"And did not Caligula give command to throw them to the lions?"
"No, lord; Caesar Caius feared Jehovah's anger."
And they raised their heads, for the name of the powerful Jehovah gave them courage; confident in his might, they looked into Nero's eyes with more boldness.
"Do ye accuse the Christians of burning Rome?" inquired Caesar. "We, lord, accuse them of this alone,—that they are enemies of the law, of the human race, of Rome, and of thee; that long since they have threatened the city and the world with fire! The rest will be told thee by this man, whose lips are unstained by a lie, for in his mother's veins flowed the blood of the chosen people."
Nero turned to Chilo: "Who art thou?"
"One who honors thee, O Cyrus; and, besides, a poor Stoic-"
"I hate the Stoics," said Nero. "I hate Thrasea; I hate Musonius and Cornutus. Their speech is repulsive to me; their contempt for art, their voluntary squalor and filth."
"O lord, thy master Seneca has one thousand tables of citrus wood. At thy wish I will have twice as many. I am a Stoic from necessity. Dress my stoicism, O Radiant One, in a garland of roses, put a pitcher of wine before it; it will sing Anacreon in such strains as to deafen every Epicurean."
Nero, who was pleased by the title "Radiant," smiled and said,-"Thou dost please me."
"This man is worth his weight in gold!" cried Tigellinus.
"Put thy liberality with my weight," answered Chilo, "or the wind will blow my reward away."
"He would not outweigh Vitelius," put in Caesar.
"Eheu! Silver-bowed, my wit is not of lead."
"I see that thy faith does not hinder thee from calling me a god."
"O Immortal! My faith is in thee; the Christians blaspheme against that faith, and I hate them."
"What dost thou know of the Christians?"
"Wilt thou permit me to weep, O divinity?"
"No," answered Nero; "weeping annoys me."
"Thou art triply right, for eyes that have seen thee should be free of tears forever. O lord, defend me against my enemies."
"Speak of the Christians," said Poppaea, with a shade of impatience.
"It will be at thy command, O Isis," answered Chilo. "From youth I devoted myself to philosophy, and sought truth. I sought it among the ancient divine sages, in the Academy at Athens, and in the Serapeum at Alexandria. When I heard of the Christians, I judged that they formed some new school in which I could find certain kernels of truth; and to my misfortune I made their acquaintance. The first Christian whom evil fate brought near me was one Glaucus, a physician of Naples. From him I learned in time that they worship a certain Chrestos, who promised to exterminate all people and destroy every city on earth, but to spare them if they helped him to exterminate the children of Deucalion. For this reason, O lady, they hate men, and poison fountains; for this reason in their assemblies they shower curses on Rome, and on all temples in which our gods are honored. Chrestos was crucified; but he promised that when Rome was destroyed by fire, he would come again and give Christians dominion over the world."
"People will understand now why Rome was destroyed," interrupted Tigellinus.
"Many understand that already, O lord, for I go about in the gardens, I go to the Campus Martius, and teach. But if ye listen to the end, ye will know my reasons for vengeance. Glaucus the physician did not reveal to me at first that their religion taught hatred. On the contrary, he told me that Chrestos was a good divinity, that the basis of their religion was love. My sensitive heart could not resist such a truth; hence I took to loving Glaucus, I trusted him, I shared every morsel of bread with him, every copper coin, and dost thou know, lady, how he repaid me? On the road from Naples to Rome he thrust a knife into my body, and my wife, the beautiful and youthful Berenice, he sold to a slave-merchant. If Sophocles knew my history—but what do I say? One better than Sophocles is listening."
"Poor man!" said Poppaea.
"Whoso has seen the face of Aphrodite is not poor, lady; and I see it at this moment. But then I sought consolation in philosophy. When I came to Rome, I tried to meet Christian elders to obtain justice against Glaucus. I thought that they would force him to yield up my wife. I became acquainted with their chief priest; I became acquainted with another, named Paul, who was in prison in this city, but was liberated afterward; I became acquainted with the son of Zebedee, with Linus and Clitus and many others. I know where they lived before the fire, I know where they meet. I can point out one excavation in the Vatican Hill and a cemetery beyond the Nomentan Gate, where they celebrate their shameless ceremonies. I saw the Apostle Peter. I saw how Glaucus killed children, so that the Apostle might have something to sprinkle on the heads of those present; and I saw Lygia, the foster-child of Pomponia Graecina, who boasted that though unable to bring the blood of an infant, she brought the death of an infant, for she bewitched the little Augusta, thy daughter, O Cyrus, and thine, O Isis!"
"Dost hear, Caesar?" asked Poppaea.
"Can that be!" exclaimed Nero.
"I could forgive wrongs done myself," continued Chilo, "but when I heard of yours, I wanted to stab her. Unfortunately I was stopped by the noble Vinicius, who loves her."
"Vinicius? But did she not flee from him?"
"She fled, but he made search for her; he could not exist without her. For wretched pay I helped him in the search, and it was I who pointed out to him the house in which she lived among the Christians in the Trans-Tiber. We went there together, and with us thy wrestler Croton, whom the noble Vinicius hired to protect him. But Ursus, Lygia's slave, crushed Croton. That is a man of dreadful strength, O Lord, who can break a bull's neck as easily as another might a poppy stalk. Aulus and Pomponia loved him because of that."
"By Hercules," said Nero, "the mortal who crushed Croton deserves a statue in the Forum. But, old man, thou art mistaken or art inventing, for Vinicius killed Croton with a knife."
"That is how people calumniate the gods. O lord, I myself saw Croton's ribs breaking in the arms of Ursus, who rushed then on Vinicius and would have killed him but for Lygia. Vinicius was ill for a long time after that but they nursed him in the hope that through love he would become a Christian. In fact, he did become a Christian."
"And, perhaps, Petronius too?" inquired Tigellinus, hurriedly.
Chilo squirmed, rubbed his hands, and said,—
"I admire thy penetration, O lord. He may have become one! He may very well have become one."
"Now I understand why he defended the Christians."
Nero laughed: "Petronius a Christian! Petronius an enemy of life and luxury! Be not foolish; do not ask me to believe that, since I am ready not to believe anything."
"But the noble Vinicius became a Christian, lord. I swear by that radiance which comes from thee that I speak the truth, and that nothing pierces me with such disgust as lying. Pomponia Graecina is a Christian, little Aulus is a Christian, Lygia is a Christian, and so is Vinicius. I served him faithfully, and in return, at the desire of Glaucus the physician, he gave command to flog me, though I am old and was sick and hungry. And I have sworn by Hades that I will not forget that for him. O lord, avenge my wrongs on them, and I will deliver to thee Peter the Apostle and Linus and Clitus and Glaucus and Crispus, the highest ones, and Lygia and Ursus. I will point out hundreds of them to you, thousands; I will indicate their houses of prayer, the cemeteries, all thy prisons will not hold them! Without me ye could not find them. In misfortunes I have sought consolation; hitherto in philosophy alone, now I will find it in favors that will descend on me. I am old, and have not known life; let me begin."
"It is thy wish to be a Stoic before a full plate," said Nero.
"Whoso renders service to thee will fill it by that same."
"Thou art not mistaken, O philosopher."
But Poppaea did not forget her enemies. Her fancy for Vinicius was, indeed, rather a momentary whim, which had risen under the influence of jealousy, anger, and wounded vanity. Still the coolness of the young patrician touched her deeply, and filled her heart with a stubborn feeling of offence. This alone, that he had dared to prefer another, seemed to her a crime calling for vengeance. As to Lygia, she hated her from the first moment, when the beauty of that northern lily alarmed her. Petronius, who spoke of the too narrow hips of the girl, might talk what he pleased into Caesar, but not into the Augusta. Poppaea the critic understood at one cast of the eye that in all Rome Lygia alone could rival and even surpass her. Thenceforth she vowed her ruin.
"Lord," said she, "avenge our child."
"Hasten!" cried Chilo, "hasten! Otherwise Vinicius will hide her. I will point out the house to which she returned after the fire."
"I will give thee ten men, and go this moment," said Tigellinus.
"O lord! thou hast not seen Croton in the arms of Ursus; if thou wilt give fifty men, I will only show the house from a distance. But if ye will not imprison Vinicius, I am lost."
Tigellinus looked at Nero. "Would it not be well, O divinity, to finish at once with the uncle and nephew?"
Nero thought a moment and answered,—
"No, not now. People would not believe us if we tried to persuade them that Petronius, Vinicius, or Pomponia Graecina had fired Rome. Their houses were too beautiful. Their turn will come later; to-day other victims are needed."
"Then, O lord, give me soldiers as a guard," said Chilo.
"See to this, Tigellinus."
"Thou wilt lodge meanwhile with me," said the prefect to Chilo.
Delight beamed from the face of the Greek.
"I will give up all! only hasten!—hasten!" cried he, with a hoarse voice.
ON leaving Caesar, Petronius had himself borne to his house on the Carinae, which, being surrounded on three sides by a garden, and having in front the small Cecilian Forum, escaped the fire luckily. For this cause other Augustians, who had lost their houses and in them vast wealth and many works of art, called Petronius fortunate. For years it had been repeated that he was the first-born of Fortune, and Caesar's growing friendship in recent times seemed to confirm the correctness of this statement.
But that first-born of Fortune might meditate now on the fickleness of his mother, or rather on her likeness to Chronos, who devoured his own children.
