anybody noticing.'

'Cobnuts twice,' responded the well-brought-up senator's daughter whom I sometimes dared to call my wife. 'How old-fashioned! If I had brought a picnic, I might be in there. Since I was not warned of this abomination, Marcus, I shall sit in public smiling rapturously at your every word.'

I needed her support. But nerves aside, I was now gaping in astonishment at the beauteous location Rutilius Gallicus had bagged for our big event.

Only a stupendously rich man with a taste for mingling literature with slap-up banquets could have afforded to build this pavilion. I had never been inside it before. As a venue for two amateur poets it was ridiculous. Vastly over-scale. We would be echoing. Our handful of friends would look pitiful. We would be lucky to live this down.

The interior could have housed half a legion, complete with siege artillery. The roof soared high above a graciously proportioned hall, at the end of which was an apse, with formal, marble-clad steps. Maecenas must have run his own marble yard. The floor and walls, and the frames and ledges of numerous niches in the walls were all marble-clad. The half-round stepped area at the apsidal end had probably been intended as a regal lounging point for the patron and his intimates. It was even perhaps designed as a cascade – though if so, Rutilius' funds had not run to paying for the water to be turned on this evening.

We could manage without. There was plenty to distract our audience. The decor was entrancing. All the rectangular wall niches were painted with glorious garden scenes – knee-high cross-hatched trellises, each with a recess in which stood an urn, a fountain, or a specimen tree. There were delicate plantings, perfectly painted, amidst which birds flew or sipped from fountain bowls. The artist had an astonishing touch. His palette was based on blues, turquoise and subtle greens. He could make frescoes that looked as real as the live horticulture we could see through wide doors which had been flung open opposite the apse to reveal views over a lush terrace to the distant Alban Hills.

Helena whistled through her teeth. I felt a prickle of fear that she would want this kind of art in our own new house; sensing it, she grinned.

She had positioned me to greet guests. (Rutilius was still hovering in the outside portico, hopeful that Domitian Caesar might grace our gathering.) At least that saved me having to calm my companion. He looked cool, but Helena reckoned he was churning with terror. Some people throw up at the very thought of public speaking. Being an ex-consul did not guarantee lack of shyness. Pluck went out of the job description in the days of the Scipios. All you needed now was to be someone to whom the Emperor owed a cheap favour.

Friends of the favoured Rutilius began to arrive. I had heard their loud, high-class voices chaffing him before they ambled down here. They poured in and strolled past, ignoring me, then headed automatically for the best seats. Amongst a group of female freedwomen, came a dumpy woman whom I identified as his wife, stiffly coiffed with a crimped tower of hair and well dressed for the occasion. She seemed to be wondering if she ought to speak to me, then she decided to introduce herself to Helena. 'I am Minicia Paetina; how very nice to see you here, my dear…' She eyed the respectability curtain and was roundly advised by Helena to reject it. Minicia looked shocked. 'Oh, I may feel more comfortable out of the public gaze…'

I grinned. 'Does that mean you have heard your husband read before, and don't want people seeing what you think?'

The wife of Rutilius Gallicus gave me a look that curdled my stomach juices. These northern types always seem rather cold to those of us who are Roman-born.

Do I sound like a snob? Olympus, I do apologise.

My own friends came late, but at least this time they did come. My mother was first, a beetling, suspicious figure whose first action was to stare hard at the marble floor, which in her view could have been better swept, before she showed her affection for me, her only surviving son: 'I do hope you are not making a fool of yourself, Marcus!'

'Thanks for the confidence, Ma.'

She was accompanied by her lodger: Anacrites, my ex-partner and arch-enemy. Discreetly smart, he had treated himself to one of the snappy haircuts he favoured and now flourished a knuckle-crushing gold ring to show he had reached the middle class (my own new ring, bought for me by Helena, was merely neat).

`How's the snooping trade?' I sneered, knowing he preferred to pretend nobody knew he was the Palace's Chief Spy. He ignored the jibe, leading Ma to a prime seat in the midst of Rutilius' snootiest supporters. There she sat bolt upright in her best black gown, like a grim priestess allowing herself to mingle with the populace yet trying not to let them contaminate her aura. Anacrites himself failed to find space on the marble perch, so curled up at Ma's feet, looking as if he was something unsavoury she had caught on her sandal and could not shake off.

`I see your mother's brought her pet snake!' My best friend Petronius Longus had failed to wangle himself a night's leave from his duties as enquiry chief of the Fourth Cohort of Vigiles, but that had not stopped him bunking off. He arrived in his working clothes – sturdy brown tunic, brutal boots and a night-stick – as if he was investigating a rumour of trouble. That lowered the tone nicely.

`Petro, we're planning to read love poems tonight, not plot a republican coup.'

`You and your consular pal are on a secret list as potential rioters.' He grinned. Knowing him, it might even be true. Anacrites had probably supplied the list.

If the Second Cohort, who ran this sector of town, discovered him moonlighting on their ground, they would thump him. It did not worry Petro. He was capable of thumping them back good and hard.

`You need an invigilator on the doors,' he commented. He stationed himself on the threshold, unwinding his stick in a meaningful manner, as a flock of strangers crowded in. I had already noticed them, due to their curious mixture of unattractive haircuts and misshapen footwear. There were some effete vocal accents, and a whiff of bad breath. I had invited none of these odd chancers, and they did not look as though they would appeal to Rutilius Gallicus. In fact, he came scuttling after them with an annoyed expression, helpless to intervene as they gatecrashed.

Petronius blocked the way. He explained this was a private party, adding that if we had wanted the general public, we would have sold tickets. At the crude mention of money, Rutilius looked even more embarrassed; he whispered to me that he thought these men belonged to a circle of writers, who were attached to some modern patron of the arts.

`Thrills! Have they come to hear how good writing should be done, sir – or to heckle us?'

`If you're looking for free wine, you're in the wrong place,'

Petronius warned them loudly. Intellectuals were just another cudgel-target to him. He had a bleak view of literary hangers-on. He believed they were all on the cadge like most of the crooks he dealt with. True.

The man who doled out their pocket money must be approaching, because the group started paying attention to a flurry further up the ramp. The patron they grovelled to must be the pushy type with the Greek beard who was trying to impose himself on a paunchy, disinterested young man of twenty-something, a new arrival whom I certainly did recognise.

`Domitian Caesar!' gasped Rutilius, absolutely thrilled.


HELENA KICKED me as I cursed. This was not simply because I wrote sensitive poetry that I regarded as private chamber stuff, nor because of my libellous satires. True, I did not welcome a blaze of imperial notice tonight. I would have to censor my scroll.

Domitian and I had a bad relationship. I could damn him, and he knew it. This is not a safe position with holders of supreme power.

A few years before, in the chaotic period when we were repeatedly changing emperors, many things had happened that later seemed beyond belief; after a brutal civil war, plots of the worst kind were rife. At twenty, Domitian had been badly supervised and he lacked judgement. That was putting it kindly – as his father and brother had chosen to do, even when he was rumoured to be plotting against them. His bad luck was that in the

Вы читаете ODE TO A BANKER
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату