In the Mountains
The time is evening; the place is a rocky pass between Bethel and Michmash. At the mouth of a cave which commands a view of the approach from the westward, are seated two men, in one of whom we may recognize Shallum, the quondam wine-seller of Jerusalem.
"Well, comrade," he is saying to his companion, "this business is not quite to my liking. It is all very well when we can relieve a Greek merchant, or, better still, a Syrian tax-gatherer, of his money-bags; but I hate robbing our own people. That poor fellow to-day, for instance, who was taking home his wages—he had been wood-cutting, he said, in Bashan—it really went to my heart to take the money from him."
The companion whom he addressed was a rough, savage-looking fellow, who certainly did not look as if he would feel very much for Shallum's scruples.
He had followed, indeed, the robber's trade, it may be said, from his childhood, as his fathers had followed it before him, almost since the days of the Captivity.
He now broke out into a loud, mocking laugh.
"Ah! my friend Shallum," he said, "you are a great deal too soft and tender-hearted. But then you are new to the business; when you have been at it as long as I have, you won't have these scruples. Now, mark what I say; and if we are to be good friends, don't let me hear any more of this nonsense. You are a stout fellow and a man of your hands; and as for myself, well, I rather think that a novice like you could hardly have come across a better teacher. I don't doubt that we shall do very well together; and when we have made a little money, I shan't blame you if you give up the business and become what they call an honest man. For myself, the 'honest man' line does not suit me—it is not in my blood, you know. But, meanwhile, if we are to work together, we must agree. Now, all is fish that comes to our net. Of course, I don't mean the people about here—our neighbours, you know. We must not touch them; on the contrary, they must, have a share of what we make. As long as they are our friends we are safe. But all strangers are lawful booty. And mind—for I see that you are a little wroth about this—mind, it is only dead men who tell no tales."
Benjamin's words of wisdom—the more experienced of the two robbers was named Benjamin—were interrupted by an exclamation from his companion.
"Hush!" he cried, "I hear a sound of voices from the pass."
The two men listened; Shallum was evidently right. A party of travellers were approaching from the west.
"We are in luck," said Benjamin; "it is not often that we do business so late in the day."
As he spoke the leaders of the party emerged into sight.
"Shoot, Shallum!" said Benjamin; "strike one of those fellows down and we shall have the whole party in confusion."
"Nay, Benjamin; I hear the voices of women and children; and see—God wither my hand if I shoot at such helpless people as these."
The rest of the party was now in sight. Two men, one on either side of the ass, were supporting Ruth, who, worn out by the fatigues of the day, could with difficulty keep her seat on the animal. These were her husband and Azariah. Close behind came Micah, carrying on his shoulder the little Judith, who was fast asleep. Then followed Miriam, Judith's elder sister. The poor child limped sadly along, for her city life had been but a poor training for that long day's march, and she felt just a little envious of the good fortune which Judith enjoyed in being carried. Shallum recognized the figures of Seraiah and Ruth, with whom he happened to have had some slight acquaintance in Jerusalem, and from whom indeed he had received no little kindness.
"Benjamin," he said, in a determined voice, "I know these people, and if I can help it they shall suffer no harm."
"Well, well; have your way," said his companion, who indeed was not quite as hard of heart as he would make himself out. "If, as you say, you know them, go down and make friends."
Shallum at once made his way down into the pass, and, standing in the path, greeted the travellers with the customary salutation, "Peace be with you!"
"What, Shallum!" said Seraiah, "is that you? What brings you here?"
"That were a long story," returned the man, "and this is not the time to tell it. But can I serve you?"
"Can you find shelter for my poor wife? But it is idle, I fear, to ask you. There can be no inn near this wild place."
" 'Tis true, sir, there is no inn; yet if you can put up with such poor lodging as we can give, the lady will have at least shelter."
Ruth was lifted from her seat on the ass, and carried between her husband and Azariah up the rocky track that led to the cave, Shallum showing the way with a lighted torch in his hand, for by this time the night had fallen.
Benjamin met the little party at the mouth of the cave. His life of crime had not quenched all kindly feeling in him. He felt, too, that he was a host; and the sense of hospitality, which keeps its hold on an Eastern heart as long as anything good is left to it, bade him do his best for his guests. And the sweet smile of thanks with which Ruth greeted him when she was laid on the couch of cloaks, which the two inmates of the cave had hastily arranged on a pile of heather, won him altogether.
A minute or two afterwards Micah followed with the two children; Judith, still fast asleep, was put down by Ruth's side, while Miriam forgot her fatigue in the delightful excitement of this new adventure. The new-comers had brought with them a slender store of provisions. These they proceeded to share, declining with thanks the dried flesh and wine which their entertainers offered. The rest of the party found shelter, under guidance of the robbers, in some of the many caves with which the rocks in the neighbourhood were honeycombed.
Next morning the arrangements for housing the little colony were made. There was an abundance of caves to give shelter to all, and the accommodation though rough, at least protected them from the weather. Their life was simple in the extreme—simple even to hardness. They sought for herbs and roots, and from the neighbouring peasants they bought a few goats, to browse among the rocks, and a small quantity of corn, which they bruised between stones and baked. The mountain springs furnished their drink, a few flasks of wine being reserved for any cases of sickness. Twice a day the whole company met for worship. Seraiah read a portion first from the Law and then from the Prophets, for they had not forgotten to bring rolls of the Sacred Books. Then standing erect, with covered heads, their faces turned towards the Temple, they joined in prayer. In the words of one who himself in old time had found himself shut out for a while from the privileges of the Holy Place and was content to realize them by faith, the congregation uttered together the petition, "Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the incense; and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice." One of the psalms of penitence followed; for surely they had all many sins to repent of—sins of which they were now suffering the penalty; and, after the psalm, a prayer for deliverance from the enemy, and for the setting up again of the throne of David, and for that without which neither deliverance nor a restored kingdom could profit them—purity and righteousness in their own hearts and souls.
