The old emperor, leaning forward, touched the arm of the young man and gave him a cunning glance.
“A cipher,” he added, passing the sheet of vellum. “It will be known to you and to me only. You will understand what I wish to know. You shall have command of a cohort.”
Vergilius thought for a second of that strange overhauling of Manius the night before, and of the shrewdness of the great father in returning him, kindly, to his task, with a pair of eyes to keep watch of him.
“With all my heart I thank you,” said the young knight. “But—my beloved father—I was hoping to marry and—and know the path of peace.”
“But I am sure you will wait two years—only two years,” said the other, rising with extended hands. “There is time enough; and remember, whether to peace or war, your path is that of duty. Farewell!”
It was a way he had of commanding, kindly but inexorable, and Vergilius knew it. Again he spoke as the knight turned away.
“This young Antipater—do you know him?”
“But, possibly, well enough,” said the emperor, with a knowing look. Then, casually: “Oh, there is yet a little matter—that new king the Jews are looking for—if he should come, I suppose he will report to me, but—but let me know what you learn. Study the Jewish faith and discover what this hope is founded upon.” Then he turned quickly and went away.
This “little matter” counted much with the shrewd emperor. Kings were his puppets, and if there were to be a new one he must, indeed, consider what to do with him. Yet he had shame of his interest in “that foolish gossip” of an alien race. Therefore he put it only as a trifling after-thought. But he had a way of talking with his eyes, and the alert youth read them well.
That elation of the young lover now had its boundary of thoughtfulness. Going down the Palatine, he was also descending his hill of happiness. Below him, in the Forum, he could see the golden mile-stone of Augustus, now like a pillar of fire in the sunlight; he could see the beginning of those many roads radiating from it to far peripheries of the empire. Tens of thousands had turned their backs upon it, leaving with slow feet, some to live in distant, inhospitable lands, some to die of fever and the sword, some to return forgotten of their kindred, and some few with laurels of renown; but all of these many who went away were leaving, for long or forever, love and home and peace.
“The army is sucking our blood, and Hate grows while Love is starving,” Vergilius reflected, as he went along, while a hideous, unwelcome thought grew slowly, creeping over him. This golden mile-stone was the centre of a great spider-web laced by road and sea way to the far corners of the empire; and that cunning, alert man—who was he but the spider?
“And I—what am I, now, but one of his flies caught in the mighty web?” he thought. “Love and its peace have come to me and I shall know them—for three days—and perhaps no longer.”