Arria and her mother sat with the emperor. He was at home and in a playful humor. The hour of his banquet was approaching. Soon he would be summoned to receive his guests.
|Nay, but I am sure he loves me,| the girl was saying.
The cunning emperor smiled and spoke very gently. |Think you so, dear child? I will put him to the test. Soon we shall know if he be worthy of so great a prize. I will try both his wit and his devotion, but you -- you cannot be here.|
|And why, great father?|
|Think you it could be a test with your eye upon him?|
|Oh, but I must see it,| said the girl. |Unless I see it I shall not know. Let me be your slave and stand behind you in gray cloth. Beloved father, I implore you, let me see the test.|
|Ah, well,| said the emperor, rising, with a smile. |I shall know nothing but that you have gone above-stairs to find Clia, mistress of the robes. Tell her to give you a box of tablets, and when I raise my finger -- so -- they are to be delivered. Away with you.|
Arria left with a cry of joy, and presently Augustus went with the Lady Lucia to meet his guests.
The |commands| of the emperor had given the hour of the banquet and prescribed the dress to be worn. Vergilius had waited anxiously for the moment when he should again see the great god of Rome, who could give or take away as he would. Standing at the door of Caesar, he wondered whether he were nearing the end of all pleasure or the gate of paradise. A plate of polished brass hung on its lintel, bearing in large letters the word Salve. A slave opened the door and took his pallium. Julia, that wayward daughter of Augustus, now three times married but yet beautiful, met him in the inner hall, and together they walked to the banquet-room. There the emperor, limping slightly, came to meet Vergilius, and there, also, were the guests, seven in number: Appius and his mother, the Lady Lucia; Terentia, wife of the late Maecenas; Manius, an assessor in Judea; Hortensius, legate of Spain; Antipater, son of Herod the Great; and Aulus Valerius Maro, the senator.
|It enters my thought to say to you,| said the emperor, aside, as he put his hand upon the shoulder of Vergilius, |keep the number one in your mind, so that by-and-by you can tell me what you make of it.|
Slaves had covered the table with fish and fowl in dishes of unwrought silver. The guests reclined upon three great divans set around as many sides of the table. They ate resting on their elbows, and were so disposed that each could see the host without turning. The emperor asked only for coarse bread, a morsel of fish, two figs, and a bit of cheese.
|My good friends,| said he, in a low voice, when the wine was served, |we have with us an able officer in this young Manius, one of our assessors in Jerusalem. I ask you to drink his health. Though I can drink no wine, I can feel good sentiments.|
One could not help remarking his fixed serenity of face and voice and manner as he went on:
|Some time ago it came to my ear that he thought me a tyrant wallowing in vulgar and ill-gotten luxury.|
There was a little stir in those heads around the table, and in every hand and face one might have seen evidence of quickened pulses. The young officer was now staring through deathly pallor.
|My friends, it is not strange,| said the great Augustus, mildly. |To Jerusalem is quite two thousand miles; and, then he was very young when he left the home of his fathers. Am I not right, Manius?|
|Your words are both true and kindly,| said the young man.
|And you are discerning,| said the emperor, with a smile. |Now, good people, observe that I have invited our young officer to Rome for two purposes: to show him, first, that I live no better than the poorest nobleman; secondly, that I am only a servant of the people; for, since he is an able officer, I shall resist my own will and keep him in the public service.|
|Bravo!| said they all, and clapped their hands.
A strange, inscrutable man was the emperor at that moment, the mildness of a lamb in his voice and manner, the gleam of a serpent's eye under his brows. And that right hand of his, clinched now and quivering a little, had it grasped a reaching, invisible serpent within him? Kindly? Yes, but with the kindness of a deep and subtle character who saw in forbearance the best politics and the most effective discipline. Lights were now aglow in a great candelabrum over the table and in many tall lampadaria.
A slave, who was a juggler, came near and began to fill the gloom above him with golden disks. From afar came the music of flutes and timbrels. Julia retired presently, and returned soon with her pet dwarf Cenopas. She stood him on a large, round table, and the guests greeted him with loud laughter as he looked down. He had a hard, unlovely face, that little dwarf. He suggested to Vergilius unwelcome thoughts of a new sort of Cupid -- deformed, evil, and hideous -- typifying the degenerate passions of Rome. There were in the quiver of this Cupid arrows which carried the venom of the asp. Some at the table mocked his grinning face and made a jest of his deformity. When he could be heard he mimicked the speech and manners of public men.
|A Cupid with a knot in his back,| said one.
|And if I were to aim an arrow at you,| said the dwarf, quickly, |I'm sure you'd have a pain in yours.|
|My dear,| said the gentle-mannered emperor, when the laughter had died away, |I think we shall now give him the crown of folly and let him go.|
|Between the greatest and the least of Romans,| said his daughter, rising and pointing at her father and then at the dwarf, |I am lost in mediocrity.|
A slave took the little creature in his arms and bore him away as if he had been a pet dog.
|Tell me, young men,| said the emperor, |have you no lines to read us -- you that have youth and beauty and sweethearts? How is it with you, good Vergilius?|
The young man shook his head. |No,| said he; |I have youth and a sweetheart, but not the gift of poesy.|
|No lines! What are we coming to in this Rome of ours? Are there no more poets? My dear friends, tell me, in the baths or the forum or the theatre, or wherever the people congregate, do you hear of no youth that has the divine gift of song?|
He paused for a little, but there was no reply.
|Then Rome is in evil days,| said the great father, sadly.
|Why?| It was the question of Gracus.
|Why, young man? Because in every land there should be those who can cherish the fear of the gods and make honor beautiful and love sacred and valor a thing of imperishable fame. I assure you, good people, one poet is better,| he paused, thoughtfully -- |than ten thousand soldiers,| he added. |Who will bring me a poet?|
The gods are indeed helpless, thought Vergilius. They must have poets to do their work for them? But he said nothing.
|The streets are full of poets,| said Gracus.
|Those old men with long beards and stilted rubbish!| said Augustus, |with tragedies that slay the hero and the hearer! Bring me a poet, and, remember, I shall honor him above all men. Once I invited Horace to dine with me, and got no answer. He was a proud man| -- this with a merry smile. |Again I invited him, and then he deigned to write me a sentence, merely, and said: 'Thanks, I am happy out here on my farm.' I did not know what to do, but I wrote a letter and said to the great man: 'You may not desire my friendship, but that is no reason for my failing to value yours.' I am proud to say that he was my friend ever after. But I weary you.|
A female slave, thickly veiled, stood behind him. He made a signal and she quickly put in his hand a little box of ivory, finely wrought.
|I have here,| said the great father, |nine disks of wax. You see they are very small, but so they shall serve my purpose the better. Will each of you take one and retire from the table and write upon it the thing he most desires? Now, my dear friends, brevity is ever as the point of the lance. Wit is blunt and Truth half armed without it. I lay a test upon you.|
All retired quickly, and, soon returning, dropped their wishes in the box. The playful emperor closed and shook it and withdrew a disk.
|I find here the word 'preference,'| said he, and all observed that his keen eyes were calmly measuring the prince Antipater. |It is a poor word, and does you little honor, my young friend. In mere preference there is no merit. Here is another, and it says 'more wine.' Keep his goblet full,| he added, pointing to that of the senator, as all laughed. |Here is one says 'rest.' Have patience, my good daughter, I shall soon be done talking. Another has on it the words 'your health' -- a charming compliment, dear Lady Lucia. 'Courage,' 'wisdom,' 'success,'| he added, reading from the tablets. |Naturally, and who, indeed, does not desire those things? Here is one that says 'help' -- a great word, upon my soul! He that prays for help and not for favor, if he do his best, may have many good things -- even 'courage,' 'wisdom,' 'success.' Keep at work and you shall have my help, Appius, and, I doubt not, that of the gods also. Here is one -- I like it best of all -- it is that of the modest young Vergilius. He would have a priceless thing. And do you,| he inquired, turning to the young knight, |desire this above all things? Think; there is the distinction of place and power and honor -- the ring of a legate would become you well!|
|But, above all,| said Vergilius, |I desire that I have written.|
|Beautiful boy!| said the cunning emperor. |'Tis so great a prize, give me another test of your quality. With one word you ask for one thing. To try your wit, I give you a theme so small it is next to naught -- the number one. Tell us, and briefly as you may, what is in it.|
The young man rose and bowed low. |One is in all numbers,| said he, |and unless all numbers are as one they are nothing. I desire one mistress for my heart, one purpose for my conduct, and one great master for my country.|
|The gods grant them!| said Augustus, leading the applause.
|And now I shall proclaim the word he has written. It is 'Arria,' and stands, I know well, for the sister of Appius.|
He turned quickly to the still and silent figure of the slave behind him. All eyes were now watching her.
|Are you content?| he inquired.
Gray veil and robe fell away, revealing the beautiful sister of Appius. Vergilius went quickly to her side.
|I declare them for each other!| said the emperor, as all rose and gathered around the two. He took the boy's hand. |Come to me at ten to-morrow,| he added.
|But, O father of Rome!| said Arria, looking up at the great man, |how long shall you detain him?|
|Give me half an hour, you love-sick maiden,| said Augustus. |He shall be at your palace in good time.|
|Come at the middle hour,| said the Lady Lucia, her hand upon the arm of Vergilius.
|The gods give you sleep,| said the great father, as he bade them good-night.
Beneath the laurels on their way to the gate, Gracus, who rode with Antipater, said:
|And what of your oath, son of Herod?|
|But they are not yet married,| the other answered, malevolently. |Vergilius! Bah! He is the son of a praetor and I am the son of a king. Curse the old fox! He never spoke to me after greetings, and once when I glanced up at him I thought his keen eyes were looking through me.
|Those eyes! Jupiter!| said Gracus, |they drop a plummet into one.|