Antioch more than deserved the praise of "a very pretty place," which Menelaüs had bestowed upon it. In fact, it was one of the finest cities of the world. The old town which the first Antiochus had found had been improved away by him and his successors. All that could be done by a despotic power that made very short work with the wishes and even the rights of private owners of property, and by a lavish expenditure of money, had been done by five generations of rulers, and the result was magnificent. Broad streets ran from side to side; and those who grumbled that the narrow alleys of the old town gave at least a shelter from the sun were consoled by the rows of planes and limes, planted alternately, which shaded both sides of each thoroughfare. Rows of houses, which looked more like palaces than private dwellings, occupied the best quarter of the city, and even the poorest regions had nothing of the squalor of poverty. Even the filth so common in the East was conspicuously absent from Antioch, for every gutter ran with an unceasing stream of water, drawn from a higher point of the Orontes and carrying into that river at a lower point all the defilement of the streets. Temples, in which a whole pantheon of gods was worshipped, were to be seen on every hand. The pure and harmonious outlines of Greek architecture could be seen side by side with the bizarre conceptions of Oriental art. If the kings and their Greek subjects worshipped Zeus and Apollo, and, above all, Aphrodité, who had here her famous grove of Daphne, so the Syrian population were faithful to Baal and Ashtaroth. A magnificent amphitheatre, capable of holding at least thirty thousand spectators, rose, a striking mass of white marble, on the north side of the city; a colonnade ran round the four sides of the market-place, gorgeous with the lavish colours of the East, for here the art of Greece had been superseded for once by the more ornate native taste. But the river, rushing down between its noble embankments of stone, was the chief ornament of the place. The Orontes had not gathered round it the splendid associations that clustered about the Tiber, but its broad, clear stream was in everything else more than a match for its Italian rival.
Menelaüs and his companion, who, it may be guessed, had reasons of his own for regarding with anxiety the summons that brought him to the capital, were not a little relieved to find that the King had been called away by urgent affairs.
Tarsus, one of the most important cities in his dominions, had rebelled. Its antiquity, its wealth, and its fame as a seat of culture, a character in which it claimed to be a rival of Athens itself, had combined to give the Tarsians a high opinion of themselves. Successive rulers, beginning with the Assyrian kings, its first founders, had allowed the city a certain independence; and its pride was grievously wounded when the young King, with the reckless levity that distinguished him, handed it over as a private possession to his mistress. The citizens pitched the lady's collectors into the Cydnus, shut their gates, and defied their sovereign; Mallos, another Cilician city which had suffered the same indignity, following their example. The King had marched to reduce the rebels—a task, it was probable, of no little difficulty—leaving a certain Andronicus to act as his deputy, and specially to dispose of the charge on which Menelaüs and Sostratus had been summoned.
This charge was one of a very formidable kind. Menelaüs's dealings with the treasures of the Temple had not been so secret as he had hoped. Such things cannot be done without a certain number of confederates, and such confederates are very apt to give a finishing touch to their villainy by betraying their chief. In this instance one of the journeymen employed had considered himself insufficiently paid, rightly thinking, perhaps, that if sacrilege can be recompensed at all, it ought to be recompensed handsomely. Personally he was too insignificant to venture an attack on so great a potentate as the high priest, but he knew whither to carry his information. He told what he knew to a priest, who, besides being a devout Jew, was a member of the family to which the high priesthood properly belonged. The priest, after satisfying himself that the story was true, at once set about bringing the offender to justice.
His course was plain. Menelaüs, we have seen, had supplanted Jason, and Jason had himself purchased the dignity. But Oniah, the rightful high priest, who had been displaced by Jason, was still alive. Antiochus, naturally fearing his influence with his countrymen, had kept him at his capital, treating him, strange to say, with remarkable consideration. But Oniah was one of those men who extort veneration even from the most reckless of profligates. His venerable figure, his face beaming with benevolence, his blameless life, and the charities which he dispensed up to and even beyond the limit of his means, had won for him the regard of all Antioch. Even the heathen would stop him in the streets and beg his blessing. Oniah was a power in Antioch for which even the reckless young profligate on the throne had an unfeigned respect.
