When he mounted and rode for Londinium that afternoon it was with the full determination to despatch his business as quickly as might be and return. He told himself amusedly that he had been singed too often, by too many flames, to care for the feeble light of one broken lamp. This was quite true. But also he acknowledged that when other lamps were wanting, a broken one might answer for an hour.
That night the sun went down in angry crimson that ate like fire through the sullen heart of clouds banked low along the horizon. In Varia's garden the shrill insect voices were hushed; the trees drooped their leaves motionless. It was a hot and breathless night, when thunder muttered distantly and vague lightnings played hide-and-seek among the clouds, and the earth was still as an animal that crouches waiting for a blow.
Eudemius entered his room shortly before midnight, while the storm menaced and would not break. His thoughts still had their way with him, and they were none too happy thoughts. By the open window stood a tall standard of wrought bronze, from the arms of which seven lamps swung by chains, their flames flaring in the faint hot breeze which entered; otherwise the room was dark. Eudemius drew a light couch near the window and stretched himself upon it, slowly, like one worn out by weariness and pain. The lamplight fell upon his face, and showed it less of a mask, more unguarded, grim and hollow-cheeked, stamped with the seal of suffering. A slave entered, without noise, and placed on a stand a bowl of dewy fruit, a silver pitcher of wine, and a tall cup of the exquisite Samian ware, rose-pink, thin as a fragile egg shell. In the dim light it glowed like a ruby; Eudemius glanced at it with a faint pleasure in its beauty. As the slave turned away, he spoke.
"Hath thy lady retired?"
The man stopped in the doorway.
"Lord, I know not."
"Then find out. If not, bid her come to me here."
The man, bending, crossed his arms before his face, and went. Eudemius lay and waited, watching the wan lightning at play in the lowering sky, listening to the far-off grumble of the thunder. Scents from the garden drifted to him on the warm sickly breeze; once a bat flapped past the window. His eyes grew heavy with drowsiness.
But a step close at hand aroused him. He turned his head and saw Varia coming toward him, her face pale in the dim light. She stopped when she reached the couch, and stood waiting in silence. Eudemius rose, carefully, lest he bring on a spasm of pain, and stood under the light of the seven lamps.
"Come here to me, child!" he said. Varia came, and stood where the light fell on her face and throat; and he took her by the shoulders and looked long at her. His dark eyes passed over her from brow to feet; noted the dusky warmth of her hair, where jewels gleamed like a coiled snake's eyes; the curves of cheek and throat, the ripening grace of her slim body, half-revealed beneath her silken robe. He studied her with an impersonal criticism, as though she were a statue with whose workmanship fault might be found. Had she been a statue, he could have found no fault.
"Thou art fair, child," he said musingly, while she stood passive under his hands. "Art thou fair enough to win him, handicapped as thou art? And yet, who would take thee, when there are others for the asking, as fair as thou and with none of thy defects? If thou didst but know how to use that beauty of thine, it might make less of difference. For men have wedded fools before this. Ay, but those fools must have been half woman as well as fool; but thou—thou art all fool."
He looked at her strangely; suddenly pushed aside the robe from her shoulders and laid his hands on her soft bare flesh.
"Ay, she's fair enough!" he muttered. "If I could but lash that torpid soul of hers to life—teach her what all other women in the world know by nature and instinct! For if she have the beauty of the immortal women, without the warm spirit of sex behind it, it will avail her nothing. Passionless, she can never inspire passion. To see her mated to him—his child in her arms—a son—a son!—who should redeem for me all the bitterness and the disappointment she hath brought—would not that be better than nothing?"
His hands on her shoulders shook. She glanced up at him under her lids,—a strange glance into which there flashed something that died as it came. Her eyes were dilated, but she made no motion to push his hands from her.
"Could she win him?" Eudemius's voice was not above a whisper, yet it was tense with restrained excitement. Drops of sweat beaded his forehead; the cords of his neck were taut. "Varia, dost know, child, what thou art?"
"Ay," she answered quietly. "A fool. Thou hast said it."
Eudemius gave an exclamation of bitter impatience.
"Fool—yes, and child and woman as well. Hast thou never thought what it might be to become as other women are? To know the kiss of a man's lips on thine—to feel his arms about thee—to listen to the tale of love that is told to all but thee—"
"Tale!" said Varia, catching at the word. "Oh, I have heard tales—wonderful tales, more wonderful than any that ever were told before! And I have known the kiss of a man's lips on mine; and I have felt a man's arms about me!"
Eudemius gripped her slender shoulders, staring at her, and his face worked. Then he flung her away from him.
"Thou poor fool!" he said in contemptuous pity. He clenched his hands and strode up and down before the couch. "Oh, if I could but waken thee—if I could but waken thee! I'd use thee, poor tool as thou art—I'd make thee, a worthless pawn, queen to play my game for me! Thou art mine, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, to do with as I will. Sometimes my hands itch to shake into thee the sense thou lackest—or else to shake the useless life out of thee."
He stopped before her, breathless with thwarted passion that time after time dashed itself like surge against the inexorable rock of Circumstance, to fall back baffled and beaten.
"Tell me!" he said, in a voice grown suddenly calm. "Child o' mine, dost think that thou couldst win a man?"
It was a strange question from father to child, but then he did not see it so. And Varia, looking at him, made a strange answer.
"I have won a man!" she said, and her voice was slow and haunting. "Body and soul I have won him; he is mine for all time to come, to do with as I will. I am a fool, but I have done this thing, and I think—" She stopped, and her voice changed and grew scornful—"I think it is but a little thing to do!"
Eudemius stared at her.
"Thou hast—" he whispered, and moistened his lips with a dry tongue. "Say that again, girl! Thou hast—Is this thy raving? Nay, tell me, who is the man?"
But another mood was on Varia. She laughed, like a rippling brook.
"He hath no name!" she said merrily. "No name—nothing; for he is nothing! He comes in the clouds and in the storms and in the moonlight, and whispers strange things which none may hear but I. His voice is the wind and his words are the rustle of the leaves, and his speech is golden as flame; and oh, the tales he hath told to me!"
Eudemius laughed shortly.
"At first I even thought—" he muttered, and broke off. "Child, are thy women always with thee?"
"Ay, save at night. I sleep alone," said Varia.
Eudemius poured wine from the silver pitcher and drank it. Outside, the rain was falling with a gentle dripping. The thunder had died; the breeze, cooler, came laden with damp earthy smells. Varia went to the window and knelt beside it, leaning out into the warm darkness. Her father's eyes followed her. But if Varia's mood had changed, his was not to be shaken off so lightly. He sat down on the couch, wiping his forehead free from sweat. Here, he was close enough to touch her, and he drew her back from the window so that she leaned against the couch and his knee.
"Varia," he said, moved by an impulse born of what had gone before, "dost love thy father?"
"Nay," said Varia, simply. "Why should I, my lord?"
"True," said Eudemius. "Why shouldst thou?"
Varia leaned her elbows on his knee, looking up at him with her chin on her hands. Her attitude held the frank fearlessness of a child.
"Does my lord father love me?" she asked, and smiled up at him. Something within him warned Eudemius to honesty.
"Nay, Varia," he said gently, and put a hand on her dark soft hair. "Thy father hath never loved thee."
Varia suddenly rested her cheek against his other hand.
"Poor father!" she murmured, as though he were somehow deserving of all sympathy for this, "Didst ever wish that I had not been born?"
"Ay," said Eudemius, still gently. "I have wished that."
Varia considered a long moment, and he knew that her eyes were on him.
"Why was I born?" she asked.
Eudemius turned his head away.
"Because thy mother loved me," he said, low and harshly.
"Because—my mother—loved thee!" Varia repeated. "Now that is strange! Did ever any one love thee?"
Eudemius started. Then he laughed.
"Habet!" he exclaimed, in the language of the arena when a gladiator is down; and laughed again. "Ay, child; once one loved me, and once I loved. Thou canst not credit such softness in me? Well, I do not blame thee; but it is truth."
"I believe," said Varia, "for thou hast told me truth before, to-night. If thou hadst said my father loved me, I should never have believed thy word again, but thou gavest me truth for the truth I gave to thee. I am a fool, and sometimes it is given to fools to know the truth."
"And therein to be wiser than the sane," Eudemius muttered. "And that is truth also." He looked at her a moment with something awakened in his face.
"Is there a change then, after all, in thee?" he said suddenly, deep in thought and study of her face. "Thrice to-night hast thou said what I did not understand, and never thought to hear thee say. Can it be that sometime in the future the dawn will break?"
Varia looked at him in her turn, a curious sidelong glance. In the dim light her face all at once showed strange to him, as occasionally one will see a well-known face in a new aspect—pale, with scarlet mouth and long veiled eyes. "Thou art something besides the child I've known; though whether that thing be good or evil—" His speech died; he gazed at her as though he would pierce the mystery which shrouded her and learn what it was that made her alien, forgetting to finish his words. "There is a change, and I cannot fathom it. What is working in thee? Or is it the delusion of mine own imaginings? Thy face—thy eyes—have they changed also? Mine own imaginings—vain imaginings! What is there in thy life which could have changed thee? Ah, if but these next months might see thee still more changed!"
Varia rose from her knees beside him.
"Why should I be changed?" she asked. "And why wouldst have me changed? I am happy—I have been happy as I am. If the joy of life is not mine, as thou hast said so often, the sorrow of life is not mine either; and I do not wish to change!" Her voice grew and gathered passion. "I fear to change, for I know not what the change might bring. I do not understand. Oh, father—do not wish that I should change!"
She took a step toward him with outstretched, appealing hands. Eudemius watched her with critical eyes.
But even as he watched, his own face changed and went gray, and he caught his breath and put a hand against his side. His body stiffened and grew rigid, while at the same time long shudders ran through it, dumb protest of tortured nerves against what was in store for it and them.
"Go for Claudius!" Eudemius gasped; and Varia turned and ran. Eudemius flung himself back on the couch and lay there, striving with all his iron will to hold the convulsions in check. But he began to writhe, terribly, with no sound but the whistling of his breath through locked jaws. His hand, outflung, touched the cup that glowed like a ruby on the stand beside the couch. He clutched it, and crushed its fragile beauty into atoms; and blood dripped with the wine upon the floor.
A torch gleamed outside the door, and hasty feet came running. Claudius, the physician, entered, very old, very small, with silver hair and beard that was like a snow-drift, followed by two slaves with lights and instruments. They lighted all the lamps, so that the room was bright as noon; and Claudius took from them what he wanted, and sent them both away. Then he rolled his sleeves above his elbows, and went to the couch where the silent figure lay twisting; and as he went he tucked his long white beard inside the collar of his gown.
But the plans of Marius did not fall out as he had intended. It was a month before he returned to the villa, with the prospect of remaining on British soil until another galley could be fitted out and commissioned. This was exasperating, and Marius fumed secretly and swore at the delay. Thinking to make the best of his enforced idleness by betaking himself to Aquae Solis, the fashionable watering-place of Britain, and what solace he could find there, he found himself again disappointed. The leave he applied for was granted, but as he was starting upon his journey, word was brought to him that his father was ill. He found it nothing serious, but Livinius, grown querulous and childish in his fever, begged Marius not to leave him. So, perforce, Marius stayed, contenting himself with boar-hunting in Eudemius's vast parks, and being entertained by his host.
Eudemius, seemingly unchanged since his illness, had not forgotten that the young tribune's eyes had once looked with favor on his daughter. And since love, like life, is but a game, and much may be done by a player who handles his pawns wisely, Eudemius began to conjure up hopes which, in spite of himself, he knew might never see fulfilment. The more he saw of Marius, the more he coveted his strength to prop his dying house. His fortune would be safe in Marius's hands, his name would be safe in Marius's keeping. For with all his faults Marius had a soldier's honor, and could guard what was given to his charge. Forthwith, then, Eudemius began to lay silent plans; to scheme indirectly, with cautious skill. It was a new game for him; he went about it much as one ruler who seeks alliance, for political ends, with a neighboring kingdom. He was entirely consistent in his course; no thought of his daughter's desires or wishes moved him—even no thought as to whether or not she had desires or wishes on the subject. Nor did he consider the personal inclinations of Marius himself. The alliance would mean much for him, saving only for one thing—a thing which yet might override all advantages. This was where Eudemius considered all his skill and finesse would be needed.
At first Eudemius mentioned this, the desire of his heart, to no living soul. He took Marius with him over his estates on his tours of inspection, tours become unexpectedly frequent; he took pains to have him present when overseers came with long tax-lists and rent-rolls to render account to their lord. Marius saw himself surrounded with every luxury art could devise and skill could execute, not as though brought forth for some occasion, but quite plainly in everyday use and service. Life, eased for him from all exertion by the unseen hands of many slaves, became a dream of indolence and content. Horses, grooms, slaves, were at his disposal; no wish of his, however lightly uttered, but was unostentatiously fulfilled. In the midst of all this he was left with no sense that it was done with a view to impress upon him the magnificence of the villa and the villa's lord. He took it as he was intended to take it, and as it was, as a matter of course, since all his life he had been accustomed to wealth and the luxury it might bring. And, being so accustomed, he was able to appreciate justly the amount of money it must take to maintain such an establishment in such a style. He listened to the reports of overseers and stewards, all unaware that he was meant to do so; by degrees his own and his father's fortunes came to seem by contrast mean and small. He fell readily enough into ways which, reasonable for Eudemius, were extravagant for him. But, in spite of his inclinations toward the life sybaritic, it was plain that he had no intention of getting himself in debt to Eudemius in any shape or form. When Eudemius judged the time to be ripe, he brought Varia upon the scene. This he did after his own fashion, studying carefully each effect that she should make, with an artist's eye and a mind that would stop at no subterfuge to gain its end.
Livinius was convalescent, though still weak and unable to leave his bed, when Eudemius went upon a day to his apartments and was admitted. Livinius lay in bed, looking gentler and frailer than of old, with a slave reading to him from the De ira of Seneca. He signed to the latter to leave, and held out a hand to his friend.
"Sit by me here, if you will," he said. "I have much to ask, and, I doubt not, you to tell. That worthy physician of yours is dumb as any oyster. Were it not for my boy bringing me scraps of news now and again, I should indeed feel out of touch with the world."
Eudemius seated himself beside the bed, his back, as usual, to the light.
"The world wags to its own appointed end," he said carelessly. "Have you heard, then, that Rome has again refused to send troops to our aid? Verily, Britain is left to struggle with her independence like a dog with a bone too large for it. There is but a sorry time in store for us, if present indications point aright. You have asked me often to go back with you to Rome, and I have been long considering it. But Rome has twenty strong men where Britain has one, and I think that my place is here. To my mind, the people of the land, seeing those in power withdrawing, and not knowing what to do of themselves, will turn like sheep to any who will stand by them. Why, man, if one played his game with skill in this coming crisis, and kept from joining in the panic into which others have flung themselves headlong, he might make his power here little short of absolute, and reap his reward when Rome has settled her affairs and the storm has blown over. One might become a second Carausius, another Constantine. Already, since the troops of AEtius have gone, folk believe they hear that endless storm muttering again in the West and South, and tell tales of new invasions of Jutes and Saxons. It is a fact also that merchants going north require a double bonus on the goods they take. What Britain will do without the hand to hold to which has led her for so long, is a question which no man can answer and all men ask. But these be weighty topics to concern a sickroom, and I have other matters to discuss with thee."
Livinius turned inquiring eyes upon him, but Eudemius was staring past him, thoughtfully.
"A matter which touches me nearly," he said, and all at once dropped into a more familiar mode of speech. "Thou art my oldest friend, and there is none to whom I would sooner speak in confidence. Thou knowest that I am growing old. Soon the gods of the shades will lay their hands upon mine eyes, and my daughter and my house will be left alone. And a heavy time of trial it will be for her, incompetent, with the burden of my wealth upon her. Were it not for this, I could willingly leave all this; but some one first I must find to charge himself with that burden for the recompense it may bring him. And there is but one way to do this; I must mate her to some worthy man. If he be in humble circumstances, her gold shall alter that; if he be great, it shall make him greater. To take her with it would be, after all, but a little thing, since she is too much a child to want more than is given her, and is content with little. With her unmated, as she is, fancy what would follow were she alone. No—it needs a strong hand to guard what I have guarded; but it is a task well worth the taking. And it is in my mind that I have found that strong hand I seek—if so it be that the owner thereof is willing."
He paused, to see that the sick man's eyes were on him in quickened interest.
"That man, friend," Eudemius said slowly, "is thy son. Him I would have, and none other, to reign in my stead and take the place of that son denied me, who was to rear his children in the traditions of my house and his. What say you to this, friend, if it chances that Marius himself is willing?"
For a moment there was a pause. Livinius lay back on his pillows, and his face was a battleground of contending thought. Plainly it said: "Power is great, but gold is greater, since it can purchase power; therefore gold is a good thing to have. Yet no bargain was ever offered without a 'but,' and what goes with this bargain of thine, O friend? An incubus which a man might well hesitate to let fasten upon him; a hindrance to himself and, it may be, a menace to generations yet unborn. And yet, the prize is worth risking much for, and the temptation is great."
At this point came wavering, uncertainty, a look of greed, cautious and eager. Eudemius, watching, let the battle wage itself. When Livinius finally spoke, it was slowly, weighing his words with care.
"You have spoken with all the frankness one friend could wish from another. It is only meet that I too should be as frank. If my words offend, remember that it is I who shall grieve most. Your daughter, fair though she is, and lovely, is yet a child, despite her years,—a child who needs the care and thought which only love can give. Needing all, she could give nothing save herself to her husband; and man's needs are of the spirit as well as of the flesh. And suppose he wanted not the gift; what would there be for him? You see, I set aside all mention of her dower; for though a man may marry gold, he must marry the woman also. I have watched Marius from his cradle; I have marked when his nature followed the lines along which I strove to train it, and when it turned of itself into new channels of its own. And of these channels, some, I confess, ran widely counter to those which I had planned. No parent ever saw a child grow precisely to the measure of the ideal of which he dreamed; it may be that every father under the sun is doomed to disappointment at some trait or other in the child of his flesh."
Eudemius looked away from him, nodding soberly.
"So it hath been with me," said Livinius. "Marius has been a good son; but a good man he has not been. For a bad man may make a good son, even though a bad son never makes a good man. But I am not blind, and year by year have I watched the changes in him, some for the better, some for the worse. When he was a child I chastised; when he was a youth I counselled; when he became a man I could do no more than stand aside and watch him start upon the road he had marked out for himself. And I tell you, Eudemius,—and you may guess if the words come easily,—that were I in your place I would not give my daughter, being what she is, to such a man as he. For her sake as well as his I say this. He is my son, and my house is his home for so long as he wills it, and what I have is his. But to your daughter, young, innocent, knowing nothing of the world, and less than nothing of men, he would bring only unhappiness and woe. She could not understand him; he would be at no pains to understand her. Whether love might raise him to its own height, I dare not say; rather I fear that he would lower it to him. He is passionate, yet cold; but he is strong, and to men he is loyal and a lasting friend. He is a soldier through and through; no mistress, were she never so madly loved, could come before his sword. For to him, arms mean ambition and the fame he has set himself to gain; love is a dalliance by the way, pleasant for the hour, soon forgotten. Sorry sport for a wife, you see! There you have him, as I, his father, know him. And how can I, his father, say these things of him, who should stand with him against all the world? Because he needs not my help to win his battles; and there is one who in my mind may need it sorely."
And again there was a silence. Eudemius rose.
"Thank thee, friend," he said. "Thy words have made me to hunger all the more for that son of thine. Mine also he shall be, if I can compass it. What need he give her but a name?—and that, in good sooth, it will not hurt him to bestow."
He turned on his heel and went away; and Livinius looked after him long and gravely.
When Marius entered, some time later, it was to find his father alone and in deep thought. Marius inquired how he had been feeling that day, and if he thought his strength returning. Livinius answered abstractedly. He was aware that Eudemius's plan was taking root in his mind; coming to weigh its pros and cons, he found that after all it might not be such a bad thing for Marius—and himself. He motioned Marius to seat himself. Marius obeyed, waiting for what his father might have to say. But Livinius kept his abstracted silence, and presently Marius himself spoke.
"Will Eudemius return with you to Rome?"
Livinius shook his head thoughtfully.
"I fear not. I have tried to persuade him, but—I think his plans lie here. For one thing, he does not like the idea of going back with that daughter of his."
Marius turned a slow glance on his father.
"It is a pity about that girl," he said indifferently. "She is very fair—as fair as any of Rome's beauties."
"And as wealthy. When her father hath undergone his fate, his estates will pass to her," said Livinius. He did not look at his son, and his voice was careless.
"It is a pity," Marius repeated, noncommittally. Livinius put his own construction upon the words.
"You mean—her misfortune? Ay, true. But many a man would overlook even that for sake of the gold she would bring him."
"And that is true also," Marius said. "And yet—it were a risky thing for a man to give his sons a mother found so wanting."
So that Livinius knew that Marius's thoughts, like his own, had strayed into those paths wherein Eudemius would lead them. He changed the subject then, speaking of the delayed transport and affairs in Gaul. Then he became weary, being still weak, and Marius left him.
The next evening, Marius, returning from hunting to the villa just before dusk, unwontedly thoughtful over prospects which his mind was beginning to conjure up, to look at, and play with, as it were, was met by a slave who said that the Lady Varia sent word that she wished to see him on his return. Somewhat surprised at this, for he had scarcely seen her, much less spoken with her, since his arrival from Londinium, he followed the man to the door of her apartments. Here he passed a second slave, a tall fellow with a shock of black, unkempt hair, who was trimming a lamp near by. This one turned his head to watch him as he entered, with fierce wolf eyes into which leaped sudden jealous distrust. But a slave was a slave to Marius; and so heedless was he of the man's presence, that later he could not have told whether or not he had been there.
Just inside the door Marius's guide crossed his arms before his face, bending low, and left him, as though at an order. Marius, again surprised at this, stood and waited. The room, lofty and warm and floored with exquisite tiling, seemed to overlook a garden, where dusk was gathering fast. It was furnished sumptuously, and was filled with flowers which stood in great jars of gorgeous Eastern coloring. Halfway down its centre ran one of the dwarf walls so common in Roman rooms, which was made to serve as the back of a low and cushioned couch on either side of it. A lamp of wrought bronze stood near, and by its light Marius saw that a figure was lying on the couch, with head thrown back against the cushions and one white arm hanging over the side.
"Lady Varia?" Marius exclaimed. She did not answer, and he saw that she seemed asleep. He went to the couch, walking softly, with a faint wonder as to why she had sent for him. She lay with long lashes sweeping her cheeks and her warm lips parted, in the careless abandon of a child, infinitely graceful, full of allurement. The thought entered his mind that it was a pose, a piece of pretty trickery. He bent down until his lips all but touched her cheek and the perfume of her hair rose to him, so that had she been feigning she must have given sign, or else been better skilled in the gentle art of flirting than he believed. But she slept on, unconscious, with slow, regular breathing, so still that he could see the beat of her heart under the filmy stuff of her tunic.
And even as he watched her, so another, unseen, watched him,—another with gaunt, haggard face and calculating eyes that took in every move of his pawns in the game to which he had set them. With his father's words, in which he had read the hint, clear in his mind, Marius stood looking long at the sleeping girl. Patrician she was from the crown of her dusky head to the tip of her jewelled sandal. Fair she was,—and his breath came shorter as his gaze wandered unchecked over her,—eminently desirable, and yet—He found himself confronted by the unavoidable fact of her affliction. A man might well hesitate in face of all that it could mean. One could not tell—that was the trouble. He realized, all at once, that her eyes were open, and that she was looking at him, without speech or motion. He drew back, with a certain wholly unconscious veiling of expression, and spoke.
"You sent for me, Lady Varia?"
She raised herself on an elbow, pushing the hair out of her eyes to look up at him. With the motion, the jewelled fibula which held her tunic at the shoulder became unfastened, letting the drapery slip lower over snowy neck and arm. He noticed that if she saw this, she made no effort to replace it.
"Sent for you? Not I!" she said, and tapped her fingers on her lips to stifle a yawn. "Or if I did, I have forgotten. Why should I have sent for you?"
She let herself sink back in the cushions, and he pulled a seat near the couch and sat down. She began to play idly with the coiled golden snake around her bare arm, looking down at it with long sleepy eyes. Again, as once before, the novelty of this lack of attention piqued him into a passing interest.
"If I disturb you, I will go away," he offered. "You were sleeping; it were pity to disturb such sweet repose."
"You do not disturb me," she answered, with all calmness, not looking at him. "Why should you? If you like to stay, you may. I am not asleep now."
"Did you have pleasant dreams?" Marius asked, as he might have asked it of a child. She turned scornful eyes on him.
"I do not dream asleep!" she said. "Only when I wake. What are dreams but thoughts, and how can one think, asleep?"
He looked at her, surprised. She relapsed into silence, unwound the snake from her arm, at length, and took to turning it over and over in her fingers, letting the light play on its emerald eyes and the rich chasing of its scales. He continued to watch her, with greater freedom under her entire indifference. He felt that, if he should get up and leave her, she would take no notice, but lie there just the same, drowsy-eyed and indifferent, turning and turning the golden snake. This slipped from her fingers after a time and dropped to the floor at his feet. He picked it up, and as she held out her hand to receive it back, he clasped her wrist gently and began to coil the snake about her arm, above the elbow. She let him do it; emboldened, he kept her hand, when the jewel was in place, and pressed it gently. But she drew it away, not as though in rebuke, however, and examined the armlet to see that it was on properly.
"Is it not right?" Marius asked, amused. "Let me do it again; this time I will make sure."
She shook her head, with a slow smile at him. Greatly daring, he leaned nearer, and fastened the loosened pin on her shoulder. In the operation, his fingers touched her soft flesh. But she seemed not to notice him at all; so that quite suddenly he felt baffled and perplexed.
"You are a strange girl!" he said abruptly. Again she smiled.
"Why?" she asked. "Because you cannot understand me, you call me strange?"
"Perhaps that is it, O my Lady Wisdom. But truly I begin to think you a riddle worth the reading. It may be, that with somewhat of teaching, you might prove a pupil apt enough for any man."
She looked at him eagerly.
"Is it a game?" she asked. "You taught me one before, and I liked it. Wilt teach me also this other game? Is it a good game?"
"Ay," said Marius, amusement in his voice. "It is a good game—the finest game in the world, for the one who wins. And, indeed, I have it in mind to teach thee, thou pretty witch, the more so since I should have the methods of no other to unteach. See, then, I'll show thee the first move. Give me thy hand—so."
Varia held out her hand, leaning back on her pillows with eager eyes of anticipation. Marius took the hand. It was small and soft and fragrant, with rosy, polished nails.
"This, you must know, is a game at which but two can properly play," he explained, as a schoolmaster might propound theories to a class. "Three have sometimes tried it, but the third in most cases has wished he had kept away. Most players divide it into three parts, for the sake of convenience. The first, for the woman; the second, for the man; the third, usually, for the lawyers. This latter may be played in various ways—sometimes is omitted altogether. A great advantage of this game is that so many rules govern it, that whatever one does, is in accordance with some rules, even though it may be at variance with certain others."
He turned the little hand over and kissed the palm.
"Certain things there be which every player should possess," he added in the same tone. "For the woman, beauty—or if not this, a cleverness which is clever enough to manifest itself only in results. Also, if a woman hath not beauty, it is imperative that she be an adept at the game. Innocence, in one party, not in both, is a valuable asset, since one of the objects of the game is the winning of it. Were both to have it, it would become in very truth a child's game. Wealth is also a good thing to have,—and this for both players,—since one or both are apt to pay dearly in the end. And wealth is also nearly always an object in the game. It hath many points, you see, which must be remembered."
"I fear it is a hard game," said Varia, and shook her head in doubt. "I—I cannot remember things very well sometimes."
"Even that hath been found an advantage at times," said Marius, and laughed softly. He changed his place and sat on the edge of the couch beside her, and possessed himself of her other hand. Varia glanced from her prisoned fingers to his face and back again.
"The game may be played fast, or it may be played slowly," said Marius, his eyes on her perplexed face. "In most cases, the faster the better, lest one or other of the players should tire. What say you, sweetheart—shall ours be short and therefore merrier?"
He drew her back into his arms, and raised her face with his free hand and kissed her lips.
"No!" said Varia, quickly, and struggled slightly to sit up.
"Yes—that is in the game!" said Marius, and would not let her go. "Does it come hard at first, my sweet? Never mind—soon you will like it better. Besides, I have told you that it is part of the game. So—rest quiet, and I will show you how else it goes."
In her eyes he read a struggle to recall something gone before and all but forgotten; a mental groping, painful in its intensity. She ceased her resistance, and he drew her closer and kissed her many times, with a growing passion which surprised himself. Her breath came quicker, but in her eyes was only the dumb striving after things forgotten, with no fear at all nor anger with him. His lips strayed where they would; in her strange absorption she seemed scarcely conscious of him.
"Truly I did well to call thee strange!" Marius said low in her ear. "Did one not know the facts of the case he might well count thee as good a player as himself."
Varia wrenched her hands from his and sat up. So swift was her motion that he had let her go before he knew it. She put her hands to her temples.
"But I have played this game before!" she cried, unheeding him. "I know now—oh, I know now! Thou wilt tell me that I am beautiful, and that thou lovest me, and thou wilt say that all is not well with thee for the pain thou hast. And I will stroke thy head to ease the pain, as sometimes my lord father will have me do. That is how the game goes. And Marcus comes and tries to play as he came before; he was the third, as thou hast told, who wished that he had not. But it should be in the garden; it was in the garden before!"
"Now what is this raving?" Marius exclaimed, wholly uncomprehending. He tried to take her again, but she slid off the couch and escaped him. He pursued and caught her, but instead of the passive yielding he expected, he met resistance which was unlooked-for.
"No! I'll have no more!" she cried. "Let me go—I do not wish to play this game with thee! Always he stops when I bid him—thou must do the same. I do not like this thy way. He is not rough, but gentle, and I do not fear him. Oh, let me go!"
"Thou hast played this game before, then?" said Marius. "Be still, girl! I'll not hurt thee, but I will not let thee go. Is there more in this than I had fancied? Are thy words mere idle raving? By the gods, I think not! Answer me what questions I shall ask, and I'll let thee go, not sooner. I have a mind to know the truth of this!"
She stood still, half in tears, breathing fast, like a frightened child.
"Hast thou played this game before?" Marius asked.
"Ay," she murmured, like a child brought to task, and tried again to release herself as though to escape punishment.
"With a man didst thou play it?"
"Ay, with a man."
She ceased her futile efforts to escape, and wrung her hands helplessly.
"I will not tell! He said that if my lord father knew it he would be displeased!" she wept.
"I think it likely that he would," said Marius, grimly. "But to tell me would not be telling him. It may be that I can help thee. There, never cry like that! Am I not thy friend?"
"I know not!" she sobbed. "Oh, I am frightened! Let me go, I pray thee!"
"Tell me first!" Marius persisted. He cast a hasty glance around. "Quick, for we shall not be alone much longer. Tell me, I say!"
She only wept, her face hidden in her hands. Marius's temper, a fragile thing at best, gave way.
"Never think to keep it from me! I'll have it whether thou wilt or no," he said roughly. The idea of an intruder upon what he had suddenly come to consider his own domain was not to be tolerated. Varia again struggled, with violence, and finding herself held fast, screamed loudly.
"Hush, little fool!" Marius exclaimed. "I am not hurting thee!"
"Let the girl go, lord!" said a voice behind them. Marius turned his head, to see a figure bearing down upon them, lean and tall, with a shock of black hair and angry eyes. Varia, turning at the same instant in Marius's grasp, saw the man, and cried:
"Make him to let me go! He hath tried to make me tell thy name—do not thou tell it!"
"So!" Marius exclaimed in triumph, catching the clew. "Thou art the man—thou!" His tone held wrath and amazed disgust.
The slave stood his ground.
"Let the girl go!" he repeated. It might well have been that never had a man used such a tone to Marius in his life before. From a slave it was not to be brooked.
"Get you gone, you dog!" he said savagely. "Later I'll settle with you, if it be that my suspicions be correct. How dare you enter here unbidden?"
"I heard my lady cry out," Nicanor answered. Varia's voice broke into his speech.
"I tell thee make him to let me go! He is a beast, and I hate him—I hate him!"
Rather than prolong the scene before a slave, Marius let her go. She ran to Nicanor and caught his arm.
"Take me away!" she cried through tears. "I will not stay with him!"
"It were best that you should go," Marius agreed promptly. "As for you, fellow—"
"He shall come with me!" Varia said imperiously. "You will harm him—I will not have him stay. Go yourself, bad man!"
"There will be no harm done, my lady," Nicanor said gently. There was all possible respect in his voice, but Varia went, obedient, with a last look backward on the threshold. Marius turned upon Nicanor.
"Now, who are you?" he asked curtly.
"You see me—a slave," Nicanor made reply. His voice was sullen; he was cornered, and he knew it. Also he was powerless, unable to strike a blow in his own defence; and who would see that justice was done a slave?
Marius sat down on the couch and eyed him. Nicanor returned his gaze with watchful eyes alert for any move.
"I have seen your face before!" Marius said suddenly, awaking to a consciousness of the fact. Nicanor answered nothing. The two eyed one another in silence, neither yielding an inch, the Roman coldly haughty, the slave always watchful.
"Hast ever held communication with the Lady Varia?" Marius asked.
"I have served her," Nicanor answered.
Marius laughed, looking him up and down as though he had been a horse put up for sale.
"So I begin to think!" he muttered. "After what fashion, dog?"
Nicanor's eyes blazed beneath their shaggy brows; his brown hands clenched in fury.
"As a servant should," he said harshly.
Again Marius laughed.
"So! That drew blood, did it? What has passed between you? Have you, you base-born clod, dared draw her attention to you, and she a noble's daughter? Speak, you fool, if you would not die the death!"
Nicanor raised his head slowly and looked his questioner in the eyes, a defiance as direct as insolent bravado could make it. Marius's thin lips drew tighter.
"You refuse to answer, do you? Do you know that for this you will be broken on the rack at the lifting of my finger? And if you refuse to speak, this shall be done before another day is past. You have a chance now which you will not have again, to deny or to confess. And it is not every one who would give it!"
"My lord hath not questioned me. To no other am I accountable," said Nicanor.
Marius grunted scornfully.
"You fool! Do you think your silence can save you? I'll have the story from Lady Varia; how may she withhold it? Her own lips shall seal your guilt, as already they have convicted you."
This was true. Nicanor knew it, but he did not flinch. All that was left to him was to die game, and this he knew also.
Marius all at once wearied of his examination.
"Be off with you!" he ordered insolently. "I'll have you cringing yet before I am through with you."
Nicanor turned on his heel, with no obeisance such as a slave should make, and strode out of the room. Marius gave a short, angry laugh.
"The brute will not whine! By all the Furies, he's worth the breaking. Now, methinks, I have my scornful lady where I want her—and my lord as well. This slave may be a weapon worth the having, since my foot is on his neck also. We shall soon see!"
That night Eudemius and his younger guest supped alone, with but one slave to wait upon them. Marius, never prone to speech, kept his own counsel as to the events of the afternoon, and bided the time when he might turn them to his own ends. Eudemius also was more silent than his position as host seemed to warrant. That he was in bad humor was to be seen from the threatening glances he cast at the luckless slave when a dish was delayed or a wine too warm. He was an old man, this latter, white-haired and bent and very skilful, with a sunken face as pale as parchment. Marius, as keen to observe as he was silent, saw that always the old man watched his lord's face with an eager anxiety, like a dog that would read every thought in its master's eyes.
Eudemius, as was his custom, took only fruit and one of the light Cyprus wines. Marius, not at all disturbed by his host's example, dined luxuriously and drank freely. Wine had small effect on him; but he noticed that each time his glass was filled Eudemius glanced at him, with apparent carelessness. This amused him, and, sure of himself, out of sheer perversity, he took care to have it replenished many times.
Halfway through the meal, Eudemius clapped his hands.
"Marcus, come hither!" he said shortly. Marcus came, with servile submission. "Go to Nerissa, and bid her bring her mistress here. She will know what to do."
The old man hesitated a bare instant, with a strange glance at his lord, crossed his arms, and went.
"Marius." Marius's keen wits, instantly at work upon the name and the half-forgotten idea it conjured up, found the thread they sought. "Marcus came once and tried to play; he was the third," Varia had said. Marius's eyes lightened to a secret satisfaction. Here was one, at his hand, who could supply the information he wanted. He leaned forward across the table.
"To-day I had speech with thy daughter," he said, as one introducing a topic which may prove of interest. Eudemius turned his inscrutable eyes on him.
"So?" he said calmly.
"She told me a wondrous tale of a man who came to her in a garden," said Marius; and watched suspicion grow into the other's eyes and burn there. "She said it was a game they played—what game, thou and I may guess. I put it down to the—fancies she hath at times, and paid no heed. But when she said that one Marcus had seen this man there also, it came to me that perhaps there might be more in it than might be thought. If this be the Marcus of whom she spoke, it may be that he would have something to tell.—Try these roasted snails, I pray thee; they are beyond praise. It would seem that they are delicate enough—"
"She herself hath said—" Eudemius began, and stopped. The mask of his face never changed; only his mouth settled into sterner lines and his eyes grew more forbidding. Silence fell between the two and lasted until Marcus came in again and held the curtains apart for Varia. She entered quickly, her bosom heaving, lips pouting, eyes full of tears.
"Nerissa would have it that I should wear this dress, and I hate it!" she cried petulantly, before either man could speak. "She said that thou didst will it so. Wherefore? I will not wear it ever again. I scolded her until she wept, but she made me wear it."
"She was right. I gave command to her," Eudemius said coldly. "Sit there."
Varia dropped into the seat opposite Marius, with a resentful glance at her father and a wrathful twitch of the hated robe. It was of faintest amethyst, with tunic embroidered in gold, fastened by many jewels. She looked like a fair young princess, a very angry young princess; and Marius, from where he reclined at ease on the opposite side of the table, looked across at her with quite evident admiration.
"Why should you hate it, if unworthy man may ask?" he said amusedly. "Surely not because you think it makes you less fair, since nothing could do that. Why, then?"
"Because I do!" she flashed at him, as though that settled the matter. Marius bowed in mock humility.
"The best reason of all!" he said gallantly.
"Child, with whom didst thou play thy game in the garden?" Eudemius asked. His voice was gentler than his face, and quite casual. Varia fell into the trap. She looked up eagerly.
"It was a game—" she began, and stopped, with the red blood flushing into her face and her eyes turning from her father to Marius. "I do not remember!" she stammered.
Eudemius turned his sombre eyes full on her, and she shrank and trembled.
"Thou dost not remember?" Eudemius said in his even, inexorable voice. "But there was a game? Was it a game in which a man held thee in his arms and kissed thee?"
She nodded quickly.
"Ay, a game," she exclaimed, and caught herself up. "No, no!" she cried fearfully. "It was no game—Oh, I do not know! I cannot remember!"
She hid her face in her hands and wept. Eudemius motioned to the silent slave behind her chair.
"Take her to her nurse and return," he said. "I'll have the truth of this by some means."
Marcus led his weeping mistress away; and Eudemius saw that Marius's eyes followed her until the curtains fell behind her, and read the look therein.
With her exit, Eudemius all at once lost his composure. He sprang from his place at the table and took to striding up and down the room. Unexpectedly he stopped before Marius.
"If there be truth in this," he said, and his voice shook with rising fury, "I'll find the man who hath entered my gates by night, and for what damage he has wrought I will make him pay tenfold with living flesh and blood. Marcus was there, thou sayest; he will know. And if he will not tell—if he thinks to shield him—"
He broke off with a quick intake of breath, and put a hand to his side. A spasm of pain crossed his pale face and distorted it. "Come back, thou knave, while I have sense to question!" he muttered, and dropped into the nearest seat, and sat there, with head bent forward and hands clutching claw-like the arms of the chair.
Marcus entered, alone. Eudemius raised his head.
"Didst thou—" he began, and stopped. But he gathered himself together, and tried again.
"Didst thou see him who entered the women's place by stealth to hold speech with thy mistress?"
Marcus nodded eagerly. His voice was drowned in Eudemius's exclamation of fury.
"So the fool spake truth when I thought she raved! Not so much fool after all, perhaps, but better fool than—" He checked himself on the word. "Who is the man?" Again his face grew distorted; on the hands that gripped his chair the veins stood out dark and swollen. Pain made him brutal; he glared at Marcus with the bloodshot eyes of a goaded beast. Marcus, with a hoarse cry, bowed himself to the ground, his hands before his face. Eudemius brought his fist down on the arm of his chair.
"Who is the man? Answer, slave, if thou wouldst keep the flesh on thy living bones! Who is the man, and what hath been his work?"
Then Marcus raised himself, with outstretched hands, gesticulating frantically. The effort he made to speak was fearful; his face became congested, his eyes seemed starting from his head. And his voice was as fearful, hoarse, bestial, with apish gibberings. But no words came; he could only beat the air and cry out in impotent despair.
"The man is mad!" Marius exclaimed, staring.
Eudemius lifted himself half out of his chair. Beads of sweat stood thick upon his forehead.
"Mad or sane, I'll have the truth from him!" he snarled. He caught the dog-whip from the back of his chair and lashed the slave across the face.
"Now speak!" he shouted. "Think not to shield him so, for I'll have thee flayed alive before thou shalt defy me thus!"
"I—I!" groaned Marcus. The word had a strange and guttural sound, but Eudemius did not notice.
"Go on!" he ordered furiously.
"I—I—!" Marcus screamed, and fell grovelling at his master's feet.
A spasm of pain shook Eudemius and turned him livid. He kicked savagely at the writhing figure on the floor and clapped his hands thrice loudly. Two slaves came running, with faces pale with apprehension. Eudemius, almost beyond speech himself, raised a shaking hand and pointed downward at the heap.
"Take him to the stone room and put him to the rack until he is ready to say what I would hear!" he said hoarsely. His voice broke into a gasp; he leaned back heavily, with his other hand against the chair from which he had risen. "When he is ready, call me!"
The men lifted Marcus to his feet and took him away.
Marius watched interestedly. To counsel mercy never crossed his mind—the mind of a Roman bred to consider bloodshed a sport and mortal strife a pastime. If Eudemius chose to kill his slave for a whim—well, the slave was his, and it was nobody else's business. He turned to the table and poured himself another glass of wine.
Eudemius dropped back heavily into the chair and sat, as before, with head bent slightly forward and gripping hands. And, as before, he seemed listening; only this time it was with a cruel and eager greed, and his eyes, bloodshot and terrible, were as the red eyes of a vulture that waits for its victim's death. From time to time his mouth twitched, and a shudder, long and uncontrollable, ran through him.
But still he waited, and there was silence in the room.
That day Nicanor had been assigned by Hito to the squad of the fire slaves, whose duty it was to tend the fires of the hypocausts which warmed the guest apartments, the rooms of the master's family, the banquet halls, and the baths. The great fireplaces, one for every hypocaust, built in arches under the outer walls of the villa, were approached from the outside by passages of rough masonry. From them the hot air was carried back through the hypocaust and led to the rooms above by means of an ingenious system of flue tiles. The fires, burning constantly from the first approach of the keen weather of Autumn, needed incessant attention. All day slaves went back and forth, carrying wood and buckets of mineral coal from the great mines near Uriconium, through the narrow alleys to the roaring furnaces, where the air, smoke-laden and acrid, was hot to suffocation. Here, panting, dripping with sweat, they fed the flaming mouths; then back again into the outer air, which by contrast struck knife-like to the very vitals. The colder the weather and the greater the necessity for fires, the more was the suffering of the slaves increased. The feeding and attendant cleaning of the furnaces was a task given usually either to none but the lowest menials or else as punishment. Hence Nicanor knew himself in Hito's black books, and obeyed his orders with an ill grace which did not tend to lighten his labors.
Once that day already he had shirked his duty, driven by restless longing, to stand outside the door which for him hid all the enchantment of the world, until the coming of Marius had sent him about any task he could lay hand to. With what had followed, and with the knowledge that his fate was absolutely in the hands of Marius, he became impatient at the delay. The sword hung above him and would not fall. If he but knew what was to happen he fancied that he might have prepared himself in a measure to meet it. Nothing in the way of escape could be attempted until after nightfall; he was too much the object of Hito's malicious attention for that. And escape meant escape from Varia, from stolen, memory-haunting visits, from all that just then made life bearable. Suspense and his own powerlessness turned him sullen; he went about his tasks under Hito's eye with a dogged surliness at which his fellow-slaves laughed in private and dared not challenge him in good-natured raillery.
Away from Hito, he straightway forgot what was in his hands, and remained deep in boding thought, his face lowering. He was on the edge of a precipice into whose depths no man dared look; into which Marius's hands might plunge him at will. Thoughts of Thorney, of the churned-up waters of the fords, of the camp-fires glowing through dusk, of the nervous press of men and beasts that lit upon the island like a swarm of bees, and, like a swarm, buzzed awhile and settled to brief rest, crowded upon him then. He would go back to Thorney—though never to the ivory workshop—and he would make enough to live on by telling tales to those who circled about the fires, even though these were not the worlds he had dreamed of conquering. And first of all, and somehow, he must free himself from the welded collar of brass about his throat. With this to brand him for what he was, the first man he met along the highway might return him to his master—if he could—and claim reward.
The slaves' quarters, following the general plan of the house, were built around a square inner court, with a cryptoporticus, or covered gallery, at the northern and southern ends. But here were no polished floors of rich design and coloring; no soft couches and brilliant draperies, no marbles and paintings. There were no hypocausts beneath to warm the rooms to Summer heat; these, small and bare as cells, were always cold. On the eastern side of the court were housed the women slaves; on the western, the men. Between these, on the northern end, were the apartments of the freedmen and stewards and overseers, with their offices. On the southern side, to the right of the main entrance to the court, were the storerooms leading down to the dark coldness of the wine-cellars. To the left of the entrance were the kitchens, with stoves, and with hypocausts beneath them. Outside the walls, singly and in groups, were the wattled huts of the field-hands, who cared for the parks and immediate lands of the villa, and who came twice daily to the great house to be fed.
In such a household, where economy was a lost word and extravagance the order of life, the stewards and overseers who managed it, being accountable only to their lord, were vested with much power, and made the most of it. Head and front of them all was Hito, fat and shining, with glinting pig's eyes. No detail of the great establishment was too trivial for his notice. Supposed to have general control over each division of slaves, which in turn was managed by its own headman, he yet had a finger in all businesses. Like all men of his stamp, he went in mortal fear of ridicule; thought to show his power by abuse of it. On his word alone a slave might be put to the rack; let an unfortunate incur his displeasure, and he had endless ways of revenge. His predominating characteristic was an oily sleekness; the very voice of him was smooth with unctuousness. Violent likes and dislikes he took, and was in a position to gratify both, a bad enemy and a worse friend. And his methods had but one trait in common,—an entire and often apparently irrational unexpectedness. It was the one thing which in him might be relied on; he would do the thing he was least expected to do.
After the evening meal came a period of respite for those not on duty at the house. Much license was carried on at such times, at which Hito discreetly winked—unless he held a grudge against some luckless one. Even he had been known to take a hand himself in various affairs, using his official authority to gain his private ends.
Dusk deepened, and night fell. Hito rolled to the door of his office and stood looking out into the court, picking his teeth with grunts of well-fed content. A slave was lighting a brazier of charcoal near the well in the centre of the court. The bit of blazing tinder, which he nursed carefully between his hands, threw its light up into his face and showed it in relief against the darkness, sombre, strongly marked, with a thatch of black bushy hair. Hito, recognizing him, scowled with an instantly aroused antagonism.
"Nicanor!" he shouted.
Nicanor lifted the brazier by its handle and came. When he reached Hito, he set it down, for it was heavy. Hito jerked his head at it.
"Where are you taking that?" he demanded. If he had thought Nicanor had been trying to steal it, he could not have thrown more suspicion into his voice.
"To the rooms of the Lady Varia," Nicanor answered. From his tone it was plain that the antagonism was mutual.
"Who commanded it?"
Even Hito had nothing to say to this. But, bound to show his authority, he thought to have the last word.
"Well, leave it, and I will send another. I have a thing for you to do."
"No!" said Nicanor.
Hito's little pig eyes glinted.
"So be it! Take it, then," he said, and his voice was smooth as oil. "You can still do what I would have—perhaps even better. Now pay attention. When you go to our lady's apartments, look well around and see one of her women there. She is, I know, on duty at this time, but in what room I do not know. Speak with her, if you can, and say that I, Hito, am willing to see her to-night, and that I expect her. She will understand! Say that I wait for her,—she will know where,—and if she does not come, I will find out why." He crossed his arms on his fat chest.
"If she is not in the outer room I cannot seek her. I am no eunuch," said Nicanor, shortly.
"Maybe she will be there," Hito replied. "See, this is how you shall know her. Look for one with black hair, with dark brows and eyes blue, white in the face and somewhat lean, as though consumed by inward fires,—of passion, you understand! Be sure and say to her that if she doth not come, I will find out why." He hugged himself gently, leering at Nicanor. "And—Nicanor, I ask this as a friend, not require it as a service; wherefore—you understand?—nothing need be said about it. I would not get the poor girl into trouble, but seeing that she urgeth so—"
Nicanor looked unmoved upon his fat smirk.
"I will do as you command," he said, and picked up the brazier and turned to go.
"Nay, never say command," Hito said in haste, and deigned to lay a hand on the slave's broad shoulder. "I do but ask it of you in all friendship. Therefore you should be grateful that I, Hito, admit you thus to confidence. For, look you, there be reasons; this, one might say, is—not official."
Nicanor's grim lips relaxed to a half smile.
"I will do it, then, since Hito craves it," he said, and went his way across the court. Hito shook his heavy jowls in rage.
"Dog!" he muttered. "'Hito craves' forsooth! I'll have that up against you, mighty lordling, one of these fine days! In the name of the gods, what is one to do with a fellow who cares not the snap of his finger for any punishment I can devise?"
Nicanor went along the covered gallery leading from the slaves' quarters to the mansion. At intervals he shifted the heavy brazier from hand to hand. The heat of the smouldering charcoal in it rose to his face, gratefully warm. When he reached the anteroom of Lady Varia's apartments, going by the rear passages, he found no one. The room, warmed to Summer heat, and filled with flowers, was empty. Perfumed lamps burned low, swinging from their bronze and silver standards; in a curtained recess in the wall a marble Minerva gleamed shadowed white, half concealed by curtains of dusky red. A silver jar of incense, burning before the shrine, tinged the air with faint fragrance. All was quiet and peaceful, a safe and sheltered nest. From the other inner rooms he could hear voices; a girl's voice steadily intoning sonorous blank verse; at intervals another voice, interrupting, slow and languid, that set his heart beating hard and his face flushing. He picked up a bell from the stand near the entrance and rang it.
The recitative stopped; there was a murmur of mingled voices, and footsteps. A girl parted the curtains which hung between the rooms and came toward him. Her hair was black, fastened by long pins of bone; her face white and resentful; her brows were straight and dark, and the eyes beneath were shadowy. She was slim and moved swiftly, and her skin was white as milk. This, then, was the girl upon whom Hito had cast his evil glance. Nicanor kept his eyes on her as she came, and wondered if she was newly bought, that he had not seen her during the months he had been at the villa.
"I bring the brazier Nerissa commanded," said Nicanor, and she nodded.
"Nerissa is busy with our lady. I will take it in."
"She is not ill?" he asked anxiously.
"Nay, not ill," the girl answered. "It is but that she feels the cold. I will take the brazier." She looked at him with some surprise that he did not give it up.
"It is heavy," he warned her. "Stay one moment, I pray you. Will you not tell me your name? I have been in this house these many months, and never before have I seen you."
"I am called Eldris," she answered. "And I have been here also, but—it is true you have not seen me, although at times I have seen you. I have been seen by none save—"
"Save one, perhaps," said Nicanor, and looked into her eyes. "I bring you word from Hito—if you are she he told me to seek out. He saith that he, Hito, is willing to see you to-night; that he expects you, and that you will understand. He saith that he awaits you—you will know where; and if you do not come, he will find out why. Also—"
He stopped on the word. The girl had gone gray; and into her eyes there leaped a look of helpless terror, of dumb anguish and nameless fear. And at once, with the look, she became elusively familiar. A memory, half lost, beckoned to him, of a white and tortured face, of eyes which held the terror of a wounded animal at bay, of a long red welt across brown shoulders. His glance went to the girl's shoulders, white as milk, half hidden under her coarse white tunic.
"Hito!" the girl exclaimed below her breath; and again—"Hito!" She flung out her hands with a movement of bitter despair and hid her face in them. "What can I do? Where can I go?" she cried hopelessly. "Since the first day he saw me this hath hung over me—and what can I do? O my God! what can I do against him?"
"You do not go willingly?" Nicanor questioned, and took note of the exclamation she had used.
"You will not force me to him!" she gasped in terror, misunderstanding, and shrank from him.
"Not I! I am no man's procurer!" Nicanor said curtly. "I give his message; the rest lieth with you and him."
"Never with me!" the girl exclaimed. She broke into hard dry sobs that racked her. Nicanor watched, quite at a loss what to say or do.
"He hath—he hath threatened force and the rack if I refuse," she sobbed.
"The rack is a bad thing to know!" said Nicanor, thinking of what he had seen in the room at the end of the passage. He spoke with all sincerity, being no better than his time.
"Ay, but there is something worse!" Eldris flashed back. "I would rather face my lord in the torture-chamber; I would rather be broken on the wheel and die the death—" She shuddered, and again hid her face. "And there is no way out of it but death. What can I do, a slave?"
The old bitter cry, wrung from the lips of many that the word of the Nations' Law might be fulfilled—wrung from the lips of Nicanor himself. He knew the full measure of its bitterness, and somewhere in him an answering chord stirred and woke to life. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"See then, if that be thy feeling,—though them knowest not the rack!—I too am a slave, but it may be that I can help thee." The girl stilled her sobs to listen. "Hito is a fat swine. It would give me great joy to foil him."
"I have tried to move him," she said, with a weary hopelessness more suggestive than many words. "It is because I struggle—" She stopped, biting her lips, her eyes dark with misery. "It is not me he would have now, but his way," she said forlornly.
"For me to take thy refusal would do no good," said Nicanor, his voice reflective. "Tell thy lady; surely she will give thee protection."
"Often I have tried to do that," Eldris answered. "Always Nerissa or other women are there to know what I would have with her; and always they say it is not for me to talk with her unless she gives command—that I am to tell them and they will carry the word to her. And when I tell,—" she faltered, with drooping head,—"they laugh, and call me fool, and ask why I should hold myself too good to do as others have done, and say our lady is not to be troubled with a thing such as this. That is what they say, and they are worse than he. And I fear him! Oh, I fear him!" She clenched her hands tightly across her breast and shivered with closed eyes. "By day I go in dread lest he give command to seize me; by night I start awake lest I see his face grinning in the dark, even though for weeks at a time he will give me peace and make no sign. When my service is done, I hide like a rat in its hole, wishing to be seen by none. But he never forgets, and he never forgives, and I have scorned him. Oh, I would to God that I were dead!"
"Art thou Christian?" Nicanor asked curiously.
"Ay," she answered, without spirit.
"Once I was at a Christian church," said Nicanor.
"Art thou of the faith?" she asked, quickly and eagerly.
"Not I," said Nicanor. "What good may it do a man? And if it doeth no good, any faith will do to swear by. It hath not done thee much good, this faith of thine, since it leaves thee in this pass."
"I trust it," she said quietly.
"Nay," said Nicanor, in all seriousness. "It is I whom thou must trust. It is not thy faith will help thee here, but I, and the wit I have and the strength I have, because I am the only one near thee. How then, if it be I, can it be thy faith?"
"I trust it," she repeated vaguely, as though she did not quite understand his meaning. He laughed shortly.
"I had rather trust myself. See now, if the door were opened, couldst thou escape from here?"
"I have no money—nowhere to go," she answered.
Nicanor shook his head.
"Money I have not, but I could see that friends received thee."
She shrugged her shoulders, a gesture half resignation, half despair. And with the movement, the elusive familiarity returned; the flickering memory leaped to life. Black straight hair, framing a gray face and burning eyes; a girl, a lean wisp of a thing, with chained wrists and a ragged frock which only half concealed a long red welt on a brown shoulder—he had seen them all before. The memory grew and would not be denied; suddenly forced itself into words.
"Art thou she who was bought at Thorney of a slave-driver by one Valerius, and claimed sanctuary of a Christian cross by the church of Saint Peter?"
Her glance at him was startled.
"Yea; but how dost thou know of it?" she asked in turn.
"I saw thee sold," said Nicanor, and looked at her with new eyes. "When Valerius pursued thee to the foot of the cross, I ran also. It was I who went for the priest, and came back and found no one. Often since, I have wondered what became of thee and the folk who had gathered." He laughed. "But it made a good tale. More than once I have used it, and fitted to it endings of mine own."
"While I lay grasping the cross, a man in the crowd cried out: 'Girl, the priest cometh! Run thou quickly to him!' And I, being well-nigh dazed with fear, had no better sense than to spring up, crying, 'Where?' And no priest was there at all; but the instant my hands were off the cross that man seized me and ran, and all the crowd ran after to see what might happen next, some saying it was not just, and others finding it rare good sport. At the river he thrust me into a boat and gave the man money to row quickly; and since their sport was over, the people went away. It did not take long." She looked at him with quickened interest, and in her face also there was new thought.
"So—art thou, then, that teller of tales, whom men call Nicanor of the silver tongue?"
Nicanor laughed again, but softly, all the hardness gone from his grim face, his eyes shining oddly. Did they indeed call him that?
"I am Nicanor," he said. His quick ears caught a step approaching from the inner rooms. "Some one comes!" he said warningly, and added, "It is heavy; let me take it to the door."
He picked up the brazier and carried it to the door. Eldris followed, her steps lagging.
"I will wait near until thy duty here is ended," he said in a rapid undertone. "None shall touch thee this night, I promise thee. As for to-morrow—well, to-morrow is to-morrow, and there is small use in worrying to-day."
She flashed a glance of gratitude at him and took the brazier. It was too heavy for her, but she staggered bravely with it across the threshold, and the curtains fell behind her. Nicanor heard Nerissa's sharp voice from within.
"Why so long, girl? Bring it quickly—thy lady's feet are chilled."
Nicanor lingered a moment, his eyes on the hidden entrance, and turned and went out with his long and cat-like stride.
In the courtyard one ran against him in the darkness and cursed him soundly. Nicanor, recognizing the ring of Hito's eloquence, halted and waited for what might come. Hito, in his turn, recognized him, and changed his tone.
"So, thou? In the dark I did not know thee. Didst find the girl?"
"Ay, I found her," Nicanor answered with indifference. "But she is on duty to-night with our lady, and knows not when she can get away." He gave a short laugh. "Truly, Hito—since this is not official!—I had thought thee with an eye for woman-flesh as keen as the best. But that!—At first I doubted mine own eyes, that thou hadst singled out such an one for thy favor, when there be others whose better no man could wish. What one can see in long sulky eyes, a gray face that never smiles, hair like a mare's tail, a body gaunt and spare as a growing boy's—I cannot say I admire thy taste. Thou, who art so keen a judge of women's beauty, who can pick and choose from among the fairest—what hath bewitched thee, man?"
