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Dear and Glorious Physician

by Taylor Caldwell

 

Chapter One

Lucanus was never sure whether he liked or disliked his father. He was only certain that he pitied him. Simple men of no pretensions could be admired. Wise men could be honored. But his father was not simple or wise, though he considered himself the latter.

Bookkeepers and record-gatherers had their important place in life, especially if they were diligent and knew that they had a value as bookkeepers and record-gatherers, and did not imply that they possessed larger gifts. It was not good when they spoke of ‘lesser men’ in highly cultured and superficial tones. But the mother of Lucanus smiled so tenderly and so mercifully when her husband intoned his ridiculous prejudices that the light of her compassion mollified her son.

There was the matter of Aeneas bathing his hands in goat’s milk each morning and night, rubbing the rich fluid into every wrinkle and crevice and joint carefully. By the time he was ten years old Lucanus understood that his father was not merely trying to soften and whiten his hands but was attempting to obliterate the scars of earlier servitude. This irritated Lucanus, for even then he knew that work of any kind was not degrading unless it became so in the mind of the worker. But when Aeneas shook his wet hands delicately to dry them in the soft Syrian air, Lucanus could see the disfigured areas on the palms, and the long ugly cicatrice on the back of the slender right hand, and his pity came to him in a flood of vague love. But his real understanding was still childish.

Aeneas was at his best when, just before the evening meal, he would pour the customary libation to the gods. Lucanus always watched him then with a veneration that was without words. His father’s voice, so thin and meager and lofty, as a rule, became humble and hesitant. He had gratitude that the gods had freed him, had made possible this small and pleasant house in its gardens of palms and flowers and fruit trees, had lifted him from the dust and had granted him authority over other men. But the most solemn event, to Lucanus, was when Aeneas refilled the wine cup and, with even more reverence, poured out the red liquid slowly and carefully, and said with almost inaudible softness, “To the Unknown God.”

Tearswould fill the large blue eyes of ten-year-old Lucanus. The Unknown God. The libation was not only an ancient custom of the Greeks, to Lucanus. It was a mystic salutation, a universal rite. Lucanus would watch the falling ruby drops and his heart would clench with an almost unbearable emotion, as if he were witnessing the spilling of divine blood, the offering of an inscrutable Sacrifice.

Who was the nameless and Unknown God? Aeneas would answer his son: It was a custom of the Greeks to perform this ritual to Him, and it was necessary to maintain civilized Grecian custom when one lived among Roman barbarians, even barbarians who ruled the world. His scarred hands would fold themselves in an unconscious gesture of homage, and his narrow face, so insignificant and ordinary, acquired distinction and gravity. It was then that Lucanus was sure he loved his father.

Lucanus had been carefully tutored by his father about the gods, for whom he used Grecian names, and not the gross names given them by the Romans. Even so, with their poetic and lovely names, they were, for Lucanus, merely man grown gigantic and immortal, possessing all man’s cruelty, rapacity, and lust and hatred and malice. But the Unknown God appeared not to possess the attributes of man, neither his vices nor his small virtues. “The philosophers have taught that He is not to be comprehended by man,” Aeneas had once told his son. “But He is mighty, omniscient and omnipresent, circumambient yet in every particle that has being, whether tree or stone or mankind. So say the deathless thinkers of our people.”

“The boy is too serious for his age,” Aeneas once said to his wife, Iris. “However, one should remember that his grandfather, my father, was a poet, and so I must not be too censorious.”

Iris knew that the poet grandfather was one of her husband’s more pathetic fictions, but she nodded in agreement. “Yes, our son has the soul of a poet. Yet I see and hear him playing with great liveliness with the little Rubria; they chase the sheep together and hide from each other among the olive trees, and sometimes their childish laughter is boisterous and loud.”

She watched her husband gently as he lifted his long head with importance and attempted to frown. In his poor heart he was flattered, for all his contempt for the Romans. “I trust he does not neglect his lessons,” he said. “With all respect to my employer, it is hard to forget that he is a Roman barbarian, and that his daughter cannot offer my son any intellectual diversion.” He added, quickly, “However, one must remember that he is but ten years old, and the little Rubria is still younger. You say, my dear one, that they play constantly together? I have not noticed it, but then I am busy from dawn to sunset in the tribune’s house.”

“Lucanus assists Rubria with her own lessons.” Iris shook a golden lock from her forehead. “How unfortunate it is that the noble tribune, Diodorus Cyrinus, does not employ you to teach her.”

Aeneas sighed, and touched his wife’s white forehead with his grateful lips. “But who then would manage these Roman affairs in Antioch, and keep the records and supervise the overseers of the slaves? Ah, these greedy, sucking Romans! Rome is an abyss into which all the wealth and the labor of the world sinks without a sound, an abyss from which no music rises or has risen.”

Iris considerately forbore to remind her husband of Virgil. Aeneas usually compared him disdainfully with Homer.

It offended Aeneas that his employer was only a rude tribune, and not an Augustale. True, many of the Roman tribunes were Augustales, but not Diodorus, who loathed patricians and whose hero was Cincinnatus. Diodorus had considerable education and much intellect, and was the son of a sound and virtuous family of many soldiers, but he pretended to the soldier’s scorn for men who preferred the things of the mind. He hugged his old-fashioned virtues to his breast and affected ignorance of the things he knew, and spoke in the harsh and simple accents of a soldier to whom books were contemptible. In his way he possessed as many affectations as Aeneas. They were both frauds, Iris would tell herself sadly, but they were also piteous frauds. Let Aeneas condescend to the soldier whose father had freed him, and let Diodorus deliberately use bad grammar and display bad manners: it did not matter.

The father of Diodorus Cyrinus, a moral man of noble qualities, had bought the young Aeneas from an acquaintance who had been noted for his extreme cruelty to his slaves, a cruelty which had become infamous even among a callous and cynical people. It was told that there was none of this man’s slaves who did not bear scars, from the workers in his fields and vineyards and olive groves to the youngest females in his house. Nor, in spite of the laws, did he desist from the wanton killing, at will, of any slave who displeased him, and he had devised manners of torture and murder which gave him immense pleasure. An Augustale of proud if decadent family, and of immense wealth and power, he was also a senator, and it was said that even Caesar feared him.

There was only one man in Rome who dared to scorn him publicly, the virtuous tribune, Priscus, father of Diodorus, who was loved by the Roman mobs, who, themselves debased and vicious as their masters, yet paid him honor for his integrity and his soldierly qualities. The mobs even admired him for his kindness and his justice to his slaves, and this was paradoxical among a people to whom a slave was less than a four-legged beast.

Aeneas, the Greek slave, had been one of the workers on the senator’s land, and no one was quite certain how Priscus had acquired him, except Aeneas, and he never spoke of it. But Priscus had brought the wounded and broken youth to his house, had called his physician to treat him, had assigned him a place in his household, and had required only obedience from him. “We are all subject to obedience,” Priscus had told his new slave, sternly. “I obey the gods and the laws of my fathers, and there is pride in such subjection, for it is voluntary, and demanded of all honorable men. The man without discipline is a man without a soul.”

Aeneas was illiterate, but he was quick and respectful and had a shrewd and orderly mind. Priscus, who believed every man, even a slave, should be developed to his full capacity, had permitted Aeneas to sit in a corner of a room where his young son was being tutored. Within an amazingly short time Aeneas had caught up with Diodorus; his memory was astounding. It was not long until Aeneas, at the command of Priscus, was sitting at the foot of the table where Diodorus sat with his tutor. “Have we a Greek scholar here?” Priscus asked the tutor ironically. But the tutor replied with sagacity that Aeneas was no true scholar, but only a young man of clever mind.

By the time Aeneas was twenty-five he was managing the Roman estates of his master, Priscus, while Diodorus had taken up his proper profession as a soldier and was assisting the procurator in Jerusalem. He had also fallen in love with another slave, the young Iris, handmaiden to the wife of Priscus, a beautiful Greek girl, the pet of the household, educated personally by Antonia, who regarded her with the affection of a mother. Priscus and Antonia had presided over the wedding of the young people, and had given them many gifts, including the priceless one of their freedom.

