He stood silent, looking down at her. The song of a nightingale rang in the great halls. He turned and brought a lyre that lay on a table near them. She took it in her hands. Then it seemed as if her sorrow fell upon the strings, and in their music was the voice of her soul.
He bowed before her, whispering a prayer; he put all his soul into one long look and quickly went away.
Then she rose and ran to the end of the banquet-hall. "I can hear his voice," she whispered. "No, I must not go—I must not go."
A moment followed in which there came to her a sound of distant voices. She stilled her sobs and listened. She ran towards the loved voice and checked her eager feet.
She stood a moment with arms extended. The sound grew fainter and a hush fell. She ran to the white statue of the little god Eros, and, kneeling, threw her arms around the shapely form and wept bitterly.
The dark was lifting as Vergilius entered the Field of Mars. There were lanterns about his litter, and far and near, in lines and clusters, he could see lights on the plain, some moving, some standing still. Hard by the Tiber he joined a small troop of horse, and vaulting on the shaft of his lance, mounted a white charger. Manius wheeled into place beside him at the head of the column. A quaestor called the roll.
"Ready?" Vergilius inquired, turning to Manius.
"All ready," the other answered.
Then a trumpet sounded and those many feet had begun the long journey to Jerusalem. They made their way to the Forum. Scores of women and children of the families of those departing had gathered by the golden mile-stone. The troop halted. Those who had been waiting in the dank, chill air sought to press in among the horses. It was hard to keep them back. Vergilius, full of his own sorrow, felt for them and gave them good time. A little group, in gray paenula and veils, were watching from without the crowd. He moved aside, beckoning to them.
"Make your farewells," said he, as they came near. "We shall be off in a moment."
A beautiful white hand was extended to him. He took it in his, and then quickly pressed it to his lips.
"Farewell, dear love!" he whispered.
A quick pressure answered him, and the veiled figure turned away. Then a trumpet-call, a flash of blue vexilla and silver eagles in the air, and, a moment later, some eighty hoofs were drumming in the Appian Way. For a little the horsemen heard them that were left behind, wailing.
"It is like a sticking of pigs to leave a lot of plebeian women," said Manius, when the sound was far out of hearing.
"An arrow in the heart of the soldier, but I think it good," said Vergilius. "For a time, at least, Rome will be dear to him."
There were forty men riding in the troop, all lancers, saving a few slingers and bowmen. They rattled over the hard Way at a pace of fifteen miles an hour. It was an immense, rock-paved road—this Appian Way—straight, wide, and level, flinging its arches over fen, river, and valley, and breaking through hill and mountain to the distant sea. No citizen might bring his horse upon it unless a diploma had been granted him—it was, indeed, for the larger purposes of the government. After two hours they drew up at a posting-house and changed horses. They rode this mount some forty miles, halting at a large inn, its doors flush with the road. A transport and postal train bound for Rome was expected shortly, and, before eating, Vergilius wrote a letter and had it ready when the wagons came rattling in a deep-worn rut, behind teams of horses moving at a swift gallop. There were five wagons in the train, bearing letters and light merchandise from the south. Hard by was one of the wheelwright-shops that lined the great thoroughfare. The train stopped only a moment for water and a new wheel, then rushed along on its way to the capital. A light meal of bread and porridge, half an hour of rest, and again, with new horses, the troop was in full career. A sense of loneliness grew in the heart of the youth as he journeyed. Lover and soldier had fought their duel, and the latter was outdone. But the lover's courage was now sorely tried. Every mounted courier hastening to Rome on the south road bore a letter from the young man to her he loved. He met a legion of infantry going north, and envied every soldier, sweating under a set pace of four miles to the hour and a burden of sixty pounds—shield, helmet, breast-plate, pilum, swords, intrenching tools, stakes for a palisade, and corn for seventeen days.
A trireme was waiting for them on the Adriatic Sea, and Vergilius, Manius, and their escort sailed to northwestern Macedonia, mounted horses again, galloping over the great highway to Athens; crossed by trireme to Ephesus, thence to Antioch by the long sea-road, and, agreeably with orders, they began to leave their men at forts along the frontier.
Events on the way filled him with contempt for his country and for himself. Here and there he met people travelling under imperial passes that gave them the use of the road and a right of free levy for subsistence, often much abused. These travellers were people of leisure from the large cities, wont to stretch their power to the point of robbery. He saw them seizing slaves and cattle from terrified agrarians; he saw Manius strike a man down for resenting insults to his daughter; he saw the deadly toil of the oarsmen, the bitter punishment of the cross.
His heart was now sore and sensitive. Was it the new love which had flung off its shield of sternness and left it exposed to every lash that flew? The misery of others afflicted him. Thoughts of injustice grew into motives of action, the loss of faith into the gain of unutterable longing. Who were these gods who heard not the cry of the weak and were ever on the side of the strong? Were they only in those hands of power that flung their levin from the Palatine? Could he, who had learned to love innocence and purity, love also the foul harpy which Rome had become? It seemed to him difficult to reconcile the love of Arria and the love of Rome. Was the time not, indeed, overdue when the wicked should tremble and the proud should bow themselves, according to that song of the slave-girl?
From Antioch they turned southward, passing the cloistered plain paved with polished marble, and hurried to Damascus. Thence they rode to Jerusalem. The troop had dwindled to a squad of six, and came slowly into the ancient capital at dawn. From afar they could hear bugles at the castle of Antonia.
"They are changing the guard," Manius remarked.
Having entered the city gates, they passed throngs of cattle and their drivers and many worshippers hurrying to the temple. One of the latter stopped, and, pointing to the eagles and the medallion of Augustus on their signa, shouted loudly:
"I thank Thee, O God, and the God of my fathers, that I am not of them who provoke Thine anger with the graven image."
A chant of many voices from the temple roof floated over the plain, saying:
"The light has come as far as Hebron."
Vergilius turned, looking up at the splendid Doric temple of Jerusalem. As he looked, the sun's rays fell on a great, golden lantern before a thicket of high columns in its eastern portico. It was the signal for another outburst of trumpets.
"They are now making incense for the nostrils of Jehovah," said Manius. "Soon they will offer him one of the most beautiful lambs in Judea."
In a few moments they drew up at the castle of Antonia. News of their coming had reached Jerusalem by courier, three days before. The captain of the guard repeated part of the introduction.
"Vergilius, son of Varro, sent by the great father?" said he, in a tone of inquiry.
"And worn with much riding," said the young knight.
"I have a message for you. It is from the king."
"He would see me at once," said Vergilius, having read it.
"The sooner you go the more gracious you will be like to find him," said Manius, with a smile.
"My apparel! It is on the transport and has not yet arrived."
"But you have arrived, and forget not you are in the land of Herod—a most impatient king."
"He will not know, however, that we have come," Vergilius answered.
"Friend of Caesar," said the captain of the guard, "within an hour he will know everything you have done since you entered the city—whither you went, to whom you spoke, and what you said, and perhaps even what you thought."
The characters of Herod and Augustus were as far apart as their capitals. Extremes of temperament were in these two. The Roman was cold, calm, of unfailing prudence; the Jew hot-blooded, reckless, and warmed by a word into startling and frank ferocity. The one was keen and delicate, the other blunt and robust. The emperor was a fox, the king a lion. Herod and his people were now worried with mutual distrust. He had no faith in any man, and no man—not even the emperor by whose sufferance he held the crown—had any faith in him. The king feared the people and the people feared the king.
Herod began his career with good purposes. An erect, powerful, and handsome youth of Arabic and Idumaean blood, brave with lance and charger, he raided the bandit chieftain Hezekias and slew him, with all his followers. The Sanhedrim thought not of his valor but only of the ancient law he had broken. They put him on trial for usurping the power of life and death. In the midst of his peril he escaped, taking with him the seed of those dark revenges which, when he got the crown, destroyed all save a single member of the old court of justice and the confidence of his people.
His household became the scene of bloody intrigues which even stirred the tongue of Caesar with contempt. Herod became the dupe of a designing sister, of base flatterers, and of an evil and ambitious son. They undermined his confidence in all who deserved it. His beloved wife Mariamne, his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus, and many others of exceptional good repute in the kingdom were unjustly put to death. Then, swiftly, as he penetrated the maze of plot and counterplot, those who had fooled him began to fall before his wrath. He was now, indeed, a forlorn, loveless, and terrible creature.
Many thought him afflicted with madness. There were noble folk in Jerusalem who said they had seen the body of Mariamne embalmed in honey, above the king's chamber, where every day he could look upon it. Some had seen him wandering about the palace at night with a candle, mourning over his loss and raging at his own folly. Some had seen him so shaken by remorse that he roared like a lion goaded by hunger and the lance. At such a time it was, indeed, a peril to come before him. Plots against his life had worried him, and, distrusting his helpers, he was wont to go about the city in disguise seeking information. Twice he had forgiven Antipater, his favorite son, for crimes in the royal household.
Now, in his seventy-sixth year, the king was, indeed, sorely pressed with trouble. Jerusalem was the centre of a plot formidable and far-reaching. Its object was, in part, clear to him, or so he thought, and with some reason. It seemed to aim at his removal and the crowning of a mysterious king of prophecy, who, many said, was now waiting the death of Herod. It baffled him. He saw signs that many had their heads together in this plot. So far, however, he had not been able to lay hands upon them. There were many theories about the new king. They were strange and conflicting and zealously put forth. They differed as to whether he were yet born and as to his divinity, his character, and his purposes. The Sanhedrim held that when he came into the world there would be certain signs and portents seen of all men. This conflict of authority increased the confusion of Herod. When Vergilius came to his capital the king was mired on the very edge of the great mystery.
Powers of darkness ruled the city of Jerusalem. The sword, the lance, the dagger, and the wheel were wreaking vengeance and creating new perils while they were removing old ones. The king had tried vainly to repair the past. He gave freely to the poor; he erected gorgeous places of amusement; he built the new temple and a great palace in the upper city. The splendor of the latter structures had outdone the imperator. No shape born of barbaric dreams, to be slowly spread upon the earth in marble and gold, had so taxed the cunning and the patience of human hands. Such, in brief, were the character, the troubles, the home, and the city of Herod.
In travel-worn garb Vergilius went early to see the king. Accustomed to the grandeur of Rome itself, he yet saw with astonishment the beautiful groves, the lakes, canals, and fountains sparkling in the sunlight which surrounded the great marble palace of Herod. In the shadow of its many towers, each thirty cubits high, Vergilius began to feel some dread of this terrible king. At least fifty paces from the door of his chamber, in the great hall above-stairs, he could hear the growl of the old lion. In Herod was the voice of wrath and revenge and terror. His words came rolling out in a deep, husky, guttural tone, or leaped forth hissing with anger. Some officials stood by the king's door with fear and dread upon their faces. A young woman of singular beauty was among them.
"O Salome, daughter of Herod," said one, "the king would have you come to-morrow. He is in ill humor with the plotters."
"And I with him," said she, stamping her foot.
An usher had presented Vergilius at the door. As Herod's daughter proudly turned away, she came face to face with the young Roman noble. For one moment their eyes held each other. A chamberlain approached Vergilius, whispered a few inquiries, and then led him before the king. Herod was having a bad day.
"Traitors!" he hissed. In a voice like the menacing growl of a savage beast he added: "May their eyes rot in their heads! Go! I have heard enough, bearer of evil tidings."
Far down the great chamber in which half a cohort could have stood comfortably, in a carved chair on a dais, under a vault and against a background of blue, Babylonian tapestry, sat the king. A priest had bowed low and was now leaving his presence. The chamberlain announced, in a loud voice, "Vergilius, son of Varro, of Rome, and officer of the fatherly and much-beloved Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus."
The king sat erect, a purple tarboosh and crown of wrought gold upon his head. As Vergilius approached, the dark, suspicious eyes of Herod were surveying him from under long, quivering tufts of gray hair. His great body, in its prime, must have been like that of Achilles.
"Stand where you are, son of Varro," said the king, as he moved nervously. His broad shoulders were beginning to bend a little under their burden of trouble and disease. The harrow of pain and passion had roughened his face with wrinkles. His manner was alert and watchful.
"Have you seen my son?" he inquired, quickly.
"Yes, great sire, and he was well."
"And is he not comely?"
"Ay, and brave with his lance."
"And a born king," said Herod. "I have fixed my heart upon him. I have no other to love—but the great imperator. And how is he?"
"I left him well, good sire."
"Stand a moment, son of Varro," said the king, with an impatient gesture. An attendant approached him and spoke in a low tone. Herod, snarled like a huge cat when the lance threatens.
"Break him on the rack," he muttered; "and unless he tell, crucify him—crucify him. He shall do me no further injury. That priest Lugar, bring him back to me. Quickly now, bring him to me!"
The attendant hurried away, soon returning with him who had retired as Vergilius entered the king's chamber.
"Saw you the men of learning in Ascalon?" the king demanded.
"What said they?"
There was a moment of silence.
"Out with it," said the king, fiercely. "Must I put every man upon the rack? Speak, and that you may tell the truth I shall not demand their names."
"They, also, look for the new king," said Lugar. "Many believe he is already born. They say that on your death he will declare himself."
"And they, too, pray for my death?"
"Most earnestly, my beloved king."
"Traitors!" said Herod, and as he spoke his powerful hands were tearing his kerchief into rags. "I shall soon change the burden of their prayers. Go tell them this: the day I die two of the wisest men from every city in the kingdom shall die also. Go everywhere, and tell these learned doctors they had best pray for my good health."
The priest bowed before his king and retired. The pagan noble looked up at this ruler of the land of the one God and felt a thrill of horror. Herod, turning quickly, beckoned to the young knight, his wrinkles quivering with anger. Now, indeed, he was like a lion at bay.
"Ha-a!" he roared, and his head bent slowly and his voice fell to a low rumble as he continued. "'Tis an evil time in Jerusalem. I weary of this long fight with traitors. They grind their points; they stir poison; they swarm in the streets. They rob me of my friends, and now—now they seek alliance with Jehovah to rob me of my throne. 'Tis well you should know and beware. I have a plan which will make them desire my good health. Report to Quirinus, and remember"—he took a hand of the youth in both of his with a fawning movement—"I have need of friends."
That very day an order went forth that certain of the learned men of every city be assembled in the amphitheatre at Jericho, and be there confined to wait the further pleasure of the king. It was a bold plan through which Herod hoped to confound his enemies and insure his safety. He decreed that on the day of his death all these men should be executed.
Among the orderlies at the castle was one David, a young Jew, whose face and bearing had attracted the eye of Vergilius. There was in both something admirable and familiar. Straightway the tribune chose the young Jew for his own service, and soon held him in high esteem. Together they set out one morning, with a troop of horse, bound for the southern limit of Samaria. Thus quickly orders had arrived from the emperor. They sent Vergilius on a journey to inspect roads and report "as to hopes, plans, and theories of import to the king."
That morning as they left the old city, Vergilius and the young Jew rode abreast.
"Tell me," said the former, presently, "what know you of the new king?"
"Of him I have thought much and know little," said David. "My mother taught me to look for him. That was before the evil days."
"And you learned what of her?"
"Little save the long hope. She taught me an old chant of the coming. If you wish, I will sing it."
Being bidden, he sang, as she had sung who hushed the revels of Antipater, of signs and fears and of arrows to fly as the lightning. Words, melody, emotion, the note of inveterate wrong, were those of the slave-girl.
"The same nose and blue eyes, and fair, curly locks—the same feeling and chant of faith," said Vergilius, thoughtfully. "Did you not live in Galilee and suffer ill fortune?"
"We lived in Galilee, and, by-and-by, were as those hurled into Gehenna."
"And have you a sister in Rome?"
"I have a sister, but know not where she may be. Cyran the Beloved, so my mother called her."
Then Vergilius told his companion how he had won her from the son of Herod and left her in the keeping of Arria. David wept as he listened.
When the tale was finished he spoke bitterly: "'Twas she—the Beloved. My father was put to death, his property seized, his wife and children dragged to captivity. My heart is faint with sorrow. God! I weary of thy slowness.
"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."
For a moment they rode in silence. David was first to speak.
"Forgive me," said he, with fear of his imprudence. "My tongue has gone too far. I am true to Herod, being his debtor, for he gave me freedom. But I am of the house of David."
"Fear not," said Vergilius. "Never shall I betray the broken hearted. I give you friendship."
"And I give you gratitude," was the answer of the Jew.
"I am as a child here in Judea and seek understanding. You shall be my teacher."
For a time neither spoke; soon David asked: "Will you tell me of her my sister is now serving?"
"Of all the daughters of Rome she is noblest. We love each other. Ah, friend! 'Tis a wonder—this great love. My tongue halts when I think of it."
He paused, in meditation.
"I have heard much of it here in Judea—a love that exalts the soul," said David.
"And changes the heart of man with all that is in it. My love has filled me with a tender feeling for all women; it has made me to hate injustice and even to complain of the gods."
"To complain of the gods!" said David, turning and looking into the face of his friend.
"It does seem to me they set a bad example and are too childish for the work they have to do, but still—still I bow before them."
"I do not understand you," said David.
"They are given to spite, anger, vanity, lust, revenge, and idleness. Caesar is greater than they. He has learned self-control. And this new king of your faith, who, you tell me, is to conquer the world—he is no better."
"And why think you so?"
"He is to conquer the world. Good sir, it has been conquered—how many times! He shall make the mighty afraid—have they not often trembled with fear and perished by the sword? He shall fling arrows of just revenge, as if our old earth were not already soaked in the blood of the wicked. Ah, my David, I wonder not you long for a king of the sword and the arrow. Revenge is ever the dream of the oppressed. But I have dreamed of a greater king."
"Tell me who?"
"He would be like this love in me," said Vergilius. "If it were to go abroad—if it were only to find the hearts of the mighty—what, think you, would happen?"
"Ay, if it were to go from friend to friend and from neighbor to neighbor," said the young Jew, "it would indeed conquer the world."
"And there would be neither war nor injustice."
"Tell me," said David. "Are there many lovers like you in Rome?"
"Some half a score that I have heard of, and I doubt not there be many."
"'Tis the candle of the Lord—the preparation of the heart of man," said David. "I do believe his arrow shall be that of love."
"This feeling in me has kindled a great desire," said Vergilius. "I burn for knowledge."
Then said the young Jew: "Let us find my kinsman, Zacharias—a priest of holy life and great learning. Through his aged wife a miracle has been accomplished. I learn that she has given birth, and many have journeyed far to see the child. There be some who say that he is, indeed, the king of promise, albeit I have no such opinion."
"There shall be signs in the deep of the heavens, and we have not seen them."
"Where may we find the priest?"
"In the village of Ain Karim, yonder."
They could see its low dwellings and the dome of its synagogue. The Roman halted near the abode of Zacharias, while David took their followers to the inn. Suddenly the young Roman saw an aged priest approaching with a child in his arms.
"I have a message for you," said the man of God, stopping near the Roman officer.
"And I seek it," said Vergilius, looking at the long, gray beard of the venerable priest.
"It is borne in upon me to say to you that the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
"Tell me of the king," said Vergilius. "I do thirst for knowledge."
"He shall be the prince of peace."
Vergilius looked thoughtfully at the old priest, who now sat down as if weary.
"And he shall conquer with the sword?"
"Nay, but as it is written, 'he shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'"
Now the Roman was alert to hear. His ideal, which had taken form at the altar of peace and grown with his love, was being set up before him.
"But the nations are stubborn," said he. "Tell me, O wise and learned man, how shall he subdue them?"
"By the love of God, almighty and ever-lasting."
"God, almighty and everlasting," said Vergilius. "I know him not."
"I do but defile myself to speak with you, worshipper of idols," sternly spake the priest. "And yet I am constrained to instruct you. Listen—there is a power which even Rome has not been able to conquer. Know you what power it is?"
The young tribune was recounting the peoples of the earth, when Zacharias continued:
"'Tis the God of the Jews. Rome has conquered his people, but mark how he stands. And what is there of wrong that his law cannot remedy? Tell me, is there no injustice in your land?"
"There is much," said the young Roman.
"And so I know—but name it."
"Well, for one thing, men torture and kill their slaves."
"And in the law of the one God 'tis written, 'Thou shalt not kill.'"
After a thoughtful moment Vergilius added: "And the strong prey upon the weak, seizing their property and holding it for their own."
