The serial, Life of Saint Locusta, is now available as a read-through novel. It is the same text as published on this short fiction site in episodes, but arranged as ordinary chapters in chronological order. It looks like a single post with a single date on it, but if you scroll down you are likely to find new chapters from time to time.

Life of Saint Locusta: a serial.

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A collection of short fiction by me, some of it published elsewhere, nothing under anyone else’s copyright, except for one or two pieces (uncertain).

This is an amateur’s shot at reviving short fiction as pure yarn. Some of the stories are a touch serious or reflective, not so plot-heavy. But much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect some all-artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I may try to incorporate a twist, through sheer stubbornness or bad taste.

I try not to treat characters as furniture or mere plot pivots, but they are sketched, rather than painted. I’m not afraid of using the now unfashionable adverb or other descriptive flourish – but let’s move that story along!

Lit-fic and creative writing may be fine things, but there is none of that to be had here. My prose will rarely be sinewy, luminous, supple, lucid, muscular, spare or taut. I won’t use the word “arc” at all, unless the topic is geometry. Things will merely drop, fall or tumble, they will not arc. I’ve got it in for “arc”.

In most of my gloomy stories, I contrive happy or uplifting endings, even when such seem impossible. That’s just to cheer everybody up, myself included. In accounts of villainy, bad guys won’t always get their comeuppance, but if if you wait till that last paragraph…maybe!

For those who find this undertaking to be dated and lacking a worthy purpose, you are probably right. If you find some of the stories downright pulpy, you are certainly right.

As a mercy to those who prefer more substance, even in their lighter reading, my intention is to stop after fifty entries, though that is an intention, not, as they say in Australian politics, a core commitment. [Note: began publishing more stories August 2013. See? Told you it was just an intention.]


In the historical category, two views of the French Revolution, by two if its shapers. Meet the Great Survivors…




A chain letter down the centuries…



Overlapping our fantasy category, a venerable Jewish doctor admits his age…



A sleepy queen entertains…



An unlikely encounter in post-war Rome, over bad carbonara.



Romane memento!



The Middle East, and all that.



Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.













It’s never over till…


Speaking of the game…



In the category of crime and detection, an insurance expert has trouble unwinding on holidays, relates some favourite cases…





A master criminal roams the bush, visits the city. We don’t approve of him at all, however…









Maigret comes to Australia. Really!



Evil is not an Ikea purchase. My best opening sentence?



Are you insured?



You will pay if you skip this one:



A twisty track:



In the category of fantasy and the improbable, some ghosts…






Strange entities…





Bent fairy tales…






Guardian angels: not the glamour job you’d think.



That little opinion of yours…



There’s even a time travel yarn. An easy, pulpy read. You won’t know where the minutes went…



God knows what this is about…


Or what this is about…




Australian interest, bush first…









Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…






Sydney in that Decade of Greed, and whatever you call the nineties…






Sports fans!



Getting that perfect balance between no-life and no-work…




Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…









Novella length.  Come on, they can’t all be short…




A miscellany of pulp: a bit silly, most with strong final twists, what you want…













Uh-oh. He publishes his own poetry…


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“We might do well to lower our profiles and our voices.”

The old soldier squatted down and leaned back on a pine trunk.

“There is a lot to tell about what happened in that forest ten years ago, and much more to guess at. How much history can a young girl want to hear? I’ll make it brief.”


Locusta lay down on her side, but propped on one elbow.

“No, I want to hear all. Your words won’t be wasted. I forget nothing, ponder everything. That’s how I am.”

“I’ve noticed.”


“I suppose that even in the Morgarita Forest you’ve heard the story of the lost legions. A Gaul should find it a tragedy, if for reasons different from those of a Roman patriot. As a Gallic soldier in the armies of Rome I’ve always known that Germans will likely ravage Gaul before Rome. Should the tribes ever get tired of slaughtering one another, this province will feel what I have felt in soldiering beyond the Rhine.

“In any case, when the events took place my loyalty was to my legion, far more than to any place or people. That’s how it is when you spend your life shoulder to shoulder with comrades in a coordinated force which is truly one, whose standards survive the lives of its individuals through centuries. But these are things hard to explain.

“The annihilation of three choice legions! Unthinkable, yet it happened, and in the space of days, with barely a hint of the real danger before the event…except for the man in charge, who had more than just a hint. For such an unlikely disaster to happen, blunders, lies, arrogance, treachery, gullibility and stupidity were needed, and in abundance. I was only there at the start and in the aftermath – for reasons I’ll explain – which is why I’m alive. Few can tell you more than I, and I know only a part of the colossal folly which Emperor Augustus was still bewailing on his death bed.

“Two men were at the centre of the story.

“One was Varus, supreme commander of the three legions and governor of Germania. He was not a complete fool, having chosen the side of Augustus in the civil war, married a daughter of Agrippa – half sister of the Lady Agrippina – and made good use of his various terms of office. As governor of Syria he pacified the region and made himself rich. A couple of thousand crucifixions are said to have quietened down the Jews when they got restless after the death of King Herod.

“While we were with Varus in the west, most of our armies were busy on the other side of Rome’s empire, dealing with the great revolt of Pannonia. The present emperor was there in the east, as was Germanicus – with less success than some might think. So the three legions of the Rhine were of utmost importance to an empire whose power was drastically stretched. Varus, like Augustus then and like General Germanicus now, thought it a good idea to impose Roman power in the usual way: by force, taxes and the introduction of Roman commerce, laws, amenities and so on. Of course, Germanicus has his way of making it seem good and plausible and even nice, wants to raise the Germans up after he’s belted them harder than anyone’s been belted. I think the present emperor, Tiberius, is a bit wiser…but he’s not anybody’s darling is he? Poor old sod.

