Brown artisans and tradesmen in their smart tunics jostled one another for places of vantage along the shady avenue. Among them moved barbarians from the other villages, sporting their finest feathers and most valued ornaments and skins, and mingling with the others were the slaves of the city, all eagerly waiting for the pageant that would inaugurate the triumph of Sublatus.
Upon the low rooftops of their homes the patricians reclined upon rugs at every point where the avenue might be seen between or beneath the branches of the trees. All Castra Sanguinarius was there, technically to honor Caesar, but actually merely to be entertained.
The air buzzed with talk and laughter; hawkers of sweetmeats and trinkets elbowed through the crowd crying their wares; legionaries posted at intervals the full distance from the palace to the Colosseum kept the center of the avenue clear.
Since the evening of the preceding day the throng had been gathering. During the cold night they had huddled with close-drawn cloaks. There had been talk and laughter and brawls and near-riots, and many would-be spectators had been baled off to the dungeons where their exuberance might be permitted to cool against cold stone.
As the morning dragged on the crowd became restless. At first, as some patrician who was to have a part in the pageant passed in his ornate litter he would be viewed in respectful and interested silence, or if he were well known and favorably thought of by the multitude he might be greeted with cheers; but with the passing of time and the increasing heat of the day each occasional litter that passed elicited deep-throated groans or raucous catcalls as the patience and the temper of the mob became thinner.
But presently from afar, in the direction of the palace, sounded the martial notes of trumpets. The people forgot their fatigue and their discomfort as the shrill notes galvanized them into joyous expectancy.
Slowly along the avenue came the pageant, led by a score of trumpeters, behind whom marched a maniple of the imperial guard. Waving crests surmounted their burnished helmets, the metal of two hundred cuirasses, pikes, and shields shot back the sunlight that filtered through the trees beneath which they marched. They made a proud showing as they strode haughtily between the lines of admiring eyes, led by their patrician officers in gold and embossed leather and embroidered linen.
As the legionaries passed, a great shout of applause arose. A roar of human voices that started at the palace rolled slowly along the Via Principalis toward the Colosseum as Caesar himself, resplendent in purple and gold, rode alone in a chariot drawn by lions led on golden leashes by huge blacks.
Caesar may have expected for himself the plaudits of the populace, but there was a question as to whether these were elicited as much by the presence of the Emperor as by the sight of the captives chained to Caesar’s chariot, for Caesar was an old story to the people of Castra Sanguinarius, while the prisoners were a novelty and, furthermore, something that promised rare sport in the arena.
Never before in the memory of the citizens of Castra Sanguinarius had an Emperor exhibited such noteworthy captives in his triumph. There was Nyuto, the chief of the Bagegos. There was Caecilius Metellus, a centurion of the legions of the Emperor of the East; and Cassius Hasta, the nephew of that Emperor; but perhaps he who aroused their greatest enthusiasm because of the mad stories that had been narrated of his feats of strength and agility was the great white barbarian, with a shock of black hair and his well-worn leopard skin.
The collar of gold and the golden chain that held him in leash to the chariot of Caesar, curiously enough, imparted to his appearance no suggestion of fear or humiliation. He walked proudly with head erect—a lion tethered to lions— and there was that in the easy sinuosity of his stride that accentuated his likeness to the jungle beasts that drew the chariot of Caesar along the broad Via Principalis of Castra Sanguinarius.
As the pageant moved its length slowly to the Colosseum the crowd found other things to hold their interest. There were the Bagego captives chained neck to neck and stalwart gladiators resplendent in new armor. White men and brown men were numbered among these and many warriors from the outer villages.
To the number of two hundred they marched—captives, condemned criminals, and professional gladiators—but before them and behind them and on either side marched veteran legionaries whose presence spoke in no uncertain terms of the respect in which Caesar held the potential power of these bitter, savage fighting-men.
There were floats depicting historic events in the history of Castra Sanguinarius and ancient Rome. There were litters bearing the high officers of the court and the senators of the city, while bringing up the rear were the captured flocks and herds of the Bagegos.
That Sublatus failed to exhibit Maximus Praeclarus in his triumph evidenced the popularity of this noble young Roman, but Dilecta, watching the procession from the roof of her father’s house, was filled with anxiety when she noted the absence of her lover, for she knew that sometimes men who entered the dungeons of Caesar were never heard of more—but there was none who could tell her whether Maximus Praeclarus lived or not, and so with her mother she made her way to the Colosseum to witness the opening of the games. Her heart was heavy lest she should see Maximus Praeclarus entered there, and his blood upon the white sand, yet, also, she feared that she might not see him and thus be faced by the almost definite assurance that he had been secretly done to death by the agents of Fastus.
A great multitude had gathered in the Colosseum to witness the entry of Caesar and the pageant of his triumph, and the majority of these remained in their seats for the opening of the games, which commenced early in the afternoon. It was not until then that the sections reserve for the patricians began to fill.
The loge reserved for Dion Spiendidus, the senator, was close to that of Caesar. It afforded an excellent view of the arena and with cushions and rugs was so furnished as to afford the maximum comfort to those who occupied it.
Never had a Caesar essayed so pretentious a fete: entertainment of the rarest description was vouchsafed each lucky spectator, yet never before in her life had Dilecta loathed and dreaded any occurrence as she now loathed and dreaded the games that were about to open.
Always heretofore her interest in the contestants had been impersonal. Professional gladiators were not of the class to come within the ken or acquaintance of the daughter of a patrician. The warriors and slaves were to her of no greater importance than the beasts against which they sometimes contended, while the condemned criminals, many of whom expiated their sins within the arena, aroused within her heart only the remotest suggestion of sympathy. She was a sweet and lovely girl, whose sensibilities would doubtless have been shocked by the brutality of the prize-ring or a varsity football game, but she could look upon the bloody cruelties of a Roman arena without a qualm, because by custom and heredity they had become a part of the national life of her people.
But today she trembled. She saw the games as a personal menace to her own happiness and the life of one she loved, yet by no outward sign did she divulge her perturbation. Calm, serene, and entirely beautiful, Dilecta, the daughter of Dion Splendidus, awaited the signal for the opening of the games that was marked by the arrival of Caesar.
Sublatus came, and after he had taken his seat there emerged from one of the barred gates at the far end of the arena the head of a procession, again led by trumpeters, who were followed by those who were to take part in the games during the week. It consisted for the most part of the same captives who had been exhibited in the pageant, to which were added a number of wild beasts, some of which were led or dragged along by slaves, while others, more powerful and ferocious, were drawn in wheeled cages. These consisted principally of lions and leopards, but there were also a couple of bull buffaloes and several cages in which were confined huge man-like apes.
The participants were formed in a solid phalanx facing Sublatus, where they were addressed by the Emperor, freedom and reward being promised the victors; and then, sullen and lowering, they were herded back to their dungeons and cages.
Dilecta’s eyes scanned the faces of the contestants as they stood in solid rank before the loge of Caesar, but nowhere among them could she discover Maximus Praeclarus. Breathless and tense, with fearful apprehension, she leaned forward in her seat across the top of the arena wall as a man entered the loge from behind and sat upon the bench beside her.
“He is not there,” said the man.
The girl turned quickly toward the speaker. “Fastus!” she exclaimed. “How do you know that he is not there?”
“It is by my order,” replied the prince.
“He is dead,” cried Dilecta. “You have had him killed.”
“No,” denied Fastus, “he is safe in his cell.”
“What is to become of him?” asked the girl.
“His fate lies in your hands,” replied Fastus. “Give him up and promise to become the wife of Fastus and I will see that he is not forced to appear in the arena.”
“He would not have it so,” said the girl.
Fastus shrugged. “As you will,” he said, “but remember that his life is in your hands.”
“With sword, or dagger, or pike he has no equal,” said the girl, proudly. “If he were entered in the contest, he would be victorious.”
“Caesar has been known to pit unarmed men against lions,” Fastus reminded her, tauntingly. “Of what avail then is prowess with any weapon?”
“That would be murder,” said Dilecta.
“A harsh term to apply to an act of Caesar,” returned Fastus, menacingly.
“I speak my mind,” said the girl; “Caesar or no Caesar. It would be a cowardly and contemptible act, but I doubt not that either, Caesar or his son is capable of even worse.” Her voice trembled with scathing contempt.
With a crooked smile upon his lips, Fastus arose. “It is not a matter to be determined without thought,” he said, “and Your answer concerns not Maximus Praeclarus alone, nor you, nor me.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“There are Dion Spiendidus and your mother, and Festivitas, the mother of Praeclarus!” And with this warning he turned and left the loge.
The games progressed amid the din of trumpets, the crash of arms, the growling of beasts, and the murmuring of the great audience that sometimes rose to wild acclaim or deep-throated, menacing disapproval. Beneath fluttering banners and waving scarves the cruel, terrible thousand-eyed thing that is a crowd looked down upon the blood and suffering of its fellow men, munching sweetmeats while a victim died and cracking coarse jokes as slaves dragged the body from the arena and raked clean sand over crimsoned spots.
Sublatus had worked long and carefully with the prefect in charge of the games that the resultant program might afford the greatest possible entertainment for Caesar and the populace, thus winning for the Emperor a certain popularity that his own personality did not command.
Always the most popular events were those in which men of the patrician class participated, and so he counted much upon Cassius Hasta and Caecilius Metellus, but of even greater value for his purpose was the giant white barbarian, who already had captured the imagination of the people because of his exploits.
Wishing to utilize Tarzan in as many events as possible, Sublatus knew that it would be necessary to reserve the more dangerous ones for the latter part of the week, and so upon the first afternoon of the games Tarzan found himself thrust into the arena, unarmed, in company with a burly murderer, whom the master of the games had clothed in loincloth and leopard skin similar to Tarzan.
A guard escorted them across the arena and halted them in the sand below the Emperor, where the master of the games announced that these two would fight with bare hands in any way that they saw fit and that he who remained alive or alone in the arena at the end of the combat would be considered victorious.
“The gate to the dungeons will be left open,” he said, “and if either contestant gets enough he may quit the arena, but whoever does so forfeits the contest to the other,”
The crowd booed. It was not to see such tame exhibitions as this that they had come to the Colosseum. They wanted blood. They wanted thrills, but they waited, for perhaps this contest might afford comedy—that they enjoyed, too. If one greatly outclassed the other, it would be amusing to see the weaker seek escape. They cheered Tarzan and they cheered the low-browed murderer. They shouted insults at the noble patrician who was master of the games, for they knew the safety and irresponsibility of numbers.
As the word was given the contestants to engage one another Tarzan turned to face the low-browed, hulking brute against whom he had been pitted and he saw that some one had been at pains to select a worthy antagonist for him. The man was somewhat shorter than Tarzan, but great, hard muscles bulged beneath his brown hide, bulking so thick across his back and shoulders as almost to suggest deformity. His long arms hung almost to his knees, and his thick, gnarled legs suggested a man of bronze upon a pedestal of granite. The fellow circled Tarzan, looking for an opening. He scowled ferociously as though to frighten his adversary.
“There is the gate, barbarian,” he cried in a low voice, pointing to the far end of the arena. “Escape while you are yet alive.”
The crowd roared in approbation. It enjoyed glorious sallies such as these. “I shall tear you limb from limb,” shouted the murderer, and again the crowd applauded.
“I am here,” said Tarzan, calmly.
“Flee!” screamed the murderer, and lowering his head he charged like an angry bull.
The ape-man sprang into the air and came down upon his antagonist, and what happened happened so quickly that no one there, other than Tarzan, knew how it had been accomplished; only he knew that he clamped a reverse head-lock upon the murderer.
What the crowd saw was the hulking figure hurtling, to a hard fall. They saw him lying half-stunned upon the sand, while the giant barbarian stood with folded arms looking down upon him.
The fickle crowd rose from its benches, shrieking with delight. “Habet! Habet!” they cried, and thousands of closed fists were outstretched with the thumbs pointing downward, but Tarzan only stood there waiting, as the murderer, shaking his head to clear his brain, crawled slowly to his feet.
The fellow looked about him half-bewildered and then his eyes found Tarzan and with a growl of rage he charged again. Again the terrible hold was clamped upon him, and again he was hurled heavily to the floor of the arena.
The crowd screamed with delight. Every thumb in the Colosseum was pointed downward. They wanted Tarzan to kill his adversary. The ape-man looked up into Caesar’s loge, where sat the master of the games with Sublatus.
“Is not this enough?” he demanded, pointing at the prostrate figure of the stunned gladiator.
The prefect waved a hand in an all-including gesture which took in the audience. “They demand his death,” he said. “While he remains alive in the arena, you are not the victor.”
“Does Caesar require that I kill this defenseless man?” demanded Tarzan, looking straight into the face of Sublatus.
“You have heard the noble praefect,” replied the Emperor, haughtily.
“Good,” said Tarzan. “The rules of the contest shall be fulfilled.” He stooped and seized the unconscious form of his antagonist and raised it above his head. “Thus I carried your Emperor from his throne-room to the avenue!” he shouted to the audience.
Screams of delight measured the appreciation of the populace, while Caesar went white and red in anger and mortification. He half rose from his seat, but what he contemplated was never fulfilled, for at that instant Tarzan swung the body of the murderer downward and back like a huge pendulum and then upward with a mighty surge, hurling it over the arena wall, full into the loge of Sublatus, where it struck Caesar, knocking him to the floor.
“I am alive and alone in the arena,” shouted Tarzan, turning to the people, “and by the terms of the contest I am victor,” and not even Caesar dared question the decision that was voiced by the shrieking, screaming, applauding multitude.