Presently Momus inquired of her by signs if she wished to go on to the lifeless village below the camp. She did not observe his gestures, and Momus decided for her. He drove on and the woman, who had wrapped her cloak about her as the biting wind of the hills heightened through the narrow defiles to the north, followed.
But almost the next instant Momus drew up his mount so suddenly that Laodice was roused. He turned and began to make rapid signs. Laodice half rose as she read them and pressed her hands together.
"Seven days!" she exclaimed in dismay. There was silence.
Momus made the camel kneel. He dismounted slowly, and began to undo the tent-cloth in a roll beside the howdah. The woman rode up and instantly the mute stepped between her and his young mistress and went on with his work.
Laodice understood the question in the woman's attitude although, with true sense of an inferior's place, the stranger did not speak.
"We are unclean," Laodice said with effort. "We have come from a pestilential city and we have touched the dead. We can not enter a town with these defilements upon us, except to present ourselves to a priest for examination and separation. Furthermore, we must burn our unessential belongings. If you are a Jewess all these things are known to you."
The woman extended her hands, palms upward, with a grace that was almost dainty.
"Lady," she said behind her unlifted veil, "I am an unlettered woman and have been accustomed to the instruction of my masters. I am obedient to the laws of our people."
"You would have been in less peril to have ridden alone," Laodice sighed. "Our company has been no help to you."
"We can not say that confidently. There are worse things than pestilence in the wilderness," the woman replied.
Momus seemed to observe more confidence than was natural in the ready answers of this professed servant, and before he would leave Laodice to pitch camp, he helped her to alight and drew her with him. The woman remained on her mount.
Gathering up sticks, dead needles of cedar and last year's leaves, he made a fire upon which he heaped fuel till it lighted up the near-by slopes of the hills and roared jovially in the broad wind.
It was a pocket in the heart of high hills into which they had fled. The bold, sure line of a Roman road divided it, cutting tyrannically through the cowed hovels of the town as an arrow drives through a flock of pigeons. On either side were the dim shapes of great rocks and semi-recumbent cedars. Retiring into shadow were the darker outlines of the surrounding circle of hills, rived by intervals of black night where wadies entered. From their summits the flying arch of the heavens sprang, printed with a few faint stars, but all silvered with the flood-light of a moon cold and pure as the frost itself. It was unsympathetic, aloof and wild -- a cold place into which to bring broken hearts to assume banishment from the comfort and companionship of mankind.
Laodice slowly and with effort began to separate those belongings which were to be laid upon the fire from those which were too necessary to be burned. The woman alighted but, on offering to assist, was warned away from the girl with a menacing gesture of Momus' great arm. The stranger drew herself up suddenly with a wrath that she hardly controlled but came no nearer Laodice. When the girl finally finished her selection, the woman begged permission to attend to the camels and getting the beasts on their feet led them together to be tethered.
Laodice, assisted by Momus, took up the condemned supplies and flung them one at a time upon the roaring fire. Little by little, with growing reluctance, the heap of spare belongings was examined and condemned, until finally only the garments they wore, the tents that were to shelter them and the essential harness of the camels were left. Then Momus drew from his wallet a fragment of aromatic gum and cast it on the blaze. While it ignited and burned with great vapors of penetrating incense, he unstrapped the precious casket, set it down between his feet, stripped off his comfortable woolen tunic and passed it through the volumes of white smoke piling up from the fire.
And while he stood thus a deft hand seized the casket from behind. There was a sharp, warning cry from Laodice. The old man staggered only a moment from the tripping that the wrench gave him, but in that instant of hesitation the pillager vanished.
The old mute shouted the infuriated, half-animal yell of the dumb and started in pursuit, but at his second step he saw the fleeter camel swing down the declivity, at top-speed, with the other trailing with difficulty at full length of its bridle behind. The next instant the muffled beat of the padded hooves drummed the solid bed of the Roman road, and the shapes of camels and fugitive were lost in blue darkness beyond the town.
There was no need for the pair left behind to await a realization of all that the loss meant to them. One running swiftly as a fine young creature can run when spurred by desperation, and the other, lamely but doggedly, as an old determined man, rushed down the rough side of the slope, leaped into the roadway and ran irrationally after the fugitive mounted upon a camel, fleeter than the fastest horse.
