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…


Thinking of redecorating…




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…



My answer to Mr Chips…



In the end, you just have to fight…

REXIE (Part 1 of 2)


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…




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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REXIE (Part 1 of 2)

Dear Mr Ruan

Thank you for this opportunity to gather and compose my thoughts pursuant to our conversation of last Tuesday. You were correct to suggest this: writing things down clarifies and stimulates recollection.

I have written this text off line, then converted and encrypted it before sending, as requested. I hope that when we meet soon, whether in Sydney or Shanghai, I will have more to tell, but that seems doubtful.

Nothing in the text is commercially sensitive, but there is some potential for embarrassment; consequently, I agree with your desire for full secrecy. As the chief investor and a true believer in our enterprise, you are entitled to know the whole truth, which I now furnish to the best of my ability. What I cannot furnish are explanations.

Anybody reading this account will find little believable in it. Yet it is the only account which can be given. You have asked me for a detailed description of all the events and I am giving it to you in all honesty, if not accuracy. I cannot offer accuracy because it is hard to be accurate about things which pass all understanding and defy all physical laws.

Since it is unlikely we can continue our project in its present form, my only remaining interest is to show gratitude to Ruan Investing by telling you all I know and telling others absolutely nothing. No laws or ethics will be violated by this silence of mine, since those external people who have been disadvantaged by our difficulties could never establish causation, even with our best cooperation. My view is that we were co-victims, not a cause.

Nothing I write here is contradicted by other members of staff or by your own local Chinese representatives who witnessed some of the events. We are all in the unfortunate position of having to ask you to give credence to the incredible. Please be assured that all here agree on the need for silence and discretion. You may, perhaps, wish to firm up on secrecy at your end after you have read my account.

Lastly, Mr Ruan, in this account there are European cultural and ritual references which may be foreign to many Chinese, but not so to you. My background is surfing and computing, with little room for matters cultural beyond what is learned through gaming and movies. My hope is that, with your Oxford background and wide personal interests, you may have some clues or at least inklings as to the roles of culture, tradition and ritual in the events. I will merely relate, not interpret. Perhaps you will be able to explain things to me, at least a little.


It was thanks to your commercial expertise and backing, and your confidence in me, that I was able to keep pursuing the allegedly impossible dream of exaflop computing without straying far from the startup’s original headquarters on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and without having to reconcile such a long term and visionary undertaking with any short term bottom lines. You are a benefactor of science, Mr Ruan, of the true liberal sort such as are no longer thought to exist.

Strong sat reception and lack of electronic interference were, of course, the deciding factors in locating our business to where we did. In this, I acted on your advice as well as my own preferences. Our shared belief in a relaxed and medium security environment in a bushland setting I still regard as sound. High security would have meant suspicion and speculation, mentions from drunks on late night radio and so on. An old observatory on a sandstone ridge overlooking the Pacific attracted no attention, and, as far as all were concerned, we were yet another eccentric IT business, though with extra space and hardware needs. In fact, we were just another IT business, albeit a very ambitious one.

The whole point of the operation was to build a distributive supercomputer system which was cheap and compact at its core. The critical features were mostly in my head, not in plans or on display. How satellite was to be incorporated was kept secret. The only piece of radical hardware, which I need not mention, was utterly inconspicuous, hidden in the heart of the system and known only to me (and to you, of course). Nobody would have learned much by intruding or spying, while, as you pointed out, such research in China would have attracted swarms of government and private interference regardless of how much information could be gained.

Up on Observatory Bluff, with just the one narrow approach road, we were bothered by the odd journalist and conspiracy nut – and there were those two Korean snoopers – but by and large the setting was secure, tranquil and conducive to good work. Moreover, to attract and keep good staff, you cannot beat the Sydney Peninsular. When employees can slip down to Bilgola for a surf or Avalon for a coffee you scarcely need HR.

Of course, I now have cause to regret the location, but not for reasons which were forseeable when we set up.


The Observatory, as you know, was only a shell when it was acquired for our work. Since it was covered by heritage orders, we could not have turned it into a high security building had we wanted to. Nonetheless, the large and clear internal space and solidity of the structure made it easy to monitor and secure to a level of medium security. The main entrance led into a reception area staffed at all times, including nights and holidays. The fire exit was well secured and never used.

As to the perimeter, though there we no security cameras along it, it was very solidly fenced. (There were, of course, cameras at the main gate and at all possible entry points to the building.) The bush had regrown over the years of disuse so that there was a certain bushfire risk which we averted by “accidental” back-burns. (It was easier to do this than to apply for permission to clear in what is now the Observatory Bluff Nature Reserve. The head ranger was sensible enough to look away from our “accidents”, actually carried out with the help of a retired ranger.)

Apart from the minor intrusions mentioned above, we had no problems to do with security till the night of April 30 and May 1. Before detailing what happened then, I feel I should relate certain other matters to do with the one staff member who left us in the two years we operated at the Observatory. Whether this person has any connection with subsequent events is not something I can determine, though I and the police have made enquiries.

Adele Mockrie was a programmer, a very quiet, even sullen, young woman who joined the team a month after we moved in to the Observatory due to the shocking disappearance of Sarah Tobin, a star programmer and personal friend who had been with me from the early days. (I mentioned this matter to you. Sarah, from Israel, was a triathlete and may have drowned when training in the surf at Collaroy. Her body has never been found, nor is it certain that she was in the surf that day, but drowning or shark are the only likely explanations for her complete disappearance.) Adele Mockrie came to us almost miraculously with excellent credentials through that new-school-tie network of IT. Like all junior staff, she was not told of the scope of our work: while it was obvious that we were mainly focused on increasing computer speed and power, we avoided ever using such sensational terms as exaflop.

