The priests of various temples came somewhat later; only after them were brought in the sacred virgins of Vesta, preceded by lictors.
To begin the spectacle, they were waiting now only for Caesar, who, unwilling to expose the people to over-long waiting, and wishing to win them by promptness, came soon, in company with the Augusta and Augustians.
Petronius arrived among the Augustians, having Vinicius in his litter. The latter knew that Lygia was sick and unconscious; but as access to the prison had been forbidden most strictly during the preceding days, and as the former guards had been replaced by new ones who were not permitted to speak with the jailers or even to communicate the least information to those who came to inquire about prisoners, he was not even sure that she was not among the victims intended for the first day of spectacles. They might send out even a sick woman for the lions, though she were unconscious. But since the victims were to be sewed up in skins of wild beasts and sent to the arena in crowds, no spectator could be certain that one more or less might not be among them, and no man could recognize any one. The jailers and all the servants of the amphitheatre had been bribed, and a bargain made with the beast-keepers to hide Lygia in some dark corner, and give her at night into the hands of a confidant of Vinicius, who would take her at once to the Alban Hills. Petronius, admitted to the secret, advised Vinicius to go with him openly to the amphitheatre, and after he had entered to disappear in the throng and hurry to the vaults, where, to avoid possible mistake, he was to point out Lygia to the guards personally.
The guards admitted him through a small door by which they came out themselves. One of these, named Cyrus, led him at once to the Christians. On the way he said,—
"I know not, lord, that thou wilt find what thou art seeking. We inquired for a maiden named Lygia, but no one gave us answer; it may be, though, that they do not trust us."
"Are there many?" asked Vinicius.
"Many, lord, had to wait till to-morrow."
"Are there sick ones among them?"
"There were none who could not stand."
Cyrus opened a door and entered as it were an enormous chamber, but low and dark, for the light came in only through grated openings which separated it from the arena. At first Vinicius could see nothing; he heard only the murmur of voices in the room, and the shouts of people in the amphitheatre. But after a time, when his eyes had grown used to the gloom, he saw crowds of strange beings, resembling wolves and bears. Those were Christians sewed up in skins of beasts. Some of them were standing; others were kneeling in prayer. Here and there one might divine by the long hair flowing over the skin that the victim was a woman. Women, looking like wolves, carried in their arms children sewed up in equally shaggy coverings. But from beneath the skins appeared bright faces and eyes which in the darkness gleamed with delight and feverishness. It was evident that the greater number of those people were mastered by one thought, exclusive and beyond the earth,—a thought which during life made them indifferent to everything which happened around them and which could meet them. Some, when asked by Vinicius about Lygia, looked at him with eyes as if roused from sleep, without answering his questions; others smiled at him, placing a finger on their lips or pointing to the iron grating through which bright streaks of light entered. But here and there children were crying, frightened by the roaring of beasts, the howling of dogs, the uproar of people, and the forms of their own parents who looked like wild beasts. Vinicius as he walked by the side of Cyrus looked into faces, searched, inquired, at times stumbled against bodies of people who had fainted from the crowd, the stifling air, the heat, and pushed farther into the dark depth of the room, which seemed to be as spacious as a whole amphitheatre.
But he stopped on a sudden, for he seemed to hear near the grating a voice known to him. He listened for a while, turned, and, pushing through the crowd, went near. Light fell on the face of the speaker, and Vinicius recognized under the skin of a wolf the emaciated and implacable countenance of Crispus.
"Mourn for your sins!" exclaimed Crispus, "for the moment is near. But whoso thinks by death itself to redeem his sins commits a fresh sin, and will be hurled into endless fire. With every sin committed in life ye have renewed the Lord's suffering; how dare ye think that that life which awaits you will redeem this one? To-day the just and the sinner will die the same death; but the Lord will find His own. Woe to you, the claws of the lions will rend your bodies; but not your sins, nor your reckoning with God. The Lord showed mercy sufficient when He let Himself be nailed to the cross; but thenceforth He will be only the judge, who will leave no fault unpunished. Whoso among you has thought to extinguish his sins by suffering, has blasphemed against God's justice, and will sink all the deeper. Mercy is at an end, and the hour of God's wrath has come. Soon ye will stand before the awful Judge in whose presence the good will hardly be justified. Bewail your sins, for the jaws of hell are open; woe to you, husbands and wives; woe to you, parents and children."
And stretching forth his bony hands, he shook them above the bent heads; he was unterrified and implacable even in the presence of death, to which in a while all those doomed people were to go. After his words, were heard voices: "We bewail our sins!" Then came silence, and only the cry of children was audible, and the beating of hands against breasts.
The blood of Vinicius stiffened in his veins. He, who had placed all his hope in the mercy of Christ, heard now that the day of wrath had come, and that even death in the arena would not obtain mercy. Through his head shot, it is true, the thought, clear and swift as lightning, that Peter would have spoken otherwise to those about to die. Still those terrible words of Crispus filled with fanaticism that dark chamber with its grating, beyond which was the field of torture. The nearness of that torture, and the throng of victims arrayed for death already, filled his soul with fear and terror. All this seemed to him dreadful, and a hundred times more ghastly than the bloodiest battle in which he had ever taken part. The odor and heat began to stifle him; cold sweat came out on his forehead. He was seized by fear that he would faint like those against whose bodies he had stumbled while searching in the depth of the apartment; so when he remembered that they might open the grating any moment, he began to call Lygia and Ursus aloud, in the hope that, if not they, some one knowing them would answer.
In fact, some man, clothed as a bear, pulled his toga, and said,—
"Lord, they remained in prison. I was the last one brought out; I saw her sick on the couch."
"Who art thou?" inquired Vinicius.
"The quarryman in whose hut the Apostle baptized thee, lord. They imprisoned me three days ago, and to-day I die."
Vinicius was relieved. When entering, he had wished to find Lygia; now he was ready to thank Christ that she was not there, and to see in that a sign of mercy. Meanwhile the quarryman pulled his toga again, and said,—
"Dost remember, lord, that I conducted thee to the vineyard of Cornelius, when the Apostle discoursed in the shed?"
"I saw him later, the day before they imprisoned me, He blessed me, and said that he would come to the amphitheatre to bless the perishing. If I could look at him in the moment of death and see the sign of the cross, it would be easier for me to die. If thou know where he is, lord, inform me."
Vinicius lowered his voice, and said,—
"He is among the people of Petronius, disguised as a slave. I know not where they chose their places, but I will return to the Circus and see. Look thou at me when ye enter the arena. I will rise and turn my face toward them; then thou wilt find him with thy eyes."
"Thanks to thee, lord, and peace be with thee."
"May the Redeemer be merciful to thee."
Vinicius went out of the cuniculum, and betook himself to the amphitheatre, where he had a place near Petronius among the other Augustians.
"Is she there?" inquired Petronius.
"No; she remained in prison."
"Hear what has occurred to me, but while listening look at Nigidia for example, so that we may seem to talk of her hair-dressing. Tigellinus and Chilo are looking at us now. Listen then. Let them put Lygia in a coffin at night and carry her out of the prison as a corpse; thou divinest the rest?"
"Yes," answered Vinicius.
Their further conversation was interrupted by Tullius Senecio, who, bending toward them, asked,—
"Do ye know whether they will give weapons to the Christians?"
"We do not," answered Petronius. "I should prefer that arms were given," said Tullius; "if not, the arena will become like butcher's shambles too early. But what a splendid amphitheatre!"
The sight was, in truth, magnificent. The lower seats, crowded with togas were as white as snow. In the gilded podium sat Caesar, wearing a diamond collar and a golden crown on his head; next to him sat the beautiful and gloomy Augusta, and on both sides were vestal virgins, great officials, senators with embroidered togas, officers of the army with glittering weapons,—in a word, all that was powerful, brilliant, and wealthy in Rome. In the farther rows sat knights; and higher up darkened in rows a sea of common heads, above which from pillar to pillar hung festoons of roses, lilies, ivy, and grapevines.
People conversed aloud, called to one another, sang; at times they broke into laughter at some witty word which was sent from row to row, and they stamped with impatience to hasten the spectacle.
At last the stamping became like thunder, and unbroken. Then the prefect of the city, who rode around the arena with a brilliant retinue, gave a signal with a handkerchief, which was answered throughout the amphitheatre by "A-a-a!" from thousands of breasts.
Usually a spectacle was begun by hunts of wild beasts, in which various Northern and Southern barbarians excelled; but this time they had too many beasts, so they began with andabates,—that is, men wearing helmets without an opening for the eyes, hence fighting blindfold. A number of these came into the arena together, and slashed at random with their swords; the scourgers with long forks pushed some toward others to make them meet. The more select of the audience looked with contempt and indifference at this spectacle; but the crowd were amused by the awkward motions of the swordsmen. When it happened that they met with their shoulders, they burst out in loud laughter. "To the right!" "To the left!" cried they, misleading the opponents frequently by design. A number of pairs closed, however, and the struggle began to be bloody. The determined combatants cast aside their shields, and giving their left hands to each other, so as not to part again, struggled to the death with their right. Whoever fell raised his fingers, begging mercy by that sign; but in the beginning of a spectacle the audience demanded death usually for the wounded, especially in the case of men who had their faces covered and were unknown. Gradually the number of combatants decreased; and when at last only two remained, these were pushed together; both fell on the sand, and stabbed each other mutually. Then, amid cries of "Peractum est!" servants carried out the bodies, youths raked away the bloody traces on the sand and sprinkled it with leaves of saffron.
Now a more important contest was to come,—rousing interest not only in the herd, but in exquisites; during this contest young patricians made enormous bets at times, often losing all they owned. Straightway from hand to hand went tablets on which were written names of favorites, and also the number of sestertia which each man wagered on his favorite. "Spectati"—that is, champions who had appeared already on the arena and gained victories—found most partisans; but among betters were also those who risked considerably on gladiators who were new and quite unknown, hoping to win immense sums should these conquer. Caesar himself bet; priests, vestals, senators, knights bet; the populace bet. People of the crowd, when money failed them, bet their own freedom frequently. They waited with heart-beating and even with fear for the combatants, and more than one made audible vows to the gods to gain their protection for a favorite.
In fact, when the shrill sound of trumpets was heard, there was a stillness of expectation in the amphitheatre. Thousands of eyes were turned to the great bolts, which a man approached dressed like Charon, and amid the universal silence struck three times with a hammer, as if summoning to death those who were hidden behind them. Then both halves of the gate opened slowly, showing a black gully, out of which gladiators began to appear in the bright arena. They came in divisions of twenty-five, Thracians, Mirmillons, Samnites, Gauls, each nation separately, all heavily armed; and last the retiarii, holding in one hand a net, in the other a trident. At sight of them, here and there on the benches rose applause, which soon turned into one immense and unbroken storm. From above to below were seen excited faces, clapping hands, and open mouths, from which shouts burst forth. The gladiators encircled the whole arena with even and springy tread, gleaming with their weapons and rich outfit; they halted before Caesar's podium, proud, calm, and brilliant. The shrill sound of a horn stopped the applause; the combatants stretched their right hands upward, raised their eyes and heads toward Caesar, and began to cry or rather to chant with drawling voice,—
"Ave, Caesar imperator! Morituri te salutant!"
Then they pushed apart quickly, occupying their places on the arena. They were to attack one another in whole detachments; but first it was permitted the most famous fencers to have a series of single combats, in which the strength, dexterity, and courage of opponents were best exhibited. In fact, from among the Gauls appeared a champion, well known to lovers of the amphitheatre under the name of Lanio, a victor in many games. With a great helmet on his head, and in mail which formed a ridge in front of his powerful breast and behind, he looked in the gleam of the golden arena like a giant beetle. The no less famous retiarius Calendio came out against him.
Among the spectators people began to bet.
"Five hundred sestertia on the Gaul!"
"Five hundred on Calendio!"
"By Hercules, one thousand!"
Meanwhile the Gaul, reaching the centre of the arena, began to withdraw with pointed sword, and, lowering his head, watched his opponent carefully through the opening of his visor; the light retiarius, stately, statuesque, wholly naked save a belt around his loins, circled quickly about his heavy antagonist, waving the net with graceful movement, lowering or raising his trident, and singing the usual song of the retiarius,—
"Non te peto, piscem peto; Quid me fugis, Galle?"
["I seek not thee, I seek a fish; Why flee from me O Gaul?"]
But the Gaul was not fleeing, for after a while he stopped, and standing in one place began to turn with barely a slight movement, so as to have his enemy always in front, in his form and monstrously large head there was now something terrible. The spectators understood perfectly that that heavy body encased in bronze was preparing for a sudden throw to decide the battle. The retiarius meanwhile sprang up to him, then sprang away, making with his three-toothed fork motions so quick that the eye hardly followed them. The sound of the teeth on the shield was heard repeatedly; but the Gaul did not quiver, giving proof by this of his gigantic strength. All his attention seemed fixed, not on the trident, but the net which was circling above his head, like a bird of ill omen. The spectators held the breath in their breasts, and followed the masterly play of the gladiators. The Gaul waited, chose the moment, and rushed at last on his enemy; the latter with equal quickness shot past under his sword, straightened himself with raised arm, and threw the net.
The Gaul, turning where he stood, caught it on his shield; then both sprang apart. In the amphitheatre shouts of "Macte!" thundered; in the lower rows they began to make new bets. Caesar himself, who at first had been talking with Rubria, and so far had not paid much attention to the spectacle, turned his head toward the arena.
They began to struggle again, so regularly and with such precision in their movements, that sometimes it seemed that with them it was not a question of life or death, but of exhibiting skill. The Gaul escaping twice more from the net, pushed toward the edge of the arena; those who held bets against him, not wishing the champion to rest, began to cry, "Bear on!" The Gaul obeyed, and attacked. The arm of the retiarius was covered on a sudden with blood, and his net dropped. The Gaul summoned his strength, and sprang forward to give the final blow. That instant Calendio, who feigned inability to wield the net, sprang aside, escaped the thrust, ran the trident between the knees of his opponent, and brought him to the earth.
The Gaul tried to rise, but in a twinkle he was covered by the fatal meshes, in which he was entangled more and more by every movement of his feet and hands. Meanwhile stabs of the trident fixed him time after time to the earth. He made one more effort, rested on his arm, and tried to rise; in vain! He raised to his head his falling hand which could hold the sword no longer, and fell on his back. Calendio pressed his neck to the ground with the trident, and, resting both hands on the handle of it, turned toward Caesar's box.
The whole Circus was trembling from plaudits and the roar of people. For those who had bet on Calendio he was at that moment greater than Caesar; but for this very reason animosity against the Gaul vanished from their hearts. At the cost of his blood he had filled their purses. The voices of the audience were divided. On the upper seats half the signs were for death, and half for mercy; but the retiarius looked only at the box of Caesar and the vestals, waiting for what they would decide.
To the misfortune of the fallen gladiator, Nero did not like him, for at the last games before the fire he had bet against the Gaul, and had lost considerable sums to Licinus; hence he thrust his hand out of the podium, and turned his thumb toward the earth.
The vestals supported the sign at once. Calendio knelt on the breast of the Gaul, drew a short knife from his belt, pushed apart the armor around the neck of his opponent, and drove the three-edged blade into his throat to the handle.
"Peractum est!" sounded voices in the amphitheatre.
The Gaul quivered a time, like a stabbed bullock, dug the sand with his heels, stretched, and was motionless.
Mercury had no need to try with heated iron if he were living yet. He was hidden away quickly, and other pairs appeared. After them came a battle of whole detachments. The audience took part in it with soul, heart, and eyes. They howled, roared, whistled, applauded, laughed, urged on the combatants, grew wild. The gladiators on the arena, divided into two legions, fought with the rage of wild beasts; breast struck breast, bodies were intertwined in a death grapple, strong limbs cracked in their joints, swords were buried in breasts and in stomachs, pale lips threw blood on to the sand. Toward the end such terrible fear seized some novices that, tearing themselves from the turmoil, they fled; but the scourgers drove them back again quickly to the battle with lashes tipped with lead. On the sand great dark spots were formed; more and more naked and armed bodies lay stretched like grain sheaves. The living fought on the corpses; they struck against armor and shields, cut their feet against broken weapons, and fell. The audience lost self-command from delight; and intoxicated with death breathed it, sated their eyes with the sight of it, and drew into their lungs the exhalations of it with ecstasy.
The conquered lay dead, almost every man. Barely a few wounded knelt in the middle of the arena, and trembling stretched their hands to the audience with a prayer for mercy. To the victors were given rewards,—crowns, olive wreaths. And a moment of rest came, which, at command of the all-powerful Caesar, was turned into a feast. Perfumes were burned in vases. Sprinklers scattered saffron and violet rain on the people. Cooling drinks were served, roasted meats, sweet cakes, wine, olives, and fruits. The people devoured, talked, and shouted in honor of Caesar, to incline him to greater bounteousness. When hunger and thirst had been satisfied, hundreds of slaves bore around baskets full of gifts, from which boys, dressed as Cupids, took various objects and threw them with both hands among the seats. When lottery tickets were distributed, a battle began. People crowded, threw, trampled one another; cried for rescue, sprang over rows of seats, stifled one another in the terrible crush, since whoever got a lucky number might win possibly a house with a garden, a slave, a splendid dress, or a wild beast which he could sell to the amphitheatre afterward. For this reason there were such disorders that frequently the pretorians had to interfere; and after every distribution they carried out people with broken arms or legs, and some were even trampled to death in the throng.
But the more wealthy took no part in the fight for tesserae. The Augustians amused themselves now with the spectacle of Chilo, and with making sport of his vain efforts to show that he could look at fighting and blood-spilling as well as any man. But in vain did the unfortunate Greek wrinkle his brow, gnaw his lips, and squeeze his fists till the nails entered his palms. His Greek nature and his personal cowardice were unable to endure such sights. His face grew pale, his forehead was dotted with drops of sweat, his lips were blue, his eyes turned in, his teeth began to chatter, and a trembling seized his body. At the end of the battle he recovered somewhat; but when they attacked him with tongues, sudden anger seized him, and he defended himself desperately.
