By Steven Saylor
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1993 Steven Saylor
All rights reserved.
"According to Cato ..." I said, and paused, squinting at the scroll. Bright summer sunlight from the window glared across the parchment, obscuring the faded black letters. Then again, at forty-seven, my eyes are not what they used to be. I can count the leaves on an olive tree fifty feet away, but the difference between O and U, or even I and L, is not as clear as it once was.
"According to Cato," I began again, holding the scroll at arm's length and reading silently. "Well, this is ridiculous! Cato clearly says that the haymaking should have been done by now, yet here it is, the Kalends of Junius, and we haven't even begun!"
"If I may interject, Master ..." Aratus, standing at my elbow, cleared his throat. He was a slave, not yet fifty, and had been foreman of the farm since long before my arrival the previous autumn.
"Master, the blooms are not yet off the grass. It is not uncommon for the crop to be late. Why, last year it was just the same. We didn't harvest the hay until almost the end of Junius —"
"And I saw how much of it went bad in the barn! Bundles and bundles rotted away during the winter, so there was hardly enough left to feed the oxen during the plowing this spring."
"But that was because of the storm damage to the roof of the barn last winter, which let in the rain and so spoiled much of the hay. It had nothing to do with the late harvest last summer." Aratus lowered his eyes and compressed his lips. His patience was near its end, if his subservience was not.
"Still, Cato is explicit: 'Cut the grass crop when the time comes, and take care that you are not too late in cutting it.' Now, Marcus Porcius Cato may have been dead for almost a hundred years, but I don't suppose the ways of nature have changed in that time." I looked up at Aratus, who pursed his lips tightly.
"And another thing ..." I shifted through the scroll, seeking the passage that had leaped out at me the night before. "Ah, here: 'The chickpea is poisonous to livestock and thus should be pulled up when found growing among the grain.' And yet, only the other day, I saw one of the slaves take the burnt portions of chickpeas from the kitchen and mix them in among the oxen's feed."
Did I catch Aratus rolling his eyes, or only imagine it? "The herbage of the chickpea is poisonous to livestock, Master, not the bean. Poisonous to men, as well, I suspect," he added dryly.
"Ah, well. Yes, that explains it then." I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. "As you say, if the bloom is not yet off the grass, I suppose we shall simply have to wait to begin the haymaking. The vineyard has begun to come out in leaf?"
"Yes, Master. We have already begun to trim the vines and tie them to supports — just as Cato says to do. And since, as Cato advises, only the most skilled and experienced slaves should be engaged in the task, perhaps I should go and oversee the work."
I nodded, and he left.
The room seemed suddenly stuffy and hot, though the hour was not quite noon. I felt a throbbing in my temples and told myself it was the heat, though it was more likely from squinting at the scroll and arguing with Aratus. I walked out into the herb garden, where the air was cooler. From within the house I heard a sudden shriek — Diana screaming, and then Meto shouting, "I never touched her," followed by a maternal scolding from Bethesda. I sighed and kept walking, through the gate and onto the path that led to the goat pens, where two of the slaves were engaged in mending a broken fence. They scarcely looked up as I passed.
The path took me alongside the vineyards, where Aratus was already busy overseeing the tying of the young vines. I kept walking until I came to the olive orchard and paused in the cool shade. A bee buzzed by my head and flitted among the tree trunks. I followed it up the hillside to the edge of the orchard, to the ridge where a patch of virgin forest stood. A few naked stumps at the periphery showed where an attempt had once been made to clear the high land, and then abandoned. I was glad the ridge had been left wild and wooded, though Cato would have advised clearing it for crops; Cato always seemed to prefer high places to the lowlands where mist might gather and ruin the crops with rust.
I sat on one of the stumps and caught my breath beneath the shade of a gnarled, ancient oak. The bee buzzed by my ear again — perhaps it was drawn to the almond-scented oil that Bethesda had rubbed into my hair the night before. How gray my hair was becoming, half gray or more, mixed in with the black. Living in the countryside, I did not bother to have it cut as often as in the city, so that the loose curls lapped onto my neck and over my ears, and for the first time in my life I had grown a beard — that also was half gray, especially around the chin.
Bethesda, too, had been growing grayer, until she began to dye her hair with henna; the tint she had concocted was a deep, rich red, like the color of a bloodstain. How beautiful her hair still was, thick and luxurious. As I had grown more careless with mine, she had grown more elaborate with hers. She never wore it down anymore, except for bed. During the day she wrapped it into coils and pinned it atop her head, as haughty as any Roman matron — though her Egyptian accent would always give her away.
The thought made me laugh, and I realized that my headache was gone. I looked down on the valley and breathed in the smells of summer in the country: the odor of living beasts, of grass rustling in the dry breeze, of the earth itself dozing beneath the hot, baking sun. I studied the plan of the farm, like a picture laid before me: the red-tiled roof of the great house, hiding the bedrooms, kitchen, library, and dining room within; the higher roof that showed where the baths were installed; the formal courtyard just within the front door, with its fishpond and flowers; the second courtyard where the wine was fermented, with its kettles and vats; the third courtyard with its paved threshing floor open to the sky; the herb garden appended to the library, from which I had come. Close by the house were the sheds and pens and the well and the little house that held the olive press. The surrounding land was divided into various uses: fields for grains and other crops, vineyards, olive orchards. The boundary was marked on my left by a wooded stream, on my right by the road from Rome — the wide, paved Cassian Way — and in the far distance directly before me, beyond an expanse of cultivated fields, by a low stone wall that ran from the stream to the road. Stream to the left, road to the right, wall in the distance; and the fourth boundary was the ridge on which I sat. It was an idyllic setting, worthy of a poem or even of crusty old Cato's praise, I thought. It is the dream of every Roman, rich or poor, to have a farm in the countryside, to escape the turbulence and madness of the city. Against all expectations, I had done so at last. Why, then, was I not happy?
"You don't belong here, Gordianus."
I gave a start and swung around. "Claudia! You startled me."
"Good! Startled is better than bored and unhappy."
"And how, from behind, could you tell that I'm bored and unhappy?"
My neighbor put her hands on her ample hips and looked at me askance. "Feet and knees apart," she observed. "Elbows on knees, hands cupped together, chin on hands, head cocked to one side, shoulders slumped. If you were thirty years younger, Gordianus, I'd say you were miserably in love. In your case, it's what I've told you before: you simply don't belong in the countryside. Here, let me join you on this neighboring stump and show you how someone who truly loves the country surveys such a magnificent scene."
She sat down on the stump, which was apparently a bit lower than she thought so that she bumped it with her well-padded bottom and let out a good-natured laugh. She spread her legs, slapped her palms on her knees and beamed at the vista before her. Had we been sitting on the opposite slope of the ridge, looking down on her own farm, she could not have looked more pleased.
Claudia was the cousin of my late friend and benefactor Lucius Claudius, from whom I had inherited the farm. In appearance she was as much like him to have been his sister, and indeed in many ways seemed a female incarnation of Lucius, which predisposed me to like her from the first day she had come over the hill to introduce herself. Like Lucius, she was sausage-fingered, plum-cheeked, and cherry-nosed. She had considerably more hair than Lucius, who had grown quite bald before his death, but like his, her hair was orange-red (faded with age and mixed with strands of silver) and of the same wispy, frazzled texture; she wore it atop her head in a careless clump from which stray tendrils escaped to waft about her friendly, round face. Unlike Lucius, she did not care for ornamentation, and the only jewelry I ever saw her wear was a simple gold chain around her neck. She disdained a woman's stola as impractical for farm life, and instead wore long woolen tunics in rustic colors, so that at a distance, given her general bulk and plain dress, she could be mistaken for a man, or even for a male slave, an ironic circumstance considering her high patrician blood.
Her farm was on the other side of the ridge; when I say that it was hers, I mean it quite literally, for she owned the property outright without recourse to father, brother, or husband. Like Lucius, Claudia had never married, but had somehow contrived to live independently and on her own terms. This would have been a notable feat even for a wealthy patrician matron in the city, but for a woman in the tradition-bound countryside it was nothing less than remarkable, and bespoke a strength of character and resolve of which Claudia's soft, round features gave no indication.
How she had wrested her particular plot of land from the Claudian fortunes I did not know. Her farm was only a small part of the family's holdings in the region. Indeed, I found myself surrounded by Claudii on every side. Over the ridge from me to the south was Claudia's small farm, which was generally held to be one of the poorer tracts, given the rocky nature of the slope and the lowness of the valley, plagued in winter by those mists so dreaded by Cato. Across the wooded stream, to the west, were the holdings of her cousin Publius Claudius; from my high vantage I could just glimpse the roof of his massive villa above the tree-tops. Beyond the low wall to the north was the property of another cousin, Manius Claudius; because of the distance I could see little of his land and nothing of his house. Across the Cassian Way, to the east, the land became steep and rocky at the base of the mountain the locals called Mount Argentum, whose upper reaches were wreathed by a dark forest. This property was owned by Claudia's cousin, Gnaeus Claudius, and was said to be prime land for hunting boar and deer. There was also, drilled somewhere into the heart of the mountain, a deep silver mine. The mine, however, was said to have been exhausted long ago. I could clearly see the winding trail that led up the mountain's side and disappeared over a pine-studded shoulder; where once many slaves must have trekked in continuous labor, the way had become disused and overgrown and was now a path for goats.
Of all these properties, it was generally agreed that that of Lucius Claudius, my benefactor, was much the best, and Lucius, by his will, had left it to me. The Claudii, in the name of young Gnaeus and represented by a veritable legion of advocates, had contested the will, but to no avail. I had had my day in a Roman court, and the farm was mine. Why was it not enough?
"Truly, it's a beautiful place," said Claudia, gazing down at the red-tiled roof and the cultivated earth. "When I was a girl, it was quite run-down; Cousin Lucius took no interest at all in the place, and let it fall to ruin. Then, oh, about fifteen years ago — just after he met you and you had your first adventure together — he took a sudden interest in the place and began to come here quite often. He purchased Aratus and installed him as foreman, planted new vineyards and olive orchards, brought in new slaves, refurbished the house. He turned the farm into quite a lucrative enterprise, as well as a retreat from the city. We were all amazed at his success. And distressed at his sudden demise last year, alas," she sighed.
"And disappointed in his choice of an heir," I added quietly.
"Now, Gordianus, you must not bear a grudge. You can't blame my Cousin Gnaeus for bringing that suit against you; Lucius was his cousin, and we all expected Gnaeus to inherit, since his own property is good only for hunting, not for farming, and the silver mine was long ago exhausted. Alas, Cicero put your case quite brilliantly, as usual — you're very lucky to have had access to the great man, and we all envy you. Swayed by Cicero's arguments, the court in Rome ruled that Lucius's will was valid, and that was that. Lucius's fortune was not small; he had many other wonderful possessions, which he settled among his blood relations. I myself inherited his mother's jewelry and his town house on the Palatine Hill in the city. To you he gave his Etruscan farm. We have all reconciled ourselves to the fact."
"I know that you have, Claudia, but I'm not so sure about your cousins."
"Why? Have they been harassing you somehow?"
"Not exactly. I haven't seen either Gnaeus or Manius since our day in court, but each of them sent a messenger to tell my foreman to be sure to keep my slaves off their property — that is, unless I cared to have a slave returned to me with a limb missing."
Claudia frowned and shook her head. "Regrettable. How about Publius? He's the oldest and has always had a level head."
"Actually, Publius and I may be going to court soon."
"No! But why?"
"There seems to be some disagreement about the stream that marks the boundary of our two farms. The deed I inherited from Lucius clearly indicates that I have the right to use the stream and anything in the stream as I wish, but Publius recently sent me a letter in which he claims that such rights belong to him exclusively."
"The lawyers will sort it out eventually. Meanwhile, yesterday some of my slaves were washing some clothes downstream from some of Publius's slaves, who deliberately stirred up the water so that it was full of mud, which prompted the women on my side to hurl insults at the women on the opposite bank, until more than insults were hurled. The two foremen finally arrived to stop the altercation, but not until one of my women had been struck on the head by a flying rock."
"Was she seriously hurt?"
"No, but there was plenty of blood, and the wound will leave a scar. If I had a litigious nature I'd demand that Publius buy me a replacement."
Claudia slapped her hands on her knees. "Intolerable! I had no idea that such provocations were being imposed on you, Gordianus. Really, I will have a word with my dear relatives and see if I can't intervene on behalf of good neighborly relations, not to mention common sense and law and order!"
She was so dramatically outraged that I laughed. "Your intervention on my behalf would be most appreciated, Claudia."
"It's the least I can do. Really, constant litigation and neighborly ill will may be the rule in the city, but here in the country such unpleasantness has no place. Here, all should be tranquillity, fertility, and domesticity, as Lucius himself used to say."
"Yes, I remember his using those very words once, when he was making ready to leave the city for the farm." I glanced down at the stream and then above the treetops to the roof of Publius's house, felt a vague uneasiness, then looked away and resolved to think of something else. "You saw Lucius often when he visited the farm?"
"Oh, I never missed seeing him whenever he came. Such a sweet man — but you know that. We would come and sit on this very ridgetop, on these very stumps, and gaze down on the farm, and make plans for the future. He was going to build a little mill house down by the stream. Did you know that?"
"Yes, with a great waterwheel, and one set of gears for grinding meal and another set for grinding stones dug out of Gnaeus's mine. It all sounded very ambitious and complex, but Lucius thought he could design the workings himself. A pity he died as he did, so suddenly."
"Suddenly is best, I think. I've known many men who were less fortunate."
"Yes, I suppose it would be worse to die slowly, or alone. ..." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Catilina's Riddle by Steven Saylor. Copyright © 1993 Steven Saylor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.