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CHAPTER VIII



The reader is now besought to return to the court described as
part of the market at the Joppa Gate. It was the third hour of the
day, and many of the people had gone away; yet the press continued
without apparent abatement. Of the new-comers, there was a group
over by the south wall, consisting of a man, a woman, and a donkey,
which requires extended notice.

The man stood by the animal's head, holding a leading-strap,
and leaning upon a stick which seemed to have been chosen for
the double purpose of goad and staff. His dress was like that of
the ordinary Jews around him, except that it had an appearance
of newness. The mantle dropping from his head, and the robe or
frock which clothed his person from neck to heel, were probably
the garments he was accustomed to wear to the synagogue on
Sabbath days. His features were exposed, and they told of fifty
years of life, a surmise confirmed by the gray that streaked his
otherwise black beard. He looked around him with the half-curious,
half-vacant stare of a stranger and provincial.

The donkey ate leisurely from an armful of green grass, of which
there was an abundance in the market. In its sleepy content,
the brute did not admit of disturbance from the bustle and
clamor about; no more was it mindful of the woman sitting upon
its back in a cushioned pillion. An outer robe of dull woollen
stuff completely covered her person, while a white wimple veiled
her head and neck. Once in a while, impelled by curiosity to see
or hear something passing, she drew the wimple aside, but so
slightly that the face remained invisible.

At length the man was accosted.

"Are you not Joseph of Nazareth?"

The speaker was standing close by.

"I am so called," answered Joseph, turning gravely around; "And
you--ah, peace be unto you! my friend, Rabbi Samuel!"

"The same give I back to you." The Rabbi paused, looking at
the woman, then added, "To you, and unto your house and all
your helpers, be peace."

With the last word, he placed one hand upon his breast, and inclined
his head to the woman, who, to see him, had by this time withdrawn
the wimple enough to show the face of one but a short time out of
girlhood. Thereupon the acquaintances grasped right hands, as if to
carry them to their lips; at the last moment, however, the clasp
was let go, and each kissed his own hand, then put its palm upon
his forehead.

"There is so little dust upon your garments," the Rabbi said,
familiarly, "that I infer you passed the night in this city of
our fathers."

"No," Joseph replied, "as we could only make Bethany before the
night came, we stayed in the khan there, and took the road again
at daybreak."

"The journey before you is long, then--not to Joppa, I hope."

"Only to Bethlehem."

The countenance of the Rabbi, theretofore open and friendly,
became lowering and sinister, and he cleared his throat with
a growl instead of a cough.

"Yes, yes--I see," he said. "You were born in Bethlehem, and wend
thither now, with your daughter, to be counted for taxation,
as ordered by Caesar. The children of Jacob are as the tribes in
Egypt were--only they have neither a Moses nor a Joshua. How are
the mighty fallen!"

Joseph answered, without change of posture or countenance,

"The woman is not my daughter."

But the Rabbi clung to the political idea; and he went on,
without noticing the explanation, "What are the Zealots doing
down in Galilee?"

"I am a carpenter, and Nazareth is a village," said Joseph,
cautiously. "The street on which my bench stands is not a road
leading to any city. Hewing wood and sawing plank leave me no
time to take part in the disputes of parties."

"But you are a Jew," said the Rabbi, earnestly. "You are a Jew,
and of the line of David. It is not possible you can find pleasure
in the payment of any tax except the shekel given by ancient custom
to Jehovah."

Joseph held his peace.

"I do not complain," his friend continued, "of the amount of the
tax--a denarius is a trifle. Oh no! The imposition of the tax is
the offense. And, besides, what is paying it but submission to
tyranny? Tell me, is it true that Judas claims to be the Messiah?
You live in the midst of his followers."

"I have heard his followers say he was the Messiah," Joseph replied.

At this point the wimple was drawn aside, and for an instant the
whole face of the woman was exposed. The eyes of the Rabbi wandered
that way, and he had time to see a countenance of rare beauty,
kindled by a look of intense interest; then a blush overspread
her cheeks and brow, and the veil was returned to its place.

The politician forgot his subject.

"Your daughter is comely," he said, speaking lower.

"She is not my daughter," Joseph repeated.

The curiosity of the Rabbi was aroused; seeing which, the Nazarene
hastened to say further, "She is the child of Joachim and Anna of
Bethlehem, of whom you have at least heard, for they were of great
repute--"

"Yes," remarked the Rabbi, deferentially, "I know them. They were
lineally descended from David. I knew them well."

Well, they are dead now," the Nazarene proceeded. "They died in
Nazareth. Joachim was not rich, yet he left a house and garden
to be divided between his daughters Marian and Mary. This is one
of them; and to save her portion of the property, the law required
her to marry her next of kin. She is now my wife."

"And you were--"

"Her uncle."

"Yes, yes! And as you were both born in Bethlehem, the Roman compels
you to take her there with you to be also counted."

The Rabbi clasped his hands, and looked indignantly to heaven,
exclaiming, "The God of Israel still lives! The vengeance is his!"

With that he turned and abruptly departed. A stranger near by,
observing Joseph's amazement, said, quietly, "Rabbi Samuel is
a zealot. Judas himself is not more fierce."

Joseph, not wishing to talk with the man, appeared not to hear,
and busied himself gathering in a little heap the grass which
the donkey had tossed abroad; after which he leaned upon his
staff again, and waited.

In another hour the party passed out the gate, and, turning to the
left, took the road into Bethlehem. The descent into the valley of
Hinnom was quite broken, garnished here and there with straggling
wild olive-trees. Carefully, tenderly, the Nazarene walked by the
woman's side, leading-strap in hand. On their left, reaching to
the south and east round Mount Zion, rose the city wall, and on
their right the steep prominences which form the western boundary
of the valley.

Slowly they passed the Lower Pool of Gihon, out of which the
sun was fast driving the lessening shadow of the royal hill;
slowly they proceeded, keeping parallel with the aqueduct from
the Pools of Solomon, until near the site of the country-house on
what is now called the Hill of Evil Counsel; there they began to
ascend to the plain of Rephaim. The sun streamed garishly over the
stony face of the famous locality, and under its influence Mary,
the daughter of Joachim, dropped the wimple entirely, and bared
her head. Joseph told the story of the Philistines surprised in
their camp there by David. He was tedious in the narrative,
speaking with the solemn countenance and lifeless manner of
a dull man. She did not always hear him.

Wherever on the land men go, and on the sea ships, the face and
figure of the Jew are familiar. The physical type of the race has
always been the same; yet there have been some individual variations.
"Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly
to look to." Such was the son of Jesse when brought before Samuel.
The fancies of men have been ever since ruled by the description.
Poetic license has extended the peculiarities of the ancestor to
his notable descendants. So all our ideal Solomons have fair faces,
and hair and beard chestnut in the shade, and of the tint of gold in
the sun. Such, we are also made believe, were the locks of Absalom
the beloved. And, in the absence of authentic history, tradition has
dealt no less lovingly by her whom we are now following down to the
native city of the ruddy king.

She was not more than fifteen. Her form, voice, and manner belonged
to the period of transition from girlhood. Her face was perfectly
oval, her complexion more pale than fair. The nose was faultless;
the lips, slightly parted, were full and ripe, giving to the lines
of the mouth warmth, tenderness, and trust; the eyes were blue and
large, and shaded by drooping lids and long lashes; and, in harmony
with all, a flood of golden hair, in the style permitted to Jewish
brides, fell unconfined down her back to the pillion on which
she sat. The throat and neck had the downy softness sometimes
seen which leaves the artist in doubt whether it is an effect
of contour or color. To these charms of feature and person were
added others more indefinable--an air of purity which only the
soul can impart, and of abstraction natural to such as think much
of things impalpable. Often, with trembling lips, she raised her
eyes to heaven, itself not more deeply blue; often she crossed
her hands upon her breast, as in adoration and prayer; often she
raised her head like one listening eagerly for a calling voice.
Now and then, midst his slow utterances, Joseph turned to look
at her, and, catching the expression kindling her face as with
light, forgot his theme, and with bowed head, wondering, plodded on.

So they skirted the great plain, and at length reached the elevation
Mar Elias; from which, across a valley, they beheld Bethlehem,
the old, old House of Bread, its white walls crowning a ridge,
and shining above the brown scumbling of leafless orchards.
They paused there, and rested, while Joseph pointed out the
places of sacred renown; then they went down into the valley to
the well which was the scene of one of the marvellous exploits of
David's strong men. The narrow space was crowded with people and
animals. A fear came upon Joseph--a fear lest, if the town were
so thronged, there might not be house-room for the gentle Mary.
Without delay, he hurried on, past the pillar of stone marking the
tomb of Rachel, up the gardened slope, saluting none of the many
persons he met on the way, until he stopped before the portal of
the khan that then stood outside the village gates, near a junction
of roads.





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