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"Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way...."--ST. MATTHEW VII. 14.
In the studio, upon the throne-like chair of carved citrus wood and heavy crimson silk, Dea Flavia sat silent and alone.
The footsteps of the men quickly died away on the marble floors of the atrium, their harsh voices and loud laughter only reached this secluded spot as a faint, intangible echo.
The patter of the rain from above into the impluvium was soothing in its insistent monotony, only from time to time Jove, still angered, sent his thunders rolling through the heavy clouds and his lightnings rending the lurid sky.
The people of Rome, wrathful against the Cęsar, vaguely demanding vengeance for wrongs unstated, had not gone to rest. Like the gale a while ago they had merely drawn back in their fury, quiescent for a while, but losing neither strength nor temerity. Dull cries still resounded from afar. "Death to the Cęsar!" was still the rallying cry, though it came now subdued by distance, and the majestic screens of stately temples interposed between it and the towering heights of imperial Palatine.
Dea Flavia at first--her musings one wild tangle of hopes, fears and joys--did only vaguely listen for each recurrent cry as it came; and thus, listening and watching, her ears became doubly sensitive and acute, and caught the words more distinctly as they rolled on the currents of the wind that blew them upwards from the arcades of the Forum.
"Death to the Cęsar!" That cry was always clear, and with it came, like a complement or a corollary, the name of the praefect of Rome.
"Hail Taurus Antinor Cęsar! Hail!"
The cry filled Dea Flavia's veins as with living fire. She longed to run out into the streets now, at this moment, with the rain beating about her and the storm raging overhead, and to call to the people to come into her house, in their thousands and tens of thousands, and here to fall down and worship the mighty hero who would rule over them all.
The people clamoured for him, and because of these clamours an almighty love for the people of Rome filled the heart of the Augusta. She saw now just what the imperium should be, just how supreme power should sit upon a man. And she loved the people because the people saw it too. They clamoured for the one man who would fulfil every ideal of Cęsarship and of might.
Valour yesterday, the sublimity of self-sacrifice, had appealed to them with irresistible force, even though they did not understand the force that had set these great virtues in motion. The hero of yesterday should be the chosen of to-day, the god of to-morrow; let the brutish Cęsar be swept from before his path.
The people clamoured, and did they see the praefect of Rome standing virile and powerful before them, they would fall on their knees and acclaim him princeps, imperator, greater than great Augustus himself.
And in this very house, but a few steps from where Dea sat musing, were the men, the patricians who were ready to accept the decision of the people, who were all-powerful to make the legions acknowledge the new Cęsar, and ready to set the seal of official acceptance to the wild desires of the plebs.
The patriciate of Rome had combined with the people to place its destinies in Dea Flavia's hands. The Cęsar's insane pronouncement in the Circus yesterday had confirmed the wishes of the conspirators. All envies and jealousies would best be set at rest if the kinswoman of great Augustus chose the future Cęsar, and secured the inheritance of the great Emperor for his descendants later on.
And now there was but her choice to be made, and the imperium would descend on the noblest head that had ever worn a crown. Dea Flavia felt the hot blood rush to her cheeks at thought that the choice did rest with her, that the man who was so proud, so self-absorbed, so self-willed but a few days ago in the Forum, would receive supreme gifts through her; that he would be the recipient and she, like the goddess holding riches, power, honour in her hands; that she would shower them on him while he knelt--a suppliant first, then a grateful worshipper--at her feet.
Ambitious? He must be ambitious! Ambition was the supreme virtue of the Roman patrician! And she had it in her power to satisfy the wildest cravings of ambition in the one man above all men whom she felt was worthy of the gifts.
Those were the first thoughts that merged themselves into a coherent whole in Dea Flavia's head after Caius Nepos and the others had bowed themselves from out her presence, and there was her sense of the power of giving, that sense so dear to a woman's heart. As to the thought of love--of the marriage which this same choice of hers would entail--of that greatest gift of all--herself--which by her choice she would promise him--that thought did not even begin to enter her head. She was so much a girl still--hardly yet a woman--she had thought so little hitherto, felt so little, lived so little; a semi-deified Augusta, surrounded by obsequious slaves and sycophantic hangers-on, she had existed in her proud way, aloof from the bent backs that surrounded her--loyal to the Cęsar, loyal to herself and to her House--but she had not lived.
