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“Marcus!” Caius greeted warmly. “To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you a second day in a row?
Marcus shook his head at Caius’ acting. He’d obviously been attending the theater far too much recently. He was developing a flair for the dramatics! Marcus stepped across the courtyard and grasped Caius’ hand. “I can never thank you enough for doing what you did last night.”
Caius’ face crumbled. “Last night? What are you talking about?”
“Throwing the money for Julia’s dowry through the window, of course. Although, I must admit, Accia will have a hard time forgiving you for breaking her favorite flower pot,” he finished with a chuckle.
Caius slowly withdrew his hand from Marcus’ grasp. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Someone gave you money?”
Marcus blinked. He had been so sure that Caius had been Julia’s benefactor. How could he have been so wrong? “You mean you know nothing about it? You didn’t send a servant to do it anonymously?”
“I swear by Rome and the emperor, I have no idea where the money came from.”
Marcus’ muscles slacked, confusion rolling around in his chest. “But if not you, then who?” More importantly, why? What did the benefactor want from him? Marcus shuddered, suddenly cold. What was the catch?
Caius shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps the gods have smiled upon you at last.”
“Oh no. This is not the work of the gods of Mount Olympus. If it were, the priest who gave the money would have announced himself and explained what the gods wanted in return.” Marcus had never been so certain in his life. Whoever or whatever was behind Julia’s dowry, it was not the common gods.
“Well, we can discuss theology some other day,” Caius said, clapping Marcus on the back. “But for right now, let’s enjoy a good glass of wine and discuss some business.”
“Business?” Marcus couldn’t imagine what could be so important.
“Pleasant business, I assure you. You have a daughter with a dowry. I have a son who needs a good wife.” Caius grinned at Marcus. “Do you think we may be able to come up with a fitting arrangement?”
Marcus laughed, shaking off his fear and confusion until a better time to think through his situation. “I think so, Caius. Just so long as they can be married before next week. I want Julia safe from that scorpion Alexander.”
“I think that can be arranged. Oh, and if your mysterious benefactor returns, I can think of a couple other men who are also looking for brides.”
A jolt ran down Marcus’ spine, igniting his mind with new possibilities. He stared at Caius, unable to form his new-found hope into words.
“Oh, don’t worry, cousin. They are good men. One’s a merchant and the other is training to be a doctor. They’ll provide for Accia and Diana quite well. Come to think of it, the one going into medicine, Felix, would be best for Accia. She’s so tenderhearted. I think she would do well as a doctor’s wife.”
Marcus’ heart pounded as Caius rattled on. With every beat, hope grew stronger. Would the benefactor return?
“Julia’s marrying Antonius?” Diana asked, giggling. The evening meal was over and they were gathered around the fireplace again. “She’s liked him since they were children!”
Julia blushed, but said nothing.
“So when are they going to get married?” Diana asked Marcus.
“The day after tomorrow.” All three girls looked at him with wide eyes, mouths hanging open. Marcus chuckled. “Since our families know each other, there is no reason to prolong things.”
Julia raised an eyebrow at him. She stared at him, the thought written clearly on her face: Won’t you tell them?
He shook his head minutely, hoping the younger two wouldn’t pick up on the exchange. He couldn’t tell them what Alexander wanted to do. Not until he knew the benefactor would–or wouldn’t– return with money for their dowries, too. Maybe not even then.
“But did the omens agree with the choice?” Accia asked. “If the gods are displeased with the day they marry, they won’t have any children!”
Marcus gently chided, “We didn’t check. It’s superstitious nonsense, Accia, and Caius agreed with me.” He didn’t add that it had taken an hour of arguing and three glasses of wine for Caius to come around.
As silence settled over them, he glanced out the window. The night before, the benefactor had arrived earlier than this. Marcus’ stomach churned. What if he wasn’t coming back?
Turning back to his children, he watched Accia look coyly at Julia, then whisper into Diana’s ear.
The younger girl giggled. “You’re right! She is!”
Julia blushed again. “What? What did she say?”
The only response her two sisters gave was to dissolve in giggles. Loud giggles. Marcus squinted back at the window. Anyone on the street could probably hear them. Especially anyone who was waiting for the house to quiet down so a gift could be delivered anonymously…
“Papa!” Julia whined.
