‘If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts.’— I COR. XV. 32.
HER cinnabar-tinted topsail, nicking the hot blue horizon, showed she was a Spanish wheat-boat hours before she reached Marseilles mole. There, her mainsail brailed itself, a spritsail broke out forward, and a handy driver aft; and she threaded her way through the shipping to her berth at the quay as quietly as a veiled woman slips through a bazaar.
The blare of her horns told her name to the port. An elderly hook-nosed Inspector came aboard to see if her cargo had suffered in the run from the South, and the senior ship-cat purred round her captain’s legs as the after-hatch was opened.
‘If the rest is like this —’ the Inspector sniffed —‘you had better run out again to the mole and dump it.’
‘That’s nothing,’ the captain replied. ‘All Spanish wheat heats a little. They reap it very dry.’
‘‘Pity you don’t keep it so, then. What would you call that — crop or pasture?’
The Inspector pointed downwards. The grain was in bulk, and deck-leakage, combined with warm weather, had sprouted it here and there in sickly green films.
‘So much the better,’ said the captain brazenly. ‘That makes it waterproof. Pare off the top two inches, and the rest is as sweet as a nut.’
‘I told that lie, too, when I was your age. And how does she happen to be loaded?’
The young Spaniard flushed, but kept his temper.
‘She happens to be ballasted, under my eye, on lead-pigs and bagged copper-ores.’
‘I don’t know that they much care for verdigris in their dole-bread at Rome. But — you were saying?’
‘I was trying to tell you that the bins happen to be grain-tight, two-inch chestnut, floored and sided with hides.’
‘Meaning dressed African leathers on your private account?’
‘What has that got to do with you? We discharge at Port of Rome, not here.’
‘So your papers show. And what might you have stowed in the wings of her?’
‘Oh, apes! Circumcised apes — just like you!’
‘Young monkey! Well, if you are not above taking an old ape’s advice, next time you happen to top off with wool and screw in more bales than are good for her, get your ship undergirt before you sail. I know it doesn’t look smart coming into Port of Rome, but it ‘ll save your decks from lifting worse than they are.’
There was no denying that the planking and waterways round the after-hatch had lifted a little. The captain lost his temper.
‘I know your breed!’ he stormed. ‘You promenade the quays all summer at Caesar’s expense, jamming your Jew-bow into everybody’s business; and when the norther blows, you squat over your brazier and let us skippers hang in the wind for a week!’
‘You have it! Just that sort of a man am I now,’ the other answered. ‘That’ll do, the quarter-hatch!’
As he lifted his hand the falling sleeve showed the broad gold armlet with the triple vertical gouges which is only worn by master mariners who have used all three seas — Middle, Western, and Eastern.
‘Gods!’ the captain saluted. ‘I thought you were —’
‘A Jew, of course. Haven’t you used Eastern ports long enough to know a Red Sidonian when you see one?’
‘Mine the fault — yours be the pardon, my father!’ said the Spaniard impetuously. ‘Her topsides are a trifle strained. There was a three days’ blow coming up. I meant to have had her undergirt off the Islands, but hawsers slow a ship so — and one hates to spoil a good run.’
‘To whom do you say it?’ The Inspector looked the young man over between horny sun and salt creased eyelids like a brooding pelican. ‘But if you care to get up your girt-hawsers tomorrow, I can find men to put ’em overside. It’s no work for open sea. Now! Main-hatch, there! . . . I thought so. She’ll need another girt abaft the foremast.’ He motioned to one of his staff, who hurried up the quay to where the port Guard-boat basked at her mooring-ring. She was a stoutly-built, single-banker, eleven a side, with a short punching ram; her duty being to stop riots in harbour and piracy along the coast.
‘Who commands her?’ the captain asked.
‘An old shipmate of mine, Sulinus — a River man. We’ll get his opinion.’
In the Mediterranean (Nile keeping always her name) there is but one river — that shifty-mouthed Danube, where she works through her deltas into the Black Sea. Up went the young man’s eyebrows.
