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In travel-worn garb Vergilius went early to see the king. Accustomed
to the grandeur of Rome itself, he yet saw with astonishment the
beautiful groves, the lakes, canals, and fountains sparkling in the
sunlight which surrounded the great marble palace of Herod. In the
shadow of its many towers, each thirty cubits high, Vergilius began to
feel some dread of this terrible king. At least fifty paces from the
door of his chamber, in the great hall above-stairs, he could hear the
growl of the old lion. In Herod was the voice of wrath and revenge and
terror. His words came rolling out in a deep, husky, guttural tone, or
leaped forth hissing with anger. Some officials stood by the king's
door with fear and dread upon their faces. A young woman of singular
beauty was among them.
"O Salome, daughter of Herod," said one, "the king would have you come
to-morrow. He is in ill humor with the plotters."
"And I with him," said she, stamping her foot.
An usher had presented Vergilius at the door. As Herod's daughter
proudly turned away, she came face to face with the young Roman noble.
For one moment their eyes held each other. A chamberlain approached
Vergilius, whispered a few inquiries, and then led him before the king.
Herod was having a bad day.
"Traitors!" he hissed. In a voice like the menacing growl of a savage
beast he added: "May their eyes rot in their heads! Go! I have heard
enough, bearer of evil tidings."
Far down the great chamber in which half a cohort could have stood
comfortably, in a carved chair on a dais, under a vault and against a
background of blue, Babylonian tapestry, sat the king. A priest had
bowed low and was now leaving his presence. The chamberlain announced,
in a loud voice, "Vergilius, son of Varro, of Rome, and officer of the
fatherly and much-beloved Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus."
The king sat erect, a purple tarboosh and crown of wrought gold upon
his head. As Vergilius approached, the dark, suspicious eyes of Herod
were surveying him from under long, quivering tufts of gray hair. His
great body, in its prime, must have been like that of Achilles.
"Stand where you are, son of Varro," said the king, as he moved
nervously. His broad shoulders were beginning to bend a little under
their burden of trouble and disease. The harrow of pain and passion
had roughened his face with wrinkles. His manner was alert and
"Have you seen my son?" he inquired, quickly.
"Yes, great sire, and he was well."
"And is he not comely?"
"Ay, and brave with his lance."
"And a born king," said Herod. "I have fixed my heart upon him. I
have no other to love--but the great imperator. And how is he?"
"I left him well, good sire."
"Stand a moment, son of Varro," said the king, with an impatient
gesture. An attendant approached him and spoke in a low tone. Herod,
snarled like a huge cat when the lance threatens.
"Break him on the rack," he muttered; "and unless he tell, crucify
him--crucify him. He shall do me no further injury. That priest
Lugar, bring him back to me. Quickly now, bring him to me!"
The attendant hurried away, soon returning with him who had retired as
Vergilius entered the king's chamber.
"Saw you the men of learning in Ascalon?" the king demanded.
"What said they?"
There was a moment of silence.
"Out with it," said the king, fiercely. "Must I put every man upon the
rack? Speak, and that you may tell the truth I shall not demand their
"They, also, look for the new king," said Lugar. "Many believe he is
already born. They say that on your death he will declare himself."
"And they, too, pray for my death?"
"Most earnestly, my beloved king."
"Traitors!" said Herod, and as he spoke his powerful hands were tearing
his kerchief into rags. "I shall soon change the burden of their
prayers. Go tell them this: the day I die two of the wisest men from
every city in the kingdom shall die also. Go everywhere, and tell
these learned doctors they had best pray for my good health."
The priest bowed before his king and retired. The pagan noble looked
up at this ruler of the land of the one God and felt a thrill of
horror. Herod, turning quickly, beckoned to the young knight, his
wrinkles quivering with anger. Now, indeed, he was like a lion at bay.
"Ha-a!" he roared, and his head bent slowly and his voice fell to a low
rumble as he continued. "'Tis an evil time in Jerusalem. I weary of
this long fight with traitors. They grind their points; they stir
poison; they swarm in the streets. They rob me of my friends, and
now--now they seek alliance with Jehovah to rob me of my throne. 'Tis
well you should know and beware. I have a plan which will make them
desire my good health. Report to Quirinus, and remember"--he took a
hand of the youth in both of his with a fawning movement--"I have need
That very day an order went forth that certain of the learned men of
every city be assembled in the amphitheatre at Jericho, and be there
confined to wait the further pleasure of the king. It was a bold plan
through which Herod hoped to confound his enemies and insure his
safety. He decreed that on the day of his death all these men should
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