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- Serapis, Volume 6. - 3/10 -
agitatores had to exert all their strength to hold in the startled and eager teams, and make them stand even for a few short minutes; then Cynegius signalled for the third time. A golden dolphin, which had been suspended from a beam, and on which the eye of every charioteer was fixed, dropped to the ground, a blast on the 'salpinx', or war-trumpet, was sounded, and forty-eight horses flew forth as though thrown forward by one impulsion.
The strength of four fine horses whirled each light, two-wheeled chariot over the hard causeway as though it were a toy. The down-pour of the previous night had laid the dust; the bright sunshine sparkled and danced in rapidly-changing flashes, mirrored in the polished gilding of the bronze or the silver fittings of the elegantly-decorated, semicircular cars in which the drivers stood.
Five blue and seven red competitors had drawn the first lots. The eye rested with pleasure on the sinewy figures whose bare feet seemed rooted to the boards they stood on, while their eyes were riveted on the goal they were striving to reach, though--as the eye of the archer sees arrow, bow and mark all at once--they never lost sight of the horses they were guiding. A close cap with floating ribbands confined their hair, and they wore a short sleeveless tunic, swathed round the body with wide bands, as if to brace their muscles and add to their strength. The reins were fastened around the hips so as to leave the hands free, not only to hold them but also to ply the whip and use the goad. Each charioteer had a knife in his girdle, to enable him to release himself, in case of accident, from a bond that might prove fatal.
Before long the bay team was leading alone. Behind were two Christian drivers, followed by three red chariots; Marcus was last of all, but it was easy to see that it was by choice and not by necessity that he was hanging back. He was holding in his fiery team with all his strength and weight--his body thrown back, his feet firmly set with his knees against the silver bar of the chariot, and his hands gripping the reins. In a few minutes he came flying past Dada and his brother, but he did not see them. He had not even caught sight of his own mother, while the professional charioteers had not failed to bow to Cynegius and nod to their friends. He could only keep his eyes and mind fixed on his horses and on the goal.
The multitude clapped, roared, shouted encouragement to their party, hissed and whistled when they were disappointed--venting their utmost indignation on Marcus as he came past behind the others; but he either heard them not or would not hear. Dada's heart beat so wildly that she thought it would burst. She could not sit still; she started to her feet and then flung herself back on her cushions, shouting some spurring words to Marcus in the flash of time when he might perhaps hear them. When he had passed, her head fell and she said sadly enough: "Poor fellow!--We have bought our wreaths for nothing after all, Demetrius!"
But Demetrius shook his head and smiled.
"Nay," he said, "the boy has iron sinews in that slight body. Look how he holds the horses in! He is saving their strength till they need it. Seven times, child, seven times he has to go round this great circus and past the 'nyssa'. You will see, he will catch up what he has lost, yet. Hippias, you see, is holding in his horses, too; it is his way of giving himself airs at starting. Now he is close to the 'nyssa'--the 'kampter' --the 'meta' they call it at Rome; the smaller the bend he can make round it the better for him, but it is risky work. There--you see!--They drive round from right to left and that throws most of the work on the lefthand beast; it has to turn almost in its own length. Aura, our first horse, is as supple as a panther and I trained her to do it, myself.--Now, look out there! that bronze figure of a rearing horse--the 'Taraxippos' they call it--is put there to frighten the horses, and Megaera, our third horse, is like a mad thing sometimes, though she can go like a stag; every time Marcus gets her quietly past the Taraxippos we are nearer to success.--Look, look,=-the first chariot has got round the nyssa! It is Hippias! Yes, by Zeus, he has done it! He is a detestable braggart, but he knows his business!"
This was one of the decisive moments of the race. The crowd was silent; expectation was at the utmost pitch of tension, and Dada's eyes were fixed spell-bound on the obelisk and on the quadrigas that whirled round the bourn.
Next to Hippias came a blue team, and close behind were three red ones. The Christian who had succeeded in reaching the nyssa second, boldly took his horses close round the obelisk, hoping to gain space and get past Hippias; but the left wheel of his chariot grazed the granite plinth, the light car was overset, and the horses of the red chariot, whose noses were almost on his shoulder, could not be pulled up short in time. They fell over the Christian's team which rolled on the ground; the red chariot, too, turned over, and eight snorting beasts lay struggling in the sand.
The horses in the next chariot bolted as they were being driven past this mass of plunging and neighing confusion; they defied their driver's impotent efforts and galloped across the course back into the caiceres.
The rest had time and space enough to beware of the wreck and to give it a wide berth, among them Marcus. The melee at the Meta had excited his steeds almost beyond control, and as they tore past the Taraxippos the third horse, Megaera, shied violently as Demetrius had predicted. She flung herself on one side, thrust her hind quarters under the pole, and kicked desperately, lifting the chariot quite off the ground; the young charioteer lost his footing and slipped. Dada covered her face with her hands, and his mother turned pale and knit her brows with apprehension. The youth was still standing; his feet were on the sand of the arena; but he had a firm grip on the right-hand spiral ornament that terminated the bar round the chariot. Many a heart stood still with anxiety, and shouts of triumph and mockery broke from the red party; but in less than half a minute, by an effort of strength and agility, he had his knees on the foot-board, and then, in the winking of an eye, he was on his feet in the chariot, had gathered up the reins and was rushing onward.