Momus saw with fear that Laodice on this straight inviting road would out-distance him to her peril. He shouted inarticulately after her, but her reply came back, high with desperation and terror.
"The corner-stone of Israel! All his treasure! God's portion, lost, lost!"
She was out of his sight. The sudden barking of dogs told him that she had crossed the outskirts of the village, and groaning with alarm for her the old man stumbled on after her. He saw lights flash out; heard shouts, and out of the confusion distinguished Laodice's, vehement and urging. The yapping of the town curs became less threatening and, by the time Momus reached the settlement, half-dressed Jews were hurrying east out of the village after the flying feet of the girl, in pursuit of the robber.
For unmeasured time, while the moon crossed its meridian and sloped down the west, the search continued. Momus did not overtake the fleet-footed party that preceded him. Stragglers that lost interest dropped back with him from time to time; but finding him dumb and immensely distressed, they disappeared eventually and returned to the town. One by one, at times by twos and threes the party dropped off. The three or four who remained helpful continued against hope, for simple pity for the girl. But when she dropped suddenly by the wayside, exhausted with the strain of many troubles, they stopped to tell her that the chase was fruitless and to offer their rough condolences.
Then Momus hobbled up to them. Laodice refused to raise her head to listen to them and they turned to the old man. But by signs, he showed them that his tongue was dead, and finally, with suppressed remarks upon the exceeding misfortune of the pair, they, too, disappeared. A thoughtful one invited them to return to the village. Laodice, careless now of what he should think of his exposure to pestilence, told him bluntly that they were unclean. Hastily he exclaimed at the sum of their troubles, hastily blessed them, and hastily departed.
There was a pallor along the under-rim of the east; the wind freshened with the sweet vigor of early morning.
Over the stunned silence came the sound of the infinite trotting of tiny hooves and a high, wild, youthful yell. Laodice, too worn to observe, sat still; but Momus, with a rush of old fairy-tales in mind, sprang to her side and seized her arm. His alarmed eyes searched the dark landscape for whatever visitation it had to reveal.
There was the rush of countless hoof-beats and a low cloud of dust obscured the crest of the hill just above them. The soft tremolo of multitudinous bleating came out of it. The quick excited bark of a fresh Natolian sheep-dog wakened an echo in one of the ravines through a hill on the opposite side of the road, while strong and insistent and happy the young cry preceded this sudden animation in the wilderness.
There was a fall of gravel on the slope over their heads and the next instant a fourteen-year-old boy descended upon the pair in a fall of earth, his sandaled feet planted one ahead of the other, his bare arms thrown above his head as he balanced himself, his long, stiff, crinkled black locks blowing backward, his face bright with the eager enjoyment of his simple feat.
After him came a veritable avalanche of Syrian sheep, scrambling to right and left as they parted behind Momus and Laodice and eddying around the young shepherd who stopped at seeing the pair. His yell died away at once, though the effort of sliding down a frozen, rocky slope had not interfered with a single note.
He might well have been a young satyr, fresh from the groves of Achaia, with his big, serious mouth and its range of glittering teeth, his shining deer-like eyes, wide apart, his faun curls low on his forehead, his big head set on a short neck, his shoulders yet childish, his slim brown body half smothered in skins, half bare as he was born, his large hard hand gripping a crook of horn and wood. His gaze at Momus was frank with boyish curiosity. His bright eyes plainly remarked on the oddity of the old servant's appearance. Having catalogued old Momus as worthy of further inspection, he looked then at Laodice. Under the lowering moon and the listless effort of coming day, her unmantled dress of silver tissue made of her a moon-spirit, banished out of her world of pallor and solitude. Before her splendid young beauty, pale with distress and weariness, he was not abashed. His simple eyes studied her with equal frankness, but with an admiration beyond words.
Feeling somehow that his sudden appearance might have distressed her, he said finally:
"Go on, lady, or stay as it pleases you. I will not hurt you."
Momus' shoulders submerged his ears in an indignant shrug. That this young calf of the pastures should insure him safe passage!
