PART II - 'Lenita
Marcus has his first proper talk with Fovera,
his mother, since his return. Her words prepare him for a longer,
more disturbing talk--with Lenita, his sister, as they walk among
the market crowds in Cremona. His dismay and anger at Lenita's espousal
of Christianity mean that, initially, he rejects her point of view.
Her behaviour seems foolhardy to him. But her belief is fervent--as
is that of Fovera. Lenita's passionate words do finally reach him,
making him soften his attitude and become more reflective about
his own responsibility towards the family. But, unknown to them,
her words also reach other ears.
Marcus Vinicius Spatula could never
fathom sidelong glances. Partly this was a matter of training and
experience. In Britannia, he inhabited a world of messages, conferences
and decisions. Colleagues and strangers alike spoke directly to
him, and he responded in kind. Even those natives with whom he had
dealt held him steadily in their gaze; and as for the welcoming
party on Mona, their looks had been the fieriest, most resolute
of all. So it unsettled him that, as time passed at in the villa,
his mother's eyes seemed to follow him about. She was like one of
those niggling shapes at the corner of the eyes, indefinably there
until you tried to face it. In one way, of course, it was explicable,
even properly touching: Fovera had not seen her elder son, her first-born,
for more than the whole lifetime of those children summoned early
by fate. It was natural that she should gaze at him. Besides, there
could be an element of astonishment to it, as though, having him
with her again, she could hardly believe her luck, or the gods'
beneficence. Christ's beneficence, Marcus corrected himself: he'd
forgotten that Fovera also believed in this carpenter whose life
had been governed by Rome. He'd certainly found a unique way of
responding to that governance. Still, reflections on the Empire's
most notorious citizen hardly helped him to deal with Fovera's manner.
It was strange--as though she had eyes all over the house, regarding
him even in her absence. Mealtimes were the worst--or best, depending
on whether he pondered all this as a loving son or a baffled Tribune.
Fovera seemed to find all manner of excuses for flicking glances
at him-- handing him bowls and platters that were well within his
reach, watching for his reaction to each mouthful. Even when he
thought himself alone--in the atrium, the courtyard, leaving the
vineyards after further talk with his father--he sensed that she
was there, scrutinising his every move, his changes of expression--
even his lapses into muttered talk with himself, an embarrassing
quirk (and another bequest from Gravis).
The morning after his talk with Gravis about Nero and 'the fish
business,' Marcus deliberately dawdled over breakfast in the cenatio.
At last the others took their leave. Gravis made straight for the
vineyards; Alacer shuffled dolefully off to prepare for school,
protesting to his father that he'd learn much more by staying behind
and listening to his older brother's exploits; Venia retreated to
her room, to persevere with her embroidery and brood on the likely
outcome of Marcus's talk with her sister. As for Lenita, she was
not above pitching in among the family vines; but before she caught
up with her father, she turned and told Marcus that she would return
in an hour. Soon he and Fovera were alone, and he was determined,
diplomatically, to make her give voice to all of those meaningful
looks. She spared him the trouble.
'Lenita has important things to say to you, Marcus,' she said.
'So I understand.' Though attempting a neutral tone, he realised
that his very words sounded judgemental. Foveral laid a hand on
'I know what you spoke of yesterday, Marcus. With your father. Believe
me, if anyone wants to do us harm--Nero or some local thug--they
won't need our faith in Christ as their excuse.'
'But it doesn't help, surely,' he replied. 'You can't very well
keep your heads down if you profess a love of imperial enemies.'
Fovera shook her head: 'When will they see? Christianity isn't a
rebel stronghold. There's no disgrace, no deviousness in following
Christ.' She sighed: 'But, of course, emperors can't abide rivals,
at any cost. Or people they paint as rivals. If they would only
listen to his words, take them into their hearts, they would lament
their own pettiness, their own futility.'
Marcus grew uncomfortable: 'You're not likely to get that reaction
from the Neros of this world, mother. And you seem to have surrendered
all concern for personal safety--not to mention the family business.
Think of all that father has built up'--he gestured at the expansive,
well-draped room--'all that keeps you in this.'
'Think of sacrifices, Marcus. Think of times when they have to be
made.' Open-mouthed, he stared at her. 'Your father understands,
much better than you think.' She chuckled. 'Oh, I know his routine--"What
do I know? I just crush grapes." Of course he deemed it prudent
to keep the tokens of our faith in the vineyards--at first. But
he never complained when they spread to the villa. He saw that Christianity
is not some hole-and-corner business to be kept out of the sun.
If you truly believe, why be afraid of your belief?'
Marcus sat silent. He was pondering what she had said about sacrifice.
