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"Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him."--JOB XL. 9.
A few moments later Licinia came running back into the room.
"Augusta!" she exclaimed excitedly even before she had crossed the threshold. "Augusta! quick! the Cæsar!"
Dea Flavia started, for she had indeed been suddenly awakened from a dream. Slowly, and with eyes still vague and thoughtful, she turned to her slave.
"The Cæsar?" she repeated, whilst a puzzled frown appeared between her brows and the young blood faded from her cheeks. "The Cæsar?"
"Aye," said the old woman hurriedly. "He is in the atrium even now, having just arrived, and his slaves fill the vestibule. He desires speech with thee."
"He does not often come at this hour," said Dea Flavia, whose face had become very white and set at mention of a name which indeed had the power of rousing terror in every heart just now. "Doth he seem angered?" she asked under her breath.
"No, no," said Licinia reassuringly, "how could he be angered against thee, my pet lamb? But come quickly, dear, to thy robing room; what dress wilt put on to greet the Cæsar in?"
"Nay, nay," she said with a tremulous little laugh, "we'll not keep my kinsman waiting. That indeed might anger him. He has been in this room before and hath liked to watch me at my work. Let him come now, an he wills."
Licinia would have protested for she loved to deck her darling out in all the finery that, to her mind, rendered the Augusta more beautiful than a goddess, but there was no time to say anything for even now the Cæsar's voice was heard at the further end of the atrium.
"Do not disturb your mistress. I'll to her myself. Nay! I'll not be announced. 'Tis an informal cousinly visit I am paying her this morning."
"He seemeth in good humour," whispered Dea Flavia, whose little hands were trembling as they made pretence once more of taking up the modelling tools. Licinia hurriedly tried to smooth down the golden hair which had become unruly during the course of the morning, but in her haste only succeeded in completely disarranging it and it fell in wavy masses down the young girl's shoulders, all but one plait which remained fixed over her brow like a wide band of gold.
Dea uttered an exclamation of horror and made a quick gesture, trying to capture the recalcitrant curls, even at the very moment that the Emperor Caligula entered the room.
He paused on the threshold and her arms dropped down to her side. Her golden hair fell all round her as she bent her knees making obeisance to the Cæsar. There was nothing regal about her now, nothing imperious or proud; she looked just like a child caught unawares at play.
Blushing with confusion she advanced toward her kinsman, and with head bent received his kiss upon her pure forehead. Nor did she shrink at this loathsome contact which would have filled almost any other woman's heart with horror. To her this man was not really human--he was the Cæsar--a supernatural being blessed by the gods, and endowed by them with supreme majesty and power.
"Dismiss thy slaves," he said curtly, "I would have speech with thee."
He had well schooled his turbulent temper to calmness. After Caius Nepos' departure and a final outburst of unbridled violence, he had plunged into a cold bath and given himself over for half an hour to the ministrations of his slaves. Then, cool and refreshed--at any rate outwardly--he had dressed himself in simple robes, and passing right through the halls of the Palace of Tiberius which adjoined his own, he had reached the precincts of Dea Flavia's house, which in its turn abutted on that built by Germanicus.
At any other time but the present one--when his frenzied mind was wholly given over to thoughts of the terrible treachery against his own person--he would have been conscious of Dea Flavia's exquisite beauty, as she stood before him, humble with the proud humility of one who has everything to give and nothing to receive; chaste with that pure ignorance which refuses to know what it cannot condone, and withal a perfect woman, imbued with a fascination which no man had ever been able to resist, for it was the fascination of youthful loveliness combined with the stately aloofness of conscious power.
At any other time but this, the unscrupulous voluptuary would have gazed on his beautiful kinswoman with eyes that would have shamed her with their undisguised admiration, and mayhap his look and actions would have placed a severe test on her loyalty and on her respect for him.
But to-day Caligula only saw in her the tool whom conspirators meant to use for their treacherous ends, her loveliness paled in his eyes before the awful suspicion which he had of her guilt, and whilst she stood quietly awaiting his pleasure, he marvelled how much she knew of the traitors' plans and whether her white fingers would effectually thrust the dagger into an assassin's hand.
She had dismissed her slaves at his bidding--all unconscious as she was of any danger that might threaten her through him. He waited for a while in silence, then he said abruptly:
"Dea Flavia, what is thine age?"
She looked up at him, smiling and puzzled.
"Some twenty years, great Cæsar," she replied, "but of a truth I had not kept count."
"Twenty years?" he retorted, "then 'tis high time that I chose a husband for thee."
This time she looked up at him boldly, and although in her glance there was all the respect due to the immortal Cæsar, yet was there no show of humility in her attitude as she threw back the heavy masses of her hair and drew up her slender figure to its full stately height.
"Was it to tell me this," she asked simply, "that the greatest of Cæsars sought his servant's house to-day?"
"In part," he rejoined curtly, "and I would hear thine answer."
"My lord has not deigned to ask a question?"
"Art prepared to accept the husband whom I, thine Emperor will choose for thee?"
"In all things do I give thee honour and reverence, O Cæsar," she replied, "but----"
"But I had no thought of marriage."
"No thought of marriage!" he retorted roughly as, unable to sit still, harassed by rage and doubt, he once more started on that restless walk of his up and down the room.
She watched him with great wondering eyes. That something serious lay behind his questionings was of course obvious. He had not paid her this matutinal visit for the sole purpose of passing the time of day; and she did not like this strange mood of his nor his reference to a topic over which he had not worried her hitherto.
In truth the thought of marriage had never entered her head, even though Licinia--with constant garrulousness--had oft made covert allusions to that coming time. She knew--for it had been instilled into her from every side ever since her father had left her under the tutelage of the Cæsar--that she must eventually obey him, if one day he desired that she should marry.
A young patrician girl would never dream of rebellion against the power of a father or a guardian, and when that guardian was the Cæsar himself and the girl was of the imperial house, the very thought of disobedience savoured of sacrilege.
But hitherto that question had loomed ahead in Dea Flavia's dreams of the future only as very shadowy and vague. She had never given a single thought to any of the young men who paid her homage, and their efforts at winning her favours had only caused her to smile.
She had felt herself to be unconquerable, even unattainable, and Caligula, before this mad frenzy had fully seized hold of him, had--in his own brutish way--indulged her in this, allowing her to lead her own life and secretly laughing at the machinations that went on around him to obtain the most coveted matrimonial prize in Rome.
Now suddenly this happy state of things was to come to an end; her freedom, on which she looked as her most precious possession, was to be taken roughly from her. One of the men whom she had despised, one of that set of libertines, of idle voluptuaries who had dangled round her skirts whilst casting covetous eyes upon her fortune, was to become her master, her supreme lord, and she--a slave to his desires and to his passions.
Strangely enough the thought of it just now was peculiarly horrible to her--the thought of what the Cæsar's wish might mean--the inevitableness of it all nauseated her until she felt sick and faint, and the walls of the room began to swing round her so that she had to steady herself on her feet with a mighty effort of will, lest she should fall.
She knew the Cæsar well enough to realise that if he had absolutely set his mind on her marriage nothing would make him swerve from the thought. If he once desired a thing he would never rest night or day until his wish had been fulfilled.
Men and women of Rome knew that. Patricians and plebs, senators and slaves, had died horrible deaths because the Cæsar had demanded and they had merely thought to disobey.
Therefore it was with wide-open, terror-filled eyes that she watched that tyrannical master in his restless walk up and down the room.
Outside greater darkness had gathered, heavy clouds obscured the light, and the gorgeous figure of the Cæsar now and then vanished into the dark angles of the room, reappearing a moment later like some threatening ghoul that comes and goes, blown by the wind which foretells the coming storm.
After a while Caligula paused in his walk and stood close beside her, looking as straight as he could into her pale face.
"No thought of marriage?" he repeated, with one of his mirthless laughs, "no thought, mayhap, of the husband whom I would choose for thee? No doubt there is even now lurking somewhere in this palace a young gallant who alone has the right to aspire to Dea Flavia's grace."
"My lord is pleased to jest," she said coolly, "and knows as well as I do that no patrician can boast of a single favour obtained from me."
"Then 'tis on a slave thou hast chosen to smile," he said roughly.
Then as she did not deign to make reply to this insult, he continued:
"Come! Art mute that thou dost not speak when Cæsar commands?"
"What does my lord wish me to say?"
"Hast a lover, girl?"
"No, my lord."
"Did I deceive my lord in this, then had I not the courage to look boldly in the Cæsar's face."
