The New Catacomb
"Look here, Burger," said Kennedy, "I do wish that you would
confide in me."
The two famous students of Roman remains sat together in
Kennedy's comfortable room overlooking the Corso. The night
was cold, and they had both pulled up their chairs to the
unsatisfactory Italian stove which threw out a zone of stuffiness
rather than of warmth. Outside under the bright winter stars lay
Rome, the long, double chain of the electric lamps, the
brilliantly lighted cafes, the rushing carriages, and the dense
throng upon the footpaths. But inside, in the sumptuous chamber of
the rich young English archaeologist, there was only old Rome to be
seen. Cracked and timeworn friezes hung upon the walls, grey old
busts of senators and soldiers with their fighting heads and their
hard, cruel faces peered out from the corners. On the centre
table, amidst a litter of inscriptions, fragments, and ornaments,
there stood the famous reconstruction by Kennedy of the Baths of
Caracalla, which excited such interest and admiration when it was
exhibited in Berlin. Amphorae hung from the ceiling, and a litter
of curiosities strewed the rich red Turkey carpet. And of them all
there was not one which was not of the most unimpeachable
authenticity, and of the utmost rarity and value; for Kennedy,
though little more than thirty, had a European reputation in this
particular branch of research, and was, moreover, provided with
that long purse which either proves to be a fatal handicap to the
student's energies, or, if his mind is still true to its purpose,
gives him an enormous advantage in the race for fame. Kennedy had
often been seduced by whim and pleasure from his studies, but his
mind was an incisive one, capable of long and concentrated efforts
which ended in sharp reactions of sensuous languor. His handsome
face, with its high, white forehead, its aggressive nose, and its
somewhat loose and sensual mouth, was a fair index of the
compromise between strength and weakness in his nature.
Of a very different type was his companion, Julius Burger. He
came of a curious blend, a German father and an Italian mother,
with the robust qualities of the North mingling strangely with the
softer graces of the South. Blue Teutonic eyes lightened his sun-
browned face, and above them rose a square, massive forehead, with
a fringe of close yellow curls lying round it. His strong, firm
jaw was clean-shaven, and his companion had frequently remarked how
much it suggested those old Roman busts which peered out from the
shadows in the corners of his chamber. Under its bluff German
strength there lay always a suggestion of Italian subtlety, but
the smile was so honest, and the eyes so frank, that one understood
that this was only an indication of his ancestry, with no actual
bearing upon his character. In age and in reputation, he was on
the same level as his English companion, but his life and his work
had both been far more arduous. Twelve years before, he had come
as a poor student to Rome, and had lived ever since upon some small
endowment for research which had been awarded to him by the
University of Bonn. Painfully, slowly, and doggedly, with
extraordinary tenacity and single-mindedness, he had climbed from
rung to rung of the ladder of fame, until now he was a member of
the Berlin Academy, and there was every reason to believe that he
would shortly be promoted to the Chair of the greatest of German
Universities. But the singleness of purpose which had brought him
to the same high level as the rich and brilliant Englishman, had
caused him in everything outside their work to stand infinitely
below him. He had never found a pause in his studies in which to
cultivate the social graces. It was only when he spoke of his own
subject that his face was filled with life and soul. At other
times he was silent and embarrassed, too conscious of his own
limitations in larger subjects, and impatient of that small talk
which is the conventional refuge of those who have no thoughts to
And yet for some years there had been an acquaintanceship which
appeared to be slowly ripening into a friendship between these two
very different rivals. The base and origin of this lay in the fact
that in their own studies each was the only one of the younger men
who had knowledge and enthusiasm enough to properly appreciate the
other. Their common interests and pursuits had brought them
together, and each had been attracted by the other's knowledge.
