THE BOXER OF POMPEII
W. G. HARDY
THE sun of a morning long since past thrust its rim above the serrated hills and stared down at the green shores and iridescent waters of the gulf, the gulf that stretched below the city which the Romans knew as Neapolis, the new city—called new because it was so old.
"Haste thee, Nossis,” Cleone said and brushed a mop of tangled, sun-whitened hair from off her brow. “Thick as flies will the pepple cluster in the amphitheatre this day.” The other girl lifted a dreaming face, dark with the sun of the south and flushed with the unthinking vitality of youth.
“But are they not lovely?” she cried, raising an armful of flowers from her basket. “See, the blue of the anemone, blue as yonder waters. And when I thrust in a single pale flame of the oleander, so, is it not a dream of beauty?”
With a lithe movement Cleone swung her basket atop her head. She looked with irritation at the graceful figure, the dark, dream-haunted face of Nossis.
“Beauty!” she said. “Leave that for those who dwell in palaces. Let us to Pompeii and the games.”
But Nossis still lingered, gazing down to where, beyond the glittering walls of Pompeii, the surface of the bay curved in a floor of silver from the dream cliffs of Surrentum to the houses of Neapolis, piled in color on the ridge to the north. She sighed.
“Does it not stop your heart?” she asked softly. “Had one but time for beauty!”
“You have hearkened overlong to Diophantes, the Creekling,” Cleone said sharply. “A poverty-stricken poet with fleas for bedfellows. Beware, Nossis. The beauty he craves is yourself.”
The girl’s cheeks flushed as red wine stirs in a purple goblet. But her eyes were a-dream as, basket on her head, she followed Cleone down the sunken path which led through trellised vines and groves of cherry and peach and yellow apricot to the highway to Pompeii.
The Roman road was already thick with traffic— sweating herdsmen and ragged beggars and barefooted peasant women hastening, to the first day of the games that Publius Maximus, chief magistrate of Pompeii, was to give. The girls were jostled this way and that as they stepped from the sunken path into the hurrying throng and, even in the haste and confusion, more than one flung jests and rough badinage at them. But Cleone made answer pertly, smartly, so that ripples of laughter ran along the road.
But there was one w ho did not laugh. The rugs flung over his bony, cringing shoulder betokened him for a pedlar, trudging in with dusty feet to Pompeii. Yet his shifty, cunning eyes held a depth of greed and knowledge that was beyond his trade. With sidelong glance he studied Nossis’ dreaming face and the graceful body that the one bare uplifted arm threw into clear relief. His black eyes smoldered, a predatory thought sharpened his features and he edged closer through the hastening, tangled press.
“What sell ye?” he asked, coming up suddenly beside the girl. “Yourselves, or your flowers, or both?”
Nossis glanced at him, too startled to answer. But Cleone made swift retort:
“Wares far beyond your price, you fleabitten vendor o wickedness.”
The pedlar leered at her. “Who knows the depth of the pouch of Fuscus?” he queried. “Mayhap, ’tis deeper than you dream. Were you to come to the Tavern of Melissa at fall of dusk, my pretties—”
“Father of ugliness,” Cleone interrupted contemptuously.
The pedlar’s eyes flashed venomously before he veiled them. But his words were honeyed:
“Said I ’twas for myself?” he asked ingratiatingly. "Nay, there are wealthy ones in Pompeii. And for the sight of a pretty face—and, mayhap, a kiss—”
“Dost think us dancing girls?” Cleone said. “Go, peddle your wares elsewhere, pedlar of rugs—and iniquity.”
“The pretty one here has not spoken,” the pedlar said deprecatingly. He came closer to Nossis and whispered in her ear: "Aye, in the house of such a one are beauties past the telling, silver fountains that plash and pictures that speak, and jewels and goblets of gold and emeralds green as the Great Green Sea. Could you but look on them—”
“Scum of the wharves,” Cleone said violently, seeing how Nossis listened, fascinated, against her will, “be off with you.”
The pedlar paid no heed.
“For a glance at a pretty face.” he whispered softly. “And. mayhap, a kiss. And what is a kiss? ‘ Nothing.”
Cleone stopped, set down her basket and stood with arms akimbo.
“Will you be off?” she demanded. “Or must 1 draw these ten fingernails across your ugly face?”
The pedlar’s eyes flashed.
“Your one ewe lamb, O daughter of Lesbos,” he gibed with a wealth of mocking implication.
“Aye, my one ewe lamb, jx*dlar of evil and father of lies. And now what say you?”