"Bah!" he said with a snarl, "I mistrust that maidenly reserve which men call pride, and I, clever coquetry. The women of Rome have realised, fortunately by now, that they are the slaves of their masters, to be bought and sold as he directs. The wife must learn that she is the slave of her husband, the daughter that she belongs to the father; the women of the House of Cæsar that they belong to me."
"It is a hard lesson my lord would teach to one half of his subjects."
"It is," he said with brutal cynicism, "but I like teaching it. I hope to live long enough--nay! I mean to live long enough--to establish a marriage market in Rome, where the lords of the earth can buy what women they want openly, for so many sesterces, as they can their cattle and their pigs."
She recoiled from the man a little at these words and a blush of shame slowly rose to her cheek. But she retorted calmly:
"The gods do speak through Cæsar's mouth and he frames the laws even as they wish."
Her words flattered his egregious vanity which had even as great, if not a greater, hold upon him than his tyrannical temper. He knew that to this proud girl he was as a god, and that her respect for his Cæsarship made her blind to every one of his faults, but this additional simple testimony from her pure lips caused him to relent towards her, and quite instinctively made him curb the violent grossness of his tongue.
"Thou speakest truly, O Dea Flavia," he said complacently. "The gods will, when the time comes, speak through my mouth and make known their will through my dictates even as they have done hitherto--even as they do at this moment when I tell thee that I desire to see thee married."
"My lord hath spoken," she said calmly.
"Do not think, O Dea Flavia," he continued, carried away by his own eloquence, "that I desire aught but thy happiness. If I decide to give thee for wife to a man, it shall only be to one who is worthy of thee in every respect. Thou shalt help me to choose him ... for I have not yet made my choice ... he shall testify before thee as to his nobility and his bravery.... An thou dost assure me that thou hast not yet bestowed thy regard on any man----"
He paused midway in his phrase with indrawn breath, waiting for her reply. She gave it firmly and without hesitation.
"I have cast my eyes on no man, my lord, and have no desire to marry."
"Wouldst consecrate thy virginity to Vesta then?" he asked with a sneer.
"Rather that," she replied, "if my lord would so deign to command."
"Tush!" he broke in impatiently. "Herein thou dost offend the gods and me! 'Tis impious to waste thy beauty in barren singleness; the gods hate the solitary maid unless she be ill-favoured and unpleasing to every man. Thou of the House of Cæsar hast a mission to fulfil and canst not fulfil it thus in isolation, fashioning clay figures that have no life which they can consecrate to Cæsar. But have no fear, for I, thy lord, do watch over thy future--the man whom I will choose for thee will be worthy of thy smiles."
He drew up his misshapen figure to its full height and beamed at the young girl with an expression of paternal benignness. He was delighted with himself, delighted with his own oratory. He was such a born mountebank that he could even act the part of kindness and benevolence, and he acted it at this moment so realistically that the ignorant, confiding girl was taken in by his tricks.
She saw the gracious smile and was too inexperienced, too devoted, to see the hideous leer that he was at pains to conceal.
"The choice will be difficult, gracious lord," she said, feeling somewhat reassured, "and will take some time to make."
"Therefore will I trust to inspiration," he rejoined blandly.
"The gods no doubt will speak when the time comes."
"Aye! They will thunder forth their decree at midday to-morrow," said Caligula, with well-assumed majesty.
"To-morrow, O my lord?"
"Thou hast said it. I have a fancy to make known my decree in this matter during the games at the Circus to-morrow. So put on thy richest gown, O Dea Flavia Augusta," he added with a sneer, "so as to appear pleasing in thy future husband's sight."
"My gracious lord is pleased to jest," she said, all her fears returning to her in a moment with an overwhelming rush that made her sick with horror.
"Jest!" he retorted with a snarl, showing his yellow teeth like a hyena on the prowl, "nay! I never was so earnest in my life. Is not the future of my beloved ward of supreme importance to me?"
"Nay, then, good my lord," she pleaded earnestly, her young voice trembling, her blue eyes fixed appealingly on the callous wretch, "I do beg of thy mightiness to give me time ... to think ... to ..."
"I have done all the thinking," he broke in roughly, "thou hast but to obey."
"Indeed, indeed," she entreated, "I have no wish to disobey ... but my gracious lord ... do I pray thee deign to consider ..."
