MoboReader > Literature > Caesar Dies

   Chapter 11 GALEN

Caesar Dies By Talbot Mundy Characters: 51332

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Galen's house was one he rented from a freedman of the emperor-a wise means of retaining favor at the palace. Landlords having influence were careful to protect good tenants. Furthermore, whoever rented, rather than possessed, escaped more easily from persecution. Galen, like Tyanan Apollonius, reduced his private needs, maintaining that philosophy went hand in hand with medicine, but wealth with neither.

It was a pleasant little house, not far away from Cornificia's, within a precinct that was rebuilt after all that part of Rome burned under Nero's fascinated gaze. The street was crescent-shaped, not often crowded, though a score of passages like wheel-spokes led to it; and to the rear of Galen's house was a veritable maze of alleys. There were two gates to the house: one wide, with decorated posts, that faced the crescent street, where Galen's oldest slave sat on a stool and blinked at passers-by; the other narrow, leading from a little high-walled courtyard at the rear into an alley between stables in which milch-asses were kept. That alley led into another where a dozen midwives had their names and claims to excellency painted on the doors-an alley carefully to be avoided, because women of that trade, like barbers, vied for custom by disseminating gossip.

So Sextus used a passage running parallel to that one, leading between workshops where the burial-urn makers' slaves engraved untruthful epitaphs in baked clay or inlaid them on the marble tomb-slabs-to be gilded presently with gold-leaf (since a gilded lie, though costlier, is no worse than the same lie unadorned.)

He drummed a signal with his knuckles on the panel of a narrow door of olive-wood, set deep into the wall under a projecting arch. An overleaning tree increased the shadow, and a visitor could wait without attracting notice. A slave nearly as old as Galen presently admitted him into a paved yard in which a fish-pond had been built around an ancient well. A few old fruit-trees grew against the wall, and there were potted shrubs, but little evidence of gardening, most of Galen's slaves being too old for that kind of work. There were a dozen of them loafing in the yard; some were so fat that they wheezed, and some so thin with age that they resembled skeletons. There was a rumor that the fatness and the thinness were accounted for by Galen's fondness for experiments. Old Galen had a hundred jealous rivals and they even said he fed the dead slaves to the fish; but it was Roman custom to give no man credit for humaneness if an unclean accusation could be made to stick.

Another fat old slave led Sextus to a porch behind the house and through that to a library extremely bare of furniture but lined with shelves on which rolled manuscripts were stacked in tagged and numbered order; they were dusty, as if Galen used them very little nowadays. There were two doors in addition to the one that opened on the porch; the old slave pointed to the smaller one and Sextus, stooping and turning sidewise because of the narrowness between the posts, went down a step and entered without knocking.

For a moment he could not see Galen, there was such confusion of shadow and light. High shelves around the walls of a long, shed-like room were crowded with retorts and phials. An enormous, dusty human skeleton, articulated on concealed wire, moved as if annoyed by the intrusion. There were many kinds of skulls of animals and men on brackets fastened to the wall, and there were jars containing dead things soaked in spirit. Some of the jars were enormous, having once held olive oil. On a table down the midst were instruments, a scale for weighing chemicals, some measures and a charcoal furnace with a blow-pipe; and across the whole of one end of the room was a system of wooden pigeon-holes, stacked with chemicals and herbs, for the most part wrapped in parchment.

Sunlight streaming through narrow windows amid dust of drugs and spices made a moving mystery; the room seemed under water. Galen, stooping over a crucible with an unrolled parchment on the table within reach, was not distinguishable until he moved; when he ceased moving he faded out again, and Sextus had to go and stand where he could touch him, to believe that he was really there.

"You told me you had ceased experiments."

"I lied. The universe is an experiment," said Galen. "Such gods as there are perhaps are looking to evolve a decent man, or possibly a woman, from the mess we see around us. Let us hope they fail."

"Why?"

"There appears to be hope in failure. Should the gods fail, they will still be gods and go on trying. If they ever made a decent man or woman all the rest of us would turn on their creation and destroy it. Then the gods would turn into devils and destroy us."

"What has happened to you, Galen? Why the bitter mood?"

"I discover I am like the rest of you-like all Rome. At my age such a discovery makes for bitterness." For a minute or two Galen went on scraping powder from the crucible, then suddenly he looked up at Sextus, stepping backward so as to see the young man's face more clearly in a shaft of sunlight.

"Did you send that Christian into the tunnel to kill Commodus?" he asked.

"I? You know me better than that, Galen! When the time comes to slay

Commodus-but is Commodus dead? Speak, don't stand there looking at me!

Speak, man!"

Galen appeared satisfied.

"No, not Commodus. The blow miscarried. Somebody slew Nasor. A mistake. A coward's blow. If you had been responsible-"

"When-if-I slay, it shall be openly with my own hand," said Sextus. "Not I alone, but Rome herself must vomit out that monster. Why are you vexed?"

"That wanton blow that missed its mark has stripped some friends of mine too naked. It has also stripped me and revealed me to myself. Last night I saw a falling star-a meteor that blazed out of the night and vanished."

"I, too," said Sextus. "All Rome saw it. The cheap sorcerers are doing a fine trade. They declare it portends evil."

"Evil-but for whom?" Old Galen poured the powder he had scraped into a dish and blinked at him. "Affiliations in the realm of substance are confined to like ingredients. That law is universal. Like seeks like, begetting its own like. As for instance, sickness flows in channels of unwholesomeness, like water seeping through a marsh. Evil? What is evil but the likeness of a deed-its echo-its result-its aftermath? You see this powder? Marcia has ordered me to poison Commodus! What kind of aftermath should that deed have?"

