'

'

Chapter 7

[Home] [Previous] [Next]

[Southeast of Rome, June 455]

The highway east of the Alban hills was largely deserted. The villages became sparser and smaller, yellow-brown villages of mud brick, apparently maintained for the benefit of crows and pigs. The people stared after Adriana with grave eyes: rustic folk, singers of dismal songs, earnestly devoted to pig-keeping. The air took on a highland crispness. Adriana dozed briefly under a chestnut tree; a passing herd of pigs woke her, and she hurried away, leaving a dust-cloud and several crushed lizards in her path.

She drove into the walled yard of a decaying villa when the mules needed rest again. With luck, the place would have a working fountain, or at least rainwater in the peristyle garden. The South had great forlorn villas wherever vines and wheat had once been grown. Many were empty now; some were inhabited by people who dried their infrequent wash on the statues, people who threw slops off the balconies, herded pigs in the ornamental pools, piled manure in the porticoes, stabled donkeys in the dining-rooms.

She watered the mules at the stableyard fountain, rubbed them down, and let them rest in a patch of shade. By the sun she judged that it was late in the day; she had already begun to lose track of time. It was Tuesday, she assured herself. On Saturday her servants had begun assembling travel gear, the elaborate decoy that still cluttered her stableyard in Rome. On Monday the popeís two nuns, Adrianaís intended companions, had been sent out of town by the Via Latina with only a vague idea of their mission, and driven to Anagnia in a wide circle, spending two nights on the road. Later on Monday, the trusty Bassus and a companion had left for Capua by the Appian gate with Adrianaís gold and her essential gear, driving their mules at top speed southeastward through the swampy lowland along the seacoast.

Now, on Tuesday, Adriana herself had slipped away. She had done her best to leave contradictory trails everywhere. Faustinusís face would have been pleasant to see, like the face of a dog that had bitten into a wooden leg, when his clumsy informants came back knowing less than when they had left.

Still she had to deal with the popeís women, waiting at Anagnia. She knew nothing of either Sister Blanda or Sister Probina, except that Probinaís father had been a mysteriously influential presence in the Subura, reputedly a professional assassin.

The sunís rays were long; in the distant mountains, blue smoke curled up from the camps of charcoal burners. Adriana chose to spend the night rather than press on to the roadside inns near Vitellia. The villa and its grounds had attracted no other wayfarers; the ruined stables would be comfortable enough. She ate the last of her hard-boiled eggs and drank a little wine to make herself sleepy. At nightfall she wrapped herself in her cloak and slept soundly in a drift of hay, in a clean corner of the roofless building, trusting the animals to wake her in an emergency.

She harnessed the mules at the crack of dawn and whipped them up into a brisk trot on the deserted highway. She felt safer, less exposed, now that she was within galloping distance of the mountains. Country roads, snaking over the river-plain, furnished avenues of escape. One could perhaps disappear into the olive groves that grew in smoky ranks along the highway, or into the deserted farmsteads that lay in the shadow of the heights.

At last Anagnia appeared on its hill a mile north of the highway, a collection of red roofs enclosed by decayed walls. A chaste brown cisium from the popeís stables waited in the shadow of a villa wall near the road. The popeís driver whisked flies away from his mules; his two passengers, unmarried women loosely attached to the Lateran convent, sat on either side of him, whisking flies away from themselves.

By reflex, Adriana scouted the neighborhood to be sure that her enemies were not waiting in ambush. Satisfied, she reined up her carriage in the shade. The popeís driver made a sitting bow; the women ignored her until she introduced herself.

"I am Marcella Adriana."

"Peace be with you," they said crisply in unison.

"And also with you," Adriana said.

The women wore identical deep-blue tunics and mantles, and sat in identical postures under identical parasols. Adriana disliked and mistrusted Sister Probina instantly. The woman had a carefully managed childlike air about her, as if she could be made to believe that the Dog Days came in January. In unguarded moments, however, she had the expression of a libertine and a habitual liar, given emphasis by the enormous mole on her left cheek. Sister Blanda was much the larger woman. She had imperfectly dyed hair above a moon-face with a mustache, and a pair of large breasts that appeared to have been borrowed from another sort of person altogether. Her voice was sermonic, hoarse from complaint. It frequently trailed away into small coughing that had only a rhetorical connection with the dust of the day.

Adriana enlisted Decimus, the popeís boy, in attending to her mules, rubbing them down, cleaning their feet, feeding them a crude mash moistened with spring water. The beasts ate eagerly. She set them out on a long tether to pick away at the grass. Her favorite of the two, a black saddle-mule with a lively gallop, put his nose in her hand. She rubbed his long ears gently; the animal bent down his head, pressed against her, and stretched his neck with satisfaction.

"That carriage of yours," Sister Blanda spoke up, still seated in the popeís rig, "appears to be something of an heirloom."

"Spur of the moment," Adriana replied sweetly. "The one I use ordinarily has much more snob appeal."

"We have not taken the Via Appia," Sister Blanda said in a voice of injury, her mustache twitching discontentedly. "My assumption was that we would take the Via Appia through Formiae."

"That was a possibility," Adriana said. "It is still a possibility. Do you have a fondness for the Via Appia?"

"It is not important," Sister Blanda said, in a tone that suggested it was very important indeed.

"Come down and have a biscuit," Adriana said consolingly. "Itís pleasant country, isnít it?" She gestured at the majestic hills and the fertile river-plain, highly cultivated, dotted with serfs laboring in the harvest-time heat.

In the shade of the villa wall, Adriana passed out biscuits. Sister Blanda left no doubt as to the heat of the day. She fanned herself with one hand and manipulated her parasol with the other, and complained that the radiation from the highway pricked her cheekbones and eyeballs like needles. Years of whining had crippled her voice. It buckled and dragged like a beggarís leg under the weight of her resentments.

