Menander, or Micah—the young man still wavered between the two moods which were symbolized by these names—had been greatly moved, as we have said, by what he had seen and heard in his visit to his sister and her husband. But he could not shake himself free from the habits and prepossessions of years. Though he had always kept aloof from the worst excesses of his renegade and heathen friends, still his moral tone had been lowered, and even his physical nerve weakened by a frivolous and self-indulgent life. Sometimes he would half resolve to cast in his lot with his people. Sometimes, again, the cynical or doubting temper returned. What madness it would be, so the evil voice whispered to him, to sacrifice all that made life pleasant, and, very possibly, life itself, for what both philosophers and practical men of the world agreed in pronouncing to be a delusion!
Till this question had been settled one way or the other, he found it impossible to rest. The city became odious to him, for he shrank from the sight of his fellow-men. Indeed, he did not know with whom to associate. His Greek or Greek-loving acquaintances, with their frivolities and vices, disgusted him; and the patriots regarded him with coldness and aversion. Solitude, he fancied, might suit him better, and he went again to his country house at Lebanon. But he found himself worse off than ever where there was nothing to come between his thoughts and himself, and he hastened back to Jerusalem. Then it suddenly occurred to him that his sister had been expecting shortly to become a mother, and he made his way to her house to inquire of her welfare. Azariah himself answered his knock.
"How is Hannah?"
"Thanks be to the Lord," replied Azariah, "she is well. She had an easy travail."
"And the babe? A son or a daughter?"
"The Lord has given us a son."
But he said it without the gladness that a Jewish father, newly blessed with the hope that there should be one to preserve his name in Israel, should have felt.
"But you must come in and see him, for indeed he is of a singular beauty."
The young man followed his host into the chamber already described, and sat down to wait. Presently Azariah reappeared, holding the child in his arms. It was no father's fondness that had made him speak of his singular beauty. The child was but five days old; but he had none of the "shapeless" look which is commonly to be seen in the newly born. His features were shaped with a regularity most uncommon at so tender an age, and his complexion beautifully clear, while his little head was surrounded with what may be called a halo of golden hair.
Micah was loud in his admiration. "I never saw his equal for beauty. You are indeed a happy father to have the fairest son in all Israel."
The smile on Azariah's face faded away.
"I would not be thankless for the 'gift that cometh from the Lord,' nor wanting in faith; yet I sometimes cannot but think that in these days the childless are the happiest, or, I should rather say, the least unhappy."
"Of course you will be prudent," said Micah, "and yield to the necessities of the time. Put off the circumcision of the child. There can be no harm in that. And when Hannah has got her strength again, you can come down to my place in the Lebanon, and it can be done quietly, without any one being the wiser."
Azariah said nothing. He turned away his face, but not before his brother-in-law had seen his eyes fill with tears. After leaving some loving messages for his sister the young man departed, hoping, though not without some serious doubt, that his advice would be followed.
A week after, when the question, he knew, would have been decided one way or the other, he bent his steps again towards his sister's house. As he walked through the streets he could see that the persecutors were busy at their work. Fires were burning here and there, and copies of the Law and the other holy books were being burned in them. From a house which he recognized as being the dwelling of a scribe of great learning, a party of Greek soldiers burst forth, as he passed, dragging behind them a richly-ornamented scroll of the Psalms. For a moment the wild impulse surged in his heart to rescue the sacred writing from the flames; but he recognized the hopelessness of the attempt; and, indeed, he sadly asked himself, was he fit to be a champion of holy things? A soldier gathered up the parchment in his arms, and tossed it in a heap on the fire. Part of it opened as it fell, and Micah saw for a few moments before the flames reached them, words which he never forgot till his dying day: "Princes have persecuted me without a cause, yet do I not swerve from Thy commandments." As he stood and looked, with a rage in his heart which he could not express, two more soldiers came out of the house, holding between them the scribe himself, a venerable man, in whom Micah recognized an old friend of his father's. They threw him down, face foremost, on the fire, and held him there till he was suffocated. But before the tragedy was finished, the young Jew had turned away, feeling in his heart that the question which he had been debating so long was being rapidly settled for him.
The blow that was to clinch his conclusions was not long in falling. As he came near the bottom of the little hill on the top of which stood his sister's house, he saw a cross, and, bound to it by cords, what seemed to be the figure of a woman, with a dead child hung round her neck. The sun had set, and the light was failing with the rapidity that is characteristic of a southern latitude.
"Truly these Greeks have a strange way of showing their love of beauty. We have had sickening sights in Jerusalem of late enough to make their name stink in our nostrils for ever. What poor wretch is this? How has she offended our masters? And the child—what treason can he have been guilty of?"
And as he spoke a dreadful fear shot through his heart. After all—for he knew what a dauntless spirit his sister had shown at their last meeting—after all they might have circumcised the child and brought down upon themselves the vengeance of the persecutors. He turned aside from the road and ran up to the terrible object. It was almost dark by the time he reached it, and he had to light a torch which he carried with him in case of need, before he could see what the object really was. Then one glance was enough. The features of the woman were black and swollen; but he recognized them in a moment. It was the face of Hannah, his sister. But a month before he had seen it beaming with light and love, and now——Had he needed any confirmation he would have found it in the child. The features were beyond recognition; but the golden halo of hair was there; its brightness scarcely dimmed.
He sank upon his knees, and lifting his hands to heaven he cursed the authors of this wickedness, and swore that he would give all his life to avenge the innocent blood. Then rising he hastened to the house of Azariah.
He found a considerable company assembled. They were deep in debate about the course of action to be pursued when Micah, who had been met by Azariah at the door, was introduced into the room. Most of those present were acquainted with him, at least by reputation, and they were naturally disposed to consider his presence an intrusion. But it was soon manifest that the new comer was not indifferent, much less hostile, to their objects.
