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"Watchman, what of the night?"--ISAIAH XXI. 11.
And far away beyond the noise and tumult which ranged around the foot of the Palatine, the honey-coloured moon illumined with her weird and ghostly light the vast arena of the gigantic Amphitheatre, where a company of the town guard, under the command of an aedile, were busy collecting the dead.
A narrow streak of those same ghostly rays found its way through the folds of the curtains which spanned the window of Dea Flavia's room. It peeped in boldly, stirring up myriads of impalpable atoms and whipping them into a living line of silver. It wandered further, and finding a golden head that tossed restlessly upon a silk-covered pillow, it alighted on it, making the white face appear ghostlier still, and the wide eyes to shine like stars.
A timid step shuffled across the floor.
"Blanca, is it thou?" whispered Dea Flavia, as quickly she raised herself up, squatting now upon the bed, with one hand pressed against the pillow and the other to her breast.
"Aye, mistress, it is I!" came in whispered response.
"Well? Have they returned?"
"Aye! gracious lady. Half an hour ago."
"Did they find him?"
There was a pause, whilst from afar came that strange low sound of thousands of men murmuring, which is so akin to the booming of the waves upon a rocky shore.
"The praefect of Rome was in a swoon when they found him in the imperial tribune," said the young slave-girl, still speaking under her breath. "Nolus and Dion carried him to the litter, and once or twice he groaned whilst they carried him."
A gentle breeze wafted the curtains into the room; the rays of the waning moon fell full upon the huddled figure on the bed, with the stream of gold falling each side of the set, pale face, and the large blue eyes now strangely veiled with tears.
"Where is ... where is the praefect now?" asked Dea Flavia.
"In the room out of thy studio, gracious mistress, as thou didst direct. Dion did prepare a couch for him there, and hath laid him down."
"And the physician?"
"The physician hath seen him. He saith that the praefect is weak with loss of blood. His shoulders, arms and legs have been torn by the panther's claws, but these wounds are not deep."
"And ... and the dagger thrust?"
"The physician saith that the dagger must have glanced off the bone. I did not quite understand what he said, and Dion explained it badly."
"He did not say that there was poison in the dagger?"
"I think not, gracious lady; for the physician said that the praefect would soon be well if he were carefully tended. He is very weak with loss of blood."
"Did Nolus and Dion find it difficult to approach the praefect's body?"
"They had to parley with the aedile who was in command, and to give him all the money which my gracious mistress did entrust to them for that purpose."
"After which the aedile made no demur ... and asked no questions?"
"The aedile took the money, gracious lady, and Dion said that he asked no further questions, but allowed the praefect to be borne away."
"That is well," said Dea Flavia, after a brief moment of silence, whilst the girl stood awaiting her further pleasure. "Thou, Blanca, hath served me faithfully, so have Nolus and Dion, my slaves. Ye have earned your reward, and though I am grieved to part from good servants like you, yet will I fulfil my promise, even as I have given it to you. From this hour, thou, Blanca, art a freewoman, and Nolus thy brother, and Dion, thy future husband, are freemen, and the sum of six hundred aurei shall be given unto you to-morrow--two hundred unto each--and may you live long and prosper and be happy, for you have served me well."
Blanca fell upon her knees and kissed the coverlet on which reposed her mistress; but Dea Flavia did not seem to see her. She was squatting on her heels, with body and head erect, and slowly now, like the rosy kiss of dawn upon the snow-clad hills of Etruria, a faint crimson glow spread over her pale cheeks.
Blanca waited irresolute, not liking to leave her mistress before she could be assured that sleep had descended at last on those weary lids. The hour was very late, close upon midnight, and yet the city was not asleep. That constant murmur--like unto the breaking of angry waves--still sent its sinister echo through the still night air, and even in the house of Dea Flavia it seemed that hundreds of eyes were still open, fear having chased sleep away. There was a sound--like the buzzing of bees--that came from the slaves' quarters beyond the peristyle, and from the studio, which lay the other side of the atrium, came the sound of muffled footsteps gliding over the mosaic of the floor.
"Go to bed now, child," said Dea Flavia at last, "thou hast earned thy rest ... and ... stay! Tell Dion and Nolus to remain in the studio, and there to spend the night. They must be ready to go to the praefect if he calls.... Go!"
Then as the girl made ready to obey, the Augusta put out her hand to detain her.
"Wait! Hast seen Licinia?"
"No, gracious lady."
