Since the hour in which the Roman eagles had appeared above the horizon to the west in their circling over the rebellious province of Judea there had not been one day of peace. Then their coming had meant the approach of an enemy. But in a short time such implacable and fierce oppressors, with such genius for ferocity and bloodshed, had developed among the Jews' own factions that the miserable citizens had turned to the tyrant Rome for rescue. They who had risen against Florus and had driven him out would have willingly accepted him again in place of Simon bar Gioras and John of Gischala, before two years had elapsed. Now, their plight was so desperate that they clambered daily upon the walls of their unhappy city to look for the first glimpse of the approaching enemy, Titus, whom they had learned to call the Deliverer.
Near noon of this day in March certain citizens on the wall beside Hippicus saw a flash down the road to the west beyond the Serpent's Pool near Herod's monuments. Again they saw it and again, until they observed that its appearance was rhythmic, striking through a soft colored cloud of Judean dust.
Out of that yellow haze, rolling nearer, they saw now the glittering Roman standards emerge, one by one; saw the spiky level of shouldered spears; saw the shapes of horses, saw the shapes of men; heard the soft thunder of six hundred horse on the packed earth, heard the music of six hundred whetting harnesses; heard like a tender, far-off song the winding of a Roman bugle and heard then in their own hearts, the shout: "He has come! The Deliverer!"
It was the hour of the City's last hope.
On the near side of the Pool of the Serpent, they saw the body of horse break into a light trot and, wheeling in that fine concord in which even the dumb beasts were perfect, turn the broadside of the splendid column to Jerusalem as it swept up Hill Gareb to the north.
The citizens clambered down from the wall by Hippicus and, speeding silently but with moving lips and shining eyes through alleys and byways, came finally to an angle in Agrippa's wall that stood out toward Gareb. Here was built the Tower of Psephinos. Dumb and callous as beasts to the blows and commands of the sentries there mounted, the citizens clambered up on the fortifications and, with their chins on the battlements that stood shoulder-high, gazed avidly at the sight they saw.
Scattered confidently over the uneven country the six hundred had broken file and were in easy disarray all over Gareb. Spears were at rest, standards grounded, many were dismounted, whole companies slouched in their saddles. The Jews, long used to rigid military discipline among the Romans, looked in amazement. Then a light click of a hoof attracted their attention to the bridle-path immediately under the overhanging battlements.
There a solitary horseman rode. Not a scale of armor was upon his horse; not a weapon, not even a shield depended from his harness. His head was uncovered and a sheeny purple fillet showed in the tumbled, dusty black hair. There was no guard on the hand that held the bridle; the cloak that floated from his shoulders was white wool; the tunic was the simple light garment that soldiers usually wear under armor; the shoes alone were mailed. It seemed that the young Roman had stripped off his helmet, breast-plate and greaves to ride less encumbered or to appear less warlike.
But the Jews who looked at him understood. Here was Titus come in peace!
The horse went with loosened rein, while the young Roman's eyes raised to the great wall towering over him had more of admiration and a generous foe's appreciation of his enemy's strength than of the note-making search of a spy in them.
"Ha! By Hector, that penurious Herod was a builder!" they seemed to say. "There is enough stone insolence in these walls to trouble Rome for a while!"
Rod after rod of the slowly rising ground he traversed; rod after rod of the tall fortification passed under his inspection, and now the twin Women's Towers rose upon the ashes and scarped rock to the north.
Titus spoke to his horse and rode faster.
Meanwhile silent dozens climbed panting and dumbly resisting the sentries up beside the first Jews. They were citizens who dared not rejoice aloud. They followed the young Roman with brightened eyes, saying each within his heart:
"Thus David came up against Saul, unto Israel!"
But there was an increase of uproar in the city below, as if news of the coming of Titus had spread abroad.
Titus was now almost a mile from the nearest of his soldiers. He passed the Gate of the Women's Towers. Hedges, gardens, ditches and wind-breaks of cedars of Lebanon from time to time obscured him. When he came in sight again, he had placed obstruction between himself and retreat.
