But most books--even Felix Kennaston's own little books--did not seem now to be affairs of heavy moment. Once abed, clasping his gleaming broken bit of metal, and the truthful history of all that had ever happened was, instead, Kennaston's library. It w as not his to choose from what volume or on which page thereof he would read; accident, as it seemed, decided that; but the chance-opened page lay unblurred before him, and he saw it with a clarity denied to other men of his generation.
Kennaston stood by the couch of Tiberius Caesar as he lay ill at Capreae. Becide him hung a memorable painting, by Parrhasius, which represented the virgin Atalanta in the act of according very curious assuagements to her lover's ardor. Charicles, a Gr eek physician, was telling the Emperor of a new religious sect that had arisen in Judea, and of the persecutions these disciples of Christus were enduring. Old Caesar listened, made grave clucking noises of disapproval.
"It is, instead, a religion that should be fostered. The man preached peace. It is what my father before me strove for, what I have striven for, what my successors must strive for. Peace alone may preserve Rome: the empire is too large, a bubble blown so big and tenuous that the first shock will disrupt it in suds. Pilate did well to crucify the man, else we could not have made a God of him; but the persecution of these followers of Christus must cease. This Nazarene preached the same doctrine that I have always preached. I shall build him a temple. The rumors concerning him lack novelty, it is true: this God born of a mortal woman is the old legend of Dionysos and Mithra and Hercules, a little pulled about; Gautama also was tempted in a wilderne ss; Prometheus served long ago as man's scapegoat under divine anger; and the cult of Pollux and Castor, and of Adonis, has made these resurrection stories hackneyed. In fine, Charicles, you have broyght me a woefully inartistic jumble of old tales; but the populace prefers old tales, they delight to be told what they have heard already. I shall certainly build Christus a temple."
So he ran on, devising the reception of Christ into the Roman pantheon, as a minor diety at first and thence, if the receipts at his temple justified it, to be raised to greater eminence. Tiberius saw large possibilities in the worship of this new God, b oth from a doctrinal and a money-making standpoint. Then Caeser yawned, and ordered that a company of his Spintriae be summoned to his chamber, to amuse him with their unnatural diversions.
But Charicles had listened in horror, for he was secretly a Christian, and knew that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. He foresaw that, without salutary discouragement, the worship of Christus would never amount to more than the social fad of a particular season, just as that of Cybele and that of Ela-Gabal had been modish in different years; and would afterward dwindle, precisely as these cults had done, into shrugged-at old-fashionedness. Then, was it not written that they only were assurdly blessed who were persecuted for righteousness' sake?--Why, martyrdom was the one certain road to Heaven; and a religion which is patronized by potentates, obviously, breeds no martyrs.
So Charicles mingled poison in Caesar's drink, that Caesar might die, and crazed Caligula succeed him, to put all Christains to the sword. And Charicles young Caius Caeser Caligula--Child of the Camp, Father of Armies, beloved of the Gods--killed first o f all.
Then a lean man, white-robed, and clean-shaven as to his head, was arranging a complicated toy. He labored in a gray-walled room, lit only by one large circular window opening upon the sea. There was an alcove in this room, and in the alcove stood a lar ge painted statue.
This prefigured a crowned woman, in bright particolored garments of white and red and yellow, under a black mantle embroidered with small sparkling stars. Upon the woman's forehead was a disk, like a round glittering mirror; seen closer, it was engraved with tiny characters, and Kennaston viewed it with a thrill of recognition. To the woman's right were vipers rising from the earth, and to the left were stalks of ripe corn, all in their proper colors. In one hand she carried a golden boat, from which a coiled asp raised its head threateningly. From the other hand dangled a cluster of slender metal rods, which were not a part of the statue, but were loosely attached to it, so that the last wind caused them to move and jangle. There was nothing whateve r in the gray-walled room save this curious gleaming statue and the lean man and the mechanical toy on which he labored.
He explained its workings, willingly enough. See now! you kindled a fire in this little cube-shaped box. The air inside expanded through this pipe into the first jar of water, and forced the water out, through this other pipe, into this tiny bucket. Th e bucket thus became heavier and heavier, till its weight at last pulled down the string by which the bucket was swung over a pulley, and so, moved this lever.
Oh, yes, the notion was an old one; the priest admited he had copied the toy from one made by Heron of Alexandria who died years ago. Still, it was an ingenious trifle: moreover--and here was the point--enlarge the scale, change the cube-shaped box into the temple alter, fasten the lever to the temple doors, and you had the mechanism for a miracle. People had only to offer burnt sacrifices to the Goddess, and before their eyes the All-Mother, the holy and perpetual preserver of the human race, would st oop to material thaumaturgy, and would condescend to animate her sacred portals.
"We very decidedly need some striking miracle to advertise our temple," he told Kennaston. "Folk are flocking like sheep after these barbarous new Galilean heresies. But the All-Mother is compassionate to human frailty; and this device will win back man y erring feet to the true way."
And Kennaston saw there were tears in this man's dark sad eyes. The trickster was striving to uphold the faith of his fathers; and in the attempt he had constructed a practicable steam-engine.