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"Nothing is secret, which shall not be made manifest."--ST. LUKE VIII. 17.
Caligula himself led the way to the triclinium and Dea Flavia followed him.
He threw himself upon a couch and she, with her own hands, served him with wine and fruit. He refused to eat but drank freely of the wine, whilst she stood beside him calmly waiting until he should be ready to go.
Seeing Blanca cross the atrium, she had called to her and ordered her to serve the soldiers. The men were grateful for they were exhausted. They had not tasted food since the day before, and had been on the watch round the Cęsar's person all night.
The underground passage which runs beneath the declivity between the two points of the Palatine, and by tortuous ways under the temple of Jupiter Victor on its highest summit, did connect the house which Dea Flavia now occupied with the Palace of Augusta. The latter, since the death of the great imperator, had been used entirely as a hall of justice: a few scribes alone inhabited the rearmost portion of the huge edifice.
The passage itself abutted in Dea Flavia's house on one of the small rooms that lay round the triclinium. There were several such passages connecting the various palaces on the Palatine, but their existence was not revealed to the army of slaves, only a few responsible ones knew that they were there. In this instance the Cęsar could, from the triclinium, reach this road to safety without again crossing the atrium and encountering the prying eyes of hundreds of cowardly slaves.
He had no thought of thanking Dea Flavia for what she did for him, but having drunk his fill, he rose from the couch and made ready to go.
She escorted him to the door of the passage and gave brief instructions to the men how to proceed. She had lighted a small lamp which would guide the Cęsar and his escort on their way. From the door, a flight of precipitous steps led down into the darkness. Caligula was the first to descend and his soldiers followed him; the one who held the lamp keeping close to the Cęsar's person.
Dea Flavia stood at the door until the footsteps of the men ceased to send their echo back to her along the vaulted passage. Then, with a sigh of relief, she closed the door on them and hastily fled from the room.
Her one desire now was to shut out, as completely as possible from her mental vision the picture of her shattered ideal, the degradation of that majesty which she had honoured all her life. So imbued was she with that sense of honour and of reverence for the Cęsarship, that she would not dwell in thought on that awful sight of the Cęsar grovelling in abject terror at her feet. She wished to forget it--to forget him--the man who, in her eyes, was already no longer the Cęsar, for the Cęsar was a god, and like unto a god in glory and in dignity--whilst Caligula, her kinsman, had sunk lower than the beasts.
Almost involuntarily she had turned back toward the studio. A while ago she had wished to look on the praefect of Rome as he lay in a drugged sleep, desiring to assure herself that all was well with him; then the advent of the Cęsar had interrupted her. Over an hour had gone by since then and the whole aspect of the world had changed.
The Cęsar was a fugitive and a coward, and the people who had the upper hand were prepared to acclaim the hero of their choice.
The atrium now was gloomy and deserted. The slaves--gathered together in their remote quarters--shunned the vastness and the enforced silence of the reception halls; they preferred to huddle together in close groups in corners, distant from the noise of the street.
Dea Flavia stood quietly listening. Still from afar came the insistent cries of "Death!" and of "Vengeance!" Still overhead that lurid light and smoke-laden atmosphere. But now those same cries seemed almost drowned by a sound more persistent if less ominous: the sound of heavy pattering rain on leaden roofs and into the marble basin of the impluvium, whilst the roll of Jove's thunders appeared to be more nigh.
It was obvious that the storm which had been threatening all the morning from over the Campania, had burst over the great city at last. It was Jove's turn now to make a noise with his thunder, to utter cries and howls of vengeance and of death through the medium of his storm, and to drown the fury of men in the whirl of his own.
Now a vivid flash of lightning rent the leaden sky overhead and searched the dark corners of the atrium. Dea Flavia uttered an involuntary little cry of terror, and hid her face in her hands.
A high wind howled among the trees outside the house; Dea could hear the tiny branches cracking under the whip-lash of the blast, breaking away from the parent stem and sending an eddy of dry dead leaves whirling wildly along the narrow streets and into the open portals of the vestibule. She could hear the fall of the torrential rain, and the flames, which sacrilegious hands had kindled, dying away with long-drawn-out hissing moans of pain. She could hear the wind in its rage lashing those flames back into life again, and could see through the opening overhead the huge volumes of black smoke chased across the sky.
Smoke and flames were fighting an uneven battle against the persistent, heavy rain. The wind was their ally, but he was gusty and fitful: now and then helping them with all his might, fanning their activity and renewing their strength, but after a violent outburst he would lie down and rest, gathering strength mayhap, but giving the falling rain its opportunity.
The rain had no need of rest; it fell, and fell, and fell, steadily and torrentially, searching the weaker flames, killing them out one by one.
To Dea Flavia's straining senses it seemed clear that in this storm the number of rebels had greatly diminished; none, no doubt, but the most enthusiastic remained to face the discomforts of drenched skin and bone chilled to the marrow. No doubt too the gale blowing the flames and smoke hither and thither on the exposed slopes of the Palatine, had rendered a stand in the open unmaintainable.
All this of course was mere conjecture, but the young girl, worn out mentally and physically with the nerve strain of the past four-and-twenty hours was grateful for the momentary sense of peace. The steady fall of the rain acted soothingly upon her senses; her wearied thoughts flew aimlessly hither and thither on the wings of her imagination.
Only the storm frightened her because she was not sure if it were an expression of Jove's wrath, or whether his mighty hand had only scattered the infuriated populace so that she--Dea Flavia--could weigh the destinies of Rome in peace.
She thought of going quietly back to her room, to think a while in the solitude; the danger being less imminent gave her leisure to ponder and to weigh in the balance her allegiance to Cęsar, and that other nameless sense within her which she did not yet understand, but which invariably drew her wandering thoughts back, and then back again to the man who lay in a drugged sleep under her roof.
