Messala took the demonstration indifferently, and proceeded presently to show the ground of his popularity.
“A health to thee, Drusus, my friend,” he said to the player next at his right; “a health- and thy tablets a moment.”
He raised the waxen boards, glanced at the memoranda of wagers, and tossed them down.
“Denarii, only denarii- coin of cartmen and butchers!” he said, with a scornful laugh. “By the drunken Semele, to what is Rome coming, when a Caesar sits o’ nights waiting a turn of fortune to bring him but a beggarly denarius!”
The scion of the Drusi reddened to his brows, but the bystanders broke in upon his reply by surging closer around the table, and shouting, “The Messala! the Messala!”
“Men of the Tiber,” Messala continued, wresting a box with the dice in it from a hand near by, “who is he most favoured of the gods? A Roman. Who is he lawgiver of the nations? A Roman. Who is he, by sword right, the universal master?”
The company were of the easily inspired, and the thought was one to which they were born; in a twinkling they snatched the answer from him.
“A Roman, a Roman!” they shouted.
“Yet- yet”- he lingered to catch their ears- “yet there is a better than the best of Rome.”
He tossed his patrician head and paused, as if to sting them with his sneer.
“Hear ye?” he asked. “There is a better than the best of Rome.”
“Ay- Hercules!” cried one.
“Bacchus!” yelled a satirist.
“Jove- Jove!” thundered the crowd.
“No,” Messala answered, “among men.”
“Name him, name him!” they demanded.
“I will,” he said, the next lull. “He who to the perfection of Rome hath added the perfection of the East; who to the arm of conquest, which is Western, hath also the art needful to the enjoyment of dominion, which is Eastern.”
“Perpol! His best is a Roman, after all,” some one shouted; and there was a great laugh, and long clapping of hands- an admission that Messala had the advantage.
“In the East,” he continued, “we have no gods, only Wine, Women, and Fortune, and the greatest of them is Fortune; wherefore our motto, ‘Who dareth what I dare?’- fit for the senate, fit for battle, fittest for him who, seeking the best, challenges the worst.”
His voice dropped into an easy, familiar tone, but without relaxing the ascendency he had gained.
“In the great chest up in the citadel I have five talents coin current in the markets, and here are the receipts for them.”
From his tunic he drew a roll of paper, and flinging it on the table, continued, amidst breathless silence, every eye having him in view fixed on his, every ear listening- “The sum lies there the measure of what I dare. Who of you dares so much? You are silent. Is it too great? I will strike off one talent. What! still silent? Come, then, throw me once for these three talents- only three; for two; for one- one at least- one for the honour of the river by which you were born- Rome East against Rome West!- Orontes the barbarous against Tiber the sacred!”