A Tale of the Coming of Christ
"Eben Holden" "D'ri and I" "Darrel of the Blessed Isles"
New York and London
Harper & Brothers Publishers
Copyright, 1904, by IRVING BACHELLER.
All rights reserved.
Published August, 1904.
A Tale of the Coming of Christ
Rome had passed the summits and stood looking into the dark valley of fourteen hundred years. Behind her the graves of Caesar and Sallust and Cicero and Catullus and Vergil and Horace; before her centuries of madness and treading down; round about her a multitude sickening of luxury, their houses filled with spoil, their mouths with folly, their souls with discontent; above her only mystery and silence; in her train, philosophers questioning if it were not better for a man had he never been born—deeming life a misfortune and extinction the only happiness; poets singing no more of "pleasantries and trifles," but seeking favor with poor obscenities. Soon they were even to celebrate the virtue of harlots, the integrity of thieves, the tenderness of murderers, the justice of oppression. Leading the caravan were types abhorrent and self-opposed—effeminate men, masculine women, cheerful cynics, infidel priests, wealthy people with no credit, patricians, honoring and yet despising the gods, hating and yet living on the populace. Here was the spectacle of a republican empire, and an emperor gathering power while he affected to disdain it.
The splendor of the capital had attracted from all nations the idle rich, gamblers, speculators, voluptuaries, profligates, intriguers, criminals. To such an extreme had luxury been carried that nothing was too sacred, nothing too costly to be enjoyed. Digestion had become a science, courtship an art, sleep a nightmare, comfort an accomplishment, and the very act of living an industry. Almost one may say that the gods lived only in the imagination of the ignorant and the jests of the learned. In a growing patriciate home had become a weariness, marriage a form, children a trouble, and the decline of motherhood an alarming fact. Augustus tried the remedy of legislation. Henceforth marriage became a duty to the state. As between men and women, things were near a turning-point. Woman cannot long endure scorn nor the absence of veneration. A law older than the tablets of stone shall be her defence. Love is the price of motherhood. Soon or late, unless it be mingled in some degree with her passion, the wonderful gift is withdrawn and men cease to be born of her. Slowly, both the bitterness and the understanding of its loss turn the world to virtue. A new and lofty sentiment was appearing. Woman, weary of her part in the human comedy, had begun to inspire a love sublime as the miracle in which she is born to act.
Happily, there were good people in Rome, even noble families, with whom sacrifice had still a sacred power, and who practised the four virtues of honor, bravery, wisdom, and temperance. In rural Latium, rich and poor clung to the old faith, and everywhere a plebeian feared alike the assessor and the gods, and sacrificed to both.
It is no wonder the gods were falling when even Jupiter had been outdone by a modest man who dwelt on the Palatine. One might have seen him there any day—a rather delicate figure with shiny blue eyes and hair now turning gray. He flung his lightning with unerring aim across the great purple sea into Arabia, Africa, and Spain, and northward to the German Ocean and eastward to the land of the Goths. The genius of this remarkable man had outdone the imagination of priest and poet. A genius for organization, like that of his illustrious uncle, gave to Augustus a power greater than human hands had yet wielded.
A bit of gossip had travelled far and excited his curiosity. It spoke of a new king, with power above that of men, who was to conquer the world. Sayings of certain learned men came out of Judea into the land of lost hope. They told of the king of promise—that he would bring to men the gift of immortal life, that the heavens would declare his authority. Superstitious to the blood and bone, not a few were thrilled by the message.
The minds of thinking men were sad, fearful, and beset with curiosity. "If there be no gods," they were wont to ask, "have we any hope and responsibility?" They studied the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and were unsatisfied.
The nations were at peace, but not the souls of men. A universal and mighty war of the spirit was near at hand. The skirmishers were busy—patrician and plebeian, master and slave, oppressor and oppressed. Soon all were to see the line of battle, the immortal captains, the children of darkness, the children of light, the beginning of a great revolution.
Rome was like a weary child whose toys are gods and men, and who, being weary of them, has yet a curiosity in their destruction.
Those days it was near twelve o'clock by the great dial of history. One day, about mid-afternoon, the old capital lay glowing in the sunlight. Its hills were white with marble and green with gardens, and traced and spotted and flecked with gold; its thoroughfares were bright with color—white, purple, yellow, scarlet—like a field of roses and amarantus.
The fashionable day had begun; knight and lady were now making and receiving visits.
Five litters and some forty slaves, who bore and followed them, were waiting in the court of the palace of the Lady Lucia. Beyond the walls of white marble a noble company was gathered that summer day. There were the hostess and her daughter; three young noblemen, the purple stripes on each angusticlave telling of knightly rank; a Jewish prince in purple and gold; an old philosopher, and a poet who had been reading love lines. It was the age of pagan chivalry, and one might imperil his future with poor wit or a faulty epigram. Those older men had long held the floor, and their hostess, seeking to rally the young knights, challenged their skill in courtly compliment.
"O men, who have forgotten the love of women these days, look at her!"
So spoke the Lady Lucia—she that was widow of the Praefect Publius, who fell with half his cohort in the desert wars.
She had risen from a chair of ebony enriched by cunning Etruscan art—four mounted knights charging across its heavy back in armor of wrought gold. She stopped, facing the company, between two columns of white marble beautifully sculptured. Upon each a vine rose, limberly and with soft leaves in the stone, from base to capital. Her daughter stood in the midst of a group of maids who were dressing her hair.
"Arria, will you come to me?" said the Lady Lucia.
The girl came quickly—a dainty creature of sixteen, her dark hair waving, under jewelled fillets, to a knot behind. From below the knot a row of curls fell upon the folds of her outer tunic. It was a filmy, transparent thing—this garment—through which one could see the white of arm and breast and the purple fillets on her legs.
"She is indeed beautiful in the yellow tunic. I should think that scarlet rug had caught fire and wrapped her in its flame," said the poet Ovid.
"Nay, her heart is afire, and its light hath the color of roses," said an old philosopher who sat by. "Can you not see it shining through her cheeks?"
"Young sirs," said the Lady Lucia, with a happy smile, as she raised her daughter's hand, "now for your offers."
It was a merry challenge, and shows how lightly they treated a sacred theme those days.
First rose the grave senator, Aulus Valerius Maro by name.
"Madame," said he, stepping forward and bowing low, "I offer my heart and my fortune, and the strength of my arms and the fleetness of my feet and the fair renown of my fathers."
The Lady Lucia turned to her daughter with a look of inquiry.
"Brave words are not enough," said the fair Roman maiden, smiling, as her eyes fell.
Then came the effeminate Gracus, in head-dress and neckerchief, frilled robe and lady's sandals. He was of great sires who had borne the Roman eagles into Gaul.
"Good lady," said he, "I would give my life."
"And had I more provocation," said Arria, raising a jewelled bodkin, "I would take it."
Now the splendid Antipater, son of Herod the Great, was up and speaking. "I offer," said he, "my heart and wealth and half my hopes, and the jewels of my mother, and a palace in the beautiful city of Jerusalem."
"And a pretty funeral," the girl remarked, thoughtfully. "Jerusalem is half-way to Hades."
The Roman matron turned, and put her arm around the waist of the girl and drew her close. A young man rose from his chair and approached them. He was Vergilius, son of Varro, and of equestrian knighthood. His full name was Quintus Vergilius Varro, but all knew the youth by his nomen. Tall and erect, with curly blond locks and blue eyes and lips delicately curved, there was in that hall no ancestral mask or statue so nobly favored. He had been taught by an old philosopher to value truth as the better part of honor—a view not common then, but therein was a new light, spreading mysteriously.
"Dear Lady Lucia," said he, "I cannot amuse you with idle words. I fear to speak, and yet silence would serve me ill. I offer not the strength of my arms nor the fleetness of my feet, for they may fail me tomorrow; nor my courage, for that has never been tried; nor the renown of my fathers, for that is not mine to give; nor my life, for that belongs to my country; nor my fortune, for I should blush to offer what may be used to buy cattle. I would give a thing greater and more lasting than all of these. It is my love."
The girl turned half away, blushing pink. All had flung off the mask of comedy and now wore a look of surprise.
"By my faith!" said the poet, "this young knight meant his words."
"A man of sincerity, upon my soul!" said the old philosopher. "I have put my hope in him, and so shall Rome. A lucky girl is she, for has he not riches, talent, honor, temperance, courage, and the beauty of a god? And was I not his teacher?"
"My brave Vergilius," the matron answered, "you are like the knights of old I have heard my father tell of. They had such a way with them—never a smile and a melancholy look in their faces when they spoke of love. I give you the crown of gallantry, and, if she be willing, you shall walk with her in the garden. That is your reward."
Vergilius, advancing, took the girl's hand and kissed it.
"Will you go with me?" said he.
"On one condition," she answered, looking down at the folds of her tunic.
"And it is?"
"That you will entertain me with philosophy and the poets," she answered, with a smile.
"And with no talk of love," the matron added, as Arria took his arm.
They walked through the long hall of the palace, over soft rugs and great mosaics, and between walls aglow with tints of sky and garden. These two bore with them a tender feeling as they passed the figures of embattled horse and host in carven wood, and mural painting and colored mosaic and wrought metal—symbols of the martial spirit of the empire now oddly in contrast with their own. They came out upon a peristyle overlooking an ample garden wherein were vines, flowers, and fruit trees.
"You have a way of words," said she. "It is almost possible to believe you."
He stopped and for a long moment looked into her eyes. "I love you, sweet girl," he said, softly; "I love you. As I live, I speak the truth."
"And you a man!" she exclaimed, incredulously.
"Ay, strange as it may be, a Roman."
"My mother has told me," said she, looking down at her sandal, "that when a man speaks, it is well to listen but never to believe."
"They are not easy to understand—these men and women," said he, thoughtfully. "Sometimes I think they would be nobler if they were dumb as dogs. Albeit I suppose they would find a new way of lying. But, O sweet sister of Appius, try to believe me, though you believe no other, and I—I shall believe you always."
"You had better not," said she, with a merry glance.
"But you will doubt me soon, for I shall say that I do not love you."
