"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 watchful.
"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 names."
"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 of friends."
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 be executed.