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- A Thorny Path, Volume 11. - 3/10 -
some newly washed clothes was wound at one end round the neck of a Venus from the hand of Praxiteles, and at the other round the lyre of an Apollo fashioned in marble by Bryaxis. Some Indian shrubs, of which his father- in-law had been very proud, were trampled underfoot; and in the great banqueting-hall, which had served as sleeping-room for a hundred praetorians, costly cushions and draperies were strewn, torn from the couches and walls to make their beds more comfortable.
Used to the sights of war as he was, the soldier ground his teeth with wrath at this scene. As long as he could remember, he had looked upon everything here with reverence and awe; and to think that his comrades had destroyed it all made his blood boil.
As he approached the women's apartments he took fright. How was he to disclose to his mistress what threatened her?
But it must be done; so he followed the waiting-maid Johanna, who led him to her lady's livingroom.
In it sat the Christian steward Johannes, with writing tablets and scrolls of papyrus, working in the service of his patroness. She herself was with the wounded Aurelius; and Martialis, on hearing this, begged to be admitted to her.
Berenike was in the act of renewing the wounded soldier's bandages, and when the centurion saw how cruelly disfigured was the handsome, blooming face of the young tribune, to whom he was heartily attached, the tears rose to his eyes. The matron observed it, and witnessed with much surprise the affectionate greeting between the young noble and the plain soldier.
The centurion greeted her respectfully; but it was not till Nernesianus asked him how it was that the troops had been called to arms at this hour, that Martialis plucked up courage and begged the lady of the house to grant him an interview.
But Berenike had still to wash and bandage the wounds of her patient-- a task which she always performed herself and with the greatest care; she therefore promised the soldier to be at his disposal in half an hour.
"Then it will be too late!" burst from the lips of the centurion; then she knew, by his voice and the terror-stricken aspect of the man whom she had known so long, that he meant to warn her, and there was but one from whom the danger could come.
"Caesar?" she asked. "He is sending out his creatures to murder me?"
The imperious gaze of Berenike's large eyes so overpowered the simple soldier as to render him speechless for a while. But Caesar had threatened his mistress's life--he must collect himself, and thus he managed to stammer:
"No, lady, no! He will not have you killed assuredly not! On the contrary-they are to let you live when they cut down the others!"
"Cut down!" cried Apollinaris, raising himself up and staring horrified at this messenger of terror; but his brother laid his hand upon the centurion's broad shoulder, and, shaking him vigorously, commanded him as his tribune to speak out.
The soldier, ever accustomed to obey, and only too anxious that his warning should not come too late, disclosed in hurried words what he had learned from the prefect. The brothers interrupted him from time to time with some exclamation of horror or disgust, but Berenike remained silent till Martialis stopped with a deep breath.
Then the lady gave a shrill laugh, and as the others looked at her in amazement she said coolly "You men will wade through blood and shame with that reprobate, if he but orders you to do so. I am only a woman, and yet I will show him that there are limits even to his malignity."
She remained for a few moments lost in thought, and then ordered the centurion to go and find out where her husband was.
Martialis obeyed at once, and no sooner was the door closed behind him than she turned to the two brothers, and addressing herself first to one and then to the other with equal vehemence, she cried "Who is right now? Of all the villains who have brought shame upon the throne and name of mighty Caesar, this is the most dastardly. He has written plainly enough upon Apollinaris's face how much he values a brave soldier, the son of a noble house. And you, Nemesianus--are you not also an Aurelius? You say so; and yet, had he not chanced to let you care for your brother, you would at this moment be wandering through the city like a mad dog, biting all who crossed your path. Why do you not speak? Why not tell me once more, Nemesianus, that a soldier must obey his commander blindly?--And you, Apollinaris, will you dare still to assert that the hand with which Caesar tore your face was guided only by righteous indignation at an insult offered to an innocent maiden? Have you the courage to excuse the murders by Caracalla of his own wife, and many other noble women, by his anxiety for the safety of throne and state? I, too, am a woman, and may hold up my head with the best; but what have I to do with the state or with the throne? My eye met his, and from that moment the fiend was my deadly enemy. A quick death at the hands of one of his soldiers seemed too good for the woman he hated. Wild beasts were to tear me to pieces before his eyes. Is that not sufficient for you? Put every abomination together, everything unworthy of an honorable man and abhorrent to the gods, and you have the man whom you so willingly obey. I am only the wife of a citizen. But were I the widow of a noble Aurelian and your mother--" Here Apollinaris, whose wounds were beginning to burn again, broke in: "She would have counseled us to leave revenge to the gods. He is Caesar!"
"He is a villain!" shrieked the matron--"the curse, the shame of humanity, a damnable destroyer of peace and honor and life, such as the world has never beheld before! To kill him would be to earn the gratitude and blessing of the universe. And you, the scions of a noble house, you, I say, prove that there still are men among so many slaves! It is Rome herself who calls you through me--like her, a woman maltreated and wounded to the heart's core--to bear arms in her service till she gives you the signal for making an end of the dastardly blood hound!"
The brothers gazed at one another pale and speechless, till at last Nemesianus ventured to say "He deserves to die, we know, a thousand deaths, but we are neither judges nor executioners. We can not do the work of the assassin."
"No, lady, we can not," added Apollinaris, and shook his wounded head energetically.
But the lady, nothing daunted, went on: "Who has ever called Brutus a murderer? You are young--Life lies before you. To plunge a sword into the heart of this monster is a deed for which you are too good. But I know a hand that understands its work and would be ready to guide the steel. Call it out at the right moment and be its guide!"
"And that hand?" Apollinaris asked in anxious expectation.
"It is there," replied Berenike, pointing to Martialis, who entered the room at that moment. Again the brothers interchanged looks of doubt, but the lady cried: "Consider for a moment! I would fain go hence with the certainty that the one burning desire shall be fulfilled which still warms this frozen heart."
She motioned to the centurion, left the apartment with him, and preceded him to her own room. Arrived there, she ordered the astonished freedman Johannes, in his office as notary, to add a codicil to her will. In the event of her death, she left to Xanthe, the wife of the centurion Martialis, her lawful property the villa at Kanopus, with all it contained, and the gardens appertaining to it, for the free use of herself and her children.
The soldier listened speechless with astonishment. This gift was worth twenty houses in the city, and made its owner a rich man. But the testator was scarcely ten years older than his Xanthe, and, as he kissed the hem of his mistress's robe in grateful emotion, he cried: "May the gods reward you for your generosity; but we will pray and offer up sacrifices that it may be long before this comes into our hands!"
The lady shook her head with a bitter smile, and, drawing the soldier aside, she disclosed to him in rapid words her determination to quit this life before the praetorians entered the house. She then informed the horror-stricken man that she had chosen him to be her avenger. To him, too, the emperor had dealt a malicious blow. Let him remember that, when the time came to plunge the sword in the tyrant's heart. Should this deed, however, cost Martialis his life--which he had risked in many a battle for miserable pay--her will would enable his widow to bring up their children in happiness and comfort.
The centurion had thrown in a deprecatory word or two, but Berenike continued as if she had not heard him, till at last Martialis cried:
"You ask too much of me, lady. Caesar is hateful to me, but I am no longer one of the praetorians, and am banished the country. How is it possible that I should approach him? How dare I, a common man--"
The lady came closer to him, and whispered:
"You will perform this deed to which I have appointed you in the name of all the just. We demand nothing from you but your sword. Greater men than you--the two Aurelians--will guide it. At their word of command you will do the deed. When they give you the signal, brave Martialis, remember the unfortunate woman in Alexandria whose death you swore to revenge. As soon as the tribunes--"
But the centurion was suddenly transformed. "If the tribunes command it," he interrupted with decision, his dull eye flashing--"if they demand it of me, I do it willingly. Tell them Martialis's sword is ever at their service. It has made short work of stronger men than that vicious stripling."
Berenike gave the soldier her hand, thanked him hurriedly, and begged him, as he could pass unharmed through the city, to hasten to her husband's counting-house by the water-side, to warn him and carry him her last greetings.
With tears in his eyes Martialis did as she desired. When he had gone, the steward began to implore his mistress to conceal herself, and not cast away God's gift of life so sinfully; but she turned from him resolutely though kindly, and repaired once more to the brothers' room.
One glance at them disclosed to her that they had come to no definite conclusion; but their hesitation vanished as soon as they heard that the centurion was ready to draw his sword upon the emperor when they should give the signal; and Berenike breathed a sigh of relief at this resolution, and clasped their hands in gratitude.
They, too, implored her to conceal herself, but she merely answered:
"May your youth grow into happy old age! Life can offer me nothing more, since my child was taken from me--But time presses--I welcome the
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