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"Finally my brethren be strong."--EPHESIANS VI. 10.
The younger men were still inclined to rebel. They felt that they were in great numbers and that they were strong: they believed--with that optimism of excited youth--that their will must prevail in the end. In their opinion the Cæsar had done nothing to atone for his crime against the praefect of Rome, or for his dastardly cringing before the power of his people.
But the older men, those who had mayhap more than once witnessed street rioting and the bloody reprisals that invariably followed open rebellion--they counselled prudence, an acceptance of what had come about, since the imperial decree had been fixed to the rostrum of the great Augustus, promising pardon for all delinquencies.
And--what would you?--but was not the praefect of Rome dead? The consul-major had stated it positively to all those who asked the question of him, and he had it on the positive authority of Folces, the praefect's most trusted slave. It was the consul-major who, preceded by his lictors, had caused the imperial decree to be read out aloud to the people of Rome from the topmost steps of the Temple of Mars, and it was he who had then ordered the decree to be affixed to the wall of the rostrum. The consul-major had received the precious parchment at the hands of the special messenger sent by the Cæsar himself: that messenger was none other than Folces, and he had stated positively that the praefect of Rome was dead.
It was useless to demand that a man be proclaimed to the principate if that man be dead. True that some of the malcontents--those young men who were hot-headed and whose raging tempers were not easily curbed--refused to accept the news and loudly demanded the body of the hero so that divine honours might be accorded to it, to the lifelong shame of the Cæsar who had so basely murdered him.
But the praetor urbanus had declared that the body of the praefect could not be found, and the rumour had gained ground that it had been defiled and thrown to the dogs. A sullen discontent reigned amongst the people for this, and it could not be allayed by all the promises of pardon and of rejoicings which the imperial proclamation decreed.
There had been some calls too for Dea Flavia. The Cæsar had nominated his successor to the imperium in the Circus the other day. If the Augusta would but make her choice, the people would perhaps be ready to accept her lord now as Consort Imperii, with the ultimate hope that a just and brave man would succeed to the principate in due course.
But no sound had as yet come from the house of Dea Flavia, and the people hung about the Forum in desultory groups, discussing the situation. That the gods had intervened in the Cæsar's favour no one could reasonably doubt. Even whilst the anger of the populace was at its height and dense masses had surrounded his palace to which he had been known to flee, he had been spirited away out of the city. His proclamation had come from Etruria, showing that he was already far from his city and on his way to join his legions.
How did he succeed in making a way for himself through the dense masses that had thronged the streets for nigh on forty-eight hours, since first the tumult broke out in the Circus when the praefect of Rome was stabbed?
Had Jupiter sent down his thunders yesterday, his lowering clouds and heavy showers of rain, only in order to aid the Cæsar in his progress? What hand had guided him down the declivities of the Palatine? What arm shielded him from the anger of the people?
Dea Flavia had heard the news even as soon as the first hour of the day had been called. Yesterday, bruised in mind and heart and body, she had lain for close on an hour in a dreamless, semi-conscious state. It was only when she awoke from that that the knowledge of her misery returned to her in full.
She had found love, happiness, pride, all that makes life exquisite and fair, only to lose all these treasures even before she had had time to grasp them.
Love had been called to life by the look, the touch of one man, happiness had come when she saw the love-light in his eyes, born in response to hers: pride came with all the rich gifts which she could lavish upon him. Now everything was gone, he had taken everything from her, even as he gave it; and he took everything in order to offer it as a sacrifice to his God.
Now her heart was numbed and her brain tried in vain to conjure up the images of yesterday: the happy moments when she had lain against the noblest heart in Rome. But the only vision that her dulled senses could perceive was that of dying Menecreta speaking that awful curse, or of herself--Dea Flavia--gazing with eyes of anger and of pride into vacancy wherein her imagination had traced a glowing cross, and uttering words of defiance that seemed so futile, so sacrilegious now.