"Ha, Greek! the sight of torn skin on a man is beyond thy strength!" said Vatinius, taking him by the beard.
Chilo bared his last two yellow teeth at him and answered,—
"My father was not a cobbler, so I cannot mend it."
"Macte! habet (Good! he has caught it!)" called a number of voices; but others jeered on.
"He is not to blame that instead of a heart he has a piece of cheese in his breast," said Senecio.
"Thou art not to blame that instead of a head thou hast a bladder," retorted Chilo.
"Maybe thou wilt become a gladiator! thou wouldst look well with a net on the arena."
"If I should catch thee in it, I should catch a stinking hoopoe."
"And how will it be with the Christians?" asked Festus, from Liguria. "Wouldst thou not like to be a dog and bite them?"
"I should not like to be thy brother."
"Thou Maeotian copper-nose!"
"Thou Ligurian mule!"
"Thy skin is itching, evidently, but I don't advise thee to ask me to scratch it."
"Scratch thyself. If thou scratch thy own pimple, thou wilt destroy what is best in thee."
And in this manner they attacked him. He defended himself venomously, amid universal laughter. Caesar, clapping his hands, repeated, "Macte!" and urged them on. After a while Petronius approached, and, touching the Greek's shoulder with his carved ivory cane, said coldly,—
"This is well, philosopher; but in one thing thou hast blundered: the gods created thee a pickpocket, and thou hast become a demon. That is why thou canst not endure."
The old man looked at him with his red eyes, but this time somehow he did not find a ready insult. He was silent for a moment; then answered, as if with a certain effort,—
"I shall endure."
Meanwhile the trumpets announced the end of the interval. People began to leave the passages where they had assembled to straighten their legs and converse. A general movement set in with the usual dispute about seats occupied previously. Senators and patricians hastened to their places. The uproar ceased after a time, and the amphitheatre returned to order. On the arena a crowd of people appeared whose work was to dig out here and there lumps of sand formed with stiffened blood.
The turn of the Christians was at hand. But since that was a new spectacle for people, and no one knew how the Christians would bear themselves, all waited with a certain curiosity. The disposition of the audience was attentive but unfriendly; they were waiting for uncommon scenes. Those people who were to appear had burned Rome and its ancient treasures. They had drunk the blood of infants, and poisoned water; they had cursed the whole human race, and committed the vilest crimes. The harshest punishment did not suffice the roused hatred; and if any fear possessed people's hearts, it was this: that the torture of the Christians would not equal the guilt of those ominous criminals.
Meanwhile the sun had risen high; its rays, passing through the purple velarium, had filled the amphitheatre with blood-colored light. The sand assumed a fiery hue, and in those gleams, in the faces of people, as well as in the empty arena, which after a time was to be filled with the torture of people and the rage of savage beasts, there was something terrible. Death and terror seemed hovering in the air. The throng, usually gladsome, became moody under the influence of hate and silence. Faces had a sullen expression.
Now the prefect gave a sign. The same old man appeared, dressed as Charon, who had called the gladiators to death, and, passing with slow step across the arena amid silence, he struck three times again on the door.
Throughout the amphitheatre was heard the deep murmur,—
"The Christians! the Christians!"
The iron gratings creaked; through the dark openings were heard the usual cries of the scourgers, "To the sand!" and in one moment the arena was peopled with crowds as it were of satyrs covered with skins. All ran quickly, somewhat feverishly, and, reaching the middle of the circle, they knelt one by another with raised heads. The spectators, judging this to be a prayer for pity, and enraged by such cowardice, began to stamp, whistle, throw empty wine-vessels, bones from which the flesh had been eaten, and shout, "The beasts! the beasts!" But all at once something unexpected took place. From out the shaggy assembly singing voices were raised, and then sounded that hymn heard for the first time in a Roman amphitheatre, "Christus regnat!" ["Christ reigns!"]
Astonishment seized the spectators. The condemned sang with eyes raised to the velarium. The audience saw faces pale, but as it were inspired. All understood that those people were not asking for mercy, and that they seemed not to see the Circus, the audience, the Senate, or Caesar. "Christus regnat!" rose ever louder, and in the seats, far up to the highest, among the rows of spectators, more than one asked himself the question, "What is happening, and who is that Christus who reigns in the mouths of those people who are about to die?" But meanwhile a new grating was opened, and into the arena rushed, with mad speed and barking, whole packs of dogs,—gigantic, yellow Molossians from the Peloponnesus, pied dogs from the Pyrenees, and wolf-like hounds from Hibernia, purposely famished; their sides lank, and their eyes bloodshot. Their howls and whines filled the amphitheatre. When the Christians had finished their hymn, they remained kneeling, motionless, as if petrified, merely repeating in one groaning chorus, "Pro Christo! Pro Christo!" The dogs, catching the odor of people under the skins of beasts, and surprised by their silence, did not rush on them at once. Some stood against the walls of the boxes, as if wishing to go among the spectators; others ran around barking furiously, as though chasing some unseen beast. The people were angry. A thousand voices began to call; some howled like wild beasts; some barked like dogs; others urged them on in every language. The amphitheatre was trembling from uproar. The excited dogs began to run to the kneeling people, then to draw back, snapping their teeth, till at last one of the Molossians drove his teeth into the shoulder of a woman kneeling in front, and dragged her under him.
Tens of dogs rushed into the crowd now, as if to break through it. The audience ceased to howl, so as to look with greater attention. Amidst the howling and whining were heard yet plaintive voices of men and women: "Pro Christo! Pro Christo!" but on the arena were formed quivering masses of the bodies of dogs and people. Blood flowed in streams from the torn bodies. Dogs dragged from each other the bloody limbs of people. The odor of blood and torn entrails was stronger than Arabian perfumes, and filled the whole Circus.
At last only here and there were visible single kneeling forms, which were soon covered by moving squirming masses.
Vinicius, who at the moment when the Christians ran in, stood up and turned so as to indicate to the quarryman, as he had promised, the direction in which the Apostle was hidden among the people of Petronius, sat down again, and with the face of a dead man continued to look with glassy eyes on the ghastly spectacle. At first fear that the quarryman might have been mistaken, and that perchance Lygia was among the victims, benumbed him completely; but when he heard the voices, "Pro Christo!" when he saw the torture of so many victims who, in dying, confessed their faith and their God, another feeling possessed him, piercing him like the most dreadful pain, but irresistible. That feeling was this,—if Christ Himself died in torment, if thousands are perishing for Him now, if a sea of blood is poured forth, one drop more signifies nothing, and it is a sin even to ask for mercy. That thought came to him from the arena, penetrated him with the groans of the dying, with the odor of their blood. But still he prayed and repeated with parched lips, "O Christ! O Christ! and Thy Apostle prayed for her!" Then he forgot himself, lost consciousness of where he was. It seemed to him that blood on the arena was rising and rising, that it was coming up and flowing out of the Circus over all Rome. For the rest he heard nothing, neither the howling of dogs nor the uproar of the people nor the voices of the Augustians, who began all at once to cry,—
"Chilo has fainted!"
"Chilo has fainted!" said Petronius, turning toward the Greek.
And he had fainted really; he sat there white as linen, his head fallen back, his mouth wide open, like that of a corpse.
At that same moment they were urging into the arena new victims, sewed up in skins.
These knelt immediately, like those who had gone before; but the weary dogs would not rend them. Barely a few threw themselves on to those kneeling nearest; but others lay down, and, raising their bloody jaws, began to scratch their sides and yawn heavily.
Then the audience, disturbed in spirit, but drunk with blood and wild, began to cry with hoarse voices,—
"The lions! the lions! Let out the lions!"
The lions were to be kept for the next day; but in the amphitheatres the people imposed their will on every one, even on Caesar. Caligula alone, insolent and changeable in his wishes, dared to oppose them, and there were cases when he gave command to beat the people with clubs; but even he yielded most frequently. Nero, to whom plaudits were dearer than all else in the world, never resisted. All the more did he not resist now, when it was a question of mollifying the populace, excited after the conflagration, and a question of the Christians, on whom he wished to cast the blame of the catastrophe.
He gave the sign therefore to open the cuniculum, seeing which, the people were calmed in a moment. They heard the creaking of the doors behind which were the lions. At sight of the lions the dogs gathered with low whines, on the opposite side of the arena. The lions walked into the arena one after another, immense, tawny, with great shaggy heads. Caesar himself turned his wearied face toward them, and placed the emerald to his eye to see better. The Augustians greeted them with applause; the crowd counted them on their fingers, and followed eagerly the impression which the sight of them would make on the Christians kneeling in the centre, who again had begun to repeat the words, without meaning for many, though annoying to all, "Pro Christo! Pro Christo!"
