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"Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming."--ISAIAH XIV. 9.
I pray you follow me now to an inner chamber in the palace of the mighty Cæsar. A square room with walls of marble inlaid with precious stones, and with hangings of crimson silk to exclude the searching light of day. The air heavy with the fumes of burning incense that wound in spiral curves upwards to the domed roof, and escaped--ethereal and elusive--through the tiny openings practised therein, the seats of gilded wood with downy cushions that seemed to melt at a touch, and in a recess a monumental bed of solid and priceless citrus, carved by the hand of a Greek sculptor, with curtains of purple silk wrought all over with stars.
In vases of delicate murra huge bunches of blood-red roses hung their drooping heads, and beneath the feet carpets of heavy silk hid the exquisite beauty of mosaics of lapis-lazuli and chrysoprase.
And in the midst of all this stately gorgeousness a creature--hardly human--raging round like a thwarted beast.
Caius Julius Cæsar Caligula was in one of his maddest moods; his hollow eyes glowed with unnatural fire, his scanty, light-coloured hair stood up around his head like the bristly mane of a hyena. Up and down the room he stamped with heavy feet; his robe, weighted with precious stones, striking out around him as he trod the smooth surface of silken carpets or the slippery mosaic of the floor. His thin arms and ankles were covered with numerous bracelets and on his feet were shoes studded with diamonds.
At first sight it would indeed have been difficult to say if it was a man or a woman who was thus pacing this magnificent cage, with wild gestures of the arms and hoarse cries that seemed to proceed from no human throat. The face, white and puffy, might have been of either sex, and the flowing garment and wealth of jewellery suggested a woman rather than a man.
The Cæsar was crazy with rage, and all round the room slaves and attendants cowered, terrified. In his hand he had a short whip with five thongs of solid, knotted leather, at the end of each of which was an iron hook. From these five hooks a few drops of blood were trickling down his white silk tunic. At intervals, at the slightest noise or sound from the cowering slaves, he struck out savagely with the whip, and the thongs with their sharp hooks would descend whizzing on some naked shoulder and tear out a piece of flesh and start the flow of a fresh stream of blood.
Then the madman would break out into a diabolical fit of laughter, and strike out with his whip again and again all around him, wildly and indiscriminately, until his garments and his face were spattered all over with blood, and to right and left of him shrieking figures fell fainting to the ground.
The Cæsar was crazy with rage, and he who had thus angered him reclined on a couch, out of the reach of the shrieking demon, and his thin lips were curled in a smile of satisfaction. It was Caius Nepos who was here that he might betray those of his accomplices who had swerved from their allegiance to himself, and behind him--well hidden by the draperies of the couch--cowered Hun Rhavas, the dusky slave of the treasury, he who yesterday had appeared before the tribunal of the praefect of Rome for conspiracy to defraud the State in connection with the sale of the slave-girl Nola.
The law in such matters was severe. It demanded that a delinquent against the State--if he be a slave--shall lose his right hand, or his tongue, or his ears; that he should moreover forfeit his entire hard-saved belongings to the treasury and lose all chance of ever obtaining his freedom. But the praefect had been lenient, and though he could not dismiss the offender, he mitigated his punishment.
Hun Rhavas was publicly scourged and branded, but he lost neither ears, tongue, nor hand, nor was he deprived of the peculium with which ultimately he hoped to purchase his own freedom and that of his children. Yet such was the African's nature, such the result of the training which slavery in the imperial entourage had drilled into him, that Hun Rhavas forgot the clemency and only remembered the punishment.
With bleeding back and mind saturated with hate, he sought audience of the Emperor, and obtained it half an hour after Caius Nepos, the praetorian praefect, had himself been introduced in the presence of Caligula. The story which Hun Rhavas--the paid spy--brought to the ear of Cæsar, was but a confirmation of what Caius Nepos had to tell.
A conspiracy was on foot to murder the father of the armies, the greatest and best of Cæsars. The flower of the Roman patriciate was wallowing in this monstrous treachery. Hortensius Martius was in it up to the neck, so was Marcus Ancyrus, the elder, and Philippus Decius and Philario, of the imperial household.
Hun Rhavas had seen them consorting together and whispering among themselves the day of the sale of the late censor's slaves. He was able to state positively that the praefect of Rome was at one with the band of traitors.
