The night following the wounding of Nicanor, John spent on his fortifications expecting an attack. It was one of the few nights when the Gischalan kept vigil, for he refused to contribute fatigue to the prospering of his cause.
Sometime in mid-morning he appeared in the house of Amaryllis and sent a servant to her asking her to breakfast with him. The Greek sent him in return a wax tablet on which she had written that she was shut up in her chamber writing verse, but that she had provided him a companion as entertaining as she.
When he passed into the Greek's dining-room, the woman who called herself wife to Philadelphus awaited him at the table.
When he sat she dropped into a chair beside him and laid before him a bunch of grapes from Crete, preserved throughout the winter in casks filled with ground cork.
|It is the last, Amaryllis says,| she observed. |And siege is laid.|
John looked ruefully at the fruit.
|Perhaps,| he said after thought, |were I a thrifty man and a spiteful one, I would not eat them. Instead, I should have the same cluster served me every morning that I might say to mine enemies, with truth, that I have Cretan grapes for breakfast daily. They will keep,| he added presently, |for it is tradition that stores laid up for siege never decay.|
|Obviously,| said the woman, |they do not last long enough.|
John plucked off one of the light green grapes and ate it with relish.
|Since thou doubtest the tradition, I shall not have these spoil.|
|But you destroy even a better boast over your enemy. Then you could say to him, 'We can not consume all our food. Behold the grapes rot in the lofts!'|
|Half of the lies go to preserve another's opinion of us. How much we respect our fellows!|
|Be comforted; there are as many lying for our sakes! But how goes it without on the walls?|
|Against Rome or against Simon?|
|Ill enough. But when Titus presses too close Simon will lay down his hostility toward me; and when Titus becomes too effective, we are to have a divine interference, so our prophets say.|
|I observe,| the woman said, |we Jews at this time are relying much on the prophets to fight our battles. Behold, our stores will hold out, we say, because it is said; and we shall fight indifferently, because Daniel hath bespoken a Deliverer for us at this time!|
John, with his wine-glass between thumb and finger, looked at her.
|I should expect a heretic to be so critical for us,| he said.
The woman sat with her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands, gazing moodily at the sunlight falling through the brass grill over the windows on the court. She ignored his remark, but answered presently in another tone.
|There is nothing to employ a surfeited mind in this city.|
|No?| he said lightly, while interest began to awaken in his eyes. |The making of enjoyment is here. I have found it so.|
|Perchance you have,| but she halted and resumed her moody gaze at the flood of sunlight.
|Are you weary?| he asked. |What is it?|
|Idleness! Eating, sleeping -- no; not even that; for idleness steals away my appetite and my repose.|
|Strange restiveness for one reared in the quiet inner chambers of a Jewish house,| he observed.
Her eyes dropped away to the floor; he saw that she was breathing quickly.
|I dreamed of a free life once,| she said in a restrained way. |I have not since been satisfied. I dreamed of cities and kings, that were mine! of crises that I dared, of -- of things that I did!|
There was indignation and pride in the words, too much recollection of an actuality to rise from the reminiscences of a dream. John watched her alertly.
|Enough will happen here in time to divert you,| he said.
She made a motion with her hand that swept the round of masonry about her.
|Not until this falls.|
|Come, then, up into my fortress and see my fellows from Gischala,| he offered. |They fled with me from that city when Titus took it and together we came to this place. They are hardened to disaster; they and death are fellow-jesters.|
|Everything! Better athletes than soldiers, better mummers than athletes; villains most engaging of all!|
She showed no interest and, after a critical pause, he continued:
|They robbed the booth of some costumer whom the Sadducees had made rich and captured a maid whom they held until she had taught them how to use henna and kohl. So I had a garrison of swearing girls until they wearied of the fatigue of stepping mincingly and untangling their garments. It was that which robbed the sport of its pleasure and changed my harem back to a fortress. But while it lasted they were kings over Jerusalem. And what dear mad dangerous wantons they were! What confusion to short-sighted citizens; what affrights to sociable maidens! Even I laughed at them.|
|What antics indeed!| she murmured perfunctorily.
|Now they want new entertainment; something immense and different,| he said.