But the lions, though hungry, did not hasten to their victims. The ruddy light in the arena dazzled them and they half closed their eyes as if dazed. Some stretched their yellowish bodies lazily; some, opening their jaws, yawned,—one might have said that they wanted to show their terrible teeth to the audience. But later the odor of blood and torn bodies, many of which were lying on the sand, began to act on them. Soon their movements became restless, their manes rose, their nostrils drew in the air with hoarse sound. One fell suddenly on the body of a woman with a torn face, and, lying with his fore paws on the body, licked with a rough tongue the stiffened blood: another approached a man who was holding in his arms a child sewed up in a fawn's skin.
The child, trembling from crying, and weeping, clung convulsively to the neck of its father; he, to prolong its life even for a moment, tried to pull it from his neck, so as to hand it to those kneeling farther on. But the cry and the movement irritated the lion. All at once he gave out a short, broken roar, killed the child with one blow of his paw, and seizing the head of the father in his jaws, crushed it in a twinkle.
At sight of this all the other lions fell upon the crowd of Christians. Some women could not restrain cries of terror; but the audience drowned these with plaudits, which soon ceased, however, for the wish to see gained the mastery. They beheld terrible things then: heads disappearing entirely in open jaws, breasts torn apart with one blow, hearts and lungs swept away; the crushing of bones under the teeth of lions. Some lions, seizing victims by the ribs or loins, ran with mad springs through the arena, as if seeking hidden places in which to devour them; others fought, rose on their hind legs, grappled one another like wrestlers, and filled the amphitheatre with thunder. People rose from their places. Some left their seats, went down lower through the passages to see better, and crowded one another mortally. It seemed that the excited multitude would throw itself at last into the arena, and rend the Christians in company with the lions. At moments an unearthly noise was heard; at moments applause; at moments roaring, rumbling, the clashing of teeth, the howling of Molossian dogs; at times only groans.
Caesar, holding the emerald to his eye, looked now with attention. The face of Petronius assumed an expression of contempt and disgust. Chilo had been borne out of the Circus.
But from the cuniculum new victims were driven forth continually.
From the highest row in the amphitheatre the Apostle Peter looked at them. No one saw him, for all heads were turned to the arena; so he rose and as formerly in the vineyard of Cornelius he had blessed for death and eternity those who were intended for imprisonment, so now he blessed with the cross those who were perishing under the teeth of wild beasts. He blessed their blood, their torture, their dead bodies turned into shapeless masses, and their souls flying away from the bloody sand. Some raised their eyes to him, and their faces grew radiant; they smiled when they saw high above them the sign of the cross. But his heart was rent, and he said, "O Lord! let Thy will be done. These my sheep perish to Thy glory in testimony of the truth. Thou didst command me to feed them; hence I give them to Thee, and do Thou count them, Lord, take them, heal their wounds, soften their pain, give them happiness greater than the torments which they suffered here."
And he blessed them one after another, crowd after crowd, with as much love as if they had been his children whom he was giving directly into the hands of Christ. Then Caesar, whether from madness, or the wish that the exhibition should surpass everything seen in Rome so far, whispered a few words to the prefect of the city. He left the podium and went at once to the cuniculum. Even the populace were astonished when, after a while, they saw the gratings open again. Beasts of all kinds were let out this time,—tigers from the Euphrates, Numidian panthers, bears, wolves, hyenas, and jackals. The whole arena was covered as with a moving sea of striped, yellow, flax-colored, dark-brown, and spotted skins. There rose a chaos in which the eye could distinguish nothing save a terrible turning and twisting of the backs of wild beasts. The spectacle lost the appearance of reality, and became as it were an orgy of blood, a dreadful dream, a gigantic kaleidoscope of mad fancy. The measure was surpassed. Amidst roars, howls, whines, here and there on the seats of the spectators were heard the terrified and spasmodic laughter of women, whose strength had given way at last. The people were terrified. Faces grew dark. Various voices began to cry, "Enough! enough!"
But it was easier to let the beasts in than drive them back again. Caesar, however, found a means of clearing the arena, and a new amusement for the people. In all the passages between the seats appeared detachments of Numidians, black and stately, in feathers and earrings, with bows in their hands. The people divined what was coming, and greeted the archers with a shout of delight. The Numidians approached the railing, and, putting their arrows to the strings, began to shoot from their bows into the crowd of beasts. That was a new spectacle truly. Their bodies, shapely as if cut from dark marble, bent backward, stretched the flexible bows, and sent bolt after bolt. The whizzing of the strings and the whistling of the feathered missiles were mingled with the howling of beasts and cries of wonder from the audience. Wolves, bears, panthers, and people yet alive fell side by side. Here and there a lion, feeling a shaft in his ribs, turned with sudden movement, his jaws wrinkled from rage, to seize and break the arrow. Others groaned from pain. The small beasts, falling into a panic, ran around the arena at random, or thrust their heads into the grating; meanwhile the arrows whizzed and whizzed on, till all that was living had lain down in the final quiver of death.
Hundreds of slaves rushed into the arena armed with spades, shovels, brooms, wheelbarrows, baskets for carrying out entrails, and bags of sand. They came, crowd after crowd, and over the whole circle there seethed up a feverish activity. The space was soon cleared of bodies, blood, and mire, dug over, made smooth, and sprinkled with a thick layer of fresh sand. That done, Cupids ran in, scattering leaves of roses, lilies, and the greatest variety of flowers. The censers were ignited again, and the velarium was removed, for the sun had sunk now considerably. But people looked at one another with amazement, and inquired what kind of new spectacle was waiting for them on that day.
Indeed, such a spectacle was waiting as no one had looked for. Caesar, who had left the podium some time before, appeared all at once on the flowery arena, wearing a purple mantle, and a crown of gold. Twelve choristers holding citharae followed him. He had a silver lute, and advanced with solemn tread to the middle, bowed a number of times to the spectators, raised his eyes, and stood as if waiting for inspiration.
Then he struck the strings and began to sing,—
"O radiant son of Leto, Ruler of Tenedos, Chilos, Chrysos, Art thou he who, having in his care The sacred city of Ilion, Could yield it to Argive anger, And suffer sacred altars, Which blazed unceasingly to his honor, To be stained with Trojan blood? Aged men raised trembling hands to thee, O thou of the far-shooting silver bow, Mothers from the depth of their breasts Raised tearful cries to thee, Imploring pity on their offspring. Those complaints might have moved a stone, But to the suffering of people Thou, O Smintheus, wert less feeling than a stone!"
The song passed gradually into an elegy, plaintive and full of pain. In the Circus there was silence. After a while Caesar, himself affected, sang on,—
"With the sound of thy heavenly lyre Thou couldst drown the wailing, The lament of hearts. At the sad sound of this song The eye to-day is filled with tears, As a flower is filled with dew, But who can raise from dust and ashes That day of fire, disaster, ruin? O Smintheus, where wert thou then?"
Here his voice quivered and his eyes grew moist. Tears appeared on the lids of the vestals; the people listened in silence before they burst into a long unbroken storm of applause.
Meanwhile from outside through the vomitoria came the sound of creaking vehicles on which were placed the bloody remnants of Christians, men, women, and children, to be taken to the pits called "puticuli."
But the Apostle Peter seized his trembling white head with his hands, and cried in spirit,—
"O Lord, O Lord! to whom hast Thou given rule over the earth, and why wilt Thou found in this place Thy capital?"
THE sun had lowered toward its setting, and seemed to dissolve in the red of the evening. The spectacle was finished. Crowds were leaving the amphitheatre and pouring out to the city through the passages called vomitoria. Only Augustians delayed; they were waiting for the stream of people to pass. They had all left their seats and assembled at the podium, in which Caesar appeared again to hear praises. Though the spectators had not spared plaudits at the end of the song, Nero was not satisfied; he had looked for enthusiasm touching on frenzy. In vain did hymns of praise sound in his ears; in vain did vestals kiss his "divine" hand, and while doing so Rubria bent till her reddish hair touched his breast. Nero was not satisfied, and could not hide the fact. He was astonished and also disturbed because Petronius was silent. Some flattering and pointed word from his mouth would have been a great consolation at that moment. Unable at last to restrain himself, Caesar beckoned to the arbiter.
"Speak," said he, when Petronius entered the podium.
"I am silent," answered Petronius, coldly, "for I cannot find words. Thou hast surpassed thyself."
"So it seemed to me too; but still this people—"
"Canst thou expect mongrels to appreciate poetry?"
"But thou too hast noticed that they have not thanked me as I deserve."
"Because thou hast chosen a bad moment."
"When men's brains are filled with the odor of blood, they cannot listen attentively."
"Ah, those Christians!" replied Nero, clenching his fists. "They burned Rome, and injure me now in addition. What new punishment shall I invent for them?"
Petronius saw that he had taken the wrong road, that his words had produced an effect the very opposite of what he intended; so, to turn Caesar's mind in another direction, he bent toward him and whispered,—
"Thy song is marvellous, but I will make one remark: in the fourth line of the third strophe the metre leaves something to be desired."
Nero, blushing with shame, as if caught in a disgraceful deed, had fear in his look, and answered in a whisper also,—
"Thou seest everything. I know. I will re-write that. But no one else noticed it, I think. And do thou, for the love of the gods, mention it to no one,—if life is dear to thee."
