Axidava

Arena

One evening, when the court was assembled to hear Nero recite some of his poetry, a slave appeared.

“Pardon, Divine Imperator, Rome is burning! The whole city is a sea of flames!” A moment of horrified silence followed, broken by the cry of Vinicius. He rushed forth, and, springing on his horse, dashed into the deep night. A horseman, rushing also like a whirlwind, but in the opposite direction, toward Antium, shouted as he raced past: “Rome is perishing!” To the ears of Vinicius came only one more expression: “Gods!” The rest was drowned by the thunder of hoofs. But the expression sobered him. “Gods!” He raised his head suddenly, and, stretching his arms toward the sky filled with stars, began to pray.

“Not to you, whose temples are burning, do I call, but to Thee. Thou Thyself hast suffered. Thou alone hast understood people’s pain. If Thou art what Peter and Paul declare, save Lygia. Seek her in the burning; save her and I will give Thee my blood!”

Before he had reached the top of the mountain he felt the wind on his face, and with it the odor of smoke came to his nostrils. He touched the summit at last, and then a terrible sight struck his eyes. The whole lower region was covered with smoke, but beyond this gray, ghastly plain the city was burning on the hills. The conflagration had not the form of a pillar, but of a long belt, shaped like the dawn.

Vinicius’ horse, choking with the smoke, became unmanageable. He sprang to the earth and rushed forward on foot. The tunic began to smolder on him in places; breath failed his lungs; strength failed his bones; he fell! Two men, with gourds full of water, ran to him and bore him away. When he regained consciousness he found himself in a spacious cave, lighted with torches and tapers. He saw a throng of people kneeling, and over him bent the tender, beautiful face of his soul’s beloved.

Lygia was indeed safe from the burning, but before the first thrill of relief was over an infinitely more horrible danger threatened her. The people were in wrath and threatened violence to Nero and his court, for it was popularly believed that the city had been set on fire at the emperor’s instigation. The coward, Nero, was startled and thoroughly alarmed, and welcomed gladly the suggestion that the calamity should be blamed on the Christians, who were viewed with great suspicion by the common people, and obliged even then to live in hiding. In order to clear himself and to divert the people’s minds, he instituted at once against the Christians the most horrible persecutions that have ever stained man’s history. For days and days the people came in countless numbers to witness the tortures of the innocent victims; but at last they grew weary of blood-spilling. Then it was given out that Nero had arranged a climax for the last of the Christians who were to die at an evening spectacle in a brilliantly lighted amphitheater. Chief interest both of the Augustinians and the people centered in Lygia and Vinicius, for the story of their love was now generally known, and everybody felt that Nero was intending to make a tragedy for himself out of the suffering of Vinicius.

At last the evening arrived. The sight was in truth magnificent. All that was powerful, brilliant and wealthy in Rome was there. The lower seats were crowded with togas as white as snow. In a gilded padium sat Nero, wearing a diamond collar and a golden crown upon his head. Every eye was turned with strained gaze to the place where the unfortunate lover was sitting. He was exceedingly pale, and his forehead was covered with drops of sweat. To his tortured mind came the thought that faith of itself would spare Lygia. Peter had said that faith would move the earth to its foundations. He crushed doubt in himself, compressed his whole being into the sentence, “I believe,” and he looked for a miracle.

The prefect of the city waved a red handkerchief, and out of the dark gully into the brilliantly lighted arena came Ursus. In Rome there was no lack of gladiators, larger by far than the common measure of man; but Roman eyes had never seen the like of Ursus. The people gazed with the delight of experts at his mighty limbs, as large as tree trunks; at his breast, as large as two shields joined together, and his arms of a Hercules. He was unarmed, and had determined to die as became a follower of the Lamb, peacefully and patiently. Meanwhile he wished to pray once more to the Saviour. So he knelt on the arena, joined his hands and raised his eyes towards the stars. This act displeased the crowd. They had had enough of those Christians, who died like sheep. They understood that if the giant would not defend himself, the spectacle would be a failure. Here and there hisses were heard. Some began to cry for scourgers, whose office it was to lash combatants unwilling to fight. But soon all had grown silent, for no one knew what was waiting for the giant, nor whether he would not defend himself when he met death eye to eye.

