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"The sorrows of death compassed me."--PSALM XVIII. 4.
Dea Flavia lay upon her bed, with wide-open eyes fixed into vacancy above her.
Afternoon and evening had gone by since that awful moment when the whole fell purpose of the Cæsar's plan was revealed to her, and she saw Hortensius Martius standing unarmed and doomed in the arena, face to face with a raging, wild beast. Afternoon and evening had vanished into the past since she saw Taurus Antinor, with Hortensius' body held high over his head, saving one life whilst offering up his own, since she heard that deafening cry of horror uttered by two hundred thousand throats when the panther sprung upon him unawares and felled him to the ground, whilst his blood reddened the sand of the arena.
Afternoon and evening had swooned in the arms of eternity since she saw the terror-stricken Cæsar treacherously stab the man who had rushed forward to save him.
After that last agonising moment she remembered nothing more until she found herself in her own house, lying on her bed, with Licinia's anxious, wrinkled face bending over her.
"What hath happened, Licinia?" she had asked feebly as soon as consciousness had returned.
"We brought thee home safely, my precious treasure," replied the old woman fervently, "all praise be unto the gods who watched over their beloved."
"But how did it happen?" queried Dea with some impatience. "Tell me all that happened, Licinia," she reiterated with earnest insistence, as she raised herself on her elbow and fixed her large blue eyes, in which burned a feverish light, upon the face of her slave.
"Yes! yes! I'll tell thee all I know," rejoined the woman soothingly. "Thy slaves were close at hand in the vestibule of the imperial tribune, and thy litter was down below with the bearers, in case thou shouldst require it. But I had stood on the threshold of the tribune for some time watching thee, for thy sweet face had been pale as death all the morning, and I feared that the heat would be too much for thee. Thus I saw much of what went on. I saw the traitor advance toward the Cæsar, trying to smother him with a cloak. I saw the Cæsar--whom may the gods protect--stab the traitor in the breast, and then leave the Amphitheatre hurriedly, followed by a few among his faithful guard. But my thoughts then were only of thee. I could see thy lovely face white as the maple leaf, and thou wast leaning against the wall as if ready to swoon. The traitor whom the Cæsar had justly punished lay bleeding from many wounds close to thy foot. The next moment I had thee in my arms, having caught thee when thy dear body swayed forward and would have fallen even upon the breast of the dead traitor."
"The traitor?" murmured Dea Flavia then.
"Aye! the praefect of Rome," said Licinia, with a vicious oath. "He had incited the rabble against the Cæsar, and--may his dead body be defiled for the sacrilege!--he was causing the populace to acclaim him as their Emperor, even whilst he raised his murderous hand against him who is the equal of the gods!"
"He was striving to save Cæsar, Licinia, and not to murder him," said Dea Flavia earnestly.
"To save the Cæsar? Nay! nay! my precious, the praefect of Rome tried to murder Cæsar by smothering him with a cloak."
"It is false I tell thee!"
"False? Nay, dear heart, I saw it all, and thou wast beside thyself and knew not rightly what happened. Even a minute later thou laidst in my arms like a dead white swan, and I pushed my way through the soldiers, and past the other Augustas who cowered in the tribune, screaming and wringing their hands. Two of thy slaves were luckily close at hand. Together we carried thee down to thy litter and bore thee safely home for which to-morrow I will offer special sacrifice to Minerva who protected thee."
"And what happened after we were gone?"
"Alas! I know not. They say that the populace became more and more unruly: there were shouts for the praefect of Rome, who fortunately lay dead on the floor of the tribune, and there were even some sacrilegious miscreants who called for death upon the Cæsar."
"Do they say," queried Dea Flavia, speaking slowly and low, "that the praefect of Rome is dead?"
"If he be not dead now," retorted Licinia viciously, for her loyalty to the Cæsar was bound up with her love for Dea Flavia, and treachery to Cæsar meant treachery to her beloved, "If he be not dead now, he shall still suffer for his treason: and if he be dead his body shall be defiled."
"Aye! a traitor must suffer even in death. His body shall be given to the dogs, his blood to the carrion...."
"Silence, Licinia!" broke in Dea Flavia sternly, "fill not mine ears with thy hideous talk. Every word thou dost utter is impiety and sacrilege, and I would smite thee for them had I but the strength.
"But I am so tired," she added after a slight pause, with a weary little sigh, even whilst Licinia, subdued and frightened, stood silently by: "I would like to sleep."
"Then sleep, my goddess," said the old woman, "I'll watch over thee."
"No! no! I could not sleep if I were watched," rejoined Dea Flavia with the fretfulness of a tired child. "I would rather be alone."
"But thou'lt have bad dreams."
"Order Blanca to lie across the threshold. I can then send her to fetch thee, if I have need of thee."
"I would rather lie across thy threshold myself," muttered the old woman.
"Good Licinia, do as I tell thee," said Dea, now with marked impatience. "And--stay--" she added as Licinia still grumbling prepared reluctantly to obey--"I pray thee find out for me all that is going on in the city. Mayhap Tertius will know what has happened--or Piso.... Go seek them, Licinia, and find out all that there is to know, so that thou canst tell me everything anon, when I wake."
