The company which Lateranus called his "cohort" consisted of about thirty men, divided into three guards, as we may call them, of ten. They were armed after the fashion of the "gowned" or civilian cohort of the Prætorians, which was accustomed to keep guard in the Emperor's palace; that is, they had neither helmet or shield or pike, but carried swords and lances. Even these arms they never wore except within the precincts of the house, and then only when they were being drilled and practised in sword play and other military exercises. Lateranus always spoke of the cohort as a plaything of his own which had no serious purpose, and it may readily be understood that he was careful not to make any display of it. Any master was at liberty to put weapons into the hands of his dependents in an emergency. The only difference was that these dependents had been trained to use these weapons skilfully and in concert. And now the emergency was come which was to put their utility to a practical test. One of the guards of ten was left to protect the house. Lateranus, who was apparently unarmed, but carried a short sword underneath his outer tunic, proceeded with the other two at the "double" to the scene of action.
The relieving force was not a moment too soon in arriving. The outer gates of the mansion had been forced open, and the assailants were applying crowbars to the door which led to the private apartments of Pomponia. This, indeed, had given way; naturally it had not been made strong enough to resist a violent assault; but the domestics within had piled up a quantity of heavy furniture which had to be removed before the besiegers could make good their entrance. This obstacle saved the house. Before it could be got rid of, the relieving party arrived, and took the assailants in the rear. The leader of the latter at once recognized that his purpose had been defeated, and desisted from his attempt without challenging a struggle with the new arrivals. His bearing, however, was curiously unlike what might have been expected from the ringleader of a lawless gang surprised by a superior force. So far from displaying any embarrassment, he appeared to be perfectly at his ease, and accosted Lateranus with all the air of an equal.
"You have been beforehand with me this time, sir," he said in a quiet tone, which nevertheless was full of suppressed fury. "I shall not forget it."
"Neither will they for whom I act," went on the other, "and that you will find no laughing matter."
"I shall always be ready to answer for myself," said Lateranus firmly. "Since when has your mistress taken it upon herself to send storming parties against the houses of innocent citizens?"
To this the man made no reply. "You will not hinder our departure," he went on after a pause. "You will find it better not to do so."
Lateranus shrugged his shoulders. "You can go," he said; "it is not my business to do the duty of the guards, but if there is any justice in Rome, you shall hear of this again."
"Justice!" cried the fellow with an insolent laugh; "we know something much better than that."
Meanwhile the cohort had been waiting with eagerness for the end of the colloquy. All had their hands on the hilt of their swords, and all were ready to use them. Profound was their disappointment when, instead of the expected order to draw, came the command to stand at ease. One by one the assailants filed out of the court, their leader being the last to leave the place.
"What ails the master?" said one of the younger men, in an angry whisper to his neighbour.
"Hush!" replied the man addressed. "Don't you see that it is Theodectes?"
"Theodectes!" said the other; "who is Theodectes?"
"The favourite freedman of Poppæa. Is not that enough for you?"
Meanwhile Lateranus, leaving instructions that the cohort should remain for the present in the court, made his way to the apartment where Pomponia was awaiting him.
"Welcome!" she said, coming forward and taking his hand with a peculiarly gracious smile; "the Lord has sent you in good time."
Pomponia Græcina, to give the lady her full name, was a woman of singularly dignified presence. She was now not far from her seventieth year, and her abundant hair, which, contrary to the fashion of the ladies of her time, she wore with a severe plainness, was of a silvery whiteness. But her figure was erect; her complexion retained no little of the bloom of youth,—a bloom which, again in opposition to contemporary custom, owed nothing to the resources of art; and her eyes could flash, on occasion, with a fire which years had done nothing to quench. Her history was one of singular interest. She came of a house not originally noble, but distinguished by having produced many eminent citizens and soldiers. Perhaps the most famous of these had been Pomponius Atticus, the friend and correspondent of Cicero. Atticus, to speak of him by the name by which he is commonly known, had played with extraordinary skill the part of an honest man who desires to be on good terms with all parties at once. He had been so loyal to the vanquished Republicans, that Cicero, till very near the time of his death, kept up an affectionate correspondence with him; and was yet so friendly with the victorious Imperialists that his daughter married the chief friend of Augustus, and his granddaughter became the wife of Tiberius. These great alliances did not result in happiness to his descendants, for one of the last of his race, Julia, the granddaughter of Tiberius, was put to death by the Emperor Claudius, prompted by his wicked wife Messalina. Julia's death was a lasting grief to her kinswoman, the Pomponia of my story. Never afterwards could she bear to mix in the brilliant society of the Imperial Court. But there was another reason why she held herself aloof from the fashionable world of Rome. She had come, how it is impossible to say, under the influence of some early preacher of the Christian faith; and a Christian woman, when the life of the court was such as we know it to have been in the days of Claudius and Nero, had no alternative but to live in retirement. So marked was her attitude that it excited suspicion; and she was actually accused—on what grounds we cannot say, possibly on the testimony of some member of her household—of being addicted to a superstition not recognized by Roman law. With a woman of ordinary rank it might have gone hard, but Pomponia had a powerful protector in her husband. He was one of the most distinguished soldiers of Rome, and was, happily for himself, too old to excite the jealous fears of the Emperor. When he made it a matter of personal favour that in the case of his wife an ancient practice should be revived, and that he as her husband should be constituted her judge, his request was granted. That he himself shared her faith we can hardly suppose, but he had seen its results in the blamelessness of her life, and the trial held by a family council, over which he himself presided, ended, as was doubtless his wish, in the acquittal of the accused. Since that time she had lived unmolested, though, as we have seen, she had enemies.