"And the one God commands, 'Thou shalt not steal'; and again, 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.'"
"But you have injustice, also, in Judea."
"Ay, because there be evil men who obey not the law of God. But presently they shall be put to shame. Here is he that is come to prepare the way of the Lord."
The child was now asleep, his head on his father's knee.
"John," said the priest, tenderly looking down.
But the little one continued to sleep, and a wonderful peace and beauty had come upon him.
"And this new king—whence shall he come and how shall we know him?" the young Roman persisted.
"Conceived of God, he is now in the womb of his mother," said the priest. "Soon—very soon, he shall enter the gate of the world. The ground is ready and he shall be like a sower, and his seed shall be love, and peace shall be his harvest. If ye would know him, behold this face."
He touched the brow of the child. "Son of darkness," he continued, "look upon the son of light! The faith of Mizraim or the wisdom of Hillel could show you no more. Do you see the new light shining within this lovely veil of flesh? Look, and you shall know the fashion of his countenance, and that his hand shall make no wound."
The priest rose, and, lifting the child in his arms, went away, saying, "His peace be with you."
The young Roman stood looking at the sweet face that lay on the shoulder of him departing. The great hope of Judea had entered his heart—the hope of a just king to rule the nations and point the way to eternal life.
On his return he bought a statue representing a beautiful young boy. He set it up in his chamber, and, kneeling, prayed to it as the one God who forbade killing and theft and every evil practice of men. He prayed for understanding; he prayed, also, that he might see her he loved. But this new God seemed as deaf to his entreaty as had been those of the pagan temples. Groping for light, he turned to the young David. Then first he learned that God, being jealous, hated the image of everything that has the breath of life. His understanding had diminished, for, in this matter, the one God was like the many. He questioned the Jew. "Wonder not," said his friend, "that God hates the symbol of ancient error. It has been as a cloud upon the sun."
Vergilius had taken a palace and filled it with treasures, for, possibly, he had thought, some day she would see all. Now its noble statues were sent away—a kind of sacrifice to the God of the Jews. But there was one he could not part with—a copy of the lovely Venus of Alcamenes which his mother had sent to him. He concealed her in a closet, contenting himself with a furtive glance at her now and then. He set up in his fancy a giant of benevolent face, and humbly sought his favor. Still he had no success.
Lying at table one night with Manius and Ben Joreb, he sought counsel of the latter.
"He that hath his prayer hath prayed wisely," said the priest. "You have much to learn."
"How, and of whom?" said Vergilius.
"There is in Jerusalem a council of learned men. They expound the Scripture and study all mysteries of the faith."
"And who are they?"
"I would I knew. Being wise, they are unknown."
"So I have heard. They have knowledge of him who is to come, and Herod is very jealous."
"True," said Vergilius. "I would I were of them who know."
"If it may be so you shall have word tomorrow," said the priest.
Promptly Manius relieved the tension of curiosity.
"Vergilius, I drink to you—the new commander of the cohorts," said he, rising.
"I reserve my thanks for more information," said Vergilius.
"It will come," said Manius, who then left with the priest in his company.
Soon the former added, in a low tone: "He may be of some value before he dies."
"Ah, yes, but he will die young," said the other.
Next day among his letters were two of value in the history of Vergilius—one from the procurator, apprising him of his appointment to command the cohorts, the other a communication with no signature, the source of which was, in his view, quite apparent. This latter one gave him the greater satisfaction. It conveyed, in formal script, the following message:
"TO ONE SEEKING WISDOM IN PRAYER
"If you would share in the deliberations of the Council of the Covenant, be at the well of Nicanor, which is opposite the tenth column in the king's portico of the temple, at the second sounding of the sacred horns on the Day of Atonement. There wait until one shall come and ask what you are seeking, and you shall answer, 'Knowledge of the one God.' Then, if he turns away, follow him and do as he bids you."
His opportunity had come. He waited with the curiosity of a child. Soon, possibly, he should see the face of the great Lawgiver and learn of things beyond the valley of death. If all went well he would amaze the people of Rome with wonder stories and give them assurance of immortal life.
The city had been thronged with pilgrims that day of the ancient festival. It was turning dusk when Vergilius made his way through crowded streets to the well of Nicanor. Suddenly he heard a trumpet signal, and then followed that moment of silence when every tongue and foot and wheel stopped, quickly, and all stood listening for the awful name spoken but once a year.
Presently the shout of the high priest rang like a trumpet-peal above the roofs of the city. Then Jerusalem was all begirt and overflooded with song. Maidens, white robed, were singing in distant vineyards; people were singing in the streets; trained devotees were whirling and dancing and chanting psalms in the court of the Temple, while priest and Levite followed, blowing, with all their power of lung, upon the sacred horns.
In the midst of this outbreak a stranger approached Vergilius at the well, saying, "What seek you?" The young Roman gave his answer, but was unable to see the face of him who questioned. The stranger turned away and bade him follow. Without more ceremony Vergilius walked behind him through narrow streets, wholly unfamiliar, and presently descending a stairway, came into a dark passage. They halted, after a few paces, whereupon a loud rap startled the new-comer. Soon he could hear a door open. The stranger, taking his hand, led him into some dark place. It was all very strange, and like tales long familiar, relating to the city of mysteries. Standing there in the dark and silence, he had some misgivings which gave way when a voice addressed him as follows:
"You are now in the council-chamber of the Covenant. We meet in darkness, so that no shape or form or image may turn our thought from the contemplation of him who is most high and who hath his dwelling in black darkness. Moreover, those who are not seen shall have neither vanity nor the will to deceive. Would you share in our deliberations?"
Vergilius answered yes, and one of the council then took his hand and administered the oath of secrecy, and led him to what seemed to be a large divan, where he sat, shoulder to shoulder, between other members of the council. He listened long to the casuistry of learned men touching prayer, atonement, and sacrifice. It led at last to some discussion of the new king.
"Is there one here can tell me where and when he shall be born?" was the query of Vergilius.
"We believe the Messiah is already born," said a councillor. "Moreover, some here have beheld his face."
"And where, then, does he dwell?" Vergilius inquired.
"That you shall know some day. At the next meeting of the council it may be told. We wait only for the fulness of time. He dwells in a distant city, and not long ago I spoke with him. He sent his love and greeting to every member of our council. He bids you wait his time, when all your prayers shall be answered."
"Shall there be signs of his coming?" So spoke Vergilius.
"There shall be signs, and you shall hear of them in this chamber."
"And what shall be the aim of the king?"
"To establish the reign of justice."
Vergilius queried much regarding the government of the new king, and got replies adding more to his curiosity than to his knowledge.
It was near the middle hour of the night when a voice announced: "The keeper of the new door will now leave the council."
Vergilius heard a stir coming near him in the darkness. Hands were laid upon him, and, presently, one took his arm and led him away. The two climbed a long flight of stairs and made hastily across a broad roof. At a railed opening they came to other stairs, and, descending, entered a passage, dark as had been the chamber. At its end the Roman received a password. Then a door swung and again he was on the pavements of Jerusalem, and, far away, could see the lights of Temple Hill.
His conductor, returning, announced the departure of "the new voice."
"We will now hear from the keeper of records," said one.
A voice quickly answered: "He secured a lock of his hair."
"And what says the keeper of the hidden light?"
Then said another voice: "He now sees but one obstacle."
"And what says the Angel of Death?"
A low, deep tone broke the silence in which all waited. "The sixth day before the kalends, he shall claim his own," so it answered.
"Enough," said the questioner. "The ways lead to safety. I bid you go."
One by one the councillors began to leave. There was no treading upon heels, for one was well out of the way before another was allowed to go. So cunningly was their room devised that half the exits led to one thoroughfare and half to another; and so many were they, it was said, no more than two councillors came or went by the same door. And of all who came, so say the records, not one knew another to be sure of him.
For the king there were three great perils: the people, Caesar, and his own family. The descendant of old John Hyrcanus of Idumaea—a Jew only by compulsion—had no understanding of the children of Moses. He tripped every day on the barriers of ancient law, and often his generosity was taken for defiance. Caesar was not so hard to please. He had vanity and laws not wholly inflexible. Herod's family, with its evil sister, its profligate sons, its voluptuous daughters, its wives, of whom it is enough to say they were nine, its intrigues and jealousies, gave him greater trouble than either the kingdom or the emperor. He built a city near Jerusalem, on the sea. Magnificent in marble and gold, Caesarea stood for a monument of Herodian troubles. Therein he sought to amuse the people, to pacify his kindred, and to flatter Caesar. Its vast breakwater; its great arches through which the sea came gently in all weather; its mosaic pavements washed daily by the salt tide; its palaces of white marble; its great, glowing amphitheatre—these were unique in their barbaric splendor, albeit, in the view of the people, an offence to God.
Among those who dwelt in Caesarea was Elpis, eighth wife of the king, with her daughter Salome, whose praises had been sung at the banquet of Antipater. Both were renowned for beauty and the splendor of their dress. Salome had the colors of the far north, and that perfect and voluptuous contour found only in marble figures of Venus, above the great purple sea, and, below it, in the daughters of men. She was tall, shapely, full blooded. They called her Salome, child of the sun, because she had the dark of night in her large eyes, the tints of morning in her cheeks, and the gold of noonday in her hair.
When Manius came to seek her hand the king said, with a smile: "My noble youth, she is for the like of Achilles—a man of heroic heart and size. Have you no fear of her?"
Quickly Manius replied: "Know you not, O king! my fathers fought with Achilles?"
"But they had the protection of the gods," said Herod, with a smile. "However, you may find her favor sufficient. I have heard her speak fair of you."
Now a quarrel had arisen between Elpis and a sister of Herod. So, therefore, to calm a tempest, the adroit king had sent his eighth wife to live by the sea.
It was a day near the nones of October, when the tribune went to Caesarea with Manius. There in a great palace, erected by the king, they met the two renowned women. It was a fete day and the gay people of Herod's court were in attendance. Salome was dancing, tabret in hand, her form showing through a robe of transparent silk as the two entered. Once before, at the door of the king, Vergilius had seen her.
"See the taper of arm and leg," said he, addressing his companion, "She is wonderful!"