There had never been a desire within her that had not been gratified or that had grown delicious and intense through being thwarted; she had never suffered, never hoped, never feared. The world was there as a plaything; she had seen masks but never faces, she had never looked into a human heart or witnessed human sorrow or joy.
Looking back upon her life, Dea Flavia saw how senseless, how soulless it had been. Her soul awakened that day in the Forum when first a real, living man was revealed to her; not a puppet, not a mealy-mouthed sycophant, not a tortuous self-seeker, just a man with a heart, a will, a temperament and strange memories of things seen of which he had told her, though he saw that he angered her.
Since then she had begun to live, to realise that men lived, thought and felt, that they had other desires but those of pleasing the Cęsar or winning his good graces. She had seen a man offering his life to save another's, she had seen him clinging to a strange symbol which seemed to bring peace to his heart.
That man she honoured and on him would rest her choice, and he would be exalted above everyone on earth because she believed him to be loyal and just, and knew him to be brave. Her own heart--still in its infancy--had not realised that her choice would rest on that man, not because of his virtues, not because of his courage and his power, but for the simple, sublime, womanly reason that he was the man whom she loved.
And as she sat there, musing and still, with her eyes almost involuntarily drawn toward the oaken door of the inner room, she saw it slowly swinging out upon its hinges, she heard the swishing of the heavy curtain behind it, and the next moment she saw the praefect of Rome standing on the threshold.
He looked sick and wan, but strangely tall and splendid in the barbaric pomp of the gorgeous robe which he had worn yesterday. Dion had cleaned it of blood and dust, and it still looked crumpled and stained, but as he came forward the purple and gold gleamed against the stuccoed walls of the studio, and his tawny hair and sun-tanned face looked dark in the subdued light.
She could see plainly through the robe the line of bandages which bound his lacerated shoulders, and her heart was filled with pity for all that he had suffered, and with pride at thought of all the joys that would come to him through her.
As he came nearer to her, he bent the knee.
"I crave leave to kiss thy feet," he said, "for thy graciousness to me."
"Thou art well, O Taurus Antinor?" she asked timidly; "thy wounds...."
"Are healed, O gracious lady," he broke in gently, whilst a smile lit up his dark face, "since thy lips did deign to ask after them."
"It was presumptuous of me to bring thee here," she said after a while. "I feared that thou wast dead, and the Cęsar...."
"Would have defiled my body. Then would I kiss the ground where the hem of thy gown did touch it, for thy graciousness hath made it sacred."
"I pray thee rise," she said, "thou art weak."
"May I not kneel?"
"Not to me."
"Not to thee, but before thee, Augusta; before thy beauty and thy purity, the exquisite creations of God."
"Of thy God, O Taurus Antinor," she said with a little sigh. "He hath naught to do with me."
"He made thee for man's delight, to gladden the heart of those on whom thy glance doth rest."
She had ordered him to sit on a pile of cushions which lay not far from her chair. Thus was he almost at her feet, and she could look down upon his massive shoulders and on his head bent slightly forward as he spoke.
She thought then how like unto a ruler of men he was, how much strength and power did his whole person express. She wondered, with a happy little feeling of anticipation, how he would take the news which she would impart to him, what he would say, how he would look when he knew that she was prepared to crown him with the diadem of Augustus, and to bestow on him the full gifts of her love.
Time was precious, and the next few moments would satisfy her wonderment. She longed to see the fire of ambition light up his earnest face: the glow of love smouldering in his eyes would render their glance exquisitely sweet.
But for the moment she would have liked to put the more serious issues off for a while, she would have liked to sit here for many hours to come, with him close by at her feet, her ears pleasantly tickled by his gentle words of bold admiration yet profound respect. Had he not said that she was made to gladden the heart of those on whom her glance did rest? And a sense of sadness had crept into her heart as he thus spoke, for memory had conjured up before her mind the miseries which had followed in her wake these few days past.
"I have brought naught but misery," she said with a sigh, "to those whom I would bless."
"Joy to me, Augusta," he rejoined earnestly, "since the day I first beheld thee."
"Menecreta is dead," she whispered; "dost remember?"
She paused a while, then said abruptly:
"And the Cęsar is a fugitive."
"Heavens above!" he exclaimed, and the whole expression of his face changed suddenly; "a fugitive?... when?... where...?"
"The people are wrathful against him," she said; "they surrounded his palace, and even...."