“So there we were in Germany under Varus, well beyond the Rhine, extracting taxes from tribespeople who had little idea of producing surpluses for export or tax and no idea of central government. Where Roman laws are cruel, theirs are kind; where Roman laws are kind, theirs are cruel. The Roman world is dry and well-lit and ordered; the German world is damp and without…without edges and definition, if that makes sense. A German’s voice comes from his throat, as if every utterance is also an emotion, never just a thought. Ah, but the truth is I don’t understand them…which gives me more understanding than General Germanicus, who still dreams of a Romanised Germania.

“The other main character in all this was Arminius. He was a German prince who had been taken to Rome as a child, as security for his father’s continued loyalty to Rome. Not only did he adapt, he became a successful officer, a citizen of Rome and then an eques, a knight. That’s about as high as a foreigner can go in the Roman world, unless you’re Cleopatra. From this you’ll conclude that Arminius, whom the Germans call Herman, was no ordinary fellow. Nor would you be surprised to learn that Varus brought him back to Germany as a trusted officer with local knowledge and contacts.

“The question I cannot answer is: What was in Arminius’ mind? Was he simply treacherous? I know that nothing could ever make me disloyal to my legion, whatever I thought of Rome. But Arminius was a German, not a Gaul, and he led a Roman cohort of German cavalry.

“Was he disgusted by the treatment of his countrymen at the hands of Roman masters? Roman cruelty was not worse than German cruelty, but it was foreign, incomprehensible cruelty, legalistic and measured like grain or money. Perhaps Arminius came as liberator. Perhaps.

“More likely, judging from his recent actions, he was a capable and fiercely ambitious young man who saw the chance to be king or emperor of Germany, having risen as high as he could in the Roman world. He had fought in Pannonia, knew of many eastern potentates and empires before this present Roman empire. If there had been kings and emperors in the east, if there were still eastern monarchies at least partly independent of Rome, why not a kingdom in the west, a German empire even? If that is what he thought – and still thinks – then he is a courageous and gifted madman who knows less about the German mind than do I.

“Mad or not, Arminius was daring, cunning, and he was lucky.

“With autumn deepening it was time for the legions to transfer from the middle of Germania, back to winter quarters near the Rhine. It was a matter of a straightforward and well-provisioned march through easy country. The position I occupied was special:  quartermaster in charge of all monies and valuables. My reputation for honesty was well-earned, I am also both vigilant and suspicious, an ideal treasurer.

“I rode, in carriage or on horseback, in the middle of my legion, supported by reliable men I had hand-picked over the years. We had a special formation for marching, with extra men, a couple of them were chosen youths whose vision and reactions were perfect and who had no other job than to watch constantly from the main transport vehicles; getting past my men to that treasure was one of the hardest things an enemy or marauding force could attempt.

“In camp one night, Arminius came to Varus with a story of a minor revolt occurring nearby, on the other side of some forest. He suggested that it might be worthwhile for the army to divert through the forest, called Teutoburg, and deal with the troubles, which they could do easily. When Varus asked if there were any foreseeable difficulties at all, Arminius assured him that the road through the Teutoburg was good and that weather was likely to be favourable. Because of the modest scale of the revolt, there would be little loss of time in getting to winter quarters by what was simply an alternative route.

“The rest may seem incredible, but it happened. Firstly, Arminius offered to go ahead both to scout and occupy the flanks with his German cavalry, used to such terrain. Varus agreed to this.

“On the very same night, Segestes, a German chieftain and strong Roman ally, heard of the plan and warned Varus that Arminius was himself planning a major revolt, and had already joined many of the tribes in a confederacy. The Teutoburg was a trap.

“Varus was a vain man to whom losing face, even for a second, was like losing a limb. Going back on a decision was weakness, as far as he was concerned. On top of some necessary Roman arrogance, he was conceited and a snob, and could not bear the thought of a German dependent prince like Segestes dictating policy or strategy.

“Yet on this occasion, so great were the stakes that he might well have reversed his decision.

“The stubborn character of Varus explains in part the colossal stupidity of marching a Roman army into the worst possible terrain and doing so on the word of a man openly accused of treachery. He thought he knew Arminius, he certainly knew nothing of the forest.

“Somebody else may have swayed Varus.

“Merens was a tribune who served as quartermaster-general, and as such he was my administrative superior during troop movements. He controlled all supplies, treasure, baggage, weaponry and so on. His expertise on terrain and transport was never doubted, and his influence over Varus – and just about everybody else  – was strong due to his remarkable gifts and captivating character. He was one of those men who rule wherever they go, regardless of actual rank. He had the appearance of a Greek statue, even in middle age, and his charm was such that he never left any man feeling lessened by an encounter. The spell he could lay on Varus he could lay on the meanest slave. All wanted to serve Merens, accommodate him.

“One man alone was unconvinced by Merens: a vigilant and suspicious army treasurer who had spent a lifetime recruiting probity. Me! (My Latin name is Probus, incidentally.) I was fond of my superior, responded to his wit and charm like everybody else, felt the power of what Greeks call his charisma…but for some reason I knew I would never have chosen him to join our treasury ranks and stand guard alongside me. Perhaps it was the company he kept closest about him, drinkers and bully boys who were apt for anything, men he alone could control. He often joked that he kept these men in tow because he missed his Molossian hunting dogs. On more than one occasion regimental justice was not meted out because the offender was one of Merens’ “pack”, as we called them.

