Again the council of the covenant was in session. Herod, unknown to all, sat in the darkness of the council chamber. The intrigue of Salome and the treachery of Manius had led the Lion of Judea to his prey. Swords of fate were in the gloom that surrounded the traitors.
Now there had been, that night, a great discussion of the new king, and suddenly a man sitting by the side of Vergilius had risen. He began speaking in a strange voice, which had, however, some quality familiar to the young Roman. Shrill and trembling with emotion, it thrilled many with a feeling of religious awe.
|The time is upon us,| said he, |when the judges of the council have come to the end of their deliberations. It is for me, therefore, to reveal it to you in part. If there be any here who give not full approval, let them freely express their minds.|
He did not explain that such were, then and there, to be won by argument or put out of the way by daggers.
|I speak of great things, but he that is to follow me shall speak of greater. After weighing all the promises of Holy Writ, and enforcing their wisdom by the counsel of other learned men,| he continued, |your judges declare the fulness of time.|
The speaker paused. He heard a little stir of bodies, a rustle of robes in the darkness.
The speaker went on:
|When Herod dies you shall see a rider go swiftly through the streets bearing a red banner and crying, 'The king is dead.' Then shall the commander of the cohorts go quickly and take possession of the royal palace and await the new king.|
Vergilius turned quickly in the direction of the fateful voice. He had begun to suspect a plot. In a moment he saw to the very depths of its cunning. Here was a band of conspirators meeting in the darkness and speaking in disguised voices. Probably no member had ever seen the face of another, and the betrayal of a name was, therefore, impossible. Vergilius, now commander of the castle, heard with consternation of his part in the programme. By some movement of the speaker's body an end of his girdle was flung against the hand of Vergilius. Immediately the young Roman laid hold of the silken cord. Tracing it stealthily, to make sure of its owner, he drew his dagger and cut the girdle in twain, hiding an end of it in his bosom.
|The new king is in Rome,| the speaker added. |Presently you shall hear the voice of his herald, whose face I know not, but of whose fidelity and wisdom. I have long been sure. He will give you further revelation of our purposes.|
It was cunningly said, for the speaker knew that such a promise would delay the vengeance of Herod.
A little silence followed the ceasing of |the shrill voice.| Vergilius could hear its owner moving away in the darkness. Fearful possibilities had begun to suggest themselves to the new convert. Now had he the flinty heart and the cunning mind of his fathers. The darkness had begun to smother and sicken him.
|Hear me now, good friends,| said a low, calm, but unfamiliar voice, |and let my words enter your hearts and be there cherished in secret, for I shall tell you a name, and for its safe-keeping you shall answer to the Most High. Know you, then, that the new king is no other than the son of Herod and his name is Antipater -- a man of great valor, learned in all wisdom and all mystery, who loves the people of God. His heart has suffered, feeling the wrongs of Israel. He has the voice of wrath, the hand of power, and the claim of a just and natural inheritor. I have his word that we who are bound in this council of the covenant shall share in the glory of his reign.|
Vergilius, hot with anger, rose to his feet.
|Good sirs,| said he, in a piping voice very unlike his own, |let us not approve without full understanding. There may be some here who in their zeal have been deceived. Let us be fair, and warn them that all who approve this plan are traitors. I came here to study the mysteries of the one God, and I am learning the mysteries of an evil plot. 'Tis a great surprise to me. I like it not, and shall have no part in it. I know not your names or your faces, but I know your plan is murder, and if the one God favor it, I can no longer honor Him.|
He paused, but there came no answer. Again he heard a rustle of garments in the dark chamber, and, also, a stealthy and suggestive grating of steel upon scabbard. He perceived now the imminence of his peril. He could hear no sound in the darkness.
He stepped quickly aside, hearing not the feet which followed, nor feeling him who clung to the skirt of his toga. He stood silent, with dagger drawn. As he felt about him, he touched a pair of great, trembling hands. He stood motionless, expecting every breath to feel a point plunging into his flesh. Suddenly some one blew a sharp whistle close beside him. Then, for a little, it seemed as if the doors were being rent by thunderbolts. Crowding forms and cries of terror filled the darkness. The young Vergilius kept his place after the first outbreak. Men, rushing past him, had torn the toga from his back. The hands which had clung upon him now held his wrist with a grip immovable. Doors fell and lights were flashing in. He saw now, on every side, a gleam of helmet and cuirass. Men, retreating from the lights, huddled in a dark corner. Some began to weep and cry to God. The scene was awful with swiftness and terror. The crowding group moved like caving sand. It sank suddenly, every man going to his knees. Quick as the serpent, a line of soldiers flung itself around them. Vergilius, with the man who clung to him, stood apart near the middle of the chamber.
Suddenly he heard an impatient, wrathful shout close beside him: |Lights here, ye laggards!|
Vergilius jumped as if he had felt the prick of steel. He turned, looking at the man who held his arm. A squad with torches came swiftly, forming about them. The powerful hands let go; a cloak and hood fell upon the floor.
|The king!| said Vergilius, bowing low.
|And you,| said Herod, breathing heavily and leaning on the shoulder of the young man, |you are the only friend of the king. To save you from the fate of those dogs yonder, I would not let you go.|
This unloved and terrible man, still leaning upon the shoulder of Vergilius, wept feebly. It seemed as if the infirmity of old age had fallen suddenly upon him. He muttered, in a weak and piping tone, of his great life weariness. Then he seemed to hear those low cries of terror from beyond the line of guards. He lifted his head, listening. He turned quickly, crouching low, and seemed to threaten the soldiers near him with his hand. They stepped aside fearfully. Then was he, indeed, the old lion of Judea, ready to spring upon his prey.
|Stand them here before me,| he growled, fiercely.
The conspirators were drawn up in line. Torches were held before their faces. Vergilius looked with pity at the terrified throng. There were Lugar and two merchants he knew, and that chamberlain of Herod's palace who had taken him before the king. There was also a famous young Roman athlete, whom Vergilius had first seen and admired at the circus in Rome, and who had lately been a member of the castle guard. But none wore the girdle which Vergilius had cut in twain.
The king stood before them, raging like a man possessed of demons. Fate, which had whispered through lips of beauty in the palace at Caesarea, now thundered in the voice of power.
|Serpents, murderers, children of the devil!| he roared. |Soon shall your souls wander in hell and your bodies rot in the valley of Hinnom. Take them to the torture, and make it slow for such as give us no further knowledge. Away with them! Let their food be fear and their drink be the sweat of agony and their end be death at the games of Caesar!|
The will of that graceful and voluptuous maiden had been well if only partially expressed.
A guard of soldiers led the unfortunate men away.
Herod, now weak and trembling, took the arm of Vergilius.
|To my palace!| said he, and they made their way to his litter.
|It will do no good to put them to torture,| said Vergilius. |You have heard all. They have met in darkness and the leaders have disguised their voices. No member could be sure of the identity of any save himself. Only two or three, perhaps, could have betrayed other members of the order.|
|Fool! were they not sure of Vergilius, the commander of the cohorts?| said Herod.
|But the plot is uncovered, and now, great sir, I implore you, try the remedy of Caesar.|
Herod ceased muttering and turned with a look of inquiry.
|Forgive them,| Vergilius added.
The king answered with curses. Then from his chamber, where they had now arrived, he drove all save the young Roman. |Long ago I discovered evidence of the treachery of the prince,| said he. |To Antipater -- foul son of Doris -- I despatched this letter.|
He spread a sheet of vellum before Vergilius, bidding him read. It was the copy of a letter addressed to his |dutiful and affectionate son Antipater.| It recited that, whereas he (Herod) was now become ill and weary under his many cares, and needed the companionship of them he loved, Antipater should ask, in the name of his father, for a goodly escort of cavalry and proceed at once to Jerusalem, there, shortly, to receive his inheritance.
|Foul son of Doris!| the king growled, hoarsely, as the young Roman turned. Then his voice broke into a shrill, piping laugh. |Ha, ha! He is coming -- even now he is coming to take the crown of his loving father!|
Then he loaned forward with a savage leer, as if he saw the object of his wrath. His lips were parted, his mouth open, his breath came hissing from his throat.
|Foul son of Doris!| he repeated, beating the floor with his feet. |Your lies have drowned me in the blood of those I love. Swamp plant! creeping asp! Soon shall I put my foot upon you!|
Turning to Vergilius, he continued, presently:
|Be ready, my tribune, to go down to the sea with a cohort. There meet him, as he comes, and let him fall quickly from his height of greatness, and chain him, hand and foot, and bring him hence. You may go now.|
Vergilius bowed and left the home of Herod. As he went away he fell to thinking of that girdle's end in his bosom. Although it was past the middle hour of night, he hastened to the palace of Manius. The assessor, distraught and pale, started as he met him, and Vergilius saw at once that an end of the other's girdle had been cut away. The young tribune drew that piece of braided silk from under his tunic.
|It is yours?| said he, tossing it to Manius.
|I -- I had not observed,| said the other, nervously, |It is part of the girdle I wear in deference to the people among whom I live. How came you by it?|
|Fox! Your cunning will not save you. Tell me first how you escaped the peril into which you had drawn me.|
|I do not understand you.|
|But I understand you,| said Vergilius, with anger. |There are but two places in the world for you. One is beyond the boundaries of Rome, the other is the valley of Hinnom.| Having said which, he turned, quickly, and left the assessor's palace.