Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Part 2 out of 13
At a certain hour in the evening the shouting and stir of the
people in and about the khan ceased; at the same time, every
Israelite, if not already upon his feet, arose, solemnized his
face, looked towards Jerusalem, crossed his hands upon his breast,
and prayed; for it was the sacred ninth hour, when sacrifices were
offered in the temple on Moriah, and God was supposed to be there.
When the hands of the worshippers fell down, the commotion broke
forth again; everybody hastened to bread, or to make his pallet.
A little later, the lights were put out, and there was silence,
and then sleep.
* * * * * *
About midnight some one on the roof cried out, "What light is that
in the sky? Awake, brethren, awake and see!"
The people, half asleep, sat up and looked; then they became
wide-awake, though wonder-struck. And the stir spread to the
court below, and into the lewens; soon the entire tenantry of
the house and court and enclosure were out gazing at the sky.
And this was what they saw. A ray of light, beginning at a height
immeasurably beyond the nearest stars, and dropping obliquely
to the earth; at its top, a diminishing point; at its base,
many furlongs in width; its sides blending softly with the
darkness of the night, its core a roseate electrical splendor.
The apparition seemed to rest on the nearest mountain southeast
of the town, making a pale corona along the line of the summit.
The khan was touched luminously, so that those upon the roof saw
each other's faces, all filled with wonder.
Steadily, through minutes, the ray lingered, and then the wonder
changed to awe and fear; the timid trembled; the boldest spoke
"Saw you ever the like?" asked one.
"It seems just over the mountain there. I cannot tell what it is,
nor did I ever see anything like it," was the answer.
"Can it be that a star has burst and fallen?" asked another,
his tongue faltering.
"When a star falls, its light goes out."
"I have it!" cried one, confidently. "The shepherds have seen a
lion, and made fires to keep him from the flocks."
The men next the speaker drew a breath of relief, and said, "Yes,
that is it! The flocks were grazing in the valley over there to-day."
A bystander dispelled the comfort.
"No, no! Though all the wood in all the valleys of Judah was brought
together in one pile and fired, the blaze would not throw a light so
strong and high."
After that there was silence on the house-top, broken but once
again while the mystery continued.
"Brethren!" exclaimed a Jew of venerable mien, "what we see is the
ladder our father Jacob saw in his dream. Blessed be the Lord God
of our fathers!"
A mile and a half, it may be two miles, southeast of Bethlehem,
there is a plain separated from the town by an intervening swell
of the mountain. Besides being well sheltered from the north winds,
the vale was covered with a growth of sycamore, dwarf-oak, and pine
trees, while in the glens and ravines adjoining there were thickets
of olive and mulberry; all at this season of the year invaluable
for the support of sheep, goats, and cattle, of which the wandering
At the side farthest from the town, close under a bluff, there was
an extensive marah, or sheepcot, ages old. In some long-forgotten
foray, the building had been unroofed and almost demolished.
The enclosure attached to it remained intact, however, and that
was of more importance to the shepherds who drove their charges
thither than the house itself. The stone wall around the lot was
high as a man's head, yet not so high but that sometimes a panther
or a lion, hungering from the wilderness, leaped boldly in. On the
inner side of the wall, and as an additional security against
the constant danger, a hedge of the rhamnus had been planted,
an invention so successful that now a sparrow could hardly
penetrate the overtopping branches, armed as they were with
great clusters of thorns hard as spikes.
The day of the occurrences which occupy the preceding chapters,
a number of shepherds, seeking fresh walks for their flocks, led
them up to this plain; and from early morning the groves had been
made ring with calls, and the blows of axes, the bleating of sheep
and goats, the tinkling of bells, the lowing of cattle, and the
barking of dogs. When the sun went down, they led the way to the
marah, and by nightfall had everything safe in the field; then they
kindled a fire down by the gate, partook of their humble supper,
and sat down to rest and talk, leaving one on watch.
There were six of these men, omitting the watchman; and afterwhile
they assembled in a group near the fire, some sitting, some lying
prone. As they went bareheaded habitually, their hair stood out in
thick, coarse, sunburnt shocks; their beard covered their throats,
and fell in mats down the breast; mantles of the skin of kids
and lambs, with the fleece on, wrapped them from neck to knee,
leaving the arms exposed; broad belts girthed the rude garments
to their waists; their sandals were of the coarsest quality;
from their right shoulders hung scrips containing food and
selected stones for slings, with which they were armed; on the
ground near each one lay his crook, a symbol of his calling and
a weapon of offence.
Such were the shepherds of Judea! In appearance, rough and savage
as the gaunt dogs sitting with them around the blaze; in fact,
simple-minded, tender-hearted; effects due, in part, to the
primitive life they led, but chiefly to their constant care
of things lovable and helpless.
They rested and talked, and their talk was all about their flocks,
a dull theme to the world, yet a theme which was all the world to
them. If in narrative they dwelt long upon affairs of trifling
moment; if one of them omitted nothing of detail in recounting
the loss of a lamb, the relation between him and the unfortunate
should be remembered: at birth it became his charge, his to keep
all its days, to help over the floods, to carry down the hollows,
to name and train; it was to be his companion, his object of thought
and interest, the subject of his will; it was to enliven and share
his wanderings; in its defense he might be called on to face the
lion or robber--to die.
The great events, such as blotted out nations and changed the
mastery of the world, were trifles to them, if perchance they came
to their knowledge. Of what Herod was doing in this city or that,
building palaces and gymnasia, and indulging forbidden practises,
they occasionally heard. As was her habit in those days, Rome did
not wait for people slow to inquire about her; she came to them.
Over the hills along which he was leading his lagging herd, or in
the fastnesses in which he was hiding them, not unfrequently the
shepherd was startled by the blare of trumpets, and, peering out,
beheld a cohort, sometimes a legion, in march; and when the
glittering crests were gone, and the excitement incident to
the intrusion over, he bent himself to evolve the meaning of
the eagles and gilded globes of the soldiery, and the charm of
a life so the opposite of his own.
Yet these men, rude and simple as they were, had a knowledge and
a wisdom of their own. On Sabbaths they were accustomed to purify
themselves, and go up into the synagogues, and sit on the benches
farthest from the ark. When the chazzan bore the Torah round,
none kissed it with greater zest; when the sheliach read the text,
none listened to the interpreter with more absolute faith; and none
took away with them more of the elder's sermon, or gave it more
thought afterwards. In a verse of the Shema they found all the
learning and all the law of their simple lives--that their Lord
was One God, and that they must love him with all their souls.
And they loved him, and such was their wisdom, surpassing that
While they talked, and before the first watch was over, one by
one the shepherds went to sleep, each lying where he had sat.
The night, like most nights of the winter season in the hill
country, was clear, crisp, and sparkling with stars. There was
no wind. The atmosphere seemed never so pure, and the stillness
was more than silence; it was a holy hush, a warning that heaven
was stooping low to whisper some good thing to the listening earth.
By the gate, hugging his mantle close, the watchman walked; at times
he stopped, attracted by a stir among the sleeping herds, or by
a jackal's cry off on the mountain-side. The midnight was slow
coming to him; but at last it came. His task was done; now for the
dreamless sleep with which labor blesses its wearied children! He
moved towards the fire, but paused; a light was breaking around
him, soft and white, like the moon's. He waited breathlessly.
The light deepened; things before invisible came to view; he saw
the whole field, and all it sheltered. A chill sharper than that
of the frosty air--a chill of fear--smote him. He looked up;
the stars were gone; the light was dropping as from a window
in the sky; as he looked, it became a splendor; then, in terror,
Up sprang the dogs, and, howling, ran away.
The herds rushed together bewildered.
The men clambered to their feet, weapons in hand.
"What is it?" they asked, in one voice.
"See!" cried the watchman, "the sky is on fire!"
Suddenly the light became intolerably bright, and they covered
their eyes, and dropped upon their knees; then, as their souls
shrank with fear, they fell upon their faces blind and fainting,
and would have died had not a voice said to them,
And they listened.
"Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people."
The voice, in sweetness and soothing more than human, and low and
clear, penetrated all their being, and filled them with assurance.
They rose upon their knees, and, looking worshipfully, beheld in
the centre of a great glory the appearance of a man, clad in a
robe intensely white; above its shoulders towered the tops of
wings shining and folded; a star over its forehead glowed with
steady lustre, brilliant as Hesperus; its hands were stretched
towards them in blessing; its face was serene and divinely beautiful.
They had often heard, and, in their simple way, talked, of angels;
and they doubted not now, but said, in their hearts, The glory of
God is about us, and this is he who of old came to the prophet by
the river of Ulai.
Directly the angel continued:
"For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior,
which is Christ the Lord!"
Again there was a rest, while the words sank into their minds.
