Valeria stormed out of the house, her voluminous lavender palla filling like a sail as she broke into the open air. Guided by her anger, she walked with vehemence at first, unconsciously aping the advancing stride of a legionary closing with the foe, playing out the argument with Horatia over and over again in her head, adding what she wished she had said and restarting from the beginning until it pleased her. She did not go anywhere, instead she merely paced, or circled various parts of the garden and house. Her belligerent footfall faded with her temper and by the time she reached the edge of the terrace that surrounded the villa for the third or fourth time, she had regained her temper.
With the fight sluicing out of her she became limp and listless, plodding heavily and allowing her arms to swing for a moment as if she could be lifted away by the wind, then an unexpected voice startled her straight.
‘I remember when your father would act like that after an argument.’ Her grandmother had the most refined and gentle tone of anyone Valeria had ever known.
Julia Tercia approached, graceful to the ends of her well dressed white hair, her aged creases and wrinkles not so much diminishing her presence but enhancing it. She stared at her granddaughter with her pale hazel eyes, enlarged to a great degree by her advanced age and fragile body, Valeria knew there was no interrogation there; only perception, but many found the unswerving gaze of the Torquatii matriarch unnerving.
‘I remember him doing it when he and grandfather had a disagreement.’ Valeria said.
‘It helped him acknowledge that he was still a son to his father.’
‘Horatia is so unkind to me, and I try … but …’
Julia Tercia nodded slowly and began examining the leaves of a nearby rose-bush for signs of insects or disease, then said: ‘I often wonder what god our family displeased to cause such unhappiness for us.’
Valeria gave a concerned frown, ‘Grandmother, no one is truly unhappy here.’
‘No, not here my dove, but in ourselves we are all afflicted people.’ She picked a delicate bud from the bush and twirled it beneath her nose, her own fingers, so twig like and thin that as a girl, Valeria had sometimes imagined her grandmother to be more plant than person. It was not only because she was delicate and beautiful, like a mature vine, but because he took time with things and never complained.
‘First there were your parents; my son,’ Julia Tercia seemed not to be speaking to anyone, but was entertaining some inner dialogue with a private acquaintance that only she knew. Valeria watched as petal by petal, her grandmother plucked the bud clean as she spoke, the detritus littering the ground around her feet. Julia Tercia’s eyes flicked up at the younger woman then returned to the dismemberment of the bud, ‘Then Horatia’s, Marcus being killed in Sicily and poor Lucius losing his place in the navy and having to sell his family’s holdings … your home.’ The bald bud now fell with a soft sound to the ground, ‘Each one of us has lost something great, and some of us have only just begun to heal.’ Valeria put a hand to Julia Tercia’s shoulder and she smiled in the way that could remake Dorus’ world, and listened: ‘When we are surrounded by sadness, the luckiest of us cannot always see how small our own is by comparison.’
Nodding, Valeria replied ‘I still have Dorus.’
‘You do.’ Julia Tercia’s tone ascended, almost surprised, and her enigmatic expression brightened.
‘If Horatia is still suffering, grandmother, why does she wish to make me suffer too? She punishes me because I have no children.’
‘Sometimes, the only way we can look the people we fear or love in the face is to look down at them.’
Valeria was unable to respond, so Julia Tercia altered her course ‘Your father was allot like you. He was the pillar of our lives, but he often let his temper distance him from the people who loved him most.’
With a slow nod, Julia Tercia slipped a thin arm around her granddaughter’s waist and began to guide her around the paths of the garden, ‘The last time I saw anger walking, your father had argued with your grandfather. Only on that occasion he did not let the anger pass.’
They began walking up to the house.
‘He went away and they never saw each other again.’
Valeria stopped in her tracks, she felt as if she had just walked into a wall. Both women exchanged searching looks.
‘Patience was not a gift you were given little dove, but strength and love was.’ She motioned with her chin towards the villa, indicating where she had to go.
Gaius Varus Torquatus found Dorus in the tablinum.
‘Lucius, glad to find you here.’
The Torquatii as a clan were equestrians and this and the benefits that accompanied such a state for a healthy man that had lived through the perils of infancy, had allowed the elder Torquatus the luxury of approaching the grand age of 60.
Since his retirement from public life he had allowed a robust figure to soften and he now sported a small collection of succeeding chin-lines and an ample waist. Dorus thought that it suited him. Gaius Varus was a hard man, as incisive and direct as a stone and was slowly learning to enjoy the good things his long career had given him.
Dorus looked up from the desk, and Gaius, perceiving his unscholarly stance allowed an expression of mild displeasure to cover the stades of his face.
‘You shouldn’t write like that.’ Gaius Torquatus sounded reproachful and paternal at the same time, ‘you’ll end up with a script that looks like its sliding downhill, and it won’t do your back any favours.’