The words died on her lips. The shout of "Death to the Cęsar! Death!" had come distinctly from afar. He jumped to his feet, and she saw that his face now looked careworn and anxious.
"Where is the Cęsar?" he asked hurriedly.
"He is a fugitive, I tell thee. The rabble fired his palace to force him to come out of it and face them. But he ran away through the secret passage which leads through the house of Germanicus to mine."
"He is here then?"
"No! He grovelled at my feet and begged me to hide him ... here ... in my private chamber where he thought he would be safe ... but I would not let him come for I thought thee helpless in thy bed, and feared that he would kill thee."
"Nay! why shouldst thou call to thy god on behalf of a tyrant and a coward," she said excitedly; "thou shouldst have seen that man cowering at my feet like a beaten dog. I could have spurned him with my foot, as I would a cur."
"The Cęsar, Augusta, the Cęsar!"
"Aye!" she rejoined firmly, "the Cęsar, my kinsman! Were he not that, I would have rushed to my door and called to the people, and would have handed over unto them that miserable bundle of rags which stood for the majesty of Cęsar!"
"And I lay a helpless log," he rejoined bitterly, "while the destinies of Rome lay in thy hands."
"Aye! The destinies of Rome," she said proudly, whilst a glow of intense excitement filled her whole personality, "but not in my hands, O praefect, but in thine!"
She rose and went up to him and placed her white fingers upon his arm.
"Listen!" she said.
She held up her other hand and thus stood beside him with slender neck stretched slightly forward, her lips parted, a look of intentness expressed in the whole of her exquisite face.
"Dost hear?" she whispered.
Obedient to her will he listened too. The cry of "Death to the Cęsar!" monotonous and weird, seemed to strike him with horror, for his wan cheeks assumed a yet paler hue and his lips murmured words which, however, she could not understand. Then suddenly the cry was followed by another--indistinct at first, yet gaining in clearness as it rose on the waves of the storm from the Forum below.
"The praefect of Rome! Where is the praefect of Rome? Hail Taurus Antinor Cęsar! Hail!"
"Hark!" she said triumphantly, "dost hear? The people call to thee! They are ready to deify thee. They call for thee, dost hear them, O praefect?"
But though she turned her eager, questioning gaze on him, though excitement and enthusiasm seemed to emanate from her from every pore, the look of horror only deepened on his face and the whispered prayer did not cease to tremble on his lips.
"Dost hear them?" she reiterated once more.
He was looking on her now, and gradually horror faded from his eyes and pallor from his cheeks. A wave of tenderness seemed to pass right over his face, making the harsh lines seem marvellously soft.
"I hear thy voice," he murmured, "soft as the breath of spring among the leaves of roses."
"The people call for thee."
"And thy hand is on my arm and I feel the magic of thy touch."
She stood there quite close to him, tall and slender like those lilies which--ever since he first beheld her--had so sweetly reminded him of her. Her simple grey tunic fell in straight folds from her shoulders, not a single jewel adorned her hands or neck, only her hair, in heavy plaits, made a crown of gold above her brow.
Never had she seemed to him so beautiful as now, for never had she seemed so womanly and yet so young. Her soul--rising triumphant from its trammels of high rank and artificial living--emerged god-like, opening out to the advent of love, welcoming it as it came, enfolding it in its own ardour and in its purity. With this man's presence near her, with her hand upon his arm, she had suddenly understood. Ambition, power, dominion of the world had vanished from her thoughts.
She had found love, knew love, felt its empire and its yoke, and the vista which that knowledge opened up before her was more wonderful than she could ever have dreamed of before.
Her cheeks were glowing with enthusiasm, her lips were parted and her eyes were of a vivid, translucent blue, with the pupils like brilliant sardonyx, full of dark and mysterious lights. She was ready to meet love with a surfeit of the rich gifts which she had at her command.
"The people call to thee, Taurus Antinor," she reiterated eagerly; "they want a man to lead them. They are tired of tyranny, of bloodshed and of idleness. They want to live! Therefore they call to thee. Two hundred thousand hearts were opened to thee yesterday in the Amphitheatre! Two hundred thousand tongues acclaimed thee even as in thine arms thou didst hold my lord Hortensius Martius and didst bear him into safety. The people have need of thee, and are ready to follow thee whithersoever thou wouldst lead them. They are miserable and oppressed, they want justice! They are starving and want bread. Their fate is in thy keeping for thou wouldst give them justice, and thou wouldst feed the poor and clothe the needy. All this morning did I hear the moans of the down-trodden, the wretched and the weak, and felt that Rome could only find happiness now through thee."