Adriana offered her a wineskin.

"Thank you," Sister Blanda said, with the air of one receiving her due, and swallowed half the contents. She raised her eyes and her mustache to heaven.

"It is an affliction, simply an affliction," she whispered, apparently to the angels. "Never again will I leave Rome, except to go to the mountains if I suffer too much in the summer. Of course the city is so unsafe that one expects to be murdered in oneís bed. Not that it matters much to me. My life isnít so pleasant that Iíd cling to it like a pagan. No, this life is largely a penance for oneís sins."

"Surely Your Piety can have no sins," Adriana said graciously.

"Oh, yes," Sister Blanda said, "and many more when I was young." She glared accusingly at Adriana. "Yes," she continued, "Iím glad the Lord made me unattractive to men. If he hadnít done so, Iíd be in hell today."

The wine and biscuits disappeared. When Blanda had secured everyoneís attention by getting a crumb stuck in her throat, she began to gather up remnants of biscuit from the trampled grass.

"We must not despise these fragments of heavenís mercy," she droned, popping them into her mouth, "or weíll have to pick them all up with our eyelashes in hell. Iíll ride with you, madam, to distribute the burden equally among our mules, poor things."

The carriages rolled out of the shade into the highway, and eastward through the sunny river-plain of the Trerus. The scenery was a pleasant diversion from Sister Blandaís conversation: a succession of tidy olive-groves and villas bowered in cypress.

"Are you quite certain this is the road to Formiae?" Sister Blanda demanded. "Iíve been told that the Via Appia passes through lowlands and swamps, and that one can see the sea. I have not seen the sea since we left Rome. Nor have I seen a swamp."

"There are many roads south, Sister," Adriana said quietly. "We choose our path according to our convenience."

She whipped up the mules so the wind would carry away Blandaís nasal voice.

"Do you have children?" Sister Blanda shouted with an indescribable expression.

"Twin boys. They died."

"Yes, yes. Bitter, bitter, is the pleasure of children, born in pain and reared in sorrow. In this, as in so much else, we women are the devilís gateway, unsealers of the Forbidden Tree, each one of us an Eve, bearing Cains to slaughter Abel. Eh! This is not the road to Formiae!"

Blanda glared accusingly.

Adriana brought the mules to a walk. The measured rhythm of their hoofs gave point to her words.

"I once knew a jackass," she said evenly, "who argued with his master. One day the ass was carrying a load of hay down a very narrow street. He turned to his master and said, ĎI donít want to go this way.í He tried to turn around, and got stuck between two tenements. His master was so angry that he broke the jackassís head and had him dragged away. So he went down the narrow street after all. Do I make myself clear?"

Sister Blanda opened her mouth and snapped it shut like the lid of a box. They rode in silence the rest of the way to Frusino.

As the brown walls of the little city came into view, Adriana cheered herself with the hope of a decent meal. She had been in Frusino as a child, in October, making the rounds of her maternal relativesí estates in the valleys of the Trerus and the Liris. Her mother had been delighted to find green figs, a dozen for a copper piece, and peaches and melons almost without charge. In every working villa in the neighborhood, brown boys, singing wildly, had been treading the juice out of the grape-harvest. She thought of the season with a rush of nostalgia: the dry cool nights and mellow days, with their great golden distances that melted into the highest hills, and the hills into the sky, and the sky, as she thought then, into heaven itself. Frusino stood for her bright childhood.

She drove up to the inn through lengthening olive-shadows. It was rickety but clean, with a roadside balcony that seemed about to fall on the heads of the old men who leaned against the wall below, drinking wine from a skin and spitting into the highway. The stableyard was a congenial shambles. Mules were champing barley with much noise; naked children splashed in the fountain; dogs scratched; weary travelers leaned against the wheels of lumbering rhedae and scratched in rhythm with the dogs; a nervous horse snuffed at each traveler in turn, as if looking for one that was edible.

The innkeeper himself greeted Adriana and directed the stabling of the mules and carriages, with grand flourishes and bellowed commands.

"Ah, but itís filthy!" Sister Blanda exclaimed, her red eyes traveling over the innyard.

"Think of it as highly spiced," Adriana suggested.

Assuming the role of freedwoman, she made arrangements for the night. The popeís boy would sleep in the stables. Blanda insisted on a room of her own, in which to do penitential rituals. Adriana took separate rooms for Probina and herself as well.

"Would it be impertinent to inquire," Blanda asked when the arrangements were concluded, "when one may expect to arrive in Formiae?"

"Weíre not going to Formiae, Sister," Adriana answered with icy sweetness. "Weíre going to Capua."

Sister Blanda upper lip went white under her mustache.

"Not to Formiae?"

"No. To Capua. To the Mercury Inn, exactly."

The nunís expression changed dramatically. Blanda shivered and dabbed at her brow, though it was dry.

"I believe I have a touch of fever, madam," she said, coughing weakly.

"Iím sorry to hear it, Sister," Adriana said.

With a piteous wag of the head, Blanda speculated that she was becoming illóyes, ill, Lord be thanked for his disciplinary mercies.

"A meal and a nightís sleep will do wonders for your health, Sister," Adriana said gently.

The innkeeperís daughter, followed by three identical maids, led the women to their three identical rooms, simple, whitewashed, with a view of the mountains north of town. After a brief tour of the baths, Adriana put on a clean tunic and went to the stables to assure herself that the mules were well cared for. All four stood in beds of soft straw, champing grain. She returned to the inn, preparing to listen to Blandaís complaints over supper.

"Now our stomachs are going to be tried and tested," Sister Blanda said in a voice weakened by illness, "like gold in the furnace. It has pleased God to give me bad digestion."

