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Full text of "The sign of the cross"

8 tA 



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Mercia, by look and caress, urged him 

r.... . .. 



The Sign of the Cross 



By 

Wilson Barrett 




Philadelphia 

J. B. Lippincott Company 

Mdcccxcvii 



COPYRIGHT, 1896, 

BY 
J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY 



PREFACE 

BY THE BISHOP OF TRUEO. 

To purify the stage, that the stage might raise 
men, to go straight to the source of high emotion, to 
bring together the old and the new natures till each 
told the truth of the other, to bring the nineteenth 
century face to face with the first, this seemed to 
me heroic. 

And the more so, because great actors and good men 
said it was impossible, for the English playgoer was 
best caught with broad pieces and the things which he 
would condemn in the real life of his own home. 

Many a tragedian preferred the things that make for 
good, but their audience seemed of another mind. 

We only seemed so ; at the bottom of our hearts all 
the time there was a scorn of base thoughts, and a 
kindling to whatever is pure and true and honourable 
and lovely, although we did not always know it. And 

3 



PREFACE 

when the Sign of the Cross reached us, we knew its 
kindred touch, and the story found itself at home. 

So we thank Mr. Wilson Barrett for his work, his 
success seems to be ours, his success is the mother of 
Plays that live, and ideas of life that make men live. 

JOHN TRURON. 

TRKNYTHON, CORNWALL. 



Contents 



CHAPTER PAGE 

I. MERCIA 9 

II. MARCUS 14 

III. NERO 21 

IV. MELOS 28 

V. MERCIA S SORROW 35 

VI. THE PERSECUTIONS 41 

VII. SOME PATRICIANS 50 

VIII. BERENICE 71 

IX. THE ARREST or STEPHANUS 85 

X. THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 101 

XI. THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 116 

XII. THE WOOING OF BERENICE 130 

XIII. SOME PERPLEXITIES 164 

XIV. POPPJSA WINS 191 

XV. ANCARIA 206 

XVI. MERCIA S PERIL 224 

XVII. MERCIA S CONDEMNATION 255 

XVIII. THE KEMORSE OF MARCUS 262 

XIX. A KOMAN FESTIVAL 280 

XX. THE GATES AJAR 286 

XXI. MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 294 



PROEM 

IN Jerusalem, in a low workshop, under the shadow 
of the Temple Mount, two labouring men one stal 
wart and ponderous of movement, with dark, surly 
face, thick, pendent lower lip, and beady, twinkling, 
black eyes ; the other short, bloated, and wheezy of 
breath were engaged constructing a rude gibbet of 
unplaned wood, in the form of a cross. The upright 
bar was about twelve feet high, the transverse about 
six in length ; upon this was to be crucified the follow 
ing day one Jesus, a Nazarene, by many called Christ. 
This gibbet was the last of three that they had been 
making that day. 

No sculptured stone of Phidias or Michael Angelo, 
no painting of Apelles or Eaphael, no masterpiece of 
art, however valued, no manuscript or precious record 
of the history or thought of man, could so stir the 
imagination, touch the heart, move the soul, or bring so 
large a price as one authenticated foot of that rough- 
hewn gallows would realise this day. Offered for sale, 
a world would bid for it. Little dreamed those two 
men plying their trade, eager to be done and get to 
the wine-shop, that for thousands of years untold 

7 



PROEM 

millions would make of this handiwork of theirs a 
Sign, as the outward acknowledgment of their faith ; 
and that for countless ages the most potent factor in 
civilising and humanising the world would be 




8 



The Sign of the Cross 



CHAPTEE I 

MEKCIA 

IN the atrium of the house of a merchant, in a secluded 
street in Eome, two children were playing a boy and 
a girl. The boy was between nine and ten years of 
age a sturdy, well-made lad, with earnest, blue-grey 
eyes, and a round, honest, comely face. The girl was 
some five years younger a lithe, lissome little maiden, 
with large, brown, lustrous, wondering eyes, and a mass 
of dark-brown curls, glinted with threads of gold in the 
sunshine ; curls which the child had a pretty little trick 
of tossing from her eyes and forehead. Her lips were 
thin and sensitive almost too sensitive but they were 
full of life and colour. Her hands and feet were small ; 
her complexion of a marble clearness and smoothness, 
rose-tinted with health and good temper. 

At the east end of the room the embrasure of the 
window had been built in the form of a long, narrow 
cross ; through this the sun poured on to the shaded 
floor and formed there a cross of golden sunshine, in 
the rays of which the children gambolled. 

"Yes, dear Mercia," said the boy, "and I shall 

9 



Til!! SIGN OF THE CROSS 

being older than thou have to wait for thoe ; but I 
will wait, and, when thou art old enough, I will wed 
thee." 

\\Yd v asked tin- tiny little woman innocently. 
"Wed? What is wed?" 

"Make thee ray wife," the boy replied, blushing 
slightly at his own temerity. 

Make me thy wife?" Ii-ped the little maid de 
murely. "Nay, that thou ahalt nerer do. I am very, 
very grieved, dear Melon, to deny thee <nnjht, but that 
I ,-<mn it promise. Do not let it \v.\ thee, for, though 
I cannot let thee make me thy wife, I will be thy 
dearest friend, (li-ai-. dearest Melos." 

"But. Mcreia." began the lad. 

"No, Melos. n..; I cannot," firmly replied the child. 

Tray thee, do not ask such things." 

Year-, afterward-, when the little Melos was grown 
to manhood, and the child had heroine a lovely woman, 
he pleaded thus to Mercia once again, for the boy was 
faithful to his rliild-love all the day- of his life. 

Melos was an orphan, the son ( .f a dead friend of the 
owner of the house, in which he lived a- one of the 
family. The owner was one Lucius, a merchant, do- 
-nded from an ancient family "f honourable traditions. 
who-M- di-tinctim- had |a-M-d awav in |i\vr!\ 

Lucius w:i- a man of high inteirrit \ .e\e. llmi ca|,acity. 
and untiring industry ! . dispose of hi- m.-n-handi-e 
he travelled into many land- and suet manv men. II. 
went to PalcHtine. ahidini^ for a time in the P..r ..f 
< a -ai-ia Il.-i-e he nu-t a e.-nt urioti named Si^ninu-. 
who -a\\ JeSUI div Many were the conversations these 

10 



MERCIA 

two had together in the house of Signinus, where men 
of all nations gathered together to talk of their Ee- 
deemer. Eagerly Lucius drank in the new gospel, and, 
in the end, he embraced the new faith. 

Eeturning to Eome he married a pure and lovely 
woman, named Galata. Younger than himself by 
several years, of a bright and beautiful nature, she was 
a perpetual delight to him. His graver spirit basked 
in the beams of her sunny temperament, and happiness 
came to him that he had never dreamed of. On her 
side, his knowledge, probity, and gentleness of spirit in 
stilled a depth of love and devotion which filled the 
whole of her being. 

Galata, too, had heard of Jesus from an acquaintance 
of both one Favius, a man deeply respected, well past 
the prime of life, who led a quiet existence, gaining a 
livelihood by copying for the booksellers. This Favius, 
fervent of disposition, impatient of wrong, had embraced 
with ardour the doctrines of Christ, and with no less 
energy and fervency did he strive to disseminate them 
amongst all with whom he came in contact. 

That this mutual belief in the new creed should bring 
husband and wife still closer together was but natural ; 
equally natural was it that it should tend to draw them 
farther apart from the pagans around them. In this 
quiet seclusion and self-sought isolation their daughter, 
Mercia, was born and reared. 

Inheriting the cheerfulness of the mother and the 
calm dignity of the father, little Mercia was a happy 
child, quiet and lonely though her surroundings were. 
Favius grew to love the tiny maiden almost as dearly as 

1 1 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

her own father, and, at his earnest request, Lucius and 
Galata confided to him her education. 

Thus, in the protection of these three noble and de 
voutly affectionate souls, Mercia s nature was moulded. 
Her first lispings were the prayer that He gave to His 
di-eiples; and with the first bc^innim; of k IK. wledire 
came the knowledge of Him who died on the Cross for 
her and for the world. Unconsciously there grew up 
in the child a habit of restraint towards M rancors and 
thoeo towards whom her parents exercised reserve, but 
there wan an inner < -ir. ! in which she felt herself free 
of utterance friends who visited the house of her 
father and Favius as nioivthan friends, with whom she 
loll a pure and binding iellow>hip. even as a child. 

When Ni.) came to the throne, Mercia was eight 
years old. She knew little of the world around her, 
yet even childhood must be conscious of atnm-pli, -i -. 
and, from whispered talk, she gathered a crude but 
just idea that her parents and friends were objects of 
suspicion and dislike to the government and the general 
populace. 

Claudius and his court had been objects of dread to 
the Christians, as they were called. Claudius was dead, 
and Nero reigned in hi> place. Much was hoped for 
from Nero. Men spoke of \\\< youth, his beauty of 
face, and his aptitude for learning. 1 1 is master, Seneca, 
was proud of his pupil, and almost afraid of him. 

Seneca her father spoke of as a man of much worth 
and a teacher of many good things, and it was believed 
that he and hone-t Hnrrlms t< IL r, -ther would irujdi- the 
young Emperor to ju>t rule and >oven-iirntv. 

12 



MERCIA 

When Mercia was twelve years old there was much 
excitement and expectation among the little band of 
Christians in Kome. A lady from Greece was coming 
to visit them, and this lady brought a letter from 
Paulus himself, that one-time persecutor, now teacher, 
guide, and leader of the faithful. Joyfully was the 
epistle received, and quickly was it passed from mouth 
to mouth among the brethren. Many were the secret 
meetings called to hear and discuss it in caves, in 
granaries, in the deep recesses of the woods it was read 
and re-read. Every man and woman of the Christian 
community had each precious word thereof stored up 
in their memories to transmit to their children and 
their children s children after them. 

The years went on, and Mercia had reached the age 
of sixteen. Tall beyond the common for her years ; of 
beautiful but exquisitely fragile figure ; with the face 
of a Madonna, clear cut as a cameo ; eyes of a deep, 
rich, velvety dark -brown, eyes that glassed a soul of 
absolute purity ; a carriage of perfect grace, and a step 
so light and elastic that she seemed more to tread the 
air than the earth : it was no marvel that she should 
compel earthly love in the hearts of the men who were 
privileged to meet her. Of this Mercia knew little, 
and heeded less. Happy in the devotion of her father, 
mother, and her teacher, Favius, she sought no other 
ties ; and those who were inspired with love for her felt 
the hopelessness of their passion, and kept the knowl 
edge of it to themselves. 



CHAPTER II 

MARCUS 

AT this period of M.-n-ia - lift-. Ni-ro appointed as 
Prefect of Rome one Marcus, ayouiiLr I atr : < -ian of some 
eight and twenty years of age. The I r. -i; < tship * 
given to Marcus as it was usually given more as an 
:u-t of favour than one of riidit and ju-tiee. Themvti- 
cally the post of Prefect was an onerous one pra -i i< -ally 
it w:i ( Jen.-ralK it was held by young men 

<i the best families who had, or whose friends had, 
great influence at court. In this case it was IM -towed 
by Nero partly for immense favours received from the 
father of Marcus, whose wealth was boundless, and 
partly out of liking for the manly free- -pirited. liirht- 
hcarted young noble himself. 

The home of Marcus was one of the m.t magnificent 
in Rome. A palace in a city of palaces. Luxury, 
grandeur, beauty, taste, and wealth \\. r, Mumped on 
every corner of it. from its white inarhle roping to its 
tessellated basement. \\^ cmirt< were dailv thronged 
with the fashion, wit, wisdom, manhood, and 1-veliness 
of Rome. Lavi-h hospitality and reckless extnivnganco 
wore common enough among t! patrician^ of the time, 
but nowhere was hospitality more markedly lavish and 
more reckl. than in the house of Mar- 

14 



MARCUS 

cus. His father was a man of ancient lineage, possessed 
of talents not unworthy of those ancestors who had, in 
the Senate and the battlefield, contributed to the build 
ing up of Eoman power and grandeur. But it was a 
time when to exercise talent in Eome was a dangerous 
thing, nor had he any great inclination for exertion. 
He filled offices in the usual course, because his family 
was accustomed to take office, and it would have seemed 
derogatory to his position as head of the house if he 
had not ; but he was naturally too indolent and too 
content to be at ease to possess either zeal or ambition. 
In his office he was ready to execute the laws with 
tolerable intelligence and impartiality ; not inclined to 
rigour, he yet could be as Eome could ever be merci 
less if roused. In his private life he was somewhat 
better than his compeers. He had his vices they 
were a natural adjunct to his place and position but 
he kept them within bounds, and, to his credit, it may 
be added that he never obtruded them upon his wife. 
She, like himself, was the descendant of a groat family, 
and brought with her a dower which formed a sensible 
addition to even his vast wealth. Handsome, stately, 
with all the habits and bearing of high place, she was 
a dignified mistress of a household peculiarly dignified. 
Her innate pride, and perhaps some vague feeling of 
the traditional virtues of the women of her ancestry in 
purer Eoman days, made her disdain the looseness of 
the average woman of the day. Her husband s lapses 
were never thrust upon her, and sho moved on her own 
way without curiosity or inquiry content with his 
ever graceful and sufficiently considerate regard, of 

15 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

which she always felt pleasantly and perfectly se 
cure. 

Between this somewhat cold couple one great bond 
existed their intense and absorbing affection for their 
only child, their son, Marcus. In him wa- centred all 
the ambition they knew, and, as his mind and person 
developed, their pride and hopes became more and 
more concentrated upon him. Romans had been, and 
might still bo, great; in Marcus they saw or thought 
they saw every element of greatness; and no care 
was lacking to make his training and education com 
plete. 

lie was not left, as were most children of tin- better 
classes of the time, to the charge of a Greek chamber 
maid and a casual slave or two, but to the care of a 
woman of some education, considerable character, and 
jood reputation ; and with this nurse were associated 
some specially selected slaves to minister to his wants, 
and teach him as little evil as was possible in such a 
time at Rome. The claims of society were often 
ignored by the mother, that her beloved boy might 
nestle in her arms or play by her side, while the father 
would never hcsitato to give up even a pet dissipation 
in order to spend the time with his son. 

To their son both parents showed the best side of 
their character, and In-, in ivturn. loved and honoured 
them. Their judgment in the choice of tutors was 
sound and good. Men capable and honest of purpose 
were at that time hard to find, but they were found, 
and they unfolded to the quick and eager youth the 
history of Rome. Her literature, the meagre but virile 

16 



MARCUS 

works of her older authors, and the splendid writings 
of the golden age of Augustus were constantly in his 
hands. Greek became by easy habit a second language 
to him, and he knew fairly well the literature of Greece, 
her poetry, drama, history, and philosophy. If the in 
clinations of his parents were towards over-indulgence, 
it was to a great extent counteracted by his teachers, 
who found a moral support in the boy himself, who 
gave but little occasion for discipline. He showed 
every indication of talent, and was by no means devoid 
of application when he was interested, though he was 
difficult to pin down to any set rules or regular course 
of industry. Quick to apprehend and learn where his 
desire was excited, drudgery of any kind repelled and 
disgusted him. Great deeds and great thoughts would 
inflame his mind and soul, but great deeds and 
thoughts were rare among those with whom he 
mingled. The days of his youth had not been clois 
tered, and those of his young manhood were spent with 
the youthful bloods of his time. 

As has been shown, his father and mother alike were 
no stern moralists, nor did it alarm or distress them 
that their son should indulge in the fashionable follies 
and vices of the period. Ample means were at his dis 
posal, which he was encouraged to spend, and, while he 
had intellect enough to be attracted by the thoughts of 
philosophers and dreams of poets, there was in him 
enough of the animal to impel him to the gratification 
of desires by no means philosophical or ideal. From the 
utter degradation of many of the fashionable young 
men around him, and from their effeminacy, his innate 

2 17 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

manliness preserved him. Their more brutal indulg 
ences disgust^ 1 him, and from many well-born amongst 
them he held absolutely aloof, and, when questioned, 
did not luMtute to Lcive the reason why. Trained in 
martial and athletic exercises, he rejoiced in the 
practice of them. When of tit a^r hi- was sent for a 
season to the army on the borders of Germany, lie 
revelled in the soldier s life, and, although the time 
was one of peace, took part in a few skirmishes in the 
course of necessary expeditions for tin- preservation 
of order on those dangerous frontiers. In these he 
showed utter fearlessness and a natural aptitude for 
war and the command of men. The Germans in- 
tere.-ted him barbarians though they were and his 
own bold, free spirit sympathised naturally and easily 
with their vigour and independence. When a Ger 
man chief said, "A land to live in we may want, but a 
place to die in we cannot," ho recognised the same 
noble spirit which distinguished many a hero of old 
Rome. 

The strict severity of the matrimonial bond among 
these savages half amazed and half amused him. The 
wife, he saw, came to her husband as a partner in toil 
and danger, to suffer and to dare equally with him in 
peare and war. Thus -he was to li\e and thu- to die. 
The punishment of adultery was as instant and inevi 
table as under the old Mosaic law ; none looked on vice 
with a smile. The woman took one husband as one 
body and one life ; no thought, no desire was to range 
beyond him. Many a camp joke was passed as to the 
fate of some of the lovelieM ladies of Home, were morals 

18 



MARCUS 

so enforced with them; but none the less the nobler 
nature of Marcus, corrupted as it was by indulgence, 
could, and did, appreciate the loftier ideal. But his 
soldiering was cut short by the sudden death of his 
mother, and his recall to Borne by his surviving parent. 

The loss of his mother was a great grief to Marcus. 
Her entire wealth she bequeathed, by the father s 
consent, to her son. This gave him still further power 
and importance in Eome, and Nero sought him out and 
attached him to his court. 

His father outlived his mother but a short time. To 
his own astonishment, possibly, he found that he 
missed her as a better part of himself, and, having lost 
her, persuaded himself that he had deeply and truly 
loved her, and, refusing to be comforted, set about 
pining for her with a plenitude of sentimental sorrow 
that was at once the wonder and admiration of Eome. 
His own devotion and constancy to her sweet memory 
was a thing so pathetic to himself that in absolute self- 
pity he gave up the ghost and followed her. 

Thus Marcus became the richest man in Rome and in 
the Emperor s favour. It was difficult to keep aloof 
from the most abominable of Nero s orgies, but he did 
avoid them, and, in so doing, excited the hatred of 
Caesar s most trusted councillor, Tigellinus, a man of 
great cunning and ferocity, who ministered to and en 
couraged Nero in the vilest excesses. No intrigue was 
too low, no tyranny too cruel for this creature. Mercy 
was unknown to him, and he was never so happy as 
when instigating his royal master to some hellish deed, 
or helping him to accomplish it. 

19 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

The knowledge of Nero s liking for Marcus was as 
wormwood to Tigellinus, and his dearest wish and 
divain was to find some means of discrediting him with 
Cajsar. In the fulness of time his opportunity came, 
but it was not yet. 



2O 



CHAPTEK III 

NERO 

TIGELLINUS had announced a public reception to 
Nero. Eumour averred that it would exceed in prodi 
gality and licence anything that even Home had wit 
nessed. Public holiday was proclaimed, all business 
suspended; the schools and Senate were closed. So 
degraded were the people as a mass that, although it 
was freely stated that the spectacles were to be of the 
most licentious character, parents did not hesitate to 
scramble for seats and positions where their children 
could witness the orgies side by side with themselves. 

But few, save the Christians, expressed any ab 
horrence of the coming saturnalia; they determined to 
remain within doors until all was over. 

So colossal was Nero s vanity that no homage was 
sufficient, no flattery too gross to satisfy him. He was, 
in his own estimation, a god above the gods, and was 
madly jealous of any devotion to the deities of which 
he did not receive the lion s share. Any defection 
from his feasts brought instant and condign punish 
ment upon the absentee. To avoid this, men had 
recourse to all manner of artifices. Sickness was 
feigned even serious wounds were self-inflicted in 
order to explain or excuse non-appearance. A seeming 
slight to his own " sacred person" Nero resented and 

21 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

punished. A message would bo sent to the defaulter 
to quit not Rome only, but the world, where his pros- 
once was a constant insult to Nero s godhead. 

Tigellinus was as vile as his au-ust master a being 
without shame, humanity, or drr.-ncy; with almost 
unlimited authority from Nero for debauchery and 
cruelty, he spurred his filthy imagination to absolute 
riot in the planning and execution of this particular 
I .-a-t. 

He caused to bo built <m the Jake of Agrippa, which 
was in the public gardens adjoining his house, a huge 

raft, luxuriously appoint., 1. ,, t , which In- arranged a 
magnificent banquet. This raft was drawn up and 
down the lake by boats Mripedwith gold and iv.rv. 
and the rm\vr- irere arranged a < -.-i-.i:!!^ t,> their ages 
and their proficiency in the practice of debauchery. 
The raft was fitted with exquisite divans and couch.- 
of tho softest silks; the awnings were of the same 
material?; braziers, burning the sweete-t incense, were 
placed at intervals along the raft ; a hand of the most 
famous musicians of tho city discoursed voluptuous 
music; tents, lavishly furnish. -d and decorated, mar 
gined tho whole of tho lake, wherein ladies of dis 
tinction indulged in tho grossest proflig:i--v. 

In the centre of the raft. IT. -lining upon soft couches. 
were Nero and his favourites <,f J.,,th MXM, wh< paid 
him tho most fulsome compliments ; hut even their 
slavish obsequiousness and gross flattery, that should 
have wearied and sickened him, eoul 1 not keep pact 
with his inordinate appetite for adulation. 

At his side was Poppa a I ! ;>r.-^ ; at hk i 
22 



NERO 

Acte, the beautiful woman whom he had bought as a 
slave and emancipated. At some little distance stood 
Marcus, the young Prefect of Rome, a frown of disgust 
upon his handsome face. Richly and tastefully dressed, 
he formed a conspicuous figure, even amongst all the 
glitter and show by which he was surrounded. Poppsea 
flashed under her long lashes a glance in his direction, 
and turning to Nero, said 

" How rapt our Marcus seems ! How silent !" 

Nero turned and looked at Marcus, and beckoned 
him to approach. Marcus did so, with a slow and 
stately step that contrasted strangely with the fawn 
ing servility of the rest of the court. 

" Well, well, my Marcus ! What dost thou think of 
this ?" said Nero, indicating with a broad sweep of the 
hand the spectacle on either side of the lake. 

" I think, Caesar," replied Marcus, " that it is worthy 
of a Tigellinus." 

" But not of a Marcus, eh ?" muttered Tigellinus. 

"A Marcus could assuredly never have designed 
such a feast," said Marcus. " He lacks the taste and 
skill." 

" Come, come, Marcus, taste thou hast of a kind. 
Indeed, that last banquet of thine was a marvel but 
cold, my Marcus, cold ! The women were beautiful 
that is, what one could see of them, but somewhat 
frigid, eh ? Reserved, eh ? Not like these, eh ? Look 
at that. There s life, eh? And fire, eh?" and the 
bloated sensualist pointed to a group in one of the 
open tents. 

Marcus turned away his head with a look of such 

23 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

abhorrence and disgust that Popprea, ever alert and 
watchful in his interests, called to him to pick up her 
fan, which she had dropped, in order that Nero should 
not see the look of loathing on the face of Marcus. 

Poppa was an extraordinary woman, her power 
over Nero would alone prove this. Undoubtedly she, 
with Acte, held longer sway over his erratic nature 
than any other of his wives or women ; but Poppaea s 
influence was seldom used for good. She was unscrupu 
lous and ambitious, and, for power, as hungry as Nero 
himself. Her beauty was of the ethereal type. Fair 
in the extreme, with an abundance of flossy hair, soft 
as >pun silk, which >li- delighted in K-ttin^ I<> t c about 
her shoulders; eyes of an intone blue, that looked up 
at men with an expression so childlike and artless that 
it made them doubt the evidence of their own senses 
and knowledge, and set them wondering whether, after 
all, she was not maligned and libelled, whether tshc was 
not as innocent as report implied she was base. That 
she loved Nero was impossible. A certain refinement 
in vice was hers, and Nero s degrading practices were 
hateful to her; but she had to pander to them, or lose 
her hold upon him. This she did so cunningly, and 
with such consummate realisation of shocked and terri 
fied modesty, that Nero was derriv.-d airain and ai^ain. 

The contrast of Nero s baseness and the inm-r nobility 
of the nature of Marcus was so strong that Poppaea s 
fancy was inflamed by it, and such love or passion as 
>h was capable <>t went out t tin- hand-nine yuii^ 
Prefect. Often had she endeavoured to draw Marcus 
into an intrigue and tailed. Her failures served but to 



NERO 

make her desire to subjugate him the more ardent, and, 
had not the suspicion with which all around Nero s 
court were regarded prevented her, she would have 
gone to any extreme to attach him to her side. She 
knew Marcus was fearless, indeed reckless, and, not 
wishing that he should publicly show his detestation 
of the scenes being enacted around him, an act which 
might lead to some equally public rebuke from Caesar, 
she tried, by engaging him in conversation, to direct 
his attention from his surroundings. Mentally she con 
trasted the fine, athletic figure of Marcus with the 
prematurely aged and bloated satyr at her side. But 
just turned thirty, Nero was more feeble than many 
men of twice his years. The result of his horrible 
dissipations could be seen in the shaking hands, loaded 
with rings, the twitching mouth, and in the restless 
eyes, to which habitual fear had given a hunted and 
tormented look that came and went alternately with 
glares of insane ferocity and unbridled lust. His 
ability could not be questioned. His rebuilding of 
Rome, for example, was a magnificently devised and 
executed work. His vanity was a mania that under 
mined his whole being, and made of him the unnatural 
monster that he was. Yet he could at times show the 
greatest kindness, while his remorse and terrors were, 
at times, horrible. 

A revolting creature he looked as he sat there in 
state. His face was puffed and swollen, the lower jaw 
underhung, and the chin doubled ; his auburn hair was 
carefully curled over his forehead in stiff, unnatural 
ringlets. He was splendidly but effeminately dressed, 

25 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

and when he moved, he did so with all the airs of a 
peacock. This was the being who terrified the whole 
of Rome into a state of moral degradation unparalleled 
in the history of the civilised worM. 

"What an exquisite* piece of music," said Poppoa, 
anxious to divert Marcus s attention. "Is it not?" 

"Enchanting, lady; too enchanting to accompany a 
scene so vile." 

"Hush, hush, impetuous one!" whispered Poppaea 
under her breath. "Be more guarded. Had Nero 
luard that 8jMr.ii. Of sivii the ln..k that went with it, 
it illicit accompany a scene as solemn as thy death. 
Thou k no west Caesar brooks no frown when he i- 
pleased to smile." 

"I am no comedian, as Caesar is," answered Marcus. 
"What my heart I .-rN my face must show." 

" What s that, eh ?" queried Nero, partly overhearing 
Marcus. "No comedian? Ah, no! I can act. All 
Naples fought for places to see mo, and so overloaded 
the theatre that the foundations were shaken, and, 
when the vast audience had left, it fell a heap of 
crumbled ruins. Didst hear of that. eh. my Marcus?" 

"Yea, Cassar, often," said Man-u- drily. And indeed 
he had heard of it many a time, lor Nero never wearied 
of boasting of his theatrical a< -hi. -\ vment> and triumphs, 
which he bought or tenifud the people into ascribing 
to him. 

"Ah, thou shalt see me play soon. I must let all 
Rome know what an artist I am Ah ! SIT there, my 
Poppaea," said Nero, pointing to one of the tents from 
which a group of ladies waved rose-garlanded wine- 

26 



NERO 

cups, " they beckon me. I will go to them. Order the 
rowers to take me thither, my Tigellinus." 

This was done, and Nero landed and strutted to the 
tent, where the women fell upon their knees before 
him, as they proffered him the richest wines in ex 
quisitely-wrought cups of bejewelled gold. 

Marcus took the opportunity of Nero s momentary 
absence to beg Poppsea to excuse his departure and 
explain to Caesar, should his defection be noticed, that 
some important duty had escaped his memory and he 
had departed to perform it. Poppsea, thinking that of 
the two evils his absence would be the less, consented, 
and Marcus eagerly and swiftly strode from a scene 
that wearied and disgusted him. 

If the profligacy was great in the open day, when 
night fell it became hideous. CaBsar revelled in licen 
tious scenes ; nothing was too degrading for him, and 
on this night nothing was left undone to pander to his 
distorted appetite. Women vied with men and with 
each other in degrading themselves for his amusement. 
It was as though hell had emptied itself of all its pollu 
tion to help to make this filthy Roman holiday. 

Within a stone s-throw of these awful scenes a little 
band of Christians, led by Favius, were locked within 
a disused granary, praying for their enemies and glori 
fying their Master. Yerily, a new force for good was 
wanted in such a world, and it had come in the teach 
ing of the lowly Nazarene and His faithful disciples 
and followers. 



27 



CHAPTER IV 

MELOB 

THE home of Mercia presented a great contrast to 
that of Marcus. Simplicity took the place of luxury, 
and quiet comfort that of magnificence and display. In 
stead of crowds of idle, chattering, worldly patricians, 
there were a few sedate, dignified friends, and the 
multitudes of slaves were represented by a few freed 
men and women, themselves Christians, orderly, 
methodical, and devoted heart and soul to the house 
hold they served. Lucius and Galata, their master and 
mistress, they loved and reverenced, but Mcrcia they 
idolised. Her every word was treasured, her every 
action lovingly discussed, her wishes anticipated. It 
was happiness to serve her, a joy to be commended by 
her. Her sweet cheerfulness, her quick sympathy, her 
constant care for their smallest wants, her knowledge 
by intuition of their feelings and wishes, made them feel 
that she was, as it were, the guardian angel of their 
welfare. To her all their troubles and pleasures were 
confided, and into them all did Mercia enter with a 
wisdom and appreciation wonderful in one so young. 
Her circle of friends and acquaintances being small, 
and her soul and sympathies being largr. with much to 
bestow and but few to receive, those who did need sym 
pathy and consolation received it in bounteous plenty. 
Little wonder that she was beloved. 

28 



MELOS 

Her special attendant was a girl named Decima, who 
cherished for Mercia a dog-like devotion that carried 
with it a dog-like jealousy, although she seldom showed 
it. One more kind word or caress to another than she 
received herself was as the slash of a knife to her, but 
her devotion to her young mistress was absolute. 

Mercia was at work at her loom in the atrium, 
which was at once the reception and work room of the 
family. It was plainly, though not poorly, furnished, 
and was brightened by flowers, palms, and evergreens. 
Mercia s lute and tambour-frame were on the stone 
bench, resting on a cushion covered with embroidery 
wrought by her own fair hands. 

Mercia was busily spinning, humming the while softly 
to herself the refrain of a Christian hymn that she was 
committing to memory (the metre and time of which 
would not harmonize with the tap-tap of a sculptor s 
hammer chiselling out the base of yet another statue 
to Nero across the road), when Decima entered, an 
nouncing Melos. 

Melos was now a handsome, well-proportioned young 
man. Mercia esteemed him highly indeed felt for 
him the tender affection of a devoted sister. Melos 
was a youth of many excellent qualities. From Favius, 
who had been his teacher as well as Mercia s, he had 
imbibed a simplicity and strength of faith in the doc 
trines of Christ that nothing could ever take away. 
His days were spent in the service of one of Eome s 
most distinguished architects, who was at once his 
employer and professional tutor, and with whom he 
lived. His evenings he devoted to the study of his pro- 

29 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

fession and the meetings, discussions, and prayers of 
the Christians. 

On his entrance, Mercia rose to meet him with a 
warmth and tenderness that sent a swift rush of blood 
to his forehead and a pleasurable thrill to his heart. 

"Welcome, Melos," said Mercia, in her sweet, low 
tones. " This is unexpected. What hath brought thee 
hither so early in the day ?" 

Mrl.x pan-, d a moment l.rfoiv ans\\vriiiLr. 

" I have obtained special leave for an hour to confer 
with thee, Mercia," he said, looking at her with such 
deep earnestness that Mercia wondered what could be 
the purport of this most unusual visit. Now she re 
membered that her mother had di-ircd her not to 
venture out at this hour. Why was this? Men-ia 
knew not but Mclos did. Ho had, the evening before, 
confessed his love for Morcia to her parents, and they 
had joyfully consented to his speaking to her, for they 
held him in most affectionate esteem ; and this visit was 
arranged to give him the opportunity of avowing his 
love to Mercia. 

"To confer with mo? On what matter, Meloe?" 
Mercia asked. 

Melos was silent. The happiness of his life hung 
upon the next few moments, and the words carefully 
thought over and prepared had loft him. A tnme linnet 
twittered from bar to bar in an open cage, and the tap- 
tap of the mason s hammer and chisel in the street 
sounded in his ears with a distinctness that he never 
forgot to the day of his death. 

His silence lasted so long that a premonition of some 
30 



MELOS 

coming evil smote Mercia s mind, and, with a swift 
movement of inquiring fear, she placed her hand on his 
shoulder and, looking intently at him, said 

" Melos, no evil hath befallen thee ?" 

" Ah, no," he answered, throbbing under her touch. 
" Indeed, I should be passing happy to-day." 

" Should be, Melos ? And are you not ?" 

" I scarce know, Mercia ; I am happy to be here with 
thee, but" and again Melos hesitated. 

" But what, my friend ? Come, sit with me here and 
tell me what stands between thee and happiness." 
And Mercia moved with him to the stone seat, and sat 
beside him. 

" One word, Mercia, no more one word from thee." 

Had Mercia been less innocent, had any real love 
touched her heart, she could not have failed to under 
stand what Melos meant ; but no thought of the love 
of man for woman had ever crossed her mind. Her 
face looked troubled at his reply, but her eyes met his 
with the gaze of an affectionate child, and a dull sense 
of coming disappointment crept over him. What use 
to question further ? Was he not already answered ? 
There was, he knew, no vestige of guile in Mercia s 
nature. And yet, might he not be mistaken ? It 
might be possible that her calm, clear spirit had long 
understood his feeling for her, and only waited his word 
to yield herself up to him. In any case he could not 
bear the suspense. He must know. 

" What word of mine that will give happiness .to my 
friend can remain unspoken a single moment?" asked 
Mercia. 

31 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

And then love spoke. The words came readily 
enough now. 

" Morcia, that little word which will bind thee to me 
for ever that thou lovest me as I love thee, with a 
love that knows no limits but the grave and His com 
mandments, the love of a wife for a husband who 
worships her next to his faith." 

Mercia stood silent, and her beautiful face, the 
mirror of her pure soul, quivered with the emotions 
that swept over it. Surprise, regret, pity all were in 
her looks, but, alas for Melos, not one trace of love. 
She had risen from the seat and was looking away 
from him. With a half-High, half sob, she murmured 

" flow pitiful ! How grieved I am !" 

" Grieved for what, Mercia ?" 

"For the friendship that is fled," she replied; "I 
never thought or dreamed of this." 

" But thou wilt think of it," he pleaded. " I have 
startled thee in my haste forgive me I had thought 
and conned so many things to prepare thee for what 
I have said so blunderingly and roughly; but one sight 
of thy sweet face, one touch of thy dear hand, and all 
was forgotten. Forgive me, Mercia," he pleaded. 

Two glistening crystal drops hung on Mercia a eye 
lashes, and her voice trembled as she an- A : 1 

"Melos, there is naught to forgive in thee, but, I 
fear, much to pardon in mo. I must have been to 
blame." 

" Blame ? How, sweet Mercia T 

"Something in my conduct, my manner towards 
thee, must have given thee cause and warrant for this 

32 



MELOS 

avowal ; but indeed and indeed it was all unconscious. 
Thou didst ever seem to me so close a friend, so dear a 
brother, that, having no brother in blood, I looked 

upon thee as such. And now now " and Mercia 

sank back upon the seat and covered her face with her 
hands to hide the hot, welling stream of tears that 
flooded her eyes. 

Poor Melos. He knew now. Friendship and pity 
but a pity that was hopeless and far removed from love 
were all that could ever be his share of the beautiful 
nature he thought he had known so well. 

" I understand, Mercia. Let it not grieve thee. 
The heart is not as the wheel of thy distaff, to be 
moved at a touch, as the will dictates. I was pre 
sumptuous love is ever so. Thou art so far above 
me so much nearer His throne than I, that " 

" Hush, hush, dear Melos ! Make not my regret 
my abasement more deep, more hard to bear. I did 
not know. Thou art so worthy, and, next to my loved 
father and my dear Favius, thou art the most es 
teemed ; but this other feeling this love, as thou dost 
call it it terrifies me. I know it not, seek it not can 
never know it, never seek it. It not thou, dear Melos 
is abhorrent to me. Ah, forget it, forget it!" 

Thus Mercia, at the first shock of contact with an 
earthly love, spoke in her innocence of that passion 
which was to come to her all too soon to her wonder 
ment and pain ; but he who was to create and bring it 
into life was not the honest, God-fearing man who 
listened with sinking heart to her words. 

" Forget it ?" said Melos sadly. " JSk>, Mercia, that I 

3 33 



HIE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

cannot d<> \vliiK memory lives. This love of mine is no 
mere thing of yesterday ; it is a part of all my life. If 
I had a mean or despicable thought, thy sweet memory 
shamed it into oblivion ; if a worldly ambition, thy 
bright image shaped it worthily. I I have known no 
thought that was not chastened and made pure and 
sweet by thee. All toil was for thee, all all. And 

now " And Molos turned away, his grief and 

bitter disappointment choking him. 

Neither could find words for a few moments. Mer 
cia s heart was aching with pity and regret, but she 
felt that no more could be said ly JUT. Melos knew 
nothing he could say would lu-Ip his helpless cause, 
and yet ho dreaded to tear himself away to face the 
busy world once more, that world that a IVw hours a 
few moments ago seemed all so fair, now clouded and 
dulled to him forever. 

With a great effort he drew himself towards Morcia, 
and taking her hand gently, he bowed over it with a 
reverence that honoured both his nature and hers; 
and, with a low-murmured " Farewell, Mercia !" he 
was gone. 

Mercia, with IK r fan- huried in the soft cushion, 
sobbed softly to herself. The pet linnet had flown 
across to the corner of the couch, and, with head 
aslant, was gravely watching her. 



34 



CHAPTER V 

MERCIA S SORROW 

FOE some few days Mercia saw nothing of Melos. 
He wisely refrained from obtruding himself upon her 
in her father s house, and at the meetings, her parents, 
who had learned of her rejection of his suit, out of 
pity for Melos, kept the two young people apart. 
Mercia s sweet disposition could not but suffer under 
the thought of so much grief occasioning to Melos, for 
his altered manner, his pale face, and the hopeless look 
of pain in his eyes told her, what his manliness pre 
vented him from saying in words, that his grief was 
deep and sincere. This was a sorrow to Mercia ; but a 
still more poignant one was to come a sorrow that 
abided with her, a grief destined to change the whole 
course of her life. A terrible disaster was to occur to 
Eome, in the great fire which took place in the tenth 
year of Nero s reign. That this fire was the work of 
Nero there can be little doubt ; the historians agree in 
imputing the blame to him. What inspired him to 
commit this crime will never be known. It might 
have been done in revenge for some real or fancied 
slight on the part of the nobles towards himself; from 
a desire still further to terrify and subjugate the hap 
less popalace ; to gratify his insatiable lust for cruelty ; 
or from the cynical desire to enjoy some new experi- 

35 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

ence. Someone repeated in his hearing his own say 
ing, " When I am dead let the whole world burn" ; and 
ho had replied, " No, let it burn while I am living." 

Mercia was sitting at home one evening with her 
parents and Favius, when suddenly there was heard a 
great rush of chariots passing the house and a loud con 
fused roar in the distance. Running to the portals to 
learn the cause of the disturbance, Lucius behold a 
great glare of flame in the direction of the circus. 
Idealising that a conflagration of more than ordinary 
importance was miring. Lut iu> called to Faviu> to 
come to him. 

"What is it. friend?" a>ked l- avius, in calm, dignified 
tones. 

" Surely a terrible fire is there. Look ! Is not that 
by the Mount Palatine ?" 

"Ay, it is in the circus." 

Just then there was a dull roaring heard, and the 
flames shot up into the air, while myriads of sparks 
were showered in every direction. 

"Some largo building has fallen in," said Mercia, 
who, with her mother, had joined the group at the 
door. At this moment a troop of mounted soldiers 
dashed past at full gallop, hotly followed by a dense 
crowd of running men, horsemen and < harioteers, all 
crying aloud 

Fire 1 tire! Home is on tire!" 

Kven a> they \\at< he I. the flames not only increased 
in volume, but fiv-h lire -eeined to start up in several 
places at once. 

"This is no accident, brother Lucius," said Favius 

36 



MERCIANS SORROW 

hurriedly, but with great decision; "this is design. 
There are new horrors abroad. Give me my toga this 
is no time for quiet converse, but for action. Yonder 
is danger, terror, bloodshed, death, and my place is 
there. I must go." 

" Yea, good Favius, but not alone," gravely replied 
Lucius ; " I will go with thee." 

" Good ! Let us waste no time ; each moment may 
mean a life sped, a soul lost." 

"Husband, I must go with thee," said Galata. 
" Quick. Mercia ! all the linen that will serve for band 
ages ! Decima, a skin of wine ! Haste, haste !" 

" And I too, mother ; may not I also help ?" asked 
Mercia. 

"No, no, child; no!" firmly answered her father. 
" That cannot be. The house must not be left empty; 
neither are the streets at such a time a fitting place for 
thee. It may be that we may send some poor wounded 
and distressed ones back here be thine the work to 
tend and succour them. May He protect and guard 
thee !" 

With a tender embrace, her parents and Favius left 
her, and, bearing the wine and bandages, hurried oif in 
the direction of the flames. Fast as they travelled, the 
fire outstripped their speed in its seeming haste to meet 
them. The narrow streets and the inflammable materials 
of which the buildings were composed seemed to be 
hungrily licked up by the raging flames; they tore 
down the passages and, fanned by the wind, seemed 
to drive straight through the houses as the flame from 
the alchemist s blow-pipe pierces the precious metals. 

37 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

The heat was intense, the smoke blinding. Into the 
dense throng of men, women, and children, the three 
brave souls fought their way. There was no lack of 
work for their willing hand-. Those of the mob who 
were not frantically fleeing for their lives stood helpless 
and dazed. Here stood a poor mother, with one wailing 
child in her arms, staring and screaming that her other 
little ones were still in the tottering home. Without 
one thought of self, Favius and Lucius rushed into the 
house, and emerged, scorched and blackened, with two 
children, senseless with the smoke, and. placing them 
in their mother s charge, tlu -y pursued their noble task. 
Favius, especially, worked like a giant : his tall, 
majestic figure, his flowing white hair and beard, stood 
out against the background of fire and smoke like that 
of some rescuing deity. Never for a moment Hurried, 
nor for an instant dismayed, no matter what the peril, 
he -eenied to -ee e\vry t h iriLT and le upon tin- inMant 
just where ho could render the greatest service. 

The noise and heat were deafening and suffocating. 
Man, women, and children, burnt, scorched, battered 
with falling masonry and timber, were lying helpless 
and groaning in every direction. Galata s meagre store 
of wine was soon exhausted, and water could not be 
found. All the linen she had I. rough t for bandageH 
\va- u-ed up; >he inn- her own and ln-r hu>hand > 
draperies to shreds for more to bind up the wounds of 
the sufferers. 

For hours tlu-e I. rave ones butt led with flame, smoke, 
pain, despair, madness, and death in their efforts to help 
those who were either too severely injured or too stupe- 

38 



MERCIA S SORROW 

fied with terror to help themselves. Even as they 
toiled. Death overshadowed them, and often they could 
almost hear the beat of his wings. The wall of a house 
quivered, shook, and fell crashing outwards, covering 
them with its dust, and leaving barely three feet be 
tween it and their devoted lives. 

The confusion caused by the rapidity with which the 
flames spread was terrible. But little effort was made 
to check the progress of the fire, and that little was 
frustrated by bands of men who threatened and attacked 
those who attempted it. In their grief and madness at 
seeing their homes destroyed and their loved ones 
perish, many threw themselves voluntarily into the 
blazing buildings, preferring death to life without the 
dear ones who had been taken from them. 

Mercia, at home, was racked with anxiety and fear 
for her parents safety, and, finding the suspense at last 
unbearable, she seized her mantle and rushed into the 
streets. The hurrying crowds, in their wild rushes for 
safety, beat and hustled her hither and thither. Bruised 
and bleeding, the poor girl dragged herself from place 
to place; the streets were no longer recognisable 
where once a palace stood there was naught but a heap 
of smoking ruins. The selfishness of despair seemed 
upon all the people ; no answers were made to her 
questions, no heed paid to her entreaties. Her agony 
of mind was pitiable ; she had lost all knowledge of 
her whereabouts, and now, anxious to go back to her 
home, with a faint hope that her parents might have 
returned in her absence, she was unable to do so. 

She was burning with fever and parched with thirst ; 

39 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

her limbs failed lu r. hut even in the last moment of 
consciousness and failm- >tivi.-th she saw a woman 
falling senseless just where a tottering wall must surely 
crash down upon her With a | a -t effort she rushed 
forward and dragged tin- halpleM \v..inan out of the 
danger, only to be struck by a falling beam herself, 
and to be flung to the earth stunned, bKvdin^, and un 
conscious. Some soldier, more pitiful than his fellow* 
dragged her into the shelter of a ruined doorway, and 
there left her; and tlu-iv, when the dawn of day came, 
Favius and Melos found her, still insensible. 

Using a shattnvd door as a litter, these two faithful 
souls bore her to the house of Favius. and tended her 
back to life and to the knowledge that, save for them 
selves, she was alone and friendless in the world ; for. in 
saving the lives of others, her father and mother had 
laid down their own. 



40 



CHAPTER VI 

THE PERSECUTIONS 

FOR six days and nights the fire raged with undimin- 
ished violence and fury. The helpless citizens were 
driven to the fields to escape its ravages, where, home 
less and starving, they bemoaned the losses of friends 
and property. During this time of horror it was said 
that Nero, on the roof of his palace, calmly watched 
the progress of the flames, and, dressed in fantastical 
stage costume, sang an ode of his own, commemorating 
the destruction of Troy, to the twanging of his lute, 
thus assimilating the two catastrophes. 

Learning that suspicion was pointing to him as the 
author of the disaster, Nero at once set to work to 
conciliate the people. He caused the field of Mars, 
the monumental buildings erected by Agrippa, and his 
own gardens to be opened to shelter the homeless 
people. Eventually he stopped the conflagration, after 
it had destroyed ten of the fourteen sections of Rome. 
Then he started rebuilding the city, erecting for him 
self a palace the magnificence of which was beyond 
description. Gold, silver, and costly gems were lavishly 
used in the decorations, and the most exquisite statuary 
that Greece could furnish adorned its courts and pas 
sages. The gardens were of vast size and beauty, and 
contained many large and picturesque lakes. This 
"Golden Palace" had long been a dream of Nero s, and 

41 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

it was now realised by the blood and property of those 
unfortunates who were killed by the fire and whose 
estates he confiscated. 

Public suspicion began to grow to popular fury, and 
Nero, to divert the rage of the sullen r-. fixed the crime 
of the burning of the city upon the Christians. These 
were accused wholesale, and, under the flimsiest pre 
texts, were put to the most horrible- tortures to induce 
them to oont e^ thrir guilt, in order that Nero might 
free himself. Practically he oidered a war of extermi 
nation, lie spared no one the whole accursed race of 
the Christians was to die. Some were given to the will 
beasts in th- arena ; some crucified in horrible mock, rv 
of the death of the Redeemer ; of others Nero made 
torches; wrapping round their bodies t.w -<>aked in oil 
and turpentine, he caused them to he chained to stakes. 
and quietly watched their dying agonies. 

No defence was accepted ; the mere accusation of an 
informer or a spy was enough ; the hapless accused was 
haled off to the cells, and. with or without the formality 
of a mock trial, was tortured or put to death. The 
Christians not only remained faithful to their Lord and 
Master under such trials, but went to their horrible 
deaths with a calmness and firmness that at once 
astounded and exasperated Caesar. 

Mercia had been quietly li\ in^ in a Hinall house in a 
retired portion of the city with In r faithful servant, 
stirring abroad but s< nd then only to visit the 

sick or her guardian Kavius. Still true to h, r faith, she 
was at all times exposed to the most deadly peril. Her 
youth, her strange charm, her unusual beauty all 

42 



THE PERSECUTIONS 

were so many dangers that opened traps and pitfalls for 
her at every footstep. As yet no direct charge had 
been made against either her or Favius, but an acci 
dent was to start the suspicion all too soon. 

