The conspirators had not been indifferent spectators of the events recorded in the preceding chapters. Everything combined to raise their hopes. The Emperor seemed to be madly rushing on to his own ruin. The monstrous freak, which common report more and more confidently attributed to him, of burning his own capital, the revolting cruelty with which he had sought to divert suspicion from himself to a set of poor creatures, who, at the worst, were harmless fanatics, the unseemly buffoonery by which he lowered his Imperial dignity, were all helping, they thought, to overthrow the throne. Every day appeared to be giving to their schemes a more certain prospect of success. As long as this was so, it naturally seemed a mistake to hurry on their execution. Give the wretch time enough, so they said to each other, and he will destroy himself; he will not have a single friend left among nobles, people, or army.
There were some, the Tribune Subrius among them, who chafed angrily at this delay. He never could rid himself of the idea that he had already missed a great chance, when he abandoned his plan of striking down Nero in his private theatre, and he strongly protested against losing more time. Conspiracies that are long in hatching were, he knew, infallibly betrayed either by treachery or by chance. "There are too many of us," he said to one of his military confederates; "we are too powerful; had we been only a few desperate fellows with nothing to lose, it would have been settled, and probably settled in the right way, long ago.
In this impatient mood Epicharis found him a few days after that on which Fannius had breathed his last. In the morning he had been present at a meeting of the conspirators, and had again urged on them the necessity of speedy action. Pudens, who had been formally enrolled among the associates, as heartily supported him. He agreed with him in theory, and he found additional reason in the imminent danger of Claudia, of which he had by this time become aware. Their arguments were in vain; the majority overbore them.
The two friends, as they discussed the question in Subrius' quarters, became more and more convinced that in one way or another a crisis must be precipitated.
"These men," said Subrius to his companion, "are thinking of something else besides the one thing needful, which is to get rid of the tyrant. Lateranus, for instance, is thinking about his own life; Piso is thinking about his own chances of the Empire. Now a man ought to care for nothing but how he may drive home his blow."
"Right!" cried Pudens. "Why should we not act for ourselves? Let us give them another seven days, and then cast lots who shall strike, you or I."
"Agreed!" said Subrius, stretching out his hand.
Just as he spoke, a soldier servant knocked at the door of the room, and, bidden to enter, announced that a young man wished to speak with the Tribune.
"Show him in," said the Prætorian, and the visitor was ushered into the room.
The newcomer wore the heavy hood which the Romans commonly used for purposes of disguise. Its depths hid the features of the face more effectually, as the wearer carefully took a place where the light fell from behind.
"Do I speak to Subrius the Prætorian?" said the visitor.
"That is my name," replied the soldier.
"And this?" the speaker went on, indicating Pudens with a slight wave of the hand.
"My friend, Marcus Annius Pudens, from whom I have no secrets."
"Then I may speak freely?"
Throwing back the hood, the visitor revealed the features of Epicharis.
Pudens had never seen her before, but Subrius immediately remembered the features of the girl whom he had seen speaking to Fannius in the school of Thraso.
The name of the ex-gladiator, whom, indeed, he had missed for some days, without knowing anything of his fate, naturally rose to his lips.
"And Fannius?" he said. "How does he fare?"
"I have now another besides Octavia to avenge," answered the girl in a low voice.
"What?" cried the Prætorian. "Hath any evil overtaken him?"
Epicharis told him the story that we know. When she had finished she went on: "Fannius told me—it was when we were newly betrothed,"—the girl's voice broke for a moment as she uttered the word, but was firm again the next moment,—"that there were some who were minded not to suffer the wrongs which Rome has suffered to go unpunished any longer. He gave me no names; I asked him for none, though I think I can keep a secret. But ever since I first knew him he used to speak of you; and to you, accordingly, I have come. Let me speak plainly. If you have in your mind the purpose that I suppose you to have, let me help you. I have now only one thing to live for, to punish the monster who first killed my mistress, and then did to death my lover. If you have no such thoughts, if you think me a criminal for cherishing them, then give me up to Nero. I shall be content, for I have no more desire to live."
The situation in which Subrius found himself was perplexing in the extreme. That the woman was in earnest he did not doubt for a moment. He had heard, we know, her story from Fannius, and had been greatly impressed by it. And now her look, her words, carried with them an irresistible conviction of her earnestness; but he hesitated. The lives and fortunes of others besides himself were at stake. To confide in a woman was certainly a novel experiment, and at first sight at least dangerous. If failure was the result, how overpowering the shame and the disgrace of having made it. After a hurried review of the circumstances he resolved to temporize. Probably he was wrong. Everything did go wrong in this unlucky undertaking. But almost every one, viewing the circumstances as he viewed them, would have said that he was right.
