Among the orderlies at the castle was one David, a young Jew, whose face and bearing had attracted the eye of Vergilius. There was in both something admirable and familiar. Straightway the tribune chose the young Jew for his own service, and soon held him in high esteem. Together they set out one morning, with a troop of horse, bound for the southern limit of Samaria. Thus quickly orders had arrived from the emperor. They sent Vergilius on a journey to inspect roads and report |as to hopes, plans, and theories of import to the king.|
That morning as they left the old city, Vergilius and the young Jew rode abreast.
|Tell me,| said the former, presently, |what know you of the new king?|
|Of him I have thought much and know little,| said David. |My mother taught me to look for him. That was before the evil days.|
|And you learned what of her?|
|Little save the long hope. She taught me an old chant of the coming. If you wish, I will sing it.|
Being bidden, he sang, as she had sung who hushed the revels of Antipater, of signs and fears and of arrows to fly as the lightning. Words, melody, emotion, the note of inveterate wrong, were those of the slave-girl.
|The same nose and blue eyes, and fair, curly locks -- the same feeling and chant of faith,| said Vergilius, thoughtfully. |Did you not live in Galilee and suffer ill fortune?|
|We lived in Galilee, and, by-and-by, were as those hurled into Gehenna.|
|And have you a sister in Rome?|
|I have a sister, but know not where she may be. Cyran the Beloved, so my mother called her.|
Then Vergilius told his companion how he had won her from the son of Herod and left her in the keeping of Arria. David wept as he listened.
When the tale was finished he spoke bitterly: |'Twas she -- the Beloved. My father was put to death, his property seized, his wife and children dragged to captivity. My heart is faint with sorrow. God! I weary of thy slowness.
|Send, quickly send the new king, whose arrows
shall fly as the lightning
Making the mighty afraid and the proud to bow
low and the wicked to tremble.|
For a moment they rode in silence. David was first to speak.
|Forgive me,| said he, with fear of his imprudence. |My tongue has gone too far. I am true to Herod, being his debtor, for he gave me freedom. But I am of the house of David.|
|Fear not,| said Vergilius. |Never shall I betray the broken hearted. I give you friendship.|
|And I give you gratitude,| was the answer of the Jew.
|I am as a child here in Judea and seek understanding. You shall be my teacher.|
For a time neither spoke; soon David asked: |Will you tell me of her my sister is now serving?|
|Of all the daughters of Rome she is noblest. We love each other. Ah, friend! 'Tis a wonder -- this great love. My tongue halts when I think of it.|
He paused, in meditation.
|I have heard much of it here in Judea -- a love that exalts the soul,| said David.
|And changes the heart of man with all that is in it. My love has filled me with a tender feeling for all women; it has made me to hate injustice and even to complain of the gods.|
|To complain of the gods!| said David, turning and looking into the face of his friend.
|It does seem to me they set a bad example and are too childish for the work they have to do, but still -- still I bow before them.|
|I do not understand you,| said David.
|They are given to spite, anger, vanity, lust, revenge, and idleness. Caesar is greater than they. He has learned self-control. And this new king of your faith, who, you tell me, is to conquer the world -- he is no better.|
|And why think you so?|
|He is to conquer the world. Good sir, it has been conquered -- how many times! He shall make the mighty afraid -- have they not often trembled with fear and perished by the sword? He shall fling arrows of just revenge, as if our old earth were not already soaked in the blood of the wicked. Ah, my David, I wonder not you long for a king of the sword and the arrow. Revenge is ever the dream of the oppressed. But I have dreamed of a greater king.|
|Tell me who?|
|He would be like this love in me,| said Vergilius. |If it were to go abroad -- if it were only to find the hearts of the mighty -- what, think you, would happen?|
|Ay, if it were to go from friend to friend and from neighbor to neighbor,| said the young Jew, |it would indeed conquer the world.|
|And there would be neither war nor injustice.|
|Tell me,| said David. |Are there many lovers like you in Rome?|
|Some half a score that I have heard of, and I doubt not there be many.|
|'Tis the candle of the Lord -- the preparation of the heart of man,| said David. |I do believe his arrow shall be that of love.|
|This feeling in me has kindled a great desire,| said Vergilius. |I burn for knowledge.|
Then said the young Jew: |Let us find my kinsman, Zacharias -- a priest of holy life and great learning. Through his aged wife a miracle has been accomplished. I learn that she has given birth, and many have journeyed far to see the child. There be some who say that he is, indeed, the king of promise, albeit I have no such opinion.|
|There shall be signs in the deep of the heavens, and we have not seen them.|
|Where may we find the priest?|
|In the village of Ain Karim, yonder.|
They could see its low dwellings and the dome of its synagogue. The Roman halted near the abode of Zacharias, while David took their followers to the inn. Suddenly the young Roman saw an aged priest approaching with a child in his arms.
|I have a message for you,| said the man of God, stopping near the Roman officer.
|And I seek it,| said Vergilius, looking at the long, gray beard of the venerable priest.
|It is borne in upon me to say to you that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.|
|Tell me of the king,| said Vergilius. |I do thirst for knowledge.|
|He shall be the prince of peace.|
Vergilius looked thoughtfully at the old priest, who now sat down as if weary.
|And he shall conquer with the sword?|
|Nay, but as it is written, 'he shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'|
Now the Roman was alert to hear. His ideal, which had taken form at the altar of peace and grown with his love, was being set up before him.
|But the nations are stubborn,| said he. |Tell me, O wise and learned man, how shall he subdue them?|
|By the love of God, almighty and ever-lasting.|
|God, almighty and everlasting,| said Vergilius. |I know him not.|
|I do but defile myself to speak with you, worshipper of idols,| sternly spake the priest. |And yet I am constrained to instruct you. Listen -- there is a power which even Rome has not been able to conquer. Know you what power it is?|
The young tribune was recounting the peoples of the earth, when Zacharias continued:
|'Tis the God of the Jews. Rome has conquered his people, but mark how he stands. And what is there of wrong that his law cannot remedy? Tell me, is there no injustice in your land?|
|There is much,| said the young Roman.
|And so I know -- but name it.|
|Well, for one thing, men torture and kill their slaves.|
|And in the law of the one God 'tis written, 'Thou shalt not kill.'|
After a thoughtful moment Vergilius added: |And the strong prey upon the weak, seizing their property and holding it for their own.|
|And the one God commands, 'Thou shalt not steal'; and again, 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.'|
|But you have injustice, also, in Judea.|
|Ay, because there be evil men who obey not the law of God. But presently they shall be put to shame. Here is he that is come to prepare the way of the Lord.|
The child was now asleep, his head on his father's knee.
|John,| said the priest, tenderly looking down.
But the little one continued to sleep, and a wonderful peace and beauty had come upon him.
|And this new king -- whence shall he come and how shall we know him?| the young Roman persisted.
|Conceived of God, he is now in the womb of his mother,| said the priest. |Soon -- very soon, he shall enter the gate of the world. The ground is ready and he shall be like a sower, and his seed shall be love, and peace shall be his harvest. If ye would know him, behold this face.|
He touched the brow of the child. |Son of darkness,| he continued, |look upon the son of light! The faith of Mizraim or the wisdom of Hillel could show you no more. Do you see the new light shining within this lovely veil of flesh? Look, and you shall know the fashion of his countenance, and that his hand shall make no wound.|
The priest rose, and, lifting the child in his arms, went away, saying, |His peace be with you.|
The young Roman stood looking at the sweet face that lay on the shoulder of him departing. The great hope of Judea had entered his heart -- the hope of a just king to rule the nations and point the way to eternal life.
On his return he bought a statue representing a beautiful young boy. He set it up in his chamber, and, kneeling, prayed to it as the one God who forbade killing and theft and every evil practice of men. He prayed for understanding; he prayed, also, that he might see her he loved. But this new God seemed as deaf to his entreaty as had been those of the pagan temples. Groping for light, he turned to the young David. Then first he learned that God, being jealous, hated the image of everything that has the breath of life. His understanding had diminished, for, in this matter, the one God was like the many. He questioned the Jew. |Wonder not,| said his friend, |that God hates the symbol of ancient error. It has been as a cloud upon the sun.|
Vergilius had taken a palace and filled it with treasures, for, possibly, he had thought, some day she would see all. Now its noble statues were sent away -- a kind of sacrifice to the God of the Jews. But there was one he could not part with -- a copy of the lovely Venus of Alcamenes which his mother had sent to him. He concealed her in a closet, contenting himself with a furtive glance at her now and then. He set up in his fancy a giant of benevolent face, and humbly sought his favor. Still he had no success.
Lying at table one night with Manius and Ben Joreb, he sought counsel of the latter.
|He that hath his prayer hath prayed wisely,| said the priest. |You have much to learn.|
|How, and of whom?| said Vergilius.
|There is in Jerusalem a council of learned men. They expound the Scripture and study all mysteries of the faith.|
|And who are they?|
|I would I knew. Being wise, they are unknown.|
|So I have heard. They have knowledge of him who is to come, and Herod is very jealous.|
|True,| said Vergilius. |I would I were of them who know.|
|If it may be so you shall have word tomorrow,| said the priest.
Promptly Manius relieved the tension of curiosity.
|Vergilius, I drink to you -- the new commander of the cohorts,| said he, rising.
|I reserve my thanks for more information,| said Vergilius.
|It will come,| said Manius, who then left with the priest in his company.
Soon the former added, in a low tone: |He may be of some value before he dies.|
|Ah, yes, but he will die young,| said the other.