It was of course impossible that Pomponia and her young companion should remain in ignorance of what was going on in Rome. That something like a reign of terror prevailed, that multitudes of men, women, and even children were being daily arrested and imprisoned—no one exactly knew on what charge—they heard from their hostess, who, however, did her best to soften the story which she had to tell. But there came a time when they had to hear a tale which transcended in horror all that they could have imagined possible.
Commonly the temple servant's house was remarkably quiet. The old man was a peace-loving personage, who seldom entertained others, and still more seldom went out. The dwelling was so small that the apartment occupied by the ladies could hardly be said to be out of hearing of that where Statia and her husband sat in the evening. Commonly there was silence, the woman being busy with her needle, the old man sleeping in his chair. Now and then there would be heard a gentle murmur of conversation. Once or twice the ladies could distinguish a third voice, which they supposed to be that of an occasional visitor. One night, however, after they had been in their refuge about a month, they could not help overhearing what seemed to be a very loud and animated discussion. Fragments of talk even reached their ears, and though they did not attempt to piece them together, the words they heard left a general impression of uneasiness and even fear in their minds. The next morning their hostess was in an evident condition of agitation and excitement, divided between eagerness to tell her news, and a kind-hearted desire not to give pain to her guests.
"Oh, my lady!" she burst out, "there were terrible doings last night; such as were never heard of, they say, in Rome before, ever since it was a city."
The two women listened in silent dismay. That the storm which had been gathering would soon burst, they had clearly foreseen; in what terrible form its violence would break forth, with such a creature, permitted by God to plague the world for its sins, who could tell?
"I did not see them myself," Statia went on, "thanks be to the gods! But my husband did, and he was fairly sick and faint with the horribleness of the whole business when he came home. You see, he is not one that goes out much to sights. I haven't known him go to the Circus or the amphitheatre as much as once in the last ten years. You see, he would sooner stop at home quiet with me; and the best place, too, for an old man; aye! and for a young one, too, in my judgment. But last night a friend of his that serves the same temple would have him go and see some fine show, as he called it. The Emperor, my husband's friend said, was to throw open his gardens to the people, and there were to be such wonderful sights as had never been seen before. Well, my good man goes; and as I said, he comes home before it was over, quite sick with what he had seen. As soon as he was inside the gardens, he found a crowd of people hurrying to the theatre that there is in the gardens. Naturally he goes with them, and finds himself in a good place in front, where he could see all that was going on. In the arena were a number of animals,—bears, and lions, and tigers, and bisons, and other creatures that he did not know the names of,—at least, that was what he thought at first; but when he looked again he thought that there was something curious about them, they looked so awkward and clumsy. 'What ails the beasts?' he said to his next neighbour. The man laughed. 'They are not beasts at all!' he said; 'they are men!' 'Then what do they dress them up like that for?' asks my husband. 'Wait a moment,' says the other, 'and you will see.' And sure enough he did see. Some doors under the seats were opened, and a whole pack of dogs came leaping out—the biggest and fiercest looking dogs, my husband said, that he had ever seen. 'They've kept them hungry on purpose,' said the other man, 'giving them nothing to eat for two days, I am told.' 'But who are the poor creatures?' asked my husband, 'and what have they done?' 'Who are they?' answered the other, 'why, they are Christians, to be sure, whatever that may mean, for I don't rightly know myself; and 'tis said that it is they who set the city on fire.' "
"Hush!" cried Claudia, when Statia had reached this point in her story. "Tell us no more; it is more than my dear mother can bear."
And indeed Pomponia had grown paler and paler as the story went on.
"Nay," said Pomponia. "If our brethren actually endure these things, we may at least bear to hear them. Go on, my friend."
"Well, my lady," Statia resumed, "the poor creatures were not as much injured as one would have expected. Many of the dogs, when they found out that it was not real beasts that they were set to attack, left them alone; some were even quite friendly and gentle with them. 'They seemed to me,' says my husband, 'a great deal better than their masters;' and right he was, as you will say, when you hear what happened next. A herald came forward and cried, 'Fathers, knights, and citizens of Rome, the Emperor invites you to the Circus to witness a chariot-race, and hopes that you will regard with indulgence any deficiency of skill that you may perceive in the charioteers.' 'They say that he is going to drive one of the chariots himself, and Lateranus, who is to be Consul next year, the other,'—so my husband's neighbour, who seemed to know all about the show, told him. Of course it was very condescending of him to amuse the people in this way, but it does not seem to me quite the right thing for an Emperor.
Nero as Victor in a Chariot Race
"Well, by this time it was getting dark, and when my husband got outside the theatre, he found the gardens lighted up. All along the walks, on each of the lamp-posts, they had fastened a man,—yes, it is true as I am alive,—a man, dressed in a tunic steeped in pitch, and with an iron collar under the chin to keep the head up,—fastened them, and set them on fire. That was too much for my husband. He declared that he could stay no longer, and indeed, he was so poorly that his friend had to see him home, though he was sorry, he said, not to see the rest of the show. When they got back he and my husband had a great argument about it,—perhaps you may have heard them, my lady, for they talked very loud. My husband's friend would have it that it was only right. They were Christians, he said, which was only another name for atheists, and richly deserved all they got. But my husband does not hold with such doings, and told his friend so pretty plainly. 'After all, they're men,' he said, 'and you must not treat them as you would not treat a beast.' 'What!' said the other,—and I will allow that this did shake me a bit,—'don't you know that if these people had their way, there would be no more offerings in the temples, aye, and no more temples, either, for the matter of that, and where would you and I be then?' But my good man stuck to his point for all that. 'I reckon that the gods can take care of themselves,' he said; 'and that anyhow, they won't thank us for helping them in this kind of way. It is not our Roman fashion to make show of men in this way. No, no! if a man has to be punished, there is the regular way of doing it; the cross for a slave, and the axe for the free man, with the scourge first, if he has done anything specially bad; but as for dressing men up like beasts, or turning them into torches, I don't hold with it. Our fathers did not do it, and what was enough for them should be enough for us.' That was what my good man said. I have never heard him make such a long speech ever since we were married, for he is not a man of many words. What do you think, my lady?"
The good woman had been quite carried away with her subject, for genuine as was her disgust at the Emperor's cruelties, she had a certain pleasure, not uncommon in her class, in the telling of horrors, and she had not noticed how her narrative had affected one of her hearers. Pomponia had quietly fainted.
"Ah! poor lady," cried Statia. "It has been too much for her. I am sure that she must feel for the poor things."