But Laodice was still filled with the calamity of her loss.
"Hast seen a robber, here, along this road?" she asked.
"Many of them," was the prompt answer.
"With a chest of jewels?"
The boy shook his head.
"I never examined their booty," he said with perfect respect.
"Or then a woman riding one camel and leading another?"
"Never anything like that."
Laodice, with this hope gone, let her face fall into her hands.
"His fortune given freely to Israel," she groaned. "His whole life's ambition reduced to material form for the help of his brethren -- gone, gone!"
The shepherd grew instantly distressed. He looked at Momus and asked in a whisper what had happened. But the old servant signed to his lips irritably, and stroked his young mistress' hair in a dumb effort to comfort her. The silence grew painful. In his anxiety to relieve them, he bethought him of their uncovered heads and houseless state.
"Do you live in the village; or do you camp near by?"
Momus shook his head. Laodice appreciated the boy's concern for them but could not make an attempt to explain.
"Then," he offered promptly, "come have my fire and my rock. It is the best rock in all these hills; and my tent," he added, showing the skins that wrapped him. "I wear my tent; it saves my carrying it. Indeed I do not need it; you may have it. Come!"
He spoke hurriedly, as if he would thrust his desire to comfort between her and the wave of disconsolation that he felt was about to cover her.
Old Momus, sensibly accepting the boy's suggestion as the wisest course, raised Laodice and motioning the shepherd to lead on, led his young mistress up the hill as the boy retraced his steps. The flood of Syrian sheep turned back with him and followed bleating between the urging of the sheep-dog, as the boy climbed.
On a slope to the west as a wady bent upon itself abruptly before it debouched upon the hillside, there was a deep glow illuminating a space in the depression. The shepherd dropped down out of sight. His voice came over the shuffle and bleat of the sheep.
"Follow me; this is my house."
Momus led his mistress over to the wady. There the shepherd with uplifted hands helped her down with the superior courtesy of a householder offering hospitality. There was a red circle of fire in the sandy bottom of the dry wady, and beside it was a flat boulder at the foot of which were prints of the shepherd's sandals and, on the bank behind it, the mark where his shoulders had comfortably rested. He made no apology for the poverty of his entertainment; he had never known anything better.
"Now, brother," he said busily to Momus, "if thou'lt lend me of thy height, thou shalt have of my agility and we will set up a douar for the lady."
With frank composure he stripped off the burden of skins that covered him until he stood forth in a single hide of wool, with a tumble of sheep pelts at his feet. In each one was a thorn preserved for use and with these he pinned them all together, scrambled out on the bank, emitting his startling cry at the sheep that obstructed his path. From above he shouted down to Momus.
"Stretch it, brother, over thy head. I shall pin it down with stones on either side. Now, unless some jackal dislodges these weights before morning, ye will be safe covered from the cold. There! God never made a man till He prepared him a cave to sleep under! I've never slept in the open, yet. How is it with thee now, lady?"
He was down again before her with the red light of the great bed of coals illuminating him with a glow that was almost an expression of his charity.
She saw that he had the straight serious features of the Ishmaelite, but lacked the fierce yet wondering gaze of the Arab. Aside from these superior indications in his face there was nothing to separate him from any other shepherd that ranged the mountainous pastures of Palestine.
She, who all her life had never known anything but to expect the tenderest of ministrations, was humbly surprised and grateful at the free-handed generosity of the young stranger. Momus looked at him with grudging approval.
"It is kindly shelter," she said finally with effort, "and it is warm. You are very good to us!"
"But you have not eaten of my salt," he declared.
Momus showed interest. It had been long since the last meal in the luxurious house of Costobarus. The boy in the meantime produced unleavened loaves from the carry-all of sheepskin that hung over his shoulders, and without explanation disappeared among his flock. Presently he returned with a small skin of milk.
"We have goats in the flock," he said. "A shepherd can not live without a goat. You do not know about shepherds," he added.
Laodice thought that she detected tactful inquiry in his last remark and roused herself painfully to make due explanations to her host. But he waved his hands at her, with the desert-man's courtesy which covers fine points better than the greater ones.
"Eat my fare; I do not purchase thy history with salt and shelter," he said, with a certain sublimity of honor.