Meanwhile, however, Hippias had far outstripped all the rest, and as he flew past the carceres he checked his pace, snatched a cup from a lemonade-seller, tossed the contents down his throat with haughty audacity amid the plaudits of the crowd, and then dashed on again. A wide gap, indeed, still lay between him and Marcus.
By the time the competitors again came round to the nyssa, the slaves in attendance had cleared away the broken chariots and led off the horses. A Christian still came next to Hippias followed by a red agitator; Marcus had gained on the others and was now fourth.
In the third round the chariot of the red driver in front of Marcus made too sharp a turn and ran up against the granite. The broken car was dragged on by the terrified beasts, and the charioter with it, till, by the time they were stopped, he was a corpse. In the fifth circuit the Christian who till now had been second to Hippias shared the same fate, though he escaped with his life; and then Marcus drove past the starting- sheds next to Hippias.
Hippias had ceased to flout and dally. In spite of the delay that Marcus had experienced from the Taraxippos, the space that parted his bays from the black Arabs had sensibly diminished, round after round; and the interest of the race now centered entirely in him and the young Christian. Never before had so passionate and reckless a contest been fought out on this venerable race-course, and the throng of spectators were carried away by the almost frenzied rivalry of the two drivers. Not a creature in the upper tiers had been able to keep his seat; men and women alike had risen to their feet and were shouting and roaring to the competitors. The music in the towers might have ceased, so completely was it drowned by the tumult in the amphitheatre.
Only the ladies, in the best places above the starting-sheds, preserved their aristocratic calm; Still, when the seventh and decisive round was begun, even the widow Mary leaned forward a little and clasped her hands more tightly over the cross in her lap. Each time that Marcus had driven round the obelisk or past the Taraxippos, Dada had clutched her head with her hands and set her teeth in her lip; each time, as he happily steered clear of the fatal stone and whirled past the dreadful bronze statue, she had relaxed her grip and leaned back in her seat with a sigh of relief. Her sympathy made her one with Marcus; she felt as if his loss must be her death and his victory her personal triumph.
During the sixth circuit Hippias was still a long way ahead of the young Christian; the distance which lay between Marcus and the team of bays seemed to have become a fixed quantity, for, do what he could, he could not diminish it by a hand-breadth. The two agitatores had now completely altered their tactics; instead of holding their horses in they urged them onward, leaning over the front of their chariots, speaking to the horses, Shouting at them with hoarse, breathless cries, and flogging them unsparingly. Steamy sweat and lathering foam streaked the flanks of the desperate, laboring brutes, while clouds of dust were flung up from the dry, furrowed and trampled soil. The other chariots were left further and further behind those of Hippias and Marcus, and when, for the seventh and last time, these two were nearing the nyssa, the crowd for a moment held its breath, only to break out into louder and wilder cries, and then again to be hushed. It seemed as though their exhausted lungs found renewed strength to shout with double energy when their excitement had kept them silent for a while.
Dada spoke no more; pale and gasping, she sat with her eyes fixed on the tall obelisk and on the cloud of dust which, as the chariots neared the nyssa, seemed to grow denser. At about a hundred paces from the nyssa she saw, above the sandy curtain, the red cap of Hippias flash past, and then--close behind it--the blue cap worn by Marcus. Then a deafening, thundering roar from thousands of throats went up to heaven, while, round the obelisk--so close to it that not a horse, not a wheel could have found room between the plinth and the driver-the blue cap came forward out of the cloud, and, behind it now--no longer in front, though not more than a length behind--came the red cap of Hippias. When within a few feet of the nyssa, Marcus had overtaken his antagonist, had passed the point with a bold and perilously close turn, and had left the bays behind him.
Demetrius saw it all, as though his eye had power to pierce the dust- cloud, and now he, too, lost his phlegmatic calm. He threw up his arms as if in prayer and shouted, as though his brother could hear him:
"Well done, splendid boy! Now for the kentron--the goad--drive it in, send it home if they die for it! Give it them well!"
Dada, who could only guess what was happening, looked round at him, asking in tremulous tones: "Has he passed him? Is he gaining on him? Will he win?" But Demetrius did not answer; he only pointed to the foremost of the flying clouds on which the second was fast advancing, and cried in a frenzy of excitement:
"Death and Hades! The other is catching him up. The dog, the sneak! If only the boy would use his goad. Give it them, Marcus! Give it them, lad! Never give in now! Great Father Poseidon!--there--there!--no! I can hardly stand--Yes, he is still in front, and now--now--this must settle it! Thunder and lightning! They are close together again--may the dust choke him! No--it is all right; my Arabs are in front! All is well, keep it up, lad, well done! We have won!"
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