"And this shall be a sign unto you," the annunciator said next.
"Ye shall find the babe, wrapped in swaddling-clothes, lying in
The herald spoke not again; his good tidings were told; yet he
stayed awhile. Suddenly the light, of which he seemed the centre,
turned roseate and began to tremble; then up, far as the men could
see, there was flashing of white wings, and coming and going of
radiant forms, and voices as of a multitude chanting in unison,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards
Not once the praise, but many times.
Then the herald raised his eyes as seeking approval of one far off;
his wings stirred, and spread slowly and majestically, on their upper
side white as snow, in the shadow vari-tinted, like mother-of-pearl;
when they were expanded many cubits beyond his stature, he arose
lightly, and, without effort, floated out of view, taking the
light up with him. Long after he was gone, down from the sky fell
the refrain in measure mellowed by distance, "Glory to God in the
highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards men."
When the shepherds came fully to their senses, they stared at each
other stupidly, until one of them said, "It was Gabriel, the Lord's
messenger unto men."
"Christ the Lord is born; said he not so?"
Then another recovered his voice, and replied, "That is what he
"And did he not also say, in the city of David, which is our
Bethlehem yonder. And that we should find him a babe in
"And lying in a manger."
The first speaker gazed into the fire thoughtfully, but at length
said, like one possessed of a sudden resolve, "There is but one
place in Bethlehem where there are mangers; but one, and that is
in the cave near the old khan. Brethren, let us go see this thing
which has come to pass. The priests and doctors have been a long
time looking for the Christ. Now he is born, and the Lord has
given us a sign by which to know him. Let us go up and worship
"But the flocks!"
"The Lord will take care of them. Let us make haste."
Then they all arose and left the marah.
* * * * * *
Around the mountain and through the town they passed, and came to
the gate of the khan, where there was a man on watch.
"What would you have?" he asked.
"We have seen and heard great things to-night," they replied.
"Well, we, too, have seen great things, but heard nothing. What did
"Let us go down to the cave in the enclosure, that we may be sure;
then we will tell you all. Come with us, and see for yourself."
"It is a fool's errand."
"No, the Christ is born."
"The Christ! How do you know?"
"Let us go and see first."
The man laughed scornfully.
"The Christ indeed! How are you to know him?"
"He was born this night, and is now lying in a manger, so we
were told; and there is but one place in Bethlehem with mangers."
"Yes. Come with us."
They went through the court-yard without notice, although there
were some up even then talking about the wonderful light. The door
of the cavern was open. A lantern was burning within, and they
"I give you peace," the watchman said to Joseph and the Beth
Dagonite. "Here are people looking for a child born this night,
whom they are to know by finding him in swaddling-clothes and
lying in a manger."
For a moment the face of the stolid Nazarene was moved; turning away,
he said, "The child is here."
They were led to one of the mangers, and there the child was. The
lantern was brought, and the shepherds stood by mute. The little
one made no sign; it was as others just born.
"Where is the mother?" asked the watchman.
One of the women took the baby, and went to Mary, lying near,
and put it in her arms. Then the bystanders collected about
"It is the Christ!" said a shepherd, at last.
"The Christ!" they all repeated, falling upon their knees in worship.
One of them repeated several times over,
"It is the Lord, and his glory is above the earth and heaven."
And the simple men, never doubting, kissed the hem of the mother's
robe, and with joyful faces departed. In the khan, to all the people
aroused and pressing about them, they told their story; and through
the town, and all the way back to the marah, they chanted the refrain
of the angels, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good-will towards men!"
The story went abroad, confirmed by the light so generally seen;
and the next day, and for days thereafter, the cave was visited
by curious crowds, of whom some believed, though the greater part
laughed and mocked.
The eleventh day after the birth of the child in the cave,
about mid-afternoon, the three wise men approached Jerusalem by
the road from Shechem. After crossing Brook Cedron, they met many
people, of whom none failed to stop and look after them curiously.
Judea was of necessity an international thoroughfare; a narrow
ridge, raised, apparently, by the pressure of the desert on
the east, and the sea on the west, was all she could claim to
be; over the ridge, however, nature had stretched the line of
trade between the east and the south; and that was her wealth.
In other words, the riches of Jerusalem were the tolls she levied
on passing commerce. Nowhere else, consequently, unless in Rome,
was there such constant assemblage of so many people of so many
different nations; in no other city was a stranger less strange
to the residents than within her walls and purlieus. And yet these
three men excited the wonder of all whom they met on the way to
A child belonging to some women sitting by the roadside opposite
the Tombs of the Kings saw the party coming; immediately it clapped
its hands, and cried, "Look, look! What pretty bells! What big
The bells were silver; the camels, as we have seen, were of unusual
size and whiteness, and moved with singular stateliness; the trappings
told of the desert and of long journeys thereon, and also of ample
means in possession of the owners, who sat under the little canopies
exactly as they appeared at the rendezvous beyond the Jebel. Yet it
was not the bells or the camels, or their furniture, or the demeanor
of the riders, that were so wonderful; it was the question put by
the man who rode foremost of the three.
The approach to Jerusalem from the north is across a plain which
dips southward, leaving the Damascus Gate in a vale or hollow.
The road is narrow, but deeply cut by long use, and in places
difficult on account of the cobbles left loose and dry by the
washing of the rains. On either side, however, there stretched,
in the old time, rich fields and handsome olive-groves, which must,
in luxurious growth, have been beautiful, especially to travellers
fresh from the wastes of the desert. In this road, the three stopped
before the party in front of the Tombs.
"Good people," said Balthasar, stroking his plaited beard,
and bending from his cot, "is not Jerusalem close by?"
"Yes," answered the woman into whose arms the child had shrunk.
"If the trees on yon swell were a little lower you could see the
towers on the market-place."
Balthasar gave the Greek and the Hindoo a look, then asked,
"Where is he that is born King of the Jews?"
The women gazed at each other without reply.
"You have not heard of him?"
"Well, tell everybody that we have seen his star in the east,
and are come to worship him."
Thereupon the friends rode on. Of others they asked the same
question, with like result. A large company whom they met going to
the Grotto of Jeremiah were so astonished by the inquiry and the
appearance of the travellers that they turned about and followed
them into the city.
So much were the three occupied with the idea of their mission that
they did not care for the view which presently rose before them in
the utmost magnificence: for the village first to receive them
on Bezetha; for Mizpah and Olivet, over on their left; for the
wall behind the village, with its forty tall and solid towers,
superadded partly for strength, partly to gratify the critical
taste of the kingly builder; for the same towered wall bending
off to the right, with many an angle, and here and there an
embattled gate, up to the three great white piles Phasaelus,
Mariamne, and Hippicus; for Zion, tallest of the hills, crowned
with marble palaces, and never so beautiful; for the glittering
terraces of the temple on Moriah, admittedly one of the wonders
of the earth; for the regal mountains rimming the sacred city round
about until it seemed in the hollow of a mighty bowl.
They came, at length, to a tower of great height and strength,
overlooking the gate which, at that time, answered to the
present Damascus Gate, and marked the meeting-place of the
three roads from Shechem, Jericho, and Gibeon. A Roman guard
kept the passage-way. By this time the people following the
camels formed a train sufficient to draw the idlers hanging
about the portal; so that when Balthasar stopped to speak to
the sentinel, the three became instantly the centre of a close
circle eager to hear all that passed.
"I give you peace," the Egyptian said, in a clear voice.
The sentinel made no reply.
"We have come great distances in search of one who is born King
of the Jews. Can you tell us where he is?"
The soldier raised the visor of his helmet, and called loudly.
From an apartment at the right of the passage an officer appeared.
"Give way," he cried, to the crowd which now pressed closer in; and as
they seemed slow to obey, he advanced twirling his javelin vigorously,
now right, now left; and so he gained room.
"What would you?" he asked of Balthasar, speaking in the idiom of
And Balthasar answered in the same,
"Where is he that is born King of the Jews?"
"Herod?" asked the officer, confounded.
"Herod's kingship is from Caesar; not Herod."
"There is no other King of the Jews."
"But we have seen the star of him we seek, and come to worship him."
The Roman was perplexed.
"Go farther," he said, at last. "Go farther. I am not a Jew.
Carry the question to the doctors in the Temple, or to Hannas
the priest, or, better still, to Herod himself. If there be
another King of the Jews, he will find him."
Thereupon he made way for the strangers, and they passed the gate.
But, before entering the narrow street, Balthasar lingered to say
to his friends, "We are sufficiently proclaimed. By midnight the
whole city will have heard of us and of our mission. Let us to
the khan now."
That evening, before sunset, some women were washing clothes on
the upper step of the flight that led down into the basin of the
Pool of Siloam. They knelt each before a broad bowl of earthenware.
A girl at the foot of the steps kept them supplied with water, and
sang while she filled the jar. The song was cheerful, and no doubt
lightened their labor. Occasionally they would sit upon their heels,
and look up the slope of Ophel, and round to the summit of what is
now the Mount of Offence, then faintly glorified by the dying sun.
While they plied their hands, rubbing and wringing the clothes
in the bowls, two other women came to them, each with an empty
jar upon her shoulder.
"Peace to you," one of the new-comers said.
The laborers paused, sat up, wrung the water from their hands,
and returned the salutation.
"It is nearly night--time to quit."
"There is no end to work," was the reply.
"But there is a time to rest, and--"
"To hear what may be passing," interposed another.
"What news have you?"
"Then you have not heard?"
"They say the Christ is born," said the newsmonger, plunging into
It was curious to see the faces of the laborers brighten with
interest; on the other side down came the jars, which, in a
moment, were turned into seats for their owners.
"The Christ!" the listeners cried.
"So they say."
"Everybody; it is common talk."
"Does anybody believe it?"
"This afternoon three men came across Brook Cedron on the road
from Shechem," the speaker replied, circumstantially, intending
to smother doubt. "Each one of them rode a camel spotless white,
and larger than any ever before seen in Jerusalem."
The eyes and mouths of the auditors opened wide.
"To prove how great and rich the men were," the narrator continued,
"they sat under awnings of silk; the buckles of their saddles were
of gold, as was the fringe of their bridles; the bells were of
silver, and made real music. Nobody knew them; they looked as if
they had come from the ends of the world. Only one of them spoke,
and of everybody on the road, even the women and children, he asked
this question--'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' No one
gave them answer--no one understood what they meant; so they passed
on, leaving behind them this saying: 'For we have seen his star in
the east, and are come to worship him.' They put the question to
the Roman at the gate; and he, no wiser than the simple people on
the road, sent them up to Herod."
"Where are they now?"
"At the khan. Hundreds have been to look at them already, and hundreds
more are going."
"Who are they?"
"Nobody knows. They are said to be Persians--wise men who talk
with the stars--prophets, it may be, like Elijah and Jeremiah."
"What do they mean by King of the Jews?"
"The Christ, and that he is just born."
One of the women laughed, and resumed her work, saying, 'Well,
when I see him I will believe."
Another followed her example: "And I--well, when I see him raise
the dead, I will believe."
A third said, quietly, "He has been a long time promised. It will
be enough for me to see him heal one leper."
And the party sat talking until the night came, and, with the help
of the frosty air, drove them home.
* * * * * *
Later in the evening, about the beginning of the first watch,
there was an assemblage in the palace on Mount Zion, of probably
fifty persons, who never came together except by order of Herod,
and then only when he had demanded to know some one or more of the
deeper mysteries of the Jewish law and history. It was, in short,
a meeting of the teachers of the colleges, of the chief priests,
and of the doctors most noted in the city for learning--the leaders of
opinion, expounders of the different creeds; princes of the Sadducees;
Pharisaic debaters; calm, soft-spoken, stoical philosophers of the
The chamber in which the session was held belonged to one of
the interior court-yards of the palace, and was quite large
and Romanesque. The floor was tessellated with marble blocks;
the walls, unbroken by a window, were frescoed in panels of
saffron yellow; a divan occupied the centre of the apartment,
covered with cushions of bright-yellow cloth, and fashioned in
form of the letter U, the opening towards the doorway; in the
arch of the divan, or, as it were, in the bend of the letter,
there was an immense bronze tripod, curiously inlaid with gold
and silver, over which a chandelier dropped from the ceiling,
having seven arms, each holding a lighted lamp. The divan and
the lamp were purely Jewish.
The company sat upon the divan after the style of Orientals,
in costume singularly uniform, except as to color. They were
mostly men advanced in years; immense beards covered their faces;
to their large noses were added the effects of large black eyes,
deeply shaded by bold brows; their demeanor was grave, dignified,
even patriarchal. In brief, their session was that of the Sanhedrim.
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."
The boy hurried away.
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.
"The answer!" said the king, with imperious simplicity,
addressing Hillel, and planting his staff before him with
both hands. "The answer!"
The eyes of the patriarch glowed mildly, and, raising his head,
and looking the inquisitor full in the face, he answered,
his associates giving him closest attention,
"With thee, O king, be the peace of God, of Abraham, Isaac,
His manner was that of invocation; changing it, he resumed:
"Thou hast demanded of us where the Christ should be born."
The king bowed, though the evil eyes remained fixed upon the
"That is the question."
"Then, O king, speaking for myself, and all my brethren here,
not one dissenting, I say, in Bethlehem of Judea."
Hillel glanced at the parchment on the tripod; and, pointing with
his tremulous finger, continued, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus
it is written by the prophet, 'And thou, Bethlehem, in the land
of Judea, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out
of thee shall come a governor that shall rule my people Israel.'"
Herod's face was troubled, and his eyes fell upon the parchment
while he thought. Those beholding him scarcely breathed; they spoke
not, nor did he. At length he turned about and left the chamber.
"Brethren," said Hillel, "we are dismissed."
The company then arose, and in groups departed.
"Simeon," said Hillel again.
A man, quite fifty years old, but in the hearty prime of life,
answered and came to him.
"Take up the sacred parchment, my son; roll it tenderly."
The order was obeyed.
"Now lend me thy arm; I will to the litter."
The strong man stooped; with his withered hands the old one took
the offered support, and, rising, moved feebly to the door.
So departed the famous Rector, and Simeon, his son, who was to be
his successor in wisdom, learning, and office.
* * * * * *
Yet later in the evening the wise men were lying in a lewen of the
khan awake. The stones which served them as pillows raised their
heads so they could look out of the open arch into the depths of
the sky; and as they watched the twinkling of the stars, they thought
of the next manifestation. How would it come? What would it be?
They were in Jerusalem at last; they had asked at the gate for Him
they sought; they had borne witness of his birth; it remained only
to find him; and as to that, they placed all trust in the Spirit.
Men listening for the voice of God, or waiting a sign from Heaven,
While they were in this condition, a man stepped in under the arch,
darkening the lewen.
"Awake!" he said to them; "I bring you a message which will not
be put off."
They all sat up.
"From whom?" asked the Egyptian.
"Herod the king."
Each one felt his spirit thrill.
"Are you not the steward of the khan?" Balthasar asked next.
"What would the king with us?"
"His messenger is without; let him answer."
"Tell him, then, to abide our coming."
"You were right, O my brother!" said the Greek, when the steward
was gone. "The question put to the people on the road, and to the
guard at the gate, has given us quick notoriety. I am impatient;
let us up quickly."
They arose, put on their sandals, girt their mantles about them,
and went out.
"I salute you, and give you peace, and pray your pardon; but my
master, the king, has sent me to invite you to the palace, where he
would have speech with you privately."
Thus the messenger discharged his duty.
A lamp hung in the entrance, and by its light they looked at each
other, and knew the Spirit was upon them. Then the Egyptian stepped
to the steward, and said, so as not to be heard by the others,
"You know where our goods are stored in the court, and where our
camels are resting. While we are gone, make all things ready for
our departure, if it should be needful."
"Go your way assured; trust me," the steward replied.
"The king's will is our will," said Balthasar to the messenger.
"We will follow you."
The streets of the Holy City were narrow then as now, but not so
rough and foul; for the great builder, not content with beauty,
enforced cleanliness and convenience also. Following their guide,
the brethren proceeded without a word. Through the dim starlight,
made dimmer by the walls on both sides, sometimes almost lost
under bridges connecting the house-tops, out of a low ground
they ascended a hill. At last they came to a portal reared
across the way. In the light of fires blazing before it in two
great braziers, they caught a glimpse of the structure, and also
of some guards leaning motionlessly upon their arms. They passed
into a building unchallenged. Then by passages and arched halls;
through courts, and under colonnades not always lighted; up long
flights of stairs, past innumerable cloisters and chambers,
they were conducted into a tower of great height. Suddenly the
guide halted, and, pointing through an open door, said to them,
"Enter. The king is there."
The air of the chamber was heavy with the perfume of sandal-wood,
and all the appointments within were effeminately rich. Upon the
floor, covering the central space, a tufted rug was spread, and
upon that a throne was set. The visitors had but time, however,
to catch a confused idea of the place--of carved and gilt ottomans
and couches; of fans and jars and musical instruments; of golden
candlesticks glittering in their own lights; of walls painted in
the style of the voluptuous Grecian school, one look at which had
made a Pharisee hide his head with holy horror. Herod, sitting upon
the throne to receive them, clad as when at the conference with the
doctors and lawyers, claimed all their minds.
