"Therefore I say that so long as the old faith endured, it was well with us. But the worship of the Emperor's divinity was instituted; and it was something in which these people could find no parallel to their own gods. They said: 'Why should we worship one of whose powers we know nothing? Your gods, which it seems after all are our gods under new names, are well enough. We want no other, who is no god of ours. How may this Emperor of yours be god as well as man?' But we Romans upheld this new religion, with powers of government, with grants of land, with the erection of new temples, with all manner of benefices, for those who would think as we thought. To those who would not, we said: 'Worship as we worship, or it will be the worse for you.' Who reaped the benefits of this change? We, the Augustans, who had conformed to it. Who paid the penalty? Those who clung to the old order, and so defied us, becoming insurgent. Romans became divided even as Goths, taking part with them against their own people. And herein were we in grave error, for we needed all our strength, not to fight each other, but to fight our common foes. Now it is our turn to pay the penalty for this, and it shall be a heavy one.
"The insurgents, few in number as they were, and not powerful, bribed the Saxon chieftains, who would else have lived peaceably enough among us, by promises of plunder if they would join with them. And the chieftains were the more readily persuaded to this, since it was a righteous thing to uphold the old gods, and if there was reward for doing it, in the way of booty, so much the better. The Romans who set them on were pleased; the gods were pleased; the chieftains were pleased. So here you have it, friends, the prime cause of our undoing. It is our own people, of our blood and our speech, who, rebelling against law and order, are stirring these Saxons against us. It is they who have razed Augustan temples, destroyed holy relics, and slain Augustan priests—they, and not the Saxons. I say again: when Britain passes from our hands, it will not be by Saxon means, but primarily by Roman treachery. And Saxons, profiting by our internal strife and their own position, will reap the benefits."
He ceased; and his words hung in the silence of the room. They looked at him, grave bearded men; and the truth of what he said was in their faces.
"You speak as though we were in fault," said an old man, querulously, far down the room. "Our fathers, not we, have done these things."
"Our fathers were Romans, and we are Romans, and their mistakes are our heritage," said Pomponius, sternly.
"Let us have care that we leave no such heritage to those who shall call us fathers."
"Britain is not out of our hands yet," said Aurelius. "And it is for us to keep her there.—How?"
Again there fell a silence. Out of it a musing voice spoke.
"No troops in Britain; Gaul, our nearest help, beset by Huns.... But Gaul is our only hope. We must ask AEtius for a legion as we did two years ago."
A shrug went around the assembly. Plainly it said: "There is no other thing to do."
"If we could but agree to act together in this!" said the old man. Men called him Paulus Atropus, and bore with his senility for sake of what he had been. "It would seem that in this matter there can be no room for argument; we all must think alike for once. But should we not wait to hear from those of our colleagues who are absent, before we move?"
"What need?" Aurelius asked feverishly. "As you say, they can but think as we do. There is nothing else to be done; and if we wait to hear from them, and to discuss pro and con, we shall gain nothing and lose time. It is for their safety, as well as ours."
"I think we should wait until they can join with us," said Paulus stubbornly. The talk eddied over his head.
"Who will go?" said Caius Valens; and men turned their eyes to Marius. He was the only man in active service there, though not the only one who had seen it. "It needs one swift and sure."
"Why not Marius?" Pomponius said, with a friendly glance at Marius. "Once before he hath come from Gaul to our aid; he can win to AEtius quicker than any of us; he is a soldier, and knows conditions, and what to ask for."
Eudemius made a gesture of protest.
"Friends, believe that I, too, have the best interests of our country at heart," he said quickly. "But Marius, who shortly becomes my son, is the one hope of my old age. I would not call him back from what is his duty; if this mission falls to him I shall be the first to speed him. But what need is there for such frantic haste? There have been attacks before, as severe as this one. Also this is not the first time we have thought of appealing for help. The need is no more imperative now than many times before. Therefore, if he be chosen, I pray you a little time. To-day is his betrothal; in three days his marriage. Until then, leave him to me!"
Few of the lords present but knew Eudemius's story and the conditions under which his daughter's marriage would take place; and none who knew did not sympathize.
"A week would be time," said Pomponius, and one or two nodded. But Aurelius struck his clenched fist upon the table.
"Nay!" he shouted. "I say that he should start this day! It is my city that burns!"
"I am ready," said Marius. "You all know that I shall start this night if you will it so. But I promise you that this delay shall harm us nothing, since I shall send ahead at once to post relays to the coast, and give command for a vessel to be in waiting at Rutupiae. As to whether I shall be successful, that is another question. It seems to me that AEtius will have need of all his men for himself. They are none too many."
"Do the best you can, and it will be all we ask," said Pomponius.
Old Paulus, at his end of the table, leaned his face forward upon his hand.
"Friends, this is the first time in the history of the world that Rome hath withheld aid from her sons who needed it, and cast them off to shift as best they could. And I have lived to see it! I have indeed lived too long!"
Again heads nodded, gravely and sombrely. Paulus was not alone in his bitterness. For the first time in the history of the world men stood aside and watched their country falling into ruins before their eyes with a swiftness greater in proportion to its mighty length of life than ever country had fallen before; and it was a bitter sight.
Pomponius, courtly, ever mindful of others, was first to shake off the gloom to which Paulus had given voice.
"Friends, we must not make this a solemn betrothal feast!" he said. "We have agreed—the most of us—that the danger is not over pressing. Let us then set aside care while we may, for these few days, at least. Our host did not bring us together to see long faces. While we live, let us live!" He turned to Marius. "For sake of thee and thy bride, friend, we will forget as we may the clouds which threaten us. Look to it that when shortly we call on you, we find no cause to regret it."
"You shall find no cause," said Marius.
That afternoon Aurelius departed with his people. He would see for himself what damage had been wrought upon his city, and whether or not it was still in the hands of the insurgents and barbarians. He was in no humor for betrothal feasts and merrymaking when his city was lost. He had come there hoping to obtain help and prompt concerted action on the part of his colleagues. He could not get it; so he would go away again.
But he left behind him Felix, his pale-eyed son, who was wounded and wore his arm in a sling, and for doing so gave no man his reasons.
Wardo, the tall Saxon, sword-girt and muffled in his cloak, lighted his torch at the cresset which burned at the head of the passage behind the storerooms, and started down the slimy steps leading to the dungeon levels. Evening had fallen, fragrant with warm earth-scents and the odors of flowers; a silent night of Spring, when Earth slept and gathered strength for the new life she should bring forth.
All that could be heard of the high feasting going on in the great house was a haunting snatch of music drifting now and again into the night on the soft air. Yet Wardo knew that in the Hall of Columns, with its rare frescoes, its lights and perfumes and flowers, men and women, robed in the splendor of their wealth and station, were drinking the health of the betrothed pair from cups which each had cost ten times its weight in gold; that wrestlers, brought from the arena at Uriconium, were striving with sweat and strain for the purse of twenty sestertii offered to the winner; and dancing girls from far Arabia were posing to the plaintive wail of reeds and the thin tinkle of cymbals. But of all this the rear courts knew nothing. Here was only hurrying to and fro of jaded slaves laden with amphorae of wine and oil and honey; the smell of roasting meats, the clash of pots and kettles. Here, behind the scenes, were the ropes and pulleys which set the stage that the actors might strut through their lordly parts; here was no relaxation and luxurious ease, but labor stern and unremitting, since always pleasure must be paid for by toil.
But Wardo, on his special mission, was exempt from menial tasks. He descended the steps, from level to level, in a stone-bound stillness, the nails in his sandals striking at times faint sparks of light from the uneven flagging he trod. Near the door of Nicanor's cell he paused.
His light, flung upon rough-hewn walls, showed down three steps the grated doors of the wine-cellars. Away to his right, down a narrow pitch-black tunnel, were the walls of the hypocausts behind which fires roared and ravened. Through these tunnels, in Summer, the furnaces were approached to be repaired and cleaned.
"If the light fall upon him too suddenly, it may blind him," said Wardo. "And perhaps he sleeps. I will go softly and make sure."
He thrust his torch into an iron socket in the wall, and went to the door of Nicanor's prison hole. Here he felt with stealthy hands for the small wicket, to be shut or opened only from the outside, built in every cell-door that a warder might hear or see what his prisoner did within. This he pushed back an inch, carefully, without noise, and bent his ear to the opening.
So he heard a voice issuing out of the eternal darkness within; a voice steady and resonant, and sustained as though it had been speaking for some time. Out of the darkness it reached his ears as a thing disembodied, seeming scarcely of the earth or of human lips. In it was a thrill born of the pure joy of creation; prisoned, it yet was free with a freedom whose limits were the limits of earth and sky and thought, unchained, recking not of dripping walls nor aching darkness, for these things were nothing.
"Out of the East three Kings came riding, on padded camels with harness of gold. One was lord of the kingdom of life, and one of the kingdom of love, and one of the kingdom of death, and each one had said: 'Behold me! I am supreme.' But they heard that there lived one mightier than they; and first they scoffed, and next they marvelled, and then they came to see. People ran to watch them as they passed upon their journey, and called them great and mighty; and to himself each said: 'They speak of me.' Each wore about his neck a torques of gold; and in the first was set a diamond, and in the second was set a ruby, hot as passion, and in the third was set a pearl. Slaves walked behind them, bearing hampers filled with gifts for that one who was mightier than they; forty and four were the slaves that walked behind them, and the hampers were covered with cloth of gold.
"So came they to their journey's end at nightfall, when the weary earth was sinking into rest; and they looked about them for a palace more splendid than their own, fitting for that one who was mightier than they. But there were only the houses of the town, and stables. They asked of strangers where such a palace might be, and none could tell them. Then asked they if a very great and mighty king had been there, and folk shook their heads and answered nay. There were many strangers, and all the inns were full, but there was no mighty king that they had seen. One said: 'It may be that he goeth in disguise,' and the others answered: 'That may be so.' So they alighted and went into an inn; and across the courtyard of the inn, in the stalls under the house where cattle stood, they saw a group of people, three or four.
