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Debita

Vicus gallorum super mare in scopulo stat. Hic adeo procellosus Oceanus ut non in litore nec prope ab eo aedicula condere audeant. Incolae plerumque sunt piscatores, haud mirum, sed et nonnulli parvos agros et pauperos colunt. Sacerdotes Neptuno Thetidique vel paribus deis gallicis sacrificia dant. Multi e castris Ritupiis romani nuptu indigenis immiscebantur. Barbari etiam rudi et inhumani attamen propinquitatis arci et civitati Duoverno causa pacati sunt et vix molesti. Dico eos vix molestos ; aliter de eis non me occupo, nec occuparet proconsul. Hi britanni, velut omnes qui pace romana fruuntur, Romae vectigalia debent. Britannia stanno et servis, frumentis et piscibus Vrbem locupletat. At si cives vel gentes obnoxiae Romae debita non proferunt, legatus immittitur qui extrahet.

Ita proconsul, qui amicus quondam erat cum provinciam pacificavissemus, suam ad villam opulentam me vocavit. Durus vir bellicus nunc in civilem mutatus est. Luxus eum mollem fecerat. Porro magis in voluptatem quam in auctoritatem versabatur, sed dum longius cenamus denique mihi mandatum dedit. E vico quodam gallorum vectigal non iam ad thesauros provinciae fluebant ; me mittit qui pecuniam vel bona vel pisces quidem, tributum quodvis sufficiens, e rusticis nanciscerer.

Negotio infando concluso, et legatione suscepta, solus Rutupias profectus sum, quo, itinere confecto strenuo, intemperiei causa madidatus, noctem demorari me oportuit. Mane manum militum eligi et castra reliquimus. Sperabam verbis nec vi duces vici exoraturos iri, sed iussum proconsulis procul dubio mihi auctoritatem omnem contulit. Non volebat, ut dixerait, scire quomodo vectigal poscerem ; simpliciter volebat ipsum vectigal. Nam, Div. Iul. Caesar scribit incolas Cantii humanissimos in insula esse ; non autem dixit eos tam humanos quam nos -- atque is saepius gladio debuit et romanis suadere.

E castris recte ad mare progressimus, ut oram ad vicum sequeremur. Harenosum plerumque litus. Dispersim scopula cretosa liquore imminent. Raro silet mare : frigidum et inratum immani strepitu terram pulsat. Et lux solis procul in undis dilucebat, nimbos super terram haud perfodebat. Maximus britannorum deus dicitur Mavors vel Bellona vel Mercurius vel Ceraunus ; egomet puto Pluvium.

Miseri umidi frigidi ad vicum tandem advenimus. Non dubitavi ducem petere. Is, vir vegetus sed tacitus, sat bene latine loquitur ut me placeat et, si fateri possim, res adversas sublevet. Enimvero mater, ipsa galla Massiliae nata, me gallice loqui docuit, nihilominus vox istorum britannorum barabare admodum in auribus mihi sonat. Porro si latine solum loqueremur, nescirent me conloquia inter eos intellegere.

Exspectavi ducem, sicut solent omnes, inopiam excusaturum esse. Sed aliter plane dixit. Vix meque potestatemque Romae salutavit cum, Gaudeo, inquit, te apud nos venisse. Agrestes sumus et piscatores, et lubenter Romae tribuaremus, quae nos pacem et securitatem donat, sed nuper nihil habemus. Caritas fame nos necat. At ades : magnus Caesar preces nostros audivit. Salva nos! Fascinati sumus.

Neminem vero talem excusationem nisi per speciem mihi umquam protulit. Erat quidem quid veri, quid territi in voce et in vultu huius ducis firmi. Considerate eo locutus sum, ne superstitionem credulitate -- neque per speciem -- incitarem.

—Missus sum, inquam, non a Caesare ipso, immo a proconsule provinciae -- is autem pro Caesare agit -- ad vectigalia referenda, quae Roma requirit et quae, ut ipse dixisti, pii clientes vultis proferre. Proconsul mihi maximam auctoritatem dedit ut rem ex sententia conficiam. Explice, igitur, amice, et hac auctoritate vos adiuvabo.

