Poppaea and her advisers were not inclined, it may easily be supposed, to rest satisfied with their double defeat in the matter of Pomponia. That she had escaped from the illegal violence of the first attack was vexatious enough, but it was a thing that had to be endured. It was a different thing when she was found to have eluded a legal order for her arrest. The question was, how was the hiding-place of the fugitives to be discovered? Nothing was learnt by the strictest inquiries at Subrius' country house. The inmates, some of whom Tigellinus did not scruple to torture, evidently knew nothing about the matter. The two ladies had disappeared a few hours before the arrival of the arresting party; beyond that, nothing could be learnt. Supposed confessions, which were wrung out of one of the slaves, were found not to lead to any discoveries. It was soon seen that they were fictions, produced to obtain an immediate release from pain, as confessions obtained by pressure of torture frequently were. A more hopeful plan was to search through the multitude of arrested persons for some one who might really be willing and able to give such information as would lead to a discovery. Slaves who had been in Pomponia's household in Rome were found, but they could easily prove that they knew nothing more of her movements beyond her departure from the city. It was when she left Subrius' house that she seemed to have vanished into space. Poppæa, however, was not to be baffled. One person, she learnt, had accompanied Pomponia on her journey; this was the old steward. It was probable that he was in possession of the secret of her hiding-place. If he was arrested, it might be extorted from him. The detectives were immediately put upon his track, and it was not long before their search was successful. Sad to say, it was a fellow-believer, or, at least, one who professed himself to be such, that betrayed him. Even in days when nothing, it would seem, that could attract, was to be gained by the profession of Christian belief, there were some who made that profession without adequate conviction. The mere reckless desire of change, or a passing emotion that was mistaken for genuine faith, led them into a false position. Or they were of that class, who, as the Master had foreseen, would receive the word gladly, and in times of persecution fall away; and, it must be confessed, the trial was terrible. Under such pressure, strong natures might well have failed; much more this poor young slave, feeble in frame, and of a selfish, pleasure-loving temper, who gave the fatal information about Phlegon. The bribe of freedom, safety, and a sum of fifty thousand sesterces, that seemed to assure him of a future livelihood, were too much for his constancy and good faith. The information that he gave enabled the officers, before three days were over, to arrest the old man.
Even then Poppæa and her friends did not seem much nearer to the attainment of their object. Questioned as to whether he was acquainted with Pomponia's hiding-place, he did not affect to deny it. His sturdy principle forbade him to speak anything but the truth, however much it might be to his own injury. But at this acknowledgment he stopped. He could not, indeed, bring his lips to say the thing that was not; but beyond this he did not feel his obligation to go. Any information that might help the persecutors to secure their prey, he resolutely refused to give. Bribes were tried at first; they were contemptuously rejected. Threats were freely used, but seemed to make no impression. Torture was then employed. The old Roman rule that it was never to be applied to free persons had long since fallen into neglect. For some years past persons of much higher rank than the old steward had been exposed to it. When even Senators and knights had been stretched on the rack, and tortured with the heated plates of metal, it was not likely that an insignificant freedman would escape.
But even torture seemed little likely to be successful. Indeed, the limits of its possible application were very soon reached. Phlegon was old and feeble; a few minutes sufficed to throw him into a long faint from which it was no easy matter to recall him. The physician slave, who was in attendance, to guard against this very risk, warned the executioner that another application would very probably be fatal.
Yet, curiously enough, the very patience and courage of the sufferer helped to reveal the secret which he would gladly have given his life to keep. Phlegon had been confined in the Tullianum, though not in one of its lower dungeons; and the jailer, as being responsible for his prisoners, had been present when the torture was applied. Hardened as he was by more than twenty years of office, the events of the last few days had touched him. He had seen innocent men suffer before, but never men of quite the same stamp as Fannius and Phlegon. So full was he of the feelings thus raised, that as soon as he was released from his duties, he went to talk the subject over with his friends, the temple servant and his wife. And thus the tidings reached Claudia. From Pomponia herself all such things were carefully kept.
Statia had not heard from the jailer the name of the sufferer; but Claudia recognized in her description of him Pomponia's steward. And when she further heard that he was being tortured in order to compel him to reveal the hiding-place of a noble lady who was accused of being a Christian, any doubt that she may have had of his identity was removed.
