by Talbot Mundy
I. IN THE REIGN OF THE EMPEROR COMMODUS
Golden Antioch lay like a jewel at a mountain's throat. Wide, intersecting streets, each nearly four miles long, granite-paved, and marble-colonnaded, swarmed with fashionable loiterers. The gay Antiochenes, whom nothing except frequent earthquakes interrupted from pursuit of pleasure, were taking the air in chariots, in litters, and on foot; their linen clothes were as riotously picturesque as was the fruit displayed in open shop-fronts under the colonnades, or as the blossom on the trees in public gardens, which made of the city, as seen from the height of the citadel, a mosaic of green and white.
The crowd on the main thoroughfares was aristocratic; opulence was accented by groups of slaves in close attendance on their owners; but the aristocracy was sharply differentiated. The Romans, frequently less wealthy (because those who had made money went to Rome to spend it)— frequently less educated and, in general, not less dissolute—despised the Antiochenes, although the Romans loved Antioch. The cosmopolitan Antiochenes returned the compliment, regarding Romans as mere duffers in depravity, philistines in art, but capable in war and government, and consequently to be feared, if not respected. So there was not much mingling of the groups, whose slaves took example from their masters, affecting in public a scorn that they did not feel but were careful to assert. The Romans were intensely dignified and wore the toga, pallium and tunic; the Antiochenes affected to think dignity was stupid and its trappings (forbidden to them) hideous; so they carried the contrary pose to extremes. Patterning herself on Alexandria, the city had become to all intents and purposes the eastern capital of Roman empire. North, south, east and west, the trade-routes intersected, entering the city through the ornate gates in crenelated limestone walls. From miles away the approaching caravans were overlooked by legionaries brought from Gaul and Britain, quartered in the capitol on Mount Silpius at the city's southern limit. The riches of the East, and of Egypt, flowed through, leaving their deposit as a river drops its silt; were ever- increasing. One quarter, walled off, hummed with foreign traders from as far away as India, who lodged at the travelers' inns or haunted the temples, the wine-shops and the lupanars. In that quarter, too, there were barracks, with compounds and open-fronted booths, where slaves were exposed for sale; and there, also, were the caravanserais within whose walls the kneeling camels grumbled and the blossomy spring air grew fetid with the reek of dung. There was a market-place for elephants and other oriental beasts.
Each of Antioch's four divisions had its own wall, pierced by arched gates. Those were necessary. No more turbulent and fickle population lived in the known world—not even in Alexandria. Whenever an earthquake shook down blocks of buildings—and that happened nearly as frequently as the hysterical racial riots—the Romans rebuilt with a view to making communications easier from the citadel, where the great temple of Jupiter Capitolinus frowned over the gridironed streets.
Roman officials and the wealthier Macedonian Antiochenes lived on an island, formed by a curve of the River Orontes at the northern end within the city wall. The never-neglected problem of administration was to keep a clear route along which troops could move from citadel to island when the rioting began.
On the island was the palace, glittering with gilt and marble, gay with colored awnings, where kings had lived magnificently until Romans saved the city from them, substituting a proconsular paternal kind of tyranny originating in the Roman patria potestas. There was not much sentiment about it. Rome became the foster-parent, the possessor of authority. There was duty, principally exacted from the governed in the form of taxes and obedience; and there were privileges, mostly reserved for the rulers and their parasites, who were much more numerous than anybody liked. Competition made the parasites as discontented as their prey.
But there were definite advantages of Roman rule, which no Antiochene denied, although their comic actors and the slaves who sang at private entertainments mocked the Romans and invented accusations of injustice and extortion that were even more outrageous than the truth. Not since the days when Antioch inherited the luxury and vices of the Greeks and Syrians, had pleasure been so organized or its commercial pursuit so profitable. Taxes were collected rigorously. The demands of Rome, increased by the extravagance of Commodus, were merciless. But trade was good. Obedience and flattery were well rewarded. Citizens who yielded to extortion and refrained from criticism within hearing of informers lived in reasonable expectation of surviving the coming night.
But the informers were ubiquitous and unknown, which was another reason why the Romans and Antiochenes refrained from mixing socially more than could be helped. A secret charge of treason, based on nothing more than an informer's malice, might set even a Roman citizen outside the pale of ordinary law and make him liable to torture. If convicted, death and confiscation followed. Since the deification of the emperors it had become treason even to use a coarse expression near their images or statues; images were on the coins; statues were in the streets. Commodus, to whom all confiscated property accrued, was in ever- increasing need of funds to defray the titanic expense of the games that he lavished on Rome and the "presents" with which he studiously nursed the army's loyalty. So it was wise to be taciturn; expedient to choose one's friends deliberately; not far removed from madness to be seen in company with those whose antecedents might suggest the possibility of a political intrigue. But it was also unwise to woo solitude; a solitary man might perish by the rack and sword for lack of witnesses, if charged with some serious offense.
So there were comradeships more loyal the more that treachery stalked abroad. Because seriousness drew attention from the spies, the deepest thoughts were masked beneath an air of levity, and merrymaking hid such counsels as might come within the vaguely defined boundaries of treason.
Sextus, son of Maximus, rode not alone. Norbanus rode beside him, and behind them Scylax on the famous Arab mare that Sextus had won from Artaxes the Persian in a wager on the recent chariot races. Scylax was a slave but no less, for that reason, Sextus' friend.
Norbanus rode a skewbald Cappadocian that kicked out sidewise at pedestrians; so there was opportunity for private conversation, even on the road to Daphne of an afternoon in spring, when nearly all of fashionable Antioch was beginning to flow in that direction. Horses, litters and chariots, followed by crowds of slaves on foot with the provisions for moonlight banquets, poured toward the northern gate, some overtaking and passing the three but riding wide of the skewbald Cappadocian stallion's heels.
"If Pertinax should really come," said Sextus.
"He will have a girl with him," Norbanus interrupted. He had an annoying way of finishing the sentences that other folk began.
"True. When he is not campaigning Pertinax finds a woman irresistible."
"And naturally, also, none resists a general in the field!" Norbanus added. "So our handsome Pertinax performs his vows to Aphrodite with a constancy that the goddess rewards by forever putting lovely women in his way! Whereas Stoics like you, Sextus, and unfortunates like me, who don't know how to amuse a woman, are made notorious by one least lapse from our austerity. The handsome, dissolute ones have all the luck. The roisterers at Daphne will invent such scandalous tales of us tonight as will pursue us for a lustrum, and yet there isn't a chance in a thousand that we shall even enjoy ourselves!"
"Yes. I wish now we had chosen any other meeting place than Daphne," Sextus answered gloomily. "What odds? Had we gone into the desert Pertinax would have brought his own last desperate adorer, and a couple more to bore us while he makes himself ridiculous. Strange—that a man so firm in war and wise in government should lose his head the moment a woman smiles at him."
"He doesn't lose his head—much," Sextus answered. "But his father was a firewood seller in a village in Liguria. That is why he so loves money and the latest fashions. Poverty and rags—austerity inflicted on him in his youth—great Jupiter! If you and I had risen from the charcoal- burning to be consul twice and a grammarian and the friend of Marcus Aurelius; if you and I were as handsome as he is, and had experienced a triumph after restoring discipline in Britain and conducting two or three successful wars; and if either of us had such a wife as Flavia Titiana, I believe we could besmirch ourselves more constantly than Pertinax does! It is not that he delights in women so much as that he thinks debauch is aristocratic. Flavia Titiana is unfaithful to him. She is also a patrician and unusually clever. He has never understood her, but she is witty, so he thinks her wonderful and tries to imitate her immorality. But the only woman who really sways him is the proudish Cornificia, who is almost as incapable of treachery as Pertinax himself. He is the best governor the City of Rome has had in our generation. Can you imagine what Rome would be like without him? Call to mind what it was like when Fuscianus was the governor!"
"These are strange times, Sextus!"
"Aye! And it is a strange beast we have for emperor!"
Sextus glanced over his shoulder to make sure that Scylax followed closely and prevented any one from overhearing. There was an endless procession now, before and behind, all bound for Daphne. As the riders passed under the city gate, where the golden cherubim that Titus took from the Jews' temple in Jerusalem gleamed in the westering sun, Sextus noticed a slave of the municipium who wrote down the names of individuals who came and went.
"There are new proscriptions brewing," he remarked. "Some friends of ours will not see sunrise. Well—I am in a mood to talk and I will not be silenced."
"Better laugh then!" Norbanus advised. "The deadliest crime nowadays is to have the appearance of being serious. None suspects a drunken or a gay man."
Sextus, however, was at no pains to appear gay. He inherited the moribund traditions that the older Cato had typified some centuries ago. His young face had the sober, chiseled earnestness that had been typically Roman in the sterner days of the Republic. He had blue-gray eyes that challenged destiny, and curly brown hair, that suggested flames as the westering sun brought out its redness. Such mirth as haunted his rebellious lips was rather cynical than genial. There was no weakness visible. He had a pugnacious neck and shoulders.
"I am the son of my father Maximus," he said, "and of my grandsire Sextus, and of his father Maximus, and of my great-great-grandsire Sextus. It offends my dignity that men should call a hog like Commodus a god. I will not. I despise Rome for submission to him."
"Yet what else is there in the world except to be a Roman citizen?" Norbanus asked.
"As for being, there is nothing else," said Sextus. "I would like to speak of doing. It is what I do that answers what I am."
"Then let it answer now!" Norbanus laughed. He pointed to a little shrine beside the road, beneath a group of trees, where once the image of a local deity had smiled its blessing on the passer-by. The bust of Commodus, as insolent as the brass of which the artist-slaves had cast it, had replaced the old benign divinity. There was an attendant near by, costumed as a priest, whose duty was to see that travelers by that road did their homage to the image of the human god who ruled the Roman world. He struck a gong. He gave fair warning of the deference required. There was a little guard-house, fifty paces distant, just around the corner of the clump of trees, where the police were ready to execute summary justice, and floggings were inflicted on offenders who could not claim citizenship or who had no coin with which to buy the alternative reprimand. Roman citizens were placed under arrest, to be submitted to all manner of indignities and to think themselves fortunate if they should escape with a heavy fine from a judge who had bought his office from an emperor's favorite.
Most of the riders ahead dismounted and walked past the image, saluting it with right hands raised. Many of them tossed coins to the priest's attendant slave. Sextus remained in the saddle, his brow clouded with an angry scowl. He drew rein, making no obeisance, but sent Scylax to present an offering of money to the priest, then rode on.
"Your dignity appears to me expensive!" Norbanus remarked, grinning. "Gold?"
"He may have my gold, if I may keep my self-respect!"
"Incorrigible stoic! He will take that also before long!"
"I think not. Commodus has lost his own and destroyed Rome's, but mine not yet. I wish, though, that my father were in Antioch. He, too, is no cringer to images of beasts in purple. I wrote to my father recently and warned him to leave Rome before Commodus's spies could invent an excuse for confiscating our estates. I said, an absent man attracts less notice, and our estates are well worth plundering. I also hinted that Commodus can hardly live forever, and reminded him that tides flow in and out—by which I meant him to understand that the next emperor may be another such as Aurelius, who will persecute the Christians but let honest men live in peace, instead of favoring the Christians and ridding Rome of honest men."
Norbanus made a gesture with his right hand that sent the Cappadocian cavorting to the road's edge, scattering a little crowd that was trying to pass.
"Why be jealous of the Christians?" he laughed. "Isn't it their turn for a respite? Think of what Nero did to them; and Marcus Aurelius did little less. They will catch it again when Commodus turns on his mistress Marcia; he will harry them all the more when that day comes— as it is sure to. Marcia is a Christian; when he tires of her he will use her Christianity for the excuse and throw the Christians to the lions by the thousand in order to justify himself for murdering the only decent woman of his acquaintance. Sic semper tyrannus. Say what you will about Marcia, she has done her best to keep Commodus from making a public exhibition of himself."
"With what result? He boasts he has killed no less than twelve hundred poor devils with his own hand in the arena. True, he takes the pseudonym of Paulus when he kills lions with his javelin and drives a chariot in the races like a vulgar slave. But everybody knows, and he picks slaves for his ministers—consider that vile beast Cleander, whom even the rabble refused to endure another day. I don't see that Marcia's influence amounts to much."
"But Cleander was executed finally. You are in a glum mood, Sextus. What has happened to upset you?"
"It is the nothing that has happened. There has come no answer to that letter I wrote to my father in Rome. Commodus's informers may have intercepted it."
Norbanus whistled softly. The skewbald Cappadocian mistook that for a signal to exert himself and for a minute there were ructions while his master reined him in.
"When did you write?" he demanded, when he had the horse under control again.
"A month ago."
Norbanus lapsed into a moody silence, critically staring at his friend when he was sure the other was not looking. Sextus had always puzzled him by running risks that other men (himself, for instance) steadfastly avoided, and avoiding risks that other men thought insignificant. To write a letter critical of Commodus was almost tantamount to suicide, since every Roman port and every rest-house on the roads that led to Rome had become infested with informers who were paid on a percentage basis.
"Are you weary of life?" he asked after a while.
"I am weary of Commodus—weary of tyranny—weary of lies and hypocrisy— weary of wondering what is to happen to Rome that submits to such bestial government—weary of shame and of the insolence of bribe-fat magistrates—"
"Weary of your friends?" Norbanus asked. "Don't you realize that if your letter fell into the hands of spies, not only will you be proscribed and your father executed, but whoever is known to have been intimate with you or with your father will be in almost equal danger? You should have gone to Rome in person to consult your father."
"He ordered me to stay here to protect his interests. We are rich, Norbanus. We have much property in Antioch and many tenants to oversee. I am not one of these modern irreligious wastrels; I obey my father—"
"And betray him in an idiotic letter!"
"Very well! Desert me while there is time!" said Sextus angrily.
"Don't be a fool! You are not the only proud man in the empire, Sextus. I don't desert my friend for such a coward's reason as that he acted thoughtlessly. But I will tell you what I think, whether or not that pleases you, if only because I am your true friend. You are a rash, impatient lover of the days gone by, possessed of genius that you betray by your arrogant hastiness. So now you know what I think, and what all your other friends think. We admire—we love our Sextus, son of Maximus. And we confess to ourselves that our lives are in danger because of that same Sextus, son of Maximus, whom we prefer above our safety. After this, if you continue to deceive yourself, none can blame me for it!"
Sextus smiled and waved a hand to him. It was no new revelation. He understood the attitude of all his friends far better than he did his own strange impulses that took possession of him as a rule when circumstances least provided an excuse.
"My theory of loyalty to friendship," he remarked, "is that a man should dare to do what he perceives is right, and thus should prove himself entitled to respect."
"And your friends are, in consequence, to enjoy the privilege of attending your crucifixion one of these days!" said Norbanus.
"Nonsense. Only slaves and highwaymen are crucified."
"They call any one a highwayman who is a fugitive from what our 'Roman Hercules' calls justice," Norbanus answered with a gesture of irritation. His own trick of finishing people's sentences did not annoy Sextus nearly as much as Sextus's trick of pounding on inaccuracies irritated him. He pressed his horse into a canter and for a while they rode beside the stream called the "Donkey-drowner" without further conversation, each man striving to subdue the ill-temper that was on the verge of outbreak.
Romans of the old school valued inner calm as highly as they did the outer semblances of dignity; even the more modern Romans imitated that distinctive attitude, pretending to Augustan calmness that had actually ceased to be a part of public life. But with Sextus and Norbanus the inner struggle to be self-controlled was genuine; they bridled irritation in the same way that they forced their horses to obey them— captains of their own souls, as it were, and scornful of changefulness.
Sextus, being the only son of a great landowner, and raised in the traditions of a secluded valley fifty leagues away from Rome, was almost half a priest by privilege of ancestry. He had been educated in the local priestly college, had himself performed the daily sacrifices that tradition imposed on the heads of families and, in his father's frequent absence, had attended to all the details and responsibilities of managing a large estate. The gods of wood and stream and dale were very real to him. The daily offering, from each meal, to the manes of his ancestors, whose images in wax and wood and marble were preserved in the little chapel attached to the old brick homestead, had inspired in him a feeling that the past was forever present and a man's thoughts were as important as his deeds.
Norbanus, on the other hand, a younger son of a man less amply dowered with wealth and traditional authority, had other reasons for adopting, rather than inheriting, an attitude toward life not dissimilar from that of Sextus. Gods of wood and stream to him meant very little, and he had not family estates to hold him to the ancient views. To him the future was more real than the past, which he regarded as a state of ignorance from which the world was tediously struggling. But inherently he loved life's decencies, although he mocked their sentimental imitations; and he followed Sextus—squandered hours with him, neglecting his own interests (which after all were nothing too important and were well enough looked after by a Syracusan slave), simply because Sextus was a manly sort of fellow whose friendship stirred in him emotions that he felt were satisfying. He was a born follower. His ugly face and rather mirth-provoking blue eyes, the loose, beautifully balanced seat on horseback and the cavalry-like carriage of his shoulders, served their notice to the world at large that he would stick to friends of his own choosing and for purely personal reasons, in spite of, and in the teeth of anything.
