Read CHAPTER IX of "Unto Caesar", free online book, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, on ReadCentral.com.

“There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.”-Proverbs XXV.

He had exchanged his embroidered tunic for a gorgeous synthesis of crimson embroidered with gold, which set off to perfection the somewhat barbaric splendour of his personality, and as he stood there massive and erect, beneath the gilded beams of Caius Nepos’ dining-hall, with the slaves at his feet undoing the strings of his shoes, he looked every inch the ruler for whom all these men here were blindly and senselessly seeking.

His deep-set eyes beneath that stern frown had swept quickly over the assembly as he entered, and though now comparative order had been restored and a semblance of calm reigned around the table, Taurus Antinor did not fail to note the flushed faces and glowing eyes, the broken goblets, and stained and tattered cloths which gave ugly evidence of the riotous orgy that had gone before.

But though forty pairs of eyes were fixed upon his face, none could boast that they had perceived any change in its somewhat severe impassiveness as he now advanced towards his host.

“Greeting to thee, O Caius Nepos!” he said.  “I crave thy pardon for my late coming, but I had other duties to which to attend.”

“Duties?” said Caius Nepos lightly; “nay, Taurus Antinor, there are just now duties so high and sacred that others must of necessity stand aside for these!  But of this more anon.  Wilt rest now and partake of wine?”

“I thank thee, good Caius,” replied the praefect, “but I have supped, and only came at thy bidding, because thou didst say that affairs of State would claim our attention this night.”

To all those present he gave courteous if not very hearty greeting.  Then did his glance encounter that of Hortensius Martius who alone had said no word or made a movement to welcome him.

There was a vacant place beside young Hortensius, and Taurus Antinor took it, but he did not lie along the cushions as the others did but half sat, half leaned on the couch, and turning to the young man said simply: 

“I give thee greeting, O Hortensius!  I had no thought of meeting thee here.”

“I told thee yesterday that I would be present,” said the other curtly.

“I remember now and am proud and honoured to sit by thy side; wilt pledge me in a goblet of wine?”

He had forced his rough voice to tones of gentleness.  Hortensius Martius raised his glowering eyes with some curiosity on his face.

But a day and a night had elapsed since his life had lain wholly at the mercy of this powerful giant whom he had insulted, and who had been on the point of punishing that insult with death.

Young Hortensius, held aloft in the mighty grip of the praefect twenty feet above the flagstones of the Forum, seeing a hideous death waiting for him below, did not even now realise how it came to pass that-when he recovered from the swoon into which horror and fear had thrown him-he found himself being tended by an old woman, and anon delivered safe and sound into the keeping of his slaves; he had entered his litter and been borne to his home still marvelling, but of the praefect of Rome he had not since then seen a trace.

He had questioned his slaves who swore that from the arcades of the tabernae, where they had been waiting, they had seen nothing of what went on around the rostra.  Hortensius knew that they lied, they must have seen something of the quarrel; they must have seen him being carried like a recalcitrant child up to the top of the highest rostrum, and threatened with awful punishment by the very man whom he had affected to despise.  They must also have seen the praefect relenting, carrying him down again, content apparently with the fright which he had given him.

His slaves must have been witnesses to his humiliation, and now were afraid to tell him what they had seen; and for the first time in his life Hortensius Martius felt a wave of cruelty pass over him, in an insensate desire to make the slaves speak under pressure of torture.

At the time he was ashamed to seem too eager and had forborne to question further.  But he allowed his humiliation to breed the quick-growing weed of hate.  When first the name of Taurus Antinor was mentioned he realised how that weed had grown apace, and now that he sat beside him, and felt the inquisitive eyes of his host fixed with ill-concealed mockery upon him, he knew in his innermost heart that after this day there would no longer be room in the city of Rome for himself as well as for this man who had vanquished and humiliated him.

For the moment, however, he did not care to proclaim before all these men the hatred which he felt for Taurus Antinor.  Thoughts of supreme grandeur were coursing through his brain.  He knew that no one stood so high in Dea Flavia’s graces as he himself had done this year past, and that no one was so like to win her for wife, since she had in her own proud and aloof way already accepted his respectful wooing.

Therefore, putting a rein upon his jealousy and upon his unruly tongue, he took up a goblet and responded to the pledge of the man whom he hated.  But whilst Antinor drained the crystal cup to the dregs young Hortensius scarcely wetted his lips, and pretending to drink deeply, he kept his eyes fixed upon the praefect of Rome.

It seemed to him as if he had never really seen him before, so sharp are the eyes of hate that they see much that is usually hidden to those of indifference.  Young Hortensius, over the edge of his goblet, embraced with a steady glance the whole person of his enemy-the massive frame, the strong limbs, the hands and feet slender and strong.  He looked straight into those deep-set eyes over which a perpetual frown always cast a shadow, and saw that they were of an intense shade of blue and with a strange look in them of kindliness and of peace, which belied the stern fierceness of the face and the wilful obstinacy of the massive jaw.

But now Caius Nepos began to speak.  Taking the advice of Marcus Ancyrus the elder, he spoke vaguely, trying to probe the thoughts that lay hidden behind the Anglicanus’ furrowed brow.  He had received advice, he said that the Caesar was tired of government and wished to spend some quiet days in the Palace of Tiberius, on the island of Capraea; all this cleverly interwoven with sighs of hope as to what a happier future might bring if the Empire were rid-quite peaceably, of course-of the tyranny of a semi-brutish despot.

Then, as Taurus Antinor made no comment on his peroration, he recalled in impassioned language all that Rome had witnessed in the past three years of depravity, of turpitude, of senseless and maniacal orgies and of bestial cruelty, all perpetrated by the one man to whom blind Fate had given supreme power.

“And to whom, alas!” said Taurus Antinor in calm response to the glowing speech, “we have all of us here sworn loyalty and obedience.”

There was silence after this.  Despite the lingering fumes of wine that obscured the brain, everyone felt that with these few words the praefect of Rome had already given an answer, and that nothing that could be said after this would have the power of making him alter his decision.  But Marcus Ancyrus, conscious of his own powers of diplomacy, took up the thread of his host’s peroration.

“Aye! but we should be obeying him,” he said simply, “if we accept his abdication.”

“There is no disloyalty,” asserted Escanes, “in rejoicing at such an issue, if the Caesar himself doth will it so.”

“None,” admitted the praefect; “but there would be grave difficulty in choosing a successor.”

“To this,” said the host, “we have given grave consideration.”

“Indeed!”

“And have come to a decision which we all think would best serve the welfare of the State.”

“May I hear this decision?”

“It means just this, O praefect! that since the sceptre of Caesar must, if possible, remain in the House of Caesar, and since no man of that House is worthy to wield it, we would ask the Augusta Dea Flavia to take to herself a lord and husband, on whom, by virtue of his marriage, the imperium would rest for his life, and after his death fall on the direct descendant of great Augustus himself.”

Taurus Antinor had not made a sign whilst Caius Nepos thus briefly put before him the main outline of the daring project, and Hortensius Martius, who was watching him closely, could not detect the slightest change in the earnest face even when Dea Flavia’s name was spoken.  Now, when Nepos paused as if waiting for comment, Antinor said gravely: 

“Ye must pardon me, but I am a stranger to the social life in Rome.  Will you tell me who this man is whom the Augusta will so highly favour?”

“Nay, as to that,” said Caius Nepos, “we none of us know it as yet!  Dea Flavia has smiled on many, but up to now hath made no choice.”

“Then ’tis to an unknown man ye would all pledge your loyalty?”

“Unknown, yet vaguely guessed at, O praefect,” here broke in Escanes, with his usual breezy cheerfulness; “we all feel that Dea Flavia’s choice can but fall on an honourable man.”

“Thou speakest truly,” rejoined Taurus Antinor earnestly; “but I fear me that for the present your schemes are too vague.  The Augusta hath made no choice of a husband as yet, and the Caesar is still your chosen lord.”

“A brutish madman, who -”

“You chose him -”

“Since then he hath become a besotted despot.”

“Still your Emperor-to whom you owe your dignities, your power, your rank -”

“Thou dost defend him warmly, O praefect of Rome,” suddenly interposed Hortensius Martius who had followed every phase of the discussion with heated brow and eyes alert and glowing.  “Thou art ready to continue this life of submission to a maniacal tyrant, to a semi-bestial mountebank -”

“The life which I lead is of mine own making,” rejoined Taurus Antinor proudly; “the life ye lead is the one ye have chosen.”

And with significant glance his dark eyes took in every detail of the disordered room-the littered table, the luxurious couches, the numberless empty dishes and broken goblets as well as the flushed faces and the trembling hands, and involuntarily, perhaps, a look of harsh contempt spread over his face.

Hortensius caught the look and winced under it; the words that had accompanied it had struck him as with a lash, and further whipped up his already violent rage.

“And,” he retorted with an evil sneer, “to the Caesar thou wilt render homage even in his most degraded orgies, and wilt lick the dust from off his shoes when he hath kicked thee in the mouth.”

Slowly Taurus Antinor turned to him, and Hortensius Martius appeared just then so like a naughty child, that the look of harshness died out of the praefect’s eyes, and a smile almost of amusement, certainly of indulgence, lit up for a moment the habitual sternness of his face.

“Loyalty to Caesar,” he said simply, “doth not mean obsequiousness, as all Roman patricians should know, oh Hortensius!”

“Aye! but meseems,” rejoined the young man, whose voice had become harsher and more loud as that of Taurus Antinor became more subdued and low, “meseems that at the cost of thy manhood thou at least art prepared to render unto Caesar -”

But even as these words escaped his lips the praefect, with a quick peremptory gesture, placed one slim, strong hand on Hortensius’ wrist.

It seemed as if in a moment-and because of those words-a strange power had gone forth from the soul within right down to the tips of the slender fingers that closed on those of the younger man with a grip of steel.

He had raised himself wholly upright on the couch, his massive figure, in the gorgeous crimson tunic, standing out clear and trenchant against the shadowy whiteness of the marble walls behind him.  His head, with the ruddy mass of hair on which the flickering lamps threw brilliant, golden lights, was thrown back, and the eyes, deep, intent, and glowing with unrevealed ardour, looked straight out before him into the shadows.

“Render unto Caesar,” he said slowly, “the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

His voice was low and unmodulated, as of one who repeats something that he has heard before, whilst the eyes suddenly shone as if with a fleeting memory of an exquisite vision.

The action, the words, were but momentary, but for that brief moment the angry retort was checked on Hortensius’ lips, even as were the sneers and the bibulous scowls on the faces of those around.  Taurus Antinor, towering above them all, and imbued with a strange dignity, seemed to be gazing into a space beyond the walls of the gorgeous dining-hall; into a space hidden from their understanding but peopled with the sweet memory of a sacred past.  And even as he gazed a strange spell fell over these voluptuaries; a spell which they were unable to withstand.  Whilst it lasted every ribald word was stilled and every drunken oath lulled to silence.  The very air seemed hushed and only from a bunch of dying roses the withered petals were heard to fall one by one.

Then the grasp on Hortensius’ wrist relaxed, the dark head was lowered, the falling lids once more hid the mysterious radiance of the eyes.  The spell was broken as Taurus Antinor resumed quietly: 

“The Caesar,” he said, “hath not yet abdicated; he is still our chosen ruler and Emperor.  To speak of his successor now savours of treachery and -”

“And what thou sayest stinks of treachery,” broke in Hortensius Martius with redoubled wrath, and shaking himself free from the brief spell of superstitious awe which Antinor’s words and Antinor’s grip on his arm had momentarily cast over him.  “Hast come here, O praefect, but to spy on us, to probe our souls and use them for thine own selfish ends?”

“Silence, Hortensius!” admonished Ancyrus, the elder.

“Nay, I’ll not be silent!” retorted the young man, who seemed at last to have lost all control over his jealous passion.  His eyes, in which gleamed the fire of intense hate, swept from the face of his enemy to that of his friends whom they challenged.  His voice had become raucous and hoarse and his tongue refused him service, making his words sound inarticulate.

“Do ye not see,” he shouted, turning his flushed face toward the others, “do you not see how you are being fooled?  The praefect stands high in the Caesar’s favour, he has the Caesar’s ear -”

“Silence!” broke in in peremptory accents the voice of Caius Nepos, the host.

“Silence!” cried some of the younger men.

“No!  No!  I’ll shout!  I’ll shout!” persisted Hortensius with the crazy obstinacy of one whose mind is obscured with liquor and with passion, “I’ll shout until you understand.  Fools, I tell ye!  Fools are ye all!  You tell this man of your schemes, of your plans!  He listens blandly to you!...  You fools! you fools!  Not to have suspected ere this that his so-called loyalty to Caesar masks his treachery to us!”

He was kneeling now upon his couch, and with clenched hands was pounding against the cushions like an angry child.  The tumult became general; everyone was shouting.  Those who were nearest to this raving young maniac were trying to seize him, but he waved his arms about like the wings of a night bird, and anon he seized a goblet of heavy solid metal and struck out with it to the right and left of him, so that none dared come nigh.

But the praefect stood quietly beside him, with arms held very tightly across his mighty chest, his dark eyes fixed upon the raving figure on the couch.  No one had ventured to approach him, for the feeling of superstitious awe which he had aroused in them a while ago had not wholly died down, and now there was such a look of contempt and of wrath in his face that instinctively the most sober drew away from him, and those whose minds were obscured with wine looked upon him in ever growing terror.

Suddenly Hortensius, brandishing the heavy goblet, raised it high above his head, and with a drunken and desperate gesture he flung it in the direction of the praefect, but his hand had trembled and his arm was unsteady.  The goblet missed the head of Taurus Antinor and fell crashing along the marble-topped table, bringing a quantity of crystal down with it in its fall.

A few drops of the wine from the goblet had fallen on Taurus Antinor’s tunic, and from the parched throat of young Hortensius there rose a hoarse and immoderate laugh and a string of violent oaths.  But even before these had fully escaped his lips he saw the praefect’s dark face quite close to his own, and felt a grip as of a double vice of steel fastening on both his shoulders.

He knew the grip and had felt it before; no claw of desert beast was firmer or more unrelenting.  Young Hortensius felt his whole body give way, his very bones crack beneath that mighty grip.  His head, overheated with wine, fell back against the cushions of his couch, and he felt as if the last breath in him was leaving his enfeebled body.

“Thou art a fool indeed, Hortensius,” murmured a harsh voice close to his ear; “a fool to provoke a man beyond the power of his control.”

Then as at a word from the host, the other men-those who were steady on their feet-tried to interpose, Taurus Antinor turned his face to them.

“Have no fear,” he said quite calmly, “for this man.  He shall come to no harm.  Twice hath he insulted me and twice have I held his life in my hands.”

Then, as Hortensius uttered an involuntary cry of rage or of pain, Taurus Antinor spoke once more to him: 

“Thy life is in my hands yet will I not kill thee, even though I could do it with just the tightening of my fingers round thy throat.  But provoke me not a third time, O Hortensius, for I have in my possession a heavy-thonged whip, and this would I use on thee even as I order it to be used on the miscreant thieves that are brought to my tribunal.  So cross not my path again, dost understand?  I am but a man and have not an inexhaustible stock of patience.”

Whilst he spoke he still held young Hortensius down pinioned amongst the cushions.  No one interfered, for it had dawned on every blurred mind there that here lay a deeper cause for quarrel than mere political conflict.  Hortensius, though vanquished now, had been like a madman; his unprovoked insults had come from a heart overburdened with jealousy and with hate.  Now when the praefect relaxed his grip upon him, he lay for a while quite still, and anon Caius Nepos beckoned to his slaves, and they it was who ministered to him, bathing his forehead with water and holding lumps of ice to the palms of his hands.

Taurus Antinor had straightened out his tall figure.  For a moment he looked down with bitter scorn on the prostrate figure of his vanquished foe.  The awed silence which his strange words of a while ago had imposed upon the others, still hung upon them all.  They stood about in groups, whispering below their breath, and the slaves were huddled up one against the other in the distant corners of the room.  An air of mystery still hung over the magnificent triclinium, its convivial board, its abandoned couches, over the vases of murra and crystal and the fast dying roses.  It seemed as if some personality-great, majestic, divine-had passed through the marble hall and that the sound of sacred feet still echoed softly along its walls.

It almost seemed as if there clung a radiance in that shadowy corner where the eyes of an enthusiast had sought and found the memory of the Divine Teacher; and that in the fume-laden air there lingered the odour of the sacrifice offered by a rough, untutored heart to the Man Who had spoken unforgettable words seven years ago in Galilee.