Sextus stared at him astonished. Galen went on mixing.

"Colorless it must be-flavorless-without smell-indetectible. These saviors of Rome prepare too much to save themselves! And I take trouble to save myself. Why?"

He stopped and blinked again at Sextus, waiting for an answer.

"You are worth preserving, Galen."

"I dispute that. I am sentimental, which is idiocy in a man of my age.

But I will not kill him who is superior to any man in Rome."

"Idiocy? You? And you admire that monster?"

"As a monster, yes. He is at least wholehearted. As a monster he lacks neither strength of will nor sinew nor good looks; he is magnificent; he has the fear, the frenzy and the resolution of a splendid animal. We have only cowardice, the unenthusiasm and the indecision of base men. If we had the virtue of Commodus, no Commodus could ever have ruled Rome for half a day. But I am senile. I am sentimental. Rather than betray Marcia-and Pertinax-who would betray me for their own sakes; rather than submit my own old carcass to the slave whom Marcia would send to kill me, I am doing what you see."

"Poison for Commodus?"

"No."

"Not for yourself, Galen?"

"No."

"For whom then?"

"For Pertinax."

Sextus seized the plate on which the several ingredients were being mixed.

"Put that down," said Galen. "I will poison part of him-the mean part."

"Speak in plain words, Galen!"

"I will slay his indecision. He and Marcia propose; that I shall kill their monster. I shall mix a draught for Marcia to take to him-in case this, and in case that, and perhaps. In plain words, Commodus has sent for Livius and none knows how much Livius has told. Their monster writes and scratches out and rewrites long proscription lists, and Marcia trembles for her Christians. For herself she does not tremble. She has ten times Pertinax' ability to rule. If Marcia were a man she should be emperor! Our Pertinax is hesitating between inertia and doubt and dread of Cornificia's ambition for him; between admiration of his own wife and contempt for her; between the subtleties of auguries and common sense; between trust and mistrust of us all, including Marcia and you and me; between the easy dignity of being governor of Rome and the uneasy palace-slavery of being Caesar; between doubt of his own ability to rule and the will to restore the republic."

"We all know Pertinax," said Sextus. "He is diffident, that is all. He is modest. Once he has made his decision-"

Galen interrupted him

"Then let us pray the gods to make the rest of us immodest! The decision that he makes is this: If Commodus has heard of the conspiracy; if Commodus intends to kill him, he will then allow somebody else to kill Commodus! He will permit me, who am a killer only by professional mistake and not by intention, to be made to kill my former pupil with a poisoned drink! You understand, not even then will Pertinax take resolution by the throat and do his own work."

"So Pertinax shall drink this?"

"It is meant that Commodus shall drink it. That is, unless Commodus emerges from his sulks too soon and butchers all of us-as we deserve!"

"Have done with riddles, Galen! How will that affect Pertinax, except to make him emperor?"

"Nothing will make him emperor unless he makes himself," said Galen. "You will know tonight. We lack a hero, Sextus. All conspirators resemble rats that gnaw and run, until one rat at last discovers himself Caesar of the herd by accident. Caius Julius Caesar was a hero. He was one mind bold and above and aloof. He saw. He considered. He took. His murderers were all conspirators, who ran like rats and turned on one another. So are we! Can you imagine Caius Julius Caesar threatening an old philosopher like me with death unless he mixed the poison for a woman to take to his enemy's bedside? Can you imagine the great Julius hesitating to destroy a friend or spare an enemy?"

"Do you mean, they strike tonight, and haven't warned me?"

"I have warned you."

"Marcia has been prepared these many days to kill me if I meant to strike," said Sextus. "I can understand that; it is no more than a woman's method to protect her bully. She accuses and defends him, fears and loves him, hates him and hates more the man who sets her free. But Pertinax-did he not bid you warn me?"

"No," said Galen. "Are you looking for nobility? I tell you there is nothing noble in conspiracies. Pertinax and Marcia have used you. They will try to use me. They will blame me. They will certainly blame you. I advise you to run to your friends in the Aventine Hills. Thence hasten out of Italy. If Pertinax should fail and Commodus survives this night-"

"No, Galen. He must not fail! Rome needs Pertinax. That poison- phaugh! Is no sword left in Rome? Has Pertinax no iron in him? Better one of Marcia's long pins than that unmanly stuff. Where is Narcissus?"

"I don't know," said Galen. "Narcissus is another who will do well to protect himself. Commodus is well disposed toward him. Commodus might send for him-as he will surely send for me if belly-burning sets in. He and I would make a good pair to be blamed for murdering an emperor."

"You run!" urged Sextus. "Go now! Go to my camp in the Aventines. You will find Norbanus and two freedmen waiting near the Porta Capena; they are wearing farmers' clothes and look as if they came from Sicily. They know you. Say I bade them take you into hiding."

Galen smiled at him. "And you?" he asked.

"Narcissus shall smuggle me into the palace. It is I who will slay Commodus, lest Pertinax should stain his hands. If they prefer to turn on me, what matter? Pertinax, if he is to be Caesar, will do better not to mount the throne all bloody. Let him blame me and then execute me. Rome will reap the benefit. Marcia has the praetorian guard well under control, what with her bribes and all the license she has begged for them. Let Marcia proclaim that Pertinax is Caesar, the praetorian guard will follow suit, and the senate will confirm it so soon after daybreak that the citizens will find themselves obeying a new Caesar before they know the old one is dead! Then let Pertinax make new laws and restore the ancient liberties. I will die happy."