To this Petronius answered, as if in an outburst of vexation and anger,
"Condemn me to death, O divinity, if I deceive thee; but thou wilt not terrify me, for the gods know best of all if I fear death."
And while speaking he looked straight into Caesar's eyes, who answered after a while,—
"Be not angry; thou knowest that I love thee."
"A bad sign!" thought Petronius.
"I wanted to invite thee to-day to a feast," continued Nero, "but I prefer to shut myself in and polish that cursed line in the third strophe. Besides thee Seneca may have noticed it, and perhaps Secundus Carinas did; but I will rid myself of them quickly."
Then he summoned Seneca, and declared that with Acratus and Secundus Carinas, he sent him to the Italian and all other provinces for money, which he commanded him to obtain from cities, villages, famous temples,—in a word, from every place where it was possible to find money, or from which they could force it. But Seneca, who saw that Caesar was confiding to him a work of plunder, sacrilege, and robbery, refused straightway.
"I must go to the country, lord," said he, "and await death, for I am old and my nerves are sick."
Seneca's Iberian nerves were stronger than Chilos; they were not sick, perhaps, but in general his health was bad, for he seemed like a shadow, and recently his hair had grown white altogether.
Nero, too, when he looked at him, thought that he would not have to wait long for the man's death, and answered,—
"I will not expose thee to a journey if thou art ill, but through affection I wish to keep thee near me. Instead of going to the country, then, thou wilt stay in thy own house, and not leave it."
Then he laughed, and said, "If I send Acratus and Carinas by themselves, it will be like sending wolves for sheep. Whom shall I set above them?"
"Me, lord," said Domitius Afer.
"No! I have no wish to draw on Rome the wrath of Mercury, whom ye would put to shame with your villainy. I need some stoic like Seneca, or like my new friend, the philosopher Chilo."
Then he looked around, and asked,—
"But what has happened to Chilo?"
Chilo, who had recovered in the open air and returned to the amphitheatre for Caesar's song, pushed up, and said,—
"I am here, O Radiant Offspring of the sun and moon. I was ill, but thy song has restored me."
"I will send thee to Achaea," said Nero. "Thou must know to a copper how much there is in each temple there."
"Do so, O Zeus, and the gods will give thee such tribute as they have never given any one."
"I would, but I do not like to prevent thee from seeing the games."
"Baal!" said Chilo.
The Augustians, delighted that Caesar had regained humor, fell to laughing, and exclaimed,—
"No, lord, deprive not this valiant Greek of a sight of the games."
"But preserve me, O lord, from the sight of these noisy geese of the Capitol, whose brains put together would not fill a nutshell," retorted Chilo. "O first-born of Apollo, I am writing a Greek hymn in thy honor, and I wish to spend a few days in the temple of the Muses to implore inspiration."
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Nero. "It is thy wish to escape future games. Nothing will come of that!"
"I swear to thee, lord, that I am writing a hymn."
"Then thou wilt write it at night. Beg inspiration of Diana, who, by the way, is a sister of Apollo."
Chilo dropped his head and looked with malice on those present, who began to laugh again. Caesar, turning to Senecio and Suilius Nerulinus, said,—
"Imagine, of the Christians appointed for to-day we have been able to finish hardly half!"
At this old Aquilus Regulus, who had great knowledge of everything touching the amphitheatre, thought a while, and said,—
"Spectacles in which people appear sine armis et sine arte last almost as long and are less entertaining."
"I will command to give them weapons," answered Nero.
But the superstitious Vestinius was roused from meditation at once, and asked in a mysterious voice,—
"Have ye noticed that when dying they see something? They look up, and die as it were without pain. I am sure that they see something."
He raised his eyes then to the opening of the amphitheatre, over which night had begun to extend its velarium dotted with stars. But others answered with laughter and jesting suppositions as to what the Christians could see at the moment of death. Meanwhile Caesar gave a signal to the slave torch-bearers, and left the Circus; after him followed vestals, senators, dignitaries, and Augustians.
The night was clear and warm. Before the Circus were moving throngs of people, curious to witness the departure of Caesar; but in some way they were gloomy and silent. Here and there applause was heard, but it ceased quickly. From the spoliarium creaking carts bore away the bloody remnants of Christians.
Petronius and Vinicius passed over their road in silence. Only when near his villa did Petronius inquire,—
"Hast thou thought of what I told thee?" "I have," answered Vinicius.
"Dost believe that for me too this is a question of the highest importance? I must liberate her in spite of Caesar and Tigellinus. This is a kind of battle in which I have undertaken to conquer, a kind of play in which I wish to win, even at the cost of my life. This day has confirmed me still more in my plan."
"May Christ reward thee."
"Thou wilt see."
Thus conversing, they stopped at the door of the villa and descended from the litter. At that moment a dark figure approached them, and asked,—
"Is the noble Vinicius here?"
"He is," answered the tribune. "What is thy wish?"
"I am Nazarius, the son of Miriam. I come from the prison, and bring tidings of Lygia."
Vinicius placed his hand on the young man's shoulder and looked into his eyes by the torchlight, without power to speak a word, but Nazarius divined the question which was dying on his lips, and replied,—
"She is living yet. Ursus sent me to say that she prays in her fever, and repeats thy name."
"Praise be to Christ, who has power to restore her to me," said Vinicius. He conducted Nazarius to the library, and after a while Petronius came in to hear their conversation.
"Sickness saved her from shame, for executioners are timid," said the youth. "Ursus and Glaucus the physician watch over her night and day."
"Are the guards the same?"
"They are, and she is in their chamber. All the prisoners in the lower dungeon died of fever, or were stifled from foul air."
"Who art thou?" inquired Petronins.
"The noble Vinicius knows me. I am the son of that widow with whom Lygia lodged."
"And a Christian?"
The youth looked with inquiring glance at Vinicius, but, seeing him in prayer, he raised his head, and answered,—
"How canst thou enter the prison freely?"
"I hired myself to carry out corpses; I did so to assist my brethren and bring them news from the city."
Petronius looked more attentively at the comely face of the youth, his blue eyes, and dark, abundant hair.
"From what country art thou, youth?" asked he.
"I am a Galilean, lord."
"Wouldst thou like to see Lygia free?"
The youth raised his eyes. "Yes, even had I to die afterwards."
Then Vinicius ceased to pray, and said,—
"Tell the guards to place her in a coffin as if she were dead. Thou wilt find assistants to bear her out in the night with thee. Near the 'Putrid Pits' will be people with a litter waiting for you; to them ye will give the coffin. Promise the guards from me as much gold as each can carry in his mantle."
While speaking, his face lost its usual torpor, and in him was roused the soldier to whom hope had restored his former energy.
Nazarius was flushed with delight, and, raising his hands, he exclaimed,
"May Christ give her health, for she will be free."
"Dost thou think that the guards will consent?" inquired Petronius.
"They, lord? Yes, if they know that punishment and torture will not touch them."
"The guards would consent to her flight; all the more will they let us bear her out as a corpse," said Vinicius.
"There is a man, it is true," said Nazarius, "who burns with red-hot iron to see if the bodies which we carry out are dead. But he will take even a few sestertia not to touch the face of the dead with iron. For one aureus he will touch the coffin, not the body."
"Tell him that he will get a cap full of aurei," said Petronius. "But canst thou find reliable assistants?"
"I can find men who would sell their own wives and children for money."
"Where wilt thou find them?"
"In the prison itself or in the city. Once the guards are paid, they will admit whomever I like."
"In that case take me as a hired servant," said Vinicius.
But Petronius opposed this most earnestly. "The pretorians might recognize thee even in disguise, and all would be lost. Go neither to the prison nor the 'Putrid Pits.' All, including Caesar and Tigellinus, should be convinced that she died; otherwise they will order immediate pursuit. We can lull suspicion only in this way: When she is taken to the Alban Hills or farther, to Sicily, we shall be in Rome. A week or two later thou wilt fall ill, and summon Nero's physician; he will tell thee to go to the mountains. Thou and she will meet, and afterward—"
Here he thought a while; then, waving his hand, he said,—
"Other times may come."
"May Christ have mercy on her," said Vinicius. "Thou art speaking of Sicily, while she is sick and may die."
"Let us keep her nearer Rome at first. The air alone will restore her, if only we snatch her from the dungeon. Hast thou no manager in the mountains whom thou canst trust?"
"I have," replied Vinicius, hurriedly. "Near Corioli is a reliable man who carried me in his arms when I was a child, and who loves me yet."
"Write to him to come to-morrow," said Petronius, handing Vinicius tablets. "I will send a courier at once."
He called the chief of the atrium then, and gave the needful orders. A few minutes later, a mounted slave was coursing in the night toward Corioli.
"It would please me were Ursus to accompany her," said Vinicius. "I should be more at rest."
"Lord," said Nazarius, "that is a man of superhuman strength; he can break gratings and follow her. There is one window above a steep, high rock where no guard is placed. I will take Ursus a rope; the rest he will do himself."
