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Quo Vadis, A Narrative of the Time of Nero
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VINICIUS had barely time to command a few slaves to follow him; then, springing
on his horse, he rushed forth in the deep night along the empty streets toward
Laurentum. Through the influence of the dreadful news he had fallen as it were
into frenzy and mental distraction. At moments he did not know clearly what was
happening in his mind; he had merely the feeling that misfortune was on the
horse with him, sitting behind his shoulders, and shouting in his ears, "Rome is
burning!" that it was lashing his horse and him, urging them toward the fire.
Laying his bare head on the beast's neck, he rushed on, in his single tunic, alone,
at random, not looking ahead, and taking no note of obstacles against which he
might perchance dash himself.
In silence and in that calm night, the rider and the horse, covered with gleams of
the moon, seemed like dream visions. The Idumean stallion, dropping his ears
and stretching his neck, shot on like an arrow past the motionless cypresses and
the white villas hidden among them. The sound of hoofs on the stone flags
roused dogs here and there; these followed the strange vision with their barking;
afterward, excited by its suddenness, they fell to howling, and raised their jaws
toward the moon. The slaves hastening after Vinicius soon dropped behind, as
their horses were greatly inferior. When he had rushed like a storm through
sleeping Laurentum, he turned toward Ardea, in which, as in Aricia, Bovilhr, and
Ustrinum, he had kept relays of horses from the day of his coming to Antium, so
as to pass in the shortest time possible the interval between Rome and him.
Remembering these relays, he forced all the strength from his horse.
Beyond Ardea it seemed to him that the sky on the northeast was covered with a
rosy reflection. That might be the dawn, for the hour was late, and in July
daybreak came early. But Vinicius could not keep down a cry of rage and
despair, for it seemed to him that that was the glare of the conflagration. He
remembered the consul's words, "The whole city is one sea of flame," and for a
while he felt that madness was threatening him really, for he had lost utterly all
hope that he could save Lygia, or even reach the city before it was turned into
one heap of ashes. His thoughts were quicker now than the rush of the stallion,
they flew on ahead like a flock of birds, black, monstrous, and rousing despair.
He knew not, it is true, in what part of the city the fire had begun; but he
supposed that the TransTiber division, as it was packed with tenements, timber-
yards, storehouses, and wooden sheds serving as slave marts, might have
become the first food of the flames.
In Rome fires happened frequently enough; during these fires, as frequently,
deeds of violence and robbery were committed, especially in the parts occupied
by a needy and half-barbarous population. What might happen, therefore, in a
place like the Trans-Tiber, which was the retreat of a rabble collected from all
parts of the earth? Here the thought of Ursus with his preterhuman power flashed
into Vinicius's head; but what could be done by a man, even were he a Titan,
against the destructive force of fire?