Crown of Pine - Alfred J. Church


At last, when it was almost too late, the guardians of order appeared upon the scene. The watch, or, as we should say, the police, which had the business of keeping the peace in Rome, was a military force. It was very effective when it was brought to bear upon any disturbances, just as the military is in our own country, but it was commonly very tardy in its movements. The men who constituted it were not dispersed over the city, but concentrated in a barrack. Much time was lost in letting the officer in command know that help was wanted, especially when the disturbance took place in some remoter quarter of the city; and not less in traversing the distance between the barracks and the scene of action. In this case the movements of the watch had been even unusually slow. At first the officer did not understand that the situation was serious. Jew-baiting was a recognised form of public amusement. The authorities did not interfere until the affair seemed so grave as to threaten the public peace. So it happened on the present occasion.

"Let them settle their own quarrel," the officer on duty had said with a shrug of the shoulders; "it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. The Jew has been trying to cheat the Roman in one way, and the Roman to cheat the Jew in another; one asks double the right price for the goods, and the other wants to get them for nothing at all."

A more urgent message, however, made it evident that something had to be done. A company therefore was equipped, as speedily as military formalities permitted. It had just started when a third and still more alarming summons had arrived. The men were then ordered to go at the double, and, as has been said, arrived just in time to prevent disaster.

The centurion in command found himself more interested in the affair than he had expected to be. In the first place the casualties had been numerous. Five of the assailants had been killed, and two more so severely wounded that their recovery was doubtful. The corpses had to be removed and the wounded carried to their homes, such as they were; the hospital to which they would nowadays be taken did not then exist. Then there was the fact that the owner of the place which had been attacked was a person of importance. Almost every one in Rome knew the name of Manasseh, and public rumour attributed to him wealth inferior only to that possessed by the powerful freedmen of Caesar. A millionaire, even though he was a Jew, was not to be knocked about with impunity, as if he had been some common man. Nothing less could be done than to provide for his safe and speedy removal to his own home. This was accordingly done, an escort, by way of greater precaution, being furnished from the company.

The next thing was to obtain a trustworthy narrative of what had happened, on which to base the report which the centurion would have to make to his superior officer. Obviously the Corsican was the right person to tell the story. The centurion listened to it with unflagging interest, and was not a little pleased to find that the man was a compatriot and even a remote connexion.

"I am heartily glad to make your acquaintance," he said; "you ought to have been a soldier. Not one man in a thousand would have made such a defence; and your last move was a masterpiece."

"You are very good," answered the captain, "but I am well content with my own profession of the sea. I can't help feeling that you soldiers are too much under command. Now when I am aboard my ship and out of sight of land, I am as much my own master as any man in the world. Not Caesar himself can meddle with me there. He has got his ministers and his wife and I know not who else to reckon with. No, no! I wouldn't change places, no, not with Caesar himself."

"Well, well," returned the centurion, "we will talk about this afterwards. Come back with me to barracks after I have settled this business."

It was arranged for the present that the shop should be put in charge of an optio, or deputy centurion, with a guard of five men. Raphael was to put his seal on such safes and lockers as had especially valuable contents. Future arrangements were left for further consideration. This done, the party bent their steps in the direction of the barracks.

But the surprises of the day were not yet over. As they were passing by the booksellers' stalls in the Forum—traders were accustomed to congregate in Rome, as they still do to a certain extent in modern cities—they were attracted by the appearance of a particularly sumptuous litter that was in waiting in front of one of the stalls. The litter itself was richly upholstered in gold and silk; the bearers, eight in number, were stout Bithynians, a race which it had been the Roman fashion to employ for this purpose for more than a century. The owner, a man between fifty and sixty years, was examining the contents of the bookstall, and talking to the shopkeeper, who stood by in an attitude of profound respect.

"That," said the centurion, in a whisper to his companion, "is one of our richest men—Seneca."

"What!" replied the captain, "is he back in Rome again?"

"Yes, since last year," said the centurion; "but let us move out of earshot." When they were at a safe distance, he went on: "He is in high favour now: Caesar's wife cannot make too much of him. He teaches her son, is a sort of tutor to him, you know; works with Burrhus, who is my chief, as I daresay you know. But do you know him?"

"Know him?" replied the captain; "I should think so. I had the taking of him to Corsica when he was banished. This was nine years ago. I never had such a passenger; he made trouble enough for a whole cohort of men. He kept on crying that he was the most miserable of mortals. What happiness was he leaving behind him! To what wretchedness was he going! For myself I do not see that it is so great a hardship to exchange Rome for Corsica. You get a better climate, excellent hunting, plenty to eat and drink, only you must not be particular, and good neighbours, as long as you keep on the right side of them. However, that was not the way in which my passenger looked at the matter. If he had been going to execution, he could not have made more fuss, and probably would not have made so much. And yet he was what they call a philosopher. And what made it worse, he was terribly seasick. I don't know what that feels like myself. I took to the sea from a child. But I fancy that while it lasts it is as bad as anything can be. Well, I did what I could for him, and he was grateful, yes, and made me a handsome present; you see, they had not taken away all his money. He was not a bad fellow at bottom, but he seemed to me to make a great trouble out of very little. Give me five million sesterces a year—that is what I heard he had—and send me to Corsica to spend it, and I'll not ask for anything more. And so he is back in Rome and a great man, you tell me. Well, I wonder whether he will know me again."

The two crossed the street again and waited outside the shop. Seneca by this time had finished his inspection of the book and was negotiating for its purchase with the shopkeeper. The business was quickly arranged, for he was an excellent customer, and his ways were well known. To offer a good price and to stick to it was his plan, and the booksellers had the good sense to fall in with it. He was about to step into the litter, purchase in hand, when he caught sight of the captain. He recognised him immediately.

"Well met, my friend," he cried; "and what brings you to Rome? What are you doing now? Still the sea, I suppose? You sailors are always giving it up and taking to it again.

Refits his shattered bark, and braves

Once more the vext Icarian waves,

as Horace has it."

"Yes, sir," replied the captain, "we are like the politician who is always, I am told, forswearing public affairs, and always meddling with them again. And after all we must do something to live. It isn't every one that has all that he wants without earning it."

"Ah, you have me there," returned the great man with a smile. "But where are you now? When I made my journey back from the place you know of, I asked the captain about you, but he could tell me nothing."

"I am captain and part owner of a wheat ship, one of the Alexandrian fleet."

"And it is just what you like, I hope?"

"Well, it might be better and it might be worse. But I don't complain. You see, I am not a philosopher."

Seneca laughed. "My dear friend," he said, "you are a little hard on me. But you know the wise man is always himself except when he has a bad cold, and, I think one might add, except when he is seasick. But I can't wait; I am due at my pupil's in a very short time. But come and dine with me to-morrow, and bring with you your friend, if he can put up with a philosopher's fare. Will you do me the honour of introducing him?"

"Caius Vestinius, a centurion in the watch," said the captain.

"You will be welcome, sir," said Seneca. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance. We are not half grateful enough to you gentlemen, whose courage and diligence enable us to sleep sound in our beds. On the third day, then, at four o'clock; you will excuse the lateness of the hour, but I am a busy man."

With a courteous gesture of farewell he stepped into his litter and was carried off.

"That is a very polite person," said Vestinius, as the two resumed their journey. "But I am scarcely disposed to go. I shall be out of my element in such grand company."

"Nonsense!" said the captain. "There is nothing particularly grand about him as far as I can see. And besides, you must bear me company. It is not for a brave soldier to desert his friend."

The rest of the day was spent in jovial fashion, and it was only when Vestinius was ordered out again on duty that the two friends parted.