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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 21 Arria and her brother were far from the shores of Hellas and near the Isleà

Arria and her brother were far from the shores of Hellas and near the Isle of Doom. Tepas knew that a few leagues more would bring him in sight of the familiar cliffs. Brother and sister were reclining on the deck of their trireme. The tenth day of their journey was near its end. The sun had sunk through misty depths of purple, and now seemed to melt and pour a flood of fire upon the waters.

|I am weary,| said the girl, looking thoughtfully at the calm sea.

|Of me?| said her brother.

|Nay, but of that groaning of the rowers. It tells me of aching arms in the galley. I cannot sleep at night, hearing it.|

Appius laughed with amusement. |Little fool!| said he. |The slaves of Tepas are all Jews.|

|But they are men,| said the beautiful girl; |and do you not understand, dear brother? I love a man.|

|Love!| exclaimed Appius, with contempt, |'Tis only as the longing of the bird for its mate.|

|Nay, I would give all for him I love.|

|Not all,| said he, with a look of surprise.

|Yes, all -- even you, and my mother, and my home, and my country, and my life -- I am sick with longing. And when I think of him I cannot bear to see men suffer.|

|You are gone mad,| said Appius, |and I pray the gods to bring you back. It may be the fair Vergilius forgets you.|

She turned, quickly, and her voice trembled as she whispered: |Nay, he also has the great love in him. He could not forget.|

Cyran, the pretty slave-girl, came soon with their evening repast. Arria bade her sit beside them.

|Tell us, dear Cyran,| said the Roman beauty -- |tell us a tale of old Judea.|

|Beloved mistress,| said Cyran, kneeling by the side of Arria and kissing the border of her robe, |listen; I will tell you of the coming of the great love. Long ago there was a maiden of Galilee so beautiful that many came far to see her. Now, it so befell, there came a certain priest, young and fair to look upon, who did love her and seek her hand in marriage. And she loved him, even as you love, but would not wed him. O my good mistress! She knew that a mighty king was coming, and she was held of a great hope that God would choose her for the blessed mother. And, still loving the priest, she kept herself pure in thought and deed. Every day they saw each other, but stayed apart, and their love grew holier the more it was put down. And oh, it was a wonder! for it filled their hearts with kindness and sent their feet upon errands of mercy. And many years passed, and one day they sat together.

|'My beloved, you are grown old and feeble, and so am I,' said she, 'We have pitied every child of sorrow but ourselves.' And they rose and put their arms about each other and went into the dark valley of death, heart to heart, that very day, and were seen no more of men. And they in the hills of Galilee, where the lovers dwelt, made much account of them, for while she had not borne the great king, still was she long remembered as the blessed mother of holy love. Now, maidens, with youth and love and beauty strong upon them, gave all for the great hope. And wonderful stories went abroad, and women were more sacred in the eyes of men, seeing that one of them, indeed, must be mother of the very Son of God.|

The slave-girl covered her face and her body shook with emotion.

|Cyran, why are you crying?| said Arria.

|Because,| Cyran replied, her voice trembling -- |because I can never be the blessed mother.|

|Tell me,| said Arria, |have you never felt the great love?|

Cyran rose and looked down at her mistress.

|I have felt the pain of it,| said she, sadly. |And my heart -- Oh, it is like the house of mourning where Sorrow has hushed the Children of Joy. But the sweet pain of love is dear to me.|

|Tell me of it.|

|Good mistress, I cannot tell you.|

|Why, dear Cyran?|

|Because -- | the slave-girl hesitated; then timidly and with trembling lips she whispered, |because, dear mistress, I -- I love you.| She seemed to bend beneath her burden and, knelt beside her mistress and wept.

|Go -- please go,| said Appius, turning to Cyran. |You irritate me, and I cannot understand you.|

But Arria divined the secret of the poor slave-girl, and pitied her.

Cyran rose and left them.

|The great love may come to you, and then you shall understand,| said Arria to Appius.

|The great madness!| her brother exclaimed. |I like not these Jewish cattle. The gods forgive me that we have fallen among them. With a Jew for a pilot we should make a landing in Hades.|

Something in his manner alarmed the girl.

|What mean you?| she inquired.

|I will tell you to-morrow,| said her brother. |'Tis time you went to your couch and I to mine. Have no fear.|

Now, the young Roman had begun to suspect the pilot of some evil plan. After the girl had left him he sat drinking wine for hours. Soon he was in a merry way, singing songs and jesting with all who passed him. Long after the dark had come, when Tepas only remained upon deck, Appius reeled up and down, singing, with a flask in his hand. The moon had risen. Eastward her light lay like hammered silver on the ripples.

Appius neared the tall, rugged form of Tepas. Against the illumined waters he could see the long, bent nose, the great beard, the shaggy brows, the large, hairy head of his pilot. Tepas, who ruled his men with scourge and pilum, had made himself feared of all save the young Roman noble. Appius halted, looking scornfully at the Jew. Then he shouted:

|A knave, upon my honor! 'Tis better to be drunk, for then one has hope of recovery. You long-haired dog! Here is something would make you bay the moon. Drink and howl. You weary me with silence.|

Tepas, familiar with the contempt of Romans, took the flask, and, pouring into his cup, drank of the rich wine. Then Appius held the flask above his head, and with a word of scorn flung it into the sea. He started to cross the deck and fell heavily. Now, after striving, as it seemed, to regain his feet, he lay awhile muttering and helpless and soon began to snore. The deck was deserted by all save him and the pilot. Tepas looked down at the young Roman. Already, far off in the moonlight, he had seen cliffs and knew they were on the Isle of Doom. He must be about his business. He went to where Appius lay and bent over him. The pilot drew his dagger; the youth rolled drowsily and his hands were now upon the feet of Tepas. The latter leaned to strike. A sound startled him. It was a footfall close behind. The Jew rose, turning to listen. Suddenly his feet went from under him and he fell head-long; quickly two seamen leaped upon him, seizing his head and hands. One disarmed him, the other covered his mouth. Appius clung upon the feet of the Jew. A Roman slave had taken the wheel.

|Shall we bind him?| said one of the seamen.

|No,| said Appius, breathing heavily as the pilot tried to shake him off. |Give the dog a chance. Yonder is an island. We shall soon be near it, and by swimming he may save his life.|

|The gold is upon him,| said a seaman; |I can feel it under his tunic.|

|But we shall not rob him,| was the answer of Appius.

|It is heavy. It will be like a stone to sink him.|

|However, we shall not rob him,| the young Roman repeated.

Now, when they were come as near the isle as they dare bring their ship, Appius gave a command. They lifted the body of that cursing wretch. Back and forth they swung it as one counted. Then over it went with reaching hands and fell upon the moonlit plane of water. They could see him rise and turn towards the isle, swimming. Weighted by his burden, he swam not twice his length before the sea closed above him.

|I thought he had struck you with his dagger,| said one of the seamen.

|It would have done no harm,| Appius replied. |I have a corselet under my tunic. Is the ship still leaking?|

|A little, good sire. We found a wedge in the planks. He would have driven it through, no doubt, if all had gone well with him. I know not why, unless he meant to beach her under the cliffs yonder.|

The young Roman stood silent for a little time. Presently his thought came in a whisper to his lips: |And hold my sister until Antipater should come.|

He called the seamen to his side.

|I, who am a friend of the great father of Rome,| said he, |shall see you well rewarded. The little I gave you is not enough. Without your help and warning worse luck than death might soon have come to us.|

A light wind was now blowing, and the sails began to fill.

Suddenly all rushed forward, falling upon the deck. Their trireme had lost half her headway and was now crashing over rocks and trembling as her bow rose. She stopped, all her timbers groaning in the shock, and rolled sideways and lay with tilted deck above the water. Cries of alarm rose from her galley. Men fought their way up the ladders and scrambled like dripping rats to every place of vantage. After the shock, Appius had leaped to the upper rail, and, rushing forward to the door of Arria's deck-house, found her and the slave-girl within it, unharmed. The two were crying with fear, and he bade them dress quickly and await his orders. Then he took command. Soon a raft and small boats were ready alongside the wreck. Within half an hour Appius and the two maidens and part of the crew landed.

Before daylight all were safely carried to the bare, lonely rocks, with a goodly store of food and water.

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