One afternoon, shortly before sunset, two men were 
seated on the steps of a house in Eome. The house was 
handsome ; the portico and steps were garlanded with 
roses ; the street was a short one leading from the main 
thoroughfare to the quay bordering the Tiber. Above 
the solid stone embankment of the bridge lay a striking 
view of the river and the palaces beyond. The two 
men were of the poorest class, dirty, ragged, and un 
kempt. One, who was called Servilius, was almost 
wolf-like in appearance a resemblance he heightened 
by a badly-cured skin of one of those animals, which 
he wore as a half shoulder cloak. The other man was 
taller than his companion, with a more stupidly brutal 
expression of face, though cunning and vindictiveness 
were the common features of both. They were ap 
parently intent upon a game of dice, but, as they rat 
tled them in their hands and threw them, with loud 
comments, upon the marble steps, it was obvious to an 
observer that their interest in the game was not so 
great but that, from time to time, each was casting 
furtive glances on all that passed around him. There 
was much to interest them, for the street, though not 
thronged, was busy. Porters bore their burdens from 
the landings a little distance off; women of the middle 
class were on their road to purchase their provisions 
for the morrow ; flower-sellers and, of course, a swarm 
of beggars ; men hurrying from business, and the 

43 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

variety of loiterers usually to be met in any part of a 
great city. From the turning opposite the men, a small 
party of soldiers and a minor officer crossed the road, 
guarding a man somewhat advanced in years. The 
prisoner s hands were tightly bound to a heavy triangle 
of wood passed over his head and fastened there by an 
iron lock. The man looked ill, worn, and feeble. Im 
patient at the slow progress he was making, one of the 
guards struck the poor wretch so violent a blow that 
he staggered and fell. Rudely and brutally dragging 
him to his feet again, with an oath and another cruel 
blow, the soldier pushed the prisoner onward. A woman 
following the party and holding by the hand a little 
girl of five or six years of age, who was loudly sob 
bing, seeing the brutality of the soldier, made a pite 
ous gesture of entreaty to spare the man ; but her 
only answer was a rude and violent push and a curse. 
The poor soul staggered back, terrified; the guards 
passed out of sight with their prisoner, the helpless 
wife and child, with streaming eyes, disappearing in 
their wake. 

"That was a hard knock, my Servilius," said the 
taller of the two spies (for such was the occupation of 
these ruffians). 

" Well, what matters ?" replied the other ; " it was 
only a dog of a Christian." 

" Oh !" grunted his mate ; and with that grunt what 
little sympathy he had felt departed. 

" Yes," continued Servilius, <4 1 have ! -n watching 
him for weeks, but Caius got hold of him, and I lost 
Nero s reward of two hundred sesterces." 

44 



THE PERSECUTIONS 

"Christian-hunting pays well, then, eh?" 

"Yes, my Strabo, it pays well, and is good sport 
withal. It is as exciting as wolf-hunting, and has none 
of its dangers," he added with a grim chuckle, " for, 
with all their child-killing and secret murders, they are 
a poor-spirited lot ; they never strike back. Ugh ! they 
are a cowardly crew." 

At this moment a file of handsomely-dressed and 
equipped guards, headed by a still more richly-clad 
officer, crossed the street. The two men looked after 
them with great admiration. 

" That is Yiturius, captain of the guard to Marcus 
Superbus," said Servilius. 

" Ah, I should like to be that fellow," said Strabo 
enviously. 

" Or Jupiter, or Apollo," sneered Servilius. " As well 
wish to be a god as Marcus Superbus. Next to the 
Emperor, he is the richest man in Rome." 

" Ay, and the luckiest," scowled Strabo, moved by the 
thought of his own impecuniosity. " It s an accursed 
shame that one man should have so much and another 
nothing." 

" Ay, Strabo, we re goodly men enough, but we haven t 
a copper coin between us, while Marcus has his horses 
shod with gold. Why, on the last banquet he gave to 
Nero, he spent six million sesterces." 

"Whew!" whistled the envious Strabo; "is there so 
much mone}~ in all this hungry world ?" 

" Yea, is there, Strabo," said Servilius, drawing closer 
to his companion and lowering his voice, "and some of 
it may be ours, if we can but trap a Christian or two. 

45 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Hush! hero arc strnn-* TH. Keep your oyes and ears 
open, my Strubo." 

The men to whom ho was alluding were approaching 
from opposite directions. Though dressed in the ordi 
nary costume of respectable citizens of the time, there 
was about them, their faces and bearing, that which 
would have attracted the attention of a much loss alert 
observer than the spy. The older man was Favius, who 
looked as the prophet Moses might, HO dignified and 
majestic was his carriage and bearing, llis mantle 
partly covered his long, snowy locks; he held a staff in 
his hand, but scarcely used it as a support; his clear, 
eagle-like oyes swept tho whole street in once glanco. 
Ho saw and noticed with a look of keen interest the 
stranger who was approaching him. This man was 
evidently a traveller; his garments were soiled with 
the dust of the country roads. Ho was a man of some 
fifty-five years of age ; he was sturdily built; his frame 
WM formed for exertion, and capable of enduring much 
fatigue. He, too, boro a staff, but it was more to accel 
erate than to support his footsteps. He walked steadily 
and swiftly, as though intent upon some weighty and 
important mission. On tho faces of both these men 
there was an expression of calm and peaceful dignity 
that contrasted strangely with their humble at 
tire. 

As they neared each other, some mutual attraction 
induced both to mak, ;i moment s pause, as if each 
intended to speak. Neither did so, however, but moved 
on a few paces, then instinct i\vly tuna .1. a ,.<l, with a 
meaning look in their ejM, they once again drew near. 

4 6 



THE PERSECUTIONS 

-The traveller had traced with his staff two sim 



ple marks in the dust of the road. 

"The Sign of the Cross! Who art thou?" asked 
Favius of the stranger. 

" A fisherman from Galilee." 

" How know you me ?" 

" By the Master s badge." 

" What is that ?" 

The Galilean quietly lifted the sleeve of Favius 
tunic and then his own. On the forearm of both was 
marked a cross. The men s hands met in a warm and 
fervent clasp. 

" Thy name ?" Favius asked of the stranger. 

" Titus," he answered. 

"Who sent thee hither? " 

" Paulus of Tarsus, Apostle of Him they crucified," 
replied the man. 

" Speak lower," said Favius, warningly. " Even the 
stones of Eome have ears. Dost thou tarry here 
long?" 

" Only long enough to give Paulus message to the 
brethren. Where meet they to-night ?" 

" At the Grove near the Cestian Bridge," whispered 
Favius. 

" At what hour ?" The messenger s powerful voice 
was also lowered. 

" The tenth." 

< ; How many ?" 

"Hush! Even the stones have ears," said Favius, 
who had perceived that the spies had silently crept up 
close on either side of them. 

47 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"In the name of Caesar, hail!" said Strabo, whose 
greeting seemed more throat than welcome. 

"Hail, friend," courteously responded Favius, and, 
taking his friend s arm, he was about to go, but was 
stopped by Servilius, who came swiftly down to inter 
cept him. 

"Whither so fast?" queried Servilius, half as in 
good-fellowship, half as in threat, as his comrade s tone 
had been. 

" About mine own business, friend," was the compoetd 
reply. 

" Where dwellost thou ?" 

" What is that to thoe ?" 

The quiet question was baffling. The spy tried an 
other tack. In a more sympathetic tone, he said 

"Thy friend seems wayworn and weary; hath he 
come from afar ?" 

" I have travelled some days," said the fisherman. 

"Thou art athirst, I ll wager," and the spy s tone 
became insinuating. " Come with me ; a cup of good 
wine from yonder wine-shop will wash the dust of the 
road from thy throat." 

"So will a cup of good water from yonder fountain," 
was the grave reply. " I thank thee for thy courtesy, 
good friend, but I have no time to tarry with theo." 

"Strangers tarry in Rome longer than they plan to 
do at times, especially strangers who come from Galilee ; 
Nero looks not with favour on Galileans or Nazarenes. 
He finds rest for them, however," sneered Servilius. 

" I have heard as much," quietly said Paul s mes 
senger. 



THE PERSECUTIONS 

" Nero may find rest for thee," grinned the spy. 

" When my day s work is done, I shall welcome rest 
and peace, whoever sends them," serenely answered the 
Christian. 

"What is thy work?" 

" My Master s." 

" Whom dost thou serve?" 

"The Son of Man." 

And, with a slight, but courteous, inclination of the 
head, the Christian laid his hand upon the arm of 
Favius and walked away. 

For a moment the spies remained still, staring after 
the two dignified men who had so quietly baffled them ; 
but, recovering himself, Strabo cried, with greed and 
cruelty in his voice, 

" ( The Son of Man ? What means he ?" 

" My Strabo, I smell money here. Sport and money 
both." Swiftly running to the spot where the Christians 
had traced the marks in the dust, he hoarsely cried, in 
fiendish triumph, 

" The Sign of the Cross ! Christians these, Christians ! 
Come, good Strabo, follow, follow !" And stealthily 
and swiftly they crept down the street after the two 
Christians. 



49 



CHAPTER VII 

SOME PATRICIANS 

THE house upon the steps of which the spies had 
been gambling belonged to a nobleman named Barcinus, 
with whom our story will have little to do; in truth, 
he was but a nonentity even in his own household, 
where his wife, a beautiful blonde of some two-and- 
twenty summers, held absolute sway. People who 
knew them both troubled themselves but little about 
him, especially the men of their acquaintance, but 
mos t and again the male sex may be particularly im 
plied were much interested in the doings of his wife. 
And, indeed, that lady gave her friends and enemies 
plenty to talk about, even if she did at times cause the 
conversation concerning her doings to savour more of 
censorious gossip than respectful admiration. If her 
friends took interest in her actions, she certainly did 
not fail to reciprocate their concern for her. What 
Dacia, for that was the lady s name, did not know of 
the doings of the rank and fashion of Rome was cer 
tainly not worth the knowing at least, to her. She 
was a witty, clever, careless, thoughtless butterfly of ft 
creature, utterly incapable of any deep IVi-ling even for 
herself, but not ill-nut uivd at heart (if such a thing WM 
included in her composition), but with a tungue that 
would do more mNohirf in a day than it could undo in 
a year. 

50 



SOME PATRICIANS 

In spite of this little weakness, the " fair Dacia," as 
she was called, was much admired and sought after, 
and no fashionable gathering was considered complete 
without her. Exceedingly pretty and good tempered, 
ready of speech and not too squeamish in her choice of 
topics, or mode of dealing with them, she was a con 
tinual source of amusement to the golden youth with 
whom she, for choice, passed most of her time. Her 
husband, good, easy man, troubled himself but little 
about his wife s affairs, save when he was called upon 
to pay her bills, and, to do him justice, not even then, 
save when they were more than exceptionally heavy, 
or he was more than usually pressed for money. On 
these occasions he would, for a moment, lose his temper, 
which moved the fair Dacia not a tittle ; she would 
laugh at her lord and master until he either paid the 
bill or left tbe house. Then the lady would scurry off 
to one of her many gossips, or send for one of her 
equally numerous admirers, and extract either sym 
pathy from the one or gold from the other. Among 
her crowd of adorers none was more pliable or pecuni 
arily squeezable than Philodemus, an effeminate young 
nobleman possessed of an exceedingly empty head and 
a very plethoric purse. This elegantly-garbed and 
sweetly-perfumed fledgling had neither the wit, heart, 
nor manliness to feel a real passion (even a distorted 
one) for Dacia or any other woman, but it seemed to 
him it was necessary to his dignity to have the reputa 
tion of being irresistible and invincible among women, 
and, as he could pay handsomely for such notoriety, 
many of the fair creatures indulged him in his weak- 

51 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

ness. Never exacting, and quite content to go when 
he was likely to stand in the way of a more exigent 
lover, he was as useful an appanage to her suite as any 
fine lady could hope for or 1< -MIV. 

On this particular afternoon, at an hour bordering 
on sunset, Philodemus brought to Dacia s house a band 
of singers. They were richly dressed, and garlanded 
with roses. Halting in front of Dacia s door, they sang 
the following verses, accompanied by musicians with 
lutes, citharas, and pipe>: 

" What is life where love is not? 

A sunless world. 
1. is love itself begot. 
Thru love and live. 

11 Life is love and love is fire, 

Th>>c who lovr n<>t I m- in vain. 
Li: , i- }.ut out- ]>!.:: drsin; : 
Either love or die in j>:iin. 
Then love and live. 

"While this song was being snug a young and ex 
quisitely graceful girl, lightly clad in rich sky-blue silk, 
danced airily in front of the steps of the house, scatter 
ing roses over tin m. The sound of music brought 
Dacia out of the portico. "With In r < amo two richly- 
robed slave-girls, who spread i-u-hiin* upon the seats, 
and embroidered drapn-ii^ upon tin- l-ali-^ny. Dacia 
was 1 vani in illy dressed in soft, (dose-clinging silk, which 
accentuated rather than concealed the lines of her 
handsome- figure. The ridn - sparkled in hrr 

hair, and over the bosom of her dress. She was laugh- 

52 



SOME PATRICIANS 

ing merrily at some jest with her attendants, and her 
eyes sparkled with pleasure at the ceremony arranged 
in her honour. 

" Looking at the singers, she said 

" Well sung ! Who are your masters ? Oh, I see ! 
Philodemus and Glabrio!" she added, as these two 
individuals came forward. 

Philodemus was robed in a pale-yellow silk tunic and 
toga, heavily trimmed with gold and jewels. His face 
was worn, his frame slight, his manner effeminate in 
the extreme ; he had a slight lisp, rolling, vacant eyes, 
and a languid, listless air that betokened weakness 
physical as well as mental. His companion, Glabrio, 
was a great contrast to him. A man of fifty years of 
age, rotund of body, rubicund of face, beaming with 
humour and good-temper ; a rich, unctuous voice, and 
a continual chuckle, as though life to him was one huge 
joke, which indeed it was. The old reprobate avowed 
that he had lived all the days of his life, and all the 
nights as well, and intended so to live until he died. 
Not for him was mere existence, but life. The vine- 
leaves and roses were never out of his hair, or, to speak 
more correctly, were never off his head, for of hair his 
store was small ; his bald pate shone with the lustre of 
ruby wine, his nose blossomed gaily under the same 
fierce warmth, while a heavy droop of the left eyelid 
suggested a perpetual wink at all and sundry. It was 
a boast of his that he had not been drunk since boy 
hood. There was some truth in this : so soaked was he, 
so inoculated with the virus of the grape, that drunk 
enness was now impossible. Still, to say that he was 

53 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

never drunk, was but half a truth ; he should have 
added that he was never sober. His dress was sym 
bolical, being of the colour of his favourite red wine, 
trimmed with vine-leaves worked in gold. On his head 
was a fillet, which, in sympathy with the drooping eye 
lid, had slid down over his brow. His gait was not too 
steady, and he seemed cautiously to feel his way with 
his gouty toes, as though those members had learned 
by long and bitter experience that marble was harder 
and more enduring than flesh, and that it was well to 
tread gently, and treat the stones with due respect. 

Both men carried fans of feathers, after the effeminate 
custom of the time. 

" Welcome, gentlemen ; welcome !" continued Dacia. 
" What would you ?" 

"Leave to worship," answered Philodcmus. 

"Leave to worship Nero grants to all, save the 
Nazarenes. At whoso shrine wouldst thou bend the 
knee?" 

"Venus, I," replied Philodemus, with a languishing 
look at his charmer. 

"And Bacchus, I," greasily chuckled Glabrio. 

" Hast thou not worshipped the ruby wine-god 
enough already, good Glabrio?" asked Dacia. 

Glabrio s mouth moved as though tasting wine of 
some particularly good vintage; the flavour must have 
been pleasant, for the old toper s face broadened with a 
smile, and his double chin waggled with satisfaction as 
he answered 

" Never can I worship him enough ! The sacred fire 
of Bacchus is in my veins . . . my heart . . . my 

54 



SOME PATRICIANS 

blood " and, reeling slightly, he chuckled, " and, to 

a certain extent, in my legs, as er you may per-per- 
perceive," looking down at them with intense amuse 
ment. " Look at them ! they are a trifle at variance 
with each other other," he repeated, as he smiled 
at his own thoughts. " While my right leg would 
fain go east, my left doth struggle to convey me 
west." 

" At variance thus early in the day ?" asked Dacia 
smilingly, not in the least shocked or surprised by so 
very common an occurrence. 

" In truth they ve never been otherwise since since 
oh, since that last banquet Marcus gave. Oh, the 
good Marcus! he spares nothing. What wine!" He 
smacked his lips, and seemed to roll the fine old Faler- 
nian unctuously round his capacious and well-seasoned 
mouth. " Yea, and what women !" and now he gave a 
roguish leer as he looked round at his companion, whilst 
making a pretence of hiding his blushes with his fan. 
" He hath a pretty taste in both." 

" And remains unmoved by either," laughed Dacia, 
dropping her fan. 

"True," drawled and lisped Philodemus, slightly 
envious; " he hath a head of iron for wine, and a heart 
of stone for women." 

" Iron melts, and stone breaks. He will get caught 
some day," said Glabrio, with tipsy philosophy. 

"Marcus? Never!" Thus Philodemus. 

Glabrio had waddled to the steps, and was vainly 
trying to reconcile the recalcitrant legs and make the 
perilous ascent to Dacia s side ; his cautious toes acting 

55 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

as advanced guards or feelers. Not sorry to pause in 
his upward progress, he turned upon Philodemus with 
an assumption of sober gravity that his watery eyes 
and stumbling feet denied, and said 

"My son, let an older and a wiser, and, of a surety, 
a more sober man advise thee. I have lived" (here a 
vain endeavour to mount the next step) "in this some- 
what unsteady world for two-score years and ten ; have 
seen many sights, and vis-vis-vis-ited" (overcoming the 
obdurate word at last) many lands, but never yet saw 
I a young and high-mettled man who did not, sooner 
or later, usually sooner," with an uuctious laugii 
"succumb to some fair woman." 

"Never Marcus!" linped Philodemus, with languid 
assurance. 

" Wait, my Philodemus, wait !" retorted Glabrio, with 
smiling confidence. 

A sudden howl of execration, and a rush of idlers to 
the corner of the street, attracted the attention, and 
stopped the conversation of the patricians, who rose 
and peered over the balcony to discover the cause of 
the uproar. A dense crowd, composed chiefly of the 
rabble and the lower orders (but se%*eral were of the 
better class) had surrounded some per-mi. :md were 
evidently hustling and otherwise illt renting him. All 
seemed absolutely furious with the man, and, headed 
I V the >|>ie<. Serviliu- :ui l Str;il,.,. thev were lr;iL r L r in^ 
him bare-headed and dMi.-velh-d alnnr the roadway. 
The object of their lutility was the old man, Kavius, 
at whom thn-M nearest to him aimed blows with their 
fists and sticks. His garments wore torn, and a deep 

56 



SOME PATRICIANS 

cut on his forehead testified to the savagery of the at 
tacks upon him. 

As the surging, howling mob reached the centre of 
the street, opposite Dacia s house, the old man was 
hurled violently to the ground by the rabble, who, led 
by the two spies, were yelling 

" Death to the Christians ! Death ! death !" 

But death there and then would have robbed the in 
formers of their blood-money, so they cried, " Take him 
to the JEdile !" 

Glabrio, from the steps, moved with some pity for 
Favius, asked 

" What hath the old man done ?" 

" Bowed down to the god Anakoites. He is worth 
two hundred sesterces, and Nero will make a torch of 
him!" shouted Servilius. 

" Ay !" roared the mob. " To the lions with him !" 

And again they rushed at the good old man, as 
though he were some wild and dangerous beast. 

Now down the street sped a girl so lightly and 
swiftly that she appeared to skim rather than tread the 
ground. Clad in pure white, she seemed to the brutal 
mob a daughter of the gods rather than of earth, and, 
for the moment, they slunk back, awed and ashamed. 
It was Mercia. On her way to the house of her friend, 
Favius, she had seen a crowd of people attacking an 
apparently helpless man, and, not pausing to count the 
probable cost of her action, had run boldly forward to 
assist, and, if possible, save the victim of their fury. 
With a force and energy amazing in one so seemingly 
slight and frail, she pushed the men away, and stood 

57 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

protecting tho fallen Favius and braving the mob. 
How divinely beautiful she looked! Her arms were 
outstretched as if to shield the old man from further 
peril, her eyes shining with the fire of righteous wrath, 
and her lovely laiv alight with inspiration. 

The tribute that manhood ever pays, involuntarily or 
willingly, to innocence and womanly purity, was hers. 
This weak girl, whom any man there could have brushed 
aside with ease, cowed them all. As they gazed upon 
her with mingled fear, wonder, and admiration, her 
sweet voice rang out clear and strong, and her words 
cut some of them as might tho lash of a whip. 

" Are ye men or wolves ? Are ye blind ? Arc white 
hairs no longer reverenced in Rome ?" Stooping to 
Favius, she tenderly helped tho bleeding and stunned 
man to his feet ; then, seeing the wound upon his fore 
head, she added with gentle solicitude 

"Are you hurt, my father?" 

" I feel no pain, daughter," said Favius, who, in sooth, 
was dazed with the blows showered upon him. 

" But there is blood upon thee ! Look, men of Rome ! 
Are you not ashamed?" Mercia indignantly asked, 
turning to the rabble. 

r.y I.arrlm-v what a lu-auty!" >ail <ilal.no. ln,m 
the balcony. 

Mercia wiped the blood from the face of Favius, 
and, taking his hand. >aid, " Let mo lead thee home, 
my father." 

But by this time Servilius had recovered his wits, 
and he stopped her, saying 

"Not so fast! What say v < i: /ens, shall a pair of 

58 



SOME PATRICIANS 

pretty eyes and a baby face rule Borne and Eo- 
mans ?" 

" No, no !" yelled Strabo, inciting the others to join 
him. 

Mercia turned, and, with a touching gesture of 
entreaty, said 

I beg of you to let this old man go ! There is no 
harm in him ; I know him well. He hath wronged no 
one unless it be a wrong to nurse the sick, comfort 
the weary, help the helpless. All these things hath he 
done. Would you slay him for that?" 

Servilius and Strabo redoubled their energies, and 
yelling, " He is a Christian ! To the lions with him I" 
induced the crowd to close once more round the hapless 
Favius, to whom Mercia was clinging, vainly endeav 
ouring to shield him from the ruffians who were trying 
to drag him away. But her efforts were futile against 
the blind hostility of the rabble. A dozen strong, piti 
less hands were upon her, tearing her from Favius ; 
their wild and savage execrations were ringing in her 
ears as she continued to struggle in defence of her 
aged teacher. Death to both seemed inevitable ; but 
there was a quick tramp of armed men, a swift rush 
of shining armour, a few heavy thuds, as the handles 
of spears fell upon heads and bodies, and, like a flock 
of frightened sheep, the cowardly crowd fell back on 
either side of the street, gazing with terrified eyes at 
the guard of soldiers, led by Yiturius and commanded 
by Marcus, the Prefect of Eome. 

And thus, for the first time, these twain met and 
looked upon each other. What is the subtle, myste- 

59 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

rious thing men call affinity? What the magnetism 
that, with a look, a touch, draws, in the twinkling of 
an eye, two souls together. n -\vr to be parted through 
all eternity? For one instant only had their eyes met, 
and yet, in that moment, all the currents of their lives 
were changed. For a moment neither moved. Some 
strange spell seemed upon both. It was as though soul 
was speaking to soul, and both wondered. But this 
WUH no time for self analysis; Marcus had to act, 
and, recovering himself he asked, with the manner 
and voice of a man used to en nun and and to be 
obeyed, 

" What hath this old man done?" 

"He is a Christian !" >li.mt.-.l the loo busy Servilius. 

"Silence that fellow, Viturius!" quickly interposed 
Marcus, and Viturius, nothing loth, smote the spy over 
the mouth with the back of his hand, and he fell back 
among the crowd holding his face in both hands, 
whimpering, Nay, nay, good Marcus, I have done 
nothing wrong." And the wretched turncoats amoni; 
the mob waved arms and sticks in the air and shouted, 
"Marcus! Marcus! Hail! Hail!" 

With a shrug of contempt Marcus turned from them 
and looked once more on Mercia. With open, wonder 
ing eyes she \va- ira/ini: at tin- -hinniLT lii^uiv which still 
atood between her and death. It had seemed to her 
that the mob had re<-<.iled a s dark -pints of evil would 
fall back befon the mi^ht of some strong angel of light. 
Marcus looked, indeed, a goodly picture of manliness. 
Firm set in the full vigour <>! his virile beauty, his 
bearing full of command, his face *- lightly flushed with 

60 



SOME PATRICIANS 

excitement, and yet his whole being steady as a rock, 
he dominated the men about him as resistlessly as the 
waves of the incoming tide sweep over the beach. He 
was dressed in military costume ; a short white linen 
tunic, barely reaching to the knee, was covered by a 
coat of mail, heavily studded with bosses and plates of 
brass, and jewelled with emeralds and rubies; from 
under this fell lambrikins of white leather, heavily 
trimmed with gold and jewels and edged with gold 
fringe. A helmet of polished brass glistened on his 
head, and a short mantle of old-gold-coloured silk hung 
from his shoulders. His sandals were topped with flat 
rings of gold, and over the centre of each was the head 
of a lion wrought in the same precious metal. His 
armour and jewels glittered in the sunlight, and half 
dazzled the eyes that looked upon them. But Mercia s 
eyes were upon his face. His gaze seemed bent upon 
seeking her very soul. In a deep, rich, yet gentle tone, 
he addressed Mercia 

" What is thy name, girl?" and this, the first spoken 
word to her, sent a strange shiver through Mercia s 
body. Her voice, sweet and low, trembled a little as 
she answered 

" Mercia." 

Marcus thought he had never heard music so ten 
derly exquisite as that sound. Turning his eyes for a 
moment upon Favius, he asked 

" Thy name, friend ?" 

" Favius Fontellus," was the answer. Then again 
the eyes of Marcus flashed upon Mercia. 

"Is this maid thy daughter?" 
6l 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Nay, sir," and Favius scorned to interpose to shield 
Mercia from the young Prefect. 

"Nor any kin of tlum ?" asked Marcus. 

"No." 

" I have no kin," softly and sadly murmured Mercia. 

"Why is >lu- with thce, then?" said Marcus to 
Favius, his eyes still upon Mercia. 

"She came between UK- ami the rabble when they set 
upon me, to protect mo," repli* 1 Favius. 

A slight smile flickered on the face of Marcus as he 
exclaimed 

"Protect thee ! The lily protect the tot taring oak." 
" What a lovely face!" ho thought. What is this old 
man to thee ?" he asked of Mercia. 

"lie is my teacher." 

"So. Toach you in the public schools?" 

" No." 

" Of what sect art thou ?" 

" I am a philosopher." 

"He is a Christian! death to him " here yelled the 
mob. 

"Clear the streets, Viturius." commanded Marcus, 
and Viturius ami the soldiers drove off the crowd, who 
reluctantly departed, shouting and murmuring, "Death 
to the Christians." 

Glabrio, who had hoen an amu- 1 o|.-,-r\vr of the 
scene, turned to Philo<k-mus ami ^aid, -Dost see, my 
Philodemus, lu-auty hath oS-lt-ati-.! tin- I. rut 

" If ever thou shouldnt be in need of a friend, girl, 
come to me," said Mann- impressively, still regarding 
Mercia with earm-tin s*. 

62 



SOME PATRICIANS 

But Mercia shrank a little from him, and Favius 
came between them and said, " Shall the dove seek the 
hawk for friendship ?" 

" Not if the hawk be hungry. But am I the hawk ?" 
queried Marcus laughingly. 

" Thou art Marcus Superbus," said Favius. 

Well ?" 

" One woman more or less is naught to thee. This 
child is purity innocence itself." 

" Canst thou vouch for that, old man?" 

" With my life." 

" Innocence is a rare jewel in Rome, and, for its 
rarity, much desired," said Marcus, with a slight sneer. 

With much dignity Favius answered, " Thou hast 
done a noble action in saving her from the rabble ; it 
will be recorded in thy favour. Do not stain that 
record with evil let this maiden go her way un 
harmed." 

There was something in the nature of Marcus which 
responded to this dignified appeal of the aged Christian, 
but he was loth to let the fair vision depart, and again 
he paused and looked upon Mercia. His bold, search 
ing eyes had in them even against his will some 
deeper sentiment than mere passion ; was it respect ? 
A sense of something nobler in her than anything he 
had known before ? A craving in his own heart that 
she alone could satisfy? He knew not what it was, 
but he knew that some subtle, indefinable change was 
stealing over him. Mercia, in her turn, was lost to her 
surroundings, and was a passive instrument in the 
hands of Favius. In her eyes there was that which 

63 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

showed that her heart gave full response to all the 
nobler feelings which found expression in his eyes, 
while all that was suggestive and base was lost to her 
sight. There was no excuse for longer detaining them, 
and Marcus said 

"I do not hinder her or thee ; prithee go thy 
ways." 

"Oh, promise, Excellence," pleaded Favius. 

" Enough," said Marcus haughtily, " I have saved 
her life and thine let that suffice. Go!" 

Quietly and with dignity Faviii- turned to Mercia 
and led her slowly away, but to the la-t her eyes were 
fixed upon Marcus, who. calling Viturius to his side, 
said quickly 

" Viturius, follow themfind out where they dwell 
of what family the girl is. guick. ham all you can 
about her. Go." 

" Yes, Excellence," and hastily saluting his master, 
Viturius followed after Mercia and Favius. 

" What a lovely being!" thought Marcus. " Young, 
too. Young, lovely, innocent, and alone quite alone 
in cruel, heartless Rome. The sweetest, most enticing 
piece of womanhood I ve seen for many a day." His 
thoughts were interrupted l.y Dacia. who called to him 
from the balcony 

"Most noble Marcus I" 

Marcus ttirne.I. at first with something like a gesture 
of impatience, but curbing his feelings, he Diluted Dacia, 
and said 

"What would you with me, fair Dacia? Ah, Philo- 
demus and Glabrio." 



SOME PATRICIANS 

" Hail, Marcus ! That was a pretty piece of flesh 
eh ?" leered Glabrio. 

This remark of Glabrio s, uttered a few minutes 
before in relation to some other woman, would have 
passed unheeded by the ears of Marcus, but applied 
to Mercia, it sounded like a profanation, it jarred 
harshly upon him, and he turned with a reply to 
Dacia. 

" What would you with me, fair Dacia ?" 

"Thy company, most noble Marcus. Join these 
gentlemen ; come, honour my poor dwelling with thy 
presence." 

"Alas! fair Dacia, duty stern, inexorable duty 
calls me elsewhere," lightly answered Marcus, looking 
in the direction in which Mercia had gone. 

" Art afraid ?" smiled Dacia. 

"Afraid of what?" 

" Of the sharp tongue of Berenice ?" 

" Neither of her sharp tongue nor of thy sweet lips. 
Why should I fear Berenice ?" asked Marcus. 

"Eome doth link thy name with hers," answered 
Dacia. 

"How?" 

" Tis said thou art betrothed to Berenice." 

" Indeed !" said Marcus coldly ; " Eome is all too 
kind. It honours me beyond my deserts." 

"Marcus and Berenice it would be a glorious 
match," Dacia rattled on. " Tigellinus is thy rival, not 
only for Nero s favour, but for the hand of Berenice ; 
Marcus and Berenice united need fear no Tigellinus. 
What say you, Marcus ?" 

5 6 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" That Marcus alone has yet to learn to fear a Tigcl- 
linus." 

Not heeding the quiet but cutting scorn of the ivply, 
Dacia continued, "Ah, well all Rome doth know it is 
a race between thee. and Tigellinus is not the man to 
throw a chance away. You are both ambitious. Bere 
nice is not only rich and beautiful, but clever withal, 
and a clever woman " 

"That is true. Man us, broke in Glabrio; "you 
should take to yourself a wife." 

"Why?" asked Marcus. 

" Eh ? why yes ah, yes why ? well, why do men 
marry ?" 

"Why ah, why indeed? drily echoed Marcus. 

" Ti- every man s duty to take a wife." argued I>a<-iu. 

" To take a wife, or to marry which ?" lightly asked 
Marcus. 

" Both," laughed the gay beauty. " Marry, Marcus ; 
thou art rich enough to support a wife royally." 

"True; but nowadays, in Rome, as friend Seneca 
writes: It is thought so much more honourable to 
support the wife of your friend eh, Philodemus? 
And to be married is scarce a pleasure, while women 
Itekon their liree not by their years, but by the number 
of their husbands?" 

" Come, Marcus, come," still smiled Dacia ; " some 
noble ladies keep their husbands." 

"Yes, most of them," murmured Marcus. 

" Rumour saith " lu-^an hacia afresh, but Marcus 

was weary of the discussion, and he curtly stopped her 
with 

66 



SOME PATRICIANS 

" Rumour bath many tongues, and most of them 
lying ones. No, lady, no ; I may commit many acts of 
folly, but marriage will not be one of them." 

" Berenice will make thee change thy resolve," in 
sisted Dacia. Then, turning to go, she beckoned to her 
friends. " Farewell, Marcus." 

" Farewell, Dacia !" answered Marcus, bowing. 
" Remember, Philodemus and Glabrio, you sup with 
me to-morrow." 

" I will not fail thee, Marcus," simpered the effemi 
nate youth, escorting Dacia into the house. 

"Nor I," said Glabrio, but he staggered as he moved, 
and laughingly added as he went, " that is, if my legs 
do not fail me." 

"Marriage! no, by the gods!" mused Marcus. "But 
this girl, how her face haunts me! What innocence! 
what grace ! Is it possible that such purity can 
dwell in the heart of one of these despised Christians?" 

Viturius swiftly crossed the street, and saluted 
Marcus. 

" Ah, Yiturius, where left you the girl ?" questioned 
the Prefect. 

" In a small house : the fourth on the right from the 
statue of Hercules, Excellence," quickly replied the 
officer. 

" Know you aught of the inhabitants of that house ?" 
Marcus asked anxiously. 

" The house is suspected, Excellence." 

" Of what ?" 

" Of being a meeting-place of these Christians." 

This reply sent a thrill of dread to the heart of 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Marru*. that he did not quite underMand. and -till miv 
anxiously he asked 

"Ah! is this mere rumour?" 

"No, Excellence. I know that the axiile of the 
district hath set a special watch upon the house." 

" A secret watch ?" 

"Yes, Exeullcnee. 

"Who is the anlile of tin- district?" 

" Licinius." 

"Licinius! the most cruel, men-lie--, and blood 
thirsty officer in Rome! The gods protect these poor 
people if he do MI-JUT! tin-in, for if then- i- no evidence 
against them, he will invent it. Yituriu->, return at 
once to the spies; learn all you can from them. If 
any arrest is ordered or contemplated, let me be ad 
vised instantly. You understand?" 

"Perfectly, Excellence." 

"Then go." 

Viturius wondered a little at the unwonted interest 
his young master was showing, but he only asked, 
" Will you go unattended, Excellence?" 

" Yes ; go." 

"I obey, Excellence," and, saluting once more, he 
swiftly re crossed the street in tin- direction of the 
house of Favius. 

"Licinius!" thought Marcus, "a wolf, from whose 
ravenous fangs this sweet white laml. HUM be pro 
tected. I have another fate h. r. What 
grace! what tenderness! 1 have never been so mov d 
by womanhood before I thought all women were alike 
to me. I was wrong. And a Christian, too !" 

68 



SOME PATRICIANS 

Marcus wondered at himself. Besting against the 
base of a gilt statue of Nero, he gave himself up to 
thought. The plebeians who passed him looked at him 
with curiosity, and some wonderment, but did not dare 
to pause, or give him more than a quick glance as they 
went on their way. So still was he that the pigeons 
from the Quay fluttered round him, and strutted fear 
lessly almost to his sandalled feet. " Mercia," he mur 
mured softly to himself; "Mercia!" trying uncon 
sciously to reproduce the music of the sound of Mercia s 
voice repeating her own name. His heart beat faster 
at the recollection. He had grown weary of the wiles 
of the women he had constantly to meet. He knew 
their weaknesses, their vices, and their allurements by 
heart. The flesh alone had been moved, never his 
soul. The brightest, wittiest, and most clever among 
them he had found some pleasure in, but there was 
always a something wanting in them that usually drove 
him with impatience away. They were not all vicious 
actually, but vice was not abhorrent to them. All who 
dared hope for the honour (and there were few who 
did not) schemed and plotted to become his wife. 
" Marriage ! faugh ! a mere licence for profligacy, im 
munity from shame; the husband a shield that pro 
tected, but did not hide the wife s laxity. No; he 
would have none of it." And yet his home was lonely ; 
his life, in spite of its gaieties and pleasures, its constant 
change of faces and companions, male and female, 
was dull and profitless. Women appealed to the brute 
part of him always either impelled by the brute in 
themselves, or from cunning and greed of gain ! He 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

had scarcely to ask to obtain, and if any for a moment 
refused through coquetry, he yawned, left and forgot 
them. "Virtue!" bah! another word for fear! In the 
feminine spiritual constitution there was no such thing 
as virtue for virtue s sake, and yet this girl, this Chris 
tian, this Mercia, and again he murmured the name 
of " Mercia" softly under his breath, what a lovely 
face ! Mercia ! Mercia ! 



CHAPTER VIII 

BERENICE 

THE reverie of Marcus was broken by a musical, cul 
tivated voice breathing his name. He turned and be 
held a beautiful woman, seated in alectica chair, carried 
on the shoulders of two gigantic negroes ; by her side 
walked a bluff and heavy-moving man of middle age, 
in the dress of a Eoman general. At a little distance 
behind her were two elegantly attired and handsome 
female slaves. The lady, who looked every inch the 
well-born patrician that she was, smiled graciously 
upon him as she gave him her hand to kiss, saying, 
" Hail ! noble Marcus !" 

" Hail ! lady !" replied Marcus, bowing gracefully 
over the outstretched fingers. 

This lady was one of Home s most beautiful and proud 
patricians. She was an orphan, of twenty years of age. 
Her father had been a general in the time of Claudius, 
and, like many of his class, had amassed great wealth. 
This he had invested with such skill and foresight that, 
when he died, he left his daughter a fortune exceeded 
by that of no other woman in Rome. His wife had 
preceded him to the grave while his daughter was still 
a child, and he lavished on the young Berenice all the 
affection of a not unloving nature. 

His wife was not a Roman. He had fought a battle 
with a German prince, whom he captured and made 

71 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

prisoner. The daughter of this prince or king was 
:i lovely blonde of chaste ami dignified character, and a 
mutual love resulted in a happy marriage that was 
ended only by her death. He brmi^ht her to Rome, 
and Berenice was born. The child inherited the almost 
black hair of the father and the large blue eyes of the 
mother; the blue was the light azure of the morning 
sky. She was above the average height of woman ; 
splendidly proportioned, she moved with all the grace 
of a thoroughly well-bred woman. She was as clover 
as she was beautiful. Young, enormously wealthy, in 
tellectual, with an unstained reputation, she was looked 
upon as the greatest prize in the Roman matrimonial 
market. 

Such was the woman with whom her friend Dacia 
said the name of Marcus was coupled by all Rome. 
Any man might well be proud of such a distinction ; 
but, truth to tell, the somewhat over-blessed Marcus 
did not feel a single heart-beat or one pulsation of his 
veins quickened either by the compliment or the lady s 
presence. Not that he held her in no regard ; on the 
contrary, ho esteemed her as one of the most virtuous 
women of his acquaintance. She had always evinced a 
liking for him, which showed itself in a thousand 
pleasant ways. He, in turn, did not hesitate to show 
his friendship for her by attentions and gifts that 
would have turned tin- heads, if not have moved the 
hearts, of most women. IJcivnicc > heart was moved 
t its utmnM depths, and she loved the young Prefect 
with all the warmth of her Ionian, and all the con 
stancy <f her < icrman. nature. 

72 



BERENICE 

Berenice was not of a placid or listless temperament ; 
her young blood was full of life, vivacity, and passion. 
Her tongue could be sharp at times, but the wounds it 
gave were inflicted with a polished weapon, not as with 
a bludgeon. 

As she sat in her lectica she looked a very queen in 
stateliness and distinction. She needed no rich dress to 
make her noticeable, but she was both richly and taste 
fully attired, and she leaned back in her gold and ivory- 
bedecked carriage with the comforting conviction that 
among all the fair sights of Rome none could be found 
more fair than the picture she presented to the man 
she idolised. She had been listening wearily and list 
lessly to the heavy, blundering compliments of the 
lovelorn soldier by her side, but her eyes had lit up 
with a sudden gleam of fire as she caught sight of 
Marcus. Her colour rose as Marcus lightly touched 
her fingers with his lips, and she bent down upon him 
a glance that was direct and warm enough to have 
pierced the armour and heart of any save the one and 
only man she cared to waste a thought upon. 

Lifting his hand, Marcus saluted the officer with, 
"Hail, Metullus!" 

" Hail, Marcus !" gruffly responded that gentleman. 

" What is the latest gossip, Marcus?" asked Berenice. 

" That Berenice is still Berenice," he answered gal 
lantly. 

" Is that a compliment ?" 

" If I say the sun is still the sun, can I pay a higher 
tribute to its light ? If I say the rose is still the rose, 
can I extol its sweetness more ? And if I say Berenice 

73 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

is still Berenice, can I pay Berenice a greater compli 
ment? What say you. Metulhw?" said Marcus. 

The glib tongue of Marcus annoyed the more stolid 
Metullus, and ho growled out 

" Nay, Marcus, I am but a rough soldier, and tricks 
of tongue arc not for me. I can give an order, or obey 
one ; I can fight for a woman with my sword but not 
with my wit." 

" Ah," replied Marcus, " the man who would carve his 
way into a woman s In-art is like to rind love butchered 
there." 

"So! Well, being butchered, it <-ould n.t IK- a Mother s." 

"Metullus, terrible Metullus! >aid IVivnire. shrink 
ing in mock fear, and then to Marcus, with a sweet 
glance of the blue eyes, "Good Marcus, shall I be 
honoured ?" 

"How, gracious lady?" 

" With thy escort home ?" 

"Nay, thou hast thine escort, lady," said Marcus 
evasively, with a glance down the street in the direction 
Mercia had takon. 

"Wilt visit me to-day?" 

"To-day? I am busy upon State affairs. Alas! I 
must deny myself that j 

Berenice let her little white teeth o)OM lor a moment 
on her under-lip before she said 

To in.>rrn\v. th-n . 

"To-morr\v I feast some friend-." 

"And you invite not mo! That is scarcely kind or 
flattering." 

" It is a man s feast, i; 

74 



BERENICE 

there be no ladies present ?" 

"I think I may truly say there will be no ladies 
present." 

"No women either?" 

" Well, some players or singers, perchance." 

Here Glabrio, freshly charged with Dacia s hospi 
tality, staggered on to the balcony and sank rather 
suddenly on the seat at the top of the steps. 

"Marcus at least is frank; he does not hide his 
vices." 

" Is it a vice to love ?" questioned Marcus. 

" Love ! Does the word apply in such cases ?" ques 
tioned Berenice, with angry contempt in her tones. 

" It serves," lightly retorted Marcus. 

" Have you no heart, Marcus ?" asked Berenice softly. 

Glabrio broke in with tipsy jocularity 

" Heart ? I thought not, until a moment ago ; but 
beauty vanquished the brute, and I know now " 

"I hardly understand," said Berenice, with a coldly 
questioning glance. 

"No? Why . . . pretty Christian . . . black eyes 
. . . Marcus rescue . . . lovely girl," spluttered Gla 
brio. 

" Christian ? Lovely girl ? What is this, Marcus ?" 
Berenice was now thoroughly alert and anxious. 

" A slight hallucination of Glabrio s, the result of an 
all too early devotion to the god of wine." 

"Eh? What? What? Early luce-e-luci-lucina- 
tion ! Not at all," hiccoughed the tipsy jester, and, 
rising with no little difficulty, he groped his way to his 
friend Philodemus. 

75 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Philodemus, come here," and Philodemus, looking 
flushed and more vacant of mind than ever, came, ask 
ing 

" Why have you left the table, Glabrio?" 

" Only to taste the air," answered Glabrio. " Did not 
beauty vanquish the brute?" 

"Certainly." 

"Who was this beauty, Philodomus this Chris 
tian ?" asked Berenice, a jealous fire already in her 
eyes. 

Glabrio was about to answer, but Marcus imperiously 
interposed. 

" Enough, Glabrio ; this jest has gone too far. Wine 
is a good servant, but a tyrannical master. Go and 
rest, good Glabrio. Philodemus, give thy friend thine 
arm, and conduct him within." 

The manner of Marcus was too stern for the weak 
Philodemus to resist, and he took his friend by the arm 
and endeavoured to carry out the dictates of Marcus. 
" Thou hadst better follow me, Glabrio." 

" But beauty . . . black eyes . . . Christian girl." 

"Yes, yes, of course; within," protested Philodemus. 

"Within? Why within?" said Glabrio. "I desire 
to tell the lady Berenice that the pretty Christian 

There followed from Marcus a look of such swift 
menace that Phflodemtu hastened (Jlabrio with a sud 
den jerk that sent the graceless old toj..-r iv<-Iing into 
the house, and Philodemus shut the door upon himself 
and his friend. 

Not a look or a movement on tin part of Marcus 
had been lost to Berenice. He had betrayed impatience 

76 



BERENICE 

and anger, unusual weaknesses for the Prefect to in 
dulge in. Why? Who was this Christian girl? And 
what was she to Marcus ? Berenice shivered slightly 
as she looked at Marcus and asked 

" Were you afraid that he would speak too freely ?" 
" He hath spoken too freely already." 
" And this strange girl this Christian ?" 
" There is no evidence that she is a Christian. A 
young girl and an old man were attacked by a rabble. 
My guard protected them. That is all. Glabrio saw 
too much, or heard too little, Not an uncommon failing 
with men in his condition." 

" Men in wine speak the truth, Marcus." 
"Another, and still older proverb for thee, sweet 
lady, When the wine is in the wit goes wandering. " 

Fain would Berenice have concluded that Glabrio s 
remarks must be but the babble of a tipsy gossip, but 
Marcus manner gave the lie to any such thought. He 
was restless, uneasy, even nervous. Indeed he had 
cause to be so. Glabrio had started a stone rolling 
down a steep hill. Who could say where it would stop ? 
The whisper, the hint that a person was a Christian 
carried with it such terrible dangers, that the mere 
thought of them in connection with this innocent girl, 
Mercia, made Marcus shudder. He knew, too, that his 
office and position would compel him to use his power 
to bring any so accused to punishment, and the thought 
of being compelled to use his authority against Mercia 
was horrible to him. And yet, why should he fear ? 
He would protect Mercia in his own way; Nero 
would understand, and be the last to interpose between 

77 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

him and hi- <1< -ires. There need be nothing to trouble 
him or her; ho had but to be< -kon. and Mercia would 
follow. Yes. thi iv lava clear way out of the difficulty. 
He would make further inquiries about the girl, and 
shield her with hi- anV-ti<n and his rank. She, of 
course, would be only too irlad to accept immunity with 
his advances. Then- would be resistance, a little more 
prolong I than usual perhaps, hut that mattered not; 
the end would le the same. No. the law should not 
touch her; he would take :ood care of that! 

44 What are thy ihouirhts now, most silent and pre 
occupied Marcus?" quietly a>ked Brreimv. 

lie wa- -puiv.l ;he trouhl,* of invent inr an answer by 
the approach of Tigellinus and a file of soldiers. The 
Councillor frowned slightly as he saw Marcus standing 
so close in converse wiih Berenice, but he saluted him 
with elaborate courtesy, and said 

"Well met, Prefect" 

"Hail, Tigrllimis!" answered Marcus, with a slight 
inclination of the head. 

Approaching Berenice, Ti.irellinus said to her 

"Hail, gentle lady! Hail, Mettillus! IV. t, t. I was 
on my way to seek thee. The Kmp.n.r greets thee, 
and sends thee this," and upon the word he handed ft 
scroll to Marcus. 

" Is it so very urgent ?" asked Marcus haughtily. 

" Most urgent." 

Marcus, accepting the scroll, smiled coldly upon 
Tigellinus, and, bowing low to Binni ,, said, "Will 
you pardon me, lady 

The scroll contained the following message : 

78 



BERENICE 

"To MY WELL-BELOVED SERVANT, MARCUS, GREET 
ING I The accursed sect of the Christians is increasing. 
They plot together to destroy my throne and life. They 
will not bow down to me nor call me Caesar, nor pay 
tribute unto me. They are murderers and fanatics, 
venomous and bloodthirsty. Spare none of them 
men, women, nor children. Slay those who are dan 
gerous ; the rest I will give to the beasts in the arena. 
Thou hast full power. Show mercy to none. On thy 
life I charge thee to be faithful. 

" OESAR." 

Marcus had read, and was gazing abstractedly at the 
mandate, when Berenice said to Tigellinus 

" Your news seems to trouble the noble Marcus." 

" It should not do so," he answered, looking at Mar 
cus with suspicion. " Tis but a fresh edict from Nero 
to exterminate, at any cost, these accursed Christians. 
To Marcus is allotted this special duty." 

" To exterminate, at any cost, the Christians ?" 

" Ay, gentle lady. The Emperor has been informed 
by traitors in their sect that they plot against his life. 
His edict condemns to torture and to death all who are 
proved to worship with them or help them in any 
way." 

" Torture and death !" mused Berenice, gazing at 
Marcus, who turned towards Tigellinus and said 

" I kiss the mandate of the Emperor, Tigellinus." 

"And will obey it?" 

" Can you doubt it ?" icily responded Marcus. 