It was with the greatest difficulty that the girl retained her self-control, while her hostess gossiped on, repeating, in her usual fashion, the description of the suffering and the fortitude of Phlegon, which the jailer had given her. Left at last to think over the matter, she was in sore perplexity. Should she keep what she had heard to herself, or should she communicate it to Pomponia? She could not, of course, entirely forget that her own life was at stake, and she grew sick and faint when she remembered the horrors of which she had been told. Still it was not this, it was her duty to Pomponia, that made her hesitate. Pomponia, beyond all doubt, would give herself up to save the old man's life. But would she save it? Would she not be only sacrificing her own? The old man was most certainly doomed. Why should another be uselessly involved in his fate? All this seemed reasonable enough. Still she could not persuade herself that it was right. What would Pomponia herself say? Supposing that she kept the matter from her now, would she ever be able to reveal it? Could she ever go to her and say, "I knew that your faithful servant was being tortured, and I kept it from you?" This thought in the end decided her. It must, she felt, be wrong so to act that there would be a lifelong secret between herself and her nearest friend.
Her resolution once arrived at, she lost no time in carrying it out. "Mother," she said to Pomponia, "the persecutors have laid hands on Phlegon, and have tortured him to wring out the secret of our hiding-place."
Pomponia's spirits had for some time been drooping and depressed. She knew that her fellow-believers were suffering. Why was she not among them? Why, when they were bravely confessing their Lord, was she in hiding? And yet she could not bring herself to feel that duty bade her deliver herself up, and still less that she ought to endanger her young companion. Her courage rose instantaneously to the occasion.
"Brave old man!" she cried. "And of course he has been silent. Nothing, I am sure, could wring from his lips a word that was false or base. But he must not suffer. They shall not have to ask him again. They shall hear what they want from me. But, my child, what shall we do with you?"
"Can you ask, mother?" cried the girl. "Whithersoever you go, I go also."
"Nay, my child," said Pomponia; "there is no need for that."
The girl stood up with flashing eyes, a true daughter of kings. "I hope you do not hold me unworthy of your company. Mother," she added in a softer tone, while she threw her arms round the elder woman's neck, "you will not bid me leave you?"
"Let us pray," said Pomponia.
The two women knelt together, hand clasped in hand. Such supplications, whether expressed in words, or only conceived in the heart, are too sacred to be written down. They rose comforted and strengthened, the path of duty plain before them. Whatever burden it might be the will of their Master to put upon them, they would bear it together.
"Bid our hostess send for a litter," said Pomponia. "We will go without delay to the palace."
An hour afterwards as Nero sat in council with Poppæa and Tigellinus a freedman announced that the Lady Pomponia, together with Claudia, daughter of Cogidumnus, King of the Regni in Britain, were below, and awaited the Emperor's pleasure.
Poppæa's eyes gleamed with a sinister joy.
On the other hand, neither Nero nor his Minister were particularly pleased. Tigellinus' spies and agents, of whom he had a vast number in Rome, had reported to him that popular sympathy was now turning in favour of the sufferers. Had they been the worst of criminals, the ferocity of the punishments inflicted on them would have roused a feeling of pity; and it was doubtful whether they were criminals at all. Of course the free-spoken comments of the Prætorians at what had happened were not unknown to him. If this had been the case in the case of obscure and insignificant persons, what would happen when the victim was a high-born and distinguished lady.
"How is it your pleasure to deal with them, Sire?" asked Tigellinus after a short pause.
"Let them be sent to the Tullianum," cried Poppæa, carried by her spite out of her usual prudence.
Nero turned upon them with an angry scowl.
"Peace, woman," he shouted in a voice of thunder. "You know not what you say. These ladies are ten times better born than you."
The Empress, furious as she was at the rebuff, choked down her rage, and murmured, "As you will, Sire."
"Let them be handed over to the keeping of Lateranus till it be convenient to hear their case," was the Emperor's decision.
"The Emperor remembers," said Tigellinus, "that Lateranus is the nephew of the Lady Pomponia."
"I know it," answered the Emperor. "It will serve well enough. She will be honourably kept and safely. That is enough. See that the necessary orders be given. Pardon me, my dearest," he went on, turning to Poppæa. "I would not willingly thwart you in anything, but there are reasons, which I am sure you will see, if you give yourself time to think. I will not ask you," he added with a bitter smile, "to be lenient to these prisoners because they are women. That, I have found out, is scarcely a passport to a woman's favour. But you must remember that Pomponia is the widow of a great general, whose name is still remembered among the soldiers, while her companion is the daughter of a King. You cannot deal with such as if they were the wife and daughter of a freedman."
"You know best, Sire," said the Empress in a voice from which she vainly endeavoured to banish all traces of sulkiness.
"Thanks, my Poppæa," replied Nero; "we shall doubtless agree. And now to more serious business. This is the first draft of what I propose to recite at the games."
Four years before Nero had instituted what was to be a Roman rival to the Olympian games. The second celebration was at hand, and he had been preparing a poem on the Deification of Romulus, which he proposed to recite in public. It was this that he now submitted to the criticism of his privy council.