, Persian, Lydian, Thracian, Scythian and
many more; but many also devised according to no style that ever existed,
but invented by the wearers, in a mad competition to don the most
fantastic and bizarre garb imagination could suggest.
In the torchlit gardens I perceived at once that it would be very easy for
Maternus to edge close to the actual bodyguard, mingle with them, pass
himself off as one, get near the Emperor and make a rush at him. He had
chosen a spot where the procession was to circle thrice about a great
statue of Cybele set up for that occasion on a temporary base in the
middle of a round grass-plot. His idea was that I was to point out
Commodus to him on the first round and he to consider the disposition of
the participants in the procession and make his attempt on the second or
Standing, as we did, in the front row of a mass of revellers packed as
spectators along the incurved outer rim of the ring, we had a surpassingly
good view of the procession as it entered the circle. There were various
bands of votaries and then six eunuch priests, their faces whitened with
flour, their garb a flowing robe of light vivid yellow, convoying a brace
of panthers, pacing as sedately as the brace of lions in the morning
procession, drawing a light chariot in which sat a diademed, robed and
garlanded image of Cybele, very gaudy and garish. Behind the chariot paced
two priests of Cybele, not Phrygian Eunuchs, but Roman officials, in their
pontifical robes, a pair of dignified old senators, ex-consuls both,
Vitrasius Pollio and Flavius Aper, full of self-importance. Then came the
Chief Priest, tall, full-bearded, swarthy, his robes a blaze of gold and
jewels, pacing solemnly, on either side of him, as assistant priest, a
young Roman nobleman, chosen from the college of the Pontiffs of Cybele,
habited in very gorgeous robes. One was Marcus Octavius Vindex, son of the
ex-consul, a very handsome young man; the other, to my amazement,
At sight of my life-long enemy who had always rebuffed my overtures
towards the establishment of courteous relations between us, who had
insulted me a thousand times, who had sponsored the informer whose
insinuations had caused my downfall, revengeful rage and self-
congratulation at my opportunity filled me.
For, between the two pompous old senators and this dignified, showy and
impressive trio, capered a score of eunuch priests clashing cymbals and
among them Commodus also clashing cymbals and amazingly garbed. I have
never been able to conjecture how his headgear was managed. He had a band
round his forehead and from that band rose a sphere of some light
material, apparently a framework of whalebone covered with silk, a sphere
fully a yard in diameter, all gleaming with the sheen of silk, and white
with an unsurpassable whiteness. His robe, or tunic or whatever it was,
was of the same or a similar glossy white silk. Round his neck was a
golden collar, and gold anklets of a similar pattern clanked on his
ankles. From the links or bosses of the collar to the links or bosses of
the anklets streamed silken ribbons of the same intense light yellow we
had seen in the robes of the panther-keepers. Two of the eunuch priests
fanned him with peacock feather fans, so that the ribbons fluttered and
shimmered in the torchlight. He wore soft shoes or slippers of the same
vivid yellow. Clashing his cymbals he shrieked and capered with the eunuch
I was more than shocked to see the Prince of the Republic so degrade
himself, to see him exhibit the acme of the craze for devising
unimaginably fantastic costumes for this Festival.
Besides being shocked, I was terrified, even numb with terror. I knew that
Maternus would never believe me if I indicated this gaping zany and
asserted that it was our Emperor: yet Maternus had such an uncanny power
of interpreting the expression of face of any interlocutor that I dreaded
to tell him anything save the exact truth. I was in a dilemma, equally
afraid to tell the truth, for fear the improbability of it would infuriate
Maternus and convince him of my treachery; or to take the obvious course,
for fear some subtle shade of my tone or look might similarly impel him to
As the convoy passed Maternus whispered, softly and unhurriedly:
"Which is he?"
In my panic I chose the less dangerous alternative. Pulto was by far the
most Imperial figure in the throng; his great height, the fine poise of
his head, his royal bearing, his regal expression, his stately port, all
contributed to make him dominate the assemblage. I felt that Maternus
might believe him Commodus and could never believe Commodus an Emperor or
even a noble.
I indicated Pulto, haughty, dignified, handsome and magnificently habited.
Maternus, apparently, believed me implicitly.
He whispered again.
"I am sure to get him when they come round again. Watch for my blow. If I
land or if I am seized, fend for yourself. Good luck and Mercury be good
to both of us. Farewell."
As the procession came round again I could hear my heart thump; but, to my
gaze, Maternus, handsome in his imitation Praetorian uniform, appeared the
personification of calmness.
When again the Imperial zany and his fan-bearers and posturing eunuchs had
passed us and the High Priest and his Acolytes were opposite us, Maternus
slipped forward between two of the Praetorians of the escort.
At that instant I felt a grip on my arm and Agathemer's voice whispered:
Together we slunk back into the crowd, and when the yell arose behind us,
presumably at sight of Pulto slaughtered by Maternus, we were well clear
of the press and in the act of darting into the shrubbery. In fact we got
clear away unpursued, unmolested, unhindered.
As the Gardens of Verus are north of the Tiber we had no difficulty
whatever in casting a wide circuit to the left and coming out on the
Aurelian Highway. All the way to it we had met no one; on it we met no
one. After striking the highway we walked along it as fast as we dared. We
should have liked to run a mile or two, but we were careful to comport
ourselves as wayfarers and not act so as to appear fugitives. The night
was overcast and pitch dark. We must have walked fully four miles, which
is about one third of the way to Loria.
Then, being tired and with no reason whatever for going anywhere in
particular, we sat down to rest on the projecting base-course of a
pretentious tomb of great size but much neglected. It was so dilapidated,
in fact, that Agathemer, feeling about by where he sat, found an aperture
big enough for us to crawl into. It began to rain and we investigated the
opening. Apparently this huge tomb had been hastily built by dishonest
contractors, for here, low down, where the substructure should have been
as durable and solid as possible, they had cheapened the wall by inserting
some of those big earthenware jars which are universally built into the
upper parts of high walls to lighten the construction. A slab of the
external shell of gaudy marbles had fallen out, leaving an aperture nearly
as big as the neck of the great jar.
As the rain increased to a downpour we wriggled and squirmed through the
hole, barely squeezing ourselves in, and found the jar a bit dusty but dry
and comfortable. We wrapped ourselves in our cloaks, rejoicing to be out
of the torrent of water which now descended from the sky. Also we composed
ourselves to sleep, if we could.
We discussed our situation. We had our tunics, cloaks, umbrella hats and
road shoes, but no staffs, wallets or extras. Agathemer mourned for his
flageolet. Between us we had seven silver denarii and a handful of
coppers; Maternus had given Agathemer four denarii, as he had me, but
early in the day, and he had broken one to buy two meals.
He said that Caburus had either feared to make an attempt on Commodus, or
judged that no opportunity presented itself. Of Cossedo he knew no more
than I. Caburus had turned him over to two ruffians to watch and he had
eluded them in the crowds and made his way to the Gardens of Verus
expressly to find me, if possible, and help me to escape.
He said that our coins could not be made to last any length of time. Nor
could we well beg our way so near the city. Our store of gems in our
amulet-bags was of no use, because, as he said, he was personally known to
every gem-expert in Rome. Perusia was the nearest town to northward where
he might hope to find prompt secret buyers for gems of dubious ownership;
Perusia was far beyond the reach of two footfarers, without wallets and
with only seven denarii.
We argued that, whatever happened, the wisest course was to get some
sleep. Agathemer declared that we could fast over next day and night, if
necessary, and that we had best keep in our hole till next night, anyhow.
I acceded and we went to sleep.
We were waked by loud voices in altercation. The sky had cleared, the late
moon was half way up, and we conjectured that the time was about midway
between midnight and dawn, the time when all roads are most deserted.
Close to us, plain in the brilliant moonlight, were two stocky men on roan
or bay horses. The moonlight was bright enough to make it certain that
they were wearing the garb of Imperial couriers. The trappings of their
horses, frontlets, saddle cloths, saddle bags and all suited their attire.
But their actions, words, accents and everything about them was most
discordant with their horses and equipment.
Both were so drunk that they could just stick on their stationary and
impassive mounts, so drunk that they talked thickly. And they were
disputing and arguing and wrangling with their voices raised almost to a
shout. Thickly as they talked, we had listened to them but a few moments
when we were sure that they were low-class highwaymen who had robbed two
Imperial couriers, tied and gagged them, changed clothes with them and
ridden off on their horses, but had stopped to drink, raw and unmixed, the
couriers' overgenerous supply of heady wine; two kid-skins, by their
utterances. Now they were reviling each other, each claiming a larger
proportion of the coins than he had.
Here was a present from Mercury, indeed. It was a matter of no difficulty
to crawl out of our hole, to approach Carex and Junco, as they called each
other, to pluck their daggers from their sheaths and to render the
highwaymen harmless, to pull them from their saddles, tie their hands with
the lashings of their saddle-bags and to gag them with strips torn from
their tunics; for they were too drunk to know that they were being
attacked; so drunk that each, as we dragged him from his horse, fancied
that the other was assaulting him and expostulated at such unfair behavior
on the part of a pal. So drunk were they that both were snoring before we
tied their feet with more strips torn from their tunics.
Like sacks we hauled them out of the moonlight, into the shadow of the
tomb and then stripped them except of their tunics, fitted on ourselves
the accoutrements they had stolen, and thrust them, trussed, gagged,
snoring and helpless, into the hole where we had taken shelter.
On horseback we rode like couriers, full gallop, passed Loria before the
first hint of dawn showed through the moonlight and, about half way
between Fregena and Alsium turned aside into a lovely little grove about
an old shrine of Ops Consiva, a grove whose beauty and the openness of
whose tree-embowered, grass-carpeted spaces was plain even by the
As soon as it was light enough to see we took stock of our windfall. The
horses were both bays and of the finest; their trappings new and in
perfect condition. Our attire was made up of the best horsemen's boots, a
trifle too large for us, but not enough to be so noticeable as to betray
us, or even enough to make us uncomfortable; of horsemen's long rain-
cloaks and of excellent umbrella hats, all of the regulation material,
design and color. In the saddle-bags were excellent blankets, our
despatches, legibly endorsed with the name, Munatius Plancus, of the
official at Marseilles to whom we were to deliver them; and our
credentials, entitling us to all possible assistance from all men and to
fresh horses at all change-houses. From these diplomas we learned that our
names were Sabinus Felix and Bruttius Asper.
This crowned our luck. We crowed with glee over the unimaginably helpful
coincidence that these diplomas should be made out for couriers with the
very names which we had chosen at haphazard at the commencement of our
flight and had been using to each other ever since.
The provision of cash was ample: besides plenty of silver there was more
than enough gold to have carried us all the way to Marseilles, on the most
lavish scale of expenditure, without resorting to our credentials to get
us fresh horses.
We ate liberally of the couriers' generous provision of bread, cheese,
sausage, olives and figs; well content to quench our thirst at the spring
by the shrine. Then we muffled ourselves in our cloaks, tightened the
straps of our umbrella hats, jammed them down on our heads, pulled the
brims over our faces, mounted and set off, elated, sure of ourselves, well
fed, well clad, well horsed, opulent, accredited, gay.
