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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 25 The day was near its end.à

The day was near its end. Soldiers of the cohort, bearers of the dead, harpers and singers filed through the gate of Herod's palace. Hard by, in Temple Street, were many people. An old man stood among them, his white beard falling low upon a purple robe, his face turned to the sky. He sang as if unconscious of all around him. Often he raised his hand, which trembled like a leaf in the wind. Horses, maidens, and men halted to hear the words:

|Now is the day foretold of them who dwell in
the dust of the vineyard.
Bow and be silent, ye children of God and ye of
far countries.
Consider how many lie low in the old, immemorial vineyard. Deep -- fathom deep -- is the dust of the dead
'neath the feet of the living.

|Gone are they and the work of their hands -- all
save their hope and desire have perished.
Only the flowers of the heart have endured --
only they in the waste of the ages,
Ay -- they have grown, but the hewn rock has
crumbled away and the temples have fallen.
Bow, haughty people; ye live in the day of
fulfilment -- the day everlasting.
Soon the plough of oppression shall cease and
the ox shall abandon the furrow.
Ready the field, and I sing of the sower whose
grain has been gathered in heaven.

|Now is he come, with my voice and my soul I declare him. Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, the Everlasting
Father, the Prince of Peace.|

The flood of inspiration had passed. The singer turned away. |It is Simeon,| said a voice in the crowd. |He shall not die until his eyes have beheld the king of promise.|

Those departing from the games of Herod resumed their march. At the gate of the castle of Antonia, Vergilius, with David and two armed equites, one bearing colors, left the squadron. They rode slowly towards the setting sun. Now there was not in all the world a city so wonderful as Jerusalem. Golden dome and tower were gleaming above white walls on the turquoise blue of the heavens.

|Good friend, I grieve for her who is dead,| said Vergilius to David.

|She died for love,| the other answered as one who would have done the same.

Vergilius looked not to right nor left. His dark, quivering plume was an apt symbol of thought and passion beneath it. His blood was hot from the rush and wrath of battle, from hatred of them who had sought his life. He could hear the cry of Cyran; |Rise, rise, my beloved!| Again, he was like as he had been there on the field of battle. He could not rise above his longing for revenge. He hated the emperor whose cruel message had wrung his heart; he hated Manius, who had sought to destroy him; he despised the vile and stealthy son of Herod, who had plotted to rob him of love and life; he had begun to doubt the goodness of the great Lawgiver.

No sooner had he found an enemy than his God was become a god of vengeance. The council, the continued failure of his prayers, the cruelty of impending misfortune, the death of Cyran had weakened the faith of Vergilius. He had begun to founder in the deep mystery of the world. The voice of the old singer had not broken the spell of bitter passion. Vergilius trembled with haste to kill. He feared even that his anger would abate and leave him unavenged. There were memories which bade him to forgive, and of them was the gentle face of Arria, but he turned as one who would say |Begone!| He had not time even to consider what he should do to oppose the will of the emperor. As they rode on, his companion addressed the young commander.

|Saw you Manius in the balcony of Herod?|


|As I passed beneath it I saw him by the side of Salome, and I heard her say: 'Not until you slay him shall I be your wife.' I fear she means you ill, good friend.|

|She-cat!| exclaimed Vergilius. |'Tis a yowling breed that haunts the house of Herod.|

They came soon to where a throng was gathered thick, so for a little they saw not a way to pass. In the midst were three men sitting upon tall, white camels, their trappings rich with colored silk and shining metal.

|They speak, to the people,| said David. |It must be their words are as silver and gold.|

|I doubt not they be story-tellers from the desert,| said one behind.

The press parted; the camels had begun to move slowly. One of their riders hailed the young commander, saying, in a voice that rang like a trumpet:

|Where is he that is born king of the Jews?|

|I would I knew,| was the answer of Vergilius.

|So shall ye soon,| said the stranger. |We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.|

The camels passed with long, stately strides. The horsemen resumed their journey.

|Strange!| thought Vergilius, turning his charger and looking back. |They be surely those who have travelled far.|

The squad of cavalry, under plume and helmet, moved on, passing the Joppa gate and riding slowly down a long hill.

|See the glowing clouds yonder,| said Vergilius, pointing westward.

|Ay, they be fair as the tents of Kedar,| was the answer of David.

|There is a great beauty in the sky and the blue hills,| Vergilius remarked, thoughtfully.

|And you would kill, look not upon them -- they are so fair.|

|If I close my eyes, then, I do see a thing more fair.|


|The face of one I love. It is a love greater than all other things -- fame or king or fatherland.|

|Or revenge?| inquired David.

For a little Vergilius made no answer; but presently he said: |I am a Roman; who seeks my life shall lose his own.|

They came upon a ewe lying in the roadway. She looked up with a mute appeal, but moved not. She seemed to reckon upon the kindness of them approaching. The squad parted, passing on either side. All drew rein, and one, dismounting, stood a moment looking down at her. Then laying hold of her fleece, he moved the ewe tenderly aside.

|A sign and a wonder!| said the Roman knight, as they continued their journey. |That old fighter has no hand for kindness.|

|But mark this miracle of God,| said the friend of Vergilius. |He softens the heart of those with young and makes gentle the hand that touches them. Ay, has he not softened the heart of the world? 'Tis like a mother whose time is near.|

Soon a purple dusk had overflooded the hills and risen above the splendor of Jerusalem. The old capital was now like a dim, mysterious, golden isle in a vast, azure sea. Vergilius thought, as he went on, of those camel-riders. He seemed to hear in the lift and fall of hoofs, in the rattle of scabbards, that strange cry: |Where is he that is born king of the Jews?|

Darkness fell upon those riding in silence on the lonely road. Suddenly they drew rein, listening.

Said Vergilius, whispering: |I thought I heard voices.|

|And I,| said David, his words touched with awe. |'Twas like tens of thousands singing in some distant place.|

Again they listened, but the song, if song it was, had ceased.

Then, boldly, as one who would put down his fear, the color-bearer spoke up; |'Tis a band of shepherd folk on some far hill. Never saw I so dark a night. By the curtains of Solomon, I cannot see my horse!|

|There is no star in the sky,| said another.

Then said the young commander, whist with awe: |Look yonder! A light on the hills! I saw it appear.|

Amazement was in the tone of David: |Nay, 'tis a window of paradise! Or maybe that time is come when the three great stars should gather side by side. Do you not remember the talk of the astrologers?|

|I say 'tis a light on the hills.| Vergilius now spoke in a husky, solemn whisper. |See, 'tis larger; and I would think it near the village of Bethlehem.|

After a moment of silence he added, with a laugh: |Why stand we here and whisper, like a lot of women? Let us move on.|

Again he seemed to hear peals of song in the sky and their rhythm in hoof and scabbard. It put him in mind of that strange, mysterious chant of the old singer.

Soon he drew rein, saying: |Halt and listen!| They stopped, conscious only of the great silence of the night. Vergilius felt for the arm of his friend.

|What think you?| said he, his voice full of wonder. |I doubt not the sound is in our fancy.|

|See! The star! It grows!| said David, eagerly. |'Tis like a mighty lantern hung in the dome of the sky.|

Then said Vergilius, a pagan fancy filling his mind: |It may be God is walking upon the earth.|

A moment they rode on, looking up at the heavens. Suddenly Vergilius bade them halt again, saying: |Hist! What is that cry?|

Now they could hear a faint halloo far behind them.

Then the bearer of the colors remarked: |It might be the squad of Manius.|

|God curse him!| said Vergilius, quickly, his heart filling with passion dark as the night around. He heard no more the great song, but only the smite of steel in deadly combat. He seemed to see his enemy fall bleeding at his feet. |I will take what Herod offers,| he thought. |I will make war on the cats and the serpents.|

He had forgotten everything now save his bitterness.

|See! 'Tis gone!| said his friend, in a loud whisper. |The star is gone! I saw it disappear as if a cloud were suddenly come over it.|

All drew rein, looking into the sky. Many stars were now uncovered in the vault above them.

|'Twas a light on the hills,| said Vergilius, with a vague fear in him. |Yonder I can see a smaller one. 'Tis a lantern. Look! It moves.|

Suddenly they were startled by a mighty voice that seemed to travel far into dark and lonely caverns of the sky. Like a trumpet-call it resounded over the gloomy hills -- -that cry of the camel-rider:

|Where is he that is born king of the Jews?|

Vergilius whispered, his awe returning: |They are coming -- those men who rode the camels.|

Said David, his voice trembling: |They are like many who have gone abroad with that ancient hope in them.|

The horsemen now stood, breathing low as they listened. Vergilius was full of wonder, thinking of the awe which had fallen upon him and the others. He tried to throw it off. |We waste time,| said he, starting his charger. |Come, good men, we have work to do.|

Awhile they rode in silence, their eyes on the light of the lantern. Slowly they came near, and soon saw its glow falling upon rocks and moving shadows beneath it.

Then said David, turning to Vergilius: |The battle -- suppose it goes ill with you?|

|Ill!| said the Roman, with rising ire. |Then Jehovah is no better than Mars.|

They could now see people standing in the light of a lantern which hung above the entrance of a cave. Its opening was large enough to admit a horse and rider.

|Soldiers of Caesar!| -- the whisper went from mouth to mouth there in the light of the lantern.

The horsemen halted.

|I shall soon be done with this traitor to friend and king,| thought the tribune, dismounting and approaching the cave.

That group of people under the light, seeing symbols of Roman authority and hearing its familiar voice, fell aside with fear in their faces. A woman standing in the entrance of the cave addressed Vergilius, her voice trembling with emotion.

|Good sir,| said she, |if you mean harm to those within I pray you go hence.|

|I know not who is within,| he answered, as both he and David passed her. Fearing treachery, they drew their swords. Just beyond the entrance of the cave both halted. A man stood before them, his face full of high authority, his hand raised as if to command silence. He was garbed like a toiler and somewhat past middle age, his beard and eyebrows long and gray. A lantern hung near his head, and well beyond him, resting peacefully on the farther floor of the cave, were horses, sheep, and oxen. The man spoke not save by the beckon of his hand. Without a word they followed him. The light of the lantern seemed now to glow with exceeding brightness. They stopped. On the straw before them lay a beautiful young maiden, a child upon her breast. Her arms, which encircled the babe, her hands, her head, her whole body, and the soul within had a glow of fondness. Nature had clothed her for its great event with a fulness of beauty wonderful and yet familiar. In her soft, blue eyes they saw that peace and love which are a part of the ancient, common miracle of God. They saw more, even the light of the world, but were not able to understand. Calmly she looked up at them. Waving strands and masses of golden hair lay above her shoulders and about the head of the child upon her bosom. It was lustrous, beautiful hair, and seemed to glow as the bearded man came near with the lantern. What was there in the tender, peaceful look of the mother, what in her full breasts, what in the breathing of the child, what in the stir of those baby hands to make the soldier bare and bow his head? He leaned against the rock wall of the cave and covered his eyes and thought of his beloved Arria, of his dream of home and peace and little children. The sword fell from his hand. A great sickness of the soul came on him as he thought of those evil days in Jerusalem and of his part in their bloody record. There and then he flung off the fetters of king and emperor.

He knew not yet who lay before him.

As he looked through tears upon them they seemed to be covered with light as with a garment. David knelt before the mother and child in adoration.

Vergilius, full of astonishment, turned to look around him, and saw Manius, who stood near, trembling with superstitious awe. The wonders of the night, the great star and song in the heavens, the glowing cave, the mysterious child and mother had wrought upon him. Were they omens of death?

|Apollo save me!| he whispered, turning to go.

