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The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter V BY THE WAYSIDE

By sunset, the Maccabee and Julian of Ephesus had taken the road to Jerusalem again.

As they reached the crest of a series of ridges there lay before them a long gentle slope smooth and dun-colored as some soft pelt, dropping down into a tender vale with levels of purple vapor hanging over it. At the end of this declivity, leagues in length, was a faint blue shape, cloudlike and almost merged with the cold color of the eastern horizon, but suddenly developing at its summit a delicate white peak. The sunset reaching it as they rode changed the point to a pinnacle of ruby before their eyes. Their shadows that had ridden before them merged with the shade over the world. Then with a soft, whispery, ghost-like intaking of the breath, a quantity of sand on the straight road before them got up under their horses' feet and moved away to another spot and dropped again with a peppering sound and was dead moveless earth again. The little breath of wind from under the edge of the sky had fallen.

In the silence between the muffled beat of hooves the Maccabee heard at his ears the quick lively throb of a busy pump. With it went the firm rush of a subdued stream. He was hearing his own heart-beat, his own life flowing through his veins. Since nature in him had hurried him out of the synagogue after its own desire, he seemed to have become primitive, conscious of the human creature in him. Now, though he rode through a bewitching air through an enchanted land, he did not ride in a dream. All his being was alert and sagacious. Though the confusion of footprints in the dust showed plainly where men had passed by thousands, he did not follow their lead. Over the tangle of marks lay a slim paw-printed, confident, careless trail of a jackal, following the scent to a well. The Maccabee was obedient to the instinct of the animal instead of the reason of man. At the end of that trail, surer than Ariadne's scarlet thread in the labyrinth, he knew that thirst had taken the girl in the dress of silver tissue. So as he rode along this faultless highway that fared level and undeviating by arches, causeways and bridges across mountains, over black marshes and profound valleys, he kept his eyes on the jackal's trail.

Long after moonrise they came to a spot in the road where the human marks passed on, by hundreds, by other hundreds deserted the road and clambered up the side of the hill. Over this deviation the jackal had trotted. The Maccabee, tall on his horse, raised his fine head and searched all the brooding shapes of the hills about.

The road at this point ran through a defile. On either side the slopes crowded upon the pass. Above them were bold summits with groves of cedars, and in one of these the Maccabee made out a thin curl of smoke dimly illuminated by a moon-drowned fire. Up there in the covert of the trees the girl in the silver tissue was resting from her perilous and outlawed journey.

|We will eat here,| the Maccabee said abruptly to Julian.

|Eat!| Julian exclaimed. |What?|

The Maccabee signed to the pack on Julian's horse. Julian dismounted, shaking his head.

|What a savage appetite this travel in the untaught wilds of Judea hath bred in you, my cousin! You, whom once a crust of bread and a cup of wine would satisfy!|

But the Maccabee climbed out of the roadway and, finding a sheltered spot behind a boulder, kicked together some of the dead weeds and twigs and set fire to the heap with flint and steel. Then he lost interest in the preparation of his comforts. He turned to look up at the faint column of illumination in the little copse of cedars and presently, stealthily, went that way.

It was a poor encampment that he came upon.

From the low-growing limbs of a couple of gnarly cedars, old Momus had stretched the sheepskins which Joseph, the shepherd, had given them. Three sides of the shelter were protected thus, and the fourth side opened down-hill, with a low fire screening them from the mountain wind. Within this inclosure, wrapped in the coarse mantle of her servant, sat Laodice. She had raised her veil and its misty texture flowed like a web of frost over her brilliant hair and framed her face in cold vapor. In spite of the marks of grief that had exhausted her tears, the fatigue and discomfort, she seemed, to the Maccabee's eyes, more than ever lovely. He was angry with the hieratic banishment that sent her out to subsist by the roadside for seven days in early spring; angry with the harsh inhospitality of the hills; and angrier that he could not change it all. He looked at the old mute to see that he was carefully putting away the remnants of a meal of durra bread and curds. The primitive gallantry of the original man stirred in the Maccabee. He had come unseen; with silent step he departed.

A little later he stepped boldly into the circle of light from their camp-fire. To Laodice, in her lowly position, he seemed superhumanly big and splendid. Without mantle or any of the accessories that would show preparation against the cold, his bare arms and limbs and dark face, tanned, hardy and resolute, seemed to be those of a strong aborigine, sturdy friend of all of nature's rougher moods.

He did not look at Momus, who got up as quickly as he might at the intrusion of the big stranger. His dark eyes rested on Laodice, who sat transfixed with her sudden recognition of the visitor.

He held in one hand a brace of fowls, in the other a skin of wine.