A lithe and beautiful creature, she swayed and bent, with arms extended, her feet, now slow as the pinions of a sailing hawk, now swift as the wings of a tilting sparrow. She stopped suddenly, her form proudly erect, looking at her lover. Now she had the dignity of a wild deer in the barrens. With one hand she felt her jewelled hair, with the other she beckoned to him. The young men approached her.
"Children of Aeneas, I give you welcome," said she. Then turning to Vergilius: "Did Manius tell you that I bade him bring you here?"
"I knew not I was so honored."
"He is jealous. He will not permit me to embrace my little page. I have wished to meet you, noble tribune, ever since I saw you in my father's palace."
Her eyes were playful, as if they would try the heart of her lover.
"And when I saw you," said Vergilius, "I—I knew you were the betrothed of the assessor."
"And why?" she besought, with a smile.
"Because I heard him say in Rome that, of all the daughters of Judea, you were most beautiful."
Her eyes looked full upon his and he saw in them a glint of that fire which had begun to burn within her. He said to himself, as he came away, "Here is another Cleopatra—a woman made to pull down the mighty."
Next day from the daughter of Herod came a letter to the young tribune:
"NOBLE SON OF VARRO,—I have much to say concerning your welfare, and I doubt not you will desire to hear it. If I judge you rightly, come to the palace of my mother the second evening before the nones. An hour after sunset I will meet you at the gate of bronze. Say naught to Manius of your coming or of this letter."
"Temptress!" said he, crushing the sheet of scented vellum. "But she is beautiful," he added, wistfully. "She is like the Venus of Alcamenes. I would love well to look upon her again."
He smoothed out the crumpled vellum.
"'Say naught to Manius,'" he read again. "I like it not. I shall write to her that I have other business."
And so did he, although in phrases of regret, as became one addressing a daughter of the great king.
Sorely vexed, she thought ever of the noble beauty of the Roman youth, and became more eager to gain her purpose. It may be the girl bore for him a better feeling than she had ever known. She wished, if possible, to win him, knowing that her father would not be slow to help him forward. The handsome youth had pleased her eye, and might, also, gratify her ambition. Those days the art of intrigue was the study of a king's daughter; so, straightway, she invented a cunning plan. Knowing the great desire of Vergilius, she bribed the priest Lugar to give him crafty counsel. On the very morning of that second day the priest came to him.
"How fares your soul, noble tribune?" said Lugar.
"I feel it strong in me," said Vergilius.
"And you would know if it be strong unto salvation?"
"That would I gladly know."
"Come with me this night and you shall see your soul in the balance."
"And whither shall we go?"
"To the palace of Laban, steward of the king. I shall come for you soon after the ninth hour."
"And thereby increase my debt to you," said Vergilius. "Remember my soul may not be rejected for lack of gratitude."
Now in that hour which follows the beginning of night, Lugar and Vergilius were come to the place appointed. Slaves led them through a great hall to the banquet-chamber. There were the daughters of Laban, reclining in graceful ease. The banquet-table had been removed. Now they were taking their feast of old tales and new gossip. They rose and came to meet the young men. Tunics of jewelled gauze covered without concealing forms lovely as the sculptures of immortal Greece and redolent of all rare perfumes.
"And you would see a maidens' frolic?" said one to Vergilius.
Then said he: "Maidens are ever a delight to me."
"Ay, they make you to forget," said the girl.
He thought a moment before answering. "It may be true," said he. "But they keep you in mind of the power of woman."
Strains of the lyre broke in upon them. Suddenly the centre of the great room was thronged with maidens. The young tribune was full of wonder, knowing not whence they had come. There was a wreath of roses on each brow, and as they gathered in even rank with varicolored robes upon them, they reminded the knight of garden walls in Velitrae. Quickly they began to mingle, with feet tripping lightly, with bodies bending to display their charms. Threadlike, wavering gleams of ruby, pearl, and sapphire seemed to weave a net upon them. Such a scene appealed to the love of beauty in Vergilius. It awoke dying but delightful memories of the pagan capital—splendors of form and color, glowing eyes and pretty frolic.
"O Venus, mother of love!" he whispered, turning to admire a statue in the dim-lit corner where he stood. Now the eyes of Venus were covered with an arm. Out went his hand to feel the shapely marble. It was warm, and slowly Venus began to move, as did the strains of music, and, presently, whirled away.
"How beautiful!" he said. "'Tis the magic of a dream."
His eyes were upon the form of Venus, taller than the others and more nobly fashioned.
"'Tis the great goddess come to earth," said he, turning to Lugar.
The music had ceased. The maidens, save two, had flung themselves upon rugs and couches. Venus and another were approaching the Roman.
"Daughter of Herod," said he, going to meet her, "I knew you not."
She took his arm and led him to one of the couches.
"You are very stubborn," said she, looking into his eyes. "You had 'business.'"
"So have I. We came here, as I thought, to confer with—with wise men."
"And not with wise women?"
"It may be. I had not learned to look for wisdom where there is beauty."
"And have I not wisdom? Ah, son of Varro, my mother has taught me many mysteries. I can read the future and the past."
She leaned close to his ear and whispered, her arm against his: "I believe in the power of fate. I had much to say and you had not the will to listen. It has brought you and me together,"
"To enchant me with your beauty?" he inquired.
"Nay," said she, her cheek touching his shoulder. "But to instruct you with my wisdom. I see much in your face."
"And what see you?"
"Apollo!" she whispered, with a sigh; "and the power to be great."
It flattered him, but he knew the sound of fair words.
"In Rome," said he, laughing, "we belittle with compliments."
"In Jerusalem we fill them with sincerity, and often—"
He listened as the daughter of Herod drew closer.
"They convey our love," she added, in a whisper.
"I learn wonderful things every day. But why think you I am to be great?"
"I know the mysteries of fate," she answered, quickly, and with a little resentment of his coldness. "But there is one thing in your way."
"Your work is to be in Judea, and you love, or think you love, a Roman maiden."
"I know that I love her," said he, quickly.
"But love is a great deceiver. You shall not take her for your wife."
"Why?" he demanded, turning and looking into the face of Salome.
Her dark eyes were now gazing into his, her hand softly stroking his bare arm.
"Because," she whispered, and now he could feel the motion of her shapely red lips upon his ear, "here, in Judea, you shall find one who loves you with a greater love."
His pulses were quick with passion. He rose, turning from the daughter of Herod. To his amazement the others had all departed. He and this living Venus of Judea were alone.
She rose and spoke rapidly, her heart's fire in her words! "Here the love of women is longer than their lives—greater than their prudence or their hope of heaven."
She stood erect before him, her beauty striving with the ardor of her words.
He looked down at her with a kind of fear in his eyes.
She took his hand in hers. "My father is fond of you," she continued. "Shall I tell your future?"
"And I knew it for a moment hence I should know all," he answered; covering his eyes. She came near, and, caressingly, put an arm about his neck. He could hear a nightingale singing somewhere in the great palace. It seemed to fling open the gates of memory. He thought of his love—sacred now above all things. His fear of it was like as the fear of the gods had been to his fathers. For a moment honor, wisdom, and love trembled in the balance. Suddenly he stood erect and put his hand upon the shoulder of Salome and gently pushed her aside.
He turned away, his left arm covering his eyes and his right moving in a gesture of protest. He staggered as one drunk with wine. Slowly he crossed the chamber, struggling to defend his soul.
"I dare not look upon your face again," said he, sternly.
She ran before and tried to stop him. "Hear me, son of Varro," said she. "It is my will to help you."
"I will not look upon your face again," he repeated.
She struck at his hand fiercely, her foot stamping on the floor. Now was she of the catlike tribe of Herod.
"Go, stupid fool!" The words came hissing from her lips. "I hate you!" She ran away, with impassioned laughter. He passed the door.
"To the evil honor is ever stupid," he said, to himself, as he left the palace. By-and-by he added, thoughtfully, "'Tis a mighty friend—this great love in me."
And said David, who was waiting when he returned: "They kept you long, my master."
"Yes; I have been fighting!"
"For the prize of heaven in the amphitheatre of hell. My love was my shield, the power of God my weapon."
"Friend, what mean you?"
"That an evil woman has tried to put the leash of fate upon me."
"How fared the battle?"
"It was my victory," said Vergilius; "and I do feel a mighty peace in me."
Vergilius had thought wisely of his temptation. Fate rules them only who are too weak to rule themselves, and the great leash of fate is the power of evil women. It was now to hasten the current of history in the old capital.
Salome sat with Manius in the great picture-room of her mother's palace. Guests had left the banquet-hall and gone to their homes. It was near the middle hour of the night and Herod's daughter was alone with the young assessor of Augustus.
"You shall choose," said she, "between the daughter and the son of Herod. My brother hates me, and I fear him. When he is king, what, think you, would happen to the husband of Salome, and what to her? I should have to train my tongue to praise him and my knees to bend. I should need to bow my head for fear of losing it. Know you not of Alexander and Aristobulus and the dear, beloved Mariamne—how they died? You—poor fool!—you would be lucky if he made you master of the stables!"
"But he has promised—"
"Promised! If you care to live a day after he is king remind him not of his promises."
"Think you Antipater would dare to take my life? I am an officer of Augustus."
"Oh, beautiful boy!" she laughed. "He would be no toy of Caesar. He dreams of conquest. He will gather an army in Judea, Parthia, and Arabia. He will attack Caesar, and Caesar is growing old. Do you not know it is long since Actium?"
Alarm had risen to the eyes of the young Roman, his lips were now trembling. "What is your plan?" he whispered.
"Betray the council," said she. "Tell the king and write to Caesar about it. So you will prove your faithfulness and devotion. Loving Caesar, you have been a spy self-appointed. Antipater shall be put to death, and we—we shall have honor and glory and, maybe, a palace of many towers."
She put her arms about his neck and gave him a look whose meaning he understood.
"By all the gods! you are worthy to be the wife as well as the daughter of a king," he whispered, his cheeks red with enthusiasm. "But they will think me a poor spy if I give not the names of the conspirators, and how may I?"
"But the God-fearing fool, Vergilius—you know he is of them?"
"I am sure—I heard his voice, but I have not seen him."
"You shall see him," said she, with rising fury in her eyes; "and I shall see him"—she paused, her hands clinched, her tongue sorting hot words—"melting in fire," she added, fiercely. She clapped her hands; she leaned forward, her body shaking with a silent, horrible laughter of the spirit.