At the edge of the rug, to which they advanced uninvited, they
prostrated themselves. The king touched a bell. An attendant
came in, and placed three stools before the throne.
"Seat yourselves," said the monarch, graciously.
"From the North Gate," he continued, when they were at rest,
"I had this afternoon report of the arrival of three strangers,
curiously mounted, and appearing as if from far countries. Are you
The Egyptian took the sign from the Greek and the Hindoo,
and answered, with the profoundest salaam, "Were we other
than we are, the mighty Herod, whose fame is as incense to the
whole world, would not have sent for us. We may not doubt that
we are the strangers."
Herod acknowledged the speech with a wave of the hand.
"Who are you? Whence do you come?" he asked, adding significantly,
"Let each speak for himself."
In turn they gave him account, referring simply to the cities and
lands of their birth, and the routes by which they came to Jerusalem.
Somewhat disappointed, Herod plied them more directly.
"What was the question you put to the officer at the gate?"
"We asked him, Where is he that is born King of the Jews."
"I see now why the people were so curious. You excite me no less.
Is there another King of the Jews?"
The Egyptian did not blanch.
"There is one newly born."
An expression of pain knit the dark face of the monarch, as if
his mind were swept by a harrowing recollection.
"Not to me, not to me!" he exclaimed.
Possibly the accusing images of his murdered children flitted
before him; recovering from the emotion, whatever it was,
he asked, steadily, "Where is the new king?"
"That, O king, is what we would ask."
"You bring me a wonder--a riddle surpassing any of Solomon's,"
the inquisitor said next. "As you see, I am in the time of life when
curiosity is as ungovernable as it was in childhood, when to trifle
with it is cruelty. Tell me further, and I will honor you as kings
honor each other. Give me all you know about the newly born, and I
will join you in the search for him; and when we have found him,
I will do what you wish; I will bring him to Jerusalem, and train
him in kingcraft; I will use my grace with Caesar for his promotion
and glory. Jealousy shall not come between us, so I swear. But tell
me first how, so widely separated by seas and deserts, you all came
to hear of him."
"I will tell you truly, O king."
"Speak on," said Herod.
Balthasar raised himself erect, and said, solemnly,
"There is an Almighty God."
Herod was visibly startled.
"He bade us come hither, promising that we should find the Redeemer
of the World; that we should see and worship him, and bear witness
that he was come; and, as a sign, we were each given to see a star.
His Spirit stayed with us. O king, his Spirit is with us now!"
An overpowering feeling seized the three. The Greek with difficulty
restrained an outcry. Herod's gaze darted quickly from one to the other;
he was more suspicious and dissatisfied than before.
"You are mocking me," he said. "If not, tell me more. What is to
follow the coming of the new king?"
"The salvation of men."
"By the divine agencies--Faith, Love, and Good Works."
"Then"--Herod paused, and from his look no man could have said
with what feeling he continued--"you are the heralds of the Christ.
Is that all?"
Balthasar bowed low.
"We are your servants, O king."
The monarch touched a bell, and the attendant appeared.
"Bring the gifts," the master said.
The attendant went out, but in a little while returned, and,
kneeling before the guests, gave to each one an outer robe or
mantle of scarlet and blue, and a girdle of gold. They acknowledged
the honors with Eastern prostrations.
"A word further," said Herod, when the ceremony was ended. "To the
officer of the gate, and but now to me, you spoke of seeing a star
in the east."
"Yes," said Balthasar, "his star, the star of the newly born."
"What time did it appear?"
"When we were bidden come hither."
Herod arose, signifying the audience was over. Stepping from the
throne towards them, he said, with all graciousness,
"If, as I believe, O illustrious men, you are indeed the heralds
of the Christ just born, know that I have this night consulted
those wisest in things Jewish, and they say with one voice he
should be born in Bethlehem of Judea. I say to you, go thither;
go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have
found him bring me word again, that I may come and worship him.
To your going there shall be no let or hindrance. Peace be with
And, folding his robe about him, he left the chamber.
Directly the guide came, and led them back to the street, and thence
to the khan, at the portal of which the Greek said, impulsively, "Let us
to Bethlehem, O brethren, as the king has advised."
"Yes," cried the Hindoo. "The Spirit burns within me."
"Be it so," said Balthasar, with equal warmth. "The camels are
They gave gifts to the steward, mounted into their saddles,
received directions to the Joppa Gate, and departed. At their
approach the great valves were unbarred, and they passed out
into the open country, taking the road so lately travelled by
Joseph and Mary. As they came up out of Hinnom, on the plain
of Rephaim, a light appeared, at first wide-spread and faint.
Their pulses fluttered fast. The light intensified rapidly; they
closed their eyes against its burning brilliance: when they dared
look again, lo! the star, perfect as any in the heavens, but low
down and moving slowly before them. And they folded their hands,
and shouted, and rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
"God is with us! God is with us!" they repeated, in frequent cheer,
all the way, until the star, rising out of the valley beyond Mar
Elias, stood still over a house up on the slope of the hill near
It was now the beginning of the third watch, and at Bethlehem
the morning was breaking over the mountains in the east, but so
feebly that it was yet night in the valley. The watchman on the
roof of the old khan, shivering in the chilly air, was listening
for the first distinguishable sounds with which life, awakening,
greets the dawn, when a light came moving up the hill towards
the house. He thought it a torch in some one's hand; next moment
he thought it a meteor; the brilliance grew, however, until it
became a star. Sore afraid, he cried out, and brought everybody
within the walls to the roof. The phenomenon, in eccentric motion,
continued to approach; the rocks, trees, and roadway under it shone
as in a glare of lightning; directly its brightness became blinding.
The more timid of the beholders fell upon their knees, and prayed,
with their faces hidden; the boldest, covering their eyes, crouched,
and now and then snatched glances fearfully. Afterwhile the khan and
everything thereabout lay under the intolerable radiance. Such as
dared look beheld the star standing still directly over the house
in front of the cave where the Child had been born.
In the height of this scene, the wise men came up, and at the gate
dismounted from their camels, and shouted for admission. When the
steward so far mastered his terror as to give them heed, he drew
the bars and opened to them. The camels looked spectral in the
unnatural light, and, besides their outlandishness, there were
in the faces and manner of the three visitors an eagerness and
exaltation which still further excited the keeper's fears and
fancy; he fell back, and for a time could not answer the question
they put to him.
"Is not this Bethlehem of Judea?"
But others came, and by their presence gave him assurance.
"No, this is but the khan; the town lies farther on."
"Is there not here a child newly born?"
The bystanders turned to each other marvelling, though some of
them answered, "Yes, yes."
"Show us to him!" said the Greek, impatiently.
"Show us to him!" cried Balthasar, breaking through his gravity;
"for we have seen his star, even that which ye behold over the
house, and are come to worship him."
The Hindoo clasped his hands, exclaiming, "God indeed lives! Make
haste, make haste! The Savior is found. Blessed, blessed are we
The people from the roof came down and followed the strangers as
they were taken through the court and out into the enclosure;
at sight of the star yet above the cave, though less candescent
than before, some turned back afraid; the greater part went on.
As the strangers neared the house, the orb arose; when they were
at the door, it was high up overhead vanishing; when they entered,
it went out lost to sight. And to the witnesses of what then took
place came a conviction that there was a divine relation between
the star and the strangers, which extended also to at least some of
the occupants of the cave. When the door was opened, they crowded in.
The apartment was lighted by a lantern enough to enable the strangers
to find the mother, and the child awake in her lap.
"Is the child thine?" asked Balthasar of Mary.
And she who had kept all the things in the least affecting the
little one, and pondered them in her heart, held it up in the
"He is my son!"
And they fell down and worshipped him.
They saw the child was as other children: about its head was neither
nimbus nor material crown; its lips opened not in speech; if it heard
their expressions of joy, their invocations, their prayers, it made
no sign whatever, but, baby-like, looked longer at the flame in the
lantern than at them.
In a little while they arose, and, returning to the camels,
brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and laid them
before the child, abating nothing of their worshipful speeches;
of which no part is given, for the thoughtful know that the pure
worship of the pure heart was then what it is now, and has always
been, an inspired song.
And this was the Savior they had come so far to find!
Yet they worshipped without a doubt.
Their faith rested upon the signs sent them by him whom we have
since come to know as the Father; and they were of the kind to
whom his promises were so all-sufficient that they asked nothing
about his ways. Few there were who had seen the signs and heard the
promises--the Mother and Joseph, the shepherds, and the Three--yet
they all believed alike; that is to say, in this period of the plan
of salvation, God was all and the Child nothing. But look forward,
O reader! A time will come when the signs will all proceed from
the Son. Happy they who then believe in him!
Let us wait that period.
