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

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”-St. Matthew XX.

A tumult amongst the people?

Aye! it was here now fully aroused.  The praefect of Rome was popular with the plebs.  His action in the arena had called forth unbounded enthusiasm.  When he fell rolling into the sand, with the black panther snarling above him, his steel-like grip warding for the moment the brute’s jaws from off his throat, the people broke out into regular frenzy.

“The praefect! the praefect!” they shouted.

Men climbed down along the gradients leaping over other men, determined to jump down twelve feet into the arena in order to rescue the praefect from the jaws of the ferocious beast.

But above in the imperial tribune the Caesar sat snarling like the panther and rubbing his hands with glee.  His trap had been over-successful, one by one the arch-traitors fell headlong into it.  First Hortensius Martius, that young fool!  What mattered if he had escaped from a ravenous panther?  The claws of a vengeful Caesar were sharper far than those of any beast of the desert.

And now Taurus Antinor! the praefect of Rome! the man of silence and of integrity! the idol of the people, the scorner of Caesar’s godhead.  Vague rumour had reached Caligula of the praefect’s strange sayings, his refusal to enter the temples and to sacrifice to the gods.  People said that the Anglicanus worshipped one who claimed to be greater than Caesar and all the deities of Rome.

Well, so be it!  There he lay now in the dust, a huddled mass of man and beast, the sand of the arena reddened with his blood.  Caligula screamed like the rest of his people, but his cry was: 

“Habet!  Habet!  Habet!” And in a frenzy of rage and hate his thumb pointed downwards, downwards, as if it were a dagger which he could plunge into the Anglicanus’ throat.

But the city guard were the first to break their bounds.  Even whilst the imperial madman exulted and shrieked forth his murderous “Habet!” they had rushed to the rescue of their praefect.

The powerful grasp on the panther’s throat was on the point of relaxing; the brute was digging its claws in the shoulders of the fallen man, and he, feeling faint with loss of blood, looked upon death as it stared down at him from the beast’s golden eyes, and all that he was conscious of was the feeling that death was good.

When the city guard rushed to his rescue, and by dint of numbers and strength of steel tore the ferocious creature from the body of its prey, Taurus Antinor lay a while half conscious.  He heard the cry of the people round him, he felt a shower of sweet-scented petals fall upon him from above, he heard the last dying roar of the panther and a scream of rage from the imperial tribune.

Then the din became deafening:  the trampling of feet, the rushing hither and thither, the cries, the imprecations, and from beneath the tribunes in their distant prisons, the roar of caged beasts like the far-off rumbling of thunder.

Taurus Antinor raised himself on his knees.  Both his shoulders had been lacerated by the panther; he was bleeding from several wounds about the legs and arms, and his whole body felt bruised and stiff.

But he struggled to his feet, and now, leaning against a large tree trunk which had formed part of the setting of the scene, he tried to take in every detail of what was going on around him.  There was, of course, a great deal of shouting and a general stampede in the tribunes of the plebs.  In the midst of this shouting, which buzzed incessantly like the war of a great cataract, two cries resounded very distinctly above all the others.

Thousands of people were shouting: 

“Hail to the praefect!  Hail to the god of valour and of strength!  Hail!  Taurus Antinor, hail!”

Whilst others cried more dully, yet equally distinctly: 

“Death to the tyrant!  Death to the madman!  Death to Caesar!  Death!”

That he himself was for the moment the object of enthusiasm of this irresponsible crowd, he could not doubt for an instant.  That this same irresponsible enthusiasm was leading the crowd to treachery and rebellion was equally certain.

The city guard egged on by the people had forced open the heavy iron gates through which Hortensius Martius had passed a while ago, and which led up the marble steps straight to the imperial tribune.

Taurus Antinor looking up now saw the Caesar standing pale and trembling, surrounded by his standard bearers, whose attitude seemed strangely irresolute.  The Augustas were clinging together in obvious terror, their heads were pressed close to one another, and the jewels in their hair formed a curious shimmering mass of diamonds and rubies which caught the rays of the sun and threw back blinding sparks of prismatic colours.  Dea Flavia was not near them.  She was standing alone up against the dividing wall of the tribune, and leaning back against it, with eyes closed, and hand pressed against her heart.

All this did Taurus Antinor see, and also that Hortensius Martius, still deathly pale and trembling in every limb, had succeeded in making his way from the arcade where he had found safety, back to the patricians’ tribune amongst his friends.

He was standing now in the midst of a compact group composed of those men who had been present two days ago at the banquet in Caius Nepos’ house.  They stood close to one another whispering eagerly amongst themselves.  Hortensius Martius was obviously their chief centre of interest, and young Escanes held his hand concealed within the folds of his tunic.

And Taurus Antinor no longer paused to think.  He had forgotten his lacerated shoulder and his bleeding limbs; even the horrors of the past quarter of an hour had faded from his mind.  All that he saw was that murder and treachery were walking hand in hand, and that the murder of the insane Caesar now would mean the death of thousands of innocent victims later on, that it would mean civil strife, and uncountable misery.  And all that he heard was the voice of Him Who had bidden him to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, namely his allegiance, his fealty, his life.

The city guard loved him and knew his voice.  He had no trouble in inducing the men to let him pass through their ranks and to mount the steps before them which led to the imperial tribune.  They let him pass perhaps because they thought that their praefect would wish to take his revenge with his own hands.  The gods themselves would have placed a poisoned dagger in the hand of him who had been so ruthlessly exposed to a most horrible death.

And as Taurus Antinor’s massive figure was seen to mount the steps, the audience broke into cheers.

“Hail Taurus Antinor! the god of valour and of strength!”

Whilst more ominous than before came that other cry:  “Death to the tyrant!  Death to the Caesar!  Death!”

And whilst the city guard followed closely on the footsteps of their praefect, and men among the crowd prepared for the inevitable fight which they foresaw, the women and those who were feeble and pacific waved fans and cloaks about and threw dead roses across the arena, till the whole place seemed like a great pageant of many-coloured flags, over which the midday sun had thrown its veil of gold.

When Taurus Antinor reached the topmost step Caligula caught sight of him, and the intensity of his rage was such that his cheeks turned livid and blotchy and hoarse inarticulate sounds escaped his panting throat.

Even at this same moment the group composed of Escanes and the others seemed to sway in a mass toward the tribune of the Caesar.  They appeared to be consulting Hortensius Martius who had nodded encouragingly.  Young Escanes was in the very centre of the group now, his hand was still hidden in the folds of his tunic and the look in his face told Taurus Antinor all that there was to fear.

At his feet as he stepped into the tribune lay his own cloak which he had discarded when first his instinct had prompted him to run to Hortensius’ aid.  Now he picked it up.  It was of dark-coloured stuff, unadorned with the usual insignia of dignity and rank.  With it in his hand he ran quickly toward the Caesar.

Caligula saw him coming towards him, his yellow teeth were chattering in his mouth, he stood there palsied with fear, a prey to a deadly feeling of hate and to one of abject terror.

Even as Taurus Antinor, with a quick gesture, threw his own cloak round the shoulders of the Caesar and whispered hurriedly: 

“Let your praetorian guard escort you quickly to your palace, gracious lord-your life is in danger from the people, and....”

“In danger at thy hands, thou infamous traitor,” broke in Caligula with a maniacal yell of rage; “take this then, in remembrance of the Caesar whom thou hast betrayed!”

And quick as lightning the madman drew a short poniard from beneath his robe, and, uttering a final snarl of satisfied hate and revenge, he plunged the dagger in Taurus Antinor’s breast.

Then he snatched the cloak from him, and, wrapping it quickly over his head and shoulders, he called wildly to his guard and fled incontinently from the spot.