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A Friend of Caesar - A Tale of the Fall of the Roman Republic. Time, 50-47 B.C.
by William Stearns Davis
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"Hem!" laughed Caesar. "Didn't I make good the threat?"

"You did with all save this man, who got away," was his unflinching answer. "Although in mercy you strangled all your captors before you had them put on the crosses."

"Hei!" quoth the Imperator. "I should have spared them to give me criticism of those verses now."

"Kyrios," rejoined Demetrius, "the man who survived assures me that the verses at least were wretched, though your excellency was a very good wrestler."

"Euge! Bravo!" cried Caesar, and all the company joined in. "I must take a few of your men back to Rome, for we need critics for our rough Latin versifiers."

Drusus, as soon as the laugh passed away, arose, and addressed his chief:—

"Imperator," he said, "Agias this morning dragged from off the mole with him into the water one of the most dangerous men in the councils of our enemies. I mean, as you know, Pratinas the Greek. He is now in the palace prison, but every one is aware that, so long as he so much as lives, we are hardly safe. What shall be done?"

Caesar frowned.

"This is hardly a basilica for a trial," he replied, "but 'inter arma silent leges.' Tell the centurions on guard to bring him here. I imagine we must grant him the form of an examination."

Drusus went out to give the necessary orders.

"You did not see Agias's prisoner?" asked Cornelia of Demetrius, who was now an old friend.

"I did not," answered the pirate prince, pouring down the contents of a prodigious beaker at a single draught. "A very desperate man, I imagine. But it is hard for me to blame any one so long as he fights openly. Still," he added, with a laugh, "I mustn't express such sentiments, now that his excellency has given me this." And he tossed over to Cornelia a little roll, tiny but precious, for it was a general pardon, in the name of the Republic, for all past offences, by land or sea, against the peace. "Babai!" continued Demetrius, lolling back his great length on the couch, "who would have imagined that I, just returning from a mere voyage to Delos to get rid of some slaves, should save the lives of my cousin, my benefactor's son, and Caesar himself, and become once more an honest man. Gods! gods! avert the misfortunes that come from too much good fortune!"

"Was Agias badly wounded?" asked Cornelia, with some concern.

"Oh," replied his cousin, "he will do well. If his precious captive had thrust his dagger a bit deeper, we might have a sorry time explaining it all to that pretty little girl—Artemisia he calls her—whom he dotes upon. By the bye," continued Demetrius, as entirely at his ease in the company as though he had been one of the world's high-born and mighty, "can your ladyship tell me where Artemisia is just now? She was a very attractive child."

"Assuredly," said Cornelia. "She is here in the palace, very anxious, I doubt not, about Agias. Come, I will send for her. You shall tell her all about his escape."

Demetrius appeared pleased, and Cornelia whispered to a serving-lad, who immediately went out.

The tramp of heavy feet sounded on the mosaics outside the banqueting room; the tapestry over the doorway was thrust aside, and in the dim lamplight—for it had long been dark—two rigid soldiers in armour could be seen, standing at attention. Drusus stepped past them, and saluted.

"The prisoner is here, Imperator," he said.

"Bring him in," replied Caesar, laying down his wine-cup.

The curtain swayed again, and the rest of a decuria of troops entered. In their centre was a figure whose manacles were clinking ominously. In the uncertain light it was only possible to see that the prisoner was bent and shivering with fright. The general shrugged his shoulders in disgust.

"This is the sort of creature, Drusus," quoth he, derisively, "that is so dangerous that we must despatch him at once? Phui! Let him stand forth. I suppose he can still speak?"

Pratinas made a pitiable picture. The scuffle and wetting had done little benefit to his clothes; his armour the pirates had long since appropriated; his hair, rather long through affectation, hung in disorder around his neck. He had shaved off his "philosopher's" beard, and his smooth cheeks showed ugly scratches. He was as pale as white linen, and quaking like a blade of grass in the wind, the very antithesis of the splendid Ares of the fight on the mole.

"Your name is Pratinas?" began Caesar, with the snappish energy of a man who discharges a disagreeable formality.

"Yes, despotes," began the other, meekly; but as he did so he raised his head, and the rays of one of the great candelabra fell full on his face. In a twinkling a shout, or rather a scream, had broken from Demetrius. The pirate had leaped from his couch, and, with straining frame and dilated eyes, sprang between the prisoner and his judge.

"Menon!" The word smote on the captive like the missile of a catapult. He reeled back, almost to falling; his eyes closed involuntarily. His face had been pale before, now it was swollen, as with the sight of a horror.

"Demetrius!" and at this counter exclamation, the cornered man burst into a howl of animal fear. And well he might, for Demetrius had sprung upon him as a tiger upon an antelope. One of the guards indiscreetly interposed, and a stroke of the pirate's fist sent the soldier sprawling. Demetrius caught his victim around the body, and crushed the wretched man in beneath his grasp. The pseudo-Pratinas did not cry out twice. He had no breath. Demetrius tore him off of his feet and shook him in mid-air.

"Daphne! Daphne!" thundered the awful pirate; "speak—or by the infernal gods—"

"Put him down!" shouted Caesar and Drusus. They were almost appealing to an unchained lion roaring over his prey, Drusus caught one of Demetrius's arms, and with all his strength tore it from its grasp.

"The man cannot say a word! you are choking him," he cried in the pirate's ear.

Demetrius relaxed his mighty grip. Pratinas, for so we still call him, leaned back against one of the soldiers, panting and gasping. Drusus took his assailant by the arm, and led him back to a seat. Caesar sat waiting until the prisoner could speak.

"Pratinas," said the Imperator, sternly, "as you hope for an easy death or a hard one, tell this man the truth about his daughter."

Pratinas drew himself together by a mighty effort. For an instant he was the former easy, elegant, versatile Hellene. When he answered it was with the ring of triumph and defiance.

"Imperator, it would be easy to tell a lie, for there is no means of proof at hand. This man," with a derisive glance at his enemy, "says that I know something about his daughter. Doubtless, though, since he has pursued for recent years so noble an avocation, it were more grateful if he thanked me for caring for the deserted girl. Well, I kept her until she was sufficiently old, and then—for I was at the time quite poor—disposed of her to a dealer at Antioch, who was planning to take a slave caravan to Seleucia. My good friend probably will find his daughter in some Parthian harem, unless—"

Cornelia had arisen and was whispering to Drusus; the latter turned and held the raging pirate in his seat. Pratinas had made of every word a venomed arrow, and each and all struck home. The workings of Demetrius's face were frightful, the beads of agony stood on his brows,—doubtless he had always feared nothing less,—the certainty was awful. Cornelia looked upon him half-anxious, yet serene and smiling. Drusus, too, seemed composed and expectant. The Imperator gazed straight before him, his eyes searching the prisoner through and through, and under the glance the Greek again showed signs of fear and nervousness.

The curtain at the opposite end of the hall rustled, Cornelia rose and walked to the doorway, and returned, leading Artemisia by the hand. The girl was dressed in a pure white chiton; her thick hair was bound back with a white fillet, but in the midst of its mass shone a single golden crescent studded with little gems. She came with shy steps and downcast eyes—abashed before so many strangers; and, as she came, all gazed at her in admiration, not as upon the bright beauty of a rose, but the perfect sweetness of a modest lily. Cornelia led her on, until they stood before the prisoner.

"Artemisia," said Cornelia, in a low voice, "have you ever seen this man before?"

Artemisia raised her eyes, and, as they lit on Pratinas, there was in them a gleam of wonder, then of fear, and she shrank back in dread, so that Cornelia threw her arm about her to comfort her.

"A! A!" and the girl began to cry. "Has he found me? Will he take me? Pity! mercy! Pratinas!"

But no one had paid her any more attention. It was Caesar who had sprung from his seat.

"Wretch!" and his terrible eyes burned into Pratinas's guilty breast, so that he writhed, and held down his head, and began to mutter words inaudible. "Can you tell the truth to save yourself the most horrible tortures human wit can devise?"

But Pratinas had nothing to say.

Again Demetrius leaped upon him. The pirate was a frantic animal. His fingers moved as though they were claws to pluck the truth from the offender's heart. He hissed his question between teeth that ground together in frenzy.

"How did you get her? Where from? When?"

Pratinas choked for utterance.

"Artemisia! Daphne! Yours! I lost her! Ran away at Rome!"

The words shook out of him like water from a well-filled flask. Demetrius relaxed his hold. A whole flood of conflicting emotions was displayed upon his manly face. He turned to Artemisia.

"Makaira! dearest! don't you know me?" he cried, holding outstretched his mighty arms.

"I am afraid!" sobbed poor Artemisia in dismay.

"Come!" It was Cornelia who spoke; and, with the daughter crying softly on one arm, and the father dragged along in a confused state of ecstasy on the other, she led them both out of the room.

Pratinas was on his knees before Caesar. The Hellene was again eloquent—eloquent as never before. In the hour of extremity his sophistry and his rhetoric did not leave him. His antitheses, epigrams, well-rounded maxims, figures of speech, never were at a better command. For a time, charmed by the flow of his own language, he gathered strength and confidence, and launched out into bolder flights of subtly wrought rhetoric. He excused, explained away each fault, vivified and magnified a hundred non-existent virtues, reared a splendid word-fabric in praise of clemency. To what end? Before him sat Caesar, and Drusus, and a dozen Romans more, who, with cold, unmoved Italian faces, listened to his artificial eloquence, and gave no sign of pity. And as he went on, the sense of his hopeless position overcame the wretched man, and his skill began to leave him. He became thick and confused of speech; his periods tripped; his thought moved backward. Then his supple tongue failed him utterly, and, in cries and incoherent groans, he pleaded for the right to exist.

"Man," said the Imperator, when the storm of prayers and moans was over, "you conspired against Quintus Drusus, my friend. You failed—that is forgiven. You conspired, I have cause to believe, against Pompeius, my enemy, but a Roman—that is unproved, and therefore forgiven. You conspired with Pothinus against me—that was an offence touching me alone, and so that, too, may be forgiven. But to the prayers of a father you had wronged, you answered so that you might gloat over his pain. Therefore you shall die and not live. Take him away, guards, and strike off his head, for his body is too vile to nail to any cross."

The face of the Greek was livid. He raised his manacled hands, and strained at the irons in sheer despair. The soldiers caught him roughly to hale him away.

"Mercy! kyrios! kyrios!" he shrieked. "Spare me the torments of Hades! The Furies will pursue me forever! Pity! Mercy!"

Cornelia had reentered the room, and saw this last scene.

"When my uncle and Ahenobarbus were nigh their deaths," she said stingingly, "this man observed that often, in times of mortal peril, skeptics call on the gods."

"The rule is proved," said Caesar, casting a cynical smile after the soldiers with their victim. "All men need gods, either to worship when they live, or to dread when they die."



Chapter XXV

Calm after Storm

I

Like all human things, the war ended. The Alexandrians might rage and dash their numbers against the palace walls. Ganymed and young Ptolemaeus, who had gone out to him, pressed the siege, but all in vain. And help came to the hard-pressed Romans at last. Mithridates, a faithful vassal king, advanced his army over Syria, and came down into the Delta, sweeping all before him. Then Caesar effected a junction with the forces of his ally, and there was one pitched battle on the banks of the Nile, where Ptolemaeus was defeated, and drowned in his flight. Less than a month later Alexandria capitulated, and saw the hated consular insignia again within her gates. There was work to do in Egypt, and Caesar—just named dictator at Rome and consul for five years—devoted himself to the task of reform and reorganization. Cleopatra was to be set back upon her throne, and her younger brother, another Ptolemaeus, was to be her colleague. So out of war came peace, and the great Imperator gave laws to yet another kingdom.

But before Caesar sailed away to chastise Pharnaces of Pontus, and close up his work in the East, ere returning to break down the stand of the desperate Pompeians in Africa, there was joy and high festival in the palace of Alexandria; and all the noble and great of the capital were at the feast,—the wedding feast of Cornelia and the favourite staff officer of the Imperator. The soft warm air of the Egyptian springtime blew over the festoons of flowers and over the carpets of blossoms; never before was the music more sweet and joyous. And overhead hung the great light-laden dome of the glowing azure, where the storks were drifting northward with the northward march of the sun.

And they sang the bridal hymns, both Greek and Latin, and cried "Hymen" and "Talasio"; and when evening came,

"The torches tossed their tresses of flame,"

as said the marriage song of Catullus; and underneath the yellow veil of the bride gleamed forth the great diamond necklace, the gift of Cleopatra, which once had been the joy of some Persian princess before the Greeks took the hoard at Persepolis.

Agias was there; and Cleomenes and his daughters; and Demetrius, with Artemisia, the most beautiful of girls,—as Cornelia was the fairest of women,—clinging fondly to her father's side. So there was joy that day and night at the Alexandrian palace. And on the next morning the fleet trireme was ready which Demetrius had provided to bear Drusus and Cornelia and Fabia back to Italy. Many were the partings at the royal quay, and Agias wept when he said farewell to his late patron and patroness; but he had some comfort, for his cousin (who had arranged with Cleomenes that, since his freebooting days were happily over, the two should join in a partnership for the India trade) had made him a promise to be fulfilled in due course of time—for Artemisia was still very young.

"You are no Ichomachus, Xenophon's perfect wife-educator," the ex-pirate had said to his importunate cousin; "wait a few years."

And Agias was fain to be content, with this hope before him.

There were other partings than his; but at last the adieus were over, and all save Caesar went back upon the quay. The Imperator alone tarried on the poop of the vessel for an instant. His features were half wistful as he held Drusus by the hand, but his eyes were kindly as ever to the young man.

"Ah, amice!" he said, "we who play at philosophy may not know all the time that there are gods, but at all times we know that there is the most godlike of divine attributes—love undefiled. Therefore let us hope, for we see little, and the cosmos is past finding out."

He sprang back on to the quay. The musicians on the bow struck up with pipe and lyre; the friends on the pier flung aboard the last garlands of rose and lily and scented thyme; the rowers bent to their task; the one hundred and seventy blades—pumiced white—smote the yellow waves of the harbour, and the ship sped away. Cornelia, Fabia, and Drusus stood on the poop gazing toward the receding quay. Long after they had ceased to recognize forms and faces they stared backward, until the pier itself was a speck, and the great buildings of the city grew dim. Then they passed the Pharos, and the land dwindled more and more into a narrow, dark ribbon betwixt blue water and bluer sky. The long swells of the open sea caught the trireme, and she rode gallantly over them—while the music still played, and her hardy crew, pirates no longer, but pardoned men,—seamen, employees of the honest merchant Demetrius,—sent the good ship bounding faster and faster, as they pressed their strength against the springing oars. Higher and higher rose the column of foam around the cutwater; louder and louder sang the foam under the stern, as they swept it past. The distant land faded to a thread, to a line, was gone; and to north and south and east and west were but the water and the cloudless ether. Fabia, Cornelia, and Drusus said little for a long time. Their eyes wandered, sometimes, over the track of the foam, and in their minds they saw again the water-birds plashing among lotus plants, and heard the ancient Egyptian litanies softly chanted behind the propylons of a temple built by some king two thousand years departed. But oftener their eyes ran ahead over the prow, and they walked again across the Forum of the city of their fathers, and drove across the Latin plain-land, and spoke their own dear, sonorous, yet half-polished native tongue.

At last came evening; the sun sank lower and lower; now his broad red disk hung over the crest of the western waves; now it touched them; now it was gone, and only the lines of dying fire streamed behind him—the last runners in his chariot train. Up from the cabin below came the voice of the ship's steward, "Would their excellencies take any refreshment?" But they did not go at once. They watched the fire grow dimmer and dimmer, the pure light change to red gold, the red gold to crimson, and the crimson sink away.

"Ah, carissima!" cried Drusus, "would that when the orbs of our lives go down to their setting, they might go down like the sunlight, more beautiful in each act of the very dying, as they approach the final goal!"

"Yes, surely," replied Cornelia, touching her hands upon his head; "but who knows but that Catullus the poet is wrong when he says the sun of life will never rise save once; who knows but that, if our sun set in beauty, it will rise again in grandeur even more?"

"My children," said Fabia, gently, "the future lies in the knowledge of the gods; but out of the present we must shape our own future."

"No, delectissima," replied her nephew, "to do that we are all too weak; except it be true, as Aratus the poet has said, 'that we men are also the offspring of gods,' in which case Heaven itself must stoop to give us aid."

But Cornelia's eyes had wandered down into the foam, still gleaming as snow in the failing light.

"Ah!" she said, "the ages are long; if there be gods, their days are our lifetimes, and we but see a little and know not what to think. But to live a noble life will always be the fairest thing, whether death be an unending sleep or the threshold to Pindar's Elysium."

And what more of grave wisdom might have dropped from her lips none may relate, for her husband had shaken off the spell, and laughed aloud in the joy of his strong life and buoyant hopes. Then they all three laughed, and thought no more of sober things. They went down into the cabin just as the last bars of light flickered out in the west, and only the starlight broke the darkness that spread out over the face of the sea.

II

Drusus, as he himself had predicted, never wrote a great treatise on philosophy, and never drew up a cosmology that set at rest all the problems of the universe; nor did Cornelia become a Latin Sappho or Corinna, and her wise lore never went further than to make her friends afraid to affect a shammed learning in her presence. But they both did the tasks that fell to them better because they had "tasted the well of Parnassus" and "walked in the grove with the sages." And Drusus, through an active life, played an honourable part as a soldier and a statesman: with his beloved Imperator in the battles of Thapsus and Munda, when the last of the oligarchs were beaten down; then, after the great crime of murder, with his friend Marcus Antonius; and then, when Cleopatra's evil star lured both her and Antonius to their ruin, he turned to the only man whose wisdom and firmness promised safety to the state—and he joined himself to the rising fortunes of Octavius, the great Augustus, and fought with him to the end, until there was no longer a foreign or civil enemy, and the "Pax Romana" gave quiet to a subject world.

So Drusus had share with Maecenas and Agrippa and the other imperial statesmen in shaping the fabric of the mighty Roman Empire. Not in his day did he or Cornelia know that it was wrong to buy slaves like cattle, or to harbour an implacable hate. They were but pagans. To them the truth was but seen in a glass darkly; enough if they lived up to such truth as was vouchsafed. But in their children's day the brightness arose in the East, and spread westward, and ever westward, until the Capitoline Jupiter was nigh forgotten, the glories of the Roman eagles became a tradition, the splendour of the imperial city a dream. For there came to the world a better Deity, a diviner glory, a more heavenly city. The greater grew out of the less. Out of the world-fabric prepared by Julius Caesar grew the fabric of the Christian Church, and out of the Christian Church shall rise a yet nobler spiritual edifice when the stars have all grown cold.

THE END

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