The Fate of Subrius
The physician, whose house was in the immediate neighbourhood, offered Subrius hospitality for the night. The Tribune, unwilling to compromise any one by his presence, declined it.
"There are reasons," he said, "why I should not come under your roof; don't ask me what they are, for it is better that you should not know. Besides, it is necessary for me to get back to Rome as soon as may be."
Subrius had given up all hope for himself. Resistance and escape were equally out of the question. Nor could he hope to do anything for his confederates. Most of them were already in the hands of the authorities; the others would be infallibly named by one or other of the informers. The only one whom he saw a chance of saving was Pudens. Pudens was unknown to most of the conspirators,—a simple soldier on leave who might, it was possible, be sheltered by his obscurity. The Tribune was inclined to reproach himself for having involved the young man, whose frank and engaging character had greatly attracted him, in an undertaking which he now saw had been doomed to failure from the first.
It was just possible that the mischief might be undone. It still wanted some three or four hours of midnight. Whatever was to be done must be done before morning, for beyond that time the final blow could hardly be delayed. If Pudens could be found that night, he might possibly escape.
The Tribune accordingly proceeded straight to the place where the young officer was still employed in the superintendence of public works before described. Late as it was when he arrived, Pudens was still busy. It was, in fact, the last day of his engagement, and he was busy completing his final report and making up his accounts, for he had latterly been intrusted with the payment of the workmen. He was not alone, for the Christian freedman, whom for some time he had employed as his assistant, was with him, and was helping him to wind up the affairs of his office. Curiously enough, no tidings of the exciting events which had been going on in Rome had reached him.
As briefly as possible Subrius put his young friend in possession of the state of the case. "All is lost!" he said. "By whose fault this has come about it does not profit to inquire. For the present the fact is enough. All but a few of our friends are already in prison; the rest will soon be there. But there is a chance for you. You were a stranger to most of those who were concerned in the affair. Neither Scævinus nor Natalis, who are the principal informers, knew you by name. It is the greatest good luck that your engagement here has come to an end. As it is, your going away need excite no suspicion. My advice to you is this: Go to-morrow morning with your report and your accounts to your chief; but mind, don't go a moment before the usual time. Keep as cool as you can. If he says anything of what has happened, you, of course, will know nothing about it. Afterwards bid good by to any acquaintance that you may have. Mind, whatever you do, be leisurely and calm. Let there be nothing like hurry, for hurry is suspicious. After that I must leave everything to your own judgment and ingenuity. You have, I fancy from what you told me, a certain talent for disguising yourself. You will want it. Make your way, I should say, to the armies in the East. The particular spot that will be safest you must judge hereafter. The gods preserve you!"
"And you!" cried the young man. "Will not you come with me?"
"Nay, my friend," replied Subrius, "I should spoil it all, destroy your chance, and not profit myself."
"But Pomponia and Claudia!" said Pudens, after a pause. "How can I leave them when I might be of some help?"
"You can do nothing," answered Subrius. "If they are to be helped it cannot be by you. I don't even know where they are. Lateranus, as I told you, was arrested and executed. They were in his house. I did not hear of their being taken at the same time. Anyhow it will not profit them for you to thrust your head into the lion's mouth."
At this point the freedman interrupted the conversation.
"I think, sir," he said, "that I may be of some use, both to the noble ladies, if they are not already removed from Lateranus' house, and to my friend here, if I may be permitted so to speak of him. As for him, I do not think that it would be advisable for him to put the plan which you suggest into execution at once. That he should make his way some time to the army in the East, I agree; but, I should say, not now. Now, it is certain, all the roads, all the ports, are watched. A little time hence this vigilance will be relaxed; then the attempt can be made with more chance of success."
"What then do you suggest?" asked Subrius.
"We of the faith," answered the freedman, "have a hiding-place, where we keep our most precious things,—our books, our sacred vessels, and, in case of need, the persons of those whom we desire to conceal from the rage of our enemies. More I am not at liberty to say, for I am bound to secrecy; but there is a hope, I assure you, and I will certainly do my best to fulfil it."
"What say you, Pudens?" said the Tribune, turning to the young man.
It will readily be believed that Pudens did not hesitate for a moment. The idea of making his own escape, and leaving the two women to their fate, had been extremely distasteful to him. Though he had been compelled to confess to himself that he could give them little or no help, he still felt a desire, perhaps an unreasonable desire, to be near them, even, if it was so to be, to share their fate. He caught eagerly at the freedman's proposal.
"I will stay," he said, "and take my chance here."
"Then," cried Subrius, "if that is settled, I will go." He took an affectionate farewell of his friend, and departed.
