Now, in his seventy-sixth year, the king was, indeed, sorely pressed with trouble. Jerusalem was the centre of a plot formidable and far-reaching. Its object was, in part, clear to him, or so he thought, and with some reason. It seemed to aim at his removal and the crowning of a mysterious king of prophecy, who, many said, was now waiting the death of Herod. It baffled him. He saw signs that many had their heads together in this plot. So far, however, he had not been able to lay hands upon them. There were many theories about the new king. They were strange and conflicting and zealously put forth. They differed as to whether he were yet born and as to his divinity, his character, and his purposes. The Sanhedrim held that when he came into the world there would be certain signs and portents seen of all men. This conflict of authority increased the confusion of Herod. When Vergilius came to his capital the king was mired on the very edge of the great mystery.
Powers of darkness ruled the city of Jerusalem. The sword, the lance, the dagger, and the wheel were wreaking vengeance and creating new perils while they were removing old ones. The king had tried vainly to repair the past. He gave freely to the poor; he erected gorgeous places of amusement; he built the new temple and a great palace in the upper city. The splendor of the latter structures had outdone the imperator. No shape born of barbaric dreams, to be slowly spread upon the earth in marble and gold, had so taxed the cunning and the patience of human hands. Such, in brief, were the character, the troubles, the home, and the city of Herod.
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.