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"That the world through Him might be saved."--ST. JOHN III. 17.
Taurus Antinor had bidden farewell to his host, and to the other guests and then departed.
Not another word had been spoken on the subject of the Cæsar or of his probable successor. The conspirators, somewhat sobered, had allowed the praefect to go without attempting further effort to gain him to their cause. They had had their answer. Though many of them did not quite understand the full depth of its meaning, yet were they satisfied that it was final. They bade him farewell quietly and without enmity; somehow the thought of their murderous plan had momentarily fled from their mind, and the quarrel between Hortensius Martius and the praefect of Rome seemed to have been the most important event of the day.
Taurus Antinor emerged alone from the peristyle of Caius Nepos' house. An army of slaves belonging to the various guests were hanging about the vestibule, talking and laughing amongst themselves and feasting on the debris from the patricians' table, brought out to them by servitors from within; some forty litters encumbered the floor, but Antinor, paying no heed to these, passed through the crowd of jabbering men and women and made his way across to the steps which led upwards to the street.
The day was done, had been done long ago; already the canopy of the stars was stretched over the sleeping city, and far away to the east, beyond the gilded roof of Augustus' palace, the waning moon, radiant and serene, outlined the carvings on every temple with a thin band of gold and put patches of luminous sapphires and emeralds on the bronze figures that crowned the Capitol.
Taurus Antinor paused awhile, enjoying the restfulness of the night; from his broad chest came a long-drawn breath of voluptuous delight at the exquisite sweetness of the air. How far away now seemed that long, luxurious room, with its stained cloths and crumpled cushions, with the low tables groaning under the debris of past repasts and the rows of couches luring to sensuous repose. For the moment even the wranglings of Caius Nepos' guests seemed remote, their selfish aims and their lying tongues. Here, beneath the stars, there was stillness and peace.
A gentle breeze from over the distant hills blew on the dreamer's forehead and eased the wild throbbings of his temples; from somewhere near tiny petals of heliotrope, chased by the breeze, brought sweet-scented powder to his nostrils.
He looked around him, gazing with wondering eyes on the mighty city sleeping upon her seven hills, on the gorgeous palaces of Tiberius and Caligula and the squalid huts far away on the Aventine Hill, on the mighty temples with their roofs of gold and the yawning arena down below, desolate and silent now, but where on the morrow men and beasts would tear one another to pieces to make holiday for the masters of the world.
And even as his restless eyes swept over the surrounding landscape, they turned to where, in the shadow of the stately palaces of Tiberius and of Augustus, lay the house of Dea Flavia. Its gilded portals threw back with brilliant intensity the weird and elusive light of the waning moon, and high above, upon the balustrade of the roof, gigantic bronze groups of quaint and misshapen beasts looked ghoul-like against the canopy of the sky.
All within the massive walls was dark and still; near to the vestibule a couple of ancient cypresses made a natural arch overhead, and in the tender branches of a group of acacias close by, the evening breeze sighed with gentle, melancholy murmurings amongst the leaves.
Instinctively Taurus Antinor turned to walk a few steps toward the house, and soon reached a spot from whence his gaze could command the colonnaded vestibule, with its mosaic pavement sunk a few steps below the level of the street. Somewhere near him, though he could not see it, a bosquet of heliotrope and white lilies sent an intoxicating fragrance into the air.
From far away--where the marshes stretched their limitless expanse toward the sea--came the melancholy cry of a bittern, calling to his absent mate.
A vague longing surged in the strong man's heart; he stretched out his arms up to the dark, starlit canopy above, and a sigh, half impatient, wholly melancholy, escaped his half-closed lips.
His eyes tried to pierce the marble walls behind which there bloomed--stately and proud--a beautiful white lily.
Wholly against his will, the man's thoughts flew back to that midday hour in the Forum, when Dea Flavia had stood before him in all the exquisite glory of her youth and her loveliness, with that wilful curl round her chiselled lips and the delicate brows drawn together in a frown of child-like obstinacy. How beautiful she was and how strangely pathetic had been her isolation in the midst of so much grandeur.
Even now he thought of her--asleep possibly somewhere in this gorgeous palace--all alone, despite the thousands of slaves around her; friendless, despite the might of the House of Cæsar of which she was so proud.
Through one of the tiny windows there peeped a flickering light. Taurus Antinor marvelled if that were her sleeping-room and, closing his eyes, pictured her there, resting on embroidered coverlets and cushions, her fair hair falling in waves around her face at rest; and he wondered whether in sleep a dewy tear had perchance put a priceless diamond on her golden lashes.
Bitter thoughts of the men whom he had just quitted surged back in his heart; they wished to make of this young girl a tool for the fashioning of their own ambitious schemes.
"The Augusta shall choose one of us for mate, and him we shall ask to hold the sceptre of Cæsar."
One of them for mate! One of those sensuous self-seekers who would use her as a stepping-stone, and, having obtained supreme power through her dainty hands, would cast her aside as a useless tool and break her heart ere she realised even that she had one.
And from the thoughts of the beautiful girl his mind flew back as if instinctively to that strange phase of his life--those unforgettable days in Judæa which had seemed like unto the turning point of his whole existence. He recalled every moment of that memorable day when he had stood among a multitude on the barren wastes of Galilee and, wrapped in a dark cloak, had listened in solitary silence to words and teachings such as he had never dreamed of before.
"If only I could have understood Thee better then," he murmured; "if more of Thy precious words had fallen on mine ear.... I might have told her then something of what Thou didst say ... I could have found the words to make her understand.... But now I am ignorant and forlorn.... Oh, Man of Galilee! Thou didst die so soon ... and left so many of us groping in the darkness.... Thou Son of God, come back to me, if only in a dream ... show me the way, the truth, the light; show me the star which they say guided the shepherds to Thy cradle ... give me Thy cross, and let me walk once more on Golgotha to Thee."
And even as these words of passionate longing escaped half audibly from his lips his eyes wandered round the seven hills of Rome, and suddenly the highest peak beyond the Forum appeared to him transfigured in the night. Memory with a swift hand drew aside the veil of the present and in a vision showed him a picture of the past. The marble temples of pagan gods disappeared, the hill became bleak and precipitous and dark; great stillness reigned around, save where from afar there came at times the distant roll of thunder. The sky was overcast, great banks of cloud, the colour of lead, with blood-red lights within their massive bosoms, swept storm-tossed across the firmament.
Then from the valley below there came, vaguely remote at first, then rising louder and louder, a sound as when a mighty torrent rushes onwards in its course; and as Taurus Antinor gazed now on that dream-hill, memory showed him, surging like a tempestuous sea, thousands upon thousands of human heads, all tending upwards to the summit of the hill.
They came--the great multitude--they came, and still they came; and like gigantic breakers on a smooth shore, waves of human beings scattered themselves and dispersed upon that hill.
And amongst them all, isolated, walking with bent back and thorn-crowned head well-nigh bowed to the dust, came a Man bearing a Cross.
Taurus Antinor saw Him even now as he had seen Him then, with blood and sweat dripping from His brow, the pale, patient face serene and set, the eyes half closed in agony still glowing with unutterable love and with the perfect peace of complete sacrifice.
And among the sea of faces that gazed on that solitary figure Taurus Antinor had recognised himself.
He saw himself as he was then, a rough voluptuary, a thoughtless, sentient beast who up to that time had lived a life of emptiness and of mockery, eating and drinking and sleeping and waking again day after day, year after year. And he saw himself as he was on that day, he one of thousands and thousands of lookers-on gazing on the three hours' agony of a just Man upon the Cross.
He remembered every minute of those three hours, which the hill of imperial Rome now pictured back to him as in a dream. He had stood there a mere unit amongst the crowd, wrapped in a dark cloak, unrecognised and unknown, but with every nerve strained to catch the words that fell from those dying lips. He had heard the cry of bitterness: "Lord! Lord! why hast Thou forsaken Me?" and that of infinite love and of supreme pardon: "Oh God, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
And above and around the sky grew darker and the air more still, and round that dying figure alone there shone a radiance unseen by most; for had they seen it as Taurus Antinor saw it then, then surely would they have known, would they have understood.
And at the foot of that Cross women and men stood weeping, and thoughtless soldiers hurled insults on their dying Lord. The lips that had only uttered words of perfect charity thirsted for a drop of water, and a sponge filled with gall was pressed mockingly to them.
But the arms were still extended wider and wider, so it seemed, as if in their almighty love they would embrace all that surging humanity; all those that suffered, those that hoped as well as those that doubted, those who mocked Him and those who adored.
Taurus Antinor's very manhood had cried out to him then to fight the multitude single-handed, to shake the power of Rome and defy the will of the people, and to rush up to that one Cross, towering above the others, to pick out with firm fingers every cruel nail, to wrap the sacred body in soft, soothing cloths, and to kiss every wound until it closed in health.
Even now, after all these years, the rough soldier's cheeks were burning with the shame of impotence.
To look on that sacrifice and be unable to stop it. To look on such a death and to continue to live on, still blind, still ununderstanding, even though the Teacher Who had come to explain had sighed ere he died: "It is finished!" And yet Taurus Antinor, now looking back upon his own past self, knew that at the time, despite the horror, the pity and the sorrow, there was also in his heart a sense of happiness and even a vague feeling of triumph.
What he saw there--with eyes that comprehended not--that he knew was because it must be; because it had been preordained and done by One Whose will was mightier than death. Though with aching heart and seared eyes he had watched every minute of the supreme agony, yet something within him, even then, had told him that every minute of that agony was a sacrifice that would not be in vain. And whilst in weakness he groaned with the pathos of it all, yet did his heart thrill with strange exultation, and from that Cross--even when all was silent--there rang in his ear the last words of perfect fulfilment of a perfect sacrifice:
"It is finished!"
And even as the words rang once again in Taurus Antinor's ears, the awful darkness of that momentous hour fell upon the dream-hill far away. Golgotha, with its three towering crosses vanished from before the visionary's gaze. Once more there rose before him the marble temples of pagan Rome that crowned the Capitol--the gorgeous idols covered in gold, these gods of mockery before whom the mightiest Empire in the world was satisfied to bow the knee.
And that same sweet, sad longing rose in the dreamer's heart.
"Could I but have heard Thee speak more often!... Could I but have touched Thy hands, methinks that I would have understood.... But now ... now all is still dark before me ... and the way is so difficult."
And even as the sigh died upon his lips there came from behind him the sound of prolonged and hoarse laughter, followed by snatches of a drinking song and loud calls for slaves and litters.
Caius Nepos' guests were leaving the hospitable house at last. Drunk with wine, smothered in flowers, replete with every epicurean delight they were going home now, having, mayhap, forgotten that they had plotted to murder Cæsar and to raise themselves to power at all costs, even if that cost was to be a sea of blood or the ruins of Rome.
The song and laughter soon died away in the distance. Taurus Antinor had distinguished the voice of Hortensius Martius and that of Ancyrus, the elder. The sigh of sadness turned to one of bitterness, his arms dropped by his side, and a cry of harsh contempt escaped his parched? throat.
"Oh, Man of Galilee," he murmured, "didst die for such as these?"
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