We covered our mouths and braved a look. In a depression that must have been used as the lazy workmen's cache for rubbish, amongst a mass of uncleared site rubble, we had unearthed a stomach turning relic. Still just recognisably human, it was a half-decayed corpse. II

it had already been a hard winter. For most of it, Helena Justina had been pregnant with our second child. She suffered more than with the first, while I struggled to let her rest by looking after our firstborn, Julia. As queen of the household, Julia was establishing her authority that year. I had the bruises to prove it. I had gone deaf too; she enjoyed testing her lungs. Our dark-haired moppet could put on a burst of speed any stadium sprinter would envy, especially as she toddled towards a fiercely steaming stockpot or darted down our steps onto the roadway. Even dumping her on female relations was out; her favourite game lately was breaking vases.

Spring saw no domestic improvements. First the new baby was born. It was very quick. Just as well. Both grandmothers were on the spot this time to complicate proceedings. Ma and the senator's wife were full of wise ideas, though they had opposing views on midwifery. Things were frosty enough, then I managed to be rude to both of them. At least that gave them a subject on which they could agree.

The new mite was ailing and I named her in a hurry: Sosia Favonia. In part, it was a nod to my father, whose original cognomen was Favonius. I would never have demeaned myself paying him a compliment if I had thought my daughter would survive. Born skinny and silent, she had looked halfway to Hades. The minute I named her, she rallied. From then on she was as tough as a tetter's ferret. She also had her own character from the start, a curious little eccentric who never quite seemed to belong with us. But everyone told me she had to be mine: she made so much mess and noise.

It took at least six weeks before my family's fury at the name I had chosen died down to simmering sneers that would only be revived on Favonia's birthday and at family gatherings every Saturnalia, and whenever there was nobody to blame for anything else. People were now nagging me to acquire a children's nurse. It was nobody's business but Helena's and mine, so everyone weighed in. Eventually I gave up and visited a slave market. Judging by the pitiful specimens on offer, Rome badly needed some frontier wars. The slave trade was in a slump. The dealer I approached was a creased Delian in a dirty robe, picking his nails on a lop-sided tripod while he waited for some naive duffer with a poor eye and a fat purse. He got me. He tried the patter anyway.

Since Vespasian was rebuilding the Empire, he needed to mint coinage and had raided the slave markets for labourers to put in the gold and silver mines. Titus brought large numbers of Jewish prisoners to Rome after the siege of Jerusalem, but the public service had snapped up the men to build the Flavian Amphitheatre. Who knows where the women ended up. That left a poor display for me. In the dealer's current batch were a few elderly oriental secretary types, long past being able to see to read a scroll. Then there were various lumps suitable for farm labouring. I did need a manager for my farm at Tibur, but that would wait. My mother had taught me how to go to market. I won't say I was scared of Ma, but I had learned to trot home with what was on the shopping list and no private treats for myself.

'Jupiter. Where do people buy disease-raddled flute girls nowadays?' I had reached the bitter, sarcastic stage. 'How come there are no toothless grannies that according to you can dance naked on the table while weaving a side-weave tunic and grinding a modius of wheat?'

'Females tend to be snapped up, tribune…' The dealer winked. I was too careworn to respond. 'I can do you a Christian, if you want to stretch a point.'

'No thanks. They drink their god's blood while they maunder about love, don't they?' My late brother Festus had encountered these crazy men out in Judaea and sent home some lurid tales. 'I'm looking for a children's nurse; I cannot have perverts.'

'No, no; I believe they drink wine-'

'Forget it. I don't want a drunk. My darling heirs can pick up bad habits watching me.'

'These Christians just pray and cry a lot, or try to convert the master and mistress of the house to their beliefs '

'You want to get me arrested because some arrogant slave says everyone should deny the sanctity of the Emperor? Vespasian may be a grouchy old barbarian-basher with a tight-arsed Sabine outlook- but I work for him sometimes. When he pays up, I'm happy to say he's a god.'

'How about a bonny Briton, then?'

He proffered a thin, pale-haired girl of about fifteen, wilting under

Jher shame as the filthy trader poked her rags aside to reveal her figure. As tribal maidens go, she was far from buxom. He tried to make her show her teeth and I would have taken her if she had bitten him, but she just leaned away. Too meek to be trusted. Feed her and clothe her and the next we knew, she'd be stealing Helena's tunics and throwing the baby on its head. The man assured me she was healthy, a good breeder, and had no claims at law hanging onto her. 'Very popular, Britons,' he said, leering.

'Why's that?'

'Dirt cheap. Then your wife won't worry about you chasing this pitiful thing around the kitchen the way she would with some ogling Syrian who knows it all.'

I shuddered. 'I do have some standards. Does your British girl know Latin?'

'You are joking, tribune.'

'No good, then. Look, I want a clean woman with experience of headstrong children, who would fit in with a young, upwardly moving family'

'You've got expensive taste!' His eye fell on my new gold equestrian ring. It told him my financial position exactly; his disgust was open. 'We do a basic model with no trimmings. Lots of potential, but you have to train the hint yourself… You can win them over with kind treatment, you know. Ends up they would die for you.'

'What and land me with the funeral costs?'

'Stuff you, then!'

So we all knew where we were.

I went home without a slave. It did not matter. The noble Julia Justa, Helena's mother, had the bright idea of giving us the daughter of Helena's own old nurse. Camilla Hyspale was thirty years old and newly given her liberty. Her freed woman status would overcome any squeamishness I felt about owning slaves (though I would have to do it; I was middle class now, and obliged to show my clout). There was a downside. I reckoned we had about six months before Hyspale wanted to exploit her new citizenship and marry. She would fall for some limp waste of space; she had him lined up already, I bet. Then I would feel responsible for him too…

Hyspale had not approved when Helena Justina abandoned her smart senatorial home to live with an informer. She came to us with great reluctance. It was made clear at our first interview (she interviewed us, of course) that Hyspale expected a room of her own in a respectable dwelling, the right to more time off than time on duty, use of the family carrying chair to protect her modesty on shopping trips and the occasional treat of a ticket for the theatre, or better still a pair of tickets so she could go with a friend. She would not accept being quizzed on the sex or identity of the friend.

A slave or freed woman soon rules your life. To satisfy Hyspale's need for social standing, dear gods, I had to buy a carrying chair. Pa lent me a couple of bearers temporarily; this was just his excuse to use my chair to transport his property to his new home on the Janiculan. To give Hyspale her room, we had to move in before Pa's old house was ready for us. For weeks we lived alongside our decorators, which would have been bad enough even if I had not been lured into giving work to my brother-in-law, Mico the plasterer. He was thrilled. Since he was working for a relative, he assumed he could bring his motherless brats with him and that our nursemaid would look after them. At least that way I got back at the nurse. Mico had been married to my most terrible sister; Victorina's character was showing up well in her orphans. It was a rude shock for Hyspale, who kept rushing over to the Capena Gate to complain about her horrid life to Helena's parents. The senator reproached me with her stories every time I met him at the gym we shared.

'Why in Hades did she come to us?' I grumbled. 'She must have had some inkling what it would be like.'

'The girl is very fond of my daughter,' suggested Camillus Verus loyally. 'Besides, I'm told she believed you would provide the opportunity for travel and adventure in exotic foreign provinces.'

I told the excellent Camillus which ghastly province I had just been invited to visit and we had a good laugh.

Julius Frontinus, an ex-consul I had met during an investigation in Rome two years ago, was now suffering his reward for a blameless reputation: Vespasian had made him the governor of Britain. On arrival, Frontinus had discovered some problem with his major works programme, and he suggested I was the man to sort it. He wanted

Вы читаете A Body In The Bath House
Добавить отзыв


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

Отметить Добавить цитату