—Scivi, ait dux clamans, scivi te nos adiutaturum esse, te nos salutaturum&nbap;! Sacerdos noster cladem tuam auspicavit, immo vero cum signum tuum procul vidissem, statim scivi salvatorem temet esse !

—Mihi credis, inquam. Spero me tibi invicem crediturum. Dic quaeso, quid vicum sollicitet ?

—Non quid, inquit paene per susurrum. Quae. Vico maledixit venefica.

—Tanta venefica, aio, quae toto vico maledicere scit. Non me requirite : meliorem immo sacerdotem.

—Minime, ait de industria risum meum haud agnoscens, minime. Sacerdos noster multa carmina ipse novit, in somniis dei monent, et lingua avium intellegit. Pauci eo potentiores. Sed olim veneficae docuit. Ea eandem magiam scit -- ac scit quae carmina eam superent. Inermes sumus contra istius veneficiam. Sed tu, euge, ades. Poteris ferro vincire... eam interficere.

—Fortasse, aio, si necesse. Primum conabor enodationem aliam... minus gordianam. Itaque te oportet mihi omnia explicare. Deinde velim cum sacerdote loqui.

Primum noluit me sacerdotem invisere, et dixit eum latine ignorare. Interpretem mecum dixi me induxisse, et praeterea : quis de venefica sollertiaque eius praecipue plura mihi dicat ? Annuit, triste verumtamen, et mihi viam indicavit.

Sacerdos in summo scopulo littore imminente stabat, oratione desperenter numina maris coelique invocans, hortans, blandiens, iubens. Scilicet numina iam silebat. Erat senex tam ferox quam sint incolae vici humani, quo dico eum nec feralem nec urbanum. Putavi autem nos rationaliter conlocutos iri. Quoniam egomet volebam res celerius conficere ut in urbem quamvis reveniam, confiteor me non sat humaniter quam impatienter tum egisse ; moram ritus igitur non exspectavi, sed ei clamavi.

—Heus ! dux vici mihi dixit vos a venefica vexari.

Voce latina audita sacerdos preces statim desiit, ad me vorsit. Vultus et pavorem et iram una exposuit, et cum turbatione animi permixta.

—Noli vereri, senex, inquam nunc gallice. Romanus missus sum qui adiuvaret.

—Unus romanus, ait sacerdos. Esne solus ? Num Roma exercitum misit ut vectigalia compararet ?

—Proconsul mihi vos laudavit, aio, velut clientes piissimos. Non opus est exercitus.

—Fortasse, ait, nec legio tota nos servet. Unus miles vel multitudo, quid refert ? Ne dei quidem nos servare possunt. Tanta potestas huius veneficae.

—Sic omnes eam laudant, aio, tamen non timeo. Neque timebant milites quos mecum adduxi ; non funditus veni solus, nec inermis. Nullum hostem paveo, neve latronem neve bellatorem -- neve veneficam.

—Hahae ! putas nos rusticos adeo superstitiosos ut a verbis puellae inratae abhorrescamus. Vim enim agitat terribilem. Vicum exscrata'st, ut incolae fame pereant. Atque me ipsum carmine excaecavit.

Hoc dicto passum incertum ad me fecit ut viderem oculos eius lacteolos, quo conspectu non potui quin horrescerem. Saltem horrorem ignoraret. Fortiter sermonem recepi. Nolim te laedere, inquam, sed tu senex. Nonne caecitas ex aetate procedat ?

—Possit, ait, sed haec e veneficia. Dei mihi visum aquilae donaverunt. Ista venefica una nocte lumen furta'st. Mane cum experrectus essem putavi tum mediam noctem. Quemlibet in vico roga, si mihi non credis.

—Malo veneficam ipsam rogare, inquam. Quis me ad eam ducet ? an viam ostendet ? Pro certo aliter nil cognoscam.

Iracundia his verbis confuta denique quid utile protulit. Puerum, inquit sacerdos, vocabo. Is te ad veneficam ducet, dum ego deos salutem tuam poscam.

Puer, tam tacitus quam territus, tramite de scopulo ad litus ibat. Simiae similis celerrimum descendit -- heu velut ego olim puer. Lentius secutus sum, ne caderem. Est mei non absurdum videri coram rusticis, ne Romam per me inrident. Pedibus meis harenam attactis, statim puer tergum vorsit, iter faciebat. Tacite igitur ducebar. Puer corpore in bracchiis involuto procedebat. Interdum conspexi eum tremere, magis pavore quam frigore pro certo.

Fluxus mugiebat, gaviae clamabant, saeviebat ventus. Nos toto itinere silebamus. Tandem sistit puer. Quid nunc ? aio.

Digito scopulum remotum ostendit. Spelunca, ait gallice.

—Incolatne venefica ?

Non respondit. Ad vicum magno impetu effugiebat. Debet venefica, mihimet suspirans inquam, apud se esse. Iter harenosum perrexi ut speluncam promissam invenirem.

Primo visu spelunca erat hiatus in scopulo haud profundus, viridibus cum muris quo fluxus saxos cretaceos maculavit. Tamen cum intravissem magnitudo videbatur me circa pandi ut semitam obscuram in scopulum sequerer. Ubique odos salis et umor. Harena sub caligis semper madidata. Tenebrae crassae mihi velut murus obstetit. Num per iocum puer huc me duxit ? Hem, si barbari in ore speluncae stent inrisentes, eis spectaculum ridiculum dem ! At cum respexissem, nihil vidi : ubique tenebrae. In tenebris igitur clamavi : Venefica ! Esne domi ?

Risum vero exspectabam, magnae cachinnum turbae barbarorum. Sed mellifluus puellae risus sonabat. Scintillas deinde in caligone duas conspexi, et inter eas mox vultus apparebat, virginis barbarae, tam dulcis quam sapiens.

—Salve, ait puella, O romane. Quid venisti ?

—Tributi causa, aio balbutians, missus sum.

—Tributine causa ? Libenter magnae Romae tributum dabo. Sed una sum mulier paupera. Si nummum tibi dedero, abibisne ?

—Derides. Nosti me a vico adisse. Sacerdos dixit--

—Sacerdotem ! ait clamans. Num isti stulto credis ? Pro pudor... Visus es callidior.

—Ignosce, domina, aio iterum balbutians. Veniam posco, si offendi. At quispiam tributum obstat. Non solum sacerdos sed etiam dux mihi dixit temet, domina, vicum imprecationibus defixisse. Negasne ?

—Nego enim. Credisne eis nugis ?

—Nescio cui credam. Haec spelunca...

—Domus veneficae, vero. Hic inferos evoco et venena coquo et somnians oracula Hecates recipio.

—Iterum derides.

—Ferme. At verbis inest quoque veritas pusilla.

—Quaenam veritas&nsbp;?

—Vim habeo antiquissimam, Roma tua antiquiorem, quam natu a matre accepit. Dic, romane, nonne barbara mater tibi infanti mythos nostros didicit ?

—Quo modo noscis gallicam matrem meam, nec patrem gallicum.

—Num erro ?

—Recte dixisti.

—Nosco per illam vim quam mater mihi in sangue donavit. Erat nympha marina, et pater piscator bellus.

—Itane credis ?

—Tune non credis ? Nonne vos romani in templis et heroes veneramini ? Philosophus es, qui putat deos remotos ac hominum immemores.

—Cui foris credo non necesse credo private.

—Fraudulentum romanum ! neque igitur tuos neque nostros deos colis. Putas me puellam stultam, nec nympham nec sagam quidem. At dic : nonne vicani me timent ?

—Timent, quod te sagam putant.

—Vero. At dic : nonne maleficio sacerdotem caecavi ?

—Potius senectus ocellis lumen furta'st.