"And in the centre of the group a bearded man was kneeling, and beside him, upon clean straw, lay a Woman and her Child. The Kings stood within the stable, and their greatness was as a glory of light upon the place. Chains of gold they wore upon their necks, and rings upon their hands, and the crowns upon their heads were bright with jewels. They looked at the Woman that lay upon the straw against her man's knees; and she was fair and young and tender, and her eyes were full of joy and pain. And one whispered to them: 'Behold, but now she hath brought a man-child into the world, here in this place, among sweet-breathing oxen and lowing kine.' So they looked upon the Child that lay on his Mother's arm."
The voice stopped short, and silence reeled down upon the world once more. Before Wardo could move or speak it came again, changed this time and strained, all the thrill gone out of it and only weariness left, the voice of one again in chains.
"Eh, thou little Christus, thou hast been brother and comrade both to me in this my loneliness! But now am I indeed fast stuck in a quagmire of uncertainty. Wherein did lie thy power? This I must know or ever the tale can end. I have the Kings, their might and majesty, their robes, and the gifts they bring. I have thy Mother, young and fair and tender, with holy eyes. I have her man, who was not sire to thee, his care for her, his human doubt and questionings. I have the servants of the inn, the shepherds.—Thou great bully Rag, thou hast stood model more often than thou knowest!—I have the cattle dozing in the stalls, the tumult and the shouting of the inn. All this I can paint so that it shall stand forth quick with life; for give me a word, a thought, an action, and I can find the tale in it. But on my life I cannot find why men should worship thee, thou little helpless Child. And until I can, I have no motive for my tale; a thing eludes me which I cannot catch. What power didst hold over men that they should bow to thee? Wherein did lie thy strength? For men will worship only that which is stronger than they—and how wert thou stronger? Was it through fear?—who would fear a babe?—A child, little and ugly and very red, as I have seen babes in the arms of slave-women in the mart at Londinium, with a crumpled mouth wet with his mother's milk—in the name of the high gods, what should men see in such a thing to worship? Thus ever do I question, and until I find my answer the tale is not complete."
There was a restless movement in the dark, a soft shuffle of sandalled feet pacing up and down, endlessly up and down. The voice dropped to a broken mutter in which but a word now and then was to be caught.
"Oh, for a ray of sun or moon to tell if it be day or night! The darkness beats upon mine eyelids like a thousand hammers, until my brain is sick and reeling.... Hath one ever made of this a tale before me, I wonder? The girl did not say. Where is she now, that black-haired love of Hito's? Is she caught and brought back like a rabbit to the kennels of the hounds? That is quite likely, and will be no fault of mine."
Again the voice stopped, and with it the pacing footsteps.
"Thou here, Momus?" Nicanor said suddenly. "So then; it must be time for food. Thou canst tell that, graybeard; if thou couldst tell whether day or night time, I'd carve an ivory figure of thee and hold all thy kind in honor. Maybe they will forget us again, as they have forgot us before. If so, soon I must eat thee, friend, and this will grieve me, less for thy sake than for mine own."
"Who hath he here?" Wardo muttered in perplexity. He placed his lips to the slit and spoke aloud.
Instant silence fell, while one might have counted ten. Then Nicanor's voice, keen and quiet, said:
"I, Wardo," answered Wardo, feeling for his eight-inch-long key. "I will get my light and enter, for I have news for thee."
He got his torch, unlocked the door, and entered, locking it behind him, for his orders were strict. The light fell upon Nicanor, sitting on the floor, back against the wall, hands clasping his knees, and glistened in his eyes, untamed beneath their shaggy thatch of brow. He was leaner than ever, and his face was gaunt. He blinked uncertainly at the flare and turned his head from it.
"I begged Hito that he let me be the one to bring thy food," said Wardo, and spoke as one in self-excuse. "But not until to-day could I win him to it. Now I have come to tell thee—" He hesitated; started again with a rush of words. "Thou art sentenced to the mines, with certain others, and I am ordered to convey thee thither."
"So?" said Nicanor.
"It seems to hold scant interest for thee!" said Wardo curiously, half piqued.
"At this moment, little man, bread and a bone hold more of interest for me than all the mines in Britain," said Nicanor, with a laugh. "Give me these, and I'll show thee how much I have of interest."
Wardo found himself falling into the half ironic raillery of his prisoner's mood.
"There should be plenty of both when this night's feasting is over. I'll see thou hast thy share—"
"What feasting? Is it night?" Nicanor asked.
"True; I forgot thou couldst not know," said Wardo. "To-night is held the betrothal feast of our lady and the lord Marius."
The careless figure on the floor stiffened, as it seemed, into stone as it sat. Nicanor turned his head, slowly, and looked up at his gaoler. The movement had in it something of the stealthiness of an animal crouching to spring.
"Betrothed—to-night?" he muttered. The hands about his knees tightened until their muscles strained under the brown skin; but the light was bad, and Wardo's eyes were not over keen to see what he was not looking for.
"Why, yes," said Wardo. "It is held in the Hall of Columns. By this time, without doubt, the kiss is given and taken, the pledge is passed, and our little lady by rights is in another's keeping. It wants only the marriage three days hence."
Nicanor rose lithely to his feet, pressing back his mane of hair with both hands.
"Wardo, we two have been friends, have we not, ever since we put each the other to sleep with blows over the baker's black-eyed daughter?"
Wardo looked at him.
"Ay, that is so," he said sincerely.
"Then I shall ask of thee a thing which will put all thy friendship to the test," said Nicanor. His voice was rapid and tense, and Wardo began to look at him in surprise. "Let me go free and unhindered from here for two hours. I give my word that when that time is over I will be at any place thou shalt name, to go with thee willingly thy prisoner. If aught untoward befall, no blame shall come to thee. It will be easily done; the stewards are busy, and I shall have care not to be seen."
"But—body of me!—this is impossible!" Wardo cried, confounded. "I am friend to thee, but I am my lord's gaoler, for the time, and it would betray my lord for me to do this. Wherefore dost desire it? What will it avail thee—freedom for two hours?"
"It will avail me much," Nicanor answered. "Have I ever broken faith with thee or any man?"
"Nay," said Wardo. "Thou wilt steal, as I have known, but thou wilt not lie, and I would have thy word as soon as another's bond. Sure never was there such a strange fellow—"
"Then believe that I will not break faith now. How may our lord be the worse for it? Thou hast ever been friend to me, man; we have drunk together and feasted together and starved together; we have fought together and clasped hands together. Dost remember a day of freedom we two spent together, in the wine-shop to which I took thee, on the island in the fords, when we and the five drunken gladiators fought until the watch fell upon us, and how we escaped, both battered and bloody, and left the gladiators in their hands?"
Wardo grinned regretfully.
"Eh, that was a great day! I have the scars yet. We have seen good days together, thou and I."
"And they are gone over now, and done with. Here we part, I to the mines, thou to the arms of thy fat Hito, I wish thee joy of him! Comrade, dost remember that when we say farewell here it will not be for to-day, nor to-morrow, but for all long time to come? I to the mines, and who enters there comes not forth again."
Wardo clenched his fists.
"I know—I know! I'd give a finger if it had not to be!" He stood a moment, his flaxen head bent, lost in troubled thought. Quite suddenly he turned upon Nicanor, who, lynx-eyed, watched. "See then; I owe fealty to my lord, but thou art my friend, and this thing I cannot do. We have starved together and fought together, thou and I! The gods judge me, but thou art my friend! I have money—not much, but more than nothing. Take thou it—I'll leave the way open—and escape. Or, if thou wilt, overpower me on the road to Gobannium—there'll be but two men with me, and I'll see to them. Save thyself, and leave the rest to me."
Nicanor laid his left hand on Wardo's shoulder. Their eyes were on a level; tall men they were, both, one dark, lean, steel-muscled as a great cat; the other fair, more fully fleshed, massive in bulk as a tawny bull.
"Leave thee to face double punishment, mine as a runaway slave, and thine as his abettor?" said Nicanor, and laughed softly. "Nay, thou art my friend, and the gods judge me if I put thee in this plight. I did not know I had such a friend in the world. Many things have I learned in this time of darkness, and this have I also found."
Wardo hung his head, without speech. He thrust out his hand abruptly, and Nicanor's hand closed over it. They stood a moment, in a silence which needed no words from either.
"By the soul of my mother, I shall do it!" Wardo said then, huskily.
"By the soul of my mother, thou shalt not!" said Nicanor. "When I escape, it shall be when thou canst not be brought to task for it. But if thou wouldst prove true friend, leave the way open for two hours. More will not help me now."
"So be it," said Wardo. "Here is the key. When we go, let us lock the door behind us. Return here, then, and await me within. But, Nicanor, if thou art not here, I shall make no search."
"I shall be here," said Nicanor, briefly.
Wardo took his torch; they left the cell. Nicanor locked the door, thrust the key into his belt, and without a word started up the passage into the darkness. Two hours speed swiftly when they hold life and death and all that lies between.
Nicanor gained the passage behind the storerooms, at the head of which the cresset flared, and reached the court, meeting no one. The cool air flooded him, and he raised his head and breathed it deeply. For eight long months his lips had panted for it. As he had foreseen, the court was deserted; all the household slaves were busy in this way and that about the feast. He cast a calculating glance upward at the crescent moon, struggling through banking clouds.
"Till she touches the top of the stunted lime," he muttered, and crossed the court with his long noiseless stride.
A distant strain of music wandered out across the night; and at all it whispered of that which was not for him he set his teeth with a smothered groan. Past silent courts he went, avoiding the teeming kitchens, and through narrow passages and empty rooms. A slave boy with a trayful of broken meats passed him where he hung concealed in the deep shadow of one court. He made a motion forward, his hungry eyes gleaming; drew back in silence and let the boy pass on. It was many hours since he had tasted food, but he dared not risk betrayal.
