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I THE EMPEROR’S VISION
It was at the time when Augustus was emperor in Rome and Herod was king in Jerusalem.

It happened once upon a time that a very great and holy night sank down over the earth. It was the darkest night ever seen by man; it seemed as if the whole earth had passed under a vault. It was impossible to distinguish water from land, or to find the way on the most familiar paths. And it could not be otherwise, for not a ray of light came from the sky. All the stars stayed in their houses, and the fair moon kept her face turned away.

And just as intense as the darkness was the silence and the calm. The rivers stood still in their course; the wind did not stir, and even the leaves of the aspen ceased to tremble. Any one walking by the sea would have found that the waves no longer broke on the shore, and the sand of the desert did not crunch under the wanderer’s foot. Everything was as if turned to stone and without motion, in order not to disturb the holy night. The grass did not dare to grow, the dew could not fall, and the flowers feared to exhale their perfume.

[2]

During that night the beasts of prey did not hunt, the serpents did not sting, the dogs did not bay. And what was even more wonderful, none of the inanimate things would have disturbed the holiness of the night by lending themselves to an evil deed. No false key could open a lock, and no knife could shed blood.

In Rome, on that very night, a little group of people came down from the emperor’s palace on the Palatine and made their way over the Forum to the Capitol. During the day just completed his councillors had asked the emperor if they might not raise a temple to him on Rome’s holy mountain. But Augustus had not immediately given his consent. He did not know if it would be pleasing to the gods for him to possess a temple next to theirs, and he had answered that he wished first to discover by a nocturnal sacrifice to his genius what their wishes were. Followed by a few faithful retainers, he was now on his way to perform that sacrifice.

Augustus was carried in his litter, for he was old, and the long stairs to the Capitol fatigued him. He held the cage of doves which was his offering. Neither priests, nor soldiers, nor councillors accompanied him; only his nearest friends. Torch-bearers walked in front of him, as if to force a way through the darkness of the night, and behind him followed slaves, carrying the tripod, the charcoal, the knives, the holy fire, and everything needed for the sacrifice.

On the way the emperor chatted gayly with his retainers, and none of them noticed the infinite silence and calm of the night. It was only on reaching the open place on the top of the Capitol, which had been thought of for the new temple, that it[3] was revealed to them that something unusual was occurring.

It could not be a night like any other, for on the edge of the cliff they saw the strangest being. They thought at first that it was an old twisted olive trunk; then they thought that an ancient statue from the temple of Jupiter had wandered out on the cliff. At last they saw that it could only be the old sibyl.

They had never seen anything so old, so weather-beaten, and so gigantic. If the emperor had not been there, they would have all fled home to their beds. “It is she,” they whispered to each other, “who counts as many years as there are grains of sand on her native shores. Why has she come out of her cave to-night? What does she foretell to the emperor and to the country, she who writes her prophecies on the leaves of trees, and knows that the wind carries the words of the oracle to him who needs them?”

They were so terrified that all would have fallen on their knees with their foreheads to the ground had the sibyl made the slightest movement. But she sat as still as if she had been without life. Crouched on the very edge of the cliff, and shading her eyes with her hand, she stared out into the night. She sat there as if she had gone up on the hill the better to see something happening far away. She alone could see something in the black night!

At the same moment the emperor and all his suite perceived how intense the darkness was. Not one of them could see a hand’s-breadth in front of him. And what a calm, what silence! They could not[4] even hear the rippling murmur of the Tiber. The air seemed to choke them; a cold sweat came out on their foreheads, and their hands were stiff and powerless. They thought that something dreadful must be impending.

But no one liked to show that he was afraid, and everybody told the emperor that it was a good omen; nature herself held her breath to greet a new god.

They urged Augustus to hurry, and said that the old sibyl had probably come up from her cave to greet his genius.

But the truth was that the old sibyl, engrossed in a vision, did not even know that Augustus had come to the Capitol. She was transported in spirit to a far distant land, where she thought she was wandering over a great plain. In the darkness she kept striking her foot against something, which she thought to be tufts of grass. She bent down and felt with her hand. No, they were not tufts of grass, but sheep. She was walking among great sleeping flocks of sheep.

Then she perceived the fire of the shepherds. It was burning in the middle of the plain, and she approached it. The shepherds were lying asleep by the fire, and at their sides they had long, pointed staves, with which they defended their flocks from wild beasts. But the little animals with shining eyes and bushy tails, which crept forward to the fire, were they not jackals? And yet the shepherds did not throw their staves at them; the dogs continued to sleep; the sheep did not flee; and the wild beasts lay down to rest beside the men.