"O youth-insolence of youth!" said Galen, smiling. He resumed his mixing of the powders, adding new ingredients. "I was young once-young and insolent. I dared to try to tutor Commodus! But never in my long life was I insolent enough to claim all virtue for myself and bid my elders go and hide! You think you will slay Commodus? I doubt it."

"How so?"

Sextus was annoyed. The youth in him resented that his altruism should be mocked.

"Pertinax should do it," Galen answered. "If Rome needed no more than philosophy and grammar, better make me Caesar! I was mixing my philosophy with surgery and medicine while Pertinax was sucking at his mother's breast in a Ligurian hut. Rome, my son, is sick of too much mixed philosophy. She needs a man of iron-a riser to occasion-a cutter of Gordian knots, precisely as a sick man needs a surgeon. The senate will vote, as you say, at the praetorian guard's dictation. You have been clever, my Sextus, with your stirring of faction against faction. They are mean men, all so full of mutual suspicion as to heave a huge sigh when they know that Pertinax is Caesar, knowing he will overlook their plotting and rule without bloodshed if that can be done. But it can't be! Unless Pertinax is man enough to strike the blow that shall restore the ancient liberties, then he is better dead before he tries to play the savior! We have a tyrant now. Shall we exchange him for a weak-kneed theorist?"

"Are you ready to die, Galen?"

"Why not? Are you the only Roman? I am not so old I have no virtue left. A little wisdom comes with old age, Sextus. It is better to live for one's country than to die for it, but since no way has been invented of avoiding death, it is wiser to die usefully than like a sandal thrown on to the rubbish-heap because the fashion changes."

"I wish you would speak plainly, Galen. I have told you all my secrets. You have seen me risk my life a thousand times in the midst of Commodus' informers, coming and going, interviewing this and that one, urging here, restraining there, denying myself even hope of personal reward. You know I have been whole-hearted in the cause of Pertinax. Is it right, in a crisis, to put me off with subtleties?"

"Life is subtle. So is virtue. So is this stuff," Galen answered, poking at the mixture with a bronze spoon. "Every man must choose his own way in a crisis. Some one's star has fallen. Commodus'? I think not. That star blazed out of obscurity, and Commodus is not obscure. Mine? I am unimportant; I shall make no splendor in the heavens when my hour comes. Marcia's? Is she obscure? Yours? You are like me, not born to the purple; when a sparrow dies, however diligently he has labored in the dirt, no meteors announce his fall. No, not Maternus, the outlaw, to say nothing of Sextus, the legally dead man, can command such notice from the sky. That meteor was some one's who shall blaze into fame and then die."

"Dark words, Galen!"

"Dark deeds!" the old man answered. "And a path to be chosen in darkness! Shall I poison the man whom I taught as a boy? Shall I refuse, and be drowned in the sewer by Marcia's slaves? Shall I betray my friends to save my own old carcass? Shall I run away and hide, at my age, and live hounded by my own thoughts, fearful of my shadow, eating charity from peasants? I can easily say no to all those things. What then? It is not what a man does not, but what he does that makes him or unmakes him. There is nothing left but subtlety, my Sextus. What will you do? Go and do it now. Tomorrow may be too late."

Sextus shrugged his shoulders, baffled and irritated. He had always looked to Galen for advice in a predicament. It was Galen, in fact, who had kept him from playing much more than the part of a spy-listening, talking, suggesting, but forever doing nothing violent.

"You know as well as I do, there is nothing ready," he retorted. "Long ago I could have had a thousand armed men waiting for a moment such as this to rally behind Pertinax. But I listened to you-"

"And are accordingly alive, not crucified!" said Galen. "The praetorian guard is well able to slaughter any thousand men, to uphold Commodus or to put Pertinax in the place of Commodus. Your thousand men would only decorate a thousand gibbets, whether Pertinax should win or lose. If he should win, and become Caesar, he would have to make them an example of his love of law and order, proving his impartiality by blaming them for what he never invited them to do. For mark this: Pertinax has never named himself as Commodus' successor. I warn you: there is far less safety for his friends than for his enemies, unless he, with his own hand, strikes the blow that makes him emperor."

"If Marcia should do it-?"

"That would be the end of Marcia."

"If I should do it?"

"That would be the end of you, my Sextus."

"Let us say farewell, then, Galen! This right hand shall do it. It will save my friends. It will provide a culprit on whom Pertinax may lay the blame. He will ascend the throne unguilty of his predecessor's blood-"

"And you?" asked Galen.

"I will take my own life. I will gladly die when I have ridded Rome of

Commodus."

He paused, awaiting a reply, but Galen appeared almost rudely unconcerned.

"You will not say farewell?"

"It is too soon," Galen answered, folding up his powder in a sheet of parchment, tying it, at great pains to arrange the package neatly.

"Will you not wish me success?"

"That is something, my Sextus, that I have no powders for. I have occasionally cured men. I can set most kinds of fractures with considerable skill, old though I am. And I can divert a man's attention sometimes, so that he lets nature heal him of mysterious diseases. But success is something you have already wished for and have already made or unmade. What you did, my Sextus, is the scaffolding of what you do now; this, in turn, of what you will do next. I gave you my advice. I bade you run away-in which case I would bid you farewell, but not otherwise."

"I will not run."

"I heard you."

"And you said you are sentimental, Galen!"

"I have proved it to you. If I were not, I myself would run!"

Galen led the way out of the room into the hall where the mosaic floor and plastered walls presented colored temple scenes-priests burning incense at the shrine of Aesculapius, the sick and maimed arriving and the cured departing, giving praise.

