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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER 4 That evening Vergilius went to feast with the young Herodian princeà

Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 4 That evening Vergilius went to feast with the young Herodian princeà

That evening Vergilius went to feast with the young Herodian prince, Antipater of Judea. The son of Herod was then a tall, swarthy, robust young man, who had come to see life in Rome and to finish his education. He would inherit the crown -- so said they who knew anything of Herodian politics; but he was a Jew, and deep in the red intrigue of his father's house. So, therefore, he was regarded in Rome with more curiosity than respect. Augustus himself had said that he would rather be the swine of Herod than Herod's son, and he might have added that he would rather be the swine of Antipater than his father. But that was before Augustus had learned that even his own household was unworthy of full confidence.

Antipater had brought many slaves to Rome, and some of the noblest horses in the empire. He had hired a palace and built a lion-house, where, before intimates, he was wont to display his courage and his skill. It had a small arena and was in the midst of a great garden. There he kept a lion from northern Africa, a tiger, and a black leopard from the Himalayas. He was training for the Herodian prize at the Jewish amphitheatre in Caesarea. These great, stealthy cats in his garden typified the passions of his heart. If he had only fought these latter as he fought the beasts he might have had a better place in history.

Antipater had conceived a great liking for the sister of Appius. Her beauty had roused in him the great cats of passion now stalking their prey. He had sworn to his intimates that no other man should marry her. His gallantry was unwelcome, he knew that, and Appius had assured him that a marriage was impossible; but the wild heart of the Idumean held to its purpose. And now its hidden eyes were gazing, catlike, on Vergilius, the cause of its difficulty. In Judea he would have known how to act, but in Rome he pondered.

It had been a stormy day in the palace of Antipater. He had crucified a slave for disobedience and run a lance through one of his best horses for no reason. He came out of his bath a little before the hour of his banquet, and two slaves, trembling with fear, followed him to his chamber. They put his tunic on him, and his sandals, and wound the fillets that held them in place. One of the slaves began brushing the dark hair of his master while the other was rubbing a precious ointment on his face and arms.

|Fool!| he shouted. |Have I not told you never to bear upon my head?|

He jumped to his feet, black eyes flashing under heavy brows, and, seizing a lance, broke the slave's arm with a blow and drove him out of the chamber. A few minutes later, in a robe of white silk and a yellow girdle, he came into his banquet-hall with politeness, dovelike, worshipful, and caressing.

|Noble son of Varro!| said he, smiling graciously, |it is a joy to see you. And you, brave Gracus; and you, Aulus, child of Destiny; and you, my learned Manius; and you, Carus, favored of the Muses: I do thank you all for this honor.|

It was a brilliant company -- gay youths all, who could tell the new stories and loved to sit late with their wine. As they waited for dinner many tempting dishes were passed among them. There were oysters, mussels, spondyli, fieldfares with asparagus, roe-ribs, sea-nettles, and purple shellfish. When they came to their couches, the dinner-table was covered with rare and costly things. On platters of silver and gold one might have seen tunny fishes from Chalcedon, murcenas from the Straits of Gades, peacocks from Samos, grouse from Phrygia, cranes from Melos. Slaves were kept busy bringing boar's head and sow's udder and roasted fowls, and fish pasties, and boiled teals. Other slaves kept the goblets full of old wine. Soon the banquet had become a revel of song and laughter. Suddenly Antipater raised a calix high above his head.

|My noble friends,| he shouted, |I bid you drink with me to Arria, sister of Appius, and fairest daughter of Rome -- |

Vergilius had quickly risen to his feet. |Son of Herod,| said he, with dignity, |I am in your palace and have tasted of your meat, and am therefore sacred. You make your wine bitter when you mingle it with the name of one so pure. Good women were better forgotten at a midnight revel.|

A moment of silence followed.

|My intention was pure as she,| Antipater answered, craftily. |Be not so jealous, my noble friend. I esteem her as the best and loveliest of women.|

|Nay, not the loveliest,| said the young Manius, an assessor in Judea. |I sing the praise of Salome, sister of our noble prince. Of all the forms in flesh and marble none compare with this beautiful daughter of the great king.|

|May fairest women be for the best men,| said Antipater, drinking his wine.

In a dim light along the farther side of the dining-hall was a row of figures, some draped, some nude, and all having the look of old marble. Two lay in voluptuous attitudes, one sat on a bank of flowers, and others stood upon pedestals.

There were all the varying forms of Venus represented in living flesh. None, save Antipater and the slaves around him, knew that under each bosom was a fearful and palpitating heart. They were beautiful slave-girls captured on the frontiers of Judea. In spite of aching sinew and muscle, they had to stand like stone to escape the observation of evil eyes. There was a cruelty behind that stony stillness of the maidens, equal, it would seem, to the worst in Hades.

Slaves kept the wine foaming in every goblet, and fought and danced and wrestled for the pleasing of that merry company, and the hours wore away. Suddenly the sound of a lyre hushed the revels. All heard the voice of a maiden singing, and turned to see whence it came. A sweet voice it was, trembling in tones that told of ancient wrong, in words full of a new hope. Had life and song come to one of those white marbles yonder? Voice and word touched the heart of Vergilius -- he knew not why; and this in part is the chant that stopped the revels of Antipater:

|Lift up my soul; let me not be ashamed -- -I trust
in Thee, God of my fathers;
Send, quickly send, the new king whose arrows
shall fly as the lightning,
Making the mighty afraid and the proud to bow
low and the wicked to tremble.
Soon let me hear the great song that shall sound
in the deep of the heavens;
Show me the lantern of light hanging low in
the deep of the heavens.|

The voice of the singer grew faint and the lyre dropped from her hands. They could see her reeling, and suddenly she fell headlong to the rug beneath her pedestal. Antipater rose quickly with angry eyes.

|The accursed girl!| said he. |A Galilean slave of my father. She is forever chanting of a new king.|

Hot with anger and flushed with wine, he ran, cursing, and kicked the shapely form that lay fainting at the foot of its pedestal.

|Fool!| he shouted. |Know you not that I only am your king? You shall be punished; you shall enter the cage of the leopard.|

He went no further. Vergilius had rushed upon him and flung him to the floor. Antipater rose quickly and approached the young Roman, a devil in his eyes. Vergilius had a look of wonder and self-reproach.

|What have I done?| said he, facing the Jew. |Son of Herod, forgive me. She is your slave, and I -- I am no longer master of myself. I doubt not some strange god is working in me, for I seem to be weak-hearted and cannot bear to see you kick her.|

The declaration was greeted with loud laughter. Antipater stood muttering as he shook the skirt of his toga.

|'Tis odd, my goodfellows,| said Vergilius, |but the other day I saw a man scourging his lady's-maid. Mother of the gods! I felt as if the blows were falling on my own back, and out went my hand upon his arm and I begged him -- I begged him to spare the girl.|

All laughed again.

|You should have a doll and long hair,| said Antipater, in a tone of contempt.

The proud son of Varro stood waiting as the others laughed, his brows and chin lifting a bit with anger. When silence came he spoke slowly, looking from face to face:

|If any here dare to question my courage, within a moment it shall be proved upon him.|

None spoke or moved for a breath. Antipater answered, presently:

|I doubt not your courage, noble Vergilius, but if you will have it tried I can show you a better way, and one that will spare your friends. Come, all of you.|

As they were rising, the young Gracus remarked: |By Apollo! I have not taken my emetic.|

|To forget that is to know sorrow,| said another.

Slaves brought their outer robes and they followed the young prince. He led them, between vines and fruit trees and beds of martagon and mirasolus, to the lion-house in his garden. Vergilius now understood the test of courage to be put upon him. The great beasts were asleep in their cages, and Antipater prodded them with a lance. A thunder in their throats seemed to fill the air and shake the flames in the lampadaria. With sword and lance Antipater entered the arena, a space barred high, about thirty feet square, upon which all the cages opened.

|The tiger!| he commanded.

Keepers lifted a metal gate, and the huge cat leaped away from their lances, backed snarling to the end of his cage, and with a slow, creeping movement put his head and fore-paws into the arena; then a swift step or two, a lowering of the great head, and side-long he stood, with eyes aglow and fangs uncovered, a low mutter in his mouth, like the roar of a mighty harp-string. Some fifteen feet away stood the son of Herod, his lance poised.

|Never strike while your beast has a foot to the ground,| said he, keeping his gaze on the face of the tiger. |He will be quick to move and parry. Wait until he is in the air, and then thrust your lance.|

He made a feint with his weapon; the tiger darted half his length aside, with a great, bursting roar, and, crouching low, stealthily felt the ground beneath him.

|Watch him now,| said the tall Antipater. |He will leap soon.|

Again he drove him forward, and then the beast turned, facing his tormentor, and crouched low. There, in a huge setting of bone and muscle strangely fitted to its fierceness, with eyes of fire and feet of deadly stealth, its back arched like a drawn bow, the wild heart of the son of Herod seemed to be facing him.

|Look!| a slave shouted. |He has bent his bow.|

The haired lip of the beast quivered; great cords of muscle were drawn tense. Like a flash the bow sprang and the columns of bone beneath him lifted, flinging his long, striped body in the air. With cat-like swiftness Antipater stepped aside, and while the huge beast was in mid-air, thrust the lance into his heart. He bore with all his strength and rushed away, seizing an other weapon. The big cat fell and rose and struck at the clinging lance, and stood a second flooding the floor with blood. Then down he went shuddering to his death. The young men shouted loud their applause in honor of Herod's son. While the beast was dying slaves came and sanded the floor. Then, presently, they swept up the red sand, and tying a rope to the legs of the limp tiger, dragged him away. They had done this kind of work before, and each knew his part. Presently Antipater called two of them.

|Bring that girl Cyran -- she that chants of her new king,| said he, as they ran to do his bidding.

|Noble prince, the strange god is again at work in me,| said Vergilius, with rising ire. |I could not bear to see you put her with the leopard; I should rather face him myself.|

|You!| said the other, tauntingly, and with a shrewd purpose. The youths turned to see if Vergilius would really accept the challenge. No man had ever faced a black leopard at close quarters without suffering death or injury.

|I,| said Vergilius, promptly. |If it is amusement you desire, I can supply it as well as she. Surely I have more blood in me. If you wish only to feed the leopard -- will I not make a better feast?|

A sound hushed them. It was the slave-girl, singing as she came near:

|Send, quickly send, the new king whose arrows
shall fly as the lightning,
Making the mighty afraid and the proud to bow
low and the wicked to tremble.
Soon let me hear the great song that shall sound
in the deep of the heavens;
Show me the lantern of light hanging low in
the deep of the heavens.|

She was fair to look upon as she came, led by the carnifex, her form, draped in soft, transparent linen, like that of a goddess in its outline, her face lighted even with that light of which she sang.

|The girl against a hundred denarii that you cannot live an hour in the arena with him,| said Antipater, hotly.

|I accept the wager,| Vergilius calmly answered, laying off his robe and seizing a lance. He entered the arena and closed its gate behind him. |Drive the beast in upon me, son of Herod; and you, Gracus, be ready to hand me another lance.|

The black leopard spat fiercely and struck at the points that were put upon it, the deep rumble in its throat swelling into loud crescendos. Of a sudden it bounded through the gateway and stood a moment, baring great fangs. The animal threatened with long hisses. Vergilius held its eye, his lance raised. The hissing ceased, the growl diminished, the stealthy paws moved slowly. Soon it rolled upon its side, purring, and seemed to caress the floor with head and paws -- a trick to divert the gaze of Vergilius. The Satanic eyes were ever on its foe. As the beast lay there, twisting and turning, the black fur seemed to wrap it in the gloom of Tartarus, and the fire of the burning lake to shine through its eyes. While Vergilius stood motionless and alert, a slave hurriedly entered the lion-house and spoke to Antipater.

|The imperator!| whispered the slave. |He cannot wait; he must see you quickly.|

|Where?|

|In the palace hall.|

Antipater hurried away.

The slave-girl went close to the barred arena.

|Young master,| said she, in quick and eager words, |the lamps are burning dimmer. They will go out soon. It is a trick. You will not be able to see and the leopard will rend you.|

Antipater ran to the banquet-hall of his palace, where sat the emperor, his chin resting thoughtfully on his hand. The great Augustus did not look up nor even change his attitude as the son of Herod came near and bowed low and called him father.

|I have a plan,| said the emperor thoughtfully, | -- a pretty plan, my young prince of -- of -- |

|Judea?| suggested the young prince.

|Oh, well, it matters not,| the great father went on. |You know that fair Vergilius, son of Varro? A headstrong, foolish youth he is, and I fear much that he is like to die shortly. What think you?|

The piercing eyes of Augustus were looking into those of the young man.

|My great father,| said the latter, |I do not know.|

|'Tis gross ignorance and unworthy of you,| said Augustus, quickly, as he rose. |Well, I have bethought me of a pretty plan. Your funeral and his shall occur on the same day -- a fine, great, amusing funeral,| he added, thoughtfully. |It shall be so. Do not worry, I shall see you well buried. Ah, you are most impolite. Why do you not ask me to drink your health? My pretty prince, you look most ill and have need of my good wishes.|

|Dominus!| said the other, trembling with anxiety.

|Dominus!| the old emperor shouted, angrily. |Call me ass, if you dare, but never call me 'Dominus.'|

|You honor me, great father,| said the young man, his eyes staring with terror, |but I beg you to excuse me for a little time.|

|Ah, so you would leave me,| said the sly emperor, in his mildest tones. |A most inhospitable wretch, indeed.|

The tall Jew was now pale with fright. His feeling showed in great beads of perspiration. He dared not to stay; he dared not to go. He was in a worse plight than Vergilius, now standing in the leopard's cage.

|A most inhospitable prince,| the bland emperor repeated, smiling with amusement. |You are in a hurry?|

|I am ill.|

The emperor stood smiling as Antipater glided away.

|Run, you knave!| said the former to himself, with a chuckle of satisfaction. |Upon my soul! the Jew has already set his snare.|

Then the gentle and cunning man, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, made his way to the entrance where lecticarii were waiting with his litter.

|Can you hear the sound of running feet?| he inquired of the lady who sat beside him as they went away.

|Yes. What means it?|

He turned with a smile and a movement of his hand. Then he answered calmly:

|Death is chasing a man through the garden yonder.|

While Antipater was running towards the lion-house, that small tragedy of the arena was near its end.

The lights are burning low. Two have flickered for a little and gone out. The young men are watching with eager eyes.

|I can bear it no longer,| says one, rushing to the gate of the arena, only to find that he could not open it.

The slave-girl utters a cry and steps forward and is caught and held by the carnifex.

Vergilius urges the leopard. He steps quickly, feinting with his lance; the cat darts along the farther side of the arena, roaring. Its eyes glow fiery in the dusk. The beast is become furious with continued baiting. Half the lamps are out and the light rapidly failing as Antipater rushes through the door. He falls beside the arena, rises and opens the gate.

|A lance,| he whispers, and it is quickly put in his hands. |Come, come quickly, son of Varro,| he whispers again. |The light is failing. He will tear you into shreds. Come through the gate here.|

Vergilius had stopped, facing the leopard with lance raised.

|Not unless I have the wager,| says he, calmly.

|You have won it,| Antipater answers. |Come, good friend, be quick, I beg of you!|

Both moved backward through the gate, and before it closed there came a fling of claws on the floor. A black ball, bound hard with tightened sinew, rose in the air and shot across the arena and shook the gate which had closed in time to stop it.

|You are living, son of Varro, and I thank the God of my fathers,| Antipater shouted, as he flung himself on a big divan, his breath coming fast. |I forgot the lights. I thought of them suddenly, and ran to save you. If I had been running in the games I should have won the laurel of Caesar.|

|I was wrong -- he could not have meant to slay me,| thought Vergilius. |Not by the paws of the leopard.|

Cyran stood near the door, weeping. Antipater rose and led her to Vergilius.

|The girl is yours,| said he. |I am glad to be done with her. Come, all.|

They followed him to the palace, and Vergilius bade the girl dress and be ready to join his pedisequi in the outer hall. She knelt before him and kissed the border of his tunic.

|Oh, my young master!| said she, |I shall be of those who part the briers in your way.| Then she hurried to obey him.

|I would speak with you, noble son of Varro,| said Antipater, beckoning.

Vergilius followed to the deep atrium of the palace, where they stood alone.

|You have one thing I desire, and I will pay you five thousand aurei to relinquish it -- five thousand aurei,| the Jew whispered.

|And what is it you would buy of me, noble prince?|

|A mere plaything! A bouquet that will fade shortly and be flung aside. The thing happens to suit my fancy, and -- and I can afford it.|

In the moment of silence that followed this remark a stern look of inquiry came into the face of Vergilius.

|Man, do you not know? 'Tis the sister of Appius,| Antipater added, lightly.

|Cur of Judea!| hissed the knight, his sword flashing out of its scabbard, |I shall cut you down and fling you out to the dogs. Fight here and now. I demand it!|

The young Roman spoke loudly and stood waiting. Those others had heard the challenge and were now coming near. Antipater stood silent, glaring, as had the leopard, with an evil leer at his foe, and thinking no doubt of the warning of Augustus. The stiff, straight hairs in his mustache quivered as he turned slowly, watchfully, towards the others, who were now standing near. Since his funeral should occur on the same day, how could he fight with Vergilius?

|You dare not,| the latter added, fiercely; |and before these men I denounce you as a coward -- a coward who fears to raise a hand.|

His arm was extended, his finger at the face of the Jew, now white with passion. Half a moment passed in which there was no word.

|You living carrion!| said the young knight, turning and walking away. |I am done with you.|

He took the hand of the poor slave Cyran, and walked to the farther side of the atrium. He turned, still white with anger as if unsatisfied.

|Pet of harlots!| said he, fiercely. |It is time for some one to stand for the honor of good women. If you do but speak her name again before me I will run you through.|

Receiving no answer, he departed with Cyran, while the others gathered about their host.

There was a heavy rumble in the throat of Antipater -- a tiger-like, Herodian trait -- and then a volley of oaths came out of it. He trembled with rage and flung his sword far across the dim atrium with a shout of anger. Like the great cats in his rage, he was like them also in his methods of attack -- sly and terrible, but with a deep regard for the integrity of his own skin. Sure of his advantage, he could be as brave as when he faced the tiger.

He sat awhile muttering, his face between his hands. Soon, having calmed his passion, he rose and snarled: |Good sirs, never quarrel with the pet of an emperor, for if one spares you the other will not.|

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