From the Sussex County Magazine 1936
The Roman Ring
By E M Barraud
"But be careful to remember where you put it when you take it off," he said. "It catches in her hair if you try to run your fingers through, but put it somewhere safe. That’s how I lost it."
I had been sitting on the summit of the Downs where Stane Street sweeps over the crest of Bignor Hill, watching the distant line of the sea, turning the heavy ring on my finger. His voice came softly, conversationally, across the two thousand years between us, so softly, so conversationally, that it did not even occur to me to wonder.
"I was thinking," I said, "that they probably spoiled it in making it smaller for me."
He laughed. "If they hadn’t cut it," he explained, "I shouldn’t have been able to make my way back to you. Rings are like that, you know – secretive things. They have to be cut before they have anything to say for themselves."
"Tell me how you lost it," I said.
"I’ve told you! I took it off so that I could run my fingers through her hair, and afterwards we couldn’t find it. She always said she would get the slaves to have a thorough hunt for it, but somehow it never got done; there was always something else to do, and then you see we went back to Rome."
He paused. "It isn’t a very valuable ring, you know. Only bronze. I had better ones than that. But somehow I was sorry to lose it because I’d had it such a long time. I bought it with my first pay as a Legionary, and it was such a workaday thing that I wasn’t afraid to wear it all the time."
What was there on the signet part?" I asked, looking at the scarred medallion.
"Nothing. I meant to have it inscribed one day, but at first I hadn’t any money to spare for luxuries like that, and then later I won so many finer things in booty that the old ring didn’t seem worth bothering about. I just went on wearing it as it was till I lost it."
"Were you up and down the country, or did you stay near Bignor all the time?" I enquired after a moment.
He laughed again. "Oh it was there you found it, then?"
"I didn’t find it; I bought it. But they told me it had been picked up near Bignor," I said.
He nodded. "We had a snug little villa there, down under the hill. Not large, you know, but comfortable, and quite large enough for her and the children and the slaves. Oh yes, I was all over the country before we settled down there. We had a lot of trouble on the borders of Wales. And then we were rushed up to reinforce them on the Wall, because the Picts came down again. That was where I lost the two fingers on my left hand. I should have lost the third but the ring saved it. You see that gash just beside the boss?" He leaned forward to point it out, a smile lighting up his keen eyes. "Then I was down in Gloucester again, and they put me in charge at Woodchester and gave me a small villa there, but I said that wasn’t good enough because I wanted to marry.
They were very keen on making a good impression with the British, and when I said I was marrying a chief’s daughter, they sent me to Bignor and we stayed there till we were recalled to Rome. Belinus stayed with us for a long time while he was building the Road – Stane Street I think you still call it? (I nodded) "He was an old friend of mine, a marvellous fellow, but he had a bad weakness for practical joking. He nearly ruined his career several times through it. But somehow or other he managed to placate those in authority – I think they knew he was their finest engineer – and in the end he finished Stane Street, right from Chichester to London, and they said it was the finest road in all Britain. They gave him lands at Billinghurst, and he settled down there."
"You were glad to go back home, to Rome?" I asked.
He shook his head. "You see I had to leave her behind. And our daughter. They let me take the boy because he was almost of fighting age and Rome wanted men, but there was no room for women."
"Could you not have obtained leave to stay?" I asked. "They left some men in Britain, didn’t they?"
"I was Rome born," he said. "I did not ask."
There was silence for a few minutes. In the still heat, saved from unbearableness only by the eternal breeze that blows across the Downs, a cricket was singing harshly. Behind us I could hear the gorse pods popping in the sun, and there was a nutty savour in the air as the golden blooms quivered in the breeze.
"And you – you know Bignor?" he asked presently.
I told him I did, that the site was just green fields, but that the outlines of the Roman roadways still showed, faint green tracks across the growing wheat, every spring. He smiled. "Our house was just at the foot of the hill, on the right hand side of the Road." He laughed, tossing back his head. "Ye gods, how clearly it all comes back to me! That was a happy time. We saw so many people. As the Road progressed – and Belinus had a genius for making people work – more and more the Road was the chief highway to London. Everyone came along it, and many of them stopped at our house. A day like this maybe dozens of them would come, and the courtyard would be full of stamping horses, shouting boys, clanking of arms, laughter and greetings, clinking of wine cups. We heard all the news from Rome, and people used to bring us gifts from our friends there. Once Caesar himself spent a night there – that was in the winter, when the sea was too rough for him to cross that day."
He paused. After a moment he asked: "And do the nightingales still sing under the hill?"
"They do," I said, "even in broad day light."
"They did then. That was how I lost my ring." He smiled ruefully, wrinkling up his forehead. "Would you let me wear it again, just for a minute?"
I slipped it from my middle finger and handed it to him – he could just get it on to his smallest finger. I sat there with the sun beating down on my face, the breeze just ruffling my hair, waiting for his voice to go on talking to me, but instead, after an endless moment’s silence, all I heard was a woman’s happy laughter. And then the ring tinkled as it struck a stone at my feet . . . .