Arria met them in the atrium. She saw not the great father of Rome, but only her lover, and ran to him with a little cry of delight.
The playful emperor mounted a chair and stood looking down at them.
|I am so small here in the presence of this great king,| said he, as they turned to him. |Were my head as high as the ceiling I am sure I should not be seen.|
|What long, good father?| said Arria, bowing low.
|Love! 'Tis better, I have heard, to be ruler of one than of many. You give him kisses, little tyrant, and me not a glance.|
He looked down, smiling at the pretty maiden.
|Because 'tis he I love,| said she, her cheeks red with blushes, her eyes upon her sandals. |You -- you have been cruel.|
|I am sadly out of favor,| said Augustus, playfully, stepping to the floor. |If the great king dared, I am sure he would cut off my head, now. Let him not condemn me without trial. Remember the law of Rome.|
|You are sending my love away.| Her voice trembled as she spoke.
|And happy are you, sweet girl, to have so much to give to your country.|
There was a moment of silence. Then said the emperor: |Be merry. 'Tis not for long.|
|'Tis a thousand years!| said she, sadly.
He was fond of the young, and her frank innocence appealed to all best in the heart of the old emperor. He turned to greet the Lady Lucia.
|Come with me, son of Varro,| said Arria, taking the arm of her lover and leading him away. |It will soon be to-morrow.|
|And I am acquitted?| So spoke the emperor.
|You are condemned to the company of my mother,| said Arria, quickly.
She wore a tunic of the color of violets, with not a jewel. Now she led her lover to a heap of yellow cushions in the triclinium.
|Dear Vergilius,| said she, turning to him with a serious look as they sat down; |tell me again -- say to me again how you love me.| She held his hand against her cheek and her eyes looked into his.
|Oh, my beloved! I have thought of naught else since I saw you. I have heard your pretty feet and the rustle of your tunic in my dreams; I have felt the touch of your hands; every moment I have seen your face -- now glowing with happiness, now white and lovely with sorrow. And, dear, I love its sorrow -- I confess to you that I love its sorrow better than its happiness. I saw in your sad eyes, then, a thing dearer than their beauty. It told me that you felt as I feel -- that you would live and, if need be, die for the love of me.|
The girl listened thoughtfully, and moved close to her lover; he took her in his arms. She had dreamed of many things to say, but now she only whispered to him, her lips against his ear, the simple message: |I love you, I love you, I love you.| Then: |But I forgot,| said she, pushing him away, a note of fear in her voice. She straightened the folds of her tunic, and drew the transparent silk close to her full, white bosom. It was all unconscious as the trick of a wooing bird.
|And what did you forget?| he inquired.
|That you are you, and a man,| said she, sighing. |In some way it is -- it is such a pity, I dare not suffer you to caress me. And yet -- and yet, I do love it.|
|And your lips,| said he, embracing her, |they are to me as the gate of Elysium!|
|It may be we are now in the islands of the blest and know them not,| she whispered.
She tried to draw herself away.
|I will not let you go. Indeed, I cannot let you go.|
|And I am glad,| she answered, with a little laugh, her hand caressing his brow. |I do love the feel of your arms and your lips -- beautiful son of Varro!|
|I will not let you go until -- until you have promised to be my bride. Think, the term is only two years.|
|Be it one or many, I will be your bride,| said she. |And although you were never to return, yet would I always wait for you and think of this day.|
She drew herself away and sat thoughtful, her chin upon her hands.
|Now are you most beautiful,| said he, |with that little touch of sorrow in your face. It gives me high thoughts to look at you.|
While they were thus sitting a woman, well past middle age, came into their presence. She stopped near the feet of Arria. It was her grandmother, the Lady Claudia, once a beauty of the great capital, now gray and wrinkled, but still erect with patrician pride.
Vergilius had risen quickly, bowed low, and kissed her hand.
|I often saw you, son of my friend, when you were a child,| said she. |I remember when you were young you went away with the legions.|
|To learn the art of war,| he answered.
|Sit down, dear grandmother,| said the girl, as he brought a chair. |Now let her hear you tell me why it is that you have chosen me, dear Vergilius -- let her hear you.|
|I know not. Perhaps because your beauty, sweet girl, is like the snare of the fowler and brought me to your hand. Then something in your eyes captured the heart of me -- something better than beauty. It is the light of your soul. Love and peace and innocence and gentleness and all good are in it. That is why.|
The two embraced each other. The Lady Claudia rose and came and put her hands upon them, and her voice trembled with emotion.
|They are beautiful,| said she, |the kisses of the young, and their words are as the music of Apollo's lyre. I thank the gods I have seen it all again. But you are going away to-morrow. Son of Varro, be not as other men. Remember it is not well for women to live apart from the men they love.|
|I leave at daybreak,| said the young knight. |'Tis for two years, so said the emperor; for 'only' two years.|
|She shall not be as others I have known,| said the Lady Claudia. |It is an evil time, good youth; but, remember, as men are so are women. Last night I dreamed a wonderful dream of you two, and of a sweet, immortal love between men and women. Some say the dreams of men are, indeed, the plans of the gods. Pray to them. It may be they will give you this great love.|
|It is here -- it is in her soul and mine!| the youth declared, his arm about Arria. |It has prepared us for any trial -- even parting.|
|I have so much happiness already,| said the girl. |So much -- it will keep me through many years.|
|Then it is the great love, and I thank the gods I have seen it,| said the Lady Claudia. |Who may say where it shall end?| She came near them as she spoke and offered her cheek to the boy. He kissed her, and she went away with tears upon her face.
|Now you are brave and strong with this great love in you,| said Vergilius. |Let it bear you up as I leave the palace. Promise you will not cry out. If you do, my beloved, I shall hear always the sound of mourning when I think of you.|
|Then I shall not weep,| said she, bravely, but with a little quiver in her voice.
She knew the old story of a young man's love -- how often he went away with sweet words, to return, if ever, hardened to stern trials and bloody work, his vows long forgotten.
|For your sake, dear Vergilius, I will be calm,| she added.
|Now sit here,| said he, as he led her to the heap of cushions, |just as I saw you a little time ago. Rest your chin upon your hands. There; now your soul is in your eyes. Let me see only this picture as I go.|
He took a handful of her curls and let them fall upon her shoulders. Then he crowned her with a sprig of vervain from a vase near by.
|I will not weep -- I will not weep,| she repeated, her voice trembling as he touched her hair.
He moved backward slowly, as one might leave a queen. Her eyes followed him, and suddenly she rose and flew to his arms again.
|I will not weep -- I will not weep,| said she, brokenly. Again he held her to his breast.
|Though you get fame and glory, forget not love,| she whispered.
|Dear one,| he exclaimed, kissing her, |this hour shall be in every day of my life.|
|But with adventures and battles and the praise of kings it is so easy to forget.|
|But with one so noble and so beautiful at home it will be easy to remember. Let us be brave. I am only a woman myself to-day. Help me to be a man.|
He led her again to the cushions, and she sat as before -- a picture, now, beyond all art, sublime indeed with love and sorrow and trustfulness and repression. It was that look of abnegation upon her that he remembered.
|I shall not rise nor speak again, dear son of Varro,| said she. |You shall know that my love for you has made me strong. See, dear love. Look at my face and see how brave I am.| Her voice, now calm, had in it some power that touched him deeply. It was the great, new love between men and women -- -forerunner of the mighty revolution.
He stood silent, looking down at her. The song of a nightingale rang in the great halls. He turned and brought a lyre that lay on a table near them. She took it in her hands. Then it seemed as if her sorrow fell upon the strings, and in their music was the voice of her soul.
He bowed before her, whispering a prayer; he put all his soul into one long look and quickly went away.
Then she rose and ran to the end of the banquet-hall. |I can hear his voice,| she whispered. |No, I must not go -- I must not go.|
A moment followed in which there came to her a sound of distant voices. She stilled her sobs and listened. She ran towards the loved voice and checked her eager feet.
She stood a moment with arms extended. The sound grew fainter and a hush fell. She ran to the white statue of the little god Eros, and, kneeling, threw her arms around the shapely form and wept bitterly.