NOWADAYS travellers in the Holy Land looking for the famous place with the beautiful name, the King’s Garden, descend the bed of the Cedron or the curve of Gihon and Hinnom as far as the old well En-rogel, take a drink of the sweet living water, and stop, having reached the limit of the interesting in that direction. They look at the great stones with which the well is curbed, ask its depth, smile at the primitive mode of drawing the purling treasure, and waste some pity on the ragged wretch who presides over it; then, facing about, they are enraptured with the mounts Moriah and Zion, both of which slope towards them from the north, one terminating in Ophel, the other in what used to be the site of the city of David. In the background, up far in the sky, the garniture of the sacred places is visible: here the Haram, with its graceful dome; yonder the stalward remains of Hippicus, defiant even in ruins. When that view has been enjoyed, and is sufficiently impressed upon the memory, the travellers glance at the Mount of Offence standing in rugged stateliness at their right hand, and then at the Hill of Evil Counsel over on the left, in which, if they be well up in Scriptural history and in the traditions rabbinical and monkish, they will find a certain interest not to be overcome by superstitious horror.
It were long to tell all the points of interest grouped around that hill; for the present purpose, enough that its feet are planted in the veritable orthodox Hell of the moderns—the Hell of brimstone and fire—in the old nomenclature Gehenna; and that now, as in the days of Christ, its bluff face opposite the city on the south and southeast is seamed and pitted with tombs which have been immemorially the dwelling-places of lepers, not singly, but collectively. There they set up their government and established their society; there they founded a city and dwelt by themselves, avoided as the accursed of God.
The second morning after the incidents of the preceding chapter, Amrah drew near the well En-rogel, and seated herself upon a stone. One familiar with Jerusalem, looking at her, would have said she was the favorite servant of some well-to-do family. She brought with her a water-jar and a basket, the contents of the latter covered with a snow-white napkin. Placing them on the ground at her side, she loosened the shawl which fell from her head, knit her fingers together in her lap, and gazed demurely up to where the hill drops steeply down into Aceldama and the Potter’s Field.
It was very early, and she was the first to arrive at the well. Soon, however, a man came bringing a rope and a leathern bucket. Saluting the little dark-faced woman, he undid the rope, fixed it to the bucket, and waited customers. Others who chose to do so might draw water for themselves, he was a professional in the business, and would fill the largest jar the stoutest woman could carry for a gerah.
Amrah sat still, and had nothing to say. Seeing the jar, the man asked after a while if she wished it filled; she answered him civilly, “Not now;” whereupon he gave her no more attention. When the dawn was fairly defined over Olivet, his patrons began to arrive, and he had all he could do to attend to them. All the time she kept her seat, looking intently up at the hill.
The sun made its appearance, yet she sat watching and waiting; and while she thus waits, let us see what her purpose is.
Her custom had been to go to market after nightfall. Stealing out unobserved, she would seek the shops in the Tyropœon, or those over by the Fish Gate in the east, make her purchases of meat and vegetables, and return and shut herself up again.
The pleasure she derived from the presence of Ben-Hur in the old house once more may be imagined. She had nothing to tell him of her mistress or Tirzah—nothing. He would have had her move to a place not so lonesome; she refused. She would have had him take his own room again, which was just as he had left it; but the danger of discovery was too great, and he wished above all things to avoid inquiry. He would come and see her often as possible. Coming in the night, he would also go away in the night. She was compelled to be satisfied, and at once occupied herself contriving ways to make him happy. That he was a man now did not occur to her; nor did it enter her mind that he might have put by or lost his boyish tastes; to please him, she thought to go on her old round of services. He used to be fond of confections; she remembered the things in that line which delighted him most, and resolved to make them, and have a supply always ready when he came. Could anything be happier? So next night, earlier than usual, she stole out with her basket, and went over to the Fish Gate Market. Wandering about, seeking the best honey, she chanced to hear a man telling a story.
What the story was the reader can arrive at with sufficient certainty when told that the narrator was one of the men who had held torches for the commandant of the Tower of Antonia when, down in cell VI., the Hurs were found. The particulars of the finding were all told, and she heard them, with the names of the prisoners, and the widow’s account of herself.
