“Is that a Death? and are there two?
. . . . .
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
OUR STORY moves forward now thirty days from the night Ben-Hur left Antioch to go out with Sheik Ilderim into the desert.
A great change has befallen—great at least as respects the fortunes of our hero. Valerius Gratus has been succeeded by Pontius Pilate!
The removal, it may be remarked, cost Simonides exactly five talents Roman money in hand paid to Sejanus, who was then in height of power as imperial favorite; the object being to help Ben-Hur, by lessening his exposure while in and about Jerusalem attempting discovery of his people. To such pious use the faithful servant put the winnings from Drusus and his associates; all of whom, having paid their wagers, became at once and naturally the enemies of Messala, whose repudiation was yet an unsettled question in Rome.
Brief as the time was, already the Jews knew the change of rulers was not for the better.
The cohorts sent to relieve the garrison of Antonia made their entry into the city by night; next morning the first sight that greeted the people resident in the neighborhood was the walls of the old Tower decorated with military ensigns, which unfortunately consisted of busts of the emperor mixed with eagles and globes. A multitude, in passion, marched to Cæsarea, where Pilate was lingering, and implored him to remove the detested images. Five days and nights they beset his palace gates; at last he appointed a meeting with them in the Circus. When they were assembled, he encircled them with soldiers; instead of resisting, they offered him their lives, and conquered. He recalled the images and ensigns to Cæsarea, where Gratus, with more consideration, had kept such abominations housed during the eleven years of his reign.
The worst of men do once in a while vary their wickednesses by good acts; so with Pilate. He ordered an inspection of all the prisons in Judea, and a return of the names of the persons in custody, with a statement of the crimes for which they had been committed. Doubtless, the motive was the one so common with officials just installed—dread of entailed responsibility; the people, however, in thought of the good which might come of the measure, gave him credit, and, for a period, were comforted. The revelations were astonishing. Hundreds of persons were released against whom there were no accusations; many others came to light who had long been accounted dead; yet more amazing, there was opening of dungeons not merely unknown at the time by the people, but actually forgotten by the prison authorities. With one instance of the latter kind we have now to deal; and, strange to say, it occurred in Jerusalem.
The Tower of Antonia, which will be remembered as occupying two thirds of the sacred area on Mount Moriah, was originally a castle built by the Macedonians. Afterwards, John Hyrcanus erected the castle into a fortress for the defence of the Temple, and in his day it was considered impregnable to assault; but when Herod came with his bolder genius, he strengthened its walls and extended them, leaving a vast pile which included every appurtenance necessary for the stronghold he intended it to be forever; such as offices, barracks, armories, magazines, cisterns, and last, though not least, prisons of all grades. He levelled the solid rock, and tapped it with deep excavations, and built over them; connecting the whole great mass with the Temple by a beautiful colonnade, from the roof of which one could look down over the courts of the sacred structure. In such condition the Tower fell at last out of his hands into those of the Romans, who were quick to see its strength and advantages, and convert it to uses becoming such masters. All through the administration of Gratus it had been a garrisoned citadel and underground prison terrible to revolutionists. Woe when the cohorts poured from its gates to suppress disorder! Woe not less when a Jew passed the same gates going in under arrest!
With this explanation, we hasten to our story.
The order of the new procurator requiring a report of the persons in custody was received at the Tower of Antonia, and promptly executed; and two days have gone since the last unfortunate was brought up for examination. The tabulated statement, ready for forwarding, lies on the table of the tribune in command; in five minutes more it will be on the way to Pilate, sojourning in the palace up on Mount Zion.
The tribune’s office is spacious and cool, and furnished in a style suitable to the dignity of the commandant of a post in every respect so important. Looking in upon him about the seventh hour of the day, the officer appears weary and impatient; when the report is despatched, he will to the roof of the colonnade for air and exercise, and the amusement to be had watching the Jews over in the courts of the Temple. His subordinates and clerks share his impatience.
In the spell of waiting a man appeared in a doorway leading to an adjoining apartment. He rattled a bunch of keys, each heavy as a hammer, and at once attracted the chief’s attention.
“Ah, Gesius! come in,” the tribune said.
As the new-comer approached the table behind which the chief sat in an easy-chair, everybody present looked at him, and, observing a certain expression of alarm and mortification on his face, became silent that they might hear what he had to say.
“O tribune!” he began, bending low, “I fear to tell what now I bring you.”
“Another mistake—ha, Gesius?”
“If I could persuade myself it is but a mistake, I would not be afraid.”
“A crime then—or, worse, a breach of duty. Thou mayst laugh at Cæsar, or curse the gods, and live; but if the offence be to the eagles—ah, thou knowest, Gesius—go on!”
“It is now about eight years since Valerius Gratus selected me to be keeper of prisoners here in the Tower,” said the man, deliberately. “I remember the morning I entered upon the duties of my office. There had been a riot the day before, and fighting in the streets. We slew many Jews, and suffered on our side. The affair came, it was said, of an attempt to assassinate Gratus, who had been knocked from his horse by a tile thrown from a roof. I found him sitting where you now sit, O tribune, his head swathed in bandages. He told me of my selection, and gave me these keys, numbered to correspond with the numbers of the cells; they were the badges of my office, he said, and not to be parted with. There was a roll of parchment on the table. Calling me to him, he opened the roll. ‘Here are maps of the cells,’ said he. There were three of them. ‘This one,’ he went on, ‘shows the arrangement of the upper floor; this second one gives you the second floor; and this last is of the lower floor. I give them to you in trust.’ I took them from his hand, and he said, further, ‘Now you have the keys and the maps; go immediately, and acquaint yourself with the whole arrangement; visit each cell, and see to its condition. When anything is needed for the security of a prisoner, order it according to your judgment, for you are the master under me, and no other.’
“I saluted him, and turned to go away; he called me back. ‘Ah, I forgot,’ he said. ‘Give me the map of the third floor.’ I gave it to him, and he spread it upon the table. ‘Here, Gesius,’ he said, ‘see this cell.’ He laid his finger on the one numbered V. ‘There are three men confined in that cell, desperate characters, who by some means got hold of a state secret, and suffer for their curiosity, which’—he looked at me severely—‘in such matters is worse than a crime. Accordingly, they are blind and tongueless, and are placed there for life. They shall have nothing but food and drink, to be given them through a hole, which you will find in the wall covered by a slide. Do you hear, Gesius?’ I made him answer. ‘It is well,’ he continued. ‘One thing more which you shall not forget, or’—he looked at me threateningly—‘The door of their cell—cell number V. on the same floor—this one, Gesius’—he put his finger on the particular cell to impress my memory—‘shall never be opened for any purpose, neither to let one in nor out, not even yourself.’ ‘But if they die?’ I asked. ‘If they die,’ he said, ‘the cell shall be their tomb. They were put there to die, and be lost. The cell is leprous. Do you understand?’ With that he let me go.”
Gesius stopped, and from the breast of his tunic drew three parchments, all much yellowed by time and use; selecting one of them, he spread it upon the table before the tribune, saying, simply, “This is the lower floor.”
The whole company looked at
“This is exactly, O tribune, as I had it from Gratus. See, there is cell number V.,” said Gesius.
“I see,” the tribune replied. “Go on now. The cell was leprous, he said.”
“I would like to ask you a question,” remarked the keeper, modestly.
The tribune assented.
“Had I not a right, under the circumstances, to believe the map a true one?”
“What else couldst thou?”
“Well, it is not a true one.”
The chief looked up surprised.
“It is not a true one,” the keeper repeated. “It shows but five cells upon that floor, while there are six.”
“Six, sayest thou?”
“I will show you the floor as it is—or as I believe it to be.”
Upon a page of his tablets, Gesius drew the following diagram, and gave it to the tribune:
“Thou hast done well,” said the tribune, examining the drawing, and thinking the narrative at an end. “I will have the map corrected, or, better, I will have a new one made, and given thee. Come for it in the morning.”
So saying, he arose.
“But hear me further, O tribune.”
“To-morrow, Gesius, to-morrow.”
“That which I have yet to tell will not wait.”
The tribune good-naturedly resumed his chair.
“I will hurry,” said the keeper, humbly, “only let me ask another question. Had I not a right to believe Gratus in what he further told me as to the prisoners in cell number V.?”
“Yes, it was thy duty to believe there were three prisoners in the cell—prisoners of state—blind and without tongues.”
“Well,” said the keeper, “that was not true either.”
“No!” said the tribune, with returning interest.
“Hear, and judge for yourself, O tribune. As required, I visited all the cells, beginning with those on the first floor, and ending with those on the lower. The order that the door of number V. should not be opened had been respected; through all the eight years food and drink for three men had been passed through a hole in the wall. I went to the door yesterday, curious to see the wretches who, against all expectation, had lived so long. The locks refused the key. We pulled a little, and the door fell down, rusted from its hinges. Going in, I found but one man, old, blind, tongueless, and naked. His hair dropped in stiffened mats below his waist. His skin was like the parchment there. He held his hands out, and the finger-nails curled and twisted like the claws of a bird. I asked him where his companions were. He shook his head in denial. Thinking to find the others, we searched the cell. The floor was dry; so were the walls. If three men had been shut in there, and two of them had died, at least their bones would have endured.”
“Wherefore thou thinkest—”
“I think, O tribune, there has been but one prisoner there in the eight years.”
The chief regarded the keeper sharply, and said, “Have a care; thou art more than saying Valerius lied.”
Gesius bowed, but said, “He might have been mistaken.”
“No, he was right,” said the tribune, warmly. “By thine own statement he was right. Didst thou not say but now that for eight years food and drink had been furnished three men?”
The bystanders approved the shrewdness of their chief; yet Gesius did not seem discomfited.
“You have but half the story, O tribune. When you have it all, you will agree with me. You know what I did with the man: that I sent him to the bath, and had him shorn and clothed, and then took him to the gate of the Tower, and bade him go free. I washed my hands of him. To-day he came back, and was brought to me. By signs and tears he at last made me understand he wished to return to his cell, and I so ordered. As they were leading him off, he broke away and kissed my feet, and, by piteous dumb imploration, insisted I should go with him; and I went. The mystery of the three men stayed in my mind. I was not satisfied about it. Now I am glad I yielded to his entreaty.”
The whole company at this point became very still.
“When we were in the cell again, and the prisoner knew it, he caught my hand eagerly, and led me to a hole like that through which we were accustomed to pass him his food. Though large enough to push your helmet through, it escaped me yesterday. Still holding my hand, he put his face to the hole and gave a beast-like cry. A sound came faintly back. I was astonished, and drew him away, and called out, ‘Ho, here!’ At first there was no answer. I called again, and received back these words, ‘Be thou praised, O Lord!’ Yet more astonishing, O tribune, the voice was a woman’s. And I asked, ‘Who are you?’ and had reply, ‘A woman of Israel, entombed here with her daughter. Help us quickly, or we die.’ I told them to be of cheer, and hurried here to know your will.”
The tribune arose hastily.
“Thou wert right, Gesius,” he said, “and I see now. The map was a lie, and so was the tale of the three men. There have been better Romans than Valerius Gratus.”
“Yes,” said the keeper. “I gleaned from the prisoner that he had regularly given the women of the food and drink he had received.”
“It is accounted for,” replied the tribune, and observing the countenances of his friends, and reflecting how well it would be to have witnesses, he added, “Let us rescue the women. Come all.”
Gesuis was pleased.
“We will have to pierce the wall,” he said. “I found where a door had been, but it was filled solidly with stones and mortar.”
The tribune stayed to say to a clerk, “Send workmen after me with tools. Make haste; but hold the report, for I see it will have to be corrected.”
In a short time they were gone.