"As I said," remarked Sextus, "if Pertinax comes—"
"He will show us how foolish a soldier can be in the arms of a woman," Norbanus remarked, laughing again, glad the long silence was broken.
"Orcus (the messenger of Dis, who carried dead souls to the underworld. The masked slaves who dragged dead gladiators out of the arena were disguised to represent Orcus) take his women! What I was going to say was, we shall learn from him the real news from Rome."
"All the names of the popular dancers!"
"And if Galen is there we shall learn—"
"About Commodus' health. That is more to the point. Now if we could get into Galen's chest of medicines and substitute—"
"Galen is an honest doctor," Sextus interrupted. "If Galen is there we will find out what the philosophers are discussing in Rome when spies aren't listening. Pertinax dresses himself like a strutting peacock and pretends that women and money are his only interests, but what the wise ones said yesterday, Pertinax does today; and what they say today, he will do tomorrow. He can look more like a popinjay and act more like a man than any one in Rome."
"Who cares how they behave in Rome? The city has gone mad," Norbanus answered. "Nowadays the best a man can do is to preserve his own goods and his own health. Ride to a conference do we? Well, nothing but words will come of it, and words are dangerous. I like my danger tangible and in the open where it can be faced. Three times last week I was approached by Glyco—you remember him?—that son of Cocles and the Jewess—asking me to join a secret mystery of which he claims to be the unextinguishable lamp. But there are too many mysteries and not enough plain dealing. The only mystery about Glyco is how he avoids indictment for conspiracy—what with his long nose and sly eyes, and his way of hinting that he knows enough to turn the world upside down. If Pertinax talks mystery I will class him with the other foxes who slink into holes when the agenda look like becoming acta. Show me only a raised standard in an open field and I will take my chance beside it. But I sicken of all this talk of what we might do if only somebody had the courage to stick a dagger into Commodus."
"The men who could persuade themselves to do that, are persuaded that a worse brute might succeed him," Sextus answered. "It is no use killing a Commodus to find a Nero in his shoes. If the successor were in sight —and visibly a man not a monster—there are plenty of men brave enough to give the dagger-thrust. But the praetorian guard, that makes and unmakes emperors, has been tasting the sweets of tyranny ever since Marcus Aurelius died. They despise their 'Roman Hercules' (Commodus' favorite name for himself)—who doesn't? But they grow fat and enjoy themselves under his tyranny, so they would never consent to leaving him unguarded, as happened to Nero, for instance, or to replacing him with any one of the caliber of Aurelius, if such a man could be found."
"Well, then, what do we go to talk about?" Norbanus asked.
"We go for information."
"Dea dia! (the most mysterious of all the Roman deities) We inform ourselves that Rome has been renamed 'The City of Commodus'—that offices are bought and sold—that there were forty consuls in a year, each of whom paid for the office in turn—that no man's life is safe— that it is wiser to take a cold in the head to Galen than to kiss a mule's nose (it was a common superstition that a cold in the head could be cured by kissing a mule's nose)—and then what? I begin to think that Pertinax is wiser to amuse himself with women after all!"
Sextus edged his horse a little closer to the skewbald and for more than a minute appeared to be studying Norbanus' face, the other grinning at him and making the stallion prance.
"Are you never serious?" asked Sextus.
"Always and forever, melancholy friend of mine! I seriously dread the consequences of that letter that you wrote to Rome! Unlike you, I have not much more than life to lose, but I value it all the more for being less encumbered. Like Apollonius, I pray for few possessions and no needs! But what I have, I treasure; I propose to live long and make use of life!"
"And I!" retorted Sextus.
With a gesture of disgust, he turned to stare behind him at the crowd on its way to Daphne, making such a business of pleasure as reduced the pleasure to a toil of Sisyphus (who had to roll a heavy stone perpetually up a steep hill in the underworld. Before he reached the top the stone always rolled down again).
"I have more than gold," said Sextus, "which it seems to me that any crooked-minded fool may have. I have a spirit in me and a taste for philosophies; I have a feeling that a man's life is a gift entrusted to him by the gods—for use—to be preserved—"
"By writing foolish letters, doubtless!" said Norbanus. "Come along, let us gallop. I am weary of the backs of all these roisterers."
And so they rode to Daphne full pelt, greatly to the anger of the too well dressed Antiochenes, who cursed them for the mud they splashed from wayside pools and for the dung and dust they kicked up into plucked and penciled faces.
II. A CONFERENCE AT DAPHNE
It was not yet dusk. The sun shone on the bronze roof of the temple of Apollo, making such a contrast to, and harmony with, marble and the green of giant cypresses as only music can suggest. The dying breeze stirred hardly a ripple on the winding ponds, so marble columns, trees and statuary were reflected amid shadows of the swans in water tinted by the colors of the sinking sun. There was a murmur of wind in the tops of the trees and a stirring of linen-clad girls near the temple entrance—voices droning from the near-by booths behind the shrubbery— one flute, like the plaint of Orpheus summoning Eurydice—a blossom- scented air and an enfolding mystery of silence.
Pertinax, the governor of Rome, had merely hinted at Olympian desire, whereat some rich Antiochenes, long privileged, had been ejected with scant ceremony from a small marble pavilion on an islet, formed by a branch of the River Ladon that had been guided twenty years ago by Hadrian's engineers in curves of exquisitely studied beauty. From between Corinthian columns was a view of nearly all the temple precincts and of the lawns where revelers would presently forget restraint. The first night of the Daphne season usually was the wildest night of all the year, but they began demurely, and for the present there was the restraint of expectation.
Because there was yet snow on mountain-tops and the balmy air would carry a suggestion of a chill at sunset, there were cunningly wrought charcoal braziers set near the gilded couches, grouped around a semicircular low table so as to give each guest an unobstructed view from the pavilion. Pertinax—neither guest nor host, but a god, as it were, who had arrived and permitted the city of Antioch to ennoble itself by paying his expenses—stretched his long length on the middle couch, with Galen the physician on his right hand, Sextus on his left. Beyond Galen lay Tarquinius Divius and Sulpicius Glabrio, friends of Pertinax; and on Sextus' left was Norbanus, and beyond him Marcus Fabius a young tribune on Pertinax' staff. There was only one couch unoccupied.
Galen was an older man than Pertinax, who was already graying at the temples. Galen had the wrinkled, smiling, shrewd face of an old philosopher who understood the trick of making himself socially prominent in order to pursue his calling unimpeded by the bitter jealousies of rivals. He understood all about charlatanry, mocked it in all its disguises and knew how to defeat it with sarcastic wit. He wore none of the distinguishing insignia that practising physicians usually favored; the studied plainness of his attire was a notable contrast to the costly magnificence of Pertinax, whose double-purple-bordered and fringed toga, beautifully woven linen and jeweled ornaments seemed chosen to combine suggestions of the many public offices he had succeeded to.
He was a tall, lean, handsome veteran with naturally curly fair hair and a beard that, had it been dark, would have made him look like an Assyrian. There was a world of humor in his eyes, and an expression on his weathered face of wonder at the ways of men—an almost comical confession of his own inferiority of birth, combined with matter-of-fact ability to do whatever called for strength, endurance and mere ordinary common sense.
"You are almost ashamed of your own good fortune," Galen told him. "You wear all that jewelry, and swagger like the youngest tribune, to conceal your diffidence. Being honest, you are naturally frugal; but you are ashamed of your own honesty, so you imitate the court's extravagance and made up for it with little meannesses that comfort your sense of extremes. The truth is, Pertinax, you are a man with a boy's enthusiasms, a boy with a man's experience."
"You ought to know," said Pertinax. "You tutored Commodus. Whoever could take a murderer at the age of twelve and keep him from breaking the heart of a Marcus Aurelius knows more about men and boys than I do."
"Ah, but I failed," said Galen. "The young Commodus was like a nibbling fish; you thought you had him, but he always took the bait and left the hook. The wisdom I fed to him fattened his wickedness. If I had known then what I have learned from teaching Commodus and others, not even Marcus Aurelius could have persuaded me to undertake the task—medical problem though it was, and promotion though it was, and answer though it was to all the doctors who denounced me as a charlatan. I bought my fashionable practise at the cost of knowing it was I who taught young Commodus the technique of wickedness by revealing to him all its sinuosities and how, and why, it floods a man's mind."
"He was a beast in any case," said Pertinax.
"Yes, but a baffled, blind beast. I removed the bandage from his eyes."
"He would have pulled it off himself."
"I did it. I turned a mere golden-haired savage into a criminal who knows what he is doing."