Tigellinus turned on his heel and addressed Berenice. 

79 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Go you homeward, lady? Lot me add to your 
escort ?" 

" Gladly," she said. " Farewell, Marcus. The Em- 
peror hath chosen wisely. Torture and death to all 
Christians, without distinction of sex! A wise decree, 
and a timely one. Farewell, Marcus," and casting on 
him a meaning look, which he did not fail to under 
stand, she was borne away by the negroes, followed 
by TigcllinuH, Met nil us, and the slaves. 

As they left him, Marcus again unrolled the scroll 
he held in his hand, and re-read the command of Cfesar. 
"Spare none of these Christians men, women, nor 
children. . . . Thou hast full power. ... On thy life 
I charge ther t.> IM faithful." Faithful to such a man 
date! And this girl, this fair and innocent creature, 
Mercia, was she too a Christian ? 

Slowly pacing the street, he encountered Viturius, 
who saluted him hurriedly, and said 

" Excellence the young girl " 

"Mercia?" eagerly inquired Marcus. 

"Yes, Excellence. I was watching the house, as 
thou didst command me, when I saw the door cautiously 
opened ; a boy came out and looked carefully up and 
down the street ; not observing me, ho beckoned, and 
the girl, Mercia, with a mantle over her head, came 
softly forth. I doubled upon them to tell thee. See ! 
here they come." Viturius pointed down the street, 

uh. iv Mar-u< IM-IM-M lln- inai-li-n VfhO lia<l -aii>e<I him 

so much anxious thought, accompanied by a boy some 
twelve years old, dressed in a short brown tunic, 
girded in by a bull Icailu r U-It. Across his shoulders 

80 



BERENICE 

hung a strap of similar make, from which was sus 
pended a pouch. His face was handsome and ingen 
uous ; his long light brown hair fell in clusters over 
his forehead, which was broad and well-shaped. The 
eyes were frank and affectionate ; his mouth and lips 
were curved ; his chin rather too sensitive and pointed 
for the rest of his face and head. He held Mercia 
by the hand and chatted gaily as he strolled along by 
her side. As the two approached, Marcus and Yitu- 
rius moved away until they were hidden by the base 
of Nero s statue. 

The sun was setting and warming the streets and 
palaces with its ruddy glow. Mercia wore a mantle 
over her white robes, of a delicate puce colour, one end 
of which formed a kind of hood and partly concealed 
her face. As they neared the statue she paused, and 
looking at that spot where, a short time ago, she had 
met Marcus that meeting so fraught with fate to 
both she sighed softly to herself, then said to the 
boy 

" Indeed, I am safe now, Stephanus ; return to 
Favius." 

" Nay," said the lad, with manly assumption, " I will 
not leave thee, Mercia, until I see thee within thine own 
doors. The streets are not safe for thee." 

Marcus moved from the shelter in which he had 
stood unobserved, and broke quietly in upon their 
words 

" No indeed, they are not ; nor for thee, either, boy." 

"I care not for myself, but for her," replied Steph 
anus, with a smile of surprise at the stranger. 
6 8l 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Come, Stephanus, come," said Mercia, nervously, 
trying 1o ]>a>s Marcus. 

"Let me attend thoc, lady. In the streets of Rome 
this boy is no protection," Marcus urged, with winning 
courtesy. 

" I thank thee, sir, but do not need thy help, said 
Mercia, and, as he moved towards her, a slight shrink 
ing movement betrayed her alarm. 

" Dost thou fear nu , lady ?" asked ho, with a note of 
resentment in his voice. 

" I have been told to avoid thee," she replied inno 
cently. 

"By the old man, Favius?" 

" By him and others," and her beautiful eyes gazed 
sadly upon him. 

Marcus pondered a moment, and then with an 
inquiring smile asked 

" Ah ! I have a bad reputation ?" 

11 Yes," she replied quietly ; and Marcus bowed with 
satirical humility. 

u Perchance I deserve it and, perchance, do not. 
Perchance I have been a trifle spoiled. Never knew I 
cause or inclination to deny myself aught that I de 
sired. It is long since I have desired anything ardently. 
To-day I have had quite a revelation ;" the rich low 
tones grew deep and earnest. " There i>. I lind, in all 
this worn-out Rome, one thing I really want and 
really mean to have. Canst guess what that thing 
isT 

"I do not wish t<> try Please let me pass." 

"Pray, let me attend thoo. I cannot bear to see so 
82 



BERENICE 

rare a jewel go unguarded," Marcus said, still gently 
barring her way. 

Even as he spoke Tigellinus and Servilius entered 
the street and rapidly approached the Prefect, unper- 
ceived by him. 

" Indeed, I wish to go alone," said Mercia ur 
gently. 

Servilius slunk, with his wolflike motion, round the 
base of Zero s statue, behind Marcus, as Tigellinus 
strode to the Prefect s side, and, pointing at Mercia, 
exclaimed 

" That is the very girl, Excellence !" 

"Who is this woman, Prefect?" Tigellinus asked 
with studied insolence. 

Marcus met him with a look that amply repaid him 
for his contemptuous tone, and, with quiet dignity, 
answered 

" This lady s name is Mercia." 

Tigellinus stared contemptuously at Mercia for a 
moment, and then said 

" This man accuses her of being a Christian. If that 
be so, it is your duty to arrest her." 

Marcus hand moved quickly to the handle of his 
sword, a movement which startled the spy, and made 
even the scornful Tigellinus blench. But Marcus looked 
at Mercia, and, with some effort, controlled himself, and 
quietly he said 

" Be sure I know my duty, Tigellinus, not only to 
the Emperor, but also to myself." 

Then, turning to his captain, he said 

" Yiturius, accompany this lady home." 

83 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

His quiet assurance enraged Tigellinus, who angrily 
exclaimed 
"Have a care, Marcus 1 If thou dost neglect Caesar s 

commands " 

" Enough, sir," said Man -us sternly, and turning from 
him, he added, in ringing tones, " Viturius, I hold you 
responsible for this lady s safety. Go !" 

Then, with a bow in which reverence and admiration 
were curiously blent, he said to Mercia 

" Farewell, lady." 

Almost reluctantly M.-n-ia moved away, Stephanus 
still holding tightly to lu-r hand, and Viturius following 
and keeping faithful guard. 



CHAPTEE IX 

THE ARKEST OF STEPHANUS 

MARCUS returned slowly and thoughtfully to his 
palace. He had, in sooth, food in plenty for reflection. 
The events of the past few hours were burnt into his 
brain ; he could never erase them so long as he lived. 
Moreover, his sensations were new and strange to him. 
In his many adventures with women, he had never 
been so much as scratched by Cupid s arrows. He had 
begun to doubt, if not the actual existence of love, at 
least his own capacity to feel it. Was he feeling it 
now ? He could not, try as he might, analyse his own 
sensations. Mercia had produced in his mind a novel 
sense of tenderness towards mankind in general that 
might have embraced even Tigellinus himself, had not 
the Councillor attacked Mercia. That he could not en- 
dure. Mercia! how he longed to follow her. Why 
had he not done so ? What folly on his part was this 
to send Yiturius with her. Why had he not gone him 
self? True, she had firmly refused his proffered escort, 
but that was before he had saved her from Tigellinus. 
She would surely not have rejected his offer again. 
Whither had she gone ? Even that he did not know, 
and must await the return of Viturius ere he could 
learn. 

He summoned a slave and inquired if Yiturius had 

85 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

yet arrived. No, of course not; there was not yet 
time. Impatiently he paced the marble floor of his 
room. It was now night, and Rome was flooded with 
the soft light of the early moon. He went to the case 
ment and gazed over tin city towards the quarter 
whither he supposed Men ia was gone. How w r as he 
to 866 her again? She had given him no encourage 
ment to attempt to find her. She had repulsed his 
every advance, and yet, ho was sure, not because he 
had made no impression upn her, or that the impres 
sion, if made, was a disagreeable one. That ho knew 
from her eyes, however her words and actions could be 
construed. Again he upbraided himself for his folly 
in not Accompanying her. And Tigcllinus? What 
cared he for Tigcllinus . He mi^ht inform Caesar let 
him do so. Ah, but stay, what if Tigellinus used his 
authority to persecute Mercia and her friends? That 
thought struck him with a chill of apprehension. He 
must warn her how? lie did not know where >he 
was. She did not live at the suspected house by the 
statue of Hercules, that was certain. Where, then, 
did she live? Why did not Viturius return? Surely 
he might have traversed the city twice by tlii.s time. 
How was he to warn her? Not by a message. He, 
the guardian of the law, to warn the transgressors of 
the law, and so a-- i-t th-ir escape That could not be. 
Yet that pure, sweet #irl mu-t not fall into the hands 
of a brutal Ti^cllinus. Ah. h.-r purity what of that? 
How was she to faro with him? He bad no scruple; 
she was to be his. Of course, she would come to him. 
Was he quite sure of that? Something in those clear 

86 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

innocent eyes gave birth to a momentary doubt. How 
lonely the palace seemed how lonely he was ! Why 
had he not arranged some feast for to-night? There 
was not a sound anywhere except the distant hum of 
the city. He would fare forth to some of his friends. 
Whom ? Who was there to interest him ? Berenice ? 
No. Ancaria, his last mistress ? No. How flaunting 
and brazen her image seemed to him now. What, 
in the name of all the gods, was Viturius doing that 
he came not? Striking the gong, again he inter 
rogated the negro slave, who swiftly glided to his 
master s feet, with body bent and eager, watchful 
eyes, ready to die for him whom he worshipped, con 
tent that he should put his foot upon his neck and 
crush his life s breath out of him if it so pleased 
him. 

" Has Yiturius returned ?" 

" No, Excellence !" 

" Send him to me the moment he arrives." 

" Yes, Excellence," and with swiftness the lithe slave 
left him again alone. Alone? Ye gods! how much 
alone. And yet, why ? Was it because he had found, 
and for the time lost his other self his soul s affinity? 
What ! in this Christian girl ? Ah, no ! how could it 
be? 

The black slave noiselessly re-entered, and, with his 
low, salaam, announced 

"Yiturius, Excellence." And vanished from the 
room as Yiturius entered. 

"At last!" breathed Marcus. "Well, my Yiturius, 
what news ?" 

87 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"I accompanied Mercia and the boy to her home, 
but it was some distance, Excellence; near to the 
Palatine." 

" She is safe ?" 

"At present, Excellence, but she is closely watched. 
The spy, Servilius, must have followed us, for I saw 
him near her house as I returned." 

"Serviiius? Is that the man who was with Tigel- 
linus?" 

" Yes, Excellence." 

"Then Tigellinus means mischief, that is sure. Who 
lives with her? Didst thou learn ? 

" Yes, Excellence ; no one but a freedwoman, who 
is her servant and only companion." 

" I must warn her of her danger. If Tigellinus can, 
he will at once arrest her. I will go to her." 

" Excellence, forgive thy servant but is that wise 
or safe ? Thou knowcst the jealousy of Tigellinus ; if 
he dared, he would disgrace thee in the eyes of Ctesar, 
for his own advancement." 

" That I know full well, my Viturius, but I match 
my wits against his. Meantime, keep your guard ever 

at hand. By some means I will reach this girl at 

once. Follow mo at a safe distance, but bo within call. 
Choose your best men; at any moment th.-y maybe 
required, and swords must be ready and arms strong. 
Go! lose no time." 

" I go, Excellence." And the fine soldier, who knew 
no will but his officer s, was gone. 

Marcus persuaded himself that the safety of Mercia 
and her friends was his first tliou -!,r. !>ut ab.vi- that 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

was the longing and yearning to look upon her sweet 
face again. 

The house of Favius was simple and plain even to 
barrenness. It was but a rude hut of wood and rubble, 
with a slight foundation of brick, and consisted only of 
two small rooms. The living room had in it but one 
rough deal table, two stools, and a small trunk, which 
held some books and writings. The other room con 
tained a small pallet bed couch and his few household 
necessaries. 

After the attack upon the aged Christian he had re 
turned home, where the Galilean fisherman awaited 
him. It was now the ninth hour, and Stephanus, hav 
ing accompanied Mercia to her home, had returned to 
Favius, to whom he acted in the capacity of mes 
senger. 

The room was dimly lit by an oil lamp, placed upon 
the table by which Favius was seated. Titus stood 
behind it. Both were deeply interested in the answers 
which the boy, Stephanus, who was on his knees by the 
side of Favius, was making to their questions. 

"And Marcus ordered his soldiers to accompany 
thee ?" said Favius. 

"Yes," answered Stephanus. 

"He had speech with Mercia?" 

" But a few words." 

" What thou hast already told us ?" 

"Yes." 

" You did not again see either Tigellinus or the spy ?" 

"No." 

" Stephanus, thou art but a child, but thou knowest 

8 9 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

evil from good," said Favius. gently stroking the boy s 
curls. 

" Yes, my father," answered Stephanus, looking up 
at his teacher with loving reverence and trust. 

"And thou lovest Men-ia." 

" I do love Mercia," answered Stophanus earnestly. 

" She is in deadly peril, Stephanus !" At these words 
the boy started. "This Marcus seeks her" Favius 
hesitated the boy would not understand Mcrcia s 
peril, and ho said, " destruction. He is bold, unscru 
pulous, and powerful. As yet he knows not that 
Mercia is ft Christian, but she is suspected. Thou hast 
been seen in her company ; it may be that thou wilt bo 
arrested. They will think that thou, being young, 
mayst be induced to betray us and Mercia." 

" I betray theo and Mercia ? Never, father !" said 
Stephanus, with glowing earnestness. 

" Thou dost know what the Saviour did for thee ?" 
gravely asked the reverend man. 

" Ho died for me." And the boy s face shone with a 
spiritual fire. 

Here Titus said, with tender impressiveness 

"And if thou betrayest the smallest of Hi- children, 
thou betrayest Him." Titus was bending over the 
tahle watching the hoy s faee intently. 

" I know it," said tho child. 

"So that tln.u wilt he faithful?" asked Titus. 

"Unto death!" firmly replied Stephanus. hi- hands 
emssed over his hiva-t and his eyes uplifted. 

Patting the boy - head atl eet ionntely. Kavius rose 
and, loading Stephanus to tho door, said 

90 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

" Now speed thee to our brother, Melos. Tell him 
the brethren are gathering at the Grove next the 
Cestian Bridge, at the tenth hour, and we require his 
presence. Be faithful and vigilant, my son. Keep to 
the byways ; see that thou art not followed or watched. 
Go ; and may the Spirit of Him we serve be with thee 
now and for ever !" 

"Amen, my father," solemnly answered the boy. 

Stealing to the door and looking warily out, he 
swiftly and cautiously ran up the street, while Favius 
watched him for a moment, and then closed and care 
fully bolted the door, saying as he did so, with a tender 
smile upon his face, 

" A brave child, and faithful." 

" But still a child," said Titus, with a warning accent 
in his tone. " Why choose a child for such an er 
rand ?" 

" Because he is less likely to be suspected and fol 
lowed. Until he was seen with Mercia, none have met 
him with the brethren." 

" Now that he has been seen, take my counsel, 
brother, and choose another messenger," said Titus. 

" After to-night I will," replied Favius. 

At this moment three peculiar knocks were heard 
upon the door, and Mercia s voice was heard calling 

"Father! Open, open quickly!" 

Hurriedly opening the door, Favius admitted Mercia. 
She was excited and trembling. Her drapery partly 
concealed her face. This she removed as she spoke, 
letting it fall upon the table. 

" What is it, daughter ?" asked Favius. 

91 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" I have been followed, father," said Mercia, sinking 
into a seat bi->i<K- tho table. 

" Followed ? By whom ?" 

" I know not. As I left my house I saw a man with 
his mantle over his face start up from behind a pillar. 
I tried to elude him by turning back, but could not. I 
hid in a doorway and he passed me. When he was 
out of sight I ran on here." Mercia was pale and 
breathless. 

" He did not see thee enter here ?" anxiously asked 
Favius. 

" I think not." 

Faviu.s turned to Titus, who had been eagerly listen 
ing to Mercia s story, and said, in his rich, deep, mourn- 
ful tones, 

" Thou seest, Titus, how the brethren fare in Rome. 
Hunted like beasts neither age nor sex is regarded. 
At his last Carnival in the Amphitheatre, Nero threw 
young maidens into the arena, where hungry tigers 
leapt out upon them and lapped up their blood ; and 
they died glorifying the Shepherd. The aged brethren 
he ordered to fight with his trained gladiators, and 
when they threw down their weapons and refused to 
defend themselves, Nero commanded tin- gladiators to 
shy them ; and they died praying for their persecutors. 
Others who would not abjure the Saviour he coated 
with pitch and set up on hi^h jnlr< ami bunu-d as 
torches to light up his infamous orgies; and, as they 
burned, they sanij tin sum: of the Redeemer. Were 
they not faithful unto Him T And the face of Favius 
was all aglow with religious ecstasy. 

9 2 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

Titus replied with kindred fervency, " Yea, brother, 
even as thou art, and thou wilt be, my daughter, when 
thy time comes. So, in the blood of the saints, the 
message shall be written to the whole of the earth, and 
to the millions yet unborn the glad tidings shall be 
given that He died that they might live." 

His words were barely uttered when a loud knocking 
was heard at the door. The impatient summons bore 
no resemblance to the signal in use among the brethren. 
This must be a stranger. While Favius went to the 
door and asked, "Who knocks?" Mercia arose and 
stood by Titus in breathless suspense. 

" Open and see," said a voice outside. It was the 
weak and quavering tone of an aged man. 

" What want ye ?" asked Favius. 

" Speech with Favius," was the reply. 

" Do I know thee ?" 

" Open and see." 

" Dost know the voice ?" Titus asked. 

" It reminds me of " Mercia was about to con 
tinue, but the loud knocking began again. 

" Better open the door," said Titus. 

" Yes, but go thou within, Mercia," urged Favius. 

" Yes, father ;" and going to the inner door, which 
Titus held open for her, she left them. Cautiously 
Favius opened the outer door, and an old man, in a 
cloak and hood drawn well over his face, entered, say 
ing as he did so 

Hail, Favius!" 

" Who art thou ?" said Favius, closing the door, but 
leaving it unfastened. 

93 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

The stranger did not answer, but, looking hard at 
Titus, asked 

"Who is that with thee?" 

" A friend," said Favius. 

"Is he of Rome?" asked the man, still carefully 
watching Titus. 

Titus answered for himself and said, "No." 

"May I speak before him?" asked the stranger of 
Favius. 

" Why not ?" 

" May I ?" persisted the man. 

" You may. But who art thou ?" 

" My name is Tyros," said the man with barely per 
ceptible hesitation. "I am a boatman of the Tiber, 
but I wax old apace and my arms grow too feeble for 
my work." 

Favius. pointing to the stool, courteously requested 
the man to be seated, and asked 

" What is thy errand, Tyros?" 

Sitting down, the man gave a slight start, as he 
touched the drapery Mercia had left upon the table ; 
but he continued 

" Thou wert accused to-day of being a Christian." 

" I was," quietly answered Favius. 

"Art thou?" 

Favius paused before replying, and regarded the 
stranger earnestly. Then he said, " What gives thee 
the right to question ?" 

"The wish to serve thee," said his visitor. 

"How canst thou serve me?" noting the apparent 
poverty of the man. 

94 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

" It may seem strange to thee, but I know men who 
have influence with those who sit in high places ; those 
who have the power over life and death. Some there 
be who hate these Christians as men do hate the 
plague." 

"That all men know," sadly acquiesced Favius. 

And the man went on 

"Others there be who care little one way or the 
other, but who must obey, and will obey, blindly those 
who do command them." 

"Well?" 

"And still others who would fain spare, even if 
guilty, those who are misguided, or, in their innocence, 
misled." 

At this the stranger looked towards the door of the 
inner room, as though his words applied to someone 
there. 

" Of what speak you now ?" 

" Of this strange worship, this foreign superstition." 

" Know you of what you speak ?" Favius asked, with 
a grave smile. 

" I know that these Christians worship strange, new 
gods, and work in secret to overthrow the Government 
and effect the downfall of Cassar." 

" I have heard no such tales, sir," sternly answered 
Favius. " It has been told me that they worship but 
one God, and Him the Everlasting. That they seek 
the downfall of no man, even be he such a thing of evil 
as Nero, the monster whom you call your king ; whose 
mouth is full of bitterness and curses, whose feet are 
swift to shed blood, under whose reign Rome hath 

95 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

become as a wanton, tilled with lust and drunkenness. 
Woe unto him and unto Koine, for the kingdom of 
heaven is at hand." And the old Christian towered 
above the stranger, prophetic alike in soaring look 
and warning words. But Titus arrested his further 
speech. 

" Brother !" he exclaimed. 

" Thou art bold, old man. That speech, heard by 
other ears than mine, would cost thee thy life, and the 
lives of all who consort with thee. Have a care !" said 
the stranger sternly. 

"Thy errand. Tyro-?" eurtly asked Favius, ignoring 
the caution. 

"I come as a friend, to warn thee. Thou art 
watched. Beware of Tigellinus and Licinius, for they 
seek thy life and the life of the maiden whom thou 
dost call Mercia. If thou beest what men do call thee, 
followers of this Christus, for the sake of the maiden, 
cast her from theo. Thou art old, as I am, and thy 
time draws near; she is young, with all youth s young 
blood in her veins. Let her live her little life in happi 
ness." 

"Happiness?" said Favius. " Dost thou know what 
that word means ?" 

Crossing to the door of the inner room, he called, 
"Mercia!" 

"Yes, father!" Mercia called, and the stranger started, 
and looked eagerly in the direction from which the 
sound of Mercia s voice came. 

"Come hither!" 

" Yes, my father." said Mercia. entering the room. 

9 6 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

The stranger surveyed her with undisguised interest, 
and greeted her with 

"Hail, gentle lady!" 

Mercia gazed curiously at the man, but made no 
reply. 

"This stranger desires me to cast thee from me," 
Favius said. 

"Why, my father?" cried Mercia, startled and 
alarmed. 

" That thou mayst live in the world, for the world, as 
others live who know not the truth. Wouldst thou so 
live?" asked Favius. 

" No, my father," was the calm and firm reply. 

" He saith that there is happiness." 

" He knoweth not of what he speaks," said Mercia 
radiantly, advancing towards the stranger. " The king 
dom of heaven is not meat and drink, but righteousness 
and peace and joy." Then, with an arresting gesture, 
she turned to Favius and cried, " Father, this is the 
man who followed me." 

" Why didst thou dog this maiden s footsteps, Tyros 
of Tiber?" asked Favius. 

" He is not Tyros of Tiber, but Marcus Superbus, 
Prefect of Eome," exclaimed Mercia. 

" Marcus the Prefect ?" Favius was startled. " Mar 
cus?" looking anxiously at the cloaked and hooded 
figure. 

" Dost thou deny it ?" quietly asked Mercia. 

The full, deep tones of Marcus answered 

" Maiden, those eyes are as keen as they are beauti 
ful," and with a sweep of his hand the disguise was 
7 97 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

brushed aside, and Marcus stood revealed in the humble 
garments of the stranger. 

Mercia instinctively moved towards her teacher, 
Favius. 

" I should have thought Marcus would have paid 
others to spy for him," said Favius, with indignation. 

" By the gods, old man, and so he might," answered 
Marcus. " But there was someone here he wished to 
see for himself, and would go far and through much to 
behold. Well, Tyros hath no existence, but Marcus 
lives, and would fain befriend tluv. but he holds Casar s 
command to exterminate all Chri-tians, men, women, 
and children. At present there is no evidence against 
thee ; let there be none, for, as Cajsar liveth, I will obey 
him. For thy sweet sake, maiden, I would do much, 
but my duty I must do. So, again, bo warned in time !" 

Before answer could be made, the three signal knocks 
were heard at the outer door, and Favius asked, " Who s 
there?" 

" Melos, thy friend," was the reply. " Haste ; I bring 
bad tidings." 

"Enter, Melos," said Favius, and Melos burst into 
the room, excitedly crying as he did so 

"Liciniuft hath arrested Stephanus." 

"Arrested Stephauus?" cried Mercia in great die- 



" Yes," said Melos, "and - " here he caught sight 
of Marcus, who still wore the cloak in which he had 
disguised himself. " But who is thi> 

"Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome," answered 
Marcus. 



THE ARREST OF STEPHANUS 

"What doth he here?" asked Melos in some amaze 
ment. 

"Let that rest. Who is this Stephanus? The 
boy I saw with thee ?" questioned Marcus of Mer- 
cia. 

" Alas, yes !" answered Mercia, her sweet voice broken 
with tears. 

" When was he arrested ?" Marcus asked of Melos. 

" But now," replied Melos. 

" By Licinius himself?" 

" I I " And Melos hesitated, knowing not 

whether Marcus was a friend or an eneni}\ 

" Speak, and speak quickly," haughtily commanded 
Marcus. 

"Yes." 

" Whither have they taken him ?" 

" To the prison of the district and " 

"Tell me no more," Marcus interrupted; and hur 
riedly turning to Mercia and her friends, he said, " if 
that boy knows aught against thee, fly the city, for he 
will be made to speak by torture. I go to Licinius. I 
cannot prevent him doing his duty I may stay him 
from doing more. Heed my words, and farewell. 
Lady, I am thy servant." And, with a low bow to 
Mercia, he was gone. 

Mercia had watched his every look eagerly, but her 
heart was torn for the boy, and she said 

" Oh, my father, poor Stephanus ! Can we not com 
fort and succour him?" 

" We cannot, but there is One who will," reverently 
replied Favius. 

99 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Would that I could be near him to share his pain." 
said Mercia, with tears in her beautiful eyes. 

"There is other work for thee, my daughter," Favius 
answered kindly. " We cannot stay our march because 
one falleth by the way. Art thou afraid, daughter?" 

There was a look of divine inspiration on the face of 
Mercia, as she replied 

" Nay, my father. That which He callcth upon mo 
to do, I will do, let tin- ta-k be what it may; I have 
set my hand to the plough, and I will not look back." 

"Even though <1 -nth and the grave lie before thee?" 

"Even though death and the grave lie before me." 

"Let us go ben* >ai i I- aviu^ after an instant s 
solemn silence. " We cannot stay the brethren ; they 
are by this time on their several ways to the try sting- 
place by the waters of Tiber. Let us go to them, to 
pray or to suffer with them as He willeth. Though the 
wicked encompass us around, He will bo with us, and 
though wo go down into the depths, He will uplift us." 

And together they started on what was to prove, to 
two at least of this devoted little band, their last 
earthly journey. 



100 



CHAPTER X 

THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

AFTER leaving Favius, Stephanus ran swiftly in the 
direction of the house in which Melos lived. Fast as 
he travelled he did not outstrip the spy, Servilius, who 
had been watching the dwelling-place of Favius, and 
was now pursuing him. Darting into the shadows, 
hiding when Stephanus turned his head, Servilius kept 
the boy well in sight the whole way. As Stephanus 
neared the residence of the employer of Melos, Ser 
vilius saw Melos leave it and meet the boy; they 
stopped by a colonnade of arches, behind which the spy 
crept until he was separated from them by the width 
of a marble column only, and low as was the hurried 
conversation, he overheard it. Stephanus was about 
to tell Melos the place of meeting of the Christians for 
the night, when he caught sight of the evil face of the 
spy peering at him from behind the pillar. Clutching 
the arm of Melos, he stopped speaking and drew him 
away. Together they crossed the street, and Servilius 
sped on to tell Licinius, the sedile of the district, what 
he had seen and heard. Licinius immediately de 
spatched guards in every direction to trace and arrest 
Stephanus. 

Melos had gone to pass the name of the trysting- 
place round among the brethren, while Stephanus 
started to walk to the Cestian Bridge alone. He had 

101 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

not gone far before he was seized by two of the guards 
sent out by Licinius, and by them dragged to tin- 
prison. No answer was made to his questions, no ex 
planation given as to the cause of his arrest. It was 
evidently the intention <>! Licinius to terrify him into 
betraying his associates. To this end he ordered the 
soldiers to chain the boy s wrists together, and thrust 
him into a filthy cell below the level of the river. One 
small torch gave a fitful light to this noisome hole; the 
floor was dank and green with ooze, and the boy s bare 
feet slipped over it \vhenevrr he attempted to move. 
The place was empty ; he could not lie down upon the 
slimy stones, and it was too small to walk about in. 
Fungi of fantastic shapes formed blotches on the walls, 
and the place smelt like the foul and gruesome vault 
that it was. 

Licinius had despatched an urgent message to Tigel- 
linus, telling him how he had arrested Stephanus, who 
could give valuable information concerning the Chris 
tians Marcus had protected that day, and begging him 
to be present at the examination of the prisoner. 
While he waited for the answer, the poor boy was left 
shivering in his cell, a prey to anxiety and fear. 
Although he had not been told, he readily guessed the 
nature of the elianf thai would be made against him. 
His associations with the Christians ha<l IK-CM discov 
ered, and ho felt that no mercy would bo shown him 
on the score of his youth. What hi* fate would bo he 
divined and shu l<lt -red at. How many of his friends 
had disappeared suddenly, never to be seen again save 
in the arena, or at one of Nero s revolting ua>ls! All 

102 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

the stories he had heard of the horrible deaths by 
burning, by the wild beasts, and by gladiators, came 
back to him with a vividness that made him tremble. 
He could have screamed aloud, but he remembered the 
words of the revered Favius, " Thou wilt be faithful, my 
son?" and his own promise, " Unto death, my father !" 

" Unto death !" Yea, death was a terrible thing ; 
and this foul dungeon ; if he were not slain, would 
they keep him there always ? Would not death be 
preferable ? " Unto death !" Had he not been taught 
that death was but a stepping-stone to life? Had 
not He died that all might live ? Yes ! He would be 
brave and endure for His sake. Still, he was but a 
child, and his heart sank with terror, and his body trem 
bled at the thought of what he was about to suffer. 

Eager to find some excuse for undermining the 
friendship, if such it could be called, of Nero for Mar 
cus, Tigeliinus had at once yielded to the request of 
Licinius that he should be present at the examination 
of Stephanus, and, accompanied by his guards, he 
hastened to the prison where the frightened little cap 
tive lay. 

This Licinius was a plebeian sedile. His office car 
ried with it curiously varied duties. The adiles had 
the care of the public buildings, the temples, theatres, 
baths, aqueducts, roads, and sewers. They inspected 
the markets and the provisions exposed for sale there. 
They broke unjust weights and measures, limited the 
expense of funerals, fixed rates of interest with the 
money-lenders, banished men and women of bad char 
acter, after trial, and were empowered to take precau- 

103 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

tions against any new gods or religious ceremonies 
being introduced. To them, therefore, fell the task of 
watching and detecting the Christians. According to 
the statutes, the aediles had no power to arrest save ty 
the order of the Prefects or Consuls ; but in the case 
of the Christians, so hated and loathed were they, tfa* 
laws were often contravened and defied, to enable 
wholesale arrests to be made. 

This particular axlile, Licinius, was a remorseless, 
bloodthirsty, and ambitious man, who sought to gain 
promotion by an excess of vigilance in persecuting 
the unhappy Christians, hoping, by so doing, to curry 
favour with those who had the power to advance him. 
He was but a tool in the hands of Tigellinus, from 
whose influence he expected much. 

It was into the power of this man that poor little 
Stephanus had fallen ; he had, indeed, cause to tremble 
and be afraid. In a room above him were Tigellinus 
and the adile, questioning the spy, Servilius. The two 
officers, richly dressed, grim, grizzled, fierce, and re 
lentless, were seated at a table; the spy cringing and 
fawning at their feet; the guards, heavily armed, at 
the doors, silent and immovable as statues. The room 
was ill-lit by a lamp which threw distorted and mon 
strous shadows crawling up the Avails and on to the 
ceiling and back again, as the lamp flared up or flick 
ered down. The voices of the officers were subdued, 
but firm and au tl.) rit ative, as they put question after 
question to the spy, who paused for a moment, to be 
sharply ordered by TiiHlinus t<> u < to n ! " 

U I followed him until he met one Melos. I heard 
104 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

him say, The brethren meet at then he saw me 

and ceased at once. I came on here to inform the 
sedile," said Servilius. 

"Hast thou yet seen him?" asked Tigellinus of 
Licinius. 

" No," was the reply. 

" Bring him before us," ordered Tigellinus, and the 
guards left the room. 

"We must terrify the boy into confession. This 
girl, Mercia, may be useful to us, can we but get her 
into our hands," said Tigellinus. 

The guards returned, dragging with them Stephanus, 
who was pale, but who still had a look of determination 
on his young face. At his heels followed a jailer, a 
big, burly brute of a man, with a bushy, black beard, 
who held a whip of several knotted cords in his hand. 
The guards roughly thrust Stephanus into the room. 
Tigellinus furtively peered at him for a moment before 
he asked 

"Thy name, boy?" 

" Stephanus," he answered. 

" Art thou a Christian ?" 

Stephanus hesitated a moment ; to confess this was 
death. He replied, " I serve my Master." 

"Where dwelleth he?" asked Tigellinus. 

"By the right hand of the Father." replied the 
trembling boy. 

"Answer directly, you cub of darkness!" said 
Licinius. " Cease this jargon, or the jailer s whip 
shall let it out with thy blood. Art thou a Christian ? 
Answer !" 

105 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"1 have answered," murmured Stephanu-. 

"Answer again," ticnvly -aid Tigcllinus. -An thou 
a worshipper of the strange god, Anakoitos?" 

The boys lip- quivered. These two -trance, mnvi- 
JMfl men wen- iratehing hi- every movement! they, the 
guards, the jailer, were nil so li_r and -tron^. and IK- so 
small and weak! He looked round, as though -earch- 
inu r !T -<>m<- >f escape. Hi* utter helpless 

WAS BO evident that he felt nothing that he could either 
do or say could save him, and a great lump anc in his 
lima! and pivvriited him answering Ti^ellinus, who 
reju-ati d his question with redoubled -irrnne>-. 

"Dost thou hear mo, boy? Art tlmu a follower of 
this strange god, Anakii 

Then his teaching came to his aid, and he replied. 
almost joyfully, 

"No! I worship the living God; DO brazen image 
of any kind 1 " 

Half rising, with a hideous scowl upon his forbid 
ding face, Licinius demaii 

"Are you a follower of this Nazarene this Chris 
tian? Answer, you -pawn of evil!" 

Strphanus trembled, but was silent. Licinius gave 
the jailer a sign, and h- rai.-ed his whip, and the cruel 
thongs drcrnded upon the boy s thinly-clad slum! : 
and twined themselves around his arm- and breast like 
snakes of tire, .-atim; their way into hi- nY-h. The boy 
gave a muffled cry like that of some wounded animal 
but no other sound passed hi- bli.odless lips. 

"Answer!" again roai ins. Follow you this 

Christus 

1 06 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

The pain was horrible, but the child set his teeth to 
bear it unflinchingly, and answered 

" I will not deny my Master ; I do." 

" Ah !" grunted Licinius, with a grin of satisfaction. 

Now Tigellinus took up the examination. " This man 
beard thee tell Melos that the brethren meet to-night. 
Who are the brethren ?" 

" That I will not tell." 

" Where is the place of meeting ?" 

" I will not say." 

" Thou dost know it ?" 

" I do know it." 

" Then tell it," interposed Licinius. 

" I will not tell it." 

"Let him taste that whip once more," cried Licinius. 

Again the jailer lashed the poor boy, who fell to the 
ground with a stifled cry of pain. 

" Thou shalt answer, or I will slay thee." 

Faintly the boy replied 

" Thou canst slay my body ; thou canst not kill my 
soul." 

" Answer, and save thyself further pain," said Tigel 
linus. 

" He who suffered for me will help me," moaned the 
boy. 

" The calmness of these fanatics passes my under 
standing," muttered Tigellinus. " Put him to the rack 
that will shake his calmness," said Licinius. " Stay 
once more, boy give us the names of the brethren 
and their place of meeting, and we may pardon thee," 
urged Tigellinus. 

107 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Thou mayst pardon mo, but not my conscience." 

" Thou dost refuse, then ?" asked Licinius. 

"I do," firmly answered the trembling child. 

"Enough. Put him to the rack," commanded Li 
cinius. 

u The rack!" What was that? Stephanus had 
heard vaguely of this torture, but nothing distinct or 
clear. Poor little fellow ! he was to learn all too soon. 
Hi- \V:IN drained into an adjoining apartment, followed 
by Tigellinus, Licinius. an<l Servilius. The floor and 
walls wore of stone. Hun^ round it were strange in 
strument- of uniiMial -hape-v There was an iron vice 
in the shape of a boot, worked with a screw, which, 
when the victim s foot had been placed within it, was 
contracted, crushing it to a pulp, if he refused to confess. 
There, a huge wheel on an axle, which could be turned 
swiftly when the person to be tortured had been bound 
to the wheel, and he would be whirled round and round 
until unconsciousness or death came to relieve his 
agony. There was a brazier for heating pincers white 
hot to tear the flesh in pieces from the body ; and, in 
the centre of the room, was a structure like a rough 
hobby-horse, made of two stout beams of wood ; this 
was called by the Romans, Erjunh-n-.. StephanuswtS 
set astride this and forced on his back; his arms and 
logs were bound at the wrists and ankles with strong 
cords, called tidicula-. and these were connected with 
pulleys and wiudla-s,--.. which, when turned, tightened 
the cords and wrenched apart the victim s joints and 
muscles until either he confessed or died. 

While these preparation- wnv heing made, Tigellinus 
1 08 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

and his subordinate, from a corner of the room, looked 
on, with no more concern for the suffering they were 
about to inflict than they would have felt over the 
piecing together of a bit of machinery. 

" If we could but drag Marcus into this," Tigellinus 
whispered. 

" Nero will believe no evil of his paragon," said Li- 
cinius, with a bitter sneer. 

" Excite his fears, he will believe anything," was the 
reply. " He starts at shadows shudders at the fall of 
a leaf. Each bush to him hides an assassin, poison 
lurks in every dish, the very air to him is peopled 
with the ghosts of those he hath slaughtered. He dare 
not go on, yet dare not stay. Once rouse his fears " 

"Well?" 

"Now, Marcus, I verily believe, doth love this girl 
Mercia. If that is so, we must arrest her. Marcus 
temper will bear no opposing will, not even that of 
Nero. He will go to any length run any risk to set 
her free again. What more simple than to urge him 
on to some act of folly or disobedience that will bring 
him into disgrace with Nero ? But see, they are ready," 
he interrupted, making towards the rack, where the 
prisoner lay bound. 

Bending over him, Tigellinus said 

" Now, boy, answer our questions, and save thyself. 
Eefuse again and the jailers shall force those cranks 
and rend thee limb from limb. Wilt answer?" 

Terror assailed the heart of Stephanus, but he fought 
it back, and stoutly answered 

"No." 

109 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Tigellinus signalled to the jailers. They gave two 
sudden and sharp turn- t.. the windlasses. This tight 
ened up the cords \\liid. IH.IIH.I ih. wrists and ankles 
of Stephanus, and the mu>des of his limb-* 
stretched and lacerated under horrible tension. The 
beams were opened, and tin- body of the boy hung sus 
pended by tin- conU. The agony was unendurable, 
and fortvd ibmi tin- child a piercing shriek which should 
have penetrated the most hardened heart; it did not 
touch these men. Great head-* of jer>j.irati<>n covered 
the body and face of Stephanie ; the veins of his lore- 
head stood out like whijici.nl. ami hi> teeth chattered 
and rattled together. Serviliu> I.M.Ued on with a smile 
that distorted hi- face like tlu- >narl of a wolf. 

" Wilt answer now ?" fiercely demanded Licinius. 

"I cannot bear it! Mercy! Mercy!" screamed 
Stephanus, who had scarcely heard the question. 

"Answer, then!" said Tigellinus. 

" I dare not !" moaned the tortured boy. 

"Again," said Licinius, with a motion of his hand to 
the jailers. And again the cruel rack wa- turned until 
the sinews and muscles of arms and legs were torn, 
and, with another appalling OT6MH, the child swooned. 

Bending over him, Tigellinus, in a hard, callon> tone, 
said 

He hath fainted. Helea>e him." 

Quickly the jailors unbound the boy. and, after dash 
ing some water in hi- foe, followed Tigellinus and 
Licinius into the other room, hearing the >e useless body 
of Stephanus between them. Placing it upon the floor, 
they re tire. 1. 

110 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

Licinius, kneeling on one knee, lifted the boy s bead 
and felt bis beart. Turning to tbe jailers, he said 
coldly 

" Some wine." 

As be poured some of the liquid down the throat of 
Stepbanus, Tigellinus took tbe lamp and quietly waited 
for signs of returning consciousness. A slight shiver 
of the body, a movement of the head, and a low moan 
convinced him that the swoon was passing, and be said 
coldly 

" He recovers." 

"Spare me, oh, spare me!" gasped Stephanus 
wildly. 

"Answer, then." 

Faintly and mechanically the boy s lips moved, and 
he gasped out 

" Tbe Grove." 

"Where?" 

" By the Cestian Bridge." 

"Tbe hour?" 

" Ten." And Stephanus sank to the floor. 

" Ah, my Tigellinus, we have them we have them !" 
cried Licinius in triumph. And of Stephanus he 
asked 

" Their names ?" 

" I cannot," moaned Stephanus. 

" You shall !" 

But Stephanus, despite his agony, remembered his 
promise, and cried passionately 

" I will not ! Kill me kill me !" 

" Ah, no ! the dead speak not. We want thy answers, 
III 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

and we will have thorn. The names of those Chris 
tians. gi\v them to us," said Licinius. 

"I will not," replied Stephanus, moaning with pain. 

Furious at what he considered more obstimu v. 
Licinius ordered tho jailers to put him again <n tin- 
rack ; but ere they could carry out their orders, a quirk 
stop echoed along tho stone corridor; the door was 
opened, and .Marm- mteivd the room. 

"Tho rack for this child!" he said indignantly. 
"Shame ! Sot tho boy down 

"Obey mo, nun !" >houted Licinius. 

"Obey nu ." -aid Marcus quietly, but firmly. 

The men he-itatcd. looking from OIK- to tin- other, 
not knowing whom to obey. Tigellinus Bowling at 
Marcus, asked 

"How darest thou presume?" 

" Dare presume?" smiled Marcus scornfully Then. 
turning to the jailers, ho said. Sot that boy down, or, 
as Ca-sar liveth. thou shall take his pi**." 

The men placed Strphanus on tho \\ >r with more 
gentleness than they had hithorto shown. 

"This is treason airain-t ( a-sar. and. a- ( a-sar livoth. 
thou whalt an>wi-r it t<. Caesar!" l uri<>u-dv hi. rd tin- 
Councillor. 

"I will answer it. I have Caesar s orders, and I 
execute them as I think fit." 

"Thou dost not execute them. Mami*. Thou art 
shielding these Chri.-tian-. and thou art a trail 
shouted Licinius. 

Going swiftly to him. and half drawing his sword, 
Marcus said 

112 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

" Kecall that word ! Eecall it, or, sedile or no aedile, 
I will cleave thee from thy head to thy heart. Eecal] 
the word !" 

" Licinius was hasty, he did not mean " interposed 

Tigellimis. 

" I desire not thy apology, but his. Eecall that word 
traitor !" repeated Marcus. 

Tigellinus whispered aside to the sedile, "AYe shall 
let them slip. Give way." 

"I was too hasty I regret " sulkily said Li 
cinius. 

With a contemptuous wave of his hand, Marcus dis 
missed both officers. Enraged as they both were, 
they could not but yield to Marcus. He was the 
Prefect, and held Caesar s mandate for the suppression 
of this new sect ; and they could not dictate to him 
as to the manner in which that work should be done. 
Tigellinus plucked the snarling aedile by the sleeve, and 
said 

" Come, Licinius, we have other work to do. Cap 
tain, get thy men and follow me," he called to that offi 
cer. " Jailer, see to the boy. Come, come, we shall be 
late !" and he hurried the aedile away. 

Marcus, meantime, had gone quickly to the fainting 
Stephanus, and, with great gentleness, lifted his head 
from the ground. Turning to the jailer, he asked 

" Is that wine there ?" 

" Yes, Prefect." 

" Give it to me. Have they had him on the rack ?" 

"Yes, Prefect." 

" The cowards ! The wolves !" said Marcus. Then, 

* 113 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

with infinite tenderness, he turned to Stephanas, and, 
offering him the wine, said 

" Come, boy, come ; take this." 

" Oh, the pain, tlu> pain !" moaned the child. 

" Ah, yes, I know, I know 1" said Marcus, with gentle 
sympathy. " But drink this twill revive thee." 

"Nay, let me die! Kill me, in mercy, kill mo! I 
have betrayed them," sobbed Stephanus. 

" What mean you ? wonderingly asked Marcus. 

"It was not my heart, but my tongue that spoke. I 
told them where the brethren meet to-night." 

" Who are the brethren ?" 

" I dare not tell but if you would save Mercia " 

"Mercia!" Marcus started in surprise and alarm. 
Could she be in danger? She, whom he had but now 
loft with a warning to OUCHpri f Quickly and anxiously 
he asked 

" Mercia ! What of her ?" 

"She will be there." 

" Where ?" 

" In the Grove by the Cestian Bridge." 

"Didst thou tell this to Tigellinus?" 

" Not the names, but the meeting-place." 

These two then did know, and had probably gone 
thither to arrest her ! 

" And Mercia is to be there ?" he asked. 

" Yes. Kill me, but save her ! She is an angel. 
Save her, and let me die ! Save her I" Stephanus 
sobbed wildly. 

Instantly all the soldier was alert in Marcus, and, in 
ringing, commanding tones, he summoned Viturius 

114 



THE TORTURING OF STEPHANUS 

" Meet me with thy men in the Cestian Grove. There 
is a gathering there of Christians, and amongst them 
is the girl Mercia," and his voice trembled a little as he 
spoke the beloved name. " We must save her from 
Tigellinus, even though we anger Nero himself. Haste, 
Yiturius, haste!" 

As Viturius left the room, Marcus lifted the boy 
gently in his arms, and, bearing him to the door 
said 

" My poor child ! Come." 

" But the boy, Prefect ?" asked the jailer, remember 
ing the order of Tigellinus that he was to look to him. 

"Leave him to me; I will be answerable for him," 
said Marcus sternly. " Come, my boy." 

And, as he went, Stephanus continued to sob, " Kill 
me ! I am not fit to live ! Kill me kill me !" 

Great as was his pain of body, the agony of his 
remorse was greater still. He had betrayed his Master 
in betraying His people. But the poor little fellow 
uttered the truth when he said, " It was not my heart, 
but my tongue that spoke." 



CHAPTER XL 

THE DEATH OF FAVIU8 

THE gatherings of the band of Christians, of whom 
Favius was the recognized head, had been held for 
ome time past in a granary in the Palatine, but that 
had been so closely watched <>! late- that it was deter 
mined to nightly change tin- tr\>tinir plaee. As Favius 
had informed Titus, this night they wen- t<> meet in a 
secluded grove near the Cestian Bridge, and hither the 
brethren were making their several ways, in twos and 
threes, to ward off suspicion. 

Having much matter to discuss, Favius and Titus 
went together, leaving Mercia to the care of Mt !-. 
These two had seen but little of each other of late. 
Melos was too manly to obtrude him-elf upon Mercia 
after her rejection of him; ho fell that it pained her 
to meet him, and he loved the gentle girl to., well to 
cause her needlessly one heart-pang. Hut it was with 
a secret joy that ho obeyed the commands of Favius 
to accompany Mercia to the place of meeting, and, aa 
they walked along, he discoursed of Stephanus arrest, 
the doings and dangers of the brethren indeed, upon 
almost any subject likely to interest Mercia, save that 
only whi h was nran-t to his heart his deep and 
abiding pa. ion for her; but she was silent and absent- 
mind, -d. At liiM he wa> inelined to attribute tl. 
her grid for Stephanus, but. although it wa.- evident 

116 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

that her tender soul was touched by the boy s arrest, 
the quick intuition of love told Melos that there was 
another and a deeper cause for Mercia s abstraction. 
Several times he spoke to her, and she heeded him not. 
Their way from the house of Favius in the Palatine lay 
through some narrow, winding streets, which led to the 
bridge ; across that into the Grove, which grew more 
dense as they approached the meeting-place. The time 
was early autumn, but the day had been hot, and the 
evening was a beautiful reflex of summer. The moon 
was full, and a soft haze, which arose from the river 
and the marshes, seemed only to add to the loveliness 
of the sky. 

The city was quiet, save for an occasional distant 
trumpet-call or strain of music from lutes and pipes, or 
when some burst of noisy laughter broke upon the still 
ness of the air. Almost in silence Mercia and Melos 
walked to the bridge which spanned the Tiber. As 
they neared the centre of it, a wailing trumpet-call, 
rather longer than the others, broke upon their ears, 
and Mercia stopped suddenly and looked back over 
the city. 

" What was that ?" she asked. 

" The calling together of some of the guards for the 
night," answered Melos. 

Mercia s hand clutched nervously at the bosom of her 
dress, and she said 

" It sounded like a summons to the grave !" 