—Fortasse. At nonne vicum totum fascinavi ?

—Si vicani ita credunt, errant.

—Hem. Enimvero errant. Non est fascinum. Immo pisces poposci abesse. Ut nympha marina, linguam piscium bene loquor. Quamobrem sacerdos carminibus suis precibusque maleficium superare non potest. Causam veram ignorat, ut nequiquam deos oret, dum pisces ipsos hortari debeat. Heu, tibi in oculis video te mihi nequaquam iam credere. Sequere me, ut ipse videas.

Sine mora e spelunca discessit. Ego sequens paucos post passus in lucem egressus sum. Liquor iam lapides in imo scopulo lambabat. Puella aequo passu in undas processa'st. Ad me vorsit cum aqua medium corpus attigisset, gestu me appropinquare hortans. Dubitavi, itaque ad me cucurrit manusque cepit.

—Noli me trahere, inquam. Loricam gero gravem. Non possum sic nare. Noli ludere !

Attamen ridens me pertrahebat. Vires ei -- immanes paene -- non potebam resistere. Cum primum mihi corpus medium attigisset aqua, me incucurrit. Eius in amplexu inmersus sum. Acri sale os implebatur -- sed confestim dulce factum est. Labra nymphae meis occurrebant, et in os aquam suis e pulmonibis osculo ecfundebat. Exinde aquam sicut aërem respirabam.

—Nunc mihi plane credis, inquit. Quidnam facias ?

—Vix crederem, sin... inquam iterum balbutiens.

Et iterum ridebat. Mox ego quoque ridebam, quoniam, etsi aliquantulum pavescebam, conloquium sub aqua hac cum puella me incubante valde videbatur ridiculum. Sed vultus prope me solum ore ridebat ; oculi saevitia ardebant. Me oportuit audere.

—Noli cunctari, O romane. Te rogavi, quid facias ? Dic !

—Officium neglegare non debeo, inquam firmiter. Non possum.

—Etiam de tributo cogitas ! O romane, tu me inritas !

—Fatuam ! Impedimentum removere debeo, ad salutem vici. Si sacerdotem nuntiavero, quod mihi dixisti, pisces suis carminibus revocabit, ut vicus vectigal pensitet. Tu ipsa resolutionem subiecisti.

—Vero, si ei nuntiaveris. Cur nam nuntiares ?

—Quippe stultus essem, si sinerem rixam tuam meo officio obstare.

—Rixam ! Sugillas me, O romane. Ultione fruar... bis. Cras milites romani corpus in litore inveniunt. Necis causa vicus omnis poenam dabit.

—Non solum nympha es sed etiam Pythia ! Quam ob rem deberem istum praesagium auscultare ?

—Vere tu stultus es, qui memet numen marinum contumelia lacessis. Corpus, O romane, erit tuum.









Things Owed

The Gallic village stands on a hill overlooking the sea. Here the sea is so tempestuous that neither on the shore nor near it do they dare to erect their habitations. The inhabitants are for the most part fishermen -- small wonder -- but a few also cultivate small and poor fields. Their priests make sacrifice to Neptune and Thetis, or their Gallic counterparts. Many Romans from the encampment at Rutupiae are intermixed through marriage. The barbarians are still rude and uncultured but due to the proximity of the fortress and the city of Duovernum they were peaceful and hardly a nuisance. I say hardly: otherwise I wouldn't have anything to do with them, nor would the proconsul. These Britons, in common with all who would enjoy the Pax Romana, owe Rome tribute. Britannia enriches the Eternal City with tin, slaves, corn, and fish. But if its citizens or peoples subject to Rome do not yield up what is due, a legate is sent to extract it.

Thus the proconsul, who was my friend from back when we pacified the province, summoned me to his opulent villa. The hard man of war had changed into a civilian, and luxury had made him soft. He was furthermore more interested in pleasures than in statecraft, but in the course of an over-long dinner, he gave me my mission. Tribute was no longer flowing from a certain Gallic village into the storehouses of the province; he was sending me to get money or goods or even fish out of the peasants, whatever should suffice for their due.

Having concluded this sordid business and agreed to undertake the mission, I set out on my own for Rutupiae, wherein, after an arduous journey, and soaked through on account of the weather, it was necessary to stay the night. In the morning I put together a unit of soldiers and we left the camp. I was hoping to prevail upon the village leaders with words rather than violence, but the proconsul's orders gave me unquestionable authority in this matter. He did not want, as he had said, to know by what means I had demanded the tribute; he simply wanted it delivered. Now, the divine Julius Caesar once wrote that the inhabitants of Kent were the most civilised on the island. But he didn't say they were as civilised as are we -- and he often had to persuade even the Romans by the sword.

We proceeded from the camp directly to the sea, that we might follow the coast to the village. The beach was mostly sand. Here and there chalk cliffs rose over the water. The sea was rarely quiet; cold and angry, it battered the earth with an awful roar. Though the sunlight shone far off upon the waves, it did not pierce the black clouds over the land. The greatest god of the Britons is said to be Mars, or Bellona, or Mercury, or Ceraunos; but I am convinced it is Pluvius.

Cold and wet and wretched, we finally arrived at the village. I did not hesitate but sought out the chief. He was a vigorous man, but taciturn. He spoke Latin well enough which pleased me and, I must confess, made matters easier. To be sure my mother, herself a Gaul born in Massilia, taught me to speak Gaulish. Nevertheless the accents of these Britons sound altogether barbarous in my ears. What's more, if we only speak in Latin, they won't know I can understand the conversations they have amongst themselves.

I expected the chief to make excuses for the want of tribute, as they all do. But he said something else entirely. He had hardly saluted me and the might of Rome when, "I am happy," said he, "that you have come to us. We are simple farmers and fisher folk, and would willingly make tribute to Rome, that gives us peace and security, but right now we have nothing. The lack is killing us with hunger. But you have come; great Caesar has heard our prayers. Save us! for we are bewitched."

Truly no one has ever proffered such an excuse save in jest. But indeed there was something of truth, and something of terror, in the voice of this strong chief. I spoke to him carefully, lest I incite his superstition through credulousness -- or in jest.

"I have been sent," said I," not by Caesar himself, but rather by the proconsul of the province -- he acts in Caesar's stead -- to collect the taxes that Rome requires, and which, as you yourself have said, as dutiful subjects you want to pay. The proconsul has given me the greatest authority that I may fulfil his orders to the letter. Explain this to me then, friend, and I shall use my authority to help you."

"I knew it!" cried the chief. "I knew you would help us -- you would save us! Our priest foretold your destruction, but truly when I saw your standard from afar, I knew at once that you were to be our salvation!"

"You trust me," I said, "and I hope that I can trust you in turn. Please tell me what is troubling your village."

"Not what," he said, almost in a whisper, "but who. A witch has cursed the village."

"She must be a powerful witch," I said, "if she can curse an entire village. You don't need me, you need a better priest."

"Not at all," he replied, ignoring my laughter. "Not at all. Our priest knows many incantations, the gods advise him in his dreams, and he knows the language of the birds. Few are more powerful than he. But he once taught this witch. She knows the same magic -- and knows which incantations will prevail against it. We are powerless in the face of her witchcraft. But you, happily, are here. You can best her with iron... you can slay her."

"Perhaps," said I, "should it be necessary. But first I shall attempt another, less Gordian solution. So you should tell me everything. And then I should like to talk to the priest.

At first he did not want me to see the priest, and said he spoke no Latin. I replied that I had brought an interpreter with me, and besides, who better to tell me of this witch's skill? He assented, and this but with sadness, then pointed out the way.

The priest was standing atop a cliff which overhangs the sea, desperately praying to the gods of sea and sky, exhorting and coaxing and demanding. Of course the gods made no reply. He was an old man, as fierce as the rest of the village's populace was mild, by which I mean to say he was nor feral nor urbane. But I thought we could speak in a reasonable manner. For that I wanted to quickly be done with this business and return to civilisation, I confess I did not so much treat him with civility than with impatience. I did not so much as wait for a pause in his rites, but called out to him.

