- 27 Feb - 05 Mar, 2021
- 09 May - 15 May, 2020
"Who goes there?” the lookout demanded mechanically, his hand wandering half-heartedly to the grip of his sword, as the lone female figure came into view, dimly lit by the feeble moon and the glow of the campfire.
“Good evening to you, Tessarius,” she said quietly.
He seemed taken aback. “You speak Latin? You know my rank?”
“I have been a friend to the Roman army for many years. Since long before you were born, I should think. May I sit by your fire for a little while?”
“There are rebels in these parts, Ma’am. I have orders not to let anybody enter without the password.”
“Do I seem to you like a rebel? Do I have a sword or a dagger? Do I even have a decent robe to wear, or sandals for my feet?”
“I am sorry, Ma’am. I don’t have the authority to let you through without the password.” He hesitated, looking her up and down. She lowered her eyes, ashamed of how she must appear. “Have you come far?” he asked more gently.
“I’ve walked from the village of Magdala. It’s behind that furthest olive grove,” she pointed to the dark hills behind her, “I had a fine house there once, and shared food with centuriae and tribuni. More of them than I can remember – more than I can name.”
The sentry seemed to relax. He gave her a look of what she was fairly certain was comprehension. “I’ll ask my commanding officer,” he relented, “but I can’t leave my post.”
He turned and shouted to a small group of soldiers seated outside their tent: “Novanus! Will you ask Ordinatus Lucillus if he can spare a moment, if he is not too busy?” There was a grunted acknowledgement. After a minute or two spent in silence a tall middle-aged officer with a magnificent scarlet cape over his tunic strolled up to them. The sentry stood to attention. “At ease, Tessarius. I see we have a guest.”
“From the village of Magdala, Sir. She would like to sit by our camp fire for a while.”
“Would she, indeed?” He came close and studied her face. “By Jupiter! It’s Mary, isn’t it? Mary who joined that cult in Judea, back in Pilate’s time.” He flung his arms around her.
“Don’t you remember me? Menius Lucillus? I was an ordinary legionary then. An immunis. I had to borrow money to pay your fees!” She smiled and returned his hug. “I hope you had value for your borrowed money,” she whispered in his ear.
“Value and to spare!” He released her and looked her straight in the eye. “Tonight we have an honoured guest, Tessarius. I will send you drink to keep out the cold. You have done well to send for me.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
He led her into the camp, towards the glowing fire and the largest tent. Before he got there he noticed that she was crying. He stopped and took both her hands. “Mary?”
“I’m sorry. Please forgive me. It’s a long time since anybody has offered me kindness.”
He hugged her again. “Here. Sit by the fire.” He guided her to a space between the seated legionaries, waving them not to get up, and sat by her side. The babble of conversation ceased as they joined the circle of enlisted men. “Novanus!” The young soldier hurried over. “Our best drink for yourself and your friend the sentry. And for us. And see if you can find us something to eat.” The young man nodded and hurried off.
“I know that you don’t remember me,” he said softly, “and that’s perfectly all right. Time melts all our memories, the bad as well as the good. There is little in my own past that I care to think about now. Battles and killing, long hard campaigns and sneak attacks by rebels. Braving the hatred of the primitive races that Rome requires us to render governable. But the days I spent with you will always be in my thoughts, and my dreams.” He reached over and put his arm around her shoulder.
"What is it that you dream about now, Mary?”
She found it difficult to speak. The younger soldiers were watching the two of them, their faces curious and amused. “My own people no longer want me, Menius. I was once the lover of Jack, a wrongly executed innocent man, whose blood is on their hands. I stir up memories for them too, memories they would rather forget.”
“But weren’t you the lover of… almost everyone?” A faint murmur of laughter went through their audience. Menius silenced it with a stern glance.
“No… it was different with him. And now nothing can ever be the same.”
“But that’s decades ago. Nobody even remembers him now. There have been half a dozen others since that one.”
“It was the man. There’s never been another man like him. I…don’t know how to explain it…”
“Are you saying you fell in love with him? You!”
She wiped the tears from her eyes. “He wasn’t just an ordinary man, Menius. I know he wasn’t. I know men. You will grant me that, won’t you?”
A titter of laughter went through the seated ranks and Menius laughed too. “Yes, I will grant you that. Here, our drink is coming.” He reached up and took the two cups. “Have we bread and meat?”
“On the way, Sir,” the soldier assured him.
