The story which Pansa heard on his way was briefly this. Part of it we know already. An old comrade and antagonist had informed against him. The man had been vanquished by Fannius in the arena, and, what was a more deadly offence, had been detected by him in a fraudulent attempt to bring about a result that would have greatly profited some disreputable patrons. The arrest of Fannius had followed. But the malignant spite of his enemy had not been satisfied. He had induced the officer in charge of the business to thrust this particular prisoner into the most noisome dungeon in Rome.
Fannius had a great reputation for courage and skill in arms, and it was not difficult to make the officer believe, by dwelling on his lawless and violent temper, that he was a highly dangerous person. Accordingly, all other places of confinement being full, and even more than full, Fannius was thrust into the Tullianum, an underground cell, damp and fetid to a degree that made it almost intolerable. In fact, its original use had been as a place of execution rather than of confinement. In this King Jugurtha, after being led in triumph by his conqueror, had been left to starve. Here the profligate nobles who had conspired with Catiline against the Senate and people of Rome had been strangled by the hands of the public executioner. In fact, whether the executioner was there or no, imprisonment in this frightful dungeon, at least if continued for more than a few hours, was a sentence of death. So Fannius had found it. Though he had apparently recovered from the wounds received in his conflict with his savage antagonist, loss of blood and long confinement to his bed had really weakened him. On the third day of his imprisonment a malarial fever, due to the loathsome condition of the place, declared itself, and before forty-eight hours had passed his condition was desperate.
Happily he was not suffered to die in this miserable dungeon. His jailer was an old soldier, who would probably have viewed with indifference the sufferings of a civilian prisoner, but who had a soft spot in his heart for any one who had served under the eagles. The man sent for a physician, and the physician peremptorily ordered removal. "He can hardly live," he told the jailer, when he had examined his patient; "but a dry chamber and wholesome air might give him a chance." The jailer had him forthwith taken to his own house. This was technically considered to be part of the prison, so that he might plead that he was only transferring his charge from one cell to another, and one practically as safe, considering that the sick man could not so much as put a foot to the ground, and indeed was more than half unconscious.
The change of air and the careful nursing of the jailer's wife brought about a temporary amendment. Fannius recovered sufficient strength to be able to speak. Summoning his host, as he may be called, to his bedside, he whispered to him the names of two persons whom he particularly desired to see. One of them was Sisenna, an old comrade in arms, whom he was anxious to make executor of his will; the other was Epicharis.
Sisenna was at hand, and, as we have seen, was fetched without delay.
"You are a true friend," said Fannius to him, as he entered the room; "you are not afraid of coming to see a prisoner; a prisoner, too, charged with the most odious of crimes."
"Afraid! No," said the soldier energetically. "And as for crime, whatever they may say, I know that you are altogether incapable of it. But tell me, how can I serve you?" "I wish you," replied Fannius, "to undertake the charge of distributing what little property I shall leave behind me. Subrius the Tribune has the charge of it. It is but a trifle, some two hundred thousand sesterces in all; but I should like some people to know that I have not forgotten them. I shall make my will by word of mouth, for there is no time now for writing. All will be left to you without the mention of any trust; but what I want you to do with the money is this. Half of the money is to go to the freedwoman Epicharis, lately in the service of the Empress Octavia. She is living with her aunt, Galla by name, at the Farm of the Two Fountains near Gabii. Of the other half I wish you to keep twenty thousand sesterces for yourself; as to the remainder, I have to give you a charge which may prove to be somewhat troublesome. Inquire whether I have any kinsfolk on the mother's side—such as I have on the father's side, are, I know, fairly well-off—who are both deserving and in need. Divide the money among such as you may find to be so, exactly as you think fit. If there are none, then distribute it among the poor at your discretion."
"Nay, my friend," said the soldier; "but it is a formidable thing to be trusted in this way. How do you know that I am fit for it?"
"How do I know?" replied Fannius with a smile. "Why, just in the same way that you knew I could not commit a crime. Do not refuse. You are a soldier, and, therefore, they are less likely to dispute the will, which, as made by a prisoner, is of doubtful force."
"Let it be, then, as you will," said Sisenna.
"That is well," said the sick man. "We shall need seven witnesses. There is the jailer and his wife and son; let them send for four others, for you, of course, cannot serve."
The witnesses were easily found. The seven were made up of the three inmates of the house, three soldiers belonging to Sisenna's own company, and the temple servant, in whose house Pomponia had taken refuge. It so happened that this man was an old friend of the jailer.