Some time had been occupied in the discussion, more than would be supposed from the brief summary that has here been given of it. It was now nearly dawn, and broad daylight before the camp was reached.
Here, somewhat, perhaps, to his surprise, the Tribune found everything quiet. The sentinel at the gate saluted as usual. His soldier servant, who had been waiting for him, showed him all the customary respect, and roused him, after two or three hours of slumber, with the message that the Prefect wished to have his attendance at the Emperor's Court.
He obeyed the summons, impressed with the profound conviction that that day was to see the end of the desperate game which the Prefect had been playing.
The first intelligence that he received on reaching the Court was that Epicharis was beyond the reach of her enemies. While on her way to the Court, where she was to be again subjected to the torture, she had contrived to put an end to her life.
"Thank the gods for that!" muttered the Tribune to himself. "She, at all events, is at peace. And now for our turn!"
The turn came soon enough. The Prefect had been bearing himself all the morning, as prisoner after prisoner was being examined, with more than his usual confidence. At last Scævinus, who was again being questioned, when taunted with keeping back much of what he knew, turned upon his persecutor.
"No one knows more of these things," he said with a meaning smile, "than yourself, Fænius Rufus. You are very jealous for your Emperor; don't you think that you can show your gratitude to him by making a confession of your own?"
One would think that the man must have foreseen that, sooner or later, one of the accused would thus attack him. Yet he seemed as utterly unprepared for it as if such a contingency had never occurred to him. He might have flatly denied it; he might have passed over it with a pretence of silent contempt. He did neither. He hesitated, stammered, corrected and contradicted himself, in so manifest a condition of panic that his very appearance was equivalent to a confession.
The example once set, Scævinus did not want for followers. Prisoner after prisoner stood up, and gave details so numerous, so minute, so consistent, as to put the fact of the Prefect's complicity beyond a doubt.
"Seize him," cried Nero. "To think that this villain has been sitting unsuspected by my side for days!"
A soldier, Cassius by name, a man of gigantic frame and vast strength, stepped forward, seized and bound him.
"And then," cried one of the prisoners, "Cæsar, there is another conspirator among your guards. I charge Subrius Flavius, Tribune of the Prætorians, with treason."
Nero started up in terror from his chair. His emotion was not mere terror. He knew the Tribune, knew him as a man of singular courage, and as he had always believed one who had always entertained a strong affection for himself.
"Say, Subrius, I implore you," he cried, "say that this is not true. I cannot believe that you, too, are among the traitors."
"Is it likely, Cæsar," replied the Tribune, "that I should league myself with cowards and traitors such as these?"
The defence may have been serious; more probably it was ironical. Anyhow it was soon thrown aside. The witnesses heaped up evidence on evidence, and the Tribune, standing calmly and contemptuously silent, tacitly admitted its truth.
"Tell me, Subrius," said the Emperor, and there was even a touch of pathos in his voice, "tell me why you have forgotten your oath. You swore to be faithful to me. How is it, brave soldier as you are, that you have leagued yourself with traitors?"
"Listen, Cæsar," cried the Tribune, "and hear the truth if for once only in your life. I conspired against you because I hated you. You had not a more faithful soldier while you deserved to be loved. But when you murdered your mother and your wife, when you became a charioteer, an actor, and an incendiary, then I began to hate you."
These bold words struck the tyrant like a blow. He grew pale and shook with terror, and could not have been more utterly panic-stricken had the speaker been standing over him with a dagger.
"Away with him!" he cried, when he had recovered his voice; and he was immediately pinioned and dragged away.
His daring had at least one result that a brave man would have desired. Possibly he had calculated upon it. He was not kept in suspense about his fate. A fellow-tribune was ordered to lead him off to instant execution. A pit was dug in the field where he was to suffer. Subrius looked on with unmoved countenance while the work was being done. When the Centurion in charge saluted and reported it as finished Subrius looked at it with a critical eye.
"Too narrow, too shallow!" he said. "You can't even dig a grave according to regulations."
"Hold out your head, and don't flinch," said the Tribune, who had been charged to administer the fatal blow with his own hand.
"Flinch you as little when you strike," said Subrius, eying with scorn his pale face and trembling hand.
And indeed it needed a second blow before the head was severed from the body.
"Ah, the villain felt that he was dying!" said Nero, when the Tribune reported and even made a boast of what had happened.
It would be tedious to tell in detail the story of how Nero, his rage redoubled by his fear, pursued the conspirators with an unrelenting severity. Scarcely one escaped, and, strangely enough, some whom by some capricious indulgence he either acquitted or pardoned, put an end to their own lives, unable it would seem, to endure existence under such a master.