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The great banqueting-hall was filled with guests. This apartment had three naves, like a basilica, which were separated by columns of sandalwood, whose capitals were of sculptured bonze. On each side of the apartment was a gallery for spectators, and a third, with a facade of gold filigree, was at one end, opposite an immense arch at the other.
The candelabra burning on the tables, which were spread the whole length of the banqueting-hall, glowed like clusters of flaming flowers among the painted cups, the plates of shining copper, the cubes of snow and heaps of luscious grapes. Through the large windows the guests could see lighted torches on the terraces of the neighbouring houses; for this night Antipas was giving a feast to his friends, his own people, and to anyone that presented himself at the castle.
The slaves, alert as dogs, glided about noiselessly in felt sandals, carrying dishes to and fro.
The table of the proconsul was placed beneath the gilded balcony upon a platform of sycamore wood. Rich tapestries from Babylon were hung about the pavilion, giving a certain effect of seclusion.
Upon three ivory couches, one facing the great hall, and the other two placed one on either side of the pavilion, reclined Vitellius, his son Aulus, and Antipas; the proconsul being near the door, at the left, Aulus on the right, the tetrarch occupying the middle couch.
Antipas wore a heavy black mantle, the texture of which was almost hidden by coloured embroideries and glittering decorations; his beard was spread out like a fan; blue powder had been scattered over his hair, and on his head rested a diadem covered with precious stones. Vitellius still wore the purple band, the emblem of his rank, crossed diagonally over a linen toga.
Aulus had tied behind his back the sleeves of his violet robe, embroidered with silver. His clustering curls were laid in carefully arranged rows; a necklace of sapphires gleamed against his throat, plump and white as that of a woman. Crouched upon a rug near him, with legs crossed was a pretty white boy, upon whose face shone a perpetual smile. Aulus had found him somewhere among the kitchens and had taken a violent fancy to him. He had made the child one of his suite, but as he never could remember his protege's Chaldean name, called him simply "the Asiatic." From time to time the little fellow sprang up and played about the dining-table, and his antics appeared to amuse the guests.
At one side of the tetrarch's pavilion were the tables at which were seated his priests and officers; also a number of persons from Jerusalem, and the more important men from the Grecian cities. At the table on the left of the proconsul sat Marcellus with the publicans, several friends of the tetrarch, and various representatives from Cana, Ptolemais, and Jericho. Seated at other tables were mountaineers from Liban and many of the old soldiers of Herod's army; a dozen Thracians, a Greek and two Germans; besides huntsmen and herdsmen, the Sultan of Palmyra, and sailors from Eziongaber. Before each guest was placed a roll of soft bread, upon which to wipe the fingers. As soon as they were seated, hands were stretched out with the eagerness of a vulture's claws, seizing upon olives, pistachios, and almonds. Every face was joyous, every head was crowned with flowers, except those of the Pharisees, who refused to wear the wreaths, regarding them as a symbol of Roman voluptuousness and vice. They shuddered when the attendants sprinkled them with galburnum and incense, the use of which the Pharisees reserved strictly for services in the Temple.
Antipas observed that Aulus rubbed himself under the arms, as if annoyed by heat or chafing; and promised to give him three flasks of the same kind of precious balm that had been used by Cleopatra.
A captain from the garrison of Tiberias who had just arrived, placed himself behind the tetrarch as protection in case any unexpected trouble should arise. But his attention was divided between observing the movements of the proconsul and listening to the conversation of his neighbours.
There was, naturally, much talk of Iaokanann, and other men of his stamp.
"It is said," remarked one of the guests, "that Simon of Gitta washed away his sins in fire. And a certain man called Jesus - "
"He is the worst of them all!" interrupted Eleazar. "A miserable imposter!"
At this a man sprang up from a table near the tetrarch's pavilion, and made his way towards the place where Eleazar sat. His face was almost as pale as his linen robe, but he addressed the Pharisees boldly, saying: "That is a lie! Jesus has performed miracles!"
Antipas expressed a long-cherished desire to see the man Jesus perform some of his so-called miracles. "You should have brought him with you," he said to the last speaker, who was still standing. "Tell us what you know about him," he commanded.
Then the stranger said that he himself, whose name was Jacob, having a daughter who was very ill, had gone to Capernaum to implore the Master to heal his child. The Master had answered him, saying: "Return to thy home: she is healed!" And he had found his daughter standing at the threshold of his house, having risen from her couch when the gnomon had marked the third hour, the same moment when he had made his supplication to Jesus.
