So with his house yet ringing with the first convulsion of terror Costobarus ordered his party with all haste to the camels.
Keturah, Laodice's handmaiden, had fainted with terror and was carried parcel-wise over the great arm of Momus, the mute, out into the street and deposited summarily on the floor of Laodice's bamboo howdah. The camel-driver, Hiram, seemed only a little less stupefied than she. The mute, with a face as determined and threatening as an uplifted gad, drove him from the shelter of a dark corner out to his place on the neck of his master's camel. Aquila, the emissary, showed the immemorial composure in the face of disaster that was the badge of the Roman in the days of the degenerate Caesars, and, mounting his horse when the rest of the party were in their places, headed the procession toward the northeast.
From an upper window behind a lattice, Hannah cried her farewells and fluttered her scarf. She was smiling the drawn, white smile of a mother who is forcing herself to be cheerful in the face of danger, for the peace of those she loves. Laodice understood the tender deception and when a sharp turn of the street cut off the sight of the plumy trees of the garden, she covered her face and wept inconsolably.
On either side of the passage there came muffled sounds from houses; out of open alleys leading into interior courts stole the fetor of death that even the spice of burning unguents could not smother. The whole air shuddered with the drumming of heathen physicians in the pagan quarters, through which the silence of long stretches of ominously quiet houses shouted its meaning. At times frantic barefoot flights could be glimpsed as households deserted stricken houses, but whatever outcry arose came from bedsides. Ascalon fled as a frightened animal flees, silently and under cover.
They rode now through a shrieking wind, burdened with sallow smoke and dreadful odors. Denser and denser the cloud grew till the streets ahead were hidden in yellow vapor and near-by houses loomed with dim outlines as if far off, and even the sounds of death and disaster became choked in the immense prevalence of smell. Blinded, with scarf and kerchief wrapped over mouth and nostril, the fleeing party swept down upon the very heart of that stifling mystery. Through it presently, as the houses thinned out, they saw cores of great heat surmounted by black-tipped flames that crackled savagely. Momus, now in the lead, turned sharply to his right and the next instant had the wind behind him. Almost involuntarily each member of the party looked back. Outside the breach of the broken wall, standing clear to view with the wind from the hills sweeping townward from them, were diabolical figures, naked and black, feeding immense pyres with hideous fuel.
Past this grisly line, a camel with a single rider swept in from seaward. The traveler lifted an arm and signaled to the party. Aquila seemed not to see this hail, and rode on; but Costobarus, after the traveler motioned to them once more, spoke:
"Does not this person make signs to us, Aquila?"
The pagan looked back.
"Why should he?" he asked.
"He can tell us," the master observed and spoke to Momus and Hiram, who drew up their camels. The traveler raced alongside.
It was a woman, veiled and wrapped with all the jealous care of the East against the curious eyes of strangers. Aquila took in her featureless presence with a single irritated look and apparently lost interest.
"Greeting, lady," Costobarus said.
"Peace, sir, and greeting," she replied respectfully. Her tones were marked with the deference of the serving-class and Costobarus gave her permission to speak.
"Art thou a Jew and master of this train?" she asked.
"I was journeying to Jerusalem with a caravan of which my master was owner, but the Romans came upon us and took every one prisoner, except myself. I escaped, but I am without protection and without friends. In Jerusalem, I have relatives who will care for me, yet I fear to make the journey alone. I pray thee, with the generosity of a Jew and the authority of a master, permit me to go in the protection of thy company!"
Costobarus reflected and while he hesitated he became aware that Momus was looking at him with warning in his eyes. But Laodice, so filled with loneliness and apprehension, was moved to sympathy for the solitary and friendless woman. She leaned toward her father and said in a low voice:
"Let her come with us, father; she is a woman and afraid."
Aquila heard that low petition and he flashed a look at the stranger that seemed reproachful. But Costobarus was speaking.
"Ride with us, then, and be welcome," he said.
The woman bowed her shawled head and murmured with emotion after a silence:
"The blessings of a servant be upon you and yours; may the God of Israel be with you for evermore."
She dropped back to the rear of the party and the train moved on.
