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it is my advice that you cease from making plots against the majesty of Cæsar. Now bid your servant summon him who waits in the antechamber, that he may discharge my debt. And so farewell. When and where we shall meet again I do not know, but be sure that we shall meet." Then Marcus left the portico.
Benoni watched him go, and as he watched, an evil look gathered on his face.
"Threatened. Trodden to the dirt. Outwitted by that Roman boy," he murmured. "Is there any cup of shame left for me to drink? Who is the traitor and how much does he know? Something, but not all, else my arrest could scarcely have been left to the fancy of this patrician, favourite though he be. Yes, my lord Marcus, I too am sure that we shall meet again, but the fashion of that meeting may be little to your taste. You have had your hour, mine is to come. For the rest, I must keep my oath, since to break it would be too dangerous, and might cut the hair that holds the sword. Also, why should I wish to harm the girl, or to wed her to this rogue Caleb, than whom, mayhap, even the Roman would be better? At least he is a man who does not cheat or lie. Indeed, I long to see the maid. I will go at once to Jordan."
Then he sounded his bell and commanded that the servant of the lord Marcus should be admitted.
THE ESSENES LOSE THEIR QUEEN
The Court of the Essenes was gathered in council debating the subject of the departure of their ward, Miriam. She must go, that was evident, since not even for her, whom they loved as though each of them had been in truth her father or her uncle, could their ancient, sacred rule be broken. But where was she to go and how should she be supported as became her? These were the questions that troubled them and that they debated earnestly. At length her great-uncle Ithiel suggested that she should be summoned before them, that they might hear her wishes. To this his brethren agreed, and he was sent to fetch her.
A while later, attended by Nehushta, Miriam arrived, clad in a robe of pure white, and wearing on her head a wimple of white, edged with purple, and about her waist a purple scarf. So greatly did the Essenes love and reverence this maid, that as she entered, all the hundred of the Court rose and remaining standing until she herself was seated. Then the President, who was sorrowful and even shamefaced, addressed her, telling her their trouble, and praying her pardon because the ordinance of their order forced them to arrange that she should depart from among them. At the end of this speech he asked her what were her wishes as regarded her own future, adding that for her maintenance she need have no fear, since out of their revenues a modest sum would be set aside annually which would suffice to keep her from poverty.
In answer Miriam, also speaking sadly, thanked them from her heart for all their goodness, telling them she had long known this hour of separation to be at hand. As to where she should dwell, since tumults were so many in Jerusalem, she suggested that she might find a home in one of the coast cities, where perhaps some friend or relative of the brethren would shelter Nehushta and herself.
Instantly eight or ten of those present said that they knew such trusty folk in one place or another, and the various offers were submitted to the Court for discussion. While the talk was still going on there came a knock upon the door. After the usual questions and precautions, a brother was admitted who informed them that there had arrived in the village, at the head of a considerable retinue, Benoni, the Jewish merchant of Tyre. He stated that he desired speech with them on the subject of his granddaughter Miriam, who, he learned, was, or had been recently, in their charge.
"Here may be an answer to the riddle," said the President. "We know of this Benoni, also that he purposed to demand his granddaughter of us, though until he did so it was not for us to speak." Then he put it to the Court that Benoni should be admitted.
To this they agreed, and presently the Jew came, splendidly attired, his long white beard flowing down a robe that glittered with embroideries of gold and silver. Entering the dim, cool hall, he stared in amazement at the long half-circles of venerable, white-robed men who were gathered there. Next his quick eyes fell upon the lovely maiden who, attended by the dark-visaged Nehushta, sat before them on a seat of honour; and looking, he guessed that she must be Miriam.
"Little wonder," reflected Benoni to himself, "that all men seem to love this girl, since at the first sight of her my own heart softens."
Then he bowed to the President of the Court and the President bowed back in answer. But not one of the rest so much as moved his head, since already every man of them hated this stranger who was about to carry away her whom they called their Queen.