"Hey there! the village chief has said you are being distressed by a witch."

The sound of a voice speaking Latin made him immediately cease his prayers, and he turned to face me. His face shewed at once fear and anger, mixed with disquiet.

"Do not be afraid, old man," I said, in Gaulish this time. "I am a Roman sent to help you."

"One Roman," said the priest. "Are you alone? Did not Rome send an army to collect her tax?"

"The proconsul praised you," said I, "as the most dutiful sort of clients. An army is not necessary."

"Perhaps," said he, "not even a whole legion could save us. One soldier or a multitude, it matters not. Not even the gods can save us. So great is the power of the witch."

"So do they all praise her," I replied. "Nevertheless I am not afraid. Nor are the soldiers I have brought with me. I have not come completely alone, nor unarmed. I fear no enemy, neither brigand nor warrior -- nor a witch."

"Ha ha! you think us superstitious provincials, who shrink from the words of an angry girl. But she possesses a terrible power. She has cursed the village, and the inhabitants are dying of hunger. And I myself have been blinded by her spells."

So saying, he took an uncertain step towards me, and I noticed his milk-white eyes. I could not but shudder at the sight. At least he could not see my fear. I continued boldly. "I do not wish to aggrieve you," I said, "but you are an old man. Could not this blindness come with your age?"

"It could," he said, "but it came from the witch. The gods gave me the sight of an eagle. That witch stole my sight in a single night. When I woke in the morning, I thought it still the middle of the night. Ask anyone in the village, if you don't believe me."

"I'd rather ask the witch herself. Who can take me to her. Or show me the way. Otherwise I shall not find out anything."

His passion was tempered by these words, and he finally offered up something useful. "I will call a boy," he said, "to take you to the witch, whilst I beg the gods to keep you safe."

The boy was silent and frightened as he took the path down the cliffs to the beach. He clambered down like a monkey, as quickly as possible -- alas, like I could have done at his age. I followed more slowly, lest I take a tumble. For it is incumbent upon me not to appear ridiculous to the villagers, lest it be my fault that they laugh at Rome. As soon as my feet hit the sand, the boy turned his back and set off. I let myself be lead in silence. The lad went with his arms wrapped round his torso. Now and then I saw him shiver, certainly more from fear than the cold.

The tide was roaring, the sea gulls were crying, the winds raged. But for the whole way we did not speak. At length the boy stopped. "What now?" I asked.

He pointed at a distant cliff. "The cave," he said in Gaulish.

"That's where the witch lives?"

He didn't reply, just bolted back towards the village. "The witch must be at home," I sighed to myself. I continued up the sandy beach to find the promised cave.

At first glance the cave was just a shallow gap in the cliff, with the walls stained green where the sea had washed over the chalky rock. But when I stepped inside the size seemed to increase all around me. I followed a narrow path into the cliff. Everywhere was the smell of the sea and the damp. The sand beneath my sandals was always wet. A wall of impenetrable darkness stopped me in my tracks. Has the boy taken me here for a jest? Well, if there are smirking barbarians standing in the mouth of the cave, I'll give them something to laugh at! But when I looked back the way I'd come, I saw nothing: just darkness everywhere. And so I cried out in the darkness. "Witch! Are you at home?"

Truly I was expecting to hear laughter, the howling of a great crowd of barbarians. But instead there sounded the mellifluous laughter of a girl. Then I saw two glimmers of light in the blackness, and between them soon appeared a face -- the face of a young barbarian woman -- which seemed as sweet as it did wise.

"Greetings, O Roman," said the girl. "Why have you come here?"

"I was sent on account of the tribute," I said, half stumbling over the words.

"On account of the tribute? I would happily make tribute to the great Roman Empire. But I am just one poor woman. If I give you a farthing, will you go away?"

