"Farewell, Marcus!" answered Lygia; then she added in a lower voice: "May Christ go with thee, and open thy soul to Paul's word."
He was glad at heart that she was concerned about his becoming a Christian soon; hence he answered,—
"Ocelle mi! let it be as thou sayest. Paul prefers to travel with my people, but he is with me, and will be to me a companion and master. Draw aside thy veil, my delight, let me see thee before my journey. Why art thou thus hidden?"
She raised the veil, and showed him her bright face and her wonderfully smiling eyes, inquiring,—
"Is the veil bad?"
And her smile had in it a little of maiden opposition; but Vinicius, while looking at her with delight, answered,—
"Bad for my eyes, which till death would look on thee only."
Then he turned to Ursus and said,—
"Ursus, guard her as the sight in thy eye, for she is my domina as well as thine."
Seizing her hand then, he pressed it with his lips, to the great astonishment of the crowd, who could not understand signs of such honor from a brilliant Augustian to a maiden arrayed in simple garments, almost those of a slave.
Then he departed quickly, for Caesar's whole retinue had pushed forward considerably. The Apostle Peter blessed him with a slight sign of the cross; but the kindly Ursus began at once to glorify him, glad that his young mistress listened eagerly and was grateful to him for those praises.
The retinue moved on and hid itself in clouds of golden dust; they gazed long after it, however, till Demas the miller approached, he for whom Ursus worked in the night-time. When he had kissed the Apostle's hand, he entreated them to enter his dwelling for refreshment, saying that it was near the Emporium, that they must be hungry and wearied since they had spent the greater part of the day at the gate.
They went with him, and, after rest and refreshment in his house, returned to the Trans-Tiber only toward evening. Intending to cross the river by the AEmilian bridge, they passed through the Clivus Publicus, going over the Aventine, between the temples of Diana and Mercury. From that height the Apostle looked on the edifices about him, and on those vanishing in the distance. Sunk in silence he meditated on the immensity and dominion of that city, to which he had come to announce the word of God. Hitherto he had seen the rule of Rome and its legions in various lands through which he had wandered, but they were single members as it were of the power, which that day for the first time he had seen impersonated in the form of Nero. That city, immense, predatory, ravenous, unrestrained, rotten to the marrow of its bones, and unassailable in its preterhuman power; that Caesar, a fratricide, a matricide, a wife-slayer, after him dragged a retinue of bloody spectres no less in number than his court. That profligate, that buffoon, but also lord of thirty legions, and through them of the whole earth; those courtiers covered with gold and scarlet, uncertain of the morrow, but mightier meanwhile than kings,—all this together seemed a species of hellish kingdom of wrong and evil. In his simple heart he marvelled that God could give such inconceivable almightiness to Satan, that He could yield the earth to him to knead, overturn, and trample it, to squeeze blood and tears from it, to twist it like a whirlwind, to storm it like a tempest, to consume it like a flame. And his Apostle-heart was alarmed by those thoughts, and in spirit he spoke to the Master: "O Lord, how shall I begin in this city, to which Thou hast sent me? To it belong seas and lands, the beasts of the field, and the creatures of the water; it owns other kingdoms and cities, and thirty legions which guard them; but I, O Lord, am a fisherman from a lake! How shall I begin, and how shall I conquer its malice?"
Thus speaking he raised his gray, trembling head toward heaven, praying and exclaiming from the depth of his heart to his Divine Master, himself full of sadness and fear.
Meanwhile his prayer was interrupted by Lygia.
"The whole city is as if on fire," said she.
In fact the sun went down that day in a marvellous manner. Its immense shield had sunk half-way behind the Janiculum, the whole expanse of heaven was filled with a red gleam. From the place on which they were standing, Peter's glance embraced large expanses. Somewhat to the right they saw the long extending walls of the Circus Maximus; above it the towering palaces of the Palatine; and directly in front of them, beyond the Forum Boarium and the Velabrum, the summit of the Capitol, with the temple of Jupiter. But the walls and the columns and the summits of the temples were as if sunk in that golden and purple gleam. The parts of the river visible from afar flowed as if in blood; and as the sun sank moment after moment behind the mountain, the gleam became redder and redder, more and more like a conflagration, and it increased and extended till finally it embraced the seven hills, from which it extended to the whole region about.
"The whole city seems on fire!" repeated Lygia.
Peter shaded his eyes with his hand, and said—
"The wrath of God is upon it."
VINCIUS to LYGIA:
"The slave Phlegon, by whom I send this letter, is a Christian; hence he will be one of those to receive freedom from thy hands, my dearest. He is an old servant of our house; so I can write to thee with full confidence, and without fear that the letter will fall into other hands than thine. I write from Laurentum, where we have halted because of heat. Otho owned here a lordly villa, which on a time he presented to Poppaea; and she, though divorced from him, saw fit to retain the magnificent present. When I think of the women who surround me now and of thee, it seems to me that from the stones hurled by Deucalion there must have risen people of various kinds, altogether unlike one another, and that thou art of those born of crystal.
"I admire and love thee from my whole soul, and wish to speak only of thee; hence I am forced to constrain myself to write of our journey, of that which happens to me, and of news of the court. Well, Caesar was the guest of Poppaea, who prepared for him secretly a magnificent reception. She invited only a few of his favorites, but Petronius and I were among them. After dinner we sailed in golden boats over the sea, which was as calm as if it had been sleeping, and as blue as thy eyes, O divine one. We ourselves rowed, for evidently it flattered the Augusta that men of consular dignity, or their sons, were rowing for her. Caesar, sitting at the rudder in a purple toga, sang a hymn in honor of the sea; this hymn he had composed the night before, and with Diodorus had arranged music to it. In other boats he was accompanied by slaves from India who knew how to play on sea-shells while round about appeared numerous dolphins, as if really enticed from Amphitrite's depths by music. Dost thou know what I was doing? I was thinking of thee, and yearning. I wanted to gather in that sea, that calm, and that music, and give the whole to thee.
"Dost thou wish that we should live in some place at the seashore far from Rome, my Augusta? I have land in Sicily, on which there is an almond forest which has rose-colored blossoms in spring, and this forest goes down so near the sea that the tips of the branches almost touch the water. There I will love thee and magnify Paul's teaching, for I know now that it will not be opposed to love and happiness. Dost thou wish?—But before I hear thy answer I will write further of what happened on the boat.
"Soon the shore was far behind. We saw a sail before us in the distance, and all at once a dispute rose as to whether it was a common fishing-boat or a great ship from Ostia. I was the first to discover what it was, and then the Augusta said that for my eyes evidently nothing was hidden, and, dropping the veil over her face on a sudden, she inquired if I could recognize her thus. Petronius answered immediately that it was not possible to see even the sun behind a cloud; but she said, as if in jest, that love alone could blind such a piercing glance as mine, and, naming various women of the court, she fell to inquiring and guessing which one I loved. I answered calmly, but at last she mentioned thy name. Speaking of thee, she uncovered her face again, and looked at me with evil and inquiring eyes.
"I feel real gratitude to Petronius, who turned the boat at that moment, through which general attention was taken from me; for had I heard hostile or sneering words touching thee, I should not have been able to hide my anger, and should have had to struggle with the wish to break the head of that wicked, malicious woman with my oar. Thou rememberest the incident at the pond of Agrippa about which I told thee at the house of Linus on the eve of my departure. Petronius is alarmed on my account, and to-day again he implored me not to offend the Augusta's vanity. But Petronius does not understand me, and does not realize that, apart from thee, I know no pleasure or beauty or love, and that for Poppaea I feel only disgust and contempt. Thou hast changed my soul greatly,—so greatly that I should not wish now to return to my former life. But have no fear that harm may reach me here. Poppaea does not love me, for she cannot love any one, and her desires arise only from anger at Caesar, who is under her influence yet, and who is even capable of loving her yet; still, he does not spare her, and does not hide from her his transgressions and shamelessness.
"I will tell thee, besides, something which should pacify thee. Peter told me in parting not to fear Caesar, since a hair would not fall from my head; and I believe him. Some voice in my soul says that every word of his must be accomplished; that since he blessed our love, neither Caesar, nor all the powers of Hades, nor predestination itself, could take thee from me, O Lygia. When I think of this I am as happy as if I were in heaven, which alone is calm and happy. But what I say of heaven and predestination may offend thee, a Christian. Christ has not washed me yet, but my heart is like an empty chalice, which Paul of Tarsus is to fill with the sweet doctrine professed by thee,—the sweeter for me that it is thine. Thou, divine one, count even this as a merit to me that I have emptied it of the liquid with which I had filled it before, and that I do not withdraw it, but hold it forth as a thirsty man standing at a pure spring. Let me find favor in thy eyes.
"In Antium my days and nights will pass in listening to Paul, who acquired such influence among my people on the first day that they surround him continually, seeing in him not only a wonder-worker, but a being almost supernatural. Yesterday I saw gladness on his face, and when I asked what he was doing, he answered, 'I am sowing!' Petronius knows that he is among my people, and wishes to see him, as does Seneca also, who heard of him from Gallo.
"But the stars are growing pale, O Lygia, and 'Lucifer' of the morning is bright with growing force. Soon the dawn will make the sea ruddy; all is sleeping round about, but I am thinking of thee and loving thee. Be greeted together with the morning dawn, sponsa mea!"
VINICIUS to LYGIA:
"Hast thou ever been in Antium, my dear one, with Aulus and Pomponia? If not, I shall be happy when I show this place to thee. All the way from Laurentum there is a line of villas along the seashore; and Antium itself is an endless succession of palaces and porticos, whose columns in fair weather see themselves in the water. I, too, have a residence here right over the sea, with an olive garden and a forest of cypresses behind the villa, and when I think that the place will sometime be thine, its marble seems whiter to me, its groves more shady, and the sea bluer. Oh, Lygia, how good it is to live and love! Old Menikles, who manages the villa, planted irises on the ground under myrtles, and at sight of them the house of Aulus, the impluvium, and the garden in which I sat near thee, came to my mind. The irises will remind thee, too, of thy childhood's home; therefore I am certain that thou wilt love Antium and this villa.
"Immediately after our arrival I talked long with Paul at dinner. We spoke of thee, and afterward he taught. I listened long, and I say only this, that even could I write like Petronius, I should not have power to explain everything which passed through my soul and my mind. I had not supposed that there could be such happiness in this world, such beauty and peace of which hitherto people had no knowledge. But I retain all this for conversation with thee, for at the first free moment I shall be in Rome.
"How could the earth find place at once for the Apostle Peter, Paul of Tarsus, and Caesar? Tell me this. I ask because I passed the evening after Paul's teaching with Nero, and dost thou know what I heard there? Well, to begin with, he read his poem on the destruction of Troy, and complained that never had he seen a burning city. He envied Priam, and called him happy just for this, that he saw the conflagration and ruin of his birthplace. Whereupon Tigellinus said, 'Speak a word, O divinity, I will take a torch, and before the night passes thou shalt see blazing Antium.' But Caesar called him a fool. 'Where,' asked he, 'should I go to breathe the sea air, and preserve the voice with which the gods have gifted me, and which men say I should preserve for the benefit of mankind? Is it not Rome that injures me; is it not the exhalations of the Subura and the Esquiline which add to my hoarseness? Would not the palaces of Rome present a spectacle a hundredfold more tragic and magnificent than Antium?' Here all began to talk, and to say what an unheard tragedy the picture of a city like that would be, a city which had conquered the world turned now into a heap of gray ashes. Caesar declared that then his poem would surpass the songs of Homer, and he began to describe how he would rebuild the city, and how coming ages would admire his achievements, in presence of which all other human works would be petty. 'Do that! do that!' exclaimed the drunken company. 'I must have more faithful and more devoted friends,' answered he.
"I confess that I was alarmed at once when I heard this, for thou art in Rome, carissima. I laugh now at that alarm, and I think that Caesar and his friends, though mad, would not dare to permit such insanity. Still, see how a man fears for his love; I should prefer that the house of Linus were not in that narrow Trans-Tiber alley, and in a part occupied by common people, who are less considered in such a case. For me, the very palaces on the Palatine would not be a residence fit for thee; hence I should wish also that nothing were lacking thee of those ornaments and comforts to which thou art accustomed from childhood.
"Go to the house of Aulus, my Lygia. I have thought much here over this matter. If Caesar were in Rome, news of thy return might reach the Palatine through slaves, turn attention to thee, and bring persecution, because thou didst dare to act against the will of Caesar. But he will remain long in Antium, and before he returns slaves will have ceased to speak of thee. Linus and Ursus can be with thee. Besides, I live in hope that before Palatine sees Caesar, thou, my goddess, shalt be dwelling in thy own house on the Carinae. Blessed be the day, hour, and moment in which thou shalt cross my threshold; and if Christ, whom I am learning to accept, effects this, may His name be blessed also. I shall serve Him, and give life and blood for Him. I speak incorrectly; we shall serve Him, both of us, as long as the threads of life hold.
"I love thee and salute thee with my whole soul."
Unsus was taking water from a cistern, and while drawing up a double amphora, with a rope, was singing a strange Lygian song in an undertone, looking meanwhile with delighted eyes at Lygia and Vinicius, who, among the cypresses in Linus's garden, seemed as white as two statues. Their clothing was not moved by the least breeze. A golden and lily-colored twilight was sinking on the world while they were conversing in the calm of evening, each holding the other by the hand.
"May not some evil meet thee, Marcus, because thou hast left Antium without Caesar's knowledge?" asked Lygia.
"No, my dear," answered Vinicius. "Caesar announced that he would shut himself in for two days with Terpnos, and compose new songs. He acts thus frequently, and at such times neither knows nor remembers aught else. Moreover, what is Caesar to me since I am near thee and am looking at thee? I have yearned too much already, and these last nights sleep has left me. More than once, when I dozed from weariness, I woke on a sudden, with a feeling that danger was hanging over thee; at times I dreamed that the relays of horses which were to bear me from Antium to Rome were stolen,—horses with which I passed that road more swiftly than any of Caesar's couriers. Besides, I could not live longer without thee; I love thee too much for that, my dearest."
"I knew that thou wert coming. Twice Ursus ran out, at my request, to the Carinae, and inquired for thee at thy house. Linus laughed at me, and Ursus also."
It was, indeed, evident that she had expected him; for instead of her usual dark dress, she wore a soft white stola, out of whose beautiful folds her arms and head emerged like primroses out of snow. A few ruddy anemones ornamented her hair.
Vinicius pressed his lips to her hands; then they sat on the stone bench amidst wild grapevines, and inclining toward each other, were silent, looking at the twilight whose last gleams were reflected in their eyes.
The charm of the quiet evening mastered them completely.
"How calm it is here, and how beautiful the world is," said Vinicius, in a lowered voice. "The night is wonderfully still. I feel happier than ever in life before. Tell me, Lygia, what is this? Never have I thought that there could be such love. I thought that love was merely fire in the blood and desire; but now for the first time I see that it is possible to love with every drop of one's blood and every breath, and feel therewith such sweet and immeasurable calm as if Sleep and Death had put the soul to rest. For me this is something new. I look on this calmness of the trees, and it seems to be within me. Now I understand for the first time that there may be happiness of which people have not known thus far. Now I begin to understand why thou and Pomponia Graecina have such peace. Yes! Christ gives it."
At that moment Lygia placed her beautiful face on his shoulder and said,—"My dear Marcus—" But she was unable to continue. Joy, gratitude, and the feeling that at last she was free to love deprived her of voice, and her eyes were filled with tears of emotion.
Vinicius, embracing her slender form with his arm, drew her toward him and said,—"Lygia! May the moment be blessed in which I heard His name for the first time."
"I love thee, Marcus," said she then in a low voice.
Both were silent again, unable to bring words from their overcharged breasts. The last lily reflections had died on the cypresses, and the garden began to be silver-like from the crescent of the moon. After a while Vinicius said,
"I know. Barely had I entered here, barely had I kissed thy dear hands, when I read in thy eyes the question whether I had received the divine doctrine to which thou art attached, and whether I was baptized. No, I am not baptized yet; but knowest thou, my flower, why? Paul said to me: 'I have convinced thee that God came into the world and gave Himself to be crucified for its salvation; but let Peter wash thee in the fountain of grace, he who first stretched his hands over thee and blessed thee.' And I, my dearest, wish thee to witness my baptism, and I wish Pomponia to be my godmother. This is why I am not baptized yet, though I believe in the Saviour and in his teaching. Paul has convinced me, has converted me; and could it be otherwise? How was I not to believe that Christ came into the world, since he, who was His disciple, says so, and Paul, to whom He appeared? How was I not to believe that He was God, since He rose from the dead? Others saw Him in the city and on the lake and on the mountain; people saw Him whose lips have not known a lie. I began to believe this the first time I heard Peter in Ostrianum, for I said to myself even then: In the whole world any other man might lie rather than this one who says, 'I saw.' But I feared thy religion. It seemed to me that thy religion would take thee from me. I thought that there was neither wisdom nor beauty nor happiness in it. But to-day, when I know it, what kind of man should I be were I not to wish truth to rule the world instead of falsehood, love instead of hatred, virtue instead of crime, faithfulness instead of unfaithfulness, mercy instead of vengeance? What sort of man would he be who would not choose and wish the same? But your religion teaches this. Others desire justice also; but thy religion is the only one which makes man's heart just, and besides makes it pure, like thine and Pomponia's, makes it faithful, like thine and Pomponia's. I should be blind were I not to see this. But if in addition Christ God has promised eternal life, and has promised happiness as immeasurable as the all-might of God can give, what more can one wish? Were I to ask Seneca why he enjoins virtue, if wickedness brings more happiness, he would not be able to say anything sensible. But I know now that I ought to be virtuous, because virtue and love flow from Christ, and because, when death closes my eyes, I shall find life and happiness, I shall find myself and thee. Why not love and accept a religion which both speaks the truth and destroys death? Who would not prefer good to evil? I thought thy religion opposed to happiness; meanwhile Paul has convinced me that not only does it not take away, but that it gives. All this hardly finds a place in my head; but I feel that it is true, for I have never been so happy, neither could I be, had I taken thee by force and possessed thee in my house. Just see, thou hast said a moment since, 'I love thee,' and I could not have won these words from thy lips with all the might of Rome. O Lygia! Reason declares this religion divine, and the best; the heart feels it, and who can resist two such forces?"
Lygia listened, fixing on him her blue eyes, which in the light of the moon were like mystic flowers, and bedewed like flowers.
"Yes, Marcus, that is true!" said she, nestling her head more closely to his shoulder.
And at that moment they felt immensely happy, for they understood that besides love they were united by another power, at once sweet and irresistible, by which love itself becomes endless, not subject to change, deceit, treason, or even death. Their hearts were filled with perfect certainty that, no matter what might happen, they would not cease to love and belong to each other. For that reason an unspeakable repose flowed in on their souls. Vinicius felt, besides, that that love was not merely profound and pure, but altogether new,—such as the world had not known and could not give. In his head all was combined in this love,—Lygia, the teaching of Christ, the light of the moon resting calmly on the cypresses, and the still night,—so that to him the whole universe seemed filled with it.
