"Lateranus," said the Prætorian to his friend, as they sat together after dinner, "did you notice the face of the girl who was taking leave of our friend Fannius when we first espied him this afternoon?"
"Yes, indeed, I did," said the Consul elect; "it was a face that no one could help noticing, and having once seen, could hardly forget."
"That is exactly as it struck me; and I am sure that I have seen it before; and not so very long ago. But where? That puzzles me. Now and then I seem to have it, but then it slips away again. Depend upon it, she is no ordinary woman. Very beautiful she is, but somehow it is not the beauty, but the resolute strength of her face that impresses one. And what did the man mean when he said that she 'thought about other things.' I have a sort of presentiment that she will help us."
"You surprise me," said Lateranus. "And yet—"
At this point he was interrupted by the appearance of a slave who announced the arrival of the expected guest.
For some time the conversation was general, Fannius taking his part in it with an ease and readiness that surprised Lateranus, and even exceeded the expectations of his old friend and landlord. It naturally turned, before very long, on the details of life in the "gladiators' school." Fannius explained that he had only a few more weeks to serve. After the next show, which was to take place in September, he would be entitled to his discharge. He had been extraordinarily successful in his profession, and the "golden youth" of Rome, who had backed him against competitors, and won not a little by his victories, had made him liberal presents. "You have always taken a kind interest in my fortunes," he said to Subrius, "and I am not afraid of worrying you with these matters. If I live to receive the wooden sword, I shall have a comfortable independence. But who knows what may happen? a gladiator, least of all. You know, sir, the proverb about the pitcher and the fountain. And that reminds me of a little service that I have been thinking of asking you to do for me. I should even have ventured to call, if you had not been kind enough to come. I want you to take charge of what I have been able to save. I should have made a will, and asked you to do me the service of seeing its provisions carried out in case of need, but I feel doubtful whether, situated as I am, I can make a will that would be valid. What I will ask you to do, then, will be this, to take charge of my property now, and if anything should happen to me, to distribute it according to the directions contained in this paper."
"Very good," replied Subrius. "The gods forbid that there should arise any need for my services, but, if there should, you may be sure that I will not fail in my duty as your friend."
"Many thanks, sir," said Fannius, producing some papers from his pocket. "These are acknowledgments from Cassius, the banker, of deposits which I have made with him. Thras has charge of what I possess in coin, and will have instructions to hand it over to you. And here is the paper of directions. Will you please to read it? Is it quite plain?"
"Perfectly so," answered the Tribune. "But there is one question which I must take the liberty of asking. You mention a certain Epicharis. Who is she? Where am I to look for her?"
"She lives with her aunt by marriage. Galla is the aunt's name, and she cultivates a little farm on this side of Gabii. Any one there will direct you to it. She is the young woman whom you saw speaking to me this afternoon."
"I guessed as much," said Subrius, "and I have been puzzling myself ever since trying to make sure whether I had seen her before."
"That you might very easily have done," replied the gladiator. "She was much with the Empress Octavia. Indeed, she was her foster-sister."
"Ah!" cried Subrius; "that accounts for it. Now I remember all about it. I was on guard in the Palace with my cohort on the day when the Empress Octavia was sent away to Campania. My men were lining the stairs as the Empress came down. The poor Empress was almost fainting. Two of her women were supporting her, one on each side. I remember how much struck I was with the look of one of them, far more Imperial, I thought, than that of the unhappy creature she was holding up. 'That is a woman,' I said to myself, 'whom no man will wrong with impunity!' It was not a face to be forgotten. I remembered it at once when I saw it this afternoon; but I could not fix the time and place. Now you have enlightened me."
"Yes, yes," said Fannius, "you are right; she was with the Empress then; indeed, she remained with her till her death. Oh! sir, it is a piteous story that she tells. But perhaps I had better not speak about those things."
"Speak on without fear," replied the Prætorian. "I am one of the Emperor's soldiers, and my friend here has received the honour of the Consulship from him; but we have not therefore ceased to be Romans and men. Whatever you may tell us will be safely kept—"
The speaker paused, and then added in a deliberate and meaning tone, "As long as it may be necessary to keep it."
The gladiator cast a quick glance at him, and resumed. "Well, Epicharis was with her mistress from the unlucky day when she was carried across the threshold of her husband's house, down to the very end. They were both children then, only twelve years of age, and the poor Empress was really never anything else. But Epicharis soon learnt to be a woman. From almost the first she had to protect her mistress. Nero never loved his wife. Epicharis says she was too good for him, or, indeed, for almost any man; that she ought to have had a philosopher or a priest for her husband."