"And the Cęsar?" he said. "Where is the Cęsar?"
"He hath fled like a coward. Let him be forgotten even whilst the people proclaim thee the Cęsar and a new era of happiness doth rise over Rome."
Then as he made no reply she continued more hurriedly, more insistently:
"There are those here in my house now who would be the first to acclaim thee as the Cęsar. The praetorian guard, fired by thy valour yesterday, sickened by the cowardice of Caligula, is ready to follow in their wake, whilst mine will be the joy of calling unto the whole city of Rome: 'Citizens, behold your Cęsar! He is here!'"
She would not tell him that the imperium should come to him only through her hands; a strange reticence seemed to choke these words in her throat. Anon he would know. Caius Nepos and the others would tell him, but it was so sweet to give so much and--as the giver--to remain unknown.
She made a quick movement now, half withdrawing her hand from his arm, but his firm grasp closed swiftly over it.
"No, no," he said, "take not thy touch from off my soul lest I sink into an abyss of degradation."
He kept her slender fingers rivetted against his arm, and she looked up at him a little frightened, for his words sounded strange and there was a wild look in his eyes. She remembered suddenly that he was sick and that a brief while ago fever had fired his brain. All her womanly tenderness surged up at sight of his drawn face.
"Thou art ill!" she said gently.
He fell on his knees, and still holding her hand he rested his forehead against the cool white fingers.
"I am dying," he said softly, "for love of thee."
There was silence in the room now whilst she stood quite still, like a grey bird in its nest. She was looking down on him and his head was bowed upon her hands.
A weird, ruddy light penetrated into the studio from above and the sound of the pattering rain awoke a soft, murmuring echo on the white walls. The noise of strife and rebellion, though distant, still filled the air around, but here, in this room, there was infinite quietude and peace.
Dea Flavia felt supremely happy. Love had come to her in its most exquisite plenitude; the man whom she honoured, loved her and she loved him. It seemed as if she had slept for thousands and thousands of years and had just woke up to see how beautiful was the world.
"Love is not death," she murmured gently. "It is life."
"Death to me," he whispered, "for I have seen thy beauty and felt thee near unto my soul. And when I no longer may look upon thee mine eyes will become blind with the infinity of their longing, and when I no longer can feel thy touch, my heart will become as a stone."
A quick blush rose to her cheeks.
"That time shall never come, Taurus Antinor," she said so softly that her words hardly reached his ears. "Have I not told thee that there are those in my house who are ready to acclaim thee as the Cęsar?... acting upon my kinsman's own pronouncement yesterday ... they have come to me ... to beg me to make the choice which will place the imperium in the hands of the man most worthy to wield it.... My choice is made, O praefect!... Look into mine eyes, my dear lord, and read what they express."
He looked up just as she bade him, and as he did so there fell on him from her blue eyes such a look of love, that with a wild cry of passionate joy he stretched out his arms and closed them around her.
"Love is not death, dear lord," she murmured, even as the tears gathered in her eyes and made them shine like stars.
The moment was too supreme for words. Even the whisper, "I love thee!" died upon their lips. He held her close to him, her dear head resting on his shoulder, his hand upon her cheek, the perfume of her loveliness mounting to his nostrils and making his senses reel with its exquisite fragrance.
This one great moment was love's, and it was love's alone. Each had forgotten strife, rebellion, ambition, the fugitive Cęsar and the murmuring people. Each only remembered the other and the perfect flavour of that first lingering kiss.
Whatever life held for them hereafter, glory or shame, joy or regret, this moment remained unspoiled, perfect in its esctasy, the world but a dream, love the only reality.
Overhead the thunder rolled at intervals, dull and distant now, with occasional flashes of vivid lightning which lit up Dea's golden hair and the round, bare shoulder which emerged above the tunic. Her face was in shadow; she lay against his heart like a young bird that has found its nest.
Then he awoke from this ecstasy.
"The Cęsar?" he said wildly, "where is the Cęsar?"
"Near me now, dear Lord," she murmured looking up at him with a smile; "my head is on his shoulder and I can hear the beating of his heart."
"The Cęsar, Augusta," he said more insistently, and now he held her away from him, her two hands still in his and held against his breast, but she at an arm's length from him.
"Augusta," he reiterated, "I implore thee! Where is the Cęsar?"
