For days he had controlled his men only by the force of his fierce will. Restlessness, little short of turbulence, had changed his six hundred from earnest recruits to bright-eyed, contentious, irresponsible enthusiasts whom only intimidation could manage. They seemed to be balanced, prepared, ready at the least whisper in the wind to scatter madly, each in his own direction, after a vagary, albeit the end were destruction.
Throughout these latter days the Maccabee had become strained and unnatural in his manner. There was a vehemence in all he did which seemed to be a final resolution against despair. His decisions were arbitrary; his methods extreme. Laodice, sensing something climacteric in his atmosphere, kept aloof from him, and regarded him from the dusk of her corner with wonder and a pity that she could not explain. The Christian on the other hand seemed always in an unobtrusive way to be at the Maccabee's elbow. The apparition with the long white hair, however, ran away and was found on the streets by the Christian and brought back to the cavern, where he hid in a dark shadow in the remote end of the crypt and was not seen.
Of late the cavern was always full of suppressed excitement; unpremeditated conferences among the Gibborim, which Hesper harshly forbade; and general sharp resentment against imposed regulations and military drill. On several occasions the six hundred were sent in defense of the walls only by sheer force of their leader's will-power. And there they fell in at once with the irregular methods of the Idumeans and fanatics that fought each after his own liking, and the careful instruction of the Maccabee was disregarded. Only so long as he cowed them, they obeyed him; and he seemed to feel, as they seemed to indicate, that when that thing happened which all Jerusalem indefinitely expected and could not name, his control over them would be lost beyond restoration.
On the night of the fall of the Roman tower, the Maccabee's forces had been withdrawn for rest to their retreat and at midnight were formed again for return to the fortifications.
By the strange inscrutable spread of rumor, sweeping with the air, the tidings of the miracle and the rise of Seraiah poured in upon the restive hundreds that the Maccabee was attempting to form in his fortress. It came like the gradual velocity of a burning star across the sky. From the ranks nearest the exit from the burrow the murmur issued, growing into intelligible sound, mounting to the wildness of hysteria and prevailing wholly over the Gibborim in the space between heart-beats. Everywhere they cast down their spears and their weapons, everywhere they gazed at him with brilliant threatening eyes and cried in loud voices so that the things each mad mind put into expression were lost in a great unintelligible raving.
Laodice, the Christian and that white-haired trembler in his refuge, saw the Maccabee raise himself to his full height and lifting his sword confront in one grand effort at command a mob of six hundred madmen!
Perhaps that manifestation of iron courage and strength, which the crazy lot somehow realized, saved him from death. Instead of falling upon him they turned away from the scene of the last vain effort for their own salvation and rushed, trampling one another, into the mad city of Jerusalem.
From without, the hoarse uproar of their desertion was heard to merge with the great tumult over the Holy City. Tense silence fell in the crypt.
The light of the torch wavered up and down the tall figure of the Maccabee as he stood transfixed in the attitude of command that had achieved nothing. It seemed the final inclination beyond the perpendicular that precedes the fall. The Christian started from his place and hurried toward the tense figure in the torch-light. Laodice, unconscious of what she did, approached him with an agony of distress for him written in her face. The white-haired apparition crept out a little way on his knees and putting aside his tangled locks gazed with burning eyes at the defeated man.
Laodice, in her anxiety, moved into the range of the Maccabee's vision. The next instant he had thrown away his sword and had caught her in a crushing embrace to him. His voice, blunted and repressed as if something had him by the throat, was stunning her ear.
"And thou!" he was saying. "What from thee, now? Hate! Curses! Ingratitude! Hast thou poison for me, or a knife? Or worse, yet, scorn? Speak! It is a day of enlightenment! I'll brook anything but deceit!"
She stopped him in the midst of his vehement despair, by laying her hands on his hair. There surged to her lips all the eloquence of her love and sympathy, but beside her old Nathan stood -- an embodiment of her conscience, watching.
Twice she essayed to put into words the comfort of her submission to his love. Twice her lips failed her; but the third time she turned to the Christian.
"Rabbi, what shall I do?" she implored. "Tell me out of thy wisdom!"
"What is it?" he asked, feeling that there was more than sympathy for the defeated man in her heart.
"What would thy Christ have me to do?" she insisted. "This stranger, here, is the joy of my heart; I am like to die if I can not give him the love that I feel for him this hour!"
The startled Christian looked at her with suspicion growing in his eyes.
"Art thou a wife? Wedded to another than this man?" he asked gravely.
"Wedded," she whispered, "to one who hath denied me, affronted me and cast me out of his house! In this man I have found favor from the beginning. He has been tender of me, he has sheltered me, and he has strengthened me against himself to this hour. There has been nothing sinful between us!"
The old Christian's face grew immeasurably sad.
"There is but one thing for you to do," he said.
She wrenched herself away from the Maccabee, who had been angrily protesting against her carrying his case to another for decision, and confronted Nathan.
"But he rejected me!" she cried with earnestness. "That alone is enough among our people for divorcement!"
The Christian shook his head sadly. He was not happy to lay down this prohibition before them who suffered.
"There is no help in thy faith for such as I am. In that thy religion fails!" she cried.
"Love, now, is all in all to thee, daughter. It is but the speech of thy young blood running through thy veins, the claim of thy youth to thy use upon earth. Resist it; for when thy years are as many as mine thou wilt lose thy rebellious spirit and the fervor will have died out of thy heart. Then, if thou hast fallen in this hour, how vain and worthless it will seem to thee! Divine fires in the heart of men never become changed in value. Love purely and thou wilt never repent; but I say unto thee thou fashionest for thyself humbled and shamed old age if thou transgressest the Law!"
"What mercy, then, since thou preachest mercy, in filling me with this weakness if my life must be darkened resisting it, and my future show no relief for it?" she insisted passionately.
It was the cry old as the world. He looked at her sadly, hopelessly.
"As for God, His way is perfect," he said. "How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! Thou shalt struggle with the truth, my daughter, but without fail and most readily thou shalt know when thou hast sinned!"
She was past the influence of argument. Impulse controlled her now entirely. She would see if there were not an intelligence, even a religion which would see her sorrow from her own heart's position.
She listened now to the words of her lover.
"He is an exclaimer, a prophet of doom!" he was crying. "Love me and let us die!"
Without in the entrance of the crypt some great-lunged fanatic was calling the multitude to harken to the prophetess.
The Maccabee's lips were against her cheek as he continued to speak.
"It is the end! There is no help for us. Love me, and let me be happy an hour before we perish! The Nazarene is right! The city is cursed! God's wrath is upon us. The hour is still ours. Love me and let us die!"
Without the great voice, like an unwearying bell, was calling:
"A sign! A sign! Behold the Deliverer! Come all ye who would share his triumph and hear! Hear! Come ye and be fed, ye hungry; be drunken, ye thirsty; love and be loved, ye forlorn!"
Laodice stiffened in the Maccabee's clasp.
"Dost thou hear?" she whispered. "It may be true!"
He shook his head that he had bowed upon her shoulder.
"Let us go," she urged. "Perchance he has comfort for us. Come, Hesper; let us see what he has for the forlorn."
"Who?" he asked dully.
"They say the Deliverer has come."
He shook his head again, but with her two hands she lifted his face from its refuge, and urging with her eyes and her hands and her lips she led him toward the stairs. The Christian looked after them.
"For there shall arise false Christs; and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect," he said sorrowfully.
The horror of the city augmented hour by hour. The Jerusalem Laodice locked upon now was infinitely more afflicted than the one she had seen in the daylight days before.
The walls were now outlined by fire which illuminated all the city that lay directly beneath the beacons. To the north gnomish outlines by hundreds against the flames showed where the soldiers of the factionists were placing the topmost stones upon an inner wall or curtain erected just within the Old Wall, which was by this time shaking and cracking under the assaults of a great siege-engine without. Titus, awakened by the fall of his tower, had immediately renewed the attack, although the morning was still some hours distant.
But the citizens were no longer disinterested, no longer wrapped in hopelessness and dull misery.
Hungry, sleepless, houseless, diseased and mad though they were, their hollow eyes gleamed now with hope that was almost defiant. Around the Maccabee and Laodice roared the comment of the multitude.
"They say he climbed to the summit of the outer wall overlooking Tophet and remains there a target for the Roman arrows, which rebound from him!" cried one.
"One of John's men says that the heads of the arrows are blunted and the most of them snapped in two when they are picked up."
"The Romans have ceased to shoot at him!"
"They say that his footprints in the dust on the Tyropean Bridge are Hebrew letters writing 'Elia' in gold!"
"It is said that the inner Temple is rocking with trumpet blasts and that John is struck dead!"
"They say that those who believe in him shall ask for whatever they would have and have it!"
"The breaches in the First Wall have been healed; the old rock is back in its place!"
"They say that the dead beyond the wall in Tophet are prophesying!"
"There is a bolt of lightning fixed in the sky over Titus' camp. We are called to go forth and see it fall!"
A voice swept by distantly crying that a woman had eaten her child. Crazed Posthumus, self-elected guardian of the Law, with the sacred roll under his arm, declaimed, without any of his audience attending, that prophecy which this horror fulfilled.
All Jerusalem was in the streets; all Jerusalem poured into the immense open space where some palatial ruin stood, and melted in the giant concourse that gathered to hear the prophetess.
Laodice and the Maccabee were unable to see the woman; only her voice, mystic, musical, pitched at a singing monotone, intoning rather than speaking, reached them from the distance. The long harangue, delivered as a chant, had long ago had a mesmerizing effect on her audience. Absolutely she controlled them; along the dead level of her preaching they maintained a low continuous murmur, accompanied by a slight slow swaying of the body; in the climaxes of the appeal they responded with cries and wild gestures, flinging themselves about in attitudes characteristic of their frenzy. In their faces was the reflection of a peculiar light that proved that derangement had settled over Jerusalem. It was the end of the reign of reason.
"It is the abomination of desolation. Even so, it is finished! It is the time, it is full time, and Michael hath come. There are seventy weeks; behold them. The transgression is finished and the end hereto of all sins. Approacheth the hour for the reconciliation for iniquity and to bring in everlasting righteousness and to seal up the vision and prophecy and to anoint the most Holy! Prepare ye!"
Somewhere in the city a voice that was heard even by the fighting-men on the wall in Akra cried:
"The Sacrifice has failed! The Oblation is ceased! There is no Offering for the Altar; none is left to offer it!"
The vast gathering heard it, and immediately from the high place of the prophetess came back the words, prompt and effective:
"And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease!"
Posthumus, buried in the midst of the crowd, was shouting, but over him the splendid mesmerism of the prophetess' voice soared.
"The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children; they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people ... The punishment of thine iniquity is accomplished, O daughter of Zion; ... and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate!"
Among the crowd now growing frantic, people began to cry:
"A sign! A sign!"
"Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the Heaven of the Lord!"
"Lead us!" they still shouted.
They were hungry; they had been abstinent; they had surrendered their riches and their comforts. It was not independence but necessities that they wanted now. The primal wants were at the surface.
"Come up and be filled!" she cried. "Ask and it shall be given unto you! Eat of the grapes and the honey; drink of wine and warm milk; sleep as kings; be housed in mansions; be rulers; command potentates! Let kings bow at your footstools! Be replenished; be great! Suffering hath been your portion since the earth was; but the end is come. Draw nigh and have your recompense. Laugh, you whose eyes have trickled down with the waters of affliction! You in the low dungeon come forth and range all the free boundaries of the world. Whosoever hath gravel between his teeth, let them be grapes! He who sitteth alone, gather company and revel unto him! Feast, ye hungry; be drunken, ye thirsty; love and be loved, ye forlorn!"
Laodice leaned forward suddenly and hung on the woman's words.
"The time for sacrifice and humiliation is paid out! It was a long time! Now, behold in the generosity of his repentance, ye shall ask and nothing shall be denied. Speak! Ask! The whole world, Heaven and earth and the delights of all the years are yours, now and for all time!"
At Laodice's side was Amaryllis. The Greek's face was pale but lighted with a certain enlightenment that was almost threatening.
Startled and frightened Laodice moved back from the Greek, who moved with her, without a glance at the Maccabee.
The voice of the prophetess swept on:
"Ye have bowed to tyrants and bent your necks to murderers; ye have waged wars for pillagers and shared not in the spoils. Why are ye hungry now? Who is full-fed in these days of want, yourselves or your masters? A sword, a sword is drawn; uphold the arm that wields it!"
"Sedition!" Amaryllis whispered, as the mob began to murmur and stir at this new doctrine.
"For behold, he shall go forth with great fury to destroy and utterly to make away many!"
Amaryllis bent so she could whisper in Laodice's ear.
"John hath taken him a new woman to keep him cheerful this hour. I was not daring enough. Philadelphus' wife hath supplanted me. Your place with him is vacant. Go back and possess it!"
"Why was appetite and desire and thirst of power and the love of riches lighted in you, but to be satisfied?" The prophetess' words swept in after Laodice's sudden fear of returning to Philadelphus. "We have expiated the sin of Adam, the greed of Jacob and the fault of David. The judgment is run out; ye have come to your own! Verily, I say unto you, if ye follow me in the name of him who hath come unto you, the world shall be yours!"
Amaryllis still continued to whisper, and Laodice, fearing that the Maccabee might hear, drew farther away. He stood where she had left him, with his head lowered, waiting -- at last a creature dependent on another's will.
"Listen!" Amaryllis said. "I have been seeking you since midnight! Philadelphus' doubt was awakened in this woman. He questioned her, so minutely that she betrayed ignorance of many things she should have known had she been the real daughter of Costobarus. And when finally he taxed her with imposture, she robbed him of the dowry and fled to John. Convinced that you are his wife, he set forth and hath since searched for you without ceasing! See, over there! He seeks you, now!"
Laodice looked the way the Greek pointed and saw Philadelphus, standing with lifted head and stretched to his full height, as if searching over the crowd for her.
Panic seized her. She wrenched herself from the Greek's hold and, forgetting even the protection of Hesper who was within touch of her, she threw herself into the crowd behind her and struggled out of the press.
Nathan, the Christian, saw her turn and followed instantly in the path she made.
Once out, she turned in a bewildered manner this way and that. What refuge, now, for her, indeed, but the cavern under the ruin and the care of Hesper, until the end which should swallow them all!
A trembling hand was laid on her arm.
She whirled, expecting to find Philadelphus. Beside her, his old face radiant with emotion, stood Momus!