"There will be no hero left in Rome when they have slain our Roman Hercules," said Galen. "He has been a triton in a pond of minnows. You and I and all the other little men may not regret him afterward, since heroes, and particularly mad ones, are not madly loved. But we will not enjoy the rivalry of minnows."

He led Sextus to the porch and stood there for a minute holding to his arm.

"There will be no rivals who will dare to raise their heads," said

Sextus, "once our Pertinax has made his bid for power."

"But he will not," Galen answered. "He will hesitate and let others do the bidding. Too many scruples! He who would govern an empire might better have fetters on feet and hands! Now go. But go not to the palace if you hope to see a heroism-or tomorrow's dawn!"

XII.-LONG LIVE CAESAR!

That night it rained. The wind blew yelling squalls along the streets. At intervals the din of hail on cobble-stones and roofs became a stinging sea of sound. The wavering oil lanterns died out one by one and left the streets in darkness in which now and then a slave-borne litter labored like a boat caught spreading too much sail. The overloaded sewers backed up and made pools of foulness, difficult to ford. Along the Tiber banks there was panic where the river-boats were plunging and breaking adrift on the rising flood and miserable, drenched slaves labored with the bales of merchandize, hauling the threatened stuff to higher ground.

But the noisiest, dismalest place was the palace, the heart of all Rome, where the rain and hail dinned down on marble. There was havoc in the clumps of ornamental trees-crashing of pots blown down from balconies- thunder of rent awnings and the splashing of countless cataracts where overloaded gutters spilled their surplus on mosaic pavement fifty or a hundred feet below. No light showed, saving at the guard-house by the main gate, where a group of sentries shrugged themselves against the wall-ill-tempered, shivering, alert. However mutinous a Roman army, or a legion, or a guard might be, its individuals were loyal to the routine work of military duty.

A decurion stepped out beneath a splashing arch, the lamplight gleaming on his wetted bronze and crimson.

"Narcissus? Yes, I recognize you. Who is this?" Narcissus and Sextus were shrouded in loose, hooded cloaks of raw wool, under which they hugged a change of footgear. Sextus had his face well covered. Narcissus pushed him forward under the guard-room arch, out of the rain.

"This is a man from Antioch, whom Caesar told me to present to him," he said. "I know him well. His names is Marius."

"I have no orders to admit a man of that name." Narcissus waxed confidential.

"Do you wish to get both of us into trouble?" he asked. "You know Caesar's way. He said bring him and forgot, I suppose, to tell his secretary to write the order for admission. Tonight he will remember my speaking to him about this expert with a javelin, and if I have to tell him-"

"Speak with the centurion."

The decurion beckoned them into the guard-house, where a fire burned in a bronze tripod, casting a warm glow on walls hung with shields and weapons. A centurion, munching oily seed and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, came out of an inner office. He was not the type that had made Roman arms invincible. He lacked the self-reliant dignity of an old campaigner, substituting for it self-assertiveness and flashy manners. He was annoyed because he could not get the seed out of his mouth with his finger in time to look aristocratic.

"What now, Narcissus? By Bacchus, no! No irregularities tonight! The very gods themselves are imitating Caesar's ill-humor! Who is it you have brought?"

Narcissus beckoned the centurion toward the corner, between fire and wall, where he could whisper without risk of being overheard.

"Marcia told me to bring this man tonight in hope of making Caesar change his mood. He is a javelin-thrower-an expert."

"Has he a javelin under the cloak?" the centurion asked suspiciously.

"He is unarmed, of course. Do you take us for madmen?"

"All Rome is mad tonight," said the centurion, "or I wouldn't be arguing with a gladiator! Tell me what you know. A sentry said you saw the death of Pavonius Nasor. All the sentries who were in the tunnel at the time are under lock and key, and I expect to be ordered to have the poor devils killed to silence them. And now Bultius Livius-have you heard about it?"

"I have heard Caesar sent for him."

"Well, if Caesar has sent for this friend of yours, he had better first made sacrifices to his gods and pray for something better than befell poor Livius! Yourself too! They say Livius is being racked-doubtless to make him tell more than he knows. I smell panic in the air. With all these palace slaves coming and going you can't check rumor and I'll wager there is already an exodus from Rome. Gods! What a night for travel! Morning will see the country roads all choked with the conveyances of bogged up senators! Let us pray this friend of yours may soften Caesar's mood. Where is his admission paper?"

"As I told the decurion, I have none."

"That settles it then; he can't enter. No risks-not when I know the mood our Commodus is in! The commander might take the responsibility, but not I."

"Where is he?" asked Narcissus.

"Where any lucky fellow is on such a night-in bed. I wouldn't dare to send for him for less than riots, mutiny and all Rome burning! Let your man wait here. Go you into the palace and get a written permit for him."

But nothing was more probable than that such a permit would be unobtainable.

Sextus stepped into the firelight, pulling back the hood to let the centurion see his face.

"By Mars' red plume! Are you the man they call Maternus?"

Sextus retorted with a challenge:

"Now will you send for your commander? He knows me well."

"Dioscuri! Doubtless! Probably you robbed him of his purse! By

Romulus and Remus, what is happening to Rome? That falling star last

night portended, did it, that a highwayman should dare to try to enter

Caesar's palace! Ho there, decurion! Bring four men!"

The decurion clanked in. His men surrounded Sextus at a gesture.

"I ought to put you both in cells," said the centurion. "But you shall have a chance to justify yourself, Narcissus. Go on in. Bring Caesar's wr

itten order to release this man Maternus-if you can!"