‘Is he any kin to a Sulinor of Tomi, who used to be in the flesh-traffic — and a Free Trader? My uncle has told me of him. He calls him Mango.’
‘That man. He was my second in the wheat-trade my last five voyages, after the Euxine grew too hot to hold him. But he’s in the Fleet now . . . You know your ship best. Where do you think the after-girts ought to come?’
The captain was explaining, when a huge dishfaced Dacian, in short naval cuirass, rolled up the gangplank, carefully saluting the bust of Caesar on the poop, and asked the captain’s name.
‘Baeticus, for choice,’ was the answer.
They all laughed, for the sea, which Rome mans with foreigners, washes out many shore-names.
‘My trouble is this’ Baeticus began, and they went into committee, which lasted a full hour. At the end, he led them to the poop, where an awning had been stretched, and wines set out with fruits and sweet shore water.
They drank to the Gods of the Sea, Trade, and Good Fortune, spilling those small cups overside, and then settled at ease.
‘Girting’s an all-day job, if it’s done properly,’ said the Inspector. ‘Can you spare a real working-party by dawn tomorrow, Mango?’
‘But surely — for you, Red.’
‘I’m thinking of the wheat,’ said Quabil curtly. He did not like nicknames so early.
‘Full meals and drinks,’ the Spanish captain put in.
‘Good! Don’t return ’em too full. By the way’— Sulinor lifted a level cup —‘where do you get this liquor, Spaniard?’
‘From our Islands (the Balearics). Is it to your taste?’
‘It is.’ The big man unclasped his gorget in solemn preparation.
Their talk ran professionally, for though each end of the Mediterranean scoffs at the other, both unite to mock landward, wooden-headed Rome and her stiff-jointed officials.
Sulinor told a tale of taking the Prefect of the Port, on a breezy day, to Forum Julii, to see a lady, and of his lamentable condition when landed.
‘Yes,’ Quabil sneered. ‘Rome’s mistress of the world — as far as the foreshore.’
‘If Caesar ever came on patrol with me,’ said Sulinor, ‘he might understand there was such a thing as the Fleet.’
‘Then he’d officer it with well-born young Romans,’ said Quabil. ‘Be grateful you are left alone. You are the last man in the world to want to see Caesar.’
‘Except one,’ said Sulinor, and he and Quabil laughed.
‘What’s the joke?’ the Spaniard asked. Sulinor explained.
‘We had a passenger, our last trip together, who wanted to see Caesar. It cost us our ship and freight. That’s all.’
‘Was he a warlock — a wind-raiser?’
‘Only a Jew philosopher. But he had to see Caesar. He said he had; and he piled up the Eirene on his way.’
‘Be fair,’ said Quabil. ‘I don’t like the Jews — they lie too close to my own hold — but it was Caesar lost me my ship.’ He turned to Baeticus. ‘There was a proclamation, our end of the world, two seasons back, that Caesar wished the Eastern wheat-boats to run through the winter, and he’d guarantee all loss. Did you get it, youngster?’
‘No. Our stuff is all in by September. I wager Caesar never paid you! How late did you start?’
‘I left Alexandria across the bows of the Equinox — well down in the pickle, with Egyptian wheat — half pigeon’s dung — and the usual load of Greek sutlers and their women. The second day out the sou’-wester caught me. I made across it north for the Lycian coast, and slipped into Myra till the wind should let me get back into the regular grain-track again.’
Sailor-fashion, Quabil began to illustrate his voyage with date and olive stones from the table.
‘The wind went into the north, as I knew it would, and I got under way. You remember, Mango? My anchors were apeak when a Lycian patrol threshed in with Rome’s order to us to wait on a Sidon packet with prisoners and officers. Mother of Carthage, I cursed him!’
‘‘Shouldn’t swear at Rome’s Fleet. ‘Weatherly craft, those Lycian racers! Fast, too. I’ve been hunted by them! ‘Never thought I’d command one,’ said Sulinor, half aloud.