The three women and the popeís driver sat down to do battle with the flies, dust, and noise. The innkeeper waited on the table himself. Ah, the dear people of Rome, how can one love them enough? his grin seemed to say. He swooped down with soup, a roasted pigís liver flavored with myrtle smoke, and the hearty dark wine of the countryside. He bustled about with dishes and bottles. He attacked the children and old crones who whined for coppers at the inn-windows, and chased two dogs, a cat, and a hen that wandered through the dining-room inspecting the floor for scraps.

The house wine was none too tasty but full of spirit. It thickened Adrianaís head, for which she was grateful, because it took the edge off Sister Blandaís mournful conversation. Sister Probina ate very little. She sat silently fingering her winecup, watching the door, taking no part in the conversation. Her white face was twisted with apprehension, for reasons Adriana was too tired to imagine.

In a severely depleted voice, Sister Blanda expressed her dissatisfaction with the meal. The liver had the texture of boiled harness. The soup had been made from dead cats. The wine set her wheezing. The noise in the innyard made her skin prickle. One could cough for months and not do justice to the smoke from the kitchen. The whole meal reminded her of the Day of Doom, with brimstone.

"It is a chastisement, sent from the Throne for our improvement," Sister Blanda said weakly, with a face of apocalyptic woe.

Her health declined toward disaster. Her voice was almost gone. She tested it from time to time with a careful little cough. Her bowels were weak; the jostling had done them no good; she was afraid of embarrassing herself. Her nerves were on edge. She was, in fact, violently illóyes, ill, as the Lord would have it, away from her own little room in Rome.

Adriana felt Sister Probinaís eyes on her. She turned to the pale, silent woman, who quickly turned away. Was the reality of Blandaís illness open to question? She was unwilling to argue.

"Decimus," she said to the popeís boy, "in the morning you must drive Sister Blanda back to the city."

In the glow of a hand-lamp Adriana climbed a wooden staircase to her room. Her bed was clean, uninfested, delicately scented with lavender. She sank into it, aching pleasantly, and watched a family of swallows dart to their nest under the eaves that overhung her window. Waiting for her mind to quiet itself into a doze, she heard the small clatter of a night-travelerís preparations in the innyard, followed by the landlordís sleepy "Heaven be with you," and the rhythm of hoofs and wheels fading westward on the road to Rome.

She fell asleep at last, saying her prayers: For good soup, and sweet air from the hills, and a bed without fleas, and a night away from the voice of Sister Blanda, Good Lord be thanked.

*

At dawn Adriana was wide awake, pleasantly starved. She dressed and went to the stables. A few guests were already mounted for the road, half asleep, bloat-faced and red-eyed, leaning to and fro in their saddles. She picked her way through a jumble of bales and assesí ears, looking for her rig and the popeís. Her own was where the stable-boys had put it. Her mules saw her and nodded with pleasure.

A close presence was behind her, like a wet dog. She turned and looked into the milky face of Sister Probina, with its disconcerting mole.

"Peace be with you," Probina intoned.

"Does Your Piety have any idea," Adriana asked, "what could have happened to the popeís boy, the popeís carriage, and Sister Blanda?"

"Sister returned to Rome last night," Probina said gravely, as if she were announcing a Mystery of the Church. "She was so ill. ĎI must return to Rome,í she said. ĎI will not be sick away from my own little bed.í"

"Sheíd rather be sick on the highway than in a strange bed?" Adriana puzzled.

Something in Probinaís attitude suggested the whorehouse rather than the cloister. Was it her simper, or her settled indifference to ideas, or the gaudy ring she wore on her right forefinger and twisted incessantly?

The innyard was filling with flesh and noise. Dogs barked; mules jingled their bells. Drivers bawled for the right of way; asses brayed them down.

"You and I are to continue together, then?" Adriana asked, hoping for a refusal.

"If Your Charity is willing."

"The sooner we leave, the better," Adriana said, irritated by Blandaís wordless departure, glad that she was gone, irritated that Probina had not gone with her.

She ate boiled eggs, settled her account with the innkeeper, tucked her meager effects into the cart, and harnessed the mules herself. Probina was behind her at every step, clinging, with her unctuous smile.

The road would be doubly dangerous, now that the party was halved. Adrianaís stiletto was at hand, in a fold of her underwear. As an afterthought, she excavated a larger knife from her bundle and strapped it to her waist.

"Would you use that?" Sister Probina wondered.

"Sometimes, Sister, we have to do our own police work."

The carriage moved out through shafts of early sunlight onto the spacious river-plain. The long valley beyond Frusino was warm with childhood associations for Adriana: her motherís people had villas in the wooded foothills of the mountains that rose north of the highway. All along the road she was tempted to seek the comfort of her relativesí hospitality, but she had made up her mind not to drag them into her difficulties.

The scenery was consoling; the weather was perfect; the ride was tedious. Sister Probina, it seemed, neither read Scripture nor understood theology. Her answers to Adrianaís polite questions were inane. She seemed to approach her calling with the confident stupidity of a tame rabbit, its tiny brain filled to the lid with a small amount of foolishness. Adriana speculated that she nibbled carrots in the privacy of her cell at Rome. The best that could be said of Probina was that her conversation, most of it carried away by the wind, was an improvement on Sister Blandaís obsessive droning about her numerous weighty crosses and her unworthiness to bear them.

Sister Probina had crosses of her own, however. As soon as the carriage left the innyard, she had begun murmuring about the speed of the trip. The list of her anxieties and disabilities grew by the hour, afflictions that had not been apparent a day earlier. Her digestion was fouled by the jarring of the cart; she could hardly breathe in the rush of air; her eyeballs stung, her mouth was dry, her buttocks were pulp. She had to urinate at every bend in the highway.