The next instant the Gate of the Women's Towers swung in. Out of it rushed a sortie of motley soldiery, brandishing weapons and shouting the war-cries of Simon and John.
The citizens on the walls pressed their hands to their temples and watched, transfixed with horror. Jerusalem's defenders had gone out against the Deliverer!
The attack had been seen by the disorganized troops on Gareb and the rapid trumpet-calls showed formation. But between the time of their movement and the moment of their relief a company could have been unhorsed. Meanwhile Titus, with nothing less than Fate preserving him for its own work, dodged javelins and, enraging the white stallion that he rode, kept out of reach of hand-to-hand encounter with his assailants. Back and forward he rode, his horse carrying him at times out of range of missiles; again, all but surrounded by the unorganized enemy. About his head whizzed axes and spears, wild, and frequently slaying their own. Far up the slope of Gareb the six hundred gathered itself and swept in mass down upon the conflict.
Between them and Titus lay two furlongs. To join his column with all honor to himself, he had to work back over the wadies he had crossed and circle the gardens that stood in his way. But a hedge pressed too close upon the space he must pass, between it and the enemy, before he could return to his men. An ax glanced beside his ear; he wavered in his saddle. Then, that happened which a Roman of that day could not be forced to do and forget.
Titus wheeled his horse and, plunging his spurs into its sides, fled on into the open country to the north, with the jeers of the men of Simon and John following him.
His troops rushed down upon his assailants. But the wary soldiers turned when the Roman had fled and the Gate of the Women's Towers closed upon them.
Up from the visitors within the wall rose a shout:
"A sign, a sign! An omen! Thus shall the children of God overthrow the heathen in battle!"
But one of the Jews on the wall thrust his fingers under his turban and seized his hair.
"Jerusalem is fallen! Woe! Woe to the wicked city!"
He turned in his place and leaped a good twenty feet to the ground. When he raised himself the look of a maniac had settled on his face. Tearing his garments from him as he went, he entered a narrow street that made its ascent toward Zion by steps and cobbled slants. Here he came upon great crowds of terror-stricken citizens who had rushed together as the news spread abroad over Jerusalem that the men of Simon and John had gone out against the Deliverer. No definite news of the outcome of the sortie had reached them and they were moving in a dense pack down toward the walls to hear the worst. The whole hurrying mass seemed to vibrate with suspense and dread. The maniac met them.
"Woe, woe to Jerusalem!" he cried.
A lean, apish, half-naked, lash-scarred idiot in the street, instantly, as if in echo to that mad cry, shouted in a voice of the most prodigious volume:
"A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the Holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides and a voice against this whole people!"
The temper of the crowd had reached that point of tension that needed only a little more strain to become panic. Some one received the discordant cries of the maniacs with piercing rapid screams. Instantly the choked passage filled with frantic uproar. Scores attempting to flee blindly trampled over those transfixed with fear. They fought, men with women, youths with old age, children with one another. Hundreds attracted by the tumult rushed in on the panic and added fresh victims and new death. Out of the horror rose the fearful cries of the madmen:
"Woe, woe to this wicked city!"
Meanwhile, the soldiers of Simon and John came to prevent citizens from gathering in bodies, and with sword and spear drove into the struggle and added murder to it all. The spirit of terror then issued out of that bloody alley and seized upon street by street. Far and wide the tumult ran, growing in volume with every accession, until the raging and humiliated Titus, among his six hundred, heard Jerusalem howl like a beaten slave and hushed his pagan curses to listen.
Late that same afternoon, the Esquiline Gate, inaccessible, despised and sealed, was broken open from within and under it and down its difficult and dangerous approach poured a silent multitude, numbering thousands. They were abandoning the Rock of David to its fate. Among them went the last remnants of that sect of Christians who had tarried long after their brethren had been warned away, hoping against hope.
They were not missed among the numbers in Jerusalem, for the Passover hosts still poured through the gates to the south and took their places in the unhappy city. And with these that same afternoon Laodice and her old servant came into Jerusalem.
