"I must seek them among the crowd beyond the gates of the city," thought Vinicius.
He was not astonished greatly at not meeting them on the Via Portuensis, for they might have left the Trans-Tiber through the opposite side along the Vatican Hill. In every case they were safe from fire at least. A stone fell from his breast. He saw, it is true, the terrible danger with which the flight was connected, but he was comforted at thought of the preterhuman strength of Ursus. "I must flee now," said he, "and reach the gardens of Agrippina through the gardens of Domitius, where I shall find them. The smoke is not so terrible there, since the wind blows from the Sabine Hill."
The hour had come now in which he must think of his own safety, for the river of fire was flowing nearer and nearer from the direction of the island, and rolls of smoke covered the alley almost completely. The taper, which had lighted him in the house, was quenched from the current of air. Vinicius rushed to the street, and ran at full speed toward the Via Portuensis, whence he had come; the fire seemed to pursue him with burning breath, now surrounding him with fresh clouds of smoke, now covering him with sparks, which fell on his hair, neck, and clothing. The tunic began to smoulder on him in places; he cared not, but ran forward lest he might be stifled from smoke. He had the taste of soot and burning in his mouth; his throat and lungs were as if on fire. The blood rushed to his head, and at moments all things, even the smoke itself, seemed red to him. Then he thought: "This is living fire! Better cast myself on the ground and perish." The running tortured him more and more. His head, neck, and shoulders were streaming with sweat, which scalded like boiling water. Had it not been for Lygia's name, repeated by him in thought, had it not been for her capitium, which he wound across his mouth, he would have fallen. Some moments later he failed to recognize the street along which he ran. Consciousness was leaving him gradually; he remembered only that he must flee, for in the open field beyond waited Lygia, whom Peter had promised him. And all at once he was seized by a certain wonderful conviction, half feverish, like a vision before death, that he must see her, marry her, and then die.
But he ran on as if drunk, staggering from one side of the street to the other. Meanwhile something changed in that monstrous conflagration which had embraced the giant city. Everything which till then had only glimmered, burst forth visibly into one sea of flame; the wind had ceased to bring smoke. That smoke which had collected in the streets was borne away by a mad whirl of heated air. That whirl drove with it millions of sparks, so that Vinicius was running in a fiery cloud as it were. But he was able to see before him all the better, and in a moment, almost when he was ready to fall, he saw the end of the street. That sight gave him fresh strength. Passing the corner, he found himself in a street which led to the Via Portuensis and the Codetan Field. The sparks ceased to drive him. He understood that if he could run to the Via Portuensis he was safe, even were he to faint on it.
At the end of the street he saw again a cloud, as it seemed, which stopped the exit. "If that is smoke," thought he, "I cannot pass." He ran with the remnant of his strength. On the way he threw off his tunic, which, on fire from the sparks, was burning him like the shirt of Nessus, having only Lygia's capitium around his head and before his mouth. When he had run farther, he saw that what he had taken for smoke was dust, from which rose a multitude of cries and voices.
"The rabble are plundering houses," thought Vinicius. But he ran toward the voices. In every case people were there; they might assist him. In this hope he shouted for aid with all his might before he reached them. But this was his last effort. It grew redder still in his eyes, breath failed his lungs, strength failed his bones; he fell.
They heard him, however, or rather saw him. Two men ran with gourds full of water. Vinicius, who had fallen from exhaustion but had not lost consciousness, seized a gourd with both hands, and emptied one-half of it.
"Thanks," said he; "place me on my feet, I can walk on alone."
The other laborer poured water on his head; the two not only placed him on his feet, but raised him from the ground, and carried him to the others, who surrounded him and asked if he had suffered seriously. This tenderness astonished Vinicius.
"People, who are ye?" asked he.
"We are breaking down houses, so that the fire may not reach the Via Portuensis," answered one of the laborers.
"Ye came to my aid when I had fallen. Thanks to you."
"We are not permitted to refuse aid," answered a number of voices.
Vinicius, who from early morning had seen brutal crowds, slaying and robbing, looked with more attention on the faces around him, and said,—
"May Christ reward you."
"Praise to His name!" exclaimed a whole chorus of voices.
"Linus?" inquired Vinicius.
But he could not finish the question or hear the answer, for he fainted from emotion and over-exertion. He recovered only in the Codetan Field in a garden, surrounded by a number of men and women. The first words which he uttered were,—
"Where is Linus?"
For a while there was no answer; then some voice, known to Vinicius, said all at once,—
"He went out by the Nomentan Gate to Ostrianum two days ago. Peace be with thee, O king of Persia!"
Vinicius rose to a sitting posture, and saw Chilo before him.
"Thy house is burned surely, O lord," said the Greek, "for the Carinae is in flames; but thou wilt be always as rich as Midas. Oh, what a misfortune! The Christians, O son of Serapis, have predicted this long time that fire would destroy the city. But Linus, with the daughter of Jove, is in Ostrianum. Oh, what a misfortune for the city!"
Vinicius became weak again.
"Hast thou seen them?" he inquired.
"I saw them, O lord. May Christ and all the gods be thanked that I am able to pay for thy benefactions with good news. But, O Cyrus, I shall pay thee still more, I swear by this burning Rome."
It was evening, but in the garden one could see as in daylight, for the conflagration had increased. It seemed that not single parts of the city were burning, but the whole city through the length and the breadth of it. The sky was red as far as the eye could see it, and that night in the world was a red night.
Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the color of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-colored abysses of heaven rose-colored stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.
Meanwhile the dreadful element was embracing new divisions of the city. It was impossible to doubt that criminal hands were spreading the fire, since new conflagrations were breaking out all the time in places remote from the principal fire. From the heights on which Rome was founded the flames flowed like waves of the sea into the valleys densely occupied by houses,—houses of five and six stories, full of shops, booths, movable wooden amphitheatres, built to accommodate various spectacles; and finally storehouses of wood, olives, grain, nuts, pine cones, the kernels of which nourished the more needy population, and clothing, which through Caesar's favor was distributed from time to time among the rabble huddled into narrow alleys. In those places the fire, finding abundance of inflammable materials, became almost a series of explosions, and took possession of whole streets with unheard-of rapidity. People encamping outside the city, or standing on the aqueducts knew from the color of the flame what was burning. The furious power of the wind carried forth from the fiery gulf thousands and millions of burning shells of walnuts and almonds, which, shooting suddenly into the sky, like countless flocks of bright butterflies, burst with a crackling, or, driven by the wind, fell in other parts of the city, on aqueducts, and fields beyond Rome. All thought of rescue seemed out of place; confusion increased every moment, for on one side the population of the city was fleeing through every gate to places outside; on the other the fire had lured in thousands of people from the neighborhood, such as dwellers in small towns, peasants, and half-wild shepherds of the Campania, brought in by hope of plunder. The shout, "Rome is perishing!" did not leave the lips of the crowd; the ruin of the city seemed at that time to end every rule, and loosen all bonds which hitherto had joined people in a single integrity. The mob, in which slaves were more numerous, cared nothing for the lordship of Rome. Destruction of the city could only free them; hence here and there they assumed a threatening attitude. Violence and robbery were extending. It seemed that only the spectacle of the perishing city arrested attention, and restrained for the moment an outburst of slaughter, which would begin as soon as the city was turned into ruins. Hundreds of thousands of slaves, forgetting that Rome, besides temples and walls, possessed some tens of legions in all parts of the world, appeared merely waiting for a watchword and a leader. People began to mention the name of Spartacus, but Spartacus was not alive. Meanwhile citizens assembled, and armed themselves each with what he could. The most monstrous reports were current at all the gates. Some declared that Vulcan, commanded by Jupiter, was destroying the city with fire from beneath the earth; others that Vesta was taking vengeance for Rubria. People with these convictions did not care to save anything, but, besieging the temples, implored mercy of the gods. It was repeated most generally, however, that Caesar had given command to burn Rome, so as to free himself from odors which rose from the Subura, and build a new city under the name of Neronia. Rage seized the populace at thought of this; and if, as Vinicius believed, a leader had taken advantage of that outburst of hatred, Nero's hour would have struck whole years before it did.
It was said also that Caesar had gone mad, that he would command pretorians and gladiators to fall upon the people and make a general slaughter. Others swore by the gods that wild beasts had been let out of all the vivaria at Bronzebeard's command. Men had seen on the streets lions with burning manes, and mad elephants and bisons, trampling down people in crowds. There was even some truth in this; for in certain places elephants, at sight of the approaching fire, had burst the vivaria, and, gaining their freedom, rushed away from the fire in wild fright, destroying everything before them like a tempest. Public report estimated at tens of thousands the number of persons who had perished in the conflagration. In truth a great number had perished. There were people who, losing all their property, or those dearest their hearts, threw themselves willingly into the flames, from despair. Others were suffocated by smoke. In the middle of the city, between the Capitol, on one side, and the Quirinal, the Viminal, and the Esquiline on the other, as also between the Palatine and the Caelian Hill, where the streets were most densely occupied, the fire began in so many places at once that whole crowds of people, while fleeing in one direction, struck unexpectedly on a new wall of fire in front of them, and died a dreadful death in a deluge of flame.
