It is the anniversary of Herod’s birthday. The palace is lighted. The highways leading thereto are ablaze with the pomp of invited guests. Lords, captains, merchant princes, and the mightiest men of the realm are on the way to mingle in the festivities. The tables are filled with all the luxuries that the royal purveyors can gather,—spiced wines, and fruits, and rare meats. The guests, white-robed, anointed and perfumed, take their places. Music! The jests evoke roars of laughter. Riddles are propounded. Repartees indulged. Toasts drunk. The brain befogged. Wit gives place to uproar and blasphemy. And yet they are not satisfied. Turn on more light. Give us more music. Sound the trumpet. Clear the floor for the dance. Bring in Salome, the graceful and accomplished princess.
The doors are opened and in bounds the dancer. Stand back and give plenty of room for the gyrations. The lords are enchanted. They never saw such poetry of motion. Their souls whirl in the reel, and bound with the bounding feet. Herod forgets crown and throne,—everything but the fascinations of Salome. The magnificence of his realm is as nothing compared with that which now whirls before him on tiptoe. His heart is in transport with Salome as her arms are now tossed in the air, and now placed akimbo. He sways with every motion of the enchantress. He thrills with the quick pulsations of her feet, and is bewitched with the posturing and attitudes that he never saw before, in a moment exchanged for others just as amazing. He sits in silence before the whirling, bounding, leaping, flashing wonder. And when the dance stops, and the tinkling cymbals pause, and the long, loud plaudits that shook the palace with their thunders had abated, the entranced monarch swears unto the princely performer: “Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it to thee, to the half of my kingdom.”
Now there was in prison a minister by the name of John the Baptist, who had made much trouble by his honest preaching. He had denounced the sins of the king, and brought down upon himself the wrath of the females in the royal family. At the instigation of her mother, Salome takes advantage of the king’s extravagant promise and demands the head of John the Baptist on a dinner-plate.
There is a sound of heavy feet, and the clatter of swords outside of the palace. Swing back the door. The executioners are returning, from their awful errand. They hand a platter to Salome. What is that on the platter? A new tankard of wine to rekindle the mirth of the lords? No! It is redder than wine, and costlier. It is the ghastly, bleeding head of John the Baptist! Its locks dabbled in gore. Its eyes set in the death-stare. The distress of the last agony in the features. That fascinating form, that just now swayed so gracefully in the dance, bends over the horrid burden without a shudder. She gloats over the blood; and just as the maid of your household goes, bearing out on a tray the empty glasses of the evening’s entertainment, so she carried out on a platter the dissevered head of that good man, while all the banqueters shouted, and thought it a grand joke, that, in such a brief and easy way, they had freed themselves from such a plain-spoken, troublesome minister.