‘And now I’m coming to the leak in my decks, young man,’ Quabil eyed Baeticus sternly. ‘Our slant north had strained her, and I should have undergirt her at Myra. Gods know why I didn’t! I set up the chain-staples in the cable-tier for the prisoners. I even had the girt — hawsers on deck — which saved time later; but the thing I should have done, that I did not.’
‘Luck of the Gods!’ Sulinor laughed. ‘It was because our little philosopher wanted to see Caesar in his own way at our expense.’
‘Why did he want to see him?’ said Baeticus.
‘As far as I ever made out from him and the centurion, he wanted to argue with Caesar — about philosophy.’
‘He was a prisoner, then?’
‘A political suspect — with a Jew’s taste for going to law,’ Quabil interrupted. ‘No orders for irons. Oh, a little shrimp of a man, but — but he seemed to take it for granted that he led everywhere. He messed with us.’
‘And he was worth talking to, Red,’ said Sulinor.
‘You thought so; but he had the woman’s trick of taking the tone and colour of whoever he talked to. Now — as I was saying . . . ’
There followed another illustrated lecture on the difficulties that beset them after leaving Myra. There was always too much west in the autumn winds, and the Eirene tacked against it as far as Cnidus. Then there came a northerly slant, on which she ran through the Aegean Islands, for the tail of Crete; rounded that, and began tacking up the south coast.
‘Just darning the water again, as we had done from Myra to Cnidus,’ said Quabil ruefully. ‘I daren’t stand out. There was the bone-yard of all the Gulf of Africa under my lee. But at last we worked into Fairhaven — by that cork yonder. Late as it was, I should have taken her on, but I had to call a ship-council as to lying up for the winter. That Rhodian law may have suited open boats and cock-crow coasters,1 but it’s childish for ocean-traffic.’
‘I never allow it in any command of mine,’ Baeticus spoke quietly. ‘The cowards give the order, and the captain bears the blame.’
Quabil looked at him keenly. Sulinor took advantage of the pause.
‘We were in harbour, you see. So our Greeks tumbled out and voted to stay where we were. It was my business to show them that the place was open to many winds, and that if it came on to blow we should drive ashore.’
‘Then I,’ broke in Quabil, with a large and formidable smile, ‘advised pushing on to Phenike, round the cape, only forty miles across the bay. My mind was that, if I could get her undergirt there, I might later — er — coax them out again on a fair wind, and hit Sicily. But the undergirting came first. She was beginning to talk too much — like me now.’
Sulinor chafed a wrist with his hand.
‘She was a hard-mouthed old water-bruiser in any sea,’ he murmured.
‘She could lie within six points of any wind,’ Quabil retorted, and hurried on. ‘What made Paul vote with those Greeks? He said we’d be sorry if we left harbour.’
‘Every passenger says that, if a bucketful comes aboard,’ Baeticus observed.
Sulinor refilled his cup, and looked at them over the brim, under brows as candid as a child’s, ere he set it down.
‘Not Paul. He did not know fear. He gave me a dose of my own medicine once. It was a morning watch coming down through the Islands. We had been talking about the cut of our topsail — he was right — it held too much lee wind — and then he went to wash before he prayed. I said to him: “You seem to have both ends and the bight of most things coiled down in your little head, Paul. If it’s a fair question, what is your trade ashore?” And he said: “I’ve been a man-hunter — Gods forgive me; and now that I think The God has forgiven me, I am man-hunting again.” Then he pulled his shirt over his head, and I saw his back. Did you ever see his back, Quabil?’
‘I expect I did — that last morning, when we all stripped; but I don’t remember.’