As couriers vary in their theories of horse-husbanding and in their
practice of riding, we had a wide choice, and elected to get every mile we
could out of these fine horses and not change until as far as possible
from Rome. We found their most natural lope and, pausing to drink and to
water them sparingly at the loneliest springs we descried, we pressed on
through or past the Towers, Pyrgos, and Castrum Novum to Centumcellae.
That was all of forty-one miles from the shrine of Ops Consiva and full
fifty from Rome, but, partly because we had to spare ourselves, as we had
not been astride of a horse since we crawled through the drain at Villa
Andivia, we so humored our horses that we arrived in a condition which the
ostler took as a matter of course, and it was then not quite noon, which
we both considered a feat of horsemanship.
At Centumcellae we ate liberally and enjoyed the inn's excellent wine.
Also we set off on strong horses. From there only the danger of getting
saddle-sick after our long disuse of horses and the certainty of getting
saddle-sore, as we did, restrained us. We tore on through Martha, Forum
Aurelii, and a nameless change-house, spurring and lashing as much as we
dared, for we dared not disable ourselves with blisters, changing at each
halt and getting splendid horses, our diplomas unquestioned. Thus at dusk
we reached Cosa, forty-nine miles from Centumcellae and a hundred and nine
miles from Rome.
We dreaded that we should wake too sore to ride, perhaps too sore to
mount, perhaps even too sore to get out of bed. But, while stiff and in
great pain, we managed to breakfast and get away.
That day we, perforce, rode with less abandon, though we both felt less
discomfort after we warmed to the saddle. We nooned at Rosellae, thirty-
three miles on, and slept at Vada, the port of Volaterrae, fifty-six miles
further, a day of eighty miles. Next day we were, if anything, yet sorer
and stiffer, certainly we were less frightened. So we took it easier,
nooning at Pisa, thirty miles on, and sleeping at Luna, thirty-five
further, a day of only sixty-five miles, rather too little for Imperial
couriers. Our third morning we woke feeling hardened and fit: we made
thirty-nine miles before noon and ate at Bodetia; from there we pushed on
forty-five miles to Genoa, an eighty-four mile day, more in character.
At Genoa we were for taking the coast road. We were all for haste. We had
ridden amazingly well for men who had not been astride of a horse for
nearly a year; we had ridden fairly well for Imperial couriers; but we had
not ridden fast enough to suit ourselves. From Cosa onward we had been
haunted by the same dread. We had imagined the real Bruttius Asper and
Sabinus Felix reporting their loss of everything save their tunics, we
imagined the hue and cry after us, the most capable men in the secret
service, riding fit to kill their horses on our trail. At Cosa, at Vada,
at Luna we had waked dreading to find the avengers up with us and
ourselves prisoners; at Rosellae, at Pisa, at Bodetia, we had eaten with
one eye on the door, expecting every instant to see our pursuers enter; so
at every change-station, while our trappings were taken from our weary
cattle and girthed on fresh mounts. So we were for the coast road as
But the innkeeper, who was also manager of the change-stables, told us
that between Genoa and Vada Sabatia the road was blocked by landslides,
washouts and the destruction of at least three bridges by freshets. He
advised us to take the carriage-road by Dertona, the Mineral Springs,
Crixia and Canalicum. But we thought of the pursuers thundering after us
and anyhow we wanted none of Dertona, recalling our encounter with
Gratillus at Placentia. We took the coast road, and, though we had to ford
two streams and swam our horses over one, although we had to slide down
slopes and toil up others afoot, leading our horses after us, although a
full third of the road was mere rough track, like a wild mountain trail,
though the distance was all of forty-five miles, yet we slept at Vada
Sabatia, very thankful to have done in one day what would have taken us at
least three by the hundred and fifty-one mile mountain-detour through
Dertona, and still more thankful for the lonely safety of the coast road.
From Vada Sabatia the coast road was better, but still far from easy. We
were well content to noon at a tiny change-house between Albingaunum and
Albintimilium and to sleep at Lumo, seventy-seven miles on. Next morning
early, only six miles from Lumo, but six miles of hard climbing up a
twisty, rock-cut road, we came out at its crest, where there is a
wonderful view up and down the coast and out southwards to sea, and there
passed the boundary of Italy and entered Gaul. That night we slept at
Matavonium, eighty-four miles forward and but seventy-four miles from
So far we had had no adventures, had been accepted without question
everywhere, had seen no look of suspicion from anyone, had encountered no
other couriers, except those whom we met and passed on the road, we and
they lashing, spurring and hallooing, each party barely visible to the
other through the cloud of dust both raised.
On that day, our eighth out from Rome, at noon at Tegulata, we had
The common room of the inn was low-ceiled, I could have jumped and touched
the carved beams with my hand. But it was very large indeed, something
like thirty yards long and fully twenty yards wide, with two Tuscan
columns about ten yards apart in the middle of it, supporting the seven
great beams, smoke-blackened till their carving was blurred, on which the
ceiling-joists were laid. The floor was of some dark, smooth-grained
stone, polished by the feet which had trod it for generations; there were
six wide-latticed windows, and, opposite the door, a great fire-place,
with an ample chimney above and four bronze cranes for pots or roasts.
Each arm had several chains and actually, when we entered, four pots were
boiling, and a kid was roasting over the cunningly bedded fire of clear
red coals, the fresh caught wood at the back, where the smoke would not
disflavor the roasting meat. It was the most civilized inn we had entered
on our post-ride and spoke of the nearness of Marseilles, though every
detail of its construction, furnishings and methods was Gallic, not Greek.
Unlike our inns, where the drink and food is set on low, round-topped,
one-legged, three-footed tables, about which are placed the backless
stools or low-backed, wooden-seated chairs on which the customers sit, it
had, Gallic fashion, big, heavy-topped, high-set, rectangular, six-legged
tables with benches along their long sides, others with chairs, like those
at the ends of every table; solid, high-backed chairs, comfortable for the
guests, whose knees were well under the high-topped, solid-legged tables.
Agathemer and I took seats at the table in the far corner to the right of
the door; only two of the five were occupied, and they by but two at each;
plainly local customers. We told the host that we were in haste and asked
for whatever fare he had ready. He brought us an excellent stew of fowl,
with bread and wine and recommended that we wait till he had broiled some
sea-fish, saying they were small but toothsome, fresh-caught and would be
ready in a few moments. The fish tempted us, and, so near Marseilles, we
felt no hurry at all, for we meant to loiter on the road and pass the gate
about an hour before sunset, calculating that the later in the day we
arrived the better chance we had of delivering our despatches, as we must,
without being exposed as not the men we passed for, and of somehow
disembarrassing ourselves of our accoutrements and donning ordinary attire
bought at some cheap shop.
As we sat, tasting the eggs, shrimps, and such like relishes before
attacking the stew, which was too hot as yet, there entered two men in the
attire of Imperial couriers. Agathemer kept his face, but I am sure I
turned pale. I expected, of course, that they would walk over to our
table, greet us, ask our names, and like as not turn out intimates of
Bruttius Asper and Sabinus Felix, so that we would be exposed then and
But they merely saluted, perfunctorily, and took seats at the table
nearest the door on their left, diagonally the whole space of the room
from us. Agathemer and I returned their salute as precisely as we could
imitate it, thankful that they had saluted, so as to let us see what the
couriers' salute was, for we had felt much anxiety all along the road,
since neither of us, often as we had seen it, could recall it well enough
to be sure of giving it properly, if we met genuine couriers, or, terrible
thought, encountered an inspector making sure that the service was all it
should be and on the outlook for irregularities.
The moment they were at the table they bawled for instant service, urged
the host, reviled the slaves, fell on their food like wolves, eating
greedily and hurriedly and guzzling their wine. We could catch most of
their orders, but of their almost equally loud conversation, since they
talked with their mouths full, we caught only the words "Dertona" and
"Crixia"; these comforted us; either they had left Rome before us and we
had overtaken them, or they came from Ancona or somewhere on the road from
Ancona to Dertona or more likely from Aquileia, or somewhere on the road
from it, or perhaps even from beyond it.
They disposed of relishes, boiling stew, a mountain of bread, and a lake
of wine, besides olives and fruit, in an incredibly short time, and then,
again perfunctorily saluting us, rushed out.
Our fish had just been served and were as good as prophesied. A moment
after the exit of the couriers there entered a plump, pompous individual,
every line of whose person and attire advertised him a local dandy, while
every lineament and expression of his face, his every attitude and
movement, equally proclaimed him a busybody.
He walked straight to our table, bowed to us and nodded to one of the
slave-waiters, who instantly and obsequiously vanished. Our new table-
companion at once entered into conversation with us, speaking civilly, but
with an irritating self-sufficiency.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I am acquainted with many of your calling who pass
through here, but I do not recall having ever seen you before. My estates
are near Tegulata and I am chiefly concerned with wine-growing. My wines,
indeed, are reckoned the best between Baeterrae and Verona. My name is
Valerius Donnotaurus; may I know yours?"
I kept my eyes on his face as I introduced Agathemer as Bruttius Asper and
he me as Sabinus Felix. It seemed to me that his expression was not
altogether free from a momentary gleam of suspicion; but my anxiety might
have seen what was not there, I could not be sure. At any rate he bowed
politely, asked me whence we came, when we had left Rome, and the latest
news. He commended our speed and our having overcome the difficulties of
the coast road between Genoa and Vada Sabatia.
The waiter, according to some subtle characteristic of his nod, brought
wine for three, which he assured us was wine from his estates, though not
his best, yet worth trying, and he invited us to drink with him. We could
not well refuse and we were glad to be able to praise the wine, which, for
Gallic wine, was really not so bad. Before we had finished our fish he
excused himself and went out.
We dallied with our food, counting on giving the two couriers time to get
away before we came out into the courtyard. But we learned afterwards
that, as we had shown our credentials and ordered fresh horses before we
entered the inn, the change-master would not give them the two best horses
which he was holding ready for us and had in the yard no other horses.
They had demanded our fresh horses, cursed him and blustered, but could
not move him and so were still berating him when Donnotaurus came out to
them. He, after introducing himself, asking their names and route and,
commiserating them on the poor supply of horses, had casually inquired
whether they were acquainted with two couriers named Bruttius Asper and
Sabinus Felix. On their answering that they knew both of them he had
chatted a while longer and then asked them to reenter with him the inn's
common-room, alleging that they could assist him on an important matter
touching the service of the Emperor. According to the change-master, who
told us all this later, they had complied in a hesitating and unwilling
manner, as if numb and bewildered.
We, dallying over some excellent fruit and the not unpalatable wine,
knowing nothing of all this, saw the three reenter together and approach
us, the couriers looking not only reluctant, but dazed: up to us
Donnotaurus led them.
"Do you know these gentlemen?" he demanded.
