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Virgilius The Sorcerer

from The Violet Fairy Book





Long, long ago there was born to a Roman knight and his wife Maja
a little boy called Virgilius. While he was still quite little,
his father died, and the kinsmen, instead of being a help and
protection to the child and his mother, robbed them of their
lands and money, and the widow, fearing that they might take the
boy's life also, sent him away to Spain, that he might study in
the great University of Toledo.

Virgilius was fond of books, and pored over them all day long.
But one afternoon, when the boys were given a holiday, he took a
long walk, and found himself in a place where he had never been
before. In front of him was a cave, and, as no boy ever sees a
cave without entering it, he went in. The cave was so deep that
it seemed to Virgilius as if it must run far into the heart of
the mountain, and he thought he would like to see if it came out
anywhere on the other side. For some time he walked on in pitch
darkness, but he went steadily on, and by-and-by a glimmer of
light shot across the floor, and he heard a voice calling,
'Virgilius! Virgilius!'

'Who calls?' he asked, stopping and looking round.

'Virgilius!' answered the voice, 'do you mark upon the ground
where you are standing a slide or bolt?'

'I do,' replied Virgilius.

'Then,' said the voice, 'draw back that bolt, and set me free.'

'But who are you?' asked Virgilius, who never did anything in a
hurry.

'I am an evil spirit,' said the voice, 'shut up here till
Doomsday, unless a man sets me free. If you will let me out I
will give you some magic books, which will make you wiser than
any other man.'

Now Virgilius loved wisdom, and was tempted by these promises,
but again his prudence came to his aid, and he demanded that the
books should be handed over to him first, and that he should be
told how to use them. The evil spirit, unable to help itself,
did as Virgilius bade him, and then the bolt was drawn back.
Underneath was a small hole, and out of this the evil spirit
gradually wriggled himself; but it took some time, for when at
last he stood upon the ground he proved to be about three times
as large as Virgilius himself, and coal black besides.

'Why, you can't have been as big as that when you were in the
hole!' cried Virgilius.

'But I was!' replied the spirit.

'I don't believe it!' answered Virgilius.

'Well, I'll just get in and show you,' said the spirit, and after
turning and twisting, and curling himself up, then he lay neatly
packed into the hole. Then Virgilius drew the bolt, and, picking
the books up under his arm, he left the cave.

For the next few weeks Virgilius hardly ate or slept, so busy was
he in learning the magic the books contained. But at the end of
that time a messenger from his mother arrived in Toledo, begging
him to come at once to Rome, as she had been ill, and could look
after their affairs no longer.

Though sorry to leave Toledo, where he was much thought of as
showing promise of great learning, Virgilius would willingly have
set out at once, but there were many things he had first to see
to. So he entrusted to the messenger four pack-horses laden with
precious things, and a white palfrey on which she was to ride out
every day. Then he set about his own preparations, and, followed
by a large train of scholars, he at length started for Rome, from
which he had been absent twelve years.

His mother welcomed him back with tears in her eyes, and his poor
kinsmen pressed round him, but the rich ones kept away, for they
feared that they would no longer be able to rob their kinsman as
they had done for many years past. Of course, Virgilius paid no
attention to this behaviour, though he noticed they looked with
envy on the rich presents he bestowed on the poorer relations and
on anyone who had been kind to his mother.

Soon after this had happened the season of tax-gathering came
round, and everyone who owned land was bound to present himself
before the emperor. Like the rest, Virgilius went to court, and
demanded justice from the emperor against the men who had robbed
him. But as these were kinsmen to the emperor he gained nothing,
as the emperor told him he would think over the matter for the
next four years, and then give judgment. This reply naturally
did not satisfy Virgilius, and, turning on his heel, he went back
to his own home, and, gathering in his harvest, he stored it up
in his various houses.

When the enemies of Virgilius heard of this, they assembled
together and laid siege to his castle. But Virgilius was a match
for them. Coming forth from the castle so as to meet them face
to face, he cast a spell over them of such power that they could
not move, and then bade them defiance. After which he lifted the
spell, and the invading army slunk back to Rome, and reported
what Virgilius had said to the emperor.

Now the emperor was accustomed to have his lightest word obeyed,
almost before it was uttered, and he hardly knew how to believe
his ears. But he got together another army, and marched straight
off to the castle. But directly they took up their position
Virgilius girded them about with a great river, so that they
could neither move hand nor foot, then, hailing the emperor, he
offered him peace, and asked for his friendship. The emperor,
however, was too angry to listen to anything, so Virgilius, whose
patience was exhausted, feasted his own followers in the presence
of the starving host, who could not stir hand or foot.

