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The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter VII IMPERIAL CAESAR

When the Maccabee had returned to the spot in the sedgy valley where he and Julian had halted, he found the Ephesian white to the lips and with ignited eyes awaiting him.

|How much longer?| the Ephesian demanded.

|What! Fast and slow!| the Maccabee said calmly. |Last night you wasted hours to spite me. To-day you begrudge me a moment's talk with a lovely wayfarer. Or is it because she prefers me? You have ordered our progress long enough. I shall move when it pleases me.|

He sat down by the fire, clasping his hands back of his head, and half-closed his eyes. The Ephesian rose and tramped restlessly about. As he glanced down at the reposeful attitude of the man whom he could not exasperate he saw the sun glitter on the Maccabaean signet on the hand clasped back of Philadelphus' head. The sight of it in a way collected Julian's purposes. He knew that by some misadventure he had missed Aquila whom he had hoped to meet in Emmaus, bearing treasure stolen from the daughter of Costobarus. By this time, then, the Maccabee's emissary had doubtless arrived in Jerusalem -- the last possible point for the two conspirators to meet. To proceed to Jerusalem without the Maccabee, with whatever excuse he could invent, would not deliver the dowry of the bride into his hands, in the event that Aquila had not succeeded in his instructions to make way with Laodice before he reached Jerusalem. Nothing occurred to Julian at that moment but to impersonate the Maccabee until it was possible to get possession of the two hundred talents from those friends in Jerusalem who were interested in his cousin's welfare. No one in Jerusalem knew Philadelphus Maccabaeus. Aquila, as fellow-conspirator, would not dare to expose him if Julian appeared as his cousin. Perilous at best, it seemed the only plan by which he was to get possession of a fortune which even Caesar would be glad to have.

The resolution formed itself in a brain turbulent with passion and desperation. He halted silently back of his cousin and with a sudden flare of intent on his dead white face snatched a dagger from his girdle and drove it between the shoulders of the Maccabee. Without a word, Philadelphus turned upon his assailant and started to his feet. But Julian, catching a glimpse of the dire purpose in his cousin's darkened eyes, struck again. The knife, blindly wielded, glanced on the Maccabee's head with wild force. Under a veil of scarlet Philadelphus sank to the earth.

Julian with a sob of terror sprang out of range of his victim's gaze. After a time he took courage and looked. The lids were fallen and the breast was still.

Julian bent hastily and snatched the signet from the nerveless hand and fumbling in the bosom drew forth the wallet there. He opened it, finding within ancient parchments with heavy seals, new writings, rolls of notes and a packet of letters. He rose, trembling violently, and backed away. After a moment's fascinated gaze at the roadway to see if the pilgrims passing had seen what he had done, he whirled about, mounted his horse and galloped frantically toward Jerusalem.

Meanwhile the midday activity on the Roman roadway swept by the smoldering fire and the motionless figure lying in the grass some distance back from the highway. Along the splendid causeway the Passover pilgrims fared, men afoot, men on camels, families and solitary travelers; the poor, the once rich, the humble and the haughty; figures in burnooses, gabardines, gowns and tunics; striped and checkered woolens, linens or rags; noisy or silent, angry or sad, hour in and hour out, until the hills were a-throb with the human atmosphere. Time and again the sweet invitation of the rare grass along the marsh invited the way-weary to halt to tie a sandal, to bind up a wound, to eat a crust spread with curds or simply to rest. No one approached the silent man who had fallen beside a dying fire. They were tired enough to refrain from disturbing a man who slept. So, though they looked at him from where they sat and two or three asked each other if he were asleep or merely weary, he was left alone. One by one they who halted took up their journey again and the figure in the grass lay still.

Finally near the noon hour there came from the summit of a hill overhanging the road, a high, wild, youthful yell that cut with startling distinctness through the dead level of human communication on the highway. Each of the travelers below looked up to see a young shepherd in sheepskins with long-blowing stiff crinkled locks flying back from a dusky face, with eyes soft and shining as those of some wild thing. Around him eddied a mob of sheep as wild as he, and a Natolian dog raced hither and thither in a cloud of dust, rounding the edge of the flock and shaping it to the advance of the young faun that mastered it.

|Sheep! by the prophets!| one of the sedate Jews exclaimed.

|The only flock in existence in Judea, I venture!| his companion declared.

|And so hopelessly doomed to Roman possession that it can not be called in existence.|

|Heigh! Hello! Young David!| one of the younger men called up to the shepherd. |Does Titus pay you for minding his mutton?|

|Salute, neighbors!| another shouted. |Here is the Roman commissary!|

|Ill-fathered son of an Ishmaelite!| a Tyrian said to this jester. |That you should make sport of Judea's humiliation!|

The shepherd who had paused amid his whirlpool of sheep wisely held his peace. There was a division of sentiment here that were better not aggravated. He halted long enough for the road to clear below him and then descended into the valley and crossed to the low meadow on the opposite side.

His scamper of sheep flocked into the sedge, parting around the prostrate figure by a circle of coals now dead, and plunged into the pasture. The boy inspected the earth and shook his head. It was too wet for a long stay, inviting as it seemed. But here his flock might pasture for a day without injury.

He glanced at the sleeper as he passed and continued to the farther side where the opposite hill sloped down into the depression. Here he found for himself a comfortable spot and lay down, prepared to watch all day. From time to time he looked across at the motionless figure in the grass and commented to himself that it was a weary man who slept so soundly, and then lost interest in the maze of dreams that can entangle the wits of a shepherd who is a boy.

The march of the Passover pilgrims continued to Jerusalem.

In mid-afternoon there came interruption. Along the level highway came the rapid beat of hooves and the musical jingle of harness. Every soul within sound of that un-Jewish mode of travel turned apprehensively and looked back. Bearing down upon them from the west came a stampede of Roman cavalry scouting. The sunshine on their brass armor transformed them into shapes of gold, and the recklessness of their advance swept the pilgrims out of their path as far as could be seen. Right and left the Jews scattered; some ran into the hills and hid themselves; others merely stepped aside and with darkening faces waited defiantly for the approach of the oppressor. The young shepherd full of excitement sprang to his feet.

Neither the fleeing Jews nor the Jews that had stood their ground attracted the attention of the approaching legionaries. It was the close-packed, avid-feeding sheep, deep in the grass, that won their instant and enthusiastic notice. The decurion in charge of the squad brought up his gray horse with such suddenness that the animal's feet slid in the gravel.

|Sheep, by the wings of Mercury!| he shouted. |Dismount, fellows! Here's for a feast this night and an offering to Mars to-morrow!|

The ten in brazen armor threw themselves from their horses with the enthusiasm of boys and spread a panic of whooping and of waving arms about the startled flock. The young shepherd, too long a fugitive from the encroachments of this same army to misunderstand the nature of the attack, ran into the thick of the shouting Romans. His valiant dog with exposed teeth flew straight at the nearest legionary.

|Cerberus!| the soldier howled, dodging. |Your pike, Paulus! Quick! By Hector, it is a wolf!|

But the quickest soldier would not have been quick enough to elude the enraged beast had not the shepherd with a spring and a warning cry seized his dog by the ears and stopped him mid-bound.

|Down, Urge!| he cried. |Take away your men!| he shouted to the decurion. |I can not hold him long.|

|Only so long,| Paulus growled, raising his pike over the snarling dog.

|Drop it!| the decurion ordered him peremptorily. |We are ten to one and a dog. No blood-letting this day. It is Titus' order. Boy, get you gone; these sheep are confiscate.|

|I have been told they are only common stock,| the boy remonstrated gravely, |but you may be right. Howbeit, they are not mine and I can not leave them.|

|You have been misinformed,| the decurion said gravely, while his men, circling around the growling dog, went on with their work. |These are Roman sheep, with the Flavian coat of arms and the mark of the army in black on their hides -- if you shear them. But if you make away as fast as you can I shall not tell Titus which way you went.|

The sheep had started pell-mell toward the Roman road. The decurion turned back to his horse. The shepherd released his dog, which ran after the flock, and stepped into the decurion's way.

|However these sheep look when they are sheared,| he said, |this seems to be robbery to me.|

|Robbery!| the good-natured decurion exclaimed. |This is but a religious rite that Mercury got out of the cradle at two days to establish. Only he took Apollo's cattle while we are contenting ourselves with the sheep of mortal ownership. Robbery! What an inelegant word!|

Meanwhile the stampeded sheep were making in a cloud of dust back over the road toward the west from which the Romans had come.

|What shall I say to the citizens of Pella?| the little shepherd shouted, pursuing the decurion who was making back to his horse as fast as he could go.

|Salute them for me,| the decurion shouted back, |and make them my obeisances, and say that I shall report on the flavor of the sheep by messenger from Jerusalem.|

In a moment the boy sprang into the decurion's way so suddenly that the soldier almost fell over him.

|Be fair!| the boy exclaimed. |At least leave me half!|

The decurion was losing patience and the shepherd had grown more than ever serious.

|Fair!| the Roman echoed. |Why, I have been indulgent! This is war! It is almost a breach of discipline to argue with you. Out of the way!|

|The Roman army has all the world to feed it; Pella has only its sheep. We, then, must face hunger and cold because your appetites crave mutton this day!| the boy returned resentfully.

The decurion pointed down the road.

|Why waste your breath! There go the sheep.|

The boy's dark eyes filled with tears. The decurion swung around him and went back to the horses that waited in the road. He knotted their bridles together and, leading one of the number, remounted and rode west after the receding cloud of dust which hid the flock.

The shepherd's head sank on his heaving breast and he stood still.

|Lord Jesus, I pray Thee, give me my sheep again!| he prayed.

A deep prolonged thunder that had been filling the hills with sound began to multiply as the nearest slopes caught it and tossed it from echo to echo. It was not loud but immensely prevalent. Those wayfarers who had fled came back to the brink of the hill and those who had stood their ground walked out into the grass to look back. Around the curve of a buttress of rock that stood out at the line of the road, the head of a column of Roman cavalry appeared. The superb color-bearer bore on his hip the staff supporting the Imperial standard.

At the forefront rode a young general; on either side a tribune. Behind came a detachment of six hundred horse.

The sheep huddling in the way were swept like a scurry of leaves out into the meadow alongside the road, and one of the tribunes and the general turned in their saddles to look at the confiscated flock. The second tribune observed their interest in this trivial incident with disgust. The young general, whose military cloak flaunted a purple border, called the decurion boyishly:

|Well done, Sergius! A samnos of wine for your company to-night for this.|

The decurion saluted.

|Where did you get them?| the tribune demanded.

The shepherd who had withdrawn to the side of the road on the approach of the column looked at the questioner with resentful eyes from which the moisture had not vanished.

|From me!| he said.

Both the purple-wearing young general and his tribune looked at him amusedly.

|How many killed and wounded, Sergius?| the tribune asked.

The silent and disapproving tribune, observing that the commanding officer had not given an order to halt, brought the six hundred to, lest they ride their general down.

|You!| the general exclaimed with his eyes on the young shepherd.

The boy looked up into the face of the Roman who sat above him on a snow-white horse.

It was a young face, tanned by the sun of Alexandria, but bright with an emanation of light that somehow was made tangible by the flash of his teeth as he talked and the sparkle of his lively eyes. For a soldier exposed to the open air and the ruffian life of the camp and burdened with the grave task of subduing a desperate nation, he was free of disfigurements. His brows were knitted as if to give his full soft eyes protection and the frown, with the laughing cut of his youthful lips, gave his face a quizzical expression that was entirely winning. In countenance and figure he was handsome, refined and thoroughly Roman. The little shepherd was won to him instantly. Without knowing that the world from one border to the other had already named this charming young Roman the Darling of Mankind, the little shepherd, had his lips been shaped to poetry, would have called him that.

So Joseph, the shepherd, son of Thomas, the Christian, and Titus, son of Vespasian, Emperor of the World, looked at each other with perfect fellowship.

|Those are sheep from Pella,| Joseph said soberly, |in my care. They were taken from me because,| he paused till a more tactful statement should suggest itself, but, lacking it, drove ahead with spirit, |there was not more of me to stop your soldiers.|

|I believe you,| Titus replied heartily. |But that is the fortune of war. Still, you Jews have a habit of refusing to accept defeat rationally.|

|I am not a Jew,| Joseph explained. |I am born of Arab blood, and I am a Christian.|

|Worse and worse,| said Titus.

Joseph shifted his position argumentatively.

|Is it?| he asked. |Are you making war on Pella or Jerusalem? Was it Pella or the hundred Jewish towns that cost Rome so much of late? Pella is not exactly your friend, though neither are most of your provinces; but are you going to pillage Egypt or Persia because Judea is in rebellion?|

Titus threw his plump leg over the horn of his saddle and sat sidewise. One of his tribunes looked at the other with a flickering smile that was not entirely free of contempt. But his fellow returned a stare that for immobility would have done credit to the Memnon.

|Now,| Titus began, |I have heard of this fault in the Christians. They don't understand warfare.|

|We don't,| Joseph declared bluntly. |We do not see why you should take my sheep to feed your army, when we have had nothing to do with bringing your army over here. We haven't cost you one drop of Roman blood or one denarius of Roman money, and yet you are taking at one act the whole of our substance and punishing us for the misdeeds of others -- others whom you haven't succeeded in punishing yet.|

|That is bad judgment,| Titus said, frowning at the last sentence.

|Unpleasant truth always is,| Joseph retorted.

One of the tribunes laughed impulsively and Titus looked around at him reproachfully.

|Come, come, Carus,| he said.

|Thy pardon, Caesar,| the tribune replied, |but we'll be whipped in this wordy battle. And even a small defeat were an unpropitious sign on this expedition.|

|To Hades with your signs! If I am whipped with six hundred back of me, I ought to be! Boy, we have your sheep by conquest; you will have to take them back the same way.|

Joseph's face fell.

|I have had them since I was nine years old. I've tended them since they were lambs and their mothers before them. It is like surrendering so many children,| he said dejectedly. |In truth I can fight for them even if it be but to lose, and I am bidden not to fight at that.|

|By Hector, that is not a Jewish tenet!| Titus exclaimed.

Joseph said nothing. He stood still in the path of the Roman six hundred with his curly head sunk on his breast. There was silence.

|Is it?| Titus demanded uncomfortably.

|No; and for that reason you are still fighting them and will fight and lose and lose and lose, before you win. Still, it is no safeguard not to fight you; you take our substance anyhow. Be we peace-lovers or not, there is warfare; if we do not fight we are fought against.|

Titus thrust his helmet back from his full front of intensely black curls and wiped his forehead.

|The sun is hot in these hills,| he said disjointedly to the tribune he had called Carus, |and the wind is cold. Uncomfortable climate.|

Carus said nothing.

|Is it not?| Titus demanded irritably.

|Very,| Carus observed hastily.

The little shepherd stood in the road and the six hundred were silent.

|Well,| said Titus with a tone of finality, |you never remember the wrongs the strong man endured -- wrongs that the weak man did him because of his weakness.|

|It never hurts the strong man,| Joseph said softly, |to give the weak one another chance.|

Titus closed his lips at that, and the tribune who had smiled sarcastically looked with sudden intent at Carus. Carus silently moved his horse to the sarcastic tribune's side with such threatening expression on his face that the other discreetly held his peace.

|Perhaps,| Titus said thoughtfully, but the boy failed to see more in that word than the simple expression. In his search for some further plea that would give him his sheep again, the presence of the young Roman appealed to him with hope. Surely one so young and laughing, so ready to stop an army to argue with a child, could not be beyond reach of persuasion. With the simple frankness so innocent of guile as to make charming that which upon other lips would have been the broadest insincerity, he put that moment's thought into words.

|I thought,| he said slowly, |because your horse is so white and your dress so golden and your face so beautiful that I would have but to ask -- and I would have my sheep again.|

Titus looked at him, not with the idea that his compliment was effective, but with the thought that the boy was yet too young to have lost faith in attractive things; that another than himself would have to teach the shepherd that lesson in disappointment.

|Have you examined these sheep for disease, Sergius?| he demanded, with a show of severity. |I never saw a flock in this country that was not full of peril for the cavalry.|

Sergius, wisely catching excuse in this demand, saluted.

|I did not,| he replied.

|So? Well, do it hereafter. Go stop those legionaries and turn loose that flock. We lost five hundred horse in Caesarea for just such negligence.|

Joseph flung up his head, his eyes sparkling, his cheeks aglow, his whole figure alive with a gratitude so potent that it was painful. Titus, with the deep tide of a blush crawling over his forehead, scowled down at this joy.

|Look well,| he continued severely to Sergius, |and if they are healthy -- |

But Joseph laughed and stepped out of the young general's path.

|And,| said Titus, his face clearing before that laugh as he directed his words to the little shepherd, |Jerusalem shall have another chance.|

Transfiguration brightened the small dusky face. He put up his hands for that blessing that was a part of his farewell.

|May my God supply all thy need according to his riches in glory, by Jesus Christ. Amen!|

Titus, with a bowed head, touched his horse, and in response to a silent flash of an uplifted sword the picked six hundred of Caesar's army rode on in the subdued thunder of hoof and the music of jingling harness toward Jerusalem.

After a long time there came the quick patter of a running flock and the multitudinous complaint of lambs, and up from the east rushed the mob of sheep. Behind them trotting comfortably were the mounted scouts. The ten privates wore scornful countenances highly expressive of their contempt for the unwarlike restitution they had been forced to make, but as they rode past when the sheep swept out of the road to their tender, Sergius, the decurion, dropped back and with his tongue in his cheek made such jovial threatening signs that the little shepherd laughed again.

The squad galloped after the main body and were lost to view. Many of the Jews called to the little shepherd, but after a time travel was resumed on the road and deep monotonous composure settled upon the valley again.

But Joseph, the Christian, turned into the high grass of the meadow with bowed head and clasped hands.

|Lord Jesus, what may I do for Thee?| he asked impulsively.

He stopped suddenly. At his feet lay the silent sleeper in the grass. On the tall growth upstanding about the prostrate form were clear shining scarlet drops. The little shepherd turned white and threw himself down on his knees beside the still figure and put his hand over the heart. Then he lifted his face to the skies.

|I was sick and ye visited me,| he whispered radiantly.

[Illustration: He threw himself down by the still figure.]

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