"Things are growing worse and worse; only three customers yesterday, and not a single one to-day, though it must be at least an hour past noon. One would think that all the world had become Nazarites. Then, though there is next to nothing coming in, there is no stop to the going out. First comes the rascally tax-gatherer, and squeezes one as dry as a grape-skin in a press. And if, by chance, there happens to be a drop left, some snuffling priest is sure to turn up, and talk about one's duty as a patriot and a Jew till he drags the last shekel out of one."
The speaker was one Shallum, a Benjamite, who kept a little wine-shop in the Lower City. When he had finished his grumble, he thrust his hand into an empty wine-jar, drew from it a little leathern bag, untied the string which was round the neck, poured out the scanty contents on the counter and counted them. He knew the amount perfectly well, for he had gone through the counting process at least ten times before that day. But when a man is desperately anxious to make two ends meet, he will measure them again and again, though he may know exactly by how much they are too short.
"Twelve shekels and ten annas! And old Nahum will be here to-morrow, asking for his thirty shekels!"
Nahum was a Lebanon wine-grower, whose long-suffering had been already tried to the utmost by the delays of the impecunious Shallum.
At this moment his meditations were interrupted by the entrance of two visitors, who had been standing, listening and watching outside the door. They were traders in a small way, who had migrated from Joppa when they heard that Greek wares were becoming the fashion in Jerusalem.
"Ho! Shallum," cried one of them, "two cups of your best Lebanon; and make haste, for we have important business on hand."
"Shall I draw some water fresh from the well? This is a little too warm to be used."
"Water!" said the man. "Jew, don't blaspheme. Mix water with our wine to-day, of all days in the year!"
"And why not to-day?" said Shallum.
"Because it is the feast of Dionysus, the wine-giver; and it would be the grossest impiety to profane his bounty with any mixture of meaner things. Commonly his godship winks at human weakness; but to-day it is different. May he confound me if I do him such dishonour!"
"He will certainly confound you if you drink this heady wine undiluted," muttered Shallum to himself, as he set the two cups before his guests.
"Excellent! excellent!" cried Lycon, the elder of the two Greeks, as he set down his goblet, half empty. "But why the god vouchsafes such capital drink to these unbelieving dogs of Jews puzzles me beyond expression."
His companion broke out into a drinking-song:
"Fill the cup with ample measure,
Dionysus' gift divine;
Earth and sea hold no such treasure
As the gleaming, sparkling wine.
All for youth are love's caressings,
Gold and gems for princes shine;
All may share the wine-god's blessings,
Rich and poor are glad with wine."
Shallum was fairly tolerant, as indeed a tavern-keeper can hardly fail to be, of the ways and manners of his customers; but to hear this praise of a false god, one of the odious demons that were worshipped by the heathen, was too much for his patience. He muttered a curse under his breath, and emphasized this expression of disgust by spitting on the floor.
"Don't talk to me of your gods and goddesses!" cried Shallum, goaded beyond all endurance, "a lewd, drunken crew that no respectable person would have anything to do with!"
"Come, my friend," said the Greek, "this is not the sort of talk which one expects to hear from a loyal subject of the pious Antiochus. We Greeks are not such bigots as you are, cursing every man, woman, or child that does not go exactly in our own way; but you must treat us and our belongings with respect. We are not going to have barbarians scoffing at what we think fit to worship. I have heard of men being crucified for less than you have said to-day. But hearken, Shallum, we did not come here to-day to quarrel with you. You are a good fellow, after all, and keep as capital a tap of wine as any that I know, King Tmolus only excepted. We want you to come with us and have a jolly day. What is the good of quarrelling about words? You and we are quite agreed that there is something in wine that makes it one of the finest things under the sun. Suppose that we choose to call that something Dionysus the Wine-god, and you choose to say that your god has to do with it, what is the difference? We are really agreed. It is the goodness in wine that we both like, and I'm sure that a really honest fellow like you, that we can always rely on to give us the right stuff, should be the first to acknowledge it. Well, can't we show an agreement? That is why we want you to come with us. A whole crowd of your countrymen are coming, I understand. It will be a pretty sight, and there will be some of the finest music that you ever heard, and dancing, and fun of all kinds, and, of course, as much wine as ever you want. Of course you will come, my dear Shallum?"