For a little he knew not how to answer. She turned away, looking off at the Capitoline, where the toil and art of earth had wrought to show the splendor of heaven. Its beautiful, barbaric temples were glowing in the sunlight.
"Life would be too serious if there were no dissimulation." She looked up at him as she spoke, and he saw a little quiver in her curved lips.
"That bow of your lips—I should think it fashioned by Praxiteles—and it is for the arrows of truth."
"But a girl—she must deceive a little."
They were now among the vines.
"I do not understand you."
"Stupid fellow!" said she, in a whisper, as she turned, looking up at him. "Son of Varo, lovers are not ever to be trusted. Shall I tell you a story? One day I was in the Via Sacra and a young man caught and held me for a moment and tried to touch my lips—that boy, Antipater, a good-looking wretch!"
She gave her shoulders a little shrug and drew her robe closer. "He had come out of the Basilica Julia, and I am sure he had been over-drinking. I cried 'Help!' and quickly a man came and stood between us; and oh! young sir, as I live, it was our great father Augustus, and Antipater knelt before him.
"'Young man,' said the father—and his eyes shone—'rise and look yonder. Do you see the citadel? Under its marble floor there is a grave. It is that of one who kissed a vestal and was buried alive. There are sacred people in Rome, and among them is this daughter of my beloved Publius. Go you to your palace, son of Herod, and, hereafter, forget not that you are in Rome.'
"He was angry, and I, so frightened! Then he took me home and said he would be my father, and that in good time he would choose a husband for me."
"The gods grant that he choose me."
"The gods forbid it, son of Varro."
Slowly and with assumed severity she spoke. "Because—I—do—not—love—you."
"Cruel one!" said he, turning and biting his lips. "Your words are as the blow of the pilum."
"Have they indeed wounded you?" She touched his hand with a look of sympathy.
"They have made me sick at heart."
"Then would I not believe them," said she, tenderly, slipping her slender fingers into his.
He pressed her hand. "And do you, then, love me?"
"You are a strange people—you maidens of the capital," said he, taking her hand in both of his. "Rome has conquered everything save its women."
She parted her tunic and stood looking down at her white bosom, and with her delicate fingers brushed off a bit of dust which had fallen from the vine above them.
"I do think much of love," said she, thoughtfully, still looking down at her breast.
"And of me," he insisted.
"Nay, not of you," she answered, without delay.
"I shall know," said he, wistfully, "for I shall consult the fates. I have here a sacred coin. An old dame found it when she was digging in the side of Soracte. See, it has on its face the head of Apollo, and opposite is an arrow in a death-hand. And the hag had an odd dream of this coin, so she told me—that it fell out of the sky, and was, indeed, from the treasury of the gods, and had in it a wonderful power in all mysteries. And one might tell by tossing it in the air and noting its fall, if he were loved or hated by the first one he should see after learning its answer. I have never known it to fail. If the head is up you love me," said he, tossing the disk of metal.
It fell and lay at his feet.
"The head!" he exclaimed, with joy.
"Is it really blest of the gods?" she inquired, eagerly, her cheeks aflame. "Is it indeed blest?"
"So said the woman who gave it me."
"Now I shall toss it," said she, taking the coin.
"Ah! you would know if I love you," he answered.
The coin leaped high and fell and rolled along the marble walk. Both followed eagerly, he leading, and, as it stopped, he quickly covered the bit of metal with his hand.
"Let me see!" said she, her hand upon his wrist.
"Do not look."
"Let me see it!" she insisted.
"Sweet sister of Appius, I beg of you, here on my knees, do not look at the coin! I will give you the white steeds from Cappadocia, but do not look."
"Let me see it, I say, son of Varro!" She was tugging at his wrist, and now, indeed, there was a pretty pleading in her voice. The words were to him as pearls strung on a silken thread.
"Wait a little."
"I shall not wait."
"Sweet flower of Rome," said he, looking into her eyes, "I know that you are mine now! Your voice—it is like the love-call of the robin!"
"Stubborn boy! Do you think I care for you?" She stopped and looked into his eyes.
"Else why should you wish to see the coin?" said he. "But, look! Upon my soul it is false!" A little silence followed.
"'Tis false!" he repeated. "I swear the coin lies, for I do love you, dearly."
"It does not lie," she whispered.
He put his arm about her.
"And I know," he answered, "why you think it cannot lie. It said, before, that you love me, and it was right."
She thrust him away gently, and, rising, as if stricken with sudden fear of him, ran a few paces up the walk. She turned quickly, and looked back at him as he approached. Her face had grown pale.
"I—I shall never speak with you again," she whispered.
"Oh, have mercy upon me, beautiful sister of Appius!" said the young knight, and there was a note of despair in his voice. "Have mercy upon me!"
"Young sir," said she, retreating slowly, as he advanced, "I do not love you—I do not love you."
She turned quickly, and ran to the peristyle, and, stopping not to glance back at him, entered the great marble home of her fathers.
He stood a moment looking at the sun-glow behind roof and dome and tower. A bridge of light, spanning the hollow of the city, had laid its golden timbers from hill to hill; and for a little the young man felt as if he were drowning in the shadows under it. He turned presently and hurried into the palace.
"He is more honored than Jupiter these days," the philosopher was saying as Vergilius re-entered.
"Who?" inquired the young man.
"Who else but Caesar, and it is well. The gods—who are they?"
"The adopted children of Vergil and Homer," said Appius, brother of Arria, who had just returned from the baths.
"But our great father Augustus—who can doubt that he deserves our worship?" said the philosopher, a subtle irony in his voice. It was this learned man who had long been the instructor of Vergilius.
"Who, indeed?" was the remark of another.
"But these gods!"
"At least they are not likely to cut off one's head," said Aulus.
"Speak not lightly of the gods," said Vergilius. "They are still a power with the people, and the people have great need of them. What shall become of Rome when the gods fall?"
"It shall sicken," said the philosopher, with a lift of his hand. "You that are young may live to see the end. It shall be like the opening of the underworld. Our republic is false, our gods are false, and, indeed, I know but one truth."
"And what may it be?" said another.
"We are all liars," he quickly answered.
"O tempora!" said the Lady Lucia. "It is an evil day, especially among men. When Quinta Claudia went with her noble sisters to meet the Idaean mother at Terracina they were able to find in Rome one virtuous man to escort them. But that was more than two hundred years ago."
"If one were to find him now, and he were to go," said the philosopher, "by the gods above us! I fear he would return a sad rake indeed."
"'Tis not a pleasant theme," said the Lady Lucia, by way of introducing another.
"The dear old girl!" said young Gracus, in a low tone, as he turned to the senator. "Her hair is a lie, her complexion is a lie, her lips are a lie."
"And her life is a lie," said the other.
"You enjoyed your walk?" asked the mother of Arria, addressing Vergilius.
"The walk was a delight to me and its end a sorrow," he answered.
"And you obeyed me?"
"To the letter." It is true, he thought, we are a generation of liars, but how may one help it? Then, quickly, a way seemed to suggest itself, and he added: "Madame, forgive me. I do now remember we had a word or two about love; but, you see, I was telling the legend of this coin. It has the power to show one if he be loved."
"By tossing. Head, yes; the reverse, no."
"Let me try." She flung it to the oaken beams and it fell on the great rug beside her.
"Madame, the hand is up," said Vergilius. "I fear it is not infallible."
"Let me see," she answered, stooping gravely to survey the coin. Something passed between her and her pleasure, and for one second a shadow wavered across her face.
"It is Death's hand, of course," she remarked, sadly. "Love is for the young and death is for the old."
"Old, madame! Why, your cheeks have roses in them."
"Good youth, you are too frank," said she, with a quick glance about her. "Did the coin say that she loved you?"
"And what did she say?"
The young man hesitated.
"Come, you innocent! Of course, I knew that you would talk of nothing but love. What said she?"
"That she does not love me; but I am sure it is mere coquetry."
"Dear youth! You have a cunning eye. This very day speak, my brave Vergilius—speak to her brother Appius. To-night take him to dine with you."
"I had so planned."
A gong of silver rang in the palace halls. It was the signal to prepare for dinner, and the guests made their farewells. Soon Appius and the young lover walked side by side in the direction of the Palatine.
"And what have you been doing?" the former inquired, presently.
"Of love and happiness, and your sister."
"Yes; I love her and wish to make her my wife."
"You have wealth and birth and wit and good prospects. I can see no objection to you. But love—love is a thing for women to talk about."
"You are wrong, Appius. I can feel it in my soul. And, believe me, I am no longer in Rome. I have found the gateway of a better world—like that heaven they speak of in the Trastevere—full of peace and beauty."
"You have, indeed, been dreaming," said the other. "But, Vergilius, there is one higher than I who shall choose her husband—the imperator. Does he know you?"
"I have met him, of course, but do much fear he would not remember me."
"We may know shortly. Every seventh day this year he has sat, like a beggar, at his gate asking for alms. To-day we shall see him there."
"It is an odd whim."
"Hush! you know the people as well as I, and he must please them," the other whispered. "He must conceal his power if he would live out his time. I will present you, and perhaps he may be gracious—ay, may even bid you to his banquet."
"A modest home," said young Vergilius.
Now they were nearing the palace of that mild and quiet gentleman whose name and title—Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus—had terrified the world; whose delicate hands flung the levin of his power to the far boundaries of India and upper Gaul, to the distant shores of Spain and Africa, and into deserts beyond the Euphrates.
"Many a poor patrician has better furniture and more servants and a nobler palace," said Appius. "Rather plain wood, divans out of fashion, rugs o'erworn; but you have seen them. He alone can afford that kind of thing."
"He has a fondness for old things."
"But not for old women, my dear fellow."
"Indeed! And he is himself sixty-one."
"Hist—the imperator! There, by the gate yonder."
An erect figure of a man rather above medium height, in a coarse, gray toga, stood by one of the white columns. Three Moorish children were playing about his knees, and a senator was talking with him.
"My public services are familiar to you," said the senator, as the young knights waited some twenty paces off. "A gift of two hundred thousand denarii would be fitting, and, if you will permit me to say so, it would delight the populace. Indeed, 'tis generally believed you have already given me a large sum."
"But see that you do not believe it," blandly spake the strange emperor, for albeit Rome was then a republic in name it was an empire in fact, and Augustus, wielding the power of an emperor, refused the title. Turning, he began to play with the children.
"Great and beloved father! I hope, at least, you will consider my prayer."
"Good senator, I have considered. You ask for two hundred thousand denarii. I can give you only the opportunity of earning them. As to myself, I am poor. Look at me. Even my time belongs to the people. and it is passing, my dear senator—it is passing."
The importunate man saw the subtle meaning in these words and went his way.
The emperor sat down, a child upon each knee, as the young men approached him. His head was bare and his fair, curly locks, growing low upon his forehead, were now touched with gray. He looked up at the two, his eyes blue, brilliant, piercing.
"My beloved Appius," said he, in a gentle tone, as he rose. "And this—let me think—ah, it is Vergilius, the son of Varro."
"It is wonderful you should remember me," said Vergilius.
"Wonderful? No. I could tell your age, your misdeeds, your virtues, and how often you failed to answer the roll-calls in Cappadocia. Well, I dare say they were pretty girls. But I forget; I am to-day seeking alms, my good children, for the poor of Rome. I am as ten thousand of the hungry standing before you here and asking for bread. In their name I shall receive, thankfully, what you may bestow."
Appius gave a handful of coins; Vergilius emptied his purse.
"'Tis not enough," said the latter. "Your words have touched me. To-night I shall send five thousand denarii to your palace."
"Well given, noble youth! It is generous. I like it in you. Say that I may have you to feast with me the first day before the ides—both of you. Say that I may have you."
"We humbly wait your commands," said Vergilius, kissing his hand.
"Now tell me, handsome son of Varro, have you found no pretty girl to your liking? Know you not, boy, 'tis time you married?" He held the hand of the young knight and spoke kindly, his cunning eyes aglow, and smiled upon him, showing his teeth, set well apart.
"Such an one I have found, good sire. Under the great purple dome there is none more beautiful, and with your favor and that of the gods I hope to make her my wife."
"Ah, then, I know her?"
"It is Arria, sister of Appius."
"And daughter of my beloved prefect. You are ambitious, my good youth."
The emperor stood a moment, looking downward thoughtfully. He felt his retreating chin. His smooth-shaven face, broad from bone to bone above the cheeks, quickly grew stern. His mind, which had the world for its toy and which planned the building or the treading down of empires, had turned its thought upon that little kingdom in the heart of the boy. And he was thinking whether it should stand or fall.
"It may be impossible," said he, turning to the young man. "Say no more to her until—until I have thought of it."
And Appius observed, as he went away with his friend: "You will be a statesman, my dear Vergilius; you gave him just the right dose of religion, flattery, and silver."
"I must succeed or I shall have no heart to live," said the other, soberly.
That evening Vergilius went to feast with the young Herodian prince, Antipater of Judea. The son of Herod was then a tall, swarthy, robust young man, who had come to see life in Rome and to finish his education. He would inherit the crown—so said they who knew anything of Herodian politics; but he was a Jew, and deep in the red intrigue of his father's house. So, therefore, he was regarded in Rome with more curiosity than respect. Augustus himself had said that he would rather be the swine of Herod than Herod's son, and he might have added that he would rather be the swine of Antipater than his father. But that was before Augustus had learned that even his own household was unworthy of full confidence.
Antipater had brought many slaves to Rome, and some of the noblest horses in the empire. He had hired a palace and built a lion-house, where, before intimates, he was wont to display his courage and his skill. It had a small arena and was in the midst of a great garden. There he kept a lion from northern Africa, a tiger, and a black leopard from the Himalayas. He was training for the Herodian prize at the Jewish amphitheatre in Caesarea. These great, stealthy cats in his garden typified the passions of his heart. If he had only fought these latter as he fought the beasts he might have had a better place in history.
Antipater had conceived a great liking for the sister of Appius. Her beauty had roused in him the great cats of passion now stalking their prey. He had sworn to his intimates that no other man should marry her. His gallantry was unwelcome, he knew that, and Appius had assured him that a marriage was impossible; but the wild heart of the Idumean held to its purpose. And now its hidden eyes were gazing, catlike, on Vergilius, the cause of its difficulty. In Judea he would have known how to act, but in Rome he pondered.
It had been a stormy day in the palace of Antipater. He had crucified a slave for disobedience and run a lance through one of his best horses for no reason. He came out of his bath a little before the hour of his banquet, and two slaves, trembling with fear, followed him to his chamber. They put his tunic on him, and his sandals, and wound the fillets that held them in place. One of the slaves began brushing the dark hair of his master while the other was rubbing a precious ointment on his face and arms.
"Fool!" he shouted. "Have I not told you never to bear upon my head?"
He jumped to his feet, black eyes flashing under heavy brows, and, seizing a lance, broke the slave's arm with a blow and drove him out of the chamber. A few minutes later, in a robe of white silk and a yellow girdle, he came into his banquet-hall with politeness, dovelike, worshipful, and caressing.
"Noble son of Varro!" said he, smiling graciously, "it is a joy to see you. And you, brave Gracus; and you, Aulus, child of Destiny; and you, my learned Manius; and you, Carus, favored of the Muses: I do thank you all for this honor."
It was a brilliant company—gay youths all, who could tell the new stories and loved to sit late with their wine. As they waited for dinner many tempting dishes were passed among them. There were oysters, mussels, spondyli, fieldfares with asparagus, roe-ribs, sea-nettles, and purple shellfish. When they came to their couches, the dinner-table was covered with rare and costly things. On platters of silver and gold one might have seen tunny fishes from Chalcedon, murcenas from the Straits of Gades, peacocks from Samos, grouse from Phrygia, cranes from Melos. Slaves were kept busy bringing boar's head and sow's udder and roasted fowls, and fish pasties, and boiled teals. Other slaves kept the goblets full of old wine. Soon the banquet had become a revel of song and laughter. Suddenly Antipater raised a calix high above his head.
"My noble friends," he shouted, "I bid you drink with me to Arria, sister of Appius, and fairest daughter of Rome—"
Vergilius had quickly risen to his feet. "Son of Herod," said he, with dignity, "I am in your palace and have tasted of your meat, and am therefore sacred. You make your wine bitter when you mingle it with the name of one so pure. Good women were better forgotten at a midnight revel."
A moment of silence followed.
"My intention was pure as she," Antipater answered, craftily. "Be not so jealous, my noble friend. I esteem her as the best and loveliest of women."
"Nay, not the loveliest," said the young Manius, an assessor in Judea. "I sing the praise of Salome, sister of our noble prince. Of all the forms in flesh and marble none compare with this beautiful daughter of the great king."
"May fairest women be for the best men," said Antipater, drinking his wine.
In a dim light along the farther side of the dining-hall was a row of figures, some draped, some nude, and all having the look of old marble. Two lay in voluptuous attitudes, one sat on a bank of flowers, and others stood upon pedestals.
There were all the varying forms of Venus represented in living flesh. None, save Antipater and the slaves around him, knew that under each bosom was a fearful and palpitating heart. They were beautiful slave-girls captured on the frontiers of Judea. In spite of aching sinew and muscle, they had to stand like stone to escape the observation of evil eyes. There was a cruelty behind that stony stillness of the maidens, equal, it would seem, to the worst in Hades.
Slaves kept the wine foaming in every goblet, and fought and danced and wrestled for the pleasing of that merry company, and the hours wore away. Suddenly the sound of a lyre hushed the revels. All heard the voice of a maiden singing, and turned to see whence it came. A sweet voice it was, trembling in tones that told of ancient wrong, in words full of a new hope. Had life and song come to one of those white marbles yonder? Voice and word touched the heart of Vergilius—he knew not why; and this in part is the chant that stopped the revels of Antipater:
"Lift up my soul; let me not be ashamed—-I trust in Thee, God of my fathers; Send, quickly send, the new king whose arrows shall fly as the lightning, Making the mighty afraid and the proud to bow low and the wicked to tremble. Soon let me hear the great song that shall sound in the deep of the heavens; Show me the lantern of light hanging low in the deep of the heavens."
The voice of the singer grew faint and the lyre dropped from her hands. They could see her reeling, and suddenly she fell headlong to the rug beneath her pedestal. Antipater rose quickly with angry eyes.
"The accursed girl!" said he. "A Galilean slave of my father. She is forever chanting of a new king."
Hot with anger and flushed with wine, he ran, cursing, and kicked the shapely form that lay fainting at the foot of its pedestal.
"Fool!" he shouted. "Know you not that I only am your king? You shall be punished; you shall enter the cage of the leopard."
He went no further. Vergilius had rushed upon him and flung him to the floor. Antipater rose quickly and approached the young Roman, a devil in his eyes. Vergilius had a look of wonder and self-reproach.
"What have I done?" said he, facing the Jew. "Son of Herod, forgive me. She is your slave, and I—I am no longer master of myself. I doubt not some strange god is working in me, for I seem to be weak-hearted and cannot bear to see you kick her."
The declaration was greeted with loud laughter. Antipater stood muttering as he shook the skirt of his toga.
"'Tis odd, my goodfellows," said Vergilius, "but the other day I saw a man scourging his lady's-maid. Mother of the gods! I felt as if the blows were falling on my own back, and out went my hand upon his arm and I begged him—I begged him to spare the girl."
All laughed again.
"You should have a doll and long hair," said Antipater, in a tone of contempt.
The proud son of Varro stood waiting as the others laughed, his brows and chin lifting a bit with anger. When silence came he spoke slowly, looking from face to face:
"If any here dare to question my courage, within a moment it shall be proved upon him."
None spoke or moved for a breath. Antipater answered, presently:
"I doubt not your courage, noble Vergilius, but if you will have it tried I can show you a better way, and one that will spare your friends. Come, all of you."
As they were rising, the young Gracus remarked: "By Apollo! I have not taken my emetic."
"To forget that is to know sorrow," said another.
Slaves brought their outer robes and they followed the young prince. He led them, between vines and fruit trees and beds of martagon and mirasolus, to the lion-house in his garden. Vergilius now understood the test of courage to be put upon him. The great beasts were asleep in their cages, and Antipater prodded them with a lance. A thunder in their throats seemed to fill the air and shake the flames in the lampadaria. With sword and lance Antipater entered the arena, a space barred high, about thirty feet square, upon which all the cages opened.
"The tiger!" he commanded.
Keepers lifted a metal gate, and the huge cat leaped away from their lances, backed snarling to the end of his cage, and with a slow, creeping movement put his head and fore-paws into the arena; then a swift step or two, a lowering of the great head, and side-long he stood, with eyes aglow and fangs uncovered, a low mutter in his mouth, like the roar of a mighty harp-string. Some fifteen feet away stood the son of Herod, his lance poised.
"Never strike while your beast has a foot to the ground," said he, keeping his gaze on the face of the tiger. "He will be quick to move and parry. Wait until he is in the air, and then thrust your lance."
He made a feint with his weapon; the tiger darted half his length aside, with a great, bursting roar, and, crouching low, stealthily felt the ground beneath him.
"Watch him now," said the tall Antipater. "He will leap soon."
Again he drove him forward, and then the beast turned, facing his tormentor, and crouched low. There, in a huge setting of bone and muscle strangely fitted to its fierceness, with eyes of fire and feet of deadly stealth, its back arched like a drawn bow, the wild heart of the son of Herod seemed to be facing him.
"Look!" a slave shouted. "He has bent his bow."
The haired lip of the beast quivered; great cords of muscle were drawn tense. Like a flash the bow sprang and the columns of bone beneath him lifted, flinging his long, striped body in the air. With cat-like swiftness Antipater stepped aside, and while the huge beast was in mid-air, thrust the lance into his heart. He bore with all his strength and rushed away, seizing an other weapon. The big cat fell and rose and struck at the clinging lance, and stood a second flooding the floor with blood. Then down he went shuddering to his death. The young men shouted loud their applause in honor of Herod's son. While the beast was dying slaves came and sanded the floor. Then, presently, they swept up the red sand, and tying a rope to the legs of the limp tiger, dragged him away. They had done this kind of work before, and each knew his part. Presently Antipater called two of them.
"Bring that girl Cyran—she that chants of her new king," said he, as they ran to do his bidding.
"Noble prince, the strange god is again at work in me," said Vergilius, with rising ire. "I could not bear to see you put her with the leopard; I should rather face him myself."
"You!" said the other, tauntingly, and with a shrewd purpose. The youths turned to see if Vergilius would really accept the challenge. No man had ever faced a black leopard at close quarters without suffering death or injury.
"I," said Vergilius, promptly. "If it is amusement you desire, I can supply it as well as she. Surely I have more blood in me. If you wish only to feed the leopard—will I not make a better feast?"
A sound hushed them. It was the slave-girl, singing as she came near:
"Send, quickly send, the new king whose arrows shall fly as the lightning, Making the mighty afraid and the proud to bow low and the wicked to tremble. Soon let me hear the great song that shall sound in the deep of the heavens; Show me the lantern of light hanging low in the deep of the heavens."
She was fair to look upon as she came, led by the carnifex, her form, draped in soft, transparent linen, like that of a goddess in its outline, her face lighted even with that light of which she sang.
"The girl against a hundred denarii that you cannot live an hour in the arena with him," said Antipater, hotly.
"I accept the wager," Vergilius calmly answered, laying off his robe and seizing a lance. He entered the arena and closed its gate behind him. "Drive the beast in upon me, son of Herod; and you, Gracus, be ready to hand me another lance."
The black leopard spat fiercely and struck at the points that were put upon it, the deep rumble in its throat swelling into loud crescendos. Of a sudden it bounded through the gateway and stood a moment, baring great fangs. The animal threatened with long hisses. Vergilius held its eye, his lance raised. The hissing ceased, the growl diminished, the stealthy paws moved slowly. Soon it rolled upon its side, purring, and seemed to caress the floor with head and paws—a trick to divert the gaze of Vergilius. The Satanic eyes were ever on its foe. As the beast lay there, twisting and turning, the black fur seemed to wrap it in the gloom of Tartarus, and the fire of the burning lake to shine through its eyes. While Vergilius stood motionless and alert, a slave hurriedly entered the lion-house and spoke to Antipater.
"The imperator!" whispered the slave. "He cannot wait; he must see you quickly."
"In the palace hall."
Antipater hurried away.
The slave-girl went close to the barred arena.
"Young master," said she, in quick and eager words, "the lamps are burning dimmer. They will go out soon. It is a trick. You will not be able to see and the leopard will rend you."
Antipater ran to the banquet-hall of his palace, where sat the emperor, his chin resting thoughtfully on his hand. The great Augustus did not look up nor even change his attitude as the son of Herod came near and bowed low and called him father.
"I have a plan," said the emperor thoughtfully, "—a pretty plan, my young prince of—of—"
"Judea?" suggested the young prince.
"Oh, well, it matters not," the great father went on. "You know that fair Vergilius, son of Varro? A headstrong, foolish youth he is, and I fear much that he is like to die shortly. What think you?"
The piercing eyes of Augustus were looking into those of the young man.
"My great father," said the latter, "I do not know."
"'Tis gross ignorance and unworthy of you," said Augustus, quickly, as he rose. "Well, I have bethought me of a pretty plan. Your funeral and his shall occur on the same day—a fine, great, amusing funeral," he added, thoughtfully. "It shall be so. Do not worry, I shall see you well buried. Ah, you are most impolite. Why do you not ask me to drink your health? My pretty prince, you look most ill and have need of my good wishes."
"Dominus!" said the other, trembling with anxiety.
"Dominus!" the old emperor shouted, angrily. "Call me ass, if you dare, but never call me 'Dominus.'"
"You honor me, great father," said the young man, his eyes staring with terror, "but I beg you to excuse me for a little time."
"Ah, so you would leave me," said the sly emperor, in his mildest tones. "A most inhospitable wretch, indeed."
The tall Jew was now pale with fright. His feeling showed in great beads of perspiration. He dared not to stay; he dared not to go. He was in a worse plight than Vergilius, now standing in the leopard's cage.
"A most inhospitable prince," the bland emperor repeated, smiling with amusement. "You are in a hurry?"
"I am ill."
The emperor stood smiling as Antipater glided away.
"Run, you knave!" said the former to himself, with a chuckle of satisfaction. "Upon my soul! the Jew has already set his snare."
Then the gentle and cunning man, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, made his way to the entrance where lecticarii were waiting with his litter.
"Can you hear the sound of running feet?" he inquired of the lady who sat beside him as they went away.
"Yes. What means it?"
He turned with a smile and a movement of his hand. Then he answered calmly:
"Death is chasing a man through the garden yonder."
While Antipater was running towards the lion-house, that small tragedy of the arena was near its end.
The lights are burning low. Two have flickered for a little and gone out. The young men are watching with eager eyes.
"I can bear it no longer," says one, rushing to the gate of the arena, only to find that he could not open it.
The slave-girl utters a cry and steps forward and is caught and held by the carnifex.
Vergilius urges the leopard. He steps quickly, feinting with his lance; the cat darts along the farther side of the arena, roaring. Its eyes glow fiery in the dusk. The beast is become furious with continued baiting. Half the lamps are out and the light rapidly failing as Antipater rushes through the door. He falls beside the arena, rises and opens the gate.
"A lance," he whispers, and it is quickly put in his hands. "Come, come quickly, son of Varro," he whispers again. "The light is failing. He will tear you into shreds. Come through the gate here."
Vergilius had stopped, facing the leopard with lance raised.
"Not unless I have the wager," says he, calmly.
"You have won it," Antipater answers. "Come, good friend, be quick, I beg of you!"
Both moved backward through the gate, and before it closed there came a fling of claws on the floor. A black ball, bound hard with tightened sinew, rose in the air and shot across the arena and shook the gate which had closed in time to stop it.
"You are living, son of Varro, and I thank the God of my fathers," Antipater shouted, as he flung himself on a big divan, his breath coming fast. "I forgot the lights. I thought of them suddenly, and ran to save you. If I had been running in the games I should have won the laurel of Caesar."
"I was wrong—he could not have meant to slay me," thought Vergilius. "Not by the paws of the leopard."
Cyran stood near the door, weeping. Antipater rose and led her to Vergilius.
"The girl is yours," said he. "I am glad to be done with her. Come, all."
They followed him to the palace, and Vergilius bade the girl dress and be ready to join his pedisequi in the outer hall. She knelt before him and kissed the border of his tunic.
"Oh, my young master!" said she, "I shall be of those who part the briers in your way." Then she hurried to obey him.
"I would speak with you, noble son of Varro," said Antipater, beckoning.
Vergilius followed to the deep atrium of the palace, where they stood alone.
"You have one thing I desire, and I will pay you five thousand aurei to relinquish it—five thousand aurei," the Jew whispered.
"And what is it you would buy of me, noble prince?"
"A mere plaything! A bouquet that will fade shortly and be flung aside. The thing happens to suit my fancy, and—and I can afford it."
In the moment of silence that followed this remark a stern look of inquiry came into the face of Vergilius.
"Man, do you not know? 'Tis the sister of Appius," Antipater added, lightly.
"Cur of Judea!" hissed the knight, his sword flashing out of its scabbard, "I shall cut you down and fling you out to the dogs. Fight here and now. I demand it!"
The young Roman spoke loudly and stood waiting. Those others had heard the challenge and were now coming near. Antipater stood silent, glaring, as had the leopard, with an evil leer at his foe, and thinking no doubt of the warning of Augustus. The stiff, straight hairs in his mustache quivered as he turned slowly, watchfully, towards the others, who were now standing near. Since his funeral should occur on the same day, how could he fight with Vergilius?
"You dare not," the latter added, fiercely; "and before these men I denounce you as a coward—a coward who fears to raise a hand."
His arm was extended, his finger at the face of the Jew, now white with passion. Half a moment passed in which there was no word.
"You living carrion!" said the young knight, turning and walking away. "I am done with you."
He took the hand of the poor slave Cyran, and walked to the farther side of the atrium. He turned, still white with anger as if unsatisfied.
"Pet of harlots!" said he, fiercely. "It is time for some one to stand for the honor of good women. If you do but speak her name again before me I will run you through."
Receiving no answer, he departed with Cyran, while the others gathered about their host.
There was a heavy rumble in the throat of Antipater—a tiger-like, Herodian trait—and then a volley of oaths came out of it. He trembled with rage and flung his sword far across the dim atrium with a shout of anger. Like the great cats in his rage, he was like them also in his methods of attack—sly and terrible, but with a deep regard for the integrity of his own skin. Sure of his advantage, he could be as brave as when he faced the tiger.
He sat awhile muttering, his face between his hands. Soon, having calmed his passion, he rose and snarled: "Good sirs, never quarrel with the pet of an emperor, for if one spares you the other will not."
Arria and her mother sat with the emperor. He was at home and in a playful humor. The hour of his banquet was approaching. Soon he would be summoned to receive his guests.
"Nay, but I am sure he loves me," the girl was saying.
The cunning emperor smiled and spoke very gently. "Think you so, dear child? I will put him to the test. Soon we shall know if he be worthy of so great a prize. I will try both his wit and his devotion, but you—you cannot be here."
"And why, great father?"
"Think you it could be a test with your eye upon him?"
"Oh, but I must see it," said the girl. "Unless I see it I shall not know. Let me be your slave and stand behind you in gray cloth. Beloved father, I implore you, let me see the test."
"Ah, well," said the emperor, rising, with a smile. "I shall know nothing but that you have gone above-stairs to find Clia, mistress of the robes. Tell her to give you a box of tablets, and when I raise my finger—so—they are to be delivered. Away with you."
Arria left with a cry of joy, and presently Augustus went with the Lady Lucia to meet his guests.
The "commands" of the emperor had given the hour of the banquet and prescribed the dress to be worn. Vergilius had waited anxiously for the moment when he should again see the great god of Rome, who could give or take away as he would. Standing at the door of Caesar, he wondered whether he were nearing the end of all pleasure or the gate of paradise. A plate of polished brass hung on its lintel, bearing in large letters the word Salve. A slave opened the door and took his pallium. Julia, that wayward daughter of Augustus, now three times married but yet beautiful, met him in the inner hall, and together they walked to the banquet-room. There the emperor, limping slightly, came to meet Vergilius, and there, also, were the guests, seven in number: Appius and his mother, the Lady Lucia; Terentia, wife of the late Maecenas; Manius, an assessor in Judea; Hortensius, legate of Spain; Antipater, son of Herod the Great; and Aulus Valerius Maro, the senator.
"It enters my thought to say to you," said the emperor, aside, as he put his hand upon the shoulder of Vergilius, "keep the number one in your mind, so that by-and-by you can tell me what you make of it."
Slaves had covered the table with fish and fowl in dishes of unwrought silver. The guests reclined upon three great divans set around as many sides of the table. They ate resting on their elbows, and were so disposed that each could see the host without turning. The emperor asked only for coarse bread, a morsel of fish, two figs, and a bit of cheese.
"My good friends," said he, in a low voice, when the wine was served, "we have with us an able officer in this young Manius, one of our assessors in Jerusalem. I ask you to drink his health. Though I can drink no wine, I can feel good sentiments."
One could not help remarking his fixed serenity of face and voice and manner as he went on:
"Some time ago it came to my ear that he thought me a tyrant wallowing in vulgar and ill-gotten luxury."
There was a little stir in those heads around the table, and in every hand and face one might have seen evidence of quickened pulses. The young officer was now staring through deathly pallor.
"My friends, it is not strange," said the great Augustus, mildly. "To Jerusalem is quite two thousand miles; and, then he was very young when he left the home of his fathers. Am I not right, Manius?"
"Your words are both true and kindly," said the young man.
"And you are discerning," said the emperor, with a smile. "Now, good people, observe that I have invited our young officer to Rome for two purposes: to show him, first, that I live no better than the poorest nobleman; secondly, that I am only a servant of the people; for, since he is an able officer, I shall resist my own will and keep him in the public service."
"Bravo!" said they all, and clapped their hands.
A strange, inscrutable man was the emperor at that moment, the mildness of a lamb in his voice and manner, the gleam of a serpent's eye under his brows. And that right hand of his, clinched now and quivering a little, had it grasped a reaching, invisible serpent within him? Kindly? Yes, but with the kindness of a deep and subtle character who saw in forbearance the best politics and the most effective discipline. Lights were now aglow in a great candelabrum over the table and in many tall lampadaria.
A slave, who was a juggler, came near and began to fill the gloom above him with golden disks. From afar came the music of flutes and timbrels. Julia retired presently, and returned soon with her pet dwarf Cenopas. She stood him on a large, round table, and the guests greeted him with loud laughter as he looked down. He had a hard, unlovely face, that little dwarf. He suggested to Vergilius unwelcome thoughts of a new sort of Cupid—deformed, evil, and hideous—typifying the degenerate passions of Rome. There were in the quiver of this Cupid arrows which carried the venom of the asp. Some at the table mocked his grinning face and made a jest of his deformity. When he could be heard he mimicked the speech and manners of public men.
"A Cupid with a knot in his back," said one.
"And if I were to aim an arrow at you," said the dwarf, quickly, "I'm sure you'd have a pain in yours."
"My dear," said the gentle-mannered emperor, when the laughter had died away, "I think we shall now give him the crown of folly and let him go."
"Between the greatest and the least of Romans," said his daughter, rising and pointing at her father and then at the dwarf, "I am lost in mediocrity."
A slave took the little creature in his arms and bore him away as if he had been a pet dog.
"Tell me, young men," said the emperor, "have you no lines to read us—you that have youth and beauty and sweethearts? How is it with you, good Vergilius?"
The young man shook his head. "No," said he; "I have youth and a sweetheart, but not the gift of poesy."
"No lines! What are we coming to in this Rome of ours? Are there no more poets? My dear friends, tell me, in the baths or the forum or the theatre, or wherever the people congregate, do you hear of no youth that has the divine gift of song?"
He paused for a little, but there was no reply.
"Then Rome is in evil days," said the great father, sadly.
"Why?" It was the question of Gracus.
"Why, young man? Because in every land there should be those who can cherish the fear of the gods and make honor beautiful and love sacred and valor a thing of imperishable fame. I assure you, good people, one poet is better," he paused, thoughtfully—"than ten thousand soldiers," he added. "Who will bring me a poet?"
The gods are indeed helpless, thought Vergilius. They must have poets to do their work for them? But he said nothing.
"The streets are full of poets," said Gracus.
"Those old men with long beards and stilted rubbish!" said Augustus, "with tragedies that slay the hero and the hearer! Bring me a poet, and, remember, I shall honor him above all men. Once I invited Horace to dine with me, and got no answer. He was a proud man"—this with a merry smile. "Again I invited him, and then he deigned to write me a sentence, merely, and said: 'Thanks, I am happy out here on my farm.' I did not know what to do, but I wrote a letter and said to the great man: 'You may not desire my friendship, but that is no reason for my failing to value yours.' I am proud to say that he was my friend ever after. But I weary you."
A female slave, thickly veiled, stood behind him. He made a signal and she quickly put in his hand a little box of ivory, finely wrought.
"I have here," said the great father, "nine disks of wax. You see they are very small, but so they shall serve my purpose the better. Will each of you take one and retire from the table and write upon it the thing he most desires? Now, my dear friends, brevity is ever as the point of the lance. Wit is blunt and Truth half armed without it. I lay a test upon you."
All retired quickly, and, soon returning, dropped their wishes in the box. The playful emperor closed and shook it and withdrew a disk.
"I find here the word 'preference,'" said he, and all observed that his keen eyes were calmly measuring the prince Antipater. "It is a poor word, and does you little honor, my young friend. In mere preference there is no merit. Here is another, and it says 'more wine.' Keep his goblet full," he added, pointing to that of the senator, as all laughed. "Here is one says 'rest.' Have patience, my good daughter, I shall soon be done talking. Another has on it the words 'your health'—a charming compliment, dear Lady Lucia. 'Courage,' 'wisdom,' 'success,'" he added, reading from the tablets. "Naturally, and who, indeed, does not desire those things? Here is one that says 'help'—a great word, upon my soul! He that prays for help and not for favor, if he do his best, may have many good things—even 'courage,' 'wisdom,' 'success.' Keep at work and you shall have my help, Appius, and, I doubt not, that of the gods also. Here is one—I like it best of all—it is that of the modest young Vergilius. He would have a priceless thing. And do you," he inquired, turning to the young knight, "desire this above all things? Think; there is the distinction of place and power and honor—the ring of a legate would become you well!"
"But, above all," said Vergilius, "I desire that I have written."
"Beautiful boy!" said the cunning emperor. "'Tis so great a prize, give me another test of your quality. With one word you ask for one thing. To try your wit, I give you a theme so small it is next to naught—the number one. Tell us, and briefly as you may, what is in it."
The young man rose and bowed low. "One is in all numbers," said he, "and unless all numbers are as one they are nothing. I desire one mistress for my heart, one purpose for my conduct, and one great master for my country."
"The gods grant them!" said Augustus, leading the applause.
"And now I shall proclaim the word he has written. It is 'Arria,' and stands, I know well, for the sister of Appius."
He turned quickly to the still and silent figure of the slave behind him. All eyes were now watching her.
"Are you content?" he inquired.
Gray veil and robe fell away, revealing the beautiful sister of Appius. Vergilius went quickly to her side.
"I declare them for each other!" said the emperor, as all rose and gathered around the two. He took the boy's hand. "Come to me at ten to-morrow," he added.
"But, O father of Rome!" said Arria, looking up at the great man, "how long shall you detain him?"
"Give me half an hour, you love-sick maiden," said Augustus. "He shall be at your palace in good time."
"Come at the middle hour," said the Lady Lucia, her hand upon the arm of Vergilius.
"The gods give you sleep," said the great father, as he bade them good-night.
Beneath the laurels on their way to the gate, Gracus, who rode with Antipater, said:
"And what of your oath, son of Herod?"
"But they are not yet married," the other answered, malevolently. "Vergilius! Bah! He is the son of a praetor and I am the son of a king. Curse the old fox! He never spoke to me after greetings, and once when I glanced up at him I thought his keen eyes were looking through me.
"Those eyes! Jupiter!" said Gracus, "they drop a plummet into one."
Now there were few barriers between the emperor and the people. He went to work in his study at an early hour and gave a patient hearing to any but foolish men. This morning he had been reading a long address from the legate of Syria. He had a way of dividing his thought between reading and small affairs of the state. His legate recited all he had been able to learn of the new king they were now expecting in Judea. He told also of a plot which had baffled all his efforts and which aimed to take the life of Herod and crown the king of prophecy and divine power.
"We must have a spy of noble blood and bearing, of unswerving fidelity and honor, and with some knowledge of the religion of Judea," said the legate. "Of course, you will not be able to find him, for where in all the world, save yourself, good father, is there such a man?"
Augustus dropped the sheet of vellum and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"How about this young Vergilius—the handsome, clever, woman-loving Vergilius?" he thought. Then for a moment the cunning emperor laughed silently.
Ever since he began to read the letter he had been conversing with his daughter Julia.
"If you can propose a better candidate for the girl, I—" he paused, looking intently at the letter—"I shall consider him," he added, presently.
"She is beautiful," his daughter whispered. "I know one who will give to the state many thousand aurei."
"No need of hurry. The young Vergilius will give what is better than money, and then—"
The emperor paused again.
"And then?" it was the inquiry of Julia.
"He will forget her and she will grow weary and yield. There's time enough, and time"—he took a little mirror from the table and looked down upon it—"can accomplish many things," he added. "It will have the assistance of fame and honor and new faces. Now go, I beg of you, and leave me to my work."
A delegation of Jews—petty merchants of the Trastevere—were leaving as Vergilius entered. The emperor, now alone save for his young caller, rose and gave him a sprig of laurel.
"Sit here," said he, resuming his seat and pausing for a little to study a sheet of vellum in his hands. He continued, without raising his eyes: "I have another test for you, my fair son. You shall be assistant procurator in Jerusalem, with rank of tribune. It may be you shall have command of the castle. Three days from now take the south road with Manius and a troop of horse. This court of Herod—of course, I am speaking kindly, my dear Vergilius—but, you may know, it is a place of mysteries, and there are many things I do not need to say to you."
The old emperor, leaning forward, touched the arm of the young man and gave him a cunning glance.
"A cipher," he added, passing the sheet of vellum. "It will be known to you and to me only. You will understand what I wish to know. You shall have command of a cohort."
Vergilius thought for a second of that strange overhauling of Manius the night before, and of the shrewdness of the great father in returning him, kindly, to his task, with a pair of eyes to keep watch of him.
"With all my heart I thank you," said the young knight. "But—my beloved father—I was hoping to marry and—and know the path of peace."
"But I am sure you will wait two years—only two years," said the other, rising with extended hands. "There is time enough; and remember, whether to peace or war, your path is that of duty. Farewell!"
It was a way he had of commanding, kindly but inexorable, and Vergilius knew it. Again he spoke as the knight turned away.
"This young Antipater—do you know him?"
"But, possibly, well enough," said the emperor, with a knowing look. Then, casually: "Oh, there is yet a little matter—that new king the Jews are looking for—if he should come, I suppose he will report to me, but—but let me know what you learn. Study the Jewish faith and discover what this hope is founded upon." Then he turned quickly and went away.
This "little matter" counted much with the shrewd emperor. Kings were his puppets, and if there were to be a new one he must, indeed, consider what to do with him. Yet he had shame of his interest in "that foolish gossip" of an alien race. Therefore he put it only as a trifling after-thought. But he had a way of talking with his eyes, and the alert youth read them well.
That elation of the young lover now had its boundary of thoughtfulness. Going down the Palatine, he was also descending his hill of happiness. Below him, in the Forum, he could see the golden mile-stone of Augustus, now like a pillar of fire in the sunlight; he could see the beginning of those many roads radiating from it to far peripheries of the empire. Tens of thousands had turned their backs upon it, leaving with slow feet, some to live in distant, inhospitable lands, some to die of fever and the sword, some to return forgotten of their kindred, and some few with laurels of renown; but all of these many who went away were leaving, for long or forever, love and home and peace.
"The army is sucking our blood, and Hate grows while Love is starving," Vergilius reflected, as he went along, while a hideous, unwelcome thought grew slowly, creeping over him. This golden mile-stone was the centre of a great spider-web laced by road and sea way to the far corners of the empire; and that cunning, alert man—who was he but the spider?
"And I—what am I, now, but one of his flies caught in the mighty web?" he thought. "Love and its peace have come to me and I shall know them—for three days—and perhaps no longer."
His wealth and rank and influence might, if used with diplomacy, have kept him at home, for, after all, he was a Varro; but Arria had been used to press him into bondage.
"Another test!" he said to himself. "Ah, what a cunning old fox! He needed a spy, and one of character and noble blood. How well he tested my cleverness! And now I am his, body and soul."
While Vergilius, going slowly, was thinking of these things, Vanity, the only real goddess who, in Rome, managed the great theatre of fashion, had her stage set for a love scene. It was to occur in the triclinium, or great banquet-hall, of a palace—that of the Lady Lucia. There were portrait-masks and mural paintings on either wall; ancestral statues of white marble stood in a row against the red wall; there were seats and divans of ebony enriched by cunning hands; lamp-holders of wrought metal standing high as a man's head, and immense violet rugs on the floor. The heroine wore a white robe banded low with purple, and her jewelled hair was in fillets of gold. There was always a pretty artfulness in the match-making of a patrician beauty and her mother. Indeed, life had grown far from elemental emotions.
"Now, when he enters," said the girl, turning to the Lady Lucia, "I shall bring him here at once and sit down by this heap of cushions, and then—Oh, god of my heart! What shall I do with that big man—what shall I say to him?"
"My dear, he will speak, and then you will know what to say," said the matron. "Only do not let him know that you love him—at least, not for a time yet."
"Too late; I fear he knows it now—the wretch!" said Arria, rubbing her cheeks to make them glow.
"But mind you hold him off, and do not let him caress you for an hour at least. One kiss and one only."
"One!" the girl repeated, with contempt. "How ungenerous are the old!"
"Hard to count are a lover's kisses," her mother answered, with a sigh. "But you can use them up in a day. Really, you can use them up all in a day."
"A day full of kisses! Oh, heart of me! Think of it!" said the beautiful girl, covering her face a moment. "I will not have the yellow cushions," she added, quickly. "Here, take these and bring me two violet ones, and that cushion of gauze filled with rose leaves. I will have that in my lap when we are sitting here. Now what do you think of the colors?" she demanded.
"Beautiful! And best of all that in your cheeks. I doubt not he will worship you."
"Or he is no kind of a man," said Arria, thoughtfully. "Oh, son of Varro! come, I am waiting. If he takes me in his arms, what shall I do?"
"Thrust him aside—tell him that you do not like it."
"And what shall I do if he does not?"
"Bid him go at once. We have no need of any half-men."
"But he will," said the girl, with a worried look. "He shall embrace me—he shall, or—or I will bid my brother kill him. Oh, wretch!" She jumped to her feet with a merry cry. "I have an idea," she added, clapping her hands. "When the sunlight falls on the floor yonder, I will get up and dance in it."
"A pretty trick!" said her mother.
"Oh, son of Varro! why do you not come?" said the girl, impatiently. "I love him so I could die for him—I could die for him! Perhaps he loves me not and I shall never see him again."
She hurried to the outer court, whispering anxiously: "Come, son of Varro. Oh, come quickly, son of Varro!"
When Vergilius arrived Arria was waiting for him there in the court of the palace. Her white silk rustled as she ran to meet him. Her cheeks had the pink of roses and her eyes a glow in them like that of diamonds. She stopped as he came near, and turned away.
"Tears?" said he, leaning down, with his arms about her. "Oh, love, let me see your face!"
She turned quickly with a little toss of her head and took a step backward.
"You shall not call me love," said she—"not yet. You have not told me that you love me."
"I told all who were at the palace of the great father."
"But you have not told me, son of Varro."
"I do love you." He was approaching.
"Hush! Not now," she answered, taking his hand in hers—temporizing. "Come, I will race with you."
She ran, leading him, with quick, pattering feet through an inner hall and up the long triclinium. There, presently, she threw herself upon the heap of cushions.
"Now, sit," said she, draping her robe and then feeling her hair that was aglow with jewels.
A graceful and charming creature was this child of the new empire, a noble beauty in her face and form, the value of a small kingdom on her body. "Not so near," said she, as he complied. "Now, son of my father's friend, say what you will and quickly."
"I love you," he began to say.
"Wait," she whispered, stopping him as she turned, looking up and down the great hall. "It is for me alone. I will not share the words with any other. Now tell me—tell me, son of Varro," she whispered, moving nearer; "tell me at once."
"I love you, sweet girl, above gods and men. You are more to me than crowns of laurel and gold, more than all that is in the earth and heavens. My heart burns when I look at you."
He hesitated, pressing her hand upon his lips.
"Is that all?" said she, with a pretty sadness, looking down at the golden braces on her fan. "Now, say it again, all, slowly."
She might as well have told a bird how he should sing.
He went on all unconscious of her command, his words lighted by the fire in his heart. They were as waters rippling in the sun-glow.
"Without you there is no light in the heavens, no beauty in the earth, no hope or glory in the future, no joy in my heart. My sword threatens me, dear love, when I think of losing you."
She turned, quickly, with almost a look of surprise.
"It is beautiful," said she, with a sigh; "but is there no more? Think, dear, noble knight; do think of more!"
She was near forgetting her plan. He took her in his arms and kissed her.
"Think—think of more," said she, "and I will dance the tourina."
There was a note of gladness in her voice. It rang merry as a girdle of silver bells. Now, on the floor near them was a golden square of sunlight, and, tabret in hand, she sprang up and began to dance in it. She moved swiftly back and forth, her arms extended, her white robe flowing above the sapphires in each purple fillet on her ankles.
"Now, dear Vergilius, tell me, why do you love me?" she said, throwing herself upon the cushions near him with glowing cheeks.
