Chapter One of "The Spear: A Novel" | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius InsightChapter One of The Spear: A Novel | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight

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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—who?"

"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?"

"Old Longinus is not here tonight", teased Seneca.

"I mean his son, of course, silly."

"Careful now:" Seneca smiled. "Can't you see that Claudia is taking a very lively interest in him?"

Nigidia gave the lady a cold, appraising stare. But there was nothing she could belittle. Claudia's figure was perfect, her face attractive in a provocative way, she was carefully made up, her jewelry matched her dress of peacock-blue silk, the new fashion, and her hair was sprinkled with gold dust.

"Who is she?"

"You mean to say that you don't know Claudia?"

Nigidia laughed a little harshly. "You forget that I've been away a long time."

Too late Seneca remembered that Nigidia's family had been exiled to some island in the Aegean Sea, because Nigidia's uncle had incurred imperial displeasure. "Claudia Procula", he said, tactfully glossing over the lady's remark, "is an orphan now, but related to the divine Emperor."

"Your friend Cassius looks as if he were trying to hit two targets with the same spear." Nigidia sniffed.

Seneca nodded. "And both of them at the expense of our noble host."

Balbus waddled up to Cassius Longinus, a silk bag in his shy hand. "Twenty thousand", he said. "And I must admit it wasn't only luck, although luck seems to be with you, too."

Cassius Longinus laughed. "I can do it as often as you like. Want me to try again?"

Balbus smiled wryly. "Never cross the way of one whom Fortuna favors." It was the ancient proverb of the gambling table. "Twenty thousand is enough. And even Fortuna's favorite should content himself with one victory at a time."

There was a hidden threat in the fat, suave voice.

Cassius bowed mockingly. "As you wish."

"Where did you acquire such skill?" asked Claudia Procula quickly.

"It's a family trait", said Cassius. "We've always been good at it. There's a spear on our crest."

"You'd do well in the arena", growled Balbus. "You're built like a gladiator, too."

"Sorry that I can't return the compliment." Cassius smiled. "I shall send you Euphorus tomorrow—he's my masseur. He'll get you into shape."

A dull red rose in Balbus' massive face and darkened as Claudia laughed.

"He not only knows how to throw a spear", whispered Seneca to Nigidia, "but how to make enemies. . . . "

"Athletes", said Balbus, "have their drawbacks too. They're notoriously bad lovers."

Again Claudia laughed and Cassius grinned broadly. Balbus lost his patience. "You're very sure of yourself, aren't you? Well, that's usual before one reaches maturity and therefore pardonable. But some people don't learn caution even in their old age. How is your dear father, Cassius?"

The young man frowned. "My father is quite well. What makes you think of him?"

"Quite well, eh?" This time Balbus grinned. "I hope you're right. And I hope he'll remain well." He turned to his guests. "After this interesting little interlude I have a special treat for you. The best dancing troupe of the empire—the twelve Gaditan Fireflies."

The guests broke into tumultuous applause. Gaditan dancers were world famous and the twelve Fireflies had taken Rome by storm.

Balbus clapped his hands. A curtain was drawn back and the dancers appeared in a mad whirl of rose-colored transparent dresses.

"Do you want to watch?" asked Claudia lightly.

"'Who wants the stars when the sun shines?" whispered Cassius.

"I feel tired", said Claudia, her eyes belying her words. "I think I shall order my litter."

"You need an escort", expostulated Cassius. "The streets are full of all kinds of rabble at this time of night and. . ."

". . . and your spear will give me protection, I suppose."

She smiled. "I have a strong guard indeed. But who will protect me against that guard?"

He raised his hands. "By the knees of Venus—"

"Definitely not a reliable goddess", she laughed.

"By Juno, then", swore Cassius.

She raised her beautifully penciled brows. "The goddess of marriage. Do you know what you are saying?"

"You're mocking me." He looked so hurt that she gave him her best smile. He was so young—twenty, perhaps twenty-one. She knew she could make him experience delight and despair between one breath and the next, and she felt touched—so much so that she seriously asked herself whether she was not in love with him. Perhaps she was. And anyway, it was ridiculous that people had started talking about her and Balbus, as if she could possibly care for the bloated toad, however rich he was.

She looked about her. All the others were concentrating on the dancers. "I'm going", she said. "Let's slip out this way—not through the atrium."

They passed a number of slaves, carrying heavy amphorae of snow-cooled wine and huge dishes of lark and nightingale tongues. Many thousands of the tiny birds had had to be caught to make a single one of these dishes.

"Balbus is rich", Claudia thought with a little sigh.

Cassius, his eyes fixed on the slender figure swaying gracefully ahead of him, bumped into one of the slaves who managed, by desperate contortions, to keep his precious dish from spilling all over the mosaic floor, but Cassius did not even notice. They reached a small door leading to a court. Slave hands were raised in submissive salute.

"This is my litter", said Claudia, nodding toward one delicately designed of wood and ivory. The carriers were six Numidians, their bronze bodies gleaming in the torch- light, who jumped to their feet and bowed.

"My horse, quickly", ordered Cassius in a stentorian voice. What if Claudia decided to leave before they had brought his horse from the stables? Litters with their slaves were left here at the side door of the house, but horses had to be looked after and the stables were at some distance. He did not know where Claudia lived. These Numidians were fast and Rome was a rabbit warren. Once they were out of sight, it might well prove impossible to find them again.

He walked up to the litter. Claudia had just been helped in; he could see her profile, delicate and serene, in the dim light from the bronze torch on the wall. He ought now to say something amusing, but his brain was paralyzed. All he managed was a hoarse, "Wait for me, please."

Her smile reassured him a little and then he heard Pluto's hooves clatter on the pavement. He jumped into the saddle without using the ready hands of the stable slave and rode up to the litter, but Claudia had drawn the curtains and he could no longer see her face.

The Numidians ran swiftly past the Temple of Neptune and to the left, past the Circus Maximus and left again, toward the slopes of the Aventine Hill, and stopped in front of a small villa in the Greek style. Cassius sprang from his horse, ready to help Claudia from her litter, so that no slave would touch her arm.

A torchbearer came to lead her up the stairs to the entrance.

"Domina Claudia", said Cassius hoarsely, "I beg of you, don't make me go back into a world that has no meaning without you—let me come with you..."

"What, at this time of night?" She raised her brows in mock indignation.

"I assure you . . ."

"Almost all I know about you is your name and that you are a very courageous, determined and self-assured young man."

"If only you knew how little self-assured I feel . . ."

"And I have neither parents nor brothers. I live alone here, with my oId friend, the Lady Sabina."

"Remember, I swore by Juno . . ."

"'Many a girl has been sadly deceived when a man swore an oath by the gods.' "She quoted a fashionable poet's epigram with a low chuckle.

"I mean it", he protested fiercely. "And in our family we do not swear lightly. Let your friend be present, if you like."

"You look like an honorable man", Claudia murmured, with a sidelong glance that made his heart pound.

The majordomo was now coming down the stairs, bowing.

As she swept past him she said casually, "Tell the lady Sabina I would like her to meet my guest—let someone look after his horse and bring wine and fruit."



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Louis de Wohl (1903-1961) was a distinguished and internationally respected Catholic writer whose books on Catholic saints were bestsellers worldwide. He wrote over fifty books; sixteen of those books were made into films. Pope John XXIII conferred on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

Read de Wohl's thoughts about being a Catholic and a novelist.



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