Vignette 19 PROPAL - FOR DISCUSSION IN THE FORUM
It is already past three in the afternoon and the people are beginning to stir after their afternoon rest. A cart drawn by two tired looking mules approaches the Central Baths on Via di Nola through the Nola Gate. A few shop fronts still have their awnings down against the glare of the afternoon sun dipping on the western horizon. The entrance to the baths is brightly lit and the yellow and blue frescos on the walls facing the street, dance in the light. The walls of the houses facing the street are windowless and this practice lends a sense of protection and security to those within the walls. Usually, it is quiet enough at this time of day for one to discern the sound of the many household water fountains, but today it is eerily silent.
“Where are the people? Wake up and drink your fill at the fountain of this blessed wine. You will find no better. Neither here, nor anywhere else in the Empire! Come, Christians and citizens of Pompeii alike.”
“What fountain are you talking about? The fountains have dried up overnight. What do you know about it?” An old woman shuffles along after sweeping in front of her door. ‘Mad Christians! They are everywhere now-a-days and have pinched the ritual of Bacchus and claim it as their own.’ She aims a swiping blow with her broom at the legs of the offending mules and they skid on the cobblestones.
“Whoa!” The mules are steadied and the wagon comes to a stop at the door of the baths. "I come in peace, Old Woman."
“You are too early for the cliental at the baths. They will not arrive before the business of the day has been concluded. Come back just before sunset,” a gentleman puts in. He takes the reigns of the mules firmly in his tanned hand.
“Why don’t you take your cart to the Via Consolare? It will be safe to leave it there. You may visit one of the temples or if you please, one of the many places serving refreshments. This ash that Mount Vesuvius has been sprouting the past few hours has left me parched and I am keen to wash the dust off me. I hope it stops soon as I have a business to attend to and everyone seems to be on edge today, for whatever reason I do not know. Even my dog is hiding under the stairs and would not come out with me this afternoon, as is his habit. ”
“I came to do business Sir, and I am in a hurry to settle the business before dark. Others might wait till the people are sated with food and drink to negotiate business deals, but that is not my way. I do more business in one day than some merchants do in a week.”
“Only ill can come of driving a business deal without regard for the comforts of the client. Hungry people do not fare well when confronted with figures and decisions.”
“To the contrary, Sir. I am sure that the prospective clients are all well fed and rested, if not in their beds, at least in the arms of their mistress.” With a wink, the reigns are expertly whipped out of the restraining hands and the driver swings from the seat.
After much heckling by those present, Euseno got the merchant to divulge that the secret to the best full bodied white wines there are to be found in the region, and indeed, the whole of the Empire, is the tried and tested method of the grapes being stomped by the feet of maidens, instead of using winepresses. Served with the usual carafe of water fresh from the spring fountain, it makes for an excellent thirst quencher; a very welcome libation during the many hot days still being experienced during the month of August. The merchant only has one wagon left of amphorae of wine and wants to sell them to the highest bidder before sunset. Someone enquires who his master is and where the vineyard is that he is speaking so highly of as they all know one another and every inch of the Pompeii viticulture region.
“Didn’t I see you yesterday at Herculaneum? You were selling wine outside the Forum where Emperor Titus was being received. You then also said that you only had this one consignment left to sell!”
“No. It could not have been me-”
Before the driver could stop him, Euseno was on the wagon and lifted the tarpaulin covering the cargo. “Here!” he said in triumph. “It is the same seal that was on the flagons being sold at Herculaneum: ‘Vesuvinum’. You still assured me that it was from a private winery just outside Pompeii, on the lower western slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Hence, the name: Vesuvius and vinum* combined! I thought it was a silly name and it stuck in my mind and it had a kick like a mule. It did not agree with my stomach and I prayed to the goddess Caca all night!”
“You are mistaken, sir. I have never seen you before.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Turning to the ever growing crowd, Euseno, threw his arms wide in a gesture of including everyone in this conversation. “Have I ever knowingly lied to anyone, especially to someone belonging to the honourable and ancient guild of winemakers?”
“Yes, you have.” And a few others in the crowd join in with this confirmation of his guilt.
“You sell water only flavoured with wine at your tavern and the women are, therefore, not as comely at your caupona as at other establishments.”
Ribald after ribald remark beset the innkeeper and he beats a hasty retreat before the crowd can accuse him of more serious crimes against his patrons.
“Tell us a bit more about this blessed wine of yours. If it kicks like a mule as Euseno attested, then I would buy the whole consignment from you.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“I am Gaius et Quintus and I deal on behalf of my master, Quintus Poppeus.”
“Well, Gaius et Quintus, I will be happy to give you a taste of the wine before you buy. As luck would have it, I have a wineskin of wine right here with me. Now all we need is to find a goblet and I will pour you a fair measure for you to appreciate.” With a smile, the stranger produces the wineskin straining at the seams and awaits the inevitable clamour for a sample of the wine. Soon there is many a wine cup extended by the onlookers, eager to avail themselves of the offer of free wine.
“And might I enquire as to your name, Sir?” says Gaius et Quintus as he wipes the tears from his eyes at the strength of the very agreeable wine.
“I am Flavia Lucia Augusta, but you may call me Flavia Augusta.” Lucia waits for the usual reaction of astonishment from the crowd.
“But, you are a woman!”
“That I am indeed,” says Lucia and drapes the toga she has been wearing in a tighter flourish over her shoulder.
“And you are wearing a toga ...” The people drop their eyes, each with their own thought.
“Yes, astute Sir. It was cold this morning on the road and, therefore, I took my late husband’s toga to keep me warm. I did not think that the citizens of Pompeii would mind the error in dress code as all can see that I am a wine merchant and not a prostibulae as my hair is not dyed yellow, red, or blue.” It took the crowd a while to join Lucia in laughter and some good natured banter is exchanged.
“Does that mean that we can get the wine at half price? You do not have a guild to pay dues to,” asks a cheeky fellow at the back of the crowd.
Lucia looks expectantly at Gaius et Quintus. “It seems to me that you have already drummed up a demand for this wine and it would be prudent of me to make you an offer. Shall we retire to the taverna across the road were we can continue to discuss our business?” He does not wait for Lucia’s answer as he deftly weaves his way through the people, accidently spilling some of their wine still undrunk in their cups.
“Tell me, Flavia Augusta: why are you in such a hurry to sell what by all accounts seems to be the best wine you have produced in years?” Gaius leads the way into the dimly lit taverna and indicates to the young woman behind the counter that he wants two goblets and a carafe of water.
“Well, Gaius, where do I begin? Yes, it is the best wines I have produced in years. Last year’s crop was the highest yield I have had since my late husband and I have planted the vineyard at the base of the mountain. Yesterday, during the festival of Volcanalia, my sister, who serves at the temple at Herculaneum, told me she had a dream that my wines will be served to kings thousands of years from now. I did not know what to make of it and thought that she meant the new religion of Jesus of Nazareth would flourish.”
Gaius bursts out laughing and reaches for the wineskin that Lucia had placed on the table between them. “Mark my words, that cult is just another fancy that will soon blow over. But that doesn’t answer my question. Why are you in such a hurry to sell your stock? If you would be prepared to wait for a year or two, then the wine would be even better in quality.”
“I woke up yesterday morning to a noise in my cellar. Some of the amphorae had burst open and the wine had spilled out on the floor. It was extremely hot in there. I do not understand why this is so. I decided to bring the wine to town and to sell it off as soon as I can, before losing everything. Since my husband died last year soon after the harvest was in, the hard work of pruning and tending the vines has left me exhausted. I intend to leave for Cape Misenum tomorrow morning. I have friends there and it is not as crowded as Pompeii. One cannot move in this town during the summer months. All of Rome seems to take their vacation here during the hot month of August.”
“Yes, it can get pretty crowded here during August. It will be cooler across the Bay of Naples. You will like it there.”
“Well, could you make me a fair offer for the wine, Gaius? I must get back to my house and prepare the evening meal. I have left my slave, Jucista, in charge of the kitchen.”
“I need to confirm the price with Quintus Poppeus as we would need storage place for the wine. I still think that it would improve with age. Why don’t you return to your home and come and see me this evening? I will have an answer for you. Here are a few gold pieces as payment in good faith. Then you can stay overnight in town and make arrangements early next morning for your passage to Cape Misenum.”
“I would rather not travel at night. May we agree to meet here tomorrow morning after you had your breakfast? It will give me time to make arrangements at my house for the tending of the vineyard and the household chores, before my departure. I am already packed and am keen to get away as soon as I have my purse. Do not disappoint me, Gaius.”
Lucia gathers the toga from the chair where she had dropped it when she had entered and drapes it over her right shoulder before stepping out into the road. On impulse, she hands the clasp with the three black pearls, which normally held the toga in place, to the old woman who was standing outside the door eavesdropping on her conversation with Gaius. “I have a feeling I would not have any use for it anymore after today. May it bring you luck.” A sense of finality comes over her, akin to the day that her husband had unexpectedly died of a heart attack.
The ash in the air makes her cough and she draws the material over her nose and mouth. "Look at the mushroom cloud above the mountain. Nothing good will come of this. The god Vulcan was not appeased at the Volcanalia festival held yesterday. Before I depart tomorrow morning, I will bring special offerings to the goddess Opi during the Opiconsivia festival."
Lucia turns away from the dispersing crowd and strides to her wagon, which stands in the street. She checks the cart and fixes the tarpaulin, then gives the weary mules a pat.
The sky is darkening earlier than usual. The ground shakes for a few moments. Murmurs of unease ripple through the crowd as they each return to their business, preparing to finish up before nightfall.
Lucia climbs up onto the wagon seat, coughs once more, gestures her farewell to the remaining onlookers, and with a "Giddyup!" rides down the road.
Suddenly, the ground shudders violently, and Lucia grasps the reins desperately in an attempt to stay upright.
[*Vesuvinum (combining Vesuvius and the Latin for wine, vinum]
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