"You mock me. You know I have come from the village. The priest said--"

"The priest!" she cried. "And you believed that fool? For shame... you seemed cleverer than that."

"I'm sorry, milady," I stammered. "I beg your forgiveness, if I have offended. But someone is blocking the tribute. Not only the priest but also the chief have said that you, milady, have laid a curse on the whole village."

"And I deny it. You believe this nonsense?"

"I don't know what to believe. This cave..."

"The abode of a witch, surely. Here I call up the dead and brew my poisons and receive the oracles of Hecate in my sleep."

"You are mocking me again."

"Indeed. But there is a grain of truth in my words."

"What truth?"

"I do possess a most ancient power, older than your Rome, which I received at birth from my mother. Tell me, O Roman, did not your barbarian mother tell you our legends when you were a child?"

"How do you know it was my mother who was the Gaul, and not my father?"

"Am I wrong?"

"No."

"I know it because of the power my mother gave me in my blood. She was a sea nymph, my father a handsome fisherman."

"You believe this?"

"You don't? Do not you Romans also venerate semi-divine heroes in your temples? Such a philosopher you must be, to think the gods are remote and heedless of human affairs."

"What I believe in public is not necessarily what I believe in private."

"Deceitful Roman! You revere, then, neither our gods nor your own. And you think me a foolish girl, not a nymph nor even a witch. But tell me, do not the villagers fear me?"

"They fear you, for they do think you a witch."

"Truly. But tell me, then, did I not blind the priest with a curse?"

"Old age rather has stolen the light from his eyes."

"Perhaps. But have I not put a curse over the whole village?"

"If the villagers think that, they are mistaken."

"Hmm. In fact they are mistaken. There is no curse. Rather, asked the fish to stay away. As a sea nymph, I speak their language quite well. Wherefore the priest cannot dispel the curse with his charms and prayers. He doesn't know the real cause, so he beseeches the gods in vain, when he should be urging on the fish themselves. Alas, I see in your eyes that you don't believe a word of this. Follow me, and see for yourself."

Without a moment's pause she went out of the cave. I followed, and in a few steps I emerged into the light. The water was already lapping the rocks at the base of the cliffs. The girl continued apace out into the waves. When the water reached her waist, she turned back towards me, and beckoned me to come nearer. I hesitated, and so she ran up and took me by the hand.

"Don't drag me in," I said. "I'm wearing this heavy armour. I can't swim like this. Don't play games!"

But she dragged me along, laughing all the while. I could not resist her almost savage strength. As soon as the water was up to my waist, she rushed into me, and I went under in her embrace. The bitter saltwater filled my mouth -- and then immediately became sweet. The nymph's lips were pressed against mine, and she was pouring forth the water from her own lungs into mine. And from then on I could breathe the water as if it were air.

"You must certainly believe me now," she said. "So what will you do?"

"I would hardly believe it, but..." I said, once again tripping over the words.

And she started laughing again. And soon even I was laughing, for, even though I was a little bit afraid, a conversation under water with this girl lying atop me seemed patently ridiculous. But the face near to mine was only laughing with its mouth; the eyes still blazed with violence. I had to be brave.

"Don't waste time, O Roman. I asked you what you will do. Tell me!"

"I must not neglect my duty," I said firmly. "I cannot."

"Still you think of the tribute! O Roman, you exasperate me!"

"Silly girl! I must remove the obstruction for the salvation of the village. If I tell the priest what you have told me, he can call back the fish with his charms, so the village may pay its taxes. You yourself have suggested the solution."

"True. If you tell him. But why would you?"

"Because I would be a fool if I let your little spat get in the way of my duty."

"Spat! You insult me, O Roman. I will have my revenge... twofold. Tomorrow the Roman soldiers will find a body on the beach. The entire village will pay the price for this murder."

"Not only nymph, but you're also a prophetess! And why should I listen to this presage?"

"Truly you are a fool, if you would provoke a sea spirit with your contumely. The body, O Roman, will be yours."


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