This last fact had brought the frenzied Cæsar to the verge of death. He nearly choked with the violence of his rage. He had believed in the honesty of Taurus Antinor: had even looked on him as a lucky fetish. This man's treachery was more infuriating than that of a thousand others. In the madness of his wrath he would have killed Hun Rhavas with his own hands had not the latter succeeded in hiding himself out of the raving maniac's reach.
Had he dared, Caligula would have tortured Caius Nepos until he too gave him evidence against Taurus Antinor; but on this point the praetorian praefect was guarded. He had not yet made up his mind whether friendship or enmity with the praefect of Rome would be to his own advantage. All that he wanted at this moment was to be rid of those who had opposed him last night for the sake of their own schemes. Therefore in measured words he only spoke of the whisperings which he had overheard in the vestibule of his own house, between a certain band headed by Hortensius Martius and Marcus Ancyrus, the elder.
"During the Circensian games, O Cæsar," he explained, "they hope to raise a tumult amongst the people ... and whilst the attention of thy faithful guard is drawn away from thy sacred person, one of the miscreants is to plunge a dagger in thy throat----"
Here he was forced to silence by a cry like that of a slaughtered ox, which shook the marble pillars of the hall. Caligula had thrown himself upon the bed and was writhing there like a mad beast, biting the coverlets, beating with clenched fists against the woodwork, while foam dripped from the corners of his mouth.
"Tell me more--tell me----" he bellowed at last, during an interval between two of these maniacal spasms.
The slaves all round the room were trembling with fear; Hun Rhavas, huddled under the couch, was shaking like a leaf.
But Caius Nepos, calm and dignified, waited in silence until the paroxysm had abated, then he quietly went on with his tale.
"There is but little else to tell, O Cæsar. I came to warn thee ... for 'tis easy for thee to wear a shirt of mail to cover thy throat and breast against the dagger of assassins. But the conspirators hushed their talk in my presence. I tried to hear more and played the spy in thy service, but my heart was burdened with loyalty for thee, so I came thus early to put thee on thy guard."
The Cæsar had once more resumed his restless walk up and down the room. He was biting his fists, trying to restrain himself from striking the noble informer as brutally as he did his slaves, for he loathed the bearer of evil tidings almost as much as the secret traitors. He suffered from an overwhelming fury of hatred and from an unquenchable thirst for blood.
But three years ago the people and patricians had acclaimed him with shouts and rejoicings; they had feasted in his honour, proclaimed his godhead and his power, and now they were plotting to murder him! The madman threw out his arms in a passionate longing for revenge.
"They would kill me," he cried hoarsely, "kill me!" ... And a demoniacal laugh broke from his swollen throat. He tore the garments from off his chest and buried his nails in his own flesh, whilst roar upon roar of his mad laughter woke the echoes of his stately palace.
Then suddenly the paroxysm died completely down. An unnatural calm succeeded the violent outbursts of rage. Caligula, with a corner of his silken robe, wiped the perspiration from his streaming face. He threw himself on a seat, and resting both elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, he stared contemplatively before him.
Of a truth this calm seemed even more awe-inspiring than the snarls and cries of a while ago. Caius Nepos' sallow cheeks became still more ashen in colour as he cast a quick glance round the room, feeling perhaps for the first time to-day how completely he was at the mercy of a raving lunatic if the latter should turn against him. But the Cæsar sat there for some time, ruminating, with great hollow eyes fixed on one spot on the ground and gusts of stertorous breathing escaped from his chest.
After a while he spoke:
"Thou didst not tell me yet, O kind friend!" he said dully, "what the traitors mean to do once they have murdered their Cæsar. Whom would they set up as his successor? They cannot all be emperors of Rome. For whose sake then do they intend to commit this damnable treachery?"
"Nay, great Cæsar!" replied Caius Nepos drily, "methinks they all have a desire to become Emperor of Rome, and this being impossible, there was a vast deal of wrangling in my vestibule last night. I caught the purport of several words, and----"
"And of several names?" asked Caligula in the same even voice.
"I heard one name spoken in particular, O Cæsar."
"That of the Augusta, thy kinswoman," said Caius Nepos, after a slight moment of hesitation.
"Of Dea Flavia?"
