“And what of your oath, son of Herod?”
“But they are not yet married,” the other answered, malevolently. “Vergilius! Bah! He is the son of a praetor and I am the son of a king. Curse the old fox! He never spoke to me after greetings, and once when I glanced up at him I thought his keen eyes were looking through me.
“Those eyes! Jupiter!” said Gracus, “they drop a plummet into one.”
Now there were few barriers between the emperor and the people. He went to work in his study at an early hour and gave a patient hearing to any but foolish men. This morning he had been reading a long address from the legate of Syria. He had a way of dividing his thought between reading and small affairs of the state. His legate recited all he had been able to learn of the new king they were now expecting in Judea. He told also of a plot which had baffled all his efforts and which aimed to take the life of Herod and crown the king of prophecy and divine power.
“We must have a spy of noble blood and bearing, of unswerving fidelity and honor, and with some knowledge of the religion of Judea,” said the legate. “Of course, you will not be able to find him, for where in all the world, save yourself, good father, is there such a man?”
Augustus dropped the sheet of vellum and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“How about this young Vergilius—the handsome, clever, woman-loving Vergilius?” he thought. Then for a moment the cunning emperor laughed silently.
Ever since he began to read the letter he had been conversing with his daughter Julia.
“If you can propose a better candidate for the girl, I—” he paused, looking intently at the letter—“I shall consider him,” he added, presently.
“She is beautiful,” his daughter whispered. “I know one who will give to the state many thousand aurei.”
“No need of hurry. The young Vergilius will give what is better than money, and then—”
The emperor paused again.
“And then?” it was the inquiry of Julia.
“He will forget her and she will grow weary and yield. There’s time enough, and time”—he took a little mirror from the table and looked down upon it—“can accomplish many things,” he added. “It will have the assistance of fame and honor and new faces. Now go, I beg of you, and leave me to my work.”
A delegation of Jews—petty merchants of the Trastevere—were leaving as Vergilius entered. The emperor, now alone save for his young caller, rose and gave him a sprig of laurel.
“Sit here,” said he, resuming his seat and pausing for a little to study a sheet of vellum in his hands. He continued, without raising his eyes: “I have another test for you, my fair son. You shall be assistant procurator in Jerusalem, with rank of tribune. It may be you shall have command of the castle. Three days from now take the south road with Manius and a troop of horse. This court of Herod—of course, I am speaking kindly, my dear Vergilius—but, you may know, it is a place of mysteries, and there are many things I do not need to say to you.”