"Were my house burnt," said he to himself, "and with it my gems, Etruscan vases, Alexandrian glass, and Corinthian bronze, Nero might indeed have forgotten the offence. By Pollux! And to think that it depended on me alone to be pretorian prefect at this moment. I should proclaim Tigellinus the incendiary, which he is really; I should array him in the 'painful tunic,' and deliver him to the populace, protect the Christians, rebuild Rome. Who knows even if a better epoch would not begin thus for honest people? I ought to have taken the office, simply out of regard for Vinicius. In case of overwork I could have surrendered command to him, and Nero would not have even tried to resist. Then let Vinicius baptize all the pretorians, nay, Caesar himself; what harm could that be to me? Nero pious, Nero virtuous and merciful,—this would be even an amusing spectacle."
And his carelessness was so great that he began to laugh. But after a time his thoughts turned in another direction. It seemed to him that he was in Antium; that Paul of Tarsus was saying to him, "Ye call us enemies of life, but answer me, Petronius: If Caesar were a Christian, and acted according to our religion, would not life be safer and more certain?"
And remembering these words, he continued: "By Castor! No matter how many Christians they murder here, Paul will find as many new ones; for he is right, unless the world can rest on scoundrelism. But who knows that this will not be the case soon? I myself, who have learned not a little, did not learn how to be a great enough scoundrel; hence I shall have to open my veins. But in every case it must have ended thus, and if not thus, in some other way. I am sorry for Eunice and my Myrrhene vase; but Eunice is free, and the vase will go with me. Ahenobarbus will not get it, in any event! I am sorry also for Vinicius. But, though I was bored less of late than before, I am ready. In the world things are beautiful; but people are so vile for the greater part that life is not worth a regret. He who knew how to live should know how to die. Though I belong to the Augustians, I was freer than they supposed." Here he shrugged his shoulders. "They may think that my knees are trembling at this moment, and that terror has raised the hair on my head; but on reaching home, I will take a bath in violet water, my golden-haired herself will anoint me; then after refreshment we will have sung to us that hymn to Apollo composed by Anthemios. I said once to myself that it was not worth while to think of death, for death thinks of us without our assistance. It would be a wonder if there are really Elysian fields, and in them shades of people. Eunice would come in time to me, and we should wander together over asphodel meadows. I should find, too, society better than this. What buffoons, tricksters, a vile herd without taste or polish! Tens of Arbiters Elegantiarum could not transform those Trimalchilons into decent people. By Persephone! I have had enough!"
And he noted with astonishment that something separated him from those people already. He had known them well earlier, and had known what to think of them; still they seemed to him now as farther away and more deserving of contempt than usual. Indeed, he had had enough of them!
But afterward he began to think over his position. Thanks to his acuteness, he knew that destruction was not threatening him directly. Nero had seized an appropriate occasion to utter a few select, lofty phrases about friendship and forgiveness, thus binding himself for the moment. "He will have to seek pretexts, and before he finds them much time may pass. First of all, he will celebrate the games with Christians," said Petronius to himself; "only then will he think of me, and if that be true, it is not worth while to take trouble or change my course of life. Nearer danger threatens Vinicius!"
And thenceforth he thought only of Vinicius, whom he resolved to rescue. Four sturdy Bithynians bore his litter quickly through ruins, ash-heaps, and stones with which the Carinae was filled yet; but he commanded them to run swiftly so as to be home at the earliest. Vinicius, whose "insula" had been burned, was living with him, and was at home, fortunately.
"Hast seen Lygia to-day?" were the first words of Petronius.
"I have just come from her."
"Hear what I tell thee, and lose no time in questions. It has been decided this morning at Caesar's to lay the blame of burning Rome on the Christians. Persecutions and tortures threaten them. Pursuit may begin any instant. Take Lygia and flee at once beyond the Alps even, or to Africa. And hasten, for the Palatine is nearer the Trans-Tiber than is this place."
Vinicius was, indeed, too much of a soldier to lose time in useless queries. He listened with frowning brows, and a face intent and terrible, but fearless. Evidently the first feeling of his nature in presence of peril was a wish to defend and give battle.
"I go," said he.
"One word more. Take a purse of gold, take weapons, and a handful of thy Christians. In case of need, rescue her!"
Vinicius was in the door of the atrium already.
"Send me news by a slave!" cried Petronius.
When left alone, he began to walk by the columns which adorned the atrium, thinking of what had happened. He knew that Lygia and Linus had returned after the fire to the former house, which, like the greater part of the Trans-Tiber, had been saved; and that was an unfavorable circumstance, for otherwise it would have been difficult to find them among throngs of people. Petronius hoped, however, that as things were, no one in the Palatine knew where they lived, and therefore in every case Vinicius would anticipate the pretorians. It occurred to him also that Tigellinus, wishing to seize at one attempt as many Christians as possible, would extend his net over all Rome. "If they send no more than ten people after her," thought he, "that giant Lygian will break their bones and what will it be if Vinicius comes with assistance?" Thinking of this he was consoled. True, armed resistance to the pretorians was almost the same as war with Caesar. Petronius knew also that if Vinicius hid from the vengeance of Nero, that vengeance might fall on himself; but he cared little. On the contrary, he rejoiced at the thought of crossing Nero's plans and those of Tigellinus, and determined to spare in the matter neither men nor money. Since in Antium Paul of Tarsus had converted most of his slaves, he, while defending Christians, might count on their zeal and devotion.
The entrance of Eunice interrupted his thoughts. At sight of her all his cares and troubles vanished without a trace. He forgot Caesar, the disfavor into which he had fallen, the degraded Augustians, the persecution threatening the Christians, Vinicius, Lygia, and looked only at her with the eyes of an anthetic man enamoured of marvellous forms, and of a lover for whom love breathes from those forms. She, in a transparent violet robe called "Coa vestis," through which her maiden-like form appeared, was really as beautiful as a goddess. Feeling herself admired meanwhile, and loving him with all her soul, ever eager for his fondling, she blushed with delight as if she had been an innocent maiden.
"What wilt thou say to me, Charis?" asked Petronius, stretching his hands to her.
She, inclining her golden head to him, answered,—"Anthemios has come with his choristers, and asks if 'tis thy wish to hear him."
"Let him stay; he will sing to us during dinner the hymn to Apollo. By the groves of Paphos! when I see thee in that Coan gauze, I think that Aphrodite has veiled herself with a piece of the sky, and is standing before me."
"Come hither, Eunice, embrace me with thy arms, and give thy lips to me. Dost thou love me?"
"I should not have loved Zeus more."
Then she pressed her lips to his, while quivering in his arms from happiness. After a while Petronius asked,—
"But if we should have to separate?"
Eunice looked at him with fear in her eyes.
"How is that, lord?"
"Fear not; I ask, for who knows but I may have to set out on a long journey?"
"Take me with thee-"
Petronius changed the conversation quickly, and said,—
"Tell me, are there asphodels on the grass plot in the garden?"
"The cypresses and the grass plots are yellow from the fire, the leaves have fallen from the myrtles, and the whole garden seems dead."
"All Rome seems dead, and soon it will be a real graveyard. Dost thou know that an edict against the Christians is to be issued, and a persecution will begin during which thousands will perish?"
"Why punish the Christians, lord? They are good and peaceful."
"For that very reason."
"Let us go to the sea. Thy beautiful eyes do not like to see blood."
"Well, but meanwhile I must bathe. Come to the elaeothesium to anoint my arms. By the girdle of Kypris! never hast thou seemed to me so beautiful. I will give command to make a bath for thee in the form of a shell; thou wilt be like a costly pearl in it. Come, Golden-haired!"
He went out, and an hour later both, in garlands of roses and with misty eyes, were resting before a table covered with a service of gold. They were served by boys dressed as Cupids, they drank wine from ivy-wreathed goblets, and heard the hymn to Apollo sung to the sound of harps, under direction of Anthemios. What cared they if around the villa chimneys pointed up from the ruins of houses, and gusts of wind swept the ashes of burnt Rome in every direction? They were happy thinking only of love, which had made their lives like a divine dream. But before the hymn was finished a slave, the chief of the atrium, entered the hall.
"Lord," said he, in a voice quivering with alarm, "a centurion with a detachment of pretorians is standing before the gate, and, at command of Caesar, wishes to see thee."
The song and the sound of lutes ceased. Alarm was roused in all present; for Caesar, in communications with friends, did not employ pretorians usually, and their arrival at such times foreboded no good. Petronius alone showed not the slightest emotion, but said, like a man annoyed by continual visits,—
"They might let me dine in peace." Then turning to the chief of the atrium, he said, "Let him enter."
The slave disappeared behind the curtain; a moment later heavy steps were heard, and an acquaintance of Petronius appeared, the centurion Aper, armed, and with an iron helmet on his head.
"Noble lord," said he, "here is a letter from Caesar."
Petronius extended his white hand lazily, took the tablet, and, casting his eye over it, gave it, in all calmness to Eunice.
"He will read a new book of the Troyad this evening, and invites me to come.'
"I have only the order to deliver the letter," said the centurion.
"Yes, there will be no answer. But, centurion, thou mightst rest a while with us and empty a goblet of wine?"
"Thanks to thee, noble lord. A goblet of wine I will drink to thy health willingly; but rest I may not, for I am on duty."
"Why was the letter given to thee, and not sent by a slave?"
"I know not, lord. Perhaps because I was sent in this direction on other duty."
"I know, against the Christians?"
"Is it long since the pursuit was begun?"
"Some divisions were sent to the Trans-Tiber before midday." When he had said this, the centurion shook a little wine from the goblet in honor of Mars; then he emptied it, and said,—
"May the gods grant thee, lord, what thou desirest."
