He who sat before the tripod, however, in the place which may be called the head of the divan, having all the rest of his associates on his right and left, and, at the same time, before him, evidently president of the meeting, would have instantly absorbed the attention of a spectator. He had been cast in large mould, but was now shrunken and stooped to ghastliness; his white robe dropped from his shoulders in folds that gave no hint of muscle or anything but an angular skeleton. His hands, half concealed by sleeves of silk, white and crimson striped, were clasped upon his knees. When he spoke, sometimes the first finger of the right hand extended tremulously; he seemed incapable of other gesture. But his head was a splendid dome. A few hairs, whiter than fine-drawn silver, fringed the base; over a broad, full-sphered skull the skin was drawn close, and shone in the light with positive brilliance; the temples were deep hollows, from which the forehead beetled like a wrinkled crag; the eyes were wan and dim; the nose was pinched; and all the lower face was muffed in a beard flowing and venerable as Aaron's. Such was Hillel the Babylonian! The line of prophets, long extinct in Israel, was now succeeded by a line of scholars, of whom he was first in learning--a prophet in all but the divine inspiration! At the age of one hundred and six, he was still Rector of the Great College.
On the table before him lay outspread a roll or volume of parchment inscribed with Hebrew characters; behind him, in waiting, stood a page richly habited.
There had been discussion, but at this moment of introduction the company had reached a conclusion; each one was in an attitude of rest, and the venerable Hillel, without moving, called the page.
The youth advanced respectfully.
"Go tell the king we are ready to give him answer."
After a time two officers entered and stopped, one on each side the door; after them slowly followed a most striking personage-- an old man clad in a purple robe bordered with scarlet, and girt to his waist by a band of gold linked so fine that it was pliable as leather; the latchets of his shoes sparkled with precious stones; a narrow crown wrought in filigree shone outside a tarbooshe of softest crimson plush, which, encasing his head, fell down the neck and shoulders, leaving the throat and neck exposed. Instead of a seal, a dagger dangled from his belt. He walked with a halting step, leaning heavily upon a staff. Not until he reached the opening of the divan, did he pause or look up from the floor; then, as for the first time conscious of the company, and roused by their presence, he raised himself, and looked haughtily round, like one startled and searching for an enemy--so dark, suspicious, and threatening was the glance. Such was Herod the Great--a body broken by diseases, a conscience seared with crimes, a mind magnificently capable, a soul fit for brotherhood with the Caesars; now seven-and-sixty years old, but guarding his throne with a jealousy never so vigilant, a power never so despotic, and a cruelty never so inexorable.
There was a general movement on the part of the assemblage--a bending forward in salaam by the more aged, a rising-up by the more courtierly, followed by low genuflections, hands upon the beard or breast.
His observations taken, Herod moved on until at the tripod opposite the venerable Hillel, who met his cold glance with an inclination of the head, and a slight lifting of the hands.