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- Pearl-Maiden - 30/74 -
"I thank you, Caleb. I can say no more," she murmured; but in her heart she knew that God had delivered her and that Caleb was but His instrument.
"I am well repaid," answered Caleb gravely. "For me this has been a fortunate day, who on it have sunk the great Syrian galley and rescued the woman--whom I love."
"Oath or no oath," broke in Benoni, bethinking him of what he had promised in the past, "the life you saved is yours, and if I have my way you shall take her and such of her heritage as remains."
"Is this a time to speak of such things?" said Miriam, looking up. "See yonder," and she pointed to the scene in progress on the seashore. "They drive our friends and servants into the sea and drown them," and once more she began to weep.
Caleb sighed. "Cease from useless tears, Miriam. We have done our best and it is the fortune of war. I dare not send out the boats again even if the mariners would listen to my command. Nehushta, lead your lady to the cabin and strip her of these wet garments lest she take cold in this bitter wind. But first, Benoni, what is your mind?"
"To go to my cousin Mathias, the high priest at Jerusalem," answered the old man, "who has promised to give me shelter if in these days any can be found."
"Nay," broke in Nehushta, "sail for Egypt."
"Where also they massacre the Jews by thousands till the streets of Alexandria run with their blood," replied Caleb with sarcasm; adding, "Well, to Egypt I cannot take you who must bring this ship to those who await her on this side of Joppa, whence I am summoned to Jerusalem."
"Whither and nowhere else I will go," said Benoni, "to share in my nation's death or triumph. If Miriam wills it, I have told her she can leave me."
"What I have said before I say again," replied Miriam, "that I will never do."
Then Nehushta took her to the cabin, and presently the oars began to beat and the great galley stood out of the harbour, till in the silence of the sea the screams of the victims and the shouts of the victors died away, and as night fell naught could be seen of Tyre but the flare from the burning houses of the slaughtered Jews.
Save for the sobs and cries of the fugitives who had lost their friends and goods the night passed in quiet, since, although it was winter, the sea was calm and none pursued their ship. At daybreak she anchored, and coming from the cabin with Nehushta, in the light of the rising sun Miriam saw before her a ridge of rocks over which the water poured, and beyond it a little bay backed by a desolate coast. Nehushta also saw and sighed.
"What is this place?" asked Miriam.
"Lady, it is the spot where you were born. On yonder flat rock lay the vessel, and there I burned her many years ago. See those blackened timbers half buried in the sand upon the beach; doubtless they are her ribs."
"It is strange that I should return hither, and thus, Nou," said Miriam sighing.
"Strange, indeed, but mayhap there is a meaning in it. Before you came in storm to grow to womanhood in peace; now, perchance, you come on a peaceful sea to pass through womanhood in storm."
"Both journeys began with death, Nou."
"As all journeys end. Blackness behind and blackness in front, and between them a space of sunshine and shadow--that is the law. Yet have no fear, for dead Anna, who had the gift of prophecy, foretold that you should live out your life, though with me, whose days are almost done, it may be otherwise."
Miriam's face grew troubled.
"I fear neither life nor death, Nou, who am willing to meet either as may chance. But to part with you--ah! that thought makes me fear."
"I think that it will not be yet awhile," said Nehushta, "for although I am old, I still have work to do before I lay me down and sleep. Come, Caleb calls us. We are to disembark while the weather holds."
So Miriam entered the boat with her grandfather and others who had escaped, for the faces of all of them were set towards Jerusalem, and was rowed to the shore over that very rock where first she drew her breath. Here they found Jews who had been watching for the coming of the galley. These men gave them a kind reception, and, what they needed even more, food, fire and some beasts of burden for their journey.
When all were gathered on the beach Caleb joined them, having handed over the galley to another Jew, who was to depart in her with those that waited on the shore, upon some secret mission of intercepting Roman corn-ships. When these men heard what he had done at Tyre, at first they were inclined to be angry, since they said that he had no authority to risk the vessel thus, but afterwards, seeing that he had succeeded, and with no loss of men, praised him and said that it was a very great deed.