“Exceptions were made for Merens, and Merens made exceptions. That did not sit well with me. The legion is order and precedence or it ceases to be the legion. No, I liked the man – loved him perhaps – but he did not sit well with me. I suspect Merens knew it, despite his constant praise and cordiality toward me and the perfect efficiency I put into serving him.

“The most loathsome bully in his entourage was a thug nicknamed Molossus, because of his resemblance to one of that breed of dog. He was a decanus, a soldier who commands the smallest unit of an army, a tent party; he had been seconded into Merens’ personal service and had a name for extracting taxes nobody else could extract. That made him useful to both Merens and Varus. Varus had despoiled Syria during his governorship, but still craved money. The difficulty of getting money out of Germans enraged him; anyone who could lessen that difficulty found favour with him. I do not know what dealings were done between Merens and Varus, but I’m sure there were plenty. What could I do? I did my job perfectly, and insisted my men do theirs perfectly.

“Why did Varus send his eventual destroyer on ahead to protect his flanks? Why did he steer three superb legions of the Emperor Augustus into the Teutoburg Forest and toward their doom? After he had been told by Rome’s closest German ally that it was a trap and that Arminius was a traitor?

“I have often thought that only one person had the position close to Varus and the mesmerising persuasiveness to move him against all sense and reason. Up till today that person’s possible motive may have occurred to me, but I have put it out of my mind, as too improbable…and too dishonouring. Besides, that person lay dead in the forest, like all the others. But who else could have persuaded a Roman supreme commander to walk the best army in the world into an obvious ambush…and into the only terrain where it could possibly be beaten?



“Progressing toward the Teutoburg we could see columns of smoke rising beyond it. We naturally thought that rebels or bandits were ravaging a settlement somewhere. The smoke was actually from remote garrisons and watch towers which Arminius himself had captured and burnt. He had not only destroyed all means of discerning his movements and those of his German confederates, he had also made a good show for us. The smoke convinced Varus of the need to act against the fictitious minor revolt beyond the Teutoburg, while the actual revolt was enormous, and lay waiting within the forest.

“Three days after Arminius had gone ahead with his his cavalry, the entire army took a turn into a dark place from which it would never emerge.”



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Locusta, still tender from the whipping but moving freely at last, had no trouble with the two large baskets.

From the edge of town she strode south, below a ridge which overlooked the river.

Where the shrubby ground gave way to fir forest, she slowed her pace and began to peer about. It was not long till she found a cluster of saffron caps. While picking, she was careful to nip off only what was above ground and to place the mushrooms in her loosely woven basket in such a way that they could drop and spread spores as she moved about. (Locusta did not know of spores, but knew from her forest years that when mushrooms were harvested into tight cloth or clay containers there were fewer of them in succeeding seasons.)

Heading from the forest to the river, she paused at a thicket overrun by sarsparilla vine. Tracing one vine to its base, she scraped and pulled till a fat root came loose. Then she took a second root – but no more.

She descended to the river where many willows were growing. Running practised fingers along the bark of one tree she selected an area of trunk and flaked away small quantities of bark. She then repeated the process on several other willows, taking only small amounts of bark from each.

Above her at this point, the ridge dropped away sharply, with creepers spilling over the rim. She trudged up to the foot of the cliff and placed her baskets on the steep ground, being careful not to let her harvest of mushrooms and medicines tumble out. From one of her baskets she drew a pot, its mouth stopped with cloth.

Locusta looked about to make sure there were no goat herders nearby, the only people likely to have business on such steep ground. When she was certain, she called, but not too loudly, into the hollow below an overhang:

“If you speak Gallic…here is a pot of farrum, flavoured with garum and mushrooms. I’ll leave it here, but you must be careful to leave the pot out for me tomorrow, when I will bring you another pot. I can’t steal too many pots…

“If you want to speak with me now, then do so. Otherwise…till tomorrow.”

There was no reply.

Locusta gathered up her baskets and headed back to town.


That evening, Actis remarked:

“You know, Locusta, we’re missing a small cooking pot.”

“I know. I took it to the forest and left it there.”

“I see. Now, I do appreciate you gathering medicines for us…but we also need our pots. I use that one for boiling willow. Did you just forget it? And why did you take it there?”

“Oh, sort of an insect trap. We often use insects as medicine and food, back in the Morgarita…”

Actis shook his head and gave her as stern a look as he dared give.

“Locusta, would you ever lie to me?”

“Lie to you?”

“Yes, lie.”

“Why…yes, to tell you the truth.”

“Riddled like a Greek!”

She gave one of her rare smiles.


Locusta headed out as she had done the day before, carrying the same baskets.

At first she paused on a grassy flat to gather field mushrooms which had only been buttons the day before. Then she made her way above the fir forest where a seldom used road ran south atop the ridge.

Along the road she found wild roses and blackberries, all fruiting well in the autumn warmth. She spent a good half hour filling the baskets with the berries before half-descending the slope where it was less sheer and then walking back north, staying high, to the spot where she had left the pot.

It was there. And it was completely clean and dry.

Locusta put it in her basket and placed another pot of food in its place. Her eye was drawn to a movement in the bushes at the very top of the overhang. She spoke toward that spot, instead of toward the hollow beneath.

“If I walk back through the fir forest there are places where one can talk without being seen.”

Without more words she headed back toward the town, taking the slender goat track which led toward and through the forest.

As she progressed through the trees she flicked her eyes to the side, aware of being followed. Where the canopy was darkest and the pine trunks thickest, she paused and waited. At last, a strange voice from behind one of the trunks:

“Thank you for the food. You understand I have to be careful.”

“Well, you’ve probably worked out that if I had wanted to betray your whereabouts the soldiers would be all about us by now…But it seems you are a native Gaul, by the way you speak.”

