Catapult and ballista upon the eminences outside the walls kept up an unceasing rain of enormous stones which whistled and screamed in the air and shook Jerusalem to its foundations. The reverberating boom and the tremor of earth were varied from time to time by the splintering crash of houses crushing and the increase of uproar, as scores of luckless inhabitants went down under the falling rock. Giant cranes with huge, ludicrous awkward arms, heaved up pots of burning pitch and oil and flung them ponderously into the city to do whatever horror of fire and torture had not been done by the engines. Hourly the rattle of small stones increased, merely to attract the attention of the citizens to an activity to which they were so accustomed that it was almost unnoticed. At times citizens and soldiers rushed upon a threatened gate or segment of the wall and lent strength to keep the Romans out; at other times the defenses were forsaken while the besieged fell upon one another. Back from the broad summit of Olivet, which was the mountain of peace, the echoes gave all day long the shudder of the struggling city.
The sun daily grew more heated; the cisterns and pools within the city began to shrink so rapidly that the inhabitants feared that the enemy had come at the source of the waters of Jerusalem and had cut them off. Hundreds of the wounded were allowed to die, simply as a defense of the wells and store-houses. Burial became too gigantic a labor, and John and Simon ordered the bodies thrown over the walls to prevent pestilence.
Titus riding around the city on a day came upon a heap of this outcast dead and turned suddenly white. He rode back to his camp and within the hour there approached the walls under a flag of truce an imposing Jew of middle-age, with a superb beard and a veritable mantle of rich black hair escaping from his turban and falling heavy with life and strength upon a pair of great shoulders. He was simply dressed, but his stately carriage and splendid presence made a kingly garment out of his white gown.
Those upon the wall knew him and though they were obliged to respect the banner under which he approached, they gnashed their teeth and greeted him with epithets, poisonous with hate. He was Flavius Josephus, one time patriot and enemy of Rome, but now secure under Titus' patronage, abettor of his patron against his fellow-countrymen.
The Maccabee, among the fighting-men on the wall, saw his approach and discreetly stepped behind a soldier that he might not be singled out as a familiar toward which the approaching mediator would logically direct his appeal. He had no desire to be addressed by his name before this precarious mob already mad with rage at a turncoat.
And thus concealed the Maccabee heard Josephus appeal to the Jews with apparent sincerity and affection, promise amnesty, protection and justice in his patron's name; heard his overtures greeted with fury and finally saw the Jews swarm over the walls and drive him to fly for his life up Gareb to the camp of Titus.
It was not the first incident he had seen which showed him his own fate if it became known that he intended to treat with Rome. He put aside his calculations in that direction as a detail not yet in order, and turned to the organization of his army. Here again he met obstacle.
Among his council of Bezethans he found an enthusiasm for some intangible purpose, objection to his own plans and a certain hauteur that he could not understand.
"What is it you hope for, brethren?" he asked one night as he stood in the gloom of the crypt under the ruin with fifty of his ablest thinkers and soldiers about him.
"The days of Samuel before Israel cursed itself with a king," one man declared. The others were suddenly silent.
"Those days will not come to you," he answered patiently. "You must fight for them."
"We will fight."
"Good! Let us unite and I will lead you," the Maccabee offered.
"But after you have led us, perhaps to victory, then what?" they asked pointedly.
The Maccabee saw that they were sounding him for his ambitions, and discreetly effaced them.
"Do with me what you will; or if you doubt me, choose a leader among yourselves."
They shook their heads.
"Then enlist under Simon and John and fight with them," he cried, losing patience.
Murmurs and angry looks greeted this suggestion, and the Maccabee put out his hands toward them hopelessly.
"Then what will you do?" he asked.
"It shall be shown us," they replied; and with this answer, with his organization yet uneffected, his plans more than ever chaotic, the Maccabee began another day. Shrewd and resourceful as he believed himself to be, he beheld plan after plan reveal its inefficiency. Forced by some act of the city to abandon one idea, the next that followed found a new intractability. It seemed that there were no two heads in Jerusalem of a similar thought. Whoever was not demoralized by panic was fatally stubborn or mad. The single purpose that seemed to prevail was to hold out against reason.