“Alright girls,” Marcus interceded. “It’s time for bed.” Still giggling and whispering to each other, Accia and Diana walked toward the bedroom. “Let them have their fun,” he quietly told Julia.
She pursed her lips for a moment before shrugging. “Fine. But may I stay up to see if the person returns?”
“No.” Marcus loudly but not unkindly stated. “I warrant you’ll have a hard enough time getting to sleep. You don’t need to stay up any later.”
Julia frowned. “As you wish.”
Marcus watched her until she disappeared behind the bedroom curtain before banking the fire. He sat back down and waited. Fifteen minutes passed. Then twenty. No pouches of gold appeared. Again, the familiar anxiety twisted his gut. Perhaps he wasn’t coming after all. But why wouldn’t he? Would he save one girl but not her sisters? But perhaps it was better if the benefactor didn’t return. Then Marcus wouldn’t owe a stranger more. But on the other hand, not knowing would drive him insane. The rest of his life, he would be watching for someone to appear and claim a long-overdue anonymous favor. Marcus’ eyes felt so heavy. The breeze from the open window mixed with the heat from the embers on the grate, creating the perfect temperature. What did it matter, anyway? His eyelids drooped once before he shook himself. Of course he’d return! He had to stay awake! He had to know!
The room was so warm. He felt so comfortable. But… Anonymity… Accia… and Diana… He would have to…
Marcus startled awake. Something had hit the chair leg. He stared down at the shadowy ball groggily. No, that wasn’t right. It was too clunky to be a ball. It had odd, circular shapes inside it. It had clinked slightly when it landed. Not a ball… Marcus put his head in his hands, willing his brain to work. Not a ball… Not a ball…
Instantly, Marcus was out of his seat and throwing open the door. The cool night air blew away his stupor. Another dowry! The benefactor had to be nearby! A shadowy figure ran down the street towards the harbor. He was far enough away that Marcus wasn’t sure he could catch the stranger, but Marcus still had to try.
“Wait!” Marcus yelled as he ran down the street. “Wait! I want to talk to you!”
The figure put on a burst of speed and disappeared around a building. Marcus followed into the alley beyond, but it was deserted. Gasping for breath, he bent over, placing his hands on his knees. Maybe Caius was right. Anyone who could disappear like that would have to be working for the gods… or be a spirit. Marcus shook his head. No, it couldn’t be! Of all the stories Marcus knew of the gods and the benign spirits, he couldn’t think of one where a good deed was done anonymously.
Marcus whirled around to see Julia standing behind him. Her cloak was wrapped around her shoulders, her eyes roving the alley.
“He’s not there. He disappeared.”
Julia focused on Marcus. “But he came back. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
Marcus nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I guess he will at that.”
“Good night, girls!” Marcus called as his daughters went to bed the next night. “And don’t stay up. We have to be fresh for the wedding tomorrow!”
“Good night, Papa,” Julia murmured as she hugged Marcus. “Are you sure I can’t stay up?”
“Yes. And whatever happens, whatever you hear, stay in the house. Understand?”
Julia sulked, but nodded.
“Good night, Papa!” Accia said. Since Marcus had told her that morning that she would be the next one to get married, she hadn’t stopped smiling. She turned to look at Diana, who was hanging freshly-washed stockings to dry over the banked fire. “Are you almost done?”
Diana hung the last sock on the twine they strung between two nails inside the fireplace. She moved the laundry basket off the hearth then ran to Marcus and kissed him on the cheek. ” ‘Night, Papa. Um, will I get a dowry tonight?”
He glanced at the window for a moment. When he looked at Diana, he smiled. “It would be safe to assume so.”
Diana smiled widely. She threw her arms around him. “Thank you,” she squealed.
“Don’t thank me. It’s the benefactor who will make it possible for you to marry. Now, off to bed.”
Marcus waited until Diana had disappeared through the bedroom door before jumping into action. He arranged Accia’s broken flower pot and couple of blankets on his chair to look as though he was still sitting there. Stepping back, he was impressed with the scene. Even this close, it looked like a man sat in his chair gazing at the fireplace. He smirked. If he was half convinced by the scene, certainly the benefactor would be fooled should he look in the window. With that, Marcus slipped out into the night air. After ascertaining that no one was around, he hid behind the bush by the window. It was only an hour past sunset, and Marcus was determined to catch the benefactor.
