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"There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked."--ISAIAH XLVIII. 22.
When after a few hours of light and troubled sleep Dea Flavia woke to partial consciousness, it seemed to her as if Phoebus Apollo had been driving his chariot through a sea of blood; for through the folds of the curtains over the windows she caught a glimpse of the sky, and it was of vivid crimson.
The heat was oppressive, and as the young girl tossed with ever increasing restlessness on the pillows, beads of moisture rose on her forehead and matted the fair curls against her temples.
She felt too tired to get up, even though she vaguely marvelled how wonderful must be the dawn, since its reflection was of such lurid colour. She lay back drowsy and with nerves tingling; she closed her eyes for they ached and burned intolerably.
Gradually to her half-aroused consciousness sounds too began to penetrate. It seemed to her that the usual stately quietude of her house was gravely disturbed this morning, shuffling footsteps could be heard moving across the atrium, voices--scarce subdued--were whispering audibly, and the shouts of the overseers echoed from across the peristyle, and through it all a dull, monotonous sound, distant as yet and faint, came at long intervals, the sound of Jove's thunder over the Campania far away.
Dea Flavia listened more intently, and one by one through the veil which kindly sleep had drawn over her memory, the events of the past day and night knocked at the portals of her brain.
She remembered everything now, and with this sudden onrush of memory of the past, came fuller consciousness of the present.
Through the hum of varied noises which filled her own house, she distinguished presently more strange, more ominous sounds that came from afar, like the thunders of Jove, and like them sounded weird and threatening in her ear; hoarse cries and shouts which seemed like peremptory commands, and groans that rose above the muffled din with calls of terror and of pain.
In a moment Dea Flavia had put her feet to the ground. She ran to the window, drew back the curtains and peered into the narrow street which, at this point, separated her house from the rear of the Palace of Tiberius.
A dull grey light enveloped the city in its mantle of gloom, and it was not the torch of Phoebus which had spread the rosy gleam of dawn over the sky! As Dea Flavia looked, she saw a canopy of dull crimson over her head, and from beyond the Palace of Tiberius there rose at intervals heavy banks of purple smoke.
Dea Flavia stood there for one moment at the window, paralysed with the dread of what she saw and of what she guessed, and even as a cry of horror died within her throat, Licinia, with grey hair flying loosely round her pale face, and hands held out before her with an agonised gesture of fear, came running into the room.
"The miscreants! the miscreants!" she shouted as she threw herself down on to the floor before her young mistress and squatted there on her heels, wringing her hands and uttering moans of terror. "They have set fire to the palace! They are on us, my beloved! Save thyself! Save thy house! Oh ye gods! protect us all!"
The awesome news which Licinia thus blurted out was but a confirmation of what Dea had already feared. Every drop of blood within her seemed to turn to ice, horror gripped her heart, the oncoming catastrophe appeared suddenly before her, vivid, swift and inevitable. But she contrived to steady her voice and to appear outwardly calm as she said:
"I do not understand thee, Licinia, speak more clearly. What is it that hath happened?"
"The rabble are invading the Palatine," said Licinia, to the accompaniment of many groans. "They are on us I tell thee."
"On us!" retorted Dea Flavia scornfully. "Tush, woman! they'll not heed us.... But the Cæsar ... Hast news of the Cæsar?"
"No! no! my beloved, I have no news. I only know what the watchmen say."
"What do they say?"
"That the rabble is invading the hill. The miscreants have forced their way into the Forum. They have surrounded the palace of the Cæsar and set fire within its precincts."
"Ye gods!..." exclaimed Dea Flavia.
"Dost hear their shouts? the villains! the villains! Dost hear Jove's thunder, my beloved? His vengeance is nigh! May his curse descend on the villains and on their children."
"Silence, woman!" commanded the Augusta peremptorily. "Get me a robe--quickly--no, no! not that one," she added, as Licinia, with trembling hands had snatched up the gorgeous jewel-studded gown which Dea Flavia had worn the day before, "a dark robe--haste, I tell thee! go thou fetch it and send Blanca quickly to me."
Moaning and trembling, the woman endeavoured to obey and to make as much speed as her limbs, paralysed with terror, would allow her. She called to Blanca, who together with the Augusta's tire-women had her quarters close at hand, and the young girl hastened to her mistress's room whilst Licinia went in search of a dark-coloured robe.
"The praefect?" whispered Dea Flavia quickly, as soon as she felt assured that she was quite alone with her slave. "Hast seen Dion or Nolus?"
"My brother spoke to me in the atrium just now, gracious mistress," replied Blanca, who seemed scarce less excited than her mistress, "he and Dion heard a thud in the night, which roused them from a brief sleep which they had snatched, for they were very tired ... their long hunt in the Amphitheatre...."
