No one stopped Ursus, no one inquired even what he was doing. Those guests wh_ere not under the table had not kept their own places; hence the servants, seeing a giant carrying a guest on his arm, thought him some slave bearing ou_is intoxicated mistress. Moreover, Acte was with them, and her presenc_emoved all suspicion.
In this way they went from the triclinium to the adjoining chamber, and thenc_o the gallery leading to Acte's apartments. To such a degree had her strengt_eserted Lygia, that she hung as if dead on the arm of Ursus. But when th_ool, pure breeze of morning beat around her, she opened her eyes. It wa_rowing clearer and clearer in the open air. After they had passed along th_olonnade awhile, they turned to a side portico, coming out, not in th_ourtyard, but the palace gardens, where the tops of the pines and cypresse_ere growing ruddy from the light of morning. That part of the building wa_mpty, so that echoes of music and sounds of the feast came with decreasin_istinctness. It seemed to Lygia that she had been rescued from hell, an_orne into God's bright world outside. There was something, then, besides tha_isgusting tricliium. There was the sky, the dawn, light, and peace. Sudde_eeping seized the maiden, and, taking shelter on the arm of the giant, sh_epeated, with sobbing, — "Let us go home, Ursus! home, to the house o_ulus."
"Let us go!" answered Ursus.
They found themselves now in the small atrium of Acte's apartments. Ursu_laced Lygia on a marble bench at a distance from the fountain. Acte strove t_acify her; she urged her to sleep, and declared that for the moment there wa_o danger, — after the feast the drunken guests would sleep till evening. Fo_ long time Lygia could not calm herself, and, pressing her temples with bot_ands, she repeated like a child, — "Let us go home, to the house of Aulus!"
Ursus was ready. At the gates stood pretorians, it is true, but he would pas_hem. The soldiers would not stop out-going people. The space before the arc_as crowded with litters. Guests were beginning to go forth in throngs. No on_ould detain them. They would pass with the crowd and go home directly. Fo_hat matter, what does he care? As the queen commands, so must it be. He i_here to carry out her orders.
"Yes, Ursus," said Lygia, "let us go."
Acte was forced to find reason for both. They would pass out, true; no on_ould stop them. But it is not permitted to flee from the house of Caesar; whoso does that offends Caesar's majesty. They may go; but in the evening _enturion at the head of soldiers will take a death sentence to Aulus an_omponia Graecina; they will bring Lygia to the palace again, and then ther_ill be no rescue for her. Should Aulus and his wife receive her under thei_oof, death awaits them to a certainty.
Lygia's arms dropped. There was no other outcome. She must choose her own rui_r that of Plautius. In going to the feast, she had hoped that Vinicius an_etronius would win her from Caesar, and return her to Pornponia; now she kne_hat it was they who had brought Caesar to remove her from the house of Aulus.
There was no help. Only a miracle could save her from the abyss, — a miracl_nd the might of God.
"Acte," said she, in despair, "didst thou hear Vinicius say that Caesar ha_iven me to him, and that he will send slaves here this evening to take me t_is house?"
"I did," answered Acte; and, raising her arms from her side, she was silent.
The despair with which Lygia spoke found in her no echo. She herself had bee_ero's favorite. Her heart, though good, could not feel clearly the shame o_uch a relation. A former slave, she had grown too much inured to the law o_lavery; and, besides, she loved Nero yet. If he returned to her, she woul_tretch her arms to him, as to happiness. Comprehending clearly that Lygi_ust become the mistress of the youthful and stately Vinicius, or expose Aulu_nd Pomponia to ruin, she failed to understand how the girl could hesitate.
"In Caesar's house," said she, after a while, "it would not be safer for the_han in that of Vinicius."
And it did not occur to her that, though she told the truth, her words meant,
"Be resigned to fate and become the concubine of Vinicius."
As to Lygia, who felt on her lips yet his kisses, burning as coals and full o_eastly desire, the blood rushed to her face with shame at the mere thought o_hem.
"Never," cried she, with an outburst, "will I remain here, or at the house o_inicius, — never!"
"But," inquired Acte, "is Vinicius hateful to thee?"
Lygia was unable to answer, for weeping seized her anew. Acte gathered th_aiden to her bosom, and strove to calm her excitement. Ursus breathe_eavily, and balled his giant fists; for, loving his queen with the devotio_f a dog, he could not bear the sight of her tears. In his half-wild Lygia_eart was the wish to return to the tridinium, choke Vinicius, and, should th_eed come, Caesar himself; but he feared to sacrifice thereby his mistress, and was not certain that such an act, which to him seemed very simple, woul_efit a confessor of the Crucified Lamb.
But Acte, while caressing Lygia, asked again, "Is he so hateful to thee?"
"No," said Lygia; "it is not permitted me to hate, for I am a Christian."
"I know, Lygia. I know also from the letters of Paul of Tarsus, that it is no_ermitted to defile one's self, nor to fear death more than sin; but tell m_f thy teaching permits one person to cause the death of others?"
"Then how canst thou bring Caesar's vengeance on the house of Aulus?" A momen_f silence followed. A bottomless abyss yawned before Lygia again.
"I ask," continued the young freedwoman, "for I have compassion on thee — an_ have compassion on the good Pomponia and Aulus, and on their child. It i_ong since I began to live in this house, and I know what Caesar's anger is.
No! thou art not at liberty to flee from here. One way remains to thee: implore Vinicius to return thee to Pomponia."
But Lygia dropped on her knees to implore some one else. Ursus knelt dow_fter a while, too, and both began to pray in Caesar's house at the mornin_awn.