There is little to tell of Adele Mockrie. She was not a compatible staff member, her work was mediocre and I found her to be unpleasantly sly. It even crossed my mind that she was there to spy, though the only thing she might have learned was that our goal of a compact ubercomputer was indeed achievable. Her free time was spent pacing about the grounds, and sometimes she would stroll into the bush. She often appeared to be muttering, and I wondered if she was religious or maybe a little touched.

One Monday there was a call from a friend to tell us she was sick and would not be coming in to work. And that was the last we saw of Adele Mockrie, at least in the workplace. When my secretary tried to contact her to formally wind up her employment she had moved with no forwarding address.

At the time we were too busy to care much about Adele Mockrie’s whereabouts. She was quickly replaced by an excellent young man from Delhi, newly graduated from SCC, and her access codes and clearances were cancelled.

I did see her one more time, just by chance, on the Corso at Manly. She was sitting in a large group at a long outside table. I was hardly in the mood for scenes so I pretended not to have seen her, a discourtesy she returned. What did strike me was the group she was in: they were people of all ages and types, from tattooed goth girls to older men in business suits. All were serious, too serious for the place and weather, and seemed to be conferring as if in a boardroom. They had something in common, but what? Were they family members after a funeral?

That is all I can say about Adele Mockrie, and she may well have no connection with subsequent events. I mention her as the only person who had knowledge of our work and who may have been in some way hostile or disaffected. I am covering all bases, if you will excuse some of the dated management speak I know you dislike.


I was first to arrive at the Observatory on May 1. Seeing the gate open, I assumed someone had arrived before me, since our arrangement with our security guard was that he would not unlock the heavily padlocked gate till the first staff arrival. He was to open neither the gate nor the Observatory building to anybody who was not staff, unless the person was thoroughly identified as police, security or para-medic, and on duty.

But there was only the guard’s car parked within the perimeter and I could see that the Observatory’s main door was wide open.

Uneasy now, I jumped from my car and rushed forward.

On the gravel in front of the entrance lay the inert body of our security guard for that night, who happened to be a surfing acquaintance called Kyle Foster. From the wide splatter of blood near his motionless head I assumed the worst.

In fact, Kyle had been bludgeoned to death.

Before I describe the scene inside (of which you have seen the photographs) I should mention that I still do not know how security was circumvented. Did someone lure Kyle to the gate then force him at gunpoint to unlock? Did someone – as unlikely as it seems – have unauthorised keys to the premises? Adele Mockrie? Someone more trusted? Or did a person well known to Kyle ring and get him to leave his post then admit that person under some pretence? We still have no clues to any of this. If somebody had rung and said there was an emergency involving his family he was unlikely to have reacted without verifying. (Kyle was one of those smart, capable peninsular guys who work below their intelligence and ability till age thirty so they can spend most of their time surfing.)

When I stepped inside I was expecting to see signs of damage or theft, especially theft of files and papers. Yet there was none of that.

On the floor of the Observatory circles, symbols and pentagrams had been traced in chalk. But what was most strange was the trench which had been etched in the stone flooring. I can only assume it had been jack-hammered, because it was quite deep and long.

In front of the trench was a freshly slaughtered sheep, its cut throat placed so it would drain into the trench. Around the trench, the floor was sticky with what we later learned to be heavy sprinklings of honey, wine, mineral water and wheatmeal.

There was nothing else amiss. The banks of main system computers had not even been approached; desks, papers, files and staff computers were untouched.

When I contacted the police they responded quickly and well. All outside tracks and footprints were examined and photographed; at the gate and inside, fingerprints were taken; one or two marks in the sticky mess near the trench were examined and recorded; there were all sorts of enquiries made in the area, and staff interviews, needless to say. Recent sheep thefts and purchases were explored. Local wiccans and such like people were put under observation and questioned, though not in specific reference to the crime. I named Adele Mockrie as the only former employee who may have been disgruntled or hostile.

None of this led to anything.

The authorities agreed with me that Kyle’s murder should be announced and described publicly, but that the event was best described as a simple break-in turned brutal. This secrecy had two benefits: anyone mentioning rituals or satanism in relation to the crime could be considered suspect or at least in the know; and our business avoided the sensationalism and attention which would have been inevitable if all details had been released.

The dates April 30 and May 1, constituting Gaelic Mayday and Walpurgis Night, were likely significant. Why we should be targeted by a group of satanists willing to murder to get access to the building was not obvious. The best explanation I could arrive at, with the concurrence of the police, is that an old observatory could be considered attractive because of its optimum exposure to things celestial. Silly, but a better explanation than any other we could come up with.


After May 1 we became far more security-minded, with extra security staff, patrols, cameras, and an elaborate alarm system. We had to fight the heritage people for permission to make a few alterations to the premises, but a word from the NSW Commissioner of Police finally persuaded them.

I will add that your support and kindness to the family of Kyle Foster was noted by all, Mr Ruan.

The only thing odd which occurred through the rest of May was the appearance of an elderly tramp in the bushland beyond the observatory. We kept a close eye on him and mentioned him to the police and rangers, who questioned the man but could not limit his access to public bushland; they could only prohibit him from camping. Almost certainly he was camped in one of the many caves below the sandstone ridge, but after a while we got used to his presence and could see no harm in him. When police offered to arrange accommodation and other forms of assistance he was not interested. He was one of those sober homeless persons who are happy to be homeless and free. Australia was once full of such “swaggies”.

The old man was lean, not emaciated, with abundant white hair and beard which he managed to keep in order. Though dressed in cast-offs, he seemed clean and even neat in his appearance.