"Never set eyes on them in my life," one of them disclaimed. The other
"I thought so!" Donnotaurus cried. "These men claim to be Bruttius Asper
and Sabinus Felix. You say you know Bruttius Asper and Sabinus Felix. You
do not know these men. Therefore they are passing under false names. They
are not Imperial couriers, but some of the scoundrels who have been posing
as Imperial couriers and using the post-roads for their own private ends.
I thank you for assisting me to expose them. It now remains to arrest
I had thought when the two entered first and saluted us that their
expression of face was queer; now it was queerer: they looked like some of
the deer we had seen in the net-pocket at Spinella, frantic to escape and
seeing no way out.
One mumbled something about having barely seen Bruttius Asper and Sabinus
Felix and not being sure that we were not they. But Donnotaurus neither
heard nor heeded.
"Here, Tectosax!" he called to the host, "come help us arrest these men!
They are bogus! They are shams! They are not couriers!"
"One man arrest two!" the host demurred.
"I only want your help," Donnotaurus bawled. "Call Arecomus and the
ostlers. They can make short work of it."
At this point Agathemer found his voice, and he spoke steadily, coolly and
firmly, even with a bit of a drawl.
"Don't do anything you will have to be sorry for," he said. "Better not
make any mistake."
At his utterance the two couriers were manifestly even more uncomfortable
than before. But Donnotaurus only bawled louder to the host.
"I don't arrest travellers," the host protested, "I feed 'em. Arecomus
don't arrest travellers, he horses 'em. Anyhow, there's no magistrate
here; talking of arresting is folly.
"And I wish you'd quit your foolishness, Donnotaurus. This is the third
row you've started here within six months. You're giving my inn a bad name
and ruining my trade. You're my best customer, yourself, but you are more
nuisance than all the rest of my customers put together. I'd rather you'd
move out of the neighborhood or keep away from my inn than go on with such
nonsense. I don't want anybody arrested on my premises or threatened with
arrest. And you've nothing to go on in this case, anyhow."
Donnotaurus appeared at a loss, but obstinate and about to insist, when
the doors opened and there entered a bevy of staff officers, all green and
gold and blue and silver, clustered about a huge man in the full regalia
of a general, his crimson plumes nodding above his golden helmet, his
crimson cloak dangling about his golden cuirass, his gilt kilt-straps
gleaming over his crimson tunic-skirt. There was no mistaking that
incredible expanse of face, seemingly as big as the body of an ordinary
man, those bleary gray eyes under the shaggy eyebrows, their great baggy
lower lids, the heavy cheeks and the vast sweep of russet beard.
It was Pescennius Niger himself!
As he was later proclaimed Emperor and narrowly missed overcoming his
competitors and emerging master of the world, the mere encounter has a
certain interest. Its details, I think, even more.
Up to us he strode.
"What's all this?" he demanded in his big, authoritative voice. Agathemer
and I stood up and saluted.
I expected Agathemer, who knew the value of speaking first, to anticipate
Donnotaurus, but he let Donnotaurus give his version of the affair.
"I'm competent to decide this," said Pescennius, "and I shall."
And he eyed us, asking: "What have you two to say?"
"In the first place," said Agathemer, "I ask you to examine our papers."
He took from the seat of his chair, where he had placed it as he stood up,
our despatch bag, opened it, and displayed its contents; the package of
despatches, our credentials, and the diploma entitling us to change of
horses, with the endorsement of each change-master from Centumcellae
Pescennius examined these meditatively.
"These papers," he said, "are in perfect order. But they do not prove that
you are the men named in them though they incline me to believe it. I
should believe it, but these men deny that you are Bruttius Asper and
"And why do they deny it?" Agathemer queried triumphantly. "Why, because
they were caught by this busybody and asked whether they knew Bruttius
Asper and Sabinus Felix and they said they did; then haled in here by him
and confronted with us and asked whether they knew us and of course said
they did not, as they did not. And why do they not know us? Because they
are not couriers at all, but men passing themselves off as couriers. Our
papers are in perfect order, as you say. Ask them for their papers. They
By the faces of the two I saw that Agathemer had guessed right. They, in
fact, were impostors. They had no despatches, no credentials, no papers at
all, except a diploma with entries from Bononia, through Parma, Placentia
and Clastidium to Dertona and so onwards; a diploma so manifestly a clumsy
forgery that, at sight of it, I wondered how it had fooled the stupidest
Pescennius barely glanced at it. To his apparitors, he said:
"Arrest these three!"
In a trice Donnotaurus and the two impostors were seized.
To us he said:
"Gentlemen, I apologize for having doubted you, even for a moment. And I
thank you for having so cleverly and quietly exposed these precious
gentry. I shall keep an eye on them and on this local meddler; I'll
investigate them in Marseilles.
"Meantime I must eat. So I'll remain here. You are in haste and you have
eaten. Your horses are ready. I need not detain you. I'll see you at
Marseilles tomorrow. I congratulate you on your horsemanship. To have
overtaken me, even when I am travelling by carriage, is no mean exploit. I
am pleased to have made your acquaintance."
And he bade us farewell, allowed us to pass out, and seated himself at our
MARSEILLES AND TIBER WHARF
We rode the first mile at full gallop and then slowed to an easy canter
which permitted of conversation. All the way to Calcaria we discussed our
situation, prospects and plans. We revised our previous view and agreed
that we had best not be too late entering Marseilles, as we might not have
time to buy cloaks, hats and footgear, change and get rid of our equipment
and find lodgings.
Then again, of course, we fell into a panic at the idea of riding into
Couriers' Headquarters and perhaps facing a dozen men who knew Sabinus
Felix and Bruttius Asper as well as we knew each other. We went over, for
the tenth time, a series of absurd suggestions and tried to conceive some
way by which we might sneak in at some other gate than that to which our
road led, might avoid delivering our despatches and might find ourselves
safe in ordinary clothes in some obscure lodging.
But we came to the conclusion that, it would be highly suspicious to act
otherwise than as genuine couriers would act. There was nothing for it but
to ask our way to Couriers' Headquarters, which would not arouse
suspicion, since couriers unacquainted with Marseilles must be constantly
arriving there, as green or shifted couriers did at all cities; to ride
boldly in; to take what came if we were exposed, to deliver our despatches
and stroll out for an airing if we had luck.
Even if we had luck so far I could not forecast our being able to buy
ordinary clothing and change into it without causing suspicion,
investigation, and our arrest and ruin. Agathemer argued that, if Maternus
could find, in Rome, a bath where we could bathe without anyone so much as
noticing our brand-marks and scourge-scars, he ought to be able to find in
wicked, easy-going Marseilles a shop whose proprietor would ask no
question except had we the cash. I was palpitating with panic and could
foresee in a shopkeeper only an informer, greedy for a reward for our
"Didn't I get us out of our troubles at Tegulata?"
"You certainly did!" I replied. "To a marvel."
"Well," he pursued, "I have full confidence in my intuition and my
resourcefulness. I feel that I can get us out of our troubles at
Marseilles, if you will let me alone and not interfere."
"I certainly won't interfere," I said, "to spoil any chance you think you
see. If you see one, signal me and I'll let you use all your dexterity."
After that we rode evenly to Calcaria and even gaily from there to
Marseilles, which we entered about two hours before sunset of a mild,
fair, delightful afternoon.
The gate-guard took our questions as a matter of course and directed us to
Couriers' Headquarters. There we found only one very stupid Gallic
provincial in charge, with a few slaves.
"I," said he, "am Gaius Valerius Procillus."
And he fingered the package of despatches, eyeing us meditatively. I
quaked, but kept my countenance.
He eyed us yet longer, but made no comment, wrote out a formal receipt for
the despatches, handed it to Agathemer and said:
"Munatius will not be back here at Headquarters till tomorrow. So I cannot
tell you whether you will have a day or more of rest, which you have
earned, or must set off again at once. Nor can I tell you whether, when
you do set off, it will be back to Rome, or onward with some of these same
despatches to Spain or Britain or Germany.
"Make the most of your time for rest and refreshment. You are free till
tomorrow at sunrise. Dromo will show you your quarters."
And he beckoned one of the slaves.
Headquarters was a low rectangle of two stories only, built of some stone
like lime-stone, roofed with red tiles and set about a spacious courtyard.
The ground floor seemed mostly stables; but, besides the office in which
we had found Procillus, it had other office rooms, a common-room, and we
glimpsed a bath and a kitchen. Dromo led us up the stone stair and along
the colonnaded portico of the second floor to clean rooms, provided with
comfortable cots, chests, stools, and not much else.
We threw our wallets on our cots and sat on stools. As soon as Dromo was
gone we opened our wallets, made ourselves comfortable, disposed all our
money about us in the body-belts we had bought at Genoa and went out,
unopposed and apparently unremarked.
Through the lively streets of Marseilles, in the mellow glow of the
evening sunshine, we made for the harborside, Agathemer nosing the air
like a dog on the scent. Presently he remarked:
"We are not far from what I am looking for."
And he turned up a side street to our right. As we took turn after turn
each street was less savory and more disreputable than the last till we
were in a sort of alley populated it seemed by slatternly trulls and
"This," said Agathemer, "is the quarter of the town I am after, but not
quite the part of it I want."
At the end of the alley he questioned a boy, a typical Marseilles street
gamin. The lad nodded and led us still to our right, doubling back. After
two or three turns Agathemer was for dismissing him. But the lad insisted
on convoying us to some definite destination he had in mind.
Agathemer displayed a coin.
"Take that and get out and you are welcome to it," he said. "If you do not
agree to get out and to take it, you get nothing."
The boy eyed his face, took the coin, and vanished.
Unescorted we strolled along a clean street, all whitewashed blank lower
walls and latticed overhanging balconies; in the walls every door was
fast; through the lattices I thought I discerned eyes watching us.
Ahead of us a lattice opened and two faces looked out. In fact two girls
leaned out. Their type was manifest: well-housed, well clad, well fed,
luxurious, loose-living, light-hearted minxes.
One was plump, full-breasted, merry-faced, with intensely black and glossy
hair, a brunette complexion and in her cheeks a great deal of brilliant
color, which I afterwards found was all her own, but which at first I took
for paint. She wore a gown of a yellow almost as intense as the garb of
the priests of Cybele in the Gardens of Verus. Its insistent yellow was
intensified and set off by a girdle of black silk cords, braided into a
complicated pattern, and by shoulder-knots of black silk, with dangling
fringes, and by black silk lacings along her smocked sleeves.
Her companion was tall and slender and melancholy faced, her hair a dull
reddish-gold or golden-red, her face without color and a bit freckled, her
gown of pale blue.
The black-haired girl called:
"You've had a long ride and you deserve recreation and refreshment. Come
in. We don't know you two, but we have entertained couriers before this.
This is the place for you."
"Ah, my dear," Agathemer replied, "we not only have had a long ride but we
may have to set out on a longer tomorrow, and you know the proverb:
"'Light lovers are seldom long lopers.'"
"If you were too much disinclined to being light lovers," the girl
retorted, "you'd never be strolling down this street. Come in!"
"My dear," said Agathemer, "we'd love to come in. But remember the
"'Gay girls are not good for great gallopers.'"
