Roman Holiday can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



CHAPTER I
"I was free born in Judea."

SIMON UNOCULUS sat at the gate. He restrained himself. Life was risky in Rome, where the emperor was bestially crazy, which was bad enough; but his ministers were bestially sane, which was much worse. However, a man could be safely obscure in Rome; but, out here in the suburbs, where the great estates lay boundary on boundary and the rich had locked their back gates to prevent espionage, not even a modest tradesman's life was safe from one hour to another.

"I wish to see the steward, and I only wish to buy skins," he repeated.

"I don't believe you," said Boas. He kept the gate, his qualification for the job being a knack of insolence toward the wrong people and obsequious servility toward the right ones. He lolled on a marble bench beneath the stucco arch and, with the ferrule of an ivory-handled stick, lazily drew patterns in the dust that kept on covering the tiles however often less important slaves might sweep it away at his command.

"I am an honest man," Simon insisted. "I seek leave from the steward to show my dressed leopard-skins to your master Fastidius Flaccus. I sell cheap, and I buy raw hides, skins, pelts and castoff clothing at good prices."

"You look like a Jew to me," said Boas.

"I AM a Roman citizen. I was free born in Judea."

"Much good may that do you," Boas retorted. "Jews are Christians. Only yesterday I saw a slave beaten to death for being A Christian—and serves the tool right. I myself overheard him saying that one man is as good as another. I suppose you rate yourself as good as Caesar."

Julius Verres Vulpes overhead that. As a member of the Equestrian order he was entitled to display himself on horseback; but as a matter of convenience he was being carried in his much more comfortable litter by eight matched Egyptian slaves —to dine with Fastidius Flaccus. Vulpes was the last man in the world to overlook moral turpitude. His huge belly shook with indignation. He put himself to the trouble of turning his fat-jowled face to summon the four slave-gladiators, without whom he never ventured beyond the walls of his own villa.

"Seize me that infamous Jew!" he commanded. "Seize him,I say! Cudgel him! I heard him say he is as good as Caesar! I say, I heard him. Hercules! My ears are split by his abominable words! Is a patrician's gate a meeting place for Christians? It is time these Christians were dealt with as a public danger. Cudgel him!"

The leopard-skin cloaked gladiators ran to obey; but before they could get near Simon they had to scatter to avoid the horse of Vergilius Cleander, who cantered up with an armed attendant running beside him. Simon appealed to him instantly, clutching the narrow purple border of Cleander's tunic, although the attendant tried to prevent that.

"Most illustrious Cleander! Just and generous Cleander! You remember me? I am Simon, who buys hides from your honor's steward."

"Yes, I know you. What is it, Vulpes? Usurping the rights of magistrates, as usual? However, it so happens I protect this man. Now what about it, Vulpes?"

"Oh, if I had known he was one of your boon companions," Vulpes sneered, his big jowls blue with anger, "I would have invited him into my litter! Open me that gate, fellow! Is Julius Verres Vulpes to be kept waiting while Vergilius Cleander gossips with Caesar's enemies?"

THE opened gate revealed a tiled walk, framed in the pastel hues of flowers. It was lined with statuary plundered from the groves of Greece in Sulla's day. Beyond a well spaced group of shade-trees the wall of a great house stood silhouetted against a blood-red sunset. Vergilius Cleander lingered and spoke with Simon.

"Most illustrious Cleander, business is terrible in Rome. They are slaying no more animals in the arena. It is said that a dozen recent shipments of lions and leopards have been lost in a storm at sea. So they send in only unarmed victims against the few mean animals that are left; and because meat is dear, Caesar has ordered them to be fed on the flesh of the victims, which is economical in one sense only, since it makes the pelts worthless. So now is the time to buy good ones before the price goes higher. My artificers have dressed a hundred leopard-skins, all slain in the animals' prime. I have them with me, at the inn."

"That inn is a horrible place," said Cleander.