Pomponia went on: "Here is some one else who has to thank you for your timely aid. I will present you to her."
She drew aside as she spoke the curtains that hung over an arch leading into a smaller apartment. Into this she disappeared for a moment, and then returned leading by the hand a girl who may have numbered some eighteen summers.
"Claudia," she said, "this is Plautius Lateranus, my husband's nephew, whom we are to have for our Consul next year, and who meanwhile has delivered us from a very great danger. And this," she went on, turning to Lateranus, "is Claudia, whom I venture to call my daughter, as indeed she is, though not after the flesh."
The Roman, though he had known all the beauties of the Imperial Court for more than twenty years, was fairly surprised by the loveliness of the girl, a loveliness that was all the more startling because it was in some respect so different from that which he had been accustomed to admire in Italian maids and matrons. Her eyes, as far as he could see them, for they were bent downwards under their long lashes, were of a deep sapphire blue, the eyebrows exquisitely pencilled, the forehead somewhat broader and higher than agreed with the commonly accepted canons of taste, but of a noble outline, and full, it seemed, of intelligence. The nose was slightly retroussé, but this departure from the straight line of the Greek and the acquiline curve of the Roman feature seemed to give the face a peculiar piquancy; the lips were full and red; the complexion, while exquisitely clear, had none of the pallor which comes from the indoor habit of life. Claudia had never been afraid of the sun and the wind, and they had dealt kindly with her, neither freckling nor tanning her face, but giving it an exquisite hue of health. Her hair, of glossy chestnut hue, was not confined in the knot which Roman fashion had borrowed from the art of Greece, but fell in long curling locks on her shoulders. Lateranus bowed over the girl's hand, and carried it to his lips.
"I greet you, fair cousin," he said with an admiring glance, "for if my aunt, who always speaks the truth, calls you daughter, my cousin you must needs be."
Claudia muttered a few words that probably were meant for thanks. They did not catch the listener's ear, though he noticed that they were spoken with the hesitation of one who was using an unfamiliar language. Then the colour which had covered the girl's cheek, as she came forward, with a brilliant flush, faded as suddenly. She cast an imploring look, as if asking for help, on the elder lady.
"Ah! my child," cried Pomponia, "you suffer. I have lived so long alone that I have grown thoughtless and selfish, or I should have known that you wanted rest after all that you have gone through. Sit you here till I can call Chloris." And she made the girl sit in the chair from which she had herself risen, while she pressed a hand-bell that stood on a table close by.
A Greek waiting-maid speedily appeared in answer to the summons.
"Have the litter brought hither," said Pomponia, "and carry the Lady Claudia to her room."
"Nay, mother," said the girl, "I should be ashamed to give so much trouble, and indeed, I do not want the litter. I will go to my room indeed, but it will be enough if Chloris will give me her arm."
"You are sure?" said the elder lady. "I have seen so little of young people of late years that I am at a loss."
"Yes, indeed, mother, quite sure," and she withdrew, supporting herself by the attendant's arm, but more in show than in reality, for indeed the faintness, quite a new sensation to Claudia's vigorous health, had quite passed away.
"My dear aunt," said Lateranus, when the girl had left the room, "this is indeed a surprise. From what quarter of the world have you imported this marvellous beauty? That she is not Latin or Greek I saw at a glance, and I have been puzzling my brain ever since to find out to what nation she belongs. Is she Gaul, or perhaps German?"
"Nay," replied Pomponia; "you must go further than Gaul or even Germany."
"Ah!" said Lateranus after reflecting for a minute or two. "By all the gods!—pardon me, aunt," he went on, seeing a shadow pass over his aunt's gentle face,—"I had forgotten. Verily, I have it! She must be British!"
"Now you are right."
"And how long has she been with you? I heard nothing of her when I was last here."
"A month only. Her coming, indeed, was quite unexpected, and to be quite candid, at first unwelcome. You know my way of life. I had grown so accustomed to being alone that I almost dreaded the sight of a new face."
"Well," said Lateranus, "a face like that need hardly frighten you."
"Ah, you think her beautiful?" cried Pomponia, her face lighted up with one of her rare smiles. "And don't you see just a little likeness to my dearest Julia?"