Narcissus, like all gladiators, had been trained in facial control lest an antagonist should be forewarned by his expression. Nevertheless, he was hard put to it to hide the fear that seized him. He supposed not even Marcia would dare openly to come to Sextus' rescue.

"That man is my only friend," he said. "Let me have word with him first."

"Not one word!"

The centurion made a gesture with his head. The guards took Sextus by the arms and marched him out into the night, he knowing better than to waste energy or arouse anger by resisting.

"Then I will go to the commander! I go straight to him," Narcissus stammered. "Idiot! Don't you know that Marcia protects Maternus? Otherwise, how should an outlaw whose face is so well known that you recognized him instantly-how should he dare to approach the palace?"

The centurion touched his forehead.

"Mad, I daresay! Go on in. Get Marcia's protection for him. Bring me her command in writing! Wait, though-let me look at you."

He made Narcissus throw his heavy cloak off, clean his legs and change into his other foot-gear. Then he examined his costume.

"Even on a night like this they'd punish me for letting a man pass who wasn't dressed right. Let me see, you're not free yet; you don't have to wear a toga. I spend half my days teaching clodhoppers how to fold hired togas properly behind the neck. It's the only way you can tell a slave from a citizen these days! The praetorian guard ought to be recruited from the tailors' shops! Lace up your sandal properly. Now- any weapons underneath that tunic?"

Sullenly Narcissus held his arms up and submitted to be searched. He usually came and went unchallenged, being known as one of Caesar's favorites, but the centurion's suspicions were aroused. They were almost confirmed a moment later. The decurion returned and laid a long, lean dagger on the table.

"Taken from the prisoner," he reported. "It was hidden beneath his tunic. He looks desperate enough to kill himself, so I left two men to keep an eye on him."

The centurion scratched his chin again, his mouth half-open.

"Whom do you propose to visit in the palace?" he demanded.

"Marcia," said Narcissus.

The centurion turned to the decurion.

"Go you with him. Hand him over to the hall-attendants. Bid them pass him from hand to hand into Marcia's presence. Don't return until you have word he has reached her."

To all intents and purposes a prisoner, Narcissus was marched along the mosaic pavement of a bronze-roofed colonnade, whose marble columns flanked the approach to the palace steps. Drenched guards, posted near the eaves where water splashed on them clanged their shields in darkness as the decurion passed; there was not a square yard of the palace grounds unwatched.

There was a halt beside the little marble pavilion near the palace steps, where the decurion turned Narcissus over to an attendant in palace uniform, but no comment; the palace was too used to seeing favorites of one day in disgrace the next.

Within the palace there was draughtily lighted gloom, a sensation of dread and mysterious restlessness. The bronze doors leading to the emperor's apartments were shut and guards posted outside them who demanded extremely definite reasons for admitting any one; even when the centurion's message was delivered some one had to be sent in first to find out whether Marcia was willing, and for nearly half an hour Narcissus waited, biting his lip with impatience.

When he was sent for at last, and accompanied in, he found Marcia, Pertinax and Galen seated unattended in the gorgeous, quiet anteroom next to the emperor's bedchamber. The outer storm was hardly audible through the window-shutters, but there was an atmosphere of impending climax, like the hush and rumble that precedes eruptions.

Marcia nodded and dismissed the attendant who had brought Narcissus. There was a strained look about her eyes, a tightening at the corners of the mouth. Her voice was almost hoarse:

"What is it? You bring bad news, Narcissus! What has happened?"

"Sextus has been arrested by the main gate guard!"

Galen came out of a reverie. Pertinax bit at his nails and looked startled; worry had made him look as old as Galen, but his shoulders were erect and he was very splendid in his jeweled full dress. None spoke; they waited on Marcia, who turned the news over in her mind a minute.

"When? Why?" she asked at last.

"He proposed I should smuggle him in, that he might be of service to you. He was stormy-minded. He said Rome may need a determined man tonight. But the centurion of the guard recognized him-knew he is Maternus. He refused to summon the commander. Sextus is locked in a cell, and there is no knowing what the guards may do to him. They may try to make him talk. Please write and order him released."

"Yes, order him released," said Pertinax.

But Marcia's strained lips flickered with the vestige of a smile.

"A determined man!" she said, her eyes on Pertinax. "By morning a determined man might give his own commands. Sextus is safe where he is. Let him stay there until you have power to release him! Go and wait in the outer room, Narcissus!"

Narcissus had no alternative. Though he could sense the climax with the marrow of his bones, he did not dare to disobey. He might have rushed into the emperor's bedroom to denounce the whole conspiracy and offer himself as bodyguard in the emergency. That might have won Commodus' gratitude; it might have opened up a way for liberating Sextus. But there was irresolution in the air. And besides, he knew that Sextus would reckon it a treason to himself to be made beholden for his life to Commodus, nor would he forgive betrayal of his friends, Pertinax, and Marcia and Galen.

So Narcissus, who cared only for Sextus, reckoning no other man on earth his friend, went and sat beyond the curtains in the smaller, outer room, straining his ears to catch the conversation and wondering what tragedy the gods might have in store. As gladiator his philosophy was mixed of fatalism, cynical irreverence, a semi-military instinct of obedience, short-sightedness and self-will. He reckoned Marcia no better than himself because she, too, was born in slavery-and Pertinax not vastly better than himself because he was a charcoal-burner's son. But it did not enter his head just then that he might be capable of making history.

Marcia well understood him. Knowing that he could not escape to confer with the slaves in the corridor, because the door leading to the corridor from the smaller anteroom was locked, she was at no pains to prevent his overhearing anything. He could be dealt with either way, at her convenience; a reward might seal his lips, or she could have him killed the instant that his usefulness was ended, which was possibly not yet.