"Well, drink and forget it!" said Pertinax. "I, too, have done things that are best forgotten. We attain success by learning from defeat, and we forget defeat in triumph. I know of no triumph that did not blot out scores of worse things than defeat. When I was in Britain I subdued rebellion and restored the discipline of mutinying legions. How? I am not such a fool as to tell you all that happened! When I was in Africa men called me a great proconsul. So I was. They would welcome me back there, if all I hear about the present man is true. But do you suppose I did not fail in certain instances? They praise me for the aqueducts I built, and for the peace I left along the border. But I also left dry bones, and sons of dead men who will teach their grandsons how to hate the name of Rome! I sent a hundred thousand slaves from Africa. Sometimes, when I have dined unwisely and there is no Galen near to freshen up my belly juices, I have nightmares, in which men and women cry to me for water that I took from them to pour into the cities. I have learned this, Galen: Do one thing wisely and you will commit ten follies. You are lucky if you have but ten failures to detract from one success—as lucky as a man who has but ten mistresses to interfere with his enjoyment of his wife!"
He spoke of mistresses because the girls were coming down the temple steps to take part in the sunset ceremony. The torches they carried were unlighted yet; their figures, draped in linen, looked almost super-humanly lovely in the deepening twilight, and as they laid their garlands on the marble altar near the temple steps and grouped themselves again on either side of it their movements suggested a phantasmagoria fading away into infinite distance, as if all the universe were filled with women without age or blemish. There began to be a scent of incense in the air.
"We only imitate this kind of thing in Rome," said Pertinax. "A larger scale, a coarser effect. What I find thrilling is the sensation they contrive here of unseen mysteries. Whereas—"
"There won't be any mystery left presently! They'll strip your last veil from imagination!" Sextus interrupted, laughing. "Men say Hadrian tried to chasten this place, but he only made them realize the artistic value of an appearance of chastity, that can be thrown off. Hark! The evening hymn."
The torches suddenly were lighted by attendant slaves. The stirring, shaken sistra wrought a miracle of sound that set the nerves all tingling as the high priest, followed by his boys with swinging censers and the members of the priestly college, four by four, came chanting down the temple steps. To an accompanying pleading, sobbing note of flutes the high priest laid an offering of fruit, milk, wine and honey in the midst of the heaped-up garlands (for Apollo was the god of all fertility as well as of healing and war and flocks and oracles). Then came the grand Homeric hymn to Glorious Apollo, men's and boys' and women's voices blending in a surging paean like an ocean's music.
The last notes died away in distant echoes. There was silence for a hundred breaths; then music of flute and lyre and sistra as the priests retreated up the temple steps followed by fanfare on a dozen trumpets as the door swung to behind the priests. Instantly, then, shouts of laughter—torchlight scattering the shadows amid gloom—green cypresses —fire—color splurging on the bosom of the water—babel of hundreds of voices as the gay Antiochenes swarmed out from behind the trees—and a cheer, as the girls by the altar threw their garments off and scampered naked along the river-bank toward a bridge that joined the temple island to the sloping lawns, where the crowd ran to await them.
"Apollo having healed the world of sin, we now do what we like!" said Sextus. "Pertinax, I pledge you continence for this one night! Good Galen, may Apollo's wisdom ooze from you like sweat; for all our sakes, be you the arbiter of what we drink, lest drunkenness deprive us of our reason! Comites, let us eat like warriors—one course, and then discussion of tomorrow's plan."
"Your military service should have taught you more respect for your seniors, as well as how to eat and drink temperately," said Pertinax. "Will you teach your grandmother to suck eggs? I was the first grammarian in Rome before you were born and a tribune before you felt down on your cheek. I am the governor of Rome, my boy. Who are you, that you should lecture me?"
"If you call that a lecture, concede that I dared," Sextus answered. "I did not flatter you by coming here, or come to flatter you. I came because my father tells me you are a Roman beyond praise. I am a Roman. I believe praise is worthless unless proven to the hilt—as for instance: I have come to bare my thoughts to you, which is a bold compliment in these days of treachery."
"Keep your thoughts under cover," said Pertinax, glancing at the steward and the slaves who were beginning to carry in the meal. But he was evidently pleased, and Sextus's next words pleased him more:
"I am ready to do more than think about you, I will follow where you lead—except into licentiousness!"
He lay on both elbows and stared at the scene with disgust. Naked girls, against a background of the torchlit water and the green and purple gloom of cypresses, was nothing to complain of; statuary, since it could not move, was not as pleasing to the eye; but shrieks of idiotic laughter and debauchery of beauty sickened him.
There came a series of sounds at the pavilion entrance, where a litter was set down on marble pavement and a eunuch's shrill voice criticized the slow unrolling of a carpet.
"What did I warn you?" Norbanus whispered, laughing in Sextus's ear.
Pertinax got to his feet, long-leggedly statuesque, and strode toward the antechamber on his right, whence presently he returned with a woman on his arm, he stroking her hand as it rested on his. He introduced Sextus and Norbanus; the others knew her; Galen greeted her with a wrinkled grin that seemed to imply confidence.
"Now that Cornificia has come, not even Sextus need worry about our behavior!" said Galen, and everybody except Sextus grinned. It was notorious that Cornificia refined and restrained Pertinax, whereas his lawful wife Flavia Titiana merely drove him to extremes.
This Roman Aspasia had an almost Grecian face, beneath a coiled extravagance of dark brown hair. Her violet eyes were quietly intelligent; her dress plain white and not elaborately fringed, with hardly any jewelry. She cultivated modesty and all the older graces that had grown unfashionable since the Emperor Marcus Aurelius died. In all ways, in fact, she was the opposite of Flavia Titiana—it was hard to tell whether from natural preference or because the contrast to his wife's extremes of noisy gaiety and shameless license gave her a stronger hold on Pertinax. Rome's readiest slanderers had nothing scandalous to tell of Cornificia, whereas Flavia Titiana's inconstancies were a by-word.
She refused to let Galen yield the couch on Pertinax's right hand but took the vacant one at the end of the half-moon table, saying she preferred it—which was likely true enough; it gave her a view of all the faces without turning her head or appearing to stare.
For a long time there was merely desultory conversation while the feast, restricted within moderate proportions by request of Pertinax, was brought on.
There were eels, for which Daphne was famous; alphests and callichthys; pompilos, a purple fish, said to have been born from sea-foam at the birth of Aphrodite; boops and bedradones; gray mullet; cuttle-fish; tunny-fish and mussels. Followed in their order pheasants, grouse, swan, peacock and a large pig stuffed with larks and mincemeat. Then there were sweetmeats of various kinds, and a pudding invented in Persia, made with honey and dates, with a sauce of frozen cream and strawberries. By Galen's order only seven sorts of wine were served, so when the meal was done the guests were neither drunk nor too well fed to carry on a conference.
No entertainers were provided. Normally the space between the table and the front of the pavilion would have been occupied by acrobats, dancers and jugglers; but Pertinax dismissed even the impudent women who came to lean elbows on the marble railing and sing snatches of suggestive song. He sent slaves to stand outside and keep the crowd away, his lictor and his personal official bodyguard being kept out of sight in a small stone house near the pavilion kitchen at the rear among the trees, in order not to arouse unwelcome comment. It was known he was in Daphne; there was even a subdued expectation in Antioch that his unannounced visit portended the extortion of extra tribute. The Emperor Commodus was known to be in his usual straits for money. Given a sufficient flow of wine, the sight of bodyguard and lictor might have been enough to start a riot, the Antiochenes being prone to outbreak when their passions were aroused by drink and women.
There was a long silence after Pertinax had dismissed the steward. Galen's old personal attendant took charge of the amphora of snow-cooled Falernian; he poured for each in turn and then retired into a corner to be out of earshot, or at any rate to emphasize that what he might hear would not concern him. Pertinax strolled to the front of the pavilion and looked out to make sure there were no eavesdroppers, staring for a long time at the revelry that was warming up into an orgy. They were dancing in rings under the moon, their shadowy figures rendered weird by smoky torchlight. Cornificia at last broke on his reverie:
"You wish to join them, Pertinax? That would dignify even our Roman Hercules—to say nothing of you!"
He shrugged his shoulders, but his eyes were glittering.
"If Marcia could govern Commodus as you rule me, he would be safer on the throne!" he answered, coming to sit upright on the couch beside her. It was evident that he intended that speech to release all tongues; he looked from face to face expectantly, but no one spoke until Cornificia urged him to protect himself against the night breeze. He threw a purple-bordered cloak over his shoulders. It became him; he looked so official in it, and majestic, that even Sextus—rebel that he was against all modern trumpery—forebore to break the silence. It was Galen who spoke next:
"Pertinax, if you might choose an emperor, whom would you nominate? Remember: He must be a soldier, used to the stench of marching legions. None could govern Rome whose nose goes up in the air at the smell of sweat and garlic."