The Pharisees admitted that certain mysterious arts and powerful herbs existed that would heal the sick. It was said that the marvellous plant known as "baaras" grew even in Machaerus, the power of which rendered its consumer invulnerable against all attacks; but to cure disease without seeing or touching the afflicted person was clearly impossible, unless, indeed, the man Jesus called in the assistance of evil spirits.
The friends of Antipas and the men from Galilee nodded wisely, saying: "It is evident that he is aided by demons of some sort!"
Jacob, standing between their table and that of the priests, maintained a silence at once lofty and respectful.
Several voices exclaimed: "Prove his power to us!"
Jacob leaned over the priests' table, and said slowly, in a halfsuppressed tone, as if awe-struck by his own words:
"Know ye not, then, that He is the Messiah?"
The priests stared at one another, and Vitellius demanded the meaning of the word. His interpreter paused a moment before translating it. Then he said that Messiah was the name to be given to one who was to come, bringing the enjoyment of all blessings, and giving them domination over all the peoples of the earth. Certain persons believed that there were to be two Messiahs; one would be vanquished by Gog and Magog, the demons of the North; but the other would exterminate the Prince of Evil; and for centuries the coming of this Saviour of mankind had been expected at any moment.
At this, the priests began to talk in low tones among themselves. Eleazar addressed Jacob, saying that it had always been understood that the Messiah would be a son of David, not of a carpenter; and that he would confirm the law, whereas this Nazarene attacked it. Furthermore, as a still stronger argument against the pretender, it had been promised that the Messiah should be preceded by Elias.
"But Elias has come!" Jacob answered.
"Elias! Elias!" was repeated from one end of the banqueting-hall to the other.
In imagination, all fancied that they could see an old man, a flight of ravens above his head, standing before an altar, which a flash of lightning illumined, revealing the idolatrous priests that were thrown into the torrent; and the women, sitting in the galleries, thought of the widow of Sarepta.
Jacob then declared that he knew Elias; that he had seen him, and that many of the guests there assembled had seen him!
"His name!" was the cry from all lips.
Antipas fell back in his chair as if a heavy blow had struck him on the breast. The Sadducees rose from their seats and rushed towards Jacob. Eleazar raised his voice to a shout in order to make himself heard. When order was finally restored, he draped his mantle about his shoulders, and, with the air of a judge, proceeded to put questions to Jacob.
"Since the prophet is dead - " he began.
Murmurs interrupted him. Many persons believed that Elias was not dead, but had only disappeared.
Eleazar rebuked those who had interrupted him; and continuing, asked:
"And dost thou believe that he has indeed come to life again?"
"Why should I not believe it?" Jacob replied.
The Sadducees shrugged their shoulders. Jonathas, opening wide his little eyes, gave a forced, buffoon-like laugh. Nothing could be more absurd, said he, than the idea that a human body could have eternal life; and he declaimed, for the benefit of the proconsul, this line from a contemporaneous poet:
Nec crescit, nec post mortem durare videtur.
By this time Aulus was leaning over the side of the pavilion, with pale face, a perspiring brow, and both hands outspread on his stomach.
The Sadducees pretended to be deeply moved at the sight of his suffering, thinking that perhaps the next day the offices of sacrificers would be theirs. Antipas appeared to be in despair at his guest's agony. Vitellius preserved a calm demeanour, although he felt some anxiety, for the loss of his son would mean the loss of his fortune.
But Aulus, quickly recovering after he had relieved his over-burdened stomach, was as eager to eat as before.
"Let some one bring me marble-dust," he commanded, "or clay of Naxos, sea-water - anything! Perhaps it would do me good to bathe."
He swallowed a quantity of snow; then hesitated between a ragout and a dish of blackbirds; and finally decided in favour of gourds served in honey. The little Asiatic gazed at his master in astonishment and admiration; to him this exhibition of gluttony denoted a wonderful being belonging to a superior race.
The feast went on. Slaves served the guests with kidneys, dormice, nightingales, mince-meat dressed with vine-leaves. The priests discoursed among themselves regarding the supposed resurrection. Ammonius, pupil of Philon, the Platonist, pronounced them stupid, and told the Greeks that he laughed at their oracles.
Marcellus and Jacob were seated side by side. Marcellus described the happiness he had felt under the baptism of Mithra, and Jacob made him promise to become a follower of Jesus.
The wines of the palm and the tamarisk, those of Safed and of Byblos, ran from the amphoras into the crateras, from the crateras into the cups, and from the cups down the guests' throats. Every one talked, all hearts expanding under the good cheer. Jacim, although a Jew, did not hesitate to express his admiration of the planets. A merchant from Aphaka amazed the nomads with his description of the marvels in the temple of Hierapolis; and they wished to know the cost of a pilgrimage to that place. Others held fast to the principles of their native religion. A German, who was nearly blind, sang a hymn celebrating that promontory in Scandinavia where the gods were wont to appear with halos around their heads. The people from Sichem declined to eat turtles, out of deference to the dove Azima.
Several groups stood talking near the middle of the banqueting-hall, and the vapour of their breath, mingled with the smoke from the candles, formed a light mist. Presently Phanuel slipped quietly into the room, keeping close to the wall. He had been out in the open courtyard, to make another survey of the heavens. He stopped when he reached the pavilion of the tetrarch, fearing he would be splashed with drops of oil if he approached the other tables, which, to an Essene, would be a great defilement.
Suddenly violent blows resounded upon the castle gates. The news of the imprisonment of Iaokanann had spread rapidly, and now it appeared that the whole surrounding population was flocking to the castle. Men with torches were hastening along the roads in all directions; a black mass of people swarmed in the ravine; and from all throats came the cry: "Iaokanann! Iaokanann!"
"That man will ruin everything," said Jonathas.
"We shall have no more money if this continues," said the Pharisees.
Accusations, recriminations, and pleadings were heard on all sides.
"Compel them to cease!"
"Thou didst abandon thy religion!"
"Impious as all the Herods!"
"Less impious than thou!" Antipas retorted. "Was it not my father that erected thy Temple?"
Then the Pharisees, children of the proscribed tribes, partisans of Mattathias, accused the tetrarch of all the crimes committed by his family.
The Pharisees had pointed skulls, bristling beards, feeble hands, snub noses, great round eyes, and their countenances bore a resemblance to that of a bull-dog. A dozen of these people, scribes and attendants upon the priests, who picked up their living from the refuse of holocausts, rushed to the foot of the pavilion and threatened Antipas with their knives. He attempted to speak to them, being only slightly protected by some of the Sadducees. Suddenly he perceived Mannaeus at a distance and made him a sign to approach. The expression on the face of Vitellius indicated that he regarded all this turmoil as no concern of his.
The Pharisees, leaning against the pavilion, were now beside themselves with demoniac fury. They broke plates and dashed them upon the floor. The attendants had served them with a ragout composed of the flesh of the wild ass, an unclean animal, and their anger knew no bounds. Aulus rallied them jeeringly apropos of the ass's head, which he declared they honoured. He flung other sarcasms at them, regarding their antipathy to the flesh of swine, intimating that no doubt their hatred arose from the fact that that beast had killed their beloved Bacchus, and saying it was to be feared they were too fond of wine, since a golden vine had been discovered in the Temple.
The priests did not understand his sneers, and Phineas, of Galilean origin, refused to translate them. Aulus suddenly became angry, the more so because the little Asiatic, frightened at the tumult, had disappeared. The feast no longer pleased the noble glutton; the dishes were vulgar, and not sufficiently disguised with delicate flavourings. After a time his displeasure abated, as he caught sight of a dish of Syrian lambs' tails, dressed with spices, a favourite dainty.
To Vitellius the character of the Jews seemed frightful. Their God was like Moloch, several altars to whom he had passed upon his route; and he recalled the stories he had heard of the mysterious Jew who fattened small children and offered them as a sacrifice. His Latin nature was filled with disgust at their intolerance, their iconoclastic rage, their brutal, stumbling bearing. The proconsul wished to depart, but Aulus refused to accompany him.
The exaltation of the people increased. They abandoned themselves to dreams of independence. They recalled the glory of Israel, and a Syrian spoke of all the great conquerors they had vanquished,-Antigone, Crassus, Varus.
"Miserable creatures!" cried the enraged proconsul, who had overheard the Syrian's words.
In the midst of the uproar Antipas remembered the medallion of the emperor that Herodias had given to him; he drew it forth and looked at it a moment, trembling, then held it up with its face turned towards the throng.