"I don't know that philosophers or priests are better than other men," interrupted Subrius; "but go on."
"Well, as I said, Nero never loved her, but, for a time, he was decently civil to her. Then her brother died, was—"
"Was poisoned, you were going to say," said Subrius. "That is no secret. Everybody in Rome knows it."
"Epicharis tells me that the Empress never shed a tear. She had learnt to hide her feelings, as children do when they are afraid of their elders. Then the Empress-mother came by her end. As long as she was alive the wife's lot was tolerable. But after that—oh! gentlemen, I could not bring myself to say a tenth of the things that I have heard. They are too dreadful. The poorest, unhappiest woman had not so much to bear. I used to think when I was a boy that the fine ladies who lived in great houses, and were dressed in gay silks, and rode about in soft cushioned carriages, must be happy; but now that I have had a look at what goes on behind palace walls, I don't think so any more. Then came what you saw, sir, on the palace stairs. It is no wonder that the poor Empress should look miserable after what she had gone through in those days, seeing, for instance, her slave-girls tortured in the hope that something might be wrung out of them against her. Epicharis herself they did not touch; she was free, you see; but they threatened her. I warrant they got nothing by that. She has a tongue, and knows how to use it. She let that monster Tigellinus know what she thought of him, and his master too. She has told me that she saw the Emperor wince once and again at the answers she made. Then Octavia was sent away. It was a great relief to go; to be away from the dreadful palace. She ran about the gardens and grounds of the villa,—it was to Burrus' house near Misenum, you will remember, she was sent,—and made friends with the little children; in fact, she was happier than she had ever been in her life before. 'Now that I am out of their way, and do not interfere with their plans, they will let me alone, and, perhaps, forget me.' This is what she would say to Epicharis. 'I am sure that I don't want to marry again, and you had better follow my example, dear sister,'—she would often call Epicharis 'sister.' 'Husbands seem very strange creatures, so difficult to please, and always imagining such strange things about one. You and I will live together for the rest of our lives, and take care of the poor people. It really is much nicer than Rome, which, you know, I never really liked.' So she would go on. She did not seem to have any fears, the relief of being free after eight years' slavery—for really her life was nothing else—was so great. But Epicharis never deceived herself, though she had not the heart to undeceive her mistress. Indeed, what would have been the good? The poor woman was fast in the toils, and the hunters were sure to come. But it was of no use to tell her so, and make her miserable before the time. But, as I said, Epicharis was clever enough to know what the end must be. She was sure that Nero would never let Octavia alone."
"No," said Subrius; "he had wronged her far too deeply ever to be able to forgive."
"Just so," observed Lateranus; "and if he could have done it there was Poppæa, and a woman never spares a rival, especially a rival who is better than herself. Besides he dared not let his divorced wife live. You see she was the daughter of Claudius, and her husband, supposing that she had married again, would have been dangerously near the throne. And then the people loved her; that was even more against her than anything else."
"That is exactly what Epicharis thought, so she has often told me. After a few days came news that there had been great disturbances in Rome; that the people had stood up like one man in the Circus, and shouted out to the Emperor, 'Give us back Octavia!' and that Nero had annulled the divorce. Some of the poor woman's attendants were in high spirits. You see they did not like Campania and a quiet country house as much as their mistress did. 'Now,' they said, 'we shall get back to Rome; after all, a palace is better than a villa.' Next day the news was more exciting than ever. There had been a great demonstration all over Rome as soon as it was known that the divorce had been cancelled, and that Octavia was Empress again. The people had crowded into the capital and returned thanks in the temples. Poppæa's image had been thrown down, and Octavia's covered with flowers and set up in the public places. The Empress' women, foolish creatures that they were, were more delighted than ever. 'Now,' they said, 'we shall be going back to Rome in triumph.' But Epicharis knew better; she was quite sure that this was only the beginning of the end. And, as you know, gentlemen, she was right; before the end of another week the soldiers had come from Rome."
"Ah!" said Subrius, "a lucky fever-fit saved me from being sent on that errand. My cohort had been detailed for the duty; the sealed orders, which I was not to open till I reached the villa, had been handed to me; and then at the last moment, when I was racking my brain, thinking how I could possibly get off, there fortunately came this attack. I never had thought before that I should be positively glad to have the ague."
