The Double Tongue

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Authors: William Golding
before the solstice, that I saw my first Roman. There was a small crowd of Delphians who seemed to be following very slowly an even smaller group of men. Ionides held me back until they had passed and muttered the word ‘Roman’ in my shrouded ear. The Roman looked very mild and not at all threatening. He was wearing a most complex robe of white linen with a purple stripe running through it for a border. He wore no jewellery round his neck and was as clean-shaven as a young man, though clearly he was quite an old one. He had a close-cropped thatch of irongrey hair. His only ornament was a gold seal ring. A Delphian priest of Zeus was speaking very slowly to him in a strange language.
    ‘Latin‚’ said Ionides. ‘A language with too much grammar and no literature.’
    ‘Can he not speak Greek?’
    ‘Only those who are well-educated. Metellus is not all that well-educated. As you saw, he has a smile. That is permanent as long as he is in Greece. They, the Romans, admire our arts and crafts but hold us, ourselves, in contempt. It is a paradox and never ceases to annoy me. As you saw, he was smiling at people. That is merely to conceal his contempt. They are strong, that is all. That they will conquer the world is a nightmare that haunts me. One must have a little corruption. Since human law cannot be perfect one must be able to bend and turn. They do not understand this. There is a passion for what they call “honesty” in some parts of the world but it is always limited to the people who claim it. The Hebrews, for instance, and the Romans. Their public servants, or at least a great many of them, neither give nor take bribes. Often even a rich man is condemned by the courts. Quite often a poor man goes free. They do not see that where all men take bribes and give them, nobody does!’
    ‘I do not understand that.’
    ‘You will.’
    Indeed I did. I had not long to wait. But more of that later. The small crowd which had been following Metellus and his guide had moved on. The most remarkable thing about them, I thought, was how respectful to Metellus the front of the crowd had been and yet how the back of it sniggered. The back of a crowd, according to Ionides, is where the true nature of an international relationship may be studied in little. All I can say in that case is that judging by the crowd following Metellus, Greeks envy Romans their power and distinction but will use them for Greek ends wherever they can. The Romans do not trust us and they are wise not to do so.
    It was on that walk that we came to the temple of the Cave. The Cave is where Apollo fought the python, the dragon, and conquered her, him, it. This was where, when he had slain the creature, he took over the oracle for himself and appointed a woman – a Pythia, a female dragon! – to utter the oracle. I must say that in god-haunted Delphi with its bright air, its splendour both natural and civic, the temple of the oracle is a daunting place. It is set aside as much as a building can be in such a crowded place. It is low, too, and seems to crouch. We stopped when we came within sight of the portico, or at least I stopped, and Ionides did when he realized I was no longer with him.
    ‘What is the matter?’
    ‘That is it.’
    There was an air, no doubt of that. I cannot describe it. Perhaps it was simple, unqualified fear, as if the portico had figured always in my nightmares though I knew I had never seen the place before.
    ‘Want to go home.’
    ‘And disappoint me?’
    So he knew! He was as willing as any Roman to use his power.
    ‘No, of course I don’t.’
    ‘You disarm me. I wish – but there it is.’
    ‘I know. You don’t have to explain.’
    We were silent for a while, watching the facade.
    ‘Well, Lady?’
    ‘Can’t you see I’m shuddering? I can’t seem to stop. Teeth chattering.’
    ‘I was right then.’
    ‘I –’
    Suddenly I felt my body turn of its own. I started to run, but before I had gone more than a

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