It was the eighth day after they had applied to the priest at Emmaus whither they had fled in their search for the frosts, a good three leagues north of the direct road to Jerusalem. They had stopped at the Lavatory outside the walls, washed themselves and had purchased the white garments of the purified. Old Momus carried with him the price of the lambs, of the fine flour and the oil for their cleansing and the two were ready to present themselves for their purification at the Temple. But all the roar and disorder of the great city in its warfare and its discord confused them. Ascalon had not a thousandth part of this turmoil at its busiest season. Neither was there a servant in a purple turban with the gold star to meet them and they were bewildered and lost.
The rest of the visitors to the Passover hurried into the heart of the city; wave after wave of new-comers replaced them; but the young woman and her dumb old servant stood aside just within reach of the shadow of the immemorial portal and waited.
Time and again wolfish Idumean soldiers who were numerous about the place noted the pair and commented to one another or spoke insolently to the shrinking girl who hid ineffectually behind her veil. Hour after hour they stood with growing distress and no friendly face in all that army of hurrying, restless, quarreling Jews welcomed them.
The afternoon waned. Laodice thought of the darkness and trembled.
An old man fumbling a talisman of bone drew near them. Laodice took courage and approached him.
"I pray thee, sir, I seek Amaryllis, the Seleucid."
The old man turned large, grave eyes upon her.
"Daughter, what dost thou know of this woman?" he asked.
"My husband knows her; I do not. I am to join him under her roof."
The old man looked reassured.
"Follow this street unto one intersecting it on the summit of Zion. That will be a broad street and a straight one, terminating on a bridge. Go thence to the hither side of that bridge, pass down the ravine and cross to the other side against Moriah. There thou shalt see a new Greek house. It is the residence of Amaryllis."
Laodice thanked her informant and began the pursuit of the cloudy directions to her destination. Twice before she brought up at the sentry line before the house of the Seleucid, she asked further of other citizens. Many times she met affront, once or twice she perilously escaped disaster. At last, near sunset, she stood before the dwelling-place of the one secure citizen of the Holy City.
A sentry dropped his spear across her path and she had not the countersign to give him. There she and her helpless old attendant stood and looked hopelessly at the refuge denied them.
Presently a man appeared in the colonnade across the front of the house and descending to the sentry line called to him the officer in command. They stood within a few paces of Laodice and she heard the soldier address the man as John, and heard him deliver a report of the day.
When the soldier withdrew to his place, Laodice stepped forward and called to the Gischalan. He stopped, noted that she was beautiful and waited.
"I would speak with the Lady Amaryllis," she hesitated.
"Have you the countersign?" he asked.
"No; else I should have entered. But Amaryllis will know me."
"Enter then," the Gischalan said.
In a moment she was admitted at the solid doors and led into a vestibule. Here, a porter took charge of Momus and showed him into a side passage, while Laodice followed her conductor through a corridor into an interior hall of splendid simplicity. Lounging on an exedra was a young woman in a woolen chiton, barefoot and trifling with the Greek ampyx that bound her golden hair.
Laodice put up her veil and looked with hurrying heart at her hostess. Before she could get a preliminary idea of the woman she was to meet, John spoke lightly:
"Be wearied no longer. I have brought you a mystery -- a stranger, without the countersign, asking audience with you."
"Go back to the fortress," the young woman answered. "Sometime you will find strangers awaiting you there, also without the password. You will lose Jerusalem trifling with me. I have spoken!"
John filliped her ear as he passed through into a corridor which must have led into the Temple precincts. Under the light, Laodice saw that he was a middle-aged Jew, not handsome, but luxuriant with virility. His face showed great ability with no conscience, and force and charm without balance or morals. Here, then, thought Laodice, is the first of Philadelphus' enemies.
The idler in the exedra, meanwhile, was awaiting the speech of her visitor.
"Art thou she whom I seek?" Laodice asked. "Amaryllis, the Seleucid?"
"I am called by that name."
