“Put him in irons!” he shouted. “I, who shall soon be king of the Jews, command you!”
The cohort began to jeer at him; Vergilius commanded silence.
“You lapdog!” Antipater hissed, turning upon the Roman. “Am I met with treason?”
“You give yourself a poor compliment,” said Vergilius. “Better call me a lion than a lapdog.” He turned to an officer who stood near and added: “You will now obey the orders of the king.”
Forthwith, Vergilius went aboard the new-come vessel and seized the goods of Antipater and put them on their way to the king. Meanwhile, the soldiers, many of whom had borne with the cruelty and insolence of their prisoner, were little inclined to mercy. He struggled, cursing, but they bore him down, binding him hand and knee to an open litter, so he stood, like a beast, upon all fours, for such, indeed, was the order of the king. Then they put on him the skin of a wild ass and carried him up and down, jeering as the long ears flapped. Vergilius, returning, removed the skin of the ass and loosed the fetters a little, and forbade the soldiers any further revenge.
“The skin of a leopard would become you better,” said Vergilius to Antipater, as he unlashed the coat of shame.
The wrathful Jew, still cursing, tried to bite the friendly hand of his keeper. “My noble prince,” said Vergilius, “you flatter me; I am not good to eat.”
Those crowding near laughed loudly, but Vergilius hushed them and signalled to the trumpeter. Then a call and a rush of horses into line. The litter was lifted quickly and lashed upon the backs of two chargers. In a little time the cohort was on its way to Jerusalem.
Arriving, it massed in front of the royal palace. Vergilius repaired to the king’s chamber. The body of Herod was now become as an old house, its timbers sagging to their fall, its tenant trembling at dim windows while the storm beat upon it. Shame and sorrow and remorse were racking him down. King and kingdom were now swiftly changing.
“At last!” he piped, with quivering hands uplifted. “Slow-footed justice! come—come close to me.”
Eagerly he grasped the hands of the young Roman and kissed them. Then he spoke with bitter irony, his words coming fast. “You met the great king?”
“Yes, good sire.”
“You put him in chains and brought him hither?”
“And I commend him to your mercy.”
“Ha, ha!” the king shrieked, caressing the hand of the Roman. Now his head rose, and for a little his old vigor and menacing voice returned to him. “He has run me through with the blade of remorse and put upon me the chains of infirmity,” he complained, an ominous, croaking rattle in his throat. “To-day, to-day, my wrath shall descend upon him and my gratitude upon you! These forty years have I been seeking a man of honor. At last, at last, here is the greatest of men! I, Herod, surnamed the Great, king of Judea, conqueror of hosts, builder of cities, bare my head before you!”