At the same moment, the panels of the gold-railed balcony were folded back, and, accompanied by slaves bearing wax tapers, Herodias appeared, her coiffure crowned with an Assyrian mitre, which was held in place by a band passing under the chin. Her dark hair fell in ringlets over a scarlet peplum with slashed sleeves. On either side of the door through which one stepped into the gallery, stood a huge stone monster, like those of Atrides; and as Herodias appeared between them, she looked like Cybele supported by her lions. In her hands she carried a patera, a shallow vessel of silver used by the Romans in pouring libations; and, advancing to the front of the balcony and pausing just above the tetrarch's chair, she cried:
"Long live Caesar!"
This homage was repeated by Vitellius, Antipas, and the priests.
But now, beginning at the farthest end of the banqueting-hall, a murmur of surprise and admiration swept through the multitude. A beautiful young girl had just entered the apartment, and stood motionless for an instant, while all eyes were turned upon her.
Through a drapery of filmy blue gauze that veiled her head and throat, her arched eyebrows, tiny ears, and ivory-white skin could be distinguished. A scarf of shot-silk fell from her shoulders, and was caught up at the waist by a girdle of fretted silver. Her full trousers, of black silk, were embroidered in a pattern of silver mandragoras, and as she moved forward with indolent grace, her little feet were seen to be shod with slippers made of the feathers of humming-birds.
When she arrived in front of the pavilion she removed her veil. Behold! she seemed to be Herodias herself, as she had appeared in the days of her blooming youth.
Immediately the damsel began to dance before the tetrarch. Her slender feet took dainty steps to the rhythm of a flute and a pair of Indian bells. Her round white arms seemed ever beckoning and striving to entice to her side some youth who was fleeing from her allurements. She appeared to pursue him, with movements light as a butterfly; her whole mien was like that of an inquisitive Psyche, or a floating spirit that might at any moment dissolve and disappear.
Presently the plaintive notes of the gingras, a small flute of Phoenician origin, replaced the tinkling bells. The attitudes of the dancing nymph now denoted overpowering lassitude. Her bosom heaved with sighs, and her whole being expressed profound languor, although it was not clear whether she sighed for an absent swain or was expiring of love in his embrace. With half-closed eyes and quivering form, she caused mysterious undulations to flow downward over her whole body, like rippling waves, while her face remained impassive and her twinkling feet still moved in their intricate steps.
Vitellius compared her to Mnester, the famous pantomimist. Aulus was overcome with faintness. The tetrarch watched her, lost in a voluptuous reverie, and thought no more of the real Herodias. In fancy he saw her again as she appeared when she had dwelt among the Sadducees. Then the vision faded.
But this beautiful thing before him was no vision. The dancer was Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who for many months her mother had caused to be instructed in dancing, and other arts of pleasing, with the sole idea of bringing her to Machaerus and presenting her to the tetrarch, so that he should fall in love with her fresh young beauty and feminine wiles. The plan had proved successful, it seemed; he was evidently fascinated, and Herodias felt that at last she was sure of retaining her power over him!
And now the graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators' blood on fire.
Suddenly the thrilling chords of a harp rang through the hall, and the throng burst into loud acclamations. All eyes were fixed on Salome, who paused in her rhythmic dance, placed her feet wide apart, and without bending the knees, suddenly swayed her lithe body downward, so that her chin touched the floor; and her whole audience, - the nomads, accustomed to a life of privation and abstinence, the Roman soldiers, expert in debaucheries, the avaricious publicans, and even the crabbed, elderly priests - gazed upon her with dilated nostrils.
Next she began to whirl frantically around the table where Antipas the tetrarch was seated. He leaned towards the flying figure, and in a voice half choked with the voluptuous sighs of a mad desire, he sighed: "Come to me! Come!" But she whirled on, while the music of dulcimers swelled louder and the excited spectators roared their applause.
The tetrarch called again, louder than before: "Come to me! Come! Thou shalt have Capernaum, the plains of Tiberias! my citadels! yea, the half of my kingdom!"
Again the dancer paused; then, like a flash, she threw herself upon the palms of her hands, while her feet rose straight up into the air. In this bizarre pose she moved about upon the floor like a gigantic beetle; then stood motionless.
The nape of her neck formed a right angle with her vertebrae. The full silken skirts of pale hues that enveloped her limbs when she stood erect, now fell to her shoulders and surrounded her face like a rainbow. Her lips were tinted a deep crimson, her arched eyebrows were black as jet, her glowing eyes had an almost terrible radiance; and the tiny drops of perspiration on her forehead looked like dew upon white marble.
She made no sound; and the burning gaze of that multitude of men was concentrated upon her.
A sound like the snapping of fingers came from the gallery over the pavilion. Instantly, with one of her movements of bird-like swiftness, Salome stood erect. The next moment she rapidly passed up a flight of steps leading to the gallery, and coming to the front of it she leaned over, smiled upon the tetrarch, and, with an air of almost childlike naivete, pronounced these words:
"I ask my lord to give me, placed upon a charger, the head of - " She hesitated, as if not certain of the name; then said: "The head of Iaokanann!"
The tetrarch sank back in his chair as if stunned.
He had bound himself by his promise to her; and the people awaited his next movement. But the death that night of some conspicuous man that had been predicted to him by Phanuel, - what if, by bringing it upon another, he could avert it from himself, thought Antipas. If Iaokanann was in very truth the Elias so much talked of, he would have power to protect himself; and if he were only an ordinary man, his murder was of no importance.
Mannaeus stood beside his chair, and read his master's thoughts. Vitellius beckoned him to his side and gave him an order for the execution, to be transmitted to the soldiers placed on guard over the dungeon. This execution would be a relief, he thought. In a few moments all would be over!
But for once Mannaeus did not perform a commission satisfactorily. He left the hall but soon returned, in a state of great perturbation.
During forty years he had exercised the functions of the public executioner. It was he that had drowned Aristobulus, strangled Alexander, burned Mattathias alive, beheaded Zozimus, Pappus, Josephus, and Antipater; but he dared not kill Iaokanann! His teeth chattered and his whole body trembled.
He declared that he had seen, standing before the dungeon, the Angel of the Samaritans, covered with eyes and brandishing a great sword, glowing and quivering like a flame. He appealed to two of the guards, who had entered the hall with him, to corroborate his words. But they said they had seen nothing except a Jewish captain who had attacked them, and whom they had killed.
The fury of Herodias poured forth in a torrent of invective against the populace. She clenched the railing of the balcony so fiercely as to break her nails; the two stone lions at her back seemed to bite her shoulders and join their voices to hers.
Antipas followed her example; and priests, soldiers, and Pharisees cried aloud together for vengeance, echoed by the rest of the gathering, who were indignant that a mere slave should dare to delay their pleasures.
Again Mannaeus left the hall, covering his face with his hands.
The guests found the second delay longer than the first. It seemed tedious to every one.
Presently a sound of footsteps was heard in the corridor without; then silence fell again. The suspense was becoming intolerable.
Suddenly the door was flung open and Mannaeus entered, holding at arm's length, grasping it by the hair, the head of Iaokanann. His appearance was greeted with a burst of applause, which filled him with pride and revived his courage.
He placed the head upon a charger and offered it to Salome, who had descended the steps to receive it. She remounted to the balcony, with a light step; and in another moment the charger was carried about from one table to another by the elderly female slave whom the tetrarch had observed in the morning on the balcony of a neighbouring house, and later in the chamber of Herodias.
When she approached him with her ghastly burden, he turned away his head to avoid looking at it. Vitellius threw upon it an indifferent glance.
Mannaeus descended from the pavilion, took the charger from the woman, and exhibited the head to the Roman captains, then to all the guests on that side of the hall.
They looked at it curiously.
The sharp blade of the sword had cut into the jaw with a swift downward stroke. The corners of the mouth were drawn, as if by a convulsion. Clots of blood besprinkled the beard. The closed eyelids had a shell-like transparency, and the candelabra on every side lighted up the gruesome object with terrible distinctness.
Mannaeus arrived at the table where the priests were seated. One of them turned the charger about curiously, to look at the head from all sides. Then Mannaeus, having entirely regained his courage, placed the charger before Aulus, who had just awakened from a short doze; and finally he brought it again to Antipas and set it down upon the table beside him. Tears were running down the cheeks of the tetrarch.
The lights began to flicker and die out. The guests departed, and at last no one remained in the great hall save Antipas, who sat leaning his head upon his hands, gazing at the head of Iaokanann; and Phanuel, who stood in the centre of the largest nave and prayed aloud, with uplifted arms.
At sunrise the two men who had been sent on a mission by Iaokanann some time before, returned to the castle, bringing the answer so long awaited and hoped for.
They whispered the message to Phanuel, who received it with rapture.
Then he showed them the lugubrious object, still resting on the charger amid the ruins of the feast. One of the men said:
"Be comforted! He has descended among the dead in order to announce the coming of the Christ!"
And in that moment the Essene comprehended the words of Iaokanann: "In order that His glory may increase, mine must diminish!"
Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.
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