"True. But I must lodge my porters somewhere."

"Very well. But let them first carry your bales to my house. My steward will give you a place to sleep, and in the morning I will see what you have to offer."

Cleander left his horse outside the gate in charge of his attendant and walked up the path to the house. He was not particularly respectful of his wealthy host, and he was too contemptuous of men like Vulpes to permit himself even to seem to imitate them. So he walked. One half of him loved luxury, devouring beauty with discerning eyes; the other, more stoical half of his nature mocked not only luxury but men who cultivated it, himself included. He knew he was good looking, because he had so often been flattered about it; but the knowledge failed to interest him. He was athletic and in the pink of condition because he despised effeminacy. He was perfectly turned out, and rode the best horse on the countryside, because he could not endure less than the best; but he was inconsistent enough to loathe the airs and graces of the newly rich. Cleander himself was newly poor, for the third or fourth time; he was so extravagant that he could not keep money, no matter how his steward pleaded and economized; and he was so contemptuous of money that it seemed to ?ow to him of its own accord and beg to be allowed to refill empty coffers.

Unmarried at thirty, he had never persuaded himself that marriage was desirable, or even tolerable; he considered the modern Roman women vulgar, graceless and immodest. They had broken with the old conventions and ideals, so he went them one better and was devoted to a slave named Marcia, whom he had bought because she could play stringed instruments and sing the songs he wrote when he could think of nothing else to pass the time. Her beauty and artistic talent had made him fall deeply in love with her. He was amused, too, by the naively optimistic notions of eternal life that she had learned from a Jew named Paulus.

HOWEVER, Marcia's charms did not prevent him from enjoying the reception in Fastidius Flaccus' vestibule. There was the usual swarm of slaves to wipe his sandals and offer him scented water for his hands; but there were two most sensually charming slave-girls one of whom crowned him with a chaplet of flowers, while the other handed him a small crystal goblet full of the sharp wine that arouses appetite. He did not mind Fastidius Flaccus doing that kind of thing. Flaccus was a patrician, although a man of scant personality, who tried to compensate for that lack by lavish hospitality. The girls might be rather outrageous, but as a foretaste of an evening's entertainment they were beyond criticism. It was such upstarts as Vulpes that Cleander could not tolerate—Vulpes who was so rich that few men dared to defy him, and who had had the insolence to try to buy Cleander's small estate in order to add it to his own, which was growing constantly.

There were seven guests. Vulpes had the seat of honor at his host's right hand; Cleander's couch was at the middle of the table, on the left hand side. It was annoying to have to sit facing Vulpes; one could not look at one's host without being offended by the sight oi Vulpes' gluttony, nor speak to one's host without seeming to bespeak Vulpes also. Even the bouquet and the flavor of the wine were ruined for Cleander by the sight of Vulpes swilling the precious stuff as if it were nothing wonderful. And for the same reason he could not enjoy the dancing girls, who had been sent from Rome by a contractor. They were marvelously trained; they knew every sensuous and suggestive trick, and how to beautify it with an air of innocence; to Cleander they were vastly more attractive than the wine or the endless procession of rich viands, cooked by a. slave who was said to have been bought for twenty thousand sesterces. But Vulpes looked at them with gloating eyes that filled Cleander with disgust; he could not endure to share even an emotion with Vulpes.

S0 the conversation developed, before long, into a duel between them, encouraged by the other guests, who were afraid of Vulpes but well pleased to watch Cleander thrust at the man's offensive purse-pride. And Fastidius Flaccus, though irritated, and even alarmed, was an easygoing man who had no notion how to keep a conversation within limits. Vulpes was in a mood to show his statesmanship.

"I tell you," he insisted, "Christians are a public menace. They are most of them slaves and the scrapings of debtors' prisons, who have been promised by Jews that slavery and wealth shall be abolished. Naturally slaves like the prospect of that." He glared at Cleander. "Men who have squandered their fortunes are the next to listen."

"Poor fat Vulpes!" Cleander sympathized. "How that great paunch of yours is full of dreads!"

"You will see," Vulpes insisted; for the wine was taking hold of him, and he was showing o?, too, for the benefit of a dancing girl who might be one of Caesar's spies, so flatteringly attentive she was. "There will be another slave war. Mark my prophetic word. There was unrest in Augustus' reign. There was worse unrest under Tiberius. Today, there are three or four slaves to every free man, and the unrest has become conspiracy incited by these Christians. It will end by our having to crucify a hundred thousand of them."

"Too much wealth and too much gluttony bring bad dreams," said Cleander. "There are not a thousand Christians in all Rome—not many more than a thousand in all Italy. Of what are you afraid?"

"Of men like you," Vulpes answered. "It is true I have had bad dreams, but such are sent to us as warnings. I fear for the imperium, and for the life of our beloved Caesar. Caesar should be warned against the Christians. And let me warn you, young man! The provinces are safer—do you understand me?"

"Perfectly. You bought my debts once, but I disappointed you by paying them. So now I am to be scared into flight, in order that Caesar's friend Vulpes may be appointed custodian of my estate?" A sudden recklessness began to riot in Cleander's veins. "Too complicated, Vulpes—too contemptible—too stupid. How much is my estate worth?"

"FIVE hundred thousand sesterces," Vulpes answered promptly. He knew the forced sale value of every property he craved to own.

"That is about half its value. However, let the gods decide between your greed and my contempt tor it. One throw of the dice! Win, you own my house and lands. Lose, and you pay me five hundred thousand sesterces."

"Throw in Marcia," said Vulpes.

"Not for a million sesterces. Are you afraid?"

"Not I. Bring on the dice. Bear witness, all of you: Cleander's house and lands against five hundred thousand sesterces. Who shall throw first?"

There was argument about that, but Fastidius Flaccus decided it, by throwing the dice the gamblers were to use, and the first throw fell to Vulpes, who called on the goddess Venus:

"I was ever loyal to you. I have had your shrine re-gilded. I will give a necklace of choice jewels for your statue. Only favor me against that unbeliever!"

Suddenly he threw—two fives and a four. "Not bad," he said, but he was disappointed. "Beat that if you can, Cleander."

Even the female tumbler, who was dancing naked amid upturned knives, stood still while a slave took the dice to Cleander. The wild string-music ceased. Cleander seemed the only person unconcerned.

"Two fives and a four? Yours, Vulpes, looks like Caligula's luck," he remarked. The emperor notoriously cheated at the game. "You will all pardon me if I examine the dice?"

"They are mine. They are new," said Fastidius Flaccus. So Cleander waived examination— "unless Vulpes gave them to you?" he suggested.

"Call on Christ!" sneered Vulpes. "I am told your Marcia is a Christian. Hasn't she taught you how to shake the box?"

Cleander showed exasperating calm. He threw two sixes and a three, and hardly glanced at them.

"You may draw me a bill of exchange on Rome. I will be waiting for it at my house tomorrow morning, Vulpes."

"Double! I dare you to double it! One throw for the doubled stake. Venus against your Christ again." Vulpes was scowling, but he did his best to imitate Cleander's coolness.

"No. I call you all to witness, I said one throw. And now I go home. Vulpes is a poor loser and I don't enjoy his lamentations. However, I thank you, Vulpes; your immodest money will pay my modest debts twice over."

He waived aside protests, but he took the trouble to be courteous to his host, who liked him too well to take serious offense at his leaving a meal half finished. Besides, Flaccus had resources. As Cleander wrapped his toga around him and stepped forth into the moonlight, Flaccus whispered to a servant. Hardly a moment later, one of Rome's least innocent entertainers threw her arm around Cleander's shoulder. She looked lovelier, because more living, than the statue of Leda bathed in moonlight at the tum of the path, and she was scented with Egyptian perfume.

