The situation with which the young soldier found himself compelled to deal was one of great difficulty. Subrius' country house had been a sufficient shelter for the two ladies as long as it was only illegal violence on the part of Poppæa that they had to fear. But the case would be different when a regular proscription, in which they would certainly be included, had been ordered. The little fort-like house might resist a coup de main such as had been attempted at Pomponia's mansion, but it would have to open its gates at a summons from the Imperial authority, and that the Imperial authority would be invoked, and invoked without delay, by the animosity of Poppæa, could not be doubted for a moment. If resistance was impossible, what remained? Nothing but flight, and flight from a power which embraced, or in the view of a Roman seemed to embrace, the whole of the habitable world, was notoriously impossible.
There was a third alternative—concealment. Could that be contrived? Possibly; but where? Obviously under ordinary circumstances in Rome itself, for there is no hiding-place so safe as a crowded city. But then Rome, of which a third lay still in ruins from the fire, and another third was in process of rebuilding, was certainly not as suitable for the purpose as usual.
Suddenly an idea struck him. There was a certain grotesqueness about it which made him laugh in spite of the gravity of the situation. A little consideration showed him that this very grotesqueness was no small recommendation. His foster-mother was the wife of a temple servant who had the charge of a temple dedicated to one of the minor deities with which the Roman Pantheon was crowded. The temple itself, which had stood near the Circus, had perished in the fire, but the residence, which was at a considerable distance, had escaped, and as it did not come within the area of the projected improvements of the city, was not likely to be disturbed. It was here, then, that Pudens fancied he could find a fairly safe hiding-place for the two ladies. In his foster-mother's fidelity and devotion to him he could implicitly trust. Childless herself,—for she had lost all her offspring in their infancy,—she lavished all her mother's love upon her foster-child. Nothing that he could do was wrong in her eyes. She would give, he was sure, an asylum to the worst of criminals, if only he came with a recommendation from him. Her husband was an easy, good-natured man, accustomed to follow without a question the guidance of his wife, and not more zealous for the honour of the deity whom he served, than those who were behind the scenes of any temple commonly were.
Pudens' idea was to tell the wife the truth about her inmates, and to leave it to her to decide how much she would communicate to her husband. There was no time to be lost. He had one day before him, but no more. The Christian assembly had been held as usual in the very early morning, and it still wanted several hours to noon. All arrangements would have to be made before sunset; as soon as it was dark the ladies must leave their present abode, and they would have to be in their new asylum before the next morning.
The first thing to be done was to provide the shelter. Pudens made the best of his way to his foster-mother's house, and was lucky enough to find her before she went out to make her daily purchases in the market.
The good woman's astonishment when she heard the errand on which he had come was great. She had just heard of the Christians, but had the very vaguest ideas as to what they were. These ideas naturally reflected the popular prejudices.
"Of course," she said, "we will do anything that we can." Like the wise woman that she was, she always associated her husband with herself as far as words went. "We will do anything that we can for friends of yours; but I have heard that these Christians are very wicked people."
"Wicked, mother!" cried the young man; "these are two of the best women that ever lived."
"But why does the Emperor want to harm them, then?"
"Need you ask, mother, when you have such a woman as Poppæa stirring him up to all kinds of wickedness?"
There was still such a prestige about the Emperor that it was still the custom, at least in speaking, whatever the real belief may have been, to attribute his misdoings to bad advisers.
Statia—this was the foster-mother's name—had all the dislike that a good woman would be likely to feel for Poppæa, while she had a certain weakness for the handsome young Emperor, of whom she was ready to believe as much good and as little evil as the utmost stretch of charity would allow.
"Ah!" she cried; "so it is one of that mischievous woman's doings."
"And how about your husband?"
"Oh, it will be all right with him. I shall tell him that the ladies are people whom Poppæa hates. That will be enough for him. He thinks as ill of her as I do. You see it was Otho, her first—no, I am wrong, her second husband, that got him his present place, and he thinks that she has treated him very badly."
This matter satisfactorily settled, the next thing was to provide for the safe conveyance of the fugitives from the one place to the other. Here Pudens found himself face to face with a huge difficulty. The litter in which they had journeyed from Rome was out of the question. A secret known to eight bearers would hardly be a secret long. The younger woman would certainly be able to ride, and possibly to walk, for the distance was not beyond the strength of an active girl. The elder would as certainly be incapable of either exertion.
"What is to be done, Statia?" he asked, after turning the matter over for some time in his own mind.
For a time the good woman was utterly perplexed. At last an idea occurred to her.
"The ladies will come as early as possible to-morrow," she said. "That is your plan, is it not?"
"Just so," replied the young man.
"When the market carts come in from the country."
"Then they must come in a market cart."
"Admirably thought of, mother; but how about the cart?"
"My brother Marcus, who has a farm for vegetables in the suburbs, will lend me one. I shall tell him that I am borrowing it for a friend who is moving her goods into the city. You will have to act the wagoner."
"That I can manage easily enough. It is not the first time that I have done it."
It had been a favourite frolic with Pudens, in his somewhat turbulent youth, to seek adventures in the disguise of a countryman. He had still the rough smock frock and leggings laid up somewhere in his house.
