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"Thou art become guilty in the blood that thou hast shed."--EZEKIEL XXII. 4.
The hunter and the hunted! the lithe supple sinewy creature crawling with belly almost touching the ground and stealthy steps that made no sound on the sand of the arena.
Wary and silent the black beast crawled, now hiding amidst the scrubby grass, now bounding over trees and stream as if playing with herself, with her own desire for a taste of human blood.
At first terror had kept the two men rooted to the spot, paralysed, and with feet deeply imbedded in the sand. Only their eyes seemed alive, roaming along the wall, all round to where on either side the silken ladders made vivid crimson streaks on the white smoothness of the marble.
The panther waiting, watched them till they moved. The public, entranced, scarcely dared to draw breath.
Then came a sudden cry from thousands of throats; the two men, as if driven by a sudden sense of approaching death, had made a quick desperate rush, one to the right the other to the left, towards the crimson silk which meant safety to them.
But the panther was on guard and quicker twice than they. It seemed as if the brute had divined exactly where lay escape for its prey. It was guarding both sides of the arena at once, bounding from left to right, and back from right to left with giant leaps, soundless and swift.
The men paused again, because it seemed that when they were still, the panther too lay still and watched.
There was another lull, and from the imperial tribune above Dea Flavia watched the horrible spectacle, and Taurus Antinor drank into his soul the beauty of her eyes as they watched--fascinated--every movement of the sleek black panther, and of those fair-skinned giants trying to escape from death; she watched the stealthy approach of the beast toward its prey; she watched, motionless and still, the while great beads of perspiration matted the fair curls on her brow.
And to the man who loved her, and who saw her thus watching the horrible spectacle which must have made her feel sick and faint, to him it seemed as if in her mind the hideous sight meant something more than just the brutal display of cruelty which was a familiar one enough in Rome.
It seemed as if to her some hidden meaning lay in this teasing of a ferocious brute, and in this apparent clemency in allowing the victims a chance of escape, for every now and then she turned as if involuntarily toward the Cæsar, and a quick glance of understanding seemed to pass between her and that inhuman monster.
Taurus Antinor, with his gaze fixed upon her every movement, wondered what all that could mean.
After a quarter of an hour of tense excitement, of alternate cries of horror and screams of delight, the two men had, by dint of cunning and agility, succeeded in evading the panther. They were safe within the protecting niches; the panther down below was roaring with baffled rage, and the public clapped and cheered vociferously.
Two more men were thrust into the arena, dressed in the same way as the others, pushed forward like the others to the accompaniment of a brazier's glow and the smell of burnt flesh.
The panther, more wary this time, did not allow both men to escape. Yet they had made a clever dash for safety; one of them was already swinging himself aloft, but the other had missed his footing once, when he jumped upon the ledge; he regained it and seized the swinging end of the ladder, but the panther, with a bound, had reached him and caught his foot in its jaws.
That hideous noise--the scrunching of a human bone--was drowned in tumultuous applause as the miserable wretch with the maimed and bleeding leg, but with that almighty instinct for life at any cost, toiled mangled and bleeding up that ladder less crimson than the trail which he left in his wake.
Dea Flavia's head fell forward on the cushion. But she fought against the swoon. The ironical laughter of the Augustas round her quickly brought her to herself.
"The heat is overpowering," she said calmly in reply to a coarse comment from the Cæsar.
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