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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter XII THE PRINCE RETURNS

The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter XII THE PRINCE RETURNS

Joseph, the shepherd, son of Thomas of Pella, moved out of the green marsh before sunset, as he had planned to do, but not for the original motive. The sheep, indeed, would not have flourished in that dampness, rich as it was in young grass, but, more than that, there was no shelter for the wounded man who lay by the roadside.

The shepherd, who knew the hills of Judea as far as the Plain of Esdraelon as well as he knew the stony streets of the Christian city, located the nearest roof as one which a fagot-maker had occupied two years before. It was some distance up in the hills to the west. Since the scourge of war had passed over Palestine, there were scores of such hovels, vacant and abandoned to the bats and the small wild life about the countryside, and the boy doubted seriously if the thatch that covered it were still whole. But he attracted the attention of a pair of robust young Galileans on the way to the Passover, and, by their help, carried the wounded man to shelter in this hut. Urge, the sheep-dog, rushed the sheep out of the sedge and hurried them after his master, and in an hour Joseph was once more settled, his sheep were once more nosing over the rocky slants of a hill, his dog once more flat on his belly, watching. But it was a different day, after all.

The hut of the fagot-maker was the four walls and a roof and the earth that floored it, but it was wealth because it was shelter. It had two doors which were merely openings in the sides and between them lay the man on sheep-pelts with a cotton abas, which one of the Galileans had left, over him. At one of these doors, sitting sidewise, so that he could watch in or out, sat Joseph.

All night the man on the sheepskins spoke to the blackened thatch above him of the siege of Jerusalem and the treachery of Julian of Ephesus. He read letters from Costobarus and instructed Aquila over and over again. Then he tossed a coin and spent hours counting the hairs in the long locks that fell from the shining head of the moon down upon his breast, at midnight.

At times the boy, with the exquisite beauty of sleep on his heavy lids, would creep over from his vigil at the door and lay his cool hand on the sick man's forehead. And the sick man would speak in a low controlled voice, saying:

|Naaman being a leper, my friend, why was not the law fulfilled against him?|

But the soothing influence of that touch did not endure. Again, he took census of the fighting-men of Judea, by the Roman statistics which he had from the decurion, and searched through his tunic for his wallet to write down the result. Failing to find it, he raised himself to shout for Julian to return his property.

Again the cool hands would stroke the fevered forehead and the sick man would say:

|Good my Lord, they fetched snow from the mountains to cool this wine.|

But how white the hands of that fair girl in the hills! Why, these hands beside hers were as satyrs' hooves to anemones! Her lashes were so long, and he knew that her lips were as cool as the heart of a melon; but that husband of hers knew better than he!

And he, grandson of the just Maccabee, allied by marriage to the noble line of Costobarus through his daughter, Laodice, the bride with the greatest dowry in Judea, had staked his soul on the toss of a coin and had lost it!

At this the shepherd boy straightened himself and gave attention.

But he was wholly lost, the sick man would go on, rolling his head from side to side; he could not join Laodice because he had loved a woman of the wayside and could not cast out that love; he was not a Jew because he had rather linger with this strange beauty in the hills than hasten on the rescue of Jerusalem; he had not apostatized, though he was as wholly lost as if he had done so; he hated the heathen and would not be one of them. He would abide in the wilderness and perish, if this young spirit that abode by his side, with a face like Michael's and a form so like the shepherd David's, would only suffer the darkness to come at him.

|Unless I mistake,| the little shepherd said at such times, |there is more than a wound troubling this head.|

Thus day in and day out the shepherd watched by the sick man who had no medicine but the recuperative powers of his strong young body. So there came a night when the boy, rousing from a doze into which he had dropped, saw the sick man stretched upon his pallet motionless as he had not been for days. The shepherd felt the forehead and the wrists and sank again into slumber. At dawn he rose from the earth which had been his bed throughout this time and went forth to attend his flocks, and when he was gone, the sick man opened his eyes.

He looked up at the blackened rafters; he looked out at either door and frowned perplexed, first at the hills, then at the valley. He raised his head and dropped it suddenly with great amazement and much weariness. Finally he ventured to lift a wilted and fragile hand and looked at it. It was not white; but it was unsteady as a laurel leaf beside a waterfall. After a moment's rest from the exertion he parted his lips to speak, but a whisper faint as the sound of the air in the shrubs issued from them. He listened but there was no answer. There was the activity of birds and insects, moving leaves and bleating sheep without, but it was all blithely indifferent to him. Finally he extended his arms and pressing them on his pallet tried to rise, but he could have lifted the earth as easily. Falling back and dazed with weakness, he lay still and slept again.

