Next day a detachment of legionaries went to the desolated palace, and, closing the gates permanently, plastered the corners with wax, and at the sides nailed a notice in Latin:
|THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF THE EMPEROR.|
In the haughty Roman idea, the sententious announcement was thought sufficient for the purpose -- and it was.
The day after that again, about noon, a decurion with his command of ten horsemen approached Nazareth from the south -- that is, from the direction of Jerusalem. The place was then a straggling village, perched on a hill-side, and so insignificant that its one street was little more than a path well beaten by the coming and going of flocks and herds. The great plain of Esdraelon crept close to it on the south, and from the height on the west a view could be had of the shores of the Mediterranean, the region beyond the Jordan, and Hermon. The valley below, and the country on every side, were given to gardens, vineyards, orchards, and pasturage. Groves of palm-trees Orientalized the landscape. The houses, in irregular assemblage, were of the humbler class -- square, one-story, flat-roofed, and covered with bright-green vines. The drought that had burned the hills of Judea to a crisp, brown and lifeless, stopped at the boundary-line of Galilee.
A trumpet, sounded when the cavalcade drew near the village, had a magical effect upon the inhabitants. The gates and front doors cast forth groups eager to be the first to catch the meaning of a visitation so unusual.
Nazareth, it must be remembered, was not only aside from any great highway, but within the sway of Judas of Gamala; wherefore it should not be hard to imagine the feelings with which the legionaries were received. But when they were up and traversing the street, the duty that occupied them became apparent, and then fear and hatred were lost in curiosity, under the impulse of which the people, knowing there must be a halt at the well in the northeastern part of the town, quit their gates and doors, and closed in after the procession.
A prisoner whom the horsemen were guarding was the object of curiosity. He was afoot, bareheaded, half naked, his hands bound behind him. A thong fixed to his wrists was looped over the neck of a horse. The dust went with the party when in movement, wrapping him in yellow fog, sometimes in a dense cloud. He drooped forward, footsore and faint. The villagers could see he was young.
At the well the decurion halted, and, with most of the men, dismounted. The prisoner sank down in the dust of the road, stupefied, and asking nothing: apparently he was in the last stage of exhaustion. Seeing, when they came near, that he was but a boy, the villagers would have helped him had they dared.
In the midst of their perplexity, and while the pitchers were passing among the soldiers, a man was descried coming down the road from Sepphoris. At sight of him a woman cried out, |Look! Yonder comes the carpenter. Now we will hear something.|
The person spoken of was quite venerable in appearance. Thin white locks fell below the edge of his full turban, and a mass of still whiter beard flowed down the front of his coarse gray gown. He came slowly, for, in addition to his age, he carried some tools -- an axe, a saw, and a drawing-knife, all very rude and heavy -- and had evidently travelled some distance without rest.
He stopped close by to survey the assemblage.
|O Rabbi, good Rabbi Joseph!| cried a woman, running to him. |Here is a prisoner; come ask the soldiers about him, that we may know who he is, and what he has done, and what they are going to do with him.|
The rabbi's face remained stolid; he glanced at the prisoner, however, and presently went to the officer.
|The peace of the Lord be with you!| he said, with unbending gravity.
|And that of the gods with you,| the decurion replied.
|Are you from Jerusalem?|
|Your prisoner is young.|
|In years, yes.|
|May I ask what he has done?|
|He is an assassin.|
The people repeated the word in astonishment, but Rabbi Joseph pursued his inquest.
|Is he a son of Israel?|
|He is a Jew,| said the Roman, dryly.
The wavering pity of the bystanders came back.
|I know nothing of your tribes, but can speak of his family,| the speaker continued. |You may have heard of a prince of Jerusalem named Hur -- Ben-Hur, they called him. He lived in Herod's day.|
|I have seen him,| Joseph said.
|Well, this is his son.|
Exclamations became general, and the decurion hastened to stop them.
|In the streets of Jerusalem, day before yesterday, he nearly killed the noble Gratus by flinging a tile upon his head from the roof of a palace -- his father's, I believe.|
There was a pause in the conversation during which the Nazarenes gazed at the young Ben-Hur as at a wild beast.
|Did he kill him?| asked the rabbi.
|He is under sentence.|
|Yes -- the galleys for life.|
|The Lord help him!| said Joseph, for once moved out of his stolidity.
Thereupon a youth who came up with Joseph, but had stood behind him unobserved, laid down an axe he had been carrying, and, going to the great stone standing by the well, took from it a pitcher of water. The action was so quiet that before the guard could interfere, had they been disposed to do so, he was stooping over the prisoner, and offering him drink.
The hand laid kindly upon his shoulder awoke the unfortunate Judah, and, looking up, he saw a face he never forgot -- the face of a boy about his own age, shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will. The spirit of the Jew, hardened though it was by days and nights of suffering, and so embittered by wrong that its dreams of revenge took in all the world, melted under the stranger's look, and became as a child's. He put his lips to the pitcher, and drank long and deep. Not a word was said to him, nor did he say a word.
When the draught was finished, the hand that had been resting upon the sufferer's shoulder was placed upon his head, and stayed there in the dusty locks time enough to say a blessing; the stranger then returned the pitcher to its place on the stone, and, taking his axe again, went back to Rabbi Joseph. All eyes went with him, the decurion's as well as those of the villagers.
This was the end of the scene at the well. When the men had drunk, and the horses, the march was resumed. But the temper of the decurion was not as it had been; he himself raised the prisoner from the dust, and helped him on a horse behind a soldier. The Nazarenes went to their houses -- among them Rabbi Joseph and his apprentice.
And so, for the first time, Judah and the son of Mary met and parted.