Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
"For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light."--ST. LUKE XVI. 8.
Caius Nepos was the spokesman of the party. His high rank and great influence with the guard under his command gave him certain privileges which his friends were always willing to give him. They did not know of his treachery to them; nothing, indeed, had occurred to make them guess that the man who, in a sense, had been the leader and organiser of their party, had betrayed them all to the Cæsar in the hopes of greater gains, once he knew that his adherents had no thought of offering him the imperium.
The events of yesterday had changed the whole trend of Caius Nepos' ambitions. The people in its present temper was not like to accept him as the Cæsar, even if he could persuade the praetorian guard to acclaim him as such.
His one desire being his own advancement and his own interests, he had already realised that these were best served by adherence to Dea Flavia's fortunes, since the Cæsar himself, whilst still in the fulness of his power had named her and her descendants as his successors for all times. Caius Nepos, quick to seize his chance, and seeing the party of patrician malcontents aimless without a leader, had grasped his opportunity and constituted himself once more their organiser.
Now whilst the others grouped themselves at a respectful distance round the Augusta, he stood quite close to her, with back bent and his face in shadow.
"Augusta," he began, "meseems that in thy heart thou hast already guessed the purpose of our coming. The hour is rife and we do but wait thy command. We are at one in this: the praetorian guard will follow my dictates, the patriciate of Rome will bow the knee to thee. Augusta, the hour is rife! a raging madman, a cruel mountebank and abject coward has this day forfeited all rights to sit on the throne of Augustus, thine immortal kinsman. Augusta, art prepared to deliver Rome finally from under the heel of a tyrant, and thyself to place the sceptre of Augustus in the hands of one who were worthy of the prize?"
"I, my lord?" she asked coldly, for Caius Nepos had paused in his oratory, "I? How can I--a woman--decide on this great point? 'Tis for the legions to proclaim their Cæsar...."
"The legions," he broke in quietly, "will follow in the wake of the praetorian guard, and the praetorian guard will listen to my voice. They believe that the Cæsar is dead; they will soon believe that the will of Rome lies in this, that the final choice of his successor shall rest with thee."
Then as she made no reply but sat quite still and thoughtful, her small hand shielding her face so that it was in shadow, her elbow resting on the delicately carved wood of the chair, Caius Nepos drew a step or two nearer: he bent his long back nearly double and sank his voice to an insinuating whisper.
"It was the Cæsar himself, O Augusta," he whispered, "who yesterday, before all the people, made an oath and declared that thy future lord and master should succeed to the imperium, so that the descendants of immortal Augustus should in time become the rulers of Rome."
"But the Cæsar is not dead," she said simply.
"He is dead to the people, dead to his guard, dead to Rome!" asserted the praefect solemnly. "Yesterday the dagger of Escanes was ready to do the supreme act of retributory justice, and to rid the world of a maniacal tyrant and Rome of a cruel oppressor; to-day the act was virtually done by the madman himself when he fled in abject terror from before the face of his people."
And--as if in direct confirmation of Caius Nepos' solemn words, there came from far away, rising momentarily above the roar of the tempest, that ever-persistent monotonous cry:
"Death to the Cæsar! Death!" even whilst Jove's thunder overhead gave forth its majestic echo.
Dea Flavia no longer hid her face in her hand. She sat serene and dignified, upright and pure as a lily, allowing her thoughts to be expressed in her blue eyes, letting these ambitious self-seekers see that she was not deceived by their pretence at loyalty and patriotism. They gathered closer round her, and she looked now truly a queen, dignified and serene, her head crowned by the glory of her golden hair--towering above their stooping forms.
There was a look of contempt in her eyes which they did not choose to see. They were having their will with her; they had fired her ambition and roused her enthusiasm, and that was all that these intriguers asked of this girl, of whom they but desired to make a tool for the carving of their own selfish ends.
Vaguely the older men wondered on whom the Augusta's choice had fallen, whilst my lord Hortensius Martius felt the hot blood rush to his cheeks at the hopes that had once more risen in his heart.
But now Ancyrus, the elder, began to speak and his voice was mellow and gentle.
"The people have spoken plainly, O Augusta," he said; "wilt set thy will against the might of the people of Rome? Hath not Jove spoken clearly too? Think on the events of the past two days! The Cæsar's pronouncement in the Circus, the tumult amongst the people when my lord Hortensius Martius courted certain death in order to win thy favours, the rage of the populace against the Cæsar!... think on it all! Did not Jove direct all this?"
"Aye! but meseems that he did!" she murmured, as her eyes fastened themselves on the heavy door that led to the inner room, "but since then hath he not directed the people to acclaim the Cæsar of their choice?"
Caius Nepos shrugged his shoulders and Hortensius Martius broke in hotly.
"The rabble clamours for the praefect of Rome! but the praefect is dead...."
"Aye! I remember, my lord," she said quietly, "there is a rumour that he died soon after he had saved thy life."
Then as Hortensius Martius, feeling the sting of the rebuke, bit his under lip to check an angry retort, Ancyrus, the elder, rejoined suavely, trying to pour the oil of his honeyed words on the troubled water of the younger man's wrath.
"The praefect is dead, O Augusta, and the people will soon forget him. Rome deifies thee because of thy great kinsman. Having forgotten the hero of their choice they will readily turn to thee whom they love. They will accept from thy hands the Cæsar whom thou wilt choose."
My lord Hortensius after that first feeling of anger had soon recovered his serenity. He tried to put an expression of sad reproach into the glance which he fixed on the Augusta. Perhaps she had not meant to rebuke him and was already sorry that she had wounded him. He would have liked to put into his glance all that he felt in his heart for her; deep down within him, below the overlaying crust of his ambition, there was real love for the beautiful girl who had it in her power to bestow on him all the gifts for which he craved.
He firmly believed that the Augusta reciprocated his love. She had always received his admiration more patiently than that of others, she had more than once listened quietly to the protestations of his love. Yesterday he had risked his life to win her hand: she, a proud Roman lady, was not like to forget his valour. When from the arena he had caught sight of her face, it was terror-stricken and deathly pale; she had feared for him then, of that he was quite sure.
The horrible death which he had faced had given him the first claim to her favours in the sight of his friends. They had rallied willingly round him and had tacitly recognised him as their leader. Now it seemed as if Jove himself, with the help of his thunders, had ranged himself on his side.
He saw the glow of enthusiasm rise to Dea Flavia's face, suffusing her eyes, her lips, her throat. He believed that that glow had been partly kindled by his glance, and was too much blinded by his own ambition and his own desires to note that the young girl's averted gaze was persistently fixed upon the door of the inner room.
Dea Flavia, of a truth, had little thought of my lord Hortensius Martius, of his ambition or of his love; she could not tear her eyes away from the spot beyond the stuccoed walls where lay a man--helpless now--but a man whose every deed proclaimed him the born ruler of men.
Then, as those around her were silent, hanging expectant upon her lips, she forced her thoughts back to them and to all that they had said.
"What would ye have me do, my lords?" she murmured.
"Make thy choice, O Augusta!" urged Caius Nepos eagerly. "Choose thy lord and master from among those who are ready to acclaim thy choice as final. The praetorian guard is prepared I tell thee. The mad Cæsar yesterday paved the way for our success. Choose thy husband, Augusta, and the praetorian guard will forthwith proclaim him as the greatest and best of Cæsars, princeps, imperator, the father of his armies. The people will go wild with joy and will deify thee and thy lord."
"But the Cæsar ... my kinsman...?"
"He will end his days in contentment and in peace," said Ancyrus, the elder, dryly, "in a villa on the island of Capræa. No harm shall come to him. We here present do pledge thee our oath."
"But I must have time to think," she said earnestly; "'tis no small matter ye ask of me, my lords. I am but a woman and still young in years, and ye ask me to weigh the destinies of this mighty Empire in the balance of mine own desires."
"We would not ask it of thee, O Augusta! were thou an ordinary mortal," said Hortensius Martius, speaking with passionate warmth, "but thou art a goddess; the blood of great Augustus doth deify thee."
"A goddess? I?" she retorted coldly; "nay! I am but a lonely woman who hath need of counsel to guide her in this supreme moment of her life."
"Are we not here to guide thee?" came in dulcet tones from Ancyrus, the elder; "we, thy faithful servants, thy obedient slaves? Have we not spoken and counselled thee?"
"Aye! you have spoken, my lords, and I have read the thoughts that lie behind your words. 'Tis not loyalty to dead Augustus that alone led your footsteps to my door."
"Our love for thee," interposed Hortensius Martius softly.
"And your own aims that you would follow, your own ambitions that you would feed."
Then as hot words of protest rose to the lips of most, she put up her hand and added with quiet dignity:
"Nay, my lords, 'tis but human to be ambitious, and Rome herself is great because she is ambitious. But I, for myself alone, have no ambition. The proud title which ye would offer me holds no allurement to my tastes. But if the gods will so guide my choice that a just and brave man shall bear the sceptre of imperial Augustus, then will I thank them on my knees that I was made a medium for their will."
Hortensius Martius, convinced that her eyes had rested on him while she spoke, made an effort to disguise the look of triumph that shone from out his glance. But young Escanes, in whom all hope had not yet died, was under the same impression, as also was my lord Philippus Decius; for, in truth, Dea Flavia had looked round on them all marvelling how any of them could compare with the man who already, in her heart, was the chosen lord of Rome.
"And now, my lords," she said, paying no further heed to the sighs of restless desires that rose up round her as she spoke, "I pray you ask no more of me. I must think and I must pray. I entreat you not to urge a decision on me until I have thought and prayed."
"Time is precious, Augusta," urged Caius Nepos feebly, "and the people will not wait."
"The people have fled from before the storm," she rejoined, "and their will, remember, my lords, may not be in accordance with yours."
"They call for the praefect of Rome and the praefect is dead. We must be ready to acclaim a Cæsar who will be equally to their choice."
"Then," she said, "when to-morrow the third hour of the day is called, I pray you, my lords, come back to me for mine answer. But I must have until to-morrow to ponder and to pray. An you must press me now," she added decisively, seeing that protestations were again hanging on their lips, "then must my answer be 'No!' to all your demands."
Though in her heart she had already weighed all that she meant to do, yet she would not give her decision without speaking first to the man who already was the elect of her choice. He was sick now, lying in the arms of sleep. In a few hours probably he would be refreshed, and it would indeed be a mighty Cæsar whom she would proclaim on the morrow before the people of Rome.
"The people will not wait till to-morrow, Augusta," urged Ancyrus, the elder, "canst tell a raging tempest to pause or a thunderstorm to bide thy time? They are quiet for the nonce but in an hour they will again invade the imperial hill. Thy house will not be safe."
"Then must ye put a check upon the people as best ye can, my lords; I cannot make my choice at this hour," she said determinedly, "if ye cannot wait and if ye fear the people, then must you make your plans without my help."
They consulted with one another in whispers. The Augusta was obdurate and without her they did not care to act. Her personality was alone powerful enough at this crisis to satisfy the people, and she alone could stand for the success of their intrigues against the people's loud demands for the praefect of Rome.
Betwixt two dangers the plotters chose the lesser one. If the populace got once more out of hand they would, whilst invading the palaces, find the Cæsar and no doubt murder him. That act of vengeance once accomplished they would probably calm down for a while. They would expend their strength in clamouring for the praefect of Rome, but the praefect of Rome was certainly dead, else he would have appeared ere this. The darkness of the night would perforce put a stop to all street-rioting; under its cover the praetorian praefect could easily rejoin the guard, and by the third hour of to-morrow, everything would be prepared for the proclamation of the newly chosen Cæsar.
Not one of these conspirators had any doubt as to who that Cæsar would be. Chosen from among their ranks, he would be compelled to reward richly those who had placed him on the throne.
Dea Flavia waited quietly while these hurried consultations were going on. Now that she saw that her wishes had prevailed, she once more became gracious and kind.
With a sign of the head and a smile that contained a promise she intimated to them that they were dismissed.
"I beg of you, my lords," she said, "to look upon my house as your own until the morrow. My slaves will offer you food and drink, and prepare you baths to refresh you, and sleeping-chambers for the night. To-morrow you will have mine answer. May the gods protect ye until then, my lords."
She touched a small gong summoning Dion and Nolus back into her presence. To them she entrusted the task of seeing to the needs of these great lords and of watching over their comforts.
It would have been churlish and inexpedient after this to insist on further conversation. Moreover the presence of the slaves put a check on privacy. It was better on the whole to obey. These sybarites too were not averse to the thought of a rich table and of merry-making in the Augusta's house until the morrow. Her cooks were noted for their skill and hers were the richest cellars in Rome.
Caius Nepos, Ancyrus, the elder, and the others all walked out of Dea Flavia's presence backwards and with spine bent at an obsequious angle.
Hortensius Martius was the last to leave. He knelt on the floor, and taking the edge of her tunic between his fingers he touched it reverently with his lips. She looked down on him, not unkindly. Had he but known that his greatest claim on her graciousness was that his life had been saved by another, he would not have worn that look of triumph as he finally followed the others out of the room.
"She hath made her choice, my lord," said Caius Nepos amiably, taking the younger man by the arm, "a woman was not like to reject such brilliant proposals."
"I will ask for the praefecture of Rome," murmured Ancyrus, the elder, complacently.
My lord Hortensius Martius said nothing, but he disengaged his arm from his too familiar friend and walked ahead of all the others, squaring his shoulders and holding his head erect, as one already marked out to rule over the rest of mankind.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.