The tremulous old man, weakened from his long and superhuman struggle to enter the doomed city, held Laodice to his breast while she stroked his rough cheeks and murmured things that he did not hear and which she did not realize in the rush of her helplessness and dismay.
At the corner of Moriah and the Old Wall, the tumult was infernal. Out of the suffocating sallow smoke from the tuns of burning tar heaved over the fortification upon the engines and their managers, the stones from the catapults soared into view and fell upon the sun-colored marbles that paved the Court of the Gentiles. Clouded by the vapor, targets for the immense missiles, the Jews heaving and writhing in personal encounters appeared black and inhuman. Every combatant shouted; the great stones screamed; the boiling pitch hissed and roared, and the thunder of the conflict shook the Temple to its very foundations.
Without, the Romans planted scaling ladders, mounted them and were pitched backward into the moat regularly. Regularly, the ladders were set up again after struggle, mounted without hesitation and thrown down again, with an inevitability which furnished a grim travesty to the struggle. The two remaining towers were set in position against the base of Moriah and resumed execution. One after another the engines of the Romans were hauled into position, and worked unceasingly until covered with burning oil from the battlements above and consumed. Others were hauled into place; fresh detachments of Romans seized upon the scaling-ladders or mounted to the towers, and the roar of the conflict never abated.
Meanwhile on the slopes of Zion the whole of Jerusalem, gaunt, dying and demoniacal, was packed in the ruins of the palace of Herod.
Old Momus with triumph and tearful exultation was holding out to Laodice a heavy roll of writings, dangling important seals, ancient papers showing yellow beside the fresh parchment, and an old record dark with long handling.
Here were the proofs of her identity!
Laodice shrank from him with a gasp that was almost a cry. Behold, the faithful old servant had suffered she knew not what to bring such evidence as would force her to do that which she believed she could not do and survive!
Momus sought to put the papers in her hands, but she thrust them away and he stood looking at her in amazement and sorrow.
Nathan, the Christian, stood close to her. From the opposite side, Philadelphus rounded the outskirts of the mob, searching. He did not see her. She flung herself between Momus and Nathan and cowered down until Philadelphus had passed from sight. When she lifted her head, Momus was gazing at her with the light of shocked comprehension growing in his eyes. Nathan, the Christian, touched her.
|Who was that man?| he asked gravely.
She rose and laid her hands on the Christian's shoulders.
|My husband,| she said.
Something had happened at the Temple. She saw the Jews at the wall recoil from the dust of battle, rally, plunge in and disappear. From out that presently shone now and again, then with increasing frequency and finally in great numbers, the brass mail of Roman legionaries. Titus' forces had scaled the wall.
From her position, she saw running toward them John of Gischala, with his long garments whipping about him, wrapping his tall figure in live cerements. He was disarmed and bleeding. She saw next Amaryllis, with compassionate uplifted hands stop in his way; saw next the Gischalan thrust her aside with a blow and the next instant disappear as if the earth had swallowed him.
Nathan was speaking to her.
|How often, O my daughter, we recognize truth and deny it because it does not give us our way! God put a sense of the right in us. We transgress it oftener than we mistake it!|
The roar of the turning battle and the mob about her drowned his next words, except,
|You can not be happy in iniquity; neither blessed; but you are sure to be afraid. Right has its own terror, but there is at least courage in being right, against your desires.|
He was talking continuously, but only at times did the wind from the uproar sweep his fervent words to her.
|Christ had His own conflict with Himself. What had become of us had He listened to the tempter in the wilderness, or failed to accept the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane! How much we have the happiness of Christ in our hands! Alas! that His should be a sorrowful countenance in Heaven!
|The love of a man for a woman was near to the Master's heart! How can you feel that you must love and be loved in spite of Him! Pity yourself all you may you can not then be pitied so much as He pities you!
|Love as long and as wilfully as you will, and then it is only a little space. The time of the supremacy of Christ cometh surely, and that is all eternity! Which will you do -- please yourself for an hour, or be pleased by the will of God through all time? Love is in the hands of the Lord; you can not consign it longer than the little span of your life to the hands of the devil.|
Momus, in whose mind had passed an immense surmise, was again at her side.
|O daughter of a noble father,| his dumb gaze said, |wilt thou put away that virtue which was born in thee and let my labor come to naught?|
But the preaching of Nathan and the reproach of Momus were feeble, compared to the great tumult that went on in her soul. She had seen John of Gischala cast Amaryllis aside. Even the Greek's sympathy was hateful to him. Yet when Laodice had first entered the house of Amaryllis, the woman had been obliged to dismiss John from her presence for his own welfare and the welfare of the city. Why this change?
Amaryllis was no less beautiful, no less brilliant, no less attractive than she had once been; but the Gischalan had wearied of her.
Laodice recalled that she had not been surprised to see the man throw Amaryllis aside. It seemed to be the logical outcome of love such as theirs. How, then, was she to escape that which no other woman escaped who loved without law? In the soul of that stranger who had called himself Hesper, were lofty ideals, which had not been the least charm which had attracted her to him. Was she, then, to dislodge these holy convictions, to take her place in his heart as one falling short of them, or were they still to exist as standards which he loved and which she could not reach? In either event, how long would he love -- what was the length of her probation before she, too, would encounter the inevitable weariness?
It occurred to her, then, how nearly the natural law of such love paralleled the religious prohibition that the Christian had shown to her. However harsh and unjust the sentence seemed, it was rational. With her own eyes she had seen its predictions borne out. Already the relief of the sorrowing righteous possessed her. She turned to the Christian.
|Take me to my husband,| she said. |Now! While I have strength.|
Momus caught the old Christian by the arm and, signing eagerly that he would lead, hurried away in advance of the two down into the ravine and crossed to the house of Amaryllis.
There were no soldiers to stop them about the house. When no response was made to her knock, Laodice opened the door and passed in.
Her old conductors followed her.
Amaryllis sat in her ivory chair; opposite her in the exedra was Philadelphus. At sight of him, the last of the soft color went out of Laodice's face. A curve of despair marked the corners of her mouth and she seemed to grow old before those that looked at her.
Philadelphus and the Greek sprang to their feet, the instant the group entered.
Laodice waited for no preliminary. Amaryllis' design was patent to her; it was part of her sorrow that now Hesper would be free to the devices of this deceitful woman. So she did not look at the Greek. She addressed Philadelphus in a voice from which all hope and vivacity had gone.
|I have brought proofs. Behold them!|
Nathan, the Christian, stood forth.
|I, Nathan of Jerusalem, met and talked with this Laodice, daughter of Costobarus, in company with Aquila, the Ephesian, three men-servants in all the panoply and state of a coming princess three leagues out of Ascalon, her native city. I buried by the roadside her father, who died of pestilence on their journey hither. I bear witness that she is the daughter of Costobarus and thy wedded wife.|
A great light sprang into the face of the Greek. Philadelphus, nervous, albeit the news he heard filled him with pleasure, stood and waited.
The Christian stepped back and Momus, bowing, approached and handed the leather roll into the none too steady hands of the Ephesian. He opened it and drew forth parchments.
Aloud he read a minute description of Laodice from the rabbi of the synagogue in Ascalon; under the great seals of the Roman state, he found and read the oath of the prefect, that such a maiden as the rabbi had described had been married before him to Philadelphus Maccabaeus fourteen years before. Then followed the depositions of forty Jews and Gentiles who were nurses, tradesmen and other people like to have daily contact with the young woman in her house, setting entirely at naught any claim that Laodice was other than the wife who had been supplanted by an adventuress. Philadelphus did not read them all. Before he made an end he dropped the documents and flung wide his arms. But Laodice with a countenance frozen with suffering held him off for a moment.
|Go,| she said to the old Christian, |unto Hesper and lead him into the belief of the Lord Jesus Christ which is mine.|
The old Christian approached the fountain in the center of the andronitis and taking up water in his palm sprinkled a few drops on her hair while she knelt.
|In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, I baptize thee, Laodice. Amen!|
While she knelt, he said:
|I shall search for him also. Christ have mercy on thee now and for ever. Farewell.|
He was gone.