The feelings with which Amrah listened to the recital were such as became the devoted creature she was. She made her purchases, and returned home in a dream. What a happiness she had in store for her boy! She had found his mother!
She put the basket away, now laughing, now crying. Suddenly she stopped and thought. It would kill him to be told that his mother and Tirzah were lepers. He would go through the awful city over on the Hill of Evil Counsel—into each infected tomb he would go without rest, asking for them, and the disease would catch him, and their fate would be his. She wrung her hands. What should she do?
Like many a one before her, and many a one since, she derived inspiration, if not wisdom, from her affection, and came to a singular conclusion.
The lepers, she knew, were accustomed of mornings to come down from their sepulchral abodes in the hill, and take a supply of water for the day from the well En-rogel. Bringing their jars, they would set them on the ground and wait, standing afar until they were filled. To that the mistress and Tirzah must come; for the law was inexorable, and admitted no distinction. A rich leper was no better than a poor one.
So Amrah decided not to speak to Ben-Hur of the story she had heard, but go alone to the well and wait. Hunger and thirst would drive the unfortunates thither, and she believed she could recognize them at sight; if not, they might recognize her.
Meantime Ben-Hur came, and they talked much. To-morrow Malluch would arrive; then the search should be immediately begun. He was impatient to be about it. To amuse himself he would visit the sacred places in the vicinity. The secret, we may be sure, weighed heavily on the woman, but she held her peace.
When he was gone she busied herself in the preparation of things good to eat, applying her utmost skill to the work. At the approach of day, as signalled by the stars, she filled the basket, selected a jar, and took the road to En-rogel, going out by the Fish Gate which was earliest open, and arriving as we have seen.
Shortly after sunrise, when business at the well was most pressing, and the drawer of water most hurried; when, in fact, half a dozen buckets were in use at the same time, everybody making haste to get away before the cool of the morning melted into the heat of the day, the tenantry of the hill began to appear and move about the doors of their tombs. Somewhat later they were discernible in groups, of which not a few were children so young that they suggested the holiest relation. Numbers came momentarily around the turn of the bluff—women with jars upon their shoulders, old and very feeble men hobbling along on staffs and crutches. Some leaned upon the shoulders of others; a few—the utterly helpless—lay, like heaps of rags, upon litters. Even that community of superlative sorrow had its love-light to make life endurable and attractive. Distance softened without entirely veiling the misery of the outcasts.
From her seat by the well Amrah kept watch upon the spectral groups. She scarcely moved. More than once she imagined she saw those she sought. That they were there upon the hill she had no doubt; that they must come down and near she knew; when the people at the well were all served they would come.
Now, quite at the base of the bluff there was a tomb which had more than once attracted Amrah by its wide gaping. A stone of large dimensions stood near its mouth. The sun looked into it through the hottest hours of the day, and altogether it seemed uninhabitable by anything living, unless, perchance, by some wild dogs returning from scavenger duty down in Gehenna. Thence, however, and greatly to her surprise, the patient Egyptian beheld two women come, one half supporting, half leading, the other. They were both white-haired; both looked old; but their garments were not rent, and they gazed about them as if the locality were new. The witness below thought she even saw them shrink terrified at the spectacle offered by the hideous assemblage of which they found themselves part. Slight reasons, certainly, to make her heart beat faster, and draw her attention to them exclusively; but so they did.
The two remained by the stone awhile; then they moved slowly, painfully, and with much fear towards the well, whereat several voices were raised to stop them; yet they kept on. The drawer of water picked up some pebbles, and made ready to drive them back. The company cursed them. The greater company on the hill shouted shrilly, “Unclean, unclean!”
“Surely,” thought Amrah of the two, as they kept coming—“surely, they are strangers to the usage of lepers.”
She arose, and went to meet them, taking the basket and jar. The alarm at the well immediately subsided.
“What a fool,” said one, laughing, “what a fool to give good bread to the dead in that way!”
“And to think of her coming so far!” said another. “I would at least make them meet me at the gate.”
Amrah, with better impulse, proceeded. If she should be mistaken! Her heart arose into her throat. And the farther she went the more doubtful and confused she became. Four or five yards from where they stood waiting for her she stopped.
That the mistress she loved! whose hand she had so often kissed in gratitude! whose image of matronly loveliness she had treasured in memory so faithfully! And that the Tirzah she had nursed through babyhood! whose pains she had soothed, whose sports she had shared! that the smiling, sweet-faced, songful Tirzah, the light of the great house, the promised blessing of her old age! Her mistress, her darling—they? The soul of the woman sickened at the sight.
“These are old women,” she said to herself. “I never saw them before. I will go back.”
She turned away.
“Amrah,” said one of the lepers.
The Egyptian dropped the jar, and looked back, trembling.
“Who called me?” she asked.
The servant’s wondering eyes settled upon the speaker’s face.
“Who are you?” she cried.
“We are they you are seeking.”
Amrah fell upon her knees.
“O my mistress, my mistress! As I have made your God my God, be he praised that he has led me to you!”
And upon her knees the poor overwhelmed creature began moving forward.
“Stay, Amrah! Come not nearer. Unclean, unclean!”
The words sufficed. Amrah fell upon her face, sobbing so loud the people at the well heard her. Suddenly she arose upon her knees again.
“O my mistress, where is Tirzah?”
“Here I am, Amrah, here! Will you not bring me a little water?”
The habit of the servant renewed itself. Putting back the coarse hair fallen over her face, Amrah arose and went to the basket and uncovered it.
“See,” she said, “here are bread and meat.”
She would have spread the napkin upon the ground, but the mistress spoke again,
“Do not so, Amrah. Those yonder may stone you, and refuse us drink. Leave the basket with me. Take up the jar and fill it, and bring it here. We will carry them to the tomb with us. For this day you will then have rendered all the service that is lawful. Haste, Amrah.”
The people under whose eyes all this had passed made way for the servant, and even helped her fill the jar, so piteous was the grief her countenance showed.
“Who are they?” a woman asked.
Amrah meekly answered, “They used to be good to me.”
Raising the jar upon her shoulder, she hurried back. In forgetfulness, she would have gone to them, but the cry “Unclean, unclean! Beware!” arrested her. Placing the water by the basket, she stepped back, and stood off a little way.
“Thank you, Amrah,” said the mistress, taking the articles into possession. “This is very good of you.”
“Is there nothing more I can do?” asked Amrah.
The mother’s hand was upon the jar, and she was fevered with thirst; yet she paused, and rising, said firmly, “Yes, I know that Judah has come home. I saw him at the gate night before last asleep on the step. I saw you wake him.”
Amrah clasped her hands.
“O my mistress! You saw it, and did not come!”
“That would have been to kill him. I can never take him in my arms again. I can never kiss him more. O Amrah, Amrah, you love him, I know!”
“Yes,” said the true heart, bursting into tears again, and kneeling. “I would die for him.”
“Prove to me what you say, Amrah.”
“I am ready.”
“Then you shall not tell him where we are or that you have seen us—only that, Amrah.”
“But he is looking for you. He has come from afar to find you.”
“He must not find us. He shall not become what we are. Hear, Amrah. You shall serve us as you have this day. You shall bring us the little we need—not long now—not long. You shall come every morning and evening thus, and—and”—the voice trembled, the strong will almost broke down—“and you shall tell us of him, Amrah; but to him you shall say nothing of us. Hear you?”
“Oh, it will be so hard to hear him speak of you, and see him going about looking for you—to see all his love, and not tell him so much as that you are alive!”
“Can you tell him we are well, Amrah?”
The servant bowed her head in her arms.
“No,” the mistress continued; “wherefore to be silent altogether. Go now, and come this evening. We will look for you. Till then, farewell.”
“The burden will be heavy, O my mistress, and hard to bear,” said Amrah, falling upon her face.
“How much harder would it be to see him as we are,” the mother answered as she gave the basket to Tirzah. “Come again this evening,” she repeated, taking up the water, and starting for the tomb.
Amrah waited kneeling until they had disappeared; then she took the road sorrowfully home.
In the evening she returned; and thereafter it became her custom to serve them in the morning and evening, so that they wanted for nothing needful. The tomb, though ever so stony and desolate, was less cheerless than the cell in the Tower had been. Daylight gilded its door, and it was in the beautiful world. Then, one can wait death with so much more faith out under the open sky.