"Because you are Arria. Because Arria is you. Because I must, for your pure and noble heart and for your beauty," said he. "When I look upon you I forget my dreams of war and conquest; I think only of peace and love and have no longer the heart to slay. Oh, sweet Arria! I feel as if I should fling my swords into the Tiber."
"Oh, my love! could I make you throw your swords into the Tiber I should be very happy." Her eyes had turned serious and thoughtful. Her girlish trickery had come to an end. Vanity retired, now, and Love had sole command.
He put his arms about her and rained kisses upon her face, her hair, her eyes. "Say it all again, dear Vergilius—say it a hundred times," she whispered.
"My dear one, I love you more than I can say. Now am I prepared to speak in deeds, in faithfulness, in devotion."
"But, once more, why do you love me? Why me?" said she, moving aside with an air of preoccupation, her chin resting upon her hand, her elbow upon the gauze pillow of rose leaves in her lap. "Is it my beauty more than myself?"
"No," he answered; "your beauty is intoxicating, and I thank the gods for it, but your sweet self, your soul, is more, far more to me than your grace and all your loveliness."
She had dreamed of such love but never hoped for it, and now all the pretty tricks she had thought of had become as the mummery of fools. She sat in silence for a little space, her eyes upon her girdle, and a new and serious look came into her face.
"I shall try, then," said she, presently—"I shall try to be noble. But shall you—shall you truly throw your swords into the Tiber?"
"Would I might," said he, sadly. "And now I must tell you—" He paused, and Arria turned quickly, her lips trembling as her color faded.
"In three days I go to Jerusalem," he added, "by command of the emperor."
"For how long?" she whispered, her eyes taking years upon them as the seconds flew.
"For two years."
Quickly she hid her face in the cushions and her body quivered. That old, familiar cry, which had in it the history and the doom of Rome, rang in the great halls around them—that cry of forsaken women.
"The iron foot is upon us," said he. "Do not let it tread you down as it has other women. Be my vestal and guard the holy fire of love."
Then he told of Cyran, the slave-girl, and added: "I leave her in your care. Every day she will cause you to think of me."
It was near the middle hour of the night. Many, just out of banquet-hall, theatre, and circus, thronged the main thoroughfares of the capital. Cries of venders, ribald songs, shouts of revelry, the hurrying of many feet roused the good people who, wearied by other nights of dissipation, now sought repose. They turned, uneasily, reflecting that to-morrow they would have their revenge.
Antipater had dined with but a single guest—a young priest, who, arriving that very day from Damascus, had sought the palace of his countryman. The service at his table had not pleased the prince. Leaping from his couch, he struck down a slave and ordered his crucifixion. It was a luckless Arab, who many times had unwittingly offended his master.
Now the son of Herod lay asleep where, a little time ago, he had been feasting. Manius, who had just entered the palace of his friend, came into the banquet-hall. He touched the arm of Antipater, who started with a curse and rose with an apology.
"I was dreaming of foes and I see a friend," he muttered. "Forgive me, noble Manius."
The prince pulled a golden bell-cord that shone against the green pargeting of the wall.
"Now to our business," he whispered, turning to the officer.
They crossed the atrium, descended a stairway, and threw open a barred door. They were now in a gloomy passage between walls of marble. Antipater halted, presently, and tapped with his seal ring on a metal door. Then a rattle of bolts and the door swung open.
"Now," Antipater whispered, "are you of the same mind?"
"And again you swear secrecy?"
Without more delay they entered a room walled with white marble and lighted by candles. A bearded Jew, in a scarlet cloak embroidered with gold, rose to greet them.
"To John ben Joreb I present the noble Manius," said Antipater.
"Blessings of the one God be upon thee," said Ben Joreb, bowing low.
"And the favor of many gods on thee," said the assessor. "From Jerusalem?"
"Nay, from Damascus."
Antipater stirred the fire in iron braziers on either side of the room, and then bade them recline beside him at a small table whereon a supper waited.
"Ben Joreb has good news of our plan," said he, turning to Manius.
"It prospers," said the priest. "Our council is now in thirty cities."
"And the king is better," said Manius. "He will not soon perish of infirmity."
"But you tell me that my father suffers?"
Antipater started nervously. A long, weird wail from the Arab dying on a cross in the garden flooded down the flues.
"A hundred deaths a day," said Ben Joreb.
"I have been talking with Manius," Antipater answered. "He thinks it would be a mercy to—"
He was interrupted again. That tremulous, awful cry for mercy found its way to his ear. It seemed to mock the sacred word. Antipater jumped to his feet, cursing.
"I will put an end to that," said he, rushing to the door and flinging it back and running down the passage.
Manius turned to Ben Joreb.
"What is there in the howling of that slave?" he whispered. "I am weak-hearted."
"I take it for a sign," the other answered, gravely. "It is written, 'Thy spirit shall be as the candle of the Lord,' and, again, 'Thou shall hearken to the cry of anguish.'"
In a few moments Antipater returned.
"I have summoned the carnifex," said he, bolting the door and resuming his place at the table. "I was saying to you, good Manius, that my friend here, Ben Joreb, would think it a great mercy to remove him."
"A great mercy!" Ben Joreb answered; "a man's mercy to him; a God's mercy to his people."
"And what think you?" said Antipater, turning to Manius.
"I agree; 'twould be a mercy, but a risky enterprise," said the Roman.
"I would risk my head to save him a day of pain," said the treacherous son of Herod. "You love him not as I do or you would brave all to end his misery."
There was now half a moment filled with a long, piercing cry from beyond the walls of the palace until Antipater spoke, a tiger look in his face again. "Put the lance into him, my good carnifex," he growled, striking with clinched fist. "Again, now; and again, and again."
He listened for a breath, and as silence came he added, "There, that will do."
Neither spoke for a little time.
"I wish I could make you feel how dearly I love my father," he went on, addressing his friends now and hiding his claws with revolting guile and all unconscious that he had shown them.
Again a breath of silence, in which Manius thought of the black leopard when he lay making those playful and caressing movements on the floor. And there came to the heart of Ben Joreb a fear that this man might prove more terrible than his father.
"We feel it," said Manius, with inner smiles that showed not upon his face.
"Then be servants of my love."
"And of our own welfare?"
"Certainly! You shall each have a palace in Jerusalem and fifty thousand aurei; and you, Manius, shall command the forces on land and sea, and you, John ben Joreb, of the tribe of Aaron, shall be high-priest."
"I agree," said Manius, an overwhelming cupidity in the words.
"And I agree," said the Jew, who had entered upon this intrigue with motives of patriotism, and now, although suspicious of the result, was committed beyond a chance of turning.
"Angels of mercy!" Antipater exclaimed, rising and taking a hand of each in his. "My love shall be ever a shield and weapon for you. One other thing. The couriers who bring to Rome news of my father's death—bid them hurry and take with them, also, word of the illness of that dog Vergilius. After they leave let him not linger in needless pain—do you understand me? For that, I say, each of you shall have five thousand aurei added to his wealth."
The others nodded.
"Now take this—it may be useful," whispered the prince of Judea, handing a little golden box to the assessor. "There is something in it will hasten the effect of wine—a fine remedy for a weary land, good Manius. He that makes it a friend shall have no enemies. Hold, let me think. That old fox on the hill yonder has a thousand eyes and his ears are everywhere. Not a word, Manius, after we leave this door. In yon passage turn to the right. Walk until your head touches the ceiling, then creep to the door. Open it and use your ears. If no one is passing, go straight ahead. You will come to a gate on the Via Sacra. You," he added, turning to Ben Joreb, "shall leave by the main gate."
When both had gone, this prince of Judea walked across the inner hall of his palace and flung himself on the cushions of a great divan.
A swarthy eunuch came near him on tip-toe.
"Begone!" The word burst from the lips of Antipater in a hoarse growl, and, like a tiger's paw, his hand struck the cushions in front of him. As he lay blinking drowsily, his chin upon his hands, there was still in his face and attitude a suggestion of the monster cat.
And he thought fondly of his wreaking of vengeance when he should be crowned the great king of prophetic promise—of the fury of armies, of the stench of the slain, of the cry of the ravished, of "mountains melting in blood."
It was the fifth anniversary of that resolution of the senate fathers to consecrate the altar of Peace. Pilgrims thronged the city, and some had journeyed far. Tens of thousands surrounded the great monument, immense and beautiful beyond any in the knowledge of men. It signalized a remarkable state of things—the world was at peace. More than seven centuries before that day an idea had entered the heart of a prophet; now it was in the very heart of the world. This heap of marble, under pagan gods, had given it grand, if only partial, expression. There was no symbol of war in the long procession of its upper frieze, and its lower was like a sculptured song of peace wrought in fruits and bees and birds and blossoms. Here was a mighty plant flowering twice a year and giving its seed to the four winds. Every July and January its erection was celebrated in the imperial republic.
Vergilius stood beside the emperor that day when, at the Ars Pacis Augustas, he addressed the people.
"I have been reading," he said, "the words of a certain dreamer of Judea, who, in the olden time, wrote of a day when swords should be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, and when peace should reign among the nations of the earth. Well, give me an army for a hundred years, good people, and then I may voice the will of the gods that iron be used no more to plough its way in living flesh, but only to turn the furrow and to prune the tree. Meanwhile, believe me, every man must learn to love honor and virtue, and to respect his neighbor, and the gods above all."
A hundred years! The playful emperor knew not how quickly a man passes and how slowly, how exceeding slowly, moves the great procession of mankind. But so it befell; the very right hand of Jupiter had helped in the sowing of that seed which, as it grew, was to lift the foundations of his power.
Vergilius left the scene with Augustus. They rode away in the royal litter.
"In all the great cities men are speaking to-day of the value of peace and honor," said the subtle emperor—a sceptic in religion, a cynic in philosophy, a rake in private life, and a conqueror who commanded "peace" with a trained army of four hundred and fifty thousand men.
"It is a great thing to do," said the young knight.
"Give me men enough to say it, and if they grow not weary I will bring the world to believe that the sun is only the breast-plate of Jupiter," said Augustus. "Honor and peace are good things—do not forget that, my young friend. Give the words to your tongue, not flippantly, but with a sober eye, and often, my brave knight—often. You leave to-morrow—have you made ready?"
