Two years have passed, and the fate which Jason had declared to be beyond all limits of probability or possibility has actually overtaken him. One of his agents, named Oniah, who has assumed the name of Menelaüs, for the rage for Greek fashions still continues unabated, has outbidden him, and now reigns in his stead, occupying the palace on Mount Sion which he had been at such pains to adorn.
If we look into his library we shall see not only the books and statuettes—the silver tankards are gone, melted down into money that was wanted for some sudden exigency—but our old acquaintance Cleon. The supple Greek was not one of those who take their friends for better, for worse. Jason was wandering about among the hills of Ammon with scarcely a garment to his back or a shekel that he could call his own, and what use could he find for the company of an accomplished gentleman, who had as keen an eye as any one for a fine bit of sculpture or painting, and could not be rivalled, out of the profession, in his taste for wine? The accomplished gentleman knew where he was appreciated, where he was of use, and, naturally, where he was well off. Accordingly he had found means, as such people always do find means, of ingratiating himself with the new occupant of the palace, and was installed as his consulting connoisseur and chief adviser in matters of taste.
"A poor creature, certainly," he had replied to some depreciatory criticism which Menelaüs had passed on his predecessor, "but it must be allowed that he had a taste in art."
"Or was sensible enough to be guided by those who had," said Menelaüs.
Cleon acknowledged the compliment with a bow, and went on, "I never found him make any difficulty about the price. And, of course, if a man goes to work in that spirit, and has good advice, too, he is bound to make a fine collection."
Menelaüs received the observation with a grimace, and a significant shrug of the shoulders. " 'No difficulty about the price,' you say. Of course not. Why should he? When a man doesn't pay, he is apt to be easy about the amount. Do you know that the bills for half the things that you see in this room have been sent in to me? Sometimes he had to pay the money down. The 'Gladiator' there, from Pergamum could not have been got without ready cash; but wherever he could, he went on credit, and now the dealers are down upon me."
And he held up a sheaf of bills.
"Here," he went on, "is a pretty account from Theodotus of Alexandria, the bookseller, you know:
And so it goes on, with a quantity of books which I am sure the old impostor never read. Two talents and twelve minæ it comes to altogether. Then here is 'A Group of the Graces, 1 talent;' 'Silenus, 20 minæ;' 'Satyr and Nymphs, half a talent.' 'Set of Flagons, worked with the Labours of Hercules, 2 talents.' These the villain melted down before he went. Fancy the rascality of that! Why, the silver by weight could not have been worth a fourth part of what it cost with the workmanship."
"Well," said Cleon, "the fellows can wait. They can afford it; I know enough about these things to be sure that they get a very handsome profit. I used to travel, you know, for Cleisthenes of Syracuse, and so got to know something about the secrets of the trade. No, you need not be afraid of making them wait."
"Well, they have waited three years already," returned Menelaüs; "and very likely will have to be out of their money for as many more. But here is a gentleman who won't wait. Here is Sostratus" (Sostratus, it should be mentioned, was Governor of the Castle, which was garrisoned by Syrian troops, and so the representative of King Antiochus) —"here is Sostratus asking for the half-year's tribute, and giving me a pretty strong hint that, if I don't send it, he shall come and take it for himself. And where is the money to come from?"
"Well," said Cleon, with a little laugh, "I suppose there is one way to get milk, and that is to go to the cow, or the goat, or the sheep. You see, we have a certain choice between big and little. And so, if you want money, you must go to the people, I suppose."
"The people! they are squeezed absolutely dry, at least one would think so. I could tell you stories about the squeezing that would make you split your sides with laughing. There was old Levi, a Bethlehem farmer; they boiled him, or half-boiled him, because he would not pay his taxes—said that he couldn't, the old villain! They put him in a caldron, you see, and kept heating it up, because he would not tell where he had hidden his money."
"Well, did they get it out of him?"
