“I find here the word ‘preference,’” said he, and all observed that his keen eyes were calmly measuring the prince Antipater. “It is a poor word, and does you little honor, my young friend. In mere preference there is no merit. Here is another, and it says ‘more wine.’ Keep his goblet full,” he added, pointing to that of the senator, as all laughed. “Here is one says ‘rest.’ Have patience, my good daughter, I shall soon be done talking. Another has on it the words ’your health’—a charming compliment, dear Lady Lucia. ‘Courage,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘success,’” he added, reading from the tablets. “Naturally, and who, indeed, does not desire those things? Here is one that says ’help’—a great word, upon my soul! He that prays for help and not for favor, if he do his best, may have many good things—even ‘courage,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘success.’ Keep at work and you shall have my help, Appius, and, I doubt not, that of the gods also. Here is one—I like it best of all—it is that of the modest young Vergilius. He would have a priceless thing. And do you,” he inquired, turning to the young knight, “desire this above all things? Think; there is the distinction of place and power and honor—the ring of a legate would become you well!”
“But, above all,” said Vergilius, “I desire that I have written.”
“Beautiful boy!” said the cunning emperor. “’Tis so great a prize, give me another test of your quality. With one word you ask for one thing. To try your wit, I give you a theme so small it is next to naught—the number one. Tell us, and briefly as you may, what is in it.”
The young man rose and bowed low. “One is in all numbers,” said he, “and unless all numbers are as one they are nothing. I desire one mistress for my heart, one purpose for my conduct, and one great master for my country.”
“The gods grant them!” said Augustus, leading the applause.
“And now I shall proclaim the word he has written. It is ‘Arria,’ and stands, I know well, for the sister of Appius.”
He turned quickly to the still and silent figure of the slave behind him. All eyes were now watching her.
“Are you content?” he inquired.
Gray veil and robe fell away, revealing the beautiful sister of Appius. Vergilius went quickly to her side.
“I declare them for each other!” said the emperor, as all rose and gathered around the two. He took the boy’s hand. “Come to me at ten to-morrow,” he added.
“But, O father of Rome!” said Arria, looking up at the great man, “how long shall you detain him?”
“Give me half an hour, you love-sick maiden,” said Augustus. “He shall be at your palace in good time.”
“Come at the middle hour,” said the Lady Lucia, her hand upon the arm of Vergilius.
“The gods give you sleep,” said the great father, as he bade them good-night.
Beneath the laurels on their way to the gate, Gracus, who rode with Antipater, said: