Mpingu meant no harm. He was loyal to the house of Dion Splendidus and he would not willingly have brought harm to his master or his master’s friend, but so it is often with people who talk too much, and Mpingu certainly had done that. The result was that upon a certain day, as he was bartering in the market-place for provisions for the kitchen of Dion Splendidus, he felt a heavy hand laid upon his shoulder and, turning, he was astonished to find himself looking into the face of a centurion of the palace guard, behind whom stood a file of legionaries.
“You are Mpingu, the slave of Dion Splendidus?” demanded the centurion.
“I am,” replied the man.
“Come with us,” commanded the centurion.
Mpingu drew back, afraid, as all men feared the soldiers of Caesar. “What do you want of me?” he demanded. “I have done nothing.”
“Come, barbarian,” ordered the soldier. “I was not sent to confer with you, but to get you!” And he jerked Mpingu roughly toward him and pushed him back among the soldiers.
A crowd had gathered, as crowds gathered always when a man is arrested, but the centurion ignored the crowd as though it did not exist, and the people fell aside as the soldiers marched away with Mpingu. No one questioned or interfered, for who would dare question an officer of Caesar?
Who would interfere in behalf of a slave?
Mpingu thought that he would be taken to the dungeons beneath the Colosseum, which was the common jail in which all prisoners were confined; but presently he realized that his captors were not leading him in that direction, and when finally it dawned upon him that the palace was their goal he was filled with terror.
Never before had Mpingu stepped foot within the precincts of the palace grounds, and when the imperial gate closed behind him he was in a mental state bordering upon collapse. He had heard stories of the cruelty of Sublatus, of the terrible vengeance wreaked upon his enemies, and he had visions that paralyzed his mind so that he was in a state of semi-consciousness when he was finally led into an inner chamber where a high dignitary of the court confronted him.
“This,” said the centurion, who had brought him, “is Mpingu, the slave of Dion Splendidus, whom I was commanded to fetch to you.”
“Good!” said the official. “You and your detachment may remain while I question him.” Then he turned upon Mpingu.
“Do you know the penalties one incurs for aiding the enemies of Caesar?” he demanded.
Mpingu’s lower jaw moved convulsively as though he would reply, but he was unable to control his voice.
“They die,” growled the officer, menacingly. “They die terrible deaths that they will remember through all eternity.”
“I have done nothing,” cried Mpingu, suddenly regaining control of his vocal cords.
“Do not lie to me, barbarian,” snapped the official. “You aided in the escape of the prisoner who called himself Tarzan and even now you are hiding him from your Emperor.”
“I did not help him escape. I am not hiding him,” wailed Mpingu.
“You lie. You know where he is. You boasted of it to other slaves. Tell me where he is.”
“I do not know,” said Mpingu.
“If your tongue were cut out, you could not tell us where he is,” said the Roman. “if red-hot irons were thrust into your eyes, you could not see to lead us to his hiding-place; but if we find him without your help, and we surely shall find him, we shall need neither your tongue nor your eyes. Do you understand?”
“I do not know where he is,” repeated Mpingu.
The Roman turned away and struck a single blow upon a gong, after which he stood in silence until a slave entered the room in response to the summons. “Fetch tongs,” the Roman instructed the slave, “and a charcoal brazier with burning-irons. Be quick.”
After the slave had left, silence fell again upon the apartment. The official was giving Mpingu an opportunity to think, and Mpingu so occupied the time in thinking that it seemed to him that the slave had scarcely left the apartment before he returned again with tongs and a lighted burner, from the glowing heart of which protruded the handle of a burning-iron.
“Have your soldiers throw him to the floor and hold him,” said the official to the centurion.
It was evident to Mpingu that the end had come; the officer was not even going to give him another opportunity to speak.
“Wait!” he shrieked.
“Well,” said the official, “you are regaining your memory?”
“I am only a slave,” wailed Mpingu. “I must do what my masters command.”
“And what did they command?” inquired the Roman.
“I was only an interpreter,” said Mpingu. “The white barbarian spoke the language of the Bagegos, who are my people. Through me they talked to him and he talked to them.”
“And what was said?” demanded the inquisitor.
Mpingu hesitated, dropping his eyes to the floor.
“Come, quickly!” snapped the other.
“I have forgotten,” said Mpingu.
The official nodded to the centurion. The soldiers seized Mpingu and threw him roughly to the floor, four of them holding him there, one seated upon each limb.
“The tongs!” directed the official, and the slave handed the instrument to the centurion.
“Wait!” screamed Mpingu. “I will tell you.”
“Let him up,” said the official, and to Mpingu: “This is your last chance. If you go down again, your tongue comes out and your eyes, too.”
“I will talk,” said Mpingu. “I did but interpret, that is all. I had nothing to do with helping him to escape or hiding him.”
“If you tell us the truth, you will not be punished,” said the Roman. “Where is the white barbarian?”
“He is hiding in the home of Maximus Praeclarus,” said Mpingu.
“What has your master to do with this?” commanded the Romans.
“Dion Splendidus has nothing to do with it,” replied Mpingu. “Maximus Praeclarus planned it.”
“That is all,” said the official to the centurion. “Take him away and keep him under guard until you receive further orders. Be sure that he talks to no one.”
A few minutes later the official who had interrogated Mpingu entered the apartment of Sablatus while the Emperor was in conversation with his son Fastus.
“I have located the white barbarian, Sublatus,” announced the official.
“Good!” said the Emperor. “Where is he?”
“In the home of Maximus Praeclarus.”
“I might have suspected as much,” said Fastus.
“Who else is implicated?” asked Sublatus.
“He was caught in the courtyard of Dion Splendidus,” said Fastus, “and the Emperor has heard, as we all have, that Dion Splendidus has long had eyes upon the imperial purple of the Caesars.”
“The slave says that only Maximus Praeclarus is responsible for the escape of the barbarian,” said the official.
“He was one of Dion Splendidus’s slaves, was he not?” demanded Fastus.
“Then it is not strange that he would protect his master,” said Fastus.
“Arrest them all,” commanded Sublatus.
“You mean Dion Splendidus, Maximus Praeclarus, and the barbarian Tarzan?” asked the official.
“I mean those three and the entire household of Dion Splendidus and Maximus Praeclarus,” replied Sublatus.
“Wait, Caesar,” suggested Fastus; “twice already has the barbarian escaped from the legionaries. If he receives the slightest inkling of this, he will escape again. I have a plan. Listen!”
An hour later a messenger arrived at the home of Dion Splendidus carrying an invitation to the senator and his wife to be the guests of a high court functionary that evening at a banquet. Another messenger went to the home of Maximus Praeclarus with a letter urging the young officer to attend an entertainment being given that same evening by a rich young patrician.
As both invitations had emanated from families high in favor with the Emperor, they were, in effect, almost equivalent to commands, even to as influential a senator as Dion Splendidus, and so there was no question either in the minds of the hosts or in the minds of the guests but that they would be accepted.
Night had fallen upon Castra Sanguinarius. Dion Splendidus and his wife were alighting from their litter before the home of their host and Maximus Praeclarus was already drinking with his fellow guests in the banquet hall of one of Castra Sanguinarius’s wealthiest citizens. Fastus was there, too, and Maximus Praeclarus was surprised and not a little puzzled at the friendly attitude of the prince.
“I always suspect something when Fastus smiles at me,” he said to an intimate.
In the home of Dion Splendidus, Dilecta sat among her female slaves, while one of them told her stories of the wild African village from which she had come.
Tarzan and Festivitas sat in the home of Maximus Praeclarus, the Roman matron listening attentively to the stories of savage Africa and civilized Europe that she was constantly urging her strange guest to tell her. Faintly they heard a knock at the outer gate and, presently, a slave came to the apartment where they sat to tell them that Mpingu, the slave of Dion Splendidus, had come with a message for Tarzan.
“Bring him hither,” said Festivitas, and, shortly, Mpingu was ushered into the room.
If Tarzan or Festivitas had known Mpingu better, they would have realized that he was under great nervous strain; but they did not know him well, and so they saw nothing out of the way in his manner or bearing.
“I have been sent to fetch you to the home of Dion Splendidus,” said Mpingu to Tarzan.
“That is strange,” said Festivitas.
“Your noble son stopped at the home of Dion Splendidus on his way to the banquet this evening and as he left I was summoned and told to come hither and fetch the stranger to my master’s house,” explained Mpingu. “That is all I know about the matter.”
“Maximus Praeclarus gave you those instructions himself?” asked Festivitas.
“Yes,” replied Mpingu.
“I do not know what his reason can be,” said Festivitas to Tarzan, “but there must be some very good reason, or he would not run the risk of your being caught.”
“It Is very dark out,” said Mpingu. “No one will see him.”
“There is no danger,” said Tarzan to Festivitas. “Maximus Praeclarus would not have sent for me unless it were necessary. Come, Mpingu!” And he arose, bidding Festivitas good-by.
Tarzan and Mpingu had proceeded but a short distance down the avenue when the black motioned the ape-man to the side of the street, where a small gate was let into a solid wall.
“We are here,” said Mpingu.
“This is not the home of Dion Splendidus,” said Tarzan, immediately suspicious.
Mpingu was surprised that this stranger should so well remember the location of a house that he had visited but once, and that more than three weeks since, but he did not know the training that had been the ape-man’s through the long years of moving through the trackless jungle that had trained his every sense and faculty to the finest point of orientation.
“It is not the main gate,” replied Mpingu, quickly, “but Maximus Praeclarus did not think it safe that you be seen entering the main gate of the home of Dion Splendidus in the event that, by any chance, you were observed. This way leads into a lane that might connect with any one of several homes, and once in it there is little or no chance of apprehension.”
“I see,” said Tarzan. “Lead the way.”
Mpingu opened the gate and motioned Tarzan in ahead of him, and as the ape-man passed through into the blackness beyond there fell upon him what seemed to be a score of men and he was borne down in the same instant that he realized that he had been betrayed. So rapidly did his assailants work that it was a matter of seconds only before the ape-man found shackles upon his wrists, the one thing that he feared and hated most.