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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 23 Now in Vergilius and in many of that time the human heart had dropped itsà

Now in Vergilius and in many of that time the human heart had dropped its plummet into new depths of feeling, the human mind had made a reach for nobler principles. A greater love between men and women, spreading mysteriously, had been as the uplift of a mighty wave on the deep of the spirit. It had broadened the sympathy of man; it had extended his vision beyond selfish limits. Vergilius and Arria had crossed the boundary of barbaric evolution under the leadership of love. The young man was now in the borderland of new attainment. He was full of the joy and the wonder of discovery. He was like a child -- eager for understanding and impatient of delay. Now he thought with the pagans and now with the Jews.

At his palace a letter had been waiting for the tribune. It was from his friend Appius. |My excellent and beloved Vergilius,| it said, |I address you with a feeling of deep concern for your safety. To-night by tabellarius, my letter shall go down to the sea on its way to Jerusalem. And now to its subject. This morning I went to the public games, and, returning, I was near my palace when a messenger, bearing the command of Augustus, overtook and stopped me. Quickly I made my way to The Laurels. Our great imperator was in his chamber and reading letters. He gave me a glance and greeted me. I saw he wished me to come near, and I stood close beside him. Then, with that slow, gentle tone, he hurled his lightning into me -- you remember his way. He told me, as he read, that you were making rapid progress in Jerusalem; that you had become a conspirator, a prophet, and were likely soon to be an angel. And he bade me go to you with his congratulations that you have succeeded so long in keeping your head upon your shoulders. Oh, deep and cunning imperator! Said he: 'I cannot tell you the name of my informant; and really, my good son, why -- why should I?' There, spread before me on the table, so I knew he wished me to see it, was a letter which bore the signature of Manius and gave information of a certain council. I could not make out the name, but I was able to recall how the great father had said to me, once, that when a man secretly puts blame upon another, the infamy he charges shall be only half his own. Our imperator is no fool, my friend. 'A ship will be leaving the seventh day before the ides,' said he. 'You will not be able to make it.' His meaning was clear. It could bear my warning, if not me, and here it is. With the gods' favor, soon, also, I shall be able to say to you, here am I. To-morrow at dawn I leave for Jerusalem.|

Beneath the signature these words were added: |As soon as possible I wish to know all and to speak my heart to you. The emperor has withdrawn his consent to your marriage with Arria. I shall explain everything but the purpose of the emperor, and who may understand him? If it be due to caprice or doubt or anger he will do you justice. But if a deeper motive is in his mind who knows what may happen?|

This letter kindled a fire in the heart of Vergilius. It burned fiercely, so that prudence and noble feeling were driven out. In spite of the warning of the young tribune, Manius had remained in Jerusalem. Vergilius had delayed action, dreading to bring the wrath of Rome upon one so young, so well born, so highly honored, and possibly so far misled. Therefore, he had held his peace and waited patiently for more knowledge. Now the evil heart of the assessor was laid bare, his infamy proven. Vergilius reread the letter with flashing eyes. Then he summoned his lecticarii and set out for the palace of the plotter. Manius approached him, a kindly greeting on his lips.

|Liar!| Vergilius interrupted, his hand upon his sword. |Speak no word of kindness to me!|

|What mean you, son of Varro?| the other demanded.

|That, with me, you have not even the right of an enemy. You are a deadly serpent, born to creep and hide. Shame upon you -- murderer! If there be many like you, what -- God tell me! -- what shall be the fate of Rome?|

Vergilius stepped away, and, lifting his hands, gave the other a look of unspeakable scorn. Manius made no reply, but stood as still and white as marble, with sword in hand.

|It was I who sat beside you that night,| said the other, his voice aglow with feeling. |When I heard you speak treason I cut off the end of your girdle. But you left by some unguarded way and escaped the fate of your fellows. You have not seen them since, and shall not. When you see them die in the arena think what you escaped, although deserving it more than they. Vile serpent! you brought the king, and hoped to send me also to Hades. You are a traitor, and that I know. Traitor to friend and country! Dare to provoke me further and I shall slay you!|

|What would you, son of Varro?| said the other, sullenly.

|Wretch! If you would save your life, hide as becomes the asp. Creep away from them who would put their feet upon you. Go live and die with the wild men of the far deserts.|

|Traitor to the gods!| said Manius, threatening with his sword. |Roman Jew! I am of noble birth, and claim the right of combat.|

|I give it, though you have no better right than dogs. Well, it would please my hand to slay you. I know the name and father you have dishonored, and you are grandnephew of the good Lady Claudia -- noble mother of Publius. For their sake I give you the right of combat. By the wayside near Bethlehem are lonely hills. There, the seventh day before the kalends, in the middle hour of the night, you shall see a beacon-fire and near it my colors. Three friends may go with each, and you and I will draw swords in the fire-light.|

|I shall meet you there,| said Manius. Vergilius, putting away his weapon, turned quickly, and, without speaking, left the traitor's palace with firm faith in the one God -- that he was ever on the side of the just who humbly sought his favor.

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