In terror, in distraction, and bewilderment, people knew not where to flee. The streets were obstructed with goods, and in many narrow places were simply closed. Those who took refuge in those markets and squares of the city, where the Flavian Amphitheatre stood afterward, near the temple of the Earth, near the Portico of Silvia, and higher up, at the temples of Juno and Lucinia, between the Clivus Virbius and the old Esquiline Gate, perished from heat, surrounded by a sea of fire. In places not reached by the flames were found afterward hundreds of bodies burned to a crisp, though here and there unfortunates tore up flat stones and half buried themselves in defence against the heat. Hardly a family inhabiting the centre of the city survived in full; hence along the walls, at the gates, on all roads were heard howls of despairing women, calling on the dear names of those who had perished in the throng or the fire.
And so, while some were imploring the gods, others blasphemed them because of this awful catastrophe. Old men were seen coming from the temple of Jupiter Liberator, stretching forth their hands, and crying, "If thou be a liberator, save thy altars and the city!" But despair turned mainly against the old Roman gods, who, in the minds of the populace, were bound to watch over the city more carefully than others. They had proved themselves powerless; hence were insulted. On the other hand it happened on the Via Asinaria that when a company of Egyptian priests appeared conducting a statue of Isis, which they had saved from the temple near the Porta Caelimontana, a crowd of people rushed among the priests, attached themselves to the chariot, which they drew to the Appian Gate, and seizing the statue placed it in the temple of Mars, overwhelming the priests of that deity who dared to resist them. In other places people invoked Serapis, Baal, or Jehovah, whose adherents, swarming out of the alleys in the neighborhood of the Subura and the Trans-Tiber, filled with shouts and uproar the fields near the walls. In their cries were heard tones as if of triumph; when, therefore, some of the citizens joined the chorus and glorified "the Lord of the World," others, indignant at this glad shouting, strove to repress it by violence. Here and there hymns were heard, sung by men in the bloom of life, by old men, by women and children,—hymns wonderful and solemn, whose meaning they understood not, but in which were repeated from moment to moment the words, "Behold the Judge cometh in the day of wrath and disaster." Thus this deluge of restless and sleepless people encircled the burning city, like a tempest-driven sea.
But neither despair nor blasphemy nor hymn helped in any way. The destruction seemed as irresistible, perfect, and pitiless as Predestination itself. Around Pompey's Amphitheatre stores of hemp caught fire, and ropes used in circuses, arenas, and every kind of machine at the games, and with them the adjoining buildings containing barrels of pitch with which ropes were smeared. In a few hours all that part of the city, beyond which lay the Campus Martius, was so lighted by bright yellow flames that for a time it seemed to the spectators, only half conscious from terror, that in the general ruin the order of night and day had been lost, and that they were looking at sunshine. But later a monstrous bloody gleam extinguished all other colors of flame. From the sea of fire shot up to the heated sky gigantic fountains, and pillars of flame spreading at their summits into fiery branches and feathers; then the wind bore them away, turned them into golden threads, into hair, into sparks, and swept them on over the Campania toward the Alban Hills. The night became brighter; the air itself seemed penetrated, not only with light, but with flame. The Tiber flowed on as living fire. The hapless city was turned into one pandemonium. The conflagration seized more and more space, took hills by storm, flooded level places, drowned valleys, raged, roared, and thundered.
MACRINUS, a weaver, to whose house Vinicius was carried, washed him, and gave him clothing and food. When the young tribune had recovered his strength altogether, he declared that he would search further for Linus that very night. Macrinus, who was a Christian, confirmed Chilo's report, that Linus, with Clement the chief priest, had gone to Ostrianum, where Peter was to baptize a whole company of confessors of the new faith. In that division of the city it was known to Christians that Linus had confided the care of his house two days before to a certain Gaius. For Vinicius this was a proof that neither Lygia nor Ursus had remained in the house, and that they also must have gone to Ostrianum.
This thought gave him great comfort. Linus was an old man, for whom it would be difficult to walk daily to the distant Nomentan Gate, and back to the Trans-Tiber; hence it was likely that he lodged those few days with some co-religionist beyond the walls, and with him also Lygia and Ursus. Thus they escaped the fire, which in general had not reached the other slope of the Esquiline. Vinicius saw in all this a dispensation of Christ, whose care he felt above him, and his heart was filled more than ever with love; he swore in his soul to pay with his whole life for those clear marks of favor.
But all the more did he hurry to Ostrianum. He would find Lygia, find Linus and Peter; he would take them to a distance, to some of his lands, even to Sicily. Let Rome burn; in a few days it would be a mere heap of ashes. Why remain in the face of disaster and a mad rabble? In his lands troops of obedient slaves would protect them, they would be surrounded by the calm of the country, and live in peace under Christ's wings blessed by Peter. Oh, if he could find them!
That was no easy thing. Vinicius remembered the difficulty with which he had passed from the Appian Way to the Trans-Tiber, and how he must circle around to reach the Via Portuensis. He resolved, therefore, to go around the city this time in the opposite direction. Going by the Via Triumphatoris, it was possible to reach the AEmilian bridge by going along the river, thence passing the Pincian Hill, all the Campus Martius, outside the gardens of Pompey, Lucullus, and Sallust, to make a push forward to the Via Nomentana. That was the shortest way; but Macrinus and Chilo advised him not to take it. The fire had not touched that part of the city, it is true; but all the market squares and streets might be packed densely with people and their goods. Chilo advised him to go through the Ager Vaticanus to the Porta Flaminia, cross the river at that point, and push on outside the walls beyond the gardens of Acilius to the Porta Salaria. Vinicius, after a moment's hesitation, took this advice.
Macrinus had to remain in care of his house; but he provided two mules, which would serve Lygia also in a further journey. He wished to give a slave, too; but Vinicius refused, judging that the first detachment of pretorians he met on the road would pass under his orders.
Soon he and Chilo moved on through the Pagus Janiculensis to the Triumphal Way. There were vehicles there, too, in open places; but they pushed between them with less difficulty, as the inhabitants had fled for the greater part by the Via Portuensis toward the sea. Beyond the Septimian Gate they rode between the river and the splendid gardens of Domitius; the mighty cypresses were red from the conflagration, as if from evening sunshine. The road became freer; at times they had to struggle merely with the current of incoming rustics. Vinicius urged his mule forward as much as possible; but Chilo, riding closely in the rear, talked to himself almost the whole way.
"Well, we have left the fire behind, and now it is heating our shoulders. Never yet has there been so much light on this road in the night-time. O Zeus! if thou wilt not send torrents of rain on that fire, thou hast no love for Rome, surely. The power of man will not quench those flames. Such a city,—a city which Greece and the whole world was serving! And now the first Greek who comes along may roast beans in its ashes. Who could have looked for this? And now there will be no longer a Rome, nor Roman rulers. Whoso wants to walk on the ashes, when they grow cold, and whistle over them, may whistle without danger. O gods! to whistle over such a world-ruling city! What Greek, or even barbarian, could have hoped for this? And still one may whistle; for a heap of ashes, whether left after a shepherd's fire or a burnt city, is mere ashes, which the wind will blow away sooner or later."
Thus talking, he turned from moment to moment toward the conflagration, and looked at the waves of flame with a face filled at once with delight and malice.
"It will perish! It will perish!" continued he, "and will never be on earth again. Whither will the world send its wheat now, its olives, and its money? Who will squeeze gold and tears from it? Marble does not burn, but it crumbles in fire. The Capitol will turn into dust, and the Palatine into dust. O Zeus! Rome was like a shepherd, and other nations like sheep. When the shepherd was hungry, he slaughtered a sheep, ate the flesh, and to thee, O father of the gods, he made an offering of the skin. Who, O Cloud-compeller, will do the slaughtering now, and into whose hand wilt thou put the shepherd's whip? For Rome is burning, O father, as truly as if thou hadst fired it with thy thunderbolt."
"Hurry!" urged Vinicius; "what art thou doing there?"
"I am weeping over Rome, lord,—Jove's city!"
For a time they rode on in silence, listening to the roar of the burning, and the sound of birds' wings. Doves, a multitude of which had their nests about villas and in small towns of the Campania, and also every kind of field-bird from near the sea and the surrounding mountains, mistaking evidently the gleam of the conflagration for sunlight, were flying, whole flocks of them, blindly into the fire. Vinicius broke the silence first,—
"Where wert thou when the fire burst out?"
"I was going to my friend Euricius, lord, who kept a shop near the Circus Maximus, and I was just meditating on the teaching of Christ, when men began to shout: 'Fire!' People gathered around the Circus for safety, and through curiosity; but when the flames seized the whole Circus, and began to appear in other places also, each had to think of his own safety."
"Didst thou see people throwing torches into houses?"
"What have I not seen, O grandson of AEneas! I saw people making a way for themselves through the crowd with swords; I have seen battles, the entrails of people trampled on the pavement. Ah, if thou hadst seen that, thou wouldst have thought that barbarians had captured the city, and were putting it to the sword. People round about cried that the end of the world had come. Some lost their heads altogether, and, forgetting to flee, waited stupidly till the flames seized them. Some fell into bewilderment, others howled in despair; I saw some also who howled from delight. O lord, there are many bad people in the world who know not how to value the benefactions of your mild rule, and those just laws in virtue of which ye take from all what they have and give it to yourselves. People will not be reconciled to the will of God!"