After a while he said with a lowered and quivering voice: "Thou wilt be the soul of my soul, and the dearest in the world to me. Our hearts will beat together, we shall have one prayer and one gratitude to Christ. O my dear! To live together, to honor together the sweet God, and to know that when death comes our eyes will open again, as after a pleasant sleep, to a new light,—what better could be imagined? I only marvel that I did not understand this at first. And knowest thou what occurs to me now? That no one can resist this religion. In two hundred or three hundred years the whole world will accept it. People will forget Jupiter, and there will be no God except Christ, and no other temples but Christian. Who would not wish his own happiness? Ah! but I heard Paul's conversation with Petronius and dost thou know what Petronius said at the end? 'That is not for me'; but he could give no other answer."
"Repeat Paul's words to me," said Lygia.
"It was at my house one evening. Petronius began to speak playfully and to banter, as he does usually, whereupon Paul said to him: 'How canst thou deny, O wise Petronius, that Christ existed and rose from the dead, since thou wert not in the world at that time, but Peter and John saw Him, and I saw Him on the road to Damascus? Let thy wisdom show, first of all, then, that we are liars, and then only deny our testimony.' Petronius answered that he had no thought of denying, for he knew that many incomprehensible things were done, which trustworthy people affirmed. 'But the discovery of some new foreign god is one thing,' said he, 'and the reception of his teaching another. I have no wish to know anything which may deform life and mar its beauty. Never mind whether our gods are true or not; they are beautiful, their rule is pleasant for us, and we live without care.' 'Thou art willing to reject the religion of love, justice, and mercy through dread of the cares of life,' replied Paul; 'but think, Petronius, is thy life really free from anxieties? Behold, neither thou nor any man among the richest and most powerful knows when he falls asleep at night that he may not wake to a death sentence. But tell me, if Caesar professed this religion, which enjoins love and justice, would not thy happiness be more assured? Thou art alarmed about thy delight, but would not life be more joyous then? As to life's beauty and ornaments, if ye have reared so many beautiful temples and statues to evil, revengeful, adulterous, and faithless divinities, what would ye not do in honor of one God of truth and mercy? Thou art ready to praise thy lot, because thou art wealthy and living in luxury; but it was possible even in thy case to be poor and deserted, though coming of a great house, and then in truth it would have been better for thee if people confessed Christ. In Rome even wealthy parents, unwilling to toil at rearing children, cast them out of the house frequently; those children are called alumni. And chance might have made thee an alumnus, like one of those. But if parents live according to our religion, this cannot happen. And hadst thou, at manhood's years, married a woman of thy love, thy wish would be to see her faithful till death. Meanwhile look around, what happens among you, what vileness, what shame, what bartering in the faith of wives! Nay, ye yourselves are astonished when a woman appears whom ye call "univira" (of one husband). But I tell thee that those women who carry Christ in their hearts will not break faith with their husbands, just as Christian husbands will keep faith with their wives. But ye are neither sure of rulers nor fathers nor wives nor children nor servants. The whole world is trembling before you, and ye are trembling before your own slaves, for ye know that any hour may raise an awful war against your oppression, such a war as has been raised more than once. Though rich, thou art not sure that the command may not come to thee to-morrow to leave thy wealth; thou art young, but to-morrow it may be necessary for thee to die. Thou lovest, but treason is in wait for thee; thou art enamoured of villas and statues, but to-morrow power may thrust thee forth into the empty places of the Pandataria; thou hast thousands of servants, but to-morrow these servants may let thy blood flow. And if that be the case, how canst thou be calm and happy, how canst thou live in delight? But I proclaim love, and I proclaim a religion which commands rulers to love their subjects, masters their slaves, slaves to serve with love, to do justice and be merciful; and at last it promises happiness boundless as a sea without end. How, then, Petronius, canst thou say that that religion spoils life, since it corrects, and since thou thyself wouldst be a hundred times happier and more secure were it to embrace the world as Rome's dominion has embraced it?'
"Thus discussed Paul, and then Petronius said, 'That is not for me.' Feigning drowsiness, he went out, and when going added: 'I prefer my Eunice, O little Jew, but I should not wish to struggle with thee on the platform.' I listened to Paul's words with my whole soul, and when he spoke of our women, I magnified with all my heart that religion from which thou hast sprung as a lily from a rich field in springtime. And I thought then: There is Poppaea, who cast aside two husbands for Nero, there is Calvia Crispinilla, there is Nigidia, there are almost all whom I know, save only Pomponia; they trafficked with faith and with oaths, but she and my own one will not desert, will not deceive, and will not quench the fire, even though all in whom I place trust should desert and deceive me. Hence I said to thee in my soul, How can I show gratitude to thee, if not with love and honor? Didst thou feel that in Antium I spoke and conversed with thee all the time as if thou hadst been at my side? I love thee a hundred times more for having escaped me from Caesar's house. Neither do I care for Caesar's house any longer; I wish not its luxury and music, I wish only thee. Say a word, we will leave Rome to settle somewhere at a distance."
Without removing her head from his shoulder, Lygia, as if meditating, raised her eyes to the silver tops of the cypresses, and answered,—"Very well, Marcus. Thou hast written to me of Sicily, where Aulus wishes to settle in old age." And Vinieius interrupted her with delight.
"True, my dear! Our lands are adjacent. That is a wonderful coast, where the climate is sweeter and the nights still brighter than in Rome, odoriferous and transparent. There life and happiness are almost one and the same."
And he began then to dream of the future.
"There we may forget anxieties. In groves, among olive-trees, we shall walk and rest in the shade. O Lygia! what a life to love and cherish each other, to look at the sea together, to look at the sky together, to honor together a kind God, to do in peace what is just and true."
Both were silent, looking into the future; only he drew her more firmly toward him, and the knight's ring on his finger glittered meanwhile in the rays of the moon. In the part occupied by the poor toiling people, all were sleeping; no murmur broke the silence.
"Wilt thou permit me to see Pomponia?" asked Lygia.
"Yes, dear one. We will invite them to our house, or go to them ourselves. If thou wish, we can take Peter the Apostle. He is bowed down with age and work. Paul will visit us also,—he will convert Aulus Plautius; and as soldiers found colonies in distant lands, so we will found a colony of Christians."
Lygia raised her hand and, taking his palm, wished to press it to her lips; but he whispered, as if fearing to frighten happiness,—"No, Lygia, no! It is I who honor thee and exalt thee; give me thy hands."
"I love thee."
He had pressed his lips to her hands, white as jessamine, and for a time they heard only the beating of their own hearts. There was not the slightest movement in the air; the cypresses stood as motionless as if they too were holding breath in their breasts.
All at once the silence was broken by an unexpected thunder, deep, and as if coming from under the earth. A shiver ran through Lygia's body. Vinicius stood up, and said,—"Lions are roaring in the vivarium."
Both began to listen. Now the first thunder was answered by a second, a third, a tenth, from all sides and divisions of the city. In Rome several thousand lions were quartered at times in various arenas, and frequently in the night-time they approached the grating, and, leaning their gigantic heads against it, gave utterance to their yearning for freedom and the desert. Thus they began on this occasion, and, answering one another in the stillness of night, they filled the whole city with roaring. There was something so indescribably gloomy and terrible in those roars that Lygia, whose bright and calm visions of the future were scattered, listened with a straitened heart and with wonderful fear and sadness.
But Vinicius encircled her with his arm, and said,—"Fear not, dear one. The games are at hand, and all the vivaria are crowded."
Then both entered the house of Linus, accompanied by the thunder of lions, growing louder and louder.
IN Antium, meanwhile, Petronius gained new victories almost daily over courtiers vying with him for the favor of Caesar. The influence of Tigellinus had fallen completely. In Rome, when there was occasion to set aside men who seemed dangerous, to plunder their property or to settle political cases, to give spectacles astounding by their luxury and bad taste, or finally to satisfy the monstrous whims of Caesar, Tigellinus, as adroit, as he was ready for anything, became indispensable. But in Antium, among palaces reflected in the azure of the sea, Caesar led a Hellenic existence. From morning till evening Nero and his attendants read verses, discoursed on their structure and finish, were delighted with happy turns of expression, were occupied with music, the theatre,—in a word, exclusively with that which Grecian genius had invented, and with which it had beautified life. Under these conditions Petronius, incomparably more refined than Tigellinus and the other courtiers,—witty, eloquent, full of subtile feelings and tastes,—obtained pre-eminence of necessity. Caesar sought his society, took his opinion, asked for advice when he composed, and showed a more lively friendship than at any other time whatever. It seemed to courtiers that his influence had won a supreme triumph at last, that friendship between him and Caesar had entered on a period of certainty which would last for years. Even those who had shown dislike previously to the exquisite Epicurean, began now to crowd around him and vie for his favor. More than one was even sincerely glad in his soul that preponderance had come to a man who knew really what to think of a given person, who received with a sceptical smile the flattery of his enemies of yesterday, but who, either through indolence or culture, was not vengeful, and did not use his power to the detriment or destruction of others. There were moments when he might have destroyed even Tigellinus, but he preferred to ridicule him, and expose his vulgarity and want of refinement. In Rome the Senate drew breath, for no death sentence had been issued for a month and a half. It is true that in Antium and the city people told wonders of the refinement which the profligacy of Caesar and his favorite had reached, but every one preferred a refined Caesar to one brutalized in the hands of Tigellinus. Tigellinus himself lost his head, and hesitated whether or not to yield as conquered, for Caesar had said repeatedly that in all Rome and in his court there were only two spirits capable of understanding each other, two real Hellenes,—he and Petronius.
The amazing dexterity of Petronius confirmed people in the conviction that his influence would outlive every other. They did not see how Caesar could dispense with him,—with whom could he converse touching poetry, music, and comparative excellence; in whose eyes could he look to learn whether his creation was indeed perfect? Petronius, with his habitual indifference, seemed to attach no importance to his position. As usual, he was remiss, slothful, sceptical, and witty. He produced on people frequently the impression of a man who made light of them, of himself, of Caesar, of the whole world. At moments he ventured to criticise Caesar to his face, and when others judged that he was going too far, or simply preparing his own ruin, he was able to turn the criticism suddenly in such a way that it came out to his profit; he roused amazement in those present, and the conviction that there was no position from which he could not issue in triumph.