"Hear me, brethren," he cried, "if, indeed, one so unworthy as I may call you brethren," and he went on to recount the struggles with which his mind had been agitated during the weeks just past. Then, after briefly touching on what he had just seen, he went on, "I have sinned; I have forsaken the Law of my God; I have defiled myself by a companionship with the heathen; and though I have not worshipped their false gods"—there was a sigh of relief from the company as he uttered these words with a solemn emphasis—"yet I have been a guest at the feasts of their temples. If, therefore, you judge me to have transgressed beyond all pardon, cast me out from your company; I can find some other way to do service for the country that I have betrayed, and the God whom I have denied. Yet, if you think me worthy of death, I do not refuse to die." And he drew a dagger from his belt, and offering it to one who seemed to be a leader in the assembly, stood with bared breast before him.
A murmur of admiration ran through the meeting.
"Nay, brother," said the man whom he addressed, "this is not the time to take one soldier from the hosts of the Lord. You have sinned in the past; make amends in the future. There will be time and opportunity enough. And if you are the brother of her who has witnessed a good confession even unto death, you will not fail to use the occasion that shall come."
The company then resumed the debate which had been interrupted by Micah's arrival. Little difference of opinion indeed remained among them, and when the president, Seraiah by name, brother-in-law of Azariah, as being the husband of his sister Ruth, stated his views they met with general assent.
"We have seen enough," he said, "and suffered enough. This city is polluted, and is no longer a fit abode for the faithful. Let them that are in Judæa flee unto the mountains. Meanwhile we will gather together such as have not bowed the knee to Baal, and will make head against the oppressor. But here we shall be struck down, and perish as a beast perishes in the pit into which he has fallen."
After this the company dispersed to make such preparation as they could for their departure, which was fixed for the night following. Micah and Seraiah remained behind in the house of mourning. Azariah withdrew to comfort his little girls, who were crying almost incessantly for their mother. Comfort he needed sorely for himself, and he found it, as far as it could be found, in this fatherly care. Every look and gesture of the little ones reminded him of her whom he had lost, and seemed to open the wound afresh. Yet it consoled him to talk to them about their mother, to tell the story of her early days, to remind them, though they did not need to be reminded, of all her goodness and love, and to picture her happiness where she sat in Paradise with the holy women of old, with Miriam, and Sarah, and Rachel.
Meanwhile Seraiah told the story of Hannah's end to Micah. "We came together," he said, "on the eighth day after the birth of her child; but though all was prepared for the circumcision of the boy, we had not yet resolved what was to be done. I know that I wavered—I confess it with shame—and so did Azariah. And, indeed, I can scarcely find it in my heart to blame him. He had no thought of his own life, but to risk his wife's and the child's—that was terrible. And there were others who advised him to yield for the time; the risk was too terrible. Indeed, that was the feeling of most of us, and those who thought otherwise were unwilling to speak. We were assembled, you know, in your sister's chamber. She sat on the bed, holding the little one in her arms. Her face was somewhat pale; but she had a calm and steadfast look, like the look of one who watches his adversary in the battle line of the enemy, and there was a fire in her eyes, such as I have never seen in the eye of woman before. When I had spoken, counselling delay and yielding for a while to the necessities of the time, I turned to her and said, 'And you, Hannah, what think you?'
"Then she spoke, and her voice never faltered for a moment, but was clear and full, though indeed she never raised it above the pitch that becomes the obedience and modesty of the woman. 'Pardon me,' she said, 'fathers and brethren, if I seem, in differing from your counsel, to reproach you. I am but a weak woman, and know nothing of policy or of the needs of the time. But I know the thing that the Lord our God has commanded: "Every man-child among you shall be circumcised," and "whosoever shall not be circumcised that soul shall be cut off from among his people." The Lord hath given me this child, and shall I not do for him according to the commandment? Shall we fear man rather than God? And for myself, is it a new thing for a mother to give her life into the hand of God? Four times already have I so given it, and He has restored it to me. And if it be His will that it be taken, shall I not obey? What said the Holy Children when Nebuchadnezzar would have had them fall down and worship the golden image, lest they should be cast into the burning fiery furnace. "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us out of thy hand, and He will deliver us out of thy hand, O King; but if not—" '
"Then she turned to her husband, and said, 'What shall be his name?' as steadily and quietly as if there had been no question of danger or fear. 'Let his name be David,' said the father, as he took the babe from its mother's arms; for the sun was about to set, and in a few moments the due time would be past. So they carried the child into the next room. And when your sister heard his cry, she broke forth into blessings and thanksgiving. 'Thanks be to Thee, O Lord,' she cried, 'in that Thou hast made him a child of the Covenant.' And now I beseech Thee to grant that he may walk before Thee all the days of his life as walked Thy servant David, and that he may sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.'
"After that she bade us stay and partake of the feast which she had caused to be prepared. Verily she had left nothing uncared for. Never was her table better spread, and, as you know, she was a notable housekeeper. And though, for her weakness, she could not sit at table with us, she was gay and cheerful even beyond her wont, so that we men, for very shame, had to banish the care from our faces, and laugh and be merry with her. But the next day the soldiers came and beat Azariah, as they thought, to death, and——" The speaker paused; indeed he could not speak for the choking tears. At last he said, in a broken voice, "What need to tell the rest? You know it."
The next night Azariah, Seraiah, Micah, and a company of some thirty men and women left Jerusalem. Part of them were on foot, but an ass had been found to carry Ruth, Seraiah's wife, who was expecting shortly to become a mother. Their destination was the hill-country that went by the name of the Wilderness of Bethaven.