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Книга Imperium. Содержание - Roll XVII

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“So you think that you could hide yourself in there, and make an account of what is said?”

“Not me,” scoffed Caelius. “I am no secretary. I was thinking of Tiro here,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder, “with his miraculous shorthand.”

I WOULD LIKE TO BE ABLE TO BOAST that I volunteered readily for this suicidal assignment. But it would not be true. On the contrary, I threw up all manner of practical objections to Caelius’s scheme. How would I enter Crassus’s house undetected? How would I leave it? How would I determine which speaker was which from the babble of voices if I was concealed behind a screen? But to all my questions Caelius had answers. The essential fact was that I was terrified. “What if I am caught,” I protested to Cicero, finally coming to the crux of what really bothered me, “and tortured? I cannot claim to be so courageous that I would not betray you.”

“Cicero can simply deny any knowledge of what you were doing,” said Caelius-unhelpfully, I thought, from my point of view. “Besides, everyone knows that evidence obtained under torture is unreliable.”

“I am beginning to feel faint,” I joked feebly.

“Compose yourself, Tiro,” said Cicero, who had become increasingly excited the more he heard. “There would be no torture and no trial. I would make sure of that. If you were detected, I would negotiate your release, and I would pay any price to see that you were unharmed.” He took both my hands in that sincere double grip of his and looked deep into my eyes. “You are more my second brother than my slave, Tiro, and have been ever since we sat and learned philosophy together in Athens all those years ago-do you remember? I should have discussed your freedom with you before now, but somehow there has always seemed to be some fresh crisis to distract me. So let me tell you now, with Caelius here as my witness, that it is my intention to give you your liberty-yes, and that simple life in the country you have long desired so much. And I see a day when I shall ride over from my place to your little farm, and sit in your garden, and as we watch the sun go down over some distant, dusty olive grove or vineyard, we shall discuss the great adventures we have had together.” He let go of my hands, and this rustic vision trembled on the warm dusky air an instant longer, then faded. “Now,” he said briskly, “this offer of mine is not conditional in any way on your undertaking this mission-let me make that clear: you have earned it many times over already. I would never order you to put yourself in danger. You know how badly my cause stands tonight. You must do whatever you think best.”

Those were very nearly his exact words: how could I forget them?


THE CONFERENCE WAS SET FOR NIGHTFALL, which meant there was no time to be lost. As the sun vanished behind the brow of the Esquiline, and as I climbed the slope of the Palatine Hill for the second time that day, I had a disturbing premonition that I was walking into a trap. For how could I, or Cicero for that matter, be certain that Caelius had not transferred his loyalty to Crassus? Indeed, was “loyalty” not an absurd word to apply to whatever shifting, temporary focus of amusement seized the fancy of my young companion? But there was nothing to be done about it now. Caelius was already leading me down a small alley toward the back of Crassus’s house. Pulling aside a thick curtain of trailing ivy, he uncovered a tiny, iron-studded door, which looked to have long since rusted shut. But a sharp jab from his shoulder caused it to swing silently open and we jumped down into an empty storeroom.

Like Catilina’s, the house had been added to over the centuries, so that I quickly lost track of our route as we followed the winding passages. Crassus was famous for the number of highly skilled slaves he owned-he hired them out, as a kind of employment agent-and with so many swarming around on duty it seemed impossible that we could reach our destination undetected. But if Caelius had developed any skill during his years of legal study in Rome, it was for illicit entry and exit. We cut across an inner courtyard, hid in an antechamber while a maid went by, then stepped into a big, deserted room, hung with fine tapestries from Babylon and Corinth. Perhaps twenty gilt chairs had been arranged in the center in a semicircle, and numerous lamps and candelabra were lit around the perimeter. Caelius quickly seized one of the lamps, crossed the floor, and lifted the edge of a heavy woollen tapestry depicting Diana bringing down a stag with a spear. Behind it was an alcove, of the sort in which a statue might stand, just high enough and deep enough to take a man, with a little ledge near the top for a lamp. I stepped inside smartly, for I could hear loud male voices coming closer. Caelius put a finger to his lips, winked at me, and carefully replaced the tapestry. His rapid footsteps faded and I was alone.

To begin with I was blind, but gradually I became used to the weak glow of the oil lamp just behind my shoulder. When I put my eye to the tapestry I found that tiny spy holes had been bored through the thick material that gave me a complete view of the room. I heard more footsteps, and then abruptly my vision was obscured by the back of a wrinkled bald pink head, and Crassus’s voice rang out in my ears-so loud I almost stumbled forward in shock-calling genially to his visitors to follow him. He moved away and the shapes of other men passed by on their way to take their places: the loose-limbed Catilina; Hybrida, with his drinker’s face; Caesar, looking sleek and dandified; the impeccable Lentulus Sura; Mucius, the hero of the afternoon; and a couple of notorious bribery agents-these I recognized, together with various other senators who were seeking the tribuneship. They all seemed in an excellent mood, joking with one another, and Crassus had to clap his hands to get their attention.

“Gentlemen,” he said, standing before them with his back to me, “thank you for attending. We have much to discuss and not long in which to do it. The first item on the agenda is Egypt. Caesar?”

Crassus sat, and Caesar stood. He stroked back a stray sparse hair and tucked it behind his ear with his index finger. Very carefully, so as not to make a sound, I opened my notebook, withdrew my stylus, and, as Caesar started to speak in his unmistakably harsh voice, I started to write.

IT IS, IF YOU WILL FORGIVE a little immodesty at this juncture, the most wonderful invention, my shorthand system. Although I concede that Xenophon had some primitive version nearly four centuries before me, that was more of a private aid to composition than proper stenography, and besides it was only suitable for Greek, whereas mine compresses the whole of Latin, with its large vocabulary and complex grammar, into four thousand symbols. And it does so, moreover, in such a way that the system can be taught to any willing pupil; in theory even a woman could become a stenographer.

As those who have the skill will know, few things wreak greater havoc with shorthand than trembling fingers. Anxiety renders the digits as dexterous as Lucanian sausages, and I had feared my nervousness that night would be an impediment to a fast script. But once I was under way I found the process oddly soothing. I did not have time to stop and consider what I was writing. I heard the words-Egypt, colonists, public land, commissioners-without remotely comprehending their meaning; my ambition was merely to keep pace with their delivery. In fact, the greatest practical difficulty I had was the heat: it was like a furnace in that confined place; the sweat ran in stinging rivulets into my eyes and the perspiration from my palms made my stylus slippery to grip. Only occasionally, when I had to lean forward and press my eye to the fabric to check the identity of the speaker, did I realize the enormity of the risk I was taking. Then I experienced a sensation of terrifying vulnerability, made worse by the fact that the audience often seemed to be staring directly at me. Catilina in particular appeared fascinated by the scene on the tapestry which concealed me, and my worst moment of the night by far came right at the end, when Crassus declared the conference over. “And when we meet again,” he said, “the destiny of all of us, and of Rome, will have been changed forever.” The moment the applause was finished, Catilina rose from his seat and walked directly toward me, and as I shrank back against the wall, he ran his palm down the tapestry, barely a hand’s breadth from my sweating face. The way that bulge traveled before my gaze still has the power to wake me in the night with a shout. But all he wished to do was compliment Crassus on the workmanship, and after a brief discussion about where it had been purchased, and-inevitably with Crassus-how much it had cost, the two men moved away.

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