When he spoke the polish of the Ephesian andronitis in his voice and manner destroyed the primitive illusion.

|Lady, I heard in the synagogue at Emmaus to-day the exclusion that is laid upon you for seven days. This is a hungry country and no man should waste food. I shall enter Jerusalem to-morrow by daybreak; we, my companion and I, have no further use for these. They are Milesian ducks, fattened on nuts. And this is Falernian -- Roman. I pray you, allow me to leave them with your servant with my obeisances.|

Without waiting for her reply the Maccabee passed fowls and skin into the hands of Momus who stood near.

|Sir,| she answered unreadily, with her small hands gripping each other before her and her eyes veiled, |I thank you. It was not the least of my anxieties how we should provide ourselves with food under prohibition and in a country perilous with war. You have made to-morrow easy for us. I thank you.|

|To-morrow; yes,| he argued, seizing upon a discussion for an excuse to remain, |but the next day, and the next five days, what shall you do?|

|Perchance,| she said gravely, |God will send us another stranger of a generous heart, with more than he needs for himself.|

Not likely, indeed, he thought, would such beauty as hers go hungry as long as there were hearts in the wilderness as impressionable as his. But the thought of another than himself providing for her did not make him happy.

There was nothing more to be said, but he did not go. In his face gathered signs of his interest in her identity.

|Is there more that I can do for you?| he asked. |Have you friends in Jerusalem? I will bear your messages gladly.|

But it was a grateful privilege which she had to refuse with reluctance. If her husband awaited her in Jerusalem, he must wait, rather than be informed of the cause of her delay at peril of exposing his presence in the city. She shook her head.

|There is nothing more,| she added. |I thank you.|

Dismissal was so evident in her voice that he prepared to depart.

|Shall you move on, then, in the morning?| he asked.

|We have seven days in the wilderness,| she explained. |We can not hasten. It is only a little way to Jerusalem.|

|But it is a long road and a weary one for tender feet,| he answered; |and it is a time of warfare and much uncertainty.|

She lifted her eyes now with trouble in them.

|Is there any less dangerous way than this?| she asked.

The Maccabee sat down and clasped his hands about his knees. This grasping at the slightest excuse to remain exasperated the perplexed Momus, who could not understand the stranger's assurance. But the Maccabee failed to see him.

|There is,| he said to Laodice. |One can journey with you. I am under no restriction, and the rabbis do not bind you against me. I can secure you comforts along the way, and give you protection. There in no such dire need that I enter Jerusalem under seven days.|

Laodice was confused by this sudden offer of help from a stranger in whom her confidence was not entirely settled. Nevertheless a warmth and pleasure crept into her heart benumbed with sorrow. She did not look at Momus, fearing instinctively that the command in her old servant's eyes would not be of a kind with the grateful response she meant to give this stranger.

|I have no right to expect so much -- from a stranger,| she said.

|Then I shall not be a stranger,| he declared promptly. |Call me -- Hesper -- of Ephesus.|

|Ephesus!| she echoed, looking up quickly.

|The maddest city in the world,| he replied. |Dost know it?|

She hesitated. Could she say with entire truth that she did not know Ephesus? Had she not read those letters that Philadelphus had written to her father, which were glowing with praise of the proud city of Diana? Was it not as if she had seen the Odeum and the great Theater, the Temple with its golden cows, the mount and the plain and the broad wandering of the Rivers Hermus, Cayster and Maenander? Had she not made maps of it from her young husband's accounts and then with enthusiasm traced his steps by its stony, hilly streets from forum to stadium and from school to museum? Had she not dreamed of its shallow port, its rugged highways and its skyey marshes? It had been her pride to know Ephesus, although she had never laid eyes upon it. Even she had come to believe that she would know an Ephesian by his aggressive joy in life! It went hard with her to deny that she knew that city which she had all but seen.

The Maccabee observed her hesitation and when she looked up to answer, his eyes full of question were resting upon her.

|I do not know Ephesus,| she said quickly. |Are -- are you a native?|

|No.|

She wanted mightily to know if he had met the young Philadelphus in that city, but she feared to ask further lest she betray him.

|A great city,| he went on, |but there are greater pagan cities. It is not like Jerusalem, which has no counterpart in the world. Even the most intolerant pagan is curious about Jerusalem.|

She looked again at his face. It was not Greek or Roman, neither more indicative of her own blood.

|Are you a Jew?| she asked.

He remembered that she had seen him in a synagogue.

|I was,| he said after a silence.