"No, the obstinate old dog, he would not say a word; but before he was quite finished his wife brought the coins from her head-dress and bought him off. They say that he was the queerest figure when he came out of the water, with the skin hanging about him in folds. Well, at all events, it was a good washing for him. He had never been so clean in his life before."
"And did he recover?" asked Menander.
"Upon my word, I can't remember. But I do know that we got the money."
"Well, I remember what your predecessor used to say. It was in this very room about two years ago that I asked him whether he felt quite safe. 'Oh, yes!' he answered, 'I have got the last farthing that is to be got, and there is an end of it!' "
"Well," replied the high priest, "there are other ways of getting money besides taxes. I will allow that Jason worked the taxes as well as a man could. No one can eat or drink, lie down or get up, walk or ride, travel or stay at home, be born or marry, or be buried, without having to pay for it. No! I do not see room for another, and I am sure that it is not for want of looking. But, as I said, there are other ways. Now—can you keep a secret?"
"A secret! I should say so—not the grave itself better!"
"Hush! my friend, good words! good words!" cried the high priest, who felt, or affected to feel the common Greek superstition against words that seemed to carry an evil omen with them. "Well, if you can, come here."
So saying, Menelaüs took his friend into an adjoining room, and opening a cupboard, secured, as the Greek observed, by an iron door and by a look of elaborate construction, showed him a number of massive gold vases.
"And where do these come from?" asked Cleon almost dazzled by the splendid array.
"Where should they come from, but from the Temple? Some of these have got a history of their own. You see that two-handled cup? King Artaxerxes gave it to Nehemiah: solid gold. And you see those splendid sapphires in the handles? The very biggest stones of the sort I have ever seen, and worth three talents each. Then there is that salver, Alexander of Macedon gave it to the Temple; and that casket there was a present from the first Ptolemy."
"But, my dear sir," said the Greek, astonished at the audacity of the whole affair, "is not this going a little too far? Suppose the people were to find it out? Would there not be a rather formidable uproar?"
"Well, of course; we cannot get anything without risk. But I have taken precautions. First, I have put a facsimile of every one of these in the Temple; gilded lead, which does perfectly well for all practical purposes."
"But the weight! Surely any one can tell the difference by the weight."
"Of course, my dear Cleon, I know that lead is little more than half as heavy as gold. But there are ways of making it up. You can put a great deal more metal in, without its being observed, and almost make up the difference. And, you see, the things are never allowed to be handled; can only be looked at. I have given very strict orders about that, you may be sure. Of course the treasurer is in the secret; but as he must sink or swim with me, he may be trusted. Besides, I am not going to run the risk of keeping them here. I can trust you, my good Cleon, as I can my own brother—in fact, when I come to think of it, a good deal more—yet I am not sure that I should have told you so much, but that the best of these are going to be packed off to-night. The fact is, they are sold already."
The Greek could only shrug his shoulders and say nothing. As my readers will have perceived, he was not a man of high principles—in fact, to put the matter plainly, he was an unscrupulous adventurer. But the reckless villainy of Menelaüs fairly disgusted him. His taste, quite apart from any question of principle or honesty, revolted at the notion that a man, placed as was the high priest of the Jewish people, should deal with these historic treasures as a vulgar burglar might deal with them. This was a refinement of feeling into which the vulgar cupidity of Menelaüs did not enter. He went on:
"How wild that scoundrel Jason would be, if he knew of this, to think that he had lost such an opportunity, had these treasures in his hand, so to speak, and leave them to his worst enemy!"
"Have you heard anything lately about him?" asked the Greek, not unwilling to change the subject.
"Oh, yes," replied Menelaüs, "he is wandering about somewhere in the country of the Ammonites, and at his wits' end, I am told, how to live."
"Poor fellow!" said Cleon, sotto voce, "he was always very kind to me, and I can't help being sorry for him." He then went on aloud, "He will find it a great change from his way of living here."