“Born near Lugdunum.”

“But served in Germany…with Germanicus?”

“With him. And others.”

A man stepped forward into her vision. He matched the circulated description: a scrawny veteran with grey hair and a wound across the base of his neck.

“How did you know where I was hiding? And who I am?”

“I’ve spent my life dodging the Morgarita wolves. I’m keen to the slightest rustle or sound. I saw the creepers move in front of your cave, then noticed the fresh mussel shells you’d thrown down the embankment. “

“And from just that…you knew? But I might simply have been a hermit, a goat herder.”

“I know a fresh camp from an old one. If a hermit had been living here there would have been many old shells and bones, a smell of fire, the creepers thinner at the entrance. No herder would need to live out here with the town and better shelter so close. I know wild places, who goes into them and why.”

“You notice so much? What else have you noticed?”

“Nothing else. But I’ve asked myself a question. They say you are a deserter from General Germanicus’ entourage. Why would a man risk such a thing when Germanicus was merely touring the empire on his way back to Rome and to parades in his honour?”

“Why, do you think?”

Locusta said nothing, as she stooped to pick a small saffron cap. At last:

“I think there are people around here who are far too eager to catch you, and perhaps silence you. You have come from Germany, and they may be from Germany long ago. If they are the people I’m thinking about, everybody fears them. So you might well fear them.”

The man stepped a little closer, lowering his voice:

“When I entered the big wine shop by the gate to the garrison I recognised him. Years had passed, but the wound alone – the wound I had made – was enough to identify him.”


“He had a different name when I hacked his face. Unfortunately, he recognised me, almost as fast as I recognised him. At first he seemed scared, thought I was a ghost, but with the help of his bodyguard he soon had me gagged with my hands bound. Nobody in that shop raised a finger against them.”

“Yet you got away?”

“They hesitated. They’d dragged me to the lane behind the shop and beaten me. I was pretending to be unconscious as they argued over what to do next. You see, I was in the general’s entourage. They had to decide exactly what to do with me and how to do it discreetly. You don’t cross Germanicus, no matter who you are.

“When they were most distracted by their disputes I jumped to my feet and ran. I couldn’t cry out for the gag, my hands were tied…All I could do was run head first toward the blackness at the end of the lane. After that I just kept running, till I was rushing through bushes, and then I was sliding down a stony embankment. By a miracle I did no damage to myself, and ended on a marshy flat. My only chance was to go on using the darkness…

“I guessed that I would reach the river if I kept running lower, and I did reach it. Being a veteran of forest warfare, I waded the river, made plenty of tracks and disturbed lots of rocks going up the opposite embankment…then reversed back down to the water.

“By the time they had torches and extra searchers I’d already waded back in this direction – the least likely one – and found a cave. They ended up chasing about on the other side of the river all night. In the morning they hunted along the river to the north, away from town and gorge, the most likely direction for me to run.”

The man paused his account.

“Young lady, I see some bad welts about your neck and even above your heels. You’ve been flogged, regimental-style by the look of it. Vine branches?”


“You…you’re a slave?”

“No, I took the whipping to avoid slavery. It’s a very long story. I’ve survived. Now it’s a matter of how you are going to survive.”

“Indeed…Another question: when the men had me on the ground and were discussing how to do away with me they mentioned their master…”

“Yes, Lollio. He’s supposed to be the most powerful landowner in these parts.”

“Have you seen this man?”

“No. But I know he is Caniculus’ employer. They arrived in the region together, bringing a great deal of money.”

“Canic…You mean the man whom I recognised and whom you call Caniculus came here with an employer, someone who appeared already to be his boss or master? Someone then, or at least now, known as Lollio? And they had treasure of some sort?”

“That’s what I’ve been told. This Lollio came here many years ago with Caniculus and a bodyguard of German thugs.”

“How long ago? Ten years?”

“Something like ten years.”

“And you say they came from Germany!”

“The bodyguard was composed of Germans, as I’ve been told. One might assume…”

“So the man you know as Caniculus…and this Lollio…”

His voice trailed off and fell he into thought. Locusta gave him time, then:

“I’m guessing that you knew somebody else, as well as Caniculus. And that he also may have changed his identity?”

The man replied almost dreamily:

“What I’m suspecting…It doesn’t seem possible…And yet…”

“Perhaps if you explain a bit more it may help.”

“Explain? Perhaps I should. But in order to explain, young lady, I must first tell you about a place called the Teutoburg Forest by some…

“But a place which Romans know simply as hell!”



Posted in HISTORICAL | 4 Comments


The shop was filled with the perfume of grilling mushrooms, which Locusta was painting with a brush of fresh herbs steeped in olive oil, turning each cap with intricate care. At moments, in the light from the brazier, she looked to Actis like the playful child she had never been – and like the child he had never had.

“And what else did you find on your first walk out of town, young lady?”

“Oh, Actis, there was so much! In the little fir forest along the slope I found all these ceps and milk caps and ink caps, along with slippery jacks for drying…oh, so many mushrooms!”

“None toxic?”

“Hmm. I know where those are now, if I need them. But no…these are all fine for eating. If you have jars I’ll pickle lots more before winter. Why these townspeople just leave them to grow and die…”

“These people are mostly descendants of mobile city folk, camp followers. Or they are former workers from these vast new farms the Romans call latifundia, and glad never to look at a piece of land again. It’s not in their nature to gather wild things while they can buy food from a store. A few fish and grow vegetables, but not many. The snail gatherers and eel catchers sell their produce for a fortune in Lugdunum; nobody here would pay the prices. The soldiers of the garrison have not lived off the land in decades. Truth is, we are a typical urban lot, interested in gossip, entertainments and money. A miniature Rome. What else did you find?”