"I was bidden," Laodice continued, "by one whom we both know, to seek asylum with thee."
"So? Who may that be?"
Laodice whispered the name.
The Greek's eyes took on a puzzled look. Then she surveyed the girl and as a full conception of the beauty of the young creature before her formed in the Greek's mind, the perplexity left her expression. Her air changed; a subtle smile played about her lips.
"He sent you to me for protection?"
"Until he arrives in Jerusalem," Laodice assented.
"But he is already here."
It was the moment that Laodice had avoided fearfully ever since she had gathered from that winsome stranger by the roadside that his companion was her husband. Although, after that fact had been made known to her, she had felt that she ought to join Philadelphus and proceed with him to the Holy City, she had endured the exposure of the hills, the want and discomfort of insufficient supplies and the affronts of wayfarers, that she might spare herself as long as possible her union with the unsafe man who had become even more hateful by comparison with the one who had called himself Hesper.
"Perchance thou wilt lead me to him," Laodice said finally.
Amaryllis made no immediate answer. It would have been a natural impulse for her to wish to inquire for the girl's business with the man that the Greek as hostess was expected to conceal. But Amaryllis had her own explanation for this visit. It had been plain to less observant eyes than hers that the newly arrived Philadelphus was not delighted with the bride he had met.
The Greek summoned a servant.
"Go summon thy master, Prisca; and haste. I doubt not I have for him a sweet relief."
The woman bowed.
"If it please thee, madam, the master is without in the vestibule, returning from the city." Amaryllis signed to the ivory chair before her.
"Sit, lady," she said to Laodice. "He will come at once."
The young woman dropped into the seat and gazed wistfully at her hostess. Instinctively, she knew that in this woman was no relief from the darkened life she was to lead with her husband. The Greek's face, palely lighted by a thoughtful smile, vanished in sudden darkness. Laodice saw instead an image of a strong intent face, brightening under the sunrise, saw it relax, soften, grow inexpressibly kind, then pass, as a tender memory taking leave for ever.
She was brought to herself by the Greek's rising suddenly. The Ephesian appeared at the arch, tossing mantle and kerchief to the porter as he entered. Laodice rose to her feet with difficulty. It was he, indeed!
He was kissing Amaryllis' hand. The Greek was smiling an accusing, conscious smile. She indicated Laodice. The Ephesian's face showed startlement, suspicion and a quick recovery. He bowed low and waited for explanation.
"Then I will go," Amaryllis said with amusement in her eyes, "if you are acting pretenses for my sake."
[Illustration: Amaryllis the Greek.]
She turned toward the arch which led into the interior of the house. The pretender glanced again at Laodice and again at the Greek.
"What is the play, lady?" he asked.
Amaryllis looked at Laodice standing stony white at her place, and lost her confident smile.
"Is this not he?" she asked.
"Is this Philadelphus Maccabaeus?" Laodice asked.
The Ephesian's face changed quickly. Enlightenment mixed with discomfiture appeared there for an instant.
"I am he," he said evenly.
"Then," Laodice said, "I am she whom thou hast expected."
Philadelphus smiled and dropped his head as if in thought.
"One always expects the pleasurable," he essayed, "but at times one does not recognize it when it comes. Who art thou, lady?"
"Pestilence, war and the evil devices of men have desolated me," she said coldly. "I have only a name. I am Laodice."
"Laodice!" he repeated amiably. "A familiar name; eh, Amaryllis?"
Laodice waited. Philadelphus looked again at her and appeared to wait.
"I am Laodice," the girl repeated, a little disconcerted, "thy wife."
"So!" Philadelphus exclaimed.
There was such well-assumed astonishment in the exclamation that she raised her eyes quickly to his face. There was another expression there; one wholly incredulous.
"Now did I in the profligacy of mine extreme youth marry two Laodices?" he said. "For another Laodice, wife to me, joined me some days since."
Laodice gazed at him without comprehending.
"I say," he repeated, "that my wife Laodice joined me some time ago."
