PART II - 'Balatrus
The final part of Marcus's homecoming falls
into place: he meets Spesis and Benevolus again, both of whom continue
Vectis's work of assuring him that all is well. But the grander
picture is one of change: Paullinus departs from Britannia, and
the new Governor seems committed to a policy of calm after the storms
of the Boudican revolt. He even dispatches a special emissary to
spread his message. Though this worthy is long expected, however,
his previous connection with Spesis is not.
Marcus had never seen Benevolus looking
so well, not even before his injuries in battle. As for Spesis,
and despite Vectis's assurances that he was safe, he was simply
glad to be standing before the man. The two commanders had been
waiting as Scapha nosed the boat onto Mona's shores. After heartfelt
greetings all round, Vectis suddenly sprang away with 'Well, best
see what he's been about'-- 'he' meaning Tignum, who had returned
to Canovium the day before, confident that Vectis would find the
copper projects in good order, but equally confident that, deep
down, Vectis would refuse to believe this until he'd nosed exhaustively
round them. Besides, Vectis had done his bit with his information
about the two commanders. He could leave them to speak for themselves.
Scapha sloped off after the engineer, ready to give him a hard time
by tut-tutting and making noises of dismay and disappointment at
everything Vectis drew to his attention.
'Don't you wish to go with them?' asked Marcus. 'Show me your handiwork?'
Benevolus chuckled and scratched his head; Marcus saw how well his
hand and arm were healing: 'I fear,' he said, 'that friend Vectis
has given us praise beyond our worth as miners.'
'We prod the ground a bit,' said Spesis, 'then stand about and look
wise. Mind you' --and here he stared out over the Straits of Mona--
'Vectis has demanded no more from us, and he's kept me alive into
Marcus ran a hand absently round the prow of the boat, taking care
to keep his voice from reaching the soldiers still busy with cargo:
'I would have thought you stood a better chance inland--or out of
Britannia altogether. From what I hear on all sides, our Emperor's
fancy is taking a most dangerous turn.'
'He's an old, fuddled scorpion,' said Spesis. 'Which is to say that
he might strike today, next year, never. I'm sure Vectis has told
you what his cloth chap had to say.'
'His Livorno informant--yes, indeed. Speaking of informants--'
'Gone to ground,' said Spesis. 'I can assure you I've sent them
all to ground. And in due course I'll be disappearing myself.'
'Spesis, we really must decide when that will be. I fear for you.'
'Not in your gift to decide, Tribune--with respect. It depends on
. . . certain arrangements, above and beyond the world of Canovium
and Mona. But when arrangement becomes action, you will be the first
to know. In a little while,' he continued, 'you will see me no more.'
'And which of our bards wrought those words?' asked Marcus.
'None of them. Someone told me that Christ feller came out with
them before he disappeared. Hearsay, of course: I don't know that
anyone's written down all he said, but they should. Amazing, that
religion--threatens to unseat Rome completely without a single spear.
Peace and love as twin destroyers: now that's something our bards
could never come up with.'
Benevolus saw how uneasy Marcus looked at the mention of 'that religion';
he had spoken privately with the cloth merchant, possibly learning
more than Vectis about the potential perils awaiting the Tribune's
family: 'Anyway,' he now said, 'Vectis continues to trumpet our
worth as master-prospectors, and I put my full regalia on when messengers
come to call. I'm sure the message has gone out that Spesis is a
wholly reformed soul.'
'Quite the Roman Druid, he looks,' said Spesis, who then grew thoughtful:
'I've spoken with them, you know.'
Marcus started: 'The Druids? Didn't know we'd left any standing.'
'Rome would benefit from their sagacity. Not that Rome understands'--Spesis
stopped and gave a diplomatic cough; a soldier was clambering down
from the boat to form the head of a provisions-chain.
'Let's dry our feet off,' suggested Benevolus, and the trio struck
out along the shore, hunching their shoulders against the freshening
'Don't get the wrong idea, Marcus,' said Spesis. 'Rome has far more
to worry about than the possible subversions of yours truly.'
'Quite a lot more, certainly on these islands,' added Benevolus,
and began to fill in a picture which Vectis had not had time to
paint. All was not well, it seemed, on the managerial front. A new
procurator was in place, Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, who
was determined to be as impressive as his name and banish all memories
of his devious predecessor. Prudent, and something of a martinet,
he was less than enamoured of Paullinus's campaigns and continual
demands for extra manpower and weaponry, reasoning that the Governor
was now fighting exclusively for his own glory. Relations between
them were increasingly strained. 'The word is,' said Benevolus,
'that Paullinus's days among the Britons are numbered. A new Governor
may be with us before long. Of course, the messengers who told us
all that dressed the thing up differently--Paullinus is a model
of valour, etc, etc, he deserves rich rewards before death overtakes
'Etc, etc,' prompted Spesis.