Things seemed getting desperate, when a magician arrived in the
camp and offered to sell his services to the emperor. His
proposals were gladly accepted, and in a moment the whole of the
garrison sank down as if they were dead, and Virgilius himself
had much ado to keep awake. He did not know how to fight the
magician, but with a great effort struggled to open his Black
Book, which told him what spells to use. In an instant all his
foes seemed turned to stone, and where each man was there he
stayed. Some were half way up the ladders, some had one foot
over the wall, but wherever they might chance to be there every
man remained, even the emperor and his sorcerer. All day they
stayed there like flies upon the wall, but during the night
Virgilius stole softly to the emperor, and offered him his
freedom, as long as he would do him justice. The emperor, who by
this time was thoroughly frightened, said he would agree to
anything Virgilius desired. So Virgilius took off his spells,
and, after feasting the army and bestowing on every man a gift,
bade them return to Rome. And more than that, he built a square
tower for the emperor, and in each corner all that was said in
that quarter of the city might be heard, while if you stood in
the centre every whisper throughout Rome would reach your ears.

Having settled his affairs with the emperor and his enemies,
Virgilius had time to think of other things, and his first act
was to fall in love! The lady's name was Febilla, and her family
was noble, and her face fairer than any in Rome, but she only
mocked Virgilius, and was always playing tricks upon him. To
this end, she bade him one day come to visit her in the tower
where she lived, promising to let down a basket to draw him up as
far as the roof. Virgilius was enchanted at this quite
unexpected favour, and stepped with glee into the basket. It was
drawn up very slowly, and by-and-by came altogether to a
standstill, while from above rang the voice of Febilla crying,
'Rogue of a sorcerer, there shalt thou hang!' And there he hung
over the market-place, which was soon thronged with people, who
made fun of him till he was mad with rage. At last the emperor,
hearing of his plight, commanded Febilla to release him, and
Virgilius went home vowing vengeance.

The next morning every fire in Rome went out, and as there were
no matches in those days this was a very serious matter. The
emperor, guessing that this was the work of Virgilius, besought
him to break the spell. Then Virgilius ordered a scaffold to be
erected in the market-place, and Febilla to be brought clothed
in a single white garment. And further, he bade every one to
snatch fire from the maiden, and to suffer no neighbour to kindle
it. And when the maiden appeared, clad in her white smock,
flames of fire curled about her, and the Romans brought some
torches, and some straw, and some shavings, and fires were
kindled in Rome again.

For three days she stood there, till every hearth in Rome was
alight, and then she was suffered to go where she would.

But the emperor was wroth at the vengeance of Virgilius, and
threw him into prison, vowing that he should be put to death.
And when everything was ready he was led out to the Viminal Hill,
where he was to die.

He went quietly with his guards, but the day was hot, and on
reaching his place of execution he begged for some water. A pail
was brought, and he, crying 'Emperor, all hail! seek for me in
Sicily,' jumped headlong into the pail, and vanished from their
sight.

For some time we hear no more of Virgilius, or how he made his
peace with the emperor, but the next event in his history was his
being sent for to the palace to give the emperor advice how to
guard Rome from foes within as well as foes without. Virgilius
spent many days in deep thought, and at length invented a plan
which was known to all as the 'Preservation of Rome.'

On the roof of the Capitol, which was the most famous public
building in the city, he set up statues representing the gods
worshipped by every nation subject to Rome, and in the middle
stood the god of Rome herself. Each of the conquered gods held
in its hand a bell, and if there was even a thought of treason in
any of the countries its god turned its back upon the god of Rome
and rang its bell furiously, and the senators came hurrying to
see who was rebelling against the majesty of the empire. Then
they made ready their armies, and marched against the foe.

Now there was a country which had long felt bitter jealousy of
Rome, and was anxious for some way of bringing about its
destruction. So the people chose three men who could be trusted,
and, loading them with money, sent them to Rome, bidding them to
pretend that they were diviners of dreams. No sooner had the
messengers reached the city than they stole out at night and
buried a pot of gold far down in the earth, and let down another
into the bed of the Tiber, just where a bridge spans the river.

Next day they went to the senate house, where the laws were made,
and, bowing low, they said, 'Oh, noble lords, last night we
dreamed that beneath the foot of a hill there lies buried a pot
of gold. Have we your leave to dig for it?' And leave having
been given, the messengers took workmen and dug up the gold and
made merry with it.

A few days later the diviners again appeared before the senate,
and said, 'Oh, noble lords, grant us leave to seek out another
treasure, which has been revealed to us in a dream as lying under
the bridge over the river.'

And the senators gave leave, and the messengers hired boats and
men, and let down ropes with hooks, and at length drew up the pot
of gold, some of which they gave as presents to the senators.

A week or two passed by, and once more they appeared in the
senate house.

'O, noble lords!' said they, 'last night in a vision we beheld
twelve casks of gold lying under the foundation stone of the
Capitol, on which stands the statue of the Preservation of Rome.
Now, seeing that by your goodness we have been greatly enriched
by our former dreams, we wish, in gratitude, to bestow this third
treasure on you for your own profit; so give us workers, and we
will begin to dig without delay.'

