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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter X THE STORY OF A DIVINE TRAGEDY

The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter X THE STORY OF A DIVINE TRAGEDY

The following morning, there was a rap at the door of the chamber to which Laodice had been led and informed that it was her own.

She had passed a sleepless night and had risen early, but the knock came late in the morning.

She opened the door.

Without stood a ten year old girl, of the most bewitching beauty, as barely clad as ever the children of her blood went over the green meadows of Achaia. Her golden hair was knotted on the back of her pretty head and held in place by an ampyx. On her feet were tiny sheepskin buskins; about her perfect little body, worn carelessly, was a simple chiton, out of which her dimpled shoulders and small round arms showed pink and tender as field-flowers. Nothing could have been more composed than her gaze at Laodice.

|We breakfast in the hall, now. You are to join us,| she said.

Laodice stepped, out of the chamber into the court and followed her little guide.

|The mistress and her guests rise late,| the child went on. |That perforce starves the rest of us until mid-morning. Eheu! It is the one injustice in this house.|

Laodice dumbly wondered if she were to be classed with the house servants while she waited until the return of her devoted old mute.

She was led into a long narrow room, showing the same simple elegance that marked all the house of Amaryllis, the Greek. Down the center were two tables, separated by a cluster of tall plants that almost screened one from the other.

At the first table place was laid for one. At the other, she found by the talk and laughter the rest of the company were gathered. The little girl led Laodice to the single place, seated her, and kissing her hand to her with an almost too-practised bow, fled around the cluster of tall plants. There she heard her childish voice imperiously ordering a servant to attend the mistress' latest guest.

Prisca appeared and silently served Laodice with melon, honey-cakes and milk. Other of the house-servants were visible from time to time. This, then, manifestly was not the breakfast of the menials. She glanced toward the cluster of tall plants. Through an interstice she was able to see all the persons seated at the other table.

There first was the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl. Beside her was a youth, slim, dark, exquisitely fashioned, with limbs and arms as strong as were ever displayed in the games, yet powerful without brutality, graceful without weakness -- marks of the ideal athlete that had long since disappeared with the coming of the Roman gladiator. Opposite was a grown man, tall, broad and deep chested, with prominent eyes wide apart and a large mouth. There was a singleness of attitude in him, as in all persons reared to a purpose. It was that certain self-centeredness which is not egotism, yet a subconsciousness of self in all acts. He was the finished product of a specific, life-long training, and the confidence in his atmosphere was the confidence of one aware of his skill and prepared at all times.

Besides these three, there were two women, both in the garments of the ancient atelier. One was bemarked with clay; the other was stained with paint. Laodice knew at a glance that she looked at a gathering of artists.

|Evidently a gift from John,| the little girl was saying. |He can not see that our lady does anything but collect curiosities in this her search after art, and so he must needs add a contribution in this Stygian monster we saw yesterday evening.|

Laodice knew that they discussed Momus.

|Perhaps,| the athlete said, |he bought this left-handed catapult thinking he might throw the discus farther than I can throw it.|

|Well enough,| the woman with paint on her tunic put in; |she sent the monster packing. He went out of the gates post-haste last night, they say.|

|The pretty stranger that came with him stayed, I observe,| the athlete said.

|Pst!| the girl said in a low voice. |Where are the man's eyes in your head, that you do not see her?|

|Looking at you!| the athlete answered.

|Too soon!| the child retorted. |A good six years before I shall know what your looks mean!|

|Is she, this pretty stranger, something of John's taste?| the woman who had blue clay on her garment asked.

|Tut!| the athlete broke in. |John never departed from his ancient barbarism to that extent. That, unless I misjudge my own inclinations in a similar matter, is something this mysterious Philadelphus hath arranged to relieve the tedium of -- |

|Tedium!| the girl exclaimed. |By Hector, this Jewish wife of his would open his Ephesian eyes were she to let loose all I suspect in her!|

|Brrr! But you are suspicious!| the athlete shivered. The little girl shaped her lips into a kiss and the athlete leaning across the table snatched it from her before she could avoid him.