A moment she seemed to dwell upon the awful picture. Then, turning to Manius; "Give the password to my father and let him go and listen. I promise you their names shall not be long a secret. He must hear all. Give him plans of that chamber so he may guard the exits."
"I will do my part, dear and wonderful daughter of Herod! To-morrow I shall begin the good work." So saying the Roman embraced Salome and spoke his farewell.
Having left her, he went to his own palace and sat awhile pondering.
"But if Herod is there," said he to himself, "and the soldiers come in with lights and the council members see me, they will learn that I have betrayed them. And some may be there who know of my part in other enterprises. By showing proof—Jupiter! they would bring confusion or death upon me. I must not be there, and yet—and yet I must. They wait for the shrill voice to declare the fulness of time. Unless I be there the king may be no wiser for his coming. I will go, but I will not tell Herod of the long way underground to the street of tombs. I will announce the fulness of time and quit the council before its proclamation is made. Then the old lion may spring his trap, and who, save Ben Joreb, will know that I ever sat with traitors. And as for the priest, I shall warn him. I know that he is weary of Antipater and will take a share in the new enterprise."
It was the day before the nones of November in Rome. The emperor had returned to his palace after opening the Ludi Plebeii. The people had hailed him as father, forgiver, peace-maker. A softened spirit, sweeping over the world, was come upon them. That day they had put in his hands a petition for new laws to limit the power of men over slaves. But in that matter he was bound to ancient custom by fetters of his own making. Once—he was then emperor of Rome but not of his own spirit—he had punished a slave by crucifixion for killing a pet quail. For that act, one cannot help thinking, he must have been harassed with regret. The sting of it tempered his elation that November day. He was, however, pleased with the spirit of the people and his heart was full of sympathy and good-will.
On his table were letters from the south. He lay comfortably in his great chair and began to read them. Presently his body straightened, the wrinkles deepened in his brow. Soon he flung the letter he had been reading upon his table and leaned back, laughing quietly as he remarked to himself:
"Innocent, beautiful son of Varro! He is making progress."
An attendant came near.
"Find my young Appius at once and bring him to me," said the emperor, as he went on reading his letters.
Appius, quickly found, came with all haste to the great father of Rome.
"I have news for you," said the latter, quietly, with a glance at his young friend. He continued to read his letters.
"News!" said Appius.
"'Tis of Vergilius—the apt and youthful Vergilius. How swift, industrious, and capable is he! How versatile! How varied his attainments!"
"I am delighted."
The emperor turned his keen eyes on the young man, with a smile of amusement. Then he spoke, gently:
"'Tis only four months, and he has become a conspirator, and also a prophet, and is likely soon to be—what is that word they use in Judea?—an angel. You will start for Jerusalem to-morrow, my good Appius. And when you arrive there convey to him my congratulations."
"That he is upon earth to receive them," said the great man. He resumed his letters and continued speaking, slowly: "Tell him I have been asked to consider whether he should keep his head upon his shoulders, and that I have decided to refer the question to him. It will not come back to me. Say, also, that he should have more light upon his friends, and that I have withdrawn my consent to his marriage."
The young man rose, a look of astonishment in his face.
"But shall I be in time?" said he, with some excitement.
"Learn composure, my good Appius. Herod may not be extremely polite to him, but—but he will wait."
That odd man, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, laughed silently as the youth was leaving. He beckoned to a slave, who halted Appius and turned him back.
"An escort will be on the campus at dawn," said the emperor. "I wish you a pleasant journey and will write you when to return."
Now there had been no changes of moment in the palace of the Lady Lucia, save one. The slave-girl, Cyran, had brought to Arria the inspiration of a new faith. The sister of Appius had begun to try it in secret prayers. Her mother had fallen ill of a deadly fever so that none had hope of her recovery, and the girl had prayed, and, lo! her prayer had been answered. Letters from Vergilius, full of the new light in him, had confirmed her faith. And Arria confided to her family and intimates knowledge of her devotion to the one God. Soon the religion of Judea had become a topic of patrician Rome.
When Vergilius had left the capital, Antipater came every day for a time to the palace of the Lady Lucia, and brought with him many beautiful gifts. But Arria refused to see him or to accept the gifts he had brought. Now the stubborn prince had faith that when he was made king she would no longer be able to resist him. If he failed with splendor, he was beginning to consider what he might do with power.
That day of the interview between youth and emperor a letter came to Arria from her lover. It began as follows:
"DEAR LOVE,—It has been a day illumined with new honor and the praises of a king. Now, before sleeping, I send these words to tell you that I have not forgotten. Every day I think of you, and my love grows. I see your face full of honor and the will to give all for me. Because it is in you, I love honor beyond all my hope of it, and—that look in your eyes—oh, it has made me to think gently and be kind! Now I tell you of a wonderful thing—this feeling is the very seed of friendship. The legate, the procurator, the high priest, and Herod himself, are my friends. I had only the will to serve, and now they insist that I shall command. After all, it is in no way remarkable—there be so few here who forget themselves for the good of the service. It all leads to a new and a great law—think of the good of others and you need have no thought of yourself. Consider this, my beloved, if every man loved a good woman as I love you a new peace would fill the world."
Then he told her of his discovery of David, the brother of Cyran, and their friendship.
When Appius told his mother and his sister what Augustus had said to him, they were greatly distressed. But Arria would not believe that Vergilius had been guilty of dishonor. Such were her anxiety and her fear of injustice falling upon her lover, the girl would have it that she must go to Jerusalem with Appius. She would neither be turned away nor bear with dissuasion. Her brother told her not of the bitter message of Augustus, and, fearing the wiles of the Jewish prince, determined to take her with him. So, therefore, as the sun rose on the nones of November in that year of the birth of Jesus, they set out with a troop of horse on the Appian Way.
They were midland in Thrace on their way to Piraeus, where a ship waited them, when they were overtaken by the cavalcade of Antipater. The prince, summoned by Herod, was now returning, under royal banners, to receive his inheritance of glory and power. A letter had started him, which, according to the great historian of that time, was warm with affectionate greeting. Antipater, also, was to take ship for Judea. He had learned of the departure of Appius and Arria, and had pushed his horses to the limit of their speed in order to overtake them. When he first saw the troop of the young Roman, he left his column and came rushing on to greet them.
The troop of Appius quickly faced about and stood with raised lances.
"Proud son and daughter of Publius," said Antipater, drawing rein, "my heart, my horses, and my men are at your service!" He was now splendid in royal vestments of purple and gold.
"Our gratitude is not less than our surprise," said Appius. "How came you flying out of the west like a bluebird?"
"'Tis a winged foot that goes to meet a friend," said the prince. "I left Rome far behind you and I go to Jerusalem."
"We took you for a bandit."
"And I am only a king," said Antipater, proudly. "I am summoned to take the crown of my father."
"And is he dead?"
"Nay, but ill and weary of his burden."
Appius removed his helmet as he made answer:
"The gods give you health, honor, and wisdom, O king! Will you ride with us?"
"Already the gods give me honor," said the prince, bowing politely as the troop made way for him. "I doubt not they will add health and wisdom. But there is a blessing I put above either."
They started slowly, Antipater riding between Arria and her brother in advance of the troop.
"And shall we ask the gods to grant it?" said Arria.
"Yes, for it is your favor, sweet girl. I adore you, and shall have no other queen."
"I cannot give you my heart," said she, frankly. "It is impossible—I cannot bear to speak of it."
"And you would not share my power and glory with me?" said Antipater, turning, with a look of surprise.
"Once before I have told you, my worthy prince, that whom the emperor chooses she will wed."
"Think not of that—I shall make terms with him," said Antipater. "She shall never wed a weak-hearted tribune."
"You speak lightly of my friend," said Appius. "I like it not, good sire."
"Son of Herod," said Arria, drawing rein, "we cannot longer enjoy your company."
Appius halted the troop.
For a little Antipater was dumb with astonishment. He drew aside, and when he spoke his voice trembled with ire, it was near bursting into fury.
"Sweet girl," said he, caressing the neck of his horse, "not even the power of Rome shall forbid me to love you, and I swear, by the god of my fathers, no man shall live between us!" He turned quickly, and a fierce look came into his eyes and he added, in a hoarse half-whisper, "You shall be my wife, sister of Appius."
The young Roman wheeled his horse between them. Antipater backed away, threatening with his lance. He shouted to his trumpeter, his troop being hard by, and quickly a call sounded. Then spur went to flank, and the followers of the Jew passed in a quick rush and went thundering off, Antipater at the head of their column. He rode to Athens in ill humor and was at Piraeus three hours in advance of Arria and Appius. The sun had set and the sea lay calm in a purple dusk. He went aboard his trireme at once and called his pilot to him.
"Go find the vessel waiting here for one Appius of Rome," he commanded.
"It is she that lies near us," said the other.
"And you know her pilot?"
"Ay, 'tis Tepas the Idumaean. He knows the broad sea as one may know his own vineyard."
"Bring him to me."
When Tepas came, Antipater took him aside and spread before him a chart of the vast, purple sea which beat upon the shores of Hellas. He put his finger on a little spot some leagues from the coast of Africa.
"Know you the Isle of Doom?" said he.
"Ay, 'tis a lonely heap of rocks."
"A roost of sea-birds," said the prince of Judea. "Know you who am I?"
"You are the son of Herod."
"And I go to be king of the Jews."
Antipater took from a bag many pieces of gold and heaped them on the chart above the Isle of Doom.
"Would you earn this money, and much more?" he whispered.
"If you will but show me how," said Tepas, the fire of greed now burning in his heart.
"Sail close to the Isle of Doom. There your trireme shall be leaking and you shall desert her and seek refuge on the isle and wait for me. You shall have ample store of provisions, and this treasure, and when I come you shall have, also, three talents more and a home in Jerusalem, and my favor as long as you live."
"But how long must I wait?"
"Not beyond, the ides of January, good man."
"Then I agree," said Tepas.
So was it with an evil man those days. If he were armed with power he halted not between his plan and his purpose. There were, indeed, few things so valued as to be above price.