"Lady," he began, "I will be as frank with you as you have been with me. If you have put your life in my hands, so will I put mine in yours. I do not deny that I and my friends have had the purposes of which you speak, yes, and have them still. But these things are not done in a hurry; we must watch our time, our opportunity; when that comes we shall not be wanting, nor shall we fail, if we need your help, to ask for it. Till then we must be patient and silent."
Epicharis was bitterly disappointed at this procrastinating answer. She was not in a mood to wait and be patient. Action, immediate action, was an imperative necessity. She rose to go, wrapping the hood again round her face.
"I am only a woman," she said, "and know less and can do less than you; yet I think that you are wrong. You say that these things cannot be done in a hurry; it seems to me that they must be so done, if they are to be done at all."
The next moment she was gone.
"By all the gods in heaven, she is right!" cried Subrius to Pudens when they found themselves alone. "I wish that I could have trusted her. But it was impossible. If any mishap were to come of it, what would not the others have said—'wheedled out of his senses by a woman,' and all the rest of it. It would be intolerable. And yet, I have a feeling that it would have been better."
Better it would certainly have been.
Epicharis, as has been said, was not content to wait. If Subrius would not help her, where, she asked herself, could she find some one who would? In a moment, for she was in that condition of exaltation and excitement when ideas have a rapid birth, a daring scheme presented itself to her mind. Nowhere was Nero more easily approached than when he was at one of his favourite seaside haunts. There he was accustomed to dispense with the etiquette and ceremony which surrounded him at Rome. His bodyguard, whom he always regarded more as a part of Imperial state than as a necessary protection, was often dismissed. He would spend many hours with not more than one or two companions, either wandering on the shore, or rowing in a boat, or fishing from the rocks. What could be easier, she thought, if only she could find an accomplice, to surprise him in one of those unguarded moments?
Resolving to seek such an accomplice herself, the first necessity that she perceived was of an effectual disguise. The man's dress which she had assumed in order to find her way to the quarters of Subrius had served its purpose well enough on that occasion. But it would not now suffice, and she accordingly resolved to assume the character of a singing-girl. This she could do with great ease; she had a particularly sweet voice, and could sing and play with more than usual skill. A further disguise was secured by wearing Syrian dress and ornaments, and by adding a deeper brown to her complexion. Another device, which she felt might be useful in carrying out her scheme, was to pretend ignorance of any language but Greek, except so far as the use of a few words of broken Latin might go.
Thus apparelled and equipped, she made her way down to Misenum, where a squadron of the fleet was stationed. She began by singing outside the wine shops to which the sailors were accustomed to resort, and speedily achieved a great success. Her reputation as an accomplished performer spread among the higher circles, and it was not long before she was engaged to perform at a banquet given by one of the captains to his colleagues. Other similar invitations followed. As the guests spoke freely before her, presuming on her supposed ignorance of Latin, while she always kept her ears open, and listened with an eager attention which suffered nothing to escape her, she soon learnt much about the characters and tempers of the officers in command.
One of these men, Proculus by name, she recognized as an old acquaintance. He had once been in command of the yacht which belonged to Agrippina, the Emperor's mother. It was one of the very few pleasures of Octavia's unhappy life to join her mother-in-law in occasional excursions round the Campanian coast. At these times Epicharis had often been in waiting, and Proculus had regarded her with much admiration. She gathered now from words that he let drop in her hearing, and from what was said by others, that he was in a dissatisfied frame of mind. He was accustomed to talk vaguely of great services which he had rendered to the Emperor, and which had received a very inadequate reward. This seemed to promise some sort of an opening, and she resolved, in default of anything better, to avail herself of it. It is true that she did not like or trust the man. In old times he had not been a favourite; his openly expressed admiration had, on the contrary, been extremely offensive to her. But she was almost in despair. She had not found in the fleet any of the explosive material, so to speak, which she had hoped to discover there. Nero seemed to be highly popular. He mixed freely with the sailors, treated them in a friendly fashion, and was liberal in his presents. Still, for her present purpose, one such adherent as Proculus would suffice. Carried out of herself by her eagerness for revenge, with her mind, in fact, thrown off its balance by this excitement, she resolved to make the trial.