He slept, and throughout the great city the people called on him: "Hail Taurus Antinor! Hail!"
She sighed and involuntary tears gathered in her eyes: but the sigh was not one of sadness, rather was it one of longing for something intangible and exquisite, and this longing was so sweet and withal so mysterious, that instinctively she turned away from the magnificent reception hall toward her own room, with a wild desire to be alone and nurse that longing into an all-compelling desire.
It was at this moment that five or six men--all wrapped in dark woollen cloaks--entered the atrium from the vestibule, and catching sight of the Augusta, called to her loudly with greetings of respectful homage.
She paused, angered at the intrusion; peace and solitude seemed indeed denied to her to-day; but recognising the praetorian praefect as the foremost of her visitors, she could not--owing to his high rank--dismiss him from her presence.
Caius Nepos had already bent the knee before her. He looked flushed and agitated as did most of the others, only my lord Hortensius Martius who was in the background, looked pale and wan from the terrible exposure of yesterday.
She did not think to wonder how these men had entered her house, how they had found their way to her presence, past her janitors, and without the usual formalities and ceremonies of introduction which her high rank demanded. She knew that her slaves were demoralised, that men who had been friends of the Cęsar were now fugitives, and vaguely thought that the praetorian praefect and his friends had found their way into her house as into a likely haven of refuge, and would, the next moment, be kneeling at her feet begging for protection and shelter, just as their lord and Cęsar had done on this selfsame spot half an hour ago.
"Your pleasure, my lords?" she asked.
"To speak with thee privately, O Augusta!" said Caius Nepos, sinking his voice to a whisper. "My friends and I have tried all the morning to forge our way through the mob and to reach thine ear. But the praetorian guard, faithful to me, was unable to make headway. Then did we think of covering ourselves with dark cloaks and of following the crowd, as if we were one with it, until it led us to the precincts of thy house. The storm as it broke overhead was our faithful ally; the crowd has sought refuge against it under the arcades of the Forum, and the slopes of the Palatine are comparatively free."
"Yet, do ye want shelter and protection from me?" asked Dea Flavia.
She had no liking for these men, all of whom she knew. Caius Nepos, selfish and callous; Ancyrus, the elder, avaricious and self-seeking; young Escanes whom she knew to be unscrupulous; Philippus Decius whose ostentation and lavishness she despised. She vaguely wondered why my lord Hortensius Martius was among them.
"Nay, gracious lady!" said Caius Nepos suavely, "'tis not thy protection which we crave, save for a few moments whilst we lay at thy feet our desires for the welfare of Rome."
"The welfare of Rome?" she queried vaguely. "I do not understand ye! What hath your coming hither to do with the welfare of Rome?"
"Allow us to make the meaning clear to thee, O Augusta. But not here, where prying eyes might be on the watch or unwelcome ears be prepared to listen. Grant us but a brief audience in strict privacy ... the destinies of Rome are in thy hands."
She made no immediate reply, but, as was habitual with her, she tried to read with searching eyes all that went on behind the obsequious masks wherewith these men sought to hide their innermost thoughts from her.
And as she peered into their smooth, humble faces, all at once she knew why they had come. She knew it even before they put their proposals into words; she knew why the praetorian praefect was so servile, and why my lord Hortensius Martius, despite his obvious weakness, wore an air of triumph.
They had come to betray the Cęsar and to place the destinies of Rome in her hands. It was strange indeed that this mealy-mouthed sycophant should be using those very words which had stood before her eyes like letters of fire, searing her brain ever since she had stood here--half an hour ago--with the grovelling Cęsar at her feet.
The whirl of thoughts which rushed to her brain now made her giddy. Instinctively now, as she had done then, she looked down on her hands--those hands which were to guide the destinies of Rome--and her heart had a curious twinge of pain, almost of fear, for she realised more fully than before how small and delicate they were.
"Time walks closely on the heels of destiny, O Augusta!" urged Marcus Ancyrus, the elder, in his gently insinuating voice; "for the nonce Jove has damped the wrath of the people of Rome, but that wrath is only dormant, it will break out afresh. The storm in the heavens will pass by, but the tempest caused by a raging mob will reawaken with double fury. In thy hands, Augusta, in thy hands!..."
She knew that all these men wanted was to use her as a tool--a puppet to dance to their piping. She knew that anon they would be as ready to betray her as they were betraying their Cęsar now. Yesternight had they come to her with their proposals she would have rejected them with unqualified scorn; but since yesternight she had seen the Cęsar abject, cowardly, degraded, dragging his bespattered majesty across the floor of this house; she had measured him--not by what he represented, but by what he was, and she had taken his measure ... and that of another ... and the Cęsar was lower than the brutes--and that other was greater than men.
A silent voice, a whisper which mayhap was an inspiration, caused her to look toward the studio.
"In there, my lords," she said, pointing to the door, "we shall be safe from watchful eyes and ears, and I will listen to what you have to say."
She chose not to see the look of triumph which flashed from six pairs of eyes, but calmly led the way toward the studio.
Caius Nepos and the others followed her without a word. Dion and Nolus rose as she entered, and she dismissed them, whilst ordering them to wait her pleasure outside the door. The two men--brought up in the school of slavery, were too well drilled to marvel at the gracious lady's many moods; they did not even cast one look in the direction of the inner room where they knew that the praefect of Rome still lay in a drugged sleep.
As soon as they were gone Dea Flavia turned again to Caius Nepos and to his friends.
"I pray you sit," she said simply.
She herself sat on a high chair with circular back carved of citrus wood, but Caius Nepos and the others preferred to stand.
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