The others did not reproach Tarzan because of his failure to free them, since they had never taken his optimism seriously, They could not conceive of contestants escaping from the arena during the games. It simply was not done and that was all that there was to it. It never had been done, and it never would be.
“We know you meant well,” said Praeclarus, “but we knew better than you.”
“The conditions have not been right, as yet,” said Tarzan, “but if what I have been told of the games is true, the time will come.”
“What time could be propitious,” asked Hasta, “while more than half of Caesar’s legionaries packed the Colosseum?”
“There should be a time,” Tarzan reminded him, “when all the victorious contestants are in the arena together. Then we shall rush Caesar’s loge and drag him into the arena. With Sublatus as a hostage we may demand a hearing and get it. I venture to say that they will give us our liberty in return for Caesar.”
“But how can we enter Caesar’s loge?” demanded Metellus.
“In an instant we may form steps with living men stooping, while others step upon their backs as soldiers scale a wall. Perhaps some of us will be killed, but enough will succeed to seize Caesar and drag him to the sands.”
“I wish you luck,” said Praeclarus, “and, by Jupiter, I believe that you will succeed. I only wish that I might be with you.”
“You will not accompany us?” demanded Tarzan.
“How shall? I shall be locked in this cell. Is it not evident that they do not intend to enter me in the contests? They are reserving for me some other fate. The jailer has told me that my name appears in no event.”
“But we must find a way to take you with us,” said Tarzan.
“There is no way,” said Praeclarus, shaking his head, sadly.
“Wait,” said Tarzan. “You commanded the Colosseum guards, did you not?”
“Yes,” replied Praeclarus.
“And you had the keys to the cells?” asked the ape-man.
“Yes,” replied Praeclarus, “and to the manacles as well.”
“Where are they?” asked Tarzan. “But no, that will not do. They must have taken them from you when they arrested you.”
“No, they did not,” said Praeclarus. “As a matter of fact, I did not have them with me when I dressed for the banquet that night. I left them in my room.”
”But perhaps they sent for them?”
“Yes, they sent for them, but they did not find them. The jailer asked me about them the day after I was arrested, but I told him that the soldiers took them from me, I told him that because I had hidden them in a secret place where I keep many valuables. I knew that if I had told them where they were they would take not only the keys, but my valuables as well.”
“Good!” exclaimed the ape-man. “With the keys our problem is solved.”
“But how are you going to get them?” demanded Praeclarus, with a rueful smile.
“I do not know,” said Tarzan. “All I know is that we must have the keys.”
“We know, too, that we should have our liberty,” said Hasta, “but knowing it does not make us free.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the approach of soldiers along the corridor. Presently a detachment of the palace guard halted outside their cell. The jailer unlocked the door and a man entered with two torch-bearers behind him. It was Fastus.
He looked around the cell. “Where is Praeclarus?” he demanded, and then, “Ah, there you are!”
Praeclarus did not reply.
“Stand up, slave!” ordered Fastus, arrogantly. “Stand up, all of you. How dare you sit in the presence of a Caesar!” he exclaimed.
“Swine is a better title. for such as you,” taunted Praeclarus.
“Drag them up! Beat them with your pikes!” cried Fastus to the soldiers outside the doorway.
The command of the Colosseum guard, who stood just behind Fastus, blocked the doorway. “Stand back,” he said to the legionaries. “No one gives orders here except Caesar and myself, and you are not Caesar yet, Fastus.”
“I shall be one day,” snapped the prince, “and it will be a sad day for you.”
“It will be a sad day for all Castra Sanguinarius,” replied the officer. “You said that you wished to speak to Praeclarus? Say what you have to say and be gone. Not even Caesar’s son may interfere with my charges.”
Fastus trembled with anger, but he knew that he was powerless. The commander of the guard spoke with the authority of the Emperor, whom he represented. He turned upon Praeclarus.
“I came to invite my good friend, Maximus Praeclarus, to my wedding,” he announced, with a sneer. He waited, but Praeclarus made no reply. “You do not seem duly impressed, Praeclarus,” continued the prince. “You do not ask who is to be the happy bride. Do you not wish to know who will be the next Empress in Castra Sanguinarius, even though you may not live to see her upon the throne beside Caesar?”
The heart of Maximus Praeclarus stood still, for now he knew why Fastus had come to the dungeon-cell, but he gave no sign of what was passing within his breast, but remained seated in silence upon the hard floor, his back against the cold wall.
“You do not ask me whom I am to wed, nor when,” continued Fastus, “but I shall tell you. You should be interested. Dilecta, the daughter of Dion Splendidus, will have none of a traitor and a felon. She aspires to share the purple with a Caesar. In the evening following the last day of the games Dilecta and Fastus are to be married in the throne-room of the palace.”
Gloating, Fastus waited to know the result of his announcement, but if he had looked to surprise Maximus Praeclarus into an exhibition of chagrin he failed, for the young patrician ignored him so completely that Fastus might not have been in the cell at all for all the attention that the other paid to him.
Maximus Praeclarus turned and spoke casually to Metellus and the quiet affront aroused the mounting anger of Fastus to such an extent that he lost what little control he had of himself. Stepping quickly forward, he stooped and slapped Praeclarus in the face and then spat upon him, but in doing so he had come too close to Tarzan and the ape-man reached out and seized him by the ankle, dragging him to the floor.
Fastus screamed a command to his soldiers. He sought to draw his dagger or his sword, but Tarzan took them from him and hurled the prince into the arms of the legionaries, who had rushed past the commander of the Colosseum guard and entered the cell.
“Get out now, Fastus,” said the latter. “You have caused enough trouble here already.”
“I shall get you for this,” hissed the prince, “all of you and he swept the inmates of the cell with an angry, menacing glance.
Long after they had gone, Cassius Hasta continued to chuckle. “Caesar!” he exclaimed. “Swine!”
As the prisoners discussed the discomfiture of Fastus and sought to prophesy what might come of it, they saw a wavering light reflected from afar in the corridor before their cell.
“We are to have more guests,” said Metellus.
“Perhaps Fastus is returning to spit on Tarzan,” suggested Cassius Hasta, and they all laughed.
The light was advancing along the corridor, but it was not accompanied by the tramp of soldiers’ feet.
“Whoever comes comes silently and alone,” said Maximus Praeclarus.
“Then it is not Fastus,” said Hasta.
“But it might be an assassin sent by him,” suggested Praeclarus.
“We shall be ready for him,” said Tarzan.
A moment later there appeared beyond the grating of the cell door the commander of the Colosseum guards, who had accompanied Fastus and who had stood between the prince and the prisoner.
“Appius Applosus!” exclaimed Maximus Praeclarus. “He is no assassin, my friends.”
“I am not the assassin of your body, Praeclarus,” said Applosus, “but I am indeed the assassin of your happiness.”
“What do you mean, my friend?” demanded Praeclarus.
“In his anger Fastus told me more than he told you.”
“He told you what?” asked Praeclarus.
“He told me that Dilecta had consented to become his wife only in the hope of saving her father and mother and you, Praeclarus, and your mother, Festivitas.”
“To call him swine is to insult the swine,” said Praeclarus.
“Take word to her, Applosus, that I would rather die than to see her wed to Fastus.”
“She knows that, my friend,” said the officer, “but she thinks also of her father and her mother and yours.”
Praeclarus’s chin dropped upon his chest. “I had forgotten that,” he moaned. “Oh, there must be some way to stop it.”
“He is the son of Caesar,” Applosus reminded him, “and the time is short.”
“I know it! I know it!” cried Praeclarus, “but it is too hideous. It cannot be.”
“This officer is your friend, Praeclarus?” asked Tarzan, indicating Appius Applosus.
“Yes,” said Praeclarus.
“You would trust him fully?” demanded the ape-man.
“With my life and my honor,” said Praeclarus.
“Tell him where your keys are and let him fetch them,” said the ape-man.
Praeclarus brightened instantly. “I had not thought of that,” he cried, “but no, his life would be in jeopardy.”
“It already is,” said Applosus. “Fastus will never forget or forgive what I said tonight. You, Praeclarus, know that I am already doomed. What keys do you want? Where are they? I will fetch them.”
“Perhaps not when you know what they are,” said Praeclarus.
“I can guess,” replied Appius Applosus.
“You have been in my apartments often, Applosus?”
The other nodded affirmatively.
“You recall the shelves near the window where my books lie?”
“The back of the third shelf slides to one side and behind it, in the wall, you will find the keys.”
“Good, Praeclarus. You shall have them,” said the officer.
The others watched the diminishing light as Appius Applosus departed along the corridor beneath the Colosseum.
The last day of the games had come. The bloodthirsty populace had gathered once more as eager and enthusiastic as though they were about to experience a new and unfamiliar thrill, their appetites swept as clean of the memories of the past week as were the fresh sands of the arena of the brown stains of yesterday.
For the last time the inmates of the cell were taken to enclosures nearer to the entrance to the arena. They had fared better, perhaps, than others, for of the twelve rings only four were empty.
Maximus Praeclarus alone was left behind. “Good-by,” he said. “Those of you who survive the day shall be free. We shall not see one another again. Good luck to you and may the gods give strength and skill to your arms-that is all that I can ask of them, for not even the gods could give you more courage than you already possess.”
“Applosus has failed us,” said Hasta.
Tarzan looked troubled. “if only you were coming out with us, Praeclarus, we should not then need the keys.”
From within the enclosure, where they were confined, Tarzan and his companions could hear the sounds of combat and the groans and hoots and applause of the audience, but they could not see the floor of the arena.
It was a very large room with heavily barred windows and a door. Sometimes two men, sometimes four, sometimes six would go out together, but only one, or two, or three returned. The effect upon the nerves of those who remained uncalled was maddening. For some the suspense became almost unendurable. Two attempted suicide and others tried to pick quarrels with their fellow prisoners, but there were many guards within the room and the prisoners were unarmed, their weapons being issued to them only after they had quit the enclosure and were about to enter the arena.
The afternoon was drawing to a close. Metellus had fought with a gladiator, both in full armor. Hasta and Tarzan had heard the excited cries of the populace. They had heard cheer after cheer, which indicated that each man was putting up a skilful and courageous fight. There was an instant of silence and then the loud cries of “Habet! Habet!”
“It is over,” whispered Cassius Hasta.
Tarzan made no reply. He had grown to like these men, for he had found them brave and simple and loyal and he, too, was inwardly moved by the suspense that must be endured until one or the other returned to the enclosure; but he gave no outward sign of his perturbation, and while Cassius Hasta paced nervously to and fro Tarzan of the Apes stood silently, with folded arms, watching the door. After awhile it opened and Caecilius Metellus crossed the threshold.
Cassius Hasta uttered a cry of relief and sprang forward to embrace his friend.
Again the door swung open and a minor official entered. “Come,” be cried, “all of you. It is the last event.”
Outside the enclosure each man was given a sword, dagger, pike, shield, and a hempen net, and one by one, as they were thus equipped, they were sent into the arena. All the survivors of the week of combat were there—one hundred of them.
They were divided into two equal parties, and red ribbons were fastened to the shoulders of one party and white ribbons to the shoulders of the other.
Tarzan was among the reds, as were Hasta, Metellus, Lukedi, Mpingu, and Ogonyo.
“What are we supposed to do?” asked Tarzan of Hasta.
“The reds will fight against the whites until all the red’s are killed or all the whites.”
“They should see blood enough to suit them now,” said Tarzan.
“They can never get enough of it,” replied Metellus.
The two parties marched to the opposite end of the arena and received their instructions from the præfect in charge of the games, and then they were formed, the reds upon one side of the arena, the whites upon the other. Trumpets sounded and the armed men advanced toward one another.
Tarzan smiled to himself as he considered the weapons with which he was supposed to defend himself. The pike he was sure of, for the Waziri are great spearmen and Tarzan excelled even among them, and with the dagger he felt at home, so long had the hunting-knife of his father been his only weapon of protection—but the Spanish sword, he felt, would probably prove more of a liability than an asset, while the net in his hands could be nothing more than a sorry joke. He would like to have thrown his shield aside, for he did not like shields, considering them, as a rule, useless encumbrances, but he had used them before when the Waziri had fought other native tribes, and knowing that they were constructed as a defense against the very weapons that his opponents were using he retained his and advanced with the others toward the white line. He had determined that their only hope lay in accounting for as many of their adversaries in the first clash of arms as was possible, and this word he had passed down the line with the further admonition that the instant that a man had disposed of an antagonist he turn immediately to help the red nearest him, or the one most sorely beset.
As the two lines drew closer, each man selected the opponent opposite him and Tarzan found that he faced a warrior from the outer villages. They came closer. Some of the men, more eager or nervous than the others, were in advance; some, more fearful, lagged behind. Tarzan’s opponent came upon him. Already pikes were flying through the air. Tarzan and the warrior hurled their missiles at the same instant, and back of the ape-man’s throw was all the skill and all the muscle and all the weight that he could command. Tarzan struck upward with his shield and his opponent’s pike struck it a glancing blow, but with such force that the spear haft was shattered, while Tarzan’s weapon passed through the shield of his opponent and pierced the fellow’s heart.
There were two others down—one killed and one wounded —and the Colosseum was a babble of voices and a bedlam of noise. Tarzan sprang quickly to aid one of his fellows, but another white, who had killed his red opponent, ran to interfere. Tarzan’s net annoyed him, so he threw it at a white who was pressing one of the reds and took on his fresh opponent, who had drawn his sword. His adversary was a professional gladiator, a man trained in the use of all his weapons, and Tarzan soon realized that only through great strength and agility might he expect to hold his own with this opponent.
The fellow did not rush. He came in slowly and carefully, feeling out Tarzan. He was cautious because he was an old hand at the business and was imbued with but a single hope—to live. He cared as little for the hoots and jibes of the people as he did for their applause, and he hated Caesar. He soon discovered that Tarzan was adopting defensive tactics only, but whether this was for the purpose of feeling out his opponent or whether it was part of a plan that would lead up to a sudden and swift surprise, the gladiator could not guess, nor did he care particularly, for he knew that he was master of his weapon and many a corpse had been burned that in life had thought to surprise him.
Judging Tarzan’s skill with the sword by his skill with the shield, the gladiator thought that he was pitted against a highly skilled adversary, and he waited patiently for Tarzan to open up his offense and reveal his style. But Tarzan had no style that could be compared with that of the gladiator. What he was awaiting was a lucky chance—the only thing that he felt could assure him victory over this wary and highly skilled swordsman—but the gladiator gave him no openings and he was hoping that one of his companions would be free to come to his assistance, when, suddenly and without warning, a net dropped over his shoulders from behind.