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Gustave Flaubert.

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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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Online LibraryGustave FlaubertHerodias → online text (page 4 of 4)