‘I shan’t forget it! There was good, sound lictor’s work and criss-cross Jew scourgings like gratings; and a stab or two; and, besides those, old dry bites — when they get good hold and rugg you. That showed he must have dealt with the Beasts. So, whatever he’d done, he’d paid for. I was just wondering what he had done, when he said: “No; not your sort of man-hunting.” “It’s your own affair,” I said: “but I shouldn’t care to see Caesar with a back like that. I should hear the Beasts asking for me.” “I may that, too, some day,” he said, and began sluicing himself, and — then — What’s brought the girls out so early? Oh, I remember!’
There was music up the quay, and a wreathed shore-boat put forth full of Arlesian women. A long-snouted three-banker was hauling from a slip till her trumpets warned the benches to take hold. As they gave way, the hrmph-hrmph of the oars in the oar-ports reminded Sulinor, he said, of an elephant choosing his man in the Circus.
‘She has been here re-masting. They’ve no good rough-tree at Forum Julii,’ Quabil explained to Baeticus. ‘The girls are singing her out.’
The shallop ranged alongside her, and the banks held water, while a girl’s voice came across the clock-calm harbour-face
‘Ah, would swift ships had never been about the seas to rove!
For then these eyes had never seen nor ever wept their love.
Over the ocean-rim he came — beyond that verge he passed.
And I who never knew his name must mourn him to the last!’
‘And you’d think they meant it,’ said Baeticus, half to himself.
‘That’s a pretty stick,’ was Quabil’s comment as the man-of-war opened the island athwart the harbour. ‘But she’s overmasted by ten foot. A trireme’s only a bird-cage.’
‘‘Luck of the Gods I’m not singing in one now,’ Sulinor muttered. They heard the yelp of a bank being speeded up to the short sea-stroke.
‘I wish there was some way to save mainmasts from racking.’ Baeticus looked up at his own, bangled with copper wire.
‘The more reason to undergirt, my son,’ said Quabil. ‘I was going to undergirt that morning at Fairhaven. You remember, Sulinor? I’d given orders to overhaul the hawsers the night before. My fault! Never say “To-morrow.” The Gods hear you. And then the wind came out of the south, mild as milk. All we had to do was to slip round the headland to Phenike — and be safe.’
Baeticus made some small motion, which Quabil noticed, for he stopped.
‘My father,’ the young man spread apologetic palms, ‘is not that lying wind the indraught of Mount Ida? It comes up with the sun, but later —’
‘You need not tell me! We rounded the cape, our decks like a fair (it was only half a day’s sail), and then, out of Ida’s bosom the full north-easier stamped on us! Run? What else? I needed a lee to clean up in. Clauda was a few miles down wind; but whether the old lady would bear up when she got there, I was not so sure.’
‘She did.’ Sulinor rubbed his wrists again. ‘We were towing our longboat half-full. I steered somewhat that day.’
‘What sail were you showing?’ Baeticus demanded.
‘Nothing — and twice too much at that. But she came round when Sulinor asked her, and we kept her jogging in the lee of the island. I said, didn’t I, that my girt-hawsers were on deck?’
Baeticus nodded. Quabil plunged into his campaign at long and large, telling every shift and device he had employed. ‘It was scanting daylight,’ he wound up, ‘but I daren’t slur the job. Then we streamed our boat alongside, baled her, sweated her up, and secured. You ought to have seen our decks!’
‘‘Panic?’ said Baeticus.
‘A little. But the whips were out early. The centurion — Julius — lent us his soldiers.’
‘How did your prisoners behave?’ the young man went on.
Sulinor answered him. ‘Even when a man is being shipped to the Beasts, he does not like drowning in irons. They tried to rive the chain-staples out of her timbers.’
‘I got the main-yard on deck’— this was Quabil. ‘That eased her a little. They stopped yelling after a while, didn’t they?’
‘They did,’ Sulinor replied. ‘Paul went down and told them there was no danger. And they believed him! Those scoundrels believed him! He asked me for the keys of the leg-bars to make them easier. “I’ve been through this sort of thing before,” he said, “but they are new to it down below. Give me the keys.” I told him there was no order for him to have any keys; and I recommended him to line his hold for a week in advance, because we were in the hands of the Gods. “And when are we ever out of them?” he asked. He looked at me like an old gull lounging just astern of one’s taffrail in a full gale. You know that eye, Spaniard?’