He glanced to right, to left at the unheeding crowd.
“This,” he said and slip|x>d his rugs from off his shoulder. Before even Cleone could guess his intention he had seized Nossis round the waist. The girl cried out and beat at him with both hands so that her flowers tumbled from her head and were scattered in the dust.
Cleone hissed a curse and leaixxi to tear at him. But he only laughed and bent Nossis backward, searching for her lips. “Father of ugliness.” he sneered at Cleone. And then a brawny hand plucked the pedlar from Nossis as one plucks an apple from the bough and sent him spinning.
“Get thee hence,” a voice boomed in barbaric Latin.
But the pedlar seemed to lx>und upward from the road where he had been thrown. His face filled with fury,
the swift Mediterranean fury which makes its owner mad so that he recks of naught save the tide of his anger. A hooked knife glinted in his hand and. crouching, he crept forward a step and then another, blade turned upward, ready to rip and disembowel.
The crowd near them scattered with cries and exclamations. Cleone screamed and Nossis shrank backward, bare arm across her mouth, staring with wide eyes at the big, red-haired stranger who had rescued her. The pedlar coiled himself to spring, hot curses seeping through loose lips. The stranger laughed, a careless, boisterous laugh, and as he laughed one hand flashed downward to catch the pedlar’s wrist in a merciless grip, twisting it till the knife fell from nerveless fingers. Then, with open palm, the big man smote the pedlar onco so that he sat down suddenly in the dust, half stunned.
“Brother of rats,” the big man said in contempt. He picked up the knife, balanced it. then snapped it between strong fingers. He burst into a laugh again as he cast the pieces into the barley that grew rank along the road. “There,” he added, “is one tooth that will bite no more.”
The onlookers laughed with him and, satisfied, turned to their business and resumed their haste toward Pompeii. The ix*dlar gathered himself together slowly and, picking up his rugs, slunk away like a whipped dog.
But from a safe distance he stopped to hurl a threat from snarling lips:
The story of Pugnax, the Thracian, who loved as fiercely as he fought
“Son of oxen and father of oxen, Fuscus will not forget.” The big man shrugged his broad shoulders and laughed his
careless, confident laugh once more.
“That was well done,” Cleone said to him admiringly. “What
do they call you, O son of Her-
But the stranger had turned to stare with a puzzled frown at Nossis. She was on her knees, gathering up her flowers with gentle, compassionate hands.
“Did they harm you, darling?” he heard her say, and saw her kiss a bruised petal.
“Hath Dionysus, the god who leads the Bacchantes, smitten her with madness?” he asked bluntly.
“Nay,” Cleone answered tartly. “But she is in love with
“Then must she needs be in love with herself,” the big man said bluntly. “Come,” he said to Nossis, “I wall aid you.”
From under long eyelashes the girl took in the broad, goodhumored face, the confident, unimaginative eyes.
“You are kindness itself,” she murmured.
“Too kind,” Cleone said and picked up her basket. “Best not walk in dark streets, you, whatever name you bear.”
“They call me Pugnax, the Thracian,” the man said, and straightened himself in pride. “Pugnax !” Cleone exclaimed, “By Castor, are you not matched with Arius, the Numidian. in the amphitheatre this afternoon?"
“Ayo. There is no boxer who wields the caestus like to me in all the lands the Roman rules.”
"But here, at this hour! Should you not have lieen in Pompeii long since, in readiness for the contest?”
"There was a little matter,” Pugnax said negligently, "of a Roman who pushed me from the wall in Stabiae four days ago. They did not know if he would live or set his leet upon the path for Hades.”
"And you trudge on foot to Pompeii and wield the caestu-, in mid-arena this afternoon? By the Twin Sons of Lecta, ’tis
you who are mad.” Pugnax swelled out his chest and flexed his biceps,
”An’ 1 fell not Arius, the Numidian, with a single blow,”
he said, “let them feed me to the lions.” And he grinned
confidently at Nossis. She thought of the sensitive mouth, the lustrous eyes of Diophantes, her poet lover. Words like these would never pass his lips. But Cleone smiled on the big Thracian. To herself she said, “He is but a boy.”