"I come?" growled the wine-seller. "Not I! What do I care about your dancing and singing? And as for wine, I can have as much as I want at home, and better stuff, too, than any that I am likely to get elsewhere."
Lycon, who was evidently bent on getting his way, did not suffer his good humour to be disturbed by the Jew's churlishness. "Ah!" said he, "that reminds me. Stupid fellow that I am, I quite forgot the matter of business that really brought me here. To tell the truth, business and this old Lebanon don't very well agree. But listen; Neocles, who is manager-in-chief of the whole festival, has quite made up his mind to have your wine, and none but yours, for all the better sort of people. He was to get some skins for the common folks from Zadok—do you know him?"
"Know him?" said Shallum; "I should think I did—hasn't got a drop of sound wine in his shop."
"So the Chief said. But we were to come to you for the good wine. What can you let us have? Mind that it must be the very best. We were not to haggle about the price, Neocles said, so long as we got it really good."
And Lycon pulled out of his pocket a money-bag that was evidently much better furnished than Shallum's lean and hunger-bitten purse. Untying the neck, he poured into his hand, with an air of careless profusion, some ten or twelve gold pieces.
Shallum's keen eyes glistened at the sight. Here was enough to pay not only Nahum but all his creditors, and leave him a handsome sum over wherewith to tide over the hard times. His somewhat brusque manner changed in a moment. He was now the most obsequious of tradesmen.
"Everything in my stores is at your disposal. And I have a better wine than this in my cellar, and only ten shekels a skin," he went on, adding about three to the utmost he expected to get. "But wait a moment, gentlemen, you shall taste it for yourselves."
He took a small flagon from beneath the counter and disappeared. The two Greeks smiled to each other. "We have the fish fast," one of them said; "after all there is nothing like a golden bait."
Shallum shortly reappeared with the wine, which was tasted and approved.
"Well," said Lycon, "we will say ten skins of this at ten shekels a piece, and five of the other sort at eight—that is the price; is it not?"
Shallum nodded assent. As a matter of fact he would never have expected more than seven. But if these Greeks were so free with their money why should not an honest Jew have the benefit of it?
"Of course you will come with us?" said Lycon. "You may take my word for it, there will be nothing to offend you."
Shallum hesitated for a moment, and then muttered an unwilling "Yes."
"And you won't mind wearing this little twig of ivy, just twisted round your head? It means nothing—every one does it."
This was more than the wretched man was prepared for. "Not I," he said; "I am not going to wear any of your idolatrous ornaments."
Lycon put the money-bag into his pocket again. "Then, my dear Shallum, I am afraid we shall not be able to do any business. 'Give and take' is our motto. We put a nice little bargain in your way; and you must humour us. However, if you are obstinate, there must be an end of it. I dare say Zadok can find us what we want. Come, Callicles," he went on, turning to his companion, "we must be going."
Shallum saw his dreams of deliverance from his money-troubles vanishing into air, and grew desperate. "Stop," he said to his guests, "let me think for a moment. You won't ask me to do anything else. A few leaves can't make much odds either way. I don't remember ever hearing anything in the Law against wearing ivy. It isn't like eating swine's flesh, or those detestable scaleless eels that you Greeks are so fond of. Yes, I'll wear the thing, if you want me to so much."
"That's right, Shallum; I thought a sensible man like you would not throw away a good chance for a mere nothing."
So saying, Lycon stepped outside the shop, and whistled. In a minute or so a cart, which had been waiting round the corner, was driven up. The skins of wine were stowed away in it, and the two Greeks, with Shallum between them, all wearing the ivy-wreath, took their seats, and started for the Valley of the Cheesemongers, where it had been arranged that the festival should be held.