She looked at him a moment before she made comment.

|I never heard a Jew say it that way before.|

He acknowledged the rebuke with the flash of a smile that appeared only in his eyes.

|A Jew entirely Jewish wears the mark on him. You have had to ask if I were a Jew. Would I be consistent to claim to be that which in no wise shows to be in me?|

|It is time to be a Jew or against the Jews,| she said gravely. |There is no middle ground concerning Judea at this hour.|

Serious words from the lips of a woman in whom a man expects to find entertainment are obtrusive, a paradox. Still the new generosity in his heart for this girl made any manner she chose, engaging, so that it showed him the sight of her face and gave him the sound of her voice.

|Seeing,| he said, |that it is the hour of the Jewish hope, is it politic for us to declare ourselves for its benefits?|

|The call at this hour,| she exclaimed reproachfully, |is to be great in sacrifice -- not for reward. It is the word of the prophets that we shall not attain glory until we have suffered for it. We have not yet made the beginning.|

She touched so familiarly on his own thoughts which had haunted him since ambition had awakened in him in his boyhood, that his interest in his own hope surged to the fore.

|How goes it in Jerusalem?| he asked earnestly.

|Evilly, they say,| she answered, |but I have not been in the city. Yet you see Judea. That which has destroyed it threatens the city. Jews have no friends abroad over the world. We need then our own, our own!|

|Trust me, lady, for a good Jew. I have said that I had been one, because I admit how far I have drifted from my people. But I am going back!|

Somehow that strong avowal touched the deep springs of her grief. She knew the pleasure that her father would have felt in it. With the greatness of his sacrifice in mind, she filled with the determination that his work should not have been in vain.

She rose and flung back the cumbrous striped mantle on her shoulders and put out her hands to the Maccabee.

|Hast seen these pilgrims going to the Passover?| she exclaimed, with color rising as her emotion grew. |All day they have passed; army after army of Jews, not only strong, but filled with the spirit that makes men die for a cause! Hast seen Judea, which was once the land of milk and honey? Wasted! a sight to make Jews gnash their teeth and die of hate and rage! What hast thou said of Jerusalem? 'The perfection of beauty and the joy of the whole earth!' threatened with this same blight that hath made a wilderness of Canaan! If the hour and the circumstance and the cause will but unite us, this unweaponed host will stretch away at once in majestic orders of tens of thousands -- legions upon legions that would shame Xerxes for numbers and that first Caesar for strength. Then -- oh, I can see that calm battle-line pass like the ocean tide over the stony Roman front, and forget as the sea forgets the pebbles that opposed it!|

She halted suddenly on the edge of tears. The Maccabee, astonished and moved, looked at her in silence. This, then, was what even the women of the shut chambers of Palestine expected of him -- if he freed Judea! If such spirit prevailed over the armies of men assembling in the Holy City, what might he not achieve with their help! The Maccabee felt confidence and enthusiasm fill his heart to the full. He rose.

|Our blows will never weaken nor our hearts grow faint,| he said, |if we have such eloquence and such beauty to inspire us.|

She drew back a little. His persistent happiness of mood fell cruelly on her flinching heart at that moment. He noted her sudden relapse into dejection, with disappointment.

|Do not be sad,| he said. |Discomforts do not last for ever.|

|It is not that,| she said in a low voice. |I have buried beloved dead on this journey and I have surrendered all my substance to a pillager.|

There was the silence of arrested thought. The Maccabee was taken aback and embarrassed. He felt that he was an intruder. But even the flush on her face in restraining emotion made her loveliness more than ever winsome. He let his hand drop softly on hers. But in the genuineness of his sympathy he was not too moved to feel that her hand warmed under his clasp.

|The difference between a fool and a blunderer,| he said contritely, |is that the blunderer is always sorry for his mistakes. I will go. None has a right to refuse another his hour to weep.|

He hesitated a moment, as if he would have kissed her hand. She glanced up at him with eyes too filled with the darkness of grief for words.

The slow unconscious smile that had worked such perfect transformation that first morning grew in his eyes. It was comfort, compliment and protection all in one. Then he went away into the moonlight.

Within a few feet he came upon Julian of Ephesus with immense rancor written on his face. The Maccabee was disturbed. It was not well that this conscienceless man should have discovered that they were traveling near this girl and her old servant. Much as the young man wished to loiter along the road to Jerusalem to keep her in sight while he could, he saw plainly that to defend her from Julian he must ride on and leave her.

|Your meal,| said Julian, |is as cold as Jugurtha's bath.|

|I have lost my appetite,| the Maccabee said carelessly. |Saddle and let us ride on.|

At his words, a picture of his own comfortable progress to Jerusalem compared to her long foot-weary tramp for days over the inhospitable hills appeared to him. The instant impulse did not permit himself to argue the immoderation of his care of her. Julian clung to his side until they were ready to depart. Then the Maccabee, using subterfuge to give him opportunity to escape the vigilant eyes of the Ephesian, suddenly clapped his hand to his hip, exclaiming that he had left his weapon at the camp.

Before Julian's sneer reached him, he mounted quickly and rode up the hill, meaning to offer his horse to the girl.

The bed of coals still glowed cheerily, but the shelter of sheepskins, the old servant and the girl in the tissue of woven moonbeams were gone.

He stood still, vexed, disappointed and resentful.

|The old incubus has made her go on, purposely, to get rid of me!| he decided finally. |Perpol! He won't!|

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