She looked up at him; in her eyes he read, |Even as I do!|
|But they are not unique in that,| he continued. |All the world seeks diversion. Observe the pretty stranger come here fresh from some lady's tiring-room, hunting adventure, bearding thee and wearing thy name!|
Her eyes sparkled.
|She shall have adventure enough,| she declared.
|I hear,| John pursued, |that she does not expect her servant to return, whom she sent to Ascalon for proofs.|
|No?| the woman cried, sitting up.
|How can she, when the siege is laid?|
There was a moment of silence. The woman drew in a deep breath that was wholly one of relief.
|Now what will she do?| she asked.
|She expects,| John answered, |the mediation of the Messiah. It is the talk among the slaves that He is in the city and she has heard it. She seems not to be overconfident, however.|
|It is her end,| the woman remarked with meaning.
|Perchance not. She is a good Jew, it seems, whatever else she may be, and every good Jew may have his wishes come to pass if the Messiah come. So it has become the national habit to expect the Messiah in every individual difficulty. Now, according to prophecies, the time is of a surety ripe and the whole city is expectant. She may have her wish.|
She stared at him coolly. There was implied disbelief in this speech. She debated with herself if it would serve to resent his doubt. Whatever her conclusion she added no more to the discussion of Laodice's hopes.
|Are you expectant?| she asked.
|I see the need of a Messiah,| he responded.
|Doubtless. You and Simon do not unite the city; nothing but an united, confident and supremely capable people can resist Rome in even this most majestic fortification in the world -- unless miracle be performed, indeed.|
|Nothing but a divine visitor can achieve union here.|
|What an event to behold!| she mused. |That would be an excitement! Surely that would be a new thing! No one really ever beheld a god before.|
|What learned things dreams are! What things of experience!| he remarked with a sly smile. She refused to observe his insisted disbelief in her claim, but went on as if to herself.
|Whatever Jove can do, man can do!| she declared. |I never heard that the gods do more than change maidens into trees or themselves into swans for an old mortal purpose that even man's a better adept at. Why can there not rise one who is greater than Alexander and of stouter heart than Julius Caesar? There is no limit to the greatness of mankind. Behold, here is a city rich beyond even the wealth of Croesus; and a country which the emperor is longing to bestow upon some orderly king! Heavens, what an opportunity! I could pray, Jerusalem should pray, that the hour may bring forth the man!|
Her eyes shone with an unnatural yearning. The immense scope of her desires suddenly brought a smile to his lips that he checked in time. He had remembered offering his Idumeans in women's clothing for her diversion.
Hunger for power, the next greatest hunger after hunger for love! He felt that he stood in the presence of a desire so immense that it belittled his own hopes. He was not too much of a Jew to have sympathy with the ambition that dwells in the breasts of women. Cleopatra had been an evil that he had admired profoundly, because she had attained that which his own soul yearned after but which had eluded him. Yet he was large enough not to be envious of a success. He was made of the stuff that seekers of excitement are made of. If he could not furnish the intoxication of activity he was a ready supporter of that one who could.
|What disorder, then, in the world,| she went on, as if she had followed a train of imagination through the triumph of the risen great man. |Rome, the ruler of nations humbled! Conquest from Germany to the First Cataract, from Gaul to the dry rocks of Ecbatana! A world in anarchy, for one greater than Alexander to subjugate! The ancient splendor of Asia, the wisdom of Africa and the virginity of Europe to be his, and the homage of the four corners of the earth to be to him!|
John said nothing. Before him, the woman had entirely stripped off her disguise. Now for the purpose!
At that moment one of Amaryllis' servants, who had stood guard without the door, dodged apprehensively into the room and fled across to the opposite arch. There he paused, ready for flight, and looked back with wide eyes. John turned hastily but with an impatient gesture fell again to his neglected meal. The actress looked to see what had annoyed him. There passed in from the outer corridor a young man, tall, magnificently formed, covered with a turban and draped in quaint garments, which to her who was familiar with all the guises of the theater seemed to be Buddhistic. He looked neither to the right nor left, but passed with a step infinitely soft and gliding across to the arch, from which the terrified servant vanished instantly. The stranger stayed only a dramatic instant on the threshold and then disappeared into the corridor which led up into the Temple. When he had gone the startled actress retained a picture of a face, fearless, beatified, mystic to the very edge of the supernatural.
|Who was that?| she asked of the Gischalan, who was gazing at the color of his wine, sitting in a shaft of sunlight.
|Seraiah! But more than that, no one knows. He appeared with the slaying of Zechariah the Just. He haunts the garrisons. Hence his name -- Soldier of Jehovah!|
|He did not speak; why did he come?|
|He never speaks; he goes where he will; no one would dare to stop him!|
Then suddenly realizing that he was showing disinterest the Gischalan drew himself up and smiled.
|He is mad; I believe he is mad. The city is full of demoniacs.|
|There is something great about him!| the woman declared. |He seems to be the instrument of miracle.|
|Is it that?| John asked in an amused tone.