'So his successor, whoever he may be, will not pursue the valiant
man's policies?' asked Marcus.
'After repacification comes consolidation,' said Spesis, adopting
the nasal whine of some Roman administrator who has the Imperial
ear. 'The rebellions in the south are not over yet, but they soon
will be. After that, who knows? We may be in for a tedious time
of it--back to the maintenance work, pure and simple. Another day,
'Well, at least friend Vectis will appreciate that,' said Benevolus.
'Speaking of whom,' said Marcus, 'we'd better find him. He won't
forgive me if I don't take an avid interest in all that's gone on
'Heavens, Tribune, is your love of the engineer's life waning?'
Marcus shrugged: 'I think I could be happy among healthy vines.'
'Couldn't we all?' said Spesis. 'I hope they've shipped some decent
vintage across with you. Or drinkable at least.'
They turned back, each given over to his own thoughts. Such sun
as there had been vanished. Under a sky of clay, birds wheeled and
called. Back along the shore, one or two dive-bombed Scapha's empty
boat in the hope of scraps. The Straits were turning restless; it
would be a rough tide.
Marcus was to remember the insistent grey of that sky for a long time.
It reflected the run of his own thoughts: hopes that Nero would leave
his family in peace clashed with fears that they were irresistible
targets; a devout wish to aid Spesis was undermined by the notion
that his secret arrangements might come to nothing--that he might
be struck down like a dog before he'd got clear of Cambria. More generally,
the sunless sky became a fitting symbol for the months and years that
followed. Spesis was right: it was time for consolidation--or 'reconsolidation,'
as a host of messengers had it. Marcus didn't know whether to laugh
or throw up his hands at the word, suggesting as it did a wearying
need to start again, near the very beginning.
By the end of summer AD61, Paullinus had indeed left to enjoy his
rich rewards ('the freedom to roast a dozen slaves a day,' hazarded
Spesis). His replacement, Petronius Turpilianus, brought a more benign
face to the government of Britannia. Rumour had it that he'd finally
ended the rebellion in the south with a joke and a slap on the back
(though legionaries dispersed later into Cambria told a rather different
tale). But the days of Suetonian bloodlust were over--so much so that
his successor was nicknamed Turpitudinus, owing to his apparent reluctance
to open new campaign fronts.
An old pattern of life reasserted itself, all but buried in the tumult
raised by Caratacus and Boudicca. News reached Canovium of new forts
and roads springing up all over the south. No less a personage than
Turpilianus's special emissary sent word that he would be visiting
Marcus at Canovium and instructed Decurio to rendezvous there. Marcus
immediately sent word to Mona, via Tignum, that Spesis was to lie
low on the island until he heard otherwise.
A short time later, on the first really chill day of autumn, the emissary
arrived: a rotund personage with high colouring and extravagant gestures,
whose bright blue cloak, stark against the brown day, made him look
like a strolling player who'd come up in the world. His long strides
belied his girth and, within seconds of arriving at the garrison entrance,
he was inside Marcus's headquarters. But though everything about him
was theatrical, his message was simplicity itself: the north Cambrian
patrols were to be doubled.
'Not as a prelude to fresh campaigning, you understand, dear Spatula.'
On hand, Firmus winced at the way he lisped the Tribune's name. 'Call
it a demonstration for the natives that after the, ah, unpleasantness
of the past two years, normal business is most assuredly resumed.
Besides'--here his rich voice dropped as he summoned Marcus and Decurio
to lean close-- 'the men need diverting from thoughts of battle.'
'For how long?' asked Decurio, unconsciously slipping into the man's
'How long,' repeated the emissary.
'Yes, Decurius. The very question.' For several seconds, the men stood
stock still, until Firmus began to wonder whether the emissary wasn't
a wizard with a nice line in turning workaday soldiers to statuary.
'Am I to assume,' said Marcus finally, 'that we must simply await
. . . whatever we have to await?'
The emissary nodded gravely: 'Capital assumption,' he cried, the force
of his words knocking the other two back like skittles; as discreetly
as he could, Decurio rubbed his ear.
'Well,' continued the emissary, 'I must away, good Spatula. Deva awaits.'
'Wine?' invited Marcus. 'Food?' But their visitor brushed his words
aside, which shocked Firmus even more: the cut of the man suggested
that his favourite pastime was eating garrisons out of house and home.