"Oh, hang your proverbs," the girl laughed down at us. "I don't know what
you are up to, but I like you. You don't look as austere as you talk. And
I don't mind your asceticism. If you don't appreciate the entertainment
offered you, you can have any sort of entertainment you prefer. A goblet
of wine and an hour's chat won't enervate you or make you less fit. Come
A horrible old Lydian woman, one-eyed, obese, clean enough of body and
clothing, but a foul old beast for all that, let us in.
Agathemer introduced me as Felix and himself as Asper. The merry dark-
haired girl was named Doris and her languorous comrade Nebris. A more
garish and gaudy creature than Doris I have never beheld. I was struck
with her profusion of jewels, mostly topazes, but also many carbuncles and
garnets; rings, bracelets, a necklace, a hair-comb and many big-headed
hair pins. Nebris was equally bejewelled with turquoises and opals, but,
somehow, they did not glitter like the jewelry on Doris, but partook of
their wearer's subdued coloring. As Doris remarked next day:
"Nebris is very graceful and almost pretty; but she was born faded, and
nothing can brighten her."
We found the girls housed in as neat, cosy and charming a little nest as
heart could wish for. The atrium was tiny, the courtyard was tiny,
everything was tiny. But it all had an air which put us at our ease and
made us feel at home. Doris, the dark-haired, red-cheeked, full-contoured
lass, was plainly much taken with Agathemer and he with her; I always had
a weakness for red-headed girls and felt genuinely pleased that Nebris,
her long-limbed, long-fingered, pale-skinned, blurred, bleached comrade
seemed equally taken with me. The sofas of the tiny _triclinium_ were soft
and comfortable and, after eight days in the saddle, without a bath, we
were glad to loll on them. The wine was good and, without any effort, the
four of us fell into cheerful chatter about nothing in particular. I
complimented Doris on her dwelling and its furnishings and she at once
insisted on showing us all over it: the kitchen, bath and latrine beyond
the tiny courtyard and upstairs a second _triclinium_, as tiny as that
below, and four tiny bed-rooms, with handsomely carved beds, piled with
deep, soft feather beds and feather-pillows. Doris and Nebris each had her
bed-room furnished to harmonize with her own coloring. I complimented both
on their taste.
In Nebris's room Agathemer spied a flageolet.
"Do you play on this?" he asked.
"Sometimes," she said, "but Doris declares that my music makes her
melancholy, it's so dismal."
"I'll play you any number of lively tunes," Agathemer promised, possessing
himself of the flageolet.
We all went down into the lower _triclinium_, where we had left the wine,
and Agathemer charmed the girls with his music and, indeed, enlivened me
as much as them.
After a score of tunes, while our first goblets of wine were not yet
emptied, Agathemer said:
"Felix, I believe I see a way out of our troubles."
"Asper," I replied, "I leave it all to you."
"Doris, my dear," said Agathemer, "we are not Imperial Couriers at all."
"You mean it?" she asked.
"So help me Hercules," said Agathemer solemnly.
"Well," she meditated, with a sharp intake of her breath. "You fooled me.
I thought you were genuine. How did you come in this rig?"
"We belong in Rome, both of us," Agathemer began. "How we came in
Placentia is no part of the story. But we were in Placentia and we got
into trouble. It wasn't serious trouble; we hadn't killed anybody, or
stolen anything, or cheated anybody; but it was trouble enough and aplenty
and we decided to get out of Placentia. Roads, road-houses, the towns
wouldn't have been healthy for us just then, so we took to the mountains.
Not as brigands, you understand, but we hadn't much cash and coin will go
farther in the mountains than anywhere else; and the weather was fine and
we meant to camp out all we could and stay out all summer and let things
blow over. It was hot, burning hot and we blundered on a cave, a nice,
big, airy dry cave. We went in to cool off and sleep. And we slept sound."
Then he told our entire story, just as it happened, from our capture by
Maternus and his band, all down to Rome, into the Gardens of Verus, out
along the Aurelian Highway among the tombs, all about the two drunken
robbers, in the moonlight, all about our gallop along the coast, all about
our encounter with Pescennius Niger.
Nebris kept looking from Agathemer to me, her pale gray eyes wide; but
Doris kept her snapping brown eyes on Agathemer's face from his first word
to his last.
"My!" she cried, "you have had adventures! Or you are the biggest liar and
the cleverest story-teller I ever met. If you invented that story you
deserve help as a paragon among improvisators; if you had all those
adventures you deserve help ten times over and you certainly need it.
Somehow I believe you. I'll help you all I can. You are in the right
And she called:
"Mother, tell Parmenio to find Alopex and bring him to me at once. Tell
him to be quick."
One of the slaves went out, slamming the door after him.
"Doris," said Nebris, "can you really save these lads?"
"I can!" Doris asserted.
"With Pescennius Niger after them?" Nebris quavered.
"Even with Pescennius Niger after them," Doris declared.
"You must remember," she went on, "that Pescennius told these lads he
would not expect to see them till tomorrow morning. That gives me till
dark to set things going and till about two hours after sunrise to finish
the job. Unless, indeed, messengers announcing the robbery of the real
Sabinus Felix and Bruttius Asper happen to overtake Pescennius at Tegulata
or between there and Marseilles. Even then he can hardly get on these
lads' trail before dark. I think we shall be able to get these lads away
safe, no matter what happens. Anyhow let's be cheerful and make the best
And she filled our goblets.
Alopex could not have been far away. Very shortly we heard the door open
and shut and a youth came in, whom Doris introduced as Alopex. A more
repulsive being I have never seen. He was of medium height, slender,
habited in the embroidered, be-fringed garb fashionable among Marseilles
dandies, his hair curled and perfumed, his face much like a weasel's, his
complexion like cold porridge. I then had my first glimpse of a Marseilles
pimp, and I never want to see another. To me he looked capable of any
meanness, of any treachery, of any dishonor, of any crime.
"Alopex," Doris commanded, "look these gentlemen, over and take their
measure, then go out and buy hats, cloaks, boots and wallets for them,
suitable for a sea-voyage, as inconspicuous as possible, durable and
water-proof. Get a porter and bring them back with you, in a bag, so no
one on the streets will know what the porter is carrying. Be quick."
"Six gold pieces," said Alopex.
"If you spend six gold pieces on that outfit," said Doris, "you are an
ass; you shall have six gold pieces, but bring back a reasonable sum in
change, after paying the porter."
I gave Alopex six gold pieces and he went out.
"When he comes back," Agathemer asked, "can he pilot us to a bath, where
we shall be as safe as Felix was in Rome in the bath which Maternus knew
"He can and he shall," Doris replied. "You two certainly need a bath: and
however you are marked by scourges and brands, the marks won't be noticed
at the bath to which he will lead you."
"How about a dinner?" Agathemer queried.
"Asper, my dear," said Doris, "you said you had plenty of cash."
"We have," said Agathemer.
"Then," said she, "just give me one of those gold pieces you got from the
two drunken robbers and while you are bathing I'll order as fine a dinner
as Marseilles affords and have it here ready to serve when you two get
back from your bath."
Alopex soon appeared with a complete outfit for us and the prices which he
announced appeared reasonable to me and were agreed to by Doris. He handed
Agathemer a gold piece and three silver pieces.
"Change," Doris commanded, and we took off our boots and put on those
Alopex had brought us. Doris had Parmenio bundle up our couriers' attire,
boots and hats and said:
"I hate to see anything wasted. These outfits are going to be found at
Couriers' Headquarters and no one will ever suspect how they got there.
You can arrange that, Alopex, can't you?"
"Easy as that," said Alopex, snapping his fingers.
"Then you do it," she ordered, "and now take these gentlemen to Sosia's
bathhouse and give him the tip that they are all right."
Alopex acceded sulkily but obediently. That bath refreshed me amazingly
and Agathemer seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. It was after sunset
when we were back with Doris and Nebris, but still far from dark; in fact,
light enough to see well.
"Now Alopex," said Doris, briskly, "make your best speed to the harborside
and see if you can find a sure ship sailing at dawn, with a captain we can
trust, to get these lads out of Marseilles at once. I doubt if you can
find one, but do your best."
"We want a ship for Antioch," Agathemer put in.
"Alopex," said Doris, "find a ship to get these lads out of Marseilles at
dawn, never mind where it is bound for. Now go. And come back and report,
tonight, sure, and as soon as you can."
When he was gone she rounded on Agathemer:
"Asper," said she, "I am ashamed of you. You are a fool. With Pescennius
Niger likely after you, foaming at the mouth, raging because he let you
slip through his fingers, you talk of picking and choosing a destination?
Why lad, it makes no difference where the ship is bound so it is
seaworthy, has a captain I can trust and is headed away from Marseilles.
The point for you two is to get away from Marseilles quick. Whether you
land at Carthage, or even Cadiz, makes no difference. You can reship from
anywhere to anywhere, once you are clear of Marseilles. You might linger
in Marseilles, under my protection, but for your encounter with Pescennius
Niger. But after that there is nothing for you to do but get away quick."
She paused for breath, shaking her finger at us, like a nurse at naughty
"And now," said she, "let's get at that dinner. I'm hungry and I'm sure
you ought to be."
We were. And the dinner was excellent, much of it unfamiliar. The
Marseilles oysters had a flavor novel, odd, not agreeable at first, but
very likable after a bit of experience with it. Everything out of the sea
was tasty. The main dish was a wonderful stew of fish, for which, Nebris
told us, Marseilles was famous. It was flavored with any number of
vegetables and relishes, and had bits of meat in it, but fish was the
chief ingredient and the blended flavors made it a most appetizing viand.
We ate slowly, had just finished our fruit and Agathemer was playing the
flageolet to the accompaniment of enthusiastic applause from both girls
when Alopex returned. He reported that no ship could possibly be gotten
for us the next morning and vowed that it would likely take him all day to
find one for the morning after.
"Then run off, like a good boy," said Doris, "and get a good long sleep so
as to be fresh tomorrow. Start before daylight and report to me before
noon. Run along."
"How about lodging for us?" Agathemer queried.
Doris half chuckled, half snorted.
"Run along, Alopex," she commanded.
When he was gone she faced Agathemer, arms akimbo.
"Asper," she said, "I'm going to save you two lads, no matter how
idiotically you act or talk. I like you, in spite of your ridiculous
ascetic airs and your nonsensical assumption of austerity. You can't make
me angry nor lose my protection, no matter how rude and chilly you are. If
you two don't appreciate the kind of entertainment we are offering you and
haven't sense enough and manners enough to accept it and be thankful, you
can sleep here anyhow, where and how you prefer. But you don't go out of
this house tonight, nor yet tomorrow, not if I know it. I'm going to save
you two, in spite of your folly."
Naturally, after that, we stayed where we were.
Next morning, not much more than an hour after sunrise, as we were again
enjoying flageolet music from Agathemer, Alopex returned and reported that
he had found a clean, roomy, seaworthy ship, captained by a man well and
favorably known to him and Doris, which would sail for Rome at dawn next
"That's your ship," said Doris to us.
"After what I told you," Agathemer protested, "do you seriously advise us
to set sail for Rome?"
