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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 22 It was a clear morning and the tenth day before the kalends of January.à

It was a clear morning and the tenth day before the kalends of January. Since the ides, Vergilius had been lying in camp with a cohort, near the port of Ascalon. Night and day on the headland velites had been watching for the trireme of Antipater. A little before dawn their beacon-fires had flamed up. Since daylight all had been watching the far-come vessel of the son of Herod, and, as she came near, they could see the pattern of gold upon the royal vestments of Antipater. Now, presently, he would set foot upon the unhappy land of his inheritance. The cohort had formed in a long arc at the landing. Before now, on his return, the king's horsemen had greeted him with cheers; to-day he greeted them with curses. Vergilius, hard by, faced the cohort, his back turned to the new-comer. Antipater halted as he came ashore, looking in surprise at the tribune. He seized a lance, and, crouching as he ran, with sly feet approached the Roman officer. He was like the cat nearing its prey. Vergilius, now seeming unmindful of his pursuer, walked in the direction of the cohort. Swiftly, stealthily, the prince came near, intending to plunge his lance into the back of the young tribune. Suddenly there rose an outcry among the soldiers. Vergilius turned; the prince halted, breathing heavily, for he had run near a hundred paces in the sea-sand. A roar of rage burst from his lips.

|Dog!| he shouted. |Bid them cheer me or I will run you through!| His lance threatened.

|There shall be cheers in a moment, son of Herod,| said Vergilius, calmly and respectfully approaching him. Antipater, unaware of his peril, stood with lance at rest. With a hand quick as the paw of a leopard, Vergilius whirled it away and caught the wrist of the Jew and flung him down. While Antipater struggled in his great robe the tribune had disarmed him. Every man of the cohort was now cheering. Antipater rose in terrible wrath and flung off his robe of gold and purple.

|Put him in irons!| he shouted. |I, who shall soon be king of the Jews, command you!|

The cohort began to jeer at him; Vergilius commanded silence.

|You lapdog!| Antipater hissed, turning upon the Roman. |Am I met with treason?|

|You give yourself a poor compliment,| said Vergilius. |Better call me a lion than a lapdog.| He turned to an officer who stood near and added: |You will now obey the orders of the king.|

Forthwith, Vergilius went aboard the new-come vessel and seized the goods of Antipater and put them on their way to the king. Meanwhile, the soldiers, many of whom had borne with the cruelty and insolence of their prisoner, were little inclined to mercy. He struggled, cursing, but they bore him down, binding him hand and knee to an open litter, so he stood, like a beast, upon all fours, for such, indeed, was the order of the king. Then they put on him the skin of a wild ass and carried him up and down, jeering as the long ears flapped. Vergilius, returning, removed the skin of the ass and loosed the fetters a little, and forbade the soldiers any further revenge.

|The skin of a leopard would become you better,| said Vergilius to Antipater, as he unlashed the coat of shame.

The wrathful Jew, still cursing, tried to bite the friendly hand of his keeper. |My noble prince,| said Vergilius, |you flatter me; I am not good to eat.|

Those crowding near laughed loudly, but Vergilius hushed them and signalled to the trumpeter. Then a call and a rush of horses into line. The litter was lifted quickly and lashed upon the backs of two chargers. In a little time the cohort was on its way to Jerusalem.

Arriving, it massed in front of the royal palace. Vergilius repaired to the king's chamber. The body of Herod was now become as an old house, its timbers sagging to their fall, its tenant trembling at dim windows while the storm beat upon it. Shame and sorrow and remorse were racking him down. King and kingdom were now swiftly changing.

|At last!| he piped, with quivering hands uplifted. |Slow-footed justice! come -- come close to me.|

Eagerly he grasped the hands of the young Roman and kissed them. Then he spoke with bitter irony, his words coming fast. |You met the great king?|

|Yes, good sire.|

|You put him in chains and brought him hither?|

|And I commend him to your mercy.|

|Ha, ha!| the king shrieked, caressing the hand of the Roman. Now his head rose, and for a little his old vigor and menacing voice returned to him. |He has run me through with the blade of remorse and put upon me the chains of infirmity,| he complained, an ominous, croaking rattle in his throat. |To-day, to-day, my wrath shall descend upon him and my gratitude upon you! These forty years have I been seeking a man of honor. At last, at last, here is the greatest of men! I, Herod, surnamed the Great, king of Judea, conqueror of hosts, builder of cities, bare my head before you!|

He removed his jewelled crown; he drew off his purple tarboosh, and bowed before the young tribune. Tenderly Vergilius replaced them on the gray head.

|O king,| said he, bowing low, |you do me great honor.|

Herod closed his eyes and muttered feebly. Again remorse and age had flung their weight upon him. His hard face seemed to shrink and wither, and the young man thought as he looked upon it, |What a great, good thing is death!|

The king opened his eyes and piped, feebly: |Help me; help me to win the favor of my people! You shall be procurator, commander of the forces, counsellor of kings, priest of God.|

The king waited, but Vergilius made no reply. Now, indeed, was he living in a great and memorable moment. He thought of the power offered him -- power of doing and undoing, power of raising up and putting down, power over good and evil.

|Well,| said Herod, impatiently, |what say you?|

|O king!| said Vergilius, |I had hoped soon to return to Rome and marry and live in the land of my fathers.|

|Hear me, good youth,| said Herod, sternly, seizing the hand of the young man. |There is a wise proverb in Judea. It is: 'Speak not much with a woman.' Had I obeyed it, then had I saved my soul and happiness. Women have been ever false with me -- an idle, whispering, and mischievous crew! O youth, give not your heart to them! For five years let Judea be your bride. She woos you, son of Varro, and she is fair. She asks for love and justice, and she will give you immortal fame.|

The king fondly pressed the hand of the Roman, who stood beside him, grave and thoughtful. For the young man it was a moment of almost overwhelming temptation. Love and ambition wrestled in his soul. He stood silent.

|For only five years,| the king pleaded. |For five years give me your heart. Man!| he shouted, impatiently, |will you not answer?|

|I will consider,| said Vergilius, calmly.

|Go!| said Herod, in a burst of ire. Then, presently: |Now, now I will attend to the son of Doris.|

And Vergilius hastened away.

Within the hour, Antipater, son of Herod the Great, was dragged to that strong chamber in a remote end of the vast home of Herod whence were to come cries for mercy by night such as he had often heard from his own victims.

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