Meanwhile, Keturah, who sat huddled on the floor of Laodice's howdah, had not moved since they had left the doorway of Costobarus' house. Momus, on the neck of Laodice's camel, had observed her once or twice, and now he reached back and touched her. He jerked his hand away and brought up his camel with a wrench. Hiram, following close behind, by dint of main strength managed to avoid a collision with Momus' beast so suddenly halted. The mute leaped down from his place and in an instant Costobarus joined him. Alarmed without understanding, Laodice had risen and was drawn as far as she might from the serving-woman. Momus, lifting himself by the stirrup, seized the stiff figure and laid it down upon the sands. Aquila dismounted and the three men bent over the woman. Then Costobarus glanced up quickly at Laodice, made a sign to Momus, who, with a face devoid of expression, climbed back into his place on the neck of the camel.
The strange woman who had stood her ground was heard to say in a low voice, half lost in the muffling of her wrappings:
Momus drove on leisurely and Laodice, knowing that she must not look, slipped down in her place and wrapped her vitta over her face.
Pestilence was riding with them.
After a long time, Costobarus' camel ambled up beside hers, and she ventured to uncover her eyes. Her father smiled at her with that same heart-breaking smile which her mother had for her in face of trouble.
"The frosts! The frosts!" he whispered to Momus, and the mute laid goad about his camel.
Aquila, seeing this haste, checked his horse's gait and fell back beside the strange woman. Together they permitted the rest of the party to ride ahead, while they talked in voices too restrained to be heard.
"There is pestilence in this company," Aquila said angrily; "will that not persuade you to abandon this plan?"
"No. When all of you are like to die and leave this great treasure sitting out in the wilderness without a guardian?" she said lightly. There was no trace of a servant's humility in her tone.
"Hast had the plague that thou seem'st to feel secure from it?" he demanded.
"O no; then there would be no risk in this game. There is no sport in an unfair advantage over conditions. No! But how comes this Costobarus with you?"
"He would not trust his daughter and a dowry to me, alone."
"How shall we get to Emmaus, then?" she asked.
"We shall not get to Emmaus; so you must inform Julian, who will expect us there," he declared.
The woman played with the silken reins of her camel. Behind her veil a sarcastic smile played about the corners of her mouth. Aquila watched her resentfully, waiting with an immense reserve of caustic words for her refusal to accept the charge.
"So, my Mars of the gray temples, thou meanest in all faith to deliver up this lady and her treasure to Julian?"
"By those same gray temples, I do! And hold thy peace about my white hairs. Nothing made them so but thyself -- and this evil plot in which I am tangled. What does Julian mean to do with this poor creature?"
"He has not got her yet and by the complication thou seest now, wearing its turban over one ear in yonder howdah, it may come to pass that he will never have her -- and her dowry."
"Pfui! How little you know this Julian! Besides, I am pledged to deliver him -- at least the treasure."
"And thou meanest to line his purse with this great treasure because he paid thee to do it?"
"I shall; and be rid of it!"
The woman smiled sarcastically.
"And scorn it for thyself?"
Aquila made no answer, but rode on in sulky silence.
"Perpol, it must be pleasant to be a queen," the woman observed with an assumption of childishness in her voice.
"Peril's own habit!" Aquila declared.
"Peril! Fie! That is half the pleasure of this game of life. It is tiresome to live any other way than hazardously."
"Thou shalt have pleasure enough in this journey thou art to take," Aquila declared a little threateningly.
The woman laughed. When Aquila spoke again, his voice was full of concern.
"I was a fool for not forcing you to stay in Ascalon. You are reckless -- reckless!"
"It was that which made me attractive," the woman broke in, "to Nero, to Vitellius and to you."
"Reckless and useless!" Aquila went on decisively. "Hear me, now; I trifle no longer. Sometime to-night thou'lt leave us and journey to Emmaus and inform Julian what has wrecked his plans, and send him with despatch to Zorah. This thou wilt do, by all the Furies, or when I do catch thee as I shall, since there is no other fool in Judea who will undertake to feed thee, I shall leave the print of my displeasure on thee from thy head to thy heel! Mark me!"
The woman laughed aloud, with such peculiar insolence and amusement that one of the servants heard her and turned his head that way.
"Pah! What a timid villain thou art," the woman said, when the servant looked away again. "How much better it would have been had Julian fixed upon me as his confederate!"