"Sirs," said Benoni breaking the silence, "I come here upon a strange errand--namely, to ask of you a maid whom I believe to be my granddaughter, of whose existence I learned not long ago, and whom, as it seems, you have sheltered from her birth. Is she among you here?" and he looked at Miriam.
"The lady Miriam sits yonder," said the President. "You are right in naming her your granddaughter, as we have known her to be from the beginning."
"Then why," said Benoni, "did I not know it also?"
"Because," answered the President quietly, "we did not think it fitting to deliver a child that was committed to our charge, to the care of one who had brought her father, and tried to bring her mother, his own seed, to the most horrible of deaths."
As he spoke he fixed his eyes indignantly upon Benoni; as did every man of all that great company, till even the bold-faced Jew dropped his head abashed.
"I am not here," he said, recovering himself, "to make defence of what I have done, or have not done in the past. I am here to demand that my grandchild, now as I perceive a woman grown, may be handed over to me, her natural guardian."
"Before this can be considered," answered the President, "we who have been her guardians for so many years, should require guarantees and sureties."
"What guarantees, and what sureties?" asked Benoni.
"These among others--That money sufficient for her support after your death should be settled upon her. That she shall be left reasonable liberty in the matter of her daily life and her marriage, if it should please her to marry. Lastly, that as we have undertaken not to meddle with her faith, or to oppress her into changing it, so must you undertake also."
"And if I refuse these things?" asked Benoni.
"Then you see the lady Miriam for the first and last time," answered the President boldly, while the others nodded approval. "We are men of peace, but, merchant, you must not, therefore, think us men without power. We must part with the lady Miriam, who to every one of us is as a daughter, because the unbreakable rule of our order ordains that she, who is now a woman grown, can no longer remain among us. But wherever she dwells, to the last day of her life our love shall go with her and the whole strength of our Order shall protect her. If any harm is attempted to her, we shall be swift to hear and swifter to avenge. If you refuse our conditions, she will vanish from your sight, and then, merchant, go, search the world, the coasts of Syria, the banks of Egypt, and the cities of Italy--and find her if you can. We have spoken."
Benoni stroked his white beard before he answered.
"You talk proudly," he said. "Did I shut my eyes I might fancy that this voice was the voice of a Roman procurator speaking the decrees of Cæsar. Still, I am ready to believe that what you promise you can perform, since I for one am sure that you Essenes are not mere harmless heretics who worship angels and demons, see visions, prophesy things to come by the help of your familiars, and adore the sun in huts upon the desert." He paused, but the President, without taking the slightest notice of his insults or sarcasms, repeated merely:
"We have spoken," and as with one voice, like some great echo, the whole hundred of them cried, "We have spoken!"
"Do you hear them, master?" said Nehushta in the silence that followed. "Well, I know them. They mean what they say, and you are right--what which they threaten they can perform."
"Let my grandchild speak," said Benoni. "Daughter, is it your wish that such dishonouring bonds should be laid upon me?"
"Grandsire," replied Miriam, in a pure, clear voice, "I may not quarrel with that which is done for my own good. For the wealth I care little, but I would not become a slave in everything save the name, nor do I desire to set my feet in that path my parents trod. What my uncles say--all of these"--and she waved her hand--"speaking in the name of the thousands that are without, that I do, for they love me and I love them, and their mind is my mind and their words are my words."
"Proud-spirited, and well spoken, like all her race," muttered Benoni. Still he stroked his beard and hesitated.
"Be pleased to give your answer," said the President, "that we may finish our discussion before the hour of evening prayer. To help you to it, remember one thing--we ask no new conditions." Benoni glanced up quickly and the President added: "Those of which we have received a copy, that you swore to and signed in the presence of Marcus the Roman, are enough for us."
Now it was Miriam's turn to look, first up and then down. As for her grandfather, he turned white with anger, and broke into a bitter laugh.
"Now I understand----"
"----that the arm of the Essenes is longer than you thought, since it can reach from here to Rome," said the President.
"Ay! that you can plot with Romans. Well, be careful lest the sword of these Romans prove longer than /you/ thought and reach even to your hearts, O you peaceful dwellers in the desert!" Then, as though he
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