When he awoke rested sufficiently to think, he recalled that he had been twice stabbed by Julian of Ephesus by the marsh on the road to Jerusalem. He had probably been carried to this place and nursed back to life by the householder.

Then he remembered. In his search after cause for his cousin's attack upon him, he readily fixed upon Julian's rage at the Maccabee's preemption of the beautiful girl in the hills. Instantly, the disgrace of violence committed in a quarrel between himself and his cousin over the possession of a woman, appealed to him. And even as instantly, his defiant heart accepted its shame and persisted in its fault. It is an extreme of love, indeed, if no circumstance however impelling raises a regret in the heart of a man; for he flung off with a weak gesture any chiding of conscience against cherishing his dream, and abandoned himself wholly to his yearning for the girl in the tissue of moonbeams.

There was a quiet step on the earth at the threshold. Joseph, the shepherd, stood there. The two looked at each other; one with inquiry and weakness in his face; the other with good-will and reassurance.

|Boy,| said the Maccabee feebly, |I have been sick.|

|Friend, I am witness to that. I am your nurse,| the boy replied.

After a little silence the Maccabee extended his hand. The boy took it with a sudden flush of emotion, but feeling its weakness, refrained from pressing it too hard, and laid it back with great care on his patient's breast. The Maccabee looked out at the door, away from the full eyes of his young host.

He was touched presently, and a cup of milk was silently put to his lips. He drank and turning himself with effort fell asleep.

When he awoke again, after many hours, it was night. In the door with his head dropped back between his shoulders gazing up at the sky overhead, sat the boy.

|Where,| the Maccabee began, |are the rest of you?|

The boy turned around quickly, and answered with all seriousness.

|I am all here.|

|Did you,| the Maccabee began again, after silence, |care for me alone?|

|There has been no one here but us,| the boy said, hesitating at the symptoms of gratitude in the Maccabee's voice.

|Us?|

|You and me.|

After another silence, the Maccabee laughed weakly.

|It requires two to constitute 'us' and I am, by all signs, not a whole one!|

|But you will be in a few days,| the boy declared admiringly. |You are an excellent sick man.|

The Maccabee looked at him meditatively.

|I am merely perverse,| he said darkly; |I knew it would be so much pleasure to my murderer to know that I died, duly.|

The shepherd repressed his curiosity, as the best thing for his patient's welfare, and suggested another subject rather disjointedly.

|I have been thinking,| he said, |about Jerusalem. I was there once upon a time.|

|Once!| the Maccabee said. |You are old enough to attend the Passover.|

|But our people do not attend the feast. We are Christians.|

The Maccabee moved so that he could look at the boy. He might have known it, he exclaimed to himself. It was just such an extreme act of mercy, this assuming the care of a stranger in a wilderness, as he had ever known Christians to do in that city of irrational faiths, Ephesus.

|Well?| he said, hoping the boy would go on and spare him an expression on that announcement.

|I can not forget Jerusalem.|

|No one forgets Jerusalem -- except one that falls in love by the wayside,| the man said.

Again the boy detected a ring of unexplained melancholy in his patient's voice, and talked on as a preventive.

|Urban, the pastor, took me there. It was in the days of mine instruction for baptism. He went to Jerusalem to trial, but there was disorder in the city about the procurator, who was driven out that day, and Urban was not called. But he remained, lest he be accused of fleeing, and then it was he took me over the walks of Jesus.|

|Jesus -- that is the name,| the Maccabee said to himself. |They are born, given in marriage, fall or flourish, live and die in that name. Likewise they pick up a wounded stranger and care for him in that name. They are a strange people, a strange people!|

|They would not let us into the Temple,| Joseph went on, |because I am an Arab, born a Christian. So I could not see where Jesus was presented, in infancy. But we went to the synagogues where He taught; we went out upon Olivet to Gethsemane where He suffered in the Garden; we climbed that hill to the south from which He looked upon the City and wept over it, and prophesied this hour. Then we sought the ravine where Judas betrayed Him with a kiss, and afterward Urban led me over the streets by which He was taken first to Annas and to Caiaphas and thence to Pilate and to Herod. After that, by the Way of the Cross to Golgotha; from there to His Tomb. And when we had seen the Guest-chamber and stood upon the Place of the Ascension, I needed no further instruction.|

The boy had forgotten his guest. By the rapt light in his eyes, the Maccabee knew that the boy was once more journeying over the stones of the streets of the Holy City, or standing awed on the polished pavements of its lordly interiors, or on the topmost point of her hills with the broad-winged wind from the east flying his long locks.

|If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy,| the Maccabee said, half to himself.