Melos started, struck more by her manner than her 
words; it seemed almost prophetic. A chill had fallen 
upon his heart, too, but he knew not why. After a time 

117 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

ho gently touched Mercia s arm ; she was standing quite 
Btill, looking back over the city, lost to all her >ur- 
roundings. As she felt tin- pressure of Melos hand she 
gave a little sigh. ami. turning to him, said 

"Pardon me, dear Melos. I am not myself to-night. 
1 was thinking of " 

u What, my sistor?" 

For answer Mercia blushed, and, in an instant, Melos 
knew her thoughts were of Marcus. Ah ! it was as if 
a knife had entered his heart. Thin was to be the end 
of all his hopes, Mercia s love for another. Now he 
knew, and Morcia felt that he knew. Her eyes fell 
before his; he stood looking sadly at her. The old 
Tiber rolled lazily along under their feet; the splash of 
the waters against the buttresses of the bridge and the 
banks could bo plainly heard in the silence, and those 
two, neither able to speak, stood still, while one heart 
fluttered with strange fears, and the other bled in hope 
less agony. A fierce pang of jealous anger swept over 
Melos. The cause of the visit of the disguised Man us 
to Favius was the desire to see Mercia. lie know the 
character of the Prefect. To him Mercia could be but 
the toy of an hour; her sweet innocence might inflame 
hi" pas-inn I m- lli.- moment, but it was not in his nature 
to be constant to a woman. He was without M-ruple, 
and, where women were concerned, without conscience. 
And was all this beauty of face and form, and love 
liness of soul, to be made the sport of this heartless 
patrician? In all the garden the sweetest, tend* rest, 
and most perfect bud had eaui:M ih- rye of the lordly 
Marcus, and .Melos had little doubt now that his follow- 

IIS 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

ing the girl to the house of Favius meant that the 
flower was to be plucked, let the cost be what it might. 
Marcus, he knew, was not the man 

" Who, with the choice of all a garden fair, 
Would choose the past month s rose, withered and bare, 
Leaving unplucked the fairest flower that lived, 
To gather that which death had left to moulder there." 

Oh, wondrous waywardness of love! Surely these 
two seemed pre-ordained to love and wed. He, manly, 
honest, trusting, loving; she, sweet and tender, 
womanly and true. Their religion, their hopes, their 
lives, ran side by side, and yet the poles were not more 
wide apart than Mercia s heart from Melos. 

So ran the thoughts of Melos. And Mercia what 
of her? The look of Melos had told her what she had 
not guessed before : that she loved that reckless, bold, un 
scrupulous patrician, Marcus ; and she felt a deep sense 
of shame and unwomanliness as the thought flashed 
through her mind. It was as though she had done some 
unworthy act, committed some great sin. Love this man 
who, she had been told, was so ignoble, spite of his noble 
birth ! Love this profligate, whose life was a continual 
offence against the teachings of her childhood and girl 
hood ! Love this persecutor of her faith, this friend of 
the Antichrist, Nero, who had murdered her parents 
and her brethren ! Oh, the shame of it the shame of 
it ! She could have covered her face and crept away ; 
but the light touch of the hand of Melos, and his quiet 
voice, warned her to command her feelings, as he gently 
said 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Come, Mercia, wo still have far to go ; we shall be 
late." 

The old river ran to the sea, inevitably, as always it 
had flowed, and would for ever flow ; and the streams 
of these two lives ran on, also, swiftly, silently, but 
surely on and on, fulfilling the will of that Divinity that 
shapes all ends, " rough-hew them how wo will." Mercia 
loved Marcus. How ? Wherefore ? It was to be I 

" Twas so decreed twas part of nature s plan, 

And all in vain we strive her schemes to scan, 

Each soul had met its soul s affinity ; 

She was his woman, made, he, pre-ordained, her man." 

Poor Melos ! Go, eat thine heart out in vain long 
ings : Mercia has passed out of thy sphere, never, hero, 
or in eternity, to re-enter it. He knew Marcus was 
unworthy of her, incapable of appreciating her worth. 
Should he tell her as much ? To what end ? No ; as 
well try to stop old Tiber as the course of love. No; 
he would be silent, and would watch and pray. 

And together these two divided sou la went on to the 
meeting-place, with scarcely another word spoken 
between them. 

In the meantime, Marcus the object of their 
thoughts had borne Stephanus in his arms to hi- 
chariot, and, bidding tho charioteer drive quickly with 
the boy to his palace and see to his wounds, he went 
swiftly in the direction of the place whore he expected 
to find Viturius and his troops awaiting him. 

Viturius was thnv. with horses ready. Leaping 
120 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

into the saddle, Marcus led the way to the Cestian 
Bridge, his horsemen clattering behind him. His 
heart was in a tumult of excitement and dread. Would 
they be in time to save Mercia? Tigellinus would 
make her the first victim, if only in return for the 
slight put upon him in the afternoon, when Marcus 
had protected the girl. No question would be asked 
by Caesar Tigellinus was quite safe. Xero would not 
punish him for slaughtering these wretches, caught in 
the very act of plotting against his sacred life. Oh, the 
horror of the thought, if they should be late ! They 
had still a half-mile or more to go, and Tigellinus had 
started some minutes before. 

"On, men, on!" impatiently called Marcus, and his 
horse started wildly forward at the prick of the spur. 
Along the streets they galloped, Marcus feverishly 
counting the seconds, the strides of his horse, and cal 
culating the distance yet to traverse before he reached 
the grove. 

Suddenly, from a turning to the right of Marcus, 
appeared a cavalcade of chairs and chariots, in which 
were seated a party of patrician ladies and gentlemen. 
So sudden was the meeting, that Marcus had to rein 
his horse back on to his haunches to prevent him 
dashing into the foremost chariot. The occupant gave 
a little scream, and Marcus recognised the Empress 
Poppaea, who, with her party, was returning from a 
banquet given in her honour by one of the Court. 

With a little laugh of relief, Poppaea said 

" Impetuous Marcus ! What love-tryst hast thou to 
keep, that we are to be ridden down in thy haste, as 

121 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

though we were some Christian scum starting another 
fire of Rome ?" 

Marcus inwardly cursed the untoward chance that 
had brought about this encounter, but he had to control 
his anger and impatience, and said 

"Forgive me, Empress; I am indeed in haste, but 
tis no love-tryst I go to keep. I am on a matter of 
lite and deal h. and must needs pivss on without delay. 1 
And he made as if to ride off. But Poppjea was not 
minded yet to part with him. She had been devising 
schemes to meet him. and appoint a time for an inter 
view, but this was not ea-y : hen- was an obviously 
accidental meeting, which could call for no explana 
tion, and she wished to make the most of her opportu 
nity. On the other hand. .Marcus thoughts were with 
Mercia and her danger, and he could not conceal his 
eagerness to be gone. 

"Whose life or death hangs in the balance, most 
noble Marcus?" asked the Empress. 

" Thou couldst not know the name, even if I told it 
to thee, Empress ; I pray thee, give me leave to go." 
Without even waiting for permission, he dug spurs into 
his horse, and, with a wave of his hand, signed for his 
troop to follow him; and away they galloped towards 
the Cestian Bridge. 

I "] :is white with fury. Marcus had dared to 

slight her before these her friends. She must know to 
whom he was hastening, and if, as she suspe- i-d. it 
proved to bo a woman. woe unto her. lor she would 
be revenged ! Thus, all unwittinirlv. M. -rcja had made 
an enemy of the most powerful woman in Rome, for 

122 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

Poppsea never rested until Marcus was tracked, and 
she had discovered that it was to save the life of this 
Christian girl that he had left her after she had ex 
pressly desired him to stay. 

The meeting-place was in a hollow or dell in the 
heart of the Grove. It was most secluded, and could 
not be seen until one was close upon it. Trees and a 
dense undergrowth shielded it from the river, while a 
rise in the ground hid it from the land. The moon 
shone softly through the autumn leaves and branches, 
but shed little light. In the dim shadows a hundred 
and fifty or more men, women, and children had gath 
ered reverent, devout, earnest, and God-fearing. On 
a slight eminence stood the reverend Favius ; a little 
lower down was Titus ; by the side of Favius knelt 
Mercia. In her right hand she held a horn lantern, in 
her left a large cross, made of two branches, broken 
from the trees before the meeting began, and lashed 
together with a leathern thong. It had been hurriedly 
made on the spot, for the emblem of their faith could 
not be carried with them except at the risk of death. 

Melos and other trusty men of the brotherhood had 
been told off to do duty as scouts, to watch and give 
warning at the approach of any strangers or enemies. 

It was a strange and beautiful scene. The band of 
faithful followers of the Carpenter of Nazareth were 
kneeling, facing the aged Favius, in several circles; 
nearest were the children, then the women, and, on the 
outer rings, the men. The moonlight fell in patches 
through the trees, lighting up a face or a form here and 
there, making the shadows still darker by the contrast. 

I2 3 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

All were quietly and MjU-rly attired, and the white 
robes and drapery in which Mercia was wrapped made 
her figure stand out against the background of green 
foliage like the glistening form of some angel of light. 
Softly and reverently all were singing a hymn 

"Shepherd of souls that .-tumble by the way, 
Pilot of vessels stonn-toss d in the night; 
Healer of wounds, for help to Thee we pray, 
Guide Thou our footsteps, send the morning light. 
Heuler of wounds, for help to Thee we pray, 
Guide Thou our footsteps, lead, oh, lead us home. 

All we like sheep have strayed where is the fold 
That shelters all who seek its loving breast? 
There, whore the Cross doth shine like molten gold, 
Emblem of pain, giving eternal rest. 
There, where the Cross doth shine like molten gold, 
Giving eternal rest. Oh, lead us home." 

At the end of the hymn, Mercia arose, raising the 
lantern in her left hand, to enable Favius to read the 
Epistle which he had unrolled, while with her right she 
still grasped the cross. 

Silently, and with eagerness, the little band of wor 
shippers listened to the blessed message which Favius 
delivered : 

"And now, brethren, be faithful. Love them that 
hate you; pray for them that despitefully use you. 
Love one another. Be patient in sorrow; rejoice with 
them that do rejoice ; weep with those that are in grirf. 
If thy enemy l>e hungry, feed him; if he thir-t. give 
him drink. Do unt<> others M ye would they should 

124 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

do unto you. Love thy neighbour as thyself; for to 
teach this came the Eedeemer into the world. And 
may the peace He sendeth be with you now and for 
ever." 

" Amen !" all chanted softly. 

Then spoke Titus, the messenger of Paulus. 

" Brethren, too long have the nations wandered in 
darkness. The dawn is at hand ! But the splendour 
of the morning gold shall be streaked with blood the 
blood of the saints. Yet, though the wicked pursue 
thee, even unto death, why, death is but the gate to life 
eternal. Be patient and endure." 

All too prophetic were his words. The splendour of 
the morning gold was all too soon to be streaked with 
the blood of the saints. The enemy was nearing them ; 
the persecutors were within bow-shot of them. The 
faithful Melos came running down the bank of the dell, 
shouting breathlessly 

" Father ! Favius ! Mercia ! Brethren ! We are 
betrayed !" 

And some faint-hearted among the women screamed 

"Betrayed!" 

" Tigellinus and his soldiers are upon us. Fly ! fly ! 
and save yourselves !" 

Hurriedly the people were about to fly, some in 
terror, some with the natural instinct of self-preserva 
tion. The children were clinging to their mothers 
garments, frightened and helpless; the men were en 
deavouring to calm them and assist the women to 
escape ; but Mercia saw that flight was impossible, 
and, raising the cross on high, she cried 

125 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

u Stay, brethren! By the Cross, I implore you I 

Mort your riKMiiii-N like ( hrisliaus. Be not afraid!" 

Straightway all were calm and reverent once more. 
Sinking down on their knees, they recommenced their 
hymn 

" Shepherd of souls that stumble by the way, 
Pilot of vessels storm-toss d in the night; 
llealer of wounds, for help to Thee we pray, 
Guid<; Thou our in.-; .1 the morning light. 

Healer of wounds, for help to Thee we pray, 
Guide Thou our footsteps, lead, oh, lead us home." 

Down upon these devoted ones dashed Tigellinus, 
Licinius, and their brutal soldiery. Loudly and 
fiercely the leaders urged the men to slaughter. " Kill 
kill kill !" roared the bloodthirsty Licinius. " Spare 
none of the dogs!" shouted his remorseless companion. 
Not a cry came from the Christians. Strong in their 
faith, they sang to their Shepherd, until the cruel 
swonls smotr tin-in <lu\vn. \Vhrii a \\.-man \va- aim-l 
at, a man would step forward and calmly receive the 
thrust; mothers threw themselves upon the swords to 
save their little ones all in vain, they were ruthlessly 
murdered with the rest. The aged and the young alike 
were without fear. There waa no panic now ; all were 
prepared to die for their Blessed Master, and die with 
out a murmur. Husbands and wives embraced each 
other in death ; children, who had been spared for the 
moment, prayc<l Mlently over the bodies of their 
parents. Not one resisted. It was indeed safe sport, 
as the spy, Servilius, said. He was there, and his 

126 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

knife sought, and found, the hearts of the women and 
children, and amongst them the child of the man he 
had seen struck to the earth by the guards that after 
noon, in the street by Dacia s house. It was her only 
child, and the bereaved woman lifted her hands to 
God in passionate entreaty to Him to receive its soul. 

The sedile seized upon Titus, and remorselessly ran 
his sword through his heart, and he fell and died with 
out a groan. Tigellinus rushed at Favius, but Mercia 
threw herself in his way, and entreated him 

" No, no ! Kill me, but spare this aged man !" 

" No ; kill the jade with the rest !" shouted Licinius, 
as he dragged Mercia away from Favius. Tigellinus 
stabbed Favius through the lungs, and he fell on the 
slope, with his face upturned, and his fast-failing eyes 
fixed upon the sky. Licinius foot had slipped as he 
caught Mercia, and, to save himself, he let her go ; but 
her white figure caught the eyes of Tigellinus, and he 
rushed to her. At the same moment the a3dile ran at 
her ; but in an instant their swords were beaten from 
their hands by Marcus, who, snatching Mercia by the 
waist, whirled her out of danger, as he struck the 
weapons from the hands of her would-be murderers. 

" In the name of Ca3sar, hold !" commanded Marcus. 
His men rushed between the soldiers of Tigellinus and 
their victims, and, where they resisted, fiercely fought 
them into obedience. The mad lust for blood was in 
the souls of the two officers, and they were furious at 
the interference of the Prefect. Tigellinus shouted to 
his men to slay them all, but Marcus voice rang out 
like a trumpet 

127 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Drop your swords, in Caesar s name! Whoever 
strikes another blow at these people I swear shall 
suffer death." 

The soldiers know and feared the Prefect ; they 
sheathed their swords, and the slaughter was stayed. 

"Are these miscreants to escape, Prefect?" asked 
Tigellinus. 

" No," said Marcus. " That is my duty ; leave it to 
me. Look to the wounded ; take the rest prisoners. 
Go, all of you," he said to Tigellinus, Licinius, and 
their men ; " I will be answerable to Crosar for these. 
Have no fear ; justice shall be done." 

"See to it," said Tigellinus, "that justice is indeed 
done. These wretch*- \\.-iv ]l<ttiiiLT the death of our 
beloved Nero, and ho will brook no neglect of precau 
tions to save his sacred life. Look to it, Prefect." 

" I will be answerable unto Caesar, as I have said," 
replied Marcus. 

It was useless for Tigellinus to dispute the authority 
of Marcus ; moreover, he was outnumbered, and so he 
called upon his soldiers to fall in and march. He left 
Marcus with his men to look to the living and dying. 
Amongst the latter was the aged Favius. Mercia had 
flown to him, and had lifted his reverend head on to 
her knees, and was wiping the death-dews from his 
face and forehriid. With a heavenly smile he thanked 
her. He could not speak ; his blood was welling into 
his lungs and choking him, but his eyes were speaking 
for his tongue, and they were full of a divine love and 
pity for the child he had cherished so long. With the 
utmost yearning ho gazed upon her, as if to read her 

128 



THE DEATH OF FAVIUS 

future ere he passed into the everlasting life. Long 
he looked upon her as his strength waned. Marcus 
moved towards him as if to help him, and, in so doing, 
attracted the attention of the dying martyr. For a 
moment his face clouded, and his eyes darkened with 
a look of dread. Then he seemed to gaze beyond, 
steadily and earnestly, and when his look again fell 
upon these two, it was with a content and happiness 
beyond all words to express. What had he seen to 
bring his soul such peace ? Had the future opened to 
his clearing vision ? Did he know what it held in store 
for this man and this woman? If he did, the know 
ledge gave him a great joy, for he looked upon them 
both with a perfect peace and happiness, and, seeking 
the hand of Marcus, who was now kneeling by him, 
he gently pressed it. His other hand was holding 
Mercia s, and that, too, felt the last effort of his dying 
strength. Thus, with his eyes fixed to the last on 
Mercia, his face growing more and more peaceful, 
and still more noble and beautiful, the aged saint 
passed through the portals of death to life eternal, to 
receive his reward, and to hear his Master s voice utter 
the joyful greeting : " Well done, thou good and faith 
ful servant ! Enter into thy rest." 



129 



CHAPTER XII. 

THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

THE last moments of Favius affected Marcus 
strangely. There was a grandeur of beauty in his 
death that he did not understand. The ineffable peace, 
the radiant joy, which suffused his face were so strange 
that Marcus wondered. He had been deeply impressed 
by the dignity of the man in life, but in death he was 
grand, even glorious. And it was thus that these 
Christians could die! Ho had looked upon death 
often enough, had seen the dread messenger arrive in 
many guises, but never until now had he appeared as 
a herald of peace and joy. 

Mcrcia was kneeling beside her dead friend, silently 
praying. Marcus gave orders for the decent and 
orderly burial of the dead, and attention to the 
wounded, who were led or carried away with the rest 
of the prisoners. They gave no trouble, these strange 
people : there were no shrieks, cries, nor lamentations 
only passive obedience and patient sorrow. 

When all was arranged, Marcus gently bade Mcrcia 
to go with him ; she was his prisoner. Looking, for 
the last time on earth, upon the face of that dear, true 
friend and guide, Mercia turned, with heavy heart, 
back to the city with her captor. In so short a time 
all who had made her childhood and girlhood bright 
and happy had been taken from her, but she had been 

130 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

taught not to murmur, only to suffer in patience; and 
her prayer was, "Thy will be done!" 

Marcus watched her with an absorbing interest. 
His innate manliness prevented him from intruding 
upon her sorrow, but there was something else that 
made him hold aloof from her. What was it ? The 
same gracious calm that had marked the passing of 
Favius was in her eyes ; the same peaceful resignation, 
and, withal, a wondrous depth of feeling that pro 
foundly stirred his better nature. He felt the might 
of this strange faith, although he knew it not. It 
surrounded Mercia with an atmosphere through which 
he felt he could not penetrate. Marcus was sorely 
troubled. In the presence of this simple girl he felt a 
self-abasement that hurt him with an almost physical 
pain. Why should he feel thus? He had not harmed 
her. On the contrary, he had twice saved her life. 
He had sought at the risk of his own dignity and 
place to warn her and her friends to leave the city and 
save themselves. He could not charge his mind with 
one action that was not for her welfare ; but his 
thoughts what of them? As he looked at Mercia, 
the hot blood surged to his face, and he knew in his 
heart that he desired her above all other women. But 
at such a time was it not brutal to yield to such a feel 
ing ? The girl was so pure, so innocent ; and her deep 
grief, too, alone demanded his respect. But since his 
hand had touched hers for that brief moment when he 
had dragged her out of the reach of Tigellinus, his 
passion had grown to an extent that made him won 
der. It could not be that he loved this Christian, 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

beautiful as she was. The thought was absurd ! And 
3 et, what could it be that he felt, if it was not love? 
So ran his thoughts as In- led Meivia 1 ack tn tin- city. 
He could say nothing to her but the merest common 
places. He felt that in her LTI i 1 -he had some strange 
help and consolation beside which his attempts at 
comfort were eontemptihly inadequate and u- !-- 
So they returned in -ilen< . 

Mercia s grief was not to bo inea-ured ly her words 
or manner. Next to her parents she had loved the 
aged Favius, and her In -art was torn with the sorrow 
of parting from him; but, even in this awful time, her 
thoughts wandered to the man at her side, and she 
silently thanked him for his manly consideration for 
her grief and the gentleness of his manner to the 
dying Favius and the wounded bn-tlnvn. Could thi- 
be the profligate Marcus, of whose evil deeds she had 
heard, and against whose wickedness she had been 
warned? Surely, he could not be the vile thing that 
-he ha l thought him! Tin-re was a nohility alx.ut 
him that she could not fail to understand, all unn-ed 
as she was to the world and to passing judgment on 
mankind. 

Marcus was pondering on what was to be done with 
her. Could ho leave that tender, white creature in 
some wretched cell in the public prison? Ah, no! 
hi- every instinct of manliness revolted airain-t the 
thought. And yet his duty? Hi- duty was to keep 
her and her friends close prisoners until the will of 
Nero should be learned. He had full power to exter 
minate the vermin. and at the word he had heard 

132 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

used so often to describe these strange people, these 
Christians, he almost smiled, it seemed so ludicrously 
inappropriate, but he need not use that power. Still, 
he must not release her. He had passed his word to 
Tigellinus that he would be answerable to Caesar for 
their safe keeping, and he must not break that word. 
His honour was pledged. He would not, however, 
place her in the cells of the common prison. No ; he 
would lodge her in his own palace until he could see 
Nero and induce him to grant her pardon. 

And so it came to pass that Mercia was bestowed in 
a portion of the house of Marcus j but across the court 
yard only were the cells in which her friends were 
confined, and, in the stillness of the night, she could 
hear them chanting their hymns, and in her heart she 
joined in their praises and their prayers. 

The boy, Stephanus, had, by the special orders of 
Marcus, received every attention, and was fast recover 
ing from the effects of the torture he had undergone ; 
but he still suffered intense pain he was feverish, and 
his nerves were terribly shaken. But the elasticity of 
youth was his, and would assist in his recovery. 

After seeing that Mercia was cared and provided for, 
and delivering the rest of the prisoners up to the 
guards, Marcus retired to pace his rooms, through the 
greater part of the night, wondering and pondering 
over the events of the day and his own surprising 
change of feelings. 

Berenice, too, passed a restless night. Her mind was 
full of the gossip she had heard of this Christian girl, 
Mercia. Marcus, she knew only too well, was Dot over- 

133 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

scrupulous where women were concerned, and she was 
too thoroughly imbued with the manners and morality 
of the age in which she lived to trouble herself over his 
intrigues ; so long as his heart was not touched, she 
did not care overmuch. "Men were men," and to look 
for chastity in them was ridiculous. * Indeed, where it 
existed it did not excite respect at least in Rome. On 
the contrary, it was looked upon as a sign of effeminacy 
and weakness. Therefore, the many escapades so freely 
attributed to Marcus scarcely affected her ; but some 
thing in his manner had aroused the suspicion in her 
mind that his feeling for this Christian girl was not 
altogether that which he had entertained for the other 
women with whom he had associated. This troubled 
and vexed Berenice, and she arose from her couch in 
the morning in a temper the reverse of amiable. 

At times Berenice could be shrewish, and on this 
particular occasion she was unusually so, as her ser 
vants and slaves learned to their cost. She had her 
spies and agents, who kept her fully aware of all that 
Marcus did and said, and, in order to appear diligent, 
they often regaled her with reports of many things 
which he had not done, and repeated many things he 
had never even dreamed of saying : they had to earn 
their wages as best they could. 

However, she knew he had gone to the Cestian 
Grove with the object of saving the girl s life, and had 
succeeded in so doing. She had heard, too, of the insult 
to which he had subjected Poppsea ; that was another 
proof of the strength of his regard for the Christian 
girl. She was burning to see him and judge for herself, 

134 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

by his words and manner, how far he was involved 
with Mercia ; but she knew that he was at the Palace 
of Justice, and could not leave, even if she sent for him. 
Still, she sent, and was now anxiously awaiting the re 
turn of her messenger. 

The apartment which served as a boudoir and re 
ception-room for her special friends was exquisitely, 
richly, and most tastefully furnished. Eefinement and 
luxury were evident on all sides. The couches, hang 
ings, cushions, and other appointments were all of the 
most costly materials, and rich in harmony of colour 
and design. 

Berenice herself was a beautiful picture as she lay 
upon one of the couches, studying her face in a small 
steel mirror. Her maid, Zona, had been accentuating 
the delicate curve of her eyebrows. There was but 
little need for the aid of art to improve the beauty of 
her face, but there are few women who can deny them 
selves the delight of trying to elaborate their charms, 
be they ever so abundant, and Berenice was not one of 
the few. Evidently, Zona s handiwork did not give 
Berenice entire satisfaction, for, with a sharpness of 
tone which her slaves had learned to know boded no 
peace to them, she said 

"Give me the pencil, Zona. You are careless this 
morning." 

The girl was on her knees by the couch, and, looking 
up at her mistress, said 

"Nay, lady, I " But her speech was cut short 

by a blow on her face administered with no lack of 
energy by the delicate white hand of her mistress. 

135 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

The slave sank back on the floor and ruefully rubbed 
the stinging cheek, as her mistress said 

" Don t dare to answer me ! This eyebrow is all 
askew. What ails the girl ? Art sick in love or both ?" 

Zona was still engaged with her smarting face, and 
did not reply. Her silence provoked her mistress to 
ask angrily 

"Why do you not speak, fool?" 

" Lady, you bade me not to answer," said Zona. 

This was too obviously the truth for Berenice to gain 
say, and so she changed the subject, and said 

" Well, answer me now. How do I look this morn 
ing?" 

"Kadiantly beautiful, lady!" replied Zona artfully, 
knowing how best to soothe her mistress s feelings. 
" The noble Marcus must love you, or he is but a man 
of stone not one of flesh and blood." 

" Why speak of Marcus ?" said Berenice, longing at 
the same time that the slave should continue to speak 
of him. " There are scores of others who would give 
their lives for me." 

" That they would, indeed, lady," answered the cun 
ning girl. " There s Metullus " 

" Metullus !" pettishly answered her mistress, deftly 
adjusting a straying ringlet. " I despise him he s a 
fool !" 

" He is rich ; and a rich husband who is a fool to 
boot is not a thing to be despised," said the girl senten- 
tiously. " Then, there s Tigellinus." 

" He s a brute !" was the curt summing-up of that 
person s character. 

136 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

" Brutes can be tamed, lady," meekly suggested the 
slave. 

" Ah ! they all weary me to death ! Marcus is worth 
a score of such." And her voice softened as she men 
tioned the name of Marcus. Zona was not less swift 
to catch the passing changes of her mistress s many 
moods than is a weathercock to obey the changes of 
the wind, and, in a gush of not altogether feigned ad 
miration, she exclaimed 

" Indeed he is, lady ! A score ? Nay, a thousand 
such ! He is indeed a god among them all. Would he 
were here now to see how beautiful you look." 

Here was no flattery at least. Berenice did look 
beautiful indeed ; she had no cause to be fretful over 
her appearance. Her dress was of a creamy white 
silk ; her handsome bust was outlined by a massive 
band of many-coloured gems which sparkled in the 
light as her bosom rose and fell ; a belt of the same 
rich character drew the robe together at the waist, 
while the hem of the garment was wrought so closely 
with jewels that the material was entirely hidden. A 
drapery of the most delicate shade of heliotrope 
bordered with gold, and caught at the side with an im 
mense jewelled clasp, seemed to display rather than 
hide the beauties of her magnificent figure. On her 
arms were bracelets of exquisite workmanship ; in her 
hair were entwined gems of the rarest kind, and, as 
she spoke, she tried the effect of a red rose over an 
ear. A gong of silver metal was heard ringing outside, 
and Berenice, with a slight start of expectation, cried, 
" Enter !" 

137 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Another slave-girl one Catia came into the room, 
and, with a low curtsey, awaited permission to speak. 

" Well?" asked her mistress eagerly. 

" The noble Marcus was at the Palace of Justice, but 
he sent word he would attend you the moment the 
causes were tried." 

Berenice sank back on the couch in disappointment. 

" Enough. Go !" she said, dismissing Catia. " When 
the causes are tried ? That may not be for hours ! 
He avoids me purposely. He must love me he 
shall !" And she contemplated the reflection of her 
self in the steel mirror. The contemplation evidently 
gave her pleasure, for she smiled as she softly repeated 
to herself, " Yes, he shall love me !" 

And indeed she had fair cause to think such a con 
summation possible, inevitable even. Her eyes glit 
tered with pleasure as she beheld herself. Yes, she 
was lovely; there could be no doubt of that and 
Marcus should soon be at her feet. He was so used to 
admiration and love that he was careless and thought 
less ; that was all. It was not possible that this Chris 
tian girl was her equal in beauty any more than in 
rank ; and, as she gazed upon herself, a feeling of con 
tempt for the lowly-born rival steadily took possession 
of her. This was unwise in her no woman can afford 
to despise a rival, however humble. Men are strange 
creatures, subject to strange whims and emotions that 
women wot but little of. 

So long did she study herself in the mirror that her 
maid, less absorbed in the subject of her mistress s 
beauty, had stretched herself out upon the tiger s skin 

138 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

beside the couch, and, nestling her pretty face upon the 
beast s head, fell into a doze. A sharp ring upon the 
silver gong startled the slave from her sleep and Bere 
nice from her reflections, and hurriedly and authorita 
tively she exclaimed 

"That may be Marcus! Put those things away 
quick !" 

Zona deftly hid the aids to beauty, and Berenice 
continued 

" Now take thy lute and sing." 

Zona sat by the end of the couch upon the floor, 
took her lute, and struck some chords upon it, while 
Berenice fell back in a tempting attitude upon the 
couch, saying 

" Enter ! Enter !" 

Catia obeyed the summons and entered the room, 
announcing as she did so 

" The lady Dacia." 

"VYith a gesture of angry impatience, Berenice sprang 
from the couch, saying 

"Dacia! There, get up, girl. I thought it was 
Marcus. You need not sing for Dacia." And the 
pretty picture designed for the lordly Marcus was 
broken up, and gladdened not the eyes of the less 
important Dacia. 

That young and feather-brained lady entered with 
a smile, and a whirl that stirred to motion the leaves 
of the plants adorning the room. She was, as ever, 
bewitchingly dressed. Her robe was of pale rose-pink 
silk ; her draperies, broidered with heavy gold fringe, 
were crossed over her bosom with bands of rubies and 

139 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

other precious stones. A string of rubies was en 
twined in her golden hair, and a pale blush rose was 
fastened on either side of her head. She seemed the 
very incarnation of thoughtless, irresponsible gaiety as 
she fluttered round the couch to salute her friend. 

" Ah, my Berenice !" 

"Well, my Dacia," replied Berenice languidly, 
" what brings thee hither ?" 

" Oh," said the butterfly, dropping her fan, " a fit of 
depression." This was accompanied by a smile of 
intense self-content that ill-accorded with her words. 

Berenice, who knew her friend s many weaknesses, 
asked, with but scant interest 

" Have you been gambling and losing again ?" 

"Worse, Berenice, worse!" said Dacia, restlessly 
circling the couch on which Berenice reclined ; " I 
would not mind the losing, but that stupid Philodemus 
tells me he cannot afford to pay my losses." 

"Ask thy husband to do so," suggested Berenice 
quietly. 

" I did ; but he laughed, and told me that if Philo 
demus could not afford to pay my debts, I must find 
another lover who could. That s the disadvantage of 
being frank enough to let your husband know you 
have a lover. As for him, my husband, he was 
sore pressed himself. You know what that means, 
my Berenice. That hook-nosed wife of Yinius is sim 
ply ruining him ! That woman is a perfect vulture ! 
What the men see in her I can never understand. 
Yinius is the fourth husband she s had in two years." 

" The third," lazily corrected Berenice. 
140 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

" Third ? I thought it was four she had had." 

"No; only three," said Berenice, with a slight 
yawn. 

" Well, we cannot be particular to one or two when 
a woman changes her husband as often as she does," 
said Dacia, dropping a plate of grapes upon the floor. 
This habit of dropping things was decidedly growing 
upon the fair Dacia, and the habit boded no good to 
the accommodating, but partly ruined, Philodemus. 
It behoved that complacent person to look to his 
revenues, or submit to pass into the lumber-room of 
Daeia s dropped, broken, and forgotten trifles. 

Berenice, still divided in opinion about a red rose 
or no red rose for her hair, said, as she once more 
tried the effect in the mirror, 

" There are others quite as bad as she." 

" Worse, my Berenice," and the inept Dacia dropped 
a delicate and costly vase, from which Berenice had 
just lifted her rose, upon the mosaic floor, where it 
was shivered into a thousand atoms. Not in the least 
perturbed in spirit, Dacia remarked, gazing at the 
fragments, 

" Oh, pardon me, Berenice ; I am afraid I have 
broken it." 

Indeed she had, but on she rattled, as Berenice 
sighed over her lost treasure, " Now, there s Adrostia. 
How that woman dares to show her face is beyond 
me ! She induced her husband, Helladius, to divorce 
her, that she might marry his friend, Adoncus, and, 
when she had ruined him, divorced him to marry 
Symnus, ruined and divorced him, re-married her 

141 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

first husband, Helladius, and invited all the divorced 
ones to the wedding-supper ! "What do you think of 
that ?" 

Here she began to handle a beautiful gold-mounted 
cup of coloured glass, studded with gems, in her usual 
reckless fashion : this Berenice, quietly but firmly, res 
cued from destruction, by taking it out of Dacia s 
hands and removing it to a place of safety. Not in 
the least abashed, Dacia repeated her question, " What 
do you think of that, Berenice?" 

" That she is a very liberal-minded woman," was 
the answer. " What has become of your friend Am- 
bascus ?" asked Berenice, with slight sarcasm, for this 
Ambascus was another of Dacia s numerous admirers. 

"Oh, don t speak to me of Ambascus!" laughed 
Dacia. 

" Why not speak of him ? I thought he really 
loved you." 

" So he does, the mean-spirited-creature ! But he 
esteems it a disgrace to have a love affair with a mar 
ried woman. Pah ! Such men are only fit for slave- 
girls. That reminds me Marcus " 

" Marcus ? What of Marcus ?" Berenice was at last 
roused into an attitude of interest. 

"Have you not heard?" innocently asked Dacia. 

"Heard what?" 

" About this Christian girl that he is so infatuated 
with ? All Eome is talking of it." 

Berenice felt her cheeks crimson, but she asked, as 
carelessly as she could, " About what ?" 

" Strange that you should not have heard," chattered 
142 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

Dacia. " But there, thank the gods ! lovers and hus 
bands are the last to hear of the pranks their dear ones 
are practising." 

" But what of this Christian girl and Marcus ?" 

" Tigellinus will tell you." 

" I have not seen Tigellinus for two days. What is 
it?" 

" Tigellinus swept down upon a nest of these vipers 
these Christians and would have exterminated 
them, but, so please you, the noble Marcus steps in, 
protects one of the wretched females, and has her taken 
to his palace." 

" What ?" exclaimed Berenice, in amazement. 

" And Tigellinus swears that Nero shall know of it. 
But then all Borne knows the state Nero is in ! More 
over, there s the Empress. Poppaea, she rules the 
Emperor ; and, as she s half in love with Marcus her 
self " 

" But this Christian girl what is her name ?" inter 
rupted Berenice anxiously. 

" Mercia, I think the creature s called." 

"The same!" said Berenice, with much trepida 
tion. 

" What do you mean ?" 

" I ve heard of her before. What is she like ?" Strive 
as she might, Berenice could not quite steady her voice 
as she put this question, but Dacia was at the moment 
too much occupied in admiring herself in her friend s 
mirror to notice her agitation, and she replied care 
lessly 

" The men think her very beautiful. Philodemus tells 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

me Marcus is positively foolish over her. But she, 
forsooth, gives herself virtuous airs, and repulses 
him." 

Berenice felt her heart sink at this evidently scanty 
appreciation of the beauty of the Christian girl, and 
she said with uncontrolled bitterness 

"Ah, these men, these men!" 

To which the fair Dacia replied, somewhat unreason 
ably, but with decided emphasis 

" That s exactly what 1 say." 

The gong in the atrium sounded once more, and Catia 
entered. 

" Well ?" asked her mistress. This might be Marcus ! 
But no, for Catia announced only "Tigellinus and 
Licinius." 

"Ah! Let them enter," said Berenice. At least, 
they could give her the latest news of Marcus and 
Mercia. Throwing herself in a graceful attitude upon 
the couch, she extended her hand to Tigellinus as he 
entered with Licinius, and said 

" Welcome, both. Your names were upon our lips 
but a moment ago." 

" Happy names to be so sweetly placed !" gallantly 
said Tigellinus, kissing her hand. "Would that my 
lips had lingered where my name did lodge that moment 
ago!" 

" Hast thou left grave State affairs to make pretty 
speeches upon ladies lips ?" asked Berenice, with a 
bewitching smile. 

" The causes for the day are tried, and, for the time 
at least, we are free, lady," replied the Councillor. 

144 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

" The causes tried ? Hath the Prefect Marcus left 
the Palace of Justice?" asked Berenice, with an air of 
indifference which did not mislead the astute and cun 
ning men who were keenly watching her. 

" Yes, lady. He left when we did." 

" And that was ?" asked Berenice anxiously. 

li Half an hour ago." was the seemingly careless 
reply. 

t: Oh, indeed ! I thought that he and Berenice 

paused. 

"That he what, lady?" 

"Well, that . Oh, what matters what I 

thought?" said Berenice, assuming a gaiety she was 
far from feeling. " What s the news in Eome to-day ?" 

; That Marcus has a new toy," sneered Tigellinus, 
with much meaning. 

"Indeed? What might that be?" asked Berenice, 
knowing full well what the answer would be. 

" Have you not heard ?" asked the Councillor, with 
assumed surprise. " And the lady Dacia here ! Strange, 
hath she told thee nothing ?" 

Dacia hath told me many things," said Berenice 
carelessly. li To what do you allude T 

" I hardly like to be the harbinger of evil. If thou 
dost not already know, why then " 

" Know what ? Really, my friend, the evil must be 
great indeed if thou dost hesitate to give it tongue. 
Have I to mourn a fortune lost or a companion dead 



"A faithless lover?" cruelly suggested Tigellinus. 
" A faithless lover? Marcus has never been " 



10 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Did I mention Marcus ?" asked her relentless in 
quisitor, with a smile. 

" Of whom else were we speaking ?" said Berenice 
confusedly. 

" Ah, yes, of course ! How foolish of me to speak of 
Marcus ! Let us talk of something else. The topic of 
Marcus and his Christian girl can scarcely interest 
thee, Berenice." And he turned to Dacia. 

" Women are always interested in a love-story," con 
tinued Berenice. 

" And this is a strange one, indeed," interrupted the 
sedile. " Tis said that Marcus, the greatest, richest 
man in Kome, doth madly love and vainly woo some 
Christian girl while Berenice doth pine for him in 
vain." 

This brutal speech had the effect that was desired ; 
it roused the anger of Berenice, and on that and her 
jealousy these two men intended to play. 

" Do they dare say that of me ?" she asked, and her 
eyes flashed like polished steel. Your cleverest and 
strongest woman is the most pliable and ductile weak 
ling if you can but excite her jealousy; there is noth 
ing that she will not believe and accept, provided that 
it is exactly that of which the acceptance will pain and 
wound her most. 

In imagination Berenice pictured the looks, smiles, 
nods, and covert sneers of her many female friends, all, 
as she imagined, busily employed discussing and enjoy 
ing her humiliation. Poor Berenice ! it was hard in 
deed for her to bear. Her pride, her vanity, and worse 
than all, her love, was sorely wounded ; and her dear 

146 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

friend, Dacia, femininely and feverishly anxious to let 
no chance slip of sending the barbed arrow home, 
said 

" Indeed they do, and for thy devotion they now 
laugh at thee." 

Can anything be sweeter than female friendship in 
the ordinary realisation of that charming ideal ! Poor 
Berenice ! It was certainly hard to be compelled to 
believe herself an object of compassion and ridicule. 
She, who had imagined herself the most desired and 
courted of women ! And for whom was she neglected ? 
Not even for one of her own rank, but for a vulgar, 
nameless Christian an associate of the vile scum, that 
had burned down Eome ; who met in secret to perform 
their detestable rites and ceremonies ; whose crimes 
were almost unmentionable. Xo wonder Berenice was 
furious ! 

" Didst thou come here to tell me this ?" she asked 
bitterly of Tigellinus. 

"No, but to serve thee," he answered with an 
assumption of extreme solicitude. 

"How canst thou serve me?" 

" By helping thee to revenge thyself." 

" On this girl, Mercia ?" said Berenice, with the 
utmost contempt for her supposed rival. 

" And on Marcus," suggested the crafty officer. 

" How ?" Berenice asked the question, but her heart 
told her that, angry as she was with Marcus, she could 
not bring herself to harm him. 

" Well, thou knowest that Marcus has full power to 
judge and punish these Christians. He has chosen to 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

spare this girl, Mercia, and keeps her a prisoner iiihis 
own palace." 

" Eepeat this to Nero, not to me," coldly replied 
Berenice. 

Eh ?" 

"Why not?" 

" And Poppsea ?" asked Tigellinus, exchanging a look 
with Licinius that conveyed his fear of the conse 
quences of such an act on his part. " If she should 
learn that I had tried to injure Marcus, the gods be 
with me !" 

" What then do you propose ?" quietly asked Berenice. 

" That you yourself do visit Poppsea ; tell her of 
Marcus infatuation, and induce her to influence Nero 
to send this girl to the lions." 

Angry as Berenice was, impatient as she felt to 
revenge herself for the slight she had suffered, her 
ideas of honour were high enough to teach her that the 
part of informer was a degraded and revolting one, 
and she answered haughtily 

" A contemptible piece of work, that I care not to 
undertake." Here she rose from her couch and walked 
away, as if to imply that she wished to discontinue the 
conversation. 

But Tigellinus would not let the matter rest there ; 
he had come for a purpose that purpose was to use 
Berenice as his cat s-paw to pluck the chestnuts of the 
EmpresVs influence from the Neronian fire ; and he did 
not intend to leave until he had obtained his desire. 
Again he thrust the poniard of ridicule through the 
armour of her self-esteem by saying 

148 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

"Then let Mercia live, and Rome still pity Bere 
nice!" And Tigellinus shrugged his shoulders, and 
walked to the window, as if to enjoy the spectacle of 
Eome s sympathy for Berenice. 

Dacia had no motive, really, in pressing and urging 
Berenice on to bring about the separation of Marcus 
and Mercia, except the essentially feminine one of 
meddling with all love-affairs, home-made or foreign. 

" Berenice," she said, " have more spirit ! I should 
like to see the man who would fling me aside for any 
Christian girl!" 

Berenice was torn with the conflict of love, pride, 
humiliation, anger, and shame, and she asked herself, 
aloud 

"What can I do?" 

And Tigellinus answered, "Revenge thyself for the 

slight put upon thee. This man Marcus " And 

then he wisely stopped, for the man Marcus had 
entered the room, and was quietly enjoying his dis 
comfiture. There was a pause, and an uncomfortable 
one. Dacia was the only unmoved person in the 
room ; she wore her usual placid smile, and munched 
some grapes, which she took from a dish on the table 
near her. The two officers were enraged at the inter 
ruption, and Berenice regretful that she had been dis 
covered discussing Marcus with his enemies, and by 
Marcus himself. 

Marcus looked from one to the other, and asked, 
with some irony, 

" Am I in the way, lady ?" 

Tigellinus answered for her, with a rudeness he 
149 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

would have hesitated to offer Marcus elsewhere than 
in a lady s presence, saying 

" Were you eavesdropping, Prefect ?" 

Marcus controlled himself with some little difficulty ; 
he was too well-bred to create or desire a brawl in 
a lady s chamber, and he contented himself with 
answering 

"No. Were you discussing my character?" Then, 
turning to Berenice, he inquired, " Were Tigellinus and 
Licinius wearying you with my praises, fair Berenice ? 
I know how dearly they love me. Silent still, my 
Licinius ? Hast thou not yet recovered the breath I 
knocked out of thy most precious body in that little 
accident in the Grove ?" 

The Councillor smiled grimly at the recollection of 
that "little accident" to his friend, while the sedile 
scowlingly answered 

" I have breath enough to keep me alive, Excellence." 

" Provided thou dost not encounter anything more 
formidable than a weak boy, or a frail girl, eh ?" asked 
Marcus. 

" The boy and the girl were traitors both. I did but 
my duty," was the surly answer. 

" Duty ? Ah, duty is responsible for strange crimes 
in Eome." Then, turning his back upon the two men, 
he turned to Berenice, who had been a not altogether 
unamused witness of the confusion and annoyance of 
the two officers, and asked again 

"Am I intruding, fair Berenice?" 

"No, indeed, Marcus," quickly answered the lady. 
" Pray thee, stay. I wish to speak with thee." 

150 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

Then, turning to Dacia, she gave that lady a look of 
meaning, and Dacia rose, dropping her fan as she did 
so, and said 

" I was just about to go when you entered, Marcus. 
Will you pardon me, Berenice?" Then, looking for 
Tigellinus and Licinius, she laughed, for they were 
scowling upon Marcus with an intensity that might 
have alarmed a less reckless man than he, and said to 
them 

"Gentlemen, will you accompany me? I think it 
would be well, for, verily, you both look so fierce that 
I should fear for Marcus should he be left alone with 
you." 

With unveiled contempt, Marcus said 

" Pray, have no fear for me, lady. The harm they 
will do me will be in my absence, or when my back is 
turned. It is not the soldier s sword, but the assassin s 
knife that thou or Marcus need fear from a Tigellinus 
or a Licinius." 

The insult was so direct and gross that Tigellinus 
was stung to the quick. Partly drawing his sword, he 
was about to rush upon Marcus, but Berenice inter 
posed, saying with much disgust 

" You forget this is my house. I will have no quar 
relling here. Please go." 

Tigellinus was glaring with rage at Marcus, who 
smiled back with perfect unconcern. Berenice held 
out her hand to the Councillor as a sign of dis 
missal, and he had no choice but to bend over it and 
say 

" Lady, I obey." 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" How glad is he to be obedient," laughed Marcus 
lightly. 

Tigellinus made another threatening movement, but 
Dacia held his arm, and said 

" Come, come, gentlemen ; I am in haste. Do you 
accompany me or no ?" 

With a shrug of his shoulders, Tigellinus turned 
towards the entrance to the room, and there awaited 
Dacia, who was saying to her friend 

" Farewell, dear Berenice." Turning to Marcus, she 
said 

" Take good care of your fair Christian, Prefect, but 
do not let her run you into the danger of Nero s anger. 
A few hours dallying with a pretty girl is but scant 
reward for disgrace and a dungeon. Be prudent, Mar 
cus, be prudent." 

"I will be prudent, lady, most prudent, answered 
Marcus quietly, but inwardly chafing at such mention 
of the lovely Mercia. With a parting smile from Dacia 
and a scowl from Tigellinus, Marcus was left alone with 
Berenice. 

For what purpose she had sent for him he did not 
know ; indeed, he had scarcely troubled to think. His 
thoughts had been elsewhere. In the Palace of Justice 
he had been preoccupied and absent-minded. He scarce 
heard the causes, barely knew who addressed him. 

His thoughts were elsewhere, his soul was perturbed 
and his mind distracted. The death of Favius had 
made a deep impression on him. Not a word had the 
old man uttered ; he had scarcely moved after receiving 
the thrust that so speedily released his spirit, but the 

152 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

unearthly beauty of his face, as his bodily strength 
failed and his spiritual power seemed to grow, caused 
Marcus the greatest wonderment. "Was this the death 
of a plotting politician and would-be regicide ? That 
glory of feature and peace of soul the outcome of a life 
of vile conspiracy and dastard scheming ? No ; it was 
impossible ! There was in him, as in that sweet girl 
Mercia, something apart from life as he knew it as all 
his friends supposed it. What was that something ? 
This thing they called their Faith ? He had almost 
forgotten where he was. 

Meanwhile, his hostess was watching him closely. 
She had sent for him ; he had come. And now, what 
could she say to him? She felt that he had come 
unwillingly, as a mere matter of form and courtesy ; 
his manner and attitude proved that. Why, even 
now he was absent-minded and longing to be gone. 
Her pride chafed under the knowledge, but she con 
trolled herself, and determined that, come what might, 
she would continue to do so. He should not see how 
she suffered. 

Marcus lifted his eyes, to find Berenice watching 
him, and he called back his wandering thoughts, saying 
with an affectation of lightness that did not mislead or 
deceive her 

"You sent for me, lady?" 

Yes, she had sent for him, but need he remind her 
of that ? Would a lover tell his mistress that he had 
come by order ? She noted the coolness of the greet 
ing, and answered 

" I did ; and most unwillingly thou hast come." 

153 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Marcus looked at the beautiful creature before him, 
and some compunction smote him for his callousness. 
After all, she was a grandly noble woman. Woman in 
a very high sense of the word indeed, even if not in 
the highest ; and, as he looked, he remembered so 
many acts of tender though tfulness on her part towards 
himself that he felt something like a little flush of 
shame at the thought of his churlish response, and he 
answered with more warmth 

" Unwillingly ? Nay, Berenice doth not know Bere 
nice." 

