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"Come, take up the cross, and follow me."--ST. MARK X. 21.
Taurus Antinor had some difficulty in finding the clothes that he wanted, which would serve as a disguise for the Cæsar and himself, and he had to explore the huge deserted palace from end to end before he came on the block of the slaves' quarters; here in one of the cubicles he ultimately discovered a few bundles of garments, which had apparently been hastily collected and then forgotten by one of the runaway scribes.
These he found on inspection would suit his purpose admirably. Writing tools and desk he had already collected; there were plenty of these littering the building in every corner.
Armed with all these necessaries, he made his way back to the lararium without again crossing the peristylium where the soldiers were assembled.
Sitting on the altar steps, with the desk between his knees and the light from the narrow shaft above falling full upon the parchment, he wrote out carefully and laboriously the proclamation of pardon which was destined on the morrow to assure the people of Rome that all their delinquencies against the majesty and the person of their Cæsar would by him be forgotten.
It was necessary so to word it that not a single loophole should remain through which Caligula could ultimately slip and break his word. More than one beginning was made and whole lines erased and rewritten before the praefect of Rome was satisfied with his work.
The Cæsar in the meanwhile was tramping up and down the tiny room like his own favourite black panther when it was in a rage. Throwing his thick, short body about in a kind of rolling gait, he only paused at times for a moment or two in order to hurl a vicious snarl at the praefect.
His fingers were twitching convulsively the whole time, with longing no doubt to grasp the leather-thonged whip which they were so fond of wielding. At intervals he would gnaw his nails down to the quick while snorts of bridled fury escaped through his pallid lips.
But Taurus Antinor went on with his work, absolutely heedless of the Cæsar's rage. When the wording of the proclamation satisfied him, he held out the pen for Caligula to sign. He knelt on the floor with one knee, holding up against his forehead, as custom demanded on a solemn occasion, the desk on which rested the imperial decree. He rendered this act of homage simply and loyally, as the outward sign of that sacrifice which the Divine Master had demanded of him.
Faithful to his instincts of petty tyranny, the Cæsar kept the praefect of Rome kneeling before him for close on half an hour; all this while volleys of vituperations poured from his mouth against all traitors in general, and more especially against the praefect whom he accused of selling his services only in order to gain his own ends.
It was only when Taurus Antinor had reminded him for the third time that he was placing his life in grave jeopardy with all this delay that he ultimately snatched up the pen and put his name to the decree.
After that both the men donned the dark garments of the fugitive scribe. With the proclamation of pardon rolled up tightly and hidden within the folds of his tunic, Taurus Antinor led the way out of the lararium.
The afternoon light was slowly sinking into the embrace of evening. The vast deserted palace, with its rows of monumental columns and statues of stone gods looked spectral and mysterious in the fast gathering gloom.
When exploring the building in search of disguises Taurus Antinor had taken note of the minor exits which gave on the more isolated portions of the imperial gardens; to one of these did he now conduct the Cæsar and suddenly the outer air struck on the faces of the two men and they found themselves in the open, in the waning light of day.
Unbroken now by the solid marble walls which had shut out most of the noise from the streets, the shouts that came from the slopes of the hill struck more clearly upon the ear. The sound travelling through the mist-laden air seemed to come more especially from the northwestern front of the palace of Augustus, which here faces that of the late Emperor Tiberius, with the new gigantic wing built recently thereunto by Caligula.
Here a vast multitude appeared to have congregated. The cries of "Death!" seemed ominously loud and near, and through them there was a dull murmur as of an angry mob foiled in its lust.
The Cæsar uttered a cry of terror and his knees gave under him. He cowered on the ground, clutching at the praefect's robe and hiding his face in the folds of his mantle.
"They will kill me!" he stammered thickly. "I dare not go, praefect!... take me back ... I dare not go!"
Taurus Antinor, none too patient a man at any time, had to clench his fists and drive his finger-nails into the palms of his hands, else he could have struck this abject, miserable coward. He wrenched his cloak out of the Cæsar's grasp and with a firm grip pulled him roughly up from the ground.
"An thou canst not control thy cowardly fears," he said harshly, "I'll leave thee to perish at their hands."
And holding the wretched man tightly by the wrist, he quickly sought shelter behind a pile of building material which lay some distance away. He hoped that this cringing dastard would not hear that other clamour of the people which invariably followed the call for vengeance: "Hail Taurus Antinor! Hail!"
Did these words perchance reach Caligula's ears he would no doubt even at this eleventh hour have refused to trust himself to the praefect; he would rush back into the palace, like a tracked beast that seeks its burrow, and all the sorrow and the renunciation of the past twenty-four hours would turn to the bitter fruit of uselessness.
Fortunately Caligula's senses were dulled by his own terrors. He heard the shouts and the ceaseless din of rebellious strife but the only word that he could distinguish was the ominous one of "Death," and whenever this word struck upon his confused mind a violent fit of trembling would seize him and he would stumble and stagger along like a drunken man.