Diodorus Cyrinus, returning home after the death of his parents, had been pleased with the freedman, Aeneas, for the Roman estates were in fine order. He remembered his old fellow student as being a ‘commonplace fellow’ of no particular brilliance, but he recognized his qualities and honesty, though he was annoyed at the petulances and small arrogances he displayed against the slaves under his command. But, as Diodorus was extremely intelligent, and secretly merciful, he understood that in this way Aeneas was compensating for the years of his own slavery.

The lonely young Roman, who was now twenty-seven, five years younger than Aeneas, soon married a young woman of a sturdy Roman family, who had his own robust qualities but not his intelligence. Shortly after this, Diodorus was assigned to govern Antioch, in Syria, and he took Aeneas and Iris with him. Here Aeneas found wider scope for his talents of meticulousness and management and bookkeeping and precision, and for the first time he had a home of his own on the estate in the suburbs of Antioch. In the evenings he dreamt his dreams of the glorious men of old Greece, and identified himself with them, and read the poems of Homer, and declaimed them aloud to his wife and son. His learning, intellectually, remained small and meager. He prated of Socrates, but the dialogues were beyond his real comprehension. He knew very little of the lesser giants of Greece, and almost nothing of the statesmen of his nation. He served his gods as dutifully as he served Diodorus. Perhaps they meant Greece to him; perhaps, in their loveliness and delicacy and splendor, they reminded him that their Roman counterparts were gross and lascivious and brutish, beyond all subtlety and grace, merely enlarged shadows of the Romans themselves. In his gods Aeneas found refuge from his memories of bitter slavery; in them he found pride for himself, for even Romans honored them and built temples to them, and began to draw distinctions between them and their own deities.

Aeneas had preferred Rome to Antioch, for though he disdained the Roman rabble he had liked the bustle in the crowded streets and the excitements of the city and the air of power. Antioch, to him, was too ‘foreign’, for it was constantly being invaded by rough seamen from hundreds of nameless and doubtful barbarous places. He had a conspicuous aversion for them, and would shudder at them fastidiously. But he had a small and pleasant house of his own, with cool stone floors and bright woolen curtains and arches and gardens, and it was far enough away from the larger house of Diodorus to give him the illusion that he was a master of land in his own right. Much of this pleasure, however, was spoiled frequently for him when he came into contact with Diodorus and was forced to listen in silence to the Roman’s soldierly expletives and coarse language.

Diodorus was even lonelier in Syria than he had been in Rome. His wife, Aurelia, was a buxom young woman who devoted herself to her household and its slaves and her husband and her young daughter. She was pious and virtuous in the manner of an old Roman matron. But she was unlearned and only shrewd, and as naturally unpolished as her husband was naturally if secretly polished. She chattered about the slaves, her daughter, the newest fashions from Rome, suspected depredations in the kitchen, the climate, the health of her family, and the dishes she herself concocted under the eyes of the cooks. There was no doubt that she was an estimable woman, and there was no doubt that though she was a trifle too fat she had much prettiness of round pink face and large brown eyes and luxurious black hair. Diodorus would listen to her fondly, and then would retire to his library, there to bring books out of assiduous hiding and read until midnight, long after all in the household had retired. He especially delighted in poetry and history and philosophy. He would whisper a whole poem to himself, with a kind of wanton abandonment to phrases and cantos.

It never occurred to him, as an anachronistically moral Roman, to seek some sexual diversion in the teeming brothels of Antioch, nor did he consider it proper to gather together with some fellow Romans in the city for gaming or cockfighting or even simple companionship. A man’s place, after his work, was in his home, according to Diodorus, no matter how trivial his wife’s conversation. He drank very little at the table, and believed drunkenness to be one of the major sins, so he had no escape except in his work.