"Take the goblet too," said Petronius.
Then he gave a sign to Anthemios to finish the hymn to Apollo.
"Bronzebeard is beginning to play with me and Vinicius," thought he, when the harps sounded anew. "I divine his plan! He wanted to terrify me by sending the invitation through a centurion. They will ask the centurion in the evening how I received him. No, no! thou wilt not amuse thyself overmuch, cruel and wicked prophet. I know that thou wilt not forget the offence, I know that my destruction will not fail; but if thou think that I shall look into thy eyes imploringly, that thou wilt see fear and humility on my face, thou art mistaken."
"Caesar writes, lord," said Eunice, "'Come if thou hast the wish'; wilt thou go?"
"I am in excellent health, and can listen even to his verses," answered Petronius; "hence I shall go, all the more since Vinicius cannot go."
In fact, after the dinner was finished and after the usual walk, he gave himself into the hands of hairdressers and of slaves who arranged his robes, and an hour later, beautiful as a god, he gave command to take him to the Palatine.
It was late, the evening was warm and calm; the moon shone so brightly that the lampadarii going before the litter put out their torches. On the streets and among the ruins crowds of people were pushing along, drunk with wine, in garlands of ivy and honeysuckle, bearing in their hands branches of myrtle and laurel taken from Caesar's gardens. Abundance of grain and hopes of great games filled the hearts of all with gladness. Here and there songs were sung magnifying the "divine night" and love; here and there they were dancing by the light of the moon, and the slaves were forced repeatedly to demand space for the litter "of the noble Petronius," and then the crowd pushed apart, shouting in honor of their favorite.
He was thinking of Vinicius, and wondering why he had no news from him. He was an Epicurean and an egotist, but passing time, now with Paul of Tarsus, now with Vinicius, hearing daily of the Christians, he had changed somewhat without his own knowledge. A certain breeze from them had blown on him; this cast new seeds into his soul. Besides his own person others began to occupy him; moreover, he had been always attached to Vinicius, for in childhood he had loved greatly his sister, the mother of Vinicius; at present, therefore, when he had taken part in his affairs, he looked on them with that interest with which he would have looked on some tragedy.
Petronius did not lose hope that Vinicius had anticipated the pretorians and fled with Lygia, or, in the worse case, had rescued her. But he would have preferred to be certain, since he foresaw that he might have to answer various questions for which he would better be prepared.
Stopping before the house of Tiberius, he alighted from the litter, and after a while entered the atrium, filled already with Augustians. Yesterday's friends, though astonished that he was invited, still pushed back; but he moved on among them, beautiful, free, unconcerned, as self-confident as if he himself had the power to distribute favors. Some, seeing him thus, were alarmed in spirit lest they had shown him indifference too early.
Caesar, however, feigned not to see him, and did not return his obeisance, pretending to be occupied in conversation. But Tigellinus approached and said,
"Good evening, Arbiter Elegantiarum. Dost thou assert still that it was not the Christians who burnt Rome?"
Petronius shrugged his shoulders, and, clapping Tigellinus on the back as he would a freedman, answered,—
"Thou knowest as well as I what to think of that."
"I do not dare to rival thee in wisdom."
"And thou art right, for when Caesar reads to us a new book from the Troyad, thou, instead of crying out like a jackdaw, wouldst have to give an opinion that was not pointless."
Tigellinus bit his lips. He was not over-rejoiced that Caesar had decided to read a new book, for that opened a field in which he could not rival Petronius. In fact, during the reading, Nero, from habit, turned his eyes involuntarily toward Petronius, looking carefully to see what he could read in his face. The latter listened, raised his brows, agreed at times, in places increased his attention as if to be sure that he heard correctly. Then he praised or criticised, demanded corrections or the smoothing of certain verses. Nero himself felt that for others in their exaggerated praises it was simply a question of themselves, that Petronius alone was occupied with poetry for its own sake; that he alone understood it, and that if he praised one could be sure that the verses deserved praise. Gradually therefore he began to discuss with him, to dispute; and when at last Petronius brought the fitness of a certain expression into doubt, he said,—
"Thou wilt see in the last book why I used it."
"Ah," thought Petronius, "then we shall wait for the last book."
More than one hearing this said in spirit: "Woe to me! Petronius with time before him may return to favor and overturn even Tigellinus." And they began again to approach him. But the end of the evening was less fortunate; for Caesar, at the moment when Petronius was taking leave, inquired suddenly, with blinking eyes and a face at once glad and malicious,—
"But why did not Vinicius come?"
Had Petronius been sure that Vinicius and Lygia were beyond the gates of the city, he would have answered, "With thy permission he has married and gone." But seeing Nero's strange smile, he answered,—
"Thy invitation, divinity, did not find him at home."
"Say to Vinicius that I shall be glad to see him," answered Nero, "and tell him from me not to neglect the games in which Christians will appear."
These words alarmed Petronius. It seemed to him that they related to Lygia directly. Sitting in his litter, he gave command to bear him home still more quickly than in the morning. That, however, was not easy. Before the house of Tiberius stood a crowd dense and noisy, drunk as before, though not singing and dancing, but, as it were, excited. From afar came certain shouts which Petronius could not understand at once, but which rose and grew till at last they were one savage roar,—
"To the lions with Christians!"
Rich litters of courtiers pushed through the howling rabble. From the depth of burnt streets new crowds rushed forth continually; these, hearing the cry, repeated it. News passed from mouth to mouth that the pursuit had continued from the forenoon, that a multitude of incendiaries were seized; and immediately along the newly cleared and the old streets, through alleys lying among ruins around the Palatine, over all the hills and gardens were heard through the length and breadth of Rome shouts of swelling rage,—
"To the lions with Christians!"
"Herd!" repeated Petronius, with contempt; "a people worthy of Caesar!" And he began to think that a society resting on superior force, on cruelty of which even barbarians had no conception, on crimes and mad profligacy, could not endure. Rome ruled the world, but was also its ulcer. The odor of a corpse was rising from it. Over its decaying life the shadow of death was descending. More than once this had been mentioned even among the Augustians, but never before had Petronius had a clearer view of this truth that the laurelled chariot on which Rome stood in the form of a triumphator, and which dragged behind a chained herd of nations, was going to the precipice. The life of that world-ruling city seemed to him a kind of mad dance, an orgy, which must end. He saw then that the Christians alone had a new basis of life; but he judged that soon there would not remain a trace of the Christians. And what then?
The mad dance would continue under Nero; and if Nero disappeared, another would be found of the same kind or worse, for with such a people and such patricians there was no reason to find a better leader. There would be a new orgy, and moreover a fouler and a viler one.
But the orgy could not last forever, and there would be need of sleep when it was over, even because of simple exhaustion.
While thinking of this, Petronius felt immensely wearied. Was it worth while to live, and live in uncertainty, with no purpose but to look at such a society? The genius of death was not less beautiful than the genius of sleep, and he also had wings at his shoulders.
The litter stopped before the arbiter's door, which was opened that instant by the watchful keeper.
"Has the noble Vinicius returned?" inquired Petronius.
"Yes, lord, a moment ago," replied the slave.
"He has not rescued her," thought Petronius. And casting aside his toga, he ran into the atrium. Vinicius was sitting on a stool; his head bent almost to his knees with his hands on his head; but at the sound of steps he raised his stony face, in which the eyes alone had a feverish brightness.
"Thou wert late?" asked Petronius.
"Yes; they seized her before midday."
A moment of silence followed.
"Hast thou seen her?"
"Where is she?"
"In the Mamertine prison."
Petronius trembled and looked at Vinicius with an inquiring glance. The latter understood.
"No," said he. "She was not thrust down to the Tullianum [The lowest part of the prison, lying entirely underground, with a single opening in the ceiling. Jugurtha died there of hunger.] nor even to the middle prison. I paid the guard to give her his own room. Ursus took his place at the threshold and is guarding her."
"Why did Ursus not defend her?"
"They sent fifty pretorians, and Linus forbade him."
"Linus is dying; therefore they did not seize him."
"What is thy intention?"
"To save her or die with her. I too believe in Christ."
Vinicius spoke with apparent calmness; but there was such despair in his voice that the heart of Petronius quivered from pure pity.
"I understand thee," said he; "but how dost thou think to save her?"
"I paid the guards highly, first to shield her from indignity, and second not to hinder her flight."
"When can that happen?"
"They answered that they could not give her to me at once, as they feared responsibility. When the prison will be filled with a multitude of people, and when the tally of prisoners is confused, they will deliver her. But that is a desperate thing! Do thou save her, and me first! Thou art a friend of Caesar. He himself gave her to me. Go to him and save me!"
Petronius, instead of answering, called a slave, and, commanding him to bring two dark mantles and two swords, turned to Vinicius,
"On the way I will tell thee," said he. "Meanwhile take the mantle and weapon, and we will go to the prison. There give the guards a hundred thousand sestertia; give them twice and five times more, if they will free Lygia at once. Otherwise it will be too late."
"Let us go," said Vinicius.
After a while both were on the street.
"Now listen to me," said Petronius. "I did not wish to lose time. I am in disfavor, beginning with to-day. My own life is hanging on a hair; hence I can do nothing with Caesar. Worse than that, I am sure that he would act in opposition to my request. If that were not the case, would I advise thee to flee with Lygia or to rescue her? Besides, if thou escape, Caesar's wrath will turn on me. To-day he would rather do something at thy request than at mine. Do not count on that, however. Get her out of the prison, and flee! Nothing else is left. If that does not succeed, there will be time for other methods. Meanwhile know that Lygia is in prison, not alone for belief in Christ; Poppaea's anger is pursuing her and thee. Thou hast offended the Augusta by rejecting her, dost remember? She knows that she was rejected for Lygia, whom she hated from the first cast of the eye. Nay, she tried to destroy Lygia before by ascribing the death of her own infant to her witchcraft. The hand of Poppaea is in this. How explain that Lygia was the first to be imprisoned? Who could point out the house of Linus? But I tell thee that she has been followed this long time. I know that I wring thy soul, and take the remnant of thy hope from thee, but I tell thee this purposely, for the reason that if thou free her not before they come at the idea that thou wilt try, ye are both lost."
"Yes; I understand!" muttered Vinicius.
The streets were empty because of the late hour. Their further conversation was interrupted, however, by a drunken gladiator who came toward them. He reeled against Petronius, put one hand on his shoulder, covering his face with a breath filled with wine, and shouted in a hoarse voice,—
"To the lions with Christians!"
"Mirmillon," answered Petronius, quietly, "listen to good counsel; go thy way."
With his other hand the drunken man seized him by the arm,—
"Shout with me, or I'll break thy neck: Christians to the lions!" But the arbiter's nerves had had enough of those shouts. From the time that he had left the Palatine they had been stifling him like a nightmare, and rending his ears. So when he saw the fist of the giant above him, the measure of his patience was exceeded.
"Friend," said he, "thou hint the smell of wine, and art stopping my way."
Thus speaking, he drove into the man's breast to the hilt the short sword which he had brought from home; then, taking the arm of Vinicius, he continued as if nothing had happened,—
"Caesar said to-day, 'Tell Vinicius from me to be at the games in which Christians will appear.' Dost understand what that means? They wish to make a spectacle of thy pain. That is a settled affair. Perhaps that is why thou and I are not imprisoned yet. If thou art not able to get her at once—I do not know—Acte might take thy part; but can she effect anything? Thy Sicilian lands, too, might tempt Tigellinus. Make the trial."
"I will give him all that I have," answered Vinicius.
From the Carinae to the Forum was not very far; hence they arrived soon. The night had begun to pale, and the walls of the castle came out definitely from the shadow.
Suddenly, as they turned toward the Mamertine prison, Petronius stopped, and said,
"Pretorians! Too late!"
In fact the prison was surrounded by a double rank of soldiers. The morning dawn was silvering their helmets and the points of their javelins.
Vinicius grew as pale as marble. "Let us go on," said he.
After a while they halted before the line. Gifted with an uncommon memory, Petronius knew not only the officers, but nearly all the pretorian soldiers. Soon he saw an acquaintance, a leader of a cohort, and nodded to him.
"But what is this, Niger?" asked he; "are ye commanded to watch the prison?"
"Yes, noble Petronius. The prefect feared lest they might try to rescue the incendiaries."
"Have ye the order to admit no one?" inquired Vinicius.
"We have not; acquaintances will visit the prisoners, and in that way we shall seize more Christians."
"Then let me in," said Vinicius; and pressing Petronius's hand, he said, "See Acte, I will come to learn her answer."
"Come," responded Petronius.
At that moment under the ground and beyond the thick walls was heard singing. The hymn, at first low and muffled, rose more and more. The voices of men, women, and children were mingled in one harmonious chorus. The whole prison began to sound, in the calmness of dawn, like a harp. But those were not voices of sorrow or despair; on the contrary, gladness and triumph were heard in them.
The soldiers looked at one another with amazement. The first golden and rosy gleams of the morning appeared in the sky.
THE cry, "Christians to the lions!" was heard increasingly in every part of the city. At first not only did no one doubt that they were the real authors of the catastrophe, but no one wished to doubt, since their punishment was to be a splendid amusement for the populace. Still the opinion spread that the catastrophe would not have assumed such dreadful proportions but for the anger of the gods; for this reason "piacula," or purifying sacrifices, were commanded in the temples. By advice of the Sibylline books, the Senate ordained solemnities and public prayer to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpina. Matrons made offerings to Juno; a whole procession of them went to the seashore to take water and sprinkle with it the statue of the goddess. Married women prepared feasts to the gods and night watches. All Rome purified itself from sin, made offerings, and placated the Immortals. Meanwhile new broad streets were opened among the ruins. In one place and another foundations were laid for magnificent houses, palaces, and temples. But first of all they built with unheard-of haste an enormous wooden amphitheatre in which Christians were to die. Immediately after that consultation in the house of Tiberius, orders went to consuls to furnish wild beasts. Tigellinus emptied the vivaria of all Italian cities, not excepting the smaller ones. In Africa, at his command, gigantic hunts were organized, in which the entire local population was forced to take part. Elephants and tigers were brought in from Asia, crocodiles and hippopotamuses from the Nile, lions from the Atlas, wolves and bears from the Pyrenees, savage hounds from Hibernia, Molossian dogs from Epirus, bisons and the gigantic wild aurochs from Germany. Because of the number of prisoners, the games were to surpass in greatness anything seen up to that time. Caesar wished to drown all memory of the fire in blood, and make Rome drunk with it; hence never had there been a greater promise of bloodshed.
The willing people helped guards and pretorians in hunting Christians. That was no difficult labor for whole groups of them camped with the other population in the midst of the gardens, and confessed their faith openly. When surrounded, they knelt, and while singing hymns let themselves be borne away without resistance. But their patience only increased the anger of the populace, who, not understanding its origin, considered it as rage and persistence in crime. A madness seized the persecutors. It happened that the mob wrested Christians from pretorians, and tore them to pieces; women were dragged to prison by the hair; children's heads were dashed against stones. Thousands of people rushed, howling, night and day through the streets. Victims were sought in ruins, in chimneys, in cellars. Before the prison bacchanalian feasts and dances were celebrated at fires, around casks of wine.
In the evening was heard with delight bellowing which was like thunder, and which sounded throughout the city. The prisons were overflowing with thousands of people; every day the mob and pretorians drove in new victims. Pity had died out. It seemed that people had forgotten to speak, and in their wild frenzy remembered one shout alone: "To the lions with Christians!" Wonderfully hot days came, and nights more stifling than ever before; the very air seemed filled with blood, crime, and madness.
And that surpassing measure of cruelty was answered by an equal measure of desire for martyrdom,—the confessors of Christ went to death willingly, or even sought death till they were restrained by the stern commands of superiors. By the injunction of these superiors they began to assemble only outside the city, in excavations near the Appian Way, and in vineyards belonging to patrician Christians, of whom none had been imprisoned so far. It was known perfectly on the Palatine that to the confessors of Christ belonged Flavius, Domitilla, Pomponia Graecina, Cornelius Pudens, and Vinicius. Caesar himself, however, feared that the mob would not believe that such people had burned Rome, and since it was important beyond everything to convince the mob, punishment and vengeance were deferred till later days. Others were of the opinion, but erroneously, that those patricians were saved by the influence of Acte. Petronius, after parting with Vinicius, turned to Acte, it is true, to gain assistance for Lygia; but she could offer him only tears, for she lived in oblivion and suffering, and was endured only in so far as she hid herself from Poppaea and Caesar.
But she had visited Lygia in prison, she had carried her clothing and food, and above all had saved her from injury on the part of the prison-guards, who, moreover, were bribed already.
Petronius, unable to forget that had it not been for him and his plan of taking Lygia from the house of Aulus, probably she would not be in prison at that moment, and, besides, wishing to win the game against Tigellinus, spared neither time nor efforts. In the course of a few days he saw Seneca, Domitius Afer, Crispinilla, and Diodorus, through whom he wished to reach Poppaea; he saw Terpnos, and the beautiful Pythagoras, and finally Aliturus and Paris, to whom Caesar usually refused nothing. With the help of Chrysothemis, then mistress of Vatinius, he tried to gain even his aid, not sparing in this case and in others promises and money.
But all these efforts were fruitless. Seneca, uncertain of the morrow, fell to explaining to him that the Christians, even if they had not burned Rome, should be exterminated, for the good of the city,—in a word, he justified the coming slaughter for political reasons. Terpnos and Diodorus took the money, and did nothing in return for it. Vatinius reported to Caesar that they had been trying to bribe him. Aliturus alone, who at first was hostile to the Christians, took pity on them then, and made bold to mention to Caesar the imprisoned maiden, and to implore in her behalf. He obtained nothing, however, but the answer,—
"Dost thou think that I have a soul inferior to that of Brutus, who spared not his own sons for the good of Rome?"
When this answer was repeated to Petronius, he said,—
"Since Nero has compared himself to Brutus, there is no salvation."
But he was sorry for Vinicius, and dread seized him lest he might attempt his own life. "Now," thought the arbiter, "he is upheld by the efforts which he makes to save her, by the sight of her, and by his own suffering; but when all means fail and the last ray of hope is quenched, by Castor! he will not survive, he will throw himself on his sword." Petronius understood better how to die thus than to love and suffer like Vinicius.
Meanwhile Vinicius did all that he could think of to save Lygia. He visited Augustians; and he, once so proud, now begged their assistance. Through Vitelius he offered Tigellinus all his Sicilian estates, and whatever else the man might ask; but Tigellinus, not wishing apparently to offend the Augusta, refused. To go to Caesar himself, embrace his knees and implore, would lead to nothing. Vinicius wished, it is true, to do this; but Petronius, hearing of his purpose, inquired,—
"But should he refuse thee, or answer with a jest or a shameless threat, what wouldst thou do?"
At this the young tribune's features contracted with pain and rage, and from his fixed jaws a gritting sound was heard.
"Yes," said Petronius, "I advise thee against this, because thou wouldst close all paths of rescue."
Vinicius restrained himself, and passing his palm over his forehead, which was covered with cold sweat, replied,—
"No, no! I am a Christian."
"But thou will forget this, as thou didst a moment ago. Thou hast the right to ruin thyself, but not her. Remember what the daughter of Sejanus passed through before death."
Speaking thus he was not altogether sincere, since he was concerned more for Vinicius than for Lygia. Still he knew that in no way could he restrain him from a dangerous step as well as by telling him that he would bring inexorable destruction on Lygia. Moreover he was right; for on the Palatine they had counted on the visit of the young tribune, and had taken needful precautions.
But the suffering of Vinicius surpassed human endurance. From the moment that Lygia was imprisoned and the glory of coming martyrdom had fallen on her, not only did he love her a hundred times more, but he began simply to give her in his soul almost religious honor, as he would a superhuman being. And now, at the thought that he must lose this being both loved and holy, that besides death torments might be inflicted on her more terrible than death itself, the blood stiffened in his veins. His soul was turned into one groan, his thoughts were confused. At times it seemed to him that his skull was filled with living fire, which would either burn or burst it. He ceased to understand what was happening; he ceased to understand why Christ, the Merciful, the Divine, did not come with aid to His adherents; why the dingy walls of the Palatine did not sink through the earth, and with them Nero, the Augustians, the pretorian camp, and all that city of crime. He thought that it could not and should not be otherwise; and all that his eyes saw, and because of which his heart was breaking, was a dream. But the roaring of wild beasts informed him that it was reality; the sound of the axes beneath which rose the arena told him that it was reality; the howling of the people and the overfilled prisons confirmed this. Then his faith in Christ was alarmed; and that alarm was a new torture, the most dreadful of all, perhaps.
"Remember what the daughter of Sejanus endured before death," said Petronius to him, meanwhile.
AND everything had failed. Vinicius lowered himself to the degree that he sought support from freedmen and slaves, both those of Caesar and Poppaea; he overpaid their empty promises, he won their good will with rich gifts. He found the first husband of Poppaea, Rufus Crispinus, and obtained from him a letter. He gave a villa in Antium to Rufius, her son by the first marriage; but thereby he merely angered Caesar, who hated his step-son. By a special courier he sent a letter to Poppaea's second husband, Otho, in Spain. He sacrificed his property and himself, until he saw at last that he was simply the plaything of people; that if he had pretended that the imprisonment of Lygia concerned him little, he would have freed her sooner.
Petronius saw this, too. Meanwhile day followed day. The amphitheatre was finished. The "tesserae" were distributed,—that is, tickets of entrance, to the ludus matutinus (morning games). But this time the morning games, because of the unheard-of number of victims, were to continue for days, weeks, and months. It was not known where to put the Christians. The prisons were crammed, and fever was raging in them. The puticuli—common pits in which slaves were kept—began to be overfilled. There was fear that diseases might spread over the whole city hence, haste.
All these reports struck the ears of Vinicius, extinguishing in him the last hope. While there was yet time, he might delude himself with the belief that he could do something, but now there was no time. The spectacles must begin. Lygia might find herself any day in a cuniculum of the circus, whence the only exit was to the arena. Vinicius, not knowing whither fate and the cruelty of superior force might throw her, visited all the circuses, bribed guards and beast-keepers, laying before them plans which they could not execute. In time he saw that he was working for this only,—to make death less terrible to her; and just then he felt that instead of brains he had glowing coals in his head.
For the rest he had no thought of surviving her, and determined to perish at the same time. But he feared lest pain might burn his life out before the dreadful hour came. His friends and Petronius thought also that any day might open the kingdom of shadows before him. His face was black, and resembled those waxen masks kept in lararia. In his features astonishment had grown frigid, as if he hid no understanding of what had happened and what might happen. When any one spoke to him, he raised his hands to his face mechanically, and, pressing his temples, looked at the speaker with an inquiring and astonished gaze. He passed whole nights with Ursus at Lygia's door in the prison; if she commanded him to go away and rest, he returned to Petronius, and walked in the atrium till morning. The slaves found him frequently kneeling with upraised hands or lying with his face to the earth. He prayed to Christ, for Christ was his last hope. Everything had failed him. Only a miracle could save Lygia; hence he beat the stone flags with his forehead and prayed for the miracle.
But he knew enough yet to understand that Peter's prayers were more important than his own. Peter had promised him Lygia, Peter had baptized him, Peter had performed miracles, let him give aid and rescue.
And a certain night he went to seek the Apostle. The Christians, of whom not many remained, had concealed him now carefully even from other brethren, lest any of the weaker in spirit might betray him wittingly or unwittingly. Vinicius, amid the general confusion and disaster, occupied also in efforts to get Lygia out of prison, had lost sight of Peter, he had barely seen him once from the time of his own baptism till the beginning of the persecution. But betaking himself to that quarryman in whose hut he was baptized, he learned that there would be a meeting outside the Porta Salaria in a vineyard which belonged to Cornelius Pudens. The quarryman offered to guide him, and declared that he would find Peter there. They started about dusk, and, passing beyond the wall, through hollows overgrown with reeds, reached the vineyard in a wild and lonely place. The meeting was held in a wine-shed. As Vinicius drew near, the murmur of prayer reached his ears. On entering he saw by dim lamplight a few tens of kneeling figures sunk in prayer. They were saying a kind of litany; a chorus of voices, male and female, repeated every moment, "Christ have mercy on us." In those voices, deep, piercing sadness and sorrow were heard.
Peter was present. He was kneeling in front of the others, before a wooden cross nailed to the wall of the shed, and was praying. From a distance Vinicius recognized his white hair and his upraised hands. The first thought of the young patrician was to pass through the assembly, cast himself at the Apostle's feet, and cry, "Save!" but whether it was the solemnity of the prayer, or because weakness bent the knees under Vinicius, he began to repeat while he groaned and clasped his hands: "Christ have mercy!" Had he been conscious, he would have understood that his was not the only prayer in which there was a groan; that he was not the only one who had brought with him his pain, alarm, and grief. There was not in that assembly one soul which had not lost persons dear to the heart; and when the most zealous and courageous confessors were in prison already, when with every moment new tidings were borne about of insults and tortures inflicted on them in the prisons, when the greatness of the calamity exceeded every imagination, when only that handful remained, there was not one heart there which was not terrified in its faith, which did not ask doubtfully, Where is Christ? and why does He let evil be mightier than God? Meanwhile they implored Him despairingly for mercy, since in each soul there still smouldered a spark of hope that He would come, hurl Nero into the abyss, and rule the world. They looked yet toward the sky; they listened yet; they prayed yet with trembling. Vinicius, too, in proportion as they repeated, "Christ have mercy on us!" was seized by such an ecstasy as formerly in the quarryman's hut. Now from the depths they call on Him in the profoundness of their sorrow, now Peter calls on Him; so any moment the heavens may be rent, the earth tremble to its foundations, and He appear in infinite glory, with stars at His feet, merciful, but awful. He will raise up the faithful, and command the abysses to swallow the persecutors.
Vinicius covered his face with both hands, and bowed to the earth. Immediately silence was around him, as if fear had stopped further breathing on the lips of all present. And it seemed to him that something must happen surely, that a moment of miracle would follow. He felt certain that when he rose and opened his eyes he would see a light from which mortal eyes would be blinded, and hear a voice from which hearts would grow faint.
But the silence was unbroken. It was interrupted at last by the sobbing of women. Vinicius rose and looked forward with dazed eyes. In the shed, instead of glories not of earth, shone the faint gleam of lanterns, and rays of the moon, entering through an opening in the roof, filled the place with silvery light. The people kneeling around Vinicius raised their tearful eyes toward the cross in silence; here and there sobbing was heard, and from outside came the warning whistles of watchmen. Meanwhile Peter rose, and, turning to the assembly, said,
"Children, raise your hearts to the Redeemer and offer Him your tears."
After that he was silent.
All at once was heard the voice of a woman, full of sorrowful complaint and pain,—
"I am a widow; I had one son who supported me. Give him back, O Lord!" Silence followed again. Peter was standing before the kneeling audience, old, full of care. In that moment he seemed to them decrepitude and weakness personified. With that a second voice began to complain,
"Executioners insulted my daughter, and Christ permitted them!"
Then a third,—
"I alone have remained to my children, and when I am taken who will give them bread and water?"
Then a fourth,—
"Linus, spared at first, they have taken now and put to torture, O Lord!"
Then a fifth,
"When we return to our houses, pretorians will seize us. We know not where to hide."
"Woe to us! Who will protect us?"
And thus in that silence of the night complaint after complaint was heard. The old fisherman closed his eyes and shook his white head over that human pain and fear. New silence followed; the watchman merely gave out low whistles beyond the shed.
Vinicius sprang up again, so as to break through the crowd to the Apostle and demand salvation; but on a sudden he saw before him, as it were, a precipice, the sight of which took strength from his feet. What if the Apostle were to confess his own weakness, affirm that the Roman Caesar was stronger than Christ the Nazarene? And at that thought terror raised the hair on his head, for he felt that in such a case not only the remnant of his hope would fall into that abyss, but with it he himself, and all through which he had life, and there would remain only night and death, resembling a shoreless sea.
Meanwhile Peter began to speak in a voice so low at first that it was barely possible to hear him,—
"My children, on Golgotha I saw them nail God to the cross. I heard the hammers, and I saw them raise the cross on high, so that the rabble might gaze at the death of the Son of Man. I saw them open His side, and I saw Him die. When returning from the cross, I cried in pain, as ye are crying, 'Woe! woe! O Lord, Thou art God! Why hast Thou permitted this? Why hast Thou died, and why hast Thou tormented the hearts of us who believed that Thy kingdom would come?'
"But He, our Lord and God, rose from the dead the third day, and was among us till He entered His kingdom in great glory.
"And we, seeing our little faith, became strong in heart, and from that time we are sowing His grain."
Here, turning toward the place whence the first complaint came, he began in a voice now stronger,—
"Why do ye complain? God gave Himself to torture and death, and ye wish Him to shield you from the same. People of little faith, have ye received His teaching? Has He promised you nothing but life? He comes to you and says, 'Follow in my path.' He raises you to Himself, and ye catch at this earth with your hands, crying, 'Lord, save us!' I am dust before God, but before you I am His apostle and viceregent. I speak to you in the name of Christ. Not death is before you, but life; not tortures, but endless delights; not tears and groans, but singing; not bondage, but rule! I, God's apostle, say this: O widow, thy son will not die; he will be born into glory, into eternal life, and thou wilt rejoin him! To thee, O father, whose innocent daughter was defiled by executioners, I promise that thou shalt find her whiter than the lilies of Hebron! To you, mothers, whom they are tearing away from your orphans; to you who lose fathers; to you who complain; to you who will see the death of loved ones; to you the careworn, the unfortunate, the timid; to you who must die,—in the name of Christ I declare that ye will wake as if from sleep to a happy waking, as if from night to the light of God. In the name of Christ, let the beam fall from your eyes, and let your hearts be inflamed."
When he had said this, he raised his hand as if commanding, and they felt new blood in their veins, and also a quiver in their bones; for before them was standing, not a decrepit and careworn old man, but a potentate, who took their souls and raised them from dust and terror.
"Amen!" called a number of voices.
From the Apostle's eyes came a light ever increasing, power issued from him, majesty issued from him, and holiness. Heads bent before him, and he, when the "Amen" ceased, continued:—
"Ye sow in tears to reap in joy. Why fear ye the power of evil? Above the earth, above Rome, above the walls of cities is the Lord, who has taken His dwelling within you. The stones will be wet from tears, the sand steeped in blood, the valleys will be filled with your bodies, but I say that ye are victorious. The Lord is advancing to the conquest of this city of crime, oppression, and pride, and ye are His legions! He redeemed with His own blood and torture the sins of the world; so He wishes that ye should redeem with torture and blood this nest of injustice. This He announces to you through my lips."
And he opened his arms, and fixed his eyes upward; the hearts almost ceased to beat in their breasts, for they felt that his glance beheld something which their mortal sight could not see.
In fact, his face had changed, and was overspread with serenity; he gazed some time in silence, as if speechless from ecstasy, but after a while they heard his voice,—
"Thou art here, O Lord, and dost show Thy ways to me. True, O Christ! Not in Jerusalem, but in this city of Satan wilt Thou fix Thy capital. Here out of these tears and this blood dost Thou wish to build Thy Church. Here, where Nero rules to-day, Thy eternal kingdom is to stand. Thine, O Lord, O Lord! And Thou commandest these timid ones to form the foundation of Thy holy Zion of their bones, and Thou commandest my spirit to assume rule over it, and over peoples of the earth. And Thou art pouring the fountain of strength on the weak, so that they become strong; and now Thou commandest me to feed Thy sheep from this spot, to the end of ages. Oh, be Thou praised in Thy decrees by which Thou commandest to conquer. Hosanna! Hosanna!"
Those who were timid rose; into those who doubted streams of faith flowed. Some voices cried, "Hosanna!" others, "Pro Christo!" Then silence followed. Bright summer lightning illuminated the interior of the shed, and the pale, excited faces.
Peter, fixed in a vision, prayed a long time yet; but conscious at last, he turned his inspired face, full of light, to the assembly, and said,—
"This is how the Lord has overcome doubt in you; so ye will go to victory in His name."
And though he knew that they would conquer, though he knew what would grow out of their tears and blood, still his voice quivered with emotion when he was blessing them with the cross, and he said,—
"Now I bless you, my children, as ye go to torture, to death, to eternity."
They gathered round him and wept. "We are ready," said they; "but do thou, O holy head, guard thyself, for thou art the viceregent who performs the office of Christ."
And thus speaking, they seized his mantle; he placed his hands on their heads, and blessed each one separately, just as a father does children whom he is sending on a long journey.
And they began at once to go out of the shed, for they were in a hurry, to their houses, and from them to the prisons and arenas. Their thoughts were separated from the earth, their souls had taken flight toward eternity, and they walked on as if in a dream, in ecstasy opposing that force which was in them to the force and the cruelty of the "Beast."
Nereus, the servant of Pudens, took the Apostle and led him by a secret path in the vineyard to his house. But Vinicius followed them in the clear night, and when they reached the cottage of Nereus at last, he threw himself suddenly at the feet of the Apostle.
"What dost thou wish, my Son?" asked Peter, recognizing him.
After what he had heard in the vineyard, Vinicius dared not implore him for anything; but, embracing his feet with both hands, he pressed his forehead to them with sobbing, and called for compassion in that dumb manner.
"I know. They took the maiden whom thou lovest. Pray for her."
"Lord," groaned Vinicius, embracing his feet still more firmly,—"Lord, I am a wretched worm; but thou didst know Christ. Implore Him,—take her part."
And from pain he trembled like a leaf; and he beat the earth with his forehead, for, knowing the strength of the Apostle, he knew that he alone could rescue her.
Peter was moved by that pain. He remembered how on a time Lygia herself, when attacked by Crispus, lay at his feet in like manner imploring pity. He remembered that he had raised her and comforted her; hence now he raised Vinicius.
"My son," said he, "I will pray for her; but do thou remember that I told those doubting ones that God Himself passed through the torment of the cross, and remember that after this life begins another,—an eternal one."
"I know; I have heard!" answered Vinicius, catching the air with his pale lips; "but thou seest, lord, that I cannot! If blood is required, implore Christ to take mine,—I am a soldier. Let Him double, let Him triple, the torment intended for her, I will suffer it; but let Him spare her. She is a child yet, and He is mightier than Caesar, I believe, mightier. Thou didst love her thyself; thou didst bless us. She is an innocent child yet."
Again he bowed, and, putting his face to Peter's knees, he repeated,—
"Thou didst know Christ, lord,—thou didst know Him. He will give ear to thee; take her part."
Peter closed his lids, and prayed earnestly. The summer lightning illuminated the sky again. Vinicius, by the light of it, looked at the lips of the Apostle, waiting sentence of life or death from them. In the silence quails were heard calling in the vineyard, and the dull, distant sound of treadmills near the Via Salaria.
"Vinicius," asked the Apostle at last, "dost thou believe?"
"Would I have come hither if I believed not?" answered Vinicius.
"Then believe to the end, for faith will remove mountains. Hence, though thou wert to see that maiden under the sword of the executioner or in the jaws of a lion, believe that Christ can save her. Believe, and pray to Him, and I will pray with thee."
Then, raising his face toward heaven, he said aloud,—
"O merciful Christ, look on this aching heart and console it! O merciful Christ, temper the wind to the fleece of the lamb! O merciful Christ, who didst implore the Father to turn away the bitter cup from Thy mouth, turn it from the mouth of this Thy servant! Amen."
But Vinicius, stretching his hand toward the stars, said, groaning,—
"I am Thine; take me instead of her."
The sky began to grow pale in the east.
VINICIUS, on leaving the Apostle, went to the prison with a heart renewed by hope. Somewhere in the depth of his soul, despair and terror were still crying; but he stifled those voices. It seemed to him impossible that the intercession of the viceregent of God and the power of his prayer should be without effect. He feared to hope; he feared to doubt. "I will believe in His mercy," said he to himself, "even though I saw her in the jaws of a lion." And at this thought, even though the soul quivered in him and cold sweat drenched his temples, he believed. Every throb of his heart was a prayer then. He began to understand that faith would move mountains, for he felt in himself a wonderful strength, which he had not felt earlier. It seemed to him that he could do things which he had not the power to do the day before. At moments he had an impression that the danger had passed. If despair was heard groaning again in his soul, he recalled that night, and that holy gray face raised to heaven in prayer.
"No, Christ will not refuse His first disciple and the pastor of His flock! Christ will not refuse him! I will not doubt!" And he ran toward the prison as a herald of good news.
But there an unexpected thing awaited him.
All the pretorian guards taking turn before the Mamertine prison knew him, and generally they raised not the least difficulty; this time, however, the line did not open, but a centurion approached him and said,—
"Pardon, noble tribune, to-day we have a command to admit no one."
"A command?" repeated Vinicius, growing pale.
The soldier looked at him with pity, and answered,—
"Yes, lord, a command of Caesar. In the prison there are many sick, and perhaps it is feared that visitors might spread infection through the city."
"But hast thou said that the order was for to-day only?"
"The guards change at noon."
Vinicius was silent and uncovered his head, for it seemed to him that the pileolus which he wore was of lead.
Meanwhile the soldier approached him, and said in a low voice,
"Be at rest, lord, the guard and Ursus are watching over her." When he had said this, he bent and, in the twinkle of an eye, drew with his long Gallic sword on the flag stone the form of a fish.
