Conqueror by James Huneker
The hot hush of noon was stirred into uneasy billows by the
shuffling of sandals over marble porches; all Rome sped to the
spectacle in the circus. A brave day, the wind perfumed, a hard blue
sky, the dark shadows cool and caressing and in the breeze a
thousand-colored canopies fainted and fluttered. The hearts of the
people on the benches were gay, for Diocletian, their master, had
baited the trap with Christians; living, palpitating human flesh was to
be sacrificed and the gossips spoke in clear, crisp sentences as they
enumerated the deadly list, dwelling upon certain names with
significant emphasis. This multitude followed with languid interest the
gladiatorial displays, the chariot races; even a fierce duel between
two yellow-haired barbarians evoked not a single cry. Rome was in a
killing mood: thumbs were not often upturned. The imperial one gloomed
as he sat high in his gold and ivory tribune. His eyes were sullen with
satiety, his heart flinty.
As the afternoon waned the murmurs modulated clamorously and a voice
shrilled forth, Give us the Christians! The cry was taken up by a
thundrous chorus which chaunted alternately the antiphonies of hate and
desire until the earth trembled. And Diocletian smiled.
The low doors of the iron cages adjoining the animals opened, and a
dreary group of men, women, children were pushed to the centre of the
arena; a half million of eyes, burning with anticipation, watched them.
Shouts of disappointment, yells of disgust arose. To the experts the
Christians did not present promise of a lasting fight with the lions.
The sorry crew huddled with downcast looks and lips moving in silent
prayer as they awaited the animals. In the onslaught nothing could be
heard but the snarls and growls of the beasts. A whirlwind of dust and
blood, a brief savage attack of keepers armed with metal bars heated
white, and the lions went to their cages, jaws dripping and bellies
gorged. The sand was dug, the bored spectators listlessly viewing the
burial of the martyrs' mangled bones; it was all over within the hour.
Rome was not yet satisfied and Diocletian made no sign. Woefully had
the massacre of the saints failed to please the palate of the populace.
So often had it been glutted with butcheries that it longed for more
delicate devilries, new depths of death. Then a slim figure clad in
clinging garments of pure white was led to the imperial tribune and
those near the Emperor saw him start as if from a wan dream. Her
bronze-hued hair fell about her shoulders, her eyes recalled the odor
of violets; and they beheld the vision of the Crucified One. She was a
fair child, her brow a tablet untouched by the stylus of sin.
The populace hungered. Fresh incense was thrown on the brazier of
coals glowing before the garlanded statue of Venus as flutes intoned a
languorous measure. A man of impassive priestly countenance addressed
her thrice, yet her eyes never wandered, neither did she speak. She
thus refused to worship Venus, and angered at the insult offered to the
beautiful foe of chastity, Rome screamed and hooted, demanding that she
be given over to the torture. Diocletian watched.
A blare of trumpets like a brazen imprecation and the public pulse
furiously pounded, for a young man was dragged near the Venus. About
his loins a strip of linen, and he was goodly to seeslender,
olive-skinned, with curls clustering over a stubborn brow; but his eyes
were blood-streaked and his mouth made a blue mark across his face. He
stared threateningly at Diocletian, at the multitude cynically
anticipating the punishment of the contumacious Christians.
Sturdy brutes seized the pair, but they stood unabashed, for they
saw open wide the gates of Paradise. And Diocletian's eyes were a deep
black. Urged by rude hands maid and youth were bound truss-wise with
cords. Then the subtile cruelty caught the mob's fancy. This couple,
once betrothed, had been separated by their love for the Son of
Galilee. She looked into his eyes and saw there the image of Jesus
Christ and Him crucified. He moistened his parched lips. The sun
blistered their naked skins and seemed to laugh at their God, while the
Venus in her cool grot sent them wreathéd smiles, bidding them worship
her and forget their pale faith. And the two flutes made dreamy music
that sent into the porches of the ear a silvery, feverish mist.
Breathless the lovers gazed at the shimmering goddess. The vast, silent
throng questioned them with its glance. Suddenly they were seen to
shudder, and Diocletian rose to his feet rending his garments. In the
purple shadows of the amphitheatre a harsh, prolonged shout went up.
That night at his palace the Master of the World would not be
comforted. And the Venus was carried about Rome; great was the homage
accorded her. In their homes the two flute players, who were
Christians, wept unceasingly; well they knew music and its conquering
power for evil.