The boy heard him, but his patient's words merged with the dream that held him entranced. The Maccabee went on.

|So said the Psalmist to himself,| he said. |What had he to do for Jerusalem; what did he fear would win him away from that labor for Jerusalem, that he took that vow? It was easy enough to revile Babylon, the oppressor, that stood between him and Jerusalem; but what if he had been the captive of beauty, and chained by the bonds of lovely hair!|

The boy turned now and looked at the Maccabee. The eyes of the two met fair. Then the Maccabee unburdened his soul and told of the girl to this child, who was a Christian and a humble shepherd in the starved hills of Judea.

|I met her,| the boy said after a long silence. |And by what I learned of her spirit that night, she will not be happy to know that you have stepped aside for her sake.|

|You met her, also; and you loved her, too?|

The boy assented gravely. The Maccabee slowly lifted his eyes from the young shepherd's face, till they rested on the slope of sky filled with stars visible through the open door.

|And she would have me go on to this city, to the one who awaits me there and whom I shall not be glad to see; take up the labor that will be robbed of its chief joy in its success and live the long, long days of life without her?|

The boy made no answer to this; he knew that this white-faced man was wrestling with himself and comment from him was not expected. By the light of the failing fire without, he saw that face sober, take on shadow and grow immeasurably sad. The minutes passed and he knew that the Maccabee would not speak again.

Thereafter followed three days of silence, except the essential communication or the mutterings of the Maccabee against his weakness and unsteadiness. On the fourth day the Maccabee declared that he was able to travel. Joseph protested, but not for long. He had learned in the sojourn of his guest that this man was in the habit of doing as he pleased. So the shepherd sighed and let him go reluctantly.

|But,| he insisted to the last moment, |remember that Pella is a City of Refuge. If Jerusalem ceases to be hospitable, come to Pella.|

A thought struck him.

|She,| he said in a low tone, |promised that she would come.|

|Then expect me,| the Maccabee said.

The shepherd boy smiled contentedly and blessed the Maccabee and let him go. As long as the man could see, his young host watched him, and at the summit of the hill the Maccabee turned to wave his final farewell. When the path dipped down the other side of the hill, the man felt that more than the sunshine had been cut off by its great shadow.

He did not go forward with a light heart. The whole of his purpose had suddenly resolved itself into duty. There had been a certain nervous expectancy that was almost fear in the thought of meeting the grown woman he had married in her babyhood. He had lived in Ephesus with an unengaged heart in all the crowd of opportunities for love, good and bad. He had magnetism, strength, aloofness and a certain beauty -- four qualifications which had made him over and over again immensely attractive to all classes of Ephesian women. But whatever his response to them, he had not loved. Love and marriage were things so apart from his activities as to be uninteresting. When finally he was called in full manhood to assume without preliminary both of these things, he was uncomfortable and apprehensive. But after he had met the girl in the hills, his sensations of reluctance became emphatic, became an actual dread, so that he thrust away all thought of the domestic side of the life that confronted him, and bitterly resigned all hope in the tender things that were the portion of all men. The villainy of Julian of Ephesus engaged him chiefly, and his punishment. After that, then the establishment of his kingdom, politics, conquest and power -- but not love!

Late that afternoon, he stepped out of a wady west of Jerusalem and halted.

Ahead of him ran a road depressed between worn, hard, bare banks of earth, past a deserted pool, marged with stone, up shining surfaces of outcropping rock, through avenues of clustered tombs, pillars, pagan monuments which were tracks of the Herods, dead and abandoned, splendid pleasure gardens, suburban palaces lifeless and still, toward the looming Tower of Hippicus, brooding over a fast-closed gate.

The Maccabee nodded. It was as he had expected. The city was besieged.

It was afternoon, a week-day at the busiest portal of Jerusalem; but save for the fixed and pygmy sentry upon the tower, there was no living thing to be seen, no single sound to be heard.

Beyond the mounting hills of the City of David stood up, shouldering like mantles of snow their burden of sun-whitened houses. Above it all, supreme over the blackened masonry of Roman Antonia, stood a glittering vision in marble and gold -- the Temple. At a distance it could not be seen that any of those inwalled splendors lacked; Jerusalem appeared intact, but the multitudes at the gate were absent and the voice of the city was stilled.

For one expecting to find Jerusalem animated and beholding it still and lifeless, how quickly its white walls, its white houses and its sparkling Temple became haunted, dead crypts and sepulchers.