About a week after the return of Vinicius from Rome, Caesar read in a small circle an extract from his Troyad; when he had finished and the shouts of rapture had ended, Petronius, interrogated by a glance from Caesar, replied,—
"Common verses, fit for the fire."
The hearts of those present stopped beating from terror. Since the years of his childhood Nero had never heard such a sentence from any man. The face of Tigellinus was radiant with delight. But Vinicius grew pale, thinking that Petronius, who thus far had never been drunk, was drunk this time.
Nero, however, inquired in a honeyed voice, in which more or less deeply wounded vanity was quivering,—
"What defect dost thou find in them?"
"Do not believe them," said Petronius, attacking him, and pointing to those present; "they understand nothing. Thou hast asked what defect there is in thy verses. If thou desire truth, I will tell thee. Thy verses would be worthy of Virgil, of Ovid, even of Homer, but they are not worthy of thee. Thou art not free to write such. The conflagration described by thee does not blaze enough; thy fire is not hot enough. Listen not to Lucan's flatteries. Had he written those verses, I should acknowledge him a genius, but thy case is different. And knowest thou why? Thou art greater than they. From him who is gifted of the gods as thou art, more is demanded. But thou art slothful,—thou wouldst rather sleep after dinner than sit to wrinkles. Thou canst create a work such as the world has not heard of to this day; hence I tell thee to thy eyes, write better!"
And he said this carelessly, as if bantering and also chiding; but Caesar's eyes were mist-covered from delight.
"The gods have given me a little talent," said he, "but they have given me something greater, a true judge and friend, the only man able to speak the truth to my eyes."
Then he stretched his fat hand, grown over with reddish hair, to a golden candelabrum plundered from Delphi, to burn the verses. But Petronius seized them before the flame touched the paper.
"No, no!" said he; "even thus they belong to mankind. Leave them to me."
"In such case let me send them to thee in a cylinder of my own invention," answered Nero, embracing Petronius.
"True; thou art right," said he, after a while. "My conflagration of Troy does not blaze enough; my fire is not hot enough. But I thought it sufficient to equal Homer. A certain timidity and low estimate of my power have fettered me always. Thou hast opened my eyes. But knowest why it is, as thou sayest? When a sculptor makes the statue of a god, he seeks a model; but never have I had a model. I never have seen a burning city; hence there is a lack of truth in my description."
"Then I will say that only a great artist understands this."
Nero grew thoughtful, and after a while he said,—"Answer one question, Petronius. Dost thou regret the burning of Troy?"
"Do I regret? By the lame consort of Venus, not in the least! And I will tell thee the reason. Troy would not have been consumed if Prometheus had not given fire to man, and the Greeks made war on Priam. AEschylus would not have written his Prometheus had there been no fire, just as Homer would not have written the Iliad had there been no Trojan war. I think it better to have Prometheus and the Iliad than a small and shabby city, which was unclean, I think, and wretched, and in which at best there would be now some procurator annoying thee through quarrels with the local areopagus."
"That is what we call speaking with sound reason," said Nero. "For art and poetry it is permitted, and it is right, to sacrifice everything. Happy were the Achaeans who furnished Homer with the substance of the Iliad, and happy Priam who beheld the ruin of his birthplace. As to me, I have never seen a burning city."
A time of silence followed, which was broken at last by Tigellinus.
"But I have said to thee, Caesar, already, command and I will burn Antium; or dost thou know what? If thou art sorry for these villas and palaces, give command to burn the ships in Ostia; or I will build a wooden city on the Alban Hills, into which thou shalt hurl the fire thyself. Dost thou wish?"
"Am I to gaze on the burning of wooden sheds?" asked Nero, casting a look of contempt on him. "Thy mind has grown utterly barren, Tigellinus. And I see, besides, that thou dost set no great value on my talent or my Troyad, since thou judgest that any sacrifice would be too great for it."
Tigellinus was confused; but Nero, as if wishing to change the conversation, added after a while,—
"Summer is passing. Oh, what a stench there must be in that Rome now! And still we must return for the summer games."
"When thou dismissest the Augustians, O Caesar, permit me to remain with thee a moment," said Tigellinus.
An hour later Vinicius, returning with Petronius from Caesar's villa, said,—"I was a trifle alarmed for thee. I judged that while drunk thou hadst ruined thyself beyond redemption. Remember that thou art playing with death."
"That is my arena," answered Petronius, carelessly; "and the feeling that I am the best gladiator in it amuses me. See how it ended. My influence has increased this evening. He will send me his verses in a cylinder which—dost wish to lay a wager?—will be immensely rich and in immensely bad taste. I shall command my physician to keep physic in it. I did this for another reason,—because Tigellinus, seeing how such things succeed, will wish surely to imitate me, and I imagine what will happen. The moment he starts a witticism, it will be as if a bear of the Pyrenees were rope-walking. I shall laugh like Democritus. If I wished I could destroy Tigellinus perhaps, and become pretorian prefect in his place, and have Ahenobarbus himself in my hands. But I am indolent; I prefer my present life and even Caesar's verses to trouble."
"What dexterity to be able to turn even blame into flattery! But are those verses really so bad? I am no judge in those matters."
"The verses are not worse than others. Lucan has more talent in one finger, but in Bronzebeard too there is something. He has, above all, an immense love for poetry and music. In two days we are to be with him to hear the music of his hymn to Aphrodite, which he will finish to-day or to-morrow. We shall be in a small circle,—only I, thou, Tullius Senecio, and young Nerva. But as to what I said touching Nero's verses, that I use them after feasting as Vitelius does flamingo feathers, is not true. At times they are eloquent. Hecuba's words are touching. She complains of the pangs of birth, and Nero was able to find happy expressions,—for this reason, perhaps, that he gives birth to every verse in torment. At times I am sorry for him. By Pollux, what a marvellous mixture! The fifth stave was lacking in Caligula, but still he never did such strange things."
"Who can foresee to what the madness of Ahenobarbus will go?" asked Vinicius.
"No man whatever. Such things may happen yet that the hair will stand on men's heads for whole centuries at thought of them. But it is that precisely which interests me; and though I am bored more than once, like Jupiter Ammon in the desert, I believe that under another Caesar I should be bored a hundred times more. Paul, thy little Jew, is eloquent,—that I accord to him; and if people like him proclaim that religion, our gods must defend themselves seriously, lest in time they be led away captive. It is true that if Caesar, for example, were a Christian, all would feel safer. But thy prophet of Tarsus, in applying proofs to me, did not think, seest thou, that for me this uncertainty becomes the charm of life. Whoso does not play at dice will not lose property, but still people play at dice. There is in that a certain delight and destruction of the present. I have known sons of knights and senators to become gladiators of their own will. I play with life, thou sayest, and that is true, but I play because it pleases me; while Christian virtues would bore me in a day, as do the discourses of Seneca. Because of this, Paul's eloquence is exerted in vain. He should understand that people like me will never accept his religion. With thy disposition thou mightst either hate the name Christian, or become a Christian immediately. I recognize, while yawning, the truth of what they say. We are mad. We are hastening to the precipice, something unknown is coming toward us out of the future, something is breaking beneath us, something is dying around us,—agreed! But we shall succeed in dying; meanwhile we have no wish to burden life, and serve death before it takes us. Life exists for itself alone, not for death."
"But I pity thee, Petronius."
"Do not pity me more than I pity myself. Formerly thou wert glad among us; while campaigning in Armenia, thou wert longing for Rome."
"And now I am longing for Rome."
"True; for thou art in love with a Christian vestal, who sits in the Trans-Tiber. I neither wonder at this, nor do I blame thee. I wonder more, that in spite of a religion described by thee as a sea of happiness, and in spite of a love which is soon to be crowned, sadness has not left thy face. Pomponia Graecina is eternally pensive; from the time of thy becoming a Christian thou hast ceased to laugh. Do not try to persuade me that this religion is cheerful. Thou hast returned from Rome sadder than ever. If Christians love in this way, by the bright curls of Bacchus! I shall not imitate them!"
"That is another thing," answered Vinicius. "I swear to thee, not by the curls of Bachus, but by the soul of my father, that never in times past have I experienced even a foretaste of such happiness as I breathe to-day. But I yearn greatly; and what is stranger, when I am far from Lygia, I think that danger is threatening her. I know not what danger, nor whence it may come; but I feel it, as one feels a coming tempest."
"In two days I will try to obtain for thee permission to leave Antium, for as long a time as may please thee. Poppaea is somewhat more quiet; and, as far as I know, no danger from her threatens thee or Lygia."
"This very day she asked me what I was doing in Rome, though my departure was secret."
"Perhaps she gave command to set spies on thee. Now, however, even she must count with me."
"Paul told me," said Vinicius, "that God forewarns sometimes, but does not permit us to believe in omens; hence I guard myself against this belief, but I cannot ward it off. I will tell thee what happened, so as to cast the weight from my heart. Lygia and I were sitting side by side on a night as calm as this, and planning our future. I cannot tell thee how happy and calm we were. All at once lions began to roar. That is common in Rome, but since then I have no rest. It seems to me that in that roaring there was a threat, an announcement as it were of misfortune. Thou knowest that I am not frightened easily; that night, however, something happened which filled all the darkness with terror. It came so strangely and unexpectedly that I have those sounds in my ears yet, and unbroken fear in my heart, as if Lygia were asking my protection from something dreadful,—even from those same lions. I am in torture. Obtain for me permission to leave Antium, or I shall go without it. I cannot remain. I repeat to thee, I cannot!"