In fact, they had not long to wait. Suddenly the shrill sound of brazen trumpets was heard, and at that signal into the arena rushed, amid the shouts of the beast-keepers, an enormous German aurochs, bearing on his head the naked body of a woman.

Vinicius sprang to his feet.

“Lygia! Oh, … I believe! I believe! Oh, Christ, a miracle! a miracle!” And he did not even know that Petronius had covered his head at that moment with a toga. He did not look; he did not see. The feeling of some awful emptiness possessed him. In his head there remained not a thought. His lips merely repeated as if in madness, “I believe! I believe! I believe!”

This time the amphitheater was silent, for in the arena something uncommon had happened. That giant, obedient and ready to die, when he saw his queen on the horns of the wild beast, sprang up, as if touched by living fire, and, bending forward, he ran at the raging animal.

From all breasts a sudden cry of amazement was heard, as the giant fell on the raging bull and seized him by the horns. And then came deep silence. All breasts ceased to breathe. In the amphitheater a fly might be heard on the wing. People could not believe their own eyes. Since Rome was Rome no one had ever seen such a spectacle. The man’s feet sank in the sand to his ankle; his back was bent like a bow; his head was hidden between his shoulders; on his arms the muscles came out so that the skin almost burst from their pressure; but he had stopped the bull in his tracks. The man and the bull remained so still that the spectators thought themselves looking at a group hewn in stone. But in that apparent repose there was a tremendous exertion of two struggling forces. The bull’s feet, as well as the man’s, sank in the sand, and the dark, shaggy body was curved so that it seemed a gigantic ball. Which of the two would fail first? Which would fall first?

Meanwhile a dull roar resembling a groan was heard from the arena, after which a brief shout was wrested from every breast, and again there was silence. Duller and duller, hoarser and hoarser, more and more painful grew the groan of the bull as it mingled with the whistling breath from the breast of the giant. The head of the beast began to turn in the iron hands of the barbarian, and from his jaws crept forth a long, foaming tongue. A moment more and to the ears of the spectators sitting nearer came, as it were, the crack of breaking bones; then the beast rolled on the earth, dead.

The giant removed in a twinkling the ropes that bound the maiden to the horns of the bull. His face was very pale; he stood as if only half conscious; then he raised his eyes and looked at the spectators.

The amphitheater had gone wild. The walls of the building were trembling from the roar of tens of thousands of people.

Everywhere were heard cries for mercy, passionate and persistent, which soon turned into one unbroken thunder.

The giant understood that they were asking for his life and liberty, but his thoughts were not for himself. He raised the unconscious maiden in his arms, and, going to Nero’s padium, held her up and looked up imploringly.

Vinicius sprang over the barrier, which separated the lower seats from the arena, and, running to Lygia, covered her with his toga.

Then he tore apart the tunic on his breast, laid bare the scars left by wounds received in the Armenian war, and stretched out his hands to the multitude.

At this the enthusiasm passed everything ever seen in a circus before. Voices choking with tears began to demand mercy. Yet Nero halted and hesitated. He would have preferred to see the giant and the maiden rent by the horns of the bull.

Nero was alarmed. He understood that to oppose longer was simply dangerous. A disturbance begun in the circus might seize the whole city. He looked once more, and, seeing everywhere frowning brows, excited faces and eyes fixed on him, he slowly raised his hand and gave the sign for mercy.

Then a thunder of applause broke from the highest seats to the lowest. But Vinicius heard it not. He dropped on his knees in the arena, stretched his hands toward heaven and cried: “I believe! Oh, Christ! I believe! I believe!”

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