“Well, there are many lowland and open land plants which are strange to me still, but I found yarrow, knit bone, wild garlic. And burdock! Some of it had tender roots which we can have in soup tomorrow. And I brought dandelion, of course, from the river flat. Where it was part shaded the leaves are much sweeter…Now, I think these mushrooms are ready to add to our farrum, as soon as our guest arrives.”

“Lady, Master Actis…I’m here. Not late, I hope.”

They looked over to the doorway, where little Virio stood, his blushing face dipped, bundles about to slide from his overloaded arms.

“Welcome, Virio. Locusta has just finished grilling mushrooms to flavour our usual garrison mush. If they taste like they smell…But come in, come in.”

“I…brought the tools and other things you may need for making the larger mortar bowls you need. Our quartermaster gives his permission for the week’s loan. Tomorrow I will bring a fat oak knot which will be perfect for the largest bowl. If I have time I can do all the shaping. If not, I am good at hardening and finishing wood…”

Locusta was tipping the grilled mushrooms on to the steaming vat of farrum.

“We’ll talk business later. Put your things down by the door. Dinner is ready.”

“B…business, lady?”

“Of course, Actis and I will have to pay you for your trouble.”


The word had been snapped with more authority than they believed Virio to be capable of mustering. Locusta smiled surrender to the little soldier and gestured to his place at table.

“Well, we can pay you in dinner, for now.”


The meal was finished and Actis was pouring more wine when a burly man strode into the shop, like a proprietor rather than a customer. His tunic looked more refined than his person, and he was carrying a hefty, expensive walking stick which could no doubt be reversed and used as club. The face was broad, with fat, sneering lips not matching his button eyes and snub of a nose. From his right ear down to the corner of his mouth ran a deep scar.

“Ah, a cosy scene. I like to see my customers in good humour…”

Actis stood and addressed the man.

“Caniculus, if you wish some wine you are welcome. But this is no time for…”

“Time! It is time you merchants paid up. Dues are a week late. We’ve been very discreet during the visit of General Germanicus. We didn’t want him or his officials observing how we transact our local tax affairs. But the great man has gone now and the fire levy needs to be paid.”

Locusta spoke without looking up.

“I can put out my own brazier.”

Virio tried to catch her eye, shaking his head to urge her to silence.

Now the big intruder walked over to Locusta.

“You are new to our town. Perhaps you don’t know of the valuable work we do on behalf of Quinctus Lollio, patron and protector of the whole region?”

“No, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know that I am Lollio’s deputy, in charge of putting out fires and generally protecting the town from natural disasters?”

Now Locusta looked up and eyed the man.

“Even as a mere girl in the forest I heard the well-known tales of a famous Roman who became the richest man in the world by offering to put out fires which he himself had started. Crassus, that was his name, I think. Ended up drinking molten gold, or so the story went. Is your master that sort of businessman?”

The man looked briefly enraged, then broke into laughter.

“Actis, it seems what I’ve heard about this girl is true. She is as sharp as a stitching awl. But you need to warn her that a mere tickling up with vine branches is nothing compared to…”

“Caniculus, she is, as you say, new…and from the forest. Taxes, official or unofficial, and such matters are strange to her kind. You need not worry. We have our contribution for the month. I’ll fetch it.”

“That was the old charge, for a single trader. Now you have staff. Opinionated staff!”

Locusta was about to speak but Virio softly kicked her foot under the table, as a plea for silence. Whoever Caniculus and his master were, they were feared.

Actis went to the back of his shop and came back with a handful of money.

“Here, Caniculus. I think you’ll find this is sufficient.”

The man took the money, pulling a contemptuous face, then turned again to Locusta.

“Girl, you might want to enquire around the garrison and town as to who I am and who my master Lollio is. You might even get an invitation to visit my master one day. If you do, seize the occasion. And mind your manners around him.”

Locusta said nothing, stared coldly ahead.

“I’ll take your silence – for now. Perhaps Actis should have told you more about the way things work around here…By the way, you all probably know of a deserter from General Germanicus’ entourage. My master wants to help the general and our own commander any way he can. You’ve all been given a description. He’s an old rogue of a veteran from the German wars. Put the word out that generous discounts or rewards will be granted to anyone who helps apprehend the deserter. On the other hand, anyone aiding him in the slightest way – even by failing to be observant – will answer to Lollio, as well as to the commander of the garrison. Of course that won’t be necessary. We’re all patriots here, I presume, and none of us wants this disgrace upon our region. You, Virio…is that your name?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let all your comrades know that Quinctus Lollio will show his gratitude to any patriot who apprehends the deserter. The garrison can’t be sending large detachments all over the region, so we each need to the commander’s eyes and ears in this matter. And if the deserter becomes a corpse in being apprehended…don’t be too fussed about it. In fact, we – or the commander, I should say – would prefer a corpse. Sending a live prisoner on to Rome would be a needless expense, and only disturb the general’s preparations for his triumph.”

Locusta had grown more attentive to what being said. While her friends had been hoping for her continued silence, she finally looked up and addressed the man called Caniculus – but with an improbable girlish smile.

“It would be my pleasure to receive you here again, sir, if Actis allows me to continue in his employment. I should also consider it an honour to visit your master at his residence. And please accept my apologies for my earlier abruptness.”


As Caniculus strutted out of the shop while jangling the coins, he wore a satisfied smirk.

Actis and Virio, however, had learned enough about Locusta to know that her girlish smile and unlikely apology could be the signs of trouble to come.

