Now there were few barriers between the emperor and the people. He went to work in his study at an early hour and gave a patient hearing to any but foolish men. This morning he had been reading a long address from the legate of Syria. He had a way of dividing his thought between reading and small affairs of the state. His legate recited all he had been able to learn of the new king they were now expecting in Judea. He told also of a plot which had baffled all his efforts and which aimed to take the life of Herod and crown the king of prophecy and divine power.
|We must have a spy of noble blood and bearing, of unswerving fidelity and honor, and with some knowledge of the religion of Judea,| said the legate. |Of course, you will not be able to find him, for where in all the world, save yourself, good father, is there such a man?|
Augustus dropped the sheet of vellum and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
|How about this young Vergilius -- the handsome, clever, woman-loving Vergilius?| he thought. Then for a moment the cunning emperor laughed silently.
Ever since he began to read the letter he had been conversing with his daughter Julia.
|If you can propose a better candidate for the girl, I -- | he paused, looking intently at the letter -- |I shall consider him,| he added, presently.
|She is beautiful,| his daughter whispered. |I know one who will give to the state many thousand aurei.|
|No need of hurry. The young Vergilius will give what is better than money, and then -- |
The emperor paused again.
|And then?| it was the inquiry of Julia.
|He will forget her and she will grow weary and yield. There's time enough, and time| -- he took a little mirror from the table and looked down upon it -- |can accomplish many things,| he added. |It will have the assistance of fame and honor and new faces. Now go, I beg of you, and leave me to my work.|
A delegation of Jews -- petty merchants of the Trastevere -- were leaving as Vergilius entered. The emperor, now alone save for his young caller, rose and gave him a sprig of laurel.
|Sit here,| said he, resuming his seat and pausing for a little to study a sheet of vellum in his hands. He continued, without raising his eyes: |I have another test for you, my fair son. You shall be assistant procurator in Jerusalem, with rank of tribune. It may be you shall have command of the castle. Three days from now take the south road with Manius and a troop of horse. This court of Herod -- of course, I am speaking kindly, my dear Vergilius -- but, you may know, it is a place of mysteries, and there are many things I do not need to say to you.|
The old emperor, leaning forward, touched the arm of the young man and gave him a cunning glance.
|A cipher,| he added, passing the sheet of vellum. |It will be known to you and to me only. You will understand what I wish to know. You shall have command of a cohort.|
Vergilius thought for a second of that strange overhauling of Manius the night before, and of the shrewdness of the great father in returning him, kindly, to his task, with a pair of eyes to keep watch of him.
|With all my heart I thank you,| said the young knight. |But -- my beloved father -- I was hoping to marry and -- and know the path of peace.|
|But I am sure you will wait two years -- only two years,| said the other, rising with extended hands. |There is time enough; and remember, whether to peace or war, your path is that of duty. Farewell!|
It was a way he had of commanding, kindly but inexorable, and Vergilius knew it. Again he spoke as the knight turned away.
|This young Antipater -- do you know him?|
|But, possibly, well enough,| said the emperor, with a knowing look. Then, casually: |Oh, there is yet a little matter -- that new king the Jews are looking for -- if he should come, I suppose he will report to me, but -- but let me know what you learn. Study the Jewish faith and discover what this hope is founded upon.| Then he turned quickly and went away.
This |little matter| counted much with the shrewd emperor. Kings were his puppets, and if there were to be a new one he must, indeed, consider what to do with him. Yet he had shame of his interest in |that foolish gossip| of an alien race. Therefore he put it only as a trifling after-thought. But he had a way of talking with his eyes, and the alert youth read them well.
That elation of the young lover now had its boundary of thoughtfulness. Going down the Palatine, he was also descending his hill of happiness. Below him, in the Forum, he could see the golden mile-stone of Augustus, now like a pillar of fire in the sunlight; he could see the beginning of those many roads radiating from it to far peripheries of the empire. Tens of thousands had turned their backs upon it, leaving with slow feet, some to live in distant, inhospitable lands, some to die of fever and the sword, some to return forgotten of their kindred, and some few with laurels of renown; but all of these many who went away were leaving, for long or forever, love and home and peace.
|The army is sucking our blood, and Hate grows while Love is starving,| Vergilius reflected, as he went along, while a hideous, unwelcome thought grew slowly, creeping over him. This golden mile-stone was the centre of a great spider-web laced by road and sea way to the far corners of the empire; and that cunning, alert man -- who was he but the spider?
|And I -- what am I, now, but one of his flies caught in the mighty web?| he thought. |Love and its peace have come to me and I shall know them -- for three days -- and perhaps no longer.|
His wealth and rank and influence might, if used with diplomacy, have kept him at home, for, after all, he was a Varro; but Arria had been used to press him into bondage.
|Another test!| he said to himself. |Ah, what a cunning old fox! He needed a spy, and one of character and noble blood. How well he tested my cleverness! And now I am his, body and soul.|