"Yes, yes!" said Menelaüs; "but still, some of his old ways and habits will come in usefully. He was always great about training, you remember. Every one should be ready to fight a boxing-match or run a race. Cold, hunger, fatigue; these, he used to say, are the things to bring out a man's muscles. And now he has got them in perfection. He might really carry off some prize, only, unluckily, he is getting a little too old for that sort of thing. And then, you recollect, how he would go on about the beauty of the human form. Clothes, especially the gorgeous clothes of our people, obscured so tastelessly its magnificent proportions. Well, he has not much to complain of, I imagine, on that score. By the last account that I had of him he had as little in the way of clothing as a man could well have. Anyhow, he may console himself with thinking that his magnificent proportions are not obscured. Well, I don't pity him. A man who has managed to get into a good place and then cannot stick to it is nothing better than a fool, and richly deserves everything that he may get."
At this point in the conversation a servant announced the arrival of a message from Sostratus, Governor of the Castle.
"All the gods and goddesses confound the man!" cried the high priest, in a rage. He was fond of garnishing his conversation with a little Greek profanity. "Another dunning message, I suppose. Well, he must wait. No man can get any water by squeezing out of a dry sponge; and that is about what I am!"
The communication from Sostratus proved, however, to be on quite another subject, though it was, if possible, even more unwelcome. It ran thus:—
Menelaüs's face visibly lengthened as he read this epistle. "By the dog!" (this was a Socratic oath which he sometimes affected, as giving to his conversation a certain philosophic tinge)—"By the dog! this is worse than being dunned! I like not a journey to Antioch. A very pretty place, but expensive, dreadfully expensive, especially when one has the honour of being entertained by the King."
Cleon felt a certain pleasure in the high priest's discomfiture. The new patron was more overbearing, less considerate, and generally more difficult to get on with than the old. Jason, coxcomb as he was, had always been kind, and Cleon felt as kindly for him as it was in his nature to feel for any one. And then the exquisite propriety with which this disturbing news followed the man's taunts and boasts was irresistible.
"It is hard," he said, as if to himself, "when a man has got into a good place——"
Menelaüs darted an angry look at his friend, but the Greek's face, which he knew how to keep under admirable control, expressed nothing but respectful sympathy. There was an unpleasant suggestion of mockery in what he had heard; but the Greek was a useful person; he had been trusted, too, and knew things which it would not do to have published. Altogether, the high priest concluded, it would not do to quarrel with him—anyhow, for the present; some day, perhaps, he might be got rid of.
"I suppose, sir, you cannot make an excuse—important affairs of State, the King's service to be attended to, or something of that kind?"
Cleon made the suggestion, knowing perfectly well that it was quite out of the question. But he enjoyed the novel position of tormenting his patron, and was taking it out, so to speak, for not a few rudenesses and slights.
"Excuse!" cried Menelaüs. "It would be as much as my head is worth to do anything of the kind. No! I must go. But this is not a journey which one cares to take empty-handed. Let me see what I can take—two or three of the most portable cups, as much coin as I can scrape together, and the jewels—jewels are always useful: it is so easy to hide them. Well, I shall leave you in charge; unless, indeed, you are very much set on going yourself."
Cleon was not at all set upon going; on the contrary, nothing short of the strongest inducements would have persuaded him to the journey. Going to Antioch was like putting one's head into the lion's mouth. There was no particular reason, indeed, why his head should be bitten off; but lions are capricious, and sometimes use their teeth for the mere fun of the thing.
"I am much obliged for the chance," he said, "but my health has been suffering lately, and I do not feel quite equal to the journey."
"Well, then," replied Menelaüs, stop here, and keep things as straight as you can. And if you can sell some of these pretty things for ready money, do so—the usual commission for yourself, of course. But it must all be kept quiet."
The next day the high priest and the Governor, neither of them in very good spirits, were on their way to Antioch.