"Sons of consuls or their wives are not given to lions yet in the arenas," said Petronius, laughing. "Any other death may meet thee but that. Who knows, besides, that they were lions? German bisons roar with no less gentleness than lions. As to me, I ridicule omens and fates. Last night was warm and I saw stars falling like rain. Many a man has an evil foreboding at such a sight; but I thought, 'If among these is my star too, I shall not lack society at least!'" Then he was silent, but added after a moment's thought,—"If your Christ has risen from the dead, He may perhaps protect you both from death."
"He may," answered Vinicius, looking at the heavens filled with stars.
NERO played and sang, in honor of the "Lady of Cyprus," a hymn the verses and music of which were composed by himself. That day he was in voice, and felt that his music really captivated those present. That feeling added such power to the sounds produced and roused his own soul so much that he seemed inspired. At last he grew pale from genuine emotion. This was surely the first time that he had no desire to hear praises from others. He sat for a time with his hands on the cithara and with bowed head; then, rising suddenly, he said,—
"I am tired and need air, Meanwhile ye will tune the citharae."
He covered his throat then with a silk kerchief.
"Ye will go with me," said he, turning to Petronius and Vinicius, who were sitting in a corner of the hall. "Give me thy arm, Vinicius, for strength fails me; Petronius will talk to me of music."
They went out on the terrace, which was paved with alabaster and sprinkled with saffron.
"Here one can breathe more freely," said Nero. "My soul is moved and sad, though I see that with what I have sung to thee on trial just now I may appear in public, and my triumph will be such as no Roman has ever achieved."
"Thou mayst appear here, in Rome, in Achaea. I admire thee with my whole heart and mind, divinity," answered Petronius.
"I know. Thou art too slothful to force thyself to flattery, and thou art as sincere as Tullius Senecio, but thou hast more knowledge than he. Tell me, what is thy judgment on music?"
"When I listen to poetry, when I look at a quadriga directed by thee in the Circus, when I look at a beautiful statue, temple, or picture, I feel that I comprehend perfectly what I see, that my enthusiasm takes in all that these can give. But when I listen to music, especially thy music, new delights and beauties open before me every instant. I pursue them, I try to seize them; but before I can take them to myself, new and newer ones flow in, just like waves of the sea, which roll on from infinity. Hence I tell thee that music is like the sea. We stand on one shore and gaze at remoteness, but we cannot see the other shore."
"Ah, what deep knowledge thou hast!" said Nero; and they walked on for a moment, only the slight sound of the saffron leaves under their feet being heard.
"Thou hast expressed my idea," said Nero at last; "hence I say now, as ever, in all Rome thou art the only man able to understand me. Thus it is, my judgment of music is the same as thine. When I play and sing, I see things which I did not know as existing in my dominions or in the world. I am Caesar, and the world is mine. I can do everything. But music opens new kingdoms to me, new mountains, new seas, new delights unknown before. Most frequently I cannot name them or grasp them; I only feel them. I feel the gods, I see Olympus. Some kind of breeze from beyond the earth blows in on me; I behold, as in a mist, certain immeasurable greatnesses, but calm and bright as sunshine. The whole Spheros plays around me; and I declare to thee" (here Nero's voice quivered with genuine wonder) "that I, Caesar and god, feel at such times as diminutive as dust. Wilt thou believe this?"
"I will. Only great artists have power to feel small in the presence of art."
"This is a night of sincerity; hence I open my soul to thee as to a friend, and I will say more: dost thou consider that I am blind or deprived of reason? Dost thou think that I am ignorant of this, that people in Rome write insults on the walls against me, call me a matricide, a wife-murderer, hold me a monster and a tyrant, because Tigellinus obtained a few sentences of death against my enemies? Yes, my dear, they hold me a monster, and I know it. They have talked cruelty on me to that degree that at times I put the question to myself, 'Am I not cruel?' But they do not understand this, that a man's deeds may be cruel at times while he himself is not cruel. Ah, no one will believe, and perhaps even thou, my dear, wilt not believe, that at moments when music caresses my soul I feel as kind as a child in the cradle. I swear by those stars which shine above us, that I speak the pure truth to thee. People do not know how much goodness lies in this heart, and what treasures I see in it when music opens the door to them."
Petronius, who had not the least doubt that Nero was speaking sincerely at that moment, and that music might bring out various more noble inclinations of his soul, which were overwhelmed by mountains of egotism, profligacy, and crime, said,—"Men should know thee as nearly as I do; Rome has never been able to appreciate thee."
Caesar leaned more heavily on Vinicius's arm, as if he were bending under the weight of injustice, and answered,—
"Tigellinus has told me that in the Senate they whisper into one another's ears that Diodorus and Terpnos play on the cithara better than I. They refuse me even that! But tell me, thou who art truthful always, do they play better, or as well?"
"By no means. Thy touch is finer, and has greater power. In thee the artist is evident, in them the expert. The man who hears their music first understands better what thou art."
"If that be true, let them live. They will never imagine what a service thou hast rendered them in this moment. For that matter, if I had condemned those two, I should have had to take others in place of them."
"And people would say, besides, that out of love for music thou destroyest music in thy dominions. Never kill art for art's sake, O divinity."
"How different thou art from Tigellinus!" answered Nero. "But seest thou, I am an artist in everything; and since music opens for me spaces the existence of which I had not divined, regions which I do not possess, delight and happiness which I do not know, I cannot live a common life. Music tells me that the uncommon exists, so I seek it with all the power of dominion which the gods have placed in my hands. At times it seems to me that to reach those Olympian worlds I must do something which no man has done hitherto,—I must surpass the stature of man in good or evil. I know that people declare me mad. But I am not mad, I am only seeking. And if I am going mad, it is out of disgust and impatience that I cannot find. I am seeking! Dost understand me? And therefore I wish to be greater than man, for only in that way can I be the greatest as an artist."
Here he lowered his voice so that Vinicius could not hear him, and, putting his mouth to the ear of Petronius, he whispered,—"Dost know that I condemned my mother and wife to death mainly because I wished to lay at the gate of an unknown world the greatest sacrifice that man could put there? I thought that afterward something would happen, that doors would be opened beyond which I should see something unknown. Let it be wonderful or awful, surpassing human conception, if only great and uncommon. But that sacrifice was not sufficient. To open the empyrean doors it is evident that something greater is needed, and let it be given as the Fates desire."
"What dost thou intend to do?"
"Thou shalt see sooner than thou thinkest. Meanwhile be assured that there are two Neros,—one such as people know, the other an artist, whom thou alone knowest, and if he slays as does death, or is in frenzy like Bacchus, it is only because the flatness and misery of common life stifle him; and I should like to destroy them, though I had to use fire or iron. Oh, how flat this world will be when I am gone from it! No man has suspected yet, not thou even, what an artist I am. But precisely because of this I suffer, and sincerely do I tell thee that the soul in me is as gloomy as those cypresses which stand dark there in front of us. It is grievous for a man to bear at once the weight of supreme power and the highest talents."
"I sympathize with thee, O Caesar; and with me earth and sea, not counting Vinicius, who deifies thee in his soul."
"He, too, has always been dear to me," said Caesar, "though he serves Mars, not the Muses."
"He serves Aphrodite first of all," answered Petronius. And suddenly he determined to settle the affair of his nephew at a blow, and at the same time to eliminate every danger which might threaten him. "He is in love, as was Troilus with Cressida. Permit him, lord, to visit Rome, for he is dying on my hands. Dost thou know that that Lygian hostage whom thou gavest him has been found, and Vinicius, when leaving for Antium, left her in care of a certain Linus? I did not mention this to thee, for thou wert composing thy hymn, and that was more important than all besides. Vinicius wanted her as a mistress; but when she turned out to be as virtuous as Lucretia, he fell in love with her virtue, and now his desire is to marry her. She is a king's daughter, hence she will cause him no detriment; but he is a real soldier: he sighs and withers and groans, but he is waiting for the permission of his Imperator."
"The Imperator does not choose wives for his soldiers. What good is my permission to Vinicius?"
"I have told thee, O lord, that he deifies thee."
"All the more may he be certain of permission. That is a comely maiden, but too narrow in the hips. The Augusta Poppaea has complained to me that she enchanted our child in the gardens of the Palatine."
"But I told Tigellinus that the gods are not subject to evil charms. Thou rememberest, divinity, his confusion and thy exclamation, 'Habet!'"
Here he turned to Vinicius,—"Dost thou love her, as Petronius says?"
"I love her, lord," replied Vinicius.
"Then I command thee to set out for Rome to-morrow, and marry her. Appear not again before my eyes without the marriage ring."
"Thanks to thee, lord, from my heart and soul."
"Oh, how pleasant it is to make people happy!" said Nero. "Would that I might do nothing else all my life!"
"Grant us one favor more, O divinity," said Petronius: "declare thy will in this matter before the Augusta. Vinicius would never venture to wed a woman displeasing to the Augusta; thou wilt dissipate her prejudice, O lord, with a word, by declaring that thou hast commanded this marriage."
"I am willing," said Caesar. "I could refuse nothing to thee or Vinicius."
He turned toward the villa, and they followed. Their hearts were filled with delight over the victory; and Vinicius had to use self-restraint to avoid throwing himself on the neck of Petronius, for it seemed now that all dangers and obstacles were removed.
In the atrium of the villa young Nerva and Tullius Senecio were entertaining the Augusta with conversation. Terpnos and Diodorus were tuning citharae.
Nero entered, sat in an armchair inlaid with tortoise-shell, whispered something in the ear of a Greek slave near his side, and waited.
The page returned soon with a golden casket. Nero opened it and took out a necklace of great opals.
"These are jewels worthy of this evening," said he.
"The light of Aurora is playing in them," answered Poppaea, convinced that the necklace was for her.
Caesar, now raising, now lowering the rosy stones, said at last,—"Vinicius, thou wilt give, from me, this necklace to her whom I command thee to marry, the youthful daughter of the Lygian king."
