Within the Roman lines was a bent and deformed figure of an old waif that the soldiers had picked up attempting to run the lines into Jerusalem the second day after the siege had been laid about the Holy City.
The old man, though wrinkled and twisted and bowed, had fought with such terrible savagery and had incontinently laid in the dust in succession three of the camp's best fighting-men, that the Roman soldiers, for ever partizan to the strong man, had finally with great difficulty succeeded in trussing the old belligerent and had brought him before Titus.
There they laid the twisted old burden before the young general and shamelessly told how he, thrice the age of the vanquished men, had finished them with despatch.
It was evident that the old man was a Jew; it became also apparent that he was dumb and partly deaf, and further to their amazement and admiration, they discovered that his right leg and arm were too stiff for ordinary use and that he had done his wonderful execution with terrific left limbs.
This saved his life and gave him a partial liberty. Titus, however, admitted to Carus that the old man's distress at being kept out of Jerusalem was pitiable enough to urge the young general to deport him and get him out of sight.
For it was manifest that the old minotaur was in deep trouble. But his paralyzed tongue would not serve him, and his menial ignorance had not provided him with the means of telling his desire by writing. Titus was unable to understand from his signs anything further than that he wished to get into the city. The young general in one of his outbursts of generosity would have permitted this, but that Nicanor happened in at an evil moment and drew such pictures of calamitous effect in passing the old servant into Jerusalem that Titus was forced reluctantly and irritably to be convinced of the folly of his kindness. So here, through the terrible days of the siege, old Momus at times desperate and savage, at others piteously suppliant, wore on the sentries' peace of mind and stood like a shadow, for ever watching the white walls of the besieged city.
The Romans were now within the city. Only Zion and the Temple held against them. A wall built with the thoroughness of David, the ancient, and solidified by the mortising of Time, ran directly from Hippicus to the Tyropean Valley, joining the tremendous fortifications of Moriah and so cut off Zion from the advance of the army. Securely intrenched within that quarter and the Temple, Simon and John began the last resistance which should tax Roman endurance and Roman patience as it had not been taxed before.
Titus no longer lagged. Famine had long since become a powerful ally and the honor of the Flavian house rested upon his immediate subjugation of the rebellious city. He no longer expected capitulation; yet he did not neglect to be prepared for it and to encourage it. Though the heart of the historian Josephus broke, he did not fail to serve his patron as mediator, though without hope. Titus himself, as from time to time the horror of his work impressed itself upon him, made overtures to the factionists, neglecting no art or inducement which should convince the seditious that their resistance was foolhardy, even mad. At such times, Nicanor's face became contemptuous and Carus himself frowned at the young general's attitude. But the spirit of a Roman and the traditions of a soldier even could not prevent the young man from weakening at times before the charnel pit in Tophet where countless thousands of vultures fattened with roaring of wings and hissing of combat.
But under an ever-thickening veil of horrid airs, the struggle went on.
The Roman Ides of July arrived.
Titus had erected banks upon which his engines were raised to batter the walls of the Temple.
From Titus' camp, the Romans on sick leave, the commissaries, those attached to the army who were not fighting-men, and old Momus, saw first, before the attack on the Temple began, a soft increasing dun-colored vapor rise between the Temple and Antonia. It issued from the cloister at the northwest which joined the Roman tower. As they watched, they saw that vapor grow into a pale but intensely luminous smoke, as if fine woods and burning metals were consumed together. In a moment the whole north-west section was embraced in a sublime pall of fire.
John was burning away the connection between the Temple and the tower and was making the sacred edifice four-square.
As soon as it became confirmed, in the minds of the watchers in the Roman camp, that the Temple had been fired, the old mute among them seemed to become wholly unbalanced. Without warning, he leaped upon the nearest sentry who, not expecting the attack, went down with a clatter of armor and a shout of astonishment. The next instant the old man was making across the intervening space between the camp and Jerusalem as fast as his stiff legs could carry him.
The purple sentry sprang to his feet and strung an arrow, but before he could send it singing, the old minotaur was mixed with a second soldier in such confusion that the first sentry hesitated to shoot lest he should kill his fellow. Another moment and a second soldier was struggling in the impediment of his armor in the dust and the old mute was again hobbling straight away toward the walls of Jerusalem. He was now a fair mark for the first sentry, but that Roman's rancor died after he had seen his own disgrace covered by the overthrow of his fellow. Two of Titus' scouts next stood in the path of the running old man. One went to the ground so suddenly and so violently that the watchers, now breaking into howls of delight, knew that he had been tripped. The other stood but a moment longer, than he, too, rolled into the dust.
The old man might have gone no farther at this juncture, for at every latest triumph he left a crimson soldier murderous with shame. But before the arrow next strung to overtake him could fly, Titus, Carus and Nicanor, accompanied by their escort, rode between the fugitive and the men he had defeated.
|There goes our minotaur,| Carus said quietly. Titus drew up his horse and looked. Nicanor with a sidelong glance awaited the young Roman's command to his escort to ride down the fugitive. But he waited, and continued to wait, while Titus with lifted head and with indecision in his eyes watched the deformed old shape hobble on toward the Wall of Circumvallation.
|Shall we let him go?| Nicanor inquired coldly.
|If some of my legionaries or those erratic Jews fail to get him between here and Jerusalem, he shall get into Jerusalem. But by Hector, he will earn his entry!|
They saw the old man mount by the causeway of earth which the Romans had built over the siege wall for the passage of the troops, saw him an instant outlined against the sky on the summit, and the next instant he disappeared.
Titus touched his horse and rode at a trot toward the causeway himself. He would see the end of this mad venture.
In the hour of sunrise the sentinel above the North Gate in the Old Wall saw among the ruins of the houses of Coenopolis a figure dodging painfully hither and thither. It was not habited in the brasses of the Roman armor. Also, it hobbled as if lame and ran toward the gate fast closed below the sentry.
The Jew, too intensely interested in the great climax enacting in the city below, ceased to remark on this figure.
Presently, however, he looked again into ruined Coenopolis. He saw there this un-uniformed figure wrapped in fierce embrace with a young legionary. Almost before the sentry's astonishment shaped itself into exclamation, the legionary was tumbled aside as if crushed and the old figure hobbled on.
Suddenly there appeared in the path of the wayfarer a galloping horseman, who drew his mount back on his haunches, then spurred him to ride down the old man.
The sentry on the Old Wall made a choked sound, unslung his bow and sent an arrow singing. There was a shout and the figure of the horseman plunged from his saddle face down on the earth.
The wayfarer flung himself away and rushed toward the wall, only a little distance away.
But all Coenopolis seemed to swarm now with legionaries, afoot or horseback.
The Jewish sentry rushed to the edge of the tower overhanging the gate.
|Open!| he shouted below. |One cometh!|
With a rattle and clang of falling bars and chains the gate of the Old Wall swung.
Disregarding the known wishes of Titus, two of the legionaries simultaneously let fly their javelins. But the mute, hobbling uncertainly, was not a steady mark and under the whistle of arrows received and sent, he blundered up the causeway leading to the Gate of the Old Wall, and the portal slowly and ponderously closed behind him.
Wild howls of derision and exultation went up from the Jews. Many of the soldiers clambered down to satisfy their curiosity about the latest addition to the starving garrison. But he proved to be a deformed old man, mute and weary, who was distressed for fear he would be detained by them and who hobbled out into the besieged city and posted as fast as his legs could carry him toward the house of Amaryllis, the Seleucid.
But at the edge of a great open space where the Herodian palaces had stood he came upon a concourse which seemed to be all Jerusalem. It was a gaunt horde, shouting, raging, prophesying and drowning the roar of battle at the Temple fortifications with the sound of religious frenzy.
Momus, fresh from the orderly camp of Titus, was struck with terror. He would have retreated and followed some side street toward his destination, when he caught sight of a girl on the very outskirts of this mob. Momus laid a trembling hand on her arm. She threw up her head with a start.