“We have nothing to expect but death,” said Lepus, gloomily. “Our friends are in disfavor, or in prison, or in exile. The jealousy of Validus Augustus against his nephew, Cassius Hasta, has been invoked against us by Fulvus Fupus to serve his own aims.”
“And the fault is mine,” said von Harben.
“Do not reproach yourself,” replied his friend. “That Favonia gave you her love cannot be held against you. It is only the jealous and scheming mind of Fupus that is to blame.”
“My love has brought sorrow to Favonia and disaster to her friends,” said von Harben, “and here am I, chained to a stone wall, unable to strike a blow in her defense or theirs.”
“Ah, if Cassius Hasta were but here!” exclaimed Lepus.
“There is a man. With Fupus adopted by Caesar, the whole city would arise against Validus Augustus if Cassius Hasta were but here to lead us.”
And as they conversed sadly and hopelessly in the dungeons of Castrum Mare, noble guests gathered in the throne-room of Sublatus in the city of Castra Sanguinarius, at the opposite end of the valley. There were senators in rich robes and high officers of the court and of the army, resplendent in jewels and embroidered linen, who, with their wives and their daughters, formed a gorgeous, and glittering company in the pillared chamber, for Fastus, the son of Caesar, was to wed the daughter of Dion Splendidus that evening.
In the avenue, beyond the palace gates, a great crowd had assembled—a multitude of people pushing and surging to and fro, but pressing ever upon the gates up to the very pikes of the legionaries. It was a noisy crowd—noisy with a deep-throated roar of anger.
“Down with the tyrant!” “Death to Sublatus!” “Death to Fastus!” was the burden of their hymn of hate.
The menacing notes filled the palace, reaching to the throne-room, but the haughty patricians pretended not to hear the voice of the cattle. Why should they fear? Had not Sublatus distributed donations to all the troops that very day? Would not the pikes of the legionaries protect the source of their gratuity? It would serve the ungrateful populace right if Sublatus set the legions upon them, for had he not given them such a pageant and such a week of games as Castra Sanguinarius never had known before?
For the rabble without, their contempt knew no bounds now that they were within the palace of the Emperor, but they did not speak among themselves of the fact that most of them had entered by a back gate after the crowd had upset the litter of a noble senator and spilled its passengers into the dust of the avenue.
With pleasure they anticipated the banquet that would follow the marriage ceremony, and while they laughed and chattered over the gossip of the week, the bride sat stark and cold in an upper chamber of the palace surrounded by her female slaves and comforted by her mother.
“It shall not be,” she said. “I shall never be the wife of Fastus,” and in the folds of her flowing robe she clutched the hilt of a slim dagger.
In the corridor beneath the Colosseum, Tarzan marshaled his forces. He summoned Lukedi and a chief of one of the outer villages, who had been a fellow prisoner with him and with whom he had fought shoulder to shoulder in the games.
“Go to the Porta Praetoria,” he said, “and ask Appius Applosus to pass you through the city wall as a favor to Maximus Praeclarus. Go then among the villages and gather warriors. Tell them that if they would be avenged upon Caesar and free to live their own lives in their own way, they must rise now and join the citizens who are ready to revolt and destroy the tyrant. Hasten, there is no time to be lost. Gather them quickly and lead them into the city by the Porta Praetoria, straight to the palace of Caesar.”
Warning their followers to silence, Tarzan and Maximus Praeclarus led them in the direction of the barracks of the Colosseum guard, where were quartered the men of Praeclarus’s own cohort.
It was a motley throng of near-naked warriors from the outer villages, slaves from the city, and brown half-castes, among whom were murderers, thieves and professional gladiators. Praeclarus and Hasta and Metellus and Tarzan led them, and swarming close to Tarzan were Gayat, Zutho, and Go-yad and their three fellow apes.
Ogonyo was certain now that Tarzan was a demon, for who else might command the hairy men of the woods? Doubtless in each of these fierce bodies presided the ghost of some great Bagego chief. If little Nkima had been the ghost of his grandfather, then these must be the ghosts of very great men, indeed. Ogonyo did not press too closely to these savage allies, nor as a matter of fact did any of the others—not even the most ferocious of the gladiators.
At the barracks Maximus Praeclarus knew to whom to speak and what to say, for mutiny had long been rife in the ranks of the legionaries. Only their affection for some of their officers, among whom was Praeclarus, had kept them thus long in leash, and now they welcomed the opportunity to follow the young patrician to the very gates of Caesar’s palace.
Following a plan that had been decided upon, Praeclarus dispatched a detachment under an officer to the Porta Praetoria with orders to take it by force, if they could not persuade Appius Applosus to join them, and throw it open to the warriors from the outer villages when they should arrive.
Along the broad Via Principalis, overhung by giant trees that formed a tunnel of darkness in the night, Tarzan of the Apes led his followers toward the palace in the wake of a few torch-bearers, who lighted the way.
As they approached their goal, someone upon the out-skirts of the crowd, pressing the palace guard, was attracted by the light of their torches and quickly the word was passed that Caesar had sent for reinforcements—that more troops were coming. The temper of the crowd, already inflamed, was not improved as this news spread quickly through its ranks. A few, following a self-appointed leader, moved forward menacingly to meet the newcomers.
“Who comes?” shouted one.
“It is I, Tarzan of the Apes,” replied the ape-man.
The shout that went up in response to this declaration proved that the fickle populace had not, as yet, turned against him.
Within the palace the cries of the people brought a scowl to the face of Caesar and a sneer to many a patrician lip, but their reaction might have been far different had they known the cause of the elation of the mob.
“Why are you here?” cried voices. “What are you going to do?”
“We have come to rescue Dilecta from the arms of Fastus, and to drag the tyrant from the throne of Castra Sanguinarius.”
Roars of approval greeted the announcement. “Death to the tyrant!” “Down with the palace guards!” “Kill them!” “Kill them!” rose from a thousand lips.
The crowd pushed forward. The officer of the guard, seeing the reinforcements, among which were many legionaries, ordered his men to fall back within the palace grounds and close and bar the gate, nor did they succeed in accomplishing this an instant too soon, for as the bolts were shot the crowd hurled itself upon the stout barriers of iron and oak.
A pale-faced messenger hastened to the throne-room and to Caesar’s side.
“The people have risen,” he whispered, hoarsely, “and many soldiers and gladiators and slaves have joined them. They are throwing themselves against the gates, which cannot hold for long.” Caesar arose and paced nervously to and fro, and presently he paused and summoned officers.
“Dispatch messengers to every gate and every barracks,” he ordered. “Summon the troops to the last man that may be spared from the gates. Order them to fall upon the rabble and kill. Let them kill until no citizen remains alive in the streets of Castra Sanguinarius. Take no prisoners.”
As word finds its way through a crowd, as though by some strange telepathic means, so the knowledge soon became common that Sublatus had ordered every legionary in the city to the palace with instructions to destroy the revolutionaries to the last man.
The people, encouraged by the presence of the legionaries led by Praeclarus, had renewed their assaults upon the gates, and though many were piked through its bars, their bodies were dragged away by their friends and others took their places, so that the gates sagged and bent beneath their numbers; yet they held and Tarzan saw that they might hold for long—or at least long enough to permit the arrival of the reinforcements that, if they remained loyal to Caesar, might overcome this undisciplined mob with ease.
Gathering around him some of those he knew best, Tarzan explained a new plan that was greeted with exclamations of approval, and summoning the apes he moved down the dark avenue, followed by Maximus Praeclarus, Cassius Hasta, Caecilius Metellus, Mpingu, and a half dozen of Castra Sangainarius’s most famous gladiators.
The wedding of Fastus and Dilecta was to take place upon the steps of Caesar’s throne. The high priest of the temple stood facing the audience, and just below him, and at one side, Fastus waited, while slowly up the center of the long chamber came the bride, followed by the vestal virgins, who tended the temple’s sacred fires.
Dilecta was pale, but she did not falter as she moved slowly forward to her doom. There were many who whispered that she looked the Empress already, so noble was her mien, so stately her carriage. They could not see the slim dagger clutched in her right hand beneath the flowing bridal robes. Up the aisle she moved, but she did not halt before the priest as Fastus had done—and as she should have done—but passed him and mounting the first few steps toward the throne she halted, facing Sublatus.
“The people of Castra Sanguinarius have been taught through all the ages that they may look to Caesar for protection,” she said. “Caesar not only makes the law—he is the law. He is either the personification of justice or he is a tyrant. Which, Sublatus, are you?”
Caesar flushed. “What mad whim is this, child?” he demanded. “Who has set you to speak such words to Caesar?”
“I have not been prompted,” replied the girl, wearily. “It is my last hope and though I knew beforehand that it was futile, I felt that I must not cast it aside as useless before putting it to the test.”
“Come! Come!” snapped Caesar. “Enough of this foolishness. Take your place before the priest and repeat your marriage vows.”
“You cannot refuse me,” cried the girl, stubbornly. “I appeal to Caesar, which is my right as a citizen of Rome, the mother city that we have never seen, but whose right to citizenship has been handed down to us from our ancient sires. Unless the spark of freedom is to be denied us, you cannot refuse me that right, Sublatus.”
The Emperor paled and then flushed with anger. “Come to me tomorrow,” he said. “You shall have whatever you wish.”
“If you do not hear me now, there will be no tomorrow,” she said. “I demand my rights now.”
“Well”, demanded Caesar, coldly, “what favor do you seek?”
“I seek no favor,” replied Dilecta. “I seek the right to know if the thing for which I am paying this awful price has been done, as it was promised.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Sublatus. “What proof do you wish?”
“I wish to see Maximus Praeclarus here alive and free,” replied the girl, “before I pledge my troth to Fastus. That, as you well know, was the price of my promise to wed him.”
Caesar arose angrily. “That cannot be,” he said.
“Oh, yes, it can be,” cried a voice from the balcony at the side of the chamber, “for Maximus Praeclarus stands just behind me.”