Finally he determined to pick the most rational of his men and shape an army that would be distinctly Jewish and enviable. Nothing Roman should mar its organization. He would have again the six hundred Gibborim of David, and after he had formed them into a body he would trust to the existing circumstances to direct him how to proceed to the assistance of Jerusalem with them. He should be the sole captain, the sole authority, the single commander of them all. He would not have an unwieldy army, but one perfectly devoted. He would lead by his own genius, attract and command by his own personality. With six hundred absolutely subject to his will, trained in endurance and steadfastness, he could achieve more surely than with an undisciplined horde which first of all must be fed.
Throughout those days of predatory warfare he made careful selection of material for his army. As yet, while famine had not reduced Jerusalem to a skeleton, he could select for bodily strength and mental balance. He worked swiftly, sparing his men daily to the defense of the city against the Roman and daily sacrificing precious numbers of them to the pit of the dead just over the wall.
They were weary days -- days of increasing storm and multiplying calamity. Famine in some quarters of the city reached appalling proportions. Insurrections in these regions were so vigorously suppressed that the victims chose to starve and live rather than to revolt and perish. Pestilence broke out among the inhabitants near the eastern wall, against the other side of which the dead had been cast by hundreds; and a general flight from the city was stopped in full flood by the spectacle of some scores of unfortunates crucified by the Roman soldiers and set up in sight of the walls.
Simon and John had a disastrous quarrel and during the interval, when the sentries and the fighting-men were killing each other, the Romans possessed the first fortification around Jerusalem, the Wall of Agrippa. The following day Titus pitched his camp within the limits of the Holy City, upon the site of Sennacherib's Assyrian bivouac.
At sight of this signal advance, tumult broke out afresh in the city and for days Titus lay calmly by, merely harassing the Jews while he watched Jerusalem weaken itself by internal combat. The Maccabee, steadily training his picked Gibborim, saw these lulls as signs that Titus was still in the hope that the city would submit to occupation and spare him the repugnant task of slaughtering half a nation. In his soul he knew that at no time would Titus be unwilling to receive the voluntary capitulation of the city.
So, composed and intent through struggle and terror, he continued to prepare for the day when an organized army could take the unhappy inhabitants out of the bloody hands of the two factionists, Simon and John.
During one of the casual attacks on the Second Wall, a lean, lash-scarred maniac that had not ceased to cry night or day for seven years, "Woe unto Jerusalem!" mounted the Old Second Wall, and there pointed to his breast and added, "Woe unto me also!" At that instant a great stone struck him and tumbling with it to the ground, he was crushed into the earth and left so buried for all time.
With the hushing of that embodiment of doom, silence fell upon the city and after that, panic; and during that Titus heaved his four legions against the Second Wall and took it. Simon was seized with frenzy, and with a body of crazed Idumeans rushed out upon the banks of the Romans and in one hour's time overthrew the army's work of days and so thoroughly set back the advance of the besieger that Titus resolved that no more insane sorties should be made from the gates.
He retired to his camp and in a short time soldiers appeared with tape, stakes, sledges and spades and laid out an immense circle, all but compassing the great city of Jerusalem.
The Maccabee saw all this. He stood on the wall above the roar and frenzy and looked across bleached stretches of sunny, rocky earth toward the orderly ranks of soldiers, the simple business, the tranquil speed of Rome making war, and understood that peaceful despatch as deadly.
He saw the young general ride down to this circle, dismount and, catching a spade from the nearest legionary, drive it into the earth. When he tossed out the first clay, each of the men in the visible segment of that great cordon struck his implement into the ground. And even as the Maccabee watched, he saw grow up under his eyes a wall!
He understood. Titus was walling against a wall; turning upon the Jews that same thing which they had reared against him. As the Maccabee stood gazing transfixed at this grim work, he heard beside him an old voice say, with terrible conviction:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!... For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation."
The Maccabee, shaken with the culmination of Rome's resolution and afraid in spite of himself, whirled angrily upon that voice speaking doom at his side. There in the old ragged tunic bound about him with rope, stood the old man he had rescued and had sheltered persistently for many days.
The old man faced the young man's rage with supernatural composure and strength. With clenched hands, the Maccabee stood away from him and felt that he threatened with his fists a hoary citadel that armies had beaten themselves against in vain.
The Maccabee did not speak to his old pensioner. He felt the futility of words against this thing which seemed to be a revelation, denying absolutely all of his ambitions. He dropped from his position and, pushing his way through the distress upon the city, turned toward the house of Amaryllis. It was a climacteric hour, when men should look well to the protection of all that was near and dear to them.
