Complete Works of Wilkie Collins (11 page)

‘See those fellows!’ cried one; ‘they are the waiters at our feast, and they mock us to our faces! Down with the filthy kitchen thieves!’

‘Excellently well said, Davus! — but who is to approach them? They stink at this distance!’

‘The rotten-bodied knaves have the noses of dogs and the carcases of goats.’

Then came a chorus of voices — ’Down with them! Down with them!’ In the midst of which an indignant freedman advanced to rebuke the mob, receiving, as the reward of his temerity, a shower of missiles and a volley of curses; after which he was thus addressed by a huge, greasy butcher, hoisted on his companions’ shoulders: —

‘By the soul of the emperor, could I get near you, you rogue, I would quarter you with my fingers alone! — A grinning scoundrel that jeers at others! A filthy flatterer that dirts the very ground he walks on! By the blood of the martyrs, should I fling the sweepings of the slaughter-house at him, he knows not where to get himself dried!’

 

‘Thou rag of a man,’ roared a neighbour of the indignant butcher’s, ‘dost thou frown upon the guests of thy master, the very scrapings of whose skin are worth more than thy whole carcase! It is easier to make a drinking-vessel of the skull of a flea than to make an honest man of such a villainous night-walker as thou art!’

‘Health and prosperity to our noble entertainer!’ shouted one section of the grateful crowd as the last speaker paused for breath.

‘Death to all knaves of parasites!’ chimed in another.

‘Honour to the citizens of Rome!’ roared a third party with modest enthusiasm.

‘Give that freedman our bones to pick!’ screamed an urchin from the outskirts of the crowd.

This ingenious piece of advice was immediately followed; and the populace gave vent to a shout of triumph as the unfortunate freedman, scared by a new volley of missiles, retreated with ignominious expedition to the shelter of his patron’s halls.

In the slight and purified specimen of the ‘table talk’ of a Roman mob which we have here ventured to exhibit, the reader will perceive that extraordinary mixture of servility and insolence which characterised not only the conversation but the actions of the lower orders of society at the period of which we write. Oppressed and degraded, on the one hand, to a point of misery scarcely conceivable to the public of the present day, the poorer classes in Rome were, on the other, invested with such a degree of moral license, and permitted such an extent of political privilege, as flattered their vanity into blinding their sense of indignation. Slaves in their season of servitude, masters in their hours of recreation, they presented, as a class, one of the most amazing social anomalies ever existing in any nation; and formed, in their dangerous and artificial position, one of the most important of the internal causes of the downfall of Rome.

The steps of the public baths were almost as crowded as the space before the neighbouring building. Incessant streams of people, either entering or departing, poured over the broad flagstones of its marble colonnades. This concourse, although composed in some parts of the same class of people as that assembled before the palace, presented a certain appearance of respectability. Here and there — chequering the dusky monotony of masses of dirty tunics — might be discerned the refreshing vision of a clean robe, or the grateful indication of a handsome person. Little groups, removed as far as possible from the neighbourhood of the noisy plebeians, were scattered about, either engaged in animated conversation, or listlessly succumbing to the lassitude induced by a recent bath. An instant’s attention to the subject of discourse among the more active of these individuals will aid us in pursuing our social revelations.

The loudest voice among the speakers at this particular moment proceeded from a tall, thin, sinister-looking man, who was haranguing a little group of listeners with great vehemence and fluency.

‘I tell you, Socius,’ said he, turning suddenly upon one of his companions, ‘that, unless new slave-laws are made, my calling is at an end. My patron’s estate requires incessant supplies of these wretches. I do my best to satisfy the demand, and the only result of my labour is, that the miscreants either endanger my life, or fly with impunity to join the gangs of robbers infesting our woods.’

‘Truly I am sorry for you; but what alteration would you have made in the slave-laws?’

‘I would empower bailiffs to slay upon the spot all slaves whom they thought disorderly, as an example to the rest!’

‘What would such a permission avail you? These creatures are necessary, and such a law would exterminate them in a few months. Can you not break their spirit with labour, bind their strength with chains, and vanquish their obstinacy with dungeons?’

 

‘All this I have done, but they die under the discipline, or escape from their prisons. I have now three hundred slaves on my patron’s estates. Against those born on our lands I have little to urge. Many of them, it is true, begin the day with weeping and end it with death; but for the most part, thanks to their diurnal allowance of stripes, they are tolerably submissive. It is with the wretches that I have been obliged to purchase from prisoners of war and the people of revolted towns that I am so dissatisfied. Punishments have no effect on them, they are incessantly indolent, sulky, desperate. It was but the other day that ten of them poisoned themselves while at work in the fields, and fifty more, after setting fire to a farm-house while my back was turned, escaped to join a gang of their companions, who are now robbers in the woods. These fellows, however, are the last of the troop who will perpetrate such offences. With the concurrence of my patron, I have adopted a plan that will henceforth tame them efficiently!’

‘Are you at liberty to communicate it?’

‘By the keys of St. Peter, I wish I could see it practised on every estate in the land! It is this: — Near a sulphur lake at some distance from my farm-house is a tract of marshy ground, overspread here and there by the ruins of an ancient slaughter-house. I propose to dig in this place several subterranean caverns, each of which shall be capable of holding twenty men. Here my mutinous slaves shall sleep after their day’s labour. The entrances shall be closed until morning with a large stone, on which I will have engraven this inscription: ‘These are the dormitories invented by Gordian, bailiff of Saturninus, a nobleman, for the reception of refractory slaves.’

