The festival of games, in honor of Augustus, were about to begin at Caesarea. Lately the highway from north to south, which passed the gates of Jerusalem, had been as a fair of the nations. A host had journeyed far to amuse the great king or to enjoy his holiday. Gayer and more given to proud speech than they who came to the festivals of the Temple, beneath the skull-bone there was yet a more remarkable unlikeness.
These were mostly the children of Hatred, each heart a lair of wild passions, each brain teeming with catlike gods. Here were they to be lifted up by the power of love -- the heathen, the debased. What a gathering of the enemies of God and man! Crowding at the gates were gladiators from Greece and Rome; Arab chiefs upon camels, with horses trained for the race; troops of rich men with armed retainers; hunters bringing wild beasts in cages lashed upon heavy carts; squads of Roman cavalry; gamblers, peddlers, thieves, bandits, musicians, dancers, and singers, some walking, some riding horse or camel. Many had travelled far for one purpose -- to behold the great king. Now solemn whispers of gossip had gone to every side of the city. Herod was ill, so said they, and had not long to live. That morning of the day before the games the old king had summoned Vergilius.
|I will not be cheated by God or man,| said he, fiercely. |Tell the master of the games that I will have him entertain me here to-day, after the middle hour, in my palace court. Bid him bring beast and gladiator and the strong men of the prisons. Let him not forget the traitors. I would have, also, a thousand maids to sing and dance for me.|
The king looked down, impatiently, at his trembling hands. He flung a wrathful gesture, and again that bestial voice: |Go, bid him bring them!|
So at the middle hour a wonderful scene was beginning in the great court of Herod's palace. The king sat on a balcony with Salome, Elpis, Roxana, Phaedra, and others of his kindred. On the circular terraces of a great fountain below and in front of them were rows of naked maidens. Circle after circle of this living statuary towered, with diminishing radii, above the court level, to an apex, where a stream of cool, perfumed water, broken to misty spray, rose aloft, scattering in the sunlight. So cunningly had they contrived to enhance the charm of the spectacle, those many graceful shapes were under a fine, transparent veil of water-drops lighted by rainbow gleams and sweet with musky odor. Circles were closely massed around the base of the fountain. They stood in silence, all looking down. The old king surveyed them. Within the palace a hundred harpers smote their strings, flooding the scene with music. Slowly each circumference began to move. Step and measure increased their speed. The circles were now revolving, one around another, with swift and bewildering motion. At a signal the silent figures broke into song. They sang of the glories of Jerusalem and the great king. Herod's hand was up -- he would have no more of it. The song ceased, the circles, one by one, rolled into helices which, unbending into slender lines, vanished quickly beneath a great arch. Then a trumpet peal and a rattle of iron wheels. Brawny arms were pushing a movable arena. Swiftly it came into that ample space between the king and the great fountain. Behind its iron bars a large lion paced up and down. Two hundred mounted men of the cohort stood in triple rank some fifty paces from the scene. Vergilius, on a white charger, was in front of the column.
While Arab slaves pushed the arena into place, David came and touched the arm of the young tribune. He whispered, eagerly: |My sister, Cyran the Beloved, is here. She is waiting at the castle.|
|Whence came she?| said the tribune, with astonishment.
|From the port of Ascalon, where she arrived by trireme with Appius. They were wrecked, finding shore in a far country. There the friend of Caesar, Probus Sulpicius Quirinus, discovered them on his way from Carthage, and brought them hither.|
Appius, fearing Antipater, had waited by the sea while Cyran came to find her brother and Vergilius. The prince's threat and the words of Caesar had checked his feet with caution. He forbade Cyran to tell any one of the presence of Arria.
|And where is my friend?| Vergilius demanded.
|He waits on the ship to hear from you -- whether it be safe to come. It seems Antipater has threatened him.|
|Tell Cyran I would have her come to me. Then find my orderly and bid him bring Appius hither by the way of Bethlehem. If he arrives there before the end of the third watch he will see my fire-light on the hill.|
David left the scene as a powerful Thracian, standing by the arena's gate, saluted the king. Entering, the gladiator engaged the lion with his lance. Incautiously he pressed his weapon too far, drawing blood. Before he could set his lance the wild foe was upon him. A leap into the air, a double stroke of the right fore-paw, and down fell the beast, while the man reeled, with rent tunic, and caught the side of the arena. In a twinkling, as he clung feebly, he reddened from head to toe. Three bestiarii had thrust in their lances and held the lion back; others opened a gate and removed the dying gladiator. Herod, leaning over, beckoned to the master of the games.
|A noble lion!| said he, his voice trembling. |Save him for the battle of the pit.|
Now, in pursuance of the order of the king, a pit had been dug and walled with timber near that place where the fighter had met his death. A score of slaves forthwith lowered the arena into the pit with ropes. Herod and all who sat with him could see the open top of the barred space, but the beast was beyond their vision.