"Hid in the Palace of Augustus, whining like a coward for his vanished power.... Forget him, my dear lord ... he is not worthy of thy thoughts.... Whither art going?" she added suddenly, for with gentle force he had disengaged his hands from hers and had turned toward the door.
"To the Cęsar, dear heart," he said simply; "an he is a fugitive he hath need of friends: an he is afraid, he hath need of courage."
"Thou'lt not go to him, dear lord," she exclaimed indignantly, and her hands, strong and firm, fastened themselves on his arm. "A coward, I tell thee ... a madman ... a tyrant ..."
"The Cęsar, Augusta," he retorted; "deign to let me go to him."
"Thou'rt mad, Taurus Antinor! Fever is in thy veins and doth cloud the clearness of thy brain.... Hast not heard the people? They vow vengeance on him.... 'Tis on thee they call ... thou art their chosen, their anointed; the people call to thee. It is thou whom they acclaim."
"To-morrow," he said more gently, "they will have forgotten their disloyalty. To-morrow they will have forgotten me ... they will think me dead ... dead will I be to them to-morrow."
"Nay! but to-day," she urged, "to-day is thine and mine.... The praetorian praefect is here and the others ... the choice rests with me and my choice is made.... Rome even now rings from end to end with thy name: 'Hail Taurus Antinor Cęsar! Hail!' ... Hast no ambition?" she cried, for at her words he had remained cold and still.
"None," he replied gently, "but so to help the Cęsar, that he may gain the love of his people by acts of grace and mercy, and to see the wings of peace once more spread over the seven hills of Rome."
With a firm yet exquisitely tender touch he took her clinging hands in his, forcing her to release her grip on his arm. On her trembling fingers then he pressed a burning, lingering kiss.
"Thou art not going!" she cried.
"To the Cęsar, O my soul! He hath need of me! He has mine oath; my loyalty is his."
"A madman and a tyrant. If thou goest to him he will kill thee!... his guard is with him ... he will kill thee!"
"That is as God wills...!"
"Thy god!" she retorted vehemently, "thy god! Doth he wish to part us? Is my love naught that he should wish thee to spurn it...?"
"The value of thy love is infinite," he said earnestly and tenderly as, in perfect humility, he bent the knee for one moment before her and stooping to the very ground he kissed the tip of her sandal. "'Tis only on bended knees that such as I can render sufficient thanks to God and to thee for that holy, precious gift."
She bent down to him and said with earnest solemnity:
"Then I entreat thee, good my lord, in the name of that love go not to the Cęsar now.... An he doth not kill thee ... an thou dost help to bring him back to power, he will use that power to part thee from me.... Do not go from me now, dear lord--for if thou goest I know that it will be for ever.... The Cęsar hates thee now as much as he loved thee before ... his hatred is as insensate as his love.... He will kill thee or take thee from me.... In either case 'tis death, my good lord...."
"'Twere death to betray the Cęsar, O my soul!" he replied, still on his knees, his forehead bent low to the ground, "Death, a thousand times worse than a dagger's thrust ... a thousand times worse than parting."
His voice was low and vibrant, and as his solemn words died away, they struck the murmuring echo that slumbered on the studio walls. And Dea Flavia was silent now: silent as he rose to his feet and stood before her with head slightly bent, silent, because borne on the subtle wing of that same dying echo there came to her the awful sense of unavoidable fate. She shuddered as if with cold, that sense of fatality seemed ready to spread over her soul like a pall.
It was only the Roman blood in her, the blood of victorious Augustus which would not allow her to yield to the spectre ... not just yet ... not until the last battle had been fought--the last unconquerable weapon drawn.
She waited in silence for a while, nor did she detain him by the slightest gesture although he once more made a movement as if to go, only her eyes rooted him to the spot even as she said very softly, her voice sounding full and mellow like the cooing of a dove.
"My lord, I entreat thee but to grant me one moment longer, for of a truth there is much that my mind cannot grasp. Of thy god we will not speak. Whoever he be, as thou dost worship him, I will be content to worship by thy side. But that will come in the fullness of time. Dost love me, my dear lord?"
"With every aspiration of my soul, with every beating of my heart, with every fibre of my body do I love thee," he said, and there was such intensity of passion in his voice, such a glowing ardour in the glance which seemed to envelop and embrace her whole person, that even she--the proud Augusta, the woman--exacting through the very magnitude of her love--was satisfied.