But aloud she said : “Does not Arius, the Numidian. dwell in the house and under the protection of Frontanus, that gay gallant who squanders his father's stored-up wealth as
it were water from the bay? And did not Diophantes tell us that he was a giant with thews of brass?” “I can tear him,” the Thracian said amply, “limb from limb.” i y
Cleone burst out suddenly into merry laughter and swung her basket atop her head. 1-
“Come,” she said, “let us be going. Else will our Pugnax
destroy the walls of Pompeii with his breath alone.” The Thracian looked at her with a puzzled frown. But, as he fell into stride beside the girls, his glance came back to the still, the radiant beauty of Nossis, the beauty that was so
deep that you could not see into it. Girls like Cleone he had met before. They always laughed at him. But this one —she neither laughed nor smiled,
rT'HE purple awning, stretched up in a great band against the sun. hung listless in the heat. The barred sunlight
fell upon the great oval of the arena and the barrier of polished stone that ringed it, a defense for the spectator against maddened beast or desperate gladiator, and on the tier after tier of seats that rose upward from the barrier. In
those seats the citizens of Pompeii, butcher and baker and pleader in the courts, noble senator and gay young blood and ragged beggar from the streets, relaxed and brought out parcels of food and chatted and laid wagers with their neighbors. Among them, up and down the stone stairways, the hucksters bawled their wares meat chopped small and
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cooked in tiny rolls on a glowing grid, and yellow almonds and ointments and powders to cure every ill. For it was now noon and the first part of the games was over. The savage bears and lions and tigers and panthers, let loose against each other or upon some luckless criminal, had all been slaughtered, Even now, down in the oval of the arena, boys and Libyan slaves, bodies glistening in the heat, shovelled away the blood-drenched ground and scattered fresh sand to cover up the gore.
In an open doorway of the barrier Pugnax, the Thracian, lounged and watched them. Above his head he could hear the murmur of the packed throng, and across from him the opposite side of the amphitheatre was a tumbled sea of people. Soon they would all be watching him as he pitted his brawn against Arius, the Numidian, as a prelude to the moment when gladiator would meet gladiator with naked steel. Already his arms, from knuckles halfway to his elbows, were laced with the caestus—heavy strips of leather reinforced with lead. A blow from them could kill or stun a man. A less confident, more imaginative fighter would have been a-tremble with nervous anxiety and anticipation.
But Pugnax was not even thinking of the combat. His puzzled thoughts were on Cleone and Nossis up there, somewhere above the barrier, crying their flowers. Cleone; she did not puzzle him. But the other girl; she seemed to slip from his clumsy grasp as a fish slips from your grip. Yet why should she not lcxik on him with favor? Was he not a boxer, a boxer wellknown this past year in the towns between Neapolis and Surrentum? Were not his earnings far beyond the pittance that flower girls could glean? Cleone had smiled on him. But Nossis, on the way into Pompeii, had seemed to give no heed to him. Not even when, at the gates of the arena, he had proffered a meeting and a meal together after the games, had any flicker of interest come into her face. Yet when the stripling, the handsome boy they called Diophantes, whom he could break with one great hand, had come, the face of Nossis had glowed as if a fire had been lit behind it. Pugnax flexed a mighty biceps. Perhaps after she had seen him smite the Numidian down he would stir admiration in her.
As he thought this, there was a scattered cheer from the crowd. The intermission was over and the announcer, a bull-necked, sunburned butcher from the stalls by the forum, had stepped out into the arena. He held up his hand for silence and, filling his lungs, bawled out the names of Arius, the Numidian, and Pugnax, the Thracian.
l\ignax straightened himself and, followed by the two attendants assigned to him, strode out into the arena. There was a cheer at his coming and then a louder roar as, from another dtxir in the barrier, a giant of a man advanced to meet him. In one quick look Pugnax saw that he was at least a head taller than himself and light on his feet for all his bulk. The two of them stood side by side before the chief magistrate’s box and lifted their hands, clad in the heavy caestus, in salute. Then they followed the man with the peeled wand who was to judge their combat, out to mid-arena. Pugnax took one swift glance at the circling oval of the seats above the barrier. But at this distance he could discern no more than a jumbled mass of figures. He heard the Numidian growl:
“Beware, youngster, lest I stretch you lifeless on the sand."
Pugnax turned to face him, laughing. As the judge dropped his wand he sprang in lightly, feinted, drove the heavy caestus crashing into the Numidian’s ribs and slipped away from the swinging counter. The crowd cheered and he forgot all but the fight before him, stepping lightly around the bigger man, darting in to smash right and left to jaw or ear or swarthy ribs, slipping away from the blows the Numidian swung [ at him, rolling to those he could not evade.