"You do not know her!" Hito said sulkily, forced into a defence of his choice. "A creature all fire and ice—well, I know she hath no beauty, but—I'd not have thee believe it is because I am no judge. What do I care for the girl? Bah!" He snapped his fingers in contempt. "But she hath flouted me, defied me,—me, Hito, whose word could send her stripped to the torment,—and by my father's head I'll break her for it! When I approached her with soft words, these many weeks ago, she laughed,—mind you that!—and it is dangerous to laugh at Hito. But she will not laugh when I am through with her! Also she said that she would prefer the rack. A pity that in this world people cannot always have what they prefer. More than ever I desire her; I would break her, see her cringe and follow like a beaten hound; and the more she fights me, the more surely I shall win, and the more my victory shall cost her. That is my way—the way of Hito!" He licked his thick lips.
"'And the lion said: "I find it rare good sport to hunt a mouse; it is most noble game!"'" Nicanor quoted. His voice held a taunt.
"No insolence, sirrah!" Hito snarled, instantly suspicious of ridicule. "Because I held speech with thee to-night, it does not follow that thou art privileged to criticize!"
"If I am insolent, why choose me for your messenger?" Nicanor asked boldly.
Hito slipped an arm about the slave's broad shoulders and patted him.
"Because thou art a man after mine own heart," he said smoothly. "Because I love thee and thy bold eyes and thy dare-devil recklessness, and would make a friend of thee. Why else? Now, then, to-morrow thou shalt bring the girl to me. I am minded for an hour's sport with the tiger-cat. My fingers itch for that lean throat of hers. After, I will give her to thee if it please thee—and then we'll see what the rack will leave of her beauty." His oily chuckle was diabolic.
"And our lady?" Nicanor suggested. "What will she say when she knows how a handmaiden of hers hath been disposed of?"
"How will she know," Hito retorted, "when there be a dozen and odd to take her place? A slave more or less is a small matter in this house." His tone was significant. "So bring her to-morrow at the noon hour, my friend. I think thou canst find a way! Till then, good-night. The gods have thee in their keeping!"
"And thee!" Nicanor responded with a grin.
Hito was absorbed into the darkness. Nicanor spat upon the ground where he had stood.
"Rather the gods smite thee with death and ruin!" he muttered. "Now to wait for thy lady. How well he loves her, in truth!"
He took to pacing up and down the gallery before the storerooms, for the night air was biting cold, noiseless, a blot of shadow in the darkness. His thoughts wandered from the black-haired slave girl to her whom they both served; to Marius; to his own plight. How long would it be before it pleased Marius to speak and snap the jaws of the trap upon him? Why did he hold his hand? Or had he perhaps already spoken? He knew that if he were to escape at all, the sooner he made the attempt, the better. His fingers went uncertainly to the collar at his throat. He could bribe no one to cut it for him; to do it himself would be more than difficult, even if he could steal the tools. He paused before a door that led into deeper blackness. At the far end of that passage was another door through which he must enter, where many another had entered before him, and where he had seen too much of what went on within to expect less for himself than had fallen to the lot of these. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Even a trapped rat may fight," he muttered, and turned to continue his pacing. Then it was that he saw a light coming down the gallery, dancing upon the wall; and a group of three approaching, revealed by a torch in the hands of one. Wary as a buck which scents danger on every breeze, he drew back into the space between two pillars to wait and watch. And he saw that of the three, the middle one was Marcus, held fast and struggling, and whimpering like a dog dragged to a beating.
In the first moment, Nicanor did not understand. Then it grew upon him that this had something to do with him, and it might be well to find out what. The three passed him and entered at that door before which Nicanor had paused.
"So—they take him to the torture!" Nicanor muttered. "I think that I shall see the end of this."
Lithe and noiseless as a cat he went after the three down the passage, keeping well out of range of the flaring torch.
But when he reached the door at the end of the passage, it was closed, and he could only stand outside and listen. A lamp of pottery, burning wanly on a stone shelf jutting from the wall, showed the door, low, metal-bound, of tough black oak. He could see nothing, but his ears caught fragments of sound at intervals from within; a clank of chains, a scraping as of a heavy object dragged across the floor. He leaned against the wall of the passage, the lamplight on his face, his figure tense with expectation, his hands quite unconsciously hard clenched. Without warning there rose from inside a frantic gibbering, meaningless, bestial, horribly shrill. Nicanor smiled with narrowed eyes.
"Well for me I drew thy sting, old man!" he muttered.
The gibbering broke suddenly into a scream that rang for an instant and stopped short, leaving blank silence. Nicanor's face sharpened and grew pinched with eagerness; under scowling brows his eyes took on a strange glitter like the eyes of an animal in the dark. He crouched closer to the door, his body rigid with the strain of listening. Once more the cry of pain rose, this time sustained and savage with despair; it choked and gurgled horribly into silence; and rose again, more agonized, more bitter.
"Perhaps he wishes now he had not entered that garden!" said Nicanor, and laughed low in triumph. Every nerve was thrilling to the savage lust of blood, half-lost instinct of old days when men lived and died by blood, when the battle was to the strongest, and life was a victim's forfeit. He longed to look through the iron-bound door, to see for himself Marcus paying the price for his temerity. Strangely, he could not bring himself to believe that Marcus was unable to betray him; it seemed to him as though the man's fearful straining after speech must have result of some sort. Even though he knew this idea to be absurd, he found himself on edge with suspense.
The cries became long-drawn, agonized, unceasing. There is but one sound in the world as bad as the sound of a man's screaming, and that other is the scream of a wounded horse. Nicanor set his teeth.
"Now they are twisting the cord about his head.... And yet, though they kill him, the poor fool cannot speak. I have well taken care of that, it appears.... They have him on the stone table, and his hands are bound. I can see it—oh, ay, I can see it well enough. I can see that he writhes in torment; and his face—what would his face be? Purple, perhaps; and the cord about his temples hath bitten through the flesh. There is blood upon his face, and it takes four men to hold him. Body of me! Who would have thought the old man to have such lungs!"
A smothered exclamation from the semi-darkness beside him sent his hand leaping to the dagger concealed in his tunic. In the same instant he saw that it was Eldris.
"Who is it?" she whispered fearfully. "Oh, why do they not kill him and have it over! I heard as I was passing—I had to come!" She clasped her hands over her ears and shuddered. Nicanor folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall, looking down at her. When she lowered her hands, he said:
"It may be that our lord hath not given command that he die."
"Who is it?" she repeated.
"Marcus," he answered, and saw her draw breath with a quick sob.
"Ah, poor old man! What hath he done to deserve this?"
"Rather it is because he will not—because he cannot do what they would have him," said Nicanor. His words were reckless, still more his tone; it was even as though he cared not enough about the matter to hide his knowledge from her.
"Do you know what it is? Oh, if they would but kill him in very pity!" She wrung her hands.
"Ay, I know," said Nicanor.
"Was it his fault?" she asked eagerly. He hesitated, his bold eyes on her face.
"No," he said. "It was not his fault. He was in the right."
She turned on him in horror.
"You know him innocent, and yet you stand here idle while he is done to death!" she cried. "Oh, go—go quickly and tell them he is not to blame! Make them set him free!" She caught his arm and he felt her fingers shake. "Are you a coward, that you will listen to his cries when a word of yours could release him? I had not thought it of you—oh, I had not thought it of you!"
"Suppose a word of mine should set me in his place?" said Nicanor harshly. "Maybe I am coward; but calling me one will not make me one. Suppose I were in his place; suppose that in my fall I carried others with me,—others who at all costs must be shielded,—is it not better that one should suffer than that our world should crash about our ears? He is old and worthless—"
"And you are young and worthy to have his blood spilled for you!" she taunted in a shaking voice. "I do not understand, it may be, but it seems that this frail old man must suffer that you, so brave, so powerful, whose life is of so great worth, may go unharmed. Why should you be set in his place? Is the fault yours? If it be, and you seek shelter behind his helplessness, you are lower than the cringing curs. Are you afraid, O great and worthy one, to stand forth and confess your wrong as any man would do?"
She stopped breathless. He looked at her with eyes hot and sullen.
"Now I should like to wring your neck for that!" he said. At the swift ruthless savagery in his tone the girl shrank back. Nicanor saw and laughed. "Since I may not, I'll take payment otherhow. As for the old man, let him squeal as best likes him. If they break him on the wheel, I shall go and tell them how to do it; if they boil him in oil, I shall go and stir the gravy. Your opinion of the cringing cur should not go unjustified."
The screaming died suddenly into moaning. Eldris covered her face with her hands.
"Oh, but that is worse, if worse can be! Why does he not tell them he knows nothing, has done nothing? Surely they would let him go! Is he trying, perhaps, to shield you?" Her voice, under all its fear and pity, was mocking.
"Not he! He would be glad to see me in his place," Nicanor retorted. He laughed a little. "Strange, is it not, that he doth not tell?—since thumb-screws and argolins soon find a man's limit."
She faced him, gathering all her courage.
"Now do I believe you know more of this than you will say!" she cried.
"Perhaps!" he said boldly. "It is not well to tell all one knows."
"Not even to save a fellow-creature's life! Oh, what are you—brute or man? Man with the speech of angels—brute with the heart of hell!"
"Perhaps!" said Nicanor again. "Why should I tell you what I am?"
"Do you know, yourself?" she questioned.
His eyes hardened.
"Who can know himself?" he parried, with a shrug of his heavy shoulders. "This much I know—that I am brute and man, slave and king. At times I am lower than man, who can be lower than any crawling beast; at times I am more than god, with all the world beneath me. Why? How should I tell?"
"You, who sing of birds and butterflies, of flowers in Summer, of sunshine and sweet love and the brightness of life!" she said bitterly and with reproach. "Indeed, you are two men, and I know not either. One, all men must hate and fear; the other—ah, the other is of the silver tongue. Why should this be? I can tell no more than you—I can but pray that that black beast may be tamed and stilled."
"I say I do not know!" Nicanor said sullenly. "And speak we of something else. I am one man, Nicanor, slave and teller of tales. That is all with which you have concern. And I do not need praying over."
"Have you no gods?" she asked him, shocked. He looked rather blank at her attack.
"Why, no," he said, and his voice held a faint tinge of surprise. "There are no gods in the bogs and fens and on the hills where I tended sheep. What gods with any sense would live in such parts as these? And I knew no need of them. Why should I have learned? When my mother would tell me of one God whom she worshipped, I would go and play. Is this your God?"
"Ay," she answered, without hesitation. "I think your mother, too, was Christian."
"Maybe," Nicanor answered with indifference. "But he is not the God of the mighty—of none but slaves and bondsmen and the humble, from all that hath been told to me."
"Of those who are oppressed," she said softly. "Wilt let me tell thee of Him? Of how He was born in a stable, with wise men journeying from the East, bearing gifts of homage?"
Nicanor looked at her with a gleam of quickening interest.
"Why, that is a tale," he said. "Now I have never heard of this before. Why was he born in a stable, and what gifts did those wise men bring?"
Within the room the sounds had died, leaving a heavy silence, and neither noticed. For of old Death young Life is ever heedless; ever the brazen fanfare of life's trumpets drowns the thin reed-plaint of death. In the passage their voices whispered guiltily.
"Because His mother went to a place which was called Bethlehem, with Joseph her husband, to pay the taxes, and there was no room at the inn," said Eldris, explaining. "And the angel of the Lord had told Joseph that these things should be, and that he need not put away Mary as he was minded to do." She knew the facts of the story she would tell him; give it form and coherence she could not.
"Who was Mary?"
"The wife of Joseph."
"Why put her away?"
"Because the Child was to be born."
Nicanor drew his heavy eyebrows to a scowl of intense perplexity.
"Now why should he put her away for doing what all good wives should do?"
"Because her child was the Son of God, and at first Joseph did not—"
"And not the son of Joseph!" cut in Nicanor. His voice became all at once enlightened. "Now by my head, this is a quaint tale thou tellest! So the God you Christians worship was a—"
"Oh!" cried Eldris; and the shock in her voice cut his words short. "Never say it! You do not understand! It was a miracle!"
"A miracle—well, that is different," said Nicanor. "I have told tales of miracles, for such things may be. And so—?"
"For it had been foretold that One should be born, of a pure virgin, who should redeem the world and take upon Himself the sins and sorrows of all men. So an angel told Mary that she was blessed among women—but I think that she was frightened."
Nicanor nodded, as one in entire understanding. In place of the hard glitter of his eyes had come a certain luminosity as though from inner fires, an odd deep shining; his face was keen with a lively interest.
"And so—what happened then?" he questioned her, even as men, so many times before, had questioned him.
"Yet she was glad, for that she was chosen to bring peace into the world," recounted Eldris. "So they went into Bethlehem, and all the inns were full. But Mary could go no farther, and they went into a stable, where oxen and cattle were stalled. And there the Child was born; and men say that a great star in the sky guided shepherds who fed their flocks upon the moors to that stable where He lay. And it is told that three Kings came out of the East, laden with perfumes and gifts for him who was to be the Saviour of the world."
"Kings," Nicanor repeated, musing. "Then would they be clothed bravely, with jewels and fine linen, and this would make good contrast with the stable. Go on. What did they when they came into the stable?"
"They marvelled greatly that He whom they had journeyed to seek should be but a new-born babe, and they bowed down and worshipped."
"Paid homage," said Nicanor, following out his own train of thought. "Ay, it is a good tale, but as I have heard it, it lacketh something—what? I must think of that. It hath no point, no pivot on which to hang the whole. For, look you, a tale is built as any other thing is built; it must have its parts balanced; it must have cause, and meaning, and effect. This hath a beginning, but it leads nowhere, without end."
"But it hath no end," said Eldris, not understanding. "And it can have no end until the end of time. For it was but the beginning; and the little Jesus that lay in the manger is He who liveth and reigneth above all gods—"
"Now I care not for the little Jesus!" said Nicanor, gruff with impatience. "It is the tale I would get at—the tale! Well, it will come, as always it hath come before. On a night I will wake to find it full-grown in my head and clamoring at my tongue. Now we will go, or that fat lover of thine will be upon us."
Brought back to the present and its portents, Eldris bent her head, listening.
"Why, the cries have ceased," she said.
"Ay, this long time past," said Nicanor carelessly. "How much, think you, human flesh and blood can stand?"
"Is he dead?" she asked, startled.
"I hope so!" said Nicanor. "Nay then, I do not care, which is nearer truth. If I do not fear a fangless serpent in the grass, why should I fear him?"
There was sudden movement behind the door; before either could think of flight it opened, showing the room within. A still figure on the raised slab of stone, for centre of the picture, with two half-stripped Africans beside it; three figures coming doorward: and these were Eudemius, and Marius, and the physician Claudius. Eudemius, his face pinched and gray, leaned tottering with weakness on the arms of the other two; behind them walked a slave with a great peacock fan, and another slave was waiting at the door. At once Nicanor clapped his hardened hand over the thin flame of the lamp on the shelf, and the passage where they stood was plunged in darkness. Before the three lords had reached the threshold, he had drawn the girl out of sight behind one of the squat pillars of the passage. Perhaps no harm would come to them, even were they discovered; but he had reasons for wishing to take no chances. The three passed by unheeding, Eudemius stumbling and cursing because the passage was dark. When they had gone, Nicanor went into the room, where the slaves were busy. Eldris stood hesitating on the threshold, afraid to enter, unwilling to go.
"He is dead, is he?" Nicanor asked, and went and stood over the broken body on the stone slab.
One of the Africans grinned, showing strong white teeth beneath his yellow turban.
"Our lord was a devil to-night," he said. "The madness was on him, and he would have blood. But look you; here is a strange thing." With ungentle hands he forced open the dead jaws, not yet stiffened in the rigor of death. "Now sure this be a miracle, for mine own ears heard him speak but yesterday."
"So?" said Nicanor, with lifted brows. "Now I should have said a week ago, or maybe two. Ay, if you heard him speak yesterday, it was sure a miracle. Likely he hath done something displeasing to his gods."
The slaves carried the limp body away, and others came and resanded the floors.
The chamber was circular, of rough blocks of stone, with two doors. Opposite the one where Eldris stood was a raised dais where were two chairs and a flaring cresset on a tall standard. Around the walls hung instruments of war, of torture, and of the chase; chains with heavy balls of iron attached; a stand of spears, and another of great bronze swords, leaf-shaped and burnished. A collection of daggers hung upon the walls, with the terrible short knives worn by the Saxons, each with the two nicks in the blade which would leave a ragged and dreadful wound. Here also were great six-foot bows, such as the Numidian archers used; and suits of armor in corium and in bronze, with shields and breastplates and crested helmets of brass and iron. Here was a narrow bed, of wood and iron, with bolts and screws for tearing muscle from muscle and joint from joint. Nicanor, with grim humor, had called this the bridal bed, and the name would stick to it forever. And here, higher than a man's height above the floor, was a leaden tank with a water-cock, from which would fall water, drop by drop, hour by hour, into a leaden basin with a drain-pipe sunk into the floor. Once Nicanor had seen a man sit screaming there for untold hours, chained to a stone bench, with water dripping, drop by drop, upon his shaven skull. He had used this upon a day, in a tale he had told in the wine-shop of Nicodemus; and men had shuddered and drawn back from him as from one possessed of unholy powers. And Nicanor, looking at this now, and with that terrible gift of his seeing himself chained and screaming in that other's place, set his teeth and muttered:
"I shall leave this house this night."
But he did not, for he was but mortal, and subject, like other mortals, to the decree of the goddess Fate.
For as the slaves went out of the other door with their buckets of sand, Nicanor heard a cry from where the girl stood in the entrance to the passage; a cry sharp and quick, as he had heard a rabbit squeal in the trap. He wheeled and saw her shrinking inside the doorway, her hands before her face, and over her Hito standing, his little pig's eyes alight.
Now the girl was nothing to Nicanor; he could have cursed her roundly for getting in his way and perplexing him with her troubles when he had need of all his wit to save himself. He would have vented his displeasure upon her as readily as upon Hito. He was not chivalrous; if she had pleased his fancy he would quite surely have pursued her as relentlessly as the steward. But he had said, "None shall touch thee this night"; and he would maintain his word not because he wanted to, but because he must.
"Keep your hands off her!" he said savagely, as Hito stooped. His hands were clenched, his black brows lowering, his mood, plainly, was not to be trifled with. That he should pay for his temerity he knew as well as Hito; but since he was lost in any case, he considered that a little more or less would make small difference.
"What have you to say about it?" Hito snarled. "Did I not send you for the girl? Quartus! Sporus! Come back, ye knaves, and bind me this fellow!"
But Nicanor, with a bound like a tiger cat's, flung himself on the door, slammed it shut, and locked it. And he had need of all his quickness, for he was playing fast and loose with death. Hito yelled and started for the second door through which he had come and near which the girl was crouching. But again Nicanor was too quick. He got between Hito and the door and stood ready to shut it,—erect, defiant, every muscle tense to spring. He would die, that was certain, but he would give somebody trouble first. Now Hito was fat and scant of breath, and Hito was soft with good living and much ease; and when he was cornered, he turned not rat, but rabbit. Moreover, he had seen this lean devil of a slave in action before and he remembered it. So he stopped and merely yelled again for Quartus and Sporus.
Without taking his eyes off the overseer, Nicanor put out his hand and pulled the girl to him.
"If you swoon, I shall kill you!" he muttered, stooping until he could whisper in her ear. "Go to Thorney in the Fords, and find there Nicodemus the One-Eyed, who keeps a wine-shop. Tell him I sent you. I cannot hold our friend here for long, but it is all that I can do. You know what it will mean to be caught and brought back." He raised his voice somewhat, so that Hito should hear apparently without his meaning it. "Go to your room and lock yourself in. We shall see what our lord has to say to such doings!"