When I saw him seated on a rock outside the fence one afternoon, I decided to walk out and speak to the man. He was the only neighbour we had, so I wanted to dispel any feeling of suspicion or rejection from our end.

And so I made the acquaintance of Rexie.

(To be continued)




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Past ruin’d Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth…


Dr Gerald Tubbs should have been moved, even tearful, but he was experiencing exhaustion and little else. He was now to feel exhausted permanently, it seemed.

He looked down at the three boys who were getting ready to leave their desks a final time and knew that he should be feeling some fondness toward them, and toward all their predecessors, and toward their college. It had, after all, been his college for more than sixty years, first as student, then teacher of classics, then master of classics, then part-time teacher of the last remnant of classics students.

But it was hard to feel anything. Dr Tubbs was so fearsomely tired. Nobody before had ever worked to such an advanced age at the college; then winding down the classics syllabus had required his return after an already late retirement. It had been a listless end to his career, with little interest on the part of the college and understandably little energy coming from “Tubbsy”. The whole affair had been nothing but a necessary “out-phasing of relic subjects”, as the school committee had expressed it. Perhaps out-phasing was gentler than phasing-out: Dr Tubbs was not up to date with management language, since the dialect had not existed in his young days.

The present youthful headmaster had remarked at the recent end-of-year ceremony that more than one global climate was changing. Perhaps that was a reference to classics. Who could know? Ambitious young people just like to mention climate whenever they can these days. Certainly the new headmaster was more interested in what he called “issues”, by which he meant matters discussed often in the Guardian. Dr Tubbs was of the opinion that an “issue” was a product or result, not a debating point; but the old latinist often held fast to word origins against the tugs of fashion.

Well, he needed to say something to these last three students, on this last day after six decades of Greek and Latin. They seemed to know it, and looked toward him with sluggish anticipation – except for young McKenna, who had, in fact, been among his keenest students ever. McKenna looked far more engaged in the moment than his relic of a teacher, or his two fellow students of relic subjects.

“Well, it would seem that this is all, for us and for classics at the college. Which makes this something of a moment. I…I’m sure you will handle the exams, such as they are.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You are most welcome, Ramsay.”

“Yes, thanks for everything, sir. Hope you enjoy retirement.”

“My thanks to you, O’Mara. And best of luck with your football career.”

“Oh, if I’m picked, sir…”

“You’ll be picked. I feel sure of it.”

Meanwhile, McKenna had risen and was approaching Dr Tubbs with a little parcel. He handed it to his teacher.

“Sir, just something from all of us. Some of the boys in metalwork helped.”

“Why, thank you, McKenna.”

Dr Tubbs pulled away the coloured tissue – teenaged schoolboys do not wrap – and looked with bewilderment at his present. For a moment he puzzled on, then realised what it was he held: a tiny gate fashioned from metal and with some sort of white cladding.

“Ah, one of the Gates of Sleep. What a fine memento for the likes of me…Do you remember the passage from Homer, McKenna?”

“Sir, I do remember it:

δοιαὶ γάρ τε πύλαι ἀμενηνῶν εἰσὶν ὀνείρων·
αἱ μὲν γὰρ κεράεσσι τετεύχαται, αἱ δ’ ἐλέφαντι.
οἵ ῥ’ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε’ ἀκράαντα φέροντες·
οἳ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ’ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.

“And in English, knowing you prefer prose translation, Dr Tubbs:

For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.”

“Why…that’s extraordinary! I must be a better teacher than I knew.”

“I studied the lines last night. They’re…you know, part of your present. And you have been an excellent teacher.”

“Well…I’m very touched, very touched. I do hope the white substance is horn, not ivory?”

“Yes. We made it from old forks with bone handles.”

“Thank you all. And thank your schoolmates from metalwork…Look here, there are even little hinges…”

“Taken from an old spectacle case, sir.”

McKenna now handed him an envelope.

“A card to go with it, sir. I painted it myself, but Ramsay picked out the cardboard and O’Mara did the cutting.”

Dr Tubbs opened the envelope, drew out a folded card and opened it.

“Ah, my favourite word: thalassa. A Greek word too old to be just Greek. Thalassa. The sea! You hear the sea when you hear that word, don’t you think, gentlemen? You’ve written the characters so perfectly! And here you’ve painted a sea scene, McKenna, with a merry crew on a Grecian coaster, a rocky headland…And the colours are just like one imagines…”

“Maybe in retirement you might get there at last, sir.”

“Oh, that certainly is a dream of ivory, I’m afraid, Ramsay. Not sprightly enough now for European travel. Greece will be something only for my imagination now.”

“But…you said you almost went, years ago, sir?”

“Yes…yes…when I was young, but, you know…”

Now Dr Tubbs went a bit teary. He continued:

“You know, things crop up. My late wife’s illness came upon us a month before we were due to go. In those days, without medical insurance…Well, such things happen to all. I’m sure I have a stock of classical quotes which say as much, but my brain is slow today….”

“Your wife…you said you called the lady your tanupeplos?”

“Why, yes, she was my tanupeplos, my flowing-robed one. Like Helen or Athena. I don’t suppose I’m the only old Homeric scholar to have called his lady by that title. Such a fine way to elevate a woman for whom one feels…well, you will soon know. Something to keep in mind, now you are not boys but young gentlemen. Yes, she was my tanupeplos, she of the flowing robes. I think my wife enjoyed that, though she had no Greek, just some Latin…”

He sniffed back some tears and continued to inspect the card.

Thalassa…thalassa…What a delightful gift…”


Dr Gerald Tubbs had packed away the last of his things for delivery to his home. He had nothing to carry away today, no reason to linger about the college.

