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Caesar Dies by Talbot Mundy

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You have killed my dummy! I must sit as he did and look on. I must
swallow stinking air of throne-rooms. I must watch sluggards fight--you
miserable, wanton imbeciles! It is Paulus you have killed! Do you
appreciate that? Jupiter, but I will make Rome pay for this! Who did
it? Who did it, I say?"

Rage blinded him. He did not see the choking wretch whose wrist
Narcissus twisted, until he struck at Narcissus again and, trying to
follow him, stumbled over the assassin.

"Who is this? Give me a sword, somebody! Is this the murderer? Bring
that lamp here!"

Bolder than the others, having recently been praised, the senator
Tullius brought the lamp and, kneeling, held it near the culprit's face.
The murderer was beyond speech, hardly breathing, with his eyes half-
bursting from the sockets and his tongue thrust forward through his
teeth because Narcissus' thumbs had almost strangled him.

"A Christian," said Tullius.

There was a note of quiet exultation in his voice. The privileges of
the Christians were a sore point with the majority of senators.

"A what?" demanded Commodus.

"A Christian. See--he has a cross and a fish engraved on bone and wears
it hung from his neck beneath his tunic. Besides, I think I recognize
the man. I think he is the one who waylaid Pertinax the other day and
spoke strange stuff about a whore on seven hills whose days are

He had raised up the man's head by the hair. Commodus stamped on the
face with the flat of his sandal, crushing the head on the flagstones.

"Christian!" he shouted. "Is this Marcia's doing? Is this Marcia's
expedient to keep me out of the arena? Too long have I endured that
rabble! I will rid Rome of the brood! They kill the shadow--they shall
feel the substance!"

Suddenly he turned on his attendants--pointed at the murderer and his

"Throw those two into the sewer! Strip them--strip them now--let none
identify them. Seize those spineless fools who let the murder happen.
Tie them. You, Narcissus--march them back to the arena. Have them
thrown into the lions' cages. Stay there and see it done, then come and
tell me."

The courtiers backed away from him as far out of the circle of the
lamplight as the tunnel-wall would let them. He had snatched the lamp
from Tullius. He held it high.

"Two parts of me are dead; the shadow that was satisfied with eels for
supper and the immortal Paulus whom an empire worshiped. Remains me--the
third part--Commodus! You shall regret those two dead parts of me!"

He hurled the lighted lamp into the midst of them and smashed it, then,
in darkness, strode along the tunnel muttering and cursing as he went--
stark naked.


"He is in the bath," said Marcia. She and Galen were alone with
Pertinax, who looked splendid in his official toga. She was herself in
disarray. Her woman had tried to dress her hair on the way in the
litter; one long coil of it was tumbling on her shoulder. She looked
almost drunken.

"Where is Flavia Titiana?" she demanded.

"Out," said Pertinax and shut his lips. He never let himself discuss
his wife's activities. The peasant in him, and the orthodox grammarian,
preferred less scandalous subjects.

Marcia stared long at him, her liquid, lazy eyes, suggesting banked
fires in their depths, looking for signs of spirit that should rise to
the occasion. But Pertinax preferred to choose his own occasions.

"Commodus is in the bath," Marcia repeated. "He will stay there until
night comes. He is sulking. He has his tablets with him--writes and
writes, then scratches out. He has shown what he writes to nobody, but
he has sent for Livius."

"We should have killed that dog," said Pertinax, which brought a sudden
laugh from Galen.

"A dog's death never saved an empire," Galen volunteered. "If you had
murdered Livius the crisis would have come a few days sooner, that is

"It is the crisis. It has come," said Marcia. "Commodus came storming
into my apartment, and I thought he meant to kill me with his own hands.
Usually I am not afraid of him. This time he turned my strength to
water. He yelled 'Christians!' at me, 'Christians! You and your
Christians!' He was unbathed. He was half-naked. He was sweaty from
his exercise. His hair was ruffled; he had torn out some of it. His
scowl was frightful--it was freezing."

"He is quite mad," Galen commented.

"I tried to make him understand this could not be a plot or I would
certainly have heard of it," Marcia went on with suppressed excitement.
"I said it was the madness of one fanatic, that nobody could foresee.
He wouldn't listen. He out-roared me. He even raised his fist to
strike. He swore it was another of my plans to keep him out of the
arena. I began to think it might be wiser to admit that. Even in his
worst moods he is sometimes softened by the thought that I take care of
him and love him enough to risk his anger. But not this time! He flew
into the worst passion I have ever seen. He returned to his first
obsession, that the Christians plotted it and that I knew all about it.
He swore he will butcher the Christians. He will rid Rome of them. He
says, since he can not play Paulus any longer he will out-play Nero."

"Where is Sextus?" Pertinax asked.

"Aye! Where is Sextus!"

Marcia glared at Galen.

"We have to thank you for Sextus! You persuaded Pertinax to shield
Sextus. Pertinax persuaded me."

"You did it!" Galen answered dryly. "It is what we do that matters.
Squealing like a pig under a gate won't remedy the matter. You foresaw
the crisis long ago. Sextus has been very useful to you. He has kept
you informed, so don't lower yourself by turning on him now. What is
the latest news about the other factions?"

Marcia restrained herself, biting her lip. She loved old Galen, but she
did not relish being told the whole responsibility was hers, although
she knew it.

"There is no news," she answered. "Nobody has heard a word about the
murder yet. Commodus has had the bodies thrown into the sewer. But
there are spies in the palace--"

"To say nothing of Bultius Livius," Pertinax added. He was clicking the
rings on his fingers--symptom of irresolution that made Marcia grit her

"The other factions are watching one another," Marcia went on. "They are
irresolute because they have no leader near enough to Rome to strike
without warning. Why are you irresolute?" She looked so hard at
Pertinax that he got up and began to pace the floor. "Severus and his
troops are in Pannonia. Pescennius Niger is in Syria. Clodius Albinus
is in Britain. The senators are all so jealous and afraid for their own
skins that they are as likely as not to betray one another to Commodus
the minute they learn that a crisis exists. If they hear that Commodus
is writing out proscription lists they will vie with one another to
denounce their own pet enemies--including you--and me!" she added.

"There is one chance yet," said Pertinax. "Bultius Livius may have
enough wisdom to denounce the leaders of the other factions and to clear
us. None of the others would be grateful to him. That Carthaginian
Severus, for instance, is invariably spiteful to the men who do him
favors. Bultius Livius may see that to protect us is his safest course,
as well as best for Rome."

He had more to say, but Marcia's scorn interrupted him. Galen chuckled.

"Rome! He cares only for Bultius Livius. It is now or never,

Marcia's intense emotion made her appear icily indifferent, but she did
not deceive Galen, although Pertinax welcomed her calmness as excusing
unenthusiasm in herself.

"Marcia is right," said Galen. "It is now or never. Marcia ought to
know Commodus!"

"Know him?" she exploded. "I can tell you step by step what he will do!
He will come out of the bath and eat a light meal, but he will drink
nothing, for fear of poison. Presently he will be thirsty and lonely,
and will send for me; and whatever he feels, he will pretend he loves
me. When the raging fear is on him he will never drink from any one but
me. He will take a cup of wine from my hands, making me taste it first.
Then he will go alone into his own room, where only that child
Telamonion will dare to follow. Everything depends then on the child.
If the child should happen to amuse him he will turn sentimental and I
will dare to go in and talk to him. If not--"

Galen interrupted.

"Madness," he said, "resembles many other maladies, there being symptoms
frequently for many years before the slow fire bursts into a blaze.
Some die before the outbreak, being burned up by the generating process,
which is like a slow fire. But if they survive until the explosion, it
is more violent the longer it has been delayed. And in the case of
Commodus that means that other men will die. And women," he added,
looking straight at Marcia.

"If he even pretends he loves me--I am a woman," said Marcia. "I love
him in spite of his frenzies. If I only had myself to think of--"

"Think then!" Galen interrupted. "If you can't think for yourself, do
you expect to benefit the world by thinking?"

