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She plunged into the pool and swam like a mermaid, her companions following, climbed out at the farther end, where the diving-boards projected in tiers, one above the other, and passed through a bronze door into the first of the sweating rooms, evidently conscious of the murmur of comment that followed her, but taking no overt notice of it.

“Who is to be the next to try to reason with her–you?” asked Boltius Livius.

“No, not I. I have shot my bolt,” said Pertinax and closed his eyes, as if to shut out something from his memory–or possibly to banish thoughts he did not relish. There came a definite, hard glint into Livius’s eyes; he had a name for being sharper to detect intrigue and its ramifications than even the sharp outline of his face would indicate.

“You have heard of her latest indiscretion?” he asked, narrowly watching Pertinax. “There is a robber at large, named Maternus–you have heard of him? The man appears and disappears. Some say he is the same Maternus who was crucified near Antioch at about the time when you were there; some say he isn’t. He is reported to visit Rome in various disguises, and to be able to conduct himself so well that he can pass for a patrician. Some say he has a large band; some say, hardly any followers. Some say it was he who robbed the emperor’s own mail a month ago. He is reported to be here, there, everywhere; but there came at last reliable information that he lives in a cave in the woods on an estate that fell to the fiscus (the government department into which all payments were made, corresponding roughly to a modern treasury department) at the time when Maximus and his son Sextus were proscribed.”

Pertinax looked bored. He yawned.

“I think I will go in and sweat a while,” he remarked.

“Not yet. Let me finish,” said Livius. “It was reported to Caesar that the highwayman Maternus lives in a cave on this Aventine estate, and that the slaves and tenants on the place, who, of course, all passed to the new owner when the estate was sold, not only tolerate him but supply him with victuals and news. Caesar went into one of his usual frenzies, cursed half the senators by name, and ordered out a cohort from a legion getting ready to embark at Ostia. He ordered them to lay waste the estate, burn all the woods and if necessary torture the slaves and tenants, until they had Maternus. Dead or alive, they were not to dare to come without him, and meanwhile the rest of the legion was kept waiting at Ostia, with all the usual nuisance of desertions and drunkenness and what not else.”

“Everybody knows about that,” said Pertinax. “As governor of Rome it was my duty to point out to the emperor the inconvenience of keeping that legion waiting under arms so near the city. I was snubbed for my pains, but I did my duty.”

“Your duty? There were plenty of people more concerned than you,” said Livius, looking again as if he thought he had detected an intrigue. “There were the Ostian authorities, for instance, but I did not hear of their complaining.”

“Naturally not,” said Pertinax, suppressing irritation. “Every day the legion lingered there meant money for the enterprising city fathers. I am opposed to all the petty pouching of commissions that goes on.”

“Doubtless. Being governor of Rome, you naturally–“

“I have heard of peculations at the palace,” Pertinax interrupted.

“Be that as it may, Commodus ordered out the cohort, sent it marching and amused himself inventing new ingenious torments for Maternus. Alternatively, he proposed to himself to have the cohort slaughtered in the arena, officers and all, if they should fail of their mission; so it was safe to wager they were going to bring back some one said to be Maternus, whether or not they caught the right man. Commodus was indulging in one of his storms of imperial righteousness. He was going to stamp out lawlessness. He was going to make it safe for any one to come or go along the Roman roads. Oh, he was in a fine Augustan mood. It wasn’t safe for any one but Marcia to come within a mile of him. Scowl–you know that scowl of his–it freezes the very sentries on the wall if he looks at their backs through the window! I don’t suppose there was a woman in Rome just then who would have cared to change places with Marcia! He sent for her, and half the palace betted she was ripe for banishment to one of those island retreats where Crispina (the wife of Commodus who was banished to the isle of Capreae and there secretly put to death) lived less than a week! But Marcia is fertile of surprises. She won’t surprise me if she outlives Commodus–by Hercules, she won’t surprise me if–“

He stared at Pertinax with impudently keen eyes. Pertinax looked at the bronze door leading to the sweating room, shrugging himself as if the frigidarium had grown too cool for comfort.

“Marcia actually persuaded Commodus to countermand the order!” Livius said, emphasizing each word. “Almighty Jove can only guess what argument she used, but if Maternus had been one of her pet Christians she couldn’t have saved him more successfully. Commodus sent a messenger post-haste that night to recall the cohort.”

“And a good thing too,” Pertinax remarked. “It isn’t a legion’s business to supply cohorts to do the work of the district police. There were five thousand raw men on the verge of mutiny in Ostia–“

“And–wait a minute–and,” said Livius, “don’t go yet–this is interesting: Marcia, that same night, sent a messenger of her own to find Maternus and to warn him.”

“How do you know?” Pertinax let a sign of nervousness escape him.

“In the palace, those of us who value our lives and our fortunes make it a business to know what goes on,” Livius answered with a dry laugh, “just as you take care to know what goes on in the city, Pertinax.”

The older man looked worried.

“Do you mean it is common gossip in the palace?” he demanded.

“You are the first man I have spoken with. There are therefore only three who know, if you count the slave whom Marcia employed; four if you count Marcia. I had the great good luck not long ago to catch that slave in flagrante delicto–never mind what he was doing; that is another story altogether–and he gave me an insight into a number of useful secrets. The point is, that particular slave takes care not to run errands nowadays without informing me. There is not much that Marcia does that I don’t know about.” Livius’ eyes suggested gimlets boring holes into Pertinax’s face. Not a change of the other’s expression escaped him. Pertinax covered his mouth with his hand, pretending to yawn. He slapped his thighs to suggest that his involuntary shudder was due to having sat too long. But he did not deceive Livius. “It is known to me,” said Livius, “that you and Marcia are in each other’s confidence.”

“That makes me doubt your other information,” Pertinax retorted. “No man can jump to such a ridiculous conclusion and call it knowledge without making me doubt him on all points. You bore me, Livius. I have important business waiting; I must make haste into the sweating room and get that over with.”

But Livius’ sharp, nervous laugh arrested him.

“Not yet, friend Pertinax! Let Rome wait! Rome’s affairs will outlive both of us. I suspect you intend to tell Marcia to have my name included in the next proscription list! But I am not quite such a simpleton as that. Sit down and listen. I have proof that you plotted with the governor of Antioch to have an unknown criminal executed in place of a certain Norbanus, who escaped with your connivance and has since become a follower of the highwayman Maternus. That involves you rather seriously, doesn’t it! You see, I made sure of my facts before approaching you. And now–admit that I approached you tactfully! Come, Pertinax, I made no threats until you let me see I was in danger. I admire you. I regard you as a brave and an honorable Roman. I propose that you and I shall understand each other. You must take me into confidence, or I must take steps to protect myself.”

There was a long pause while a group of men and women came and chattered near by, laughing while one of the men tried to win a wager by climbing a marble pillar. Pertinax frowned. Livius did his best to look dependable and friendly, but his eyes were not those of a boon companion.

“You are incapable of loyalty to any one except yourself,” said Pertinax at last. “What pledge do you propose to offer me?”

“A white bull to Jupiter Capitolinus! I am willing to go with you to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and to swear on the altar whatever solemn oath you wish.”

Pertinax smiled cynically.

“The men who slew Julius Caesar were under oath to him,” he remarked. “Most solemn oaths they swore, then turned on one another like a pack of wolves! Octavian and Anthony were under oath; and how long did that last? My first claim to renown was based on having rewon the allegiance of our troops in Britain, who had broken the most solemn oath a man can take–of loyalty to Rome. An oath binds nobody. It simply is an emphasis of what a man intends that minute. It expresses an emotion. I believe the gods smile when they hear men pledge themselves. I personally, who am far less than a god and far less capable of reading men’s minds, never trust a man unless I like him, or unless he gives me pledges that make doubt impossible.”

“Then you don’t like me?” asked Livius.

“I would like you better if I knew that I could trust you.”

“You shall, Pertinax! Bring witnesses! I will commit myself before your witnesses to do my part in–“

His restless eyes glanced right and left. Then he lowered his voice.

“–in bringing about the political change you contemplate.”

“Let us go to the sweating room,” Pertinax answered. “Keep near me. I will think this matter over. If I see you holding speech not audible to me, with any one–“

“I am already pledged. You may depend on me,” said Livius. “I trust you more because you use caution. Come.”

VI. THE EMPEROR COMMODUS

The imperial palace was a maze of splendor such as Babylon had never seen. It had its own great aqueducts to carry water for its fountains, for the gardens and for the imperial baths that were as magnificent, if not so large, as the Thermae of Titus. Palace after palace had been wrecked, remodeled and included in the whole, under the succeeding emperors, until the imperial quarters on the Palatine had grown into a city within a city.

There were barracks for the praetorian guard that lacked not much of being a fortress. Rooms and stairways for the countless slaves were like honeycomb cells in the dark foundations. There were underground passages, some of them secret, some notorious, connecting wing with wing; and there was one, for the emperor’s private use, that led to the great arena where the games were held, so that he might come and go with less risk of assassination.

Even temples had been taken over and included within the surrounding wall to make room for the ever-multiplying suites of state apartments, as each Caesar strove to outdo the magnificence of his predecessor. Oriental marble, gold-leaf, exotic trees, silk awnings, fountains, the majestic figures of the guards, the bronze doors and the huge height of the buildings, awed even the Romans who were used to them.

The throne-room was a place of such magnificence that it was said that even Caesar himself felt small in it. The foreign kings, ambassadors and Roman citizens admitted there to audience were disciplined without the slightest difficulty; there was no unseemliness, no haste, no crowding; horribly uncomfortable in the heavy togas that court etiquette prescribed, reminded of their dignity by colossal statues of the noblest Romans of antiquity, and ushered by magnificently uniformed past masters of the art of ceremony, all who entered felt that they were insignificant intruders into a golden mystery. The palace prefect in his cloak of cloth of gold, with his ivory wand of office, seemed a high priest of eternity; subprefects, standing in the marble antechamber to examine visitors’ credentials and see that none passed in improperly attired, were keepers of Olympus.

The gilded marble throne was on a dais approached by marble steps, beneath a balcony to which a stair ascended from behind a carved screen. Trumpets announced the approach of Caesar, who could enter unobserved through a door at the side of the dais. From the moment that the trumpet sounded, and the guards grew as rigid as the basalt statues in the niches of the columned walls, it was a punishable crime to speak or even to move until Caesar appeared and was seated.