"Sextus," she said, "must be dealt with. Pertinax, you are the one who should attend to it. As governor of Rome you can-"

"He is thoroughly faithful," said Pertinax. "He has been very useful to us."

"Yes," said Marcia, "but usefulness has limits. Time comes when wine jars need resealing, else the wine spills. Galen, go in and see the emperor."

Galen shook his head.

"He is a sick man," said Marcia. "I think he has a fever."

Galen shook his head again.

"I will not have it said I poisoned him."

"Nonsense! Who knows that you mixed any poison?"

"Sextus, for one," Galen answered.

"Dea dia! There you are!" said Marcia. "I tell you, Pertinax, your Sextus may prove to be another Livius! He has been as ubiquitous as the plague. He knows everything. What if he should turn around and secure himself and his estates by telling Commodus all he knows? It was you who trusted Livius. Do you never learn by your mistakes?"

"We don't know yet what Livius has told," said Pertinax. "If he had been tortured-but he was not. Commodus slew him with his own hand. I know that is true; it was told me by the steward of the bedchamber, who saw it, and who helped to dispose of the body. Commodus swore that such a creeping spy as Livius, who could be true to nobody but scribbled, scribbled, scribbled in a journal all the scandal he could learn in order to betray anybody when it suited him, was unfit to live. I take that for a sign that Commodus has had a change of heart. It was a manly thing to slay that wretch."

"He will have a change of governors of Rome before the day dawns!" Marcia retorted. "If it weren't that he might change his mistress at the same time-"

"You would betray me-eh?" Pertinax smiled at her tolerantly.

"No," said Marcia, "I would let you have your own way and be executed! You deserve it, Pertinax." Pertinax stood up and paced the floor with hands behind him.

"I will have my own way. I will have it, Marcia!" he said, calmly, coming to a stand in front of her. "He who plots against his emperor may meet the like fate! If Commodus has no designs against me, then I harbor none against him. I am not sure I am fitted to be Caesar. I have none to rally to me, to rely on, except the praetorian guard, which is a two-horned weapon; they could turn on me as easily and put a man of their own choosing on the throne. And furthermore, I don't wish to be Caesar. Glabrio, for instance, is a better man than I am for the task. I will only consent to your desperate course, for the sake of Rome, if you can prove to me that Commodus designs a wholesale massacre. And even so, if your name and Galen's and mine are not on his proscription list-if he only intends, that is, to punish Christians and weaken the faction of that Carthaginian Severus, I will observe my oath of loyalty. I will counsel moderation but-"

"You are less than half a man without your mistress!" Marcia exploded. "Don't stand trying to impress me with your dignity. I don't believe in it! I will send for Cornificia."

"No, no!" Pertinax showed instant resolution. "Cornificia shall not be dragged in. The responsibility is yours and mine. Let us not lessen our dignity by involving an innocent woman."

For a moment that made Marcia breathless. She was staggered by his innocence, not his assertion of Cornificia's-bemused by the man's ability to believe what he chose to believe, as if Cornificia had not been the very first who plotted to make him Caesar. Cornificia more than any one had contrived to suggest to the praetorian guard that their interest might best be served some day by befriending Pertinax; she more than any one had disarmed Commodus' suspicion by complaining to him about Pertinax' lack of self-assertiveness, which had become Commodus' chief reason for not mistrusting him. By pretending to report to Commodus the private doings of Pertinax and a number of other important people, Cornificia had undermined Commodus' faith in his secret informers who might else have been dangerous.

"Your Cornificia," Marcia began then changed her mind. Disillusionment would do no good. She must play on the man's illusion that he was the master of his own will. "Very well," she went on, "Yours be the decision! No woman can decide such issues. We are all in your hands- Cornificia and Galen-all of us-aye, and Rome, too-and even Sextus and his friends. But you will never have another such opportunity. It is tonight or never, Pertinax!"

He winced. He was about to speak, but something interrupted him. The great door carved with cupids leading to the emperor's bedchamber opened inch by inch and Telamonion came out, closing it softly behind him.

"Caesar sleeps," said the child, "and the wind blew out the lamp. He was very cross. It is dark. It is cold and lonely in there."

In his hand he held a sheet of parchment, covered with writing and creased from his attempts to make a parchment helmet, "Show me," he said, holding out the sheet to Marcia.

She took him on her knee and began reading what was written, putting him down when he tugged at the parchment to make her show him how to fold it. She found him another sheet to play with and told him to take it to Pertinax who was a soldier and knew more about helmets. Then she went on reading, clutching at the sheet so tightly that her nails blanched white under the dye.

"Pertinax!" she said, shaking the parchment, speaking in a strained voice, "this is his final list! He has copied the names from his tablets. Whose name do you guess comes first?"

Pertinax was playing with Telamonion and did not look at her.

"Severus!" he answered, morbid jealousy, amounting to obsession, stirring that cynical hope in him.

"Severus isn't mentioned. The first six names are in this order: Galen, Marcia, Cornificia, Pertinax, Narcissus, Sextus alias Maternus. Do you realize what that means? It is now or never! Why has he put Galen first, I wonder?"

Galen did not appear startled. His interest was philosophical- impersonal.

"I should be first. I am guiltiest. I taught him in his youth," he remarked, smiling thinly. "I taught him how to loose the beast that lives in him, not intending that, of course, but it is what we do that counts. I should come first! The state would have been better for the death of many a man whom I cured; but I did not cure Commodus, I revealed him to himself, and he fell in love with himself and-"

"Now will you poison him?" said Marcia.