It may, then, be easily imagined that no little sensation was produced when this venerable personage appeared before Antiochus, and, in the presence of the Court, accused Menelaüs, whom he had steadfastly refused to acknowledge as high priest, of having embezzled much of the treasure of the Temple at Jerusalem. That Oniah, whose veracity and good faith were beyond all question, should make such a charge was primâ facie evidence of its truth. As he was known to have many friends in Jerusalem, it was more than probable that evidence would be forthcoming. The King did not hesitate a moment in acting upon this probability. Of course, he did not look at the matter in at all the same light as that in which it was regarded by the devout Oniah. To the dispossessed high priest the robbery of the sacred vessels was a monstrous sacrilege, an offence of the deepest dye, not only against his country but against his God. Antiochus felt that it was he who had been wronged. The treasures of the Jerusalem Temple were his treasures. He might be content to leave them, at all events for the present, where they were; but they must be ready to his hand whenever the occasion should arise, and any one who presumed to appropriate them was a traitor and a villain. Hence the urgent summons to Menelaüs and to Sostratus, who, as Governor, could hardly fail, thought Antiochus, to have been cognizant of the whole proceeding.
Almost immediately after the despatch of the summons came the trouble with Tarsus. The King started to chastise in person his rebellious subjects, and left, as we have said, Andronicus in general charge of affairs, and with a special commission to hear the accusation which Oniah was bringing against Menelaüs. The choice was an unlucky one. Antiochus was sincerely anxious that justice should be done in the matter; but to get justice done in any particular case when it is not the rule of the administration is exceedingly difficult. Andronicus, to put the facts quite simply, was an unprincipled villain, ready to sell his decisions, when he could do so with impunity, to the highest bidder. He was an old acquaintance and confederate of Sostratus, and Menelaüs, who had established friendly relations with the Governor during their journey from Jerusalem to Antioch, soon received a hint as to how he should proceed. The hearing of the case had been appointed for the sixth day after his arrival. Before that date one of the sacred vessels which he had taken the precaution of bringing with him, had been exchanged for five hundred gold pieces, and the gold pieces had found their way into the pocket of Andronicus.
On the day appointed Oniah, supported by the principal Jewish inhabitants of Antioch and by not a few of the most respectable Greeks, appeared to substantiate his charges against the usurper Menelaüs. The evidence appeared to be overwhelming. The artizan who had been employed to fabricate the worthless imitations of the precious vessels told the whole story of the fraud with a fulness of detail which seemed to bear all the stamp of truth. Another witness related how he had carried one of the original articles to a goldsmith at Sidon, and actually produced a rough memorandum of its weight, which had been made upon the spot, to be afterwards embodied in the formal receipt.
The line of defence adopted was bold, not to say impudent. The whole affair, according to Menelaüs, was a conspiracy on the part of the irreconcilable Jews to overthrow a loyal subject of the King. The witnesses, he declared, had been suborned, the documents had been forged. He then went on to bring a counter-charge against his accuser. And here he found a certain advantage in the transparent honesty of Oniah.
"Do you acknowledge," he asked the ex-high priest, "the validity of the appointments which our most noble lord Antiochus has made to the office of high priest?"
Oniah frankly confessed that he did not.
"Do you consider yourself to be still, according to the Law, in rightful possession of that office?"
"And bound to assert that right?'
"By lawful means."
"And you hold all means to be lawful that are enjoined in the Law of Moses?"
"And among such means you would count the banishment from the precincts of the Holy City of all such as do not worship the Lord God of Israel?"
Oniah felt that he was becoming entangled in this artful web of questions, and made an effort to break loose. "I appeal," he cried, "most excellent Andronicus, to all who, in this city of Antioch, for these four years past have known my manner of life. You see sundry of them, nor of my own nation only, in the court this day. Ask them whether I have not lived in all peace and quietness, not seeking to disturb, either by word or deed, the dominions of my lord the King."