"This terrible pace gives me a headache," Sister Probina said mildly, ten miles out of Frusino, looking back as if she had dropped something irreplaceable on the roadstones.

"Sister, we must be in Aquinum by nightfall," Adriana answered patiently. "Neither of us is prepared to sleep in a ditch. We can stop for biscuits after noon, if you like. Thereís a clean spring of water in a mile or two, as I recall."

The spring appeared in a bower of roadside greenery. Adriana watered the mules, tethered them, and spread a lunch. Probina wolfed down biscuits and wine with astounding immodesty. The womanís manner was all wrong somehow. The pious air was as studied and unbelievable as Blandaís; the large brown eyes had no more expression than the mole that mocked them.

"I am grateful," Probina said, cleaning her fingers with a long pink tongue that had certain properties in common with a monkeyís tail.

"We must hurry, Sister," Adriana said. She glanced at the sun and brushed crumbs from her lap. "Thereíll be plenty to eat when we get to Aquinum, eh? Grapes, figs, walnuts, fried beans, little round cheesesóanything you like."

Within five miles of Aquinum, Sister Probina, for the fiftieth time, seemed to be numbering the hairs on Adrianaís head.

"Is something troubling you, Sister," Adriana asked, raising her voice above the breeze and the clatter of hoofs.

"Excuse me," Sister Probina said. "I must. . . ."

"Urinate?"

"Yes."

Angrily she reined up the mules. The cart stood exposed at the crest of a long rise in the road. Chestnut scrub framed the highway on both sides. The rocky slopes dropped away abruptly into a plain scarred by dry creek-beds. Sister Probinaís deep-blue tunic floated away among the roadside bushes. She did not return.

The mules stamped; dust rose in little puffs under their hoofs. The sun was sinking in earnest. Its long rays glorified the land, which was familiar to Adriana from childhood: the view would have been more realistic at noon. The youngest of her motherís aunts lived in a small villa on the heights north of the river-plain. Perhaps it would be prudent to seek shelter at Aunt Laeliaís house, rather than press on to Aquinum. Still, the loss of time. . . .

A confused, battering rhythm, the sound of many horses moving at a brisk canter, seemed to impress itself on Adrianaís mind rather than her ear. Her heart began to pound unreasonably, so she could hardly listen. A rising wind, sweeping across the plain, bore the faint sound away.

"Odd," she said aloud to herself. "Itís an odd hour for a caravan to be moving toward Capua at half a gallop."

She cocked her head, trying to trace Probinaís movements by the crackle of dead matter in the roadside scrub. In a rush of annoyance she braked the cart, coiled her whip, and plunged into the woods, calling Probinaís name. When she had clawed her way back to the road in despair, Sister Probina was sitting primly in the cart.

Adriana felt luminous with rage, like a tree struck by lightning. She was tempted to rake the end of her whip across the womanís face. As she opened her mouth to berate the nun, an extraordinary look of triumph pinched Sister Probinaís lips and dilated her eyes, and the shifting wind brought the staccato drumming of many hoofs on roadstone.

*

The meaning of Sister Blandaís night-long gallop back to Rome was clear as the first sound of mounted arms reached Adriana. Glancing west, she could see the crimson mantles of perhaps a dozen imperial guardsmen, the level sun gleaming like fire on the tips of their spears. Sister Blanda had timed her illness well.

Wordlessly, with Sister Probinaís hateful eyes on her, Adriana unharnessed the black saddle-mule, her favorite of the two. Collecting her whip in her right hand, she stood ready to mount with a standing jump. She raised her eyes to meet Probinaís, which were lit with the fires of Gehenna.

"You aristocrats," the mole-face hissed, "so high in your own esteem. . . ."

"Sister," Adriana interrupted with a dark smile, "may your master in hell receive you."

With a rush of strength she slashed the whip across the harnessed muleís haunches. The animal threw up its forelegs and plunged ahead in a frantic lopsided gallop, kicking like a donkey, dragging the carriage from one side of the highway to the other. Adriana jumped on the black muleís back. In the space of an eye-blink she saw a wheel fly off the runaway covinnus, and the carriage dive over the roadís edge. Probinaís mortal shriek and the splintering crash of wood against rock were drowned in the sudden clatter of the black muleís hoofs.

The animal threw himself down the slope away from the road, in an avalanche of loose rock. The surge of mule-flesh beneath Adriana swept away her anger, sharpening the edge of her concentration. Her travel-cloak flared out like a banner against the sky. She yanked the clasp loose and let the garment float away. Lighter now, she lay low against the muleís neck as he rattled down a sheep-run, leaping over boulders and dead trees nearly as well as a horse. She urged him with her heels and knees. Once only she looked back, and was nearly raked off his back by a bough.

For a precious moment Adrianaís uniformed hunters had followed the runaway cart, expecting to find her in the wreckage. She pounded along the sheep-run toward the sanctuary of the northern hills, where the estate-houses were turning deep orange in the fading sunlight. Clusters of trees and boulders parted on either side of her, seeming to stare at her like pedestrians at a runaway chariot. Stone walls and patches of woods loomed ominously indistinct.

In a sudden panic to reach the safety of her auntís villa, she struck out cross-country. She knew well that a concealed root or a badger-hole could martyr her in the popeís cause. The black mule was tireless, his ears laid back, his body flat, as he skimmed the rough ground. He gathered himself to leap a wall that rose suddenly out of a long shadow.

She flew against the wind, weightless, unconscious of the mule, surprised that she did not fall. Then she fell, over and down, pounded, bruised, twisted like a rope, as the dark earth and the dusky sky whirled against her. She was on fire; balls of flame danced before her eyes and turned to faces grinning out of a blood-red mist. The muleís scream reached her as a faint nightmare-sound.