"Then, dear lord, I entreat thee," she said, "for one brief moment only think of naught but of our love. Let me rest in thine arms but that one moment longer, and remember the while that with my love, the world conquered will lie at thy feet."
She drew closer to him and once more lay against his breast. She was tender and clinging now, no longer the Augusta, the unapproachable princess but just a woman, loving and submissive, proud to give and proud to abdicate.
To him this was the torturing moment. He knew what she desired and what weapons she could wield wherewith to subdue his will. The battle he fought with himself just then was but a precursor of the fiercer one which anon he would have to fight against her. The rending of his soul was expressed in every line of his face, which once more now looked haggard and harsh; Dea Flavia saw it all. She saw how he suffered, whilst with every passing second the inward struggle became more difficult and fierce; his breath came and went with feverish rapidity, the frown across his brow deepened visibly, and for a while his arms were rigid and his fists clenched, even though she clung to him, her frail body against his, her head upon his breast.
"Wouldst lose the world and lose me?" she murmured. "The world is at thy feet, and I love thee."
A moan escaped him as that of a wounded creature in pain; the rigidity of his arms relaxed and wildly now he was pressing her closer to him.
"I love thee," he murmured, "I love thee. The world is well lost to me now that I have held thee in mine arms."
"The world, dear lord," she whispered, "is not lost, rather is it won. My hand in thine, we'll make that world a happier and brighter one. Power is thine ... thou art the Cęsar...."
"Hush--sh--sh, idol of my soul! Do not speak of that ... not now ... when my arms are round thee and the whole world has vanished from my ken. Let me live in my dream just a brief moment longer; let me forget all save my love for thee. It hath burned my soul for an eternity meseems, for I have only lived since that hour when first I heard thy voice ... in the Forum ... dost remember?... when I knelt at thy feet and tied the strings of thy shoe."
"And I loved thee from that hour. I loved thee for thy purity and because thou art exquisitely beautiful and I am a man thirsting for happiness. But God, who hath need of my soul, hath willed to break my heart so that I might remain pure and true to His service. It was so filled with thine image that even the glorious vision of His Passion became faint and dim. But with infinite pity He hath given thee to me just for this one brief, glorious hour that it might feed on the memory of thee, even whilst my feet trod the way that leads to the foot of His Cross."
"There is but one way, dear lord," she exclaimed, "for thy footsteps to tread! Tis the way that leads to mine arms first and thence upwards to the temple of Jupiter Victor where stands the throne and rests the sceptre of Augustus."
"The way of which I speak, dear heart," he rejoined earnestly, "also leads upwards, upwards to Calvary, on the uttermost summit of which stands a lonely, broken Cross. The wind and rains and snows of the past seven years have worked their will with it.... They tell me that one of its branches lies broken on the ground, that its stem is split from end to end. But it is there--there still, abandoned now and alone, but to eyes that can see, still bearing the imprint of the heavenly body that hung thereon for three hours in unspeakable agony so that men might know how to live--and might learn how to die."
She said nothing for the moment. Her excitement had not left her, but her lips were mute because that which was in her heart was too great, too strange for words. She did not understand what he meant; she still thought that fever had clouded his brain; anon, she felt sure, sane reason would return and with it ambition, which became every man. But she did not understand that his love for her transcended all human love she ever wot of; it was great and noble and sublime as all that emanated from him, and, womanlike, she was content to let other matters shape themselves in accordance with the will of the gods.
She looked into the face which in this brief period of time she had learnt to love, and tried to read that which to her was still hidden behind the earnest brow and the deep-set eyes. In them, indeed, did she read exultation, an ardour at least equal to her own, but an ardour for an object which she--the proud, exquisite pagan, the daughter of Augustus--wholly failed to comprehend. She had shown him the way to the imperium, to the diadem of Augustus, the sceptre of the Cęsars, yet in his eyes, which were unfathomable and blue as the ocean that girt his own ancestral home of far away, there glowed neither the fire of ambition, nor the desire for supreme power. Only the fire of love for her and the serenity of infinite peace.
"Dear lord," she said, "when the sceptre of Augustus is in thine hands thou canst wield it at thy pleasure. I know not the way of which thou speakest; the mountain of Calvary is unknown to me and thou speakest of things that are strange to mine ear.... But the gods have placed it within my power to make thee great above all men, the ruler of the mightiest Empire in the world, and on my knees do I thank them that they have shown me the way whereby I can guide thy footsteps even to the throne of Augustus."
"And on my knees do I thank God, O my soul, that thou didst show me the way to the foot of His Cross. God himself, dear heart!--oh! thou'lt understand some day for thy soul is beautiful and prepared to receive just that one breath from Heaven which will show it the way to eternal life--God Himself, dear heart, who lived amongst us all a lowly, humble life of patience and of toil! God--think on it!--who might have come down to us in the fullness of His Majesty, Who might, had He so chosen, have wielded the sceptre of the world and worn every crown of every empire throughout the ages, but Whom I saw--aye, I, dear heart--saw with mine own eyes as He toiled, weary, footsore, anhungered, and athirst, that He might comfort the poor and bring radiance into the dwellings of the humble. And I who saw Him thus, I who heard His voice of gentleness and of peace, I to desire a crown and sceptre, to betray the Cęsar and to mount a throne!!! Dear heart! dear heart! dost not understand that the sceptre would weigh like lead in my hands and the crown bow my head down with shame?"
"Then would my whispered words lift the weight from thy brow and my kiss dissipate the blush of shame from thy cheeks. Day and night would go by in infinite happiness, thy head upon my breast, mine arms encircling thy neck. I am ignorant still, yet would I teach thee what love means and the sweet lesson learnt from me thou wouldst teach me in return."
"And in mine ear the still, small voice would murmur: 'Thou hast seen the living face of thy God, didst break thine oath to Cęsar! thou didst betray him in his need, even as the Iscariot betrayed his Lord with a kiss.'"
"The voice of thy god," she retorted, "is no louder than that of the people of Rome, and the people proclaim thee the Cęsar and have released thee of thine oath."
"The voice of God," he said slowly, "spoke to me across the sandy wastes of Galilee and said unto me: 'Render unto Cęsar the things that are Cęsar's, and unto God the things that are God's.'"
His softly murmured words died away in the vastness around him. Dea Flavia made no response; a terrible ache was in her heart as if a cold, dead hand gripped its every string, whilst mocking laughter sounded in her ear.
That cruel monster Finality grinned at her from across the room. Love was lying bleeding and fettered at the feet of some intangible, superhuman spectre which Dea Flavia dreaded because it was the Unknown.
Taurus Antinor's eyes were fixed into vacancy, and she trembled because she could not see that which he saw. Was he looking on that very vision which he had conjured up, a cross, broken and tempest-tossed, a symbol of that power which to him was mightier than the Empire of Rome, mightier than the kingdom of her love?
She remembered how, a few days ago, in this self-same room she had in thought accosted and defied that Galilean rebel who had died the ignominious death; she had defied him, even she, Dea Flavia Augusta of the imperial House of Cęsar. She had offered him battle for this very man whose soul she now would fill with her own.
She had defied the Galilean, vowed that she would conquer this heart and filch it from the allegiance it had sworn, vowed that she would make it Cęsar's first and then her own, that she would break it and crush it first and then wrest it from its unknown God.
And now it seemed as if that obscure Galilean rebel had conquered in the end. She had brought forth the whole armoury of her love, her beauty, her nearness, the ardour of youth and passion which emanated from her entire being, and the intangible Unknown had remained the victor, and she was left with that awful ache in her heart which was more bitter than death.
"Have I thy leave to go, Augusta?" he asked gently at last, "the moments are precious. The Cęsar hath need of me...."
She woke as from a hideous dream. With a wild gesture of the arms she seemed to sweep away from before her those awful spectres that assailed her. Then she clung to him with the strength of oncoming despair.
"No--no," she cried, "do not go ... he will kill thee, I say ... do not go...."
"I must," he said firmly. "Dear heart, I entreat thee let me go."
"No--no ... think but a moment ... think!... My love?... is it naught to thee?... Has my kiss left thee cold?... Do not leave me, dear lord ... do not leave me yet ... not just yet ... now that I know what happiness can mean. I have been so lonely all my life.... Love hath come to me at last ... love and happiness.... I am young--I want both.... Dear lord, if thou lovest me canst leave me desolate?..."
"If I love thee!"
There was so much longing in the one brief phrase, such passion and such tenderness, that all her hopes revived. One more effort and she felt sure that she would conquer. Fever was in her veins now, the walls of the studio swam before her eyes; she fell on her knees for she could no longer stand, but her arms encircled him, clinging to him with all her might. Her face, lifted up to his, was swimming in tears, her golden hair escaping from its trammels fell in a glowing mass down her shoulders.
"I love thee," she murmured, "canst leave me now, dear lord.... If thou goest now 'tis for ever ... think, oh think! just for one moment ... the Cęsar restored to power will part me from thee ... even if anon in his madness he doth not kill thee. If thou goest 'tis for ever.... Think on it ... think on it ere thou goest.... My love ... my love, go not from me, and leave me desolate.... Dear lord, but think on it--of the kisses thou wilt taste from my lips--the ecstasies thou wilt find in my arms!... Thine am I--thine my heart that loves thee--my body that worships thee--my every thought is thine.... Go not from me ... not just now till thou hast felt once more the full savour of my love."
Her arms round his knees, and she was exquisitely beautiful, exquisite in her whole-hearted love, her whole-hearted abnegation--she, a proud Roman lady kneeling at his feet, her full red lips asking for a kiss.
He stood with his face buried in his hands.
"Oh God! my God!" he murmured, "do not forsake me now!"
The thunder crashed overhead while a human soul fought its desperate fight for truth and eternal life. A vivid flash of lightning lit up the white-washed walls of the studio, and to the poor fighting soul, tortured with temptation, with longing and with passion, there came in that swift bright flash a vision of long ago.
The sky lurid and dark, the soil trembling beneath the feet of thousands of men and women, and there, far away, outlined against that sky, a figure stretched out upon a Cross. The head was bent in agony, the eyes half-closed, the lips livid and parted, the body broken with torments had the rigidity of death. But the arms were stretched out, straight and wide, as if with one last gesture of appeal and of longing, and in this storm-laden air there floated tender words, intangible and soft as a memory.
"Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you."
It was but a vision, swift as the lightning flash that conjured it and the words had already died on the stillness of the air.
But the tortured soul had found its anchorage. Taurus Antinor's hands fell from before his face.
"In Thy service, O Jesus of Galilee!" he said, and the mighty effort of subjection brought the perspiration to his brow and caused his limbs to tremble. "I saw Thine agony, Thy sacrifice; it should be so easy to do this for Thy sake. Give me the strength to render unto Cęsar that which is Cęsar's, and do Thou take from me all that is Thine."
She heard his words, she saw the look and knew that she had failed.
Back on the cruel wings of remembrance came the words of Menecreta the slave.
"May thine every deed of mercy be turned to sorrow and to humiliation, thine every act of pity prove a curse to him who receives it, until thou on thy knees art left to sue for pity to a heart that knoweth it not, and findest a deaf ear turned unto thy cry!"
And the curse of the broken-hearted mother seemed like the tangible response to the defiance which she, in her arrogance and her pride, had hurled against him who was called Jesus of Nazareth. She would have blessed Menecreta and Menecreta was dead; she would have given her life for the Cęsar and the Cęsar was a cowardly fugitive, and now on her knees she had sued for pity, and the heart which she had fought for to possess had turned from her as if it knew neither mercy nor love, and whilst her very soul had cried with longing she had found a deaf ear turned to her cry.
That unknown Galilean who died upon the cross had been stronger than her love. It was he who was filching it from its allegiance, he who was brushing and crushing this heart ere he wrested it finally from her--Dea Flavia Augusta of the imperial House of Cęsar!
The Galilean had accepted her challenge and he had conquered, and she was naught in the heart of the one man she would have given her whole life to call her own.
She gave a cry like a wounded bird, she jumped to her feet, and for one moment stood up, splendid, wrathful, pagan to the heart.
"Curse thy god," she cried wildly, "curse him, I say, for a jealous, cruel god.... Go thy ways, O follower of the Galilean! go thy ways! and when lonely and wretched thy footsteps lead thee along that way which thou hast deified, then call on him, I say--thou'lt find him silent to thy prayer and deaf unto thy woe!"
Her body swayed, an ashen pallor spread over her cheeks, she would have fallen backwards like a log had he not caught her in his arms.
Reverently he carried her to the couch and there he laid her down, wrapping her grey shroud-like tunic closely round her feet.
He bent over her and kissed her golden hair, each blue-veined lid closed in unconsciousness, the perfect lips pallid now and still.
"In the name of Him Who died before mine eyes, take her in Thy keeping, O God!" he murmured fervently.
Then without another glance on her, he fled precipitately from the room.
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