Taurus Antinor, however, held him tightly by the wrist and thus he half led, half dragged him in his wake. The towering masses of building materials, huge blocks of stone and of marble, scaffoldings and ladders piled up on the open ground which encircled the rear of Caligula's palace, afforded him the protection which he had counted on and foreseen.
Keeping well within the shadows, he thus gradually worked his way on from pile to pile until he reached the brow of the hill. The crowd which was swarming up the slopes was just beginning to appear in isolated detachments in the roads and streets that led upwards from the Forum. Apparently the mob had not forgotten its former purpose to entrap the fugitive Cæsar and to force him to come out and to face his people.
The dull evening light creeping up from below, the thin drizzle which had succeeded the heavy rain and which mingled with the rising vapours from the sodden ground, the aimlessness of the onrushing crowd as it spread itself in confused masses all round the foremost palaces on the hill, all favoured Taurus Antinor's plans. Emerging from behind a monumental block of granite, looking in their dark clothes for all the world like the scribes who had been seen running about here all the day, the two men attracted little or no attention.
Their faces in the gloom could not easily be distinguished, nor did anyone in that excited throng imagine for a moment that the Cæsar would leave the safe shelter of his palace and, dressed in slave's garb, affront the multitude who clamoured for his death.
The audacity of this flight carried success along with it. Dragging the quaking Cæsar after him, Taurus Antinor soon plunged into the very thick of the crowd.
The tumult here and the confusion were intense. Men running and shouting, women shrieking and children crying, all in a tangled mass of noisy humanity. Some of the men brandished sticks, shovels or rakes, any instrument they had happened to possess; they shouted loudly for the Cæsar, demanding his death, urging the more pusillanimous to rush the palace and drag the hiding princeps out into the open. Others carried tall poles on which they had improvised rude banners made of bits of purple-coloured rags: they were proclaiming the new Cæsar of their choice in voices rendered hoarse with lustiness.
The women clung to their men-folk, their shrill accents mingling with the rougher ones. Some of them clutched small children to their breasts, others dragged older ones at their skirts, and it was terrible to hear the cries of frightened children through the shouts of vengeance and of death.
Now as the gloom gathered in a few lighted torches appeared here and there, held high above the sea of surrounding heads; they flickered feebly in the damp air, throwing fitful lurid lights on the faces close by: dark faces, flushed and excited, with sullen eyes and dishevelled hair, above which the black smoke from the sizzling resin formed weird and shifting haloes.
The crowd carried the fugitives along with it, pressed shoulder to shoulder in a living, breathing, panting vice. Damp rising from thousands of rain-sodden garments mingled with the mist and with the rain and formed a grey, wet, clinging veil over this restless mass, kneading it all together into a dark, swaying entity from which rose the cries of the children and the hoarse shouts of the men.
Drifting with the throng, Taurus Antinor, still holding his trembling companion by the wrist, soon found himself being carried down the long flight of steps which leads from the heights crowned by Caligula's palace to the Forum below. Without attempting to work against the crowd, he presently crossed the Nova Via, and turning sharply on his left he found himself behind the basilica whose every arcade and precinct was densely packed with men and women and whose marble walls echoed and re-echoed with a multitude of sounds.
The crowd!--always the crowd! Always these shouting men, these screaming women, these puny crying children! It seemed as if their numbers were being fed by invisible masses that came from out the darkness which was closing in around. On ahead the height of the Aventine hid the horizon line from view, and on its slopes tiny lights began to appear that seemed to mock the weary fugitives by their distance and their elusiveness.
Taurus Antinor had all along intended to reach the Aventine by a devious way. Now the crowd had brought him and his companion to the river bank, there where the Tiber winds its sudden curve at the foot of the three hills. That curve of the river would have to be followed its whole way along the bank, and the slope of the Aventine looked so immeasurably far.
But progress had become more easy at last. Taurus Antinor pushed his way along now as quickly as he dared. More than one angry glance followed the tall, powerful figure as it forged a path for its burden, regardless of obstruction; more than one oath was uttered in the wake of those broad shoulders that towered above the rest of the crowd.
With a man who was shivering as with ague dragging upon his arm, with his body racked with fever and his temples throbbing with pain, the man set out with renewed energy upon this final stage of his journey.
In the constant pushing through the crowd the bandages on his shoulder had shifted, and he could again feel the claws of the panther tearing at his flesh, and the hot breath of the beast scorching his face. The sodden garments clung cold and dank to his skin, he felt chilled down to the marrow, and yet he felt as if the fire of his body would burn his skin on to his bones.
Perhaps the physical misery which he endured numbed the more unendurable agony of the soul; certain it is that a kind of torpor gradually invaded his brain, leaving within it only the sensation of a terrible longing to drop down on the wet ground and to yield to the unconquerable desire to stretch out his aching limbs and to lay down his head in the last long sleep which would bring eternal rest.
But now the ground had begun to rise, the Aventine stretched out its slopes into the arms of darkness and its summit was lost in the gloom above. The weary ascent had begun.
Then it was that through the torpor of the man's brain a vision had suddenly found its way, searching those memory cells of the mind that contained the sacred picture of long ago. A mountain rugged and steep, a surging crowd, a Man, weary and with body tormented by ceaseless pain, toiling upwards with a heavy burden.
