"Let me present to you my friend Subrius, a Tribune of the Prætorians," said Lateranus, addressing Pomponia. "I sent for him as soon as your message reached me."
"You are very good in coming so readily to help a stranger," said Pomponia with a gracious smile.
"I do not think of the Lady Pomponia as a stranger," replied the Tribune. "I had the honour of serving my first campaign under her husband. Allow me, in my turn, to present to you my friend and kinsman, Marcus Annius Pudens. He has just returned on furlough from the Euphrates, and is staying with me in camp."
"I thank you, too, sir," said Pomponia. "It is very pleasant to find that one has so many friends."
"Well," said Lateranus, "you are come in time. Just now we don't want your swords, but we certainly want your counsel. Have I your permission," he went on, addressing himself to Pomponia, "to put the whole state of the case before these gentlemen?"
Pomponia signified her assent.
"Matters then stand thus. For reasons which it is needless at present to explain, the Lady Pomponia has incurred the enmity of Poppæa. I recognized the Empress' most trusted freedman as the leader of the attack which I had the good fortune to be able to repulse. If I know anything of her and him they won't accept defeat. The question is, what is to be done? What say you, Subrius?"
The Tribune considered awhile. "It is quite clear that Poppæa and her agent are taking advantage of an exceptional time. Commonly, even she would not have ventured so far. Men have not forgotten what Aulus Plautius did for Rome, and his widow could not have been murdered with impunity. But the city is now in an extraordinary state. Law is absolutely suspended. The Watch seems to have received instructions to do nothing, or even worse than nothing. I am convinced that this fire is not an accident; or, if it was so in the beginning, it is not in the extent to which it has reached. I am positive that this morning, as I was making my way to the camp, I saw a scoundrel throw a lighted torch through the window of a house. I seized the fellow; but his companions rescued him, and when I called for help to a squad of the Watch that happened to be close by, they stood still and did nothing."
"A big fire," remarked Pudens, "gives a fine opportunity for thieves, and they naturally make the best of it."
"True," replied the Tribune; "but why do the Watch behave as if they were in league with them? Did not the same thing strike you last night, Lateranus?"
"Yes," said Lateranus. "At first I thought that they were simply dazed by the magnitude of the disaster; afterwards I could not help seeing that they were deliberately increasing it."
"Well, then," resumed Subrius, "to come to the point that immediately concerns us. We have to reckon with an exceptional state of things. For the present, as I said, law is suspended. We can't reckon on the guardians of the peace; nor, so occupied is every one with saving themselves or their property, on the help of the public. And supposing that this house catches fire, what then? Just now it is not in danger; but who can tell what may happen? The wind may change, and then the flames might be down upon it in an hour. Or it may be deliberately set on fire. That, if I can trust my own eyes, is being done elsewhere. What would happen then? Depend upon it, Poppæa and the villains that do her bidding will be watching their opportunity, and what a terrible chance they would have of working their will amidst all the confusion of a burning house. That is my view of the situation."
"What, then, would you advise?" asked Pomponia in a tone that betrayed no agitation or alarm.
"I should say—seek some safer place," replied Subrius.
"For myself," said Pomponia after a pause, "I should be disposed to stay where I am."
"But, dearest aunt," cried Lateranus, "if what Subrius says is true, and I do not doubt for an instant that it is, that means certain death."
"And if it does, dear Aulus," replied Pomponia, "that does not seem so dreadful to me."
"But there are others," said Lateranus.
"You are right," Pomponia answered after a few minutes' reflection; "there are others. I should like, if it will not offend you, gentlemen, to ask for the counsel of one whom I greatly trust."
She pressed her hand-bell, and when the attendant appeared, said to him, "I would speak with Phlegon, if he is at leisure."
In the course of a short time, Phlegon, a Greek freedman, who was the superintendent of Pomponia's household, made his appearance. He was a man of singularly venerable appearance, nearly eighty years of age, but hale and vigorous.
"Phlegon," said Pomponia, "these gentlemen are agreed that if we stay here our lives are not safe, and they counsel us to flee. What say you? My feeling is for staying. Are we not ready? Have we not been living for twenty years past as if this might come any day? And does not the holy Paul say in that letter of which Clemens of Philippi sent us a copy the other day, 'I have a desire to depart and be with Christ'?"
"True, lady," said Phlegon; "but he goes on, if I remember right, 'But to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.' And you have others to think of, as he had. And did not the Master Himself say, 'When they persecute you in one city, flee ye to another'?"
"You are right, as usual, Phlegon," said Pomponia. "I will go; but whither? As you know, nephew," she went on, turning to Aulus, "I have sold all my country houses, as my husband's will directed me, except, indeed, the one at Antium."