She lay back on her bed with closed eyes whilst Licinia kissed her hands and feet, re-arranged the embroidered coverlet and the downy cushions, and after a while shuffled out of the room.
There was nothing that the old woman loved better than a gossip with Tertius, who was the comptroller of the Augusta's household, or with Piso, who was the overseer of her slaves: and even her fond desire to watch beside her mistress yielded to the delight of holding long and interesting parley with these worthies.
So it was with considerable alacrity that--having deputed the young girl, Blanca, to watch over her mistress--she made her way through the atrium, and thence across the vast peristyle to the quarters of the slaves.
Tertius--the comptroller--had, it appears, sallied forth into the streets, despite the lateness of the hour, in the hope of gleaning some information as to what was going on in the city. Even in this secluded portion of the Palatine, where stood the house of Dea Flavia under the shelter of the surrounding palaces, weird sounds of human cries and of the clashing of steel was penetrating with ominous persistency.
Piso--the overseer--who had remained at home, as he did not feel sufficiently valiant to face once again the disturbance outside, told Licinia all that he had witnessed before he finally found safe haven at home.
It seemed that the tumult in the Amphitheatre had not ceased with the flight of the Emperor, rather that it had grown in intensity when the populace saw the praefect of Rome fall backwards, stabbed by the Cæsar, and the latter disappear hurriedly, followed by a few from among the praetorian guard.
There was no doubt that the temper of the populace had been over-excited by the cruel scenes of a while ago; lust of blood and of tyranny had been fanned to fever-pitch through those very spectacles which the Cæsar himself had provided for the people, with a view to satisfying his own ferocious desires of hate and of revenge.
Now that same fever-heated temper was turning against him, who had fanned it for his own ends.
Caligula had made good his escape, satisfied that his dagger had done its work upon the arch-traitor. He had fled through the private entrance of his tribune, and his guard had rallied round him. But a company of legionaries--some five or six hundred strong--was still in the place, as well as his knights and all his friends, and against these did the wrath of the rabble turn.
The lawless and the rough soon had it all their own way, and the peaceable citizen who would have liked to get wife and children safely out of the crowd found it well-nigh impossible to make his way through the throng.
After a few moments the disturbance became general; there was a great deal of shouting and presently missiles began to fly about. The rabble attacked the legionaries and a sanguinary conflict ensued. The former was in overwhelming number and succeeded in breaking the rank of the soldiers, and in putting them momentarily to rout.
After this there was a general stampede down and along the gradients of the Amphitheatre, during which hundreds of persons--including women and children--were crushed to death. The scene of confusion seems to have baffled description. Piso, who had succeeded in making his way home in the midst of it all, had even now to wipe his brow, which was streaming with perspiration at the recollection of the horrors which he had witnessed.
Whilst he proceeded with his narrative, Tertius had returned with further news. And these, of a truth, were very alarming. The lower slopes of the Palatine, as well as the Forum and the surrounding streets, were now in the hands of the mob. The few legions who were in the city had been cut off from the Palatine, and though they were making vigorous efforts to break through the close ranks of the crowd, they had, up to this hour, been wholly unsuccessful, owing no doubt to the paucity of their numbers, since the bulk of the army was not yet home from that insensate and mock expedition into Germany.
The whole of the troops in and around the city, including the town and praetorian guard, was on this day computed at less than one thousand, and the mob--so Tertius averred--was over one hundred thousand strong.
The law-abiding citizens had locked themselves up in the fastnesses of their homes, and the Cæsar--so it was believed--was inside his palace with a small detachment of his guard around him, one hundred strong, who already had had to repel numerous attacks delivered by the more forward amongst the rabble.
Tertius had not been able to get far beyond the precincts of the house, for fear had driven him back. The shouts which came from the streets below and from the Forum were ominous and threatening.
"Death to the Cæsar! Death to the tyrant!" could be distinctly heard above the din of stampeding feet, and a low and constant murmur that sounded like distant thunder.
There was no doubt that the Cæsar's life was in grave danger, seeing that only a handful of men stood between him and the fury of an excited populace; and these men were without a leader, for the praetorian praefect had been cut off from them, even as he tried to push his way through the crowd earlier in the day.
Thus, therefore, did this harbinger of evil news resume the situation. Caligula was in his palace, surrounded by the slaves of his household and guarded by a few soldiers against a raging mob--an hundred thousand or more strong--who had formed a ring around the Palatine, and was clamouring for the Cæsar's death. The legionaries, under the command of faithful Centurions, were cut off from the Palatine and from their Cæsar by the mob whose solid ranks they had hitherto been unable to break. The Augustas and their slaves were also safe within their palaces.
But what Tertius did not know, and was therefore unable to impart to his eager listeners was that the party of conspirators, with Hortensius Martius as their acknowledged leader, were taking advantage of the disturbance to place themselves at the head of the mob, hoping that the cry of "Death to Caligula!" would soon be followed by one of "Hail to the Cæsar! the new Cæsar, Hortensius Martius! Hail!"
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