He was just tired again, feeling nothing again, after the brief warmth of his farewell from his last students. But they had now gone about their late-adolescent business, even McKenna. What would Greek and Latin be for them within a few weeks? Likely, nothing at all – not even for McKenna. What had they been for anybody over the decades? One bright boy he never liked got a government prize for Latin back in the 1960s – then became a crooked bookmaker.

Greek and Latin: what for? He knew what to say to others in favour of it all, but what could he say to himself now? If only he could feel something beyond this fatigue…

He rested against the railing, unsure where to go next.

In the staff rooms and common room there would be bustle, and he would only be in the way. No, he would not go there. He was not a cold person, far from it, but when one can feel nothing but crushing fatigue…

The boys dashing about the school buildings and grounds were intent on exams and holidays. He would only delay them with needless chit-chat and forced politeness. Besides, he hardly knew any of them.

As he reached the bottom of the steps never to be climbed again by Gerald Tubbs, he was nearly blown over by one of the sudden gusts which accompanied the leaden sky and cold drizzle of this, his final day. Why did the weather have to conspire so? And was he now so frail that standing in wind was to be a regular challenge? At least he was not feeling giddy, as he so often did of late.

My God. What on earth had been the point? In the beginning, a strong brain and strong passion for things nobody really wanted but which all claimed to revere. A childless marriage ended by an early death. Then the years of pretending to teach while the students pretended to learn, repetition and drudgery and boredom, with only here and there a McKenna; then the softening of the syllabus to keep the subjects alive, a polite euthanasia of the classics…

Nobody had ever cared, and now Dr Tubbs could not bring himself to care.

Yet he had tried, and tried so hard. He knew he had tried.

To be left with just this fatigue and this void…


Clasping only the card with the little model gate in both hands, Dr Gerald Tubbs began to hobble downhill past the sports oval to the bus stop.

The giddiness! Of all times to get that again!

The doctors said it was due to some re-arrangement of the crystals of his inner ear, but it was indistinguishable from drunkenness. Of all times and places to appear drunk, on his last day and on the school grounds!

He stopped and took deep breaths, just keeping his balance. If he stayed upright it might pass. He spoke to clear his head:


The giddiness seemed to be fading after a minute. He took some steps forward.


As he reeled forward he raised his hands. The last thing Dr Gerald Tubbs saw before losing consciousness was the painted card with the tiny bone-clad gate laid over it.


He fell and fell, but did not land.

At last he was standing somewhere, looking down on somebody else who seemed to have taken a fall.

It was a man in rags, an exhausted man who might be young or old, a beggar sprawled on the ground at the edge of a rocky track. The track led uphill, but the whole landscape was blurred, so that Gerald could not see the top of the hill. As he looked to the side and behind, all was a blur, though there was a sound as of water somewhere, and a cry of gulls perhaps. Was that a ringing of summer insects? The air carried a heavy scent of summer flowers and…fig leaves when they droop under full sun?

Gerald and the beggar stared at one another. Why…it was McKenna. It was McKenna who had fallen, McKenna who was exhausted. Or some stranger, some beggar had McKenna’s face.

The tramp spoke:

“At last. Such a long wait. I couldn’t keep going. But now you’re here.”

“You’ve been waiting for me?”

“No-one else can help me. You can. You always do.”

“I? But…”

The tramp extended an arm.

“Just help me up, then I can go on.”

“Go on? But where?”

“Up the hill, of course. Help me now.”

Gerald merely touched the man’s hand and, as if by magic, the two were standing together. Suddenly the stranger looked less of a beggar, still like McKenna perhaps, but older, with a stamp of…what?

“Thank you again.”


“Thank you and farewell, as always.”

“As always? But have I been here before?”

“You have always been here. You are the life of this island, and of much more. The difference now is that you know you are here.”

“An island? I’m on an island?”

The man turned and began to stride uphill. As he did so he seemed fresher, more powerful…And the rags…there were no rags on him now. The stranger was a middle aged man of substance now, an athlete in a fine tunic, with a rich cloak over broad, hurdling shoulders.

“But where are you going?”

“To my palace. I have a patient wife and impatient son waiting, a heritage to reclaim. And there are suitors to be dealt with.”

“But…where should I go? Do I follow you?”

The man pointed over Gerald’s shoulder.

“You go that way, the way I came.”

Gerald turned and there was no more blur. He was standing by sea, sea that was pale green near the shore, dark like wine and glowing purple further out. A bright little bay was clasped by two juts of white cliffs, topped with tight shrubbery.

The scent of brine mixed with that of the summer flowers and the rankness of figs.  So stirring those scents. The fatigue had gone. No more giddiness. How he craved the touch of the water! He walked toward the shoreline, murmuring:


A prow nudged forward from behind the headland to his left. It was a horned prow with a painted eye. Now it came into full view. A band of men, laughing men, were rowing their coaster toward him.

And at the prow, a figure dressed like Athena, or like Helen, but with a face Gerald knew better than any other.

The tanupeplos, she of the flowing robes.



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Madame de Maintenon pushed the contraption forward into the darkened gallery. The vehicle made little squeals and squeaks, but moved easily enough. The captain of the guard came to her side.

“Madam, it may be just a little heavy…”

“No, no. I can manage, I think. Anyway, I must try. Thank you for showing me the workings. His Majesty wants us to be able to have a little exercise together, away from others’ eyes and their constant critiques of his health. We’ll summon you if you are needed. You know the taps of His Majesty’s cane, what each tap means. Just close the doors behind us and leave us be.”

“Your Majesties.”