"Silence, wench!" he shouted, with a violent oath, for what he deemed her resistance was exasperating his fury and reawakened all his former suspicions of her guilt. "Cease thy senseless whining.... I, thine Emperor, have spoken. Let that suffice. Who art thou that I should parley with thee? To-morrow thou'lt go to the Circus. Dost hear? And until then remain on thy knees praying to the gods to pardon thy rebellion against Cæsar."
And with an air which he strove to render majestic he turned on his heel and prepared to go. But in a moment she was down on her knees, her hands clutching his robe. She would not let him go, not now, not yet, whilst she had not exhausted every prayer, every argument, that would soften his heart towards her.
"My gracious lord," she pleaded, whilst her trembling voice was almost choked with sobs, "for pity's sake do hear me! I am not rebellious, nor disobedient to thy will! I am only a humble maid who holds all her happiness from thee! My gracious lord thou art great, and thou art mighty, thou art kind and just. Have mercy on me, for my whole heart is brimming over with loyalty for thee! I am free, and am happy in my freedom; the men who fawn round me, coveting my fortune, fill me with disgust. I could not honour one of them, my lord! I could not give one of them my love. Thou who art so great, must know how I feel. I implore thee leave me my freedom, the most precious boon which I possess, and my lips will sing a pæan of praise to thee for as long as I live."
But Caligula was not the man whom a woman's entreaties would turn from his purpose, more especially when that purpose was his own self-interest. This wretch had no heart within him, no sensibility, not one single feeling of pity or of loyalty.
His instinct must have told him that Dea Flavia was loyal to the core, loyal to the Cæsar and to his House, but so blinded was he by rage and humiliation and by the terror of assassination, that he saw in the earnest, simple pleadings of a young girl and devoted partisan nothing but the obstinate resistance of a would-be traitor.
The more did Dea plead, the more did he become convinced that already her choice of a husband was made, and that that husband was destined to wrench the sceptre of Cæsar from him and to mount Cæsar's throne over his murdered body. With a brutal gesture he pushed the young girl from him.
"Silence!" he shouted, as soon as choking rage enabled him to speak. "Silence, I say! ere I strike thee into eternal dumbness. What I have said, I've said. Dost hear me? To-morrow, at the Circus, I will name thy husband, and then and there thou shalt accept him, whoever he may be. I have a reason for wishing this--a reason of State far beyond the comprehension of a mere fool. To-morrow thou shalt accept the man of my choice as thy future lord. That is my will. Look to it, O daughter of Cæsar, that thou dost obey. Cæsar hath spoken."
"Cæsar hath spoken," she pleaded, "but my gracious lord will relent."
"Dost know me, girl?" he retorted, as, bending down to her, he seized her wrists in his and brought his flushed face all distorted by fury, close to her own. "Dost know me? For if so hast ever seen me relent once I have set my will? Look into my eyes now! Look, I say!" he shouted hoarsely, giving her wrists and arms a brutal wrench. "Do they look as if they meant to relent? Is there anything in my face to lead thee to hope that thou wouldst have thy treacherous way with me?"
He held her wrists so cruelly that she could have screamed with the pain, but she bit her lip to still the cry.
Daylight now was yielding to the oncoming storm. Dense shadows hung all round the room, making the objects in it seem weird and ghost-like in the gloom. Sudden gusts of wind swept angrily round, causing the withered leaves and dying flowers in the vases to murmur with unearthly sounds, as of the sighing of disembodied souls. Only through the aperture above a streak of greyish light struck full upon the Cæsar, as, with glowing eyes and cruel grasp, he compelled her to look on him.
For a moment she closed her eyes after she had looked, for never before had she seen anything so hideous and so evil. His misshapen head looked unnaturally large as it seemed to loom out at her from out the gathering darkness, his hair stood up sparse and harsh all round his forehead. His eyes were protruding and shot through with blood; his lips were dry and cracked, his cheeks of a dull crimson and heavy sweat was pouring down his face.
When she turned away from him in horror, he broke into that wild laugh of his which had in it the very sounds of hell.
"Well!" he said with a leer, "hast seen my face? Art still prepared to disobey?"
"No, my lord," she said slowly, and fixing her eyes fully upon his now, "but I am prepared to die."
"To die? What senseless talk is this?"