“Locusta, I don’t know what’s on your mind – I never do – but these men are more powerful than you can imagine. Lollio’s influence reaches right back to Rome and further. Men who have angered him here have lost family members back in Italy. The money he extorts from us he doesn’t even need. It’s just his way of keeping us subject. Commanders and officers of the garrison come and go. Lollio stays. He is the real ruler here.”

“Th…that’s true, lady. Master Actis is right. And Caniculus is a man who takes pleasure in killing. You must…”

“Actis, where does he live, this Lollio?”

“In a massive new villa on his latifundium, along the river some miles to the north. He has much cattle and many slaves. Life is easier for the cattle than for the slaves. His favourite punishment is to whip a slave’s lower parts till he bleeds then stand him in an eel pond.”

“But…aren’t there certain laws…?”

“There are always Roman laws, but those which concern slaves are vague at best. And there are always lawyers and people with the means to get around Roman laws. Lollio does what he wants. Like all good petty potentates he is a flatterer, a patriot, and a grand public benefactor. He is also a cheat, an extortionist and a blackmailer. As to his private ways, those who enjoy hearing tales of perversion could tell you more than I. The story of the eel pond – which I have verified – is enough for me.”

Locusta froze in wide-eyed abstraction, the trance which had always disturbed her mistress of the forest. At last:

“Where did he come from?”

“Lollio? Nobody knows for sure. Nobody asks. He appeared here over ten years ago, with his offsider Caniculus leading a gang of thugs, mostly Germans. Neither Lollio nor Caniculus spoke much Gallic when they arrived. Lollio had money and muscle, acquired land and connections very quickly.”

“Germans, you say…”

Locusta thought for a moment, then:

“You are both right. And it was thoughtless of me to compromise you. Next time he comes I’ll be nice.”

“Nice? Really? You’ll be…nice? You?”

Again, the girlish smile.

“Yes. Me. Nice.”

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“Ah, Doctor von Huffel. What a pleasure. Please come in, come in…”

The man so addressed – tiny, frail and aged – gaped up as he shuffled forward, for a moment too overwhelmed to speak. His host, an imposing martial figure, continued:

“Yes, Doctor von Huffel, it is I. Changed a little after forty years, I dare say. Forest of whiskers and a bare pate. But it is indeed I, Otto the Terrible! Ah, it’s just so good to see you still…still in Berlin.”

At last the little man found his voice:

“I think Your Excellency means still alive…and in Berlin.”

“Well, that’s two good things to be: alive and in Berlin. But I must not try to match words and wits with the greatest teacher of rhetoric in all German lands.”

“On the contrary, the world now knows of your own skills in that area, Excellency. I just hope our time together at the Kloster was of some use to you.”

“Use? You were my inspiration, doctor. I know, I know…I spent too much time fencing and rough-housing and bullying. Still bullying a bit, I’m told. But I have always been two Prussians in one: a scoundrel with scoundrels, but a gentleman with gentlemen. No, rest assured, Doctor von Huffel, your teaching was the mother’s milk which nurtured many a new career, mine included. You must believe that. But come and have some lunch…”

“Oh, please, Excellency, please don’t…”

“I insist. Anyway, as several dozen medical doctors have noted, I never miss a meal. Come, you must keep me company at least. We’ll drink, but we’ll stick to champagne, since it’s not past midday…”


“Come doctor, come. I have a little alcove here for dining and chatting.”


As his host devoured a half chicken while gulping champagne, the tiny man picked away at some shreds of flesh with boiled vegetables just soft enough for his frail dentition.

“Excellency, I…just wish to say how proud we all are…all of us from the school…that one of our old boys has risen not just to prominence but to national hero…”

“Ah, we all do our best in our respective spheres, doctor.”

“But to have defeated Denmark, and then Austria herself! Your victory at Konnigratz has stunned Europe. I had to pinch myself to believe that it was you, and none other than you…”

Ta-rum-tee-tum, ta-rum-tee-tum…You know the march which was written for my…for our victory? Ta-rum-tee-tum, ta-rum-tee-tum…Ah, now that’s music!”

“The Konnigratz March is all one hears, or wants to hear lately. Such a victory it was. But…”

“But what, doctor?”

“But these French! Their impudence toward you and the king!”

“Really? What impudence was that?”

“Excellency, forgive an old patriot who speaks out of turn…”

“Oh, speak on, doctor. Aren’t we in one of those democracies or whatever now? No, say what is on your mind…You don’t object if I help myself to a slice or two of liverwurst as we chat? Supposed to be good for the blood or something. Now, you were saying?”

“Excellency, when the Spanish invite a member of the Prussian royal house to become their new monarch, and those French think they have the right to object…especially when you consider how they were thrown out of Spain, along with the first Napoleon…”

“Oh, that little matter. Don’t worry about it, doctor. Claiming unwieldy dago thrones and unmanageable dago empires…that’s not for the new Prussia. And getting tied up with Spain means getting tied up with Rome, don’t forget. Hohenzollerns don’t bend the knee to Popes and Cardinals. The French objections and suspicions merely gave us an excuse to say no to the Spaniards.”

“I am relieved to hear it, Excellency.”

“No, Doctor von Huffel, Prussia’s emerging empire is a lot closer to home. What would you say if even more German states joined with us to make a greater Germany? A Germany without Austrian bossing, without popery and  Jesuits. How would you like that?”

“A greater and united Germany! The dream of ages, Excellency! The dream of Arminius! And I assume Prussia and His Majesty would dominate in such an arrangement?”

“You need to ask? Now, what about some red wine, since we’re not far short of midday? No? I hope you don’t mind if I take a slurp or two, for my stomach’s sake.”