"Yes; there is certainly a likeness, especially about the eyes."
"As soon as I saw that, I began to love her; and indeed I soon found that she is worth loving for her own sake. And there is another reason, too, which I fear, my dear nephew, you will not understand."
"Ah! I see; she is of the same sect, I suppose. It has reached to Britain itself then. Wonderful!"
"Wonderful indeed, and more than wonderful if it were what you call it, a sect. Oh, dear Aulus, if you would but listen!"
"All in good time, dear aunt, perhaps when my Consulship is over. It would certainly be awkward if you made a proselyte of me before."
"In good time, dear Aulus! Nay, there is no time so good as this. Who knows what may happen before your Consulship is over?"
"Nay, nay, dear aunt; good words, good words! But tell me, who is this lovely Claudia?"
"You have heard your uncle speak of King Cogidumnus?"
"Yes, I remember the name. He lived somewhere, if I remember right, on the edge of the great southern forest, of which my uncle used to tell such wonders."
"Just so; he was the King of the Regni. Indeed, he is living still. Well, the King took our side. Claudius made him a Roman citizen, and allowed him to assume his own names, so that he is a Tiberius Claudius; and also enlarged his kingdom with some of the country which your uncle conquered."
"Yes, I remember now hearing about it from my friend Pudens. He was wrecked on the coast in one of those terrible storms that they have out there, and made his way to the chief town of the Regni. He found it, he told me, quite a little Rome, with a Senate, and a Forum, and baths, and a library, and I know not what besides. The King himself was quite a polished gentleman, spoke Latin admirably and even could quote Virgil and Horace. No one, to look at him, would have thought, so my friend Pudens used to say, that ten years before he had been running wild in the woods with very little on besides a few stripes of blue paint."
"Well," resumed Pomponia, "Claudia is his daughter."
"You astonish me more and more," cried Lateranus. "And pray, what brings her to Rome?"
"A prince who pays tribute to Rome in Britain can hardly feel quite safe. His countrymen are sure to hate him, and I am afraid that we who are his allies do not always treat him as we should. Claudia's father had a terrible fright three years ago, when Boadicea and the Iceni rebelled. His city would have been the next to be attacked after London, if Paulinus had not come up in time to stop them. London, you must know, is scarcely more than seventy miles off, and the Britons don't take much time over seventy miles. The King had everything ready to embark,—you see he has the advantage of being near the sea,—his wife, who is since dead, and Claudia, who is his only child, were actually on board a galley with the best part of his treasure. If the news had been bad instead of good, they would have sailed at once. Lately, it seems, he has been getting anxious again, and though he loves his daughter dearly,—the poor girl cannot speak of him without tears,—he felt that he should be much happier if she were safe. Then the death of the mother, who was an admirable woman, decided him. His nearest kinswomen are not people into whose charge he would like to put his daughter. So he sent her here, appealing to me on the score of his old friendship with my husband. I could not refuse, though I must confess that the idea was very distasteful to me. What should I do, I thought, with a young barbarian in my house? It was a wicked idea, even if it had been true, which it certainly is not. Who am I," she added in a low voice which she did not mean to reach her nephew's ears, "Who am I, that I should call aught that He has made common or unclean? In Him there is 'neither barbarian, Scythian, bond, nor free.' "
"You interest me greatly in your Claudia. But, my dear aunt, we have to consider the future, both for you and her. You know, of course, who is at the bottom of this business."
"Yes, I know—Poppæa."
"But tell me, for I confess it puzzles me, why does Poppæa hate you? That she will spare no one who stands in the way of her pleasure or her ambition I understand; but you, how do you interfere with her?"
"Listen, Aulus. Poppæa has another thing that she cares for besides pleasure and power, and that is what she calls her religion."
"But I thought—pardon me for mentioning such a creature in the same breath with you—I thought that you and she were of somewhat the same way of thinking in this matter."
"It was natural that you should. Most people who know anything at all about such things have the same notion. But it is not so. Briefly, the truth is this. The religion to which Poppæa inclines is the religion of the Jews; the faith to which, by God's mercy, I have been brought, rose up among the same nation. A Jew first gave it to men; Jews have preached it since. But those who still walk in the old ways hate them that follow the new, hate them worse than they hate the heathen. Poppæa, poor creature, knows nothing about such matters, but the men to whom she goes for counsel, the men who she hopes will find a way for her to go on sinning and yet escape the punishment of sin, the men who take her gifts for themselves and their temple, and pay for them with smooth words, they know well enough the difference between themselves and us; it is they who stir her up; it is they who have told her to make a first victim of me."
"I understand, at least in part, but what you say only makes me feel more anxious. What will you do? She has been baffled this time; but she won't take her defeat. If I am not mistaken, there is going to be a dreadful time in Rome when the law will be powerless; and I may not be able to protect you."
As he finished speaking, a slave knocked at the door of the apartment. Bidden to enter, he ushered in Subrius the Prætorian and a friend.