But the cunning of the tempter was to lead his prey into further depths of infamy. The prince took the hand of the sailor and whispered to him:
"If you would be a friend to me, then my enemies should be your enemies." He paused a moment, looking into the eyes of the pilot and tenderly patting his shoulder. It was like the guile of the black leopard. Presently he continued:
"Now this young Roman is my enemy. If by any chance he, Appius, should die before I come, you shall have six instead of three talents. He is fond of wine, and for such the sea has many perils. Do you understand me?"
"I do," said Tepas, nodding his approval, and then that heap of gold, lying on the chart, was delivered to him, and without more delay he went to his own vessel. Antipater sat in silence, thinking for a moment, his chin upon his breast. Soon the thought of his enemies and their doom brightened his eyes and lifted the corners of his mouth a little and set his lips quivering. He leaned forward upon a table, softly, as if in fear that some eye would observe him. One might have heard then that menacing, Herodian rumble in his throat. He seemed to caress the table with his hands.
"Dear Appius! Good Vergilius!" he muttered, seizing a piece of vellum and crushing it in his hand. "Soon my power shall close upon you. And Arria, my pretty maiden, you shall repair my heart with kisses."
A pet kitten leaped upon the table. It seemed to startle him, and he struck it dead with his hand.
Then he sprang up suddenly and looked about, a feline stealth upon him, and ran with catlike paces to the deck.
"Get to work, you sea-rats!" he roared. "Every man to his place. If we are not gone to sea before the moon is up, some of you will be gone to Hades."
In half a moment slaves were up in the rigging and rushing across the deck and tumbling into the galley.
And that night Antipater pushed his prow into the deep sea.
Meanwhile Arria and Appius, fearing the power of this new king of Judea, and thinking also of the peril of Vergilius, travelled slowly, considering what they should do. Appius feared either to go or to return, but Arria was of better courage.
"I must go to him," said she. "You know not this love in me, dear brother. I would give up my life to be with him. If he is dead I shall never see the seven hills again. I shall go—" she paused, covering her eyes a moment.
"To the city of God," she whispered.
"May all the gods protect us," said her brother.
And the day after Antipater had set sail, they, too, with Cyran, the slave-girl, were moving southward in the great, middle sea.
Again the council of the covenant was in session. Herod, unknown to all, sat in the darkness of the council chamber. The intrigue of Salome and the treachery of Manius had led the Lion of Judea to his prey. Swords of fate were in the gloom that surrounded the traitors.
Now there had been, that night, a great discussion of the new king, and suddenly a man sitting by the side of Vergilius had risen. He began speaking in a strange voice, which had, however, some quality familiar to the young Roman. Shrill and trembling with emotion, it thrilled many with a feeling of religious awe.
"The time is upon us," said he, "when the judges of the council have come to the end of their deliberations. It is for me, therefore, to reveal it to you in part. If there be any here who give not full approval, let them freely express their minds."
He did not explain that such were, then and there, to be won by argument or put out of the way by daggers.
"I speak of great things, but he that is to follow me shall speak of greater. After weighing all the promises of Holy Writ, and enforcing their wisdom by the counsel of other learned men," he continued, "your judges declare the fulness of time."
The speaker paused. He heard a little stir of bodies, a rustle of robes in the darkness.
The speaker went on:
"When Herod dies you shall see a rider go swiftly through the streets bearing a red banner and crying, 'The king is dead.' Then shall the commander of the cohorts go quickly and take possession of the royal palace and await the new king."
Vergilius turned quickly in the direction of the fateful voice. He had begun to suspect a plot. In a moment he saw to the very depths of its cunning. Here was a band of conspirators meeting in the darkness and speaking in disguised voices. Probably no member had ever seen the face of another, and the betrayal of a name was, therefore, impossible. Vergilius, now commander of the castle, heard with consternation of his part in the programme. By some movement of the speaker's body an end of his girdle was flung against the hand of Vergilius. Immediately the young Roman laid hold of the silken cord. Tracing it stealthily, to make sure of its owner, he drew his dagger and cut the girdle in twain, hiding an end of it in his bosom.
"The new king is in Rome," the speaker added. "Presently you shall hear the voice of his herald, whose face I know not, but of whose fidelity and wisdom. I have long been sure. He will give you further revelation of our purposes."
It was cunningly said, for the speaker knew that such a promise would delay the vengeance of Herod.
A little silence followed the ceasing of "the shrill voice." Vergilius could hear its owner moving away in the darkness. Fearful possibilities had begun to suggest themselves to the new convert. Now had he the flinty heart and the cunning mind of his fathers. The darkness had begun to smother and sicken him.
"Hear me now, good friends," said a low, calm, but unfamiliar voice, "and let my words enter your hearts and be there cherished in secret, for I shall tell you a name, and for its safe-keeping you shall answer to the Most High. Know you, then, that the new king is no other than the son of Herod and his name is Antipater—a man of great valor, learned in all wisdom and all mystery, who loves the people of God. His heart has suffered, feeling the wrongs of Israel. He has the voice of wrath, the hand of power, and the claim of a just and natural inheritor. I have his word that we who are bound in this council of the covenant shall share in the glory of his reign."
Vergilius, hot with anger, rose to his feet.
"Good sirs," said he, in a piping voice very unlike his own, "let us not approve without full understanding. There may be some here who in their zeal have been deceived. Let us be fair, and warn them that all who approve this plan are traitors. I came here to study the mysteries of the one God, and I am learning the mysteries of an evil plot. 'Tis a great surprise to me. I like it not, and shall have no part in it. I know not your names or your faces, but I know your plan is murder, and if the one God favor it, I can no longer honor Him."
He paused, but there came no answer. Again he heard a rustle of garments in the dark chamber, and, also, a stealthy and suggestive grating of steel upon scabbard. He perceived now the imminence of his peril. He could hear no sound in the darkness.
He stepped quickly aside, hearing not the feet which followed, nor feeling him who clung to the skirt of his toga. He stood silent, with dagger drawn. As he felt about him, he touched a pair of great, trembling hands. He stood motionless, expecting every breath to feel a point plunging into his flesh. Suddenly some one blew a sharp whistle close beside him. Then, for a little, it seemed as if the doors were being rent by thunderbolts. Crowding forms and cries of terror filled the darkness. The young Vergilius kept his place after the first outbreak. Men, rushing past him, had torn the toga from his back. The hands which had clung upon him now held his wrist with a grip immovable. Doors fell and lights were flashing in. He saw now, on every side, a gleam of helmet and cuirass. Men, retreating from the lights, huddled in a dark corner. Some began to weep and cry to God. The scene was awful with swiftness and terror. The crowding group moved like caving sand. It sank suddenly, every man going to his knees. Quick as the serpent, a line of soldiers flung itself around them. Vergilius, with the man who clung to him, stood apart near the middle of the chamber.
Suddenly he heard an impatient, wrathful shout close beside him: "Lights here, ye laggards!"
Vergilius jumped as if he had felt the prick of steel. He turned, looking at the man who held his arm. A squad with torches came swiftly, forming about them. The powerful hands let go; a cloak and hood fell upon the floor.
"The king!" said Vergilius, bowing low.
"And you," said Herod, breathing heavily and leaning on the shoulder of the young man, "you are the only friend of the king. To save you from the fate of those dogs yonder, I would not let you go."
This unloved and terrible man, still leaning upon the shoulder of Vergilius, wept feebly. It seemed as if the infirmity of old age had fallen suddenly upon him. He muttered, in a weak and piping tone, of his great life weariness. Then he seemed to hear those low cries of terror from beyond the line of guards. He lifted his head, listening. He turned quickly, crouching low, and seemed to threaten the soldiers near him with his hand. They stepped aside fearfully. Then was he, indeed, the old lion of Judea, ready to spring upon his prey.
"Stand them here before me," he growled, fiercely.
The conspirators were drawn up in line. Torches were held before their faces. Vergilius looked with pity at the terrified throng. There were Lugar and two merchants he knew, and that chamberlain of Herod's palace who had taken him before the king. There was also a famous young Roman athlete, whom Vergilius had first seen and admired at the circus in Rome, and who had lately been a member of the castle guard. But none wore the girdle which Vergilius had cut in twain.
The king stood before them, raging like a man possessed of demons. Fate, which had whispered through lips of beauty in the palace at Caesarea, now thundered in the voice of power.
"Serpents, murderers, children of the devil!" he roared. "Soon shall your souls wander in hell and your bodies rot in the valley of Hinnom. Take them to the torture, and make it slow for such as give us no further knowledge. Away with them! Let their food be fear and their drink be the sweat of agony and their end be death at the games of Caesar!"
The will of that graceful and voluptuous maiden had been well if only partially expressed.
A guard of soldiers led the unfortunate men away.
Herod, now weak and trembling, took the arm of Vergilius.
"To my palace!" said he, and they made their way to his litter.
"It will do no good to put them to torture," said Vergilius. "You have heard all. They have met in darkness and the leaders have disguised their voices. No member could be sure of the identity of any save himself. Only two or three, perhaps, could have betrayed other members of the order."
"Fool! were they not sure of Vergilius, the commander of the cohorts?" said Herod.
"But the plot is uncovered, and now, great sir, I implore you, try the remedy of Caesar."
Herod ceased muttering and turned with a look of inquiry.
"Forgive them," Vergilius added.
The king answered with curses. Then from his chamber, where they had now arrived, he drove all save the young Roman. "Long ago I discovered evidence of the treachery of the prince," said he. "To Antipater—foul son of Doris—I despatched this letter."
He spread a sheet of vellum before Vergilius, bidding him read. It was the copy of a letter addressed to his "dutiful and affectionate son Antipater." It recited that, whereas he (Herod) was now become ill and weary under his many cares, and needed the companionship of them he loved, Antipater should ask, in the name of his father, for a goodly escort of cavalry and proceed at once to Jerusalem, there, shortly, to receive his inheritance.
"Foul son of Doris!" the king growled, hoarsely, as the young Roman turned. Then his voice broke into a shrill, piping laugh. "Ha, ha! He is coming—even now he is coming to take the crown of his loving father!"
Then he loaned forward with a savage leer, as if he saw the object of his wrath. His lips were parted, his mouth open, his breath came hissing from his throat.
"Foul son of Doris!" he repeated, beating the floor with his feet. "Your lies have drowned me in the blood of those I love. Swamp plant! creeping asp! Soon shall I put my foot upon you!"
Turning to Vergilius, he continued, presently:
"Be ready, my tribune, to go down to the sea with a cohort. There meet him, as he comes, and let him fall quickly from his height of greatness, and chain him, hand and foot, and bring him hence. You may go now."
Vergilius bowed and left the home of Herod. As he went away he fell to thinking of that girdle's end in his bosom. Although it was past the middle hour of night, he hastened to the palace of Manius. The assessor, distraught and pale, started as he met him, and Vergilius saw at once that an end of the other's girdle had been cut away. The young tribune drew that piece of braided silk from under his tunic.
"It is yours?" said he, tossing it to Manius.
"I—I had not observed," said the other, nervously, "It is part of the girdle I wear in deference to the people among whom I live. How came you by it?"
"Fox! Your cunning will not save you. Tell me first how you escaped the peril into which you had drawn me."
"I do not understand you."
"But I understand you," said Vergilius, with anger. "There are but two places in the world for you. One is beyond the boundaries of Rome, the other is the valley of Hinnom." Having said which, he turned, quickly, and left the assessor's palace.
Arria and her brother were far from the shores of Hellas and near the Isle of Doom. Tepas knew that a few leagues more would bring him in sight of the familiar cliffs. Brother and sister were reclining on the deck of their trireme. The tenth day of their journey was near its end. The sun had sunk through misty depths of purple, and now seemed to melt and pour a flood of fire upon the waters.
"I am weary," said the girl, looking thoughtfully at the calm sea.
"Of me?" said her brother.
"Nay, but of that groaning of the rowers. It tells me of aching arms in the galley. I cannot sleep at night, hearing it."
Appius laughed with amusement. "Little fool!" said he. "The slaves of Tepas are all Jews."
"But they are men," said the beautiful girl; "and do you not understand, dear brother? I love a man."
"Love!" exclaimed Appius, with contempt, "'Tis only as the longing of the bird for its mate."
"Nay, I would give all for him I love."
"Not all," said he, with a look of surprise.
"Yes, all—even you, and my mother, and my home, and my country, and my life—I am sick with longing. And when I think of him I cannot bear to see men suffer."
"You are gone mad," said Appius, "and I pray the gods to bring you back. It may be the fair Vergilius forgets you."
She turned, quickly, and her voice trembled as she whispered: "Nay, he also has the great love in him. He could not forget."
Cyran, the pretty slave-girl, came soon with their evening repast. Arria bade her sit beside them.
"Tell us, dear Cyran," said the Roman beauty—"tell us a tale of old Judea."
"Beloved mistress," said Cyran, kneeling by the side of Arria and kissing the border of her robe, "listen; I will tell you of the coming of the great love. Long ago there was a maiden of Galilee so beautiful that many came far to see her. Now, it so befell, there came a certain priest, young and fair to look upon, who did love her and seek her hand in marriage. And she loved him, even as you love, but would not wed him. O my good mistress! She knew that a mighty king was coming, and she was held of a great hope that God would choose her for the blessed mother. And, still loving the priest, she kept herself pure in thought and deed. Every day they saw each other, but stayed apart, and their love grew holier the more it was put down. And oh, it was a wonder! for it filled their hearts with kindness and sent their feet upon errands of mercy. And many years passed, and one day they sat together.
"'My beloved, you are grown old and feeble, and so am I,' said she, 'We have pitied every child of sorrow but ourselves.' And they rose and put their arms about each other and went into the dark valley of death, heart to heart, that very day, and were seen no more of men. And they in the hills of Galilee, where the lovers dwelt, made much account of them, for while she had not borne the great king, still was she long remembered as the blessed mother of holy love. Now, maidens, with youth and love and beauty strong upon them, gave all for the great hope. And wonderful stories went abroad, and women were more sacred in the eyes of men, seeing that one of them, indeed, must be mother of the very Son of God."
The slave-girl covered her face and her body shook with emotion.
"Cyran, why are you crying?" said Arria.
"Because," Cyran replied, her voice trembling—"because I can never be the blessed mother."
"Tell me," said Arria, "have you never felt the great love?"
Cyran rose and looked down at her mistress.
"I have felt the pain of it," said she, sadly. "And my heart—Oh, it is like the house of mourning where Sorrow has hushed the Children of Joy. But the sweet pain of love is dear to me."
"Tell me of it."
"Good mistress, I cannot tell you."
"Why, dear Cyran?"
"Because—" the slave-girl hesitated; then timidly and with trembling lips she whispered, "because, dear mistress, I—I love you." She seemed to bend beneath her burden and, knelt beside her mistress and wept.
"Go—please go," said Appius, turning to Cyran. "You irritate me, and I cannot understand you."
But Arria divined the secret of the poor slave-girl, and pitied her.
Cyran rose and left them.
"The great love may come to you, and then you shall understand," said Arria to Appius.
"The great madness!" her brother exclaimed. "I like not these Jewish cattle. The gods forgive me that we have fallen among them. With a Jew for a pilot we should make a landing in Hades."
Something in his manner alarmed the girl.
"What mean you?" she inquired.
"I will tell you to-morrow," said her brother. "'Tis time you went to your couch and I to mine. Have no fear."
Now, the young Roman had begun to suspect the pilot of some evil plan. After the girl had left him he sat drinking wine for hours. Soon he was in a merry way, singing songs and jesting with all who passed him. Long after the dark had come, when Tepas only remained upon deck, Appius reeled up and down, singing, with a flask in his hand. The moon had risen. Eastward her light lay like hammered silver on the ripples.
Appius neared the tall, rugged form of Tepas. Against the illumined waters he could see the long, bent nose, the great beard, the shaggy brows, the large, hairy head of his pilot. Tepas, who ruled his men with scourge and pilum, had made himself feared of all save the young Roman noble. Appius halted, looking scornfully at the Jew. Then he shouted:
"A knave, upon my honor! 'Tis better to be drunk, for then one has hope of recovery. You long-haired dog! Here is something would make you bay the moon. Drink and howl. You weary me with silence."
Tepas, familiar with the contempt of Romans, took the flask, and, pouring into his cup, drank of the rich wine. Then Appius held the flask above his head, and with a word of scorn flung it into the sea. He started to cross the deck and fell heavily. Now, after striving, as it seemed, to regain his feet, he lay awhile muttering and helpless and soon began to snore. The deck was deserted by all save him and the pilot. Tepas looked down at the young Roman. Already, far off in the moonlight, he had seen cliffs and knew they were on the Isle of Doom. He must be about his business. He went to where Appius lay and bent over him. The pilot drew his dagger; the youth rolled drowsily and his hands were now upon the feet of Tepas. The latter leaned to strike. A sound startled him. It was a footfall close behind. The Jew rose, turning to listen. Suddenly his feet went from under him and he fell head-long; quickly two seamen leaped upon him, seizing his head and hands. One disarmed him, the other covered his mouth. Appius clung upon the feet of the Jew. A Roman slave had taken the wheel.
"Shall we bind him?" said one of the seamen.
"No," said Appius, breathing heavily as the pilot tried to shake him off. "Give the dog a chance. Yonder is an island. We shall soon be near it, and by swimming he may save his life."
"The gold is upon him," said a seaman; "I can feel it under his tunic."
"But we shall not rob him," was the answer of Appius.
"It is heavy. It will be like a stone to sink him."
"However, we shall not rob him," the young Roman repeated.
Now, when they were come as near the isle as they dare bring their ship, Appius gave a command. They lifted the body of that cursing wretch. Back and forth they swung it as one counted. Then over it went with reaching hands and fell upon the moonlit plane of water. They could see him rise and turn towards the isle, swimming. Weighted by his burden, he swam not twice his length before the sea closed above him.
"I thought he had struck you with his dagger," said one of the seamen.
"It would have done no harm," Appius replied. "I have a corselet under my tunic. Is the ship still leaking?"
"A little, good sire. We found a wedge in the planks. He would have driven it through, no doubt, if all had gone well with him. I know not why, unless he meant to beach her under the cliffs yonder."
The young Roman stood silent for a little time. Presently his thought came in a whisper to his lips: "And hold my sister until Antipater should come."
He called the seamen to his side.
"I, who am a friend of the great father of Rome," said he, "shall see you well rewarded. The little I gave you is not enough. Without your help and warning worse luck than death might soon have come to us."
A light wind was now blowing, and the sails began to fill.
Suddenly all rushed forward, falling upon the deck. Their trireme had lost half her headway and was now crashing over rocks and trembling as her bow rose. She stopped, all her timbers groaning in the shock, and rolled sideways and lay with tilted deck above the water. Cries of alarm rose from her galley. Men fought their way up the ladders and scrambled like dripping rats to every place of vantage. After the shock, Appius had leaped to the upper rail, and, rushing forward to the door of Arria's deck-house, found her and the slave-girl within it, unharmed. The two were crying with fear, and he bade them dress quickly and await his orders. Then he took command. Soon a raft and small boats were ready alongside the wreck. Within half an hour Appius and the two maidens and part of the crew landed.
Before daylight all were safely carried to the bare, lonely rocks, with a goodly store of food and water.
It was a clear morning and the tenth day before the kalends of January. Since the ides, Vergilius had been lying in camp with a cohort, near the port of Ascalon. Night and day on the headland velites had been watching for the trireme of Antipater. A little before dawn their beacon-fires had flamed up. Since daylight all had been watching the far-come vessel of the son of Herod, and, as she came near, they could see the pattern of gold upon the royal vestments of Antipater. Now, presently, he would set foot upon the unhappy land of his inheritance. The cohort had formed in a long arc at the landing. Before now, on his return, the king's horsemen had greeted him with cheers; to-day he greeted them with curses. Vergilius, hard by, faced the cohort, his back turned to the new-comer. Antipater halted as he came ashore, looking in surprise at the tribune. He seized a lance, and, crouching as he ran, with sly feet approached the Roman officer. He was like the cat nearing its prey. Vergilius, now seeming unmindful of his pursuer, walked in the direction of the cohort. Swiftly, stealthily, the prince came near, intending to plunge his lance into the back of the young tribune. Suddenly there rose an outcry among the soldiers. Vergilius turned; the prince halted, breathing heavily, for he had run near a hundred paces in the sea-sand. A roar of rage burst from his lips.
"Dog!" he shouted. "Bid them cheer me or I will run you through!" His lance threatened.
"There shall be cheers in a moment, son of Herod," said Vergilius, calmly and respectfully approaching him. Antipater, unaware of his peril, stood with lance at rest. With a hand quick as the paw of a leopard, Vergilius whirled it away and caught the wrist of the Jew and flung him down. While Antipater struggled in his great robe the tribune had disarmed him. Every man of the cohort was now cheering. Antipater rose in terrible wrath and flung off his robe of gold and purple.
"Put him in irons!" he shouted. "I, who shall soon be king of the Jews, command you!"
The cohort began to jeer at him; Vergilius commanded silence.
"You lapdog!" Antipater hissed, turning upon the Roman. "Am I met with treason?"
"You give yourself a poor compliment," said Vergilius. "Better call me a lion than a lapdog." He turned to an officer who stood near and added: "You will now obey the orders of the king."
Forthwith, Vergilius went aboard the new-come vessel and seized the goods of Antipater and put them on their way to the king. Meanwhile, the soldiers, many of whom had borne with the cruelty and insolence of their prisoner, were little inclined to mercy. He struggled, cursing, but they bore him down, binding him hand and knee to an open litter, so he stood, like a beast, upon all fours, for such, indeed, was the order of the king. Then they put on him the skin of a wild ass and carried him up and down, jeering as the long ears flapped. Vergilius, returning, removed the skin of the ass and loosed the fetters a little, and forbade the soldiers any further revenge.
"The skin of a leopard would become you better," said Vergilius to Antipater, as he unlashed the coat of shame.
The wrathful Jew, still cursing, tried to bite the friendly hand of his keeper. "My noble prince," said Vergilius, "you flatter me; I am not good to eat."
Those crowding near laughed loudly, but Vergilius hushed them and signalled to the trumpeter. Then a call and a rush of horses into line. The litter was lifted quickly and lashed upon the backs of two chargers. In a little time the cohort was on its way to Jerusalem.
Arriving, it massed in front of the royal palace. Vergilius repaired to the king's chamber. The body of Herod was now become as an old house, its timbers sagging to their fall, its tenant trembling at dim windows while the storm beat upon it. Shame and sorrow and remorse were racking him down. King and kingdom were now swiftly changing.
"At last!" he piped, with quivering hands uplifted. "Slow-footed justice! come—come close to me."
Eagerly he grasped the hands of the young Roman and kissed them. Then he spoke with bitter irony, his words coming fast. "You met the great king?"
"Yes, good sire."
"You put him in chains and brought him hither?"
"And I commend him to your mercy."
"Ha, ha!" the king shrieked, caressing the hand of the Roman. Now his head rose, and for a little his old vigor and menacing voice returned to him. "He has run me through with the blade of remorse and put upon me the chains of infirmity," he complained, an ominous, croaking rattle in his throat. "To-day, to-day, my wrath shall descend upon him and my gratitude upon you! These forty years have I been seeking a man of honor. At last, at last, here is the greatest of men! I, Herod, surnamed the Great, king of Judea, conqueror of hosts, builder of cities, bare my head before you!"
He removed his jewelled crown; he drew off his purple tarboosh, and bowed before the young tribune. Tenderly Vergilius replaced them on the gray head.
"O king," said he, bowing low, "you do me great honor."
Herod closed his eyes and muttered feebly. Again remorse and age had flung their weight upon him. His hard face seemed to shrink and wither, and the young man thought as he looked upon it, "What a great, good thing is death!"
The king opened his eyes and piped, feebly: "Help me; help me to win the favor of my people! You shall be procurator, commander of the forces, counsellor of kings, priest of God."
The king waited, but Vergilius made no reply. Now, indeed, was he living in a great and memorable moment. He thought of the power offered him—power of doing and undoing, power of raising up and putting down, power over good and evil.
"Well," said Herod, impatiently, "what say you?"
"O king!" said Vergilius, "I had hoped soon to return to Rome and marry and live in the land of my fathers."
"Hear me, good youth," said Herod, sternly, seizing the hand of the young man. "There is a wise proverb in Judea. It is: 'Speak not much with a woman.' Had I obeyed it, then had I saved my soul and happiness. Women have been ever false with me—an idle, whispering, and mischievous crew! O youth, give not your heart to them! For five years let Judea be your bride. She woos you, son of Varro, and she is fair. She asks for love and justice, and she will give you immortal fame."
The king fondly pressed the hand of the Roman, who stood beside him, grave and thoughtful. For the young man it was a moment of almost overwhelming temptation. Love and ambition wrestled in his soul. He stood silent.
"For only five years," the king pleaded. "For five years give me your heart. Man!" he shouted, impatiently, "will you not answer?"
"I will consider," said Vergilius, calmly.
"Go!" said Herod, in a burst of ire. Then, presently: "Now, now I will attend to the son of Doris."
And Vergilius hastened away.
Within the hour, Antipater, son of Herod the Great, was dragged to that strong chamber in a remote end of the vast home of Herod whence were to come cries for mercy by night such as he had often heard from his own victims.
Now in Vergilius and in many of that time the human heart had dropped its plummet into new depths of feeling, the human mind had made a reach for nobler principles. A greater love between men and women, spreading mysteriously, had been as the uplift of a mighty wave on the deep of the spirit. It had broadened the sympathy of man; it had extended his vision beyond selfish limits. Vergilius and Arria had crossed the boundary of barbaric evolution under the leadership of love. The young man was now in the borderland of new attainment. He was full of the joy and the wonder of discovery. He was like a child—eager for understanding and impatient of delay. Now he thought with the pagans and now with the Jews.
At his palace a letter had been waiting for the tribune. It was from his friend Appius. "My excellent and beloved Vergilius," it said, "I address you with a feeling of deep concern for your safety. To-night by tabellarius, my letter shall go down to the sea on its way to Jerusalem. And now to its subject. This morning I went to the public games, and, returning, I was near my palace when a messenger, bearing the command of Augustus, overtook and stopped me. Quickly I made my way to The Laurels. Our great imperator was in his chamber and reading letters. He gave me a glance and greeted me. I saw he wished me to come near, and I stood close beside him. Then, with that slow, gentle tone, he hurled his lightning into me—you remember his way. He told me, as he read, that you were making rapid progress in Jerusalem; that you had become a conspirator, a prophet, and were likely soon to be an angel. And he bade me go to you with his congratulations that you have succeeded so long in keeping your head upon your shoulders. Oh, deep and cunning imperator! Said he: 'I cannot tell you the name of my informant; and really, my good son, why—why should I?' There, spread before me on the table, so I knew he wished me to see it, was a letter which bore the signature of Manius and gave information of a certain council. I could not make out the name, but I was able to recall how the great father had said to me, once, that when a man secretly puts blame upon another, the infamy he charges shall be only half his own. Our imperator is no fool, my friend. 'A ship will be leaving the seventh day before the ides,' said he. 'You will not be able to make it.' His meaning was clear. It could bear my warning, if not me, and here it is. With the gods' favor, soon, also, I shall be able to say to you, here am I. To-morrow at dawn I leave for Jerusalem."
Beneath the signature these words were added: "As soon as possible I wish to know all and to speak my heart to you. The emperor has withdrawn his consent to your marriage with Arria. I shall explain everything but the purpose of the emperor, and who may understand him? If it be due to caprice or doubt or anger he will do you justice. But if a deeper motive is in his mind who knows what may happen?"
This letter kindled a fire in the heart of Vergilius. It burned fiercely, so that prudence and noble feeling were driven out. In spite of the warning of the young tribune, Manius had remained in Jerusalem. Vergilius had delayed action, dreading to bring the wrath of Rome upon one so young, so well born, so highly honored, and possibly so far misled. Therefore, he had held his peace and waited patiently for more knowledge. Now the evil heart of the assessor was laid bare, his infamy proven. Vergilius reread the letter with flashing eyes. Then he summoned his lecticarii and set out for the palace of the plotter. Manius approached him, a kindly greeting on his lips.
"Liar!" Vergilius interrupted, his hand upon his sword. "Speak no word of kindness to me!"
"What mean you, son of Varro?" the other demanded.
"That, with me, you have not even the right of an enemy. You are a deadly serpent, born to creep and hide. Shame upon you—murderer! If there be many like you, what—God tell me!—what shall be the fate of Rome?"
Vergilius stepped away, and, lifting his hands, gave the other a look of unspeakable scorn. Manius made no reply, but stood as still and white as marble, with sword in hand.
"It was I who sat beside you that night," said the other, his voice aglow with feeling. "When I heard you speak treason I cut off the end of your girdle. But you left by some unguarded way and escaped the fate of your fellows. You have not seen them since, and shall not. When you see them die in the arena think what you escaped, although deserving it more than they. Vile serpent! you brought the king, and hoped to send me also to Hades. You are a traitor, and that I know. Traitor to friend and country! Dare to provoke me further and I shall slay you!"
"What would you, son of Varro?" said the other, sullenly.
"Wretch! If you would save your life, hide as becomes the asp. Creep away from them who would put their feet upon you. Go live and die with the wild men of the far deserts."
"Traitor to the gods!" said Manius, threatening with his sword. "Roman Jew! I am of noble birth, and claim the right of combat."
"I give it, though you have no better right than dogs. Well, it would please my hand to slay you. I know the name and father you have dishonored, and you are grandnephew of the good Lady Claudia—noble mother of Publius. For their sake I give you the right of combat. By the wayside near Bethlehem are lonely hills. There, the seventh day before the kalends, in the middle hour of the night, you shall see a beacon-fire and near it my colors. Three friends may go with each, and you and I will draw swords in the fire-light."
"I shall meet you there," said Manius. Vergilius, putting away his weapon, turned quickly, and, without speaking, left the traitor's palace with firm faith in the one God—that he was ever on the side of the just who humbly sought his favor.
The festival of games, in honor of Augustus, were about to begin at Caesarea. Lately the highway from north to south, which passed the gates of Jerusalem, had been as a fair of the nations. A host had journeyed far to amuse the great king or to enjoy his holiday. Gayer and more given to proud speech than they who came to the festivals of the Temple, beneath the skull-bone there was yet a more remarkable unlikeness.