PETRONIUS went borne. Nero and Tigcllinus went to Poppaea's atrium, where the_ere expected by people with whom the prefect had spoken already.
There were two Trans-Tiber rabbis in long solemn robes and mitred, a youn_opyist, their assistant, together with Chilo. At sight of Caesar the priest_rew pale from emotion, and, raising their hands an arm's length, bent thei_eads to his hands.
"Be greeted, O ruler of the earth, guardian of the chosen people, and Caesar, lion among men, whose reign is like sunlight, like the cedar of Lebanon, lik_ spring, like a palm, like the balsam of Jericho,"
"Do ye refuse to call me god?" inquired Nero.
The priests grew still paler. The chief one spoke again, —
"Thy words, O lord, are as sweet as a cluster of grapes, as a ripe fig,— fo_ehovah filled thy heart with goodness! Thy father's predecessor, Caesa_aius, was stern; still our envoys did not call him god, preferring deat_tself to violation of the law."
"And did not Caligula give command to throw them to the lions?"
"No, lord; Caesar Caius feared Jehovah's anger."
And they raised their heads, for the name of the powerful Jehovah gave the_ourage; confident in his might, they looked into Nero's eyes with mor_oldness.
"Do ye accuse the Christians of burning Rome?" inquired Caesar. "We, lord, accuse them of this alone, — that they are enemies of the law, of the huma_ace, of Rome, and of thee; that long since they have threatened the city an_he world with fire! The rest will be told thee by this man, whose lips ar_nstained by a lie, for in his mother's veins flowed the blood of the chose_eople."
Nero turned to Chio: "Who art thou?"
"One who honors thee, O Cyrus; and, besides, a poor Stoic—"
"I hate the Stoics," said Nero. "I hate Thrasea; I hate Musonius and Cornutus.
Their speech is repulsive to me; their contempt for art, their voluntar_qualor and filth."
"O lord, thy master Seneca has one thousand tables of citrus wood. At thy wis_ will have twice as many. I am a Stoic from necessity. Dress my stoicism, _adiant One, in a garland of roses, put a pitcher of wine before it; it wil_ing Anacreon in such strains as to deafen every Epicurean."
Nero, who was pleased by the title "Radiant," smiled and said,— "Thou dos_lease me."
"This man is worth his weight in gold!" cried Tigellinus.
"Put thy liberality with my weight," answered Chilo, "or the wind will blow m_eward away."
"He would not outweigh Vitelius," put in Caesar.
"Eheu! Silver-bowed, my wit is not of lead."
"I see that thy faith does not hinder thee from calling me a god."
"O Immortal! My faith is in thee; the Christians blaspheme against that faith, and I hate them."
"What dost thou know of the Christians?"
"Wilt thou permit me to weep, O divinity?"
"No," answered Nero; "weeping annoys me."
"Thou art triply right, for eyes that have seen thee should be free of tear_orever. O lord, defend me against my enemies."
"Speak of the Christians," said Poppaea, with a shade of impatience.
"It will be at thy command, O Isis," answered Chilo. "From youth I devote_yself to philosophy, and sought truth. I sought it among the ancient divin_ages, in the Academy at Athens, and in the Serapeum at Alexandria. When _eard of the Christians, I judged that they formed some new school in which _ould find certain kernels of truth; and to my misfortune I made thei_cquaintance. The first Christian whom evil fate brought near me was on_laucus, a physician of Naples. From him I learned in time that they worship _ertain Chrestos, who promised to exterminate all people and destroy ever_ity on earth, but to spare them if they helped him to exterminate th_hildren of Deucalion. For this reason, O lady, they hate men, and poiso_ountains; for this reason in their assemblies they shower curses on Rome, an_n all temples in which our gods are honored. Chrestos was crucified; but h_romised that when Rome was destroyed by fire, he would come again and giv_hristians dominion over the world."
"People will understand now why Rome was destroyed," interrupted Tigellinus.
"Many understand that already, O lord, for I go about in the gardens, I go t_he Campus Martius, and teach. But if ye listen to the end, ye will know m_easons for vengeance. Glaucus the physician did not reveal to me at firs_hat their religion taught hatred. On the contrary, he told me that Chresto_as a good divinity, that the basis of their religion was love. My sensitiv_eart could not resist such a truth; hence I took to loving Glaucus, I truste_im, I shared every morsel of bread with him, every copper coin, and dost tho_now, lady, how he repaid me? On the road from Naples to Rome he thrust _nife into my body, and my wife, the beautiful and youthful Berenice, he sol_o a slave-merchant. If Sophocles knew my history — but what do I say? On_etter than Sophocles is listening."
"Poor man!" said Poppaeua.
"Whoso has seen the face of Aphrodite is not poor, lady; and I see it at thi_oment. But then I sought consolation in philosophy. When I came to Rome, _ried to meet Christian elders to obtain justice against Glaucus. I though_hat they would force him to yield up my wife. I became acquainted with thei_hief priest; I became acquainted with another, named Paul, who was in priso_n this city, but was liberated afterward; I became acquainted with the son o_ebedee, with Linus and Clitus and many others. I know where they lived befor_he fire, I know where they meet. I can point out one excavation in th_atican Hill and a cemetery beyond the Nomentan Gate, where they celebrat_heir shameless ceremonies. I saw the Apostle Peter. I saw how Glaucus kille_hildren, so that the Apostle might have something to sprinkle on the heads o_hose present; and I saw Lygia, the foster-child of Pomponia Graecina, wh_oasted that though unable to bring the blood of an infant, she brought th_eath of an infant, for she bewitched the little Augusta, thy daughter, _yrus, and thine, O Isis!"
"Dost hear, Caesar?" asked Poppaea.
"Can that be!" exclaimed Nero.
"I could forgive wrongs done myself," continued Chio, "but when I heard o_ours, I wanted to stab her. Unfortunately I was stopped by the nobl_inicius, who loves her."
"Vinicius? But did she not flee from him?"
"She fled, but he made search for her; he could not exist without her. Fo_retched pay I helped him in the search, and it was I who pointed out to hi_he house in which she lived among the Christians in the Trans-Tiber. We wen_here together, and with us thy wrestler Croton, whom the noble Viicius hire_o protect him. But Ursus, Lygia's slave, crushed Croton. That is a man o_readful strength, O Lord, who can break a bull's neck as easily as anothe_ight a poppy stalk. Auluae and Pomponia loved him because of that."
"By Hercules," said Nero, "the mortal who crushed Croton deserves a statue i_he Forum. But, old man, thou art mistaken or art inventing, for Viniciu_illed Croton with a knife."
"That is how people calumniate the gods. O lord, I myself saw Croton's rib_reaking in the arms of Ursus, who rushed then on Viicius and would hav_illed him but for Lygia. Vinicius was ill for a long time after that but the_ursed him in the hope that through love he would become a Christian. In fact, he did become a Christian."
"And, perhaps, Petronius too?" inquired Tigellinus, hurriedly. Chio squirmed, rubbed his hands, and said, —
"I admire thy penetration, O lord. He may have become one! He may very wel_ave become one."
"Now I understand why he defended the Christians."
Nero laughed: "Petronius a Christian! Petronius an enemy of life and luxury!
Be not foolish; do not ask me to believe that, since I am ready not to believ_nything."
"But the noble Vinicius became a Christian, lord. I swear by that radianc_hich comes from thee that I speak the truth, and that nothing pierces me wit_uch disgust as lying. Pomponia Graecina is a Christian, little Aulus is _hristian, Lygia is a Christian, and so is Vinicius. I served him faithfully, and in return, at the desire of Glaucus the physician, he gave command to flo_e, though I am old and was sick and hungry. And I have sworn by Hades that _ill not forget that for him. O lord, avenge my wrongs on them, and I wil_eliver to thee Peter the Apostle and Linus and Clitus and Glaucus an_rispus, the highest ones, and Lygia and Ursus. I will point out hundreds o_hem to you, thousands; I will indicate their houses of prayer, th_emeteries, all thy prisons will not hold them! Without me ye could not fin_hem. In misfortunes I have sought consolation; hitherto in philosophy alone, now I will find it in favors that will descend on me. I am old, and have no_nown life; let me begin."
"It is thy wish to be a Stoic before a full plate," said Nero. "Whoso render_ervice to thee will fill it by that same."
"Thou art not mistaken, O philosopher."
But Poppaeca did not forget her enemies. Her fancy for Vinicius was, indeed, rather a momentary whim, which had risen under the influence of jealousy, anger, and wounded vanity. Still the coolness of the young patrician touche_er deeply, and filled her heart with a stubborn feeling of offence. Thi_lone, that he had dared to prefer anothe'r, seemed to her a crime calling fo_engeance. As to Lygia, she hated her from the first moment, when the beaut_f that northern lily alarmed her, Petronius, who spoke of the too narrow hip_f the girl, might talk what he pleased into Caesar, but not into the Augusta.
Poppaea the critic understood at one cast of the eye that in all Rome Lygi_lone could rival and even surpass her. Thenceforth she vowed her ruin.
"Lord," said she, "avenge our child."
"Hasten!" cried Chio, "hasten! Otherwise Vinicius will hide her. I will poin_ut the house to which she returned after the fire."
"I will give thee ten men, and go this moment," said Tigellinus.
"O lord! thou hast not seen Croton in the arms of Ursus; if thou wilt giv_ifty men, I will only show the house from a distance. But if ye will no_mprison Vinicius, I am lost."
Tigellinus looked at Nero. "Would it not be well, O divinity, to finish a_nce with the uncle and nephew?"
Nero thought a moment and answered, —
"No, not now. People would not believe us if we tried to persuade them tha_etronius, Vinicius, or Pomponia Graecina had fired Rome. Their houses wer_oo beautiful. Their turn will come later; to-day other victims are needed."
"Then, O lord, give me soldiers as a guard," said Chilo. "See to this, Tigellinus."
"Thou wilt lodge meanwhile with me," said the prefect to Chilo. Delight beame_rom the face of the Greek.
"I will give up all! only hasten! — hasten!" cried he, with a hoarse voice.