Berenice heard, with the quick ear of a woman s 
love, the pretty intention of the speech, and the lack 
of depth in the tone in which it was spoken ; she 
answered the tone rather than the words, saying 

"Nay, Berenice doth need no compliments from 
Marcus." 

It was a compliment and nothing more, and Marcus 
knew it. 

When a young, beautiful, and gifted woman begs 
for something from a man beyond mere compliments, 
what is that man to do? Given the fact that the 
woman is worthy, that she is sincere, that her implied 
or confessed love for a man is honest, the man who 
receives the confession or the implied avowal of these 
sentiments in a woman s breast is in a difficult posi 
tion. How far is he cruel in being kind ? How far is 
he kind in being cruel? Marcus was not unkind nat 
urally : indeed, he was kind to a fault. The yearning, 
limpid look in Berenice s eyes touched him, and he 
quickly said 

154 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

" How can I serve thee, lady !" 

Still Berenice felt that here was but kindness, not 
what she desired, the great, strong master-passion, 
love, and she lightly said 

" Now Marcus is himself. The purse is open, how 
much will serve ?" 

" Nay, Berenice can need no gold of mine," said 
Marcus. 

"But if I did ?" she asked, half sitting and half re 
clining on the couch. 

" If thou didst," he answered sincerely, " then I 
should say not, How much will serve ? but, All that I 
have is thine, knowing full well that it would be 
returned." 

Still it was the friend and not the lover who spoke. 
And Berenice sighed as she replied 

" Ah, so in my heart said I, all that I have is thine, 
not knowing it would be returned." 

It was not possible to mistake her meaning. What 
should he do ? What ought he to say ? What he did 
say was not quite the truth. 

" I do not understand thee, lady." 

" Thou wilt not understand." 

" Perhaps it is better that I do not try," was the 
answer that involuntarily escaped Marcus. 

"Am I so very repulsive? Others do not think so." 

" Others ? Nay, all are agreed patrician Rome can 
boast no fairer daughter than Berenice." 

The emphasis came, unwittingly, rather heavily 
upon the word "patrician" ; the sharp watchfulness of 
Berenice noted and pounced upon it instantly. 

155 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Patrician Kome," she said, with a still heavier 
emphasis upon the particular word ; and then, with a 
little uplifting of the delicate eyebrows, she continued 

" Marcus could scarce look lower." 

This was a home-thrust for Marcus, who knew that 
Mercia was in her mind as she spoke. He coloured 
slightly, but with, for him, rare discretion, he remained 
silent, and Berenice continued, scarcely daring now to 
look at him 

" We are both rich ; indeed, our wealth united might 
buy an empire." 

This was true enough. Had Marcus been ambitious 
there was but little he might not, with such riches, 
achieve. A throne had been bought and sold for much 
less than their joint wealth. Again, what could he 
say ? A woman can refuse an offer from a man, 
nay, stop him before he gets to the point of avowal, 
but the task is not so easy when the usual position is 
reversed. There could be no mistaking her meaning ; 
but what could he say or do ? 

" Berenice !" he began. 

Berenice lost control of herself. She had suffered 
much that morning ; her love for Marcus was sincere, 
and her passion equalled her love, The thought that 
he might be drifting into a like passion for another was 
more than the barrier of her womanly reserve could 
bear, and, with a rush of emotion, it was swept away. 
Turning to him, she said, with tears in her eyes and 
voice 

" Marcus, Marcus, canst thou not see what is in my 
heart ? Dost thou not know it is no girlish fancy, but 

156 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

the deep, strong love of a woman who has never loved 
before whose whole nature has been held back so 
long that, unless the floodgates are unbarred, the pent- 
up tide will burst all bounds and engulf her body, 
mind, and soul ! Marcus, pity me ! forgive me !" And 
she sank, weeping, with her face hidden in the cushions 
of the couch. 

Marcus was deeply moved how could he be other 
wise? Berenice was no ordinary woman, and this 
frank avowal touched the better part of his nature. 
He spoke truly when he said 

c; Berenice, thou dost pain and shame me ! Thou, all 
so prodigal of love and I so miserly " 

" Marcus !" 

" Believe me, I am honoured, grateful ; and if all the 
respect that man can show for woman, if devotion, 
friendship " 

" Friendship ? I ask for love you offer friendship !" 
said Berenice with intense bitterness. 

" I offer all I have to give, lady," Marcus answered 
gravely and respectfully. 

So! She had played and lost! Had staked all, 
and in vain ! She had forgotten her womanhood ; had 
begged and had been refused ! Oh, the shame of it ! 
The humiliation ! That she should so far forget herself 
as to throw herself at the feet of any man even a 
Marcus and find herself declined ! A sudden rush of 
indignation swept over her; she sprang to her feet, her 
eyes blazing with anger, and said 

" All thou bast to give ? Ay, all that thou hast to 
give to me but to another, to this girl, this Christian ?" 

157 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

And she spoke the word " Christian" with loathing. 
" Hast thou aught else to give to her?" 

Marcus was angry now. Her contempt for the ex 
quisite creature who had been uppermost in his thoughts 
since his first meeting with her was more than his tem 
per could bear, and he asked with much acerbity 

" Was it for this that you sent for me ?" 

"No, no!" said Berenice ; "I sent for you before I 
had heard of this girl ; but it is true ? Is it ? Thou 
dost love this Mercia ! Thou dost ! Thou dost ! Mar 
cus caught at last, and by the baby face of a miserable 
Christian girl ! Ha, ha, ha !" She burst into a peal 
of wild and hysterical laughter that was perilously near 
to sobbing; and, as she spoke, she paced the room. 
"This worse than beggar, whose life is forfeit to the 
law ! Marcus loves a wretched Christian a thing de 
spised and loathed the companion of thieves and mur 
derers the scum of Rome a degraded schemer an 
outcast a " 

Marcus, furious that so delicate and lovely a soul 
should be so miscalled, cried sternly 

" Stop, Berenice ! I will not hear you !" 

But she was not to be so easily stayed. Her face 
was crimson with anger. Her eyes ablaze with jealousy, 
furiously she cried 

" You shall hear me !" 

" I will not. I take my leave," replied Marcus, going 
towards the door. But Berenice interposed, say 
ing 

" You shall not go until you ve heard me ! Love is 
so near to hate that one step past the boundary line 

158 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

and love is lost in loathing ! Have a care, Marcus ! 
Berenice will not be scorned and bear it !" 

" Does Berenice stoop to threaten ?" 

" Stoop ? Ye gods ! can I stoop lower than I have 
done?" 

"Yes, lady, for true love is no dishonour, but 
treachery is." 

"I care not!" she exclaimed recklessly. She had 
gone too far to retreat now ; she knew her cause was 
lost. Her hatred for the girl who had come between 
her and her desires was unbounded, and she went 
on 

" I will love or hate ! Art thou blind ? Dost think 
all Eome does not know this girl is in thy house ?" 

"I care not!" contemptuously replied Marcus. 

" Rome laughs, and swears thou dost plead to her in 
vain." 

" I care not !" again replied Marcus. 

" But is it true ?" asked the almost frantic woman. 

" Lady, it is true," was the frank reply. " I do love 
Mercia and I do plead to her in vain." 

Womanly pride should have come to her help at 
such an answer ; but woman s weapons are not always 
at hand when most required. Just now all her pride 
was swamped in a torrent of mingled rage, hate, 
jealousy, shame, love, and despair ; she threw herself 
recklessly upon the couch, and burst into a passionate, 
unrestrained fit of sobbing. 

Poor Berenice ! Poor Marcus! Is there any posi 
tion in which a man of heart and feeling can be placed 
wherein he can feel more helpless than when he is 

159 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

alone with a lovely woman, who is sobbing her heart 
out for his sake, and he cannot take the suffering one 
in his arms and kiss and comfort her back to happi 
ness? Probably the wisest course for him to have 
adopted would have been to have left her to herself; 
yet that seemed brutal, and he did the most foolish 
possible thing, instead of the wisest. He went to her 
and begged her to " be calm," at the same time gently 
touching the hand which was clutching the head of the 
couch. The half-pitying tone of his voice completed 
her rage. She started up, and with intense scorn and 
contempt, said 

"Marcus, pleading in vain for the caresses of a 
Christian wanton !" 

Berenice was even more indiscreet than Marcus had 
been. No man cares to have a woman he loves so 
called, even if there be grounds for the accusation; 
but, in the case of Mercia, it was an outrage, almost a 
blasphemy, and he shuddered at what seemed to him a 
profanation. With much dignity, although white with 
anger, he turned upon Berenice, and said 

" What Eome may say of me troubles me nothing ; 
what Eome or Berenice may say of this young girl 
troubles me much. She is no schemer, no degraded 
woman ! She is the purest, sweetest, and most crystal 
soul that lives in Eome this day. What this Chris 
tianity is I know not, but this I know that if it 
makes many such women as Mercia, Eome, nay, the 
whole world will be all the purer for it !" 

" You dare speak thus of her to me ?" cried Bere 
nice, almost breathless with passion. 

1 60 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

" Dare ? Why not dare, lady ?" 

" How if I repeat your words ?" 

"Kepeat them if thou wilt!" 

"To Nero?" 

" To Nero !" 

" Yes. What then ?" 

Ah, what then, indeed? For himself Marcus had 
no thought, but for Mercia ! What evil spirit was it 
that was ever at work to divert every kind thought, 
every effort on his part for the girl s good to her hurt 
and evil? No movement yet that Marcus had made 
in her behalf had resulted in any real benefit; now 
he had made an enemy for her in Berenice, while yet 
another was to come, and he the most cruel and un 
relenting, Nero. No wonder Marcus paused before he 
answered 

" What then ? It is hard to say what then. I can 
only hope that Berenice will never stoop to turn in 
former against Marcus." 

"Will you give up this girl?" asked Berenice. 

" No, lady, no," was the firm reply. 

"You shall! I ll force you! Take care! Measure 
my determination with your own, and add to my ad 
vantage the hate I bear her and Nero s power to injure 
you." 

For a moment he surveyed her in silence, then in 
clear, determined accents he replied 

"Neither Berenice, her anger nor her hate, nor 

Nero, backed by all his legions, can keep Mercia from 

me. There is not a nerve in all my body that does not 

call for her not a thought in all my brain that does 

ii 161 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

not encompass her. Now the truth is told, I leave 
you. ~No good can come of further argument. Lady, 
farewell." 

And he was going in such anger that any future 
reconciliation was impossible unless he could be in 
duced to soften towards her ere he left ; and Berenice 
made her last pitiable effort to lessen the breach be 
tween them, saying 

" Nay, Marcus ! Stay do stay !" 

Marcus now did what he should have done sooner 
firmly declined to remain. 

" No ; I have stayed too long. No man should war 
with women, even with words. Lady, farewell." And 
with a low, respectful bow, he was gone. 

Berenice returned to her couch and to her tears ; she 
sobbed herself hoarse. All was desolation to her now. 
Her wealth, her beauty, her influence, the flattery of 
the base, the admiration of the honest all were as 
Dead Sea fruit, embittered by the loss of the one thing 
that made them all sweet the love of the man she 
worshipped. It was long before she was roused from 
the passion of grief and despair to that of revenge, 
but the moment came at last, and she sprang up say 
ing 

" Eeject me ! Eeject me for this wretched, tawdry, 
mock-modest Christian ! Insult me for her ! Scorn 
Berenice for a Mercia ! Oh, for the power to humble 
him as he has humbled me !" 

Then into her mind came the thought of another 
woman who loved Marcus the Empress Poppsea. 
She, too, had come to hate this Christian girl, and 

162 



THE WOOING OF BERENICE 

she would help her to a joint-revenge. Poppsea s influ 
ence with Nero, Berenice knew, was unbounded. Yes, 
she would go to Poppsea, as Tigellinus had suggested. 
There was no thought now of the meanness of striking 
at Mercia through the instrumentality of Nero. Let 
the low-bred creature go to the lions, or the flames ! 
It could not be greater torture than the humiliation 
she had endured that day. One more or less of these 
degraded outcasts done to death what mattered it ? 
She would be revenged. Marcus, too, should suffer. 
She would not be scorned, laughed at, made the jest 
and by-word of the whole city, and bear it tamely! 
Poppsea and Nero could help her, and they should! 
Thus, nursing her wrath, Berenice called for her at 
tendants and her chariot, and was driven rapidly to 
Poppsea. 



163 



CHAPTER XIII 

SOME PERPLEXITIES 

MARCUS was in great perplexity when he left Bere 
nice ; he was troubled by the power that Mercia had 
gained over him. Here was a girl, of whose very ex 
istence he was ignorant only a few hours ago, occupy 
ing his every thought and controlling his every action. 
For her sake he had gone dangerously near disobeying 
Nero s commands, been guilty of gross rudeness to 
the Empress, insulted Tigellinus, and quarrelled with 
Berenice. Even now, in spite of the difficulties in 
which he had become enmeshed through her, his one 
wish was to hasten back to his palace that he might 
see her again. He was in love with every fibre of his 
body and all the strength of his soul, and when love 
comes to a man like Marcus after youth has passed, it 
comes with the fury of the whirlwind. He could 
think of nothing but Mercia, see only her lovely face, 
hear naught save her sweet, gentle voice. The first 
fierce, overwhelming love of an ardently passionate 
nature had swept through him with irresistible force. 
That he desired her more than any other woman he 
had ever seen, and with a warmth he had never con 
ceived possible, he knew ; but that his passion was not 
to be gratified according to his custom was a possibility 
that had not as yet presented itself. He had to learn 
that his love for Mercia possessed a depth and strength 

164 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

that had the power to make it the be-all and end-all 
of his life. Had such a thought come to him he would 
have derided it. What! Marcus, the wealthiest and 
most courted man in Rome, to be bound to a mere 
Christian girl, of whose family and history he knew 
actually nothing! No, that would be too absurd! 
Still, as he passed from the house of Berenice to his 
own, he wondered yet again what it was in Mercia 
that so moved him. Beautiful as she was, it was not 
her beauty that held, although it had at first attracted 
him. It was a stronger, deeper influence than that. 
What was it ? He would go to her and see her again. 
Perhaps the glamour would pass away on closer ac 
quaintance ; it might, after all, be but another feminine 
trick of manner that had caught him by its freshness. 
He would go to her at once and learn, if possible, what 
was the secret of her charm. But he was destined to 
wait before he could see Mercia again. 

Mercia, on her part, was torn by many conflicting 
emotions and fears. Her task of self-judgment was 
no easy one. She knew she loved Marcus, and the 
knowledge was an ever-present reproach and shame to 
her. For the first time she realized the meaning of 
all the warnings and counsels she had received from 
her parents and guides as to the dangers that lurked 
around her. That which before seemed wildly improb 
able now began to look dimly possible, and the thought 
made her shudder. 

All the forces were, apparently, ranged on the side 
of Marcus. He held her captive in his palace, where 
she was absolutely at his mercy ; his wealth, his 

165 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

physical power, his dominant will, his reckless dis 
regard of all authority or moral restraint when his 
passions were roused (and never had they been so 
roused as now), were weapons that threatened to 
decide the contest swiftly and decidedly against Mer- 
cia. To all these advantages was to be added her 
love for him, and with that love she fought, but fought 
in vain. 

On her side were ranged what? Her purity of 
soul and her Faith. Would they save her against 
such odds? Verily, the fight appeared terribly un 
equal, and Mercia was sore afraid. 

All the attentions lavished upon her by the orders 
of Marcus were so many humiliations, and she refused 
all the courtesies of the servants with a firmness that 
nothing could shake. She was a prisoner, not a guest ; 
she had but one favour to ask that the luxury of her 
present position should be exchanged for the grim 
terrors of the prison cell. This desire the servants 
could not gratify, so Mercia set to work to devise 
some means of escape. The attendants were all de 
voted to Marcus, and, knowing the importance he 
attached to her safe keeping, they would not, even if 
they dared, help her to gain her liberty. 

Wearily she paced round and round in her gilded 
cage, scanning the doors, the walls, all to no purpose. 
Hourly one of the slaves deputed to wait upon her 
would unlock the door and ask for her commands. If 
she had none to give, he would retire, fastening the 
door after him. This door was of solid bronze, and 
when once locked could not be moved. The walls 

1 66 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

and floor were of marble. There was but one case 
ment ; that was small, and at least eleven feet from 
the ground. 

The hourly visit had been made, and she would now 
be alone for some time ; could she reach the casement ? 
She would try. First she drew one of the couches to 
the wall beneath it ; upon this she placed a small table, 
with triple legs, that seemed barely strong enough to 
support her weight. However, she was light and 
active ; it might do. It was difficult to mount, and 
trembled ominously upon the soft couch. Eventually, 
she succeeded in climbing upon it, only to find herself 
still at least a foot below the height required to enable 
her to reach the embrasure. If she sprang to it, could 
she keep her hold upon the smooth surface of the mar 
ble ? No, that would be impossible. But there was an 
iron bar in the centre of the opening could she reach 
that? Should she try? If she should miss it, she 
would fall back upon the table or marble floor, and be 
seriously injured. Still, what was the chance of bodily 
pain and hurt to the danger she feared from the Pre 
fect s evident passion for her ? She would attempt it. 

Gathering all her strength and energy, she sprang at 
the bar and reached it. The table was dashed, by the 
force of her leap, on to the marble floor with a crash. 
She trembled, fearing this must alarm her jailer. But 
no thought of an attempted escape on her part had 
crossed their minds ; they would not have been alarmed 
even had they heard the noise, but they did not do so. 
Small and lithe of frame, she had no difficulty in creep 
ing through between the bar and the wall; but she found 

167 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

that it was at least fifteen feet from the level of the court 
yard outside. To drop this would be sure to result in 
injury, if not in broken limbs. There was her drapery ! 
This, when unwound from her body, measured quite 
twelve feet ; the half of this and her own length of 
arm would be sufficient to save her too great a drop to 
the ground. Taking off the mantle, she wrapped it 
round the bar of the window, and looked around to see 
if the place was clear of the guards. Alas, no ! There 
were two, quietly conversing within a few yards of her. 
Until they went away she did not dare to stir, and it 
seemed as if they would never go. The minutes 
seemed hours to the gentle girl, but eventually they 
moved off in the direction of the paluce gates. 
Quickly throwing the ends of the mantle outside the 
casement, Mercia lowered herself to within a few feet of 
the ground ; then, letting go of one end of her drapery, 
she dropped to the pavement, drawing her mantle with 
her, and quickly sped across the courtyard towards the 
street. Mercia was free and unharmed. 

Marcus arrived at his palace full of sweet and tender 
thoughts of Mercia. He was to see her again ! As yet 
his opportunities for converse with her had been but 
scanty. Now she was where he reigned supreme ; he 
had but to command to be obeyed in all things, and he 
would see her alone where he would be safe from inter 
ruption. His mind was full of the many things he 
would say to her to calm her fears, soothe her sorrows, 
and build up her confidence in him. 

Ordering the attendants on duty to precede him, he 
went to the room in which Mercia had been kept. His 

1 68 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

pulse quickened as the slave unlocked the door, and 
he entered the room in, for him, unwonted excitement. 
The place was empty. In mute astonishment the 
slave stared about him. 

" Where is the lady ?" asked Marcus. 

" Nay, Excellence, I know not," replied the slave. 

; Hast thou let her escape ?" 

" Nay, Excellence, I barred the door but half an hour 
ago. She was then safe within." 

Marcus looked and saw the overturned table, the 
couch against the wall, and was furious. 

"Idle, careless fools!" he exclaimed; "she hath 
escaped by that casement. Quick ! call Viturius and 
the guard. Search the courtyard. Haste ! or your 
lives shall answer for it ; haste ! Yiturius !" Calling 
for that officer, he rushed through the corridor to the 
gates of the palace, questioning all he met. No one 
had seen Mercia. 

^Yhen Viturius appeared, he gave him hurried in 
structions to send to Mercia s home, the house of 
Favius, and to all places frequented by the Christians. 
His anxiety was great, his rage intense, and his morti 
fication bitter indeed. She had flown from him as she 
might have fled from a Tigellinus or a Licinius ; he was 
her jailer, nothing more, a being to fear and hate. 
The thought was gall and wormwood to him ; he had 
fondly believed that his interest in her was recipro 
cated, while all the time she had been scheming to 
escape from his hated presence. But he would find 
her if she were in Eome or out of it ; and he rode from 
place to place seeking news of her. All in vain. No 

169 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

one had seen or heard of her, and Marcus returned to 
his palace in anger and despair. 

Berenice, in a white heat of anger and with a burn 
ing desire for revenge upon Mercia, had driven in her 
chariot to Nero s palace and requested audience of the 
Empress. Popprea had many reasons for keeping on 
terms of friendship with the handsome patrician. Her 
wealth and influence were important considerations 
too important to be overlooked by a court so prodigal 
as Nero s. Then, Berenice could be made a useful link 
between Poppsea and Marcus ; an alliance between the 
latter and her friend would bring Marcus closer to her 
side. The Empress could not visit the Prefect, but she 
could visit his wife, and without suspicion. Marcus 
married to Berenice would be easier of access than 
Marcus single. 

Poppsea was surrounded by her women when Bere 
nice was admitted to her presence. After some com 
monplaces, charmingly delivered on both sides, the 
Empress gathered that her visitor desired to be alone 
with her, and so dismissed her suite, and bade them 
not return without her summons. 

Berenice had not let her anger against Mercia cool. 
On the contrary, she had fanned it vigorously, and it 
was at blazing point ; but, to look at her handsome 
face, an ordinary observer would have imagined her to 
be in a state of beatific calm. What consummate 
actresses are even ordinary women ! What transparent 
bunglers, compared to them, are even uncommon men in 
the art of disguising their feelings and desires ! 

Berenice was inwardly raging with fury; yet out- 
170 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

wardly the placidity of a mill-pond was a turbulent 
stream in comparison. Poppssa was not an ordinary 
observer, and instinctively knew that her friend was 
intent on matters of great moment that her visit was 
not one of courtesy only, but rather one of much im 
portance to both. Poppsea, too, was a fine mental 
fencer and diplomatist. It was not necessary to give 
Berenice a cue to begin ; the matter would out. She 
could wait. 

And so these two laughed, chatted, and gossipped 
upon all imaginable subjects, save the one nearest to 
both their hearts, until Berenice asked casually whether 
" it was true that another wholesale arrest of those 
wretches, the Christians, had been made ?" 

"Indeed, yes," said Poppsea. "Marcus hath been 
most zealous in the task assigned him by the Emperor. 
Last night he surprised and captured a whole gang in 
the act of holding one of their infamous meetings." 

" Is that possible, Empress ?" asked Berenice, with 
a childlike look of wonderment. " Did Marcus arrest 
them, or was it some other?" 

" Nay, twas Marcus. I met him on his way to the 
Cestian Grove, and so intent was he upon their cap 
ture that he scarcely could be stayed to salute even 
me." 

"Indeed?" asked Berenice, with astonished, uplifted 
eyebrows. " Was he in such unwonted haste to capture 
these men and um women?" And the emphasis 
on the word " women" gave Poppsea whole volumes of 
information, which to the male listener would have 
afforded nothing but a blank page. 

171 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

u Were there many women among the vermin ?" 
quietly asked the Empress. 

" Indeed, I cannot say ; but there certainly was one, 
who seemed a person of very great importance at 
least, to Marcus." 

" So ! In what way ?" 

" Well, probably it might be urged because of her 
seeming extraordinary influence." 

" Over whom ? Her own sect ?" 

" And others, too." 

" What others ? Surely, none of our own class ?" 

" Forsooth, yes." 

" Whom ?" 

" Well, Marcus for one. At least, so they have told 
me." 

Oh, that " they" ! What would this world be with 
out the "theys"? "They say," "they know," "they 
impute" ! What character is safe what action un 
known what motive unperceived by " they" ? " They" 
are the lynxes of the world, and, with more than Argus 
eyes, see through the very stone walls, annihilating 
space, overleaping all obstacles, penetrating the most 
reserved chambers of men s minds with an omnipresence 
as comprehensive as it is marvellous. 

Need it be said that Berenice had already achieved 
the object of her visit ? Poppaea s jealousy was afoot, 
alert and keen to the scent as a bloodhound. She 
knew all now ; Marcus had been fascinated by some 
girl among these Christian conspirators, and his wild 
hurry on the previous evening was to save her. So 
she, the Empress, was insulted, treated with less 

172 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

courtesy and ceremony than should be shown to the 
wife of a tradesman by Marcus, in order that he might 
be in time to rescue a despicable creature fit only for 
the gutter or the jail. 

The two women looked at each other, and it would 
be hard to say who was the more furious. Both were 
ready to consent to any scheme that would result in 
Mercia s destruction ; and all this without one spoken 
word. Yerily, wonderful are the ways of women ! 

Poor Mercia! A helpless sparrow in the clutches of 
a hungry hawk would have a greater chance of escape 
than thou, left to the mercy of either of these thy sis 
ters. And what is thy sin ? The most deadly that one 
woman can commit against another that of superior 
attraction for a man beloved. 

" Who is the woman ?" asked Poppaea. 

" Her name is Mercia," replied Berenice. 

" What is she like ?" the inevitable question followed. 

" I have not seen her, Empress." 

" But thou hast heard something. Is she young?" 

" They say but eighteen ; but she must be more than 
that." 

(Why, Berenice ? Why must ?) 

"Dark or fair?" 

" Dark, Dacia tells me," answered Berenice. 

Now, it is an approved fact that women are always 
more jealous of a complexion the opposite to their own. 
Had Mercia been as fair as Poppsea she would have 
aroused less animosity in that lady s breast; it was one 
more item to her detriment that she was not. 

" Where is she ?" said the Empress. 

173 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" He keeps her in his palace, it is said, while her 
companions are more fitly lodged in prison." 

" He shall not keep her there long. Nero shall know 
of this." 

" Exactly my thought when I did hear of it, and to 
myself I said, I will seek counsel of Poppsea, who will 
best know how to deal with her ; but surely she cannot 
be allowed to remain in his palace, to the scandal of all 
Eome. " 

Little Berenice would have recked of the scandal had 
she not felt that there must be some stronger sentiment 
than usual actuating and guiding Marcus conduct. 
Here was the sting to both it looked like a serious 
passion, not " a passing whim." 

" Marcus must be taught a lesson ; he has been 
allowed too much licence," said the Empress. "He 
knows he is in our favour, but he must not presume 
upon it. As great as he have fallen ere now. Let him 
be careful ; we are not to be insulted with impunity ! 
This is too much ! To be publicly slighted for a Chris 
tian, girl is more than I feel disposed to bear, even from 
a Marcus. Come, my Berenice, let us seek Caesar. "We 
will have this Mercia placed beyond Marcus power to 
reach or to deal with." Giving her hand to Berenice, 
the Empress led her towards Nero s room. 

Both had been bitterly insulted by Marcus, and both 
were intent upon revenging the affront upon the inno 
cent cause thereof, the gentle and lovely Mercia. 
Whither had she gone ? 

On leaving the palace, she went straight to the gate 
of the prison wherein she knew the Christians were 

174 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

confined. A group of guards were at the doors, and 
among them a young officer, who stopped her, saying 

" What want you here, lady ?" 

" Admittance to the cells of the Christians," answered 
Mercia. 

"Upon whose authority? whose permission hast 
thou?" 

" I have no authority," answered Mercia. 

"Then thou canst not pass, lady," said the officer re 
spectfully, for he, like all men, felt the strange charm 
of this girl. 

"But I too am a prisoner, sir," pleaded Mercia. 
" And my place is there." 

"Prisoner?" smiled the guard; "by Jupiter, thou 
art free enough, seemingly !" 

" I pray thee, let me go to my friends. If they are 
guilty, so am I. If they have sinned against the laws 
of Rome, so have I; for the offence they committed I 
committed too. I was with them when they were sur 
prised and taken captive at the Grove, and what am I 
that I should not suffer even as they do ? I pray thee, 
let me in to them." 

" By the gods !" roared the officer, " this is something 
new ! Oft have I been besought to let a prisoner out, 
but tis the first time man or woman has begged me to 
let them in. Dost know what kind of place this prison 
is?" 

" That concerns me not. I am young and strong " 

"And exceedingly beautiful too," interjected the 
officer, with an admiring glance. " And worthy of a 
beautiful nest, my lovely bird. Let me counsel thee," 

175 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

and the officer advanced a step towards Mercia ; but 
she quickly went nearer to the soldiers, so that it was 
impossible for him to speak to her and not be over 
heard by the rest of the guard. 

" Sir," said Mercia, " either let me in to my friends, 
or I go." 

"What wouldst thou do in yonder?" asked the 
officer. 

" There are many wounded and sick among them ; I 
would be with them, to nurse and comfort them. Ah, 
sir, I beseech thee to grant my prayer. Indeed and 
indeed, I am as guilty as they. I can do no harm. I 
cannot aid them to escape, and I promise thee I will 
not try. I only desire to be with them, and suffer even 
as they suffer." 

Her beauty, her earnestness, her sweet, pleading 
voice captivated the young officer, but what was he to 
do ? He had no power to arrest without authority, or 
grant permission for anyone to visit those already im 
prisoned. Yet she could do no harm, as she had said. 
Little would he have hesitated had he the requisite 
authority, but that he had not. 

" It is hard to refuse so sweet a creature anything, 
but what thou dost ask is beyond my power to grant," 
he said, after a pause. " What is thy name ?" 

" Mercia," she replied. 

" By Cytherea, a pretty name ! Well, gentle Mercia, 
get thee hence to thy parents ; thou wilt be safer with 
them, I warrant thee unless, indeed, thy parents are 
with those thou dost seek within. Is that so ?" 

"Alas, sir, my parents are dead!" 

176 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

" So ! Alone, eh ?" Then a thought struck the offi 
cer not an unnatural one, either it was for some 
lover s sake the girl sought admittance ; to be near the 
man she loved she was ready to sacrifice her own 
liberty. " Parents dead, and thou art alone, eh ?" he 
said. " Then thou dost seek some lover in the prison ! 
By Jupiter, he is a lucky fellow! But amongst all 
these rats of Christians I have seen there s none worthy 
of all that beauty, my girl. Forget him, and take up 
with some honest Roman soldier. There s many who 
would take his place, and all too gladly ; eh, comrades ?" 

" Ay, ay," the others agreed, with brutal laughter. 

Truly, Mercia had but little bettered her state in 
flying from the palace of Marcus. Still she pleaded ; 
her tender heart was aching to be with the weak and 
wounded among the prisoners, that she might tend 
their hurts and comfort them. But to all her entreat 
ies, jeers and laughter came as answers. It could only 
be, as the officer thought, some man amongst these 
Christians was the girl s lover. No, it was hopeless 
she could not be admitted. The guards were for driving 
her away, when something happened which unex 
pectedly gave her the boon she was craving with so 
much earnestness and intensity. Licinius came out of 
the prison. Instantly he recognised Mercia. 

" So !" he thought, " this is the way in which the 
noble Marcus keeps his word ; this is the manner in 
which he holds himself responsible unto Nero for the 
safe custody of his prisoners." His brutal face had 
upon it a grim smile as he looked upon Mercia. Here 
was news for Tigellinus and Nero. The girl who had 

177 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

so infatuated Marcus was free ! His course was clear ; 
he would re-arrest her. True, as sedile only he had no 
power to order arrest, but Tigellinus had commanded 
that all who were caught at the Grove were to be pun 
ished, and he would but be acting in accordance with 
those commands if he re-imprisoned this girl. His mind 
was made up ; he would do it. 

Advancing towards the group at the door, he asked 
roughly 

" What is the trouble here? Who is this woman ?" 

Mercia recognised Licinius, and shrank back in 
alarm. Had he not tried to slay her in the Cestian 
Grove ? Did he not slaughter the good Titus ? Were 
his hands not stained with the blood of many of her 
friends ? 

" One of the Christians, sedile," answered the officer. 

" What doth she here ?" asked Licinius. 

" She craves permission to be arrested and placed 
beside the others of her sect, who lie within." 

" Doth she indeed ? Let her have her desire." 

Then, pretending to recognise her for the first time, 
he said 

" Ah, now I remember thee ! Thou art the girl our 
Prefect said he would have a care of. By Caesar, he 
will have to account for thy freedom ! I will see to 
thy safe keeping for the present. Let her wish be 
granted, officer, and see that she have little chance to 
escape again." 

Leaving Mercia to the charge of the officer, Licinius 
strode away, to find and impart the news of her capture 
to Tigellinus. The officer, attended by a jailer, con- 

178 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

ducted Mercia through the hall of the prison along a 
number of dark and narrow passages, lit at intervals 
by slits in the masonry. Pausing before a massive iron 
door, the jailer produced a large, curiously cut key, 
with which he unlocked it j then, rolling back the heavy 
bolt, the door was pushed open, and Mercia walked into 
the general dungeon of the jail, where the prisoners 
were kept prior to examination or trial. 

Some forty or fifty of the Christians were there, 
men and women, and amongst them Stephanus, who 
was lying upon a heap of straw in one of the corners 
of the cell. His wounds had been dressed, and he had 
been carefully attended to, according to the instructions 
given by Marcus ; but he was there with the others, 
awaiting the decision of the judges. 

The brethren received Mercia with mingled feelings 
of joy and sorrow joy that they beheld once more her 
whom they loved and revered so much ; sorrow that 
she was a prisoner like themselves. The cell was a 
large one, the floor and walls were of stone, and 
benches of the same material were placed around it. 
On these and on the ground the Christians sat and 
reclined in semi-darkness, cheering and comforting each 
other. 

Lovingly Mercia was greeted by all, and, like some 
sweet ministering angel, she went among them, giving 
them strength and encouragement. When her eyes 
became better accustomed to the gloom of the cell, she 
perceived Stephanus lying on the straw, and seeing 
that he was ill or wounded, she sprang to his side, and, 
seating herself upon the ground, lifted his head into 

179 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

her lap, and besought him to tell her what ailed 
him. 

The child could only sob ; he could not find words to 
tell her the truth, that he it was who had betrayed 
them into the hands of their enemies. She knew that 
he was in great pain by the shudder that went through 
him as she touched him. 

" What hath happened, dear Stephanus ?" she 
asked. 

But Stephanus could only weep and moan. 

" Wilt thou not tell thy friend ?" pleaded Mercia. 

" He hath been tortured, Mercia," spoke Melos, who 
was among those imprisoned there. 

"Tortured? Oh, the poor Stephanus! How?" 
asked Mercia. " Tell me how." 

" Better not question him yet, Mercia," softly said 
Melos, not wishing to give the boy the shame of re 
peating to Mercia the treachery of which he had been 
guilty. " The physician hath but now left him, and he 
is weak and feverish still. Ho had better rest, dear 
Mercia ; another time he will tell thee all." 

And so, for a while, at least, they spared the boy 
the agony of a confession to Mercia. Divining 
something of the cause of his silence, she asked 
nothing further, but, dipping her mantle in a large 
amphora of water, she bathed the feverish, aching 
brow of the boy, comforting him as much as he could 
be comforted. Her cool, soft hands upon his forehead 
and face soothed him presently into a troubled sleep, 
the first he had known since his torture. After a 
while, Mercia gently placed him upon the ground, 

1 80 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

fearing to waken him, and went softly among the 
others, helping and encouraging them in her sweet, 
tender way, glad to be of service to them in their 
sorrow and pain, glad, too, to be out of the reach of the 
man she so loved and feared. 

Presently she descried the woman whose child the 
spy Servilius had slain. The poor creature was 
crouched motionless on the floor, her heart was well- 
nigh broken. Her husband had been taken from her 
and killed, her child too was murdered. She was 
bereaved of all she loved; she seemed dazed with 
grief. To her Mercia went, taking her in her arms 
as though she were but a child, tenderly embracing 
her, and telling her of the happy meeting that was so 
soon to come under the protecting glory of Him they 
all served and loved. Gradually the woman seemed 
to recover consciousness under the sweet consolation 
ofMercia s sympathy. Slowly her thoughts were led 
to Him who had endured such agony for her and her 
lost ones, and as her vision opened to the sacred figure 
on the Cross, the memory of His patience and resigna 
tion brought a calm to her bruised spirit, and she knelt 
and prayed silently for strength to endure for His sake. 
There was not one among the group of persecuted ones 
in that dark cell who did not feel uplifted and en 
couraged by Mercia s presence. While she was with 
them light could not wholly leave them nor peace 
entirely desert them, and thus it came to pass that the 
hour which Marcus had hoped Mercia would spend in 
listening to his words of passion, and perchance sub 
mitting to his caresses, was given unto the consoling 

181 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

of the wounded, the sick, and the grief-stricken amongst 
these poor captives. 

And in ministering to their needs Mercia forgot her 
own perils of body and soul. Not that she failed to 
realise them, or know that in escaping from Marcus 
she had fled to almost certain death ; but she was not 
of a nature to dwell upon her own sorrows when 
surrounded by others who were also grief-stricken, and 
her training had taught her not to fear death for her 
Faith s sake, but to embrace it joyfully, if by doing so 
she glorified her Saviour. Strange chance that had 
made this sweet girl, whose life up to the time of her 
parents death had been so calm and uneventful, the 
very centre of a vortex of intrigue and passion ! 
Around her revolved rage, hate, jealousy, and lust. 
Her condition was indeed desperate. With so many 
powerful foes actively planning her destruction, there 
were none who could help or serve her, for those who 
had been her friends were either dead or in prison. 

All this Mercia felt and understood, but her nobility 
of spirit buoyed her up, and she rejoiced that it was 
still in her power to obey her Lord s commands to 
help the helpless and comfort the sick and sorrowful, 
while she gave thanks to God, who had delivered her 
out of the hands of the man who had sought her soul s 
destruction. But, even as she prayed, she knew that 
she loved this man with the whole strength of her con 
stant nature. 

After delivering Mercia into the care of the officer 
of the prison-guard, Licinius hurried off to find Tigel- 
linus and inform him of the capture of Mercia. Li- 

182 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

cinius rightly guessed that the intelligence would be 
gratefully received. 

He was admitted to the presence of Tigellinus, who 
was engaged with a party of engineers upon a scheme 
of Nero s for the making of a great canal which was 
to extend from Avernum to Ostia. The length thereof 
was estimated at 160 miles, while the breadth was to 
be sufficient to enable vessels with five banks of oars 
to pass each other. These and other equally great 
schemes Nero had inaugurated, believing the expense 
could be met either by the enormous revenues of his 
empire, or by the recovery of an immense treasure 
which he had been induced to believe that Queen Dido 
had taken with her to Africa, after her flight from 
Tyre, and which he hoped to unearth. 

Tigellinus, seeing that his friend and tool Licinius 
had something of importance to disclose, dismissed the 
council as soon as it could be done with decency, and 
then turned eagerly to Licinius 

"Well, my Licinius, what is thy news? Good or 
bad, eh?" 

" Good ; if that be good which may help to the un 
doing of thine enemy." 

" Dost thou mean Marcus ?" 

" Who else is of sufficient power or moment to be 
dignified or flattered by the name of enemy unto Tigel 
linus?" 

" What is it ?" 

" The girl Mercia." 

"Ah! what of her?" asked Tigellinus, with wolfish 
interest. 

183 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"He promised thee he would be answerable for her 
safe conduct." 

" He did, at the Cestian Grove." 

" Well he hath released her." 

" Eeleased her ? Art sure ?" 

"Yea, Excellence." 

"So, so!" muttered Tigellinus, and a grim smile of 
pleasure crept over his saturnine features. This was 
good news indeed! Here was flat disobedience to 
Nero s injunctions and express commands, a deliberate 
betrayal of an official trust, and an act of personal 
favouritism towards an enemy of Caesar, for which he 
might be justly expected to feel a deep resentment, 
and order for the delinquent an exemplary punish 
ment. 

" Tell me all that thou dost know, my Licinius," ex 
claimed Tigellinus. 

This Licinius did, embellishing the account with 
many deft little touches of invention well calculated to 
enhance the importance of Marcus neglect of duty 
and please Tigellinus the more. 

"And thou hast her safe under lock and key, my 
Licinius ?" 

" Ay, in the prison of my district." 

" Where the rest of the gang captured at the Bridge 
are confined ?" 

" Yea, Excellence." 

"Good! Yet, stay we must make no mistake in 
dealing with Marcus. Thou hadst no power under thy 
authority as sedile to arrest her ? How came it ?" 

" Simply enough. The girl begged to be allowed to 
184 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

join the other prisoners; this she was doing at the 
moment I saw her." 

Good !" 

" Moreover, thine own orders " Licinius was con 
tinuing, but Tigellinus stopped him, saying 

" Ah, my orders ! Let them pass ; it is well that I 
keep clear of all appearance of personal opposition or 
animosity towards the Prefect. It must not be for 
gotten that he is a favourite of Caesar, and Nero will 
not be easily convinced that he can do aught evil 
against his state and sacred person. His fears for his 
personal safety can alone do that." Here Tigellinus 
began to pace the room in deep thought, Licinius 
quietly waiting for his chief to speak. Presently he 
did so. 

" My Licinius, of this we may now be sure : Marcus 
loves this girl, or he would not have released her. 
Still, to Nero he may aver that her release was but a 
ruse to entrap yet more of her companions, so that we 
had best not trade upon that alone. If we can bring 
the girl to some dire harm that will tempt and lead 
Marcus to an open and palpable breach of discipline or 
revolt against Cesar s commands, we shall have him in 
the hollow of our hands." 

" What are we to do, Excellence ?" 

" There is the torture-chamber, my good Licinius," 
said Tigellinus, with a cruel leer. 

" True, Excellence," leered back Licinius. 

" Women are more easily moved by terror and pain 
than even that imp of a boy that Marcus wrested from 
us. It will be an easy task to wring from the girl all 

185 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

she knows concerning her associates, and, at the same 
time, force her to confess that, out of lust or love for 
her, he Marcus Eome s Prefect and guardian of the 
sacred person of our august master hath let her, an 
avowed enemy of the State and Caesar, go free. Eh ! 
what sayest thou, my Licinius ?" 

"Excellent! excellent!" And the two friends 
laughed sardonically at the prospect of the girl s suf 
ferings and the undoing of Marcus. There could be 
but little danger in torturing her. She had been caught 
at the meeting, was evidently of great importance to 
the brethren, and must know much of this conspiracy. 
The torturing of women at that time was no rare 
thing, nor was it confined entirely to the Christian 
prisoners. The case of the freedwoman, Epicharis, 
proves to what hideous lengths those in authority 
would go to gain information. So horrible were the 
cruelties practised upon her that, to escape from them, 
she strangled herself. In some cases the flesh was torn 
from the bodies of the victims with hot pincers, while, 
as has been said, many of the innocent and pure young 
girls of the Christian faith were submitted to such foul 
and revolting outrages that any detailed account of 
them is impossible. And it was upon such an exquisite 
creature as Mercia that these two men contemplated 
inflicting horrors such as these. 

" Come, my Licinius," said Tigellinus, " let us to the 
prison ; we will talk as we go." And the twain set out 
for the jail into which Mercia had voluntarily entered 
in order that she might escape the dreaded violence of 
Marcus passion for her. 

186 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

Marcus, in the meantime, was helplessly raging at 
the futility of his quest for her. The city had been 
scoured in every direction, but no news could be gained 
of her. No one thought of inquiring at the prison 
over the way ; and so it was that, while leagues were 
covered in pursuit of her, Mercia was actually within 
speaking distance of Marcus, who was striding about 
his room, looking pale and worn. He had scarcely 
slept for the twenty-four hours, and his food had re 
mained untasted. When the slaves besought him to eat, 
he ordered them angrily away ; but he drank freely of 
wine, which served to heighten both his rage and pas 
sion. He loved this girl almost to the point of hatred ; 
now that she had escaped from him he felt incensed 
against her to an absolutely ferocious degree. He 
who had been so sought for, whose every caress was 
prized by so many beautiful women of rank, to be 
scorned by this girl, who had risked her life to escape 
from his loathsome presence I The thought was mad 
dening to him. It choked and smothered all his 
nobler feelings, bringing uppermost all that was most 
brutally degrading. Find her he must, if only to 
repay her scorn with scorn ! But whither had she 
fled? 

What was that? A sweet, clear, mellow, silvery, 
ringing voice, singing from the prison yonder 

" O Father, let Thy loving hand 
Guide us through death s dark way." 

He could not be mistaken it was Mercia s voice ; 
In an instant all his resentment vanished in the ecstasy 

187 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

of having found her once again. Then she had not 
fled from him after all ! She had gone to the help and 
comfort of her suffering friends, he thought ; and in 
that belief hot tears of relief and joy sprang to his 
eyes. Eushing to the entrance-hall of the palace, he 
called upon some of his guards to follow him, and 
crossed at once to the prison opposite, and, presenting 
himself at its portals, demanded to be admitted to the 
cell where the Christians were confined. Knowing his 
supreme authority, the keeper of the jail respectfully 
conducted him to the dungeon. 

It was with a strange tremor at his heart that Marcus 
passed through the opened door and saw again the 
beautiful girl who had so enthralled him. She was 
upon her knees, facing the little light that struggled 
through the narrow embrasure in the massive walls, 
her hands clasped, her eyes upturned, pouring forth in 
a stream of rich melody, with no more effort than a 
bird makes in full song, the hymn of supplication 

" O Father, let Thy loving hand 
Guide us through death s dark way." 

And again he felt that thrill of awe, respect, and 
wonderment which had so moved him at the death of 
Favius. The feeling was indescribable. It was as 
though some unseen, unknown spiritual power swept 
through his very soul. 

Mercia ceased singing, and turned, impelled by the 
magnetism of Marcus presence, to find herself face 
to face again with him whom she so loved and feared. 
Gently, but firmly, he bade her accompany him. 

1 88 



SOME PERPLEXITIES 

" I pray thee, let me stay with these my brethren," 
pleaded Mercia. 

"That may not be, lady," quietly said Marcus. 
" Thou must hence with me." 

What purpose could be served by refusal? She 
knew that she could not resist the force he would em 
ploy to compel her to obey him, so she turned to her 
friends, who were regarding her with tearful sympathy, 
and said 

" Be not afraid, oh, my people ! He will not suffer 
harm to come to me, and, though we may not meet 
again here, in this land of pain and persecution, yet 
there are many mansions in our Father s house, and 
there we shall be reunited we, who have taken up the 
Cross to follow Him whom we do love. Let not your 
hearts fail you, though death s dark waters threaten 
to overwhelm you, for hath not He promised that 
whosoever will save his life shall lose it, but whoso 
ever will lose his life for My sake, the same shall save 
it. For what is a man advantaged if he gain the 
whole world and lose his own soul and be utterly 
cast away ? Farewell, dear brethren," she murmured 
softly to her comrades. Then, turning to Marcus, who 
stood silent and abashed, she said, " Sir, I am ready." 

Marcus felt his face and brow flush with shame as 
this calm, dignified woman passed by him from the 
dungeon with head erect and eyes uplifted, eyes that 
did not deign to notice him even with a single glance. 
Quietly she followed the guards back to the palace of 
Marcus, to be this time locked in a room from which 
there could be no escape. 

189 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

When Tigellinus and Licinius arrived at the prison, 
full of their schemes for Mercia s torture, it was but to 
learn that she had again been given up to the keeping 
of Marcus. 

At first disposed to rage at this discovery, they saw, 
upon reflection, that this second rescue of Mercia from 
their custody was another weapon in their hands for 
the assault they intended to make upon Marcus before 
Caesar; and, consoling themselves with this thought, 
Tigellinus went with Licinius to request audience of 
the Emperor. 



190 



CHAPTER XIV 

POPP^A WINS 

WHEN Tigellinus and Licinius arrived at the palace 
of Nero, they were requested to wait in the audience- 
chamber. A crowd of courtiers and officers were 
already in attendance, who fawned obsequiously upon 
the favoured Tigellinus, and greeted even the aedile 
with courtesy, because of his propinquity to his more 
powerful friend. 

An officer entered and, in a loud voice, said 

" His Sacred Majesty the Emperor will give audience 
here at once." 

All those assembled bowed low at the mention of the 
Emperor s name, and Tigellinus turned to his friend 
and said 

" If we do but win the Emperor, the sun of Marcus 
will quickly set." 

"Would it were quenched in everlasting midnight!" 
replied Licinius. " His arrogance hath long been past 
endurance." 

Now great shouts were heard of " Ave, Caesar !" 
" Hail, all hail !" " The mighty Nero I" " Our god-like 
Emperor !" 

Nearer and nearer the volume of sound swelled, and 
first there entered a file of Ethiopian guards, giant-like 
in size and strength, clad in parti-coloured skirts reach- 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

ing from the waist to within an inch of the knee, wear 
ing slung across their bare breasts and shoulders the 
skins of huge leopards (the heads thereof being brought 
over their own foreheads, thus lending them an appear 
ance of savage ferocity) ; with brawny arms and legs 
unclothed ; carrying in their right hands long spears 
with heads of polished bronze, and bearing over their 
left arms stout shields of the tanned hides of lions. 
These guards were followed by splendidly dressed 
heralds, with long trumpets of gold, upon which they 
blew a rude blare of harmonised chords, as a signal of 
the approach of Nero. After them came a crowd of 
nobles, walking backwards, with bowed heads, grovel 
ling almost to the ground in adoration of the bloated, 
sensual being whom they professed to worship that 
wonder of distorted genius, Nero, the Roman Emperor. 
He was leaning upon the necks of two feminine-looking 
boys of some fourteen years of age ; they were garbed 
in short white tunics, their golden hair bound with 
fillets of gold ; their legs were bare to the sandals, and 
they minced and smirked with all the airs and graces 
of girlhood. To these favourites of the detestable brute 
the courtiers cringed and crawled with a sycophancy 
as transparent as it was degrading. 

