THE first person to go out of the city upon the opening of the Sheep’s Gate next morning was Amrah, basket on arm. No questions were asked her by the keepers, since the morning itself had not been more regular in coming than she; they knew her somebody’s faithful servant, and that was enough for them.
Down the eastern valley she took her way. The side of Olivet, darkly green, was spotted with white tents recently put up by people attending the feasts; the hour, however, was too early for the strangers to be abroad; still, had it not been so, no one would have troubled her. Past Gethsemane; past the tombs at the meeting of the Bethany roads; past the sepulchral village of Siloam she went. Occasionally the decrepit little body staggered; once she sat down to get her breath; rising shortly, she struggled on with renewed haste. The great rocks on either hand, if they had had ears, might have heard her mutter to herself; could they have seen, it would have been to observe how frequently she looked up over the Mount, reproving the dawn for its promptness; if it had been possible for them to gossip, not improbably they would have said to each other, “Our friend is in a hurry this morning; the mouths she goes to feed must be very hungry.”
When at last she reached the King’s Garden she slackened her gait; for then the grim city of the lepers was in view, extending far round the pitted south hill of Hinnom.
As the reader must by this time have surmised, she was going to her mistress, whose tomb, it will be remembered, overlooked the well En-Rogel.
Early as it was, the unhappy woman was up and sitting outside, leaving Tirzah asleep within. The course of the malady had been terribly swift in the three years. Conscious of her appearance, with the refined instincts of her nature, she kept her whole person habitually covered. Seldom as possible she permitted even Tirzah to see her.
This morning she was taking the air with bared head, knowing there was no one to be shocked by the exposure. The light was not full, but enough to show the ravages to which she had been subject. Her hair was snow-white and unmanageably coarse, falling over her back and shoulders like so much silver wire. The eyelids, the lips, the nostrils, the flesh of the cheeks, were either gone or reduced to fetid rawness. The neck was a mass of ash-colored scales. One hand lay outside the folds of her habit rigid as that of a skeleton; the nails had been eaten away; the joints of the fingers, if not bare to the bone, were swollen knots crusted with red secretion. Head, face, neck, and hand indicated all too plainly the condition of the whole body. Seeing her thus, it was easy to understand how the once fair widow of the princely Hur had been able to maintain her incognito so well through such a period of years.
When the sun would gild the crest of Olivet and the Mount of Offence with light sharper and more brilliant in that old land than in the West, she knew Amrah would come, first to the well, then to a stone midway the well and the foot of the hill on which she had her abode, and that the good servant would there deposit the food she carried in the basket, and fill the water-jar afresh for the day. Of her former plentitude of happiness, that brief visit was all that remained to the unfortunate. She could then ask about her son, and be told of his welfare, with such bits of news concerning him as the messenger could glean. Usually the information was meagre enough, yet comforting; at times she heard he was at home; then she would issue from her dreary cell at break of day, and sit till noon, and from noon to set of sun, a motionless figure draped in white, looking, statue-like, invariably to one point—over the Temple to the spot under the rounded sky where the old house stood, dear in memory, and dearer because he was there. Nothing else was left her. Tirzah she counted of the dead; and as for herself, she simply waited the end, knowing every hour of life was an hour of dying—happily, of painless dying.
The things of nature about the hill to keep her sensitive to the world’s attractions were wretchedly scant; beasts and birds avoided the place as if they knew its history and present use; every green thing perished in its first season; the winds warred upon the shrubs and venturous grasses, leaving to drought such as they could not uproot. Look where she would, the view was made depressingly suggestive by tombs—tombs above her, tombs below, tombs opposite her own tomb—all now freshly whitened in warning to visiting pilgrims. In the sky—clear, fair, inviting—one would think she might have found some relief to her ache of mind; but, alas! in making the beautiful elsewhere the sun served her never so unfriendly—it did but disclose her growing hideousness. But for the sun she would not have been the horror she was to herself, nor been waked so cruelly from dreams of Tirzah as she used to be. The gift of seeing can be sometimes a dreadful curse.
Does one ask why she did not make an end to her sufferings?
The Law forbade her!
A Gentile may smile at the answer; but so will not a son of Israel.
While she sat there peopling the dusky solitude with thoughts even more cheerless, suddenly a woman came up the hill staggering and spent with exertion.
The widow arose hastily, and covering her head, cried, in a voice unnaturally harsh, “Unclean, unclean!”
In a moment, heedless of the notice, Amrah was at her feet. All the long-pent love of the simple creature burst forth: with tears and passionate exclamations she kissed her mistress’s garments, and for a while the latter strove to escape from her; then, seeing she could not, she waited till the violence of the paroxysm was over.
“What have you done, Amrah?” she said. “Is it by such disobedience you prove your love for us? Wicked woman! You are lost; and he—your master—you can never, never go back to him.”
Amrah grovelled sobbing in the dust.
“The ban of the Law is upon you, too; you cannot return to Jerusalem. What will become of us? Who will bring us bread? O wicked, wicked Amrah! We are all, all undone alike!”
“Mercy, mercy!” Amrah answered from the ground.
“You should have been merciful to yourself, and by so doing been most merciful to us. Now where can we fly? There is no one to help us. O false servant! The wrath of the Lord was already too heavy upon us.”
Here Tirzah, awakened by the noise, appeared at the door of the tomb. The pen shrinks from the picture she presented. In the half-clad apparition, patched with scales, lividly seamed, nearly blind, its limbs and extremities swollen to grotesque largeness, familiar eyes however sharpened by love could not have recognized the creature of childish grace and purity we first beheld her.
“Is it Amrah, mother?”
The servant tried to crawl to her also.
“Stay, Amrah!” the widow cried, imperiously. “I forbid you touching her. Rise, and get you gone before any at the well see you here. Nay, I forgot—it is too late! You must remain now and share our doom. Rise, I say!”
Amrah rose to her knees, and said, brokenly and with clasped hands, “O good mistress! I am not false—I am not wicked. I bring you good tidings.”
“Of Judah?” and as she spoke, the widow half withdrew the cloth from her head.
“There is a wonderful man,” Amrah continued, “who has power to cure you. He speaks a word, and the sick are made well, and even the dead come to life. I have come to take you to him.”
“Poor Amrah!” said Tirzah, compassionately.
“No,” cried Amrah, detecting the doubt underlying the expression—“no, as the Lord lives, even the Lord of Israel, my God as well as yours, I speak the truth. Go with me, I pray, and lose no time. This morning he will pass by on his way to the city. See! the day is at hand. Take the food here—eat, and let us go.”
The mother listened eagerly. Not unlikely she had heard of the wonderful man, for by this time his fame had penetrated every nook in the land.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“Who told you about him?”
“Judah told you? Is he at home?”
“He came last night.”
The widow, trying to still the beating of her heart, was silent awhile.
“Did Judah send you to tell us this?” she next asked.
“No. He believes you dead.”
“There was a prophet once who cured a leper,” the mother said thoughtfully to Tirzah; “but he had his power from God.” Then addressing Amrah, she asked, “How does my son know this man so possessed?”
“He was travelling with him, and heard the lepers call, and saw them go away well. First there was one man; then there were ten; and they were all made whole.”
The elder listener was silent again. The skeleton hand shook. We may believe she was struggling to give the story the sanction of faith, which is always an absolutist in demand, and that it was with her as with the men of the day, eye-witnesses of what was done by the Christ, as well as the myriads who have succeeded them. She did not question the performance, for her own son was the witness testifying through the servant; but she strove to comprehend the power by which work so astonishing could be done by a man. Well enough to make inquiry as to the fact; to comprehend the power, on the other hand, it is first necessary to comprehend God; and he who waits for that will die waiting. With her, however, the hesitation was brief. To Tirzah she said,
“This must be the Messiah!”
She spoke not coldly, like one reasoning a doubt away, but as a woman of Israel familiar with the promises of God to her race—a woman of understanding, ready to be glad over the least sign of the realization of the promises.
“There was a time when Jerusalem and all Judea were filled with a story that he was born. I remember it. By this time he should be a man. It must be—it is he. Yes,” she said to Amrah, “we will go with you. Bring the water which you will find in the tomb in a jar, and set the food for us. We will eat and be gone.”
The breakfast, partaken under excitement, was soon despatched, and the three women set out on their extraordinary journey. As Tirzah had caught the confident spirit of the others, there was but one fear that troubled the party. Bethany, Amrah said, was the town the man was coming from; now from that to Jerusalem there were three roads, or rather paths—one over the first summit of Olivet, a second at its base, a third between the second summit and the Mount of Offence. The three were not far apart; far enough, however, to make it possible for the unfortunates to miss the Nazarene if they failed the one he chose to come by.
A little questioning satisfied the mother that Amrah knew nothing of the country beyond the Cedron, and even less of the intentions of the man they were going to see, if they could. She discerned, also, that both Amrah and Tirzah—the one from confirmed habits of servitude, the other from natural dependency—looked to her for guidance; and she accepted the charge.
“We will go first to Bethphage,” she said to them. “There, if the Lord favor us, we may learn what else to do.”
They descended the hill to Tophet and the King’s Garden, and paused in the deep trail furrowed through them by centuries of wayfaring.
“I am afraid of the road,” the matron said. “Better that we keep to the country among the rocks and trees. This is feast-day, and on the hill-sides yonder I see signs of a great multitude in attendance. By going across the Mount of Offence here we may avoid them.”
Tirzah had been walking with great difficulty; upon hearing this her heart began to fail her.
“The mount is steep, mother; I cannot climb it.”
“Remember, we are going to find health and life. See, my child, how the day brightens around us! And yonder are women coming this way to the well. They will stone us if we stay here. Come, be strong this once.”
Thus the mother, not less tortured herself, sought to inspire the daughter; and Amrah came to her aid. To this time the latter had not touched the persons of the afflicted, nor they her; now, in disregard of consequences as well as of command, the faithful creature went to Tirzah, and put her arm over her shoulder, and whispered, “Lean on me. I am strong, though I am old; and it is but a little way off. There—now we can go.”