Aurelia had women friends among the Roman families in Antioch, but they were as virtuous and ordinary as she herself. She and they would gossip about the more emancipated women of their acquaintanceship, and would deplore them with shivers. They were all completely and innocently unaware of the depravity of their nation, its corruption and its moral viciousness, its licentious manners and mores, and they criticized other women for conduct which was common in Rome, and accepted. Their lares and penates were the most important things in their lives, and their gossip was as exciting as a bowl of stewed beans. But they were happy; they had husbands and children and gardens, and they were industrious and devoted.

It was among the simpler soldiers in Antioch that Diodorus Cyrinus found some respite, and he talked with them easily of military matters, to the smothered vexation of his junior officers. The officers themselves considered that they were exiles in this country, and they longed for the delights and gaiety and vices of Rome, and they thought of their superior officer with wonder and secret derision. They never doubted his morality, but this did not inspire their respect; rather, they believed him a fool. Even his stern justice, which was never overcast by a moment’s pettiness or caprice, was, to them, something inhuman. He would punish an officer as quickly as a common foot soldier, no matter his family or his standing in Rome. Aeneas sympathized with them, and when they would wink at him over some rigid order of Diodorus’ he would pompously pretend to hide a smirk.

Matters had been particularly perplexing and obnoxious today. Diodorus, surrounded by his officers, had watched the fruits of Syria, honey, olives and olive oil, wool, and many other things, being loaded by slaves on a Roman ship. Though it was December, and the feast of the Saturnalia was approaching, the sun had been unseasonably hot, the air wet with humidity, the greasy waters glittering as if covered by lighted fat. The shouts of the overseers had been exceptionally irritable, and the cracking of whips had snapped unceasingly against the wall of damp air. But the slaves, sweating profusely, were sluggish. Suddenly, with an impatient curse, Diodorus had left the table on the docks where Aeneas was meticulously recording the bales and the barrels, and had himself seized a particularly large box on his shoulder as easily as if it had been a small lamb. He had strode up the plank of the ship and hurled the box with swift precision on the other boxes. Then he had stood there, smiling happily.

The officers gaped; Aeneas looked delicately aside; the soldiers stared, the overseers and the slaves were petrified. But Diodorus had flexed his muscles and breathed deeply, and had said: “Eh! But that is good for a man’s soul!”

Aeneas, the Greek, shared with all Greeks a contempt and detestation of manual labor, and he was shocked to the heart. He and the others were even more shocked when Diodorus shouted to the slaves, “Are you men or sickly worms? This must all be loaded before sunset or you will work by torches in the dark. Come then, let us move like men with a purpose and have done with it!” Again he had bent and seized a barrel and rolled it up the plank, and his muscles strained in his shoulders and legs and arms. It was obvious that he was enjoying himself. The slaves, spurred by whips, hurried back to work and, inspired by Diodorus, quickened their movements. He began to sing hoarsely in a rollicking rhythm, and the slaves laughed and sang with him. Long before sunset the ship was loaded. Not a single officer had assisted, and not even a foot soldier, for Diodorus had indicated, with a contemptuous glare, that he repudiated their assistance.

Then Diodorus stood among his officers and wiped himself with a kerchief one of them offered him, and he grinned at the ship. The captain approached him with awed respect, and Diodorus shouted, “Tell the effete lady-men in Rome that Diodorus Cyrinus, son of Priscus, himself helped to load this ship! Tell them, as they perfume themselves with nard and attar of roses and listen to the lutes and dip nightingale tongues in honey, that today you have seen a Roman work as Romans once worked, and as they must work again if Rome is to survive and not die forever among vases and flowers and singing-girls and wine and elegance.”

Then he had turned to his officers — who were blushing in shame for him — and had cursed loudly and had shouted again, “Where are your scars and your calluses, your muscles, and your brown shoulders, you exquisites? Do you know what war is, and labor, and the strength of bodies which live sparely and with fortitude? To Hades with you all! By Mercury, you are less men than these poor slaves!”

This was unpardonable. The slaves snickered among themselves, and the faces of the Roman officers had darkened ominously. But they dared not reply. Diodorus was quite capable of slapping an impudent face openly; he had done it often enough, even before foot soldiers and slaves.

