The freedman Linus had lost no time in making his way to the mansion of Lateranus. He found everything there in a state of the wildest confusion. The wife and children of the dead man had fled for refuge to the house of a relative, taking with them nothing but what they could carry, and leaving everything else at the mercy of the slaves. These had thoroughly ransacked the house; they had broken into the cellars, where some of the plunderers lay at that moment in a state of hopeless intoxication. Others, of a more prudent type, had carried off whatever valuables they could lay their hands on. All the money and plate, in fact, every scrap of the precious metals that could be discovered, had disappeared. The chambers had been stripped of coverlets, curtains, and hangings. The handles of the doors had been removed, and even some of the best designs in the tessellated pavements had been pulled up. A more deplorable scene of ruin than that presented by the house when the freedman entered it could hardly be imagined.
He found, however, to his great relief, that Pomponia and Claudia had not been molested. The soldiers sent to arrest Lateranus had received no mandate about the two women, and had accordingly left them alone. One faithful slave had remained, and had been doing his best to minister to their wants. For these, indeed, there still remained in the house a sufficient supply, though much had been wasted by the pillagers. But the outlook before the two women was gloomy in the extreme. They had no friend or kinsman to whom they could look for help. They could not even hope to remain long forgotten. At present the thoughts of all were engrossed by the examination and discovery of the conspirators. But it could hardly be long before Poppæa would bethink herself of her victims. All the Christian fortitude of Pomponia was wanted to keep up her own courage and to administer comfort to her young companion.
It may be imagined then that the coming of the freedman was welcome in the extreme. He had not been able to reach the house in time to do anything that day. Even after nightfall, as long as the streets were full, it would not be safe to make a move. It was necessary for the party to wait with as much patience as they could exercise, till the quietest period of the twenty-four hours, the time between midnight and dawn.
The place in which Linus hoped to find a refuge for his patroness and her young companion was a spot which was then known only to a few, but which has since attained a world-wide fame, the Catacombs of Rome. The greater part of the vast subterranean region now known by that name did not then exist. But a beginning of the excavations had been made. Already there were chambers which could be used for temporary dwellings, others in which worship could be celebrated, and others, again, in which the remains of the dead could find a final resting-place.
The entrance to the excavations was by a sand-pit which had been long since disused. Happily for the secrecy which it was so essential to maintain, the place had an evil reputation. More than one murder had been committed there in former times, and every one, therefore, was careful to avoid it.
Linus succeeded in removing the two ladies to their new shelter without attracting any attention. About thirty persons were already assembled there. The bishop or chief presbyter of Rome was not there; he had been called away, it happened, on Church business some time before, but one of his principal colleagues was acting in his stead, and had charge of the little community. He gave the newcomers a hearty welcome, and committed the two women to the special charge of a deaconess, who conducted them to the chamber which was assigned to them, and did her best with the very scanty means at her command to provide for their comfort.
A few hours of rest were exceedingly grateful; but both insisted on attending the service which was held shortly after sunrise in a little chamber set apart for purposes of worship.
It was the first day of the week, and the minister celebrated, according to custom, the rite of the Holy Eucharist. It was the first time that Claudia was admitted to partake of the Elements. It had been arranged some months before, immediately, in fact, after her arrival at Rome, that she should present herself at the Communion, but no opportunity had occurred for her to carry out her intention. The delay, though it had troubled her much, was not without its use. Her feelings had been deepened and strengthened in no common degree by all that she had gone through. As she knelt by the side of her adopted mother to receive the bread and wine from the hands of the minister, she felt raised to a spiritual height which it is seldom granted to human nature to attain.
To one who watched the rite from without—for he was not privileged to enter the sacred precincts—Claudia seemed to wear a look of more than human sanctity. This observer was Pudens. He had carried out the instructions of Subrius to the letter, had parted with his chief on the friendliest terms, and, after concealing himself during the day, had managed, but not without meeting with one or two dangerous adventures, to reach the spot indicated by the freedman. Here the password, communicated to him by Linus, had secured his admission from the guardians of the entrance. He had arrived in time to witness the solemn scene just described, and to listen to the address, partly of thanksgiving, for the deliverance vouchsafed in the past, partly of exhortation to courage and faithfulness in the future, which the minister addressed to his little congregation at the close of the holy rite.
The days which followed, were full, for the young man, of curiously mingled emotions.
It was a delight to be near the woman whom he loved, and yet how remote she seemed from him! The follies of his youth, even the scheme in which he had been lately engaged, with its self-seeking and the pettiness of its motives and aims, as he now looked upon them, seemed to separate her hopelessly from him. The girl herself, on the few occasions which he had of seeing her, was friendly; she was more than friendly, she was profoundly grateful. But her looks, her demeanour, everything about her showed plainly enough that he was not in her thoughts in the way in which he wished to be.
Happily for him this painful ordeal—for such he felt it to be—did not last very long. About a week after his arrival there came tidings from the upper world, if so it may be called, which materially altered the prospects of the refugees. The intelligence was brought by a slave from the palace, one of the sympathizers whose presence at headquarters was, as we have already seen, often useful to the Christian community.
The main fact which the newcomer had to communicate to his friends was the death of Poppæa. Every one felt that the worst enemy of the Church was removed.
"When did she die?" asked one of the Elders.
"Yesterday," said the messenger.
"Cæsar struck her a violent blow with his foot. He had been driving his chariot, and came into the room where she was sitting, in his charioteer's dress. She was sick and suffering. Something, too, had happened to cross her temper. She taunted him. 'A pretty dress for Cæsar!' she said. 'I shall dress as I please,' he answered. 'At least you should do such things well,' she went on. That touched him to the quick, you may be sure. To be a charioteer does not trouble him, but to be a bad charioteer—that is intolerable. He fell into a furious rage, and kicked her. Three hours afterwards she died. The physicians could do nothing for her. I believe that she never spoke again. Indeed, she was not conscious. Cæsar, when his rage was over, was fairly mad with grief. He could not endure to be present at the Conclamatio, which was made last night."