"I do," Doris declared. "Any place on earth is healthier for you two than
Marseilles. Were you in trouble in Rome before you got into trouble in
"We were," said Agathemer, "and trouble of the deepest dye."
"Asper, my dear," said Doris, "no matter what sort of trouble you were in
at Rome, Rome can't be as dangerous for you as Marseilles. And by all I
hear, Tiber Wharf is a fine locality in which to hide and Ostia nearly as
good. Take my advice and sail. From Rome or Ostia you ought to find it
easy to ship for Antioch."
"I believe you," said Agathemer, "but I'd like to have more cash with me
than I have and I'd like to give you two girls enough gold pieces to serve
as a sort of indication of our gratitude. No gold either Felix or I shall
ever possess would be enough to repay you for what you have done for us.
"Now I have an emerald of fair size and of the best water and flawless at
that, sewn into the hem of my tunic. Since you are so capable at finding
safe shops and baths and ships, perhaps Alopex could guide me to a gem-
expert who would like to buy a fine emerald and who would pay a fair price
for it and keep his mouth shut."
"I had not meant you so much as to poke your nose out of doors till
tomorrow before sunrise," said Doris, meditatively, "but Pescennius won't
be suspicious yet unless a post with news of the robbery you profited by
has already reached here. I fancy it will be a safe risk for Alopex to
escort you to our gem-expert. He'll pay you an honest three-quarters of
the full value of your emerald. Alopex and I get a rake-off on his
profits, as we do on the fare of the men we ship out of Marseilles. Gems
and fugitives are part of my regular line of trade, with efficient help
Actually Agathemer was gone about two hours and came back with a portly
bag of gold pieces. He found us in the _triclinium_, Nebris lying on the
sofa with me, and playing a dismal tune on her flageolet, Doris on the
other sofa laughing at us. He lay down by Doris, spilled the gold on the
inlaid dining table, divided it into four equal portions, pouched one,
made me pouch another, and piled one in Doris's lap, while I similarly
piled the other in Nebris's lap.
"Share and share alike," said Agathemer, "and you are welcome to whatever
part of his rake-off Alopex turns over to you."
"Asper," said Doris, "you are a dear. Play us a decent tune. Nebris's
music makes me doleful."
We spent the day eating, drinking, chatting, napping and listening to
Agathemer's very lively music.
For dinner we had another Marseilles fish-stew, entirely different from
the former, and entirely different from anything I had ever eaten
Next morning Doris had us all up, bathed as well as we could in her tiny
bath, fed and ready to set out long before the first streak of dawn
appeared in the east. Agathemer, on his gem-selling expedition, had bought
all we needed to line our wallets except food, and that Doris supplied in
abundance and variety and of a sort calculated to be palatable two or
three days out at sea.
Doris was a creature no man could forget. She was buxom and buoyant and
completely content with her home, her way of life, her friends and her
prospects; and as capable and competent a human being as I ever met. When
Alopex gave his cautious tap on the door and slipped inside she bade us
farewell unaffectedly, kissed me like a mother, and gave Agathemer one
sisterly hug and one smacking kiss. If there were tears in her eyes none
ran down either cheek.
Nebris, on the other hand, wept over me and clung to me, with many kisses.
"There are not many like you," she sobbed. "You are gentle and courteous.
Our friends are generous enough, but they drink too much and are
boisterous and rough and coarse. I wish you weren't going. But I'm glad
I've had you even for so short a time."
And she gave Agathemer her flageolet, holding it out to him with her left
hand, her right arm round my neck.
"Come, come!" Doris bustled, "act sensible, child!"
We tore ourselves away and followed our unsavory guide through the dim,
foggy streets. I distrusted Alopex and should not have been astonished had
he turned us over to a batch of guards, waiting for us at any corner. But
he led us to a fine stone quay by which was moored as trig a merchantman
as I ever saw, new and fresh painted. Her captain was a bluff, hearty,
wind-tanned Maltese, Maganno by name, swarthy, hook-nosed and with a shock
of black curls. He counted the gold pieces Alopex gave him and said, in
Latin with a strong Punic accent:
"My ship is yours from here to Tiber wharf."
We shook hands on it, went on board and she cast off at once and was out
of the harbor before the sun had dispersed the fog. To our surprise we set
a course not about southeast as we had expected, but along the coast until
we passed Ulbia, and then almost due east. Maganno explained:
"Give me the open sea. You Italians are always for hugging the shore: we
Maltese, like our Phoenician ancestors, are all for clear water. I've
sailed between Corsica and Sardinia, and once was enough for me. I've made
this cruise many times and I always prefer to weather the Holy Cape."
North of Corsica, in fact, we sped, with a fair following wind and we had
an unsurpassably fortunate voyage; skies clear, wind always favorable,
steady and neither too gentle nor too strong. Our time we spent on deck
from before sunrise till long after sunset, dozing through the heat of the
day; Agathemer, when awake, playing on his flageolet, more often than he
was silent, to the delight of all on board. The crew were mostly Maltese,
like their master, using indifferently their own dialect, Greek of a sort
and very poor Latin. Maganno's Latin was better than theirs, but all racy
with his accent.
When we were already in sight of the month of the Tiber he sat down by us
"I was told that you lads were in trouble. But, certainly, you are lucky
voyagers. I have sailed from Ostia to Marseilles and from Marseilles to
Ostia forty-one times, and this forty-second is the easiest and quickest
passage ever I made. I like you lads. Anybody Doris recommends I always
help, for her sake. I'll also help you for your own. Tell me your plans
and I'll do my best for you."
He agreed with us that both the Northern Harbor and Ostia were certain to
be swarming with spies and secret-service agents and informers: so, for
that matter, was the harbor-side of Rome along the Tiber: but Rome, being
many times as large as Ostia, was likely to be proportionately easier to
"That's where a small merchantman like mine," said he, "beats any big one.
That's why I sail always a small ship, never a big ship. A big merchantman
must berth at Ostia or at the Northern Harbor. My ship can sail on up the
Tiber to Rome. And I shall. You come on up with me."
His advice seemed good. We decided to stay on the ship all the way up to
Rome, and we did, lolling on deck to Agathemer's piping in the mellow
So idling we spoke more than once of the Aemilian Sibyl and of this second
fulfillment of her acrid prophecy.
Maganno promised to find us a ship loading for Antioch; seaworthy, roomy
and with a trustworthy captain.
This could not be done quickly and, he found us, meantime, lodgings with a
friend of his, a fat, bald, one-eyed cook-shopkeeper named Colgius, who
rented us a tiny room over his eating-room, which was not far from the
Ostian Gate, between the public warehouses and the slope of the Aventine.
At his table we fared pretty well, for his prices were low, his wine
drinkable, and most of his food eatable, though we did not try a second
time the viands for which he had the briskest demand: a very greasy pork
stew of which he was inordinately proud, amazingly rank ham, and
incredibly strong Campanian cheese; all three of which seemed to delight
his customers, who were an astonishing medley of slaves and freemen:
porters, stevedores, inspectors' assistants, coopers, mariners, jar-
markers, gig-drivers, teamsters, drivers of all sorts of hired vehicles,
drovers who herded cattle from Ostia to the cattle-market, vendors of
sulphur-dipped kindling-splints, collectors of street filth and others
equally low in class, equally novel to me.
Colgius took a fancy to us and undertook to show us Rome. It struck me
oddly that, whereas Nona, in every fiber an Umbrian Gaul, and Maternus,
who had spent all his life beyond the Alps, had both, at first glance,
recognized us for what we were, Roman master and Greek servant, this Roman
of the Romans, keen for personal profit, habituated to the sight of men
from all ports, accepted us for Gallic provincials, and never suspected
that we were anything else.
Sight-seeing in Rome, in the guise of Gallic wastrels, under the tutelage
of a harborside slum host, was truly an experience for me after my former
station as a nobleman of the Republic, and my ruin and disguise and
flight. I positively enjoyed it.
First of all Colgius was for showing us over the stables of the Reds, for
he was mad about racing and boasted that he had bet on the Reds since he
was six years old and his father gave him his first copper. But I demurred
and pointed out that none of the racing-stables were fit places for us,
since a steady stream of Spanish horses trickled through Marseilles and on
through Vada Sabatia and Genoa to Rome, and there was too great a
probability that we might come face to face with some groom, hostler or
hanger-on from Marseilles who would know us at sight. Colgius yielded to
this argument and agreed that we must avoid all the racing stables. This
greatly relieved us, since, while neither I nor Agathemer had been
devotees of the sport, both of us had been through all six establishments
often enough to be likely to be recognized in any one of them.
Baffled in his first choice and, apparently, in his only choice, Colgius
asked us what we wanted to see. I said I wanted most to see a day of
racing in the circus, blurting out this rather foolish utterance without
reflection, merely because I thought it would seem natural to him. He
replied that that would be easy, but that the next racing day was day
after tomorrow: what would we like to do today?
I said I wanted first of all to be shown the Temple of Mercury, for I
wanted to make an offering to the god.
"Oh, yes," he said, "Mercury is your chief god in Gaul, isn't he, and you
put him ahead of Jupiter. What is it you call him?"
"You are thinking of the Belgians," I said, "and of the Gauls in the
Valley of the Liger. They call Mercury Tiv or Tir and regard him as their
chief god. But we provincials never had any such ideas: we worship the
same gods as you, in the same way. But I, personally, while revering
Jupiter as king of the gods, have always particularly sought the favor of
Off we went to the meat market and I bought there two white hens, as on
the day of my flight, more than a year before. With one under each arm I
then followed Colgius to the Temple of Mercury and there made my prayers
When we came out he, of course, began to display the outside of the Great
Circus and to tell me of its glories, which, he said, he would show me
from the inside the day after tomorrow. The life there was much as
Maternus and I had seen it twenty-three days before.
We could not avoid following Colgius about Rome, round the Palatine, the
Colosseum and the Baths of Titus and through the Forums of Vespasian,
Nerva, Augustus and Trajan. At Trajan's Temple he reiterated his regrets
that we dare not go on to the stables of the Reds, and turned back through
Trajan's Forum, the Forum of the Divine Julius and the Great Forum. Of
course, I was quaking with dread for fear some lifelong acquaintance would
recognize me, even in my coarse attire. But none did: in fact I set eyes
on no one I knew, except Faltonius Bambilio, who was pompously lecturing
ten victims in the Ulpian Basilica. I was certain that his eyes were only
on his auditors; the sight of him did not alarm me, he never paid any
attention to those he considered his inferiors.
All along Agathemer and I were bursting with suppressed giggles: Colgius
paid very little attention to the Palace, the Great Amphitheater, the
magnificent public baths, the temples or to any of the glories about us;
he was all for cook-shops and hauled us into cook-shops without number,
sometimes presenting his Gallic friends, Asper and Felix, to his good
friend, the proprietor, sometimes bursting into invectives against the bad
cookery, infinitesimal portions or absurd prices of his enemies'
establishments. In cook-shops Agathemer and I felt safe, near a cook-shop
we felt almost safe, between cook-shops, companioned by Colgius and any
cook-shop frequenters we met, we felt more than a little safe. To our
thinking no spy, informer or secret service agent would feel suspicious
towards Colgius and his friends, nor towards us in their company, and he
presented us to idlers, loafers, louts, betting agents, sellers of tips on
the races, friends of jockeys, cousins of hostlers and such like to an
We found all Rome, as we saw it in the company of Colgius, humming with
two names and we made sure that, if they buzzed in such company as we were
in they also formed the chief topics of conversation in all parts of the
city and at every level of society from the senators down.