"But she is a woman, and cannot lead an army," said the Emperor, whose voice sounded hollow and distant, as if it came from out the depths of a grave.
"Nor was that suggested, O Cæsar."
"The conspirators, methinks, have agreed amongst themselves that the future husband of Dea Flavia Augusta--whoever he might be--should be the successor of the murdered Cæsar."
"Whoever he might be," repeated the Emperor, mechanically echoing the other's words.
"Aye! The Augusta, I understand, favours no one as yet."
"She hath made no choice ... to thy knowledge?"
"No, no ... her choice was to be made after ... afterwards."
"Her choice to be made by her--or by them?"
"That I know not, great Cæsar. The Augusta, I feel sure, was not a consenting party to the treachery. The traitors would use her for their own ends."
After this there was silence for a while. Caligula still sat staring with wide-open eyes before him, whilst the slaves held their breath, staring fascinated on that terrible whip, lying momentarily forgotten.
Caius Nepos, pale as a withered maple leaf, was from time to time moistening his dry lips with his tongue.
The minutes sped on. Who shall say what fiendish thoughts were coursing through the mad tyrant's brain?
At last he rose, and resumed his walk up and down the room. But no longer did he rave now, no longer did he strike about him like one bereft of reason. His face, though flushed and streaming with perspiration, was set and calm; his footsteps across the carpets were measured and firm. He had cast his whip aside and his hands were clenched behind his back, and on his brow there had appeared a deep furrow, the sign of concentrated thought.
Then at last he paused in his walk and stood in the centre of the room facing the informer.
"I thank thee, good Caius Nepos," he said, "for thy loyalty to me. To-morrow, mayhap, I shall think of a reward in accordance with thy service, but for the nonce I would wish to be alone. I have much to think of. The present crisis demands of me those qualities of courage and of statesmanship for which the citizens of Rome already know me. To-morrow I go to the opening of the games in the Circus. Mayhap there will be a tumult amongst the people, and mayhap a damnable traitor will make an attempt against the sacred life of one who is god and Cæsar and emperor all in one. If all this occurs, and I find that thou didst not lie, then will I give thee such reward as even thou dost not at present dream of. But if between now and to-morrow I find that thou didst lie, that thou didst try to gain my favour and didst rouse my wrath only for the gaining of thine own ends, that thou didst slander Roman patricians with a view to removing thine own personal enemies, then will I devise for thee such punishment that on thy knees wilt beg of death to release thee from torment. And thou didst know, O Caius Nepos, that in the inventing of torture thy Cæsar has the genius of a god."
His voice had become perfectly steady and natural in its tones; all his restless, jerky movements had ceased. Outwardly he seemed to be completely master of himself. But of a truth the aspect of the madman now was more terrible than before. His sallow cheeks were the colour of lead, his pale eyes had narrowed down till they were mere slits through which gleams of deadly hate shot mercilessly on the informer.
Caius Nepos had great difficulty in keeping up an appearance of dignity. It was obviously in his interest to show neither confusion nor fear just now. Nothing but calm demeanour and a proud show of loyalty would ensure his personal safety at this moment. The praetorian praefect knew enough of the imperial despot to appreciate the danger of this outwardly quiet mood, which hid the utter callousness of demoniacal cruelty.
Therefore, in response to the horrible threat, Caius Nepos merely bent his head as if in humble submission to the will of one who was as a god. He felt his teeth chattering against one another, his limbs trembling, his blood frozen within him, and with it all he had the additional horror of knowing that the brutish tyrant was looking him through and through, that he saw the fear in him and was gloating on it with delight.
It was with a feeling of inexpressible relief that he at last understood that he was being dismissed. Steadying his limbs as best he could, he rose from his couch and made obeisance before the Cæsar. Then almost mechanically and like one in a dream, but holding himself erect and composed, he walked backwards out of the room.
The silken curtains weighted with gold fell together with a swishing sound behind him. And even as they did so a loud and prolonged roar of laughter, like that of a hundred demons let loose, echoed throughout the length and breadth of marble halls. Caius Nepos took to his heels and fled like one possessed, with hands pressed to his ears, trying to shut out the awful sounds that pursued him all down the corridors: the shrieks of pain, the whizzing of whipcord through the air, and, rising above all these, that awful laugh which must have found its origin in hell.
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