"I shall go to my brother this afternoon, and make everything ready for you. You must come dressed as a wagoner; and mind, you must not have the dress only, but the speech also. Can you manage this? Let me hear you try."
Pudens gave so excellent an imitation of rustic speech that the woman burst out laughing. "That will do," she cried; "nothing could be better."
Shortly after noon Pudens might have been seen starting from his house. He was on horseback, and was apparently bound on a journey, for he carried behind him a travelling valise. It contained, besides his own disguise, two plain cloaks, such as the country women commonly wore when they came into Rome; these were intended for the use of the two ladies. When he had got about six miles from the city, he dismounted, concealed the valise in a little wood by the wayside, and then mounting again, rode on to a little inn, a haunt of his earlier days, where he was consequently well known, and where no questions would be asked, and scarcely any curiosity felt about his proceedings. Here he put up his horse; and then, retracing his steps to the wood, assumed the wagoner's dress. Pudens had a certain genius for acting, and no one would have recognized the elegant and fashionable young soldier in the middle-aged, slouching countryman, a rustic of the rustics, as any one would have thought him, who plodded along the road in the direction of the farm where he was to find the vehicle.
Everything went well. Statia had been better than her word. She had induced her brother to provide a covered wagon, as being far more convenient for the purpose than a common cart. It was drawn by a couple of horses, about whose welfare the farmer gave many cautions to the supposed wagoner. "My sister tells me," he said, "that you are a careful man, who knows how to treat a good beast as he deserves. Don't you overdrive the poor creatures; be gentle with them up the hills if you have much of a load; see with your own eyes that they get their food when you put them up at the tavern—you know the place, the Phœnix, just outside the gate; an honest place enough, but hostlers will have their little tricks everywhere."
Pudens, who had commended himself to the farmer by some judicious praise of his animals, promised to take all imaginable care of wagon and horses, and had the satisfaction of getting away, without exciting, as he hoped, the slightest suspicion as to his real character. His promise, however, did not prevent him from putting the animals to a sharp trot, that would probably have struck dismay into their owner's heart, as soon as he was well out of sight of the farm. Time, indeed, was precious. He had to reach the old fort, to tell his story, to persuade the ladies to follow his advice, itself likely, he fancied, to be a task of some difficulty, and to get back to Rome before sunrise the next day.
The sun was just setting when he reached the fort. Tying up the horses to a tree he approached the building, knocked, or to speak more accurately, kicked at the door, and asked for the old steward. The old man came to the door, expecting to be interviewed on some ordinary business, and of course failed to recognize his visitor, whom, indeed, he had seen once only in his natural semblance. Pudens intimated that his business was of a private kind, and on finding himself alone with the steward revealed his name, recalling to the old man's recollection the occasion on which they had met before. Nothing could exceed his astonishment. But when the soldier went on to unfold his errand, describing the imminent danger in which Pomponia and her young companion were placed, and the scheme by which he hoped to rescue them, the old man became cool and practical at once.
"Yes," he said, "there is a hope that you may succeed; but the first difficulty will be to persuade my lady. Her own inclination would be to stay here and face the danger, whatever it was."
"Shall I see her?"
"Not, I should say, before I have told her the story. The affair is enough to confound any one, much more a woman who has lived out of the world for many years, and it must be broken to her."
"Very good; arrange it as you think best. But remember that there is no time to be lost. I should be starting in an hour at the most, if I am to get to Rome before sunrise to-morrow, and I ought not to be later."
The old man hastened away at once to seek an interview with Pomponia. In about half an hour he returned.
"Come with me," he said. "My lady wishes to speak with you."
Pudens followed him to a room where the two ladies were sitting together. Ushered into their presence, he felt, and was ashamed of feeling, somewhat embarrassed by the consciousness of a ludicrous disguise, all the more when he perceived that Claudia, notwithstanding the gravity of the situation, could not resist a little smile.
"You have my thanks," began Pomponia, "for all the trouble that you have taken and the risk that you have run. But I must confess that I would sooner await here whatever God may please to send."
The steward broke in with the freedom of speech often accorded to, or at least assumed by, an old servant.
"Madam, if I may be permitted to say so much, there spoke the wife of a Roman Consular rather than the handmaid of Christ."
Pomponia flushed at the rebuke, but answered gently, "How so? I would not willingly forget my duty."
"Madam," went on the old man, "it seems to me that what God has sent, as far as we can see at present, is this young man. He comes with a well contrived scheme which he has taken much pains to carry out so far. But because it does not suit your dignity to fly from your enemies, or to put on a disguise, you refuse to avail yourself of it. Did the blessed Paul think it below his dignity to be let down in a basket out of a window in the wall of Damascus? Not so; he took the means of deliverance that God sent him, and did not wait for something else that might be more to his taste. And let me say again, madam, what I have said before. You may think it right for yourself to stop here and face the enemy; but you have no right to involve others, this dear young lady for instance, with you. She is young; she is new in the faith,—she will pardon an old man for speaking his mind,—and she may not have your strength when she is brought to the fiery trial. Nay, madam,"—he hesitated a moment before he uttered words that might imply possible doubt of his mistress' own courage and endurance,—"Nay, madam, who knows but what your own strength may fail, if you persist in trying it in a place to which you are not called."
The last two arguments affected Pomponia powerfully. What if this were a call? It would be a sin if she did not follow it, for herself and her young companion.
"Phlegon is right," she said after a short pause; "we will do as you think best."
It was arranged that the two female attendants who had accompanied the visitors should remain where they were. It was difficult, if not impossible, otherwise to dispose of them. Probably they would escape unmolested, passing as part of the small establishment which the owner of the house was accustomed to maintain. Phlegon would find shelter with friends in Rome, and would keep up, if possible, some communication with his mistress.
It is needless to describe the journey to Rome. It was effected without any difficulty; but one incident that occurred in the course of it proved how narrow an escape the fugitives had had. When about half the distance had been traversed, Pudens halted at a wayside inn to rest and bait the horses. At the very moment that he did so, a party of horse soldiers which was travelling the other way drew up before the door of the hostelry. It consisted of two troops, numbering together about sixty men, and was commanded by an officer of some rank, who was accompanied by a civilian. Pudens guessed their errand in a moment. They had come, he was sure, to arrest Pomponia, and it was quite possible that they might insist on searching the wagon. Boldness, he felt, was the only policy. Any attempt to escape would certainly be fatal. He came forward, made a clumsy salutation to the officer in command, and began to converse with some of the troopers. He ordered a flagon of the coarse wine of the country, and shared it with the newcomers. The liquor set the men's tongues wagging, and Pudens soon learnt that his suspicions were correct. They were bound, said one of the men, for an old country house to arrest some prisoners.
"Who are they? What have they done?" asked the supposed wagoner.
"By Bacchus!" cried the man; "I know nothing about it. I heard something about their being Christians, whatever that may mean. All that I can tell you is that it is some affair of Poppæa. You see that fat man by our chief's side? He has had a bad time of it, I fancy. He is not used to riding, I take it, and we have been pushing on at a good rate. Well, he is one of Poppæa's freedmen. That fellow there," he pointed as he spoke to a slave who was evidently in charge of a couple of troopers, "is our guide. He knows, it seems, where the parties whom we want are, and was to have a turn on the 'little horse' if he didn't tell."
This, Pudens imagined, must be some poor wretch belonging to Pomponia's household in Rome, who had been unlucky enough to overhear the name of the place where his mistress was to find shelter.
The easy bearing of Pudens had exactly the effect which he hoped from it, while the accident of the two parties meeting at the halting-place was all in favour of his escape. Probably, had the soldiers encountered him on the road, they would have challenged him, and overhauled the contents of his wagon. As matters turned out, the idea never occurred either to the officer in command or to any of his men. He acted his part so thoroughly well, that no notion of his being anything more than a countryman on his way to the Roman market with a load of produce, crossed any one's mind. Anxious to avoid the remotest cause of suspicion, he purposely prolonged his halt, though, it need not be said, intensely anxious to be off, till the soldiers had started again. It was with intense relief that he heard the officer in command give the order to mount. When the last of the troopers had disappeared in the darkness, he climbed to the driver's seat, tossed the hostler his fee,—which he was careful not to make the smallest fraction larger than usual,—and set his horses in motion. The two women, who had sat all this time under the covering of the wagon, hand clasped in hand, in a perfect agony of suspense, breathed a fervent thanksgiving when they felt themselves to be once more upon the way.
Nothing else happened to alarm the travellers during the rest of their journey; but the most critical time was yet to come. While they were still out of sight of the inn where the wagon and horses were to be put up, the two ladies alighted. Each was disguised beyond recognition, Pudens hoped, in the coarse cloaks usually worn by the market-women when they travelled by night, and each carried a large basket filled, or apparently filled, with goods that they were about to offer for sale. At the inn, of course, the wagon and the horses were well known, but Pudens, as a stranger, excited some curiosity.
"Well," he said, in answer to some question, "old Caius has a touch of fever,"—he had taken the precaution of ascertaining the name of the man whom the farmer usually employed,—"and I am taking his place. It is not to my liking at all," he went on; "I had sooner be in my bed, by a long way."
At the city gate the porter grumbled a little at being roused so early, but asked no questions. Catching a glimpse of Claudia's beautiful face, he paid the girl a rough compliment which made her shiver with fear and disgust. Pudens would have dearly liked to knock the fellow down, but, anxious above all things to avoid a scene, restrained himself.
"Hold your tongue," he growled to the man in the harshest country accent that he could put on, "and leave her alone. She is not your sort."
"Nor yours, either," retorted the man; "for a rougher bumpkin I never saw."
The "bumpkin," however, he perceived to be unusually tall and stout, and one who would be a formidable fellow to quarrel with. He returned into the gate-house, and the party passed on without further molestation. The streets were almost deserted, so early was the hour. Beyond one or two late revellers staggering home, and a few workmen engaged in some occupation that had to be begun betimes, no one met them. When they reached the temple servant's door where Statia was waiting to receive her new inmates, they had escaped, so Pudens had good reason to hope, all hostile observation.