Diodorus, unfortunately, was not done. He wrathfully surveyed his men, and continued, “Cincinnatus left his plow to save Rome, and he did not halt even to wash his stained hands or put his sandals on his soil-dusted feet. But not one of you would leave the arms of a Syrian whore to save the life of a man, or to uphold, in your jurisdiction, a law of Rome.”

He had swung away from them then, and had pounded back on the docks to his horse, and had galloped off home to the suburbs. He left his chariot behind to be brought by an officer to his stables, and Aeneas rode in it with the officer. Once at home, Aeneas had related the whole horrifying episode to Iris, who had listened in silence. He expected her to be appalled, as he was appalled, but she had said mildly, with her lovely smile, “The noble tribune was once my playmate in the house of Priscus. He was always a strenuous boy; he would sometimes carry me on his back and pretend that he was Jupiter in the guise of a bull and I Europa.”

She had watched the aghast expression on Aeneas’ face for a moment, and had added gently, “Ah, but we were only children then, dear one.”

There were times when Aeneas could not understand Iris, and he said pompously, “I see that you do not grasp the larger implications of this incredible episode of today. Diodorus is constantly talking of discipline, yet he publicly derided his officers before their men and the slaves. Does that enhance their authority?”

Iris understood that Diodorus’ wrath had not so much been expended on the men immediately about him but upon the modern mores and corruption of Rome, which he could not endure. They had been but the precipitating factor that had relieved the smoldering and chronic rage of the tribune. She sighed, and said to her husband, “I am certain he will never do that again.” Aeneas replied severely, “One can never be sure with such a capricious man. I confess I never understood him.”

The furious elation of Diodorus had lasted all through the evening meal. He had told Aurelia about it, and she had nodded with wifely wisdom, though the whole matter was beyond her comprehension. She let a little pause follow, and then had said with anxiety, as if her husband had told her nothing at all, “The little Rubria is again coughing blood, and is complaining of the pains in her arms and legs. The physician has ordered effusions on her throat and joints, and she is sleeping at last, though her face remains flushed. How sorrowful it is when a child suffers, a child who has never been healthy, and how much more sorrowful it is, dear husband, that I have given you only this weak little lamb and not strong sons.”

Diodorus immediately forgot his anger, and took his wife in his arms and kissed her. She was not revolted by the heavy stench of his sweat, but rather comforted. She wound her arms about his neck and said, “But I am still only twenty-five, and it may be that the gods will grant us sons. I must go to Antioch soon and make a special sacrifice to Juno.”

The child, Rubria, was heart of Diodorus’ heart, though he believed that only he knew this. He softly climbed the white stone stairway to her apartments and noiselessly moved aside the thick draperies of crimson silk. The child lay in the cool early twilight on her bed, sleeping, her nurse by her side. The small window was a square of scarlet, and purple shadows hovered in the corners of the room. Was it only the reflection of the setting sun which was reddening the little face, or was it that sinister and unknown fever? Diodorus bent over his daughter, and his indomitable heart fluttered at her fragility. Long thick black lashes trembled uneasily on the thin and brightened cheek; the pretty childish mouth burned. So sweet and dear a creature, so full of laughter and gaiety, even when in pain, so tender a dove! The gnarled hand of Diodorus touched the black sweep of hair on the white pillow, and he pleaded desperately to Aesculapius for his help. “Pray, you Master Physician, you son of Apollo, that you send Mercury on the wings of compassion to this child, who is more precious to me than my life, and that your daughter, Hygieia, look tenderly upon her. Mercury, hasten to her, for is she not like unto you, swift as fire, quick as the wind, changeful as an opal?”

He promised to sacrifice a cock to Aesculapius, who preferred that sacrifice, and a pair of white oxen to Mercury, with golden rings in their noses. Terror seized him as he again touched Rubria’s hair and saw the tremor of the small hands on the sheet. Surely he had honored the gods all his life, and they would not take from him his very heartbeat. Never have I feared a sword or a spear, nor any man, nor any thing, yet I am weakened by fear tonight, he said to himself. It is not that this illness is something new, but my soul trembles as if with premonition.

