That night it rained. The wind blew yelling squalls along the streets. At intervals the din of hail on cobble-stones and roofs became a stinging sea of sound. The wavering oil lanterns died out one by one and left the streets in darkness in which now and then a slave-borne litter labored like a boat caught spreading too much sail. The overloaded sewers backed up and made pools of foulness, difficult to ford. Along the Tiber banks there was panic where the river-boats were plunging and breaking adrift on the rising flood and miserable, drenched slaves labored with the bales of merchandize, hauling the threatened stuff to higher ground.
But the noisiest, dismalest place was the palace, the heart of all Rome, where the rain and hail dinned down on marble. There was havoc in the clumps of ornamental trees—crashing of pots blown down from balconies— thunder of rent awnings and the splashing of countless cataracts where overloaded gutters spilled their surplus on mosaic pavement fifty or a hundred feet below. No light showed, saving at the guard-house by the main gate, where a group of sentries shrugged themselves against the wall—ill-tempered, shivering, alert. However mutinous a Roman army, or a legion, or a guard might be, its individuals were loyal to the routine work of military duty.
A decurion stepped out beneath a splashing arch, the lamplight gleaming on his wetted bronze and crimson.
“Narcissus? Yes, I recognize you. Who is this?” Narcissus and Sextus were shrouded in loose, hooded cloaks of raw wool, under which they hugged a change of footgear. Sextus had his face well covered. Narcissus pushed him forward under the guard-room arch, out of the rain.
“This is a man from Antioch, whom Caesar told me to present to him,” he said. “I know him well. His names is Marius.”
“I have no orders to admit a man of that name.” Narcissus waxed confidential.
“Do you wish to get both of us into trouble?” he asked. “You know Caesar’s way. He said bring him and forgot, I suppose, to tell his secretary to write the order for admission. Tonight he will remember my speaking to him about this expert with a javelin, and if I have to tell him—”
“Speak with the centurion.”
The decurion beckoned them into the guard-house, where a fire burned in a bronze tripod, casting a warm glow on walls hung with shields and weapons. A centurion, munching oily seed and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, came out of an inner office. He was not the type that had made Roman arms invincible. He lacked the self-reliant dignity of an old campaigner, substituting for it self-assertiveness and flashy manners. He was annoyed because he could not get the seed out of his mouth with his finger in time to look aristocratic.
“What now, Narcissus? By Bacchus, no! No irregularities tonight! The very gods themselves are imitating Caesar’s ill-humor! Who is it you have brought?”