"Yes! yes! go on! I know that they slept ... and they heard a thud ... what was it?"
"They ran to the resting-chamber, gracious lady, and found the praefect of Rome lying senseless on the floor."
"Great Mother!... and what did they do?"
"They lifted him as best they could; for the praefect is over tall and mightily powerful. But they succeeded in laying him back on to the couch, and Dion ran to rouse the physician."
"The physician hath given the praefect a drug to make him sleep, for it seems that fever was upon him with the pain of his wounds and he talked incoherently like one bereft of reason."
"Hush!..." interrupted Dea Flavia hurriedly, "not before Licinia."
Even as she spoke the old woman returned, carrying a robe of dove grey cloth, the darkest one that she could find. She had collected the tire-women round her, and they flocked in her wake like frightened sheep that have been driven into a pen. Licinia herself was evidently the prey of abject terror, for her teeth were chattering, and all the while that she helped her mistress to make a hasty toilet, she uttered low moans as if she were in pain.
"The traitors! the miscreants!" she murmured at intervals.
But Dea Flavia paid no heed to her. Her women had brought her fresh water, perfumes and fine cloths, and she was hastily bathing her face and hands. Then, she slipped on the dull-coloured robe and Licinia's trembling fingers fastened a girdle round her waist.
And all the while, from far away, came the dull sound of Jove's thunders hurled by his wrath, and above it as a constant din, like the roaring of a tempestuous sea, the hoarse cries which--borne upon the wings of the oncoming storm--seemed to gain distinctness as their echo reached this distant house.
"Dost hear the cries, Blanca?" asked Dea Flavia, as the young slave, leaning out of the narrow window tried to peer out into the street.
"I hear them, gracious lady," replied the girl in an awed whisper.
"And canst distinguish any words?"
"Aye, one word, gracious lady ... Hark!"
And that word sent its dismal echo even to Dea Flavia's ear.
Then Blanca uttered a terrified scream and quickly drew away from the window; from beyond the Palace of Tiberius, there where the new Palace of Caligula reared its gigantic marble pillars above the temples below, a huge column of flames had shot upwards to the sky. And a cry, louder than before and more distinct, came clearly from afar.
"Death to the Cæsar! Death!"
"Ye gods protect him," murmured Dea Flavia fervently.
"They'll murder him! they'll murder him!" shouted Licinia at the top of her trembling voice.
She had fallen on her knees and the other women squatted round her like a huddled-up mass of terror-stricken humanity, with hair undone and pale, quivering lips and staring eyes dilated with fear.
But Dea Flavia, now that she was dressed, took no further notice of them; she left them there on the floor, moaning and whimpering, and hurried out into the atrium. Here too the sense of terror filled the air. Beyond the colonnaded arcade in the corridors and the peristyle could be seen groups of slaves--men and women--squatting together with head meeting head in eager gossip, or clinging to one another in a state of abject cowardice.
Here too, through the open vestibule, the sounds from the streets came louder and more clear. That awful cry of "Death" echoed with appalling distinctness, and to Dea Flavia's strained senses it seemed as if they were mingled with others, more awesome mayhap, but equally ominous of "The praefect of Rome! Where is the praefect of Rome! Hail! Taurus Antinor! Hail."
The noise grew louder and louder, and from where she stood now--it seemed to her that she could trace in her mind the progress of the rebels, as they spread themselves from the foot of the Palatine and from the Forum, upwards to the heights until they had the palace of the Cæsar completely surrounded.
It was from there that weird cries of terror came incessantly, and in imagination Dea saw an army of cowardly, panic-stricken slaves, huddled together as her own women had been, with palsied limbs and chattering teeth, whilst a handful of faithful men of the praetorian guard were alone left to protect the sacred person of the Cæsar.
Above her, through the apertures in the tiled roof, she could see the sky aglow with lurid crimson, and the smell of burning wood and of charred stuffs filled her nostrils with their pungent odour.
"Death to the Cæsar! Death!" The cry seemed almost at her door. Only the Palace of Tiberius, with its great empty halls and basilicas stood between her and the rallying-point of the rebels.
She called loudly for Tertius--her comptroller--and he came running along from the slaves' quarters with an army of howling men and women at his heels.
"What news, Tertius?" she demanded. "Hast heard?"
"They have surrounded the Cæsar's palace," said Tertius excitedly, "and demand his presence."
"Oh! the sacrilege!..." she exclaimed, "and what doth the Cæsar?"