"By Hercules!" said Petronius, "let him tear himself out as he pleases, but not at the same time with her, and not two or three days later, for they would follow him and discover her hiding-place. By Hercules! do ye wish to destroy yourselves and her? I forbid you to name Corioli to him, or I wash my hands."
Both recognized the justice of these words, and were silent. Nazarius took leave, promising to come the next morning at daybreak.
He hoped to finish that night with the guards, but wished first to run in to see his mother, who in that uncertain and dreadful time had no rest for a moment thinking of her son. After some thought he had determined not to seek an assistant in the city, but to find and bribe one from among his fellow corpse-bearers. When going, he stopped, and, taking Vinicius aside, whispered,—
"I will not mention our plan to any one, not even to my mother, but the Apostle Peter promised to come from the amphitheatre to our house; I will tell him everything."
"Here thou canst speak openly," replied Vinicius. "The Apostle was in the amphitheatre with the people of Petronius. But I will go with you myself."
He gave command to bring him a slave's mantle, and they passed out. Petronius sighed deeply.
"I wished her to die of that fever," thought he, "since that would have been less terrible for Vinicius. But now I am ready to offer a golden tripod to Esculapius for her health. Ah! Ahenobarbus, thou hast the wish to turn a lover's pain into a spectacle; thou, Augusta, wert jealous of the maiden's beauty, and wouldst devour her alive because thy Rufius has perished. Thou, Tigellinus, wouldst destroy her to spite me! We shall see. I tell you that your eyes will not behold her on the arena, for she will either die her own death, or I shall wrest her from you as from the jaws of dogs, and wrest her in such fashion that ye shall not know it; and as often afterward as I look at you I shall think, These are the fools whom Caius Petronius outwitted."
And, self-satisfied, he passed to the triclinium, where he sat down to supper with Eunice. During the meal a lector read to them the Idyls of Theocritus. Out of doors the wind brought clouds from the direction of Soracte, and a sudden storm broke the silence of the calm summer night. From time to time thunder reverberated on the seven hills, while they, reclining near each other at the table, listened to the bucolic poet, who in the singing Doric dialect celebrated the loves of shepherds. Later on, with minds at rest, they prepared for sweet slumber.
But before this Vinicius returned. Petronius heard of his coming, and went to meet him.
"Well? Have ye fixed anything new?" inquired he. "Has Nazarius gone to the prison?"
"He has," answered the young man, arranging his hair, wet from the rain. "Nazarius went to arrange with the guards, and I have seen Peter, who commanded me to pray and believe."
"That is well. If all goes favorably, we can bear her away to-morrow night."
"My manager must be here at daybreak with men."
"The road is a short one. Now go to rest."
But Vinicius knelt in his cubiculum and prayed.
At sunrise Niger, the manager, arrived from Corioli, bringing with him, at the order of Vinicius, mules, a litter, and four trusty men selected among slaves from Britain, whom, to save appearances, he had left at an inn in the Subura. Vinicius, who had watched all night, went to meet him. Niger, moved at sight of his youthful master, kissed his hands and eyes, saying,—
"My dear, thou art ill, or else suffering has sucked the blood from thy face, for hardly did I know thee at first."
Vinicius took him to the interior colonnade, and there admitted him to the secret. Niger listened with fixed attention, and on his dry, sunburnt face great emotion was evident; this he did not even try to master.
"Then she is a Christian?" exclaimed Niger; and he looked inquiringly into the face of Vinicius, who divined evidently what the gaze of the countryman was asking, since he answered,—
"I too am a Christian."
Tears glistened in Niger's eyes that moment. He was silent for a while; then, raising his hands, he said,—
"I thank Thee, O Christ, for having taken the beam from eyes which are the dearest on earth to me."
Then he embraced the head of Vinicius, and, weeping from happiness, fell to kissing his forehead. A moment later, Petronius appeared, bringing Nazarius.
"Good news!" cried he, while still at a distance.
Indeed, the news was good. First, Glaucus the physician guaranteed Lygia's life, though she had the same prison fever of which, in the Tullianum and other dungeons, hundreds of people were dying daily. As to the guards and the man who tried corpses with red-hot iron, there was not the least difficulty. Attys, the assistant, was satisfied also.
"We made openings in the coffin to let the sick woman breathe," said Nazarius. "The only danger is that she may groan or speak as we pass the pretorians. But she is very weak, and is lying with closed eyes since early morning. Besides, Glaucus will give her a sleeping draught prepared by himself from drugs brought by me purposely from the city. The cover will not be nailed to the coffin; ye will raise it easily and take the patient to the litter. We will place in the coffin a long bag of sand, which ye will provide."
Vinicius, while hearing these words, was as pale as linen; but he listened with such attention that he seemed to divine at a glance what Nazarius had to say.
"Will they carry out other bodies from the prison?" inquired Petronius.
"About twenty died last night, and before evening more will be dead," said the youth. "We must go with a whole company, but we will delay and drop into the rear. At the first corner my comrade will get lame purposely. In that way we shall remain behind the others considerably. Ye will wait for us at the small temple of Libitina. May God give a night as dark as possible!"
"He will," said Niger. "Last evening was bright, and then a sudden storm came. To-day the sky is clear, but since morning it is sultry. Every night now there will be wind and rain."
"Will ye go without torches?" inquired Vinicius.
"The torches are carried only in advance. In every event, be near the temple of Libitina at dark, though usually we carry out the corpses only just before midnight."
They stopped. Nothing was to be heard save the hurried breathing of Vinicius. Petronius turned to him,—
"I said yesterday that it would be best were we both to stay at home, but now I see that I could not stay. Were it a question of flight, there would be need of the greatest caution; but since she will be borne out as a corpse, it seems that not the least suspicion will enter the head of any one."
"True, true!" answered Vinicius. "I must be there. I will take her from the coffin myself."
"Once she is in my house at Corioli, I answer for her," said Niger. Conversation stopped here. Niger returned to his men at the inn. Nazarius took a purse of gold under his tunic and went to the prison. For Vinicius began a day filled with alarm, excitement, disquiet, and hope.
"The undertaking ought to succeed, for it is well planned," said Petronius. "It was impossible to plan better. Thou must feign suffering, and wear a dark toga. Do not desert the amphitheatre. Let people see thee. All is so fixed that there cannot be failure. But—art thou perfectly sure of thy manager?"
"He is a Christian," replied Vinicius.
Petronius looked at him with amazement, then shrugged his shoulders, and said, as if in soliloquy,—
"By Pollux! how it spreads, and commands people's souls. Under such terror as the present, men would renounce straightway all the gods of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Still, this is wonderful! By Pollux! if I believed that anything depended on our gods, I would sacrifice six white bullocks to each of them, and twelve to Capitoline Jove. Spare no promises to thy Christ."
"I have given Him my soul," said Vinicius.
And they parted. Petronius returned to his cubiculum; but Vinicius went to look from a distance at the prison, and thence betook himself to the slope of the Vatican hill,—to that hut of the quarryman where he had received baptism from the hands of the Apostle. It seemed to him that Christ would hear him more readily there than in any other place; so when he found it, he threw himself on the ground and exerted all the strength of his suffering soul in prayer for mercy, and so forgot himself that he remembered not where he was or what he was doing. In the afternoon he was roused by the sound of trumpets which came from the direction of Nero's Circus. He went out of the hut, and gazed around with eyes which were as if just opened from sleep.
It was hot; the stillness was broken at intervals by the sound of brass and continually by the ceaseless noise of grasshoppers. The air had become sultry, the sky was still clear over the city, but near the Sabine Hills dark clouds were gathering at the edge of the horizon.
Vinicius went home. Petronius was waiting for him in the atrium.
"I have been on the Palatine," said he. "I showed myself there purposely, and even sat down at dice. There is a feast at the house of Vinicius this evening; I promised to go, but only after midnight, saying that I must sleep before that hour. In fact I shall be there, and it would be well wert thou to go also."
"Are there no tidings from Niger or Nazarius?" inquired Vinicius.
"No; we shall see them only at midnight. Hast noticed that a storm is threatening?"
"To-morrow there is to be an exhibition of crucified Christians, but perhaps rain will prevent it."
Then he drew nearer and said, touching his nephew's shoulder,—"But thou wilt not see her on the cross; thou wilt see her only in Corioli. By Castor! I would not give the moment in which we free her for all the gems in Rome. The evening is near."
In truth the evening was near, and darkness began to encircle the city earlier than usual because clouds covered the whole horizon. With the coming of night heavy rain fell, which turned into steam on the stones warmed by the heat of the day, and filled the streets of the city with mist. After that came a lull, then brief violent showers.
"Let us hurry!" said Vinicius at last; "they may carry bodies from the prison earlier because of the storm."
"It is time!" said Petronius.
And taking Gallic mantles with hoods, they passed through the garden door to the street. Petronius had armed himself with a short Roman knife called sicca, which he took always during night trips.