"Well," said Lateranus, "it would hardly do for you to have Poppæa for a neighbour. But all my villas are at your disposal. There is one at Tibur; indeed, two at Tibur; only the second is but a poor place; one at Baiæ, another at Misenum, three at the Lake of Comum, one on Benacus, and—"
"Ah," said Subrius, laughing, "you never are able to go through the list of your country houses without stumbling. But I have an idea of my own for which I venture to think something may be said. There is a place belonging to me near Gabii. It can hardly be called a country house, it is so small, but it has, for the present purpose, some advantages. In the first place, it is very much out of the way; and in the second, it is very strong. In fact, it is an old fortress, dating back, I have been told by people who are learned in these matters, from the time of the Kings. It has a deep moat all round it, crossed only by a single bridge which can be removed at pleasure, and the walls are high and strong. In short, it is a place that would stand a siege, if need be. Anyhow, it is safe against a surprise. If the Lady Pomponia can put up with a very poor place and mean accommodation, the house, such as it is, is entirely at her service."
"An admirable plan!" cried Lateranus. "What say you, my dear aunt? I know that you do not set much store on outward things."
"No, indeed, I do not," replied Pomponia. "The offer of the Tribune Subrius I most gladly accept, but how to thank him sufficiently I do not know."
"There is no need of thanks, lady," said Subrius. "I owe everything to Aulus Plautius, who made a soldier of me when I might have been—I am not ashamed to own it—a poltroon. Do what I may, I shall never repay the debt."
"And when shall we start?" asked Pomponia.
"At once, to-night, I would suggest," answered Subrius. "The moon is nearly full, and you will barely reach my house before it sets."
Arrangements were made accordingly for a start that evening. Subrius would not be able to accompany them, for he had to be on duty in the camp, and thought it as well not to ask for leave of absence. His place was to be taken by his friend Pudens, an arrangement which would have its advantages, as the person of Pudens would not be known. For the same reason Lateranus, one of the best known, as he was one of the most popular men in Rome, determined to absent himself. But he furnished the two litters with their bearers, which were to convey Pomponia and Claudia, each with a single female attendant, and he also sent, by way of guard, the same detachment of his cohort which he had brought to the relief of the house in the morning. Pomponia's establishment, it should be said, was on the smallest scale, not because she was either poor or parsimonious, but because her great wealth was devoted to the benevolence which her faith was already beginning to make a new factor in human life.
Punctually at sunset the party started. The route chosen was naturally that which took them by the shortest way out of the city. But, small as was the space which they traversed, the sights which they encountered were harrowing in the extreme. The fire itself, in its active force, had passed elsewhere, but it had left behind it a hideous scene of desolation. Some of the larger buildings were still burning, sending up huge volumes of smoke, out of which a tongue of flame would now and then shoot forth. In some places the blackened walls stood erect, with a ghastly semblance of the human habitation which they had once contained; in others everything had fallen prostrate in undistinguishable confusion on the ground. Here and there an arch or portico tottered to its fall in a way that threatened the passer-by with instant destruction. Sometimes the traveller could see the pathetic remnant of a ruined home which by some strange chance the flames had spared, a hearth with the chairs still standing about it, a table spread with the remnants of a meal, a picture on a wall, a draught-board left just as the players had started up from it in their alarm, a harp, a baby's cradle. Now and then they came across the corpse of some unhappy inmate who had been struck by a falling stone, or half buried under some huge beam. There had not been time to remove these ghastly remains, or the calamity was so overpowering that men had lost their respect for the remains of the dead,—always one of the worst signs of a general despair. In many places poor creatures who had lost their all were groping among the yet smoking ruins for any possession of a more durable kind that might have survived or escaped the ravages of the flames. Elsewhere, sufferers too broken by their loss to make any effort, sat by the smouldering remains of what had once been a happy home, in a mute and tearless despair. Outside the walls, the scene, though deplorable enough, was yet diversified with a more cheerful element. Groups of people, surrounded many of them by a strange and incongruous medley of possessions which they had contrived to rescue from the flames, were camping out round fires which they had lighted. Many were cooking their evening meal; some were staring motionless into the flames; not a few, with the irrepressible gayety of a southern nature, were singing merry songs or joining in some uproarious chorus.
The sight of all this distress so affected the compassionate heart of Pomponia that she could scarcely be induced to pass on. It was not, indeed, till she had exhausted all the stock of money that she had brought with her, in relieving what seemed the most urgent cases of need, that she could be persuaded to continue her journey. It was, perhaps, well for her comfort that Phlegon, who was more prudent, though not less kindly than his mistress, made a point of keeping a secret store, which he produced when everything seemed exhausted. On this occasion, when banking, in common with all other business was suspended, this resource was found particularly useful.
The party had left Rome and its environs some way behind them, when a turn of the road brought them into a full view of the quarter where the conflagration was then raging most furiously. The twilight had now passed, and the moon was low in the heavens, so that the darkness brought the awful spectacle into more prominent relief.
"Oh, mother!" cried Claudia, who had begun to use this endearing name to the elder lady, "do you think that this is the end of the world that is come?"
"Nay, my daughter; there is much to happen before that can be."
"But is Rome, think you, to be destroyed? Did not the holy Clement say something to this purpose the other day? Did he not speak—you know that I know very little of these things—of cities that had been destroyed for their wickedness? Is not Rome very wicked?"
"Truly, my daughter; yet the Lord hath much people there, and will have more before the end shall come."
Both felt it to be a relief when another turn of the road hid again the terrible spectacle. Both turned their eyes southward, where the stars were beginning to come out in the dark purple depths of the summer night. Another half-hour's journey brought them without further adventure to their journey's end.