The vain show of imperial power pleased Validus Augustus, deceiving perhaps the more ignorant of his subjects, and would have given Erich von Harben cause for laughter had he not realized the seriousness of his position.
No captive chained to the chariot of the greatest Caesar that ever lived had faced a more hopeless situation than he. What though he knew that a regiment of marines or a squadron of Uhlans might have reduced this entire empire to vassalage? What though he knew that the mayor of many a modern city could have commanded a fighting force far greater and much more effective than this little Caesar? The knowledge was only tantalizing, for the fact remained that Validus Augustus was Supreme here and there was neither regiment of marines nor squadron of Uhlans to question his behavior toward the subject of a great republic that could have swallowed his entire empire without being conscious of any discomfort. The triumph was over. Von Harben had been returned to the cell that he occupied with Mallius Lepus.
“You are back early,” said Lepus. “How did the triumph of Validus impress you?”
“It was not much of a show, if I may judge by the amount of enthusiasm displayed by the people.”
“The triumphs of Validus are always poor things,” said Lepus. “He would rather put ten talents in his belly or on his back than spend one denarius to amuse the people.”
“And the games,” asked von Harben, “will they be as poor?”
“They do not amount to much,” said Lepus. “We have few criminals here and as we have to purchase all our slaves, they are too valuable to waste in this way. Many of the contests are between wild beasts, an occasional thief or murderer may be pitted against a gladiator, but for the most part Validus depends upon professional gladiators and political prisoners—enemies or supposed enemies of Caesar. More often they are like you and I—victims of the lying and jealous intrigues of favorites. There are about twenty such in the dungeons now, and they will furnish the most interesting entertainment of the games.”
“And if we are victorious, we are freed?” asked von Harben.
“We shall not be victorious,” said Mallius Lepus. “Fulvus Fupus has seen to that, you may rest assured.”
“It is terrible,” muttered von Harben.
“You are afraid to die?” asked Mallius Lepus.
“It is not that,” said von Harben. “I am thinking of Favonia.”
“And well you may,” said Mallius Lepus. “My sweet cousin would be happier dead than married to Fulvus Fupus.
“I feel so helpless,” said von Harben. “Not a friend, not even my faithful body servant, Gabula.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” exclaimed Lepus. “They were here looking for him this morning.”
“Looking for him? Is he not confined in the dungeon?”
“He was, but he was detailed with other prisoners to prepare the arena last night, and during the darkness of early morning he is supposed to have escaped—but be that as it may, they were looking for him.”
“Good!” exclaimed von Harben. “I shall feel better just knowing that he is at large, though there is nothing that he can do for me. Where could he have gone?”
“Castrum Mare is ill guarded along its waterfront, but the lake itself and the crocodiles form a barrier as efficacious as many legionaries. Gabula may have scaled the wall, but the chances are that he is hiding within the city, protected by other slaves or, possibly, by Septimus Favonius himself.”
“I wish I might feel that the poor, faithful fellow had been able to escape the country and return to his own people,” said von Harben.
Mallius Lepus shook his head. “That is impossible,” he said. “Though you came down over the cliff, he could not return that way, and even if he could and the pass to the outer world, he would fall into the hands of the soldiers of Castra Sanguinarius or the barbarians of their outer villages. No, there is no chance that Gabula will escape.”
The time passed quickly, all too quickly, between the hour that Erich von Harben was returned to his cell, following his exhibition in the triumph of Validus Augustus, and the coming of the Colosseum guards to drive them into the arena.
The Colosseum was packed. The loges of the patricians were filled. The haughty Caesar of the East sat upon an ornate throne, shaded by a canopy of purple linen. Septimus Favonius sat with bowed head in his loge and with him was his wife and Favonia. The girl sat with staring eyes fixed upon the gateway from which the contestants were emerging. She saw her cousin, Mallius Lepus, emerge and with him Erich von Harben, and she shuddered and closed her eyes for a moment.
When she opened them again the column was forming and the contestants were marched across the white sands to receive the commands of Caesar. With Mallius Lepus and von Harben marched the twenty political prisoners, all of whom were of the patrician class. Then came the professional gladiators—-coarse, brutal men, whose business it was to kill or be killed. Leading these, with a bold swagger, was one who had been champion gladiator of Castrum Mare for five years. If the people had an idol, it was he. They roared their approval of him. “Claudius Taurus! Claudius Taurus!” rose above a babel of voices. A few mean thieves, some frightened slaves, and a half dozen lions completed the victims that were to make a Roman holiday.
Erich von Harben had often been fascinated by the stories of the games of ancient Rome. Often had he pictured the Colosseum packed with its thousands and the contestants upon the white sand of the arena, but now he realized that they had been but pictures—but the photographs of his imagination. The people in those dreams had been but picture people—automatons, who move only when we look at them. When there had been action on the sand the audience had been a silent etching, and when the audience had roared and turned its thumbs down the actors had been mute and motionless.
How different, this! He saw the constant motion in the packed stands, the mosaic of a thousand daubs of color that became kaleidoscopic with every move of the multitude. He heard the hum of voices and sensed the offensive odor of many human bodies. He saw the hawkers and vendors passing along the aisles shouting their wares. He saw the legionaries stationed everywhere. He saw the rich in their canopied loges and the poor in the hot sun of the cheap seats.
Sweat was trickling down the back of the neck of the patrician marching just in front of him. He glanced at Claudius Taurus. He saw that his tunic was faded and that his hairy legs were dirty. He had always thought of gladiators as clean-limbed and resplendent. Claudius Taurus shocked him.
As they formed in solid rank before the loge of Caesar, von Harben smelled the men pressing close behind him. The air was hot and oppressive. The whole thing was disgusting. There was no grandeur to it, no dignity. He wondered if it had been like this in Rome.
And then he looked up into the loge of Caesar. He saw the man in gorgeous robes, sitting upon his carved throne. He saw naked slaves swaying long-handled fans of feathers above the head of Caesar. He saw large men in gorgeous tunics and cuirasses of shining gold. He saw the wealth and pomp and circumstance of power, and something told him that after all ancient Rome had probably been much as this was—that its populace had smelled and that its gladiators had had hairy legs with dirt on them and that its patricians had sweated behind the ears.
Perhaps Validus Augustus was as great a Caesar as any of them, for did he not rule half of his known world? Few of them had done more than this.
His eyes wandered along the row of loges. The praefect of the games was speaking and von Harben heard his voice, but the words did not reach his brain, for his eyes had suddenly met those of a girl.
He saw the anguish and hopeless horror in her face and he tried to smile as he looked at her, a smile of encouragement and hope, but she only saw the beginning of the smile, for the tears came and the image of the man she loved was only a dull blur like the pain in her heart.
A movement in the stands behind the loges attracted von Harben’s eyes and he puckered his brows, straining his faculties to assure himself that he must be mistaken, but he was not. What he had seen was Gabula—he was moving toward the imperial loge, where he disappeared behind the hangings that formed the background of Caesar’s throne.
Then the praefect ordered them from the arena and as von Harben moved across the sand he tried to find some explanation of Gabula’s presence there—what errand had brought him to so dangerous a place?
The contestants had traversed but half the width of the arena returning to their cells when a sudden scream, ringing out behind them, caused them all to turn. Von Harben saw that the disturbance came from the imperial loge, but the scene that met his startled gaze seemed too preposterous to have greater substance than a dream. Perhaps it was all a dream. Perhaps there was no Castrum Mare. Perhaps there was no Validus Augustus. Perhaps there was no—ah, but that could not be true, there was a Favonia and this preposterous thing then that he was looking at was true too. He saw a man holding Caesar by the throat and driving a dagger into his heart with the other, and the man was Gabula.
It all happened so quickly and was over so quickly that scarcely had Caesar’s shriek rung through the Colosseum than he lay dead at the foot of his carved throne, and Gabula, the assassin, in a single leap had cleared the arena wall and was running across the sand toward von Harben.
“I have avenged you, Bwana!” cried Gabula. “No matter what they do to you, you are avenged.”
A great groan arose from the audience and then a cheer as someone shouted: “Caesar is dead!”
A hope flashed to the breast of von Harben. He turned and grabbed Mallius Lepus by the arm. “Caesar is dead,” he whispered. “Now is our chance.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Mallius Lepus.
“In the confusion we can escape. We can hide in the city and at night we can take Favonia with us and go away.”
“Where?” asked Mallius Lepus.
“God! I do not know,” exclaimed von Harben, “but anywhere would be better than here, for Fulvus Fupus is Caesar and if we do not save Favonia tonight, it will be too late.”
“You are right,” said Mallius Lepus.
“Pass the word to the others,” said von Harben. “The more there are who try to escape the better chance there will be for some of us to succeed.”
The legionaries and their officers as well as the vast multitude could attend only upon what was happening in the loge of Caesar. So few of them had seen what really occurred there that as yet there had been no pursuit of Gabula.
Mallius Lepus turned to the other prisoners. “The gods have been good to us,” he cried. “Caesar is dead and in the confusion we can escape. Come!”
As Mallius Lepus started on a run toward the gateway that led to the cells beneath the Colosseum, the shouting prisoners fell in behind him. Only those of the professional gladiators who were freemen held aloof, but they made no effort to stop them.
“Good luck!” shouted Claudius Taurus, as von Harben passed him. “Now if someone would kill Fulvus Fupus we might have a Caesar who is a Caesar.”
The sudden rush of the escaping prisoners so confused and upset the few guards beneath the Colosseum that they were easily overpowered and a moment later the prisoners found themselves in the streets of Castrum Mare.
“Where now?” cried one.
“We must scatter,” said Mallius Lepus. “Each man for himself.”
“We shall stick together, Mallius Lepus,” said von Harben.
“To the end,” replied the Roman.
“And here is Gabula,” said von Harben, as the Negro joined them. “He shall come with us.”
“We cannot desert the brave Gabula,” said Mallius Lepus, “but the first thing for us to do is to find a hiding-place.”
“There is a low wall across the avenue,” said von Harben, “and there are trees beyond it.”
“Come, then,” said Mallius Lepus. “It is as good for now as any other place.”
The three men hurried across the avenue and scaled the low wall, finding themselves in a garden so overgrown with weeds and underbrush that they at once assumed that it was deserted. Creeping through the weeds and forcing their way through the underbrush, they came to the rear of a house. A broken door, hanging by one hinge, windows from which the wooden blinds had fallen, an accumulation of rubbish upon the threshold marked the dilapidated structure as a deserted house.
“Perhaps this is just the place for us to hide until night,” said von Harben.
”Its proximity to the Colosseum is its greatest advantage,” said Mallius Lepus, “for they will be sure to believe that we have rushed as far from our dungeon as we could. Let us go in and investigate. We must be sure that the place is uninhabited.”
The rear room, which had been the kitchen, had a crumbling brick oven in one corner, a bench and a dilapidated table. Crossing the kitchen, they entered an apartment beyond and saw that these two rooms constituted all that there was to the house. The front room was large and as the blinds at the windows facing the avenue had not fallen, it was dark within it. In one corner they saw a ladder reaching to a trap-door in the ceiling, which evidently led to the roof of the building, and two or three feet below the ceiling and running entirely across the end of the room where the ladder arose was a false ceiling, which formed a tiny loft just below the roof-beams, a place utilized by former tenants as a storage room. A more careful examination of the room revealed nothing more than a pile of filthy rags against one wall, the remains perhaps of some homeless beggar’s bed.
“It could not have been better,” said Mallius Lepus, “if this had been built for us. Why, we have three exits if we are hard pressed—one into the back garden, one into the avenue in front, and the third to the roof.”
“We can remain in safety, then,” said von Harben, “until after dark, when it should be easy to make our way unseen through the dark streets to the home of Septimus Favonius.”