Vinicius was too much occupied with his own thoughts to note the irony quivering in Chilo's words. A shudder of terror seized him at the simple thought that Lygia might be in the midst of that chaos on those terrible streets where people's entrails were trampled on. Hence, though he had asked at least ten times of Chilo touching all which the old man could know, he turned to him once again,—
"But hast thou seen them in Ostrianum with thy own eyes?"
"I saw them, O son of Venus; I saw the maiden, the good Lygian, holy Linus, and the Apostle Peter."
"Before the fire?"
"Before the fire, O Mithra!"
But a doubt rose in the soul of Vinicius whether Chilo was not lying; hence, reining his mule in, he looked threateningly at the old Greek and inquired,—
"What wert thou doing there?"
Chilo was confused. True, it seemed to him, as to many, that with the destruction of Rome would come the end also of Roman dominion. But he was face to face with Vinicius; he remembered that the young soldier had prohibited him, under a terrible threat, from watching the Christians, and especially Linus and Lygia.
"Lord," said he, "why dost thou not believe that I love them? I do. I was in Ostrianum, for I am half a Christian. Pyrrho has taught me to esteem virtue more than philosophy; hence I cleave more and more to virtuous people. And, besides, I am poor; and when thou, O Jove, wert at Antium, I suffered hunger frequently over my books; therefore I sat at the wall of Ostrianum, for the Christians, though poor, distribute more alms than all other inhabitants of Rome taken together."
This reason seemed sufficient to Vinicius, and he inquired less severely,—
"And dost thou not know where Linus is dwelling at this moment?"
"Thou didst punish me sharply on a time for curiosity," replied the Greek.
Vinicius ceased talking and rode on.
"O lord," said Chilo, after a while, "thou wouldst not have found the maiden but for me, and if we find her now, thou wilt not forget the needy sage?"
"Thou wilt receive a house with a vineyard at Ameriola."
"Thanks to thee, O Hercules! With a vineyard? Thanks to thee! Oh, yes, with a vineyard!"
They were passing the Vatican Hill now, which was ruddy from the fire; but beyond the Naumachia they turned to the right, so that when they had passed the Vatican Field they would reach the river, and, crossing it, go to the Flaminian Gate. Suddenly Chilo reined in his mule, and said,—
"A good thought has come to my head, lord!"
"Speak!" answered Vinicius.
"Between the Janiculum and the Vatican Hill, beyond the gardens of Agrippina, are excavations from which stones and sand were taken to build the Circus of Nero. Hear me, lord. Recently the Jews, of whom, as thou knowest, there is a multitude in Trans-Tiber, have begun to persecute Christians cruelly. Thou hast in mind that in the time of the divine Claudius there were such disturbances that Caesar was forced to expel them from Rome. Now, when they have returned, and when, thanks to the protection of the Augusta, they feel safe, they annoy Christians more insolently. I know this; I have seen it. No edict against Christians has been issued; but the Jews complain to the prefect of the city that Christians murder infants, worship an ass, and preach a religion not recognized by the Senate; they beat them, and attack their houses of prayer so fiercely that the Christians are forced to hide."
"What dost thou wish to say?" inquired Vinicius.
"This, lord, that synagogues exist openly in the Trans-Tiber; but that Christians, in their wish to avoid persecution, are forced to pray in secret and assemble in ruined sheds outside the city or in sand-pits. Those who dwell in the Trans-Tiber have chosen just that place which was excavated for the building of the Circus and various houses along the Tiber. Now, when the city is perishing, the adherents of Christ are praying. Beyond doubt we shall find a countless number of them in the excavation; so my advice is to go in there along the road."
"But thou hast said that Linus has gone to Ostrianum," cried Vinicius impatiently.
"But thou has promised me a house with a vineyard at Ameriola," answered Chilo; "for that reason I wish to seek the maiden wherever I hope to find her. They might have returned to the Trans-Tiber after the outbreak of the fire. They might have gone around outside the city, as we are doing at this moment. Linus has a house, perhaps he wished to be nearer his house to see if the fire had seized that part of the city also. If they have returned, I swear to thee, by Persephone, that we shall find them at prayer in the excavation; in the worst event, we shall get tidings of them."
"Thou art right; lead on!" said the tribune.
Chilo, without hesitation, turned to the left toward the hill.
For a while the slope of the hill concealed the conflagration, so that, though the neighboring heights were in the light, the two men were in the shade. When they had passed the Circus, they turned still to the left, and entered a kind of passage completely dark. But in that darkness Vinicius saw swarms of gleaming lanterns.
"They are there," said Chilo. "There will be more of them to-day than ever, for other houses of prayer are burnt or are filled with smoke, as is the whole Trans-Tiber."
"True!" said Vinicius, "I hear singing."
In fact, the voices of people singing reached the hill from the dark opening, and the lanterns vanished in it one after the other. But from side passages new forms appeared continually, so that after some time Vinicius and Chilo found themselves amid a whole assemblage of people.
Chilo slipped from his mule, and, beckoning to a youth who sat near, said to him,—"I am a priest of Christ and a bishop. Hold the mules for us; thou wilt receive my blessing and forgiveness of sins."
Then, without waiting for an answer, he thrust the reins into his hands, and, in company with Vinicius, joined the advancing throng.
They entered the excavation after a while, and pushed on through the dark passage by the dim light of lanterns till they reached a spacious cave, from which stone had been taken evidently, for the walls were formed of fresh fragments.
It was brighter there than in the corridor, for, in addition to tapers and lanterns, torches were burning. By the light of these Vinicius saw a whole throng of kneeling people with upraised hands. He could not see Lygia, the Apostle Peter, or Linus, but he was surrounded by faces solemn and full of emotion. On some of them expectation or alarm was evident; on some, hope. Light was reflected in the whites of their upraised eyes; perspiration was flowing along their foreheads, pale as chalk; some were singing hymns, others were repeating feverishly the name of Jesus, some were beating their breasts. It was apparent that they expected something uncommon at any moment.
Meanwhile the hymn ceased, and above the assembly, in a niche formed by the removal of an immense stone, appeared Crispus, the acquaintance of Vinicius, with a face as it were half delirious, pale, stern, and fanatical. All eyes were turned to him, as though waiting for words of consolation and hope. After he had blessed the assembly, he began in hurried, almost shouting tones,—
"Bewail your sins, for the hour has come! Behold the Lord has sent down destroying flames on Babylon, on the city of profligacy and crime. The hour of judgment has struck, the hour of wrath and dissolution. The Lord has promised to come, and soon you will see Him. He will not come as the Lamb, who offered His blood for your sins, but as an awful judge, who in His justice will hurl sinners and unbelievers into the pit. Woe to the world, woe to sinners! there will be no mercy for them. I see Thee, O Christ! Stars are falling to the earth in showers, the sun is darkened, the earth opens in yawning gulfs, the dead rise from their graves, but Thou art moving amid the sound of trumpets and legions of angels, amid thunders and lightnings. I see Thee, I hear Thee, O Christ!"
Then he was silent, and, raising his eyes, seemed to gaze into something distant and dreadful. That moment a dull roar was heard in the cave,—once, twice, a tenth time, in the burning city whole streets of partly consumed houses began to fall with a crash. But most Christians took those sounds as a visible sign that the dreadful hour was approaching; belief in the early second coming of Christ and in the end of the world was universal among them, now the destruction of the city had strengthened it. Terror seized the assembly. Many voices repeated, "The day of judgment! Behold, it is coming!" Some covered their faces with their hands, believing that the earth would be shaken to its foundation, that beasts of hell would rush out through its openings and hurl themselves on sinners. Others cried, "Christ have mercy on us!" "Redeemer, be pitiful!" Some confessed their sins aloud; others cast themselves into the arms of friends, so as to have some near heart with them in the hour of dismay.
But there were faces which seemed rapt into heaven, faces with smiles not of earth; these showed no fear. In some places were heard voices; those were of people who in religious excitement had begun to cry out unknown words in strange languages. Some person in a dark corner cried, "Wake thou that sleepest!" Above all rose the shout of Crispus, "Watch ye! watch ye!"
At moments, however, silence came, as if all were holding the breath in their breasts, and waiting for what would come. And then was heard the distant thunder of parts of the city falling into ruins, after which were heard again groans and cries,—"Renounce earthly riches, for soon there will be no earth beneath your feet! Renounce earthly loves, for the Lord will condemn those who love wife or child more than Him. Woe to the one who loves the creature more than the Creator! Woe to the rich! woe to the luxurious! woe to the dissolute! woe to husband, wife, and child!"
Suddenly a roar louder than any which had preceded shook the quarry. All fell to the earth, stretching their arms in cross form to ward away evil spirits by that figure. Silence followed, in which was heard only panting breath, whispers full of terror, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" and in places the weeping of children. At that moment a certain calm voice spoke above that prostrate multitude,—
"Peace be with you!"
That was the voice of Peter the Apostle, who had entered the cave a moment earlier. At the sound of his voice terror passed at once, as it passes from a flock in which the shepherd has appeared. People rose from the earth; those who were nearer gathered at his knees, as if seeking protection under his wings. He stretched his hands over them and said,—
"Why are ye troubled in heart? Who of you can tell what will happen before the hour cometh? The Lord has punished Babylon with fire; but His mercy will be on those whom baptism has purified, and ye whose sins are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will die with His name on your lips. Peace be with you!"
