“A WOMAN of Israel, entombed here with her daughter. Help us quickly, or we die.”
Such was the reply Gesius, the keeper, had from the cell which appears on his amended map as VI. The reader, when he observed the answer, knew who the unfortunates were, and, doubtless, said to himself, “At last the mother of Ben-Hur, and Tirzah, his sister!”
And so it was.
The morning of their seizure, eight years before, they had been carried to the Tower, where Gratus proposed to put them out of the way. He had chosen the Tower for the purpose as more immediately in his own keeping, and cell VI. because, first, it could be better lost than any other; and, secondly, it was infected with leprosy; for these prisoners were not merely to be put in a safe place, but in a place to die. They were, accordingly, taken down by slaves in the night-time, when there were no witnesses of the deed; then, in completion of the savage task, the same slaves walled up the door, after which they were themselves separated, and sent away never to be heard of more. To save accusation, and, in the event of discovery, to leave himself such justification as might be allowed in a distinction between the infliction of a punishment and the commission of a double murder, Gratus preferred sinking his victims where natural death was certain, though slow. That they might linger along, he selected a convict who had been made blind and tongueless, and sank him in the only connecting cell, there to serve them with food and drink. Under no circumstances could the poor wretch tell the tale or identify either the prisoners or their doomsman. So, with a cunning partly due to Messala, the Roman, under color of punishing a brood of assassins, smoothed a path to confiscation of the estate of the Hurs, of which no portion ever reached the imperial coffers.
As the last step in the scheme, Gratus summarily removed the old keeper of the prisons; not because he knew what had been done—for he did not—but because, knowing the underground floors as he did, it would be next to impossible to keep the transaction from him. Then, with masterly ingenuity, the procurator had new maps drawn for delivery to a new keeper, with the omission, as we have seen, of cell VI. The instructions given the latter, taken with the omission on the map, accomplished the design—the cell and its unhappy tenants were all alike lost.
What may be thought of the life of the mother and daughter during the eight years must have relation to their culture and previous habits. Conditions are pleasant or grievous to us according to our sensibilities. It is not extreme to say, if there was a sudden exit of all men from the world, heaven, as prefigured in the Christian idea, would not be a heaven to the majority; on the other hand, neither would all suffer equally in the so-called Tophet. Cultivation has its balances. As the mind is made intelligent, the capacity of the soul for pure enjoyment is proportionally increased. Well, therefore, if it be saved! If lost, however, alas that it ever had cultivation! its capacity for enjoyment in the one case is the measure of its capacity to suffer in the other. Wherefore repentance must be something more than mere remorse for sins; it comprehends a change of nature befitting heaven.
We repeat, to form an adequate idea of the suffering endured by the mother of Ben-Hur, the reader must think of her spirit and its sensibilities as much as, if not more than, of the conditions of the immurement; the question being, not what the conditions were, but how she was affected by them. And now we may be permitted to say it was in anticipation of this thought that the scene in the summer-house on the roof of the family palace was given so fully in the beginning of the Second Book of our story. So, too, to be helpful when the inquiry should come up, we ventured the elaborate description of the palace of the Hurs.
In other words, let the serene, happy, luxurious life in the princely house be recalled and contrasted with this existence in the lower dungeon of the Tower of Antonia; then if the reader, in his effort to realize the misery of the woman, persists in mere reference to conditions physical, he cannot go amiss; as he is a lover of his kind, tender of heart, he will be melted with much sympathy. But will he go further; will he more than sympathize with her; will he share her agony of mind and spirit; will he at least try to measure it—let him recall her as she discoursed to her son of God and nations and heroes; one moment a philosopher, the next a teacher, and all the time a mother.
Would you hurt a man keenest, strike at his self-love; would you hurt a woman worst, aim at her affections.
With quickened remembrance of these unfortunates—remembrance of them as they were—let us go down and see them as they are.
The cell VI. was in form as Gesius drew it on his map. Of its dimensions but little idea can be had; enough that it was a roomy, roughened interior, with ledged and broken walls and floor.
In the beginning, the site of the Macedonian Castle was separated from the site of the Temple by a narrow but deep cliff somewhat in shape of a wedge. The workmen, wishing to hew out a series of chambers, made their entry in the north face of the cleft, and worked in, leaving a ceiling of the natural stone; delving farther, they executed the cells V., IV., III., II., I., with no connection with number VI. except through number V. In like manner, they constructed the passage and stairs to the floor above. The process of the work was precisely that resorted to in carving out the Tombs of the Kings, yet to be seen a short distance north of Jerusalem; only when the cutting was done, cell VI. was enclosed on its outer side by a wall of prodigious stones, in which, for ventilation, narrow apertures were left bevelled like modern port-holes. Herod, when he took hold of the Temple and Tower, put a facing yet more massive upon this outer wall, and shut up all the apertures but one, which yet admitted a little vitalizing air, and a ray of light not nearly strong enough to redeem the room from darkness.