Acte witnessed such a prayer for the first time, and could not take her eye_rom Lygia, who, seen by her in profile, with raised hands, and face turne_eavenward, seemed to implore rescue. The dawn, casting light on her dark hai_nd white peplus, was reflected in her eyes. Entirely in the light, she seeme_erself like light. In that pale face, in those parted lips, in those raise_ands and eyes, a kind of superhuman exaltation was evident. Acte understoo_hen why Lygia could not become the concubine of any man. Before the face o_ero's former favorite was drawn aside, as it were, a corner of that vei_hich hides a world altogether different from that to which she wa_ccustomed. She was astonished by prayer in that abode of crime and infamy. _oment earlier it had seemed to her that there was no rescue for Lygia; no_he began to think that something uncommon would happen, that some aid woul_ome, — aid so mighty that Caesar himself would be powerless to resist it; that some winged army would descend from the sky to help that maiden, or tha_he sun would spread its rays beneath her feet and draw her up to itself. Sh_ad heard of many miracles among Christians, and she thought now tha_verything said of them was true, since Lygia was praying.
Lygia rose at last, with a face serene with hope. Ursus rose too, and, holdin_o the bench, looked at his mistress, waiting for her words.
But it grew dark in her eyes, and after a time two great tears rolled down he_hecks slowly.
"May God bless Pomponia and Aulus," said she. "It is not permitted me to brin_uin on them; therefore I shall never see them again."
Then turning to Ursus she said that he alone remained to her in the world; that he must be to her as a protector and a father. They could not seek refug_n the house of Aulus, for they would bring on it the anger of Caesar. Bu_either could she remain in the house of Caesar or that of Vinicius. Let Ursu_ake her then; let him conduct her out of the city; let him conceal her i_ome place where neither Vinicius nor his servants could find her. She woul_ollow Ursus anywhere, even beyond the sea, even beyond the mountains, to th_arbarians, where the Roman name was not heard, and whither the power o_aesar did not reach. Let him take her and save her, for he alone had remaine_o her.
The Lygian was ready, and in sign of obedience he bent to her feet an_mbraced them. But on the face of Acte, who had been expecting a miracle, disappointment was evident. Had the prayer effected only that much? To fle_rom the house of Caesar is to commit an offence against majesty which must b_venged; and even if Lygia succeeded in hiding, Caesar would avenge himself o_ulus and Pomponia. If she wishes to escape, let her escape from the house o_inicius. Then Caesar, who does not like to occupy himself with the affairs o_thers, may not wish even to aid Vinicius in the pursuit; in every case i_ill not be a crime against majesty.
But Lygia's thoughts were just the following: Aulus would not even know wher_he was; Pomponia herself would not know. She would escape not from the hous_f Vinicius, however, but while on the way to it. When drunk, Vinicius ha_aid that he would send his slaves for her in the evening. Beyond doubt he ha_old the truth, which he would not have done had he been sober. Evidently h_imself, or perhaps he and Petronius, had seen Caesar before the feast, an_on from him the promise to give her on the following evening. And if the_orgot that day, they would send for her on the morrow. But Ursus will sav_er. He will come; he will bear her out of the litter as he bore her out o_he triclinium, and they will go into the world. No one could resist Ursus, not even that terrible athlete who wrestled at the feast yesterday. But a_inicius might send a great number of slaves, Ursus would go at once to Bisho_inus for aid and counsel. The bishop will take compassion on her, will no_eave her in the hands of Vinicius; he will command Christians to go wit_rsus to rescue her. They will seize her and bear her away; then Ursus ca_ake her out of the city and hide her from the power of Rome.
And her face began to flush and smile. Consolation entered her anew, as if th_ope of rescue had turned to reality. She threw herself on Acte's nec_uddenly, and, putting her beautiful lips to Acte's cheek, she whispered:
"Thou wilt not betray, Acte, wilt thou?"
"By the shade of my mother," answered the freedwoman, "I will not; but pray t_hy God that Ursus be able to bear thee away."
The blue, childlike eyes of the giant were gleaming with happiness. He had no_een able to frame any plan, though he had been breaking his poor head; but _hing like this he could do, — and whether in the day or in the night it wa_ll one to him! He would go to the bishop, for the bishop can read in the sk_hat is needed and what is not. Besides, he could assemble Christians himself.
Are his acquaintances few among slaves, gladiators, and free people, both i_he Subura and beyond the bridges? He can collect a couple of thousand o_hem. He will rescue his lady, and take her outside the city, and he can g_ith her. They will go to the end of the world, even to that place from whic_hey had come, where no one has heard of Rome.
Here he began to look forward, as if to see things in the future and ver_istant.
"To the forest? Al, what a forest, what a forest!"
But after a while he shook himself out of his visions. Well, he will go to th_ishop at once, and in the evening will wait with something like a hundred me_or the litter. And let not slaves, hut even pretorians, take her from him!
Better for any man not to come under his fist, even though in iron armor, — for is iron so strong? When he strikes iron earnestly, the head underneat_ill not survive.
But Lygia raised her finger with great and also childlike seriousness.
"Ursus, do not kill," said she.
Ursus put his fist, which was like a maul, to the back of his head, and, rubbing his neck with great seriousness, began to mutter. But he must rescue
"his light." She herself had said that his turn had come. He will try all h_an. But if something happens in spite of him? In every case he must save her.
But should anything happen, he will repent, and so entreat the Innocent Lam_hat the Crucified Lamb will have mercy on him, poor fellow. He has no wish t_ffend the Lamb; but then his hands are so heavy.
Great tenderness was expressed on his face; but wishing to hide it, he bowe_nd said, — "Now I will go to the holy bishop."
Acte put her arms around Lygia's neck, and began to weep. Once more th_reedwoman understood that there was a world in which greater happines_xisted, even in suffering, than in all the excesses and luxury of Caesar'_ouse. Once more a kind of door to the light was opened a little before her, but she felt at once that she was unworthy to pass through it.