"There is a fire
And motion of the soul which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the fitting medium of desire;
And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore,
Preys upon high adventure, nor can tire
Of aught but rest."
It is necessary now to carry the reader forward twenty-one years,
to the beginning of the administration of Valerius Gratus, the fourth
imperial governor of Judea--a period which will be remembered as
rent by political agitations in Jerusalem, if, indeed, it be not
the precise time of the opening of the final quarrel between the
Jew and the Roman.
In the interval Judea had been subjected to changes affecting her
in many ways, but in nothing so much as her political status. Herod
the Great died within one year after the birth of the Child--died
so miserably that the Christian world had reason to believe him
overtaken by the Divine wrath. Like all great rulers who spend
their lives in perfecting the power they create, he dreamed of
transmitting his throne and crown--of being the founder of a
dynasty. With that intent, he left a will dividing his territories
between his three sons, Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus, of whom
the last was appointed to succeed to the title. The testament was
necessarily referred to Augustus, the emperor, who ratified all its
provisions with one exception: he withheld from Archelaus the title
of king until he proved his capacity and loyalty; in lieu thereof,
he created him ethnarch, and as such permitted him to govern nine
years, when, for misconduct and inability to stay the turbulent
elements that grew and strengthened around him, he was sent into
Gaul as an exile.
Caesar was not content with deposing Archelaus; he struck the people
of Jerusalem in a manner that touched their pride, and keenly wounded
the sensibilities of the haughty habitues of the Temple. He reduced
Judea to a Roman province, and annexed it to the prefecture of Syria.
So, instead of a king ruling royally from the palace left by Herod
on Mount Zion, the city fell into the hands of an officer of the
second grade, an appointee called procurator, who communicated with
the court in Rome through the Legate of Syria, residing in Antioch.
To make the hurt more painful, the procurator was not permitted to
establish himself in Jerusalem; Caesarea was his seat of government.
Most humiliating, however, most exasperating, most studied, Samaria,
of all the world the most despised--Samaria was joined to Judea as
a part of the same province! What ineffable misery the bigoted
Separatists or Pharisees endured at finding themselves elbowed
and laughed at in the procurator's presence in Caesarea by the
devotees of Gerizim!
In this rain of sorrows, one consolation, and one only, remained to
the fallen people: the high-priest occupied the Herodian palace in
the market-place, and kept the semblance of a court there. What his
authority really was is a matter of easy estimate. Judgment of life
and death was retained by the procurator. Justice was administered in
the name and according to the decretals of Rome. Yet more significant,
the royal house was jointly occupied by the imperial exciseman, and all
his corps of assistants, registrars, collectors, publicans, informers,
and spies. Still, to the dreamers of liberty to come, there was a
certain satisfaction in the fact that the chief ruler in the palace
was a Jew. His mere presence there day after day kept them reminded
of the covenants and promises of the prophets, and the ages when
Jehovah governed the tribes through the sons of Aaron; it was to
them a certain sign that he had not abandoned them: so their hopes
lived, and served their patience, and helped them wait grimly the
son of Judah who was to rule Israel.
Judea had been a Roman province eighty years and more--ample time
for the Caesars to study the idiosyncrasies of the people--time enough,
at least, to learn that the Jew, with all his pride, could be quietly
governed if his religion were respected. Proceeding upon that policy,
the predecessors of Gratus had carefully abstained from interfering
with any of the sacred observances of their subjects. But he chose
a different course: almost his first official act was to expel
Hannas from the high-priesthood, and give the place to Ishmael,
son of Fabus.
Whether the act was directed by Augustus, or proceeded from
Gratus himself, its impolicy became speedily apparent. The reader
shall be spared a chapter on Jewish politics; a few words upon
the subject, however, are essential to such as may follow the
succeeding narration critically. At this time, leaving origin
out of view, there were in Judea the party of the nobles and
the Separatist or popular party. Upon Herod's death, the two
united against Archelaus; from temple to palace, from Jerusalem to
Rome, they fought him; sometimes with intrigue, sometimes with the
actual weapons of war. More than once the holy cloisters on Moriah
resounded with the cries of fighting-men. Finally, they drove him
into exile. Meantime throughout this struggle the allies had their
diverse objects in view. The nobles hated Joazar, the high-priest;
the Separatists, on the other hand, were his zealous adherents.
When Herod's settlement went down with Archelaus, Joazar shared
the fall. Hannas, the son of Seth, was selected by the nobles to fill
the great office; thereupon the allies divided. The induction of the
Sethian brought them face to face in fierce hostility.
In the course of the struggle with the unfortunate ethnarch,
the nobles had found it expedient to attach themselves to Rome.
Discerning that when the existing settlement was broken up some
form of government must needs follow, they suggested the conversion
of Judea into a province. The fact furnished the Separatists an
additional cause for attack; and, when Samaria was made part of
the province, the nobles sank into a minority, with nothing to
support them but the imperial court and the prestige of their
rank and wealth; yet for fifteen years--down, indeed, to the
coming of Valerius Gratus--they managed to maintain themselves
in both palace and Temple.
Hannas, the idol of his party, had used his power faithfully in
the interest of his imperial patron. A Roman garrison held the
Tower of Antonia; a Roman guard kept the gates of the palace;
a Roman judge dispensed justice civil and criminal; a Roman
system of taxation, mercilessly executed, crushed both city
and country; daily, hourly, and in a thousand ways, the people
were bruised and galled, and taught the difference between a
life of independence and a life of subjection; yet Hannas kept
them in comparative quiet. Rome had no truer friend; and he made
his loss instantly felt. Delivering his vestments to Ishmael,
the new appointee, he walked from the courts of the Temple into
the councils of the Separatists, and became the head of a new
combination, Bethusian and Sethian.
Gratus, the procurator, left thus without a party, saw the fires
which, in the fifteen years, had sunk into sodden smoke begin to
glow with returning life. A month after Ishmael took the office,
the Roman found it necessary to visit him in Jerusalem. When from
the walls, hooting and hissing him, the Jews beheld his guard
enter the north gate of the city and march to the Tower of
Antonia, they understood the real purpose of the visit--a full
cohort of legionaries was added to the former garrison, and the
keys of their yoke could now be tightened with impunity. If the
procurator deemed it important to make an example, alas for the
With the foregoing explanation in mind, the reader is invited to
look into one of the gardens of the palace on Mount Zion. The time
was noonday in the middle of July, when the heat of summer was at
The garden was bounded on every side by buildings, which in
places arose two stories, with verandas shading the doors
and windows of the lower story, while retreating galleries,
guarded by strong balustrades, adorned and protected the upper.
Here and there, moreover, the structures fell into what appeared
low colonnades, permitting the passage of such winds as chanced to
blow, and allowing other parts of the house to be seen, the better to
realize its magnitude and beauty. The arrangement of the ground was
equally pleasant to the eye. There were walks, and patches of grass
and shrubbery, and a few large trees, rare specimens of the palm,
grouped with the carob, apricot, and walnut. In all directions the
grade sloped gently from the centre, where there was a reservoir,
or deep marble basin, broken at intervals by little gates which,
when raised, emptied the water into sluices bordering the walks--a
cunning device for the rescue of the place from the aridity too
prevalent elsewhere in the region.
Not far from the fountain, there was a small pool of clear water
nourishing a clump of cane and oleander, such as grow on the
Jordan and down by the Dead Sea. Between the clump and the pool,
unmindful of the sun shining full upon them in the breathless air,
two boys, one about nineteen, the other seventeen, sat engaged in
They were both handsome, and, at first glance, would have been
pronounced brothers. Both had hair and eyes black; their faces
were deeply browned; and, sitting, they seemed of a size proper
for the difference in their ages.
The elder was bareheaded. A loose tunic, dropping to the knees,
was his attire complete, except sandals and a light-blue mantle
spread under him on the seat. The costume left his arms and legs
exposed, and they were brown as the face; nevertheless, a certain
grace of manner, refinement of features, and culture of voice decided
his rank. The tunic, of softest woollen, gray-tinted, at the neck,
sleeves, and edge of the skirt bordered with red, and bound to the
waist by a tasselled silken cord, certified him the Roman he was.
And if in speech he now and then gazed haughtily at his companion
and addressed him as an inferior, he might almost be excused, for he
was of a family noble even in Rome--a circumstance which in that
age justified any assumption. In the terrible wars between the
first Caesar and his great enemies, a Messala had been the friend
of Brutus. After Philippi, without sacrifice of his honor, he and
the conqueror became reconciled. Yet later, when Octavius disputed
for the empire, Messala supported him. Octavius, as the Emperor
Augustus, remembered the service, and showered the family with
honors. Among other things, Judea being reduced to a province,
he sent the son of his old client or retainer to Jerusalem,
charged with the receipt and management of the taxes levied
in that region; and in that service the son had since remained,
sharing the palace with the high-priest. The youth just described
was his son, whose habit it was to carry about with him all too
faithfully a remembrance of the relation between his grandfather
and the great Romans of his day.
