"TO ONE SEEKING WISDOM IN PRAYER
"If you would share in the deliberations of the Council of the Covenant, be at the well of Nicanor, which is opposite the tenth column in the king's portico of the temple, at the second sounding of the sacred horns on the Day of Atonement. There wait until one shall come and ask what you are seeking, and you shall answer, 'Knowledge of the one God.' Then, if he turns away, follow him and do as he bids you."
His opportunity had come. He waited with the curiosity of a child. Soon, possibly, he should see the face of the great Lawgiver and learn of things beyond the valley of death. If all went well he would amaze the people of Rome with wonder stories and give them assurance of immortal life.
The city had been thronged with pilgrims that day of the ancient festival. It was turning dusk when Vergilius made his way through crowded streets to the well of Nicanor. Suddenly he heard a trumpet signal, and then followed that moment of silence when every tongue and foot and wheel stopped, quickly, and all stood listening for the awful name spoken but once a year.
Presently the shout of the high priest rang like a trumpet-peal above the roofs of the city. Then Jerusalem was all begirt and overflooded with song. Maidens, white robed, were singing in distant vineyards; people were singing in the streets; trained devotees were whirling and dancing and chanting psalms in the court of the Temple, while priest and Levite followed, blowing, with all their power of lung, upon the sacred horns.
In the midst of this outbreak a stranger approached Vergilius at the well, saying, "What seek you?" The young Roman gave his answer, but was unable to see the face of him who questioned. The stranger turned away and bade him follow. Without more ceremony Vergilius walked behind him through narrow streets, wholly unfamiliar, and presently descending a stairway, came into a dark passage. They halted, after a few paces, whereupon a loud rap startled the new-comer. Soon he could hear a door open. The stranger, taking his hand, led him into some dark place. It was all very strange, and like tales long familiar, relating to the city of mysteries. Standing there in the dark and silence, he had some misgivings which gave way when a voice addressed him as follows:
"You are now in the council-chamber of the Covenant. We meet in darkness, so that no shape or form or image may turn our thought from the contemplation of him who is most high and who hath his dwelling in black darkness. Moreover, those who are not seen shall have neither vanity nor the will to deceive. Would you share in our deliberations?"
Vergilius answered yes, and one of the council then took his hand and administered the oath of secrecy, and led him to what seemed to be a large divan, where he sat, shoulder to shoulder, between other members of the council. He listened long to the casuistry of learned men touching prayer, atonement, and sacrifice. It led at last to some discussion of the new king.
"Is there one here can tell me where and when he shall be born?" was the query of Vergilius.
"We believe the Messiah is already born," said a councillor. "Moreover, some here have beheld his face."
"And where, then, does he dwell?" Vergilius inquired.
"That you shall know some day. At the next meeting of the council it may be told. We wait only for the fulness of time. He dwells in a distant city, and not long ago I spoke with him. He sent his love and greeting to every member of our council. He bids you wait his time, when all your prayers shall be answered."
"Shall there be signs of his coming?" So spoke Vergilius.
"There shall be signs, and you shall hear of them in this chamber."
"And what shall be the aim of the king?"
"To establish the reign of justice."
Vergilius queried much regarding the government of the new king, and got replies adding more to his curiosity than to his knowledge.
It was near the middle hour of the night when a voice announced: "The keeper of the new door will now leave the council."
Vergilius heard a stir coming near him in the darkness. Hands were laid upon him, and, presently, one took his arm and led him away. The two climbed a long flight of stairs and made hastily across a broad roof. At a railed opening they came to other stairs, and, descending, entered a passage, dark as had been the chamber. At its end the Roman received a password. Then a door swung and again he was on the pavements of Jerusalem, and, far away, could see the lights of Temple Hill.
His conductor, returning, announced the departure of "the new voice."
"We will now hear from the keeper of records," said one.
A voice quickly answered: "He secured a lock of his hair."
"And what says the keeper of the hidden light?"
Then said another voice: "He now sees but one obstacle."
"And what says the Angel of Death?"
A low, deep tone broke the silence in which all waited. "The sixth day before the kalends, he shall claim his own," so it answered.
"Enough," said the questioner. "The ways lead to safety. I bid you go."
One by one the councillors began to leave. There was no treading upon heels, for one was well out of the way before another was allowed to go. So cunningly was their room devised that half the exits led to one thoroughfare and half to another; and so many were they, it was said, no more than two councillors came or went by the same door. And of all who came, so say the records, not one knew another to be sure of him.