One name we had heard when in Rome with Maternus, but had barely heard it;
now we heard it everywhere; the name of Palus, the charioteer; Palus, the
incomparable jockey; Palus, the king of horsemasters; Palus the chum of
Commodus. Both of him, and about him, not only from the men who talked to
us, but also from bystanders, diners and idlers, who never noticed us or
knew that we overheard them, we heard the most amazing stories:
He could guide six horses galloping abreast between the test-pillars for
tyros driving four-abreast and never jostle a pillar or throw a horse; he
had done it time after time; he had won three races, driving seven horses
abreast, his competitors driving four abreast; he had won a race, with a
team of four Cappodocian stallions, guiding them without reins, by his
voice only; he was the most graceful charioteer, bar no one, ever seen in
As to his origin and personality the stories were not only fantastic, but
divergent, contradictory or incompatible.
If we might believe what we heard he had been presented to Commodus by the
same nobleman who had presented Murmex Lucro, and on the very next day; he
was from Apulia; he was a Roman all his days; he was a Sabine; he was a
nobleman in disguise, he had been a foundling brought up in the Subura; he
was a half brother of Commodus, offspring of an amour between Faustina and
a gladiator, reared in Samnium on a farm, lately recognized and accepted
by the Emperor; he was Commodus himself in disguise.
All this, you may be sure, made us prick up our ears. Still more did we at
the sound of the other much-bandied name. Here again the tales were
varied, inconsistent, antagonistic.
But the name!
That name was:
Marcia was in control of Commodus, of the Emperor, of the Republic, of the
Empire. She was domiciled in the Palace, she was treated as Empress, she
had all the honors ever accorded an Empress except that she never
participated in public sacrifices or other ceremonial rituals. Crispina
had been divorced and was no longer Empress, but had been relegated, under
guard, to a distant island; Crispina was still Empress, but had withdrawn
in disdain from the Palatine, occupied the Vectilian Palace on the Caelian
Hill, still received Commodus when he visited her, but would not set foot
on the Palatine nor take part in any ritual or ceremonial; Crispina had
been murdered by Marcia's orders, in her presence, with the Emperor's
consent; Marcia got on well with the Empress, there was no jealousy
between them, Crispina was glad to have someone who could soothe Commodus
in his periodic rages and humor him when he sulked; every possible variety
of story about Crispina was told, but every tale represented Marcia as
undisputed and indisputable mistress of the Palace and of everybody in it.
Of her origin we heard mostly versions of the true story; often we heard
named Hyacinthus and Ummidius Quadratus, never my uncle nor Marcus
Martius. We dared not seem to know anything about Marcia and so could not
name Marcus Martius or ask after him. From all the talk we heard,
addressed to us or about us, his name was as absent as if he had never
How Marcia came to the Emperor's attention, won his notice, acquired her
mastery of him, as to all this we heard not one word: of her complete
control of him and of all Rome everyone talked openly.
The next day we escaped the unwelcome attention of Colgius because Maganno
came after us to introduce us to the captain who was to take us to
Antioch, to show us his ship, and to make sure we knew the wharf at which
she lay and how to reach her. The ship was to sail two days later. The
captain's name was Orontides, which struck both me and Agathemer as being
the same as that of the most fashionable jeweler in Rome, whose
grandfather had come from Antioch, where, I suppose, the name would be as
natural and frequent as Tiberius with us.
He was a Syrian Greek, with curly brown hair and brown eyes, by no means
so wind-tanned and weather-beaten as Maganno, but manifestly a seaman. He
was bow-legged and had very large flat feet.
Orontides looked us over, approved us, required a deposit of twenty gold
pieces, counted them, said we might pay the rest of his charges at
Antioch, and we shook hands on the bargain.
Yet, as the cost of the voyage would land us in Syria with but a few
coins, it was well for us that, later in the day, Agathemer found a dealer
in gems lately come to Rome and sold him another jewel. This filled our
pouches and left us certain of having gold to spare until he could manage
to find a purchaser for yet another gem in Antioch or elsewhere.
Colgius, when we returned to our lodgings, talked of nothing but the Games
which were to be celebrated next day. He first exhibited the togas which
he had hired for us to wear; we, as fugitives, having, of course, no togas
of our own. We found them clean and tried them on. Colgius approved and
went on with his enthusiasm.
There were to be twenty-four faces, all of four-horse chariots only,
twelve in the morning, of six chariots, one for each of the racing
companies; twelve in the afternoon, of twelve chariots, two for each of
the racing companies. Colgius discoursed at length as to his opinions
concerning the six companies, inveighing against the Golds and the
Crimsons, declaring that they were rich men's companies, in which only
senators and nobles took any interest and the existence of which spoiled
"You never heard of a plain man like me betting on the Crimson or the
Gold," he ranted, "all folks of moderate means, all the plain people, all
the populace, bet on the Reds, Whites, Greens or Blues. I agree that the
Greens are the most popular company, most popular with all classes from
the senators and nobles to the poorest, but I will never admit, as many
claim, that the Blues have the second place in the affections of the
people; the Blues, I maintain, come third and the Reds have second place
with all classes. The Whites are a strong fourth. But, as to the Golds and
the Crimsons, no one ever lays a wager on them except the enormously rich
nobles and senators whose ancestors organized them under Domitian a
hundred years ago. But they, being so enormously rich, can buy the best
horses and have the best jockeys. Now they have Palus. The Reds have
Scopas and the Greens Diocles, and both have been wonderful, but Palus can
"They say he has wagered an enormous sum that he will win all of the
twelve races in which he is to run, the first six odd numbers and the last
six even numbers, and that he will do so in a previously specified way;
that he will take and keep first place in the first race; that, in the
others he will, at the start, take second place, third place and so on
progressively further back in each, till he lets the whole of five get
ahead of him in the eleventh race and the whole field of eleven have the
start of him in the last race."
Colgius was afraid Palus would succeed in doing precisely what he
purposed. The Reds, if they won any races, must win in those in which
Palus did not start. He judged they could not hope to win more than eight
of those twelve. He was gloomy.
Next day dawned fair, mild, and with a gentle breeze, perfect weather for
spending a day in the Circus. To this Agathemer and I looked forward with
some trepidation, for service men, spies and informers were always in all
parts of the Circus and one might recognize me. But we comforted ourselves
with the hope that they were no longer on the lookout for me. If I knew
the ways of secret-service men I conjectured that they would never have
been willing to report the truth: that they could find no trace of me,
that I had vanished utterly and completely. I would have been willing to
wager that, within a month of my disappearance, some corpse somewhere was
identified as mine and my suicide reported as verified; which report had
probably been accepted at the Palace; whereafter I would be off the minds
of all secret-service men everywhere. Therefore I felt reasonably sure
that no agent would be on the lookout for me. Of course there was a chance
that one might recognize me by accident. But this was so unlikely that we
did not worry over it much.
I was more concerned for fear of arousing suspicion in Colgius by not
behaving as he would expect a Gallic Provincial to behave at his first
sight of the great games in the Circus Maximus. I could not be sure at
what he would expect me to exclaim, what I ought to wonder at and remark
on to seem natural in my assumed role of Marseilles scapegrace.
We were a party of eight, Colgius, his wife Posilla, and two teamsters or
drovers named Ramnius and Uttius, who conveyed goods or convoyed cattle
between Ostia and the markets of Rome. They had their wives with them, but
I forget their names. The three women were arrayed in wonderful costumes
of cheap fabrics dyed in gaudy hues and adorned with jewelry of gilt or
silvered bronze set with bits of colored glass. I had seen such at a
distance, but never so close.
Both Agathemer and I liked Ramnius and Uttius; we felt at ease with them
at first sight. And they were evidently intimates of Colgius and high in
his favor. He and they wore their togas with all the awkwardness to be
expected from men who donned togas only for Circus games and Amphitheatre
shows. To my amazement I found myself really delighted at again wearing a
toga. Like all gentlemen I had always loathed the hot, heavy things. But I
found myself positively thrill at being again garbed as befits a Roman on
a holiday or at a ceremonial. Besides I found that a toga, over a poor
man's tunic, was not nearly so uncomfortable as it was over the more
complicated garb of a fashionable person of means and position.
The interior of the Circus, from my novel location, appeared sufficiently
strange to lull my dread that I might seem too familiar with it. Of course
we were very far back, only five rows in front of the arcade, whereas as
long as I was a nobleman of Rome in good standing, I had always sat in the
second tier, far forward.
But what made much more difference than sitting far back and high up
instead of well forward and low down was that we were on the other side of
the Circus from my old seat and almost directly opposite it. I had always
sat in section E, about the middle of the east side of the Circus and not
far from the Imperial Pavilion in section C. We were in section P,
directly facing E, and not far from the judges' stand in section O.
Now from where I had been used to sitting, facing a little south of west,
I had viewed only the tiers of seats and of spectators, the upper arcade,
and, above that the roofs of the not very lofty, large or magnificent
temples on the Aventine Hill. From where we sat with Colgius we faced the
Palatine and I was overwhelmed by the vastness, beauty and grandeur of the
great mass of buildings which make up the Imperial Palace. On a festival
day, of course, they were exceptionally gorgeous, for every window was
garlanded at the top and most displayed tapestries or rugs hung over the
sill, every balcony was decorated similarly and with greater care than the
windows, and every window, balcony and portico was a mass of eager faces.
Especially my eye was caught by the crowd of Palace officials and servants
on the bulging loggia built by Hadrian in order to be able to catch
glimpses of games when he was too busy to occupy the Imperial Pavilion in
the Circus itself. That Pavilion, as yet occupied only by a few guards, I
gazed at with mixed feelings.
Colgius put Agathemer next him, then me; beyond me sat Ramnius and his
wife and then Uttius and his. But across Posilla we were introduced to two
cattle inspectors named Clitellus and Summanus of whom we felt
uncomfortably suspicious from the instant we laid eyes on them. They
looked to me like secret-service agents and Agathemer nodded towards them,
when they were not looking, raised his eyebrows and touched his lips.
I for some time satiated myself with gazing at the Palace, with admiring
the wonderful charm of the outlook from this side of the Circus, with
revelling in the sense of delight at being again in it, with feasting my
eyes on its gorgeousness, on the magnificence of its vastness, of its
colonnade, of its costly marbles, of its tiers of seats, of the obelisks,
shrines, monuments and other decorations of the _spina_.