With nothing else to do, Marcus watched the full moon as it ascended to the peak of the sky. Still, nothing moved. His back grew sore until he couldn’t stand it. Carefully, he straightened his back against the wall behind him. The discomfort eased slightly, but not enough. He shifted back and forth, hoping to pop his spine, trying to rustle as few branches as possible.
Footsteps pattered far down the dirt road to his right. Marcus froze. They weren’t the careening footstep of a drunk coming home. They were too heavy to be a woman or child and too slow to be an older son coming home late. It had to be the benefactor! Marcus peaked around the bush. A tall figure in a dark cloak and hood was walking toward him.
Marcus leaned out, putting out a hand to steady himself. Snap! Horrified, he looked down. A broken twig lay under his hand. By the gods! He thought angrily as he quietly withdrew behind the bush. Marcus looked back at the figure, hoping he hadn’t heard.
The figure had stopped. He paused for a second then turned left between two houses. Marcus banged his fist on the dirt. The benefactor was on the alert. Marcus sat back against the house, wondering what to do next. If he came out from behind the bush, his cover would be blown. However, the benefactor might not come at all if he knew where Marcus hid.
Five more minutes passed uneventfully. By then, the pain in Marcus’ back was unbearable. Sighing, Marcus crawled out from behind the bush and stood. Because of him, Diana might not get her dowry. If only he hadn’t been so impatient! He stretched, relief surging though his muscles. He leaned back and gratefully felt his back pop in two places.
Something moved on his roof. Marcus stared. Not something– someone! The hooded figure he had seen on the road stood on Marcus’ roof next to the chimney! “Hey, you!” Marcus shouted. The hooded figure nearly lost his balance but recovered it. He dropped something down the chimney then slid down the roof on the opposite side of the house.
Marcus ran around the house, turning the corner just in time to see the hooded figure jump off the roof about fifteen feet away. In the second that it took the stranger to straighten and run, Marcus had gained another four feet. Before the stranger had reached the road, Marcus was almost on top of him. With a snarl of effort, Marcus reached and grabbed the cape. The stranger jerked backwards hard enough that he stumbled and fell. Instinctively, Marcus jumped, barely avoiding the sprawled stranger.
The stranger groaned. He stood slowly, hissing as he put weight on his left leg. He stumbled again, but gained his balance before hitting the ground.
Guilt flashed through Marcus. “You hurt?” He gasped, trying to catch his breath.
“I’ll be fine,” the man’s voice sounded familiar, but Marcus couldn’t place it. “You sure were persistent about catching me. Can’t say that anyone else has tried that hard. I thought you had me last night, but there was a roof low enough that I could jump up on it.” He chuckled. “If you or your daughter had looked up, you would have seen me for sure!”
Marcus shook his head, shocked at the man’s statement. “You’ve provided other maidens with dowries?”
“No, your daughters were the first. But I’ve helped others escape slavery before.”
Marcus didn’t know what to think. He had never known of anyone to be so generous. “How did you know? The only people who knew were Alexander, Caius, Julia, and myself!”
“But you told– Caius, wasn’t it?– in the marketplace. I overheard enough of what you said to know you needed help. After that, it was a simple matter of following you back here.”
“The marketplace?” Marcus tried to remember any face that stood out that day. “Who are you?” The man didn’t move for a moment, then slowly pushed back his hood. Warm, comforting blue eyes greeted him. Marcus gasped. It was the young man who had helped the woman pick up her groceries!
“My name is Nicholas of Myra. I am a servant of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one true God.”
“But why–?” Marcus gasped.
“God has called me to give sacrificially of my inheritance.” Nicholas said it as though he was commenting about fog rolling in from the sea; as though it was of no consequence that he was giving away his parents’ wealth.
Marcus shook his head. None of this made sense. Who was this one true God? Marcus eyed the young man and noticed a simple Roman cross hanging from a strand of beads around Nicholas’ neck. Something about that was familiar. He recognized that symbol, that name. “Jesus Christ…” Marcus mused. “You’re a Christian, then?”
Nicholas smiled. “That I am.” The door of Marcus’ house creaked open behind them. Nicholas threw the hood over his head. “Please, don’t tell anyone about me. No one else needs to know– not even your daughters.”
“Papa!” Diana called out. “Papa! Where are you?”
“I won’t.” Marcus promised. Nicholas turned and took a limping step. “But, please, come in and let us tend to your ankle.”
“No need. I’ll take care of it at home.”
A lump formed in Marcus’ throat. If this was what the worshipers of this Jesus were like… “Tell me about this Jesus you serve.”
Nicholas glanced at the door then looked back at Marcus. “Not now. When you can, come to my villa.” He picked up a stick and quickly drew a map in the dirt. “I live here,” he pointed. “I’d love to talk with you about Him.”
Marcus looked at the map etched into the road. What kind of God would instruct his worshipers to give so extravagantly? And how could the utter abandonment of wealth provide the joy and peace that radiated from Nicholas?
“You mentioned an Alexander. Did you mean Alexander Lycentius?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes,” Marcus murmured. He listened as Nicholas limped away. This man had given his daughters provision that would last the rest of their lives. Given abundantly… Marcus shook himself. He hadn’t yet expressed his gratitude! “Thank you!” Marcus called.
Nicholas stopped and turned to face him. Joyfully, he replied, “Don’t thank me. Thank the One who sent me!”
Marcus watched until Nicholas, bemused that the young man redirected the humble thank you. When the young man finally disappeared around a bend in the road, Marcus returned to the house.
All three girls were standing near the fireplace staring at something in Diana’s hand. “There you are!” Diana said as soon as he walked through the door. She ran to him with a leather pouch. “Look! The benefactor came again! But he didn’t throw it through the window this time. It was in my sock!” She giggled. “How do you think it got there?”
Tears suddenly clouded Marcus’ vision, but he quickly blinked them away. “He must have thrown it down the chimney.”
“You were gone so long,” Julia commented. “Did you catch him?”
Marcus took the pouch from Diana. “Unfortunately, he’s gone.” He looked up at Julia. “I guess he wanted to remain anonymous.”
Marcus gazed around the peristyle at Nicholas’ home as he waited for the elderly manservant to announce him. Life was a strange beast. Seven days ago, he had been in a very different peristyle. Alexander’s had been lavish and displayed his station and wealth. But the garden around Marcus now could never be described as “lavish.” A few tasteful flower beds and fruit trees grew around the courtyard and a vegetable patch was by Marcus’ feet, a well-used basket laying among the plants. Other than that, the only ornament was a humble, wooden cross in one corner, a simple bench set before it. The more Marcus saw of his daughters’ benefactor, the more incredulous he became. Nicholas obviously came from an old, wealthy family– the villa’s rich architecture attested that– but he didn’t want to flaunt it.
The door that led into the rest of the house opened and the manservant reappeared. “Master Nicholas is with another visitor at the moment, but he will see you soon. Would you care for a drink in the atrium while you wait?”
Following the manservant into the house, Marcus was again amazed at the plainness of the place. Again, a cross hung on the right-hand side wall, but other than a few simple pieces of furniture, the room was empty. “Tell me, has the villa always been so bare?” Marcus asked.
The manservant laughed. “Oh, no. While his parents lived, the house was the manifestation of the family’s fortune. But Nicholas is different from his parents. He believes the simple life is best. Besides, with his lifestyle, he can hardly afford anything else.”
“His lifestyle?” Marcus repeated. “Does he gamble or…”
“Oh no! Absolutely not! But he is generous to a fault. Why, just this past week, he rescued three young ladies from certain slavery. Would you care for wine or tea?”
Marcus blinked, half ashamed that this man knew. Still, the manservant didn’t seem to realize Marcus’ connection to the tale. At least, he didn’t treat Marcus with pity. “Tea, please. Does he always tell you what he does?”
“Not always. He didn’t have a choice this time. He came home with a twisted ankle, and I insisted on knowing the truth. He often humors me like that, since I served his parents and his mother’s father before that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, sir, I’ll be right back with your tea.”
