For the king there were three great perils: the people, Caesar, and his own family. The descendant of old John Hyrcanus of Idumaea -- a Jew only by compulsion -- had no understanding of the children of Moses. He tripped every day on the barriers of ancient law, and often his generosity was taken for defiance. Caesar was not so hard to please. He had vanity and laws not wholly inflexible. Herod's family, with its evil sister, its profligate sons, its voluptuous daughters, its wives, of whom it is enough to say they were nine, its intrigues and jealousies, gave him greater trouble than either the kingdom or the emperor. He built a city near Jerusalem, on the sea. Magnificent in marble and gold, Caesarea stood for a monument of Herodian troubles. Therein he sought to amuse the people, to pacify his kindred, and to flatter Caesar. Its vast breakwater; its great arches through which the sea came gently in all weather; its mosaic pavements washed daily by the salt tide; its palaces of white marble; its great, glowing amphitheatre -- these were unique in their barbaric splendor, albeit, in the view of the people, an offence to God.
Among those who dwelt in Caesarea was Elpis, eighth wife of the king, with her daughter Salome, whose praises had been sung at the banquet of Antipater. Both were renowned for beauty and the splendor of their dress. Salome had the colors of the far north, and that perfect and voluptuous contour found only in marble figures of Venus, above the great purple sea, and, below it, in the daughters of men. She was tall, shapely, full blooded. They called her Salome, child of the sun, because she had the dark of night in her large eyes, the tints of morning in her cheeks, and the gold of noonday in her hair.
When Manius came to seek her hand the king said, with a smile: |My noble youth, she is for the like of Achilles -- a man of heroic heart and size. Have you no fear of her?|
Quickly Manius replied: |Know you not, O king! my fathers fought with Achilles?|
|But they had the protection of the gods,| said Herod, with a smile. |However, you may find her favor sufficient. I have heard her speak fair of you.|
Now a quarrel had arisen between Elpis and a sister of Herod. So, therefore, to calm a tempest, the adroit king had sent his eighth wife to live by the sea.
It was a day near the nones of October, when the tribune went to Caesarea with Manius. There in a great palace, erected by the king, they met the two renowned women. It was a fete day and the gay people of Herod's court were in attendance. Salome was dancing, tabret in hand, her form showing through a robe of transparent silk as the two entered. Once before, at the door of the king, Vergilius had seen her.
|See the taper of arm and leg,| said he, addressing his companion, |She is wonderful!|
A lithe and beautiful creature, she swayed and bent, with arms extended, her feet, now slow as the pinions of a sailing hawk, now swift as the wings of a tilting sparrow. She stopped suddenly, her form proudly erect, looking at her lover. Now she had the dignity of a wild deer in the barrens. With one hand she felt her jewelled hair, with the other she beckoned to him. The young men approached her.
|Children of Aeneas, I give you welcome,| said she. Then turning to Vergilius: |Did Manius tell you that I bade him bring you here?|
|I knew not I was so honored.|
|He is jealous. He will not permit me to embrace my little page. I have wished to meet you, noble tribune, ever since I saw you in my father's palace.|
Her eyes were playful, as if they would try the heart of her lover.
|And when I saw you,| said Vergilius, |I -- I knew you were the betrothed of the assessor.|
|And why?| she besought, with a smile.
|Because I heard him say in Rome that, of all the daughters of Judea, you were most beautiful.|
Her eyes looked full upon his and he saw in them a glint of that fire which had begun to burn within her. He said to himself, as he came away, |Here is another Cleopatra -- a woman made to pull down the mighty.|
Next day from the daughter of Herod came a letter to the young tribune:
|NOBLE SON OF VARRO, -- I have much to say concerning your welfare, and I doubt not you will desire to hear it. If I judge you rightly, come to the palace of my mother the second evening before the nones. An hour after sunset I will meet you at the gate of bronze. Say naught to Manius of your coming or of this letter.|
|Temptress!| said he, crushing the sheet of scented vellum. |But she is beautiful,| he added, wistfully. |She is like the Venus of Alcamenes. I would love well to look upon her again.|
He smoothed out the crumpled vellum.
|'Say naught to Manius,'| he read again. |I like it not. I shall write to her that I have other business.|
And so did he, although in phrases of regret, as became one addressing a daughter of the great king.
Sorely vexed, she thought ever of the noble beauty of the Roman youth, and became more eager to gain her purpose. It may be the girl bore for him a better feeling than she had ever known. She wished, if possible, to win him, knowing that her father would not be slow to help him forward. The handsome youth had pleased her eye, and might, also, gratify her ambition. Those days the art of intrigue was the study of a king's daughter; so, straightway, she invented a cunning plan. Knowing the great desire of Vergilius, she bribed the priest Lugar to give him crafty counsel. On the very morning of that second day the priest came to him.
|How fares your soul, noble tribune?| said Lugar.
|I feel it strong in me,| said Vergilius.
|And you would know if it be strong unto salvation?|
|That would I gladly know.|
|Come with me this night and you shall see your soul in the balance.|
|And whither shall we go?|
|To the palace of Laban, steward of the king. I shall come for you soon after the ninth hour.|
|And thereby increase my debt to you,| said Vergilius. |Remember my soul may not be rejected for lack of gratitude.|
Now in that hour which follows the beginning of night, Lugar and Vergilius were come to the place appointed. Slaves led them through a great hall to the banquet-chamber. There were the daughters of Laban, reclining in graceful ease. The banquet-table had been removed. Now they were taking their feast of old tales and new gossip. They rose and came to meet the young men. Tunics of jewelled gauze covered without concealing forms lovely as the sculptures of immortal Greece and redolent of all rare perfumes.
|And you would see a maidens' frolic?| said one to Vergilius.