Nor was Caesar himself an anticlimax. Even Nero, nerveless in his latter days, when self-will and debauchery had pouched his eyes and stomach, had possessed the Roman gift of standing like a god. Vespasian and Titus, each in turn, was Mars personified. Aurelius had typified a gentler phase of Rome, a subtler dignity, but even he, whose worst severity was tempered by the philosophical regret that he could not kill crime with kindliness, had worn the imperial purple like Olympus’ delegate.

Commodus, in the minutes that he spared from his amusements to accept the glamor of the throne, was perfect. Handsomest of all the Caesars, he could act his part with such consummate majesty that men who knew him intimately half-believed he was a hero after all. Athletic, muscular and systematically trained, his vigor, that was purely physical, passed readily for spiritual quality within that golden hall, where the resources of the world were all put under tribute to provide a royal setting. He emerged. He smiled, as if the sun shone. He observed the rolled petitions, greetings, testimonials of flattery from private citizens and addresses of adulation from distant cities, being heaped into a gilded basket as the silent throng filed by beneath him. He nodded. Now and then he scowled, his irritation growing as the minutes passed. At each gesture of impatience the subprefects quietly impelled the crowd to quicker movement. But at the end of fifteen minutes Commodus grew tired of dignity and his ferocious scowl clouded his face like a thunderstorm.

“Am I to sit here while the whole world makes itself ridiculous by staring at me?” he demanded, in a harsh voice. It was loud enough to fill the throne-room, but none knew whether it was meant for an aside or not and none dared answer him. The crowd continued flowing by, each raising his right hand and bowing as he reached the square of carpet that was placed exactly in front of Caesar’s throne.

Commodus rose to his feet. All movement ceased then and there was utter silence. For a moment he stood scowling at the crowd, one hand resting on the golden lion’s head that flanked the throne. Then he laughed.

“Too many petitions!” he sneered, pointing at the overflowing basket; and in another moment he had vanished through the door behind the marble screen. Met and escorted up the stairs by groups of cringing slaves, he reached a columned corridor. Rich carpets lay on the mosaic floor; sunlight, from under; the awnings of a balcony glorious with potted flowers, shone on the colored statuary and the Grecian paintings.

“What are all these women doing?” he demanded. There were girls, half- hidden behind the statues, each one trying, as he passed her, to divine his mood and to pose attractively.

“Where is Marcia? What will she do to me next? Is this some new scheme of hers to keep me from enjoying my manhood? Send them away! The next girl I catch in the corridor shall be well whipped. Where is Marcia?”

Throwing away his toga for a slave to catch and fold he turned between gilded columns, through a bronze door, into the antechamber of the royal suite. There a dozen gladiators greeted him as if he were the sun shining out of the clouds after a month of rainy weather.

“This is better!” he exclaimed. “Ho, there, Narcissus! Ho, there, Horatius! Ha! So you recover, Albinus? What a skull the man has! Not many could take what I gave him and be on their feet again within the week! You may follow me, Narcissus. But where is Marcia?”

Marcia called to him through the curtained door that led to the next room–

“I am waiting, Commodus.”

“By Jupiter, when she calls me Commodus it means an argument! Are some more of her Christians in the carceres, I wonder? Or has some new highwayman–By Juno’s breasts, I tremble when she calls me Commodus!”

The gladiators laughed. He made a pass at one of them, tripped him, scuffled a moment and raised him struggling in the air, then flung him into the nearest group, who broke his fall and set him on his feet again.

“Am I strong enough to face my Marcia?” he asked and, laughing, passed into the other room, where half a dozen women grouped themselves around the imperial mistress.

“What now?” he demanded. “Why am I called Commodus?”

He stood magnificent, with folded arms, confronting her, play-acting the part of a guiltless man arraigned before the magistrate.

“O Roman Hercules,” she said, “I spoke in haste, you came so much sooner than expected. What woman can remember you are anything but Caesar when you smile at her? I am in love, and being loved, I am–“

“Contriving some new net for me, I’ll wager! Come and watch the new men training with the caestus; I will listen to your plan for ruling me and Rome while the sight of a good set-to stirs my genius to resist your blandishments!”

“Caesar,” she said, “speak first with me alone.” Instantly his manner changed. He made a gesture of impatience. His sudden scowl frightened the women standing behind Marcia, although she appeared not to notice it, with the same peculiar trick of seeming not to see what she did not wish to seem to see that she had used when she walked naked through the Thermae.

“Send your scared women away then,” he retorted. “I trust Narcissus. You may speak before him.”

Her women vanished, hurrying into another room, the last one drawing a cord that closed a jingling curtain.

“Do you not trust me?” asked Marcia. “And is it seemly, Commodus, that I should speak to you before a gladiator?”

“Speak or be silent!” he grumbled, giving her a black look, but she did not seem to notice it. Her genius–the secret of her power–was to seem forever imperturbable and loving.

“Let Narcissus bear witness then; since Caesar bids me, I obey! Again and again I have warned you, Caesar. If I were less your slave and more your sycophant I would have tired of warning you. But none shall say of Marcia that her Caesar met Nero’s fate, whose women ran away and left him. Not while Marcia lives shall Commodus declare he has no friends.”

“Who now?” he demanded angrily. “Get me my tablet! Come now, name me your conspirators and they shall die before the sun sets!”

When he scowled his beauty vanished, his eyes seeming to grow closer like an ape’s. The mania for murder that obsessed him tautened his sinews. Cheeks, neck, forearms swelled with knotted strength. Ungovernable passion shook him.

“Name them!” he repeated, beckoning unconsciously for the tablet that none dared thrust into his hand.

“Shall I name all Rome?” asked Marcia, stepping closer, pressing herself against him. “O Hercules, my Roman Hercules–does love, that makes us women see, put bandages on men’s eyes? You have turned your back upon the better part of Rome to–“

“Better part?” He shook her by the shoulders, snorting. “Liars, cowards, ingrates, strutting peacocks, bladders of wind boring me and one another with their empty phrases, cringing lick-spittles–they make me sick to look at them! They fawn on me like hungry dogs. By Jupiter, I make myself ridiculous too often, pandering to a lot of courtiers! If they despise me then as I despise myself, I am in a bad way! I must make haste and live again! I will get the stench of them out of my nostrils and the sickening sight of them out of my eyes by watching true men fight! When I slay lions with a javelin, or gladiators–“

“You but pander to the rabble,” Marcia interrupted. “So did Nero. Did they come to his aid when the senate and his friends deserted him?”

“Don’t interrupt me, woman! Senate! Court!” he snorted. “I can rout the senate with a gesture! I will fill my court with gladiators! I can change my ministers as often as I please–aye, and my mistress too,” he added, glaring at her. “Out with the names of these new conspirators who have set you trembling for my destiny!”

“I know none–not yet,” she said. “I can feel, though. I hear the whispers in the Thermae–“

“By Jupiter, then I will close the Thermae.”

“When I pass through the streets I read men’s faces–“

“Snarled, have they? My praetorian guard shall show them what it is to be bitten! Mobs are no new things in Rome. The old way is the proper way to deal with mobs! Blood, corn and circuses, but principally blood! By the Dioscuri, I grow weary of your warnings, Marcia!”

He thrust her away from him and went growling like a bear into his own apartment, where his voice could be heard cursing the attendants whose dangerous duty it was to divine in an instant what clothes he would wear and to help him into them. He came out naked through the door, saw Marcia talking to Narcissus, laughed and disappeared again. Marcia raised her voice:

“Telamonion! Oh, Telamonion!”

A curly-headed Greek boy hardly eight years old came running from the outer corridor–all laughter–one of those spoiled favorites of fortune whom it was the fashion to keep as pets. Their usefulness consisted mainly in retention of their innocence.

“Telamonion, go in and play with him. Go in and make him laugh. He is bad tempered.”

Confident of everybody’s good-will, the child vanished through the curtains where Commodus roared him a greeting. Marcia continued talking to Narcissus in a low voice.

“When did you see Sextus last?” she asked.

“But yesterday.”

“And what has he done, do you say? Tell me that again.”

“He has found out the chiefs of the party of Lucius Septimius Severus. He has also discovered the leaders of Pescennius Niger’s party. He says, too, there is a smaller group that looks toward Clodius Albinus, who commands the troops in Britain.”

“Did he tell you names?”

“No. He said he knew I would tell you, and you might tell Commodus, who would write all the names on his proscription list. Sextus, I tell you, reckons his own life nothing, but he is extremely careful for his friends.”

“It would be easy to set a trap and catch him. He is insolent. He has had too much rein,” said Marcia. “But what would be the use?” Narcissus answered. “There would be Norbanus, too, to reckon with. Each plays into the other’s hands. Each knows the other’s secrets. Kill one, and there remains the other–doubly dangerous because alarmed. They take turns to visit Rome, the other remaining in hiding with their following of freedmen and educated slaves. They only commit just enough robbery to gain themselves an enviable reputation on the countryside. They visit their friends in Rome in various disguises, and they travel all over Italy to plot with the adherents of this faction or the other. Sextus favors Pertinax–says he would make a respectable emperor– another Marcus Aurelius. But Pertinax knows next to nothing of Sextus’ doings, although he protects Sextus as far as he can and sees him now and then. Sextus’ plan is to keep all three rival factions by the ears, so that if anything should happen–” he nodded toward the curtain, from behind which came the sounds of childish laughter and the crashing voice of Commodus encouraging in some piece of mischief–“they would be all at odds and Pertinax could seize the throne.”

“I wonder whether I was mad that I protected Sextus!” exclaimed Marcia. “He has served us well. If I had let them catch and crucify him as Maternus, we would have had no one to keep us informed of all these cross-conspiracies. But are you sure he favors Pertinax?”

“Quite sure. He even risked an interview with Flavia Titiana, to implore her influence with her husband. Sextus would be all for striking now, this instant; he has assured himself that the world is tired of Commodus, and that no faction is strong enough to stand in the way of Pertinax; but he knows how difficult it will be to persuade Pertinax to assert himself. Pertinax will not hear of murdering Caesar; he says: ‘Let us see what happens–if the Fates intend me to be Caesar, let the Fates show how!'”

“Aye, that is Pertinax!” said Marcia. “Why is it that the honest men are all such delayers! As for me, I will save my Commodus if he will let me. If not, the praetorian guard shall put Pertinax on the throne before any other faction has a chance to move. Otherwise we all die–all of us! Severus–Pescennius Niger–Clodius Albinus–any of the others would include us in a general proscription. Pertinax is friendly. He protects his friends. He is the safest man in all ways. Let Pertinax be acclaimed by all the praetorian guard and the senate would accept him eagerly enough. They would feel sure of his mildness. Pertinax would do no wholesale murdering to wipe out opposition; he would try to pacify opponents by the institution of reforms and decent government.”