So he gained a certain small doorway in one of the lesser courts, a deep recess, merely, in the wall, which led to no room. Just inside it steep steps showed in the moonlight, leading upward. Nicanor listened a moment to make certain that all was still, and, as one sure of himself and what he meant to do, ran up them,—past where a landing opened on the stairs, with glimpses of a pillared gallery beyond; and still up, until the flight ended in a long and bare passage. Here it was very dark, with only the moonlight coming through narrow windows of thick and muddy glass. Nicanor looked about him as one who would know if all was as he had left it last. A ladder lay upon the floor beneath the square of an opening in the roof. This he leaned against the wall, mounted it, and slid back the hatch, which ran in wooden grooves. The ladder creaked beneath him as he swung his long body forward and gripped the edges of the opening. Until he had made sure of his hold he did not leave the ladder; then swung clear, shifting his hands one by one into better position, and raised himself slowly, by sheer practised strength of wrist and arm, until his head and shoulders rose above the opening. With quick effort, then, he flung himself forward upon the roof, writhed himself through, and stood erect.
Around him were the roofs of the separate apartments of the villa, silvered gray where moonlight touched them. Flat and sloping and towered were these, and broken by the intervals of the courts, where was massed the heavy blackness of foliage. The night air swept cool around him; above him was the high vault of heaven, cloudless now, where a young moon rode in the loneliness of space. To his left as he stood was the squat dome of the Hall of Columns, with light showing through the series of narrow windows which encircled it. And these windows were barely four feet above the level of the roof from which the dome sprang.
Nicanor started across the tiles, black against the moonlight, clawing his way along steep and treacherous slopes and gliding along the leads, sure-footed as a cat, toward the nearest window in the dome which would look down into the hall below. This he gained in safety, and found that it had been left half open, for ventilation. He leaned over the ledge, gazing downward; and a ripple of music from hidden players rose to him above a humming undercurrent of sound.
Below him, the great hall was a riot of color. On its hundred columns of polished marble, veined in green and rose, light played in sliding gleams from great lamps of wrought bronze hung by chains around the dome and between the pillars, each with many lights floating in cups of perfumed oil. The floors, of white marble, were overlaid with silken rugs of glowing colors, with silver matting and with tawny skins of beasts. The walls were wide panels of mosaics set in stucco, vivid with red and blue, green and azure, picturing scenes of hunting and carousal. Perfumes burned in silver jars set on pedestals of black marble at intervals along the walls, sending forth faint spirals of smoke on the heated air. The long table, lined on either side with men and women, was directly beneath the dome. Looking down upon it Nicanor saw only a confusion of gold and silver dishes, with the ruby glow of Samian plates and cups, gleaming among strewn leaves and blossoms. The garments of the guests were as a fringe of color about the table's edge; purple, saffron, and gold, crimson, green, and white.
At the head of the board, raised somewhat above the other seats, three figures had risen,—one, in the centre, tall, spare, stooping somewhat, in spite of his brave attire; at his left, another as tall as he, but broader, more compactly built, with the square shoulders of a military man, richly dressed also in a scarlet tunic embroidered in gold, with heavy bands of gold about his arms. And at the right of the central figure, the third, young and slender and all in white, with a head-dress of gold in which two poppies flamed upon either temple, and from which long jewelled ends hung to her knees. A veil fell behind her, over her dark hair, of Persian gauze, filmy as mist, in which threads of gold like prisoned sunbeams were woven. Her face, upheld proudly as though she scorned to give way before the eyes upon her, was white, but her lips were scarlet as the flowers she wore. A jewelled girdle fell about her hips, but on her bare arms were neither gems nor gold. The central figure was speaking, but his words could not be heard. He took the girl's hand, and laid it in the man's hand, and held them so; and the tones of the man's voice repeating after him rose to Nicanor's eyrie, although the words were lost. There followed a pause, in which the girl drooped her head, but all faces were turned toward her, and Nicanor knew that her lips were whispering the solemn "Where thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia"; and he clenched his teeth, and for a moment the scene below him swam in blood-red mist.
She was lost to him,—always he had known it, known the hopelessness of his passion, all the sweeter for the bitterness which was in it,—but never until then had the knowledge so come home to him. He would have liked to force his way in among them, these smirking, soft patricians, and tear her away from them by right of his savage strength; in his hot eyes was murder, and in his heart raging hate and a love as raging. He could have killed her, even; if she might not be his, he would have her no man's. His hand shot out as though in fact the knife were in it; in fancy he saw himself driving it home straight and true above the heart whose throbbing he had watched—the heart that had throbbed for him only, the slave, out of all the world of men. He could feel his dagger bite through her white breast as he had felt the soft slice of flesh under his blade before; he could see the blood well up around the knife, slowly at first, with a quick, hot spurt when the steel was withdrawn. So she would remain all his, and none might take her from him. His thoughts maddened him. He groaned aloud and dropped his face in his hands on the stone ledge of the window, and the moonlight touched him, a strange figure of desperate longings, desperate bewilderment and rebellion and pain. He shook to the primal passions of love and hate that tore him,—love for one, hate for all that had gone to make the conditions of his life what they must be; according to the measure of his untamed strength he suffered, in fierce revolt against the mocking Fates who were stronger than he.
A clapping of hands, sharp and crackling, roused him. He brushed the hair from his eyes, and again looked down upon them, so far below, so far above him. The central figure had withdrawn, but the betrothed couple, hand clasped in hand, still stood together. The table was in commotion; women pelted the two with flowers, and men were on their feet and shouting. Nicanor saw Marius bend his head and kiss Varia upon the lips. So was their covenant sealed before the law; in sight of all the world her lord had claimed her, and she was no longer all her own.
High in his eyrie Nicanor laughed, with a flash of his old lawless triumph.
"Thy lips are not the first on hers, sir bridegroom! Her head hath lain on another breast than thine; other arms than thine have held her, O my lord! What if this also were to be known? Where then would be thy triumph?" He raised his clenched hands fiercely, sending forth his empty challenge to the heedless stars. "Thy wife is not all thine, my lord! Her body thou mayst purchase and possess, but her soul is mine, mine, mine, for all time and all eternity! I, who waked it from its empty sleep—I, who taught it first to live and love—I am her soul's lord even as thou art her body's master—I, the slave!"
His voice stopped on the words, changed, and grew strained with infinite love and longing, all its fierce triumph gone.
"Eh, thou very sweet, we dreamed awhile, and the dream was sweeter than ever was dream before, and it is over! The wound in thy child's heart will heal, for thy love is a child's love, and when it may grow no more will fade and die. Yet it may be that it shall be never quite forgotten; that in after days a word, a song, the fragrance of a flower, will bring to thee dim memories of what is gone. But my love must last, to burn and sear since it may not bless me, for it is not a child's love, beloved! We had no right to happiness, thou and I. But wherefore not? And who decreed it so? I may not have one last look from thee, one touch of thy tender hands,—O little hands that have clung to mine!—and all my heart is a tomb where my love lies buried. Long months have I lain in darkness, but in my heart was light, for I dreamed of the time when I should come to thee. Now all is dark, and my strength hath gone from me; I am a child that cries for a stronger hand to lean on and can find none. The dreams which I had are gone from me, and my tongue is lead. In all the earth is none so lonely as am I!"
Again he buried his face in his hands, crouching against the wall beneath the window. The music rose to him like a breath from that scarcely vanished past, playing upon him,—calloused body and sensitive tortured soul,—conjuring forth visions of dead golden hours, weaving its own poignant spell. Voices from the hall mingled with it, in talk and heedless laughter; healths were drunk and speeches made. When life was gay and careless, when wine was red and eyes were bright and faces fair, who would pause to give a thought to sorrow?
Minutes dropped away, link by link, from the golden chain of Time. All at once Nicanor raised his head, slowly, like one unwilling to meet once more what must be met. The loneliness of the moonlight revealed the scarring passion in his face, signs visible of the chaos of inward tumult which tore him, of the slow forces gathering for the inevitable battle waged somewhen, somehow, by every mortal soul. And that face, gaunt, with haunted, shadowed eyes, looked all at once strangely purged of the heat of its lawlessness, for on it was the first presage of the fierce slow travail of spirit rending flesh.
"What is this that I have done!" he said unsteadily. "I have boasted unworthily, ravening like a brute beast in my triumph over thee, and by my boasting have I shamed thee, thou lily among women. Was I blind, that I could not see that thine is the triumph, over my passion and over me? Thou art another's, O my Lady whom I love so well; and every thought I hold of thy caresses doeth thee dishonor. For thou art pure and holy, and though it puts all worlds between us, yet I would not have thee otherhow. Yet I cannot but remember thy voice, thine eyes, thy little clinging hands, the perfume of thy hair; they are all that is left to me—dear memories, bitter sweet! But I may not boast of them, for thy fair fame, which thou first didst teach me to honor, is thus much in my hands, and I, even the outcast and despised, have it still to guard thee in this little thing. Once was I filled with base pride for that I had made thee love me in answer to my love; and oh, a blind, blind fool was I, not knowing that my love for thee was then no love at all! But thou, in thy white innocence, didst place thine hands upon mine eyes, and the scales fell from them, and I saw thee and myself, and was humbled. Now never while I live shall thy dear name pass my lips, lest through me one breath of evil blow upon thee. I cannot die for thee, beloved, since that were a fate too easy for the sport of thy high gods; I may not even live for thee. This is all that I can do! This is what we have done, each for the other: thy soul I wakened; thou in turn didst give to me a soul within my soul, wakening it to what it never knew before,—new dreams, new ambitions, new desires. For I saw through thee the great world which is thy world, wherein lieth all for which men long and strive. One glimpse I had; and now the gates are closed, and the light is gone, and I am thrust back into outer darkness. And it all is finished!"
A peal of laughter rose to him; a burst of music; a half-hundred voices shouting Vivas to Marius and his bride. He looked down once more into the light and color of the great hall, seeing one there, only, out of all the brilliant throng,—one fair and drooping, with scarlet poppies framing her white face. Long and long he looked, as though he would burn her image upon his heart and mind forever, his lady whom he had lost and who was never his. So he turned away, back into the outer darkness, and crossed the roofs again, and the blackness of the manhole swallowed him.
* * * * *
Wardo, cloaked and spurred and ready for the start, opened the cell door and thrust his torch within. The light fell upon a bowed figure sitting on the floor, motionless, with face hidden in its folded arms, and nothing showing save a crown of rough black hair.
"Thou here?" said Wardo. "Well, I am sorry."
Nicanor looked up. His face, white with more than its prison pallor, was drawn as though by bodily pain.
"Ay," he said dully, "I am here."
"I would thou wert not," Wardo muttered. "Come, then."
"I have a friend here, whom I would take with me," Nicanor said, without rising. "Stand still, and I will call him."
He whistled softly through his teeth, a gentle hissing, until a shadow seemed to stir from the far corner of the cell where the torchlight did not fall. Forth into the light hobbled a great gray rat, gaunt, and scarred, and lame. At sight of Wardo it whisked back into the gloom; again Nicanor whistled; again it appeared, and again vanished. A third time, emboldened, it essayed, and came to Nicanor warily, dazed in the unwonted light. Nicanor threw a bit of cloth torn from his tunic over its head, fastening it so that the beast could neither bite nor see, tied its forelegs together, and without more ado thrust it inside his tunic. Wardo gaped.
"Well, of all playmates! Will he not scratch thee?"
"Not while the cloth is about his head," Nicanor answered. There came an odd note of pride into his voice. "Momus and I are old friends. I maimed him; he hath bitten me. Now we understand each other. I have taught him to fight,—he is quite as intelligent as Hito,—and there is not a rat in the dungeons that can beat him. Man, you should see him fight!"
"I'd like to!" quoth Wardo, promptly. "Maybe, at Cunetio or Corinium we shall find some trainer to try a main with thee. Now come; we have tarried long enough."
In the slaves' court Hito was fuming over the departure of his deputy and the half dozen prisoners. As Wardo and Nicanor approached he leered upon them balefully.
"So, white-face!" he taunted. "Art recovered from thy madness?"
"Ha, fair Julia, how art thou?" Nicanor greeted him imperturbably, so that Hito cursed him. For word of Hito's dance had spread, and even his lords had laughed at him.
"Oh, ay, I remember!" he snarled. "This is to teach thee not to call thy betters names. Were it not for thy insubordination, I should have cancelled thy sentence to the mines. It is not well to laugh at Hito! I have a doubt in my mind that thou wert not so mad as it seemed."
"I have no doubt in mine that I was not so mad as thou," said Nicanor, with all cheerfulness.
Hito glared, and Wardo mounted and made haste to get his party under way. His assistant snapped the chains on Nicanor's wrists which bound him to his fellows, and got on his own horse. They went out through the gate, opened by a sleepy porter, and took the road.
All through that night they plodded steadily. Once a horseman overtook them, riding furiously; shouted something which none could catch, and was gone in darkness. Their road led them over the downs and through the heather by the little station of Bibracte to Calleva, where four roads joined; and on through the level and open country around Corinium, where, to south and west, among shaded groves, they caught glimpses of palaces and stately homes. So, in time, they came to the scarred hills of the great iron district of the west.
At each station where they stopped for rest and refreshment on their three days' journey, Wardo was taken aside by strangers, who talked earnestly. "The state of the country," he told his men, with his tongue in his cheek. Most of these strangers were fair-skinned Saxons, like himself; indeed, the number of these was significant. Wardo, coming from the south, had to tell what he knew of recent happenings there. This was not much; his interlocutors, it would seem, knew more than he. Especially did they inquire to whom he belonged, and what he was doing with his charges.
They crossed the Sabrina in a flat-bottomed barge, and were in Britannia Secunda, the ancient country of the Silures. Here, from Uriconium to Glevum on the Sabrina, and south to Leucarum on the Via Julia, were scattered the iron mines from which their owners drew inexhaustible wealth. The one controlled by Eudemius lay five Roman miles west of the river, and was reckoned one of the largest and richest in the section. In it were said to be employed over five hundred men, mostly prisoners from the various estates of Eudemius, and overseers.
The gallery, pitch-black and narrow, was dotted with moving lights which wandered here and there, each a restless will-o'-the-wisp. It was very damp, and from somewhere came a monotonous drip of water. The tapping of picks sounded incessantly out of the darkness, and occasionally there were hoarse voices raised in wanton curses or harsh commands. Shores of heavy timbers supported the sides and roof of the tunnel, looming grotesquely gigantic as some passing light touched them; this was the newest of the workings, and so far the richest.
A light and a clanking of chains drew near down the tunnel; and eight men, chained like mules, and loaded with baskets of ore, came painfully over the uneven ground to the chamber of the main shaft, where a second gang waited to unload them. Each party was in charge of its own overseer, who carried a whip and went armed to the teeth. It was easier to use men than to lower animals into the galleries for the work; besides, the superintendent wished to save his horses.
The shaft, through which men ascended and descended by means of long series of ladders, opened out into a chamber, roughly circular in shape, from which the galleries branched off in all directions. It ran through four different levels, the top one, and the oldest, something over fifteen feet underground, the lowest not quite seventy. On each level the ore was handled in the same way; brought to the central shaft in baskets by men, and carried to the surface by other men who spent their lives toiling up and down the endless ladders, with baskets strapped upon their backs. It was primitive work, and barbarous, but it at least served the purpose of getting rid, in short order, of insubordinate slaves. Earth from the tunnellings was treated in like fashion; and every timber used for building up the walls was lowered from level to level by ropes. Accidents were many and appalling. Sometimes a huge stick slipped from its lashings and crashed downward into the bowels of the earth, knocking men off the ladders in its course as though they had been flies. Sometimes a ladder gave way, hurling screaming wretches into eternity; sometimes men were buried in sudden falls of earth. Also the ladder men, who necessarily went unchained, died like rats from heart trouble brought on by their constant climbing; and others were to be driven into their places.
The overseer of the second gang watched the loading of the baskets strapped to his men's backs, noted the time on his clepsydra, which stood on a near-by ledge, and started the men one by one, in quick succession. He knew to a fraction of time how long the trip to the surface should take, but to make assurance more sure, each carrier, on his return, brought a check stamped with the exact minute of arrival by the overseer who had received the ore above. If this check showed that more time had been consumed than was necessary for the ascent and descent, there was punishment swift and sure for that luckless one who had lingered.
The chained slaves, with their empty baskets, filed off again into the gallery from which they had come.
The shaft chamber, the centre of its floor pierced by the black hole leading down to the next and lowest level, was lighted dimly by lamps and candles standing upon shelves which jutted from the earthen walls. From all the galleries radiating from it, files of men, staggering under weighted baskets, kept coming to be relieved of their loads by their unchained fellow-workers. Every moment a man started up the ladder, clawing his way at top speed out of sight in the darkness of the shaft, like a grotesque, huge monkey. No lashing, no punishment, could get more than four such round trips out of a man without a period of rest equal to at least two trips. When it came to this point, he would merely lose his hold from sheer exhaustion and fall from the ladder. And when picked up by the crew at the bottom of the shaft, he was fit for nothing but to be thrown like carrion into the nearest unused pit, walled in with a half-dozen shovelfuls of earth, and left at last to rest.
The overseer by the shaft glanced at his water-clock, raised a reed to his lips, and blew a shrill whistle. From level to level and from gallery to gallery this was taken up and repeated in fainter cadences, and with it the insistent tapping of the picks ceased. One by one men began to hurry forth from the galleries, making for the ladders which led to the world of air and sunlight.
Nicanor came from one of the branching tunnels, a pick over his shoulder, stripped to the waist and grimed with sweat and dirt, his lean chest and arms thrown out against the murky candle-light. He was all bone and skin and muscle, hard as nails; but it was the dead, springless hardness which comes to an athlete badly overtrained, not the resilient firmness which denotes good condition. He laid his pick on the ground near the entrance of the tunnel and went to the ladder. Even his tread had lost something of its cat-like lightness; he walked wearily, his shoulders bowed. He gave his number to the overseer, who barely waited to record it in his tablet, with the time he had stopped work, before starting up the ladder for his half-hour's intermission. Nicanor, suddenly alert, ran back into the tunnel, reappeared with a bag, which he held carefully, and started up the ladder also. But at the next level, thirty feet above, he stopped, instead of keeping on to the surface.
In the shaft-chamber here were a dozen and odd men gathered, but there seemed to be no overseer among them. A ring had formed about a space on the floor under one of the lamps; men craned over the shoulders of those in front of them. One saw Nicanor and shouted at him.
"Well come, friend! We wait for you and that pretty pet of yours!"
He was a short man who spoke, with arms immensely long and hairy, and a seamed face of a shortness out of all proportion to its width, as though crown of head and chin had been pressed together in a vise. Of the others, all were more or less as black as Ethiopians with grime; many were shaven and mutilated, with lips slit or an ear gone. Some were branded; and the backs of many were scored with the marks of floggings, some long healed, others red and raw. No fouler-mouthed crew of desperadoes might be found within the island; doomed here for many offences, they still committed the offence of living. Nicanor was greeted with a chorus of jests and exclamations.
"Hurry, son, our time is not so long as thy legs."
"Where's thy plaything? Balbus here is ready with his toy to make ribbons of that ugly beast of thine."
"Let us see now whose boasts will stand repeating."
"I have two asses on thee, Balbus!" one cried, and jingled two copper coins in his horny palms. Coins were produced from rags by those lucky enough to own them; others wagered their picks or spades. One bet his sandals on Nicanor's chances against a man who was willing to lose his shirt.
Nicanor pushed his way into the ring, where Balbus, grasping a large black rat, knelt on one knee, ready to loose the strip of cloth that bound its muzzle. Nicanor shook his gray rat out of the bag, and untied it.
Men had found such contests cheap as well as exciting, since rats were over plentiful, and when pitted against their own kind would fight to the death. This form of amusement was widespread among soldiers and the lower classes; and there were men who made a business of training rats and selling them or matching them against all comers. These beasts were carefully bred from approved fighting stock, and often brought sums preposterously large.
Balbus let go his black with a yell as Nicanor released the gray, and the two beasts leaped at each other and closed in the middle of the ring, rolling over. Men clawed over one another's shoulders to see better; at opposite sides of the ring the owners squatted, each urging on his animal with hisses and clapping hands. The light from the smoking lamps and candles fell upon the crowd, throwing into relief brutal faces, and eyes gleaming wolfishly, savagely eager for blood.
"The black is on top, the black wins!" one cried, hot-eyed with excitement, and leaned further and still further into the ring. Another pulled him back.
"Nay, fool—the gray—look at him, holy gods! My money on the gray! See, the black bleeds—the gray hath bit him in the throat. Macte! At him again, graybeard! Lad, a brand-new knife is thine if thou'lt win for me those sandals of Chilo's! Ah—habet!"
The ring tossed with excitement. Bets were roared from brazen throats; those on the outskirts of the crowd fought to get a look. And in the open centre of the tumult a furry ball rolled and bit and squealed and made bloody sport for those who gloated over it.
A yell, half exultation, half anger, broke from a dozen throats. The black rat tore himself loose and fled back toward Balbus; the gray stood in the middle of the ring, triumphant. Both were badly mangled and drenched with blood, but the black was craven. The followers of the gray roared their triumph. Balbus seized his rat and flung him back into the fight, almost on top of the gray, which instantly fastened on him.
But, plainly, the black had had enough. It could be seen that he no longer attacked; was all on the defensive, trying only to escape. Again he broke away and crawled toward safety. The ring howled with mingled derision and delight. Balbus, cursing, his face congested with rage, again threw him back, and again the vicious gray fell upon him with teeth and claws.
"Give thy sandals quickly, Chilo!" a voice shouted above the racket. "The black is down!"
He was, and the gray on top of him, bloodily victorious.
"Peractum est!" Nicanor shouted, in the language of the arena; and sprang to his feet and caught up his bloody pet and held him high in triumph. But Balbus, his face aflame with fury, strode to where the black rat lay still twitching, and stamped the heel of his iron-shod sandal upon its head with such force that its brains and blood were spattered.
"It was no fair fight!" he cried, turning on those who jeered him. "That gray beast wrought by magic. Thou hast played a trick!" He shook his fist in Nicanor's face, glaring.
Nicanor backed away with a laugh. It taunted Balbus beyond endurance; he lunged forward, his fists clenched. In an instant there had been battle, on which men would have bet as eagerly as on the combat ended. But there was a sudden clamor of guards' whistles; a rush from the ladders, and overseers fell upon the crowd with hissing lashes that left their marks on backs and thighs. The ring broke up, as men fled like sheep and were whipped back to their posts.
Soon there was nothing heard but the endless tapping of picks, the thud of falling earth, and the voices of overseers and the foremen of the gangs. But Balbus, each time he passed with laden basket the spot where Nicanor stood tirelessly wielding his heavy pick, scowled at him blackly and muttered oaths of vengeance. For he was of those who must be taught, by many ungentle lessons, that one must know how to lose as well as how to win.
THE NIGHT AND THE DAWNING
THE NIGHT AND THE DAWNING
When Wardo had delivered his charges to the superintendent of the mine and received a receipt for them from him, he started back, with his assistants, on his homeward journey. But at Bibracte, where they would leave the main road and turn due south toward the villa, ten Roman miles away, he bade his men wait for him at the station until his return. Instead of striking across country for the villa, he kept along the main road, riding swiftly and steadily, as one who pursues a definite plan. He crossed the Tamesis at Pontes, after a night's rest, and at evening of the next day rode through the marsh-ford at Thorney.
Here he met with one who also was on horseback, splashed to the waist with mud, for even the high-roads were heavy with the springtime thawing out of the frost. He was muffled in a cloak, and his spurs were bloodstained. He hailed Wardo in Latin tinged strongly with a foreign accent.
"Can you tell me, friend, if there be an inn in this place where soft beds and good food may be found?"
Wardo was moved to curiosity.
"For yourself?" he asked, spurring up to the stranger's side.
"Nay, for my lord and his wife and daughter. I am sent ahead to find lodging for them. They are on the road to Rutupiae, to take ship for Gaul, and travel by way of Londinium, where my lord hath affairs to settle; but the women have given out and vow that they will go no farther. So do the chickens break for cover when the hawk swoops."
His voice was slightly contemptuous. He turned his face, covered with a wiry red beard, upon Wardo. His eyes, small and light, glinted from a network of wrinkles under reddish brows.
"You are no Roman," he said abruptly.
"Why, no," said Wardo, somewhat surprised, "I am Saxon."
"Like myself," said the stranger, grandly. "Men call me Wulf, the son of Wulf."
"There is an inn here," said Wardo, without returning information. "I will show you, if you like. It is kept by Christians, and it is clean."
"Then it will be poor," Wulf grumbled, "and the wine will not be fit for decent men."
"There you are wrong," said Wardo. "It is where my lord Eudemius stops with his train when he passeth through here."
"So!" Wulf's glance held awakening curiosity. "The lord Eudemius of the white villa south of Bibracte?"
"That same," said Wardo, with the pride of a servant in a well-known master.
"One hears tales of that house these days," said Wulf, casually. "See, friend, when I have made arrangement for my lords and brought them hither, is there not a place where we might find a mouthful of good Saxon ale?"
"I fear my time is too short," he answered. "Even now I am late—"
"For the maid who awaits thee?" said Wulf, with a chuckle. "Well, I'll not keep thee then. But this much I'll tell thee now. When my lord sails with his familia from Rutupiae, it will be without Wulf, the son of Wulf. I have it in mind to stay here longer; there will be fat pickings for Saxons by and by, when these Roman lords are crowded out. Hast heard that?"
"Ay," said Wardo. "I have heard it."
"And it is in my mind also to try for some of these same fat pickings," said Wulf, and laughed. "Why not I, as well as any man?"
"If you wait for these Roman lords to be crowded out, as you have it," said Wardo, "it will be some time before these fat pickings fall to your lot."
"Perhaps not so long time as one might think," Wulf retorted. "Hast heard of what happened at Anderida?"
"Oh, ay," said Wardo. "The lord governor of Anderida fled to the house of my lord."
Wulf's glance became all at once as keen as a gaze-hound which sights its prey.
"Had he his son, called Felix, with him, a cat-eyed rascal, who was wounded?"
"Yes," said Wardo, quite proud to tell his news. "And on the evening of the feast the lord governor and his men rode away again. But he left his son behind him."
A gleam shot into Wulf's light eyes.
"So?" he said pleasantly. "Perhaps, then, this son Felix is still a guest of your lord?"
"Ay, so he is," Wardo returned. "Which is to say that he was there when I rode away, and that is now six days ago." In his turn he shot a glance at the red-beard from his steely eyes. "Now why should you ask these things, friend gossip? What concern is this son Felix of yours?"
"Merely that all men like to know what is happening these days. What else? But know you how the man got his wound? Nay, I thought not. Perhaps you know that the leader of that band of Saxons and those insurgent Romans, called Evor, was slain in that affair at Anderida?"
"No," said Wardo. "I did not know that. Who slew him?"
"Felix," answered Wulf.
Wardo looked somewhat startled.
"Then this is why he remained behind!" he exclaimed. His face awoke to a new thought. "Why, death of a dog! if this Evor's men pass through the Silva Anderida and hear that this lord Felix is at the villa, there may be trouble for my lord."
"Ay," said Wulf. There was a certain grimness in his tone. "The son of Evor hath sworn to have the blood of his father's slayer; therefore it is quite likely."
"How come you to know these things?" Wardo demanded. The stranger's manner was always casual to indifference, and Wardo was not over keen to see what he was not looking for. His question came more from curiosity than from suspicion, although of this there was something also.
"News travels fast these days," Wulf said briefly. "I got it from a carter who saw something of the business. I hope you do not think that I was there? Now where is this inn of yours? I must find it and hasten back to my lord."
By now they had reached a cobbled street no wider than an alley, running at right angles to the main street, which led from ford to ford. Down this they rode abreast, and there was room for no other horseman to pass them. Bare-shouldered girls laughed down at them from upper windows; bent crones hobbled from door to door with baskets of fish or produce; children and dogs scampered from under their horses' feet. The evening sunshine fell in long slanting shadows down the dusty street, stabbing shafts of golden light into dark doorways.
Wardo saw Wulf to the door of the "cleanest inn on Thorney," watched him enter, and wheeled his horse. Back again then he rode, with no more than a glance for the long-haired girls who leaned to him from windows, and with a recklessness which sent the dogs and children flying. He turned into the main street, back toward the marsh-ford, and galloped the length of it until he reached a house which stood the third from the end, next to a half-burnt ruin where cattle had been stalled, with a narrow door in a blank wall which betrayed nothing.
Before this he flung his horse back upon its haunches, leaped lightfoot to the ground, and hammered on the door. The wicket was opened a space and closed; then the door was opened. He entered, and it closed after him.
Two hours later Wulf, the son of Wulf, came down the street in the dim twilight, on foot, walking with a swagger. Out of the saddle he was seen to be short and stunted, with legs badly bowed. His breath proclaimed loudly that he had stopped at sundry wine-shops on the way. He was passing unconcernedly, when a whinny from a horse standing before a door caught his ear, and he stopped.
"Light of my eyes, I've seen this beast before," he muttered, going closer to look. "Why, sure, he's the horse of that long-legged yellow-head of mine. Ay, here's the brand I noted on the shoulder. So—we shall see what we shall see."
He knocked boldly upon the door. The wicket opened.
"What will you?" a woman's voice asked from within.
"A friend of mine entered here a little time ago," Wulf began glibly.
"Many have entered here," said the voice. "Who is your friend?"
Wulf's laugh covered a moment of embarrassment.
"Why, in truth, I do not care to name his name aloud," he said. "If you will let me in, I will see if he be still here."
The door opened. Wulf stepped inside, confronting a tall girl, full-throated, long-limbed, with face of purest Grecian outline. Wulf's single keen glance took in the girl, her attire, and the room behind her. His manner changed at once.