And then gradually something had been added to this. Kennedy had
been amused by the frankness and simplicity of his rival, while
Burger in turn had been fascinated by the brilliancy and vivacity
which had made Kennedy such a favourite in Roman society. I say
"had," because just at the moment the young Englishman was somewhat
under a cloud. A love-affair, the details of which had never quite
come out, had indicated a heartlessness and callousness upon his
part which shocked many of his friends. But in the bachelor
circles of students and artists in which he preferred to move
there is no very rigid code of honour in such matters, and though
a head might be shaken or a pair of shoulders shrugged over the
flight of two and the return of one, the general sentiment was
probably one of curiosity and perhaps of envy rather than of
"Look here, Burger," said Kennedy, looking hard at the placid
face of his companion, "I do wish that you would confide in me."
As he spoke he waved his hand in the direction of a rug which
lay upon the floor. On the rug stood a long, shallow fruit-basket
of the light wicker-work which is used in the Campagna, and this
was heaped with a litter of objects, inscribed tiles, broken
inscriptions, cracked mosaics, torn papyri, rusty metal ornaments,
which to the uninitiated might have seemed to have come straight
from a dustman's bin, but which a specialist would have speedily
recognized as unique of their kind. The pile of odds and ends in
the flat wicker-work basket supplied exactly one of those missing
links of social development which are of such interest to the
student. It was the German who had brought them in, and the
Englishman's eyes were hungry as he looked at them.
"I won't interfere with your treasure-trove, but I should very
much like to hear about it," he continued, while Burger very
deliberately lit a cigar. "It is evidently a discovery of the
first importance. These inscriptions will make a sensation
"For every one here there are a million there!" said the
German. "There are so many that a dozen savants might spend a
lifetime over them, and build up a reputation as solid as the
Castle of St. Angelo."
Kennedy sat thinking with his fine forehead wrinkled and his
fingers playing with his long, fair moustache.
"You have given yourself away, Burger!" said he at last. "Your
words can only apply to one thing. You have discovered a new
"I had no doubt that you had already come to that conclusion
from an examination of these objects."
"Well, they certainly appeared to indicate it, but your last
remarks make it certain. There is no place except a catacomb which
could contain so vast a store of relics as you describe."
"Quite so. There is no mystery about that. I HAVE
discovered a new catacomb."
"Ah, that is my secret, my dear Kennedy. Suffice it that it is
so situated that there is not one chance in a million of anyone
else coming upon it. Its date is different from that of any known
catacomb, and it has been reserved for the burial of the highest
Christians, so that the remains and the relics are quite different
from anything which has ever been seen before. If I was not aware
of your knowledge and of your energy, my friend, I would not
hesitate, under the pledge of secrecy, to tell you everything about
it. But as it is I think that I must certainly prepare my own
report of the matter before I expose myself to such formidable
Kennedy loved his subject with a love which was almost a
mania--a love which held him true to it, amidst all the
distractions which come to a wealthy and dissipated young man. He
had ambition, but his ambition was secondary to his mere abstract
joy and interest in everything which concerned the old life and
history of the city. He yearned to see this new underworld which
his companion had discovered.
"Look here, Burger," said he, earnestly, "I assure you that you
can trust me most implicitly in the matter. Nothing would induce
me to put pen to paper about anything which I see until I have your
express permission. I quite understand your feeling and I think it
is most natural, but you have really nothing whatever to fear from
me. On the other hand, if you don't tell me I shall make a
systematic search, and I shall most certainly discover it. In that
case, of course, I should make what use I liked of it, since I
should be under no obligation to you."
Burger smiled thoughtfully over his cigar.
"I have noticed, friend Kennedy," said he, "that when I want
information over any point you are not always so ready to supply
"When did you ever ask me anything that I did not tell you?
You remember, for example, my giving you the material for your
paper about the temple of the Vestals."
"Ah, well, that was not a matter of much importance. If I were
to question you upon some intimate thing would you give me an answer,
I wonder! This new catacomb is a very intimate thing to me,
and I should certainly expect some sign of confidence in return."
"What you are driving at I cannot imagine," said the
Englishman, "but if you mean that you will answer my question about
the catacomb if I answer any question which you may put to me I can
assure you that I will certainly do so."
"Well, then," said Burger, leaning luxuriously back in his
settee, and puffing a blue tree of cigar-smoke into the air, "tell
me all about your relations with Miss Mary Saunderson."
