Chapter One of The Spear: A Novel | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight
BOOK ONE | CHAPTER I
The Lady Claudia Procula was amused. Whirlwind courtships were not exactly new to her, but this young man seemed to wish to make up within a few weeks for all the time he had spent at some impossible outpost of the empire.
Otherwise there was nothing extraordinary about him. He was fairly tall, with good bone structure, eyes the color of black cherries, and rather heavy, dark eyebrows that made him seem serious even when he was laughing. He came from a good family; the Longini had been soldiers for many generations and his father was a retired general.
She had met Cassius Longinus first at a garden party in the house of Nerva Cocceius, and he would not leave her side even when a proconsul and two senators tried to get rid of him. A few days later she met him again in the house of Senator Pomponius and observed that he paid no attention at all to his host's dazzlingly beautiful daughter, although she flirted with him quite shamelessly. And now he had turned up at Marcus Balbus' dinner party.
When the Lady Claudia found him sitting on a corner of her dining couch, she laughed. "You again! We seem to have a good many friends in common."
Cassius beamed at her. "I am doing my best to see to that, Domina. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have come here."
"You would have been wrong there. Balbus' parties are famous."
He laughed. "They say he's almost as rich as he is fat. If that's true he must be horribly rich."
She raised her eyebrows. "Careful! He is not fond of such remarks and he's not a man to be trifled with."
"The Chatts are bigger ."
"The Chatts—Germans. None of them under six feet, some nearer seven. They're good fighters. I've had to deal with them these last four years. I can't see Balbus standing up to them."
He did not see the warning in her eyes.
"What's that about me?" asked Marcus Balbus softly. He liked to amble from one table to the other to see that his guests had everything they wanted and like many fat people he walked noiselessly. He was pot-bellied and almost bald, but the jutting chin spoke of energy and the small eyes were cold and hard.
"We were speaking about fighting", Cassius said.
"Ah, were you? Of course, you've just come back from the German frontier. The Twenty-First legion, I believe? I suppose he's been bragging a little about his military exploits, has he, Lady Claudia? Well, well. I bet you he's never seen a German near enough for real danger ."
Cassius was too young to detect the angry undertone of jealousy. He heard only the challenge.
"It would be a difficult bet to take, sir, unless you can reach my commander, the Legate Cinna. He could decide it very quickly."
Balbus smiled. "Perhaps it's lucky that old Cinna has left Rome for a couple of weeks. Never mind, young man, I'm sure you did very well. And of course everyone knows Cinna flies into a rage at a breath of criticism against his legion. . . . . If I were a German I would probably be deathly afraid of you. How many did you kill?"
"Only two", Cassius said quietly.
"Really? How interesting." Balbus grinned broadly.
"With your own hand, too, I suppose. Strangled them, perhaps?"
"No." Cassius scowled. "I used my spear. You said something about bragging, didn't you? Well, I'll do just a little more bragging for you. I'll bet you I could hit you right in the middle of the stomach with a spear, at a distance of fifty yards."
"Could you now?", Balbus snorted. "I'm almost inclined to take you on, you know."
"By all means, do", Cassius said. "But it would be advisable to make your will first."
"Stop quarreling, you two", Claudia interposed. "Leave him alone, Balbus, he's only a child."
It was the worst thing she could have said.
"I'll bet anything you like", Cassius said hotly.
The fat man grinned. "I'm not accustomed to making an exhibition of myself. Will a small shield do, instead of your host's stomach?"
"By all means", Cassius shrugged.
"Very well, you have a bet", Balbus said. "But let's make it a real bet—nothing small. Say, twenty thousand sesterces. Agreed?"
Cassius hesitated. It was a large sum. If he lost, he would have to ask his father for the money. But since his return he had noticed, a little to his surprise, that his father seemed to be living in a far more luxurious style than Cassius remembered. And Claudia was looking at him.
"Agreed", he said.
Immediately Balbus produced his writing tablet and stilus. "Let's fix it up", he said crisply.
The bet was put in writing and they both signed the document.
Balbus gave a low chuckle. "Wouldn't be fair to have the little matter settled at the end of the dinner. My wine is good and might make your hand unsteady. Better do it immediately. The banquet hall is large enough for our purpose."
"Anywhere and any time you like", Cassius said haughtily.
Balbus nodded contentedly. "Here", he said. "And now."
The guests were beginning to notice that something unusual was afoot.
Balbus whispered instructions to his majordomo and soon two black slaves appeared with a small silver shield, a beautiful piece of work with the head of the Medusa in the center.
"Will that be satisfactory?" Balbus asked.
"Certainly", Cassius agreed. Under his breath he muttered to the girl, "It's not as big as his stomach, but it will do."
Claudia bit her lip.
"Very well, my witty young friend." Balbus had sharp ears. "Now let's measure the fifty yards—right along the main table. Fifty large steps. From here.
They measured the distance.
"Stand here, you two", Balbus snapped at the two slaves.
"Hold this shield between you—yes, like that. And if you move an inch I'll have you whipped. Let's go back again, Cassius. I ordered a few spears to be brought up from the. armory. You may take your choice."
There were three and Cassius weighed each one very carefully before choosing a fairly heavy hunting spear.
"Ready", he said then and he smiled at Claudia.
Balbus glared at him. "Very well." He raised both arms. "Attention, friends. A little interlude for your pleasure. Young Cassius here has bet me twenty thousand sesterces that he can hit that shield with his spear from where he stands now. So keep your seats and don't move before he has thrown. Ready? Now! Throw, my boy!"
Cassius took a deep breath. He threw, and then stood immobile, his right arm stretched out as if it were a prolongation of the missile.
Most of the guests ducked instinctively; they could feel the sudden gust of wind on their flushed faces. The two tar black slaves held the silver shield between them with forced equanimity. There was a shattering crash and they both staggered and almost fell. The spear had gone right through the shield.
Everyone started shouting at once.
"Wonderful", gasped pretty little Nigidia.
The young lawyer Seneca on the couch beside her saw her nostrils flare. "The throw or the thrower?" he asked dryly.
"The man", was the frank reply. "Very handsome. Who is he?"
"By the biceps of Mars", interjected Tribune Caelius, he's hit dead center-right through the mouth of the Medusa. Like father. like son."
"He's Cassius Longinus", explained the lawyer. "His father is a retired army commander who used to be one of the Emperor's best men in the German war. Incidentally, I'm his legal adviser."
"You know him well, then", said Nigidia. "Will you introduce him to me?"
Read Part Two of the opening chapter of The Spear
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