PART II - 'Pigeons
for the Pie'
Marcus ponders the plight of the hospital invalids,
seeing them as victims of an increasingly brutal Empire. He and
Vectis postpone further relaxation with the amphorae and instead
take a long walk beyond the garrison, during which he relates his
experiences in Cremona and prepares to tell the engineer about Livorno.
Vectis, however, cuts him off with disturbing news of his own.
The gloom of the hospital hit Marcus
suddenly. It seemed like a nether region in which the sounds of
coughs and spitting created themselves without human effort. Then
he was aware of insistent tapping on the rush floor. A form was
crouching at the edge of the nearest bed, making to rise. Fretus
and Scapha were instantly either side of it; the tapping continued
until, his eyes now accustomed to the darkness, Marcus saw Currerus
standing to a kind of apologetic attention, his hands cupped over
'Tribune,' said Currerus quietly, swaying before him. Alarmed, Marcus
motioned him to be seated again; the other two helped him down.
'It troubles me to see you in this state, scout. The legionary sent
for us. Really, you shouldn't have tried--'
'That was just a spasm, sir. They come in waves. Took my breath,
Vectis sighed and tutted, implying that the man was forever disregarding
advice and trying to break loose from his agonies: 'Blasted soldier
must have told him you were here,' he muttered to Marcus. 'Hence
'My ears are still in working order, Vectis,' countered Currerus.
'I would hardly receive the Tribune lolling about in bed. And I'd
have taken it most ill if no-one had mentioned his return.'
'But you were making such a fine recovery,' said Marcus, at which
the scout sighed deeply, adding a cough to the chorus from the beds
'First blood to Mona, Tribune. Only a Druid, perhaps, could magic
up such a strange affliction. Some days, I'm fit to skip about;
then my back turns to water and'--he thumped the bed-- 'down I go.'
'Where's Solatius?' demanded Marcus suddenly.
'Our good apothecary has gone to Varis,' said Scapha. 'Consultation
with Decurio about supplies.'
'Be easy, Tribune,' added Currerus. 'He attends to me handsomely--and
the instructions he has left could not be bettered.'
'Yes, but do you always heed them, scout?' demanded Vectis, at which
Currerus raised his stick as if in fear of attack:
'And I thought my dear mother was far, far away in Augusta--yet
here she is, dressed like a gold-digger.' He started to laugh heartily.
Marcus had to intervene: he relished merriment as much as anyone,
but Currerus's bones might not easily withstand their present strain.
The scout's sudden coughing fit confirmed his fears, and he turned
to the others: 'Leave us,' he commanded. Once alone with Currerus,
he bade him lie back in bed: 'If you see Solatius before I do,'
he said, 'send him to me at once.'
Subsiding, Currerus's coughs gave way to a wheezy voice and, improbably,
twinkling eyes: 'Suddenly,' he said, 'the whole world is my wet
Marcus knelt down: 'Leave the leg-pulling to Firmus,' he whispered,
'especially where Vectis is concerned. Just get well.'
As he stood up, a host of frail voices rose from the darkness, hailing
him, hoping that his journey had been blessed, giving thanks for
his safe return. Marcus thanked the other invalids, most of whom
he could hardly see. Then, with a nod and smile to Currerus, he
returned to headquarters, convinced that his sleep would be poor
that night. But it wasn't the matter of Spesis which was troubling
him at that moment--nor even of Currerus, who he was sure would
make some form of recovery if he allowed himself to be peaceful.
It was the image of the dark, dank hospital which plagued him. He'd
have to talk with Vectis, get more light and ventilation in there--never
mind what some cranks said about air being filled with pestilence.
And there were those voices: to his restive mind, they symbolised
all that was going wrong with the Britannia campaign. They had hailed
him in his own tongue, but their broken voices could have been those
of the Iceni. Each belonged to a fine soldier, a dependable player
in the plan of conquest; but each was a victim, too--of an ever
more brutal regime, maintained by a governor whose purposes seemed
drenched in blood, ruled at a distance by an ever more capricious
Emperor. Those hospital cases had fought and dropped for ideals
that were souring by the day, for a destiny at which corruption
was eating like maggots. So had many more like them, all over the
land--not to mention those who had dropped and stayed down. Marcus
thought of Paullinus's tyrannical measures, of every word that he
could recollect from the imperilled Spesis--and, inevitably, of
his father, who spoke from a heart brimming with love for his family
but chilled by the darkly whimsical Nero. It did indeed seem that,
on this little sliver of the earth at least, all had entered Ovidius's
last age of mankind:
Now (brandished weapons glittering in their hands)
Mankind is broken loose from moral bands . . .