"Not senseless, my good lord. Even the gods do allow us poor mortals to find refuge from sorrow in death."
"So!" he said slowly, still gripping her wrists and peering into her face till his scorching breath made her feel sick and faint. "That is the way thou wouldst defy the will of Cæsar? Death, sayest thou?... Death and disobedience--rather than submission to the wish of him who has god-like power on earth. Death!" and he laughed loudly even whilst from afar there came, faint and threatening, the nearer presage of the coming storm. "What death? A pleasing, dreamless sleep brought on by drugs? A soothing draught that lulls even as it kills--or hadst perchance thought of the arena?... of the tiger that roars?... or the lictor's flail that drives?... hadst thought ... hadst thought ..."
He was foaming at the mouth, his rage was choking him; he had only just enough strength left in him to tear at the neck of his tunic, for the next moment he would have fallen, felled like an ox by the power of his own fury. But as soon as he had released Dea Flavia's wrists and she felt herself free to move, she rose from her knees, and with quick, almost mechanical gesture, she rearranged her disordered robe and shook back the heavy masses of her hair. Then she stood quite still, with arms hanging by her side, her head quite erect and her eyes fixed upon that raving monster. When she saw that he had at last regained some semblance of reason she said quite calmly:
"My gracious lord will work his way with his slave, and deal her what death he desires."
"What!" he murmured incoherently, "what didst thou say?"
"'Tis death I choose, my lord," she said simply, "rather than a husband who was not of mine own seeking."
For a moment then she did look death straight and calmly in the face, for it was death that looked on her through those blood-shot eyes. He had thrust his lower jaw forward, his teeth, large and yellow, looked like the fangs of a wolf; stertorous breathing escaped his nostrils, and his distorted fingers were working convulsively, like the claws of a beast when it sees its prey.
Caligula would have strangled her then and there without compunction and without remorse. She had defied him and thwarted him even more completely than she knew herself; and there was no death so cruel that he would not gladly have inflicted upon her then.
"Dost dare to defy me...!" he murmured hoarsely, "hast heard what I threatened ..."
She put out her hand, quietly interrupting him.
"I heard the threat, my lord ... and have no fear," she said.
"No fear of death?"
"None, gracious lord. There is no yoke so heavy as a bond unhallowed. No death so cruel as the breaking of a heart."
There was dead silence in the room now; only from a far distant rolls of ceaseless thunder sent their angry echo through the oppressive air. Caligula was staring at the girl as he would on some unearthly shape. Gasping he had fallen back a few steps, the convulsive twitching of his fingers ceased, his mouth closed with a snap, and great yellow patches appeared upon his purple cheeks.
Then he slowly passed his hand across his streaming forehead, his breathing became slower and more quiet, the heavy lids fell over the protruding eyes.
Caius Julius Cæsar Caligula was no fool. His perceptions, in fact, became remarkably acute where his own interests were at stake, and he had the power of curbing that demoniacal temper of his, even in its maddest moment, if self-advantage suddenly demanded it.
He had formed a plan in his head for the trapping of the unknown man who was to mount the throne of Cæsar over the murdered body of his Emperor. Before dealing with the whole band of traitors he wished to know who it was that meant to reap the greatest benefit by the dastardly conspiracy. There was one man alive in Rome at the present moment who thought to become the successor of Caligula; that one man would be bold enough to woo and win Dea Flavia for wife.
Caligula's one coherent thought ever since Caius Nepos had betrayed the conspiracy to him, was the desire to know who that man was likely to be. That was the man he most hated--the unknown man. Him he desired to punish in a manner that would make all the others endure agonies of horror ere they in turn met their doom. But his identity was still a mystery. To discover it, the Cæsar had need of the help of this girl who stood there so calmly before him, defying his power and his threats. He looked on her and understanding slowly came to him ... understanding of the woman with whom he had to deal. It dawned upon him in the midst of his tumultuous frenzy that here he had encountered a will that he could never bend to his own--an irresistible force had come in contact with an unbending one. One of the two must yield, and Caligula, staring at the young girl who seemed so fragile that a touch of the hand must break her, knew that it was not she who would ever give in.
