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Chapter 64

 

ONE evening Scevinus, a Senator, visited Petronius and began a long conversation, touching the grievous times in which they were living, and also touching Caesar. He spoke so openly that Petronius, though his friend, began to be cautious. Scevinus complained that the world was living madly and unjustly, that all must end in some catastrophe more dreadful still than the burning of Rome. He said that even Augustians were dissatisfied; that Fenius Rufus, second prefect of the pretorians, endured with the greatest effort the vile orders of Tigellinus; and that all Seneca's relatives were driven to extremes by Caesar's conduct as well toward his old master as toward Lucan. Finally, he began to hint of the dissatisfaction of the people, and even of the pretorians, the greater part of whom had been won by Fenius Rufus. + "Why dost thou say this?" inquired Petronius.

"Out of care for Caesar," said Scevinus. "I have a distant relative among the pretorians, also Scevinus; through him I know what takes place in the camp. Disaffection is growing there also; Caligula, knowest thou, was mad too, and see what happened. Cassius Chaerea appeared. That was a dreadful deed, and surely there is no one among us to praise it; still Chaaerea freed the world of a monster."

"Is thy meaning as follows: 'I do not praise Chaerea, but he was a perfect man, and would that the gods had given us as many such as possible'?" inquired Petronius.

But Scevinus changed the conversation, and began all at once to praise Piso, exalting his family, his nobility of mind, his attachment to his wife, and, finally, his intellect, his calmness, and his wonderful gift of winning people.

"Caesar is childless," said he, "and all see his successor in Piso. Doubtless, too, every man would help him with whole soul to gain power. Fenius Rufus loves him; the relatives of Annzus are devoted to him altogether. Plautius Lateranus and Tullius Senecio would spring into fire for him; as would Natalis, and Subrius Flavius, and Sulpicius Asper, and Afranius Quinetianus, and even Vestinius."

"From this last man not much will result to Piso," replied Petronius. "Vestinius is afraid of his own shadow."

"Vestinius fears dreams and spirits," answered Scevinus, "but he is a practical man, whom people wish wisely to make consul. That in his soul he is opposed to persecuting Christians, thou shouldst not take ill of him, for it concerns thee too that this madness should cease."

"Not me, but Vinicius," answered Petronius. "Out of concern for Vinicius,

I should like to save a certain maiden; but I cannot, for I have fallen out of favor with Ahenobarbus."

"How is that? Dost thou not notice that Caesar is approaching thee again, and beginning to talk with thee? And I will tell thee why. He is preparing again for Achaea, where he is to sing songs in Greek of his own composition. He is burning for that journey; but also he trembles at thought of the cynical genius of the Greeks. He imagines that either the greatest triumph may meet him or the greatest failure. He needs good counsel, and he knows that no one can give it better than thou. This is why thou art returning to favor."

"Lucan might take my place."

"Bronzebeard hates Lucan, and in his soul has written down death for the poet. He is merely seeking a pretext, f or he seeks pretexts always."

"By Castor!" said Petronius, "that may be. But I might have still another way for a quick return to favor."

"What?"

"To repeat to Bronzebeard what thou hast told me just now."

"I have said nothing!" cried Scevinus, with alarm.

Petronius placed his hand upon the Senator's shoulder. "Thou hast called Caesar a madman, thou hast foreseen the heirship of Piso, and hast said, 'Lucan understands that there is need to hasten.' What wouldst thou hasten, carissime?"

Scevinus grew pale, and for a moment each looked into the eyes of the other.

"Thou wilt not repeat!"

"By the hips of Kypris, I will not! How well thou knowest me! No; I will not repeat. I have heard nothing, and, moreover, I wish to hear nothing. Dost understand? Life is too short to make any undertaking worth the while. I beg thee only to visit Tigellinus to-day, and talk with him as long as thou hast with me of whatever may please thee."

"Why?"

"So that should Tigellinus ever say to me, 'Scevinus was with thee,' I might answer, 'He was with thee, too, that very day.'"

Scevinus, when he heard this, broke the ivory cane which he had in his hand, and said, — "May the evil fall on this stick! I shall be with Tigellinus to-day, and later at Nerva's feast. Thou, too, wilt be there? In every case till we meet in the amphitheatre, where the last of the Christians will appear the day after tomorrow. Till we meet!"

"After to-morrow!" repeated Petronius, when alone. "There is no time to lose. Ahenobarbus will need me really in Achaea; hence he may count with me."

And he determined to try the last means.

In fact, at Nerva's feast Caesar himself asked that Petronius recline oaeposite, for he wished to speak with the arbiter about Achaea and the cities in which he might appear with hopes of the greatest success. He cared most for the Athenians, whom he feared. Other Augustians listened to this conversation with attention, so as to seize crumbs of the arbiter's opinions, and give them out later on as their own.

"It seems to me that I have not lived up to this time," said Nero, "and that my birth will come only in Greece."

"Thou wilt be born to new glory and immortality," answered Petronius.

"I trust that this is true, and that Apollo will not seem jealous. If I return in triumph, I will offer him such a hecatomb as no god has had so far."

Scevinus fell to repeating the lines of Horace: —

"Sic te diva potens Cypri, Sic fratres Helenae, lucida sidera, Ventorumque regat Pater—"

"The vessel is ready at Naples," said Caesar. "I should like to go even tomorrow."

At this Petronius rose, and, looking straight into Nero's eyes, said,—

"Permit me, O divinity, to celebrate a wedding-feast, to which I shall invite thee before others."

"A wedding-feast! What wedding-feast?" inquired Nero.

"That of Vinicius with thy hostage the daughter of the Lygian king. She is in prison at present, it is true; but as a hostage she is not subject to imprisonment, and, secondly, thou thyself hast permitted Vinicius to marry her; and as thy sentences, like those of Zeus, are unchangeable, thou wilt give command to free her from prison, and I will give her to thy favorite."

The cool blood and calm self-possession with which Petronius spoke disturbed Nero, who was disturbed whenever any one spoke in that fashion to him.

"I know," said he, dropping his eyes. "I have thought of her and of that giant who killed Croton."

"In that case both are saved," answered Petronius, calmly.

But Tigellinus came to the aid of his master: "She is in prison by the will of Caesar; thou thyself hast said, O Petronius, that his sentences are unchangeable."

All present, knowing the history of Vinicius and Lygia, understood perfectly what the question was; hence they were silent, curious as to the end of the conversation.

"She is in prison against the will of Caesar and through thy error, through thy ignorance of the law of nations," said Petronius, with emphasis. "Thou art a naive man, Tigellinus; but even thou wilt not assert that she burnt Rome, and if thou wert to do so, Caesar would not believe thee."

But Nero had recovered and begun to half close his near-sighted eyes with an expression of indescribable malice.

"Petronius is right," said he, after a while.

Tigellinus looked at him with amazement.

"Petronius is right," repeated Nero; "to-morrow the gates of the prison will be open to her, and of the marriage feast we will speak the day after at the amphitheatre."

"I have lost again," thought Petronius.

When he had returned home, he was so certain that the end of Lygia's life had come that he sent a trusty freedman to the amphitheatre to bargain with the chief of the spoliarium for the delivery of her body, since he wished to give it to Vinicius.