The Burial of Mattathias
Judas and his brothers sat late into the night consulting about a daring scheme which the new captain of the host proposed.
"It would be an unseemly thing," he said, "that Mattathias, the son of Asmon, should be thrust into a hole among the rocks as if he were an outcast or a robber. Verily we will bury him with his fathers in the sepulchre of Asmon."
" 'Twill be no easy matter to contrive," said Jonathan, the man of many devices. "The sepulchre is hard by the town, and we can scarcely avoid the eyes of the people in coming and going."
"Nay, Jonathan, I have no purpose of doing the thing in secret. It would not be well to bury my father by stealth in his own sepulchre. It shall be done openly, and before the eyes of men."
The brothers, bold men as they were, were astonished at the hardihood of the plan. But their respect for the genius of Judas silenced any opposition. And then he had never failed in any enterprise. John was the first to speak.
" 'Tis well thought of, Judas. Lead the way, and I follow;" and he clasped his brother's hand.
The captain then developed his plan, which, when examined, seemed less audacious than it had appeared at first sight. It was to be a surprise, and the very unlikelihood of the attempt made its success more probable. Modin was not occupied by a garrison, and the townsfolk, even if their goodwill could not be counted on, would scarcely venture to resist. Only it would be necessary to act before any rumour of their intention could get about, and, the funeral march once begun, to hasten it to a completion as much as possible.
The body was at once preserved against decay as far as the scanty means at the command of the patriots would allow. Then word was sent through the encampment that all who wished to take their last look at the dead hero must come at once. For three hours a constant stream of awestruck and weeping visitors passed through the tent in which he lay, attired in his priestly garb, the long white beard reaching almost to his waist, his wasted features settled into the majestic repose of death. Every visitor as he entered loosed his sandals from his feet, feeling that the place which he was entering was holy ground. Every one, as he took his last look on the hero's face, prayed to the God of his fathers that his last end might be like his. Women brought their children that they might kiss the hem of his garment. It would be a distinction to them in their old age that they had been privileged to pay this honour to Mattathias, the son of Asmon.
Before dawn the procession started. The body, in its rude coffin of wood, was placed upon a bier, thirty bearers taking it in turns to carry it. The thirty were divided into five relays of six, one of the sons of the dead being always among those who performed the duty. With the exception of a small force which was left for the protection of the women and children, all the fighting men of the settlement accompanied the body. In spite of the efforts which had been made to procure or manufacture arms, they were still but poorly equipped. Of military display, of the "pomp and circumstance of glorious war," there was absolutely nothing. But the solid qualities of endurance and courage could be seen in their sinewy forms and resolute faces. To an observer who could look below the surface that squalid array had in it the capacity for achieving an heroic success.
Judas had been quite right in predicting that the expedition would meet with little or no opposition. Its march, indeed, was absolutely unmolested by the enemy. The movement was wholly unexpected, and consequently no force had been collected to hinder it; while the garrisons of the two or three fortified places which the army passed on its route did not feel themselves strong enough to attempt any attack. Already, though as yet no pitched battle had been fought, these Jewish "Ironsides" had inspired their enemies with a wholesome dread of their prowess. Both Greeks and renegades knew that these ragged, ill-armed mountaineers stood as stoutly and plied their swords as fiercely as any soldiers in the world.
No incident occurred in the course of the march save one, which, though little thought of at the time, was destined to lead to events of considerable importance. When the first halt was called, Benjamin, who was a well-known personage in the neighbourhood, and who in spite, perhaps in consequence, of his antecedents enjoyed not a little popularity, found entertainment in the house of an old acquaintance. The man was a farmer, who had been accustomed to make a handsome profit by supplying the bandits with useful information. Recognizing his old accomplice in the ranks of the patriot army, he invited him into his house, and entertained him with his best. Unfortunately this best happened to be some salted swine's flesh. Benjamin had some scruple about eating it; but it was not strong enough to resist the claims of a ravenous hunger, supported as they were by his entertainer's ridicule.
The meal was washed down by the contents of two or three flasks of potent wine, and the friends were so busily occupied with discussing these, and with talking over old times, that the signal for assembly passed unnoticed. Then followed a search for stragglers, and Benjamin was discovered with the fragments of his meal before him; and though his hunger had stripped the bones bare enough, no one could doubt what was the animal to which they had belonged.
