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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter VI DAWN IN THE HILLS

The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter VI DAWN IN THE HILLS

It was a night that the Maccabee did not readily forget. Since the girl had moved on to avoid him, he had become alive to a delinquency that was more of a sensation than an admission. His thought of her, that had been a diversion before, now seemed to be a transgression. An incident of this nature during the fourteen years of his life in Ephesus would have engaged his conscience only a moment if at all, but at this last hour it amounted to a deflection from his newly resolved uprightness.

Julian rode in a constant air of expectancy and increasing irritation. The slightest sound from the haunted hills elicited a start from him and his intense attention until the origin of the sound proved itself. Many Passover pilgrims who had proceeded by night passed under his close scrutiny and from time to time he stopped the Maccabee in a speech with a peremptory command to listen. All this engaged the Maccabee's interest, but he made no comment until, on occasion of his casual word in praise of the fidelity of Aquila, Julian flew into a rage and reviled the emissary until the Maccabee brought him up with a sharp word.

|Enough of that!| he exclaimed. |What ails you, man?|

Julian caught his breath and after a silence replied in a voice considerably sweetened that Aquila was a conscienceless pagan and not to be praised till he was dead. But the Maccabee, with the girl uppermost in his mind, believed that his cousin was inwardly resenting his preemption of the pretty stranger. The fact that Julian had changed the pace of their advance confirmed him in this suspicion. From the smart trot that they had maintained from the time they had left Caesarea, they had declined to a walk. Julian next showed inclination to loiter. He spent an unusual length of time at every spring at which they watered their horses; an unseen break in his harness engaged a prolonged halt on the road; he stopped at an unroofed hut to rouse sleeping Passover pilgrims who had taken refuge within to ask how far they were from Jerusalem, and wrangled with the sleepy Jew for many minutes over the hazy estimate the man had given him. With each of these pretenses the Maccabee's conviction grew that the girl had something to do with the altered behavior of his cousin. And with that growing conviction, he became the more convinced that he ought to maintain an espionage of Julian.

At midnight they were both tired, exasperated, moody, and determined against each other. They had not journeyed thirty furlongs.

In one of the high valleys in the hills a great well bubbled up from a hollow by the road, overflowed the stone basin that the ancients had built for it and wasted itself in the undrained soil about. Here, then, was one of the few marshes in Judea. The road by a series of arches crossed it and continued up the shoulder of the hills toward the east. All about it flourished the young growth of the rough sedge grass, green as emerald. The spot was treeless and marked with broad low hummocks of new sod.

Julian halted.

|Shall we camp here?| he asked.

|It hath the recommendation of variety,| the Maccabee said wearily. |Eheu! How I shall miss the greensward of Ephesus! Yes, we'll camp!|

They dismounted and while Julian unpacked their blankets, the Maccabee collected dead reeds and cedar twigs and built a fire. Then he stretched himself by the sweet-smelling flame.

|She can not have kept up with our horses; indeed it is unlikely that they moved far,| he thought, and thus assured that there was no danger to the girl for whom he had become a self-constituted guardian, he ate a piece of bread, drank a cup of wine and fell asleep.

His slumber was not entirely unconscious. So long as the movements of his cousin continued regular about him, he lay still, but once, when Julian approached too near, his eyes opened full in the face of the man about to lean over him. The Ephesian raised himself hastily and the Maccabee's eyes closed again.

|A pest on an eye that only half sleeps!| Julian said to himself. |He hasn't lost count on the minutes since he left Caesarea!|

The morning broke, the sun mounted, the deserted road became populous with all the previous day's host of pilgrims, and the silence in the hills failed before the procession that should not cease till night fell again. Through all the shouting at camel and mule, the talk of parties and the dogged trudging of lonely and uncompanionable solitaries, the Maccabee slept. From time to time Julian, who had wakened early, gazed with smoldering eyes at the insolent composure of his enemy sleeping. But slumber with so little control over the senses of a man was not to be depended upon for any work that demanded stealth. At times the gaze he bent upon the long lazy shape half buried in the raw-edged grass was malevolent with uneasiness and hate. Again, some one of the passing travelers that bore a resemblance to the expected Aquila would bring the Ephesian to his feet, only to sink back again with a muttered imprecation at his disappointment.