"Lover, return and love me by and by," she whispered. "I know all the elegancies—all the subtleties."

"Try them on Vulpes," he answered. He shoved her away, and she cursed him in a low voice, with ingenious profanities such as Arabs address to stray dogs. She was valuable; she knew that her contractor-master would protect her for his own sake, provided there were no witnesses to convict her of insolence. Cleander knew it, too, and, with a twist of his toga, shrugged her out of mind.


CHAPTER II
"I keep some promises."

THERE was a summer-house in his garden and Cleander went there instead of to the house. He sat drinking in the midnight silence, his eyes excited by the beauty of the scene on which he had galed a thousand times. He almost forgot he had offended Vulpes; he entirely forgot his attendant Strabo, whom he had told to go to bed and who, he knew, if he had thought about it, would be news on the wing. Swift as a bat, he would go straight to the steward Giton and regale him with a garbled account of the evening's events, gleaned piecemeal from Flaccus' servants.

However, Cleander was in one of his restlessly poetic moods in which nothing of that sort mattered. He was in a mood to watch the stars and speculate on the meaning of life and death. He was displeased when he saw Marcia coming—displeased, that is, until the beauty of her movement and the almost spectral marvel of her outline made imagination leap. He could forgive anyone anything who could do that. By the time she reached him he had recalled the hours they had spent in that place together, and he even mocked himself as he remembered he had never thought at all about the stars until Marcia sang a hymn about them that she had learned from a Jew in Rome.

As his slave—his marketable chattel—it was not within the scope of even her wide privilege to bring him down to earth too soon. She was not his wife. She had to yield, first, to his caresses and to guide him, subtlety by subtlety, until in the end he almost asked her outright for the words she was bursting to speak.

"Marcia, your eyes are lovelier than stars Your body is more beautiful than—"

"Confess, my master! Did you even notice I was beautiful until I sang to you one night, and then you asked about the song, and I told you? Then you gave me leave to speak such words as those to you at all times, even though they should amount to reproof, because. you said, wisdom and beauty are one?"

"Oh, am I to be scolded?"

"Never! But do you think it just, most generous Cleander, to fill me with such great happiness, so that I love you more than all the world; and then to crown that happiness by saying that I make you happy; but then—on a throw of the dice—to risk such happiness ?"

"Who told you, Marcia? Have Vulpes' lamentations fouled the midnight air already?"

"Strabo awoke Giton, who awoke me. Vulpes—"

"Hah! I wager that malice is burning that great belly of his!"

"Watch, Cleander, lest it burn you also. Is it not the law, that if anyone'a possessions become forfeited to the emperor for treason, the informer shall receive one half? That is how Vulpes has grown rich."

"Who told you?"

"Simon Unoculus."

"And where did omniscient one-eyed Simon get his information?"

"Let him speak for himself."

SHE was gone before Cleander could protest, and she was back again with Simon much too soon for Simon not to have been waiting near at hand.

"Most gracious Cleander—"

"You may omit the list of my alleged virtues for the moment, Simon. Cut short your story, too, I pray you. What is this you have been telling Marcia about Julius Verres Vulpes? And where did you learn it?"

Simon's unembarrassment was almost as dramatic as the scene itself. He was a veteran who had seen all sorts of intimacies, and to whom a love-nest was only one more ninepin for the ball of Jehovah's hurling.

"Most noble Cleander, I am only a poor tradesman, but sometimes even the poor can do little favors for one another. Those condemned to die have hopes and fears and hatreds just like anybody else. So Gains Ruber the lanista—he who has charge of the dungeons and of the sendings into the arena—your honor knows him?"

"No. I have heard he is popular."

"He is successful; and like all successful men, he has a system. Even I, who deal in leopard-pelts, succeeding only in a small way, have a system. Gains Ruber is successful because so many of his prisoners go forth splendidly to die. It grow...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.