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Chapter 8

 

No one stopped Ursus, no one inquired even what he was doing. Those guests who were not under the table had not kept their own places; hence the servants, seeing a giant carrying a guest on his arm, thought him some slave bearing out his intoxicated mistress. Moreover, Acte was with them, and her presence removed all suspicion.

In this way they went from the triclinium to the adjoining chamber, and thence to the gallery leading to Acte's apartments. To such a degree had her strength deserted Lygia, that she hung as if dead on the arm of Ursus. But when the cool, pure breeze of morning beat around her, she opened her eyes. It was growing clearer and clearer in the open air. After they had passed along the colonnade awhile, they turned to a side portico, coming out, not in the courtyard, but the palace gardens, where the tops of the pines and cypresses were growing ruddy from the light of morning. That part of the building was empty, so that echoes of music and sounds of the feast came with decreasing distinctness. It seemed to Lygia that she had been rescued from hell, and borne into God's bright world outside. There was something, then, besides that disgusting tricliium. There was the sky, the dawn, light, and peace. Sudden weeping seized the maiden, and, taking shelter on the arm of the giant, she repeated, with sobbing, — "Let us go home, Ursus! home, to the house of Aulus."

"Let us go!" answered Ursus.

They found themselves now in the small atrium of Acte's apartments. Ursus placed Lygia on a marble bench at a distance from the fountain. Acte strove to pacify her; she urged her to sleep, and declared that for the moment there was no danger, — after the feast the drunken guests would sleep till evening. For a long time Lygia could not calm herself, and, pressing her temples with both hands, she repeated like a child, — "Let us go home, to the house of Aulus!"

Ursus was ready. At the gates stood pretorians, it is true, but he would pass them. The soldiers would not stop out-going people. The space before the arch was crowded with litters. Guests were beginning to go forth in throngs. No one would detain them. They would pass with the crowd and go home directly. For that matter, what does he care? As the queen commands, so must it be. He is there to carry out her orders.

"Yes, Ursus," said Lygia, "let us go."

Acte was forced to find reason for both. They would pass out, true; no one would stop them. But it is not permitted to flee from the house of Caesar; whoso does that offends Caesar's majesty. They may go; but in the evening a centurion at the head of soldiers will take a death sentence to Aulus and Pomponia Graecina; they will bring Lygia to the palace again, and then there will be no rescue for her. Should Aulus and his wife receive her under their roof, death awaits them to a certainty.

Lygia's arms dropped. There was no other outcome. She must choose her own ruin or that of Plautius. In going to the feast, she had hoped that Vinicius and Petronius would win her from Caesar, and return her to Pornponia; now she knew that it was they who had brought Caesar to remove her from the house of Aulus. There was no help. Only a miracle could save her from the abyss, — a miracle and the might of God.

"Acte," said she, in despair, "didst thou hear Vinicius say that Caesar had given me to him, and that he will send slaves here this evening to take me to his house?"

"I did," answered Acte; and, raising her arms from her side, she was silent. The despair with which Lygia spoke found in her no echo. She herself had been Nero's favorite. Her heart, though good, could not feel clearly the shame of such a relation. A former slave, she had grown too much inured to the law of slavery; and, besides, she loved Nero yet. If he returned to her, she would stretch her arms to him, as to happiness. Comprehending clearly that Lygia must become the mistress of the youthful and stately Vinicius, or expose Aulus and Pomponia to ruin, she failed to understand how the girl could hesitate.

"In Caesar's house," said she, after a while, "it would not be safer for thee than in that of Vinicius."

And it did not occur to her that, though she told the truth, her words meant, "Be resigned to fate and become the concubine of Vinicius."

As to Lygia, who felt on her lips yet his kisses, burning as coals and full of beastly desire, the blood rushed to her face with shame at the mere thought of them.

"Never," cried she, with an outburst, "will I remain here, or at the house of Vinicius, — never!"

"But," inquired Acte, "is Vinicius hateful to thee?"

Lygia was unable to answer, for weeping seized her anew. Acte gathered the maiden to her bosom, and strove to calm her excitement. Ursus breathed heavily, and balled his giant fists; for, loving his queen with the devotion of a dog, he could not bear the sight of her tears. In his half-wild Lygian heart was the wish to return to the tridinium, choke Vinicius, and, should the need come, Caesar himself; but he feared to sacrifice thereby his mistress, and was not certain that such an act, which to him seemed very simple, would befit a confessor of the Crucified Lamb.

But Acte, while caressing Lygia, asked again, "Is he so hateful to thee?"

"No," said Lygia; "it is not permitted me to hate, for I am a Christian."

"I know, Lygia. I know also from the letters of Paul of Tarsus, that it is not permitted to defile one's self, nor to fear death more than sin; but tell me if thy teaching permits one person to cause the death of others?"

"Then how canst thou bring Caesar's vengeance on the house of Aulus?" A moment of silence followed. A bottomless abyss yawned before Lygia again.

"I ask," continued the young freedwoman, "for I have compassion on thee — and I have compassion on the good Pomponia and Aulus, and on their child. It is long since I began to live in this house, and I know what Caesar's anger is. No! thou art not at liberty to flee from here. One way remains to thee: implore Vinicius to return thee to Pomponia."

But Lygia dropped on her knees to implore some one else. Ursus knelt down after a while, too, and both began to pray in Caesar's house at the morning dawn.

Acte witnessed such a prayer for the first time, and could not take her eyes from Lygia, who, seen by her in profile, with raised hands, and face turned heavenward, seemed to implore rescue. The dawn, casting light on her dark hair and white peplus, was reflected in her eyes. Entirely in the light, she seemed herself like light. In that pale face, in those parted lips, in those raised hands and eyes, a kind of superhuman exaltation was evident. Acte understood then why Lygia could not become the concubine of any man. Before the face of Nero's former favorite was drawn aside, as it were, a corner of that veil which hides a world altogether different from that to which she was accustomed. She was astonished by prayer in that abode of crime and infamy. A moment earlier it had seemed to her that there was no rescue for Lygia; now she began to think that something uncommon would happen, that some aid would come, — aid so mighty that Caesar himself would be powerless to resist it; that some winged army would descend from the sky to help that maiden, or that the sun would spread its rays beneath her feet and draw her up to itself. She had heard of many miracles among Christians, and she thought now that everything said of them was true, since Lygia was praying.

Lygia rose at last, with a face serene with hope. Ursus rose too, and, holding to the bench, looked at his mistress, waiting for her words.

But it grew dark in her eyes, and after a time two great tears rolled down her checks slowly.

"May God bless Pomponia and Aulus," said she. "It is not permitted me to bring ruin on them; therefore I shall never see them again."

Then turning to Ursus she said that he alone remained to her in the world; that he must be to her as a protector and a father. They could not seek refuge in the house of Aulus, for they would bring on it the anger of Caesar. But neither could she remain in the house of Caesar or that of Vinicius. Let Ursus take her then; let him conduct her out of the city; let him conceal her in some place where neither Vinicius nor his servants could find her. She would follow Ursus anywhere, even beyond the sea, even beyond the mountains, to the barbarians, where the Roman name was not heard, and whither the power of Caesar did not reach. Let him take her and save her, for he alone had remained to her.

The Lygian was ready, and in sign of obedience he bent to her feet and embraced them. But on the face of Acte, who had been expecting a miracle, disappointment was evident. Had the prayer effected only that much? To flee from the house of Caesar is to commit an offence against majesty which must be avenged; and even if Lygia succeeded in hiding, Caesar would avenge himself on Aulus and Pomponia. If she wishes to escape, let her escape from the house of Vinicius. Then Caesar, who does not like to occupy himself with the affairs of others, may not wish even to aid Vinicius in the pursuit; in every case it will not be a crime against majesty.

But Lygia's thoughts were just the following: Aulus would not even know where she was; Pomponia herself would not know. She would escape not from the house of Vinicius, however, but while on the way to it. When drunk, Vinicius had said that he would send his slaves for her in the evening. Beyond doubt he had told the truth, which he would not have done had he been sober. Evidently he himself, or perhaps he and Petronius, had seen Caesar before the feast, and won from him the promise to give her on the following evening. And if they forgot that day, they would send for her on the morrow. But Ursus will save her. He will come; he will bear her out of the litter as he bore her out of the triclinium, and they will go into the world. No one could resist Ursus, not even that terrible athlete who wrestled at the feast yesterday. But as Vinicius might send a great number of slaves, Ursus would go at once to Bishop Linus for aid and counsel. The bishop will take compassion on her, will not leave her in the hands of Vinicius; he will command Christians to go with Ursus to rescue her. They will seize her and bear her away; then Ursus can take her out of the city and hide her from the power of Rome.

And her face began to flush and smile. Consolation entered her anew, as if the hope of rescue had turned to reality. She threw herself on Acte's neck suddenly, and, putting her beautiful lips to Acte's cheek, she whispered:

"Thou wilt not betray, Acte, wilt thou?"

"By the shade of my mother," answered the freedwoman, "I will not; but pray to thy God that Ursus be able to bear thee away."

The blue, childlike eyes of the giant were gleaming with happiness. He had not been able to frame any plan, though he had been breaking his poor head; but a thing like this he could do, — and whether in the day or in the night it was all one to him! He would go to the bishop, for the bishop can read in the sky what is needed and what is not. Besides, he could assemble Christians himself. Are his acquaintances few among slaves, gladiators, and free people, both in the Subura and beyond the bridges? He can collect a couple of thousand of them. He will rescue his lady, and take her outside the city, and he can go with her. They will go to the end of the world, even to that place from which they had come, where no one has heard of Rome.

Here he began to look forward, as if to see things in the future and very distant.

"To the forest? Al, what a forest, what a forest!"

But after a while he shook himself out of his visions. Well, he will go to the bishop at once, and in the evening will wait with something like a hundred men for the litter. And let not slaves, hut even pretorians, take her from him! Better for any man not to come under his fist, even though in iron armor, — for is iron so strong? When he strikes iron earnestly, the head underneath will not survive.

But Lygia raised her finger with great and also childlike seriousness.

"Ursus, do not kill," said she.

Ursus put his fist, which was like a maul, to the back of his head, and, rubbing his neck with great seriousness, began to mutter. But he must rescue "his light." She herself had said that his turn had come. He will try all he can. But if something happens in spite of him? In every case he must save her. But should anything happen, he will repent, and so entreat the Innocent Lamb that the Crucified Lamb will have mercy on him, poor fellow. He has no wish to offend the Lamb; but then his hands are so heavy.

Great tenderness was expressed on his face; but wishing to hide it, he bowed and said, — "Now I will go to the holy bishop."

Acte put her arms around Lygia's neck, and began to weep. Once more the freedwoman understood that there was a world in which greater happiness existed, even in suffering, than in all the excesses and luxury of Caesar's house. Once more a kind of door to the light was opened a little before her, but she felt at once that she was unworthy to pass through it.