‘Bad habit from a plebeian education,’ replied Dorus ruefully, setting his things aside and standing up.
‘You use that too much as a defence for your bad habits,’ Torquatus replied, he raised a hand as orators do, then continued before a response could be offered, ‘I did not seek you out to re-educate you in the proper way to do things.’
Dorus inclined his head, partly in gratitude and party through interest; Gaius Torquatus continued:
‘As you know I have many friends in Neapolis and Rome. Those who are not dead or wish my death, and there are some who certainly meditate on the latter, all still like to hear my opinion on things. Today is the second time inside a month I have heard news of the navy and I knew you’d be interested.’
‘I am.’ Dorus, glancing at his letters, most of which included a paragraph asking for just that sort of information.
‘Good, I’m glad you still take an interest.’ Torquatus sat, ‘because on both occasions where the navy come up in my hearing, your name quickly followed.’
Dorus raised his eyebrows, suddenly marshalling his defences.
‘Don’t look so shocked,’ chuckled Torquatus with a rare display of amusement, ‘When I am asked about the building and manning of ships, it cannot but be observed by anyone that you are part of my household.’
‘I can’t imagine why,’ said Dorus shortly.
‘Modesty is not something you care about because you have no concept of vanity,’ levelled the elder Torquatus, without committing to either criticism or compliment, ‘therefore I dismiss that remark. Instate factually that it is not unusual for your name and the navy to come up in conversation.’
Dorus remained silent, wondering what all this was leading to.
‘As far a news goes, I cannot tell you anything you have not already known for some time. Warships are being commissioned in all classes, everything from a 2 up to a 5, and in large numbers, they’ve been knitting them up for over five years now. But ships like these will need captains.’
A look of curiosity played across the face of Lucius Iulus Dorus, ‘What do you mean, ships like these?’
‘Seagoing vessels, without corvii, I know you were worried they would readopt the bridges.’
‘I assumed it would have to be done, the fleet has lost a great many men in Sicily since the great storms, it would be simpler for them to readopt heavy boarding tackle.’
‘You’re sceptical. Well who could blame you, the bridges were practical and Latins are practical people. It might indeed have been so,’ agreed Torquatus ‘if the ships being commissioned where heavy enough to support them.’
Dorus put some thought into this remark, then narrowed his eyes pointedly, ‘Someone has told you that the republic is building a sailing fleet?’
‘A sailing and fighting fleet.’ Announced Torquatus, letting his belligerence show, ‘I have been told twice now that the new ships will be lighter and more agile, but just as strong … you’d know better how they do that. But the important thing is that they will need captains.’
How Dorus had envied the sturdy and swift Punic ships at Drepanum, as much as he had loved his old ship. A reliable but slow 5, watching the enemy ram and retreat at will during the disaster while he held his station in line, and unable to move without being hammered anyway, it had filled him with anger and shame. But it was too late now.
‘I feel I must interrupt you here, father Torquatus, please don’t begin to suggest something that will only be a burden to me. I cannot discuss command.’
Gaius Varus, looked as if he was about to respond angrily, but he relented. ‘As you wish, Lucius, but I am not asking for myself.’
‘Your concern, as always is touching …’
‘No, no,’ interrupted Torquatus, ‘not even that. I cannot do anything for you if you are determined to live your life according to the opinions of unjust men.’
‘Someone has asked you to approach me? Who?’ Dorus found his words falling, unanswered, into the empty air. The old man was already moving out the door, calling out for someone to attend him.
Despite everything, the tesseraed floor and frescoed walls of the triclinium was a surprisingly pleasant place to be that evening. It was certainly difficult for the Torquatii sisters to maintain the ill feelings of earlier that day in the presence of the groaning tables of delicious smelling food. Dorus even forgot his anxiety about their grandfather’s news at the sight of a lettuce a-piece, snails, eggs, olives, beetroot, gourds onions and assorted other piled plates, with amole sauces and dips, not to mention a particularly good barley cake.
As the family went in household slaves stood in attendance, helping Gaius Varus and Julia Tercia recline and then filling their cups with sweet wine that further mollified any residual bad spirits.
As Valeria saw that the children were behaving themselves, and Horatia began telling a humorous story to her grandparents, Dorus noticed that there were places for another guest, ‘Are we expecting someone else?’ He asked no one in particular.
‘Yes, but he is late.’ Torquatus replied.
‘An old poet friend of mine, he is not long arrived in Neapolis from Rome, doubtless we will all enjoy both his gossip and his prose. If he gets here before we finish.’
‘Shall I send someone to watch the road? It’s a hard place to find for a stranger at this hour.’ Dorus’ suggestion found favour, and he summoned his personal servant, indeed his only servant to his side.
