There were, besides the women, two men who took no part in the preparation for war which went on about them in the cavern day and night. While weapons and armor were made and tramping ranks formed and broke before the commands of the lithe dark commander of that fortress and subdued but fierce councils took place around torches -- while all this went on, they kept back, even apart from the women, and said nothing.
Laodice saw that they were physically unfit; that one was very old and the other very feeble and her heart warmed again to that stern master who saw them fed as abundantly as his most valued men. These, then, were those Christians whom he had taken into his protection because of the Name which had inspired a shepherd boy to save his life.
When he commanded Laodice to go up into the sunlight, he approached the corner in which the two useless men hid and bade them, too, to go up into the air.
"Let us have no sickness in this place," he said bluntly and turned on his heel and left them to obey.
Laodice took one of the older women and timidly climbing the steps from which the rubbish had been pushed away by the climbing hundreds, went through the dusk of the passage that terminated in a brilliancy that dazzled her. And as she walked she heard the footsteps of the two men behind her.
Up in the chaos of fallen columns, she stood a moment with her hands pressed over her eyes. Only little by little was she able to permit the full blaze of the Judean sun to reach them. The uproar on Jerusalem after the muffled silence of the underground cavern filled her with terror, and she pressed close to the shelter of the entrance until the woman at her side reassured her.
"It is nothing," the woman said, with a dreary patience. "It is as it was yesterday. I come here every day. I know."
After a while Laodice looked about her. The entrance to their refuge was about the middle of the ruin and therefore a great many paces back from the streets, so that she did not see Jerusalem's agonies face to face. But she saw enough to make her cold and to turn her shivering and panic-stricken into the darkness of the crypt below.
She saw the ascending streets of Zion and the tall fortifications mounting the heights within the city's limits. There she saw the flash of swords, swung afar off, spears brandished and the running hither and thither of defenders on the wall. Below she saw the remote constricted passages between rows of desolate houses, moving with people, sounding with clamor. There she saw combats, terrible scenes of frenzy, deaths and unnamable horrors; starvelings gnawing their nails; shadows of infants pressed to hollow bosoms; old men too weak to walk that went on hands and knees; young men and young women in rags that failed to cover them, and wandering skeletons screaming, "Woe!"
Meanwhile huge stones mounted over the walls and fell within the city; three great towers planted beyond the walls, out of range of the Jewish engines and equipped with superior machines, were steadily devastating the entire quarter near which they were erected. Here two-thirds of the forces of Jerusalem were concentrated in a vain effort to resist the dire inroads of these effective engines. Here, the Maccabee and his Gibborim stood shoulder to shoulder with the Idumeans and fanatics of Simon and John, and here the half-mad defenders awakened at last to the fact that only divine interference could save the city against Rome.
In the south and the east conflagrations roared and crackled, where burning oil had been scattered over some remaining structures near the walls. When a great ram began its thunder somewhere near the Sheep Gate, there came a hollow booming noise of deafening volume from the charnel pits outside the walls and a black cloud of incredible depth soared up into the skies.
Laodice, dumb with horror, looked at the prodigy without understanding, but the woman at her side shuddered.
"God help us!" she exclaimed. "They are vultures!"
Laodice turned to rush back into the cavern and so faced the two men who stood behind her.
One, at sight of her, shrank with a gasp, and, averting his shaggy head till the long white locks covered his face, fled back into the crypt.
The other was gazing with unseeing eyes across groaning Jerusalem.
"I am the man," he was saying aloud, but to himself, "that hath seen affliction by the rod of His wrath."
The sight of him had a paralyzing effect upon Laodice. She saw, before her, Nathan, the Christian, who had buried her father, who had blessed her, who would know and could testify to a surety that she was the wife of Philadelphus!
She slipped by him without a sound and hurried down into the darkest corner of the cavern.
Circumstance had found her in her refuge and would drive her away from this sweet home back to that hateful house, to the man she did not love!
For many days, with increasing distress, Laodice avoided Nathan, the Christian. With that fascinated terror which at times forces human creatures to examine a peril, she felt irresistibly impelled to try his memory of events, that she might know if indeed he would recognize her.
Though she turned cold and flashed white when he came upon her one day in the darkness of their shelter, she felt nevertheless the relief of approaching a solution to her perplexity.