There was a murmur of approval. Cornificia stroked the long, strong fingers of the man she idolized. Sextus gave rein to his impulse then, brushing aside Norbanus' hand that warned him to bide his time:
"Many more than I," he said, "are ready to throw in our lot with you, Pertinax—aye, unto death! You would restore Rome's honor. I believe my father could persuade a hundred noblemen to take your part, if you would lead. I can answer for five or six men of wealth and influence, not reckoning a friend or two who—"
"Why talk foolishness!" said Pertinax. "The legions will elect Commodus' successor. They will sell Rome to the highest bidder, probably; and though they like me as a soldier they dislike my discipline. I am the governor of Rome and still alive in spite of it because even Commodus' informers know it would be silly to accuse me of intrigue. Not even Commodus would listen to such talk. I lead the gay life, for my own life's sake. All know me as a roisterer. I am said to have no ambition other than to live life sensuously."
"That may deceive Commodus," he said. "The thoughtful Romans know you as a frugal governor, who stamped out plague and—"
"You did that," said Pertinax.
"Who enabled me?"
"It was a simple thing to have the tenements burned. Besides, it profited the city—new streets; and there was twice the amount of tax on the new tenements they raised. I, personally, made a handsome profit on the purchase of a few burned houses."
"And as the governor who broke the famine," Galen continued.
"That was simple enough, but you may as well thank Cornificia. She found out through the women who the men were who were holding corn for speculation. All I did was to hand their names to Commodus; he confiscated all the corn and sold it—at a handsome profit to himself, since it had cost him nothing!"
"While we sit here and cackle like Asian birds, Commodus renames Rome the City of Commodus and still lives!" Sextus grumbled.
"Nor can he be easily got rid of," remarked Daedalus the tribune. "He goes to and fro from the palace through underground tunnels. Men sleep in his room who are all involved with him in cruelties and infamy, so they guard him carefully. Besides, whoever tried to murder him would probably kill Paulus by mistake! The praetorian guard is contented, being well paid and permitted all sorts of privileges. Who can get past the praetorian guard?"
"Any one!" said Pertinax. "The point is not, who shall kill Commodus? But who shall be raised in his place? There are thirty thousand ways to kill a man. Ask Galen!"
Old Galen laughed at that.
"As many ways as there are stars in heaven; but the stars have their say in the matter! None can kill a man until his destiny says yes to it. Not even a doctor," he added, chuckling. "Otherwise the doctors would have killed me long ago with jealousy! A man dies when his inner man grows sick and weary of him. Then a pin-prick does it, or a sudden terror. Until that time comes you may break his skull, and do not more than spoil his temper! As a philosopher I have learned two things: respect many, but trust few. But as a doctor I have learned only one thing for certain: that no man actually dies until his soul is tired of him."
"Whose soul should grow sick sooner than that of Commodus?" asked Sextus.
"Not if his soul is evil and delights in evil—as his does!" Galen retorted. "If he should turn virtuous, then perhaps, yes. But in that case we should wish him to live, although his soul would prefer the contrary and leave him to die by the first form of death that should appear—in spite of all the doctors and the guards and tasters of the royal food."
"Some one should convert him then!" said Sextus. "Cornificia, can't Marcia make a Christian of him; Christians pretend to oppose all the infamies he practises. It would be a merry joke to have a Christian emperor, who died because his soul was sick of him! It would be a choice jest—he being the one who has encouraged Christianity by reversing all Marcus Aurelius' wise precautions against their seditious blasphemy!"
"You speak fanatically, but you have touched the heart of the problem," said Cornificia. "It is Marcia who makes life possible for Commodus— Marcia and her Christians. They help Marcia protect him because he is the only emperor who never persecuted them, and because Marcia sees to it that they are free to meet together without having even to bribe the police. There is only one way to get rid of Commodus: Persuade Marcia that her own life is in danger from him, and that she will have a full voice in nominating his successor."
"Probably true," remarked Pertinax. "Whom would she nominate? That is the point."
"It would be simpler to kill Marcia," said Daedalus. "Thereafter let things take their course. Without Marcia to protect him—"
"No man knows much," Galen interrupted. "Marcia's soul may be all the soul Commodus has! If she should grow sick of him—!"
"She grew sick long ago," said Cornificia. "But she is forever thinking of her Christians and knows no other way to protect them than to make Commodus love her. Ugh! It is like the story of Andromeda. Who is to act Perseus?"
(In the fable, Andromeda had to be chained to a cliff to be devoured by a monster, in order to save her people from the anger of the god Poseidon. Perseus slew the monster.)
"There are thirty thousand ways of killing," Pertinax repeated, "but if we kill one monster, four or five others will fight for his place, unless, like Perseus, we have the head of a Medusa with which to freeze them into stone! There is no substitute for Commodus in sight. The only man whose face would freeze all rivals is Severus the Carthaginian!"
"We are none of us blind," said Cornificia.
"You mean me? I am too old," answered Pertinax. "I don't like tyranny, and people know it. It is something they should not know. An old man may be all very well when he has reigned for twenty years and men are used to him, and he used to the task, as was Augustus; but an old man new to the throne lacks energy. And besides, they would never endure a man whose father was a charcoal-seller, as mine was. I have made my way in life by looking at facts and refusing to deceive myself; with the exception of that, I have no especial wisdom, nor any unusual ability."
"If wisdom were all that is needed," said Sextus, "we should put good Galen on the throne!"
"He is too old and wise to let you try to do it!" Galen answered. "But you spoke about the head of a Medusa, Pertinax, and mentioned Lucius Septimius Severus. He commands three legions at Caruntum in Pannonia. (Roughly speaking, the S.W. portion of modern Hungary whose frontiers were then occupied by very warlike tribes.) If there is one man living who can freeze men's blood by scowling at them, it is he! And he is not as old as you are."
"I have thought of him only to hate him," said Pertinax. "He would not follow me, nor I him. He is one of three men who would fight for the throne if somebody slew Commodus, although he would not run the risk of slaying him himself, and he would betray us if we should take him into confidence. I know him well. He is a lawyer and a Carthaginian. He would never ask for the nomination; he is too crafty. He would say his legions nominated him against his will and that to have disobeyed them would have laid him open to the punishment for treason. (This is what Severus actually did, later on, after Pertinax's death.) The other two are Pescennius Niger, who commands the legions in Syria, and Clodius Albinus who commands in Britain. We must find a man who can forestall all three of them by winning, first, the praetorian guard, and then the senate and the Romans by dint of sound reforms and justice."
"You are he! Rome trusts you. So does the senate," said Cornificia. "Marcia trusts me. The praetorian guard trusts her. If I can persuade Marcia that her life is in danger from Commodus—"
"But how?" Daedalus interrupted.
"We can take the praetorian guard by surprise," Cornificia went on, ignoring him. "They can be tricked into declaring for the man whom Marcia's friends nominate. Having once declared for him they will be too proud of having made an emperor, and too unwilling to seem vacillating, to reverse themselves in any man's favor, even though he should command six legions. The senate will gladly accept one who has governed Rome as frugally as Pertinax has done. If the senate confirms the nominee of the praetorian guard, the Roman populace will do the rest by acclamation. Then, three months of upright government—deification by the senate—"
Pertinax laughed explosively—an honest, chesty laugh, unqualified by any subtleties, suggesting a trace of the peasantry from which he sprang. It made Cornificia wince.
"Can you imagine me a god?" he asked.
"I can imagine you an emperor," said Sextus. "It is true; you have no following among the legions just at present. But I make one, and there are plenty of energetic men who think as I do. My friend Norbanus here will follow me. My father—"
Noises near the open window interrupted him. An argument seemed to be going on between the slaves whom Pertinax had set to keep the roisterers away and some one who demanded admission. Near at hand was a woman's voice, shrilling and scolding. Then another voice—Scylax, the slave who had ridden the red mare. Pertinax strode to the window again and leaned out. Cornificia whispered to Galen:
"If the truth were known, he is afraid of Flavia Titiana. As a wife she is bad enough, but as an empress—"
"If you love your Pertinax," he answered, "keep him off the throne! He has too many scruples."
She frowned, having few, which were firm and entirely devoted to Pertinax' fortune.
"Love him? I would give him up to see him deified!" she whispered; and again Galen nodded, deeply understanding.