“You must beware you are not forestalled,” Narcissus warned her. “Sextus tells me there is more than one man ready to slay Commodus at the first chance. Severus, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus keep themselves informed as to what is going on; their messengers are in constant movement. If Commodus should lift a hand against either of those three, that would be the signal for civil war. All three would march on Rome.”

“Caesar is much more likely to learn of the plotting through his own informers, and to try to terrify the generals by killing their supporters here in Rome,” said Marcia. “What does Sextus intend? To kill Caesar himself?”

Narcissus nodded.

“Well, when Sextus thinks that time has come, you kill him! Let that be your task. We must save the life of Commodus as long as possible. When nothing further can be done, we must involve Pertinax so that he won’t dare to back out. It was he, you know, who persuaded me to save Maternus the highwayman’s life; it was he who told me Maternus is really Sextus, son of Maximus. His knowledge of that secret gives me a certain hold on Pertinax! Caesar would have his head off at a word from me. But the best way with Pertinax is to stroke the honest side of him –the charcoal-burner side of him–the peasant side, if that can be done without making him too diffident. He is perfectly capable of offering the throne to some one else at the last minute!”

A step sounded on the other side of the curtain. “Caesar!” Narcissus whispered. As excuse for being seen in conversation with her he began to show her a charm against all kinds of treachery that he had bought from an Egyptian. She snatched it from him.

“Caesar!” she exclaimed, bounding toward Commodus and standing in his way. Not even she dared lay a hand on him when he was in that volcanic mood. “As you love me, will you wear this?”

“For love of you, what have I not done?” he retorted, smiling at her. “What now?”

She advanced another half-step, but no nearer. There was laughter on his lips, but in his eye cold cruelty.

“My Caesar, wear it! It protects against conspiracy.”

He showed her a new sword that he had girded on along with the short tunic of a gladiator.

“Against the bellyache, use Galen’s pills; but this is the right medicine against conspiracy!” he answered. Then he took the little golden charm into his left hand, tossing it on his palm and looked at her, still smiling.

“Where did you get this bauble?”

“Not I. One of those magicians who frequent that Forum sold it to Narcissus.”

“Bah!” He flung it through the window. “Who is the magician? Name him! I will have him thrown into the carceres. We’ll see whether the charms he sells so cheap are any good! Or is he a Christian?” he asked, sneering.

“The Christians, you know, don’t approve of charms,” Marcia answered.

“By Jupiter, there’s not much that they do approve of!” he retorted. “I begin to weary of your Christians. I begin to think Nero was right, and my father, too! There was a wisdom in treating Christians as vermin! It might not be a bad thing, Marcia, to warn your Christians to procure themselves a charm or two against my weariness of their perpetual efforts to govern me! The Christians, I suppose, have been telling you to keep me out of the arena? Hence this living statuary in the corridor, and all this talk about the dignity of Rome! Tscharr-rrh! There’s more dignity about one gladiator’s death than in all Rome outside the arena! Woman, you forget you are only a woman. I remember that! I am a god! I have the blood of Caesar in my veins. And like the unseen gods, I take my pleasure watching men and women die! I loose my javelins like thunderbolts–like Jupiter himself! Like Hercules–“

He paused. He noticed Marcia was laughing. Only she, in all the Roman empire, dared to mock him when he boasted. Not even she knew why he let her do it. He began to smile again, the frightful frown that rode over his eyes dispersing, leaving his forehead as smooth as marble.

“If I should marry you and make you empress,” he said, “how long do you think I should last after that? You are clever enough to rule the fools who squawk and jabber in the senate and the Forum. You are beautiful enough to start another siege of Troy! But remember: You are Caesar’s concubine, not empress! Just remember that, will you! When I find a woman lovelier than you, and wiser, I will give you and your Christians a taste of Nero’s policy. Now–do you love me?”

“If I did not, could I stand before you and receive these insults?” she retorted, trusting to the inspiration of the moment; for she had no method with him.

“I would willingly die,” she said, “if you would give the love you have bestowed on me to Rome instead, and use your godlike energy in ruling wisely, rather than in killing men and winning chariot races. One Marcia does not matter much. One Commodus can–“

“Can love his Marcia!” he interrupted, with a high-pitched laugh. He seized her, nearly crushing out her breath. “A Caius and a Caia we have been! By Jupiter, if not for you and Paulus I would have left Rome long ago to march in Alexander’s wake! I would have carved me a new empire that did not stink so of politicians!”

He strode into the anteroom where all the gladiators waited and Narcissus had to follow him–well named enough, for he was lithe and muscular and beautiful, but, nonetheless, though taller, not to be compared with Commodus–even as the women, chosen for their good looks and intelligence, who hastened to reappear the moment the emperor’s back was turned, were nothing like so beautiful as Marcia.

In all the known world there were no two finer specimens of human shapeliness than the tyrant who ruled and the woman whose wits and daring had so long preserved him from his enemies.

“Come to the arena,” he called back to her. “Come and see how Hercules throws javelins from a chariot at full pelt!”

But Marcia did not answer, and he forgot her almost before he reached the entrance of the private tunnel through which he passed to the arena. She had more accurately aimed and nicely balanced work to do than even Commodus could do with javelins against a living target.

VII. MARCIA

In everything but title and security of tenure Marcia was empress of the world, and she had what empresses most often lack–the common touch. She had been born in slavery. She had ascended step by step to fortune, by her own wits, learning by experience. Each layer of society was known to her–its virtues, prejudices, limitations and peculiar tricks of thought. Being almost incredibly beautiful, she had learned very early in life that the desired (not always the desirable) is powerful to sway men; the possessed begins to lose its sway; the habit of possession easily succumbs to boredom, and then power ceases. Even Commodus, accordingly, had never owned her in the sense that men own slaves; she had reserved to herself self-mastery, which called for cunning, courage and a certain ruthlessness, albeit tempered by a reckless generosity.

She saw life skeptically, undeceived by the fawning flattery that Rome served up to her, enjoying it as a cat likes being stroked. They said of her that she slept with one eye open.

Livius had complained in the Thermae to Pertinax that the wine of influence was going to Marcia’s head, but he merely expressed the opinion of one man, who would have liked to feel himself superior to her and to use her for his own ends. She was not deceived by Livius, or by anybody else. She knew that Livius was keeping watch on her, and how he did it, having shrewdly guessed that a present of eight matched litter- bearers was too extravagant not to mask ulterior designs. She watched him much more artfully than he watched her. Her secret knowledge that he knew her secret was more dangerous to him than anything that he had found out could be dangerous to her.

The eight matched litter-bearers waited with the gilded litter near a flight of marble steps that descended from the door of Marcia’s apartments in the palace to a sunlit garden with a fountain in the midst. There was a crowd of servants and four Syrian eunuchs, sleek offensive menials in yellow robes; two lictors besides, with fasces and the Roman civic uniform–a scandalous abuse of ancient ceremony–ready to conduct a progress through the city. But they all yawned. Marcia and her usual companion did not come; there was delay–and gossip, naturally.

A yawning eunuch rearranged the bowknot of his girdle.

“What does she want with Livius? He usually gets sent for when somebody needs punishing. Who do you suppose has fallen foul of her?”

“Himself! He sent her messenger back with word he was engaged on palace business. I heard her tell the slave to go again and not return without him! Bacchus! But it wouldn’t worry me if Livius should lose his head! For an aristocrat he has more than his share of undignified curiosity– forever poking his sharp nose into other people’s business. Marcia may have found him out. Let’s hope!”

At the foot of the marble stairway, in the hall below Marcia’s apartment, Livius stood remonstrating, growing nervous. Marcia, dressed in the dignified robes of a Roman matron, that concealed even her ankles and suggested the demure, self-conscious rectitude of olden times, kept touching his breast with her ivory fan, he flinching from the touch, subduing irritation.

“If the question is, what I want with you, Livius, the answer is, that I invite you. Order your litter brought.”

“But Marcia, I am subprefect. I am responsible to–“

“Did you hear?”

“But if you will tell where we are going, I might feel justified in neglecting the palace business. I assure you I have important work to do.”

“There are plenty who can attend to it,” said Marcia. “The most important thing in your life, Livius, is my good-will. You are delaying me.”

Livius glared at Caia Poppeia, the lady-in-waiting, who was smiling, standing a little behind Marcia. He hoped she would take the hint and withdraw out of earshot, but she had had instructions, and came half a step closer.

“Will you let me go back to my office and–“

“No!” answered Marcia.

He yielded with a nervous gesture, that implored her not to make an indiscretion. A subprefect, in the nature of his calling, had too many enemies to relish repetition in the palace precincts of a threat from Marcia, however baseless it might be. And besides, it might be something serious that almost had escaped her lips. Untrue or true, it would be known all over the palace in an hour; within the day all Rome would know of it. There were two slaves by the front door, two more on the last step of the stairs.

“I will come, of course,” he said. “I am delighted. I am honored. I am fortunate!”

She nodded. She sent one of her own slaves to order his private litter brought, while Livius attempted to look comfortable, cudgeling his brains to know what mischief she had found out. It was nothing unusual that his litter should follow hers through the streets of Rome; in fact, it was an honor coveted by all officials of the palace, that fell to his share rather frequently because of his distinguished air of a latter-day man of the world and his intimate knowledge of everybody’s business and ancestry. He was often ordered to go with her at a moment’s notice. But this was the first time she had refused to say where they were going, or why, and there was a hint of malice in her smile that made his blood run cold. He was a connoisseur of malice.

Marcia leaned on his arm as she went down the steps to her litter. She permitted him to help her in. But then, while her companion was following through the silken curtains, she leaned out at the farther side and whispered to the nearest eunuch. Livius, climbing into his own gilt vehicle and lifted shoulder-high by eight Numidians, became aware that Marcia’s eunuchs had been told to keep an eye on him; two yellow- robed, insufferably impudent inquisitors strode in among his own attendants.

An escort of twenty praetorian guards and a decurion was waiting at the gate to take its place between the lictors and Marcia’s litter, but that did not in any way increase Livius’ sense of security. The praetorian guard regarded Marcia as the source of its illegal privileges. It looked to her far more than to the emperor for favors, buying them with lawless loyalty to her. She ruined discipline by her support of every plea for increased perquisites. No outraged citizen had any hope of redress so long as Marcia’s ear could be reached (although Commodus got the blame for it). It was the key to Marcia’s system of insurance against unforeseen contingencies. The only regularly drilled and armed troops in the city were as loyal to her, secretly and openly, as Livius himself was to the principle of cynical self-help.