Little by little, he saw, the repeated blows were softening the Numidian, biting into his reserve of strength. Little by little he watched him grow mad with rage because when he strove to dose with his smaller adversary he could not. Pugnax grinned at him tauntingly and then, with narrowed eyes, feigned to slip on a patch of bloodsoaked sand. With a bull roar the Numidian rushed and swung a terrific blow. Laughing, Pugnax ducked and, rising, drove fist and leather and heavy lead full on the Numidian’s jaw. He saw the latter reel and like a tiger he was in on him, raining blows like hailstones, driving him back staggering toward the barrier until, stunned and winded, the man fell heavily to the sand. The judge raised his wand and Pugnax stepped back, a jubilant smile on his face. He heard the roar of the spectators close at hand, and their cheers were as strong wine in his veins. And then a familiar voice shrilled:
“Bravo, Pugnax. Well done, the Thracian.”
The writhing Numidian was struggling upward to his knees, but Pugnax turned to look. There on the stone stairway above him, leaning out over the barrier, was Cleone, waving her arm wildly. And behind her stood Nossis. Diophantes, the stripling, was beside her. But the eyes of Nossis were fixed on him, Pugnax, as if in admiration. He smiled and waved a confident arm to her and started to turn back to the Numidian.
But as his glance swept the rows of seats nearest, suddenly he caught sight of the pedlar of rugs. The latter’s face was twisted into ugly malevolence and, as he saw the Thracian look at him, he leaped to his feet, shouting obscenities under cover of the cheering of the throng, and flung up a hand in which something gleamed. Unconsciously Pugnax paused to stare at it, wondering if it was a knife and if the pedlar would be mad enough to hurl it at him. Even as he paused, a look of triumph came on the pedlar’s face and he heard Cleone’s scream:
“Beware, Thracian. The Numidian!”
TIKE a flash Pugnax whirled—but not -L-* swiftly enough. That momentary pause had been fatal. For the Numidian had risen and, blind with passion, had leaped in one single pantherlike movement. As Pugnax turned, a heavy caestus crashed full on his face. Instinctively he rolled to the blow so as to diminish its force, but it left him stunned, shaken. Before he could clear the mist from his senses another blow crashed on him and yet another. Desperately the Thracian strove to block the blows that rained on him, to break free. But he could not. The giant had got to grips with him at last. Then a red star exploded in his brain and he fell heavily to the ground. Loud rose the roar of the crowd as they cheered Arius, the Numidian, Arius, the victor. But Pugnax did not hear them. He was being borne senseless by two attendants to the doorway in the barrier.
Up on the stairway Cleone twisted and untwisted her hands.
“And victory was his,” she whispered. And then: “A cock to Aesculapius if he lives.”
“Blood,” Nossis said slowly. “Blood and senseless fighting.’’ She turned to Diophantes. “Is it not hateful, my Diophantes?”
The boy smiled at her, his body slim and graceful under his ragged tunic. But he did not speak. At this moment there was no need of speech between him and Nossis. Heedless of the crowd, he drew her close to him and she nestled there, content. Nor did either of them mark how, over in the seats close by, Fuscus, the pedlar, had caught sight of them, how an evil look, a calculating look, replaced suddenly the triumphant malevolence on his face.
“Why did he pause?” Cleone was saying to herself. “It was folly, with victory in his grasp.”
But already the crowd had forgotten the boxers. For the gates at the far end of the arena had been opened and to the fanfare of trumpets a dozen gladiators marched in, proud in shining armor and flashing swords. As one man, the citizens of Pompeii rose up and cheered. Now there would be no more play fighting; there would be real butchery in mid-arena. Cleone turned resolutely from the barrier. Let the Thracian win or lose, let him be killed or maimed, she and Nossis still must live.
“The sun god,” she heard Diophantes say to Nossis, “hath caressed your flowers, and his fingers, too, were aflame with passion.” “Yet they were so happy with the dew' of morning fresh upon them,” Nossis lamented and bent down to touch them. “It was cruel to pluck them, Diophantes.”
The sight of their happiness, their forgetfulness, irritated her. Did they not realize that Pugnax, Pugnax who had rescued Nossis, lay senseless somewhere inside the barrier?
“Cease your mooning,” she said harshly. She held out their scanty takings to Nossis as if in accusation. “A few beggarly coins,” she scolded. “An’ we do not better, we shall neither eat heartily nor sleep on soft couches this night.”
“And what, my pretties,” a familiar voice said, “if I find one to buy your flowers?” Cleone whirled round. “You?” she asked. “Again?”
“There is no Thracian here,” the pedlar smirked. “That clumsy lout has had his bellyful.”