The captain bowed low as the lady pushed the wheelchair further forward. His faint embarrassment may have been at the sight of Madame de Maintenon, all but toothless, part blind and part deaf, pushing the bulky wheelchair and its bulky occupant. Or it may have been the continued uncertainty over whether the royal couple should be addressed as Majesties when the lady, not a princess of the blood, on her own could not be addressed as Majesty. Awkward, these morganatic marriages.

The doors were closed behind them, and royal couple faced down the vast and glimmering Hall of Mirrors, lit by just a few lamps now, its cascades of chandeliers all extinguished.

As if by command, moonlight broke through cloud and sheeted the floor below the soaring windows.

The king spoke.

“We are alone now, madam?”

“Yes, Louis, alone.”

“It’s summer and I still can’t feel warm in this room.”

“It’s a very large room. And with so much glass and so many mirrors, it’s bound to be cold. Fires and braziers would mar its beauty. Those paintings on the ceiling – I really don’t know how such marvels are achieved – the paintings must be preserved for our descendants.”

“You know, I kept rejecting mythical themes for the ceiling’s centrepiece on artistic grounds, or some such piffle, till they finally decided to show my own victories and prowess as the main themes. Why allegorise me when you can just paint me? Extraordinary how one has to prod flatterers into flattery these days…But, Francoise, you need not pretend. I know this is not your favourite place. Even I am happier at Marly, with its more comfortable proportions. I know you would be happier at Saint-Cyr.”

“At Saint-Cyr, or in any convent, I could not be with you, husband. Here at Versailles I can shiver with my Louis.”

“Ah, if I could remake this room so we did not shiver!”

“But it is the most perfect room in France. Men in China and Quebec have heard of its splendours.”

“And yet I wish for more…or for less…I don’t know what. I just wish I might begin again.”

“Begin again? With this room?”

“Yes, what else? Oh, maybe with much else beside. Just to have money again, youth again.”

“Louis, both are gone from us. Youth can never come again. As for money, you know I would never utter a word in the company of others…but your taxes have been cruel. I don’t call you cruel, or say that the taxes were not required – you must decide all that with advisers and confessors – but the taxes have been cruel. I cannot drive from here to Saint-Cyr without mobs of beggars stopping my carriage. I give all I can on the way, but with a hundred vehicles I could not carry or give out enough. Not all these poor are shiftless or sots. Many have been made invalids in our wars, lost supporting family in the terrible winter of seventeen hundred and nine. But even if they are shiftless and drunken…Louis, you must not even think of more exactions, more royal buildings, more wars.”

“I don’t! In fact, my thoughts tend to reconciliation these days, to mildness…and to need over glory. With a bit of Huguenot industry, Huguenot thrift…All those good protestant craftsmen and administrators who are gone from France…So many of them educated…With some of them I might have worked to remake things.”

“Louis, the repressions and limitations, all those measures were necessary for the good of their souls as well as for the safety of the true church!”

“And it would be for the good and safety of France if they had stayed! I can see it now. Anyway, are we two not the descendants of protestants, and the very pick? My grandfather, Henry…his mother, Jeanne…what strength! And few starved where they ruled. I would let no man school me in statecraft – yet I might let those two school me. Protestants!”

“Your grandfather was a great ruler after he was Catholic, and he died in the arms of the true church. As must we.”

“Well, of course we must, of course we must…

“But let me start my little ramble. I did not seriously expect you to wheel me about. There is something I wish to try. If I grasp the rim of each wheel then thrust forward and down, I may be able to propel myself.”

“But, my love…”

“No discussion. When have I discussed any small matter more than once? To do so is to make it a great matter. Stand clear, madam. If I feel I can do this capably, I shall then do it publicly, as I once rode my horse to war at the siege of Mons, or skipped through the old swamps of Versailles when a-hunting with my father. And as I danced! Ah, how I danced! A king may wish to be immobile, but he must avoid any obligation to be so.”

“Louis, can you ever cease, for a moment, just a moment…”

“Cease to be monarch? Madam, you might ask the sun not to rise. Yet it will rise. Etiquette compels me. It is not the person of a prince but the constantly observed etiquette of a prince which makes another sun in this world. And the sun called Louis will rise daily over France till the blackness which is eating my leg has all of me. Etiquette is something I do understand, even better than Henry and Jeanne d’Albret. For etiquette, history and France will forgive me many things, even if God does not. Rightly they will forgive, because etiquette is an enormity. It is made up of a million tiny pieces, but it is an enormity. And etiquette requires that I never be seen as a slouch, not for a moment and not even in the last and most painful moments!”

The king thrust down on each wheel rim with his hands. The wheelchair lumbered forward, with its usual noises.

“There. It can be done with arm strength and a good grip. Of course, I will have to practise nightly for a while…”

“Oh, Louis…at your age…”

“At any age, madam! Now, I don’t need you to follow me. There are shawls over by that chair. Go and wait for me there, while I take my exercise.”

“But if you should tire or fall out…with my hearing and vision so bad…”

“I have taken greater risks in war and hunting, have I not? Besides, I know how to make myself heard. A little place called Europe will vouch for that. Now…I will give myself a good half hour to advance then return. The moonlight is enough for seeing a path. Perhaps if I get as far as mid-way I shall try making a turn around the high chair there…Until later, madam.”

Madame de Maintenon sighed, walked to the side of the gallery and sat.

The king began to make his way painfully along, resting after every few thrusts forward.

For a while the lady could mark his progress and hear the squeaks and squeals from the machine, as well as the king’s cough-like groans each time he thrust down on the wheel rims. Soon he was out of range of her weak hearing and vision. She selected a shawl, laid it about her shoulders and sat back to mutter her prayers in a half-doze.

As the king inched forward, his groans became satisfied grunts; he paused less, and he was even able to thrust down before the machine had stopped moving from the previous thrust. After some twenty metres he stopped for a longer rest, and to admire how the moonlight reflected on the huge mirrored arches opposite each grand window.

Almost with enthusiasm now, the king thrust down once again on the wheel rims. The sudden sound seemed to touch off an echo. Yet the other sound was no echo. To his right, in the murk between two moonlit windows, something or someone was stirring in sleep.

The king’s first urge was to stamp his cane, which was propped between his legs. Instead, he hesitated and peered harder. Below the end of a large gilt table a tiny lamp, placed on the floor, was burning down. In its glimmer, he could just make out the curled and sleeping figure of a workman surrounded by his tools, trays and buckets.

The king was about to advance on the man and prod him when he noticed something which made him jerk back in surprise. Parked further down the wall in a strip of moonlight was a wheelchair, more rustic and flimsy than his own, and with a little tray between the seat and caster wheel where one might place utensils.

He had a very rare moment of indecision. At last he advanced on the sleeper and, drawing his cane from between his legs, gave him a soft prod.

The sleeper stirred, but did not wake.

On an impulse, the king drew off his wig and cast it on to his lap. Now he gave a second, sharper prod. The man woke in brief confusion, but quickly grew alert, in the way of poor men. He was still a youth and, as he straightened his body, the king could just see that one leg was missing a foot, and the other leg was cut off at the knee.

“What?…Oh…they’ve forgotten me here. Please excuse me, sir. I…was working here and fell asleep. Somehow my fellow workmen have forgotten to fetch me away.”

“You have a lamp, young man. Are you then meant to work here at night?”

“Oh, no, sir. I am a gilder and have been doing repairs to the gilding on all these tables and guéridons. The lamp helps me to see in awkward places…But you have a wheelchair! Just like my own! Well, better than mine…”

“Can you not guide yourself along? Just as I have done?”

“That would not be permitted. If any of these glues or powders were to spill in the Hall of Mirrors there would be scandal. So I wait to be brought away each day. It seems someone forgot, and I fell asleep. I have been so tired working through the long summer days. Without legs everything is doubly tiring…as you would know, sir. Sir, are you…the night guardian here?”

“Guardian? I suppose you might call me a guardian.”

“It’s just that you have such a fine chair…and are so splendidly dressed…”

“Indeed. You might call me a guardian over guardians.”

“And…will I be in trouble, for sleeping in the Hall?”

“Hmm. I doubt it…But how does a man with no legs obtain work here?”

“With respect, Monsieur…Forgive me, but your name is not known to me…”

“Le Grand.”

“With respect, Monsieur Le Grand, I am a good gilder, as good as any. And I can compromise, work well with these cheaper products. As you know, there are economies made everywhere in France these days, even in Versailles.”

“No, I did not know that such economies were being made with the upkeep of Versailles! You have enlightened me, young man. But where are you from? Your accent…”

“I am from an old family of the Béarn, sir.”

“The Béarn? I had forbears who came from there.”

“It seems we now have two things in common, sir. But my family, though a very distinguished one, fell on bad times.”

“How so?”

“My great-grandfather – to the peril of his soul, of course – was born protestant when good King Henry of Navarre ruled over the Béarn, and so many were protestant, even the king and his mother before him. My grandfather, like others in the region, remained stubborn in that faith when the new laws came into force and all of France was made Catholic…as was proper, of course. He had much to lose, high office, lands…He forfeited all and went a beggar to Holland.”

“So your grandfather fled France and your family was left destitute? No doubt the Crown seized his property, as it must. Heresy is strong, its roots can go deep. Heresy above family…a familiar story of those times…

“But what became of you all?”

“Sir, my father and brother followed the wars. We are skilled people, and they both had skill as engineers. Being too young for the wars, I stayed with my mother and sister in our shack in the hills. My father perished at Blenheim, my brother at Ramillies. The Duke of Marlborough cost us dearly as a family, Monsieur Le Grand.”

The king winced in the darkness, but kept his tone level:

“I know of…that person you mention. The wars were indeed hard. I…my family had many losses through the wars.”

“We have still more in common, then, Monsieur Le Grand.”

“I…suppose we have certain things in common…as you put it. But your legs? What happened to your legs? You say you were not in the wars.”

“It was the winter of seventeen hundred and nine. Even in the Béarn, with its usually mild climate, we suffered the most terrible times. Even if one had money, and the tax officials had passed one by, there was no food to be had. All was for the wars. The thistles and fern heads we might have survived on were buried under heavy snow. Yes, heavy snow, even in the Béarn. Wolves hunted men, but then men hunted wolves, so strange and awful were the times!

“My mother died of the cold, my sister went missing when she was searching for twigs to burn. I went out in the snow to find her, but never did. By the time I had dragged myself home through a blizzard my feet were numb. Then they turned black and…ah, you will forgive me if I talk no more of that, Monsieur Le Grand. The pain of the amputations comes back to me when I dwell on it even in talk.”

“Indeed. Talk no more of it. Why talk of losses? To avoid loss is to avoid life. Talk no more of losses…”

“Monsieur Le Grand, you are a man of learning and experience. Can you tell me?…Those wars which have left us all skimping, even His Majesty, it is said…I scarcely dare ask but…”

“You wonder what those wars were for? They were for His Majesty. And subjects…we are no more fit to question Majesty than Majesty  to question God. The wars…on a political level they were for…Ah, never mind politics! Don’t you want to sleep?”

“I am tired, but for a workman to sleep through the night in the Hall, the greatest room in the world…”

“Sleep, young man. And in the morning food will be brought to you. I have…a connection with the captain of the guard. Sleep on. Our conversation is ended and it is time for you to sleep.”