After the terrible and merciless words of Crispus, those of Peter fell like a balm on all present. Instead of fear of God, the love of God took possession of their spirits. Those people found the Christ whom they had learned to love from the Apostle's narratives; hence not a merciless judge, but a mild and patient Lamb, whose mercy surpasses man's wickedness a hundredfold. A feeling of solace possessed the whole assembly; and comfort, with thankfulness to the Apostle, filled their hearts, Voices from various sides began to cry, "We are thy sheep, feed us!" Those nearer said, "Desert us not in the day of disaster!" And they knelt at his knees; seeing which Vinicius approached, seized the edge of Peter's mantle, and, inclining, said,—
"Save me, lord. I have sought her in the smoke of the burning and in the throng of people; nowhere could I find her, but I believe that thou canst restore her."
Peter placed his hand on the tribune's head.
"Have trust," said he, "and come with me."
The city burned on. The Circus Maximus had fallen in ruins. Entire streets and alleys in parts which began to burn first were falling in turn. After every fall pillars of flame rose for a time to the very sky. The wind had changed, and blew now with mighty force from the sea, bearing toward the Caelian, the Esquiline, and the Viminal rivers of flame, brands, and cinders. Still the authorities provided for rescue. At command of Tigellinus, who had hastened from Antium the third day before, houses on the Esquiline were torn down so that the fire, reaching empty spaces, died of itself. That was, however, undertaken solely to save a remnant of the city; to save that which was burning was not to be thought of. There was need also to guard against further results of the ruin. Incalculable wealth had perished in Rome; all the property of its citizens had vanished; hundreds of thousands of people were wandering in utter want outside the walls. Hunger had begun to pinch this throng the second day, for the immense stores of provisions in the city had burned with it. In the universal disorder and in the destruction of authority no one had thought of furnishing new supplies. Only after the arrival of Tigellinus were proper orders sent to Ostia; but meanwhile the people had grown more threatening.
The house at Aqua Appia, in which Tigellinus lodged for the moment, was surrounded by crowds of women, who from morning till late at night cried, "Bread and a roof!" Vainly did pretorians, brought from the great camp between the Via Salaria and the Nomentana, strive to maintain order of some kind. Here and there they were met by open, armed resistance. In places weaponless crowds pointed to the burning city, and shouted, "Kill us in view of that fire!" They abused Caesar, the Augustians, the pretorians; excitement rose every moment, so that Tigellinus, looking at night on the thousands of fires around the city, said to himself that those were fires in hostile camps.
Besides flour, as much baked bread as possible was brought at his command, not only from Ostia, but from all towns and neighboring villages. When the first instalment came at night to the Emporium, the people broke the chief gate toward the Aventine, seized all supplies in the twinkle of an eye, and caused terrible disturbance. In the light of the conflagration they fought for loaves, and trampled many of them into the earth. Flour from torn bags whitened like snow the whole space from the granary to the arches of Drusus and Germanicus. The uproar continued till soldiers seized the building and dispersed the crowd with arrows and missiles.
Never since the invasion by the Gauls under Brennus had Rome beheld such disaster. People in despair compared the two conflagrations. But in the time of Brennus the Capitol remained. Now the Capitol was encircled by a dreadful wreath of flame. The marbles, it is true, were not blazing; but at night, when the wind swept the flames aside for a moment, rows of columns in the lofty sanctuary of Jove were visible, red as glowing coals. In the days of Brennus, moreover, Rome had a disciplined integral people, attached to the city and its altars; but now crowds of a many-tongued populace roamed nomad-like around the walls of burning Rome,—people composed for the greater part of slaves and freedmen, excited, disorderly, and ready, under the pressure of want, to turn against authority and the city.
But the very immensity of the fire, which terrified every heart, disarmed the crowd in a certain measure. After the fire might come famine and disease; and to complete the misfortune the terrible heat of July had appeared. It was impossible to breathe air inflamed both by fire and the sun. Night brought no relief, on the contrary it presented a hell. During daylight an awful and ominous spectacle met the eye. In the centre a giant city on heights was turned into a roaring volcano; round about as far as the Alban Hills was one boundless camp, formed of sheds, tents, huts, vehicles, bales, packs, stands, fires, all covered with smoke and dust, lighted by sun-rays reddened by passing through smoke,—everything filled with roars, shouts, threats, hatred and terror, a monstrous swarm of men, women, and children. Mingled with Quirites were Greeks, shaggy men from the North with blue eyes, Africans, and Asiatics; among citizens were slaves, freedmen, gladiators, merchants, mechanics, servants, and soldiers,—a real sea of people, flowing around the island of fire.
Various reports moved this sea as wind does a real one. These reports were favorable and unfavorable. People told of immense supplies of wheat and clothing to be brought to the Emporium and distributed gratis. It was said, too, that provinces in Asia and Africa would be stripped of their wealth at Caesar's command, and the treasures thus gained be given to the inhabitants of Rome, so that each man might build his own dwelling. But it was noised about also that water in the aqueducts had been poisoned; that Nero intended to annihilate the city, destroy the inhabitants to the last person, then move to Greece or to Egypt, and rule the world from a new place. Each report ran with lightning speed, and each found belief among the rabble, causing outbursts of hope, anger, terror, or rage. Finally a kind of fever mastered those nomadic thousands. The belief of Christians that the end of the world by fire was at hand, spread even among adherents of the gods, and extended daily. People fell into torpor or madness. In clouds lighted by the burning, gods were seen gazing down on the ruin; hands were stretched toward those gods then to implore pity or send them curses.
Meanwhile soldiers, aided by a certain number of inhabitants, continued to tear down houses on the Esquiline and the Caelian, as also in the Trans-Tiber; these divisions were saved therefore in considerable part. But in the city itself were destroyed incalculable treasures accumulated through centuries of conquest; priceless works of art, splendid temples, the most precious monuments of Rome's past, and Rome's glory. They foresaw that of all Rome there would remain barely a few parts on the edges, and that hundreds of thousands of people would be without a roof. Some spread reports that the soldiers were tearing down houses not to stop the fire, but to prevent any part of the city from being saved. Tigellinus sent courier after courier to Antium, imploring Caesar in each letter to come and calm the despairing people with his presence. But Nero moved only when fire had seized the "domus transitoria," and he hurried so as not to miss the moment in which the conflagration should be at its highest.
Meanwhile fire had reached the Via Nomentana, but turned from it at once with a change of wind toward the Via Lata and the Tiber. It surrounded the Capitol, spread along the Forum Boarium, destroyed everything which it had spared before, and approached the Palatine a second time.
Tigellinus, assembling all the pretorian forces, despatched courier after courier to Caesar with an announcement that he would lose nothing of the grandeur of the spectacle, for the fire had increased.
But Nero, who was on the road, wished to come at night, so as to sate himself all the better with a view of the perishing capital. Therefore he halted, in the neighborhood of Aqua Albana, and, summoning to his tent the tragedian Aliturus, decided with his aid on posture, look, and expression; learned fitting gestures, disputing with the actor stubbornly whether at the words "O sacred city, which seemed more enduring than Ida," he was to raise both hands, or, holding in one the forminga, drop it by his side and raise only the other. This question seemed to him then more important than all others. Starting at last about nightfall, he took counsel of Petronius also whether to the lines describing the catastrophe he might add a few magnificent blasphemies against the gods, and whether, considered from the standpoint of art, they would not have rushed spontaneously from the mouth of a man in such a position, a man who was losing his birthplace.
At length he approached the walls about midnight with his numerous court, composed of whole detachments of nobles, senators, knights, freedmen, slaves, women, and children. Sixteen thousand pretorians, arranged in line of battle along the road, guarded the peace and safety of his entrance, and held the excited populace at a proper distance. The people cursed, shouted, and hissed on seeing the retinue, but dared not attack it. In many places, however, applause was given by the rabble, which, owning nothing, had lost nothing in the fire, and which hoped for a more bountiful distribution than usual of wheat, olives, clothing, and money. Finally, shouts, hissing, and applause were drowned in the blare of horns and trumpets, which Tigellinus had caused to be sounded.
Nero, on arriving at the Ostian Gate, halted, and said, "Houseless ruler of a houseless people, where shall I lay my unfortunate head for the night?"
After he had passed the Clivus Delphini, he ascended the Appian aqueduct on steps prepared purposely. After him followed the Augustians and a choir of singers, bearing citharae, lutes, and other musical instruments.
And all held the breath in their breasts, waiting to learn if he would say some great words, which for their own safety they ought to remember. But he stood solemn, silent, in a purple mantle, and a wreath of golden laurels, gazing at the raging might of the flames. When Terpnos gave him a golden lute, he raised his eyes to the sky, filled with the conflagration, as if he were waiting for inspiration.
