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   Chapter 3 MATERNUS-LATRO

Caesar Dies By Talbot Mundy Characters: 14066

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


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 no

thing 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.:

"Maternus-Latro."

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?"

Norbanus chuckled.

"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!"

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