"That is because you have never had children," he assured her, smiling. "You mother Pertinax, who is more than twice your age—just as Marcia has mothered that monster Commodus until her heart is breaking."
"But I thought you were Pertinax' friend?"
"So I am."
"And his urgent adviser to—"
"Yes, so I was. I have changed my opinion; only the maniacs never do that. Pertinax would make a splendid minister for Lucius Severus; and the two of them could bring back the Augustan days. Persuade him to it. He must forget he hates him."
"Let him come!" said the voice of Pertinax. He was still leaning out, with one hand on a marble pillar, much more interested in the moonlit view of revelry than in the altercation between slaves. He strolled back and stood smiling at Cornificia, his handsome face expressing satisfaction but a rather humorous amusement at his inability to understand her altogether.
"Are you like all other women?" he asked. "I just saw a naked woman stab a man with her hairpin and kick his corpse into the shrubbery before the breath was out of it!"
"Galen has deserted you," said Cornificia. The murder was uninteresting; nobody made any comment.
"Not he!" Pertinax answered, and went and sat on Galen's couch. "You find me not man enough for the senate to make a god of me—is that it, Galen?"
"Too much of a man to be an emperor," said Galen, smiling amid wrinkles. "By observing a man's virtues one may infer what his faults are. You would try to rule the empire honestly, which is impossible. A more dishonest man would let it rule itself and claim the credit, whereas you would give the praise to others, who would shoulder off the work and all the blame on to you. An empire is like a human body, which heals itself if the head will let it. Too many heads—a conference of doctors—and the patient dies! One doctor, doing nothing with an air of confidence, and the patient gets well! There, I have told you more than all the senate knows!"
Came Scylax, out of breath, less menial than most men's slaves, his head and shoulders upright and the hand that held a letter thrust well forward as if what he had to do were more important than the way he did it.
"This came," he said, standing beside Sextus' couch. "Cadmus brought it, running all the way from Antioch."
His hand was trembling; evidently Cadmus had by some means learned the contents of the letter and had told.
"I and Cadmus—" he said, and then hesitated.
"—are faithful, no matter what happens."
Scylax stood erect with closed lips. Sextus broke the seal, merely glancing at Pertinax, taking permission for granted. He frowned as he read, bit his lip, his face growing crimson and white alternately. When he had mastered himself he handed the letter to Pertinax.
"I always supposed you protected my father," he said, struggling to appear calm. But his eyes gave the story away—grieved, mortified, indignant. Scylax offered him his arm to lean on. Norbanus, setting both hands on his shoulders from behind, obliged him to sit down.
"Calm!" Norbanus whispered, "Calm! Your friends are your friends. What has happened?"
Pertinax read the letter and passed it to Cornificia, then paced the floor with hands behind him.
"Is that fellow to be trusted?" he asked with a jerk of his head toward Scylax. He seemed nearly as upset as Sextus was.
Sextus nodded, not trusting himself to speak, knowing that if he did he would insult a man who might be guiltless in spite of appearances.
"Commodus commanded me to visit Antioch, as he said, for a rest," said Pertinax. "The public excuse was, that I should look into the possibility of holding the Olympic games here. Strangely enough, I suspected nothing. He has been flatteringly friendly of late. Those whom I requested him to spare, he spared, even though their names were on his proscription list and I had not better excuse than that they had done no wrong! The day before I left I brought a list to him of names that I commended to his favor—your father's name among them, Sextus."
Pertinax turned his back again and strode toward the window, where he stood like a statue framed in the luminous gloom. The only part of him that moved was his long fingers, weaving together behind him until the knuckles cracked.
Cornificia, subduing her contralto voice, read the letter aloud:
"To Nimius Secundus Sextus, son of Galienus Maximus, the freedman Rufus Glabrio sends humble greeting.
"May the gods give solace and preserve you. Notwithstanding all your noble father's piety—his respect for elders and superiors—he was accused of treason and of blasphemy toward the emperor, by whose orders he was seized yesterday and beheaded the same day. The estates have already been seized. It is said they will be sold to Asinus Sejanus, who is probably the source of the accusation against your father.
"I and three other freedmen made our escape and will attempt to reach Tarentum, where we will await instructions from you. Titus, the son of the freedman Paulinus, will convey this letter to Brundisium and thence by boat to Dyrrachium, whence he will send it by post in the charge of a Jew whom he says he can trust.
"It is a certainty that orders will go forth to seize yourself, since the estates in Antioch are known to be of great value. Therefore, we your true friends and devoted servants, urge you to make all speed in escaping. Stay not to make provision for yourself, but travel without encumbrances. Hide! Hasten!
"We commend this letter to you as a sure proof that we ourselves are to be trusted, since, if it should fall into the hands of an informer by the way, our lives undoubtedly would pay the forfeit. We have not much money, but enough for the expenses of a journey to a foreign land. The place where we will hide near Tarentum is known to you. In deep anxiety, and not without such sacrifices to the gods and to the manes of your noble ancestors as means permit, we will await your coming." —RUFUS GLABRIO "Freedman of the illustrious Galienus Maximus."
Pertinax turned from the window. "The Jews have a saying," he said, "that who keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from trouble. Often I warned Maximus that he was too free with his speech. He counted too much on my protection. Now it remains to be seen whether Commodus has not proscribed me!"
Sextus and Norbanus stood together, Scylax behind them, Norbanus whispering; plainly enough Norbanus was urging patience—discretion— deliberate thought, whereas Sextus could hardly think at all for anger that reddened his eyes.
"What can I do for you? What can I do?" wondered Pertinax.
Then Cornificia was on her feet.
"There is nothing—nothing you can do!" she insisted. She avoided Galen's eyes; the old philosopher was watching her as if she were the subject of some new experiment. "Let Commodus learn as much as that Sextus was here in this pavilion and—"
Sextus interrupted, very proudly:
"I will not endanger my friends. Who will lend me a dagger? This toy that I wear is too short and not sharp. You may forget me, Pertinax. My slaves will bury me. But play you the man and save Rome!"
Then the tribune spoke up. He was younger than all of them.
"Sextus is right. They will know he was here. They will probably torture his slaves and learn about that letter that has reached him. If he runs and hides, we shall all be accused of having helped him to escape; whereas—"
"What?" Galen asked him as he hesitated.
"If he dies by his own hand, he will not only save all his slaves from the torture but remove the suspicion from us and we will still be free to mature our—"
"Cowardice!" Norbanus finished the sentence for him.
"Aye, some of us would hardly feel like noble Romans!" Pertinax said grimly. "Possibly I can protect you, Sextus. Let us think of some great favor you can do the emperor, providing an excuse for me to interfere. I might even take you to Rome with me and—"
Galen laughed, and Cornificia drew in her breath, bit her lip.
"Why do you laugh, Galen?" Pertinax strode over to him and stood staring.
"Because," said Galen, "I know so little after all. I cannot tell a beast's blood from a man's. Our Commodus would kill you with all the more peculiar enjoyment because he has flattered you so often publicly and called you 'father Pertinax.' He poisoned his own father; why not you? They will tell him you have frequently befriended Sextus. They will show him Sextus' father's name on that list of names that you commended to his favor. Do you follow me?"
"By Jupiter, not I!" said Pertinax.
"He is sure to learn about this letter that has come." said Galen. "If you, in fearful loyalty to Commodus, should instantly attempt to make a prisoner of Sextus; if, escaping, he is killed, and you bear witness— that would please Commodus almost as much as to see gladiators killed in the arena. If you wept over the death of Sextus, that would please him even more. He would enjoy your feelings. Do you remember how he picked two gladiators who were brothers twins they were—and when the slayer of his twin-brother saluted, Commodus got down into the arena and kissed him? You yourself must announce to him the news of Sextus' death, and he will kiss you also!"
"Vale!" remarked Sextus. "I die willingly enough."
"You are dead already," Galen answered. "Didn't Pertinax see some one's body kicked into the bushes?"
There was silence. They all glanced at one another. Only Galen, sipping at his wine, seemed philosophically calm.
"I personally should not be an eye-witness," Galen remarked. "I am a doctor, whose certificate of death not even Commodus would doubt. In the dark I might recognize Sextus' garments, even though I could not see his features. And—" he added pointedly—"neither I nor any one can tell a beast's blood from a man's."
"Daedalus!" said Pertinax with sudden resolution. "Get my purse. My slave has it. Sextus shall not go empty-handed."
Sorbanus brought the skewbald stallion. Not far away a group of women danced around a dozen drunken men, who sang uproariously. Seen against the background of purple and dark-green gloom, with crimson torchlight flaring on the quiet water and the moon descending behind trees beyond them, they were mystically beautiful—seemed not to belong to earth, any more than the pan-pipe music did.