The associate of the Messala was slighter in form, and his
garments were of fine white linen and of the prevalent style
in Jerusalem; a cloth covered his head, held by a yellow cord,
and arranged so as to fall away from the forehead down low over
the back of the neck. An observer skilled in the distinctions of
race, and studying his features more than his costume, would have
soon discovered him to be of Jewish descent. The forehead of the
Roman was high and narrow, his nose sharp and aquiline, while his
lips were thin and straight, and his eyes cold and close under
the brows. The front of the Israelite, on the other hand, was low
and broad; his nose long, with expanded nostrils; his upper lip,
slightly shading the lower one, short and curving to the dimpled
corners, like a Cupid's bow; points which, in connection with the
round chin, full eyes, and oval cheeks reddened with a wine-like
glow, gave his face the softness, strength, and beauty peculiar
to his race. The comeliness of the Roman was severe and chaste,
that of the Jew rich and voluptuous.
"Did you not say the new procurator is to arrive to-morrow?"
The question proceeded from the younger of the friends, and was couched
in Greek, at the time, singularly enough, the language everywhere
prevalent in the politer circles of Judea; having passed from the
palace into the camp and college; thence, nobody knew exactly when
or how, into the Temple itself, and, for that matter, into precincts
of the Temple far beyond the gates and cloisters--precincts of a
sanctity intolerable for a Gentile.
"Yes, to-morrow," Messala answered.
"Who told you?"
"I heard Ishmael, the new governor in the palace--you call him
high priest--tell my father so last night. The news had been
more credible, I grant you, coming from an Egyptian, who is of a
race that has forgotten what truth is, or even from an Idumaean,
whose people never knew what truth was; but, to make quite certain,
I saw a centurion from the Tower this morning, and he told me
preparations were going on for the reception; that the armorers
were furbishing the helmets and shields, and regilding the eagles
and globes; and that apartments long unused were being cleansed
and aired as if for an addition to the garrison--the body-guard,
probably, of the great man."
A perfect idea of the manner in which the answer was given cannot
be conveyed, as its fine points continually escape the power behind
the pen. The reader's fancy must come to his aid; and for that he
must be reminded that reverence as a quality of the Roman mind was
fast breaking down, or, rather, it was becoming unfashionable.
The old religion had nearly ceased to be a faith; at most it was
a mere habit of thought and expression, cherished principally by
the priests who found service in the Temple profitable, and the
poets who, in the turn of their verses, could not dispense with the
familiar deities: there are singers of this age who are similarly
given. As philosophy was taking the place of religion, satire was
fast substituting reverence; insomuch that in Latin opinion it was
to every speech, even to the little diatribes of conversation, as
salt to viands, and aroma to wine. The young Messala, educated in
Rome, but lately returned, had caught the habit and manner;
the scarce perceptible movement of the outer corner of the
lower eyelid, the decided curl of the corresponding nostril,
and a languid utterance affected as the best vehicle to convey
the idea of general indifference, but more particularly because
of the opportunities it afforded for certain rhetorical pauses
thought to be of prime importance to enable the listener to take
the happy conceit or receive the virus of the stinging epigram.
Such a stop occurred in the answer just given, at the end of the
allusion to the Egyptian and Idumaean. The color in the Jewish
lad's cheeks deepened, and he may not have heard the rest of the
speech, for he remained silent, looking absently into the depths
of the pool.
"Our farewell took place in this garden. 'The peace of the Lord go
with you!'--your last words. 'The gods keep you!' I said. Do you
remember? How many years have passed since then?"
"Five," answered the Jew, gazing into the water.
"Well, you have reason to be thankful to--whom shall I say? The
gods? No matter. You have grown handsome; the Greeks would call
you beautiful--happy achievement of the years! If Jupiter would
stay content with one Ganymede, what a cup-bearer you would make
for the emperor! Tell me, my Judah, how the coming of the procurator
is of such interest to you."
Judah bent his large eyes upon the questioner; the gaze was
grave and thoughtful, and caught the Roman's, and held it
while he replied, "Yes, five years. I remember the parting;
you went to Rome; I saw you start, and cried, for I love you.
The years are gone, and you have come back to me accomplished
and princely--I do not jest; and yet--yet--I do wish you were
the Messala you went away."
The fine nostril of the satirist stirred, and he put on a longer
drawl as he said, "No, no; not a Ganymede--an oracle, my Judah.
A few lessons from my teacher of rhetoric hard by the Forum--I
will give you a letter to him when you become wise enough to
accept a suggestion which I am reminded to make you--a little
practise of the art of mystery, and Delphi will receive you as
Apollo himself. At the sound of your solemn voice, the Pythia
will come down to you with her crown. Seriously, O my friend,
in what am I not the Messala I went away? I once heard the
greatest logician in the world. His subject was Disputation.
One saying I remember--'Understand your antagonist before you
answer him.' Let me understand you."
The lad reddened under the cynical look to which he was subjected;
yet he replied, firmly, "You have availed yourself, I see, of your
opportunities; from your teachers you have brought away much
knowledge and many graces. You talk with the ease of a master,
yet your speech carries a sting. My Messala, when he went away,
had no poison in his nature; not for the world would he have hurt
the feelings of a friend."
The Roman smiled as if complimented, and raised his patrician head
a toss higher.
"O my solemn Judah, we are not at Dodona or Pytho. Drop the oracular,
and be plain. Wherein have I hurt you?"
The other drew a long breath, and said, pulling at the cord about
his waist, "In the five years, I, too, have learned somewhat.
Hillel may not be the equal of the logician you heard, and Simeon
and Shammai are, no doubt, inferior to your master hard by the Forum.
Their learning goes not out into forbidden paths; those who sit at
their feet arise enriched simply with knowledge of God, the law,
and Israel; and the effect is love and reverence for everything
that pertains to them. Attendance at the Great College, and study
of what I heard there, have taught me that Judea is not as she
used to be. I know the space that lies between an independent
kingdom and the petty province Judea is. I were meaner, viler,
than a Samaritan not to resent the degradation of my country.
Ishmael is not lawfully high-priest, and he cannot be while the
noble Hannas lives; yet he is a Levite; one of the devoted who
for thousands of years have acceptably served the Lord God of
our faith and worship. His--"
Messala broke in upon him with a biting laugh.
"Oh, I understand you now. Ishmael, you say, is a usurper, yet to
believe an Idumaean sooner than Ishmael is to sting like an adder.
By the drunken son of Semele, what it is to be a Jew! All men and
things, even heaven and earth, change; but a Jew never. To him
there is no backward, no forward; he is what his ancestor was
in the beginning. In this sand I draw you a circle--there! Now
tell me what more a Jew's life is? Round and round, Abraham here,
Isaac and Jacob yonder, God in the middle. And the circle--by the
master of all thunders! the circle is too large. I draw it again--"
He stopped, put his thumb upon the ground, and swept the fingers
about it. "See, the thumb spot is the Temple, the finger-lines
Judea. Outside the little space is there nothing of value? The
arts! Herod was a builder; therefore he is accursed. Painting,
sculpture! to look upon them is sin. Poetry you make fast to your
altars. Except in the synagogue, who of you attempts eloquence?
In war all you conquer in the six days you lose on the seventh.
Such your life and limit; who shall say no if I laugh at you?
Satisfied with the worship of such a people, what is your God
to our Roman Jove, who lends us his eagles that we may compass the
universe with our arms? Hillel, Simeon, Shammai, Abtalion--what are
they to the masters who teach that everything is worth knowing that
can be known?"
The Jew arose, his face much flushed.
"No, no; keep your place, my Judah, keep your place," Messala cried,
extending his hand.
"You mock me."
"Listen a little further. Directly"--the Roman smiled derisively--
"directly Jupiter and his whole family, Greek and Latin, will come
to me, as is their habit, and make an end of serious speech. I am
mindful of your goodness in walking from the old house of your
fathers to welcome me back and renew the love of our childhood--
if we can. 'Go,' said my teacher, in his last lecture--'Go, and,
to make your lives great, remember Mars reigns and Eros has found
his eyes.' He meant love is nothing, war everything. It is so
in Rome. Marriage is the first step to divorce. Virtue is a
tradesman's jewel. Cleopatra, dying, bequeathed her arts, and is
avenged; she has a successor in every Roman's house. The world is
going the same way; so, as to our future, down Eros, up Mars! I am
to be a soldier; and you, O my Judah, I pity you; what can you be?"
The Jew moved nearer the pool; Messala's drawl deepened.