"No," said Galen. "Let him kill me. It is better."

"Gods! Has Rome no iron left? You, Pertinax!" said Marcia, "Go in and kill him!"

Pertinax stood up and stared at her. The child Telamonion pressed close to him holding his righthand, gazing at Marcia.

"Telamonion, go in and play with Narcissus," said Marcia. She pointed at the curtains and the child obeyed.

"Go in and kill him, Pertinax!" Marcia shook the list of names, then stood still suddenly, like a woman frozen, ash-white under the carmine on her cheeks.

There came a voice from the emperor's bedroom, more like the roar of an angry beast than human speech:

"Marcia! Do you hear me, Marcia? By all Olympus-Marcia!"

She opened the door. The inner room was in darkness. There came a gust of chill wet wind that made all the curtains flutter and there was a comfortless noise of cataracts of rain downpouring from the over-loaded gutters on to marble balconies. Then the emperor's voice again:

"Is that you, Marcia? You leave your Commodus to die of thirst! I parch-I have a fever-bring my wine-cup!"

"At once, Commodus."

She glanced at the golden cup on an onyx table. On a stand beside it was an unpierced wine jar set in an enormous bowl of snow. She looked at Pertinax-and shrugged her shoulders, possibly because the wind blew through the opened door. She glanced at Galen.

"If you have a fever, shouldn't I bring Galen?"

"No!" roared Commodus. "The man might poison me! Bring me the cup, and you fill it yourself! Make haste before I die of thirst! Then bring me another lamp and dose the shutters! No slaves-I can't bear the sight of them!"

"Instantly, Commodus. I am coming with it now. Only wait while I pierce the amphora."

She closed the door and looked swiftly once again at Pertinax. He frowned over the list of names and did not look at her. She walked straight up to Galen.

"Give me!" she demanded, holding out her hand. He drew a little parchment package from his bosom and she clutched it, saying nothing. Galen was the one who spoke:

"Responsibility is his who orders. May the gods see that it falls where it belongs."

She took no notice of his speech but stood for a moment untying the strings of the package, frowning to herself, then bit the string through and, clutching the little package in her fist, took a gilded tool from beside the snow-bowl and pierced the seal of the amphora. Then she put the poison in the bottom of the golden cup and poured the wine-with difficulty, since the jar was heavy, but Pertinax, who watched intently, made no movement to assist. She stirred the wine with one of her long hair-pins.

"Marcia!" roared Commodus.

"I am coming now."

She went into the bedroom, leaving the door not quite closed behind her.

Pertinax began to stare at Galen critically. Galen blinked at him.

Commodus' voice came very distinctly from the inner room:

"Taste first, Marcia! Olympus! I can't see you in the dark. Come close. Are your lips wet? Let me feel them!"

"I drank a whole mouthful, Commodus. How hot your hand is! Feel-feel the cup-you can feel with your finger how much I have tasted. I broke the seal of a fresh jar of Falernian."

"Some of your Christians might have tampered with it!"

"No, no, Commodus. That jar has been in the cellar since before you were born and the seal was intact. I washed the cup myself."

"Well, taste again. Sit here on the bed where I can feel your heart- beats."

Presently he gave a gasp and belched, as always after he had swallowed a whole cupful at one draught.

"Now close the shutters and bolt them on the inside; there might be some of your Christians lurking on the balcony."

"In this storm, Commodus? And there are guards on duty."

"Close them, I say! Who trusts the guards! Did they guard the tunnel? I will rid Rome of all Christians tomorrow! Aye, and of many another reptile! They have robbed me of my fun in the arena-I will find another way to interest myself! Now bring me a fresh lamp in here, and set the tablets by the bed."

She came out, shutting the door behind her, then stood listening. She did not tremble. Her wrist was red where Commodus had held it.

"How long?" she whispered, looking at Galen.

"Only a very little time," he answered. "How much did you drink?"

She put her hand to her stomach, as if pain had stabbed her.

"Drink pure wine," said Galen. "Swiftly. Drink a lot of it."

She went to the amphora. Before she could reach it there came a roar like a furious beast's from the bedroom.

"I am poisoned! Marcia! Marcia! My belly burns! I am on fire inside! I faint! Marcia!-Marcia!" Then groans and a great creaking of the bed.

Marcia-she was trembling now-drank wine, and Pertinax began to pace the floor.

"You, Galen, you had better go in to him," said Marcia.

"If I do go, I must heal him," Galen answered.

The groans in the bedroom ceased. The shouts began again-terrific imprecations-curses hurled at Marcia-the struggles of a strong man in the throes of cramp-and, at last, the sound of vomiting.

"If he vomits he will not die!" Marcia exclaimed. Galen nodded. He appeared immensely satisfied-expectant.

"Galen, have you-will that poison kill him?" Marcia demanded.

"No," said Galen. "Pertinax must kill him. I promised I would do my best for Pertinax. Behold your opportunity!"

Pertinax strode toward him, clutching at a dagger underneath his tunic.

"Kill me if you wish," said Galen, "but if you have any resolution you had better do first what you wanted me to do. And you will need me afterward."

Commodus was vomiting and in the pauses roaring like a mad beast. Marcia seized Pertinax by the arm. "I have done my part," she said. "Now nerve yourself! Go in now and finish it!"

"He may die yet. Let us wait and see," said Pertinax.

A howl rising to a scream-terror and anger mingled-came from the bedroom; then again the noise of vomiting and the creaking of the bed as Commodus writhed in the spasms of cramp.

"He will feel better presently," said Galen.