When he was gone a strange, bent figure with long white hair and a gray distorted face came from the shadow of one of the towers and plucked the old Christian's tunic. The Christian turned and seeing who stood beside him said with intense surety in his tones:
"It is proven. Accept the Lord Jesus while it is time, my son, for behold the hour of the last day of this city is fulfilled!"
The apparition lifted a palsied hand on which the skin was yet fair and young and pointed after the Maccabee, losing himself in the groaning mass in the city.
"If I believe, I must tell him!" he said.
"Whatever thou hast done against that man must be amended," the Christian declared.
The palsied figure shrank and wringing his hands about each other said in a whisper that sounded like wind among dried leaves:
"I, who saw the candor of perfect trust in his eyes, once, I can not behold their reproach -- I, who love him, and sold him -- for a handful of gold!"
The old Christian laid his hand on the other's arm.
"Another Judas?" he said. The apparition made no answer.
"Nay, then; tell it me," the Christian urged. But the other shrank away from him, while distrust collected in his eyes.
"I fear thee; the evil man fears the good one, even more than the good man fears the evil one. I will not tell thee."
"But thou hast thy bread from this Hesper; thou hast thy shelter from him. He will not injure thee."
"Injure me! Not with his hands, perhaps. But he would look at me, he would kill me with his eyes! Thou canst not dream what evil I have done him!"
The old Christian looked at him for a time, but with the hopefulness of the spiritually confident.
"Christ spare thee, till thou hast the strength to do right!" he exclaimed. But the palsied man covered his face with his hands and groaned. The old Christian took him by the arm and led him down from the wall and back to the cavern under the ruins.
"In thy good time, O Lord," he said to himself, beginning with that incident a ministry that should not end.
It was dark when the Maccabee came down into the ravine in which the Greek's house was builded. In the shadow the house cast before it he saw some one pass the sentry lines. The soldiers looked after that figure. Presently, emerging into the lesser darkness of the open streets, it proved to be a woman. The Maccabee stopped. By the movements, now hurried, now slow, he believed that the night was full of apprehension for this unknown faring into the disordered city. She was coming in his direction. He stepped into shadow to see who would come forth from shelter at such an hour.
The next instant she hurried by his hiding-place and the Maccabee saw with amazement that it was the girl he loved. He sprang out to speak to her, but the sound of his footsteps frightened her and she ran.
The whole hilly foreground of Jerusalem was lifted like a black and impending cloud over her, a-throb with violence and strife. Here and there were lights on the bosom of the looming blackness, but they only emphasized the darkness pressing on the outskirts of the radiance. Every area way and alley had its sound. The air was full of footsteps; behind her a voice called to her. She dashed by yawning darkness that was an open alley, hurried toward lights, halted precipitately at signals of danger and veered aside at unexpected sounds. Once she stumbled upon the body of a sleeper who had come down into the darkness of the ravine to pass the night. At her suppressed cry the Maccabee sprang forward, but she caught herself and ran faster.
He ceased then to attempt to stop her. Curiosity to know what brought her out into danger at night impelled him to follow near enough to protect her, but unsuspected until she had revealed her mission to him.
A hungry dog, probably the last one to escape the execution which had been meted out to all useless consumers of food, barked at her heels and brought her up sharply.
The beast in his siege of her circled in the dark around near enough to the Maccabee hidden in the darkness for him to deliver a vindictive kick in the staring ribs of the brute. When the howl of the surprised dog faded up the black ravine, Laodice ran on. The Maccabee, silently pursuing, heard with a contracting heart that she was crying softly from terror and bewilderment. Not yet, however, had she approached the danger of Jerusalem, which John had kept far removed from the precincts of Amaryllis' house.
She was entering Akra. The heap of grain, yet burning, showed a dull black-red mound over which towered a column of strong incense. Here, for the night was cool, lay in circles many of the unhoused Passover guests. Here, also, was wakefulness and the hatchment of evil.
The running girl was upon them before she knew it. One of the figures that sat with its back to the dull glow saw her approaching. Instantly he rose upon one knee and snatched her dress as she ran.
Jerked from her balance, she screamed and threw out her hands to keep from falling upon the shoulders of her assailant. One or two others with unintelligible sounds struggled up, and as she fell, the Maccabee leaped from the darkness, wrenched her from the grasp of her captor, and warding off attack with his knife, fled with her into the darkness.