|A pest on the waxen-hearted satyr!| he said to himself finally. |Why should he have been more faithful to me than to his first employer! I am old enough to have learned by this time not to trust my success to any man but myself. Now where am I to look for him -- Ephesus, Syene, Gaul, Medea? Jerusalem first! By Hecate, the fellow is handsome! And these Jewesses are impressionable!|

The rumination was broken off suddenly by a glimpse of an old deformed man bearing a burden on his shoulders, followed by a slender figure, jealously wrapped in a plebeian mantle that left only a hem of silver tissue under its border. They were skirting along the brow of the hill opposite, away from the rest of the pilgrims on the road. Both were walking slowly and the old man seemed to be examining the farther slope, as if meditating a halt. Julian got upon his feet and watched. He saw the old man sign to the girl presently and they moved down the farther side of the hill and were lost to view.

Julian cast a look at the sleeper and hesitated. Then he scanned the road; he might miss Aquila. He seemed to relinquish the intent that had risen in him, and sat down again.

After a while as his constant gaze at the passers-by led him again toward the overflowing well, he saw there, standing in a long line, awaiting turn to dip a vessel in the water, the old bowed servant, with a skin in his hand. The girl was nowhere to be seen.

Julian sprang to his feet and, hastening across the road, considerably below the well, climbed the hill in the direction in which he had seen the girl disappear.

That watchful alarm in the brain which, at moments of demand, is instantly alive in certain sleepers, aroused the Maccabee almost as soon as the stealthy, receding footsteps of Julian died away. He stirred, sat up and looked about him. Julian was nowhere to be seen. Both horses were feeding a little distance away. The Maccabee sprang up and looked toward the well. There patiently but apprehensively waiting was old Momus. The girl was not with him. Suspicion grew vivid in the Maccabee's brain. The tender rank grass about him showed the print of his cousin's steps as they led away toward the road. He followed intently. The slim marks of the well-shod feet led him across the dust of the road up into gravel on the slope and finally eluded him on the escarpment that soared away above him.

The Maccabee hurried to the top of the declivity to gain whatever aid that point of vantage might offer and from that height saw below him to the west a single nook shaped of rock and hummock and a tree out of which rose a blue thread of smoke. He dropped down the farther slope at a pace little short of a run.

He mounted the slight ridge that overlooked the depression in time to see Julian of Ephesus appear over the opposite side. Within, with her mantle laid off, her veil thrown back, the girl knelt over a bed of coals, baking one of the Maccabee's Milesian ducks. Julian had made a sound; the Maccabee had come silently. She looked up and saw the less kindly man first, flashed white with terror, sprang to her feet with a cry, and whirled to flee up the other side. There she confronted the Maccabee with hands extended to ward off the encroachment of his cousin. Without an instant's hesitation she flew into the Maccabee's arms. His clasp closed around her and she shrank against him, clinging to the folds of his tunic over his breast with hands that were tremulous.

Her flight to him for refuge achieved an instant change in the Maccabee. The fear of defeat, the primal hate of a rival, died in him. All that remained was big wrath at the presumption and effrontery of Julian of Ephesus. He had no definite memory of what followed, because of the rush of blood in his veins, the whirl of pleasurable sensation in his brain and the weight of a sweet frightened figure pressed to him. The Ephesian went, leaving an impression of a most vindictive threat in the glittering smile and the motion of his shapely hand clenched at the victorious Maccabee. The girl drew away hastily. The veil was over her face and through its silken meshes he saw the glow on her cheeks and the sweep of her lowered lashes down upon that bloom.

She was faltering her thanks and her apologies.

|It is mine to ask pardon,| he exclaimed, still smoldering with wrath. |I had no part in this, except to interfere with this bad companion of mine. I did not follow you; believe me.|

It confused her to know that he had guessed why she had moved from their encampment the night before. As necessary as old Momus had made it seem to her then, it seemed now to have been ungrateful. She could make no reply to that portion of his speech.

|My servant went to the well,| she said. |He will return presently. I am not afraid now.|

|I am; you ought to be. I shall wait till your extraordinary servant returns.|

At this decided speech Laodice showed a little panic.

|No, no! I am not afraid. He -- |

But the Maccabee ignored the implied dismissal.

|I owe him both a reproof and thanks for leaving you here alone for any wayfarer to approach -- and for me to discover. I wish,| gazing abroad over the broken horizon, |there were no well between here and Jerusalem, and that he were as thirsty as Tantalus.|

She made no reply to this remark, but her whole presence expressed discomfort in his determination to remain.

|Heathen Hecate ought to get him in these wilds for forcing that cruel journey on you last night, when you were so weary and sad! There was no good in it. He wanted simply to get you away from me! Let us hope that Titus has got him for his museum by this time, and be at ease!|

She raised her head and reproach flashed through the meshes of her veil.

|Momus is a good man,| she said.

|He can not be,| he insisted. |Have I not set forth his iniquities even now?|

|It was a short task,| she maintained. |But time is not long enough to count his virtues.|

|I can spend time better,| he declared.

He saw her silken brows lower in a spirited frown and he was glad. She was showing some other feeling than that dead level of unhappiness that had possessed her from the first moment he had seen her. His was not the heart contented to go astray after a tear. Men fall in search of joy.

|Momus is carrying a burden under which more brilliant men would falter,| she averred. |I am beyond reckoning his debtor!|

|Since he has shifted that sweet burden for a time on my shoulders, I will forgive him for his looks. If he will stay away, I'll be his debtor further. But enough of Momus! I came to ask after your health, when your long journey by night is done.|

|I am well; we did not journey all night.|

|Sit, I pray you. There is no need for you to stand with that air of finality. I am not going, yet. I went back to your camp last night within a short time after I left you and found the camp broken and your fire lonely. I wanted to offer you my horse.|

|We did not walk all night. We camped a little farther on, and moved at daybreak this morning,| she explained.

He cast a reflective look at the sun and considered how much time Julian of Ephesus had lost for him upon the road, or else how long he had slept, that this pair, who had camped all night and had journeyed afoot by day, had caught up with him.

|Still it was a cruel journey -- for those little feet,| he said.

She glanced involuntarily at her sandals, worn and dusty.

|Yes,| he said compassionately, following her eyes. |But let me see no more, else I meet this good and burdened Momus with the flat of my hand when he comes! What is he to you?|

|My servant -- now almost my father!| she insisted, trying to cover the tacit accusation that she had made in admitting by a glance that she was weary. |He orders all things for my good. Do you think that each of the stones over which I stumbled to-day did not hurt him worse because they hurt me? Do you think he would have me go on, unless the stake were worth the pain I had to endure? Say no more against him!|

The Maccabee shrugged his shoulders; then noting that she still stood, he smoothed down a spot of the sand with his foot, tossed upon it one of the sheepskins that Momus had unrolled, and extending his hand politely pressed her down on the place he had made. Then he dropped down beside her, lounging on his elbow.

|What is the stake?| he asked after he had composed himself.

She hesitated, regretting that her defense of Momus had led her to hint her mission and touch upon her husband's ambition.

|The welfare of hosts!| she replied finally.

|Heavens! What a menace I was!| the Maccabee smiled.

She colored quickly and he resented the veil that was shutting away so much that was fine and fleeting by way of expression under its folds.

|But you are just as dangerous,| he declared. |Now, we should be in Jerusalem this hour. Our welfare and the welfare of others depend upon us -- I mean my companion and me. But there is no devoted prodigy to bear me away -- thank fortune! I have come out of a great turmoil; I must plunge into a greater one before many days. Let me rest between them. It will be a long time before I shall possess anything so sweet as the smell of this cedar fire and the picture of you against this fair sky!|

She looked down quickly.

|Was Ephesus in turmoil?| she asked disconnectedly.

|Ephesus was never in any other state! A fit preparation for the disorder in Jerusalem! I was met at Caesarea with such tales as depressed me until it required such delight as you are to bring back my spirits again! What takes you to Jerusalem?| he asked earnestly. |The Passover? God will forgive you if you neglect it one year. Nothing but the sternest necessity should send any one there at this hour.|

|My necessity is stern -- it is Judea's necessity,| she answered.

|More similarity!| he exclaimed. |That is why I go! Certainly Judea's fortunes have bettered with you and me both hastening to her rescue. Come, let us compare further. I am going to crown a king over Judea!|

She raised her veil to look at him with startled eyes. The glimpse of her face, for ever a delight and an astonishment to him because of its extraordinary loveliness, swept him out of the half-serious air into which he had fallen. He stopped and looked at her with pleased, boyish, happy eyes.

|Aurora!| he said softly. |I see now why day comes gradually. Mankind would die of excitement if the dawn were unveiled to them like this suddenly every morning!|

She released the veil hurriedly, but before it fell he put out a hand, caught it and tossed it back over her head.

|Be consistent with your part,| he said, still smiling. |No man ever saw day cancel her dawn and live.|

It was pleasant, this sweet possession and command. How much like an overgrown boy he had become, since she had wakened to find herself in his power that morning in the hills! The harshness and inflexibility had left his atmosphere entirely. She was only afraid of him now because he had refused to be dismissed. But she drew down the veil.

|I, too, expect a king,| she said in a lowered tone. |A conqueror and a redeemer.|

|The Messiah?| he said, and she knew by the inflection that he had not meant that King when he had spoken.

He noted that her hair was coiled upon her head when he threw back her veil and he turned to that at once.

|You wear your hair in a fashion,| he said, |that once meant that which men dislike to discover of a woman whom they greatly admire. I hope it is no longer significant.|

|I go,| she said after a silence, |to join my husband in Jerusalem.|

The Maccabee's lips parted and an expression of disappointment with an admixture of surprise and vexation came over his face. But what did it matter? Were she as free as air, he was a married man. The humor of the situation appealed to him. He dropped his head into the bend of his elbow and laughed.

|Welladay, this is a respite for us both, then,| he said. But realizing that an admission that he was married might hopelessly reduce their hour to a formal basis, he took refuge in a falsehood.

|My companion expects to meet a wife in Jerusalem,| he continued. |A royal creature, daughter of an ancient and haughty family, with all her life purpose congealed in lofty and serious intent, her coffers lined with gold and her face as determined and unbending as Juno's with her jealousy stirred. He is not delighted, poor lad!|

Laodice sat very still and listened. There was enough similarity in this story to interest her.

The Maccabee, seeing that he had made an impression with this deception and feeling somehow a relief in making it, went on, delighted with his deceit.

|He has not seen her since he married her in his childhood, but he knows full well how she will look when he meets her.|

Surprise paralyzed Laodice. Was the smiling and dangerous companion of this man, her husband?

The Maccabee, meanwhile, deliberately remarked her charms and recounted their antithesis in making up a picture of the woman he expected to meet as his wife.

|She will, according to his expectations, be meager and thin, not plump! Thoughtful women and women with a purpose are never plump! And she will be black and pale, all eyes, with a nose which is not the noble nose of our race. She will be religious and it will not make her happy. She will realize her value to her husband and he will not be permitted to forget it. She will be ambitious and full of schemes. She will be the larger part of his family, though by the balance she will weigh not so much as an omer of barley.|

Laodice got upon her feet in her agitation and raised her veil to stare at this slander. Was this a picture of herself she heard? The Maccabee was enjoying himself uncommonly.

|She will wear the garments of a queen, but -- how little a slip of silver tissue will become her!|

Laodice looked down in alarm at her gleaming garment, and reached for her mantle. The Maccabee had no idea how much pleasure he was to derive in making his own story, Julian's. He continued, almost recklessly, now.

|Small wonder that he is so delinquent in the wilderness, with such square-shouldered righteousness awaiting him in town! Forgive him, lady, for his iniquities now, for he will be a good man after he reaches Jerusalem; by my soul, you may be sure he will be good!|

Laodice gasped under the pressure of astonishment and indignation. It was bad enough to be pictured thus unprepossessing, but to be suddenly made aware of her husband in a man whom she feared, was desperate. She stared with frank and horrified eyes at her tormentor.

|But -- but -- | she stammered.

|True,| he sighed. |One can not know what calamity forces another into misdeeds. Now were I my unfortunate friend, perhaps I should afflict you with my hunger for sweetness also.|

And that smooth, insinuating, violent pagan was Philadelphus Maccabaeus! But what had her father said of him, as a child? |Quick in temper, resourceful, aye, even shifty, stubborn, cold in heart, hard to please!| And to this man she must present herself, late, penniless and unhelpful. Panic seized her! How could she go on to Jerusalem!