One day, in the course of an entertainment, Proculus had paid her some compliment on her musical skill and gone on to express his admiration for her beauty. Crushing down disgust at his advances, for the man was personally odious to her, Epicharis gave an answer that encouraged further conversation, and induced him, with no little skill, to speak of himself, his disappointments, and his claims. Artfully expressing a sympathetic surprise that he had not reached a position more commensurate with his merits, of which he had indeed an unbounded opinion, she led him on to use language which certainly had an almost treasonable sound. As a matter of fact, this talk was mere bluster. He would not have used it to any one who would, he thought, have taken it seriously. But this was exactly what Epicharis did. When she judged that he had to a certain extent committed himself, she revealed her identity. The man, though somewhat confused with the wine which he had been drinking, at once perceived that there was something serious in the affair. Epicharis he had almost forgotten, but he was perfectly well aware that Octavia had left devoted friends behind her. He listened with attention when she began to hint at the scheme which was in her mind. She would tell him no names, but she gave him to understand that there were powerful people behind her, people who would be able and willing to remunerate him handsomely for any service that he might render. Only, she was careful to impress upon him, he must lose no time; he must not let any one else anticipate him.
For a time the man wavered. It might be worth his while, he thought, to make the venture. It might be possible to secure a position really worth having under a new order of things. He was ambitious, so far as a greedy, pleasure-loving temper could make him so, and for a few moments he seemed to see within his reach great power and wealth, and all the opportunities of pleasure which these two things command. And though he was a dull, brutal, utterly selfish creature, the enthusiasm of Epicharis, backed as it was by the charm of her beauty, touched his fancy if not his heart.
But when the magic of her presence was removed, he began to see impossibilities in the way which had not occurred to him before. In fact, the man's past was such that if Epicharis had but known it, he would have been the very last person in the world in whom she would have confided. The services which he had rendered to Nero, and for which he conceived himself to have been insufficiently paid, were such as to put an absolutely impassable gulf between him and the revolutionists. He had been Nero's tool in the perpetration of the very worst of his crimes, the murder of his mother. It was he who had been in command of the yacht in which she nearly met with her death. He was actually present and assisting when the hideous deed was finally accomplished. Nero might not be duly grateful for such services, but from any one else they would meet with no other reward than the halter or the axe. When Nero had received his due, then those who had helped to rid him of his mother and his wife would not be long in meeting with theirs. Epicharis' schemes, therefore, had, when he came to examine them, nothing attractive about them. Still, as he soon began to reflect, they might be made to yield a profit. Why not use them to put Nero under a second obligation? Why not give information of them, and pose as the saviour of the Emperor's life?
This last purpose was almost immediately carried out. Before the next day had dawned Proculus was at Antium, where Nero was then residing, and in the course of a few hours Tigellinus was in possession of all that he had to communicate. The Minister acted promptly. Epicharis, who had been eagerly waiting for some communication from Proculus, was arrested in her lodging by a Centurion, conveyed in a litter to the Emperor's villa at Antium, and almost immediately after confronted with her accuser.
She did not lose her self-possession and presence of mind for a moment. Proculus told his story, not, of course, without exaggeration, and the addition of details which made it more picturesque and effective. She met it with a flat denial. He had no witnesses to produce; and for the present, at least, her word was as good as his.
As for herself, she made no attempt at concealment. She had been a waiting woman of the Empress, and she had loved her mistress.
Questioned as to the reason why she had disguised herself as a singing-girl, she smiled and shrugged her shoulders. It was partly, she explained, a frolic, but chiefly because she was desperately poor. "My mistress," she explained with the utmost simplicity of manner, "left me a legacy, which would have put me beyond poverty; but it has not yet been paid to me."
The shaft struck home, as it had been intended to strike, though the intention was admirably concealed. Nero blushed and winced. He had had the meanness to refuse, or, rather, to postpone indefinitely, the payment of the few legacies which Octavia had left to her attendants.
Every inquiry she met with the same imperturbable composure. She missed no opportunity of planting a sting in the consciences of her questioners—if consciences they had; but no one could be sure that it was done with intention. In the end, she came out of the cross-examination, which was protracted and severe, without having made a single damaging admission.
When accuser and accused were removed from the presence, the Emperor summed up the case after this fashion. "Well, the woman has much more the look of telling the truth than the man. And he is, I know, a thorough scoundrel. However, where there is smoke there is pretty sure to be fire. See that she is kept in safe custody, Tigellinus, but don't let any harm come to her. We shall see what happens."