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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 3 |He is more honored than Jupiter these days,| the philosopher was saying as Vergilius re-entered.à

|He is more honored than Jupiter these days,| the philosopher was saying as Vergilius re-entered.

|Who?| inquired the young man.

|Who else but Caesar, and it is well. The gods -- who are they?|

|The adopted children of Vergil and Homer,| said Appius, brother of Arria, who had just returned from the baths.

|But our great father Augustus -- who can doubt that he deserves our worship?| said the philosopher, a subtle irony in his voice. It was this learned man who had long been the instructor of Vergilius.

|Who, indeed?| was the remark of another.

|But these gods!|

|At least they are not likely to cut off one's head,| said Aulus.

|Speak not lightly of the gods,| said Vergilius. |They are still a power with the people, and the people have great need of them. What shall become of Rome when the gods fall?|

|It shall sicken,| said the philosopher, with a lift of his hand. |You that are young may live to see the end. It shall be like the opening of the underworld. Our republic is false, our gods are false, and, indeed, I know but one truth.|

|And what may it be?| said another.

|We are all liars,| he quickly answered.

|O tempora!| said the Lady Lucia. |It is an evil day, especially among men. When Quinta Claudia went with her noble sisters to meet the Idaean mother at Terracina they were able to find in Rome one virtuous man to escort them. But that was more than two hundred years ago.|

|If one were to find him now, and he were to go,| said the philosopher, |by the gods above us! I fear he would return a sad rake indeed.|

|'Tis not a pleasant theme,| said the Lady Lucia, by way of introducing another.

|The dear old girl!| said young Gracus, in a low tone, as he turned to the senator. |Her hair is a lie, her complexion is a lie, her lips are a lie.|

|And her life is a lie,| said the other.

|You enjoyed your walk?| asked the mother of Arria, addressing Vergilius.

|The walk was a delight to me and its end a sorrow,| he answered.

|And you obeyed me?|

|To the letter.| It is true, he thought, we are a generation of liars, but how may one help it? Then, quickly, a way seemed to suggest itself, and he added: |Madame, forgive me. I do now remember we had a word or two about love; but, you see, I was telling the legend of this coin. It has the power to show one if he be loved.|

|By tossing?|

|By tossing. Head, yes; the reverse, no.|

|Let me try.| She flung it to the oaken beams and it fell on the great rug beside her.

|Madame, the hand is up,| said Vergilius. |I fear it is not infallible.|

|Let me see,| she answered, stooping gravely to survey the coin. Something passed between her and her pleasure, and for one second a shadow wavered across her face.

|It is Death's hand, of course,| she remarked, sadly. |Love is for the young and death is for the old.|

|Old, madame! Why, your cheeks have roses in them.|

|Good youth, you are too frank,| said she, with a quick glance about her. |Did the coin say that she loved you?|

|It did.|

|And what did she say?|

The young man hesitated.

|Come, you innocent! Of course, I knew that you would talk of nothing but love. What said she?|

|That she does not love me; but I am sure it is mere coquetry.|

|Dear youth! You have a cunning eye. This very day speak, my brave Vergilius -- speak to her brother Appius. To-night take him to dine with you.|

|I had so planned.|

A gong of silver rang in the palace halls. It was the signal to prepare for dinner, and the guests made their farewells. Soon Appius and the young lover walked side by side in the direction of the Palatine.

|And what have you been doing?| the former inquired, presently.

|Only dreaming.|

|Of what?|

|Of love and happiness, and your sister.|

|My sister?|

|Yes; I love her and wish to make her my wife.|

|You have wealth and birth and wit and good prospects. I can see no objection to you. But love -- love is a thing for women to talk about.|

|You are wrong, Appius. I can feel it in my soul. And, believe me, I am no longer in Rome. I have found the gateway of a better world -- like that heaven they speak of in the Trastevere -- full of peace and beauty.|

|You have, indeed, been dreaming,| said the other. |But, Vergilius, there is one higher than I who shall choose her husband -- the imperator. Does he know you?|

|I have met him, of course, but do much fear he would not remember me.|

|We may know shortly. Every seventh day this year he has sat, like a beggar, at his gate asking for alms. To-day we shall see him there.|

|It is an odd whim.|

|Hush! you know the people as well as I, and he must please them,| the other whispered. |He must conceal his power if he would live out his time. I will present you, and perhaps he may be gracious -- ay, may even bid you to his banquet.|

|A modest home,| said young Vergilius.

Now they were nearing the palace of that mild and quiet gentleman whose name and title -- Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus -- had terrified the world; whose delicate hands flung the levin of his power to the far boundaries of India and upper Gaul, to the distant shores of Spain and Africa, and into deserts beyond the Euphrates.

|Many a poor patrician has better furniture and more servants and a nobler palace,| said Appius. |Rather plain wood, divans out of fashion, rugs o'erworn; but you have seen them. He alone can afford that kind of thing.|

|He has a fondness for old things.|

|But not for old women, my dear fellow.|

|Indeed! And he is himself sixty-one.|

|Hist -- the imperator! There, by the gate yonder.|

An erect figure of a man rather above medium height, in a coarse, gray toga, stood by one of the white columns. Three Moorish children were playing about his knees, and a senator was talking with him.

|My public services are familiar to you,| said the senator, as the young knights waited some twenty paces off. |A gift of two hundred thousand denarii would be fitting, and, if you will permit me to say so, it would delight the populace. Indeed, 'tis generally believed you have already given me a large sum.|

|But see that you do not believe it,| blandly spake the strange emperor, for albeit Rome was then a republic in name it was an empire in fact, and Augustus, wielding the power of an emperor, refused the title. Turning, he began to play with the children.

|Great and beloved father! I hope, at least, you will consider my prayer.|

|Good senator, I have considered. You ask for two hundred thousand denarii. I can give you only the opportunity of earning them. As to myself, I am poor. Look at me. Even my time belongs to the people. and it is passing, my dear senator -- it is passing.|

The importunate man saw the subtle meaning in these words and went his way.

The emperor sat down, a child upon each knee, as the young men approached him. His head was bare and his fair, curly locks, growing low upon his forehead, were now touched with gray. He looked up at the two, his eyes blue, brilliant, piercing.

|My beloved Appius,| said he, in a gentle tone, as he rose. |And this -- let me think -- ah, it is Vergilius, the son of Varro.|

|It is wonderful you should remember me,| said Vergilius.

|Wonderful? No. I could tell your age, your misdeeds, your virtues, and how often you failed to answer the roll-calls in Cappadocia. Well, I dare say they were pretty girls. But I forget; I am to-day seeking alms, my good children, for the poor of Rome. I am as ten thousand of the hungry standing before you here and asking for bread. In their name I shall receive, thankfully, what you may bestow.|

Appius gave a handful of coins; Vergilius emptied his purse.

|'Tis not enough,| said the latter. |Your words have touched me. To-night I shall send five thousand denarii to your palace.|

|Well given, noble youth! It is generous. I like it in you. Say that I may have you to feast with me the first day before the ides -- both of you. Say that I may have you.|

|We humbly wait your commands,| said Vergilius, kissing his hand.

|Now tell me, handsome son of Varro, have you found no pretty girl to your liking? Know you not, boy, 'tis time you married?| He held the hand of the young knight and spoke kindly, his cunning eyes aglow, and smiled upon him, showing his teeth, set well apart.

|Such an one I have found, good sire. Under the great purple dome there is none more beautiful, and with your favor and that of the gods I hope to make her my wife.|

|Ah, then, I know her?|

|It is Arria, sister of Appius.|

|And daughter of my beloved prefect. You are ambitious, my good youth.|

The emperor stood a moment, looking downward thoughtfully. He felt his retreating chin. His smooth-shaven face, broad from bone to bone above the cheeks, quickly grew stern. His mind, which had the world for its toy and which planned the building or the treading down of empires, had turned its thought upon that little kingdom in the heart of the boy. And he was thinking whether it should stand or fall.

|It may be impossible,| said he, turning to the young man. |Say no more to her until -- until I have thought of it.|

And Appius observed, as he went away with his friend: |You will be a statesman, my dear Vergilius; you gave him just the right dose of religion, flattery, and silver.|

|I must succeed or I shall have no heart to live,| said the other, soberly.

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