"Ride into their midst!" Norbanus urged, pointing. "Tickle the stallion thus."
The Cappadocian lashed out savagely.
"Here is a bottle of goat's blood. I will bring weapons, and I will join you as soon as possible after I have made sure that the temple priests, and all Daphne, are positive about your death. Now mount and ride!"
Sextus swung on to the stallion's back as if a catapult had thrown him. Until then he had let others do the ordering; he had preferred to let them take their own precautions, form their own plans and subject himself to any course they wished, after which he should be free to face his destiny and fight it without feeling he had handicapped his friends by wilfulness. He had not even issued a direct command to Scylax, his own slave. That was characteristic of him. Nor was it at his suggestion that Norbanus volunteered to share his outlawry. But it was also characteristic that he made no gesture of dissent; he accepted Norbanus' loyalty with a quiet smile that rather scorned words as unnecessary.
Now he drove his heels into the Cappadocian with vigor, for the die was cast. The stallion, impatient of new mastery, reared and plunged, snorted, came back on the bit in an attempt to get it in his teeth, and bolted straight for the group of roisterers, who scattered away, men swearing, women screaming. Throwing back his weight against the reins, he brought the stallion to a plunging, snorting, wheeling halt in the midst of men and women—a terrifying monster blowing clouds of mist out of his nostrils! As they ran he let the brute rear—pulled him over— rolled from under him, and lay still, with goat's blood from the broken bottle splashed around his face and seeming to flow from his mouth. One woman stooped to look, groped for a purse or anything of value, screamed and ran.
"Sextus!" she yelled. "Sextus who was dining in the white pavilion!"
Sextus crawled among the oleanders. Presently Norbanus came, hurrying out of gloom, accompanied by Cadmus, the slave who had brought from Antioch the letter that came from Rome. They were dragging a body between them. They laid it down exactly where Sextus had fallen from the horse. There was a sickening thwack as Cadmus made the face unrecognizable. Then came the lanky, hurrying figure of Pertinax leading a group of people, Cornificia among them—Galen last.
Sextus lay still until all their backs were toward him. Then he crept out of the oleanders and walked along the river-bank in no haste, masking his face with a fold of his toga. He chose a path that wound amid the shrubbery, where marble satyrs grinned in colored lantern light. He had to avoid couples here and there. A woman followed him, laying a hand on his arm; he struck her, and she ran off, screaming for her bully.
Presently he reached the winding track that led toward the high-road, with the gloom of cypresses on either hand and, beyond that, the glow of the lights in the caterers' booths. He was as safe now as if he were fifty miles away; none noticed him except the beggars at the bridges, who exposed maimed limbs and whined for charity. A leper, banking on his only stock in trade—the dread men had of his affliction—cursed him.
"You waste breath," said Sextus and passed on. He was smiling to himself—sardonically. "Lepers live by threats—" he thought.
No more than any leper now could he expect protection from society beyond what he could force society to yield. He had no name, for he was dead; that thought amused him. Suddenly it dawned on him how safe he was, since none in Antioch would dare to question the word of Pertinax, backed by Galen and all the witnesses whom Pertinax would be sure to summon. He remembered then to protect the honest freedmen who had sent him warning—strode to a fire near a caterer's booth and burned the letter, stared at by the slaves who warmed their shins around the embers.
One of those might have recognized him, in spite of the toga drawn over his face.
"If any one should ask which way Maternus went, say I have gone home," he commanded, and strode away into the gloom.
He wondered why he had chosen the name Maternus. Not even his remotest ancestor had borne it, yet it came to his lips as naturally, instantly, as if it were his own by right. But as he walked away it came to mind that ten, or possibly twelve, nights ago he and his friends had all been talking of a highwayman Maternus, who had robbed the caravans on the mountain road from Tarsus. For the moment that thought scared him. Should he change the name? The slaves by the embers had stared; they showed him respect, but there was a distinct sensation mingled with it— hardly to be wondered at! Where was it he heard—who told him—that Maternus had been caught? He could not remember.
It dawned on him how difficult it is to decide what to do when the old familiar conditions and the expectations on which we habitually base decisions are all suddenly stripped away. He understood now how a general in the field can fail when suddenly confronted with the unknown. Shall he do this, or do that? There was not a habit or a circumstance to guide him. He must choose, the while the gods looked on and laughed!
Maternus. It was a strange name to adopt, and yet he liked the sound of it, nor would it pass out of his mind. He tried to think of other names, but either they had all been borne by slaves, and were distasteful, or else by famous men or by his friends, whom he did not propose to wrong; he only had to imagine his case reversed to realize how bitterly he would resent it if an outlawed man should take his own name and make it notorious.
Yet he perceived that notoriety would be his only refuge, paradox though that might be. As a mere fugitive, anonymous and having no more object than to live and avoid recognition, he would soon reach the end of his tether; there was little mercy in the world for men without a home or means. Whether recognized or not, he would become like a hunted animal —might, in fact, end as a slave unless he should prefer to prove his identity and submit to Commodus's executioners. Suicide would be preferable to that; but it seemed almost as if the gods themselves had vetoed self-destruction by providing that roisterer's corpse at the critical moment and putting the plan for its use into Galen's wise old head.
He must take the field like Spartacus of old; but he must have a goal more definite and more attainable than Spartacus had had. He must avoid the mistake that weakened Spartacus, of accepting for the sake of numbers any ally who might offer himself. He would have nothing whatever to do with the rabble of runaway slaves, whose only guiding impulse would be loot and license, although he knew how easy it would be to raise such an army if he should choose to do it. Out of any hundred outlaws in the records of a hundred years, some ninety-nine had come to grief through the increasing numbers of their following and lack of discipline; he could think of a dozen who had been betrayed by paid informers of the government, posing as friendly brigands.
And besides, he had no intention of adopting brigandry as a profession, though he realized that he must make a reputation as a brigand if he hoped to be anything else than a helpless fugitive. As a rebel against Commodus it might be possible to raise a good-sized army in a month or two, but that would only serve to bring the Roman armies out of camp, led by generals eager for cheap victories. He must be too resourceful to be taken by police—too insignificant to tempt the legions out of camp. Brigandry was as distasteful to him and as far beneath his dignity as the pursuit of brigands was beneath the dignity of any of those Roman generals who owed their rank to Commodus. For them, as for himself, the pettiness of brigandry led nowhither. Only one object appealed to them—fame and its perquisites. Only one object appealed to himself: to redeem his estates and to avenge his father. That could be accomplished only by the death of Commodus: He laughed, as he thought of himself pitted alone against Commodus the deified, mad monster who could marshal the resources of the Roman empire!
Such thoughts filled his mind until he reached the lonely cross-road, where the narrower, tree-lined road to Daphne met the great main highway leading northward over the mountains. There was the usual row of gibbets reared on rising ground against the sky by way of grim reminder to slaves and other would-be outlaws that the arm of Rome was long, not merciful. Five of the gibbets were vacant, except for an arm on one of them, that swayed in the wind as it hung by a cord from the wrist. The sixth had a man on it—dead.
Scylax, who was waiting for him, rode out of the gloom on the mare, leading the Cappadocian, and reined in near the gibbet, not quite sure yet who it was who strode toward him. Scared by the stench, the horses became difficult to manage. The leading-rein passed around one of the gibbets. Sextus ran forward to help. The Cappadocian broke the rein and Scylax galloped after him.
So Sextus stood alone beside the rough-hewn tree-trunk, to which was tied the body of a man who had been dead, perhaps, since sunset. He had not been torn yet by the vultures. Morbid curiosity—a fellow feeling for a victim, as the man might well be, of the same injustice that had made an outlaw of himself—impelled Sextus to step closer. He could not see the face, which was drooped forward; but there was a parchment, held spread on a stick, like a sail on a spar, suspended from the man's neck by a string. He snatched it off and held it toward the moon, now low on the horizon. There were only two words, smeared with red paint by a forefinger, underneath the official letters S.P.Q.R.:
He began to wonder who Maternus might have been, and how he took the first step that had led to crucifixion. It was hard to believe that any man would run that risk unless impelled to it by some injustice that had changed pride into savagery or else shot off all opportunity for decent living. The cruelty of the form of execution hardly troubled him; the possible injustice of it stirred him to his depths. He felt a sort of superstitious reverence for the victim, increased by the strange coincidence that he had made use, without previous reflection, of Maternus' name.
Presently he saw Norbanus riding the horse that he himself had ridden that afternoon from Antioch to Daphne, followed on a mule by Cadmus, the slave who had brought the letter which had pulled the trigger that set the catapults of destiny in motion. Making a wide circuit, they helped Scylax catch the Cappadocian.
