I had a double motive in this. If Helena's parents were about to reveal that Titus Caesar had been sniffing around while we were abroad, the worse Helena looked on arrival, the easier it would be for them to accept that I had won her first. It had been pure chance, but as the one piece of luck in my sordid life I intended clinging on to it. Once Helena threw herself at me, no one could expect me to refuse the gift-any more than they ought to hope the son of a deeply conservative emperor would take her on after me. That was my hope, anyway.
The Camillus family lived in one half of a private two-house block just off the Via Appia near the Capena Gate. The next-door house was empty, though they owned that too. It was deteriorating while it stood unoccupied. Theirs was no worse than the last time I saw it, a modest spread that bore the marks of a permanent cash shortage. Poor paint in the interior had faded badly since the house was built; mean fittings in the gardens failed to match the standards of grandeur originally set by the rest of the house. But it was comfortably furnished. Among senators they were an unusually civilised family-respectful to the gods, kind to children, generous to their slaves, and even gracious with underprivileged hangers-on like me.
There was a small bath suite, served by water from the Claudian Aqueduct, which on winter evenings they kept fairly hot. Struggling or not, they had the right domestic priorities. I scraped Helena down, enjoying the delicate bits. 'Hmm, I've never yet made love to a senator's daughter in the senator's own bathhouse…'
'You're versatile; you'll come to it!'
Not then, however. Noises off announced company. As her father turned up for his pre-dinner soak, Helena threw a towel across my lap and disappeared. I sat on the side of the plunge bath trying to look more respectful than I felt.
'Leave us alone, please,' Decimus Camillus commanded the slaves who came in with him. They went, but made it clear that giving instructions was no business of the master of the house.
Decimus Camillus Verus was a friend of Vespasian's and therefore on the up at present. He was tall, with uncontrollable hair and vivid eyebrows. Relaxing in the steam, he had a slight stoop; I knew he made an effort to exercise but he preferred to lurk in his study with a pile of scrolls.
Camillus had taken to me-within limits, of course. I hated his rank, but liked him. Affection for his daughter had partly bridged the social abyss between us.
But he was in a tetchy mood. 'When are you and Helena Justina planning to make yourselves legitimate?' So much for thinking he wasn't expecting it. An extra load of pressure descended on me. It was measured in sesterces, and its exact weight was four hundred thousand of them-the cost of my joining the middle rank so that marrying me would not entirely disgrace Helena. I was making little progress in collecting so much money.
'You don't need an exact date? Quite soon, I should think,' I lied. He always saw through me.
'Her mother asked me to enquire.' From what I knew of Julia Justa, 'asked' was putting it mildly. We let the subject drop like a hot boiled egg.
'How are you, sir? What's the news?'
'Vespasian is summoning Justinus home from the army.' Justinus was his son.
'Ah! I may have had a hand in that.'
'So I gather. What have you been telling the Emperor?'
'Only to recognise talent.'
'Oh that!' scoffed the Senator, in his wry way. A shy man's mischievous wit sometimes broke through his diffident manner. Helena's sense of humour came from him, though she threw her insults about more lavishly.
Camillus Justinus was the younger of Helena's two brothers; we had been living with him in Germany. 'Justinus has been building a fine reputation,' I encouraged his father. 'He deserves the Emperor's favour, and Rome needs men like him. That's all I told Vespasian. His commanding officer should have put in a good report, but I don't rely on legates.'
Camillus groaned. I knew his problem; it was the same as my own, though on a much grander scale: lack of capital. As a senator Camillus was a millionaire. Yet there was no slack in his bank account. Providing the trappings of public life-all those Games and public dinners for the greedy electorate-could easily wipe him out financially. Having already promised a career in the Senate to his elder son, he now discovered his younger boy had rather unexpectedly fixed himself a notable reputation. Poor Decimus was dreading the expense.
'You should be proud of him, Senator.'
'Oh I am!' he said glumly.
I reached for a strigil and started to scrape the oil off him. 'Is anything else on your mind?' I was probing in case there were developments on the Titus front.
'Nothing unusuaclass="underline" modern youth, the state of trade, the decline in social standards, horrors of the public works programme…' he said self-mockingly. Then he confided, 'I'm having trouble disposing of my brother's estate.' So that was it.
I was not the only Roman whose sibling had caused him embarrassment. Camillus had had a brother, now disgraced, whose political plotting had blighted the whole family. That was why the house next door still stood empty, and apparently why Decimus looked tired. I knew the brother was dead-but as I also knew, things don't end there.
'Did you approach the auctioneer I recommended?'
'Yes. Geminus is very helpful.' That meant very undemanding about provenance and probate.
'Oh he's a good auctioneer,' I agreed wryly. Geminus was my absentee father. Apart from his habit of running off with redheads, he could pass for an excellent citizen.
The Senator smiled. 'Yes. The whole family seems to have an eye for quality!' That was a gentle poke at me. He pulled himself out of his gloom. 'That's enough about my troubles. How are you? And how is Helena?'
'I'm alive. Can't ask for more. Helena is herself.'
'I'm afraid I brought her back fractious and full of foul language. It hardly fits the decent upbringing you and Julia Justa have given her.'
'Helena always managed to rise above that.'
I smiled. Helena's father enjoyed a quiet joke.
Women are supposed to behave demurely. They can be manipulating tyrants in private, so long as the good Roman myth of female subservience is sustained. The trouble with Helena Justina was that she refused to compromise. She said what she wanted, and did it too. That sort of perverse behaviour makes it extremely difficult for a man who has been brought up expecting deceit and inconsistency to be sure where he stands.
I liked it. I liked to be kept jumping. I liked to be shocked and astonished at every turn, even though it was hard work.
Her father, who had had no choice in the matter, often looked amazed that I had volunteered to take her on. And there was no doubt, he enjoyed seeing some other victim on the jump.
When we went in to dinner we found Helena glittering in white, with golden hems on elaborate swags of drapery; oiled; scented; necklaced and braceleted. Her mother's maids had as usual conspired to make their young mistress look twice my rank-which she was-and twenty times my worth.
For a moment I felt as if I had tripped over my boot-thong and fallen headlong on the floor mosaic. But one of the necklaces was a string of Baltic amber that her mother had not seen before. When the noble Julia asked about it in the course of her scratchy small talk, Helena Justina announced in her own brisk fashion, 'That was my birthday gift from Marcus.'
I served Helena's mother to the best delicacies from the appetisers with rock-steady decorum. Julia Justa accepted with a politeness she had honed like a paring knife. 'So some good did come out of your trip to the River Rhenus, Marcus Didius?'
Helena spoke up for me quietly. 'You mean some good in addition to securing peace in that region, rooting out fraud, rallying the legions-and providing the opportunity for a member of this family to make his name as a diplomat?'