The people pointed at him from afar as he stood in the bloody gleam. In the distance fiery serpents were hissing. The ancient and most sacred edifices were in flames: the temple of Hercules, reared by Evander, was burning; the temple of Jupiter Stator was burning, the temple of Luna, built by Servius Tullius, the house of Numa Pompilius, the sanctuary of Vesta with the penates of the Roman people; through waving flames the Capitol appeared at intervals; the past and the spirit of Rome was burning. But he, Caesar, was there with a lute in his hand and a theatrical expression on his face, not thinking of his perishing country, but of his posture and the prophetic words with which he might describe best the greatness of the catastrophe, rouse most admiration, and receive the warmest plaudits. He detested that city, he detested its inhabitants, beloved only his own songs and verses; hence he rejoiced in heart that at last he saw a tragedy like that which he was writing. The verse-maker was happy, the declaimer felt inspired, the seeker for emotions was delighted at the awful sight, and thought with rapture that even the destruction of Troy was as nothing if compared with the destruction of that giant city. What more could he desire? There was world-ruling Rome in flames, and he, standing on the arches of the aqueduct with a golden lute, conspicuous, purple, admired, magnificent, poetic. Down below, somewhere in the darkness, the people are muttering and storming. But let them mutter! Ages will pass, thousands of years will go by, but mankind will remember and glorify the poet, who in that night sang the fall and the burning of Troy. What was Homer compared with him? What Apollo himself with his hollowed-out lute?
Here he raised his hands and, striking the strings, pronounced the words of Priam.
"O nest of my fathers, O dear cradle!" His voice in the open air, with the roar of the conflagration, and the distant murmur of crowding thousands, seemed marvellously weak, uncertain, and low, and the sound of the accompaniment like the buzzing of insects. But senators, dignitaries, and Augustians, assembled on the aqueduct, bowed their heads and listened in silent rapture. He sang long, and his motive was ever sadder. At moments, when he stopped to catch breath, the chorus of singers repeated the last verse; then Nero cast the tragic "syrma" [A robe with train, worn especially by tragic actors] from his shoulder with a gesture learned from Aliturus, struck the lute, and sang on. When at last he had finished the lines composed, he improvised, seeking grandiose comparisons in the spectacle unfolded before him. His face began to change. He was not moved, it is true, by the destruction of his country's capital; but he was delighted and moved with the pathos of his own words to such a degree that his eyes filled with tears on a sudden. At last he dropped the lute to his feet with a clatter, and, wrapping himself in the "syrma," stood as if petrified, like one of those statues of Niobe which ornamented the courtyard of the Palatine.
Soon a storm of applause broke the silence. But in the distance this was answered by the howling of multitudes. No one doubted then that Caesar had given command to burn the city, so as to afford himself a spectacle and sing a song at it. Nero, when he heard that cry from hundreds of thousands, turned to the Augustians with the sad, resigned smile of a man who is suffering from injustice.
"See," said he, "how the Quirites value poetry and me."
"Scoundrels!" answered Vatinius. "Command the pretorians, lord, to fall on them."
Nero turned to Tigellinus,—
"Can I count on the loyalty of the soldiers?"
"Yes, divinity," answered the prefect.
But Petronius shrugged his shoulders, and said,—
"On their loyalty, yes, but not on their numbers. Remain meanwhile where thou art, for here it is safest; but there is need to pacify the people."
Seneca was of this opinion also, as was Licinus the consul. Meanwhile the excitement below was increasing. The people were arming with stones, tent-poles, sticks from the wagons, planks, and various pieces of iron. After a while some of the pretorian leaders came, declaring that the cohorts, pressed by the multitude, kept the line of battle with extreme difficulty, and, being without orders to attack, they knew not what to do.
"O gods," said Nero, "what a night!" On one side a fire, on the other a raging sea of people. And he fell to seeking expressions the most splendid to describe the danger of the moment, but, seeing around him alarmed looks and pale faces, he was frightened, with the others.
"Give me my dark mantle with a hood!" cried he; "must it come really to battle?"
"Lord," said Tigellinus, in an uncertain voice, "I have done what I could, but danger is threatening. Speak, O lord, to the people, and make them promises."
"Shall Caesar speak to the rabble? Let another do that in my name. Who will undertake it?"
"I!" answered Petronius, calmly.
"Go, my friend; thou art most faithful to me in every necessity. Go, and spare no promises."
Petronius turned to the retinue with a careless, sarcastic expression,—
"Senators here present, also Piso, Nerva, and Senecio, follow me."
Then he descended the aqueduct slowly. Those whom he had summoned followed, not without hesitation, but with a certain confidence which his calmness had given them. Petronius, halting at the foot of the arches, gave command to bring him a white horse, and, mounting, rode on, at the head of the cavalcade, between the deep ranks of pretorians, to the black, howling multitude; he was unarmed, having only a slender ivory cane which he carried habitually.
When he had ridden up, he pushed his horse into the throng. All around, visible in the light of the burning, were upraised hands, armed with every manner of weapon, inflamed eyes, sweating faces, bellowing and foaming lips. A mad sea of people surrounded him and his attendants; round about was a sea of heads, moving, roaring, dreadful.
The outbursts increased and became an unearthly roar; poles, forks, and even swords were brandished above Petronius; grasping hands were stretched toward his horse's reins and toward him, but he rode farther; cool, indifferent, contemptuous. At moments he struck the most insolent heads with his cane, as if clearing a road for himself in an ordinary crowd; and that confidence of his, that calmness, amazed the raging rabble. They recognized him at length, and numerous voices began to shout,—
"Petronius! Arbiter Elegantiarum! Petronius! Petronius!" was heard on all sides. And as that name was repeated, the faces about became less terrible, the uproar less savage: for that exquisite patrician, though he had never striven for the favor of the populace, was still their favorite. He passed for a humane and magnanimous man; and his popularity had increased, especially since the affair of Pedanius Secundus, when he spoke in favor of mitigating the cruel sentence condemning all the slaves of that prefect to death. The slaves more especially loved him thenceforward with that unbounded love which the oppressed or unfortunate are accustomed to give those who show them even small sympathy. Besides, in that moment was added curiosity as to what Caesar's envoy would say, for no one doubted that Caesar had sent him.
He removed his white toga, bordered with scarlet, raised it in the air, and waved it above his head, in sign that he wished to speak.
"Silence! Silence!" cried the people on all sides.
After a while there was silence. Then he straightened himself on the horse and said in a clear, firm voice,—
"Citizens, let those who hear me repeat my words to those who are more distant, and bear yourselves, all of you, like men, not like beasts in the arena."
"We will, we will!"
"Then listen. The city will be rebuilt. The gardens of Lucullus, Maecenas, Caesar, and Agrippina will be opened to you. To-morrow will begin the distribution of wheat, wine, and olives, so that every man may be full to the throat. Then Caesar will have games for you, such as the world has not seen yet; during these games banquets and gifts will be given you. Ye will be richer after the fire than before it."
A murmur answered him which spread from the centre in every direction, as a wave rises on water in which a stone has been cast. Those nearer repeated his words to those more distant. Afterward were heard here and there shouts of anger or applause, which turned at length into one universal call of "Panem et circenses!!!"
Petronius wrapped himself in his toga and listened for a time without moving, resembling in his white garment a marble statue. The uproar increased, drowned the roar of the fire, was answered from every side and from ever-increasing distances. But evidently the envoy had something to add, for he waited. Finally, commanding silence anew, he cried,—"I promised you panem et circenses; and now give a shout in honor of Caesar, who feeds and clothes you; then go to sleep, dear populace, for the dawn will begin before long."
He turned his horse then, and, tapping lightly with his cane the heads and faces of those who stood in his way, he rode slowly to the pretorian ranks. Soon he was under the aqueduct. He found almost a panic above, where they had not understood the shout "Panem et circenses," and supposed it to be a new outburst of rage. They had not even expected that Petronius would save himself; so Nero, when he saw him, ran to the steps, and with face pale from emotion, inquired,—
"Well, what are they doing? Is there a battle?"
Petronius drew air into his lungs, breathed deeply, and answered,—"By Pollux! they are sweating! and such a stench! Will some one give me an epilimma?—for I am faint." Then he turned to Caesar.
"I promised them," said he, "wheat, olives, the opening of the gardens, and games. They worship thee anew, and are howling in thy honor. Gods, what a foul odor those plebeians have!"
"I had pretorians ready," cried Tigellinus; "and hadst thou not quieted them, the shouters would have been silenced forever. It is a pity, Caesar, that thou didst not let me use force."
Petronius looked at him, shrugged his shoulders, and added,—
"The chance is not lost. Thou mayst have to use it to-morrow."
"No, no!" cried Caesar, "I will give command to open the gardens to them, and distribute wheat. Thanks to thee, Petronius, I will have games; and that song, which I sang to-day, I will sing publicly."
Then he placed his hands on the arbiter's shoulder, was silent a moment, and starting up at last inquired,—
"Tell me sincerely, how did I seem to thee while I was singing?"
"Thou wert worthy of the spectacle, and the spectacle was worthy of thee," said Petronius.
"But let us look at it again," said he, turning to the fire, "and bid farewell to ancient Rome."
THE Apostle's words put confidence in the souls of the Christians. The end of the world seemed ever near to them, but they began to think that the day of judgment would not come immediately, that first they would see the end of Nero's reign, which they looked on as the reign of Satan, and the punishment of God for Caesar's crimes, which were crying for vengeance. Strengthened in heart, they dispersed, after the prayer, to their temporary dwellings, and even to the Trans-Tiber; for news had come that the fire, set there in a number of places, had, with the change of wind, turned back toward the river, and, after devouring what it could here and there, had ceased to extend.