Momus ate, and looked with growing grace at his young host. But Laodice succeeded only in drinking the goat's milk and lapsed into benumbed gazing at the red glow of fire that cast its warmth about her. The shepherd talked on, attempting to interest her in something other than her consuming sorrow.
"These be Christian sheep about you, friends," he said, "and I am a Christian shepherd."
Momus sat up suddenly with a bit of the boy's bread arrested on its way to his lips. He was eating the fare of an apostate, of a despised Nazarene. The boy went on composedly.
"We are from Pella, the Christian city. We are, my sheep, my city and I, the only secure people in all Judea. We, I and the sheep, have been in the hills since the first new grass in February. We are many leagues from home."
"So am I," Laodice said wearily.
"Jerusalem?" the shepherd asked, glad he had brought out a response. "No? Yet all Judea is going to Jerusalem at this time. Are you fugitives?"
"Come then to Pella," the shepherd urged. "You will be fed there; Titus will not come there. We are poor but we are happy -- and we are safe."
Laodice thanked him so inertly that he sensed her disinterest, and while he sat looking at her, searching his heart for something kind to say, she put out her hand impulsively and took his.
"God keep thee and forget thy heresy," she said. "If thou livest in Pella, Pella is indeed happy."
He laughed with a flush stealing up under the brown of his cheeks. A faint light came into Laodice's eyes as she looked at him; he returned her gaze with a gradual softening that was intensely complimentary. Between the two was effected instant and lasting fellowship. Before Momus' indignant eyes the shepherd was blushing happily.
"Who art thou?" Laodice asked.
"They call me Joseph, son of Thomas."
After a silence she said softly,
"I am not at liberty to tell my name." She remembered the secrecy of Philadelphus' mission. "Yet perchance if the God of my fathers prosper me and my husband, I may come to Pella -- as thy queen."
The boy's eyes brightened and he drew in a sharp breath, but almost instantly the animation died and he looked at her sorrowfully. It seemed that she read dissent and sympathy commingled in his gaze. But he was a Christian; he could not believe and hope as she hoped.
"Can I do aught for you?" he asked disjointedly.
"Our duty is rather toward you, child," she answered, suddenly arousing to the peril they might bring their free-handed host. "We have newly come from a country where there is pestilence."
But he smiled down on her uplifted face, with immense confidence.
"I am not afraid. Besides, if I perish giving you comfort, I have done only as Jesus would have me do."
"Who is Jesus?" Laodice asked.
The shepherd made a little sign and bent his knee.
"The Christ!" he responded.
Momus plucked quickly at Laodice's sleeve and shook his head at her in an admonitory manner. He had laid down his bread unfinished. But the shepherd looked at him sympathetically.
"Never fear," he said. "It will not hurt her to hear about Him. He makes Pella safe from armies. Let her come there and see for herself."
Laodice pressed his hand.
"I shall come," she said.
He heaved a contented sigh -- contented with himself, contented with her promise to come. Then he drew his hands away.
"The sheep are noisy; they will not let you sleep. We shall go." Then as if afraid of her thanks he drew away, and halted at the threshold of the shelter. Then the boy extended his hands with a gesture so solemn that both of his guests bowed their heads instinctively.
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you for evermore. Farewell," he said in a half-whisper.
He was gone.
Presently the rush of little feet swept after him and his high, wild, youthful yell rang faintly in the distance. The delicate crackling from the heated bed of coals was all that was heard in the sheltered wady roofed with skins.
For the second time within the past few hours, Laodice had met a Christian. Both had helped her; both had blessed her. And one was an old man and one was a child.
The interest of the recent interview and the excitement of the night slowly died away, leaving Laodice in the dead hopelessness of weary despair. She lay down suddenly with her face against the warmed sand and wept. Momus sat down beside her, covered her with a leopard skin taken from his own swarthy shoulders, and soothed her with awkward touches on cheek and hair, till her tears exhausted her and she slept.
Stealthily then the old man rolled up her own mantle and put it under her head and prepared to watch. And then as he sat with his knee drawn up, his head bowed upon it, the weakness of slumber gradually stole away his watchfulness and his concern.
