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Caesar Dies By Talbot Mundy Characters: 18007

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

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 carts, 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.

"And there is absolutely no doubt whatever about this: The caravan from Asia came in just a little after dawn, having traveled the last stage by night, as usual, in order to arrive early and get the formalities over with. They came past the place of execution before sunrise. They had heard the news of the execution from the north-bound caravan that passed them in the mountains. They had all been afraid of Maternus because he had robbed so many wayfarers, so naturally they were interested to see his dead body. It was gone!"

"What of it? Probably the women took it down for burial. Robbers always have a troupe of women. Maternus never had to steal one, so they say. They flocked to him like Bacchanalians."

"No matter. Now listen to this: between the time when they learned of Maternus' execution and their passing the place of execution that is to say at the narrowest part of the pass, where it curves and begins to descend on this side of the mountain-they were attacked by robbers who made use of Maternus' war-cry. The robbers were beaten off, although they wounded two men of the guard and got away with half-a-dozen horses and a slave-girl."

"That means nothing-Pardon me a moment while I see what my man has been doing. What is it, Stilchio? Are you mad? You have contracted to deliver fifty bales at yesterday's price? You want to ruin me? Oh. You are quite sure? Very well: A good man, that-went out and met the caravan-bought low-sold high, and the price is falling. But as I was saying, your story is simply a string of coincidences. All the robbers use Maternus' war-cry, because of the terror his name inspires; they probably had not heard he had been crucified."

"Well, that was what the caravan

folk thought, until they passed the place of execution and saw no body there."

"The robbers possibly themselves removed it and were seeking to avenge


"Much more likely somebody was bribed to let him escape! We all know Maternus was scourged, for that was done in Antioch; but they did not scourge him very badly, for fear he might die on the way to the place of execution. There is no doubt he was crucified, but he was only tied, not nailed. It would have been perfectly simple to substitute some other criminal that first night-somebody who looked a little like him; they would give the substitute poppy juice to keep him from crying out to passers-by."

"Substitution has often been done, of course. But it takes a lot of money and considerable influence to bribe the guard. They are under the authority of a centurion, who would have to look out for informers. And besides, you can't persuade me that a man who had been scourged, and crucified, if only for one day, could walk into Daphne two or three nights afterward and carry on a conversation. Why should he visit Daphne? Why should he choose that place, of all places in the world, and midnight, to destroy the identification parchment? Having destroyed it, why did he then tell the slaves who he was? It sounds like a tale out of Egypt to me."

"Well, the priests are saying-"

"Tchutt-tchutt! Priests say anything." "Nevertheless, the priests are saying that Maternus, after he was captured, managed to convey a message to his followers commanding them to offer sacrifices to Apollo, who accordingly intervened in his behalf. And they say he undoubtedly went to Daphne to return thanks at the temple threshold."

"Hah-Hah! Excellent! Let us go to the baths. You need to sweat the superstition out of you! Better leave word where we are going, so that our factors will know where to find us in case any important business turns up."

In the palace, in the office of the governor, where the lapping of water and irises could be heard through the opened windows, Pertinax sat facing the governor of Antioch across a table heaped with parchment rolls. A dozen secretaries labored in the next room, but the door between was closed; the only witnesses were leisurely, majestic swans, seen down a vista of well pruned shrubbery that flanked the narrow lawn. An awning crimsoned and subdued the sunlight, concealing the lines on the governor's face and suggesting color on his pale cheeks.

He was a fat man, pouched under the eyes and growing bald-an almost total contrast to the lean and active, although older Pertinax. His smile was cynical. His mouth curved downward. He had large, fat hands and cold, dark calculating eyes.

"I would feel more satisfied," he said, "if I could have Norbanus' evidence."

"Find him then!" Pertinax answered irritably. "What is the matter with your police? In Rome, if I propose to find a man he is brought before me instantly."

"This is not Rome," said the governor, "as you would very soon discover if you occupied my office. I sent a lictor and a dozen men to Norbanus' house, but he is missing and has not been seen, although it is known, and you admit, that he dined with you last night at Daphne. He has no property worth mentioning. His house is under lien to money-lenders. He is well known to have been Sextus' friend, and the moment this order arrived proscribing Sextus I added to it the name of Norbanus in my own handwriting, on the principle that treason keeps bad company.

