Burning of Rome - Alfred J. Church

A Last Chance

Subrius was on duty that afternoon in the camp, and his place in the Court, where the Prefect was still in attendance, was filled by another Tribune. No one who saw him going, with an imperturbable calm, through the numberless little details which had to be looked after by the Tribune on duty, would have imagined how much he had at stake. The fact was that he had hardened his heart to any fortune, while he was both by temper of mind and by deliberate conviction a Stoic and a fatalist. Still he could not help feeling what may be described rather as a vivid curiosity than an anxiety as to what the day might bring forth. The Greek freedwoman who was being examined that afternoon, whatever she knew of the conspiracy, whether it was little or much, anyhow knew his name. Would she keep the secret? It was scarcely likely. He had seen men, who had every motive of honour and affection to keep them silent, quailing under the threats of pain, and sacrificing everything in their desperate clinging to life; would this weak woman, who had no honourable traditions of birth and training to which she would be bound, show herself braver and more faithful than soldiers and nobles? Who could imagine it? And yet when he thought of that strong, resolute face he thought it not impossible.

And he was right. He was making his way to his quarters when he encountered the officer who had been occupying his place in the Court during the afternoon.

"Subrius," said his friend, "you have missed the strangest sight that ever man saw. Ah! and I wish that I had missed it too, for it was almost past bearing. A Greek freedwoman was brought before the Court—Epicharis was her name. It seems that she had been accused of conspiring against the Emperor some time ago, but that nothing could be proved against her then; now that all this has come out, she was to be examined again. One of the Secretaries read over the confessions of the prisoners who had been before the Court in the morning, and then Tigellinus said: 'You hear this. What have you to say?' 'Nothing,' she answered. Well, he went on asking questions. 'Had she ever heard anything about the affair? How could she account for all these confessions? She had declared that Proculus had invented his story; was it likely that all these witnesses, knights, Senators, and soldiers, had also invented theirs?' She went on answering, 'I know nothing about it,' or was silent. Before long, Tigellinus broke out, 'You have lost your memory, woman, it seems; well, we have charms for bringing it back.' At the same time he made a sign to a slave that stood by and the man uncovered the instruments of torture. I assure you that the girl—she was only a girl—did not so much as flinch or start. Well, they put her on the rack, and the executioner gave it a turn. I assure you it makes me almost sick when I think of it. At the second turn the woman said, 'I have something to say.' 'Ah, madam!' cried Tigellinus, 'I thought we should find your tongue for you. Loose her!' The men took her off the rack, and set her in a chair; she was quite unable to stand. 'Cæsar,' she said, 'since you are resolved to force the truth from me, you shall have it. I have conspired against your life, and had I been a man, and had had the opportunities which others have had, I had done more; I would not only have plotted, but would have struck. Would you know why? Because you are a murderer. You slew your wife Octavia because she was ten thousand times too good for you. It is she whom I would have avenged. The gods have willed it otherwise; they have assigned the task to other hands. You may kill me as you will. I do not care to live. But do not flatter yourself that the Furies of your mother, your brother, your wife, will suffer you to rest. They will find some sword to reach your heart, though this has been broken.' By Mars! Subrius, the woman looked like a Fury herself as she said this. She had started up from her chair, though how she could stand I cannot imagine, and poured out her words as if she were inspired. The Emperor seemed struck dumb, but Tigellinus cried, 'Gag her; cut out her tongue!' Before they could touch her, she said again, 'Would you know my associates?' Tigellinus made a sign that they were to leave her alone. She was so frantic, he thought, that she might let out something almost without knowing it. 'I will tell you; my associates are all brave soldiers, all good citizens, all who love their country. To-morrow, Cæsar, if not to-day, these will be on my side, and they will be too strong for you, for all your legions. Mark my words: before five years are past, you will desire and yet be afraid to die, and will hardly find a friend to press home the last blow!'"

"Brave woman!" said Subrius, "and what then?"

"After that," replied the other, "she said nothing more. Not a single word could they wring out of her lips, though they tortured her in a way that, as I said, made me sick to see. At last the physician told them that unless they stopped they would kill her. So she was carried off, to be brought back again to-morrow, I understood."

"Great Jupiter! how she shames us all," said Subrius to himself, when he had parted from his brother officer. "To think of the shameful exhibition that those freeborn men made yesterday, and then see what this woman has done! And what of myself? Would she—had she been in my place—hold her hand? And yet I was bound to obey orders. The gods grant I may find Rufus in a bolder mood at last!"

This bolder mood unhappily was what not even the necessity of his desperate position could create in the Prefect. Subrius found him still unwilling to act, clinging frantically to the hope that his share in the conspiracy might yet pass undiscovered. In vain did Subrius ply him with arguments and remonstrances.

"It is sheer madness," he said, after going again and again over the familiar ground; "nothing but madness, to hope that you will not be named by some one of the condemned. It is a marvel that it has not been done already. But if you think that they will all endure to see you sitting as their judge, cross-examining, threatening, when by a word they might bring you down to stand at their side, you are simply fooling yourself. Why should they spare you?"

"If any one does name me, I can deny it," said Rufus.

"Deny it!" cried the Tribune; "what good will that do you? Nero is so panic-stricken that to be named to him is to be condemned. And what of Tigellinus? Don't you know that he has a protegé  of his own for whom he covets your place?"

"It is my only chance," murmured the Prefect. "It is too late for anything else."

"Possibly," returned Subrius gloomily; "we have lost too many chances, and this is a fault which Fortune never forgives. But it is not too late to die; that is the only thing, I take it, that our folly has left us free to do. Let us cast lots who shall play the executioner. We shall do it at least in a more seemly fashion than Nero's hangsman."

At this moment there was a tap at the door. The Prefect turned pale; any moment, he knew in his heart of hearts, might bring with it his arrest. Subrius put his hand upon his sword-hilt, ready to sell his life as clearly as he could.

The newcomer was another Tribune of the Prætorians, Silvanus by name.

"Well, Silvanus, what news?" asked Rufus.

"I will tell you," replied the other, "and you must judge what is to be done. Yesterday Cæsar sent for me, after he had finished his examination of the prisoners. Tigellinus was with him, and Poppæa; Antonius Natalis was there, with handcuffs on his hands, and a soldier on each side of him. 'Repeat, Natalis,' said Cæsar, 'what you have told us about Seneca.' At that Natalis said: 'I went lately to see Seneca when he was sick. Piso sent me. I was to complain of Seneca's having always denied himself to him of late. They were old friends; he had much to say to Seneca; it would be greatly to their mutual profit if he were allowed an opportunity of saying it. I took this message to Seneca,' Natalis went on. 'His answer was that he did not agree with Piso, but thought, on the contrary, that it would not be to the interest of either of them that they should have much talk. He quite saw, however, that he and Piso must stand and fall together.' When Natalis had finished, Cæsar said to me, 'You hear, Silvanus, the evidence of Natalis.' 'Yes, Sire,' I said, 'I hear.' 'It shows plainly that there was an understanding between them,' the Emperor went on. 'Is it not so?' 'Doubtless, Sire,' I said, for one does not contradict an Emperor, you know. 'Well,' he went on, 'go to Seneca, repeat that evidence to him,—to make sure that you have it right, you had better put it into writing,—and ask him how he can explain it. Of course you will take a guard with you!' Well, I went. Seneca, who had just come back from Baiæ, was at his house, between the Anio and the Mons Sacer, and when I got there was at dinner with his wife and two friends. I read Natalis' evidence to him. He said: 'It is quite true that Natalis came to me from Piso with a complaint that I denied myself to him. I said that I really was not well enough to see any but a very few friends; indeed, the physicians prescribe absolute rest; of course, if the Emperor wants me, I must come, but I cannot be expected to sacrifice my life for any one else. As to what I am reported to have said about Piso and myself standing and falling together, I don't understand it. I may have given the common message, "If Piso is well, I am well," but I never went beyond it. That is all I have to say,' he went on, 'and if Cæsar does not know by this time that I am in the habit of speaking the truth, nothing that I can say will persuade him.' Well, I went back; when I reached the palace, Nero was at dinner with Tigellinus and Poppæa. I repeated Seneca's words exactly. I had taken the precaution, I should say, of writing them down. The Emperor said, 'Did the old man say anything about killing himself?' 'Nothing,' I said. We heard him mutter to himself, 'The old dotard is very slow to take a hint. What could be plainer? You are sure,' he said, turning to me again, 'you saw no signs of anything of the kind?' 'Nothing,' I answered; 'he was as calm and quiet as ever I saw a man in my life.' 'Well,' said Cæsar, 'then we must speak more plainly. Go back and tell him that he has three hours to live, and no more.' "

"What then?" said the Prefect. "What did you do?"

"Instead of going back, I came to you," replied Silvanus.

"And why?" asked the Prefect.

"Do you ask me why?" cried Silvanus. "Surely you must know. Am I to go or am I not to go? Say the word. I am ready to obey."

At this point Subrius broke in. "Silvanus is right. He sees that this is our last chance. Piso is dead, Lateranus is dead. Seneca is the only man left whom we can put up with any hope against the tyrant. For Heaven's sake, away with this frantic folly of thinking that you can escape! Speak the word, Fænius Rufus, and I will go with Silvanus here to Seneca's house. We will take him, whether he will or not—for he is more likely to refuse than to consent—and bring him into the camp, and salute him as Emperor."

"No! No!" cried the Prefect, wringing his hands in an agony of perplexity. "It is hopeless. It must fail!"

"Anyhow," retorted the Tribune, "it is not so absolutely hopeless as your plan. We have lost better chances than this; but this has, at least, the merit of being our last."

"I cannot do it," said Rufus after a pause. "Carry out your orders, Silvanus; there is nothing else to do."

"So be it, then," said Subrius. "you have sealed our fate and your own. I will go with you, Silvanus. I would fain see how a philosopher can die; it will not be long before we shall need the lesson."