"Yes, I pity you, my fine Judah. From the college to the synagogue;
then to the Temple; then--oh, a crowning glory!--the seat in the
Sanhedrim. A life without opportunities; the gods help you! But
Judah looked at him in time to see the flush of pride that kindled
in his haughty face as he went on.
"But I--ah, the world is not all conquered. The sea has islands
unseen. In the north there are nations yet unvisited. The glory
of completing Alexander's march to the Far East remains to some
one. See what possibilities lie before a Roman."
Next instant he resumed his drawl.
"A campaign into Africa; another after the Scythian; then--a legion!
Most careers end there; but not mine. I--by Jupiter! what a
conception!--I will give up my legion for a prefecture. Think of
life in Rome with money--money, wine, women, games--poets at the
banquet, intrigues in the court, dice all the year round. Such a
rounding of life may be--a fat prefecture, and it is mine. O my
Judah, here is Syria! Judea is rich; Antioch a capital for the
gods. I will succeed Cyrenius, and you--shall share my fortune."
The sophists and rhetoricians who thronged the public resorts of
Rome, almost monopolizing the business of teaching her patrician
youth, might have approved these sayings of Messala, for they were
all in the popular vein; to the young Jew, however, they were new,
and unlike the solemn style of discourse and conversation to which he
was accustomed. He belonged, moreover, to a race whose laws, modes,
and habits of thought forbade satire and humor; very naturally,
therefore, he listened to his friend with varying feelings; one
moment indignant, then uncertain how to take him. The superior
airs assumed had been offensive to him in the beginning; soon they
became irritating, and at last an acute smart. Anger lies close by
this point in all of us; and that the satirist evoked in another
way. To the Jew of the Herodian period patriotism was a savage
passion scarcely hidden under his common humor, and so related
to his history, religion, and God that it responded instantly to
derision of them. Wherefore it is not speaking too strongly to say
that Messala's progress down to the last pause was exquisite torture
to his hearer; at that point the latter said, with a forced smile,
"There are a few, I have heard, who can afford to make a jest of
their future; you convince me, O my Messala, that I am not one
The Roman studied him; then replied, "Why not the truth in a jest
as well as a parable? The great Fulvia went fishing the other day;
she caught more than all the company besides. They said it was
because the barb of her hook was covered with gold."
"Then you were not merely jesting?"
"My Judah, I see I did not offer you enough," the Roman answered,
quickly, his eyes sparkling. "When I am prefect, with Judea to
enrich me, I--will make you high-priest."
The Jew turned off angrily.
"Do not leave me," said Messala.
The other stopped irresolute.
"Gods, Judah, how hot the sun shines!" cried the patrician,
observing his perplexity. "Let us seek a shade."
Judah answered, coldly,
"We had better part. I wish I had not come. I sought a friend and
"Roman," said Messala, quickly.
The hands of the Jew clenched, but controlling himself again,
he started off. Messala arose, and, taking the mantle from the
bench, flung it over his shoulder, and followed after; when he
gained his side, he put his hand upon his shoulder and walked
"This is the way--my hand thus--we used to walk when we were
children. Let us keep it as far as the gate."
Apparently Messala was trying to be serious and kind, though he
could not rid his countenance of the habitual satirical expression.
Judah permitted the familiarity.
"You are a boy; I am a man; let me talk like one."
The complacency of the Roman was superb. Mentor lecturing the
young Telemachus could not have been more at ease.
"Do you believe in the Parcae? Ah, I forgot, you are a Sadducee:
the Essenes are your sensible people; they believe in the sisters.
So do I. How everlastingly the three are in the way of our doing
what we please! I sit down scheming. I run paths here and there.
Perpol! Just when I am reaching to take the world in hand, I hear
behind me the grinding of scissors. I look, and there she is,
the accursed Atropos! But, my Judah, why did you get mad when I
spoke of succeeding old Cyrenius? You thought I meant to enrich
myself plundering your Judea. Suppose so; it is what some Roman
will do. Why not I?"
Judah shortened his step.
"There have been strangers in mastery of Judea before the Roman,"
he said, with lifted hand. "Where are they, Messala? She has outlived
them all. What has been will be again."
Messala put on his drawl.
"The Parcae have believers outside the Essenes. Welcome, Judah,
welcome to the faith!"
"No, Messala, count me not with them. My faith rests on the rock
which was the foundation of the faith of my fathers back further than
Abraham; on the covenants of the Lord God of Israel."
"Too much passion, my Judah. How my master would have been shocked
had I been guilty of so much heat in his presence! There were other
things I had to tell you, but I fear to now."
When they had gone a few yards, the Roman spoke again.
"I think you can hear me now, especially as what I have to say
concerns yourself. I would serve you, O handsome as Ganymede;
I would serve you with real good-will. I love you--all I can.
I told you I meant to be a soldier. Why not you also? Why not
you step out of the narrow circle which, as I have shown, is all
of noble life your laws and customs allow?"
Judah made no reply.
"Who are the wise men of our day?" Messala continued. "Not they
who exhaust their years quarrelling about dead things; about Baals,
Joves, and Jehovahs; about philosophies and religions. Give me one
great name, O Judah; I care not where you go to find it--to Rome,
Egypt, the East, or here in Jerusalem--Pluto take me if it belong
not to a man who wrought his fame out of the material furnished him
by the present; holding nothing sacred that did not contribute to
the end, scorning nothing that did! How was it with Herod? How with
the Maccabees? How with the first and second Caesars? Imitate them.
Begin now. At hand see--Rome, as ready to help you as she was the
The Jewish lad trembled with rage; and, as the garden gate was
close by, he quickened his steps, eager to escape.
"O Rome, Rome!" he muttered.
"Be wise," continued Messala. "Give up the follies of Moses and
the traditions; see the situation as it is. Dare look the Parcae
in the face, and they will tell you, Rome is the world. Ask them of
Judea, and they will answer, She is what Rome wills."
They were now at the gate. Judah stopped, and took the hand gently
from his shoulder, and confronted Messala, tears trembling in his
"I understand you, because you are a Roman; you cannot understand
me--I am an Israelite. You have given me suffering to-day by convincing
me that we can never be the friends we have been--never! Here we part.
The peace of the God of my fathers abide with you!"
Messala offered him his hand; the Jew walked on through the gateway.
When he was gone, the Roman was silent awhile; then he, too, passed
through, saying to himself, with a toss of the head,
"Be it so. Eros is dead, Mars reigns!"
From the entrance to the Holy City, equivalent to what is now
called St. Stephen's Gate, a street extended westwardly, on a
line parallel with the northern front of the Tower of Antonia,
though a square from that famous castle. Keeping the course as
far as the Tyropoeon Valley, which it followed a little way south,
it turned and again ran west until a short distance beyond what
tradition tells us was the Judgment Gate, from whence it broke
abruptly south. The traveller or the student familiar with the
sacred locality will recognize the thoroughfare described as part
of the Via Dolorosa--with Christians of more interest, though of
a melancholy kind, than any street in the world. As the purpose
in view does not at present require dealing with the whole street,
it will be sufficient to point out a house standing in the angle last
mentioned as marking the change of direction south, and which, as an
important centre of interest, needs somewhat particular description.
The building fronted north and west, probably four hundred feet
each way, and, like most pretentious Eastern structures, was two
stories in height, and perfectly quadrangular. The street on the
west side was about twelve feet wide, that on the north not more
than ten; so that one walking close to the walls, and looking up
at them, would have been struck by the rude, unfinished, uninviting,
but strong and imposing, appearance they presented; for they were of
stone laid in large blocks, undressed--on the outer side, in fact,
just as they were taken from the quarry. A critic of this age would
have pronounced the house fortelesque in style, except for the
windows, with which it was unusually garnished, and the ornate
finish of the doorways or gates. The western windows were four
in number, the northern only two, all set on the line of the
second story in such manner as to overhang the thoroughfares below.
The gates were the only breaks of wall externally visible in the
first story; and, besides being so thickly riven with iron bolts
as to suggest resistance to battering-rams, they were protected
by cornices of marble, handsomely executed, and of such bold
projection as to assure visitors well informed of the people
that the rich man who resided there was a Sadducee in politics
Not long after the young Jew parted from the Roman at the palace
up on the Market-place, he stopped before the western gate of the
house described, and knocked. The wicket (a door hung in one of
the valves of the gate) was opened to admit him. He stepped in
hastily, and failed to acknowledge the low salaam of the porter.
To get an idea of the interior arrangement of the structure,
as well as to see what more befell the youth, we will follow him.
