While Vergilius, going slowly, was thinking of these things, Vanity, the only real goddess who, in Rome, managed the great theatre of fashion, had her stage set for a love scene. It was to occur in the triclinium, or great banquet-hall, of a palace -- that of the Lady Lucia. There were portrait-masks and mural paintings on either wall; ancestral statues of white marble stood in a row against the red wall; there were seats and divans of ebony enriched by cunning hands; lamp-holders of wrought metal standing high as a man's head, and immense violet rugs on the floor. The heroine wore a white robe banded low with purple, and her jewelled hair was in fillets of gold. There was always a pretty artfulness in the match-making of a patrician beauty and her mother. Indeed, life had grown far from elemental emotions.
|Now, when he enters,| said the girl, turning to the Lady Lucia, |I shall bring him here at once and sit down by this heap of cushions, and then -- Oh, god of my heart! What shall I do with that big man -- what shall I say to him?|
|My dear, he will speak, and then you will know what to say,| said the matron. |Only do not let him know that you love him -- at least, not for a time yet.|
|Too late; I fear he knows it now -- the wretch!| said Arria, rubbing her cheeks to make them glow.
|But mind you hold him off, and do not let him caress you for an hour at least. One kiss and one only.|
|One!| the girl repeated, with contempt. |How ungenerous are the old!|
|Hard to count are a lover's kisses,| her mother answered, with a sigh. |But you can use them up in a day. Really, you can use them up all in a day.|
|A day full of kisses! Oh, heart of me! Think of it!| said the beautiful girl, covering her face a moment. |I will not have the yellow cushions,| she added, quickly. |Here, take these and bring me two violet ones, and that cushion of gauze filled with rose leaves. I will have that in my lap when we are sitting here. Now what do you think of the colors?| she demanded.
|Beautiful! And best of all that in your cheeks. I doubt not he will worship you.|
|Or he is no kind of a man,| said Arria, thoughtfully. |Oh, son of Varro! come, I am waiting. If he takes me in his arms, what shall I do?|
|Thrust him aside -- tell him that you do not like it.|
|And what shall I do if he does not?|
|Bid him go at once. We have no need of any half-men.|
|But he will,| said the girl, with a worried look. |He shall embrace me -- he shall, or -- or I will bid my brother kill him. Oh, wretch!| She jumped to her feet with a merry cry. |I have an idea,| she added, clapping her hands. |When the sunlight falls on the floor yonder, I will get up and dance in it.|
|A pretty trick!| said her mother.
|Oh, son of Varro! why do you not come?| said the girl, impatiently. |I love him so I could die for him -- I could die for him! Perhaps he loves me not and I shall never see him again.|
She hurried to the outer court, whispering anxiously: |Come, son of Varro. Oh, come quickly, son of Varro!|
When Vergilius arrived Arria was waiting for him there in the court of the palace. Her white silk rustled as she ran to meet him. Her cheeks had the pink of roses and her eyes a glow in them like that of diamonds. She stopped as he came near, and turned away.
|Tears?| said he, leaning down, with his arms about her. |Oh, love, let me see your face!|
She turned quickly with a little toss of her head and took a step backward.
|You shall not call me love,| said she -- |not yet. You have not told me that you love me.|
|I told all who were at the palace of the great father.|
|But you have not told me, son of Varro.|
|I do love you.| He was approaching.
|Hush! Not now,| she answered, taking his hand in hers -- temporizing. |Come, I will race with you.|
She ran, leading him, with quick, pattering feet through an inner hall and up the long triclinium. There, presently, she threw herself upon the heap of cushions.
|Now, sit,| said she, draping her robe and then feeling her hair that was aglow with jewels.
A graceful and charming creature was this child of the new empire, a noble beauty in her face and form, the value of a small kingdom on her body. |Not so near,| said she, as he complied. |Now, son of my father's friend, say what you will and quickly.|
|I love you,| he began to say.
|Wait,| she whispered, stopping him as she turned, looking up and down the great hall. |It is for me alone. I will not share the words with any other. Now tell me -- tell me, son of Varro,| she whispered, moving nearer; |tell me at once.|
|I love you, sweet girl, above gods and men. You are more to me than crowns of laurel and gold, more than all that is in the earth and heavens. My heart burns when I look at you.|
He hesitated, pressing her hand upon his lips.
|Is that all?| said she, with a pretty sadness, looking down at the golden braces on her fan. |Now, say it again, all, slowly.|
She might as well have told a bird how he should sing.
He went on all unconscious of her command, his words lighted by the fire in his heart. They were as waters rippling in the sun-glow.
|Without you there is no light in the heavens, no beauty in the earth, no hope or glory in the future, no joy in my heart. My sword threatens me, dear love, when I think of losing you.|
She turned, quickly, with almost a look of surprise.
|It is beautiful,| said she, with a sigh; |but is there no more? Think, dear, noble knight; do think of more!|
She was near forgetting her plan. He took her in his arms and kissed her.
|Think -- think of more,| said she, |and I will dance the tourina.|
There was a note of gladness in her voice. It rang merry as a girdle of silver bells. Now, on the floor near them was a golden square of sunlight, and, tabret in hand, she sprang up and began to dance in it. She moved swiftly back and forth, her arms extended, her white robe flowing above the sapphires in each purple fillet on her ankles.
|Now, dear Vergilius, tell me, why do you love me?| she said, throwing herself upon the cushions near him with glowing cheeks.
|Because you are Arria. Because Arria is you. Because I must, for your pure and noble heart and for your beauty,| said he. |When I look upon you I forget my dreams of war and conquest; I think only of peace and love and have no longer the heart to slay. Oh, sweet Arria! I feel as if I should fling my swords into the Tiber.|
|Oh, my love! could I make you throw your swords into the Tiber I should be very happy.| Her eyes had turned serious and thoughtful. Her girlish trickery had come to an end. Vanity retired, now, and Love had sole command.
He put his arms about her and rained kisses upon her face, her hair, her eyes. |Say it all again, dear Vergilius -- say it a hundred times,| she whispered.
|My dear one, I love you more than I can say. Now am I prepared to speak in deeds, in faithfulness, in devotion.|
|But, once more, why do you love me? Why me?| said she, moving aside with an air of preoccupation, her chin resting upon her hand, her elbow upon the gauze pillow of rose leaves in her lap. |Is it my beauty more than myself?|
|No,| he answered; |your beauty is intoxicating, and I thank the gods for it, but your sweet self, your soul, is more, far more to me than your grace and all your loveliness.|
She had dreamed of such love but never hoped for it, and now all the pretty tricks she had thought of had become as the mummery of fools. She sat in silence for a little space, her eyes upon her girdle, and a new and serious look came into her face.
|I shall try, then,| said she, presently -- |I shall try to be noble. But shall you -- shall you truly throw your swords into the Tiber?|
|Would I might,| said he, sadly. |And now I must tell you -- | He paused, and Arria turned quickly, her lips trembling as her color faded.
|In three days I go to Jerusalem,| he added, |by command of the emperor.|
|For how long?| she whispered, her eyes taking years upon them as the seconds flew.
|For two years.|
Quickly she hid her face in the cushions and her body quivered. That old, familiar cry, which had in it the history and the doom of Rome, rang in the great halls around them -- that cry of forsaken women.
|The iron foot is upon us,| said he. |Do not let it tread you down as it has other women. Be my vestal and guard the holy fire of love.|
Then he told of Cyran, the slave-girl, and added: |I leave her in your care. Every day she will cause you to think of me.|