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Chapter 49

 

PETRONIUS went borne. Nero and Tigcllinus went to Poppaea's atrium, where they were expected by people with whom the prefect had spoken already.

There were two Trans-Tiber rabbis in long solemn robes and mitred, a young copyist, their assistant, together with Chilo. At sight of Caesar the priests grew pale from emotion, and, raising their hands an arm's length, bent their heads to his hands.

"Be greeted, O ruler of the earth, guardian of the chosen people, and Caesar, lion among men, whose reign is like sunlight, like the cedar of Lebanon, like a spring, like a palm, like the balsam of Jericho,"

"Do ye refuse to call me god?" inquired Nero.

The priests grew still paler. The chief one spoke again, —

"Thy words, O lord, are as sweet as a cluster of grapes, as a ripe fig,— for Jehovah filled thy heart with goodness! Thy father's predecessor, Caesar Caius, was stern; still our envoys did not call him god, preferring death Itself to violation of the law."

"And did not Caligula give command to throw them to the lions?"

"No, lord; Caesar Caius feared Jehovah's anger."

And they raised their heads, for the name of the powerful Jehovah gave them courage; confident in his might, they looked into Nero's eyes with more boldness.

"Do ye accuse the Christians of burning Rome?" inquired Caesar. "We, lord, accuse them of this alone, — that they are enemies of the law, of the human race, of Rome, and of thee; that long since they have threatened the city and the world with fire! The rest will be told thee by this man, whose lips are unstained by a lie, for in his mother's veins flowed the blood of the chosen people."

Nero turned to Chio: "Who art thou?"

"One who honors thee, O Cyrus; and, besides, a poor Stoic—"

"I hate the Stoics," said Nero. "I hate Thrasea; I hate Musonius and Cornutus. Their speech is repulsive to me; their contempt for art, their voluntary squalor and filth."

"O lord, thy master Seneca has one thousand tables of citrus wood. At thy wish I will have twice as many. I am a Stoic from necessity. Dress my stoicism, O Radiant One, in a garland of roses, put a pitcher of wine before it; it will sing Anacreon in such strains as to deafen every Epicurean."

Nero, who was pleased by the title "Radiant," smiled and said,— "Thou dost please me."

"This man is worth his weight in gold!" cried Tigellinus.

"Put thy liberality with my weight," answered Chilo, "or the wind will blow my reward away."

"He would not outweigh Vitelius," put in Caesar.

"Eheu! Silver-bowed, my wit is not of lead."

"I see that thy faith does not hinder thee from calling me a god."

"O Immortal! My faith is in thee; the Christians blaspheme against that faith, and I hate them."

"What dost thou know of the Christians?"

"Wilt thou permit me to weep, O divinity?"

"No," answered Nero; "weeping annoys me."

"Thou art triply right, for eyes that have seen thee should be free of tears forever. O lord, defend me against my enemies."

"Speak of the Christians," said Poppaea, with a shade of impatience.

"It will be at thy command, O Isis," answered Chilo. "From youth I devoted myself to philosophy, and sought truth. I sought it among the ancient divine sages, in the Academy at Athens, and in the Serapeum at Alexandria. When I heard of the Christians, I judged that they formed some new school in which I could find certain kernels of truth; and to my misfortune I made their acquaintance. The first Christian whom evil fate brought near me was one Glaucus, a physician of Naples. From him I learned in time that they worship a certain Chrestos, who promised to exterminate all people and destroy every city on earth, but to spare them if they helped him to exterminate the children of Deucalion. For this reason, O lady, they hate men, and poison fountains; for this reason in their assemblies they shower curses on Rome, and on all temples in which our gods are honored. Chrestos was crucified; but he promised that when Rome was destroyed by fire, he would come again and give Christians dominion over the world."

"People will understand now why Rome was destroyed," interrupted Tigellinus.

"Many understand that already, O lord, for I go about in the gardens, I go to the Campus Martius, and teach. But if ye listen to the end, ye will know my reasons for vengeance. Glaucus the physician did not reveal to me at first that their religion taught hatred. On the contrary, he told me that Chrestos was a good divinity, that the basis of their religion was love. My sensitive heart could not resist such a truth; hence I took to loving Glaucus, I trusted him, I shared every morsel of bread with him, every copper coin, and dost thou know, lady, how he repaid me? On the road from Naples to Rome he thrust a knife into my body, and my wife, the beautiful and youthful Berenice, he sold to a slave-merchant. If Sophocles knew my history — but what do I say? One better than Sophocles is listening."

"Poor man!" said Poppaeua.

"Whoso has seen the face of Aphrodite is not poor, lady; and I see it at this moment. But then I sought consolation in philosophy. When I came to Rome, I tried to meet Christian elders to obtain justice against Glaucus. I thought that they would force him to yield up my wife. I became acquainted with their chief priest; I became acquainted with another, named Paul, who was in prison in this city, but was liberated afterward; I became acquainted with the son of Zebedee, with Linus and Clitus and many others. I know where they lived before the fire, I know where they meet. I can point out one excavation in the Vatican Hill and a cemetery beyond the Nomentan Gate, where they celebrate their shameless ceremonies. I saw the Apostle Peter. I saw how Glaucus killed children, so that the Apostle might have something to sprinkle on the heads of those present; and I saw Lygia, the foster-child of Pomponia Graecina, who boasted that though unable to bring the blood of an infant, she brought the death of an infant, for she bewitched the little Augusta, thy daughter, O Cyrus, and thine, O Isis!"

"Dost hear, Caesar?" asked Poppaea.

"Can that be!" exclaimed Nero.

"I could forgive wrongs done myself," continued Chio, "but when I heard of yours, I wanted to stab her. Unfortunately I was stopped by the noble Vinicius, who loves her."

"Vinicius? But did she not flee from him?"

"She fled, but he made search for her; he could not exist without her. For wretched pay I helped him in the search, and it was I who pointed out to him the house in which she lived among the Christians in the Trans-Tiber. We went there together, and with us thy wrestler Croton, whom the noble Viicius hired to protect him. But Ursus, Lygia's slave, crushed Croton. That is a man of dreadful strength, O Lord, who can break a bull's neck as easily as another might a poppy stalk. Auluae and Pomponia loved him because of that."

"By Hercules," said Nero, "the mortal who crushed Croton deserves a statue in the Forum. But, old man, thou art mistaken or art inventing, for Vinicius killed Croton with a knife."

"That is how people calumniate the gods. O lord, I myself saw Croton's ribs breaking in the arms of Ursus, who rushed then on Viicius and would have killed him but for Lygia. Vinicius was ill for a long time after that but they nursed him in the hope that through love he would become a Christian. In fact, he did become a Christian."

"Vinicius?"

"Yes."

"And, perhaps, Petronius too?" inquired Tigellinus, hurriedly. Chio squirmed, rubbed his hands, and said, —

"I admire thy penetration, O lord. He may have become one! He may very well have become one."

"Now I understand why he defended the Christians."

Nero laughed: "Petronius a Christian! Petronius an enemy of life and luxury! Be not foolish; do not ask me to believe that, since I am ready not to believe anything."

"But the noble Vinicius became a Christian, lord. I swear by that radiance which comes from thee that I speak the truth, and that nothing pierces me with such disgust as lying. Pomponia Graecina is a Christian, little Aulus is a Christian, Lygia is a Christian, and so is Vinicius. I served him faithfully, and in return, at the desire of Glaucus the physician, he gave command to flog me, though I am old and was sick and hungry. And I have sworn by Hades that I will not forget that for him. O lord, avenge my wrongs on them, and I will deliver to thee Peter the Apostle and Linus and Clitus and Glaucus and Crispus, the highest ones, and Lygia and Ursus. I will point out hundreds of them to you, thousands; I will indicate their houses of prayer, the cemeteries, all thy prisons will not hold them! Without me ye could not find them. In misfortunes I have sought consolation; hitherto in philosophy alone, now I will find it in favors that will descend on me. I am old, and have not known life; let me begin."

"It is thy wish to be a Stoic before a full plate," said Nero. "Whoso renders service to thee will fill it by that same."

"Thou art not mistaken, O philosopher."

But Poppaeca did not forget her enemies. Her fancy for Vinicius was, indeed, rather a momentary whim, which had risen under the influence of jealousy, anger, and wounded vanity. Still the coolness of the young patrician touched her deeply, and filled her heart with a stubborn feeling of offence. This alone, that he had dared to prefer anothe'r, seemed to her a crime calling for vengeance. As to Lygia, she hated her from the first moment, when the beauty of that northern lily alarmed her, Petronius, who spoke of the too narrow hips of the girl, might talk what he pleased into Caesar, but not into the Augusta. Poppaea the critic understood at one cast of the eye that in all Rome Lygia alone could rival and even surpass her. Thenceforth she vowed her ruin.

"Lord," said she, "avenge our child."

"Hasten!" cried Chio, "hasten! Otherwise Vinicius will hide her. I will point out the house to which she returned after the fire."

"I will give thee ten men, and go this moment," said Tigellinus.

"O lord! thou hast not seen Croton in the arms of Ursus; if thou wilt give fifty men, I will only show the house from a distance. But if ye will not imprison Vinicius, I am lost."

Tigellinus looked at Nero. "Would it not be well, O divinity, to finish at once with the uncle and nephew?"

Nero thought a moment and answered, —

"No, not now. People would not believe us if we tried to persuade them that Petronius, Vinicius, or Pomponia Graecina had fired Rome. Their houses were too beautiful. Their turn will come later; to-day other victims are needed."

"Then, O lord, give me soldiers as a guard," said Chilo. "See to this, Tigellinus."

"Thou wilt lodge meanwhile with me," said the prefect to Chilo. Delight beamed from the face of the Greek.

"I will give up all! only hasten! — hasten!" cried he, with a hoarse voice.