"Well, sir, from what Epicharis has told me, you were spared one of the most pitiable sights that human eyes ever saw. Octavia was sitting in the garden when the Tribune came up and saluted her. She gave him her hand to kiss. 'I suppose you have come to take me back to Rome,' she said. 'Well, I am sorry to leave this beautiful place; but if my husband and the people really want me, I am willing to come. Can you give me till to-morrow to get ready?' The Tribune turned away. Epicharis says that she saw him brush his hand over his eyes."
"Well," interrupted the Prætorian, "it must have been something to make that brute Severus—for he was on duty in my place, I remember—shed a tear."
" ' Madam,' said the Tribune, 'you mistake. We have come on another business. You are not to return to Rome. We are to take you to Pandataria.' 'Pandataria!' cried the poor child, roused to anger, as even the gentlest will sometimes be; 'but that is a place for wicked people. I have done nothing wrong; else why should the Emperor have made me his wife again!' 'Madam,' said the Tribune, 'I have to obey my orders.' After that she said nothing more. After all, she was a little relieved that she was not to return to Rome, and she did not know what going to Pandataria really meant. Well, that very night she was hurried off; only one attendant was allowed her. Tigellinus, I fancy, had forgotten that Epicharis, whom he had plenty of reason to distrust and hate, was with her. Anyhow he had given no directions to the Tribune, and the Tribune was not disposed to go beyond his orders in making the poor banished woman unhappy. So Epicharis went. The island, she told me, was a wretched place; as to the house, it was almost in ruins. The shepherd who looks after the few sheep, which are almost the only creatures on the island, said that scarcely anything had been done to it since the Princess Julia left it, and that must have been nearly sixty years before. However, she seemed to reconcile herself to the place easily enough. It was her delight to wander about on the shore, picking up shells and seaweeds. Such things pleased her as they please a child, Poor creature! she had not time to get tired of it. In the course of about fourteen or fifteen days a ship came with some soldiers on board—"
"They told us in Rome," said Subrius, "that she was killed by falling from a cliff, and possibly had thrown herself off."
"Epicharis tells a very different story. When the Empress saw the soldiers, she said in a very cheerful voice—you see she had not the least idea that her life was in danger, and Epicharis had never had the heart to tell her,—'Well, gentlemen, what is your business this time? Where are you going to take me now? I must confess that I liked Misenum better than this.' 'Madam,' said the Centurion in command, 'with your permission I will explain my business when I get to the house, if you will be pleased to return thither.' He said this, you see, to gain time. On the way back he contrived to whisper into Epicharis' ear what his errand really was. She knew it already well enough, you may be sure. 'You must break it to her,' he said. That was an awful thing for the poor girl to do. She is not of the tearful sort,—you know; but she sobbed and wept as if her heart would break, when she told me the story. The Empress went up to her bed-chamber to make some little change in her dress. As she was sitting before the glass, Epicharis came and put her arms round her neck. The Empress turned round a little surprised. You see she would often kiss and embrace her foster-sister, but it was always she that began the caress and the other that returned it. 'What ails you, darling?' she said, for Epicharis' eyes were full of tears. 'O dearest lady, I cannot help crying when I think that we shall have to part!' 'Surely,' said the Empress, 'they are not going to be so cruel as to take you away from me. I will write to the Emperor about it; he can't refuse me this little favour.' 'O lady,' said Epicharis, who was in despair what to say,—how could one break a thing of this sort?—he will grant you nothing, not even another day.' 'What do you mean?' said Octavia, for she did not yet understand. 'O lady,' she cried, 'these soldiers are come—' and she put into her look the meaning that she could not put into words. 'What!' cried the poor woman, her voice rising into a shrill scream, 'do you mean that they are come to kill me?' and she started up from her chair. Epicharis has told me that the sight of her face, ghastly pale, with the eyes wide open with fear, haunts her night and day. 'Oh, I cannot die! I cannot die!' she cried out. 'I am so young. Can't you hide me somewhere?' 'O dearest lady!' said Epicharis, 'I would die to save you. But there is no way. Only we can die together.' Then she took out of her robe two poniards, which she always carried about in case they should be wanted in this way. 'Let me show you. Strike just as you see me strike. After all it hurts very little, and it will all be over in a moment.' 