eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER IV



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
more serious.

"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
an answer."

"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
motionless again.

"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."

"Yes."

"Roman!" she continued, half to herself. "To all the world the
word means master. How long has he been away?"

"Five years."

She raised her head, and looked off into the night.

"The airs of the Via Sacra are well enough in the streets of the
Egyptian and in Babylon; but in Jerusalem--our Jerusalem--the
covenant abides."

And, full of the thought, she settled back into her easy place.
He was first to speak.

"What Messala said, my mother, was sharp enough in itself; but,
taken with the manner, some of the sayings were intolerable."

"I think I understand you. Rome, her poets, orators, senators,
courtiers, are mad with affectation of what they call satire."

"I suppose all great peoples are proud," he went on, scarcely
noticing the interruption; "but the pride of that people is
unlike all others; in these latter days it is so grown the
gods barely escape it."

"The gods escape!" said the mother, quickly. "More than one Roman
has accepted worship as his divine right."

"Well, Messala always had his share of the disagreeable quality.
When he was a child, I have seen him mock strangers whom even Herod
condescended to receive with honors; yet he always spared Judea.
For the first time, in conversation with me to-day, he trifled
with our customs and God. As you would have had me do, I parted
with him finally. And now, O my dear mother, I would know with more
certainty if there be just ground for the Roman's contempt. In what
am I his inferior? Is ours a lower order of people? Why should I,
even in Caesar's presence; feel the shrinking of a slave? Tell me
especially why, if I have the soul, and so choose, I may not hunt
the honors of the world in all its fields? Why may not I take sword
and indulge the passion of war? As a poet, why may not I sing of all
themes? I can be a worker in metals, a keeper of flocks, a merchant,
why not an artist like the Greek? Tell me, O my mother--and this is
the sum of my trouble--why may not a son of Israel do all a Roman
may?"

The reader will refer these questions back to the conversation in
the Market-place; the mother, listening with all her faculties
awake, from something which would have been lost upon one less
interested in him--from the connections of the subject, the pointing
of the questions, possibly his accent and tone--was not less swift
in making the same reference. She sat up, and in a voice quick and
sharp as his own, replied, "I see, I see! From association Messala,
in boyhood, was almost a Jew; had he remained here, he might have
become a proselyte, so much do we all borrow from the influences
that ripen our lives; but the years in Rome have been too much for
him. I do not wonder at the change; yet"--her voice fell--"he might
have dealt tenderly at least with you. It is a hard, cruel nature
which in youth can forget its first loves."

Her hand dropped lightly upon his forehead, and the fingers caught
in his hair and lingered there lovingly, while her eyes sought
the highest stars in view. Her pride responded to his, not merely
in echo, but in the unison of perfect sympathy. She would answer
him; at the same time, not for the world would she have had the
answer unsatisfactory: an admission of inferiority might weaken
his spirit for life. She faltered with misgivings of her own powers.

"What you propose, O my Judah, is not a subject for treatment by
a woman. Let me put its consideration off till to-morrow, and I
will have the wise Simeon--"

"Do not send me to the Rector," he said, abruptly.

"I will have him come to us."

"No, I seek more than information; while he might give me that
better than you, O my mother, you can do better by giving me
what he cannot--the resolution which is the soul of a man's soul."

She swept the heavens with a rapid glance, trying to compass all
the meaning of his questions.

"While craving justice for ourselves, it is never wise to be
unjust to others. To deny valor in the enemy we have conquered is
to underrate our victory; and if the enemy be strong enough to hold
us at bay, much more to conquer us"--she hesitated-- "self-respect
bids us seek some other explanation of our misfortunes than accusing
him of qualities inferior to our own."

Thus, speaking to herself rather than to him, she began:

"Take heart, O my son. The Messala is nobly descended; his family
has been illustrious through many generations. In the days of
Republican Rome--how far back I cannot tell--they were famous,
some as soldiers, some as civilians. I can recall but one consul of
the name; their rank was senatorial, and their patronage always sought
because they were always rich. Yet if to-day your friend boasted
of his ancestry, you might have shamed him by recounting yours.
If he referred to the ages through which the line is traceable,
or to deeds, rank, or wealth--such allusions, except when great
occasion demands them, are tokens of small minds--if he mentioned
them in proof of his superiority, then without dread, and standing
on each particular, you might have challenged him to a comparison
of records."

Taking a moment's thought, the mother proceeded:

"One of the ideas of fast hold now is that time has much to do with
the nobility of races and families. A Roman boasting his superiority
on that account over a son of Israel will always fail when put to
the proof. The founding of Rome was his beginning; the very best
of them cannot trace their descent beyond that period; few of them
pretend to do so; and of such as do, I say not one could make good
his claim except by resort to tradition. Messala certainly could
not. Let us look now to ourselves. Could we better?"

A little more light would have enabled him to see the pride that
diffused itself over her face.

"Let us imagine the Roman putting us to the challenge. I would
answer him, neither doubting nor boastful."