Before Marcus--or anyone--could speak further, he strode away, remounting
his visibly wilting horse at the entrance and nodding to his escort
to go before him. Before he followed, he turned and waved:
'Give my regards to Spesis,' he boomed, and was gone.
Marcus stood transfixed for several minutes. 'How does he know Spesis?'
he asked at last, of no-one in particular. 'And why travel hither
and yon with a message which a twelve year-old boy could have managed
all on his own?'
That evening, Vectis returned from Mona and Marcus decided to put
to good use all the food which had escaped the emissary's gullet.
He, the engineer and Decurio took a leisurely meal at headquarters,
Firmus declaring that, by garrison standards, the food was downright
sumptuous. They were joined by Currerus, whose health had modestly
improved over the previous months. Marcus described to the engineer
all that had happened that day, dwelling especially on the preposterous
emissary. Vectis began chuckling and nodding his head; then, uncharacteristically,
he threw back his head and hooted.
'And as for that blue cloak,' said Marcus, 'you'd think it had been
made--Vectis, is it my tale alone that prompts your mirth, or--'
'Balatrus,' said Vectis, almost choking on a piece of bread.
'Beg pardon?' asked Firmus.
'Spesis felt sure it would be him. Described him point for point.
Wait till I tell him--we'll have another feast like this when I get
'Spesis knows him?' demanded Currerus.
'Some kind of factotum at Viriconium. Or was, when Spesis commanded
it. The man went south at some point, so Spesis's informants--ex-informants--told
him. Always one for high drama--told Spesis that he was wasted among
the corn and horses. Fancied himself as a commander, or some kind
of imperial worthy.'
'How come we never met him?' asked Firmus. 'I mean, we were there,
and you don't forget a performer like that.'
Again Vectis laughed: 'Complete liability, Spesis said. He always
managed to get him out of the way when fellow commanders came calling.
Sent him on patrol for days on end, insisting that even stilus-pushers
needed experience at the sharp end.'
'I'd like to see the sharp end that'd make any impression on him,'
'Not that he'd ever lifted a sword in his life,' continued Vectis.
'Anyway, after Spesis left Viriconium, this Balatrus must have decided
that the gods had neglected him for long enough. Found his way south
and insinuated himself into the new procurator's circle. Now, it seems,
he rides about the land like something out of Terence, promoting the
new administration's image.'
'What kind of image is that, for heaven's sake?' asked Currerus. 'I
wouldn't employ him to promote a sow's farrow.'
'And I,' said Marcus, turning to Vectis, 'wouldn't keep saying "ex-informants."'
He stopped and glanced at Firmus and Currerus. Their looks betrayed
'Tribune,' said Vectis, 'I mentioned his network myself a minute ago.
Our scout and centurion know all. Now, are you going to quiz them
on their trustworthiness?'
Marcus smiled an apology at them, then sighed: 'How, Vectis, did Spesis
know it would be him?'
Vectis shook his head vaguely: 'Spesis is a gregarious man, even locked
away on an island. Our legionaries like him; they tell him things--and
a number of them did come back from the south after Benevolus, remember.
One of them must have heard something while he was down there--he
might even have seen Balatrus in the ample flesh--and simply completed
the story Spesis heard from his former spies. Actually, Spesis did
confess that he'd always had a soft spot for him, despite all his
whingeing about destiny passing him by.'
Firmus tilted the amphora and, amazingly, accepted the engineer's
words: 'Well, since you put it in those words--if I were Spesis, and
I had a character like that in my history, I suppose I'd want to keep
tabs on him, too. Like following the fortunes of a dotty uncle.'
'And you'd employ a dotty uncle to broadcast the governor's plans
for Britannia?' demanded Marcus.
'Let's not be hasty,' said Vectis. 'New governor, new image and all
that. Perhaps good Turpitudinus is trying to tell us that, reconsolidation
or no, things can still be a bit more human--and even allow room for
the likes of Balatrus.'
'Heaven knows he needs it,' said Currerus. 'And it'd be an improvement
on hearing the latest Suetonian body-count.'
Marcus remained silent. He thought of Spesis treating Vectis and Benevolus--and
perhaps anyone else within earshot--to an extravagant description
of the fantastic emissary. Perhaps Vectis was right: perhaps Turpilianus
was concerned to foster real calm and stability--even a sense of civilisation,
albeit in the clownish, holiday form of Balatrus. Well, he hoped the
man really was a buffoon deserving of fond recollections--not some
decoy in a hidden plan to shatter Spesis's destiny and bring black
clouds down on all of them.
End of Chapter XVIII
II - XIII
- XIV - XV - XVI
- XVII - XVIII
- XIX - XX
- XXI -
Worcester City Museums