Norbanus came cantering back. He was dressed for the road in a brown woolen tunic contributed by some one in Pertinax' suite. He shook a bag of money.
"Cornificia was generous," he said. "Old Pertinax thought he had done well enough by you. She cried shame on him and threatened to send for her jewelry. So he borrowed money from the priests. You are as dead as that." He looked up at the tortured body of the robber. "What name will you take? We had better begin to get used to it."
"It is written here," said Sextus, showing him the parchment. But the moon had gone down in a smother of silvery cloud; Norbanus could not see to read. "I am Maternus-Latro."
"I was told they had crucified that fellow."
"This is Maternus. Being dead, he will hardly grudge me the use of his name! However, I will pay him for it. He shall have fair burial. Help me down with him."
Norbanus beckoned to the slaves, who tied the horses to a near-by tree. They sought in the dark for a hole that would do for a grave, since they had no burying tools, stumbling on a limestone slab at last, that lay amid rank weeds near a tomb hollowed out of the rock that had been rifled, very likely, centuries ago. They lowered the already stiffened body into it, with a coin in its fingers for Charon's ferry-fare across the Styx, then set the heavy slab in place, all four of them using their utmost strength.
Then Sextus, having poured a little water from his hollowed hands on to the slab, because he had no oil, and having murmured fragments of a ritual as old as Rome, bidding the gods of earth and air and the unseen re-absorb into themselves what man no longer could perceive or cherish or destroy, turned to the two slaves.
"Scylax," he said, "Cadmus—he who was your master is as dead as that man we have buried. I am not Sextus, son of Maximus. I fare forth like a dead man on an unknown road, now being without honor on the lips of men. Nor have I any claim on you, being now an outlaw, whom the law would crucify if ill-luck should betray my feet. Nor can I set you free, since all my household doubtless is already confiscated; ye belong by law to whomsoever Commodus may have appointed to receive my goods. Do then at your own risk, of your own will, what seems good to you."
Being slaves, they knelt. He bade them rise.
"We follow you," said Scylax, Cadmus murmuring assent.
"Then the night bear witness!" Sextus turned toward the row of gibbets, pointing at them. "That is the risk we take together. If we escape that, you shall not go unrewarded from the fortune I redeem. Norbanus, you accept my leadership?"
"I insist on it!" he answered. He, too, pointed at the row of gibbets. "To be frightened will provide us with no armor against destiny! There was little I had to lose; lo, I have left that for the mice to nibble! Let us see what destiny can do to bold men! Lead on, Sextus!"
IV. THE GOVERNORS OF ROME AND ANTIOCH
Dawn was sparkling on the mountain peaks; the misty violet of half- light crept into the passes and the sun already bathed the copper roofs of Antioch in gleaming gold above a miracle of greenery and marble. Like a sluggish, muddy stream with camel's heads afloat in it, the south-bound caravan poured up against the city gate and spread itself to await inspection by the tax-gatherers, the governor's representatives and the police. There was a tedious procedure of examination, hindered by the swarms of gossipers, the merchants' agents, smugglers, and the men to whom the latest news meant livelihood, who streamed out of the city gate and mingled with the new-comers from Asia, Bythinia, Pontus, Pisidia, Galatia and Cappadocia.
The caravan guards piled their spears and breakfasted apart, their duty done. They had the air of men to whom the constantly repeated marches to and fro on the selfsame stage of a mountainous road had grown displeasing and devoid of all romance. Two were wounded. One, with a dent in the helmet that hung from his arm by the chin-strap, lay leaning against a rock; refused food, and slowly bled to death, his white face almost comically disappointed.
A military tribune, followed by a slave with tablets, and by a mounted trooper for the sake of his official dignity, rode out from the city and took the report from the guards' decurion, a half-breed Dacian-Italian, black-bearded and taciturn, who dictated it to the slave in curt, staccato sentences, grudging the very gesture that he made toward the wounded men. The tribune glanced at the report, signed it, turned his horse and rode into the city, disregarding the decurion's salute, his military cloak a splash of very bright red, seen against the limestone and above the predominant brown of the camels and coats of their owners. He cantered his horse when he passed through the gate, and there went up a clamor of newsy excitement behind him as group after group loosed tongues in competition of exaggeration.
Being bad, the news spread swiftly. The quadruple lines of columns all along the Corso, as the four-mile-long main thoroughfare was called, began to look like pier-piles in a flowing tide of men. Yellow, blue, red, striped and parti-colored costumes, restless as the flotsam on a mill-race, swirled into patterns, and broke, and reblended. The long portico of Caesar's baths resounded to the hollow hum of voices. Streaming lines of slaves in the midst of the street were delayed by the crowd, and abused for obstructing it. Gossip went up like the voice of the sea to the cliffs and startled clouds of spray-white pigeons, faintly edged with pink against an azure sky; then ceased as suddenly. The news was known. Whatever Antioch knew, bored it. Nine days' wonders were departed long ago into the limbo of the days of Xerxes. Nine hours had come to be the limit of men's interest—nine minutes the crucial phase of excitement, during which the balance of emotion hovered between rioting or laughter.
Antioch grew quiet, conscious of the sunny weather and the springtime lassitude that is a luxury to masters but that slaves must overcome. The gangs went forth to clear the watercourses in advance of floods, whips cracking to inspire zeal. Wagon-loads of flowers, lowing milk- white oxen, white goats—even a white horse, a white ass—oil and wine in painted cards, whose solid wooden wheels screamed on their axles like demons in agony-threaded the streets to the temples, lest the gods forget convenience and send the floods too soon.
The Forum—gilt-edged marble, tinted statuary, a mosaic pavement like a rich-hued carpet from the looms of Babylon—began to overflow with leisured men of business. Their slaves did all the worrying. The money-changers' clerks sat by the bags of coin, with scales and shovel and the tables of exchange. The chaffering began in corn-shops, where the lawless agreements for delivery of unsown harvests changed hands ten times in the hour, and bills on Rome, scrawled over with endorsements, outsped currency as well as outwitted the revenue men. No tax-farmer's slave could keep track of the flow of intangible wealth when the bills for a million sesterces passed to and fro like cards in an Egyptian game. Men richer than the fabled Croesus carried all their wealth in leather wallets in the form of mortgages on gangs of slaves, certificates of ownership of cargoes, promises to pay and contracts for delivery of merchandise.
Nine-tenths of all the clamor was the voice of slaves, each one of them an expert in his master's business and often richer than the owners of the men he dealt with, saving his peculium—the personal savings which slaves were sometimes encouraged to accumulate—to buy his freedom when a more than usually profitable deal should put his master in a good mood.
The hall of the basilica was almost as much a place of fashion as the baths of Julius Caesar, except that there were some admitted into the basilica whose presence, later in the day, within the precincts of the baths would have led to a riot. Whoever had wealth and could afford to match wits with the sharpest traders in the world might enter the basilica and lounge amid the statuary. Thither well dressed slaves came hurrying with contracts and the news of changing prices. There, on marble benches, spread with colored cushions, at the rear under the balcony, the richer men of business sat chattering to mask their real thoughts—Jews, Alexandrians, Athenians—a Roman here and there, cupidity more frankly written on his face, his eyes a little harder and less subtle, more abrupt in gesture and less patient with delays.
"That is a tale which is all very well for the slaves to believe, and for the priests, if they wish, to repeat. As for me, I was born in Tarsus, where no man in his senses believes anything except a bill of sale."
"But I tell you, Maternus was scourged, and then crucified at the place of execution nearest to where he committed his last crime. That is, where the crossroad leads to Daphne. There is no doubt about that whatever. He was nearly four days dying, and the sentries stood guard over him until he ceased to breathe, a little after sunset yesterday evening. So they say, at all events. A little before midnight, in Daphne, near one of those booths where the caterers prepare hot meals, a man strode up to where some slaves were seated around a fire. He burned a piece of parchment. All nine slaves agree that he was about Maternus' height and build; that he strode like a man who had been hurt; that he had mud and grass stains on his knees, and covered his face with a toga. They also swear he said he was Maternus, and that he was gone before they could recover their wits. They say his voice was sepulchral. One of the slaves, who can read, declares that the words on the parchment he burned were "Maternus Latro," and that it was the identical parchment he had seen hanging from Maternus' neck on the cross. They tortured that slave at once, of course, to get the truth out of him, and on the rack he contradicted himself at least a dozen times, so they whipped him and let him go, because his owner said he was a valuable cook; but the fact remains that the story hasn't been disproved.