Kennedy sprang up in his chair and glared angrily at his
"What the devil do you mean?" he cried. "What sort of a
question is this? You may mean it as a joke, but you never made a
"No, I don't mean it as a joke," said Burger, simply. "I am
really rather interested in the details of the matter. I don't
know much about the world and women and social life and that sort
of thing, and such an incident has the fascination of the unknown
for me. I know you, and I knew her by sight--I had even spoken to
her once or twice. I should very much like to hear from your own
lips exactly what it was which occurred between you."
"I won't tell you a word."
"That's all right. It was only my whim to see if you would
give up a secret as easily as you expected me to give up my secret
of the new catacomb. You wouldn't, and I didn't expect you to.
But why should you expect otherwise of me? There's Saint John's
clock striking ten. It is quite time that I was going home."
"No; wait a bit, Burger," said Kennedy; "this is really a
ridiculous caprice of yours to wish to know about an old love-
affair which has burned out months ago. You know we look upon a
man who kisses and tells as the greatest coward and villain
"Certainly," said the German, gathering up his basket of
curiosities, "when he tells anything about a girl which is
previously unknown he must be so. But in this case, as you must be
aware, it was a public matter which was the common talk of Rome, so
that you are not really doing Miss Mary Saunderson any injury
by discussing her case with me. But still, I respect your
scruples; and so good night!"
"Wait a bit, Burger," said Kennedy, laying his hand upon the
other's arm; "I am very keen upon this catacomb business, and I
can't let it drop quite so easily. Would you mind asking me
something else in return--something not quite so eccentric this
"No, no; you have refused, and there is an end of it," said
Burger, with his basket on his arm. "No doubt you are quite right
not to answer, and no doubt I am quite right also--and so again, my
dear Kennedy, good night!"
The Englishman watched Burger cross the room, and he had his
hand on the handle of the door before his host sprang up with the
air of a man who is making the best of that which cannot be helped.
"Hold on, old fellow," said he; "I think you are behaving in a
most ridiculous fashion; but still; if this is your condition, I
suppose that I must submit to it. I hate saying anything about a
girl, but, as you say, it is all over Rome, and I don't suppose I
can tell you anything which you do not know already. What was it
you wanted to know?"
The German came back to the stove, and, laying down his basket,
he sank into his chair once more.
"May I have another cigar?" said he. "Thank you very much! I
never smoke when I work, but I enjoy a chat much more when I am
under the influence of tobacco. Now, as regards this young lady,
with whom you had this little adventure. What in the world has
become of her?"
"She is at home with her own people."
"Oh, really--in England?"
"What part of England--London?"
"You must excuse my curiosity, my dear Kennedy, and you must
put it down to my ignorance of the world. No doubt it is quite a
simple thing to persuade a young lady to go off with you for three
weeks or so, and then to hand her over to her own family at--what
did you call the place?"
"Quite so--at Twickenham. But it is something so entirely
outside my own experience that I cannot even imagine how you set
about it. For example, if you had loved this girl your love could
hardly disappear in three weeks, so I presume that you could not
have loved her at all. But if you did not love her why should you
make this great scandal which has damaged you and ruined her?"
Kennedy looked moodily into the red eye of the stove.
"That's a logical way of looking at it, certainly," said he.
"Love is a big word, and it represents a good many different shades
of feeling. I liked her, and--well, you say you've seen her --you
know how charming she could look. But still I am willing to admit,
looking back, that I could never have really loved her."
"Then, my dear Kennedy, why did you do it?"
"The adventure of the thing had a great deal to do with it."
"What! You are so fond of adventures!"
"Where would the variety of life be without them? It was for
an adventure that I first began to pay my attentions to her. I've
chased a good deal of game in my time, but there's no chase like
that of a pretty woman. There was the piquant difficulty of it
also, for, as she was the companion of Lady Emily Rood, it was
almost impossible to see her alone. On the top of all the other
obstacles which attracted me, I learned from her own lips very
early in the proceedings that she was engaged."
"Mein Gott! To whom?"
"She mentioned no names."
"I do not think that anyone knows that. So that made the
adventure more alluring, did it?"
"Well, it did certainly give a spice to it. Don't you think
"I tell you that I am very ignorant about these things."
"My dear fellow, you can remember that the apple you stole from
your neighbour's tree was always sweeter than that which fell from
your own. And then I found that she cared for me."
"Oh, no, it took about three months of sapping and mining. But
at last I won her over. She understood that my judicial separation
from my wife made it impossible for me to do the right thing by
her--but she came all the same, and we had a delightful time, as
long as it lasted."
"But how about the other man?"
Kennedy shrugged his shoulders.
"I suppose it is the survival of the fittest," said he. "If he
had been the better man she would not have deserted him. Let's
drop the subject, for I have had enough of it!"
"Only one other thing. How did you get rid of her in three
"Well, we had both cooled down a bit, you understand. She
absolutely refused, under any circumstances, to come back to face
the people she had known in Rome. Now, of course, Rome is
necessary to me, and I was already pining to be back at my work--so
there was one obvious cause of separation. Then, again, her old
father turned up at the hotel in London, and there was a scene, and
the whole thing became so unpleasant that really--though I missed
her dreadfully at first--I was very glad to slip out of it. Now,
I rely upon you not to repeat anything of what I have said."
"My dear Kennedy, I should not dream of repeating it. But all
that you say interests me very much, for it gives me an insight
into your way of looking at things, which is entirely different
from mine, for I have seen so little of life. And now you want to
know about my new catacomb. There's no use my trying to describe
it, for you would never find it by that. There is only one thing,
and that is for me to take you there."
"That would be splendid."
"When would you like to come?"
"The sooner the better. I am all impatience to see it."
"Well, it is a beautiful night--though a trifle cold. Suppose
we start in an hour. We must be very careful to keep the matter to
ourselves. If anyone saw us hunting in couples they would suspect
that there was something going on."
"We can't be too cautious," said Kennedy. "Is it far?"
"Not too far to walk?"
"Oh, no, we could walk there easily."
"We had better do so, then. A cabman's suspicions would be
aroused if he dropped us both at some lonely spot in the dead
of the night."
"Quite so. I think it would be best for us to meet at the Gate
of the Appian Way at midnight. I must go back to my lodgings for
the matches and candles and things."
"All right, Burger! I think it is very kind of you to let me
into this secret, and I promise you that I will write nothing about
it until you have published your report. Good-bye for the present!
You will find me at the Gate at twelve."
The cold, clear air was filled with the musical chimes from
that city of clocks as Burger, wrapped in an Italian overcoat, with
a lantern hanging from his hand, walked up to the rendezvous.
Kennedy stepped out of the shadow to meet him.
"You are ardent in work as well as in love!" said the German,
"Yes; I have been waiting here for nearly half an hour."
"I hope you left no clue as to where we were going."
"Not such a fool! By Jove, I am chilled to the bone! Come on,
Burger, let us warm ourselves by a spurt of hard walking."
Their footsteps sounded loud and crisp upon the rough stone
paving of the disappointing road which is all that is left of the
most famous highway of the world. A peasant or two going home from
the wine-shop, and a few carts of country produce coming up to
Rome, were the only things which they met. They swung along, with
the huge tombs looming up through the darkness upon each side of
them, until they had come as far as the Catacombs of St. Calistus,
and saw against a rising moon the great circular bastion of Cecilia
Metella in front of them. Then Burger stopped with his hand to his
"Your legs are longer than mine, and you are more accustomed to
walking," said he, laughing. "I think that the place where we turn
off is somewhere here. Yes, this is it, round the corner of the
trattoria. Now, it is a very narrow path, so perhaps I had better
go in front and you can follow."
He had lit his lantern, and by its light they were enabled to
follow a narrow and devious track which wound across the marshes of
the Campagna. The great Aqueduct of old Rome lay like a monstrous
caterpillar across the moonlit landscape, and their road led
them under one of its huge arches, and past the circle of crumbling
bricks which marks the old arena. At last Burger stopped at a
solitary wooden cow-house, and he drew a key from his pocket.
"Surely your catacomb is not inside a house!" cried Kennedy
"The entrance to it is. That is just the safeguard which we
have against anyone else discovering it."
"Does the proprietor know of it?"
"Not he. He had found one or two objects which made me almost
certain that his house was built on the entrance to such a place.
So I rented it from him, and did my excavations for myself. Come
in, and shut the door behind you."
It was a long, empty building, with the mangers of the cows
along one wall. Burger put his lantern down on the ground, and
shaded its light in all directions save one by draping his overcoat
"It might excite remark if anyone saw a light in this lonely
place," said he. "Just help me to move this boarding."
The flooring was loose in the corner, and plank by plank the
two savants raised it and leaned it against the wall. Below there
was a square aperture and a stair of old stone steps which led away
down into the bowels of the earth.
"Be careful!" cried Burger, as Kennedy, in his impatience,
hurried down them. "It is a perfect rabbits'-warren below, and if
you were once to lose your way there the chances would be a hundred
to one against your ever coming out again. Wait until I bring the
"How do you find your own way if it is so complicated?"
"I had some very narrow escapes at first, but I have gradually
learned to go about. There is a certain system to it, but it is
one which a lost man, if he were in the dark, could not possibly
find out. Even now I always spin out a ball of string behind me
when I am going far into the catacomb. You can see for yourself
that it is difficult, but every one of these passages divides and
subdivides a dozen times before you go a hundred yards."
They had descended some twenty feet from the level of the byre,
and they were standing now in a square chamber cut out of the soft
tufa. The lantern cast a flickering light, bright below and
dim above, over the cracked brown walls. In every direction
were the black openings of passages which radiated from this common
"I want you to follow me closely, my friend," said Burger. "Do
not loiter to look at anything upon the way, for the place to which
I will take you contains all that you can see, and more. It will
save time for us to go there direct."
He led the way down one of the corridors, and the Englishman
followed closely at his heels. Every now and then the passage
bifurcated, but Burger was evidently following some secret marks of
his own, for he neither stopped nor hesitated. Everywhere along
the walls, packed like the berths upon an emigrant ship, lay the
Christians of old Rome. The yellow light flickered over the
shrivelled features of the mummies, and gleamed upon rounded skulls
and long, white armbones crossed over fleshless chests. And
everywhere as he passed Kennedy looked with wistful eyes upon
inscriptions, funeral vessels, pictures, vestments, utensils, all
lying as pious hands had placed them so many centuries ago. It was
apparent to him, even in those hurried, passing glances, that this
was the earliest and finest of the catacombs, containing such a
storehouse of Roman remains as had never before come at one time
under the observation of the student.
"What would happen if the light went out?" he asked, as they
"I have a spare candle and a box of matches in my pocket. By
the way, Kennedy, have you any matches?"
"No; you had better give me some."
"Oh, that is all right. There is no chance of our separating."
"How far are we going? It seems to me that we have walked at
least a quarter of a mile."
"More than that, I think. There is really no limit to the
tombs--at least, I have never been able to find any. This is a
very difficult place, so I think that I will use our ball of
He fastened one end of it to a projecting stone and he carried
the coil in the breast of his coat, paying it out as he advanced.
Kennedy saw that it was no unnecessary precaution, for the passages
had become more complex and tortuous than ever, with a perfect
network of intersecting corridors. But these all ended in one
large circular hall with a square pedestal of tufa topped with a
slab of marble at one end of it.
"By Jove!" cried Kennedy in an ecstasy, as Burger swung his
lantern over the marble. "It is a Christian altar--probably the
first one in existence. Here is the little consecration cross cut
upon the corner of it. No doubt this circular space was used as a
"Precisely," said Burger. "If I had more time I should like to
show you all the bodies which are buried in these niches upon the
walls, for they are the early popes and bishops of the Church, with
their mitres, their croziers, and full canonicals. Go over to that
one and look at it!"