‘Your plan is ingenious; but I suspect your slaves (so insensible to hardships are the brutal herd) will sleep as unconcernedly in their new dormitories as in their old.’

‘Sleep! It will be a most original species of repose that they will taste there! The stench of the sulphur lake will breathe Sabian odours for them over a couch of mud! Their anointing oil will be the slime of attendant reptiles! Their liquid perfumes will be the stagnant oozings from their chamber roof! Their music will be the croaking of frogs and the humming of gnats; and as for their adornments, why, they will be decked forth with head-garlands of twining worms, and movable brooches of cockchafers and toads! Tell me now, most sagacious Socius, do you still think that amidst such luxuries as these my slaves will sleep?’

‘No; they will die.’

‘You are again wrong. They will curse and rave perhaps, but that is of no consequence. They will work the longer above ground to shorten the term of their repose beneath. They will wake at an instant’s notice, and come forth at a moment’s signal. I have no fear of their dying!’

‘Do you leave Rome soon?’

‘I go this evening, taking with me such a supply of trustworthy assistants as will enable me to execute my plan without delay. Farewell, Socius!’

‘Most ingenious of bailiffs, I bid you farewell!’

As the worthy Gordian stalked off, big with the dignity of his new projects, the gestures and tones of a man who formed one of a little group collected in a remote part of the portico he was about to quit attracted his attention. Curiosity formed as conspicuous an ingredient in this man’s character as cruelty. He stole behind the base of a neighbouring pillar; and, as the frequent repetition of the word ‘Goths’ struck his ear (the report of that nation’s impending invasion having by this time reached Rome), he carefully disposed himself to listen with the most implicit attention to the speaker’s voice.

 

‘Goths!’ cried the man, in the stern, concentrated accents of despair. ‘Is there one among us to whom this report of their advance upon Rome does not speak of hope rather than of dread? Have we a chance of rising from the degradation forced on us by our superiors until this den of heartless triflers and shameless cowards is swept from the very earth that it pollutes!’

‘Your sentiments on the evils of our condition are undoubtedly most just,’ observed a fat, pompous man, to whom the preceding remarks had been addressed, ‘but I cannot desire the reform you so ardently hope for. Think of the degradation of being conquered by barbarians!’

‘I am the exile of my country’s privileges. What interest have I in upholding her honour — if honour she really has!’ replied the first speaker.

‘Nay! Your expressions are too severe. You are too discontented to be just.’

‘Am I! Hear me for a moment, and you will change your opinion. You see me now by my bearing and appearance superior to yonder plebeian herd. You doubtless think that I live at my ease in the world, that I can feel no anxiety for the future about my bodily necessities. What would you say were I to tell you that if I want another meal, a lodging for to-night, a fresh robe for tomorrow, I must rob or flatter some great man to gain them? Yet so it is. I am hopeless, friendless, destitute. In the whole of the Empire there is not an honest calling in which I can take refuge. I must become a pander or a parasite — a hired tyrant over slaves, or a chartered groveller beneath nobles — if I would not starve miserably in the streets, or rob openly in the woods! This is what I am. Now listen to what I was. I was born free. I inherited from my father a farm which he had successfully defended from the encroachments of the rich, at the expense of his comfort, his health, and his life. When I succeeded to his lands, I determined to protect them in my time as studiously as he had defended them in his. I worked unintermittingly: I enlarged my house, I improved my fields, I increased my flocks. One after another I despised the threats and defeated the wiles of my noble neighbours, who desired possession of my estate to swell their own territorial grandeur. In process of time I married and had a child. I believed that I was picked out from my race as a fortunate man — when one night I was attacked by robbers: slaves made desperate by the cruelty of their wealthy masters. They ravaged my cornfields, they deprived me of my flocks. When I demanded redress, I was told to sell my lands to those who could defend them — to those rich nobles whose tyranny had organised the band of wretches who had spoiled me of my possessions, and to whose fraud-gotten treasures the government were well pleased to grant that protection which they had denied to my honest hoards. In my pride I determined that I would still be independent. I planted new crops. With the little remnant of my money I hired fresh servants and bought more flocks. I had just recovered from my first disaster when I became the victim of a second. I was again attacked. This time we had arms, and we attempted to defend ourselves. My wife was slain before my eyes; my house was burnt to the ground; I myself only escaped, mutilated with wounds; my child soon afterwards pined and died. I had no wife, no offspring, no house, no money. My fields still stretched round me, but I had none to cultivate them. My walls still tottered at my feet, but I had none to rear them again, none to inhabit them if they were reared. My father’s lands were now become a wilderness to me. I was too proud to sell them to my rich neighbour; I preferred to leave them before I saw them the prey of a tyrant, whose rank had triumphed over my industry, and who is now able to boast that he can travel over ten leagues of senatorial property untainted by the propinquity of a husbandman’s farm. Houseless, homeless, friendless, I have come to Rome alone in my affliction, helpless in my degradation! Do you wonder now that I am careless about the honour of my country? I would have served her with my life and my possessions when she was worthy of my service; but she has cast me off, and I care not who conquers her. I say to the Goths — with thousands who suffer the same tribulation that I now undergo — ”Enter our gates! Level our palaces to the ground! Confound, if you will, in one common slaughter, we that are victims with those that are tyrants! Your invasion will bring new lords to the land. They cannot crush it more — they may oppress it less. Our posterity may gain their rights by the sacrifice of lives that our country has made worthless. Romans though we are, we are ready to suffer and submit!”‘

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