‘Well do I!’
‘By that time’— Quabil took the story again’ we had drifted out of the lee of Clauda, and our one hope was to run for it and pray we weren’t pooped. None the less, I could have made Sicily with luck. As a gale I have known worse, but the wind never shifted a point, d’ye see? We were flogged along like a tired ox.’
‘Any sights?’ Baeticus asked.
‘For ten days not a blink.’
‘Nearer two weeks,’ Sulinor corrected. ‘We cleared the decks of everything except our groundtackle, and put six hands at the tillers. She seemed to answer her helm — sometimes. Well, it kept me warm for one.’
‘How did your philosopher take it?’
‘Like the gull I spoke of. He was there, but outside it all. You never got on with him, Quabil?’
‘Confessed! I came to be afraid at last. It was not my office to show fear, but I was. He was fearless, although I knew that he knew the peril as well as I. When he saw that trying to — er — cheer me made me angry, he dropped it. ‘Like a woman, again. You saw more of him, Mango?’
‘Much. When I was at the rudders he would hop up to the steerage, with the lower-deck ladders lifting and lunging a foot at a time, and the timbers groaning like men beneath the Beasts. We used to talk, hanging on till the roll jerked us into the scuppers. Then we’d begin again. What about? Oh! Kings and Cities and Gods and Caesar. He was sure he’d see Caesar. I told him I had noticed that people who worried Those Up Above’— Sulinor jerked his thumb towards the awning —‘were mostly sent for in a hurry.’
‘Hadn’t you wit to see he never wanted you for yourself, but to get something out of you?’ Quabil snapped.
‘Most Jews are like that — and all Sidonians!’ Sulinor grinned. ‘But what could he have hoped to get from anyone? We were doomed men all. You said it, Red.’
‘Only when I was at my emptiest. Otherwise I knew that with any luck I could have fetched Sicily! But I broke — we broke. Yes, we got ready — you too — for the Wet Prayer.’
‘How does that run with you?’ Baeticus asked, for all men are curious concerning the bride-bed of Death.
‘With us of the River,’ Sulinor volunteered, ‘we say: “I sleep; presently I row again.”’
‘Ah! At our end of the world we cry: “Gods, judge me not as a God, but a man whom the Ocean has broken.”’ Baeticus looked at Quabil, who answered, raising his cup: ‘We Sidonians say, “Mother of Carthage, I return my oar!” But it all comes to the one in the end.’ He wiped his beard, which gave Sulinor his chance to cut in.
‘Yes, we were on the edge of the Prayer when — do you remember, Quabil? — he clawed his way up the ladders and said: “No need to call on what isn’t there. My God sends me sure word that I shall see Caesar. And he has pledged me all your lives to boot. Listen! No man will be lost.” And Quabil said: “But what about my ship?”’ Sulinor grinned again.
‘That’s true. I had forgotten the cursed passengers,’ Quabil confirmed. ‘But he spoke as though my Eirene were a fig-basket. “Oh, she’s bound to go ashore, somewhere,” he said, “but not a life will be lost. Take this from me, the Servant of the One God.” Mad! Mad as a magician on market-day!’
‘No,’ said Sulinor. ‘Madmen see smooth harbours and full meals. I have had to — soothe that sort.’
‘After all,’ said Quabil, ‘he was only saying what had been in my head for a long time. I had no way to judge our drift, but we likely might hit something somewhere. Then he went away to spread his cook-house yarn among the crew. It did no harm, or I should have stopped him.’
Sulinor coughed, and drawled:
‘I don’t see anyone stopping Paul from what he fancied he ought to do. But it was curious that, on the change of watch, I—’
‘No — I!’ said Quabil.