He renewed his prayers, and added one to Juno, the mother of children. To him the gods of Rome had never been depraved, not even Jupiter, for all his propensities with regard to maidens. He wondered if he should not implore Mars, his special deity, the patron of soldiers. He decided against it; Mars would not understand a soldier who held a child more precious and important even than war. Such a prayer to him might inspire his anger. Diodorus hastily besought Mercury again, with his winged sandals and his staff of serpents.

When Diodorus joined Aurelia again he found her in the anteroom of her chamber, industriously spinning fine wool into cloth for her child’s capitium. She was the very personification of a matron of old Rome as she sat there, her foot moving rhythmically on the treadle, her hand at the wheel, her black hair braided severely about her round head, her pink face serious and absorbed. Her white garments flowed about her full figure in modest folds, and sleeves half covered her voluptuous arms. To Diodorus she was a reassuring figure. Rather than wail uselessly over her child, she spun warm cloth for her. Diodorus touched her head lovingly with his hand, and then his lips. The busy foot and hand did not falter, but Aurelia smiled. “Why do you not, my beloved, walk among the gardens in the sunset? You will find comfort there, as always.” Her voice was steady and calm.

Diodorus thought of his books. Today, by special messenger, he had received a roll containing the philosophies of Philo. Rumor had it that Philo was considered superior to Aristotle. This Diodorus did not believe, but he was both excited and curious. But all at once a flatness and heaviness of heart came to him, and he decided to do as his wife had advised. The book could wait; he was too restless to give it his full and thoughtful attention.

He stepped out into the courtyard. A dark crimson was drifting through the fronds of the palms; the scent of jasmine rose in clouds in the warm air. The ornamental orange and lemon trees were globed in golden and green fruit. Insects hummed with a sound of thin wires, and suddenly a nightingale sang to the purpling sky. The white stones set among the exotic flower beds were flooded with heliotrope shadows, and a dim blue light filled the arches of the colonnades which surrounded the courtyard. A fountain, in which stood a marble faun, tinkled sweetly, mingled its frail song with the song of the nightingale. The mingled purple and crimson of the sunset glimmered in the bowl of the fountain, which was alive with brilliant little fish. Now the palms clattered a little in a freshening wind from the distant sea, and through the moving fronds of one Diodorus could see the gleaming radiance of the evening star. The trunks of the trees, set along the high walls of the yard, resembled gray-white ghosts.

No sound came from the high square of the house behind Diodorus; the pillars shimmered in the half-light as if made of some unsubstantial material and not marble. Diodorus found the silence suddenly oppressive; the voice of the nightingale failed to entrance him as usual. It was a voice that had no consolation in it, but only melancholy, and the fountain murmured of non-human sorrows. Diodorus, assaulted again by his loneliness, thought of Antioch, and the celebrations begun there in honor of Saturn. They would end in a general debauch, as usual, but at least there would be the sound of men and women. He considered riding back to Antioch and summoning a few of his officers who were the least repugnant to him. But he knew he would bore them; they would want to participate in the riotous gaiety, and he would just inhibit them. If only I had a companion, thought the lonely tribune. If only there was just one with whom I could talk, in order to drown out the voice of the fear in me, one with whom to share a cup of wine and discuss those things which are of importance to me. A philosopher, perhaps, or a poet, or just a man who is wise.

He heard the slightest movement, almost the breath of a movement, and he turned towards the fountain again. The sunset sky brightened for an instant above the muttering heads of the palms, and it struck on the fair head of a child leaning against the marble bowl of the fountain in complete enchantment, unaware of the presence of Diodorus.

