“With such purity, Messala, he might have been a contestant in the Isthmia.”
“Art thou listening, Caius?” said Messala. “The fellow is qualified to salute a woman- for that matter, Aristomache herself- in the Greek; and as I keep the count, that is five. What sayest thou?”
“Thou hast found him, my Messala,” Caius answered; “or I am not myself.”
“Thy pardon, Drusus- and pardon of all- for speaking in riddles thus,” Messala said, in his winsome way. “By all the decent gods, I would not strain thy courtesy to the point of breaking, but now help thou me. See!”- he put his hand on the dice-box again, laughing- “see how close I hold the Pythias and their secret! Thou didst speak, I think, of mystery in connection with the coming of the son of Arrius. Tell me of that.”
“‘Tis nothing, Messala, nothing,” Drusus replied, “a child’s story. When Arrius, the father, sailed in pursuit of the pirates, he was without wife or family; he returned with a boy- him of whom we speak- and next day adopted him.”
“Adopted him?” Messala repeated. “By the gods, Drusus, thou dost, indeed, interest me! Where did the duumvir find the boy? And who was he?”
“Who shall answer thee that, Messala? who but the young Arrius himself? Perpol! in the fight the duumvir- then but a tribune- lost his galley. A returning vessel found him and one other- all of the crew who survived- afloat upon the same plank. I give you now the story of the rescuers, which hath this excellence at least- it hath never been contradicted. They say, the duumvir’s companion on the plank was a Jew- ”
“A Jew!” echoed Messala.
“And a slave.”
“How, Drusus? A slave?”
“When the two were lifted to the deck, the duumvir was in his tribune’s armour, and the other in the vesture of a rower.”
Messala arose from leaning against the table.
“A galley”- he checked the debasing word, and looked around, for once in his life at loss. Just then a procession of slaves filed into the room, some with great jars of wine, others with baskets of fruit and confections, others again with cups and flagons, mostly silver. There was inspiration in the sight. Instantly Messala climbed upon a stool.
“Men of the Tiber,” he said, in a clear voice, “Let us turn this waiting for our chief into a feast of Bacchus. Whom choose ye for master?”
“Who shall be master but the giver of the feast?” he said. “Answer, Romans.”
They gave their reply in a shout.
Messala took the chaplet from his head, gave it to Drusus, who climbed upon the table, and, in the view of all, solemnly replaced it, making Messala master of the night.
“There came with me into the room,” he said, “some friends just risen from table. That our feast may have the approval of sacred custom, bring hither that one of them most overcome by wine.”