An historical fragment

I usually write fantasy. That way I don’t get too bogged down in/side tracked by research. Making stuff up is so much easier when you’re not worrying about whether so-and-so was in such-and-such a place at any given time. I’m constrained enough by the real world in every day life not to want to deal with it in fiction too. Or so I’ve always said.

Recently, however, I’ve cast caution and common sense to the wind and embarked on an historical novel. Here’s the beginning. Or at least, here’s the current, first draft, unrevised beginning. Portrait of a marriage.

Rome, Year of the Consulship of Piso and Bolanus (864 AUC)

A year ago Secundus would have gone straight from the palace to his wife. Today, despite the importance of what he has to say, he judges it politic to keep to their routine and waits until his usual hour before visiting Calpurnia’s rooms. She puts her book aside to smile and greet him. The freedwoman Oenone gathers up her needlework and slips away. Secundus kisses his wife’s cheek and takes his accustomed seat beside her couch.

Calpurnia knows what he has come to say, of course; it is her business to know such things. Because she is a fair woman, and this restraint in their discourse and dealings her choice rather more than his, she lets him tell his news.

‘It is Pontus and Bithynia.’

‘You thought as much.’

‘The accounts are out of order. Works begun but never finished. Monies paid out and little to show for them.’

These things she knows, nearly as well as he. Their conversation at dinner has dealt with little else these last weeks. A safe topic, those half-built theatres and bath houses months away from Rome; to discuss account sheets or imperial annoyance at provincial ineptitude distracts them from lesser matters of more importance to them both.

He passes her his copy of the Emperor’s mandate. The ink of the scrawled signature is still fresh and black. She reads it quickly, taking in the important points: a special commission over and above the governorship, proconsular authority, and extra lictors to give such dignities their due.

‘It’s a well-deserved honour, Gaius, and past time you had a province.’

‘I know more about Bithynia than most men who’ve been there.’ He accepts her praise casually. He is a man who knows his worth and has no time for false modesty.

‘When must you leave?’

‘Yesterday,’ he admits. ‘Next month will do. August at the latest.’ A rueful smile touches his lips. ‘When ships are chartered and my staff are selected and I am ready. It’s a long way.’

‘And an important job.’

The smile deepens, recognising flattery. ‘Dull work, but useful. The Emperor wants the place kicking into shape, financially speaking. I’m good with figures. Treasury background. So – Pontus and Bithynia.’

So far, so simple. The difficult part of the conversation is yet to come. To delay it, whether deliberately or not she cannot tell, Secundus picks up the scroll and unwinds it a little, holding it out to the light. She has always turned to books for solace; he understands, she knows, being of much the same cast of mind himself, but she knows too he wishes she would look to him for comfort.

And she cannot.

‘Octavius Rufus,’ he remarks. ‘I was always pushing him to publish. I’m glad someone besides me reads him.’

‘I like the one about the dog.’

‘The one that didn’t bark, or the one that did?’

‘The quiet one. The faithful one.’

Secundus unwinds further until he finds the place and reads aloud. Calpurnia listens and for a little while her mind is neither in Rome nor in Comum nor even in Campania with Lucius but far away and long ago in stony Ithaca.

When Secundus is done, he sits quietly with the book in his hand.

She cannot bear it when he looks like that. So lost, so lonely, a man yearning for the thing denied him.

She has tried, oh she has tried – the Bona Dea, Juno, the lesser gods of house and hearth, all would bear witness she has tried – but without success. Her blood is curdled with melancholy; her heart is a stone with another name’s chiselled into it. Whenever Gaius looks at her, his face filled with tender longing, she cannot bear it, and always, always turns away.

Her rooms look out into the gardens. From the window of this sitting room she can see the neat clipped squares of box hedges, the manicured lines of quinces and peach trees punctuated by spikes of cypress. No line is natural, no curve left to chance. Nor yet the birdsong, though at this time of day the larks’ cages are covered against the sun. Silence stretches between them, taut and sharp as the shadow of the cypress in the garden. A maid’s voice fills that silence, rising in song somewhere beyond the window. Not Latin. Some eastern tongue tuned in unfamiliar intervals.

These are recent habits, his formal visits, their uncomfortable silences. Husband and wife speak, both in the same moment. Both break off, embarrassed, over-polite: ‘You, please.’

‘No, you.’

‘Very well,’ he says. ‘My appointment is for two years, maybe longer.’

‘That is the normal run of these things.’

‘I would like,’ Secundus says, carefully, ‘you to come with me.’

Calpurnia folds her hands to still their tremble. ‘That too is the normal run of these things. There would be gossip if I did not.’

‘Calpurnius Fabatus is old and in poor health. A visit to him would not cause tongues to clack.’

Her grandfather is as old and gnarled as an olive tree, and like to live as long. And yes, if she went to him, there would be no gossip. But, says her second thought, if she went to him, he would grind on and on about Lucius, asking all the questions she does not want to answer, demanding – over and over and again – she explain her actions and defend her choices.

Better Bithynia than that.

Secundus says, ‘Nicomedia is not Rome but it is far livelier than Comum. You’ll find society there, and you’ll not be able to throw a stone without hitting a philosopher. But, Calpurnia, my dear, you have a choice. I should like it, very much, if you came with me but you may go to Fabatus if you prefer. Your aunt will enjoy your company.’

She bows her head. ‘I shall come with you.’

He fiddles with the scroll. Hesitantly, he says, ‘If that is what you wish.’