Then, after the upper seats were well packed with commonality, the gentry
and nobility began to dribble into the lower tiers and even a few
senatorial parties entered their boxes in the front row. I began to peer
at party after party, outwardly trying to keep my face blank, inwardly
excited at the probability of recognizing many former friends and
The first man I recognized was Faltonius Bambilio, unmistakably pompous
and self-satisfied. Although a senator he came early. Later I saw Vedius
Vedianus and, far from him, Satronius Satro. Didius Julianus, always the
most ostentatious of the senators, was unmistakable even in section B,
further from me than any part of the Circus except the left hand starting
stalls and their neighborhood.
I looked for Tanno in section D, and early made him out.
But, even after the equestrian seats and senatorial boxes had all filled,
nowhere could I descry any feminine shape at all suggestive of Vedia. I
was still peering and sweeping the senatorial seats with my eyes, hoping
to espy her, when the bugles announced the Emperor's approach and the
audience stood up. My eyes were on the Imperial Dais watching for the
appearance of the Emperor. But when he came into sight, and I joined in
the cheers, I viewed without emotion this man, who had honored me with his
favor, yet who had credited to the utmost, without investigation, my
inclusion among the number of his dangerous enemies. I reflected that no
man accused of participating in a conspiracy against any Prince of the
Republic had ever been given any sort of hearing or his friends allowed to
try to clear him.
I used all my powers of eyesight to con the Emperor, distinctive in his
official robes but too far off to be seen well. He appeared to me to have
lost something of his elegance of carriage and grace of movement. He
seemed less elastic in bearing, less springy of gait. There was, even at
that distance, something familiar in his attitude and stride, but it did
not seem precisely the presence of Commodus as I had known him. I stared
puzzled and groping in my mind. But I felt no emotion as I stared and
peered at him.
Oddly enough, from the moment when I received Vedia's letter of warning
until I caught sight of the head of the procession about to enter the
Circus through the Procession gate, I had had not one instant of
despondency or of self-pity. But, at sight of the head of that magnificent
procession, a sort of wave of misery surged through me and inundated me
with a sudden sense of wistful regret for all that I had lost and also
with an acute realization of the precarious hold I had on life, of the
peril I was in from hour to hour. This unexpected and unwelcome dejection
possessed me until the whole line of floats displaying the images of the
gods had passed and the racing chariots came along.
The very first of these drawn by a splendid team of four dapple grays, was
driven by a charioteer wearing the colors of the Crimsons' Company. I did
not need to hear the exclamation of Colgius:
"There is Palus! That is Palus!" to recognize this Prince of Charioteers.
The descriptions I had heard were enough to have told me who he was. For
at even a distant sight of him I did not wonder at the tales which gave
out that he was a half brother of Commodus, or Commodus in disguise. He
was more like Commodus than any half brother would have been likely to
have been; like as a twin brother, like enough to be actually Commodus
himself. He had all Commodus' comeliness of port and refinement of poise.
Every attitude, every movement, was a joy to behold. I stared back and
forth from this paragon in a charioteer's tunic to the stolid lump on the
Imperial throne, perplexed at the enigma, feeling just on the verge of
comprehension, but baffled. I kept gazing from one to the other till Palus
rounded the further goal and was largely hidden by the posts, the stand
for the bronze tally-eggs, the obelisk and the other ornaments of the
_spina_. [Footnote: See Note G.]
There were about two hundred chariots, for very few teams were entered to
race twice. More than a third were driven by charioteers, the rest by
grooms, or others, quite competent to control them at a walk, though some
of the more fiery had also men on foot holding their bits.
"Felix," Agathemer queried, "did you notice anything peculiar about the
"Yes, Asper," I replied, "I did. I never saw a chariot with its wheels so
close together, nor with such long spokes. Its axle is higher from the
ground than any I ever set eyes on."
"I recall," said Agathemer, "hearing you recount a lecture on chariot-
design you once heard from a man of lofty station."
"The design of that chariot," I replied, "certainly tallies with the
design advocated in that lecture. It would seem to indicate that Palus has
accepted the views of that very distinguished lecturer."
"Perhaps," said Agathemer drily. "Perhaps it indicates something more
"Perhaps," I admitted.
Most of the teams were white or dapple gray, those being the favorite
colors of all the racing companies except the Whites themselves, among
whom it was a tradition that teams of their racing-colors were unlucky for
them. Next most frequent were bays, then sorrels, while roans and
piebalds, as usual, were distinctly scarce. In fact there were but three
teams of roans, all with the white colors, and two of piebalds, one
belonging to the Greens and one to the Blues. The Blue team caught my eye,
even at so great a distance. When it came opposite us I nudged Agathemer
"Asper, did you ever see any of these horses before?"
"Yea, Felix," he replied. "You are quite right in your judgment; the left-
hand yoke-mate is the very stallion you are thinking of, which you and I
have seen and handled before to-day. You and I know where you rode him and
how he passed out of your ken."
It was, in fact, the trick stallion I had ridden at Reate fair and won as
a prize of my riding him, which had been spirited away from my stables not
many nights after he came into my possession. At once I foresaw some
attempt at altogether unusual trickery in the course of this racing-day.
The team of four splendid piebald stallions, about five years old, was one
of the few entered for two races. I could not conjecture how a horse which
had spent his youth as trick-horse in possession of an itinerant fakir,
had acquired, since I knew him, reputation enough to be yoke-mate in a
team highly enough thought of to be entered for two races the same day in
the Circus Maximus. This was a puzzle almost as absorbing as the likeness
and contrast between the Emperor and Palus.
The racing had many remarkable features, but I am concerned to relate only
those in which Palus took part.
At once after the procession he drove in the first race, always a perilous
honor. When we saw the chariots dart out of the starting-stalls, the
Crimson emerged from the stall furthest to the left, just that which is
the worst possible position from which to start. Although thus handicapped
the Crimson seemed a horse-length ahead before the other chariots had
cleared the sills of their stalls and a full chariot-length ahead before
it reached the near end of the _spina_ wall. We saw Palus take the wall
easily and hold it throughout the race, after the first turn never less
than two full chariot-lengths ahead of the Green, which came second. The
Red was third, which comforted Colgius a little. As Palus passed the
judges' stand he threw up an arm, with a gesture so boyish, so debonair,
so graceful, so altogether characteristic of Commodus, that I felt a qualm
all over me. And a second gesture of exultation as he vanished through the
Gate of Triumph was equally individual.
The Red won the second race, which put Colgius, Uttius and Ramnius in high
good humor and seemed to make their fat, smiling wives even more smiling.
Agathemer and I agreed that the rumors retailed by Colgius concerning the
wager said to have been made by Palus were probably correct; for he did
just what that rumor specified and so singular and spectacular a series of
feats could hardly have been fortuitous. It was quite plain that he pulled
in his team in the third race, and let a Gold team get the lead of him and
keep it till five eggs and five dolphins had been taken down by the tally-
keepers' menials and there were but two full laps to run. Then he took the
lead easily in the middle of the straight and won by four full lengths.
So of the other races in which he drove. He pulled in his team at the
start and each time allowed to get ahead of him one more team than in his
last race. Then he joyously and without apparent effort passed first one,
in one straight, then another in another, varying his methods from race to
race, watching for and seizing his opportunities, biding his time, dashing
into top speed as he chose, all smoothly and in perfect form.
The Blue team of piebalds with my trick-stallion among them won the fourth
race in which Palus did not compete.
The eleventh race, in which Palus let the whole field of five precede him,
was most exciting, especially because of the length of lead he gave even
to the fifth team, and the impression of inevitableness about his victory
afterwards. The thirteenth, in which he did not drive, was notable for an
appalling smash-up of five chariots, in which three jockeys were killed
and eight horses killed outright or so badly injured that the clearing-
crew had to put them out of their agonies.
The fourteenth race would have been spoiled by an even worse massacre had
it not been for the superlative skill of Palus and his amazing luck. He
had passed five of the seven chariots which had the lead of him at the
start and was a close third to the two Blue teams, with the entire field
well up behind, three abreast, mostly, bunched up in a fashion which
seldom happens. The whole dozen had gathered way after the tenth turn, as
they came up the straight past the judges and us on the first lap, while
two eggs and two dolphins still remained on the tally stands. Two thirds
up the straight, just when all twelve teams were at their top speed, the
Blue chariot furthest out from the _spina_ wall swerved to the right as if
the jockey had lost control of his team. Palus lashed his four and they
increased their speed as if they had been held in before and darted
between the two Blues. As the twelve horses were nose to nose the outer
Blue pulled sharply inward in a way which appeared certain to pocket Palus
and wreck his team and chariot, but even more certain to wreck the
swerving Blue. What Palus did I was too far off to see, but the roar of
delight from the front rows, which spread north, south and west till it
sounded like surf in a tempest, advertised that he had done something
superlatively adequate. Certainly he slipped between the two Blue teams
and won his race handily, as he did every other in succession, though
eight, nine, ten and eleven chariots led him at the start of each in
"What do you think of that, Asper?" I asked Agathemer.
"Felix," he replied, "there has never been but one man on earth who could
manage horses like that. I've seen him do it. I've been smuggled in to
watch him, like many another servant supposed to be waiting for his master
outside. I recognize the inimitable witchery of him."
"No need to name him," I said. "But if you are right, who is wearing his
robes and occupying his usual seat to-day?"
"Don't ask me!" Agathemer replied. "But you yourself, Felix, who have seen
him drive so much oftener than I have must agree with me about Palus."
I was mute.
I never saw a better managed racing-day. The first twelve races of six
chariots each were over and done with more than an hour before noon and we
had plenty of time to eat the abundant lunch Posilla and her two friends
had put up for us, to drink all we wanted of the wine served in the tavern
in the vault to the left of the entrance stair, underneath the seats of
our section, and to return to our seats, refreshed like the rest of that
fraction of the spectators which went out and came back, most of them
sitting tight in their seats, unwilling to miss any of the tight-rope-
walking, jugglers' tricks, fancy riding and rest of the diversions which
filled up the noon interval. Also the twelve afternoon races of twelve
chariots each were so promptly started, with so little interval between,
that the last race was run a full two hours before sunset, while the light
was still strong; stronger, in fact, than earlier in the day, for a sort
of film of cloud had mitigated the glare of noon, while by the start of
the last race the sky was the deepest, clearest blue and the sun's
radiance undimmed by any hindrance.
That last race! Palus passed nine competitors in ten half laps, and, in
the first half of the sixth lap, was again third to two Blue teams one of
which was the piebald team with the Reate trick-stallion as left-hand
yoke-mate. Again, as in the fourteenth race, the field was close up,
widespread, bunched, and thundering at top speed. Palus was driving the
dapple grays with which he had won the first race.
Now, what happened, happened much quicker than it can be told, happened in
the twinkling of an eye. The inner leading Blue team apparently hugged the
_spina_ wall too close and jammed its left-hand hub-end against the
marble, stopping the chariot, so that the axle and pole slewed and so that
the horses, since the pole and the traces did not snap, were brought nose
on against the wall and piled up horridly, just at the goal-line, opposite
the judges stand, and falling so that as they fell they straightened out
the pole and brought the chariot to a standstill with its axle neatly
across the course.
The other Blue, with the piebalds, was not close in to the leaders, but
fairly well out and about a length behind. As the wall-team piled up
something happened among the free-running piebalds. Of course, I
conjecture that the trick-stallion threw himself sideways at a signal. But
it seems incredible that a creature as timid as a horse, so compellingly
controlled by the instinct to keep on its feet, should, in the frenzy of
the crisis of a race, while in the mad rush of a full-speed gallop, obey a
signal so out of variance with his natural impulse. Agathemer vows he saw
the trick-stallion throw himself against the chief horse while he and the
other two were running strong and true. I did not see that; I only saw the
four piebalds go down in a heap in front of their chariot, saw the chariot
stop dead, saw, even at that distance, that its axle was perfectly in line
with the axle of the other wrecked chariot, both chariots right side up
and too close together for any chariot to pass between them.
Palus, skimming the sand not three horse lengths behind the piebalds, was
trapped and certain to be piled up against the wrecked Blues, under three
or four more of the field thundering behind him.
Actually, at that distance, I saw his pose, the very outline of his neck
and shoulders, express not alarm but exultation. Although his right ear
and part of the back of his head was towards me, I could almost see him
yell. I could descry how the lash of his whip flew over his team, how
craftily he managed his reins.
Right at the narrow gap he drove. In it his horses did not jam or fall or
stumble or jostle. The yoke-mates held on like skimming swallows, the
trace-mates seemed to rise into the air. I seemed to see the two wheels of
his chariot interlock with the two wheels of the upright, stationary
wrecked chariots, his left-hand wheel between the chariot-body and right-
hand wheel of the chariot on his left, his right-hand wheel between the
chariot-body and left-hand wheel of the chariot on his right.
Certainly I saw his chariot, with him erect in it, rise in the air, saw it
bump on the ground beyond the two stationary chariots, saw it leap up
again from its wheels' impact upon the sand, all four of his dapple grays
on their feet and running smoothly, saw him speed on and round the upper
As Palus came round the next lap, well ahead of the diminished field, he
craftily avoided the heap of wreckage. As he won he dropped his reins
altogether, threw up both, arms, and yelled like a lad. As he vanished
through the Triumphal Gateway, he again dropped his reins, left his team
to guide themselves, and turned half round to wave an exultant farewell to
"What do you think, Asper?" I asked Agathemer.
"Felix," said he, "I wouldn't bet a copper that the occupant of the throne
is not Commodus. But I'll wager my amulet-bag and all it contains that
Palus is not Ducconius Furfur."
He said it under his breath, that I alone might hear.
"My idea, precisely, Asper," I replied.
As we left the Circus I heard in the crowd near us, along with fierce
denunciations of the Crimsons and Golds, execrated by all the commonality
as merely rich men's companies, the most enthusiastic laudations of Palus
and expressions of hopes that the Blues, Greens, Reds or Whites, according
to the preference of the speaker, might yet win him over and benefit by
Colgius, although the Reds had won but five races, was in a high good
humor and insisted on the whole party coming in to a family dinner. The
three wives occupied the middle sofa, while Agathemer and I had the upper
all to ourselves. The fare was abundant and good, with plenty of the
cheaper relishes to begin with; roast sucking-pig, cold sliced roast pork,
baked ham, and veal stew for the principal dishes, with cabbage, beans and
lentils; the wine was passable, and there was plenty of olives, figs,
apples, honey and quince marmalade.
The women talked among themselves and the men, with us putting in a word
now and then, of Palus. They argued a long time as to just what he did in
the fourteenth race and how he had saved himself at the critical moment.
As to his victory in the last race, all three of them were loud in their
praises. Colgius said:
"Nothing like that has ever happened before. The chariot which Palus drove
had the shortest axle I ever saw or anybody else. No other chariot but
that could have passed between the two wrecked chariots; any other would
have crashed its two wheels against the wrecked chariot-bodies and would
have smashed to bits. His chariot was so narrow that its wheels passed
between the two chariot-bodies, clear.
"Even so any other chariot would have stopped dead when its wheels hit the
axles of the stalled chariots, for it was plain that his wheels
interlocked with the wheels of the stalled chariots and hit the axles. But
his chariot had the longest spokes ever seen in Rome, or, I believe,
anywhere else, and so had the tallest wheels ever seen and had its axle
higher above the sand than any other chariot; so its wheels engaged the
stalled axles well below their hub-level and so the team pulled them right
over the axles and on."
"Yes," said Uttius, "but that never would have happened but for Palus'
instantaneous grasp of the situation and lightning decision. Any other
charioteer would have reined in or tried to swing round to the right; he
lashed his team and guided them so perfectly that, with not a hand's-
breadth to spare anywhere, the two wheels passed precisely where there was
the only chance of their passing, and he guided his horses so perfectly
that the yoke-mates shot between the stalled wheels without jostling them
or each other. No man has ever displayed such skill as Palus."
"Nor had such luck," Ramnius cut in. "No man could have guided the yoke-
mates as he did and, at the same time, exerted any influence whatever on
the trace-mates. They showed their breed. Each saw the stalled wheel in
front of him, neither tried to dodge. Each went straight at that wheel,
reared at it, and leapt it clean. As they leapt they were not helping to
pull the chariot, the yoke-mates pulled it over the stalled axles. But the
momentary check as the chariot hit the axles and leapt up gave the leaping
trace-mates just the instant of time they needed to find their feet and
regain their stride. The whole thing was a miracle; of training, of skill
and of luck."
"But don't forget," said Colgius, "that the skill and judgment Palus
displayed counted for more than the breed of his team and his luck. Do not
forget the perfect form he showed: not an awkward pose, not a sign of
effort, not a hint of anxiety; self-possession, courage, self-confidence
all through and the most perfect grace of movement, ease, and suggestion
of reserve strength. He is a prodigy."
After Agathemer and I were alone in the dark on our cots we whispered to
each other a long time.
"Do you really believe," I said, "that Commodus is so insane about horse-
racing as to be willing to put Furfur on his throne in his robes so that
he can degrade himself under the name of Palus?"
"I do," said Agathemer. "No other conjecture fits what we saw. The man on
the throne was certainly the image of Commodus, but had not his elegance
of port and grace of movement. Palus has all the inimitable gracefulness
which Commodus displayed when driving teams in the Palace Stadium."
"He is incredibly stupid in undervaluing and failing to prize his
privileges as Emperor," I said, "and amazingly reckless in allowing anyone
else to occupy his throne, wearing his robes."
"He is yet more reckless to race as he does," Agathemer commented, "and I
should not be astonished if we have seen his last public appearance as a
"Why?" I queried startled.
"Because," said Agathemer, "he must be incredibly stupid not to perceive,
now, what opportunities the Circus offers for getting rid of an Emperor
posing as a charioteer.
"A stupider man than Commodus can possibly be should be able to comprehend
that there must have been a very carefully planned plot in the Blue
Company, a plot which must have cost a mountain of gold to carry so far
towards success, a plot which never would have been laid for a mere
jockey, however much his rivalry threatened the Company's winnings and
prestige. Only a coterie of very wealthy men could have devised and pushed
it. It cost money to induce charioteers to come so close to almost certain
death in order to compass the destruction of another charioteer. It cost
money to sacrifice a company's teams in that fashion. Such a plot was
never laid to get rid of Palus the jockey; it was aimed at ridding the
nobility of an Emperor they fear and hate, however popular he may be with
"I miss my guess if there is not a violent upheaval in the Blue Company,
and if there is not an investigation scrutinizing the behavior and loyalty
of every man affiliated with them, from their board of managers down to
the stall-cleaners. I prophesy that the informers, spies and secret-
service men will have fat pickings off the Blues for many a day to come.
I'll bet the guilty men are putting their affairs in order now and hunting
safe hiding-places. Commodus may be insane about horse-racing and fool
enough to put a dummy Emperor in his place, so he can be free to enjoy
jockeying, but he is no fool when it comes to attempts at assassination.
He'll run down the guilty or exterminate them among a shoal of innocents."
But I added:
"What is the world coming to when the Prince of the Republic prizes his
privileges so little that he neglects state business for horse-jockeying,
when he is so crazy over charioteering that he lets another man wear his
robes and occupy his throne? It is a mad world."
Next morning we were early on Orontides' ship and once more Agathemer
charmed a crew with his flageolet.
At Ostia Orontides found he must lay over for some valuable packages
consigned to a jeweler at Antioch for the conveyance of which he was
highly paid. He suggested that, as the day was hot for so late in the
year, we go ashore and see the sights which, indeed, we found well worth
seeing, for Ostia has some buildings outmatching anything to be found
outside of Rome. We took his hint, but he warned us:
"I have some sailors I don't trust. Don't leave anything aboard. Take your
wallets with you."
We passed a pleasant, idle day, lunching and taking our siesta at an inn
outside the Rome Gate. We had planned to dine at an inn near the harbor-
front, on the west side of the town, not far from the Sea Gate: there we
had barely sat down and begun tasting the relishes, when in came Clitellus
and Summanus. They seemed surprised and pleased to recognize us, greeted
us as if we had been old friends and close intimates, appeared to assume
that we were as glad to see them as they were to see us, and, as a matter
of course, joined us at dinner, telling the waiter-boy to bring them
whatever we had ordered, only doubling the quantity of every order.
They talked of the races we had seen, of Palus, of his driving; of the
smash-ups, of Posilla, of Colgius and of everything and anything. They
announced that they would accompany us to our ship and see us safe aboard.
Both Agathemer and I more than suspected that they had associates in
waiting to follow them and, at a signal, fall on us and seize us. I felt
all that and Agathemer whispered to me a word or two in Greek which
advised me of his suspicions.
We prolonged our meal all we could, but there was no shaking them off.
Agathemer ordered more wine, Falernian, and had it mixed with only one
measure of water. Watching his opportunity he threw at me, in a whisper,
two Greek words which advised me, since they were the first in a well-
known quotation from Menander, that our only hope was to drink our
tormentors dead drunk.
It turned out to be a question whether we would drink them drunk or they
us. Certainly they showed no hesitation about pouring down the wine as
fast as it was mixed and served, nor did either of them appear to notice
that we drank less than they; they seemed able to hold any amount and stay
sober and keep on drinking. As dusk deepened and the waiter-boys lit the
inn lamps, I found myself perilously near sliding off my chair to the
floor and very doubtful whether, if I did, I should be able to get up
again or to resist my tendency to go to sleep then and there.
I was, in fact, just about to give up any attempt to resist my impulse to
collapse when Summanus collapsed, slid to the floor, rolled over, spread
out and snored.
Clitellus thickly objurgated his comrade and all weak-heads, worthless
fellows who could not drink a few goblets without getting drunk. To prove
his vast superiority and his prowess, he poured more wine down his throat,
spilling some down into his tunic.
Agathemer winked at me and fingered the strap of his wallet. I groped for
mine and fumbled at it.
Clitellus, with a hiccough, slid to the floor beside Summanus.
I was for trying to rise.
"Let us be sure," said Agathemer in Greek, "perhaps they are pretending to
be drunk, just to catch us."
But, after a brief contemplation of the precious pair, we concluded that