"She is not hovering somewhere near my room?... or in the atrium?"
"No, gracious lady."
"And the night-watchers?"
"They are in the vestibule, gracious lady."
"And all my women?"
"They are all in bed and asleep."
"That is well. Thou canst go."
Blanca's naked little feet made no sound as she crossed the room, and went out by the door which led to the sleeping-chamber of the Augusta's women.
Dea Flavia waited for a while, straining her ears to catch every sound which came from this portion of her palace.
Her sleeping-chamber, together with all those on this floor gave directly on the atrium, which formed a large irregular square in the centre of this portion of the house. The north side of it was taken up with the Augusta's apartments and those of her women, the south side with the reception rooms and with the studio and its attendant vestibules, whilst the main vestibule of the house and the first peristyle gave on either end.
From the main vestibule came the subdued hum of voices, and throughout the house there was that feeling of wakefulness so different to the usual placid hush of night.
Dea Flavia held her breath whilst she listened attentively. In the vestibule it was the night watchmen who were talking, discussing, no doubt, the many events of the day: and that sound--like the buzzing of bees--showed that the women were awake and gossiping, and that up in the slaves' quarters tongues were still wagging, despite Blanca's assurance and the overseer's sharp discipline. But on the other side of the atrium, where were the reception halls and the studio, everything was still.
The young girl threw herself back upon her bed. Sleep refused to visit her this night; the thin streak of silvery moon, which persistently peeped in through the curtain, flicked the tiny atoms in the air until they assumed quaint, minute shapes of their own, like unto crawling panthers and grotesque creatures crowned with a golden halo, and brandishing a mock thunderbolt in one hand and a dagger in the other. Then suddenly all these shapes would vanish, smothered beneath a cloak, and Dea Flavia, still wide awake, would feel drops of moisture at the roots of her hair, and her whole body, as if sinking into a black abyss, where monsters yelled and wild beasts roared and huge, black, snake-like creatures tore the flesh off human bones.
The hours of the night sped on, borne on the weighted feet of anguish and of horror. Gradually, one by one, the sounds in and about the house died away; the slaves in their quarters must have turned over on their rough pallets and gone to sleep, the women close by had done gossiping, only from the vestibule came the slow measured tread of the watchmen guarding the Augusta's house, and from far away that ceaseless, rumbling noise which meant that discontent was awake and astir.
Once more Dea Flavia sat up, unable to lie still. Her golden hair was matted against her temples and in her breast her heart was beating furiously. The waning moon had long since now sunk behind the western clouds, a gentle breeze stirred the curtains with a soft, sighing noise as of some human creature in pain. In the far corner of the room, in a tiny lamp of gold, a tiny wick threw a feeble light around.
Dea Flavia put her feet to the ground. The heat in the room was oppressive; no doubt it was that which had caused her restlessness, and the dampness of her brow. She shuddered now when her bare feet touched the smooth coldness of the mosaic floor, but she stood up resolutely, and anon crossed over to the door which gave on the atrium.
For a few seconds she listened. Everything was still. Then very gently she pushed open the door.
On the marble table, in the centre of the atrium, another light glimmered in a jewelled lamp; but the atrium was vast and the diminutive light did not reach its far corners. The gentle trickle of water along the gutters in the floor made queer, ghost-like sounds, and in the great pots of lilies all round currents of air sent weird moanings in the night.
Dea Flavia, like an ethereal figure clad all in white, and with waves of golden hair shimmering over the whiteness of her gown, glided softly across the atrium.
A tiny vestibule led into the studio, she crossed it, guided by her knowledge of the place, for the light in the atrium did not penetrate to this recess. Her bare feet made no noise as she glided along the floor, her hand pushed the door open without raising a sound.
Now she was in the studio. The place in which she did the work that she loved, the place in which day after day she loved to sit and to idle away the hours. In an angle of the room, stretched out upon the bare floor, Dion and Nolus were lying, their even breathing showing that they slept. On the right was another door, which led to an inner chamber, where she oft used to retire for rest from her work. It was a private sanctum which none dared enter save with special permission from herself. Blanca kept it swept and free from dust, and Licinia tidied it only when she was so allowed.
Dea Flavia went across the studio and pushed open the door. It was masked by a curtain, and this too she pulled aside, slowly and nervously like some small animal that is timid and yet venturesome. She knew every corner of the place of course, and the very creaking of the hinges and gentle swish of the curtain was a familiar sound to her ear.