The city was empty because of the storm. From time to time lightning rent the clouds, illuminating with its glare the fresh walls of houses newly built or in process of building and the wet flag-stones with which the streets were paved. At last a flash came, when they saw, after a rather long road, the mound on which stood the small temple of Libitina, and at the foot of the mound a group of mules and horses.
"Niger!" called Vinicius, in a low voice.
"I am here, lord," said a voice in the rain.
"Is everything ready?"
"It is. We were here at dark. But hide yourselves under the rampart, or ye will be drenched. What a storm! Hail will fall, I think."
In fact Niger's fear was justified, for soon hail began to fall, at first fine, then larger and more frequent. The air grew cold at once. While standing under the rampart, sheltered from the wind and icy missiles, they conversed in low voices.
"Even should some one see us," said Niger, "there will be no suspicion; we look like people waiting for the storm to pass. But I fear that they may not bring the bodies out till morning."
"The hail-storm will not last," said Petronius. "We must wait even till daybreak."
They waited, listening to hear the sound of the procession. The hail-storm passed, but immediately after a shower began to roar. At times the wind rose, and brought from the "Putrid Pits" a dreadful odor of decaying bodies, buried near the surface and carelessly.
"I see a light through the mist," said Niger,—"one, two, three,—those are torches. See that the mules do not snort," said he, turning to the men.
"They are coming!" said Petronius.
The lights were growing more and more distinct. After a time it was possible to see torches under the quivering flames.
Niger made the sign of the cross, and began to pray. Meanwhile the gloomy procession drew nearer, and halted at last in front of the temple of Libitina. Petronius, Vinicius, and Niger pressed up to the rampart in silence, not knowing why the halt was made. But the men had stopped only to cover their mouths and faces with cloths to ward off the stifling stench which at the edge of the "Putrid Pits" was simply unendurable; then they raised the biers with coffins and moved on. Only one coffin stopped before the temple. Vinicius sprang toward it, and after him Petronius, Niger, and two British slaves with the litter.
But before they had reached it in the darkness, the voice of Nazarius was heard, full of pain,—
"Lord, they took her with Ursus to the Esquiline prison. We are carrying another body! They removed her before midnight."
Petronius, when he had returned home, was gloomy as a storm, and did not even try to console Vinicius. He understood that to free Lygia from the Esquiline dungeons was not to be dreamed of. He divined that very likely she had been taken from the Tullianum so as not to die of fever and escape the amphitheatre assigned to her. But for this very reason she was watched and guarded more carefully than others. From the bottom of his soul Petronius was sorry for her and Vinicius, but he was wounded also by the thought that for the first time in life he had not succeeded, and for the first time was beaten in a struggle.
"Fortune seems to desert me," said he to himself, "but the gods are mistaken if they think that I will accept such a life as his, for example."
Here he turned toward Vinicius, who looked at him with staring eyes. "What is the matter? Thou hast a fever," said Petronius.
But Vinicius answered with a certain strange, broken, halting voice, like that of a sick child,—"But I believe that He—can restore her to me."
Above the city the last thunders of the storm had ceased.
THREE days' rain, an exceptional phenomenon in Rome during summer, and hail falling in opposition to the natural order, not only in the day, but even at night, interrupted the spectacles. People were growing alarmed. A failure of grapes was predicted, and when on a certain afternoon a thunderbolt melted the bronze statue of Ceres on the Capitol, sacrifices were ordered in the temple of Jupiter Salvator. The priests of Ceres spread a report that the anger of the gods was turned on the city because of the too hasty punishment of Christians; hence crowds began to insist that the spectacles be given without reference to weather. Delight seized all Rome when the announcement was made at last that the ludus would begin again after three days' interval.
Meanwhile beautiful weather returned. The amphitheatre was filled at daybreak with thousands of people. Caesar came early with the vestals and the court. The spectacle was to begin with a battle among the Christians, who to this end were arrayed as gladiators and furnished with all kinds of weapons which served gladiators by profession in offensive and defensive struggles. But here came disappointment. The Christians threw nets, darts, tridents, and swords on the arena, embraced and encouraged one another to endurance in view of torture and death. At this deep indignation and resentment seized the hearts of the multitude. Some reproached the Christians with cowardice and pusillanimity; others asserted that they refused to fight through hatred of the people, so as to deprive them of that pleasure which the sight of bravery produces. Finally, at command of Caesar, real gladiators were let out, who despatched in one twinkle the kneeling and defenceless victims.
When these bodies were removed, the spectacle was a series of mythologic pictures,—Caesar's own idea. The audience saw Hercules blazing in living fire on Mount Oeta. Vinicius had trembled at the thought that the role of Hercules might be intended for Ursus; but evidently the turn of Lygia's faithful servant had not come, for on the pile some other Christian was burning,—a man quite unknown to Vinicius. In the next picture Chilo, whom Caesar would not excuse from attendance, saw acquaintances. The death of Daedalus was represented, and also that of Icarus. In the role of Daedalus appeared Euricius, that old man who had given Chilo the sign of the fish; the role of Icarus was taken by his son, Quartus. Both were raised aloft with cunning machinery, and then hurled suddenly from an immense height to the arena. Young Quartus fell so near Caesar's podium that he spattered with blood not only the external ornaments but the purple covering spread over the front of the podium. Chilo did not see the fall, for he closed his eyes; but he heard the dull thump of the body, and when after a time he saw blood there close to him, he came near fainting a second time.
The pictures changed quickly. The shameful torments of maidens violated before death by gladiators dressed as wild beasts, delighted the hearts of the rabble. They saw priestesses of Cybele and Ceres, they saw the Danaides, they saw Dirce and Pasiphae; finally they saw young girls, not mature yet, torn asunder by wild horses. Every moment the crowd applauded new ideas of Nero, who, proud of them, and made happy by plaudits, did not take the emerald from his eye for one instant while looking at white bodies torn with iron, and the convulsive quivering of victims.
Pictures were given also from the history of the city. After the maidens they saw Mucius Scaevola, whose hand fastened over a fire to a tripod filled the amphitheatre with the odor of burnt flesh; but this man, like the real Scaevola, remained without a groan, his eyes raised and the murmur of prayer on his blackening lips. When he had expired and his body was dragged to the spoliarium, the usual midday interlude followed. Caesar with the vestals and the Augustians left the amphitheatre, and withdrew to an immense scarlet tent erected purposely; in this was prepared for him and the guests a magnificent prandium. The spectators for the greater part followed his example, and, streaming out, disposed themselves in picturesque groups around the tent, to rest their limbs wearied from long sitting, and enjoy the food which, through Caesar's favor, was served by slaves to them. Only the most curious descended to the arena itself, and, touching with their fingers lumps of sand held together by blood, conversed, as specialists and amateurs, of that which had happened and of that which was to follow. Soon even these went away, lest they might be late for the feast; only those few were left who stayed not through curiosity, but sympathy for the coming victims. Those concealed themselves behind seats or in the lower places.
Meanwhile the arena was levelled, and slaves began to dig holes one near the other in rows throughout the whole circuit from side to side, so that the last row was but a few paces distant from Caesar's podium. From outside came the murmur of people, shouts and plaudits, while within they were preparing in hot haste for new tortures. The cunicula were opened simultaneously, and in all passages leading to the arena were urged forward crowds of Christians naked and carrying crosses on their shoulders. The whole arena was filled with them. Old men, bending under the weight of wooden beams, ran forward; at the side of these went men in the prime of life, women with loosened hair behind which they strove to hide their nakedness, small boys, and little children. The crosses, for the greater part, as well as the victims, were wreathed with flowers. The servants of the amphitheatre beat the unfortunates with clubs, forcing them to lay down their crosses near the holes prepared, and stand themselves there in rows. Thus were to perish those whom executioners had had no chance to drive out as food for dogs and wild beasts the first day of the games. Black slaves seized the victims, laid them face upward on the wood, and fell to nailing their hands hurriedly and quickly to the arms of the crosses, so that people returning after the interlude might find all the crosses standing. The whole amphitheatre resounded with the noise of hammers which echoed through all the rows, went out to the space surrounding the amphitheatre, and into the tent where Caesar was entertaining his suite and the vestals. There he drank wine, bantered with Chilo, and whispered strange words in the ears of the priestesses of Vesta; but on the arena the work was seething,—nails were going into the hands and feet of the Christians; shovels moved quickly, filling the holes in which the crosses had been planted.
Among the new victims whose turn was to come soon was Crispus. The lions had not had time to rend him; hence he was appointed to the cross. He, ready at all times for death, was delighted with the thought that his hour was approaching. He seemed another man, for his emaciated body was wholly naked,—only a girdle of ivy encircled his hips, on his head was a garland of roses. But in his eyes gleamed always that same exhaustless energy; that same fanatical stern face gazed from beneath the crown of roses. Neither had his heart changed; for, as once in the cuniculum he had threatened with the wrath of God his brethren sewed up in the skins of wild beasts, so to-day he thundered in place of consoling them.
"Thank the Redeemer," said Crispus, "that He permits you to die the same death that He Himself died. Maybe a part of your sins will be remitted for this cause; but tremble, since justice must be satisfied, and there cannot be one reward for the just and the wicked."
