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"For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth."--HEBREWS XII. 6.
The gorgeous palace of Augustus appeared quite deserted when the praefect of Rome finally made his way to the vestibule. He crossed the magnificent inner peristylium, the tall, uncut pillars of which, sharply defined against the sky, enhanced its majestic grandeur and its air of mysterious solemnity.
As a rule these vast halls were peopled with scribes, and though shorn of its original imperial splendours the palace of the great Emperor presented at times a certain air of animation and of official bustle. But now these scribes, no doubt awed by the sound of terror and of strife which must have reached even this hallowed spot, had fled into the more remote portions of the palace, or mayhap had even joined the throngs in the Forum, on the principle that 'tis better to form an unit in an angry crowd, rather than to be its butt.
The peristylium itself, despite its mute and lonely magnificence, bore traces of the turmoil that reigned throughout the city; there were obvious signs that men had lived and worked here but a very little while ago, that they had been afraid and then had run away.
The marble floors were stained with mud. The sedate chairs that usually lined the walls were pushed aside and left to stand crooked and awry, the very mockery of their former dignity. Here and there a roll of parchment, an ink-stained pen, a cast-off cloak littered the hall and looked curiously provocative and out of place--an insult to the majesty of the dead and mighty Cæsar, who had caused the stately columns to be reared, and the massive walls to raise their pure lines upwards to the sky.
But on all this Taurus Antinor did not pause to think. On his right he heard sounds which proclaimed the presence of men, and thither did he immediately turn his footsteps.
Peering through the long vista of numberless columns, the further ones of which were merged together in the dim light, he saw that the score or so of the praetorian guard who had escorted the Cæsar in his flight were assembled at the end of the gigantic hall, some lolling against the marble pillars, others lying or squatting on the hard floor, as much at their ease as circumstances would allow.
They had not discarded their accoutrements and each man had his sword by his side. Not realising that the fury of the mob had been momentarily damped by the storm, they remained prepared to defend the Cæsar's life at any moment with their own.
More than one of them had apparently been wounded in one or other of the hand-to-hand combats which they had sustained against the mob earlier in the day, for more than one head was wrapped in a rough piece of bandage and more than one tunic was stained with blood. All the men looked fagged and dirty and for the most part worn out with sleeplessness and want of food.
As the praefect's firm tread resounded from end to end of the colonnaded hall and woke the slumbering echoes of the deserted palace, weary, lack-lustre eyes were turned in his direction, and now when his tall figure appeared between two pillars the men recognised him, for his head was uncovered.
One or two of them gave a cry of terror since all of them had thought that the praefect was dead, and this tall, dark presence, wrapped in a long cloak and with tawny hair still dripping from the rain, looked very like an apparition from another world.
"The Cæsar?" queried the praefect curtly.
Some of the men struggled to their feet. The voice they knew well; it was as of old, loud and peremptory and not like to be coming from a grave. All did their best to assume a respectful bearing, and one who was in command made ready to show the praefect into the Cæsar's presence.
"I want no escort," said Taurus Antinor in that same commanding voice which no one in Rome had ever tried to resist. "Tell me only where I can find the Cæsar."
"In the lararium, O praefect," replied the soldier without hesitation. "He ordered us to remain here."
Without looking to right or left Taurus Antinor walked past the soldiers into the gorgeous tablinium beyond, where great Augustus had been wont to administer justice. This vast hall was deserted, but from an inner room on the left there came to the praefect's ear a curious sound like the snarl of an angry feline creature, a sound which he knew could only come from one human throat. Without hesitation he turned to whence that sound had come. On the right of the huge semi-circular apse, which contained the now vacant throne of Augustus, a narrow door led to the small temple-like room which had once contained the great Emperor's household gods.
A heavy curtain of embroidered silk masked this entrance. Taurus Antinor pushed it back and walked in.
The temple derived its light solely from a small opening in the vaulted ceiling; that light which came down in a narrow shaft was grey and dull and failed to penetrate the dark and mysterious corners of the room.
Taurus Antinor's eyes were narrowed beneath his frowning brows as he tried to pierce the gloom that lay beyond that shaft of light. He could hear heavy breathing proceeding from there and the muttering of curses, and anon he was able to spy a bundle of stained silken clothes that lay in a heap and which seemed to shrink and to shrivel, to tremble and to cower on the altar steps: a bundle of rags and a gleam of flaccid flesh which stood for the majesty of Cæsar.
All at once there was a raucous cry and a growl as of an animal enraged, and the next second something hot and heavy threw itself with violent force against the praefect, even whilst the sharp blade of a dagger caught a gleam of reflected light.