Faith flies, and Piety in exile mourns;
And Justice, here oppressed, to heaven returns.
Back at headquarters, Marcus found Vectis and Scapha discussing
some details about the trip to Mona. Patiently he waited, standing
in the doorway, facing the human traffic that marched about the
garrison on its soldierly business. Moments later, Scapha hurried
past with a brief valediction, ready to implement what he and Vectis
had decided. Marcus turned to face his engineer: 'Somehow,' he said,
'the amphorae do not appeal as they did an hour ago.'
Vectis was already pulling on his cloak, as if he understood what
the Tribune was really saying: 'A walk, yes. The wine will keep.'
They passed under the garrison entrance, out onto the smooth path
which bisected the undulating land. Their walk was barely the stroll
of old men, but this suited both of them; there was still much to
discuss, and besides, they felt suddenly a common weariness. Marcus
spoke of the hospital, the need for more light:
'Tignum's words exactly,' said Vectis. 'Can't say I disagree. We'll
have to move the men out while the work's on.'
'Well'--Vectis scratched his head-- 'one of the storehouses is underused
at present. It's airy enough, it'll stand a temporary conversion.
Rat-free, too, Decurio was telling me after he'd had a look round.
Miraculous, that--some of the miracle may rub off on the men.'
'I want Currerus moving to headquarters.'
'What, so we can badger him if he tries press-ups or running on
'Something along those lines. He's impatient, I can see that. He
must give himself a chance.'
'He was wondering whether you'd order him home,' said Vectis. 'Not
that he's itching to go, mind.'
'Engineer, I've just made that journey--it took enough out of me.
No, we'll keep him where we can watch him.'
They left the path and began the long walk--shuffle, in their case--towards
the ragged headland over the beach.
'So, then,' prompted Vectis after a silence. 'Cremona.'
Marcus told him everything. At first, his words provoked exactly
the responses he'd expected. Vectis chuckled like a crazed bird
at Marcus's attempts to uncover the mysteries of the vine, and nodded
soberly when told of what had passed between Venia and her troubled
brother. When Marcus spoke of Gravis, however, and of his talk with
Lenita among the market-stalls, a pained look crept into the engineer's
eyes. Marcus stopped:
'Your shoulder troubling you again?' he asked.
Vectis seemed not to hear: 'So you bought her a comb with a fishy
engraving, yes?' he prompted. Then, too late to look natural, he
grabbed at his shoulder and began massaging it furiously. Frowning,
Marcus completed his tale. But then he brightened, as if the engineer's
behaviour had suddenly explained itself:
'Forgive me, engineer--I've tested your patience sore. Here I've
been gabbling about Cremona when your mind is craving news of Livorno.'
'I did ask about Cremona, Tribune.'
'Yes, and as a friend I should have ignored your courtesy. A fine
place, Livorno--and I agree with you about the sweet, crystal-clear
air. I'd have tried to bring flagonfuls back if I'd been thinking
about our hospital. And your family--welcomed me as if I were a
'So I hear.'
'Nothing was too much trouble--every luxury'--here Marcus started
as though Vectis had just dropped from the skies.
'Hear? What do you hear?'
Vectis gave a quiet laugh and opened his hands in supplication:
'Time for you to forgive me, Tribune. I had news of your stay five
days ago. A cloth merchant, a partner of my father's, was bravely
plying his trade between Viroconium and Deva. He had intelligence
that I was here and came to see me.'
Marcus didn't know which surprised him more, Vectis's revelation
or the adventures of a Livorno merchant.
'He must be brave indeed.'
'You have to hand it to men of enterprise,' said Vectis. 'Rain or
shine, safety or danger, they pursue the denarius with rare determination.
At first I thought he was a grander kind of messenger with fresh
news of Paullinus's bloodbaths; then I thought that Spesis had forgotten
to keep a rogue informant at a distance. But he didn't know him,
and the man hadn't lingered in the south.'
'So what your cloth merchant speak of?'
'Well, aside from the delight in soldierly eyes at good old Ligurian
workmanship, he spoke of a strikingly handsome Tribune. My sister's
very words, apparently. You made a suitable impression there, by
'Tender my thanks when next you communicate with her,' muttered
Marcus awkwardly. A silence followed, in which they resumed their
walk. Marcus sensed that, whatever Vectis was about to say now,
it did not concern his own apparent charm and bearing.
'It didn't really surprise me,' said Vectis at last, 'to learn of
Spesis and his spy network. I have experience of that from home.'