Menelaüs, of course, had not come unprovided with witnesses. The old man had, to tell the truth, used language of an imprudent kind. He was a patriot and a believer. As such, he had his beliefs and his hopes, and it was part of his character to express such beliefs and hopes quite openly. He had talked of a day when the Holy Land should be no more the prey of the alien and the heathen, when a king of the House of David should rule in Mount Sion, when the Temple should regain all the sacredness and all the glory which had ever belonged to it. Such language, construed strictly, was not consistent with a thorough loyalty to the Syrian monarch. But no one who knew Oniah, a man of peace who had the good sense to recognize what was and what was not possible, could suppose that any scheme of revolt against existing authorities had ever entered into his mind. In fact he had not said a word that had not been said before by one or more of the prophets. Still, words which breathed a spirit of independence, when reported by witnesses, and acknowledged by Oniah—who was, indeed, too honest to deny them—gave Andronicus the occasion for which he had been looking. He gave his decision in the following terms:—
"The charge against Menelaüs is postponed for further hearing. Meanwhile the documents produced and the witnesses will remain in the custody of the Court. As for Oniah, he must be reserved for the judgment of the King in person. I should myself have been disposed to release him; but in the absence of my lord, considering that the peace of the realm is so essentially concerned, I do not venture so far."
He was proceeding to give orders for the removal of Oniah, when an ominous murmur from the audience, with which the court was crowded, made him pause. Prisoners who saw the inside of an Antioch dungeon were sometimes not heard of again. The air had a certain power of developing very rapid diseases, so rapid that the sufferers were not only dead but buried before any tidings of the sickness reached their friends. Antioch was not disposed to see the man who was probably the most widely respected of all its inhabitants, exposed to such a risk. Andronicus, who could not even trust the soldiers to act against so venerable a person, drew back. He was willing, he said, to accept sureties in a sufficient amount for the due appearance of the accused. The sureties were forthcoming in a moment, in sums so great and so absolutely secure that Andronicus had no pretext for refusing them. He proceeded to adjourn the Court for fourteen days.
During the interval he took the opportunity of making a change in the garrison of the capital. Troops recruited from some of the regions bordering on Judæa, and accordingly among the bitterest enemies of its people, replaced some Greek mercenaries. The strangers knew nothing about Oniah, except that he was a Jew, and, being a Jew, of course hateful. They could be relied upon to obey orders, and those who knew Andronicus were sure what orders he would issue.
Oniah's friends urged him to fly. He was too old and feeble, he replied; it would be better for him to die at his post. Then they implored him to take sanctuary.
"What!" he cried, "take sanctuary in a heathen temple! There is none other in the place. I would sooner die a thousand times."
It was not in a temple, they explained, that he was to find shelter. It was in the Gardens of Daphne that they wished him to take refuge. And they proceeded to unfold an elaborate argument, the gist of which was that the Gardens were a civil, and not a religious, sanctuary; that there would be no occasion for him to enter the consecrated enclosure; he would be simply availing himself of a custom which forbad the entrance of the Minister of Justice into a place devoted to the amusement of the people. It is probable that they strained their argument beyond the limits of the truth. It was with great difficulty that Oniah could be made to yield. When he did so at last, on the urgent representations of his friends that the hopes of a free Israel were largely dependent on the preservation of his life, he could not help foreboding that the concession would not profit either himself or them.
