Accordingly, the persons now sent into the palace were charged with the duty of
frustrating its destruction, if such an act had been really contemplated, as well as
the duty of recalling its inmates to their appointed places in the Senate-house.
How far they were enabled, at the time of their entrance into the banqueting-hall,
to accomplish their double mission, the reader is well able to calculate. They
found Vetranio still in the place which he had occupied since Antonina had
quitted him. Startled by their approach from the stupor which had hitherto
weighed on his faculties, the desperation of his purpose returned; he made an
effort to tear from its place the lamp which still feebly burned, and to fire the pile
in defiance of all opposition. But his strength, already taxed to the utmost, failed
him. Uttering impotent threats of resistance and revenge, he fell, swooning and
helpless, into the arms of the officers of the Senate who held him back. One of
them was immediately dismissed, while his companions remained in the palace,
to communicate with the leaders of the assembly outside. His report concluded,
the two ambassadors moved slowly onward, separating themselves from the
procession which had accompanied them, and followed only by a few chosen
attendants--a mournful and a degraded embassy, sent forth by the people who had
once imposed their dominion, their customs, and even their language, on the
Eastern and Western worlds, to bargain with the barbarians whom their fathers
had enslaved for the purchase of a disgraceful peace.
On the departure of the ambassadors, all the spectators still capable of the effort
repaired to the Forum to await their return, and were joined there by members of
the populace from other parts of the city. It was known that the first intimation of
the result of the embassy would be given from this place; and in the eagerness of
their anxiety to hear it, in the painful intensity of their final hopes of deliverance,
even death itself seemed for a while to be arrested in its fatal progress through the
ranks of the besieged.
In silence and apprehension they counted the tardy moments of delay, and
watched with sickening gaze the shadows lessening and lessening, as the sun
gradually rose in the heavens to the meridian point.
At length, after an absence that appeared of endless duration, the two ambassadors
re-entered Rome. Neither of them spoke as they hurriedly passed through the
ranks of the people; but their looks of terror and despair were all-eloquent to
every beholder--their mission had failed.
For some time no member of the government appeared to have resolution enough
to come forward and harangue the people on the subject of the unsuccessful
embassy. After a long interval, however, the Prefect Pompeianus himself, urged
partly by the selfish entreaties of his friends, and partly by the childish love of
display which still adhered to him through all his present anxieties and
apprehensions, stepped into one of the lower balconies of the Senate-house to
address the citizens beneath him.
The chief magistrate of Rome was no longer the pompous and portly personage
whose intrusion on Vetranio's privacy during the commencement of the siege has
been described previously. The little superfluous flesh still remaining on his face
hung about it like an ill-fitting garment; his tones had become lachrymose; the
oratorical gestures, with which he was wont to embellish profusely his former