“You are very kind, Monsieur Le Grand. And I am certainly tired, more from dragging my body than from working with gilt. But if I am found here without explanation…”

“I tell you I am the guardian of this place! I am the guardian beyond this place! You may sleep. And I will stay here till you do. I, your guardian, will sit by you! Now sleep, young man.”

And the young man slept, slept so readily. It seemed to take only seconds.

The king felt his eyes water as he waited by the sleeping tradesman.

It was the cold air, no doubt, which was causing his eyes to water. The room was cold, even on a summer evening. He drew a fine cloak from under his legs and cast it over the youth. Then he buttoned his coat about himself.

Still he felt his eyes blurring. It was the cold.

King Louis, blinking away the moisture, cast his eyes around and up. Cliffs of glass, cliffs of mirror, all reflecting. Nothing to warm, to enclose. So much gaping splendour. So much frigid space.

“Must start over. This room…too large…too cold…”




Posted in HISTORICAL | 6 Comments


“Probus, I have spent all my life, except these last weeks, in the Morgarita Forest. Are the forests of Germany so different?”

“Indeed they are, young lady. Many Romans and Italians have seen only remnants of oak forest, stunted groves good only for firewood and boar hunting. Their great forests were long ago cut down to make towns and navies. As for the Morgarita, it is a place of winds, dry and elevated. There is terror from the wolves, but not from the forest itself…and from the darkness.

“The Teutoburg, as we quickly learned, is like a mouth to the Underworld.”


“Three legions, eighteen thousand men, along with many followers, turned into that darkness.

“Varus and the general staff were up ahead. Merens was riding well in front of my special treasury detachment, staying with the main supply and baggage columns. It was normal to keep the treasury a little to the rear in case of terrain problems. But the entire army had terrain problems from the moment it entered the Teutoburg.

“It seems incredible that no scouts except those of Arminius, and no engineers at all, had been sent ahead. Everything we believed about our route we believed simply on the word of Arminius. Yet within a half-mile of entering we were forced to narrow our ranks outrageously. The further we advanced, the darker it got. The road became little better than a low track between densely wooded slopes, and it even became like a murky tunnel in stretches where giant trees, decked in creepers, leaned overhead.

“I recall turning to one of my subalterns and remarking that a Roman army without formation was no longer a Roman army. He replied that Varus was certain to order retreat, unless the terrain further ahead was far better, which seemed unlikely from our ever-slowing progress.

“What we could see of sky grew leaden, then black. At last came the rain, a constant chill rain. In such circumstances a soldier feels more than discomfort. He knows that his spear and the handle of his sword will be cold and slippery; he knows that bowstrings go slack and fingers of bowmen go numb.

“Leather in constant rain blisters through slight movement; condensation or rainwater trapped under armour make a cold that burrows to the bone.

“Yet we went on, a compressed line stretching over miles. It would only take a fallen tree or bogged wagon in the wrong spot to break that line.

“The track grew worse, and because we were following the bulk of the army we were soon sliding about and pushing through quagmires. Our wagons were in danger of sinking in places. We expected an order to halt then retreat, discussed whether Varus had taken a turn out of the forest by some other road rather than reversing our march. But he had contemplated neither measure, and was simply advancing further into that dank hell. It crossed my mind that Merens, so expert in transport and terrain, must be trying to dissuade him, but Varus could be stubborn even before the advice and charm of Merens. But surely Varus, for all his patrician conceit, could see what was so plain!

“None of it made sense.

“My men started looking sideways into the dripping forest, where a waterdrop on foliage might be a watching eye. It was still not an attack they feared, just that forest, with its million eyes.

“Instead of dovecotes or little shrines which cheer a traveller, there were strange  ornaments of bone and feather, even human skulls, attached to tree trunks and dangling from branches. If these objects did not represent warnings or curses, our mood interpreted them as such.

“At last riders came from in front. I felt sure they must be a detachment to announce a change of plan, though our line was still lurching forward. As the riders drew close I saw the group was composed of Merens’ offsider, the loathsome Molossus, with some twenty of his tax extractors.

“He greeted me in his usual disrespectful way and told me that the army would proceed as planned but that the treasury was to be sent back, in view of the conditions and the danger of the cargo being bogged down or spilled. Molossus showed me the order from Merens. I was partly relieved and partly suspicious on reading it. Merens was commanding me to send my own riders ahead to replace the detachment which had just arrived. With Molossus and his riders I was to head back to the main road then proceed along it to the Rhine.

“It all made sense, except that we would be a small group without our usual mounted escort of trusted comrades. Though Molossus insisted that his men were far more experienced in dealing with German tricks, I would have been more comfortable with a larger contingent and my own riders. Much more comfortable.

“But the orders were clear and probably for the best. Why the entire army was not sent back was what baffled us. The terrain and weather had reduced it to a rabble, time and light were being lost, and the chances of making an adequate fortified camp for three legions that night were remote.

“I did what I always do. I registered objection soberly then complied, insisting that my men comply with all orders and co-operate with Molossus and his company, though we knew them to be a gang of degenerates.

“As we moved to the rear, Molossus showed our orders to the various officers who had been behind us. Most expressed surprise at the small size of our contingent but all assisted us to guide the treasury through their constricted ranks. Finally, the army was out of sight, and we were alone on the trail.

“Progress to the Rhine Way was slow, since we were travelling in the slush and ruts made by three legions. The damage to the saturated trail had been so great that there was danger of landslip. I occupied my place on the largest wagon, flanked by a sharp-eyed youth trained to do nothing but watch. My guard of some twenty specialist infantry held formation as best they could; the riders led by Molossus stayed close on the awkward terrain but had to scatter frequently so the rest of us had space.