"Ready but for the leave-taking;" this with a sigh.
"It ill becomes you to be cast down. Shake your heart with laughter—it will roll away the stone of regret. Buy a fool, my young friend. For five thousand denarii you may obtain a most excellent fool."
He knew the price of all, from the hewer of wood to the crowned king, but only he could afford a slave like that.
"I should prefer a wise man," said the young knight.
"Philosophers are more expensive," the father continued, craftily—"twenty thousand denarii, and dear at that. They will teach you little but discontent. I recommend a grammarian."
The old emperor turned his cunning eyes upon the face of Vergilius.
"Forty thousand, at least, for a good one," he added; "but a youth of your talent should remember the value of immortal fame." Word and look were a hint to the young man that he should prepare himself with all diligence for an active career in the senate. The youth understood their meaning and was a trifle comforted. There was no promise nor the least warrant for a claim—it was only the emperor's way of guiding.
They were now passing a row of shops on the Via Claudia. The emperor, putting his hand out of the door, motioned to his lecticarii and they halted.
"Come with me," said the great man. They left the litter and entered a large shop. There Augustus bought many gifts for the young man—new arms, a beautiful corselet, a girdle of the look of knitted gold—for the Roman wore a girdle in Judea—articles of apparel suited to the climate of the Far East. The shop had filled with people, who tried to cover their curiosity by the purchase of trifles.
"This cloth would make a fine toga," said the shopkeeper.
The emperor surveyed it closely.
"Let me hold it up to the light and then you will see its texture," the other continued.
"You are a hard master," said Augustus.
"You would have us walk on the house-tops to show the fineness of our togas? It is enough. Let us pass, good people."
A cheer, starting at the shop door, went to the far sides of the city. It signified that the emperor was out among the people and in his best mood.
Their nomenclator cleared a way for them to the litter and they sat down again, facing each other, the emperor and the boy.
"If I had your riches," the great man remarked, as they went on, "I wonder what I should do with them."
"You jest with me, good father," said Vergilius.
"Nay, but I envy you; for have you not youth and love and the beauty of Apollo?"
He laid his hand upon the arm of the boy, and there was in his voice and manner a gentleness to make one regret that he lived not in a better time; for, perhaps, after all, he was what he had to be as the ruthless conqueror of a savage world.
"And I—what have I but burdens I dare not lay aside? When I sleep, even, they press upon me. I am weary—but if I should let them fall, what, think you, would happen?"
His keen eyes, seeing before them, possibly, the great down-rush to madness, pressed a glance into the very soul of the young man. The latter started to reply, but with a look the emperor forbade him.
"Think, good youth—learn to think. It will profit you—there is so little competition. By-and-by Rome will need you."
Gently, forcefully this teacher of statesmen had given the young knight his first lesson. It was nearing its end now. The litter had stopped hard by the gate of the Lady Lucia.
"I wonder how you knew my destination," said Vergilius.
"You credit me with small discernment. Learn to know things that are not told you—it is the beginning of wisdom."
Arria met them in the atrium. She saw not the great father of Rome, but only her lover, and ran to him with a little cry of delight.
The playful emperor mounted a chair and stood looking down at them.
"I am so small here in the presence of this great king," said he, as they turned to him. "Were my head as high as the ceiling I am sure I should not be seen."
"What long, good father?" said Arria, bowing low.
"Love! 'Tis better, I have heard, to be ruler of one than of many. You give him kisses, little tyrant, and me not a glance."
He looked down, smiling at the pretty maiden.
"Because 'tis he I love," said she, her cheeks red with blushes, her eyes upon her sandals. "You—you have been cruel."
"I am sadly out of favor," said Augustus, playfully, stepping to the floor. "If the great king dared, I am sure he would cut off my head, now. Let him not condemn me without trial. Remember the law of Rome."
"You are sending my love away." Her voice trembled as she spoke.
"And happy are you, sweet girl, to have so much to give to your country."
There was a moment of silence. Then said the emperor: "Be merry. 'Tis not for long."
"'Tis a thousand years!" said she, sadly.
He was fond of the young, and her frank innocence appealed to all best in the heart of the old emperor. He turned to greet the Lady Lucia.
"Come with me, son of Varro," said Arria, taking the arm of her lover and leading him away. "It will soon be to-morrow."
"And I am acquitted?" So spoke the emperor.
"You are condemned to the company of my mother," said Arria, quickly.
She wore a tunic of the color of violets, with not a jewel. Now she led her lover to a heap of yellow cushions in the triclinium.
"Dear Vergilius," said she, turning to him with a serious look as they sat down; "tell me again—say to me again how you love me." She held his hand against her cheek and her eyes looked into his.
"Oh, my beloved! I have thought of naught else since I saw you. I have heard your pretty feet and the rustle of your tunic in my dreams; I have felt the touch of your hands; every moment I have seen your face—now glowing with happiness, now white and lovely with sorrow. And, dear, I love its sorrow—I confess to you that I love its sorrow better than its happiness. I saw in your sad eyes, then, a thing dearer than their beauty. It told me that you felt as I feel—that you would live and, if need be, die for the love of me."
The girl listened thoughtfully, and moved close to her lover; he took her in his arms. She had dreamed of many things to say, but now she only whispered to him, her lips against his ear, the simple message: "I love you, I love you, I love you." Then: "But I forgot," said she, pushing him away, a note of fear in her voice. She straightened the folds of her tunic, and drew the transparent silk close to her full, white bosom. It was all unconscious as the trick of a wooing bird.
"And what did you forget?" he inquired.
"That you are you, and a man," said she, sighing. "In some way it is—it is such a pity, I dare not suffer you to caress me. And yet—and yet, I do love it."
"And your lips," said he, embracing her, "they are to me as the gate of Elysium!"
"It may be we are now in the islands of the blest and know them not," she whispered.
She tried to draw herself away.
"I will not let you go. Indeed, I cannot let you go."
"And I am glad," she answered, with a little laugh, her hand caressing his brow. "I do love the feel of your arms and your lips—beautiful son of Varro!"
"I will not let you go until—until you have promised to be my bride. Think, the term is only two years."
"Be it one or many, I will be your bride," said she. "And although you were never to return, yet would I always wait for you and think of this day."
She drew herself away and sat thoughtful, her chin upon her hands.
"Now are you most beautiful," said he, "with that little touch of sorrow in your face. It gives me high thoughts to look at you."
While they were thus sitting a woman, well past middle age, came into their presence. She stopped near the feet of Arria. It was her grandmother, the Lady Claudia, once a beauty of the great capital, now gray and wrinkled, but still erect with patrician pride.
Vergilius had risen quickly, bowed low, and kissed her hand.
"I often saw you, son of my friend, when you were a child," said she. "I remember when you were young you went away with the legions."
"To learn the art of war," he answered.
"Sit down, dear grandmother," said the girl, as he brought a chair. "Now let her hear you tell me why it is that you have chosen me, dear Vergilius—let her hear you."
"I know not. Perhaps because your beauty, sweet girl, is like the snare of the fowler and brought me to your hand. Then something in your eyes captured the heart of me—something better than beauty. It is the light of your soul. Love and peace and innocence and gentleness and all good are in it. That is why."
The two embraced each other. The Lady Claudia rose and came and put her hands upon them, and her voice trembled with emotion.
"They are beautiful," said she, "the kisses of the young, and their words are as the music of Apollo's lyre. I thank the gods I have seen it all again. But you are going away to-morrow. Son of Varro, be not as other men. Remember it is not well for women to live apart from the men they love."
"I leave at daybreak," said the young knight. "'Tis for two years, so said the emperor; for 'only' two years."
"She shall not be as others I have known," said the Lady Claudia. "It is an evil time, good youth; but, remember, as men are so are women. Last night I dreamed a wonderful dream of you two, and of a sweet, immortal love between men and women. Some say the dreams of men are, indeed, the plans of the gods. Pray to them. It may be they will give you this great love."
"It is here—it is in her soul and mine!" the youth declared, his arm about Arria. "It has prepared us for any trial—even parting."
"I have so much happiness already," said the girl. "So much—it will keep me through many years."
"Then it is the great love, and I thank the gods I have seen it," said the Lady Claudia. "Who may say where it shall end?" She came near them as she spoke and offered her cheek to the boy. He kissed her, and she went away with tears upon her face.
"Now you are brave and strong with this great love in you," said Vergilius. "Let it bear you up as I leave the palace. Promise you will not cry out. If you do, my beloved, I shall hear always the sound of mourning when I think of you."
"Then I shall not weep," said she, bravely, but with a little quiver in her voice.
She knew the old story of a young man's love—how often he went away with sweet words, to return, if ever, hardened to stern trials and bloody work, his vows long forgotten.
"For your sake, dear Vergilius, I will be calm," she added.
"Now sit here," said he, as he led her to the heap of cushions, "just as I saw you a little time ago. Rest your chin upon your hands. There; now your soul is in your eyes. Let me see only this picture as I go."
He took a handful of her curls and let them fall upon her shoulders. Then he crowned her with a sprig of vervain from a vase near by.
"I will not weep—I will not weep," she repeated, her voice trembling as he touched her hair.
He moved backward slowly, as one might leave a queen. Her eyes followed him, and suddenly she rose and flew to his arms again.
"I will not weep—I will not weep," said she, brokenly. Again he held her to his breast.
"Though you get fame and glory, forget not love," she whispered.
"Dear one," he exclaimed, kissing her, "this hour shall be in every day of my life."
"But with adventures and battles and the praise of kings it is so easy to forget."
"But with one so noble and so beautiful at home it will be easy to remember. Let us be brave. I am only a woman myself to-day. Help me to be a man."
He led her again to the cushions, and she sat as before—a picture, now, beyond all art, sublime indeed with love and sorrow and trustfulness and repression. It was that look of abnegation upon her that he remembered.
"I shall not rise nor speak again, dear son of Varro," said she. "You shall know that my love for you has made me strong. See, dear love. Look at my face and see how brave I am." Her voice, now calm, had in it some power that touched him deeply. It was the great, new love between men and women—-forerunner of the mighty revolution.