"Not for Julian! You plot against him even now. But say what you will, you go to Emmaus to-night, without fail. I have spoken!"
Aquila touched his horse and riding away from the woman came up beside Costobarus who was gazing over the country through which they were passing.
It was a great plain, advancing by benches and slopes to the edge of a rocky shore. Without forests, spotted only with verdure, vast, barren, exhausted with the constant production of fourteen centuries, it was a cheerless sea-front at its best. To the west the wash of the tideless Mediterranean tumbled along an unindented coast; to the east the sallow stony earth went up and up, toward an ever receding sallow horizon. Between lay humbled towns, wholly abandoned to the bats and to the ignoble wild life of the Judean wilderness. There were no sheep or cattle. Vespasian had passed that way and required the flocks of the nation for the subsistence of his four legions. There were no olive or fig groves. They had been the first to fall under the Roman ax, for the policy of Roman warfare was that the first step in subduing a rebellious province was to starve it. The vineyards had suffered the same end. The enriched soil of these inclosures, made one now with the wild at the leveling of their hedges, produced acres of profitless weeds, green against the rising brown bosom of the hill-fronts. Here and there were the fallen walls of isolated homes -- wastes of masonry already losing all domestic signs. There were no gardens; it had been two seasons since the wheat and the barley had been reaped last, and the seaboard of southern Judea, in the path of Rome the destroyer, was a wilderness.
Over all this immense slope the eyes of Costobarus wandered. However he had felt in the preceding days when he looked upon this ruin of the land of milk and honey, he realized now suddenly and in all its fearful actuality the predicament of Judea, its despair and the gigantic travail before those who would save it from the united sentence passed upon it by God and the powers. Immense dejection seized him. He looked from the face of the country, upon which not a single thing of profit showed, toward the bowed head and oppressed figure of his young and inexperienced daughter who was to put her tender self between Ruin and its victim. Chills, succeeded by flashes of fever, swept over him. He raised himself as if to give command to Aquila but settled back under the canopy, grown immeasurably older and feebler in that moment of helpless surrender to conditions of which he had been part an artificer. It was not as if he had made an incautious move in a political game; it was, as it seemed to him undeniably then, that he had advanced against the Lord God of Hosts, and there was no turning back!
He settled slowly into a stunned anguish that seemed to rise gradually, like a filling tide, shutting out the sunset and the seaboard, the bald earth and the streaming wind, and engulfing him in roaring darkness and intense cold.
They were in sight of a cluster of Syrian huts, the first inhabited village they had come upon since leaving Ascalon, but he was not aware of it. The sudden halting of his camel and a hoarse strained cry at hand seemed to bear some relation to his condition, but he did not care. He felt his howdah lurch to one side as some one leaped up beside him; he felt remotely the great grasp of hands on him, which must have been Momus'; the quick military voice of Aquila he heard and then, keen and distinct as a call upon him, the sound of Laodice's tones made sharp with terror.
He opened his eyes and saw her, holding him in her arms. Somewhere in the background were the faces of Momus and Aquila. Between the pagan and the old servant passed a look that the old man caught. Then he heard Aquila say:
"The village -- his sole chance, if there is a physician there."
Laodice held him fast only for a moment, when it seemed that she was wrenched away. The dying man was glad. If this were pestilence, she should not come near. The hiss of the lash and the bound of the stung camel disturbed him but he lapsed into the immense cold again as they raced down the slight declivity toward the Syrian village. But Pestilence was riding with them and the odds were with it.
But the dwellers of that little huddle of huts had nothing to do but to sit in their doorways and suspect. Whatever came their way from the sea for many months had brought them disaster and long since they had learned to defend themselves. So now, when a party riding at breakneck speed, bearing with them an old man on whom the inertia of death was plain, came across the frontiers of their little town, they met them with the convenient stones of their rocky streets, with their savage, stark-ribbed dogs, with offal from kitchen heap and donkey stall and with insults and curses.
"Away, ye bringers of plague! Out, lepers; be gone, ye unclean!"
Laodice and Aquila who rode in the open were fair targets for half the hail that fell about them. The girl groaned as the missiles fell into the howdah upon the helpless shape of Costobarus, who did not lift a hand to fend off the stones. The pagan, bruised and raging, drew his weapon and spurred his horse to ride down his assailants, but they scattered before him and from safe refuge continued their assault with redoubled determination.