Moving silently, Diodorus advanced towards the child, who was sitting on the coarse green grass and staring up at Rubria’s window. When he reached the opposite side of the wide and shallow bowl, Diodorus thought, Why, it is the young Lucanus, son of my freedman, Aeneas. His heart bounded with a nameless longing, and he thought of Iris, his old playmate, Iris with her aureate hair, her wonderful blue eyes, soft white flesh, and round, dimpled chin, and her slender Grecian nose. He heard, as from echoing down long and clouded corridors, the sound of her child’s laughter, the questioning of her call to him. Iris, for him, had not existed even as a remembered playmate since her marriage to that stilted and precise mediocrity of an Aeneas. But now he remembered that when he had been off on his campaigns, before the death of his parents, Iris had shone like a star in his mind, sweet, wise Iris, his mother’s young slave, his mother’s petted handmaiden who had been to her as a daughter.

He, a tribune, young and ambitious and stalwart, of unimpeachable family, had even dreamt of being married to Iris. His parents, he believed, in spite of their love for Iris, would have expired of humiliation if their son had condescended to a slave, and if she had said to him, “Where thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia.” Yet when he had heard of their deaths, while still stationed in Jerusalem, his first thought, after the initial pang of sorrow, had been of Iris. He had returned, to find her not only freed but married and pregnant, and he had put her sternly out of his mind. Surely, then, his loneliness had begun, and he had thought it merely a yearning to return to his active life in the Orient.

The whole courtyard filled with soft mauve shadows, in which the leaning head of Lucanus was like a yellow harvest moon. Diodorus could see his fine profile, and he thought, It is the face of the child, Iris. He had never been interested in children, except his daughter, Rubria, and though he had wished for sons he had thought of them as young soldiers, and his heirs. Now he peered at Lucanus, his eyes straining through the colored twilight, and again his heart bounded and was filled with tenderness.

Lucanus sat in motionless silence, still gazing at the dwindling square of Rubria’s window. He wore a thin white tunic; his long legs, so pale that they resembled alabaster, were folded under him. In his hands there lay a large stone of unusual form and hue, restless with dull light. The whole attitude of Lucanus was one of prayerful rapture, yet he was very still. His rosy lips were parted, and the hollows of his eyes were filled with a strange blueness. It was as if he were listening, and Diodorus, superstitious as were all Romans, watched with a kind of nervous fear, his skin prickling.

He spoke suddenly and loudly: “It is you, Lucanus.”

The boy did not start. He only moved a little and turned his entranced face to Diodorus. He did not leap to his feet; he merely sat there, the stone in his hands. It was as if he did not see the tribune at all.

Diodorus was about to speak again, more roughly, when the boy smiled and appeared to notice him for the first time. “I was praying for Rubria,” he said, and his voice was the voice of the young Iris.

Diodorus moved around the circle of the fountain, hesitated, then squatted on his heels and looked earnestly at the boy, who sat in such utter relaxation and bemusement before him. The tribune had removed his heavy military clothing on returning home; he wore a loose white tunic, belted with simple leather inlaid with silver. Under the thin material his browned body was square and hard, and his thick legs bulged with muscles. He folded his strong arms on his knees and contemplated Lucanus, who smiled at him with simple serenity.

Lucanus was neither awed nor frightened by the soldier. He regarded the fierce dark face, beaked and stern, as tranquilly as he would have regarded his father. The harsh and jutting chin did not alarm him, nor the sharp and penetrating black eyes set under black and swelling brows. But Diodorus, confronted with the very image of the child he had once known, was conscious of his own hard round head covered with stiff black hair, shorn and lusterless, and the crude strength of his disciplined body.

The boy had no business in this courtyard, thought Diodorus automatically. And then he was ashamed, remembering Iris. But what had he said? “I was praying for Rubria.” The two children were playmates, just as he and Iris had been playmates.

Diodorus softened his grating voice. “You are praying for Rubria, boy? Ah, she needs your prayers, the poor little one.”

“Yes, Master,” said Lucanus, seriously.

“To what god are you praying?” asked Diodorus. (Surely, he thought, the gods were especially touched by the prayers of innocents, and some of his pain lightened.)

Lucanus said, “To the Unknown God.”

Diodorus’ dark eyelids flickered in surprise. Lucanus was saying, “My father has taught me that He is everywhere, and in all things.” He extended the strange stone to Diodorus simply. “I found this today. It is very beautiful. Do you think He is here, and that He hears me?”

 

A Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell
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