That much he comprehended. Leagues away from this airy cenatio,
the good Spesis was proving himself to be of the same mettle as
Fovera. No: that was another thing altogether--that was part and
parcel of the military life--priorities, allegiences, telling yourself
loud and clear what you were fighting for. Spesis was embroiled
in a battle between his heart's urges and duty to the state. But
then Marcus started. What corner had he painted himself into now?
If that was what spawned sacrifice, then the commander and his mother
were the same after all. Only the site of conflict was different.
Compelled by sheer perversity, he began to cast about for other
reasons for distinguishing between them, other evidence to justify
his astonishment at his family's foolhardiness. But then Fovera's
words about Gravis sank in fully. He stared at her, wide-eyed:
'Are you saying that father believes, too, underneath it all?'
'He believes in us, Marcus.' Fovera stretched, then let her hands
fall into her lap. Suddenly she looked very old and weary. 'I'll
leave the rest to Lenita. She can plead the case for our 'fish business'
more eloquently than I could dream of doing.'
'You underestimate your own eloquence, mother,' said Marcus quietly.
It was market day in Cremona. Lenita loved the market--the bustle,
the haggling, the ringing cries of hawkers, the tumblers and jugglers,
the bleating over extortionate prices. As for Marcus, he welcomed
the impersonal throng as an aid to private conversation. He wasn't
enamoured of his father's open speech among the vines.
'No-one expects you to believe, Marcus,' said Lenita as they wove
between vendors and buyers. She spoke without rancour, her voice
bright where Favora's had been troubled.
'I think mother would welcome it,' he said.
'You know mother--always hates dissension under the roof.' Lenita
smiled. 'She did hold out for a while, you know. Supported father
when he had the shrines confined to the vineyard, remained a little
edgy when I began to--well, convert the courtyard, so to speak.
Father was much less trouble that way.'
'A late convert, then?'
'Still at the dreamy stage, I think. She likes to talk in grand
abstractions. Avoids practicalities.'
'Like what to do when Nero Claudius Ceasar razes the villa to the
'Don't go all Sophoclean on me, Marcus. I agree with mother there.
If Nero wants to conquer the tribe of Spatula, our faith will have
little to do with it.'
'But why give him any extra provocation? I'm sure that's what father
is wondering--never mind what mother says about his depth of understanding,
his belief in you all.'
'I wouldn't say "never mind," Marcus. You and father are inveterate
correspondents, I know that. But you can't always judge someone's
true heart through letters, and--well, you've been away a long time.'
'Too long,' muttered Marcus, 'and I think his letters told me quite
enough.' Suddenly he took Lenita by the arms and spun her round.
A couple of stall-holders regarded them with mirth and nudged each
other. He released her, and they pressed on.
'Look Lenita,' he continued, 'I'm worried about you--about the family.
True, Nero was a sound man once. But he's changed, he's unpredictable.
The greatest dolt in our vineyards can see that, for all father's
protestations that they know nothing of life outside Cremona.'
'Our employees are not dolts,' said Lenita, archly.
Marcus waved her words aside: 'Given half a chance, he could make
a move on the Spatula estate. Father must be sick with worry--about
that danger, about losing you all. And about himself,' he added
quietly. Now it was her turn to block his way.
'Father understands,' she said slowly, as though he were himself
a dolt. 'He does not think that we are insane. Nor does he suspect
us of getting the welcome mat out for the Emperor. He knows the
risks. He respects the reasons for them.'
'Well, pardon me,' exclaimed Marcus, 'for trying to rouse you from
your complacency, your selfishness, your infatuation with this .
. . this . . . .'
Lenita smiled and waited: 'This?'
They were in the thickest part of the market now, continually jostled,
barely able to keep abreast. Marcus did not want to say 'Christ'
aloud: he still feared busy ears nearby: 'This fish business,' he
hissed finally, irritated by his own petulance. 'Anyway, what if
it's all hogwash? What if Lucius Annaeus Seneca is right? After
death, nothing is, and nothing death: the utmost limits of a gasp
He had declaimed more loudly than he'd intended. Some wag loafing
by a sweetmeats stall gave him a cheer and demanded a spot of Plautus.
To compound his confusion, Lenita continued Seneca's verse where
he had left off:
'Let the ambitious zealot lay aside
His hopes of heaven; whose faith is but his pride.' This time the
wag applauded heartily, and Lenita rewarded him with a gracious
curtsey. 'Wouldn't you say, brother,' she then whispered, 'that
good Seneca's words were better put to Nero than to Our Lord?' Marcus
merely stood and goggled at her. To save him further embarrassment,
she led him away from the stalls and into the Forum, where the smart
shops stood between the colonnades. There were fewer people there,
mainly well-to-do citizens like themselves, connoisseurs of cloth
and jewels rather than harried servants stocking up for the family
larder. Lenita sought out a quiet corner; once they were settled,
she began to speak of her love for Christ. Her tone was soft; her
manner, unhurried. Clearly she was no longer interested in sparring
with her brother. This was the heartfelt declaration, the assured
plea, which Fovera had predicted.
Understanding this, Marcus laid aside all self-righteousness. Gradually,
he began to see exactly what her faith meant to her. Contrary to
his earlier accusation, he saw that he had been the selfish one:
the great Tribune, full of his own importance, attempting to treat
his sister as though she were a legionary drunk on duty. He also
experienced an excess of admiration for his father. Gravis had indeed
found it in his heart to respect this novel and troublesome faith,
out of love for the whole family. Hadn't he been the one to tell
Marcus of Lenita's wish to speak with him? There was no trace of
the tyrannical father there; nor were there any snorts of derision
at a daughter's crazy fad. He remembered also Gravis's hope that
Christ was all that his followers claimed, that there would be need
of such power if earthly forces were mobilised against the family.
He could as easily have said, 'It's all errant nonsense and I'm
putting a stop to it.' Clearly, their father had balanced an awareness
of danger with the realisation that he could not divert his loved
ones from their spiritual journey. As for all his letters to Marcus--well,
hadn't their accounts of this whole affair amounted to a gesture
of love for his eldest son, proof that Gravis loathed deceit, that
he was not about to pretend that everything in the garden, or vineyard,
'And in case you were wondering,' said Lenita now, 'Alacer and Venia
are coming to believe as well. No pressure on them. So you see,
Marcus'--and here she gave him a playful cuff--'we're a regular
Marcus sighed deeply: 'Indeed you are. I regret to say that you
won't find me joining you at your devotions. I still don't see the
point of it all--not for myself, at any rate. But . . . well, I'll
do everything I can to protect you all.'
Lenita smiled her thanks, adding that he would be well aided in
his resolve: 'Christ guards all that is good--including heathens
like you, brother. He watches all, he comprehends all.' This, she
continued, placed him far above the Roman gods, whose duties--like
a Legion's--were divided, like fragments needing the whole picture
to justify themselves. 'I suspect that our Emperors loathe his name
for that very reason. Especially the present one. Think of the Imperial
cult, Marcus. It makes it so easy for the Emperor to treat the gods
as though they are centurions--they have their different spheres,
but they need an all-knowing leader to show them the grand design.
But how does an Emperor deal with a force that understands that'--she
pointed to a cloud--'and that'--she nodded at a bolt of cloth propped
against a colonnade--'and everything else, all at the same time?'
At that moment, a grimy urchin scuttled round them; pushing against
Marcus, it grunted what could have been an apology. 'Even he is
guarded,' advised Lenita, watching the boy's bobbing shoulders with
amusement. 'But now--this is market day, and here we are among trinkets
and finery. Let's enjoy them.'
Deep in thought, Marcus followed his sister as she toured the shops.
His promise of protection had not been idle. Still, it would be
tricky to manage from half a world away. And what if he were to
resign his commission and return? Would that not make him yet another
sitting target, along with the others? He might be silenced before
he could lift a finger to help. No, everything would have to be
done in darkness, so to speak, with subtlety, playing the powers-that-be
at their own game. He wondered about Spesis's informants and how
far their influence extended. Perhaps he could make use of them.
Assuming, he gloomily concluded, that Spesis was still in a position
to advise him. Still alive.
Suddenly Lenita was tapping his arm. He found himself standing in
a draper's. Rolls of richly- dyed material caught his eye; so, too,
did a chest against one wall, bearing trinkets and fancy ornaments.
It was at the latter that Lenita pointed. 'Ivory combs,' she said.
'Choose one for me, Marcus.'
'Like when we were children?'
Marcus shut his eyes and dug into the bowl of combs. Retrieving
one, he was startled by the sound of clapping. When he opened his
eyes, Lenita was examining his choice with delight: 'See?' she said.
Instead of the usual design between the rows of teeth--worthy slogans
such as 'Modesty' or 'Temperance'--there was a line of flying fish.
'An inspired choice,' she said. 'You do understand, Marcus- -I mean,
really understand--even though you say you don't.' Marcus paid for
the comb and they turned to leave.
'We should have looked for another, to give to father,' said Lenita
once they were outside. 'In honour of his catch-phrase for the family
madness.' Marcus surprised himself with laughter, and his sister
joined in. Neither of them noticed the urchin who had shoved past
them earlier, and who was now eyeing them steadily from beside a
colonnade. He watched their retreating backs, laughed himself--a
dark and knowing laugh for one so young--and then ran off, as if
completing an errand.
End of Chapter XIV
II - XIII - XIV
- XV - XVI - XVII
- XVIII - XIX -
XX - XXI
- Part III
Go to top of page
Worcester City Museums