“Clumsy?” Cleone hissed. “Was he so clumsy w'hen he sent you rolling in the dust?”
The pedlar glanced about him. In the roaring of the crowd they were as unnoticed as if they had stood on a deserted island in the raging sea.
“And yet,” he said with honeyed voice and down-dropped, malevolent eyes, “could you forget your hatred I could win gain for you and for myself. Grant me but the half of what he gives and I will lead you to one who will take all your fknvers.”
“Hearken not to him,” Diophantes interrupted. “Can you not see evil skulking like a jackal in his eyes?”
Cleone looked at the boy and her face hardened. What did he know' of the practicalities. the necessities of life? As for the pedlar -hate and anger. Yet did hate and anger fill your stomach? She and Nossis must eat and sleep. And Pugnax, beaten, vanquished —perchance he, too, w'ould be in need of money. This pedlar and his offer —there could be no trickery behind it. He who ran could see the avid lines of greed upon the pedlar’s countenance. It wras only money that he craved.
“Not a half, a third,” she bargained.
The pedlar spread out his hands. “Would you grudge a poverty-stricken wretch his due?” he began.
“Is not the pouch of Fuscus deep?” Cleone interrupted sarcastically. “Nay, a third or nothing.”
With a shrug of his shoulders he agreed, too readily had Cleone noted it, and began to lead the way for them.
Diophantes made a movement as if he would have checked Nossis. But she shook her head and turned with her flowers to follow Cleone. As the gladiators faced each other and the crowd hung intent, waiting for the bite and flash of sharpened weapons, ,the pedlar led the girls along the corridor toward the awning under which, around the chief magistrate, were gathered the gay and the wealthy of Pompeii.
T)UGNAX sat up and spat out a mouthful of mingled blood and teeth. At first his dulled consciousness did not take in where he w'as or what had happened. But w'hen he realized that he was in a small room opening off the passageway from the arena, the events of the afternoon returned to him. He groaned and his face fell forward to his hands. For the first time, he knew the loneliness of defeat. For the first time, he knew doubt of himself.
“And yet,” he muttered, “had that accursed pedlar not flung up his hand ...”
He groaned again and heard a muffled roar from the amphitheatre above him, the roar of a mob that has scented blood.
“ Habet; he’s got it,” they yelled, and he knew that some gladiator had fallen w'ounded and was holding up a mute hand for mercy. Scant mercy that rabble would show. He straightened himself, passed his hands over his face and stretched himself experimentally. His ribs were sound, although his nose was smashed flat and his jaws were swollen and his eyes were black and blue. There was another roar, a savage roar from the crowd, and he knew they had turned “thumbs down” and the victor had plunged his sword into the throat of the vanquished. The vague thought which w'as forming in his mind of returning to the arena, of searching out the pedlar and smiting him dowm, vanished. No, let him get forth from this accursed place. Rising, he stumbled out into the passagew’ay and found a blind road from the arena.
The circular space in front of the amphitheatre was deserted in the hot sun, save for the empty booths of hucksters and a dozen ragged youngsters rolling dice in the dust. Pugnax stopped and looked at them. Somewhere in his dazed mind w'as a remembrance of his promise to meet Cleone and Nossis when the games were over. But w'ho w'ould want to meet a battered and a beaten boxer? He cursed and reeled across the space and into the narrow streets that converged on it. Wine, forgetfulness, some tavern where he could drown his defeat and humiliation.
At that moment, on the stairway of the amphitheatre, as the crowd yelled and went mad at the crash of meeting gladiators, Cleone, scarce able to comprehend her luck, opened her hand and showed a golden coin to Diophantes.
“See,” she cried, “the gods have smiled on us.”
“And this Frontanus,” he said, “bids you bring the flowers to his house this night?” “Aye. And there will be more gold. Fuscus did better than he knew or wished. Ah, Nossis, truly is this our day of fortune.” Diophantes’ voice was sullen.
“Mayhap this Fuscus knew well what he did. Does not all Pompeii know this Lucius Frontanus? His boxers, his dancing girls, his room of love? Nay, Nossis, shall not go.” Cleone rounded on him.
“When you can show us coins like this.” she said, “then bid us go or stay. We cannot live on air as poets seem to think. And dost dream that harm can come to her? Shall 1 not be there? Let this Fuscus try his tricks. Let this Frontanus, noble Roman though he be, but lay a fingertip on Nossis. No harm can come to her when I am by. She craves to look on beauty. In the palace of Frontanus she can look her fill.”
