Scaevinus had been for some time repenting, if not of his share in the conspiracy, certainly of the impulse which had prompted him to demand the most prominent place in the execution of its purpose. It was now impossible to draw back; if pride had not forbidden—and with all his weakness he was still a Roman—his associates might suspect him of treachery, and summarily silence him. The only thing left for him was to fortify his courage as best he could.
His first step was to choose for the deed what he conceived to be a peculiarly lucky weapon. Though, like most of his contemporaries, he believed in little or nothing, he was curiously superstitious, a combination of apparent opposites which has never been uncommon, and which in the pleasure-loving society of Rome was peculiarly frequent. He happened to be the head of a family in which the care of a famous provincial temple, the shrine of Fortune at the little Latin town of Ferentinum, was hereditary. Among the most cherished treasures of this place was an ancient dagger with which a family legend was connected. In the days when the Gauls had captured Rome and were desolating Italy, a Scævinus had struck down with this weapon the leader of a band of the barbarians which had come to plunder the temple. His descendant now took it down from its place on the walls with much formality, and carried it about with him, not without throwing hints of some great achievement for which it was destined.
This, unfortunately, was only the beginning of follies. On the evening of the 18th of April he invited his freedmen to a sumptuous dinner, to which he carefully gave the character of a farewell entertainment. During the repast he was by turns obstreperously gay and depressed even to tears. After dinner he followed up the usual libation to the gods by drinking to the memories of the Elder and the Younger Brutus. This done he drew the sacred dagger from its sheath and handed it to the most trusted of his freedmen, Milichus by name, with the injunction to get it sharpened. "Mind," he said at the same time, "that you see to the point, that it be properly sharp, for it has a great work to do." When the weapon was brought back he had other instructions scarcely less significant to give.
"See, Milichus," he said to the freedman, "that you have plenty of bandages ready. One can never tell how soon they may be wanted."
The bandages duly provided, he proceeded to execute with the usual solemnities a new will. When this had been signed and sealed, he seemed still unsatisfied. "Why," he said to his guests, "should you wait for my death before you can enjoy my liberality, though indeed you will very likely not have to wait long."
Two favourite slaves were called up and set free. To others he gave presents of money. To the freedmen at his table he distributed keepsakes, rings, bracelets, writing-tablets, and valuables of all sorts. He might have been a father on his deathbed bidding farewell to his children with an appropriate remembrance of each. And this was the more remarkable because Scævinus, in ordinary life, was not a particularly generous person.
For some time Milichus had noticed a curious change in his patron's demeanour. Ordinarily, as has been said, Scævinus was not a man who took life seriously, and Milichus' sole employment had been to minister to his pleasures. For some months past all this had been changed. He had, to a certain extent, reformed his ways, and had assumed a more than proportionate gravity of demeanour. Not infrequently he had dropped hints of important business which he had in hand, and great functions in the State which he might be called upon to perform.
If these things had not aroused definite suspicions in Milichus they had certainly prepared him to entertain them when he witnessed the proceedings just related. That his patron had something on his mind, and that this something was approaching a critical time, he now felt convinced. When, shortly before midnight, Scævinus dismissed him with an unusually affectionate good-night, he resolved to take his wife into counsel.
The two discussed the matter for a long time. The woman was far more decided than her husband in her views, both of what was going on and of what he ought to do. "Depend upon it," she said, "this is a big thing, and means a chance for you and me such as we never had before, and are not likely to have again. My belief is that there is something on foot against people who are very high up indeed. Go to the palace at once,—that is my advice,—and tell the people there what you have seen."
The freedman hesitated. He had a feeling of kindness for his patron, stronger, perhaps, than he would have had for a better man. Scævinus had given him his liberty, had made him some handsome presents, and treated him generally with the kindness which commonly goes a long way further than money. It was always an odious thing for a freedman to turn against his patron; in his case it was particularly hateful. And then, if the whole business should turn out to have meant nothing at all! That would mean simple ruin and disgrace.
The wife took a more severely practical view of the situation. Of the personal feeling she made no account whatever. Naturally she did not share it herself, for Scævinus was almost a stranger to her. Anyhow she was sure that it must not stand in the way of business. Of the risk of being found to have made a groundless charge she made light. The circumstances were too suspicious. They must mean something. She wound up with the most cogent argument of all. "There were others present, you say, freedmen and slaves. Do you suppose that you were the only one who saw anything strange in the Senator's behaviour? If you don't go to the palace, you may depend upon it some one else will. And if anybody anticipates you, where will you be? It was you to whom he gave the dagger to sharpen; you who had to prepare the bandages; it is you, therefore, who are bound to speak. You won't save your patron by holding your tongue, you will only lose your own chance, and very likely involve yourself in his ruin."
