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Vergilius by Irving Bacheller

CHAPTER 8 It was near the middle hour of the night.à

It was near the middle hour of the night. Many, just out of banquet-hall, theatre, and circus, thronged the main thoroughfares of the capital. Cries of venders, ribald songs, shouts of revelry, the hurrying of many feet roused the good people who, wearied by other nights of dissipation, now sought repose. They turned, uneasily, reflecting that to-morrow they would have their revenge.

Antipater had dined with but a single guest -- a young priest, who, arriving that very day from Damascus, had sought the palace of his countryman. The service at his table had not pleased the prince. Leaping from his couch, he struck down a slave and ordered his crucifixion. It was a luckless Arab, who many times had unwittingly offended his master.

Now the son of Herod lay asleep where, a little time ago, he had been feasting. Manius, who had just entered the palace of his friend, came into the banquet-hall. He touched the arm of Antipater, who started with a curse and rose with an apology.

|I was dreaming of foes and I see a friend,| he muttered. |Forgive me, noble Manius.|

The prince pulled a golden bell-cord that shone against the green pargeting of the wall.

|Now to our business,| he whispered, turning to the officer.

They crossed the atrium, descended a stairway, and threw open a barred door. They were now in a gloomy passage between walls of marble. Antipater halted, presently, and tapped with his seal ring on a metal door. Then a rattle of bolts and the door swung open.

|Now,| Antipater whispered, |are you of the same mind?|

|I am.|

|And again you swear secrecy?|

|I do.|

Without more delay they entered a room walled with white marble and lighted by candles. A bearded Jew, in a scarlet cloak embroidered with gold, rose to greet them.

|To John ben Joreb I present the noble Manius,| said Antipater.

|Blessings of the one God be upon thee,| said Ben Joreb, bowing low.

|And the favor of many gods on thee,| said the assessor. |From Jerusalem?|

|Nay, from Damascus.|

Antipater stirred the fire in iron braziers on either side of the room, and then bade them recline beside him at a small table whereon a supper waited.

|Ben Joreb has good news of our plan,| said he, turning to Manius.

|It prospers,| said the priest. |Our council is now in thirty cities.|

|And the king is better,| said Manius. |He will not soon perish of infirmity.|

|But you tell me that my father suffers?|

Antipater started nervously. A long, weird wail from the Arab dying on a cross in the garden flooded down the flues.

|A hundred deaths a day,| said Ben Joreb.

|I have been talking with Manius,| Antipater answered. |He thinks it would be a mercy to -- |

He was interrupted again. That tremulous, awful cry for mercy found its way to his ear. It seemed to mock the sacred word. Antipater jumped to his feet, cursing.

|I will put an end to that,| said he, rushing to the door and flinging it back and running down the passage.

Manius turned to Ben Joreb.

|What is there in the howling of that slave?| he whispered. |I am weak-hearted.|

|I take it for a sign,| the other answered, gravely. |It is written, 'Thy spirit shall be as the candle of the Lord,' and, again, 'Thou shall hearken to the cry of anguish.'|

In a few moments Antipater returned.

|I have summoned the carnifex,| said he, bolting the door and resuming his place at the table. |I was saying to you, good Manius, that my friend here, Ben Joreb, would think it a great mercy to remove him.|

|A great mercy!| Ben Joreb answered; |a man's mercy to him; a God's mercy to his people.|

|And what think you?| said Antipater, turning to Manius.

|I agree; 'twould be a mercy, but a risky enterprise,| said the Roman.

|I would risk my head to save him a day of pain,| said the treacherous son of Herod. |You love him not as I do or you would brave all to end his misery.|

There was now half a moment filled with a long, piercing cry from beyond the walls of the palace until Antipater spoke, a tiger look in his face again. |Put the lance into him, my good carnifex,| he growled, striking with clinched fist. |Again, now; and again, and again.|

He listened for a breath, and as silence came he added, |There, that will do.|

Neither spoke for a little time.

|I wish I could make you feel how dearly I love my father,| he went on, addressing his friends now and hiding his claws with revolting guile and all unconscious that he had shown them.

Again a breath of silence, in which Manius thought of the black leopard when he lay making those playful and caressing movements on the floor. And there came to the heart of Ben Joreb a fear that this man might prove more terrible than his father.

|We feel it,| said Manius, with inner smiles that showed not upon his face.

|Then be servants of my love.|

|And of our own welfare?|

|Certainly! You shall each have a palace in Jerusalem and fifty thousand aurei; and you, Manius, shall command the forces on land and sea, and you, John ben Joreb, of the tribe of Aaron, shall be high-priest.|

|I agree,| said Manius, an overwhelming cupidity in the words.

|And I agree,| said the Jew, who had entered upon this intrigue with motives of patriotism, and now, although suspicious of the result, was committed beyond a chance of turning.

|Angels of mercy!| Antipater exclaimed, rising and taking a hand of each in his. |My love shall be ever a shield and weapon for you. One other thing. The couriers who bring to Rome news of my father's death -- bid them hurry and take with them, also, word of the illness of that dog Vergilius. After they leave let him not linger in needless pain -- do you understand me? For that, I say, each of you shall have five thousand aurei added to his wealth.|

The others nodded.

|Now take this -- it may be useful,| whispered the prince of Judea, handing a little golden box to the assessor. |There is something in it will hasten the effect of wine -- a fine remedy for a weary land, good Manius. He that makes it a friend shall have no enemies. Hold, let me think. That old fox on the hill yonder has a thousand eyes and his ears are everywhere. Not a word, Manius, after we leave this door. In yon passage turn to the right. Walk until your head touches the ceiling, then creep to the door. Open it and use your ears. If no one is passing, go straight ahead. You will come to a gate on the Via Sacra. You,| he added, turning to Ben Joreb, |shall leave by the main gate.|

When both had gone, this prince of Judea walked across the inner hall of his palace and flung himself on the cushions of a great divan.

A swarthy eunuch came near him on tip-toe.

|Begone!| The word burst from the lips of Antipater in a hoarse growl, and, like a tiger's paw, his hand struck the cushions in front of him. As he lay blinking drowsily, his chin upon his hands, there was still in his face and attitude a suggestion of the monster cat.

And he thought fondly of his wreaking of vengeance when he should be crowned the great king of prophetic promise -- of the fury of armies, of the stench of the slain, of the cry of the ravished, of |mountains melting in blood.|

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