Nero was gorgeously dressed, but there was a sug 
gestion of effeminacy in his attire, the outcome of 
deliberate design, which robbed it of all dignity. The 
under dress was soft, cream-coloured silk, richly em 
broidered with gold, scarcely reaching to the knee. 
The toga was of Tyrian purple, studded with amethysts 
and emeralds. Of the amethyst and Tyrian purple 

192 



POPP^A WINS 

he was extremely fond ; indeed, so anxious was he to 
make them peculiar and personal to himself that he 
rigorously forbade the use of them by any of his 
subjects. It was said that, as he was singing in the 
theatre, observing a lady of rank among the audience 
dressed in the colour he had prohibited, he stopped 
the performance until she was dragged from her seat. 
He afterwards gave orders that she was to be stripped 
not only of her garments, but of her property, which 
he appropriated. On another occasion, he privately 
sent a spy to sell a few ounces of the forbidden colours 
upon the day of the Nundinse, and then shut up all the 
merchants shops, on the pretext that his edict had 
been violated. 

As Nero met with a slight inclination of the head 
the salutations of the courtiers who, on their knees, 
awaited him, his eyes fell upon Tigellinus and Licinius, 
who were at that moment exchanging a few words in 
an undertone. Sharply, and half in jest and half in 
earnest, he said 

" Ah, Tigellinus, Licinius, ye are whispering ! What 
is it eh ? What treason s toward eh ?" And his 
quick, furtive, frightened gaze shifted uneasily from 
one to the other, while his heavy, double chin shook 
with a nervous dread. 

" Treason ? Nay, Ca3sar," replied Tigellinus, on his 
knees, with lowered head ; " I did but say that, had 
thy august mother not made thee Emperor of Rome, 
thy god-like voice had given thee empire o er the 
world." 

At the mention of the mother whom he had mur- 

3 193 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

dered Nero started and slightly shivered, but his vanity 
was tickled at the flattery so lavishly bestowed upon 
his voice, and he said 

" Ah, yes, yes ! I can sing ! Even my detractors 
admit that. An artist eh ?" 

" In sooth, yes. Apollo must lay aside his lyre when 
Nero sings," was the fulsome answer. 

Gross as was this exaggeration, it was not too much 
for Nero, who flung himself into a grotesque attitude, 
which he intended to be one of extreme grace, and ex 
claimed 

" Apollo ! Ah, yes ! A statue of myself in gold 
all gold, as Apollo ! I ll have it done. See to it, Tigel- 
linus." Then his mind wandered quickly off in an en 
tirely new direction, and he said venomously 

" Tigellinus, that wife of Garamantes hath insulted 
our Empress, our beloved Poppsea." 

"Hath she dared?" asked Tigellinus, with assumed 
horror, while all the court gazed into each others faces 
with pretended astonishment. 

" Refused to attend her feast called it an orgie," 
continued Nero. "Her delicate health forbade her 
attendance. We ll physic her delicacy ! See that 
Garamantes is warned that his absence from this 
world can alone atone for his wife s absence from 
Poppaea s feast. Bequest that he open his veins to 
night; if he is alive when dawns to-morrow s sun, not 
he alone, but he and all his brood shall die ere it doth 
set. See to it, Tigellinus, see to it." 

A slight shiver ran through the cowardly crowd of 
courtiers at this command. Such orders had been 

194 



POPP^A WINS 

only too rife of late, and no man knew when, under 
some equally flimsy pretext, his own time might not 
come to receive this hint to die. Even Tigellinus felt 
a slight sensation of dread as he answered 

" I will, great Caesar, and gladly. It is but justice. 
How could she dare so to insult thy omnipotence?" 

Nero shrugged his shoulders with what would, were 
it not for the tragedy of the circumstance, have been a 
comical gesture, and said 

"It is madness veritable madness! But, Tigel 
linus, we ll make his wife a widow eh ? And warn 
her to give a strict account of all her husband s wealth, 
and render a full half to Caesar, or, by Pluto, she shall 
lose the whole, and her brats with it. See to it, Tigel 
linus, see to it." 

" I will, mighty Caesar," answered Tigellinus, while 
the crowd mutely pantomimed their approval of the 
horrible orders Nero had so calmly issued. Then, 
with another quick turn of his abnormally active 
brain, he dismissed entirely the subject of this latest 
murder, and asked, with a smile of egregious self-com 
placency, 

" And how liked you that last epic of mine eh ? It 
is good eh ? Strong " 

The answer came deftly from the lips of Tigellinus, 
ever ready to feed, if never able to satisfy, his mon 
strous egotism. 

" Strong ? Tis mighty, Caesar 1 Thou art indeed a 
marvel ! Soldier poet actor singer athlete Em 
peror a god among gods !" And every craven among 
the crowd re-echoed the profanity. 

195 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

For once Nero was mildly pleased at their adulation, 
and smiled approvingly as he said to Tigellinus 

" Well said ! Well expressed very well ! But pos 
terity alone can do me justice ; my contemporaries are 
all too jealous eh ? That is a fine verse eh ? that one 
commencing 

"And Jove s great thunder, rattling around the vast, empyrean 
vault, spoke of a god s great wrath in mighty tones." 

And the vain-glorious tyrant declaimed his turgid 
stuff with all the exaggeration of the amphitheatre, 
with a voice hoarse with bellowing and dissipation ; 
and the chorus of flatterers applauded with wild 
enthusiasm, a compliment which JSTero acknowledged 
with a bow as theatrical as the effort that had pro 
voked it. 

And thus all State business stood still, while Rome s 
mighty Emperor played the fool. There were among 
the crowd ministers of state, waiting to receive com 
mands; rulers of provinces, with details of revenues 
and general government ; heads of departments, civil 
and military, awaiting orders and instructions; yet 
none dared to hint their business until desired by JS~ero 
to do so. 

Now his mind wandered off at a tangent to the Cir 
cus, and he said abruptly 

" We want new games in the Circus. I weary of the 
old eternal round of trained gladiator against gladia 
tor. We must devise something fresh eh ? eh ? 
What shall it be?" 

196 



POPP^EA WINS 

Here Philodemus was emboldened to ask 

" Wilt thou race at the festival, great Caesar ?" 

" Race ?" said Caesar, moving with extreme difficulty. 
" I have not yet decided. But even if I race or sing 
or act not myself, we ll yet have rare sport, I promise 
thee. Ah ! now I bethink me, what of this Christian 
conspiracy eh ?" 

This was an opening for Tigellinus that he had scarce 
dared hope for. Here was the chance to approach the 
subject which was the main purpose of his coming 
hither ! And he replied, with an air of horror, 

" Alas, mighty Caesar, the vermin still plot against 
thy sacred life " 

Nero shook with terror, and blanched to the lips as 
he spluttered forth 

"What what sayest thou eh? Thou knowest 
this, and yet two of the reptiles are left alive to con 
spire ! What doth it mean eh ? Is Caesar s life value 
less ? Is such an Emperor, such an artist to perish 
eh ? Answer, answer !" he roared, his eyes blazing 
with anger and terror. 

Almost as terrified himself, Tigellinus said 

" Licinius and thy servant have done all that was in 
their power, but " 

"But what what?" asked Nero. "Our sacred 
person in danger and our orders not obeyed ! Who 
dares hesitate when Caesar commands?" And here, 
for a moment, he towered above the kneeling, cowering 
erowd with all the grandeur of real majesty. For this 
buifoon could, when roused, be at times terrible in his 
wrath. 

197 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" "Who is to blame ?" he asked, as no one had dared 
to speak. 

" Not thy devoted servant Tigellinus," said that per 
son, grovelling on the mosaic pavement at Nero s feet 
and kissing the hem of his toga. 

" Who. then ? What are the sediles doing? Where 
are the spies eh ?" 

" Indeed, neither the sediles nor their officers are at 
fault, mighty Emperor; but if, when they have per 
formed their duty, their work is undone, their authority 
resisted, their commands set at naught, what are they 
to do?" said Tigellinus, with a crafty simulation of 
helpless indignation. 

" Whom dost thou mean ? Who hath done these 
things ?" asked Nero furiously. 

" Nay, Emperor, ask me not. I would rather not 
betray " 

"Ha! Then Caesar s life must be in peril because 
thou wouldst rather not betray some cowardly asso 
ciate ? Thou wouldst betray me eh ? Who is it ? I 
command thee !" 

" Since thou dost command, thy servant must obey. 
Thy Prefect, Marcus " 

Nero hastily interrupted Tigellinus, crying 

"Marcus? No, no! not Marcus! Have a care! 
If thou dost belie our Marcus, the best officer we 
have " 

"Licinius knows I speak the truth," persisted Tigel 
linus, mutely appealing to his friend. " Marcus it was 
who stayed my hand when, for the sake of thy sacred 
life, I put one of these Christians a boy to the tor- 

198 



POPP^EA WINS 

ture, to force him to reveal the meeting-place of the 
conspirators; and a girl who is one of the most trusted 
among them was taken out of our hands by him and 
released. Yet again did we arrest her, and but an hour 
ago thy Prefect, charged by thee with the safe keeping 
of these wretches, did again set her free. Marcus, too, 

it was who, regardless of thy safety, did " And 

here the glib tongue of Tigellinus was silenced, for the 
Empress had quietly entered with Berenice, and was 
listening, unobserved by Caesar, to this accusation. 
Poppsea s eyes were fixed upon Tigellinus with an ex 
pression of such menace that he saw he had gone too 
far in his denunciation of Marcus for her approval. 
He stammered and hesitated, staring in confusion at 
the Empress. Nero, following the direction of his gaze, 
beheld Poppaaa, and, with a hoarse cry of relief, stag 
gered into her arms. The slightest hint of a design 
upon his life was sufficient to spur him into the wildest 
frenzy of fear and anger, in the throes of which he 
would scatter half-inarticulate commands for the whole 
sale murder of all who fell under his suspicion. The 
mere thought that Marcus could be guilty of neglecting 
any possible precautions seemed to Nero monstrous, 
and he might instantly have been moved to some stern, 
if not disastrous, measures against him but for the tact 
and courage of the Empress. 

"Ah, my Poppaea," he murmured, " thou hast come 
in time. Here s treason, foul treason, towards our 
sacred selves." 

" Treason ?" questioned Poppasa. " Who says this ?" 
Her gaze was fixed upon Tigellinus with an expression 

199 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

of threatening wrath that somewhat disconcerted the 
wily Councillor. 

" Tigellinus. He hath accused Marcus " 

" Of treason ?" asked the Empress, and she dwelt on 
the word with such scornful contempt of the possibility 
of such faithlessness on the part of the Prefect that 
Tigellinus made an effort to remove, to a certain extent, 
the impression which his words, and still more subtle 
insinuations, had left upon Caesar s mind. Stammer- 
ingly he explained 

" Treason ! Nay, Emperor, not exactly that 
but " 

" But what eh ?" fiercely demanded Nero. " What 
else than treason to Caesar is it if he protects those who 
scheme against Cesar s life?" 

" There has been some exaggeration here," said Pop- 
psea calmly, gazing fixedly at Tigellinus. " I know the 
whole story, Csesar. Berenice hath confided it to me, 
and I was even now seeking thee to ask for thy au 
thority to set the matter right. Possibly, zeal for thy 
safety" and a cold, cruel smile of contempt played 
momentarily round her lips "hath induced your 
faithful servant to overestimate the importance of 
Marcus error." 

"What is it, then eh? What hath he done?" 
asked Nero, his wild suspicions not yet allayed. 

" Marcus is a man, and, lacking thy constancy, great 
Csesar, is too easily caught by a pretty face." And she 
placed her arms around Caesar s neck, with an expres 
sion of such intense love and trustfulness in his loyalty 
to her that he was almost led to believe himself the 

200 



POPP^A WINS 

model of marital faith that her words were intended to 
imply. " Of all these hordes of Christians that we 
hear of, he hath spared but one and that one a mere 
girl, who, for the moment, hath caught his wayward 
fancy." 

"Is that all? Only one girl eh?" gasped Nero, 
with intense relief. 

" I do not think that any here can name another. 
How say you, Tigellinus ?" The question came from 
Poppsea more in the form of a threat and command, 
and as such Tigellinus understood it, and hastily he 
replied 

" No, Emperor, no." 

" Only one girl ! Oh, that matters but little. A 

girl but even a girl " And again Nero looked 

fearfully and furtively around, as if searching for 
evidence of this new peril. 

" May be dangerous. And so it were wise in thee, 
my love, to give power to Tigellinus to take this girl 
out of the hands of Marcus, and leave thee to deal 
with her thyself," urged Poppsea, cunningly achieving 
the task she had set herself. Marcus was not to be 
punished, but Mercia was to be taken from him and 
placed in her hands, to be done with as, in her judg 
ment, might seem best. For was not her will Caesar s? 

Gladly did Nero acquiesce in this arrangement, and 
he pressed Poppsea s hand with damp and trembling 
fingers as he answered 

" Yes, yes j of course. Deal with her myself. Thou 
shalt have power. Accursed be the whole race of these 
murderous Christians ! Seek our sacred lives ? I ll 

2OI 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

throw them to the beasts ! I ll dress them in skins of 
wolves and set the bloodhounds on them ! Ha ! That 
will be sport ! I ll soak them in oil and tallow, as I did 
before, and set them blazing ! I ll light all Eome with 
them !" Nero looked more devil than man ; his face 
was distorted with passion, his eyes glaring with insane 
ferocity; foam necked the corners of his mouth, and 
his whole body quivered in the grip of the fury which 
possessed him, while the skin of his forehead worked 
up and down with the flexibility of that of an enraged 
monkey. Even Poppsea, used as she was to his parox 
ysms of fury, involuntarily shrank from him, while the 
parasites who watched him shivered with apprehension. 
He had utterly forgotten the business of the day in his 
rage and terror. 

With a wave of the hand he dismissed the whole 
Court, save only Tigellinus, to whom he cried 

" Tigellinus, come thou with me. I will give thee 
power to arrest this girl. Plot against Caesar s life ? 
Look to it that not these Christians alone, but all who 
trade or traffic with them, or house or countenance 
them, or hold converse with them, be punished too. 
Double the guards round my palace, good Tigellinus. 
Search every house suspected. Show no mercy. Let 
Fenius Eufus organise a troop of German horse to ride 
from street to street and arrest all who are suspected 
of harbouring these vile regicides. He is a good man, 
our Fenius ; he will show no mercy. Wretches ! Have 
they forgotten that Nero is immortal, and that all who 
attempt to harm his sacred person are doomed to death 
by the wrath of the gods themselves ? Come, they 

202 



POPP^A WINS 

have yet to learn my power, my Tigellinus. I I 

I " But speech failed the imperial craven, and he 

staggered away, muttering, mouthing, shivering and 
inarticulate, his villainous Councillor following. 

Poppsea paid but little apparent attention to Nero s 
insane ravings, but she felt deeply the danger to which 
all who came under his notice were constantly exposed ; 
perhaps some presentiment of her own fate over 
shadowed her. The time was not so far distant when 
her influence over the mad tyrant was to decline ; when 
she was to plead in vain for mercy, and meet her death 
by his brutality. But, meantime, it was for her to 
hide his weaknesses from the people, to magnify his 
power and genius ; for in his greatness she flourished 
and thrived. 

Turning to Berenice, who stood, pale and trembling, 
affrighted at Nero s brutal violence, Poppaa reassur 
ingly placed her hand upon the shoulder of her friend, 
saying 

" I have kept my word, and thou hast thy desire. 
This Christian girl shall trouble thee no more." 

Berenice was now fearful for the safety of Marcus. 
She saw how narrow was the plank on which he stood 
in Nero s favour, how insecure his position in the good 
will of the fickle tyrant, and she began almost to regret 
the haste with which she had sought for Poppiea s aid. 
Should this whirlwind of hate and anger shift in the 
direction of Marcus, his life was not worth an obolus. 
It hung by the frail thread of Nero s whims and 
temper. 

With these thoughts crowding in upon her mind her 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

thanks were but stammering and half-hearted. Kneel 
ing, she answered Poppaea, saying 

" I thank thee, Empress, but but " 

" What now ? Dost thou regret ?" 

" Not for this wretched girl, but for Marcus. Should 
any evil come to him through fault of mine or " 

" Or Caesar s anger ? Have no fear, my friend ; no 
harm shall come to Marcus through Caesar. I will pro 
tect him from Nero, but I cannot always be on the 
watch to safeguard him from others. Tigellinus is cun 
ning, and, hating Marcus as he does, will spare neither 
gold nor labour to bring about his ruin. What I know, 
I can provide for, but I must be forewarned ; so keep 
me well informed of all that concerns Marcus. He 
must be cautious too." 

Berenice, whose anger had subsided, was now all fear 
and apprehension. Her eyes were filled with tears ; 
she could scarce restrain her sobs j the clouds of rage 
and hate were dissolving in this rain of dread and pity. 
Poppaea took her by the hand, saying, half smilingly, 
half soothingly, 

" Poor Berenice ! Thou art already sorry for thy 
eagerness for revenge. There, take courage ! Marcus 
shall not be harmed. The girl shall be taken from 
him, and he will forget her soon enough when once she 
is out of his sight. Thou shalt have thy heart s dearest 
wishes gratified. Marcus dare not disobey Caesar s 
commands, and Caesar shall command that he wed 
thee." 

" How can I thank thee enough, dear Empress ?" 
softly exclaimed Berenice. 

204 



POPP^A WINS 

" Do not thank me at all at least, until thou hast 
tried Marcus as a husband. It is best to wait. Now, 
what I am about to do must seem a blessing ; it may 
prove a curse. Thy lover now seems all that thou de- 
sirest ; but wait, my Berenice, wait ! "We poor, weak 
women never know these men until we have married 
them." And, with a look in which a rallying humour 
was not altogether unmixed with regret for her own 
precarious position with her husband, Poppsea led her 
friend to her own apartments in a distant part of the 
palace. 



205 



CHAPTEK XV 

ANCAKIA 

THIS was the day for which Marcus had arranged 
the supper at his palace, to which, before he had met 
Mercia, he had invited his boon-companions and ac 
quaintances. Glabrio was to be there ; so, too, were 
Philodemus and many others of the reckless young 
patricians, all ever eager to share with Marcus his 
banquets or adventures. Marcus had spoken truly 
when he told Berenice that no ladies would be present 
at this feast. The women invited to minister to the 
delectation of his male guests were the most beautiful 
and amusing among the courtesans of Eome. First 
in favour with the patrician youths was a woman 
named Ancaria, a magnificent creature. Superbly 
moulded in form and feature, cunning, clever, passion 
ate, gifted with an exquisite voice, she had become im 
mensely popular as a singer at the feasts given by the 
rich of the city, who paid her almost fabulous prices 
for her services. Her songs and odes were not such 
as would be chosen for the edification of the young. 
Love, and the passion which served as such among the 
profligate, were the themes of her verses, and she sang 
them with an abandonment, coupled with a dramatic 
vivid pantomime that proved to those who composed 
her audience exciting in the highest or lowest de 
gree. Her face was finely shaped, the lips suggesting 

206 



ANCARIA 

the bacchante that she was ; the eyes, of dusky bronze, 
large, lustrous, now half-closed with sensuous languor, 
anon blazing with passion, were of the species fitly 
named "speaking." They spoke indeed, and spoke 
whole volumes, though it must be confessed the scope 
of the matter was confined to what was frankest and 
coarsest in her vigorous nature. She could be seductive 
as Circe herself when she desired, or when it paid her 
to appear so, but a perfect fury when aroused to anger; 
and, in truth, it needed but a very tiny spark with her 
to cause a portentous and startling conflagration. No 
man had dared to break the chains which she had 
wound about him until she gave the signal, and seldom 
did she give that before the ruin of her captive was 
complete. ]S~o man could flatter himself that he had 
ever won her affection, save, perhaps, her present 
patron, Marcus. Whatever was possible for her de 
based nature to feel in the way of love she felt for him. 
He, on his part, was lazily amused by her vagaries and 
her talents, and mildly fascinated by the physical glory 
of her person. This was the woman who was the 
chief guest as well as the principal entertainer at the 
feast that night. 

Marcus, under the stress of excitement, roused by 
the stirring adventures of the past two days, had partly 
forgotten his banquet ; but his household was too well 
managed and controlled for his absence of mind to 
affect the necessary extensive preparations, which went 
forward as smoothly as though he superintended them 
himself. When he remembered that he had to meet 
Ancaria and her companions that night, he was angry 

207 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

with himself for having invited them to come. It was 
too late to postpone the supper, and, even if it were 
not, he had no reasonable grounds for doing so. He 
would, at least, see Mercia once again before his guests 
arrived. From that reflection he drew some consola 
tion. 

Summoning his attendants, he went to the room in 
which she was detained, and, when the door was un 
locked, he dismissed them, and asked to be allowed to 
speak with her. Quietly she assented, saying 

" Thou art my jailer ; thou hast a right to speak." 

There was no anger in her tones. He could have 
wished there had been ; this dignified calm perplexed 
him sorely. He felt ill at ease ; for all his thoughts and 
wishes seemed, as he gazed upon her, but profanation, 
degrading to himself and leaving her untouched. 

"Jailer?" he answered at last. "Nay, not quite 
that." 

"What else? At least, I am thy prisoner," said 
Mercia. 

" Ay, true ; but not by any choice of mine, gentle 
lady." 

" Why then not leave me with those who need me 
yonder ?" asked Mercia. 

" I could not bear to do so ; thou art so fair, so young, 
so sweet, and " 

" My youth is better able to suffer the hardships of 
that prison than is the age of many who are there. I 
am content to bear whatever burden is placed upon 
me, for His sake." 

" His sake ? Of whom dost thou speak ?" 
208 



AN C ARIA 

" Of Him who came into the world to save the 
world, and died that men might live," answered Mercia. 

All this was so much jingling of words to the ears 
of Marcus, who knew but little of the foundation of 
the Christian faith, and he said 

" Lady, I understand thec not. Tell me of this 
superstition." He paused before the word, but could 
find no better substitute. 

"Dost thou indeed wish to hear?" asked Mercia 
gently. 

" Yea, indeed," he answered, glad only to keep 
silence in her presence, to look upon her and listen to. 
the sweet, rich music of her voice. 

" Then I will tell thee the noblest, greatest story ever 
told to ears of man, a tale so sad, so glorious, so 
grand, that imagination cannot equal nor invention 
surpass it. Hearken to it, Prefect, full of the world 
and its faithlessness, proud in thy strength of power 
and place, proud of thy birth and wealth ! Hearken 
to it, and pray to be led to the true understanding of 
it, which, alas ! I cannot impart." 

And then she told the story of the " Man of Sor 
rows," picturing, with an unconscious vividness, the 
lonely night-watch of the shepherds ; the coming of the 
great white light ; the terror and wonderment of those 
lowly men, to whom the heavens opened as the angel 
of the Lord came down, saying unto them, " Fear not ; 
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, 
which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this 
day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the 
Lord." " And suddenly there was with the angel a 
14 209 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and say 
ing, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, 
good will toward men." 

As Mercia proceeded with the divine story her man 
ner seemed inspired ; her face shone with the glory of 
conviction ; her eyes were lit with the fire of belief and 
faith. 

Marcus sat in rapt, silent entrancement as she told 
of the coming of the Lord ; of the strange star shining 
over the humble stable in Bethlehem, where He was 
born ; of the going of the shepherds thither ; of the 
wise men from the East, who, led by the star, found 
Him cradled in the manger, and knelt in adoration 
before Him ; of the youth and glorious manhood of the 
Messiah; His miracles, teachings; His agony and 
bloody sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane ; His be 
trayal, His crucifixion ; His last cry, " Forgive them, 
Father, for they know not what they do." So ex 
quisitely pathetic were the tones of Mercia s voice, as 
she recited the last events of that wondrous sacrifice, 
that Marcus was moved to the soul, and his silent tears 
paid tribute to the story and the absolute belief of the 
narrator a belief that was evident in every word she 
uttered. 

When she ended, both were for a time silent, Mercia 
thinking with prayerful gratitude of His martyrdom, 
Marcus of the strange fable he had listened to. Men 
tally he contrasted the clear simplicity of this new 
faith with the old Koman worship of the almost count 
less gods of the mythology ; of their mundane weak 
nesses, vices, and follies ; the prayers to one deity for 

210 



ANCARIA 

this favour, to another for that ; of the sacrifices to 
Jupiter, Juno, Ceres, Neptune, Venus, Vulcan, Mars, 
and the others. How puny, how unworthy they all 
seemed, compared to the Divine Being this girl had so 
eloquently described. Fables all, of course, his gods 
and this new one of the Christians, all myths ; but 
how noble was the God of these Nazarenes, how igno 
ble his own ! 

As he raised his eyes to her face, he found that her 
gaze was fixed upon him with a look of strange, yearn 
ing sadness, that went straight to his heart. Where 
were the glib, swift, pretty compliments, the quick, 
ready jests with which he was wont to flatter and 
amuse other women ? The compliments withered and 
shrank in his brain, unspoken ; the jests never left his 
tongue. He coloured with shame at the thought of 
the feeling with which he regarded this innocent girl. 
His evil thoughts and desires were thrust back, beaten 
and humiliated. Sin appeared utterly powerless in her 
presence. As Mercia looked upon him, his nobler self 
rose above the mere lusts of the flesh, and real love, 
born of respect bordering on reverence, grew stronger 
and deeper. 

So engrossed had he been, that he started with as 
tonishment when Viturius came to warn him that his 
guests were arriving, and that he was required to re 
ceive them. Commending Mercia to the supervision 
of the faithful captain, Marcus left her, inwardly 
raging at the thought of the contrast of her purity 
with the reckless licence of those he was about to wel 
come and entertain. 

211 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Mercia, left alone, pondered on the character of the 
man she had learned to love. In it she recognised 
great merits and greater possibilities. Quickly intui 
tive and extremely sensitive, she felt the good that 
was underlying the crust of evil which, she saw, was 
the effect of training and custom rather than the out 
come of natural inborn depravity. She longed for the 
wellbeing of this man s soul, yearned for the coming 
of the eternal truth to him. What power for good to 
the world would such a man as Marcus become if im 
bued with the true faith ! She thought of Saul, his 
persecutions, his hatred of the followers and disciples 
of Jesus of Nazareth ; of his sudden conversion, his 
ministerings, his teachings, his readiness to testify to 
the truth, even unto death. Inwardly she prayed for 
the light to come to the young Prefect, as it had, in 
days gone by, shone upon the now revered disciple. 
More of Marcus than of herself and her fate did Mercia 
think, albeit her condition was perilous in the extreme. 
She knew that, if given up to the law, her life would 
be forfeited ; she shuddered to think of the death she 
might be called upon to die, but she never wavered or 
thought of saving herself by renouncing her faith. 
Nothing could shake her constancy to her Master, 
not even the overwhelming earthly love that had come 
to her for one who knew Him not, nor followed His 
precepts. 

Marcus went to receive his guests, many of whom 
had already arrived. Daones and Gyrene, two of 
Home s most famous dancers, had come with Dardanus 
and Cusus. Daones was a tall, beautiful girl, with 

219, 



AN C ARIA 

large brown eyes and a profusion of gold-tinted auburn 
hair, which fell in clustering ringlets to her waist. 
Her figure was splendid, lithe and supple ; her move 
ments were grace itself; her temper was placid, as 
easy as her morals. Gyrene was less tall than her 
companion ; swarthy of complexion, quick of temper, 
tongue, and limb ; pretty in face and figure. Their 
escorts, Cusus and Dardanus, were both wealthy, 
young, extravagant ; both, too, already well filled with 
wine. The whole four were noisily laughing over 
some coarse jest just uttered by Daones. 

It was not without difficulty that Marcus contrived 
to meet these and others of his guests with the cor 
diality that is demanded of a host. As he was bidding 
them welcome, there was a laugh in the prothyrum, or 
entrance-hall, and Glabrio entered, leaning somewhat 
heavily upon the arms of two women who were respec 
tively named Thea and Julia; both dark, handsome, 
sensuous-looking creatures. The cause of the mirth 
was a tipsy stumble made by Glabrio, who, missing 
one of the steps, had been barely saved from a heavy 
fall by the outstretched arms of Thea and Julia. 

"Thou art not hurt?" lisped Philodemus, who was 
following. 

"Hurt?" echoed Glabrio, with a leer at the two 
women who were still upholding him. " Hurt ? Ay, 
hurt to the heart ; stabbed nigh to death by two pairs 
of bewitching eyes ; pressed to suffocation by four of 
the loveliest arms man ever trusted, to his own un 
doing. Didst thou think, O Philodemus mine, that 
the little stumble made by me was accidental? Nay, 

213 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

my undiscerning friend, it was by design and cunning. 
For, look where that almost shipwreck hath landed,- 
thy friend ! Into what haven of joy hath this barque 
of mine been steered !" And the tipsy old reprobate 
bestowed his embraces with strict impartiality upon 
Julia and Thea alike. 

The guests were arriving rapidly. The chariots 
rattled up to the gates of the palace incessantly, and 
the cries of the charioteers, the tramping of the horses, 
the laughter and chatter of the women and their 
partners, the sensuous music played by an unseen 
band, the lamps, the braziers of incense, the sweet- 
smelling flowers (of which there was an endless pro 
fusion), the rich and varied hues of the bejewelled 
costumes, the white arms and busts of the women, 
their beauty, and the splendour of the palace, all 
tended to make the scene one of magnificence and 
luxury remarkable even in those days. And from all 
this pomp and grandeur the thoughts of Marcus 
wandered to the simple, white-clad figure of Mercia, 
whom he had but now parted from. Over the laughter 
and the rattle of these scores of gabbling tongues he 
heard, in thought, the sweet, tender voice of the 
Christian girl reciting that strange story of Jesus of 
Nazareth, "who came into the world to save the 
world." Gladly would he have exchanged all the 
glare, the luxury, and homage by which he was sur 
rounded for that quiet room, illumined only by Mercia s 
dear presence. As one woman after another smiled 
and beamed upon him, he mentally compared them to 
her, and turned shudderingly away. 

214 



AN C ARIA 

The most varied of entertainments were now in pro 
gress in the large atrium and the surrounding rooms : 
troupes of posturers and acrobats, performers with 
trained dogs and monkeys, and bevies of girls dancing 
to accompaniments of pipes and tambourines. Every 
where was light, mirth, gaiety, brilliancy, beauty, save 
in the heart of the giver of the feast, and there gloomy 
unrest, indefinable longings, unshaped desires, were 
torturing and perplexing him. 

Ancaria had, as was her wont, left her coming until 
late. The spoilt beauty, who loved to be in a constant 
whirl of excitement, was never happy unless she was 
the centre of attraction. Admiration was as necessary 
to her existence as food and rest. Not that she valued 
it when she received it, still, she could not live without 
it. So she had purposely delayed her arrival in order 
that attention might be focussed upon her when she 
did come. As her chariot dashed up to the gates of 
the palace the idlers gathered about them recognised 
her and shouted loud welcomes, a compliment which 
Ancaria rewarded, as was her custom, with handfuls 
of coins, which she scattered recklessly among the 
crowd who were cheering her. As she entered the 
atrium, and the lights from the lamps fell upon her, she 
looked even more than usually radiant and handsome. 
Marcus had been won to her side, but he had to be 
kept there, and so to-night she was effulgent in beauty, 
radiant and splendid. She might have spared her pains, 
for Marcus scarcely noticed her, much to her annoy 
ance and surprise. She found him with some of the 
more seriously inclined among the male guests, Ian- 

215 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

guidly discussing matters of the State, paying no heed 
whatever to the constant and assertive blandishments 
of the fair ones around him. With womanly and par 
donable weakness, Ancaria ascribed this to his pique at 
her tardy arrival. I n this she grievously erred ; Mar 
cus would have been better pleased had she remained 
away altogether. 

" After vainly endeavouring, by many little feminine 
lures and devices, to draw him to her side, all utterly 
thrown away upon and unheeded by Marcus, Ancaria 
was compelled to go to him. This she did in a far from 
amiable frame of mind. 

" Since when hath the host refrained from welcom 
ing his guests?" she asked, interrupting, with cool 
effrontery, the conversation in which Marcus was en 
gaged. 

" Some two hours ago, when all who respected his in 
vitation and wishes had arrived," was the icy rejoinder 
to her unfortunately impertinent inquiry. 

There are some women who never know when it is 
most politic to leave a man alone. Ancaria was one of 
this class. Had she been possessed of less beauty and 
more wit"she might have been warned by the cold glit 
ter in the eyes of Marcus that at another time, with 
other weapons, with whimperings and tears, for ex 
ample, she might have induced him, with many 
caresses, to request her pardon for his present rude 
ness. But this was destined to be one of Ancaria s 
least triumphant nights ; and she unfortunately de 
tected so much resentment in the tones of Marcus 
voice, that she was impelled to try what effect an even 

216 



AN C ARIA 

more bitter reply would have upon him, and she 
flashed back 

" Ah, all are not slaves to the lordly Marcus ! There 
are some who have the fortune and the freedom to be 
desired and worshipped by others who are even as 
great as he." 

"Doubtless," was the quick retort; "he must be 
indeed a stranger to Eome and Eoman doings who 
would suspect Ancaria of allegiance to any one, or any 
score of masters." A sufficiently brutal speech, and 
one not softened by the manner in which it was 
uttered. 

Now was Ancaria s opportunity. A little dignity, 
a quiet appeal to his manliness, would have moved 
Marcus to immediate, if somewhat reluctant apology; 
but most unwisely she essayed to send another arrow 
home, exclaiming 

" Or Marcus of constancy to those who love him." 

"Among whom Ancaria can scarce be numbered, 
for, to her, constancy is but another word for perpet 
ual payment," was the still more unmannerly rejoinder 
made by Marcus. 

Ancaria was astounded. Careless, even callous she 
had known Marcus to be often, but ever considerate 
and polite. What could this burst of unrestrained 
rudeness mean? What had provoked it? Ancaria 
was guilty of yet another error ; she attributed it to 
jealousy on the part of Marcus. Erroneously im 
puting this jealousy to a fresh access of love on his 
part, she determined to heighten the passion in order 
that she might strengthen her hold upon him when it 

217 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

should please her to heal, with tender asseverations of 
devotion, his wounded vanity. But she could not 
even now have done with him, and exclaimed with 
asperity 

"Ancaria at least is fortunate enough to receive 
from those who admire and seek her other payments 
than those made in gold ; respect, deference, and love 
being not the least of her rewards." 

"But by many degrees the least valued," replied 
Marcus, and, taking one of his friends by the arm, he 
strolled carelessly away, leaving Ancaria in a whirl of 
wonder and rage. What could such behaviour on the 
part of Marcus mean or portend ? She must learn, and 
that quickly. 

To that end she determined to seek those who would 
be able to inform her of the movements of Marcus 
during the few days that had intervened since her last 
meeting with him. Good or evil fortune steered her 
to a little group of men and women to whom Glabrio 
was detailing, with much unction, an account of the 
meeting of Marcus and the beautiful Christian girl. 
Glabrio s description did not err on the side of under 
rating the charms of Mercia, nor the effect created by 
her beauty upon the heart of the Prefect. With a few 
rapid, cleverly-put questions Ancaria placed herself in 
complete possession of the whole of the facts of this 
encounter, and perhaps a little more. This was the 
cause of the change in Marcus a fresh face! Some 
low-bred Christian girl had dethroned her in his 
favour! In her burning curiosity to know what this 
woman was like she kept Glabrio and Philodemus fully 

218 



ANCARIA 

occupied in replying to her questions until the signal 
was given for the adjournment to the banqueting hall. 

Sumptuous as the reception rooms were, their splen 
dour paled before the magnificence of this apartment. 
The walls were exquisitely frescoed with panels repre 
senting mythological subjects, the drawing and colour 
all being in the highest degree artistic and elaborate. 
The columns that supported the roof were twined with 
roses, and garlands of the same flowers hung in fes 
toons from pillar to pillar; lamps were everywhere 
gleaming from huge banks of blossoms; the tables 
were almost obscured by roses, in the midst of which 
were bejewelled gold cups and flagons. Amphorae of 
the choicest wines stood or leaned against the walls. 
The divans were composed of cushions covered with 
the richest silks, delicately embroidered and luxuriously 
stuffed. Perfumed fountains plashed musically in va 
rious corners of the room ; at once cooling and scenting 
the atmosphere. Hosts of slaves, richly attired, stood 
round the guests, ready to obey their smallest order, or 
slightest desire. The banquet was a marvel of culinary 
skill, and during the whole of the feast a band of lutes 
and harps discoursed the most delightful music. 

As the wine circulated, such restraint as had existed 
began rapidly to vanish. Draperies were cast aside, 
peplums and pallas were loosened the heat of the 
room being a sufficient excuse, if any excuse were 
needed in such company. Long before the repast was 
concluded most of the male guests and many of the 
female were strongly under the influence of the wine, 
of which all had partaken without stint. 

219 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Grlabrio was in his element. His bacchanalian pro 
clivities were indulged to the full. The more he drank 
the more witty and humorous he became. His face, 
nose, and bald crown, on which the roses seemed to 
wither from the excess of heat within, literally glowed 
a ruby red. Not only did he take care that his own 
emptied cup was immediately refilled, but he kept a 
wary, if somewhat tipsy eye upon all in his vicinity, 
roundly denouncing those who failed to keep pace with 
his own inordinate thirst. His -eyes beamed and 
twinkled with good-tempered fun. 

"Drink, my Dardanus, drink! By Bacchus! but 
this Falernian is ambrosia fit for Jove s own table. 
Slave, fill another cup for Dardanus. Where s 
where s Philodemus the most ess esselent Philo- 
demus where is he ? Is he still quite drunk ? Or is 
he able to pledge with me in this nectar to the bright 
eyes and silvery laugh of the fair Dacia ? Would she 
were here! Philodemus, hail ! Daones, hand that cup 
to my friend, my ess esselent friend, Philodemus." 

"But he sleeps, my Glabrio," answered Daones. 

" Then awake him. Asleep thus early ! Unpardon 
able! What an is isult to our host! Awake the 
slumberer ! Ho, my Philodemus ! A libation to the 
goddess Dacia !" 

" Yerily, I will," quoth the vacuous Philodemus, who 
was with much difficulty partly aroused ; " a goddess 
she the fair Dacia is a goddess. A cup to Dacia !" 
And with some difficulty Philodemus contrived, with 
the aid of Daones, to guide the cup to his mouth. 

Marcus was still moody, silent and abstracted. 
220 



AN C ARIA 

Edonia, a fair, voluptuous, and beautiful girl, was lean 
ing over him, flashing her steel-blue eyes at him in vain 
endeavour to attract his attention. His thoughts were 
still with Mercia. He was impatient with himself and 
all his surround ings. He loathed the drunkenness 
around him, yet continued to drink himself, heaviry, 
silently, morosely. As yet the wine had created no 
effect upon him save to deaden and benumb his facul 
ties. He was ashamed, and sought to drown his shame 
in intoxication. The air reeked with licentiousness; 
every word he heard seemed to him, in his present 
frame of mind, debasing and degrading. The jests 
were coarse, pointless, vapid ; but his guests laughed at 
them with tipsy exaggeration. Their laughter served 
still further to enrage and disgust him. 

Suddenly a cry was raised for Ancaria. A desire 
expressed for one of her songs was received with shouts 
of approval. Ancaria was delighted at this diversion 
in her favour ; she had been in a fever of anger at the 
want of attention bestowed upon her by Marcus, and 
this appeal to her was exactly what she desired. 

She declined feebly to exhibit her undoubted 
talent, but cleverly insinuated that a very little urging 
would induce her to comply with the request. The 
shouts were redoubled, and, after some further hesita 
tion, she begged the guests to choose what they wished 
her to perform. 

The song they selected was called " Eros and the 
Vestal." Ancaria smiled slightly at the acclamation 
with which the men received the name of the ballad 
chosen, and said under her breath to Glabrio 

221 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Why not re-name it Marcus and the Christian ?" 

Glabrio laughed, but, with a look towards Marcus, 
said warningly 

" Have a care, my nightingale. Our good Prefect 
loves not to jest upon that subject." 

" Doth he not indeed ?" laughed Ancaria. " I jest 
as I please, nor choose my shafts to fit the bow of any 
man." 

But, in spite of her assertion, Ancaria glanced a little 
uneasily in the direction of Marcus, fearing that he had 
overheard her. But he was at that moment listening 
to Edonia, and Ancaria s spiteful remark had not 
reached his ears. 

Silence was called, and Ancaria began her perform 
ance. 

Wrapping her draperies about her head and face, she 
assumed a manner so modest and demure that the men 
shouted with delight even before she had sung a word. 
When the uproar had subsided, she continued in a voice 
well under control, low and exquisitely musical. In 
soft and cooing tones she sang of the Yestal s modesty, 
and of her exceeding care to keep her beauties hidden 
from the gaze of all mankind ; no eye was to behold 
even her face unveiled. In this phase of the character 
the singer seemed to shiver with the iciness of her own 
chastity. Next, she described the coming of Eros. 
How, at his first approach, the Yestal drew her veil 
still closer over her face ; but, as the god of Love gazed 
upon her, curiosity impelled her to draw it a little aside 
to peep upon him. Then, as she began to feel the 
warmth of his breath upon her face, she gradually let 

222 



ANCARIA 

her hood and veil fall from her head and neck. As 
Eros drew closer, her face burned with the heat of his 
presence, her breath came in short gasps, and her bosom 
heaved. All this Ancaria pantomimed with skill and 
subtlety. Eros became more importunate, and the 
Vestal shrank in a terror which the singer contrived 
to pourtray as half-feigned, half-real. Love still ad 
vanced and clamoured, while the Vestal s resistance 
became more feeble ; she appeared nigh unto swooning 
under his attacks. Her drapery seemed to stifle her. 
She threw it from her, and her magnificent figure was 
fully revealed by the diaphanous and filmy gauze that 
clung about her while she sang, writhed, and twisted, 
as she reproduced, with wonderful simulation, the 
yielding up of the last barriers of reserve to the 
assaults of Love. 

Marcus, for whom the warmth and passion of Anca- 
ria s singing had been especially devised, had scarcely 
noticed her, but at the finish he cast at her a look of 
profound contempt, which fortunately she did not see, 
and, taking advantage of the applause and commotion 
that attended the termination of her performance, he 
strode from the room. 



223 



CHAPTER XVI 

MERCIANS PERIL 

MARCUS was angry with Ancaria, his guests, and 
himself. In his heart was a dull, leaden pain, born of 
regret and remorse. Regret for neglected opportuni 
ties of doing good, remorse for acts of evil, committed 
thoughtlessly enough, it is true, but the remembrance 
of them brought the hot blood in crimson flushes of 
shame to his face and brow. 

He sought the quiet of a room away from the ban- 
queting-hall the same from which he had looked over 
the city the night before, while waiting for news of 
Mercia. "The night before!" Was it possible that 
only four-and-twenty hours had passed since then ? It 
seemed as though half his life had been lived in that 
one little day. He walked to the casement, and, look 
ing out into the quiet night, wondered at the change 
that had taken place in him. What was it made the 
feast he had quitted so abhorrent ? The men whom he 
had thought his honest friends but one short week ago, 
now seemed to him fawning, self-seeking, flattering 
sycophants. The women he had esteemed as careless, 
happy, merry companions, he now saw as leering, 
hollow, false-hearted jades, whose charms were re 
garded by themselves as so much merchandise for 
which was to be exacted every obolus possible from 

224 



MERCIA S PERIL 

those who trafficked in them. And these were his 
friends ! Friends ? Yes, friends all for what he had, 
not one for what he was. 

A peal of drunken laughter from the supper-room 
broke in upon his thoughts, and, guessing at the jest 
which provoked it, he wondered how he could possibly 
have found amusement in such coarse ribaldry. He 
thought of their mirthless gibes, their hollow laughter, 
and wonderingly asked himself whether they had 
changed ? Was it possible that the drunken indecency, 
the lewd licence of to-night could have brought him 
any pleasure but a few nights ago? Were those 
brazen, immodest, unsexed women, reeking with sen 
suality and unbridled lust, or, what was even worse, 
the paid-for simulation of these vices were they, could 
they be, his chosen companions of yesterday? No, 
they had not changed ; there was not much variety in 
such women as these. Their tricks of trade were but 
few, and old as the hills bathed in the moonlight out yon 
der. The change was in himself. Like some life-long 
prisoner in a darkened cell, he had learned to look 
upon his feeble, flickering lamp as the only light ; 
being released, he had seen for the first time the sun, 
and, for the first time, knew what light and darkness 
meant. Yes, light had come; not in the full, but 
bright enough to show the darkness he was leaving 
behind him. What had brought him light? He 
looked at the prison across the way, picturing Mercia 
upon her knees, as he had found her when he entered 
her dungeon. In fancy he saw her again in the room 
in his own palace ; and he felt that the sunshine of her 
15 225 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

purity had illumined the dark void in which he had 
lived till now. 

Yes, it was Mercia who had wrought this change in 
him. How? By what magic or sorcery had she 
transformed the whole of his desires, tastes, and 
wishes? Was it her beauty? At the supper-table 
within there were others as beautiful as she. Her 
virtues? Not she alone was virtuous. He had met 
and known other virtuous women. Berenice, who so 
loved him, he believed to be pure and true. Had he 
not surrounded Mercia w T ith the halo of his own 
romance? Would not possession dispel the illusion 
conjured up by his all too vivid imagination ? After 
all, it might be but a passing fancy, a mere infatua 
tion that would vanish in a night. Why should he 
hesitate ? Mercia was there, alone, his prisoner, if 
he so willed, his slave. Who could or. would step 
between him and his will ? No one. Why should he 
not go to her now ? She would yield she must. 

Thus Marcus argued with himself, and, as the rich 
wine he had drunk so feverishly began to flow more 
freely through his veins, his passion rose, and the 
better part of his nature was obscured again. Surely 
he was but a timid, hesitating fool to let this girl so 
master him, so enthral and defy him. But that sweet 
face and voice, that fable of the Nazarene, told so 
exquisitely ! 

Again were his thoughts interrupted by a drunken 
shout from the banqueting-hall, and G-labrio, with 
unsteady feet and waggling head, came reeling up to 
Marcus, asking with hiccoughing reproach 

226 



MERCIA S PERIL 

" Why are we thus dis deserted, Marcus mine ?" 

Marcus looked at Glabrio with an expression in 
which a certain liking for the old bacchanalian was 
mingled with undisguised anger at the intrusion upon 
his reverie. Glabrio was quite unconscious of offence, 
and rambled on 

" I have been sent to bid thee return. Why hast 
thou left the table?" 

"I the heat stifled me," answered Marcus eva 
sively. 

" I tell thee I have been sent to beg thee to return. 
The fun lags without thee the wine no longer cheers 
the song enlivens not and the jest falls flat. Ancaria 
sighs like the bellows of a smithy. Eeturn to her." 

"Ancaria?" queried Marcus, with a look of disdain. 

" Ay, Ancaria. By Venus, she is fair ! Doth she not 
content thee?" 

" Content me ?" Marcus turned towards the window, 
from which could be seen the wing of the palace in 
which Mercia was imprisoned, and mentally he com 
pared her with Ancaria ; then, with an impatient shrug 
of his shoulders, he continued, " Contentment is for the 
gods, good Glabrio. Nay, even they seek for that pearl 
in vain." 

"Yes, I know," said Glabrio, who did not in the 
least understand what was the drift of his friend s re 
mark. " But Ancaria a flower a rose the very rose 
of roses !" 

"Yea," answered Marcus, with a gesture of con 
tempt, "but plucked the day before yesterday, and 
swiftly fading." 

227 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Fading ? Nay, in her first bloom rather. Fading ? 
Ancaria ? She is divine ! Her beauty Cytherean, and 
her temper her temper!" (this with a cautious look 
over his shoulder, for Ancaria might be within hear 
ing). " Oh, my Marcus, thou art a bold man to risk 
the rousing of that temper. Juno herself is dove-like, 
in comparison. Eeturn to her in time." 

"Keturn to her? Ancaria? I begin to hate and 
loathe Ancaria and all her kind ! Go back to them 

tell them I " What was Glabrio to tell them? 

That he longed with all his heart to be rid of them all, 
at once and for ever ? That his yearning to be with 
the Christian girl was almost uncontrollable ? No, he 
could not tell them that ! And he lamely added, " Tell 
them I am busy tell them any lie tell them the 
truth only leave me to myself!" And he flung him 
self impatiently on a couch, and rested his head upon 
his folded arms. 