"Poor creature!" said one of the audience. "May God show her more mercy than she showed to others!"
"She is to be embalmed and buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus, but there is to be a great burning all the same. Orders have been given for an image of the deceased to be made, and this to be burnt on the pyre. And Cæsar is to pronounce her funeral oration himself."
"Will this affect us?" asked the Elder who had first spoken.
"Greatly," replied the slave. "I have with me a copy of an edict which will be published in the course of a few days."
The edict was produced and read.
"Seeing that the people called Christians have already suffered sufficiently for their misdeeds, Cæsar decrees that they shall henceforth be permitted to live in peace, provided that they do not again offend against the safety of the Roman people."
As soon as the edict was posted up in the city—and this was done on the day of the funeral oration—the refugees returned to their homes. Pudens took the same opportunity of making his escape from Rome.
His original intention was, as has been said, to return to the army of Corbulo; but this plan, fortunately for him, was not carried out.
The causes that prevented it, however, very nearly cost him his life. He arrived at Antioch, on his way eastward, just at the beginning of the summer heats. Malarial fever, following the subsidence of the spring floods, was rife in the city, and Pudens, predisposed to infection by the fatigue of a very rapid journey, as well as by anxiety and distress, was soon prostrated by it. Happily a travelling companion, whom he had joined at Corinth, and who had found out that they possessed many mutual acquaintances, had hospitably invited him to take up his quarters at his house. Pudens, who could hardly have survived the neglect that would probably have been his lot at the public inn, was carefully nursed. Even then he had a hard fight for his life, and summer was passing into early autumn before he could be said to be on a fair way to recovery.
One day, about the middle of September, he was taking a walk in the garden, when he was joined by his host, a Roman knight, it may be said in passing, who managed some extensive affairs connected with the public revenue of the province of Syria.
"I must be thinking of going on," said Pudens, after the usual inquiries about health had been duly answered.
"That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about," returned his host. "Of course you know that the longer you stay with me as my guest the better pleased I shall be. But you have your own plans, and naturally want to carry them on. Now let me be frank, and tell you exactly what I know, and what I think you ought to do. It would not surprise you to hear that you have been delirious?"
Pudens nodded assent. There were blank spaces in his memory, and other spaces all but blank, but haunted with a dim sense of disturbance and trouble. Without any remembrance of actual pain he could easily believe that he had been in the condition which his host described.
"No, indeed," said our hero. "It is no surprise to me; I must have given you a world of trouble."
"Not a word of that; but hark!" and the speaker dropped his voice to a whisper, "you said things which made me take care that no one should watch you but myself and my wife."
Pudens could not help starting.
"Yes!" went on the other, "high matters of State which would touch a man's life. Now I do not ask for your confidence, but if there is anything in which I can help you, I am at your service."
Pudens saw at once that absolute frankness was his best policy, and related the story of the conspiracy.
"That is exactly what I supposed," returned his host, "and you thought of taking up again your service with Corbulo."
"That was my idea," said Pudens.
"And not a bad idea either, in some cases. There are camps where you would be safe, even though you were known to have had a hand in the conspiracy, supposing, I mean of course, the general-in-command wished it to be so. You would be safe with Verginius on the Rhine, or with Galba in Spain. They are too big men for the Emperor to disturb, and if they don't choose to give a fugitive up, he has to be content. Corbulo is big enough in one way, but he has no idea of disputing the Emperor's will. It is more than fidelity with him. It is subservience, except that he does not think of getting anything by it. If Nero sends a Centurion for Corbulo's head, he will put out his neck, mark my words, without a murmur. And they are after you; that I know. While you were lying insensible, a Centurion passed through here with a warrant for the arrest of a conspirator, whose name I happened to hear,—indeed, I was applied to for my help,—and the name was Caius Pudens. No! you must not go back to Corbulo; it would be putting your head into the lion's mouth."
"It is a disappointment," said Pudens. "I had counted upon Corbulo. But what do you suggest?"
"That is exactly what I have been thinking of. It would be a risk to go westward again; though once in Spain or Germany you might be safe. No; I should advise you to stay here, or hereabouts. I have an idea," he resumed, after a few minutes' silence. "You must tell me what you think about it. Briefly, it is this; enlist under another name in the local force which our King here keeps up. It is a somewhat audacious plan, but none the worse for that. You can wear the beard which you have grown during your three months' illness. It is not uncommon in the force. That will be something of a disguise."
The suggestion was carried out, and with success. No one thought of looking for a conspirator in hiding among the troops of King Antiochus, and so no one found him. The events of the years that followed may be told in a few words. Two years after his enlistment Pudens heard of the fate of Corbulo, a fate which singularly justified his friend's conception of his character. Not long after he had the relief of hearing that Nero was dead. In the year of civil strife that followed this event, the year which saw three Emperors fall in rapid succession, he was, happily for himself, better employed than in supporting one pretender or another. Vespasian, appointed to command the legions of Syria in the year of Corbulo's death, had a keen eye for a good soldier; he saw the capacity of Pudens, and offered him a place on his personal staff, during the earlier operations of the Jewish war. Vespasian, going to Rome in the autumn of 69 to take possession of the Imperial throne, handed over his aide-de-camp to Titus. A brilliant period of service followed. The most famous siege in history, the siege of Jerusalem, was going on, and Pudens had a share in all its perils and glories.