The world scarcely contained a more beautiful place—beautiful both by grace of nature and diligence of art—than the Gardens of Daphne; and certainly none that seemed more unlikely to shelter a devout Jew. Its avenues of cypress and laurels, its delicious depths of shade, its thousand streams, clear as crystal and untouched by the drought of the longest, most fiery summer, were but a part of its charms. Of some, perhaps the chief of its attractions, it is best not to speak; but there were others, less unseemly indeed, but such as must have been absolutely scandalous to such a man as Oniah. The curious thronged to see the gigantic statue of Apollo, a match both in size and costliness of material to that of Zeus in the plain of Olympia. (It was sixty feet in height, and wrought of gold and ivory.) To complete the resemblance to the famous meeting-place of the Greek race, there was a running ground and rings for wrestling and boxing. Finally, Daphne claimed to rival another great centre of Greek life in its special characteristic. It was stoutly maintained that the Apollo who haunted the laurel-groves of Daphne was as true a prophet as he who spoke through the lips of Pythia at Delphi. Crowds of men and women, eager to learn the secrets of the future, came to the groves of Antioch. The method by which they saw into the secrets of fate seemed singularly simple. The questioner dipped a laurel leaf into the stream that flowed by the shrine, and lo! the surface appeared written over with the intimations of fate. Simple it was, but the priests had spent a world of pains in acquiring the art of invisible writing, and they did their best to learn something about the history and prospects of the applicants.
Such was Daphne, and no one could be more astonished than were its inhabitants and visitors at the strange figure whom they saw before them; strange to the place, indeed, rather than to them, for Oniah, as has been said, was one of the best-known personages in Antioch. The rumour of his coming had gone before him, and a crowd, half curious, half respectful, had gathered to meet him. In not a few, indeed, curiosity and respect were mingled with something of fear. The presence of this austere piety in this haunt of vicious pleasure, was thought to augur ill for its prosperity. Some of the priests were heard to murmur that one who was the avowed enemy of the gods ought not to be admitted. But they did not venture to deny to any one who sought them the privileges of sanctuary, while their fears were not of a kind which they could make their followers understand. They had, therefore, to acquiesce, and hope that the unwelcome visitor would bring with him no ill-luck.
A little building, as remote as possible from the central temple, had been secured for the residence of Oniah. On reaching the gardens he had to make his way to it through two dense lines of eager spectators. The temple, the shrine of the oracle, the pavilions devoted to pleasure, were for the nonce deserted. The drunkards left their wine-cup, and, stranger still, the dice-players their gaming-tables, to gaze upon the holy man. As he walked up the narrow avenue that had been left for his passage, some of the women whose venal beauty was one of the attractions of the place, threw themselves at his feet. Unhappy creatures, they had been brought up from childhood to this life of degradation, which indeed had a certain hideous sanction of religious association about it; but they had not altogether lost the womanly veneration for goodness, and, like the Magdalen of a later time, seemed to forget themselves in its presence. The old man, unconscious of their character, or perhaps, with the Divine Guest of the Pharisee of Capernaum, ignoring it, stretched out his hands with the gesture of blessing, and, though it was technically a pollution to touch a heathen, he even laid them on some children who were almost thrust into his arms. There was hardly a heart that was not touched with this kindness, and when the priest, as he entered his new abode, turned and bade the multitude farewell, he was answered with shouts of enthusiasm.
Menelaüs and his accomplices were dismayed at the escape of the victim. A witness who knew so much, and whose word was so implicitly believed, must be silenced at any cost. To take him by force from the sanctuary was impossible. Any attempt of the kind would certainly end in disaster. But it might be possible to draw him forth by fraud. Menelaüs knew enough of the old man's character to be sure that he had gone reluctantly, and would gladly seize the opportunity of quitting a scene in which he must have felt himself so much out of place. Some such fraud it would not be difficult to contrive with the help of Andronicus. Accordingly another of the sacred vessels found its way to the dealer, and another purse of gold into the pocket of the viceroy, and in a few hours the plot was arranged. As Antiochus was on his way back from the north, there was no time to be lost.
Two days after the arrival of Oniah at the gardens a visitor to him was announced. It was the viceroy himself.
"Venerable sir," he began, "it has grieved me beyond measure to find that you were distrustful of my honourable, and I may say friendly, intentions concerning you. Whoever accused me of ill-will towards you has wronged me most foully. And let me add that you also have been wronged no less in that you have been persuaded to come to a place so unworthy of your dignity. Your safety should be ensured, not by a sanctuary in which thieves and murderers find refuge, but by the inviolable precincts of the royal palace itself. Let me offer to you, in the name of the King, the hospitality of his abode. In the meanwhile I am willing to swear by any oaths that may suffice to satisfy you and your friends, that you shall suffer no injury from my hands."