Such was cell VI.
Startle not now!
The description of the blind and tongueless wretch just liberated from cell V. may be accepted to break the horror of what is coming.
The two women are grouped close by the aperture; one is seated, the other is half reclining against her; there is nothing between them and the bare rock. The light, slanting upwards, strikes them with ghastly effect, and we cannot avoid seeing they are without vesture or covering. At the same time we are helped to the knowledge that love is there yet, for the two are in each other’s arms. Riches take wings, comforts vanish, hope withers away, but love stays with us. Love is God.
Where the two are thus grouped the stony floor is polished shining smooth. Who shall say how much of the eight years they have spent in that space there in front of the aperture, nursing their hope of rescue by that timid yet friendly ray of light? When the brightness came creeping in, they knew it was dawn; when it began to fade, they knew the world was hushing for the night, which could not be anywhere so long and utterly dark as with them. The world! Through that crevice, as if it were broad and high as a king’s gate, they went to the world in thought, and passed the weary time going up and down as spirits go, looking and asking, the one for her son, the other for her brother. On the seas they sought him, and on the islands of the seas; to-day he was in this city, to-morrow in that other; and everywhere, and at all times, he was a flitting sojourner; for, as they lived waiting for him, he lived looking for them. How often their thoughts passed each other in the endless search, his coming, theirs going! It was such sweet flattery for them to say to each other, “While he lives, we shall not be forgotten; as long as he remembers us, there is hope!” The strength one can eke from little, who knows till he has been subjected to the trial?
Our recollections of them in former days enjoin us to be respectful; their sorrows clothe them with sanctity. Without going too near, across the dungeon, we see they have undergone a change of appearance not to be accounted for by time or long confinement. The mother was beautiful as a woman, the daughter beautiful as a child; not even love could say so much now. Their hair is long, unkempt, and strangely white; they make us shrink and shudder with an indefinable repulsion, though the effect may be from an illusory glozing of the light glimmering dismally through the unhealthy murk; or they may be enduring the tortures of hunger and thirst, not having had to eat or drink since their servant, the convict, was taken away—that is, since yesterday.
Tirzah, reclining against her mother in half embrace, moans piteously.
“Be quiet, Tirzah. They will come. God is good. We have been mindful of him, and forgotten not to pray at every sounding of the trumpets over in the Temple. The light, you see, is still bright; the sun is standing in the south sky yet, and it is hardly more than the seventh hour. Somebody will come to us. Let us have faith. God is good.”
Thus the mother. The words were simple and effective, although, eight years being now to be added to the thirteen she had attained when last we saw her, Tirzah was no longer a child.
“I will try and be strong, mother,” she said. “Your suffering must be as great as mine; and I do so want to live for you and my brother! But my tongue burns, my lips scorch. I wonder where he is, and if he will ever, ever find us!”
There is something in the voices that strikes us singularly—an unexpected tone, sharp, dry, metallic, unnatural.
The mother draws the daughter closer to her breast, and says, “I dreamed about him last night, and saw him as plainly, Tirzah, as I see you. We must believe in dreams, you know, because our fathers did. The Lord spoke to them so often in that way. I thought we were in the Women’s Court just before the Gate Beautiful; there were many women with us; and he came and stood in the shade of the Gate, and looked here and there, at this one and that. My heart beat strong. I knew he was looking for us, and stretched my arms to him, and ran, calling him. He heard me and saw me, but he did not know me. In a moment he was gone.”
“Would it not be so, mother, if we were to meet him in fact? We are so changed.”
“It might be so; but—“ The mother’s head droops, and her face knits as with a wrench of pain; recovering, however, she goes on—“but we could make ourselves known to him.”
Tirzah tossed her arms, and moaned again.
“Water, mother, water, though but a drop.”
The mother stares around in blank helplessness. She has named God so often, and so often promised in his name, the repetition is beginning to have a mocking effect upon herself. A shadow passes before her dimming the dim light, and she is brought down to think of death as very near, waiting to come in as her faith goes out. Hardly knowing what she does, speaking aimlessly, because speak she must, she says again,
“Patience, Tirzah; they are coming—they are almost here.”
She thought she heard a sound over by the little trap in the partition-wall through which they held all their actual communication with the world. And she was not mistaken. A moment, and the cry of the convict rang through the cell. Tirzah heard it also; and they both arose, still keeping hold of each other.
“Praised be the Lord forever!” exclaimed the mother, with the fervor of restored faith and hope.
“Ho, there!” they heard next; and then, “Who are you?”
The voice was strange. What matter? Except from Tirzah, they were the first and only words the mother had heard in eight years. The revulsion was mighty—from death to life—and so instantly!
“A woman of Israel, entombed here with her daughter. Help us quickly, or we die.”
“Be of cheer. I will return.”
The women sobbed aloud. They were found; help was coming. From wish to wish hope flew as the twittering swallows fly. They were found; they would be released. And restoration would follow—restoration to all they had lost—home, society, property, son and brother! The scanty light glozed them with the glory of day, and, forgetful of pain and thirst and hunger, and of the menace of death, they sank upon the floor and cried, keeping fast hold of each other the while.
And this time they had not long to wait. Gesius, the keeper, told his tale methodically, but finished it at last. The tribune was prompt.
“Within there!” he shouted through the trap.
“Here!” said the mother, rising.
Directly she heard another sound in another place, as of blows on the wall—blows quick, ringing, and delivered with iron tools. She did not speak, nor did Tirzah, but they listened, well knowing the meaning of it all—that a way to liberty was being made for them. So men a long time buried in deep mines hear the coming of rescuers, heralded by thrust of bar and beat of pick, and answer gratefully with heart-throbs, their eyes fixed upon the spot whence the sounds proceed; and they cannot look away, lest the work should cease, and they be returned to despair.
The arms outside were strong, the hands skillful, the will good. Each instant the blows sounded more plainly; now and then a piece fell with a crash; and liberty came nearer and nearer. Presently the workmen could be heard speaking. Then—O happiness!—through a crevice flashed a red ray of torches. Into the darkness it cut incisive as diamond brilliance, beautiful as if from a spear of the morning.
“It is he, mother, it is he! He has found us at last!” cried Tirzah, with the quickened fancy of youth.
But the mother answered meekly, “God is good!”
A block fell inside, and another—then a great mass, and the door was open. A man grimed with mortar and stone-dust stepped in, and stopped, holding a torch over his head. Two or three others followed with torches, and stood aside for the tribune to enter.
Respect for women is not all a conventionality, for it is the best proof of their proper nature. The tribune stopped, because they fled from him—not with fear, be it said, but shame; nor yet, O reader, from shame alone! From the obscurity of their partial hiding he heard these words, the saddest, most dreadful, most utterly despairing of the human tongue:
“Come not near us—unclean, unclean!”
The men flared their torches while they stared at each other.
“Unclean, unclean!” came from the corner again, a slow tremulous wail exceedingly sorrowful. With such a cry we can imagine a spirit vanishing from the gates of Paradise, looking back the while.
So the widow and mother performed her duty, and in the moment realized that the freedom she had prayed for and dreamed of, fruit of scarlet and gold seen afar, was but an apple of Sodom in the hand.
She and Tirzah were—LEPERS!
Possibly the reader does not know all the word means. Let him be told it with reference to the Law of that time, only a little modified in this.
“These four are accounted as dead—the blind, the leper, the poor, and the childless.” Thus the Talmud.
That is, to be a leper was to be treated as dead—to be excluded from the city as a corpse; to be spoken to by the best beloved and most loving only at a distance; to dwell with none but lepers; to be utterly unprivileged; to be denied the rites of the Temple and the synagogue; to go about in rent garments and with covered mouth, except when crying, “Unclean, unclean!” to find home in the wilderness or in abandoned tombs; to become a materialized specter of Hinnom and Gehenna; to be at all times less a living offence to others than a breathing torment to self; afraid to die, yet without hope except in death.
Once—she might not tell the day or the year, for down in the haunted hell even time was lost—once the mother felt a dry scurf in the palm of her right hand, a trifle which she tried to wash away. It clung to the member pertinaciously; yet she thought but little of the sign till Tirzah complained that she, too, was attacked in the same way. The supply of water was scant, and they denied themselves drink that they might use it as a curative. At length the whole hand was attacked; the skin cracked open, the fingernails loosened from the flesh. There was not much pain withal, chiefly a steadily increasing discomfort. Later their lips began to parch and seam. One day the mother, who was cleanly to godliness, and struggled against the impurities of the dungeon with all ingenuity, thinking the enemy was taking hold on Tirzah’s face, led her to the light, and, looking with the inspiration of a terrible dread, lo! the young girl’s eyebrows were white as snow.
Oh, the anguish of that assurance!
The mother sat awhile speechless, motionless, paralyzed of soul, and capable of but one thought—leprosy, leprosy!
When she began to think, mother-like, it was not of herself, but her child, and, mother-like, her natural tenderness turned to courage, and she made ready for the last sacrifice of perfect heroism. She buried her knowledge in her heart; hopeless herself, she redoubled her devotion to Tirzah, and with wonderful ingenuity—wonderful chiefly in its very inexhaustibility—continued to keep the daughter ignorant of what they were beset with, and even hopeful that it was nothing. She repeated her little games, and retold her stories, and invented new ones, and listened with ever so much pleasure to the songs she would have from Tirzah, while on her own wasting lips the psalms of the singing king and their race served to bring soothing of forgetfulness, and keep alive in them both the recollection of the God who would seem to have abandoned them—the world not more lightly or utterly.
Slowly, steadily, with horrible certainty, the disease spread, after a while bleaching their heads white, eating holes in their lips and eyelids, and covering their bodies with scales; then it fell to their throats shrilling their voices, and to their joints, hardening the tissues and cartilages—slowly, and, as the mother well knew, past remedy, it was affecting their lungs and arteries and bones, at each advance making the sufferers more and more loathsome; and so it would continue till death, which might be years before them.
Another day of dread at length came—the day the mother, under impulsion of duty, at last told Tirzah the name of their ailment; and the two, in agony of despair, prayed that the end might come quickly.
Still, as is the force of habit, these so afflicted grew in time not merely to speak composedly of their disease; they beheld the hideous transformation of their persons as of course, and in despite clung to existence. One tie to earth remained to them; unmindful of their own loneliness, they kept up a certain spirit by talking and dreaming of Ben-Hur. The mother promised reunion with him to the sister, and she to the mother, not doubting, either of them, that he was equally faithful to them, and would be equally happy of the meeting. And with the spinning and respinning of this slender thread they found pleasure, and excused their not dying. In such manner as we have seen, they were solacing themselves the moment Gesius called them, at the end of twelve hours’ fasting and thirst.
The torches flashed redly through the dungeon, and liberty was come. “God is good,” the widow cried—not for what had been, O reader, but for what was. In thankfulness for present mercy, nothing so becomes us as losing sight of past ills.
The tribune came directly; then in the corner to which she had fled, suddenly a sense of duty smote the elder of the women, and straightway the awful warning—
Ah, the pang the effort to acquit herself of that duty cost the mother! Not all the selfishness of joy over the prospect could keep her blind to the consequences of release, now that it was at hand. The old happy life could never be again. If she went near the house called home, it would be to stop at the gate and cry, “Unclean, unclean!” She must go about with the yearnings of love alive in her breast strong as ever, and more sensitive even, because return in kind could not be. The boy of whom she had so constantly thought, and with all sweet promises such as mothers find their purest delight in, must, at meeting her, stand afar off. If he held out his hands to her, and called “Mother, mother,” for very love of him she must answer, “Unclean, unclean!” And this other child, before whom, in want of other covering, she was spreading her long tangled locks, bleached unnaturally white—ah! that she was she must continue, sole partner of her blasted remainder of life. Yet, O reader, the brave woman accepted the lot, and took up the cry which had been its sign immemorially, and which thenceforward was to be her salutation without change—“Unclean, unclean!”
The tribune heard it with a tremor, but kept his place.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Two women dying of hunger and thirst. Yet”—the mother did not falter—“come not near us, nor touch the floor or the wall. Unclean, unclean!”
“Give me thy story, woman—thy name, and when thou wert put here, and by whom, and for what.”
“There was once in this city of Jerusalem a Prince Ben-Hur, the friend of all generous Romans, and who had Cæsar for his friend. I am his widow, and this one with me is his child. How may I tell you for what we were sunk here, when I do not know, unless it was because we were rich? Valerius Gratus can tell you who our enemy was, and when our imprisonment began. I cannot. See to what we have been reduced—oh, see, and have pity!”
The air was heavy with the pest and the smoke of the torches, yet the Roman called one of the torch-bearers to his side, and wrote the answer nearly word for word. It was terse, and comprehensive, containing at once a history, an accusation, and a prayer. No common person could have made it, and he could not but pity and believe.
“Thou shalt have relief, woman,” he said, closing the tablets. “I will send thee food and drink.”
“And raiment, and purifying water, we pray you, O generous Roman!”
“As thou wilt,” he replied.
“God is good,” said the widow, sobbing. “May his peace abide with you!”
“And, further,” he added, “I cannot see thee again. Make preparation, and to-night I will have thee taken to the gate of the Tower, and set free. Thou knowest the law. Farewell.”
He spoke to the men, and went out the door.
Very shortly some slaves came to the cell with a large gurglet of water, a basin and napkins, a platter with bread and meat, and some garments of women’s wear; and, setting them down within reach of the prisoners, they ran away.
About the middle of the first watch, the two were conducted to the gate, and turned into the street. So the Roman quit himself of them, and in the city of their fathers they were once more free.
Up to the stars, twinkling merrily as of old, they looked; then they asked themselves,
“What next? and where to?”