Gateway to the Classics: The Crown of Pine by Alfred J. Church
The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church

A Desperate Defence

Manasseh, the dealer and speculator in wheat, had other irons in the fire. He had a jeweller's shop on the Esquiline Hill, a quarter which, since the building of Maecenas' great villa, had become fashionable; and he united with the business of a jeweller two occupations which could be conveniently carried on in the same premises, banking and money-lending. The combination was, as may be supposed, productive of handsome profits, though not without considerable risks. A fashionable lady would spend a couple of hours or so in looking through Manasseh's stores, replenished almost day by day by consignments from compatriots settled in all the great markets of the East and the West. Not long after would come a visit from her husband, who would find himself at a loss how to settle the account. Manasseh was as ready to lend the money as he was to supply the jewels for which the money was to be paid. His prices were high, as they had a right to be where everything sold was of the very best quality and indisputably genuine, and he charged about fifteen per cent on his loans; so he made handsome profits in both ways. Sometimes, of course, things did not turn out well. There were "sharks swimming about" in the Roman streets as there are in the Strand to-day; and Manasseh, for all his precautions, was sometimes bitten by them. But on the whole the Esquiline establishment, with its handsome shop front challenging the admiration of the world, and its quiet back door which borrowers found so convenient, flourished exceedingly.

It was now, however, to undergo one of the shocks which defy the acutest speculation, and against which no precautions can guard, an outbreak of popular violence. The rioters were pausing to take breath after sacking some half-dozen wine shops when some one cried, "How about the Jews?" The name was like a spark of fire dropped upon a heap of brushwood. It kindled an instantaneous fire. The Jews have never been liked by the people among whom they have settled. Their virtues and their vices have combined to make them unpopular. They are frugal, industrious and sober. It is only right that these qualities should have their reward; that men who possess them should get better places, earn better wages, save more money, provide themselves with more comfortable homes than their neighbours who spend up to the last farthing of their earnings, and lose at least a tenth part of their working time in riotous excesses. But those who fall behind in the race of life do not feel amiably towards those who pass them, nor is their animosity lessened by the consciousness that their defeat is the result of their own folly. A more reasonable cause of the popular dislike of the Jew was to be found in the hardness and sharp dealing of which some of the race were actually guilty and of which all were accused. However it came about, and whether it was deserved or undeserved, the unpopularity of the Jews was an unquestionable fact. The suggestion of the name had accordingly an immediate effect. In a few minutes there was a general cry of "Down with the Jews." It is probable that very few in the crowd had suffered anything at their hands, and that of these few scarcely one had got anything more than he amply deserved. But such cries may be uttered without any reason. The mass of the rioters had a vague feeling that things were in a bad way, and that they might improve if something were done. The leaders of the crowd had much clearer ideas of what they wanted and of how it might be got. The Jews were excellent people to plunder. The booty would be great, the resistance probably weak, and the chances of impunity considerable. Jewish plaintiffs were not popular in the courts, and magistrates had been known to dismiss their complaints even when they were supported by unimpeachable testimony.

The crowd was prepared to act, but it still wanted a leader. "Down with the Jews" was quite to its mind, but where was the work to begin? The crowd was not long left in doubt. A stout rioter, who had been very busy in plundering the wine shops, and showed sufficient proof of his zeal, was ready with a suggestion. The fellow had been a porter, and had been employed by Manasseh, who was unreasonable enough to expect an equivalent in work for what he paid in wages.

Gutta—this was the man's name—would never have done a stroke of work if he could have relied on the State for wine as well as bread. He thought this below the dignity of a free-born Roman, and resented the interference. He resigned his situation with all the dignity of one of the masters of the world, and waited an opportunity of making himself even with his tyrannical employer. And now, he thought, the opportunity had come.

"There is that Jew dog, Manasseh. It is he and his gang that have put up the price of wheat. The furies seize him and his small loaves and his rye bread!"

"Where shall we find the fellow?" cried a voice from among the crowd.

"In the Jews' quarter, of course," said another. "I know the place, a big house close to the river."

There was a movement in that direction. But the porter shouted, "No! no! there is a better way than that. The villain has got a shop in the Esquiline full of jewels and gold. It is better worth our while to go there."

A wrangle followed. One party was for the house. The Jew was sure to keep his best things at home. The other preferred the shop. Everything there, they argued, will be ready to our hands, while we may spend hours searching the other place. In this discussion not a little valuable time was lost, perhaps one should say gained, if we take the point of view of law and order. These were now to receive the help of an unexpected ally.

The Corsican captain of The Twin Brothers, who had found the time hang rather heavy on his hands, had happened to witness the scene at the bakery, and had followed the mob, with no sort of idea of sharing their plunder—he was far too respectable for that—but in the hope of finding amusement and possibly adventure. He was sitting in the wine shop of a compatriot, whose property he had helped to preserve, when his ears caught the name of Manasseh. He had the ready intelligence that marks the successful man of action, and he at once comprehended the situation. He had a shrewd suspicion that the porter would have his way, and that the Esquiline shop would be the first object of attack. If he was wrong, and the house by the river was attacked, the mistake would not matter much. There was less property there that could be easily plundered, and there would be men to guard it. The shop, on the other hand, was full of valuables. He arrived at this conclusion after a few moments' thought, and when he had arrived he acted immediately. He enlisted on his side two stout lads, sons of the Corsican innkeeper, and hurried with them to the shop. Manasseh and Raphael were both there. The Jews, as usual, were admirably served in the way of intelligence. They had suspected for some days that trouble was brewing; they had had early information of the outbreak; experience had taught them what direction it would certainly take, and they knew as well as the porter, and probably better, that the shop in the Esquiline was their vulnerable point. The place was not incapable of being defended. The front, where the jewellery was commonly displayed, was protected by strong iron guards, which had by this time been made fast; the door in the rear was strongly plated with iron and the windows were heavily barred. Unfortunately there was next to nothing of a defending force. The slaves could not be trusted. No slave, in fact, was ever allowed to go near the establishment on the Esquiline. No master could quite rely on his bondservants—a Jewish master least of all. One middle-aged man of Jewish birth lived at the place, and he was helped by a hired lad. Manasseh and his son, therefore, though they were determined to defend the place to the utmost, did not take a cheerful view of the future. Great, therefore, was their relief when they saw the Corsican captain and his companions, though their arrival confirmed their fears, if indeed they needed any confirming, that an attack was imminent. A plan of defence was immediately arranged, Manasseh handing over the chief command to the Corsican. As a rule a sailor is better suited than most men to deal with emergencies, and the Corsican in particular was one of those men who leave an almost instantaneous impression of capacity and power on all who come in contact with them. The least defensible part of the building was a small door in front. The shop window was well protected, as has been said; but there was an ordinary door, provided indeed with bolts and a bar of the ordinary kind, but not stout enough to resist for any length of time a determined assault. Here, then, the Corsican took up his post, having on his side one of his two companions; the other he stationed in an upper room which was immediately over the door. These arrangements had scarcely been completed when the rioters appeared. Apparently they had not expected anything like a determined resistance. One reckless fellow, anxious, apparently, to have a first hand in the plunder, pushed up against the door, as if he expected to find that it had not even been bolted and barred. The young Corsican, who was in the upper room, protected from sight by the construction of the window, and who was armed with a bow and arrows, immediately seized the opportunity. He took deliberate aim, and shot his arrow through the open lattice. The missile struck the fellow full in the neck and felled him to the ground. The crowd fell back some paces in dismay. A pause of a few minutes ensued, used by the assailants in rigging up a rude battering ram. This, however they did not bring into action without further loss. A second man was mortally wounded; a third and fourth received severe injuries. But the attack was not repulsed by these losses. The amateur robbers, if one may use this term, were driven off, but the professionals came to the front. Another and more determined charge was made with the battering ram, and the door was broken down. But the little garrison behind was prepared for the result, which indeed they had seen to be inevitable. The captain, who had armed himself with a huge battleaxe, brought the weapon down with fatal effect on the head of the first man who ventured to cross the threshold; his younger companion ran a long Gallic sword into the body of the second. The two corpses blocked the entry, and the archer above availed himself of the block thus caused to discharge yet more of his deadly shafts. The attack on the front was for a time effectually checked.


The Attack on Manasseh's House.

In the rear the defence was not so successful. The door and the window were, as has been said, well protected, but there was a side yard, approached by a narrow passage, which opened out onto the street some distance lower down. The captain, to whom the locality was quite strange, knew nothing about it; Manasseh and Raphael had forgotten its existence in the hurry of the moment. But the porter knew it well, and when the front attack had been so disastrously repulsed, had bethought himself of making it useful. The movement was for a time successful. The passage was unguarded, and the assailants, nearly a score in number, found themselves in the yard without loss. Here, indeed, there was a brief check. The only communication between the yard and the house was an opening not unlike a buttery hatch. This was, of course, too small for a man to pass through, but as the wall round was of timber only, it admitted of being easily enlarged. Two or three of the assailants set about doing this. While they were thus engaged, Manasseh struck at one of them with a spear from the inside, and wounded him severely. In so doing, however, he exposed himself to a similar thrust from outside, and the opportunity was not lost. He received a wound in his side, and Raphael himself was touched, though but slightly, as he dragged the old man away from the opening. Meanwhile the timber, though sufficiently stout, was giving away under the repeated blows that were dealt on it. Raphael, though loath to call his stout ally, the Corsican, from a post where his prowess was, he well knew, sorely needed, felt that he had no alternative. His father was absolutely helpless, and he was himself, if not disabled, somewhat crippled. His halloo was immediately answered by the captain in person. The man, who had the eye of a general, took in the situation at a glance. He saw that nothing was left but to gain time. It was useless, he felt, to propose a parley. The rioters knew as well as he did that the guardians of the peace must come before long, and that when they came the game was up. No, there was nothing for it but to fight to the last; but how? and where? Then the thought flashed upon him—why not the upper room in the front part of the house? This was approached by a somewhat steep staircase, and a staircase was exactly the place for a defence when the odds were desperately large. He caught the wounded Jew up in his arms, and bidding the younger man follow, ran with him at a speed which would have been deemed impossible in a man so burdened, and got him safely to his destination. There was a reprieve, but it seemed likely to be but for a very few minutes. Happily, however, the defensive capabilities of the new position were not to be tested.

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