But presently there came across the considerable distance that lay between him and Jerusalem, a sound remarkably distinct because of the utter stillness that prevailed. It was the jingle of harness and the ring of hoof-beats upon stones embedded in the gray earth.

A Roman in armor polished like gold, with a floating mantle significantly bordered in purple, rode slowly into the open space, drew up his horse and stopped. The Maccabee looked at him sharply, then quitted his shelter and walked down toward the rider. At sight of him, the horseman clapped his hand to his short sword, but the Maccabee put up his empty hands and smiled at the man of all superior advantage. Then the light of recognition broke over the Roman's face.

|You!| he cried.

|I, Caesar,| the Maccabee responded. For a moment there was silence in which the Jew watched the flickering of amazement and perplexity on Titus' face.

|What do you here, away from Ephesus, and worse, attempting to run my lines?| he demanded finally.

The Maccabee signed toward the walls.

|My wife is there,| he said briefly.

The Roman made an exclamation which showed the sudden change to enlightenment.

|Solicitous after these many years?| he demanded.

|She has two hundred talents,| the Maccabee replied.

Titus smiled and shook his head.

|I ought to keep her there. Rome must get treasure enough out of that rebellious city to repay her for her pains in subjugating it.|

|Pay yourself out of another pocket than mine. It will take two hundred talents to repay me for all that I have suffered to get it. I want the countersign, Titus. You owe me it.|

|Will you come out of there, at once?| the Roman demanded. |Not that I suspect you will make the city harder to take, but I should dislike to make war on an old comrade in my Ephesian revels.|

The Maccabee looked doubtful.

|I can not promise,| he said. |At least do not hold off the siege until you see me again without the walls. It might lose you prestige in Rome.|

Titus swung his bridle while he gazed at the Maccabee.

|I wish Nicanor were here,| he said finally. |He might be able to see harm in you; but I never could. You will have to promise me something -- anything so it is a promise -- before I can let you in. Something to appease Nicanor, else I shall never hear the last of this.|

The Maccabee laughed, the sudden harsh laugh of one impelled to amusement unexpectedly.

|Assure Nicanor, for me, that I shall come out of Jerusalem one day. Dead or alive, I shall do it! You need not add that I did not specify the date of my exodus. What is the word?|

|Berenice. And Jove help you! Farewell.|

Titus rode on.

A little later, after a parley with the Roman sentries and again with the sentries at the Gate of Hippicus, the Maccabee was admitted to the Holy City.

About him as he passed through the gates were the soldiers of Simon. They were not such men as he expected to see defending the City of David. There was an extravagant, half-pastoral manner about them, a pose of which they should not have been conscious at this hour of peril for the nation and the hierarchy. He looked at their incomplete, meaningless uniform, at their arms, half savage, at their faces, half mad, and believed that he, with an army rationally organized and effectually equipped, would have little difficulty in subduing the unbalanced forces of Simon.

Since siege was laid, he did not expect to be met by Amaryllis' servant in the purple turban. He approached a citizen.

|I seek Amaryllis, the Seleucid,| he said.

The eye of the Jew traveled over him, with some disapproval.

|The mistress of the Gischalan?| was the returned inquiry. The Maccabee assented calmly. The young man indicated a broad street moving with people which led with tolerable directness toward the base of Moriah.

|Hence to the Tyropean Bridge at the end of this street; thence down beside the bridge into Gihon. Cross to the wall supporting Moriah and builded against it thou wilt find a new house, of the fashion of the Greeks. If thou canst pass her sentries, thou wilt find her within.|

The Maccabee thanked his informant and turned through the Passover hosts to follow the directions.

To a visitor recently familiar with the city, Jerusalem would have been strange; he would have been lost in its ruined and disordered streets. But this man came with only the four corners of the compass to direct him and the Temple as a landmark to guide him. Therefore though he entered upon territory which he had not traversed since childhood he went forward confidently.

It was not simple; it was not readily done; but the darkness found him at his destination.

When he was within a rod of the house, he was halted by a Jewish soldier. He whispered to the man the word which Amaryllis had sent to him, and the soldier stepped aside and let him pass.

In another moment he was admitted to the house of Amaryllis.

A wick coated with aromatic wax burned in the brass bowl on a tripod and cast a crystal clear light down upon the exedra and the delicate lectern with its rolls of parchment and brass cylinders from which they had been withdrawn. Opposite, with her arms close down to her sides, her hands clenched, her shoulders drawn up, stood the girl he had played for and won in the hills of Judea!

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