"They tell me," he said with the deliberate speech of the old, "that Titus is once more permitting citizens to depart from Jerusalem unharmed."
"Then," she said, grasping at this hope, "why do you stay here in this peril?"
"Why should I leave it? Even with the singers who wept by the waters of Babylon, I prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy. Except for the time when we of the Way were warned to depart, I have been in Jerusalem all my life. Then, though I had gone as far as Caesarea on my way to Antioch to join the brethren there, homesickness overtook me and I turned in my tracks, saying no man farewell, and came back."
"A weary journey for one so old," she said gently.
Would he remember also that it had been dangerous?
"Nay, but a journey full of works and reward. And I discovered at the end of it that I had lived in error forty years; that Christ never ceases to prove Himself."
Already the forbidden tenets of the Nazarene faith had entered into his words. But feeling somehow that her deflection from uprightness covered her whole life, there was no reason why she should not hear what these people believed and have done with it.
"Art thou a Christian?" she asked timidly.
"I am a believer in Christ, but whether I may call myself one of the blessed I do not know, for they have had faith. But I demanded a sign. Behold it! The ruin of the City of David!"
Her eyes widened with alarm.
"Is there no hope?" she exclaimed.
He looked at her, even in his old age impressed with the immense importance life and love must have to so beautiful and beloved a woman. Presently he said, as if to himself:
"Yea, be thou blessed, O thou Redeemer, that givest life to them to whom life is dear and death approacheth."
Her concern for concealment vanished entirely in her rising terror for the future of the Holy City.
"I pray thee, Rabbi," she said in a low voice, drawing close to him, "tell me what thy people believe about the city. I have heard -- but it can not be true!"
"Do not be troubled about the city," he answered. "Ask me rather how to become safeguarded against any disaster, greater even than the fall of cities."
"It is not for myself," she protested earnestly, "but for the world. Is there not a King to come to Israel?"
"There is, but not yet, my daughter. Of that day and hour no man knoweth. Now is Daniel's abomination of desolation; the generation passeth and the prophecy is fulfilled. Jerusalem is perishing."
Seeing the wave of panic sweep over her, he put out a soothing hand.
"Yet, do not fear. For such as you the Redeemer died; for your kind the Kingdom of Heaven is built, and the King whom the earth did not receive is for ever Lord of it."
The veiled reference to the tragedy which Philadelphus had recounted stood out with more prominence than the promise in his words.
"Whom the earth did not receive?" she repeated. "O prophet, as thou boasteth truthful lips and a hoary head, tell me what hath befallen us."
"Hear it not as a calamity," he said reassuringly. "Thou canst make it of all things the most profitable, if thou wilt. Forget the city. I, who would forget it but can not, bid thee do this. Behold, there is another Jerusalem which shall not fall. Look to that and be not afraid."
Her lips, parted to protest against the vague answer, closed at the final sentence and the Christian pressed his advantage.
"Of that Jerusalem there is no like on earth. Against its walls no enemy ever comes; neither warfare nor hunger nor thirst nor suffering nor death. This which David builded is a poor city, a humble city compared to that New Jerusalem. There the King is already come; there the citizens are at peace and in love with one another. There thou shalt have all that thy heart yearneth after, and all that thy heart yearneth after shall be right."
In that city would it be right that she love Hesper instead of Philadelphus, and that she should have her lover instead of her lawful husband?
While she turned these things over in her mind, he wisely went on with his story. Shrewdly sensing the young woman's anxiety, the old Christian guessed the interest to her of the Messiah's history before His teaching and began with prophecy to support the authenticity of the wonderful Galilean's claim to divinity. It was no fisherman or weaver of tent-cloth who brought forth the declarations of the comforter of Hezekiah, the captive prophet and the priest in the land of the Chaldeans. His was no barbarous manner or slipshod tongue of the market-place and the wheat-fields, but the polish and the clean-cut flawless language of the synagogues and the colleges. Laodice saw in the gesture and phrase the refinement of her father, Costobarus, of the gentlest Judean blood.
"I saw Him," he went on in a low voice.
Laodice with her intent gaze on the beatified face put her hand to her heart.
"Forty years ago," the old voice continued, "I saw Him first in Galilee. There He was disbelieved and cast out. He came then unto Jerusalem and I saw Him there heal lepers, cast out evil spirits, cure the blind and the sick and the palsied. And in the house of Jairus and at Nain, I saw Him raise the dead.