David rose and approached Manius, and spoke with lifted hand.

|Apollo cannot save you,| said he. |Kneel! kneel before the sacred mother and put all evil out of your hearts!|

Vergilius knelt, and then his enemy. Manius began to weep.

|O God! who hast softened the heart of the world, give us peace!| said David.

Again they heard that voice which had greeted their ears in Jerusalem. It spoke now at the entrance of the cave, saying again: |Where is he that is born king of the Jews?|

David, going to the door of the cave, answered: |Here, within.|

|Tis he -- the new king!| the tribune whispered. |I thought kings were born in palaces, and here are they so near the beasts of the field.|

Soon came David, and behind him, following in single file, three men, a God-sent majesty in step and countenance. Vergilius and Manius moved aside, saluting solemnly as the men passed. The young tribune turned to his friend and to Manius.

|Come,| he whispered. |The Judge of all the earth is here, and, as for me, I dare not remain.|

Softly, silently, they departed, their hearts lifted to that peace none may understand. Gently, gently, Vergilius took the hand of him who had been his enemy. They had forgotten their bitterness and the touch of awe had made them kin.

|All debts are paid, my brother,| said Vergilius. |I forgive you.|

He struck his sword deep in the earth. |Henceforth it shall be for a ploughshare,| he added.

The assessor bowed low, kissing the hand of Vergilius, who quickly mounted horse.

Then said the latter, turning to his followers: |Come, let us make haste. Before the gold is shining in the great lantern of Shushan. I must be on my way to the sea.|

|On your way to the sea!| said his friend.

As he answered, the voice of Vergilius had a note of longing and beloved memories: |Yes, for the day is come when I return to the city of Caesar. Nothing shall separate me longer from my beloved. But come, let us seek Appius at the beacon-fire.|

On all sides the great shadow was now thick-sown with stars. The group of horsemen, with colors flying, rode swiftly down the broad way to Jerusalem. Suddenly they drew rein. Great surges of song were rolling in upon this rounded isle from off the immeasurable, mighty deep of the heavens. Beating of drums, and waving of banners, and trumpet-sounds, and battle-cries of them unborn were in that new song -- so it seemed to those who heard it. Winding over the gloomy hills near them under the light of the great star, they could see a long procession of shepherds bearing crooks. Awhile the horsemen looked and listened. The host of the dead now seemed to cry unto the host of the living:

|Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good-will towards men.|

Slowly the song diminished.

|The everlasting gates are lifted up,| said David, thoughtfully. Then, thinking of the perils of the new king, he added: |I beseech you, say nothing of these things abroad.|

The song had ceased. A cloud, with all its borders bright, now curtained the great star. Another band of horsemen were descending the hill from Bethlehem. Swiftly they came near and halted.

|God send you peace,| said the voice of a maiden. |We seek one Vergilius, officer of the cohort.|

|And who is he that you should seek him?| said the young tribune, dismounting quickly.

|My lover,| said she, a note of trouble in her voice, |and I do fear his life is in peril.|

Vergilius was at her side. Now the light of the great star shone full upon them.

|Blood of my heart!| he whispered, lifting the maiden from her horse.

|Oh, you that have made me love you with the great love!| she cried, pressing her cheek upon his. |I have been as one lost in the desert, and I thank the one God he has led me to you.|

A moment they stood together and all were silent.

|God has answered my prayer,| said he. |But how came you here?|

Then she whispered: |I came with Appius, and the emperor has written that we are to bring you home.|

|And we shall live no more apart,| said he. |'Tis a night of ten thousand years, dear love. The Christ is come.|

|The Christ is come!| she repeated. |How know you?|

|Have you not seen his light in the heavens nor heard the mighty song?|

|Yes, and all the night we have been full of wonder. Listen!|

Again the air trembled with that peal of song:

|Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards men.|

Slowly it sank into silence. Vergilius drew the maiden close and touched her ear with his lips and whispered: |Love has opened our hearts to the knowledge of mighty things. It has led us to the Prince of Peace.|

Then said the maiden: |Let us build a temple wherein to worship him, and make it a holy place.|

|And call it home,| said the young knight, as he kissed her.


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