“Now the gods of heaven and hell, and all the strange gods that have no resting place, and all the spirits of the air and earth and sea, defile your spirit!” Commodus exploded. “Careless, irresponsible, ungrateful fool! You have deprived me of my liberty! You let yourself be killed like any sow under the butcher’s knife, and dare to leave me shadowless? Then die like carrion and rot unburied!”
He began to kick him, but the stricken man’s lips moved. Commodus bent down and tried to listen—tried again, mastered impatience and at last stood upright, shaking both fists at the tunnel roof.
“Omnipotent Progenitor of Lightnings!” he exploded. “He says he should have had stewed eels tonight!”
The watching senators mistook that for a cue to laugh. Their laughter touched off all the magazines of Caesar’s rage. He turned into a mania. He tore at his own hair. He tore off his loin-cloth and stood naked. He tried to kill Narcissus, because Narcissus was the nearest to him. His crashing centurion’s parade voice filled the tunnel.
“Dogs! Dogs’ ullage! Vipers!” he yelled. “Who slew my shadow? Who did it? This is a conspiracy! Who hatched it? Bring my tablets! Warn the executioners! What is Commodus without his dummy? Vultures! Better have killed me than that poor obliging fool! You cursed, stupid idiots! You have killed my dummy! I must sit as he did and look on. I must swallow stinking air of throne-rooms. I must watch sluggards fight—you miserable, wanton imbeciles! It is Paulus you have killed! Do you appreciate that? Jupiter, but I will make Rome pay for this! Who did it? Who did it, I say?”
Rage blinded him. He did not see the choking wretch whose wrist Narcissus twisted, until he struck at Narcissus again and, trying to follow him, stumbled over the assassin.
“Who is this? Give me a sword, somebody! Is this the murderer? Bring that lamp here!”
Bolder than the others, having recently been praised, the senator Tullius brought the lamp and, kneeling, held it near the culprit’s face. The murderer was beyond speech, hardly breathing, with his eyes half-bursting from the sockets and his tongue thrust forward through his teeth because Narcissus’ thumbs had almost strangled him.
“A Christian,” said Tullius.
There was a note of quiet exultation in his voice. The privileges of the Christians were a sore point with the majority of senators.
“A what?” demanded Commodus.
“A Christian. See—he has a cross and a fish engraved on bone and wears it hung from his neck beneath his tunic. Besides, I think I recognize the man. I think he is the one who waylaid Pertinax the other day and spoke strange stuff about a whore on seven hills whose days are numbered.”
He had raised up the man’s head by the hair. Commodus stamped on the face with the flat of his sandal, crushing the head on the flagstones.