Menius handed her one of the cups. “What shall we drink to?” He glanced at her face. Before he went on he lowered his voice to a level that only she would hear. “Please don’t cry again. What is it that troubles you so much?” The nearby soldiers seemed to understand and resumed the low buzz of conversation that their arrival had interrupted. They could speak with a measure of privacy now.
“I hate people to see me like this. In rags, begging for food. People who knew me back then…”
“I understand the people back then gave everything to the poor. Their houses and garments even.”
“Yes. And now I have nothing, and the poor are still poor. All I’ve done is join them. I think I’ve lived too long, Menius.”
“You must never say such things.”
"I changed for him, Menius. Changed my life and changed my self. I believed it all – the salvation to come, the everlasting life, the meek inheriting the earth. But he's gone now and everything has changed back. Everything except me. I can't pretend any longer. I can't live the way he wanted me to live – hold on to this idea that there's going to be a good world, full of love, without poor, and armies and battles and hatred.”
“You're right of course. I’ve met his type before. The Romans used to believe that kind of thing once. Back in the days of the Republic, before we had an emperor – or an empire. It’s a fantasy. The rich and powerful will never let it happen. Mark my words, there’ll still be poor people and armies and wars a hundred years from now. Maybe even a thousand. Human nature, Mary. You can’t fight it.”
“I know. I used to think that too. But he was human. And he didn’t hate anybody. Even the ones who hated him. And he wanted people to share all they had – so that nobody would ever have to go without – and it feels good to live that way. You feel really good about yourself. If people just understood, maybe that’s the way they would want to live. I can still feel myself pulled in both directions. I don't want to believe that I've wasted so much time chasing a hopeless dream... ”
“I’m afraid I’m a realist. I’ve seen too much of the way people really treat one another to believe in children’s stories like that. Take away rulers, take away Roman laws and Roman armies to keep the peace and what have you got? Chaos and murder. Savagery, weakest to the wall. The Roman Empire is the only hope that the world has to become civilised and orderly, to offer security to everyone – the weak as well as the strong. That is Nero's sacred promise to his subjects, and I think he is going to succeed. His subjects love him.”
“You know, the people who were with him loved him so much they couldn’t accept that he was dead. Me included. We imagined we saw him everywhere, that he was still alive…”
“What did I tell you? Delusions. Wishful thinking... Ah, some food…” He reached up again and took the two plates. “Eat. Enjoy. Life is still worth living, Mary. It can still be good!”
She took the plate and tucked in eagerly. “Thank you,” she said, her mouth full of food. “Thank you so much, Menius.”
“You know, you’re right about one thing. It makes me feel good to give a meal to somebody who needs it.” He paused and watched her eat, sipping once from his cup. She glanced towards him and a faint smile flickered across her face. Then her attention returned to the food.
He allowed her to finish and take a mouthful of drink before he spoke. “I’ve got a proposition for you, Mary,” he said with slow deliberation. “I’ve been in the army all my life. I only get back to Rome a few weeks of each year. I have no wife in Rome. In twenty days my term of duty here is over. It’s my last one. After that I’m retiring. I’ll have a good army pension, and I’ve got a fine house, right in the middle of Rome. It’s big – and it’s empty. Now I’m not going to talk about falling in love. We’re both a bit past that kind of thing. But if you want to come to Rome with me and share that house, you’ll be more than welcome. You won’t be a prisoner, if it doesn’t work out for the two of us you can move on again – and you won’t be penniless, I’ll look after you financially, whether you stay or whether you go. Or even if I should die. I give you my word as a Roman.”
She noticed that the soldiers had gone silent again. They watched him with what she took to be comradely affection, no doubt intrigued at this insight into the private life of their commander.
He held out his hand and she put down her spoon and took it. “Is it a nice house?” she whispered. “Like the one I had in Magdala?”
“As fine as any in the city. Built from imported cedar, with two stories and its own deep well. Even a small garden. You’re still a businesswoman, I notice.”
“No, not really. I would accept your offer if it was a tent outside the walls of the Forum.”
“You will come with me then?” He put down his plate, and asked her gently. “You have made me a very happy man.
Until this moment, I had nothing to go back to. Now, I begin a new life. Thank you, Mary. I may not be Jack but I do know how to treat a woman.”
“It’s I who should thank you. What is there for me here? Who among my own people has offered me anything but hostility and suspicion?
“The future can hold nothing but happiness. I thank God for my good fortune!”