Marcia buried her face in her hands and lay face downward on the couch.
She was trembling in a struggle for self-mastery. Pertinax chewed at his
finger-nails, which were the everlasting subject of his proud wife's
indignation; he never kept his fine hands properly; the peasant in him
thought such refinements effeminate, unsoldierly. Cornificia, who could
have made him submit even to a manicure, understood him too well to

"Galen!" said Marcia, sitting up suddenly.

The old man blinked. He recognized decision sudden and irrevocable. He
clenched his fingers and his lower lip came forward by the fraction of
an inch.

"I must save my Christians. What do you know about poisons?" she

"Less than many people," Galen answered. "I have studied antidotes. I
am a doctor. Those I poisoned thought as I did, that I gave them
something for their health. My methods have changed with experience.
Doctoring is like statesmanship--which is to say, groping in the dark
through mazes of misinformation."

"Know you a poison," asked Marcia, "that will not harm one who merely
tastes it, but will kill whoever drinks a quantity? Something without
flavor? Something colorless that can be mixed with wine? Know you a
safe poison, Galen?"

"Aye--irresolution!" Galen answered. "I will not be made a victim of
it. Who shall aspire to the throne if Commodus dies?"


Pertinax looked startled, stroking his beard, uncrossing his knees.

"Then let Pertinax do his own work," said Galen. "Rome is full of
poisoners, but hasn't Pertinax a sword?"

"Aye. And it has been the emperor's until this minute," Pertinax said
grimly. "Galen tells us Commodus is mad. And I agree that Rome
deserves a better emperor. But whether I am fit to be that emperor is
something not yet clear to me. I doubt it. Whom the Fates select for
such a purpose, they compel, and he is unwise who resists them. I will
not resist. But let there be no doubt on this point: I will not slay
Commodus. I will not draw sword against the man to whom I owe my
fortune. I am not an ingrate. Sextus lives for his revenge. If you
should ask me I would answer, Sextus planned this murder in the tunnel
and the blow was meant for Commodus himself. I am inclined to deal with
Sextus firmly. It is not too late. There is a chance that Commodus,
deprived now of his opportunities to make himself a spectacle, may bend
his energies to government. Madman though he is, he is the emperor, and
if he is disposed now to govern well, with capable advisers, I would be
the last to turn on him."

"If he will be advised by you?" suggested Marcia, her accent tart with
sarcasm. "What will you advise him about Sextus?"

"There are plenty of ways of getting rid of Sextus without killing him,"
said Pertinax. "He is a young man needing outlets for his energy and
fuel for his pride. If he were sent to Parthia, in secret, as an agent
authorized to penetrate that country and report on military,
geographical and economic facts--"

"He would refuse to go!" said Galen. "And if made to go, he would
return! O Pertinax--!"

"Be quiet!" Pertinax retorted irritably. "I will not submit to being
lectured. I am Governor of Rome--though you are Galen the philosopher.
And I remember many of your adages this minute, as for instance: 'It is
he who acts who is responsible.' To kill an emperor is easy, Galen. To
replace him is as difficult as to fit a new head to a body. We have
talked a lot of treason, most of it nonsense. I have listened to too
much of it. I am as guilty as the others. But when it comes to slaying
Commodus and standing in his shoes--"

Marcia interrupted.

"By the great Twin Brethren, Pertinax! Who can be surprised that Flavia
Titiana seeks amusement in the arms of other men! Does Cornificia
endure such peasant talk? Or do you keep it to impose on us as a relief
from her more noble conversation? Dea Dia! Had I known how spineless
you can be I would have set my cap at Lucius Severus long ago. It may
be it is not too late."

She had him! She had pricked him in the one place where he could be
stirred to spitefulness. His whole face crimsoned suddenly.

"That Carthaginian!" He came and stood in front of her. "If you had
favored him you should have foregone my friendship, Marcia! Commodus is
bad enough. Severus would be ten times worse! Where Commodus is merely
crazy, Lucius Severus is a calculating, ice-cold monster of cruelty! He
has no emotions except those aroused by venom! He would tear out your
heart just as swiftly as mine! As for plotting with him, he would let
you do it all and then denounce you to the senate after he was on the

"Either it must be Severus, or else you!" said Marcia. "Which is it to

Pertinax folded his arms.