Poppaea's glance, filled with anger and sudden amazement, passed from Caesar to Vinicius. At last it rested on Petronius. But he, leaning carelessly over the arm of the chair, passed his hand along the back of the harp as if to fix its form firmly in his mind.
Vinicius gave thanks for the gift, approached Petronius, and asked,—"How shall I thank thee for what thou hast done this day for me?"
"Sacrifice a pair of swans to Euterpe," replied Petronius, "praise Caesar's songs, and laugh at omens. Henceforth the roaring of lions will not disturb thy sleep, I trust, nor that of thy Lygian lily."
"No," said Vinicius; "now I am perfectly at rest."
"May Fortune favor thee! But be careful, for Caesar is taking his lute again. Hold thy breath, listen, and shed tears."
In fact Caesar had taken the lute and raised his eyes. In the hall conversation had stopped, and people were as still as if petrified. Terpnos and Diodorus, who had to accompany Caesar, were on the alert, looking now at each other and now at his lips, waiting for the first tones of the song.
Just then a movement and noise began in the entrance; and after a moment Caesar's freedman, Phaon, appeared from beyond the curtain. Close behind him was the consul Lecanius.
"Pardon, divine Imperator," said Phaon, with panting voice, "there is a conflagration in Rome! The greater part of the city is in flames!"
At this news all sprang from their seats.
"O gods! I shall see a burning city and finish the Troyad," said Nero, setting aside his lute.
Then he turned to the consul,—"If I go at once, shall I see the fire?"
"Lord," answered Lecanius, as pale as a wall, "the whole city is one sea of flame; smoke is suffocating the inhabitants, and people faint, or cast themselves into the fire from delirium. Rome is perishing, lord."
A moment of silence followed, which was broken by the cry of Vinicius,—
"Vae misero mihi!"
And the young man, casting his toga aside, rushed forth in his tunic. Nero raised his hands and exclaimed,—
"Woe to thee, sacred city of Priam!"
VINICIUS had barely time to command a few slaves to follow him; then, springing on his horse, he rushed forth in the deep night along the empty streets toward Laurentum. Through the influence of the dreadful news he had fallen as it were into frenzy and mental distraction. At moments he did not know clearly what was happening in his mind; he had merely the feeling that misfortune was on the horse with him, sitting behind his shoulders, and shouting in his ears, "Rome is burning!" that it was lashing his horse and him, urging them toward the fire. Laying his bare head on the beast's neck, he rushed on, in his single tunic, alone, at random, not looking ahead, and taking no note of obstacles against which he might perchance dash himself.
In silence and in that calm night, the rider and the horse, covered with gleams of the moon, seemed like dream visions. The Idumean stallion, dropping his ears and stretching his neck, shot on like an arrow past the motionless cypresses and the white villas hidden among them. The sound of hoofs on the stone flags roused dogs here and there; these followed the strange vision with their barking; afterward, excited by its suddenness, they fell to howling, and raised their jaws toward the moon. The slaves hastening after Vinicius soon dropped behind, as their horses were greatly inferior. When he had rushed like a storm through sleeping Laurentum, he turned toward Ardea, in which, as in Aricia, Bovillae, and Ustrinum, he had kept relays of horses from the day of his coming to Antium, so as to pass in the shortest time possible the interval between Rome and him. Remembering these relays, he forced all the strength from his horse.
Beyond Ardea it seemed to him that the sky on the northeast was covered with a rosy reflection. That might be the dawn, for the hour was late, and in July daybreak came early. But Vinicius could not keep down a cry of rage and despair, for it seemed to him that that was the glare of the conflagration. He remembered the consul's words, "The whole city is one sea of flame," and for a while he felt that madness was threatening him really, for he had lost utterly all hope that he could save Lygia, or even reach the city before it was turned into one heap of ashes. His thoughts were quicker now than the rush of the stallion, they flew on ahead like a flock of birds, black, monstrous, and rousing despair. He knew not, it is true, in what part of the city the fire had begun; but he supposed that the Trans-Tiber division, as it was packed with tenements, timber-yards, storehouses, and wooden sheds serving as slave marts, might have become the first food of the flames.
In Rome fires happened frequently enough; during these fires, as frequently, deeds of violence and robbery were committed, especially in the parts occupied by a needy and half-barbarous population. What might happen, therefore, in a place like the Trans-Tiber, which was the retreat of a rabble collected from all parts of the earth? Here the thought of Ursus with his preterhuman power flashed into Vinicius's head; but what could be done by a man, even were he a Titan, against the destructive force of fire?
The fear of servile rebellion was like a nightmare, which had stifled Rome for whole years. It was said that hundreds of thousands of those people were thinking of the times of Spartacus, and merely waiting for a favorable moment to seize arms against their oppressors and Rome. Now the moment had come! Perhaps war and slaughter were raging in the city together with fire. It was possible even that the pretorians had hurled themselves on the city, and were slaughtering at command of Caesar.
And that moment the hair rose from terror on his head. He recalled all the conversations about burning cities, which for some time had been repeated at Caesar's court with wonderful persistence; he recalled Caesar's complaints that he was forced to describe a burning city without having seen a real fire; his contemptuous answer to Tigellinus, who offered to burn Antium or an artificial wooden city; finally, his complaints against Rome, and the pestilential alleys of the Subura. Yes; Caesar has commanded the burning of the city! He alone could give such a command, as Tigellinus alone could accomplish it. But if Rome is burning at command of Caesar, who can be sure that the population will not be slaughtered at his command also? The monster is capable even of such a deed. Conflagration, a servile revolt, and slaughter! What a horrible chaos, what a letting loose of destructive elements and popular frenzy! And in all this is Lygia.
The groans of Vinicius were mingled with the snorting and groans of his horse; the beast, running on a road which rose continually toward Aricia, was using the last of its breath. Who will snatch her from the burning city; who can save her? Here Vinicius, stretching himself entirely on the horse, thrust his fingers into his own hair, ready to gnaw the beast's neck from pain.
At that moment a horseman, rushing also like a whirlwind, but in the opposite direction, toward Antium, shouted as he raced past, "Rome is perishing!" and on he went. To the ears of Vinicius came only one more expression: "Gods!" the rest was drowned by the thunder of hoofs. But that expression sobered him,—"Gods!"
Vinicius raised his head suddenly, and, stretching his arms toward the sky filled with stars, began to pray.
"Not to you do I call whose temples are burning, but to Thee! Thou Thyself hast suffered. Thou alone art merciful! Thou alone hast understood people's pain; Thou didst come to this world to teach pity to mankind; then show it now. If Thou art what Peter and Paul declare, save for me Lygia, take her in Thy arms, bear her out of the flames. Thou hast the power to do that! Give her to me, and I will give Thee my blood. But if Thou art unwilling to do this for me, do it for her. She loves Thee and trusts in Thee. Thou dost promise life and happiness after death, but happiness after death will not pass away, and she does not wish to die yet. Let her live. Take her in Thy arms, bear her out of Rome. Thou canst do so, unless Thou art unwilling."
And he stopped, for he felt that further prayer might turn to a threat; he feared to offend Divinity at the moment when he needed favor and mercy most. He was terrified at the very thought of that, and, so as not to admit to his head a shade even of threat, he began to lash his horse again, especially since the white walls of Aricia, which lay midway to Rome, gleamed up before him in the moonlight.
After a time he rushed at full speed past the temple of Mercury, which stood in a grove before the city. Evidently people knew of the catastrophe, for there was an uncommon movement in front of the temple. While passing, Vinicius saw crowds on the steps and between the columns. These people holding torches were hastening to put themselves under protection of the deity. Moreover the road was not so empty or free as beyond Ardea. Crowds were hurrying, it is true, to the grove by side-paths, but on the main road were groups which pushed aside hurriedly before the on-rushing horseman. From the town came the sound of voices. Vinicius rode into Aricia like a whirlwind, overturning and trampling a number of persons on the way. He was surrounded by shouts of "Rome is burning!" "Rome is on fire!" "May the gods rescue Rome!"
The horse stumbled, but, reined in by a powerful hand, rose on his haunches before the inn, where Vinicius had another beast in relay. Slaves, as if waiting for the arrival of their master, stood before the inn, and at his command ran one before the other to lead out a fresh horse. Vinicius, seeing a detachment of ten mounted pretorians, going evidently with news from the city to Antium, sprang toward them.
"What part of the city is on fire?" inquired he.
"Who art thou?" asked the decurion.
"Vinicius, a tribune of the army, an Augustian. Answer on thy head!"
"The fire broke out in the shops near the Circus Maximus. When we were despatched, the centre of the city was on fire."
"And the Trans-Tiber?"
"The fire has not reached the Trans-Tiber yet, but it is seizing new parts every moment with a force which nothing can stop. People are perishing from heat and smoke; all rescue is impossible."
At this moment they brought the fresh horse. The young tribune sprang to his back and rushed on. He was riding now toward Albanum, leaving Alba Longa and its splendid lake on the right. The road from Aricia lay at the foot of the mountain, which hid the horizon completely, and Albanum lying on the other side of it. But Vinicius knew that on reaching the top he should see, not only Bovillae and Ustrinum, where fresh horses were ready for him, but Rome as well: for beyond Albanum the low level Campania stretched on both sides of the Appian Way, along which only the arches of the aqueducts ran toward the city, and nothing obstructed the view.
"From the top I shall see the flames," said he; and he began to lash his horse anew. But before he had reached the top of the mountain he felt the wind on his face, and with it came the odor of smoke to his nostrils. At the same time the summit of the height was becoming gilded.
"The fire!" thought Vinicius.
The night had paled long since, the dawn had passed into light, and on all the nearer summits golden and rosy gleams were shining, which might come either from burning Rome or the rising daylight. Vinicius touched the summit at last, and then a terrible sight struck his eyes.
The whole lower region was covered with smoke, forming as it were one gigantic cloud lying close to the earth. In this cloud towns, aqueducts, villas, trees, disappeared; but beyond this gray ghastly plain the city was burning on the hills.
The conflagration had not the form of a pillar of fire, as happens when a single building is burning, even when of the greatest size. That was a long belt, rather, shaped like the belt of dawn. Above this belt rose a wave of smoke, in places entirely black, in places looking rose-colored, in places like blood, in places turning in on itself, in some places inflated, in others squeezed and squirming, like a serpent which is unwinding and extending. That monstrous wave seemed at times to cover even the belt of fire, which became then as narrow as a ribbon; but later this ribbon illuminated the smoke from beneath, changing its lower rolls into waves of flame. The two extended from one side of the sky to the other, hiding its lower part, as at times a stretch of forest hides the horizon. The Sabine hills were not visible in the least.
To Vinicius it seemed at the first glance of the eye that not only the city was burning, but the whole world, and that no living being could save itself from that ocean of flame and smoke.
The wind blew with growing strength from the region of the fire, bringing the smell of burnt things and of smoke, which began to hide even nearer objects. Clear daylight had come, and the sun lighted up the summits surrounding the Alban Lake. But the bright golden rays of the morning appeared as it were reddish and sickly through the haze. Vinicius, while descending toward Albanum, entered smoke which was denser, less and less transparent. The town itself was buried in it thoroughly. The alarmed citizens had moved out to the street. It was a terror to think of what might be in Rome, when it was difficult to breathe in Albanum.
Despair seized Vinicius anew, and terror began to raise the hair on his head. But he tried to fortify himself as best he might. "It is impossible," thought he, "that a city should begin to burn in all places at once. The wind is blowing from the north and bears smoke in this direction only. On the other side there is none. But in every case it will be enough for Ursus to go through the Janiculum gate with Lygia, to save himself and her. It is equally impossible that a whole population should perish, and the world-ruling city be swept from the face of the earth with its inhabitants. Even in captured places, where fire and slaughter rage together, some people survive in all cases; why, then, should Lygia perish of a certainty? On the contrary, God watches over her, He who Himself, conquered death." Thus reasoning, he began to pray again, and, yielding to fixed habit, he made great vows to Christ, with promises of gifts and sacrifices. After he had hurried through Albanum, nearly all of whose inhabitants were on roofs and on trees to look at Rome, he grew somewhat calm, and regained his cool blood. He remembered, too, that Lygia was protected not only by Ursus and Linus, but by the Apostle Peter. At the mere remembrance of this, fresh solace entered his heart. For him Peter was an incomprehensible, an almost superhuman being. From the time when he heard him at Ostrianum, a wonderful impression clung to him, touching which he had written to Lygia at the beginning of his stay in Antium,—that every word of the old man was true, or would show its truth hereafter. The nearer acquaintance which during his illness he had formed with the Apostle heightened the impression, which was turned afterward into fixed faith. Since Peter had blessed his love and promised him Lygia, Lygia could not perish in the flames. The city might burn, but no spark from the fire would fall on her garments. Under the influence of a sleepless night, mad riding, and impressions, a wonderful exaltation possessed the young tribune; in this exaltation all things seemed possible: Peter speaks to the flame, opens it with a word, and they pass uninjured through an alley of fire. Moreover, Peter saw future events; hence, beyond doubt, he foresaw the fire, and in that ease how could he fail to warn and lead forth the Christians from the city, and among others Lygia, whom he loved, as he might his own child? And a hope, which was strengthening every moment, entered the heart of Vinicius. If they were fleeing from the city, he might find them in Bovillae, or meet them on the road. The beloved face might appear any moment from out the smoke, which was stretching more widely over all the Campania.
This seemed to him more likely, since he met increasing numbers of people, who had deserted the city and were going to the Alban Hills; they had escaped the fire, and wished to go beyond the line of smoke. Before he had reached Ustrinum he had to slacken his pace because of the throng. Besides pedestrians with bundles on their backs, he met horses with packs, mules and vehicles laden with effects, and finally litters in which slaves were bearing the wealthier citizens. Ustrinum was so thronged with fugitives from Rome that it was difficult to push through the crowd. On the market square, under temple porticos, and on the streets were swarms of fugitives. Here and there people were erecting tents under which whole families were to find shelter. Others settled down under the naked sky, shouting, calling on the gods, or cursing the fates. In the general terror it was difficult to inquire about anything. People to whom Vinicius applied either did not answer, or with eyes half bewildered from terror answered that the city and the world were perishing. New crowds of men, women, and children arrived from the direction of Rome every moment; these increased the disorder and outcry. Some, gone astray in the throng, sought desperately those whom they had lost; others fought for a camping-place. Half-wild shepherds from the Campania crowded to the town to hear news, or find profit in plunder made easy by the uproar. Here and there crowds of slaves of every nationality and gladiators fell to robbing houses and villas in the town, and to fighting with the soldiers who appeared in defence of the citizens.
Junius, a senator, whom Vinicius saw at the inn surrounded by a detachment of Batavian slaves, was the first to give more detailed news of the conflagration. The fire had begun at the Circus Maximus, in the part which touches the Palatine and the Caelian Hill, but extended with incomprehensible rapidity and seized the whole centre of the city. Never since the time of Brennus had such an awful catastrophe come upon Rome. "The entire Circus has burnt, as well as the shops and houses surrounding it," said Junius; "the Aventine and Caelian Hills are on fire. The flames surrounding the Palatine have reached the Carinae."
Here Junius, who possessed on the Carinae a magnificent "insula," filled with works of art which he loved, seized a handful of foul dust, and, scattering it on his head, began to groan despairingly.
But Vinicius shook him by the shoulder: "My house too is on the Carinae," said he; "but when everything is perishing, let it perish also."
Then recollecting that at his advice Lygia might have gone to the house of Aulus, he inquired,—
"But the Vicus Patricius?"
"On fire!" replied Junius.
Junius looked at him with amazement.
"Never mind the Trans-Tiber," said he, pressing his aching temples with his palms.
"The Trans-Tiber is more important to me than all other parts of Rome," cried Vinicius, with vehemence.
"The way is through the Via Portuensis, near the Aventine; but the heat will stifle thee. The Trans-Tiber? I know not. The fire had not reached it; but whether it is not there at this moment the gods alone know." Here Junius hesitated a moment, then said in a low voice: "I know that thou wilt not betray me, so I will tell thee that this is no common fire. People were not permitted to save the Circus. When houses began to burn in every direction, I myself heard thousands of voices exclaiming, 'Death to those who save!' Certain people ran through the city and hurled burning torches into buildings. On the other hand people are revolting, and crying that the city is burning at command. I can say nothing more. Woe to the city, woe to us all, and to me! The tongue of man cannot tell what is happening there. People are perishing in flames or slaying one another in the throng. This is the end of Rome!"
And again he fell to repeating, "Woe! Woe to the city and to us!" Vinicius sprang to his horse, and hurried forward along the Appian Way. But now it was rather a struggling through the midst of a river of people and vehicles, which was flowing from the city. The city, embraced by a monstrous conflagration, lay before Vinicius as a thing on the palm of his hand. From the sea of fire and smoke came a terrible heat, and the uproar of people could not drown the roar and the hissing of flames.
As Vinicius approached the walls, he found it easier to reach Rome than penetrate to the middle of the city. It was difficult to push along the Appian Way, because of the throng of people. Houses, fields, cemeteries, gardens, and temples, lying on both sides of it, were turned into camping places. In the temple of Mars, which stood near the Porta Appia, the crowd had thrown down the doors, so as to find a refuge within during night-hours. In the cemeteries the larger monuments were seized, and battles fought in defence of them, which were carried to bloodshed. Ustrinum with its disorder gave barely a slight foretaste of that which was happening beneath the walls of the capital. All regard for the dignity of law, for family ties, for difference of position, had ceased. Gladiators drunk with wine seized in the Emporium gathered in crowds, ran with wild shouts through the neighboring squares, scattering, trampling, and robbing the people. A multitude of barbarians, exposed for sale in the city, escaped from the booths. For them the burning and ruin of Rome was at once the end of slavery and the hour of revenge; so that when the permanent inhabitants, who had lost all they owned in the fire, stretched their hands to the gods in despair, calling for rescue, these slaves with howls of delight scattered the crowds, dragged clothing from people's backs, and bore away the younger women. They were joined by slaves serving in the city from of old, wretches who had nothing on their bodies save woollen girdles around their hips, dreadful figures from the alleys, who were hardly ever seen on the streets in the daytime, and whose existence in Rome it was difficult to suspect. Men of this wild and unrestrained crowd, Asiatics, Africans, Greeks, Thracians, Germans, Britons, howling in every language of the earth, raged, thinking that the hour had come in which they were free to reward themselves for years of misery and suffering. In the midst of that surging throng of humanity, in the glitter of day and of fire, shone the helmets of pretorians, under whose protection the more peaceable population had taken refuge, and who in hand-to-hand battle had to meet the raging multitude in many places. Vinicius had seen captured cities, but never had his eyes beheld a spectacle in which despair, tears, pain, groans, wild delight, madness, rage, and license were mingled together in such immeasurable chaos. Above this heaving, mad human multitude roared the fire, surging up to the hill-tops of the greatest city on earth, sending into the whirling throng its fiery breath, and covering it with smoke, through which it was impossible to see the blue sky. The young tribune with supreme effort, and exposing his life every moment, forced his way at last to the Appian Gate; but there he saw that he could not reach the city through the division of the Porta Capena, not merely because of the throng, but also because of the terrible heat from which the whole atmosphere was quivering inside the gate. Besides, the bridge at the Porta Trigenia, opposite the temple of the Bona Dea, did not exist yet, hence whoso wished to go beyond the Tiber had to push through to the Pons Sublicius, that is, to pass around the Aventine through a part of the city covered now with one sea of flame. That was an impossibility. Vinicius understood that he must return toward Ustrinum, turn from the Appian Way, cross the river below the city, and go to the Via Portuensis, which led straight to the Trans-Tiber. That was not easy because of the increasing disorder on the Appian Way. He must open a passage for himself there, even with the sword. Vinicius had no weapons; he had left Antium just as the news of the fire had reached him in Caesar's villa. At the fountain of Mercury, however, he saw a centurion who was known to him. This man, at the head of a few tens of soldiers, was defending the precinct of the temple; he commanded him to follow. Recognizing a tribune and an Augustian, the centurion did not dare to disobey the order.