The storm then had obscured the sky, drove the rain in heavy patter overhead, the air was dismal and dark: now a brilliant sunshine flooded the imperial city with its radiance, the wet marble glistened in the dawn and a roseate hue tipped the seven hills of Rome with glory. But in Dea Flavia's heart there was sorrow darker than the blackest night, sleep forsook her eyelids, and all night long she tossed about restlessly on her couch listening to the sounds that came from the city in rebellion, counting them out as they died away one by one.
She had gone to her room quite early in the day; her guests she knew were being well looked after, and she could not bear to remain in the studio whose every corner reminded her of that powerful personality which had lately filled it, and whose very walls still echoed with the sound of that rough voice, rendered at times so exquisitely tender.
Blanca attended on her and put her to bed for she could not bear to have Licinia near her. The old woman's gossip jarred upon her nerves and she was physically afraid to hear indifferent lips utter the name of the praefect of Rome.
Only the call, "Hail Taurus Antinor Cæsar! Hail!" which still came half the night through from afar dulled her agony of mind for a few seconds when it struck upon her ear. It set her wondering, thus allowing her momentarily to forget her misery. Then she would lie, wide-eyed, looking upwards and pondering.
Who was this god whom Taurus Antinor worshipped?
Who was he and what had he done? All she knew was that he had died upon a cross, the most ignominious death mortal man could suffer, and the praefect of Rome, the proud Roman patrician, had been content to obey him as a slave.
Who was he and what had he done? On this she pondered half the night through, while fever coursed through her veins and her brows were moist and aching, her heart palpitating with pain.
The dawn found her wearied and sick. But she rose when Blanca came to her in the first hour. She summoned Licinia and all her women and ordered them to dress her in one of her richest robes. She looked very girlish and very pale when she stood decked out in the embroidered tunic which she had chosen; it was of a soft material, clinging to her graceful figure in long straight folds, there was some elaborate embroidery round the hem, below which her feet peeped out clothed in sandals of gilt leather.
When she was dressed she went out into the atrium and then sent word to the praetorian praefect and his friends that she was ready to receive them.
Some of the news from the busy world outside had already reached her ears. Licinia was not like to be chary in imparting to her mistress the scraps of gossip which she had collected.
The Cæsar was outside the city, he would in due time return to Rome at the head of his legions, and in the meanwhile he had by a comprehensive and gracious act of clemency pardoned all those who had offended against his majesty.
The noble patricians who yesterday had already deposed him, and had called on her to name his successor, had been foiled in their ambitious schemes by the very man whom she--Dea Flavia--would have set upon the throne.
And once more that one all-absorbing puzzle confronted her: who and what was this god who had exacted this all-embracing sacrifice?
She wandered somewhat aimlessly through the halls, for the great lords were not yet ready to appear before her, and as she crossed the atrium and went into the peristylium, looking with somewhat wistful longing toward the open portals of the vestibule and the vista of open air and sky from whence a breath of pure fresh air struck pleasingly on her nostrils, she saw that in spite of the early hour a large number of the poorer clients, suppliants at the door of the great Augusta, had already assembled there.
Foremost amongst them was an elderly man dressed in the plain garb of a slave, and wearing, embroidered on his tunic, the badge that proclaimed him in the service of the praefect of Rome.
The man appeared to be very insistent, and to be receiving in consequence, somewhat rough treatment from the janitors. Dea Flavia turned to one of her own slaves and ordered the man to be brought to her presence in her studio where she would receive him.
The man told the janitors that his name was Folces, that he belonged to the praefect of Rome and desired speech with the Augusta. He walked in very humbly, with back bent nearly double, and when he was shown into the studio where the Augusta sat alone he fell on both knees before her.
"Thy name is Folces, I am told," she began graciously, "and thou art of the household of the praefect of Rome?"
"I attend upon his person, gracious lady," replied the man.
"And thou hast brought me a message from him?" she asked, even as with this hope her heart began to beat violently in her breast.
"Not from him, gracious lady," said Folces humbly, "for the praefect of Rome is dead."
"Who told thee that he was dead?" she asked.
"Taurus Antinor named Anglicanus," replied the man simply; "he sent me my freedom this night and a message to lay at the feet of Dea Flavia Augusta."
"Give me the message," she said.
Still on his knees, Folces fumbled in the folds of his mantle and from his breast he drew a roll of parchment which he offered to the Augusta.
"Rise, Folces, and go while I read," she said; "wait outside the door till I do summon thee."
She waited until the man had closed the heavy door behind him: she wanted to be alone with these last words which he had penned for her. Now she untied the string that held the roll together, then she unfolded the parchment and read:
"Idol of my soul, beloved of my heart. Aroused from dreams of thee, my wakening soul takes its last flight to thy feet. This is farewell, my dear, dear heart, even as my hand pens the word the dawn around me turns to the likeness of the night, and it is peopled with all the sorrows that wear out the heartstrings slowly, one by one. The Cæsar is safe. Even as I write he starts forth on his way to join his legions. Having left him in charge of those who do not know how to betray, I succeeded in the night in reaching the detachment of the praetorian guard encamped around the Circus: a small company of them returned with me to the lonely house on the Aventine, and from thence at break of day they started with the Cæsar toward Etruria, where the legions home from the expedition against the Allemanni were still known to abide. In three or four days, or mayhap five, the Cæsar will re-enter his city. His proclamation of pardon is so worded that his keeping of his word is closely bound up both with his honour and with his personal safety. The people therefore have naught to fear from his vengeance: those who have more actively conspired against him, and who would have drawn thee in their selfish schemes, have time before them to put themselves and their belongings out of the immediate reach of the Cæsar. Tell them to live in retirement as far from Rome as they can until such time as the events of the past few days have been erased from the tablets of memory.
"The Cæsar is safe, and I, dear heart, do bid thee a last farewell. When I parted from thee yesterday we both knew then that the parting would be for ever; even though thine exquisite hands clung to me and twined themselves round the very fibres of my soul, and thy voice called me back with the ineffable sweetness of thy love, I knew that it would be for ever. The Cæsar will never forgive me that I witnessed his abject humiliation. Even at dawn, when he stood surrounded by his praetorian guard, as secure from danger as human agency could make him, a gleam of hatred shone in his eyes whenever he looked on me. He never would give thee to me, dear heart, and would vent his wrath also upon thy dear head. 'Tis better that he too should think me dead, for dead will I be to Rome and to the people among whom my name might yet give cause for strife and for discontent.
"The Cæsar is safe, and I can go my ways in peace. He hath no longer need of me but my Lord hath called and I His servant must take up my cross and follow Him. The priceless gifts which thy pure hands did hold out to me are registered in His book of Heaven, and He never forgets. As for me I were less or more than a man were I to ask thee to forget. I would have thee remember, yet would I think of thee as happy and radiant as the stars wherewith He hath gladdened the darkness of our nights. But think not of me as unhappy. My Lord has called, and I the servant am bound to follow. He laid a burden on me and this burden must I bear even though I may bear with it all the pain that is greater than the pain of the earth, greater than the ceaseless travail of the sea, even though I may bear with it that bitterest of all bitter fruits the labour that is nothing worth. That I know not! Who knoweth, oh God? Truly not I. There was grief in the world, dear heart, even before the stars were made or the sky stretched its blue dome above; and as hour follows hour, day succeeds day and the cycles of years come and go, even so do fresh griefs and greener sorrows spring around us; like each recurrent season they too come and go. Only one thing abideth, dear heart, and that is the will of God, who made happiness and woe, love and pain, sleep and death. And 'tis the will of God that I should lose thee and yet continue to live, even though life to me henceforth will be one long dream of death.
"Idol of my soul, beloved of my heart, farewell. I go to find comfort from that bitter word on the summit of Golgotha, at the foot of an abandoned, broken Cross. When my soul hath found peace then will it be ready for the service of God.
"Farewell, my beloved! May God have thee in His keeping, even as thy soul hath already been touched with His grace. Farewell! Mine eyes are dim, my hand trembles, hot tears blur the writing on this parchment. And as I look up through the open doorway to where the limitless horizon lies beyond Rome's seven hills, I see stretched out before me the long vista of years throughout which my heart will be for ever weaving with threads of longing and of sorrow the tether which binds undying memory to thee."
Her hands, which held the roll of parchment, dropped down upon her lap. Her eyes too were dim and the hot tears fell from them one by one. A sadness that was in no way bitter and yet was immeasurable as death had filled her entire being as she read.
Slowly she laid the parchment in the bosom of her tunic, then, like one who walks in sleep, she rose and crossed the studio, her hand--white and slightly quivering--pushed back the heavy door that masked the inner room. Silently it swung upon its hinges, disclosing the sanctum where yesterday the stricken hero had lain helpless and sick.
The couch had not been touched since he had lain on it. It still bore the imprint of the massive figure as it lay inert in the embrace of drugged sleep. The pillow only had been smoothed out as if by a loving hand, and as Dea Flavia came nearer to it she saw that a small object had been laid there, as if reverently, right in the centre.
The tears in her eyes obscured her vision momentarily, but when they fell one by one down her cheeks, she saw a little more clearly, and having approached the couch she took up the small object that lay there upon the pillow.
It was the wooden cross which she had last seen held between the clasped hands of the man whom she loved.
She gazed on the small symbol, and gazed, even though the tears gathered thick and fast in her eyes and the image that she saw was scarce discernible as it rested in her hand.
How puzzled she had been two nights ago when she stole softly into this room and saw him kneeling here beside the couch, clasping this wooden symbol between his fingers--intertwined in a gesture of passionate prayer. She had been puzzled because his actions of the day before had seemed incomprehensible to her: his attitude to my lord Hortensius Martius, an enemy whose life he saved at risk of his own, his loyalty to the Cæsar whom everyone abhorred!
All this had puzzled her then, but how infinitely more profound was that puzzle now. A riddle more mysterious than any sage could propound lay hidden in the words of the letter which she had just read. The man who had penned that letter had poured out his heart in it, and it was not a heart that was void of pity or of love. It brimmed over with pity, it was bruised with the intensity of love: but, crushed and broken though it was, it did not murmur, it only endured.
Dea Flavia looked down upon the small object which to Taurus Antinor had been an emblem of that god whom he worshipped and who had been man and had died a shameful death.
Who was this god whom Taurus Antinor worshipped? for whose sake and at whose bidding he was content to give up all the superheights of ambition to which a Roman patrician could aspire? Who was this god? and what had he done that a man like Taurus Antinor--a man filled with all a man's strength and all a man's heroism, a man worshipped of the people and glorified by an entire nation--should thus give up the lordship of Rome in order to do him service? that he should give it up, too, without a murmur, content to offer this final and absolute sacrifice.
"Think not of me as unhappy. My Lord has called me and I, His servant am bound to follow."
Thus had the man written in loneliness and in peace after the sacrifice had been accomplished, even after she--the Augusta--had, with love-filled heart and generous hands, offered him everything that man could desire on this earth. He had written it in loneliness and in peace, having given up the world to follow his God.
Who was this god? and what had he done that his power over Taurus Antinor's heart was greater than her own?
Yesterday she had cursed him loudly and called him cruel and unjust, four days ago she had defied him and now he had conquered. Taurus Antinor had obeyed him and she who loved him and whom he loved was left desolate.
For this she never doubted: he loved her, that she knew. She was no child now! The last four days had made a woman of her: in the past four days she had tasted of and witnessed every passion that rends a human heart, love, ambition, cruelty, hatred! She had seen them all! seen through passion men brought down to a level lower than the beasts, and through passion a man become equal to a god. No! she was no longer a child, she was a woman now, and there was much that if she did not understand she at least could not doubt. The man whom she loved, loved her with an intensity at least equal to that which even now made her heart throb at the memory of his kiss. He loved her, longed for her, would have laid down his life for her even at the moment when he tore himself away from her arms. He loved her and longed for her even whilst his trembling fingers penned this last impassioned farewell.