His well-matured plan he would not give up. He had thought it all out whilst he refreshed himself in his bath after Caius Nepos' visit, and it was not likely that any woman could, by her obstinate action, move Caligula from his resolve. But obviously he must alter his tactics if he desired Dea Flavia's help. He could gain nothing by her death save momentary satisfaction, and the matter was too important to allow momentary satisfaction to interfere with the delights of future complete revenge.
Therefore he forced himself to some semblance of calm. He was a perfect mountebank, a consummate actor, and now he called to his aid his full powers of deception. Cunning should win the day since rage and coercion had failed.
Slowly his face lost every vestige of anger and sorrowful serenity crept into his eyes. Tottering like one who feels unmanned, he sought the support of a chair and fell sitting into it, with his elbows on his knees and his head buried in his hands.
"Woe is me!" he moaned, "woe to the House of Cæsar when its fairest daughter turns traitor against her kin!"
"I! a traitor, good my lord!" she rejoined quietly. "There is no treachery in my desire to serve Cæsar in single maidenhood, or to offer thee my life rather than my freedom."
"There is black treachery," he said with tremulous voice like one in deep sorrow, "in refusing to obey the Cæsar."
"In this alone----"
But it was his turn now to interrupt her with a quick raising of the hand.
"Aye! That is what the waverer says: 'Good my lord, I'll obey in all save in what doth not please me!' Dea Flavia Augusta, I had thought thee above such monstrous selfishness."
"Selfishness, my lord?"
"Aye! Art thou not of the House of Cæsar? Art thou not my kinswoman? Dost thou not receive at my hands honour, position, everything that places thee above the common herd of humanity? Were I not the Cæsar, where wouldst thou be? Not in this palace surely, not the virtual queen of Rome, but, mayhap, a handmaid to another Cæsar's wife, an attendant on his daughter.... Thou dost seem to have forgot all this, Augusta."
"Nay, gracious lord, I have forgot nothing! Your goodness to me----"
"And yet wouldst deliver me over into the hands of mine enemies," he said with increased dolefulness, "and not raise a finger to save me."
"I would give my life for the Cæsar," she interposed firmly, "and this the Cæsar knows."
"Wouldst not even take a husband, when by so doing thou wouldst save the Cæsar from death."
"My gracious lord speaks in riddles ... I do not understand."
"Didst not understand, girl, that I but wished to test thy loyalty to me? Thou--like so many alas!--dost so oft prate of unbounded attachment to Cæsar. To-day, for the first time, did I put that attachment to the test, and lo! it hath failed me."
"Try me, my lord," she said, "and I'll not fail thee. But give me thy trust as well as thy commands."
She advanced close to where he sat, apparently a broken-down, sorrowful man, stricken with grief. The mighty Cæsar now was far more powerful than he had been a while ago when he raged and stormed and threatened, for he had appealed to the strongest feeling within her--he had appealed to her loyalty.
Slowly she sank once more on her knees, not in entreaty now, not with thoughts of self, but in the humble subjection of herself to the needs of him whom the gods had anointed. She sank upon her knees, and with that simple action she offered her happiness on the altar of her loyalty to him and to her house.
Gone was the look of defiance from her eyes, the pride had vanished and all the joy of life; no thought was left in the young mind now save an overwhelming sense of loyalty, no feeling lingered in the heart save the desire for self-sacrifice.
The Cæsar had commanded and since she could not disobey she was ready to die; memory had in a swift flash called up before her the vision of a man who, rather than yield to her caprice, had smiled at the thought of death. And she, too, had almost smiled, for suddenly she had understood how small a thing was life when slavery became its price.
But now all that had changed. The Cæsar pleaded and made appeal to her loyalty. Her refusal to obey him was no longer pride, it was disloyalty--almost sacrilege. The Cæsar called to her! It was as if the gods had spoken, and she fell on her knees, ready to obey.
The consummate actor was clever enough to hide the triumph that lit up his eyes when he saw her thus kneeling, and understood that she was prepared to yield.
He stretched out a paternal hand, and with weary sadness stroked her golden hair.
"Trust me, gracious lord," she reiterated, "my life is thine, do with it what thou wilt."
"Traitors are at work, Dea Flavia, to murder the Cæsar," he said gently.
"Ye gods!" she murmured, horrified.
"Aye! wouldst think mayhap that the gods will interfere? They will? I tell thee that they will! but they have need of thee, Augusta! I, thy Cæsar, thy god do have need of thee!"