"He will not appear, and his guards charge the mob as they advance upwards from the Forum. They have invaded the temple of Castor, and already some are swarming in the vestibules of the palace. The guard are behind the colonnades and were holding the crowd at bay with fair success until...."
"Until?" she asked.
"Until some of the rebels skirting the palace, set fire to the slaves' quarters in the rear. The flames are spreading. The Cæsar will be forced to face the people, an he doth not mean to be buried beneath the crumbling walls of his palace!"
"The miscreants have set fire to the palace of the Cæsars?" she exclaimed.
"Alas!" replied the man, "they will force the Cæsar to show himself to them. And they loudly demand the praefect of Rome."
"The praefect of Rome?"
"Aye, gracious lady. The people had thought that the Cæsar killed him; some strove, it seems, to recover his body in the imperial tribune, where he was seen to fall. But the body had disappeared, and the rumour hath gained ground that the Cæsar had it thrown to his dogs."
"It's not true," she cried out involuntarily.
"No, gracious lady. Men of sense do know that it is not true. But an infuriated mob hath no sense. It is like an overgrown child, with thousands of irresponsible limbs. It is tossed hither and thither, swayed by the wind of a chance word. But it were as well, mayhap, if it were true."
"Silence, Tertius, how canst say such a thing."
"I think of the Cæsar, gracious lady," rejoined the man simply, "and of thee. If the mob found the praefect of Rome now alive or dead, then surely would they murder the Cæsar and make of the praefect their Emperor if he lived, their god if he were dead."
And as if to confirm the man's words, the morning breeze wafted through the air the prolonged and insistent cry:
"Taurus Antinor! Hail!"
With a curt word, Dea dismissed her comptroller, and he went, followed by his train of shrieking men and women.
She remained a while silent and alone in the atrium, while the moanings of the slaves and Tertius' rough admonitions to them died away in the distance.
"If the mob found the praefect of Rome now alive or dead," she murmured, "then surely would they murder the Cæsar and make of the praefect their Emperor if he lived, their god if he were dead!"
Dea Flavia cast a quick glance all round her. The atrium itself was deserted, even though from every side beyond its colonnaded arcade came the sound of many voices and those persistent, cowardly groanings which set the young girl's nerves tingling and caused her heart to sink within her, with the presage of impending doom.
Only in the vestibule the watchmen sat alert and prepared to guard the Augusta's house; they were gossiping among themselves and seemed the only men in the place who were not wholly panic-stricken.
The hum of their voices sounded quite reassuring in the midst of the senseless groans of terror which came from the women's quarters near the Augusta's rooms, as well as from the men in the more remote parts of the house.
After that brief moment of hesitation Dea went resolutely toward the studio. She crossed its small vestibule and pushed open the door.
Dion was sitting there on guard as the Augusta had commanded. He rose when she entered.
"The praefect?" she asked hurriedly.
"He sleeps," replied the man.
"I peeped in but a few moments ago. His eyes are closed. I think that he sleeps."
"I would wish to make sure," she said curtly.
Too well-trained, or mayhap too indifferent to show surprise at so strange a desire on the part of the great and gracious Augusta, Dion stood aside respectfully to allow her to pass, then he followed her to the door of the inner room and held aside the heavy curtain, whilst she put her hand upon the latch.
"Dion," she said, turning back to him, "yesterday I gave thee thy freedom, since thou didst serve me well."
"Aye, gracious lady," replied the man as he bent the knee in submissive respect, "and I would kiss thy feet for this, thy graciousness."
"When the city is once more at peace, we'll before the quaestor, and thou and Nolus and Blanca shall all be declared free. But to-day thou art still my slave and must obey me in all things."
"As thou dost command, gracious lady."
"Then, 'tis silence that I do enjoin on thee, Dion," she said earnestly, "silence as to the praefect's presence in my house, until I bid thee speak: on pain of death, Dion, for thou art still my slave."
"I understand, gracious lady."
"Then wait for me now and on peril of thy life allow no one to enter."
But scarce had these words crossed her lips than there rose from the atrium behind her a series of weird sounds, cries, and imprecations, calls for the Augusta and curses on her slaves, as from one who is bereft of reason and screams in his madness.
"The Cæsar!" she murmured, as white to the lips now, she stood rigid by the door whilst her hand fell from the latch.
"Augusta! Augusta!" came the hoarse cries from the atrium, and the hideous, familiar sound of leather thongs whistling through the air reached her straining senses.
She put a finger to her lips, with a quick peremptory gesture to Dion, then she recrossed the studio with a firm step and the curtains of the inner door fell back behind her with a swish.
The next moment she was standing in the atrium facing Caligula, the Cæsar.
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