Diophantes gazed at Nossis and grew afraid. The dreaming look was on her face.
“You will not go?” he pleaded. “Tell me that you will not go.”
“They say,” she said, and her eyes were far away from the shouting, maddened throng, the blood and butchery in the arena, “that in his house are pictures that swim with color and statues molded to beauty by the ancient Greeks themselves. And what is a kiss? Nothing.”
The boy’s face filled with the quick, the jealous fury of his race.
“A kiss?” he breathed. He caught her arm. “You shall not go,” he stormed. “Do you hear me? You shall not go!”
“Be not in love with folly,” Cleone said sharply to Nossis. “The goddess of good luck smiles not on men or women twice.” Nossis did not speak.
“Dost hear me,” Diophantes repeated and shook her arm in his eagerness. “I forbid you to go.”
Quietly, as if he were not there, she freed her arm and stooped to arrange her wilted flowers. He knew then that for the moment he could not touch her, that it was better to say no more. But the desire to hurt her, to wound her as he was wounded, was too strong.
“And I thought you loved me,” he said softly, bitterly. “You are like all the rest. A glint of gold and you are dazzled. Praise
be to all the gods that I have seen into your heart and know its worthlessness.”
It was as if she had not heard him. With a sudden curse, he turned and flung away, angry at her and at himself and in misery because of it.
“Let it not trouble you,” Cleone said to the unheeding girl, "He will be waiting by our lodging-place this night. And now”— her face stiffened with a light, a tenderness, that she could not conceal—“now let us search for Pugnax.”
Over under the awning, as they went, Frontanus, the Roman, sat with insolent, disdainful face, and Fuscus, an evil smile on his lips, leaned over and whispered in his ear.
A SICKLE nvxm rode like a curled feather in a pale sky, fleecy with forgotten clouds. Between the tall, blank housefronts, the streets lay quiet, as if, even on busy Pompeii, evening had laid a still, hushed finger. But Pugnax was impervious to thoughts like these. For hours he had sat in a tavern by the wharves, one named the Tavern of Melissa, and called for wine and yet more wine. But at last the lighting of the lamps and the name of Fuscus had aroused him to look about him. By the counter a trimly dressed squint-eyed slave was speaking to a sailor, a hook-nosed, swarthy Spaniard.
“Aye,” the slave had said, “Fuscus will have a cargo for you this night.” He had laughed and dug a familiar finger into the sailor’s ribs. “A cargo that will bring a sparkle to your eyes, you lustful son of Venus.”
Pugnax had not known or cared of what they spoke. But the name of Fuscus had stirred recollection in his soddened brain. Half dazed though he was with wine, the thought of the pedlar had revived the idea which had formed in his mind when he sat, a beaten man, in the room inside the harrier. The pedlar—and that upflung hand. The pedlar and Nossis. By the horses of Diomede, he was no Thracian if he did not search him out and leave his mark upon him! And then, perchance, he might face Nossis.
So now Pugnax wandered through the deserted streets of Pompeii, and with each step his brain cleared and his senses came hack to him. By one of the many fountains in the streets he stopped and cleansed the dust and the caked blood from off his face. At one of the many wayside counters he ate ravenously of bread tom from a circular loaf, and of steaming lentils and strips of grilled lamb. Then, refreshed and strengthened, the realization of the folly of his search came upon him. The pedlar —he knew not where to look for him. And Nossis—he had no knowledge of where she lodged. And if he had known, how could he face her after his boastfulness?
With head bent, he wandered to the north along the narrow, gloom-ridden streets and came into the better quarter of Pompeii, where the houses of the rich covered each a half a block and more. And then, as he loitered along aimlessly, lonely, despondent, he saw two figures turn the comer ahead of him. There was something familiar about them, even in the darkling light of evening. I le hastened to the corner after them. They had stopped, he saw, before a doorway. The light above it shone on their faces for an instant. It was Cleone and Nossis.
His first impulse was to call out to them, to rush up to them. Then his sense of shame restrained him. Had they not seen him battered and beaten that afternoon —he who had boasted so proudly that self-same morning? If he could but wipe out his defeat, could hut meet that Numidian once again before their eyes. He hesitated and. as he hesitated, the door opened and they passed within. But Pugnax did not turn away immediately. He went up to the door by which they had entered. An obscene symbol was painted by the entrance, and Pugnax spelled out the words beneath it: “To the householder, good fortune.” It made him ponder the more. This was no tenement such as that in which Cleone and Nossis would lodge with fleas for bedfellows. What
could they be doing here in one of the homes of the wealthy?
He went past the door, came back and finally sat down on the raised sidewalk to puzzle it out. Cleone, Nossis. And, as he sat, the door opened again and two men emerged, bearing betwreen them a bundle that kicked and squirmed. Pugnax watched them with the interest of observant indifference until, with a startled oath, he saw that one of the men was the squint-eyed slave of the Tavern of Melissa. That slave had sjxiken of Fuscus. And Nossis had gone in by that door. He sprang to his feet as they started with their burden down the street, and saw Fuscus come out of the entrance and close the dwr behind him. In two great strides he had seized the pedlar by the shoulder.
“So,” he said and, not finding other words, slapped him with open palm.
“You!” gasped Fuscus and strove to twist away.
“Aye, me. Me, Pugnax, whose victory'you marred this afternoon. You did not think that fate would follow you so close.”
Fuscus gave up his struggling.
• “Here, Philocles,” he shouted to the slaves. “To me, Dion.”
The two men dropped their bundle and, as they dropped it, Pugnax heard a stifled scream, a woman’s scream. The tavern, the cargo for the sailor, the pedlar this morning with his arms about the form of Nossis ! He turned on Fuscus, and saw that the pedlar was twisting forth a knife. All his accumulated fury flared out in the blow he struck. The pedlar crashed to the stones of the pavement and lay there motionless. The Thracian paid him no further heed. With a fierce, a reckless laugh, he charged down on the slaves. They did not await his coming. As they fled, Pugnax dropped on his knees beside the bundle and tore at the ropes that bound it. But the face that stared up at him was not the face of Nossis.
“Pugnax,” Cleone cried shrilly and flung her arms about his neck.
He freed himself.
“But Nossis,” he exclaimed. “Where is Nossis?”
The doorkeeper answered the bell when Cleone pulled the handle, and over his prostrate body they passed down a narrow corridor and through the gloomy atrium into the pillared colonnade around the open garden, where silver fountains plashed and the air was odorous with the fragrance of growing floivers. Pugnax would have lingered, staring. But Cleone sped to a room that opened off the colonnade and brushed aside the curtains. It blazed with light, and by that light the Thracian saw graceful statues standing, poems of motion stilled, and walls painted in panels of brilliant color where winged Cupids played and Psyches and Bacchantes floated as if on air.
“But she is not here!” Cleone cried after one swift glance about the room.
In answer to her ivords a cry came from an alcove hidden behind heavy hangings.
“Cleone!” the voice sobbed. “Cleone!”
THE Thracian sprang across the room and tore apart the curtains. Nossis, her dress rent from her lovely shoulders, amazement and terror in her face, wrenched herself free from the arms that sought to hold her and ran to nestle in Cleone’s arms. The Thracian stared at Frontanus, the Roman, and there w-as a slow mounting fury in his gaze. But Frontanus, the Roman, arranged his gaily colored robe of amethystine and looked at the Thracian with the insolence, the confidence of wealth and rank. His gaze went past him as if he was not there and fastened on Cleone.
“So Fortune, that fickle goddess.” he said in a bored, disdainful voice, “has turned her eyes from Fuscus.”
“Fuscus,” the Thracian said thickly, “will trouble us no more.”
The eyes of Frontanus came back to him. “And how came you here?” he asked. “Dog and son of a dog. Get you hence, barbarian, and leave me with these women.”
“The women,” Pugnax growled, “they go with me.”
"Ah.” the Roman said. He picked up a golden hammer and struck a silver bell. “I,” he said and a note of anger crept into the arrogant voice, "will have you lessoned, slave. And when you have learned your lesson well, that toy, that plaything, that flower-girl, shall learn to plead with tears for the arms of Frontanus.”
The Thracian bared his teeth and raised his hand. But Cleone cried out, "Pugnax,” and there was terror in her voice. He turned. And there, coming into the room was Arius, the Numidian.
A sudden fierce joy surged up in the Thracian. The gods had heard his prayer. This, the man who had vanquished him. And Nossis standing by. But even Nossis was forgotten as, with light and mincing steps, he advanced over the tesselated floor. The Numidian scowled at him.
"Thou!” he said. “Wilt take another beating, dog?”
Stung to fury by the taunt, Pugnax leaped. For an instant the ferocity of his assault bore the Numidian back. But then, heavier than the Thracian, more solid on his feet, Arius recovered. This was the kind of fighting that suited him. Grinning fiercely, he met the Thracian toe to toe. Still under the influence of his rage, Pugnax did not at first give back. He gave and took blow for blow. But at this style of fighting he could not match the Numidian. He reeled back a step, then another and heard Frontanus shout:
“Well done, Arius. Beat the dog down.”
In a fierce gust of anger Pugnax leaped forward. But a full arm swing came crashing in his face and sent him staggering back. In one lightning instant he knew sick shame, to realize that once again he was being vanquished. He felt the wall against his back and heard Cleone’s despairing cry. The sound cleared the mist from his bewildered senses. As the Numidian rushed in to finish him he ducked low to the blow that was to fell him and. driving his fist to Arius’ midriff, slipped away from him and out into the open space. And, as he reached it, coolness and understanding flowed back into him like a tide. Fool, to strive to match the bigger man blow for blow. Fool, to let anger confuse his wits. As the Numidian turned, Pugnax reeled and staggered back as one who is badly hurt.
"He’s got it,” Frontanus cried. "Give him the death blow, Arius.”
Abandoning all caution, all thought of guarding, Arius rushed in. Straightening suddenly. Pugnax drove both fists into his face. Arius staggered in his turn, and as he staggered, Pugnax, cool, ferocious, leaped in upon him with killing blows, giving him no chance to recover, ducking to his mighty swings, driving his fists to ribs and battered face until the Numidian reeled back with both hands held out in front of him blindly to ward off his foe. Frontanus cursed, made as if to interfere and thought better of it. Nossis hid her face. But Cleone watched, her face a mask of savage exultation, her lips drawn back from her teeth. Stepping hack. Pugnax measured his foe. Then, with a mighty leap, he bounded in. One fist swept down the Numidian’s extended arms, the other crashed home full to the point of his chin. The Numidian fell as the ox that the priest has smitten for the sacrifice. Pugnax looked down at him, triumph on
his face. He had vindicated himself. Now he could face Nossis once more. Nossis— had he not saved her? He turned and looked at the Roman, Frontanus, menacingly.
"Now,” he said truculently, "now do the women stay with you?”
Frontanus did not answer. He cowered back before the Thracian and one arm crept up before his face unconsciously as if to ward off a blow. Pugnax laughed and turned from him, assured that he would not dare to call his slaves until too late.
"Come,” he said with a lordly gesture to the girls. "There is none to check the path of Pugnax, the Thracian.”
THEY stood at the entrance to a tall insula, a tenement house in which, in single rooms, lodged the poor and humble of Pompeii. The Thracian was staring at the still downcast beauty of Nossis, awaiting her applause. His heart was warm within him. Had he not, in spite of all, overcome the Numidian and rescued her from Frontanus, the Roman? Had he not saved her friend, Cleone, from P'uscus, the pedlar, and the ship which would have taken her to slavery in Spain? But, strangely, her eyes were not lifted to his in gratitude, in admiration. There was a shrinking in them even, he thought with a puzzled frown, a loathing as if she had looked on him and found him not to her liking.
“Have you no words,” Cleone said sharply, too sharply, “for Pugnax, Nossis?” The girl’s glance wavered. She knew well what the Thracian expected. In Pompeii, among the poor, matings were swift, were lightly given. But she could not. And then, down the street, advancing with dragging, unwilling steps, knowing naught of what had happened, she saw him. With a glad cry she left the Thracian standing and darted to him.
"Diophantes, my Diophantes!” she cried, and buried her head on his shoulder.
The battered countenance of the Thracian darkened in anger. He took a fierce step toward them. But then he paused, a hurt, bewildered expression in his eyes. Beside him Cleone drew in a quick breath of sympathy that was almost a sob. It made him aware of her. He turned.
"She, Nossis,” he stammered, wanting to tell her of the ache, the reaching outward in his heart, and not knowing how or why.
"She is not as we are. Pugnax,” Cleone said softly. "For she is in love with beauty. ” He nodded slowly but did not comprehend. She looked at him as a mother might have looked, searching to heal, to comfort.
"That was a mighty blow,” she said suddenly, “wherewith you felled the Numidian.”
His face cleared.
“Aye,” he said, exulting. "No man in all the broad lands the Roman rules can face Pugnax, the Thracian.”
He heard her catch her breath again in a sound that was like a sob. He looked at her enquiringly. But she did not tell him why.
“I was so afraid,” she murmured and gazed up at him adoringly.
He laughed, triumphing in his strength, and drew himself up.
“And are you afraid now?” he asked. "Nay,” she answered and crept as if by accident within the circle of his arm. "With you I would never be afraid.”