‘Make it so, then, Red. Between us, at any rate, we felt that the sea had changed. There was a trip and a kick to her dance. You know, Spaniard. And then — I will say that, for a man half-dead, Quabil here did well.’
‘I’m a bosun-captain, and not ashamed of it. I went to get a cast of the lead. (Black dark and raining marlinspikes!) The first cast warned me, and I told Sulinor to clear all aft for anchoring by the stern. The next — shoaling like a slip-way — sent me back with all hands, and we dropped both bowers and spare and the stream.’
‘He’d have taken the kedge as well, but I stopped him,’ said Sulinor.
‘I had to stop her! They nearly jerked her stern out, but they held. And everywhere I could peer or hear were breakers, or the noise of tall seas against cliffs. We were trapped! But our people had been starved, soaked, and halfstunned for ten days, and now they were close to a beach. That was enough! They must land on the instant; and was I going to let them drown within reach of safety? Was there panic? I spoke to Julius, and his soldiers (give Rome her due!) schooled them till I could hear my orders again. But on the kiss-of-dawn some of the crew said that Sulinor had told them to lay out the kedge in the long-boat.’
‘I let ’em swing her out,’ Sulinor confessed.
‘I wanted ’em for warnings. But Paul told me his God had promised their lives to him along with ours, and any private sacrifice would spoil the luck. So, as soon as she touched water, I cut the rope before a man could get in. She was ashore — stove — in ten minutes.’
‘Could you make out where you were by then?’ Baeticus asked Quabil.
‘As soon as I saw the people on the beach — yes. They are my sort — a little removed. Phoenicians by blood. It was Malta — one day’s run from Syracuse, where I would have been safe! Yes, Malta and my wheat gruel. Good port-of-discharge, eh?’
They smiled, for Melita may mean ‘mash’ as well as ‘Malta.’
‘It puddled the sea all round us, while I was trying to get my bearings. But my lids were salt-gummed, and I hiccoughed like a drunkard.’
‘And drunk you most gloriously were, Red, half an hour later!’
‘Praise the Gods — and for once your pet Paul! That little man came to me on the fore-bitts, puffed like a pigeon, and pulled out a breastful of bread, and salt fish, and the wine — the good new wine. “Eat,” he said, “and make all your people eat, too. Nothing will come to them except another wetting. They won’t notice that, after they’re full. Don’t worry about your work either,” he said. “You can’t go wrong today. You are promised to me.” And then he went off to Sulinor.’
‘He did. He came to me with bread and wine and bacon — good they were! But first he said words over them, and then rubbed his hands with his wet sleeves. I asked him if he were a magician. “Gods forbid!” he said. “I am so poor a soul that I flinch from touching dead pig.” As a Jew, he wouldn’t like pork, naturally. Was that before or after our people broke into the store-room, Red?’
‘Had I time to wait on them?’ Quabil snorted. ‘I know they gutted my stores full-hand, and a double blessing of wine atop. But we all took that — deep. Now this is how we lay.’ Quabil smeared a ragged loop on the table with a wine-wet finger. ‘Reefs — see, my son — and overfalls to leeward here; something that loomed like a point of land on our right there; and, ahead, the blind gut of a bay with a Cyclops surf hammering it. How we had got in was a miracle. Beaching was our only chance, and meantime she was settling like a tired camel. Every foot I could lighten her meant that she’d take ground closer in at the last. I told Julius. He understood. “I’ll keep order,” he said. “Get the passengers to shift the wheat as long as you judge it’s safe.”’
‘Did those Alexandrian achators really work? ‘ said Baeticus.
‘I’ve never seen cargo discharged quicker. It was time. The wind was taking off in gusts, and the rain was putting down the swells. I made out a patch of beach that looked less like death than the rest of the arena, and I decided to drive in on a gust under the spitfire-sprit — and, if she answered her helm before she died on us, to humour her a shade to starboard, where the water looked better. I stayed the foremast; set the spritsail fore and aft, as though we were boarding; told Sulinor to have the rudders down directly he cut the cables; waited till a gust came; squared away the sprit, and drove.’