She studied him for a moment that was tense with meaning.
|Do you know,| she began slowly, |that neither you nor Simon, nor any of these who aspire to the control of Jerusalem, have come upon the plan which will best appeal to your distracted subjects?|
|Have we not?| he repeated. |We have bought them and bullied them; we are fighting the Romans for them; we are preaching patience in the will of the Lord. What more, lady?|
|What have you to offer them in their hope of a Messiah?| she said pointedly.
|Messiah! What else is preached in the Temple but the Messiah, or in the proseuchae or the streets or on the walls? We eat, drink, sleep, fight, buy, sell, rob or restore in the name of the Messiah! They are surfeited with religion.|
|Are they?| she asked sententiously. |But you haven't given them a Messiah.|
He looked at her without comprehending.
|You have a mad city here; you can not reason with it; indulge it, then, as you indulge your lunatics,| she suggested.
He shook his head, smiling that he did not understand her. She turned again to Seraiah.
|Watch him,| she insisted. |He possesses me.|
After a long silence in which John trifled with his wine, she prepared to rise.
|Send me the roll of the law,| the woman said suddenly.
|Posthumus shall bring it. He is another lunatic. Experiment with him and learn how I shall act toward the city.|
|Well said,| she averred; |and I will see your Idumeans. Is it proper for me to appear in the Temple?|
The Gischalan's eyes flashed a sudden elation and delight. He bent low and kissed her hand.
|And I will fetch somewhat which will divert us,| she added and was gone.
When a few moments later John passed again into the Greek's apartment, Amaryllis entered from an inner corridor. Before she spoke to the master of the house she addressed a servant who had been a moment before summoned.
|Send hither my guest.|
|The stranger?| John asked. |Is she still with you?|
|I mean to add her to my household, if you will,| she explained.
|Keep her or dismiss her at your pleasure.|
|It shall be for my pleasure. She has a charm that besets me. It will be entertainment to discover her history.|
|I see no mystery in her. It is plain enough that there is between her and this married Philadelphus some cause for her coming. His wife is much more engaging.|
She sighed and dropped into her ivory chair, pushed back the locks of fair hair that had loosened from their fillet and waited languidly.
John studied her critically. In the last hour the slowly dissolving bond between them seemed to have vanished, wholly, at once.
|O Queen of Kings,| he said, |art thou lonely in this mad place?|
|I have found diversion,| she answered.
|With these new guests?|
|With these new guests. Observe them; there are a pair of lovers among them, mersed in difficulty, hampering themselves, multiplying sorrow and sure to accomplish the same end as if they had proceeded happily.|
|Interested no longer in thine own passion? Alas, my Amaryllis, that love is dead that is interested no longer in itself.|
|O thou bearded warrior, are we then still in the self-centered period of our romance?|
|I fear not; I see the twilight.|
Amaryllis looked down and her face grew more weary.
|You have maintained a long fidelity, John,| she said.
He gazed at her, waiting a further remark, and she went on at last.
|I wonder why?|
He flung out his hands.
|Shall I be faithless to Sheba? Is the charm of the Queen of Kings faded? Shall I turn from Aphrodite or weary of the lips of Astarte?|
|Nothing so stamps your love of me as wicked, in your own eyes, as the paganism you fall into when you speak of it!|
|But it is not that I am lovely which made you a lover -- until now,| she went on. |I have seen men faithful to women unlovely as Hecate. It is not that. And I am still as I was, but -- |
He looked down on the triple bands of the ampyx that bound her gold-powdered hair and said:
|It is you who have grown weary; not I.|
She astutely drew back from the ground upon which she had entered. It lay in the power of this Gischalan to refuse further protection to her out of sheer spite if she made her disaffection too patent.
|O leader of hosts, canst thou be mummer, languishing poet, pettish woman and spoiled princeling all in one? No! And I shall love the clanking of arms and thy mailed footsteps all the more if thou permittest me to look upon irresponsible folly while thou art absent.|
|Have thy way. I have mine. Furthermore, I wish to thank thee for the companion thou sentest me at breakfast. He who dines alone with her, hath his table full. Farewell.|