This reasoning was too much for Milichus. "I will go," he said, "though I hate it."
"And at once," cried the wife. "There is not a moment to be lost."
The energetic woman seized him by the arm, and hurried him off. The day was just beginning to dawn, and it was only just light when the two reached the Pavilion gardens, where Nero was residing. At that untimely hour they had some difficulty in making themselves heard, and the porter, when roused, summarily bade them go about their business. Milichus would gladly have availed himself of the excuse, and postponed his odious task, but his wife was made of sterner stuff. She warned the doorkeeper that if he refused to admit them, he would do so at his own peril; they had come, she said, on urgent business, in fact, on a matter of life or death. Thus urged, the man gave way, and admitted the visitors, feeling that he would thus at least shift the responsibility from off his own shoulders. He sent the couple on to Epaphroditus, who may be described as the Emperor's Private Secretary.
Epaphroditus heard the outline of Milichus' story, and recognizing the gravity of the facts, determined that Nero himself should hear them without delay.
At first the Emperor was but little disposed to believe. He had a profound belief in his own inviolability, and the breaking down of the charge which Proculus had brought against Epicharis, had confirmed him in his incredulity. The sight of the dagger which Milichus, at his wife's suggestion, had brought with him, rather staggered him. It proved nothing, it is true. Still the sight of an actual weapon, which it was possible might be used against himself, seemed to make the whole thing closer and more real.
"Send for Scævinus," he said to his Secretary. "Let us confront him with this fellow, and hear what he has to say."
Scævinus, who had just risen from his bed, and was already disturbed by finding that Milichus had gone, no one knew whither, and had taken the dagger with him, was still further alarmed by the arrival of a quaternion of soldiers, bearing an order for his arrest. When, however, he was brought within the Emperor's presence, his courage rose to the occasion. The story of the dagger he ridiculed.
"It belongs to my family," he said, and briefly told the story connected with it. "I found that it was being devoured by rust, and took it down from the wall. I may have told this fellow to clean it, but certainly said nothing else. As for the bandages, that is a pure fiction, invented to back up the other story. As for the new will, I have often made wills, as any of my friends can testify; as for the presents that I made to my freedmen and slaves, what is there in that? It is my way to be liberal to them, perhaps beyond my means. Answer me, Milichus," he went on, turning to the informer, "have you not had money and valuables from me many times?"
The freedman acknowledged that this was so.
"And now, Cæsar," said Scævinus, "to be perfectly frank, as indeed the occasion demands, I have a special reason for being generous, if it is generous to give what is scarcely one's own. My affairs are not prosperous, and my creditors have begun to press me. Legacies would be of no use if there should be a balance on the wrong side when my estate is wound up; services have been rendered me which it was a matter of honour to repay, and I felt that I could do it only by gifts."
The accused spoke so calmly and coolly, and with such an appearance of frankness, that the Emperor was staggered.
"It is the Epicharis case over again," he said to Tigellinus, who had by this time been summoned. "People seem to be making a trade of these lying accusations. They shall find that they are not to my taste."
Scævinus saw his advantage, and pursued it. "I ask you, Cæsar, to protect me against the unfaithfulness and falsehood of this man, this villain, who owes to me all that he has, and now seeks to raise himself higher on the ruins of my fortune. About other things I care not so much, but it is terrible that he should seek to make a profit for himself out of the loss of my honour. Cæsar, I implore your protection against him."
"And you shall have it, Scævinus," said the Emperor. "As for you," he went on in a voice of thunder, turning to the freedman, "you have a patron who is far too good for you. Henceforth he will treat you, I hope, as you deserve. He has my leave to squeeze out of you again all that he has given you, to the uttermost drop. Assuredly it was the unhappiest hour of your life when you came to me with this cock-and-bull story of a dagger and bandages. And now, Tigellinus," he went on, "it is time to be getting ready for the Circus."
The freedman stood struck dumb with disappointment and dismay. But his wife did not lose her courage and presence of mind.
"Ask him," she whispered, "whether he has not lately had many conferences with Natalis, and whether he is not an intimate friend of Caius Piso's."