The festival was scarcely a success, if it was meant, as it certainly was, to attract the Jewish population. A few hundreds, indeed, had been persuaded or compelled to be present. Most of them belonged to the lowest and most degraded class, wretched creatures whom any purchaser might secure for any purpose with a shekel or a flagon of wine. To-day they were "hail fellow well met" with their Greek neighbours, but to-morrow they would be perfectly ready to tear them in pieces. A few of somewhat better character had been bribed, as Shallum had been bribed, to come. These had little of the air of genuine holiday-makers. Their bursts of simulated gaiety did not conceal the shame which they really felt. Others, again, did not make even this pretence of hilarity. They had been actually compelled to come, and they had all the air of prisoners led in the triumphant procession of a victorious general. Their faces were ghastly pale. Some, with their teeth firmly clenched, seemed to be forcibly keeping in the curses which struggled to find utterance. Others, of a gentler temper, were weeping silently; and others, again, preserved a look of dogged indifference. The Greek part of the spectators, who could have enjoyed the humours of the scene with a good conscience, were depressed by the presence of these unwilling guests. In consequence, everything seemed to fail. The jesters, with their grotesque garb and faces hideously smeared with wine-lees, could scarcely get a laugh from their audience; the singing lacked heartiness, the dancing was dull and spiritless. It is only natural that revellers, who find the time passing slowly, should try to quicken its movement. There was little brightness or gaiety in this feast of the wine-god, and there was therefore all the more excess. Some seized the rare opportunity of intoxicating themselves without expense, while others drank to drown their shame or their anger. Shallum, whose occupation had somewhat seasoned him against the effects of wine, remained comparatively sober, but his Greek companions were less discreet or less strong-headed. They became, by a rapid succession of moods, boisterously gay, foolishly affectionate, and provokingly quarrelsome. It was not long before things came to a crisis. Lycon taunted the wine-seller with the quality of his wines; that did not affect him, for he was used to such complaints from his customers, and took them as part of his day's work. He scoffed at the subjection of his nation to Greek rule; Shallum still kept his temper. The tipsy Greek was only encouraged to further insults by his companion's self-restraint. He attempted to daub the Jew's face with the dregs from a broken flagon. Shallum angrily shook him off, and he reeled back just saving himself from a fall by catching at the trunk of an olive tree. "Hog of a Jew!" he cried, "do you lay hands on a free-born Greek? Come, Callicles," he went on, turning to his companion, "let us teach the beast how to behave himself." The two rushed at the Jew, aiming blows at his head with the staves which they carried in their hands. One of them stumbled against the stones of a ruined house, and fell so heavily that he was unable or unwilling to raise himself again. Shallum easily evaded the attack of the other, dealing him at the same time so fierce a stroke of the fist that it stretched him senseless on the ground. The deed done, he looked hastily round to see whether any spectator had witnessed it. To his great relief, he found himself alone. From the lower city came the sounds of furious revelry and the strains of the Bacchic chorus—
"Comrades, crown the bowl with wine,
Round your locks the ivy twine,
Deeper drink and join again
Bacchus and his reeling train."
His first impulse was to tear the ivy-wreath from his head. Then he reflected that if he could endure to wear it for a few moments longer, it might serve him as a passport. The event proved that he was right. He passed unquestioned through the crowd of revellers, left the precincts of the valley, and striking on an unfrequented path, hurried on at the top of his speed, not pausing till he had put at least six miles between himself and the scene of his late adventure. Then he threw himself on the ground and bewailed his grievous fall in an agony of shame and remorse. After a while the fatigue and excitement of the day, helped by the fumes of the wine, which his rapid movements had sent to his brain, overpowered him, and he sank into a heavy sleep.
His slumbers lasted late into the day. When he woke, his head aching with the excess of the day before, he felt even more wretched, more hopeless. To return to the city was out of the question. But where was he to go? While he was debating this question with himself, and could find nothing in the least resembling an answer, he caught the sound of approaching footsteps. Mingled feelings of shame and fear suggested to him that he should hide himself, and he plunged into the bushes which lined the side of the road.
The traveller approached. He was a renegade Jew, and Shallum recognized him as one who had taken an active part in the festivities of the preceding day. Just as he passed Shallum's hiding-place an unlucky impulse made him burst forth into a snatch of the Bacchic chant—
"Deeper drink and join again
Bacchus and his reeling train."
His listener heard the words with mingled feelings of disgust and rage, and leaping down into the road felled him senseless to the ground.
At first it seemed as if what he had done did not make his way plainer before him. But as he stood by the prostrate man a thought occurred to him. He took the purse which the man, in the usual traveller's fashion, wore by way of girdle round his waist, and examined its contents. It held three gold pieces and some ten shekels. The gold he left; but half of the shekels he transferred to his own keeping, One of the shekels sufficed to purchase some bread and dried flesh at the neighbouring village. Thus recruited in strength the fugitive made his escape to the mountains.