"I had another letter from him begging our help," Felix continued. "He says that a few thousand troops now could make all the difference."
"He said that six months ago as well. It made no difference at all. Has something now changed?"
Felix shrugged his shoulders wearily. "We must try, surely? The whole of the civilized world is at stake."
Manlius smiled. "We are the civilized world, you and I," he said. "A few dozen people, with our learning. As long as we continue to stroll through my garden arm in arm, civilization will continue. Euric or no Euric. And I fear that you may provoke worse anger than you imagine." Felix shook his head. "You would not have spoken so cravenly a few years ago."
"A few years ago everything was different. When I was young we could travel without fear along well-maintained roads, through well-administered cities, and stay at the villas of friends stocked with labor. There was an emperor who wielded real power rather than being a plaything of warlords. Those days are as distant now as the age of Augustus."
"It is peaceful enough here."
"All illusion, my friend. We have been attacked by marauders at this villa three times in the last six weeks. It nearly fell to looters on the last occasion. Two of my other villas have been destroyed and now produce nothing. This tranquil scene you see here this evening depends on six hundred troops hidden in the background. They consume near a third of everything we produce and could turn on us one day. There are fewer people to tend the fields, fewer still to buy our diminishing surplus. In a way, we are under siege here as well, and slowly losing the battle, just as friend Sidonius is losing his. You must know all this from your own experience."
"I do, of course." Felix paused, and they walked some more before sitting at the edge of the pond. "And I am grateful to you for inviting me, as ever. I, too, grow lonely for company, even though I am surrounded by people."
Manlius leaned over and kissed his friend on the cheek. "It is good to see you once more. But however restorative, that is not the sole reason I invited you, of all people. I need to tell you something. Something important." It was the moment when he had to test a friendship that had endured for nearly twenty years without argument, without dispute, with perfect amity. Manlius was aware that he was trespassing on something sacred. Felix turned toward him, drew his arm away. "Such gravity and seriousness! Whatever can it be? You are publishing your letters at last?"
"This is not for laughing. I have been thinking as you have for some time. That we must try. That all we value may indeed be destroyed but it should not be given up so easily. I have received a letter from Bishop Faustus of Riez."
"Good heavens! You are going to pray! You are going to start going to church! Truly, this man is a saint and a miracle worker. All that I hear about him must be true."
Manlius grunted, and for a while they talked about the pond they were sitting beside, clogged now with weeds. They swapped aphorisms about water, played with quotations from Pliny about his garden, inverting grammatical constructions so that the neatness and order of the original became the clogged and unkempt reality of the present. Then, as old friends do, they said nothing, but looked at the lilies still growing and the insects hopping across them in the evening light.
"Faustus wrote to ask me to become Bishop of Vaison," Manlius said eventually.
Felix knew immediately the importance of what he said, but still tried to cover it over with a joke. "Not Bishop of Rome? How about emperor, too? You'd look handsome in the purple. Truly, the man doesn't know you very well, or he wouldn't have wasted his ink." Manlius threw some dust into the water and watched as the perch swam toward it in the hope of food.
Reprinted from Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © June 2002, Iain Pears. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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