“I wish you would speak plainly, Galen. I have told you all my secrets. You have seen me risk my life a thousand times in the midst of Commodus’ informers, coming and going, interviewing this and that one, urging here, restraining there, denying myself even hope of personal reward. You know I have been whole-hearted in the cause of Pertinax. Is it right, in a crisis, to put me off with subtleties?”
“Life is subtle. So is virtue. So is this stuff,” Galen answered, poking at the mixture with a bronze spoon. “Every man must choose his own way in a crisis. Some one’s star has fallen. Commodus’? I think not. That star blazed out of obscurity, and Commodus is not obscure. Mine? I am unimportant; I shall make no splendor in the heavens when my hour comes. Marcia’s? Is she obscure? Yours? You are like me, not born to the purple; when a sparrow dies, however diligently he has labored in the dirt, no meteors announce his fall. No, not Maternus, the outlaw, to say nothing of Sextus, the legally dead man, can command such notice from the sky. That meteor was some one’s who shall blaze into fame and then die.”
“Dark words, Galen!”
“Dark deeds!” the old man answered. “And a path to be chosen in darkness! Shall I poison the man whom I taught as a boy? Shall I refuse, and be drowned in the sewer by Marcia’s slaves? Shall I betray my friends to save my own old carcass? Shall I run away and hide, at my age, and live hounded by my own thoughts, fearful of my shadow, eating charity from peasants? I can easily say no to all those things. What then? It is not what a man does not, but what he does that makes him or unmakes him. There is nothing left but subtlety, my Sextus. What will you do? Go and do it now. Tomorrow may be too late.”
Sextus shrugged his shoulders, baffled and irritated. He had always looked to Galen for advice in a predicament. It was Galen, in fact, who had kept him from playing much more than the part of a spy-listening, talking, suggesting, but forever doing nothing violent.
“You know as well as I do, there is nothing ready,” he retorted. “Long ago I could have had a thousand armed men waiting for a moment such as this to rally behind Pertinax. But I listened to you—”
“And are accordingly alive, not crucified!” said Galen. “The praetorian guard is well able to slaughter any thousand men, to uphold Commodus or to put Pertinax in the place of Commodus. Your thousand men would only decorate a thousand gibbets, whether Pertinax should win or lose. If he should win, and become Caesar, he would have to make them an example of his love of law and order, proving his impartiality by blaming them for what he never invited them to do. For mark this: Pertinax has never named himself as Commodus’ successor. I warn you: there is far less safety for his friends than for his enemies, unless he, with his own hand, strikes the blow that makes him emperor.”