Glabrio staggered towards him with tipsy gravity, 
saying 

" Here s a change indeed ! Has this Christian be 
witched thee ? Is it possible thou art turning Christian 
too?" 

The question startled Marcus. Christian ! Was it 
possible that this girl had so much power over him that 
even the drunken carelessness of a Glabrio could not 
fail to perceive it ? Had he so little command over 
himself that all who saw him could see his infatuation ? 
And was the feeling he possessed for her influenced by 
her religion ? Could it be that he was so easily swayed 
by a pretty face, a pretty fable? 

228 



MERCIA S PERIL 

These questions passed rapidly through his mind, 
but he remembered that not only these questions re 
quired answers Glabrio was also waiting a reply. 
How could he make him understand, or expect him to 
sympathise with his feelings? Better be rid of him, 
he thought, and so he cried impatiently 

" I I Christian ? Leave me, Glabrio, leave me. Go !" 

" Marcus, Marcus, thou art in a bad way. Some 
thing is out of order with thee." And Glabrio shook 
his head with so much energy that the rapidly wilting 
rose- wreath tumbled on to his nose. " Is it the heart 
or the stomach ? If tis the latter, send for the leech 
if the former, send for the woman. Women and phy 
sicians resemble each other in this tis kill or cure with 
both of them." And, in the endeavour to emphasise his 
speech with an imposing and dignified gesture, he lost his 
balance, and sat down all too suddenly upon the couch. 

" To what avail ?" asked Marcus. " She is unlike all 
other women I have ever met. Her innocence inflames, 
even while it baffles me, and, for the first time in my 
life, I find myself baulked. I can neither conquer nor 
forget her. If I start some jest and look into her pure 
eyes, it dies upon my lips in very shame. Between 
my desire and Mercia, her innocence rises like a .rock 
of adamant I may beat my heart out dashing myself 
against it, but I can never move it. And yet I feel I 
must, or else go mad ! Glabrio, I fear that girl s purity, 
absolutely fear it." And, rising from the couch, Mar 
cus strode fiercely about the room, Glabrio watching 
him from under his disordered vine-leaves and roses. 

"Yes, I have felt that way myself" (this he said 
22 9 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

with maudlin sentimentality) "when I ve been too 
sober" (this with an accent of deep regret for ever 
having been in such an undesirable condition). " But 
a full cup of wine soon cured that complaint with me. 
Send for this Mercia. What if she did deny thee yes 
terday? Twas but to whet thy appetite for her con 
sent to-day. Let her but think she ll lose thee, and 
she ll yield and yield in haste, be sure." 

Marcus was looking from the window, seemingly not 
heeding the counsel of this tipsy philosopher, but, in 
reality, carefully weighing every word he uttered. 
Was it not more than possible that Glabrio was right ? 
Might not this innocence and purity, after all, be a 
snare, a cleverly-devised trick to draw him into some 
serious entanglement ? Was she prompted to act thus 
by a desire to enmesh him in some of the plots or 
schemes of her associates? Women were cunning 
full of wiles, adepts at deception. Yet, no! Not this 
gentle creature ; it could not be. Turning to Glabrio, 
he exclaimed 

"Ah ! thou dost not know Mercia." 

" No, I do not but I know her sex," was the sen 
tentious reply. 

" But Mercia is virtuous." 

"Yirtuous? Virtue is as saleable and pursh-pursh- 
purshasable as most commodities," chuckled Glabrio. 
" Every woman has her price. It is all a question of 
marketable value. Thou hast made thy bid she hath 
declined. Bid again, my friend, and bid higher. Thou 
art rich, and, as it is more than evident that thou dost 
desire this par-tic partic-lar piece of merchandise, be 



MERCIA S PERIL 

content to pay for it. Only, here I do solemnly be 
seech thee to hearken to me, whatever thou dost offer, 
let it not include thyself, my Marcus ; thou art too 
precious for a score of Mercias." And Glabrio, fatigued 
with so much talking, reached round mechanically for 
the wine-cup, which, unhappily for his desires, was not 
within reach. 

Marcus was only too eager to see Mercia again, and 
the advice given by Glabrio jumped too closely with 
his own inclinations for him to decline it. He struck 
the gong upon the table by his side, saying to Glabrio 

" Glabrio, thou art a fool but with thy folly is ever 
a smattering of wisdom. I will send for Mercia." 

The black slave glided quickly into the room, in an 
swer to the summons made by Marcus, who, in quick, 
hard tones, ordered him to bring the lady Mercia. As 
the slave left the room, Marcus moved to the casement. 
From the dungeon, across the courtyard, came the 
sound of singing ; it was the captive Christians chant 
ing this hymn 

" Glory, Glory, Glory, hail to Thee, O Father, 
We, Thy children, crave Thy hand to guide our steps aright. 
Glory, Glory, Glory, Thou "Who sent the Saviour, 
Lead us through the darkness to Eternal Light. 

" Glory, Glory, Glory, Thou Who died to save us, 
By Thy Cross of Calvary, we kneel in trust this night ; 
Glory, Glory, Glory, Thou wilt walk beside us, 
Guide us through death s valley to Eternal Light." 

The night was still, and the words of the simple 
hymn came clearly and plainly to the ears of Marcus, 

231 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

who felt strangely moved. Another revulsion of feel 
ing perplexed him. He almost regretted having sent 
for Mercia. No such tender sentiment disturbed 
Glabrio, who, with admonishing and didactic gravity, 
again addressed his friend 

" The woman is sent for. Now, hearken to my folly. 
That which a man hath he seldom longs for. Long 
ing makes a man sick. Thou art hungry with long 
ing ; if thou wouldst be well, long no longer. A good 
full meal, my Marcus, is what my folly counsels a 

good " Here he paused for a moment, listening 

to the chant of the captives. " How those Christian 
prisoners of yours sing, Marcus ! Are they always at 
worship, night and day ? Hath death no terrors for 
these Christians ?" 

Marcus had gone to the entrance to the room, not 
heeding Glabrio s loquacity. He was eagerly and im 
patiently awaiting Mercia. 

At last the slave appeared, followed by Mercia. The 
thought that she should encounter the tipsy leers of 
Glabrio was so repugnant to Marcus that he turned to 
him, and, in urgent tones, said 

" Go, Glabrio. Eeturn to thy friends." 

But Glabrio, ever alive to the charms of women, 
pleaded 

" Let me see this beauty. Send me not hence, I beg 
of thee, without one embrace." 

Marcus shuddered at the thought of Mercia in the 
arms of such a man as Glabrio, and cried indignantly 

" Thou ? Thou embrace her ? Go ! Why, thy very 
look would pollute her." 

232 



MERCIA S PERIL 

This was too much even for Glabrio s equanimity ; he 
felt as nearly angry as was possible for a man of his 
easy disposition. He staggered to his feet with all the 
dignity that his tipsiness would admit of, and, vainly 
trying to straighten the vine-leaves on his slippery pate, 
he protested 

" Come, come, Marcus ! I am fairly good-tempered, 
drunk or sober, but this is more than I can bear. Pol 
lute is a harsh word ess esseedingly harsh. I am 
not the plague !" And he drew himself up almost 
straight, with such a grotesque attempt at dignity that, 
had Marcus been less engrossed in the coming of Mer- 
cia, he must have laughed outright. However, his 
present desire was to get Glabrio out of the room, and 
he answered quickly 

" Well, well, I was hasty ; but go. Glabrio." 

" But pollute ?" echoed Glabrio, with tipsy pathos in 
his voice. 

" I was wrong. Forgive me, Glabrio." 

At this plea for pardon all Glabrio s mild resentment 
vanished ; a broad smile of content widened his capa 
cious mouth, and, chuckling to himself, he murmured 

" Well, well, I bear no man ill-will, least of all my 
Marcus. Such wines ! . . . such wome . . . ! Oh ! ah, 
yes ! . . . reminds me . . . Ancaria temper ... do 
not forget Ancar " 

An impatient gesture from Marcus interrupted him, 
and he went on, knowingly, 

" Tis well. I understand. I am no spoil-sport. I 
am going." 

" Then go. But say nothing of Mercia," urged Marcus. 

2 33 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" No, no ; discress discression itself. Do not fear 
your Glabrio." And, with many a wink and nod, he 
waddled away to the banqueting-hall, from which an 
uproarious burst of laughter was heard, announcing his 
return. 

Marcus gave a quick sigh of relief, for Mercia was 
close at hand. As she entered, he saw, to his astonish 
ment, that she had chains upon her wrists. Turning 
to the slave, he demanded 

" Who has dared to do this ?" 

" The guard, Excellence, fearing that she might again 
escape." 

" Take off those chains instantly !" 

The slave, taking a key from his girdle, unlocked 
and removed the manacles. 

" Send the guard to Yiturius. He shall repent his 
officiousness." 

The slave made his salaam, and went noiselessly 
away. 

Marcus bowed with grave respect to Mercia, saying, 
with much regret, 

" Lady, I grieve that thou hast been thus insulted. 
I did not know of it, believe me. Twas done against 
my direct commands." 

Mercia replied, quietly and sadly, 

" I desire no favour, sir. What my companions suffer 
I would suffer too." 

" But they are so different," urged Marcus. 

" Indeed, yes ; and most of them less able to endure 
the chains than I," was the gentle response. 

With difficulty Marcus restrained the inclination to 

234 



MERCIA S PERIL 

take the beautiful creature in his arms. The brutal 
advice given by Glabrio had borne some fruit. For the 
time, his evil propensities were strongly in the as 
cendant. The sight of her beauty tempted him into 
forgetfulness of her purity. He glided quietly to her 
side, murmuring 

" That lovely form those tender wrists were made 
for other chains the chains of love." And he moved 
still nearer to her. But Mercia gently retreated from 
him, and, with calm dignity, asked 

" T\ r hy didst thou send for me ?" 

" To feast upon thy beauty ; to hear the music of 
thy voice; to see the light that beams from those 
bright eyes ; and watch the roses chase the lilies from 
thy cheeks." Marcus spoke in deep, low tones, his 
eyes hungrily taking note of all her loveliness. Mercia 
shrank from him, and said 

" Wouldst thou indeed do me a service ?" 

" Gladly !" replied Marcus eagerly. " Command : I 
obey. Thou hast but to name thy wishes." 

" Send me back to my fellow-prisoners." 

"Ask anything but that," urged Marcus, with a 
slight touch of resentment in his accents. 

" That and their freedom is all I wish." 

" I cannot grant thee either request." 

" Why ? Thou art all-powerful." 

" I cannot give them freedom, because the law is 
stronger than I, its officer. I cannot send thee back 
to them, because my love for thee is greater even than 
my desire to serve thee." 

Mercia shrank yet farther from him. His eyes were 

235 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

flaming with wine and passion. She was alone with 
the absolute lord of her liberty and life. She began to 
dread the consequences of her coming thither. She 
had wished to see him again, but she had never seen 
him as he appeared to her now. The manly solicitude 
for her safety had given place to undisguised admira 
tion. Mercia felt a quick pang of regret clutch at her 
heart as she measured the fall of this man in her es 
teem. Her intuition bade her escape from him if she 
could, and she said, with great dignity, 

" Sir, I am a prisoner of the law. If I have trans 
gressed that law, punish me. I have been taught to 
suffer without murmuring." 

" Punish thee ?" he echoed. "Suffer? I would not 
have thee suffer a single pang. Come, let us be friends." 
And again he moved nearer to her, endeavouring to 
take her hand. Mercia quietly avoided him as she 
answered 

" Friendship with the good cannot exist without 
respect." 

Marcus bit his lip in anger. Who was this girl that 
she should so repulse him? His caresses, so sought 
after by all other women, declined by this strange girl, 
with almost a shudder ! He controlled a feeling of re 
sentment and asked 

" And thou hast no respect for me ? Is it not so ?" 

" How can I respect one who has no respect for him 
self?" was the gentle reproof. 

"And have I no respect for myself?" he questioned. 

"No man respecteth himself who hath no respect 
for woman. For the Teacher hath said that woman is 

236 



MERCIA S PERIL 

the fount of all that is good and beautiful in man." 
Mercia said this with such firm, though sweet dignity, 
and with so much conviction, that Marcus paused to 
gaze upon her in wonder. Never had woman so spoken 
to him before. He was perplexed beyond measure. 
With him was all the might and force of unrestrained 
manhood, power of place, strength of will ; and yet this 
physically frail girl, alone, seemingly unprotected, 
dominated and controlled him, yea, even against his 
will and desires ; lessened and weakened the evil, 
prompted and strengthened the good in him. Invol 
untarily he submitted to her virtue and acknowledged 
her goodness as he uttered 

" Ah, I have met few such women, lady." 

Softly, yet firmly, came the answer 

" Women are too often what men desire them to be. 
What man desires that a woman, other than his own 
kin, should be good ?" 

" Good ?" Marcus laughed. " Good ? Right, wrong, 
virtue, vice, goodness, sin, what are they ? The acci 
dents of habits and conditions ; a mass of contradic 
tions amongst which we men grope blindly, raking 
and scratching for that which is not there happiness. 
Ah ! happiness is a rare thing, lady, most rare, and 
is seldom found when sought for. If it comes my way 
unsought, why should I reject it?" 

With earnest conviction came the gentle answer 

" Happiness is seldom found, because men seek it in 
pleasure. Pleasure and happiness are not always 
akin. Pleasure is too often of the world; true happi 
ness comes from God." 

237 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" What God do you mean ?" 

" The only God the Everlasting." 

" So we consider all gods. Are they not all immor 
tal?" 

" There are no gods save One." 

" To avow that is to admit thyself a Christian." 

Mercia remained silent, and, after a moment, Marcus 
proceeded 

" Thou art a Christian ? Have no fear. I promise 
thee I will not use thy confession to thy detriment, but 
it is true, is it not ? Thou art a Christian ?" 

" I will not deny it." 

" Why didst thou become one ?" Marcus asked, almost 
contemptuously. 

" Why does the sun shine, the flowers bloom, the 
birds sing ? Because He willed it." Her eyes, up 
turned, beamed with celestial light. A smile of intense 
joy was upon her lips. Filled with the rapture of 
belief, she appeared less a thing of earth than heaven. 
But, for the time, her influence for good on Marcus 
was gone ; he was blind to all but his passion for her. 
He could not think or reason ; he could only look upon 
Mercia with the eyes of mad, unholy longing. Moving 
closer to her, his voice coarsened and hoarse with the 
intensity of his desires, he said 

" Lady, we stand here arguing like two parchment- 
dried philosophers; we, who are young, and feel 
youth s hot blood galloping through full veins. We are 
not musty pedants, but warm, passionate children on 
the very threshold of life. Let us leave philosophy 
and doctrine to grizzled greybeards, and let us love." 

238 



MERCIA S PERIL 

And with that he caught her in his arms and pressed 
her passionately to his breast. Mercia was terrified. 
Involuntarily, a slight scream escaped her, and she 
cried, struggling to release herself, 

" Pray, let me go hence : I fear thee !" 

But Marcus held her fast, and with his face bent 
down close to hers, he whispered 

" Fear me ? Nay, love is soft and kind and gentle. 
What is there to fear ?" 

Still she strove to free herself, and still he held her 
close ; and again she pleaded 

" I beg of thee, let me go hence, even though it be to 
death." 

Marcus grew furious. To be thrust away from this 
girl with such loathing and horror for there was no 
mistaking the expression upon Mercia s face was so 
wounding to his vanity that, for the moment, he almost 
hated her. Now all his pity for her helpless con 
dition was gone; she could not protect herself, it 
was most evident. He had been too submissive, he 
thought, too gentle, too considerate. No man ever 
yet profited by yielding too completely to the whims 
of women. He would cease to plead he would 
command. Death preferable to his embraces? This 
proud or cunning Christian girl had yet something to 
learn of his character; he was not all submission, 
not quite altogether weak and docile as she would 
find! 

" Death ?" he repeated. " Let us to-morrow welcome 
grisly death ; to-day thou shalt taste some of the joys 
of living." 

239 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

He went to a table, and pouring out a full goblet of 
strong wine, he exclaimed 

" By Yenus ! my blood must be half-frozen in my 
veins that I have let thee waste that beauty in solitude 
so long." He emptied the cup, drinking to the last 
drop. " Glabrio was right," he thought. He had been 
" too sober." " A cup of good wine" would dispel the 
sickly sentimentality of his feelings towards this obdu 
rate or calculating girl. The wine was powerful, and 
surged through his body like liquid fire. He flung 
down the cup upon the table, and turned towards 
Mercia. 

But quickly Ancaria entered the room, and, not ob 
serving Mercia, went straight to Marcus, saying, as she 
threw her arms around his neck, 

" Ah, thou truant ! Have I found thee at last ?" 

Thus evil wrought for good ; the intervention of the 
brazen Ancaria unwittingly preserved her purer sister 
from insult. 

Still ignorant that she was not alone with Marcus 
(for Mercia was at the other end of the room, partly 
hidden in the shadow), Ancaria continued 

" Why hast thou forsaken us ? Glabrio, sent to woo 
thee back, returned without thee, and would not tell us 
why. Come, return to thy friends. The wine lacks 
flavour, and the feast its zest, while thou art absent." 

Almost fiercely Marcus disengaged himself from 
Ancaria s embrace. Half in wonderment, half in 
anger, she asked 

"What means this sudden change in thee? Dost 
thou no longer love Ancaria ?" 

240 



MERCIA S PERIL 

Marcus turned and looked towards Mercia, who was 
gazing through the casement into the night, in appar 
ent indifference to the presence of Ancaria or himself. 
"Love Ancaria!" The thought sickened him. Love 
this shameless creature ! With a swift glance he com 
pared the two women, and for the courtesan he felt a 
loathing unutterable. With a struggle he conquered 
the feeling sufficiently to enable him to say, with com 
parative steadiness of voice, 

" Go back to thy friends. Go, and leave me here 
alone." 

" Alone ? But, Marcus " 

A slight movement on the part of Mercia caused 
Ancaria to look in her direction. Seeing her, she 
assumed a look of disdainful inquiry, and, with raised 
eyebrows, she said 

" Oh, I understand ! This is the cause of thy absence. 
Who is this lady ?" 

" My guest," was the brief, cold answer. 

" Then let her join the others." 

" She is not here at thy command." 

" But I am here at thy desire." 

" Then, at my desire, go hence." 

" Oh, no ! I came for thy pleasure ; I remain for my 
own !" cried the enraged and partly intoxicated Anca 
ria, throwing herself upon the couch in an attitude as 
remarkable for its grace as it was for its absence of 
decorum. 

Marcus looked at her in helpless disgust. Had it 
been a man who had dared to defy him thus, he could, 
and probably would, have thrown him bodily from the 
16 241 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

room, but with a woman and withal, such a woman 
as Ancaria what could he do ? 

Mercia was anxious only to be gone, and she pleaded, 
almost tearfully, to Marcus 

" I pray thee, let me return to my prison !" 

" Prison ?" echoed Ancaria. "Prison? Ah! now I 
know. This, then, is the Christian we have heard 
so much about ! So, this is the witch who hath en 
chanted thee !" Then she burst forth into a shout of 
derisive, half-tipsy laughter that incensed Marcus still 
further. "Here s sport indeed!" continued the furious 
woman. Running to the entrance of the room, she 
screamed out vehemently " Grlabrio ! Daones ! Thea ! 
Dardanus ! Come hither ! Come, and come quickly ! 
Come, and learn the cause of our dear host s desertion ! 
Slaves there ! bring lights, that we may see her, and 
wine, that we may drink to her. Come, friends ! 
Come, all of you ! Come !" 

Shrieking, laughing, staggering, jeering, the whole 
of the semi-drunken guests who were able to stand or 
move from the table came flocking into the room. 
When the lights were lit, they saw the pure, white 
figure of Mercia, unconsciously following the example 
of her divine Master in her sorrowful pity for the 
misguided beings around her. She stood alone and 
unfriended amidst all the glare of gaudy colour, glint 
of jewels, coarse jesting, crackling, mirthless laughter, 
reeling women, and staggering men. Calmly she 
awaited the orders of her jailer. With eyes uplifted, 
and in silent prayer, she was no more touched by the 
foulness that surrounded her than is the Christian 

242 



MERCIA S PERIL 

faith by the dirt that may bespatter the walls of one 
of its cathedrals. 

At the first sight of her beauty and unconscious 
innocence a slight hush fell upon the revellers, but it 
was but momentary their finer faculties such as they 
possessed had long since been obscured by the wine 
they had drunk, and their tipsy jeers, jests, and laugh 
ter went on as before. 

" Here s new sport, friends !" shouted Ancaria. 

"What sport?" queried Glabrio, who had not yet 
caught sight of Mercia. " Why are we brought hither ? 
We were so merry yonder, and there s no one sober 
save myself Look at our ess essellent Philodemus, 
already in his second drunk !" 

"Nay, nay," piped that candid, if somewhat feeble 
creature. " Not my second. Let us be honest this 
is my third." 

" What is it we are Oh ! Ah !" chuckled 

Glabrio, as he observed Mercia. " Now I see exactly !" 
And, noting Ancaria s blazing cheeks and fiery eyes, he 
added under his breath to Edonia, " Now we shall see 
some sport !" 

" What sport ?" asked Gyrene. 

" Look yonder," answered Glabrio, indicating Mercia. 

" And who is she ? What can she do ? A panto 
mime? A dance?" said Gyrene. 

" A dance ?" cried Daones. " What dance ? Who is 
she, I pray? Why, I will dance her for my life!" 
And Daones whirled quickly round, and, finishing, 
struck an attitude at which those sober enough to do 
it, applauded. 

243 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Who is the girl ?" inquired Julia. 

" Who ?" sneeringly replied Ancaria. " Who but the 
Christian ?" 

" The Christian ?" the revellers shouted. " Let us 
see her !" 

" Ay, pray look upon her, ladies," continued Ancaria, 
" and learn for what you are deserted. This is the en 
chantress who hath bewitched our Marcus. This is the 
Christian this piece of lifeless marble ! By Yenus ! 
ladies, we must learn to distil the charms these Chris 
tians brew, or we shall be left loverless." 

" Nay," lisped Philodemus, " I will never leave thee, 
my Ancaria." Whereon he embraced Julia. 

During all this revilement of the lovely girl Marcus 
stood apart, quiescent, motionless. His first natural 
instincts were to rescue Mercia from the insults levelled 
at her, but his anger, fanned by his wounded self- 
respect, betrayed him into another act of brutality. 
He determined to humble the pride of this coldly con 
temptuous Christian. Let her suffer a little indignity ! 
It would do her no harm. He would see that it did 
not go beyond that. Meanwhile, a glimpse into a side 
of life different to that in which she had been schooled 
might induce her to think a little more leniently of 
those who indulged in its pleasures. Let her see that 
there was another, merrier, brighter side to existence 
than that she had known. No, he would not interfere 
yet. Let the stream of banter flow on ; time enough 
to dam or divert it when it tended to injure physically 
the woman who was the innocent cause of it. 

" Well, ladies," said Ancaria, tearing in pieces the 
244 



MERCIANS PERIL 

wreath of roses she had girdled about her, " what think 
you ? Is this the star that is to outshine us all ?" 

" She outshine us ?" queried Daones. " In what, I 
pray ? Can she sing as well, or dance as nimbly, or 
pantomime as well as I ?" 

" Perchance not," replied Glabrio ; " but," with an 
unctuous smacking of his lips, " she s very lovely." 

" Lovely ?" laughed Daones. " Perhaps. But I care 
not for that style of loveliness, if loveliness it be." 

"Nor I. She is too tall for my taste," cried Thea. 

" And too cold for mine," said the sensuous Julia. 

" And a statue hath more animation," exclaimed the 
volatile Mytelene. 

" In what lies her attraction for such a man as Mar 
cus ?" asked Daones. 

" She has a fresh face," answered Edonia. 

" She has bewitched him. She is a sorceress !" said 
Ancaria spitefully. " They say these Christians can 
perform miracles." Then the angry woman stalked up 
to Mercia, and, with arms akimbo, said derisively, 
" Perform one now." 

" She hath performed one already, if she hath made 
Marcus really love her," laughed Daones. 

"Marcus love her?" venomously retorted Ancaria. 
" Oh, yes, for an hour perchance for two assuredly 
not for a day. Poor fool ! the cast-off sandal of a year 
ago will not be more forgotten than she will be to-mor 
row. Marcus love her ? Oh, yes ! with a love that 
will live as long as a snowflake in the noonday sun." 

A roar of laughter followed this sally, and Marcus, 
seizing Ancaria by the wrist, hissed in her ear 

2 45 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Keep thy tongue quiet, mistress." 

" Keep my tongue quiet ?" shrieked the courtesan. 
" "Was it for that you brought us hither ?" Wrenching 
herself from the grasp of Marcus, and turning to the 
guests, she added, "Ladies, here s a change indeed! 
Marcus would have us still our tongues !" 

" Impossible !" sapiently murmured Glabrio. 

" Quite," retorted Ancaria, " unless he first seal our 
lips." And she offered her mouth to be kissed. But 
Marcus turned from her. 

"His present seal should be the ass s head," said the 
lively Daones ; and all shouted 

"Ay, ay! Anakoites!" 

When the shouts and laughter had subsided, Ancaria 
sprang into the centre of the room, crying 

" Let the girl join us ! She is asleep awaken her ! 
Let her be as one of ourselves, or let her go. She hath 
spoiled the feast ruined our pleasure. What dost 
thou say, friends ? Shall I sing thee a song of love ? 
A new one?" 

"Yea, yea!" all the guests shouted. And Ancaria 
answered, " I ll rouse this statue, if anyone can. Pass 
thou the wine." And, w T ith consummate skill, she sang 

What though to-morrow cometh grisly Death ? 
To-day the roses bloom, the wine runs red. 
Red wine to red lips, hot breath to hot breath ! 
Love s kiss would waken me e en were I dead. 

Elysium is but fulfilled desire, 

And Hades but desire still unfulfilled. 

Then let then let " 

246 



MERCIA S PERIL 

The singer hesitated tried to begin again then 
broke down utterly, for, far above the tones of her 
voice, rang out in tones of devout belief and supplica 
tion the hymn of the imprisoned Christians 

" Shepherd of souls that stumble by the way, 
Pilot of vessels storm-tossed in the night, 
Healer of wounds, for help to thee we pray ; 
Guide thou our footsteps, send the morning light. 
Oh, lead us home!" 

At the sound of the beloved words, so often sung by 
her at the feet of her parents and Favius in the happy 
bygone days, Mercia, whose power of endurance had 
been waning, lifted her head and, with glowing face and 
glistening eyes, seemed to drink in renewed life, fresh 
hope, new strength, under this appeal to the Shep 
herd. The drunken revellers, like foul, noisome reptiles, 
crouching in darkness, suddenly startled by a flood of 
sunshine, shrank back into uneasy and, to them, inexpli 
cable silence. Daones was the first to recover herself. 

" Who are those singers ?" 

" The Christian prisoners," replied Glabrio. 

" This girl s associates ? Stop them !" screamed An- 
caria. 

" Stop them ! stop them !" repeated the rest. 

" They chill, they freeze me !" shivered Ancaria. " I 
cannot sing against these crazy fanatics, Marcus. Send 
to them and bid them cease." 

" No, indeed not I !" cried Marcus sternly. " Tis a 
battle of the gods Christus against Pluto. Let the 
fight rage on !" 

247 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"We ll drown their bowlings! On with the song!" 
shouted the guests. 

" Ay. Shall I be beaten by these wretches ?" said 
Ancaria. And again she essayed to sing the words 

" Elysium is but fulfilled desire, 
And Hades but desire " 

Again, in its simple strength, the hymn rose above 
the sensual song of the courtesan, who stopped, glaring 
at Mercia for a moment, and then cried loudly 

" I cannot I cannot sing !" 

"By Yenus! I m freezing! What ails me?" said 
one of the men. 

" I feel that I could weep," whimpered one of the 
women. 

" Tis this girl s witchcraft. Smite her! smite her! 
smite her ! She is a sorceress !" yelled the infuriated 
Ancaria. 

" Make her drink !" exclaimed Daones. " Give her 
wine, Grlabrio." 

" Ay, come, drink," urged Grlabrio. " Drink and be 
merry, for to-morrow we die." 

Then, for the first time, did Mercia turn and look 
upon them, and, with a simple dignity that was 
majestic, she called in her sweet, clear tones 

" No ! to-morrow we live. To-day thou art dead in 
unrighteousn ess." 

" Drink, girl, drink !" they shouted. 

" I will not," replied the faithful Mercia ; " and woe 
unto you who would tempt me, for ye are lost ! Ah, 

248 



MERCIA S PERIL 

turn from the ways of darkness seek the light ; tis 
shining there to guide thee." 

Mercia stood with arms extended, her pure face, her 
white-clad figure standing out among the rest of the 
glittering, sensual, drunken throng like a messenger 
of Heaven. 

" Stop the witch s mouth ! Give her wine !" cried 
Ancaria. 

" Make her drink !" shouted the others. 

" I have said I will not," was the calm reply. 

Glabrio, with drunken insistence, exclaimed 

"By the gods, thou shalt!" And, going towards 
her, he would have forced the wine upon her, had not 
Marcus suddenly seized him, and, hurling the easily 
yielding Glabrio in one direction and the wine- cup in 
another, confronted the whole of the assemblage with 
angry defiance, saying 

" Let no man touch her !" 

" A pretty host, forsooth !" exclaimed Ancaria. 
" Insult us for this new-found toy this inanimate 
piece of bloodless whiteness ! He must be mad !" 

" Perchance I am mad, for my brain is reeling and 
my veins run fire ! Hence, all of you ! You are not 
fit to breathe the same air with her, for your breath 
reeks of wine and in your kisses lurks the pestilence, 
and in your bartered love lies ruin misery madness 
despair and death ! Hence ! hence ! hence ! I com 
mand thee !" 

With mirth and astonishment on the part of some, 
and indignation on that of others, the medley crew of 
patrician men, courtesans, and dancers hurried from 

249 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

the room, laughing, scowling, jeering, and cursing. 
While the sound of their voices could be heard Marcus 
stood still, his arms tightly folded across his breast, his 
gaze fixed upon Mercia. When the last echo of the 
cries of the tipsy crowd had died away in the distance, 
he spoke. 

" See, I have driven those who reviled thee hence. 
Art thou content ?" 

Mercia saw the wine-inflamed face, the bloodshot 
eyes of Marcus, and heard the hoarse accents in which 
he addressed her, and she trembled with apprehension. 
Controlling her voice as best she could, she answered 

" Now, let me go hence." And she moved towards 
the door. But Marcus barred the way. He was 
breathing heavily ; his eyes were glaring with passion ; 
his chest heaved ; he was trembling violently ; his fin 
gers clutched at his arms until the nails tore the flesh 
to bleeding. He had lost all control over himself; the 
excitement of the past two days, the want of food, the 
wine, his lust, anger, wounded self-esteem, all were at 
work within him ; his brain was clouded ; he could 
think of nothing but the mad desire to control this girl 
who had so enthralled, so scorned him. 

As Mercia stood watching him, she shuddered. 
Could this be the same man who, but a few hours ago, 
was so full of gentleness and sympathy? He was 
transformed ; all trace of nobility, even manliness, had 
left his face. The girl s position was terrible indeed, 
and yet, through it all, she loved and pitied the man 
with all her heart. After a/moment, he cried, in hoarse 
rage, 

250 



MERCIA S PERIL 

" Go ? No ! you sorceress or witch ! No, you beau 
tiful statue you cold, glittering star! You have 
driven them hence, but you remain. Your icy chastity 
burns into my heart ! I never knew desire until I knew 
you, and, if your touch were poison, I d possess you! 
If death lurked in your kisses, I d feast upon them ! 
Come to me ! come to me !" Hushing to her, he seized 
her in his arms. Struggling with his greater strength, 
Mercia was almost breathless, but she fought him still, 
exclaiming 

" For shame ! Are you a man or a brute ?" 

His face, burning with lust, was close to hers, his 
hot breath upon her cheek, his eyes blazing as he 
answered 

" Both ! All the brute in the man is roused by your 
disdain all the man in the brute is fired by your glo 
rious beauty." 

Mercia slipped from his arms, but he ran swiftly to 
the door, calling loudly 

" Slaves, enter ! Quick ! Quench those lamps ! 
Fasten the doors ! Let no one enter man or woman 
without my orders !" 

Instantly his commands were obeyed, and before 
Mercia had exclaimed, "Mercy! Do not leave me, 
men, if you have sisters, mothers, wives !" they had 
extinguished the lamps, and the grinding of bolts and 
locks in the distant doors told her that she was alone, 
absolutely alone with the mad, uncontrolled being 
who was intent upon her destruction. 

When her eyes became accustomed to the sudden 
darkening of the room, she saw that he was near the 

251 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

door. The casement was but a few feet from her she 
rushed towards it, intent upon throwing herself from 
it, whatever the cost to limb or life. But Marcus was 
too quick for her, and dragged her back, crying 

" No, no ; there is no escape ! We are alone, and you 
tire mine body and soul !" 

But even now the brave girl s faith was unshaken, 
and she answered 

" No, you cannot defile my soul. That is inviolate. 
He who gave me that soul will keep it pure, unstained ; 
and unto His mercy and into His hands I commit it." 

He heard the words, but r ecked not of the meaning 
and, still holding her in his arms, he cried 

" No, no ; into mine ! It is not enough that you 
should be mine ; I must have your very soul ! Mercia, 
love me, and thou shalt be worshipped as never woman 
was worshipped yet. See, here I grovel at your feet," 
and, as he said this, he fell on the floor, clutching her 
robes, " I kiss the hem of your garment 1 Only love 
me ! I ll load you with gold cover your beauty with 
the rarest gems only love me ! I ll give thee wealth, 
power, empire only love me !" 

" Mercy, mercy !" called the half-fainting girl. 

" Have thou mercy ! I love thee so ! Have mercy 
upon that love upon me !" 

"With a last piteous effort of waning strength, Mercia 
pushed him from her and ran towards the door. What 
use ? It was locked, and she could only beat her ten 
der hands vainly upon its brazen panels. He caught 
her in his arms once more. 

" Art thou man or devil ?" she moaned. 

252 



MERCIA S PERIL 

" Man or devil, thou shalt love me !" he hissed back, 
kissing her passionately. 

Her senses were reeling, her strength exhausted, her 
voice powerless. The earth seemed receding, the 
marble floor appeared to rock like waves in a storm ; 
utter darkness was falling. . . . And then was it a 
miracle that happened? The darkened room was il 
lumined by a soft, white light j the hymn of the Chris 
tians rang through the still air of the night 

" Shepherd of souls that stumble by the way, 
Pilot of vessels storm-tossed in the night ; " 

A tide of strength superhuman surged through her 
whole being. "With a swift movement she threw Marcus 
from her as easily as though the strong man had been 
a weak child ; as she did so, she held the wooden cross, 
the emblem of her faith, aloft, crying with ecstatic 

joy 

" A sign ! A sign ! The Master hath spoken ! You 
cannot harm me now !" 

Marcus staggered from her, trembling, amazed, 
sobered, and sane, all his anger, lust, passion, gone from 
him. A daughter of heaven, an angel of light, this ra 
diant being was a thing to worship, not to profane. 
The scales had fallen from his eyes. Virtue was not a 
myth, purity not a delusion, faith not a pretence. He 
fell upon his knees and buried his face in his hands as 
a loud knocking was heard at the door, and the voice 
of Tigellinus called 

" Open, in the name of Ca3sar ! Make way, slaves ; 
open the door !" 

253 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

The bolts rolled back, the locks were turned. Tigel- 
linus, followed by armed guards, and servants bearing 
torches, swiftly entered the room. Holding in his hand 
the Emperor s mandate, and showing a seal set in a 
ring upon his finger, Tigellinus exclaimed 

" Prefect, by Caesar s command, I come to take from 
your custody the Christian girl, Mercia. See here the 
mandate of the Emperor, and this his signet." 

Mercia s peril, for that night at least, had passed. 



254 



CHAPTEE XVII 

MEKCIA S CONDEMNATION 

BEFORE the might of Nero s mandate Marcus was 
helpless. He would have flung himself upon Tigellinus 
and his guard without a thought of the consequence, 
but, fresh from the banquet-table, he was unarmed ; 
the soldiers, armour-clad, with drawn swords, stood 
between him and Mercia, and she welcomed them as 
friends, heaven-sent to succour her. 

He raved in his impotency, but all to no purpose 
the hour of Tigellinus had come. The game had been 
craftily played ; he had won. The force and cunning 
arrayed against Mercia were overpowering. The 
subtle cleverness of two revengeful women, backed by 
the strongest authority in Rome, was not to be com 
bated by her guilelessness or the courage and impetu 
osity of Marcus. He begged and prayed for but one 
word from her, as the guards drew her away. She 
turned for a moment, looked him full in the eyes, and 
asked 

"What wouldst thou have of me?" 

" Forgiveness," he murmured in broken accents. 

" Ask for that of Him," replied Mercia sadly. " Him 
thou hast defied. He alone can grant forgiveness." 

" Thou shalt be rescued have no fear," cried Mar 
cus. 

255 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Eescued from what ? What should I fear ?" 

" Death." 

" I have no fear of death, when death is the saviour 
from sin. There is no more to say. Sir," she said, 
turning to Tigellinus, I pray thee take me hence." 

Giving the soldiers the signal to march, Tigellinus, 
with a look of triumph, but without a single word, 
left the palace with his prisoner, and Marcus was 
alone alone with despair. 

Bitterly he reproached himself for his neglect in not 
sueing to Nero for her pardon before the quarrel had 
gone too far with Tigellinus. He had no need to be 
told that her re-arrest by Nero s special command 
meant for him at least temporary disfavour, if not dis 
grace, with Caesar. He had been given absolute 
authority to deal with the Christians, and suddenly, 
without hint or warning, that authority had been 
overridden by the Emperor s own mandate and signet 
a proceeding no less significant than it was un 
usual. 

Little he cared to inquire into the cause of this ; 
he could too easily guess. Berenice had carried out 
her threat, had gone to Nero, told him all, and the 
result was the re-arrest of Mercia. He had no hope 
of saving her or even of seeing her again without 
the intervention of Caesar himself. Was it possible to 
gain that? Nero was fickle, changeable, vacillating; 
but behind him was Poppsea. Marcus knew full well, 
by intuition, that she was, with Berenice, the instigator 
of this attack, and knowing it, he felt his utter help 
lessness. The whole Court was against him, for Nero, 

256 



MERCIA S CONDEMNATION 

Poppsea, and Tigellinus were the Court. The rest were 
nonentities, to be swayed by every whim of these all- 
powerful three. 

To appeal to Tigellinus were surely to waste time 
and breath. 

To solicit the help of Berenice or Poppaea were worse 
than useless. 

There remained but the Emperor what hope had 
he of success with him ? None. The task was hope 
less; the difficulties insurmountable. Still, he would 
try must try. Mercia should not be done to death 
without a struggle on his part to save her. He would 
seek CaBsar at the earliest moment on the morrow ; 
nothing could be done until then. Would Nero give 
him audience ? Surely he dared not deny him that ? 
But Nero ! who could rely on such a broken reed ? 
Still, his vacillation told for, as well as against, Mercia. 
He who had turned and changed so often, might 
change again. 

Thus Marcus argued with himself until, utterly 
exhausted, he flung himself upon a couch and waited 
for the dawn. Sleep refused to visit him; he was 
overwrought, overstrung, and burning with fever. 
Alternately he tossed upon the couch, and paced the 
marble floor. The night seemed never-ending. There 
rung in his ears Mercia s last words, " Ask forgiveness 
of Him." "Him"? Whom did she mean? This 
Nazarene? This Jesus she had told him of? This 
lowly-born martyr ? Could he pray to Him ? And, if 
he did, what then? Could He hear? Would he 
answer? What was that that Mercia cried? "A 
17 257 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

sign ! The Master hath spoken ! He is here ! You 
cannot harm me now !" 

Oh, the shame of it ! A young, innocent girl at his 
mercy, alone and helpless, whom every instinct of 
manhood should have prompted him to protect, whom 
he had called his guest, forced to defend her honour 
against his brutal passion, and cry upon her God to 
save her ! His face burned with the hot flush of shame 
that swept over it. He was racked by remorse for 
what he had done, horrified at his own degradation. 

" Pray to Him for forgiveness." " Him, the Master. " 
Forgiveness ! Sorely he needed it ; for he felt he could 
never forgive himself. He had railed against the vices 
of his late guests, driven them from his house with 
scorn. But in what was he better than they ? They 
trafficked with vice he had sought to violate virtue. 
All the hideous scene came back upon his memory 
every cry of Mercia, every movement, each look of 
horror and terror that had flashed into her face and 
eyes during that brief struggle with him ; and her 
beauty, innocence, and utter helplessness appealed to 
his sobered senses in such irresistible force and with 
such pathos that he fell upon his face and sobbed with 
shame and regret. Forgiveness! Ah, yes! "Naza- 
rene ! Jesus ! Master ! Thou who art her God, help 
me ! pity me ! Forgive me !" 

For the first time in his life Marcus prayed, and 
prayed to Him who never turned deaf ears to the call 
of the repentant or the prayers of those who were 
heavily laden with sorrow or distress. 

The rosy glintings of the morning shot in bright 

258 



MERCIA S CONDEMNATION 

flashes through the casement, to find Marcus still prone 
upon the floor. His long vigil had brought him some 
composure, but no peace. His course of action was 
clear. He must learn whether 3Xercia and her associ 
ates were to be tried or executed without trial by 
Nero s mandate. To day was fixed for the perform 
ances in the Circus ; scores, yea, hundreds of these 
Christians were to be butchered in public. Ingenuity 
was to be taxed to the utmost to devise new means of 
slaughter. The male victims were to be burned, cru 
cified, devoured by wild beasts ; and the women and 
girls subjected to horrors not to be described. 

And Mercia ! to escape from him only to encounter 
such a fate ! How could he save her ? For save her 
he must. 

The hours crept slowly by ; the sun had risen, shining 
in glory over his palace over the dungeon in which 
she was again imprisoned over the Hall of Justice in 
which she might presently be tried over the Amphi 
theatre, where, before it sank again, she might have 
met a shameful, brutal death. 

Oh, how slowly the moments sped! But the hour 
for the opening of the Hall of Justice came at last, and 
the first man to pass the portals on that eventful day 
was Marcus, the Prefect of Eome. 

The officers of the Court scarcely recognised him ; 
the anguish of the preceding hours had so changed his 
look. His face was an ashen grey, his eyes sunken 
and bloodshot, his lips colourless he seemed to have 
aged in a night. 

On inquiry he learned that all the prisoners taken at 

259 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

the Grove were to be tried together, and that Mercia 
was among them. There was no need to tell him that, 
under such circumstances, she was already doomed. 
The trial would be the merest form. And so it proved. 

All the prisoners were assembled. The Praetor 
named the judices, who were in waiting to be called, 
having received orders to be in attendance. The draw 
ing of lots for the office was dispensed with, nor were 
the prisoners permitted to challenge any of the jury. 

The Praetor and the Judex Qusestionis directly 
charged the accused, Tigellinus and the sedile gave 
evidence on their " honour." The spy was sworn in 
the ordinary way, holding in his right hand a flint 
stone, and saying 

" Si sciens fallo, turn me Diespiter salva urbe arceque 
bonis ejiciat ut ego hunc lapidem" The evidence was to 
the effect that the accused had been caught in the act 
of conspiring against the Emperor and the State, and, 
furthermore, of practising a new and prohibited relig 
ion. Marcus was not permitted to address the Court. 
By his faith and honour he was sworn as a witness. 
The few questions asked concerned his interruption of 
the punishment that Tigellinus and his soldiers were 
inflicting on the unlawful and treasonable assembly in 
the Grove. None of the prisoners were allowed to 
speak for themselves. No advocates appeared for 
them. The law for the giving of judgment after mid 
day (post meridiem prcesenti) was ignored, the verdict 
given, and sentence of immediate death, in manner to 
be decreed by the beloved Emperor, instantly pro 
nounced, and then without delay the prisoners were 

260 



MERCIA S CONDEMNATION 

conducted, chained and guarded, to the dungeons be 
neath the Amphitheatre. 

The laws were suspended, outraged, and defied that 
the arena should be drenched, and the vampire appetite 
of the people glutted with the blood of the prisoners. 

Marcus had stood in an agony of grief listening to 
the mock trial. His eyes, fixed upon the pale, calm 
face of Mercia, had vainly sought to win one look 
from her. She scarcely listened to the proceedings ; 
her arm was wound about the fainting, crippled form 
of Stephanus, her gaze upturned in silent abstraction. 
Only once did she turn her head at the moment 
when the dread death-sentence was pronounced. Then 
she gave one long, earnest, steady look straight into 
the eyes of Marcus, and in that glance he read for 
giveness and fervent exhortation to repent. No 
bitterness was in her face, no shadow of reproach, 
only the divine light of martyrdom cheerfully to be 
endured. Marcus shivered as one with an ague when 
he saw her depart to her doom, and dashing from the 
Hall he sprang into his chariot, and drove at impetuous 
speed to the palace of Nero. 



261 



CHAPTEE XVIII 

THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

WITH Marcus, ever, to think was to act. His resolve 
was taken his plan of action clear. He would 
demand audience of Csesar, and plead in person for 
the life of Mercia. No thing that he could urge or 
do to save her life should be left unsaid, undone. 
Saved she must be the mere doubt could not be 
tolerated. 

His heart almost stopped beating at the very thought 
of such a possibility as Nero s refusal of pardon. It 
should not be. He had many claims upon the Em 
peror s regard, and the life of this one girl could not 
be denied him. If Csesar could but be approached 
alone, if Poppsea and Tigellinus were but absent, he 
felt assured that his petition would be granted. But 
would they be absent ? That was the one momentous 
question he asked himself as he entered the palace and 
requested audience of the Emperor. 

Nero was holding a reception in one of the smaller 
chambers, thronged by a crowd of courtiers and officers 
of State. He was reclining on a throne raised upon 
a marble platform, approached by marble steps. Over 
the steps and platform were flung magnificent draperies ; 
cushions, skins of tigers, leopards, and wolves were 
strewn everywhere. 

262 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

Nero s negro guards, heavily armed, stood in statu 
esque silence around the throne. At his feet knelt the 
cup-bearer and taster, the officer charged with the 
safety of his monarch s life, his preservative from 
treachery by poison. On his right hand sat Poppsea, 
at her feet was Berenice. Among the crowd were 
officers of all ranks and governors of the provinces. 

Nero fingered on the table by his side a huge 
programme on parchment of the performances in the 
Circus for that day. As the officers and governors 
handed in their reports, he listened with unconcealed 
impatience to the details, turning with absorption to 
the catalogue of the sports, and, from time to time re 
questing the opinion or soliciting the approval of the 
Empress, who was at work, assisted by Berenice, upon 
the embroidering of a silken scarf for the protection 
of Nero s throat. Of this he always took the most 
assiduous care, lest his voice might be injured by 
exposure. 

Ignoring the remarks of one of the officers, Nero 
said to the Empress 

"The games in the Circus to-day, Poppsea, will 
eclipse all we have yet seen. Here s sport indeed. 
The chariot and the foot races, the gladiators, the 
Masque of Yenus, and then the lions and tigers and 
two hundred Christians!" With a mirthless chuckle 
of enjoyment he beckoned to Metullus, and asked, 
" The beasts have been well starved, Metullus ?" 

" Ay, Caesar," answered Metullus. 

"And they are strong and fierce?" Eagerly and 
savagely was the question put. 

263 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Eome hath never seen such beasts, Caesar." 

" Good, good !" gloatingly responded Nero. " "When 
the sun goes down, we ll have the living torches all 
round the Amphitheatre, at a distance of twenty 
paces. Let those Christians be bound, soaked in pitch 
and oil, and, at my signal, let the vermin burn. Yes, 
yes! And see that stakes are placed beneath their 
chins that they do not too easily suffocate, and so die 
too soon. Moreover, that way I can the better see 
their faces as they roast eh?" 

As the Emperor lingered lovingly over the details of 
the torture, Tigellinus entered and knelt at his feet. 

"Well, Tigellinus, well ?" queried Nero impatiently. 

" The girl is arrested, as thou didst command, great 
Caesar," said the Councillor, with a look of triumph 
which he did not endeavour to conceal. 

" Good, good !" cried Caesar exultingly ; " make a 
torch of her, and place her near to Marcus seat. 
They say she was cold to him we ll see her afire to 
night ! Ha, ha! What said he eh? What said 
Marcus ?" 

This question, though eagerly put by Nero, was ut 
tered in a tone suggestive of much nervousness and 
trepidation. He regarded with a wholesome dread the 
courage and impetuosity of his Prefect. Tigellinus 
knew this, and worked upon the fear, replying 

" He raved against Eome, the laws and thee, great 
Caesar." 

" Ah ! did he dare ?" exclaimed Nero, half in anger, 
half in terror. 

Poppaea saw the intention of Tigellinus, and en- 
264 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

deavoured to minimise the effect of his words by 
soothingly interposing 

"Forgive him that, Caesar. This choice morsel of 
his, this Christian beauty, has been snatched from his 
lips ; he may rave for a time, and not without some 
reason, but he will be faithful." 