“Soon it began to rain again, and then to pour down hard.

“We reached a turning where there was a steep slope on our left and a sharp fall to the right. It had been difficult for the army coming in; it was now perilous, with a quagmire forming in the very sharpest part of the bend. Molossus’ riders fell well behind or went far to the front.

“Suddenly, a rain of German javelins from the left, striking down several of my guard and the driver of a smaller wagon in front.

“My well-drilled men moved around all three of our wagons, though there were not enough of them for a tight formation. Molossus came riding toward me and shouted that his horses could not pursue uphill in the conditions but that his men would guard the wagons if I decided to send some of my infantry after the raiders.

“There was no choice but to take the suggestion. If we did not retaliate, our invisible attackers would have hours to pick us off as we tried to move along the damaged road, and they may well have felled trees in our path. I reasoned that they could not be numerous or they would have attacked in force. Some ten of my soldiers would likely be enough to keep them engaged if not disperse them.

“Cursing my superiors’ judgement for the entire expedition and my present ridiculous exposure to any gang of tramps, I ordered ten men up the hill, with orders to flank our contingent beyond normal javelin range.

“I never saw those men again. I am guessing that they ended their lives on sharpened stakes in carefully prepared traps.

“For everything had been a carefully prepared trap.

“When Molossus’ twenty or so men had formed in close, I ordered that my remaining guard load the two dead and four wounded on to wagons. As they did so, Molossus chose that unguarded moment for his attack. His men pounced from their horses with weapons drawn and began to hack my men to death. Molossus, and another rider with a heavily bandaged face, stayed mounted and simply watched the slaughter.

“Because of my position high on the main wagon and the impossibility of drawing a bow in the heavy conditions, none of the attackers had yet reached me. There was nothing to do but die as a legionary. Drawing my sword I hurled myself from the wagon rim at Molossus, hacking at his head as I fell to ground. I gave him the wound he bears to this day. Rising from the mud I made a vertical stab with my sword, hoping to catch him under his breastplate. And that is when he gave me this wound which I still bear. I reeled and he thrashed at me again with his longer cavalry sword.

“The rest is like a dream. I remember stumbling as I dodged the thrusts and retreated a few steps, then a few more steps. I remember looking into my opponent’s gashed face as I fell back into air.

“I had gone off the embankment right where it was most sheer. Whatever my head hit first was enough to remove my helmet. I then began to fall, roll, fall, with branches and saplings tearing away flesh as I went further down. Something stopped my fall. In the same moment the back of my head struck wood and for a while I lost consciousness.

“After a while I was aware of voices. Above me they were discussing my whereabouts, and whether I was dead. Soil and rubble fell near me as some of the gang tried to descend. I had fallen too far however, and was well out of sight, my fall having been stopped by a dense thicket where the slope made a small shelf. Finally I heard Molossus barking down to his men to give up the hunt and leave me for dead. Their haste to escape with an enormous fortune had saved me.

“My wounds were bad, but none of them fatal. The slash down my neck had not struck any veins, but was likely to get infected without treatment. When I tried to move, it was a shattered wrist which caused me the most difficulty. Yet to stay where I was in the cold rain, especially in a state of shock and exhaustion, would mean death in the course of the night. I had to get back up the slope and improvise some sort of shelter.

“Molossus would certainly have departed in silence with the wagons, so I was surprised to pick up distant cries which came and went on the wind. But perhaps I was just hearing the echos from my concussion.

“There was not a minute to waste in recuperation. I would need to devote the remaining hours of light to nothing but the climb back to the road. Any resting would be done up there, after I had made shelter.

“And the ascent did take hours, with just one hand to grab and pull on rocks, shrubs and low branches. The rest was achieved with feet to push and one elbow to hook. I thought only of reaching the next grapple point, being careful not to select anything shallow-rooted or unfixed.

“Yes, I studied my way upward, and in doing so I was a legionary, a Roman, again. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant: it is just an explanation. I am a Gaul like you, but my life has been with the legion. At our best, we organise, do things in sequence and formation, no matter how dire or confused the circumstances.

“When I had finally crawled to the top I could witness what had been done to my comrades. Every one of them had been hacked or stabbed to death. The usual stripping of bodies, however, had not taken place, for the obvious reason that the marauders had hold of a state treasury, fruit of the year’s taxation and exactions, along with much of Varus’ private fortune. They needed to move away in haste. This worked in my favour, since I would be able to gather the dead men’s cloaks for shelter.

“Then more luck: one of the wagon horses had been speared. It had been loosed from harness and left to die. I finished the poor animal with a thrust into its neck then set to work, though with much pain and little strength.

“The first thing I needed to butcher from the carcase was the liver, warm and soft. An animal’s fresh liver is easily eaten and quickly digested. I ate as much of it as I could get down then proceeded to cut out the bladder. With the still warm urine I began to bathe my cuts. There was no chance of starting a fire, so that delicate bag of horse piss was my best chance to keep away infection.

“The last thing I wanted to do in my state was to skin a horse, but I knew the green hide, if wrapped about me twice, would be far better than the cloaks for keeping me dry and warm.

“By the time the sun set I had been able to wriggle into a thicket above the road and wrap myself in the horse’s hide. Instead of my wet clothes I wore some woollen shirts which had stayed dry inside the breastplates of  my comrades. With the cloaks over the top of the horse’s hide, I was not merely dry but snug.

“After nibbling on more soft organs and drinking some water, I fell into one of those fevered sleeps which always come after a shock.

“And all through that night I seemed to hear distant cries, coming and going as the wind and rain varied in intensity or changed direction.

“I now knew that the cries were not just echos from my concussion.”

Posted in HISTORICAL | 32 Comments


“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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