His words were accompanied by the sound of the hammers nailing the hands and feet of victims. Every moment more crosses were raised on the arena; but he, turning to the crowd standing each man by his own cross, continued,—
"I see heaven open, but I see also the yawning abyss. I know not what account of my life to give the Lord, though I have believed, and hated evil. I fear, not death, but resurrection; I fear, not torture, but judgment, for the day of wrath is at hand."
At that moment was heard from between the nearest rows some voice, calm and solemn,—
"Not the day of wrath, but of mercy, the day of salvation and happiness; for I say that Christ will gather you in, will comfort you and seat you at His right hand. Be confident, for heaven is opening before you."
At these words all eyes were turned to the benches; even those who were hanging on the crosses raised their pale, tortured faces, and looked toward the man who was speaking.
But he went to the barrier surrounding the arena, and blessed them with the sign of the cross.
Crispus stretched out his arm as if to thunder at him; but when he saw the man's face, he dropped his arm, the knees bent under him, and his lips whispered, "Paul the Apostle!"
To the great astonishment of the servants of the Circus, all of those who were not nailed to the crosses yet knelt down. Paul turned to Crispus and said,
"Threaten them not, Crispus, for this day they will be with thee in paradise. It is thy thought that they may be condemned. But who will condemn?
"Will God, who gave His Son for them? Will Christ, who died for their salvation, condemn when they die for His name? And how is it possible that He who loves can condemn? Who will accuse the chosen of God? Who will say of this blood, 'It is cursed'?"
"I have hated evil," said the old priest.
"Christ's command to love men was higher than that to hate evil, for His religion is not hatred, but love."
"I have sinned in the hour of death," answered Crispus, beating his breast. The manager of the seats approached the Apostle, and inquired,
"Who art thou, speaking to the condemned?"
"A Roman citizen," answered Paul, calmly. Then, turning to Crispus, he said: "Be confident, for to-day is a day of grace; die in peace, O servant of God."
The black men approached Crispus at that moment to place him on the cross; but he looked around once again, and cried,—
"My brethren, pray for me!"
His face had lost its usual sternness; his stony features had taken an expression of peace and sweetness. He stretched his arms himself along the arms of the cross, to make the work easier, and, looking directly into heaven, began to pray earnestly. He seemed to feel nothing; for when the nails entered his hands, not the least quiver shook his body, nor on his face did there appear any wrinkle of pain. He prayed when they raised the cross and trampled the earth around it. Only when crowds began to fill the amphitheatre with shouts and laughter did his brows frown somewhat, as if in anger that a pagan people were disturbing the calm and peace of a sweet death.
But all the crosses had been raised, so that in the arena there stood as it were a forest, with people hanging on the trees. On the arms of the crosses and on the heads of the martyrs fell the gleam of the sun; but on the arena was a deep shadow, forming a kind of black involved grating through which glittered the golden sand. That was a spectacle in which the whole delight of the audience consisted in looking at a lingering death. Never before had men seen such a density of crosses. The arena was packed so closely that the servants squeezed between them only with effort. On the edges were women especially; but Crispus, as a leader, was raised almost in front of Caesar's podium, on an immense cross, wreathed below with honeysuckle. None of the victims had died yet, but some of those fastened earlier had fainted. No one groaned; no one called for mercy. Some were hanging with head inclined on one arm, or dropped on the breast, as if seized by sleep; some were as if in meditation; some, looking toward heaven, were moving their lips quietly. In this terrible forest of crosses, among those crucified bodies, in that silence of victims there was something ominous. The people who, filled by the feast and gladsome, had returned to the Circus with shouts, became silent, not knowing on which body to rest their eyes, or what to think of the spectacle. The nakedness of strained female forms roused no feeling. They did not make the usual bets as to who would die first,—a thing done generally when there was even the smallest number of criminals on the arena. It seemed that Caesar himself was bored, for he turned lazily and with drowsy expression to arrange his necklace.
At that moment Crispus, who was hanging opposite, and who, like a man in a faint or dying, had kept his eyes closed, opened them and looked at Caesar. His face assumed an expression so pitiless, and his eyes flashed with such fire, that the Augustians whispered to one another, pointing at him with their fingers, and at last Caesar himself turned to that cross, and placed the emerald to his eye sluggishly.
Perfect silence followed. The eyes of the spectators were fixed on Crispus, who strove to move his right hand, as if to tear it from the tree.
After a while his breast rose, his ribs were visible, and he cried: "Matricide! woe to thee!"
The Augustians, hearing this mortal insult flung at the lord of the world in presence of thousands, did not dare to breathe. Chilo was half dead. Caesar trembled, and dropped the emerald from his fingers. The people, too, held the breath in their breasts. The voice of Crispus was heard, as it rose in power, throughout the amphitheatre,—
"Woe to thee, murderer of wife and brother! woe to thee, Antichrist. The abyss is opening beneath thee, death is stretching its hands to thee, the grave is waiting for thee. Woe, living corpse, for in terror shalt thou die and be damned to eternity!"
Unable to tear his hand from the cross, Crispus strained awfully. He was terrible,—a living skeleton; unbending as predestination, he shook his white beard over Nero's podium, scattering, as he nodded, rose leaves from the garland on his head.
"Woe to thee, murderer! Thy measure is surpassed, and thy hour is at hand!"
Here he made one more effort. It seemed for a moment that he would free his hand from the cross and hold it in menace above Caesar; but all at once his emaciated arms extended still more, his body settled down, his head fell on his breast, and he died.
In that forest of crosses the weakest began also the sleep of eternity.
"LORD," said Chilo, "the sea is like olive oil, the waves seem to sleep. Let us go to Achaea. There the glory of Apollo is awaiting thee, crowns and triumph are awaiting thee, the people will deify thee, the gods will receive thee as a guest, their own equal; but here, O lord—"
And he stopped, for his lower lip began to quiver so violently that his words passed into meaningless sounds.
"We will go when the games are over," replied Nero. "I know that even now some call the Christians innoxia corpora. If I were to go, all would repeat this. What dost thou fear?"
Then he frowned, but looked with inquiring glance at Chilo, as if expecting an answer, for he only feigned cool blood. At the last exhibition he himself feared the words of Crispus; and when he had returned to the Palatine, he could not sleep from rage and shame, but also from fear.
Then Vestinius, who heard their conversation in silence, looked around, and said in a mysterious voice,—
"Listen, lord, to this old man. There is something strange in those Christians. Their deity gives them an easy death, but he may be vengeful."
"It was not I who arranged the games, but Tigellinus," replied Nero, quickly.
"True! it was I," added Tigellinus, who heard Caesar's answer, "and I jeer at all Christian gods. Vestinius is a bladder full of prejudices, and this valiant Greek is ready to die of terror at sight of a hen with feathers up in defence of her chickens."
"True!" said Nero; "but henceforth give command to cut the tongues out of Christians and stop their mouths."
"Fire will stop them, O divinity."
"Woe is me!" groaned Chilo.
But Caesar, to whom the insolent confidence of Tigellinus gave courage, began to laugh, and said, pointing to the old Greek,—
"See how the descendant of Achilles looks!"
Indeed Chilo looked terribly. The remnant of hair on his head had grown white; on his face was fixed an expression of some immense dread, alarm, and oppression. He seemed at times, too, as if stunned and only half conscious. Often he gave no answer to questions; then again he fell into anger, and became so insolent that the Augustians preferred not to attack him. Such a moment had come to him then.
"Do what ye like with me, but I will not go to the games!" cried he, in desperation.
Nero looked at him for a while, and, turning to Tigellinus, said,—
"Have a care that this Stoic is near me in the gardens. I want to see what impression our torches will make on him."
Chilo was afraid of the threat which quivered in Caesar's voice. "O lord," said he, "I shall see nothing, for I cannot see in the night-time."
"The night will be as bright as day," replied Caesar, with a threatening laugh.
Turning then to the Augustians, Nero talked about races which he intended to have when the games were over.
Petronius approached Chilo, and asked, pushing him on the shoulder,—
"Have I not said that thou wouldst not hold out?"
"I wish to drink," said Chilo, stretching his trembling hand toward a goblet of wine; but he was unable to raise it to his lips. Seeing this, Vestinius took the vessel; but later he drew near, and inquired with curious and frightened face,—
"Are the Furies pursuing thee?"
The old man looked at him a certain time with open lips, as if not understanding what he said. But Vestinius repeated,
"Are the Furies pursuing thee?"
"No," answered Chilo; "but night is before me."
"How, night? May the gods have mercy on thee. How night?"
"Night, ghastly and impenetrable, in which something is moving, something coming toward me; but I know not what it is, and I am terrified."
"I have always been sure that there are witches. Dost thou not dream of something?"
"No, for I do not sleep. I did not think that they would be punished thus."
"Art thou sorry for them?"
"Why do ye shed so much blood? Hast heard what that one said from the cross? Woe to us!"
"I heard," answered Vestinius, in a low voice. "But they are incendiaries."
"And enemies of the human race."