One or two of Oniah's friends strongly dissuaded him from trusting himself to the viceroy. But their caution was overborne by their companions and by the eagerness of the priest to quit so uncongenial a place. Andronicus took every oath known to Greek or Jew that he would treat the priest with all respect, and Oniah gladly bade farewell to the Gardens. His departure was made at the dead of night, and unknown to any of the inhabitants of Daphne. Had they been aware of his intention, it is probable, knowing as they did the character of Andronicus, that they would have hindered it by force.
Almost at the moment of Oniah's arrival at the palace a runner reached it from the King announcing his intended arrival on the next day.
Speedy action was necessary, and Andronicus, though not without misgivings, determined to lose no time. A Court of Justice, so called, was hastily held. A creature of his own was called to preside over it. Witnesses whose testimony had been carefully prepared, deposed to preparations for rebellion to which Oniah had been privy, and to which he had lent his aid. The accused was not allowed to have an advocate, and scarcely even permitted to speak. Two hours sufficed for this mockery of a legal process, and two more for carrying into effect the sentence of death which was of course pronounced. Though the brutal Cilicians who formed the garrison of the palace were ready to carry out any order which their officer might give, it was judged well to avoid anything like a public execution. That very night Oniah was poisoned in his prison, and before dawn the next day his body was hastily consigned to the tomb.
The punishment for this atrocious act of treachery and cruelty was not long delayed. One of the first acts of Antiochus, after his return to his capital, was to demand the presence of Oniah, and then the story had to be told. Andronicus did his best to put such a colour upon it as would deceive his master. The attempt was vain. The King saw in a moment through the idle charges which had been brought against the dead man. "What!" he cried, "Oniah rebel against me!" His vanity and self-confidence made the accusation seem the very height of absurdity.
"Of course," the King went on—"of course he did not acknowledge the priesthood of Jason or Menelaüs; he has told me so himself twenty times. He could not think otherwise, and he was as honest as the day. I only wish that he had left another as honest behind him. Zeus and all the gods of heaven and hell confound me if I do not avenge him to the uttermost. Tell me," he cried, turning to the captain of the Cilicians, who stood by dismayed at his master's rage—"tell me where you have buried him."
The captain described the place.
"I will see him once more, and these villains shall see him too," he said, pointing to the trembling pair, Andronicus and his creature the judge.
He went on foot, his royal dress discarded for a mourner's cloak. His courtiers followed him, and a guard of soldiers behind brought with them the guilty viceroy and judge.
"Open the grave," he said, when he reached the spot.
It was soon done, for the murderers had hurried their victim into a shallow tomb. In a few minutes the body of the dead man was exposed to view. Decay had not commenced, and death had given fresh depth and beauty to the serenity which had been their habitual expression in life. Antiochus gazed awhile at the face; then, dropping on his knees, covered his head with his mantle, and burst into a passion of tears.
In a few minutes he rose to his feet. Grief had given place to rage, and his eyes blazed with fury.
"Bind that wretch!" he cried, pointing to the wretched Andronicus.
He was bound, and stood waiting his doom.
"He is not worth the blow of an honest sword," cried the King; "strangle him, as if he were a dog. But first make him look at the man whom he has murdered."
Andronicus was forced to the edge of the grave and compelled to look at the dead. A halter was thrown round his neck, and the next moment he was a corpse. The judge shared his fate. "And you, sir," said the King, turning to the captain who had administered the poison—"you, sir, though you are a barbarian, and know no better, must learn that you cannot rob the world of one who was worth a thousand such brutes as you. You are captain no more; that is your successor," and he pointed to an officer in his train. "You can groom his horses, if you don't want to starve. And think that you are lucky that you keep your head."
So the good Oniah was avenged.