The form of making the verbal or nuncupatory will, as it was called, was of the simplest and briefest kind. The testator simply said:—
"I, Caius Fannius, hereby nominate Marcus Sisenna, Centurion in the fourth Prætorian Cohort, as heir to my undivided property."
Immediately afterwards the will was reduced to writing and signed by the witnesses.
The whole of this business was finished about the seventh hour, or one o'clock in the afternoon. Just about sunset Epicharis arrived.
The physician had just paid his patient his evening visit, and was describing his condition to the jailer when Epicharis reached the house. She caught the sound of his voice through the door which happened to be ajar, and guessing from the first words that she heard who he was, and what was his errand in that house, stood in almost breathless suspense to listen. A rapid intuition told her that not to discover herself would be her best chance of knowing the whole truth. If he knew her relation to the sick man the physician would probably, after the fashion of his class, deceive her with some kindly meant misrepresentation of the truth.
"It is as I feared," said the old man. "The improvement of yesterday was a last flicker. They might as well strangle a man as throw him into that pit. Does he wish to see any one?"
The jailer told him that he made his will that morning, and that the woman to whom he was betrothed was coming. Would the excitement of seeing her harm him?
"Harm him!" cried the physician. "Nothing can harm him now. Let him have his will in everything. He can scarce live beyond sunrise to-morrow. I will see him again, though I can do no good. Now I have others to visit."
As he spoke the physician opened the door, and found himself face to face with the girl outside. What she had heard had equalled, even surpassed, her worst fears. That something was wrong, she had not doubted; else why should she have been sent for. Very likely there had been a relapse; he had been doing too much in Rome, and she would take him away again to country quiet and pure air, and nurse him back to health. And the girl, in the newly waked tenderness of her heart, remembered what a happy time the first nursing had been, the danger once over, and she took herself to task for a selfish wish that she might have the same delight again. And now to hear that the man she loved was within a few hours of his death. She stood, petrified with dismay, unable to speak or move.
The old physician at once guessed who she was. Assuming his set, professional smile, he said in as cheerful a tone as he could command, for, used as he was to suffering, his patient's case had touched him, "Ah, my dear girl, you have come, I suppose, to set our friend all right. You will find him a little low, and must be careful with him."
"Ah, sir," cried the girl, recovering her speech, "do not seek to deceive me. I heard all that you said, as I stood here."
The old man's manner changed at once to a grave kindliness. "You know it, then," he said. "You are a brave girl, I see; control yourself; you will have time for tears hereafter; now make his last hour as happy as you can. The gods comfort you!"
He pressed her hand with a friendly grasp, and hurried away, but it was long before he forgot the look of hopeless sorrow that was written on that beautiful face.
"I am Epicharis, whom you sent for," she said to the jailer's wife as she entered the room. "Stay," she went on, lifting up her hand as she spoke, "I know the whole truth. And now let me sit here a while and recover myself somewhat before I see him."
She sat down, and resolutely set herself to master the passion of grief that was struggling within for expression. A flood of tears would have been an inexpressible relief; but did she once give way to them, when could she recover her calm? Time was precious, and she must not risk losing it. By degrees she controlled herself, fighting down with success the dry, tearless sobs that for a time would rise in her breast. She consented, though loathing it in her heart, to drink the cup of wine which her hostess pressed upon her, and it certainly helped her in her struggle. In about half an hour's time she was calm enough to enter the sick man's chamber.
Fannius had fallen into a light sleep, but awoke as she came in. For a time, as will often happen in cases of weakness, he failed to collect his thoughts. He had been dreaming of past times, days in which Epicharis had been cold and disdainful, and the girl's real presence seemed only to carry on the visionary scene which sleep had conjured up before his eyes.
"Why does she come to torment me?" he said. "I had best forget her, if she cannot love me."
The girl's eyes filled with tears. It is hard to say which pained her more, the thought of the happiness which she might have had, had she been less set on her own purposes, or that of which she had had a brief glimpse, but could now see no more.
She threw herself on her knees by the bedside, and kissed the pale hand which rested on the coverlet.
The touch of her warm lips recalled the dying man to himself. His eyes lightened with a smile of inexpressible tenderness.
"You are come, darling," he said. "I knew that you would. You will stay with me now," he whispered after a pause. "It will not be for long."