‘It is what you wish, Gaius,’ she says, sweetly submissive. ‘That is what matters.’

Secundus flinches, bites his lip, stands up, leaves without a word.

Calpurnia takes up her book to begin again where she left off, but she has lost her taste for reading. Unfair to strike so low a blow. When had she become unkind?

In the privacy of her mind she is too honest not to own the answer: nine months ago, eight days before the Kalends of October, when Lucius died.

The maid’s song resumes, jerking her gladly out of the arms of melancholy. The same song, incomprehensible as a lark’s trill in the morning but conjuring bright images none the less: the first rose of springtime; sunlight through the branches; the rush and tumble of a mountain stream.

Oenone bustles in, her mouth pinched into a thin, straight line. ‘That’s no way to treat a husband. You count yourself lucky, my girl. Another man would have divorced you by now. The way you’ve been since – ’

‘That’s enough,’ Calpurnia snaps.

Oenone sniffs. She has never been one to keep her opinions to herself, even before she had her freedom, knowing that as Fabatus’ marriage gift her position was unassailable. Since her manumission, well, Secundus values loyalty above all else. How can his wife wish to be rid of one who has chosen to remain? Calpurnia says, quite quietly, ‘I mean it, Oenone. Don’t presume that, because you’ve known me from a babe, you are any different from the rest. My husband may rebuke me if he wishes, may divorce me if he wants, but I’ll take no lessons in marriage from anyone else. Not even you. Do you understand?’

Their eyes meet. Oenone has myriad ways to make her displeasure clear; before Lucius, Calpurnia would have given way for sake of a quiet life. But Calpurnia has hardened in these last months and will no longer yield in face of laces tied too tightly or hairpins driven too hard against her scalp. ‘Let us be clear,’ she says, ‘I’ll not speak of –’

The look on Oenone’s face makes her tremble on the name. Pity is more than she can bear. She turns away, blinking hard to drive back tears before they reach her eyes, and finishes, flatly, ‘I’ll not talk about him. Not now. Not ever.’

Oenone busies herself with resetting a trim torn from the hem of one of her mistress’s gowns. Though she mutters, ‘Might help if you did,’ she does so quietly enough that Calpurnia can pretend she has not heard. Calpurnia arranges her stole to cover her hair, takes up her parasol to shade her face and steps out into the sunlight of the garden. She finds the maid gathering peaches, settling each carefully into a basket of straw. The woman stands up, stands back to let her pass, but Calpurnia does not walk on. Instead she asks, ‘What was that song?’

The maid has kept her head bowed in the proper style but, surprised, she glances up. ‘Song, madam?’

‘I heard you singing. What was it about?’

‘A girl is filling her waterjars at the river. The day is hot and the water is cool, but her mother needs her and she cannot stay.’

‘Is that all? It sounded so much deeper.’

‘Maybe it is the Latin, madam. It can tell what the song is about but it is not the song.’

Something must have shown in her face for the woman bends her head and holds out conciliating, empty hands. ‘I’m sorry, madam. I did not mean rudeness.’

But Calpurnia is fascinated rather than affronted. It is something she has thought about many times, reading the poems written by her husband and her husband’s friends, the difficulty of capturing feeling with words, the gap between intention and achievement. Metre is easy but to achieve meaning? It is one of the reasons she restricts herself these days only to letters. ‘Don’t be absurd. Why’d such a thought be rude? What language was it?

‘My father’s tongue, madam. The master brought him from Syria.’

‘And you?’

‘I was born here, madam.’

‘Here?’ Calpurnia frowns. ‘In this place? I do not know your face.

‘In Narnia, madam. My father is now an overseer at the estate of Pompeia Celerina, where my mother lived.’

‘And now you are here.’ It is not a question and the woman does not answer. She goes where she is told, does there as she is bid. Choice, even the illusion of choice, is not for her. On a whim, Calpurnia asks, ‘Do you speak Greek?’

‘A little, madam.’ The accent is abominable but the words quite clear. Testing her way, perhaps, with this new mistress. Calpurnia approves. There is nothing so dull in life as accepting meekly the dice thrown down by fate. Choice may not be offered but chances are there for the taking.

She asks, in Greek, ‘What is your name?’

‘Psyche, madam.’

‘Psyche.’ Calpurnia studies the woman, looking carefully to confirm the decision she has already made. ‘Well, Psyche, when you are done here, tell Eutychus I have requested your services. Find Oenone in the morning.’

‘Yes, madam,’ Psyche murmurs, bending her head in meek obedience but not quite quickly enough to hide the flash of triumph in her eyes.

Later, Calpurnia must explain to Oenone what she has done; must soothe her ruffled feathers and assuage her jealous dignity; must, in the end, snap that the thing is done, that the girl will be with them in the morning and Oenone will find her a dress to match her new position and set her drying rose petals to scatter in amongst packed clothes. With that, the matter is closed. Oenone sniffs but is otherwise silent, though the look in her grey eyes bodes ill for Psyche. Well, either the girl will match her or she will settle into a drudge. If it is the latter Calpurnia will feel some disappointment, but there are maids a-plenty. Oenone bustles round the room, folding clothes, tidying away books and trinkets, making all ready for the night. As she does so, Calpurnia wonders how she will manage in Bithynia: despite her name, she has no Greek.

A small weight in Psyche’s pan. The balance now is tilted in Oenone’s favour but Fortuna is a capricious goddess. In time, perhaps, it will be otherwise.


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