That long graceful figure stretched on the sand was speaking. What was it in his voice that drew her so mightily from any terror that possessed her at any time?

|Sit down, sit down! I have more to say,| he was urging her.

She obeyed him numbly.

|He gets worse as he approaches the city. I think I ought to leave him. It will not be safe to be near him when his moneyed lady claims him for her own!|

|She -- she -- | Laodice burst out, |is -- may be such a woman!|

|Such a woman as you! No; she will not be. That is what makes him bad. And now that I bethink me, perhaps it is just as well that you proceed to Jerusalem. He may comfort himself with a sight of you, now and then.|

|I? I comfort him?| she exclaimed.

|By my soul I know it! What blunders Fortune makes in bestowing wives! Perchance your husband could have got on as well without so radiant a spouse, while my poor beauty-loving friend must needs be paired with a -- Alas! there is too much marrying in this world!|

There was a ring of genuine dejection in his voice and when she looked down at him, she saw that his eyes were larger and more sorrowful than she believed they could be. He was hurting himself with his own deceit. She looked away hastily, frightened at the sudden tenderness that his pathetic gaze had wakened in her.

|Alas!| he went on. |The greatest sacrifice and the frequentest in this world of cross-purposes never gets into poetry. I -- | he halted a moment and looked away, |I ought to be sorry for her, too. She is not getting the best of men.|

|Verily!| she exclaimed impulsively.

He whirled his head toward her, stared; then with a flash of intense expression in his eyes burst into a ringing laugh that shook him from head to foot. He flung out his hand and catching hers passed it across his lips without kissing it, and let it go before he regained composure enough to speak.

|No! Not a good man! Verily! But hath he no cause to be delinquent?|

|No!| she said stubbornly. |He has judged her without seeing her, when, by your own words, he expects her to bring him fortune and position. What is he bringing her?|

The Maccabee looked at her thoughtfully before he answered.

|Nothing! Not even his heart!| he vowed.

Laodice caught her breath in an agony of indignation and distress.

|He does not in any way deserve -- | she stopped precipitately. She was about to add |the great fortune he is to get,| when she realized that she was taking this husband nothing -- not even her own heart. She went on, for the first time a little glad that she was penniless.

|He may find -- neither fortune, nor position, nor heart awaiting him!| she finished pointedly.

The Maccabee pulled one of his stubborn locks that had fallen over his eyes. The smile grew less vivid.

He had no comment to make to this. Meanwhile Laodice looked at him.

|Shall -- you be with -- your friend in Jerusalem?| she asked.

|It depends on his wife,| he retorted with a grimace.

She would be glad if this tall, comely trifler, with a voice as musical as some grave-toned viol, were to be seen from time to time to relieve the tedium of life with the offensive Philadelphus. This admission instantly brought a shock to her. She had learned to study herself in these last few days since she had become aware of the ways of the world. Life was to be no longer a period of obedience to laws which the Torah had laid down; it was to be a long resistance against desirable things that she yearned for but which she dared not have. She learned at this moment that she could be her own chief stumbling-block, and that love, the most precious illumination in every life, might be a destruction and a consuming fire. She looked at this man, who lounged beside her, with a new sensation. He was winsome, and therefore the more perilous. That smooth insulting stranger whom this man had revealed as her husband with all his violence and license was a humble and harmless thing compared to this one, who had snared her by his care of her and by his charming self.

She felt a desire to cry out for Momus to take her back to the inner chamber of the shut house in Ascalon, away from her danger to herself and from the sight of the man who had done her no harm -- yet.

She did not know how plainly all this wrote itself on her candid face. Wise pupil of that unbridled school, the city of Diana, he could read in that slight frown on her forehead and the pathetic curve of her lips, that she was contented with him -- that she was not glad to go on to that husband in Jerusalem. He was near to her before she knew he had moved.

|After all,| he was saying in a low voice, |I am glad you are going to Jerusalem. You shall not be lost from me again. Whose house shall I ask for when I can not endure separation longer?|

She moved away from him. There was a step behind her and Laodice, coloring shamedly, looked straight into the accusing eyes of Momus who stood there. The stranger rose.

|I shall see you again,| he said to her.

He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. The next instant he was gone.

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