A servant had just brought on the fourth large dish of meat, this one a braised joint with poached pears and juniper berries. By now the champagne had been replaced with Burgundy wine.

“Come, doctor, you must eat a little more…Are you sure you don’t want wine? This is a Richebourg, all violets and strawberries…No?”

“Oh, I eat like a bird at the best of times, Excellency. And if I drink I fall asleep. The penalties of age.”

“What a pity. We have a freshly shot partridge to come, and some well-oaked Egri Bikaver. No sissy French wine will do to wash down good strong game. Give me the real Hungarian Bull’s Blood of Eger with my partridge…Now, Doctor von Huffel, tell me about…please excuse if I eat while talking, but it’s a busy day…tell me about your career after I left Kloster.”

“Oh, little enough beyond what had already gone on. Much Latin, increasing amounts of Greek…My extended courses in rhetoric had to give way to more mathematics. Mathematics are a requirement in more fields than artillery these days. Even medicine, for some reason…”

As the little man spoke he could see that his greedily chomping and guzzling host was uninterested, or at least preoccupied.

“Indeed, indeed…and how does retirement sit with you, doctor?”

“Oh, one has little choice after the age of eighty. I have been working lately on a highly detailed commentary for Cicero’s essay on old age, De Senectute, an old favourite of mine…”

O diem praeclarum! You see? I remember.”

“Excellency, I am delighted…and flattered. Well, apart from my commentary…”

“Ah, doctor, while I think of it…I have a question or two. About rhetoric. About some matters of phrasing. By sheer chance the matter has popped into my mind when I am dining with the very man best qualified to help.”

“Anything I can do, Excellency. Whether on a personal or public level…anything at all.”

“Let me think now…let us a suppose a young Prussian of the right sort, from a junker family which is very dear to me, has been invited to marry a Catholic girl from a wealthy family, descendants of dago immigrants. Let us say the young man’s father is none too happy about the arrangement but can see material advantages in it for his family. Are you following me, doctor?”

“Yes, yes…”

“Now, let us say that the young girl’s Catholic uncle and family head, not wishing to see his relative’s property merged with that of a Protestant junker, makes such stern objections that the whole marriage is called off. It’s a loss of face for the Protestant family…but its head is not particularly disappointed. Following me still, doctor?”

“Yes, Excellency.”

“Now let us assume the two family heads detest each other and each would like to provoke the other to a duel without being the initiator or challenger. Both now have the opportunity, but neither can move first.”

“A tricky affair…”

“It is, is it not? And we must hope our good Protestant junkers win out.”

“And…is that all, Excellency?”

“Not quite. This is where you come into it. The Catholic family head sends a representative to the holiday home of the other, demanding that he commit to no further overtures of marriage at any time in the future. Our Protestant finds this interruption of his holiday importunate, suspects a provocation, and explains that he can do no more than give his consent to the cancellation of the marriage, which has, in fact been cancelled. He asks that the representative not confront him in his holiday home in the future but offers to communicate with him by messenger, if there is anything to communicate…Getting too involved, doctor?”

“No, not at all. The Catholics are being petty, it seems to me. Out to provoke, as always. Their demands have been met, and still they demand. Reminds one of the French.”

“Just so. But this is not about the French…Now, our good Protestant has a telegram sent back home to his trusted secretary explaining what has happened. If this secretary were to make the telegram somewhat public what would happen?”

“Happen? Well…very little, I suppose. It might bring a little sympathy to the cause of your Protestant friend, but such a reasonable approach is hardly going to enrage the Catholics and make their family head the initiator of a duel. Unless…”

“Well, doctor?”

“As you may remember from your studies of Tacitus, Excellency, a true account can be made different but still be a true account, yet a more striking account also, by the use of different language. Avoidance of passive, subjunctive and indefinite constructions, concentration, concision…”

“So, Doctor von Huffel…if one were to rephrase the original telegram, giving it more of the natural concision of a telegram, and also a little Tacitan flavour?”

“That’s what I had in mind.”

“And would you be prepared to scribble down a version more suitable to our goal…or rather, to the goal of my friend who is seeking a duel but may not be seen to provoke that duel?”

“Why, I suppose so. Now?”

“Now. Just write down what might be suitable. Here, take my pen and some paper.”

“But…may I not see the original telegram?”

“Oh, no need. I don’t have it about me. Look, I’ll jot down a summary of what I just told you. Confidential, of course. Just do your best with this. It’s all merely academic for the moment, but since you are here and no man could advise me better…provided you are in no hurry or have no objections.”

“Of course, I have time, Excellency. And to be of service to you and to a coreligionist from one of our finest junker families would delight me. I hope your friend is a good duellist…”

“The best. He will win. And with choix d’armes on home ground he will win easily. So please, do write it. Take your time, doctor. My friend, you may call him X. I’ll sketch some notes for you, then amuse myself with this sweetened chestnut puree while I wait. I’m told that chestnut puree helps with…well, with something or other.”


His host was engulfing a mound of soft cheese on rye bread as the little scholar read:

After the news of the marriage’s cancellation had been officially communicated to her uncle by the young lady herself, the uncle’s representative further demanded of X that he would authorize him to telegraph to the lady’s father that X bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if his son should renew his pursuit of the lady. X thereupon decided not to receive the Catholic family’s representative again, and informed him through an employee that X had nothing further to communicate to him.

“Why, Doctor von Huffel, this is splendid! Did I say merely academic? By a simple change of tone you have forced the hand of this brash Catholic. Without the slightest departure from truth, with nothing but phrasing, you have turned the matter on its head. This fellow will have to fight now, once your words have been circulated. He will be forced by his own people to initiate, to play the aggressor: my friend just needs to wait innocently for his challenge.