The Apostle, with Vinicius and Chilo, who followed him, left the excavation also. The young tribune did not venture to interrupt his prayers; hence he walked on in silence, merely imploring pity with his eyes, and trembling from alarm. Many approached to kiss Peter's hands, and the hem of his mantle; mothers held out their children to him; some knelt in the dark, long passage, and, holding up tapers, begged a blessing; others, going alongside, sang: so there was no chance for question or answer. Thus it was in the narrow passage. Only when they came out to broader spaces, from which the burning city was in view, did the Apostle bless them three times, and say, turning to Vinicius,—
"Fear not. The hut of the quarryman is near; in it we shall find Linus, and Lygia, with her faithful servant. Christ, who predestined her to thee, has preserved her."
Vinicius tottered, and placed his hand against the cliff. The road from Antium, the events at the wall, the search for Lygia amidst burning houses, sleeplessness, and his terrible alarm had exhausted him; and the news that the dearest person in the world was near by, and that soon he would see her, took the remnant of his strength from him. So great a weakness possessed him on a sudden that he dropped to the Apostle's feet, and, embracing his knees, remained thus, without power to say a word.
"Not to me, not to me, but to Christ," said the Apostle, who warded off thanks and honor.
"What a good God!" said the voice of Chilo from behind, "but what shall I do with the mules that are waiting down here?"
"Rise and come with me," said Peter to the young man.
Vinicius rose. By the light of the burning, tears were visible on his face, which was pale from emotion. His lips moved, as if in prayer.
"Let us go," said he.
But Chilo repeated again: "Lord, what shall I do with the mules that are waiting? Perhaps this worthy prophet prefers riding to walking."
Vinicius did not know himself what to answer; but hearing from Peter that the quarryman's hut was near by, he said,—
"Take the mules to Macrinus."
"Pardon me, lord, if I mention the house in Ameriola. In view of such an awful fire, it is easy to forget a thing so paltry."
"Thou wilt get it."
"O grandson of Numa Pompilius, I have always been sure, but now, when this magnanimous prophet also has heard the promise, I will not remind thee even of this, that thou hast promised me a vineyard. Pax vobiscum. I shall find thee, lord. Pax vobiscum."
They answered, "And peace with thee."
Then both turned to the right toward the hills. Along the road Vinicius said,
"Lord, wash me with the water of baptism, so that I may call myself a real confessor of Christ, for I love Him with all the power of my soul. Wash me quickly, for I am ready in heart. And what thou commandest I will do, but tell me, so that I may do it in addition."
"Love men as thy own brothers," answered the Apostle, "for only with love mayst thou serve Him."
"Yes, I understand and feel that. When a child I believed in the Roman gods, though I did not love them. But I so love Him the One God that I would give my life for Him gladly." And he looked toward the sky, repeating with exaltation: "For He is one, for He alone is kind and merciful; hence, let not only this city perish, but the whole world, Him alone will I confess and recognize."
"And He will bless thee and thy house," concluded the Apostle.
Meanwhile they turned into another ravine, at the end of which a faint light was visible. Peter pointed to it and said,—
"There is the hut of the quarryman who gave us a refuge when, on the way from Ostrianum with the sick Linus, we could not go to the Trans-Tiber."
After a while they arrived. The hut was rather a cave rounded Out in an indentation of the hill, and was faced outside with a wall made of reeds. The door was closed, but through an opening, which served for a window, the interior was visible, lighted by a fire. Some dark giant figure rose up to meet them, and inquired,—"Who are ye?"
"Servants of Christ," answered Peter. "Peace be with thee, Ursus."
Ursus bent to the Apostle's feet; then, recognizing Vinicius, seized his hand by the wrist, and raised it to his lips.
"And thou, lord," said he. "Blessed be the name of the Lamb, for the joy which thou wilt bring to Callina."
He opened the door then, and entered. Linus was lying on a bundle of straw, with an emaciated face and a forehead as yellow as ivory. Near the fire sat Lygia with a string of small fish, intended evidently for supper. Occupied in removing the fish from the string, and thinking that it was Ursus who had entered, she did not raise her eyes. But Vinicius approached, and, pronouncing her name, stretched his hand to her. She sprang up quickly then; a flash of astonishment and delight shot across her face. Without a word, like a child who after days of fear and sorrow had found father or mother, she threw herself into his open arms.
He embraced her, pressed her to his bosom for some time with such ecstasy as if she had been saved by a miracle. Then, withdrawing his arms, he took her temples between his hands, kissed her forehead and her eyes, embraced her again, repeated her name, bent to her knees, to her palms, greeted her, did her homage, honored her. His delight had no bounds; neither had his love and happiness.
At last he told her how he had rushed in from Antium; had searched for her at the walls, in the smoke at the house of Linus; how he had suffered and was terrified; how much he had endured before the Apostle had shown him her retreat.
"But now," said he, "that I have found thee, I will not leave thee near fire and raging crowds. People are slaying one another under the walls, slaves are revolting and plundering. God alone knows what miseries may fall yet on Rome. But I will save thee and all of you. Oh, my dear, let us go to Antium; we will take a ship there and sail to Sicily. My land is thy land, my houses are thy houses. Listen to me! In Sicily we shall find Aulus. I will give thee back to Pomponia, and take thee from her hands afterward. But, O carissima, have no further fear of me. Christ has not washed me yet, but ask Peter if on the way hither I have not told him my wish to be a real confessor of Christ, and begged him to baptize me, even in this hut of a quarryman. Believe, and let all believe me."
Lygia heard these words with radiant face. The Christians formerly, because of Jewish persecutions, and then because of the fire and disturbance caused by the disaster, lived in fear and uncertainty. A journey to quiet Sicily would put an end to all danger, and open a new epoch of happiness in their lives. If Vinicius had wished to take only Lygia, she would have resisted the temptation surely, as she did not wish to leave Peter and Linus; but Vinicius said to them, "Come with me; my lands are your lands, my houses your houses." At this Lygia inclined to kiss his hand, in sign of obedience, and said,—
"Where thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia."
Then confused that she had spoken words which by Roman custom were repeated only at marriage, she blushed deeply, and stood in the light of the fire, with drooping head, in doubt lest he might take them ill of her. But in his face boundless homage alone was depicted. He turned then to Peter, and continued,—
"Rome is burning at command of Caesar. In Antium he complained that he had never seen a great fire. And if he has not hesitated at such a crime, think what may happen yet. Who knows that he may not bring in troops, and command a slaughter? Who knows what proscriptions may come; who knows whether after the fire, civil war, murder, and famine may not come?
"Hide yourselves, therefore, and let us hide Lygia. There ye can wait till the storm passes, and when it is over return to sow your grain anew."
Outside, from the direction of the Vatican Field, as if to confirm his fears, distant cries were heard full of rage and terror. At that moment the quarryman entered, the master of the hut, and, shutting the door hastily, he cried,—
"People are killing one another near the Circus of Nero. Slaves and gladiators have attacked the citizens."
"Do ye hear?" said Vinicius.
"The measure is full," said the Apostle; "and disasters will come, like a boundless sea." Then he turned, and, pointing to Lygia, said, "Take the maiden, whom God has predestined to thee, and save her, and let Linus, who is sick, and Ursus go with you."
But Vinicius, who had come to love the Apostle with all the power of his impetuous soul, exclaimed: "I swear, my teacher, that I will not leave thee here to destruction."
"The Lord bless thee for thy wish," answered Peter; "but hast thou not heard that Christ repeated thrice on the lake to me, 'Feed my lambs'?"
Vinicius was silent.
"If thou, to whom no one has confided care over me, sayest that thou wilt not leave me to destruction, how canst thou wish me to leave my flock in the day of disaster? When there was a storm on the lake, and we were terrified in heart, He did not desert us; why should I, a servant, not follow my Master's example?"
Then Linus raised his emaciated face and inquired,—
"O viceregent of the Lord, why should I not follow thy example?"
Vinicius began to pass his hand over his head, as if struggling with himself or fighting with his thoughts; then, seizing Lygia by the hand, he said, in a voice in which the energy of a Roman soldier was quivering,—
"Hear me, Peter, Linus, and thou, Lygia! I spoke as my human reason dictated; but ye have another reason, which regards, not your own danger, but the commands of the Redeemer. True, I did not understand this, and I erred, for the beam is not taken from my eyes yet, and the former nature is heard in me. But since I love Christ, and wish to be His servant, though it is a question for me of something more than my own life, I kneel here before thee, and swear that I will accomplish the command of love, and will not leave my brethren in the day of trouble."
Then he knelt, and enthusiasm possessed him; raising his hands and eyes, he cried: "Do I understand Thee, O Christ? Am I worthy of Thee?"
His hands trembled; his eyes glistened with tears; his body trembled with faith and love. Peter took an earthen vessel with water, and, bringing it near him, said with solemnity,—
"Behold, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen."
