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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 11 The dark was lifting as Vergilius entered the Field of Mars.à

The dark was lifting as Vergilius entered the Field of Mars. There were lanterns about his litter, and far and near, in lines and clusters, he could see lights on the plain, some moving, some standing still. Hard by the Tiber he joined a small troop of horse, and vaulting on the shaft of his lance, mounted a white charger. Manius wheeled into place beside him at the head of the column. A quaestor called the roll.

|Ready?| Vergilius inquired, turning to Manius.

|All ready,| the other answered.

Then a trumpet sounded and those many feet had begun the long journey to Jerusalem. They made their way to the Forum. Scores of women and children of the families of those departing had gathered by the golden mile-stone. The troop halted. Those who had been waiting in the dank, chill air sought to press in among the horses. It was hard to keep them back. Vergilius, full of his own sorrow, felt for them and gave them good time. A little group, in gray paenula and veils, were watching from without the crowd. He moved aside, beckoning to them.

|Make your farewells,| said he, as they came near. |We shall be off in a moment.|

A beautiful white hand was extended to him. He took it in his, and then quickly pressed it to his lips.

|Farewell, dear love!| he whispered.

A quick pressure answered him, and the veiled figure turned away. Then a trumpet-call, a flash of blue vexilla and silver eagles in the air, and, a moment later, some eighty hoofs were drumming in the Appian Way. For a little the horsemen heard them that were left behind, wailing.

|It is like a sticking of pigs to leave a lot of plebeian women,| said Manius, when the sound was far out of hearing.

|An arrow in the heart of the soldier, but I think it good,| said Vergilius. |For a time, at least, Rome will be dear to him.|

There were forty men riding in the troop, all lancers, saving a few slingers and bowmen. They rattled over the hard Way at a pace of fifteen miles an hour. It was an immense, rock-paved road -- this Appian Way -- straight, wide, and level, flinging its arches over fen, river, and valley, and breaking through hill and mountain to the distant sea. No citizen might bring his horse upon it unless a diploma had been granted him -- it was, indeed, for the larger purposes of the government. After two hours they drew up at a posting-house and changed horses. They rode this mount some forty miles, halting at a large inn, its doors flush with the road. A transport and postal train bound for Rome was expected shortly, and, before eating, Vergilius wrote a letter and had it ready when the wagons came rattling in a deep-worn rut, behind teams of horses moving at a swift gallop. There were five wagons in the train, bearing letters and light merchandise from the south. Hard by was one of the wheelwright-shops that lined the great thoroughfare. The train stopped only a moment for water and a new wheel, then rushed along on its way to the capital. A light meal of bread and porridge, half an hour of rest, and again, with new horses, the troop was in full career. A sense of loneliness grew in the heart of the youth as he journeyed. Lover and soldier had fought their duel, and the latter was outdone. But the lover's courage was now sorely tried. Every mounted courier hastening to Rome on the south road bore a letter from the young man to her he loved. He met a legion of infantry going north, and envied every soldier, sweating under a set pace of four miles to the hour and a burden of sixty pounds -- shield, helmet, breast-plate, pilum, swords, intrenching tools, stakes for a palisade, and corn for seventeen days.

A trireme was waiting for them on the Adriatic Sea, and Vergilius, Manius, and their escort sailed to northwestern Macedonia, mounted horses again, galloping over the great highway to Athens; crossed by trireme to Ephesus, thence to Antioch by the long sea-road, and, agreeably with orders, they began to leave their men at forts along the frontier.

Events on the way filled him with contempt for his country and for himself. Here and there he met people travelling under imperial passes that gave them the use of the road and a right of free levy for subsistence, often much abused. These travellers were people of leisure from the large cities, wont to stretch their power to the point of robbery. He saw them seizing slaves and cattle from terrified agrarians; he saw Manius strike a man down for resenting insults to his daughter; he saw the deadly toil of the oarsmen, the bitter punishment of the cross.

His heart was now sore and sensitive. Was it the new love which had flung off its shield of sternness and left it exposed to every lash that flew? The misery of others afflicted him. Thoughts of injustice grew into motives of action, the loss of faith into the gain of unutterable longing. Who were these gods who heard not the cry of the weak and were ever on the side of the strong? Were they only in those hands of power that flung their levin from the Palatine? Could he, who had learned to love innocence and purity, love also the foul harpy which Rome had become? It seemed to him difficult to reconcile the love of Arria and the love of Rome. Was the time not, indeed, overdue when the wicked should tremble and the proud should bow themselves, according to that song of the slave-girl?

From Antioch they turned southward, passing the cloistered plain paved with polished marble, and hurried to Damascus. Thence they rode to Jerusalem. The troop had dwindled to a squad of six, and came slowly into the ancient capital at dawn. From afar they could hear bugles at the castle of Antonia.

|They are changing the guard,| Manius remarked.

Having entered the city gates, they passed throngs of cattle and their drivers and many worshippers hurrying to the temple. One of the latter stopped, and, pointing to the eagles and the medallion of Augustus on their signa, shouted loudly:

|I thank Thee, O God, and the God of my fathers, that I am not of them who provoke Thine anger with the graven image.|

A chant of many voices from the temple roof floated over the plain, saying:

|The light has come as far as Hebron.|

Vergilius turned, looking up at the splendid Doric temple of Jerusalem. As he looked, the sun's rays fell on a great, golden lantern before a thicket of high columns in its eastern portico. It was the signal for another outburst of trumpets.

|They are now making incense for the nostrils of Jehovah,| said Manius. |Soon they will offer him one of the most beautiful lambs in Judea.|

In a few moments they drew up at the castle of Antonia. News of their coming had reached Jerusalem by courier, three days before. The captain of the guard repeated part of the introduction.

|Vergilius, son of Varro, sent by the great father?| said he, in a tone of inquiry.

|And worn with much riding,| said the young knight.

|I have a message for you. It is from the king.|

|He would see me at once,| said Vergilius, having read it.

|The sooner you go the more gracious you will be like to find him,| said Manius, with a smile.

|My apparel! It is on the transport and has not yet arrived.|

|But you have arrived, and forget not you are in the land of Herod -- a most impatient king.|

|He will not know, however, that we have come,| Vergilius answered.

|Friend of Caesar,| said the captain of the guard, |within an hour he will know everything you have done since you entered the city -- whither you went, to whom you spoke, and what you said, and perhaps even what you thought.|

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