'No, no, no!' screamed the unhappy lady, 'take the dreadful things away. I cannot bear to look at them. I will go and beg the soldiers to have mercy.' And she flew out of the room to where the Centurion was standing with his men in the hall. She threw herself at the man's feet—it was a most pitiable thing to see, Epicharis said when she told me the story—and begged for mercy. Poor thing, she clung to life, though the gods know she had had very little to make her love it. The Centurion was unmoved,—as for some of the common soldiers, they were half disposed to rebel,—and said nothing but, 'Madam, I have my orders.' 'But the Emperor must have forgotten,' she cried out; 'I am not Empress now, I am only a poor widow, and almost his sister.' Then again, 'Oh, why does Agrippina let him do it?' seeming to forget in her terror that Agrippina was dead. After this had gone on for some time, the officer said to one of his men, 'Bind her, and put a gag in her mouth.' Epicharis saw one or two of the men put their hands to their swords when they heard the order given. But it was useless to think of resisting or disobeying. They bound her hand and foot, and gagged her, and then carried her into the house. They had brought a slave with them who knew some thing about surgery. This man opened the great artery in each arm, but somehow the blood did not flow. 'It is fairly frozen with fear,' Epicharis heard him say to the Centurion. Then the two whispered together, and after a while the men carried the poor woman into the bath-room. Epicharis was not allowed to go with her; but she heard that she was suffocated with the hot steam, and that, as far as any one knew, she never came to herself again. That, anyhow, is something to be thankful for."
"They told a story in Rome," said Lateranus, "that the head was brought to Poppæa. Do you think that it is true? Did Epicharis ever say anything about it to you?"
"No," replied Fannius; "she never knew what became of the body. She was never allowed to see it; it was burnt that night, she was told."
"And so this is the true story of Octavia," said Subrius after a pause. "You remember, Lateranus, there was a great thanksgiving for the Emperor's deliverance from dangerous enemies, and the enemy was this poor girl. Why don't the gods, if they indeed exist (which I sometimes doubt), rain down their thunderbolts upon those who mock them with these blasphemous pretences?"
"Verily," cried Lateranus, "if they had been so minded Rome would have been burnt up long ago. Have you not observed that we are particularly earnest in thanking heaven when some more than usually atrocious villainy has been perpetrated?"
The gladiator looked with a continually increasing astonishment on the two men who used language of such unaccustomed freedom. Subrius thought it time to make another step in advance.
"As you have taken us into your confidence," he said, "about the contents of your will, you will not mind my asking you a question about these matters."
"Certainly not," answered the man. "You need not be afraid of offending me."
"If things go well with you, as there is every hope of their doing, and you get your discharge all right, what do you look forward to?"
The gladiator shifted his position two or three times uneasily, and made what seemed an attempt to speak, but did not succeed in uttering a word.
"If Epicharis does not become your legatee, as I sincerely hope she may not, is she to have no interest in your money?"
"Ah, sir, she will make no promises, or rather, she talks so wildly that she might as well say nothing at all."
"What do you mean?"
"I may trust you, gentlemen, for I am putting her life as well as my own in your hands?"
"Speak on boldly. Surely we have both of us said enough this evening to bring our necks into danger, if you chose to inform against us. We are all sailing in the same ship."
"It is true. I ought not to have doubted. Well, what she says to me is this, 'Avenge my dear mistress on those who murdered her, and then ask me what you please.' She won't hear of anything else. I have asked her what I could do, a simple gladiator, who has not even the power to go hither or thither as he pleases. She has only one answer, 'Avenge Octavia!' "
"It is not so hopeless as you think. There are many who hold that Octavia should be avenged, aye, and others besides Octavia. We are biding our time, and there are many things that seem to show that it is not far off. You will be with us then, Fannius?"
"Certainly," said the gladiator. "I want to hear nothing more; the fewer names I know, the better, for then I cannot possibly betray them. Only give me the word, and I follow. But how about Epicharis?" he went on; "is she to hear anything?"
"I don't like letting women into a secret," said Lateranus.
"Nor I," said Subrius, "as a rule; but if there is any truth in faces, this particular woman will keep a secret and hold to a purpose better than most of us. Shall we leave it to Fannius' discretion?"
To this Lateranus agreed.
After some more conversation the gladiator rose to take his leave. A minute or so afterwards he returned to the room. "Gentlemen," he said, "there is a great fire to be seen from a window in the passage, and from what I can see it must be in the Circus, or, anyhow, very near it."