"Why, I -- I am Laodice, daughter to Costobarus, and thy wife!" she exclaimed, while her eyes fixed upon him the full force of her astonishment.
He turned to Amaryllis.
"What labyrinth is this, O my friend," he asked, "in which thou hast set my feet?"
"I do not know," Amaryllis laughed suddenly. "Call the princess."
Philadelphus summoned a servant and instructed her to bring his wife. For a short space the three did not speak, though Laodice's lips parted and she stroked her forehead in a bewildered way.
Then Salome, late actress in the theaters at Ephesus, came into the hall. Amaryllis bowed to her and the impostor gave her a chair. He turned to Laodice and with the faintest shadow of a grimace motioned toward the new-comer.
"This," he said, "is Laodice, daughter of Costobarus."
Laodice blazed at the insolent beauty who stared at her with curious eyes.
"That!" she cried. "The daughter of Costobarus!"
The fine brown eyes of the woman smoldered a little, but she continued to gaze without the least discomposure.
"Who is this, sir?" she asked of Philadelphus.
"That," said Philadelphus evenly, to the actress, "is Laodice, daughter of Costobarus."
"I do not understand," the actress said disgustedly. "You are clumsy, Philadelphus, when you are playful. If this is all, I shall return to my chamber."
She rose, but Laodice sprang into her path.
"Hold!" she cried. "Philadelphus, hast thou accepted this woman without proofs?"
Philadelphus smiled and shook his head.
"And by the by," he asked, "what proof have you?"
Up to that moment Laodice had burned with confident rage, feeling that, by force of the justice of her cause, she might overthrow this preposterous villainy, but at Philadelphus' question she suddenly chilled and blanched and shrank back. A new and supreme disadvantage of her loss presented itself to her at last. She could not prove her identity!
Meanwhile, seeing Laodice falter, the woman's lip curled.
"Weak! Very weak, Philadelphus," she said. "You must invent something better. The success of a jest is all that pardons a jester."
"She robbed me!" Laodice panted impotently. "Robbed me, after my father had given her refuge!"
"Of what?" the Greek asked.
"My proofs -- and two hundred talents!"
"Lady," the actress said to Amaryllis, "my husband's emissary, Aquila, was a pagan. He had with him, on our journey, this woman and her old deformed father who fled when the plague broke out among us. She hoped, I surmise, that we should all die on the way. Even Samson gave up secrets to Delilah, and this Aquila was no better than Samson."
Oriental fury fulminated in the eyes of Laodice. Philadelphus, fearing that she was about to spring at the throat of her traducer, sprang between the two women. In his eyes shone immense admiration at that moment.
There was an instant of critical silence. Then Laodice drew herself up with a sudden accession of strength.
"Madam," she said coldly to Amaryllis, "with-hold thy judgment a few days. I shall send my servant back to Ascalon for other proof. He can go safely, for he has had the plague."
Philadelphus started; the actress flinched.
"Friend," Philadelphus said in his smooth way, "I came upon this woman by the wayside in the hills. I and a wayfarer cast a coin for possession of her -- and the other man won. Give thyself no concern."
Laodice flung her hands over her face and shrank in an agony of shame down upon the exedra. Amaryllis looked down on her bowed head.
"Is it true?" she asked. After a moment Laodice raised herself.
"God of Israel," she said in a low voice, "how hast Thy servant deserved these things!"
There was a space of silence, in which the two impostors turned together and talking between themselves of anything but the recent interview walked out of the chamber.
After a time Laodice lifted her head and spoke to the Greek.
"If thou wilt give me shelter, madam, for a few days only, I promise thee thou shalt not regret it," she said.
The girl was interesting and Amaryllis had been disappointed in Philadelphus. Nothing tender or compassionate; only a little curiosity, a little rancor, a little ennui and a faint instinctive hope that something of interest might yet develop, moved the Greek.
"Send your servant to Ascalon for proofs," she said. "I shall give you shelter here until you are proved undeserving of it. And since the times are uncertain, do not delay."