Vinicius looked at him quickly.
"And thou art a pretorian?"
"Till I shall be there," answered the soldier, pointing to the prison.
"And I, too, worship Christ."
"May His name be praised! I know, lord, I cannot admit thee to the prison, but write a letter, I will give it to the guard."
"Thanks to thee, brother."
He pressed the soldier's hand, and went away. The pileolus ceased to weigh like lead. The morning sun rose over the walls of the prison, and with its brightness consolation began to enter his heart again. That Christian soldier was for him a new witness of the power of Christ. After a while he halted, and, fixing his glance on the rosy clouds above the Capitol and the temple of Jupiter Stator, he said,—
"I have not seen her to-day, O Lord, but I believe in Thy mercy."
At the house he found Petronius, who, making day out of night as usual, had returned not long before. He had succeeded, however, in taking his bath and anointing himself for sleep.
"I have news for thee," said he. "To-day I was with Tullius Senecio, whom Caesar also visited. I know not whence it came to the mind of the Augusta to bring little Rufius with her,—perhaps to soften the heart of Caesar by his beauty. Unfortunately, the child, wearied by drowsiness, fell asleep during the reading, as Vespasian did once; seeing this, Ahenobarbus hurled a goblet at his step-son, and wounded him seriously. Poppaea fainted; all heard how Caesar said, 'I have enough of this brood!' and that, knowest thou, means as much as death."
"The punishment of God was hanging over the Augusta," answered Vinicius; "but why dost thou tell me this?"
"I tell thee because the anger of Poppaea pursued thee and Lygia; occupied now by her own misfortune, she may leave her vengeance and be more easily influenced. I will see her this evening and talk with her."
"Thanks to thee. Thou givest me good news."
"But do thou bathe and rest. Thy lips are blue, and there is not a shadow of thee left."
"Is not the time of the first 'ludus matutinus' announced?" inquired Vinicius.
"In ten days. But they will take other prisons first. The more time that remains to us the better. All is not lost yet."
But he did not believe this; for he knew perfectly that since to the request of Aliturus, Caesar had found the splendidly sounding answer in which he compared himself to Brutus, there was no rescue for Lygia. He hid also, through pity, what he had heard at Senecio's, that Caesar and Tigellinus had decided to select for themselves and their friends the most beautiful Christian maidens, and defile them before the torture; the others were to be given, on the day of the games, to pretorians and beast-keepers.
Knowing that Vinicius would not survive Lygia in any case, he strengthened hope in his heart designedly, first, through sympathy for him; and second, because he wished that if Vinicius had to die, he should die beautiful,—not with a face deformed and black from pain and watching.
"To-day I will speak more or less thus to Augusta," said he: "'Save Lygia for Vinicius, I will save Ruflus for thee.' And I will think of that seriously.
"One word spoken to Ahenobarbus at the right moment may save or ruin any one. In the worst case, we will gain time."
"Thanks to thee," repeated Vinicius.
"Thou wilt thank me best if thou eat and sleep. By Athene! In the greatest straits Odysseus had sleep and food in mind. Thou hast spent the whole night in prison, of course?"
"No," answered Vinicius; "I wished to visit the prison to-day, but there is an order to admit no one. Learn, O Petronius, if the order is for to-day alone or till the day of the games."
"I will discover this evening, and to-morrow morning will tell thee for what time and why the order was issued. But now, even were Helios to go to Cimmerian regions from sorrow, I shall sleep, and do thou follow my example."
They separated; but Vinicius went to the library and wrote a letter to Lygia. When he had finished, he took it himself to the Christian centurion who carried it at once to the prison. After a while he returned with a greeting from Lygia, and promised to deliver her answer that day.
Vinicius did not wish to return home, but sat on a stone and waited for Lygia's letter. The sun had risen high in the heavens, and crowds of people flowed in, as usual, through the Clivus Argentarius to the Forum. Hucksters called out their wares, soothsayers offered their services to passers-by, citizens walked with deliberate steps toward the rostra to hear orators of the day, or tell the latest news to one another. As the heat increased, crowds of idlers betook themselves to the porticos of the temples, from under which flew from moment to moment, with great rustle of wings, flocks of doves, whose white feathers glistened in the sunlight and in the blue of the sky.
From excess of light and the influence of bustle, heat, and great weariness, the eyes of Vinicius began to close. The monotonous calls of boys playing mora, and the measured tread of soldiers, lulled him to sleep. He raised his head still a number of times, and took in the prison with his eyes; then he leaned against a Stone, sighed like a child drowsy after long weeping, and dropped asleep.
Soon dreams came. It seemed to him that he was carrying Lygia in his arms at night through a strange vineyard. Before him was Pomponia Graecina lighting the way with a lamp. A voice, as it were of Petronius called from afar to him, "Turn back!" but he did not mind the call, and followed Pomponia till they reached a cottage; at the threshold of the cottage stood Peter. He showed Peter Lygia, and said, "We are coming from the arena, lord, but we cannot wake her; wake her thou." "Christ himself will come to wake her," answered the Apostle.
Then the pictures began to change. Through the dream he saw Nero, and Poppaea holding in her arms little Ruflus with bleeding head, which Petronius was washing and he saw Tigellinus sprinkling ashes on tables covered with costly dishes, and Vitelius devouring those dishes, while a multitude of other Augustians were sitting at the feast. He himself was resting near Lygia; but between the tables walked lions from out whose yellow manes trickled blood. Lygia begged him to take her away, but so terrible a weakness had seized him that he could not even move. Then still greater disorder involved his visions, and finally all fell into perfect darkness.
He was roused from deep sleep at last by the heat of the sun, and shouts given forth right there around the place where he was sitting. Vinicius rubbed his eyes. The street was swarming with people; but two runners, wearing yellow tunics, pushed aside the throng with long staffs, crying and making room for a splendid litter which was carried by four stalwart Egyptian slaves.
In the litter sat a man in white robes, whose face was not easily seen, for he held close to his eyes a roll of papyrus and was reading something diligently.
"Make way for the noble Augustian!" cried the runners.
But the street was so crowded that the litter had to wait awhile. The Augustian put down his roll of papyrus and bent his head, crying,—
"Push aside those wretches! Make haste!"
Seeing Vinicius suddenly, he drew back his head and raised the papyrus quickly.
Vinicius drew his hand across his forehead, thinking that he was dreaming yet.
In the litter was sitting Chilo.
Meanwhile the runners had opened the way, and the Egyptians were ready to move, when the young tribune, who in one moment understood many things which till then had been incomprehensible, approached the litter.
"A greeting to thee, O Chilo!" said he.
"Young man," answered the Greek, with pride and importance, endeavoring to give his face an expression of calmness which was not in his soul, "be greeted, but detain me not, for I am hastening to my friend, the noble Tigellinus."
Vinicius, grasping the edge of the litter and looking him straight in the eyes, said with a lowered voice,—
"Didst thou betray Lygia?"
"Colossus of Memnon!" cried Chilo, with fear.
But there was no threat in the eyes of Vinicius; hence the old Greek's alarm vanished quickly. He remembered that he was under the protection of Tigellinus and of Caesar himself,—that is, of a power before which everything trembled,—that he was surrounded by sturdy slaves, and that Vinicius stood before him unarmed, with an emaciated face and body bent by suffering.
At this thought his insolence returned to him. He fixed on Vinicius his eyes, which were surrounded by red lids, and whispered in answer,—
"But thou, when I was dying of hunger, didst give command to flog me."
For a moment both were silent; then the dull voice of Vinicius was heard,—
"I wronged thee, Chilo."
The Greek raised his head, and, snapping his fingers which in Rome was a mark of slight and contempt, said so loudly that all could hear him,—
"Friend, if thou hast a petition to present, come to my house on the Esquiline in the morning hour, when I receive guests and clients after my bath."
And he waved his hand; at that sign the Egyptians raised the litter, and the slaves, dressed in yellow tunics, began to cry as they brandished their staffs,—
"Make way for the litter of the noble Chilo Chilonides! Make way, make way!"
LYGIA, in a long letter written hurriedly, took farewell to Vinicius forever. She knew that no one was permitted to enter the prison, and that she could see Vinicius only from the arena. She begged him therefore to discover when the turn of the Mamertine prisoners would come, and to be at the games, for she wished to see him once more in life. No fear was evident in her letter. She wrote that she and the others were longing for the arena, where they would find liberation from imprisonment. She hoped for the coming of Pomponia and Aulus; she entreated that they too be present. Every word of her showed ecstasy, and that separation from life in which all the prisoners lived, and at the same time an unshaken faith that all promises would be fulfilled beyond the grave.
"Whether Christ," wrote she, "frees me in this life or after death, He has promised me to thee by the lips of the Apostle; therefore I am thine." She implored him not to grieve for her, and not to let himself be overcome by suffering. For her death was not a dissolution of marriage. With the confidence of a child she assured Vinicius that immediately after her suffering in the arena she would tell Christ that her betrothed Marcus had remained in Rome, that he was longing for her with his whole heart. And she thought that Christ would permit her soul, perhaps, to return to him for a moment, to tell him that she was living, that she did not remember her torments, and that she was happy. Her whole letter breathed happiness and immense hope. There was only one request in it connected with affairs of earth,—that Vinicius should take her body from the spoliarium and bury it as that of his wife in the tomb in which he himself would rest sometime.