"I would feel it my duty to preserve Rome from Severus. But you go too
fast. Our Commodus is on the throne--"

"And writes proscription lists!" said Marcia. "Who knows what names are
on the lists already? Who knows what Bultius Livius may have told him?
Who knows which of us will be alive tomorrow morning? Who knows what
Sextus is doing? If Sextus has heard of this crisis he will seize the
moment and either arouse the praetorian guard to mutiny or else reach
Commodus himself and slay him with his own hand! Sextus is a man! Are
you no more than Flavia Titiana's cuckold and Cornificia's plaything?"

"I am a Roman," Pertinax retorted angrily. "I think of Rome before
myself. You women only think of passion and ambition. Rome--city of a
thousand triumphs!" He turned away, pacing the floor again, knitting
his fingers behind him. "Pertinax would offer up himself if he might
bring back the Augustan days--if he might win the warfare that Tiberius
lost. One Pertinax is nothing in the life of Rome. One life, three-
quarters spent, is but a poor pledge to the gods--yet too much to be
thrown away in vain. The auguries are all mixed nowadays. I doubt
them. I mistrust the shaven priests who dole out answers in return for
minted money. I have knelt before the holy shrine of Vesta, but the
Virgins were as vague as the Egyptian who prophesied--"

He hesitated.

"What?" demanded Marcia.

"That I should serve Rome and receive ingratitude. What else does any
man receive who serves Rome? They who cheat her are the ones who

"Send for Cornificia," said Marcia. "She keeps your resolution. Let her
come and loose it!" Pertinax turned sharply on her.

"Flavia Titiana shall not suffer that indignity. Cornificia can not
enter this house."

But the mention of Cornificia's name wrought just as swift a change in
him as had the name of Lucius Severus. He began to bite his finger-
nails, then clenched his hands again behind him, Galen and Marcia

"You are the only one who can replace Commodus without drenching Rome in
blood," said Marcia, remembering a phrase of Cornificia's. And since
the words were Cornificia's, and stirred the chords of many memories,
they produced a sort of half-way resolution.

"It is now or never," Marcia said, goading him. But Pertinax shook his

"I am not convinced, though I would do my best to save Rome from
Severus. Dioscuri!--do you realize, this plot to make me emperor is
known to not more than a dozen--"

"Therein safety lies," said Marcia. "Yourself included there can only
be a dozen traitors!"

"Rome is too much ruled by women! I will not kill Commodus, and I will
give him this one chance," said Pertinax. "I will protect him, unless
and until I shall discover proof that he intends to turn on you, or me,
or any of my friends."

"You may discover that too late!" said Marcia; but she seemed to
understand him and looked satisfied. "Come tonight to the palace--
Galen," she added, "come you also--and bring poison!"

Galen met her gaze and shut his lips tight.

"Galen," she said, "either you will do this or--I have been your friend.
Now be you mine! It is too risky to send one of my slaves to fetch a
poison. You are to come tonight and bring the poison with you.
Otherwise--you understand?"

"You are extremely comprehensible!" said Galen, pursing up his lips.

"You will obey?"

"I must," said Galen. But he did not say whether he would obey her or
his inclination. Pertinax, eyeing him doubtfully, seemed torn between
suspicion of him and respect for long-tried friendship.

"May we depend on you?" he asked. He laid a hand on Galen's shoulder,
bending over him.

"I am an old man," Galen answered. "In any event I have not long to
live. I will do my best--for you."

Pertinax nodded, but there was still a question in his mind. He bade
farewell to Marcia, turning his back toward Galen. Marcia whispered:

"Be a man now, Pertinax! If we should lose this main, we two can drink
the stuff that Galen brings."

"There was a falling star last night," said Pertinax. "Whose was it?"

Marcia studied his face a moment. Then:

"There will be a rising sun tomorrow!" she retorted. "Whose will it be?
Yours! Play the man!"


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

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

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."


"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

"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

"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

"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?"


"Not for yourself, Galen?"


"For whom then?"

"For Pertinax."

Sextus seized the plate on which the several ingredients were being

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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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!"


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

"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

"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

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

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
written 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

"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

"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

"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

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

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--

"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

"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-

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

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

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.


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

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