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A Pillar of Iron
A Novel of Ancient Rome
By Taylor Caldwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Taylor Caldwell
All rights reserved.
Marcus Tullius Cicero winced when the hot plaster was placed on his chest by his physician, and in the somewhat pettish voice of a semi-invalid he demanded, "What is that stink?"
"Vulture's grease," said the physician, proudly. "Two sesterces a pot and guaranteed to allay any inflammation." Slaves stirred up the coals in the brazier and M. Tullius shivered under his blankets. A fur rug had been placed over his feet but he was still cold.
"Two sesterces," he repeated with gloom. "What did the Lady Helvia say about that?"
"She does not as yet know," said the physician. M. Tullius smiled with anticipation. "The money will go on the household accounts," he said. "It is an excellent thing to have a thrifty wife in these profligate days, but not always, when such a thing as this vile unguent is added to the cost of beans and kitchen utensils. I thought we had a medical account."
"I bought the grease from another physician," said the physician with some small rebuke in his voice. "The Lady Helvia will not deal with merchants if she can avoid it. Had I bought this in the shops the price would have been five sesterces, not two."
"Nevertheless, the two sesterces will go on the household accounts," said M. Tullius. "The cost of the linen and wool for the expected child will also appear among the kettles and the fish and the flour. Yes, a frugal wife is excellent, but in some way, as a husband, I resent being numbered between new chamber pots and goat cheese. I saw it for myself." He coughed heavily and the physician was pleased. "Aha, the cough is much looser," he said.
"There are times," said M. Tullius, "when a patient, in order to save his life, must hasten to get well and escape his physician's ministrations and his stinks. It is a matter of self-preservation. What is the weather today?"
"Very bad, and most unusual," said the physician. "We had a snowstorm. The hills and pastures are deep in it, and the river is frozen. But the sky is blue and clear and fresh, and there is a brisk wind from the north. This will be helpful in your cure, Master. It is the east wind we fear, and especially the southeast wind."
M. Tullius was beginning to feel warmer, not with the heat of fever but with returning health. The woolen shift he wore began to prickle; he moved, and the stench of the vulture's grease became very powerful. He hastily pulled the blanket over his chest again. "It is a moot point," he said, "whether I shall be asphyxiated by the stink or by the congestion in my lungs. I think I prefer the latter." He coughed tentatively. The pain in his chest was subsiding somewhat. He looked about his bedroom, and saw the slaves industriously heaping the brazier with more wood. The thick glass of the window was dripping with moisture. "Enough," he said, irritably. "I am beginning to drown in my sweat."
By nature he was not an irritable man, but kindly and very gentle, and always somewhat abstracted. The physician was encouraged by this irritability; his patient would soon be well. He looked at the thin dark face on the white pillows, and at the large brown eyes which always failed, in spite of efforts, to appear stern. His features were mild and clear, his brow benevolent, his chin undetermined. He was a young man, and he seemed younger than his years, which annoyed him. He had the calm and somewhat passive hands of the scholar. His fine brown hair did not take to cropping amiably; it merely lay on his long skull as if painted there and could never be induced to stand upright in the manner of a very virile man.
He heard footsteps and winced again. His father was approaching the bedroom, and his father was an "old" Roman. He closed his eyes and pretended to fall asleep. He loved his father but found him overpowering, with all his tales of the grandeur of the family, a grandeur Tullius sometimes suspected did not exist. The footsteps were firm and heavy and the father, also named M. Tullius Cicero, entered. "Well, Marcus," said the loud and hectoring voice, "when are we arising?"
M. Tullius could see the sun-glare through his lashes. He did not answer. The white wooden walls of his bedroom reflected the glare, which, all at once, appeared too intense to him. "He is sleeping, Master," said the physician, apologetically.
"Eheu! What is that stench?" asked the old father. He was lean and tall and irascible and cultivated an old-fashioned beard which he believed gave him a resemblance to Cincinnatus.
"Vulture's grease," said the physician. "Very expensive but efficacious."
"It would arouse a man from the dead," said the old father in his dogmatic tones.
"It cost two sesterces," said the physician, winking at him. He was a freedman, and as a physician, then, he was also a citizen of Rome and could take advantages.
The old father smiled sourly. "Two sesterces," he repeated. "That should make the Lady Helvia count the coppers in her purse." He breathed deeply and loudly. "Frugality is a virtue, but the gods frown on greed. I thought I was master in the art of making three sesterces grow where two grew before, but by Pollux! the Lady Helvia should have been a banker! How is my son, eh?"
The old father leaned against the bed. "I have a theory," said the old father. "My son retreats to his bed when the Lady Helvia becomes too dominant — and she with child! What do you think of my theory, Phelon?"
The physician smiled discreetly. He glanced down at his presumably sleeping patient. "There are gentle natures," he offered. "And retreat is often a way of securing victory."
"I heard," said the old father, "that the Lady Helvia has suddenly taken to her bed. Is the child due?"
"At any day," said the physician, alerted. "I will go to see her at once."
He hurried from the room, his linen garments swirling about him. The old father bent over the bed. "Marcus," he said, "I know you are not sleeping, and your wife is about to give birth. Do not try to delude me with that affectation of sleep. You never snored in your life."
M. Tullius groaned faintly. He could do nothing but open his eyes. His father's eyes, small and black and vivid, were dancing on him. "Who says she is about to give birth?" he asked.
"There was a scurrying in the women's quarters, and pots of hot water, and the midwife in an apron," said the old father. He scratched his hairy cheek. "But as this is the first child no doubt it will be some time before it is born."
"Not with Helvia," said M. Tullius. "She does all things with dispatch."
"I find her a woman of many virtues," said the old father, who was a widower and thankful for it. "Still, she is subject to the laws of nature."
"Not Helvia," said M. Tullius. "The laws of nature are subservient to her."
The old father chuckled at the resignation in his son's voice. "So are we all, Marcus. Even I. Your mother was a sweet and bending soul. I did not appreciate her."
"So you are afraid of Helvia, also," said M. Tullius. He coughed loosely.
"Afraid of women! Nonsense. But they create difficulties, which a wise man avoids. You have excellent color. How long do you believe you can hide in your bed?"
"Unfortunately, not for long, and not after Helvia sends for me, Father."
The old father meditated. "There is virtue in taking to bed," he remarked. "I am considering it, myself. But Helvia will not be deceived. Two men in bed would arouse her suspicions. You will name the child after us, certainly, if it is a boy."
M. Tullius had had another name in mind, but he sighed. He opened his eyes widely now and saw the drift of snow against the window. The woolen drapery over the window blew in a short, sharp wind, and M. Tullius shivered.
"I am truly sick," he said, hopefully. "There is an inflammation of the lungs."
"The gods have said, and the Greeks also, that when a man wishes to evade his duties he can summon any illness to assist him," said the old father, He picked up his son's wrist and felt the pulse, and then threw the hand from him. "Vulture's grease!" he exclaimed. "It must be miraculous. You have a fine pulse. Ah, here is the midwife."
M. Tullius shrank under his coverlets and closed his eyes. The midwife bowed and said, "The Lady Helvia is about to give birth, Masters."
"So soon?" said the old father.
"Very soon, Master. She took to her bed an hour ago, by the waterclock which is not yet frozen, and has had one pain. The physician is with her. The birth is imminent."
"I told you," said M. Tullius, miserably. "Helvia defies the laws of nature. She should have been in labor at least eight hours."
"A sturdy wench," said the old father. He flung back the coverlets in spite of his son's cowering. "A woman," said the old father, "wishes the presence of her husband when she gives birth, and especially a lady of Helvia's ancestry, which is impeccable. Marcus, arise."
M. Tullius tried to rescue the blankets but his father threw them on the stone floor. "Your presence, Father," said the young man, "will be much more sustaining to Helvia than mine."
"Arise," said the old father. He looked at the slaves. "Bring a fur cloak at once."
A fur cloak was brought with unseemly alacrity and was wrapped over M. Tullius' narrow frame. His coughs, now violent, did not convince his father, who seized his arm sturdily and marched him from the room into a stone hall that blew with bright cold wind. The Nones of Janus! What a time to be born! M. Tullius thought with longing of warm islands in the Bay of Naples, where the sun was benign even now and flowers clambered over brick and wall and the people sang. But the old father believed there was virtue in being wretched, and in this he resembled his daughter-in-law.
It is not, thought M. Tullius, weakly trying to keep up with the strides of his father through the bitter bright halls, that I do not love Helvia, though she chose me and I had nothing to say concerning it. But she is a formidable girl. It may be that I am a poor Roman; it remains that I prefer sweet voices and music and books and tranquillity, though I admire the military. At a distance. A long distance. There must be Greek blood in me, from some far time.
They passed an open space between the halls and M. Tullius could see the snow-strewn gardens, the strong white sunlight, the distant Volscian Hills standing in white fire like Jupiter, himself. Even in Rome, northeast of Arpinum, it would be warmer than this; the multitude would heat the air, and the tall buildings would soften the winds or oppose them. There was also shelter every few steps in doorways, and heated litters. But here in the countryside there was no shelter from the winter, which had been unusually severe this year. The old father liked to dress himself in fur and leather and ride over the country, surrounded by grooms, and hunt deer, and come back abominably rosy and hearty and exuding frost, stamping his feet and thumping his chest. The very thought was enough to make M. Tullius cough again and cling to his fur cloak. Helvia was, unfortunately, very rugged also, and thought fresh air salubrious, whereas any physician with a modicum of wisdom knew that fresh air could be fatal under certain circumstances. Only yesterday she had snared two rabbits herself, in the snow, and she weighty with child. M. Tullius found himself heartily disliking healthy people who liked winters. The old father was not really old; he ought, thought M. Tullius, to have married Helvia, himself. Then they could not only plow through the snow together but compare genealogies and eat rabbit stewed in garlic sauce and drink the sour Roman wine in happy company.