The freedman caught eagerly at the suggestion. "Cæsar," said he, "ask Scævinus what dealings he has lately had with Natalis and Caius Piso."
Scævinus could not repress a start when he heard the names of two of the most prominent conspirators thus openly joined with his own, and the start did not escape the watchful eye of Tigellinus.
"There may be more in this, Sire, than you think," he whispered in Nero's ear. "Natalis is a notorious busy-body, and Piso is the most dangerous man in Rome."
"What do you advise, then?" asked the Emperor, impressed by his Minister's earnestness.
"Send for Natalis," replied Tigellinus, "and question him; but don't question him in the presence of the accused. Ask them separately what they have been interesting themselves in; if there is anything that they don't want to have known, they will certainly contradict each other."
The suggestion was immediately carried out. Natalis, arrested just as he was setting out for the Circus, and having a dagger actually concealed upon his person, lost his presence of mind. Interrogated by Tigellinus as to the business discussed at recent interviews with Scævinus, with a scribe sitting close by to take down his words, he hesitated and stammered. His invention seemed to fail him as well as his courage. At last he managed to blunder out a few words to the effect that Scævinus had been consulting him about the best way of investing some sums of money which would shortly be coming in to him from the paying off of sundry mortgages and loans. This was a peculiarly unlucky venture in the face of Scævinus' recent confession of poverty. Tigellinus smiled an evil smile as he listened. Natalis caught the look, and stammered worse than ever, for he knew that he had blundered.
"Thank you, my friend," said the Minister in the blandest of voices. "I am sure that the Senator Scævinus is a lucky man to have so admirable an adviser. Still you will pardon me for saying that you are a trifle obscure in your description. It will be instructive to call in the Senator himself, and hear his account of the matter."
Scævinus accordingly was brought in. The look of terror which came over his face as soon as he caught sight of Natalis was as good as a confession. Tigellinus, who hated him, as he hated every man better born and better bred than himself, smiled again.
"The Emperor," he began, in his soft, unctuous voice, "who feels a paternal interest in the affairs of his subjects, is anxious to know what was the subject of discussion when you were closeted yesterday so long with our friend Natalis."
Scævinus, who had by this time recovered his self-possession, answered without hesitation. His course was, it need hardly be said, clear before him. Indeed, he congratulated himself on the happy thought of having pleaded his poverty to the Emperor.
"I was consulting my friend about raising a loan on more moderate interest than what I am now paying." The Emperor laughed outright.
"Scribe," said Tigellinus to the slave who had been taking down the depositions in shorthand—for shorthand was an art well known to the Romans by that time,—"scribe, read aloud the answer of Antonius Natalis."
"One of you has certainly lied," said Tigellinus, "and probably both; but there are means of making you speak the truth."
He made a sign to a guard who stood at the door of the apartment. In a few minutes half-a-dozen slaves appeared, bringing with them a rack and other instruments of torture.
Scævinus started at the sight. "Cæsar," he cried, "is this with your permission? Torture to a Senator of Rome!"
"Silence, villain!" said the Minister. "You know that when the life of the Emperor is concerned—and what else meant you by the dagger?—all means of discovering the truth are permitted by the law."
The slaves began to prepare the rack for use. Natalis lost all his fortitude at the ghastly sound of the creaking beams, as the executioners worked the hideous thing backwards and forwards to see that it was in order.
"Spare me, Caesar," he cried, falling on his knees, "and I will confess all that I know."
Scævinus was not so lost to shame. He hesitated. He was even ready, if his companion had backed him up, to brave it out. But the cowardice of the other was contagious. If Natalis was to save himself by confession, why not he? His friends were lost anyhow; they would not fare one whit the worse for anything that he might say.
"Caesar," he said, still striving to keep up some show of dignity, "if you will deign to listen, I have something to say."
Tigellinus gloated with malignant pleasure over the man's useless humiliation. A Senator, offering to betray his friends and refused! What could be more welcome hearing to a parvenu!
"Nay, sir," he said; "we must observe due precedence. Every man according to his rank. In honourable things the Senator before the knight; in dishonourable the knight before the Senator. Is not that so, Sire?"
"Yes," said Nero; "speak on, Antonius Natalis. Meanwhile let our honourable Senator be removed. It has already been very interesting to observe how his account of things differed from his confederate's, and it may be interesting again."