Marcus looked out the window. The house was high enough on the mountain that it afforded a magnificent view. Today, however, the distraction wasn’t good enough. Since meeting Nicholas, he hadn’t been able to think of much other than Nicholas’ generosity and his claim that Jesus Christ had charged him to help the needy. It had been so bad that at the wedding three days ago, Caius had tried to get him drunk to get his mind off the distraction! A door opened on the other side of the room. Marcus turned, expecting to see the manservant. When he saw Alexander standing there, he froze.
Shock registered on Alexander’s face, but he soon recovered and crossed the room with a condescending smile. “Well, what a surprise. I never would have expected to see you here, although it does make sense, after a fashion.”
Marcus swallowed. “Alexander.”
“Actually, I was going to come see you this afternoon.”
Fear penetrated Marcus’ soul, lessened slightly by the knowledge that Julia, Accia, and Diana were safe from him. “With the civil magistrate and jailer, I’m sure.”
“Oh, don’t get huffy. I was going to offer you a different deal.”
“A deal?” Fear turned to dread. Any deal offered by Alexander was certain to be terrible. Still, not much could be worse than his “generous offer” the week before.
“Yes. Although I don’t agree with his religion or his poor management of his wealth, he occasionally makes good sense.”
“He? He who?”
“Nicholas. He’s proved to be your champion today. He pointed out that I would get more out of your worthless hide if I put you to work instead of throwing you into prison to rot or selling you and everything you own. And, as it so happens, I need a new bookkeeper.”
Marcus felt his face slacken. Nicholas had done this, too? “A bookkeeper?”
Alexander squinted. “If you must borrow my words instead of coming up with your own, I might have to reconsider. I need someone intelligent for the position.”
“Ah, no. I– um– you have simply caught me off guard. I’d be happy to… Uh, what would my wages be?”
“A fair one. You can keep your own records, should you choose; but by my reckoning, if half of your income goes toward your debt, you should be free in about fifteen years.”
Marcus blinked. Fifteen years was a lot better than he could have hoped. Had he gone to debtor’s prison, it very well could have become a death sentence.
“So, what do you say?”
“Yes. I… I would be happy to.”
“Very well. Come to my docks tomorrow morning at sunrise.” Alexander walked toward the door to the peristyle, then paused. “Tell me, are the rumors true? Did you find a husband for your oldest daughter?”
Marcus nodded. “And for the younger two as well.”
Alexander shook his head. “I never would have thought it possible. It’s almost a shame, too. I was so looking forward to having them in my service.” With that, he left.
“I hope you are not too angry at me for arranging that,” Nicholas, leaning on a staff, said from the doorway across the room.
Marcus shook his head. “He’ll be a hard master, but my daughters are safe from him. And it will provide me a regular income to live on in the mean time.”
Nicholas nodded. “Won’t you sit? Cato will bring your drink in a moment. I sent him to get some more refreshments to enjoy while we talk.”
Marcus sat and watched as Nicholas limped across the floor. “So, you know Alexander?”
Nicholas winced as he sat. “Only in that he was a friend of my father’s. Occasionally, I host some of my parents’ friends in hopes that God will provide an opportunity to speak to them of Jesus. Today, of course, I had a different opportunity.”
Marcus leaned forward in his chair. “Speaking of which, I want to hear what you have to say about this Jesus.”
A smile spread across the young man’s face. “His story starts in Palestine, in a small town called Nazareth…”
Nicholas of Myra was later canonized as St. Nicholas… and from him sprang the legendary figure of Santa Claus. In fact, the discovery of the dowry in the maiden’s sock is what led to the tradition of hanging stockings from the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
During his lifetime, St. Nicholas was well known for his devotion to and love for Christ, which resulted in extraordinary kindness and gift giving. To this day, many legends abound about him. The most popular– and most beloved– is the one you just read. To read more about him, please check out the links below.
Like what you see?
For Further Exploration
Lycian Cults and Important Deities by Lycian Turkey.com
The Prison System: Rome 509 BCE vs. USA 2010 CE by the West Civ Proj
The Real Saint Nicholas by Christianity Today
The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity by Karen K. Hersch
Marriage by Roman-Empire.net
Picture compliments of Josh Felise, https://unsplash.com/collections/232323/fireplace