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CHAPTER V



Nowadays travellers in the Holy Land looking for the famous place with
the beautiful name, the King's Garden, descend the bed of the Cedron or
the curve of Gihon and Hinnom as far as the old well En-rogel, take a
drink of the sweet living water, and stop, having reached the limit
of the interesting in that direction. They look at the great stones
with which the well is curbed, ask its depth, smile at the primitive
mode of drawing the purling treasure, and waste some pity on the
ragged wretch who presides over it; then, facing about, they are
enraptured with the mounts Moriah and Zion, both of which slope
towards them from the north, one terminating in Ophel, the other
in what used to be the site of the city of David. In the background,
up far in the sky, the garniture of the sacred places is visible:
here the Haram, with its graceful dome; yonder the stalward remains
of Hippicus, defiant even in ruins. When that view has been enjoyed,
and is sufficiently impressed upon the memory, the travellers
glance at the Mount of Offence standing in rugged stateliness
at their right hand, and then at the Hill of Evil Counsel over on
the left, in which, if they be well up in Scriptural history and
in the traditions rabbinical and monkish, they will find a certain
interest not to be overcome by superstitious horror.

It were long to tell all the points of interest grouped around
that hill; for the present purpose, enough that its feet are
planted in the veritable orthodox Hell of the moderns--the Hell
of brimstone and fire--in the old nomenclature Gehenna; and that
now, as in the days of Christ, its bluff face opposite the city
on the south and southeast is seamed and pitted with tombs which
have been immemorially the dwelling-places of lepers, not singly,
but collectively. There they set up their government and established
their society; there they founded a city and dwelt by themselves,
avoided as the accursed of God.

The second morning after the incidents of the preceding chapter,
Amrah drew near the well En-rogel, and seated herself upon a stone.
One familiar with Jerusalem, looking at her, would have said she was
the favorite servant of some well-to-do family. She brought with
her a water-jar and a basket, the contents of the latter covered
with a snow-white napkin. Placing them on the ground at her side,
she loosened the shawl which fell from her head, knit her fingers
together in her lap, and gazed demurely up to where the hill drops
steeply down into Aceldama and the Potter's Field.

It was very early, and she was the first to arrive at the well.
Soon, however, a man came bringing a rope and a leathern bucket.
Saluting the little dark-faced woman, he undid the rope, fixed it
to the bucket, and waited customers. Others who chose to do so might
draw water for themselves, he was a professional in the business,
and would fill the largest jar the stoutest woman could carry for
a gerah.

Amrah sat still, and had nothing to say. Seeing the jar, the man
asked after a while if she wished it filled; she answered him civilly,
"Not now;" whereupon he gave her no more attention. When the dawn was
fairly defined over Olivet, his patrons began to arrive, and he had
all he could do to attend to them. All the time she kept her seat,
looking intently up at the hill.

The sun made its appearance, yet she sat watching and waiting; and
while she thus waits, let us see what her purpose is.

Her custom had been to go to market after nightfall. Stealing out
unobserved, she would seek the shops in the Tyropoeon, or those
over by the Fish Gate in the east, make her purchases of meat
and vegetables, and return and shut herself up again.

The pleasure she derived from the presence of Ben-Hur in the old
house once more may be imagined. She had nothing to tell him of
her mistress or Tirzah--nothing. He would have had her move to a
place not so lonesome; she refused. She would have had him take his
own room again, which was just as he had left it; but the danger of
discovery was too great, and he wished above all things to avoid
inquiry. He would come and see her often as possible. Coming in
the night, he would also go away in the night. She was compelled
to be satisfied, and at once occupied herself contriving ways to
make him happy. That he was a man now did not occur to her; nor did
it enter her mind that he might have put by or lost his boyish tastes;
to please him, she thought to go on her old round of services. He used
to be fond of confections; she remembered the things in that line
which delighted him most, and resolved to make them, and have a
supply always ready when he came. Could anything be happier? So
next night, earlier than usual, she stole out with her basket,
and went over to the Fish Gate Market. Wandering about, seeking the
best honey, she chanced to hear a man telling a story.

What the story was the reader can arrive at with sufficient certainty
when told that the narrator was one of the men who had held torches
for the commandant of the Tower of Antonia when, down in cell VI.,
the Hurs were found. The particulars of the finding were all told,
and she heard them, with the names of the prisoners, and the widow's
account of herself.

The feelings with which Amrah listened to the recital were such
as became the devoted creature she was. She made her purchases,
and returned home in a dream. What a happiness she had in store
for her boy! She had found his mother!

She put the basket away, now laughing, now crying. Suddenly she
stopped and thought. It would kill him to be told that his mother
and Tirzah were lepers. He would go through the awful city over
on the Hill of Evil Counsel--into each infected tomb he would go
without rest, asking for them, and the disease would catch him,
and their fate would be his. She wrung her hands. What should she
do?

Like many a one before her, and many a one since, she derived
inspiration, if not wisdom, from her affection, and came to a
singular conclusion.

The lepers, she knew, were accustomed of mornings to come down
from their sepulchral abodes in the hill, and take a supply of
water for the day from the well En-rogel. Bringing their jars,
they would set them on the ground and wait, standing afar until
they were filled. To that the mistress and Tirzah must come;
for the law was inexorable, and admitted no distinction. A rich
leper was no better than a poor one.

So Amrah decided not to speak to Ben-Hur of the story she had heard,
but go alone to the well and wait. Hunger and thirst would drive
the unfortunates thither, and she believed she could recognize
them at sight; if not, they might recognize her.

Meantime Ben-Hur came, and they talked much. To-morrow Malluch
would arrive; then the search should be immediately begun. He was
impatient to be about it. To amuse himself he would visit the sacred
places in the vicinity. The secret, we may be sure, weighed heavily
on the woman, but she held her peace.

When he was gone she busied herself in the preparation of things
good to eat, applying her utmost skill to the work. At the approach
of day, as signalled by the stars, she filled the basket, selected a
jar, and took the road to En-rogel, going out by the Fish Gate which
was earliest open, and arriving as we have seen.

Shortly after sunrise, when business at the well was most pressing,
and the drawer of water most hurried; when, in fact, half a dozen
buckets were in use at the same time, everybody making haste to get
away before the cool of the morning melted into the heat of the day,
the tenantry of the hill began to appear and move about the doors
of their tombs. Somewhat later they were discernible in groups,
of which not a few were children so young that they suggested the
holiest relation. Numbers came momentarily around the turn of the
bluff--women with jars upon their shoulders, old and very feeble
men hobbling along on staffs and crutches. Some leaned upon the
shoulders of others; a few--the utterly helpless--lay, like heaps
of rags, upon litters. Even that community of superlative sorrow had
its love-light to make life endurable and attractive. Distance softened
without entirely veiling the misery of the outcasts.

From her seat by the well Amrah kept watch upon the spectral
groups. She scarcely moved. More than once she imagined she saw
those she sought. That they were there upon the hill she had no
doubt; that they must come down and near she knew; when the people
at the well were all served they would come.

Now, quite at the base of the bluff there was a tomb which had
more than once attracted Amrah by its wide gaping. A stone of
large dimensions stood near its mouth. The sun looked into it
through the hottest hours of the day, and altogether it seemed
uninhabitable by anything living, unless, perchance, by some
wild dogs returning from scavenger duty down in Gehenna. Thence,
however, and greatly to her surprise, the patient Egyptian beheld
two women come, one half supporting, half leading, the other.
They were both white-haired; both looked old; but their garments
were not rent, and they gazed about them as if the locality were
new. The witness below thought she even saw them shrink terrified
at the spectacle offered by the hideous assemblage of which they
found themselves part. Slight reasons, certainly, to make her
heart beat faster, and draw her attention to them exclusively;
but so they did.

The two remained by the stone awhile; then they moved slowly,
painfully, and with much fear towards the well, whereat several
voices were raised to stop them; yet they kept on. The drawer of
water picked up some pebbles, and made ready to drive them back.
The company cursed them. The greater company on the hill shouted
shrilly, "Unclean, unclean!"

"Surely," thought Amrah of the two, as they kept coming--"surely,
they are strangers to the usage of lepers."

She arose, and went to meet them, taking the basket and jar.
The alarm at the well immediately subsided.

"What a fool," said one, laughing, "what a fool to give good bread
to the dead in that way!"

"And to think of her coming so far!" said another. "I would at
least make them meet me at the gate."

Amrah, with better impulse, proceeded. If she should be mistaken!
Her heart arose into her throat. And the farther she went the more
doubtful and confused she became. Four or five yards from where
they stood waiting for her she stopped.