'Spying? Gods above, Vectis, I wish you would stop amazing me with
'Not spying as such. An unofficial chain of intelligence--call it
a gossip-line, if you like--between Livorno and Cremona. Surely
I've mentioned it before: family, friends, father's business connections.
My merchant gathered up their news and left it with me. It seems,
Tribune, that the name of Spatula is much on the Imperial tongue.'
'So father surmised,' said Marcus. He found it at once disturbing
and oddly comforting to hear the engineer's words: disturbing because
they confirmed his fears; comforting because they provided harder
evidence of his family's need for protection--they gave him more
to go on than his long (and sometimes circular) talks with Gravis
and the rest in their little world of vines. Still, he sighed heavily
and struck his brow with the heel of his palm.
'I've told you how they won me round,' he said. 'Heavens, I should
have stopped my ears to their sophistry, demanded that every last
stone fish be banished--'
Vectis laid a hand on his arm. 'Tribune, whatever the house of Spatula
does, whatever they believe, it may not matter in the end. Our Emperor
is circling--circling for the sake of it at the moment, my merchant
said. And not just round your Cremona vineyard. Nothing may come
of it. Then again'--he shivered and pulled his cloak tighter around
him; the headlands were fully in sight now. 'I wish,' he resumed,
'that I could breathe life into that eagle of copper standing on
your floor. Then he could circle Rome and swoop himself. Our Emperor
would make a rare feast for him, I'll be sworn.'
Despite his mood, Marcus laughed aloud: 'Open, happy treason, Vectis,
for the four winds to hear?'
'Oh, yes,' said Vectis lightly, as though he'd just admitted a liking
for eggs or twilight. 'Tribune, we labour for the Empire as a gardener
might polish a prize apple, keeping it red and bright. But it's
rotten. Take a deep breath. You can smell the stink of Rome from
here. Even the good air of Livorno is tainted.'
The laughter died in Marcus's eyes. Here were his very thoughts
as he'd walked from the hospital.
'My merchant also tells me,' continued Vectis, 'that our Emperor
has a parcel of little sayings and adds to them by the day. Quips
and saws. Such a consul is a horse that must be hobbled. Such a
senator is a pigeon for the pie. Such a family are geese whose necks
must be wrung. Sometimes the names change; sometimes he doesn't
mention names at all. A nice, lazy way to create terror, wouldn't
'That scruff!' exclaimed Marcus.
'Gods above, Tribune, that's more treasonable than anything I've
'No, no, I didn't tell you.' And he described the urchin he'd seen
in the market-place, the day he and Lenita had spoken of faith and
danger, and how he'd later connected him with the desecration of
the vineyard shrine.
Vectis remained silent for a while when he'd finished: 'Auguries
can take the most unappetising shapes, Tribune,' he said finally.
'Hardly what I'd call the usual augury.'
'With our Emperor it's clearly the unusual that we must note. Your
scruff overheard you, as he was meant to. He ran off with your words
like his head was a full pitcher. He met with another, who ran to
a third, and on and on. Dirty little beacons, lighting the way to
'But if this is true, who would he . . . they . . . have run to?'
'Bigger urchins, waiting in the drains of Nero's spy-system, paid
and ready to pop out and speed the message to its equally foul destination.
Sorry, Vectis, the merchant could give these hired rats no names.
Doubtless they live and die without them--makes everything more
secure. But the merchant was in no doubt that Nero's diseased fancy
draws him to the house of Spatula and many another innocent house
besides. He might act on that fancy; then again, he might just play
bogeyman, yell 'Boo' and run off to some other game. As far as my
merchant could tell, he's happy enough just to keep everyone in
fear of their lives and spirit. For the moment--but who knows how
long that will last?'
They had reached a broad bluff on the headland. Below, they could
make out Scapha, inspecting the ribs of a new craft, moving from
bow to stern, stopping to bend down or run a hand along a wooden
Vectis chuckled again, without mirth now: 'Ah, horses, pigeons,
geese--what a menagerie our brave Emperor has to control. Dung-beetles,
'Six of them, my merchant says, which Nero needs to squash beneath
his heel. The youngest is the sister who doted so much upon your
Marcus was transfixed: 'Vectis!' The engineer had proclaimed his
pain--nothing to do with strained shoulders.
'And no-one's ever had the slightest urge to carve a fish anywhere
in our villa,' said Vectis. 'Gods above, I can't even stomach the
So they stood, while scraps of Scapha's instructions rose up to
them on the wind, and dusk fell, and the band of artisans dragged
the half-built craft far up the beach, making it secure against
End of Chapter XVII
I - Part
II - XIII
- XIV - XV - XVI
- XVII - XVIII
- XIX - XX
- XXI -
Worcester City Museums