Her voice faltered; a tender thought changed the form of the argument.

"Your father, O my Judah, is at rest with his fathers; yet I
remember, as though it were this evening, the day he and I,
with many rejoicing friends, went up into the Temple to present
you to the Lord. We sacrificed the doves, and to the priest I gave
your name, which he wrote in my presence--'Judah, son of Ithamar,
of the House of Hur.' The name was then carried away, and written
in a book of the division of records devoted to the saintly family.

"I cannot tell you when the custom of registration in this mode
began. We know it prevailed before the flight from Egypt. I have
heard Hillel say Abraham caused the record to be first opened with
his own name, and the names of his sons, moved by the promises
of the Lord which separated him and them from all other races,
and made them the highest and noblest, the very chosen of the
earth. The covenant with Jacob was of like effect. 'In thy seed
shall all the nations of the earth be blessed'--so said the angel to
Abraham in the place Jehovah-jireh. 'And the land whereon thou liest,
to thee will I give it, and to thy seed'--so the Lord himself said
to Jacob asleep at Bethel on the way to Haran. Afterwards the wise
men looked forward to a just division of the land of promise; and,
that it might be known in the day of partition who were entitled
to portions, the Book of Generations was begun. But not for that
alone. The promise of a blessing to all the earth through the
patriarch reached far into the future. One name was mentioned in
connection with the blessing--the benefactor might be the humblest
of the chosen family, for the Lord our God knows no distinctions
of rank or riches. So, to make the performance clear to men of
the generation who were to witness it, and that they might give
the glory to whom it belonged, the record was required to be kept
with absolute certainty. Has it been so kept?"

The fan played to and fro, until, becoming impatient, he repeated
the question, "Is the record absolutely true?"

"Hillel said it was, and of all who have lived no one was so
well-informed upon the subject. Our people have at times been
heedless of some parts of the law, but never of this part. The good
rector himself has followed the Books of Generations through three
periods--from the promises to the opening of the Temple; thence to
the Captivity; thence, again, to the present. Once only were the
records disturbed, and that was at the end of the second period;
but when the nation returned from the long exile, as a first
duty to God, Zerubbabel restored the Books, enabling us once
more to carry the lines of Jewish descent back unbroken fully
two thousand years. And now--"

She paused as if to allow the hearer to measure the time comprehended
in the statement.

"And now," she continued, "what becomes of the Roman boast of
blood enriched by ages? By that test, the sons of Israel watching
the herds on old Rephaim yonder are nobler than the noblest of
the Marcii."

"And I, mother--by the Books, who am I?"

"What I have said thus far, my son, had reference to your question.
I will answer you. If Messala were here, he might say, as others have
said, that the exact trace of your lineage stopped when the Assyrian
took Jerusalem, and razed the Temple, with all its precious stores;
but you might plead the pious action of Zerubbabel, and retort that
all verity in Roman genealogy ended when the barbarians from the
West took Rome, and camped six months upon her desolated site.
Did the government keep family histories? If so, what became of
them in those dreadful days? No, no; there is verity in our Books
of Generations; and, following them back to the Captivity, back to
the foundation of the first Temple, back to the march from Egypt,
we have absolute assurance that you are lineally sprung from Hur,
the associate of Joshua. In the matter of descent sanctified by
time, is not the honor perfect? Do you care to pursue further?
if so, take the Torah, and search the Book of Numbers, and of
the seventy-two generations after Adam, you can find the very
progenitor of your house."

There was silence for a time in the chamber on the roof.

"I thank you, O my mother," Judah next said, clasping both her
hands in his; "I thank you with all my heart. I was right in not
having the good rector called in; he could not have satisfied me
more than you have. Yet to make a family truly noble, is time
alone sufficient?"

"Ah, you forget, you forget; our claim rests not merely upon time;
the Lord's preference is our especial glory."

"You are speaking of the race, and I, mother, of the family--our
family. In the years since Father Abraham, what have they achieved?
What have they done? What great things to lift them above the level
of their fellows?"

She hesitated, thinking she might all this time have mistaken his
object. The information he sought might have been for more than
satisfaction of wounded vanity. Youth is but the painted shell
within which, continually growing, lives that wondrous thing the
spirit of man, biding its moment of apparition, earlier in some
than in others. She trembled under a perception that this might be
the supreme moment come to him; that as children at birth reach out
their untried hands grasping for shadows, and crying the while, so his
spirit might, in temporary blindness, be struggling to take hold of
its impalpable future. They to whom a boy comes asking, Who am I,
and what am I to be? have need of ever so much care. Each word in
answer may prove to the after-life what each finger-touch of the
artist is to the clay he is modelling.

"I have a feeling, O my Judah," she said, patting his cheek with
the hand he had been caressing--"I have the feeling that all I
have said has been in strife with an antagonist more real than
imaginary. If Messala is the enemy, do not leave me to fight him
in the dark. Tell me all he said."





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