That the mistress she loved! whose hand she had so often kissed
in gratitude! whose image of matronly loveliness she had treasured
in memory so faithfully! And that the Tirzah she had nursed through
babyhood! whose pains she had soothed, whose sports she had shared!
that the smiling, sweet-faced, songful Tirzah, the light of the
great house, the promised blessing of her old age! Her mistress,
her darling-- they? The soul of the woman sickened at the sight.

"These are old women," she said to herself. "I never saw them
before. I will go back."

She turned away.

"Amrah," said one of the lepers.

The Egyptian dropped the jar, and looked back, trembling.

"Who called me?" she asked.

"Amrah."

The servant's wondering eyes settled upon the speaker's face.

"Who are you?" she cried.

"We are they you are seeking."

Amrah fell upon her knees.

"O my mistress, my mistress! As I have made your God my God, be he
praised that he has led me to you!"

And upon her knees the poor overwhelmed creature began moving
forward.

"Stay, Amrah! Come not nearer. Unclean, unclean!"

The words sufficed. Amrah fell upon her face, sobbing so loud
the people at the well heard her. Suddenly she arose upon her
knees again.

"O my mistress, where is Tirzah?"

"Here I am, Amrah, here! Will you not bring me a little water?"

The habit of the servant renewed itself. Putting back the coarse
hair fallen over her face, Amrah arose and went to the basket and
uncovered it.

"See," she said, "here are bread and meat."

She would have spread the napkin upon the ground, but the mistress
spoke again,

"Do not so, Amrah. Those yonder may stone you, and refuse us drink.
Leave the basket with me. Take up the jar and fill it, and bring it
here. We will carry them to the tomb with us. For this day you will
then have rendered all the service that is lawful. Haste, Amrah."

The people under whose eyes all this had passed made way for the
servant, and even helped her fill the jar, so piteous was the
grief her countenance showed.

"Who are they?" a woman asked.

Amrah meekly answered, "They used to be good to me."

Raising the jar upon her shoulder, she hurried back. In forgetfulness,
she would have gone to them, but the cry "Unclean, unclean! Beware!"
arrested her. Placing the water by the basket, she stepped back,
and stood off a little way.

"Thank you, Amrah," said the mistress, taking the articles into
possession. "This is very good of you."

"Is there nothing more I can do?" asked Amrah.

The mother's hand was upon the jar, and she was fevered with thirst;
yet she paused, and rising, said firmly, "Yes, I know that Judah
has come home. I saw him at the gate night before last asleep on
the step. I saw you wake him."

Amrah clasped her hands.

"O my mistress! You saw it, and did not come!"

"That would have been to kill him. I can never take him in my arms
again. I can never kiss him more. O Amrah, Amrah, you love him,
I know!"

"Yes," said the true heart, bursting into tears again, and kneeling.
"I would die for him."

"Prove to me what you say, Amrah."

"I am ready."

"Then you shall not tell him where we are or that you have seen
us--only that, Amrah."

"But he is looking for you. He has come from afar to find you."

"He must not find us. He shall not become what we are. Hear, Amrah.
You shall serve us as you have this day. You shall bring us the
little we need--not long now--not long. You shall come every morning
and evening thus, and--and"--the voice trembled, the strong will
almost broke down--"and you shall tell us of him, Amrah; but to
him you shall say nothing of us. Hear you?"

"Oh, it will be so hard to hear him speak of you, and see him
going about looking for you--to see all his love, and not tell
him so much as that you are alive!"

"Can you tell him we are well, Amrah?"

The servant bowed her head in her arms.

"No," the mistress continued; "wherefore to be silent altogether.
Go now, and come this evening. We will look for you. Till then,
farewell."

"The burden will be heavy, O my mistress, and hard to bear,"
said Amrah, falling upon her face.

"How much harder would it be to see him as we are," the mother
answered as she gave the basket to Tirzah. "Come again this
evening," she repeated, taking up the water, and starting for
the tomb.

Amrah waited kneeling until they had disappeared; then she took
the road sorrowfully home.

In the evening she returned; and thereafter it became her custom
to serve them in the morning and evening, so that they wanted for
nothing needful. The tomb, though ever so stony and desolate, was
less cheerless than the cell in the Tower had been. Daylight gilded
its door, and it was in the beautiful world. Then, one can wait
death with so much more faith out under the open sky.





Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Category:
General Fiction
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