He sat awhile muttering, his face between his hands. Soon, having calmed his passion, he rose and snarled: “Good sirs, never quarrel with the pet of an emperor, for if one spares you the other will not.”
Arria and her mother sat with the emperor. He was at home and in a playful humor. The hour of his banquet was approaching. Soon he would be summoned to receive his guests.
“Nay, but I am sure he loves me,” the girl was saying.
The cunning emperor smiled and spoke very gently. “Think you so, dear child? I will put him to the test. Soon we shall know if he be worthy of so great a prize. I will try both his wit and his devotion, but you—you cannot be here.”
“And why, great father?”
“Think you it could be a test with your eye upon him?”
“Oh, but I must see it,” said the girl. “Unless I see it I shall not know. Let me be your slave and stand behind you in gray cloth. Beloved father, I implore you, let me see the test.”
“Ah, well,” said the emperor, rising, with a smile. “I shall know nothing but that you have gone above-stairs to find Clia, mistress of the robes. Tell her to give you a box of tablets, and when I raise my finger—so—they are to be delivered. Away with you.”
Arria left with a cry of joy, and presently Augustus went with the Lady Lucia to meet his guests.
The “commands” of the emperor had given the hour of the banquet and prescribed the dress to be worn. Vergilius had waited anxiously for the moment when he should again see the great god of Rome, who could give or take away as he would. Standing at the door of Caesar, he wondered whether he were nearing the end of all pleasure or the gate of paradise. A plate of polished brass hung on its lintel, bearing in large letters the word Salve. A slave opened the door and took his pallium. Julia, that wayward daughter of Augustus, now three times married but yet beautiful, met him in the inner hall, and together they walked to the banquet-room. There the emperor, limping slightly, came to meet Vergilius, and there, also, were the guests, seven in number: Appius and his mother, the Lady Lucia; Terentia, wife of the late Maecenas; Manius, an assessor in Judea; Hortensius, legate of Spain; Antipater, son of Herod the Great; and Aulus Valerius Maro, the senator.
“It enters my thought to say to you,” said the emperor, aside, as he put his hand upon the shoulder of Vergilius, “keep the number one in your mind, so that by-and-by you can tell me what you make of it.”
Slaves had covered the table with fish and fowl in dishes of unwrought silver. The guests reclined upon three great divans set around as many sides of the table. They ate resting on their elbows, and were so disposed that each could see the host without turning. The emperor asked only for coarse bread, a morsel of fish, two figs, and a bit of cheese.