"I saw Him come to Jerusalem. Multitudes followed Him and accompanied Him, casting their mantles and palm-branches in the way that His mule might tread upon them."
The old man pointed south toward the single summit from which Christ approaching could overlook Jerusalem.
"On that hill," he said, "while the multitudes hailed Him and the sound of Alleluia shook the air, He reined in His meek beast and looked upon this city, and wept over it. When He spoke, He said, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. 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.
[Illustration: "And there His enemies crucified Him."]
"And three days later, I saw the Rock of David and all that multitude follow Him unto the Hill of the Skull and there His enemies crucified Him!"
After a paralyzed silence, Laodice whispered with frozen lips,
"In God's name, why?"
But he wisely did not pause with the calamity. He had the whole of the beginnings of Christianity to tell, a long narrative that contained as yet no dogma. Paul had seen the great light on the road to Damascus, and accepting apostleship to all the world had fought a good fight and had come unto his crown of righteousness; Peter had established the Church and had fed the sheep and had been offered up by the Beast who was Nero; John the Divine was seeing visions of the Apocalypse in the Island of Patmos; Herod Antipas, "that fox," had passed to his own place, prisoner and exile, sacrifice to a mad Caesar's imaginings; Judas had hanged himself; Pilate had drowned himself; thousands of the saints had died for the faith by fire and sword and wild beasts; kings had been converted and of the believers in Rome it was said, Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.
Laodice sat with clasped hands, intent on each word as it fell from the lips of the aged teacher, seeing at one and the same time the Kingdom of Heaven constructed and her dream of an earthly empire falling.
"He said," the Christian continued, "They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Repentance was a rite for Laodice, a payment of offering, a process to the righteously inclined, a thing that could in no wise purify the sinner as to make him worthy of association with the upright. The old Christian's use of the word was different; he had said that the Messiah came to the sinner, and not to the righteous. Had the young Jewess been less in need of comfort in her own consciousness of spiritual delinquency she would have set down the old teacher as one of the idlest dealers in contradiction. But now she listened with keener zest; perchance in this doctrine there was balm for her hurt. She made some answer which showed the awakening of this new interest and then with infinite poetry and earnestness he began to unfold the teachings of Christ.
A woman came to them with wine and food, for the midday had come, but neither noticed it. In his fervor to enlighten this tender soul, the old man forgot his weariness; in her wonder at the strangely gentle doctrine which had contradicted all the world's previous usage, the girl forgot her prejudice. She listened; and with such signs as change of expression, flushes of emotion, movements of surprise and brightenings of interest to encourage him, the old Christian talked. When he had progressed sufficiently to round out the theory of Christianity, she had grasped a new standard. The contrast between the old and the new made itself instantly felt. On one hand was the simple and logical; on the other the complex and dogmatic. The Christian was able to measure proportionately how much should be laid upon her mind for study at once and while she still waited, he rose from his place.
"There is more; yet there are other days," he said.
But she caught his hand as he rose and with a sudden yearning in her eyes whispered:
"O Rabbi, what said He of love?"
"Love?" he repeated, with a softening about his lips. "The Master blessed love between man and woman."
"But, but -- " she faltered, "if one love another than one's wedded spouse, then what?"
His face grew grave.
"That is not lawful even among you, who are still of the old faith."
"But suppose -- "
He laid a kindly hand on the one that held his.
"Suffer but sin not. He that endureth unto the end shall be saved."
She was silent while she gazed at him with change showing on her gradually paling face.
"Then -- then what is in thy faith for the forlorn in love?" she exclaimed.
"Peace, and the consciousness of the joy of Christ in your steadfastness," he said.
She rose. How much longer had she to live?
"And thou sayest we die?"
"Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul," he said gently.
Fear Hesper, then, but not the Roman. While she stood in the immense debate of heart and conscience he laid a tender hand on her head.
"Perchance in His mercy thou shalt be welcomed there first by thy father, whom I buried, and by thy mother."
The sudden recurrence to that past tragedy and the unfolding of his recognition fairly swept Laodice off her feet with shock and alarm. If he noted her feeling, he was sorry he had not succeeded in comforting her with a promise of reunion with her beloved in that other land. He took away his tremulous hand from her hair.
Leaving her transfixed with all he had said, he moved painfully away, stiffened by long sitting while he discoursed.