With both hands now he took her own in his, not roughly, but with infinite tenderness, and cunningly contrived that two hot tears should fall upon her fingers.
"My gracious lord!" she whispered, "my life is at thy service."
"Accept the husband whom I propose for thee ... and my life will be safe.... Refuse to obey me in this and to-morrow the blood of Cæsar will be upon thy head...."
"Wilt obey me, Augusta?"
"My gracious lord ... I do not understand," she pleaded; "have pity on my ignorance ... trust me but a little further...."
"I cannot tell thee more," he said with a sigh of patient weariness, "but this I do tell thee, that my life and with it the future of our House--of the Empire--now lie in thy hands. The abominable traitors would make a tool even of thee. 'The husband of Dea Flavia Augusta,' they say, 'shall succeed the murdered Cæsar!'"
She uttered a cry of horror.
"Their names," she murmured, "tell me their names."
"I know but a few."
"Which are they?"
"They speak of Hortensius Martius."
"And of young Escanes ... also of Philario, my servant."
"Ye gods," she exclaimed, "let your judgments fall upon them."
"And of Taurus Antinor--the praefect of Rome," added the Cæsar, and a savage snarl escaped his lips even when he spoke the name.
"Taurus Antinor!" she exclaimed.
Then half-audibly she murmured to herself, repeating the Cæsar's words:
"They would make a tool of thee!"
She had fallen back, squatting on her heels, her hands clasped before her and her head sunk upon her bosom, bowed with shame and with horror. Her name had been bandied about by traitors, her person been bought and sold as the price of the blackest sacrilege that had ever disgraced the patriciate of Rome.
"And thou, Taurus Antinor," she whispered inaudibly, "art the blackest traitor amongst them all."
There was no need now for the Cæsar to make further appeal to her loyalty. She was loyal to him--body and soul--loyal to him and to her House, ready to sacrifice her pride, her freedom if need be at a word from the Cæsar, since he had said that by her action on the morrow she could help him fight the treacherous infamy.
Caligula could well be satisfied with his success; nor did he try to press his advantage further. All that he had wanted was the assurance that she would not thwart him when he put into execution the plan which he had conceived. The man-trap which he had set would not now fail through Dea's obstinacy.
He thought that the time had come for ending the interview. He desired that her receptive mind should retain a solemn impression of his majesty and of his power. A charlatan to the last, he now rose to his feet and with outstretched arm pointed upwards to the small glimpse of leaden-covered sky.
"Jove's thunders still speak from afar," he said with slow emphasis, "but to-morrow they will crash over Rome and over the traitors within her walls. The air will be filled with moanings and with gnashing of teeth; the Tiber will run red with blood, for the murdered Cæsar will mayhap be crying vengeance upon the assassins. Wilt save the Cæsar, O Dea Flavia? Wilt save Rome and the Empire from a deadly crime and the devastating vengeance of the outraged gods?"
He towered above her like some inspired prophet, with arms stretched out towards the fast approaching storm, and eyes uplifted to the thunderbolts of Jove.
"I await thine answer," he said, "O daughter of the Cæsars."
"My answer has been given, gracious lord," she murmured, "have I not said that my life was at thy service?"
"Command, O Cæsar!"
"To-morrow at the Circus ... dost understand?... I have a plan ... and thou must obey ... blindly ... dost understand?" he reiterated hoarsely.
"I understand, my lord."
"I'll name thy future husband to the public ... to the plebs ... to all ... and thou'lt accept him--before them all--without demur...."
"As my lord commands."
"This thou dost swear?"
"This do I swear."
"Then," said the mountebank with mock reverence as he placed his hand--blood-stained with the blood of countless innocent victims of his tyranny--upon the bowed head of the loyal girl, "receive the blessing of Jupiter the victorious, of Juno the holy goddess, and of Magna Mater the great Mother, for thou art worthy to be of the House of Cæsar."
But even as the last of these impious words had left his lips, the long awaited storm broke out in sudden fury; a vivid flash of lightning rent the sky from end to end and lit up momentarily every corner of the room, the kneeling figure of Dea Flavia, the misshapen figure of the imperial monster, the fading flowers in the vases. Then a mighty clap of thunder shook the very foundations of Dea Flavia's palace.
Caligula uttered a wild shriek of terror, and, calling loudly for his slaves, he fled incontinently from the room.
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