Kennedy went across, and stared at the ghastly head which lay
loosely on the shredded and mouldering mitre.
"This is most interesting," said he, and his voice seemed to
boom against the concave vault. "As far as my experience goes, it
is unique. Bring the lantern over, Burger, for I want to see them
But the German had strolled away, and was standing in the
middle of a yellow circle of light at the other side of the hall.
"Do you know how many wrong turnings there are between this and
the stairs?" he asked. "There are over two thousand. No doubt it
was one of the means of protection which the Christians adopted.
The odds are two thousand to one against a man getting out, even if
he had a light; but if he were in the dark it would, of course, be
far more difficult."
"So I should think."
"And the darkness is something dreadful. I tried it once for
an experiment. Let us try it again!" He stooped to the lantern,
and in an instant it was as if an invisible hand was squeezed
tightly over each of Kennedy's eyes. Never had he known what such
darkness was. It seemed to press upon him and to smother him. It
was a solid obstacle against which the body shrank from advancing.
He put his hands out to push it back from him.
"That will do, Burger," said he, "let's have the light again."
But his companion began to laugh, and in that circular room the
sound seemed to come from every side at once.
"You seem uneasy, friend Kennedy," said he.
"Go on, man, light the candle!" said Kennedy impatiently.
"It's very strange, Kennedy, but I could not in the least tell
by the sound in which direction you stand. Could you tell where I
"No; you seem to be on every side of me."
"If it were not for this string which I hold in my hand I
should not have a notion which way to go."
"I dare say not. Strike a light, man, and have an end of this
"Well, Kennedy, there are two things which I understand that
you are very fond of. The one is an adventure, and the other is an
obstacle to surmount. The adventure must be the finding of your
way out of this catacomb. The obstacle will be the darkness and
the two thousand wrong turns which make the way a little difficult
to find. But you need not hurry, for you have plenty of time, and
when you halt for a rest now and then, I should like you just to
think of Miss Mary Saunderson, and whether you treated her quite
"You devil, what do you mean?" roared Kennedy. He was running
about in little circles and clasping at the solid blackness with
"Good-bye," said the mocking voice, and it was already at some
distance. "I really do not think, Kennedy, even by your own
showing that you did the right thing by that girl. There was only
one little thing which you appeared not to know, and I can supply
it. Miss Saunderson was engaged to a poor ungainly devil of a
student, and his name was Julius Burger."
There was a rustle somewhere, the vague sound of a foot
striking a stone, and then there fell silence upon that old
Christian church--a stagnant, heavy silence which closed round
Kennedy and shut him in like water round a drowning man.
Some two months afterwards the following paragraph made the
round of the European Press:
"One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years is
that of the new catacomb in Rome, which lies some distance to the
east of the well-known vaults of St. Calixtus. The finding of this
important burial-place, which is exceeding rich in most
interesting early Christian remains, is due to the energy and
sagacity of Dr. Julius Burger, the young German specialist, who is
rapidly taking the first place as an authority upon ancient Rome.
Although the first to publish his discovery, it appears that a less
fortunate adventurer had anticipated Dr. Burger. Some months ago
Mr. Kennedy, the well-known English student, disappeared suddenly
from his rooms in the Corso, and it was conjectured that his
association with a recent scandal had driven him to leave Rome. It
appears now that he had in reality fallen a victim to that fervid
love of archaeology which had raised him to a distinguished place
among living scholars. His body was discovered in the heart of the
new catacomb, and it was evident from the condition of his feet and
boots that he had tramped for days through the tortuous corridors
which make these subterranean tombs so dangerous to explorers. The
deceased gentleman had, with inexplicable rashness, made his way
into this labyrinth without, as far as can be discovered, taking
with him either candles or matches, so that his sad fate was the
natural result of his own temerity. What makes the matter more
painful is that Dr. Julius Burger was an intimate friend of the
deceased. His joy at the extraordinary find which he has been so
fortunate as to make has been greatly marred by the terrible fate
of his comrade and fellow-worker."