M. Tullius thought of the years he had spent in the army; he had been proud of those years until today. Now he shivered. Hearty people irritated him; they usually expired, very suddenly, with a small ailment that lesser people would simply have dosed with a cup of hot herbs. — They had arrived at the door of the women's quarters. There was no attendant except for a very old woman with a mustache and with thick shawls over her shoulders. She was a favorite of the Lady Helvia's, for she had been the young wife's nurse in her childhood. She shuffled up from her stool in the piercing cold of the hall and glared at the masculine intruders, who were always intimidated by her, even the old father who had a bull's voice on most occasions.
"Were you waiting until the child was robed in the regilla?" she asked caustically. "Or, perchance, the toga?"
M. Tullius said, "Is the child born? No? How then is it possible, Lira, to know if the child will wear a puerile robe or a regilla?" He tried to smile at the old woman whom he privately called Hecate.
Lira muttered some obscenity under her breath while father and son tried not to glance at each other. The old woman then wheezed her way ahead of them to a farther door. "A time of travail," she said in a rusty, mourning voice. "But who is at hand but slaves when my child is suffering?"
M. Tullius and the old father could not conceive of Helvia needing any soothing or assistance at all, for she was a redoubtable girl, but M. Tullius said anxiously, "The physician is with her, and I hear no commotion!"
"The physician!" shouted Lira, with her hand on the door and turning to fix a direful eye on the two gentlemen. "Of what use is a man except to cause a lady agony? That physician and his smells and his big hands! In my day no man approached a lady in her travails; it is disgusting. Commotion! My lady is of great and gentle blood; she is not one to scream like a wench in the hay."
"Open the door, slave!" said the old father, recovering some of his courage.
"I am no slave!" Lira exclaimed, in as loud a voice. "My lady freed me on her marriage. Her marriage!" she repeated, in a spitting tone.
The old father became as purple as ripe grapes, and he raised his clenched fist, which his son caught deftly, shaking his head.
"Am I not master in my own house?" roared old M. Tullius Cicero. "Is this the new Rome that gutter filth dares lift its eyes to the Master?"
"Hah," said Lira, and pushed open the door to her lady's chamber. But she stood in the doorway for another baleful moment. She shook her finger at the old father. "It is a great and noble occasion for this family of the vetch — Cicero. The child will be a boy and there have been portents." She nodded her ancient head and her eyes glowed on them with triumphant malice. "I have seen them myself. When my lady's pain came there was a flash in the sky like lightning, and a cloud shaped like a mighty hand holding a scroll of wisdom. The child will be known in history, and but for him the name of Cicero would die in dust."
She saw something in the old father's eye that made her shuffle aside hastily, and the two men entered a room hardly warmer than the hall, for there was but a brazier of small proportions in it and only an ember, or two. The stone of the floor struck even through M. Tullius' thick leather shoes, and cold appeared to blast from the plastered white walls. Helvia was never chilly, being always in the most robust of health. Three young female slaves were standing near the window and aimlessly rearranging the blue wool curtains, and the midwife was dropping a handful of wood chips on the little brazier. The room was stark, modestly furnished, and dominated by a plain wooden bed. In the bed, with her account books all about her, sat Helvia, a pillow at her back. Lira rushed to her side, murmurously, but Helvia saw her visitors and frowned. Her pen had stopped at an entry in a very large and very heavy book. The physician stood at the head of the bed and looked helpless.
"Helvia," said M. Tullius. He understood, vaguely, that it was the part of the husband to leap to his wife's side on these momentous occasions, take her hand, reassure her, and offer up a prayer in her behalf. Helvia frowned. "There is a difference of three sesterces," she said, in her hearty young voice.
"Oh, gods," muttered the old father. He looked at the small statue of Juno before which three votive lights were burning.
"Your bookkeeper is either illiterate or a thief, Marcus," said Helvia to her husband. She suddenly yawned, showing a healthy pink cavern and a set of admirable white teeth, large and glistening. M. Tullius approached her timidly.
"I rose from my sick bed, my love," he said, "to be with you at this hour."
Helvia appeared puzzled. "I am not sick," she said. Her great belly swelled under her blankets. "But, do you not have a cough, Marcus?"
"I rose from my sick bed," M. Tullius repeated, feeling absurd. Helvia shrugged. "You are always in a sick bed," she said heartlessly. "I cannot understand this, for the air is very healthful here. If, Marcus, you would but ride daily or walk in the freshness of the winter, you would not resemble a shade. Even Phelon agrees with me."
The votive lights flickered in a strong and icy breeze and M. Tullius saw that one window stood open, and he coughed loudly. He approached the bed and sat on the plain wooden chair beside it. Helvia looked at him with a sudden fondness, reached out a capable hand, felt his brow, demanded to see his tongue, and dismissed his sickness at once. "It is nonsense," she said firmly. "But what is that vile odor?"
Excerpted from A Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell. Copyright © 1965 Taylor Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE The Child and the Youth,
PART TWO The Man and the Lawyer,
PART THREE The Patriot and the Politician,
PART FOUR The Hero,
A Biography of Taylor Caldwell,