All this the sibyl saw, but of what was going on behind her on the mountain she knew nothing.[5] She did not know that people were raising an altar, lighting charcoal, strewing incense, and that the emperor was taking one of the doves out of the cage to make a sacrifice to her. But his hands were so benumbed that he could not hold the bird. With a single flap of her wings the dove freed herself, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

When that happened, the courtiers looked suspiciously at the old sibyl. They thought that it was she who was the cause of the misfortune.

Could they know that the sibyl still thought she was standing by the shepherds’ fire, and that she was now listening to a faint sound which came vibrating through the dead silence of the night? She had heard it for a long time before she noticed that it came from the sky, and not from the earth. At last she raised her head, and saw bright, glistening forms gliding about up in the darkness. They were small bands of angels, who, singing, and apparently searching, flew up and down the wide plain.

While the sibyl listened to the angels’ song, the emperor was preparing for a new sacrifice. He washed his hands, purified the altar, and grasped the other dove. But although he now made a special effort to hold it fast, the bird slipped through his fingers, and swung itself up into the impenetrable night.

The emperor was appalled. He fell on his knees before the empty altar and prayed to his genius. He called on him for strength to avert the misfortunes which this night seemed to portend.

Nothing of all this had the sibyl heard. She was listening with her whole soul to the angels’ song, which was growing stronger and stronger. At last[6] it became so loud that it wakened the shepherds. They raised themselves on their elbows, and saw shining hosts of silvery angels moving in the darkness in long, fluttering lines, like birds of passage. Some had lutes and violins in their hands; others had zithers and harps, and their song sounded as gay as children’s laughter, and as free from care as the trilling of a lark. When the shepherds heard it they rose up to go to the village which was their home, to tell of the miracle.

They went by a narrow, winding path, and the sibyl followed them. Suddenly it became light on the mountain. A great, bright star kindled over it, and the village on its top shone like silver in the starlight. All the wandering bands of angels hastened thither with cries of jubilation, and the shepherds hurried on so fast that they almost ran. When they had reached the town they found that the angels had gathered over a low stable near the gate. It was a wretched building, with roof of straw, and the bare rock for one wall. Above it hung the star, and more and more angels kept coming. Some of them placed themselves on the straw roof, or settled down on the steep cliff behind the house; others hovered over it with fluttering wings. High, high up, the air was lighted by their shining wings.

At the moment when the star flamed out over the mountain-village all nature awoke, and the men who stood on the top of the Capitol were conscious of it. They felt fresh, but caressing breezes; sweet perfumes streamed up about them; the trees rustled; the Tiber murmured, the stars shone, and the moon stood high in the heaven and lighted the world.[7] And out of the sky the two doves flew circling down, and lighted on the emperor’s shoulders.

When this miracle took place Augustus rose up with proud joy, but his friends and his slaves fell on their knees. “Hail, C?sar!” they cried. “Your genius has answered you! You are the god who shall be worshipped on the heights of the Capitol.”

And the tribute which the men in their transport offered the emperor was so loud that the old sibyl heard it. It waked her from her visions. She rose from her place on the edge of the cliff, and came forward toward the people. It seemed as if a dark cloud had risen up from the abyss and sunk down over the mountain. She was terrifying in her old age. Coarse hair hung in thin tufts about her head, her joints were thickened, and her dark skin, hard as bark, covered her body with wrinkle upon wrinkle.

Mighty and awe-inspiring, she advanced towards the emperor. With one hand she seized his wrist, with the other she pointed towards the distant east.

“Look,” she commanded, and the emperor raised his eyes and saw. The heavens opened before his eyes and he looked away to the far east. And he saw a miserable stable by a steep cliff, and in the open door some kneeling shepherds. Within the stable he saw a young mother on her knees before a little child, who lay on a bundle of straw on the floor.

And the sibyl’s big, bony fingers pointed towards that poor child.

“Hail, C?sar!” said the sibyl, with a scornful laugh. “There is the god who shall be worshipped on the heights of the Capitol.”

[8]

Augustus shrank back from her as if from a maniac.

But upon the sibyl fell the mighty spirit of the prophetess. Her dim eyes began to burn, her hands were stretched towards heaven, her voice did not seem to be her own, but rang with such strength that it could have been heard over the whole world. And she spoke words which she seemed to have read in the stars:—
“On the heights of the Capitol the redeemer of the world shall be worshipped,
Christ or Antichrist, but no frail mortal.”

When she had spoken she moved away between the terrified men, went slowly down the mountain, and disappeared.

Augustus, the next day, strictly forbade his people to raise him any temple on the Capitol. In its place he built a sanctuary to the new-born godchild and called it “Heaven’s Altar,” Aracoeli.
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