Sulinor carried on promptly:—
‘I had two hands with axes on each cable, and one on each rudder-lift; and, believe me, when Quabil’s pipe went, both blades were down and turned before the cable-ends had fizzed under! She jumped like a stung cow! She drove. She sheared. I think the swell lifted her, and overran. She came down, and struck aft. Her stern broke off under my toes, and all the guts of her at that end slid out like a man’s paunched by a lion. I jumped forward, and told Quabil there was nothing but small kindlings abaft the quarterhatch, and he shouted: “Never mind! Look how beautifully I’ve laid her!”’
‘I had. What I took for a point of land to starboard, y’see, turned out to be almost a bridge-islet, with a swell of sea ‘twixt it and the main. And that meeting-swill, d’you see, surging in as she drove, gave her four or five foot more to cushion on. I’d hit the exact instant.’
‘Luck of the Gods, I think! Then we began to bustle our people over the bows before she went to pieces. You’ll admit Paul was a help there, Red?’
‘I dare say he herded the old judies well enough; but he should have lined up with his own gang.’
‘He did that, too,’ said Sulinor. ‘Some fool of an under-officer had discovered that prisoners must be killed if they look like escaping; and he chose that time and place to put it to Julius — sword drawn. Think of hunting a hundred prisoners to death on those decks! It would have been worse than the Beasts!’
‘But Julius saw — Julius saw it,’ Quabil spoke testily. ‘I heard him tell the man not to be a fool. They couldn’t escape further than the beach.’
‘And how did your philosopher take that?’ said Baeticus.
‘As usual,’ said Sulinor. ‘But, you see, we two had dipped our hands in the same dish for weeks; and, on the River, that makes an obligation between man and man.’
‘In my country also,’ said Baeticus, rather stiffly.
‘So I cleared my dirk — in case I had to argue. Iron always draws iron with me. But he said “Put it back. They are a little scared.” I said “Aren’t you?” “What?” he said; “of being killed, you mean? No. Nothing can touch me till I’ve seen Caesar.” Then he carried on steadying the ironed men (some were slaveringmad) till it was time to unshackle them by fives, and give ’em their chance. The natives made a chain through the surf, and snatched them out breast-high.’
‘Not a life lost! ‘Like stepping off a jetty,’ Quabil proclaimed.
‘Not quite. But he had promised no one should drown.’
‘How could they — the way I had laid her — gust and swell and swill together?’
‘And was there any salvage?’
‘Neither stick nor string, my son. We had time to look, too. We stayed on the island till the first spring ship sailed for Port of Rome. They hadn’t finished Ostia breakwater that year.’
‘And, of course, Caesar paid you for your ship?’
‘I made no claim. I saw it would be hopeless; and Julius, who knew Rome, was against any appeal to the authorities. He said that was the mistake Paul was making. And, I suppose, because I did not trouble them, and knew a little about the sea, they offered me the Port Inspectorship here. There’s no money in it — if I were a poor man. Marseilles will never be a port again. Narbo has ruined her for good.’
‘But Marseilles is far from under-Lebanon,’ Baeticus suggested.
‘The further the better. I lost my boy three years ago in Foul Bay, off Berenice, with the Eastern Fleet. He was rather like you about the eyes, too. You and your circumcised apes!’
‘But — honoured one! My master! Admiral! — Father mine — how could I have guessed?’
The young man leaned forward to the other’s knee in act to kiss it. Quabil made as though to cuff him, but his hand came to rest lightly on the bowed head.
‘Nah! Sit, lad! Sit back. It’s just the thing the Boy would have said himself. You didn’t hear it, Sulinor?’
‘I guessed it had something to do with the likeness as soon as I set eyes on him. You don’t so often go out of your way to help lame ducks.’
‘You can see for yourself she needs undergirting, Mango!’