"Your friend may not be here," said the girl.
"In truth, I shall not miss him overmuch. Might a weary man purchase food, and a drop of wine, and perhaps a lodging for the night?" He jingled coins in the pouch which hung at his leathern belt.
The girl eyed him.
"You know that you may," she said, very wearily, and crossed the room and opened a door into an inner chamber.
Here the air was heavy with the smell of food and the fumes of wine. There were many people in the room,—men and women; yet in the first glance he cast around Wulf saw his long-legged yellow-head reclining at ease upon a couch, his arm around a slim golden beauty who sat beside him. In his free hand Wardo clutched a brazen beaker, which the girl filled constantly from a fat-sided ampulla on her knee. From time to time she stroked back the fair hair on his temples, and each time he raised his half-drunken head to kiss her shapely arm.
Wulf nodded to one or two men in the room, his face betraying no surprise that he found them there. He bade the dark-haired Greek girl bring wine and two cups. While she was gone a man and a woman slipped away through one of the several side doors, leaving vacant the place next to Wardo. At once Wulf possessed himself of it, without glancing at his neighbor. The Greek returned, and he pulled her down beside him, had her drink with him, kissed her arms and hands with his red-bearded mouth, made love to her with jests and laughter unnecessarily loud. Soon Wardo's attention was caught. He sat upright, steadying himself on the girl's arm, and looked across at Wulf.
"Not too drunk to talk, I hope!" Wulf muttered.
"Holla, Wulf, son of Wulf!" Wardo called, in a voice somewhat thickened by wine. "How didst find the way to Chloris?"
"Who but knows the house of Chloris?" said Wulf, pleasantly. "I did not look to find thee here."
"I? Oh, I am always here. Is it not so, Sada? Am I not always with thee, girl of my heart?"
"Ah, not always!" said the golden-haired girl. "Not so often as I would have thee."
"Drink with us, thou and thy lady," Wulf invited.
The golden-haired girl leaned over.
"Nay, Wardo, thou hast drunk enough. Already the wine is in thy head," she murmured; and Wulf, keen-eared, caught the words.
But Wardo was already holding out his beaker, which the Greek filled at a sign from Wulf.
"Nay, sweet, my head is iron," said Wardo, half indulgent, half in scorn. "Here I pledge thee, friend Wulf, the son of Wulf: 'A long life and a rousing one, a quick death and a merry one!'" He drank deeply.
"That is the motto of my lord master," quoth Wulf. "And light of my eyes, but he lives up to it! There is a man who spends gold as wine floweth through a colum."
"Ay, but promise you my lord spends faster!" said Wardo, with great pride.
"So?" said Wulf. He gave the Greek a sign to keep the wine-cups filled. "Then must he indeed be wealthy. In truth, I have heard something of a feast he gives at his villa even now."
"The marriage feast of our lady Varia and the lord Marius," said Wardo.
"Men say that the gifts are of a richness beyond all counting," said Wulf. "Of course, being there, thou couldst see it all, and judge."
"Ay," said Wardo. "I saw it all."
With the wine, his tongue began to wag. His eyes sparkled; he drained his cup and set it down with a thump. "In that house is the ransom of an emperor, ay, of forty emperors!" he cried. "No lord in the island could gather such hoard of treasure, not even yours, Wulf the son of Wulf, and I shall fight you if you say so! No man hath seen such jewels, such vessels of gold and silver. There be a million golden cups set about with rubies; an hundred thousand vases of silver; and every woman hath a fan of gold, set with gems. And the jewels he hath loaded on our lady—man, thine eyes have never seen the like! She wears a girdle that blazes like that pharos at Dubrae, which I have seen; she goes belted with flame that dazzles the eyes. On her arms are an hundred bracelets—"
"Of a truth, I do think the wine is in thine eyes, Wardo mine," said Wulf. His laugh was careless, but his eyes were keen.
Wardo flushed angrily.
"Not so!" he cried. "For these six months and more have not goods been coming to us from all the world?" He boasted vaingloriously.
"I have heard that that is so. There must indeed be great store of plunder—of wealth within thy master's house."
"Verily!" said Wardo, somewhat appeased. He told all that he knew, and much that he did not know, fired with eagerness to impress upon this casual stranger the magnificence of the lord whom he served. From mere loquacity he became argumentative, finally quarrelsome. But Sada wound white arms about his neck and soothed him.
But by now the wine was reaching Wulf's head also, although compared to Wardo he was sober.
"That house of thy lord's will be fat pickings for the men of Evor when they come to claim the blood of Felix for the blood which he hath shed. Light of my eyes! it would be worth—"
"What is this thou sayest?" Wardo demanded. He strove to sit upright, but fell back against Sada in drunken laxity. "Speak louder, thou! There be a million bees that buzz within my head."
Wulf waved the women away.
"Leave us, pretty ones, awhile. Is it the first time men have left your arms to discuss affairs?"
Eunice, the tall Greek, went willingly, but Sada clung to her lover and would not go.
"Nay, I'll not leave thee. Speak as ye will—what is it to me? I have no call to remember."
"See, friend, I like thee, and I see no reason why we should not be comrades, for the better gain of both," said Wulf, with all frankness. "We be of one nation, as against these haughty Roman lords who soon must yield to us the field. Oh, but I long for a half-hundred kindred souls to take with me this chance! What chance, say you?—the chance of gain, of wealth and fortune past all dreams. Why should they have all, these haughty lords, while we have nothing? Why should not something of their wealth profit us?"
Wardo shook his muddled head solemnly over this problem old as the ages.
"They have gained it," he muttered, with an air of profound wisdom.
"They have gained it, quotha! Ay, truly, but how? By rapine, taxation, wars, plunder! Therefore why shall not others use like means? If it be fair for them, I say it is fair for us!" Wulf brought down his fist upon the table with a blow that made the cups rattle. "Therefore now is our chance, say I! All is confusion; the lords fight amongst themselves; we are slowly gaining the ground they lose—let us also gain wealth with it!"
He discoursed at great length, repeating himself incessantly, losing himself in endless trains of argument which nobody contradicted. It was not very clear what he wanted, even to himself, it would seem. But he was quite convinced that existing conditions were altogether wrong and something should at once be done about it. What the something should be he did not take the trouble to state. Wardo dozed peacefully, his head on Sada's breast. No one in the room paid the least attention to them.
Wardo roused, in time, reaching out blindly for his cup, and caught a word of Wulf's oration:
"... Gold for the taking. Had I but a half hundred—"
"Gold! That is a good thing to have!" Wardo muttered. He pulled Sada's head down to him. "When I have gold, I shall buy thee from thy mistress. Wilt go with me?"
The girl's fair face flushed.
"Ay, thou knowest I will go," she answered. "Wheresoever thou wilt take me."
"If thou wouldst have gold, my friend, come with me, and it shall be thine in plenty," Wulf cried eagerly.
Wardo looked at him with awakening interest.
"Thus," said Wulf. "We shall take for ourselves what should be ours by right, what is wrung from us by infamous greed. What would suffice us would not be missed by those who have more than plenty, yet even this they will not give us. We must get it for ourselves."
"That will be a good thing to do. Where shall we find it?"
"Why should we show mercy to them?" Wulf declaimed. "What mercy have they shown us? Do they not grind us into the earth; do we not pay in sweat and blood for their idle pleasures? And with all of this, have they not sought to force us to our knees before any new god they choose to perch upon a pedestal? I, for one, will not worship because one man says 'Bow down!' And I do not care who knows it. I am as good as the next man, and I will have my rights."
Wardo, who had never heard anything like this before, was impressed deeply.
"I say so too," he exclaimed with great earnestness. "Let us take what is our own. Then if thou hast rights, I have rights also. And I will have my rights!"
"Of course! I see thou art a clever fellow, and a man after mine own heart. Drink more wine. See, then, I will tell thee a thing. This lord of thine, who oppresses thee and vouchsafes thee no rights, who wrings from thee what should be thine—thou hast him in thy hand. He hath committed a grievous crime in giving shelter to a murderer. Does he think that his guest will not be demanded of him by those whom that guest hath wronged? For this does he not deserve punishment?"
Wardo nodded, much bewildered at the rapid changes of subject he was called upon to follow. Gods, gold, oppression, murderers, and all at once—and his mind was taxed with one thing at a time.
"Then I see plainly that thou art chosen to execute justice and to claim thy full reward!" cried Wulf, in sonorous prophecy.
"Oh, no—not on my lord!" said Wardo, firmly. "Or, look you, it would be I who should be executed." And chuckled at his cleverness in discovering this point.
"You do not understand," Wulf assured him, patiently. "There is no danger in it for you—none at all. All you will do is to answer these questions I shall ask you now. Tell me then, first, how many men can your lord summon to—let us say, protect this lord Felix when his enemies find him out?"
"With his familia, and the coloni and casarii who own him lord, he can call out near a thousand; though it would take time to gather all of these from his estates. But, my friend, how may the enemies of this lord Felix find him out when they know not where he is?"
Again he chuckled at the point which he had made.
"True," Wulf admitted smoothly. "I but suppose the case. For they are roaming far and wide, and if they find him not, it will not be for lack of searching."
"Now I must tell my lord of this, that he may be prepared," Wardo muttered. He pressed his hands to his temples. "My head is buzzing with your questions, and I am weary, for I have ridden far. Pray you, let me sleep."
"Not yet!" Wulf said hastily, in alarm, as Wardo's head sank lower. "See, friend, you are trusted in your lord's household, I doubt not. Is there a rear door, even a very little one, of which you know where the key is hung?"
Wardo jerked his head upright, his eyes half closed.
"What is this you say?" he asked angrily. "What would you with a—a—little key?"
"Give me a key, and I will give you as much gold as you can carry on your back," said Wulf, low and eagerly, his caution forgotten in the fever of his greed.
Wardo opened his eyes with effort to their fullest extent and stared at him. His voice was thick and stuttering.
"A key? to my lord's house? Deae matres! What should I do that for? I am my lord's man!"