"My own well known allegiance to the emperor obliges me to tear out the very roots of treason at the first suggestion of its presence in our midst. I have long suspected Sextus, who was a cross-grained, obstinate, quick-witted, proud young man-a lot too critical. I am convinced now that he and Norbanus were hatching some kind of plot between them-possibly against the sacred person of our emperor-a frightful sacrilege!-the suggestion of it makes me shudder! There is, of course, no doubt about Sextus; the emperor's own proscription brands him as a miscreant unfit to live, and he was lucky to have died by accident instead of being torn apart by tongs. It seems to me unquestionable that Norbanus shared his guilt and took care to escape before he could be seized and brought to justice. What is in doubt, most noble Pertinax, is how you can excuse yourself to our sacred emperor for having let Sextus escape from your clutches, after you had seen that letter! How can you excuse yourself for not pouncing the letter, to be used as evidence against rascally freedmen who forewarned the miscreant Sextus about the emperor's intentions?-and for not realizing that Norbanus was undoubtedly in league with him? How can you explain your having let Norbanus get away is something I confess I am unable to imagine."

"Conjure your imagination!" Pertinax retorted. "I am to inquire into the suitability of Antioch or Daphne as the site of the Olympic games that the emperor proposed to preside over in person. You can imagine, I suppose, how profitable that would be for Antioch-and you. Am I to tell the emperor that robbers in the mountains and the laxity of local government make the selection of Antioch unwise?"

They stared at each other silently across the table, Pertinax erect and definite, the governor of Antioch indefinite and stroking his chin with fat, white fingers.

"It would be simplest," said the governor of Antioch at last, "to have

Norbanus executed."

"Some one should always be executed when the emperor signs proscription lists!" said Pertinax. "Has it ever occurred to you to wonder how many soldiers in the legions in the distant provinces were certified as dead before they left Rome?"

The governor of Antioch smiled meanly. He resented the suggestions that there might be tricks he did not understand.

"I have a prisoner," he said, "who might be Norbanus. He has been tortured. He refused to identify himself."

"Does he look like him?"

"That would be difficult to say. He broke into a jeweler's and was very badly beaten by the slaves, who slashed his face, which is heavily bandaged. He appears to be a Roman and is certainly a thief, but beyond that-"

"Much depends on who is interested in him," Pertinax suggested. "Usually a man's relatives-"

But the governor of Antioch's fat hand made a disparaging careless gesture. "He has no friends. He has been in the carceres (the cells in which prisoners were kept who had been sentenced to death. Under Roman law there was practically no imprisonment for crime. Fines, flogging, banishment were the substitutes for execution.) more than a month. I was reserving him for execution by the lions at the next public games. Truth to tell, I had almost forgotten him. I will write out a warrant for Norbanus' execution and it shall be attended to this morning. And by the way-regarding the Olympic games-"

"The emperor, I think, would like to see them held in Antioch," said


The merchants strolling to the baths stood curiously for a while to watch one of the rapidly increasing sect of Christians, who leaned from a balcony over the street and exhorted a polyglot crowd of freedmen, slaves and idlers. He was bearded, brown-skinned from exposure, brown- robed, scrawny, vehement.

"Peculiar times!" one merchant said. "If you and I should cause a crowd to gather while we prated about refusal to do homage to the gods-of whom mind you, the emperor is one, and not the least-"

"But let us listen," said the other.

The man's voice was resonant. He used no tricks of oratory such as Romans over-valued, and was not too careful in the choice of phrases. The Greek idiom he used was unadorned-the language of the market-place and harbor-front. He made his points directly, earnestly, not arguing but like a guide to far-off countries giving information:

"Slaves-freedmen-masters-all are equal before God, and on the last day all shall rise up from the dead-"

A loiterer heckled him:

"Hah! The crucified too?-what about Maternus?"

The preacher, throwing up his right hand, snatched at opportunity:

"There were two thieves crucified, one on either hand, as I have told you. To the one was said: 'This day shalt thou be with me in paradise'; but to the other nothing. Nevertheless, all shall rise up from the dead on the last day-you, and your friends, and the wise and the fools, and the slave and the free-aye, and Maternus also-"

One merchant grinned to the other:

"Yet I think it was on the first night that Maternus rose up! They stiffen if they stay a whole night on the cross. If he could walk to Daphne three nights later, he had not been crucified many hours. Come, let us go to the baths before the crowd gets there. If one is late those insolent attendants lose one's clothing, and there is no chance whatever of getting a good soft-handed slave to rub one down. Don't you hate to be currycombed by a rascal with corns on his fingers?"

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