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"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."--PSALM XIV. 1.
And late that day when Dea Flavia was preparing for rest she dismissed her tire-women, keeping only her young slaves around her, and then ordered Licinia to attend on her this night.
Licinia was highly privileged in the house of Dea Flavia. She had nursed the daughter of proud Claudius Octavius at her breast, and between the wizened old woman and the fresh young girl there existed perfect friendship and the confidence born of years. Dea's first tooth was in Licinia's keeping and so was the first lock of hair cut from Dea's head. Licinia had been the confidante of Dea's first childish sorrow and was the first to hear the tales of the young girl's social triumphs.
No one but Licinia was allowed to handle Dea's hair. It was her shrivelled fingers that plaited every night the living stream of gold into innumerable little plaits, so that the ripple in it might continue to live again on the morrow. It was Licinia who rubbed Dea's exquisite limbs with unguents after the bath, and she who trimmed the rose-tinted nails into their perfect, pointed shape.
To-night Dea Flavia was lying on a couch covered with crimson silk. Her elbows were buried in a cushion stuffed with eiderdown, her chin rested in her two hands and her eyes were fixed on a mirror of polished bronze held up by one of her younger slaves.
Licinia, stooping over the reclining body of her mistress, was gently rubbing the white shoulders and spine with sweet-scented oil.
"And didst see it all, Licinia?" asked Dea Flavia, as with a lazy stretch of her graceful arms she suddenly swung herself round on to her back and looked straight up at the wrinkled old face bending tenderly over her.
"Aye, my precious," replied Licinia eagerly, "everything did I see; for thou didst draw the curtains of thy litter together so quickly, I had no time to take my place by thy side. I meant to follow immediately, and was only waiting there for a moment or two until the crowd of thy retinue had dispersed along the various streets. Then it was that I spied my lord Hortensius, and something in the expression of his face made me pause then and there to see if there was aught amiss."
"And was aught amiss with my lord Hortensius?" asked Dea Flavia with studied indifference.
"He looked wrathful as a tiger in the arena when the guards come and snatch his prey from him. There was a frown on his face darker than that which usually sits on Taurus Antinor's brow."
"He was angered?"
"Aye! at the praefect," rejoined Licinia. "He strode forward from under the arcades directly after the crowd of thy slaves had disappeared, and the Forum was all deserted save for Taurus Antinor standing there as if he had been carved in marble and in bronze and rooted there to the spot. My lord Hortensius came close up to the praefect and greeted him curtly. I dared no longer move away lest I should be seen, so I hid in the deep shadow behind the rostrum, and I heard Taurus Antinor's response to my lord Hortensius."
"Yes! yes!" said Dea Flavia impatiently, "of course they greeted one another ere they came to blows. But 'tis of the blows I would like to hear, and what my lord Hortensius said to the praefect."
"He spoke to him of thee, my child, and taunted him with having angered thee," said Licinia. "The praefect is so proud and so impatient, I marvelled then he did not hit my lord Hortensius in the face at once. He looked so huge, I bethought me of a giant, and his head looked dark like the bronze head of Jupiter, for his face had flushed a deep and angry crimson, whilst his mighty fists were clenched as if ready to strike."
"What caused him to strike, then?"
"My lord Hortensius called him a stranger, and this the praefect did not seem to resent. 'There are other lands than Rome,' he said, 'and one of these gave my ancestors birth. Proud am I of my distant land, and proud now to be a patrician of Rome.' Then did my lord Hortensius break into loud laughter, which to mine ears sounded mirthless and forced. He raised his hand and pointed a finger at the praefect and shouted, still laughing: 'Thou a patrician of Rome? thou a tyrant's minion! slave and son of slave! Nay! if the patriciate of Rome had its will with thee, it would have thee publicly whipped and branded like the arrogant menial that thou art!' This and more did my lord Hortensius say," continued Licinia, whose voice now had sunk to an awed whisper at the recollection of the sacrilege; "I hardly dared to breathe for I could see the praefect's face, and could think of naught save the wrath of Jupiter, when on a sultry evening the thunder clouds are gathering in the wake of the setting sun."
But Dea Flavia's interest in the narrative seemed suddenly to have flagged. She stretched her arms, yawned ostentatiously, and with the movement of a fretful child she threw herself once more flat upon the couch, with her elbows in the cushions and her face buried in her hands.
With some impatience she snatched the mirror from the young slave's hand, and then she put it on the pillow and looked straight down into it, whilst her hair fell like golden curtains down each side of her face.
"Go on, Licinia," she said with curt indifference.
"There is but little more to tell," said the old woman, who with stolid placidness had resumed her former occupation, and once more rubbed the white shoulders with the sweet-smelling unguent; "nor could I tell thee how it all happened. A sort of tempestuous whirlwind seemed to sweep before my eyes, and the next thing that I saw clearly was an enormous figure clad in a gorgeous tunic, and standing high, high above me on the very top of the marble rostrum beside the bronze figure of the god. It was the praefect. From where I stood, palsied with fear, I could see his face, dark now as the very thunders of Jupiter, his hair around his head gleamed like copper in the sun; but what caused my very blood to freeze and the marrow to stiffen in my bones, was to see his two mighty arms high above his head holding the body of my lord Hortensius. He looked up there like some god-like giant about to hurl an enemy down from the mountains of Olympus. The rostrum stands a terrific height above the pavement of the Forum; the marble balustrades, the outstanding gradients, the carvings along its sides, all stood between that inert body held up aloft by those gigantic arms and the flagstones below where Death, hideous and yawning, seemed to be waiting for its prey. And still the praefect did not move, and I could see the muscles of his arms swollen like cords and the sinews of his hands almost cracking beneath the weight of my lord Hortensius' body."
Licinia paused and passed a wrinkled hand over her moist forehead. She was trembling even now at the recollection of what she had seen. The beautiful figure lying stretched out upon the couch had not moved in a single one of its graceful lines. The tiny head beneath its crown of gold was bent down upon the mirror.
"Couldst see my lord Hortensius' face?" came in the same cold tones of indifference from behind the veil of wavy hair.
"No!" said Licinia. "I thank the gods that I could not. One cry for mercy did he utter, one cry of horror when first he felt himself uplifted and looked down into the awful face of Death which awaited him below. Then mayhap he lost consciousness for I heard not a sound, and the whole city lay still in the hush of the noonday sleep. Less than one minute had intervened since first I saw that avenging figure outlined against the blue curtain of the sky: less than one minute even whilst my heart had ceased to beat. And then did a cry of horror escape my lips, and the praefect looked down into my face. Nor did he move as yet, but slowly meseemed as if the ruddy glow died from out his cheeks and brow, and after a while the tension on the mighty arms relaxed, and slowly were they lowered from above his head. He no longer was looking at me now, for his eyes were fixed upon the distant sky, as if they saw there something that called with irresistible power. And upon the heat-laden air there trembled a long sigh as of infinite longing. Then the praefect gathered my lord Hortensius' inanimate body in his arms as a mother would her own child, and with slow and steady steps he descended the gradients of the rostrum. At its foot he caught sight of me, and called me to him: 'My lord hath only fainted,' he said to me; 'do thou chafe his hands and soothe his forehead, whilst I send his slaves to him.' He laid the precious burden down in the cool shadow, taking off his own cloak and making of it a pillow for my lord Hortensius' head. Then he went from me, and as he went I could hear him murmur: 'In Thy service, oh Man of Galilee.'"
Even as these last words still trembled on Licinia's lips there came a sharp cry of rage, followed by one of terror, as with quick and almost savage movement Dea Flavia picked up the heavy mirror of bronze and hurled it across the chamber. It fell with a loud crash against the delicate mosaic of the floor, but as it swung through the air its sharp metal edge hit a young slave girl on the shoulder; a few drops of blood trickled down her breast and she began to whimper in her fright.
It had all happened so suddenly that no one--least of all Licinia--could guess what it was that had so angered my lady. Dea Flavia had raised herself to a sitting posture, and thrown her hair back, away from her face which looked flushed and wrathful, whilst two sharp furrows appeared between her brows.
The women were silent, feeling awed and not a little frightened; the girl, whose shoulder was now bleeding profusely, continued her whimpering.
"Get up, girl," said Licinia roughly, "and staunch thy scratch elsewhere, away from my lady's sight. Hark at the baggage! One would think she is really hurt. Get thee gone, I say, ere I give thee better cause for whining."
But in a moment Dea Flavia was on her feet. With a quick cry of pity she ran to her slave, kneeled beside her and with a fine white cloth herself tried to staunch the wound.
"Art hurt?" she said gently, "art hurt, child? I did not wish to hurt thee. Stop thy weeping--and I'll give thee that amber locket which thou dost covet so. Stop thy weeping, I say! Is it my white rabbit thou dost hanker after--thou shalt have it for thine own--or--or--the woollen tunic with the embroidered bands--or--or--Stop whining, girl," she added impatiently, seeing that the girl, more frightened than hurt, was sobbing louder than before. "Licinia, make her stop--she angers me with all this whining--stop, I tell thee. Oh, Licinia, where is thy whip? I vow I'll have the girl whipped if she do not stop."
But Licinia, accustomed to her mistress's quick changing moods, had in her turn knelt beside the girl and was busy now with deft hands in staunching the blood and tying up the wound. This done she dragged the child up roughly, though not unkindly, from the ground.
"Get thee gone and lie down on thy bed," she said; "shame on thee for making such a to-do. My lady had no wish to hurt thee, and thou hast upset her with all this senseless weeping. Get thee gone now ere I do give thee that whipping which thou dost well deserve."
She contrived to push the girl out of the chamber and ordered two others to follow and look after her; then once more she turned to her mistress, ready to tender fond apologies since what she had said had so angered her beloved.
Dea Flavia had thrown herself on the couch on her back; her arms were folded behind her head, her fair hair lay in heavy masses on the embroidered coverlet. She was staring straight up at the ceiling, her blue eyes wide open, and a puzzled frown across her brow.
"My precious one," murmured Licinia.
But Dea Flavia apparently did not hear. It seemed as if she were grappling in her mind with some worrying puzzle, the solution of which lay hidden up there behind that brilliant bit of blue sky which glimmered through the square opening in the roof.
"My precious one," reiterated the old woman appealingly, "tell me, Dea--was it aught that I said which angered thee?"
Dea Flavia turned large wondering eyes to her old nurse.
"Licinia," she said slowly.
"Yes, my goddess."
"If a man saith that there is one greater, mightier than Cæsar ... he is a traitor, is he not?"
"A black and villainous traitor, Augusta," said Licinia, whose voice at the mere suggestion had become hoarse with awe.
"And what in Rome is the punishment for such traitors, Licinia?" asked the young girl, still speaking slowly and measuredly.
"Death, my child," replied the old woman.
"Only death?" insisted Dea, whilst the puzzled look in her eyes became more marked, and the frown between her brows more deep.
"I do not understand thee, my precious one," said Licinia whose turn it was now to be deeply puzzled; "what greater punishment could there be for a traitor than that of death?"
"They torture slaves for lesser offences than that."
"Aye! and for sedition there is always the cross."
"The cross!" she murmured.
"Yes! Dost remember seven years ago in Judæa? There was a man who raised sedition among the Jews, and called himself their king--setting himself above Cæsar and above the might of Cæsar.... They crucified him. Dost remember?"
"I have heard of him," she said curtly. "What was his name?"
"Nay! I have forgot. Methinks that he came from Galilee. They did crucify him because of sedition, and because he set himself to be above Cæsar."
"And above the House of Cæsar?"
"Aye! above the House of Cæsar too."
"And they crucified him?"
"Aye! like a common thief. 'Twas right and just since he rebelled against Cæsar."
"And yet, Licinia, there are those in Rome who do him service even now."
"The gods forbid!" exclaimed Licinia in horror. "And how could that be?" she added with a shrug of the shoulders, "seeing that he died such a shameful death."
"I marvel on that also," said the young girl, whose wide-open blue eyes once more assumed their strangely puzzled expression.
"Nay! I'll not believe it," rejoined the old woman hotly. "Do that man service? A common traitor who died upon the cross. Who did stuff thine ears, my goddess, with such foolish tales?"
"No one told me foolish tales, Licinia. But this I do know, that there are some in Rome who set that Galilean above the majesty of Cæsar, and in his name do defy Cæsar's might."
"They are madmen then," said the slave curtly.
"Or traitors," added Dea Flavia.
"Thou sayest it; they are traitors and rebels, and never fear, they'll be punished ... sooner or later, they will be punished.... Defy the might of Cæsar?... Great gods above! the impious wretches! thou wert right, my princess! Death alone were too merciful for them.... The scourge first ... and then the cross ... that will teach them the might of thy house, oh daughter of Cæsar.... I would have no mercy with them.... Throw them to the beasts, say I!... brand them ... scourge them ... wring their heart's blood until they cry for death...!"
The old pagan looked evil and cruel in her fury of loyalty to that house which begat her beloved Dea. Her eyes glistened as those of a cat waiting to fall upon its prey; her wrinkled hands looked like claws that were ready to tear the very flesh and sinew from the traitor's breast. Her voice, always hoarse and trembling, had risen to a savage shriek which died away as in a passionate outburst of love she threw herself down on the floor beside the couch, and taking Dea's tiny feet between her hands, she covered them with kisses and with tears.
But Dea Flavia once more lay back on the coverlet of crimson silk and her blue eyes once more were fixed upwards to the sky. Above her the glint of blue was now suffused with tones of pink merging into mauve; somewhere out west the sun was slowly sinking into rest. Tiny golden clouds flitted swiftly across that patch of sky on which Dea Flavia gazed so intently.
"Come kiss me, Licinia," she said slowly after a while. "I'll to rest now. To-morrow I shall see my kinsman the Cæsar again, after a year's absence from him. I desire to be very beautiful to-morrow, Licinia, for mayhap I'll to the games with him. That new tunic worked with purple and gold. I'll wear that and my new shoes of antelope skin. In my hair the circlet of turquoise and pearls ... dost think it'll become me, Licinia?"
"Thou wilt be more beautiful, my precious one, than man's eyes can conveniently endure," said Licinia, whose whole face became radiant with the joy of her perfect love for the girl.
"Ah! thou hast soothed my heart and mind, Licinia. I feel that I shall sleep well to-night."
She allowed the old woman to lead her gently to her bedchamber, where within the narrow alcove she lay all that night tossing upon the silken mattress that was stuffed with eiderdown. Sleep would not come to her, and hour after hour she lay there, her eyes fixed into the darkness on which, at times, her fevered fancy traced a glowing cross.
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