But Taurus Antinor--well knowing the man whom he had come to help--was fully prepared for the treacherous attack. With a rapid movement he had made a shield of his mantle by winding it closely round his arm, and holding it before his face. The dagger glanced against the woollen material, rendered heavy and sodden with the rain, and Caligula, unnerved by the futile effort, staggered back against the altar steps while the dagger fell with a sharp sound upon the marble floor.
"Traitor!" came in hoarse gasps from the Cæsar's throat. "Hast come to murder me!"
"Ho! there! My guard! My guard!"
He was trying to shout, but terror was evidently choking him. He struggled to his feet, and still trembling from head to foot, made pitiable attempts to work his way round to a place of safety behind the altar, whilst keeping his bloodshot eyes fixed upon the praefect.
"Hast come to murder me?" he gasped.
"I came to place my body at thy service, O Cæsar," replied Taurus Antinor quietly. "I have been sick for nigh on twenty-four hours, else I had come to thee before. They told me that thou wast cut off from those whose duty it is to guard thy person. An thou wilt grant me leave I'll conduct thee to them."
"Aye! thou'rt ready enough to conduct me to my death, thou treacherous son of slaves," snarled the Cæsar from behind the safe bastion of the stone altar. "I have learnt thy treachery, I, even I, who trusted thee. Thou didst lie to me and plan my death even whilst I heaped uncounted favours upon thee."
"On my soul, O Cæsar, thou dost me infinite wrong," rejoined the praefect calmly. "But, an it please thee, I am not here to justify myself before thee, though God knows I would wish thee to believe me true; rather am I here to serve thee, an thou wilt deign to accept my help in thy need."
"To accept thy help. Nay! By Jupiter, I would as soon trust myself to the snakes that creep under the grasses of the Campania, as I would place my life in the keeping of a traitor."
"Had I thought to betray thee, O Cæsar," said Taurus Antinor simply, "I had not come unarmed and alone. Even the dagger wherewith thou didst threaten my life lies at my foot now, ready to my hand for the mere picking up of it."
As he spoke he gave the dagger a slight kick with his foot, so that it slid clinking and rattling along the smooth floor, until its progress was stopped by the corner of the altar steps against which the Cæsar cowered in abject fear. "My guard is in the next room," said Caligula with an evil sneer, "an I call but once and they will kill thee at my word."
"That is as thou commandest and as God wills," said Taurus Antinor, "but remember ere thou strikest, O Cæsar, that with my death thou wilt lose the one man who can save thee now."
He spoke quite calmly nor did the tone of deference ever depart from his speech. He stood in the dim light which came in a straight shaft down through the opening above, his splendid person in full view of the Cæsar who still crouched in the shadow. The power of his individuality imposed itself upon the miserable coward who threatened him. Caligula--tyrant and half crazy though he was--had sufficient shrewdness in his tortuous brain to recognise the truth of what the praefect had told him. Had this man come with evil intent he would not have come alone and unarmed: had he wished to gain his own ends, he would have had but to say a word and the mob had been ready to wreak its desired vengeance upon the Cæsar.
"The people of Rome," resumed Taurus Antinor after a while, seeing that Caligula was silent and more inclined to listen to him, "are angered against thee. Thou knowest, O Cæsar! what the anger of the people portends. For the moment a violent storm has driven the malcontents away from the vicinity of thy palace. They are congregated under the arcades of the Forum and nurse there their thoughts of rancour and of revenge."
"Until such time as my wrath overtakes them," broke in Caligula with one of his most evil oaths. "I am not dead yet, and whilst I live I'll not forget. Rome shall rue this day in blood and in tears. Vengeance and rancour, sayest thou?" and he drew in his breath with a moist, hissing sound like the snakes of the Campania of which he spoke just now. "Vengeance and rancour will overtake the rebels! My vengeance and my rancour, beside which all others shall pale! Rome can wait, I say: the Cæsar is not yet dead."
The words fell choked and thick from his quivering lips, nor did Taurus Antinor attempt to interrupt him; but as the Cæsar finished speaking, exhausted and breathing heavily, there was a moment's silence in the room, and through that silence could be heard quite distinctly the call of the people from the distance below.
"Death to the Cæsar! Death!"
Caligula uttered a loud cry of rage and of fear and struggled to his feet. He staggered forward out of the darkness and into the light, his trembling arms outstretched, his sparse hair plastered against his moist forehead, his eyes, protruding and bloodshot, fixed upon the praefect.