She lay still on her belly for a moment, grunting in pain, mentally exploring her ribs for a possible break. Her arms ached as if they would never move again. She moved them, nevertheless, rising on her tortured elbows and rolling herself up into a sitting position. Her hands were scratched; her fingers worked. Her legs were unbroken. She stood carefully and limped to the wrecked mule, hunched grotesquely near the masonry that had brought him down. He turned to her with miserable eyes. Blood trickled from his forelegs, broken at the knee. The beaded sweat on his shoulders and the quivering of his legs suggested that not all his injuries were visible.

She drew her long knife, giving thanks that she had not lost it in the fall.

"Ei, Iím sorry," she choked, passing the blade into the muleís chest, into his heart. The animal died with a gasp. The straining neck relaxed; the head sloped down to the dry grass.

The last daylight lingered over the plain. Night was creeping up the furrowed slopes of the northern mountains; the glittering red crest had dissolved into a series of black shafts. A night-breeze stirred, with the sound of numberless soft wings.

She ran furiously, her arms close to her body, giving little attention to where her boots touched ground. Boulders and bushes seemed to race past her with an energy of their own. She stopped once, breathing hard, to take her bearings. There was no noise of pursuit; a filmy cloud of dust rose a half-mile to the west, confirming that she had thrown the cavalry off her trace. In her mindís eye she could see them filing along dry washes and scattering over the fields, stopping now and then to listen for the sound of fugitive feet against gravel and stubble. But the night breeze was from the mountains; it would carry no information to pursuers from the west.

She hesitated at the edge of an open wheatland bordering the foothills. Aunt Laeliaís house was the easternmost villa on the wooded rise beyond the river-plain. Adriana could not reach it without leaving her cover, or without exposing herself to a knot of farm-hands who had gathered at the end of the dayís work, half-way across the stubblefield.

She struck out across the open space, trusting her neutral clothes and the gathering night to conceal her from Faustinusís men. As she walked toward the peasants, she rehearsed the questions she meant to ask. Perhaps the reapers could help throw her pursuers further off her track.

She spoke to an older worker, ignoring the others.

"Whose people are you?" she asked.

"We are of the household of Caius Icarius."

"That is his house up there?" She pointed due north.

"Yes, if it matters to Your Ladyship," the man answered, with a show of blighted teeth. He appraised her body; she would have to leave quickly.

"Pardon me," she said with a flourish of her whip, pointing along the heights toward a range of pillars on the western edge. "Is that still the summer residence of Tiberius Ephorus?"

"A lucky man if you are to be his guest. Donít you want to be our guest?"

"Thank you," she said, yanking her garment away from the cautious hand of a reaper who had reached out to take hold of it.

With the peasantsí guffaws echoing in her ears, Adriana hurried up the furrows toward Icariusís house. She forded a sluggish creek that meandered at the base of the hills, her sandals squelching in the mud, and climbed the wooded rise on the opposite side, over gravel and snapping brush. In the protective shadows of the trees on the crest, she glanced back; the field-hands were walking home, absorbed in conversation.

Exhaustion began to claim her; her legs were like animated logs, moving without feeling. For fifty paces she moved west, breaking twigs with her feet and making a stir in the brush to let the serfs think that she was on her way to Ephorusís villa on the western spur of the ridge. In a grove of chestnuts she stopped, holding back her bursting breath, and listened once again for the footfalls of horses and men. Icariusís dogs were barking. She smiled gratefully. In a moment, dogs were barking in every villa on the heights.

She doubled back eastward, pushing as quietly as possible through the brush that scratched at her arms. For a paralyzing moment she thought she might be moving in a circle. Listening hard, she heard the creek murmuring at the base of the ridge. She walked in the same direction and was out of the woods before dark, hurrying through the shadows of an olive orchard. A suggestion of a footpath led her through dry grass, skirting frequent tangles of maple-trees and vines.

Now she recognized the wooded fields as her great-auntís: the old familiar pear trees, the occasional sheaves of cut wheat leaning against one another under the maples and walnuts. She had known since childhood how to get over the villa wall. So far as she knew, the old lady kept no unchained dogs. She knotted up her tunic and pulled herself into the lower branches of an oak that had served her well years before. The tree had grown to twice the size she remembered. She urged herself onto a bough that overhung the estate yard and dropped noiselessly to the dry lawn.

To her relief, a light shone in the tiny window of the gatekeeperís lodge. She picked up a stone and tapped on the window-grate. The gatekeeperís dog howled, joining the chorus all over the heights. She saw the old man jump up in senile alarm. In a moment he hobbled out of the gate-house, half undressed and holding a lantern that shook like a shipís light in a storm.

His features softened when he saw her, though there was no light of recognition in his eyes. She put a forefinger to her lips.

"Iím Marcella Adriana," she said, in a voice of fatigue. "I couldnít use the bell. I must see my great-aunt."

"Marcella Adriana! Glory to the saints! But Your Felicity is in ruins, pardon me. Iíll call my lady."

The old man hurried away, his sandals clapping weakly against the walkway. In a cluster of maids with lamps, Aunt Laelia emerged from the estate-house and floated toward the gate. Her frailness and spun-silver hair softened her dignity. A faint aroma of carnations surrounded her.

"I hardly believed the old chatterbox," Laelia confessed, placing her delicate hands on Adrianaís cheeks, and looking into her eyes with deep concern. "Child, how is it with you? Who has chased you here, and why?"

"Auntie, thereís too much to say," Adriana said, passing a hand over her weary eyes. "There are men in the valley." She pointed toward the barred villa-gate. "You can see their torches from upstairs." 

In imagination she saw them herself, tiny lights flickering among the trees on the heights, leaping up and dying away, spreading apart, drawing together.

"Theyíll be here soon," Adriana said. "I canít stay. You remember the name Gaius Faustinus. . . ."

Pouring out details, she followed Aunt Laelia up the yard and into the house. She felt a stab of regret that her childhood memories of the place would have to be renewed in the sunlight of a better day: the roses that never seemed to fade; the cool summer-house, a miniature palace of marble lace; the grove of myrtles with resident nightingales; the parrots, who terrorized Laeliaís cats and squawked insults in Greek.

Aunt Laelia gave crisp orders for fruit, wine, cold meat, a foot-bath, and presentable clothes, and cautioned the servants against bright lights. With an oil-lamp she led Adriana upstairs to a pleasant sitting-room overlooking the western foothills and the river-plain. A trio of sleepy maids followed with a jar of wine and a brazier full of glowing coals. The solitary lamp was extinguished; the women moved about in the glow of the brazier.

Adriana went to the window. The moon shone peacefully on the wooded heights to the west. To her relief, each of the villas along the crest glowed with lamplight at several windows.

She squinted out into the silver half-light, searching for movement in the black landscape. The chill of the evening air seemed to be coming through the walls. On the brow of the ridge, she saw little dancing flames, first one, then three, then several more, rising and falling almost imperceptibly.

"Do you see anything?" Aunt Laelia inquired anxiously.

Adriana took the old woman by the shoulders and brought her to the window. Together they watched the distant line of torches. It seemed to be moving away, from Caius Icariusís neighborhood toward Ephorusís summer villa. Elsewhere in the valley and on the heights there was no movement at all, only a silent expanse of dark trees and moon-silvered stubble.

"Youíll not leave here in the condition youíre in, soldiers or no soldiers," Aunt Laelia said sternly. "Do you need money?"

"Iím shirtless and penniless, Aunt," Adriana confessed. "Fool that I am, I let the Ďsistersí know Iíd be going through Capua. My clothes and my money are there now. Faustinusís men will be hot on the way. If I go to Capua, the game is over."

A smell of warm honeycakes and spiced wine entered the room.

"You must eat something," Aunt Laelia said. "Itís a pity you canít sleep, just as you did when you were little, after playing all day in my yard."

Gratefully Adriana devoured the cakes while a pair of maids undressed her and patted her scratches with warm, wet cloths.

"Briskly, girls," Aunt Laelia urged, waving her thin hands and glancing nervously out the window. "I canít tell where they are. Can you tell?"

"My guess is, theyíre at Ephorusís house by now," Adriana said without looking. "Theyíll be here in half an hour, I expect."

The maids dressed her in a fresh blue tunic and a pair of light boots that seemed never to have been worn, and bundled her effects in a blue riding-cloak. In spite of her agitation she smiled with pleasure at her reflection in the dimly lit mirror.

"Sister Blanda would have insisted," she said, laughing weakly, "that God doesnít approve of adulterous dyes. If heíd wanted clothes to be blue, he would have made blue sheep."

"Very true," Aunt Laelia said with mock gravity. "But at least you havenít dyed your hair a lust-inspiring color, or imitated the painted eyelids of the Serpent."

She leaned over and put her frail arms around Adriana. "Oh, child," she said, weeping a little, "we used to have good times, didnít we? Will you come again, when youíre not roving up and down Italy like a brigand?"

Adriana nodded, enjoying the warm pressure of Aunt Laeliaís dry hands on her cheeks, then patted the old ladyís shoulders gently.

"But it must be time to go," she said, stepping to the window.

On the dark plain, a line of torches snaked toward the villa at a distance of perhaps half a mile.

"I have a horse ready for you, dear," Aunt Laelia said.

A kitchen-boy hurried into the room with dark bread, snow-white cheese, red wine in a skin, and a leather satchel. He bundled the provisions in Adrianaís presence, bowed, and disappeared.

"Youíll need at least one servant. Iíll send Callistus with you. Heís a darling boy, no trouble at all, tough as oxhide. Oh, Adriana! please donít refuse. . . ."

"Auntie, Iím going alone," she said firmly. "I canít take responsibility for anyone but myself. I must move very quickly. If I donít, Iíll never need servants again."

"The stables, then, dear," Aunt Laelia said, throwing up her hands in resignation.

The two women, a pair of maids, and a dignified eunuch moved in the light of a single hand-lamp, through the shadowy house and down porticoes of white marble where the child Adriana had dreamed in the sun years ago. By moonlight they crossed the villa yard to the tart-smelling stables. A stableboy met them with a roan pony, sleek and comfortably saddled.

Aunt Laelia spoke breathlessly, at the speed of her thought. "If you decide to take the coast road, keep the horse. If you need a carriage or anything else, go to Titus Gracchus the shipper at the sign of the dolphin, near the center of the wharf at Minturnae. Gracchus will cooperate; he owes me several solidi and a great deal of gratitude besides. If you rent a carriage with mules, Gracchus will see to the return of my horse. Plumeus is a good, quiet horse. You wonít have to worry that heíll betray you, whinnying at nightbirds and polecats. When you reach Gracchusís, greet him for me in the name of Christ. Heís not too senile, I think, to see to all your needs. I have one more thing for you. You will not refuse it."

She caught Adrianaís hand, lifted it, and pressed a leather pouch into the open palm. By the heft of the metal, the sum it contained was more substantial than Aunt Laelia could easily afford. From long experience Adriana knew better than to argue.

In the pain and awkwardness of the moment, the two women stood facing each other in the half-light of the lamp, aware of the rush of time, not knowing what to say.

"Itís noble of you to try to help Quintus, dear," Aunt Laelia broke the silence. "In all the world, thereís only one women created for each man, and vice versa."

"God grant it," Adriana said. "But how do they find each other? Itíd be hard enough if they were two nightingales looking for each other in a world of cowbirds."

Aunt Laelia raised a forefinger. "Deity has its ways," she said. "We think that God canít solve our problems except by bringing history to a close. Not so! When all the doors are barred, the Spirit leads us out through a window."

Her auntís warm, frail hands were on Adrianaís cheeks. The women embraced. The stillness of the night was intense. A soft breeze stirred noiselessly. Pushing back the absurd tears of exhaustion, Adriana slung her bundles over Plumeusís shoulders and mounted with a standing jump. She looked down at the frail aristocrat standing anxiously in the grass by a chestnut tree, her white knuckles pressed to her lips.

"Go to bed, Auntie," she said gently. "Thank you with all my heart for everything."

"God be with you, Adriana," the old lady quavered, making the sign of the cross.

Adriana laid a hand on Plumeusís neck and encouraged the sensible beast to a cautious walk. In thirty paces she had cleared the woods that hid the south gate of Aunt Laeliaís villa wall. She covered a mile in the shadow of a long stand of chestnuts. Dismounting, she took the horse by the bridle. He followed her quietly down to the river-plain along a path that lay too low to be seen from the north. She put a hand on his nostrils for silence and walked him westward on the moonlit flats, feeling as conspicuous as an ant on a wall.

She had five miles to travel, more or less, before she reached the heights south of the Liris. Her confidence grew; there was no noise of pursuit. As she mounted Plumeus and rode him across the highway she had left earlier in the day, she looked back, dreading to see Taurinusís riders, but the river-plain was empty. Doubtless Aunt Laelia would encourage Faustinusís men to inspect every corner of her house. . . .

When the southern heights and their relative safety were less than three miles away, Adriana allowed herself to be optimistic. Plumeus was a dull color; Aunt Laeliaís gift of blue clothing would be inconspicuous at night. The moon was south of her; it would obscure her presence in the landscape.

The Liris, in the lee of the coastal hills, had shrunk to its summer proportions. Adriana forded the stream, clutching Plumeusís mane. On the far bank she rode uphill, past dark farmhouses and empty stableyards, climbing the heights from which she would see the Tyrrhenian shore, a long curve stretching from Minturnae to Caietae. On a bald hill with a ruined watchtower of the sort that little boys loved to play in, she tethered the horse and lay down in a patch of dry grass. Plumeus came and lay beside her, pressing his nose against her like a dog. From her vantage-point she could see for miles to the south and east.

She lay quietly and pulled her cloak up under her chin. Her nerves settled slowly; she was aware of her abused body. Her legs were pulpy and swollen from hanging astride the horse; her scrapes and bruises still hurt in spite of Aunt Laeliaís unguents. She closed her fingers around her little dagger in its sheath, and took comfort from it. Plumeus was already asleep.

She dozed, and woke with a start as a passing cloud revealed the brilliance of the moon. Apprehensively she listened for the tramp of horses and the jingle of bit and spur, and watched the valley for steel glittering in the moonlight. Gradually the spacious calm of the night asserted itself, and she was at peace. There were other beings in the world worse-off than she. In Subura, women slept under the rafters of a thousand ratty tenements, with only the cracked roof-tiles and the midnight tomcats between themselves and the stars.

When the moment is upon you, Avitus had instructed her as a child, youíll know what to do. Every problem in life, death excepted, comes with a solution attached. Sometimes youíll fight, sometimes youíll flee, sometimes youíll sit silently and wait for your deliverance to come. The one rule you must always remember is not to fear, because fear gives the game to your adversary.

"Ah, Avitus!" she said aloud, imagining that he was there on the hillside with her, and that she could curl up before the hearth of his friendship and sleep safely the whole night through.

*

The morning was radiant. Her tunic was limp with dew. She shook out her hair and sat in the early sunlight awhile, letting its dry warmth soothe her lingering aches. Empty but not hungry, she felt sleek and spare, like a dragonfly. Plumeus grazed contentedly at the end of his tether. The countryside was handsome in the early light: cultivated hills, punctuated by the dark emerald of vines; an old watermill on a grassy bank; winding, stony roads from which a distant echo of mule-bells came; and over everything a deep sense of coolness, restfulness, gratitude.

She saddled the patient horse and rode toward the coast, satisfied that she had thrown off her pursuers. By midday she stood above the seaward slope of the mountains, with a wide prospect of blue water between Caietae and Minturnae.

The air was fragrant with late-June flowers; honeysuckle and clematis grew wild along the path. Scrawny sheep grazed the slopes; a shepherd dozed in the shade of an olive tree. The neighborhood was a safe place to sit and think.

Adriana tethered the horse, brought out Aunt Laeliaís wine and cheese, found herself a boulder, and sat on it to consider her options. They were hardly numerous. Travel anywhere near Capua or Rome was out of the question. She could take a mule and a boy along the coastal highway and risk apprehension in any of a dozen cities. A boat to Sardinia could no doubt be found, but she might wait weeks for a trader risking the voyage to Africa. She could flee to Aunt Marcellaís seaside palace in Caietae, and take refuge there until Faustinusís agents tired of the search. She could skirt Capua and the Bay of Naples, and ride south along the malarial coast or through the mountains. An overland journey would keep her off the pirate-infested sea, but the south of Italy was a gloomy enigma, the haunt of unregenerate pagans and lawless outcasts from the coastal towns.

Weighing alternatives, she descended the mountainside. The Tyrrhenian sea widened out before her, beyond the coastal olive-orchards and vineyards. The north gate of Minturnae stood open, unattended. Plumeus trotted through with a sharp echo; he seemed to know his way through the neglected ill-smelling streets to the river-front, three miles inland from the sea. The town wharf was quiet; sea trade was cautious. There was a sprinkling of sailors and prostitutes. A few oxcarts creaked in the thoroughfares, hauling wine and oil. Pigs and seabirds foraged among the decaying vegetables scattered against the warehouse walls.

She found the office of Titus Gracchus without trouble, its dolphin sign cracked and faded with the constant breeze off the seaside marshes. The place was threadbare but clean; it seemed wordlessly eager to do business. A boy-servant of Gracchus ushered her into the shipperís office. He was poring over his accounts.

"Greetings in the name of Christ from the Lady Celestia Laelia of Aquinum," she said, with a small bow.

"Welcome!" the fat man chuckled, with a little wink at Adrianaís bosom. "Greetings to the ambassador of Her Piety Celestia Laelia, in the name of the Triune Most High."

He was an amiable old windbag in a wine-splashed tunic and filthy sandals. She explained, as vaguely as she could, her need of quick transportation.

"Dear madam!" Gracchus said with a magnificent flourish of his fly-whisk. "If I were not bound by law to this miserable place Iíd carry you on my own shoulders wherever you wished to go." He made irresistible eyes at her.

"Youíre kind," Adriana responded politely. "Iíd be satisfied with an ass and a boy."

"I have a superb little ass," Gracchus said, "one siliqua per day, honest silver coin, including the boy. How far will you take them?"

"Not past Naples. Iíll find other transportation from there."

"Your Felicity has options, not easy to come by in this world," Gracchus observed. "Your Courage appears to travel without servants? Considering the hazards to which Your Pulchritude may be exposed on the road, Iím able to offer the services of a coasting vessel departing for Puteoli this very afternoon, and I encourage. . . ."

"How much for the boat," Adriana interrupted.

"Three silver nummi, including provisions, since Your Efficiency travels without provision or servants, eh?"

Adriana laid a small gold coin on the table. "A tremissis will perhaps pay for the boat and the provisions, and erase your memory of me?"

An intensification of the old manís watery gaze let her know that he understood.

"Ah, madam!" he said. "Gold or no gold, if the whole company of heaven should descend here on a shining cloud, they could not extract from me the smallest particle of information concerning your whereabouts or destination. I have forgotten both myself."

"Iím grateful for the assurance," Adriana said, picking up the dull yellow piece and putting it in the codgerís leathery palm.

She whispered thanks and good-bye into Plumeusís ear, delivered him into the hands of a stable-boy, and took a siesta, sitting upright in a corner of Gracchusís office until the coaster was ready to leave. With Gracchus hovering at her elbow she eased herself along the gangplank into the boat. The rowers were already seated, rubbing their eyes between yawns. Gracchus handed Adrianaís bundle to the captain; the two men bowed in unison to each other, and in unison to Adriana. The little merchant-galley creaked away from the wharf, its twenty oars dipping and rising to a chant listing the glories of Neptune and St. Peter.

With a goblet of the captainís black wine, she settled herself on a rug in a tangle of ropes, sacks, and bales, and toasted herself in the high sun, watching three long wakes recede in the still water, a broad avenue of swirls behind the stern, and two successions of dimples where the oars had dipped. The sea-breeze stroked her hair. She closed her eyes and nodded to the rhythmic chant of the boatmen, who seemed to be making more noise than progress.

The shipís cat, playing with the rigging, woke her from her doze. She approached the captain, standing near the helm.

"Clear day tomorrow, by Neptune and the Prophet Jonah," he said for her benefit, squinting at the horizon.

"My memory of Puteoli is out of date. Is there anything to be aware of when oneís on foot there?" she asked.

The captain shrugged. "What can I say, madam? The drains smell, the houses are filthy, the streets are bumpy, the priests are corrupt. The people cheat, the windows wonít shut, the door-handles fall off, the pottery in the inns is always cracked. Itís like anywhere else."

"I understand that a load of Vandals went down in a stolen ship off this coast," Adriana commented. "I heard the men speaking of it earlier."

"Indeed they did, madam, and too few of them drowned," the captain said. "The Blessed Apostles sent stormy weather off Cumae. The ship was carrying statues from Rome after the sack, I think. It went straight to the bottom. There were broken timbers and Germans all over the shore east of Puteoli, washed up like seaweed, after their brothers from hell had sacked the city and left."

The ship anchored for the night near the beach south of Liternum. Adriana was sleepy but unable to sleep. She watched the rose glow of the sunset, gradually sliding under the cover of night. Mellow lights appeared in the old white villas ranged along the beach. The stars came out; a meteor shot across the heavens. A bright moon rose, and laid a silver chain over the water that seemed to hold the ship in place.

She turned on her sleeping-rug, away from the voices of sailors and the glow of the deck-hearth, and faced the dark line of the shore. The calm air pulsed with the sounds of twilight: a girlís laughter down the beach, the sound of a young manís singing, the uncertain call of birds not yet asleep, the rumble of carts on the seaside road. The night was faultless. Far off in the heliotrope darkness, points of fire reddened where the fishermen of Liternum cast their nets by torchlight.

The deck-hearth glowed fainter; the rowers and sailors nodded off where they sat. The moon was high; its white light shadowed the rigging, tracing patterns on the deck. The sea was almost noiseless. In the dusk of her imagination, on a breezy couch in a summer-house, Adriana took Quintus gently by the ears and drew him down to her, kissing his forehead and his hair.

But Quintus vanished as the gentle rocking of the ship put her to sleep at last, and in her dreams she was a child again, running through endless fields of blue cornflowers.


[Home] [Previous] [Next]

 

'

'