" Dost think so eh, eh ?" tremblingly questioned the 
cowardly tyrant. 

"I do know it," answered Poppaea, reassuring by 
word and gesture her royal husband, who breathed a 
heavy sigh of relief as he said 

"Well, well, I m glad. We cannot well afford to 
part with Marcus." Then, with renewed ferocity, he 
turned to Tigellinus and asked, "But the girl eh? 
Did she scream and faint and plead for mercy?" 

" No, Caesar ; she was calm, and said that she was 
ready," answered Tigellinus, with an expression of 
puzzled bewilderment. 

Nero, too, was at a loss. 

" Strange, eh ? the obstinacy of these fanatics," he 
muttered reflectively. " They die so calmly, it robs the 
killing of half the joy." Then, more hopefully, he 
added, " Well, well, perhaps some of the rats may 
squeak to-day eh ? Ha, ha, ha !" And in grim en 
joyment of his own fiendish humour he broke into a 
laugh. 

He was revelling in the anticipation of the horrors 
he was to witness, of the torture and suffering he was 
about to inflict. No other thought ever entered his 
mind, no glimmer of pity or compassion found its way 
into his heart. On the anguish of others he battened 

265 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

and thrived. As he turned once more to his pro 
gramme of the " sports," a slave entered and prostrated 
himself on the ground, crying 

" The Prefect Marcus would have audience of 
Csesar." 

"Eh, eh?" ejaculated Ca3sar, startled. "Marcus? 
Audience? What? What? Eh, Poppaia? We will 
not see him now eh ? Not now !" 

" Better see him at once, Csesar, or he may suspect 
that thou dost fear him," cunningly suggested Poppa3a, 
who was anxious, for her own reasons, to see Marcus 
once again. 

"Fear him?" cried Caesar, indignantly, but at the 
same time trembling violently. " Fear him ? A Nero 
fear a Marcus ? Preposterous ! Absurd ! A god does 
not tremble at presence of any mortal. Admit him," 
he said to the slave, who bowed, and with many 
obeisances retired from the room. 

Nero gazed around him, anxious, nervous, frightened. 
At his feet the cup-bearer still knelt. Beckoning him 
to pour out some wine, he wiped the sweat from his 
clammy forehead. As the wine was handed to him, 
his hand shook so violently that the liquor was spilled 
upon his robes and the floor. Eagerly he raised the 
cup to his lips, and then, with a new fear, a fresh 
dread, the miserable monster looked doubtfully at the 
wine, not daring to drink, lest it should be poisoned. 

With shaking hands he gave it back to the officer, 
with a gesture of command that it should first be 
tasted by him. Then anxiously he waited, watching 
its effect, and assuring himself that no antidote was 

266 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

taken by the cup-bearer. Finding that no evil had 
resulted from the draught, he raised the vessel to his 
own lips and greedily drank its contents. As he was 
handing back the goblet to the officer, Marcus entered. 

Throwing a hasty glance round the room, he saw, to 
his despair, that Poppaea, Berenice, and Tigellinus were 
present, and the chilling silence which met his appear 
ance struck icy forebodings to his heart. 

Already he felt that his errand was useless ; the boon 
he had come to crave was refused before he uttered it. 

From the quivering face of Nero to the impassive 
features of Poppsea, from the guilty consciousness of 
the look of Berenice to the unconcealed smile of vic 
tory on the lips of Tigellinus, Marcus turned, and his 
hopes were crushed. 

Mercia must die ! Still, he would plead, urge, yea, 
threaten even, before he would accept the defeat that 
so obviously awaited him. 

Kneeling before Caesar, he saluted him, saying 

" Hail, mighty Caesar !" Then, with another obeis 
ance to the Empress, he added, "And hail to thee, 
lady." 

Nero, with a transparent simulation of attention to 
the programme of the Circus, said, with a coldness that 
sounded another knell to the hopes of Marcus 

"Well, Prefect, what wouldst thou with us?" 

" Mercy, great Caesar," pleaded Marcus. 

With a look of well-feigned surprise, Nero asked 

"For whom eh? For whom does Marcus crave 
mercy? Not for himself, surely? Our trusted Mar 
cus hath no need of mercy, having done no wrong, 

267 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

neglected no duty? Faithful and true, our Marcus 
hath no need to pray for mercy, surely ?" 

"No, Caesar; I plead not for myself, but for an 
innocent girl." 

" Dost thou mean Mercia, the Christian ?" questioned 
Caesar, with a craftily assumed look of astonishment. 

"Yea, great Csesar," replied Marcus, noting the 
look in Nero s face and the menacing inflection of his 
voice. 

" Ah ! she is not innocent," was the cold and curt 
reply, and Nero turned from Marcus with studied 
indifference. 

At this intentional slight Marcus anger flashed into 
his eyes, but he curbed his rage for the sake of the 
cause he had come to plead, and, though he rose to his 
feet, he asked submissively enough the question 

" Of what is she guilty ?" 

Nero started slightly at the tone of Marcus voice, 
which, though respectful, had in it a certain ring of 
determination that he did not like. After a pause, he 
said 

" Guilty ? Thou knowest well. She is accused of 
being a Christian." 

"By whom is she accused, Caesar?" 

"Well, by " He was about to mention Bere 
nice, but a warning look from Poppsea made him sub 
stitute another name. He continued, " By Tigellinus 
and others." 

" The others being Berenice and ?" Here Mar 
cus paused. He would have added "Poppaea," but he 
hesitated, if it could be avoided, to add to her enmity, 

268 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

and refrained. After a moment, he continued, " A 
jealous woman is not always a reliable witness, 
Caesar." 

" Ah, but there is other proof," exclaimed Tigellinus, 
bowing cringingly to Caesar and facing Marcus. " Thou 
knowest, Marcus, she was captured at one of their 
secret meetings, caught in the very act of " 

"Act of what, Tigellinus ?" demanded Marcus quietly 
but sternly. "Act of worship, prayer, and praise? 
What harm is there in these ? I am firmly convinced 
that Caesar has no more virtuous subjects in all his 
dominions than these Christians." 

"And thou hadst to fall in love with a Christian to 
gain that conviction eh, Marcus?" asked Poppsea, 
with a smile of contempt. 

Marcus made no answer to this sneer, and Nero 
said 

" Even if true, their virtue is hardly a recommenda 
tion to my mercy. Virtue would smother half the 
joys and pleasures of this world." And he leered sen 
sually into the face of his Empress. 

" Vice hath already smothered the other half, Caesar," 
interposed Marcus. Nero looked for a moment as 
though he would resent this speech, but, changing his 
mind, he said 

"Eh? Well, well, but these Christians are gloomy, 
austere fanatics who worship a wretched Jew whom 
Pontius Pilate crucified between two thieves eh ?" 

To this Marcus quietly and calmly replied 

"And testified he could find no sin in Him." 

" There Pontius was wrong," angrily retorted Nero. 
269 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" I would be King of the East, and they set up this 
Nazarene as king." 

"Not as temporal king, Caesar," pleaded Marcus. 

" Yes, as temporal king. Tvvas testified that he did 
endeavour to stir up the people of Judea to revolt, in 
order that he might be proclaimed King of the Jews." 

" Twas ialsely testified, Caesar, by spies and inform 
ers, bribed by Pontius Pilatus himself. He sought no 
temporal power, but preached alone the kingdom of 
heaven," urged Marcus, recalling the teachings of 
Mercia, "and bade His followers render unto Caesar 
the things that were Caesar s, but unto God the things 
that were God s. Again and again did He tell the 
people that His kingdom was not of earth." 

" Eh ? Come, enough of this ! I am Ca3sar ! I 
have power over life and death eh? I have decided. 
This Mercia dies with the others this very day." And 
again Caesar turned away from Marcus. 

But Marcus was not to be denied. " Hear me, 
Caesar," he cried. " Thou dost know me to be faithful 
and thou hast many flatterers, but few friends " 

How how ? Eh ?" stuttered Nero. 

"I dare to tell thee truths, Caesar, that others 
tremble to speak of. Around thy throne are many 
who serve for greed for fear but scarcely one for 
love. The people groan beneath the burthen of 
taxation the army is restless, discontented while 
the families of those whom thou hast punished hate 
thee." 

These honest truths angered and alarmed the tyrant. 
He knew they were truths, but dared not admit as 

270 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

much even to himself. He turned upon Marcus and, 
with rage, exclaimed 

"By Jupiter, thou art going too far, Marcus! 
Have a care " 

"Of what, Caesar? Thine anger? Has it come to 
this, then, that to be faithful to thee is to incur thy 
displeasure, thy resentment ?" calmly asked Marcus. 

" Nay, but to insult me thus," petulantly muttered 
Nero. 

Marcus turned to Poppaea and, with a look of mean 
ing that almost brought a blush to her cheek, said 

"Lady, I appeal to thee. Dost thou believe me 
faithful unto Caesar?" 

Poppaea understood the meaning of the glance that 
Marcus had given her, too well. Had she not vainly 
endeavoured herself to induce Marcus to dishonour 
her lord ? She answered quietly, but with decision 

" I know that thou art faithful, Marcus." 

Then once more Marcus pleaded with Caesar, cry 
ing 

" The hour of darkness looms close to thee, Caesar, 
and to Koine. In that dread hour at least one faithful 
hand to guide thee and protect thee, even unto death, 
shall be thine if thou wilt but grant me this maiden s 
life. Caesar, I never asked of thee a boon before. 
Wilt thou refuse this little thing the life of one weak 
girl?" 

Caesar was troubled and sore afraid. He looked 
round at the crowd of courtiers and officers of the 
Court, and felt in his heart that, of the whole number, 
not one was as true and honest as the man now plead- 

271 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

ing for the life of this Christian girl. After all, what 
could it matter whether she lived or died? Why 
should he not spare her ? He would ! He turned to 
the Empress and said 

"Poppsea, let us grant her life eh? eh? What 
sayest thou?" 

But Poppsea, in her jealousy, was relentless, and 
replied 

"NO." 

Turning from her to Marcus, Nero cried 

" It cannot be, Marcus. The whole of the vile horde 
are not only enemies to Csesar, but enemies to the 
public weal. She is a Christian, and she must die with 
the rest." 

Marcus saw that Poppsea had influenced Nero 
against him, and, with a look of hatred at her, he ex 
claimed 

" Christianity is not a crime, great Csesar." 

Poppsea returned the look Marcus gave her with one 
of contempt, as she sneered 

" Marcus pleads strongly. Can it be possible that he 
is to turn Christian too ?" 

This was a cruel question for Marcus. To answer 
yes was to seal his death-warrant this he knew ; but 
he felt some power impelling him not altogether to 
deny this Christ, and he answered 

" Lady, I am almost persuaded to follow where I see 
such angels lead." 

At this the Empress laughed in derision, but her 
laughter did not conceal her anger. With an affecta 
tion of contemptuous pity she said 

272 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

"Poor Marcus! Thou art very much in love 
indeed !" 

Her sneer moved Marcus to make the fatal avowal 

"With all my heart and soul, Empress." 

" These Christians must be sorcerers, in truth, so 
easily to enmesh thee, Marcus," angrily exclaimed 
Poppaea. 

Marcus, incensed in his turn, gave full rein to his 
tongue, and, fixing on the Empress a look of the most 
intense scorn, he retorted 

"Mercia s sorceries are the most potent, her spells 
the most powerful weaved by magician since the 
world began the charm of innocent and virtuous 
womanhood." 

Poppaea was silenced. She coloured violently and 
then turned deadly pale. Berenice sank her head upon 
her hands, dreading the consequence of the storm she 
had evoked, while the courtiers stared in amazement 
at the audacity of Marcus. Nero broke the temporary 
silence by saying 

"But she is a Christian." 

" Even if she be, give me her life, Caesar," implored 
Marcus. " It is so small a thing for thee to grant 
twill cost thee but one little word, and that one little 
word gives me a world. I will serve thee as never 
man served thee yet. Give me her life ! I pray thee, 
give me her life !" 

Again was Nero moved to grant the boon, but again 
did Poppaea restrain him, and reluctantly he refused, 
answering 

" I cannot, Marcus." 

18 273 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

With a vehemence that would have caused the im 
mediate arrest of any less trusted or important man 
than he, Marcus cried 

"Thou canst, Caesar! Think! have I ever hesi 
tated to risk either treasure or life in thy service ? To 
me the wish of Caesar hath been law; to obey that 
law scores of these Christians have suffered wives 
have been torn from their husbands children from 
their fathers and the arena hath been swamped with 
their blood. Until now, all this hath seemed just and 
necessary, even if harsh and cruel. But now, this 
simple girl hath opened mine eyes. I see that even if 
sedition and rebellion do exist in the Christian ranks, 
they are not Christian deeds ; for Christianity is not 
murder, lust, treason, or sin of any kind it is love 
and peace, self-sacrifice and charity. Cassar, for my 
sake, for the sake of Eome, for the sake of thine own 
welfare, give me this girl s life only her life !" 

And, with clasped hands and bowed head, Marcus 
threw himself in supplication at Nero s feet. His 
agony of mind was terrible, the suspense almost beyond 
endurance. 

Every look, the faintest indication of relenting on 
the face of Caesar, was watched and at once checked 
by Poppaea. She was absolutely merciless. She had 
sworn to Berenice and to herself that Mercia should 
die ; even though she earned the everlasting hatred of 
Marcus he should never possess the girl for whom he 
had shown this extraordinary and reckless passion. 
Firmly she exclaimed 

"Marcus, you, of all men, know that these Chris- 
274 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

tians are all alike condemned. To spare one and 
destroy another is not justice. No man or woman" 
this word she emphasised strongly, staring straight at 
Marcus ; then, after a slight pause, she continued " or 
woman can profess Christianity in Eorne and live. 
The decree of Caesar hath gone forth." 

" Then, must she die ?" hopelessly asked Marcus, 
with a hard, cold ring in his voice. 

"Let her renounce, publicly renounce her faith 
then she may live," was the cunning and pitiless re 
joinder. 

At this alternative Nero clutched eagerly. That 
would throw the onus of her death upon the girl her 
self. With a nod of approval to Poppa3a, he said 

" Eh ? yes, yes then she may live." 

" And if she will not ?" asked Marcus. 

" Then let her die, and die this day." 

Marcus made a gesture of entreaty, but Nero waved 
him aside and went on 

"Caesar hath spoken. Come, friends, come; the 
games await our presence. Let us to the arena. We ll 
have rare sport to-day! Ha, ha, ha!" And, leaning 
heavily upon the arm of the Empress, he gladly left 
the room, followed by his whole Court, Berenice alone 
remaining, unseen by Marcus. 

Marcus was frantic with anger and despair. He 
knew the alternative would never be accepted by Mer- 
cia. Renounce her faith ? Mercia renounce her 
faith ? Never ! And yet, to die ! Mercia to die 
to-day! She must not! But how to save her? She 
knew no fear, and would be faithful even unto death. 

275 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Mercia and death! The thought was horrible and 
he cursed the women who had plotted her destruction. 

Berenice watched him in terror, scarcely venturing 
to speak. At last she did so, breathing softly his 
name 

" Marcus." 

Swiftly he turned upon her, and, with a dangerous 
glitter in his eyes, he cried 

" Ah ! Thou art here ! Art thou content ?" 

"With what?" 

" Content with the evil thou hast wrought ? Mercia 
is to die and die this day." 

" Tis well," answered Berenice. 

Marcus seemed scarce to comprehend, and he 
echoed 

" Tis well ? With whom is it well ?" 

" With thee, at least, it should be well ; when she is 
dead thy senses may return to thee." 

" When she is dead ? When Mercia is dead, then 
Marcus will die too," firmly replied Marcus. 

"What?" 

" When Mercia is dead " he continued, as if think 
ing aloud, " methinks the world will lose its light ; the 
flowers will bloom no more ; no more the birds will 
sing ; the stars and moon will veil their beams in sor 
row; the glorious dawn will never come again; the 
sun will set in darkness everlasting, when Mercia is 
dead." 

" Others will live, though Mercia be dead," pleaded 
Berenice softly. 

" Others will live though Mercia be dead ?" he re- 

276 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

peated. " Hearken, woman ! Not one of those who 
have sought her death shall live when Mercia is dead 
neither thou, nor Tigellinus, Licinius, PoppaBa, no, 
nor Nero himself shall live when Mercia is dead ! Dost 
hear? Dost hear?" He was frantic with rage and 
desperation. 

" Marcus, thou art mad ! She was no mate for thee," 
cried Berenice. 

" She was my mate !" he exclaimed. " The gods or 
dained it so from the beginning of all time. My very 
mate ! the better part of me, that killed the worser 
moiety, lifted my soul from filth and degradation, made 
me abhor evil and yearn for good, opened mine eyes to 
light and truth. Woman, Mercia is still so much my 
mate, so much the very breath and soul of me, that 
when she dies she will take with her the very breath 
and soul whereby I live !" 

This served to enrage Berenice still further. All her 
pity was gone, and she cried 

" Then let her die and die thou too ! I d sooner see 
thee dead than alive with Mercia." 

" She shall not die !" exclaimed Marcus wildly. " She 
shall not die ! I will pluck her from her cell ! There 
are no guards no bars no laws no power that can 
keep Mercia from me. Tell that to Nero, and tell it 
now ! Tell it !" 

He moved towards her threateningly, but, controlling 
himself, he cast upon her a look of unutterable hatred 
and strode from the room. 

Berenice was alone. This, then, was the end of all 
her scheming and treachery. She had not parted him 

277 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

from Mercia after all ; rather, had she not united them 
to all eternity in the bonds of death ? Her punishment 
had come. Never had she so loved Marcus as now; 
his courage, manliness, devotion, recklessness of danger, 
self-sacrifice in the interview with Nero, had moved 
her profoundly. 

If she loved him before, she idolised him now, and 
gladly would she have exchanged her wealth, liberty, 
power for the love that this Christian girl had aroused 
in him. Joyfully would she meet even death for such 
a prize. What now was left to live for ? She was 
constant she could never love another. The world 
was empty to her, her heart was broken, her life a 
void. Death ! Death, for his sake, would be a release 
gladly to be welcomed. 

Slowly and sadly she returned to her home. She 
hardly spoke when addressed by her slaves, but retired 
to her private rooms, giving orders that she was not to 
be disturbed or wakened, for she needed rest. 

Her orders were obeyed ; never was she disturbed 
again. 

When, alarmed by her long hours of silence, the 
faithful slave crept softly into the room, she thought 
her mistress was quietly sleeping. She was still 
attired as when she returned home; her right hand 
was clutching her drapery, her left lay lightly on her 
breast. When that hand was moved, the golden and 
jewelled handle of a tiny dagger was discovered; the 
point of that little weapon was sheathed in her heart. 

Berenice, the haughty, luckless, passionate beauty, 
was calm enough now; her tempest-tossed soul had 

278 



THE REMORSE OF MARCUS 

foundered in the dark. But a few days before the 
world had seemed so golden bright to her. With 
wealth exceeding that of any other woman in Eome, 
beautiful and talented beyond the common, with every 
desire gratified, every wish anticipated (save that 
without which all the rest were as nought to her), 
with apparently nothing to step between her and a 
prolonged and happy life, there she was lying cold 
and still, done to death by her own hand, self-mur 
dered, rashly gone to the unknown, wrecked by a 
love despised. Poor, loving, impetuous, headstrong 
Berenice! Kot all thy beauty could win the love 
that was thy life, nor all thy wealth purchase the 
heart that made up thy world. May the All-Merciful 
show mercy unto thee! Thy sin was love, if love 
can e er be sin, and, for that thou didst love truly, 
may He, the source of all true love, grant thee His 
peace, and give thee indeed rest. 



279 



CHAPTEE XIX 

A ROMAN FESTIVAL 

IT was a festival day in Eome. Nero had decreed 
it. 

In the Circus was to be given a performance the 
like of which had never before been witnessed. All 
the most notable gladiators, singers, and pantomimists 
were to appear ; but the greatest attraction expected 
was the promised slaughtering of the Christians. The 
whole city was excited by the rumours of the numbers 
doomed to die, and of the ferocity of the beasts they 
were to encounter. The public appetite was whetted 
by the stories circulated of the new devices for tor 
turing and murdering the prisoners, and all who could 
provide the means or spare the time were on their way 
to the arena. 

The streets were thronged with the expectant 
crowds. Gaily dressed and carrying flowers, women 
and children as well as men were hurrying on, eager 
to see their fellow-creatures encounter the most hor 
rible and shameful deaths. Among the number was 
the heartless gadfly, Dacia, attended by the ever-useful 
Philodemus. Near the gates of the arena she encoun 
tered Glabrio, who saluted her, saying 

" Hail, Dacia ! Whither goest thou ?" 
280 



A ROMAN FESTIVAL 

" To the Circus, of course. Dost thou not go too ?" 
inquired Dacia, dropping her fan, which was immedi 
ately recovered and returned by the attentive Philo- 
demus. 

"I do not know; I doubt it," answered Glabrio, 
shaking his head gravely. 

"Why?" 

" Well, I am ever tender-hearted, and this slaughter 
ing of Christians pleaseth me but little." 

"Art growing effeminate in thine old age, Glabrio?" 

"Effeminate? By Yulcan, no!" he replied. "It is 
no longer feminine to pity or to be tender. The sexes 
are changing women do all the wooing nowadays; 
men are no longer the hunters, they are the hunted ! 
The wounded gladiator looks up to the circles for 
mercy, and tis the women s thumbs that are turned 
for his death. Bah ! There is nothing left for us poor 
men but the wine-cup, and even at that game some of 
the ahem ! weaker sex are our masters." 

"All the better for thee. Men are only fit to be 
women s slaves," said Dacia. And Philodemus nodded 
his head approvingly. 

" Ah ! Umph ! and pretty tame puppies they 
become when enslaved, do they not? Look at poor 
Philodemus he is thy slave. I had hopes of him 
until he met thee, and now! well, I have done. Get 
thee a silken cord and tie it round his willing neck, 
and make him caper as thou wilt. I have done." 

" Nay, friend Glabrio, one must humour the weaker 
sex," lisped the complaisant Philodemus. 

" Weaker ? If there exists aught weaker than a 
281 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

tame man, it is the spider s slender thread that a puff 
of the west wind bears away," rejoined G-labrio, with 
a look of regretful regard at his friend. 

"So sour, Glabrio? Canst get no woman to love 
thee ?" asked Dacia. 

" I can get scores to say they do, while my money 
doth last. Women are cheap enough in Rome which 
doth remind me that that pretty Christian, Mercia, 
over whom Marcus hath lost his wits, is to die to-night. 
You had some hand in her arrest, I hear." 

" Why not ? She was in the way," said Dacia, with 
a cheerful smile. 

" Whose way ?" asked Glabrio. 

"That of Berenice and we women do sometimes 
help each other," laughed Dacia, little guessing that 
her friend was lying at her palace dead and alone. 

" Willingly, to pull some fairer woman down ! Poor 
Marcus ! Poor Mercia !" 

" Oh ! thy head is sore from last night s drinking," 
good-humouredly responded Dacia. " Philodemus, let 
us leave him, for to-day he is not even amusing." 

"Farewell, friend Glabrio," exclaimed Philodemus; 
and, picking up a rose that had fallen from the hair 
of the fair Dacia, he accompanied that lady to the 
Circus. 

"Well, the gods keep me in love with wine!" 
thought Glabrio. " He who loves wine may have 
his senses sometimes he who loves woman, never! 
What have we here?" he asked mentally, as a crowd 
came surging along the street, following an officer and 
a guard of soldiers who were dragging with them the 

282 



A ROMAN FESTIVAL 

spy, Servilius. His face was grey with fear, his 
clothes were torn, he was trembling and shrieking in 
his terror. With the utmost contempt, the officer said 
to him 

"Come on, thou coward!" 

" I beg of thee to let me go ! I am no Christian I 
swear by all the gods !" cried Servilius. 

; This man doth swear he hath seen thee at a score 
of their meetings," exclaimed the officer. 

The man alluded to was his accomplice, Strabo, who 
had denounced him, after a quarrel between the two 
as to the share Strabo should have received of the 
blood-money earned by the denouncing of Favius and 
Stephanus. 

" But as a spy. I went to denounce them ; I am 
well known as an informer. Let me go ! I have sent 
scores of Christians to their deaths ! I have denounced 
hundreds !" 

" Ah, well," grimly retorted the officer, " now comes 
thy turn. Thou wilt feel what it is to be denounced 
thyself." 

"Ah, no, no! Spare me, good Yiturius!" screamed 
the wretched coward. "This man is a liar he hath 
accused me because he wanted more of the rewards 
than I could give him. He is forsworn. Release me, 
and I will get thee a score of Christians before the sun 
goes down. Have mercy!" And the spy grovelled in 
the dust at the officer s feet. 

" Bah ! you sicken me, you crawling thing ! you 
wolf without its courage ! I would willingly pay to 
see thee meet the lions in the Circus." And, with an 

283 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

expression of deep disgust, he threw Servilius from 
him. 

" Spare me ! Mercy, mercy !" entreated Servilius. 

" On with him !" said the officer to the guard. 

Now the shrieking, trembling Servilius recognised 
Glabrio, and, with the strength of mad terror, he threw 
off the guards who had gripped him, and flung himself 
at Glabrio s feet, crying 

"Ah, good Glabrio, thou knowest me; thou didst see 
me denounce the girl Mercia, and the old man Favius, 
when thou wert with the lady Dacia at her house." 

" Did I ? Well, and if I did, what then ?" drily 
questioned Glabrio. 

" Plead for me ! I am a good Eoman." 

"An thou art, I forswear my country," answered 
Glabrio, with great disdain. " Now hearken, good offi 
cer. If thou wouldst serve me, Eome, Caesar, and Mar 
cus, if thou wouldst help to cleanse this somewhat dirty 
world, take that carrion to the beasts ; and all Eome 
will thank thee for the deed. Farewell !" And with 
a gesture of the most profound contempt, Glabrio de 
parted. 

Frantic with terror, Servilius now turned, as a last 
resource, to his late friend and present denouncer, 
crying 

" Strabo, good Strabo, recall thy accusation ! I have 
money thou shalt have it all." 

" Nay, I ll not go back on my word. I have said 
thou art a Christian, and I will abide by my saying." 

"On with him ! We have lingered long enough," 
commanded the officer. 

284 



A ROMAN FESTIVAL 

" Mercy ! Kescue me, friends ! Mercy ! Do not let 
them take me !" Thus, screaming, struggling, implor 
ing, and cursing, the guilty wretch went to the death 
to which he had devoted so many who were innocent. 



285 



CHAPTER XX 

THE GATES AJAK 

THE dungeon beneath the Amphitheatre, in which 
Mercia and her companions were imprisoned, was a 
large, gloomy stone vault, destitute of furniture of 
any kind save a rude, wooden bier dragged in by a 
jailer, at Mercia s earnest entreaty, to serve as a couch 
for the suffering Stephanus. At each end of the cell 
were doors leading to the corridors. In the centre, 
approached by a few stone steps, were sliding doors 
which opened into the arena. They were of iron, and 
ran in oiled grooves ; when opened, the arena could be 
seen, and with it a section of the first msenianum and 
its occupants. 

Great was the contrast between the dark, dank cell 
and the sunlit Circus, crowded with eager, gaily- 
dressed patricians. In the dungeon were scores of 
men and women waiting for the signal to pass forth to 
a cruel and certain death; in the auditorium was a 
seething mass of humanity, thousands upon thousands 
impatiently awaiting their coming forth, and gloating 
already, in imagination, upon the horrors they must 
undergo. 

The roars of the hungry beasts could be faintly 
heard even when the doors were closed ; so could the 

286 



THE GATES AJAR 

equally merciless howls of the bloodthirsty popu 
lace. 

At intervals the trumpet-calls, summoning the differ 
ent performers, rang round the arena and warned the 
martyrs that yet another item of the entertainment 
had been concluded, bringing them so much nearer to 
their share in the amusement of the day. How they 
were to die had not been told to them only this they 
knew, that they were to die, and that every endeavour 
would be made to make their deaths as horrible, re 
volting, and cruel as possible. They knew, too, that 
not a vestige of sympathy would be given to them, 
that even a cup of water was denied them. They 
were there to be slaughtered for the amusement of 
Rome, and the more they suffered, the greater would 
be the enjoyment of the audience. If given to the 
gladiators, they would be stabbed to death amidst the 
hisses and howls of the people, enraged at their refusal 
to defend themselves, for had not their Eedeemer 
enjoined them to "pray for their persecutors, to love 
them that hatefully and despitefully used them." 

Among them were a few that trembled and felt sick 
with physical fear, but not one murmured. Their 
eyes were mentally fixed upon the Cross, and His 
anguish, His sufferings, His endurance for their sakes 
was their courage, their hope, their strength. O 
wondrous faith! O glorious belief! Forerunners of 
freedom, founders of civilisation and of a religion 
destined to endure unto the end of all things earthly 
were these despised, lowly people, who, in their mar 
tyrdom, made the world wonder what could this faith 

287 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

be that gave such endurance and brought such peace. 
Hail to them, the noble army of martyrs, who have so 
long entered on their well-earned rest ! 

Mercia was by Stephanus, exhorting him to courage. 
Suddenly a blare of trumpets smote upon their ears. 
The iron doors flew back a roar of delight was heard 
from the assembled multitudes in the Amphitheatre. 
A file of armoured guards lined either side of the steps 
and the passage, and Tigellinus, attended by the sedile 
and other officers, entered the cell. At a gesture given 
by the Councillor, the doors were closed. In harsh 
and unfeeling tones, Tigellinus exclaimed to the pris 
oners, who, at the moment of his entrance, were all 
kneeling in prayer 

" Stand up, there ! Up, you vermin ! Up !" 
(Pointing to the younger men, among whom was 
Melos) "Stand on this side, you! These are for the 
gladiators," he added to the aedile. 

" They ll not give the gladiators much trouble 
they re a puny lot," sneered that officer. 

"Stand here, you!" cried Tigellinus to the older 
men. " These old rats we ll give to the tigers to toy 
with. These women to the lions, with the boy there." 
Then, recognising Mercia, he laughed sardonically, 
saying, "Ha! thou here? This is the wench Marcus 
made so much ado about. Where s thy lover, girl? 
Is he not here to save thee? Answer!" 

" I have no lover," was the quiet and dignified answer. 

" Marcus Superbus where is he?" 

" I do nothing know of him," replied Mercia. 

But Tigellinus had turned to an officer of the guards, 
288 



THE GATES AJAR 

asking the names of the men, and writing them down 
upon his tablets. 

"Ah! that is like Marcus," said Licinius, approach 
ing Mercia. " Little he cares what befalls his cast-off 
strumpets." 

This was more than the devoted Melos could bear, 
and his manliness overcame his patience. Springing 
forward towards Licinius, he cried 

" You lie, you tyrant ! Unsay those words !" 

In his wrath he would have struck the sedile, but 
Mercia imploringly cried 

" Hush, Melos ! Answer not. His words do not 
move me." Her calmness angered Licinius still more, 
and he sneeringly exclaimed 

" No ? Well, perhaps the flames or the lions will 
shake thy obstinacy. Dost know twill be either the 
beasts or the fire for thee to-night ?" 

Sweetly and resignedly came the reply from Mer 
cia 

" The Master will be with me." 

Finding his shafts were powerless to move Mercia, 
the brutal sedile turned to the shivering Stephanus, and 
growled out 

"And you, you young scorpion! Call on thy God 
to help thee thy sun sets this night too." 

The child could not control himself, and he trembled 
violently ; a weakness that Licinius noted and gloated 
over. He continued 

" Ah ! You tremble eh ?" 

"He will not tremble when the hour doth come," 
said Mercia, enfolding the hapless boy in her arms. 
19 289 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Again there was a loud call of the trumpets, and 
Tigellinus cried 

" The gladiators are ready. Open the doors !" 

The doors were thrown open, and the arena beyond 
could be seen by the prisoners, flooded with golden 
sunshine. 

"Now then, march!" 

For a moment there was a pause, but, almost 
before it could be realised, Mercia s clear, sweet voice 
rang out the first words of their beloved hymn 

" Shepherd of souls that stumble by the way." 

Instantly all save Stephanus took up the strain, and, 
with uplifted eyes and undaunted hearts, these noble 
martyrs went calmly and resignedly through the dark 
Yalley of the Shadow of Death to the everlasting 
peace that awaited them beyond. 

Melos was the last to leave. He turned and looked 
at Mercia, who, pointing to Heaven, encouraged him to 
endure. 

With a smile of love that transfigured his face, he 
bowed his head, as if in obedience to her injunctions, 
and went to his death. 

With a little sob, Mercia sank on her knees by the 
couch, crying 

"O Father, give them strength to endure!" 

Stephanus was sobbing violently. Mercia forgot 
her own grief, and, turning to him, asked 

" Stephanus what is this ?" 

"I am sore afraid, Mercia," tremblingly replied 
the boy. 

290 



THE GATES AJAR 

" I am so young to die. Think ! to die ! to die 
to-night! to leave this bright and beautiful world 
to-night !" 

" For one more bright, more beautiful," was the 
soothing rejoinder, " where pain and sorrow is not, nor 
persecution, nor parting ; where happiness is, and 
purity, and holiness evermore." 

But the boy had suffered so terribly that his courage 
failed him, and he cried 

But the pain, Mercia ! The pain !" 

" Think of His agony who died for thee," implored 
the faithful girl. "Thou wilt not faint again. Fix 
thine eyes on the Cross when the hour doth come." 

"Shall I dare?" he asked tremblingly. "Have I 
not betrayed you all?" And he broke into sobs of 
remorse. 

In gentle, soothing accents, Mercia said 

"Thy soul was true; the weak body only proved 
false." 

"Yes, yes! But, Mercia, I am a coward I have 
not thy courage." And he buried his face in his 
hands and wept bitterly. 

Mercia was wrung to the heart by pity. In her 
grief for others her own fate was forgotten ; utterly 
unselfish, her every thought was for her suffering 
companion. Taking Stephanus in her arms as a 
tender mother might take her child, she answered 

" My courage is not my own. It comes from Him, 
the Master. Look to Him; He will give thee 
strength." 

Great shouts were now heard from the arena. 
291 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

Trumpets sounded; the doors were again thrown 
open, and an officer entered the cell followed by a 
file of soldiers. With a gesture, their leader signified 
that Stephanus was to accompany him. 

The poor child stood half-dazed with terror, but 
Mercia, by look and caress, urged him to be calm. 
With faltering feet he made for the arena ; tottering 
and hardly conscious, he ascended the steps. 

As he passed the threshold, the scene of horror which 
met his gaze terrified him beyond control, and, with a 
piercing shriek, he dashed back into the cell ; and fall 
ing upon his knees and burying his face in Mercia s 
garments, cried 

" Mercia, Mercia, I cannot, I cannot ! Save me ! 
Save me !" 

Mercia had need of great effort to retain her own 
self-control, but she succeeded, exclaiming 

" Stephanus, Stephanus, thou wilt not falter ? Thou 
didst ever say that thou didst love me. If that is true, 
by all the love thou bearest me, by all the love I bear 
thee by all the love the Master bears to all, be true ! 
Promise that thou wilt not shrink ! Promise I" And 
the noble girl held the shrinking child to her heart, and 
looked lovingly and imploringly into his eyes. 

Her courage seemed to inspire him at last, and, with 
a deep breath, he uttered 

" I promise, Mercia. Ah ! the dread, the fear hath 
gone ! Lay thy hand upon my heart, Mercia ; tis all 
calm now. He hath come to guide me He doth walk 
beside me. I see the Cross ! I fear nothing now !" 

Clenching his hands and crossing them rigidly over 
292 



THE GATES AJAR 

his breast, the boy walked firmly to the door. The 
grim, stern soldiers, accustomed as they were to horrors 
of all kinds, felt a clutching at the throat as the child 
passed out to his horrible death. 

As Stephauus appeared in the arena, there went up 
a loud shout of derision he looked so tiny in that vast 
space. But he heard nothing feared nothing. Un 
flinchingly he faced those thousands, turning only once 
for a last look of love towards Mercia ; and, with a 
little nod of assurance to her of his unwavering cour 
age, he passed on, and the doors closed behind him, 
leaving Mercia alone once more. 



293 



CHAPTEE XXI 

MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 

MERCIA sank upon her knees, witn her face pressed 
against the iron doors. She was quietly sobbing, but 
her grief was not for herself. Silently she prayed to 
Him to give her strength to endure to the end. There 
were none with her to solace or comfort her ; those 
who, a few moments ago, had filled the cell, praying 
and singing, were now lying dead in the arena, and 
their souls were with Him in paradise. 

So the noble-hearted girl fought out her bitter fight 
alone; but in all her anguish, Marcus was not for 
gotten. She prayed that her death might bring him 
life, that her example might uplift him, that her un 
daunted faith might inspire him to belief. 

Presently, the door leading to the corridor was un 
barred. Two officers entered, ushering in Marcus, who 
started on finding Mercia alone. Dismissing the 
guards, he closed the door, gazing with infinite tender 
ness at the white figure kneeling at the gates. Mer 
cia, lost in thought, had not heard him enter. 

For a time Marcus could not speak ; his heart felt 
like bursting with grief for this beautiful girl. Here, 
in this loathsome dungeon, she could still preserve her 
courage, and could still, he had no doubt, pray for for 
giveness for her persecutors. Between her and a 

294 



MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 

hideous death lay only a few fleeting moments, and 
such shield as his love could raise. Hungrily ho 
stretched out his arms over her, proudly willing to 
give all he possessed in the world to shelter that frail 
girl in his strong arms and comfort and save her. 
Thrice he essayed to speak, but could not. "What he 
would say choked him. At last, he murmured softly 

" Mercia !" 

At that moment his name was mingled with her 
prayers, and it seemed as though his spirit had called 
her. She knew nothing of his coming thither, had not 
deemed it possible that she should ever see him again. 
Softly, a second time, he called 

" Mercia !" 

Then, slowly, she rose, as one awakening from a 
dream, and looked around her. When she saw that he 
was indeed by her side, her heart gave a mighty bound 
that robbed her of her power to speak for a moment. 
When she recovered, she asked, in faltering accents 

" What would you with me ?" 

With a tender gaze and in earnest tones, he replied 

" I come to save thee." 

" To save me ? From what ?" 

" From death." And Marcus looked with horror 
towards the entrance to the arena. 

"How canst thou save me?" 

He hesitated ; he could not yet summon the courage 
to tell her that her life depended upon her apostasy. 
At length he said, evading her direct question 

" I have knelt to Nero for thy pardon." 

" And did he grant it ?" Mercia asked the question, 

295 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

but she had no hope of pardon ; she felt that she was 
doomed. 

" He will grant it upon one condition." He paused, 
and Mercia inquired 

"What is that?" 

" That that " He could not bring himself to 

ask her to abjure her faith. Mercia waited, and then 
softly asked 

"Well?" 

There was nothing left for Marcus but to tell her 
the truth. Her precious life must be saved, no matter 
what the cost ; and he said 

" That thou dost renounce this false worship " 

"It is not false! It is true and everlasting!" was 
Mercia s calm reply, and Marcus felt that her clear 
conviction was absolutely untouched by his assertions. 
Still he fought for her life. 

"Everlasting? Nothing is everlasting! There is 
no after-life ; the end is here. Men come and go ; they 
drink their little cup of woe or happiness, and then 
sleep the sleep that knows no awakening." 

" Art thou so sure of that ? Ask thyself, are there 
no inward monitors that silently teach thee there is a 
life to come ?" 

He hesitated to reply directly to this question, and 
evasively exclaimed 

" All men have wishes for a life to come, if it could 
better this." 

" It will better this, if this life be well-lived. Hast 
thou lived well?" 

A thousand shameful memories of his past life swept 
296 



MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 

across the mind of Marcus, and his eyes fell before 
her questioning gaze. Had he lived well ? He could 
scarcely bear to think of the existence he had passed. 
In halting accents, he murmured 

"No. Thou hast taught me that. I never knew 
the shame of sin until I knew thy purity. Ah! 
whence comes thy wondrous grace ?" 

" If I have any grace, it comes from Him who died 
on Calvary s Cross that grace might come to all." 

" Thou dost believe this ?" 

" I do believe it ?" 

" But thou hast no proof." 

"Yes," replied Mercia, placing her hand upon her 
heart, u the proof is here." 

" Ah !" he argued, " thou dost believe so ? All men, 
all nations have their gods. This one bows down to a 
thing of stone, and calls it his god ; another to the sun, 
and calls it his god. A god of brass a god of gold 
a god of wood! Each tells himself his is the true 
God. All are mistaken ?" 

" All these are mistaken," was the quiet rejoinder. 

"And thou? What is thy God? A fantasy a 
vision a superstition. Wilt thou die for such a 
thing?" 

" I will die for my Master gladly." 

He felt this was no exaggeration, no boast. She 
meant it, and would sacrifice herself for her faith. 
But he could not endure the thought, and fervently he 
pleaded with her 

" Mercia, hear me ! Thou shalt not die ! I cannot 
let thee go ! I love thee so ! I love thee so I" 

297 



01* 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

" Thou hast told me so before, and wouldst have slain 
thy soul and mine." 

" I grant it I did not know ! I was blind ! Now I 
see my love for thee is love indeed. Forgive me that I 
did so misjudge thee and myself. The brute is dead 
in me the man is living. Thy purity, that I would 
have smirched, hath cleansed me. Live, Mercia, live, 
and be my wife !" And he sank upon his knees before 
this simple girl with all the reverence a man might feel 
for a saint in soul, an empress in worldly rank. 

Mercia was deeply moved. The man she loved with 
her whole heart loved her, and with a reverence and 
devotion that were beyond question deep and sincere. 

" Thy wife ? Thy wife, in very truth ?" she asked, 
with a little sob of joy. 

" In very truth my wife, my honoured wife." 

" Oh, Marcus, Marcus !" murmured Mercia. All was 
forgotten save her joy in his love. She had long since 
forgiven him. 

" Thou wilt be my wife ?" urged Marcus. 

Then came the thought to Mercia of the price she 
would have to pay for her earthly happiness, and 
tremblingly she asked 

" And renounce my faith ?" 

" That must be," was the sad reply. 

"That can never be," exclaimed Mercia, and the 
firmness of her tone struck into Marcus very soul. 
But still he pleaded 

" It must be ! Think, Mercia, think !" 

"There is no need to think. We do not need to 
think to breathe while we have life ; the heart beats, 

298 



MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 

the blood flows through our veins without our thought. 
God hath made us so. So I, without thought, worship 
Him I need no thought to make me true to Him. 
He hath made me so ; I cannot be otherwise would 
not be otherwise." 

" If thou didst love me?" 

" Hear me, Marcus. I know not how or whence it 
came, but love came for thee when first I saw thee." 

" Mercia !" he exclaimed, springing towards her. 

"Nay, stay where thou art, Marcus, and hear me. 
This love I speak of came I knew not whence nor 
how, then ; now, I know it came from Him who gave 
me life. I received it joyfully because He gave it. 
Think you He gave it to tempt me to betray Him ? 
Nay, Marcus, He gave it to me to uphold and strengthen 
me. The world has passed away from me, and as on 
the threshold of the other life all worldly thoughts are 
left behind, and all wordly things. I have no shame in 
telling thee that I love thee . . . next to Him." 

" And thou wilt live ?" he burst forth passionately. 

" I will be true to Him." 

< : Thou wilt live ?" 

" I will not deny Him who died for me." 

" Mercia, if thy God exists, He made us both, the 
one for the other. Hearken ! I am rich beyond 
riches I have power, skill, strength ; with these, the 
world would be my slave, my vassal. Nero is hated, 
loathed is tottering on his throne. I have friends 
in plenty who would help me the throne of Caesar 
might be mine, and thou shalt share it with me, if 
thou wilt but live. The crown of an Empress shall 

299 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

deck that lovely head, if thou wilt but live only con 
sent to live !" 

"My crown is not of earth, Marcus; it awaits me 
there." She pointed heavenward. His arguments 
had moved her deeply, but had not shaken her resolve. 
She was filled with a divine strength that nothing 
could weaken, much less destroy. Life with him, as 
his wife, would excel all other earthly bribes ; but not 
even for that would she betray her Master. 

"Mercia, in pity! by thy love for me, and by my 
love for thee, live ! Live for me and for my love, I 
pray thee! Do not leave me!" And the strong, 
fierce man sobbed aloud in his agony. 

With infinite love and tenderness in her tones, 
Mercia cried 

" I love thee, Marcus, but I must leave thee it is 
His will that I do to go to Him." 

But he exclaimed passionately 

" I cannot part from thee and live, Mercia ! I have, 
to save thy precious life, argued and spoken against 
thy faith, thy God; but, to speak truth to thee, I 
have been sorely troubled since first I saw thee. 
Strange yearnings of the spirit come in the lonely 
watches of the night; I battle with them, but they 
will not yield. I tremble with strange fears, strange 
thoughts, strange hopes. If thy faith be true, what is 
this world ? a little tarry ing-place, a tiny bridge be 
tween two vast eternities, that from which we have trav 
elled that towards which we go. Oh, but to know ! 
How can I know, Mercia ? Teach me how to know ! 
And teach me how to keep thee ever by my side." 

300 



MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 

Her sweet face was uplifted, the pure soul shining 
through it, lighting it with a heavenly glow, as she 
answered 

"Look to the Cross, and pray, Help thou my 
unbelief! " 

" But to keep thee by my side ?" he pleaded in 
broken accents. 

" Give up all that thou hast, and follow me," replied 
Mercia in the words of her divine Master. 

" Follow thee ? Yea, but whither ?" was the earnest 
question. 

" To the better land there, where He waits for us, 
with outstretched arms, ready to pardon, eager to 
welcome." 

And Marcus, remembering his wasted life, his mis 
spent youth, wonderingly, fearfully, anxiously asked 

" Would He welcome even me?" 

" Yea, even thee, Marcus," was the answer of Faith. 

Now there sounded on their ears another call from 
the trumpets. The brazen doors slid back, the guards 
entered, followed this time by Tigellinus. Nero had 
deputed him to personally receive the answer that 
was to decide Mercia s fate. Would she live or die ? 
The Empress, seated in the Imperial box, watching 
the horrible sports, was tremblingly anxious to learn 
the girl s resolve. How would she decide? Would 
she abjure her faith and live for Marcus or remain 
steadfast and die ? Die to leave Marcus free ! 

Sternly, impassively, Tigellinus advanced towards 
Mercia, who stood calmly awaiting his question. In 
harsh accents it came, addressed to Marcus 

301 



THE SIGN OF THE CROSS 

"Prefect, the hour is come. Caesar would know 
this maid s decision. Doth she renounce Christus and 
live, or cling to Him and die ?" After a moment s 
pause, he added, " Answer." 

Turning towards her, Marcus, with piteous entreaty 
in his voice, murmured 

" Mercia !" 

" Answer." 

Now, in clear, steady tones, quiet but deeply mov 
ing, at least to one hearer in the gloomy prison, Mercia 
answered 

" I cling to Him, and die." 

Then she turned to the man she loved so truly ; at 
thought of him she trembled a little, and her voice was 
all quivering with her held-back tears, as she softly 
sighed 

" Farewell, Marcus !" 

Marcus, for a moment, answered not. A fierce battle 
was raging in his soul. What was he to do ? Let her 
fare forth to her death alone ? Abandon that brave, 
true heart in its last brief struggle ? No ! And yet, 
what was left him ? He turned and looked upon her, 
and, with the swiftness of the lightning s flash, the 
light of conviction illumined his soul. Her belief, her 
faith, enwrapped him as with a garment. Doubt died, 
hope sprang to his heart ! A rush of peace encom 
passed the whole of his being. He had decided ! 

"Farewell? No, not Farewell! Death cannot 
part us. I, too, am ready ! My lingering doubts are 
dead the light hath come !" 



302 



MERCIA SAVES MARCUS 

Then, taking Mercia s dear hand in his, he turned to 
Tigellinus, saying 

" Keturn to Caesar ; tell him Christus hath triumphed. 
Marcus, too, is a Christian!" Bending upon Mercia a 
gaze of pure, ineffable, holy love, and drawing her 
closer to him, he cried, " Come, my bride !" 

" My bridegroom !" answered Mercia, returning his 
gaze with one as rapt and unworldly. 

He, still clasping her willing hand, continued 

"Thus, hand in hand, we go to our bridal! There 
is no death for us, for Christus hath triumphed over 
death ! Our love will give us victory over the grave. 
Come thou, my Mercia, my bride indeed come to the 
Light beyond !" 

His face shone with the same glorious radiance that 
had transfigured the features of Mercia. And thus, 
hand in hand, those two went calmly forth to the 
sacrificial altar, where they were made one indeed 
united in bonds never to be broken ; never, through all 
the vast mystery of eternity bonds forged in the 
heart, riveted by sorrow, sanctified by faith, blessed by 
belief, and glorified by His presence who had promised 
to them, even as He had promised to the penitent 
thief, dying on the cross beside Him 

" Verily, I say unto thee, to-morrow shalt thou be 
with Me in Paradise." 



THE END. 

ELECTROTYPED AND PRINTED BY J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY, PHILADELPHIA, U.S.A. 
303 



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