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"We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do."--ST. LUKE XVII. 10.
Half an hour later Dea Flavia Augusta was in the tablinium. She had received Caius Nepos, the praetorian praefect, Marcus Ancyrus, the elder, my lords Hortensius Martius, Philippus Decius and the others, and they, who had heard so many conflicting rumours throughout the morning and were beginning to quake with fear, for none of the rumours were reassuring, were grouped trembling and expectant around her.
"My lords," she began as soon as she had received their obsequious greetings, "I know not if you have heard the news. The Cæsar hath succeeded in quitting Rome; he is on his way to rejoin his legions and nothing can stand in the way of his progress. In a few days from now he will make his State re-entry into the city, and the city will resound from end to end with rejoicings in his honour."
"We had all heard the news, Augusta," said Caius Nepos who was vainly trying to steady his voice and to appear calm and dignified, "and also that a proclamation of pardon hath preceded the entry of the Cæsar into Rome and hath been affixed to the rostrum of the great Augustus by the consul-major himself this morning."
"And what do you make of all this, my lords?" she asked.
"That some gods of evil have been at work," muttered young Escanes between set teeth, "and spirited the tyrannical madman out of the way for the further scourging of his people."
"The spirit, my lords," she interposed quietly, "that led my kinsman to safety last night was one which actuated the noblest patrician in Rome to do his duty loyally by the Cæsar."
"Then curse him for a traitor," muttered Caius Nepos, whose cheeks had become white with terror.
"He was no traitor to you, my lords," she retorted hotly, "for he was not one of you. He was true to the oath which he had rendered to the Cæsar; aye, even to the Cæsar whom we, my lords, all of us here present had been ready to betray."
Then as she saw nothing but sullen faces around her and not a word broke the silence that ensued, she continued more calmly:
"Yesterday you came to me, my lords, with proposals of treachery to which I, alas, did listen because in my heart I had already chosen one man who I felt was worthy to rule over this great Empire. I had made my choice and myself offered him the imperium, the throne of Augustus and the sceptre of the Cæsars.... But he refused it all, my lords, and went forth in the night to place himself body and heart at the Cæsar's service."
"And his name, O Augusta?" queried Ancyrus, the elder.
"He hath name Taurus Antinor and was once praefect of Rome."
"He is dead!" broke in Hortensius Martius hotly.
"He lived long enough, my lord," she retorted, "to show us all our duty."
There was silence after that, for many a heart was beating spasmodically with fear or with hope. My lord Hortensius Martius sat on a low stool, with his elbow on his knee, his chin buried in his hand. His eyes, glowing with dull and sullen hatred, searched the face of Dea Flavia, trying to read what went on behind the pure, straight brow and those liquid blue eyes, deep as the fathomless sea.
"What is to be done?" said Ancyrus, the elder, with a pitiable look of perplexity directed at the Augusta.
"To make our submission to the Cæsar," she said simply, "those of us at least who are not afraid of his wrath. For the others there is still time to seek a safe retreat far away from Rome."
"But this is monstrous!" cried Hortensius Martius, suddenly jumping to his feet and beginning to pace up and down the room in an outburst of impotent wrath. "This is miserable, cowardly, abject! What? Would ye allow that stranger, that son of slaves, to thwart your plans by his treachery? Are we naughty children that can thus be sent, well-whipped and whining to bed? Up, my lords, this is not the end! Cæsar is not yet in Rome! The people are still dissatisfied. Hark to the noise in the Forum below! Does it sound as if the populace was accepting the news with rejoicing? Up now, my lords! It is not too late! Acclaim your new Cæsar; it is not too late, I say. When the legions return with that mountebank at their head let them find Dea Flavia Augusta and her lord the acknowledged masters of Rome."
He looked flushed, excited and proud, feeling that even at this eleventh hour he could carry these men along with him if Dea Flavia put the weight of her power on his side. Now he paused in his peroration, standing above his fellow-conspirators as if already he were their ruler, and looking from one face to the other with eager restless eyes that expressed all his enthusiasm and all his hopes.
But the two older men had evidently no stomach for the situation as it now was. It had been easy matter enough to murder the Cæsar treacherously and while his legions were three days' march away. But now everything was very different, the issues very doubtful; no doubt that a safe retreat away from the city would be by far the wiser course.
Caius Nepos, with vivid recollections of his last interview with the Cæsar, shook his head with slow determination. Ancyrus, the elder, was silent and only the three younger men had followed Hortensius Martius in his heated argument.
"What sayest thou, Augusta?" asked Philippus Decius at last, looking doubtfully upon the young girl.
"That ye must make your plans without me, my lords," she said coldly. "Since, as you say, the praefect of Rome is dead, I can make no choice worthy of him who is gone. I choose to return to mine allegiance, my loyalty to the Cæsar and to my House."
"If the Cæsar returns," urged Hortensius Martius, "he will vent some of his wrath on thee."
"Then will I suffer for my treachery, my lords," she rejoined proudly, "in accordance with my deserts."
"But Augusta ..."
"I pray you, my lord," she interposed haughtily, "do not prolong your arguments. My mind is made up. An you value your own safety in the future, 'twere wiser to make preparations for a lengthy stay away from Rome."
"Hadst thou listened to us yesterday ..." sighed Ancyrus, the elder.
"A heavy crime had lain against us all," she said. "Be thankful, my lords, that in the history of Rome when it comes to be written, your deed will not have sullied the page that marks to-day. And now, my lords, I bid you farewell! You are in no danger if you leave the city forthwith. The rejoicings at the entry of the Cæsar and the homecoming of his legions will last many days, during that time your names will be erased from the tablets of my kinsman's memory."
"The gods grant it!" murmured Caius Nepos. "But thou, Augusta, what of thee?"
"I, my lords," she said with a gentle smile, the irony of which was lost on their self-centred intellects, "I pray you have no thoughts of me. I have been placed in the keeping of one who, I am told, is mightier than Cæsar. There must I be safe; so farewell, my lords; we meet again, I hope, in happier and more peaceful times."
She stood up and one by one--for was she not still the Augusta and the favourite kinswoman of the Cæsar?--they bent the knee before her and kissed the hem of her gown. After which act of homage they retired with backs bent and walking backwards out of the room.
My lord Hortensius Martius was the last to take his leave. He went down on both knees and would have encircled the Augusta with his arms, only she drew back quickly a step or two.
"Dea ... in the name of my love for thee ..." he began.
But she interrupted him gently, yet firmly.
"Speak not to me of love, my lord," she said. "'Tis but love's ghost that moves to and fro when you speak."
Then as he would have protested, she put up her hand with a gesture of finality.
"It is no use, my lord. What love there is in me, that you could never have aroused--not even in the past. I entreat you not to insist. Love cannot be compelled. It is or is not. Whence it comes we know not; mayhap the gods do know ... mayhap there is only one who knows ... and he seems to give much, but also to take all.... Therefore mayhap love comes from him, and when we are not prepared to give up all for love's sake, then doth he withhold the supreme gift and leave our hearts barren.... Mayhap! mayhap!" she sighed, "alas! I know not! and you, good my lord, do not look so puzzled and so scared. I bid you farewell now. I'll not forget you; to remember is so much easier than to love."
He had perforce to accept his dismissal. He felt rebellious against fate and would have liked to have forced her will. But as she stood there before him, clad all in white, so young and so chaste and yet a woman who knew what love was, an awed reverence for her crept into his heart and he felt that indeed he would never dare to speak again to her of love.
He too kissed the hem of her tunic now, just as the others had done, and just as they had done he walked out of her presence backwards with back bent and an overwhelming disappointment in his heart.
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