Another trumpet-call. A band of prisoners have entered the court. Antipater, tall and erect in exomis of plain gray, right arm and shoulder bare, walked in the centre of the front rank. Traitors of the betrayed council were there beside him. Slowly they about to die came forth and stood in even rank and bowed low before the king. Herod beat his palms upon the golden rail before him and muttered hoarsely. Then with raised finger and leering face he taunted them.
|Outlaws!| he croaked. |I doubt not ye be also cowards.|
All drew back save Antipater and a huge Scythian bandit. They drew broadswords and rushed together, fighting with terrific energy. The Scythian fell in a moment. One after another four conspirators came to battle with their chief, but each went down before his terrible attack. Some asked for mercy as they fell, but all perished by the hand of him they had sought to serve. Held for the battle of the pit, the young Roman whom Vergilius had recognized in the council chamber advanced to meet Herod's son. He had won his freedom in the arena and lost it in the conspiracy of the prince. He was a tall, lithe, splendid figure of a man. The heart of the young commander was touched with pity as he beheld the comely youth. This game, invented by Antipater himself, was a test of strength and quickness. Nets were the only weapons, strong sinews and a quick hand the main reliance of either. Each tried to entangle the other in his net and secure a hold. Then he sought to rush or drag his adversary to the edge of the pit and force him down. Weapons lay on every side of the arena below. The unfortunate had, therefore, a chance to defend himself against the lion.
On the signal to begin, Jew and Roman wrestled fiercely, their weapons on their arms, but neither fell. Suddenly Antipater broke away and flung his net. Nimbly the other dodged. Down came the net, grazing his head. Swiftly he sprang upon the Jew, striving to entangle him. Antipater pulled away. Again the Roman was upon his enemy and the two struggled to the very noses of the cohort. Hard by the centre of the column, where sat Vergilius on his charger, the powerful prince threw his adversary, and, choking him down, secured the net over his head. Swiftly he began to drag the fallen youth. Vergilius, angered by the prince's cruelty, could no longer hold his peace.
|'Tis unfair,| said he, pointing at Antipater. |In the name of the fatherly Augustus, I protest.|
The prince, still dragging his foe, answered with insulting threats. The young commander leaped from his horse and ran to the side of Antipater. The latter released his captive and drew sword. Swiftly Vergilius approached him and the two met with a clash of steel.
Now the first battle in that war of the spirit, which was to shake the world with fury had begun.
Back and forth across the court of Herod they fought their way -- the son of light and the son of darkness. Sparks of fire flew from their weapons while a murmur in the cohort grew to a loud roar and the old king and his women stood with hands uplifted shrieking like fiends of hell. Hand and foot grew weary; their speed slackened. Slowly, now, they moved in front of the cohort and back to the middle space. They were evenly matched; both began to reel and labor heavily, their strength failing in like degree. The end was at hand. Now the angel of death hovered near, about to choose between them. Suddenly Antipater, pressing upon his man, fell forward. At the very moment Vergilius, who had been giving quarter, reeled a few paces and was down upon his back. Prince and tribune lay apart some twenty cubits. Both tried to rise and fell exhausted. Half a moment passed. Antipater had risen to his elbow. Slowly he gained a knee, while the other lay as one dead. He rested, staring with vengeful eyes at his enemy. Stealthily he felt for his weapon. The right hand of Vergilius began to move. A hush fell upon the scene. Swiftly, from beside the cohort a fair daughter of Judea, in a white robe, ran across the field of battle. She knelt beside Vergilius and touched his pale face with her hands. Then she called to him: |Rise, O my beloved! Rise quickly! He will slay you!|
|Cyran!| he whispered.
Antipater had gained his feet and now ran to glut his anger. Cyran rose upon her knees and put her beautiful body between the steel and him she loved. The sword seemed to spring at her bosom. She seized it, clinging as if it were a thing she prized. Vergilius had risen. Swiftly sword smote upon sword. The young Roman pressed his enemy, forcing him backward. From dying lips he heard again the old chant of faith:
|Let me not be ashamed -- I trust in Thee, God
of my fathers;
Send, quickly send the new king| . . .
The words seemed to strengthen his arm. He fought as one having power above that of men. On and on he forced his foe with increasing energy. He gave him no chance to stop or turn aside. Yells of fury drowned the clash of steel. The tumult grew. The son of Herod was near the pit. He seemed to tempt the Roman to press him. Suddenly he leaped backward to the very edge. The Roman rushed upon him. Before their swords met, Antipater sprang aside with the quickness of a leopard. In cunning he had outdone his foe. Unable to check his onrush, Vergilius leaped forward and fell out of sight. A booming roar from the startled lion rose out of the pit and hushed the tumult of the people. Herod, pointing at his son, shrieked with rage as he bade the soldiers of the cohort to seize and put him in irons.
A score of slaves hastened to the mouth of the pit. They caught the ropes and quickly lifted the arena. As it came into view the tumult broke out afresh. There far spent, resting on his bloody weapon, near the middle of the arena stood Vergilius, and the lion lay dead before him.
Slaves opened the iron gate. Vergilius ran to the still form of the slave-girl. He knelt beside her and kissed her lifeless hand.
|Poor child of God!| he whispered. |If indeed you loved me, I have no wonder that you knelt here to die.|
The master brought a wreath of laurel to the young tribune, saying: |'Tis from the king.| Vergilius seemed not to hear. Tenderly he raised the lifeless body of Cyran in his arms. The spectators were cheering. |Hail, victor!| they shouted.
|Hail, victor!| he whispered, looking into the dead face. |Blessed be they who conquer death.|