CARPE DIEM –
“The study of Greek,” Albanus announced, “is autotelic.” Seven blank faces met his gaze. “Can anyone tell me what ‘autotelic’ means? No? Well, see if you can work it out for next time. Good afternoon, boys!”
When they were gone he let out a long breath and sank back against the wall. He didn’t expect any of them to work out that “autotelic” meant “an end in itself.” Even though it was true, it wouldn’t impress eight- and nine-year olds any more than the other reasons he had given when Lucius had piped up, “Sir, what are we learning Greek FOR?”
Why, indeed, should boys of their age care that Greek was the language of poetry and ideas, or that it would enable them to serve anywhere in the Empire because half the Empire spoke it? They didn’t care that the emperor himself was very keen on it. They certainly wouldn’t be impressed by the notion that if you learned Greek, one day you too could teach it to others. The fathers of his pupils had mostly risen from humble provincial backgrounds where even a grasp of Latin was an achievement, and they had much higher ambitions for their sons. And that, in short, was why Lucius and his companions were learning Greek: Because Your Father Says So.
This was not so very different from what Albanus had been repeating to himself as he hurried across to the infirmary earlier this morning in search of the butcher’s wife who had been punched on the nose at the funeral by the soldier who was… he couldn’t remember. Nor could he quite recall why he was the one who had to visit her, but Centurion Curtius had told him to do it, and it would be very awkward if he didn’t.
He hadn’t been able to see the point of his visit once it was over, either. Except that he had saved Centurion Curtius from having to bother.
The woman was in one of the small side rooms usually reserved for the very sick. She was sitting upright in bed clutching a food bowl, and presenting an interesting study in black and white. Blankets: white. Skin: white. Nose: possibly black or blue, but hidden under white bandages. Bowl: black.. Hair: black. Eyes: peering out between swollen, greenish-black lids. The only bright colour was the pink tongue snaking out to lick the last of the contents of the bowl.
Albanus’s greeting was barely out of his mouth when the butcher’s wife looked up from the bowl and demanded—as far as he could work out—to know what was being done about That Man.
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’m not—”
“See?” She pointed to her face. “Nose! Eyes! It is a struggle to speak!”
For someone who was struggling to speak she was making a fair amount of sound, but Albanus had to concede that not all of it was comprehensible. Not only did she have a strong local accent and a blocked nose, but it seemed several teeth had gone and she had not had time to learn how to manage without them.
He said, “I’m terribly sorry—”
“You tell them!” she announced, clapping the bowl down on the shelf beside the bed, “You tell them, I do not leave here until I get…”
By the time Albanus worked out that the next word had been ‘justice’, she had moved on to something about “innocent woman” and “attacked by one of your men.”
“Oh dear?” she repeated. “Oh dear? What use is oh dear?”
Realising he was about to say, “Oh dear,” again, Albanus closed his mouth. It was indeed very unfair for any woman—innocent or not—to have been punched in the face by a military fist. He was appalled by the sight of her injuries and he hoped the owner of the fist would be severely punished. But since he was powerless to enact that punishment, all he could do was pay her the courtesy of listening to her woes. Which turned out to be many.
Aware of the noises of the hospital morning around them—shutters being opened, cheery greetings, the clatter of crockery—Albanus silently rehearsed tactful questions while he stood at the foot of the bed, murmured the occasional “Oh dear,” and “Mm,” and waited for her to finish what she had to say.
He began to wonder if that would happen before his pupils turned up for class. Then he began to wonder if it would happen before night fell.
Would it be disrespectful to bend down and scratch the itch under his left foot?
He began to wonder how he would explain any of this to Centurion Curtius.
Eventually he blurted out, “I’ve been asked to find out who murdered Simmias.” It was not at all the tactful approach that he had intended.
“Simmias, madam. Your cousin’s husband. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me—”
“Simmias? Pah!” The attempt to spit was not a pretty sight.
“Do you know if—”
“Him with his hands all over the place!” She raised her hands and wriggled her fingers as if she were fondling an invisible object. “Ugh! No wonder somebody killed him.”
Apparently—he was beginning to be able to decipher her speech now—the woman had warned her cousin Rosula long ago that Simmias would not make much of a husband. Even Rosula could see there would be trouble when he brought that tart into the house.
Albanus realised with a stab of pain that “that tart” was probably Virana. “So do you think it was your cousin who killed him?”
“My cousin?” The woman, unable to frown, raised both hands in a gesture of outrage. “Of course not my cousin! I am telling you what a good woman she is to put up with him. And now he has got himself murdered, and what will happen to her?”
Again Albanus was forced admit that he didn’t know. What he did know, though, was whatever a man’s failings as a husband, a wife was unlikely to wait until he was out in the open with two hundred witnesses to do something about them.
“So, ah—” He had forgotten to ask her name. It was too late now. “So. Who do you think killed him?”
“Me? You are the one who must find out, not me.”
Remembering his advice to Curtius, Albanus tried, “Did he have any enemies?”
She shrugged. “The people he does not pay his bills to?”
Simmias was even less likely to pay his bills now. Albanus briefly considered the possibility of some sort of protection racket gripping the streets of little wooden houses outside the fort, and dismissed it as very unlikely.
“Do you know who he owed money to?”
But when it came to the details, the woman could not name anyone beyond her own husband. The long litany of accusation that followed might have been a business dispute, but it might also have been a family squabble.
To Albanus’s relief a cheerful orderly arrived to collect the empty bowl. He used the interruption to thank her for her help, wish her a speedy recovery and escape. As he was leaving he heard the orderly ask, “And how are you this morning?”
“I was better till that man came!” was the reply. “So many questions. I am worn out with telling him everything. And all he says is Oh Dear!”