The offender had been caught, so to speak, red-handed, and some voices were raised to demand his instant execution. But the officer in command of the detachment interposed. In any case he would have objected to a proceeding of which Judas would certainly have disapproved, and he had besides a certain kindness for Benjamin, of whose courage and dexterity he had been more than once a witness. Accordingly the offender was put under close arrest, and the army resumed its march.
Benjamin had no need to be told that he was in very serious danger. The Chasidim, at least, would be more ready to overlook fifty thefts than one transgression in the matter of unclean food; and he felt sure that if he could not contrive to escape before the army returned to the encampment, possibly before they reached Modin, his days were numbered. While he was meditating on the chances of escape, one of the escort, an associate of former days, was thinking how he could help him. Happening to be in front of the prisoner, he purposely stumbled and fell. The prisoner fell over him, and in the confusion the soldier cut the cords that bound Benjamin's hands. The prisoner was not a man to lose such an opportunity. Waiting till he reached a convenient spot on the march, he shook off his bonds, sprang to the side of the road, and, before his keepers could recover from their astonishment, was lost to sight in the woods which bordered it.
When the army reached Modin no attempt was made to interfere with its proceedings. Our old acquaintance, Cleon, had been sent to replace the commissioner killed when Mattathias raised the standard of revolt, and Cleon was far too careful of himself to risk his safety in any foolhardy struggle against superior strength. When the body of armed men was first seen approaching the town, he had supposed that its object was to possess itself of any money, arms, or provisions that might be found in the place. A nearer view showed the funeral procession, and one of the townspeople was acute enough to guess the real purpose of the expedition. Cleon's resolve was at once taken. He would make the best of circumstances which he could not control. Accordingly he went out of the town with a flag of truce in his hand, and meeting the vanguard of the approaching array, demanded an interview with its leader.
He was brought into the presence of Judas.
"May I ask," he said, "the purpose of your coming?"
"We are come to bury Mattathias, son of Asmon, in the sepulchre of his fathers," was the brief reply.
"And you, sir," continued the Greek, with elaborate courtesy, "may I ask to whom I am speaking?"
"I am Judas, son of Mattathias."
"Allow me, then," answered Cleon, "to express my sympathy with you in the loss of so renowned a father, once, I believe, a distinguished citizen of this place, and to assure you that you will meet with no molestation in whatever honours you may see fit to render to his memory. I would myself willingly attend the obsequies, did I suppose that my presence would be welcome."
"We thank you, sir," said Judas, who was inwardly chafing at this hypocritical politeness, but disdained to show his feelings; "we would sooner be alone."
Cleon saluted and withdrew.
The funeral ceremonies were performed with an impressive solemnity. The stone which closed the entrance to the family tomb of the house of Asmon had been rolled away, and the dead body was placed in the niche which had been long ago prepared for its reception. Only the sons of Mattathias and a few of their best trusted counsellors and lieutenants entered the cave; the rest of the multitude stood without, waiting in profound silence till they should be told that the old warrior had been laid in his last resting-place.
When the cave had been closed again John, as the eldest son of the deceased, spoke a few words to the army.
"We have buried our dead," he said, "out of our sight; but his memory lives and will live among us. Let us be true and faithful as he was, that we may be with him when he shall rise again at the last day, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the supper of the people of God. Meanwhile let us follow and obey him whom with his last breath he named as his successor. Long live Judas, son of Mattathias, son of Asmon, the captain of the host of the Lord!"
And all the army shouted their approval.
Cleon had followed up his courtesies by an invitation addressed to Judas and his principal officers, in which he begged the honour of their company at a meal. Judas declined the invitation, but intimated that he would gladly purchase a supply of corn. The commissioner, well aware that his guests could take by force anything that was refused to them, at once acceded to the request, and Micah was selected, on account of his familiarity with the Greek language, to conduct the transaction.
The details of the business arranged with the commissioner's secretary, Micah received a message from the great man himself, begging for the pleasure of an interview.
"What!" cried Cleon, affecting a surprise which he did not really feel, "is this my old friend Menander whom I see?"
"My name is Micah," said the Jew, not without a feeling of disgust and shame as his mind reverted to the past.
"As you please," said Cleon. "By whatever name you may please to call yourself, I hope that we shall always be good friends. But tell me, what is the meaning of this disguise?"
"I know not what you mean by disguise."
"I mean these rags, which a scarecrow would hardly condescend to wear; that battered helmet, which looks as if the boys had been kicking it for a month about the market-place; that deplorably shabby sword, which even a rag-and-bone man would be ashamed to hang up in his shop. Is this the elegant Menander—I beg your pardon, the elegant Micah, who was once the very pink of neatness and fashion?"
"As for my past follies, you may laugh at them as you will, nor can I deny that you are in the right. But of these rags, as you are pleased to call them, of these shabby arms, I am not ashamed. I have come to myself. The things that I once prized I count as dung, and for that which I once despised I would gladly die."
"Why, what madness is this? What have you got to live for? How can you support existence among this deplorable crew of beggars and outlaws, with not a man among them, I will warrant, who has the least taste of culture, or the faintest tincture of art?"
"These 'beggars and outlaws,' as you call them, are the soldiers of the Lord; and you will find that they are enemies not to be despised, that these battered helmets can turn a blow, and these jagged swords can deal one that will make its way through all your finery."
"But, my dear friend—I may call you so, I suppose, in spite of any little difference of opinion there may be between us?"
The Jew made no motion of assent.
"Well, you cannot be deceiving yourself as to the utter hopelessness of your attempt. Why, when you come to meet our troops in regular battle, you will disappear like chaff before the wind. You may take a few places by surprise, but you have no more chance of winning a regular victory than a dove has of killing a kite. Come now, be reasonable; give up this silly affair, and be my guest, till we can find something suitable for you to do. I will set you up with some new clothes, to which you are perfectly welcome. And I will warrant that in a few days you will be wondering that you were ever foolish enough to undertake such a wildgoose business as this."
"Your gifts be to yourself. Nay, Cleon," he soon went on to say, in a softer tone, "I would not speak harshly to you for the sake of old kindnesses which I doubt not you meant well in showing me. But be sure that I am in earnest. The old things are hateful to me. I have other desires, other hopes; and if they are not satisfied, not fulfilled, I can at least die for them."
"Die for them, indeed! That, my dear Micah, is only too likely, and die, I am afraid, in an exceedingly unpleasant way. It is simple madness to suppose that a crowd of ragamuffins, under a general—Apollo save the mark!—who has never seen a battle, can stand against the troops of the King. You used to be a very good fellow, Menander or Micah, or whatever you call yourself, but, as sure as you are sitting there, if you go on in this mad fashion, I shall have the pain of seeing you some day hanging on a cross."
At the sound of the word the young Jew started as if he had been stabbed. It opened the way for a flood of memories which, for a while, carried him out of himself. When he could command himself sufficiently to speak, he burst out—
"Yes—hanging on a cross! Nothing more likely if only you and your friends get their way. You talk of taste, and art, and beauty: you have always plenty of fine words on your tongues, but when it comes to practice you are as brutal as the fiercest of the savages whom you profess to despise—nay, you are ten times worse, for you know what you are doing. Now, listen to me, Cleon. Some six months ago I was walking through Jerusalem after your teachers of culture and art had been busy giving their lessons. What think you I saw? I saw a woman hanging on a cross, and her little son, a babe of a few days old, fastened about her neck. Thank God they were dead. Some one of your people had in mercy—for you are not altogether without mercy—strangled her before they fastened her to the cross. And what was her offence? Was she unchaste, a thief, a murderer? Not so; no purer, gentler soul ever lived on the earth. No, she had done for her son as her fathers for a thousand years and more had done for their sons. And this was how your prophets of refinement and beauty dealt with her. Cleon, that woman was my sister. Do you think that such deeds as that will go unpunished? Surely not; whether your faith—if you have a faith—or mine be true, there is a vengeance that follows—slow, it may be, but sure of foot—the men who work such wickedness. And, for my part, I doubt not who the first minister of that vengeance will be. You sneer at our general; he is no general at all, you think; a mere leader of vagabonds, who has never seen a battle. He will see many a battle, yea, and the back of many a foe, before his work is done. He is a very Hammer of God, and he will break his enemies to pieces. And now, Cleon, hearken again to me. You and I have broken bread together as friends. That is past for ever. May the God of my fathers send down upon me all the plagues that He holds in the vials of His wrath, if I have any truce with the enemies of His people! But with you, as I would not join hands in friendship, so I would not cross them in anger. Pray, therefore, to your gods, as I will certainly pray to Him whom I worship, that we may never see each other again. And now farewell!"
The expedition returned to the mountains without mishap.