After that he seemed content to be silent. Indeed, he was almost too weak to speak. But, to judge from the happy smile upon his face, it was bliss to feel her hand in his, and to keep his eyes fixed upon her face.
About an hour short of midnight he fell asleep. Epicharis sat on in the same posture, watching him as he slept with an intense earnestness. A little after dawn he woke.
"Give me," he said, "a cordial. I have something to say, and need a little strength."
The physician had left a cordial, some old Falernian wine with bettany root dissolved in it, in case the occasion for it should arise.
Epicharis raised the sick man's head from the pillow, and put the cup to his lips. He took a few sips and then spoke: "Tell Subrius the Prætorian that he is embarked on an ill business. It will not prosper. And you, too, beware of it. Put away these thoughts from you. It has been borne in upon me that these things will be your ruin. I have had a dreadful dream since I slept. I saw Nero sitting on his throne, and the ground round him was covered with dead bodies, as thickly as if there had been a battle. But I could not see their faces."
"But you told me yourself," said Epicharis, "of this undertaking, and seemed glad that it was set on foot."
"Ah! but things are changed since then with me. I did not know what I know now."
The fact was, that it was only a few days before his arrest that Fannius had discussed the subject with one of the Christian teachers. Probably there have always been two ways of thinking about the lawfulness of resistance to power, unrighteous in itself or unrighteously exercised. But among the early Christians there was certainly a greater weight of authority on the side of submission. "The powers that be are ordained of God" was the teaching of the great Apostle who had formed the views of the Church in Rome; and this view had been strongly enforced on Fannius by the teacher whom he consulted, one of those who had learnt all that they knew at the feet of St. Paul.
The mind of the soldier had been much agitated by conflicting emotions. The old loyalty to the Emperor, which was part of a soldier's training, was now reinforced by a religious sanction. On the other hand, he was deeply committed to comrades with whose desire to free Rome from the shame of its present degradation he strongly sympathized. And then there was Epicharis. She lived, he knew, to avenge a cruel wrong to one whom she loved. This aim was the thing nearest to her heart, nearer, he was aware, than her love for him. Could he endure to disappoint her?
Then came the arrest and imprisonment of the Christians. The tyrant who had given the order now seemed doubly hateful. Still it did not change the soldier's newly acquired views of duty. In one way it emphasized them. The more difficult submission appeared, the greater the obligation to it. "Not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward," were words that rung in his ears. And in the near presence of his death this call of duty, as he conceived it, became louder and more imperative. To see Epicharis, and to implore her to abandon her scheme, became a pressing necessity.
"I implore you," he said, "as you love me, to give up your schemes. Leave the wrong-doer to be punished by God. His vengeance is stronger and surer than ours."
It was a critical moment. The girl indeed did not understand the reason which moved Fannius to speak in this way. She fancied that he was more concerned for her safety than for anything else. Still his entreaty weighed greatly with her. He was a dying man, and the last requests of the dying are hard to refuse; and she felt, too, that she owed him some redress. The words "I promise" were almost on her lips. Had she spoken them the fate of many persons with whom our story is concerned might have been different. But at the very moment she was about to speak there came a sudden interruption.
An official sent to inspect the prison had discovered the change which the keeper of the Tullianum had taken upon himself to make in the custody of Fannius. As he had been specially instructed to allow no relaxation in the severity of imprisonment, he at once directed that the man should be carried back to the dungeon from which he had been transferred. The jailer in vain represented that the prisoner was dying. "That makes no difference," was the answer. "I must obey my orders," and he pushed his way, followed by two attendants, into the chamber of death.
"There he is," he cried to the men; "carry him back, dead or alive."
At the sound of his voice, Epicharis rose from where she had been kneeling by the bedside, and confronted the two men.
"You shall not touch him," she cried.
The attendants fell back astonished, so majestic was she in the white heat of her wrath.
"Thrust her aside," cried their more hardened master, from where he stood in the background.
The men hesitated; she might have a weapon in her dress, and looked quite capable of dealing a mortal blow.
The inspector, infuriated at this delay, now himself made a forward movement.
At this moment a voice from behind changed the woman's mood.
"Epicharis!" said the dying man feebly.
She turned to him with a gesture of tenderness.
"Hinder them not," he whispered. "I can die as easily there as here. Kiss me, dearest. The Lord Christ bless and keep you, and bring us to meet again."
She stooped to kiss him.
Even the brutal official could not interrupt this parting. When it was over, his victim was out of the reach of his cruelty. Fannius was dead.