‘So did that Tyrian tub last month. And you told her she might bear up for Narbo or bilge for all of you! But he shall have his working-party tomorrow, Red.’
Baeticus renewed his thanks. The River man cut him short.
‘Luck of the Gods,’ he said. ‘Five — four — years ago I might have been waiting for you anywhere in the Long Puddle with fifty River men — and no moon.’
Baeticus lifted a moist eye to the slip-hooks on his yardarm, that could hoist and drop weights at a sign.
‘You might have had a pig or two of ballast through your benches coming alongside,’ he said dreamily.
‘And where would my overhead-nettings have been?’ the other chuckled.
‘Blazing — at fifty yards. What are firearrows for?’
‘To fizzle and stink on my wet sea-weed blindages. Try again.’
They were shooting their fingers at each other, like the little boys gambling for olive-stones on the quay beside them.
‘Go on — go on, my son! Don’t let that pirate board,’ cried Quabil.
Baeticus twirled his right hand very loosely at the wrist.
‘In that case,’ he countered, ‘I should have fallen back on my foster-kin — my father’s island horsemen.’
Sulinor threw up an open palm.
‘Take the nuts,’ he said. ‘Tell me, is it true that those infernal Balearic slingers of yours can turn a bull by hitting him on the horns?’
‘On either horn you choose. My father farms near New Carthage. They come over to us for the summer to work. There are ten in my crew now.’
Sulinor hiccoughed and folded his hands magisterially over his stomach.
‘Quite proper. Piracy must be put down! Rome says so. I do so,’ said he.
‘I see,’ the younger man smiled. ‘But tell me, why did you leave the slave — the Euxine trade, O Strategos?’
‘That sea is too like a wine-skin. ‘Only one neck. It made mine ache. So I went into the Egyptian run with Quabil here.’
‘But why take service in the Fleet? Surely the Wheat pays better?’
‘I intended to. But I had dysentery at Malta that winter, and Paul looked after me.’
‘Too much muttering and laying-on of hands for me,’ said Quabil; himself muttering about some Thessalian jugglery with a snake on the island.
‘You weren’t sick, Quabil. When I was getting better, and Paul was washing me off once, he asked if my citizenship were in order. He was a citizen himself. Well, it was and it was not. As second of a wheat-ship I was ex officio Roman citizen — for signing bills and so forth. But on the beach, my ship perished, he said I reverted to my original shtay — status — of an extra-provinshal Dacian by a Sich — Sish — Scythian — I think she was — mother. Awkward — what? All the Middle Sea echoes like a public bath if a man is wanted.’
Sulinor reached out again and filled. The wine had touched his huge bulk at last.
‘But, as I was saying, once in the Fleet nowadays one is a Roman with authority — no waiting twenty years for your papers. And Paul said to me: “Serve Caesar. You are not canvas I can cut to advantage at present. But if you serve Caesar you will be obeying at least some sort of law.” He talked as though I were a barbarian. Weak as I was, I could have snapped his back with my bare hands. I told him so. “I don’t doubt it,” he said. “But that is neither here nor there. If you take refuge under Caesar at sea, you may have time to think. Then I may meet you again, and we can go on with our talks. But that is as The God wills. What concerns you now is that, by taking service, you will be free from the fear that has ridden you all your life.”’
‘Was he right?’ asked Baeticus after a silence.
‘He was. I had never spoken to him of it, but he knew it. He knew! Fire — sword — the sea — torture even — one does not think of them too often. But not the Beasts! Aie! Not the Beasts! I fought two dog-wolves for the life on a sand-bar when I was a youngster. Look!’
Sulinor showed his neck and chest.
‘They set the sheep-dogs on Paul at some place or other once — because of his philosophy And he was going to see Caesar — going to see Caesar! And he — he had washed me clean after dysentery!’
‘Mother of Carthage, you never told me that!’ said Quabil.
‘Nor should I now, had the wine been weaker.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56