He read this letter with a suffering spirit, but at the same time it seemed to him impossible that Lygia should perish under the claws of wild beasts, and that Christ would not take compassion on her. But just in that were hidden hope and trust. When he returned home, he wrote that he would come every day to the walls of the Tullianum to wait till Christ crushed the walls and restored her. He commanded her to believe that Christ could give her to him, even in the Circus; that the great Apostle was imploring Him to do so, and that the hour of liberation was near. The converted centurion was to bear this letter to her on the morrow.
But when Vinicius came to the prison next morning, the centurion left the rank, approached him first, and said,—
"Listen to me, lord. Christ, who enlightened thee, has shown thee favor. Last night Caesar's freedman and those of the prefect came to select Christian maidens for disgrace; they inquired for thy betrothed, but our Lord sent her a fever, of which prisoners are dying in the Tullianum, and they left her. Last evening she was unconscious, and blessed be the name of the Redeemer, for the sickness which has saved her from shame may save her from death."
Vinicius placed his hand on the soldier's shoulder to guard himself from falling; but the other continued,—
"Thank the mercy of the Lord! They took and tortured Linus, but, seeing that he was dying, they surrendered him. They may give her now to thee, and Christ will give back health to her."
The young tribune stood some time with drooping head; then raised it and said in a whisper,—
"True, centurion. Christ, who saved her from shame, will save her from death." And sitting at the wall of the prison till evening, he returned home to send people for Linus and have him taken to one of his suburban villas.
But when Petronius had heard everything, he determined to act also. He had visited the Augusta; now he went to her a second time. He found her at the bed of little Rufius. The child with broken head was struggling in a fever; his mother, with despair and terror in her heart, was trying to save him, thinking, however, that if she did save him it might be only to perish soon by a more dreadful death.
Occupied exclusively with her own suffering, she would not even hear of Vinicius and Lygia; but Petronius terrified her.
"Thou hast offended," said he to her, "a new, unknown divinity. Thou, Augusta, art a worshipper, it seems, of the Hebrew Jehovah; but the Christians maintain that Chrestos is his son. Reflect, then, if the anger of the father is not pursuing thee. Who knows but it is their vengeance which has struck thee? Who knows but the life of Rufius depends on this,—how thou wilt act?"
"What dost thou wish me to do?" asked Poppaea, with terror.
"Mollify the offended deities."
"Lygia is sick; influence Caesar or Tigellinus to give her to Vinicius."
"Dost thou think that I can do that?" asked she, in despair.
"Thou canst do something else. If Lygia recovers, she must die. Go thou to the temple of Vesta, and ask the virgo magna to happen near the Tullianum at the moment when they are leading prisoners out to death, and give command to free that maiden. The chief vestal will not refuse thee."
"But if Lygia dies of the fever?"
"The Christians say that Christ is vengeful, but just; maybe thou wilt soften Him by thy wish alone."
"Let Him give me some sign that will heal Rufius."
Petronius shrugged his shoulders.
"I have not come as His envoy; O divinity, I merely say to thee, Be on better terms with all the gods, Roman and foreign."
"I will go!" said Poppaea, with a broken voice.
Petronius drew a deep breath. "At last I have done something," thought he, and returning to Vinicius he said to him,—
"Implore thy God that Lygia die not of the fever, for should she survive, the chief vestal will give command to free her. The Augusta herself will ask her to do so."
"Christ will free her," said Vinicius, looking at him with eyes in which fever was glittering.
Poppaea, who for the recovery of Rufius was willing to burn hecatombs to all the gods of the world, went that same evening through the Forum to the vestals, leaving care over the sick child to her faithful nurse, Silvia, by whom she herself had been reared.
But on the Palatine sentence had been issued against the child already; for barely had Poppaea's litter vanished behind the great gate when two freedmen entered the chamber in which her son was resting. One of these threw himself on old Silvia and gagged her; the other, seizing a bronze statue of the Sphinx, stunned the old woman with the first blow.
Then they approached Rufius. The little boy, tormented with fever and insensible, not knowing what was passing around him, smiled at them, and blinked with his beautiful eyes, as if trying to recognize the men. Stripping from the nurse her girdle, they put it around his neck and pulled it. The child called once for his mother, and died easily. Then they wound him in a sheet, and sitting on horses which were waiting, hurried to Ostia, where they threw the body into the sea.
Poppaea, not finding the virgo magna, who with other vestals was at the house of Vatinius, returned soon to the Palatine. Seeing the empty bed and the cold body of Silvia, she fainted, and when they restored her she began to scream; her wild cries were heard all that night and the day following.
But Caesar commanded her to appear at a feast on the third day; so, arraying herself in an amethyst-colored tunic, she came and sat with stony face, golden-haired, silent, wonderful, and as ominous as an angel of death.
BEFORE the Flavii had reared the Colosseum, amphitheatres in Rome were built of wood mainly; for that reason nearly all of them had burned during the fire. But Nero, for the celebration of the promised games, had given command to build several, and among them a gigantic one, for which they began, immediately after the fire was extinguished, to bring by sea and the Tiber great trunks of trees cut on the slopes of Atlas; for the games were to surpass all previous ones in splendor and the number of victims.
Large spaces were given therefore for people and for animals. Thousands of mechanics worked at the structure night and day. They built and ornamented without rest. Wonders were told concerning pillars inlaid with bronze, amber, ivory, mother of pearl, and transmarine tortoise-shells. Canals filled with ice-cold water from the mountains and running along the seats were to keep an agreeable coolness in the building, even during the greatest heat. A gigantic purple velarium gave shelter from the rays of the sun. Among the rows of seats were disposed vessels for the burning of Arabian perfumes; above them were fixed instruments to sprinkle the spectators with dew of saffron and verbena. The renowned builders Severus and Celer put forth all their skill to construct an amphitheatre at once incomparable and fitted for such a number of the curious as none of those known before had been able to accommodate.
Hence, the day when the ludus matutinus was to begin, throngs of the populace were awaiting from daylight the opening of the gates, listening with delight to the roars of lions, the hoarse growls of panthers, and the howls of dogs. The beasts had not been fed for two days, but pieces of bloody flesh had been pushed before them to rouse their rage and hunger all the more. At times such a storm of wild voices was raised that people standing before the Circus could not converse, and the most sensitive grew pale from fear.
With the rising of the sun were intoned in the enclosure of the Circus hymns resonant but calm. The people heard these with amazement, and said one to another, "The Christians! the Christians!" In fact, many detachments of Christians had been brought to the amphitheatre that night, and not from one place, as planned at first, but a few from each prison. It was known in the crowd that the spectacles would continue through weeks and months, but they doubted that it would be possible to finish in a single day those Christians who had been intended for that one occasion. The voices of men, women, and children singing the morning hymn were so numerous that spectators of experience asserted that even if one or two hundred persons were sent out at once, the beasts would grow tired, become sated, and not tear all to pieces before evening. Others declared that an excessive number of victims in the arena would divert attention, and not give a chance to enjoy the spectacle properly.
As the moment drew near for opening the vomitoria, or passages which led to the interior, people grew animated and joyous; they discussed and disputed about various things touching the spectacle. Parties were formed praising the greater efficiency of lions or tigers in tearing. Here and there bets were made. Others however talked about gladiators who were to appear in the arena earlier than the Christians; and again there were parties, some in favor of Samnites, others of Gauls, others of Mirmillons, others of Thracians, others of the retiarii.
Early in the morning larger or smaller detachments of gladiators began to arrive at the amphitheatre under the lead of masters, called lanistae. Not wishing to be wearied too soon, they entered unarmed, often entirely naked, often with green boughs in their hands, or crowned with flowers, young, beautiful, in the light of morning, and full of life. Their bodies, shining from olive oil, were strong as if chiselled from marble; they roused to delight people who loved shapely forms. Many were known personally, and from moment to moment were heard: "A greeting, Furnius! A greeting, Leo! A greeting, Maximus! A greeting, Diomed!" Young maidens raised to them eyes full of admiration; they, selecting the maiden most beautiful, answered with jests, as if no care weighed on them, sending kisses, or exclaiming, "Embrace me before death does!" Then they vanished in the gates, through which many of them were never to come forth again.
New arrivals drew away the attention of the throngs. Behind the gladiators came mastigophori; that is, men armed with scourges, whose office it was to lash and urge forward combatants. Next mules drew, in the direction of the spoliarium, whole rows of vehicles on which were piled wooden coffins. People were diverted at sight of this, inferring from the number of coffins the greatness of the spectacle. Now marched in men who were to kill the wounded; these were dressed so that each resembled Charon or Mercury. Next came those who looked after order in the Circus, and assigned places; after that slaves to bear around food and refreshments; finally, pretorians, whom every Caesar had always at hand in the amphitheatre.
At last the vomitoria were opened, and crowds rushed to the centre. But such was the number of those assembled that they flowed in and flowed in for hours, till it was a marvel that the Circus could hold such a countless multitude. The roars of wild beasts, catching the exhalations of people, grew louder. While taking their places, the spectators made an uproar like the sea in time of storm.
Finally, the prefect of the city came, surrounded by guards; and after him, in unbroken line, appeared the litters of senators, consuls, pretors, ediles, officials of the government and the palace, of pretorian officers, patricians, and exquisite ladies. Some litters were preceded by lictors bearing maces in bundles of rods; others by crowds of slaves. In the sun gleamed the gilding of the litters, the white and varied colored stuffs, feathers, earrings, jewels, steel of the maces. From the Circus came shouts with which the people greeted great dignitaries. Small divisions of pretorians arrived from time to time.