The transfer of control over her had been made so swiftly that in her stupor of terror she hardly realized it. She was struggling silently and strongly in his hold, when he clasped her to him with a firmer impulsive embrace and whispered to her:
"Comfort thee, dear heart! It is I, Hesper!"
She ceased to resist so suddenly and was so tensely still that he knew the shock of immense reaction was having its way with her.
He knew without asking that she had been forced to leave the shelter of the Greek's roof, and though his rage threatened to rise up and blind him he was not entirely unaware of the benefit the inhospitality of others had given him. At last she was with him; entirely in his care.
It was a safe shelter into which she was brought, but no luxurious one. There was light enough from the single torch stuck in a crevice in the ancient rock to show that it was habitable. The immense floor was packed hard by the trampling of many feet; overhead, lost in gloom, there must have been a rocky roof, but it was invisible. On the ledges of rocks were belongings by heaps and collections, showing that this was an abiding-place for great numbers. In the far shadows she distinguished long, silent, mummied windrows of men wrapped in blankets, sleeping. Huge gloomy piles of provisions filled up shadowy corners; about under the light was the litter left in the wake of human counsel; over all was the air of repose and occupancy that made a home out of the burrow.
Though the place held a great number of refugees, the footstep of the Maccabee wakened resounding emptiness. At the threshold he slackened his step and looked with pathetic anxiety at whatever light on Laodice's face would show her opinion of her refuge. But the uncertain torch revealed nothing and he led her in and across to a solitary place where rugs from some looted house had been folded up for a pallet and spread about for carpets. She sat down and awaited his speech.
He motioned to the spacious barrenness about him.
"Canst thou content thyself in this place?" he asked, hesitating.
She nodded, but feeling that her reply had not shown all that words might, she lifted her face that he might see therein that which she could not trust her lips to say.
It was her undoing. Her weakness overwhelmed her and burying her face in the folds of her mantle, she wept.
After a dismayed silence, he bent over her and said with a quiver of distress in his voice:
"I -- I have work, here, to do, but I shall take thee out of the city for better refuge -- "
That she should seem to be grieving over the nature of the shelter given her, stirred her deeply. She half rose and with the light shining on her face, filled with gratitude in spite of her tears, took his hand in both of hers and pressed it with pathetic insistence.
He understood her.
He laid a hand unsteady with its tremor of delight and young eagerness upon the vitta and it slipped off her hair. As it dropped, the subtle warm fragrance of the heavy locks, now braided in maidenly style, reached him; the liveliness of her relaxed young figure communicated itself to him without his touch; all the invitation of her helplessness swept him to the very edge of abandoning his restraint. On his dark face a transformation occurred. All the hardness, even his years and his experience vanished from him and a soft recovering flush faintly colored his cheeks. In that sudden bloom of beauty in his face was stamped a realization of the far progress of his triumph. She was in his house and dependent on him, within the very reach of his arms.
When she looked up at him again, she read all this in his face, and instantly there returned to her, with warning intensity, the fear of her love of him. The last obstacle but her own conscience that stood between her and his perfect supremacy over her life had suddenly been swept away.
She started away from him, and put up her hands to ward off his touch.
"If you do that," she said in a tone sharp with distress, "it is sin and I shall be cursed! I shall have to go back to him!"
Then she had voluntarily left Julian, perhaps to seek him!
"You shall not go back to him!" he exclaimed. "After I have given up everything but my life to have you for myself!"
"You must not think of me in that way!" she commanded him vehemently. "I am a married woman! You shall remember that! If you forget it, I will go out into the streets and ask the Idumeans to kill me!"
"Nay, peace, peace! I shall do you no harm! You are frightened! I will do nothing that you would not have me do! Be comforted. Not any one in all the world has your happiness at heart so much as I. Believe me!"
"Believe me!" she insisted. "I am weary of doubt and denial. I am only safe if you recognize me as that which I claim to be. Answer me! You do believe I am the wife of Philadelphus?"
"I believed it, at once," he said frankly.
"Then -- then -- " but she flung her hands over her face and slipped down on the rugs. For a moment he hesitated, restraining the impulse to break over the limits she had laid down for him.
Then he rose and, summoning one of the women who had taken refuge in the crypt, sent her to remain with the girl, and departed, shaken and uncertain, to his own place.