Nothing could be more simple and frugal than their daily fare. Wild fruits and herbs were largely used, and any little plots of fertile ground that could be found were planted with vegetables, some far-seeing member of the party having brought with him a small supply of garden seeds. When a few days after their arrival Ruth gave birth to a son it was much feared that the scanty supply of nourishing food might long delay her restoration to strength. This fear was not realized. The feeling of freedom and deliverance combined with the fine mountain air to bring her back to her wonted health, and she found herself able to go about her daily work long before she could have hoped to do so in the more enervating atmosphere of the city.
One day she had gone to gather herbs for the daily mess, a work in which she was especially useful from the knowledge of plants which she had taken pains to acquire in her unmarried days. She had taken, of course, the new-born infant with her, and Miriam, who was delighted to perform, as far as her strength permitted, the office of nurse. The little Judith, whose night's rest had been disturbed by some childish ailment, had been left at home to make up her allowance of sleep. The mother found on her return that a strange visitor had made herself at home in the cave. The little one was fast asleep on a bed of rugs which had been made up for her, and curled up at her side with one of her fore paws round her neck was a jackal. The two companions were roused together by the arrival of the party, and, wonderful to relate, neither showed any symptoms of alarm. The jackal rose from its resting-place, approached Ruth, and fawned at her feet, and the child came after its bedfellow and stroked affectionately its shaggy skin.
When, two or three weeks afterwards, the new comer gave birth to a litter of cubs, the joy of the children was complete. The little animals soon learnt to play with the girls, and their dam sat by and watched their gambols, and sometimes even condescended to join in them herself.
The little colony heard of the strange incident with delight, and saw in it a token of Divine favour. "Man rages cruelly against us," they said, "but we find friends among the beasts of the field. Surely it is our God who hath changed the heart of this savage dweller in the wilderness, and we will trust that He will do yet greater things than these."
"Mother," said Miriam one day to Ruth, "by what name shall we call our new friend?"
The question puzzled her, and she referred it to her husband.
"It does not seem fitting," she said, "that we should give the name of a daughter of the Covenant to the beast, for though she is of kindly temper yet she is unclean."
Seraiah thought awhile.
"You say truth, my wife. Let us call her Jael."
"But why Jael?"
"Because the wife of Heber was of the unclean, for was she not of the house of the Kenite? Yet was she a friend of Israel, for she slew Sisera that was captain of the host of Jabin, King of Canaan."
So thenceforward the creature went by the name of Jael.
It was not long before she justified her name by showing that she could be fierce on occasion.
A wayfarer, who described himself as a discharged soldier and a Moabite by birth, asked for shelter and food. Scanty as were the means of the fugitives, they did not grudge the stranger a share of their meal. They gave him their best, adding to their daily fare the special luxury of some dried grapes. As he complained of being footsore, Ruth applied some simple remedies to the blisters on his feet. Altogether he was treated not only as a welcome but even as an honoured guest. On his part he professed a fervent sympathy with the hopes and plans of his hosts. The next morning he started as if to continue his journey. But the cupidity of the wretch had been roused by the sight of the handsome earrings—almost the sole remaining relic of former affluence—which he had spied in his hostess's ears. About an hour before noon, when he judged that the men would be still busy about their daily work, he crept back to the cave. Ruth was sitting by a fire nursing her babe. The jackal lay asleep in a corner; the girls were playing with the cubs on a sunny little plot of ground outside.
"Lady," began the fellow, in a beggar's wheedling voice, "can you spare a little money for a poor fellow who has not so much as a copper coin to buy him a piece of bread?"
Ruth was startled at his re-appearance, but concealed her alarm.
"Friend," she said, "I have no money; but I will give you half a loaf if you want food, though you had done better, I should think, to keep on your way, for you can hardly find any that are poorer than we."
"But you have gold," said the man.
"Gold? Not I," she answered.
"Nay, lady," he went on, with a perceptible tone of threatening in his voice, "those earrings that you wear are doubtless of true metal. They add, indeed, to your beauty, and it is a pity that you should lose them; but then there is no one to admire you in this wilderness, and they would keep a poor fellow like myself in flesh and wine for a month or more."
"My earrings?" said Ruth, stupefied by the man's audacity.
"Yes, your earrings, lady," said the man. "I should advise you to take them out yourself, for if I have to do it I am afraid that I shall show myself a very rough tirewoman."
The spirit of Ruth, the same that had dwelt of old in a Miriam or a Deborah, was roused at the man's insolent audacity. She seized a half-burnt brand from the fire and stood on her defence. The soldier, thinking that he had found an easy prey, approached. But he had not reckoned on an ally who was ready to help her in her need. Jael had been woke by the voices, and watched with glaring eyes the soldier's movements, uttering every now and then a low growl, which, however, the man was too much occupied to heed. As soon as he came within reach, she sprang upon him from her lurking-place. The force with which she threw herself upon him overset him, and he fell backwards, his head striking on the mill-stone which formed part of the scanty furniture of the cave. In a moment her fangs were in his throat. In vain did Ruth, who saw the man's danger and was unwilling that he should perish in his sins, call her by her name. All the savage instinct in her was roused by the taste of blood. Before two minutes had passed the freebooter was dead.
"We did well to call her Jael," said Seraiah that evening, as he helped to carry the corpse out of the cave. "The wretch has received the due reward of his deeds."