'He will be very disappointed,' the redhead, who was no longer a redhead, commented. I fought off my anger at the thought of the two of them discussing me.
'We'll all survive,' I told her. Speaking as if we were one glorious united family.
'Perhaps you will have another opportunity,' Flora offered me quietly, like any distant female relation consoling a young man who had come to announce a failure on the worst day of his life.
I thanked Apollonius for the drink, and went home to my mother's house.
Too many voices greeted me; I could not go in.
Helena must have been waiting. As I reached the foot of the stairs again, heading off by myself, her voice called out, 'Marcus, I'm coming-wait for me!'
I waited while she seized a cloak, then she ran down: a tall, strong-willed girl in a blue dress and an amber necklace, who knew what I had come to tell her well before I spoke. I did tell her, as we walked through Rome. Then I gave her the other dreary news: that whatever I had said to Anacrites, I did not intend to stay in a city which broke its promises.
'Wherever you go, I'll come with you!' She was wonderful.
We went up on the Embankment-the great ancient rampart built by the republicans to enclose the original city. Rome had long outgrown these battlements, which remained now as a memorial to our forefathers and a place to climb to view the modern city. Helena and I came here in times of trouble, to feel the night air blowing around us while we walked above the world.
From the Gardens of Mycaenas on the slopes of the Esquiline arose a soft springtime odour of damp soil stirring with new life. Dark, powerful clouds were thrusting across the skies. In one direction we could see the stark crag of the Capitol, still lacking the Temple of Jupiter, lost to fire in the civil wars. Curving round it, outlined by small lights on the wharves, the river took its meandering course. Behind us we heard a trumpet from the Praetorian barracks, causing a raucous surge of drunken noise from a drinking-house near the Tiburtina Gate. Below, monkeys chattered among the disreputable booths where fortune-tellers and puppeteers entertained the cheap end of society who even in winter took their fun out of doors. The streets were full of waggons and donkeys, the air rent with shouting and harness-bells. Exotic cymbals and chanting announced the begging priests and acolytes of some unsavoury cult.
'Where shall we go?' demanded Helena as we walked. Respectable girls are excited so easily. Brought up to be chaste, staid and sensible, naturally Helena Justina now kicked up her heels at the first promise of a jape. Knowing me spelt ruin for her parents' dreams of curbing her, just as knowing her spelt disaster for my own occasional plans to reform into a sober citizen.
'Give me a chance! I have just reached a wild decision in a moment of despondency; I don't expect to be taken up on it.'
'We have the whole Empire to choose from-'
'Or we can stay at home!'
Suddenly she stopped in her tracks, laughing. 'Whatever you want, Marcus. I don't mind.'
I threw back my head, breathing slowly and deeply. Soon the damp winter odours of the soot from a million oil-lamps would be giving way to summer's scents of flower festivals and spicy food taken in the open air. Soon Rome would be warm again, and life would seem easy, and taking a stand would become just too much agony.
'I want you,' I said. 'And whatever life we can make for ourselves.'
Helena leaned against my side, her heavy mantle wrapping itself around my legs. 'Can you be happy as we are?'
'I suppose so.' We had paused, somewhere above the Golden House, near the Caelimontana Gate. 'What about you, sweetheart?'
'You know what I think,' said Helena quietly. 'We reached the decision that mattered when I first came to live with you. What is marriage but the voluntary union of two souls? Ceremony is irrelevant. When I married Pertinax…' She very rarely referred to this. 'We had the veils, nuts and the slaughtered pig. After the ceremony,' said Helena baldly, 'we had nothing else.'
'So if you marry again,' I replied gently, 'you want to be like Cato Uticensis when he married Marcia?'
'How was that?'
'Without witnesses or guests. Without contracts or speeches. Brutus was present to take the auguries-though maybe you and I should dispense even with that. Who wants their failures to be prophesied in advance?' With me, she could be certain there would be failures. 'They simply joined hands, communing in silence, while they gave their pledge-'
Romantic moments with a girl who is well read can be difficult. 'Cato and Marcia? Oh that's a touching story. He divorced her!' Helena remembered angrily. 'He gave her away to his very rich best friend-while she was pregnant, mark you-then when the lucrative second spouse dropped dead, Cato took her back, acquiring the fortune. Very convenient! I see why you admire Cato.'
Gamely I tried to laugh it off. 'Forget it. He was full of weird ideas. He banned husbands from kissing their wives in public-'
'That was his grandfather. Anyway, I don't suppose anyone noticed,' Helena snapped. 'Husbands ignore their wives in public; everyone knows that.'
I was still living with a mass of prejudice derived from Helena Justina's ex-husband. Maybe one day I would dispel her bad memories. At least I was willing to try. 'I won't ignore you, love.'
'Is that a promise?'
'You'll see to it!' I said, holding off a moment of panic.
Helena chuckled. 'Well I'm not the incomparable Marcia-and you're certainly not Cato!' Her voice dropped more tenderly. 'But I gave you my heart a long time ago, so I may as well add my pledge…'
She turned towards me, grasping my right hand in hers. Her left hand lay upon my shoulder, as always with that plain band of British silver which she wore on her third finger to mark her love for me. Helena made a good stab at the pose of adoring submissiveness, though I am not sure whether I quite pulled off the frozen look of caution which is often seen in married men on tombstones. But there we were, on that April night on the Embankment, with nobody to see us, yet the whole city assembled around us had we wanted the presence of witnesses. We were standing in the formal Roman matrimonial pose. And whatever communing in silence entails, we were doing it.
Personally I have always thought that Cato Uticensis has a lot to answer for.