“Well, when Sextus thinks that time has come, you kill him! Let that be your task. We must save the life of Commodus as long as possible. When nothing further can be done, we must involve Pertinax so that he won’t dare to back out. It was he, you know, who persuaded me to save Maternus the highwayman’s life; it was he who told me Maternus is really Sextus, son of Maximus. His knowledge of that secret gives me a certain hold on Pertinax! Caesar would have his head off at a word from me. But the best way with Pertinax is to stroke the honest side of him —the charcoal-burner side of him—the peasant side, if that can be done without making him too diffident. He is perfectly capable of offering the throne to some one else at the last minute!”
A step sounded on the other side of the curtain. “Caesar!” Narcissus whispered. As excuse for being seen in conversation with her he began to show her a charm against all kinds of treachery that he had bought from an Egyptian. She snatched it from him.
“Caesar!” she exclaimed, bounding toward Commodus and standing in his way. Not even she dared lay a hand on him when he was in that volcanic mood. “As you love me, will you wear this?”
“For love of you, what have I not done?” he retorted, smiling at her. “What now?”
She advanced another half-step, but no nearer. There was laughter on his lips, but in his eye cold cruelty.
“My Caesar, wear it! It protects against conspiracy.”
He showed her a new sword that he had girded on along with the short tunic of a gladiator.
“Against the bellyache, use Galen’s pills; but this is the right medicine against conspiracy!” he answered. Then he took the little golden charm into his left hand, tossing it on his palm and looked at her, still smiling.
“Where did you get this bauble?”
“Not I. One of those magicians who frequent that Forum sold it to Narcissus.”
“Bah!” He flung it through the window. “Who is the magician? Name him! I will have him thrown into the carceres. We’ll see whether the charms he sells so cheap are any good! Or is he a Christian?” he asked, sneering.
“The Christians, you know, don’t approve of charms,” Marcia answered.
“By Jupiter, there’s not much that they do approve of!” he retorted. “I begin to weary of your Christians. I begin to think Nero was right, and my father, too! There was a wisdom in treating Christians as vermin! It might not be a bad thing, Marcia, to warn your Christians to procure themselves a charm or two against my weariness of their perpetual efforts to govern me! The Christians, I suppose, have been telling you to keep me out of the arena? Hence this living statuary in the corridor, and all this talk about the dignity of Rome! Tscharr-rrh! There’s more dignity about one gladiator’s death than in all Rome outside the arena! Woman, you forget you are only a woman. I remember that! I am a god! I have the blood of Caesar in my veins. And like the unseen gods, I take my pleasure watching men and women die! I loose my javelins like thunderbolts—like Jupiter himself! Like Hercules—”