“Oh, my thanks to you, and to Publius Cornelius Tacitus, of course…But look at the time! It’s so late! Doctor, you must bewitch me no longer, though I would rather you did for the whole day. I am supposed to be running a Prussian state and here I am indulging myself at your expense, keeping you from your Cicero.”

“But it has been my pleasure…”

“Now, I do hope to see you again, when I have greater leisure – though I don’t know when that will ever be. Where is your coat? In the lobby? You haven’t forgotten anything? Spectacles? No? Here, let me get the door for you. It’s hard enough for me to wrench the thing open. Still, slows down the rioters and the Polish envoys…Now remember our tune, Doctor von Huffel…Ta-rum-tee-tum, ta-rum-tee-tum…”


Before the little scholar could hum the first bars of the Konnigratz March, the massive door of iron and oak had shut behind him.


He stepped into his office.

Two men in general’s uniforms were waiting in seats there.  They rose on his entry, addressing him in their different ways.



He nodded to both, a sign to resume their seats. He himself began to pace, his mind obviously in a ferment. At last:

“General Von Moltke…how ready are you?”

Moltke, an old man, clean shaven with shrewd features, answered in his usual placid way:

“Training has been thorough…”

“It always is with Prussians…But are your officers thinking, Moltke? Do they know which century we are in, what has been learned through the Americans’ civil war?”

“Minister-President, in one word, yes.”

“Good! And you Albrecht – War Minister von Roon – are you ready?”

The second general was also old, the model of a sturdy-featured Prussian.

“I would say that reforms are complete, Otto. We are a modern force, the most modern in Europe. Just not the biggest.”

“That can be remedied.”

“Otto, are you saying…”

“I’m saying get ready for war, gentlemen!”

“But we can’t attack, Otto! You say so yourself. And we are not being attacked.”

“That also can be remedied.”

“But, Minister-President, should not the king be here, so that we are all…”

“The king will go along, Moltke.”

“But if he should hesitate…”

“Then I will rant, break things, resign…the usual petulance which appeals to us childish Prussians. The king will go along! But I need a drink. A brisk Armagnac after a light lunch…nothing better for the liver…Now, I presume you gentlemen have read the telegram from Ems?”

“Minister-President, the French Ambassador may have been very forward in confronting King William at his spa…but the telegram offers no argument or provocation. If we make known its contents and send them on to Paris the French will merely feel smug.”

“On the contrary, Moltke, if we publish the telegram it will make the French feel smug. But if we publish its contents…the French will mobilise and attack us. We will then have the war we want and the French want…but on our terms.”

The two generals exchanged looks of bewilderment. Then Roon:

“Otto, I think we both lost you there. You said we can’t publish the telegram…but can publish its contents. Really, I…”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen…this has to do with something called rhetoric, and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, and silly old fogies of schoolmasters we ignore at our peril. You have both read the telegram?”

“Of course.”

“And you find to be a mish-mash of dithering and whining and downright timidity?”

“Definitely. A national shame, in fact.”

“In fact. But let me now read you the contents of the telegram, as opposed to the telegram.”

The minister-president drew a piece of paper from his coat and read:


After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the imperial government of France by the royal government of Spain, the French ambassador at Ems further demanded of his Majesty the King that he would authorize him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty the King bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. His Majesty the King thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him through the aide-de-camp on duty that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador.

“Now, gentlemen, there you have the contents of the telegram. As opposed to the telegram. What do you think?”

Moltke raised a glass of wine he had by his chair.

“Minister-President, I drink to the success of a Franco-Prussian War.”

Roon raised his glass.

“And to old fogie schoolmasters.”

The minister-president slumped into a chair, with a satisfied groan.

“Gentlemen, I know you will want to grab slices of France for your trouble. As you wanted to grab Austria. I suppose I won’t be able to restrain you this time, though I should. But remember what this war is for. We seek no enemies from it, though we are always going to acquire enemies, placed where we are. Remember the real purpose of all this. When Prussia is attacked, the southern German states will join us. And they will stay joined to us. At last we will be Germany, but a proper Germany: a Prussian Germany.”

“Minister-President, everybody likes territory. Why not keep Alsace for our trouble, for strategy, if nothing else?”

“Alsatians look like us but their hearts are French. God, man, will you also want south sea empires to embroil us with the English and Dutch and god knows who else? Americans even? No, this will be my last war. After this, pax germanica.

“As for when I am gone…people may well miss this crabby reactionary. Consider the king’s grandson, little William. A charming boy, but he thinks every day is his birthday. Imagine him with a modern and triumphant military and a head full of his parent’s liberal ideas? As we know from the turn of the century, nobody colonises and rampages more wildly than a good liberal with a copy of Voltaire or Rousseau in his back pocket, sanctified in all things by his good intentions. And that little boy won’t be just King William. He’ll be Kaiser William, thanks to what we three are about to do.

“Well. there’s nothing I can do about the future. Or, if there is, I won’t be doing it. What would you say to a few decades of peace and a united Germany? Good enough? No, of course not. There’s only one real moderate in all Europe, and he’s the man nobody will ever call moderate: me!”

The minister-president sat back in his chair, cradling his Armagnac and looking upward.

“Once there was a Frenchman called Talleyrand, a fine, conniving rascal who succeeded in the end because all he really wanted was an integral France.”

The minister-president held out the sheet of paper on which Doctor von Huffel had written the amended telegram.

“Well, it is the turn of Louis-Napoleon to play the part of Fritz, the crass, bumbling, undiplomatic German…

“And the part of Talleyrand is about to be played by me, Otto von Bismarck.”

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