"You shall come to no harm!" Wulf urged desperately, fearful lest the man fall asleep before he could gain what he would. But at last Wardo understood. He staggered off the couch, clutching at Sada's shoulder for support, reeling and blind with drink, and towered over Wulf.
"Look you, sirrah!" he shouted, so that men turned to look at him in surprise, "I am no traitor to my lord! I am his man, blood and body, and his will is my law and his faith is my faith. I have served him loyally, and so shall I continue to serve. What is this you would have me do? Turn rascal, even as you? Holy gods, I'll show you, knave and varlet—"
Unexpectedly he stooped, and caught Wulf by the collar of his tunic. Wulf struggled, but Wardo dragged him across the floor, shook him, and flung him outside the door and slammed it. He turned to Sada, demanding her applause with drunken self-satisfaction at his prowess, dropped on the nearest couch in abject prostration, and was instantly asleep.
After uncounted hours he roused, to find Sada dashing cold water in his face and calling his name in great distress. They were alone in the room, and the sun was shining through the window.
"What hast thou?" Wardo grumbled. "Let me sleep!"
She shook his shoulder.
"Hasten, Wardo, and undo the mischief thou hast done while there may yet be time. For hours I have tried to wake thee!"
"Harm? What harm?"
"Thou hast told that evil man all he would know of thy lord's defences, of the treasures within his house, and of the lord called Felix who is there. And when thou wert asleep he, being drunken also, did tell Eunice, who bade him render payment for his wine, that it would not take long to send word to these men who search for this lord Felix, and that then he would give her gold and jewels in plenty. Hasten, Wardo, and warn thy lord, or it will be too late!" She wrung her hands.
"I have done this thing?" Wardo exclaimed, pointing a finger at his own broad chest. "Nay, girl, thou'rt joking!"
"Never that!" cried Sada, with impatience. "Thou wert drunk, I tell thee, and he got out of thee what he would. Thy lord is betrayed, and through thee!"
"Betrayed!" The word stabbed through his dull sodden wits and sent him starting from the couch, his face gray with horror. He sank back with a groan of sheer physical sickness, and tried again, his teeth set, the sweat starting on his forehead. His legs trembled under him, and his eyes were dazed, but he got to the door and leaned against it, his hands over his face.
"If I have done this thing thou sayest," he said hoarsely, "my life is rightly forfeit, and I shall give it into my lord's hand. I do not understand—I am my lord's man, and loyal." He turned to her in stunned appeal. "Sada girl, am I drunk, that thou shouldst fill me with this madness?"
Her eyes filled with tears.
"Nay," she answered sadly. "Thou art sober now."
The fresh air aided what the shock of her words had begun. He mounted, heavily, yet in feverish desperate haste, whirled his horse about with scarcely a word of farewell to her, and struck the heavy spurs deep. The beast sprang forward, with a shower of sparks from the cobbles.
Sada, returning from the door, ran into the arms of a thin slip of a girl, white-faced and with burning eyes, who caught her and cried desperately:
"What said he of Nicanor? What have they done to him? Does he live still?"
"Peace, child!" said Sada. "Now he hath thought for nothing but this thing which he hath done, and I with him. But last night he did tell me that this friend of his, thy lover, hath been sent to the mines, and that he had been of the guard."
"And I not to know!" cried Eldris, bitterly. "He might have told me how he looked and what he said; and now he hath gone, and I may not ask him—"
"Ay, and I think that I shall never see him more. For surely his lord will slay him when he knows what he hath done," said Sada.
Suddenly she put her head on Eldris's shoulder and wept; and Eldris, by way of showing sympathy, having love sorrows of her own, put her arms about her and wept also.
The lord Eudemius laid himself upon his couch of ebon and carved ivory with the air of a man whose work has been well done. Midnight was long gone, the great house was quiet, and the desire of his heart stood forth in fulfilment. He had a son; his dying house was propped with fresh strength and vigor, and the gods of the shades might claim him when they would. One week ago had the marriage been celebrated. Each night since there had been feasts, with at every feast new dishes contrived, new sports and entertainments offered, new souvenirs of price distributed, to provide the jaded senses of his guests with fresh gratification. Now the festivities were nearly over; already some of the lords had gone. Among them was Count Pomponius, with his Wardens of the Eastern Marches, for it was reported that Saxons were again harrying and burning along the coast.
In the mellow light of the bronze lamps the face of Eudemius showed softer, less inscrutable, with eyes more kindly. On it was great weariness, but also a great content. He put forth a hand and touched the bell on the stand beside his couch. The strain under which he had labored was lifting; he could afford to relax. The silvery tinkle of sound had scarcely fallen into the quiet of the room when Mycon, chief of the eunuchs, entered, parting the curtains, with his arms crossed before his face.
"Bid Cyrrus bring hither his lyre," said Eudemius.
Many and many a day had gone since their dark lord had given such command; the cries and groans of his slaves had been music enough for him. Mycon bowed in silence and went. Before five minutes had fled, word of the miracle had gone from end to end of the ranks of those whose duty it was to watch the house by night; and weary men and women smiled and blessed their little lady, who perhaps had bought for them the dawn of a happier day.
Cyrrus the musician entered, a slender Greek boy; and the low light was caught by the silver frame of the lyre he bore, and rippled on its strings. He put himself where he should not be too much under his lord's eyes, and played; and as though the instinct of his art had taught him what to do, the music he played was plaintive and low and soothing. Eudemius lay with arms behind his head and stared at the painted ceiling where naked nereids sported. By slow degrees, still more his hard face softened; under the spell of the music and of his thoughts his thin lips parted to a smile. Slow and soft the melody rippled into the quiet room, singing of placid waters smiling in the sun, with lilies floating on their bosom, of young fleecy clouds and tender shadows. Again it changed, with dropping notes like tears, and whispered of the yearning hopes of men, of world pain and heart's peace, of longings unfulfilled and prayers unanswered. Two tears, the slow and difficult tears of age, stole down Eudemius's gray furrowed cheeks and lost themselves in his silken pillow.
"My child!" he whispered. "My little, little child!"
In that moment the pathetic unloved beauty of her came nearer to touching him than ever before. He forgot that he had sold her into bondage; forgot that her happiness might not lie along the road of his. She had done what he would have her do; she had been a dutiful daughter, and at the last he rejoiced in her.
Varia, at that hour, sat alone in her chamber, awaiting the coming of her lord. There were traces of tears upon her cheeks; her lids drooped with weariness and sleep. They had taken away her robes of state, in which she had sat by Marius's side through interminable hours of merrymaking, when a thousand eyes had stared at her from a swimming sea of lights, and she had shrunk and trembled beneath their glances. They had put upon her a thin robe of Seres silk of rose, with no ornament or jewel upon it. With bare neck and arms, and warm white throat bending with the drooping flower of her head, she looked more than ever a child. To all that they had done to her throughout the endless days of festival, she had submitted docilely, dazed, if she could have told it, by the excitement of those around her. Faces, scenes, events, had passed before her in a blurred confusion, in which she could neither think nor see clearly. She had repeated words of whose meaning she had no knowledge; she had drunk wine and only been distressed that a drop had fallen upon her royal robe; she had broken a cake of bread and only wondered why her little black slave was not there to gather up the crumbs. Of her lord she had seen little, save upon one fearful night of which the memory still sent burning shudders through her frightened heart. She drifted upon a gray sea of loneliness, torn from her old shelters, given nothing to which she might turn and cling.
She got up from the chair covered with rugs of white fur, in which she had been nestling like a great rose, and went to the window which looked upon the garden, all her movements restless, like some shy creature caged. Now the garden lay deserted, desolate in the mistiness of the moonlight. She held her arms out to it in vague yearning.
"I would I were out there now!" she cried softly. "Where the trees whisper and the lake sleeps, and none but may hear the music of one voice. He is gone—he is gone from me, and I know not where they have taken him. And I long for him; I would I could creep into his arms and rest upon his breast forever, for then I should not be frightened. Now I am left alone—I know not where to turn for very fear—my head it burneth and my hands are cold. And I fear to be alone—and the night is dark—so dark!"
A gust of wind rose slowly through the trees, like the flapping of unseen wings, and Varia shivered. The moon was now and again obscured under vast driving clouds; through the gloom trees massed themselves into blots of sinister shadow. When the wind's voice died, the earth hung silent, in suspense, so that Varia held her breath in sheer unconscious attunement to it. In the garden she saw a black shape flying with quick darting swoops. She knew it for a bat, but her eyes dilated with nervous fright. It was so very still—in all the world there was no sound at all. She glanced fearfully over her shoulder. Even the lighted room was not reassuring; it also held the same waiting stillness which she dared not break by so much as a sigh. Only the flame from the perfumed lamps flickered wanly in the draught. Her wide eyes fixed themselves upon the window, striving to pierce the mystery of the dark without; she yielded helplessly to the sway of the vast unnamed forces around her, a child frightened in the night. She sank upon the floor by the window, hiding her face.
"Nerissa!" she called in a small and shaken voice, and wept, more frightened at the little cry drowned in the tense stillness. Never had she been so alone in her life; never so frightened. She clung to the window, crouched as small as possible, not daring to look up.
And across the night a sound grew out of the void and came to her, and her face blanched, and she caught at her throat with shaking hands. Faint, elusive, coming from very far away, to be felt rather than heard, it was now like the distant trampling of the feet of many men, now like the rush of water over stones, now like the whisper of the wind in trees, scarcely a thing apart from the silence which enfolded and engulfed it. It was a voice from nowhere, warning her straining senses of unknown and sinister things to come.
"Why, sweetheart, art hiding from me?" a voice said almost at her ear, and Varia, taken unawares and startled out of all control, screamed aloud and shrank lower into her corner, sobbing violently.
Marius stooped over her and took her hands away from her face.
"What is wrong?" he demanded. "Why these tears, little wife?"
"It was so dark!" Varia wailed. "And there was no sound at all, and then there was a sound—"
She wept again, her fresh terrors submerging even her fear of him.
Marius picked her up in his arms, carried her to the couch, and laid her there, and a moment she clung to his hand desperately. He was something human to hold to; so she would have clung to Nerissa, or even to Mycon.
"Afraid of the dark!" Marius scoffed gently. "Well, I am here now, and there is nothing shall harm thee. Of a truth, I did begin to think the feast would never have an end. The more I burned to be done with it and come to thee, the more the minutes dragged. I pictured thee, awaiting me here in thy secret bower; thy flushing face and the veiling shadow of thy hair, thy denying hands and averted glances—and thy father's guests might well have thought me a love-sick fool, thinking of nothing but his secret hope that his mistress might prove kind."
Varia sat upright on the couch and put her feet upon the floor, and his eyes followed the gracious outlines of her form beneath its drapery of rose. She pushed her hair back from her eyes and looked at him. Slow crimson spread from throat to brow; her glance wavered and fell. Quite suddenly she put both hands to her face, hiding her eyes from his, and turned her face away. It was a gesture of a child, infinitely touching, all-betraying in its pure artlessness. He started toward her, his dark eyes keen; and she sat quite still, passive to this fate of hers from which flight no longer might avail her. But with the touch of his hand upon her shoulder there came a soft insistent knocking at the door.
Marius smothered a curse and strode to open it. Mycon stood upon the threshold, and in the lamplight his face showed gray. He stammered like one caught in guilt.
"Lord, thy pardon! There is trouble without, and the master sends to ask my lord's presence. We be encompassed by barbarians who have crept upon us."
"Tell thy lord I come," said Marius. Varia was forgotten; scarcely had the slave vanished down the corridor when Marius was after him, leaving his bride alone.
Now in the villa were to be heard the first sounds of people aroused from sleep to find themselves in the midst of unknown dangers. Voices, frightened and impatient, echoed back and forth along the corridors; lights gleamed across the courts. Men and women, half dressed, began to appear, questioning feverishly, delivering themselves of theories to any who would listen.
"They say that if he will surrender Felix they will depart at once in peace."
"How came they to know that he was here? Who told them?"
"He will not surrender Felix—"
"If he does not—holy gods!—we shall all be slain and plundered."
And above all, a woman's voice:
"I will not stay to be robbed! I shall leave this house at once!"
In the great court men had gathered about Eudemius and Marius, who held hasty consultation. Felix, pale, nursing carefully his wounded arm, was on the outskirts of the group. His face all unconsciously betrayed his state of mind. It was white and flaccid; and at every yelp of the hounds outside who clamored for his life, he cringed and quivered. But he was very quiet, and the talk surged over his head as though he had not been there. Men cast glances of scorn unveiled upon him, but he was long past caring what they thought. He wanted his life; his eyes craved protection. In his face was a desperate dumb reliance on the pride and honor of Eudemius, which would not allow him to surrender one who had claimed his hospitality; craven himself, he yet recognized and centred all his faith upon this stern and scornful pride which must uphold its traditions at whatever cost.
Several of the younger lords who had been or were then in military service came forth, offering themselves, not at all averse, it would seem, to such variation in the entertainment. A handful of drunken barbarians—what were these? Upon them and upon Marius the defence of the villa devolved. Marius gave his orders swiftly, and one by one his lieutenants sped away. All slaves capable of bearing arms were to be equipped at once from the armory. Men were already stationed at intervals along the outer walls to guard against surprise. The house seethed with uproar, which no efforts of discipline could quench. Women wept and clung together, terrified each by the others' terror. They huddled in bunches around the walls, catching at every man who would pause to speak with them. Yes, there had been a barbarian even within the hall, a great fellow, tall as the house, who spat fire and spoke Latin as no Roman had ever heard Latin spoken before. Ay, truly, all the gods might witness that he had spat fire. And then he had left, taking back to his dogs of comrades their lord's refusal to yield up his guest. So there would be an attack, and men had many other things to do than to be stopped and chattered to by foolish women. Mingled always with the lamentations of these was men's shouting, a trampling of many feet, a swift confusion. The lights, continually fanned by the passing of people, began to take on a lurid glare. In the wind which blew about the crowded court, cressets flared horribly, with very evil-smelling smoke. Their light fell waveringly on jewels and golden collars and rich robes, and on burnished weapons in the hands of slaves. Long since had the porter fled from his lodge, and his place was taken by a score of eager defenders.
Marius snatched a moment from the importunities of those who would know the precise state of their danger, and exactly how long it must be before they should all be slain, and ran up the stairs which led to the upper rooms. He felt his way through the darkness until he came upon a window, very narrow and small, so high that he could overlook the rest of the house and by leaning out see something of what went on in front. And at what he saw he gave an exclamation, sharp and low, and his eyes glittered like those of a warhorse which scents battle. For all below him were lights which glinted in and out across the night; and to his trained ears rose the stamp and snort of stallions held in check, and the stir and rustle of many men. How many he could not tell, for the moon, fighting her way through a smother of clouds, gave scarce light to see, and in the trees the shadows were delusive.
A man's voice shouted; other voices took it up, until a seething bubble of sound, hoarse and significant, eddied around the house and lost itself in distance. A stealthy stir and movement heaved itself from among the shadows; there was the clank of a weapon against an iron stirrup; vague forms seemed to circle more closely about the house. The voice shouted again and was answered by a scurry of horses' feet.
"There be more than I had thought," Marius muttered, and turned to go. "And they are not all mounted. Also I think that they will try to take the door by storm. Well, they can try! More than two may play at that game!"
In time, those without began an attempt to batter their way in, so that Marius proclaimed them very drunk and more foolish. He said nothing of his suspicion that this was merely intended to mask an attack in some other quarter, and was inclined to be scornful of this untried foe. So that some of the old men, taking no consideration of the fact that although his words were light his actions were prompt and well-planned, became timid, and the shrieks of the women redoubled at every assault upon the door. He strove to assure them that if their besiegers did break in, they could get no further for the bristling hedge of swords and spears which waited. But to this the timid ones replied with reason that they did not want them in at all. Various guests began to take it in their heads that this was not the entertainment they had come for; and in an access of the strange panic which is liable to plunge even the most sober crowd into blind folly, if nothing worse, collected their valuables and their attendants and prepared incontinently to fly from the house. Greatly their wrath raged when Marius refused to let them out. They muttered that the heads of upstarts were easily turned by a little power, and they had rather be slain in the open than butchered like rats in their hole.
And at this, the first hint of insubordination among his forces, Marius became no longer the easy-going gallant whom most of them had known, but a being new and strange. He sprang to the mastery of the situation by, as it were, divine right, a right which was his by grace of the power that had trained him to face and control crises such as these. He treated these high-born lords and ladies as though they had been squads of mutinous recruits; he lashed them with his glance; he no longer requested, he ordered. His voice held a rasp which none had ever heard, and which brought them from displeased dignity to instant and abject obedience. He spared none,—faded voluptuary, whining graybeard, nor restive youth; in an hour he had bullied and frightened them into working like galley-slaves, and all the house was under the iron discipline of his camp.
* * * * *
In her chamber, Varia, in all her terror and loneliness, was forgotten. About her was an insistent clamor of confusion; she stood in the middle of the room, dazed and overwhelmed by it, the light flowing softly over her. Now and again a shouted order was flung across the tumult; with this there began presently to mingle sounds from without. In the corridor words flew by her, whose meaning she scarcely comprehended.
"They have taken a tree to batter down the door—"
"My lord Marius saith we are not to use the boiling pitch until he gives command."
"He was crossing the court and an arrow fell from heaven and smote him."
"Thou liest, fool! It came in at a window!"
And almost in her ears, so close it seemed, a masterful voice shouted:
"Where is that fat beast Hito who hath the keys?" and was gone like smoke.
And Hito's name was taken up and tossed from hall to hall; she heard it now near, now far, in the midst of the rush of hasty footsteps and the tangle of voices. A scream pierced through the clamor and hung a moment above all other sounds; someone was wounded. She had a vision of Claudius the physician brushing by her half-open door. As from a mist of terror she saw the flying of his skirt and the gleam of his silver beard. The actual point of attack was too far away for her to know what went on. She began to draw her breath in small gasping sobs, glancing this way and that, as one who longs to flee and dares not.
A sound in the garden caught her ears; from where she stood she strained her eyes to see. Only the armed man on guard behind the little narrow door, vine-hung, which led to the outer world. The man, though she could not see him for the darkness, was short and fat, and his little pig's eyes were glazed with fear. But there came other sounds; and a black figure heaved itself above the wall, on the outer side, against the starlight, and tottered insecurely there. And then that armed man squealed, and cast his weapon on the ground, and knelt; and this also she could not see. Nor could she hear the words which the black figure on the wall flung down, nor what was answered, abjectly, with prayers and promises. She did not see the dark bulk slide scrambling down the wall, landing cat-like on its feet; she did not see it struggle a moment with the kneeling man who tried to rise and flee, and thrust him forward on his face. Again new sounds reached her out of all the uproar on the other side of the house; the grating of a key, the thud of feet upon the sward. Black figures came headlong out of the night; there was a clash of spurs on the marble steps; and one man, and another, and a third, leaped into the lighted room.
First of them all was a short man, bowed in the legs, with a red scrub of beard and yellow eyes which gleamed at her. And those behind him were great and blond and bearded, with drawn daggers, and round shields of bull's hide on their left arms. They crowded on the heels of the foremost, and stopped short, staring in the brilliant light at the palpitating figure of rose.
Until then Varia had shrunk and wept and trembled, a terrified child, alone, with no hand to cling to. But as the first barbarian crossed her threshold, she faced him, a desperate, tender thing at bay. Unknown, unreckoned with, there lurked within her the strange race-instinct, born of blood in which was no drop of craven blood, and of caste which was greater than that of kings. She was the product of her day and her environment; but she was the product also of her mighty past, of great men who had fought and ruled their world, and great women who had ruled with them. It was instinct, dumb and blind, but it held her on her feet, facing them, though her eyes were frozen with terror; and she obeyed it because she had no sense or will to disobey.