He loved her and he loved Rome! But his god called to him and he, the proud Roman patrician, the accepted lord of the Augusta and of Rome, followed as would a slave.
Slowly she dropped down on her knees just where he too had knelt two nights ago, and like unto him she clasped her hands together, scarce conscious that the tiny wooden cross still lay between her fingers.
"Thou hast conquered, oh Galilean!" she murmured, whilst great sobs that would not be suppressed rose to her throat. "At thy call he left everything that makes life beautiful and happy: at thy call he left me to mourn, he left the people of Rome who acclaimed him, he left the throne of Augustus and the Empire of the world! Everything he left at thy call! What hast thou in thy nail-pierced hands to give him in return?"
For a while now she was able to give way to her immeasurable sorrow. Her head buried in the pillow whereon his head had rested, she sobbed out her loving, aching heart in a passionate fit of weeping.
Just like the Christian yesterday up on the heights, so was she--the pagan--alone now with her grief. More lonely than he--she had no anchorage, and in her ear had never sounded those all-compelling words, sublime in their perfect gentleness:
"Come unto Me!"
But who shall tell what divine hand soothed her burning forehead? what divine words of comfort were whispered in her ear?
Gradually her tears ceased to flow, the heavy sobs were stilled, her aching and bruised body felt numb with the pain in her heart. But outwardly she was more calm. She rose from her knees, and hiding the small cross in the bosom of her gown, she drew forth the letter and read it through once more.
"If only I knew!" she murmured. "If only I could understand!"
After a while she bethought her of the slave Folces, the one human link left now between herself and the man whom she loved and who was gone from her.
With reverent hands she smoothed out the couch, the pillow which had supported his head, the coverlet which had lain over him. She was loth to go from this room whose every corner seemed still to hold something of his personality and whose every wall seemed to hold an echo of his voice.
She would have stayed here for hours longer, talking to that absent personality, powerful and mysterious more than ever now, listening to the rugged voice which she would never hear again. But there was something that she must do ere she gave herself over finally to her dreams; there was a duty to accomplish which she knew he would ask of her.
Therefore--after a last, long, all-embracing look on the place which would for ever be as a sanctuary in her sight--she went back to the studio at last, and herself going to the door she called Folces back to her.
"The praefect of Rome, good Folces?" she asked as soon as the man had entered, "wilt see him again?"
"Taurus Antinor named Anglicanus hath left Rome to-day on his way to Syria, O Augusta!" said the man, humbly insisting on the name of his master.
"Dost not go with him?"
"He hath commanded me to stay here and to look after his household until such time as he doth direct."
"His household?" she said. "I had not thought of that. What is to become of his house in Rome, his villa at Ostia and his slaves?"
"The praefect of Rome," said Folces, "made ere he died a testament wherein he did command the freedom of all his slaves, and ordered a certain sum of money to be set aside which will enable even the humblest amongst us all to live decently like freedmen. The house in Rome and the villa at Ostia are to be sold, whilst the remainder of Taurus Antinor's private fortune is to be administered by his general agents. He said that he would see to it later on. I am still his slave; he did not confide in me."
"Yet he asked thee to look after his household."
"It will take a little time until the manumissio testamento can take effect. In the meanwhile we all are Taurus Antinor's slaves and must look after his houses until they have been sold."
"Wilt be happy as a freedman, Folces?"
"Yes, Augusta," replied the man simply, "for then I shall be at liberty to follow Taurus Antinor as his servant."
She sat quite silently after this, her tear-stained eyes fixed into vacancy. Folces was on his knees waiting to be dismissed. It was some little while before she remembered his presence, then in a gentle voice she bade him go.
"Shall I take a message back to my master?" he asked humbly. "I could find him, I think, if I had a message."
"I have no message," she said; "go, good Folces."
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