WHAT TIME the lower horn of a new moon touched the castellated piles on Mount Sulpius, and two thirds of the people of Antioch were out on their house-tops comforting themselves with the night breeze when it blew, and with fans when it failed, Simonides sat in the chair which had come to be a part of him, and from the terrace looked down over the river, and his ships a-swing at their moorings. The wall at his back cast its shadow broadly over the water to the opposite shore. Above him the endless tramp upon the bridge went on. Esther was holding a plate for him containing his frugal supper—some wheaten cakes, light as wafers, some honey, and a bowl of milk, into which he now and then dipped the wafers after dipping them into the honey.
“Malluch is a laggard to-night,” he said, showing where his thoughts were.
“Do you believe he will come?” Esther asked.
“Unless he has taken to the sea or the desert, and is yet following on, he will come.”
Simonides spoke with quiet confidence.
“He may write,” she said.
“Not so, Esther. He would have despatched a letter when he found he could not return, and told me so; because I have not received such a letter, I know he can come, and will.”
“I hope so,” she said, very softly.
Something in the utterance attracted his attention; it might have been the tone, it might have been the wish. The smallest bird cannot light upon the greatest tree without sending a shock to its most distant fibre; every mind is at times no less sensitive to the most trifling words.
“You wish him to come, Esther?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, lifting her eyes to his.
“Why? Can you tell me?” he persisted.
“Because”—she hesitated, then began again—“because the young man is—” The stop was full.
“Our master. Is that the word?”
“And you still think I should not suffer him to go away without telling him to come, if he chooses, and take us—and all we have—all, Esther—the goods, the shekels, the ships, the slaves, and the mighty credit, which is a mantle of cloth of gold and finest silver spun for me by the greatest of the angels of men—Success.”
She made no answer.
“Does that move you nothing? No?” he said, with the slightest taint of bitterness. “Well, well, I have found, Esther, the worst reality is never unendurable when it comes out from behind the clouds through which we at first see it darkly—never—not even the rack. I suppose it will be so with death. And by that philosophy the slavery to which we are going must afterwhile become sweet. It pleases me even now to think what a favored man our master is. The fortune cost him nothing—not an anxiety, not a drop of sweat, not so much as a thought; it attaches to him undreamed of, and in his youth. And, Esther, let me waste a little vanity with the reflection; he gets what he could not go into the market and buy with all the pelf in a sum—thee, my child, my darling; thou blossom from the tomb of my lost Rachel!”
He drew her to him, and kissed her twice—once for herself, once for her mother.
“Say not so,”. she said, when his hand fell from her neck. “Let us think better of him; he knows what sorrow is, and will set us free.”
“Ah, thy instincts are fine, Esther; and thou knowest I lean upon them in doubtful cases where good or bad is to be pronounced of a person standing before thee as he stood this morning. But—but”—his voice rose and hardened—“these limbs upon which I cannot stand—this body drawn and beaten out of human shape—they are not all I bring him of myself. Oh no, no! I bring him a soul which has triumphed over torture and Roman malice keener than any torture—I bring him a mind which has eyes to see gold at a distance farther than the ships of Solomon sailed, and power to bring it to hand—ay, Esther, into my palm here for the fingers to grip and keep lest it take wings at some other’s word—a mind skilled at scheming”—he stopped and laughed—“Why, Esther, before the new moon which in the courts of the Temple on the Holy Hill they are this moment celebrating passes into its next quartering I could ring the world so as to startle even Cæsar; for know you, child, I have that faculty which is better than any one sense, better than a perfect body, better than courage and will, better than experience, ordinarily the best product of the longest lives—the faculty divinest of men, but which”—he stopped, and laughed again, not bitterly, but with real zest—“but which even the great do not sufficiently account, while with the herd it is a non-existent—the faculty of drawing men to my purpose and holding them faithfully to its achievement, by which, as against things to be done, I multiply myself into hundreds and thousands. So the captains of my ships plough the seas, and bring me honest returns; so Malluch follows the youth, our master, and will”—just then a footstep was heard upon the terrace—“Ha, Esther! said I not so? He is here—and we will have tidings. For thy sake, sweet child—my lily just budded—I pray the Lord God, who has not forgotten his wandering sheep of Israel, that they be good and comforting. Now we will know if he will let thee go with all thy beauty, and me with all my faculties.”
Malluch came to the chair.
“Peace to you, good master,” he said, with a low obeisance—“and to you, Esther, most excellent of daughters.”
He stood before them deferentially, and the attitude and the address left it difficult to define his relation to them; the one was that of a servant, the other indicated the familiar and friend. On the other side, Simonides, as was his habit in business, after answering the salutation went straight to the subject.
“What of the young man, Malluch?”
The events of the day were told quietly and in the simplest words, and until he was through there was no interruption; nor did the listener in the chair so much as move a hand during the narration; but for his eyes, wide open and bright, and an occasional long-drawn breath, he might have been accounted an effigy.
“Thank you, thank you, Malluch,” he said, heartily, at the conclusion; “you have done well—no one could have done better. Now what say you of the young man’s nationality?”
“He is an Israelite, good master, and of the tribe of Judah.”
“You are positive?”
“He appears to have told you but little of his life.”
“He has somewhere learned to be prudent. I might call him distrustful. He baffled all my attempts upon his confidence until we started from the Castalian fount going to the village of Daphne.”
“A place of abomination! Why went he there?”
“I would say from curiosity, the first motive of the many who go; but, very strangely, he took no interest in the things he saw. Of the Temple, he merely asked if it were Grecian. Good master, the young man has a trouble of mind from which he would hide, and he went to the Grove, I think, as we go to sepulchres with our dead—he went to bury it.”
“That were well, if so,” Simonides said, in a low voice; then louder, “Malluch, the curse of the time is prodigality. The poor make themselves poorer as apes of the rich, and the merely rich carry themselves like princes. Saw you signs of the weakness in the youth? Did he display moneys—coin of Rome or Israel?”
“None, none, good master.”
“Surely, Malluch, where there are so many inducements to folly—so much, I mean, to eat and drink—surely he made you generous offer of some sort. His age, if nothing more, would warrant that much.”
“He neither ate nor drank in my company.”
“In what he said or did, Malluch, could you in anywise detect his master-idea? You know they peep through cracks close enough to stop the wind.”
“Give me to understand you,” said Malluch, in doubt.
“Well, you know we nor speak nor act, much less decide grave questions concerning ourselves, except as we be driven by a motive. In that respect, what made you of him?”
“As to that, Master Simonides, I can answer with much assurance. He is devoted to finding his mother and sister—that first. Then he has a grievance against Rome; and as the Messala of whom I told you had something to do with the wrong, the great present object is to humiliate him. The meeting at the fountain furnished an opportunity, but it was put aside as not sufficiently public.”
“The Messala is influential,” said Simonides, thoughtfully.
“Yes; but the next meeting will be in the Circus.”
“The son of Arrius will win.”
“How know you?”
“I am judging by what he says.”
“Is that all?”
“No; there is a much better sign—his spirit.”
“Ay; but, Malluch, his idea of vengeance—what is its scope? Does he limit it to the few who did him the wrong, or does he take in the many? And more—is his feeling but the vagary of a sensitive boy, or has it the seasoning of suffering manhood to give it endurance? You know, Malluch, the vengeful thought that has root merely in the mind is but a dream of idlest sort which one clear day will dissipate; while revenge the passion is a disease of the heart which climbs up, up to the brain, and feeds itself on both alike.”
In this question, Simonides for the first time showed signs of feeling; he spoke with rapid utterance, and with clenched hands and the eagerness of a man illustrating the disease he described.
“Good my master,” Malluch replied, “one of my reasons for believing the young man a Jew is the intensity of his hate. It was plain to me he had himself under watch, as was natural, seeing how long he has lived in an atmosphere of Roman jealousy; yet I saw it blaze—once when he wanted to know Ilderim’s feeling towards Rome, and again when I told him the story of the sheik and the wise man, and spoke of the question, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’”
Simonides leaned forward quickly.
“Ah, Malluch, his words—give me his words; let me judge the impression the mystery made upon him.”
“He wanted to know the exact words. Were they to be or born to be? It appeared he was struck by a seeming difference in the effect of the two phrases.”
Simonides settled back into his pose of listening judge.
“Then,” said Malluch, “I told him Ilderim’s view of the mystery—that the king would come with the doom of Rome. The young man’s blood rose over his cheeks and forehead, and he said earnestly, ‘Who but a Herod can be king while Rome endures?’”
“That the empire must be destroyed before there could be another rule.”
Simonides gazed for a time at the ships and their shadows slowly swinging together in the river; when he looked up, it was to end the interview.
“Enough, Malluch,” he said. “Get you to eat, and make ready to return to the Orchard of Palms; you must help the young man in his coming trial. Come to me in the morning. I will send a letter to Ilderim.” Then in an undertone, as if to himself, he added, “I may attend the Circus myself.”
When Malluch after the customary benediction given and received was gone, Simonides took a deep draught of milk, and seemed refreshed and easy of mind.
“Put the meal down, Esther,” he said; “it is over.”
She resumed her place upon the arm of the chair close to him.
“God is good to me, very good,” he said, fervently. “His habit is to move in mystery, yet sometimes he permits us to think we see and understand him. I am old, dear, and must go; but now, in this eleventh hour, when my hope was beginning to die, he sends me this one with a promise, and I am lifted up. I see the way to a great part in a circumstance itself so great that it shall be as a new birth to the whole world. And I see a reason for the gift of my great riches, and the end for which they were designed. Verily, my child, I take hold on life anew.”
Esther nestled closer to him, as if to bring his thoughts from their far-flying.
“The king has been born” he continued, imagining he was still speaking to her, “and he must be near the half of common life. Balthasar says he was a child on his mother’s lap when he saw him, and gave him presents and worship; and Ilderim holds it was twenty-seven years ago last December when Balthasar and his companions came to his tent asking a hiding-place from Herod. Wherefore the coming cannot now be long delayed. To-night—to-morrow it may be. Holy fathers of Israel, what happiness in the thought! I seem to hear the crash of the falling of old walls and the clamor of a universal change—ay, and for the uttermost joy of men, the earth opens to take Rome in, and they look up and laugh and sing that she is not, while we are;” then he laughed at himself. “Why, Esther, heard you ever the like? Surely, I have on me the passion of a singer, the heat of blood and the thrill of Miriam and David. In my thoughts, which should be those of a plain worker in figures and facts, there is a confusion of cymbals clashing and harp-strings loud beaten, and the voices of a multitude standing around a new-risen throne. I will put the thinking by for the present; only, dear, when the king comes he will need money and men, for as he was a child born of woman he will be but a man after all, bound to human ways as you and I are. And for the money he will have need of getters and keepers, and for the men leaders. There, there! See you not a broad road for my walking, and the running of the youth our master?—and at the end of it glory and revenge for us both?—and—and”—he paused, struck with the selfishness of a scheme in which she had no part or good result; then added, kissing her, “And happiness for thy mother’s child.”
She sat still, saying nothing. Then he remembered the difference in natures, and the law by which we are not permitted always to take delight in the same cause or be equally afraid of the same thing. He remembered she was but a girl.
“Of what are you thinking, Esther?” he said, in his common home-like way. “If the thought have the form of a wish, give it me, little one, while the power remains mine. For power, you know, is a fretful thing, and hath its wings always spread for flight.”
She answered with a simplicity almost childish,
“Send for him, father. Send for him to-night, and do not let him go into the Circus.”
“Ah!” he said, prolonging the exclamation; and again his eyes fell upon the river, where the shadows were more shadowy than ever, since the moon had sunk far down behind Sulpius, leaving the city to the ineffectual stars. Shall we say it, reader? He was touched by a twinge of jealousy. If she should really love the young master! Oh no! That could not be; she was too young. But the idea had fast grip, and directly held him still and cold. She was sixteen. He knew it well. On the last natal day he had gone with her to the shipyard where there was a launch, and the yellow flag which the galley bore to its bridal with the waves had on it “Esther;” so they celebrated the day together. Yet the fact struck him now with the force of a surprise. There are realizations which come to us all painfully; mostly, however, such as pertain to ourselves; that we are growing old, for instance; and, more terrible, that we must die. Such a one crept into his heart, shadowy as the shadows, yet substantial enough to wring from him a sigh which was almost a groan. It was not sufficient that she should enter upon her young womanhood a servant, but she must carry to her master her affections, the truth and tenderness and delicacy of which he the father so well knew, because to this time they had all been his own undividedly. The fiend whose task it is to torture us with fears and bitter thoughts seldom does his work by halves. In the pang of the moment, the brave old man lost sight of his new scheme, and of the miraculous king its subject. By a mighty effort, however, he controlled himself, and asked, calmly, “Not go into the Circus, Esther? Why, child?”
“It is not a place for a son of Israel, father.”
“Rabbinical, rabbinical, Esther! Is that all?”
The tone of the inquiry was searching, and went to her heart, which began to beat loudly—so loudly she could not answer. A confusion new and strangely pleasant fell upon her.
“The young man is to have the fortune,” he said, taking her hand, and speaking more tenderly; “he is to have the ships and the shekels—all, Esther, all. Yet I did not feel poor, for thou wert left me, and thy love so like the dead Rachel’s. Tell me, is he to have that too?”
She bent over him, and laid her cheek against his head.
“Speak, Esther. I will be the stronger of the knowledge. In warning there is strength.”
She sat up then, and spoke as if she were Truth’s holy self.
“Comfort thee, father. I will never leave thee; though he take my love, I will be thy handmaid ever as now.”
And, stooping, she kissed him.
“And more,” she said, continuing: “he is comely in my sight, and the pleading of his voice drew me to him, and I shudder to think of him in danger. Yes, father, I would be more than glad to see him again. Still, the love that is unrequited cannot be perfect love, wherefore I will wait a time, remembering I am thy daughter and my mother’s.”
“A very blessing of the Lord art thou, Esther! A blessing to keep me rich, though all else be lost. And by his holy name and everlasting life, I swear thou shalt not suffer.”
At his request, a little later, the servant came and rolled the chair into the room, where he sat for a time thinking of the coming of the king, while she went off and slept the sleep of the innocent.