Ampiscora was a silent man, who blended quite easily into the background, yet in a former life, he, had actually been a pirate. Admittedly this was an exaggeration as his band had only stolen a fishing boat in Karalis, put to sea and raided one coastal village farther up the Sardinian coast before they were surprised and either killed, imprisoned or dispersed. Dorus’ father had bought Ampiscora cheaply as he was no longer considered young, and had no particular skills, plus as a pirate was essentially idle to the bone. Yet the ungainly looking Sardinian had proved an excellent servant for a sea captain, where he essentially became a member of the crew, and even if he lacked the polish of the household slaves, so long as he was taken care of he was amicable to the station he found himself in. When Dorus left the navy, he had seemed pleased enough to adapt. That being said, Ampiscora was still independent enough behind his sombre facade, he would have had no qualms about abandoning the lot of them and taking his chances if he grew to dislike his duties. Ampiscora attended his master with his usual deference.
‘Go and watch the road for a visitor, please and bring him here as soon as he arrives.’ Dorus asked, then as the former brigand left he caught the Sardinian’s arm and added earnestly, ‘Take special care any belongings he might have are not lost in the dark.’
Ampiscora gave a subtle expression that could be read a number of ways, ‘As you say, captain.’
The smiles and good conversation were flowing just as freely as the drinks when Fabius Paulinus was admitted. Ampiscora showed him in and then withdrew. The reclining diners turned to greet the newcomer. He was a refined man, perhaps ten years younger than, the elder Torquatus with a pleasingly unaffected tone and an elegant way with words. Paulinus apologised for his bad manners.
‘Forgive me,’ he said adopting a recumbent position, ‘but I promise to make it up to you after the food is cleared away.’
More cups were refilled, and as the platters diminished, the heady wine and the rich food worked its magic and things grew loud and merry. Not unexpectedly, Paulinus proved to be an excellent conversationalist and delighted everybody with stories from Rome, then with feigned reluctance entertained the room with some verse to the accompaniment of his lyre until it was far too late for him to contemplate returning to Neapolis.
As the party began to drift their separate ways, Fabius Paulinus, took Dorus to one side. Both men were not quite sober, but Dorus had become more temperate in his drinking since he had left the navy, while Paulinus was of the opinion that he composed better verse when on the edge of inebriation.
‘Lucius Iulus, if I am not mistaken, you are the one I hear used to bear the appellation of, ‘The Rhodian?’
Dorus gave a deep frown and stared hard at the visitor, whose generally rosy complexion and neat features were outlined in the glare of dying lamplight, giving him a mysterious appearance.
‘What would a poet know of such a name? Least of all who it belonged to, or the significance of it.’
Paulinus smirked at the inability of Dorus to craft his tumbling thoughts into concise expression.
‘Is that one question or three?’
‘Don’t make fun of me, poet. How do you know people once called me that?’
‘My good friend the senator told me, and being an artist of speech, I wanted to meet the man who owned such an impressive title.’
‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ Dorus said trying to find an avenue of escape.
‘My dear, Lucius Iulus!’ Cried Paulinus, ‘For a man of my talents, it takes little imagination to conclude that for Latins and Italians to declare a seaman a Rhodian, he must be someone quite special.’
Dorus retained his frown, ‘Maybe once, but no one need call me it anymore. I was always embarrassed by it.’
‘You do yourself a discredit …’ Paulinus was about to ask, in his provoking fashion, how an obviously skilled man like Dorus could keep sane without a deck beneath his feet, when his victim interrupted him.’
‘No, Fabius Paulinus!’ Dorus barked, ‘I do myself no discredit. The discredit was done to me!’
There was silence, and from across the Atrium, Valeria, who had missed her husband and come searching for him, perked up her ears.
‘I am quite drunk, poet.’ Dorus admitted, ‘If you will excuse me.’
He felt Valeria’s hands on his arm, and she looked curiously at her grandfather’s guest behind a pleasant smile as she began drawing him away.
Fabius Paulinus nodded graciously, ‘There is no shame in that, Lucius Iulus. Goodnight.’
In their room it was Valeria’s turn to question Dorus.
‘Why did you raise your voice to grandfather’s friend?’
‘He asked some questions I didn’t care to discuss. He’s a poet, he’s naturally nosey. He probably wants to turn my tragic life into an epic.’
‘Oh, he’s more than a poet, love.’
Dorus raised his eyebrows, ‘and what else is he then?’
Valeria had become breezy as she began readying herself for bed and said in a throwaway manner. ‘For one thing he is a Quaestor.’
Dawn began to break through, and Dorus inclined his head. So that was it, he thought. Quaestors, men who had the authority to commission naval rams and nominate captains for the warships they were bolted to. It all made sense now, but at the same time it was too late to understand it all, and sleep claimed his thoughts before he could try.
Leave a Reply