The women caught him by the back of his tunic and pulled him down in his chair.

|Sit down!| they whispered. |Don't you see that Juventius is about to speak?|

The athlete glanced at the grown man, who had looked down into his plate at the youth's frolic with the child, with the utmost disdain and boredom in his expression. Now that the silence became noticeable, he spoke in an affected voice, but one of the deepest music.

|Alas, these Jews!| he said. |How little they know about art! How long has it been since he introduced one of the Temple singers into our lady's hall to show what a piercing high note could be reached by a male voice? And he had the creature sing to prove his contention. I thought I should die! It was worse than awful; it was criminal!|

The athlete laughed.

|Any singer, then, but Juventius therefore is a malefactor!| he said.

|No, it does not follow,| Juventius protested in all seriousness, while the child flashed a look of intense amusement at the athlete. |But,| waving a pair of long white hands, |none should trifle with music. It is one of the graces of Nature, divine and elemental. Wherefore, anything short of a perfect production becometh a mockery and a mockery against divine things is blasphemy. Ergo, the poor musician is in danger of Hades!|

|The monster is safe, safe!| the girl protested. |He does not sing, and from what I caught through the crack of the door, the pretty stranger had better not. My lady, the princess, had a merry time with my lord, the prince, at breakfast this morning, all about this same pretty one. So this is why she breakfasts with us -- the second table.|

Laodice heard this with a sinking heart. This was a strange house in which to live at no definite status, with a future blank and inscrutable.

|Is it, then, that you are wary of offending the over-nice exactions of music, that you do not sing?| the athlete demanded of Juventius.

|Song,| replied the singer gravely, |is originally the expression of the highest exaltation. To sing before the high mark of feeling is reached is an insincerity.|

|Alas, Juventius,| the girl was saying, |how much difficulty you lay up for yourself in determining the limits of art! Teach broadly and the fulfilment of your laws will not be such a task for the overworked and irritable gods of art.|

|Child!| Juventius cried passionately. |Your ignorance outreaches your presumption!|

|Fie! Fie!| the athlete put in comfortably. |Let us make a truce, for I announce to you the opportunity each to have whatever you wish. We are to have at the proper moment, according to the Jews, a celestial visitation which will enable us to have what we most desire.|

|You announce it!| the girl scoffed indignantly. |I have heard of that ever since I was born!|

|I, too, have heard it,| said Juventius.

|Well,| said the unabashed athlete, |the Pharisee that brings Amaryllis her fruit is so full of it that he gets prophecies mixed with his prices and the patriarchs with his fruit. He says that there are those that declare he is already in the city.|

|That he has been seen?| Juventius asked, after a little silence.

|No; merely suspected. They say that things go on in the Temple which seem to show that some resident of their Olympus already inhabits the air.|

|I saw Seraiah to-day,| one of the women said in a low voice.

|Silent as ever? Spotless as ever? Mysterious as ever?| the athlete asked.

The woman who had spoken shook her head at him as if alarmed.

|I can not bear to hear him ridiculed,| she said. |Somehow it seems blasphemous. They say he marks every one who laughs in his hearing.|

|They are not many,| the girl said. |For the most part, the citizens of Jerusalem feel as apprehensive about him as you do.|

|I wonder that John will stay in the Temple with a god in it,| Juventius said, as if he had not heard the rest of the discussion.

|John!| the athlete exclaimed. |John is an adventurer that believes in nothing, has no cause and furthers this warfare for loot and the possible chance of escape when the conflict comes.|

|Simon is different,| another said. |Now he is wild and mad and insolent and foolhardy, because he believes that, no matter what tangle the situation is in, the celestial emissary he expects will straighten it out for him.|

|In short, he means to work such a complexity here that the man who unravels it must needs be divine.|

At this moment the door that cut off the rest of the house from this dining-room opened smartly and the supposed Philadelphus stepped in. He closed the door behind him and glanced at the filled table. Those there seated rose. He spoke to each one by name, and after they had greeted him, they filed out into the court and the servants began to remove the remnants of their meal. Laodice rose at sign of this concerted deference to Philadelphus but sat down again, with her lips compressed. However they had disposed her, she would not accept the menial attitude. She had not finished her honey-cakes.

He came round to her, drew up a chair and sat down beside her. She ignored him, making a feint that was not entirely successful at interest in her fruit.

|Who art thou, in truth?| he asked finally.

|Laodice,| she answered coldly.

He sighed and she added nothing more.

|What can your purpose be in this?| he asked.

She ignored the question. After a longer silence, he said in an altered and softened tone:

|What an innocent you are! Certainly this is your first attempt! What marplot told you that such a thing as you have essayed was possible?|

She put aside her plate and her cup, and turned to him.

|By your leave I will retire,| she said.

|Not yet,| he answered, smiling. |It is my duty as a Jew to help you while there is time.|

She settled back in her chair and looked at the cluster of plants while he talked.

|Nothing so damages the beauty of a woman as trickery. No bad woman is beautiful very long. There comes a canker on her soul's beauty, in her face, that disfigures her, soon or late. Whoever you are, whatever your condition, you are lovely yet. Be beautiful; of a surety then you must be good.|

It was the same old hypocritical pose that the bad man assumes to cloak himself before innocence. Laodice remembered the incident in the hills.

|Where,| she asked coldly, |is he who was with you at Emmaus?|

The pretender started a little, but the increase of alarm on his face showed that he realized next that here was a peril in this woman which he had overlooked.