He began to feel thoroughly frightened, as he told himself that the escort and their decurion would swear to any statement Marcia might make. If she had learned that he was in the habit of receiving secret information from her slave, there were a thousand ways she might take to avenge herself; a very simple way would be to charge him with improper overtures and have him killed by the praetorians–a way that might particularly interest her, since it would presumably increase her reputation for constancy to Commodus.

The eunuchs watched him. The lictors and praetorians cleared the way, so there were no convenient halts that could enable him to slip unnoticed through the crowd. His own attendants seemed to have divined that there was something ominous about the journey, and he was not the kind of man whose servants are devotedly attached to him. He knew it. He noticed sullenness already in the answers his servant gave him through the litter curtains, when he asked whether the man knew their destination.

“None knows. All I know is, we must follow Marcia.”

The slave’s voice was almost patronizing. Livius made up his mind, if he should live the day out, to sell the rascal to some farmer who would teach him with a whip what service meant. But he said nothing. He preferred to spring surprises, only hoping he himself might not be overwhelmed in one.

By the time they reached Cornificia’s house he was in such a state of nervousness, and so blanched, that he had to summon his servant into the litter to rub cosmetic on his cheeks. He took one of Galen’s famous strychnine pills before he could prevent his limbs from trembling. Even so, when he rolled out of the litter and advanced with his courtliest bow to escort Marcia into the house, she recognized his fear and mocked him:

“You are bilious? Or has some handsomer Adonis won your Venus from you? Is it jealousy?”

He pretended that the litter-bearers needed whipping for having shaken him. It made him more than ever ill at ease that she should mock him before all the slaves who grouped themselves in Cornificia’s forecourt. Hers was one of those houses set back from the street, combining an air of seclusion with such elegance as could not possibly escape the notice of the passer-by. The forecourt was adorned with statuary and the gate left wide, affording a glimpse of sunlit greenery and marble that entirely changed the aspect of the narrow street. There were never less than twenty tradesmen at the gate, imploring opportunity to show their wares, which were in baskets and boxes, with slaves squatting beside them. All Rome would know within the hour that Marcia had called on Cornificia, and that Livius, the subprefect, had been mocked by Marcia in public.

A small crowd gathered to watch the picturesque ceremony of reception– Cornificia’s house steward marshaling his staff, the brightly colored costumes blending in the sunlight with the hues of flowers and the rich, soft sheen of marble in the shadow of tall cypresses. The praetorians had to form a cordon in front of the gate, and the street became choked by the impeded traffic. Rome loved pageantry; it filled its eyes before its belly, which was nine-tenths of the secret of the Caesar’s power.

Within the house, however, there was almost a stoical calm–a sensation of cloistered chastity produced by the restraint of ornament and the subdued light on gloriously painted frescoes representing evening benediction at a temple altar, a gathering of the Muses, sacrifice before a shrine of Aesculapius and Jason’s voyage to Colchis for the Golden Fleece. The inner court, where Cornificia received her guests, was like a sanctuary dedicated to the decencies, its one extravagance the almost ostentatious restfulness, accentuated by the cooing of white pigeons and the drip and splash of water in the fountain in the midst.

The dignity of drama was the essence of all Roman ceremony. The formalities of greeting were observed as elegantly, and with far more evident sincerity, in Cornificia’s house than in Caesar’s palace. Cornificia, dressed in white and wearing very little jewelry, received her guests more like an old-time patrician matron than a notorious modern concubine. Her notoriety, in fact, was due to Flavia Titiana, rather than to any indiscretions of her own. To justify her infidelities, which were a byword, Pertinax’ lawful wife went to ingenious lengths to blacken Cornificia’s reputation, regaling all society with her invented tales about the lewd attractions Cornificia staged to keep Pertinax held in her toils.

That Cornificia did exercise a sway over the governor of Rome was undeniable. He worshiped her and made no secret of it. But she held him by a method diametrically contrary to that which rumor, stirred by Flavia Titiana, indicated; Cornificia’s house was a place where he could lay aside the feverish activities of public life and revel in the intellectual and philosophical amusements that he genuinely loved.

But Livius loathed her. Among other things, he suspected her of being in league with Marcia to protect the Christians. To him she represented the idealism that his cynicism bitterly rejected. The mere fact of her unshakable fidelity to Pertinax was an offense in his eyes; she presented what he considered an impudent pose of morality, more impudent because it was sustained. He might have liked her well enough if she had been a hypocrite, complaisant to himself.

She understood him perfectly–better, in fact, than she understood Marcia, whose visits usually led to intricate entanglements for Pertinax. When she had sent the slaves away and they four lay at ease on couches in the shade of three exotic potted palms, she turned her back toward Livius, suspecting he would bring his motives to the surface if she gave him time; whereas Marcia would hide hers and employ a dozen artifices to make them undiscoverable.

“You have not brought Livius because you think he loves me!” she said, laughing. “Nor have you come, my Marcia, for nothing, since you might have sent for me and saved yourself trouble. I anticipate intrigue! What plot have you discovered now? Is Pertinax its victim? You can always interest me if you talk of Pertinax.”

“We will talk of Livius,” said Marcia.

Leaning on his elbows, Livius glared at Caia Poppeia, Marcia’s companion. He coughed, to draw attention to her, but Marcia refused to take the hint. “Livius has information for us,” she remarked.

Livius rose from the couch and came and stood before her, knitting his fingers together behind his back, compelling himself to smile. His pallor made the hastily applied cosmetics look ridiculous.

“Marcia,” he said, “you make it obvious that you suspect me of some indiscretion.”

“Never!” she retorted, mocking. “You indiscreet? Who would believe it? Give us an example of discretion; you are Paris in the presence of three goddesses. Select your destiny!”

He smiled, attempted to regain his normal air of tolerant importance– glanced about him–saw the sunlight making iridescent pools of fire within a crystal ball set on the fountain’s edge–took up the ball and brought it to her, holding it in both hands.

“What choice is there than that which Paris made?” he asked, kneeling on one knee, laughing. “Venus rules men’s hearts. She must prevail. So into your most lovely hands I give my destiny.”

“You mean, you leave it there!” said Marcia. “Could you ever afford to ignore me and intrigue behind my back?”

“I am the least intriguing person of your acquaintance, Marcia,” he answered, rising because the hard mosaic pavement hurt his knee, and the position made him feel undignified. But more than dignity he loved discretion; he wished there were eyes in the back of his head, to see whether slaves were watching from the curtained windows opening on the inner court. “It is my policy,” he went on, “to know much and say little; to observe much, and do nothing! I am much too lazy for intrigue, which is hard work, judging by what I have seen of those who indulge in it.”

“Is that why you sacrificed a white bull recently?” asked Marcia.

Livius glanced at Cornificia, but her patrician face gave no hint. Caia Poppeia’s was less under control, for she was younger and had nothing to conceal; she was inquisitively enjoying the entertainment and evidently did not know what was coming.

“I sacrificed a white bull to Jupiter Capitolinus, as is customary, to confirm a sacred oath,” he answered.

“Very well, suppose you break the oath!” said Marcia.

He managed to look scandalized–then chuckled foolishly, remembering what Pertinax had said about the value of an oath; but his own dignity obliged him to protest.

“I am not one of your Christians,” he answered, stiffening himself. “I am old-fashioned enough to hold that an oath made at the altar of our Roman Jupiter is sacred and inviolable.”

“When you took your oath of office you swore to be in all things true to Caesar,” Marcia retorted. “Do you prefer to tell Caesar how true you have been to that oath? Which oath holds the first one or the second?”

“I could ask to be released from the second one,” said Livius. “If you will give me time–“

Marcia’s laugh interrupted him. It was soft, melodious, like wavelets on a calm sea, hinting unseen reefs.

“Time,” she said, “Is all that death needs! Death does not wait on oaths; it comes to us. I wish to know just how far I can trust you, Livius.”

Nine Roman nobles out of ten in Livius’ position would have recognized at once the deadliness of the alternatives she offered and, preserving something of the shreds of pride, would have accepted suicide as preferable. Livius had no such stamina. He seized the other horn of the dilemma.

“I perceive Pertinax has betrayed me,” he sneered, looking sharply at Cornificia; but she was watching Marcia and did not seem conscious of his glance. “If Pertinax has broken his oath, mine no longer binds me. This is the fact then: I discovered how he helped Sextus, son of Maximus, to avoid execution by a ruse, making believe to be killed. Pertinax was also privy to the execution of an unknown thief in place of Norbanus, a friend of Sextus, also implicated in conspiracy. Pertinax has been secretly negotiating with Sextus ever since. Sextus now calls himself Maternus and is notorious as a highwayman.”

“What else do you know about Maternus?” Marcia inquired. There was a trace at last of sharpness in her voice. A hint conveyed itself that she could summon the praetorians if he did not answer swiftly.

“He plots against Caesar.”

“You know too little or too much!” said Marcia. “What else?”

He closed his lips tight. “I know nothing else.”

“Have you had any dealings with Sextus?”

“Never.”

He was shifting now from one foot to the other, hardly noticeably, but enough to make Marcia smile. “Shall we hear what Sextus has to say to that?” asked Cornificia, so confidently that there was no doubt Marcia had given her the signal.

Marcia moved her melting, lazy, laughing eyes and Cornificia clapped her hands. A slave came.

“Bring the astrologer.”

Sextus must have been listening, he appeared so instantly. He stood with folded arms confronting them, his weathered face in sunlight. Pigment was not needed to produce the healthy bronze hue of his skin; his curly hair, bound by a fillet, was unruly from the outdoor life he had been leading; the strong sinews of his arms and legs belied the ease of his pretended calling and the starry cloak he wore was laughable in its failure to disguise the man of action. He saluted the three women with a gesture of the raised right hand that no man unaccustomed to the use of arms could imitate, then turning slightly toward Livius, acknowledged his nod with a humorous grin.

“So we meet again, Bultius Livius.”

“Again?” asked Marcia.

“Why yes, I met him in the house of Pertinax. It is three days since we spoke together. Three, or is it four, Livius? I have been busy. I forget.”

“Can Livius have lied?” asked Marcia. She seemed to be enjoying the entertainment.

Livius threw caution to the winds.

“Is this a tribunal?” he demanded. “If so, of what am I accused?” He tried to speak indignantly, but something caught in his throat. The cough became a sob and in a moment he was half-hysterical. “By Hercules, what judges! What a witness! Is he a two-headed witness who shall swear my life away? I understand you, Marcia!”

(At least two witnesses were necessary under Roman law.)

“You?” she laughed. “You understand me?”

He recovered something of his self-possession, a wave of virility returning. High living and the feverish excitement of the palace regime had ruined his nerves but there were traces still of his original astuteness. He resumed his air of dignity.

“Pardon me,” he said. “I have been overworked of late. I must see Galen about this jumpiness. When I said I understand you I meant, I realize that you are joking. Naturally you would not receive a highwayman in Cornificia’s house, and at the same time accuse me of treason! Pray excuse my outburst–set it to the score of ill-health. I will see Galen.”

“You shall see him now!” laughed Marcia, and Cornificia clapped her hands.

Less suddenly than Sextus had appeared, because his age was beginning to tell on him, Galen entered the court through a door behind the palm- trees and stood smiling, making his old-world, slow salute to Marcia. His bright eyes moved alertly amid wrinkles. He looked something like the statues of the elder Cato, only with a kindlier humor and less obstinacy at the corners of the mouth. Two slaves brought out a couch for him and vanished when he had taken his ease on it after fussing a little because the sun was in his eyes.

“My trade is to oppose death diplomatically,” he remarked. “I am a poor diplomatist. I only gain a little here and there. Death wins inevitably. Nevertheless, they only summon me for consultation when they hope to gain a year or two for somebody. Marcia, unless you let Bultius Livius use that couch he will swoon. I warn you. The man’s heart is weak. He has more brain than heart,” he added. “How is our astrologer?”

He greeted Sextus with a wrinkled grin and beckoned him to share his couch. Sextus sat down and began chafing the old doctor’s legs. Marcia took her time about letting Livius be seated.

“You heard Galen?” she asked. “We are here to cheat death diplomatically.”

“Whose death?” Livius demanded.

“Rome’s!” said Marcia, her eyes intently on his face. “If Rome should split in three parts it would fall asunder. None but Commodus can save us from a civil war. We are here to learn what Bultius Livius can do to preserve the life of Commodus.”

Livius’ face, grotesque already with its hastily smeared carmine, assumed new bewilderment.

“I have seen men tortured who were less ready to betray themselves,” said Galen. “Give him wine–strong wine, that is my advice.”

But Marcia preferred her victim thoroughly subjected.

“Fill your eyes with sunlight, Livius. Breathe deep! You look and breathe your last, unless you satisfy me! This astrologer, who is not Sextus–mark that! I have said he is not Sextus. Galen certified to Sextus’ death and there were twenty other witnesses. Nor is he Maternus the highwayman. Maternus was crucified. That other Maternus, who is rumored to live in the Aventine Hills, is an imaginary person–a mere name used by runaways who take to robbery. This astrologer, I say, reports that you know all the secrets of the factions that are separately plotting to destroy our Commodus.”

Livius did not answer, although she paused to give him time.

“You said you understood me, Livius. But it is I who understand you– utterly! To you any price is satisfactory if your own skin and perquisites are safe. You are as crafty a spy as any rat in the palace cellars. You have kept yourself informed in order to get the pickings when you see at last which side to take. Careful, very clever of you, Livius! But have you ever seen an eagle rob a fish-hawk of its catch?”

“Why waste time?” Cornificia asked impatiently. “He forced himself on Pertinax, who should have had him murdered, only Pertinax is too indifferent to his own–“

“Too philosophical!” corrected Galen.

Then Caia Poppeia spoke up, in a young, hard voice that had none of Marcia’s honeyed charm. No doubt of her was possible; she could be cruel for the sake of cruelty and loyal for the sake of pride. Her beauty was a mere means to an end–the end intrigue, for the impassionate excitement of it. She was straight-lipped, with a smile that flickered, and a hard light in her blue eyes.

“It was I who learned you spy on Marcia. I know, too, that you keep a spy in Britain,–one in Gaul, another in Severus’ camp. I read the last nine letters they sent you. I showed them to Marcia.”

“I kept one,” Marcia added. “It came yesterday. It compromises you beyond–“

“I yield!” said Livius, his knees beginning to look weak.

“To whom? To me?” asked Sextus, standing up abruptly and confronting him with folded arms. “Who stole the list I sent to Pertinax, of names of the important men who are intriguing for Severus, and for Pescennius Niger, and for Clodius Albinus?”

“Who knows?” Livius shrugged his shoulders.

“None knew of that list but you!” said Sextus. “You heard me speak of it to Pertinax. You heard me promise I would send it to him. None but you and he and I knew who the messenger would be. Where is the messenger?”

“In the sewers probably!” said Marcia. “The list is more important.”

“If it isn’t in the sewers, too,” said Livius, snatching at a straw. “By Hercules, I know nothing of a list.”

“Then you shall drown with Sextus’ slave in the Cloaca Maxima, the great sewer of Rome,” said Marcia. “Not that I need the list. I know what names are written on it. But if it should have fallen into Caesar’s hands–“

She shuddered, acting horror perfectly, and Livius, like a drowning man who thinks he sees the shore, struck out and sank!

“You threaten me, but I am no such fool as you imagine! I know all about you! I perceive you have crossed your Rubicon. Well–“

“Summon the decurion and two men!” Marcia interrupted, glancing at Cornificia. But she made a gesture with her hand that Cornificia interpreted to mean “do nothing of the kind!”

Livius did not see the gesture. Rage, shame, terror overwhelmed him and he blurted out the information Marcia was seeking–hurled it at her in the form of silly, useless threats:

“You wanton! You can kill me but my journal is in safe hands! Harm me– cause me to be missing from the palace for a few hours, and they may light your funeral fires! My journal, with the names of the conspirators, and all the details of your daily intriguing, goes straight into Caesar’s hands!”

The climax he expected failed. There was no excitement. Nobody seemed astonished. Marcia settled herself more comfortably on the couch and Galen began whispering to Sextus. The two other women looked amused. Reaction sweeping over him, his senses reeled and Livius stepped backward, staggering to the fountain, where he sat down.

“Bona dea! But the man took time to tell his secret!” Marcia exclaimed. “Popeia, you had better take my litter to the palace and bring that minx Cornelia. I suspected it was she but wasn’t sure of it. Don’t give her an inkling of what you know. Go with her to her apartment and watch her dress; then make an excuse to keep her waiting in your room while you go back and search hers. Have help if you need it; take two of my eunuchs, but watch that they don’t read the journal. Look under her mattress. Look everywhere. If you can’t find the journal, bring Cornelia without it. I will soon make her tell us where it is.”

VIII. NARCISSUS

“A gladiator’s life is not so bad if he behaves himself, and while it lasts,” Narcissus said.

He was sitting beside Sextus, son of Maximus, in the ergastulum beneath the training school of Bruttius Marius, which was well known to be the emperor’s establishment, although maintained in the name of a citizen. There was a stone seat at the end where sunlight poured through a barred window high up in the wall. To right and left facing a central corridor were cells with doors of latticed iron. Each cell had its own barred window, hardly a foot square, set high out of reach and the light, piercing the latticed doors, made criss-cross patterns on the white wall of the corridor. Narcissus got up, glanced into each cell and sat down again beside Sextus.

“The trouble is, they don’t,” he went on. “If you let them out, they drink and get into poor condition; and if you keep them in, they kill themselves unless they’re watched. These men are reserved for Paulus, and they know they haven’t a chance against him.”

“Paulus’ luck won’t last forever,” Sextus remarked grimly.

“No, nor his skill, I suppose. But he doesn’t debauch himself, so he’s always in perfect condition.”

“Haven’t you a man in here who might be made nervy enough to kill him?” Sextus asked. “They would kill the man himself, of course, directly afterward, but we might undertake to enrich his relatives.”

Narcissus shook his head.

“One might have a chance with the sword or with the net and trident, though I doubt it. But Paulus uses a javelin and his aim is like lightning. Only yesterday at practise they loosed eleven lions at him from eleven directions at the same moment. He slew them with eleven javelins, and each one stone dead. Some of these men saw him do it, which hasn’t encouraged them, I can tell you. In the second place, they know Paulus is Commodus. He might just as well go into the arena frankly as the emperor, for all the secret it is. That substitute who occupies the royal pavilion when Commodus himself is in the arena no longer looks very much like him; he is getting too loose under the chin, although a year ago you could hardly tell the two apart. Even the mob knows Paulus is Commodus, although nobody dares to acclaim him openly. Send a gladiator in against another gladiator and even though he may know that the other man can split a stick at twenty yards, he will do his best. But let him know he goes against the emperor and he has no nerve to start with; he can’t aim straight; he suspects his own three javelins and his shield and helmet have been tampered with. I myself would be afraid to face Paulus, being not much good with the javelin in any case, besides being superstitious about killing emperors, who are gods, not men, or the senate and priests wouldn’t say so. It is the same in the races: setting aside Caesar’s skill, which is simply phenomenal, the other charioteers are all afraid of him.”

“If he isn’t killed soon, Severus or one of the others will forestall us all,” said Sextus. “Pertinax has only one chance: to be on the throne before the other candidates know what is happening.”

Narcissus’ bronze face lighted with a sudden smile that rippled all around the corners of his mouth, so that he looked like a genial satyr.

“Speaking of killing,” he said, “Marcia has ordered me to kill you the moment you make up your mind the time has come to strike!”

“You promised her, of course?”

“No, as it happens we were interrupted. But she relies on me and if she ever begins to suspect me I would rather die in the arena than be racked and burned!”

“Why not then? How is this for a proposal?” Sextus touched him on the shoulder. “Substitute yourself and me for two of these men! Send me in against him first. If he kills me, you next. One of us might get him. I am lucky. I believe the gods are interested in me, I have had so many escapes from death.”

“I haven’t much faith in the gods,” said Narcissus. “They may be all like Commodus. I heard Galen say that men created gods in their own image.”

Sextus smiled at him.

“You have been listening, I suppose, to Marcia and her Christians.”

“Listening, yes, but I don’t lean either way. It doesn’t seem to me that Christianity can do much for a man when javelins are in the air. And besides, to be frank with you, Sextus, I rather hope to make a little something for myself. God though he is said to be, I would like to see Commodus killed for I loathe him. But I hope to survive him and obtain my freedom. Pertinax would manumit me. That is why I applied for the post of trainer in this beastly ergastulum. It is bad enough to have to endure the gloom of men virtually condemned to death and looking for a chance to kill themselves, but it is better than treading the sand to have one’s liver split, one’s throat cut, and be dragged out with the hooks. I have fought many a fight, but I liked each one less than the last.”

He got up and strode again along the corridor, glancing into the cells, where gladiators sat fettered to the wall.

“This whole business is getting too confused for me,” he grumbled, sitting down again. “You want to kill Commodus, as is reasonable. Marcia has ordered me to kill you, which is unreasonable! Yet for the present she protects you. Why? She knows you are Commodus’ enemy. She seems anxious to save Commodus. Yet she encourages Pertinax, who doesn’t want to be emperor; he only dallies with the thought because Marcia helps Cornificia to persuade him! Isn’t that a confusion for you? And now there’s Bultius Livius. As I understand it, Marcia caught him spying on her. No woman in her senses would trust Livius; the man has snowbroth in his veins and slow fire in his head. Yet Marcia now heaps favors on him!”

“That is my doing,” said Sextus.

“Are you mad then, too?”

“Maybe! I have persuaded Marcia that, now she has possession of the journal Livius was keeping, she can henceforth hold that over him and use him to advantage. She can win his gratitude–“

“He has none!”

“–and at the same time hold over him the threat of exposure for connection with the Severus faction, and the Pescennius faction, and the Clodius Albinus faction. He had it all down in his journal. He can easily be involved in those conspiracies if Marcia isn’t satisfied with his spying in her behalf.”

“Gemini! The man will break down under the strain. He has no stamina. He will denounce us all.”

“Let us hope so,” Sextus answered. “I am counting on it. Nothing but sudden danger will ever bring Pertinax up to the mark! I gave a bond to Marcia for Livius’ life.”

“Jupiter! What kind of bond? And what has come over Marcia that she accepted it?”

“I guaranteed to her that I will not denounce herself to Commodus! She saw the point. She could never clear herself.”

“But how could you denounce her? She can have you seized and silenced any time! Weren’t you in Cornificia’s house, with the guard at the gate? Why didn’t she summon the praetorians and hand you over to them?”

“Because Galen was there, too. She loves him, trusts him, and Galen is my friend. Besides, Pertinax would turn on her if she should have me killed. Pertinax was my father’s friend, and is mine. Marcia’s only chance, if Commodus should lose his life, is for Pertinax to seize the throne and continue to be her friend and protect her. Any other possible successor to Commodus would have her head off in the same hour.”

“Well, Sextus, that argument won’t keep her from having you murdered. I am only hoping she won’t order me to do it, because the cat will be out of the bag then. I will not refuse, but I will certainly not kill you, and that will mean–“

“You forget Norbanus and my freedmen,” Sextus interrupted. “She knows very well that they know all my secrets. They would avenge me instantly by sending Commodus full information of the plot, involving Marcia head over heels. She is ready to betray Commodus if that should seem the safest course. If she is capable of treachery to him, she is equally sure to betray all her friends if she thought her own life were in danger!”

“Now listen, Sextus, and don’t speak too loud or they’ll hear you in the cells; any of these poor devils would jump at a chance to save his own skin by betraying you and me. Talk softly. I say, listen! There isn’t any safety anywhere with all these factions plotting each against the other, none knowing which will strike first and Commodus likely to pounce on all of them at any minute. I don’t know why he hasn’t heard of it already.”

“He is too busy training his body to have time to use his brain,” said Sextus. “However, go on.”

“I think Commodus is quite likely to have the best of it!” Narcissus said, screwing up his eyes as if he gazed at an antagonist across the dazzling sand of the arena. “Somebody–some spy–is sure to inform him. There will be wholesale proscriptions. Commodus will try to scare Severus, Niger and Albinus by slaughtering their supporters here in Rome. I can see what is coming.”

“Are you, too, a god–like Commodus–that you can see so shrewdly?”

“Never mind. I can see. And I can see a better way for you, and for me also. You have made yourself a great name as Maternus, less, possibly, in Rome than on the countryside. You have more to begin with than ever Spartacus had–“

“Aye, and less, too,” Sextus interrupted. “For I lack his confidence that Rome can be brought to her knees by an army of slaves. I lack his willingness to try to do it. Rome must be saved by honorable Romans, who have Rome at heart and not their own personal ambition. No army of runaway slaves can ever do it. Nothing offends me more than that Commodus makes slaves his ministers, and I mean by that no offense to you, Narcissus, who are fit to rank with Spartacus himself. But I am a republican. It is not vengeance that I seek. I will reckon I have lived if I have ridded Rome of Commodus and helped to replace him with a man who will restore our ancient liberties.”

“Liberties?” Narcissus wore his satyr-smile again. “It makes small difference to slaves and gladiators how much liberty the free men have! The more for them, the less for us! Let us live while the living is good, Sextus! Let us take to the mountains and help ourselves to what we need while Pertinax and all these others fight for too much! Let them have their too much and grow sick of it! What do you and I need beyond clothing, a weapon, armor, a girl or two and a safe place for retreat? I have heard Sardinia is wonderful. But if you still think you would rather haunt your old estates, where you know the people and they know you, so that you will be warned of any attempt to catch you, that will be all right with me. We can swoop down on the inns along the main roads now and then, rob whom it is convenient to rob, and live like noblemen!”

“Three years I have lived an outlaw’s life,” Sextus answered, “sneaking into Rome to borrow money from my father’s friends to save me the necessity of stealing. It is one thing to pretend to be a robber, and another thing to rob. The robber’s name makes nine men out of ten your secret well-wishers; the deed makes you all men’s enemy. How do you suppose I have escaped capture? It was simple enough. Every robber in Italy has called himself Maternus, so that I have seemed to be here, there, everywhere, aye, and often in three or four places at once! I have been caught and killed at least a dozen times! But all the while my men and I were safe because we took care to harm nobody. We let others do the murdering and robbing. We have lived like hermits, showing ourselves only often enough to keep alive the Maternus legend.”

“Well, isn’t that better than risking your neck trying to make and unmake emperors?” Narcissus asked.

“I risk my neck each hour I linger in Rome!”

“Well then, by Hercules, take payment for the risk, and cut the risk and vanish!” exclaimed Narcissus. “Help yourself once and for all to a bag full of gold in exchange for your father’s estates that were confiscated when they cut his head off. Then leave Italy, and let us be outlaws in Sardinia.”

Sextus laughed.

“That probably sounds glorious to one in your position. I, too, rather enjoyed the prospect when I first made my escape from Antioch and discovered how easy the life was. But though I owe it to my father’s memory to win back his estates, even that, and present outlawry is small compared to the zeal I have for restoring Rome’s ancient liberties. But I don’t deceive myself; I am not the man who can accomplish that; I can only help the one who can, and will. That one is Pertinax. He will reverse the process that has been going on since Julius Caesar overthrew the old republic. He will use a Caesar’s power to destroy the edifice of Caesar and rebuild what Caesar wrecked!”

Narcissus pondered that, his head between his hands.

“I haven’t Rome at heart,” he said at last. “Why should I have? There are girls, whom I have forgotten, whom I loved more than I love Rome. I am a slave gladiator. I have been applauded by the crowds, but know what that means, having seen other men go the same route. I am an emperor’s favorite, and I know what that means too; I saw Cleander die; I have seen man after man, and woman after woman lose his favor suddenly. Banishment, death, the ergastulum, torture–and, what is much worse, the insults the brute heaps on any one he turns against–I am too wise to give that–” he spat on the flag-stones–“for the friendship of Commodus. And Commodus is Rome; you can’t persuade me he isn’t. Rome turns on its favorites as he does–scorns them, insults them, throws them on dung-heaps. That for Rome!” He spat again. “They even break the noses off the statues of the men they used to idolize! They even throw the statues on a dung-heap to insult the dead! Why should I set Rome above my own convenience?”

“Well, for instance, you could almost certainly buy your freedom by betraying me,” said Sextus. “Why don’t you?”

“Jupiter! How shall a man answer that? I suppose I don’t betray you because if I did I should loathe myself. And I prefer to like myself, which I contrive to do at intervals. Also, I enjoy the company of honest men, and I think you are honest, although I think you are also an idealist–which, I take it, is the same thing as a born fool, or so I have begun to think, since I attend on the emperor and have to hear so much talk of philosophy. Look you what philosophy has made of Commodus! Didn’t Marcus Aurelius beget him from his own loins, and wasn’t Marcus Aurelius the greatest of all philosophers? Didn’t he surround young Commodus with all the learned idealists he could find? That is what I am told he did. And look at Commodus! Our Roman Commodus! God Commodus! I haven’t murdered him because I am afraid, and because I don’t see how I could gain by it. I don’t betray you because I would despise myself if I did.”

“I would despise myself if I should be untrue to Rome,” Sextus answered after a moment. “Commodus is not Rome. Neither is the mob Rome.”

“What is then?” Narcissus asked. “The bricks and mortar? The marble that the slaves must haul under the lash? The ponds where they feed their lampreys on dead gladiators? The arena where a man salutes a dummy emperor before a disguised one kills him? The senate, where they buy and sell the consulates and praetorships and guaestorships? The tribunals where justice goes by privilege? The temples where as many gods as there are, Romans yell for sacrifices to enrich the priests? The farms where the slave-gangs labor like poor old Sysyphus and are sold off in their old age to the contractors who clear the latrines, or to the galleys, or, if they’re lucky, to the lime-kilns where they dry up like sticks and die soon? There is a woman in a side-street near the fish-market, who is very rich and looks like Rome to me. She has so many gold rings on her fingers that you can’t see the dirt underneath; and she owns so many brothels and wine-shops that she can even buy off the tax-collectors. Do I love her? Do I love Rome? No! I love you, Sextus, son of Maximus, and I will go with you to the world’s end if you will lead the way.”

“I love Rome,” Sextus answered. “Possibly I want to see her liberties restored because I love my own liberty and can’t imagine myself honorable unless Rome herself is honored first. When you and I are sick we need a Galen. Rome needs Pertinax. You ask me what is Rome? She is the cradle of my manhood.”

“A befouled nest!” said Narcissus.

“An Augean stable with a Hercules who doesn’t do his work, I grant you! But we can substitute another Hercules.”

“Pertinax is too old,” Narcissus objected, weakening, a trifle sulkily.

“He is old enough to wish to die in honor rather than dishonor. You and I, Narcissus, have no honor–you a slave and I an outlaw. Let us win, then, honor for ourselves by helping to heal Rome of her dishonor!”

“Oh well, have it your own way,” said Narcissus, unconvinced. “A brass as for your honor! The alternative is death or liberty in either case, and as for me, I prefer friendship to religion, so I will follow you, whichever road you take. Now go. These fellows mustn’t recognize you. It is time to take them one by one into the exercising yard. I daren’t take more than one at a time or they’d kill me even with the blunted practise-weapons. I wish they might face Commodus as boldly as they tackle me! I am a weary man, and many times a bruised one, I can tell you, when the night comes, after putting twenty of them through their paces.”

IX. STEWED EELS

The training arena where Commodus worked off energy and kept his Herculean muscles in condition was within the palace grounds, but the tunnel by which he reached it continued on and downward to the Circus Maximus, so that he could attend the public spectacles without much danger of assassination.

Nevertheless, a certain danger still existed. One of his worst frenzies of proscription had been started by a man who waited for him in the tunnel, and lost his nerve and then, instead of killing him, pretended to deliver an insulting message from the senate. Since that time the tunnel had been lined with guards at regular intervals, and when Commodus passed through his mysterious “double” was obliged to walk in front of him surrounded by enough attendants to make any one not in the secret believe the double was the emperor himself.

No man in the known world was less incapable than Commodus of self- defense against an armed man. There was no deception about his feats of strength and skill; he was undoubtedly the most terrific fighter and consummate athlete Rome had ever seen, and he was as proud of it as Nero once was of his “golden voice.” But, as he explained to the fawning courtiers who shouldered one another for a place beside him as he hurried down the tunnel:

“How could Rome replace me? Yesterday I had to order a slave beaten to death for breaking a vase of Greek glass. I can buy a hundred slaves for half what that glass cost Hadrian. And I could have a thousand better senators tomorrow than the fools who belch and stammer in the curia, the senate house. But where would you find another Commodus if some lurking miscreant should stab me from behind? It was the geese that saved the capitol. You cacklers can preserve your Commodus.”

They agreed in chorus, it would be Rome’s irreparable loss if he should die, and certain senators, more fertile than the others in expedients for drawing his attention to themselves, paused ostentatiously to hold a little conversation with the guards and promise them rewards if they should catch a miscreant lurking in wait to attack “our beloved, our glorious emperor.”

Commodus overheard them, as they meant he should.

“And such fulsome idiots as those expect me to believe they can frame laws!” He scowled over-shoulder. “Write down their names for me, somebody. The senate needs pruning! I will purge it the way Galen used to purge me when I had the colic! Cioscuri! But these leaky babblers suffocate me!”

He was true to the Caesarian tradition. He believed himself a god. He more than half-persuaded other men. His almost superhuman energy and skill with weapons, his terrific storms of anger and his magnetism overawed courtiers and politicians as they did the gladiators whom he slew in the arena. The strain of madness in his blood provided cunning that could mask itself beneath a princely bluster of indifference to consequences. He could fear with an extravagance coequal to the fury of his love of danger, and his fear struck terror into men’s hearts, as it stirred his mad brain into frenzies.

He made no false claim when he called Rome the City of Commodus and himself the Roman Hercules. The vast majority of Romans were unfit to challenge his contempt of them, and his contempt was never under cover for a moment.

Debauchery, of wine and women, entered not at all into his private life although, in public, he encouraged it in others for the simple reason that it weakened men who otherwise might turn on him. He was never guilty of excesses that might undermine his strength or shake his nerves; there was an almost superhuman purity about his worship of athletic powers. He outdid the Greeks in that respect. But he allowed the legend of his monstrous orgies in the palace to gain currency, partly because that encouraged the Romans to debauch themselves and render themselves incapable of overthrowing him, and partly because it helped to cover up his trick of employing a substitute to occupy the royal pavilion at the games when he himself drove chariots in the races or fought in the arena as the gladiator Paulus.

Men who had let wine and women ruin their own nerves knew it was impossible that any one, who lived as Commodus was said to do, could drive a chariot and wield a javelin as Paulus did. Whoever faced a Roman gladiator under the critical gaze of a crowd that knew all the points of fighting and could instantly detect, and did instantly resent pretense, fraud, trickery, the poor condition of one combatant or the unwillingness of one man to have at another in deadly earnest, had to be not only in the pink of bodily condition but a fighter such as no drunken sensualist could ever hope to be. So it was easy to suppress the scandal that the gladiator Paulus was the emperor himself, although half Rome half-believed it; and the substitute who occupied the seat of honor at the games–ageing a little, growing a little pouchy under eyes and chin–was pointed to as proof that Commodus was being ruined by the life he led.

The trick of making use of the same substitute to save the emperor the boredom of official ceremony, whenever there was no risk of the public coming close enough to detect the fraud, materially helped to strengthen the officially fostered argument that Commodus could not be Paulus.

So the mystery of the identity of Paulus was like all court secrets and most secrets of intriguing governments, no mystery at all to hundreds, but to thousands an insoluble conundrum. The official propagandists of the court news, absolutely in control of all the channels through which facts could reach the public, easily offset the constant leakage from the lips of slaves and gladiators by disseminating artfully concocted news. Those actually in the secret, flattered by the confidence and fearful for their own skins, steadfastly denied the story when it cropped up. Last, but not least, was the law, that made it sacrilege to speak in terms derogatory to the emperor. A gladiator, though the crowd might almost deify him, was a casteless individual, unprivileged before the law, whom any franchised citizen would rate as socially far beneath himself. To have identified the emperor with Paulus in a voice above a whisper would have made the culprit liable to death and confiscation of his goods.

The substitute himself, a man of mystery, was kept in virtual imprisonment. He was known as “Pavonius Nasor,” not because that was his real name, which was known to very few people, but because of an old legend that the ghost of a certain Pavonius Nasor, murdered centuries ago and never buried, still walked in the neighborhood of that part of the palace where the emperor’s substitute now led his mysterious, secret existence.

There were plenty of whispered stories current as to his true identity. Some said he was an impoverished landholder whom Commodus had met by accident when traveling in Northern Italy. But it was much more commonly believed he was the emperor’s twin brother, spirited away at birth by midwives, and the stories told to account for that were as remarkably unlikely as the tale itself; as for instance, that a soothsayer had prophesied how Commodus should one day mount the throne and that he and his twin brother would wreck Rome in civil war–a warning hardly likely to have had much weight with the father, Marcus Aurelius, although the mother was more likely to have given credence to it.

Whatever the truth of his origin, Pavonius Nasor never ran the risk of telling it. He kept his sinecure by mastering his tongue, preserving almost bovine speechlessness. When he and Commodus met face to face he never seemed to see the joke of the resemblance, never laughed at Commodus’ obscenely vivid jibes at his expense, nor once complained of his anomalous position. He appeared to be a man of no ambition other than to get through life as easily as might be–of no personal dignity, no ruling habits, but possessed of imitative talent that enabled him, without the slightest trouble, to adopt the very gait and gesture of the emperor whom he impersonated.

As he strode ahead along the tunnel he received the guards’ salute with merely enough nod of recognition to deceive an onlooker not in the secret. (It was Pavonius Nasor’s half-indulgent, rather lazy smile that had persuaded Rome and even the praetorian guards that Commodus was an easy-going, sensual, good humored man.)

There was a box at one end of the private arena, over the gate where the horses entered, so placed as to avoid the sun’s direct rays. It was reached by a short stairway from an anteroom that opened on the tunnel. There was no other means of access to the box. It’s wooden sidewalls, finished to resemble gilded eagle’s wings, projected over the arena so that it was well screened and in shadow. There was none, observing from below, who could have sworn it had not been the emperor himself who sat in the box and watched Paulus the gladiator showing off his skill.

The assembled gladiators, perfectly aware of Paulus’ true identity, went through the farce of solemnly saluting as the emperor the man who stared down at them from beneath an awning’s shadow between golden eagle’s wings, and who returned the salute with a wave of the arm that all Rome could have recognized.

Commodus, nearly as naked as when he was born, came running from a dressing room and pranced and leaped over the sand to bring the sweat- beads to his skin; then, snatching at the nearest gladiator, wrestled with him until the breathless victim cried for mercy; dropped him then, as crushed as if a python had left a job half-finished, and shouted for the ashen sword-sticks. In a minute, with a leather buckler on his left arm, he was parrying the thrusts and blows of six men, driving and so crowding them on one another’s toes that only two could seriously answer the terrific flailing of his own ash stick. He named them, named his blow, and laid them one by one, half-stunned and bleeding on the sand, until the last one by a quick feint landed on him, raising a great crimson welt across his shoulders.

“Well done!” Commodus exclaimed and smote him on the skull so fiercely that he broke the sword-stick. “You have killed him,” said a senator as two men promptly seized the victim’s arms to drag him out.

“Possibly,” said Commodus. “That blow I landed on him would have killed a horse. But he is fortunate. He dies proud–prouder than you ever will, Varronius! He got past Paulus’ guard! Would you like to attempt it? Woman! How I loathe you soft, effeminate, sleek senators! You fear death and you fear life equally! Where is Narcissus? Where are those men who are to try to kill me at my birthday games?”

There was no answer from Narcissus. Commodus forgot him in a moment, called for javelins and hurled them at a target, then at half-a-dozen targets, hitting all six marks exactly in the middle as he spun himself on one heel.

“I am in fettle!” he exclaimed, clapping the back of the senator whom he had scurrilously insulted a moment ago. If he was conscious of applause from the group of courtiers and gladiators he gave no sign of it. What pleased him was his own ability, not their praises.

“Lions!” he said. “Loose that big one!”

“Paulus,” a scarred veteran answered (they were all forbidden to address him by any other name in that arena), “you have ordered us to keep that fellow for the birthday games. If you keep killing all the best ones off at practise, what shall we do when the day comes? The last ship- load has arrived from Africa and already you have used up nearly half of them. There is no chance of another cargo arriving in time for the games. And besides, we have lacked corpses recently; that big one hasn’t tasted man’s flesh. He is hungry now. He will eat whatever we throw in, so let him taste the right meat that will make him savage.”

“Loose a leopard then.”

The veteran went off without a word to give his orders to the men below- ground, whose duty it was to drag the cages to the openings of tunnels in the masonry through which the animals emerged into the sunlight. There were ten such openings on either side of the arena, closed by trapdoors, set in grooves, that could be raised by ropes from overhead.

Commodus picked up one javelin and poised it. Half-a-dozen gladiators watched him, paying no attention to the doors, through any one of which the animal might come. They knew their Paulus, and were trained, besides, to look at death or danger with a curious, contemptuous calm. But the courtiers were nervous, grouping themselves where the sunlight threw a V-shaped shadow on the sand, as if they thought that semi- twilight would protect them.

A wooden door rose squeaking in its grooves but Commodus kept his back toward it.

“Women!” he exclaimed.

His sudden scowl transformed his handsome face into a thing of horror. He began to mutter savagely obscene abuse. A leopard crept into the sunlight, tried to turn again but was prevented by the closing trap, and crouched against the arena wall.

“Beware! The beast comes!” said a gladiator.

“Hold your presumptuous tongue, you slave-born rascal!” Commodus retorted. “Take that yapping dog away and have him whipped!”

A man stepped from the entrance gate to beckon the offending gladiator, who walked out with a look of hatred on his face. He paused once, hesitating whether to ask mercy, and thought better of it, shrugging his fine bronzed shoulders. The leopard left the wall and crept toward the center of the sand, his black and yellow beauty rippling in the sunlight and his shadow looking like death’s trailing cloak. The courtiers seemed doubtful which of the two beasts to watch, leopard or emperor.

“A spear!” said Commodus. A gladiator put it in his hand.

“Varronius! It irks me to have cowards in the senate! Let me see you try to kill that leopard!”

Decadent and grown effeminate though Rome was, there was no patrician who had not received some training in the use of arms. Varronius took the spear at once, his white hands closing on the shaft with military firmness. But his white face gave the lie to the alacrity with which he strode out of the shadow.

“Kill him, and you shall have the consulate next year!” said Commodus. “Be killed, and there will be one useless bastard less to clutter up the curia!”

A flush of anger swept over the senator’s pale face. For a moment he looked almost capable of lunging with the spear at Commodus–but Commodus was toying with the javelin. Varronius strode out to face the leopard, and the lithe beast did not wait to feel the spear-point. It began to stalk its adversary in irregular swift curves. Its body almost pressed the sand. Its eyes were spots of sunlit topaz. Commodus’ frown vanished. He began to gloat over the leopard’s subtlety and strength.

“He is a lovelier thing than you, Varronius! He is a better fighter! He is manlier! He is worth more! He has kept his body stronger and his wits more nimble! He will get you! By the Dioscuri, he will get you! I will bet a talent that he gets you–and I hope he does! You hold your spear the way a woman holds a distaff–but observe the way he gathers all his strength in readiness to leap instantly in any direction! Ah!”

The leopard made a feint, perhaps to test the swiftness of the spear- point. Leaping like a flash of light, he seemed to change direction in mid-air, the point missing him by half a hand’s breadth. One terrific claw, outreaching as he turned, ripped open Varronius’ tunic and brought a little stream of crimson trickling down his left arm.

“Good!” Commodus remarked. “First blood to the braver! Who would like to bet with me?”

“I!” Varronius retorted from between set teeth, his eyes fixed on the leopard that had recommenced his swift strategic to-and-fro stalking movement.

“I have betted you the consulship already. Who else wants to bet?” asked Commodus.

Before any one could answer the leopard sprang in again at Varronius, who stepped aside and drove his spear with very well timed accuracy. Only force enough was lacking. The point slit the leopard’s skin and made a stinging wound along the beast’s ribs, turning him the way a spur-prick turns a horse. His snarl made Varronius step back another pace or two, neglecting his chance to attack and drive the spear-point home. The infuriated leopard watched him for a moment, ears back, tail spasmodically twitching, then shot to one side and charged straight at the group of courtiers.

They scattered. They were almost unarmed. There were three of them who stumbled, interfering with each other. The nearest to the leopard drew a dagger with a jeweled hilt, a mere toy with a light blade hardly longer than his hand. He threw his toga over his left forearm and stood firm to make a fight for it, his white face rigid and his eyes ablaze. The leopard leaped–and fell dead, hardly writhing. Commodus’ long javelin had caught him in the middle of his spring, exactly at the point behind the shoulder-bone that leaves a clear course to the heart.

“I would not have done that for a coward, Tullius! If you had run I would have let him kill you!”

Commodus strode up and pulled out the javelin, setting one foot on the leopard and exerting all his strength.

“Look here, Varronius. Do you see how deep my blade went? Pin-pricks are no use against man or animal. Kill when you strike, like great Jove with his thunderbolts! Life isn’t a game between Maltese kittens; it’s a spectacle in which the strong devour the weak and all the gods look on! Loose another leopard there! I’ll show you!”

He took the spear from Varronius, balanced it a moment, discarded it and chose another, feeling its point with his thumb. There was a squeak of pulleys as they loosed a leopard near the end of the arena. He charged the animal, leaping from foot to foot. He made prodigious leaps; there was no guessing which way he would jump next. He was not like a human being. The leopard, snarling, slunk away, attempting to avoid him, but he crowded it against the wall. He forced it to turn at bay. No eye was quick enough to see exactly how he killed it, save that he struck when the leopard sprang. The next thing that anybody actually saw, he had the writhing creature on the spear, in air, like a legion’s standard.

Then the madness surged into his brain.

“So I rule Rome!” he exclaimed, and threw the leopard at the gladiators’ feet. “Because I pity Rome that could not find another Paulus! I strike first, before they strike me!”

They flattered him–fawned on him, but he was much too genuinely mad for flattery to take effect. “If you were worth a barrelful of rats I’d have a senate that might save me trouble! Then like Tiberius I might remain away from Rome and live more like a god. I’ve more than half a mind to let my dummy stay here to amuse you wastrels!” He glanced up at the box, where his substitute lolled and yawned and smiled. “All you degenerates need is some one you can rub yourselves against like fat cats mewing for a bowl of milk! By Hercules, now I’ll show you something that will make your blood leap. Bring out the new Spanish team.”

With an imperious gesture he sent senators and gladiators to scatter themselves all over the arena. Not yet satisfied, he ordered all the guards fetched from the tunnel and arranged them in a similar disorder, so that finally no stretch of fifty yards was left without a man obstructing it. There was no spina down the midst, nor anything except the surrounding wall to suggest to a team of horses which the course might be.

“Let none move!” he commanded. “I will crush the foot of any man who stirs!”

Attendants, clinging to the heads of four gray stallions that fought and kicked, brought out his chariot and others shut the gate behind it. Commodus admired the team a minute, then examined the new high wheels of the gilded chariot, that was hardly wider than a coffin–a thing that a man could upset with a shove and built to look as flimsy as an egg shell. Suddenly he seized the reins and leaped in, throwing up his right hand.

If he could have ruled his empire as he drove that chariot he would have far outshone Augustus, for whose memory men sighed. He managed them with one hand. There was magnetism sent along the reins to play with the dynamic energy of four mad stallions as gods amuse themselves with men. If empire had amused him as athleticism did there would have been no equal in all history to Commodus.

In a chariot no other athlete could have balanced, on a course providing not one unobstructed stretch of fifty yards, he drove like Phoebus breaking in the horses of the Sun, careering this and that way, weaving patterns in among the frightened men who stood like posts for him to drive around. He missed them by a hand’s breadth–less! He took delight in driving at them, turning in the last half-second, smiling at a blanched face as he wheeled and wove new figures down another zigzag avenue of men. The frenzy of the team inspired him; the rebellion of the stallions, made mad by the persistent, sudden turns, aroused his own astonishing enthusiasm. He accomplished the impossible! He made new laws of motion, breaking them, inventing others! He became a god in action, mastering the team until it had no consciousness of any self- will, or of any impulse but to loose its full strength under the directing will of genius.

The team tired first. It was its waning speed that wearied him at last. The mania that owned him could not tolerate the anticlimax of declining effort, so his mood changed. He became morose–indifferent. He reined in, tossed the reins to an attendant and began to walk toward the tunnel entrance, clothed as he was in nothing but the practise loin-cloth of a gladiator.

A dozen senators implored him to wait and clothe himself. He would not wait. He ordered them to bring his cloak and overtake him. Then he observed Narcissus, standing near the horse-gate, waiting to summon his trained gladiators for an exhibition:

“Not this time, Narcissus. Next time. Follow me.” He waited for a moment for Narcissus. That gave the substitute time to come down from the box and go hurrying ahead into the tunnel-mouth; he went so fast (for he knew the emperor’s moods) that the attendants found it hard to keep up; most of them were half a dozen paces in the rear. A senator gave Commodus his cloak. He took Narcissus by the arm and strode ahead into the tunnel, muttering, ignoring noisy protests from the senators, who warned him that the guards were not yet there.

Then there was sudden silence; possibly a consequence of Caesar’s mood, or the reaction caused by chill and tunnel-darkness after sunlit sand. Or it might have been the shadow of impending tragedy. A long scream broke the silence, thrice repeated, horrible, like something from an unseen world. Instantly Narcissus leaped ahead into the darkness, weaponless but armed by nature with the muscles of a panther. Commodus leaped after him; his mood reversed again. Now emulation had him; he would not be beaten to a scene of action by a gladiator. He let his cloak fall and a senator tripped over it.

There were no lamps. Something less than twilight, deepened here and there by shadow, filled the tunnel. By a niche intended for a sentry the attendants were standing helplessly around the body of a man who lay with head and shoulders propped against the wall. Narcissus and another, like knotted snakes, were writhing near by. There was a sound of choking. Pavonius Nasor was silent. He appeared already dead.

“Pluto! Is there no light?” Commodus demanded. “What has happened?”

“They have killed your shadow, sire!”

“Who killed him?”

“Men who sprang out of the darkness suddenly.”

“One man. Only one. I have him here. He lives yet, but he dies!” Narcissus said.

He dragged a writhing body on the flagstones, holding it by one wrist.

“He was armed. I had to throttle him to save my liver from his knife. I think I broke his neck. He is certainly dying,” said Narcissus.

Some one had gone for a lamp and came along the tunnel with it.

“Let me look,” said Commodus. “Here, give me that lamp!”

He looked first at Pavonius Nasor, who gazed back, at him with stupid, passionless, already dimming eyes. A stream of blood was gushing from below his left arm.

“Now the gods of heaven and hell, and all the strange gods that have no resting place, and all the spirits of the air and earth and sea, defile your spirit!” Commodus exploded. “Careless, irresponsible, ungrateful fool! You have deprived me of my liberty! You let yourself be killed like any sow under the butcher’s knife, and dare to leave me shadowless? Then die like carrion and rot unburied!”

He began to kick him, but the stricken man’s lips moved. Commodus bent down and tried to listen–tried again, mastered impatience and at last stood upright, shaking both fists at the tunnel roof.

“Omnipotent Progenitor of Lightnings!” he exploded. “He says he should have had stewed eels tonight!”

The watching senators mistook that for a cue to laugh. Their laughter touched off all the magazines of Caesar’s rage. He turned into a mania. He tore at his own hair. He tore off his loin-cloth and stood naked. He tried to kill Narcissus, because Narcissus was the nearest to him. His crashing centurion’s parade voice filled the tunnel.

“Dogs! Dogs’ ullage! Vipers!” he yelled. “Who slew my shadow? Who did it? This is a conspiracy! Who hatched it? Bring my tablets! Warn the executioners! What is Commodus without his dummy? Vultures! Better have killed me than that poor obliging fool! You cursed, stupid idiots!