“You have, indeed, been dreaming,” said the other. “But, Vergilius, there is one higher than I who shall choose her husband—the imperator. Does he know you?”
“I have met him, of course, but do much fear he would not remember me.”
“We may know shortly. Every seventh day this year he has sat, like a beggar, at his gate asking for alms. To-day we shall see him there.”
“It is an odd whim.”
“Hush! you know the people as well as I, and he must please them,” the other whispered. “He must conceal his power if he would live out his time. I will present you, and perhaps he may be gracious—ay, may even bid you to his banquet.”
“A modest home,” said young Vergilius.
Now they were nearing the palace of that mild and quiet gentleman whose name and title—Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus—had terrified the world; whose delicate hands flung the levin of his power to the far boundaries of India and upper Gaul, to the distant shores of Spain and Africa, and into deserts beyond the Euphrates.
“Many a poor patrician has better furniture and more servants and a nobler palace,” said Appius. “Rather plain wood, divans out of fashion, rugs o’erworn; but you have seen them. He alone can afford that kind of thing.”
“He has a fondness for old things.”
“But not for old women, my dear fellow.”
“Indeed! And he is himself sixty-one.”
“Hist—the imperator! There, by the gate yonder.”
An erect figure of a man rather above medium height, in a coarse, gray toga, stood by one of the white columns. Three Moorish children were playing about his knees, and a senator was talking with him.
“My public services are familiar to you,” said the senator, as the young knights waited some twenty paces off. “A gift of two hundred thousand denarii would be fitting, and, if you will permit me to say so, it would delight the populace. Indeed, ’tis generally believed you have already given me a large sum.”
“But see that you do not believe it,” blandly spake the strange emperor, for albeit Rome was then a republic in name it was an empire in fact, and Augustus, wielding the power of an emperor, refused the title. Turning, he began to play with the children.
“Great and beloved father! I hope, at least, you will consider my prayer.”
“Good senator, I have considered. You ask for two hundred thousand denarii. I can give you only the opportunity of earning them. As to myself, I am poor. Look at me. Even my time belongs to the people. and it is passing, my dear senator—it is passing.”
The importunate man saw the subtle meaning in these words and went his way.
The emperor sat down, a child upon each knee, as the young men approached him. His head was bare and his fair, curly locks, growing low upon his forehead, were now touched with gray. He looked up at the two, his eyes blue, brilliant, piercing.