|Gone,| he said unreadily, |gone back to Ephesus.|

She did not know what pain this announcement of that winsome stranger's desertion would waken in her heart. Her eyes fell; her brows lifted a little; the corners of her mouth became pathetic. The pretender, casting a sidelong glance at her, saw to his own safety that she had believed him.

|He was a parasite,| he sighed, |living off my bounty. But even that did not invite him when he neared the peril of this city. So he turned back. I -- I do not blame him,| he added with a little laugh.

|Blame him?| she said quickly. |You -- you do not blame him?|

|No! Any place, any condition is more desirable than residence in Jerusalem at this hour.|

|If one seeks but to be comfortable. But here is a place for work and for achievement,| she declared.

|Too desperate an extreme. Nothing can be done here,| he observed, shrugging his shoulders.

She gazed at him with immense contempt.

|That from a son of Judas Maccabaeus!| she exclaimed.

He looked disconcerted.

|Why not?| he urged. |It is neither rational nor practical to attempt the impossible. Jerusalem is doomed. I would but add myself to the sacrifice did I interfere between destruction and its sure prey.|

After a silence in which she confronted him with many emotions showing on her face, she said with infinite pity and disappointment:

|O Philadelphus, you to throw greatness away!|

|Where, O my mysterious genius, are my army, my engines, my subsistence, my advantage and the prize?|

|What was that dowry which was stolen from me to purchase for you but these things? I brought it for this purpose. Another than myself delivered it to you; the end is achieved; what use will you make of it?|

|There is no nation here for that dowry to defend, no crown for it to support. But for this same madness which possesses my lady, the princess, I should depart this day for a safer venture, in some safer country!|

She faced him intently.

|And you will do nothing for Judea?| she asked.

|What can be done?| he asked, throwing out his hands with a careless gesture.

|Oh,| she exclaimed with a rush of passionate feeling, |that I were you! You, with the materials for empire-building at your feet! You, with the hour beseeching you, with a people searching for you, with a treasury filled for you, with ancient prophecy establishing you, ancient precept teaching you, and the cause of God arming you! Philadelphus, son of a great patriot, what are you saying! What can there be done! Oh rather, how dare you not do! What have you about you but the inevitable end of Judah, living contrary to God's plan for it! It is the conscience of Israel rising against its sin and submission! It is the blood of David rebelling against the heathen yoke! It is the hour foretold by Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel and the Twelve, when Israel shall repent and be chastened and return to the heritage of Jacob. Be the repairer of the breach! Be the restorer of the paths to dwell in, my husband! Go out and let Israel behold you! Help them to wipe out the shame of Babylonia and Persia and Macedonia and Rome! Make Jerusalem not only a sanctuary but a capital! Restore the glory of David and the peace of Solomon, for those were God's days and Judah can not prosper except as it returns to them! Philadelphus -- |

Laodice halted abruptly in her appeal, breathless with feeling.

The amusement had gone out of his face and his expression was one of mingled discomfort and surprise at her speech.

|Since you are a thinking woman,| he answered, |I must answer you soberly. Even I, expecting disorder and uproar in Jerusalem, when I came from Ephesus, was not prepared for this chaos! Never was such a time! Order is not possible in this extreme. It is unthinkable. Nothing human can save Jerusalem!|

She laid her hand upon him.

|Nothing human!| she repeated quickly. |Seest not that this is the time of the Messiah? Be ready to be helped of God!|

Philadelphus drew away from her uneasily and looked at her from under lowered brows.

|They say,| he said in a suppressed voice, as fearing his own words, |that He has come and gone!|

She looked at him blankly. He was glad he had thought of this; it would divert her from a discourse momently growing unpleasant for him. And yet he was afraid of the thing he had said.

|What dost thou say?| she asked.

|He is come and gone -- they say.|

|Come and gone!|

He nodded irritably. It made him nervous to dwell on the subject.

|Who say?| she demanded.

|Many! Many!| he whispered.

|It is not -- do you believe it?| she persisted, with strange terror waiting upon his answer. He moved uneasily but he answered the truth. It was superstition in him that spoke.

|Something in me says it is true,| Philadelphus whispered.