The passage into which he was admitted appeared not unlike a narrow
tunnel with panelled walls and pitted ceiling. There were benches
of stone on both sides, stained and polished by long use. Twelve or
fifteen steps carried him into a court-yard, oblong north and south,
and in every quarter, except the east, bounded by what seemed the
fronts of two-story houses; of which the lower floor was divided
into lewens, while the upper was terraced and defended by strong
balustrading. The servants coming and going along the terraces;
the noise of millstones grinding; the garments fluttering from
ropes stretched from point to point; the chickens and pigeons in
full enjoyment of the place; the goats, cows, donkeys, and horses
stabled in the lewens; a massive trough of water, apparently for
the common use, declared this court appurtenant to the domestic
management of the owner. Eastwardly there was a division wall
broken by another passage-way in all respects like the first one.
Clearing the second passage, the young man entered a second court,
spacious, square, and set with shrubbery and vines, kept fresh and
beautiful by water from a basin erected near a porch on the north
side. The lewens here were high, airy, and shaded by curtains
striped alternate white and red. The arches of the lewens rested
on clustered columns. A flight of steps on the south ascended to
the terraces of the upper story, over which great awnings were
stretched as a defence against the sun. Another stairway reached
from the terraces to the roof, the edge of which, all around the
square, was defined by a sculptured cornice, and a parapet of
burned-clay tiling, sexangular and bright red. In this quarter,
moreover, there was everywhere observable a scrupulous neatness,
which, allowing no dust in the angles, not even a yellow leaf
upon a shrub, contributed quite as much as anything else to the
delightful general effect; insomuch that a visitor, breathing the
sweet air, knew, in advance of introduction, the refinement of the
family he was about calling upon.
A few steps within the second court, the lad turned to the right,
and, choosing a walk through the shrubbery, part of which was in
flower, passed to the stairway, and ascended to the terrace--a
broad pavement of white and brown flags closely laid, and much
worn. Making way under the awning to a doorway on the north side,
he entered an apartment which the dropping of the screen behind
him returned to darkness. Nevertheless, he proceeded, moving over a
tiled floor to a divan, upon which he flung himself, face downwards,
and lay at rest, his forehead upon his crossed arms.
About nightfall a woman came to the door and called; he answered,
and she went in.
"Supper is over, and it is night. Is not my son hungry?" she asked.
"No," he replied.
"Are you sick?"
"I am sleepy."
"Your mother has asked for you."
"Where is she?"
"In the summer-house on the roof."
He stirred himself, and sat up.
"Very well. Bring me something to eat."
"What do you want?"
"What you please, Amrah. I am not sick, but indifferent. Life does
not seem as pleasant as it did this morning. A new ailment, O my
Amrah; and you who know me so well, who never failed me, may think
of the things now that answer for food and medicine. Bring me what
Amrah's questions, and the voice in which she put them--low,
sympathetic, and solicitous--were significant of an endeared
relation between the two. She laid her hand upon his forehead;
then, as satisfied, went out, saying, "I will see."
After a while she returned, bearing on a wooden platter a bowl of
milk, some thin cakes of white bread broken, a delicate paste of
brayed wheat, a bird broiled, and honey and salt. On one end of
the platter there was a silver goblet full of wine, on the other
a brazen hand-lamp lighted.
The room was then revealed: its walls smoothly plastered; the ceiling
broken by great oaken rafters, brown with rain stains and time; the
floor of small diamond-shaped white and blue tiles, very firm and
enduring; a few stools with legs carved in imitation of the legs
of lions; a divan raised a little above the floor, trimmed with
blue cloth, and partially covered by an immense striped woollen
blanket or shawl--in brief, a Hebrew bedroom.
The same light also gave the woman to view. Drawing a stool to
the divan, she placed the platter upon it, then knelt close
by ready to serve him. Her face was that of a woman of fifty,
dark-skinned, dark-eyed, and at the moment softened by a look
of tenderness almost maternal. A white turban covered her head,
leaving the lobes of the ear exposed, and in them the sign that
settled her condition--an orifice bored by a thick awl. She was
a slave, of Egyptian origin, to whom not even the sacred fiftieth
year could have brought freedom; nor would she have accepted it,
for the boy she was attending was her life. She had nursed him
through babyhood, tended him as a child, and could not break
the service. To her love he could never be a man.
He spoke but once during the meal.
"You remember, O my Amrah," he said, "the Messala who used to
visit me here days at a time."
"I remember him."
"He went to Rome some years ago, and is now back. I called upon
A shudder of disgust seized the lad.
"I knew something had happened," she said, deeply interested.
"I never liked the Messala. Tell me all."
But he fell into musing, and to her repeated inquiries only said,
"He is much changed, and I shall have nothing more to do with him."
When Amrah took the platter away, he also went out, and up from
the terrace to the roof.
The reader is presumed to know somewhat of the uses of the
house-top in the East. In the matter of customs, climate is a
lawgiver everywhere. The Syrian summer day drives the seeker of
comfort into the darkened lewen; night, however, calls him forth
early, and the shadows deepening over the mountain-sides seem veils
dimly covering Circean singers; but they are far off, while the
roof is close by, and raised above the level of the shimmering
plain enough for the visitation of cool airs, and sufficiently
above the trees to allure the stars down closer, down at least into
brighter shining. So the roof became a resort--became playground,
sleeping-chamber, boudoir, rendezvous for the family, place of
music, dance, conversation, reverie, and prayer.
The motive that prompts the decoration, at whatever cost,
of interiors in colder climes suggested to the Oriental the
embellishment of his house-top. The parapet ordered by Moses
became a potter's triumph; above that, later, arose towers,
plain and fantastic; still later, kings and princes crowned
their roofs with summer-houses of marble and gold. When the
Babylonian hung gardens in the air, extravagance could push
the idea no further.
The lad whom we are following walked slowly across the house-top
to a tower built over the northwest corner of the palace. Had he
been a stranger, he might have bestowed a glance upon the structure
as he drew nigh it, and seen all the dimness permitted--a darkened
mass, low, latticed, pillared, and domed. He entered, passing under
a half-raised curtain. The interior was all darkness, except that on
four sides there were arched openings like doorways, through which
the sky, lighted with stars, was visible. In one of the openings,
reclining against a cushion from a divan, he saw the figure of a
woman, indistinct even in white floating drapery. At the sound of
his steps upon the floor, the fan in her hand stopped, glistening
where the starlight struck the jewels with which it was sprinkled,
and she sat up, and called his name.
"Judah, my son!"
"It is I, mother," he answered, quickening his approach.
Going to her, he knelt, and she put her arms around him, and with
kisses pressed him to her bosom.
The mother resumed her easy position against the cushion, while the
son took place on the divan, his head in her lap. Both of them,
looking out of the opening, could see a stretch of lower house-tops
in the vicinity, a bank of blue-blackness over in the west which they
knew to be mountains, and the sky, its shadowy depths brilliant with
stars. The city was still. Only the winds stirred.
"Amrah tells me something has happened to you," she said, caressing
his cheek. "When my Judah was a child, I allowed small things to
trouble him, but he is now a man. He must not forget"-- her voice
became very soft--"that one day he is to be my hero."
She spoke in the language almost lost in the land, but which a
few--and they were always as rich in blood as in possessions--
cherished in its purity, that they might be more certainly
distinguished from Gentile peoples--the language in which
the loved Rebekah and Rachel sang to Benjamin.
The words appeared to set him thinking anew; after a while, however,
he caught the hand with which she fanned him, and said, "Today, O my
mother, I have been made to think of many things that never had place
in my mind before. Tell me, first, what am I to be?"
"Have I not told you? You are to be my hero."
He could not see her face, yet he knew she was in play. He became
"You are very good, very kind, O my mother. No one will ever love
me as you do."
He kissed the hand over and over again.
"I think I understand why you would have me put off the question,"
he continued. "Thus far my life has belonged to you. How gentle,
how sweet your control has been! I wish it could last forever.
But that may not be. It is the Lord's will that I shall one
day become owner of myself--a day of separation, and therefore a
dreadful day to you. Let us be brave and serious. I will be your
hero, but you must put me in the way. You know the law--every son
of Israel must have some occupation. I am not exempt, and ask now,
shall I tend the herds? or till the soil? or drive the saw? or be
a clerk or lawyer? What shall I be? Dear, good mother, help me to
"Gamaliel has been lecturing today," she said, thoughtfully.
"If so, I did not hear him."
"Then you have been walking with Simeon, who, they tell me,
inherits the genius of his family."
"No, I have not seen him. I have been up on the Market-place,
not to the Temple. I visited the young Messala."
A certain change in his voice attracted the mother's attention.
A presentiment quickened the beating of her heart; the fan became
"The Messala!" she said. "What could he say to so trouble you?"
"He is very much changed."
"You mean he has come back a Roman."
"Roman!" she continued, half to herself. "To all the world the
Back to Full Books