His naked feet made no noise upon the earth, the burden which He bore was a heavy Cross.
Above on the summit death awaited Him, ignominy and shame, but He walked up in silence and in patience, so that men in long after years, who had burdens of sorrow or of misery, should know how to bear them till they too reached the summit of their Golgotha, there to find ... not death, not humiliation or pain, but eternal life and the serenity of exquisite peace.
The Cæsar hung like a dead weight on Antinor's left arm, and the right one, lacerated by the panther's claws, burned and ached well-nigh intolerably. But the glorious memory of long ago now preceded him, the Divine Martyr walking on ahead with sacred shoulders bent to the sacrifice, and he seemed to hear again the swishing of the tunic, stained with blood and the mud of the road; he seemed to hear the shouts of the jeering crowd, the rough words of the soldiery, the sobs of faithful disciples and women.
And he too plodded on with his burden. The crowd, now far away, seemed to mock him for the uselessness of his sacrifice; Dea Flavia's sobs of sorely wounded love called to him to turn back.
But memory now would be held back no longer. The picture which it conjured up became more distinct and more real, and its gold-lined wings, as they fluttered around his head, made a murmur gentle and intangible as the flitting of the clouds across the skies of Italia.
The murmur was soft and low, and it reached the aching senses of the weary pilgrim like the cooling breath of multitudes of angels in the parched wilderness of his sorrow:
"If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
"For Thy sake, oh Jesus of Galilee!" said the man as he toiled up his endless Calvary and left behind him with every step, far away in the valley below, all that had made the world fair to him and all the promises of happiness.
On ahead the Divine Leader had fallen on his knees: the burden of His Cross seemed greater than He could bear. Rough hands helped to drag him up from the ground and set Him once more on His tedious way. His cheeks were wan and pale, blood trickled from the thorn-crowned brow, but there was no wavering in the lines of the face though they were distorted with pain, no giving in, no drawing back, not though one word from those livid lips could have called even now unto God, and ten thousand legions of angels would have come down at that word to avenge the outrage and to proclaim His godhead.
And in the wake of his Master the Christian plodded on, dragging his burden on his arm, the cross which he had to bear. Gradually behind him the noise became more and more subdued, then it died down altogether--all but a confused and far-away murmur which mingled with the sighing of the Tiber.
And the Christian was alone once more--alone with memory.
Taurus Antinor's breath came in short, stertorous gasps, his throat was parched and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. The slope of the hill is precipitous here, and the house--nigh to the summit--seemed to recede farther and farther with devilish malignity.
And the sense of silence and of solitude became more absolute, a fitting attendant on memory. On and on the two men walked, the Christian and his burden; their sandalled feet felt like lead as they sank ankle-deep in the mud of the unpaved road.
"Come, take up thy cross and follow me!" and the Christian plodded on in the wake of the Divine Presence that beckoned to him upwards from above.
From time to time Caligula's hoarse and querulous voice would break the death-like silence.
"Are we not there yet?"
"Not yet. Very soon," the praefect would reply.
"I am a fool to have trusted myself to thee, for of a truth thou leadest me to my death."
"Patience, Cæsar, yet a little while longer."
"May the gods fell thee to the earth. I would I had a poisoned dagger by me to kill thee ere thou dost work thy treacherous will with me. Thou son of slaves, may death overtake thee now ..."
"God in heaven grant that it may, O Cæsar," said the praefect fervently.
Now at last the houses became more sparse. Only here and there up the side of the hill a tiny light glittered feebly. Taurus Antinor's senses were only just sufficiently alert to keep in the right direction. The house which he wished to reach was not more now than six hundred steps away.
The darkness had become almost thick in its intensity, even the houses were undistinguishable in the gloom. The two men stumbled as they walked, loose stones detached themselves under their feet and their heelless sandals slid in the mud. Once the Cæsar lost his foothold altogether; but for his convulsive hold on the praefect's arm he would have measured his length in the mud.
Taurus Antinor felt after the wrench as if this must be the end, as if body and brain and soul could not endure a moment longer and live.
A mist akin to the one that enveloped the hill seemed to fall over his brain. He no longer walked now, he just tumbled along, blindly stumbling at almost every step with that dead, dead weight upon his arm which an invisible force compelled him to carry up the precipitous height to the place of safety which was so far away.
"What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" asked that heavenly murmur on the wings of memory. "For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of the Father with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his work."
With his burden lying like an insentient log on his arm, Taurus Antinor fell up at last against the door of the house; his foot had stumbled against its corner-stone.
A moment or two later the door was opened from within and the feeble light of a tiny lamp was held above him whilst a kindly voice murmured:
"Who goes there?"
"The Cæsar is in danger, and a fugitive. He asks shelter and protection from thee," murmured Taurus Antinor feebly, "and I would lay down my burden in thy house for I am weary and I would find rest."
"Enter friend," said the man simply.
The Cæsar, trembling and nerveless, fell forward into the room.
The praefect of Rome lay unconscious upon its threshold but the Christian had laid down his cross at the foot of the throne of God.
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