She stood transfixed; then all her horror rose in her and cried out against the story.

|It can not be!| she cried. |See the misery and oppression, here, tenfold! Nothing has been done! Nobody heard of Him! He could not fail! What a blasphemy, what a travesty on His Word, to come and fulfil it not and go hence unnoticed! It can not be!|

|But, but -- | he protested, somehow terrified by her denial, |only you have not heard. Everywhere are those who believe it and I saw -- I saw -- |

The growing violence of dissent on her face urged him to speak what his shamed and guilty tongue hesitated to pronounce.

|I saw in Ephesus one who saw Him; I saw in Patmos one who had reclined on His breast!|

|A -- a -- woman?| she whispered.

|No! No!| he returned in a panic. |A man, a prisoner, old and white and terrible! But it was in his youth! He told me! And the one in Ephesus, a red-beard, hunchbacked and half-blind and even more terrible than the first! He saw Him after He was dead!|

|Dead!| Her lips shaped the word.

|They -- yes! He was crucified!|

Her lips parted as if to speak the word, but her mind failed to grasp it certainly. She stood moveless in an actual pain of horror.

|But He rose again from the dead,| he persisted, |and left the earth to its own devices hereafter. And so behold Jerusalem!

|And there was one woman,| he added, |who had been a scarlet woman. She had anointed His feet with precious oil and wiped them with her hair. And I saw her also -- I sought them all out, because they could do miracles and foretell events. Thousands upon thousands believe in them.|

|Crucified!| she whispered.

|They say,| he went on, |that He pronounced judgment on Jerusalem and that it now cometh to pass!|

The accumulated effect of the calamitous recital was to stun her. She gazed at him with unintelligent eyes, and her lips moved without speaking. For one reared in constant contemplation of God's nearness to His children, acquainted with divine politics, divine literature and divine law, cut off from the world and devoted wholly to religion, the story of a divine tragedy carried with it the full force of its fearful import. Philadelphus' narrative meant to her the crumbling of earth and the effacement of Heaven. She cried wildly her unbelief when words returned to her. But under the fury of her denunciation, unconsciously directed against the conviction that the story was true, she felt her hope of a restored Kingdom of David wavering toward a fall.

While she stood thus, Amaryllis, languid and pre-occupied, entered the room with John of Gischala at her side. The Greek noted Philadelphus with a quick accession of interest. John's attention had been instantly arrested by the presence of the other man. Philadelphus turned with fine ease to meet the man whom he must regard as his enemy and Laodice shrank back in an attempt to get out of sight of the trio.

|Welcome!| said Amaryllis to Philadelphus. |A fortunate visit that makes possible an amnesty for two of my friends at once. This, John, is Philadelphus of Ephesus, a seeker of diversion out of mine own country come to see the end of this great struggle thou wagest against Rome. And thou, Philadelphus, seest before thee, John of Gischala, the arbiter of Judea's future. Be friends.|

With a comprehensive sweeping glance John inspected the man before him.

|John of Gischala,| he repeated in his feline voice, |the oppressor John. Art thou not afraid of me, sir?|

|Dost thou meditate harm for me, sir?| Philadelphus smiled.

|Art thou, in that case, against me, sir?| John parried.

|On that hingeth his answer,| Amaryllis said, glancing at Laodice. |And here is this same pretty stranger who bewitched thee yesterday. Know her as Laodice. Let that be parentage, history, ambition and religion for her. She, too, seeks diversion in Jerusalem, and is my guest for a while.|

The Gischalan took Laodice's hand and held it.

|Welcome, thou,| he said. |I will tolerate another man under thy roof if thou wilt but make this pretty bird of passage a permanency,| he said to the Greek, after a silent study of Laodice's beauty.

|Let her be a hostage dependent on thy good behavior. Lapse, and I shall send her back to Olympus where they keep such nymphs.|

Philadelphus smiled at Laodice, but the shock of their recent talk had shaken her too much to enter into this idle chaff on the lips of those upon whom the fortunes of Israel depended at that very hour.

John looked at her for a long time.

|Amaryllis veils thee in the enchantment of mystery. I think she is tired of me and would have me interested in another woman. She does all things well. Who art thou, in truth?|

The Greek lifted her head and gazed with overt anxiety at the girl; Philadelphus turned toward her uneasily. Here was an opportunity for Laodice either as a disappointed adventuress or as a supplanted wife, to take revenge by exposing this pair of conspirators pledged to undermine the Gischalan. But the girl had no such thought.

|I am Laodice,| she said unreadily. |What history I have belongs to another. What future shall be mine depends on others. I wait.|

|If you mean to throw me off, Amaryllis, I shall not miss you,| said John.

The Greek smiled and plucking Philadelphus' sleeve led both men away.

|Do not commit yourself,| she said to John, |there is yet another woman under this roof. You shall have a choice.|

They disappeared in the direction of her hall.

Laodice, stunned, amazed and shaken, stood still. The stock of her troubles amounted to a sum of such magnitude that she could not grasp it clearly. The entire structure which her life training and all her purposes, the hope of her house and her husband's, the future of Judea and the King to come, had constituted, had been attacked and threatened to crumble and be swept away in a few hours' time.

Out of the wreck she rescued one hope. Momus would return from the west with proofs in a few days' time -- only a few days!

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