eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER XIII



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?"

"No."

"They say the Christ is born," said the newsmonger, plunging into
her story.

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."

"Who?"

"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
Essene socialists.

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.

"Hist!"

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,
and Jacob!"

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
sage's face.

"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,
cannot sleep.

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.

"I am."

"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 men?"

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."

"From what?"

"Their wickedness."

"How?"

"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
you!"

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
ready."

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
the town.





Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site