Then said he: |Maidens are ever a delight to me.|
|Ay, they make you to forget,| said the girl.
He thought a moment before answering. |It may be true,| said he. |But they keep you in mind of the power of woman.|
Strains of the lyre broke in upon them. Suddenly the centre of the great room was thronged with maidens. The young tribune was full of wonder, knowing not whence they had come. There was a wreath of roses on each brow, and as they gathered in even rank with varicolored robes upon them, they reminded the knight of garden walls in Velitrae. Quickly they began to mingle, with feet tripping lightly, with bodies bending to display their charms. Threadlike, wavering gleams of ruby, pearl, and sapphire seemed to weave a net upon them. Such a scene appealed to the love of beauty in Vergilius. It awoke dying but delightful memories of the pagan capital -- splendors of form and color, glowing eyes and pretty frolic.
|O Venus, mother of love!| he whispered, turning to admire a statue in the dim-lit corner where he stood. Now the eyes of Venus were covered with an arm. Out went his hand to feel the shapely marble. It was warm, and slowly Venus began to move, as did the strains of music, and, presently, whirled away.
|How beautiful!| he said. |'Tis the magic of a dream.|
His eyes were upon the form of Venus, taller than the others and more nobly fashioned.
|'Tis the great goddess come to earth,| said he, turning to Lugar.
The music had ceased. The maidens, save two, had flung themselves upon rugs and couches. Venus and another were approaching the Roman.
|Daughter of Herod,| said he, going to meet her, |I knew you not.|
She took his arm and led him to one of the couches.
|You are very stubborn,| said she, looking into his eyes. |You had 'business.'|
|So have I. We came here, as I thought, to confer with -- with wise men.|
|And not with wise women?|
|It may be. I had not learned to look for wisdom where there is beauty.|
|And have I not wisdom? Ah, son of Varro, my mother has taught me many mysteries. I can read the future and the past.|
She leaned close to his ear and whispered, her arm against his: |I believe in the power of fate. I had much to say and you had not the will to listen. It has brought you and me together,|
|To enchant me with your beauty?| he inquired.
|Nay,| said she, her cheek touching his shoulder. |But to instruct you with my wisdom. I see much in your face.|
|And what see you?|
|Apollo!| she whispered, with a sigh; |and the power to be great.|
It flattered him, but he knew the sound of fair words.
|In Rome,| said he, laughing, |we belittle with compliments.|
|In Jerusalem we fill them with sincerity, and often -- |
He listened as the daughter of Herod drew closer.
|They convey our love,| she added, in a whisper.
|I learn wonderful things every day. But why think you I am to be great?|
|I know the mysteries of fate,| she answered, quickly, and with a little resentment of his coldness. |But there is one thing in your way.|
|Your work is to be in Judea, and you love, or think you love, a Roman maiden.|
|I know that I love her,| said he, quickly.
|But love is a great deceiver. You shall not take her for your wife.|
|Why?| he demanded, turning and looking into the face of Salome.
Her dark eyes were now gazing into his, her hand softly stroking his bare arm.
|Because,| she whispered, and now he could feel the motion of her shapely red lips upon his ear, |here, in Judea, you shall find one who loves you with a greater love.|
His pulses were quick with passion. He rose, turning from the daughter of Herod. To his amazement the others had all departed. He and this living Venus of Judea were alone.
She rose and spoke rapidly, her heart's fire in her words! |Here the love of women is longer than their lives -- greater than their prudence or their hope of heaven.|
She stood erect before him, her beauty striving with the ardor of her words.
He looked down at her with a kind of fear in his eyes.
She took his hand in hers. |My father is fond of you,| she continued. |Shall I tell your future?|
|And I knew it for a moment hence I should know all,| he answered; covering his eyes. She came near, and, caressingly, put an arm about his neck. He could hear a nightingale singing somewhere in the great palace. It seemed to fling open the gates of memory. He thought of his love -- sacred now above all things. His fear of it was like as the fear of the gods had been to his fathers. For a moment honor, wisdom, and love trembled in the balance. Suddenly he stood erect and put his hand upon the shoulder of Salome and gently pushed her aside.
He turned away, his left arm covering his eyes and his right moving in a gesture of protest. He staggered as one drunk with wine. Slowly he crossed the chamber, struggling to defend his soul.
|I dare not look upon your face again,| said he, sternly.
She ran before and tried to stop him. |Hear me, son of Varro,| said she. |It is my will to help you.|
|I will not look upon your face again,| he repeated.
She struck at his hand fiercely, her foot stamping on the floor. Now was she of the catlike tribe of Herod.
|Go, stupid fool!| The words came hissing from her lips. |I hate you!| She ran away, with impassioned laughter. He passed the door.
|To the evil honor is ever stupid,| he said, to himself, as he left the palace. By-and-by he added, thoughtfully, |'Tis a mighty friend -- this great love in me.|
And said David, who was waiting when he returned: |They kept you long, my master.|
|Yes; I have been fighting!|
|For the prize of heaven in the amphitheatre of hell. My love was my shield, the power of God my weapon.|
|Friend, what mean you?|
|That an evil woman has tried to put the leash of fate upon me.|
|How fared the battle?|
|It was my victory,| said Vergilius; |and I do feel a mighty peace in me.|