Then a religious ecstasy seized all present. They thought that some light from beyond this world had filled the hut, that they heard some superhuman music, that the cliffs had opened above their heads, that choirs of angels were floating down from heaven, and far up there they saw a cross, and pierced hands blessing them.
Meanwhile the shouts of fighting were heard outside, and the roar of flames in the burning city.
CAMPS of people were disposed in the lordly gardens of Caesar, formerly gardens of Domitius and Agrippina; they were disposed also on the Campus Martius, in the gardens of Pompey, Sallust, and Maecenas, in porticos, tennis-courts, splendid summer-houses, and buildings erected for wild beasts. Peacocks, flamingoes, swans, ostriches, gazelles, African antelopes, and deer, which had served as ornaments to those gardens, went under the knives of the rabble. Provisions began to come in now from Ostria so abundantly that one might walk, as on a bridge, over ships, boats, and barges from one bank of the Tiber to the other. Wheat was sold at the unheard-of low price of three sestertia, and was given gratis to the indigent. Immense supplies of wine, olives, and chestnuts were brought to the city; sheep and cattle were driven in every day from the mountains. Wretches who before the fire had been hiding in alleys of the Subura, and were perishing of hunger in ordinary times, had a more pleasant life now. The danger of famine was averted completely, but it was more difficult to suppress robbery, murder, and abuses. A nomadic life insured impunity to thieves; the more easily since they proclaimed themselves admirers of Caesar, and were unsparing of plaudits wherever he appeared. Moreover, when, by the pressure of events, the authorities were in abeyance, and there was a lack of armed force to quell insolence in a city inhabited by the dregs of contemporary mankind, deeds were done which passed human imagination. Every night there were battles and murders; every night boys and women were snatched away. At the Porta Mugionis, where there was a halting-place for herds driven in from the Campania, it come to engagements in which people perished by hundreds. Every morning the banks of the Tiber were covered with drowned bodies, which no one collected; these decayed quickly because of heat heightened by fire, and filled the air with foul odors. Sickness broke out on the camping-grounds, and the more timorous foresaw a great pestilence.
But the city burned on unceasingly. Only on the sixth day, when the fire reached empty spaces on the Esquiline, where an enormous number of houses had been demolished purposely, did it weaken. But the piles of burning cinders gave such strong light yet that people would not believe that the end of the catastrophe had come. In fact the fire burst forth with fresh force on the seventh night in the buildings of Tigellinus, but had short duration for lack of fuel. Burnt houses, however, fell here and there, and threw up towers of flame and pillars of sparks. But the glowing ruins began to grow black on the surface. After sunset the heavens ceased to gleam with bloody light, and only after dark did blue tongues quiver above the extended black waste, tongues which rose from piles of cinders.
Of the fourteen divisions of Rome there remained only four, including the Trans-Tiber. Flames had consumed all the others. When at last the piles of cinders had been turned into ashes, an immense space was visible from the Tiber to the Esquiline, gray, gloomy, dead. In this space stood rows of chimneys, like columns over graves in a cemetery. Among these columns gloomy crowds of people moved about in the daytime, some seeking for precious objects, others for the bones of those dear to them. In the night dogs howled above the ashes and ruins of former dwellings.
All the bounty and aid shown by Caesar to the populace did not restrain evil speech and indignation. Only the herd of robbers, criminals, and homeless ruffians, who could eat, drink, and rob enough, were contented. People who had lost all their property and their nearest relatives were not won over by the opening of gardens, the distribution of bread, or the promise of games and gifts. The catastrophe had been too great and unparalleled. Others, in whom was hidden yet some spark of love for the city and their birthplace, were brought to despair by news that the old name "Roma" was to vanish, and that from the ashes of the capital Caesar would erect a new city called Neropolis. A flood of hatred rose and swelled every day, despite the flatteries of the Augustians and the calumnies of Tigellinus. Nero, more sensitive than any former Caesar to the favor of the populace, thought with alarm that in the sullen and mortal struggle which he was waging with patricians in the Senate, he might lack support. The Augustians themselves were not less alarmed, for any morning might bring them destruction. Tigellinus thought of summoning certain legions from Asia Minor. Vatinius, who laughed even when slapped on the face, lost his humor; Vitelius lost his appetite.
Others were taking counsel among themselves how to avert the danger, for it was no secret that were an outburst to carry off Caesar, not one of the Augustians would escape, except, perhaps, Petronius. To their influence were ascribed the madnesses of Nero, to their suggestions all the crimes which he committed. Hatred for them almost surpassed that for Nero. Hence some began to make efforts to rid themselves of responsibility for the burning of the city. But to free themselves they must clear Caesar also from suspicion, or no one would believe that they had not caused the catastrophe. Tigellinus took counsel on this subject with Domitius Afer, and even with Seneca, though he hated him. Poppaea, who understood that the ruin of Nero would be her own sentence, took the opinion of her confidants and of Hebrew priests, for it had been admitted for years that she held the faith of Jehovah. Nero found his own methods, which, frequently terrible, were more frequently foolish, and fell now into terror, now into childish delight, but above all he complained.
On a time a long and fruitless consultation was held in the house of Tiberius, which had survived the fire. Petronius thought it best to leave troubles, go to Greece, thence to Egypt and Asia Minor. The journey had been planned long before; why defer it, when in Rome were sadness and danger?
Caesar accepted the counsel with eagerness; but Seneca when he had thought awhile, said,—
"It is easy to go, but it would be more difficult to return."
"By Heracles!" replied Petronius, "we may return at the head of Asiatic legions."
"This will I do!" exclaimed Nero.
But Tigellinus opposed. He could discover nothing himself, and if the arbiter's idea had come to his own head he would beyond doubt have declared it the saving one; but with him the question was that Petronius might not be a second time the only man who in difficult moments could rescue all and every one.
"Hear me, divinity," said he, "this advice is destructive! Before thou art at Ostia a civil war will break out; who knows but one of the surviving collateral descendants of the divine Augustus will declare himself Caesar, and what shall we do if the legions take his side?"
"We shall try," answered Nero, "that there be no descendants of Augustus. There are not many now; hence it is easy to rid ourselves of them."
"It is possible to do so, but is it a question of them alone? No longer ago than yesterday my people heard in the crowd that a man like Thrasea should be Caesar."
Nero bit his lips. After a while he raised his eyes and said: "Insatiable and thankless. They have grain enough, and they have coal on which to bake cakes; what more do they want?"
"Vengeance!" replied Tigellinus.
Silence followed. Caesar rose on a sudden, extended his hand, and began to declaim,—
"Hearts call for vengeance, and vengeance wants a victim." Then, forgetting everything, he said, with radiant face: "Give me the tablet and stilus to write this line. Never could Lucan have composed the like. Have ye noticed that I found it in a twinkle?"
"O incomparable!" exclaimed a number of voices. Nero wrote down the line, and said,—
"Yes, vengeance wants a victim." Then he cast a glance on those around him. "But if we spread the report that Vatinius gave command to burn the city, and devote him to the anger of the people?"
"O divinity! Who am I?" exclaimed Vatmius.
"True! One more important than thou is demanded. Is it Vitelius?"
Vitelius grew pale, but began to laugh.
"My fat," answered he, "might start the fire again."
But Nero had something else on his mind; in his soul he was looking for a victim who might really satisfy the people's anger, and he found him.
"Tigellinus," said he after a while, "it was thou who didst burn Rome!" A shiver ran through those present. They understood that Caesar had ceased to jest this time, and that a moment had come which was pregnant with events.
The face of Tigellinus was wrinkled, like the lips of a dog about to bite.
"I burnt Rome at thy command!" said he.
And the two glared at each other like a pair of devils. Such silence followed that the buzzing of flies was heard as they flew through the atrium.
"Tigellinus," said Nero, "dost thou love me?"
"Thou knowest, lord."
"Sacrifice thyself for me."
"O divine Caesar," answered Tigellinus, "why present the sweet cup which I may not raise to my lips? The people are muttering and rising; dost thou wish the pretorians also to rise?"
A feeling of terror pressed the hearts of those present. Tigellinus was pretorian prefect, and his words had the direct meaning of a threat. Nero himself understood this, and his face became pallid.
At that moment Epaphroditus, Caesar's freedman, entered, announcing that the divine Augusta wished to see Tigellinus, as there were people in her apartments whom the prefect ought to hear.
Tigellinus bowed to Caesar, and went out with a face calm and contemptuous. Now, when they had wished to strike him, he had shown his teeth; he had made them understand who he was, and, knowing Nero's cowardice, he was confident that that ruler of the world would never dare to raise a hand against him.
Nero sat in silence for a moment; then, seeing that those present expected some answer, he said,—
"I have reared a serpent in my bosom."
Petronius shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that it was not difficult to pluck the head from such a serpent.
"What wilt thou say? Speak, advise!" exclaimed Nero, noticing this motion. "I trust in thee alone, for thou hast more sense than all of them, and thou lovest me."
Petronius had the following on his lips: "Make me pretorian prefect, I will deliver Tigellinus to the people, and pacify the city in a day." But his innate slothfulness prevailed. To be prefect meant to bear on his shoulder's Caesar's person and also thousands of public affairs. And why should he perform that labor? Was it not better to read poetry in his splendid library, look at vases and statues, or hold to his breast the divine body of Eunice, twining her golden hair through his fingers, and inclining his lips to her coral mouth? Hence he said,—
"I advise the journey to Achaea."
