Authors: Thomas B. Costain
Tags: #Classics, #Religion, #Adult, #Fiction, #Literary, #Historical
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 52–8754
BY THOMAS B. COSTAIN
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
HE RICHEST MAN
in Antioch, by common report, was Ignatius, the dealer in olive oil. He had groves that extended as far as the eye could see in every direction and he lived in a marble palace on the Colonnade. He had been born in the same Pisidian village as Theron, who supported his family by selling ink and pens made of the split ends of reed. Theron found it hard to support his family in a one-room lodging a quite considerable distance away from the Colonnade.
One day in the heat of summer, when no one ventured out to engage in trade, least of all to buy pens, the great man came on foot to the hole in the wall where Theron sat with his unwanted wares. The latter could not be convinced at first that he was being paid this great honor and was slow in returning the salutation, “Peace be with you.”
The oil merchant, gasping for breath and slightly purple of cheek, stepped inside to escape the sun, which was beating down on the street with all the fury of the fires of atonement. Making room for himself beside his one-time friend, he went directly to the object of his visit.
“Theron, you have three sons. I have none.”
Theron nodded. He realized that he was singularly blessed in the possession of three sons who had survived the hazards of childhood.
“Is my memory to be lost through lack of children?” asked Ignatius, his voice rising to an unhappy pitch. “Is my spirit to wander after death with no one to come back to, as a moth flies to the flame?”
The awe Theron had felt at the start was giving place to the ease of old acquaintance. After all, had not he and this corpulent merchant been raised in houses of equal size? Had they not stolen fruit together and fished in the same stream?
“It is perhaps your thought to adopt a son,” said the seller of pens.
“My old friend,” said Ignatius, “if you are willing, I shall buy one of your sons and adopt him as my own. He shall have as much love as though he came from my own loins. When the time comes for me to die, he shall inherit everything I possess.”
Theron’s heart gave an exultant tug, although he did not allow any of the excitement that had taken possession of him to show on the surface. What a wonderful chance for his first-born! To become a man of substance and wealth, to eat his meals off plate of gold and silver, to drink wine cooled by snow from the mountains of the north! Or would it be the second son on whom the favor of the great merchant had descended?
“Is it Theodore you want?” he asked. “My first-born is a boy of fine parts. He will make a strong man.”
Ignatius shook his head. “Your Theodore will grow big and have a bulging stomach on him before he is thirty. No, it is not Theodore.”
“It is Denis, then. My second son is a tall and handsome fellow. And also he is obedient and industrious.”
The wealthy merchant shook his head a second time. Theron’s heart sank and he said to himself, “It is my good little Ambrose he wants!” Ambrose was turning ten and lived in a thoughtful world of his own, never so happy as when modeling figures out of clay or carving bits of wood. The seller of pens had always known that in his heart he had a preference for Ambrose. The thought of losing him was like a dagger thrust.
There was nothing unusual about the proposal Ignatius was making. Men without sons sought to remedy the deficiency in this way. The law, as laid down in the Twelve Tables, made no distinction in the matter of inheritance between sons of the flesh and sons by adoption. It was unusual, however, for a man of wealth to think of an alliance with one as poor as a seller of pens. Ignatius could have found a willing candidate in any of the best families of Antioch. Theron, nevertheless, sought feverishly in his mind for some excuse to refuse the offer, saying to himself, “How sad life would be if I parted with my good little Ambrose!”
After a moment he shook his head. “My third son would not suit you. He is a dreamer, that Ambrose. He has no head on him for figuring. Oh, he is a fine boy and I am overly partial to him; but I can see his faults as well as his good points. He has only one desire in life, and that is to make his little statues out of clay and chalk and wood.” Theron gave his head
an emphatic shake as though to conclude the matter. “No, my Ambrose would not suit you.”
The merchant was a thickset man, as broad across the shoulders as a carrier of water. His head was square, his features rugged. A man who fights his way to the top in trade, and stays there, sees more of warfare than a soldier; for life to him is one long battle, a continual round of buffeting and coming to grips, of tugging and sweating and scheming and hating, with none of the pleasant interludes a soldier enjoys around the campfire in the company of other soldiers, with a wineskin handy and the talk easy and vainglorious. Ignatius carried no scars on his body, but if it had been possible to hold up his soul for inspection like a garment, it would have been revealed as a thing of black bruises and scars, ridged and welted and as callused as a penitent’s knee.
He leaned forward and placed a hand on the forearm of the seller of pens. If the latter had not been so concerned with the threat to his own happiness, he might have detected a note of supplication in the attitude of the great man.
“That, friend of my youth, is why I want him.” Ignatius drew his brows into a troubled frown, because the need had now been reached of explaining himself and he doubted his ability to do so adequately. “The Greek nation was great when it had artists to make figures of marble and build beautiful temples of stone. It had men who wrote noble thoughts and who told the history of our race in—in glowing words. Is it not so?”
Theron nodded. “It is so.” This was the thought that consoled him when troubles gathered around his head, when no one wanted to buy pens and the mother of his three sons railed at him as a good-for-nothing.
“But now,” went on Ignatius, “we are traders, we are dealers in cattle and corn and ivory and olive oil. Koine has become the language of the world’s trade. I suppose that when people think of Greece today, they think first of men like me.” His eyes, usually so withdrawn and shrewd, had taken fire. “That is wrong, my Theron, and it must be changed. Greece must produce thinkers and tellers of stories and great artists again. And it is in my power, and that of men like me, to bring this about.”
Theron was listening and watching with amazement. Could this be Ignatius talking, the man most feared in the markets and countinghouses and along the waterfront where the warehouses were so thick they cut off all view of the shipping at the wharves?
“When I die,” went on the merchant, with a hint of pride in his manner,
“there will be a great fortune to pass on. There will be no need for those who follow me to go on accumulating money and possessions. I want in my place then a man who will see things as I see them now and who will know how to use my wealth to restore some of the real glory of Greece.”
Theron felt himself in the position of a defending captain who sees the high walls around him being battered down.
“But,” he demurred, in an effort to find some ground for a last stand, “you know nothing about my third son. Why are you sure he is the one you want?”
“I never take a step until I know exactly what I want.” Ignatius spoke confidently. “I saw your son once only, but I know much about him. I have seen to it that inquiries were made.
“I walked one day through the Ward of the Trades, and it was then I saw him,” he went on. “There were a dozen boys together, hopping about and scuffling and fighting—and one who sat against a wall and whittled with a knife at a piece of wood. I stopped and watched him. He was different from the others. I could see that he had a fine and wide brow. The others tried to get him into their games, but he paid no attention. Then one of them went over and snatched away the piece of wood. The boy was on his feet in a trice and fighting to get it back. He fought well. I said to myself, ‘He stands apart and asks only to be left alone, but he’s willing to fight for what is important to him.’ And then I said to myself, ‘This is the boy I want as my son.’ I felt very happy because I had been searching for a long time. I asked one of the other boys who he was and the boy said, ‘His father is Theron, who can tilt a bottle with the best and who sells lampblack and calls it ink.’ And so, Theron, my old friend, I have come to you today to talk of terms.”
The seller of pens heaved a deep sigh. “You have opened your heart to me, Ignatius. Can I do less?” He spread out his hands in a gesture of reluctant surrender. “My fine little Ambrose is the light of my life. I love him so much that my house will be desolate without him. But what kind of a father is one who lets his own happiness stand in the way of his son’s? It shall be as you desire.” Then he turned with the fierce willingness to barter that the hot sun seems to foster. “There must be five witnesses.”
“Yes.” The oil merchant realized the distress in the mind of the other man and spoke in a kindly tone. “It will be made legal and tight. Three times you will offer to sell me your son in the presence of the five witnesses and each time one of them will strike the brass scales with the ingot of lead. It shall all be done as the laws prescribe so that your son—
no, it must now be said
son—will live with me and Persis, my wife, in full happiness and in the end be possessed of all my wealth.”
Theron found it hard to speak because of the lump in his throat. “I place a high value on my son. I shall drive a hard bargain with you, Ignatius.”
Accordingly five witnesses were summoned to hear Theron, clothed for the first time in his life in a spotless white toga (an extravagance at which his thrifty wife had protested bitterly), announce his willingness to sell his son Ambrose to Ignatius, son of Basil. Three times the scales were struck by one of the five, Hiram of Silenus. Hiram was an owner of small olive groves and made his profit by sailing in the wake of the lordly Ignatius; and he considered it the honor of a lifetime to officiate in this capacity. At the finish the new father said: “I shall name my son after my own father, Basil. It is the greatest honor I may pay him, for my father was a great man.”
“Happy is the son,” said Theron sadly, “who can look up with pride to his father. And happy is the father who can inspire such pride.”
As he never did anything by halves, Ignatius not only handed over the full amount he was to pay, but he announced to the seller of pens that he had arranged for him and his family to move south to the city of Sidon, where much more remunerative employment had been found for him. Theron agreed at once that this was sensible. The boy, cut off from everything to do with his former life, would more easily fit himself into the new environment. “It will be better if you hear no word from me at all,” he said to the new father. “The sooner the memory of me dims in the boy’s mind, the easier it will be for all of us. Be good to him, old friend.”