Some time later, before the deliberate dawn of a March day had put out the last of the greater stars, two men on horses descended the declivity just above the shelter of sheepskins and attracted by the dull glow of the fire drew up cautiously.
At a word from one of the men, the other alighted and, peering from the shelter of a prostrate cedar, inspected the pair. After assuring himself that there were but two about the camp, one a woman and both asleep, he tiptoed back to his fellow.
"Only a man and a woman," he said. "Jews on their way to the Passover. Their fire is almost out. Let us ride on."
"What haste!" the one who had kept his saddle said. "One would think it were you going forward to meet a bride and her dowry! I am hungry. Let us borrow of this fire and get breakfast."
"Emmaus is only a little farther on," the first man protested. "I am tired of wayside meals, Philadelphus. I would eat at a khan again before I forget the custom."
"How is the pair favored?" the other said provokingly.
"I did not approach near enough," the other retorted. "It seemed to be an old man and a girl."
"Pretty?" the one called Philadelphus asked.
"I did not see."
"How could I tell?" Julian flared.
Philadelphus laughed, and dismounted.
"I shall see for myself," he declared, walking over to the sheltering cedar to look.
Julian followed him nervously, saying under his breath:
"You waste time deliberately!"
"Tut! You merely wish to keep me from seeing this girl," Philadelphus retorted.
He, too, stopped at the prostrate cedar and gazed under the sagging shelter of skins.
"Shade of Helen!" he exclaimed under his breath as the firelight gave him perfect view of the sleeping girl. "What have we here?"
Julian made no response. He drew nearer and looked in silence.
"Now what are they to each other?" Philadelphus continued. "Father and daughter; lady and servant or -- a courtezan and her manager?"
At the continued silence of his companion, he argued his question himself.
"No such ill-fashioned peasant loins as his ever begat such sweet patrician perfection as that!" he declared. "And a lady rich enough to have one servant would travel with more than one or not at all -- "
Julian broke in with sudden avid interest.
"Look at that deal of feminine flummery -- that dress of silver tissue, the ends of that silken scarf you see below the covering -- all those jewels and trinkets! Odd garb for travel afoot, is it not? It is a badge not to be put off even in as barren a market as this. She is going to Jerusalem for the Passover. He will carry the purse, however, mark me."
"How well you know the marks of delinquency!" Philadelphus said with a glimmer of resentment in his eyes.
"Who does not? What do the Jewish psalmists and proverbialists and purists depict so minutely as that migrating iniquity, the strange woman?"
"But look at her!" Philadelphus insisted. "I have not seen anything so bewitching since I left Ephesus!"
"No; nor a long time before!" Julian declared. "I must have a nearer look."
"Careful! You will wake her!"
Julian's face showed a sneer at his companion's concern.
"I'll have a care not to wake the old Boeotian," he said.
He stepped between Laodice and her sleeping servant. The mute with the stupor of slumber further to disable his dulled hearing, did not move.
"Young!" Philadelphus exclaimed in a whisper. "And new to the life!"
"Pfui!" Julian scoffed. "Sleep makes even Venus look innocent!"
"Then this is the most innocent wickedness I have seen in months!"
"So you catalogue innocence as a charm! It's not here. But if she had no beauty but that eyelash I'd be speared upon it!"
Philadelphus turned toward the old servant plunged in the exhausted sleep of weary age.
"Thou grizzled nightmare!" he exclaimed vindictively.
He glanced again at the girl. Julian had knelt beside her. Between the two men passed a look that was mutually understood.
"Remember," Julian whispered, "you are a married man."
Philadelphus paled suddenly with anger as the intent of his companion dawned upon him, but he put off his temper shrewdly.
"And so approaching a time when wayside beauties will no longer be free to me," he said, cutting off his fellow in the beginning of his preemption. "And you have a long freedom before you."
There was so much challenge in his manner that Julian accepted it. He reached into his tunic and drew forth a pair of dice.
"We will play for her," he said.
The Maccabee put the tesserae aside.
"We will not use them," he said. "I know them to be cogged. Let us have the judgment of a coin."