Momus, seeing only injury in attempting to enforce hospitality, turned his camel and, swinging around the outermost limits of the settlement, fled. Aquila followed him, and a moment later the rest of the party joined them.
Without the range of the village, the party halted. Momus and Aquila lifted Costobarus down and laid him on a rug that Laodice had spread for him. But when she would have knelt by him, he motioned to Aquila not to permit her to approach. The mute stood by his master. In that countenance fast passing under shade was written charge and injunction as solemn as the darkness that approached him.
"Here, O faithful servant, is the wife of a prince, the daughter of thy master, the joy of thine own declining days. Shield her against wrong and misfortune by all the strength that in thee lies, as thou hopest in the King to come and the reward of the steadfast. Promise!"
They were silent lips that once knew the art and the sound of speech. The old habit never entirely fell away from them. Under this anguish they moved -- fruitlessly; over the deformed face flitted the keen agony of regret; then he lifted his great left arm and bent it upward at the elbow; the huge, even monstrous muscles, knotted and kinked from shoulder to elbow, sank down under the broad barbarian bracelet of bronze and rippled under and rose again from elbow to wrist, ferocious, superhuman! In that movement the dying man read the mute's consecration of his one great strength to the protection of the tenderly loved Laodice. Costobarus motioned to the shittim-wood casket and Momus undid it and strapped it on his own belt.
"The frosts! The frosts!" the dying man whispered. The mute understood. Then the father's eyes wandered toward the figure of his daughter fended away from him by the pagan. The agony of her suffering and the agony of his distress for her bridged the space between them. And while they yearned toward each other in a silence that quivered with pain, the light darkened in Costobarus' eyes.
When Laodice came to herself, she was laid upon a spot of rough grass, in the shelter of an overhanging bluff. It was not the scene upon which her sorrow-stunned eyes had closed a while before. The village was nowhere in sight; the plain had been left behind; any further view was shut off by Aquila's horse, and the two camels whose bridles were in the hands of Hiram. Beside the stricken girl knelt Momus and Aquila; standing at her feet was a new-comer, on whom her wandering and half-conscious gaze rested.
He was an old man, clad in a short tunic, ragged of hem and girt about him with a rope. Barefoot, bareheaded and provided only with a staff and a small wallet, he was to outward appearances little more than one of the legion of mendicants that infested the poverty-stricken land of Judea. But his large eyes, under the tangle of wind-blown white hair and white shelving brows, were infinitely intelligent and refined. Now, they beamed with pity and concern on the bereaved girl.
But she forgot him the next instant, for returning consciousness brought back like a blow the memory of the death of her father.
From time to time she caught snatches of conversation between the old wayfarer and Aquila. They were spoken in low tones and only from time to time did they reach her.
"He was Costobarus, principal merchant of this coast," she heard Aquila explain shortly.
"I shall go on to Ascalon; I do not fear," the old man said next. "I shall bring his people to fetch his body. I marked the spot. Comfort her with that, when she can bear to talk of it."
"We go to Jerusalem," Aquila went on, some time later, "else we should turn back with him ourselves. But we dare not risk the pestilence on her account, for it seems that she is very necessary to the Jews at this hour -- very necessary."
"I follow to the Holy City," the old wayfarer added at last. "The Passover is celebrated there within two weeks. But I shall not fail; nothing will harm me."
"What talisman do you carry to protect you?" the pagan asked a little irritably.
"No talisman, but the love of Jesus Christ, the Saviour!"
"A Christian!" Aquila exclaimed.
Even through her stupor of grief and hopelessness, Laodice heard this exclamation. Here, then, was one of the Nazarenes, that mysterious sect whose tenets she had never been permitted to hear; But also, she knew that the old apostate had braved the plague and had buried her father. She turned to look at him in time to see him extend his hands in blessing over her.
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and his comfort be with you, for ever; amen. Farewell."
He was gone. Momus raised her in his arms and, lifting her into her howdah, laid her tenderly on the improvised reclining seat that had been made of the chair therein. In a twinkling the whole party had mounted, and passed swiftly on toward Jerusalem. As they moved forward, the strange woman murmured softly:
Laodice's camel mounted the slope toward the east and stretched away on a comparative level toward an immense white moon. Aquila's horse kept up with the matchless speed of the tall camel only at times, and Laodice, dully sensing that they were going at hot haste, realized that a race was on between them and the pestilence. Momus was wielding the goad for a run to the frosts.
A camel raced up beside Aquila.
"Look!" the woman said to him in a lowered tone, showing back over the road by which they had come. Aquila turned in his saddle and looked. Momus rose in his seat and looked. Behind them only one camel rocked along in their wake. The other and its driver had disappeared.
"Deserted!" Aquila exclaimed under his breath.
"Three!" the woman said.
"A pest on your counting for a Charon's toll-taker!" Aquila whispered savagely. "We will have no more of it!"
"No?" the woman said with a meaning that made the pagan shiver.
Momus laid goad about his camel.
The way continually ascended toward the east; the soil was no longer sandy, but rocky; no longer given up to desolate gardens, but black with groves of cedars and highland shrubs. They swung off a plateau that would have ended in a cliff, down a shaly sheep-path into a wady. Under the moonlight, the bottom was seen to be scarred with marks of hoof and wheel. It debouched suddenly into a Roman road, straight, level, magnificently built and running as a bird flies on to Jerusalem.
The camel's gait increased. Momus settled himself in a securer position and Laodice, careless of the outcome of this breathless hurry, yielded herself to the careen of her howdah. At times, her indifferent vision caught, through moonlit notches and gaps, glimpses of great blue vapors, crowned with pale fire and piled in glorious disorder low on the eastern horizon. They were the hills encompassing Jerusalem. The stream of wind on her face cooled and drove stronger.
Aquila rode closer to her, his horse panting under the effort. His face looked strange and distressed.
"Lady," he said in low tones, "necessity forces me to speak to you in your grief; do not blame me for indifference to your desire to be alone. But we must care for you, though in your heart this moment you may resent a wish to live. But your father commanded me!"
She gave him attention.
"Let us not carry peril with us," he added in a half-whisper. "Let us not carry food for pestilence with us."
"I do not understand," she answered, adopting his low tone.
"The more we are, the more of us to die. You must live; I must live," he explained, nodding toward Momus.
After a little silence, she asked:
"Do we not ride toward the frosts?"
"Yes; but even now pestilence may ride on beside us -- your servant and this woman. Let us save ourselves."
"Abandon them?" she questioned.
"Lest they go on without us," he added.
Momus turned suddenly and gazed at Aquila. Then he imperiously signed the pagan to fall back.
They rode on.
The pagan slackened his horse's gallop and reined in beside the woman. They talked together, argumentatively, for a single tense minute and then Aquila, with a bitter word, put spurs to his animal and dashed up beside Laodice's camel. In his one uplifted hand a knife gleamed. The other reached toward the casket bound to Momus' hip. Laodice, raised to an upright attitude in her fresh fright, saw that his face was black and twisted and that he wavered stiffly in his saddle.
But the mute did not await the attack. He seized the pagan's outstretched hands with that monstrous left and flung him backward. Without an effort to save himself, falling rigidly and with a strange cry, Aquila dropped back over his horse's crupper into the dust of the road.
"Momus!" Laodice screamed.
Back of her the woman cried out:
"On! On! It is the pestilence!"
Momus wielded his goad. Laodice, shaking and crying aloud, looked back to see the strange woman swerve her camel past the dark shape lying with out-flung arms in the road and sweep quickly on after them.
The scourge had overtaken Aquila.
All night the camels fled east, all night the soft footfall of the woman's beast pursued them; all night the wind freshened until Laodice's bared face stiffened with the cold and the breath of the mute that sat upon her camel's neck steamed in the moonlight. Up and up, by steep and winding wadies they mounted; under overhanging cliffs and past bald towers of hill-rock staring white in the moon, along black passes between brooding eminences of solid night, crowned with ghost-light; over high plateaus darkened with groves, down dales with singing, invisible streams running seaward and up again and on until the hills engulfed them wholly and those before were higher than any they had seen. Then their flying beasts, leaving the Roman road over which they had sped for some distance, followed a sheep-path and burst into an open immersed in moonlight. Below in the distance was a cluster of huts, white and lifeless. But abroad, over the crisp grass and misty white on all the exposed slopes, sparkled the deep hoar frost!