Vinicius took command of the detachment himself, and, forgetting for that moment the teaching of Paul touching love for one's neighbor, he pressed and cut the throng in front with a haste that was fatal to many who could not push aside in season. He and his men were followed by curses and a shower of stones; but to these he gave no heed, caring only to reach freer spaces at the earliest. Still he advanced with the greatest effort. People who had encamped would not move, and heaped loud curses on Caesar and the pretorians. The throng assumed in places a threatening aspect. Vinicius heard voices accusing Nero of burning the city. He and Poppaea were threatened with death. Shouts of "Sanio," "Histrio" (buffoon, actor), "Matricide!" were heard round about. Some shouted to drag him to the Tiber; others that Rome had shown patience enough. It was clear that were a leader found, these threats could be changed into open rebellion which might break out any moment. Meanwhile the rage and despair of the crowd turned against the pretorians, who for another reason could not make their way out of the crowd: the road was blocked by piles of goods, borne from the fire previously, boxes, barrels of provisions, furniture the most costly, vessels, infants' cradles, beds, carts, hand-packs. Here and there they fought hand to hand; but the pretorians conquered the weaponless multitude easily. After they had ridden with difficulty across the Viae Latina, Numitia, Ardea, Lavinia, and Ostia, and passed around villas, gardens, cemeteries, and temples, Vinicius reached at last a village called Vicus Alexandri, beyond which he crossed the Tiber. There was more open space at this spot, and less smoke. From fugitives, of whom there was no lack even there, he learned that only certain alleys of the Trans-Tiber were burning, but that surely nothing could resist the fury of the conflagration, since people were spreading the fire purposely, and permitted no one to quench it, declaring that they acted at command. The young tribune had not the least doubt then that Caesar had given command to burn Rome; and the vengeance which people demanded seemed to him just and proper. What more could Mithridates or any of Rome's most inveterate enemies have done? The measure had been exceeded; his madness had grown to be too enormous, and the existence of people too difficult because of him. Vinicius believed that Nero's hour had struck, that those ruins into which the city was falling should and must overwhelm the monstrous buffoon together with all those crimes of his. Should a man be found of courage sufficient to stand at the head of the despairing people, that might happen in a few hours. Here vengeful and daring thoughts began to fly through his head. But if he should do that? The house of Vinicius, which till recent times counted a whole series of consuls, was known throughout Rome. The crowds needed only a name. Once, when four hundred slaves of the prefect Pedanius Secundus were sentenced, Rome reached the verge of rebellion and civil war. What would happen to-day in view of a dreadful calamity surpassing almost everything which Rome had undergone in the course of eight centuries? Whoso calls the Quirites to arms, thought Vinicius, will overthrow Nero undoubtedly, and clothe himself in purple. And why should he not do this? He was firmer, more active, younger than other Augustians. True, Nero commanded thirty legions stationed on the borders of the Empire; but would not those legions and their leaders rise up at news of the burning of Rome and its temples? And in that case Vinicius might become Caesar. It was even whispered among the Augustians that a soothsayer had predicted the purple to Otho. In what way was he inferior to Otho? Perhaps Christ Himself would assist him with His divine power; maybe that inspiration was His? "Oh, would that it were!" exclaimed Vinicius, in spirit. He would take vengeance on Nero for the danger of Lygia and his own fear; he would begin the reign of truth and justice, he would extend Christ's religion from the Euphrates to the misty shores of Britain; he would array Lygia in the purple, and make her mistress of the world.
But these thoughts which had burst forth in his head like a bunch of sparks from a blazing house, died away like sparks. First of all was the need to save Lygia. He looked now on the catastrophe from near by; hence fear seized him again, and before that sea of flame and smoke, before the touch of dreadful reality, that confidence with which he believed that Peter would rescue Lygia died in his heart altogether. Despair seized him a second time when he had come out on the Via Portuensis, which led directly to the Trans-Tiber. He did not recover till he came to the gate, where people repeated what fugitives had said before, that the greater part of that division of the city was not seized by the flames yet, but that fire had crossed the river in a number of places.
Still the Trans-Tiber was full of smoke, and crowds of fugitives made it more difficult to reach the interior of the place, since people, having more time there, had saved greater quantities of goods. The main street itself was in many parts filled completely, and around the Naumachia Augusta great heaps were piled up. Narrow alleys, in which smoke had collected more densely, were simply impassable. The inhabitants were fleeing in thousands. On the way Vinicius saw wonderful sights. More than once two rivers of people, flowing in opposite directions, met in a narrow passage, stopped each other, men fought hand to hand, struck and trampled one another. Families lost one another in the uproar; mothers called on their children despairingly. The young tribune's hair stood on end at thought of what must happen nearer the fire. Amid shouts and howls it was difficult to inquire about anything or understand what was said. At times new columns of smoke from beyond the river rolled toward them, smoke black and so heavy that it moved near the ground, hiding houses, people, and every object, just as night does. But the wind caused by the conflagration blew it away again, and then Vinicius pushed forward farther toward the alley in which stood the house of Linus. The fervor of a July day, increased by the heat of the burning parts of the city, became unendurable. Smoke pained the eyes; breath failed in men's breasts. Even the inhabitants who, hoping that the fire would not cross the river, had remained in their houses so far, began to leave them; and the throng increased hourly. The pretorians accompanying Vinicius remained in the rear. In the crush some one wounded his horse with a hammer; the beast threw up its bloody head, reared, and refused obedience. The crowd recognized in Vinicius an Augustian by his rich tunic, and at once cries were raised round about: "Death to Nero and his incendiaries!" This was a moment of terrible danger; hundreds of hands were stretched toward Vinicius; but his frightened horse bore him away, trampling people as he went, and the next moment a new wave of black smoke rolled in and filled the street with darkness. Vinicius, seeing that he could not ride past, sprang to the earth and rushed forward on foot, slipping along walls, and at times waiting till the fleeing multitude passed him. He said to himself in spirit that these were vain efforts. Lygia might not be in the city; she might have saved herself by flight. It was easier to find a pin on the seashore than her in that crowd and chaos. Still he wished to reach the house of Linus, even at the cost of his own life. At times he stopped and rubbed his eyes. Tearing off the edge of his tunic, he covered his nose and mouth with it and ran on. As he approached the river, the heat increased terribly. Vinicius, knowing that the fire had begun at the Circus Maximus, thought at first that that heat came from its cinders and from the Forum Boarium and the Velabrum, which, situated near by, must be also in flames. But the heat was growing unendurable. One old man on crutches and fleeing, the last whom Vinicius noticed, cried: "Go not near the bridge of Cestius! The whole island is on fire!" It was, indeed, impossible to be deceived any longer. At the turn toward the Vicus Judaeorum, on which stood the house of Linus, the young tribune saw flames amid clouds of smoke. Not only the island was burning, but the Trans-Tiber, or at least the other end of the street on which Lygia dwelt.
Vinicius remembered that the house of Linus was surrounded by a garden; between the garden and the Tiber was an unoccupied field of no great size. This thought consoled him. The fire might stop at the vacant place. In that hope he ran forward, though every breeze brought not only smoke, but sparks in thousands, which might raise a fire at the other end of the alley and cut off his return.
At last he saw through the smoky curtain the cypresses in Linus's garden.
The houses beyond the unoccupied field were burning already like piles of fuel, but Linus's little "insula" stood untouched yet. Vinicius glanced heavenward with thankfulness, and sprang toward the house though the very air began to burn him. The door was closed, but he pushed it open and rushed in.
There was not a living soul in the garden, and the house seemed quite empty. "Perhaps they have fainted from smoke and heat," thought Vinicius. He began to call,—
Silence answered him. Nothing could be heard in the stillness there save the roar of the distant fire.
Suddenly his ear was struck by that gloomy sound which he had heard before in that garden. Evidently the vivarium near the temple of Esculapius, on the neighboring island, had caught fire. In this vivarium every kind of wild beast, and among others lions, began to roar from affright. A shiver ran through Vinicius from foot to head. Now, a second time, at a moment when his whole being was concentrated in Lygia, these terrible voices answered, as a herald of misfortune, as a marvellous prophecy of an ominous future.
But this was a brief impression, for the thunder of the flames, more terrible yet than the roaring of wild beasts, commanded him to think of something else. Lygia did not answer his calls; but she might be in a faint or stifled in that threatened building. Vinicius sprang to the interior. The little atrium was empty, and dark with smoke. Feeling for the door which led to the sleeping-rooms, he saw the gleaming flame of a small lamp, and approaching it saw the lararium in which was a cross instead of lares. Under the cross a taper was burning. Through the head of the young catechumen, the thought passed with lightning speed that that cross sent him the taper with which he could find Lygia; hence he took the taper and searched for the sleeping-rooms. He found one, pushed aside the curtains, and, holding the taper, looked around.
There was no one there, either. Vinicius was sure that he had found Lygia's sleeping-room, for her clothing was on nails in the wall, and on the bed lay a capitium, or close garment worn by women next the body. Vinicius seized that, pressed it to his lips, and taking it on his arm went farther. The house was small, so that he examined every room, and even the cellar quickly. Nowhere could he find a living soul. It was evident that Lygia, Linus, and Ursus, with other inhabitants of that part, must have sought safety in flight.