"If so, you die first! You have betrayed us all!" Pertinax shook off Marcia and scowled at Galen, raising his right arm as if about to strike the old man. "False to your emperor! False to us!"

"And quite willing to die, if first I may see you play the man!" said

Galen, blinking up at him.

"Hush!" exclaimed Marcia. "Listen! Gods! He is up off the bed! He will be in here in a minute! Pertinax!"

Alarm subsided. They could hear the thud and creak as Commodus threw himself back on the bed-then writhing again and groans of agony. Between the spasms Commodus began to frame connected sentences:

"Guards! Your emperor is being murdered! Rescue your Commodus!"

"He is recovering," said Galen.

"Give me your dagger!" said Marcia and clutched at Pertinax' tunic, feeling for it.

But she was not even strong enough to resist the half-contemptuous shrug with which Pertinax thrust her away.

"You disgust me. There is neither dignity nor decency in this," he muttered. "Nothing but evil can come of it."

"Whose was the star that fell?" asked Galen.

There came more noise from the bedroom. Commodus seemed to be trying to get to his feet again. Marcia ran toward the smaller anteroom and dragged the curtains back.

"Narcissus!"

He came out, carrying Telamonion. The child lay asleep in his arms.

"Go and put that child down. Now earn your freedom-go in and kill the emperor! He has poisoned himself, and he thinks we did it. Give him your dagger, Pertinax!"

"I am only a slave," Narcissus answered. "It is not right that a slave should kill an emperor."

Marcia seized the gladiator by the shoulders, scanned his face, saw what she looked for and bargained for it instantly.

"Your freedom! Manumission and a hundred thousand sesterces!"

"In writing!" said Narcissus.

"Dog!" growled Pertinax. "Go in and do as you are told!"

But Narcissus only grinned at him and squared his shoulders.

"Death means little to a gladiator," he remarked.

"Leave him to me!" ordered Marcia.

"Go and sit down at that table, Pertinax. Take pen and parchment. Now then-what do you want in writing? Make haste!"

"Freedom-you may keep your money-I shall not wait to receive it.

Freedom for me and for Sextus and for all of Sextus' friends and

freedmen. An order releasing Sextus from the guard-house instantly.

Permission to leave Rome and Italy by any route we choose."

"Write, Pertinax!" said Marcia. Narcissus glanced at Galen.

"Galen," he said, "is one of Sextus' friends, so set his name down."

"Never mind me," said Galen. "They will need me."

Marcia stood over Pertinax, watching him write. She snatched the document and sanded it, then watched him write the order to the guard, releasing Sextus.

"There!" she exclaimed. "You have your price. Go in and kill him!

Give him your dagger, Pertinax."

"I hoped for heroism, not expecting it," said Galen. "I expected cunning. Is it absent, too? If he should use a dagger-many men have heard me say that Caesar has a tendency to apoplexy-"

"Strangle him!" commanded Marcia.

She thrust the palms of her hands against Narcissus' back and pushed him toward the bedroom door, now almost at the end of her reserves of self- control. Her mouth trembled. She was fighting against hysteria.

"Light! Lamp! Guards!" roared Commodus, and again the ebony-posted bed creaked under him. Narcissus stepped into the darkened room. He left the door open, to have light to do his work by, but Marcia closed it, clinging to the gilded satyr's head that served for knob with both hands, her lips drawn tight against her teeth, her whole face tortured with anticipation.

"It is better that a gladiator did it," remarked Pertinax, attempting to look calm. "I never killed a man. As general, and as governor of Rome, as consul and proconsul, I have spared whom I might. Some had to die but-my own hands are clean."

There came an awful sound of struggle from the inner room. A monstrous roar was shut off suddenly, half-finished, smothered under bedclothes. Then the bed-frame cracked under the strain of Titans fighting-cracked -creaked-and utter silence fell. It lasted several minutes. Then the door opened and Narcissus came striding out.

"He was strong," he remarked. "Look at this."

He bared his arm and showed where Commodus had gripped him; the lithe muscle looked as if it had been gripped in an iron vise. He chafed it, wincing with pain.

"Go in and observe that I have taken nothing. Don't be afraid," he added scornfully. "He fought like the god that he was, but he died-"

"Of apoplexy," Galen interrupted. "That is to say, of a surging of blood to the brain and a cerebral rupture. It is fortunate you have a doctor on the scene who knew of his liability to-"

"We must go and see," said Marcia. "Come with me, Pertinax. Then we must tidy the bed and make haste and summon the officers of the praetorian guard. Let them hear Galen say he died of apoplexy."

She picked up a lamp from the table and Pertinax moved to follow her, but Narcissus stepped in his way.

"Ave, Caesar!" he said, throwing up his right hand.

"You may go," said Pertinax. "Go in silence. Not a word to a soul in the corridors. Leave Rome. Leave Italy. Take Sextus with you."

"You will let him go?" asked Marcia. "Pertinax, what will become of you? Send to the guard at the gate and command them to seize him! Sextus and Narcissus-"

"Have my promise!" he retorted. "If the fates intend me to be Caesar, it shall not be said I slew the men who set me on the throne."

"You are Caesar," she answered. "How long will you last? All omens favored you-the murder in the tunnel-now this storm, like a veil to act behind, and-"

"And last night a falling star!" said Galen. "Give me parchment. I will write the cause of death. Then let me go too, or else kill me. I am no more use. This is the second time that I have failed to serve the world by tutoring a Caesar. Commodus the hero, and now you the-"

"Silence!" Marcia commanded. "Or even Pertinax may rise above his scruples! Write a death certificate at once, and go your way and follow Sextus!"

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares