The gladiator found Cassius Hasta a very different opponent from Tarzan. Perhaps he was not as skilful with his shield. Perhaps he was not as powerful, but never in all his experience had the gladiator met such a swordsman.
The crowd had been watching Tarzan from the beginning of the event because his great height and his nakedness and his leopard skin marked him from all others. They noted that the first cast of his pike had split the shield of his opponent and dropped him dead and they watched his encounter with the gladiator, which did not please them at all. It was far too slow and they hooted and voiced catcalls. When the white cast the net over him they howled with delight, for they did not know from one day to the next, or from one minute to the next, what their own minds would be the next day or the next minute. They were cruel and stupid, but they were no different from the crowds of any place or any time.
As Tarzan, entangled in the net, turned to face the new menace, the white leaped toward him to finish him with a dagger and Tarzan caught the net with the fingers of both his hands and tore it asunder as though it had been made of paper, but the fellow was upon him in the same instant. The dagger hand struck as Tarzan seized the dagger wrist. Blood ran from beneath the leopard skin from a wound over Tarzan’s heart, so close had he been to death, but his hand stopped the other just in time and now steel fingers closed upon that wrist until the man cried out with pain as he felt his bones crushed together. The ape-man drew his antagonist toward him and seized him by the throat and shook him as a terrier shakes a rat, while the air trembled to the delighted screams of the mob.
An instant later Tarzan cast the lifeless form aside, picked up his sword and shield that he had been forced to abandon, and sought for new foes. Thus the battle waged around the arena, each side seeking to gain the advantage in numbers so that they might set upon the remnant of their opponents and destroy them. Cassius Hasta had disposed of the gladiator that he had drawn away from Tarzan and was now engaged with another swordsman when a second fell upon him. Two to one are heavy odds, but Cassius Hasta tried to hold the second off until another red could come to his assistance.
This, however, did not conform with the ideas of the whites who were engaging him, and they fell upon him with redoubled fury to prevent the very thing that he hoped for. He saw an opening and quick as lightning his sword leaped into it, severing the jugular vein of one of his antagonists, but his guard was down for the instant and a glancing blow struck his helmet And, though it did not pierce it, it sent him stumbling to the sand, half-stunned.
“Habet! Habet!” cried the people, for Cassius Hasta had fallen close to one side of the arena where a great number of people could see him. Standing over him, his antagonist raised his forefinger to the audience and every thumb went down.
With a smile the white raised his sword to drive it through Hasta’s throat, but as he paused an instant, facing the crowd, in a little play to the galleries for effect, Tarzan leaped across the soft sand, casting aside his sword and shield, reverting to the primitive, to the beast, to save his friend.
It was like the charge of a lion. The crowd saw and was frozen into silence. They saw him spring in his stride several yards before he reached the opposing gladiator and, like a jungle beast, fall upon the shoulders and back of his prey.
Down the two went across the body of Hasta, but instantly the ape-man was upon his feet and in his hands was his antagonist. He shook him as he had shaken the other—-shook him into unconsciousness, choking him as he shook, shook him to death, and cast his body from him.
The crowd went wild. They stood upon their benches and shrieked and waved scarves and helmets and threw many flowers and sweetmeats into the arena. Tarzan stooped and lifted Cassius Hasta to his feet as he saw that he was not killed and consciousness was returning.
Scanning the arena quickly, he saw that fifteen reds survived and but ten whites. This was a battle for survival. There were no rules and no ethics. It was your life or mine and Tarzan gathered the surplus five and set upon the strongest white, who now, surrounded by six swordsmen, went down to death in an instant.
At Tarzan’s command the six divided and each three charged another white with the result that by following these tactics the event was brought to a sudden and bloody close with fifteen reds surviving and the last white slain.
The crowd was crying Tarzan’s name above all others, but Sublatus was enraged. The affront that had been put upon him by this wild barbarian had not been avenged as he had hoped, but instead Tarzan had achieved a personal popularity far greater than his own. That it was ephemeral and subject to the changes of the fickle public mind did not lessen the indignation and chagrin of the Emperor. His mind could entertain but one thought toward Tarzan. The creature must be destroyed. He turned to the praefect in charge of the games and whispered a command.
The crowd was loudly demanding that the laurel wreaths be accorded the victors and that they be given their freedom, but instead they were herded back to their enclosure, all but Tarzan.
Perhaps, suggested some members of the audience, Sublatus is going to honor him particularly, and this rumor ran quickly through the crowd, as rumors will, until it became a conviction.
Slaves came and dragged away the corpses of the slain and picked up the discarded weapons and scattered new sand and raked it, while Tarzan stood where he had been told to stand, beneath the loge of Caesar.
He stood with folded arms, grimly waiting for what he knew not, and then a low groan rose from the crowded stands—a groan that grew in volume to loud cries of anger above which Tarzan caught words that sounded like “Tyrant!” “Coward!” “Traitor!” and “Down with Sublatus!” He looked around and saw them pointing to the opposite end of the arena and, facing in that direction, he saw the thing that had aroused their wrath, for instead of a laurel wreath and freedom there stood eyeing him a great, black-maned lion, gaunt with hunger.
Toward the anger of the populace Sublatus exhibited, outwardly, an arrogant and indifferent mien. Contemptuously he permitted his gaze to circle the stands, but he whispered orders that sent three centuries of legionaries among the audience in time to overawe a few agitators who would have led them against the imperial loge.
But now the lion was advancing, and the cruel and selfish audience forgot its momentary anger against injustice in the expected thrill of another bloody encounter. Some, who, a moment before, had been loudly acclaiming Tarzan now cheered the lion, though if the lion were vanquished they would again cheer Tarzan. That, however, they did not anticipate, but believed that they had taken sides with the assured winner, since Tarzan was armed only with a dagger, not having recovered his other weapons after he had thrown them aside.
Naked, but for loincloth and leopard skin, Tarzan presented a magnificent picture of physical perfection, and the people of Castra Sanguinarius gave him their admiration, while they placed their denarii and their talents upon the lion.
They had seen other men that week face other lions bravely and hopelessly and they saw the same courageous bearing in the giant barbarian, but the hopelessness they took for granted the ape-man did not feel. With head flattened, half-crouching, the lion moved slowly toward its prey, the tip of its tail twitching in nervous anticipation, its gaunt sides greedy to be filled. Tarzan waited.
Had he been the lion himself, he scarcely could have better known what was passing in that savage brain. He knew to the instant when the final charge would start. He knew the speed of that swift and deadly rush. He knew when and how the lion would rear upon its hind legs to seize him with great talons and mighty, yellow fangs.
He saw the muscles tense. He saw the twitching tail quiet for an instant. His folded arms dropped to his side. The dagger remained in its sheath at his hip. He waited, crouching almost imperceptibly, his weight upon the balls of his feet, and then the lion charged.
Knowing how accurately the beast had timed its final rush, measuring the distance to the fraction of a stride, even as a hunter approaches a jump, the ape-man knew that the surest way in which to gain the first advantage was to disconcert the charging beast by doing that which he would least expect.
Numa the lion knows that his quarry usually does one of two things—he either stands paralyzed with terror or he turns and flees. So seldom does he charge to meet Numa that the lion never takes this possibility into consideration and it was, therefore, this very thing that Tarzan did.
As the lion charged, the ape-man leaped to meet him, and the crowd sat breathless and silent. Even Sublatus leaned forward with parted lips, forgetful, for a moment, that he was Caesar.
Numa tried to check himself and rear to meet this presumptuous man-thing, but he slipped a little in the sand and the great paw that struck at Tarzan was ill-timed and missed, for the ape-man had dodged to one side and beneath it, and in the fraction of a second that it took Numa to recover himself he found that their positions had been reversed and that the prey that he would have leaped upon had turned swiftly and leaped upon him.
Full upon the back of the lion sprang Tarzan of the Apes. A giant forearm encircled the maned throat; steel-thewed legs crossed beneath the gaunt, slim belly and locked themselves there. Numa reared and pawed and turned to bite the savage beast upon his back, but the vise-like arm about his throat pressed tighter, holding him so that his fangs could not reach their goal. He leaped into the air and when he alighted on the sand shook himself to dislodge the growling man-beast clinging to him.
Holding his position with his legs and one arm, Tarzan, with his free hand, sought the hilt of his dagger. Numa, feeling the life being choked from him, became frantic. He reared upon his hind legs and threw himself upon the ground, rolling upon his antagonist, and now the crowd found its voice again and shouted hoarse delight. Never in the history of the arena had such a contest as this been witnessed. The barbarian was offering such a defense as they had not thought possible and they cheered him, though they knew that eventually the lion would win. Then Tarzan found his dagger and drove the thin blade into Numa’s side, just back of his left elbow. Again and again the knife struck home, but each blow seemed only to increase the savage efforts of the lunging beast to shake the man from his back and tear him to pieces.
Blood was mixed with the foam on Numa’s jowls as he stood panting upon trembling legs after a last futile effort to dislodge the ape-man. He swayed dizzily. The knife struck deep again. A great stream of blood gushed from the mouth and nostrils of the dying beast. He lurched forward and fell lifeless upon the crimsoned sand.
Tarzan of the Apes leaped to his feet. The savage personal combat, the blood, the contact with the mighty body of the carnivore had stripped from him the last vestige of the thin veneer of civilization. It was no English Lord who stood there with one foot upon his kill and through narrowed lids glared about him at the roaring populace. It was no man, but a wild beast, that raised its head and voiced the savage victory cry of the bull ape, a cry that stilled the multitude and froze its blood. But, in an instant, the spell that had seized him passed. His expression changed. The shadow of a smile crossed his face as he stooped and, wiping the blood from his dagger upon Numa’s mane, returned the weapon to its sheath.
Caesar’s jealousy had turned to terror as he realized the meaning of the tremendous ovation the giant barbarian was receiving from the people of Castra Sanguinarius. He well knew, though he tried to conceal the fact, that he held no place in popular favor and that Fastus, his son, was equally hated and despised.
This barbarian was a friend of Maximus Praeclarus, whom he had wronged, and Maximus Praeclarus, whose popularity with the troops was second to none, was loved by Dilecta, the daughter of Dion Splendidus, who might easily aspire to the purple with the support of such a popular idol as Tarzan must become if he were given his freedom in accordance with the customs and rules governing the contests. While Tarzan waited in the arena and the people cheered themselves hoarse, more legionaries filed into the stands until the wall bristled with glittering pikes.
Caesar whispered in consultation with the praefect of the games. Trumpets blared and the praefect arose and raised his open palm for silence. Gradually the din subsided and the people waited, listening, expecting the honors that were customarily bestowed upon the outstanding hero of the games. The praefect cleared his throat.
“This barbarian has furnished such extraordinary entertainment that Caesar, as a special favor to his loyal subjects, has decided to add one more event to the games in which the barbarian may again demonstrate his supremacy. This event will”—but what further the praefect said was drowned in a murmur of surprise, disapproval, and anger, for the people had sensed by this time the vicious and unfair trick that Sublatus was about to play upon their favorite.
They cared nothing for fair play, for though the individual may prate of it at home it has no place in mob psychology, but the mob knew what it wanted. It wanted to idolize a popular hero. It did not care to see him fight again that day and it wanted to thwart Sublatus, whom it hated. Menacing were the cries and threats directed toward Caesar, and only the glittering pikes kept the mob at bay.
In the arena the slaves were working rapidly; fallen Numa had been dragged away, the sands swept, and as the last slave disappeared, leaving Tarzan again alone within the enclosure, those menacing gates at the far end swung open once more.