And receiving permission they began to dig, and when the
messengers had almost undermined the Capitol they stole away as
secretly as they had come.

And next morning the stone gave way, and the sacred statue fell
on its face and was broken. And the senators knew that their
greed had been their ruin.

From that day things went from bad to worse, and every morning
crowds presented themselves before the emperor, complaining of
the robberies, murders, and other crimes that were committed
nightly in the streets.

The emperor, desiring nothing so much as the safety of his
subjects, took counsel with Virgilius how this violence could be
put down.

Virgilius thought hard for a long time, and then he spoke:

'Great prince,' said he, 'cause a copper horse and rider to be
made, and stationed in front of the Capitol. Then make a
proclamation that at ten o'clock a bell will toll, and every man
is to enter his house, and not leave it again.'

The emperor did as Virgilius advised, but thieves and murderers
laughed at the horse, and went about their misdeeds as usual.

But at the last stroke of the bell the horse set off at full
gallop through the streets of Rome, and by daylight men counted
over two hundred corpses that it had trodden down. The rest of
the thieves--and there were still many remaining--instead of
being frightened into honesty, as Virgilius had hoped, prepared
rope ladders with hooks to them, and when they heard the sound of
the horse's hoofs they stuck their ladders into the walls, and
climbed up above the reach of the horse and its rider

Then the emperor commanded two copper dogs to be made that would
run after the horse, and when the thieves, hanging from the
walls, mocked and jeered at Virgilius and the emperor, the dogs
leaped high after them and pulled them to the ground, and bit
them to death.

Thus did Virgilius restore peace and order to the city.

Now about this time there came to be noised abroad the fame of
the daughter of the sultan who ruled over the province of
Babylon, and indeed she was said to be the most beautiful
princess in the world.

Virgilius, like the rest, listened to the stories that were told
of her, and fell so violently in love with all he heard that he
built a bridge in the air, which stretched all the way between
Rome and Babylon. He then passed over it to visit the princess,
who, though somewhat surprised to see him, gave him welcome, and
after some conversation became in her turn anxious to see the
distant country where this stranger lived, and he promised that
he would carry her there himself, without wetting the soles of
his feet.

The princess spent some days in the palace of Virgilius, looking
at wonders of which she had never dreamed, though she declined to
accept the presents he longed to heap on her. The hours passed
as if they were minutes, till the princess said that she could be
no longer absent from her father. Then Virgilius conducted her
himself over the airy bridge, and laid her gently down on her own
bed, where she was found next morning by her father.

She told him all that had happened to her, and he pretended to be
very much interested, and begged that the next time Virgilius
came he might be introduced to him.

Soon after, the sultan received a message from his daughter that
the stranger was there, and he commanded that a feast should be
made ready, and, sending for the princess delivered into her
hands a cup, which he said she was to present to Virgilius
herself, in order to do him honour.

When they were all seated at the feast the princess rose and
presented the cup to Virgilius, who directly he had drunk fell
into a deep sleep.

Then the sultan ordered his guards to bind him, and left him
there till the following day.

Directly the sultan was up he summoned his lords and nobles into
his great hall, and commanded that the cords which bound
Virgilius should be taken off, and the prisoner brought before
him. The moment he appeared the sultan's passion broke forth,
and he accused his captive of the crime of conveying the princess
into distant lands without his leave.

Virgilius replied that if he had taken her away he had also
brought her back, when he might have kept her, and that if they
would set him free to return to his own land he would come hither
no more.

'Not so!' cried the sultan, 'but a shameful death you shall die!'
And the princess fell on her knees, and begged she might die with
him.

'You are out in your reckoning, Sir Sultan!' said Virgilius,
whose patience was at an end, and he cast a spell over the sultan
and his lords, so that they believed that the great river of
Babylon was flowing through the hall, and that they must swim for
their lives. So, leaving them to plunge and leap like frogs and
fishes, Virgilius took the princess in his arms, and carried her
over the airy bridge back to Rome.

Now Virgilius did not think that either his palace, or even Rome
itself, was good enough to contain such a pearl as the princess,
so he built her a city whose foundations stood upon eggs, buried
far away down in the depths of the sea. And in the city was a
square tower, and on the roof of the tower was a rod of iron, and
across the rod he laid a bottle, and on the bottle he placed an
egg, and from the egg there hung chained an apple, which hangs
there to this day. And when the egg shakes the city quakes, and
when the egg shall be broken the city shall be destroyed. And
the city Virgilius filled full of wonders, such as never were
seen before, and he called its name Naples.

[Adapted from 'Virgilius the Sorcerer.']





Next: Mogarzea And His Son

Previous: The Prince Who Wanted To See The World



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