"They'll murder me," he cried, as he almost fell on his knees and only saved himself by clinging desperately with both hands to Taurus Antinor's outstretched arm. "They'll murder me! Save me, O praefect; save me! and I'll heap wealth upon thee--money, honours, power, all that thou dost desire! Save me! Do not let them murder me! I will not die.... I will not! I will not!... Cowards! cowards! I am a defenceless man!... I will not die ... I cannot die.... Cowards!"
Taurus Antinor had to brace himself up against the sickening sense of almost physical nausea that came over him at sight of this pitiful creature, more abject than any cur.
Among the many moments of terrible doubt and still more terrible temptation through which he had fought to-day, this was perhaps the most intolerable because the worldly man in him cried out against the futility of his own sacrifice.
To give up every hope of happiness, every aspiration for the welfare of an entire nation for the sake of this miserable coward, whose thoughts of self-preservation only alternated with those of maniacal tyranny, seemed indeed insensate mockery. Duty could not possibly lie in this. This base creature's worthless life surely could not be weighed in the balance against the countless others which--despite any promises that might be wrung from him now--he would inevitably sacrifice to his own lust for blood and for revenge.
The worldly man, the thinking philosopher, the pagan in fact, faced these propositions and placed them before the Christian. But the time had gone by for mental conflict. The Christian had fought until his numbed soul had almost lost the power of suffering; all he knew now was that he must not reason, he must neither think nor philosophise. The Master whom he had seen with limbs stretched upon a Cross in unspeakable agony and humiliation, might also have overturned a Cæsar and ruled the world from the heights of a throne. He chose to rule it from a place of infamy, and when His dying lips proclaimed to that same world the supreme finality of its salvation: "It is accomplished!" it was not to the sound of triumphal music, with banners flying and the spoils of conquest around, it was to the accompaniment of taunts and of derision and with body stripped naked before a jeering world.
"I have offered thee my service, O Cæsar," said Taurus Antinor with a mighty effort at deference and calm. "An thou wilt follow mine advice I can shield thee from the wrath of the people until such time as that which has occurred to-day, lies buried in the bosom of the past."
"What must I do?... What must I do?" muttered Caligula between his chattering teeth. He was clinging to the praefect with both hands, for his knees were shaking under him and he would have fallen had he attempted to stand up alone. "Save me, praefect.... Save me.... Do not let them kill me.... I cannot die.... I will not ... and those cowards would murder me...."
"Wilt trust thyself to me, O Cæsar?"
"Yes, yes, what must I do?"
"Come forth with me into the streets. Wrapped in dark cloaks the people will not recognise us. They would never expect the Cæsar to leave his palace while his life is in danger, and well disguised thou couldst come with me through devious ways to a house I know of on the Aventine where thou wouldst be safe."
But at this suggestion that he should leave the security of this lonely palace for the open dangers of the streets, Caligula's terrors increased tenfold. His teeth chattered more loudly in his head, and his hands on the praefect's arm became convulsive in their grasp.
"I dare not go, praefect," he stammered, and it had been pitiable were it not abject to see the look of insane terror which he cast around him. "I dare not go.... They would kill me if they saw me ... and I don't want to die...."
"No one would recognise thee," said Taurus Antinor with ill-restrained patience, "dressed as scribes we can mingle with the fringe of the crowd. The shades of evening will be on us in an hour and our dark mantles will excite no attention. Have no fear, Cæsar! no one would suspect thee of running in the teeth of danger."
The tone of bitter irony was lost on the dulled perceptions of this miserable coward.
"I would not dare," he murmured intermittently, "I would not dare."
"Then do I take my leave of thee, O Cæsar," retorted Taurus Antinor coldly. "For here alone, with but twenty men to guard thee, I can do naught to save thy person from outrage."
"If I were quite sure that I could trust thee...."
"That is for thee to decide. I have offered thee my services ... an thou'lt not accept them I crave thy leave to go."
"No, no, do not leave me, praefect," cried Caligula with despair, clinging now with all his might to this arm, which every instinct in him told him was staunch in his defence. "Do not leave me ... I'll do as thou dost advise.... I'll don a slave's garb ... and slip out into the street in thy wake ... and ... after that...?"
"Thou'lt find temporary shelter in an humble house on the Aventine. There thou canst rest for a few days even while thy legions, distant from here but three days' march, I believe, do approach the city."
"Yes, yes! my legions," cried the Cæsar in a hoarse whisper. "I had nigh forgotten them. They are not far ... if I could but reach them...."
A sudden fire of malicious hatred once more lit up the dull misery of his face.
"At the head of my legions I can soon show this miserable rabble who is the master of Rome."
"At the head of thy legions, O Cæsar," retorted Taurus Antinor firmly, "and preceded by a proclamation of universal pardon for all the events of the past few days, thou wilt make thine entry into Rome amidst the rejoicings of thy people."
"Pardon!" hissed Caligula through set teeth. "Never!"
"Yet is a proclamation of universal pardon necessary for thy safety," said Taurus Antinor with solemn earnestness. "As soon as I have placed thee under the protection of that sheltering roof on the Aventine, I would return to Rome with thy proclamation, and with the news that in three days' time thou wouldst enter the city at the head of thy people. The people, frightened at first, would imagine that divine interference had led thee triumphantly out of danger, thy clemency would allay their fears and fire their enthusiasm; they would soon make ready to welcome thee with rejoicings. But without thy promise of pardon fear would gain the mastery over those who led this rebellion, and fear quickly would beget despair. In their terror of thy coming vengeance they might oppose thy coming, and such is the temper of the people just now that all the strength of thy legions--half-spent in this last expedition--might be powerless against it; thy chosen soldiers even might turn against thee."
The Cæsar was silent, and even in this dim light it was easy to read on his ghastly face the inner workings of his tortuous mind--rage, malice, a raging thirst for revenge fought against his own cowardice and the steady influence which the praefect's calm and firm attitude was exercising over him, much against his will.
"Time is precious, O Cæsar," continued Taurus Antinor earnestly; "the people will not wait. The shadows of evening will soon be drawing in and the storm has not yet wholly passed away. The hour is propitious now, an thou wilt accept my service, we can slip away and mingle with the few straggling groups of malcontents before the crowd has again rushed the hill. An thou wilt not tarry and canst brace thyself up to indifferent demeanour in the streets, I swear to thee that thou wilt be under safe shelter in an hour."
"If I but dared to trust myself so entirely in thy keeping...."
Taurus Antinor shrugged his broad shoulders with marked contempt for his forbearance was threatening to give way.
"Is there anyone else," he asked, "whom thou wouldst rather trust? Name him then, O Cæsar, and, alive or dead, I'll bring him to thy presence within the hour."
But to this the Cæsar made no reply. He knew better than anyone could tell him that the man whom he had called a traitor, whom he had twice tried basely to kill, was the one man in the entire patriciate of Rome who would be true to him. Even madmen have such instincts at times. Caligula knew that he was doomed, the cries from below could leave no doubt in his mind that, isolated as he was, cut off not only from his legions but even from his guard, nothing could save him from the fury of vengeance which threatened him from his entire people.
A wave of fatality swept over his maniacal sense of terror. He knew and felt that if this man was a traitor then indeed could nothing save him; and he knew and felt at the same time that while he was under this man's protection no great harm could come to him.
Gradually this sense of fatality got the mastery over his cowardice, and as Taurus Antinor watched the twitchings of that distorted face, he could note that insensibly a resolution to follow his advice had found its way in this madman's brain.
"I'll come with thee," said Caligula at last, and now his voice sounded more firm, even whilst his hands released their grip on the praefect's arm and his short body straightened itself out upon his trembling limbs. "I'll come with thee, but may thy flesh wither on thy bones, thy hands be palsied and thine eyes become sightless if thou hast a thought of betraying thy Cæsar."
To this senseless speech Taurus Antinor vouchsafed no reply.
"Then I pray thee," he said quietly, "wait here a while till I find the necessary garments for thy disguise and mine, and also pen, ink and parchment."
"Pen and ink? For what?"
"Thy proclamation of pardon, Cæsar, signed by thy hand...."
"When I am in safety I will see to it," said Caligula with sudden blandness, "thou saidst it thyself there is no time to lose."
"There is time to fulfil a promise and time to take what is the most important measure for thy safety," rejoined Taurus Antinor.
"Thou dost not trust thy Cæsar," said Caligula with a vicious snarl.
"No," was the praefect's curt reply.
It was characteristic of this tyrannical despot that at the praefect's rough answer he laughed with obvious satisfaction. At the back of his shrewd sense of self-preservation there had come the thought that the man who had spoken that unequivocal "No!" had learnt to its fullest the lesson of truth. He said nothing for a while, and when his laughter died away in a kind of hysterical gasp, he made a gesture expressive of indifference and also of submission to the other's wish.
Taurus Antinor turned away from the loathsome presence without another word and with a firm step. And Caligula, standing motionless in the middle of the room waited quietly for his return.
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