So the galley put about and sailed away, and they, to the number of some sixty souls, began their journey to Jerusalem. A little while later they came to a village, the same where Nehushta had found the peasant and his wife, whose inhabitants, at the sight of them, fled, thinking that they were one of the companies of robbers that hunted the land in packs, like wolves, plundering or murdering all they met. When they learnt the truth, however, these people returned and heard their story in silence, for in those days such tales were common enough. As it came to an end a withered, sunburned woman advanced to Nehushta, and, laying one hand upon her arm, pointed with the other at Miriam, saying:
"Tell me, friend, is that the babe I suckled?"
Then Nehushta, knowing her to be the nurse who had travelled with them to the village of the Essenes, greeted her, and answered "Yea," whereupon the woman cast her arms about Miriam and embraced her.
"Day by day," she said, "have I thought of you, little one, and now that my eyes have seen you grown so sweet and fair, I care not--I whose husband is dead and who have no children--how soon they close upon the world." Then she blessed her, and called upon her angel to protect her yonder in Jerusalem, and found her food and an ass to ride; and so they parted, to meet no more.
As it happened, they were fortunate upon that journey, since, with the armed guard of twenty men who accompanied Caleb, they were too strong a party to be attacked by the wandering bands of thieves, and, although it was reported that Titus and his army had already reached Cęsarea from Egypt, they met no Romans. Indeed, their only enemy was the cold, which proved so bitter that when, on the second night, they camped upon the heights over against Jerusalem, having no tents and fearing to light fires, they were obliged to walk about till daylight to keep their blood astir. Then it was that they saw strange and terrible things.
In the clear sky over Jerusalem blazed a great comet, in appearance like a sword of fire. It was true that they had seen it before at Tyre, but never before had it shown so bright. Moreover, there it had not the appearance of a sword. This they thought to be an ill omen, all of them except Benoni, who said that the point of the sword stretched out over Cęsarea, presaging the destruction of the Romans by the hand of God. Towards dawn, the pale, unnatural lustre of the comet faded, and the sky grew overcast and stormy. At length the sun came up, when, to their marvelling eyes, the fiery clouds took strange shapes.
"Look, look!" said Miriam, grasping her grandfather by the arm, "there are armies in the heavens, and they fight together."
They looked, and, sure enough, it seemed as though two great hosts were there embattled. They could discern the legions, the wind-blown standards, the charging chariots, and the squadrons of impetuous horse. The firmament had become a battle-ground, and lo! it was red as with the blood of the fallen, while the air was full of strange and dreadful sounds, bred, perhaps, of wind and distant thunder, that came to them like the wail of the vanquished and the dull roar of triumphant armies. So terrified were they at the sight, that they crouched upon the ground and hid their faces in their hands. Only old Benoni standing up, his white beard and robes stained red by the ominous light, cried out that this celestial scene foretold the destruction of the enemies of God.
"Ay!" said Nehushta, "but which enemies?"
The tall Caleb, marching on his round of the camp, echoed:
"Yes, which enemies?"
Suddenly the light grew, all these fantastic shapes melted into a red haze, which sank down till Jerusalem before them seemed as though she floated in an ocean of blood and fire. Then a dark cloud came up and for a while the holy Hill of Zion vanished utterly away. It passed, the blue sky reappeared, and lo! the clear light streamed upon her marble palaces and clustered houses, and was reflected from the golden roofs of the Temple. So calm and peaceful did the glorious city look that none would have deemed indeed that she was already nothing but a slaughter-house, where factions fought furiously, and day by day hundreds of Jews perished beneath the knives of their own brethren.
Caleb gave the word to break their camp, and with bodies shivering in the cold and spirits terrified by fear, they marched across the rugged hills towards the Joppa gate, noting as they passed into the valley that the country had been desolated, for but little corn sprang in the fields, and that was trodden down, while of flocks and herds they saw none. Reaching the gate they found it shut, and there were challenged by soldiers, wild-looking men with ferocious faces of the army of Simon of Gerasa that held the Lower City.
"Who are you and what is your business?" these asked.
Caleb set out his rank and titles, and as these did not seem to satisfy them Benoni explained that the rest of them were fugitives from Tyre, where there had been a great slaughter of the Jews.
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