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The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter XIX THE FALSE PROPHET

It was a different Amaryllis that the pretended Philadelphus faced now, from the one who had welcomed him on his arrival in Jerusalem months ago. Then she had been so cold and self-contained that it would have been effrontery to discuss her hopes with her. Now, with the avarice of love in her eyes, with wishfulness and defeat making their sorry signs on her face, she was a creature that even the humblest would have longed to help.

Philadelphus sat opposite her in the ivory chair which was hers by right. She sat in the exedra and listened eagerly to the things he said with her finger-tips on her lips and her eyes gazing from under her brow as her head drooped.

She had ceased long ago to debate idly on the actual identity of the man who had called himself Hesper of Ephesus. There was another question that absorbed her. Of late, it had been brought home to her that the charm of Laodice for the stranger from Ephesus, to whom the Greek knew the girl had fled, had been her purity. Why should it matter so much about virtue? she had asked herself. Why should it weigh so immeasurably more than the noble gifts of wit and beauty and strength and charm? Behold, she was wise enough to educate a barbarous nation, beautiful enough to bewitch potentates -- for a time -- strong enough to take a city; yet Hesper, who best of all could appreciate the value of these things, had turned from her to Laodice, who was merely chaste.

The greater part of the jealous and bitter passion that had shaken her then was dumb regret that the measure of charm was so irrational -- and that she had not believed in it, in time, in time!

Now, however, since she had become convinced that Laodice had gone to Hesper for refuge, hope had awakened in her, but so filled with uncertainty and lack of confidence in another's weakness that it was little more than a torture to her.

If Laodice had gone to this winsome stranger, either claiming to be the wife of Philadelphus or acknowledging the imposture, there was now no difference between Laodice and herself!

But, she asked herself, was it not possible that this lovely girl who had shown signs of illimitable fortitude, could live in the shelter of the captivating Hesper as uprightly as she had lived under the roof of the man she called her husband?

In one exigency, the hopes of Amaryllis budded; in the other, her intuitive belief in the strength of Laodice discouraged her. And while she alternately hoped and doubted, Philadelphus, in the chair opposite her, talked.

|It follows that you and I must work together to gain diverse ends. If our fortunes are to be tragic, we are undoing each other in this conjunction. Since I in all frankness prefer it to turn out comedy, let us make no error. Are you weary of John? Do you seek a new diversion?|

She looked at him, at first puzzled, then with a frown. It leaped to her lips, grown impatient with suffering, to tell him all that she had evolved of the histories of himself, his lady and of Hesper; but there seemed to be an element of recklessness in that which threatened to do away with a means for her success. He did not wait for her answer.

|And I,| he said with mock intensity, |am done to death with weariness -- with my moneyer, this lady of mine. Let us be diverted while we live, for by the signs we shall all die soon.|

|Where,| he began when her mind wandered entirely from him, |dost thou think the mysterious man hath taken my other wife?

|I would I knew,| he continued, conducting his inquiry alone. |It will be right simple to have her beauty spoiled in this hungry town, unless he takes tenderest care of her.|

There was still no comment, but the lively sparkle in the Greek's eye showed that he had touched upon a jealous spot.

|And by the by,| he pursued, |what does this stranger, whom I can not remember having known, look like? A villain?|

She answered now in a voice filled with rancor.

|Win away the girl from him and thou wilt know thyself to be the better man; but study how much he hath outstripped thee and thou shalt decide for thyself, then, that he is handsomer, more winsome, stronger and more profitable. Describe him for thyself.|

|Out upon you! How irritable misfortune makes most of us! Now, here is my lady. She would fail to see the humor in my fetching back this pretty impostor. Alas! Were I Deucalion or Pyrrha or whoever else it was that repeopled the world, I should have left jealousy out of the make-up of wives. It is a needless element. It gives them no pleasure, and Jove! how inconvenient it is for husbands! Now, I am not jealous of my wife. In fact, had any man the hardihood to supplant me, I should not discourage him; I should not, by my soul!|

|Why,| she burst out again, irritated beyond control at his manner, |do you not leave this place?|

He swung his foot idly and smiled.

|I shall when I can take with me this dear pretty impostor who is so determined to have me,| he answered lightly.

|Will you?| she asked eagerly. |Is that why you remain?|

|And for my lady's dowry. She keeps the key. But had I the girl cloaked and hooded for flight, I might go, even without the treasure. The times are precarious, you observe.|

She rose almost precipitately and hurried over to the swaying curtain of some heavy white material like samite, covering that which appeared to be a blind arch in the wall. She drew the hanging aside. It had hidden the black mouth of a tunnel, closed by a brass wicket which was locked.

|Here,| she said rapidly, |is what strengthens John in his folly. This is a passage that leads under the Temple through Moriah into Tophet. The whole city is underlaid with these galleries, but this is the only one which leads to safety.|

She dropped the curtain and approached him.

|But thou canst not go out of that passage alone!|

He smiled, and then with that boyish impulsiveness that he had cultivated to cover the evil in his nature, he thrust out his hand to her.

|Here is my hand on it!| he exclaimed.

|Go, then, and cease not till you have found her. Then, by any or all the gods, I shall see that you do not go out of that passage empty-handed.|

He smiled at her radiantly and went at once to his chambers.

When he reached the apartments, he found them silent and deserted. He seized upon the opportunity as most propitious for a search for the possible hiding-place of the dowry of two hundred talents.

When he opened first the great press in which his lady kept her raiment he was confronted by emptiness. Dismayed, he turned to look into the room and found the chests for the most part open and rifled. On the brazier, now cold, lay a wax tablet. He snatched it up and read:

Received of Julian of Ephesus the appended salvage in good repair. Items: One wife, Two hundred talents.

JOHN, KING OF JERUSALEM.

He went back to the andronitis of Amaryllis.

|I have lost interest in the treasure,| he said whimsically. |But I'll go out and look for the girl. I -- I should like to discover of a truth if the passage leads out of Jerusalem.|

Amaryllis closed her lips firmly. Philadelphus read in the look that he could not escape without Laodice.

Without further speech, he went to the vestibule, took his cloak and kerchief from the porter and went out into the city.

It was nearly midnight when he passed into the streets. The tumult of assault on the walls had ceased. The long lines of beacon-fires on the walls showed only a few men in arms posted there. Without there came no sound of activity in the camp of the Roman. The streets below, lighted up by the ever-burning beacons, showed its usual restless tramping of houseless, hungry ones. But there was no talk; each one who walked the passages went wrapped in his own dismal thoughts; the thousands took no notice of one another. Jerusalem was as silent as a city stricken with plague.

From the summit of Zion, which Philadelphus mounted, he could see three Roman war-towers, planted along the outer works, dimly lighted, and manned by a vigilant garrison of legionaries. These had been a dread and a destruction which the Jews had been unable to overthrow; coigns of vantage from which the enemy had been able to deal the sturdiest blows of the campaign. They had permitted no rest to the defenders on the wall; they had spread ruin by fire and carnage, by arrow and sling for days. Sorties against them had resulted in the death of their assailants, only. Jewish engines accomplished nothing against them. The three, alone, were taking Jerusalem.

Philadelphus looked at their tall shapes, black against the remote illumination of the Roman camp, and inwardly hoped that they would hold off complete destruction of the city, until he had found the desirable woman.

No one noticed him; men passed him like shadows with their eyes ever on the ground; no one spoke; nothing disturbed the deadly quiet of the falling city.

But the next minute, Philadelphus, who walked alertly, saw people step out into gutters or press against walls, as if to allow some one to pass. Awakening interest ran abroad over the street ahead of him. A lane between the wandering multitude opened almost by magic. Through it, walking swiftly, his head up, his mystic eyes ignited, came Seraiah, soldier of Jehovah. There was no sound of his footfall. His garments flashed in the light of the beacons, but there was not even a whisper of their motion. But he had changed. There was fierce, superhuman intent in the despatch of his gait and in the uplift of his superb head. After him, as he passed, ran whispers. Each one stopped and looked. He went down the uneven slope of Zion as some great shade borne on a swift air.

Two or three bold ones began to move after him. Others followed. The little nucleus grew. Philadelphus was caught in it. Numbers were added as courage grew with numbers. From intersecting streets people came. Some, although oppressed by the silence, asked what it was and were silenced quickly. Others began to mutter unintelligible predictions, and their neighbors shook their heads without understanding that which was said.

The news of Seraiah's mysterious progress communicated itself to rank and rank and spread abroad. Faces appeared against a background of lights at barred windows, along the balustrades of house-tops, from areas and ruins. Philadelphus, fascinated and astonished at this curious demonstration, was contented to pass with it. Silence, except for the rustling of garments and the multitudinous footfall, fell about the vicinity.

Ahead of them, Seraiah moved. His steps, finely balanced, passed over obstructions where most of his followers stumbled, and when he turned across Akra and faced the Old Wall, the excitement became painful.

His pace was flying; many of his followers were running. It seemed that he was going against the Wall. Dozens anticipated that course and skirting through short ways clambered up on the fortifications and clung there though menaced by the sentries until Seraiah appeared.

At a narrow point in the street that ended against the wall, Seraiah met that Jew who had become a maniac on the day Jerusalem attacked Titus. Without warning the maniac leaped up into an intensely rigid posture; his legs spread, his lean arms upstretched at painful tension, his mouth wide, his eyes dilated immensely in their hollow depths.

Seraiah passed him as if no man stood in his way. Instantly the maniac wheeled, as a huge spread-eagle wind-vane on its staff, and stood at gaze, the broad uninterrupted light of the beacon shining down on him and the mysterious man. The street ended short of the wall. About the base of the fortification was an open space, in which was planted a scaling-ladder. Seraiah climbed this, an infinitesimal detail on the great blank of blackened stone.

Hundreds, rushing upon the wall, though a goodly distance from the point at which the strange man had mounted, climbed it and beat off the sentries.

And the foremost who reached the top saw the Roman Tower directly opposite Seraiah shudder suddenly and sink in a roaring cloud of dust upon itself to the earth.

Instantly the maniac below broke the tense silence with a scream that was heard in the paralyzed Roman camp:

|It is He, the Deliverer! Come!|

Of the thousands of Jews that heard the madman's cry, every heart credited it. Hundreds melted away suddenly, as if stricken with terror at what they might see; other hundreds scrambled down from their places to run purposelessly, crying aimless things to the night over the city; yet others covered their faces with their arms and fell in their places, expecting the end of the world; and of the rest, the less imaginative, the more composed and the more curious, remained on the walls to see enacted a further miracle. Uproar had broken out instantly among the four stolid legions of Titus on the Assyrian bivouac. Lights flashed out everywhere; great running to and fro could be distinguished; rapid trumpet-calls and the prolonged roll of drums from company quarters to quarters were echoed back from Antonia and from Hippicus. The startled shouts of commanders; the nervous dropping of arms; the sharp excited response to roll-call; the sound of sentries challenging, the curt response by countersign, showed everywhere irregularities and the symptoms of panic in the immovable ranks of Titus.

Seraiah meanwhile had disappeared from his place as mysteriously as he had come.

Many of the Jews who remained on the wall believed that he had passed into the Roman camp and was troubling it. The fall of the tower, and the confusion it had wrought in the Roman camp, never occurred to them to have been fortuitous incidents with which Seraiah had nothing to do. Of the thousands that witnessed that miracle, most of them were convinced that the hour had come.

Meanwhile Jerusalem was roaring with excitement. The city was ready for a Messiah. Seraiah had arisen at the psychological moment. Earlier the Jews would have been too critical to accept him readily; later they would have reviled him for coming too late. Whatever his advent lacked in thunders, in darkness, voices, and shaking of the earth, had been passed by his miraculous work against the Romans.

Philadelphus, who had seen the fall of the tower, and had dropped down from the wall as soon as he had explained it all to himself, came upon new disorders. Great concourses of awakened Jews were hurrying to the walls to see what had happened, or to behold the Roman army wiped out by the Angel of Death as the army of Sennacherib had perished. Others collected at the end of the Tyropean Bridge and watched the pinnacle of the Temple for the miracle which should restore the city. But the burned ruin where the Herodian palace had stood was the center of the most characteristic frenzy.

There thousands were congregated. A great bonfire had been kindled and above the multitude, on a colossal architrave fallen at one end from the giant columns that had supported it, stood a figure, redly illuminated by the fire, tiny as compared to the immense ruin of its high place, but Titan in its control over the wild mob below it.

It was a woman, a Jewess, dressed in faithful imitation of the archaic garb of the prophetesses, mantled with a storm of flying black hair, stripped of veil or cloak, and splendidly defiant of the restrictions laid upon woman long after the days of Deborah.

Over the heads of the panting multitude she shook a pair of arms that glistened for whiteness, and bewitched by the spell of their motion. From under her half-fallen lids shot gleams of fire that transfixed any upon whom they fell; from her supple body shaken at times with the power of its own dynamic force her hearers caught the grosser infection of physical excitement; they swayed with her as blown by the wind; they ceased to breathe in her periods; they groaned as the intensity of her fervor pressed upon them for response that they could not shape in words; they wept, they shouted, they prophesied, and over them swept ever the witchery of her wonderful voice, preaching impiety -- the worship of Seraiah!

Philadelphus looked at this frantic work with a creeping chill. He knew the sorceress. Salome of Ephesus, who could send the sated theaters wild with her appeal to their senses, had found enchantment of a half-mad city not hard. Aside from the impiety, in fear of which his own irreligious spirit stood, he saw suddenly opened to him the immense scope of her influence. Not Simon, not John, not Titus, had discovered the logical appeal to the city's unbalanced impulses. But the reckless woman, robing herself in the ancient garb of the days to which the citizens would revert, assuming the pose of a woman they had sanctified, preaching the dogma they would hear, showing them the sign that helped them most, held Jerusalem, at least for that hour, in her hands.

He realized at once that to attempt to denounce her would expose him to destruction at the wolfish hands of the frenzied mob. There were not soldiers enough in the city to destroy her influence, for she had achieved in her followers that infatuation that goes down to death before it relinquishes its conviction. Her control was complete. Seraiah was the anointed one, but the prophetess, the instigator, the founder of the worship, as follows in all apostasies, was the final recipient of the benefits of that devotion.

Philadelphus walked away from the sight of Salome's triumph. He had surrendered instantly his hope of regaining the treasure. The whole of mad Jerusalem had ranged itself with her to protect it. And Laodice was not yet found.

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