A bronze coin of Agrippa was produced. Julian in getting at his purse brushed against the sleeping girl and as the pair glanced at her before they tossed, her large eyes opened full in Julian's face. A moment, almost breathless for the two, and terror flared up in her eyes. She started up, but Julian's hand dropped on her.
"Peace, Phryne!" he said.
She shrank from his touch, literally into the arms upon which Philadelphus rested his weight. She looked up into his eyes, and saw them soften with a smile, and moved no farther. Philadelphus took the coin.
"Let Vespasian decide for me," he said.
"For me Fortunatus," said Julian.
Philadelphus filliped the coin and flung out a strong and fending hand against his fellow covering it. Under the brightening day, the lowering profile of the old plebeian emperor Vespasian showed distinctly on the newly minted bronze.
Julian made a sharp menacing sound, and with clenched hands rose on his knees. But Philadelphus looked at him steadily, half-amused at the implied threat, half-inviting its fulfilment, and under his gaze, Julian rose slowly and drew away. Philadelphus tossed the coin after him. His cousin picked it up and put it in his purse.
[Illustration: Philadelphus looked down upon his prize.]
Philadelphus looked down at his prize.
She had not flinched from him when she had found him beside her, with Julian threatening her. But now her wide open eyes fixed upon his brimmed with an agony of appeal. Innocent of the world's wickedness, she could only sense supreme peril in this mysterious game without understanding the stake. Momus was not in sight -- dead for all she knew -- and the desert was an ally against her. Over her, now, bent a face characteristic of a great spirit, yet one which was coeval with the times -- times of violence and the supremacy of force. His lips were thin, the contour of his face angular at the jaw, the nose straight and long, his brows black and low over dark blue eyes of a fathomless depth, the forehead strongly molded, and marked with deep perpendicular lines between the eyes. He was dark, heavy-haired, young, lean, broad and of fine height even as he knelt beside her. Laodice did not note any of these things. She was only conscious of the immense power her terror and her helplessness had to combat. Back of all this iron selfishness, she hoped that somewhere was a gentleness, even if inert and useless. All her strength was concentrated in the effort to bring it to life.
He gazed at her, apparently unconscious of the desperation in the face lifted to him. The slow smile that presently grew again in his eyes was none the less unthoughted. He slipped his hand under a strand of her rich hair that had fallen and drew it out, slowly, at full length. Slowly his eyes followed it as inch by inch it slipped through his fingers. Old memories seemed to struggle to the surface; old tendernesses; recollection of pure hours and holy things; paganism dropped from him like a husk and the spiritual hauteur of a Jew brought the expression of the unhumbled house of Judah into his face. Through a notch in the hills a golden beam shot from the sun and penetrating this inwalled valley lay like an illuminating fire on the man's face and glorified it. Laodice's breath stopped.
Slowly his fingers slipped along the fine silken length of that shining strand until his arm extended to the full; and the end of the lock yet rested on her breast. Thus might have been the hair of that Rahab, who was no less a patriot because she was frail; thus, the hair of Bathsheba, who was the mother of the wisest Israelite though she sinned; thus the hair of that mother of Samson, who slew armies single-handed! Badge of Judah, mark of the haughty strength of the oldest enlightenment in the world! He would not initiate his succor of Israel with violence against its purest type.
He smiled slowly; slowly let the strand fall through his fingers. He looked into her eyes and she saw a sudden light immeasurably compassionate and tender grow there. A weakness swept over her; she felt that she had been longing for that light. Then he rose quickly and moved away.
Old Momus, the mute, with his head on his knees slept on.
Julian, who had been halted involuntarily by the attitude of his companion and had been an amazed witness of this extraordinary end of the incident, looked at Philadelphus' face in frank stupefaction. But Philadelphus laid a hand so forceful and compelling on his companion's shoulder that it left the pink print of his fingers on the flesh, turned him toward the horses and led him away.
"We will breakfast farther on," he said.
A moment and they were swinging down the stony side of the hill toward the east, and Laodice, with her hand clutching her excited heart, had not thought of flinging herself upon Momus. She raised herself gradually to watch them as far as she could see, and her fixed and stunned gaze rested with immense homesickness and longing on the taller man radiant against the background of a risen sun.