The face of the hill they essayed to cross was somewhat broken with pits, and ruins of old structures; but when at last they stood upon the top to rest, and looked at the spectacle presented them over in the northwest—at the Temple and its courtly terraces, at Zion, at the enduring towers white beetling into the sky beyond—the mother was strengthened with a love of life for life’s sake.
“Look, Tirzah,” she said—“look at the plates of gold on the Gate Beautiful. How they give back the flames of the sun, brightness for brightness! Do you remember we used to go up there? Will it not be pleasant to do so again? And think—home is but a little way off. I can almost see it over the roof of the Holy of Holies; and Judah will be there to receive us!”
From the side of the middle summit garnished green with myrtle and olive trees, they saw, upon looking that way next, thin columns of smoke rising lightly and straight up into the pulseless morning, each a warning of restless pilgrims astir, and of the flight of the pitiless hours, and the need of haste.
Though the good servant toiled faithfully to lighten the labor in descending the hill-side, not sparing herself in the least, the girl moaned at every step; sometimes in extremity of anguish she cried out. Upon reaching the road—that is, the road between the Mount of Offence and the middle or second summit of Olivet—she fell down exhausted.
“Go on with Amrah, mother, and leave me here,” she said, faintly.
“No, no, Tirzah. What would the gain be to me if I were healed and you not? When Judah asks for you, as he will, what would I have to say to him were I to leave you?”
“Tell him I loved him.”
The elder leper arose from bending over the fainting sufferer, and gazed about her with that sensation of hope perishing which is more nearly like annihilation of the soul than anything else. The supremest joy of the thought of cure was inseparable from Tirzah, who was not too old to forget, in the happiness of healthful life to come, the years of misery by which she had been so reduced in body and broken in spirit. Even as the brave woman was about leaving the venture they were engaged in to the determination of God, she saw a man on foot coming rapidly up the road from the east.
“Courage, Tirzah! Be of cheer,” she said. “Yonder I know is one to tell us of the Nazarene.”
Amrah helped the girl to a sitting posture, and supported her while the man advanced.
“In your goodness, mother, you forget what we are. The stranger will go around us; his best gift to us will be a curse, if not a stone.”
“We will see.”
There was no other answer to be given, since the mother was too well and sadly acquainted with the treatment outcasts of the class to which she belonged were accustomed to at the hands of her countrymen.
As has been said, the road at the edge of which the group was posted was little more than a worn path or trail, winding crookedly through tumuli of limestone. If the stranger kept it, he must meet them face to face; and he did so, until near enough to hear the cry she was bound to give. Then, uncovering her head, a further demand of the law, she shouted shrilly,
To her surprise, the man came steadily on.
“What would you have?” he asked, stopping opposite them not four yards off.
“Thou seest us. Have a care,” the mother said, with dignity.
“Woman, I am the courier of him who speaketh but once to such as thou and they are healed. I am not afraid.”
“The Messiah,” he said.
“Is it true that he cometh to the city to-day?”
“He is now at Bethphage.”
“On what road, master?”
She clasped her hands, and looked up thankfully.
“For whom takest thou him?” the man asked, with pity.
“The Son of God,” she replied.
“Stay thou here then; or, as there is a multitude with him, take thy stand by the rock yonder, the white one under the tree; and as he goeth by fail not to call to him; call, and fear not. If thy faith but equal thy knowledge, he will hear thee though all the heavens thunder. I go to tell Israel, assembled in and about the city, that he is at hand, and to make ready to receive him. Peace to thee and thine, woman.”
The stranger moved on.
“Did you hear, Tirzah? Did you hear? The Nazarene is on the road, on this one, and he will hear us. Once more, my child—oh, only once! and let us to the rock. It is but a step.”
Thus encouraged Tirzah took Amrah’s hand and arose; but as they were going, Amrah said, “Stay; the man is returning.” And they waited for him.
“I pray your grace, woman,” he said, upon overtaking them. “Remembering that the sun will be hot before the Nazarene arrives, and that the city is near by to give me refreshment should I need it, I thought this water would do thee better than it will me. Take it and be of good cheer. Call to him as he passes.”
He followed the words by offering her a gourd full of water, such as foot-travellers sometimes carried with them in their journeys across the hills; and instead of placing the gift on the ground for her to take up when he was at a safe distance, he gave it into her hand.
“Art thou a Jew?” she asked, surprised.
“I am that, and better; I am a disciple of the Christ who teacheth daily by word and example this thing which I have done unto you. The world hath long known the word charity without understanding it. Again I say peace and good cheer to thee and thine.”
He went on, and they went slowly to the rock he had pointed out to them, high as their heads, and scarcely thirty yards from the road on the right. Standing in front of it, the mother satisfied herself they could be seen and heard plainly by passers-by whose notice they desired to attract. There they cast themselves under the tree in its shade, and drank of the gourd, and rested refreshed. Ere long Tirzah slept, and fearing to disturb her, the others held their peace.