"Ah!" answered Nero, "I looked for something more from thee. The Senate hates me. If I depart, who will guarantee that it will not revolt and proclaim some one else Caesar? The people have been faithful to me so far, but now they will follow the Senate. By Hades! if that Senate and that people had one head!—"
"Permit me to say, O divinity, that if thou desire to save Rome, there is need to save even a few Romans," remarked Petronius, with a smile.
"What care I for Rome and Romans?" complained Nero. "I should be obeyed in Achaea. Here only treason surrounds me. All desert me, and ye are making ready for treason. I know it, I know it. Ye do not even imagine what future ages will say of you if ye desert such an artist as I am."
Here he tapped his forehead on a sudden, and cried,—
"True! Amid these cares even I forget who I am."
Then he turned to Petronius with a radiant face.
"Petronius," said he, "the people murmur; but if I take my lute and go to the Campus Martius, if I sing that song to them which I sang during the conflagration, dost thou not think that I will move them, as Orpheus moved wild beasts?"
To this Tullius Senecio, who was impatient to return to his slave women brought in from Antium, and who had been impatient a long time, replied,—
"Beyond doubt, O Caesar, if they permit thee to begin."
"Let us go to Hellas!" cried Nero, with disgust.
But at that moment Poppaea appeared, and with her Tigellinis. The eyes of those present turned to him unconsciously, for never had triumphator ascended the Capitol with pride such as his when he stood before Caesar. He began to speak slowly and with emphasis, in tones through which the bite of iron, as it were, was heard,—
"Listen. O Caesar, for I can say: I have found! The people want vengeance, they want not one victim, but hundreds, thousands. Hast heard, lord, who Christos was,—he who was crucified by Pontius Pilate? And knowest thou who the Christians are? Have I not told thee of their crimes and foul ceremonies, of their predictions that fire would cause the end of the world? People hate and suspect them. No one has seen them in a temple at any time, for they consider our gods evil spirits; they are not in the Stadium, for they despise horse races. Never have the hands of a Christian done thee honor with plaudits. Never has one of them recognized thee as god. They are enemies of the human race, of the city, and of thee. The people murmur against thee; but thou hast given me no command to burn Rome, and I did not burn it. The people want vengeance; let them have it. The people want blood and games; let them have them. The people suspect thee; let their suspicion turn in another direction."
Nero listened with amazement at first; but as Tigellinus proceeded, his actor's face changed, and assumed in succession expressions of anger, sorrow, sympathy, indignation. Suddenly he rose, and, casting off the toga, which dropped at his feet, he raised both hands and stood silent for a time. At last he said, in the tones of a tragedian,—
"O Zeus, Apollo, Here, Athene, Persephone, and all ye immortals! why did ye not come to aid us? What has this hapless city done to those cruel wretches that they burnt it so inhumanly?"
"They are enemies of mankind and of thee," said Poppaea.
"Do justice!" cried others. "Punish the incendiaries! The gods themselves call for vengeance!"
Nero sat down, dropped his head to his breast, and was silent a second time, as if stunned by the wickedness of which he had heard. But after a while he shook his hands, and said,—
"What punishments, what tortures befit such a crime? But the gods will inspire me, and, aided by the powers of Tartarus, I will give my poor people such a spectacle that they will remember me for ages with gratitude."
The forehead of Petronius was covered with a sudden cloud. He thought of the danger hanging over Lygia and over Vinicius, whom he loved, and over all those people whose religion he rejected, but of whose innocence he was certain. He thought also that one of those bloody orgies would begin which his eyes, those of an aesthetic man, could not suffer. But above all he thought: "I must save Vinicius, who will go mad if that maiden perishes"; and this consideration outweighed every other, for Petronius understood well that he was beginning a game far more perilous than any in his life. He began, however, to speak freely and carelessly, as his wont was when criticising or ridiculing plans of Caesar and the Augustians that were not sufficiently aesthetic,—
"Ye have found victims! That is true. Ye may send them to the arena, or array them in 'painful tunics.' That is true also. But hear me! Ye have authority, ye have pretorians, ye have power; then be sincere, at least, when no one is listening! Deceive the people, but deceive not one another. Give the Christians to the populace, condemn them to any torture ye like; but have courage to say to yourselves that it was not they who burnt Rome. Phy! Ye call me 'arbiter elegantiarum'; hence I declare to you that I cannot endure wretched comedies! Phy! how all this reminds me of the theatrical booths near the Porta Asinaria, in which actors play the parts of gods and kings to amuse the suburban rabble, and when the play is over wash down onions with sour wine, or get blows of clubs! Be gods and kings in reality; for I say that ye can permit yourselves the position! As to thee, O Caesar, thou hast threatened us with the sentence of coming ages; but think, those ages will utter judgment concerning thee also. By the divine Clio! Nero, ruler of the world, Nero, a god, burnt Rome, because he was as powerful on earth as Zeus on Olympus,—Nero the poet loved poetry so much that he sacrificed to it his country! From the beginning of the world no one did the like, no one ventured on the like. I beseech thee in the name of the double-crowned Libethrides, renounce not such glory, for songs of thee will sound to the end of ages! What will Priam be when compared with thee; what Agamenmon; what Achilles; what the gods themselves? We need not say that the burning of Rome was good, but it was colossal and uncommon. I tell thee, besides, that the people will raise no hand against thee! It is not true that they will. Have courage; guard thyself against acts unworthy of thee,—for this alone threatens thee, that future ages may say, 'Nero burned Rome; but as a timid Caesar and a timid poet he denied the great deed out of fear, and cast the blame of it on the innocent!'"
The arbiter's words produced the usual deep impression on Nero; but Petronius was not deceived as to this, that what he had said was a desperate means which in a fortunate event might save the Christians, it is true, but might still more easily destroy himself. He had not hesitated, however, for it was a question at once of Vinicius whom he loved, and of hazard with which he amused himself. "The dice are thrown," said he to himself, "and we shall see how far fear for his own life outweighs in the monkey his love of glory."
And in his soul he had no doubt that fear would outweigh.
Meanwhile silence fell after his words. Poppaea and all present were looking at Nero's eyes as at a rainbow. He began to raise his lips, drawing them to his very nostrils, as was his custom when he knew not what to do; at last disgust and trouble were evident on his features.
"Lord," cried Tigellinus, on noting this, "permit me to go; for when people wish to expose thy person to destruction, and call thee, besides, a cowardly Caesar, a cowardly poet, an incendiary, and a comedian, my ears cannot suffer such expressions!"
"I have lost," thought Petronius. But turning to Tigellinus, he measured him with a glance in which was that contempt for a ruffian which is felt by a great lord who is an exquisite.
"Tigellinus," said he, "it was thou whom I called a comedian; for thou art one at this very moment."
"Is it because I will not listen to thy insults?"
"It is because thou art feigning boundless love for Caesar,—thou who a short while since wert threatening him with pretorians, which we all understood as did he!"
Tigellinus, who had not thought Petronius sufficiently daring to throw dice such as those on the table, turned pale, lost his head, and was speechless. This was, however, the last victory of the arbiter over his rival, for that moment Poppaea said,—
"Lord, how permit that such a thought should even pass through the head of any one, and all the more that any one should venture to express it aloud in thy presence!"
"Punish the insolent!" exclaimed Vitelius.
Nero raised his lips again to his nostrils, and, turning his near-sighted, glassy eyes on Petronius, said,—
"Is this the way thou payest me for the friendship which I had for thee?"
"If I am mistaken, show me my error," said Petronius; "but know that I speak that which love for thee dictates."
"Punish the insolent!" repeated Vitelius.
"Punish!" called a number of voices.
In the atrium there was a murmur and a movement, for people began to withdraw from Petronius. Even Tullius Senecio, his constant companion at the court, pushed away, as did young Nerva, who had shown him hitherto the greatest friendship. After a while Petronius was alone on the left side of the atrium, with a smile on his lips; and gathering with his hands the folds of his toga, he waited yet for what Caesar would say or do.
"Ye wish me to punish him" said Caesar; "but he is my friend and comrade. Though he has wounded my heart, let him know that for friends this heart has naught but forgiveness."
"I have lost, and am ruined," thought Petronius.
Meanwhile Caesar rose, and the consultation was ended.
PETRONIUS went home. Nero and Tigellinus went to Poppaea's atrium, where they were expected by people with whom the prefect had spoken already.
There were two Trans-Tiber rabbis in long solemn robes and mitred, a young copyist, their assistant, together with Chilo. At sight of Caesar the priests grew pale from emotion, and, raising their hands an arm's length, bent their heads to his hands.
"Be greeted, O ruler of the earth, guardian of the chosen people, and Caesar, lion among men, whose reign is like sunlight, like the cedar of Lebanon, like a spring, like a palm, like the balsam of Jericho."
"Do ye refuse to call me god?" inquired Nero.
The priests grew still paler. The chief one spoke again,—
"Thy words, O lord, are as sweet as a cluster of grapes, as a ripe fig,—for Jehovah filled thy heart with goodness! Thy father's predecessor, Caesar Caius, was stern; still our envoys did not call him god, preferring death itself to violation of the law."