Nevertheless she was almost frightened to advance, for the big dark shadow right across the stuccoed wall awed her by its mysterious blackness. It was caused by a large object in the centre of the room, a couch covered with coverlets of soft, white woollen stuffs, on which the night-light burning fitfully threw patches of ruddy lights.
Dea Flavia had paused on the threshold, with one hand behind her still clinging to the curtain, the other pressed hard on her bosom, trying to still the wild beatings which went on hammering inside her just below her breasts. She thought that she either must be dreaming now, or being awake, must have been dreaming before.
Once or twice she closed and then reopened her eyes, thinking that perhaps the flickering night-light was playing her drowsy senses some elusive trick. For surely Blanca had told her that Dion and Nolus had laid the praefect of Rome on an improvised couch in the chamber beside the studio, and that the praefect was helpless and weak with pain and loss of blood.
The improvised couch was certainly in its place, the light of the lamp danced upon pillow and coverlet, but no one was lying there, even though the pillow still bore the impress of the head which had rested on it.
The silence was oppressive, for through the thick walls and heavy curtains of the Augusta's favourite room there penetrated no sound from without, and she herself stood so still, so still by the door, that she was sure the beatings of her heart must be heard through that awful stillness.
Suddenly she started, and her fingers closed more convulsively than before on the curtain behind her. Imperceptible as the sound of a swallow on the wing, there came a long-drawn sigh to her ear. Her brow contracted, her eyes narrowed in a great effort to peer past the light into the darkness.
On the further side of the couch now and masked by its shadow, she saw something that was immovable and yet seemed pulsating with life. Gradually as she peered, that something detached itself from the surrounding gloom. She saw a bowed head with wealth of tawny hair which gleamed like copper against the white coverlet, two hands white as the pillow beside which they rested, whiter still by contrast with the copper of the hair against them; she saw a pair of broad shoulders, and a powerful body and limbs that lost themselves in the darkness beyond the couch.
The face was hidden and the body was quite still. It would have seemed like that of the dead but for that long sigh, which, intangible though it was, had broken the silence of the night.
Dea Flavia could not now have moved, even if she would. Her small bare feet seemed glued to the cold mosaic of the floor, her hand seemed fastened with clamps of steel to the curtain which it clutched.
She had never seen a man thus kneeling alone in the stillness and in the gloom. Why should a man kneel thus? and to whom?
Yet she would not have disturbed him, not for all the world. She never dreamed that he would be awake; she had thought of him lying--as Blanca said--exhausted from loss of blood.
She had only meant to look on him for a moment, to look into his face as he slept, to try and read in its wonted harsh lines the secrets of his soul.
He had rushed to the Cæsar trying to protect him, when thousands on thousands of throats were acclaiming his name as future lord of Rome. Why?
He had rushed into the arena and risked his life to save a man who two days ago had insulted him, who--at best--was nothing to him. Why?
These questions she had meant to ask him when he was sleeping: now she could not ask them from that bowed head, nor yet from those clasped hands. And yet, somehow, it seemed that something of the man's soul was revealed to her at this moment, though she could not as yet fathom the meaning of this strange answer to her questions.
Her eyes had become quite accustomed to the darkness beyond the light. She could see clearly the powerful figure on bended knees, the wide shoulders with the bandages disposed over them by the physician for the healing of those horrible wounds, and the fingers linked together in a manner which she had never seen before. And now the hands stirred ever so slightly, the light caught the fingers more directly, and Dea Flavia saw that--clasped between them--there was a small wooden cross.
And she knew now--all in a moment--that the answer to her questions lay there before her, not in the man's face, for that she could not see, but in his clasped hands and in the cross which they held. She knew that it was because of it--or rather because of that which had gone before, and of which that little cross was the tangible memory--that he had been ready to give his life for an enemy, and to give up all ambition and all pride for the sake of his allegiance to Cæsar!
A sigh must have escaped her lips, or merely just the indrawing of her breath; certain it is that something caused the kneeling man to stir. He raised his head very slowly, and then looked up straight across the light--to her.
For one second he remained quite still, on his knees and with that white vision before him, ghost-like and silent, against the crimson background of the curtain. Then softly, as a sigh, one word escaped his lips:
He rose to his feet but already she had fled, noiselessly as she had come, but swiftly across the studio and the atrium and back to her room, but even while she fled it seemed to her that on the silent night air there still trembled the sound of a voice, vibrating with longing and with passion, mournful as a sigh, appealing as the call of a bird to its mate:
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